Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2007, Pt. 9: Nisi Shawl and Josh Lukin

We're not done yet! I've still got people reporting in. So here are two more--

Nisi Shawl:

My name’s Nisi Shawl. I’m a writer whose day job is writing. I review books, mostly SF, for the Seattle Times. Every year, in addition to my paid assignments, I turn in a short paragraph about my pick for Best Book of the Year, to be included with other reviewers’ picks in a sort of “summing up” article. In 2007 I reviewed fifteen books for the Times. Five of them were the best. I did pick one and write the requisite paragraph, but for some reason it wasn’t included in the article.

My Five Best Books I Reviewed for the Seattle Times: Thirteen by Richard K. Morgan, Spook Country by William Gibson, The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson, Time's Child by Rebecca Ore, and The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss. I finally picked Thirteen to write about. Here’s my paragraph on that one:

, by Richard K. Morgan (Del Rey). Science fiction reviewer Nisi Shawl called this novel an “achingly good” look at male violence and racial justice through the eyes of a genetically engineered supersoldier living three hundred years from now, full of “harrowing truths, gritty romance, complex politics, and synapse-swift action.”

I was following several Times templates in writing that paragraph, including a mandated wordcount. I didn’t have the space to mention my other four Best Books, or to say why, if forced to create a hierarchy among my picks, I’d place Thirteen at the top.

Aqueduct Press has provided me with that space.

The New Moon’s Arms
is probably Hopkinson’s best novel to date. That’s saying quite a lot. Hopkinson does quite a lot here: she provides vivid sensory impressions of the beautiful Caribbean environment, glimpses of human nature by turns hilarious and regrettable, panoramic views of grass-roots anti-neo-colonialist organizing, and the most believable scientific extrapolation on the possibility of sentient marine mammals I’ve seen since Vonda McIntyre’s 1997 novel The Moon and the Sun.

Time’s Child
was the first novel of Rebecca Ore’s I’d read. I enjoyed it so much I campaigned passionately for my book group to pick it, but at the meeting where we discussed it most everyone dismissed Time’s Child as weak and lacking in verisimilitude. One member even returned his copy to the store where he bought it, so he would not have paid money for it. Myself, I still love the book’s heroine, Benedetta. She’s a 15th-Century Italian camp-follower who hangs out in Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop, then makes the transition to a twenty-fourth century filled with plagues and time machines with an ease that gives the lie to our modern concept of people of the past as automatic idiots. Within the first few pages she won my heart, refusing to believe in the ersatz afterlife created by experimenters from our future to protect her from culture shock: "Benedetta knew she wasn't in Purgatory when she saw a scab on the angel's knuckle." Also, Benedetta, an “older woman,” winds up in a long term sexual relationship with a hot Viking hunk.

I read Molly Gloss’s The Hearts of Horses twice. It’s set in 1917, in an apocryphal Oregon. The heroine, 19-year-old Martha Lessen, trains rather than breaks horses, and gradually becomes involved in frontier society. The pleasure of the book, for me, was in its evocation of a time and place vanishing as they appeared. For the Times I wrote: “Like Carol Emshwiller and Kathleen Alcalá, two other women writing Westerns and SF (both ostensibly male genres), Gloss ignores boundaries instead of defying them. The mythic and the mundane are one. So her re-creation of a romantic past and its irrecoverable dreams feels solid, rooted in the everyday of long ago, palpable as the curve of a china mug in your hand.”

Gloss’s book isn’t SF. Neither is another of my Bests, Spook Country by William Gibson. Its otherly edge derives from immersion in the world of spies and renegade bureaucrats. The language Gibson uses is ultra-easy on my inner ear, as ever, and I was especially entranced by Tito, one of his three protagonists. Tito’s a transplanted Chinese/Hispanic Cuban, scion of a family of self-exiled secret agents. He lives under the protection of escape protocols learned by heart, and the entirely believable intervention of guerreros, Afro-Cuban warrior spirits familiar to me from altars in my own home. I won’t say any more about Spook Country, as you’ve probably heard plenty about this book elsewhere. It was one my editor did include in the Times article, as her pick.

