Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017, pt. 13: Susan diRende

The Pleasures of 2017
by Susan diRende

The world vanishes when I read. I am altogether elsewhere, and remain oblivious to music or noise or even the voices of others speaking to me. Saying my name aloud works like some magical incantation to pull me back to this dimension. I am not exaggerating, though most people think I am when I say it. This was the case of the housekeeper at an artist residency until the day she vacuumed the room I was in, moving the chairs around while I sat in the window seat reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. She came over to me when she finished and spoke my name. I jumped with a hoot of heart-stopping surprise. I hadn’t realized anyone was in the room. It was as if she had suddenly materialized by my shoulder. We both laughed that she could have been bustling about my room noisily for five minutes and yet my conscious mind hadn’t noticed. She ever after spoke my name before coming to clean my space, and I appreciated her consideration. Not everyone believes me about this, and I have been scolded throughout my life for ignoring people. It is not a defect I have any idea how to remedy.

Still, every defect has its compensations. I can read anywhere, no matter what the noise. I can also fall asleep anywhere by simply telling myself a familiar story. Light and noise vanish as the comfortable tale absorbs my conscious mind and then slows like a movie winding down to slow motion and finally a stillness that dissolves into sleep.

Audiobooks take me out of the moment also, but not quite as completely. I don’t like listening to them when at home unless I am doing some rote task. Then the half-absorption distracts enough to help pass the time while leaving me free to wash dishes, iron clothes, or drive a car. It is in driving that I discovered the greatest pleasure of the split attention offered by audiobooks. I was driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles listening to The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. Somewhere in the long stretch down the San Joaquin Valley I was dazzled by the beauty of the light on the orchards lining the highway. I turned off the radio to drink it in. I was happy I’d done so, because a few moments later, the magic faded. I praised myself for taking the moment to appreciate the golden moment. I turned the radio back on, and just as I re-entered the tale of the Marston family and their living arrangements, the beauty exploded against my awareness again. So again I turned off the radio and drove on until it faded back an everyday landscape.

The third time it happened, I suddenly understood that I had it backward. The narrative wasn’t interfering with my full enjoyment of the beauty of the afternoon light. The narrative was making it possible for me to experience it by distracting the front of my brain so that subtler aesthetic impressions could rise to my awareness unedited, unexplained, and undissected for taxonomic classification. I felt a gestalt of beauty, a kind of ecstatic bath of presence while the categorical, linear parts of my mind chugged happily down the road, occupied in listening and driving. If I focused on the beauty, it went away the way faint stars do when you look right at them. If I let it happen and kept my eyes on the road and my ears on the chain of narrative, it washed over me in almost unbearable beauty. This dance continued until the driving demanded more of my attention.

Since then, I have had this same experience often on highway drives and long walks. I can still call up the clarity of summer taking the turn to fall in the sight and smell of some fallen leaves while walking the Stanford Dish Loop and listening to Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. This magic only happens when I listen to nonfiction; something about the emotional component of fiction gets in the way, I suppose. I cannot make it happen, and if I look for it, of course the experience eludes me. But that it happens at all, and with some regularity, is a gift of listening that I cherish.

I don’t know if this is an experience unique to me thanks to my odd sort of concentration, or if it comes to pass for others. It is my season’s wish that it may be so for you somewhere on the road or along a long path through the woods.

Susan diRende ran away from college and joined the circus at 20, where she learned how to step outside the boundaries just far enough to get a laugh. Ever since then, she has been writing, painting, performing, and directing with the goal of bringing about illumination and transformation through laughter. She has won awards as a playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker, and performer. A multilingual US/EU citizen, she currently is living the vagabond life with no fixed abode, chasing images and ideas wherever the impulse leads. Aqueduct Press published her novella, Unpronounceable, in 2016; it received a Special Citation for the Philip K. Dick Award.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017, pt. 12: Christina M. Rau

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017
by Christina M. Rau

This year, I wanted to read all the books. Clearly, there’s no time for that, but I did squeeze in a few novels and collections (and a few duds that I won’t include in this list of pleasures, of course). 

I latched onto Laura Childs’s Tea Shop Mystery series, reading Death By Darjeeling, Gunpowder Green, Oolong Dead, and Scones & Bones. Keeping in the mystery genre, I also read No Rest For The Dead, a novel written by more than twenty authors.

I picked up a throwback—H. G. Wells The Time Machine—and picked up a follow-up —Ernest Cline’s Armada. In the same speculative vein: Becca Menon’s The Estrangement of Melusine and The City & The City by China Mieville, both of which were fabulous even though I’m still trying to figure them out.

The first book I read through the app BookShout was Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, and it was beautiful. (But I prefer book-books over e-books).

For literary fiction, I dove into some Joan Didion with Play It As It Lays. Even more devastating was Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Also, Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last.

In non-fiction: The World Needs More Canada. Truth.

With every book of prose came a few poetry collections: Rachel Zucker’s The Pedestrians, James Allen Hall’s Now You’re The Enemy, Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, Paul Violi’s Breakers, Mary Jo Bang’s Louise In Love and Elegy, Tracy K. Smith’s The Body’s Question, Saeed Jones’s Prelude To Bruise, Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Pramila Venkateswaran’s Thirteen Days To Let Go, Devin Johnston’s Far-Fetched, Margaret Atwood’s The Door, and Francisco X. Alarcon’s Canto Hondo/Deep Song.

The most fun I had reading was Romeo and/or Juliet: A Chooseable-Path Adventure by Ryan North. A choose your own adventure for Shakespeare! In modern day!

When I couldn’t read, like when I was driving, I listened to S-Town (from the people who made Serial) and Dirty John for true-crime and slice of life, The Dear Mattie Show for advice and entertainment, The Sleeper Hit Podcast for fun games, Two Dope Queens for laughs, and TV Tea Time for more laughs.

