Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016, pt. 18: Lisa Shapter

The Pleasures of Reading 2016: Agatha Christie 1936 
by Lisa Shapter 

When people think of the clever things mystery writer Agatha Christie does with narrative they usually mention The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). I’ve been reading her later Hercule Poirot mysteries in order and I’ve discovered she seamlessly pulls off a more subtle effect: writing without comment or fanfare from male perspectives (with sympathetic concern in Dumb Witness (1937) for the issues of domestic violence, elder abuse, and restrictive divorce laws). She also breaks other ‘rules’ about narration and perspective (including her frequent, charming-when-it-ought-to be-irritating habit of having characters remark ‘Why, that only happens in mystery novels!’)

In 2016 I read the three(!) Poirot mysteries Christie published nearly 80 years ago, in 1936: The ABC Murders (The Alphabet Murders), Murder in Mesopotamia, and Cards on the Table.

Christie does something startling in The ABC Murders: she alternates the conventional 3rd person narration of Poirot’s friend-and-Watson-figure, Captain Hastings, with chapters of 1st person narrative from the primary suspect on the eve of each killing. (These chapters are actually reconstructions by Hastings who must have more of an imagination than Poirot gives him credit for.) This seems jarring and awkward at first (why not simply have the suspect hand over a later-excerpted diary when Poirot interviews him in jail late in the book?) But it turns out to be necessary in this unusual mystery where those closest to each victim assist Poirot on the case.

Murder in Mesopotamia starts with an unusual frame story from a tertiary character, a man, describing the woman who will be a central part of the case. It seems like an awkward entry point for an appealing, isolated-setting ‘county house’ mystery with a wonderfully realized location (a 1930s archaeological dig written by the wife of an actual 1930s archaeologist) but the frame gives a necessary outside viewpoint on the narrator that the woman herself could not give.

Cards on the Table has Poirot accepting the help of several other detectives, as equals, and admitting to his own faults of being overbearing and willing to do questionable things (trespassing on active crime scenes, eavesdropping, lying, and fabricating evidence) in order to solve cases. This breaks with Christie’s consistent earlier portrayals of her detective as admirable but mildly eccentric: in the late 1930's her writing starts to suggest that her detective’s neatness, his scrupulousness, and his sense of moral imperative might have a shadow side.

I put off reading Agatha Christie because I expected her work would be conventional and old-fashioned; I had read my share of once-groundbreaking science fiction half the Poirot series’s age that now seemed like well-done but staid set pieces. Instead I’ve found her mysteries to be masterful and startling. It is easy to think a man like the fictional Captain Hastings wrote them: honorable, conventional, blinkered by era and education; but Agatha Christie was a widely-read (and-traveled) woman with an excellent but unconventional education, making the illusions and limitations within her fictional viewpoints all the more surprising. Her 80-year old works have been a great pleasure to read in 2016.

 Lisa Shapter is an alumna of the Bread Loaf Young Writers’ Conference and a member of Codex Writers’ Group. She lives in New England, collects antique typewriters, and is researching a history of 20th century women SF authors. She is a member of Broad Universe and the Dramatists’ Guild of America. Her science fiction play “The Other Two Men,” featuring characters from her short stories, was performed at the Players’ Ring of Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the summer of 2016. Her short stories have appeared in Black Denim Lit, Expanded Horizons, Four Star Stories, Kaleidotrope, and in the anthology Things We Are Not: An M-Brane SF Magazine Queer Science Fiction Anthology. Her novella A Day in Deep Freeze was published in 2015 in Aqueduct Press’s Conversation Pieces series.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016, pt. 17: Lesley Hall

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016: Some Free Associations
by Lesley Hall

This was an unexpected and memorable thing that I saw during a brief visit to Edinburgh this year: the flagstone for Naomi Mitchison in Makars’ Court outside the Writers’ Museum in the Old Town. (There was also a wonderful portrait of her in old age in the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland, but as always seems my fate, could not find a postcard of it in the gallery shop). Mitchison lived through the travails of the twentieth century, the First World War, the Spanish Flu Epidemic, the rise of Fascism in the 1930s, the Second World War, as well as enduring personal tragedies, and continued to retain her progressive and humanitarian convictions, her commitment to activism, and the optimism that marks her science fiction novels, written when she was over sixty, Memoirs of a Spacewoman and Solution Three.

