My New Tintype Author Photo

On a recent trip to Astoria, Mr. Waite and I were walking back from dinner when we quite literally stumbled over a man on the sidewalk outside a tattoo parlor. He had a butane torch and was running it along the back of a small metal rectangle, held carefully in his fingertips. Beside him on a tripod was a tall antique box camera with a bowler hat. As he torched the metal, it tilted and I saw a greyscale, grainy portrait, lush with depth and rich with texture. I couldn't believe it: this man was making tintypes, right out in the open.

His name, we learned, is Giles Clement of Clement Photograph in Portland, Oregon. He was charming and talented and willing to describe each step of the photographic process while he worked. The results are beautifully ghostly -- I feel like I somehow stepped backward in time.

Tintype photograph of a dark-haired, fair-skinned woman. She has her head tilted slightly and looks slightly mischievous.

The Perils of Estate Planning for Writers

The lawyer was doing an excellent job at explaining the different structures available to Mr. Waite and myself. He'd clearly done this before, with people as or even more clueless than we were, and he had multiple color-coded graphs with lists of pros and cons for things like wills, living trusts, and everything in between. He was especially good at finding oases of clarity in the desert of legal terminology, and would occasionally spice things up by hinting at the ways in which the system could provoke familial conflict or trouble for relatives and spouses of the deceased. This was not, however, a good way to keep short a meeting with a writer. It was great fodder for a mystery plot.

"Your wedding ring, for instance," said the lawyer. "Right now it's yours, because you brought it with you into the marriage. But if your kind husband were to add stones to it, it would become joint property, because he'd put money into it."

"Really?" I perked up my ears. "What about, say, a family heirloom like my grandmother's ring? Would it become joint property if he just had it resized or polished, or would he actually have to add stones?"

The lawyer blinked at my sudden enthusiasm. "He'd have to add stones," he said.

"Ah," I replied, jotting this down in my notes.

The lawyer cleared his throat and continued explaining. I interrupted a few more times to ask about "trust mills" (a shady practice whereby couples are sold a living trust but the trust isn't funded, so that the seller keeps a boatload of cash and the surviving spouse is left with nothing on their partner's death) and sapphire mines in Australia (which I normally think of as exclusively opal country -- this was a bit of a detour, but really interesting). Soon we got into the meat of probate and post-death-of-a-spouse legalities. I waved off concerns about my own assets -- I'm a writer, so: what assets? -- and asked a lot of questions about the line of inheritance, trusts generally, the various opportunities for civil suits in inheritance law, that sort of thing.

And then, mid-note, I caught a sharp glance from the lawyer and realized: what I was doing was building up a pretty sizeable motive. This lawyer would definitely go right to the police and tell them all about my suspicious behavior. And then, officer, she specifically asked me to explain how to legally prevent someone from contesting a will. 

I'd better hope nothing untoward happens to Mr. Waite.

Ominous music.

Clap of thunder.

Shifty eyes.

Stop The Presses: Tired Writer Cannot Write

Okay, so it's been two weeks now that I've been working full-time at the bookstore. Nights and weekends. It's fun, I get to look at pretty books all day and alphabetize -- I am one of those nerdy types who finds alphabetizing a soothing and engaging activity -- and help customers find books as best I can. Even the foot-killing four-hour register shifts haven't really dampened my enthusiasm. Except...

I haven't been able to write since I started.

It's not a question of inspiration. I still have all my ideas, I'm still doing research, still fine-tuning outlines. The stories are somewhere, waiting. But every time I sit in front of the keyboard, all I can think, over and over, like the phonograph inside my head is stuck on this one groove, is this:

I'm so tired.

I'll try to push through -- I know that voice can be made to go away -- but every time I put down a sentence I know it is wrong. Know, deep down in my bones, that there is no life in it. Everything feels so absurdly shallow, suddenly -- not in terms of subject matter, but in terms of my own engagement. And a writer disengaged from what she's writing is not going to write anything worth reading. Especially not in romance.

And it hurts, because I like to think of myself as disciplined, as determined, as a writer who works and does not wait for inspiration to strike. I've gotten stuck before -- who hasn't? -- but when one story is stuck another one is sure to be working, so I bounce from one to the other until the first one unsticks itself, like they always do.

This is the first time I can ever remember where nothing is working.

And it feels as though I have failed on some profound moral level. Chuck Wendig, penmonkey patron saint, would certainly disapprove. But it seems, to my shame, that I am somehow fundamentally incapable of working full-time and also doing anything substantive in the wordsmithery.

I tell myself to just get on with it. But the listening half of me has that same gut-level revulsion as when your coach in the sport of your choice looks at your broken ankle and tells you to walk it off.

Other writers do this. They do this all the time. 

What on earth is wrong with me?

In comments: please leave sympathy, tips, and any good jokes you may have heard lately. Bonus points if they involve terrible puns. You see what I've been reduced to.

Bigger versus Better

Reader, I like 'em long. And meaty. And powerful. And Latin, frequently -- though I'm not terribly picky about nationality. Greek and French and Finnish are pretty great, too. I have a particular fondness for the bastard ones. Of course, I'm talking about words. Where else did you think this blog post was going?

There's a specific mantra of writing advice -- in this great piece, among other places -- that I can never quite bring myself to abide by, and it is this: longer words will intimidate readers.

The reason I can't stand this maxim is that, as a reader myself, I know it to be false. Or at least false enough.

I was that kid who read dictionaries for fun. I memorized obscure terms for groups of animals (a smack of jellyfish) and poetic meters (trochee, spondee, anapest). I'll never forget the time in college when I first stumbled over the word crepuscular. (It means 'relating to twilight or dusk' and I have to hold myself back from using it when people bring up sparkly vampire stories.)

There's a general idea that shorter words are better for use in fiction. (I blame Hemingway, among others.) The trouble with this is that even if two words mean the same thing, the fact remains that they are different words and will do slightly different things. As Sideshow Bob Terwilliger taught us in the best Simpsons episode of all time, sometimes you want to disembowel someone, and sometimes you want to gut them.

Plus, sometimes the rule about using short words comes off as demeaning the reader's intelligence. I mean come on, people, we Regency romance devotees all know what a pelisse is, and that's hardly a useful word for today's modern gal on the go. (To do: draft memo, present proposal, wear pelisse.)

You know what's always long in romance novels? That's right: the ever-popular Mighty Wang. Sometimes it is too long to be practical, or even plausible. But usually it is long because that's what's going to get the job done.

Same goes for words. Don't use them just because they're long, or just because they're short. Use them because they're right for the job. (The Goldilocks Theory of Writercraft?)

So I'll keep mine long -- and strong -- and down to get the fiction on.

Now That You Mention It, The Internet Is Totally A Speakeasy

{Background: people have been saying -- on Techdirt, more recently on Techdirt, and now in a thorough 57-page paper that I haven't finished reading yet -- that copyright enforcement is 'our generation's Prohibition'. I'll have more thoughts once I've finished the paper, but for now this is immediately where my mind leapt. Metaphors are powerful, yo.} Mickey pulled his hat down lower over his face before heading into the alley. It was an unpromising canyon of a shadows with a single rivet-bound door at the end. For a moment his heart stuttered and fell to its knees, trying to convince him this was all a terrible mistake.

Anne tugged on his elbow, her smile like a slash in the dim light, as bloody red as her dress. "Come on," she said. "It's only frightening the first time."

Mickey pulled his heart up to its feet and followed.

