The Casual Vacancy — Just like the first time, the end of this book left me stunned and deep in thought. It’s so damn painful, and I love it so damn much. I’ve been trying to come up with a good old statement of theme for it, but maybe I’ve been too tired, ’cause it’s not working XD Something about preventing tragedy by not being assholes to each other and the potential of every living person (the light of God shining from every soul?) and most problems being too complicated to deal with in a simple yes-or-no fashion.

A thought I had the first time I read this book was even more present throughout this reread: that a lot of the problems faced by a lot of these characters are due to their being so stuck in the past. And it’s not just the poor understanding of the internet that allows The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother to do “his” thing.

It’s the outdated convention that forced Miles and Samantha to get married when they were so unlikely to be happy together in the long term; it’s Parminder’s assumption that Sukhvinder should be able to perform just as well in school as her siblings with no consideration for her dyslexia; it’s every single stupidly old-fashioned aspect of the elder Mollisons’ way of living that poisons all of their relationships; it’s the small-town bigotry and classism of Pagford in general, which I think may be another part of the theme of a book that only allows Pagford to have a kind of charm to it at the end when disaster has struck and many of the characters are leaving forever (in one way or another).

I can’t keep talking about the relatability and realism of the characters, since I hammered that point so much last time, but it’s still a freaking huge factor in what I love about this book. The intense way my sensibilities are affected by the experiences and needs and pains and deaths of these people reaches, in this single book, a level authors usually need an entire series to get to; it’s really quite astonishing.

And I love how, while some of the characters (like Parminder) learn important lessons about not being assholes to each other, a lot of them end up in the same place they began with only minor alterations — the Prices still under the abusive sway of Simon but perhaps with a slightly increased sense of family as they prepare to move; Kay and Gaia headed back to the life they left behind in London with a better understanding of each other; Samantha and Miles still together, still themselves and everything that entails, but in a better place in their relationship due largely to circumstances beyond their control; Terri still using, still with no handle on her life, still tied to Obbo, but now with no reason even to try anymore. In fact I think another part of the theme may have to do with the slowness, the smallness of scale, of the change humans are capable of — a slowness and smallness of scale I think Barry alone of the cast recognized.

There’s a lot of brilliant foreshadowing and parallelism throughout this book that I didn’t notice the first time around. Numerous little references to the river in particular (and Sukhvinder’s thoughts on suicide that later are mirrored so well by her very own mother’s desire to fade away), especially combined with the story of Guru Nanak, was my favorite.

I could probably go on much longer about what I love about The Casual Vacancy, but I need to stop. I’ll just say, though it’s odd, that this is one of my favorite books, thanks to Rowling’s genius, despite how completely miserable it is — and that’s impressive, given the otherwise happy endings in my lineup of favorites.

Avatar: The Last Airbender – North and South part 1 — These writers continue to introduce complex sociopolitical issues with long-term effects and no easy solutions, and I can’t get enough.

Which aspects of a culture are integral, and which are superficial? At what point does the superficial become integral? If everything superficial changes, is it possible for the integral to remain intact? Is it still, at that point, the same culture? And to what extent is this objectionable? Is this natural progress that may just as naturally be lamented, but only in a spirit of nostalgia? Or is it movement in an unhealthy direction that won’t serve its people well?

And what, in any case, can be done about it? You can’t stop a culture from progressing, or from absorbing aspects of other cultures, so how do you sort through the various pieces of a changing culture — especially in an era of post-war reconstruction — and decide which are appropriate and which are harmful? How much do you question your own motives in so doing, wondering whether you really want what’s best for your people and how much you just want home to remain as it always was so you personally can have a comfortable place to return to after the conflict you’ve been part of?

OK, so this comic didn’t exactly ask all of those questions… but what it did bring up, I thought, implied all of those questions — and, knowing these writers, it will probably discuss (if not necessarily answer) all of those questions, before the end, whether it ever overtly asks them or not.

That the comics in this series even more than the TV shows have always had multi-faceted situations often without an obvious enemy or even a clear-cut opposing viewpoint consistently delights me. A struggle against a megalomaniac is always (or at least has the potential to be) interesting, but it is pretty trite, and often boringly straightforward… A struggle to recognize the rights and satisfy the reasonable desires of all involved parties in a civil/cultural post-war conflict has way more potential for interest and complex storytelling.

