the hero myth

I am just old enough to have seen the original Star Wars movie at the theatres, when it first came out. I've been thinking a lot about that experience, and about the hype that followed, now that I've finished reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces

The "Star Wars proof", as I've come to think of it, rests on the following syllogism:

  1. George Lucas deliberately wrote Star Wars to follow the monomyth as defined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  
  2. Star Wars was and is a huge hit, and a cultural phenomenon!  
  3. Therefore, if writers want a huge hit (or just a successful story, period), they should follow the example of Star Wars and use the monomyth in their own writing. 

As with all syllogisms, it needs to be tested point by point.

#1 is certainly true, on its face — as I mentioned last blog post, Lucas is on the record with his admiration of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

#2 is also certainly true. Star Wars Day was started by an ad congratulating Margaret Thatcher, for pity's sakes. Star Wars fandom shows up in places as mainstream as Friends — that episode is going to be mostly opaque if you don't know the references.

#3 is where the syllogism breaks down, as syllogisms often do (1. I like fish, 2. Cats like fish, 3. I am a cat). The conclusion of the syllogism assumes that Star Wars was a hit because it was written to follow the structure of the monomyth.

I spent some time reading discussion boards on this topic while I was getting this blog post ready, wanting to make sure my own memory of seeing it on its first theatre release weren't faulty. It doesn't seem like it was (do some Googling for commentary if you want to see third-party opinions). People do mention The Hero's Journey, but they also talk about how the good characters and bad characters were easy to tell apart, how there were so many recognisable tropes from the old adventure serials of the 30s and 40s, how wonderful the special effects were. They also point out (and I'm glad I'm also not the only one here) that while adults liked Star Wars, it was the kids who loved it.

Funny thing about that. You'd think Luke Skywalker would be the character all the kids wanted to be. But I remember seven-year-old-me chose Leia, not just because she was the token woman, but because she had attitude and could fire a blaster. My second choices were C3PO and Obi-Wan Kenobi. My younger brother (he was four when he saw it) became an instant R2D2 fan. I remember local magazines having C3PO and R2D2 on the cover; not so much the so-called hero. (Which is not to say Mark Hamill did a poor job; on the contrary, he gave Luke's quiet moments (like those bits on the Millennium Falcon) a depth that rounded out the character in far more ways than any lines he was given to say.)

Then there's the whole Han Solo arc. Never mind the farm boy who saves the galaxy, Han is a down-and-out smuggler who gets the princess. He's the guy who goes from only having himself, his ship, and his one-wookiee crew as priorities, to being a full-out fighter in the Rebellion. He's the survivor who discovers principles. There's a reason why fans freaked out and started the "Han shot first" meme, when Lucas tweaked the film after its initial release.

The paradox is that the films are so widely loved, yet so much of the writing is reviled. Most of the dislike is aimed at the sequels-which-are-really-prequels, but it's cast a more analytical eye on the original trilogy as well. If the Force is something you inherit, why doesn't Leia seem to have it? Why are there virtually no other female characters besides Leia (and don't bring up that senator)? What the hell was Obi Wan doing all those years in the desert? Baby-sitting from a distance is no way to keep occupied.

I'm just not convinced people love Star Wars because it's such a great example of the Hero's Journey. I love it for the characters, and the setting, and yeah, the special effects. The plot, meh — it beggars belief just a few too many times. Consider all the "you can't hit an exhaust hatch with two torpedoes which have to bank at a right angle almost immediately after being fired" theories:

So what am I getting at? Just this: having read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I'm just not convinced it's ultimately that useful. Better to read the original myths, or to work through a plot approach with a stronger focus on structure, like Martha Alderson's The Plot Whisperer.

the monomyth of objectivity

D. Paul Angel and Sonia Lal invited me to read up on mythology theory with them, and although it's been a frustrating trip (reading the book, not reading it with them in particular), I'm glad I did.

It's not too often I consider abandoning a book after the first sentence, especially if it's a book on mythology and story theory, but I wasn't quite expecting this:

Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinae, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale; it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously[sic] constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.

That's the start of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it was at that point that I had to remind myself it was written in 1949, although that only partially excuses it. Consider that the above quote appears under the main title of "The Monomyth." Isn't it a little weird to be actively othering people at the very moment you are stating a thesis that all of humanity's mythology boils down to a small set of super-stories?

