Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2014, pt. 13: Mark Rich

Notes on Readings, 2014
by Mark Rich

 A minor official from the state of Chaos reigned over my life in 2014, to judge from my readings: scattered hither and thither, in thicket and glen; begun and pondered clearly, then left off and forgotten until only visible vaguely, as through a fog; picked up as source for simple pleasures, or for nosebleeds -- as when I have placed said organ into books unusual in their elevation ...

Yet a few organizing principles emerged, over time. For I seemed to gravitate toward biographies -- chancing on them in thrift stores, by and large, in several states besides that of Chaos. One, whose discovery in a central-Wisconsin Goodwill store thrilled me, relates the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay; another, from a central-Oregon thrift shop, that of Yeats. In a used bookstore located across from the area where Martha and I set up our antique wares, summers in Baraboo, I bought a Woolf biography one Sunday, and a Melville, on another. Except for the last I read these with a promptness unusual for me. That last, by Lewis Mumford, I began reading just before a torrent of auctions, flea markets, and general runnings-around, which lasted in strength from late summer to just days ago (as I write), overwhelmed and obliterated my reading pile. At some point in my excavations I will find this Mumford, to begin again -- along with Andrew Wiener's book on Pragmatism and evolutionary thought, which I had read up to its last chapter, and Ytasha Womack's on Afrofuturism, which likewise I had nearly finished.

Among the biographies Nancy Milford's Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (2001)
proved most satisfying, helped by my having felt greatly curious for so long about the person behind the poems. I had had not a clue that this book existed. It answered questions in my mind from reading Edmund Wilson -- such as why she rejected so astute a writer, and holed up in the countryside with a man who cast no literary shadows. The book does offer insights into that. The husband, Eugen Boissevain, now enjoys some existence in my imagination, even if I still cannot write his name without needing to check its spelling.

I like Arthur Ficke's calling her "the oddest mixture of genius and childish vanity." Milford must have liked this, too, in quoting him. I emerged from the biography, however, feeling that I had been exposed to the childish vanity without having been given enough looks at the genius. This may have been inevitable: for many must have witnessed the vanity, while few would have witnessed her in the throes of creation. Late in the book, Edna, or Vincent, as she was called by many friends, does appear in a passage or two actually toiling over her lines. Anyone who has read the poetry, who has any acquaintance with the act of composition, and who has any notion how exceedingly difficult lyrical clarity can be, must know that these labors formed an important, if not all-important, part of her existence. Yet they receive mention as a seeming afterthought, when the phenomenon that she was had neared its end. Nancy Milford previously wrote Zelda, which I have not read. The thought mischievously arises: did she learn from that biographical effort to focus primarily on the public, the social, the interpersonal, to produce the coffee-table bestseller? I see just now, on the present book's cover, a quotation from Newsweek: "An incendiary cocktail of literary ambition, fame, sexual adventure and addiction." Well, yes. That mix would suit Newsweek happy hours. I believe that the cocktail called Vincent, however, had its strongest alcohol in something we might better call literary ability than ambition: for she achieved the public prominence that she did because her early works astonished readers. That late-in-book mention of her struggling with dedication over her individual lines, and working out, through endless repetition, the difficulties encountered in her chosen poetic structures, I recall striking me as a refreshing element, after so many details concerning her outward personal and professional lives. It came across as a true image -- like a three-dimensional view of Vincent unexpectedly seen when a stereoscope is thrust into one's hands -- an image that briefly allows the artist to arise away from her chronology, and that makes one think: yes, it must have been so.

I overemphasize the book's weakness in this area, simply by mentioning it, since the book rates the highest marks. I should note that Milford wrote what would have been impossible before her: for she obtained the long-withheld help of a recalcitrant and resistant sister, who had been protecting Vincent's legacy and papers. I recall how transforming it was for me when I received a call from Cyril Kornbluth's son John, at a point when I had assembled a life-story but had no particular reason to believe in its full integrity: so I appreciate, in a way which may be different from other readers' feelings, the fact that Milford's book carries an authority beyond the ordinary. So allow me to let my quibble stand while contrarily stating that I have no real quibbles with this book.