And then, as if this all wasn’t awesome enough, they went with the not exactly surprising but no less welcome or fascinating development of a Romeo-and-Juliet-style involvement for Hakoda and newcomer Malina, adding another layer to the questioning of motives in the cultural conflict as well as the age-old question of how a daughter and son deal with the new romance of a widowed parent.

So the plot is delightfully thick, and, as is usually the case with Avatar comics, I just don’t know what I’ll do with myself until the next volume!!

How To Be by Kazymyr — This wasn’t actually the fanfiction that was supposed to go in this slot; but since the author finished the third story in her series about Nico and Will, I just had to read it.

In watching these guys interact, I kinda think I know how Will’s mom feels: this mixture of fondness and exasperation and a desire to mother them both and keep nudging them until they get it right. I could be reading stuff into her character that isn’t there, but she’s kindof an excellent window for me to watch the story through. I am old enough to be Will’s mother, though I’m not entirely certain I would be susceptible to Apollo’s charms. But that’s neither here nor there.

For Nico to meet and hang out with his friends was in no way an unreasonable request on Will’s part, but I think both of them failed to take into consideration what different people they are. Yes, Will absolutely was willing to do the same with Nico’s friends, but something like that comes a lot more naturally to him; it couldn’t have required the same amount of effort and personal sacrifice, no matter how intimidating he finds Reyna.

Another significant difference between them that seriously affects their relative abilities to socialize is their level of experience, both in dealing with the modern world and its conventions and in dealing with mortals. Will is so far ahead of Nico in these matters that you almost can’t compare them.

Nico, I think, in short, needed a lot more preparation than he got for not only meeting Holly and Pip but spending time with them, being polite and friendly to them, and doing normal mortal things alongside them. This does not, of course, excuse the fact that he made pretty much zero effort at any of these things, but I think he would have been much better fitted to make the effort if he’d been better prepared.

And I think the reason he wasn’t prepared was that he and Will failed to have an essential conversation beforehand about what to expect and just how difficult certain parts of it might be for Nico — and in what ways Will might be able to help and support him, how much he would absolutely have Nico’s back. And I think the reason they failed to have that conversation is that they have a critical communication barrier in some areas.

Aaaaand I think the reason they have this critical communication barrier is because they’re reluctant to admit (or admit anything that might lead them to admit) their romantic attraction to each other. Most of this is, I believe, as the author herself says, teenage boys being teenage boys. There’s the good old “If I confess romantic feelings that turn out to be unreciprocated, I might lose my best friend” fear that I love so much to read about… but I think a little of it is probably also some lingering self-consciousness about homosexuality, at least on Nico’s part. He expressed it very clearly in canon, and, though Kazymyr hasn’t had him think anything along those lines overtly in this series, I can’t help believing it’s still in the back of his head.

For Will it seems less internalized homophobia and more fear of a great unknown that I think is absolutely to be expected in someone his age. The outcome is the same: the two of them aren’t able to be completely open with each other yet because they’re not able to take the next step in their relationship, and they suffer because of that lack of openness.

So their conflict was understandable, a lot of affecting fun to read about, and very much in keeping with their situation and characters… but I’m over here like Will’s mom kinda shaking my head all, “Guys, this was totally avoidable.” XD

Once again, perhaps I’m reading more into the characters and their relationship than the author intended. But I love reading things into characters and relationships, picking apart every little aspect of their interaction and the possibilities presented by it. That this fanfiction has afforded me the opportunity to do so just speaks to its depth and effectiveness.

P.S. The author has improved quite a bit where epithets are concerned, which just makes a great fic series even better.

Lady Susan / Love and FriendshipLady Susan (whose title I can’t quite decide whether I like better italicized like a story’s or underlined like a book’s) is also out of order, since Jane Austen is two series down the reading list at this point; but I wanted to reread it before I watched Love and Friendship. It’s so short it hardly matters.

It’s no surprise, but it is remarkable how vividly Austen was able to paint characters through their correspondence alone. Of course you get some description of mannerism and presence from the characters about each other, but mostly it’s just extremely telling reactions to events and (usually) candid expressions of opinion.

