2010 was a busy year for me, but not in the arenas of reading, viewing, and listening to music. Still, there were some pleasures along these lines. I saw a bunch of stuff I'd have liked to check out, but maybe now in the coming months I can get to it. Here are some of the things that took my fancy.
Cyclonopedia by Rega Negrastani -- I found this one on Jeff VanderMeer's blog. It's crazy. Petrol-politics, mythology and legend, and perhaps the defining monster of the 21st century, oil itself, a sentient entity that feeds off War. Swatches of theoretical static against a Hitchcock type plot. This book has the uniqueness of novels like The House of Leaves or People of Paper. At times frustrating but all in all the most exciting book I read in 2010.
The Narrator by Michael Cisco -- I've seen Cisco's work in this book likened to that of Celine, Ligotti, Robbe-Grillet, etc., but I felt a connection with the great Jonathan Swift by way of the cloud city of Laputa. The tale of a war and its narrators. Also the revelation that humanity doesn't care much what it's doing as long as it's doing it. Cisco's a visionary writer, and the prose often has a wonderfully hallucinatory effect. One thing he won't get credit for here, although he should, is that this book is a marvelous example of world-building -- no info-dumps, just steadily insinuated from the first lines onward.
The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolano -- I've still yet to tackle Bolano's longer books -- Savage Detectives and 2666, but I've read all of the shorter works. The Skating Rink is my favorite of these. A cooly meandering, noir, love triangle of a noval. Bolano, at least in the shorter books, lets the story go where it wants to often exhilarating affect.
I got a chance to read Ekaterina Sedia's upcoming, as of yet untitled, collection from Prime -- world mythology, ghosts of the Soviet Union, Russian history, sentient realities, fairy tales, and a creepy zombie Lenin. Beautiful writing and great versatility. If you're a short story lover, this is one you're not going to want to miss.
I was taken by the stories of Alexandra Duncan, a new writer to me, who appeared at least three times in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 2010 -- "Amor Fugit" "The Door in the Earth" "Swamp City Lament." Fabulous writing. Do yourself a favor and check these out if you get a chance. I have a feeling Ms. Duncan will be coming out with more great work in the years to come.
A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud (translated by Edward Gauvin) -- This collection from Small Beer is a treat. You will often see Chateaureynaud likened to Kafka, but I find him to have a very unique voice. Fabulation with intrusions from the everyday and the utterly surreal. From what I've read, Gauvin does an excellent job with the translations here.
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan -- By all accounts, Egan has written the definitive book about the experience of The Dust Bowl. I was reading this during the Gulf oil spill and the ecological/greed factors of both eco-tragedies are a testament to what extent humanity has the ability to fuck up Nature. The Dust Bowl, if you know nothing about it is like something from the imagination of a twisted Fantasy writer.
Prospero's America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture 1606-1676 by Walter W. Woodward -- Gwenda Bond tipped me off to this one. As a professor of Early American Lit. this book really opened my eyes to aspects of Puritan culture and the beginnings of America I had no idea about. Readers interested in the history of Science might like this as well.
I only saw one movie that came out this year that I really liked thoroughly -- Winter's Bone. A meth cooking murder mystery and a story about the bonds of family from the Missouri outback. Some first-rate performances.
As for older movies, I caught two great performances by Richard Widmark this year -- Night and the City and No Way Out. I also enjoyed The Friends of Eddie Coyle for Robert Mitchum's performance and its dedication to reality.
"Dub Side of the Moon" by The Easy Star All-Stars -- I have to admit that I was skeptical as to whether Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" could be improved upon by the power of Reggae. What I found was that "Dub Side" was its own creature, not detracting from the original, but using it to create something else quite grand. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKzTLT3h3Xs)
Be Thankful For What You Got by One Blood -- I went looking for the circa 1970 AM version of this old song on youtube one night and found this by the band, One Blood. I'd never heard of them before. I don't know what it is about this version of the song that keeps me listening to it every now then. (http://snurl.com/1qscm7)
"Don't They Know It's the End of the World" by Skeeter Davis -- Likewise, a song I vaguely remembered from the distant past. Went looking and found it on youtube. Who knows why, but it stayed with me for a long time. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qgcy-V6YIuI) Laird Barron mentioned on my blog that this is the quintessential song for a post-apocalyptic movie. So far, I don't think it's been used in that capacity.
The Search For Smilin' Ed by Kim Deitch -- For my money, the best story teller in comics and his graphic work is mind-blowing. A meta-fictional romp that starts with Deitch's own life and eventually descends down the rabbit hole into a plot impossible to relate. You just have to experience it.
Jeffrey Ford, who has the won the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award (several times), and a few other awards as well, is the author of The Well Built City trilogy and numerous other novels, as well as several collections of short fiction. He lives in New Jersey.
If you review constantly for a living (as I do), then the reading tends to divide itself into books read for duty, books read as poison-tasting, and lastly but sadly the smallest category, books you just liked, full-stop. Here follows a selection of the latter, maverick as ever.
Books That Made Me Grin
(they surprised and delighted me!)