Because my editor didn’t include my paragraph on Thirteen, no SF books were included in the “Best of 2007” article, in a year when there were so many good ones that I had enormous difficulty selecting just a single representative title. I have no idea why my choice was omitted. I just saw the article, and the editor’s out of town for the next two weeks as I write this.

Just so someone somewhere out there knows, there are two reasons why I wish that article had mentioned Thirteen; two reasons in addition to its overall excellence and the points I mentioned in the paragraph I submitted. The first reason is that it moved me more deeply than any of the others. It simply struck a deeper emotional chord. I’d quote the passage that made me cry when I read it; but it wouldn’t have the same effect, obviously, taken out of context. Buy the book. Don’t skip ahead. It’s on page 405.

The second reason is that Morgan has dared greatly, and deserves to be rewarded in like kind. Morgan is white; his protagonist, Carl Marsalis, is a black man genetically engineered to be superior—as followers of machismo measure superiority. For the most part, Morgan’s transracial writing rings true for me (I’m an African American, so though I’m not an expert on “blackness,” my take is relevant). No “magical negro,” Marsalis works entirely from his own agenda. He enjoys sexual encounters with several women while avoiding paying for that enjoyment with his life, as most fictional black men do. Another character, a woman with the same machoistic enhancements Marsalis has, illustrates the strength inherent in balancing traits traditionally viewed as masculine and feminine. But it’s the book’s racial subtext that won my approval.

I could say more. If you want to hear it, just ask me.

Josh Lukin:

I worry that it’s a sign of aging: more and more often, it seems, I look back on a year of art consumption to find that I haven’t discovered as many new artists or as much new work as I useta, instead tending either to look at the work of artists I already liked or catch up on classics I’d missed. In 2007, for example, I expanded my collection of Dave Van Ronk albums from about three to twenty-one, thanks largely to my having discovered ebay and taken to digitizing lp’s once I’d bought them there. Van Ronk was a virtuoso musician and a true pioneer, whose unnecessary death six years ago says a lot about the effects of our nation’s health care “system.” Other skillful artists whose work I continued to follow or to accumulate were Sidney Lumet, who at eighty-three came out with a very good film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and the late Stanley Elkin, whose 1984 novel The Magic Kingdom is a hilarious romp through the world of terminally ill children and narrative medicine.

I enjoyed such crime novels as George Pelecanos (The Wire)’s Right as Rain –this is a guy who knows how to tell a good masculinity story—and Lawrence Block’s Hit Parade, in which Keller the killer finally achieves the terrifying disjunction between his conscience and his profession that he has long aspired to find. Wilkie Collins’s Poor Miss Finch, which I finally got around to reading 133 years after its publication, was one of those novels dismissed during its author’s lifetime for its focus on the actual experience of people with disabilities; now it’s recognized as having shown an understanding of blindness that anticipates the work of Oliver Sacks on that impairment. Sadly, the Oxford University Press seems to have taken the novel out of print this year; happily, David G. Hartwell at Tor rocked my world by bringing Philip Dick’s ninth realist novel, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, back into print. The last of the realist novels Dick wrote in the Fifties, HD in O is one of those books that would be noir if the protagonist were not too demoralized to commit a crime: bleak, bleak tale of paranoia and frustration with the false promises of the American Dream.

Another tale of promises and lies that grew on me, after I’d initially been underwhelmed by it, was Colson Whitehead’s 2006 novella, Apex Hides the Hurt. Whitehead’s gift for lyrical snark pervades this simple parable of an injured advertising consultant who can no longer stomach being in the deception business. But the most heart-wrenching tale of promise and disillusionment that I encountered was My Name Is Buddy: Another Record by Ry Cooder. Seventeen songs and an illustrated booklet tell the story of three small animals with Popular Front ideals roaming around the country and through the past seventy-five years. It drives home the contrast between the kind of world we were supposed to be living in by now according to the dreams of the Thirties and the one we got. Drives it home like nails on Golgotha. Pete Seeger makes a guest appearance. For a more analytical view of the Red Decade and its aftermath, I finally got around to reading Michael Denning’s classic The Cultural Front, as part of a study of the Old Left into which I got so deep that I began speculating to random acquaintances about how deep Lead Belly’s support for the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact ran. Loved Denning’s historical and intellectual narrative, although I disagree with some of his conclusions. Another great document of radical history I encountered, one which hasn’t received enough attention thanks to the polarizing effect that ensues upon the mention of its author’s very name, is Mumia Abu-Jamal’s We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party. Probably the best in-print introduction to what that organization was and did.

