Monday, December 22, 2008

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Eleven: Nancy Jane Moore and Karen Meisner

Nancy Jane Moore:

I moved halfway across the U.S. in January 2008. This is relevant because I moved 41 boxes of books and only two bookcases. So, starkly aware of how many books I already had, I didn't buy as many new ones as usual.

But I did buy a few, and I re-read some old ones as well. I also entertained myself with TV series via Netflix, radio, blogs and other online reading, and occasional movies and plays. Herewith, a few highlights.

Back in 2001, I read a novella by Brenda Clough that appeared in Analog, "May Be Some Time," which I loved and which made both the Hugo and Nebula ballots. The story revolves around the British explorer Titus Oates, who is snatched from certain death in Antarctica in 1912 and brought forward to 2045. In 2002, I reviewed the sequel novella, "Tiptoe, on a Fence Post," and at that time I observed that "it’s obvious to the reader that there is much more to come. And I, for one, am greedy to read the next part." Well, finally I get to finish it. I'm in the process of reading the whole book, Revise the World, chapter by chapter on Book View Cafe. (Conflict alert: I'm one of the authors publishing on Book View Cafe.) A new chapter is posted each week -- on Mondays -- so I haven't yet read far enough to discover whether the whole book lives up to the promise of the novellas, but it's a delight to finally be able to read it.

I'm also a subscriber to Bruce Holland Rogers's short-short stories by email. It's not only that Bruce is a real master of the flash fiction genre, but also that he has a gift for telling stories that leave you a little unsettled.

I did a lot of re-reading this year -- moving is stressful -- and two old favorites stand out amid the pile of comfort books I dug out of my boxes: Samuel Delany's Babel-17 and Pamela Dean's Tam Lin. The core idea of Babel-17 -- that the language you speak dictates how you think -- still fascinates me, and at this point in my life I also think the book might be the best Sixties novel ever. As for Tam Lin -- Dean's retelling of the ballad set at a liberal arts college in the 1970s -- my passion for it might simply be that living in such a stew of ideas and possibilities is still my idea of utopia.

A lot of the new fiction I read in 2008 was published by Aqueduct Press -- probably another conflict of interest -- so I will simply say that Blood in the Fruit was my favorite book in Timmi Duchamp's Marq'ssan Cycle, the one I couldn't put down. I was also glad to read a lot of Nisi Shawl at once in Filter House, was creeped out by Lisa Tuttle's My Death, and swept along by the stories in Carolyn Ives Gilman's Aliens of the Heart.

Of the nonfiction I read this year, two books stand out. Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine provided me with a very timely education in the Chicago school of economics just as Wall Street came crashing down. Klein not only clearly explains the market-driven theory -- the idea that the market will always self-correct, something clearly proved wrong of late -- but also shows the real damage done by forced application of that theory in places like Chile and Russia. The metaphor that it takes a "shock" to force people to accept these policies -- shocks like the Pinochet coup in Chile -- is drawn from abuses of electroshock therapy. This book is depressing, but it's become increasingly obvious that we all need to understand economic theory as well as science to survive in the modern world.

Which brings us to my other favorite nonfiction read of the past year, Evolution for Everyone by David Sloane Wilson. Wilson is a biology professor at SUNY-Binghamton who is working on cross-discipline studies as well. His book not only provides a clear understanding of what evolution is and isn't, but does it with a cheerful approach that makes it eminently readable. Reading it will give you enough knowledge to argue effectively with people who don't "believe" in evolution (as if science was based on faith in the unknowable, like religion), so long as they aren't such extreme fundamentalists that they think the world was created by God in seven days six thousand years ago. And it will allow you to apply evolutionary thinking to other things, even literature.

I also discovered a wonderful cookbook this year: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois. Simple, hearty homemade bread: you mix up a batter in five minutes -- really -- let it rise (no kneading), and then stick it in the fridge until you're ready to bake. To bake, cut off a chunk, shape it quickly into a round or loaf, let it rise for 40 minutes, and shove it in the oven to bake. Presto: fresh bread with a minimum of time and trouble. Since I'm now working at home, I can do this by taking a short work break and have the smell of bread wafting through my apartment while I'm trying to understand Fort Worth's natural gas drilling ordinance.

Speaking of working at home: one of the other pleasures of that arrangement is that I can play music or the radio -- unless I really need total quiet to concentrate -- without bothering anyone else or becoming entangled in headphones. So I've become addicted to KUT-FM radio here in Austin, which is also available on the Web as The station has a good balance between NPR news, local news, and local music programs that reflect the diverse music available in Austin.