That I will need to re-read this biography fails to distinguish it from those of Yeats and Woolf, two W.B. Yeats (2006) by Augustine Martin and Virginia Woolf (2001) by Mary Ann Caws, each helped me put a little more flesh to my skeletal knowledge. Michel Butor's Extraordinary Journeys (1969), about Baudelaire, helped in a similar way, although Butor's oblique approach and my French, entirely inadequate to deal with quotations from poetry in that language, made my gains less than I might have wished.
other creatures of the Modern who keep drawing me and whose works, and lives, I have taken in, but only in fragmentary ways. These slender but substantial works,

Another biography left me less satisfied: Jonathan Eller's new book, Ray Bradbury Unbound (2014), a second volume of a biographical pair, the first of which I have yet to set eyes upon. I read this with interest -- and with a growing sense that the latter-years Bradbury cared mainly about stage works and film adaptations of his stories, while his new stories and novels occupied him relatively little. Since I previously nursed no great interest in his film or theatrical work, I entered the biography with curiosity about the writer, and emerged with that curiosity mostly intact. Clearly I need to read the first volume.

I appreciate the book for its effort to assemble a well-documented narrative encompassing the later years of the man. All the same, the short shrift given the later writings and the upsurging academic solecisms, here and there, give the book an other-than-hoped-for flavor. It remains impressive, scholarly, reputable. Ah, well! It may well be that Bradbury's aesthetic and creative senses, finding it heavy going against the demands of Hollywood, keeled over, thusly making Eller's depiction utterly apt. I did emerge from the book understanding more clearly the heavy tax imposed upon the creative soul by movie work. Yet to my mind Bradbury's later writings deserve deeper examination than do his attempts to court directors and studios. In his late years, simply from long-distance observations, I did gain the sense that a creative personality continued to exist. From this book's late pages, especially in its hurried ending, I received no similar sense. All this makes the book's title an odd choice, since the man as depicted seems all too bound.

Unexpected pleasure came from a book that called to me at a thrift store far to the south in Wisconsin, where we were staying for a night before setting up at a breweriana show. I never knew myself to be curious about George F. Kennan; but when I saw Sketches from a Life (1989), the thought of my leaving the store without it suddenly seemed ridiculous. This book contains little direct remembrance relating to his doings as a diplomat, which fill other books that I may now need to read. Instead it contains journal selections from in-between those diplomatic occurrences. I found these pieces thoughtful, affecting, and at times beautiful. While they fill an ample volume, they made me yearn for more.

Among other readings ... I took pleasure in a half-dozen Ravenna Press books, including Kathryn Rantala's Traveling with the Primates (2008) and John Burgess's Graffito (2011). Since I mentioned an editor's name here last December, I feel I should again: Marjorie Barrows, whose One Hundred Best Poems for Boys and Girls (1930) did satisfy the part of me that wanted to read it. Similarly I followed strands of interest from last year in reading What Is Philosophy? (1960) and Man and People (1957) by José Ortega y Gasset, and Jo's Boys (1886) by Louisa May Alcott -- among others from the philosophy-and-children's-novels department. In reading Dickens's Bleak House and William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham for the first times, I found myself greatly impressed. Howells describes Lapham in such realistic terms that I imagine many readers may fail to perceive Judith Merril: A Critical Study (2012). Why two who profess that they possess no grounding in popular literature except the Western novel should have undertaken such a book I have little notion. As to newer fiction, I have read much too little. I took pleasure, however, in Mary Rickert's The Memory Garden (2014) -- in particular due to the way her characters seem to draw themselves, rather than seeming drawn by the author.

Currently? Essays by Macaulay and Carlyle on Samuel Johnson ... and Karen Joy Fowler's latest -- unspoiled, it seems so far, from having lain buried in laurels.

Cheers ...

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 Scottie-in-life Sam, 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.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening, pt. 12: Carrie Devall

The Pleasures of 2014 
by Carrie Devall

One of the biggest pleasures for me in 2014 has been a two-year-old Border Collie/Siberian Husky mix named Betty. The MN Border Collie Rescue saved her from an animal hoarding situation, and she was terrified of people, even after being with her foster hosts for almost a year. However, a ton of treats and a pack and comfort dog of her own have let her sneaky, goofy, bit-of-a-princess personality blossom. I spent a lot of time this year about the gross mistreatment of dogs and about their resilience on animal rescue sites. I'm realizing in retrospect that a lot of the books I read this year also focused on animal and human behavior, and in particular animal violence and human cruelty, or “inhumane treatment,” as they say.

I saw a bunch of international films at the the MSP International Film Festival, though not half as many as I wish I could have seen, looking through the catalog again. The best these were about harsh landscapes and human cruelty towards other humans and animals, except for one. Purgatorio: A Journey Into the Heart of the Border was a very personal film by Rodrigo Reyes, who came to speak at the showing. I though he ably showed some of the stark contradictions in life at the U.S.-Mexico border, where I once worked for legal aid, though some audience members did not like the part that showed the mistreatment of stray dogs to raise questions about treatment of humans.

