Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Seventeen: Eileen Gunn

Eileen Gunn:

Pleasures (and otherwise) of reading in 2008

These first three books were not necessarily pleasurable, except in the broader sense of being intellectually absorbing. Difficult books to read, undoubtedly painful books for the authors to write, they form a sort of randomly assembled trilogy on the Holocaust and its effects. I acquired them all separately, read them opportunistically, and until I started reviewing my year’s reading for this essay, hadn’t thought of them being particularly related. Considering them now, however, it seems not only that they are obviously related, but that I read them in a meaningful order: that of increasing complexity.

The first, Strange and Unexpected Love: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memories, is a memoir by Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, a Holocaust survivor who was just fifteen at the start of World War II. Her town, on the border between Poland and Ukraine, was invaded in 1939 by the Soviet Union and in 1941 by the Nazis, and her story, a series of harrowing incidents of escalating cruelty and betrayal, is made deeply personal by the author’s memory for dialogue and detail. The author willed herself to remember and testify to events that, although they are familiar in the context of Holocaust memoirs, are horrifying and inexplicable in what they reveal about human beings and their so-called civilization.

Threaded through her account is the story of a young Ukrainian policeman who fell in love with Fanya and risked his life over and over to help her and her family survive, even though she was not in love with him. This is not a sentimental story, and it has no feel-good finale: at the end of the war, pressured by family members, Fanya makes a realistic assessment of what her life would be like if she stayed in Ukraine, quickly marries another survivor, and flees with what remains of her family, leaving her rescuer behind in Eastern Europe as the Soviets close in.

There the book ends, with a brief coda to summarize the next fifty years. What is is, and what was is gone; what happened after the war is another story, and Mrs. Heller does not reflect on it in the book, although it is clear that she continued to be bothered by what happened, and eventually dealt with it via psychoanalysis. She and her husband worked hard, had a family, and were successful. She became a psychologist and is now a well-known philanthropist and a speaker on the Holocaust. Her book was published sixteen years ago, and Mrs. Heller is still quite active: a video of a talk on women and the Holocaust that she gave at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in April, 2008 is available at Thirteen Forum. She covers there, briefly, many of the issues in this book, and admits that, even now, she compulsively carries a piece of bread in her purse in case she is arrested.

* * *

After Long Silence, by Helen Fremont, a fictionalized family memoir by the daughter of Holocaust survivors, is a far more problematic work. Unlike Fanya Heller, who wrote her book at least partly to testify to what happened to her and her entire shtetl, Helen Fremont’s mother and aunt did not want their story told. As young women in Nazi-occupied Lvov, they devised a cover story about their origins and posed as Polish Catholics, which enabled the two sisters not only to escape Lvov, but to survive Nazi-occupied Rome. After the war, they continued in their new identities, at least partly from fear that the balance would shift once again, and it would be dangerous for their children to be Jewish. Fremont’s parents immigrated to the United States and raised their two daughters as Catholics, keeping the truth hidden from the children. This book is their daughter Helen’s story, told in a non-linear fashion that makes it appear to be her parents’ stories as well, although in fact it is not.

Like other children of Holocaust survivors, the two girls, from an early age, had to piece together their parents’ story as best they could, while the parents themselves strove to rebuild their lives in new country, distance themselves emotionally from a dreadful past, and support their family. The sisters, accustomed to silences and inconsistencies in their mother’s reminiscences, didn’t discover their Jewish heritage until they were in their thirties.

For Fremont, a lesbian who had at that point not yet come out to her parents, this additional displacement from the truth seems to have engendered a fierce desire to bring all the secrets out into the open. Her need to openly discuss what happened to her family baffled and angered her parents and her aunt and, as might be expected, they opposed her plans to write a book. Although she writes quite frankly about this conflict, Fremont, who is a lawyer, does not go into any detail about the ethical issues involved in publishing the details of someone’s life against their will; she seems to have reframed the argument, after much thought, as a conflict of loyalties: she could be loyal either to her parents or to herself; she could be an individual or a directionless component in a family that had no tolerance for individuality.

Fremont notes at the beginning of the book that she has changed the names of people and places to conceal their identity, and that she has “imagined details” of her parents lives, presumably because they didn’t want to disclose those details. This is to me the most problematic aspect of the book: the reader cannot trust the facts of the Holocaust account. This part of the book is both fact and fiction –“creative non-fiction,” as it is called -- and the reader doesn’t know which is which.

Memoir and family history provide parallax views of an event, and each has its biases and lacunae, acknowledged or not, which the reader weighs differently when assessing the book and its relation to objective “reality.” Although the author is not trying to deceive the reader, she may easily be mistaken about details, or she may have changed them for reasons of privacy.

The most affecting part of the book, where the author is in command of dialog and tone, is her own story of discovery and rebellion, and the parts of her parents’ story that are imparted in conversation with her parents or aunt, which show the power that horrific memories can wield. She shows an impressive command of the dialog and emotional tenor of conversations in which one speaker casually explodes a verbal bomb in the face of another.

I myself have written a story (as yet unpublished, because I am reluctant to send it out) based in part on my father’s account of his wartime military experience, and I can well relate to some of the problems Fremont encountered in writing this book. Whose story is it? What unsavory parental detail and private information is appropriate – what is optional and what is necessary? Should it be fiction or fact -- there are limitations to each. Is there any such thing as truth and accuracy when it comes to telling someone else’s story? Isn’t is always really your own story that you’re writing, whether it’s a family history or a memoir or a novel? Though I take issue with her solution to these problems, I respect her courage in addressing them.

* * *

Art Spiegelman’s new large-format art book, Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, forms the third in this unlikely trilogy. In part, this is a full-size reprint of Spiegelman’s first published book, Breakdowns (1978), which was a collection of some of his most memorable work from the previous six years. It included a three-page comic entitled “Maus,” a predecessor to his ground-breaking graphic novel of the same name, and the searing “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” an account of his mother’s suicide, as well as a number of other ambitious, experimental works of comic art in a diversity of styles.

Spiegelman’s remarkable graphic-art memoir, Maus and Maus II, like After Long Silence, tells both the tale of the author’s parents in the Holocaust and selective parts of the author’s relationship with those parents. Unlike in Fremont’s book, however, Spiegelman’s father told his story willingly for his son to recreate as a comic, and, although the story fades cinematically back and forth between the Holocaust and the late 1970s, it is always clear which part is the father’s testament and which part is the son’s memoir. The use of cartoon mice and cats to portray the Jews and the Nazis somehow heightens the reality, rather than ameliorating it, catching the reader unawares, with her defenses down. When I first read it, serialized in Raw magazine in the early ’80s, it seemed to me somehow pornographic in its directness. The underground comix of the ’60s and ’70s had certainly liberated funny animals from sweetness and light, but Maus plucked them from fantasy in its entirety and used them to depict a very grim reality from which most Americans have shielded themselves.

The new edition prefaces Breakdowns with a lengthy autobiographical essay in comic form that gives a whirlwind tour of the artist’s childhood, his psyche, and his artistic roots. Its allusive and episodic nature no doubt puts demands on readers unfamiliar with Spiegelman’s personal story, but the author’s informatively rueful afterword adds context to the comic. Readers who find it hard to track the graphical narrative at the beginning of the book are advised to read the end first.

Taken as a whole – autobiographical comic, Breakdowns, and final essay -- this is a dynamic documentary of the origins, synthesis, breakdown, and re-synthesis of a remarkable artist who is the child of Holocaust survivors, and who has used both his own experience and that of his parents in creating his lifework.

These three books seem to be written with an intent to tell the truth about certain matters, and Spiegelman especially focuses on telling painful truths that may not reflect well on himself. I found them all compelling reading; considering them now, they form a progression: starting with the stories of the Holocaust and the survivors’ prodigious efforts to recreate their lives, proceeding to the effect the Holocaust had on the children of its survivors, who try to tell their parents’ stories, and finishing with the survivors’ children telling their own stories. Through all of this, the telling of stories is both a way of testifying to horror and a means of gaining some control over it.

