Sunday, March 30, 2008
On Reviewing, elsewhere
Falling into Oblivion without a Parachute on The Mumpsimums
and Reviewing Books on Ecstatic Days.
And speaking of reviews, Julie Phillips' Kurt Vonnegut's Unpublished Writings discusses Armageddon in Retrospect.
Saturday, March 29, 2008
"A Reviewer's Hardest Task"
A reviewer's hardest task is to define standards. "Good" can mean almost anything: what the British call "a good read," "for those who like it, this is what they'll like," "it won't poison you," "good enough for minor entertainment," "mildly pleasant," "intelligent, thoughtful, and interesting," "charming!" and just plain "good"--excluding the range of better, from fine to splendid to superb to great. Reviewers also tend to adopt a paradoxical sliding scale in measuring a book's quality, i.e., the more ambitious a book, the more it's likely to fail; yet the competent, low-level "success" can be less valuable and interesting than the flawed, fascinating, incomplete "failure." For example, in July 1973 I reviewed James Gunn's The Listeners (which belongs emphatically in category two, above) and managed to make it sound worse than Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream, a considerably lower-level (although fun and interesting) category one. Novels don't only provide different kinds of pleasures; they involve a reader more or less profoundly. Listeners was "bad" because parts of it were so wonderfully good. Dream was "good" partly because it demanded so little of the reader-- some of this by the author's deliberate choice, which only adds to the complexity of the whole business.
None of this months' hardcover novels* lives up to its author's own best work and in that sense they are not good books. They're certainly not in the "good-by-any-standards" class. Yet none of them is in the droopy-eyeball or loathsome class, either, and all have some excellences. The reviewer's business (as so many reviewers have said) is distinguishing between various levels of failure, keeping in mind that by "good" here I mean very high standards indeed.
I'm variously a reader of reviews, a writer of reviews, a writer's whose work receives reviews, and an editor/publisher who hopes to see the work she publishes reviewed. I have long read reviews for pleasure-- and not as a guide to what I ought or ought not to be reading. I think I first began reading reviews as a graduate student, most often in the form of review essays (which I also, of course, was required to write). Review essays encompass more than a simple review does, exploring the subject matter of several books in a thoughtful, critical way. This probably has something to do with my interest--as a reader--in reviews these days. When I read a review for pleasure (as I still often do), it's in the hope of being given something interesting to think about, or even the occasional gem of insight. This is certainly why I'm reading Russ's old reviews. Reviewers who offer intellectually or emotionally threadbare descriptions or assessments of the books they're reviewing don't interest me; if after several encounters I see that their reviews consistently fail to give me anything worth thinking about, I stop reading their reviews. I also stop reading their reviews for pleasure if I see that a reviewer is intractably ignorant or stupid-- that they have a penchant for misreading or under-reading or for continually praising the banal. I'm a bit like Mr. Darcy, I'm afraid, in that my good opinion of a reviewer once lost, is unlikely to be regained. I'm a busy woman, you know?
As an editor/publisher, I'm largely unconcerned with whether or not a review is pleasurably insightful or even intelligent. It's still a mystery to me what actually sells books. A reviewer's writing intelligently about a book will likely make its author happy, but it probably won't make that much difference to sales. Because I read every review of Aqueduct's books (that I know of), I'm constantly made aware of how few reviewers are careful readers. More to the point, though, is that many of those reviewers who have passed beyond the naive-reader stage are so caught up in their own particular set of dogmas that their readings tend to be inflexibly rigid and skewed to conform to their dogmas such as they are. This doesn't concern me as a publisher, but I can't help reflecting on it as a reader and writer of reviews myself.
