Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

[Note: This seems to be the next in an unplanned series about changes I’m making to deal better with the online world. You might want to grab a beverage, because it’s long.]

I saw a friend say “Not my circus, not my monkeys” on Twitter a few weeks ago and it made me realize how many conversations and issues I develop strong feelings about that don’t personally involve me. It’s human nature to be curious, to be social (in the human sense, not the Myers-Briggs sense), to have opinions. If you’re online a lot, that world is one that has many, many pieces of information about things that don’t directly bear on your life and a few that do. And that gives you an almost endless supply of issues to interact with people about.

Frequently people are wrong. Deeply, profoundly wrong. Everyone knows that; it’s why this xkcd cartoon is so widely shared. But increasingly I’m coming to the conclusion that in most cases people need to go on being wrong, without any well-meaning attempts by me to help them see the light.

Sometimes this is because they enjoy what they are feeling and to point out to them they’re wrong makes them feel worse. If the issue is trivial or one without ramifications for anything or anyone else, I’m not sure what is gained by showing them the wrongness of their position. At other times there are ramifications for other people, but it’s not clear that the person can be moved from the original wrong position (and this assumes that the wrong position is an objective one that can be proven). The resulting debate between the two parties can make things worse, not better, and at the end the person who is wrong doesn’t shift but lots of blood has been spilled.

If you stop and think about it, there really aren’t that many cases in the world of online exchange where, when someone is wrong and has that pointed out, they say, “oh wow, thank you. I will recalibrate and stop being wrong. You’ve done me a huge favor.” It does happen, but it’s rare. And so, I think, it behooves me to pick my battles. Even when I’m talking about books, all conversations are not relevant to me.

Is it my circus? Are they my monkeys? If not, let it go. And no fair widening the scope of monkey/circus possession to allow involvement where letting go is clearly the best option.

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The ahistorical historical: we’re all id reading now

It’s no secret to readers of this blog, and to readers who pay attention to my reviews at Dear Author, that I’ve had a hard time finding historical romance novels that provide me with a satisfying read these days. Although I’ve somewhat made my peace with historical inauthenticity, all kinds of things will jerk me out of a book, and for whatever reason they seem to be increasing in frequency. I’ve found a few books where the historical aspects work for me, as well as those where the romance is so good that I overlook the historical improbabilities. But a lot of the books that are most highly praised in my online romance circles don’t work for me. At all. These are “serious” books in the sense that the authors conduct background research and diligently work to create settings that are not “wallpaper.” And yet they fall flat when I’m reading them. It’s frustrating, because I want to read and enjoy books in the subgenre. Finally, though, I think I’ve pinpointed why I’ve been having so much trouble.

Last week Liz McC wrote a terrific post about what she’s been reading lately. The conversation in the comments ranged across a number of topics, but the longest discussion was about Rose Lerner’s latest (and long-awaited) release, Sweet Disorder. I had picked up this book with great eagerness when it came out, but after a couple of attempts I DNF’d it. I realized there was no way I was going to be able to lose myself in the story even though I wanted to, and I mentally filed it in the “it’s not you it’s me” category. But after reading Liz’s blog post it was evident to me that her thoughts on it mirrored some of mine, and our take on the book runs contrary to a lot of other readers’ experience, including readers with whom we share interests and sensibilities about historical romance.

The big reason I couldn’t keep going with the book was that setting and context are important to me in fiction, and I couldn’t buy the political setup. The book is set in a highly competitive constituency in the National Election of 1812. Although the electoral reforms of 1832 were still in the distance, there were always a few competitive races in the pre-reform era and it’s not a stretch to believe Lerner’s fictional borough of Lively St. Lemeston could have been one of them.

Lerner wrote about her research on women and politics over at History Hoydens, a group blog in which romance authors talk about the historical materials they find and the processes by which they integrate history into their fiction. In it she relates an anecdote that gave her the concept for Sweet Disorder: during the Oxfordshire election of 1754, Lady Susan Keck sent a couple to Oxford to be married so that the bridegroom could vote in the election as a proxy for his (new) wife, who held property rights over two votes. Like Lerner, I found this surprising and intriguing, and so I followed her citation to the fascinating work of Elaine Chalus and promptly fell down the rabbit hole to read about women and politics in 18thC England.

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BFB Readalong and UnSmartphone updates

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The Summer BFB is done! I finished Niccolò Rising a couple of days ago. Thank you, Ros, for coordinating this one; it takes away the misery of having bailed on I Promessi Sposi in the spring, and it makes me feel less awful when I look at the list of books that I had planned to read in 2014 (I have read none of them at this point, but hey, the year is still middle-aged). When I started I wasn’t sure if the book really was a BFB, but at 224,000 words, I think it qualifies comfortably.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit. It was slow to get started, and Dunnett introduces a lot of characters and relationships without much background, so you have to just go with it. And not only is there no clear hero at the beginning, the male characters with whom we spend the most time seem quite immature and callow. There’s a possible heroine, but you don’t know who she’s supposed to be matched to. The most hero-like person (handsome, powerful, wealthy, talented) is a jerk from the get-go, which makes the whole thing even more confusing.