* * *

A novel I especially enjoyed this year was Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, which is both an engaging, kid-wise young-adult thriller and an excoriating critique of the current state of surveillance technology and its potential for abuse. Perhaps because it is aimed at kids and has a realistic, present-day setting, it takes a kinder view of the human potential for cruelty than, say, 1984 or any of the holocaust narratives mentioned above. Many of the grim government enforcers who pursue the protagonists seem, upon examination, to be motivated merely by a misguided authoritarian desire to protect the US: they are more like abusive parents than like the KGB. But then, even under the Bush administration, the US has not achieved Nazi or Stalinist levels of demented cruelty, at least to its own citizens.

Two exceptional short-story collections that I read this year were Leslie What’s Crazy Love, and Nisi Shawl’s Filter House. Since I provided a promotional blurb for Crazy Love and wrote the introduction to Filter House, I will not repeat myself here. Each is available on Amazon and in a few select bookstores, despite getting enthusiastic critical attention. This is the reality of short-story publishing.


Finally, I would like to call attention to Farah Mendlesohn Rhetorics of Fantasy, a work that calls to mind Susan Wood’s distinction between academic writing and scholarly writing. Mendlesohn’s scholarly book is rich in its thinking and juicy with ideas. She is interested here in examining how fantasy plots are constructed, so as to provide tools for further thought on the matter. I have not read the whole book, and I probably will not read it end-to-end, forming a clear picture of the author’s intent and argument. But I will continue to dip into it at random, for its wonderful effect of having a series of thoughtful conversations with Mendlesohn about whatever is on her mind at the moment.

In writing fiction, I avoid overly rigorous planning. I am, however, always looking for ways to think about what I am revising – work that I have written but not published, work that is still becoming whatever it will be. I am not a believer in rules and categories – if I see a rule, I want to break it; if I am put in a category I want to claw my way out – but I believe in tools and techniques, and I believe in thinking about what I have done while it is still malleable. Most academic work does not provide me with the means to do this, but I think, after dipping into it and finding intriguing observations on every page, that Mendlesohn’s book could prove very useful in opening my mind to possibility without making me claustrophobic. I am not saying that it will do this for you, or that it will always do this for me, but do recommend to other writers that they get their hands on it and dig in.

* * *

Books discussed:

Strange and Unexpected Love: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memories by Fanya Gottesfeld Heller. (KTAV Publishing House, Hoboken, 1993) [republished as Love in a World of Sorrow by Fanya Gottesfeld Heller. (Devora Publishing, Jerusalem, 2003)]

After Long Silence by Helen Fremont. (Delta, New York, 1999)

Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! , by Art Spiegelman. (Pantheon, New York, 2008)

Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. (Tor Teen, New York, 2008)

Crazy Love, by Leslie What. (Wordcraft of Oregon, LLC, La Grande, 2008)

Filter House, by Nisi Shawl. (Aqueduct Press, Seattle, 2008)

Rhetorics of Fantasy, by Farah Mendlesohn. (Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 2008)

Eileen is the author of the collection Stable Strategies and Others (2004) and the co-editor of The WisCon Chronicles, Volume Two, which Aqueduct published in 2008. She is the editor/publisher of the Infinite Matrix and in the dead of night can hear it stomping around in the attic. She has been a member of the board of directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop for the past twenty years, and she thinks it’s time for someone else to step up to the plate.

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Sixteen: Jeanne Gomoll

Jeanne Gomoll:

Early in 2008, I read Alastair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice and Tim Powers' Three Days to Never for a book discussion group. We liked both books. I enjoyed the portrayal of a futuristic, space-going labor union’s camaraderie in Pushing Ice, and the time travel aspects of Three Days to Never. I’m a sucker for time travel stories, especially ones that deal intelligently with paradox, which Powers does in Three Days. The repercussions of time traveling characters’ future actions finally explain the bizarre happenings early in the novel. People owe their characters to their future self’s choices. Loved it.

Dan Simmons’ The Terror held me completely engrossed, though it did make a very cold Wisconsin winter even colder. The Terror might be more comfortably read in the summer or at a warmer latitude than Wisconsin. The Terror is mostly a historical novel about a lost British exploratory expedition in the mid-1800s whose mission was to discover the Northwest Passage. The sailors endure extreme cold, clothes that are never dry or warm, food that rots due to poorly sealed tins and food poisoned by lead used as solder for those tins, work loads that might have killed healthy men, and, of course, darkness. Simmons includes a monster in his story (which is the only thing that qualifies the book as a sort of kind of fantasy), but the actual horrors for two ships’ crews attempting to survive on the Arctic ice for several years provide more than enough terror. After reading it I searched out a non-fiction depiction of life above the Arctic Circle and discovered the excellent Kabloona — a journal written by a Frenchman (Gontran de Poncins) who lived for a year with the Inuit only a few decades after the period of time described in Simmons’ horror novel.

My partner Scott’s favorite writer is Iain M. Banks, and when I picked up a Banks book for the first time — Consider Phlebas — Scott suggested that we read it aloud. This turned out to be so much fun that we shortly afterward read Look to Windward, which is a sequel of sort to Phlebas. Later in the year we read aloud Banks’ Use of Weapons and The Player of Games too. I’m now firmly hooked on the read-aloud version of Banks’ Culture novels. I love the way he discusses utopia always from the outside, and usually from the point of view of someone who has left it / disdains it / fights against it, but who nonetheless shows by their actions that they actually endorse the same utopian ideas. Oh, and his books are funny too. That counts for a lot.

Sarah Hall won the 2007 Tiptree award for her novel, The Carhullan Army, and I read it before WisCon in hopes of meeting Hall at the Tiptree ceremony. Those hopes were dashed, of course, because Hall was unable to attend WisCon. But I’m still hoping to ask her someday about the very different way Brit feminism (as opposed to American feminism) informs her story. Hall makes a strikingly different statement than Joanna Russ or Suzy McKee Charnas made with similar raw (plot) materials in the American 70s. In Hall’s book, there’s a revolutionary group of separatist women living in the wilderness, but there is never a suggestion that they blame men for the disasters that have befallen humanity. In Hall’s world, Big Brother enforces birth control, whereas the evil method of control in U.S. feminist fiction has traditionally been the opposite: birth control withheld. Rather than an attack on feminism, Hall’s novel is a meditation on violence and gender. An excellent choice for the Tiptree Award, I think.

I spent a large part of the summer in 2008 recovering from surgery on my right hip. My left hip had been replaced several years ago, and so I knew what to expect: a marked decrease in my ability to concentrate. So I stored up some light reading that would be easy to get through in spite of medicinal interference. I figured it was the perfect time to catch up on some YA reading. My niece Rachel loves to read and had been begging her mom to let her read Stephanie Meyer’s series (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn); I decided to check out the books. If I liked them, I’d give them to Rachel for Christmas. As it turned out, I was intrigued by Meyer’s creative take on Vampire-Werewolf relations but, I have to tell you, the drugs weren’t nearly good enough to make reading this series a pleasant experience. Besides being a much-too-prolonged groan of repressed sexual tension, Meyer’s heroine is a throwback to the kind of female character I thought we’d advanced beyond … sometime in the late 1950s. The heroine, Bella, responds to every problem with the same solution: self-sacrifice. She sacrifices herself over and over and over and over again whenever she perceives her boyfriend, her father, her mother, her friends or her boyfriend’s family to be in trouble. She doesn’t even have to know exactly what kind of trouble they are in; she assumes she’s to blame and figures the best way to save them is to place herself in mortal danger in their place. Of course that means that her boyfriend, family, etc. end up having to rescue her over and over and over and over again. Bella is not my idea of a role model so I really don’t want to encourage my niece to read these books. Nevertheless, I suppose Rachel will eventually read them. But I’m hoping I have enough cool-aunt cred to suggest an alternate interpretation in contrast to the one she’ll be hearing from her friends (e.g., Ooooh, how romantic!).

Happily, the other YA books that I stocked up for post-operative pain-med-haze reading were far superior to Meyer: Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras. Now there’s a great young-girl role model! I loved Westerfeld’s books, loved the excellent hard SF ideas, and loved his heroine, Tally, who found the strength in herself to change first her own life, than the lives of those closest to her, and then her whole society. But my sister Julie won the game of rock, scissors, paper, and she got to give Rachel Westerfeld’s series for Christmas.

