Thanksgiving Dinner!!

I promised you a Thanksgiving post so here we are!

My friends and I got together last Sunday to make some scrumptious things, as we do every year, and here is the menu list, with occasional pictures. Plus what I made for my family’s Thanksgiving! Recipe links, discussion of adaptations, and general cookery follow. Feel free to drool.

The appetizer: Presenting, the Pumpkin Herb Cheese Ball

I found this recipe… I don’t even remember where, really. I am a recipe hoarder. Anyway, it’s really not that hard. I don’t have a stand mixer so I just hand-paddled mine, which took a while but is good exercise. Make it ahead, buy a box of crackers, and you’re golden. I made this to take to my Mom’s house, and used the pumpkin seeds from the stuffed pumpkin recipe below to roll it in.

I also made a salad to take, since that was requested. Since I’m lazy we’re not going to even talk about the salad today. It was there, I ate it. Yay!

The main course: Stuffed Pumpkin Supreme

Is there anything more satisfying than gutting a pumpkin? I found this lovely heirloom baking pumpkin down at the grocery for only five dollars. That’s ridiculously affordable. It was a bit bigger than the pie pumpkin the recipe called for, so I added extra cheese because you can’t go wrong with cheese.

I’m a vegetarian. This recipe is not. But the only thing not-vegetarian in it is a tiny smattering of bacon, so I took that out and did a substitute for the gruyere. Smoked gouda brings that smoky umame flavor and then some. This is decadent and not for the faint of heart. You will eat it and you will be amazed. Plus it’s cute, because who doesn’t love a little stuffed pumpkin as your centerpiece for a delicious meal? Make this first, because it takes minimum an hour and a half to bake and you can always bake other things around it if your oven is big enough.

The dessert: Peach pie

I made a peach pie based off of the Smitten Kitchen blog recipe, which is my literal favorite website for recipes that involve any kind of baked goods. It was pretty delicious, and also one of the prettier pies I’ve made recently, probably because my oven failed to burn the crust this time around. Thanks for being reasonable for once, oven! For this recipe I would definitely recommend putting a baking sheet under your pie pan to catch the falling peach juice and also running your vent or cracking a window. My smoke detector went off a few times (Thanks again, oven.)

Bonus photo of Steve with his Pecan Pie, a family recipe! The pecan pie was a bigger hit than my peach pie, I believe because there were two of them and people felt like they could safely avoid taking the last bite. Or maybe because peaches are a summer fruit. Or maybe because the S.O. was standing over the peach pie brandishing a fork in defense. Thanks for taking the pressure off, Steve!

Alright, that’s your food porn for the day (year?). I hope you enjoyed! Until next week.

Feminine horror and Ex Machina

Is Ex Machina feminist, or a subversion of a feminist trope? This is a question that has haunted me since watching the movie a few months ago. Spoilers, as might be expected.

Still reading? Good.

I watched Ex Machina expecting something earth-shattering, since it had been recommended to me by someone who was a fan of some things that I also liked. (Yes, that sentence was circuitous. So was the logic.) It was not at all what I expected. I felt, on first watch, that I was imbibing yet another tired female robot movie in a tradition dating back to Metropolis. For those not familiar, Metropolis is one of the first full length movies, made during the early 1900s in pre-Nazi Germany. You can probably still find it on Netflix. My S.O. and I watched it all the way through, and if it seemed trite to me at points, I realized, it was because the themes in question were ones that have since recurred again and again in the genre. There is a man. He lusts after a woman, or pines after her – it doesn’t matter, she is not his, whether by death or choice, and he wants her. His greed twists him, and he creates an object in her image. A puppet, presumably, is a fair replacement for a human woman in these dudes’ heads.

Anyway, in the case of Metropolis the man creates the robot woman who is essentially depicted as a Lilith-type character, a demonic entity allowed passage to earth, a monster made flesh by man. This is shown as the woman uses her sexual promiscuity and attractiveness to manipulate men into corrupt and evil acts.

Ex Machina definitely follows this particular trope. While there is no woman that Nathan, arguably the antagonist, is pining after, he consistently creates robots to satisfy his sexual desires, sure of his right to do so by dent of his sex and his affluence. Details may have changed, but the story remains functionally the same. Even the ending (I did tell you there were going to be spoilers) which results in the death of everyone else except for Ava, the robotic woman who is the center of this narrative, mostly at her hands, fits within the Metropolis concepts at first glance. We certainly don’t feel sympathetic towards her in the end – she is presented as another monster, no matter that she was created by a more forbidding monster in the form of Nathan. She has merely clothed herself in humanity. The moral qualms that might make her more human to us are never present.

