LOTR MOOC: better late than not at all

Due to circumstances beyond my control (c’est la vie), I have been forced to take a few weeks of vacation. This does not mean I have 14 days I can devote to sitting in the grass under a large tree in the Shire and waiting for Bilbo’s birthday to arrive (which as all good LOTR fans know is September 22). I have not even had time to delve into writing mode because of the important business (not at all party business) needing attention in my life right now. However, I do need to do something for diversion and bit of relaxation for the sake of maintaining my sanity. Or more accurately, for maintaining my usual nerdy, yet still socially acceptable, insanity.

Therefore: I signed up for the MOOC offered by Vanderbilt University through Coursera called “Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative.” It’s “a university-level English literature class—a multi-genre, multimedia tour of how literature, film, and games engage in the basic human activity of storytelling” that covers the literature of Tolkien, Spenser, Keats, Browning, and others, Peter Jackson’s movie The Fellowship of the Ring and the Lord of the Rings Online game.

When I first heard about the course through Kathryn E. Darden’s Middle Earth Times, I told myself that I really did not have time for it and I despaired over the missed opportunity to delve into the literature and films I love along with fellow nerds (at least 40,000 at last count for the enrollment).

The course started on September 9th.

I avoided reading articles about it that first week. Why torture myself?

By the weekend, I had gone to the site and read the course description at least twice. Inner voices nagged at me. The main culprits: J.J.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson. Not to mention hobbits – four hobbits – and a cast of other characters never far from my imagination.

So, here we are with the course well into its second week. I enrolled today. My poor olde laptop won’t support LOTRO, so I won’t be able to do the “Distinction Track” of the course, but there’s plenty to do in the general track, especially now since I’m such a late starter. Still, it feels good to finally give in and get started, much as Bilbo must have felt as he ran down the path after Gandalf and Thorin’s company.

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Well. That Didn’t Work Out…

In my last post on January 1, 2012, I said I’d take a the year and read through the works of Shakespeare. All of them. Starting with one I hadn’t read before: King John. Sounded like a good plan. Definitely still something I’d like to do. Some year. One year and 6 months later, my volume of Shakespeare’s Histories is still on my nightstand with the book mark set in the middle of Act II, Scene I. Let me pause here while I go get it and put it back on the shelf with the other three volumes in the set.

Shortly after that well-intentioned post, I had to grab the opportunity to move my 90 year-old mother from Missouri up to Indiana. The move, a difficult first three months with her in and out of the hospital several times, and a year and a half of steady overtime added to my full time job to help cover her rising care costs ate up most of my time between that post and this one. In other words: life happened. And thought I love Shakespeare, I love my mom more so something had to give.

Not that I haven’t been doing a bit of reading  in my spare moments. Some book reviews and a few posts for ZombiesandToys.com.

I’ve even a bit of work on my own zombie stories. And I have, for sanity’s sake, been watching Game of Thrones, Supernatural, The Walking Dead, The Big Bang Theory, Downton Abbey and Doctor Who. I actually went to see The Hobbit, The Avengers, and Star Trek: Into Darkness (twice so far). So life hasn’t been all work, just mostly work. I’m not saying that’s going to change anytime soon. I may just find the enough energy to write a few blog posts this year though. Here’s hoping.

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The Bard and the bridge of the Enterprise (or Why a Scifi Nerd Loves Shakespeare)

Yesterday I announced my New Year’s resolution to read the complete works of Shakespeare in 2012. Two points to clear up about that: what Shakespeare has to do with my science/science fiction/fantasy nerdiness and the story of what lead to my resolution. When I said you could blame it on Charlie Rose and his series of shows called “Why Shakespeare?” that wasn’t entirely fair. You’d also have to blame it on Star Trek and my great Aunt Fritzie.

The Bard got his hooks in me at an early age. It all started becauseMiniature volume of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew we had this set of miniature books in our house. Still have them. (Picture at right.) I would pick them up and examine them long before I could read a word on their pages just because of their size. I thought, “If they’re so small they must be made for kids.” Also, their covers were interesting: each book bound in a different color and texture of leather. Then, inside, filmy thin pages like those in my Bible so I thought they must be important books. My mom told me I could look at them if I was careful. The set had been given to her by my great Aunt Fritzie who at one time worked as a cook for the Barrymores.  I had no idea who the Barrymores were or why there was an illustration the beginning of each book showing a young, but balding man with ruffles around his neck. I didn’t really care; I just wanted to be able to read the little books. Once or twice a year, I would try to read one of them, but even after I’d learned to read well in school, I couldn’t make heads not tails of what was going on in those pages. (FYI: the Barrymores mentioned were Drew Barrymore’s grandparents. Her grandfather John Barrymore, noted for his stage portrayals of Hamlet and Richard III.)