I feel an interesting seesawing of sympathy throughout the story, another testament to Austen’s powers. Objectively, Lady Susan comes across as little better than a monster, people like Catherine and her family as fairly rational and moral… but through the genius of the author, the reader is led by the nose to feel one moment irritation and disdain toward the Vernons, impatience with Sir Reginald’s interference, and patient understanding of Lady Susan’s difficulties, the next moment outrage at the treatment of Frederica, contempt for Lady Susan’s attitudes and methods, and horror at the callousness of both her and Manwaring. It’s enough to make my head spin how quickly I bounce back and forth between whom I’m sympathizing with and whom I’m disliking, especially with the undercurrent of the true, objective assessment of each character present the entire time!

So there’s a thing… I always start paragraphs like this, and it’s sad when I can’t find a legitimate literary term for the “thing” I’m referring to so I don’t have to go to the trouble of explaining it and sometimes coming up with a name of my own for it… especially when I’m just sure there is a term extant somewhere. Anyway. There’s a thing I see in all sorts of fiction, not just in novels, that I will hereafter detail as best I can:

A writer includes something in a work for purely technical reasons that then contributes to story or characterization in a way the writer didn’t necessarily originally intend.

In this case, I believe Mrs. Johnson exists exclusively to give Lady Susan someone of her own frame of mind and moral level to correspond with, because otherwise the reader would never get to hear a single honest thought from her. Alicia may be a somewhat amusing character in her own right, but she’s truly unnecessary except as a vehicle for viewing Lady Susan’s thoughts.

And yet, in having Lady Susan express herself so candidly to and profess concern for the problems facing Alicia, Austen, whether intentionally or otherwise, gave Lady Susan an unexpected personal characteristic: a capacity for legitimate feelings of friendship, sympathy, and loyalty in certain contexts. And because Austen wrote her so well (probably fully aware of what the technical necessity of Mrs. Johnson was doing to her lead), something that might come across as a jarring contrast or a downright incompatibility seems merely like a hidden softer side that only emerges in certain circumstances.

Of course the ending will always be disappointing, and I’ll always wonder whether Austen lost interest or got distracted by a different project or by something in “real life,” or what. But overall it’s an enjoyable read with numerous points of interest.

And that brings me to Love and Friendship. I got pretty excited back when I heard that someone was making a movie of Lady Susan, because almost all the book movies I can stand have been Jane Austen adaptations, and Lady Susan seemed ideal (if they could get it right) due largely to the disappointing original ending. Then the movie got really good reviews, which is no definitive indicator of quality but is, at least, promising. So finally mom and I watched it.

And I liked it! How refreshing! I have to admit to spending a ridiculous amount of time in my life considering the translation of stories from one medium to another — particularly the book-to-movie transfer — and I tend to come, over and over again, to the conclusion that it simply doesn’t work. Then I watch a Jane Austen adaptation that doesn’t suck, and feel a glimmer of belief in the feasibility of the process again.

Kate Beckinsale owned that role. In fact I thought the entire cast was spot-on, and the characters written and directed well to boot. They really captured the essence of the story and characterization (the latter of which, in a Jane Austen adaptation, is, in my opinion, the most important aspect), and mimicked excellently the seesawing of sympathy I feel when reading the novella — giving us, essentially a sharp, compelling villain protagonist whose tyranny over her daughter we’re happy to see end, but for whom we may be secretly cheering nonetheless all along.

The choice to make Mrs. Johnson American was unexpected and more or less hilarious. It allowed an American actor to take part in this British Regency drama (I say “Regency” even if the costuming was Victorian) and add her discordant accent to the mix of (to American ears) ridiculously posh voices, it added an extra tidbit of interest to a character that I’ve already mentioned is only necessary to give Lady Susan someone to talk candidly to, and it provided an opportunity for that incredibly funny line, “You could be scalped!”

Frederica was just enough embellished to become thoroughly sympathetic and interesting, and I particularly liked the scene wherein she questioned the short rector about the commandment to honor thy father and mother; I thought it demonstrated an excellent (if perhaps sadly misplaced) filial sensibility and desire to do right that was (to both comedic and pathetic effect) helped very little by his nonsensical explanation.

