Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part One: Gwyneth Jones and Nicola Griffith

Gwyneth Jones:

Best of 2008

This hasn't been a very sf/f year for me, or a very musical year, and though I've seen the usual number of new movies, only one of them (see below) really impressed me favourably. I recommend Periphery: Erotic Lesbian Futures, ed. Lynne Jamneck, Lethe Press. I'm not much of an erotic writer, but I tried to make up for that with sf content. Some of the other authors are a lot hotter: however, don't expect a cosy feast of 'adult' material. You should read this collection for a different, fresh, and challenging perspective on standard genre situations; which you'll certainly find.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (interview with Satrapi on the site here, and's page here)

Originally published in France, graphic novel, the autobiography of a girl growing up in Iran at the time of the 1979 revolution, becoming a Punk, getting sent (on her own) out of the country to keep her out of trouble; filmed as a black and white animation in 2007, won the Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Oscar nominated.

I saw the movie in May 2008, it's wonderful, but would also highly recommend the graphic novel, and I'm not alone (see the amazon link!). The heroine is beguiling, the b&w drawing is simple, elegant, and just beautiful, a delight to the eye; the story of a much loved, outspoken young rebel-without-a-cause, and then clueless expatriate teenager, transcends nationality and culture: really struck a chord with me, anyway. Tragic, undaunted, also very funny indeed. But this is all happening in Iran, (aka Persia, to those who really don't know!) so you also get a strong corrective to preconceptions you may have about Islamic Womanhood. Admitted, Marjane Satrapi's background is privileged, the world she grew up in no longer exists, some of her "historical facts" are suspect; and the term "Persepolis" conjures up an expat-community of a certain generation, regarded with cynicism by some Iranians. But the women and girls you meet in Persepolis -talented, irrepressible, daring: speaking out in university lectures, shouting back at modesty-police, and able to behave like this and survive are still around, living in Iran today. Still fighting for equal rights, still making art for a cause and still, though embattled and quite often in jail, a credit to their religion, their ancient country, their remarkable culture.

See it, buy it. Excellent and classy entertainment.

The Night of Mir'aj, Zoe Ferraris ( listing here; published in the US as Finding Nouf)

I'm a big fan of thrillers as comfort food (couldn't tell you how many Swedish police procedurals, in translation nb, I've consumed this year), but just occasionally I strike something completely different. The Night of Mir'aj is set in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, it's the story of the death of a rich young woman; the life of another woman, the amazing Katya, who practices as a forensic pathologist in the most forbidding conditions; and the moral journey made by one man of goodwill, as he tries to reconcile their two narratives with his own devout and narrow piety. A window on a hidden world that's totally different from Persepolis. A woman who steps out of line will quickly get into trouble, in Iran, but the lines aren't impossibly oppressive. In The Night of Mir'aj we witness the bizarre behaviours of human beings, men as well as women, just trying to get by from day to day in a thoroughly twisted, disgustingly unnatural society. I can hardly stand to call it Islamic.

It says here, on the back flap of my edition, "Zoe Ferraris lives in a conservative Islamic community in Jeddah. . .". Not any more she doesn't! I thought, when I'd read the book, and inevitably I'm right. She's back in San Francisco these days, with her daughter and not with her Bedouin ex-husband. The murder and detection story isn't the reason to read this book (although murder-and-detection, as many writers have discovered, is an excellent tool for dissecting a society); but by the end it's clear there's a good chance Katya and Nayir may become the stars of an exotic detective series. In a way I'm sorry, as I feel there's bound to be a dilution. But I was really, really impressed by their debut.

Blonde Roots, Bernadine Evaristo

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons, which you can read here.

Gwyneth is the recipient of two World Fantasy awards, the Arthur C. Clarke award, the British Science Fiction Association short story award, the Dracula Society's Children of the Night award, the P.K.Dick award and shared the first Tiptree award, in 1992, with Eleanor Arnason. She is the author of numerous novels and many short stories and essays. With Aqueduct she has published Life, which won the Philip K. Dick Award, and will be publishing a collection of essays, Imagination Space, with Aqueduct in 2009. Her most recent novel is Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant.

Nicola Griffith:

Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: the Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, ed. Duncan & Klooster. My novel-in-progress is also set in a blood-stained period: seventh-century Britain. To avoid the misty romance of fictional violence--a few gleaming edges, a splash of crimson, heroic horn notes--I read Bierce's first-hand accounts of the real thing. Ugly, true, very human.

The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart. To see how the masters do it I revisited this old favourite, reeking of mist and menhirs, moors and magic. For the first time I noticed anachronisms, for example a character who is spasming is 'jacknifing'. But she's still brilliant.

Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect With People, by Marco Iacoboni. Mirror neurons are what make great novels feel real--they're responsible for us being able to recreate the experience of others inside ourselves, to literally put ourselves in the story. If you don't know the science, this will lay it all out for you neatly.

Entourage, on HBO. Total boy tv, but I love it. The boys pick up girls, beat the system, and earn a pile of money...

