Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2009, Pt. 19: L. Timmel Duchamp

Highlights of Reading and Viewing in 2009
By L. Timmel Duchamp

Since starting Aqueduct Press, my reading has tended to get short shrift—except for ms reading, of course (some of which is reflected in Aqueduct’s list). This year I’ve determinedly made more time for reading.

The novels that really stood out for me were Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia, a faithful, loving homage to Virgil; The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson, which bodies forth in powerful prose much of what scholars have been learning in the last twenty-five years about the paradoxes of Enlightenment science and notions of personal autonomy and civil liberty; Three Women by Isabelle de Charrière, an extraordinary novel written after the French Revolution, offering a feminist re-evaluation of sexual morality and its intersections with class relations among women; and Total Oblivion, More or Less by Alan DeNiro, a novel that illumines the ongoing apocalypse that these days passes for normal (about which I've written here).

I won’t mention the novels I found dull or mediocre or poorly written (as usual, I read more than enough of them), but only those I found beautiful, interesting, or entertaining. Compulsively I read the last four books of Gwyneth Jones’s Bold As Love series (Castles Made of Sand, Midnight Lamp, Band of Gypsies, and Rainbow Bridge), riveted to the page even as I wished the last two books had received at least some editing; the series is a tour de force with such a distinct, concentrated sensibility of its own that I never once balked at its wildly imaginative blending of science fiction and fantasy tropes. I read The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov slowly, slowly, savoring the clarity yet allusiveness of its prose style. I whipped through Ken MacLeod’s entertaining The Execution Channel at top speed, trying not to notice the silliness of its premise as I shot through the slick, slippery convolutions and contortions of its plot, agog to know which if any characters were on the same side. I reread C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen in preparation for its long-awaited sequel, Regenesis; the latter’s pacing didn’t equal the former’s, and although its story picks up smoothly from where Cyteen’s left off, the two books read as though they were written in different eras—which of course they were. I finally read Illicit Passage by Alice Nunn and The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein, two books of feminist sf that have been on my to-read list for some time, and enjoyed each just as much as I expected to. The Summer Isles by Ian R. MacLeod, One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak, and Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin offered me quietly intense reads that made their fine writing look simple and easy. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao dazzled even as it saddened me (though I think I prefer his short fiction collection, Drown). I found Salt by Adam Roberts a provocative (in a positive sense) though occasionally aggravating read. And I loved Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which bristles with edgy insights while risking sentimentality.

The last two novels I want to mention, both published in late 2009, make an interesting pair. In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield, much of which is set in the sea, moved and impressed me, even if it set my inner historian grumbling about the author’s failure to extrapolate how church institutions, doctrine, and theology would have explained and accommodated (or not) the existence of humanoid sea creatures set on the thrones of Europe. Questions about species, hybridity, and identity permeate In Great Waters, just as they permeate the novel I’m extremely happy I managed to snatch up a copy of at World Fantasy Con: Sylvie Bérard’s Of Wind and Sand (translated by Sheryl Curtis, from the Canadian publisher Edge). Of Wind and Sand is a colonization story that turns that subgenre not on its head, precisely, but rather inside-out. Though the styles and narratives of these two novels are completely different, and one is set in the desert and the other in the sea or near the sea, both novels take on many of the same questions about difference, otherness, identity, and the body. I highly recommend that you read them in tandem.

I’ll just list the short fiction collections I enjoyed most this year: The Signorina and Other Stories by Anna Banti (see my post here for more); The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet by Vandana Singh (see my post here for more); Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet; and What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going by Damion Searls. The Banti collection includes a work of science fiction; Vandana Singh’s excellent collection is mostly science fiction and fantasy.

As for other short ficton: I loved Rachel Swirsky’s “The Memory of Wind” (at I enjoyed a lot of the short fiction in Eclipse 3 (ed Jonathan Strahan)—particularly Maureen McHugh’s “Useless Things,” Karen Joy Fowler’s harrowing “The Pelican Bar,” and Nicola Griffith’s “It Takes Two.” And though I always try not to mention work that Aqueduct Press has published in my recommended lists, I feel I must mention Claire Light’s “Vacation” (published this year in a CP volume titled Slightly Behind and to the Left), because its unsettling images and conceits continue to linger long after reading, as though permanently unsettled in my own mind.

