Friday, December 28, 2007

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2007, Pt. 11: Eileen Gunn and L. Timmel Duchamp

Here's Eileen's piece:

[photo of Eileen Gunn by Leslie Howle]

Here are some words, not really reviews, about some of the books that I enjoyed in 2007.

True North | Nord Vrai, by Jody Aliesan. Blue Begonia Press, 2006.
Jody Aliesan is a remarkable poet who can convey both exquisite happiness and bone-deep pain, sometimes in the same poem. I've been reading her work since 1980, and it has grown deeper and more complex, as one would expect. And yet even her recent work has stayed very close to the voice and the deep self of her early work. She is an activist in the feminist, anti-war, and social-justice communities, and her poetry reflects those concerns: she writes about what she feels most strongly.

True North is a memoir, a collage of texts from Aliesan's entire life, seamlessly stitched together with a direct but softspoken narrative. In it, Aliesan describes and reflects on her relationship with her mother, a narcissistic woman who was a pathological liar. I found it a truly gripping read. As always with Aliesan's work, I was shaken by its honesty and directness, and I marveled at her ability to distill her anger at the cruelty and violence she has experienced.

I expected that in True North Aliesan would, as she does with her poetry, lead me through the dark but not leave me there, but, even so, I was surprised at the peaceful clarity of the light that shone forth at the end of this book. I strongly recommend it to you, as I recommend her books of poetry.

Other books by Jody Aliesan: here

The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss. Houghton Mifflin, 2007.Do not be put off -- or seduced, for that matter -- by the syrupy cover and title of this new novel from Molly Gloss. This is not a syrupy book, it is not a romance, and it does not sentimentalize either horses or humans. It deals with the classic Faulknerian theme: the human heart in conflict with itself, as embodied in Gloss?s own particular interest, the emotional lives of strong, solitary women.

Once past the marketing misdirection, you'll find another compelling Molly Gloss novel, an emotionally complex tale of a young woman who understands horses and is learning to understand people. This is sort of a post-coming-of-age novel, taking place in the life of Martha Lessen after she has struck out from her family's ranch in eastern Oregon to find work at a distance, on her own. The work she knows is breaking horses to saddle, which the narrator says is a job sometimes performed at that time, in 1917, by itinerant women broncobusters. Martha rides into town in classic western style, a stranger on a horse looking for work. She is wearing a pair of outlandish rodeo chaps that draw a few skeptical stares, and has a copy of Black Beauty in her saddlebags. She gentles horses, as the other women do, by observing their behavior, respecting their differences, and making it worth their while to do what she says.

The narrative voice, which is close-in and personal, but not Martha, captivated me from the beginning. It first seems to be someone reminiscing about the past, but then quickly moves into novelistic exposition. We see things mostly from Martha's point of view, but occasionally we see Martha from someone else?s viewpoint and find out things that Martha doesn't know and never will, and it becomes clear that the narrator is that most delicate of beings, an omniscient voice that moves, when it wants, from one character to another. Gloss explains in the Acknowledgements section that the beginning of the book is taken almost verbatim from the reminiscences of a rancher's daughter in Cowgirls: Women of the American West, an oral history by Teresa Jordan.

The narrator's voice is just the beginning of the voices that emerge from this remarkable book. The various ranch women and men who struggled to make a living in a stark, dry land are for the most part not articulate, or even very talkative, but their deep, rich voices call out from a time when the American past was turning into the present, and the future arrived in bits and pieces.

As for the dust jacket: it is best viewed from Martha's point of view. Marketers are herd animals: they understand things differently from writers, but, with patience and understanding, most marketers can be taught to respect the writer's space. Perhaps the marketing department at Houghton Mifflin simply needs a bit of gentle correction.

Spook Country, by William Gibson. Penguin-Putnam, 2007. Gibson wrote Spook Country in 2005-2006, and he produced a richly imaginative work that felt very strange to read in 2006, which is when it is set. In 2007, however, I've seen traceurs glide swiftly over obstacles in front of Nordstrom, and I've so absorbed the idea of invisible artworks populating the landscape that I often wish I had the special glasses needed to view them. I'm not sure how much that is the result of Gibson always being one step ahead of the zeitgeist, and how much is the Heisenbergian effect of reality bending itself to Gibson's vision.

