Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening, pt.19: Lesley Hall

Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012
by Lesley A. Hall

This was a year when various external pressures of workplace upheavals, academic and academic-relating commitments piling up in unwonted fashion, and health issues including substantial amounts of dental work, meant that I spent quite a lot of time metaphorically huddling in a corner sucking my thumb and hugging my teddybear, and doing quantities of comfort re-reading.

Even so, there were new and exciting discoveries. I encountered perhaps an unusual number of recent books that rang my particular bells. One I can't say much about, since it was the manuscript kindly made available to me by a well-known author which is, nonetheless, having publishing difficulties (and while I did absolutely love it, I think I can see why, because it doesn't really fit into the kinds of neat categories and predefined niches that the industry likes).

Another one was self-published - Ankaret Wells, The Firebrand, which is a wonderful steampunky mashup inspired by Bronte juvenilia and rang an absolute carillon of bells for me between the style, the narrative voice, the characters, the worldbuilding. I already (I hope) led some readers to her when I included The Books of Requite in my 2010 round-up.

Roz Kaveney's Rituals: Rhapsody of Blood, Volume I, also chimed mightily, and I think for similar reasons. A great distinctive narrative voice is possibly my personal bullet-proof kink. Add to this great and complex women central characters, an appreciation that women can be effective agents without having to be leatherclad ass-kicking assassins or macha swordswomen, and can deal with problems by deploying intelligence, negotiating skills and a whole range of options that don't require violence, more than one woman in the frame, an intriguing cosmology... my only complaint with this book was perhaps that it has the dread 'Volume I' in the title: I am now jonesing for the next installments.

I've long been a fan of Joolz Denby's novels, which straddle a dark boundary of thriller/horror/noir/gothic/gritty (the horrors are not supernatural, which makes them the more horrific), set in brilliantly realised contemporary settings. Wild Thing, which appeared earlier this year from the small press Ignite Books, was very much in this territory, so I practically experienced whiplash when I read the charming The Curious Mystery Of Miss Lydia Larkin & The Widow Marvell, a very different, though equally excellent and compelling novella.

Like everybody else I know, I was blown away by Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity about women as undercover agents and aviators in World War II and friendship and... immensely complex narrative that makes it one of the few books where there genuinely is a need to observe the requirement not to bruit about spoilers for those who haven't yet read it.

Via the good offices of Project Gutenberg, on which be peace, I was able to read Dorothy Canfield Fisher's The Bent Twig (1915) and Kathleen Norris's Saturday's Child (1914), two novels which had interesting similarities as bildungsromans centring on young women from relatively humble and unprivileged backgrounds, and incorporating strong anti-plutocratic notes in the development of plot and character. Both are novelists I must read more of.

 I didn't watch the televisation of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End tetralogy (I suppose there are actors even less like Christopher Tietjens as described in the text than Benedict Cumberbatch... but this casting news rather put me off) but I was moved by the general buzz to re-read Parade's End, and was yet again stunned by the extraordinary narrative technique (even if I sometimes wanted to summon up the shade of Ford to smack it with a haddock for all those terrible social preconceptions over a range of axes).

 I also, for a seminar paper I'd been invited to give, re-read (I can't count which times these would have been!) Naomi Mitchison's Memoirs of a Spacewoman and Solution Three. Yet again I was struck at how complex and rich Mitchison's work is, what dense layers there are within it, something that her extreme readibility and narrative drive seem to have effectively concealed.

As far as non-fiction reading went, I was thrilled by the appearance of Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader. This is a wonderful gathering together of Rubin's important contributions to thinking about and historicising sexuality, providing an overview of her work over the course of her career. I was particularly taken by her magnificent defence of empiricism versus theoretical work, and the very necessary reminder that empiricism may actually be engaging with theory but not in a flashy or currently-fashionable way, while theorists may be basing their theorising on unsteady foundations of unexamined assumptions or outdated work.

Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (2012) was surprisingly compelling reading, given that it consists of often laconic and occasionally downright cryptic journal entries.

 Other cultural activities.

This was the year that I finally got to visit the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden in St Ives, Cornwall. This was something I have long wanted to do, but it's a lengthy journey, at least by UK standards, from London to near Lands' End. But anyway, I had a short but lovely weekend break in St Ives, which is delightful in itself if unsurprisingly very full of visitors. I did not manage to visit
Virginia Woolf's lighthouse, but at least I saw it out in the bay.

While in Cardiff for a conference I was able to make a flying visit to the National Art Museum, in particular to gaze on its Monets, part of a major art collection built up by two remarkable Welsh sisters, Gwendolen and Margaret Davies, and given by them to the National Museum.

Lesley A. Hall is a London-based archivist and historian, and author of several books on the history of gender and sexuality. She has also published the Aqueduct Press Conversation Piece, Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of her life and work (2007). Her biography of a pioneering British feminist sex radical and campaigner for reproductive freedom, The Life and Times of Stella Browne, feminist and free spirit, was published by IB Tauris last year, and the expanded and updated second edition of her textbook, Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880 has just been published. Lesley's website can be found at

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