I got the impression that this was an academic book written to be read by other academics, which in the America of 1949 would have meant white, Western, and male. It's easy to say that Campbell was simply writing for his intended audience, and for that audience, the notion that they could have anything in common with non-Westerners was radical. And yes, I concede the book was published only four years after the close of World War Two, when there was an immense amount of anti-Asian propaganda (and sanctions) to recover from.

But something nagged at me when I read the prologue, and continues to nag now that I've read Chapter One and am reading Chapter Two. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex was also published in 1949. Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems was less than ten years away. Hitchcock's Rope, featuring a gay couple as the two main characters, was released in 1948. The idea that even Western culture was multi-faceted, albeit in a lopsided, one-aspect-dominating, sort of way was around. There's only so many times one can dismiss a different point of view as an aberration.

I've also found myself comparing The Hero with a Thousand Faces to CP Snow's The Two Cultures. Although Snow didn't publish his Two Cultures lecture in book form until 1959, he formulated the observations and ideas for it in the 1930s. Snow discusses the two cultures of science and the humanities as realms populated entirely by men, since that was (mostly) the reality of the university population at the time. The difference is that it doesn't matter. Snow's very thesis argues that the differences between the cultures of science and the humanities aren't bridgeable by more diverse demographics in either discipline, because they are endemic to the sub-cultures of the disciplines themselves. He argues scientists need to learn to respect the humanities, and the humanists better appreciate science. There may not be any non-white, non-male, non-Western people in the academic world Snow describes, but there is room for them.

I just don't see how there is room for other voices in the "monomyth" Campbell describes. Instead, it seems like he's appropriating from the other and claiming that really they're just like white, Western, male, (presumably straight) him. Abrahamic religions are accorded the distinction of being "higher mythologies" than pagan religions; Campbell even blithely announces that the goddess "is incarnate in every woman." The notion that the goddess may also be present in every man, or that the god may be present in every woman, is (as of halfway through Chapter 2) absent — curious when stories of gender-shifting entities appear in myths from all over the world, including the story of Tiresias from Greek mythology. Curiouser still given how many Greek myths Campbell has already used to illustrate his points even in these early parts of the book.

Instead, Campbell's monomyth theory is reminding me of two things. One is of nushu script from China, a form of writing only practised by women, from when women were barred from traditional education. How many stories were written down in nushu, or told between other peoples not allowed to express themselves through official channels, and which therefore never got considered by Western academics such as Campbell?

The other thing The Hero with a Thousand Faces reminds me of is a brilliant, and funny, essay written by Donna Haraway: "A Political Physiology of Dominance," which is included in her book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. In it, she traces the history of our understanding of primate social structures, showing that many aspects of the way apes organise themselves were not discovered until women like Jane Goodall became primatologists. Before then, researchers were overly focused on proving human patriarchal society was both natural and normal. They were literally blind to all but a fraction of the actual primate power structure, because the remainder didn't serve their ends. Note: It wasn't that they were wrong about the part they observed; it's just that they assumed it was the whole, instead of a portion of the whole.

And, finally, that's my thing about Campbell's book. It's brilliant as far as it goes, but it only goes as far as 1949 Western academia. de Beauvoir's The Second Sex is now read in the context of having been written by a Frenchwoman in the 1940s — it's understood that while a lot of it still holds true, and a lot of it is important for an historical perspective on feminism, there are portions which are out-of-date, or have simply been proven wrong since. Howl is still a well-regarded poem, but it's important now to know it was written in the 1950s. Snow's two cultures are still visible throughout academia, but when reading his book, it is necessary to bear in mind he developed his ideas in the 1930s and chose his language for an academic lecture audience in the 1950s.

But Campbell's work seems to live on context-free, as if it's absolute truth, as if the Freudian theories it depends upon so heavily haven't been debunked or updated in the decades since. On the copy I got from my community library (third edition, New World Library, published 2008), there's a quote from George Lucas of Star Wars fame:

In the three decades since I discovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it has continued to fascinate and inspire me. Joseph Campbell peers through centuries and shows us that we are all connected by a basic need to hear stories and understand ourselves. As a book, it is wonderful to read; as illumination into the human condition, it is a revelation.