Our niece got some good books this year. Besides Westerfeld’s Uglies series from Julie, she got the next three YA books I read when I wasn’t exercising my new hip: Pat Murphy’s The Wild Girls, and Ellen Klages' historical/science books, The Green Glass Sea and White Sands, Red Menace, all signed by the authors. The girls in all these books do things: they write, they make art, they do science experiments, they learn to understand themselves from within and resist letting others define them from the outside. They make life-long female friends. Completely the opposite of Bella.

I did eventually get back to reading fiction for adults. Ellen Kages’ anthology of short stories, Portable Childhoods, isn’t really for children, portable or permanent. And as it turned out most of the stories were familiar because I’d heard Ellen read them aloud at conventions. But it was fun reading them (with Ellen’s voice always in my ears) and thinking about how strangely sweet Ellen’s stories are. Not the first word I would use to describe Ellen herself. Ellen will be honored as one of the guests of honor at the 2009 WisCon (with Geoff Ryman), and I’m looking forward to new stories from her.

The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight by Martha Ackmann is an amazing story. I had been vaguely aware of the history of the aborted women’s astronaut program, but was glad to read this book and know the whole infuriating story of how this group of women put their lives on the line to reach for their dreams and then were sabotaged by the Johnson administration, Congress, and by one of their own, a famous woman aviator who was too old to qualify for the program. This is one of those stories (“How to Suppress Women…”) that should not be forgotten, but sadly, that is exactly what almost happened. I’m glad Ackmann wrote this book.

Most mystery and western fiction fails to interest me. I am quite aware that I sound uncomfortably like those unenlightened folks who dismiss the entire genre of science fiction and then make an exception for a certain author, acting as if the exception merely proves the rule. Because I do like Nicola Griffith’s mysteries and I do like Molly Gloss’s westerns. But I AM willing to acknowledge that I am probably missing lots of good stuff. Molly Gloss’ The Hearts of Horses came out and I remembered how much I loved reading The Jump-Off Creek, so I began reading Hearts on the way home from the bookstore. I don’t know how likely it is that in 1917 a strong, independent, and shy horse-whisperer like Martha would fall in love with someone willing to contract such an unorthodox and enlightened marriage agreement, but I cheered her on and suspended my disbelief. Maybe it’s the science fictional attitude of this writer of westerns that attracts me.

Wit’s End, by Karen Joy Fowler, made for a lovely weekend read. It features a mystery writer whose characters start invading her real life with a little help from her fans. I’ve got the feeling that I missed quite a few references to well-known mystery fiction because of that previously mentioned prejudice against certain genres. Having read each of Jane Austen’s novels several times made Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club a more familiar experience for me. But I will brave any genre to experience Fowler’s brilliant wit. We may not have any more Austen novels to read, but happily, we have Karen Joy Fowler and I hope, many more books by her.

My sister Julie gave me a copy of Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man, a non-fiction journal of Norah’s year as Ned. Written at the start like an undercover exposé of the male world, Norah/Ned was able to convincingly disguise herself as a man and insinuate herself into a series of masculine subcultures: a blue-collar bowling league, patrons of strip joints, the dating scene, a sales scam company, and a male bonding group. The technical aspects of her disguise impressed me, especially how she faked a 5 o’clock shadow and adopted male speech patterns. I was less impressed by her conclusions, which generally seemed to boil down to: we’re all people; guys aren’t as alien as she thought.

In my opinion, Thirteen by Richard K. Morgan had far more interesting insights about gender than Vincent’s book even though gender is not its focus. Morgan refers several times to Susan Faludi’s book Stiffed in the course of this novel about a genetic superman who has no more place in this (slightly futuristic) world than does the macho dock workers that Faludi described in her book. Thirteen is fast-moving and packed with amusing and intriguing references to the political landscape and virtual/nano technology of its world, so it was great fun to read. I may also have enjoyed it because I read it soon after having seen the movie The Dark Knight, and so was already primed to look for themes of super-heroism-as-a-curse.

There were other books in 2008 for me, but these were the highlights.

Jeanne is a graphic designer who has been twice nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Fan Artist. Probably her most famous design is the Space Babe icon, known and loved by all WisCon habitues. But probably her greatest claim to fame is her oft-cited manifesto, "An Open Letter to Joanna Russ." Oh, and back in the early days of feminist sf, she was joint editor, with Janice Bogstad, of Janus, a feminist science fiction fanzine.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Fifteen: Lucy Sussex

Lucy Sussex:

2008 as an Antipodean arts consumer? A bit of a blur. I tend not to buy music myself, as these days it comes through the door courtesy of the resident record collector. And most of the films are forgotten, with the exception of the totally unrecommended Towelhead (I walked out around the time of the second sexual assault) and Australia, which I just saw. Hmn. Firstly it is an exercise in genres—comedy turns into western turns into war story with the bombing of Darwin, then race relations melodrama. Secondly, the Australian Tourist Commission must have been leaning heavily on the producers, hoping for the hobbit goldmine New Zealand gained from the Lord of the Rings. Thirdly, it’s only a story, and the historical accuracy is never allowed to get in the way of filmic conventions. Fourthly, it’s made for the overseas markets. Fifthly, Nicole is not as bad as she’s painted. If you want better films about Australian indigenes, try The Rabbit-Proof Fence, or Ten Canoes.

As regards books, here followeth an assortment, stuff I liked, which should be readily available via your friendly internet terminal.

Best anthology

James Doig, ed.

The Gothic was the predominant literary form as Australia was settled, and it took to the new land with an eldritch vengeance. Doig is an archivist, and his selection is full of pleasures. Possibly the most striking story is Marcus Clarke’s “Cannabis Indica,” a nightmare reverie that despite the name was written under the influence of opium. Elsewhere Fergus Hume, best known for the pioneering crime bestseller The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), shows a deft hand at the comic with a Banshee in the now touristy Queenstown, NZ. Vampires, ghosts and werewolves all figure, but the predominant motif is the hidden guilt behind colonization, the fear of the indigenous supernatural. Enjoy! Available from

Best biographical writing

J. G. Ballard
Fourth Estate

In the 1960s, the major writer of Britain’s New Wave was a single father living in suburbia. J. G. Ballard’s wife had died suddenly, leaving him with three young children to raise. So he penned his poetic, dark visions of the future after (a) getting the kids to school in the morning (b) a Scotch. His children, not his works, are the miracles of his title. Another miracle was Ballard as a child surviving internment by the Japanese, which gave rise to Empire of the Sun, his most famous book. The first part of this autobiography revisits that time, formative for Ballard the acute, dispassionate observer. His fiction and his memoir are both marked by coolness of tone; he is not a cold man, just an odd one. On the whole he does not like other authors and he observes himself and his writing with neither pity nor egomania. Typical is his observation that his friend Kingsley Amis was an acute fiction judge, who nonetheless “disliked a good part of my later writing.” At the end of the book Ballard notes that he is dying of cancer. Even then he avoids self-pity, being gracious, almost cheerful about his impending dissolution.

Jill Roe
4th Estate

Some may know Miles Franklin from the Australian classic film of My Brilliant Career, based on her New Woman debut novel. Her life was like—and unlike—the novel. In the Australian bush, where she was born, women were mothers, wives, and helpmeets. To wish for anything else was eccentric and unnatural; to actually achieve it nigh impossible. My Brilliant Career made her name as a young woman author, but the Australian literary market was small. Earning a living from writing meant living overseas, tragic for a writer whose attachment to home was total. She worked for American women’s organizations, struggled with a follow-up novel, and avoided an easy and risky surrender to marriage. From our perspective her life was unimaginably hard, but her courage blazed like a bushfire. She worked as a nurse in WW1, returned to Australia, and found new writing life via a male pseudonym. Jill Roe’s biography has been some twenty-five years in the making, and is worth the wait. It presents a full and engrossing account of a talented and exquisitely contradictory personality: a gifted writer, of letters and novels; a delightful personality; a Nationalist; and perhaps most significantly, an independent woman

Best essays

Michael Chabon

“Chabon,” said the reader, “is a writer who can do whatever he likes.” Including violating a border as tightly policed as any Chinese Olympiad, that between literary and genre fiction. This collection of essays begins with a quotation from Herman Melville, on fan fiction. Really? Read it and see. Maps and Legends reads like a breath of fresh air, being intelligent and audacious. At its (big) heart is Chabon’s sheer enjoyment of literature, and the writing of it. He deplores the contemporary novel as an exercise in disenfranchising the reader, where arty words and dull characters are expected to carry the plot. Why should storytelling be banished to genre? he asks. This book ranges from Sherlock Holmes to Walter Benjamin to McCarthy’s The Road, which Chabon fruitfully reads as horror. It also contains some of the best autobiographical essays on the writing process that I have ever read.