Persepolis, which Gwyneth Jones also recommended, is the best movie I've seen this year. I read the books it was based on several years ago, and thought the film adaptation was excellent. I remain convinced that the graphic format is a powerful way to present memoir, both in book and movie form.

I don't have cable and while I sometimes indulge in network television, I'm usually disappointed (amazing how many attractive young women are homicide victims on TV, when the statistics show that men are much more likely to be murdered than women). My solution is to rent really good TV series through Netflix. I'm still using the DVD method, though downloading is getting to be the better option.

Anyway, I have decided the new Battlestar Gallactica is an intense and stunning series that makes good use of the novel-like serial storytelling method of television. It's so intense, as a matter of fact, that I've been holding on to the last episode of Season 3 because I can guess what might happen and I'm not sure I'm up to it. I was reluctant to watch the show at first -- I remember the bad TV show it was based on -- and the pilot unnerved me by having a mix of far future and modern times (the Cylons are the result of human-invented AI, but breast cancer is still a problem?). However the moral dilemmas and complexity of the plot overcame my objections.

But the best TV series I've rented is The Wire, which is based on the same original reporting by David Simon that gave us the earlier network series, Homicide: Life on the Street. The Wire is Homicide on steroids -- a realistic and gritty look at Baltimore and police work. It's got a tough male focus, because the key elements throughout the series are cops and gang members, and the active women in those worlds also adopt a tough male persona. On The Wire, the computers don't work, the bosses are only interested in looking like they're fighting crime, young black men die everyday without being noticed, and everyone makes deals to survive. The only criticism I have of the show is that it occasionally goes a little over the top -- the "Hamsterdam" plot in Season 3, for example, or Detective McNulty's faked evidence of a serial killer in Season 5, which he uses to get actual police resources for real crimes. But even allowing for some flashy storytelling, the show documents both the frustration of good cops trying to solve murders and other serious crimes and the lives of people with the bad fortune to be born poor and black in a world that doesn't give a damn.

I've also been watching the new Doctor Who and have generally enjoyed it. Both Christopher Eggleston and David Tennant are excellent Doctors -- and having watched the original on late night PBS for years, I have opinions on who does, and doesn't, make a good Doctor. The special effects are good -- a real improvement on the cheesy ones of the past -- and the plots are nice and tight -- a real improvement on the meandering ones of the past. And every time I think it's become more or less a predictable SF bug hunt, they introduce something messy into the plot, like race issues. Definitely worth your time, especially given the competition.

Nancy Jane Moore's most recent book is Conscientious Inconsistencies from PS Publishing. She is part of the consortium of writers publishing on Book View Cafe, where she is primarily posting flash fiction. Her novella, Changeling, is still available from Aqueduct.

Karen Meisner:

I've been reading novels and more novels and hundreds of short stories. Instead of trying to sort through those, I'll toss out some other stuff that's thrilling me this month.

Låt Den Rätte Komma In (Let the Right One Come In) - I saw this movie last week with my Swedish husband, who vouched for its verisimilitude: life in that part of Sweden in the 1980s really was just like in the film, only with fewer vampires. It's a stunner of a story, gorgeous and unusual and disturbing; it will haunt me.

Thea Hillman just published a series of personal essays and memoir called Intersex (For Lack of a Better Word). When I started reading, all I knew was an abstract, clinical definition of the word: "Someone born with sex chromosomes, genitalia, or an internal reproductive system that are neither clearly male nor clearly female." So this book about growing up intersex was a real eye-opener. Hillman doesn't attempt to speak for anyone except herself; this is a fiercely individual exploration of a reality I've never even seen acknowledged before. Smart, lovely, honest writing, and a highly interesting read.

'Tis the season, so I am reading The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming, written and illustrated by Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown. It's tough for a Hanukkah latke to hold its own within a Christmas-dominated world, but the irate little potato pancake does its best. Having grown up Jewish in America, I have to say, it all rings ridiculously true. Makes an excellent holiday gift for mixed households (like my own) who celebrate both holidays.

I spend much of my time online, where my life is made happier by the existence of so many excellent free webcomics. Some of my favorites lately have been The Non-Adventures of Wonderella by Justin Pierce, A Softer World by Joey Comeau and Emily Horne, FreakAngels by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield, Dinosaur Comics by Ryan North, and Kate Beaton's stuff.

