Monday, December 11, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017: pt.4: Sofia Samatar

The Pleasures of 2017
by Sofia Samatar

I devoured This Young Monster by Charlie Fox—a dazzling collection of personal essays on monsters, the monstrous, art, and culture. It’s the perfect companion to the horror show of today’s America, and also to Stranger Things, which I watched with the avid passion of a teenage Winona Ryder fan, since that’s what I actually am. 

In poetry, I loved the questing spirit of Anna Moschovakis’s They and We Will Get into Trouble for This, the way black-body radiation meets the radiant black body in Samiya Bashir’s Field Theories, and Bhanu Kapil’s urgent, delirious, vagabond writing in Ban en Banlieue and its companion chapbook, entre-Ban.

Further pleasures: 

Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, a philosophical investigation of grief, time, and the practice of art. 

Danielle Dutton’s magical biography, Margaret the First

Lynne Tillman’s mischievous, erudite, and delightfully weird The Complete Madame Realism

M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, which I’d never read before—a hallucinatory series, like King Arthur but with space travel and spleen. 

Kathryn Davis’s Labrador, which I’ve probably read 15 times—it’s still one of the best fantasies ever written.  

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien (he was a really good translator!). 

And finally, The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, an absolute treasure. I love it when the hyena tears her face off. 


Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria, winner of the William L. Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. She is also a Hugo and Nebula Award finalist and the recipient of the 2014 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her latest novel, The Winged Histories, was published by Small Beer Press in 2016.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017: part 3: Nancy Jane Moore

Pleasures for 2017
by Nancy Jane Moore

I just read – on the same afternoon I bought it – Mary Beard’s Women and Power: a Manifesto, two essays on women’s public voice and power. This short but powerful book demonstrates how classical ideas underlie our current cultural ideas about the place of women. Beard begins with the scene in the Odyssey where Telemachus tells his mother Penelope to shut up because women don’t speak in public. She goes on to bring other classical icons – Medusa, Athena – into a discussion of women and power and how such things are perceived.

Right after I read it, I found Julie Phillips’s delightful take on the book in Four Columns. Her review adds depth to the experience, so I recommend reading it together with the book. Here’s a teaser: “The willingness to expose that clumsy, artificial join—to be a public intellectual without glossing over the awkwardness of being female—is what distinguishes the outspoken British academic Mary Beard.”

Given that I am working on both fiction and nonfiction that deal with women and power, these thoughts are of vital importance to me right now. Given that women speaking out about abusive men is the hot topic in the U.S. right now, the subject of how women speak and how they take power are crucial to our society as well. This book provides important insights that will expand the discussion in fruitful ways.

Hidden Figures was a major highlight for me this year. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and the book is a stunning tour de force. Yes, of course it was a Hollywood feel-good movie, but in the first place, it made me feel really good. And in the second place, how many Hollywood feel-good movies have you ever seen about mathematicians, much less women mathematicians, much less African American women mathematicians? It was fun to cheer.

Margot Lee Shetterly’s book on the subject is much better than the movie (which, of course, altered the facts to fit into Hollywood ideas of storytelling). It was researched in detail – she was able to interview some of the women who worked in the space program – and beautifully written. This was history I didn’t know, even though I grew up with the space program (literally – the Johnson Space Center is about five miles from my childhood home). I’m sorry I didn’t know it as a kid, but I’m thrilled to know it now.

Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law is a more sobering look at the racist history of the United States. This detailed book explains the laws – not just the practices – that segregated our cities after the Civil War. Federal law and policy required separate public housing and prohibited use of federally insured home loans in segregated neighborhoods. I knew a lot about housing policy and discrimination, but this book uncovered stuff even I was not aware of. Everyone needs to read this book and understand just how racist – legally racist – our history has been. Until we make this right, we will not solve this country’s racial divide.

One of my responses to the electoral debacle in the U.S. was to read some work on political activism. I highly recommend This Is An Uprising, by Paul and Mark Engler. This history of successful resistance actions worldwide – all of them non-violent – provides us with an understanding of what will be effective.