It may be noticed that the background of that portrait references one of Mitchison’s other later life involvements, her relationship with the Bakgatla people of what was then the Bechuanaland Protectorate, at the time when it was making the transition to independence as Botswana. This leads me to recommend very highly the recent movie A United Kingdom, about Seretse Khama, heir to the traditional kingship of Bechuanaland, and the first democratically-elected President of Botswana, and the political and personal costs of his marriage to an Englishwoman, Ruth Williams, whom he had met while studying in London, in the face of opposition both from the British government, anxious to conciliate South Africa, and from the more traditionally-minded of his own people, including the uncle who had acted as his regent. (It’s based on the 2006 book Colour Bar, by my friend Susan Williams.)

This has not been a year for which I recall a large number of books with great excitement: so much of the year has encouraged a retreat into comfort reading and old favourites, something to evoke that ‘curled up in the window seat with Little Women’ feeling: though I’m not sure that the somewhat pejorative term ‘retreat’ is apt. Surely providing comfort in a harsh world is a virtue?

One publishing event that did excite me was the issue of two novels by Stella Gibbons (herself a great proponent of the ‘gentle powers’ of 'Pity, Affection, Time, Beauty, Laughter' ) that remained unpublished at her death, Pure Juliet and The Yellow Houses. I was slightly irked at the media touting of these as a remarkable sudden discovery when they were mentioned in the 1998 biography Out of the Woodshed: I have been hoping for their publication ever since given the renewed interest in Gibbons’ works. I will concede that these two are probably largely for the Stella Gibbons completist (such as me). It may be worth remarking here that although it is recurrently noticed that her most famous novel, Cold Comfort Farm, is in fact set slightly in the future from the time of writing and includes a few small science-fictional elements, particularly in her later post-World War II works there is a strong fantastic (with an occasional touch of horror) tendency, but she has largely been ignored even by those who have gone about recovering the tradition of British women writers in the fantastic mode. Possibly because these elements are very much embedded in the same kind of vividly realist narrative as her other novels.

Talking of rediscoveries, and neglected women creators, there was a stunning exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery earlier this year of the works of Winifred Knights – an artist who enjoyed considerable acclaim in her lifetime, won major awards, but had almost entirely fallen out of the history of twentieth century British art, partly due to the relative smallness of her body of work, her very slow process of creation, her early death: but a good deal, one must surmise, due to the visual arts version of Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

Knights’ aunt Millicent Murby was a late Victorian/early twentieth century women’s rights campaigner and social activist: she appears in the painting Mill-Workers on Strike and Knights also did a portrait of her. Thinking of that world of feminism and broader activism brings to mind a book I seem to recollect raving about to Timmi when I was at Wiscon, Seth Koven’s The Match-Girl and the Heiress (2015) a very rich and nuanced social history based in the relationship between an East End working girl and a middle-class reformer doing settlement work there. Not only fascinating in itself on these two women, it’s a fine example of how what might look like a micro-historical study is a way into the immense complexity of Britain and its Empire, class, gender, women’s relationships, women in the workplace, etc, at the period.

Lesley Hall was born in the seaside resort and channel port of Folkestone, Kent, and now lives in north London. She recently retired from a career as an archivist of over 40 years. She has published several books and numerous articles on issues of gender and sexuality in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain, and is currently researching British interwar progressive movements and individuals. She has also published a volume in the Aqueduct Press Conversation Pieces series, Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of her life and work (2007).She has been reading science fiction and fantasy since childhood and cannot remember a time when she was not a feminist. Her reviews have appeared in Strange Horizons, Vector, and Foundation, and she has been a judge for the Tiptree and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. She has had short stories published in The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women (1996) and The Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women (1995). Visit Lesley's website.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016, pt. 16: Mark Rich

