Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Disney+ Project: Part 6, the early 1950s

More Disney! (See our earlier thoughts here, here, here, here, and here)

To put these in perspective for my daughter, I told her that these films were new when Grandma and Grandpa were little. I'm glad we're finally back in feature length films. The shorter pieces collected in anthologies were not my jam in the same way. Most of this next slew of films I actually remember pretty well from childhood.

Even though I'm not as old as these films, they all had theatrical re-releases and at one point or another, I (or my parents) have owned them on VHS or DVD. So, since our last report, the littlest Bryant and I have watched: Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953).

My daughter thought she would like Alice, but was lukewarm on Cinderella and Peter going in. I remembered Cinderella the most fondly.

Surprisingly, Cinderella was the one we both liked best. The character gets a bad rap in some ways, being lumped in with other, more passive princesses waiting for their prince to come and rescue them.

But this version of Cinderella is a hard-working girl. In fact, you get the feeling that, even had her father lived and protected her from the harsh treatment of her stepmother, she would still have been an industrious young woman, using her positive energy to make a difference in the world.

She doesn't waste time bemoaning her lot. It's the mice who complain on her behalf (in song, of course).

Even when she expresses a wish to go to the ball, it's not about changing her lot in life permanently. As my daughter said, "She didn't ask for a prince. She just wanted to put on a pretty dress and go to a party."

The part of the story that's always been hard for me to believe is that a beloved little rich girl who is demoted to housemaid in her own home harbors no resentment or ill will towards those who abuse her. That impossibly kind "heart of gold" element was helped a little in this version.

After the stepsisters tear up the gown the mice made for our heroine, she weeps in the garden and you learn that her positive attitude has been a conscious choice, one that she's now having trouble maintaining in the face of another disappointment. That's a very real set of emotions and won the respect of two Bryant women watching. We hope the prince proves worthy of her.

Alice, on the other hand, was not very interesting at all. The cartoon still charms, with its presentation of a cast of madcap characters and crazy scenarios, but Alice herself?


She's petulant and mostly passive, just pushed along by the world she falls into. My daughter liked this one better than I did, but her focus was on the animation--things like the playing card soldiers, the disappearing cheshire cat, and the size changing experiments.

Honestly, Alice herself is rather incidental to the story.

Still Alice was a model of fortitude and feminism in comparison with all the characters in Peter Pan. Oh my! The racism and sexism was rampant.

The over-riding view of girls in the story is that they're here to serve boys. They are petty and jealous, squabbling with each other over the affections of boys because that's all that apparently matters--not what the girls themselves might want, but who can win the attention of the best boy.

Peter himself, well, he's a jerk.

I don't understand why anyone would want him, and my daughter felt the same way. He's a show-off, and only cares about garnering attention for himself. Even his Lost Boys only seem to hold value for him as an audience for his exploits. The kiddo does say that there are several boys with this kind of self-aggrandizing attitude in seventh grade, and she hopes that they grow out of it. I hope so too! She'll have to work with those people someday.

The element that had her gasping with dismay though was the part with Tiger Lily and the "Indians." From pigeon-English to stereotypes of dress, it was horrifyingly racist.

I guess I can be glad that these kinds of depictions are shocking to younger audiences.

That shows some progress.

When my parents were children, kids commonly played "Cowboys and Indians" using these types of characters thoughtlessly. 

Even when I was a kid, in the 1970s, we didn't think anything of calling someone an "Indian Giver" or by the use of actual contemporary people as mascots for athletic teams.

The lyrics to "What Makes the Red Man Red" combine racism and sexism into one ugly little tune. Yikes! I'm kind of surprised that Disney airs this one. I wonder why Peter Pan doesn't get the censure that Song of the South does?

About the only saving grace to the film was the Darling family. The children's affection for one another, the push and pull of the wife and husband, the dog who served as a nanny. All lovely and charming. We liked when dad decided that Wendy didn't have to grow up so fast after all. It was nice that he got to end the story remembering the fun and magic of his own childhood, something he had apparently not held onto as he grew up.

Lady and the Tramp is up next! Looking forward to that one. I hope it's still as charming and romantic as I remember it!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Disney+ Project: Part 5, the later 40s

If you've been reading these posts, you already know my husband got us a subscription to Disney Plus, so my daughter (age 12) and I have taken on a project of watching all the Disney animated features in order. I'm writing about the movies and our reactions here on the blog.

Snow White and Pinocchio, late 1930s
Fantasia, 1940
The Reluctant Dragon, 1941
The early 1940s: Dumbo, Bambi, Saludos Amigos, and The Three Caballeros

Since the United States was kind of busy in the 1940s, thanks to WWII, Disney produced mostly collections of short animations during this period. Even though the release dates are largely post-war, the artists must have working on these pieces during some tumultuous times, and the Disney studio did a lot of government propaganda work, leaving less time to develop popular features.

