Reading and Viewing in 2011
by Carrie Devall
The day job took a lot of my time and brain power in 2011, but I managed to get some reading in that was not just odd bits of writing research or about distance running and sports injuries.
Most recently, I have been enjoying the fantasy novel, Redemption in Indigo, by Caribbean writer Karen Lord (Small Beer Press, 2010). Lord's novel is very funny, and it can be read in short bursts which makes it good for public transit reading. Redemption is based on a Senegalese folktale and told in an engaging traditional but modernized style, involves quantum physics in a way that hasn't yanked me out of the story yet, and has some deft characterization and observations about human (and demonic) psychology, with a feminist edge.
The best reading I went to in 2011 was Leslie Marmon Silko at the downtown Minneapolis library. The portions she read from her new non-fiction book, The Turqoise Ledge (Viking, 2010), were funny and devastating in turn, with a focus on animals and the Sonoran desert environment in and around Tucson, Arizona. Silko gets extra credit for managing to provide thought-provoking answers to the dry and reductionist questions that a gaggle of college students posed to her in the Q&A session which were clearly based on their papers they had to write for class.
The most intellectually rewarding and thematically original novel I read this year was China Mieville's Embassytown, which I started after having not been able to finish his Kraken before I had to turn it back in to the library. The plot is essentially a story about a seemingly human species relating to alien life forms in outer space in the distant future and eventual war between these people, but revolves around linguistic and semiotic theory, and likely neurology and/or behavioral theory. I confess some ignorance here, but it did not reduce my enjoyment of the book. A lot of possible alternate readings were evoked in my mind, based on human Earth-based political and economic history. I ended up with the desire to read it again at some point when I had more time to really think about it. The real strength of Embassytown to me was that this definitely did not feel at all like a story I had read before, which is a rare event even in the theoretically wide open world of science fiction.
The other standout novels I read in 2011 were Lauren Beukes' Moxyland and Zoo City (Angry Robot Books, both). My ears perked up when Buekes won the Campbell award a year or two ago, but the books were not really available in the U.S., so I kept periodically checking the Angry Robot site for quite awhile. The Zoo City paperback showed up at Dreamhaven books right when I needed something to read for a two-week work training in a less than exciting city. I enjoyed reading both books, but I ended up with mixed feelings about the (multiple) points of view in each book, which felt to me oddly color-blind regardless of the characters' race and positioning in society.
This clashed with the plots, which are built around and broadly parody corporate capitalism and government-corporate economic policies; in a setting like Johannesburg, it just seemed strange. I found it interesting that I found a lot of reviews online saying how great it was that the genre was open to a South African writer but no discussion of the treatment of race in these books about a post-apartheid near future. The treatment of a gay character was similarly normalized in a way that may represent a more liberated future way of looking at sexuality but rang untrue to me. The plot of Moxyland was a little disappointing to me in the very end, as well. I felt like I'd just finished a familiar essay on the evils of consumerist capitalism rather than a futuristic novel, having read a lot of the Sociology/ Economics/ Cultural theory literature on that issue in 2010 and early 2011. Nonetheless, I found both novels fascinating on a lot of levels, and it's hard to find new book with a cyberpunk edge, especially by a female author.
Ted Chiang's The Life Cycle of Software Objects (Subterranean Press, 2010) was also a gripping read. A bunch of software developers get caught up in the gaming world they create to test out some AI creatures. Both the human and 'artificial' characters were so well-written, I got all caught up in them too, even though I have a tenuous grasp on many of the IT concepts involved (mostly from other SF books).
I went to several joint readings by some local friends and was inspired to read their books. C.M. Harris has two books out, Mother Glory (Spinster's Ink, 2009), a multi-generational story spanning several eras about a midwestern family that runs a religious sect and has a lot of queer folks mucking up the works, and Enter Oblivion (Casperian Books, 2011), a gay male romance set in a British glam rock setting. Being a Bowie fan I had a soft spot for the latter, but Mother Glory is more wide-ranging and complicated. Catherine Lundoff, a Wiscon regular, has a couple books out recently too, an anthology and a short story collection I have only heard snippets from so far A Day at the Inn, a Night at the Palace and Other Stories (Lethe Press, 2011). The anthology, edited with Joselle Vanderhooft, Hellebore and Rue: Tales of Queer Women and Magic (Flyleaf/Drollerie Press 2011), was a good transit read: a decent variety of stories to keep things interesting and a really beautiful cover to boot. Plus there is not exactly a glut of recent lesbian SFF anthologies on the market...
