Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Nine: Haddayr Copley-Woods and Claire Light

Haddayr Copley-Woods:

I discover new music haphazardly; I stumble across artists by accident. I am a terrible reader. I work too many hours, I have too many damn kids, and so I trip and fall backwards into reading stuff. I would never plan to read a whole novel; I haven't the time. So when I'm not looking, books happen to me.

Like Jessy Randall's hilarious collection of poetry A Day in Boyland, which I actually bought for my sister. I'd read a few of Randall's poems, she lives in my sister's state, and I thought she was funny. Fortunately for me, my sister left the book at my house and I got to read it in the ensuing (aherm) year AND A HALF it took me to finally mail it to her. And you know what? Randall's poetry collection isn't just funny. It's deeply, insightfully funny, looking at gender and love in uncomfortable and delicious ways. It makes you think even as you're laughing. And just when you're all: "ha ha ha omg so funnAY" she comes out with an utter heartbreak that socks you right in the gut. POW.

Speaking of gutpunches, have you heard the Minnesota Orchestra's recordings of all of Beethoven's Symphonies? They just finished the fifth and final CD this year. There is some music that will put hair on your chest! This is the most nuanced, brilliant series of recordings ever made of Beethoven's music. If you do not get all tingly listening to the magnificently spooky and ominous 7th you are either deaf or dead. They were not afraid to go whole-hog serious gut-clenching face-smashing in the choral movement of Beethoven's 9th, but they didn't back away from his gentle humor and heartbreakingly warm gentleness in the more subtle sections, either. No galloping grandly yet chubbily through the notes on the famous 5th like so many others have— Osmo Vänskä paid attention. He interpreted. He totally kicked every other orchestra's ass. Midwest represent!

If the Minnesota Orchestra's recordings of familiar music done in a delightfully fresh way make you feel slightly a kilter, I beg you to go back to Suzanna Clark's brilliant world by reading her collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu set in the same world as Jonathan Strange. It is so good to go back there. So good, and so fun. And seen from a different angle! I wonder if Clark felt bad writing such a male-character dominated book, or she wrote some of these bits that just didn't seem to fit into the novel itself so she decided to present them to us. Either way, it's great to go back and hear what the women have to say about this world. So, so nice to be back in that place I cried at having to leave a few years ago when I finished Strange.

If you'd prefer instead of be shaken like a can of spray paint and balanced on your head, get Benjamin Rosenbaum's collection The Ant King and Other Stories. Ben's playfulness, deadly earnest experimentation with physics and human emotion, and his sheer exuberance is utterly delectable. What he does with speculative fiction is exactly what spec fic is for: he stretches boundaries. He not only asks "What if?" but he also asks: "What next?" His stories are alternatively thigh-slappingly hilarious, quietly sad, and conceptually challenging. Stories in this book have appeared in Harper's and been nominated for Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. If I were giant, I would eat him up with a spoon. This is some seriously good shit. (Which is exactly what I said when I first heard Delta Spirit's "Ode to Sunshine" a few weeks ago. I thought they sounded like the Beatles, but some people call them folk. There are also whiffs of The Stones and Dylan. With a gospelly-soul feel. Classic. Seriously good shit. Check it.)

Barth Anderson's The Magician and the Fool is some seriously weird shit. Billed as an alternate history of Tarot (which it is), it's also a love letter to Minneapolis and Madison, the chronicle of the ultimate (thank goodness) failed attempts by two men to deny the power they have inside of themselves, and a profile of evil. I really hate it when people say stuff like "this blew my mind, maaaaaaaaaan!" because it's so hippy and embarrassing, but I see that I in fact used that exact phrase when I reviewed it on GoodReads. What I love is how unpredictable this book is. I had no idea where the plot was going. I had no idea who would wind up doing the right thing. I was somewhat dim on what the right thing to do was. And in the last chapter? I didn't even know WHO anyone was. But you know what? I didn't care. It was that good. I love-love-loved it. It was that mind-bending.