Spook Country is a benign thriller, exciting on a chapter-by-chapter basis, and yet it does not violate the reader's trust. It is chock-a-block full of Gibsonian felicities, and richly rewards the casual Google.

A View from the Chuo Line by Donald Ritchie. Printed Matter Press, 2004. I bought this slim collection in September, on my last night in Tokyo, at midnight in an all-night bookstore, and read it on the plane going home.

The stories in it are very short, very precise, often from a woman's point of view, or a child's. They are structured around the characters' small, internal epiphanies rather than plots, and, although they are set in present-day Japan and deal with present-day issues, they read like tiny slices of life from a film by Yasujirō Ozu: the essence of Fifties Japan thrust into the 21st Century. They are written from within a particular character's point of view, and they do not in any way meet the reader's eye.

They might even be called character studies rather than stories. I don?t know why I like them, but I do, as I liked Richie's peculiar memoir The Inland Sea, part travelogue, part. The voices and concerns of the characters remind me of Mai, the protagonist of Geoff Ryman's Air, which I also read this year.

L. Timmel Duchamp:

Aqueduct keeps me so busy that I often feel as though I never get to read anything but manuscripts and books I’ve been asked to review. But a look through the book in which I keep track of my reading shows that though my list of books read runs a good deal shorter than in past years, I did in fact do some reading for pleasure in 2007.

I have a special love for collections of short fiction, and for me these are a surer bet than the best magazines and most celebrated anthologies. If a writer consistently produces interesting short fiction, their work shows to greatest advantage in collections, since collections allow the reader to grasp themes and catch resonances that otherwise escape their notice. Early in 2007 I read Australian Kaaron Warren’s The Grinding House for review for NYRSF. I’d never seen Warren’s work before and was pleased to make its acquaintance. Though her prose style is superficially plain, her narratives are fresh and unusual. My review can now be found on my website. Other collections I especially enjoyed were Margo Lanagan’s Red Spikes (more unusual stories from Down Under!), Tamar Yellin’s Kafka in Bronteland, Alisdair Gray’s The Ends of Our Tethers, and Diane Williams’s Excitability.

I also love novellas, especially those that are published as standalone books (which is probably why I like to publish them). At Potlatch this year I purchased a standalone PS novella by Geoff Ryman, titled VAO, from my favorite Portland booksellers, Wrigley-Cross. This gentle, ingenious satire is set in a $100,000 a year retirement home where cyber-chicanery is standard operating procedure for residents and caretakers alike. What can I say? Ryman’s good!

My very favorite new stories of the year (besides either those to be found in the collections above or those I acquired and edited for Aqueduct) were Theodora Goss’s “Singing of Mount Abora” (in Logorrhea) and Vandana Singh’s “Hunger” (Interfictions).

I read several anthologies and enjoyed several (though not all) stories in each. Special mention goes to Lucy Sussex and Judith Raphael Buckrich’s She’s Fantastical, which is twelve years old now but was difficult for me to get hold of, and re:skin, ed. Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth, a gorgeous hardcover published by the MIT Press earlier this year that hasn’t been reviewed anywhere. It has both stories and essays (including a new story by me), and is, in short, a fitting sequel to the celebrated reload: rethinking women + cyberculture.

I enjoyed about a dozen novels immensely:

Samuel R. Delany’s literary novel Dark Reflections is poignant and elegant. (Steven Shaviro has posted an excellent review on his blog.)

Carol Emswhiller’s The Secret City offers a fresh take on the First Contact experience. (I’ve posted my review of it on my website.)

Tricia Sullivan’s paired novels, Double Vision and Sound Mind, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons, satisfied me immensely; Sound Mind is probably too long, but for the reader who likes to think, they’re great fun. (See my review at Strange Horizons.)