Though I do more new reading than rereading of fiction, the reverse is (sadly) true for poetry. I think this may be because some time ago I unaccountably stopped automatically browsing in the poetry the sections of the bookstores I patronize, and perhaps also because I usually know exactly which book of poems to take off the shelf when I’m in the mood to read poetry. Still, I continue to love to venture into new poetry. A book of poetry I bought this year that really worked its way under my skin was Disobedience by Alice Notley. I know I'll be going back to it again soon.

My escapist reading was, as usual, mystery novels. The most unusual of these I read was Miyuke Miyabe’s Shadow Family. But mostly I read a lot of the Dalziel & Pascoe novels of Reginald Hill.

I always find wonderful nonfiction to read, and this year was no exception. The standouts were:

Dr. Johnson’s Women by Norma Clarke (See my comments here.)
Women Writing Opera: Creativity and Controversy in the Age of the French Revolution by Jacqueline Letzer and Robert Adelson
Women, Writing and the Public Sphere: 1700-1830 ed. Elizabeth Eger, Charlotte Grant, Cliona O’Gallchoir, Penny Warburton
On Joanna Russ, ed. Farah Mendlesohn (See my review here.)
Queer Universes, ed. Wendy Gaye Pearson, Joan Gordon, and Veronica Hollinger (I have a review forthcoming in Science Fiction Film and Television)
Slaves on Screen by Natalie Zemon Davis (See my blogpost here.)
Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed by William E. Connolly
Conversations with Samuel R. Delany ed. Carl Freedman
Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History by Jillian Heydt-Stevenson

About the last book on the list I must remark: Heydt-Stevenson’s revelations of the multitude of sexual double-entendres and smutty allusions in Jane Austen’s novels (intelligible to her contemporaries but not so much to us) are stunning. That’s not all she does in her book by any means, but it pretty much makes the point that very few of Austen’s twenty-first-century fans have any notion of how Austen’s contemporaries read and understood her novels. For about a decade now—ever since I read Eve Sedgwick’s essay on Sense and Sensibility—I’ve suspected that significant aspects of Austen’s work was sailing clear over most of our heads. Given the socially contingent nature of language, it really doesn't take long for certain (often important) aspects of texts to become either invisible or unintelligible.

Best Re-read:
The Language of Inquiry by Lyn Hejinian

As for the category of "viewing," this year, excepting my viewing of plays and art installations and exhibits, it was all done at home, on the small screen, via DVDs. The best movie I watched was The New World, Dir. Terence Malick. The best television series I watched was The Wire. And I have to admit, my favorite short video was of an octopus, here. (Note: I'd be really grateful If someone could point me to a good one of a jellyfish...)

L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of the five-novel Marq’ssan Cycle and Love’s Body, Dancing in Time, a collection of short fiction, as well as the short novel The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding) and other works of short fiction. She is also the founder of Aqueduct Press and the editor of Talking Back: Epistolary Fantasies and The WisCon Chronicles, Vol.1 , and co-editor, with Eileen Gunn, of The WisCon Chronicles, Vol.2. In March 2010 Aqueduct Press will be releasing a new book that she's edited, titled Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles, containing essays by Samuel R. Delany, Nicola Griffith, Eleanor Arnason, Rachel Swirsky, Andrea Hairston, and others.


Eleanor said...

The octopus is wonderful, and I love Pascoe and Dalziel.

Claire Light said...

thanks for all the suggestions!

"the new world" is a beautiful film, and it's also one of the sources for my politics and narrative essay :) ... hmm, america as a beautiful young maiden ... how original ...

Timmi Duchamp said...

Yeah, I was all too conscious of that cliche even as I was intensely drawn into the film, Claire. But I think it was the painstaking level of detail that won out, for me. That is another way of dealing with narrative ruts-- one that I think would accord with some of the things Chip Delany has to say about cliche and writing (in his essay in Narrative Power as well as in some of his interviews).

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I'm glad you fell into the same compulsive reading of the Bold as Love series as I did. I remember paying outrageous shipping fees to get Midnight Lamp in mass market p-back from Amazon and making Gwyneth bring Band of Gypsies to WisCon for me because I was so desperate to keep reading. It was one of those series that I hated to finish, because part of me really want to live in that world, apocalypses and all.

I also loved The Wire and would love to see a feminist critique of it at some point.