Pleasures of Reading, 2015
by Lisa Tuttle
My big author discovery this year has been Rebecca Solnit. I can’t remember what made me order a copy of River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (Penguin, 2003) – Muybridge was a fascinating character, but I was not that interested in him or the early history of photography to think I had to read his biography, so I must have read a review, or happened across a reference to this book which made it clear how much more than just a biography it is, and how wonderful I would find it. It is a beautifully written book about so many different subjects: time, change, America, the westward movement, history, art, and more. I now want to read everything Rebecca Solnit has written.
In the chapter “Lost River” there is a section titled “Ghosts and Machines” – I have to quote a small bit:
“The Ghost Dance was a technology. Literally, a technology is a systematic practice or knowledge of an art, and although we almost always apply the term to the scientific and mechanical, there is no reason not to apply it to other human-made techniques for producing desired results. Maybe the best definition would be: A technology is a practice, a technique, or a device for altering the world or the experience of the world. To propose annihilating the inexorable march or history and the irreversibility of death was to propose a technology as ambitious as a moon walk or a gene splice. The Ghost Dance had its parallels in the spiritualist movement that began in the 1840s... Spiritualism likewise sought to cross that great divide, death.... spiritualism had close ties to the feminist movement of the middle decades of the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Women were the principal mediums in spiritualism, and it was something of a women’s religion...”
I’ve had a long time interest in both the development of spiritualism, and the history of the women’s movement, so I looked at Solnit’s end notes, where I found this: “On spiritualism my main source is Barbara Goldsmith’s magnificent Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998)”
Magnificent, indeed! This book, which I promptly sought out, bought and read on the basis of that footnote, is my other favourite book of the year. A combination of biography (Victoria Woodhull) and history, the story Barbara Goldsmith tells is filled with larger-than-life characters and as gripping as a great novel.
As for fiction – I read mainstream, and I read genre – but I like fantasy best when it strays farthest from genre, to inform and transform an otherwise realist contemporary literary novel. It’s a tricky balancing act, and not that many authors attempt it. The two that did it for me this year were The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham and Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell. Both books import elements of fairy tale into contemporary lives and times, with stunning results. Michael Cunningham is, of course, a much-praised, very well-known author (I loved The Hours), but I came across Linda Cracknell almost by chance. Call of the Undertow is her first novel, published two years ago by small press in Glasgow (Freight Books), and well worth seeking out if, like me, you appreciate ambiguity and atmosphere – and a particular Scottish legend I will not name here.
In the category of “how did I manage to miss reading this amazing book for so many years?” I read, and loved, The Names by Don DeLillo and The Birds Fall Down by Rebecca West.
And, finally Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. What an amazing, disturbing, powerful, haunting and thought-provoking book. My only regret is that, never having seen a copy, I bought it on my Kindle. Not only does it have pictures, but I missed the whole sensuous thrill of holding an actual book the first time I read it. So now I have to buy it again so I can read it properly. It will bear many re-readings.
one of the contributors to
an anthology ghost/horror drama called "The Ghost Train Doesn't Stop
Here Anymore," scheduled for a two-week run on the London stage
in March 2016. She has a new novel forthcoming in summer 2016 from Jo Fletcher Books, "The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the psychic Thief." She has also published nonfiction and more than a dozen
books for younger readers. In 1974 she won the John W. Campbell Award
for Best New Writer and, in 1987, the BSFA award in the short fiction
category. Aqueduct Press published her novella My Death
in 2008 (which is now available as an ebook). Born and raised in
Houston, Texas, she has made her home in a remote rural region of
Scotland for the last twenty years.