Friday, February 18, 2011

50 Book Challenge No. 4: The Scarlet Contessa

Not to unfairly bash The Scarlet Contessa, but I tire of historical novels in which we are lent glimpses into the lives of famous personages from the viewpoint of limpet-like fictional companions with conveniently anachronistic attitudes. Fails as education and as smut. Not recommended.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

50 Book Challenge No. 3: Slammerkin

I went into Slammerkin knowing essentially nothing about it, other than that it was a historical novel set in 18th century England and had a female protagonist. I endorse this method of encounter, and will endeavor to not spoil the book for you.

It purports, in the afterword, to be based on a true story, but the details of the events referenced are largely unknown, and the motivations of the persons involved still less so. The canvas thus prepared for Emma Donoghue's perceptive reimagining, we are drawn into the achingly common story of Mary Saunders's "fall": A mere girl, tarnished forever by sexual impurity, embraces the relative freedom offered by a life of prostitution. After some years of hard and fast living, her options and friends dwindling, Mary makes a daring choice: To impersonate herself, as the girl she would have been, and return to her mother's village on the Welsh border to make a living as a seamstress. A happy ending for Mary is almost within reach, but her emotional ties to the independence of her former life, coupled with the greed and malice of a former client, make clear that Mary is not destined to live a simple life of sewing and children. The strongest aspect of the novel is in Donoghue's characterization of Mary, who does not just have weaknesses, but demonstrates them in organic and believable ways. The ending, though, comes abruptly and does not follow as smoothly from Mary's motivations as her prior conduct. Nevertheless, recommended for historical fiction readers.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

50 Book Challenge Nos. 1 & 2: Catching Fire & Mockingjay

I started off the new year with a little YA fiction: Catching Fire, the second book of the Hunger Games, and the closing volume of the trilogy, Mockingjay. Neither is as good as its predecessor, which required the protagonist to be constantly active and making choices with ethical and plot implications; here, Katniss is strangely reactive, and the reader is dragged into a morass of guerrilla warfare just as she is. The centrality of Katniss to the resistance movement (even as a mere symbol) seems shoehorned and awkward, and too much of the books' suspense revolves around which boy Katniss will pick. Recommended for completists and YA speculative fiction fanboys and -girls.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

"To enter into a marriage the bar of intelligence and understanding is set low."

Since there has been some blog discussion of this instance in which a disabled man was ordered not to have sex, I thought people might appreciate reading the actual legal decision.
  1. In this case [the testifying psychiatrist] ... proposed the following criteria by way of particularisation:
  2. For capacity to consent to sex to be present the following factors must be understood:
    1. The mechanics of the act
    2. That only adults over the age of 16 should do it (and therefore participants need to be able to distinguish accurately between adults and children)
    3. That both (or all) parties to the act need to consent to it
    4. That there are health risks involved, particularly the acquisition of sexually transmitted and sexually transmissible infections
    5. That sex between a man and a woman may result in the woman becoming pregnant
    6. That sex is part of having relationships with people and may have emotional consequences
  1. The next question is to decide whether the six criteria of Dr Hall do indeed accurately particularise the simple test of Munby J. It is fair to say that neither counsel supports the inclusion of the sixth criterion as an essential ingredient of capacity to consent to sex (viz "an awareness that sex is part of having relationships with people and may have emotional consequences"). I agree. This criterion is much too sophisticated to be included in the low level of understanding and intelligence needed to be able to consent to sex. Apart from anything else, I would have thought that a deal of sex takes place where one or other party is wholly oblivious to this supposed necessity.
  2. Counsel are agreed that an awareness and understanding of the first, fourth and fifth criteria are indeed essential ingredients of the capacity to consent to sex. They are divided as to the inclusion of the second (age) and third (consent). Mr O'Brien strongly argues that the law requires their inclusion; Mr Sachdeva states that "they go beyond the factors which have been expressly stated as being necessary elements of capacity to consent to sex in previous case law".
  3. So the question that I have to answer is this: in order to be able to consent to sex does a person need to have a proper and full(ish) awareness and understanding that sex should only be done by people over 16, and that it should be consensual? It is not an answer to the question to observe that sex with minors, and non-consensual sex, are horrible perversions. There are plenty of paedophiles out there who through warped ideology actually believe that it is morally acceptable to have sex with children. Equally, the prisons have numerous rapists within their walls. But paedophiles and rapists have the capacity to consent to sex.
  4. Mr O'Brien says that this argument is over-intellectual. We are dealing here, he says, with mentally incapacitated people, who in the terms of s2(1) of the Act are suffering impairment of, or a disturbance in the functioning of, the mind or brain. We are not talking about perverts who obviously have the capacity to consent to sex. This is true enough, but I believe that to import these knowledge requirements into the capacity test elevates it to a level considerably above the very simple and low level test propounded by Munby J namely "sufficient rudimentary knowledge of what the act comprises and of its sexual character".
  5. In his evidence Dr Hall emphasised that the need for consent is one of the very first messages that is conveyed to people with learning disabilities who are being taught about sex. Nothing I say is intended to diminish that obviously vital message. There is a difference, however, between the teaching of what is right and wrong in the pursuit of sex, and what level of understanding and intelligence is needed to be capable of consenting to it.
  6. I therefore conclude that the capacity to consent to sex remains act-specific and requires an understanding and awareness of:
    • The mechanics of the act
    • That there are health risks involved, particularly the acquisition of sexually transmitted and sexually transmissible infections
    • That sex between a man and a woman may result in the woman becoming pregnant
After considering "Alan"'s knowledge of various sexual acts and related issues, the judge elected to enter only a temporary order stating that the subject lacked capacity to consent, with the caveat that "the local authority [] provide Alan with sex education in the hope that he thereby gains that capacity."