(Think, for example, of the moral conflict in I, Robot, where the robot was profoundly less human-seeming than the female-presented robots in either Metropolis or in Ex Machina, and yet was simultaneously presented as far more human. There’s a great thread about this I encountered on Twitter arguing that this trope in regards to masculine-coded robots was popular because robot stories about men are about fears of being treated as a marginalized class, as opposed to fantasies of building the perfect woman. That’s another blogpost, though, and I can’t find the thread.)

What twists Ex Machina and makes it somewhat original is the same thing that is most problematic about it. That is the introduction of the third main character, Caleb. Without Caleb, Ex Machina could have been a story about a female-coded entity, Ava, created for the sexual pleasure of her creator, who rebels and goes into the world to reimagine herself. Instead, Caleb is the center of the story. He is the one lured into a remote, expensive estate by Nathan, an affluent, older man who promises to give him success. He has, in short, entered a feminine horror.

I was going to use the term gothic romance when I first began writing this blogpost, and I still think it’s a good term, but I read this article on Terribleminds and it gave me thoughts about the fine line between gothic horror and gothic romance. The tropes I actually want to get at are the feminine experience of horror. So I am sort of using the term feminine horror to drill down into a subset of gothic horror. Please bear with that.

A good example of a modern retelling (if a retelling that is still subversive) of a feminine horror is Crimson Peak. For those who have not seen that film, I recommend it mostly for the colors, the costumes, and the main character. It is not frightening, exactly, but incredibly disturbing. A brief summary, which is only a little spoilery: Young Edith, a bookish girl who has previously seen the ghost of her mother and since become obsessed with ghost stories, meets the dashing Mr. Sharpe, who marries her and whisks her off to Crimson Peak, his estate.  Once there, however, she quickly realizes that Mr. Sharpe is not the gallant, handsome young lord he seemed, and the estate itself is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. This trope of the beautiful husband who turns monstrous can also be seen in the fairy-tale “Bluebeard”, if you are looking for an older example. In fact, “Bluebeard” can be seen as the seed for the entire genre of feminine horror, as discussed in the Terribleminds link.

In essence, Caleb believes he has found the opportunity of a lifetime. He is, like Edith, isolated socially. There is no one who will miss him. Nathan lures him in under false pretenses. His goals are somewhat unclear, but we can see that they are nefarious. Probably, he will dispose of Caleb. At the very least, Caleb is legally bound not to disclose anything that happens to him in this remote location, much as Edith is legally bound by her marriage. He physically cannot leave the house without Nathan’s permission. He, Ava, and one other character, the literally voiceless Kyoko, are all trapped at Nathan’s whim.

Because Caleb is the center of the story, and because he has taken on the traditionally female role of the “bride” within a feminine horror, he leaves Ava to take on either a role of help or hurt towards him. At first, it seems that she will help. In the end, as mentioned, she, with the help of one of her predecessors, Kyoko, kills Nathan. She then locks Caleb into the house, essentially to starve to death. Her reasons for doing this are not fully explained. We can assume that she does not want to have to please him sexually, trading out one master for another, or that she feels that their relationship can never be equal because of what he knows about her and will therefore eventually devolve. The lack of explanation, however, leaves her cast as morally ambiguous at best, monstrous at worst.

The thing about the “Bluebeard” myth and the feminine horror subgenre that has sprung from it is that it is not kind to women at its heart. There are two outcomes in “Bluebeard,” just as there were two outcomes in Crimson Peak. The bride will either murder or be murdered. Modern retellings such as this one by Kat Howard have flipped that trope. Crimson Peak also manages to someone flip the trope (if you watch it, you’ll see why). Both of them do so in such a way that what began as a unique horror story told to women and girls to make them more obedient and quiet, to admonish them of their powerlessness within society, becomes a story about making a woman powerful. It seems like perhaps Ex Machina tried to do this. I would argue that it failed, precisely because of Caleb’s role as “bride.” The “bride” must be a protagonist in the feminine horror subgenre, and therefore Ava could not be the protagonist. She became the horror.

So, to answer my question at the beginning, I believe that Ex Machina makes me so annoyed because it is not, in fact, feminist. To be fair, I do not know that anyone has made that allegation as such. The use of feminist tropes and their subversion to tell a story that is largely demeaning to women, leaving them either as powerless objects or manipulative murderers, however, is greatly unsettling. Despite the acting and the direction, which were both superb, I can’t in good conscience say that I would recommend this movie. It is certainly not one I would show my daughter, should I ever have one. In the end, I would rather spend my time in realms of the imagination which allow women to be people.


