World’s best link to prepare you for Halloween!

You have 31 days to get your Halloween costume ready, and I found this site that made me so excited I was making these squeaking noises of joy at my computer screen.  I give you:

Take Back Halloween:  A Costume Guide for Women With Imagination

This site has mini-biographies of women along with suggestions of where to buy costume items if, like me, you stink at making stuff (or if, like me, you put off making stuff until the last minute and then you don’t have time).  There’s also do-it-yourself tips for the craftier people among us (Hi, Mom, thanks for making my Regency dress this year!).  The list of women profiled is lengthy and diverse.  The categories are Glamour Grrls, Notable Women, Queens, and Goddesses and Legends.  Some of these women are well-known and some are not – all are fascinating!

Here’s a partial list of costume ideas from the site:

  • Ada Lovelace (scientist)
  • Jane Austen (author)
  • Anna May Wong (actress)
  • Chalchiuhtlicue (Aztec Goddess)
  • Madame C.J. Walker (entrepreneur)
  • Grace O’Malley (pirate queen)

This site is a great resource for anyone who wants to learn more about women in history, whether you like playing dress up or not.  Be sure to check out the blog in addition to the costume ideas.  It’s funny and informative and entertaining and creative.  Have fun!

Friday Book Club: A Short Film About Annabel Lee, Plus Links!

Annabel Lee

Art by luciediamonds

This short film was part of The Poe Project:  a chance for Sacramento area filmmakers to submit short films inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.  This film imagines the story of Annabel Lee, based on Poe’s poem of that name:

During our real live book club, the one where we are face to face as opposed to online, we had a great discussion about the issue of race in Poe’s works.  One of our members sent these links to some thought provoking essays on race in Poe’s stories.  Check them out!

“Edgar Allan Poe’s True Horror:  Racism” by Andrew Belonsky, deathantaxesmag.com

“Tell-Tale Art:  Antebellum Racism in the Fiction of Poe”, by John Adam Shelton

Starting next Friday, we’ll be examining Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.  Be prepared to think about the roles of women in Victorian times, Victorian fears about immigration, Victorian fears about disease, and how those fears still apply today.  Or, you know, just hang out for the excitement of the gory, creepy, disturbing story that has influenced culture from the Victorian Age right up until today!

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: This week’s best lines

Agents of SHIELD logoThere are so many websites that provide high quality recaps of S.H.I.E.L.D. that I’m going to forgo the full recap and just give a few highlights every week.  As a Joss Whedon fan, y’all know I’m not going to pass up the chance to write something about this show every week!

So, let’s discuss the pilot.  Did you love it?  Hate it?  I thought it was…OK.  I enjoyed the dialogue and I thought the pilot did a good job of setting up the story.  Of course the characters are completely undeveloped but they are all, well, lined up, ready for Things To Happen.  Were I not already a Marvel/Whedon fan, I’m not sure this pilot would have made me feel compelled to start watching the show.  Since I AM a Marvel/Whedon fan, of course I can’t wait for next week.

ID cards of SHIELD agents

Oooh, looks at the above handy image, which makes it so very easy to remember everyone’s name.  Here’s the outline of the pilot:  SHIELD (which I will henceforth be spelling without the pesky polka dots) is an agency that handles all this weird new superhero stuff that has become public since the events of the Avengers movie.  We have a mismatched team of people who don’t get along well – so a Whedon show.  Here’s this week’s best lines:

Grant Ward to Maria Hill:  I don’t think Thor’s technically a God.

Maria Hill:  Then you obviously haven’t been near his arms.

Maria Hill and Phil Coulson

Does anyone feel a sudden, terrible urge to start shipping Maria Hill and Phil Coulson? No? Just me, then?

Phil Coulson, referring to his dramatic entrance:  “I’m sorry, that corner was really dark, and I couldn’t help myself.  I think there’s a bulb out.”

Phil Coulson, referring to Maria Hill’s assessment of Grant Ward’s people skills:  “Under ‘people skills’ she drew a little poop, with knives sticking out of it.  That’s bad, right?”

incidentally, I’m sure that eventually I’ll be all in to Grant Ward and his childhood traumas, but right now I find him incredibly boring.  Pretty, but dull.