The compilation/anthology movies don't appeal to me as much as the more extended movies that tell a single story. My daughter doesn't mind though. She's a bigger animation fan in general, though, seeking out animators on YouTube in her spare time and drawing still images in the various styles she sees there. So, she enjoyed these more than I did.

The next one on our list was Make Mine Music (1946), and I was disappointed to find that it wasn't on Disney Plus. I know I've seen it because when I read the description on wikipedia, I remembered Casey at the Bat, Peter and the Wolf, Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet, and that one with the singing whale. I'll check back for it in the future. Maybe there's a distribution rights problem or something.

On the other hand, I wasn't at all surprised that Song of the South (1946) wasn't there. That one already felt weird in terms of race depictions in the 1970s when I was a little kid. It would probably be even stranger now.

I told my daughter about it, and we both wished we could have watched it for the animation study, to see if the integration of live action and animation had gotten any better after The Three Cabelleros in 1944. I remember thinking it was pretty amazing at the time, but then I wasn't the animation connoisseur she is.

Having learned about Uncle Remus stories, though, my daughter had an a-ha moment about the reference her dad and I sometimes make to being thrown in the Briar Patch, so hey--educational moment :-)

So, we jumped to 1947 with Fun and Fancy Free, which features several famous names of the era alongside two cartoons: Bongo and Mickey and the Beanstalk. I didn't remember Bongo at all, though I remembered Mickey and the Beanstalk quite well. The retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk has been released in other forms and shown on television over the years, though, so it's entirely possibly that I really never had seen Bongo.

My daughter and I both enjoyed Dinah Shore's reading and singing of Bongo, but were more than a little perplexed at the whole "Bears Say I Love You With a Slap" thing. My daughter's reaction was pretty much: Wait? What? Still, it was a fairly charming story and we enjoyed it, even if we didn't find anything especially memorable about it. We both enjoyed seeing Jiminy Cricket again. He's a charmer, that little bug.

Edgar Bergen introduced Mickey with his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Now I've never found Bergen's schtick funny, but I tried to hold my tongue and let my girl decide what she thought uninfluenced by me. I guess she's my kiddo, after all, because she also wished they would just hush up with the creepy dolls and staged conversations and get back to the story.

Mickey and the Beanstalk was a charming telling and does a good job integrating the normal personalities of Mickey, Donald, and Goofy into the familiar fairy tale. The giant was such a goofball that he wasn't scary at all. We were happy to see him again at the end, pulling the roof off Edgar Bergen's house and then stomping off into the city to put on the Brown Derby restaurant as a hat.

Next we made it to 1948 and Melody Time, which was a string of music-centered stories: Once Upon a Wintertime, Bumble Boogie, The Legend of Johnny Appleseed, Little Toot, Trees, Blame it on the Samba, and Pecos Bill. I remembered Johnny Appleseed and Little Toot from childhood, and was happy to recognize The Andrews Sisters and Roy Rogers among the narrators.

My daughter knew Johnny Appleseed, too--having had a babysitter in her preschool years who showed that cartoon alongside lots of Veggie Tales to the children when she needed a break. And I'm proud to say that she knows who The Andrews Sisters were, too. She's a fan of an electro-swing rendition of Mr. Sandman, which sent her down a historical music rabbit hole, so she's now probably the only twelve-year-fan of a musical group her great-grandmother used to love.

Among the other stories, we were both mostly just annoyed by Once Upon a Wintertime and couldn't figure out why in the world Jenny and Joe were all cuddly at the end when their disastrous ice skating date should have taught them both that they are ill suited for one another. The music didn't really go with the animation either. It looked slapstick and sounded melodramatically romantic.

Bumble Boogie was fun visually and would have been at home in Fantasia, but it's good that it's short.

The Legend of Johnny Appleseed was way more overtly Christian than I remembered, but still managed to be pretty charming, even though both of us don't usually enjoy art that proselytizes too much. Johnny was just so earnest and grateful for his blessings that it's hard not to like him.

 Little Toot definitely benefitted from the Andrews Sisters' talents, because the story is a bit of a muddle. My daughter that Little Toot's parents were the ones were needed a talking to, maybe something about age-appropriate expectations and child supervision.