Anne's heels staccattoed the concrete as she strode to the door. At her knock, a window slid open just wide enough to reveal a pair of thoughtful brown eyes. Said the man, "Weather's bad tonight. Looks like rain."

"They say it's going to come down in torrents," Anne replied.

The window snicked shut, then the whole door creaked open. The thoughtful brown eyes belonged to a pale man with wild, astonishing hair and a self-effacing smile. "Hurry up," he said.

Anne pulled Mickey inside and the doorman pulled the door closed once more. A long hallway led left, then right, then down, then through a dusty cellar. A tuxedo-clad man took Mickey's hat and politely opened a second thick door.

Mickey stepped into a swirl of music and color and noise.

He stopped to try and get his bearings. Straight ahead was a dance floor, crammed with bodies gyrating to bootlegs of live concerts, lost tracks, and illicit mash-ups—all of which were available upon request from the cat-eared DJ in the front of the room. In velvet-lined booths to the right people were trading reproductions of famous paintings, fan art, and celebrity photos. One girl proudly displayed a sketch where Disney's Belle and her Beast had been transformed into Chewbacca and Han Solo: Belle's blue skirt and white apron had changed into a white shirt, blue vest and pants, and the Beast sported a bandolier across his broad chest. The caption read: "I want adventure in the great wide somewhere."

On Mickey's left were a row of glass-walled rooms with flickering screens that displayed the latest smash hit movie, classic decade-long television shows, and forgotten classics that were rarely seen outside art houses and film schools in the nation's two largest cities. Above was a balcony studded with couches and chairs, each of which held someone curled up for comfort, balancing the slender weight of an e-reader in their hands.

And everywhere people were talking, squealing, laughing, fighting, creating, comparing, emjoying. It was lunacy—and it was infectious.

Anne encompassed the whole room with one regal gesture. "Where should we start?" she asked.

Mickey's face split in a wide grin. "The music," he said.

Within an hour, Mickey had procured albums by Tom Waits and Otis Redding, things he'd purchased years ago and had since lost. Someone told him about some band called the Avett Brothers, and gave him a copy of Four Thieves Gone. He found a set of headphones and hit play.

Thanks to the high volume of the music and the excellent quality of the headphones, Mickey only noticed the police had arrived when they yanked out the jack. "You're under arrest," said the detective. His white trenchcoat fit his broad shoulders like the wings of an avenging angel.

Mickey blinked in surprise. Blue-clad street cops moved somberly through the room, but everyone else had vanished, even Anne. CDs and mixtapes, videos and Blu-rays lay scattered and crushed on the caramel wood floor. As he watched, one cop lifted an axe and brought it crashing down on a screen showing a gifset from The Avengers.

Meanwhile, Mickey's detective was examining his list of titles. He pursed his lips and whistled. "The Avett Brothers?" he said. "You son of a bitch."

"I'm starting to really dig that album," Mickey protested.

"Then why would you take money away from hard-working young artists?" The cop kicked over a stack of copies of Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison. "It's one thing to steal a dead man's tunes," he said. "But a small band struggling to make good?"

"I didn't know I would like it until I heard it," Mickey said weakly. "Aren't they coming to town next month? I'm sure I've seen the poster somewhere. I'd love to hear them play in person."

"Why not just download a bootleg of that concert, too?" the detective snarled.

"Well," said Mickey, "because concerts are fun."

"You won't be able to afford concert tickets for a long while, buddy," the detective replied. "The last guy we caught with this many MP3s got a six-figure fine and community service."

"Six figures!" Mickey cried. "You've got to be joking."

"It's piracy that's the real joke," said the detective. "Like the proverbial bad penny, you criminals keep turning up." He sighed and waved one hand to his subordinates. As the police hauled Mickey away, he craned his head over his shoulder to see that the DJ had already crept back into his booth and the readers were back in their chairs up above. (Had they ever really left?)

Lounging in one of those overhead chairs was Anne, her long legs stretched out easily before her. She smiled and blew Mickey a kiss.

The riveted door slammed shut.

{The inevitable disclaimer: I believe that copyright is vitally important, but that enforcement of copyright has taken some ludicrous turns in the course of developing a practical law. Piracy's overlap with fair use, international law, and fan culture is still a murky, ill-defined territory. The metaphor of copyright-enforcement-as-Prohibition is initially intriguing -- we'll see if the historical argument holds up -- especially since it implies that popular culture is intoxicating, vital, and impossible to quash. But it also implies that popular culture is vulgar, morally dodgy, and may provide a financial building ground for organized crime. And I'm not just talking about bootleg Sopranos episodes. I'll have more coherent thoughts about this in future.

Also if anyone wants to draw me a picture of Belle and the Beast as Han and Chewy that would be spectacular.

UPDATE: Ask and you shall receive!}

Belle and Beast as Han and Chewy -iPad sketch

Lady Robots, Dude Robots, and the Echo Chamber of Gender Stereotypes

In an unexpected follow-up to my brief post about ancient Greek lady robots made of gold who practiced smithcraft, we hear about a clever gender-and-robotics study out of Germany. And now we know that gender stereotypes are really, really easily applied to robots, even if the robot doesn't have a body.

They [the subjects] looked at the heads of the two human-like machines, which were identical except for two details. The “feminine” one had longer hair and a slight curvature of the lips; the “masculine” one had shorter hair and straight lips.

Participants then were given a list of 24 traits and asked the extent to which they felt the robot embodied each of them. Twelve were related to agency, such as “assertive” and “dominant,” while 12 represented communal values including “polite” and “affectionate.”

Next, the students were asked to rate how likely they would be to use each of the robots for a list of possible duties incuding stereotypical male tasks like “guarding the house” and stereotypically female tasks such as preparing meals.

Guess what comes next -- go on, guess:

Participants were more likely to view the short-haired robot in masculine terms, and suggest it was more suitable for such take-action tasks as “repairing technical devices” and “guarding a house.” Conversely, the long-haired robot was perceived as more appropriate for such stereotypically feminine tasks such as household chores and caring for children and the elderly.

Sad trombone for gender equality.

The researchers note their results could be used in two ways. From a social-policy point of view, it might be worthwhile for designers to develop “counter-stereotypical machines,” which could challenge our rigid conceptions of “male” and “female” work.

On the other hand, they note, if the goal is “to facilitate human-robot interaction” and minimize mistakes and accidents, it makes sense to design robots that conform to our human assumptions.

The problem with that second suggestion is that gender-conforming robots -- can I call them cis robots? let's call them cis robots -- won't be merely a compromise with flawed human assumptions. They will instead confirm and reinforce gender stereotypes.

It is one thing for a woman to have long hair and work in a traditionally feminine-coded career like, say, teaching. She's an individual, making the best choices she can to maximize her own position in a system that is seriously rigged against her -- much more so if she's disabled or a woman of color. We all have to put food on the table somehow, and we have to use our individual skills and inclinations as best we can.

In contrast, imagine someone mass-produces teaching robots with long hair and curving lips -- this is a much stronger statement about matching feminine-coded work with feminine-coded appearance. It means someone has made an individual assumption that teaching = feminine, and the hundreds of teaching robots will echo and amplify that assumption. Stereotypes will be reinforced when they need breaking down.

So yes, let's make all the counter-stereotypical robots we can. And then let's give them a classroom of curious third graders, because pretty much everyone can agree that would be entertaining.

*Side note: did you notice that headline? "Sex Stereotypes and the Single Robot" -- 'robot' replacing the word 'girl.' It's an allusion to Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown, who made Cosmopolitan what it is today. We are talking about human-shaped machines to take over unwanted jobs and free us from tedious labor, and the headline equates those human-shaped tedious-labor machines with women. There are not enough facepalms in the world.