Other classics that I read included, sixty-six years after its publication, Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. Bunny Wilson was, with only a few lapses, the literary essayist that Luke Menand and Christopher Hitchens only dream of being. Did you know that Hemingway threatened to sue Bunny for accusing his work of misogyny? Disappointingly, the title essay of the Wilson book is its weakest; but at least it called his readers’ attention to the Philoctetes, which I had read with some delight earlier this year. I’m ashamed to admit that 2007 also saw my first encounters with Carol Emshwiller’s mindbending fable Carmen Dog and John Ford’s Monumental film The Searchers. Each in its way good heartwarming fun. I have more of an excuse for only this year seeing Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, as it has not been readily available in the thirty years since its first release. My enjoyment of this sublime slice-of-life picture was briefly mitigated in the movie house by a cluster of septuagenarian culture vultures, whose voices I swear were modeled on Art Garfunkel’s 1968 Recordings of Old People, grousing at the end: “THAT WAS A BAD MOVIE!” “Didn’t it get four stars in the paper?” “What was the paper thinking?” “It had some good music, but that was it.” “Pret-ty bad.”

The other movies I delighted in this year are perhaps not widely canonized as classics, but they have an honored place in the Josh Canon. Blacklisted screenwriter Paul Jarrico, in European exile, followed up his celebrated Salt of the Earth with the Cold War romp The Hot Line, which is like the Platonic Form of 1960s farce. Anyone who doesn’t like it should be airmailed to Barcelona. Almost twenty years before The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges played a West Coast slacker with a violent Vietnam vet friend in Cutter’s Way, a neo-noir dramatization of Neil Hertz’s dictum, “People would rather get their stories straight than live.” The movie is respected and has gained some attention in the disability narrative canon, but is perhaps not widely known. A movie that would have been a big success if it had not fallen between the cracks of a turnover in studio personnel was 2005’s The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, a delightful and kinda feminist exemplar of the Julianne Moore as Struggling Fifties Housewife genre, with a nice supporting performance by Woody Harrelson.

Would I be turning this blog into an echo chamber if I were to praise Christopher Barzak’s One for Sorrow? Would I be turning this blog into an echo chamber if I were to praise Christopher Barzak’s One for Sorrow? Having spent twenty-one years of my life living right outside the inferno into which Barzak’s hero descends (Youngstown, OH), I can’t refrain. Lovely, gorgeously written, sentimental story of class tensions and rural anomie. Fun fact: the book’s wittiest exchange is between that hero and a fictionalized version of gay Youngstown secondhand bookseller Jack Peterson, whose store is called Dorian Books and who, in real life, doesn’t age! I love Barzak dearly, but an even closer friend, Rebecca Ore, released an equally nifty book this year that did not receive its due: Time’s Child, marketed as epic skiffy futuristic adventure, is in fact a small-scale intellectual fantasia held together by “Ore's dry satiric voice and astute eye for setting. She makes credible and interesting the micropolitics of smart, verbal people from various past eras struggling to determine whom to trust in a future Eastern Pennsylvania landscape . . . a soothing vernal chat with a rapier-witted polymath.” To repeat my own words, which are now owned by Jeff Bezos.