Yes, I know - he's very pretty and he speaks French.  and yet, I do not care.

Yes, I know – he’s very pretty and he speaks French. and yet, I do not care.

Skye:  “Yes, I have an office!  A mobile office…a van…in which I live…BY CHOICE!

Oh Skye, everything you say is adorable.  Never change, you overly cutesy and clever girl, you.

Yes, Skye, we get it - you are a nut.  But a funny nut!

Grant Ward, under the effects of truth serum:  “I try to mask my pain in front of beautiful women because it makes me seem more masculine.  My God, this stuff works fast!”

Also, one word:  “Grammy?”

This whole scene was just glorious.  Oh look, he’s kinda cute when he’s all confused:

chloe-bennet-shield-stills

And word about props – hey, it’s Coulson and his megaphone!  And the car!  LOVE THE CAR!

One thing I notice in typing these out is how very dry the humor is and how much it relies on the actors to deliver the lines just right to get the joke across.  Stay tuned next week for more jokes that you probably had to be there for, and to see if the following things happen:

  • Skye and Grant’s instant dislike of each other turns into a huge crush
  • My dislike of Grant morphs into a huge crush (NEVER!)
  • Melinda May gets more than two lines
  • Ron Glass ruins all the scenes he’s in by inadvertently causing me to scream with delight whenever he shows up, thus ensuring that I miss all the lines.  How soon will that wear off, do you think?
Ron Glass in SHIELD

Oh, don’t be mad at me, Ron! I’m only screaming as a sign of joy!

Super Displays and Stupid Decisions: It’s Banned Books Week!

Banned Books Week adGeez, we haven’t had any Library Love on this blog for AGES!  So here ya go – a display from Sacramento Public Library for Banned Books Week.  Is this not awesome?  See it below:

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Terrible photo, great display

Let’s try something less blurry, shall we?  Here’s a great display from The Twin Hickory Public Library in Virginia:

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Congratulations, Twin Hickory, you won the Internet.

Lest we forget, the most frequently banned or challenged book of 2012 was Captain Underpants.  Want to read my review, first posted when the 2012 Banned Books list was released by the American Library Association?  You can find it here!

Book Review: Archangel

cover of ArchangelArchangel is a slow-paced, thoughtful  collection of character studies by the ever-wonderful Andrea Barrett.  All of the characters are involved with science in some way, and these short stories are very much about science’s limits.  The stories are infused with empathy and kindness even as they are all quite sad.  They are also about the way scientific beliefs change as new evidence is considered, and how painful that process of change can be.  Here’s a breakdown of the stories:

 

The Investigators

Set in 1908, this tells the story of a little boy who is sent away from his abusive home to live with a group of inventors.  He’s enthralled by their attempts to build an airplane but he can’t permanently escape his home, where, as his uncle says, “Your mother needs you”.

The Ether of Space

This story is set in 1920, and tells the story of a widow who write science articles and books for laypeople.  She is struggling to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity while contrasting it with another scientist’s belief in a world of ether in which we can communicate with the dead.  This story contains my favorite passage, from an essay written by the widow’s son:

I don’t understand the physics behind Einstein’s theory, and I don’t believe in the existence of a spirit world, but my introduction to Lodge’s work changed the way I think.  I don’t know, and I don’t believe there is sufficient evidence yet to prove, whether the ether is real the way the atmosphere is real, or the way the equator is real.  Whether Einstein’s theory has been proven, or Lodge’s theory of survival of the personality after death, or neither, or both.  I don’t know whether my father exists in some ethereal form or only in my heart.  What I do know is that the questions we ask about the world and the experiments we design to answer them are connected to our feelings.

The Island

A woman goes to study with a naturalist who has an open, academic feud with Darwin.  The student starts to examine her own assumptions, read Darwin’s work, and realize that the naturalist was wrong, even as she has to acknowledge that he is a great naturalist.  Nothing “happens” in this story and yet everyone changes enormously.  It has some of the most beautiful language in the book as the natural world is described.  This story is set in 1873.