Not surprisingly, I try to write the kind of reviews I enjoy reading. It can be hard to do it, though, when a book is so poorly written that I can barely bring myself to keep reading it. (I've twice forced myself to finish really bad books and reviewed them, but the experiences were so painful that I have a deep aversion to doing it ever again.) Russ has no hesitation in characterizing books as "bad." But aware as I am of what inadequate readers so many reviewers are, I've been reluctant to deliver such bald judgments myself. [Though so as not to mislead anyone, I will cop to once having delivered an unequivocally scathing judgment of a book that really should not have been published.] And so I have to wonder just how useful terms like "good" and "bad" can be in reviews today. Russ, unlike most reviewers, offers insight into the books she reviews; so I'm tempted to think she knows what she's talking about. Even so, for me at least it is more her discussion of the books rather than her verdict on a given book's quality that "defines" her "standards." The "whole business" is indeed complex.
*The books under review were by Robert Silverberg, James Gunn, John Brunner, Philp K. Dick, and Howard Waldrop & Jake Saunders.
Lisa Tuttle's My Death
I'm pleased to announce that Aqueduct will be releasing Lisa Tuttle's My Death this summer. This creepy but feministically delicious novella will be the twenty-first volume in our Conversation Pieces series. It has previously been published in the UK, by PS Publishing, but this will be its first North American publication. Who can resist a story about an all but forgotten early twentieth-century feminist novelist who becomes the biographical subject of an early twenty-first century feminist novelist? And one who painted a watercolor she titled "My Death"? Here's an excerpt:
I gazed at the painted image of an island, a rocky island rendered loosely in shades of brown and green and gray and grayish pink. I remained unimpressed, and baffled by Alistair’s attitude towards this uninspired daub. Risky?
And then, all at once, as if another light had been switched on, I saw the hidden picture. Within the contours of the island was a woman. A woman, naked, on her back, her knees up and legs splayed open, her face hidden by a forearm flung across it and by the long hair – greenish, grayish – that flowed around her like the sea.
The center of the painting, what drew the eye and commanded the attention, was the woman’s vulva: all the life of the painting was concentrated there. A slash of pink, startling against the mossy greens and browns, seemed to touch a nerve in my own groin.
And why did she title such a painting "My Death"? I won't spoil it!
Friday, March 28, 2008
Snow in Late March in Seattle
In the meantime, let me toss you a few links. Kelley Eskridge sent me this one:
Labor of Love by Thomas Beatie. The transgendered Beatie, who is legally male and legally (i.e., officially) married to a woman, is pregnant and carrying a child.
Inter Press Service has an article on a report by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) to the United Nations Human Rights Council: "There have been “huge harassments of human rights organisations and defenders have been increasingly subject to abusive and suppressive actions by government actors… in the majority of Arab countries, particularly Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Tunisia." The article notes:
The U.S. and other Western governments have had close ties with Arab governments in the Middle East and North Africa for many years. These ties have grown closer since the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sep. 11, 2001.
But since the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1981-89), promoting democracy and freedom in the Arab world has been a staple in U.S. political rhetoric. The rhetoric has ratcheted up significantly during the administration of President George W. Bush. In his second inaugural address, Bush said, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
The gap between the Bush Administration's rhetoric and its actions is derisible. A letter to the Washington Post from Venezuela's Communications Minister, also published on the Commondreams.org site, by its proximity prompted me to do a bit of a compare-and-contrast exercise. Imagine, if the Bush administration held its democracy-hating allies to the standards of Venezuela... (Well no, actually, I can't imagine it ever doing that. They wouldn't be allies any longer if they did.)
And finally, the best link of all, with thanks to Josh Lukin: an excellent, intense six minutes of an interview with James Baldwin on YouTube.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Voices from Fairyland by Theodora Goss
I'm pleased to announce that this spring Aqueduct will be publishing Voices from Fairyland: The Fantastical Poems of Mary Coleridge, Charlotte Mew, and Sylvia Townsend Warner by Theodora Goss as a volume in the Conversation Pieces series. We'll be launching this volume at WisCon in May.