I’d been saving Angela Carter’s last novel, Wise Children (the only one of her novels that I hadn’t yet read at least once), and this year suddenly realized that doing so was pointless. So, after all these years, I finally, dove into it. I found it an energetic romp with an underlying sadness, a novel more akin to Nights at the Circus (which is, I think, my favorite Carter novel) than to her earlier work.

Among the year’s rereads, I had the pleasure of rereading Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed a couple of times this year (for an essay I wrote this summer); as often happens with rereads, I found it fascinating to compare my 2007 reading with my 1980 reading.

For sheer escapism I medicated myself with mysteries as needed. Of these I can two stand out in my memory: Peter Dickinson’s King and Joker (set in an alternate history) and Håken Nesser’s Borkman’s Point.

At the experimental-lit end of the spectrum, three novels particularly moved me. Michelle Tea’s The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America reminded me of Violette Leduc, probably because the narrative revels in a gritty, raw frankness about money and class and desire and insecurity. Stacey Levine’s Frances Johnson and Dra— are not so easily described. Well, Dra—, maybe, is somewhat describable, blurring realism into dream imagery and driven by dream logic in a perfectly matter-of-fact way, a female-inflected variety of Kafka on laughing gas. One of the strangest moments of reading Dra— came when I realized that the title character’s name ends with an em-dash and not an underline (as I initially took it, assuming that the character’s name began with the letters D-R-A, as obviously it does not).

Although I was a bit wary going into Elizabeth Knox’s Black Oxen because the last novel by her I’d read (Billie’s Kiss) devolves from a fabulous beginning into a mess of shifting tropes that finally obliterate the narrative with their incoherence, I ended up loving it. Black Oxen demands a good deal of trust on the reader’s part—trust that the author knows what she’s doing and that everything in the novel is there for a reason—and then richly rewards that trust. It’s a science fiction novel that is so focused on the lives of its characters and the politics of narrative that I suspect some sf fans might disdain to call it science fiction. I loved the texture of the narrative, I loved its layered density, I loved its generosity with characters whose choices and affections and even crimes can’t be neatly compartmentalized and explained away.

One novel this year filled me with absolute, inordinate glee. Rebecca Ore’s Time’s Child doesn’t compare with Outlaw School or Gaia’s Toys, but it was such fun to read that I silently burbled with mirth all the way through (when I wasn’t outright cackling). I loved Ore’s future Philadelphia and what her motley crew transported by time-machine from the past were up to there, just adored the way the guy from OUR time was helpless to thwart them. And how perfectly apt that the idea of everyone thriving and working cooperatively to create a decent place to live just drove him up the wall, reflecting the depressing pathology of 21st-century US mores and values. There are aspects of my intellectual formation that account for my glee, of course. The book’s central character, Benedetta, a 15th-century Italian woman who as a camp follower works with artillery, helps to maintain and operate a cannon. Among other things, she and her young son hang out in Leonardo da Vinci’s studio and even help him test one of his inventions. When she’s brought forward into 24th-century Philadelphia (along with other people on the verge of death whom academics who have the use of a time-machine have snatched from other places and times), she cannily sees through the lies they tell her and decides she wants to go through the physically risky process of adapting to life outside the quarantined rooms in which a variety of historical refugees are being kept. Ore, you see, refuses to kowtow to the modernist dogma that people born into modern societies are necessarily smarter and better able to adapt to The New than people born into pre-modern societies. A friend of mine who’s a medievalist scholar constantly rants and raves about the idiotic assumptions people make about individuals living in the high middle ages, as though simply being born later makes one smarter. In this novel, a man born in 21st-century Philadelphia is unable to cope with 24th-century Philadelphia because he’s so ideologically brainwashed that he can’t believe that his rigid neoliberalist view of human nature isn’t the True one and so imagines that he can effortlessly sabotage a communal social, economic, and political organization that Benedetta, hailing from the 15th century, finds familiar and sensible. Nisi Shawl and I had a grand argument over the book with the person Nisi mentions having hated the book so much he demanded his money back; without question, he hated the very qualities of the book that I loved. It occurred to me later that Benedetta’s adaptability might not have bugged him so much if Ore had brought Leonardo da Vinci forward instead of Benedetta. Everyone cuts slack for geniuses (who are always male, of course). And the book sets out to be playful rather than Realist. In any case, I daresay most feminists and many leftists would enjoy Time’s Child.