The Particles

This is a cautionary tale about assumptions.  Set in 1939, it opens on the deck of a ship that has just rescued shipwrecked survivors (the first false assumption is that it is safe to be on a boat on the eve of WWII).  The lead character is fond of coming up with ideas and publishing them before they have been properly tested.  Over and over again, in his story and in the stories of other scientists that are mentioned, we are reminded that hypothesis without proof is meaningless.  A the same time, the main character makes assumptions about the relationships in his life without proof, and ultimately those relationships are challenged.

Archangel

The first story in this collection is about a little boy who dreams of being saved by science, but isn’t, not because the science doesn’t work but because the scientists fail to protect him.  The next stories deal with what happens when a current scientific theory is proven wrong and replaced with a new one.  In Archangel, the little boy from the first story is a soldier in Russia with a mysterious wound.  Once again he turns to science, in the form of X-rays, to help him, and once again the technology works but the human will does not.  This story is set in 1919.

History’s Hidden Heroes: The Girls of Atomic City

GirlsofAtomicCity300px-1This month’s installment of “History’s Hidden Heroes” does double duty as a book review.  The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan, sheds remarkable light not only on the women who worked as scientists to develop the atomic bomb, but on the tens of thousands of people, many of them women, who worked behind the scenes to make it happen.

The Girls of Atomic City tells the story of the women (and men) who moved to the fabricated town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee during WWII.  This town housed three huge factory plants that ran around the clock, seven days a week, and yet never seemed to make anything.  It housed 70,000 people at its height, none of whom knew why they were there or what they were working on.  All they knew was that they were working on a government project that would hasten the end of the war and that was top-secret.  The women that Kiernan focuses on include a janitor, a secretary, a plant worker who checks enormous pipes for leaks, a nurse, a chemist who works directly with yellowcake uranium, and a statistician.  Along the way, she also talks about some of the female scientists who worked more directly with the theories behind atomic fission, including Ida Noddack, Lise Meitner, and Elizabeth Graves.

Women at gauges

The Oak Ridge site was part of a massive government project to develop an atomic bomb.  In order to make the bomb go boom, the scientists working on the project needed to separate the isotope uranium 235 from natural uranium.  Jobs at Oak Ridge were carefully separated so that very few people could figure out what they were doing.  For instance, here’s what the panel monitors knew:

You wanted your R high.  That was better than Q.  There was a charge near the bottom of the D unit.  Something was vaporized.  There was a Z.  The E box caught everything.  Open the shutters.  Maximize the beam.  Supervisors spoke of striking a J…and if you got your M voltage up and your G voltage up, then Product would hit the birdcage in the E box at the top of the unit and if that happened, you’d get the Q and R you wanted.

Sign from WWII warning against loose lips

The Girls covers a lot of ground.  I could easily write a full essay about any one of these topics as dealt with in the book:

  • Racism.  African-American workers were segregated.  They could not use the pool or the movie theater or most of the recreational facilities.  They could not work alongside white workers.  The nuclear scientist J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. was unable to work at Oak Ridge because he was African-America.  Married couples who were African-American were not allowed to live together, visit each other at each other’s residences, or bring their children.
  • Science and ethics.  Obviously this is an issue given the fact that the entire purpose of the project is to devise a weapon that can vaporize tens of thousands of people in an instant.  But in addition to this obvious problem, there’s horrifying descriptions of unethical testing of the effects of plutonium on a black man named Ebb Cade.  HORRIFYING.  With regard to the ethics of the bomb, the book is non-judgmental but it does address the deep ambivalence that many workers felt once they realized what they had been working on.
  • The Mommy Wars.  I’m using this term somewhat incorrectly – it’s not suggested that women who “worked” thought they were better than women who were there as housewives, or vice versa.  But what is suggested is that the women who were stay at home moms (and all moms were stay at home moms unless they had left their children with family elsewhere to come work) felt lonely and isolated, and, after the war, felt unappreciated for their contributions.  Here’s a great quote by Vi Warren, the wife of the Project Medical Chief:

Good morning, friends.  The housewives of Oak Ridge are speaking to the outside world from beyond the barbed wire fence.  Yes, we’re still here.  did you forget about us?  We just wondered, because we didn’t find ourselves mentioned in the Smyth Report.  We are the ones who do the chores for the men who make atomic bombs, and we bring up their children, bomb or no bomb.  The kids are two years older now, and we are at least ten.  That’s the way you grow old – fast, when the going is tough.