Readings and Re-Readings, 2016 
by Mark Rich

To give an example — to illustrate what I cannot explain:

A few evenings ago, after reading Bach's prelude No. 11, I thought I should read it again, start to end. "I was getting ahold of it," goes the antiquated phrase. "Getting ahold of," though, I keep rear-stage as motivating reason for reading Bach's preludes and fugues: because my effort, very nearly a nightly one for almost a year, arises from the fact that I have always been a poor reader. Have you ever had one regret about your lack of learning and application? Count yourself lucky — says one who would be a mathematical whiz-kid, could he count half such, in his life. Yet by happenstance this particular lack has risen to the fore.

My little essay has to do with this — which ties in to other failures we shall sweep rugwards; it involves books and Bach; and it introduces a pair who have become regulars in Martha's and my household, who are rescue Scottiedogs: Callie, a small wheaten, and Hutton, a more typical black-haired one, who sits at the Scottie weight-scale's other end.

In reading prelude No. 11, I played piano. (A writer generally cannot afford a piano; but when a kind old gent has a piano but gives it up, along with everything else, at auction, a scant dozens of yards from the writer's home, the writer has a faint chance at owning what cannot be afforded.) Yet I played not only on piano but on Scottiedog sensibilities. During the first run-through, in the background I heard runnings, growlings, barkings, and squeak-toy squeakings. Pause. Quiet. Then, reading the prelude again, I heard dashings, snarlings, clashings, and squawk-toy squawkings. You may not know that No. 11 ranks below the most complex, among the preludes — yet not at bottom, by any means. Having read it twice, I went on to the fugue — and played only piano, since the prelude had finished off the Scots. Later I headed to the kitchen, stepping to avoid keeled-over forms. Martha said, "I thought we had ten Scotties. But maybe you didn't notice."

I do notice, to some degree. My attention stays locked on Bach as far as possible, though. My remedy for past shortcomings — my nightly reading of a prelude and fugue, from prelude No. 1 to fugue No. 24 without backtracking — I take in, like snake oil from a lovely little bottle, to cure my reading ailment. Bach offers complicated pieces in all key signatures; and by not studying these works — which once I supposedly did, in foolish college days — but rather by simply reading, I daily receive my due, as a bad boy. (Bad boys, you may know, relish telling about whippings.)

"Tradition, like charity, begins at home. You can only reach the background through the foreground." These paired thoughts, from Van Wyck Brooks, ring true for me in this moment when I am thinking about Scotties who react to Bach — and who, if they have endured an under-stimulating day, react to him the way its first audience did to The Rite of Spring. I was reading Brooks's New England: Indian Summer during a period when I was also finishing The Education of Henry Adams, James Russell Lowell's The Vision of Sir Launfal and Other Poems, John Fiske's The Destiny of Man, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich's The Story of a Bad Boy; and how marvelous Brooks is, in this volume, illuminating lives and works including these that I mention. Indian Summer had special force, for me, after reading Adams, whose memoir is strangely intense and magnificently thoughtful. I would love to lose myself again in its pages. As well as in that Brooks volume.

Brooks, in Aldrich, sees the first flow of the flood that would arrive, of novels about growing up — which in our day sometimes parade as memoirs, as though with that name they might be more true. He notes that Aldrich had a rare virtue. He knew when to stop. You must read Bad Boy, to know how true this is.

The boy in Aldrich received no whipping more severe, as I recall, than being exploded, by fireworks. I have no notes as to his wording; but "being exploded" comes to mind as appropriate and correct, just as does "whippings," for my Bach reading: for I am bad, old boy, returned late to the exercise, who must be whipped by it. And who must whip up a pair of Scots, fifteen and twenty-five pounds, thereby. Bach does proves to be hard on our century-old maple floors. But as to that, what cares has one who is poised to spy the next flat, sharp, or double-sharp that might express a movement in Bach's thought-stream?