The Robot Girls of Ancient Greece

In Homer's Iliad, there appears the following passage. Translation by yours truly, because if you can't use your 7 years of ancient Greek for translating things like this, what can you use it for? ... And to their lord hastened Golden servants like living maidens. In them were minds and hearts, voice and strength, And they have learned skills from the deathless gods. They hurried around and about their master. (Iliad 18.417-421)

Why am I posting about ancient Greek lady-robots made of gold? It's a secret—for now. Feel free to let your imaginations go wild. (Lord knows I did!)

 

Today in Unlikely but Useful Research Topics

Via the always-delightful Improbable Research blog comes this incredibly handy piece by Oxford scholar Michael Burden: "Pots, Privies and WCs: Crapping at the Opera in London Before 1830." We here at Olivia Waite love a good opera scene in a historical romance, and this article offers plenty of rich details, just the sort of gritty, astonishing information that historical authors are always looking for:

In general, the documented behaviour of London audiences suggests that it had little or nothing in common with anything that might be experienced by opera-goers today. These audiences pushed, shoved, argued and, as the vomiting character in the centre of Figure 1 suggests, the crush could be tight. Recorded incidents in the nineteenth century include a terrific squeeze at the Opera House in 1830, where there were ‘torn clothes and a few fainting fits’;8 a Mr Jones who was knocked over and crushed, and emerged gushing blood from his ears, eyes and mouth;9 the positioning of fire engines at the stage doors in an effort to persuade the audience to remain under control;10 and a crowd ‘violent beyond precedent’ for Jenny Lind’s long-expected debut that gave currency to the expression ‘a Jenny Lind crush’.11

It's available to read online as a PDF; I highly encourage you to read the whole thing.

Questionable Taste: Analyzing The Cannibal Romance

Last week, Ruthie Knox on Wonk-o-Mance wrote about a Regency romance called Beau Crusoe, which featured—wait for it!—a cannibal hero. I could not hit the buy button fast enough.

The reviews across the web are mixed, but count me as one of those who fell completely in love with our hero and this love story. Partly it's just that James himself is adorable, and lonely, and (as Ms. Knox aptly pointed out), legitimately angsty about having eaten other human beings. None of your one woman was mean therefore all women are bitches whinging here. No, this is I had to eat people once—people whose names I knew—and now I have serious issues with food and may in fact be going mad.

Combine those issues with a heart of gold and genuine wit and no wonder I was rooting for this guy.

But that's not what I want to talk about today.

No, what I want to get into, a la the marvelous Teach Me Tonight, is how effectively this book used imagery and structure.

And just in case lit-crit is not precisely your thing, I've punctuated my analysis with cannibal-appropriate accessories for happy shopping.

Needless to say, thar be spoilers ahead. Also trigger warnings for violence, slut-shaming, and general gruesomeness.

It's a really great romance, I swear.

Eat Your Heart Out

The big thing you have to do with a cannibal romance hero, of course, is to re-civilize him. James is given three tasks upon his arrival in London: to get rid of the toucans living in our heroine's father's foyer, to "do something" about our heroine's embittered sister Loisa, and to marry our heroine, the domestically named Susannah Park, widow and mother of adorable Plot Moppet Noah. These tasks, in order, are the foundation of James' reentry into the social world:

  • Getting rid of the filthy, tropical toucans is a repudiation of his filthy, tropical past.
  • "Doing something"—which turns out to be matchmaking—for Loisa is the reordering of disorder in the family.
  • Marrying Susannah Park reintegrates our hero fully with society (in the form of a family that includes the world's only legitimately adorable Plot Moppet—seriously, little Noah is a doll).

Throughout Beau Crusoe, you have characters on the side of wildness (Lord Watchmere, Timothy Rowe) and on the side of civilization (Sir Percival Pettibone and the sharp-tongued tailor). Some characters, notably Susannah and James, have aspects of both. It's not a simple good/bad binary, either—Sir Percival's characterization in particular reveals some of civilization's most glaring weaknesses. But the one thing that civilization has going for it is that it is full of people. Wildness is lonely, and hungry, and that combination drives men mad.

James alternately fears isolation and takes refuge in it. After five years of being a hermit, loneliness is at least familiar. But isolation also leave James vulnerable to the terrible guilt and horror of his past.

The other big issue for a cannibal hero is: appetite. Food imagery is all over this book, and actual food is vital in both the sense of significant and in the sense of life-preserving. The hunger for flesh as food becomes entwined with both sexual hunger and the hunger for human company—a pretty fascinating trifecta for an otherwise light narrative. Just as there are three tasks, there are three characters who represent these hungers and their dangers.

And now I have to talk about Lady Audley.

Cover shot of a hardback book with an anatomical illustration of a human being, showing veins and arteries and bones with certain annotations.

Lady Audley is our villainess, and our most disappointing character. She's a constant nymphomaniac whose only personality traits are sexual insatiability and a misplaced vindictiveness now that James is resisting her advances. There's a "sex is gross and dirty," slut-shaming tone to Lady Audley's scenes in the book, but the interesting thing about her is that she is entirely anti-food. She makes malicious cracks about Susannah's weight, and—in a scene that's arguably more shocking than any of the cannibalism parts—she grabs our hero's hand and uses it to bring herself to orgasm beneath the dinner table in the middle of a meal. She embodies sexual appetite: "If there was a position known to Venus that they did not try, he couldn't have named it." (Kindle location 3496)

Lady Audley is a maneater, but carpenter's mate Timothy Rowe is an actual eater of men. Like James, Timothy Rowe was forced into cannibalism to survive starvation; unlike James, Timothy Rowe got into it:

James and Walter Shepherd vowed not to eat any more, but Rowe could not be restrained. Over the next few days, they watched in stupefaction as the carpenter's mate consumed the foretopman down to his toenails. James tried to throw the disgusting carcass overboard, but Rowe only snarled at him like a feral dog and hugged the grisly remains. (Kindle location 3063)

James is haunted by Timothy Rowe, the "ghoul" who appears most frequently by James' bed at night, offering a mangled arm or leg in case our hero wants a snack. Tim is not a flashback, nor precisely a hallucination: he appears in James' POV as any other character, coming and going as he pleases, listening (though never speaking), with a mind and agenda of his own. The effect is plain and frank and thoroughly, deliciously creepy.

At the end of the novel, we learn precisely how Rowe died, and we find that James' fear is not only that he will become uncontrollably voracious, but also that he himself will be eaten as a meal by some ruthless predator. (Spoiler: land crabs. Terrifying, terrifying land crabs.) Barbaric eating sustained Tim Rowe, then destroyed him, and now feeds his memory in James' mind.

Green leaf holding a silver bracelet, stamped with the words 'I WILL EAT YOU ALIVE,' for which proceeds are (rather inappropriately) offered to juvenile diabetes.

Our third character, who personifies the extreme hunger for human society, is more subtle than Timothy Rowe or Lady Audley. (It would be difficult to be less subtle than Lady Audley.) Sir Percival Pettibone would be "chaotic neutral" on anyone's character alignment sheet. He's foppish and fashion-obsessed, frivolous and hugely privileged. He's also expansive and kind and generous, when he realizes it's needed. But he exemplifies a class of people that takes everything from others and gives back virtually nothing. James compares Redfern's eternally unpaid bills with the anger that sparked the French Revolution:

Maybe the French revolutionaries were right, James thought. Quite possibly there wasn't a more useless set of people than aristos. He imagined that the road to the Place de la Concorde, with its dripping guillotine, must have been lined with cheerful tailors, seamstresses and housemaids, happily sending their former employers to untidy ruin. Perhaps they had even pushed the tumbrels along, and no wonder. (Kindle location 1841)

Sir Percival himself may be relatively harmless, but he is still a potential source of ravenous destruction. He can do good things, but they will not outweigh the large imbalances inherent in the system.