As a whole, I think the movie tried for a parodic, even farcical tone it did not always adequately maintain. Things like the amusing nameplates (“Her unintended” in particular was a riot), Mrs. Johnson’s Americanness, and the very in-your-face “HEY GUYS THIS IS A PERIOD PIECE” music all contributed to but could not entirely carry this tone, leaving some of the more over-the-top elements feeling rather out of place whenever the movie started to play like a more straightforward drama.

Sir James… What can I say about Sir James. There’s no question he was hilarious, or that Tom Bennett must have had loads of fun in the absurd role he played so extremely well… but Sir James was also probably the biggest discordant note.

I can’t express in strong enough terms how funny his exaggerated stupidity was, but it was also, against a backdrop of relatively realistic characters, utterly unbelievable. Yes, it was glorious to watch the awkwardness with which the more realistic characters met most of what he said and tried to make sense of him… but I feel like his over-the-top presentation would have fit better with the farcical tone they didn’t manage to keep up.

Other than that (and a certain amount of awkwardness to some of the added dialogue at times), my main complaint was that some of the events — specifically the comings and goings of characters and where they were at any given time and for how long — were not entirely clear. I’d just barely read the novella, and I had some moments of confusion.

Still it was an enjoyable and effective adaptation. I do have to agree with my mom that Lady Susan would be far too savvy ever to get herself into the trouble mentioned at the end… but in the face of how gut-shakingly funny that bit was, I think it was a decent trade-off. Overall the movie seemed to demonstrate a good understanding of the heart of the novella and its characters. Would we could have more in that vein!

No.6 volume 3 — Though I have not, as I said before, developed any particular feelings of bitterness toward the anime adaptation of this manga, I still get the feeling, as I read, that what I watched was an abridgment. I don’t quite understand how it is that so many anime adaptations remove so much detail. Obviously time constraints exist, but this particular series didn’t even have a standard season’s or half-season’s number of episodes, so surely they could have taken a bit more time to include some of these little things that explain what’s going on more coherently and enrich the setting and characterization?

The overall timeline, so far, is working out better in the manga, in my opinion. Safu is involved earlier in the story than in the anime, which makes her feel a little more like a character and less like a macguffin. And so far she hasn’t had an unexplained vision of Elyurias, so that’s good.

Characterization continues to be a bit more nuanced in the manga too; though that still means Shion is more airheaded and manic than in the anime, and Nezumi even colder, I definitely prefer it. The tension I felt throughout much of the anime regarding Nezumi’s lack of respect for life and the mismatch that created in their potential relationship is lessened in the face of more complex characterization.

There is one thing that’s kinda bugged me in the manga so far, though, that was not present in the anime, and it’s something I’ve occasionally seen in Japanese stories involving a gay romance: a kind of undercurrent of homophobia whose purpose I don’t quite understand and that’s never really dealt with.

It’s not characters coming to terms with their own orientations; it’s not queer people dealing with bigotry and oppression; it’s a set of attitudes and behaviors evincing a calm, even subtle homophobia that is never addressed at all even when actual gay romance occurs.

In a story full of queerbaiting, one can easily interpret unaddressed homophobic undertones as a deliberate attempt to reassure the homophobic portion of the audience that there’s really no icky gay stuff in this story. But in a manga that will eventually (I assume) contain at least a little gay kissing, if not head into a full-blown gay romance (no pun intended, I promise), it’s strange to see one half of an eventual gay pairing reprimanding the other for speaking and acting in a way that might indicate gay attraction… and then nobody ever addresses this, and we just get on with the gay as if this is a normal way for a queer person to act.

On a scale from (1) queerness being presented as run of the mill to (10) lots of angsty struggling with being queer and realistic levels of homophobia, I definitely prefer stories far toward the (1) end. The real world has enough struggling to deal with queerness and inhumane levels of homophobia; I’d rather have stories that don’t focus on that misery. That’s just personal preference, however, and there is, of course, nothing wrong with realistic stories dealing with how real people have to function in a real world that is, unfortunately, filled with a lot of struggle and homophobia.

But what this manga presents doesn’t seem to fall anywhere on that scale, since it’s a seemingly contradictory blend of the two ends. If gay is normal, why are characters allowed to get away with seemingly homophobic remarks? If gay is not normal, and homophobia is acceptable, why are there no questions raised about orientation when attraction and its expression occur?