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Where this book really shines is showing us how many hidden heroes of science there are – not just in terms of pivotal scientists who are not well-known, like Noddack, Meitner, and Wilkins, but in terms of all the people behind the scenes who make science possible.  We have a mythos of the lone scientist, toiling in his laboratory.  But in real life science is a communal effort, even if it’s guided by a single mind designing the experiment.

There are two problems with calling this column “History’s Hidden Heroes”.  First of all, many scientists are actually very well known in their fields and in their countries, just not in the Western public eye.  Second of all, the title suggests that these scientists are, in fact heroic, and science often has either unintended results or results that seem beneficial at the time but not so great in hindsight.  Girls of Atomic City takes a non-judgemental approach to the development of the atomic bomb, but the last section of the book deals with the mixed feelings of pride and horror that many people felt – from President Truman, who had no regrets, to J. Robert Oppenheimer, who supported the use of the bomb against Hiroshima but not against Nagasaki, to the many Oak Ridge workers who were relieved that the war was over, proud of their contribution to the war effort, and saddened over the loss of civilian lives in Japan.  Although the author spends little time discussing the effects of the bomb on Japan, two things are clear:  The use of the bomb caused horrific levels of death and suffering, and the use of the bomb permanently changed the face of politics and science.

Although the author steers clear of this conclusion, I would argue that one lesson of the book is that blind obedience may make you complicit in atrocity.  For me, one message of the book is that it’s important to ask questions, make noise, and refuse to be a cog in a machine that you don’t understand.

But the other, and more explicit message of the book, is that cooperation and dedication are powerful things.  They can make bombs but they can also make and process and distribute the polio vaccine, and build International Space Stations, and invent the Internet.  And that’s amazing.

Friday Book Club: Poe and Genre Fiction

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome back to Friday Book Club!  Hop onto the comments to participate.  Today we’re going to talk about Poe’s legacy – not only in the world of horror, but in science fiction and fantasy.

Let’s start with some tropes that Poe made excellent use of.  He may not have been the first to use these, but he was a very early adopter.  In the genre of horror, he’s influenced – well, everybody, from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King.  Here’s a few devices that Poe either introduced or made early, and vivid, use of:

  • Body horror
  • Unreliable narrator
  • Psycho killer narrator (seen later in Hannibal, Dexter, and American psycho)

Edgar Allan Poe as a pioneer of science fiction

Poe was one of the earliest science fiction writers, and influenced Jules Verne in particular.  His story, The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfall (1835) tells of a man who takes a hot air balloon ride to the moon.  He also did several stories that could be considered postapocalyptic, including The Masque of the Red Death, which deals with a plague, and The Conversation of Elros and Charmion.  The latter story tells about a comet that approaches, and eventually hits, Earth.  As the comet comes closer, it burns nitrogen from the atmosphere, which causes people to behave in a succession of extreme ways, until finally the earth is destroyed entirely.

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Murder in the Rue Morgue:  The First Detective Story

If you like mystery, thank Edgar Allan Poe.  In Murder in the Rue Morgue, (1841) he created the first literary detective.  In this and subsequent stories (The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letter) he created the following tropes:

  • The detective who solves the case using logic and observation
  • First person narration by a loyal sidekick
  • The locked room mystery
  • The lost object that is hidden in plain sight
  • The detective who is brilliant but eccentric
  • Bumbling police

So – if you like the works of Agatha Christie, or the deductions of Sherlock Holmes, or if you enjoy kicking back with Dexter, or watching sci fi, remember – Poe was there first.

