Category Archives: pop culture

Small World (a boardgame review)

Small World Board Game We’re a family of geeks. (Sorry, girls, but that’s how we raised you.) So, when Geek and Sundry rolled out last month, we were hooked. Web series of awesomeness, ahoy! Chief among these is Tabletop masterminded by Wil Wheaton: a smart and genial geek god. (Yes, he’s also the actor who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

One of the first games that he reviewed and played with guests on the show was Small World (tagline? “It’s a world of (S)laughter”) – a fast-paced board game of strategy, conquest and screwing over your opponents generally having fun.

How do you play? You play a randomly specialized fantasy race so you might end up with the Wealthy Amazons, Pillaging Tritons, Seafaring Elves, Diplomatic Giants from the mash-ups out on the table in any turn. Conquer and hold as much territory as you can, paying attention to special bonuses you can exploit (Humans get bonuses for farmland, Dwarves enjoy more revenue from controlling mines) and, when your opponents nibble away too much at your conquests, go into “decline” where you’re free to start a new combination in the next turn (meanwhile collecting some revenue from all of your old groups’ tiles still on the board).

We got a copy last week and have played, what?, about ten games so far? (A couple of these have been done back to back as it’s a short game, especially if you’ve gone with the 2-3 player option.) It’s addictive, absurd and adorable.

They have expansion packs. Maybe we’ll have to make a detour by another gaming store on our way down to the Congress to see if we can pick a little something up. Which reminds me, I really need to call it quits with the revisions to my conference paper. Maybe after one more game. . . .

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Star Wars and History

Star Wars and History cover

I can finally share the gorgeous cover for Star Wars and History that should be out in bookstores this November. A lot of talented people have contributed to this collection and you’re going to have such fun reading the histories as well as reviewing the illustrations drawn from historical and Lucasfilm images.

It’s been a lot of work (and there’s still some to go as we’re in the midst of copy edits) but so very rewarding. Fourteen-year-old me, who fell hard for Star Wars even before the film hit the theaters thanks to an early look at the novelization would have been so excited to know that someday I’d be working on this project.

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Come to Potterfest 2012

I’ll be giving the keynote at Edinboro University’s 2012 Potterfest‘s Ravenclaw Conference focusing on the theme of human rights and animal rights. The conference runs October 18-20, 2012 and will feature both public and academic aspects. A Quidditch tournament! A chance to take in the National Library of Medicine’s traveling exhibit on Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine.

I think this keynote invitation is a great fit given my contribution about women’s history to Harry Potter and History, “Witches vs. Women: What Muggles Could Learn from Wizarding History”. Trust me, there’s a lot more about the wizarding world that didn’t make it into print so there will be more to discover.

As part of Potterfest 2011, the organizers archived a selection of papers that is linked from the Potterfest main page – check them out. I’m reading one about Hermione Granger written by Sheila Gross, a graduate student from Gannon University, and happily anticipating what will come for the 2012 edition.

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Day Tripper

Friday morning I awoke well before dawn. I had a scholarship board meeting in Toronto which is a four hour drive south (if you’re lucky and an accident hasn’t closed the two-lane section of the only road, necessitating a four-hour detour). Fortunately, there’s an alternative: flying. If you leave at a godawful hour, you can make the drive from our house to the airport in 20 minutes (half the time it takes during the busy times of day). And my flight took me in and out of the Toronto Island airport, a few minutes ferry and shuttle from Union Station. What’s not to like about that (extra bonus points for not flying into Toronto’s main airport with Air Canada which was shut down by a wildcat strike Friday morning.

So I flew down and back for the day, just as I’d done for our November meeting. Day Tripper, yeah! This time, all I took was my purse which is large enough to accommodate my netbook where I’d downloaded all the documents I’d need for the meeting and my ereader to pass the time. For take-off and landing I brought along a plain old paper notebook and managed to draft out about 800 words on a new writing project by putting pen to paper.

I have to admit that I loved being able to breeze through security or take an easy walk over to Yonge Street to window-shop once all of our business was wrapped up. No briefcase, backpack or other bag. What a great way to travel!


The Beatles – Day Tripper

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Twilight: The Source of All Evil?

