Friday, December 27, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013, pt.21: Kristin King

The Pleasures of Reading and Viewing in 2013
by Kristin King

 The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

I’ve never read anything quite like it before and I never will again. You know that omniscient narrator of Victorian children’s books? She talks straight to you, and she’s more than a little condescending. This one is like that, except she is more perceptive than she maybe ought to be, and she knows that you know she’s lying. So she tells it to you straight. Our intrepid heroine, September, is going to get into trouble and she’s maybe not going to get out of it again, but she’ll be all right in the end – wink, wink.

One of my favorite parts is the chapter titled “In which September enters the Worsted Wood, Loses All Her Hair, Meets Her Death, and Sings it to Sleep.” A child’s death, the narrator explains, is as small as a mouse, because it seems so far away. Death is only big and scary for adults. And September’s mouse has bad dreams, from all the regrets of all the people who have met her, and must be sung to sleep. Like much of this book, it reads differently for children than for adults. If I had read this chapter as a child, I would have found it strangely moving and exciting. Reading it as an adult, though, I get chills down my spine.

 September is an admirable hero. She’s naïve, because of her age, but courageous and clever. Whenever she’s faced with a decision, she weighs her options and usually picks the hard route. This leads to grand adventures but also consequences, such as the loss of her heart or the severing of her shadow. She faces the consequences, deals, and moves on. Late in the book, she asks if she is “the chosen one,” and here is the lovely reply:
“You are not the chosen on, September. Fairyland did not choose you – you chose yourself. You could have had a lovely holiday in Fairyland and never met the Marquess, never worried yourself with local politics, had a romp with a few brownies and gone home with enough memories for a lifetime’s worth of novels. But you didn’t. You chose. You chose it all.” Now, that’s empowering.

Chicks Unravel Time, edited by Deborah Stanish and L.M. Myles.

In this collection of essays, all kinds of women – fans, authors, and artists – take a look at every season of Doctor Who. And what a look! They give close examinations to everything from the use of stock music in Season 5 in Classic Who to David Tennant’s bum in Series 2 of New Who. (We women like every aspect of the Doctor, apparently.) I was happy to see some of my favorite authors have been inspired by the show. I was also happy to see the authors ask tough questions of the show. In “Guten Tag, Hitler,” for instance, Rachel Swirsky asks why the Doctor, who fights all kinds of monsters, won’t touch Hitler – and points out that the only character who ever tried was a supposed psychopath. And in “Maids and Masters: The Distribution of Power in Doctor Who Series Three,” Courtney Stoker delves into the actual power dynamics of the characters in the show.

 Doctor Who episode “Nightmare in Silver” 

This Doctor Who episode, written by Neil Gaiman, features a life-or-death chess match with the added twist that the Doctor has been possessed by a Cyberman and must therefore play the chess game against . . . himself. That was a tall order for actor Matt Smith, and he filled it by going even more over the top than usual. I’m really a sucker for shows where “the good guy” playacts “the bad guy,” and so I was quite beside myself here. Meanwhile, the Doctor’s companion Clara Oswald, who had been suffering from a lack of character development in some of her scripts, came into her own as the commander of a troop of misfits. Here’s hoping she gets more good plots.

Mapping Human History by Steve Olson

I’ve spent hours and hours trying to find information about my family history. You go back five generations, and you end up with a whole lot of relatives – especially since some of my ancestors were Mormon polygamists. My biggest wild goose chase was trying to figure out if we really are related to German nobility through the family name Buse, as my great-granduncle claimed. Why exactly would I want to be related to German nobility, anyway? I don’t even know. But as it turns out, there’s about a five to ten percent chance that the father listed on any given birth certificate is not the biological father. (Sorry, dads.) This means that the farther we go into the past, the lower the chance that our written genealogies are correct.

But that revelation is small potatoes compared to the mathematical surprise that the number of our ancestors grows exponentially as we go back in time. In fact, if we go back just 600 years, we have more than a billion ancestors. (But how is that possible? The world’s population was only about 375 million. The answer is that we are related to our ancestors through multiple lines of descent.) I knew that our ancestors all migrated from Africa many tens of thousands of years ago, which means humanity shares common ancestors from long, long ago. But for some reason, I imagined the migration of my ancestors to more or less follow a single line from Africa, to Europe, to the United States. That’s not what happened at all. There was no single line; instead, there were billions of ancestral lines. And they went from Africa to many places all over the world, and from all those places to Europe, and from there to the United States. So much for “the races.”

Summer Night by Lina Wertmüller


Two completely unsympathetic characters, an arrogant one-percenter and a ferocious criminal, vie for power on a remote island. It’s so funny, sexy, and completely over the top, that it doesn’t matter who wins.

This movie is directed by Lina Wertmüller, a master at taking gender and class hierarchies, flipping them inside out, and then combining the resulting mess with sex, or Italian politics, or both. She has the honor of being the first woman ever awarded an Academy Award for directing. This particular movie hasn’t got quite the critical acclaim of some of her others, such as Seven Beauties or Swept Away. But for me, it’s the most fun.

 Kristin King (  is a writer, parent, and activist who lives in Seattle. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Calyx, The Pushcart Prize XXII (1998), and other places. Two of her stories appeared in an Aqueduct Press anthology, Missing Links and Secret Histories: A Selection of Wikipedia Entries Lost, Suppressed, or Misplaced in Time, published this year.

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