Best non-fiction

Sudhir Venkatesh
Allen Lane

Sociology has been responsible for some of the driest texts in known space. This book is an exception, as sociologist Venkatesh has the acute eye of an investigative journalist. As an Indian immigrant and complete outsider he could venture into the toughest parts of Black Chicago and survive. It helped to be a “Brown” man, something which intrigued crack gang leader JT. He protected Venkatesh, who thus gained entrée into a hidden world. His subjects, people largely abandoned by US society, lived in a black economy, a mixture of violence, street-smarts, and co-operation. Gangs did favors for preachers and youth workers and expected favors in return. Venkatesh documents a milieu that was dangerous, rough, but bound together by community spirit.

Best crime fiction

Graham Hurley

Among the very best crime writers is Graham Hurley. His milieu is Portsmouth, but his broader concern is modern England. Hurley has two sleuths, Faraday, detective inspector and bird-watcher, and DC Winter, a rough and unorthodox cop. Within a short space of time a property developer dies in an apparent gangland execution, and a government minister is assassinated by terrorists. The two cases show an almost forensic efficiency, but does that alone mean a link? Hurley’s major target is the devastation wrought by Thatcherism, which ten years of Labour government has failed to fix. When those in power worship market forces and hate community, it is hardly surprising that their enforcers—the police—suffer. Consequently burnt out and bitter, they are prey to the temptations of the dark side. Powerful stuff.

Phillip Gwynne

A key feature in crime fiction since the Mysteries (of London, of Paris, even of Melbourne) genre is the importance of place. Gwynne, who made his mark initially as a writer for younger readers, innovates now in his Darwin setting. Here be fringe-dwellers, the disaffected, and a milieu strongly tinged with the Asian. The title refers to the period prior to the Monsoon rains, a time of climatic and social tension. Detective Dusty, a maverick female cop, finds it a busy time for crime as well. A body appears, then disappears from a billabong. The possible culprits include a serial killer or an activist group of Vietnam veterans. So a chase begins, amongst a rich cast of characters, including bird-watchers, and a pot-bellied pig. The humor is quick, but rarely judgmental. The Build-Up is a first crime novel which heralds the start of a fine police procedural series. Sample prose: ‘The Chick Cop/Bloke Cop routine was based on a very simple psychological premise—men don’t like women telling them what to do. Once again it’d worked a treat.”

Science fiction

Charles Stross

Charles Stross can write the hard technology, but also has a winning sense of humor. Halting State is a techno-crime story, using a device much favored by William Gibson—alternate narrators who will eventually converge. Small wonder Gibson was asked for a blurb, for once accurate: extremely smart fun. Sue is a Scottish uniformed cop; Jack a computer programmer; and Elaine an auditor with a fondness for role-playing games. They all investigate a very strange robbery: in a virtual world, a bank heist is performed by orcs and a fire-breathing dragon. While Halting State uses the thriller format, its object entertainment, the book also speculates and educates. In an era where so much is reliant upon computer networks, Stross asks what happens when spycraft spills into the virtual world. Will warfare follow? The book contains much serious thought about the future of network security, gift-wrapped in a package including murder and sword-fights.

Best Travel

Rachael Weiss
Allen & Unwin

I admit I approached this book with faint groans: the sub-genre of Bridget Jones travel books can be cringe-making. What makes Weiss’s work different is its total honesty and that a search for family history/identity underlies it. When she found herself forty, with a sense of carpe diem, it was her Czech background she seized. She had already published one travel book, and now she thought she might, in Prague, write a novel. She didn’t, but this book resulted. It details an alien life, of a country used to invasion, with a distinctive pragmatic black humor. Buildings vary between picture postcard and Soviet shoddy, and the typical response to a stranger is rudeness. Weiss went through stages of loneliness, hanging out with expats, and family reunions without a language in common. When her money ran out, she left—and found herself missing Prague. The book is warm, and wittily observed: Weiss didn’t find a great love, except of motherland.

Ian Klaus
Hodder & Stoughton

For an American to teach English and his country’s history in Iraq seems now foolhardy. But Klaus was young and in Kurdistan, where Gulf War II was less problematic. At Salahaddin University he would teach people whose lives were blighted by Saddam Hussein’s regime. They in turn would teach him. Klaus was a Rhodes Scholar, idealistic, and insular in a very American way. He taught Martin Luther King, Lincoln, the good and the bad about his country. His students, diverse and smart, ranged from Islamists to entrepreneurs. They quizzed him about US motives, and thus a dialogue opened up—about the complexities of history, and where cultures meet. While Klaus’s students might disagree with him passionately, it was always with respect. He made friends and created links.

Best History

Giles Milton

The city of Smyrna (now Turkish Izmir) was a cool place in the early 1900s. The coffee and food were good, and a multicultural mix of Turks, Jews, Armenians and Greeks co-existed without rancour. Its geography, between West and East, would ultimately doom it—and the ending was savage. Milton paints a broad canvas here, with characters as diverse as a wily and tolerant Turkish governor, wealthy English expatriates, and a mild-mannered American YMCA worker, Asa Jennings. He needs the epic mode, for a clash of empires is depicted here. WWI saw the end of the Ottoman empire, and the hope of a resurgent Greek one, the Megali idea. The Greek army invaded, with dreams of an Anatolian province, but were defeated by Ataturk. His army burnt the city, trapping refugees between an inferno and European ships—who were neutral and would not intervene. Jennings did, and saved hundreds of thousands. An extraordinary if grim read.

Best Science

Jim Endersby

This book is cultural history applied to science. The theme is the development of biology and how we came to understand the complex system of animals and plants around us. Endersby takes apparently insignificant organisms, from weeds to the titular cavy, and explains how they have enriched our knowledge. His focus is not on divine inspiration, but hard teamwork. As he writes, “the ideas of science come second, in every sense, to the work of science.” It is a collaborative, sharing enterprise, and few have worked harder for it than the experimental plants and laboratory animals. The guinea pig has contributed to no less than 23 Nobel prizes, which should earn the species a gong of its own. Small things, Endersby shows, have big consequences: the repeal of the English tax on glass led to Charles Darwin’s greenhouse and the plant observations in the Origins of Species. He is clear-eyed, but not wide-eyed about science, recognizing the ethical problems of vivisection and OncoMouse. A fascinating read.

Best Music

Time Out
Ebury Press

Music is the soundtrack to many lives, but finding the good stuff among the dueling guitars can be difficult. Hence this book, in which 30 extremely well-informed essayists and guest artistes like Bjork discuss some 1500 songs. Also scattered through the pages are rewinds, extracts from Time Out’s formidable archive of interviews. Not all of the content is from the rock canon. An essay titled “Better the Devil” concerns Opera baritones, who get some of the best roles and songs; we also get a section on jazz improvisation. Some juxtapositions are cheeky, with the “Countdown to Ecstacy” section dealing with Disco, Drugs and Gospel, the connection being altered states of mind and body. Some content is predictable, as with the top ten of drinking songs. And some is provocative, as when Colin Irwin argues that Death Metal and Hip Hop are pussycats compared with the moral depravity in folk song lyrics.

Best Novel (Mainstream)

Mavis Cheek

Amenable Women is a slyboots of a novel. The cover suggests yet another Tudor historical, but between the pages is a story of parallel lives. Flora is the plain widow of a dashing egomaniac; Anne, properly Anna of Cleves, was the famously “plain” fourth wife of psychopathic King Henry VIII. Alone of all his wives she escaped a dire end, with a generous divorce settlement and the respect of her royal stepchildren. Clearly she had brains. That Flora’s husband, in an unfinished local history, dismissed Anna as much as he did his wife is the impetus for this story. In a decorous revenge, Flora sets out to finish the history and rehabilitate Anna. Her hope is to rehabilitate herself, though her obstacles are less formidable. The book toys with magical realism, as when Flora interrogates Anna’s glorious Holbein portrait, perhaps not with complete success. The real gems of this novel are the wry observations, which can make you smile several times a page. And the sense of character, as people maneuver and manipulate so vividly they almost step off the page. At the end Flora is her own mistress, her house and income to herself, as was the case with Anna of Cleves.