The volume will include fantastical poems by Coleridge, Mew, and Warner, accompanied by four fascinating essays and several poems by Dora Goss in conversation with the Coleridge, Mew, and Warner's poems. To give you just a little taste of Voices from Fairyland, here are a few paragraphs from Dora's Introduction:
Coleridge, Mew, and Warner are only three examples of what I consider a broader phenomenon, the rest of the ice that must be present, underwater, when we see icebergs floating on a northern sea. That underwater ice is the tradition of women writing fantastical poetry. I will show you what I mean by focusing on one theme. Over and over again, women have written about witches. In "Witch-Wife," Edna St. Vincent Millay describes a woman whose "voice is a string of coloured beads, / Or steps leading into the sea" who "was not made for any man," not even the narrator, to whom she is married. The witch in Anne Sexton's "Her Kind" is fiercer and stronger. She tells us,
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
She creates a domestic space for herself in a place that is decidedly undomestic, that is wild, feeding worms and elves rather than the children that the women who are not witches presumably feed. "A woman like that is misunderstood," Sexton tell us, and we can certainly understand why, if her voice is a string of colored beads or those mysterious steps. She must speak differently, in a language that we cannot quite understand. And here is Emily Dickinson:
Witchcraft was hung, in History,
But History and I
Find all the Witchcraft that we need
Around us, every Day—
Whatever you do, she implies, you cannot eradicate witchcraft. It is part of the world around us, always present. And we—History and Emily Dickinson—need witchcraft. I wonder what they need it for exactly, but Emily Dickinson, always her enigmatic self, does not tell us.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
When People Talk about Aqueduct Books, We Listen...
Cheryl Morgan reports that she's reading the first volume of The WisCon Chronicles:
It isn’t often that I get an opportunity to talk about a book because I’m in it, but there are a couple around at the moment. The book I’m currently reading is The WisCon Chronicles, edited by Timmi Duchamp. It is a collage of material taken from WisCon 30: interviews, panel transcripts and so on. I’m in it because of a panel called (rather pretentiously) “Is Reading Feminist SF a Theory-Building Activity”. (Wiscon, for those of you who do not know, is a feminist science fiction convention.) I have to confess that I was very nervous being put on that panel and didn’t have much a clue what to say beforehand. I also think I performed better at other panels at that con. However, I wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to be on a panel with Karen Joy Fowler, and if we really did need to talk about feminist theory I knew I could rely on my fellow panelist to do the business. As it turns out I seem to have ended up talking a lot about trans issues.
Read the rest of her post here.
And Jeff VanderMeer has this to say on Amazon.com's Omnivoracious:
L. Timmel Duchamp's The Blood in the Fruit - The latest book in the Marq'ssan Cycle might just be the best yet, part of a series that is the most important political SF published in the last decade. Praised by the likes of Cory Doctorow and Samuel Delany, Duchamp's accomplishment here is deadly, sharp, emotional, and intelligent.
Monday, March 17, 2008
A Handful of Links
--The Independent reports that the British Government is attempting to "rewrite" the history of the Iraq war as it is taught in UK schools:
Britain’s biggest teachers’ union has accused the Ministry of Defence of breaking the law over a lesson plan drawn up to teach pupils about the Iraq war. The National Union of Teachers claims it breaches the 1996 Education Act, which aims to ensure all political issues are treated in a balanced way.
Teachers will threaten to boycott military involvement in schools at the union’s annual conference next weekend, claiming the lesson plan is a “propaganda” exercise and makes no mention of any civilian casualties as a result of the war.
They believe the instructions, designed for use during classroom discussions in general studies or personal, social and health education (PSE) lessons, are arguably an attempt to rewrite the history of the Iraq invasion just as the world prepares to mark its fifth anniversary.
The article notes numerous distortions and lies (including the canard about Iraq's "failure to surrender" its [nonexistent] Weapons of Mass Destruction). Read more here.