Ultimately James rejects all three of these figures and the values they represent. He chooses making love, macaroons, and high-minded science instead of fucking, cannibalism, and lavish society parties. (AKA a typical Saturday night -- hey-oh!)

And there's still plenty more we could talk about in this book: everything about Susannah, Noah's addiction to maccaroons, the two crab pictures and what they mean, the toucans. It's an incredibly rich book, and one I'm going to be thinking about for some time to come.

As a postscript, here is the creepiest love song ever written: "Unworthy of Your Love," by Stephen Sondheim, is a beautiful duet between John Hinkley and Squeaky Fromme. Bonus: John Hinkley is sung by John Barrowman!

All I Want For Christmas Is: Boooo!

The year was 1995. I was in eighth grade. Christmas was approaching, and with it a holiday party hosted by a friend of mine, with both boys and girls invited. Including my first crush.

And oh, my friends, I had it bad. Granted, it was mostly based on the fact that he'd accidentally introduced me to the Beatles' Abbey Road—but the more I look back, the more legitimate that appears as a reason to fall in love with someone.

I was an absolute bundle of nerves, sitting in the tinsel-drenched living room while we all opened presents and sipped hot cider, when onto the stereo came a song I'd never heard before: Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas is You.

They say that you know you're in love when all the songs make sense. In this case, not only was Mariah singing what was going through my head at the moment, she was doing it while I was sitting in the same room as the love object in question. The effect on me was a shocking, profound, and secret happiness—the sense that someone understood what I was feeling and had put music around it. I bought the single and learned the words. Singing it felt dangerously expressive, even if nobody else was in the room.

It's been one of my favorite Christmas songs ever since—even though I would be soundly rejected when I later worked up the nerve to ask my crush for a date. That never felt like the important part, somehow—what mattered was that I was putting words around my own romantic feelings for the first time, even if I had to borrow someone else's words to do it.

Skip forward to 2011. I've married a lovely man (unrequited crush < thoroughly requited passion) but that Mariah Carey song still gives me goosebumps of happiness. And then Twitter tells me it's been recently covered by Justin Bieber and the video features Mariah Carey.

Despite my better instincts, I couldn't stop myself from watching.

You will be unsurprised to hear that the video is terrible.

I am not going to rant about the ravages of Auto-Tune or Justin Bieber's melodic cop-outs in the second verse. (Though I could.) Instead, I'm going to tell you how they've killed all the power of this song in some very specific and very troubling ways.

First, The Original Version

The song has two official videos. The first is a home-movie-style romp with snow and sledding and an astonishing number of baby animals. It is flirty and fun and warmly intimate.

Mariah throughout is active: she's wrestling Santa in the snow, running, sledding, opening presents, laughing, waving her arms, snuggling with bunnies, and scratching reindeer under the chin. There's not a lot of skin shown (she's got an off-the-shoulder dress at one point, but is wearing it with gloves and leggings). Her smile is frank, open, and friendly. She's sexy, to be sure—but it's the kind of sexy that happens when someone feels good about themselves and the people around them. It feels like a glimpse into a happy, fulfilled life. Actual presents are either adorable baby bunnies, or just an excuse for the kids to put boxes on their heads and make people laugh.

The other Mariah video ups the sex appeal with a little 1960s black-and-white glamor. The aesthetic is a callback to classic girl groups like the Ronettes—a visual reference which would also be picked up later by Alicia Keys' stunning Every Little Bit Hurts and, of course, Beyoncé's Single Ladies.

In her achingly good book Where the Girls Are, author Susan J. Douglas talks about girl groups and sex and girls' experience: "In the 1960s, pop music became the one area of popular culture in which adolescent female voices could be clearly heard." Groups like the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Supremes, and so on sang about women and girls' approaches to sex and romance, whether traditional ("Goin' to the Chapel"), assertive ("Be My Baby"), or wary ("Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?").

It's pretty clear that the Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, and Alicia Keys videos mentioned above are explicitly weaving their voices into this pattern of female expression. Mariah is front and center at the microphone, in control, making her desires plain. She sings with her whole body, so even though she is on that stage for the whole song, she is neither static nor trapped. Note that this video is also completely free of dudes, even though it's ostensibly a love song addressed to one.

{An aside: The parallels between the power Douglas ascribes to girl-group music and modern explorations of romance reading are pretty interesting. Both are things enjoyed primarily by women, and which serve as a source of bonding and way of navigating the tricky waters of dealing with men and relationships. Both are also ridiculed in the culture at large. In a familiar echo of the constant dismissal of romance, Douglas cites a male music critic discussing girl-group music: "I feel this genre represents the low point in the history of rock 'n' roll."}

The other significant element of this song is its disdain for commercialism—gifts are explicitly dismissed in favor of love, lust, affection, seduction, whatever you want to call it. "I won't even wish for snow," claims the lyric. The idea of Christmas as a time of shopping and buying and money matters is entirely pushed aside in favor of sexual satisfaction. (And if you ask me, there's a clever little double entendre when Mariah sings that "Santa Claus won't make me happy / with a toy on Christmas Day").

This message is more subversive than it may appear. It refutes both the stereotype of the woman as a money-grubbing gold-digger, and the stereotype of the woman as a passive object of sexuality. She's a complete subject, in both grammatical and Foucauldian terms.

And those are basically the two halves of the song: a woman's desire, and the unnecessary nature of presents.

So it makes total sense that it would be covered by a teenage boy standing in the middle of a mall.

The Bieber Variation

I can't compete with the brilliance of Linda Holmes' satirical riff, but there are a few points I'd like to set down.

At the risk of echoing Arrested Development: Who is the "you" in that chorus? Is this really supposed to read as a romance between forty-one-year-old Mariah and seventeen-year-old Justin Bieber? Because whether or not you intended to portray a romance between our two singers, a word that you are going to see tossed around a lot is: uncomfortable.

Or else the romance is between Justin Bieber and a Nintendo DS. I'm not sure that's any better.

And just what is with this one shot in the middle of nowhere?

A screencap of Mariah Carey, wearing a Santa hat and large snowflake earrings. Her head is tilted up and to her left, her eyes are closed, and her lips are parted. She leans slightly forward, and the frame cuts off her shoulders and collarbone before her bodice starts so that she appears to be naked.This is a screencap from the video. It looks as though Mariah is singing, but she is not. This is a brief clip that is inserted at around the 1:08 mark. It is so short as to be almost subliminal, but during that brief window Mariah appears to have a tidynice little orgasm. In a cutout Santa dress. While we watch.

And this takes place between all the pose-y, cheesecake shots of Mariah flashing booty at the camera, which start to feel really creepy by the time four minutes full of them have passed. She's not romping in the snow anymore. She's not owning the stage, or dancing with her girlfriends in Nancy Sinatra boots. She's trapped against this one mystery wall being leered at by a gaggle of high schoolers.