Best Religion

Michael Bachelard

“You can always tell a cult from a religion,” says Karen Joy Fowler. “A cult is just a set of rules that lets certain men get laid.” Such is the case in the first chapter of this book—and the resultant sex scandal is still vehemently denied by the Exclusive Brethren. There is much denial detailed here, which is one of the most sober and well-argued exposés I have ever read. For most, the Brethren were an inoffensive religious group, notable only for the women’s headscarves. That attitude changed with the revelation of their political meddling, particularly rich for a sect that does not vote. Perhaps the nadir was their hiring of a private detective in New Zealand, to smear Prime Minister Helen Clark’s husband as gay. However, this book details less sordid but equally nefarious practices. Perhaps worst is the Brethren’s technique of social control, in which members are policed with the threat of exclusion. Such practice has caused custody havoc, as an excluded member’s family will be torn apart. Bachelard reveals the Brethren’s God as Mammon, their behavior as that of schoolyard bullies, and their Christianity all about self-love.

Best fashion

Nina Garcia
Collins Living

Fashion writing has always been prescriptive, since its buying power lies in making women feel insecure. Project Runway judge Garcia’s approach is less bossy than, say, Trinny and Susannah. In this book, as in her earlier The Little Black Book of Style, the emphasis is on finding the look that suits you, rather than the red-hot fashionable. Here she considers classic items, wardrobe essentials. Some of these are predictable, such as the trench coat, and some hardly dress at all, such as champagne and iPod. The little black dress appears, but also the little white dress. The illustrations by Ruben Toledo are fun, and as Garcia says, you should always self-edit.

Best True Crime

Lisa Clifford

Writer Lisa Clifford married into an Italian family and fell in love with her in-laws’ stories. One of the most dramatic was a murder mystery. In 1907 her husband’s great grandfather was murdered in the mountains of Tuscany. The police were never involved, and nobody was ever brought to justice. Why? Wondered Clifford, as Tuscany is not a Mafia area. She investigated the cold case, unearthing the story behind the crime. What emerges reads like more of a social realist novel, as she details the stories of those involved. The victim, Artemio, was a peasant farmer, working as a sharecropper on another’s land. From dawn to dusk he and his family labored, with even the small children working, guarding livestock. With so little to share, envies arose and could turn murderous. Clifford describes a life far removed from today’s Tuscany and its holiday villas. Here is Italian peasant cookery, as it is not in glossy cookbooks: dictated by the seasons, and with the specter of starvation always present. And she solves the murder, too.

Best Post-colonial and Women’s History

Clifton Crais & Pamela Scully

This biography faced a formidable job of research, in resurrecting a highly influential but forgotten colonized woman. Sara Baartman was born on the South African frontier and lived from the 1770s–1815. She was a Khoekhoe (then known as Hottentot), who found Eureopean fame in an ethnographic freak show. Because she was steatopygous, she was displayed in “traditional” garb, near-naked in Northern hemisphere cold. As the “Hottentot Venus,” she attracted discourses of race, gender, and sexuality, most of it using her difference as evidence of inferiority. Anti-slavery activists tried to make an issue of her, but her exoticism was too powerful a commodity. As was the agenda of scientists who wanted her as a link between human and animal. When she died, from the cold, her body continued to be exhibited—it would only return to South Africa for burial in 2002. Faced with such a complex but unknowable subject, the authors refrain from putting words into Sara’s mouth. Rather they reconstruct her life and times, placing her in context. Sara bore at least three babies, all of whom died, she worked as a servant, was fluent in Dutch, and adapted to changing circumstances with courage and dignity. A remarkable story.

Best Cookbook (for non-vegetarians)

Adrian Richardson with Lucy Malouf
Hardie Grant

For chef Richardson, being a carnivore is perfectly natural, provided you respect the animal that died for your dinner. His first cookbook aims to teach the reader about quality meat meals. So I sent out an SOS to the Barbeque Blokes, connoisseurs of blackened meat and good grog. A couple of serious girl cooks came too. The terrine was pronounced tasty, though the recipe got nitpicked: “What size onion?” “Does smoky bacon mean streaky?” and “How do you get the b--- terrine out of the mould?” The barbecued kangaroo was found to be divine, and the pork ribs were good, even though one step was accidentally missed. The salad and beetroot jam recipes were fine too. Direct quote from a happy attendee: “It’s good enough I’d like it for Christmas!”

Lucy writes science fiction and young adult fiction; she's also a scholar of Australian literary history. (She knows a lot about 19th-century Australian pulp mysteries and the women and men who wrote them.) She's edited four anthologies (including She's Fantastical, which was nominated for the World Fantasy Award) and is the author of Scarlet Rider, a novel that combines crime, Victoriana, and the fantastic. Aqueduct published her collection, Absolute Uncertainty in 2006.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Fourteen: Liz Henry

Hello! I'd like to offer a grab bag of music, games, books, movies, and other great stuff that I came across this year.

me with stickers


Here are a couple of albums that the artists have made available for free download.

Jane Jensen - Comic Book Whore : Link to download Comic Book Whore (there are annoying ads; just click through them) Lush, layered, loud, obnoxious.

Gangstagrass - Gangstagrass album. Hip hop bluegrass. A nice clean site to download from!

And here's The Large Hadron Rap, by Katherine McAlpine.


Galcon. This is a fun, fast-moving iPhone game. I played Galcon Lite for free one night. In the morning I bought the full game for 5 bucks for the iPod Touch. It is sort of "space Risk" and has the feel of old play-by-email games. You start out with a planet with 100 population. Using the touch screen, you drag ships from your planet to colonize neutral planets or conquer the planets of your enemies. It's a good game against the AI, with many increasing levels of difficulty. Playing the networked game, with whatever other players are on the server, or locally with friends, is fiercely addictive. Scary eat-your-life addictive. Call me Admiral!

Trap! is a free game for the G1 Android. It starts with 5 balls bouncing around; you control the drawing of lines which trap them into small spaces. Once you master the physical skill of this game you can try to max out the various bonuses and multipliers. This simple game has kept me engaged for a couple of months.

Carcassonne - This game isn't new, but it continues to be great. I prefer the Hunter-Gatherers version to the original, but I haven't played the more recent variants.

Hey! That's My Fish! A silly board game of penguins greedily eating all the fish while icebegs melt underneath them. Good for kids maybe 5 and up. Not boring for grownups (this is so crucial !)

Zar - A fast paced, simple card game good for 2-9 players. Not boring, but still suitable for tiny children and drunk people as well as people with brains. When a game is enjoyable by tiny children, drunks, and brainiacs all at the same time, someone's doing something right. (Zar, Fluxx, and Ice Towers are all good for that mix!) Dragons, peacocks, wasps, frogs, moons, stars, and galaxies give the game a really nice fantasy/sf flavor. Here's the site:

Movies and TV

The Wire. This is the best TV show I've ever seen. It's stunning. I watched the DVDs of the first four seasons this year. It builds an incredibly complicated story with characters who have great depth. Its presentation of differing social classes and of race is just great. I will say I noted that it focuses very much on men and masculinity, and men's relationships with each other. While there are strong and interesting female characters who give the feeling of having dimensions to their lives, they are not the focus.

Dhoom 2. This is a Bollywood action movie. It has James Bond-ish action scenes, goofy and rather annoying romance, and musical numbers that manage to combine the two. I am especially appreciative of the following dance number, which expresses the spirit of the movie fairly well:


Legend of the Shadowless Sword (Muyong geom)

This is a movie made in South Korea, a fun historical drama with romantic and comedic elements. It had a ton of great action scenes -- non stop combat, very well choreographed. There are several good female characters. It is notable when a woman heads up a band of, well, they were either bandits or warrior monks or all of that, anyway a band, but when a woman heads up a band of warrior monks and isn't the only woman in the band, that's rare and cool. I can't say more about the main female character without spoilers, but she was great -- tough, kick ass, dedicated, able to stare anyone down like Michelle Yeoh, a good actress, and great with her sword. The political and historical details are quite interesting. Here's the Wikipedia description for Muyong geom, which has lengthy spoilers and some background. Here's the trailer!