Trees was really pretty to look at onscreen. According to wikipedia, "To preserve the look of the original story sketches, layout artist Ken O'Connor came up with the idea of using frosted cels and render the pastel images right onto the cel. Before being photographed each cel was laminated in clear lacquer to protect the pastel. The result was a look that had never been seen in animation before." It truly was striking visually! We oohed and ahed over that one, but again we were glad it was short because the poem wasn't very interesting and there wasn't really a narrative hook.

Blame it on the Samba was a repeat of The Three Caballeros in that Donald Duck and José Carioca are panting over beautiful human women again. Eye-rolling 1940s sexism. Dullest bit in the film. Who knew Donald was such a horn-dog?

Pecos Bill was the silliest piece. A tall tale story you might hear alongside something about Paul Bunyan or John Henry, it told the story of a cowboy who had been raised by coyotes, wrestled cyclones, and fell in love with a cowgirl named Slue Foot Sue.

We giggled quite a bit during this section, but its silly-ness really brought out how all over the map the tones were in this collection. It was very much a kitchen-sink production, probably having something for everyone since we threw everything in willy-nilly.

Next should have been So Dear to My Heart, 1948, but it too was unavailable on Disney +.  So onward we went to The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, 1949. Neither of us was sure why these two stories were paired for release. There's really nothing to connect them, though both are fun in their own way. I remembered both stories with some fondness from childhood. My daughter had never seen either one.

Mr. Toad is about, well, Mr. Toad. He's a madcap frog with an enthusiasm for speed and adventure that gets him into trouble. The portrayal of Toad's mania with the hypno-spinning-wheel eyes was entertaining, as was the whole frog running around the countryside dressed as a country gentleman from the turn of the century.

It was a light and entertaining story and we both enjoyed it, but thought it rather forgettable. (The introduction by Basil Rathbone delighted me, but unfortunately my daughter doesn't know who he is, so we'll have to try some old school Sherlock Holmes on her soon.)

Ichabod was a delight. Bing Crosby was perfect and we were both delighted by the portrayal of Ichabod (already a familiar character to both of us) as socially graceful despite his gangly appearance. The scene where he's dancing with Katrina at the party and stuffing himself with pie without ever missing a step and Brom is trying and failing to switch partners so he can squire Katrina around the dance floor? Priceless. So many moving parts in that scene and all so deftly handled. Brilliant.

Talking afterwards we wondered if Katrina's ploy worked and made Brom work harder to win her heart or not. We hoped that Ichabod found a warm hearth and good food in another town. He was a man of simple enough wants after all.

We're both glad to be done with the anthology pieces now. Check back soon to see what we think of Disney in the 1950s. I'm anxious to see how Cinderella holds up!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

IWSG: Setting Sail on the Literary Seas

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

The awesome co-hosts for the January 8 posting of the IWSG are T. Powell Coltrin, Victoria Marie Lees, Stephen Tremp, Renee Scattergood, and J.H. Moncrieff! I hope you'll check out their blogs as well as some of the others on this blog hop after you see what I have to say. 


January 8 question - What started you on your writing journey? Was it a particular book, movie, story, or series? Was it a teacher/coach/spouse/friend/parent? Did you just "know" suddenly you wanted to write?

My first inklings (ha!) that I might be a writer came very early.

First grade. I had this teacher (so many great stories start that way, don't they?): Mrs. Asdorf or maybe Alsdorf.  I remember thinking she had a weird name.

To my memory, she was very short. She had to be because she didn't seem tall to me, and I was in first grade! 

I also thought she was very old.  I have no idea if she actually was or not. This is a kid's eye view after all.

When I try to picture her, her face is all mixed up with my great-grandmother's face, in the way that many childhood memories are mixed up and distorted. She might have been all of thirty. She might have been eighty. I don't know.

Mrs. Asdorf loved poetry. We had this project where we copied poems neatly (we were still learning the mechanics of writing after all), and made illustrations for them, then collected them in a folder made out of wallpaper scraps.  My first blank book.

I loved this project.  I'd always been drawn to poetry. Before I even went to school, I memorized my Mother Goose book and, thanks to my mother and all our hours in the library, had a love for Amelia Bedelia and Dr. Suess, children's books in love with the sounds of words.

I loved writing. I liked the feel of the pen or pencil on paper. I'd get this urge I thought of as "itchy fingers" and have to draw or copy something. (It still happens, though now, mostly I type).

At some point, Mrs. Asdorf came by to check my work. I'd picked poems by William Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson and was dutifully copying them down.

