Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013
by Brit Mandelo
It has been a busy year, for me, and so I’ve had a bit less time for reading and listening than I’d like—but I have gotten around to some good stuff. In particular, I thought this was a strong year for new short story collections. Small Beer Press published the two-volume Ursula K. Le Guin retrospective The Unreal and the Real, while Christopher Barzak’s first collection Before and Afterlives came out from Lethe Press. All three were strong showings—good portraits of the writers’ work, a pleasure to read, and full of complicated, intimate stories.
There were a couple of new novels that I found pleasant, as well. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman was a short, dense, interesting distillation of Gaiman’s storytelling habits from across his career in one place—lyrical, eerie, and deeply imbricated with myth. Then there was Blood Oranges by Kathleen Tierney (a.k.a. Caitlin R. Kiernan), a completely different kind of book: this one a pastiche of the urban fantasy genre, witty and sharp and hugely fun. Kiernan manages to tell a solid, engaging romp of a story while simultaneously doing the meta- work of commentary and parody; great stuff.
I also read, for the first time, Chris Moriarty’s (now-finished) Spin trilogy. These books are a great example of what science fiction can do with issues of gender, embodiment, and sexuality—while also telling far-flung, technological mystery stories full of political and cultural intrigue. I was particularly fond of Spin Control, the second book, but all three were crunchy thoughtful reads that also kept me turning pages voraciously. I can’t wait to see more of Moriarty’s work in the future—she’s blazingly clever and very engaged with the complexities of her work.
In the nonfiction realm, the recently-released Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer is probably one of the best and most structurally conducive books on writing and creative production I’ve ever read. It’s multimodal, funny, and well-informed; the art is awesome and functional, while the technical prose is illuminating. I’ve also been reading the works of J. Jack Halberstam, a critic and academic writing on issues of gender, trans* identities, and cultural politics. Female Masculinity from 1998 is a prescient study of alternative masculinities, subcultures, and the ways in which non-dominant masculinities work discursively. It is a very 1998 book in some ways, though; this is why the 2005 book In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives is a great follow-up. The idea of genderqueer identity comes up in this book, offering bridges between trans-masculine identities and the “butch” identities of people who still identify as women but have a complex relation to the middle spaces between binary genders. I’m partway through Halberstam’s newest book, The Queer Art of Failure, and it’s proving just as intriguing and provocative.
As for other cultural productions, I’ve listened to a couple of albums this year that are new to me (though probably not to the rest of the planet) and stuck with me—particularly through a difficult move to another country—like Brand New’s The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me and The Tallest Man on Earth’s Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird. Though I would hardly argue that Brand New’s music is unproblematic, this 2006 album has a sort of emotional density that I appreciate; the explorations of masculinity, loss, and anxiety here are something I find particularly evocative. Sometimes the Blues…, from 2010, has a soothing, folkish sound that I also enjoyed—I’ll likely check out further music from the artist in the future.
So, all in all, 2013 was a decent year for reading, viewing, and listening. I hope that next year, I have a time for a little more of each.