Another of my favorite online reads this year is Coilhouse, a magazine and blog describing itself as "a love letter to alternative culture, written in an era where alt culture no longer exists." Art, music, fashion, writing, and lifestyle: the women running Coilhouse are tuned into all kinds of exciting creative work going on around the world, and they always have perceptive, funny, well-informed things to say about it.

These days, I allow myself a single gaming indulgence: Corpse Craft, an excellent free online puzzle-action hybrid game. It's sort of like playing Tetris while building an army of reanimated Victorian corpses to battle your foes. Super fun and stylish, with cheery music and graphics that look like they were done by Edward Gorey, and very satisfying.

Plenty of tv: Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, True Blood, Entourage, The Office, How I Met Your Mother. I continue to adore Smallville even though everyone mocks me for it. The Middleman is one of the most delightful shows I've ever seen; it's on an uncertain hiatus right now, but fingers crossed that it'll be renewed for a second season. Looking forward to the return of Doctor Who and Torchwood too, though I've lost patience with the Doctor's companions and Torchwood is, let's face it, a silly, sprawling mess that gets most of its momentum from the irrepressible charm of John Barrowman. More queer SF, please, but maybe with some interesting wimminfolk on board? Lastly, I must heap blessings upon Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, which provided much-needed humor and sanity through the election.

2008 is a good year to be a Modesty Blaise fan! It took me years to find all of Peter O'Donnell's rare out-of-print novels in hardcover, not to mention the few comic strip collections. But recently, Titan Books started reprinting the entire run of comics in high-quality volumes. The novels are finally back in print again, too, and while I continue to treasure my collection of earlier editions, the new paperbacks are stylishly done (and don't have ex libris stamps all over them). Modesty Blaise first appeared back in the early 1960s and the stories can be a bit dated, but I love them all madly. Also, speaking of favorite old comics! A quarter-century down the line, the Hernandez brothers are still putting out the epic Love and Rockets, which, taken collectively, gets my personal vote for the best sequential art series ever written. L&R: New Stories #1 came out this fall as a large annual trade paperback, and I've been eating it up. I'm also very impressed with Fun Home, Alison Bechdel's memoir about growing up and coming into her sexual identity in a family where her father struggled with his own. As you'd expect from the author of Dykes to Watch Out For, there's a thread of wry humor running throughout, but it's a tragic story too, skillfully told in words and pictures, full of unanswered questions.

The best children's book I've read to my kid recently is Whales On Stilts, a brilliant oddity by M.T. Anderson (currently receiving well-deserved attention for his Octavian Nothing books). Mad science and adventure and-- well, whales on stilts. Whimsical, self-aware satire that works for kids because such a sincere love of pulp adventure stories shines through.

Most eagerly anticipated books on my to-read shelf: Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, and The Love We Share Without Knowing, by Christopher Barzak. I'm looking forward to reading these over the holidays, because everything Kelly Link touches is spun into weird magic, whereas everything Barzak writes makes me fall in love with the world. Savoring that mix of effects is not a bad way to end the year.

Karen is a fiction editor and associate editor of Strange Horizons, as well a resident editor at the Online Writing Workshop. She has been the administrator for the Speculative Literature Foundation's Fountain Award, and helps run WisCon, which is conveniently located just a hop, skip and a jump from her front door.


Josh said...

Bechdel rules. I got my wife The Essential DTWOF for Xmas.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I agree. I loved Fun Home, too. I mostly can't read regular memoir, but graphic memoir is a wonderful genre.

Karen said...

Fun Home is such a well-crafted piece of work, isn't it? Memoir is all about how the author chooses to frame events, and usually people try to portray a life through straight linear narrative. But the way Bechdel constructed her story, weaving so many patterns and themes together, sometimes leaving things unspoken and letting the art carry the moment, and other times letting the action happen offstage while she described her reactions... it's greater than just a view into one person's life. It's a way of looking at lives tangled up with one another, with art and literature, with the social world. She really created something gorgeous there.

free online writing jobs said...

I moved half way across this year and i think you said it best when you said: moving is stressful. YES. it is. However there are many good things about it. I came across a big old box while packing the attic, and it was a box of old, really old books. I re-read almost all of them. Many of them were books my mother gave me when i was studying in University.
Although the context has almost nothing to do with that point in time in your life when you read them it brings back great memories.

What a great post!
thank you for this!