Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Semi-Random Stuff

I've been quiet here 'cause I've been hard at work. Got that libretto off to the opera people, for example. Yay! Mind you, it seems (rather unsurprisingly) that the opera itself may be a teeny-weeny bit delayed, what with half of Queensland and specifically, large chunks of Brisbane going inconveniently under water and requiring all kinds of money and resources for patching up. Seems the Queensland government doesn't necessarily see opera as its first priority at the moment. Philistines!

Back in the harness at the ju-jitsu classes as well. There are quite a number of new youngsters along, and a few extras in the somewhat-more-senior class too. It's nice to see, and all grumbling aside, it's nice to feel like I'm able to provide something valuable to the parents and kids around here. I'm desperately trying to get all my paperwork in order now. Oh, for the good old days when you just hit students with a stick every now and again, and gave them a scroll once they'd learned enough to take the stick away from you and beat you senseless with it.

The weather continues most peculiar-wise. On the first day of Autumn, it was -- distinctly autumnal. Like somebody threw a switch. It went from being relatively warm and pleasant to being distinctly chilly. And today, I swear, we had an honest-to-god south-westerly wind. Cold, dry, and hinting rather boldly at wintriness to come. Natalie will be pissed off. She hates the cold.

The new regime is working out. Monday evenings: sword. Tuesday evenings: films with Cool Shite. Wednesday evenings: I teach ju-jitsu. Thursday evenings: the kids go to gymnastics after school, in Launceston - but I'm sharing the drive duties with Viking Neighbour Anna, who also has a couple of spawn in the affray. Friday evenings, the two boys go into Launceston to play in a community orchestra - but that's Nat's problem, 'cause she plays in the same group. Every second Saturday, the Younger Son goes into Launceston to have a bass lesson, and the Mau-mau had her first dance classes last Saturday, which may wind up being an ongoing thing.

Thursdays are the joker in the deck, I think. I'm up by 0730 handling breakfasts, kids out the door stuff. But I can't put them on the bus, 'cause the Mau-mau has her piano lesson on Thursday, at 0900. So I have to drive down with her electronic keyboard (it's weighted. The school doesn't have a weighted keyboard. So the one we have at home has to travel) in the car, and set it up in whichever area has been allotted this week for the lesson.

A couple hours later, I have to bring Jake's cello to school so he can have HIS music lesson. But before that, I pick up Jake and Younger Son, and we go off to study Swedish for a while. (Yep. It was Spanish. But there's nobody much around to have a Spanish conversation with... whereas Viking Neighbour Anna and her savage brood of junior coast-raiders are fluent in the Swedish lingo. Which is a heap of fun.)

After the language lesson, obviously, I need to come back to the school at some later point to collect the cello and the keyboardy thing, and every second week to collect a gaggle of kids and take 'em into Launceston for gymnastics.

Parenting is kind of tiring.

Meanwhile, the paperwork for my Masters degree has pretty much all been done. I think. I keep getting notes and forms, and dutifully filling them in and sending them away. I know what I'm supposed to do. I know how long I've got in which to do it. Next I have to have some kind of a meeting with my Prof... but he's a very decent chap (I know him from U of Q. He directed a student comedy review in which I took part, among other things. Odd to find him no longer a drama student but a full prof of lit, with a family and kids and so forth. On the other hand, he probably finds me just as damned unlikely.)

And in other news: huugge congratulations to Shaun Tan for taking the short-animation Oscar! His film "The Lost Thing" is a wonderful little work of gentle, ambiguous sadness. It's based on his book of the same name, and you could do a lot worse for yourself than picking up a copy on DVD. Shaun is one of Australian speculative fiction's real gems. I've only met him peripherally, here and there, but the way he treated the kids in his group at the WorldCon last year suggests to me that the rumours about him being a really nice, really decent human being are entirely true. He's already picked up a swag of awards for 'The Lost Thing' and earlier works such as 'The Arrival' (which is a hell of a thing; a very thought-provoking book in the form of a hardbound comic, without a single word of text... really amazing work) and of course, 'The Rabbits', which he did with John Marsden -- so while an Oscar was probably unexpected (sure caught Pixar by surprise, I hear!) in my opinion, it's well-deserved.

I managed to get some reading in, here and there. I'm still compulsive on that count. Input, input, input. Not as many novels as I'd like, but that's only to be expected this far from a bookstore.

One that did intrigue and perplex me, however, was Isabel Allende's 'Zorro'.

I've always liked the Zorro character. I enjoyed the breezy fun of the first of the recent flicks, with Catherine Z-J and Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas. I appreciate the qualities of the older versions - the famous Tyrone Power film, and so forth. I've even read some of the way-back-when novels that made the character famous.