BABA YAGA LAID AN EGG
Ugrešić was forced to leave her native Croatia, branded as a ‘witch’. Her crime: to protest against nationalism. The result was this book, probably the best in Canongate’s Myths series, which includes Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman. Here Ugrešić fictionalizes Baba Yaga, the Slavic witch. This powerful and frightening figure lives in a hut with hen’s feet, has iron teeth and a filthy temper. Ugrešić constructs her novel in three parts, all of them examining women’s ageing. She begins with a description of old women, at first invisible, then increasingly sinister. Then comes a poignant section concerning a woman with an increasingly demented mother. Next, three old ladies cause merry havoc at a health spa, which is followed by a semi-academic examination of the BabaYaga legend. All these threads come together in a magnificent conclusion. Ugrešić asks why are old women belittled and regarded as evil, when it is men who have the power for genuine evil in the world?
It is most enjoyable when novelists defy expectations. Fay Weldon might have a long career, but she breaks new ground here. This novel is a metafiction incorporating parts of Weldon’s own life, but also the fantastic. An unnamed writer sits in her Highgate cellar, shepherding her novel towards its ending. She has quite a task, with her characters part of an unusually dysfunctional matrilineage: a grandmother with a dark past, a devout mother, and assorted hetero- and homosexual lovers. To further complicate the mix the title refers to Maori spirits, whose task is to guard the family. They are bossy, but rather stupid, and Weldon imagines them as bats. But having found New Zealand’s national emblem, a kowhai tree, in London, the Kehua will acclimatize. So will the joyous wairua, the Maori ghosts of the unborn. The result is messy, exuberant fun.
(Consistently the best-performing genre, and that includes litfic)
Arnuldur Indridason, trans. Victoria Cribb
Indridason’s Icelandic police procedurals are cool, collected, and unique. Here a trait of the best detective fiction, the linking of the personal and the social, via theme, is displayed. Hypothermia is death by cold, and it affects most of the characters in this story. A woman commits suicide in a lonely holiday house. There are no suspicious circumstances, or are they? The dead woman’s friend thinks there are. She has a tape of a séance that intrigues Detective Erlendur. So he shrugs on his personal baggage once again, and investigates. Slowly the links emerge between a series of cold case disappearances, and a drowning, believed accidental. Could a student prank, a very nasty joke, be a factor in the case? A constant presence in the story is grief, either overpowering, or a intermittent unresolved itch. Erlendur as a child survived a snowstorm in which his brother disappeared; and his detection largely proceeds from the trauma. There are no easy answers here, just a quiet, dogged search all the more powerful for Indridason’s restraint.
Best Ghost Story
Publishers hate it when authors change genres: it supposedly confuses the readership. Usually they insist on a pseudonym. So it is possibly bad timing that soon after English children’s author Michelle Paver won a prestigious literary award, her first adult novel appeared. Dark Matter is published under her own name. It also has gay and horror elements. Most importantly, the book is superb. In the 1930s a British expedition sets off for the Arctic. Its members are young and Oxbridge, with the exception of working-class radio operator Jack. He is left alone on an island over winter, the endless polar night. Jack has his huskies for company; and as he slowly comes to realize, also an evil ghost. Paver writes in the M. R. James mode, in which the horror is all the worst for being suggested rather than splatter. Is Jack going mad from the Artic isolation, or is the ghost after him? Like James, Paver writes of homosocial males, but with greater awareness of social class, and their sexuality. The eerie polar setting is perfect for her, enabling great atmospherics behind the sense of impending doom. Here appear not graphic depictions of blood and guts, but something far more chilling and memorable.
FEVER: HOW MALARIA HAS RULED HUMANKIND FOR 500,000 YEARS
Good science writing is worth its weight in diamonds, and Shah's is no exception. She examines the disease malaria, an age-old problem. Despite Bill Gates’s money, there is no solution in sight. Malaria is a parasite with the ability to evolve as fast as the AIDS virus. Humans have evolved back, hence the genetic disease of sickle cell anaemia. It actually is protective, in cultures where the disease is endemic. In these societies malaria is regarded on a par with flu, or the cold. Indeed, malaria has helped keep foreigners and exploitation at bay. The real issue, Shah argues, is when white people encounter malaria. That is when the money is spent, as corporations fight to save their foreign experts. America and England actually eradicated malaria decades ago through improved living conditions. There is small chance this feat will occur elsewhere.
(how to get paranoid whilst shopping…)
SLOW DEATH BY RUBBER DUCK: HOW THE TOXIC CHEMISTRY OF EVERYDAY LIFE AFFECTS OUR HEALTH
Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie
University of Queensland Press
Pollution is as old as mankind congregating in cities and generating noxious waste. What is different now is that it is all-pervasive. The products of the chemical industry are worldwide. How much industrial poisons invade our bodies is something Canadian environmentalists Smith and Lourie decided to test. They deliberately exposed themselves to various common but toxic substances: a chemical Supersize Me. After reading this book you will want to eliminate most plastics, scented body products and Teflon from your home. Be afraid, be very afraid.
SHADES OF GREY
Hodder & Stoughton
Fforde is best known for the genial metafiction of the Thursday Next series. Shades of Grey differs by being dystopic, while maintaining Fforde’s essential Englishness. The reader is dumped in a future in which an Apocalypse has occurred, but nobody seems to know what it was. While a new society has emerged, it is rigidly enforced by a very British polite nastiness. Class rules, but based on the limits of colour perception. The characters might have names like Russett and Gamboge, but they are not allegories, being engaging, conniving persons. In this mix, the absurdist becomes credible, and humour shades into the sinister. Fforde also includes something rare in current writing: genuine rebellion. His young hero Edward might begin as a loyal servant of his society, but has a sharp lesson in how it really works. He finds everybody active in minor subversions of the system, with his basic self-interest moving from sheer survival to revolutionary activity. Great stuff.
