Saturday, March 26, 2011

In Honor of Diane Wynne Jones

Young adult fantasy author Diane Wynne Jones died today from a long bout of lung cancer. If you have never read her Howl's Moving Castle series, get thee to a library now friend. And if you haven't read the series, well, maybe stop reading now, because this post contains a lot of spoilers.

Howl's Moving Castle may possibly be one of my favorite young adult books. And Sophie and Howl one of my favorite couples. At the beginning of the book, Sophie is a meek, down-trodden older sister working in the family hat shop she doesn't particularly like, but feels like she has to keep working there to allow her younger sisters to realize their dreams (one sister is a witch, the other a baker). Out of the blue, the infamous Witch of the Waste, hereafter known as WotW, comes in one day, and puts a curse on Sophie, turning her into an old woman. It takes Sophie most of the book it learn why, but it turns out that Sophie is also a witch with great potential, the WotW felt she was a threat, which is why she cursed Sophie. Sophie takes the opportunity to leave the job she hates. Sophie also uses her curse as a freedom to finally break free and to say and do the things she has been thinking to been to scared to say. She winds up at Howl's castle (the castle has doors that led to several countries, hence the name of the book), Howl is supposedly a hideous wizard who eats young women's hearts. It turns out Howl isn't quite that bad, but he is a total drama king, always overreacting, pouting, kind of self-absorbed, cynical, a total coward; and yet somehow awesome, endearing and underneath it a really good person. He tolerates Sophie muscling into his castle surprisingly well and Sophie refuses to put up with his dramatics and hysterics, and eventually it's love (Howl can see through the curse and knows Sophie is a young woman). Anyway, it's a fantastic book, funny, very well written, and highly entertaining. There are two loosely related sequels--Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways, although Sophie and Howl aren't the main characters in either and only show up about halfway through.

Studio Ghibli did an animated adaptation of the book, which was highly lauded, as most everything by Ghibli is; but unfortunately, in this case, they got it wrong. Ghibli is usually pretty good with potrayals of women, especially when compared to Disney or Pixar. However, the plot was changed quite a bit, and some of those changes completely reduced or took away whatever power the women had in the book.
So, in the film they left out the sisters completely. Sophie's sister Lettie, the witch, when she finds out that Sophie is an old woman and working for Howl, sends a dog (who, in a somewhat involved and lengthy plot, is a human wizard who was turned into a dog) protected by charms to Sophie to try to protect her from the bad wizard Howl. Lettie also at the end, when there is a battle brewing with the WotW, comes to help however she can.
And then after this epic battle Howl and the WotW in the film, the WotW is totally defeated and she is stripped of her power. But no, that's not enough. She is also stripped of her memory, having absolutely no clue who or what she was before; and stripped of her personality, so she becomes this harmless sweet old granny. So harmless and sweet in fact, that Howl and Sophie take her in to the castle to live with them. In the book, she's killed, but at least she retains her power and her memory and isn't stripped of everything that makes her her before she goes.
So one of the things that Sophie can do in the book is talk to things and make them live or grow. When making hats, she would talk to them, and the things she would say would translate to those who wore the hat--making them look younger, marry a rich man, have good luck, etc. She inadvertently brings a scarecrow to life by talking to it, and it begins to follow her about; the wizard/dog her sister sends to protect her knows that Sophie has the power to free him, and he really takes to her. Well, in the film, at the end, both scarecrow and dog are made human, and declare they were following Sophie because they loved her! So we go from the motive being because of her power, to being nothing more than a stereotypical romance. Oh, and in the book, the wizard/dog loves her sister, not Sophie.
But the largest insult is that in the film, Sophie is not a witch, she has no magical powers whatsoever. And this is the biggest loss and changes the plot and themes in a massive way. So much of what happens in the book is because of Sophie's powers. While they left her a sassy old woman, it isn't enough to make up for what they took away from her. The book is about Sophie growing not just as a person, but growing in her power and strength; finding courage and facing off against the WotW's demon; realizing she can shape her own destiny; and helping Howl, as well as several others, get out of a multitude of curses and other jams. Bad form Ghibli.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Time to crack open the canon

This story is slightly old news now, but at the beginning of the year, Vida, an organization for women in literary arts, published statistics on women authors reviewed in publications, as well as who's doing the reviewing. The statistics are dismal, but perhaps not terribly surprising.