--An event called "Winter Soldier," organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War was held in Silver Springs Maryland. "Winter soldiers, according to U.S. founding father Thomas Paine, are the people who stand up for the soul of their country, even in its darkest hours." Dahr Jamail reports (for Inter Press Service) on a panel on the rules of engagement (or lack thereof) for Iraq, held on the first day of the gathering:
Garret Reppenhagen received integral training about the Geneva Conventions and the Rules of Engagement during his deployment in Kosovo. But in Iraq, “Much of this was thrown out the window,” he says.
“The men I served with are professionals,” Reppenhagen told the audience at a panel of U.S. veterans speaking of their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, “They went to Iraq to defend the U.S. But we found rapidly we were killing Iraqis in horrible ways. But we had to in order to remain safe ourselves. The war is the atrocity.”
The event, which has drawn international media attention, was organised by Iraq Veterans Against the War. It aims to show that their stories of wrongdoing in both countries were not isolated incidents limited to a few “bad apples”, as the Pentagon claims, but were everyday occurrences.
Read the whole article here.
--In the midst of the uproar over Geraldine Ferraro's remark managing to disparage both affirmative action and Obama in one mean stroke, the Inter Press Service reported that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) based in Geneva, Switzerland released a report concluding that the US is failing to meet international standards on racial equality. The US, you see, is a signatory of an international treaty-- the 1969 Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination-- and the CERD is responsible for monitoring global compliance with the treaty:
In concluding the CERD report on U.S. record, the panel of experts called for the George W. Bush administration to take effective actions to end racist practices against minorities in the areas of criminal justice, housing, healthcare and education.
This is the second time in less than two years that the U.S. government has been found to be falling short of its treaty obligations. In March 2006, The CERD had harshly criticised the U.S. for violating Native Americans’ land rights.
Taking note of racial discrimination against indigenous communities, the Committee said it wants the U.S. to provide information about what it has done to promote the culture and traditions of American Indian, Alaska Native and indigenous Hawaiian peoples. It also urged the U.S. to apply the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The CERD also voiced strong concerns regarding environmental racism and the environmental degradation of indigenous areas of spiritual and cultural significance, without regard to whether they are on “recognised” reservation lands.
The Committee recommended to the U.S. that it consult with indigenous representatives, “chosen in accordance with their own procedures — to ensure that activities carried out in areas of spiritual and cultural significance do not have a negative impact on the enjoyment of their rights under the Convention”.
In its 13-page ruling, the U.N. body also raised serious questions about the death penalty and in the sentencing of minors to life without parole, which it linked to racial disparities between whites and blacks.
In their testimony, Bush administration officials held that the treaty obligations do not apply to laws or practices that are race-neutral on their face but discriminatory in effect. The Committee outright rejected that claim, noting that the treaty prohibits racial discrimination in all forms, including practices and legislation that may not be discriminatory in purpose, but in effect.
The gulag at Guantanamo also came in for criticism. Read the rest of the article here.
--An article in Foreign Policy in Focus by Ellen-Rae Cachola, Lizelle Festejo, Annie Fukushima, Gwyn Kirk, and Sabina Perez, Gender and US Bases in Asia-Pacific reports on the impact US bases overseas (including in Hawai'i, where the US military occupies one-fourth of the land) exercise on women's lives:
The power dynamics of militarism in the Asia-Pacific region rely on dominance and subordination. These hierarchical relationships, shaped by gender, can be seen in U.S. military exploitation of host communities, its abuse and contamination of land and water, and the exploitation of women and children through the sex industry, sexual violence, and rape. Women’s bodies, the land, and indigenous communities are all feminized, treated as dispensable and temporary. What is constructed as “civilized, white, male, western, and rational” is held superior to what is defined as “primitive, non-white, female, non-western, and irrational.” Nations and U.S. territories within the Asia-Pacific region are treated as inferiors with limited sovereignty or agency in relation to U.S. foreign policy interests that go hand-in-hand with this racist/sexist ideology.