I don't remember exactly what she said, but I walked away with the realization that I could write poems myself, that it was okay to make up your own! So, I did.  I wrote a little set of rhymed couplets about Beauty (capital B Beauty; very high-concept). Here are the ones I remember:

Beauty is in the great, tall trees
Bending over in the breeze
Beauty is in each butterfly
That just happens to flutter by

It ended with one about "smile" and "while" that I can't remember fully anymore.  It was very well received and I began my first career as an occasional poet.   I wrote poems for birthdays, holidays, seasons, thank yous.  They were published in little school newsletters and once or twice in the teeny tiny local newspaper. I read them over the announcements for the school to hear.

After that I always wrote. I kept journals. I wrote poems and stories. After reading Little Women, I thought I could be Jo March and earn money to help my family with my stories. Of course, no one pays children for their stories, but I did get lots of positive attention. In high school, I even wrote most of a novel about a tennis team romance.

By college though, I had been doused with enough realism to know that I needed to do something else for a living. So, I trained to become a teacher. 

English of course. And Spanish. 

I still wrote. I just didn't think that writing was something I could do for a living. Especially not since my form of choice was poetry. I figured I could still be a writer, on the side.

Then I was off into the world, making my way as a teacher, learning what it meant to be an adult, finding new people, places and things to love.

As many women do, I hit a lull in my public writing when I became a mother.  My first daughter was absorbing and most of the writing I did at that time was about her.  Teaching and mothering were my top priorities, so writing took a decided backseat, though I still managed to create a few essays and poems and even see them published. Life went on, as it does. I divorced, moved, lost people I loved, moved, remarried, moved, became a mother again, moved.

I wrote my way through all of it.   The writing was all very personal.  It was how I worked my way through whatever I was working my way through.  How I made decisions. How I cherished things. How I grieved and how I celebrated. It was how I found out what I was feeling and thinking. The thoughts and feelings just whirled around unformed until I recorded them, sorting them out, pinning them down and analyzing them.

Then, after the birth of my second child, when I was going through postpartum depression, my husband encouraged me to reconnect to my writing and I joined a group of writers.  All of them were writing novels, so I decided to give it a try.  It was hard, writing something so long.  In fact, it took me four years (not counting the abandoned first novel) to write the first draft of my first novel, another year after that to shape it into something readable, a few months after that to make it good.

That book is not published, though I'm hoping it will be someday. Currently, it's shelved for revisions. I've learned a lot since then, so I know I can make it better and then I'll shop it around again.

But I've written more since then. Three of them have been published. You can get them at bookstores and everything! I'm writing another one right now.

I am a woman who writes every day, who sees the world through the filter of her art, who doesn't know what she thinks until she processes it in words. I'm making a writing life, and my work is published and read. I'm working towards someday earning my living from my words alone.

So, thanks, Mrs. Alsdorf. In a way, this was all your idea. I'm so lucky to have had you as my teacher. Your nudge took :-)

Thursday, January 2, 2020

2019: Most Popular Blog Posts

I blog mostly as a form of reflection, a kind of public journaling, where I record the details of my writing life and can look back on my journey.

That said, I still love it when other people read what I write. What writer doesn't?

Some of my blogging friends, like the fabulous Lidy Wilks have been doing recaps of their year in blogging, and I quite like the idea, so I'm stealing it. And hey John Scalzi does it, too. So, here's a quick recap of my most popular posts of 2019.

#10, with 138 views: Favorite Fierce Fictional Mothers, my Mother's Day post.

#9, Flash fiction written as part of Andy Brokaw's Wording Wednesday Prompt Challenge made up three of my most popular entires. "Left Turn at Alburquerque" (142 views)  #8 "Mornings With Helene" (147 views) and #2 "A Happy Life" (362 views). I'm happy to see my flash fiction attracting some attention. I mostly write it to play, to have the chance to remember what it was like when writing was something I did only because it was fun. 

#7 (158 views) and #4 (236 views) were posts for the Insecure Writer's Support Group, a blog hop I participate in each month. I'm always so glad I did. They are such a kind and supportive group and there's such relief in finding out you're not alone in whatever weirdness your writing life has become. "Taking Myself By Surprise" is about the joys of being a pantser. "When Part-Time is Not Enough" is about my frustrations of having opportunities to fill a full-time writing life, but not the matching income or time. 

#6 (182 views) was my theme reveal for the A to Z blogging challenge. I always love participating in this challenge and last year I wrote letters to favorite dead authors. It was a great excuse to revisit beloved books and authors and express my gratitude for the place those works have in my heart. 

#5 (221 views) was my summary post about the September Submission Challenge, in which author Ray Daley challenged his friends in the writing community submit one piece of writing every day for a month. He's doing another one right now, BTW, in January 2020. I'm playing along again. Wish me luck!

#3 (242 views) was a guest post by friend and colleague Diane Burton, who was celebrating a new release. I know I appreciate the signal boost writer friends have given me, so I try to return the favor when I can. 

