The Pleasures of 2014
by Veronica Schanoes
This year, I had it figured out. I started keeping a log at the beginning of the year, and writing down everything I read/saw/heard that I enjoyed, on the off chance Timmi asked me to contribute at the end of the year. How clever was that? How marvelous was my foresight? Look at my planning!
I kept this list on my beloved netbook. I saved it regularly. Sometimes I would open it and pore over it, reveling in my forethought and cunning.
And then my toddler godson accidentally dumped a glass of sangria into my netbook.
That was not the disaster it might have been, as I had backed up almost everything I’d written onto a flash drive, but I’d never bothered to back up the list of cultural pleasures because, well, it wasn’t creative writing and it wasn’t scholarship, so it wasn’t a big deal, so what the hell?
The good people at Computer Overhauls tell me that it would cost more to repair the netbook than it would to buy a new computer. Six months later, I’m typing this on my old MacBook, which no longer recognizes the battery and has to be rebooted every time my godson trips over the cord or I decide I’d rather sit on the couch with my best friend than by myself at the table.
So yet again I found myself in the position of trying to figure out if I have actually read anything in 2014, or seen any shows, or heard any music. Was the year a wasteland? All I could remember are endless episodes of Dinosaur Train and Daniel Tiger. After cudgeling my brain tirelessly, I managed to recall these items making an impression:
1) Cabaret: At the last minute, a friend called me up with a spare VIP ticket to Alan Cumming in Cabaret on Broadway. I had never seen any incarnation of the musical before. We went to the old Studio 54 and were seated at a small table about six feet from the stage and given a complimentary bottle of champagne, which was all very well and good, and how every evening should begin, as far as I am concerned. The production was simply devastating—not the story of the tedious young lovers, because who cares about them, but the story of Germany’s descent into Nazism, the knowledge of what’s going to happen to Herr Schultz, and the final scene highlighting the futility of trying to go along with fascism to get along. I admit to being somewhat surprised at some audience reactions—the audience laughed along to and then audibly gasped at the final line of “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes,” the love song the MC sings to a gorilla: “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Really? You were all shocked? You didn’t know that was coming? This is a musical about the rise to power of the Nazis. Whom did you think the gorilla was standing in for? Well, I am Jewish, and as my experience with the next entry in my list shows, my perspective is perhaps more specialized than I assume. Alan Cumming was amazing as the seedy 40-year-old MC trying to pander to popular mood and those in power. My ideal production would play up Cliff Bradshaw’s desire for other men somewhat more, but that’s a quibble about a production that brought tears to my eyes.
2) Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – I have been a fan of Atkinson’s for about a decade now. I loved the magic realism of some of her early novels, particularly Human Croquet, and I find some of the Jackson Brodie novels quite lyrical; they are what I think Douglas Adams’s holistic detective novels aspired to be. This novel recounts the story of Ursula Todd, born in 1912, died…well, that’s the thing. Ursula dies many times: at birth, at the seashore as a child, beaten to death by an abusive husband, and each time she begins again, making different decisions, with the vaguest awareness that something…strange is happening, a sort of déjà vu when she encounters turning points, creeping up on her. In one life she murders Hitler in 1932; she herself is summarily killed by his flunkies, so we don’t see how that particular endeavor plays out (I’ve always been suspicious of this trope—were Mengele, Himmler, Goebbels, not also monsters? But indeed there was such a fervent cult of personality around Hitler, perhaps this is a case of a man making history rather than the other way round.). In another life, Ursula visits Germany in the early 1930s and marries a member of the Nazi party; she kills herself and her daughter after hearing rumors of the Red Army’s depredations as it heads toward Berlin. It is of this life Atkinson speaks when, in an interview published along with my edition of the book, she says that it was important to include the experiences of German (presumably gentile) civilians because, after all, “they had it so much worse than us.” And this is the sentence that brought me up short. “Us?” I thought. “They had it worse than us?” And then I realized that her “us” was British civilians and I felt a chasm open up between my perspective on the second world war and Atkinson’s. Never, when speaking of that time, would my “us” refer to, say, American civilians, though that is what I am. My “us” would always be Jews, and that will always temper my sympathy for what German gentile civilians suffered at the hands of the Red Army. There is no excuse for atrocities, particularly those directed at children, but for the adults, well—these were the people perfectly happy to cheer as people like me, their neighbors, were defamed, vilified, stripped of rights, shipped off, and tortured to death. So, not to put too fine a point on it, fuck them. That does not mean, of course, that I condone the rape and exploitation of, well, anybody, but it does mean that my capacity for sympathy in this case is limited. It means that it would never cross my mind to say of the German gentile civilian population that they had it worse than us. My “us” in this context will always be Jews. And I don’t know if I have a right to that “us.” My family had been in the US for a couple generations by World War 2. My grandmother, born in this country, had exchanged letters with family back in Klevan until, well, until letters stopped coming back, but no family of mine closer than that suffered at the hands of the Nazis. But. I know what the Nazis did in the towns my great grandparents emigrated from, and I know what they would have been only too happy to do to me and mine if they never had emigrated (well, without emigration, I wouldn’t have existed as my mother and father would never have met), and I use that “us” anyway. I have rarely felt more alienated from a writer I loved than when I read that statement of Atkinson’s, and realized that in no life did Ursula Todd marry a German Jew; apparently Atkinson did not feel it important for her to explore those events. It was a profound experience for me, even if not the one Atkinson had envisioned.