To read Aldrich startled me, with its narrative felicities. To read Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses — end to end, which I never happened to do before — delighted me. To finally read Koestler's Darkness at Noon may not have been transformative; but it roared at me. Other books made noises in my soul, including smallish ones, such as Winnie-the-Pooh, Stuart Little, Peter Pan, Baum's Queen Zixi of Ix, and Katherine Milhous's Colonel Keeperupper; mid-sizers such as Carolyn Keene's The Mystery of the Old Clock and Chinua Achebe's No Longer at Ease; and fuller volumes, mostly fiction: collections of Conan Doyle and Dickens stories, Verne's A Special Correspondent and Hector Servadac, Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, Muriel Spark's Robinson. And books in which Christopher Hobhouse writes on the Crystal Palace, and Jill Jonnes, on the Eiffel Tower.

I read two Brooks books, this year, with Indian Summer being the transformative one, in the sense that my understanding of the period from the later 1800s into the early 1900s in American cultural history will never be the same as before: it cannot be. At some point I need to read all Brooks, volume to volume, sequentially, as I am reading Bach. I hope to reach that point: for Brooks reached his perspective and perceptions by immersing himself in American literature to the point, it seems, of literal madness. His dedication, which sent him to an asylum for a time, must have been akin to the one that provoked Bach into producing the cycle of preludes and fugues that he offered to the world as music that not only gives aesthetic pleasure but makes a case for equally "tempering" notes in the musical scale.

Evidence that it is a musical argument appears, for instance, in No. 8, which has daunted me now twelve or more times, this year. For how better might Bach have made his point than by writing the prelude in six flats, and then the fugue, in six sharps? In other words, e-flat minor, then d-sharp minor. I enjoy, in reading all except No. 8, the fact that I warm my mind to a key signature during the prelude: this makes it more likely that I will comfortably read the fugue. So imagine how it feels, especially when one has forgotten that No. 8 is The One, when after reading four pages in which one has become habituated to transforming the staff's notes to flats, one turns the page to the second part, in which one must suddenly transform them to sharps.

I will say that I have, a few times, made the transition, and suffered through mental gymnastics upon the whipping bench long enough, to actually read both prelude and fugue, No. 8, in one sitting. Bach made No. 8 especially intimidating by keeping up the counterpoint for eight pages. Imagine how Martha suffered, during my read-through last January: eight pages of fugue, and probably eight hundred minutes of me trying to read sharps when the notes kept wanting, in my head, to revert to flats. By the time we had adopted our new musically inclined rescues, fortunately, I had subjected Martha to this several more times, and so presumably was more adept at administering torture.

Not all present-day Bach readers, by the way, have this pleasure: for Busoni and perhaps others made early transcriptions, and published both prelude and fugue with the same key-signature. Those readers, though, can never truly and viscerally appreciate Bach's madness-level.

The more powerful are Bach's harmonic expressions, the more powerfully seem Scottiedog neural connections to be stimulated. As I recall, I first noticed the Scots reacting extremely to Bach during the final fugue in the edition I have at hand. Fugue No. 24 has majestic scope, thoughtfulness, complication, and length — everything that gives pause to the pianist. (The harpsichordist that I more or less was, in college years, never moved past that pause.) By this point in the year, I was reading No. 24 with a fair mockery of competency; and the Scots went into throes, paroxysms, and conniption fits — being exploded, before the end, by the harmonic complexities Bach ever-so-casually trots out, here and there — as though he had inklings, that devil, that Scots loomed in the future, as interactive audiences and musical assistants to bad, old boys.

When we first moved to western Wisconsin, on the nights when Martha cooked supper, I usually retreated to a rocking chair for some on-going reading, from one or other old, cloth-bound book. This would fall after the late-afternoon happy hour. With Martha these days being regularly the supper cook, for nearly a year now, with a flew glasses of elevation, or perhaps delirium, in my system, I have sat at the piano.