And presumably by the audience, or at least a portion of it. The whole thing reeks of the male gaze.*

*{Aside: sometimes, when I think of the male gaze, this is what comes to mind:

People who have boobs might as well be carrying the One Ring.}

The only explanation for this colossal misstep is that someone wanted to hit as many demographics as possible: Bieber will appeal to the teenage and preteen girls, and Mariah Carey will appeal to middle-aged women who remember her from their youth, and if we sex her up we can get all the straight men and boys watching too. It's a trifecta!

But Bieber & Pals at least get to do something in the video, even though it looks like they're trashing a retail store during the holidays to the dismay of the Macy's daytime staff, who will have to clean up all those boxes they're flinging around. Let's hope there's nothing fragile in there! Meanwhile, Mariah Carey must be content to flirt with the camera in close-up, and we have lost all track of what we're supposed to be feeling and what the song's story is trying to tell us.

And oh, there is product placement everywhere. All I want for Christmas is to mob-rush a mall at midnight where teenagers start handing me gifts for free. I guess that's not as catchy a song title, though.

TL; DR

Maybe being a grown-up these days means you're doomed to see new versions of old things that fail to resonate with you in the same way. (I'm looking at you, Star Wars.) And it's true that holiday albums can be a wasteland of retreads and tired old melodies worn thin from overuse. But this cover feels so nakedly contrary to the original song's theme and presentation that it could be a parody, if it were funny for even a single moment.

It's not Bieber's fault, either. If this were merely a Justin Bieber cover of a popular Mariah Carey tune, that would be one thing. I don't expect pop stars not to make albums they think will sell. I'm an author; I have no stones to throw from my house with the Buy My Books welcome mat on the porch. I also have no particular antipathy for Justin Bieber, who must be having a hell of a time with the voice changes in a frighteningly public setting. (Can you imagine?)

If they'd written a new song, I could have dismissed it easily and gone about my day. If I had never heard the original before, I would not have cared enough to write almost two thousand words about these two different versions and what they mean for our future. But I care, and I cannot exorcize my disappointment except by talking about it. This is the uncanny valley between pop music as a product for sale and pop music as an experience in our lives.

Make Yourself A Victorian Doll

We here at Olivia Waite have a long history with paper dolls—not merely the basic kid kind, but the fancy and detailed presidential kind you can buy at the Smithsonian. Jane Austen paper dolls. 1920s flapper paper dolls. We had sharp scissors and infinite patience for fiddly tabs and zigzag edges. But the magic of the internet provides instant gratification, infinite customization, and increased safety for our scissor-scarred thumbs. So it is with great delight that we point you toward today's discovery: The Victorian Doll creation page on Doll Divine.

Here is my first try, which is pretty much me in Victorian gear—note that I am something of a bluestocking:

Here I am with blue stockings:

Here I am as a vampire:

And as an adventuress:

Leave your own creations in the comments, or on my Facebook wall!

Less Terrifying And Equally Accurate Asteroid Headlines You Can Use

You may have heard that something really big and made of rock and metal is going to fly really close to earth in just a few days. I learned this from this Huffington Post article, whose lead-in was the following Tweet:

Jesus H. Jones, that sounds terrifying, right? And then you learn that it's going to be closer than the moon and you feel the onset of pants-wetting catastrophe—mass extinctions! Global winter! The possibility of another terrible action movie starring Ben Affleck!

What steps are being taken? You wonder.

Scientists are prepared: they're totally going to give this behemoth the side-eye.

No, really—we plan on looking at it:

So astronomers are taking the rare opportunity to study a hefty asteroid without having to send a craft into deep space.

Good for them. So convenient, having massive pieces of rock just come right up to us like friendly and destructive puppies so you can train your telescopes on them.

And then you learn this exact kind of thing happened in 1976, and will happen again in less than ten years. And as far as I know the Earth was not destroyed in 1976 (though Bohemian Rhapsody was released that year).

So … maybe not as much need to panic as that initial tweet implied?

Please, science writers and others, don't take the cheap and easy headline just for the page traffic. Here are a few suggestions you can use instead:

  • It's Totally Going to Miss Us, So Don't Worry About the Size
  • Scientists Plan on Learning Something New (By Looking at a Humongous Asteroid as it Flies By)
  • It Sounds Scary but People Who Know About These Things are Not Concerned
  • It Will Be Less Painful Than Your Grandma's Latest Kidney Stone—We Promise
  • Giant Asteroids: The Space Version of Darwin's Finches?

You're welcome, journalists.

Lessons From Disneyland

And so it was that Mr. Waite and I spent a day at Disneyland.

Tweet from Disneyland. Text reads: "Shuttle to Disneyland. A parent behind me: 'That's called a scab.' To the Magic Kingdom!"

As you can see, the day started off perfectly. A child learned something new! We had our sunblock and various layers, but not so many things that it was burdensome to walk for long periods. We also had two tickets for both Disneyland and California Adventure, courtesy of two very generous friends. It was determined that in return for their generosity, we would find them some sort of awesome souvenir.

But until then, grand adventure beckoned!

And then we learned that both Space Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean—our two top priorities for the day—were both closed.

But there was ... the Matterhorn.

Tweet from Disneyland. Text reads: In line for the Matterhorn to face my childhood demons. #Disneyland #badwithrollercoasters When I was about eight or thereabouts, my family came to Disneyland. It was when they were still building Splash Mountain, if that helps. So the Matterhorn was basically the scariest roller coaster at Disneyland.

Either I had to go along on the ride because my parents refused to separate the family in a place so crowded—it's true I had a notable tendency to get myself lost—or I had some fit of mistaken pride that I could rise to the roller coaster's challenge. Either way, I was horribly, horribly wrong. By the time the cars rolled to a stop, I was in tears and hysterics.

So of course, after two decades, I had to have another try.

Disneyland Tweet. Text reads: No wonder I was terrified of the Matterhorn as a kid: that was terrifying! #Disneyland #stillbadwithrollercoasters The first thing you do on the Matterhorn is ratchet up a steep tunnel in the dark. Pitch-black. Creaking, clanking, ticking sounds that are far from reassuring. You could go left, or right, or plunge into the depths at any moment. I felt the adrenaline kick after three seconds and had to tell myself to breathe normally.

Finally, after an eternity, we found the light. Two glowing Yeti eyes, with a roar, as we began to wind along steep mountainous curves.

I loved those monster eyes—anything was better than the darkness.

And then my seatbelt decided to loosen. So every time we went around a curve, I came up off the seat a little bit. Only my own grip on the bars inside the vehicle was keeping me attached. This was still not as frightening as that initial blind climb.

Soon enough, we were done, and I climbed off the ride with shaking joints and a noticeable lack of breath.

At some point in the course of life, we learn that our childhood memories don't always match up with reality. Yards and playgrounds were not as big as we remember, monsters were not as realistic as memory paints them, facts we put together ourselves from hearsay and conjecture are revealed as glaring mistakes (like how I thought soufflé was pronounced SOFF-ull for an embarrassingly long time).

At some later point, apparently, we have to face the fact that our younger self was right about something.

Childhood Olivia was right: I am not good at roller coasters.

Something else I was right about: Cruella de Ville is awesome.

Picture of a golden-haired, pale-skinned moppet with a dalmation puppy toy. The girl is unwisely offering the puppy to a white-fur-coat-clad, red-gloved, black-and-white-haired woman with pale skin, who more often goes by the name of Cruella de Ville.

We saw a lot of characters on our walk through two parks. Male characters tended to be encased in costumes: Mickey, Pooh (adorable!), Pluto, Goofy, Buzz Lightyear. But most of the female characters are princesses, who are very human and very interactive. And it was only at the end of the day, just before we left to see what California Adventure could offer (turns out, booze), that we spotted Cruella de Ville at the gateward end of Main Street.