And (drumroll please)…………………
#1 (421 views) Beginnings and Endings: My Curiosity Quills Story, the story of the end of my first publishing relationship. Don't worry, though. It has a happy ending. I was quickly signed by another publisher who is doing well by me and my work so far!

All in all, I wrote 87 blog posts in 2019, which means I exceeded my once-a-week goal. I'm finding that I really enjoy the camaraderie of participating in blog hops and challenges, so you can expect to see more of that from me in the future. 

Thanks so much to everyone who follows and reads my rants and meanders. I'm so happy to have your company on this journey! Let's hope 2020 is one exciting ride. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2019: My Year in Words

It's that time of year again, when a flip of the calendar has me looking back at what Ive accomplished and what I want to accomplish before it happens again. For me, that's my cue to examine my writing life. So, here's what my life of words was like in 2019:

I'm fighting feeling disappointed in myself because I didn't get a book-length work out there this year. I know I worked hard, and I know that on my schedule alongside a full time day job and an active family, it takes me roughly a year to draft a novel. But since I started my career with a book a year trajectory and haven't released another since 2017, I feel that as a failure.

I let go a novel I'd worked on for most of 2018, finding I wasn't in a good mental place to write dystopian fiction and started a gothic novel which I'm still loving, but don't yet have a complete draft of. So, no new book-length releases for Samantha for the second year in a row. Sadness.

So, it's a good idea to look back at what I *did* accomplish and remind myself that I made real progress even when it doesn't feel like enough to me. I know myself. It never feels like enough. I'm still learning to be reasonable with myself.

Publications are the most public measure of success. So, let's start there. The big thing to happen this year was the re-release of my novels. My first publisher fell apart and I jumped ship. After regaining my rights, I signed with Falstaff Books out of Charlotte, North Carolina and couldn't be more pleased with the treatment of my book babies.

They got new covers emphasizing their heroic elements and the publishing house has given me great support in finding a wider audience. There's an audiobook in progress and I'm now contracted for three more novellas and two more novels in the series. So exciting! My audience and sales are slowly building, too.

It wasn't my strongest year ever for other publications, but I did have short stories included in two anthologies, and two magazines. 

One of these (Christmas Lites) was a charity project supporting the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Margaret Lets Her Self Go" my cosmic horror story found a home in Hinnom Magazine (for a nicer-than-average paycheck, too!), "The Gleewoman of Preservation" my clown-themed horror story was included in Deadman Humour, and my Rod Serling style weird tale "Breakfast at the Twilight Café" found a home with Tell-Tale Press. All of these were new venues for me, working with new people, which is a positive for building a sustainable career. 

For those interested in stats, I submitted my work 72 times in 2019, a pretty good increase from 2018 when I only submitted 44 times and so much better than 2017 when I only submitted 6 times. I keep telling myself that I need to devote more time to submitting my shorter work. No one is going to publish my stories if I don't give it to them to look at, after all. But it's always a time-balance struggle to fit in time for promotion of already published work, creation of new work, and playing the submission game. 

In September, I participated in a submission challenge for which I submitted a piece of writing every day. So far, only one of those has led to publication, but I had several kind and personal rejections and several pieces are still under consideration, so I consider it worth my while. I'm planning to play along again in January as a way to kick start my year. 

My biggest disappointment was my failure to get my collection of short stories out in October. Self-
publishing is an expensive venture, at least the way I'm trying to do it. I want to feel good about my product!

So, I hired outside editing, hired a cover made, bought formatting software and taught it to myself. I got really close, but in the end there were two many life expenses and time crunches in October, so I didn't release the book, not wanting to release one that wasn't ready and unable to spare the dollars to buy my ISBNs.

Since it's a book with an obvious Halloween connection, I'm planning to hold off, taking my time to make sure its as near-perfect as I can and try again in October 2020. So look for Stories from Shadow Hill in October 2020!

Promotion: I devoted a fair amount of time to promotional activities. I attended conventions, gave readings, did signings, gave interviews, and in general tried to help my books find a broader audience out there in the world.

I went back to some events I'd enjoyed participating in before: Illogicon, Free Comic Book Day at Atomic Empire, teaching for CCCC Pittsboro, ConCarolinas, hosting the First Monday Classics Book Club, ConGregate, The Hillsborough Local Authors Book Fair, and Conapalooza. I did a couple of new things, taking a vendors table on Con-Tagion, participating in the first ever Hillsborough Comics Fair, reading as part of the Books and Beer series, and holding a signing at Dog-Eared Books.