That may well shine some light on the ongoing diversity problems in Hollywood films, but it doesn't say much for our critical understanding of mythology. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying Campbell doesn't deserve his accolades. What I am saying is we need to acknowledge that even he was constrained by the mores of his times. Better to declare the direction and flavour of one's subjectivity than to lie and claim objectivity when one has none.

So: that's the context in which I'm reading the book. Next blog post (when I get a chapter or two along) will look at what aspects of the book can be of use to fiction writers.

review of The Intergalactic Matchmaking Service: Penny's Story

If anyone deserved to get fit-shaced, Penny Jones did. So what if the Marshals got pissed? As if making her lie to everyone in her life wasn’t bad enough, they also had to mandate no drunkenness. Who wouldn’t feel the need to get drunk after hearing about the big C?

And with that first, information-packed paragraph, we meet the main character of Intergalactic Matchmaking Service: Penny’s Story. Within a few chapters, we learn that she had a one-night stand, became pregnant, chose to delay cancer treatment in favour of having the baby, and then finds herself terminally ill with an infant she needs to ensure the future of. No spoilers: that’s what the back-of-book blurb tells the reader as well.

Since this is a science fiction romance novel and not a short story, there’s a twist: Penny’s estranged sister, Claire, just happens to be the American co-ordinator for the Intergalactic Matchmaking Service, and the alien species she liaises with, the Nordonians, just happen to be able to cure, or at least control, cancer in humans. However, this being a novel that stands firmly in the romance genre, there are complications.

Marko was excited to be a part of the “team” around the first Nordonian babies born in thirty years. It would also be nice to be able to help Claire’s sister with her disease, but he realized that would most likely never happen. The directives from the Council were clear . For Claire’s sister to receive Nordonian help, she’d need to have a Nordonian mate.

The blending of science fiction and romance (and xenophilia, for that matter)is an established literary tradition, dating at least to the John Carter of Mars stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Some stories are more strongly science fiction, others are more strongly romantic. Penny’s Story is more of a romance with science fiction elements than a science fiction story with a romantic plot. The reader learns why the Nordonians are so interested marrying Earth women, and a little bit about where they come from, but the real focus is on the specific characters in the story. The scope is of a cozy romance, not a sweeping epic.

Despite this, I found the most effective parts of the story were the action sequences. As one might guess knowing that Penny is in Witness Protection, she has criminals after her, and there are key scenes where one set of characters have to rescue others. The action worked well within the story, and was a good vehicle for character revelation, especially for how the Nordonians handled themselves. In fact, the Nordonians were perhaps the most well-rounded characters in the book. The reader has the opportunity to gain a lot of sympathy for their situation, and admiration for how they are handling it.

If you enjoy romance novels with some fantastical elements, I’d recommend Penny’s Story, with two major caveats. The first is while there is no explicit sex (just implied), some of the violence took me aback, more for its details than for its extent. In the country I live in, no-one brings a gun into their workplace unless they’re a police officer, a soldier, or a professional hunter. There are scenes in the book where an office worker brings a handgun to their place of work, just taking it in stride as a matter of necessity. It was important to the plot, so I can’t say it detracts from the story. I did find the various characters’ reaction to it disturbing and distracting, however. For that reason, I'd issue a caution to readers used to places with more gun control.

The second caveat is that since the Nordonians are exclusively male, and exclusively looking for fertile Earth women to have marriages and babies with, Earth men are entirely relegated to secondary characters. Virtually all of the women in the book (it's not just Penny) end in a relationship with a Nordonian. Again, no spoilers, since the relationships are established early in the book. I was comfortable with this as part of the story's focus, but men who read romantic fiction and others may feel excluded.

About the Book:

Penny’s Story” — Penny was supposed to be dead. At least that is what Claire has believed for ten years. Find out what happens when Claire's sister comes out of the Witness Protection Program. Penny is fighting a losing battle with cancer and needs Claire to raise Sunny, Penny's newborn daughter, once the cancer takes its final toll. Why is Penny's ex-boyfriend, Jason, telling his cronies that Penny has money and information about their illegal dealings? How does the cartel find out she has even left the Witness Protection Program? 