I had no idea they had a whole set of villains. Most of them are found only seasonally and in specific locations—but we lucked out, and here was Cruella, trying to get the little girl to give up her dalmatian puppy toy.

It must be challenging to be a Disney character—staying sweet and cheery underneath all that makeup and in that costume and with all those screaming children. More challenging still to be a villain, to walk the fine line between giving children a bit of a chill down the back of their necks and making their experience (and by extension, their parents') a torture and a blot upon the memory.

We watched Cruella for a few minutes, and she was fantastic: pleasant and approachable, but with a sinister air they never let the princesses play with. Look at the way she's holding her hands in the photo above—any woman who wears red gloves and uses her hands that gracefully is probably up to no good. Even kids can figure that part out.

Novel Films Blogfest: The List

You've all been there—you found a book you loved, that made you stay up late reading, that haunted your thoughts weeks or months or years later. And then you learned: they're making it into a movie.

Or: you saw a movie that brought you to tears, that thrilled and enchanted you, that changed the way you saw the world and the people in it.

And then you learned: it was based on a book.

In either case, you found one medium and sought out the other. And, inevitably, you find: one is much, much better than the other. How can this be? How does it happen? It feels like this should be a window into the workings of story, a way of learning how narrative works by seeing what happens when you change from one medium to another, or when you alter certain aspects of character or plot.

This is (I presume) the idea behind Scribble and Edit's Novel Films Blogfest!

(Thanks to Sporkchop at the ROFL Initiative, who's always ahead of the curve on things like this.) Today I'm just going to post the list of book/movie combinations I've read/seen both of; tomorrow and Wednesday there will be commentary and general musings on the topic.

  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory/Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (with Gene Wilder)/Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (with Johnny Depp, the inferior version)
  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • The Da Vinci Code
  • Dune (the Lynch film—surprisingly, I loved it—but not the later miniseries)
  • Emma/Clueless
  • Hamlet (if you have any love for this play, you must see the David Tennant version from PBS's Great Performances series)
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone/Chamber of Secrets/Prisoner of Azkaban/Goblet of Fire—but I haven't gotten around to seeing any of the more recent movies.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas
  • Howl's Moving Castle
  • The Importance of Being Earnest
  • James and the Giant Peach
  • Jurassic Park
  • King Lear (Ian McKellan rocks it/terrifies me)
  • Lord of the Rings
  • Macbeth (the Orson Welles Macbeth film is pretty good, but not as all-around great as Scotland, PA—Sporkchop's right about that.)
  • Mansfield Park
  • Persuasion
  • The Prestige
  • Pride and Prejudice (both the 1995 Ehle/Firth masterpiece and the 2005 Keira Knightley curiosity)
  • The Princess Bride (I have posted about this before)
  • Romeo and Juliet/William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
  • Sense and Sensibility
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events
  • The Witches
  • The Wizard of Oz/Return to Oz—I was that kid who had all the Oz books in hardback and even read the later follow-ups to the series by Ruth Plumley Thompson. Ask me sometime about the Patchwork Girl.

I know I'm missing some real gems—any suggestions?

 

What Fictional Romance Authors Can Show Us About Romance Stereotypes

Lately it seems like every time I try and step away from the internet—for a trip, a wedding, a weekend in bed for my anniversary—there emerges another ludicrous screed against the romance genre and then another valiant defense. In the former, a lot of conventional wisdom about romance novels and their readership gets trotted out under the guise of research, and the more I become involved in the romance industry the more ridiculous appear mass-media stereotypes of romance novels, readers, and authors.

And since everyone including me has done the You Don't Know Romance Like I Know Romance post already, I'm going to approach from a different angle and talk about how romance authors are portrayed in the media and how that feeds into certain stereotypes about the genre and its fans.

First of all, I could only come up with five of them, and that includes the movie I found a while back on Netflix Instant which seems to have vanished from my queue (any information on what movie this was would be appreciated). So we have a grand total of four examples to look at.

Time for a list!

Fictional Romance Authors:

Joan Wilder, Romancing the Stone

Kathleen Turner as Joan Wilder stands in her New York apartment kitchen, wearing layered shirts and a bulky lavender jacket, hair pulled up in a dowdy bun, holding a phone to her left ear. Her expression is highly concerned.The grande dame of romance authors in fiction—Joan starts off her movie pining for a character she's made up, weeping over the end of her own manuscript, talking to her cat, hurling miniature bottles of booze into the fireplace, and expressing her phobia of flying. But a mysterious package from her dead brother-in-law and a desperate phone call from her sister send Joan off to the wilds of 1980s Columbia. Once there she breaks a heel, goes down a mudslide in a jungle monsoon, gets stoned to the bejeezus-belt, escapes many an anonymous goon, finds a priceless emerald, meets an intense and intensely well-armed fan of her novels, foils the bad guys, and wraps Michael Douglas (as hot here as he's ever been) around her delicate little finger.

I want to be just like her.

Trish Murtaugh/Ebony Clark, Lethal Weapon 4

A dark-haired, dark-skinned woman in a turquoise shirt and gold hoop earrings. Her expression is part exasperation, part loving tolerance.

All throughout Lethal Weapon 4, Danny Glover's Roger Murtaugh flashes obscene amounts of cash to Martin Riggs' astonishment and concern. But Murtaugh's not on the take—his wife Trish is just the author of absurdly popular romance novels, such as we see a pregnant Lorna reading at one point. Trish's romance writing under the name Ebony Clark is actually the one trait that makes her something other than a character who might as well be named Buddy-Cop's Token Wife.

Also: Ebony Clark, my god.

Charlotte Knight, Remington Steele, "Etched in Steele"

A curly-haired blond woman with pale skin and a sly smile, dressed in flowing white, with bright gold jewelry. She is lounging back on a sofa and looking expectantly to the left.

This may be cheating, because Charlotte Knight's books sound more like watered-down Erica Jong than anything by La Nora, but if Diana Gabaldon counts as romance then we're probably safe in including Mrs. Knight. Glamorous, lecherous, and a complete fraud—her bestselling trashy trashy novels are actually written by her husband Mitchell. Mitchell's increasing insecurity and alcoholism lead to a terminal case of writer's block: he is murdered by would-be author Tony, who has plans to usurp the Charlotte Knight ghostwriting position (and the millions of dollars that come with it). What's more, the means of murder is predicted in a scene from the new Charlotte Knight manuscript.

As Laura Holt and Remington Steele investigate Mitchell's death, they talk about pleasure versus duty, popular reading versus inspired literature, and appearances versus reality—all of which hit very close to home for our main couple, who have secrets and masks of their own.

Jameson Rook/Victoria St. Clair, Naked Heat

A pale-skinned, dark-haired man in a dark indigo shirt with sleeves rolled up sits behind an open black lapop. His expression is intent and slightly excited.

This is where we enter that funhouse mirror set at the end of Enter the Dragon, so bear with me. On Castle, Nathan Fillion plays Richard Castle, mystery author. Castle writes the Nikki Heat series, which includes the character of Jameson Rook, clearly based on Castle himself (just as Nikki is based on NYPD detective Kate Beckett). And some unnamed but very skilled ghostwriter has been publishing Nikki Heat books here in the real world—in the second one, it is revealed that—spoiler!—Jameson Rook also writes romance under the name Victoria St. Clair.

So: it's a fictional character's fictional character's pen name. And he's (they're?) very sensitive about it.