Zorro was devised as a pulp character, during the first boom of the pulp era in 1919. Those early pulps didn't aspire to greatness. They aimed to be cheap, and fun to read. With time, some very skilled and powerful writers rose out of the pulp tradition, keeping the strengths of the pulp stories and adding truly literary qualities to create works that persist in the public mind today. I'm thinking of Raymond Chandler, naturally enough, but there were plenty of others. And indeed, even though the writing in those old novels was often slipshod (actually... damned crappy in many cases) nevertheless, there was something about the larger-than-life characters they created which caught people's attention. Who hasn't heard of The Shadow, or Doc Savage, to name just two?

Zorro wasn't high literature, though. And that's why I thought it might be interesting to see Isabel Allende's take.

I will admit here that prior to this, I've never actually managed to finish one of her books. Allende has fine, measured prose, and an eye for creating characters with texture... but in the three or four of her better-known novels I had previously attempted, I'd never actually noticed much by way of plot, action, or suspense. To be more clear: as a storyteller, Isabel Allende couldn't keep me interested in a moderate-length novel. Elegantly depicted settings with lovely characters circling aimlessly about one another for a couple-hundred pages simply aren't enough for me.

Call me a philistine. (But if you do, take care. If we start pissing in each others pockets about how much classic reading we've done, you're going to need a very, very deep pocket.) Or simply acknowledge that Allende has her strengths - but active storytelling isn't one.

And indeed, I'm afraid her version of Zorro was rather bland and bloodless. Oh, the ideas are all there. Her Zorro is half-Amerindian, raised with all kinds of cunning Native American knowledge and skill. She offers up a villain, a romantic interest, a secret society of swashbuckling do-gooders... but she does it all from a lukewarm, dispassionate distance. All her action sequences are narrated from afar, without any feeling of real peril or suspense. All her seductions are depicted rather clinically off-screen, with an almost old-maidish sense of distaste.

I finished the book. I promised myself I'd do that. But I'm afraid that as a Zorro novel, it was just another Isabel Allende watercolour.

I guess she's playing to her strengths. I guess it's too much to ask for vigour and pace from someone whose writing style doesn't lean in that direction. And it's clear she's trying something different with a classic character anyhow. Credit where it's due: this isn't some hamfisted attempt to shove a polemic into a piece of genre fiction after the manner of Richard Flanagan's 'Accidental Terrorist' (which was an appalling insult to the intelligence of people who enjoy crime fiction and thrillers). This is Isabel Allende creating an 'origin story' for a historic character; an effort to give depth and texture and psychological rationale to a creation mostly known for his accessories: cape, mask, whip, and sword.

On the other hand, if I really wanted I could kickstart something of an argument on this book. Allende says in the afterword that she grew up with Zorro stories, and loves the character. That doesn't show, I'm afraid. Her version of 'love' appears to be a classic emasculation of everything best-known and most widely remembered about the character.

How so? Well, the story is told by a female narrator who repeatedly demonstrates her greater intelligence and insight than the central character. Diego de la Vega gets a raft of new characteristics... few of which are particularly admirable or desirable. His bandito mask, for example, arises from vanity: his ears stick out without it. He retains his strong sense of justice, but invariably his 'adventures' arise from wounded pride, or thwarted romance: he is portrayed as fundamentally, permanently immature, a 'man-child' forever at play, incapable of real adulthood. He is incapable of forming effective romantic relationships at an adult level; always drawn to women who don't want him, doing little more than dallying with women who do -- and completely incapable of facing up to women who might be a real match for him. Oh - and the narration simply walks away from him when he reaches full adulthood, and finishes by summarising his career as a hero in the briefest and most disparaging terms.

From a swashbuckling folk hero to a petty, vain, self-deceiving womaniser who does good, yes, but frequently causes as much harm in the process, and creates as much trouble as ever he manages to quell. Quite a reconstruction, coming from someone who 'loves the character'.

Is this interpretation in keeping with the original character? Yes, most likely. I think it's quite reasonable to place this slant on Zorro. If you want to. Or if you really feel the need. But is it necessary or enjoyable? Does it actually enrich the legacy of a widely-loved character?

Personally, I don't think so. And if there were a 'masculinist' movement as widespread and effective as its distaff alternative, I might waste a bit of time carping and complaining and playing the victim. But really, who gives a damn? If Allende wants to reinterpret this character from a deeply matronising (yeah, I have to use the term. Because it describes perfectly the approach she's taken. Think 'patronising', but apply it to the dismissive fashion in which women like to belittle "boy stuff") viewpoint, that's her gig. She's got plenty of readers, and she showcases her usual strengths in her prose, so hopefully it will be well received by her usual demographic.

Still. If a male writer, just for argument's sake, were to take a beloved female character from literature and reinterpret her in a similar fashion... eh. Can't have that argument anyway. Where the hell would he get such a book published? I doubt even an Ernest Hemingway or a Norman Mailer could get away with it these days.

Right. That's enough for the moment. Gotta go pack some lunches for tomorrow. I've just used some leftover puff pastry and some fresh-grated parmesan cheese to make simple cheese twists. They'll make good snacks for the munchkins - and right now, the whole house smells pleasantly of toasted cheese. Yum!