I wonder if this is a reflection of some aspect of Japanese society I’m not entirely familiar with. I can’t really speculate without more information, though. So how about I move on.

Gundam Wing fic — The story that actually was in this fanfiction slot of my reading list turned out to be so bad that I had to ask myself some questions about how to deal with that kind of experience in these logs. Do I just straightforwardly say what I thought of this fic here, or should I be a little more circumspect?

I very passionately believe that fanfiction is a legitimate artistic and literary form; one of my major rage buttons is the suggestion that fanfiction is inherently worth less than other types of fiction.

However, not everyone writing fanfiction is setting out to create art; many are just having fun, indulging in escapism with no particular artistic merit in view. That they may, in doing so, create a work of art anyway is fantastic, because the world can always do with more art! But if it’s not their intention — if the creation process rather than the finished product is their purpose — approaching a story written with that attitude as you would approach something intended as art would be like subjecting a Painting with a Twist picture to classic artistic critique.

On the other hand, an artist that’s just having fun and messing around, if she makes her work available to the public (and especially if she does so with no comment as to her motives in creating it), is offering it up for analysis and critique. Beyond that, here in writing for the very first time is my own personal definition of art: any experience intended or interpreted as art that educates, edifies, or entertains. Note the ‘interpreted as’ that allows something to be received as art even if it was not originally intended as such.

It’s not my business to hurt people, but it is my business, here in these logs, to share my thoughts and feelings on the art I experience. I don’t have the time or energy to try to distinguish between fanfiction that was written for a lark and fanfiction that was written in an attempt at producing a good piece of writing, so I’m not going to dismiss any fanfiction out of hand as not art and therefore ineligible for an Art Experience Log. What I also won’t do, though, is identify the story in question, since I have nothing good to say about it. I’ll just mention what bothered me and move on.

First of all, fuck epithets. Holy shit, man. Is there a worse fandom about this than GW? There probably is, but not one I’ve encountered. Aaargh.

OK, terms too strong. I do actually like epithets in moderation when they’re not obtrusive, more than a couple of words long, or diminishing. As I’ve mentioned before, I think a subtle and well placed epithet can help to avoid unnecessary repetition. I’ve also mentioned that this, like many, many aspects of writing, is very subjective. And obviously some people’s totally wrong opinion is that a million fucking incredibly jarring epithets every two seconds is a good fucking idea.

Wow, terms are still strong there. Let’s just leave it at this: “the blond Arab” is my new least favorite thing that ever happened.

And let’s talk about unresolved tension. Not UST, which I usually dislike, but unresolved dramatic tension — specifically, cutting a story (or scene) off before a situation is resolved and allowing(forcing) the reader to infer what happens next, in some cases drawing, as Twain put it, the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene, in others implying that the reader’s imagination may do better justice to the desirable outcome than the author’s words ever could.

It’s a technique I enjoy, but I think it only works when the author has given all of the (or at least plenty of) necessary information for the reader to do the inferring. By cutting off early after offering a thorough setup for the outcome, the author should be saying, “And then…. well, you know what happened then.” And the reader should be able to reply, “Yes, I do.” The fun of imagining the following scene(s) is what makes the technique work. Or, if the question of “what happened then” is the point (as in The Lady or the Tiger?), some ambiguity at the end is fine too — because the author has still given the reader enough information to base a decision on.

But a fic that feels like an intro cut short before the actual story begins is not fine. If the reader is left first double-checking their copy to make sure they didn’t accidentally download only the prologue of a much longer work, then sitting back in bafflement with not the faintest idea of what happens next, something has gone wrong.

And then it kinda adds insult to injury to tag the fic with a pairing that the reader must be meant to believe comes into being after the ending since it wasn’t even vaguely implied within the fic itself! I read the fic for that pairing!! It’s an underrepresented pairing already!!! What are you doing to me????

I originally had other complaints about this story, but it’s been, like, a week and a half now since I read it, and my memory of it is thankfully fading. Fanfiction is such a roulette, with about the same payout; it’s often very frustrating.

In fact I’ve been so wordy about everything in this AEL that I’ve pushed it out an extra week and still haven’t gotten to the last three items (one book, one movie, one album) on the list. So I’ma bump those into the next AEL in order to get this one posted. What a sour note to end on, though XD