The Sword of Rhiannon, by Leigh Brackett. I was asked to write an introduction to this masterpiece of '40s planetary romance for republication next year. I'd read it before but rereading showed me a lot I'd missed the first time around: the beginnings of cultural consciousness, the absorption of crime fiction's tropes--and Brackett, it turns out, is an elegiast.

The Journal of Late Antiquity. It's fascinating to watch scholarship evolve: the 'Dark Ages' becomes 'Early Medieval' and 'Sub-Roman,' and now the latter is more often called 'Late Antiquity'. And here's the journal to prove it, stuffed with essays whose authors are bursting with the excitement of a new discipline.

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushdie. Don't read this. I forced myself through about a third and was, frankly, disgusted by Rushdie's laziness. He has undeniable gifts, and he's fearless, but he squanders them on careless prose.

True Blood, on HBO. The best new series on TV. Sex, blood, politics. Vampire/queer analogies, Cajun accents, moss-festooned live oaks. Fabulous. (The books are sad little things. Why do bad books make such good tv?)

Beowulf, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland. This is the umpteenth translation I've read of this epic, but for whatever reason I noticed a lot about it that I'd missed before. (I also missed a lot of stuff I'd missed before, sigh--see my post, Retconning Beowulf, on my research blog, Gemæcca. Fortunately, some medieval experts put me right.) I say 'translation' but I'm beginning to think 'interpretation' is a more accurate term. Still, it got me thinking about culture, again. Plus how can you not love something with dragons, hoards of gold, and sword-swangin' heroes?

Iron Man. Woo hoo. Loved this. Loved the fact that Stark eschews that superhero secrecy crap. Given that Marvel appears intent on building a superhero metaverse, it's a pity The Incredible Hulk was so incredibly lame.

Chalice, by Robin McKinley. Another inimitable tale of growing into oneself from the empress of such things. This may be McKinley in a minor key (more Sunshine than The Blue Sword) but she kicks Rushdie to the curb.

Nicola's awards include the Tiptree Award, the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Lambda Literary Award (six times). She is the author of five novels and a memoir, as well as essays and short fiction. Aqueduct published Nicola's collection With Her Body: Short Fiction in 2004. She's currently working on a huge historical novel set in 7th century Britain.


Josh said...

One naturally does not go to a Marvel movie for socially progressive worldviews --Iron Man, in particular, was first conceived as a Cold War hero who fought the Yellow Peril, so pretty much any updating is gonna be an improvement-- but I want to credit Favreau for giving this movie a little more female agency than a lot of Hollywood action crap. Within the constraints set by the need for the superhero to be more flawless and efficacious than anybody else, the two female supporting characters were highly intelligent, competent, and human; and they played a huge role in turning the hero to the side of Good and keeping him on it, without themselves having to be sacrificed like the Iranian guy. A lot better than the treatment of what passes for women in The Dark Knight, for all that that movie raised tougher ethical questions about superheroing.

nicola said...

Josh, our house is a house divided: Kelley thinks The Dark Knightrules, I think Iron Man does.

I'm sorry to say I don't watch superhero movies for ethical issues; I watch because I want to have a blast. Iron Man did that for me. (Though the fight at the end was truly ridiculous.)

nicola said...

Oh, oh, oh, I totally forgot to mention the best YA fantasy novels I found this year, Megan Wahlen Turner's ATTOLIA trilogy. I did a whole blog post about them here. Can't believe I forgot those...

Anonymous said...

Heh - I liked both Iron Man and The Dark Knight, and Hancock too. One of those people who won't decide... Best superhero mythology movie of 2008 though - Milk. Hands down. Subtext to die for.

Really writing to back up the recommendation of "Finding Nouf" - I picked this up at the library on a whim and was totally engrossed in a one-sitting read. I read 200 plus books a year, this year it was maybe two thirds fiction. FN was one of the top twenty standouts, easily.

The most surprisingly amazing books I read were Junot Diaz "The Brief and Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao" and Per Petterson "Out Stealing Horses" - both, like FN, so completely set in their particular time and place, so confident and beautifully written. Surprising because when everyone recommends the same books I start to tune out - prefer to find things on the shelves, but yeah I was so wrong...

-Carrie Devall

nicola said...

I'll wait to watch Milk at home--can't bear weeping in public.

Anonymous said...

Well, Milk is worth waiting for, IMO. But no one else would notice - people were pretty caught up in their own experience of it. And you would not be the only one - this stone butch shed a few tears, discreetly (movie queen tears...).

When I went to Brokeback Mountain both times in the theater, all these straight people were crying and some of the gay male couples, but the queer women I went with, we were looking at each other with a deep, inarticulate anger, sadness, too a long time to work through the slow burn, the nuances of that.

It was full-circle nice to go to another public experience of that angry sad dirty laundry being displayed to 'the public' and feel more 'at home,' despite the audience being pretty much the same people as before.