You might suggest, knowing this, that the Scots might be reacting to wafting intimations of dishes and dinners, and not dissonant-consonant-consummate Bach. Consider this, then. Our piano sits insulated from the Scots' running spaces through the house — not due to forethought, but to the accident that we are antique dealers who have Really Too Much. I had grown accustomed to the Scots being exploded, by later spring or early summer — and to Callie, the wheaten, making an attempt to get past the Really Too Much. Something like a plastic bucket full of doorknobs and glass insulators held up a 1960s plastic child's record-player; and for a week or so, as I recall, Callie would manage to climb atop the blue plastic case, to watch me play while expressing with various throttled, thweeping noises her excitement.

You will recall that this is an essay about reading.

One evening she finessed her way onto and then beyond the blue case. Boxes sat piled beside the piano, packed with brass hose nozzles, paper valentines, shoehorns, plastic horses, or sadirons — who knows what, really. Somehow the boxes' arrangement allowed a fifteen-pounder to climb to keyboard-level. Her madness-level, it may be. While noting this change in circumstances, I went on with my reading, having the sort of dedication that leads somewhere.

From her new elevation, our wheaten stepped to the piano's bass-note keys, producing a "tone cluster" — so-called by pianists just before they, with knowing glances, invoke John Cage. (I recall having seen Peter Schickele use them: so tone clusters have come within laughing distance of Bach before.) I doubt I was making any sense of my evening reading (as you will recall, this is about —— ) by the time Callie made a second tone cluster, with her next paw. Then, on the ivories all-fours, she walked, not quite pranced, to the upper notes. She turned her head to look at me, happy with herself, her improvisation, or with my breakdown — not nervous, luckily. She then proved how much smaller she is than we thought she was, by turning around — on those pale-celluloid and blackened-wood keys — effortlessly, without the least sign that we had not adopted a toy mountain goat. Then she descended to the bass notes again, tone-cluster by tone-cluster by barrumph. (A term not in common use, as yet, among pianists.)

With this lovely cadenza she ended my reading, that evening.

Mark Rich is the author of a major biographical and critical study, C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, published by McFarland. He has had two collections of short fiction published — Edge of Our Lives (RedJack) and Across the Sky (Fairwood) — as well as chapbooks from presses including Gothic and Small Beer. With partner-in-life Martha and Scotties-in-life Callie and Hutton, he lives in the Coulee region of Wisconsin where an early-1900s house, a collection of dilapidated antique furniture, and a large garden preoccupy him with their needs. He frequently contributes essays to The New York Review of Science Fiction and The Cascadia Subduction Zone.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016, pt. 15: Kristin King

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016 
by Kristin King

I did not expect 2016 to be the year fascism would be at the top of my mind, but now that it is, here are a few picks to give me courage or hope, or simply to help me get through the day.

Everfair By Nisi Shawl (Tor)

This is a wonderful book.  It is steampunk historical fiction, and it has romance, drama, espionage, excitement, danger, and truly complicated interpersonal relationships. I don’t know how to explain why I like it so much. It’s truly meaty and entertaining at the same time. 

First the deep stuff.  Shawl chose a historical period that is both truly horrific and virtually unknown in your typical Western history book: the regime of King Leopold II, horrific tyrant of the Congo Free State. The king extracted rubber from the land by enslaving, torturing, and murdering about half the populace--millions of people. (My own history textbook, which I kept because of its apparent completeness, simply says that “his determination to make it commercially profitable led him to unconscionable extremes” and that he “virtually enslaved” the people.) 

This historical truth is painful to see.  But we can’t afford to look away that, not now, not when tragedies like Aleppo are happening, and not when the U.S. has elected a (neo?)fascist. But if we do look, how can we maintain hope? Somewhere in the magic of Everfair, Shawl offers an answer.  She shows us the horrors, but even more vividly, the resistance. The world worth fighting for. 

How does she manage it?  For one, she doesn’t dump us straight into the horrific story of the Congo Free State.  She starts us off gently with a familiar coming of age story. It began with Lisette Toutournier, a young woman enjoying that sure freedom of her bicycle. She addresses the bicycle as a lover, promising one day to “venture out and see for ourselves what it is the world holds for us.” 