THE PERFUME RIVER: WRITING FROM VIETNAM
Catherine Cole (ed.)
University of West Australia
Vietnamese literature has a very long history, but little known to the West. Writers find the place inspirational, not least in its keen appreciation of literature. Cole begins her selections with the war against America, and its aftermath. She opens with an extract from Bao Ninh’s bestseller The Sorrows of War. Nam Le follows with a story from The Boat, the most familiar name here. Subsequent authors are less- or unknown to most readers, but are equally as strong. Poetry and prose, occident or orient, all present a portrait of a vibrant nation and its peoples. Standout for me was Pham Thi Hoai’s short stories, where the real and surreal meet. But there is much for most tastes to enjoy here.
(And it went on to win a major award)
TEN HAIL MARYS
University of Queensland Press
The industry that surrounds infertility, the ruthless quest for a baby at all costs, is well known. As this memoir shows, it has existed for decades. Howarth was pregnant at 15, and sent by her grandmother to St Margaret’s Home for unwed mothers. It was essentially a Catholic sweatshop, its product babies. The young mothers were treated like sinners, and worked like slaves before they gave birth. Howarth withstood cruel pressure to relinquish her baby, but refused. Much of her account is given to why. Her background was Aboriginal, her family tending to battlers with a mean streak. She was used to harsh treatment, yet St Margaret’s nigh broke her. She fought the nuns, and took her baby home. Awaiting her was no bed of roses--life continued hard. Ten Hail Marys comprises a powerful memoir, without the self-pity of the ‘misery’ genre. It is a harrowing read.
Best Memoir (Bloke Division)
RAINBOW PIE: A REDNECK MEMOIR
Bageant has a unique angle—he was born Redneck, in rural America. Now he is a middle-class intellectual and an acerbic commentator. He became famous with Deer Hunting with Jesus, an analysis of US conservative poor whites. It was written with a Steinbeck’s compassion and observation. He saw his subjects not as jokes, but the victims of equally rabid capitalism and Evangelical religion. Rainbow Pie continues in this vein, a memoir of his family as typical of their time and class. His grandfather farmed, existing in a subsistence economy where debts were social rather than monetary. He was part of a community, not perfect, but living far better than their urban grandchildren. Capitalism drove the Bageants off their smallholdings and into the cities, to minimum wage jobs: ‘human assets for the big-money boys’. With the loss of land went their roots. They were doomed to a life of consuming, debt, and an anomie only soothed by churches who really worship Mammon. Small wonder the urban Rednecks seethe, fed by media tabloids a diet of paranoia against ‘liberals’ and socialism. Small wonder America is going to hell, says Bageant. A powerful book.
Best Feisty Female (C19th Division)
WILD ROMANCE: THE TRUE STORY OF A VICTORIAN SCANDAL
Theresa Longworth came from a middle-class family, and a yen for adventure took her nursing in the Crimean war. Her encounter with army aristocrat William Yelverton seemed the stuff of romance. The pair married secretly—twice. When Yelverton married another woman Theresa sued for restoration of conjugal rights. Was Yelverton a bigamist cad, or Theresa a schemer intent on becoming a Viscountess? The story became a media sensation. In separate court cases, Theresa’s first marriage was found invalid, the second upheld, only to be struck down in the House of Lords. At issue was class and Theresa’s Catholicism. Less blatant but important was that Theresa did not fit the prevailing Victorian ideal of the submissive female. She lost her case, but as Schama argues in this entertaining book, actually benefited from it. Yelverton was obliged to live out of English society, in exile. Theresa used her celebrity to become first novelist, then travel writer. Ultimately she led a far more interesting life than as an upper-class spouse.
THE WOMAN WHO FELL FROM THE SKY
An extraordinary story is told here: of an American newswoman who took the job of running an English-language paper in Yemen. Steil was a thoroughly modern woman, working in a country whose values were completely alien. Men wore white robes and carried daggers; women were shrouded in black and secluded. She found a great hunger for learning, especially among her female staff, but also no understanding of basic journalism. The only way to survive was to essentially become a member of a third sex, so strange was she to this traditional society. Steil found she loved Yemen and its people, even if the workplace was disrupted by addiction to qat, the local narcotic. It seduced her, and she ended up as the consort of the British ambassador, with a baby. The professional woman became the complete romantic. A fascinating read.
Hanrahan was an Australian printmaker and author of 12 novels. During her lifetime she got published, but not accorded stellar status. And yet she was ferociously talented and hard-working. Her achievement in two fields of art is extraordinary given her background. She began in the working-class, but escaped—via education, and a talent for art that could not be ignored. She went to London on a scholarship, and found a partner who became a devoted supporter. She could be self-obsessed, and her diaries are perhaps the bitchiest ever written in Australia. But, as this strong and detailed biography shows, she had incredible courage. Ultimately she enriched us all with her two bodies of work.