Will Marko have to watch as another woman he cares for dies a horrible death? Will he lose his job as Medical Officer on the starship for bending the rules? Can Pacer finally have the peaceful retirement he desires? How will Claire deal with her quiet life being turned upside down? Catch up with Maggie and Daxon, along with Shirley and Mathenzo.

Genre: Women’s Fiction
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services (November 30, 2014)
ASIN: B00OV8QBXC
All of the Intergalactic Matchmaking Services books are available as an e-book on Amazon.

About the Author:

Ava Louise was born a U.S. Army brat overseas, in France. She is the proud mom of two wonderful young men. It's taken her a while to figure out what she wanted to be "when she grows up," but Ava has finally found her niche in the writing world. Since writing came to her later in life, she likes to think she is living proof that it's never too late to reach for a dream or to achieve it. Before writing her own stories, she usually reads from a wide array of genres. She loves Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, Mysteries, Thrillers, and Young Adult.

Email: AvaLouise@avalouise.net
Website and blog: http://avalouise.net/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ava.louise.35 
Twitter: https://twitter.com/@avalouiseauthor

#BestReads2014

It's that time of year again, when I go rushing over to Goodreads to check if I actually finished any books this year. Well, I did. Some of them I finished so quickly I didn't even note them on Goodreads.

This was another year of heavy murder mystery reading, which is my go-to comfort genre. But then: at some point during one of the SFWA flaps (somebody again claiming women don't write science fiction, sigh), I read an article listing classic SF by women, and a lot of commenters were complaining James Tiptree Jr. was left off the list. It was interesting, because people zeroed in on her story "The Women Men Don't See", and my personal favourite by her is "The Man Who Walked Home", which didn't get any mentions at all. But it made me decide that I was going to go back to reading more SF in 2015. SF is my home base (which is different from the murder mystery comfort place — my literary geography gets complicated sometimes). It'll be good to go home.

The big change in reading habits in 2014 is that I started writing more book reviews, mostly via Women on Writing. Despite the name and their focus, they also help promote books by men — including one of the books I reviewed. My stance on these reviews, and on all my reviews, has been to try and write something so that anyone who read the review would understand whether or not they would enjoy the book. Note that's not whether I enjoyed the book, but whether the people who like the sort of book it is would appreciate it. I was lucky; I've had a good run so far. There's only been one book I honestly couldn't picture for anyone, and it wasn't a WOW book (you can read back through my reviews if you really want to find out which one I'm referring to).

The list below, though: these are the personal favourites from this year. Special thanks to Cindy Vaskova for compiling the 2014 reviews!

Under the Skin, Michel Faber I saw the trailer for the film made from this book, and decided I wanted to go see it. It was only when Cathy Cheshin asked me if I'd read the book that I really became aware that there was one.

As for the old book/film conundrum, this is one of the rare cases where the film is a faithful adaptation of the book, yet experiencing the story in one medium first does not spoil the surprises waiting in the other medium. The film is a very pared-down version of the story — it tells you enough to be complete on its own without giving away what's in the book, and vice versa.

The premise sounds like classic 1950s horror: an alien, surgically altered to pass for a human woman, roams the highways of Scotland picking up male hitch-hikers, so that her species can use them for their own ends. But the premise is flip-flopped by being narrated (mostly) from the aliens' point of view, and not the traditional Earthbound focus. That, and the incredible atmospherics the narrative provides, make this a truly amazing read. What unfolds is a thoughtful meditation on the twinned nature of brutality and kindness.

It's a wonderfully black satire where no-one gets out unscathed: despite certain groups trying to claim it as a vindication of their beliefs (if that's not too much of a spoiler), I found it showed that simplistic moral rules were bound to backfire. And if that's all too heavy, it's just an excellent marriage of horror and SF.

Murdoch Mysteries, Maureen Jennings I really love the TV series based on these books (currently airing on the CBC — not sure how available the streaming is outside of Canada, but I know people in the USA at least are watching them somehow). They cram in a lot of local history which seems to be made-up until one verifies it — the visit Winston Churchill made to Toronto as a young man, for instance, or the (very old, it turns out) belief in an ancient, underground series of tunnels networked under the present-day site of the city. The TV series has a dash of steampunk in it, but what's really fun is that the technology isn't that farfetched: a lot of it is based on gear that actually existed, but which turned out to be developmental dead ends. Main character Detective William Murdoch often uses newfangled contraptions to help him solve his cases.

