Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011, part 19: Cynthia Ward

2011 in Review: Stories in the Key of E
by Cynthia Ward

In our household, 2011 is the year of the e'reader, since I received a Nook Color and my partner gained a Kindle late last year. I hadn't thought reading on an electronic device would be an easy adaptation, but our reading quickly became almost exclusively e'reading. Now I find myself wondering if I'm spending my reading time downloading free e'books and e'samples instead of, you know. Reading.

Gods and Atheists (Music, Television, and Film)

In music, the year got off to a bad start with the death of Kate McGarrigle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kate_McGarrigle), untimely torn from the world by cancer. I suppose she's better known nowadays as the mother of singers Martha Wainwright and Rufus Wainwright, but I first made her musical acquaintance in the early '80s, when I heard the second album (Dancer With Bruised Knees, 1977, http://www.amazon.com/Dancer-Bruised-Knees-Kate-Mcgarrigle/dp/B00000063O/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1323818655&sr=1-1) by the eclectic French-Canadian folk-rock sister duo of Kate and Anna McGarrigle. I hesitated to type "the eclectic French-Canadian folk-rock sister duo," because, if you haven't heard them, the phrase reduces them to a misleading image or soundbyte in your head, and gives no idea at all of their glory. But a trip to YouTube will fix that problem (http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=kate+and+anna+mcgarrigle&oq=kate+and+anna&aq=0&aqi=g10&aql=&gs_sm=e&gs_upl=33l2163l0l4601l13l12l0l3l3l0l243l1183l5.2.2l9l0).

With television I remain 99% unacquainted. Still, I've seen the first season of the highly regarded apocalyptic series, The Walking Dead (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1v0uFms68U&ob=av3e). Meh. I wouldn't say the show operates on the low level of the idiot plot, but too many characters who ought to know better (like, oh, the trained law enforcement officers) do a lousy job of grasping the seriousness of their situation (it's the zombiepocalypse, people! look alive!). Another annoyance is that the show, initially diverse, has whittled away most of the minority characters, with the lone black woman killed off in an especially troubling manner. I can't help wondering if a big part of the show's appeal lies in finding a way to justify brutal violence ('cas surely no one's going to object if you blow the brains out of a mindless, insatiably hungry ambulatory corpse, or beat the blood out of a wife-beater).

I've probably seen most episodes of the new sitcom, 2 Broke Girls (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hr3FXTioTIo), which joins the proud tradition of what a friend calls depression-era comedy (cf. Blondie and The Honeymooners, though technically the latter wouldn't qualify). I hadn't realized TV sitcoms had gotten so comfortable with vibrator references and lesbian overtones ("I never thought waking up in bed with another girl and frosting on my boobs would be this depressing"). These het girls almost manage more shared sack time than the characters of The L Word, but no doubt this teasing will lead nowhere. The show's treatment of minority characters will probably infuriate, but, like South Park, 2 Broke Girls seems to scorn everyone else, as well. Now, I suspect an actual old-money Wharton grad would not find herself in this situation, even with a Bernie Madoff clone as her dad. But the main characters have great chemistry, and there are many good lines. I don't think I'd want to find myself on the cutting edge of Max's wit.

In film, the year must have been a high-water mark for good superhero movies, judging by Captain America, Thor, and X-Men: First Class (I didn't see Green Lantern or the Green Hornet remake, however). Putting a swinging-'60s spy-fi spin on the popular Marvel Comics franchise, X-Men: First Class gains points for a gay subtext that strains so vigorously against the text, it nearly bursts the zipper (https://blogger.googleusercontent.com/img/b/R29vZ2xl/AVvXsEgr9iALBNJE-o3Ftr_vbUQdQx9bBZRvDJjEDelRlkbMTjGTucEJuIim4P6SJHVa1HnqCWb7zr61GhyphenhyphenxTNAvjJ8d6x9qq6BAMAbCFLEmLl5r47cnF4g-eyz9QecGunPWNtsJYXzBoC7K5o8/s1600/X-Men+First+Class.jpg); but it loses points for racefail. Set mostly during World War II, Captain America is good, clean, dieselpunk'd fantasy fun. Meanwhile, Thor is a little less well written, but still strong. Chris Hemsworth wrung every ounce of nuance he could from a part offering little opportunity for it. And, though the Nordic type isn't usually my thing, his uber-buff portrayal of Marvel's reboot of the Scandinavian myth had this atheist thinking, "Maybe there is a god (http://www.celebuzz.com/2011-05-03/shirtless-chris-hemsworth-all-the-reason-you-need-to-see-thor-photos/)."

So we come 'round to Bill Maher's purportedly atheist movie, Religulous (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5yJ2qUyxCk), released in 2008 but not seen by our household until this week. Actually, Religulous is better described as anti-religious, which, of course, is a position the agnostic and the person of faith can also take. In his satirical approach, Maher generally picks only the low-hanging fruit. Religulous reminds me of nothing so much as those newspaper articles about science fiction conventions, in which the reporter interviews an 800-lb. fan with visible B.O. and a Spock costume (complete to surgically altered ears), then implies that everyone at a con is like this. Had Maher done more than just punch a straw man, the movie would have been a lot more interesting. And valid.

We also enjoyed Breaking Dawn: Part 1, which is the latest of the Twilight Saga movie adaptations, and the best since the first. I admit the series should make my feminist head explode, but it's such a fascinating exploration of a severely fucked-up relationship...which I would not be surprised to learn Stephenie Meyer knows, seeing as her characters are familiar with Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights. And is it just me, or does a disturbing percentage of the criticism of the Twilight Saga boil down to "She wrote it but she shouldn't have. She wrote it but look at what she wrote about. She wrote it but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art"?

