Archive for April, 2009

April 28, 2009

Things that make me go Buh?

While talking about children’s books today, Elinor M.Brent-Dyer’s Rivals of the Chalet School came up in conversation. Specifically, this bit:

Cornelia Flower, another American child, jumped to her feet. ‘Let’s swear a feud against them,’ she said.

‘Mademoiselle said we weren’t to,’ objected Margia.

‘Well, call ourselves the Ku-Klux-Klan, and then it isn’t a feud,’ put in Evadne. ‘It’s fighting for our rights—and things.’

Margia knew perfectly well that it would mean a feud only under another name, but she easily stifled the voice of her conscience, and nodded. ‘It seems an idea. What can we do? What did the American Ku-Klux-Klan do?’

No one was very sure, not even Evadne and Cornelia. Then the former was seized with a brilliant notion.

‘Joey Bettany has some of those awful “Elsie books.” Let’s borrow them—they’re American all right, so they’re sure to say something about them. Then we’ll know where we are.’…

…Cyrilla went back to the form-room where the meeting was, and delivered the precious volumes over to Margia, who dealt them round as far as they would go, and ordained that those left out must look over with someone. For a time there was no sound to be heard but the turning of leaves. Then, suddenly, Giovanna Donati uttered a cry of joy. ‘Here it is, Margia! See!’

Down went the other books and there was a unanimous rush to where she sat, and black, brown, red, and fair heads clustered together over the pages. Yes; there it was.

Margia commandeered the book, and waved them all to their seats. ‘Sit down, an’ I’ll read it to you. Then we’ll know.’

They sat down, and she read aloud industriously for half an hour, after which she passed on the office to someone else, as she was growing hoarse.

The account of the doings of that far-famed ‘Klan’ as given in Elsie’s Motherhood thrilled them all, though they sometimes stumbled over the long words used and were bothered by the very elaborate style of the book.

‘Cut all that,’ commanded Margia when the reader came to any ‘preachy’ bits. ‘Get on to the fun.’…

…After Kaffee und Kuchen, they returned to their amusement, and by the time the bell rang for their amusement, and by the time the bell rang for them to go upstairs and change for the evening, they knew all they wanted about the original Ku-Klux-Klan.

‘Only we can’t go round beating people or sticking up coffins against their back-doors,’ said Margia regretfully.

I’d always assumed that this was just one of those random and bizarre bits of acceptable racism one comes across in old-ish children’s books (Rivals was published in 1929). But since the Elsie book in question is available online (here) I went to check and found that it is actually quite condemnatory of the Klan. Consider this, for example:

“So the Ku Klux outrages have begun in our neighborhood,” remarked Mr. Horace Dinsmore, and went on to denounce their proceedings in unmeasured terms. The faces of several of his auditors flushed angrily. Enna shot a fierce glance at him, muttering “scalawag,” half under her breath, while his old father said testily, “Horace, you speak too strongly. I haven’t a doubt the rascals deserved all they got. I’m told one of them at least, had insulted some lady, Mrs. Foster, I believe, and that the others had been robbing hen-roosts and smoke-houses.”

“That may perhaps be so, but at all events every man has a right to a fair trial,” replied his son, “and so long as there is no difficulty in bringing such matters before the civil courts, there is no excuse for Lynch law, which is apt to visit its penalties upon the innocent as well as the guilty.”

At this, George Boyd, who, as the nephew of the elder Mrs. Carrington and a member of the Ashlands household, had been invited with the others, spoke warmly in defence of the organization, asserting that its main object was to defend the helpless, particularly in guarding against the danger of an insurrection of the blacks.

“There is not the slightest fear of that,” remarked Mr. Travilla, “there may be some few turbulent spirits among them, but as a class they are quiet and inoffensive.”

“Begging your pardon, sir,” said Boyd, “I find them quite the reverse;–demanding their wages directly they are due, and not satisfied with what one chooses to give. And that reminds me that you, sir, and Mr. Horace Dinsmore, and that carpet-bagger of Fairview are entirely too

liberal in the wages you pay.”