So is Amy DiGennaro's art. She just won a McKnight Fellowship this year and her work is AMAZING. She says of her own work: "My work explores the fictions that white middle-class America creates through the history and institution of family. I look at moments of disconnect between experience and perception and create visual tales of those points of slippage." What this amounts to is deliciously nightmarish antique-looking illustrations that might be found in an old children's primer if penned by your hip lesbian aunt. She pours herself into her work, depicting her father (who died suddenly and whom she adored), her partner and their children, and herself. Brilliant, fun to look at and find new surprising images, and often quietly moving.

Oh, this is so excruciating to admit in public but I just read The Female Man this year. I'm sure everyone reading this has already read it, but for the 1.5 of you who haven't: Joanna Russ wrote a deeply absorbing, complex, and challenging book. Although I caught myself rolling my eyes at some of her descriptions of men and courtship ritual in the book (and feeling deeply utterly extremely grateful for having been born in 1970 in the Northern U.S.), she got me with the end. Oh, how she got me! She turned my eye-rolling in on itself, which is much more nice than it sounds. I didn't see it coming, her sum-up which handed me my jaded tsking on a silver platter. Wonderful. One quibble: she doesn't know shit about raising kids.

Another book which starts out one way and winds up in a completely different place is David J. Schwartz's Superpowers. As it starts, you're all: "This is a delightful romp through a 'what-if' of college kids getting powers! Wait. These dates seem to be heading toward a rather ominous and famous day that rings a bell. Uh oh. Things are not working out well for people." The ensuing spiral of misery made me happy, of course, because I hate happy endings. HATE THEM.

Which is why I'm a hypocrite for finishing up with my number one favorite read of the year: Chris Barzak's One for Sorrow. Well, I guess the ending is only happy in comparison to the wretched misery of the rest of the book. But oh oh oh oh how I loved this book. I believed in it. I believed Adam, and I believed in him, and I believed his family and his town and his random angry desperate wandering. I believed the ghosts and the horrifying endless sadness. The beauty of this book lies in how true-to-life it is. Through stark and honest descriptions and storytelling, Barzak manages somehow to transcend sorrow by brilliantly describing it. Barzak's book took speculative fiction so far into my brain that it made me believe for a while that we do live in his world: it seems self-evident that people's shadows speak and that ghosts can wear live people's clothes and make sure that they eat some lunch, already. This book is misery and ugliness beautifully described, the chillest and saddest winter, and confusion and unfocused anger and old sneakers and sunflowers. Oh, how I loved this book and how I envy those of you who have yet to read it!

Haddayr is an essayist and fantasy writer with pieces in places such as The Minnesota Women's Press, Strange Horizons, and Ideomancer. She writes advertising copy for her day job and lives in Minneapolis with her punk rock stay-at-home husband and two sons.

Claire Light:

My Top 8 Blogs of 2008

My reading rate of 2-3 books a week went down to one/week a few years ago, owing to the golden age of televised serial drama we're entering (Battlestar Galactica anyone? Deadwood? The Wire? Even Lost?) But this fall season's ranks of TV drama were mostly pathetic (what part of golden age do these producers not get?) ... yet my reading rate hasn't gone back up. It all came together when, trying to explain "aggregator," I was showing a newbie friend my bloglines page. "Do you really read ALL THOSE BLOGS?" she asked, shocked and awed. Well, yes ... yes I do.

It's all connected. Television's decades-long adherence to the Weekly Consistent (the same show, the same style, the same story arc, over and over and over and ov-) has been broken by the internet, and more specifically by blogs. The dailiness, or weekliness, of text blogs, podcasts, and video blogging have satisfied that well-trained need for entertainment that returns us to Point A every time we click through. And look at where TV is going now. This internet content trend has freed television up for longer story arcs; the season-long arcs popularized by Buffy, the series-long arcs rendered completely addictive by The Sopranos. Interestingly, television has taken a turn for the longer attention span. Whoever could've foreseen it?

Entertainment media are shifting roles. Updatable online content is taking over the short-form, repetitious niche that TV occupied for so long. There's all this fuss and worry that internet entertainment is shortening the teenaged attention span further, but teenaged attention spans have always been short, and new media always jump into the short-attention-span niche FIRST, before acquiring artistic cred by getting longer and more challenging. Look at novels, which started out as episodic narratives in magazines; look at films, which started out as silent shorts in nickelodeons; look at radio, which started with short-format variety shows.

