Wednesday, December 24, 2008
The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Twelve: 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.