On Saturday I finished up Adam Nicolson‘s SEIZE THE FIRE: HEROISM, DUTY, AND NELSON’S BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR. It is not at all a minute-by-minute account of the battle–about which I knew beans and still know almost nothing–and more an analysis of the cultural, economic and emotional context in which it took place.
Nicolson talks about the forces that shaped Navy culture in this century–the long tradition of deep aggression and violence embedded within British culture, the profit motive (many of the officers, particularly, were in the racket to make fortunes that would let them buy homes in the country and live the gentleman lifestyle), the disciplined maintenance rituals that kept the ships in good shape and the immense amounts of money borrowed by Parliament to keep them so. The spending supported the navy in both a direct and an indirect manner: they bought up so much of the world’s available supply of ship materiel that other countries were hard pressed to get their hands on things like wood, canvas and hemp.
His prose is precise and lovely to read aloud. Here, he uses Jane Austen to illustrate how the idea of masculinity had evolved between the 18th and 19th centuries:
By 1805, the femininity of the mid-18th century was being left behind. Exaggerated sensibility had started to look absurd. Clothes, for both men and women, had become sober and simple…. one can see dramatised the shift in values between the 18th and 19th centuries arranged around the two potential heroes of [Pride and Prejudice]: Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bingley is 18th-century man: handsome, young, agreeable, delightful, fond of dancing, gentlemanlike, pleasant, easy, unaffected and not entirely in control of his destiny. Darcy is fine, tall, handsome, noble, proud, forbidding, disagreeable, and subject to no control but his own. It is a strikingly schematic division. Darcy is like a craggy black mountainside–Mrs. Bennet calls him ‘horrid’, the word used to describe the pleasure to be derived from a harsh and sublime landscape; Mr. Bingley is a verdant park with bubbling rills. Darcy is 19th century man, manliness itself, uncompromising, dark and sexy.
SEIZE THE FIRE isn’t light reading, obviously, but it’s also not dense or in any way a grind. It’s mostly about emotion–how people felt about war, their attitude toward battle, the vital cultural differences between the British and French-Spanish fleets that led to the victory at Trafalgar, and the way the ideas of heroism and honor were shaped before the battle and, afterwards, by it. Nicolson’s analysis is intriguing but never ethereal. He’s writing about a slaughter, and you never forget that; this is a humane book, and a really interesting one. Not only do I recommend it, but I expect I’ll pick up his book about the translation of the King James bible, GOD’S SECRETARIES, in the not too distant.
Last Saturday Kelly and I climbed out of bed at the appalling-to-most hour of five in the morning and vroomed via rental car to Seattle for the Locus Awards. It was a leisurely drive; we stopped at the Rustic Cafe in Fairhaven because I remembered they had tasty, small biscotti. Wireless, too! Alas, the coffee was only so-so. We hit a Fred Meyer for Luna Bars and still reached the hotel, a Marriott of some order or another, in time for the first panel at ten.
This was my first Locus Awards, and I gather they used to be quite small affairs, but what they have evolved into lately is a delightfully intimate little one-day con. The vibe was World Fantasy-esque, very pleasant and low key, with lots of shop talk. The first panel was about research and had Connie Willis, Walter John Williams, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Nancy Kress on it; the second was called “Ten Mistakes a Writer Should Not Make” and featured editors Gardner Dozois, Eileen Gunn, Beth Meacham and Jeremy Lassen. Both were moderated by Gary K. Wolfe, who reviews for the mag (as I myself did at one time, actually. It seems like a long time ago, now.)
Ursula K. Le Guin, pondering research:
There was an autograph session and then the awards banquet itself. I always enjoy it when Connie Willis hosts, and she was hilarious as usual… except, of course, when talking about Charles Brown being gone. This was the first awards ceremony since he’s died; it hadn’t sunk in, really. Ouch.
I saw so many people. Some I’ve known for years, some I know slightly (and now know better) and, of course, people I consider friends whom I’ve only ever met online. I tried to tell calendula-witch I was sure we’d hung out, only to realize I had seen her pic, many times, on Jay’s blog. I got to have a nice long convo with Michael Bishop, who reprinted my “Cooking Creole” last year in Passing for Human; we’d met before, but only glancingly. I hereby nominate him for the Best Smile in the History of Ever Award:
There was some precious stolen time with Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge, and a few minutes with Eileen Gunn. I got to tell Nancy Kress, who I’ve long admired, what it’s like to teach “To Cuddle Amy” in my UCLA class “Creating Universes, Building Worlds.”
Two big highlights were meeting some of the folks from this year’s Clarion West class, who were in attendance after a week with Michael. They’re keen, bright-eyed, engaged, visibly bonded and entirely adorable! Second, Kelly and I lured Maureen McHugh out to a slow, pleasant and thoroughly delicious meal at Serafina.