For another thing, by the time we get to the actual details of the Congo Free State, we’re seeing the world through the lens of a black man who fought in the Civil War and two others: Reverend Thomas Jefferson Wilson. He’s ready for one more fight, and he has a plan. Before you know it, an epic journey has begun. A disparate group of people join together to create a utopian community, complete with steam bicycles, steam engines, and hot air balloons, all to defeat Leopold II. 

I have rarely been so thoroughly transported to another land, to another way of thinking.  Actually, to a multiplicity of viewpoints. And as the book proceeds, we realize that the utopian view of the Europeans was limited by their ignorance. One of my favorite moments takes place about halfway through the book,  when Josina, queen and favorite wife to King Mwenda, ponders the divisions that have come up. She thinks, “Now it was understood that other viewpoints existed…” We would all do well to bear that in mind. 

I can’t end this review without a nod to the cats.  A group of cats, part of an espionage network.  It would be a spoiler to say more. 

All in all, the book is a marvel.


Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown (NAL)

When the Jewish “modern girl” in 1935 New York gets accidentally knocked up, what’s she going to do? Especially since her 42-year-old mother is in the same situation. I feel like I got plopped down right in their little apartment and met all their friends and relatives. Everything about mothering felt genuine to me, too–all the ambivalence, the love, and the hard work. Overall, a remarkable read, fun without being candy, deep and thoughtful–treating some serious issues–without being a downer. I want more.

Brown gave a reading of this book along with some context of why the book was written. She had heard a family story about a grandmother who had gotten an abortion and was amazed. People had abortions back then? Indeed they did. I had a great-grandmother who went to a hospital to have a “uterine tumor” removed. Young women in 1930s New York often had procedures to “restore their menses.” 

After hearing Brown speak, I realized that our current view of abortion is highly colored by our technology and culture.  If you think about it, back then, a woman wouldn’t know she was pregnant until the quickening, that is, the baby kicking. Today’s concept of a “heartbeat bill” would have seemed absurd. Also different: a young woman’s baby was seen as the responsibility of her parents and older siblings, at a time one more mouth to feed might mean somebody else couldn’t go to college. In that context, abortion wasn’t seen as the young woman’s “choice.” 

I hope Brown will write an essay about her research, because it’s fascinating and quite timely.
In the meantime, the novel, which defies easy moralizing, is well worth the read.


Unpronounceable by Susan diRende (Aqueduct Press)

This is an alien encounter story unlike any I have ever seen. Suppose an alien civilization initiates first concept but rejects all of Earth’s ambassadors because they appear to be insane. And also its artists, philosophers, and other important people.  At their wits’ end, the powers that be choose a most unlikely candidate. In their opinion, anybody who can’t speak frankly about their own bodies has more or less failed the sentience test.
This book is hilarious, but for me the best treat was hearing it read out loud, by diRende herself, in a Jersey accent. If she ever puts out an audiobook, snap it up.


Kino’s Journey, anime

“Whenever people see birds flying through the sky, it's said that they get the urge to go on a journey.” - Kino
There were no new Doctor Who episodes this year, and for me, that’s a tragedy.  Fortunately, I came across a list of anime for people who are suffering withdrawals. This anime has a simple premise.  Kino and their motorcycle, Hermes, are on a journey.  Kino stays only three nights in any place and then moves on.  Hermes provides the speed, and Kino, the balance.  Each episode begins and ends with an ambiguous exchange between the two -- a philosophical reflection on the action that is about to take place, not to be understood until the episode is over.  

All of the episodes are sad, or subtly horrific, and a few are postapocalyptic. But the overall effect for me is beauty and inspiration.  It’s as Kino says: “The world is not beautiful: And that, in a way, lends it a sort of beauty.” 

Somehow it makes you want to go on a journey. . .

Colored Peoples Time Machine, album by Gabriel Teodros

I first came across Gabriel Teodros in the collection Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (AK Press), and again at an event honoring Octavia Butler, and again at a speaking event at Shoreline Community College. He always does some rap and some talking, and he always has deep wisdom to share for social movements--based on the reality of the world, not the theory. Here’s a youtube video with a taste of his music:
I could listen to his voice forever, just his voice, but then there’s the music and the poetry and the passion and the peace in the midst of violence. All combined, there’s nothing else like it in the world.    

