Monday, December 13, 2010

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2010, pt. 7: Athena Andreadis

Reading, Listening, and Viewing in 2010
by Athena Andreadis 

Because I'm a film buff and a bookworm who reads at Mach 1 speed, about thirty years ago I instituted a cast-iron rule -- otherwise I'd need a city block of warehouses: I only keep books, CDs and DVDs I want to revisit, whose absence I mind. In all media, I enjoy works that cross genres and boundaries. So here are a few of my keepers for 2010.


As I've grown older, I read less fiction -- in part because there are only so many stories and so many ways to tell them. These days, something has to snag at my interest like an assertive kitten. I like in-depth character- and world-building; layers and echoes (inevitable, given my natal culture); starkness or restrained opulence (think Rennie McIntosh art nouveau); first-person narrators; powerful women and snacho long-haired men. In non-fiction I head for context-rich biographies/histories and for explorations of new or hidden connections and patterns, regardless of discipline: from theories of quantum gravity to the red-haired Ürümchi mummies.

Black Ships, Jo Graham’s debut novel, is a well-researched historical fantasy that retells the Aeneid and owes equal debt to Mary Renault, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Jacqueline Carey. The story is told by Linnaea, a Trojan woman born in exile after the famous war who has the gift of prophecy -- Virgil’s shadowy Sibyl, here taking center stage. Efficiently plotted and boasting well-fleshed characters for whom we come to care, the novel is an engrossing quest story that contains few clunky passages and cringeworthy anachronisms.

Kristin Landon’s trilogy (The Hidden Worlds/The Cold Minds/The Dark Reaches) belongs to that maligned girl-cooties subgenre, romance space opera. The trilogy is not perfect, particularly the first book that contains the required taming of brooding hunk Iain sen Paolo (a hereditary star pilot from an all-male society jealous of its privilege) by plucky contract concubine Linnea Kiaho (who proves to be a crack pilot, a taboo occupation for women). Yet the premise – humanity precariously dispersed after intelligent AIs on earth turned hostile – is interesting and followed up well, the style is gritty and taut, the plot has imaginative flourishes and moves briskly, the characters get deeper and more complex. Warts forgotten, I found myself staying up to finish these stories, which is more than I can say for the vast majority of so-called hard SF.

Elizabeth Hand’s eight-story collection Saffron and Brimstone is luminous… phosphorescent would be a better description. Sharp as a diamond-edged blade, it thrums with lush, menacing harmonics – a close kin to A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects and The Matisse Stories. For my taste, its two masterpieces are "Pavanne for a Prince of the Air" and "The Least Trumps." "Pavanne," a tale of a hippie shaman’s death amid an alternative-lifestyle group of friends, unfolds like a hallucinatory dream. "Trumps," equal parts Marguerite Yourcenar and Roger Zelazny, is one of the half-dozen works I cannot stop re-reading. The narrator is a tattoo artist who finds stories and tarot cards bleeding into the real world, restoring color to her barren, constricted life.

Jon Cohen’s Almost Chimpanzee: Searching for What Makes Us Human, is the usual historical retrospective / scientific reporting mix seen in popular science books. The topic is inherently fascinating; plus I didn’t find any glaring mistakes in his molecular biology, which put me in a particularly good mood. Cohen goes through the commonalities and differences between humans and their two closest cousins, bonobos and chimpanzees. Ranging from surface epitopes on immune cells to the FOXP2 gene (trumpeted to be linked to language, but actually related to brain function in a more complex way) to roles of older women in hunter-gatherer cultures, the book illustrates the interplay between initial conditions and feedback loops: in this case, how tiny differences in almost identical species got amplified across scales to produce us.

Further along the cognition axis, Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages is essentially an extended meditation on the weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The strong version of the hypothesis – that languages constrain cognitive ability to think past their existing scaffolding – is obviously false. On the other hand, anyone who speaks more than one language, as I do, knows that linguistic relativity is true on at least one level. Although the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis fell out of favor during the ascendance of the Universalists (some of whom, like Chomsky, constructed entire theories of language while being monolingual), it has made a comeback aided by such non-invasive techniques as functional MRI. These methods have established linguistic relativity in several cognitive domains, and argue that we are a single species divided by language (to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw).


Through the years, I have gathered much of my music by hearing a stray snatch that tugged at my solar plexus. I go to the nearest music store and sing the melody to them. The staff in my neighborhood Newbury Comics know me well by now.

Composer and cellist Zoë Keating, a spiritual child of Laurie Anderson, created a hypnotic album in Natoma. She uses her instrument as a cello, a lyre, a drum. The warm tones of the cello come across like a dark-hued human voice. The pieces bring to mind the more melodious works of Philip Glass — but equally so, the elegiac Celtic-tinged tunes in The Last of the Mohicans and the opening of Peter Gabriel’s Biko, with its interweaving of Zulu drums and Highland bagpipes.