Angst and Anxiety

Arguments against romance frequently state that the genre offers harmful fantasy rather than healthy reality, and consider the genre's sexual content a threat to moral order. It's plain that there is a similar anxiety at work in the above depictions of romance authors.

  • Joan Wilder is clearly the outlier: she's the main character in her story, she's a woman, she writes under her own name, Columbian gang leaders (guns and Jeeps=manly) love her books. But even Joan is not all she appears at first glance—though a bit of a wet noodle at first, when times get tough she is strong, sexy, confident, capable, and powerful.
  • The money Trish brings in causes people to doubt Roger's integrity on the force. Her career is a threat to his, even though her career is a secret.
  • Charlotte Knight is only a pretty face that makes her husband's sex-filled stories more palatable to the public. At the same time, her sex appeal is what inspires him to write, and her lover is ultimately the one who murders her husband in manner identical to a scene from the new manuscript.
  • Jameson Rook's reputation is one of high masculine adventure—daring forays across enemy lines, friendships with well-known mobsters, connections with all the important political players in the city. Yet his pseudonymous works are sexy historical potboilers—feminine, domestic, and supposedly trivial.

There is also a deep theme of sexual shame that runs through these depictions:

  • Joan Wilder's love life does not live up to either her fantasies (exemplified by her character Jesse) or the more normalized, modernized expectations of her editor. There is a sense in these early scenes that Joan's work is at odds with her chances for happiness. (Though ultimately she ends up with someone very like her ideal, and on her own terms. That's just how Joan Wilder rolls.)
  • Roger Murtaugh is ashamed to tell his partner what his wife does for a living, and only does so in a moment of extreme crisis. Riggs' immediate reaction is to congratulate Roger for "boinking" someone who writes such filthy books.
  • Mitchell Knight's book is described by publisher Russell Forsyth as "pornography," but the same book, with Charlotte standing in for the author, is "erotica." Forsyth also strongly implies that Charlotte offered him sexual favors to publish the first book—at which point Charlotte, an openly, eagerly sexual woman, flinches and drops her eyes to the carpet. It's a pretty vile example of a good old-fashioned slut-shaming by a dude who was involved in precisely the same activities he implied the lady should blush about. Also, Laura Holt has read all the Charlotte Knight books but has difficulty admitting it, and the murderer has literary aspirations and often makes vicious, venomous remarks at the expense of the sexual content of the books—even before he is revealed as the killer.
  • Jameson Rook's romance authorship clashes with his Pulitzer-winning, swaggering, supermanly image. Feminine sexuality is considered a taint or corruption of this ideal. At best, it waters down Rook's masculine purity; at worst, destroys it. He goes so far as to cartoonishly hide his face in an elevator, lest someone from his publisher recognize him.

Two of our fictional authors are actually men writing under female names—which does happen, though not as frequently as, say, women writing under female names. Lastly, all four of our fictional authors are wildly successful:

  • Joan Wilder has many nice clothes and an excellent New York Apartment with a fireplace.
  • Trish Murtaugh provides eye-boggling wads of cash to her husband. Which is totally how romance royalties work. (Please?)
  • Charlotte Knight seems to have servants and strawberries and champagne on hand at a moment's notice in case anyone sexy drops by her thirty-fifth floor apartment. Her books sell, according to her publisher, "three million copies" each.
  • Jameson Rook's pen name is well-known enough that even a NYPD homicide cop recognizes it.

Pink background, a smiling, blond, pale-skinned woman in a very pink dress, and flowers absolutely everywhere.

Too Long; Didn't Read

  • Romance author as sex object: Joan Wilder (sort of), Trish Murtaugh, Charlotte Knight
  • Romance author ashamed: Trish Murtaugh, Charlotte Knight, Victoria St. Clair/Jameson Rook
  • Romance author actually a man: Charlotte Knight, Victoria St. Clair/Jameson Rook
  • Romance author as ludicrously wealthy: all four authors

It goes without saying that none of these depictions match the day-to-day life of any of the romance authors I know. (If someone out there is totally Joan Wilder, though, show me how you do it?). Trish Murtaugh comes closest—she's a working wife and mother whose job just happens to be writing romance—but it's a throwaway note in a series that focuses entirely on masculine exploits and problems.

In reality, we work hard. We go to meetings with other authors and figure out how to do our job better every day. Some of us are best-sellers; others not so much. Some of us are queer. Some of us have husbands and children; some of us are husbands and children. Personally, I feel about twelve today—which will hopefully change once I get to the sex scene I'm supposed to be writing instead of this lengthy post.

All of us are doing this out of love.

And that's what's really missing from the list, and why Joan Wilder really stands out for me: she's the one who does it out of love, the one we see at work on her typewriter with headphones on and tear tracks on her face. Sure, she passes over a lot of real-world guys because they can't compare to the imaginary Jesse—but on the other hand, those particular real-world guys looked like complete chumps. And if my choices are A) reading/writing romance, or B) dating chumps, I'm gonna go with option A every time.

Because romance is not separate from our life—it's a part of it. There is not a big black boundary drawn between Fantasy and Reality because we have this thing called a mind that is designed to smash those two things together. Sometimes real life is what sparks our fantasy, such as when we see a photo of a far-off place and wonder what sort of stories happen there. Sometimes our fantasy informs real life, such as when reading a romance set in the Napoleonic war (or the Civil War, or the zombie apocalypse, or WWIII) helps me understand the nature of soldiership and trauma a bit more than I did before.

Fantasy and imagination are part of what make us human. And romance doesn't threaten our scare-quote "real" lives any more than doing laundry threatens our ability to appreciate a story richly told.

Lucille Bluth And The Body Battle

Lucille Bluth, the booze-swilling, social-climbing, sexpot matriarch played by Jessica Walters in Arrested Development, is quite probably my favorite television character of all time. I fully intend to transform into her on my fiftieth birthday—minus the completely devastating criticism of loved ones. A pale woman with carefully coiffed short hair, a bright pastel-patterend blazer, with the world's most intimidating scowl.

Because Lucille's tongue? It is beyond vicious. Often this is awesome, but equally often it is jaw-droppingly, inventively mean. Which is why she's so fun on tv, but also why I would never ever want to be part of her family.

The comment that always sticks in my mind is one she makes to her daughter, Lindsay, in regard to a brooch Lindsay always wanted to inherit. Lucille objects:

"But it's an elephant and I didn't want to invite the comparison."

This in spite of the fact that Lindsay is later criticized as a flat-chested "surfboard," and in spite of the fact that she is played by Portia di Rossi, one of the world's prettiest skinny people. And this is all very funny, but it hits very close to home.

Skinny is a thing I once was that I am not any more. There are times when I miss the thinner me's ability to enjoy shopping and fit into awesome clothes. There are times—and not as far apart as I'd like—when I feel like bigger me is failing some moral test by taking up an unwarranted amount of space and having unsightly blemishes like stretch marks and cellulite. When the overwhelming pressure to be thin thin THIN gains a temporary victory over my health, my peace of mind, and my love for pasta and cheese and fine cocktails.

But there are also times when I get to fight back.

One of these happened today. I was out shopping for a dress to wear to a bridal brunch this weekend—idly shopping, hoping to find something but not willing to lay odds on my success. As usual, I was in Anthropologie, when all of a sudden one garment stopped me right in my tracks.

Ladies, you haven't really lived until you have asked a saleswoman, "Could you get me the largest size you have in the elephant dress?"

