Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016, pt. 19: Cynthia Ward

2016 in Review: Birthday Presidents, Mass Media, and Other Monsters
by Cynthia Ward

"He is the October Surprise!" (Radio and Film)

In 2016, it seems, I did not pick the best day for a birthday.  So far, I haven't figured out how to return my president-elect, er, present.  Suggestions welcome.

Despite my politics, I did not share the widely held liberal view that Trump would be defeated.  Once he won a primary, I began researching international moves and finding conversations with many of my fellow lefties maddening.  "Trump'll be taken out by an October surprise," one assured me.  Familiar with white voters' tendency to lie to look good and with black swan and grey swan events (9/11, stock market crashes, etc) --not to mention with history--I replied, "He is the October surprise!"  Those who do not learn history doom everyone to repeat it.

It was hard to be surprised when the media mentioned Trump about 60 times more often than any other presidential candidate, if not every other candidate combined. I like variety in news sources, but I rarely listen to commercial radio during election years, since a little logic translates to a lot of headache with every commercial break.  Still, I would've sworn there were a couple dozen other presidential candidates across 2016.  However, I literally couldn't tune in to a National Public Radio newsfeed without hearing discussion of or interviews with Trump voters (no graphic for NPR, but an aggregate of PBS candidate mentions may serve as a proxy. I finally flipped entirely over to the Internet feed for radical SoCal station KPFK and the Progress channel on SiriusXM.

On a related note, it was indeed truly, truly horrible about Hillary Clinton's e-mails--so horrible, I've only heard them mentioned once in the media (KPFK) since Election Day (I'm finishing this on 12/21/2016).

But I don't want only to gaze into the abyss of 2016.

Joe and I have just watched the '50s-set 2015 film Carol, which is based on a pseudonymously published novel by the late Patricia Highsmith:  the first-ever happy-ending lesbian romance, The Price of Salt . I read this 1952 novel in the 1990s, so my memories are hazy, but I suspect the pyrrhic victory of the movie's ending essentially recapitulates the novel's. I also suspect the book may be more ambiguous generally, given it's from the author of such disturbing modernist thrillers as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley et seq. Whatever the case, Carol is reasonably subtle and well worth a watch.

Recently, Joe and I revisited Suffragette (2015), that affecting if ultimately limited film about the British suffragist movement in the early 20th Century. I don't think it's unreasonable to make a movie about the transformation of a fictional young, white, heterosexual Englishwoman as she learns how the feminist movement intersects with her working-class concerns as a low-income wife, mother, and factory worker.  But I wish the film's creators had intruded such aspects of reality as the movement's racial and sexual diversity, or put the English-born Sikh princess, Sophia Duleep Singh, on the balcony with her fellow radical suffragist, Emmeline Pankhurst (real women who deserve movies of their own, not that I'm holding my breath).

Earlier, we saw the acclaimed 2014 hit, Guardians of the Galaxy.  Why? we were left asking ourselves.  Why was it a hit?  The only thing we liked about this science fiction pic was the intelligent evolved tree, Groot, played--in, ironically, the only non-wooden portrayal--by action movie hero Vin Diesel.  Though not even present physically in the film, he brought nuance and sensitivity to his role, reminding me it's time to revisit his excellent early movie of shady stock salesmen, 2000's Boiler Room.

Still earlier, we saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), which is the best of the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back (1980), perhaps because it basically pastiches Empire and its 1977 prequel.  Regarding Han Solo, a seventysomething friend exclaimed in wonder, "A movie with an action hero my age!"  I similarly appreciated that they let Princess Leia Organa show her age, which is close to mine.  I also appreciated that the young woman co-lead, like Leia before her, got to enjoy competence and fighting abilities without intruding the cliché that "girls must be traumatized to gain agency."  I got a little statue of Rey to keep watch as I write.