At the end of their report, they conclude:
U.S. peace movements should not only address U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, but also in other parts of the world. Communities in the Asia-Pacific region have a long history of contesting U.S. militarism and offer eloquent testimonies to the negative impact of U.S. military operations there. These stories provide insights into the gendered dynamics of U.S. foreign and military policy, and the complicity of allied nations in this effort. Many individuals and organizations are crying out for justice, united by threads of hope and visions for a different future. Our job is to listen to them and to act accordingly.
The current elections in the US will have no impact whatsoever on the problem, of course.
--And finally, Carmen Boullosa's Garden of Monsters offers a fascinating review of Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas. Since her piece delivers a delicious punchline, I won't spoil it by saying anything more.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Lambda Literary Awards Finalists
- Wicked Gentlemen, Ginn Hale (Blind Eye Books)
- A Companion to Wolves, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear (Tor Books)
- Spaceman Blues: A Love Song, Brian Francis Slattery (Tor Books)
- The Dust of Wonderland, Lee Thomas (Alyson Books)
- Ha'penny, Jo Walton (Tor Books)
- Comfort Food for Breakups, Marusya Bocurkiuw (Arsenal Pulp Press)
- And Now We Are Going to Have a Party, Nicola Griffith (Payseur & Schmidt)
- An Army of Ex-Lovers, Amy Hoffman (University of Massachusetts Press)
- Two Lives: Gertrude & Alice, Janet Malcolm (Yale University Press)
- Waiting for the Call, Jaqueline Taylor (University of Michigan Press)
Saturday, March 8, 2008
International Women's Day
Today is International Women's Day. I think it must be almost twenty years since I last celebrated it. I recall marches through the streets of downtown Seattle with a few thousand other women and forums and lectures and maybe even a film series or two. I thought of all this the other day when my eye happened to light on a bit of memorabilia that's been hanging on the wall (or, for awhile, the door) of my office for the last twenty years. My old friend and comrade in activism, Therese Spaude, made it for me; and yesterday, when I took it down from the wall, I found written on the back of it "Happy International Women's Day" (plus a few personal words). To make it, she photocopied a photo and inscribed the photocopy with tempera. I've scanned it, and as you can see, it's gotten a bit yellow with age and still, for some reason, retains the creases it acquired during its brief sojourn in an envelope that Therese taped to my back door one March day in the late 1980s.
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Naturally my attention zoomed right in on her discussion of the Marq'ssan Cycle in general and Blood in the Fruit in particular. Here's a chunk of it:
Throughout the Marq’ssan series I have been more and more impressed with Duchamp’s skill at unpacking the infinite detail, the fractalness of thought, in human relationships, laid bare so relentlessly it feels like seeing another sort of interrogation — of the characters — and thus we can’t avoid interrogating and examining our own lives and relationships in similar ways. I know that some people will pick up Alanya to Alanya and won’t get it. But if you are the sort of science fiction reader who likes Middlemarch and books like that… You will be well rewarded by plowing through all the Marq’ssan books though I fear for most people it will take till the middle of book 2 to get really hooked. Then once you are hooked, watch out. It’s painful and scary. Talk about axe for the frozen sea. These are books that leave you staring at the ceiling for several nights or violently sobbing as you reevaluate bits of your life and think of all your failings and self-lies, denials and blindnesses and hypocrisies. I don’t think I’ve read anything that so well entangles that personal detail and complexity with political complexity, other than The Orphan’s Tales, which is a completely different flavor of story. How do people make moral decisions? What makes them tick? What is evil? Why is our society so gendered? What the hell? Can people of different social classes, or genders, ever really trust or believe each other? What truth is even possible? Can non violent revolution succeed, and how would we measure its success, and while we’re at it let’s think more carefully about what we mean by violence… Who is fighting what, and why, and how, and what result might it have? ZOMG. Like that.
Wow. My cup runneth over.