Incidentally, I passionately hate reading English legal opinions due to the formatting and citation conventions, but the decision to number paragraphs is a very elegant way to circumvent dependence on pay sites for pagination information. Is there some reason why this could not be adopted by judges in the United States?

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

PSA re bookblogging

A friend remarked the other day that I have fallen behind on my book blogging, which has the side effect of making it harder for him to find new books to read. Sorry, folks! I have been reading quite a lot, but I only blog books that am reading for the first time and finish, and quite a few have been discarded partway through or were comfort book rereads. Will catch up with some reviews this week!

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Poem of the Night

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number —
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many — they are few.

Lt. Mary Sue Frey, who singlehandedly talked Hitler to a standstill

I was chatting yesterday about the backlash against The King's Speech, which is a very enjoyable film but is historically inaccurate in several respects. The tweaks to the narrative didn't bother me, as in most cases (such as the Churchill bit), the changes are not really relevant to the focus of the film, which is the relationship between Logue and Bertie and Bertie's struggle to overcome his disability.

My interlocutor then pressed me: How can one despise mendacious memoirists (as I do) but not care about historically inaccurate film narratives? And then I realized that this is all about fan fiction.

Fans love fanfic, and the British monarchy has a lot of fans: history buffs, royalty-obsessed weirdos, pretentious Anglophiles, etc. So we get The King's Speech, which appeals to Windsor worshipers AND people who own the DVD of Pride & Prejudice with Colin Firth. There is a sense in which the viewer joyfully collaborates with the filmmaker to celebrate their mutual appreciation of these historical characters. It is not that the appropriation of extant historical or fictional characters for purposes of short-cutting world-building or characterization is illegitimate; on the contrary, the whole point is that the degree of attention to the desired focus is made possible by invoking our preexisting knowledge and emotional associations. Where the story (here, the story of a friendship between two men of very different backgrounds and of a privileged person being forced to ask a "lesser" man for help) is facilitated by certain facts being elided or altered, it is perfectly reasonable for such changes to be made---the tale is not about Churchill, or Edward's fascist sympathies, or the precise timeline under which Bertie underwent therapy. Adherence to the facts in all instances would distract and detract from our focus, and from our appreciation of the setting and characters for which we already feel such affection.

The James Freys of the world take advantage of this affection for self-aggrandizement. The creation of the narrative is no longer about the world or characters that the writer and reader both love, but about gratifying the ego of the author. Instead of being immersed in a world from the inside, from the perspective of one of its natives, we are shoehorned into a deceitful incarnation that cannot provide the satisfying interactions with our characters and setting we desire as fans or readers: cannot, because each interaction must center around the Sue, not organically grow from what we know about who and what surrounds it.

Nobody likes a Mary Sue. But The King's Speech doesn't have one, and so it didn't bother me.