Friday, December 19, 2008

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Seven: Cynthia Ward and Therese Littleton

Cynthia Ward:

The Year in Review, After a Fashion

Not much changed for me in 2008. I still don't own a TV, so I still can't recommend a show. I did double the number of movies I saw...from one to two. But, as in 2007, I mostly read for review or research, I mostly read works I wouldn't have without these constraints, and I didn't find my tastes changed.

The movies I saw were Iron Man and Batman: The Dark Knight. The latter made it clear just what a loss Heath Ledger's death was, but as a film it didn't work so well, since they filmed two movies at the same time (the Joker being one movie, and Two-Face the other). In contrast, Iron Man was great fun. Instead of assuming anyone watching a superhero movie had to be a moron, Iron Man offered intelligence and subtlety in its strong writing and superior acting.

The 2008 movies I hope to see are:

Mamma Mia! (with all those great ABBA tunes);

Milk (about assassinated San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, and starring Sean Penn, whom I've not heard much praise of, though I've never seen him deliver anything less than a superlative performance);

and Twilight -yes, I really do want to see the film adaptation of the first of Stephenie Meyer's problematic, blockbuster YA novels about a teenage vampire-werewolf-human love triangle.

I haven't read 2008's Breaking Dawn, the fourth and concluding volume of the "Twilight" series, but I've read the previous three, and have the new one waiting on my nightstand. The earlier volumes (Twilight, New Moon, and Eclipse) certainly aren't pleasing from a feminist standpoint, as the narrator/protagonist, Bella Swan, is passive and guy-centric enough to induce gibbering insanity even in the rabidly anti-feminist Dr. Laura. Only, that isn't actually the books' effect, as the robust sales and the screaming mobs which greet the author's public appearances demonstrate.

I find the "Twilight" series interesting for a couple of reasons. One is that it perfectly captures what teenage girls want. I mean, the most gorgeous boy in the whole school (if not the whole world) wants you, and only you. He wants you so badly, he suffers terribly from not having you; in fact, he may literally die of it. Also, the supercute guy at the other school also wants you with all his body and soul. And did I mention the most gorgeous boy at your school is essentially immortal, and has the power to make you the same? He really can give you a love that lasts forever. This stuff appeals to the ego (or, perhaps, the id), regardless of whether you're straight or gay, or male or female (though I doubt these books will ever gain a wide male audience). I read and enjoyed the "Twilight" series as if I were a teenage girl, even though I never actually wanted what Bella gets (see next paragraph for the reason why).

The other reason I find the "Twilight" series fascinating is its primary relationships: they're breathtakingly dysfunctional. Bella's relationship to her parents is inverted: she's the mature one, so she functions (like a lot of real-life Baby-Boomers' kids) as their parents. Also, her vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen, is disturbingly controlling and obsessive. The dude even wants to spend every night watching Bella sleep (Meyer's vampires don't need to sleep, you see). Even in my teenage-girl years, I would've found some guy watching me all night seriously creepy. I haven't a clue whether Meyer intended the relationships to be this screwed up; but they make you careen through the pages.

Another interesting but problematical series is Elizabeth Bear's "Stratford Man" diptych of Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth (part of her "Promethean Age" uber-series). The pair presents a secret history of both the Elizabethan Age and the poets/playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Magic and the fae are real, and intimately intertwined with the fate of England; and Shakespeare and Marlowe create magic with their plays, forestalling chaos and helping to keep Elizabeth I on the throne.

Shakespeare and Marlowe also become lovers, which brings us to one of the problematic elements: when Shakespeare changes from heterosexual-repulsed-by-homosexuality to happy-to-do-Marlowe, readers receive no glimpse of his thoughts during the transition. The oversight is hard to miss, as Bear otherwise gives considerable attention to the men's thoughts and feelings (to the point that I was reminded of the Japanese manga/anime subgenre of shonen ai/yaoi: homosexual male romances for heterosexual females -a subgenre that the "Stratford Man" books do not belong to, so don't read 'em for that).

The other problem is the weak structure of the first book, Ink and Steel. Perhaps this is explained by the rumor that Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth started life as a single novel. Certainly, the pair work well when viewed as a whole. And, though it's damned hard for a novelist to make William Fucking Shakespeare Of All People a convincing character (never mind Will + Kit), Bear made me believe.

Other worthwhile new books I read this year include (but, thanks to my faulty memory, may not be confined to):

Victory of Eagles, the fifth book in Naomi Novik's delightful "Temeraire" series, an alternate history of the Napoleonic era, with dragons;

Clockwork Heart, Dru Pagliassotti's romantic steampunk mystery set in a world shaped by lighter-than-air metal;

The Engineer's Child, Holly Phillips's steampunk fantasy of a new world colonized by South Asians;

The Duke in His Castle, Vera Nazarian's short fantasy novel mixing elements of Angela Carter and Mervyn Peake (not as good as either, of course, but inventive);

Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan's beautiful, unpredictable YA novel about living in an imaginary world;

and The Steel Remains, a 2009 release in which Richard K. Morgan remakes the epic fantasy by shattering it. Antiheroic, angry, and deeply noir, The Steel Remains is the best new fiction I've read this year; but, as I'm currently writing a review for another publication, I will not discuss it further here.

For older fiction, I read several of the pulp classics reprinted by the good people at Planet Stories. A mixture of sword-and-sorcery and interplanetary romance, the books range greatly in quality. The best of the reprinted authors, and the ones most likely to interest readers of this blog, are the "Queens of the SF Pulps," C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett.