Among other sources, the Englers’ book draws on the research of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, whose heavily researched Why Civil Resistance Works provides the data to back up the value of nonviolent civil resistance. Nonviolent activism in the 20th and 21st centuries has been significantly more successful than violent action and, in general, has had very positive outcomes when at least five percent of the population gets involved in some way. Understanding the value of this has given me something to fall back on when I look at the daily disasters out of Washington, D.C.

Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, is a very valuable book on how to deal with climate change. This book lists one hundred things, in order of effectiveness, we can do right now to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere. One of my favorite parts of the book is that the number six and seven items taken together would be number one. Those two items are educate girls and provide family planning to women.

Much of the fiction that has most moved me this year came in the form of novellas. I’m looking forward to the conclusion of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series, as the first two books – Binti and Binti: Home – were imaginative science fiction building on cultural histories new to me. Ellen Klages’s Passing Strange was also delightful, a creative fantasy built on some real San Francisco history.

Among the novels I read, Jessica Reisman’s Substrate Phantoms was particularly satisfying because of its imaginative aspects. I love science fiction that incorporates highly creative speculation into the mix.

But the universe, or rather the Solar System’s little corner of it, provided my best experience of the year: The Eclipse of the Sun. We took back roads to eastern Oregon so we could see the full eclipse, and it was worth the effort. Even when you know that the sun will be right back, there is something wonderfully disconcerting about seeing it disappear.

We watched it on a hillside in Brogan, Oregon, where the local community organization had set things up at the volunteer fire department. There were maybe fifty people there, including several with telescopes. Just about the right size for us.

I recommend getting out in nature when you can in these troubled times. We also went to Pinnacles National Park and Point Reyes National Seashore this year. Cell service is nonexistent at Pinnacles and scant at Point Reyes, so we came back from both trips to the shock of how many horrible things can happen in a few days, but for those days we were blissfully out of touch.

Nancy Jane Moore’s science fiction novel The Weave came out from Aqueduct in 2015. Her most recent story is “Chatauqua” in the Book View Café anthology, Nevertheless, She Persisted. At present she is working on a book on self defense from a feminist perspective and a novel inspired by her desire to have the adventures when reading The Three Musketeers

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017: pt.2: Tansy Rayner Roberts

Awesome Books of Joy & Love
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

I’m not going to even pretend to be unbiased here. I am glad these books exist, and you should be too. It’s been a trashfire of a year and some books make the world better. These are some of them.

Luminescent Threads, edited by Alex Pierce & Mimi Mondal, is a joyous tribute to Octavia E. Butler featuring letters and essays about race and identity, by some of today’s most exciting writers including K. Tempest Bradford, Joyce Chng & Steven Barnes.

The wonderful, smart, and cynical Liz Bourke has a book out! Sleeping with Monsters is a collection of Liz’s critical work on SF books and culture from her fantastic regular column.

If romance is your escapism drug of choice, but even enjoying something fluffy and fun in the current political climate feels a bit wrong, check out Rogue Desire and Rogue Affair. These romance anthologies are a direct response to 2017 and the Trump administration by presenting a variety of love stories in a time of protest and Presidential anxiety. Read about grass roots politics, hackers, whistleblowers, policy wonks and whether or not it’s possible to flirt while debating if punching Nazis is OK.

I backed Some Girls by Nelly Thomas and Sarah Dunk on Facebook. This brilliant picture book features vivid art and the important message that girls don’t have to buy into other people’s expectations of their gender.

Tansy Rayner Roberts is a SFF author and the co-host of popular feminist podcasts Galactic Suburbia and Verity! Check out her recently-published short story “How To Survive an Epic Journey” at Uncanny Magazine, and her superhero novella Girl Reporter, which will be released on 19 December.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017: pt.1: Sarah Tolmie

Pleasures 2017
by Sarah Tolmie

2017 was, for me, The Year of Harry Potter. Not so much because of the 20th anniversary hoopla but rather because I taught the series for the first time. Like every English department in the world, seemingly, battling declining enrollments, my institution just rolled out a first-year Harry Potter course. I taught it this fall. It was the only course I have ever taught in which all the students had actually read all the books before term even began, and which stayed at capacity, with all the students sticking it out to the bitter end. I assure you that this does not happen in my Middle English classes. Anyway, Harry Potter made for a great class: discussions were lively, and I taught a surprising amount of theology and some Latin and semiotics. It was cool. So thank you J.K Rowling, and I will even forgive you for The Cursed Child.