I really enjoy the opportunity to do things like this. It makes the whole "I'm a writer now!" thing feel *really real*. Spending time with other creatives is educational and inspiring, and well, just plain fun. No one understands a writing life like someone else living one, after all.

That said, I'm looking at all events with a ROI eye in 2020. So far, writing has been a losing proposition, at least in the dollars and cents accounting. I spend more than I make--on travel, lodging, food, swag, copies of my books, etc.

So, I'm looking for more events that cost me less to participate in or where I can be more assured of making some sales while I'm there. That makes me feel rather mercenary, but it is a business, and since teaching in North Carolina is unlikely to afford me a comfortable retirement, I'll need other income streams in my old age :-)

So far, I'm only committed to two conventions in 2020, both new to me: MarsCon and JordanCon. I've applied to two others at which I would be a return guest, but haven't heard back yet. JordanCon will be more expensive to participate in, since it's further away, but it's a city I haven't visited yet and will introduce me to readers I haven't met yet. So, I'm hopeful.

Productivity: Even though I didn't finish a novel in 2019, I wrote a heck of a lot. I have a daily writing chain of more than six years now! 2,286 days recorded on the Magic Spreadsheet as of the last day of 2019 with a grand total of 2,848,826 over those years.

I track my work on Jamie Raintree's Writing and Revision Tracker, too, a spreadsheet tool I love for its versatility in letting you set and track goals in up to ten projects at a time. (She sells this amazing tool for $10, BTW. Quite a bargain! And she doesn't pay me or even ask me to say so; that's just my opinion.)

My numbers there shows that I wrote 463,737 words this year and revised 202,443. Not too shabby!

I also kept my promise to myself and blogged at least once a week. In fact, I overdid it. 88 posts this year, as well as posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. You might think that social media wouldn't count as productivity, but it's an important part of a writing life in the twenty-first century and I definitely count work spent on providing content on those platforms as part of my job.

My focus for 2020 is to be more disciplined about where my writing time goes. I have a March deadline for a novella and a novel to turn in on January 1, 2021…and I really want to finish my Gothic romance and my dystopian, and get back to several other backburnered projects, while building my publications for short stories, too. I know, I don't ask for much, right?

There's a reason my blog is called Balancing Act. Here's hoping 2020 comes with perfect vision!


Sunday, December 29, 2019

2019: My Year in Books

Each year for the past few years, I've set a goal of reading 52 books, or one per week. I use Goodreads to track my reading and as of this writing, I've read 50 books. There are still a few days left in 2019, and I know I'll finish at least the novel I'm on (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë) and I'll probably pick up a graphic novel for that number 52 at the last minute.

It was quite the variety again. Look: 

Through my local library, I run a book club with fellow author, James Maxey: The First Monday Classics Book Club. As you might guess, we discuss a work of classic literature on the first Monday of each month. We're in our fourth year as a book club, with many members participating the whole time, and we work to find books that are classic in the sense of having a lasting impact, while still avoiding reading only "dead white guys." It amounts to 11 books a year most years, since Labor Day falls on a first Monday and the library is closed. 

This year's list included (in the order I read them): 
  1. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  2. Roots by Alex Haley
  3. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  4. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  5. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  6. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  7. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain
  8. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  9. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
  10. Les Liasions Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
  11. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Of these, The Sun Also Rises, The Haunting of Hill House, Les Liasions Dangereuses, and The Call of the Wild were re-reads for me. I can't really stomach Hemingway anymore, but the other three held up quite well, especially Shirley Jackson! 

The jewel of the collection was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter which is a heartbreaker if I've ever read one, the most disappointing was Fahrenheit 451 which is definitely NOT the best thing Mr. Bradbury wrote, and the most painful to read was Tristram Shandy which far too long considering it's really just a shaggy dog story

Several of my other reads were books by friends, colleagues, and members of professional organizations I'm in or that I support. 

Some I promised to read to help another author garner some reviews. 

A few I read because I was judging a contest. 

Others, I just wanted to read because I'd heard so much about the work from spending time on panels and at author events with these talented people. 

This list includes (in the order I read them): 
  1. Kristen Brand's Hero Status
  2. A Pocket Watch, Spray Paint & Morphine: How Viv the Librarian Weathers the Boom by Kimberly Lynne
  3. Designer You by Sarahlyn Bruck
  4. Just Cause by Ian Thomas Healy
  5. Bedside Manners by Heather Frimmer
  6. Storm Forged (The Darkest Storm #1) by Patrick Dugan
  7. The Ghost and Dr. Watson: A Shadow Council Archives Novella by Alexandra Christian
  8. Cinched: Imagination Unbound (various authors)
  9. My Dad is a Mad Scientist (The Adventures of Ubergirl #1) by Matthew S. Cox
  10. A Nighttime of Forever (Vampire Innocent #1) by Matthew S. Cox
  11. A Fall in Autumn by Michael G. Williams
  12. Sisters of the Wild Sage: A Weird Western Collection by Nicole Givens Kurtz
  13. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
The shining star in this collection was Michael G. Williams's A Fall in Autumn. Gorgeous prose, fascinating world, and amazing characters. Far future noir. Lovely. 