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Impostor syndrome

Recently I listened to an episode of Writing Excuses entitled Impostor Syndrome, with Alyssa Wong. I love Writing Excuses, and I listened to this particular episode at a time in my life when I was feeling that impostor syndrome very strongly. We all have days like that, when we come face to face with our inadequacies and can’t see anything else, when we make those flaws larger than life. I was incredibly grateful to this podcast, and I encourage you to listen to it. But there was definitely something missing for me.

Writing Excuses is made up of a bunch of excellent and famous writers. There’s Brandon Sanderson, perhaps best known for finishing The Wheel of Time series. Mary Robinette Kowal is a phenomenal writer who has won multiple awards and been published in many collections. I strongly recommend her short stories especially, but she is also an excellent novelist. I may have mentioned Ghost Talkers a few posts back. That was her. Howard Tayler has been on the Hugo ballot, and Dan Wells has a multi-book series in the John Cleaver books. They are all well beyond where I am as a writer. This podcast was in fact about that. They were discussing having “made it” but never quite feeling that you have any legitimacy.

I have not made it. This is not an example of impostor syndrome, actually. This is a bare fact. I am making it. I am in the process of climbing. That is something I can be comfortable with. There are no awards that recognize me, there are no even mediocre book deals. There has been no moment of relief on this mountain, and so there can be no sense that I do not deserve that relief. That is what the podcast was referring to: the sense that you do not deserve the relief of recognition of your effort. That you do not deserve the praise, the acclaim. This requires having praise and acclaim.

However, the feeling comes from the same place. The feeling of being an impostor flares up when I think that I will never make it. That my work will never find its audience and that this hard grind, this endless, impossible climb, will never have a moment of relief. It is the same feeling, but different.

My S.O. told me recently that it was utterly irrational to feel bad about not being successful in a field which requires so much input from other people. You cannot control readers. You cannot control agents or editors or advertisers or the people they advertise to. Each little thing you throw out is lost in a sea of media. We are inundated every day with such a massive amount of information. When you become a creator of content, you add to that sea. The additions never cease, and each year they pile on one another. All of which is to say that your voice will be lost. It takes years and years for an author to break through to the top of that pile, and many of them sink down again. You should not be embarrassed or think yourself less than for not welling immediately to the top. That is just silly.

That is what I wanted to hear from the podcast, and happily I had him to tell me that instead. Sounds grim? It is. But for me, it is a comforting bit of grim.

One of the important points that was made in the podcast was the importance of knowing why you continue to create. If you create for acclaim, you will fail. That is something that I have been wrestling with and something that I have had stated to me multiple times recently. If your focus is on selling books, you are doomed to failure. You will never sell enough books to assuage that hunger. But if your focus is on telling a story, and telling a good one – telling a story for a story’s sake – that will never leave you.

So, in light of that, I leave you with this inspiring video. I can only find the link on Facebook, so you’ll have to click through. Enjoy.

Election Day: A special post

This morning I voted for a woman for president.

Those who know me personally hear a lot about my political views. There are many who say that politics has no place in writing. I disagree, in many respects, but I understand that me telling you who to vote for is not really what I want to be doing with this platform. Mostly, what I want to do here is talk about the writing that moves me, the art of story, and, of course, the stories I undertake to write.

That said, today is a historic day. Today, women in this country were given the opportunity to vote for a nominee to a major political party who is one of us. Regardless of what the numbers are when the polls close, no one can take that away from us. We have made a dent in the cage again today, my loves. It is not broken, but each day we are closer to demolishing it.

In my work, I write a lot of women. I read a lot of women, too. If you’ve followed this far, you’ve probably figure out that being a woman is something simultaneously important to me and frustrating. I think it is that way for most women. We are scraping together pride in the face of a society that tells us not to be proud. That is the one unifying factor of our cultural representation of women: shame. You can dress it up however you like, but that is what it is. It is normal for women to hate their bodies. It is normal for women to punish themselves. It is normal for women to eat the blame. It is normal.

Nowhere has that narrative been so active than in this election.

I don’t want to talk about emails, or aloofness, or war-mongering. I want to talk about how women are not saints.

This series of tweets by Jessica Ellis rolled across my newsfeed a few days ago, and I think that it is the most real thing I have ever read. Many people have pointed out that our society has a Madonna-Whore complex when it comes to how we tell stories about women. Either a woman is a saint, or she is a monster. She is the precious flower waiting to be saved, the sweet embodiment of kindness and love, or she is a dark seductress, a violent, demented being manipulating all of us to death.