Best Feisty Female (Adventure Division)
THE TROIKA DOLLS
Miranda Darling has previously published a memoir of her model life; and has since commented on anti-terrorism. Now she ventures into the thriller world. The influence of Charles McCarry can be seen in her exotic locales, the suspense and exciting action sequences. Unlike McCarry, the cold war is past, and Darling depicts convincing female characters. Her heroine Stevie is multi-lingual, clever, and works as a risk assessor for an international security firm. Her employment can take her from ‘crusading’ Hollywood stars (very dumb) to the Russian mafia. But while a superwoman in many aspects, she is physically frail and emotionally vulnerable. She might be investigating the kidnap of a Russian banker’s daughter, but she is still nursing a broken heart. As with many thrillers, the momentum keeps the plot from close examination, but Darling can genuinely write.
Best Litfic (short)
READING MADAME BOVARY
Lohrey is one of Australia’s top novelists, with a range that includes the political and the ghostly. She is particularly acute with the small-scale, the domestic world. In Reading Madame Bovary she shows her strength at short-story length. The people depicted here are mostly middle-aged, economically secure, even cultured. They tend to define themselves by material possessions, with a resultant gnawing unease. In ‘Primates’ a woman juggles paid work, children, the household—the familiar stuff of most suburban lives. She copes, yet is aware joy has vanished from her life, until she sees it personified in a zoo monkey. In the title story, perhaps the most polished, a girl snaps out of selfishness by reading Flaubert’s classic. Just in time—for she is on a canal cruise with a boatload of underprivileged children, and her participation is needed. And so it goes. The most typical (and also adept) of these stories comprise slices of life in which a moment of epiphany occurs, usually when the protagonist is about to opt out. These are cool, clear, accomplished tales.
Best Litfic (novel)
Allen & Unwin)
Clarice Beckett (1887¬¬–1935) was an artist unappreciated in her time, but now commanding much posthumous price. This first novel is Thornell’s “imagining of her”. The life of art is hard to write, particularly when there are apparently no huge dramas. Beckett came from a middle-class family, studied art, never married. Much of her life was spent within the domestic realm, particularly when she cared for her elderly parents. In Thornell’s rendering she attracts male interest and is not immune to lovers. But her focus is on her art. Accompanied only by her wheeled painting trolley, Beckett seeks to depict her surroundings. She is less passionate than reflective and contemplative. Nothing much perhaps happens in the narrative, except a life devoted to painting—but that is enough. A book of much beauty.
Best Chicklit (the only genre that consistently looks at modern women’s lives and their problems)
The best-constructed novels are not always the literary ones. Consider Bittersweet. The fourth novel by La’Brooy, it can be loosely classed as chicklit. That term covers a wide area of writing, lightly or darkly covering the matter of modern women’s lives. Some are fluffy; others, like this novel, mix serious messages with the entertainment. Sabrina and Mimi are two sisters, very different, but sharing a complex family past. Sabrina is a soapie actress, Mimi a drifter. When Sabrina needs a gofer as well as a bridesmaid, she hires Mimi—and the sparks start flying. La’Brooy is best with sharp, witty dialogue, but she can be poignant as well. Neither sister is quite what they seem, but both are stubbornly determined to maintain appearances. La’Brooy sends up wedding conventions mercilessly, while still negotiating a happy ending. The sisters reconcile without going gooey. Intelligent fun.
Best Feisty Female (C18th Division)
THE PAPER GARDEN: MRS DELANY BEGINS HER LIFE’S WORK AT 72
What does a modern Canadian poet have in common with the C18th English minor aristocrat who invented collage? In this delightful book, plenty. Peacock encountered the flower art of Mary Delany (1700-88) and fell in love, firstly with the images, and increasingly with their creator them. Most attractive to Peacock is that Delany was a late bloomer. She came from a family with noble connections, but little money. When a drunken squire of 60 proposed to the pretty teenager, she had no choice but to accept. Widowed at 25, she would marry again, this time happily, to a cleric as interested as she in art and gardens. When widowed again she was devastated—until she created a new mode of flower art. As Peacock notes, she had been unintentionally training herself for this moment all her life. Despite her advancing years Delany created nearly 1000 collages. She also left volumes of sprightly letters, and was gifted at friendship. She knew Handel and Swift, and in old age, nearly blind, was ‘adopted’ by King George III and his family. Truly her life was rich, and so was her legacy.
Best True Crime
Lindsay Simpson and Jennifer Cooke
In 2003, on the Barrier Reef, an American couple’s honeymoon ended in a tragic diving accident. Or was it? Gabe Watson was a certified rescue diver, surely ideal to be his wife Tina’s ‘dive buddy’. Instead, she died minutes into her dive, abandoned and sinking to the ocean floor. In this book the authors maintain a narrative that could have foundered under the complexities of dive technology. How could Tina asphyxiate with a full air tank? A strength of the writing is its empathy—behind the legalities is a human story. The case ended in Australia with Gabe Watson pleading guilty to manslaughter. Back in the US, there is agitation for another trial, and the death penalty. Honeymoon Dive is a gripping, disturbing book about the dangers of the sea, and the worse dangers from our fellow humans.