Other movies I saw this year include: Astroboy (much better than I expected -and how did they get the movie greenlighted when they kill the main character, a little boy, in the first few minutes?); Contagion (scientifically accurate insofar as this non-scientist can tell, and therefore all the more terrifying); Presumed Innocent (a good adaptation of one of the finest suspense novels ever written); its sequel, Innocent (an okay adaptation of the Presumed Innocent sequel, which I haven't read); the True Grit remake (uneven, but young actress Hailee Steinfeld is a marvel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GkAH7IUWOE&feature=relmfu); the riveting and disturbing Let the Right One In (which might be described as a vampire film by Ingmar Bergman); a wildly incoherent yet still wondrous Hong Kong wuxia heroic fantasy movie, Dragon Inn (variant title, New Dragon Gate Inn, 1992 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVsqB22CQ2I), starring Brigitte Lin as a cross-dressing warrior woman and Maggie Cheung as an inn owner whose sidelines include killing and robbing guests and serving their artfully disguised remains to her clientele; and a pair of great Colin Firth films, A Single Man (whose ending irritates, though I suspect it's true to the Christopher Isherwood novel from which it is adapted) and The King's Speech (which made me care deeply about the titular character, when usually I find the travails of royalty to be of zero interest).

Movies I hope soon to see include Conan the Barbarian; Immortals; and the American reboot of the Swedish film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVLvMg62RPA).

We Gonna Rock Down to Electric Avenue (Fiction)

Despite all the time spent downloading, I read a fair bit (many more books than I'm going to try to discuss here). Perhaps ironically, my e'reads included a number of steampunk works: K.W. Jeter's early novel, the uneven but interesting mashup Morlocks (1979); Jeter's later and stronger alt.Victorian romp, Infernal Devices (1987); Leanna Renee Hieber's unusual The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, which might best be described as a romantic emo supergroup gaslight-fantasy novel; Lavie Tidhar's careening Camera Obscura, which folds wuxia and blaxploitation into its multi-culti League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-style mashup; and Lionel Bramble's pair of delightful spy-fi steampunk adventures: "The Beast in the Machine" and 1901: A Steam Odyssey, which push both the League-style mashup and the erotic-fiction genre into strange, sometimes disturbing places -with the author having fun all the way.

I've just finished Thomas Marcinko's excellent new e'book collection, Astronauts and Heretics, which assembles several of his stories, all displaying his distinctly offkilter, sometimes acerbic, oft amusing Swift-via-Galaxy sensibilities. I'm not going to ruin your fun by describing all the stories, but "Whiter Teeth, Fresher Breath" is representative, with a science-fictional spin on the singles scene that I am sure no one else could ever have thought up.

Earlier this year, in anticipation of John Carter, the forthcoming movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Martian series, I read the first three novels. I was flinching in expectation of finding the first Barsoom novel, A Princess of Mars (1917), so racist, sexist, and colonialist that I'd throw it across the room, e'reader and all; but I discovered that ERB was struggling with the racial attitudes of his time (his heroic race of Martian "red men" is explicitly described as mixed race, while his white Martians are corrupt, decadent, and supremely manipulative). Ultimately, I'd say ERB lost the struggle with Edwardian attitudes, but I was encouraged enough to revisit Tarzan of the Apes, another favorite in the Golden Age of Science Fiction (i.e., when I was fourteen). It proved even more mixed in its attitudes than the Martian books, shall we say.

The first and second novels in new writer Aliette de Bodard's "Obsidian and Blood" series -Servant of the Underworld and Harbinger of the Storm -may both be characterized by my description of the first in Weird Tales: "Writing skillfully in a language not her first, [de Bodard] deftly combines a complex murder mystery that 'plays fair,' with a dark historical fantasy that is saturated in the supernatural and set in fifteenth-century Mexico." If you can handle the Aztecs' propensity for frequent sacrifice to appease their blood-thirsty gods, both books are well worth reading. I'm looking forward to the third in the series, Master of the House of Darts.

I also read Suzanne Collins's justly acclaimed novel, The Hunger Games (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAWODq_dMFI). This post-apocalyptic YA SF work can be read as a response to the Twilight Saga (Collins's female protagonist hardly sits around waiting for a man to save her); but of course there's far more going on than that. I don't think I've ever read a novel for which my teenaged self would've had such a sharply divergent reading from that of my grizzled current self (young me: escapist power-fantasy adventure a la ERB and Robert E. Howard; middle-aged me: sharply pointed, deeply sad critique of contemporary U.S. culture). I hope soon to read the trilogy's remaining books, Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

Other books I'll be reading in the near future include Leanna Renee Hieber's The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker; Danya Ingram's Eat Your Heart Out; Janni Lee Simner's Faerie Winter; Milton Davis's anthology Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology; Amal El-Mohtar's The Honey Mouth; JoSelle Vanderhooft and Steve Berman's anthology Heiresses of Russ 2011: The Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction of the Year; Carole McDonnell's Spirit Fruit: Collected Speculative Fiction; and Nisi Shawl's second collection, Something More and More, and the nonfiction anthology she edited, The Wiscon Chronicles: Volume 5: Writing and Racial Identity.

Cynthia Ward (http://www.cynthiaward.com) lives in the Los Angeles area. Her most recent fiction may be found in Pirates and Swashbucklers (Pulp Empire), edited by Nicholas Ahlheim; Tales From the Den: Wild and Weird Stories for Bears (Bear Bones Books/Lethe Press), edited by R. Jackson; and Triangulation: Last Contact (Parsec Ink), edited by Steve Ramey and Jamie Lackey. With Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press), which is now available as an e'book.

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