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Gateway Drugs: The Mystery Edition

door opening onto poppiesI like mysteries, but not for the usual reasons.  I usually don’t care that much about whodunnit.  What I enjoy about mysteries is that the format allows you, the reader, to get a cutaway view of life in an unusual time or place.  If you want to try out the mystery genre, here’s a variety of settings and styles plus a couple of classics to get you going.  Prepare for your voyage to:

Saudi Arabia

Finding Nouf, City of Veils, and Kingdom of Strangers:  by Zoe Ferraris.

This trilogy follows two fascinating detectives.  Nayir ash-Sharqi is a desert guide and tracker.  He is deeply devout.  Katya Hijazi is a lab worker attempting to build a career in a patriarchal society.  The mysteries in these three novels are compelling, but the layered, conflicted, complex, and deeply sympathetic characters and their struggles to navigate a complex society are absolutely riveting.

Cover of Finding Nouf

Victorian England

The Face of a Stranger:  by Anne Perry

This is the first book in the “Monk Series”.  It introduces the character of William Monk (no relation to TV show Monk, which came later).  Monk is a police detective in London who has lost his memory (or portions of his memory).  He works with Hester Latterly, a nurse who served in the Crimean War under Florence Nightingale.  Hester is a compelling character – prickly but compassionate, and constantly frustrated in her efforts to bring the reforms Florence Nightingale instituted in the Crimea to the London hospital.  It’s also fascinating to see Victorian life from so many vantage points – servants, the aristocracy, professionals of both high and low regard.

Cover of Face of a Stranger

Los Angeles in the late 1940’s – late 1960’s

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosely

This is the first book in the “Easy Rawlins” series, which describes the life of a black man who becomes a private detective in L.A.  The first book takes place in 1948 and the last in 1967.  This series has a unique voice and viewpoint.  The mysteries are convoluted and suspenseful, but what interests me most is the glimpses of daily life from the point of a black man during a turbulent period in history.

cover of Devil in a Blue Dress

And for adventures in different genres and styles try:

Literary:  

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Science Fiction/Fantasy/Speculative Fiction:

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Funny

Two for the Dough by Janet Evanovich

Note:  I realize you might want to start with the first book, One for the Money, but it has a sequence of such sadistic violence that it soured the whole book.  So if you are purely looking for laughs, try the second book instead.

For Kids:  Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys – they were good back in the day, and they’re still good now!

And let’s not forget…..

The Classics!

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Dame Agatha Christie

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Dawkins Update

Richard-Dawkins-007Richard Dawkins clarified his stance regarding the sexual abuse of children in his blog yesterday.  Here’s an excerpt of his comments:

Now, given the terrible, persistent and recurrent traumas suffered by other people when abused as children, week after week, year after year, what should I have said about my own thirty seconds of nastiness back in the 1950s? Should I have lied and said it was the worst thing that ever happened to me? Should I have mendaciously sought the sympathy due to a victim who had truly been damaged for the rest of his life? Should I have named the offending teacher and called down posthumous disgrace upon his head?

No, no and no. To have done so would have been to belittle and insult those many people whose lives really were blighted and cursed, perhaps by year-upon-year of abuse by a father or other person who was deeply important in their life. To have done so would have invited the justifiably indignant response: “How dare you make a fuss about the mere half minute of gagging unpleasantness that happened to you only once, and where the perpetrator was not your own father but a teacher who meant nothing special to you in your life. Stop playing the victim. Stop trying to upstage those who really were tragic victims in their own situations. Don’t cry wolf about your own bad experience, because it undermines those whose experience was – and remains – so much worse.”

That is why I made light of my own bad experience. To excuse pedophiliac assaults in general, or to make light of the horrific experiences of others, was a thousand miles from my intention.

I’m pleased to hear that Dawkins acknowledges child sexual abuse as a serious problem, and that his motivations in downplaying his own experiences were benign.

However, I still maintain that he missed the point, as I state at length in my post “Dawkins Misses the Point Again“.  This is not the first time that Dawkins has used the “it’s no big deal” argument with regard to disrespecting other people’s boundaries.  But what happened to Dawkins in his childhood IS a big deal.  It’s a big deal because we, as a society, cannot continue to tolerate the violation of the bodies of others.  Not in big ways, not in small ways, not even a little bit, not ever.