It’s not that I was expecting a romance, but the difference from the way The Game of Kings opens is striking. Lymond seizes the stage from the opening sentence. With this series, you don’t even know who Niccolò is until you’re well into the first book. Once you realize, however, things start to make sense and by the end of the book it’s very clear that Dunnett has created a character that is going to be at least as brilliant and talented and have at least as many adventures as Lymond did. He’s not nearly as handsome, though which partly explains why he is not the subject of endless fanfics the way Lymond is.

For me, the book really takes off when Niccolò makes the match that gives him the power to lead. Since I had tried to remain spoiler-free, I didn’t see that plot twist coming, but it was brilliant. It was an unusual match, and Dunnett doesn’t minimize the fallout that is created, but it really works to put him at the heart of everything he wants to do, in terms of financial capital, status, and network relationships.

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Musing on Reading: RSS today, Kindle Unlimited tomorrow, and more

I didn’t start my UnSmartphone project as a personal productivity project, but if I’m honest with myself that was definitely in the back of my mind. When I searched for stories on mobile phone use in developing countries, the keywords I used (especially dumbphone use, feature phones) returned dozens of stories about people who had returned to feature phones, people who missed their feature phones now that they had a smartphone, and even people who used their smartphones like feature phones (tl;dr, the iPhone makes a very expensive feature phone, but hey, go for it).

As regular readers of my blog know, I’m constantly grappling with productivity issues (let’s just say I am far more aware of when I’m not working well than when I am), and in my always-online world, the internet plays a big role. Using a Windows Phone has been one way to limit the variety of ways I procrastinate online, even though it probably doesn’t greatly decrease the total time spent. And I knew from bitter experience that novelty-heavy changes don’t stick unless by accident. The novelty wears off, the difficulties become apparent and hard to ignore, and it’s back to the status quo ante. Also, field research should be about the objects of study, not the researcher (you’ll learn plenty about yourself during field research without trying to, so no need to foreground it and ruin the project).

So I consciously set about creating a mobile environment that I thought could mimic the ones in which the people I’m interested in are embedded. Obviously it’s a very imperfect approximation right now, because I don’t know enough about their lives and there are too many differences between them and me. But the point is to help me get insight into what kinds of questions to ask and what kind of data to seek if I pursue the real, field-based project.

As I said in my previous post, I think that a smart, motivated person with a moderately equipped feature phone can access quite a bit of online information and communication. But I’m also learning what seems to be more and less superfluous for my own ICT uses.

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The UnSmartphone Chronicles, Week 1, with bonus readalong update

I finished the second installment of David Peace’s Red Riding quartet, Nineteen Seventy-Seven, this week. It became quite gripping plotwise in the last third, with the two narrators meeting and working out various puzzles. The end is equal parts depressing and sudden and ambiguous. You will not be surprised to learn that the bad guys don’t get what’s coming to them and the more or less good guys (and women) don’t fare well either. I’m totally committed to finishing the series, but I’m taking a break with something less intense and demanding.

I thought The Cuckoo’s Calling would make the perfect break, and I was right. I started it months ago and stopped in the first chapter for no good reason. This time I kept going and once the client showed up in Cormoran Strike’s office, I was in for the duration. Rowling is not the most brilliant writer on the planet, and the difference between her style and Peace’s is striking. A lot of writers would suffer by comparison to Peace, I think, but Rowling’s style epitomizes the competent, enjoyable read: you can see the obvious turns of phrase coming, but she can also place you smack in the middle of Tottenham Court Road, to the point you’re feeling the Crossrail construction blue hoardings at your back. And she can sketch a minor character with a minimum of words. She is very good at what she does. It’s not intellectually demanding but it’s intelligent and engrossing and I’m having a very good time.

I’ve made some headway on the #SummerBFB as well. Claes was just called Niccolò in the middle of a very interesting card game, and the secondary characters are flourishing. Dunnett is so good at those. We talk so much about Lymond and orient the other characters in terms of their relationships to him, but they can absolutely stand on their own. In Niccolò Rising Claes is much less dominating, and the other characters demand your full attention. It’s ensemble storytelling of the highest order.

In other news, I spent the last week getting to know my new phone. If you remember, I decided to embark on a pseudo-experiment to see what mobile technology is like for people who don’t have smartphones and generous data plans. I’m using a Nokia 515, which is a snazzy version of a basic candybar-style phone. The operating system is Nokia’s venerable S40 platform (venerable in both good and bad ways), and while this version has built-in access to Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, email, and the internet, it’s a long way from the Windows 8 phone I’ve been using.

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