His website is here:

Kristin King ( is a writer, parent, and activist who lives in Seattle. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Calyx, The Pushcart Prize XXII (1998), and other places. Two of her stories appeared in an Aqueduct Press anthology, Missing Links and Secret Histories: A Selection of Wikipedia Entries Lost, Suppressed, or Misplaced in Time. A selection of her short fiction has been collected in Misfits from the Beehive State.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016, pt. 14: Jeffrey Ford

The Pleasures of 2016
by Jeffrey Ford

Reading 2016

Fiction –

Some of the fiction I read and liked this year. I think most of these are from 2016. They’re not in any order of preference. 

The Fisherman by John Langan, Word Horde
The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria by Carlos Hernandez, Rosarium Press
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay, William Morrow
Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Tor Books
A Collapse of Horses by Brian Everson, Coffee House Press
Swift to Chase by Laird Barron, Journal Stone
The Story of Hong Gildong by Heo Gyun, translated by Minsoo Kang, Penguin
Not Much Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick, Tachyon Publications
The Doll Master by Joyce Carol Oates, Mysterious Press
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones, William Morrow
Furnace by Livia Lewellyn, Word Horde
The Wilds by Julia Elliott, Tin House Books
The Grief Hole by Kaaron Warren, Ifwg Publishing

Non-fiction –

The Curve of Binding Energy by John McPhee, Noonday
Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World by Simon Garfield, WW Norton & Company
Hamlet In Purgatory by Steven Greenblat, Princeton Classics
The Voice Within by Charles Fernyhough, Basic Books
The Penguin Book of the Undead by Scott G. Bruce, Penguin
Akira Kurasowa: Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurasowa, Vintage
The All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat: The Life of Ra Lotsawa by Ra Yeshe Senge, Penguin


The Witch

Books I’m Looking Forward to in 2017—

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer, MCD
Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly, TorBooks
The Art of Starving by Sam Miller, Harper Collins


Jeffrey Ford,is the author of the novels, Vanitas, The Physiognomy, Memoranda, The Beyond, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Girl in the Glass, The Cosmology of the Wider World, and The Shadow Year. His story collections are The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, The Empire of Ice Cream, The Drowned Life, Crackpot Palace, and  A Natural History of Hell .He is the recipient of the World Fantasy Award, Nebula, Shirley Jackson Award, Edgar Allan Poe Award, Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire  and the Hayakawa Award.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016, pt. 13: Carrie Devall

Pleasures of 2016
by Carrie Devall

It’s difficult to remember anything that happened before the fall of 2016, at this particular moment. Looking at my notebooks, I see that I did a lot of reading of odd books as research. I revisited a lot of forgotten feminist academic theory from the 1990s. I also spent a lot of my free time trying to improve my half-forgotten French, self-taught and rusty Spanish, and ever-beginner Russian and Finnish language skills. I did a lot of reading of crappy popular books translated into Spanish from the English, because, sadly, this is much easier than reading literary works in the original. Most of this year’s reading left me with little to recommend to others who don’t share obscure interests.

However, I did manage to read some standout new science fiction. In January, as soon as they came out, I grabbed copies of Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, translated from the Finnish to English by Lola Rogers, and Charlie Anders’ All The Birds In The Sky. The Core of the Sun is a sly exploration of the social construction of gender set in a near future where capsaicin is a controlled substance, with a least a nod to H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. It’s the kind of book that makes me feel I need to reread it immediately to get deeper into the layers, if there was only time. All the Birds in the Sky is a grander apocalyptic story with a central romance and more geeky goodness. It was a faster read but also provided a lot of food for thought after reading.

I followed that with the latest Cass Neary novel from Elizabeth Hand, Hard Light. I am addicted to this series for the hard-bitten heroine and the focus on the science and art of photography. Her dark fantasy novel Wylding Hall was interesting for its focus on how people make music and what it can do to them. I did not read it compulsively like I did the other book, but it contained some visual-mental images of the terrible that were quite powerful.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor was the perfect fast-paced read full of layers of story right when I needed this kind of story: alien communication, a spooky mystery, cultural differences playing into and foiling expectations.