 * * *

"For this disaster we will all be present" (Books)

At press time last year, I had not yet finished reading Star-Lord: Guardian of the Galaxy, the graphic novel collecting the Bronze Age (1970s-1980s) solo adventures of Peter Quill, the future leader of the subsequent Guardian of the Galaxy comics and movies.  Alas, what started out so promisingly degenerated into a patch of cheesecake costuming sufficient to make Red Sonja's chain-mail bikini look reasonable.  Eventually it dissolved like Jell-O crystals in generic bad writing about some other guy assuming Quill's role.

In other graphic novel reading, Marvel's controversially gender-flipped Thor: Volume 1: The Goddess of Thunder proved disappointing, especially in light of Marvel's excellent race-flipped Hugo Award winner, Ms. Marvel: Volume 1: No Normal.  Thor as a woman is promising in concept, but not so much in a storyline devoted largely to fight scenes and concealing the identity of the new Thor from the old.  To be fair, I might've enjoyed The Goddess of Thunder more if I'd known what role the new deity's mortal identity plays in the Marvel Universe.  Alas, the Marvel Universe, like DC's, has proliferated far beyond the comprehension of any mortal who's not a fanatic with a photographic memory.

There's also some gender and ethnic (but not racial) flipping in the graphic novel DC Comics: Bombshells Volume 1: Enlisted, which combines female DC heroes and villains like Wonder Women, Catwoman (white comics version), etc, with Rosie the Riveter-inspired female variations on Batman, Superman, and other prominent male DC superheroes in a World War II setting.  Interesting, yes?  No.  While some of the changes (lesbian Bats, Soviet Supes) are promising, others are ridiculous.  That Batwoman's heiress alter ego is literally a professional "girl" baseball player isn't bad, per se…but she goes on to dress like one--complete with bat weapon--as a superhero (one can only assume sports fans in this alternate history are all blind or stupid).  John Constantine retains his male identity and biology…but as a rabbit.  More generally, the writer seemed to be losing the struggle with the concept.  Given these issues, I was unsurprised to learn this alt.WWII series is based on a line of collectible statuettes. Had I but known. Actually, I should've known to avoid any project which incorporates the annoying yet boring villainess Harley Quinn, who was apparently created only to provide unconvincing evidence the Joker is an allosexual het.

I re-read the uneven alternate-history graphic novel, Suffrajitsu: Mrs. Pankhurst's Amazons, after learning more about British suffrage.  The aggravating fate of Mrs. Pankhurst is not an event in our timeline, and not even necessary to trigger the GN's subsequent events, which include an alternate cause of World War I.  On the plus side, it's true many suffragists in our timeline learned martial arts.

In the interests of completing this post before the end of the century, I'm not going to discuss every book I read for research last year, but I'll mention a few titles which seem likely to interest Aqueduct Press readers:

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild (a history of the [mostly British] Left in the Great War; despite the subtitle, it covers earlier years as well)

The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I by the late Barbara A. Tuchman (lives up to the praise)

Kings, Queens, and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front by the late Mary Roberts Rinehart (personal account of the first and only visit by a woman war correspondent to the Western Front)

The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin (he interviewed the last U.S. WWI veterans, including a woman, before they were gone)

Testament of Youth by the late Vera Brittain (the self-unsparing memoir of the feminist author, skeptic, and WWI nurse, and the basis of the rather different but also excellent recent movie)

Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics by Kathryn Atwood (aimed I suspect at YA readers, this is a good starting place for learning about some remarkable women rarely remarked on in the histories)

Three of my research reads I want to discuss more fully.

West With the Night is the 1942 memoir of Beryl Markham, the Kenya-born, partially indigenous-raised British aviatrix, bush pilot, and racehorse trainer who became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west.  Written in beautiful prose envied by Hemingway, this matter-of-fact recounting of a remarkable life makes me appreciate memoirs which are not tell-all.  It also left me wondering if Circling the Sun, Paula McLain's smoothly written but almost piloting-free 2016 novel about Markham, which centers on needy romantic interactions with Denys Finch-Hatton and Baron Blixen, had anything to do with Markham's personal life. I hope not.