Quickly, interesting nonfiction that I read or started reading in 2007: Linda M.G. Zerilli, Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom; Naomi Klein, Shock Therapy; Jeffrey J. Williams, ed Critics at Work; Laura Kipnis, Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender, and Aesthetics. And of course I reread Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing (which I reviewed for Strange Horizons).

I’ll conclude with mentioning three films that made a deep impression on me.

Pan’s Labyrinth delivered a vivid, frighteningly visceral reminder that fascism is totalitarian—that it takes over not only the political sphere but everything else, including the imagination.

Un Poquito de Tanta Verdad, a film about the teacher’s strike in Oaxaca that inadvertently turned into a revolution, gave me much to think about. Its focus is necessarily on documenting the takeover of (and subsequent ejection from) public space by the peoples of Oaxaca, but it offers an intriguing subtext about the anarchistic, democratic agency traditional to some indigenous peoples and briefly shows a scene in which a thousand people reach consensus on a critical political decision.

And this month I saw I’m Not There, a splendid (if overly long) film about Bob Dylan which divides his character into distinct personas (one of which is played with total plausibility by Cate Blanchett). It’s a playful and evocative film, full of lots of in-jokes and resonant images. And it constantly reminded me of bits of my life during the 1960s and 1970s. The scene in which the Dylan character and his wife Claire are sitting in an outdoor café with another couple startled me, for it was absolutely typical of the arguments that would arise in such settings, where the men argued with the women about women’s inferiority. I’d forgotten, you see. I’d forgotten what it was like to be faced with the male, stone-faced conviction that women are illogical, women can’t write good poetry, women can’t compose music, women can’t write great novels, women can’t do science, women are emotional, and so on and so forth. Just that one scene encapsulated the reality of that loud, constant pressure on women to accept that they are inferior and just get over it. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many arguments like that one I participated in back then. Each time it felt as though I were struggling for my life, struggling just to breathe, while the men used their greater vocal power to interrupt and drown us out, always laughing at our silliness for even caring. Hmm. Though some of the forgotten once-familiar scenery of the movie evoked nostalgia, obviously I have no hankering to return to those days…


Therem said...

I'm really enjoying these year-end posts!

In the interest of starting up some discussion, I'd like it if you (Timmi) could explain this statement a little more:

Pan’s Labyrinth delivered a vivid, frighteningly visceral reminder that fascism is totalitarian—that it takes over not only the political sphere but everything else, including the imagination.

This conflicts with my experience of the film in a number of ways, but maybe I'm misunderstanding what you mean. Please, add more!

Re: I'm Not There, just reading your reminiscences brought tears (of frustration and identification) to my eyes. I have to see this movie!

Timmi Duchamp said...

I'm glad you're enjoying these posts, Therem. Sorry for my delay in responding-- I'm away from home, which makes everything a bit complicated.

Different people may have a different idea of what Pan's Labyrinth is doing with the fantasy dimension of its narrative. I expect that some people will see the fantasy dimension as a protest assuaging the pain of the predictable, devastating end of the story of resistance. But for me, while the fantasy at first appears to be an avenue of escape, it's gradually revealed to be oppressive at its core, ruled by the same values as the reality with which it coexists & just as arbitrary & demanding of obedience. What is different in the fantasy is the child's place & the identity of the patriarch. (I.e., in the fantasy, the partriarch is the child's father rather than her stepfather.) Fascism rests on partiarchal authority & unthinking, unquestioning obedience & triumphs as much through fantasy as through violence-- the fantasy of security & safety, the fantasy of the beauty of perfect order, & above all the fantasy of the all-powerful love of a stern father. Although the reality of fascism is bloody & ugly, the fantasy that always overlays it makes it attractive to those who can't or won't see through it.

Not a very comforting view of the movie, I suppose. Please feel free to dispute it!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting these lists. I've printed them out for leisurely highlighting and searching... looks like 2008's going to start off with some good books for me to read.