Cycler - A book about being an awkward teenager -- one who switches gender for a few days each month. The gender switch is a medical condition, not something that happens because of magic. I read a lot of kids' and YA fiction. This fit the teen-angst tropes perfectly, but with mind-blowing gender related twists.

Victory of Eagles Fifth in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, and my favorite so far. Novik continues to explore ideas of slavery, rights, personal loyalty, politics, war, and gender.

Blood in the Fruit & Stretto. I can't do them justice here! They need a long review. But I was very, very happy to get the last two volumes to the Marq'ssan Series this year. It's very intense. I am still thinking over the politics and of the stories it tells of the relationships and the politics of women.

Fun Home - Alison Bechdel. Fantastic!

I Am A Cat - Soseki Natsume. A 1905 novel, or trilogy, told from the point of view of a cat.

Genesis: An Epic Poem - about the terraforming and colonization of Mars.

Amelia Earhart - Maureen Owen. This is an out of print poem cycle. I love it deeply! Here are a few excerpts from AE, and a sample for you here:
At breakfast the question    of nuclear weapons in space

Now the voices were faded they sang to her Her own
name in bits Underneath 2556 miles of water whistled
shore tunes it's soft clapping a comfort & a horror
The plane is the point at which the fog & the sea would meet.
A koan is a puzzle that cannot be answered in ordinary ways.
All my
Electrons Lord! all my protons neutrons leptons
mesons haryons all my Gravitons! "this will be
the secret of my disappearance A massless particle
is a particle of zero rest mass all of its energy is energy

of motion"


The Computer History Museum I visited the Computer History Museum in Mountainview. The old computers are so beautiful! And I got to see a demonstration of a working Difference Engine. I took photos of many of the exhibit signs in the huge "warehouse of really old computers" room, went home, and looked up all the computers in online archives and Wikipedia for a lovely, geeky evening.

Discussion in comments of Always Coming Home
One of the best blog discussions I had this year was over on Feminist SF: The Blog! as many people weighed in at length in response to my post on Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home. Frowner and Yonmei's discussion was great. I noticed that several people I talked with who grew up outside the U.S. did not know at all that the Kesh or the other people in Always Coming Home were based on or used elements of various Native American cultures.

Yuletide just blows me away. I recommend that you start with their elegant, useful quicksearch page and scan over the listed fandoms. I'm slowly working my way down the alphabet and taking notes for a big review post with links to my favorite Yuletide fic. I will be evil, though, and throw you all a link to an extremely silly NC-17 Galaxy Quest story, By Grabthar's Hammer. And just one more... Laura Ingalls starring in this very nicely done story, LIttle Settlement on the Moon. I would not only read that entire novel, I'd devour the whole series. There is a missed opportunity here!

- Liz Henry

The Marq'ssan Cycle and Jane Mayer's The Dark Side

I've just finished reading Jane Mayer's The Dark Side, which chronicles the torture and other excesses of Bush's so called war on terror. And once again, I am overwhelmed by how well Timmi Duchamp nailed such horrendous actions and the people who committed them in the Marq'ssan Cycle.

My reaction to the book -- which I've documented in cross posts on In This Moment and Open Salon -- is that we need to prosecute all the people responsible for these actions.

I don't advocate this for partisan political reasons, but for a more basic reason, one Timmi also gets at in her series: We need to uncover the truth, and look at it carefully, so that in the future we won't commit -- or allow -- excesses like these.

In Tsunami, Martha Greenglass, dealing with a scandal within the Free Zone, says,
One of the things the Marq'ssan have made me see is that until humans begin to scrutinize their mistakes and learn from and remember them, nothing will significantly change.
Many of us here today would like to "settle" this matter and lay it to rest. Which is to say we want to satisfy our consciences or desires -- depending on which "side" of the issue we are positioned -- and then go on as though nothing had happened.
And that's the key point, to uncover the facts about the horrors committed in our name, figure out how we allowed them to happen, and learn how to do things differently. We need to know the truth.

Right now, criminal prosecution is our best tool to uncover the truth, though Congressional investigations could also be useful. But these can't be witchhunts, or efforts to cover up the matter with a few show trials that make these actions look like aberrations. We must understand what happened, and why so many let it happen, or it will come back to haunt us again and again.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Thirteen: Eleanor Arnason

Eleanor Arnason:


When the journalist Alexander Cockburn was a teenager his father Claude said to him, “Whenever you are troubled, read a little Marx. It will put things in perspective.”

I found this anecdote a few years back in a column by the younger Cockburn in his magazine CounterPunch. It has stayed with me, partly because it leads to the wonderful image of the young Alex dealing with the ups and downs of adolescence by reaching for The German Ideology or Capital. But it also sounded like good advice.

Watching the ongoing collapse of the international financial system, I feel a little troubled, and have begun to read Capital. I am 191 pages into the first volume. This is not going to be a complete review.

Marx was trained as a philosopher and became an economist in a period when economists taught themselves through study of the existing world and by reading earlier writers who were puzzled by the kind of society coming into existence.

There had always been trade, as far as we know; but after the conquest of the Americas, when the vast wealth of the Spanish empire flooded into Europe, trade became increasingly central to European society; and philosophically inclined Europeans began to wonder what precisely they were seeing. What is the source and nature of value? What is money? What exactly is happening when goods are exchanged for money and then money for more goods? What is a capitalist? How does he gain his wealth, which is not based on inherited land, as was the wealth of the aristocracy, but on some mysterious alchemy that seems to make riches out of thin air?

These were the kinds of questions Marx set out to answer, basing his work on prior writers such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, among many others. As far as I can tell, Marx really did his research. Capital gives you information on capitalism as it existed when he wrote, a philosophic examination of underlying principles and a history of economic thought from Aristotle through the first half of the 19th century. (His focus was always European, but that is where capitalism flourished.) His footnotes are awesome – in six languages, often scathing and sometimes funny. He has no trouble calling a spade a spade or an idiot an idiot.

Because I’m a writer, not an economist, I find myself noticing the way Marx writes. A lot of his metaphors come from chemistry, for example. I knew he was very impressed by Darwin’s The Origin of Species. I didn’t realize he was also fascinated by chemistry.

Claude Cockburn is right in saying that Marx gives readers a sense of perspective. He has an acute sense of social justice and a strong awareness of how much harm capitalism does, but he is also trying to understand the capitalist system – where it came from, how it works, and how it fits into human history.
I find he gives me the same pleasure as books on evolution and paleontology: there is a wide view that extends over time and space; and an interplay of broad scientific principles with specific circumstances. There is the pleasure of ideas, big ideas that make life understandable. There is also a call to action, as the story reaches our age. The dinosaurs are gone, past rescue. But their descendents the birds are still here and at risk. And we are still here and at risk.

It’s no accident that many distinguished evolutionary scientists have found Marx’s ideas sympathetic.

I am going to include two quotes. One is from the Foreword to the first volume of Capital. He is talking about the history of economic theory:

With the year 1830 came the decisive crisis… In France and in England the bourgeoisie had conquered political power. Thenceforth, the class-struggle, practically as well as theoretically, took on more and more outspoken and threatening forms. It sounded the knell of scientific bourgeois economy. It was thenceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not. In place of disinterested inquirers, there were hired prizefighters; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and the vile intent of apologetic.

This is pretty good writing. Pay attention to the rhythm of the sentences, the use of repetition, the choice of words: decisive, conquer, threatening, prize-fighter. These lines land like a hammer. Then there is a slowing of tempo, as the paragraph ends in the bad conscience and the vile intent of apologetic.

(I know Marx wrote in German, but there is a consistency to how he sounds in different translations. I suspect he sounded pretty much like this, even in the original.)

When you look at mainstream economics in the 20th and 21st century, especially now as economists stumble to explain how they have been – most of them – so badly wrong in recent years, this passage sounds pretty close to true. We are either looking at a bunch of idiots or at “the vile intent of apologetic.” Or both.