Harmony Lessons was an engrossing movie from a young Kazakh director that used graphic images and a pattern of violence among high school boys in a metafictional discussion of torture, power, and control, I assume alluding to both the Kazakh and Russian governments. The documentary Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus followed a troupe of actors as they fought against repression while the dictator staged his re-election. This was another very well-made film where the graphic violence was not at all gratuitous.

On the flip side, We Are The Best was a fun and easygoing film about Swedish girls in the early 1980s Death to Prom was a locally-made film with a multiracial cast that I remember being very funny and charming though the actual plot has escaped me beyond the guy and girl who are artists and best friends competing for the hot new Russian boy at their high school. Belle falls more into the serious side as it was based loosely on a true story and explored the legal status of freed slaves in the eighteenth century through the vehicle of a costume drama.
who fought everyday sexism with punk rock, by Lucas Moodysson. It was refreshing to see a film that focused on girls without being difficult to watch or stupid, and the music and 80s hair is great. (Check out the trailer.)

I just finished Karen Joy Fowler's book from 2013, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I found to be very gripping and insightful, my two go-to words to describe books I read from cover to cover in less than a day or two. It's hard to have too much to say about this book without giving away spoilers, because so much of the style of the book has to do with surprises, revisions, and questions about memory. I also say “insightful” with a caveat: that sharp insight into human character and behavior and our treatment of animals, and into family dynamics, can be deeply disturbing.

Another novel that dealt with disturbing questions in a deceptively 'easy' style and is difficult to put into an elevator pitch was Tehran in Twilight by Salar Abdoh, a noirish novel of political intrigue set in New York and Tehran. Often reading like cynical poetry, this novel has a meditative pace but covers an immense amount of internal and external territory in amazingly few words.

I also just read the book I'd been waiting all year for, which got rave reviews outside the US and then was delayed in being released here. For the record, wikipedia would tell you that Johanna Sinisalo is a Finnish writer who has won Nebula and Tiptree awards, respectively, for English translations of the short story "Baby Doll" and novel Troll: A Love Story (U.S. translation)/Not Before Sunset (U.K. translation), as well as the Finlandia prize for Troll in the original.

While waiting for her new novel, I reread her available fiction and the Daedalus anthology of Finnish Fantasy translated into English that she edited. That contains many intriguing stories, including a rollicking tale about a wily dog demon. I'm always surprised how few fans of feminist SFF seem to have read her work, because I can't stop rereading regularly for the pleasures of finding the deeper layers and more subtle nuances. I am hoping folks will work to make Worldcon go to Helskini in 2017(!) so the work of Sinisalo and other great Finnish writers will get more play. (See Cheeky Monkey Press, also.)

While Troll focused on Finnish characters and folklore, Birdbrain decentered Finland. The protagonists, a newly-coupled young Finnish man and woman, go on a trek through relatively “untouched” wilderness in Australia and Tasmania. Birdbrain explores, among many related themes and conflicts, the relationships of humans to animals and of Westerners and Europeans to the globe as a living entity and its many other peoples, also in amazingly few words.

Ostensibly moving back to Finland as the setting, Enkelten Verta, translated as The Blood of Angels, sets its gunsights on the dirty secrets and grimy underbelly of BigAg as well as the contradictions inherent in animal rights activism against it. Sinisalo uses blog entries as the lifeline that links the greater world, the “real world,” to the protagonist, a bee farmer in rural Finland who steps into and out of present reality/spacetime that is linked to the massive die-offs and disappearances of bees. The novel's action takes place in that kind of ethereal near-future-yet-already-here timeline that William Gibson has set up in his recent novels, taking that one small step from events happening now IRL (bee colony collapse) to the possible logical outcomes that may already be underway as we read and share the book.

The end result is a terse but lyrical hybrid of science fiction and fantasy similar to the other two nooks, here weaving speculation in with the characters' highly politicized opinions about the underlying causes of the bee colony collapse syndrome. Angels hides its feminist hand a lot more than the earlier two novels. However, for starters, the fact that the women of this world are so obviously missing from the web of relationships that connect the characters is a statement in itself.

The same translator, Lola Rodgers, translated another book I enjoyed this year, a science fictional noir novel with similar themes and setting in a near-future Finland in the midst of global environmental collapse. After working on learning Finnish through Teach Yourself books, I can say pretty assuredly that the challenges of translating the subtleties of Sinisalo's wordplay and so-dry-you-might-miss-them witticisms between languages as different as Finnish and English have got to be daunting. It also seems like misplaced energy to try and render judgment about a particular translation of Sinisalo when she reads so well across translations. I could say that Rodgers' translations seemed particularly smooth and skillful, but that would only really be saying that I found both books very readable.