Close-up of bodice pleating with the elephant-and-polka-dot fabric on a strapless party dress.Elephants! Happy little Babar-style elephants, with polka dots! The pop of that yellow sash! The pleating on the bodice—so winking and naughty and sweet! Meanwhile, the quote-happy phonograph in my brain piped up automatically: "You don't want to invite the comparison."

And I realized: I totally want to invite the comparison.

Despite the fact that my proportions usually mean separates are going to fit better than off-the-rack dresses, and despite my tendency to avoid anything strapless on account of the need for support for the Double Dames … I had to try it on.

And it fit just beautifully.

The zipper zipped, and even without a strapless bra the bodice looks great—'40s pinup cleavage great—and I have the perfect yellow floral cardigan to throw over it to keep things family-friendly and brunch-appropriate.

And standing there in front of a triad of mirrors, wearing an elephant dress and boat shoes, I felt as though all the good things about Lucille Bluth were invoked: the backbone, the boldness, the supreme confidence in her own abilities to attract and manipulate and succeed on her own terms. And I feel equally that the put-downs, the barbed witticisms, and the vitriol would roll off me like water off a duck's back.

Few things on earth are as deeply satisfying as a dress that can make you feel both pretty and strong.

Plain, pale background, with a strapless black dress covered in tiny white elephants, with a bright yellow sash.

 

Looking For S. Morgenstern

We here at Olivia Waite always dread April 1, because we are cursed with an awareness of our own gullibility. Cursed, I say, because knowing that you are gullible does not help you be less gullible. Instead, you find yourself in this particular trap:

  • someone offers a fact
  • you initially accept this fact as truth
  • you remember you are gullible
  • you become riven with doubt
  • the truth of the fact now depends on how much you trust that person not to fuck with you
  • you realize that all your friends are capable of fucking with you

And that's on a perfectly normal day. April Fool's makes things significantly worse.

One of many book covers for William Goldman's The Princess Bride

Sometime around the age of fourteen, I read The Princess Bride for the first time. I bought it because I'd remembered liking the movie, and because the text on the back read: "What happens when the most beautiful girl in the world marries the handsomest prince in the world—and he turns out to be a son of a bitch?" They have since toned down the cover copy, which is a shame.

If you've read the book—and if not, why not?—you know that William Goldman is just the editor. The real author is the mysterious S. Morgenstern from Florin, and it was Goldman's Florinese father who used to read the book aloud to young William as a boy. When he had a son of his own, William procured a copy and was shocked to discover that his father had been abridging the narrative and changing certain parts of the story. And it turned out the original was a wordy political satire—including a 56-page scene of Buttercup packing her luggage—and it's no wonder William's son was unimpressed. So William excises all the dull bits and follows his father's alterations, and that's the version that's being published and that I had in my fourteen-year-old hands.

And, being fourteen and gullible, I wanted to read the original. I'd learned that many of the things people told me were boring—history, classical works of literature, archaeology, etymology—turned out to be otherwise.*

So I went to every bookstore in town in search of a copy by S. Morgenstern.

I think it was about a year before the other shoe dropped and I realized why I'd had no luck in my search.

It was some years after that, while working as a bookstore clerk in a marvelous independent bookstore, that a customer came up and asked for the original S. Morgenstern version of The Princess Bride. She was a bookish-looking girl of about fourteen.

"Oh dear," I said. "I've been there." And I explained. And all the while, she looked at me, and on her face it was plainly written: Is this person fucking with me?

And I knew precisely how she felt.

*Sidebar: in my Honors English class as a high school freshman, I remember being taught the different names for rhythmic units (feet) in poetry (iamb, dactyl, the lovely trochee, and so on) even as our teacher informed us there was no way this would ever prove useful in the rest of our lives. About ten years later, those types of feet helped me win on Jeopardy. Which just goes to show that usefulness is always a relative term.

It's The Little Things

We here at Olivia Waite have been hit with the world's most efficient flu this week. It landed on us with both feverish feet the day our very first book was released (great timing, flu). Initially, we had a whole evening release party planned, with lounging and cocktails and the eating of decadent foods. There was in fact lounging, and there was the slow eating of grapes—but not in the fun way I'd hoped. {Have you checked out the book yet? If not, here is a handy link. The first chapter's free!}

And now, though the symptoms are gone, we are so exhausted that we are only barely able to raise ourselves up from the fainting couch. Actually, it's just a regular couch—but one of the allowances we make for ourselves when sick is that our suddenly limited range of experience gets redefined however we want. It becomes healthy to eat only popsicles for dinner, and the wearing of pants becomes unnecessarily burdensome.

Plus, we get to catch up on all the badass young adult novels we wish had been around when we were an actual young adult.

And when I opened this library book:

The cover for Starcrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce

I found this tucked in the back:

Rosie the Riveter on magazine paper, tucked in the back of a library book of just the right size.

Thank you, anonymous library patron, for your patient work with scissors! Happy Women's History Month, everyone!

Peyote-Stitch Alphabet Pattern

We here at Olivia Waite love to make beaded jewelry, and lately we've started expanding our knowledge of that most useful beadweaving technique: peyote stitch. Luckily, the good people over at Fusion Beads have just posted a few new peyote patterns, so I don't have to whip out the graph paper and laboriously color in all those boxes myself. And one of these patterns is particularly relevant to my interests:

Graph of white beads, in which black beads form the letters of a serif font.

A whole alphabet, and punctuation! A serif font, no less! Oh, the things I could make!

  • My name.
  • Curse words, curse words, curse words!
  • A red, white, and blue choker with the words: "You are all weirdos." I shall call it the Sam Eagle.
  • Pi to however many places.
  • E = mC2
  • 2 + 2 = 5
  • If embiggened, and embellished with myriad colors, I could do some pretty sweet illuminated capitals.

The only question is: which one to do first?

Freddy My Love

We here at Olivia Waite have developed quite a thing for Jeremy Brett, thanks to his performance as Sherlock Holmes. How could we not? Behold the hotness:

Actor Jeremy Brett, a man with pale skin and dark hair, wears a charcoal Victorian suit and holds one finger to his lips in a gesture indicating rapid thought.

And recently, in a wistful mood, we hied ourselves to IMDb and checked out Mr. Brett's page, which has some rather lovely quotes that only make you love him all the more. Thoughtfulness! Self-doubt! A tragic love story!

There is also a large poster of the film version of My Fair Lady under the "Known For" heading.

And this surprised me. I have seen Brett's Holmes series twice through by now—more, in the case of favorite episodes. And I was practically raised on My Fair Lady, and can still sing half the musical numbers, even the wordy ones that Rex Harrison white-man-raps his way through. But I have no memory of Jeremy Brett's face. I clicked over to the cast list expecting to see him listed as "Street Sweeper #2" or some such.

But instead—and there is not enough capslock in the world for this—JEREMY BRETT IS FREDDY EYNESFORD-HILL.

Actor Jeremy Brett in a lighter grey formal suit with matching gloves tips a dove-grey top hat in the Ascot scene from the movie My Fair Lady.

This was one of those moments when the world shifts on its axis. I've always been of the opinion that Eliza and Henry Higgins share a love as true as it is, well, kind of bitchy. Freddy always seemed to get in the way.

But now, it feels like Eliza's choice is no longer between one super-intelligent asshole and one earnest but slow-witted aristocrat—now it feels like she's torn between Henry Higgins and a guy who later grows up to be Sherlock Holmes.

And I'm not rooting for Rex Harrison in this love triangle anymore. Any dilemma where one option is Jeremy Brett—you choose Jeremy Brett!