A close second was Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, which was very creative in narrative structure and genre bending in that it was a locked room mystery in space. 

I also really loved Cinched and Sisters of the Wild Sage, two collections of short stories that startled me in the best ways. 

The Ghost and Dr. Watson was beautifully realized, and I loved this interpretation of Dr. Watson!

My main writing project since summer has been a gothic romance, so I read quite a few things to feed that project: classics in the genre, works set in a similar era, and a bit of nonfiction for historical detail and inspiration.

This list includes (in the order I read them): 
  1. Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening (Monstress #1) by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda (Illustrator)
  2. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  3. Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel
  4. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by  Charlotte Gordon
  5. The Monk by Matthew Lewis
  6. The Cater Street Hangman (Charlotte & Thomas Pitt #1) by  Anne Perry
  7. Wild Women: Crusaders, Curmudgeons, and Completely Corsetless Ladies in the Otherwise Virtuous Victorian Era by Autumn Stephens
  8. Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  9. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (finishing in the next couple of days)
The standout among these was Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, especially when compared to The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk, two of the other classic gothic novels on the list. While the latter two novels suffer from the passage of time and feel clunky or outright offensive in sections, Lady Audley is still quite a page turner, and much in the vein of what I'm attempting to write myself, so quite an inspiration. 

Romantic Outlaws and Pride and Prometheus are wonderful for their insights into work I already love, the first by filling in details of Mary Shelley's life and work and the second by melding two work of fiction I already love and admire. 

The last category was books that I'd heard a lot of buzz about and wanted to read based on that--a bit of keeping up with what's going on in my chosen industry. 

This list includes (in the order I read them): 
  1. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
  2. Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
  3. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
  4. The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
  5. Becoming by Michelle Obama
  6. Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse
  7. The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
  8. Sass & Sorcery: Rat Queens #1 by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch
  9. An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
  10. The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin
  11. The Lady from the Black Lagoon by Mallory O'Meara
  12. The Power by Naomi Alderman
Rebecca Roanhorse, Mary Robinette Kowal, and NK Jemisin all blew me away in different ways. I don't think I can choose a favorite among their books (five of which are on this list). Most of the list held up to the hype and I'm glad I read all of them. 

There's only a few others on the list I didn't mention. My semi-regular neighborhood book club was responsible for some choices, and others I don't rightly remember why I picked that one in that moment. Looking back, though, I had an excellent reading year! I only wish I could have fit in even more books. 

How was yours? Did we read anything in common? What did you love reading this year?

Update 31 December: I made it!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Disney+ Project: Part Four: early 1940s

We're on holiday vacation now, which means we can spare a little more time for enjoying some couch time together. The littlest Bryant and I are continuing our Disney+ Project. In the past few days, we've watch Dumbo, Bambi, Saludos Amigos, and The Three Caballeros.

We missed Victory Through Air Power. It wasn't available on Disney+ and appears to have been a propaganda film of the war era. I'd still like to see it sometime, but it won't be part of this project since it's not available on the Disney+ service.

You can see what we thought of other Disney movies here, here, and here.

Truth be told, I was dreading watching Dumbo and Bambi. I remembered them as traumatizing from childhood.

They're still a bit brutal by contemporary standards for children's entertainment, but not as bad as I remembered. Of course, I'm also no longer six.

Poor Dumbo's mother is incarcerated for trying to protect her baby and he himself is subject to bullying from what should have been his community. Thank goodness for Timothy Q. Mouse! A spark of human kindness (in mouse form) in an otherwise desolate landscape.

Bambi may have fared better. Though he lost his mother, he still had a loving father and a loving community around him. His tragedy feels less tragic.

So, our thoughts:

First Dumbo. How hateful is it that the movie is titled with the derogatory nickname awarded a child by bullies? His real name is Jumbo, Jr. (And where is Jumbo, senior, BTW? He's even more absent than Bambi's dad).

My daughter and I both had trouble getting our minds around how making Dumbo a circus star was supposed to help his poor incarcerated mother. This wasn't a movie where animals could talk to humans, so the new circus star Dumbo would exactly be able to demand his mother's freedom in exchange for his work.