Book Club Friday: Let’s Talk About Ligeia

SWT-Book-ClubsIt’s Edgar Allan Poe month here at our Friday Book Club column, and today’s feature could just as easily be entitled, “What the Hell is going on in ‘Ligeia’?  ‘Ligeia’ is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1863.  Poe writes a lot of stories with unreliable narrators and cliffhanger endings, but this may be the king of them all.  If you don’t want to find out what happens in ‘Ligeia’, than stop reading here, for SPOILERS ABOUND.  If you live in the Sacramento area, come visit our in-person book club at Arden Dimick Library, at 2PM on September 22nd, and in the meantime, or if you are out of the area, you can participate by leaving a comment.

Snarky Summary of the Story:

‘Ligeia’ is narrated by a narrator who is so unreliable that he follows almost every observation by pointing out that he was, after all, really stoned at the time (he’s an opium addict).  This narrator starts off by saying that he was madly in love with this woman, Ligeia, and married to her, and she was totally perfect although she’s hard to describe, and he can’t remember when he met her, and he can’t remember anything about her family but he’s sure they’re just great, and he never did learn her last name.

Ligea was incredibly smart (“I have spoken of the learning of Ligeia – it was immense – such as I have never known in a woman”).  And Ligea was perfectly beautiful, but hard to describe.  She had a perfect nose, and perfect skin, and she was tall and thin, and had black hair.  Her most amazing feature was her eyes.  And she loves the narrator passionately:

That she loved me I should not have doubted; and I might have been easily aware that, in a bosom such as hers, love would have reigned no ordinary passion. But in death only, was I fully impressed with the strength of her affection. For long hours, detaining my hand, would she pour out before me the overflowing of a heart whose more than passionate devotion amounted to idolatry. How had I deserved to be so blessed by such confessions? –how had I deserved to be so cursed with the removal of my beloved in the hour of her making them, But upon this subject I cannot bear to dilate. Let me say only, that in Ligeia’s more than womanly abandonment to a love, alas! all unmerited, all unworthily bestowed, I at length recognized the principle of her longing with so wildly earnest a desire for the life which was now fleeing so rapidly away. It is this wild longing –it is this eager vehemence of desire for life –but for life –that I have no power to portray –no utterance capable of expressing.

Alas, Ligeia gets sick and dies.  The narrator expects her to face death with stoic courage, but Ligeia is determined to fight it off through sheer force of will.  Her last words are a quote from Joseph Glanville:  “Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”

In the mundane world, people deal with grief by staring at huge piles of casseroles.  But this is the gothic genre, so the narrator moves to The Rhine, buys a “castellated abbey”, decorates it in gloomy and macabre furnishings, and remarries.  He marries The Lady Rowena, who is Ligeia’s opposite – she looks opposite, she never speaks a word in the story, and seems extraordinarily passive.  Immediately after the marriage, the narrator, who by this time is an extreme opium addict, detests her.  Rowena pines away in the Abbey of Horror and dies.  Her body is wrapped in shrouds and her face is covered.

But wait!  Rowena’s body shows signs of life – and then sinks back into death.  She stirs again and dies again, and this goes on through the night, until at last she rises and walks.  When the cover that conceals her face falls, the narrator sees that it is not Rowena who has returned from the grave – “Here then, at least,” I shrieked aloud, “can I never –can I never be mistaken –these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes –of my lost love –of the lady –of the LADY LIGEIA.”

Art by MirrorCradle

Art by MirrorCradle

Crack pot theory:

For a full analysis of this story, I recommend schmoop.com.  I found ‘Ligeia’ to be baffling – what happened?  Why?  How?  This is a new story to me and I can’t stop thinking about it.  One moment I regard it with horror, the next I think it is strangely hilarious what with the narrator constantly having to explain that he thought it was weird that various things happened but he was really, really high at the time.  Apparently some critics believe that the story is a parody.  Obviously the story is a powerful one – I can tell, because I can’t stop thinking about it.  So, what the heck happens at the end, and how, and why?