So, Breaking Dawn, Part I is out and judging from reports, tickets were selling like hotcakes. This made for much wailing on the part of cultural critics and film reviewers everywhere.

I have to admit, I’m not a great fan of the films and I had problems with aspects of the books but others I loved. I certainly don’t think Meyer’s books and the resulting movies are as bad as the onslaught of reviewers’ complaints make them out to be. That puts me in a minority!

Apparently, the collapse of western civilization can be attributed to the Twilight fandom. Especially because it’s all girly in all the ways that women shouldn’t be. At least according to just about every cultural commentator whose reports I’ve seen popping up on my TV or computer screen. See The Franchise That Ate Feminism or tbe Twitterverse’s recent comments on the red state/blue state US mapping: Do You Live in the Twilight Belt? for examples of these visceral reactions.

Meyer’s story hits a trifecta of topics to sneer at: it’s aimed at young women (universally decried for their lack of taste and judgment), it intersects with genre fiction/film (so ‘true fans’ of the genre decry the pollution that is Twilight at Comic-con) and it also promotes conservative/anti-feminist values. What’s not there for a critic to savage?

I’m not saying you have to like or dislike Twilight. I am saying that I find that too many critics are following the easy path of establishing their credibility by snarking up a storm about the films, the books and their fans. You may not get the appeal, you may have problems with the books and movies, but please stop with the suggestions that fans are dangerously unhinged!

It’s nice to see The New York Times bucking the trend. The reviewer actually seems to enjoy the film and finds a lot to praise in the director’s work (even if Taylor Lautner comes in for some pointed derision in terms of his acting ability). Still won’t convince me to see the movie in the theatre (I don’t like blood and I know there’s a lot that’ll be an integral part of the story) but I sure will watch it on DVD if just to see what all the fuss is about.

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10,000 hours

Typing away While Malcolm Gladwell may be an annoying gadfly at times, in his assessment of the importance of practice in mastery, he’s dead on.

Ten thousand hours, he explained in Outliers, is the amount of time believed needed to achieve true proficiency whether as a musician (like The Beatles whose years of nigh-constant performances in Germany put them over the top) or in other fields. Like, say, academic history or writing.

Those five years I spent pursuing the Ph.D.? 5 years * 40 hours/week * 50 weeks/year = 10,000 hours right there. That gave me a basic mastery of my field of history, though: not a mastery of writing. I managed to work my way through my thesis pretty painlessly once I stumbled upon an approach that worked for me (write from the middle, starting with something you know well and want to incorporate – worry about the introduction and conclusion later). I wrote, but not nearly as much as I read, researched and pondered. Five years of doctoral studies didn’t make me a proficient writer.

The problem is, neither did becoming a full-time academic. While in the last months of being ABD, I was hired here. I struggled with a new full-time job and the crazy expectations that included: teaching in fields far abroad from my grad school preparation although I’d studied widely, learning arcane elements of academic administration as I stepped into a major position before I was tenured, being expected to do all of this while bringing my French up to speed in a bilingual institution. I wrote, yes, but not nearly as much as I needed to write. Somehow, writing became more and more difficult, at least in my conception of matters. Plus, there was always teaching and administration that needed ‘doing’. Not to mention life!

That said, I wasn’t content with the status quo. I love to research and share the results. I was just out of practice and unsure of how to best get back in the swim of things. That’s when I borrowed Outliers from the library and hit upon this motivating tidbit. 10,000 hours? I was willing to devote serious amounts of time if it would help me out.

This year, I’ll have written somewhere close to 80,000 words and edited far more than that. Over the last few years, I’ve put writing and editing back at the top of my priority list: not easy to do in a term such as this when I’m also responsible for teaching five classes and almost two hundred students. The hard effort’s paying off: I’m writing better and I’m editing with more facility. I’ve clocked a lot of hours at the keyboard and that’s made it easier to plan out how these 5000 words or those 7000 words need to come together.

I’m not saying I’m an awesome writer. I’m not saying that my words will set the world on fire. I’m just saying that I can write well enough to meet my expectations and occasionally exceed them.

I suspect, if I sat down and figured it out, I’d have passed another 10,000 hour milestone recently. Thank you, Malcolm Gladwell!