This quote is from the chapter titled “The General Formula for Capital”:

…The possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value, which is the objective basis or mainspring of the circulation M-C-M, becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. Use-values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must the profit of any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at.

What strikes me about this passage is the idea of the capitalist as “capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will.” I don’t know to what extent Marx meant this to be taken literally. He does use metaphor a lot. But it’s a horrifying and effective image, and it does explain the behavior of capitalists as a class. How can the rich remain committed to “the restless never-ending process of profit-making alone,” when it is clearly endangering the planet? After all, they are struck on the planet. Have they no interest in their survival or the survival of their children? Apparently not. This does not make sense in human terms. But if they are “capital personified,” possessed by their wealth as by a demon, maybe we can find a kind of sense.

Or maybe the process is closer to the one in Book Three of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, when a jealous man turns into the allegorical figure of Jealousy, his specific personality dissolved as by a chemical reaction. The acid of jealousy eats his individual humanity away.

In any case, I am finding the book interesting, though slow going. If you want a quick overview of Marx’s ideas, it’s better to go to The Communist Manifesto or two pamphlets he wrote to explain his ideas to working people: Value, Price and Profit and Wage-Labor and Capital.

I am also reading The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time by Istvan Meszaros, a Marxist philosopher who left his native Hungary in 1956 and now lives in England. This book is harder than Capital, mostly because Meszaros is a difficult writer. One has to dig through his language to find his ideas. But there are flashes of insight that make it worthwhile. He is writing – among other things -- about the nature of time in a capitalist society. According to Meszaros, capitalism divides time into labor-hours, which are measured by money, and this is the only kind of time that matters.

I suspect he is right. I have done accounting for years; and I know in a system set up to track money, anything that is not easily turned into money disappears.

Thus, the hours that are spent with family and friends, working on a garden, building a community, carrying for the vulnerable on a volunteer basis, doing unpaid art tend to vanish from economic theory and description, though they are much – possibly most -- of what happens in society; and they are certainly most of what holds society together.

Granted, as capitalism has matured, the market has invaded more and more of human life. But it is not everywhere yet.

To give an obvious example, it is not economically rational to have children. They may care for their parents when the parents get old, or they may not. They will almost certainly not take over the family farm or business and keep it going. Taken all in all, they are a risky investment and often a financial loss. Yet people persist in having children, though economic theory says that people are motivated by rational self-interest.

An even more obvious example is art. Almost no one makes money from art, yet people keep on creating it.

When Studs Terkel did the interviews for Working, he asked people over and over what they would do, if they could do any kind of work. Two answers came up over and over: they would help other people, or they would write.

In addition to turning time into money, Meszaros says, capitalism denies that it – the system of capitalism -- exists in history. It’s easy to find examples that support Meszaros. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Francis Fukayama told us that capitalism has triumphed and – with this triumph -- history had come to an end. Margaret Thatcher is famous for saying that there is no alternative to contemporary capitalism. This seems very close to saying that change is not possible, which means we exist in some strange condition of stasis outside history.

We have a system that only understands time if it can be priced, and which thinks that the broad flow of time – history – has stopped.

I think Meszaros is on to something here, though I find him so difficult to read that I’m not sure I really understand him.

Farther on in the book, Meszaros says:

1. The time-horizon of the (capitalist) system is necessarily short-term. It cannot be other than that in view of the derailing pressures of competition and monopoly and ensuing ways of imposing domination and subordination, in the interest of immediate gain. 2. This time-horizon is also post festum in character, capable of adopting corrective measures only after the damage has been done; and even such corrective measures can only be introduced in the most limited form.

You will notice that Meszaros is not as good a writer as Marx. I looked up post festum. It means “after the feast,” a ten-dollar way of saying “after the fact.”

Looking, as we are, at a very major financial and economic collapse, these comments seem plausible. Capitalism can’t plan. It can only react, and its reactions are not likely to be adequate. How did we end up in the present situation, after more than two hundred years of bubbles and panics? Could we learn nothing?

The crises were not all remote in time. We are not talking about tulips here. There was an American stock market crash in 1987 and another 2000. The savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s resulted in the bankruptcy of half the S&Ls in the US. The collapse of the Long Term Capital Management hedge fund in 1998 was seen a threat to the American financial system so severe that the government organized a bail-out of LTCM in order to prevent financial melt-down. In the same period, the mid 1980s to the present, there have been were major financial crises in Japan, East Asia, Russia, Argentina and Sweden. That is 9 crises in 20 years for an average of one every two years. We are now up to #10, though I have probably missed a few.

We have an economic system that like – the Bourbon kings – forgets nothing and learns nothing. Mainstream economists are still puzzling over the same problems their ancestors puzzled over a century ago. This is not true of other sciences, which have – for the most part – managed to find new problems to worry over. Physics and chemistry and biology are not the same as they were in 1908.

Which brings us back to Marx’s comment about hired prize-fighters; and maybe it brings us back to Maszaros’ contention that capitalism does not believe it exists in history.

Anyway, that’s what I’m reading right now, along with the Dozois-Strahan anthology The New Space Opera and Dianna Wynne Jones’ new YA fantasy.

Have a good new year, everyone.

Eleanor is the author of several novels, including To The Resurrection Station, A Woman of the Iron People, which won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and Ring of Swords. Her short stories and novellas have appeared in Asimov's SF, Realms of Fantasy, Tales of the Unanticipated, and in numerous anthologies. Aqueduct published her collection, Ordinary People, in 2005 and will publish the sequel to Ring of Swords when she finishes writing it.

Harold Pinter (1930-2008)

The renowned British playwright and Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter died Tuesday. He was the author of more than thirty plays, including The Homecoming, Betrayal, and The Caretaker. His work focused very intensely on power relations in the personal as well as social and political spheres; his use of the pause, a notable feature of his style, was incredibly effective. Pinter was also a screenwriter (most notably for The French Lieutenant's Woman and Betrayal), actor, director, poet, and political activist and served as a vice president in PEN. His political activism started young: he declared himself a pacifist in 1948 at age 18 and refused to serve.

Arifa Akbar quotes actor Michael Gambon (Gosford Park, The Singing Detective, Angels in America) in his obituary of Pinter:

"He was a great, great playwright, and a great lover of actors. He was very supportive when we performed Betrayal. I remember one scene wasn't working well and he'd come to rehearsals every second day. He watched the run-through and said, 'The scene doesn't work because the table's in the wrong position.' He has a real instinct for theatre. It was refreshing to be in his plays. There was two miles of subtext under your feet and his dialogue was brilliant," he said.

Gambon, who is currently starring in Pinter's No Man's Land on the West End stage, said he admired Pinter's spirit in the face of illness. "He came over to Dublin for the opening. It nearly killed him, he was in a terrible state, but he didn't give up. That was three months ago. Then, he came to the Duke of York Theatre for the London opening and he went to the party afterwards and sat there," he added.

Jonathan Heawood, director of Pen, the campaigning international writer's association, said Pinter had been vice-president of the group, and showed his support until the end.

"One of the many memorable things he did for Pen in the early Eighties was when he and Arthur Miller went on a joint mission to Turkey. At that time, he was concerned about the state of writers and journalists' freedoms. They were being tortured. So two of the world's greatest writers got on a plane together and they were met by a young Orhan Pamuk, who would become a fellow Nobel Prize winner. He escorted them in their trip. That spirit continued right till the end.

"He turned out to a demonstration outside the Turkish embassy last year," added Mr Heawood. "Everyone was so surprised to see this figure with a walking stick coming out of a taxi on his own. Right until February this year when he turned up to see a performance by a theatre group from Belarus."

In his Nobel Acceptance Speech in three years ago (available here, he spoke not only about his creative work but also used the occasion to speak truth to power.

Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

A good chunk of Pinter's speech examines some of the crimes perpetrated by the US over the last two decades without pulling any punches. This is the sort of confrontation we rarely hear in the US except at lectures given by the leftists like Noam Chomsky (which are never attended by anyone but leftists or undercover police). Here are the concluding words of his speech:

When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimeter and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror - for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us - the dignity of man.

The whole speech isn't very long, and it's definitely worth a read.