In Antti Tuomainen's The Healer, a poet searches for his wife, a journalist who has gone missing while researching a story about a serial killer. The pacing of the unraveling of the mysteries of the wife's disappearance and the role of the serial killer was pretty brisk. Hamid, a recent North African immigrant who drives a cab, assists him for a complex mix of reasons. I had trouble deciding whether this was simply another Magical Negro role or at least a partial escape from that trap, but it seems to represent a small step forward for the prominent books in the “Scandinoir” framework. The generous handful of Scandinavian crime/noir novels I read over the last year discussed race and immigration mostly by having gangster and skinhead characters commit racial assaults as a showy backdrop to the anti-hero's battle against criminal masterminds. It was interesting to see a Finnish book, out of the few marketed to an English speaking audience, that tried to grapple with race in present-day Finland. Sinisalo's books have some characters rant about the history of global slavery and exploitation but do not really attempt that task.

I've really enjoyed the Skiffy and Fanty podcast series on World SFF, too, for the wide variety of people and con panels and in-depth discussions.

Away from SSF, Pissing In a River was the long-awaited follow-up for Lorrie Sprecher, who wrote Sister Safety Pin, another novel about dykes who love punk rock and get involved in AIDS activism in the 1980s. Both novels center on women who are navigating relationships with each other while dealing the impact of male violence against them in the recent past. I thought Pissing In a River had a more complex and emotionally moving storyline, but I like that both books deal with sexual assault (and PIR with OCD) as something the characters are dealing with in their busy and complicated lives instead of a gratuitous plot device.

Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger, by Kelly Cogswell, pretty much explains its premise in
the title. This book got hella things right in terms of describing the in-fighting and ridiculousness of direct action affinity group activism in the most loving and nostalgic possible terms. It also also names bad choices, racism, and internalized homophobia for what they were in the moment and the movements of the time. This book is not just a list of the cool things a bunch of activists did or a recounting of how they did it, but also a parsing of what worked and what did not and why choices that proved detrimental to the overall project and individual actions were made. Cogswell was in an interesting position in terms of viewing and intervening in the racial dynamics of the NYC Avengers, and she also explores the challenges she and her Cuban partner faced in their relationship and with the Avengers.

I found Sarah Waters' new novel, The Paying Guests, to be one of her strongest yet, along with Affinity and The Night Watch. I am generally not a big fan of historical novels with rich period detail, but this is reliably the aspect of her novels which draws me into her stories. This one truly is ripped straight out of a tabloid headline, about a murder trial. It's not simply a bodice ripper and neither a murder mystery, but a little of both.

I read a lot of biographies of queer activists and artists focused on a certain era, the 1970s to early Just Kids, Patti Smith's book about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, because it touched on both the punk music and fine art scenes of the time and really got into both the spiritual aspects of the creative process, the business aspects of these arts, and the gritty realities of life as an artist. Cynthia Carr's biography of David Wojnarowicz, Fire in the Belly, was an eye opener for me because I had read his books but not seen his art, and the biography has great color plates of many of his paintings and photos. In a nutshell, both men died from complications associated with AIDS and were fierce fighters against right wing attacks on their art and arts funding for similarly challenging work, the not-coincidentally recurrent theme in queer artist/writer biographies from this era. I also finally saw The Dallas Buyer's Club, which had a lot of flaws but ultimately did a decent job of viscerally depicting the root of the raw fury that fueled AIDS activism before the cocktail.
1990s. Among the ones I liked the best were

Martin Duberman's biography of Essex Hemphill and Michael Callen, Hold Tight Gently, mines similar territory. Essex Hemphill was an African American poet from Washington, D.C., who founded, co-founded, and helped nurture a wide array of organizations and literary magazines, readings, etc. His life became closely intertwined with that of Joseph Beam, who edited the groundbreaking anthology In The Life, and they co-edited Brother to Brother. Michael Callen was a white singer and AIDS activist who bucked the gay and both the AIDS activism and industry establishments with a no-b.s. approach towards the scientific data available about longterm survival with HIV. All three men were heroes to me as a baby dyke. Duberman's biography delves deeply into the history of seemingly everyone and everything both subjects were involved in as well as their own personal histories, with all their human contradictions. Like Cogswell, he covers in detail many of the controversies and conflicts that came up in the artistic and activist organizations and movements they were involved in, making this a history of an era as much as a split biography.