The Moore titles (Northwest of Earth, collecting the complete Northwest Smith stories, and Black God's Kiss, collecting the complete stories about Jirel of Joiry, sword-and-sorcery's first sword-swinging heroine) are important, influential works of SF and fantasy, but they're also of uneven quality (though the Smith story "Shambleau" is one of the all-time best vampire stories).

I fully enjoyed the two excellent noir-SF books by Leigh Brackett: The Secret of Sinharat (which pairs its title novella with the equally strong "People of the Talisman") and The Ginger Star (the first book of the Skaith trilogy). Both books feature the interplanetary adventurer Eric John Stark, who's a sort of cross between John Carter of Mars, Tarzan of the Apes, and some 1940s film-noir outlaw played by Humphrey Bogart (which sounds weird, but Brackett makes it work). The Skaith books were the first Brackett titles I read. Their mixture of action and darkness, a new experience for me, made her my favorite writer in high school (and also helped mold me into a feminist, which is weird, since Brackett wasn't exactly a feminist). I look forward to the Planet Stories reissues of the trilogy's remaining volumes (The Hounds of Skaith and The Reavers of Skaith), and hope they'll reprint the rest of her interplanetary adventure fiction.

A couple of 2008 titles I'm about to read are Nisi Shawl's Aqueduct Press collection, Filter House (she's my collaborator on the Conversation Piece title Writing the Other, so my recommendation here is inherently suspect, but others have found it worth reading, and Publishers Weekly includes it among their Best Books of 2008); and Riversend (Juno Books), the much-anticipated sequel to Sylvia Kelso's brilliant feminist SF (or is it fantasy?) novel, Amberlight (2007).

Happy holidays and happy reading to all, and to all a good night.

Cindy's stories have appeared in Asimov's SF, the Bending the Landscape anthology series, and other f/sf venues. She writes a column for SFWA's Bulletin. Aqueduct published her book, Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (written with Nisi Shawl), in 2005.

Therese Littleton:

Some of my reading this year revealed the horrors of adolescence. I won't vouch for the writing, story, or characters, but absorbing Twilight (Stephenie Meyer) in early 2008 plunked me right down on a wave of teen trendiness leading up to the movie release in the fall. It also gave me a lot to talk about with friends and coworkers and led to some very fruitful conversations about sexism, religion, and chastity. Meanwhile, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (Sherman Alexie) was moving and memorable, mostly because I heard Alexie give an impassioned call for Native American kids to "get off the rez" just before I read it.

Stand-out nonfiction in 2008 included The World Without Us (Alan Weisman), a delirious dip into my favorite daydream scenario: the sudden and complete disappearance of humans. This is my favorite mind-blowing nonfiction book since Parasite Rex (Carl Zimmer). I also zipped through bicycle-memoir The Rider (Tim Krabbe), one of only a handful of sports memoirs I have ever read, and thoroughly enjoyed it. But the year's theme was politics, so on our road trip to Denver for the DNC, my partner and I listened to unabridged audio versions of Dreams from My Father (Barack Obama, read by the author) and Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin, read by Richard "John Boy" Thomas). Both were excellent, and both were surely enhanced by purple mountain majesty and fruited plains going by outside the windows.

I read a huge stack of comics and graphic novels and didn't keep a list, but two of my favorites were The Arrival (Shaun Tan) and I Killed Adolph Hitler (Jason). The former is a wordless, beautiful tale of identity and memory. The latter is a perfect little science fiction story with sex and violence. Speaking of sex and violence, I started reading Wonder Woman every month, faithfully, now that DC has hired the amazing Gail Simone to write it. Simone first came to my attention through her old web site, Women in Refrigerators, an industry-illuminating catalog of dead, dismembered, and disempowered comics superheroines. Now she's in charge of Wonder Woman, and it's awesome.

Big fantasy kind of appealed to me this year, and I read three sword-and-sorcery novels that I liked: The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss), The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie), and The Curse of Chalion (Lois McMaster Bujold). All three scratched the fantasy itch and were really fun to read in big chunks, especially with beer.

Shirley Jackson was my literary obsession in the first part of the year. I read The Haunting of Hill House, Life Among the Savages, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I really loved all of them, and I watched the 1962 film version of The Haunting to get more chills and to see how they dealt with the lesbian subtext.

Since it wasn't a Moby-Dick year, I finally finished all 20 of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. I started fresh from the beginning and tore through them. Very satisfying to see Stephen and Jack age and deal with the consequences of their earlier actions. I also re-read Little, Big (John Crowley) and Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), mostly to see if these two novels held the same delicious sense of shared alienation that they did on first reading. Results were mixed, but they both passed the true test in that I decided to keep them for another go-round someday. I enjoyed The Yiddish Policeman's Union (Michael Chabon) but didn't find it as brilliant or quick-moving as Kavalier and Clay. I did love the characters, especially the ex-wife, whose singular focus on her undesirable career resonated with me this year. Keeping with the theme of the Other, I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Díaz), which made me melancholy for days. Too much violence and sadness for me to find the connections redemptive, but I still recommended it to everyone I knew who played D&D and read sci fi as a kid. So many laugh-out-loud references for geeks.

Therese is the Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum in Seattle. She has written numerous essays and reviews for
Asimov's SF, Amazing Stories, and other publications and is the co-publisher of the elegant small press, Payseur and Schmidt.

1 comment:

marcinko said...

Good additions to my 2009 reading and viewing lists, with the probably exceptions of Mamma Mia and Twilight... : )

I can only second Cynthia's recommendation for the Northwest Smith stories. Every story is as if a young Han Solo follows a femme fatale into an encounter with a Lovecraftian horror. Weird tales, indeed.