On a related-but-diametrically-opposed note, I read Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust, volume 1. It was characteristically atmospheric and pacey, though it felt thin to me: I think the whole three-volume idea is a cop out. If we must have a prequel, can’t it just be one big fat book? The one element that felt a bit forced to me was the monstrous League of St Alexander, in which his British libertarian flag was flying a bit high. Child informers! Political correctness in schools! I appreciate that Authority takes many forms, but it came off as waspish and inauthentic. This is a shame, as I admire his whole project and it remains a pleasure to read this kind of imaginative fiction written by an atheist.

I read a great book of poems by Pam Mordecai called Subversive Sonnets. Absolutely fabulous and a great bang for your buck, as each numbered sonnet is actually a suite of a couple of them, so you get tons of them and some great storytelling. Living proof that the form is as gripping as ever; what she does with them is as powerful as Seamus Heaney. A super book. Read it if you read poetry.

I have to do a plug for Year’s Best Weird Fiction vol 4, edited by Helen Marshall and published by Undertow. I have a story in it, so I got a free copy, and read everything in it. Very, very interesting. And all exquisitely written. As a poet, I really appreciate this. Lyrical writing seems to be a thread connecting weird writers. I still don’t feel like I have a complete grip on the weird genre, but this collection is that strange thing: diverse and consistent. I recommend all of them, but perhaps Katie Knoll’s “Red” especially.

In between bouts of editing, as usual, I watched a lot of trash on Netflix. Little stood out except Marvel’s The Punisher, which I thought was by far the strongest of their recent outings. A slightly different set of clichés than usual (for me, anyway, as I don't watch much military stuff) and the lead guy is reassuringly ugly. The Dutch movie Admiraal was great historical fiction about a really important man (De Ruyter) and a critical period in Europe (the Anglo-Dutch wars). Best naval sequences ever. I watched Besson’s Valerian movie and thought it was ghastly, but it was nonetheless amusing that he had the whole cast of Avatar tucked in a box at the centre of his film, which was a very French thing to do. Gotham continues to look excellent and broody and be utterly silly. I continue to admire Robin Taylor as Penguin; he’s doing a great job in a very traditional sissy role.

That’s it from me for this year. Keep reading and writing, Aqueductians! Best wishes for 2018!

Aqueduct Press has published three of Sarah Tolmie's marvelous books: The Stone Boatmen in 2014, NoFood in 2014, and most recently Two Travelers in 2016. One story from it, “The Dancer On The Stairs,” appears in Year’s Best Weird Fiction 2016. Sarah is also a poet; McGill-Queen’s UP published her sonnet collection Trio in 2015, and a new volume called The Art of Dying will be out in spring 2018. Her agent is Martha Millard of Sterling Lord Literistic, and her author site is

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017

Our annual series of posts on reading, viewing, and listening is about to begin. Once again I've solicited pieces from a bevy of writers and critics to tell us what they particularly enjoyed reading, viewing, and listening to in the last year. This year's edition will include posts by Andrea Hairston, Eleanor Arnason, Sofia Samatar, Cheryl Morgan, Nisi Shawl, Sarah Tolmie, Tansy Rayner Roberts, and others. I'll be adding links below as I upload each new contribution, to provide a list for convenient reference. I hope you'll enjoy reading these as much as I do, and perhaps even find them helpful for slow-thinking our way through these difficult, painful times.

Part 1: Sarah Tolmie
Part 2: Tansy Rayner Roberts
Part 3: Nancy Jane Moore
Part 4: Sofia Samatar