“That is altogether our own affair, sir,” returned Mr. Dinsmore, haughtily. “No man or set of men shall dictate to me as to how I spend my money. What do you say, Travilla?”

“I take the same position; shall submit to no such infringement of my liberty to do as I will with my own.”

Martha Finley’s racism is mostly of the “pity the poor ignorant black people” variety than the Klan sort. Elsie’s Motherhood is written in 1876 and even then the author seems to have suspected that writing about the Klan, in whatever fashion, might be rather fraught. Hence the placatory foreword.

The published reports of the Congressional Committee of Investigation were resorted to as the most reliable source of information, diligently examined, and care taken not to go beyond the facts there given as regards the proceedings of the Klan, the clemency and paternal acts of the Government, or the kindly, fraternal feelings and deeds of the people of the North toward their impoverished and suffering brethren of the South.

These things have become matters of history: vice and crime should be condemned wherever found; and naught has been set down in malice; for the author has a warm love for the South as part and parcel of the dear land of her birth.

May this child of her brain give pain to none, but prove pleasant and profitable to all who peruse its pages, and especially helpful to young parents, M. F.

So I have to wonder how closely the Chalet girls (and EBD herself) were reading, for them to assume that none of this is in any way problematic. Maybe all the long speeches condemning the Klan were dismissed as ‘preachy’ and left unread. I don’t know. I’m entirely baffled.

April 27, 2009

Toothsome things

I have watched two movies related to teeth and biting in the last ten days or so.

Last saturday night involved Teeth. I was a bit…dubious about this movie, despite the fact that a friend had said she liked it. I wasn’t sure how they were going to use the Vagina Dentata trope.
It turned out, though, that they used it pretty well. The reasons for Dawn’s condition are never made clear – both the nuclear power plant (which may or may not be the cause of her mother’s cancer) and a class on evolution offer potential explanations. What is made clear though, is the way in which the myth works culturally. As Dawn begins to do her research she learns that the vagina dentata myth exists across multiple cultures[1], and that it is frequently seen as a symptom of fear around women’s sexuality.

Dawn’s own society isn’t much of an exception. Pictures of female genitalia in her class’s textbooks are covered by gigantic gold stickers (because women have a natural modesty) and Dawn herself is a member of a group promoting abstinence. It is only after she has bitten off one penis, one set of fingers, and had consensual sex for the first time that she is even able to properly look at herself naked in the mirror. The moment at which she first looks at a diagram of the vagina is accompanied by revelatory music. Her unfamiliarity with her sexual organs is also seen to place her in danger – realising that she has no idea what is happening a doctor sexually assaults her.

I found it rather worrying that every man Dawn meets (apart from her step-dad) is either a rapist or just generally an arsehole. Within the space of a couple of days, she is raped by a classmate and then a doctor, manipulated into sex by a male friend who only wants to brag about it to his friends, has sex with her step-brother, and while hitchhiking runs into a driver who also seems to plan to rape her. Teeth presents us with a universe where there are very few nice men.

Sex is still positive, though, even if the men Dawn could conceivably have it with (the film is entirely heterosexual) are not. She is shown to enjoy consensual sex, and also to admire her naked body in the mirror. Neither of these things happen until she has discovered her teeth.

A few days after Teeth I finally watched Let The Right One In which seems to have released months ago everywhere else. People have been gushing about it all over the world[2] and there’s little I can add, but go and see it if you haven’t yet. It’s beautiful, quiet (we only realised later how sparingly music had been used), and one of the most honest vampire films I’ve ever seen. By which I mean that if you’re in love with a vampire you probably need to deal with the whole killing and draining blood thing, and that the blood-bespatteredness can be really unattractive rather than sexy (Oskar and Eli’s first kiss comes right after Eli has feasted on someone and is dripping with blood. Twilight this isn’t.

I’m told that a lot of what the movie makes ambiguous (the gender identity of Eli, the status of Hakan) is more clearly spelt out in the book. I don’t think I’ll be reading the book, because I don’t want to know. The ambiguity is what made this film for me – like Oskar, the viewer begins to accept all these odd things without questioning. Will you go out with me? he asks Eli, specifying that he wants her to be his girlfriend. “Oskar, I’m not a girl” she replies; a beat later he replies with “but are we going steady or not?”