Then again, maybe the empathetic Timothy Q. Mouse was just trying to keep hope in his friend's life and help him build a life for himself.

Even the twelve-year-old watching with me questioned the kid-logic of the plan. The story reminded us both of the old stop motion Rudolph in that there is socially sanctioned bullying a child by adults and dubious messaging about what is and isn't supposed to be acceptable.

Those other elephants were horrid. First they pick on a baby elephant for his unusual physical attributes, then they shun him when, effectively orphaned, he takes work as a clown. Those elephants felt like they could have the society dames on Downton Abbey, or like Oscar Wilde might have enjoyed lampooning them in a play. Lady Bracknell as dowager elephant.

The drunken elephant sequence was still horrifying, and the minstrel crows made me cringe. Kudos to our society that my twelve-year-old didn't understand the depictions overall. I'm proud that she needed an explanation to understand what was going on with the crows. She's not familiar with those particular racial stereotypes, which means they're probably dying! w00t!

When the movie ended, after only a little over an hour, my daughter's main comment was that "they wrapped that up awfully quickly." I agree. It's like 55 minutes of abusing a child, followed by 10 minutes of magically making it all better. I guess it was easier than writing a real resolution to problems a baby elephant had no power to effect.

Now, Bambi. Bambi is a very odd movie. It feel more like a nature documentary with a little more anthropomorphism than usual. We watch a cycle of life: baby deer is born, grows up, faces dangers, survives, and we end with another baby deer (twins this time!). The joy in watching Bambi is the art of it. It's beautiful visually--water drops, naturalistic animal movement, forest greenery, light, and even the fire. (It is a little disconcerting how all so many of the female animals end up looking like they're wearing makeup though--like eyeshadow is what defines femininity).

My daughter thought they did an amazing job making the animals' mouths move in a way that still let them look like deer, rabbits, birds, etc., but made speech believable. I hadn't considered that, but I have to agree.

Bambi's mother's death didn't hit my daughter as hard as it hit me as a child. Maybe it's a difference in us as people, or a difference in what age we saw the film at (I was much younger when I saw it for the first time than her current twelve years). But she took it more in stride than I did as a child.

Compared to the kidney-punch-in-the-feels approach of a contemporary Pixar film, Bambi's mother's death felt, if anything, underplayed and subtle. While the gunshot ringing out and the silence that follows are still harrowing, Bambi (and the viewer) does not see his mother die, and he is not left long without guidance.

He is sad, but we quickly move forward in time to springtime and puberty to continue the cycle of life. As I mentioned above, Bambi has a good social support network, with a father who steps up and friends that stay by his side. The entire forest community is on the lookout for him. In that way, he's a very lucky boy.

After the two tearjerkers in a row, my daughter and I were happy to move onto "lighter" fare in Saludos Amigos and The Three Cabelleros. Saludos Amigos was a lot like The Reluctant Dragon in that it intermixed live action with cartoons and was, in part, a behind-the-scenes narrative about how animated features were made, involving animators traveling to South America to study the culture and creatures.

The highlight of Saludos Amigos was Goofy in "El Gaucho Goofy" which bears some similarity to "How to Ride a Horse" from The Reluctant Dragon in that it's a lot of physical humor involving Goofy trying to ride a horse. But it was still a lot of fun!

Since we watched it directly before The Three Caballeros, we got to see what the animators did with what they learned in their South American sojourn.

Unfortunately, what they did with it was turn Donald Duck into "a wolf" and throw him at beautiful women (animated and real) made of eye-rolling stereotypes.

So much red lipstick!

Saludos Amigos got a little boring for us before it was over. Maybe because it was mostly a travelogue and we've seen a lot of depictions of that part of the world already, so it was "old news."

The Three Cabelleros had more animated stories and less educational lecture, so we enjoyed it more. It started strong with the story of "The Cold-Blooded Penguin" Pablo who leaves the South Pole for the Galápagos Islands. Both of us enjoyed the creativity of the story--that bathtub speedboat was the best!

"The Flying Gauchito" was also charming, telling the story of a boy who finds a flying donkey. The other features were far less entertaining and memorable.

The story does feature the first intermixture of animated characters alongside live action ones though, in the form of Donald Duck and José Carioca, a parrot introduced in Saludos Amigos, competing for the attentions of Aurora Miranda, sister of the more famous Carmen Miranda. Intermixing live action and animation has come a long way since 1944 (compare it to Roger Rabbit or Space Jam), but it was an impressive beginning!

Our project continues into the later 1940s now with several features I don't remember ever watching and one that I suspect we won't be able to get: the contentious Song of the South.

I'd love to hear what you remember about any of these features in the comments! Thanks for reading!