What's changing now with the internet is that people are returning again and again to the same updating sites for new iterations of the same type of content. They're being drawn into serial consumption of a particular type of content, and this is taking up more and more of their entertainment time. The overwhelming bulk of online media creates opportunities for items of consumption, things called "content," to develop in craft, and to comment more seriously on the world. And it's time for us to look at blogs as such.

So, at the end of 2008, my first mostly online entertainment year, I'm listing the best blogs I read regularly this year, with some notes about what makes a good blog (for me), and even what makes a great blog.

There's a difference between an art blog, and a blog that is itself art. I would say that Last Plane to Jakarta, a music blog, is an art blog that is so well done it approaches art itself. There's nothing particularly special about the way John Darnielle (yes, that John Darnielle) has designed or maintained his blog. He posts about extremely obscure music, often metal genres I would never listen to, and, in fact, I'm not inspired by his "reviews" to listen to the music. I was at first, but I was always disappointed: it's not the music that's inspiring, but his enthusiasm about it. Darnielle himself is inspired by music to writing ecstasy, and that writing is worth reading for its own sake. Note the "Thirty Short Poems About My Favorite Black Metal Band" series here.

And I would say that Pruned, roughly speaking a landscape architecture blog, is a blog that is itself art, that merely pretends to be an art blog. What makes this blog great is to a small extent blogger Alexander Trevi's design sense (why are most beautiful blogs all on white backgrounds?), but mostly the way his posts pursue some strange idea of his imagination, jumping off a real-life design project he found. Take, for example, "Michael Jackson as Landscape Architecture," in which he jumps off a sod suit art project to discuss human body modification as a type of landscaping. Or take "Versailles in the Pacific," in which a wave generator machine that creates images in water gives rise to a flight of fancy about weaponizing a garden of Versailles made out of waves, and siccing the geometric tsunami on our enemies. I have no idea what Trevi's own real-life design practice is like, but I suspect that these fancies don't always get an outlet there. Pruned seems to exist primarily for its own sake, a pressure valve for the imagination, and a form of creative expression that only could happen in a blog.

While Trevi is pretty much unique in his tiny little niche, there are any number of video bloggers who are sticking their faces in front of cheesy digital cameras and SPEAKING their bloggery rather than doing that difficult, skills-oriented thing called "writing." YouTube's servers are groaning with the mumbles of poorly educated teenagers, but then, there are also those who, with a snatch of soundtrack here, and a little premiere-editing tweak there, have turned the cheesy-vid-talking-head into ... yes ... an art form.

I'm talking about Ill Doctrine of course, hip hip blogger Jay Smooth's one-and-a-half-year-old video blog. Smooth might be the perfect person for this form: a longtime radio announcer/producer, sideline hip hop artist, and all-around dude, who grew up with one foot streetside in Harlem's hip hop stream, and the other in schmancy prep schools and colleges. Plus, he's just hella cute. It's not so much that he's doing anything new, as that he's combining stuff that a bunch of other people are doing (face vlogging, fan vids, satiric sampling, general music video), and creating a balance among the elements. He just does it better, and, like all good artists, shows others how it can be better done. Here's an example from before the election:

Then there are the most base and flatulent sorts of blogs, the ones that post pictures and comment on them, that play to the lowest common denominator. If you detect a note of contempt in that description, check yourself, because I love blogs like this. By being purely themselves and pretending to nothing more, by being simply the best at what they do, Cute Overload and Go Fug Yourself have reached the level of art ... by my lights, anyway. Anyone can find pictures of cute animals or celebrity fashion disasters on the internet, post them, and comment on them. But it takes more than a good writer to be consistently funny and invent new languages. It takes a truly skilled and talented blogger to find that intersection between the found image and the text description and be able to exploit it over and over again to non-diminishing effect. I won't link to particular examples of these blogs because the special genius of both is that they bring the magic in every single post. I don't quite know how they do it, but this is blogging art at its purest.

There's also the realm of blogs that examine the WHOLE WORLD from the point of view of what white men in power love to call "special interest groups." I've read some of the the big feminist blogs, but my favorite is's Broadsheet. This will shock and appall many, but I have solid reasons. For one, Broadsheet never gives in to the temptation to lecture that most feminist blogs do. It's is also flavored with snark, without being about snark in a way that sacrifices clarity of content to get in those nasty jokes. You bloggers know who you are.