Speaking of short stories, a few this year really stuck in my mind. “White Lines on a Green Field,” by Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean, Fall 2011 issue) was very funny and a nice take on the Coyote tale, not an easy thing since Trickster stories regularly get a good workout in the genre. My Clarion West classmate ('07) Dominica Phettiplace had a cool story in Asimov's, “The Cult of Whale Worship” (October/November 2011). CW alum ('08) An Owomoyela had a couple stories published this year that made me a fan. “God in the Sky” was Asimov's (#421, March 2011), “All That Touches the Air” was in Lightspeed (4/11), and these led me to some older stories on the web including “Abandonware” (Fantasy, 6/10). Lightspeed had some other memorable stories, including “The Kingdom of the Blind” by Maureen McHugh (11/11 issue) and “Manumission” by Tobias S. Buckell (7/10 issue, but I got to it in 2011). I also spent a good deal of time poring over the Paris Review summer issue that included interviews with William Gibson and Samuel R. Delany, with awesome old photos from both of them.
A couple movies stand out. Source Code, directed by David Bowie's son Duncan Jones, was a very watchable scifi movie with Jake Gyllenhall as lead, though I can't say I thought it was profound, or as good as his first movie, Moon.
I found the documentary We Were Here very moving. It's basically talking-head interviews with several gay men who survived the AIDS epidemic in 80s San Francisco, with some old footage. I'm biased because I was there too, as a member of ACT UP! SF and other AIDS activist groups, and knew many of the people they were talking about, but other audience members also seemed to have become caught up in the stories. The documentary was recently nominated for an Academy Award, so it may make it out into some sort of general release. A guy who was leaving the theater said he felt like it said nothing new to his generation, who lived through the 80s, but it seemed like many audience members of all ages (at a benefit for an AIDS service organization) were unfamiliar with basic things like the Names Project quilt and the right wing calls for quarantine of all gay men or people with HIV in the U.S. in the1980s.
Some of the commentary in “We Were Here” was annoying, like the white guy who said he felt no other community had gone through a similar experience. I had flashbacks to all the consciousness-raising arguments in ACT UP meetings about race and class and why “we” should care about Haiti and Africa in that moment. And some issues were very depoliticized, partly because ACT UP's role was barely mentioned. Hello, they did not just hand over drug treatments that easily, it took some very direct action, again and again, to cut through a ton of red tape, ignorance, fear, and downright hatred. But I liked that it focused on a small community who was both broadly and deeply affected, because it made the stories very accessible. And I also liked that it focused on what it means to 'survive' as much as the historical facts of what happened in the 1980s and 1990s, while still providing a basic historical overview.
I really like traditional musics, especially with banjos and mandolins, but it's not so easy to find bands that don't have “old-fashioned” attitudes, in one way or another. The Carolina Chocolate Drops came to town and though I did not get to go to the show, I bought a CD. (Heritage, dixiefrog.com) Old-timey spare arrangements with lush vocals and a smattering each of banjo, fiddle, resophonic guitar, akonting (a Gambian banjo-precursor), jug, bones, and drums are focused on their stated goal of rehabiliting the old Black string band tradition, in the North Carolina Piedmont style. They collected songs from elderly fiddlers and singers in rural N.C., and also pulled stuff from old records. There are some originals including one based on Schubert's “Erlkonig,” and songs from another member who has been performing African music and drumming for over 30 years.
For local Twin Cities musicians, I also have to recommend Black Blondie, a sort of jazzy contemporary rock-folk band that is mostly female, and the Doomtree hip hop collective, who were recently featured in a funny interview/spread in our free paper, the City Pages (.com). The reunited Tom Tom Club opening for the Psychedelic Furs at First Avenue (think “Purple Rain”) was a great concert; the frontwomen had tons of energy and a great sense of humor. “Whatcha gonna do when you get out of jail? I'm going to have some fun...”
Finally, for people in or near the Bay area, if Margo Gomez' latest show is still at The Marsh in San Francisco (it keeps getting extended), or she takes it somewhere else, “Not Getting Any Younger” is wicked good. I laughed throughout the whole thing, even though I've seen many of her prior shows. A lot of heads were nodding at her musings about aging, ageism, families, and growing up in Da Bronx, old school. As she said with justified pride, she is one of the “pioneer” out lesbian comics.
Writing this mostly made me look through all the lists of books and stories I need to get around to reading, which are longer than the lists of the ones I finished this year. It's (always) time to get cracking...
Carrie Devall is a speculative fiction writer and reader. She blogs a bit at metrospec.blogspot.com and otherwise works at the day job a lot these days, producing a lot of timeless legal prose.