(I met the author and she said it was the nicest review she’d ever had. I went all fangirl in response…)
IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE HEAT
Judy Horacek is one of Australia’s best cartoonists, and should be a worldwide phenomenon. She brightens the day, with wit and intelligence. This latest collection includes some old preoccupations, and new pretensions to merrily deflate. A typical Horacek heroine (spiky hair, colourful sack dress) is handed high heels and a corset. The instruction is ‘Backlash is the new black’, and the reply is ‘Seriously?’ Elsewhere the nuclear industry gets a good kicking, and an ice canary melts in its cage. Indeed the cartoons here on the subject of climate change and its deniers are among her sharpest and saddest. Elsewhere pure whimsy reigns. Mermaids count sheep in snorkels and pajamas throw hissy fits. The twisted takes on Christmas should gladden anyone who has ever cried: ‘Humbug!’
Most Inspiring Read
HALF THE SKY: HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD
Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
The title refers to a Chinese proverb: women hold up half the sky. Yet, as this book notes, they are not accordingly valued. In many countries, women are routinely mutilated, enslaved and treated like second-class citizens. Indeed the authors claim that more women have been killed for their gender in the last fifty years than the total of men in twentieth-century wars. They also believe that gender equality will be the chief moral challenge of our times. Thus they issue a call for positive action here, focusing on areas such as education, contraception, maternal mortality. The book alternates the grim—honour killing—with positive stories. The situation of women in much of the world may be dire, yet many are working for positive change. Repeatedly the authors emphasize that to impose Western values, from the top down, does not work. Rather the successes come from consultation, and empowering the women concerned. There are some surprises here: Third World sweatshops actually improve the lot of women, and give them more income. Or cable television soaps have provided positive role models in India. The book ends with four positive steps to take in ten minutes. Inspiring.
Best Science Fiction
THE DERVISH HOUSE
McDonald is distinctive in reflecting changing political paradigms, writing not of the old colonial powers, but 21st-century India, or Brazil. The Dervish House considers near future Istanbul. The focus is on the human, the experiences of a motley group of neighbours. A terrorist attack opens proceedings, and from that moment the pace is relentless. Political terror is not new here; the real danger comes from a nasty marriage of theocracy and technology, where belief is induced rather than enforced. The novel looks back at Turkey’s complex past, and also its future. It encompasses the biggest and most important ideas: economics, nanoscience, and the adaptation to a new climate. There are imaginative coups, as when a stockmarket coup is conducted in the virtual world. The dominant feature is zest, with an intense sense of place: Istanbul is depicted so strongly as to function as a character itself. An outstanding novel by any criteria.
Lucy Sussex was born in New Zealand in 1957. She has degrees in English and Librarianship from Monash University, and is a freelance researcher, editor and writer. She has published widely, writing anything from literary criticism to horror and detective stories. In addition she is a literary archaeologist, rediscovering and republishing the nineteenth-century Australian crime writers Mary Fortune and Ellen Davitt. Her short story, `My Lady Tongue' won a Ditmar (Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award) in 1988. In 1994 she was a judge for the international Tiptree award, which honours speculative fiction exploring notions of gender. Her first adult novel, The Scarlet Rider, is about biography, Victorian detective fiction, voodoo and a ghost. Aqueduct Press published her collection, Absolute Uncertainty, in 2006.
At Omnivoracious, Jeff VanderMeer offers a "then and now" interview with Rachel Swirsky, comparing the answers she made to questions he asked her in 2007, before having a book out, with the answers she is making now.
Here's a brief taste of one of Rachel's "now" answers:
"I love thinking about short stories! You can get the whole thing in your head and turn it around and keep it turning until you know each facet, each quirk, how all the little events influence each other, how tragedy became inevitable and how it could be avoided, how well people thought they meant even as they started doing things that would hurt people they love... "
I'm thrilled to announce the debut of a new zine from Aqueduct Press: The Cascadia Subduction Zone. (The table of contents can be found below, as well as here.) Although I am, I suppose, its founder, this is not a publication I'm actually in charge of. After much struggle about what the zine's editorial organization should look like, it emerged as a collective of four editors:
Lew Gilchrist, Managing Editor
Nisi Shawl, Reviews Editor
L. Timmel Duchamp, Features Editor
Kath Wilham, Arts Editor
Aqueduct Press offers both print and electronic single issues and subscriptons here. After six months, back issues will be posted in an electronic archive, downloadable free of charge.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we live in the Cascadia subduction zone, with massive, almost unimaginable earthquakes lurking in our past and looming in our future. Frequently we experience “slow earthquakes” moving the earth beneath us, imperceptible to humans except through technology. Occasionally a mountaintop blows, awing us with its power. The denser plate of oceanic crust—the Juan de Fuca Plate—is being forced deep into the Earth's interior beneath the North American continental plate in a process known as subduction, and as the plate encounters high temperatures and pressures that partially melt solid rock, some of this newly formed magma rises toward the Earth's surface to erupt, forming a chain of volcanoes above the subduction zone. (Brantley, 1994, Volcanoes of the United States) Humans like to think of the earth as the ultimate symbol of stability: hence the cliché “down-to-earth.” But in the Cascadia subduction zone, “down-to-earth” necessarily means something else. To be grounded, here, is to be ever mindful of the plates shifting below us, slipping and striking and moving magma, of sloping fault lines that separate and yet merge, of one plate being inexorably pushed beneath another, with enormous consequences.