Mel Gussow and Ben Brantley, Z Magazine: here and The New Times: here
Arifa Akbar, The Independent/UK: here
Michael Billington, The Guardian: here
Neda Ulaby National Public Radio: here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Interlude, with Icicles

Here in Seattle, big chunks of snow mixed among the usual, more delicate snowflakes are falling from the sky. Forecasters have been promising "melting rain," but apparently the weather has become as unpredictable as any other event. Tramping out to the nearest cafe, trudging through snow yellowed by dog piss, I specially looked for street drains and saw that not all of them were free of snow and ice. Back in 1996, two feet of snow melted under the force of torrential rains, and the water had nowhere to drain. (I distinctly recall the weirdness of watching Tarkovsky's Stalker, which we kept pausing for Tom to make trips to the basement to bail the rising water. The rain, in Stalker, is relentless.) The coming rain is expected to be gentle, so the comparison may be amiss. Who knows? In the meantime, we're dodging long, melting icicles dropping without notice on hapless passersby. They're pretty things, those sleek and shiny daggers, and when I was a kid, I thought they tasted better than ice cream and every winter would try, unsuccessfully, to get my parents to let me store some in the freezer for later consumption.

Yesterday Strange Horizon posted a review of Theodora Goss's Voices from Fairyland: The Fantastical Poems of Mary Coleridge, Charlotte Mew, and Sylvia Townsend Warner. The reviewer, Karen J. Weyant, begins:

For many of us, mention of the Victorian Age of literature conjures images of Norton Anthologies used in college literature class or the thick works of Charles Dickens—images of a time that celebrated the novel and pushed poetry to the background. Certainly, anthologies devoted solely to poets born in the Victorian Era are rare. Even rarer is a thorough explanation of speculative poetry, which is what makes Voices From Fairyland: The Fantastical Poems of Mary Coleridge, Charlotte Mew, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Theodora Goss, so fascinating.

You can read the whole review here.

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Twelve: Nisi Shawl

Nisi Shawl:

I read a lot this year, and enjoyed most of it. I’m still reviewing books for the Seattle Times, and when they asked for my Best of 2008 pick I chose Incognegro, a graphic novel that fictionalizes the real-life exploits of former NAACP head Walter White. With his blue eyes and blond hair, White was able to pass for white, and he did so to investigate lynchings such as those that broke out in Arkansas in 1919. Author Mat Johnson and artist Warren Pleece turn this real-life adventure into a noir-style thriller that also addresses gender issues.

I also read for the Science Fiction Book Club. Titles are assigned to me based partly on availability, partly on what I express interest in. In the past I’ve read some truly dreadful books for them (most notably the Author’s Cut of John Cowper Powys’s Porius, a stream-of-consciousness retelling of the Merlin myth). This year, though, there’s been nothing that bad, and most everything has been good. I began with An Autumn War by Daniel Abraham, the third fantasy novel in his Long Price Quartet. Set in a sort of Pan-Asian world where monastery-trained Poets personify and enchain archetypal forces, the books of the Long Price have gotten successively better, deeper, more troubled, and more truthful which each volume. The two earlier novels are A Shadow in Summer and A Betrayal in Winter. Though the topics dealt with are complex (treason, self-determination, justice) the story-lines are easy to follow and the characters thoroughly compelling. I ended the year with a report on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cordelia’s Honor, an omnibus edition of two novels about Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. This was my first encounter with the popular military fiction of this Hugo and Nebula winner, and I was impressed with their humanness. There’s a pregnant protagonist, and the author more than once focused on physically challenged soldiers confronting a culture of bodily perfection. “Aftermaths,” the last section of Shards of Honor (the omnibus’s first novel), is a touching depiction of a deep space mortician. Really.

I read this year’s Tiptree winner, Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall and reviewed it for Ms. Magazine. I was impressed with how Hall made beauty out of ugliness and how realistically she presented the decline of prosperity, the legitimization of oppression, and the rise from the chthonic of feminist resistance.

I do read now and again for pleasure rather than pay, though much of the time my selections aren’t all my own. I belong to a local book discussion group known as the Octavians. Among the best books we read in 2008 were Iain M. Banks’s Use of Weapons, a twisted, sophisticated space opera, and Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, an even more convoluted transstellar novel of love, tribalism, literacy, and economics. Maureen McHugh’s Mission Child was more properly a reread for me, and delighted me with forgotten deliciousness. In addition to savoring the common sense approach the heroine accords an archetypal cyberpunk trope, I was able to understand her journey in the mythic terms I’ve framed for myself as a reaction to Joseph Campbell’s inadequate analysis of the relationship between female psychology and his “Hero’s Journey.” Engine Summer by John Crowley was also a reread. This was my fourth time. It has always been one of my favorites. Everyone should read it at least once; don’t let my multiple immersions usurp your right to experience it yourself if you haven’t yet.

One extremely guilty pleasure lay for me in reading the first four of the five books of the Marq’ssan Cycle by L. Timmel Duchamp in exceedingly quick succession. I had had the last four in my possession for some time—years, I’m sure—before I boarded the bus back from the University District with a copy of the long-sought-after first volume, Alanya to Alanya, in my dry-skinned hands. It was late November, and I had three SFBC assignments waiting for me at home, plus other pressing work to attend to. But none of that was with me on the bus, which was rather slow….Alanya to Alanya was, and so I told myself I would only read the first few pages. .”Ha,” I say now. And “Ha,” again. Late, late that night I finished that first book. Early, early the next morning I dove into the next (Renegade). I zoomed through its 600-plus pages greedily, speedily. I had to know what happened next to Kay Zeldin, to Martha Greenglass, to Sorben and all the other beautiful, strange aliens, queer and logical and completely fascinating. I galloped through Tsunami and Blood in the Fruit over the next two weeks, then had to take a break to read and write about books I was paid to ponder. I was finally able to finish the last novel in the Marq’ssan Cycle, Stretto, last week. It was just as gripping, just as essential, as the earlier ones. I’m sure now that I missed many things in the five books that should have been obvious to me, just because I read through them so fast. But I couldn’t help myself. The characters and ideas had a hold of me and wouldn’t let me go. Description was sometimes a little lacking, but might have slowed things down and certainly would have upped the page count beyond what most readers would be likely to tackle. I found that for the most part I didn’t need it. I was able to sustain myself on a diet of dialogue, actions, and intentions. I loved every stolen moment I spent with those five books. Stretto’s end is in some senses inconclusive, yet satisfyingly so, which is just how I like my fiction to finish: in the form of an open door, waiting for me to go on through it.

I watched several movies in 2008, though no new runs. I finally, finally, saw and admired Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Truman Show, and Memento. With my friend Caren I also watched Robert Altman’s Three Women, which I first saw when it was first released, sometime back in the 70s. It’s just as good without the acid.

My encounters with Regina Spektor’s music and videos were more important to me this year than anything except the Marq’ssan Cycle. A friend gave me a copy of her first commercial album, Soviet Kitsch, which my 19-year-old niece Brittany had been recommending for a couple of years. Spektor’s a singer and pianist, a classically trained Russian Jewish émigrée, and a darling of the anti-folk movement. In addition to official videos there are thousands of fan-produced unofficial videos available on YouTube. The first song of hers that caught my heart was “Chemo Limo,” which begins with a piano riff appropriate to a tragic underwater ballet, then continues with these lines:

I had a dream
Crispy, crispy Benjamin Franklin

Came over and babysat

All four of my kids….

In a sweet Bronx accent Spektor goes on to recount oneiric interactions with a doctor, a boss, an insurance agent, a chauffeur, and the narrator’s aforementioned kids, each characterized in one line, all obviously good reasons to live on despite cancer and the poisons used to treat it. There’s no official video of “Chemo Limo,” just poignant recordings of fans performing the song for their own enjoyment and that of anyone who happens to hear them. “US” does have an official video, and it’s wondrous, a total stop-animation tour de force. I also recommend finding the following on YouTube: “Ode to Divorce,” “Somedays,” “Fidelity,” “Better,” and “Samson.” Read, listen, learn, and love.

Nisi writes not only reviews, but also wonderful fantasy and science fiction stories. Fourteen of them have been collected in Filter House, which Aqueduct released in August. She is also the co-author, with Cynthia Ward ,of the acclaimed writing handbook, Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. She'll be reading in San Francisco at Borderlands Books on Saturday, January 3, 2009.