Broadsheet is well controlled so that posts from this group blog have a fairly uniform length and structure; it's entertaining, while covering all topic areas: media, art, sociology and science, politics and policy, etc; it represents a decent--if not exhaustive--spread of opinions from the feminist landscape; and, yes, it is moderate in its views, inviting those with more pronounced opinions to disagree, and not alienating the middling-minded. I don't feel importuned when I read it, and I don't feel any reluctance to approach it because I'm going to be unpleasantly challenged. And yet, every day, I come across a topic on the blog that requires thought, that doesn't offer an easy answer or stance. This is better than education: this is illumination.

I also read a number of race blogs, and yes, these are necessarily limited. You can't blog about a particular racial or ethnic group without looking away from all the other racial or ethnic groups. And the lack of breadth, the necessary limitation of viewpoint of individual racial blogs, makes for limited blogging. (And I say this as a racial blogger myself.) So the only race blog I can put down here as a favorite is Racialicious, whose tag line is "the intersection between race and pop culture." Over time, the blog--started by "New Demographic" diversity trainer and multiracial Carmen Van Kerchove--has incorporated a lot more than just pop culture commentary, and included a number of regular and guest bloggers from a variety of racial and ethnic groups.

This is the one blog on this list that does not approach the highest in blogging "art." There are so many guest bloggers that the blog has never managed to maintain a consistent standard in voice and texture; the posts are waaay too long; it doesn't even try to resist the temptation to lecture--some days are just one lecture after another; and covering a broad variety of topics is clearly far more important here than good writing. But Racialicious is one of my main go-to blogs, a place where I am kept up-to-date on racialized viewpoints, and on the opinions of various ethnic communities on current events. It's not always pretty, but this is an essential function that blogs can, and must, fulfill.

Which starts taking us into blogs that attack culture from more ... oblique angles.

My favorite new blog of the year was, believe it or not, the Baby Name Wizard Blog. Yes, it's true, Laura Wattenberg's Baby Name Wizard online application, which, if I'm not mistaken started out as a side note on some online magazine's parenting section, now has its own book, its own website, and a whole slew of naming applications that allow you to map out the popularity of a name geographically, and see the changing popularity of a name over time.

The blog, launched a year and a half ago, comes from the most "debased" of origins: a combination of marketing, and the current retrogressive fascination with celebrity spawning, which has led to an online all-things-baby frenzy. And this is marketing at its best, a total marketing strategy in which every component is interesting and well-done, and every element feeds into the other elements. But the Baby Name Wizard Blog isn't just -- like Cute Overload or Last Plane to Jakarta-- great because it does what it does really well. The blog is intellectually transformative: it illuminates its topic area in a way that its readers probably never expected (I sure didn't) and elevates a universal and necessary pastime (naming babies) into an important cultural marker, which, in fact, it has always been. You could say that this is the job of Wattenberg's book, and you'd be right. There's a trend in full swing now in which nonfiction books unpack the fascinating cultural contexts of very simple phenomena.

But the advantage of a blog is that it can take a set of concepts and relate those concepts to current events as they come up. A blog can, in fact, evolve its core set of concepts as time and events pass, and illuminate and distort those concepts on an ongoing basis, as needed. This is the best kind of blogging: the kind that gives us a framework to live a thinking, imagining life in which no ideas, images or realities become frozen inside our heads. It's what Wattenberg and all the bloggers named above are doing, each in their own way, and it's our newest art form.

Get it, get with it, and happy holidays to you all!

Claire is a founder and former senior editor of the nonprofit Asian American magazine Hyphen and has been a contributing editor at nonprofit magazine Other. She's published stories and articles in McSweeney's, FarThing, Hyphen, Other, Sensor, Viet Tide, and various online and print zines. Aqueduct will be publishing an essay by Claire in a book on narrative and politics in 2009. She herself blogs at her personal blog, SeeLight, at a mapping blog, atlas(t), and at the Group Asian American issues blog at Hyphen magazine.

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