3) The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine – It was not all Nazis all the time for me in 2014. This was the year that Genevieve Valentine’s novel resetting the fairy tale of the twelve dancing princesses in the speakeasies of Prohibition-era NYC (full disclosure: Valentine is a good friend of mine; I still love this book). I read an early version a few years back and the manuscript made my “best of” the year list. The published version is even better, the characters more finely drawn, their relationships more affecting and complex. I only wished there had been more of the book! The relationship between the two oldest sisters was one that I really hadn’t gotten when I read the manuscript, but it was a particularly poignant element of the finished novel. It’s a story that deserves visual representation of the flashing dresses, lipsticked smiles, tapping shoes, smoky speakeasies, perhaps in cinematic form, perhaps in comic book form (Valentine is currently writing Catwoman for DC). And Valentine writes an excellent adult protagonist—Jo, the oldest sister, is decidedly not 16 or 18 or 22. She’s in her late 20s, and she feels older. Trauma will do that to a person. I recommended the novel before and I recommend it now. And hey, now you can read it!
4) A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge – Hardinge is my favorite living children’s literature writer, and I don my official mortarboard of authority to say so (my academic field of specialty is officially children’s literature). But this book took me a little while longer to get into than usual; I don’t know that it had anything to do with the book, though I kept bouncing off the central conceit, which is that in the underground world of Caverna, where artisans make dangerous cheeses, wines that wipe and restore memory, and perfumes that compel behavior, children do not naturally mimic facial expressions. All such expressions have to be purposely studied and acquired, and facesmiths are responsible for creating and teaching the faces, as well as setting the styles for faces. Drudges, or the working class, learn only a few, while aristocrats have vast wardrobes of faces. Into this world falls a girl from the outside, whose face moves naturally, and her presence wreaks havoc. I kept trying to fit the premise into what I know of infant and child development and coming up with “But that just couldn’t happen!” Eventually I had to hand-wave it for the sake of the novel (though I think I now have an inkling of how physicists might feel when reading books that include faster-than-light travel). However, by the time characters have betrayed our protagonist and felt remorse while other characters, initially sympathetic, left her high and dry, by the time the complex politics of Caverna were being overturned by revolution, and a previously devious and self-serving girl had betrayed and sold out her entire immoral family to do the right thing, I was caught up in the adventure of it all. Hardinge often writes of oppressive societies turned upside-down and shaken apart by clever, brave young girls. Having been brought up by leftists, I suppose she’s writing my wish-fullfillment fantasies.
5) Marvelous Transformations edited by Christine A. Jones and Jennifer Schacker – I reviewed this book for Marvels and Tales, the premiere fairy-tale studies journal, and I’m recommending it here because it is a fabulous text for learning the history of fairy tales and the state of critical thought about them. Most texts of this sort take a narratological approach, where each chapter compiles variants of a given tale, say, “Cinderella.” This book instead adopts a historicist approach, dividing its chapters by historical era. The advantage here is that it includes tales that do not normally get anthologized, like stories from Giambattista Basile’s Pentamarone that do not have contemporary fairy-tale cognates (it is in Basile that we get our earliest European versions of Cinderella and Rapunzel), and allows us to make connections across tales as well as track generic changes from century to century. The section on contemporary, post-modern work is particularly good, including pieces by Kelly Link and Nalo Hopkinson. A particular pleasure for me, as I had not before read Hopkinson’s “The Bottle Tree,” a revision of Bluebeard that revolves around the relationship between colorism and self-hatred. It’s a great piece in a great book, one that will definitely find its way into my classroom.
6) I’m going to end by talking about punk rock, the kind that makes you shout and jump and make sparks fly through the air and your blood fizz with excitement and possibility. And really fucking loud, too. I spent a good part of 2014 trying to see The So So Glos play as much as I can, because if all goes well, I’m going to give birth in late June, and I suspect my going to punk shows will be sharply curtailed for a year or two. I have not felt like this about a band since I was a teenager. Punk rock, when it’s right, when it’s on, is like getting an electric injection of adrenaline and speed straight to the heart, your pulse races, and you might explode or die, and if you did it would be worth it, it would be well worth it, and you don’t care. I can feel the bassline sometimes inside my ribcage, and it feels like being shaken into pieces from the inside. I’ll tell you what else I love about the Glos—they look like they’re having a tremendous amount of fun when they perform. Their last album, Blow-out, came out in 2013, and it’s pretty fucking great. I don’t know what the crossover between feminist spec fic and punk rock appreciation is, but I have at least two data points, myself and my friend Psyche, and Amazon once told me that "We've noticed that customers who enjoyed Maria Tatar's The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales also like Punk: The Definitive Record of a Revolution," so what the hell. I fell in love with the Glos some years back when I saw them play a song about gentrification that cut right to the heart of the matter (“My Block,” off Tourism/Terrorism). They’re older now, and have a manager and opened Lollapalooza this past summer, but seeing them is still loud and intimate and lovely. (A few sentences of this last entry could previously be found on my LJ. Only a few, though.)
Veronica Schanoes is a writer and assistant professor in the department of English at Queens College - CUNY. Earlier this year, she won a World Fantasy Award. Her work has appeared at Tor.com and in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Strange Horizons, Interfictions, and Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 21. She lives in New York City and does not like cats. Her book of criticism, Fearless Children and Fabulous Monsters: Lewis Carroll, Angela Carter, and Beastly Girls, will be appearing in the near future. She currently lives in New York City.