Christopher Bram's biography of a generation (or three) of gay writers, Eminent Outlaws, was also a good read. While it is hard not to think of it as the story of the white gay canon plus James Baldwin, I found that I knew less about that canon than I thought, despite having read many of the novels and stories they wrote and a lot about their personal histories in the course of following gay lit over many decades. Bram provides concise yet detailed intertwined biographies of writers but also focuses on the larger social forces they faced, particularly publishing industry homophobia.

On a completely different note, I was surprised to enjoy Stephen King's sequel to The Shining as much as I did. The antagonists in Doctor Sleep were truly creepy, though not at all like the Overlook Hotel. This is one I would not recommend to people who are squeamish or reactive to repeated musings about child abuse or cravings for alcohol, but it makes a right proper horror story out of these longtime King themes without being a retread.

Carrie Devall lives in Minneapolis and has been told so many times that she spends too much time working and not enough time writing that it just might be true.

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2014, pt. 11: Richard Bowes

2014 Roundup
by Richard Bowes

JAMIE MARKS IS DEAD –  It’s fascinating to see a novel one knows well adapted for the screen by a director (Carter Smith) who obviously loved the book. Based on Christopher Barzak’s 2007 Crawford Award winning debut novel One for Sorrow is a coming of age story and a ghost story set in a dead end rustbelt town. It features strong and very believable performances by three young actors playing high school kids: Jamie the outcast boy who is found dead, Gracie, the girl who finds the body, Adam, the track team star alienated from his family who becomes fixated on the ghost of the dead boy when  Jamie Marks returns.

Scenes are cut, characters omitted as in any screen adaptation. But Smith remains as true to Barzak’s vision, I think, as it is possible to be – the wintry town, the kids brave and scared at the same time – a clear, affecting vision of this country at this moment.

With Judy Greer, Liv Tyler, Cameron Monaghan, Noah Silver, Morgan Saylor. 


For about the last ten years, Mary Rickert’s stories ("Journey to the Kingdom," "The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece") Story collections (Map of Dreams, Holidays) have appeared on dozens of award short lists and have won awards (World Fantasy, Jackson).

This year her first novel (The Memory Garden) appeared from Sourcebooks Landmark and has been selling like a little engine ever since.

Clearly she has her fans and supporters. Yet, somehow she remains a secret in so many ways.

Now, with its online publication of her remarkable novella “The Mothers of Vorhisville" (which seems like a novel) has made Ms. Rickert available to anyone who clicks on this site. Reading about this town, its women, their secret, the mysterious stranger, made me feel like I was spinning away into the sky. I invite you to grab hold of its coat tails!


From total obscurity, the street photography of Vivian Maier especially the shots she took in New York and Chicago in the mid 20th century) have become a major surprise that has become a sizeable posthumous industry.

Maier is the subject several well designed books displaying aspects her work. She has had major galleries and museums in the U.S. and Europe. A well-received documentary film FINDING VIVIAN MAIER shows us the work but also deals with the paradox and mystery.

As often with street photography, her photos seem to strip the subjects of their defenses and privacy. Her technical ability is impressive – a photograph of her seen reflected in a store window – integrates itself onto the items seen in the store. She looks like a photo on the wall of the shop.

For much of her life she worked as a children’s governess. The children she cared for early in her career, loved her. Those who had her later on liked her less. Her employees knew little about her background. The few hints she gave often proved to be less than true.

When one reads about a visual artist one wants to see the art. That’s easily done, with the film, the books, a trip through easily found sites on the Internet.

The Mystery? Not so easily solved.


A world of self made women

This Broadway play by Harvey Fierstein was based on actual events in a small Catskill guesthouse in the early 1960’s that catered to transvestites. The play only ran a couple of months. I found it interesting, but not compelling and flawed in its plot and character motivation.

It was illegal for men to dress as women, something that today would be regarded with indifference. The laws were stupid and sad. But so were the anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-racial minority laws of 1962.

And yet the play stuck with me, bothered me, which I’ve always taken to mean that a work of any kind, has some truth, some valid point.

Thinking about it, I realized that as depicted here, many of these transvestites are women on weekends but men first and foremost. In the play many, though not all, are as contemptuous of gay men as any other American males in 1962. They lie to their wives like any philandering husbands. They resent being outside the law but express no sympathy for other groups so treated.

Richard Bowes has published six novels, four short story collections and seventy stories. He has won two World Fantasy Awards, an International Horror Guild and a Million Writer Award. 2013 was a busy year for him: Aqueduct brought out an illustrated book of modern fairy tales, The Queen, the Cambion and Seven Others, and Lethe Press published a new novel, Dust Devil on a Quiet Street, and republished Bowes' 1999 Lambda Award Winner, Minions of the Moon. This year, Dust Devil on a Quiet Street was a finalist for the Lambda Award.