I will, however be watching the English adaptation of the story, which will be produced by Hammer films. I look forward to seeing what they make of it.

[1] Including our own. (via my PL)
[2] The Bitch magazine review raises the issue of how LTROI fits into a feminist horror tradition (which I think already exists). I think it does, and this is one of the reasons I think the two movies fit together as part of the same post. Besides the teeth of course.

April 13, 2009


The problem with reading books about people to whom books are important is that I’m tempted to drop everything I’d planned, and just read what they’re reading instead.

Hence, Persuasion. It’s been a couple of years. It’s still excellent.

Have some music instead.

April 12, 2009


Dear Amazon dot com

You say,

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature. (link)

This is a Young Adult book. It is targeted at young adults. It is not “adult material”.

This is a guide to college campuses for lgbt students. Again, not “adult” material.

This is a collection of sexually explicit photographs of women from a magazine aimed at men.Most people might consider this adult material. Apparently you do not.

This is why Amazon sales rank is important.

As only an occasional user of your website, I actually did not know that you were protecting my innocence by excluding adult material from searches and sales ranks. I find this stupid and regressive for a number of reasons, but if it is your official policy I realise there’s little I can do to change it.

However, if homophobia is to continue to play a role in judging when a book is or is not adult, I’d be grateful if the wording of your terms of service was changed to reflect this.


Aishwarya Subramanian

(story via most of Twitter)

Also, Amazon Rank.
Edit: More links here.

April 11, 2009

Anita, Natasha

Scott Eric Kaufman’s response to the ridiculous (and racist) Betty Brown thing got me thinking about names and the cultures they exist in and so forth.

I’m used to non-Indian people not being able to pronounce my name – Indian people fail at it too, frequently, even with a Famous Actress to help them. And I’ve thought (usually after pronouncing my name very slowly a few times and then being too embarrassed to keep doing it once they’ve reached a mispronunciation I feel like I can live with) it would be so much easier, if one lived in another culture, to jettison the lovely, multisyllabled names you wanted to use and stick to names that could ‘pass’ as belonging to either culture.


And there’s Deepa D’s incredible post from a few months ago (and if you didn’t read it then you must now) where she talks, among other things, about growing up speaking Marathi and Hindi but reading in English.

I grew up with half a tongue.

Do not tell me, or the people like me who have grown up hearing Arabic around them, or singing in Swahili, or dreaming in Bengali—but reading only (or even mostly) in English (or French, or Dutch)—that this colonial rape of our language has not infected our ability to narrate, has not crippled our imagination. When I was in class 7, our English teacher gave us the rare creative writing assignment, and three of my classmates wrote adventure stories about characters named Julian and Peggy and Tom. Do not tell me that this cultural fracture does not affect the odds required to produce enough healthy imaginations that can chrysalis into writers. When we call ourselves Oreos or Coconuts or Bananas (Black/Brown/Yellow on the outside, White on the inside)—understand the ruptures and bafflement that accompanies our consumption of your media while we resent and critique it.


It was hard, as a child, to conceive of brown names as the sort of names to which things actually happened, for any sort of interesting storyline to not be rendered ridiculous by the inclusion of a character with a name like mine. It still is, in some ways. I remember the day a friend brought up the topic of the new Indian Mills and Boon books that would feature Indian characters. We (there were three or four of us) all burst out laughing at the thought of an Indian romantic hero – it seemed ludicrous.

But then, beyond the age of ten or eleven you could hardly continue to write about the Julians and the Peggys of the world, not unless you wanted to restrict your characters to one religious group. So we found ways around it; long, “authentically” Indian names (see? we’d proved we weren’t colonised) that could be shortened to reasonably European-sounding monosyllables or names that could pass for either culture – a series of Anitas and Ninas and Ritas and Natashas and Taras and the occasional Pia.

April 10, 2009

Gir Lions and Tigers and Sloth Bears, oh my

When I wrote about the Willard Price adventure books a few months ago I neglected to mention Tiger Adventure, the thirteenth book in the series and the only one I hadn’t read. It’s set in India, and I was looking forward to a host of hilarious inaccuracies.