Viewing pleasure: Wonder Woman, Justice League, and Thor: Ragnorok in theatres. Pretty super, for sure.

Christina M. Rau is the founder of Poets In Nassau, a reading circuit on Long Island, NY, where she's lived all her life. She is the author of the chapbooks WakeBreatheMove (Finishing Line Press, 2015) and For The Girls, I (Dancing Girl Press, 2014). She serves as editor for The Nassau Review at Nassau Community College, where she teaches writing and literature.  Aqueduct Press published her collection, Liberating the Astronauts, earlier this year. For her blog, visit For everything else,

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017, pt. 11: Brit Mandelo

The Pleasures of Reading,  Viewing, and Listening in 2017
by Brit Mandelo

As we’d all likely agree, this has been a difficult year politically and personally. I’ve found myself focusing half of my attention on “feel-good” media and the other half on “work” media, the texts I’m consuming for specifically critical purposes—like the books I’ve reviewed for throughout 2017.

Of those, a handful stand out when I scroll through the list of reviews published under my byline in the past twelve months. All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater is the most recent, a lyrical magic-realist departure from the author’s sprawling and recently-completed Raven Cycle. I was also struck by several others, in retrospect, ranging in scope from young adult novels to small-press short story collections to novellas. Autonomous by Annalee Newitz chews on complex issues of embodiment, gender, and ownership while In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan tackles the portal fantasy genre with a nontypical queer male protagonist. Telling the Map by Christopher Rowe took me to near-future versions of my own home state, Kentucky, over a series of handsome short stories. Both Amatka by Karin Tidbeck and Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan are short and immensely thought-provoking works of high yield, unnerving fiction that left strong impressions with me artistically and personally. Lastly, I’d be remiss not to mention The Black Tides of Heaven & The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang, a pair of stylistically quite different novellas set in a lush and handsomely realized second world that also feature queer and nonbinary protagonists. 

When it comes to the media I consumed without the express intention of a critical approach, though, genre diversifies. Richard Siken’s two collections of poetry, War of the Foxes and Crush, utterly devastated me. Siken’s approach to a particular kind of desperate and seeking queer male being is almost too much to handle but also, sometimes, fits like a glove. I actually just finished Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl last week, so it’s fresh in my mind, but it was an interestingly explicit take on the tropes of trans YA narratives from the perspective of a girl living in the Appalachian South. I also finally—I know, this will come as a surprise to a lot of people—read The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I did it in two sittings and spent the entire process making quiet sounds of distress, but damn, what a book.

The two new albums that I’ve spent the latter half of the year listening to on repeat are Tyler, The Creator’s Scum Fuck Flower Boy and Brand New’s Science Fiction. As you might imagine, music is a site of debate for me in terms of creator versus art versus my own ethics. I’ve had to do a lot of self-examination about Brand New and the band’s role in my life, as well as the room I need to give for other humans to grow and change over time, to make up for even abysmally cruel actions in their past. It’s no coincidence that both of these albums approach a flawed and queer masculinity that understands itself in terms of fracture and growth; it’s also worth thinking about how that narrative might force me to reflect on my own flaws. It’s something I’m working on.

I didn’t watch much television, though I did binge watch Boku no Hero Academia and rewatch Yuri on Ice. Sometimes I just need something that feels good, y’know? Thor: Ragnarok also gave me a big gay thrill, and I finally watched What We Do In the Shadows as well and adored it. Baby Driver spoke to my love of meta, visual narrative, and cars. I hope I’ll get around to more visual media in 2018, but we’ll see.

Overall, it’s been a rough one, but I’m hoping in 2018 we’ll all keep moving toward the progress in our world that I see in the fiction and media I’ve been consuming. Kudos to us for surviving, and let’s try again.


Brit Mandelo  is a writer, critic, and editor. They have published two books, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2012) and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling (in Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces series). Brit has been a nominee for various awards in the past, including the Nebula, Lambda, and Hugo; their work has been published in magazines such as Clarkesworld,, Stone Telling, Apex, and Ideomancer.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening, pt. 10: Jennifer Marie Brissett

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017
by Jennifer Marie Brissett

Between teaching and writing I somehow managed to absorb many novels, mostly through audiobooks again. Here are a few that I completed—

The Accidental Alchemist and The Elusive Elixir By Gigi Pandian

The Peter Rabbit Collection By Beatrix Potter (Narrated by Emma Messenger)

Metro 2033 and Metro 2035 By Dimitry Glukhovsky

The Girl with All the Gifts By M. R. Carey

Enigma Tales: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine By Una McCormack

The Black Tower by Louis Bayard

Basil of Baker Street: The Great Mouse Detective By Eve Titus – a fun children’s book parody of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Man Who Fell to Earth By Walter Tevis

The Left Hand of Darkness By Ursula K. Le Guin (Narrated by George Guidall) – I’ve read this book several times and yet hearing it read to me like this was a special pleasure.

The Alienist By Caleb Carr

The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger By Stephen King

Roadside Picnic By Arkady Strrugatsky – the novel that the Russian science fiction film Stalker is based on

The Scar By China Mieville – I listened to this last year and still enjoyed re-listening to this again. I think this is my second favorite Mieville novel, my first being The City & the City.


Jennifer Marie Brissett is a Jamaican-British American writer living in New York who has been a software engineer, web designer, and independent bookseller. Her short fiction has appeared in The Future Fire, Morpheus Tales, Warrior Wisewoman 2, and other places. Aqueduct Press published her first novel, Elsyium, in 2014; it received a Special Citation for the Philip K. Dick Award and was a finalist for Locus's Best First Novel award.  Check out her website at