What is more surprising however, is some of the nonsense that came from the magazine editors featured in it. In an article published in the Guardian (The full article here:, Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, said "And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.
The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books," Stothard continued. "Without making a fetish of having 50/50 contributors, we do have a lot of reviewers of both sexes and from all over the world. You have to keep an eye on it but I suspect we have a better story to tell than others." (emphasis mine)

So you get that? Even though women buy something like 80-85% of all fiction, it's not the Important or Right kind of fiction. We all know that women flock to mindless drivel in fiction right? *heavy sarcasm* And trying to even the disparity in the authors reviewed or the critics reviewing or even just to point it out is making a fetish out of it?

Way back in 1929, Virginia Woolf published A Room of One's Own. In it, she says: "Speaking crudely, football and sport are important; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes, 'trivial.' And those values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop--everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists." It makes me furious that we are still dealing with this mentality over 80 years later. That although we are finally accepting more views into the literary canon, women's and POC's viewpoints are still considered alternative. Alternative, not essential, less Important, of less Worth, or less Substantial than that of the male privileged set.

And then John Freeman, the editor of Granta magazine, said "While numbers and graphs like this are helpful," he said, "conspiracy theories are not, because we have to ask a deeper question, which is how gendered are our notions of storytelling? I have been on mostly women-run prize committees which questioned their own feminist bona fides and then voted for the men's books." So again it's a conspiracy to point out disparities in our world and to maybe try to do something about them. And gee John, maybe the women ended up voting for the men's books because women are told from birth that their interests, their hobbies, their books aren't as Important as men's. Even the most feminist woman can't get away from internalizing to some extent that conflict and some of the misogyny. In the end, Anne Bronte said it beautifully and simply, "If a book is a good book it is for both men and women." Maybe it's time for the privileged male to finally take off his blinders and crack wide open the canon, and realize that if women and minorities have been slipping inside another's head/skin when they read books, watch film, look at paintings/photographs/sculptures, etc, because they've had to learn how, being othered or erased completely by the white male; that privileged males can learn to slip inside another's head as well. And see that another's story has just as much merit and worth. I have faith that they are smart enough to be able to do it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


One of my favorite authors, Patricia Briggs, was in town this week doing a book signing. I had planned to go for a few weeks. I have never been to a book signing, and if any authors I like come into town, I generally don't find out until after the fact and have missed it. So anyway, I was extremely excited. If you look at my Strong Women booklist, every book Briggs has written is on there. She's an incredibly good solid fantasy writer, and I haven't read any book by her I haven't liked (obviously). I also love her heroines. Although they are often the "kick-butt" variety, Briggs avoids a lot of the traps many other authors fall into with kick-butt heroines. She doesn't have a 95 pound woman who can take on any opponent and win every single time, no matter how outmatched she might be or how many foes she might be fighting (although I do think a woman with training and skill can certainly take on a man bigger than her and overpower him, sometimes it just gets ridiculous in these books--it's a 5 foot woman against 20 thugs a foot and a half taller with far more weapons/skills/odds in their favor...yet somehow she always wins) . She doesn't have her heroine obnoxiously right all the time, and use that as an excuse not to listen to any other character ever, and so on. Her heroines are strong, fully three-dimensional and independent; but they're also human, and they get hurt and are sometimes vulnerable and they actually show emotions other than anger or aggression, and they love and trust and need others. They may push themselves to the limit or sometimes get in over their heads in a fight; but they are also smart enough that if there is an ally who is stronger/smarter/better skilled, they will step aside and let that person take over if necessary.
So what happened? Well, the book signing on a Tuesday an hour after I got off work. Mondays and Tuesdays are extremely long days at work for me, so by the time I get off on Tuesday night, I'm generally in a lot of pain physically with the chronic stuff all flared up. And then I had a massive migraine starting by the time I got off work Tuesday. And blah blah blah pity party, there was just no way I could go stand in line for who knows how long to see her. So boo. She does live in Washington, so maybe next book release, she'll be by the area again?

Although in other news, another author I absolutely love, Jasper Fforde, who writes the Thursday Next series, is going to be doing a book signing on Monday. (Seriously, we never get of my favorite authors in town, and then two back to back, what's going on?) And I'll actually have a few hours to recover between work and when this one starts, so crossing my fingers, maybe I'll actually make this one.