Whereas Keating turns her instrument into a voice, Fleet Foxes in their eponymous album turn their voices into supple wind instruments. A fusion of Pearl Jam and Languedoc troubabours, these five young guys sing tense lyrics with the otherworldly harmonies of early Renaissance choirs. The standout is "Your Protector" – but the entire album goes by like a shimmery mirage.

Much older but equally compelling is Oysterband, whose most recent album Meet You There also pulled me under. The music is recognizably Celtic folk-rock but light years away from the usual syrupy stuff. This is superb, complex music graced with biting lyrics. Cross U2 with the Orkneys’ Three Piece Sweet (whom I heard rehearsing literally in front of a garage in Stornoway) and you get a sense of Oysterband. I could play three of the tracks forever: "Bury Me Standing," "The Boy’s Still Running," and "Dancing as Fast as I Can." Why they are not megastars is a mystery.

And then one night I had WGBH on for background noise, when it turned into more than noise. Austin City Limits had started, and on it was Aimee Mann with her men playing her latest album, @#%&*! Smilers. I stopped what I was doing, sat down, listened to the entire thing and bought the CD the next day. All the songs are minor key, with "Little Tornado" the jewel in this unadorned crown. Though the instrumentation is exquisite, it is there only as a light garment to Mann’s even voice with its nasal underdrone – as deceptively calm as a gathering tidal wave.

Film and Television

Those who read my blog know that I detest Star Wars and Avatar not only for their messianic fervor and status-quo enforcing message but also because they degrade their sources: they manage to make exciting myths boring, effectively turning gold into lead. As I explain in my Unibrow Theory of Art, I have nothing against popular movies; but obvious insults to intelligence, emotional manipulations and hooks for lunchboxes and tie-ins (aka commissioned fanfic) make me cranky.

I had read Marvyn Peake’s surrealistic Gormenghast trilogy a long time ago, and it had left a strong imprint on my memory -- including a line I recalled each time I started another love affair: "For lust is an arrogant and haughty beast and far from subtle." This year I finally saw the 2000 BBC series, which adapted the first two books (a wise choice, since there’s a tectonic shift after book 2). It’s absorbing, faithful to the books and burnished by stellar performances from famous British actors. The decision to give it the hue of Beijing’s Forbidden City was artistically intelligent: the isolation of the characters and the suffocating atmosphere of ritual and protocol are palpable.

On this side of the pond, the mystery/romance hybrid Castle is an updated, brainier version of Moonlighting -- but Nathan Fillion is vastly more talented and less annoying than Bruce Willis. Too, there are three strong, intelligent women in the series and the main one, Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), is in a position of intrinsic power and in the center of a loyal chosen family. The series is decidedly lightweight but also lighthearted and witty, and it has steadily improved, recently moving into SF territory. A recent episode that spoofed the X-Files (and gave a tiny nod to the Firefly ‘verse) was inspired. In a TV landscape strewn with Law and Order boulders and grotty reality shows, it's a tiny oasis.

Moving to the other side of the law divide, I found myself unexpectedly captivated by In Bruges, a nimble dark comedy in which Waiting for Godot meets Miller’s Crossing. Perhaps because I have been to Bruges, and the film captured its drowned-Ys becalmed beauty. Perhaps because I like Ralph Fiennes in everything (except as Moldyvort… er, Voldemort), I like Colin Farrell when he almost reluctantly exhibits his considerable talent (A Home at the End of the World, The New World)… and I was astonished at a nuanced, restrained Brendan Gleeson. Or, finally, perhaps because I have a terminal soft spot for outlaws with codes of honor who like high art.

Coming back full circle to the question of high art, an example that perfectly meets my definition is the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells. It uses traditional 2-D techniques and is completely accessible. Yet it engages and stimulates many levels of thought and emotion at once. The story teaches real history, since it’s based closely on what we know about the journey of the Kells manuscript from Iona; the conflict is not the usual tussle between monochromatic good and bad guys, but instead highlights the struggle between two versions of good (like Miyazaki’s Mononoke Hime – or Sophocles’ Antigone); the interactions explore the interplay between Paganism and Christianity, myth and history, imagination and discipline, nature and culture; the style incorporates both Celtic curvilinear forms (in the style of the Book of Kells as well as its Jugendstil descendants) and the jagged shapes used in such graphic novels as The Crow or Sin City.

Put together, the film becomes Gesamtkunstwerk at the level of Wagner’s Nibelungen cycle or Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy: a total, totally absorbing work of art that delights and also exercises the senses, the cortical emotions, the intellect – and achieves this feat without loudly advertising its intent or, for that matter, its artsiness. Unlike the incessant trumpetings about the groundbreaking technique or “socially relevant” content of such Hindenburg-sized films as Avatar, The Secret of Kells came and left quietly. Then again, art of this caliber doesn’t need to shriek for recognition. Its quiet but sure voice is potent enough.

Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology – regulation of alternative splicing, focusing on mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Science in My Fiction, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.

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