A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes by Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney, is a fascinating and well-researched cross between an encyclopedia and an almanac.  As you've probably deduced, this reference work is centered on all things Holmesian--a broader subject than you might think.  The entries are arranged by date, letting you read a timely entry every day and not feel intimidated by the impressive whole.  While this oversized 352-page softcover is not inexpensive ($34.95), it would make a wonderful gift for anyone who loves Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories, enjoys either of the current TV series, or has a general interest in Victoriana, British mysteries, or steampunk.

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, the British journalist Anita Anand's first book, is the fascinating biography of the above-mentioned Sikh princess, Sophia Duleep Singh. A goddaughter of Queen Victoria, the tri-racial radical suffragist simultaneously experienced great power and absolute powerlessness, which must have caused her much frustration (surely it contributed to the stretches of deep depression).  As one would hope, the work intersects meaningfully with British and Indian history.  It also presents captivating if inevitably too-brief glimpses of Sophia's parents, ancestors, and full and half siblings.  I hope Ms. Anand is overwhelmed by the desire to write a biography about Sophia's intriguing fellow feminist and beloved big sister, Catherine Duleep Singh, who was unique in their family in finding a happy relationship, a life-long partnership with a German woman.

Researching late 19th-early 20th Century European history brushed me against three noteworthy novels.  One is Mary Robinette Kowal's 2016 alternate history of WWI, Ghost Talkers, in which Allied spiritualists can communicate with the new war dead for intelligence purposes…unless the Germans figure it out.  Another is the late British author Radclyffe Hall's uneven, decades-spanning 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness, in which the woman writer protagonist serves in WWI as a volunteer ambulance driver. I also read The Friendly Young Ladies (sometime U.S. title, The Middle Mist), a 1943 work of contemporary fiction by the late Mary Renault, a British author better known for her brilliant novels of ancient Greece. Like Hall's book, The Friendly Young Ladies is a novel about a woman novelist. Renault's look at bohemian 1930s London is considerably stronger and less melodramatic (and, I would say, more mean-spirited) than Hall's title, but both books' central lesbian romances make it clear why The Price of Salt was so radical when it appeared.

I could've, given its time period, but I didn't read the new, feminist alternate history of the Belgian Congo, Everfair, because it's set in my current era of research.  I read it because I know Nisi Shawl is a great writer, and I knew it would be a great novel.  I'm right, but since I'm her Writing the Other collaborator and her friend, you may deduce I'm biased.  You can check out the reviews, though. They agree with me.

When I left the 19th-20th Centuries it was for Georgette Heyer's Regency romance novel, The Corinthian.  It's a witty mix of assumed identities, jewel thieves, cross-dressing, lies, and murder, with a plot so intricate, I frankly cannot tell you if it makes sense.  I can tell you it was a most diverting and entertaining read, which was useful in the immediate aftermath of Election Day.

The Corinthian reminded me I love Ellen Kushner's Regency-inspired, largely fantasy-free Riverside fantasy novels.  Happily, Kushner and several collaborators have released a new one--or two.  They're serial novels, and the sequel's chapters haven't all been released yet.  I'm just getting started on the second sequence, but I quite enjoyed Tremontaine: The Complete Season One by Ellen Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, and Patty Bryant.  Sex, swordplay, scandals, secrets, intersectionality, chocolate, wit--what's not to like?

Another fantasy of manners a la Heyer is Zen Cho's impressive debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown. It concerns a scandalous development in the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, by which I don't refer to the failing of magic as the threat of Napoleon rises.  I mean the society's new leader is a freed slave.  Furthermore, he seems not entirely opposed to magic by women!  I daresay you'll want to see what develops, shocking as it must prove.