We’re really not supposed to know what happens at the end.  Maybe Ligeia has come back to life.  Maybe the narrator is hallucinating the whole thing.  The ending is not only a mystery, but a cliffhanger.  Is Ligeia happy to be back?  Is she angry?  Is she a vampire/zombie/bad thing?  We don’t know.  But I have a crackpot theory.

Many people believe that the ending is a hallucination on the part of the narrator, but I have a theory – what if there is no Ligeia?  What if her existence was dreamed up by the narrator from the start?  This would explain the gaps in her backstory, her unusual appearance, and the fact that she seems too good to be true.  She seems like the perfect woman because that’s what the narrator created her to be.

If Ligeia is the perfect woman, than why would the narrator kill her off by fantasizing her death?  Well, I think the narrator overshot a little bit and created a woman who threatened him.  He clearly has some interesting gender hang-ups (her “unwomanly” displays of affection” are Victorian code for “her interest in sex was tacky”).  My guess is that the narrator longs for a perfect woman, but one that won’t threaten him sexually – he wants the egotistical gratification of Ligeia’s passionate expressions of love, and yet he seems to regard them with some distaste, calling them “immoderate”.

Ligeia is sexual, vibrant, and dominant – she helps him with his homework, she drives the relationship, he is child-like in her presence.  So the narrator, with mixed feelings (and all unconscious ones – he believes all this is real) tries to create a new fantasy woman.  Since Ligeia was too dominant, he will create a woman in his mind who is completely subservient – over whom he can exercise complete power.  This is, of course, Rowena.  He controls her body by keeping her a prisoner in the abbey.  He controls her mind by creating an atmosphere of oppressive horror.  But guess what – passive people are boring.  The narrator wants Ligeia back – and he gets her back by willing her back into existence.  But because he thinks his creations are real, he can’t just wave them away.  Rowena wants to live, and so does Ligeia, and so through the night they battle for supremacy.

ligeia

The Mighty Power of Ligeia:

So, if the narrator wants Ligeia back, why is he horrified by Ligeia’s appearance?  I think he is ambivalent about what he wants (this helps explain why Rowena lives and dies over and over again, as he tries to make up his mind).  When faced with the reality of passive Rowena, he’s bored, but when faced with the reality of powerful Ligeia, he is terrified.  On some level, he wants to eliminate both women, in an effort to regain his sanity or in an unconcious effort to be free from entanglements.  But Ligeia, although she was created by him, has her own will, and she will not be cowed.  That’s why Ligeia doesn’t just kill Rowena – Rowena becomes Ligeia, the smart, strong-willed vision that refuses to go away.  Earlier I said that the narrator wills Ligeia back into existence, but I think to some extent she wills herself back into existence – he is too ambivalent about what he wants to truly desire her return.

The narrator makes it clear that he both admires and fears the living Ligeia.  I like to think that Ligeia represents the spirit of women who will not be silenced – not by society, not by law, not by abusive husbands or condescending expectations.  I doubt that this was what Poe intended – but he did know a lot of strong-willed women in his life, and he both desired and resented them for taking care of him (he refered to his wife as his “wife-mother”).  So maybe he did intend that message – regardless, I’m Team Ligeia.

220px-Poe_ligeia_byam_shaw

Richard Dawkins Misses the Point – Again

Picard and RikerOh, Richard Dawkins.  For such a genius (and I’m not being sarcastic – he’s an incredibly intelligent and influential writer on the topic of evolution and on the topic of atheism) he sure has been missing the point lately.

Dawkins said this earlier this week, which I’m reprinting from NPR:

“Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.” He goes on to state that as a prep student, he and others had been groped by a teacher, but says, “I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage.”