Third grade, fourth grade fifth grade, still not much luck. I knew each of the little books contained one of Shakespeare’s plays, but aside from the titles and figuring out that dramatis personae was the list of characters, the contents remained a mystery. Then…

Star Trek. First show I begged my parents to let me stay up past my bedtime to watch. Little did I know that while glued to the TV set following the voyages of the starship Enterprise, the Bard was beginning to seep into my brain. As Duane Morin wrote in his Shakespeare Geek blog, “Every good geek knows that Star Trek is loaded with Shakespeare references.” “Dagger of the Mind,” “Conscience of the King,” “All Our Yesterdays,” “By Any Other Name” —all episode titles from the original series and all references to Shakespeare.  The trend continued in the movies. The title Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country refers to Hamlet’s famous “to be or note to be” soliloquy: “…the dread of something after death,/The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn/No Traveller returns…”

So fellow nerds, the Bard’s probably already got his hooks in you, too. Next time you quote Star Trek, remember you just may be quoting Shakespeare.

By the time Star Trek the Next Generation arrived, I’d read many of the Bard’s plays, see most of the film versions, even caught a few stage performances. Watching the first episode of STTNG, I wasn’t sure if I’d like the new series, but I was willing to give it a try because of Picard’s love of both Shakespearean drama and “tea, hot, Earl Grey” —both loves of mine. In short, a perfect circle: Star Trek leading to my love of Shakespeare, Shakespeare leading me back to Star Trek.

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Blame it on Charlie Rose: A nerd’s 2012 Shakespeare resolution

So, I’ve been pondering New Year’s resolutions and decided what one of them will be: to read the complete works of Shakespeare.

Why?

Blame it on Charlie Rose, the hero of my better self, who with his passion, gentle humor and endless curiosity never fails to engage my mind and curiosity through the discussions on his PBS talk show. Occasionally, he chooses a topic on which to build a series of shows, the most recent being “Why Shakespeare?” After looking at his website, I found that it started back in November, but I’ve been behind on watching the shows in my queue.

Just today, Rose’s December 28th show caught my eye because of the lineup: Liev Schreiber, Jim Schapiro and Ken Branagh. Hadn’t heard of Schapiro until today, but the names bookending his are very familiar. So I watched the show and it stirred my fascination with Shakespeare once again.

Liev Schreiber talked about performing the Scottish play and the music of the language found in Macbeth’s speeches. Ah, yes. Familiar territory for me. The sound of Shakespeare’s lines has drawn me in from the beginning—the flow of one word building upon the next, the rhythm of the lines, the familiar juxtaposed with the strange. Even before the meaning of even one line of the Bard’s work became clear in my mind, it was the words’ music that made me listen, read, want to understand.

Jim Shapiro spoke of King Lear, a play I have not read and never seen performed. Schapiro, a Columbia University professor, has an upcoming book called The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1806. Hearing Shapiro explain why Lear speaks to him made me understand a little more why I’ve heard so many of the actors I admire speak of looking forward to the opportunity to perform the lead role when they attain the appropriate age with all the longing that adolescents use when saying, “I can’t wait till I’m old enough to get my driver’s license.”

Then, Ken Branagh discussed the importance of continuing to ask Rose’s question, “Why Shakespeare?” Branagh recently reread King John (another of the plays I’ve never read) and commented on how pertinent it was for today’s world. “If you read King Johnright now and then put it down and…pick up The Economist” and read about the Greek debt crisis….” Hmm. Perhaps I should read that one, I thought to myself.

My set of Shakespeare's works. Taking my first look at King John.

And so the New Year’s resolution popped into my head. I got up, pulled down my boxed et of Shakespeare’s works and found the volume containing King John, put it on my nightstand, and then decided I’d need a bit of outside pressure to live up to the challenge. Blog, the muse, demanded, so blog I have.

What have I gotten myself into?

Succeed or fail in this 2012 resolution—at least that will be something to blog about.

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Zombies & Supernatural: When Spooky Seeps Into Your Psyche

So…maybe I’ve been working a bit too long on writing zombie stories. And much too into Supernatural. I just saw an ad for a restaurant—a photo of barbeque ribs—and the first thought that came to mind was: Ew. Look at that charred, ripped open ribcase. Granted, it’s accurate and vegetarians the world over would agree with my assessment of “Ew.” However, I’d say it’s a sign that after I finish my novel of the zombie apocalypse, I’d best give my psyche a break and write about angels and puppy dogs and rainbows. Like that’s gonna happen. Maybe hot angels (like Supernatural’s Castiel), werewolves and, well, I can’t really think of a cool equivalent for rainbows. Although, I did, just today, start toying with the notion of a story with a hot leprechaun —sort of a Tolkienesque Elvish take on leprechauns with nothing at’all wee about these folk. Just the way my mind works.