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Why Can’t a Woman?

Here’s a familiar sociological catch-22: Women are enjoined to be “more like a man” but will be condemned for being too “mannish” if they do so.

Pick any historically prominent woman and chances are you’ll encounter some version of this charge. Take for instance, one of the women I’ve researched: Margaret Pole. Daughter to George, the Duke of Clarence, Margaret survived the upheavals attendant upon her father’s suspicious death in the Tower as well as Henry VII’s rise to power. (Her brother Edward, wasn’t so lucky: held in custody by both Richard III and Henry Tudor, he accused of plotting an escape, attainted and executed in his turn for treason in 1499.

Margaret Pole Margaret was married off to a loyal follower of the Tudors. When her husband died, she and her children fell on hard times until Henry VIII’s coronation. Her young relative showered Margaret with honours: a title, lands and wealth became hers as the new countess of Salisbury. When Margaret and her family sided with Catherine of Aragon and the traditional church in Henry’s break with Rome, the writing was on the wall.

In 1538, Henry’s ministers focused on Pole’s family and circle as traitors supporting a foreign-supported invasion of England. Some of Margaret’s sons cracked under torture: confessing their complicity in a plot that brought in other noble families as well as their brother, Cardinal Reginald Pole. Margaret resisted all accusations of treason in a grueling series of interrogations, as her weary examiners explained in a letter to Thomas Cromwell. “We have dealid with such a one as men have not dealid with to fore us, Wee may call hyr rather a strong and custaunt man than a woman.”1 It didn’t help. Thomas Cromwell trumped up charges against Margaret that led to her attainder and eventual execution.

Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it? What other historical women do you know have been accused of being too much like a man?

Notes:

  1. William Fitzwilliam, earl of Southampton and Thomas, bishop of Ely to Cromwell, 16 November, 1538, Letters and Papers XIII (2), no. 855.

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Infantilism? I think not

With all the attention refocusing on the Harry Potter franchise as the last movie is released (I see it tomorrow!), the press seems divided between celebrating the cultural impact of Rowling’s books and mourning what their popularity means.

On the upside, we see articles like Lev Grossman’s literate and respectful treatment of fanfiction in Time magazine, The Boy Who Lived Forever. Fanfic is one part of the participatory fan culture that’s exploded around Harry Potter over the past ten years and more, although this one fandom is only a small part of a broader phenomenon rising around books, music, films, comic books, television shows and more. Groups such as the Organization for Transformative Works champions ordinary people who want to follow those same impulses that inspired Malory to write a new take on Arthur in the fifteenth century and Shakespeare to remix the historical chronicles of English kings that he used for his history plays (some of my favourite takes on RPF or Real Person Fiction as fandom knows it).

Another in this vein comes from my local paper, The Sudbury Star, where Wayne Chamberlain explains how the Franchise is Pure Magic. He spoke with professors like Colleen Franklin and librarians such as Monique Roy who saw value in the series and in the genre. But the most touching and telling example came at the end:

“People can’t wait to read her books,” Franklin said. “And that can’t help but spill over into them wanting to do more reading.”

Ray Provencher, 34, is testament to that fact. The Sudbury man, who works as a projectionist at SilverCity, said the Potter books inspired him to read after 10 years of avoiding books.

“Since then, I’ve read The Inheritance Cycle and Kathy Reichs’ books based on the Bones (TV) series.

“I mean, I had maybe four or five books before. Now, I have shelves of books thanks to J.K. Rowling.”

More reading. It’s almost always a good thing and it’s clear that these books are part of a renaissance for reading as popular activity in ordinary culture.

On the downside, we get articles like John Barber’s more problematic How Harry Potter Rewrote the Book on Reading which raises the familiar academic criticism spectre of Harry Potter destroying our culture. Nameless academics are evoked, cursing the series for encouraging “cultural infantilism” when adults start indulging in children’s literature. (And Barber gives us extra-bonus points for apparently ‘padding’ our reading lists with Harry Potter books when we don’t condemn the works out of hand.) Let’s also not forget the condemnation of many dark trends in young adult books made by Meghan Cox Gurdon in Darkness too Visible (a position which she strongly defended in her response to criticism, My ‘Reprehensible’ Take on Teen Literature).