Possibly the greatest 2007 book I’ve yet read is another one that has received the attention it deserves: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by the ass-kickin’ Junot Diaz. Diaz’s widely-revered first book, the story cycle Drown, was all about masculine norms and how they fuck up their adherents: the novel attempts, sometimes with a little less confidence, to incorporate female subjectivity as well into a story whose characters and scope really necessitate that every Ford/Auster/Roth Navel-Gazing White Guy Novelist kill himself immediately. Give up, dudes. You’re over with. It’s pernicious: I was reading it and going, okay, I see what he’s doing here, okay, this is nice, okay, does this guy have to be so obsessed with using this rhetorical invention, yeah, okay, pretty intense . . . and then I finished and closed it. And two hours later I was all, HOLY SHIT! Novels aren’t supposed to be able to do that! Words aren’t supposed to be able to do that! Nothing that is signifiable in The Discourse is supposed to be able to do that. This man keeps it Real. I had to, like, take a nap. Diaz’s friend Edwidge Danticat wrote a novel a few years ago with overlapping topics, The Farming of Bones. Read and liked that one this year too: it reminded me of some great feminist sf odysseys, but was perhaps less hopeful than most, thanks to its historical setting in 1930s Haiti.

An ongoing project in my study of Contemporary US Fiction is to look at what I call Hippie Elegies –novels that look back melancholically on The Sixties (including those parts of that era that followed 1970). Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland was one of the founding documents of that genre, as was T.C. Boyle’s World’s End; Philip Roth’s American Pastoral was its conservative counterpart; Susan Choi’s American Woman, a feminist rebuttal to Roth; Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus, a nice exemplar of the genre. This year, I very much enjoyed Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, not only for its vivid contrasts between the historical portrayals of the radical Seventies and the contemporary scenes of hipsters and swells in neoliberal Seattle today but for its strengths in conveying the excitement that the earlier era’s music can elicit even in contemporary young people. The passages on Arthur Lee and the Beach Boys are worth the price. I followed the Spiotta piece with Sigrid Nunez’s Hippie Elegy, The Last of Her Kind, a powerful but very pessimistic story of female friendship with strong allusions to The Great Gatsby. Ultimately, although the novel shows an acute awareness of social injustices, its narcissistic leads and its bleak conclusion might prevent it from being a particularly progressive story itself; but that doesn’t detract from its aesthetic and intellectual substance.

Having read all three of Jennifer Egan’s novels in previous years, I turned recently to her 1997 short story collection, Emerald City. I really liked about half of it. And it helped me develop my Theory of Egan: her stories and novels almost all concern characters who commit an existential act of transgression (or in a couple of cases suffer someone else's) in the expectation that it will lead to self-realization and find that they've actually been severed from any sense of selfhood, and have often just embraced a desire that was not their own when they could have stayed rooted, or in their own skins as it were, and pursued their own enthusiasms/affections/productive loyalties. Very like Dostoyevsky or his epigone Jim Thompson or, hey, James Baldwin ("the moment when no one else is real to you, nor are you real to yourself"). In short, when you make that break, when you try to go “Outside of society” (pace Patti Smith), you’re more likely to end up George Hurstwood than Dean Moriarty.

Egan’s novel-length work tends (like that of her Brooklyn neighbor Whitehead) to show how that severance is historically-grounded, such that it’s at odds with those authors who misread social change as ontological horror, those who take what's interesting in Pynchon and PKD and put it into an ahistorical, asocial, Austere (that's the adjective form of "Auster," right?) context. In short fiction, not so consistently or explicitly (although the last two stories in her collection do emphasize class and history); but that allows a reader to get a clearer look at the affective side: her interest in how it feels when, having lost the anchor to the identity you'd been accustomed to, you're the one who "Melts Into Air" really comes through. And, not being a conservative at heart, Egan in her short stories sometimes defies Girard's and Dostoyevsky's grim prognoses: three of the happiest endings in her short fiction give a credible account of a girl taking a stand and saying "No" to a potentially annihilating mimetic desire. There’s a similar moment, I think, in her own account of her life, wherein she says part of her anorexia was an attempt to satisfy what she saw as her mother’s desires for her and recounts how becoming an artist allowed her to find a healthier and more independent sense of agency.

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