Back to the ribs. I know exactly why my mind slid so quickly into the goriest interpretation possible: I’d just watched “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean Winchester” from Supernatural, season 4. That’s one of those episodes where vengeful ghosts tear apart those who done them wrong in life. (Lots of episodes where that happens, so not a spoiler for those who are caught up on the Winchester boys’ adventures.) Why re-watch season 4 when the new season just started this past Friday? Such a silly question. One episode a week is just not enough Dean, Sam, Bobby and Castiel.

Aside from that, I’ve been looking forward to the next half season of Walking Dead. (That’ll be a long wait, since I dropped down to just basic cable, but at least I know the new episodes will be out there soon.) Oh, and what did I do last weekend to take a break from my zombie novel? I wrote an unrelated zombie story for an eBook anthology (due out by Halloween; more on that later).

As a change of pace, I did watch the latest Doctor Who episode tonight, but it seems that didn’t take my thoughts far enough away from gore and blood. Perhaps if I watch the Pan Am pilot before I go to bed? But no. Set in a time when women turned to flying the friendly skies in form-fitting outfits to search for adventure and/or a husband—that might be the scariest scenario of the evening.

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Nerdist.com Writers Panel 8 Podcast: #1 on my list

Okay. So, I’m late in talking about Nerdist.com and in listening to the podcast Nerdist Writers Panel #8 from June 12, 2011. (Been slaving away at finishing up my zombie novel, so not much free time.) But now that I’ve listened to this podcast: woot! So good, I’ll probably listen to this one a second time.

This panel consisted of Amy Berg (Eureka); Ben Edlund (The Tick; Angel; Supernatural); Angelina Burnett (Boss; Memphis Beat). Not only were there a lot of inside stories from TV shows I love, but there was an avalanche of great advice on writing.  I strongly recommend it to any of you aspiring script writers out there. Or just fiction writers who want to take some tips from episodic TV to tighten up plots.

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Knights of Badassdom…Needest us this?

Oh yes, dost we ever. Steve Zahn (Treme), Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), Summer Glau (our Firefly connection), and Danny Pudi (Abed on Community and a Chicago native), among others, all in a very silly movie where LARPing meets supernatural meanies…what’s not to like? At least the trailer looks good:

It’s causing a buzz at Comic-Con. Will the film turn out to be as good as the first glimpse? Could this be the Galaxy Quest of larperdom? I hopest so. I haven’t seen a really fun flick since Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog hit the web back in 08.

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Nerd Writes on Twitter

Spent part of the long weekend starting a new Twitter account (how many is this that I have now? too many? not possible! well…maybe) just for Nerd Writes. Why? Well…

I have another relatively new Twitter account for my purely science, sans the fiction, interests (dotscoolscience — website to follow soon) and I’ve found it to be such a valuable resource that I wanted to do the same for my writing and scifi/fantasy/horror interests. I’ve started searching out the peeps and organizations that are important to my little ol’ nerd writing heart. And, of course, I’ve tweaked the design.

This guy won the contest to be my Nerd Writes profile rep. (No fruity oaty bar girls were hurt in the shooting of this picture.)

One of Wash's dinos getting psyched about the Fruity Oaty bar lunchbox.

One of Wash's dinos getting psyched about the Fruity Oaty bar lunchbox.

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Game of Thrones, Girls and Mad Men

So, I finally got around to reading Ginia Bellafante’s April 14th review of The Game of Thrones “A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms” but only after I read Amy Radcliffe’s response to it on Tor.com, which should tell you something right there. I’d been warned about Bellafante’s review by a friend. He ran down the lowlights of the review for me, including her description of the series as “boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.”  Now that I’ve read the review, I see that Bellafante thinks the illicit sex scenes were “tossed in as a little something for the ladies.” This tells me two things: she’s never read George R.R Martin’s books and she probably has never seen a Bond film. (Gee, here I always thought that the sexy women and bedroom scenes were thrown into those for the “boys.” Guess I was wrong.) I won’t defend women who read epic fantasy here; that’s been ably done by Radcliffe in her rebuttal. Thank you, Amy Radcliffe and thank you, Tor.com.