It was only a matter of time before I started reading the books, and I'm really enjoying them. So far I've read the first three: Except the Dying, Under the Dragon's Tail, and Poor Tom Is Cold. They don't rely on the cameos and the technology the way the TV series does — and while Murdoch does enjoy science and logic, he's a more realistic self-made man than his television counterpart. They are excellently researched, with often-grim reminders of what life was like at the close of the nineteenth century. One sub-plot involves Murdoch having an infected tooth which must be pulled. He keeps putting it off, until a colleague tells him of a woman who died of blood poisoning from an untreated tooth problem. Photography's almost a hundred years old, telephones are common if not ubiquitous, electric lighting is catching on, and it's still common for people to die from infected teeth.

The thing is, Jennings is careful to treat the historical period as people during that time would have: just their everyday lives. As far as they're concerned, they live in a modern world with modern conveniences — for those who can afford them. It's a lot like our time that way. And, just as in our time, the solving of the murders often means Murdoch has to see past classism, sexism, racism, sectarianism... sometimes one wonders what has improved besides dentistry.

One thing I enjoy (warning: I've seen people criticise the books for this same thing) is that Jennings shows events unfold from the perpetrator's point of view as well as the police's, and sometimes the victim's also. Characters will use their class or ethnicity to pull strings — or to make themselves invisible. Unlike some mystery stories, it's not unusual for the reader to know who (or at least who from a very short list) is the killer well before Murdoch does. The fun — and it is a lot of fun — is seeing Murdoch get there. Often the actual motivation is not revealed until the end as well, which means there are other plot twists and surprises in store even when you know who did the deed already.

Thieving Forest, Martha Conway This is one of the books I reviewed for Women on Writing. To be honest, I almost passed it by: it's YA, and at the time it was offered I'd already reviewed about three YA titles in a row. I don't turn down books because they're YA, but I was in the mood for a story with more mature characters in it. The back-of-book blurb didn't grab me at first either. It's a story of the Ohio frontier in the early nineteenth century, about white, recently-orphaned teenage sisters getting kidnapped by Indians. My initial reaction was that it was going to be some sort of derivative of 1950s Westerns, including all the parts we cringe over.

I wound up taking it on anyway, and... was very pleasantly surprised. Conway knocks over the racial stereotyping very early on — the truth turns out to be far more complicated than the surface "pioneers vs. Indians". There's a classic Midwest steadiness to the narrative voice, and the use of present tense makes for a very engrossing read. This is another historical which is very well researched, and it's the only WOW-related book I gave five stars to this year. Please see my full review for more details..

My Soul to Take, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir I found out about this author on my trip to Iceland. Something to know about trips to Iceland: they do a better job than any other country I've been to of promoting all they have to offer in art, goods, geography, cuisine... the rest of the world could learn a lot about success through co-operation from them. Anyhow, since I already knew I enjoyed Arnaldur Indriðason's books, I figured it was well time for me to check out more Icelandic authors (three more so far in fact, but this post is already very long). I bought this book on my phone while sitting in a café in Keflavík airport, and read as much as I could on the flight home.

This was a different sort of mystery from Indriðason's Erlendur novels. Sigurðardóttir's protagonist, Thóra, is a lawyer, not a detective, and not even a criminal lawyer. The murders all take place around an old farmstead which has been recently converted into a spa hotel, and whose owner has hired her to do some up some legal paperwork for him. However, like in the Erlendur stories, she finds herself needing to solve a cold case which has a direct impact on murders committed in the present day. What's really smart and wonderful about the plot is that she doesn't suddenly transform into Nancy Drew — she solves it the way someone with her established skills and background would go about it.