The Cascadia Subduction Zone aims to bring reviews, criticism, interviews, intelligent essays, and flashes of creative artwork (visual and written) to a readership hungry for discussion of work by not only men but also women. Work by women continually receives short (or at best inadequate) shrift in most review publications. And yet the majority of readers are women. As Ron Hogan writes in an August 2011 post on Beatrice.com, “[Jennifer]Weiner and [Jodi] Picoult, among others, are giving us a valuable critique of a serious problem with the way the [New York] Times [Book Review]—and, frankly, most of the so-called literary establishment—treats contemporary fiction. Which is to say: They ignore most of it, and when it comes to the narrow bandwidth of literature they do cover, their performance is underwhelming, ‘not only meager but shockingly mediocre,’ as former LA Times Book Review director Steve Wasserman said three years ago. And it hasn’t gotten any better since then, leaving us with what Jennifer Weiner describes as “a disease that’s rotting the relationship between readers and reviewers.”
The relationship between readers and reviewers interests us. We want to bring attention to work critics largely ignore and offer a wider, less narrowly conceived view of the literary sphere. In short, we will review work that interests us, regardless of its genre or the gender of its author. We will blur the boundaries between critical analysis, review, poetry, fiction, and visual arts. And we will do our best to offer our readers a forum for discussion that takes the work of women as vital and central rather than marginal. What we see, what we talk about, and how we talk about it matters. Seeing, recognizing, and understanding is what makes the world we live in. And the world we live in is, itself, a sort of subduction zone writ large. Pretending that the literary world has not changed and is not changing is like telling oneself that the world is a solid, eternally stable ball of rock.
The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Vol. 1, No.1---January 2011
Table of Contents
Welcome to the Cascadia Subduction Zone
by the Editors
Another Weather: Mount St. Helens
a poem by Ursula K. Le Guin
On Black Literature & Battle Flags
an essay by Sheree Renee Thomas
A Conversation with Chandler Davis
transcribed by Josh Lukin
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
reviewed by Nancy Jane Moore
What I Didn't See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler
reviewed by L. Timmel Duchamp
Holiday by M. Rickert
reviewed by Carrie Devall
A Cup of Normal by Devon Monk
reviewed by Cynthia Ward
Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja
reviewed by Rachel Swirsky
Steampunk II: Steampunk Reoladed edited by Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer
reviewed by Liz Henry
80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin edited by Debbie Notkin and Karen Joy Fowler
reviewed by Victoria Garcia
In an editorial yesterday, the New York Times asks:
What would happen if a clutch of big banks decided that a particularly irksome blogger or other organization was “too risky”? What if they decided — one by one — to shut down financial access to a newspaper that was about to reveal irksome truths about their operations? This decision should not be left solely up to business-as-usual among the banks.
They pose this question because that's exactly what a "clutch of big banks" have done to Wikileaks, a website that
has not been convicted of a crime. The Justice Department has not even pressed charges over its disclosure of confidential State Department communications. Nonetheless, the financial industry is trying to shut it down.
And, as the editorial notes,
[A] bank’s ability to block payments to a legal entity raises a troubling prospect. A handful of big banks could potentially bar any organization they disliked from the payments system, essentially cutting them off from the world economy.
The fact of the matter is that banks are not like any other business. They run the payments system. That is one of the main reasons that governments protect them from failure with explicit and implicit guarantees. This makes them look not too unlike other public utilities. A telecommunications company, for example, may not refuse phone or broadband service to an organization it dislikes, arguing that it amounts to risky business.
Isn't this akin to the issue with certain telecommunications corporations determined to end "net neutrality"? How, if governments don't upgrade freedom of speech to actual 21st-century circumstances, will we keep our last illusions of freedom from joining our formerly cherished right to privacy in the graveyard of history?
I suppose my life changed a great deal this year. After all, I admitted a television into my house, thus joining the American race. Or maybe I didn't, since I used the TV as a monitor for the DVD player. Which, of course, died soon after. Oh, well. I can still discuss some TV shows for the first time.
Here's what I saw and read this year:
Exquisite Gibberish (Television and Film):
Years ago, my extremely patient best friend loaned me the DVD set of DexterSeason One. Watching it this fall, I discovered the show answers the high-concept question: "What if Batman Were Hannibal Lecter?" Dexter is a serial killer who only kills other serial killers. Talk about an unclean concept. I've seen several descriptions of the title character as "likeable," but actually he's a loathsome antihero, portrayed wonderfully by Michael C. Hall. Along with the uniformly strong acting, this season has the strongest character development arc I've ever seen in a TV show (so now I'm curious about the novel it's based on, Darkly Dreaming Dexter). Another plus is the series's diversity; its Miami police department actually looks like Miami. The show's strengths did not, however, stop me from wishing for a Dexter/Criminal Minds crossover episode.
Which brings us to Criminal Minds: The First Season, in which a team of FBI behavioral profilers catch a serial killer every week. The episodes generally range from very good to brilliant, though the ep on the Apache reservation is doubly the season's nadir, with its stock "angry Indian" sheriff and its clueless pronouncements on "cults." The best part of the series is the way its scenes are consistently stolen by three actors clearly intended to play secondary characters. Kirsten Vangsness (who plays Penelope Garcia) has more energy, personality, and appeal than ten standard-issue tall, thin, conventionally pretty actresses. Matthew Gray Gubler (who plays Dr. Spencer Reid) makes a cluelessly sexy young geek-genius. Shemar Moore (who plays Derek Morgan) is a talented actor with one hell of a body, so I'm not surprised to hear that women flock wherever he goes; but I don't think it's the body, or not only the body. He has the most beautiful eyes, the kind you really feel you can gaze into all day.