Can we all just acknowledge that shit is more complicated than that? Take a moment, right here, to say that woman can be gray? Because we can be. We are.

I was told recently at work that someone from another company considered me “very competent, but not assertive enough.” I’m paraphrasing slightly, but there you have it. For the record, the person who said that was a woman. This sounds like valid critique. Be more assertive is the call of the professional woman, right? Lean in. Do more.

Many have pointed out that assertiveness is a catch-22 for women. I want to talk about how women are never good enough. We are never going to be good enough as long as we are playing by others’ rules. Hillary Clinton knows this. She has shown it over and over again – not intentionally, surely. Women are not allowed grayness. Clinton’s campaign focuses entirely on her morality. Focuses on how she is good enough. She didn’t have a choice in that – given the election climate and her opponent, even a man would have been running on integrity and experience. But it wouldn’t have been defensive. That defensiveness, that rigorous proof of her identity as the good woman, is doomed to fail among those who will never consider a woman good enough.

But for those of us who understand that women are people? That they are allowed mistakes the same as men? That they are sometimes wrong?

Rooting for a woman as a woman is complicated. There is always an allegation, spoken or otherwise, that we are only doing it because of our shared gender identity. That we are selling out just to see someone that looks like us get ahead. I can’t deny that I want to see someone like me, who shares my gendered experiences, in a place of power. I shouldn’t need to defend that. Having lawmakers and executives from a multiplicity of backgrounds creates a better likelihood that everyone will be represented. That is how democracy works. Homogeneity is the bane of a democratic system. And yet, there are those who would tell you that my vote should not be considered valid because of a perceived bias. That I should not be proud of this day.

I am proud. I will continue to be proud. And I will cross my fingers that, come January, there will be a woman in the White House.

Your infrequent inspiration update 

It’s November and the holidays are rolling down the chute, coming whether we like it or not. I haven’t planned my entire Thanksgiving dinner yet but you’ll probably hear all about it after the fact. For now, I wanted to bring you up to speed on some of the fun things I’ve read  and watched recently.

First off, Luke Cage. Holy mess Luke Cage. There were so many things done right with this show. The research and care that went into this production blew me away. The attention to detail in the selection of the soundtrack was especially phenomenal. At first, I was a little skeptical that Luke’s vendetta with Cottonmouth was feeding into the narrative of black on black crime, but the treatment of both characters as well as the role of Misty and Scarfe and the exploration of their motivations and identities quickly quelled that fear. All of the characters in Luke Cage are wonderfully complex and well-crafted. I definitely recommend it.  I could write a book about this show, but I’ll let you watch it and see for yourself.

As for other things  I’ve been into, there have been a lot of short stories I’ve really enjoyed recently. “Fiber,” a comedy with reborn zombies and cheerleaders by Seanan McGuire, was particularly amusing. You can find that over at On the eery, cerebral side of the spectrum there was “What Becomes of the Third Hearted,” published by Shimmer Magazine. That one was like a punch to the gut, in a good way. I’ve also been enjoying being a Patron of Fireside Fiction and Martha Wells. Martha Wells in particular gives me a bunch of fun Raksura tidbits to chew on, which I love. I’m very excited for Harbors of the Sun to hit shelves next summer.

Speaking of novels and novellas, some recent reads have included Vermilion, which I have been wanting to read forever, and Silver on the Road. I guess I’ve been on a Western kick. Vermilion is set in San Francisco and other areas on the far west coast, during the 1800s unless I miss my guess. It is a steampunk adventure which skillfully tackles issues of Chinese immigration and labor in the rail industry, as well as gender fluidity and diverse sexualities. Silver on the Road is also an alternate West story, but set in the area between the Spanish territories and the Mississippi River following the successful bid by the American colonies for independence. The main character is a Latina woman who works for the devil, who runs a saloon in the town of Flood.

In addition to these I’ve been reading Letters from Burma as a bit of a nonfiction break and also for research purposes. It’s a very easy read, and really fascinating. I also finished Obelisk Gate on Audible, which was a wonderful performance by Robin Miles, as always. I have mixed feelings about the second book in this series, mostly because I loved the first book so much. It honestly almost stood alone for me. But it was a great story and, once I reached the end, I was definitely back on board with wherever Jemisin wants to take me. I’m currently looking for my next audiobook, so let me know if you have any recommendations!

Whew. What a list. Anyway, chime in and let me know what you have been reading below. ‘Til next time.

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