Thóra has the cunning, stubbornness, and strong attention to details one would expect of a successful lawyer, but she's also a well-rounded character, who has to juggle phone calls with her two teenage children (who have decided to ride off in the family caravan because their father, Thóra's ex-husband, is too boring and annoying to stay with while she's working at the hotel). Besides being a good mystery, the book is a fascinating examination of how past and present, knowledge and mythology, all come together and clash over which of them get to define reality.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John Le Carré Count this as a book I should have read a long time ago. My prejudices tripped me up here. It's not so true anymore, but for a long time I accepted the stereotype that spy novels are by, about, and for men (funny, because I never accepted the mirror stereotype about romance novels). Le Carré's books were on the wire paperback stands of pharmacies and grocery stores everywhere when I was a kid. Sigh, yeah, I'm old enough to remember wire paperback stands, but hey, in my defence, I grew up in the country, and things change more slowly there. I just figured his books were the sort of disposable fiction one read in waiting rooms.

So, now that we've established I'm an idiot... what nobody ever told me is what an excellent writer Le Carré is. The opening chapter of Tinker, Tailor is funny and affectionate with its characters, but with a sadness that acts as a wonderful foreshadowing for the events to come. The relationship of spycraft to psychology and to such supposed mundanities as library science is depicted with great wit and refreshingly plausible tension. The cascade of constant little paranoid details — checking to see if one's mail is being delayed, the piece of wood left in the doorframe to see if anyone's broken into one's house — build into such a complex web that it's easy to understand how the characters sometimes lose sight of the big picture, get lost in their own office politics. I found myself admiring characters not for their bravery, or their physical attractiveness, or their virtues, but simply because they could manage to think clearly in spite of all the noise.

This novel was first published in 1974. That it continues to be a well-known bestseller, has been dramatised to great acclaim not once but twice, and we're still having arguments about whether genre works can be great literature is embarrassing. I'd love to ask my British Moderns professor why it was left off the course syllabus.

The Steel Spring, Per Wahlöö About two years ago, I went to see the Patti Smith exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario with some friends, and they brought along another friend I didn't know. After the exhibit we all had dinner together, and the conversation turned to books. I mentioned I'd been working my way through Swedish crime writers, and the friend-of-my-friends recommended Per Wahlöö. I wrote down the name and didn't think much about it, until about a year later when I was at loose ends for a new e-book to read. The public library had this one available to borrow, so borrow it I did.

Turns out this isn't quite a crime novel, although certainly several crimes get committed. It's a science fiction tale in much the same vein as the films Alphaville and Brazil, set in a fictional country which is a sort of not-Estonia. The country is a strongly bureaucratic state, which was probably formed with the intention of being socialist and wound up being more about complying with laws (there are lots of them) and filling out paperwork. The main character is a detective who, almost absent-mindedly, signs a government-mandated national loyalty card hours before he retires from the police force. He's retiring a little early, because he is seriously ill and needs to travel out-of-country for a difficult-to-get operation. He's not expected to survive.

But he does, and spends much of the next three months unconscious. Finally awake and ready to return home, he discovers there are no flights back to his home country. In fact, there's no way to communicate with home at all. In the time he's been away, something very strange and terrible has happened. His new task is to return and find out what caused such a total societal breakdown so quickly. The reason why is cringingly plausible.

The story has a lot of the bleak, dry humour I seem to like, which, coupled with its decidedly unflowery narrative style, made for a quick, but thought-provoking read. I suspect there are some sharp criticisms of 1970s politics in it which went flying right over my head, but I sort of felt the air move as they went by. Certainly recent current events have made topics like routine citizen surveillance and covert actions even more relevant again.

the reverse shopping bag blog post

 

You know those YouTube videos people post where they show off all the stuff they bought on their last shopping trip? My nieces love watching them, and although conspicuous consumption isn't really my cup of tea, I have to admit there's something weirdly compelling about them. I watched one with Niece the Elder where someone unwrapped about two dozen Kinder Eggs, pausing to show off what prize they got inside each one. The joy of surprise and discovery really came across.

Me, I live in a 60 square metre apartment that is always cluttered no matter what I do. Okay, mostly I read Apartment Therapy and wish I could get more organised, but last year I got rid of a lot of stuff, and this year I'm doing it again. There are ten days between today and Yule, and I've set myself a challenge to get rid of at least ten items per day.

The sad thing is, a hundred fewer things will not get me anywhere near the ultra-neat spaces featured in Apartment Therapy, but I like to tell myself that's because they hide all their stuff at their friends' apartments for the photo shoots.

I'm starting with an obvious target: like any respectable book lover, I have far too many books. Here are the ones which got collected and moved down to the book exchange in my building's recycling room today.