An old friend showed me recent eps of a series I'd never heard of, The Big Bang Theory. The concept sounds like a nasty outsiders' parody: science geeks rule the lab, but can't function in the everyday world. However, the eps I saw seemed the work of affectionate insiders. Also, they were funny. The last time a TV show made me laugh that hard ('til the tears flowed down my face) was in 1976 (Carole Burnett's Went With the Wind, if you must know).
I'd just started watching the first season of Glee when the DVD player went south. The first half-dozen episodes are promising, since they're breaking out of the high-school stereotypes of mean cheerleaders and bullying football players. There's also the amusement factor of a small-town high school with more talent and skills than a major Broadway production, and nobody seems to find this remarkable. The character I'd thought a mentally ill airhead, Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays), the guidance counselor with the enormous anime eyes, turns out to be the archetypal wise fool. The linchpin villain, Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch, last seen playing Dr. Reid's mom on Criminal Minds), is a delightfully psychopathic cheerleading coach who never has a moment's doubt. Throw in the equally doubt-free young diva, Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), and the show ends up with a number of genuinely strong female characters...while the males are mostly rather weak sisters. Hmm. I'll be watching again when the DVD player gets a replacement.
I saw a few good movies this year. Up would be perfect, if it weren't marred by the standard Pixar view of females (namely, movies should never have many of those). Very good is Up in the Air, starring George Clooney as the commitment-phobic frequent flyer. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a rare example of a movie which improves on the novel it's adapted from; and Noomi Rapace's terrific interpretation of the titular character is utterly feral and genuinely scary.
Red is another film adaptation that improves on its source material (which it had to open out considerably, as it's drawn from a quite short [and quite good] graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner). The movie's add-on love interest demonstrates how a woman can believably fall for a romance-novel "bad boy" type: she's barking insane. Plus, you just cannot beat Helen Mirren as an assassin. Awesome! Too bad the screenwriters had to add one of those irritating Hollywood scenes in which the black guy dies so the white folks can live. They couldn't think of anything better to do with Morgan Freeman? Really?
Too often, the movies I saw were disappointing. New Moon: The Twilight Saga 2 was a dull follow-up to a successful adaptation. Eclipse: The Twilight Saga 3 improved matters, though not enough. Iron Man 2 threw out the sly intelligence of its predecessor, in favor of beating its audience with an idiot stick for a couple of hours. Meanwhile, the star of the Iron Man movies, Robert Downey, Jr., apparently decided to play Sherlock Holmes as a Victorian Tony Stark, in the gorgeous, steampunky, but woefully padded new movie about the iconic British detective.
And then there's this year's big buzz movie, Inception. Barring the marvelous scene where a dream-architect folds a city around herself, Inception hardly has a clue of what dreams might be like. The concept of hacking dreams is great; too bad the movie is otherwise devoid of ideas. Or maybe the problem is me, and everyone else's dreams routinely feature unimaginative shootouts and car chases.
But I don't think so, because the earlier dream-hacking science fiction movie, Paprika (2006), captures all the beautiful dream logic missing from Inception in its opening credits ...and goes uphill from there. When a character began spouting exquisite gibberish, I began to laugh; not because a psychotic break is funny, of course, but because I had no idea where the movie was going next. A vivid imagination, a piercing insight, an enormous heart -what a tragedy it is that forty-six year old Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Perfect Blue, Paranoia Agent), the most brilliant anime director since Hayao Miyazaki, is gone.
Get Up for the Down Stroke (Books):
I read enough good books this year that I'll stick to discussing a few recent titles. One of these is Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing, edited by Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak. All the descriptions of "interstitial" I'd heard had led me to expect (as I put it for Fantasy Magazine) "a historical mystery set in Celtic Britain...a lesbian romantic suspense story...a Southern gothic fantasy/mystery like HBO’s True Blood...experimental/avant-garde fiction," and so forth, and so on. What the anthology actually offers is literary fantasy/science fiction, some of it mildly or moderately experimental, none of it drawn from the interstitial hybrids that have achieved popularity (techno-thriller, urban fantasy, steampunk, paranormal romance). I hope that doesn't make me sound like I didn't like Interfictions 2. I did. It's a superior literary fantasy/science fiction anthology. I just went into it with the wrong expectations.
Also very good is Wilde Stories 2010: The Year's Best Gay Speculative Fiction, edited by Steve Berman; not everything works, but there's some great literary speculative fiction here, most notably Richard Bowes's is-it-fantasy-or-is-it-mainstream novelette, "I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said," and Elizabeth Hand's revisionist fairy tale, "The Far Shore." An interesting if slightly uneven short-SF/fantasy collection is A Cup of Normal by rising urban-fantasy star Devon Monk (look for my review in The Cascadia Subduction Zone, which will be out soon). More uneven is Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology, edited by Nick Gevers; despite the subtitle, it lacks many essential steampunk authors. It also has rather few women authors (three out of twelve), though they, notably, contribute the strongest stories.