In a far different mode, I re-read a few cyberpunk classics.  Interesting, the difference time makes in perception. William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) seemed so diverse when I read it in the 1980s. Richard Kadrey's Metrophage (1988) didn't seem so much like a pastiche. Chairman Bruce's exhortations against effete, decaying older forms of science fiction didn't seem like a rejection of 1970s feminist SF. But you can have feminist cyberpunk, and you don't need a new wave of cyberpunk writers to get it. You can read the Queen of Cyberpunk, Pat Cadigan.  Good entry points for this past WisCon guest of honor's science fiction, fantasy, and horror are her excellent collections, Patterns (1989) and Dirty Work (1993).

Speaking of feminist science fiction, you'll find a fine example of feminist first-contact SF in 2015's The Weave, the debut novel by Nancy Jane Moore.  In contrast to many other tales of Earthlings on a new world, this diverse work thoughtfully explores alternatives to exploitation. It also offers an exploration of gender unique in my experience.

Neither highly feminist nor highly diverse at this juncture are the two issues of old-school Weird revivalist magazines I read last year, Skelos #1 (2016) and Weirdbook #31 (2015).  This doesn't surprise me overmuch; I grew up with Weird and pulp speculative fiction as my preferred reading material, and, as far as I can tell, such subgenres are where hard-boiled detective fiction was when women, PoC, and queer authors began transforming it in the 1980s and 1990s:  heavily white, cis, het, and male in authors and characters.  I know at least one editor involved in these projects pursues diversification, so I expect to see a broadening of contributors and characters going forward.

While I don't foresee Aqueduct Press fans stampeding to acquire the 'zines I've mentioned, Skelos #1 does include an article of feminist interest:  Nicole Emmelhainz's "Blades:  C.L. Moore and the Gender Dynamics of Sword and Sorcery."  I was particularly intrigued by her exploration of an idea new to me, which is that "in the imaginary worlds of the best sword and sorcery, gender becomes a strategic performance rather than an essential source of identity."  I've always assumed my teenage immersion in sword and sorcery, sword and planet, and other forms of adventure spec-fic contributed to my nascent development as a feminist largely in a negative manner, by annoying me with sexist clichés; this suggests the subgenres played an important positive role, as well.

For The Cascadia Subduction Zone  I've most recently reviewed Hugo Award winner David D. Levine's diverting debut novel, Arabella of Mars, which blends elements of Heyer with clockpunk, Patrick O'Brian, and the interplanetary romance (although if you go in expecting Jane Carter of Mars, as some promotional material suggests, you will be unpleasantly surprised).  My review is available, along with other nonfiction, poems, and art from divers hands, in this free downloadable issue of CSZ.

Most recently I've read the multi-genre writer Tade Thompson's excellent new book, Rosewater, which provides the quote that opens this section.  This second novel moves Thompson to book-length science fiction, but retains many of the successful suspense elements of his West Africa-set debut novel, 2015's Making Wolf (which I discussed last year). Rosewater is the second "first contact" novel out of the three I've read lately that takes place in Nigeria, but that's almost the only thing Rosewater has in common with Nnedi Okorafor's Lagoon (also discussed last year). Rosewater is thoughtful and compelling--and, I fear, prescient.  It's another demonstration of what a powerful and important writer Thompson is.

Up next:  Black Panther: Marvel Masterworks Volume 1, collecting the ground-breaking comics about the titular black African superhero originally published in Jungle Action (1972-1976), from the Bronze Age greats Donald McGregor (writer) and Rich Buckler (artist), and Marvel Comics' best-selling graphic novel of 2016, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Volume 1, written by MacArthur Genius Grant and National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates and illustrated by long-time sequential artist Brian Stelfreeze.

Cynthia Ward has sold stories to Asimov's SF, Shattered Prism , Weird Tales, and other magazines and anthologies. For WolfSinger Publications , she edited the diversity themed anthologies Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West V.1-2. She has a pair of reprint anthologies forthcoming in collaboration with the eminent editor, Charles G. Waugh , the first science fiction professional she ever met.  With fellow Aqueductista Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored Writing the Other: A Practical Approach . Her short novel, The Adventure of the Incognita Countess, is forthcoming in 2017  from Aqueduct Press .

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.