I find it interesting that Bellafante opens her review by contrasting “Game of Thrones” to “Mad Men” in an effort to show how horrible it is that HBO has spent so much money on this fantasy series that she—if I’m not reading it wrong—hates. Hmmm. “Mad Men.” Isn’t that the soap opera-like show that has large number of principle characters and serves up a lot of confusion in the name of no larger or really relevant idea beyond notions that the advertising business is ugly, families are insidious and power is hot? Oh, excuse me, I’ve almost directly quoted Bellafonte’s rant about “Game of Thrones” except for changing a few words (“advertising business” for “war” ) and leaving out a few. The few I left out were “sketchily fleshed-out” before “notions.” Considering that we’ve seen four seasons of “Mad Men” maybe that’s why it doesn’t seem sketchy?

To set my record straight, I think “Mad Men” is a great series. I loved the look of it from the first episode. I was eager to see how all the principle characters’ stories would be interwoven and set against the background of larger world events. The series has great costumes, attention to detail in the sets, excellent cinematography that helps to reveal mood and underlying tension. The same can be said of the first episode of “Game of Thrones.” I’ll have to see it “Thrones” lives up to that standard through this first season before I call it a great series. It does have one big advantage over “Mad Men” though—strong women characters who aren’t hobbled by the social shackles of the sixties. Yes, within the sixties ad biz world we’ve got Joan, played by Christina Hendricks, and Peggy, played by Elisabeth Moss, but watching women struggle to work within a male dominated business is not as satisfying as seeing a woman wield power from a throne or take charge of an army of  Dothraki warriors. One of the things this girl isn’t sold on is all that illicit sex. Will there be too many sex scenes thrown in, trading story time for ratings grabs? I’m hoping the balance will tip in favor of character, action and complex political intrigue.

But then, I’m one of those girls who don’t join book clubs because those I’ve run into tend to select novels about broken marriages, abusive relationships, troubled childhoods—and nothing else. When I read for leisure, I like to be taken away from the troubles that can drag us down in real life. I want suspense, romance, fantasy, science fiction. Would I want to discuss The Hobbit in a book club (an idea that seems to confound Bellafonte)? It wouldn’t be my first choice because there’s not that much meat to the story. It’s not The Lord of the Rings, which does have a lot to discuss but it’s a triology. And therein lies the nerd book club dilemma: most of the good stuff is very, very long, so not good book club fodder. It is, however, great stuff for re-reads and online discussions. (Thank you again Tor.com.)

To be fair, Bellafonte is probably just suffering from genre prejudice, which I’ll define as an imagination-limiting tendency to confine one’s reading to mainstream and “literary” novels, with an inclination to denigrate any other kind of writing. If “Game of Thrones” was a series set in Medieval England, would she have the same problems with the large cast of characters? If part of the story took place in Rome and the actors spoke in Italian, seeing that it is a language “for which we already have a dictionary” unlike the Dothraki language of Martin’s story, would that be okay with her? (Tip to Bellafonte: think of house “Lannister” as “Lancaster” and pretend it’s English history.) Her complaint about HBO looking “cheap” when it “ventures away from its instincts for real-world sociology” tells me that she can’t see truths about the “real world” in a story unless they are told in contemporary settings. In the real world we are dealing with problems caused by war, unsettling family dynamics, and problems caused by people thinking power is hot, aren’t we?

Whereas I see an added point of interest in weaving elements of fantasy into such a story, Bellafonte can’t seem to see the real world issues for the fantasy. From her review, it seems that she has trouble getting past the swords, strange languages, and strange cultures. Getting caught up in the surface details, she shows that she’s unfamiliar with the genre of epic fantasy. Then, she veers to the other extreme: digging in too deep to demystify the popularity of Martin’s story.  She latches on to the unusual climate of the fantasy world and concludes that “Game of Thrones” is “a vague global-warming horror story.” Huh. Wonder if she sees “The Wizard of Oz” that way, too? Could the Emerald City be the first example of a green economy? Goes to show how different two girls can be. I’m attracted to the series by surface details (swords, scenery, Sean Bean) but I see the deeper story as one of politics and survival in a war torn nation. The long winter and impending threat of terrifying inhabitants invading from the north beyond the wall? Hmmm…let’s see. Perhaps: the eternal battle between light and darkness. Or maybe this: a long winter and impending threat of terrifying inhabitants invading from the north beyond the wall—otherwise known as an important story driving plot point.

While Bellafonte hungers “for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary,” I hunger for more series where I expand my world by learning new languages and expand my perception of real world sociology by observing its machinations in an unfamiliar setting.  As a side note, because of her review, I am starting to have a craving to join her book club (if she belongs to one) just so I can “stand up in indignation” and refuse “to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone” agrees to read “The Warded Man” by Peter V. Brett, no doubt another novel Bellafonte would find too confusing.

For those of you who do like Game of Thrones, there’s tons of cool info on the official HBO site.

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Baby robot dinos, you make me smile.

This is an old video, but thought those of you who haven’t, might like to meet PleoTM at least in the virtual world.

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