Amazingly, there aren’t that many. It is somewhat bewildering that the main characters seem able to hop between the Gir forest and the Himalayas as if they were next door to each other. It is also a bit worrying to learn that the British ruled in India for three hundred years (but what’s a century here or there?) but on the whole, Price seems to have done his research.

India still figures as a land of dust and heat and cockroaches and fleas, however. Indian prisons are hellish (I’ve never been in one, but I imagine they’re pretty uncomfortable), Indian cops are unpleasant – though at least Price doesn’t have his young heroes attempt to bribe them. Everyone is superstitious and believes in the abominable snowman – except the people who try to cheat you into buying relics of it.

One thing I did enjoy was that Price has young Roger Hunt pull out the old “I’m amazed so many Indians speak English!” thing so that the logical response can be made. People who read Tiger Adventure as children (hardly any, apparently), at least, might know better than to congratulate Indians they meet on their English because it’s wonderful and they’re amazed and however did we do it?

One takes what one can.

April 9, 2009

Here, have some quality journalism

The Indian Express picks up this story about a sixteen year old boy who was kidnapped and castrated, apparently, at the behest of a “transexual gang”. It’s a pretty horrible story.

The Express version of the story is rather illuminating:

Investigations reveal that Pune is emerging as a link between an inter-state gang of transgenders who castrate young boys and force them into prostitution.

This has come out after a team of Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of Chennai police visited Pune last week and arrested a 75-year-old surgeon, S Naganna, at Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh, for allegedly castrating a 16-year-old boy from Tamil Nadu at the behest of some transgenders. The boy had fled Pune from his captors .

Well obviously, we’re all told as children that hijras Kidnap Children And Turn Them Into Hijras Too Oh Noes. Much more often than we’re told things like, say, Beware Older Male Relatives (guess which of these groups is statistically more threatening?)

After two pages of the website consistently referring to “transgenders” (terminology FAIL, IE, did no one from the initial journalist through editing guess this?), we come to this bit at the end:

Tejaswini Sevekari, a social activist working for uplift of sex workers in the red light areas of Pune, said she was aware of some transgenders willingly going to Chennai and Bangalore for surgeries, but I have not come across any boy who had been forced to forcibly castrated and pushed into the prostitution racket.

When contacted, the Faraskhana police said they were not aware of the case.

So…we’re not sure this particular case happened*. We’re even less sure it has happened to other people. But hey, we thought you’d like a couple of pages of transpanic first. Yes?

(Via Bird of Paradox )

*If it did, clearly, it’s awful. I shouldn’t have to write a disclaimer for this.

April 8, 2009

Things that look like other things

The Hammer production of H.Rider Haggard’s She is rich in every kind of lunacy. Including random Roman soldier costumes, Peter Cushing attempting to (I think) bellydance, and Savage Natives with their silly savage native dances. But towering above all these is Christopher Lee in the role of Billali. Billali in the book is merely a benevolent elderly foot fetishist. In the movie he is elevated to some sort of high priest and is made to wear a series of ludicrous hats. He spends a lot of the movie looking very annoyed and we can all guess why.

Why do I mention this? Because of this.

Is it just me, or is there a definite resemblance?

April 7, 2009

YA Orgy part I

A few posts ago I asked for advice as to which of the books piled up on my desk I should read first. I succumbed to the temptation of a comfortable reread and read End of Term. It really is very lovely – it’s only been a few months since my last read (and quite a few years since the one before that) but I am amazed at the sheer quality of the thing. So much so that I have swapped that gorgeous Chandler a few posts down for it.

Since I made this momentous decision I have read another Forest book I’d never read before (The Ready-Made Family) and am now on a third (Peter’s Room, which research on the internet suggests is incredible. Has anyone else read it?) The Borrible trilogy is being carried around in my backpack, but hasn’t actually gotten read yet.

I have also been reading a ton of Tamora Pierce fanfic, about which more later. What are you reading?

April 6, 2009

Various secondhand bookshops across the Netherlands