Infomocracy by Malka Older is incredibly timely as well as a fascinating exploration of how political processes work under the surface, and how it could all be differently envisioned. It’s hard to glibly sum up, except to say that this book is incredibly timely and seems to me to be very necessary to the conversation that is science fiction at this moment. I read The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson not long before Infomocracy came out. It was also a near future story focused on the social organization of political systems, but it began to seem flat or forced by the time I got to the end. Infomocracy pushed further and continued to feel fresh.

The other books I remember very strongly were two novels from Louise Erdrich, The Round House and The Plague of Doves. I read a lot of books about tribal court jurisdiction as a student and young lawyer, but The Round House puts all those books to shame with one family’s devastating story and some brilliant imagery.

 I also have a very solid memory of going to see Carol the day of its theatrical release in Minneapolis, on Christmas Eve of 2015. Enjoying a very good film made by a filmmaker I adore in a room full of lesbians old enough to remember the era the film was set in, or at least the silencing and invisibility of the 1980s, was definitely the highlight of the turn to the New Year. I saw Carol several more times in 2016, and reread the Patricia Highsmith novel it was based on. 2016’s unraveling has only made it more timely, a film that thinks about how women who love women find ways to live in a world created and maintained by people who cannot even contemplate this as a possibility. I may view it again before the year ends.

The Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival has also been a steady highlight of my year’s movie viewing for quite a few years now. I saw a lot of films this year from French Canada, thanks to sponsorship of the festival this year from the Minneapolis-based Canadian consul and from Quebec. The best of these was My Internship in Canada, a feature about a young Haitian man who turns his internship in Canadian regional government into a chance to wield a lot more influence than anyone expected. The movie has some issues, partly because its one of those movies where everyone is the butt of many jokes but this plays out unevenly because of larger histories. However, it weaves commentary of the current state of national and global politics, electoral strategy, family drama, and commentary about post-colonialism in and outside of Canada into an engaging story that moves rapidly and remains surprising.

The best film of the festival for me was The Fencer, a film set in Estonia during the period of incorporation within the USSR after the German and then Russian occupations of the Second World War. The film was made jointly by Estonia, Finland, and Germany and became Finland’s entry to the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film speaks loudly about authoritarianism and bullying with a small, relatively quiet story about a few human beings trying to retain their humanity in a situation that leaves little room for individual choice. Too bad that’s not relevant to today’s world, huh. I managed to catch many of the Spanish language films that had been in the festival later in the year, when we took a trip to Spain. The strongest ones were Viva, an Irish film set in Cuba. The trailer made this seem like it was probably a retread of a lot of old queer movies, about a young drag performer struggling with issues of identity and family. However, the story was strongly character-driven and more moving than I expected.

Magellanes, set in Lima, was difficult to watch but kept me thinking long afterwards. It was an ambitious attempt to push the commercial motion picture format deep into questions about masculinity and complicity with authoritarianism, and its intimate partner genocide.

An older and much less heavy movie from Spain that explored masculinity in interesting ways is Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed, about a teacher’s road trip to try and meet John Lennon. The Girl King, from Sweden, was not as deeply flawed as I had feared, and was an interesting enough take on the life of Queen Christina with a few great scenes. The Clouds of Sils Maria is also worth mentioning, for Kristin Stewart’s performance and stunning outdoor scenery.

Last but not least, the restored print of Daughters of the Dust the 1991 indie film written, directed, and produced by Julie Dash, was even better than I remembered. The storyline is ostensibly about a Gullah family reuniting circa 1900 before many members head north to try and make a new life, but the movie is much more than the sum of the amazing visuals, music, acting, and story. I highly recommend it as something to see when trying to find the needed courage to face 2017.

Carrie Devall writes from Minneapolis, MN, where it rains a lot thanks to global warming.