Maureen is close to Snuffy. I’ve read her blog, off and on, for years. I reviewed Mission Child for SciFi, back when it first came out in hardcover, and we’ve Tweeted at each other once or twice. When we invited her out my thoughts, essentially, were: Look! Fellow writer! Who knows Snuffy and seems really nice! And then we were sitting by Lake Union, taking in the sun and the boats while waiting for the restaurant to open, and it sank in: by the holy Bleeding Elvis, I am out for dinner with the author of China Mountain Zhang! I’m so a fan of hers! Even though I was too tired and hungry to make sense of the Serafina menu, or to count to four on my fingers, I knew bits of trivia about her life and family, and babbled worshipfully about the dirt on the Mission Child planet. (No, seriously. Extremely cool dirt.) And she didn’t even run screaming into the day yelling, “Eeek, stalker!”
We get to hang with our gods in this subculture; it’s so gratifying.
So much of my knowledge seems to come from the Twitterverse these days: I was flipping through the tabs on my browser yesterday when a SFWA tweet caught my eye. It had my name on it, and Cory Doctorow‘s and when I hit the link it gave me the happy news that Indigo Springs (and books by Cory, and Charles de Lint, and Karl Schroeder, and Robert Charles Wilson) are up for the Sunburst Award in the adult category.
Congratulatory messages started coming in about twenty seconds later. I’ve tried to answer them all; if I missed you somehow, thank you! I am excited, thrilled, and frankly boggled to be on any list with these guys. A laundry list would be amazing–though, admittedly, weird. A short list? Wow.
I feel awash in good things at the moment, actually. I’m taking it as a memo from the Universe, to the effect that good things, like crappy ones, sometimes come in bunches. Response to the first Journey interview, with Louise Marley, has been very positive and pleasing, for example, and I am lining up the next interview even now. Moving to the realm of personal satisfaction with the whole writing process, I have been working this week on what I expect to be the final edit (before it goes off to the agent, that is) of Daughters of Zeus … and I am sincerely pleased with it. It’s gone from the scabby feral draft stage to something quite limber and pleasing.
And while my cup is runnething over, I’d also like to announce that my urban fantasy novelette, “The Cage,” will be appearing on Tor.com next month as part of their Urban Fantasy spotlight. This was a thoroughly fun story to write and I hope you all enjoy it. Badger and Snuffy were kind enough to read an early draft of the piece–thank you both!
Some of you probably remember that I used to do a lot of book reviewing, for LOCUS, the site formerly known as SCIFI.COM, for the Internet Review of SF and Strange Horizons too. I have been doing quite a bit less of that lately. The reasons why aren’t that compelling, and I won’t go into them; they’re about time, and teaching, and a dozen other random things. At the same time, you’ve maybe noticed the range of books I’m talking about in my blog has expanded, to include the history books I hoover up like popcorn, the pop science and the mystery novels.
I have been wanting to get back into reviewing in a more structured way, while giving myself the freedom to pick books I want to read, about things I’m passionate about.
As I’ve been mulling over exactly how I want to do that, I’ve noticed a real hunger in the newer writers I teach, to understand the process by which unpublished writers develop into people with careers in publishing. I want to develop at least a partial answer to that question, for them and also to satisfy my own curiosity. Eventually I decided to marry these two goals–reviewing the books and finding out about the people who produce them–by doing a series of interviews called Journeys.
In Journeys, I am asking writers what got them started, and how long it took. I’m asking about the great revelatory moments in their development–not to mention the stumbling blocks. I’m asking about their upcoming books (which I will read and review, you see), their lives, their adventures in publishing, and anything else they might want to share about the road from newbie to seasoned pro.
I haven’t done much interviewing in years, not since my college newspaperman days, and I expect to stumble a few times before really getting this down. I’m glad to report that this hasn’t kept a number of writers from agreeing to be my test subjects. As a result, you can look forward to the first Journeys interview, with Louise Marley, in (at most!) a few days’ time. Louise has a historical novel about opera and vampires, Mozart’s Blood, coming out from Kensington Books tomorrow. She’s a great writer, I’ve been following her work avidly for over ten years and I’m really excited about talking to her here.
Thanks to the UBC Bookstore‘s frequent buyers’ system, I just paid $3 for two beautiful new history books:
Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and Nelson’s Battle of Trafalgar, by Adam Nicholson
In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters, and the Price they paid for Glory, by Julia P. Gelardi
I have been thinking about getting the latter in the history section for weeks, not so much because it’s exactly what I want to read but because for weeks it was the most tempting item on that particular shelf. It looks terrific, and French history is something I especially enjoy, but I wasn’t necessarily prepared to pick it up. But today the Nelson book was out, and it’s just the thing for primary research on one of my projects, and I knew the bookstore ‘owed’ me a kickback for all the bookbuying of the past year, so… treasure!
I will of course let you know how they are.
Because they’ve just freshened up all the shelves for the summer session, the bookstore has new “Summer Reading” and “Local Author” displays, and Indigo Springs was prominently displayed in both. I say was, because apparently by the time I noticed this gratifying fact, the Local Author copies had been sold. They are very very good to me out there.