For graphic novels I re-read the Storm Watch/Authority graphic novels by Warren Ellis, Mark Miller, et alia. Not politically correct (why do international superhero teams so frequently end up so white?), but I do love the way the writers grapple with issues of power. I also love Apollo and the Midnighter, their Superman and Batman analogues, who form a gay couple far more believable and interesting than the series's het pair.
After these GNs, I sampled a few recent Jack Kirby collections, reprinting some of his SF/superhero comics work from the 1970s. This work isn't likely to pass many politically correct litmus tests, and it's not the stuff for which he is best known, but it still has its fun aspects. One of those aspects: The women characters not only have some variation to their shapes, but the superheroines look genuinely heroic. Instead of presenting anorectics with improbably enormous frontage, or tragic steroid and plastic-surgery victims, Kirby created women who looked like they could kick your ass even if they didn't have a trace of superpower, and gave them suitably big personalities.
Of the DC reprints, the Fourth World omnibus shows Kirby struggling to fit numerous big ideas into the tight shoe of the DC Universe; OMAC: One Man Army Corps presents a future Captain America type who works for Big Brother; and Kamandi revamps Planet of the Apes as a young-adult Planet of the Animals. The post-von Daniken Marvel reprint, The Eternals: Volume One, shows why Jack "King" Kirby might as accurately have been labeled Jack "Cosmic" Kirby. It also makes you wonder why Marvel didn't hire the current cosmic-scale SF/superhero writer-god, Warren Ellis, to do the recent Eternals reboot with artist John Romita, Jr. Instead, the job went to Neil Gaiman, who, while the most brilliant writer in comics short of Alan Moore, does not really have the cosmic touch.
The best graphic novel I read was The Essential Killraven, which, written and drawn by divers hands, reprints every story in Marvel's 1970s high-concept (Conan vs. The War of the Worlds) comic book series. The contributions are all over the map (the story of the black village in the cave is an embarrassment, and the "angry Indian" character, Hawk, is not exactly a convincing Navajo/Dineh). However, the concluding stories by writer Don MacGregor and artist P. Craig Russell are great science fiction. The collaborators rely on superior characterization as they convert the series from an average, unsurprising leading-man title, to a strong, sometimes-unpredictable ensemble piece (for example, the black initial-sidekick-turned-genuine-friend gets the girl, while the white title character can't even get laid. I suspect it's true that this series had the first interracial kissin comics.
I read several fine novels. Mary Robinette Kowal's debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, draws inspiration from Austen, the Brontes, and Heyer to concoct a smooth and enjoyable fantasy of manners, though, ultimately, there's a rather jarring tonal shift; unlike, say, Heyer's The Masqueraders, this novel gives almost no indication that weapons will be drawn and blood spilled at the climax. Also Austen-influenced are Gail Carriger's delightful steampunk urban fantasies of manners, Soulless and Changeless, which are set in an alternate Victorian history.
Set in Roaring 'Twenties Manhattan, Alaya Johnson's fun urban fantasy, Moonshine, centers on a charming guilty-liberal suffragette/vampire-slayer. In the modern world, Seanan McGuire's entertaining A Local Habitation, the second October Daye novel, shifts its urban fantasy setting to Silicon Valley, challenging its damaged fae/human protagonist with a demanding magical/high-tech mystery. And, looking to the future, Seanan McGuire assumes the byline Mira Grant and imagines a scary biotech-spawned zombie outbreak in Feed: Book One of the Newsflesh Trilogy; any resemblance to current terrorist paranoia and curtailed civil liberties is probably not accidental.
The Bell at Sealey Head is, as you might expect of a literary fantasy by Patricia A. McKillip, numinous and lovely; it's also a particular delight for book-lovers. An excellent pair of young-adult literary fantasy novels, Janni Lee Simner's Bones of Faerie and Thief Eyes, will please teen and adult readers both. Ian McDonald's Ares Express gets cutesy enough to set your teeth on edge, but ultimately it's a great science fiction novel, or a great magical realism novel, or a great metafictional novel, depending on which way you swing.
Dreadnought returns Cherie Priest to the zombie steampunk alternate America of Boneshaker for a new, more Weird-Westernish setting and a new set of characters. Katie MacAlister's somewhat uneven Steamed: A Steampunk Romance successfully interjects alt.Victoriana into paranormal romance. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack has a rough opening, but Mark Hodder's re-visioning of steampunk as wild pulp adventure fiction (starring renaissance man Sir Richard Francis Burton and decadent poet Algernon Charles Swinburne as crime-fighters!) is great fun, though it's hindered by its women-are-victims tendencies.
The best high fantasy I read this year, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Book One of the Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, does not much resemble others of its kind, unless you count its inversion of several high-fantasy expectations. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms ought to be on all the relevant award and year's-best lists. I'm looking forward to reading the sequel, The Broken Kingdoms.
The best collection I read this year is the Tiptree Award winner and World Fantasy Award finalist, Filter House. Since it's written by Nisi Shawl, my friend and Writing the Other collaborator, you're probably suspicious of my judgement. That's okay. You can consult the reviews around the net; or contemplate the blurbs by writers like Tobias Buckell, Karen Joy Fowler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Matt Ruff; or consider that the acquiring editor is L. Timmel Duchamp. Or you can just cut to the chase and read Filter House.
Cynthia Ward lives in the Los Angeles area. Her most recent fiction publication is in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword & Sorceress XXIV (Norilana Books), edited by Elisabeth Waters. With Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press).