Won’t someone think of the children?

Ptui! First, it’s hardly a phenomenon of recent invention when you have children and adults reading the same books or that the said books have dark themes. The rise of a dedicated “children’s literature” section is relatively recent in the history of bookselling and many works we consider classics for children were widely read by adults in an earlier time and written with such readers in mind. (Robinson Crusoe, I’m looking at you!) For more reading on children’s literature to give you a sense of how permeable these boundaries have long been, see Seth Lerer’s entertaining and eloquent Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter. You can write with children in mind, and not craft something inferior. In fact, it’s more challenging to write well for an all-ages audience than for a smaller subset.

Let’s admit, once and for all, that the wall we’ve built up around children’s and young adult literature is a fiction. It’s one less sturdy than those spun in the pages of many of those books. Just as Trevor Dayton, VP for children’s books and Music at Indigo, noted in Barber’s article, the Harry Potter books have made the division between adult books and children’s books “almost indistinguishable. Also from Barber’s piece, you see that the vast majority of these YA books are bought by adults (over 75%), whether for themselves or for younger readers. Overall, more people are reading more books these days thanks to Harry Potter and company.

Adults reading books marked or marketed as suitable for children and young adults. What’s so bad about that? What’s so bad about parents and children, youth and adults, finding common ground in the books they read? Honestly, I find a lot less pretense and posing in the best of young adult literature than in much of the literary fiction I’m told represents the best of the best today. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have some great YA novels to finish reading. Then maybe I’ll check out the fanfic archives, and see what’s happening there!

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The Oppression of the Trade Federation

The editors of a forthcoming collection, Star Wars and History, invite proposals for an essay to focus on parallels between business groups and practices in Star Wars (e.g., the role of the Trade Federation) and historical examples of the roles played by corporate/government partnerships such as the British and Dutch trade companies active as political and military forces as well as economic entities as well as how these parallels provided historical models for the Star Wars universe.

This essay would discuss one or two particular historical examples in depth; for example, the Dutch East India Company’s assumption of power in Indonesia, the East India Company’s different roles in India and Britain, the Hudson’s Bay Company and its territorial expansion or the trade factors in the Anglo-Chinese wars. We would ask authors to go beyond a singular focus and relate other historical examples of corporate/government integration for good and ill as it can be reflected in the Star Wars movies and universe. The book will be published in cooperation with Lucasfilm and the editors are collaborating with Mr. Lucas.

This anthology is aimed at a somewhat broader audience than is the case with most scholarly anthologies, and we seek contributors who can create essays that are engaging and accessible for undergraduate as well as older readers. Essays should run between 5,000-7,000 words, and complete drafts would be due no later than Nov. 15. Contributors would be paid honoraria of $400, and could use almost any photos, stills., etc. from the Star Wars corpus to illustrate their chapters
that they chose.

Please submit a short c.v. and one-page proposal by August 1st to both volume editors; email submissions are preferred: Continue reading

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Witchery With Wordle

Wordle: Hopkins' The Discoverie of Witches (1647) In Twilight and History, I showed how Carlisle Cullen’s story could be seen as a rough parallel to the career of Matthew Hopkins. His witch-hunting career was carried out with an eye toward publicity and profit, hence the publication of this book, The Discovery of Witches to stir up more interest in Hopkin’s pricey services. Where Hopkins sought the limelight, Cullen didn’t. Where Hopkins revelled in hunting down witches, Cullen did not. All told, Carlisle is definitely a hero for the modern age; Hopkins is very much out of fashion.

I like to look at the Wordle I created from that treatise, if only to see how very revealing the language is. (If you’re wondering what the prominent “Quer” and “Answ” or “Ans” mean, they’re short for Query and Answer. Parts of the book are structured as question and answer with the expert on witch hunting, Matthew Hopkins.) The words that it highlights revolve around the presumed practices of witchcraft as well as Hopkins’ specialty of finding those witches out. It’s not a bad proxy for the book, itself, in that respect.

I have to say that I far prefer Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches both for readability and subject matter.

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