I’ll give you all minute to digest that.  When you are done ripping out your hair and screaming, ponder this – in May, Dawkins infuriated lots of people by mocking a woman who complained (rather mildly) about being propositioned in an elevator at a Skeptics conference.  This woman, Rebecca Watson, didn’t accuse her propositioned of being a predator or anything, she just pointed out that maybe 4AM in an elevator is not the right place or time to ask a woman to come up to your room if you want her to feel comfortable.  Her comments were mild and brief but somehow this escalated into an Internet discussion that left smoking keyboards all across the land, and Dawkins remained, to the end, convinced that there was no problem – that Rebecca Watson had no reason to feel uncomfortable and if she did it was her choice.  You can read more about that ugly exchange, including Dawkins’ infamous “Dear Muslima” comment, here, and you can read Rebecca Watson’s response to the controversy here.

Particularly in the child abuse quote, there are so many offensive things being said at once that each deserves its own blog post.  But since I’m confident that thousands of people are frantically typing their own essays about the problem with the phrase, “mild pedophilia”, I’m going to focus on another problem – why is Dawkins so dismissive about instances where people’s boundaries are violated?  Or, as Deanna Troi might put it:

Angry Troi

For once, Troi says it better.  I tried to find a picture without the “F” word in it that would convey my sentiments, but sometimes the “F” word just really, really applies.

The common thread Dawkins seems to follow is that if something does no “lasting damage”, then it’s not worthy of much concern or condemnation.  I’m pretty skeptical about his claim that his schoolmates who were sexually and physically abused didn’t experience “lasting damage”.  But just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend (OK, I’ll use a less loaded word – let’s assume) that Dawkins is correct.  Does that mean that we should accept some violations of our physical boundaries?  Allow Worf to speak for us all:

Angry Worf

I think what he’s trying to say is…”No.”

Well, no, we shouldn’t.  If nothing else, we shouldn’t ignore “mild” violations, because they contribute to a culture in which violating the body of another is acceptable in any form.

I understand Dawkins’ point that not every violation has the same impact on a person.  If someone grabs my butt at a science fiction convention, is that the same as being dragged off a bus and raped to death in the street?  No, of course not.  But both things are made possible by the same belief:  the belief that the body of someone who is less powerful than you is yours to use for your own ends.

That’s why it’s important that women be treated with respect at conventions (there are, of course, other reasons, but this is the core reason that I think best addresses Dawkins’ concerns).  It’s not that we’re so stupid that we can’t see that being grabbed is less traumatic than being raped – it’s that we DO see that both groping and raping are pieces of the same puzzle.  The reason Rebecca Watson felt uncomfortable in the elevator is that women know that we live in a culture where we have to constantly defend our bodies from everything from mild indignities to government inference to murder.  In defending my right to go out in public without being harassed, I am also defending my right to live without being raped, beaten, or killed – I am saying that my body is mine, and must not be violated, not even a little bit.

If people, be they women, children, or men, are to be able to live their lives with safety and dignity, then there have to be legal and social consequences to those who violate the physical boundaries of others.  Although there are legal protections for rape victims, social condemnation hasn’t caught up – witness how many times rape victims are blamed for the rape (they were wearing the wrong thing, they were in the wrong place, etc).  We have stronger social sanctions against those who molest children partly because the violation of trust is greater.  There’s a sense that a woman should know that she can’t trust a stranger in an elevator (and isn’t that sad, and so unfair to the vast majority of men who are NOT predators), but a child should be able to trust adults, especially adults that the child has been specifically told to trust and is completely dependent upon (parents, babysitters, relatives, teachers).

If Dawkins survived his childhood unscathed, then I’m happy for him.  But our world is, well, scathed, because of what happened to him and his classmates.  Our world is lesser, and we are all less safe, not because those specific teachers are lurking in our closets, but because because the idea that you can use the body of another person to satisfy your own whims lurks in our culture and in other cultures throughout the world.  So yeah – I do condemn people who grope children, and I do condemn people who harass women, and I do condemn rapists and murderers.  My body is mine, my daughter’s is hers, and Dawkins’ is his.  And that’s important.

Spock and Jim

Thank you to the cast of Star Trek for helping me out here.  As a new blogger, I’m still figuring out when it is and isn’t acceptable to use images posted online by others – if you click on the photos and go to “description”,  you can see where the photos come from.