Richard Larson reviews Vandana Singh's Of Love and Other Monsters at Strange Horizons. In his review he observes:
Singh is successful in her assertion that we are all alienated from each other and that none of us can really know anyone else, at least not in the way that we come to understand that Arun's people—other aliens—can understand each other, using a "language" involving an intimate conjoining of minds. Arun agonizes over his predicament with Sankaran—("How does a man who is not a man or a woman, not a human or an alien—how does such a being confess his love to another man?" [p. 52])—which is a love that will ultimately elude him and which will come, in the narrative, to represent the tragic inability of humans to ever truly connect with one another.
On a completely different front, Carlos Martinez reminds us that the US-powered and -directed "Plan Columbia" has been interfering with Ecuadoran sovereignty for years, for instance by spraying toxic chemicals on its crops, animals, and human populations; which is to say, Ecuador has much to resent from its bully of a neighbor. (And I can't help but note that Columbia is merely following the US's example in refusing to respect the national borders of other countries. Can it be any wonder that that so many of the US's allies feel free to violate other countries' national borders as though it were their right to do so?) Martinez notes the typically antihistorical and skewed reporting on the situation by the US media:
While some press in the United States question whether Chavez is using this situation as an opportunity to distract Venezuelans from their social problems, this excessive focus on him is in fact distracting people in the US from having a much needed dialogue on their own government’s role in fomenting this so-called “Andean Crisis.” As a result, the tough realities and repercussions from the US government’s support for a military solution in Colombia are being overlooked. Emboldened and armed with the multibillion dollar support of Plan Colombia, the Uribe government has decided to violate international law rather than attempting mediated discussions with the FARC. This is simply the latest controversy to discredit Colombia, already renowned for having the greatest number of human rights violations and politically motivated murders per year in the Western Hemisphere.
Indeed. But human rights violations do not now and never have mattered to the US media (or Government)-- except, of course, when committed by designated enemies of the US Government.
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
In the Realm of Political Fantasy
A Security Council resolution (1325) adopted in 2000 called for equal participation by both men and women in maintaining and promoting peace and security. But that resolution “was a long way from being adequately implemented”, says Anne Marie Goetz, UNIFEM’s chief adviser on Governance, Peace and Security.
She told the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women — which concludes its two-week session Friday — that very few women participated in peace talks as official negotiators or observers.
“Disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration processes still rarely addressed the needs of women associated with fighting forces, and post-conflict planning and financing for women’s recovery, remained weak,” she added.
Goetz called for a gender-sensitive perspective on conflict resolution, peacemaking and rehabilitation.
On the positive side, UNIFEM has recently supported capacity-building of women’s groups in Darfur and national peace consultations with women, while facilitating women’s access to institutions involved in the peace process.
In northern Uganda, UNIFEM has joined hands with the Department of Political Affairs to appoint a gender adviser to the peace talks. At the same time, it has supported efforts to improve military and police tactics to prevent sexual gender-based violence in conflicts.
Assistant Secretary-General Carolyn McAskie, head of the U.N. Peacebuilding Support Office, points out that despite much rhetoric about women’s roles in peacebuilding, women’s contributions had rarely been fully recognised.
But both her office and UNIFEM have actively promoted women’s groups to participate in the peacebuilding processes in two countries: Sierra Leone and Burundi.
The government of Sierra Leone and the U.N. Peacebuilding Commission have adopted a Peacebuilding Cooperation Framework that recognises gender equality as a cross-cutting peacebuilding issue with specific commitments to advance that goal.
These commitments include family support units, capacity-building of national gender institutions and implementing laws relating to domestic violence, inheritance and property rights.
In Burundi, McAskie said, women have participated in the peace process, integrating gender equality into democratic governance and the peacebuilding framework.
As a result of quotas spelled out in the peace agreement and Burundi’s new constitution, women were now better represented in government, holding 30 percent of parliamentary seats and seven ministerial posts.
“Despite those significant achievements, much more must be done,” McAskie told the Commission on the Status of Women last week.
“We have learned that our ability to affect real change in gender equality through peacebuilding greatly depends on how the international community establishes its priorities and uses its resources,” she declared.
Read the complete article here.