Friday, January 4, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.32: Karen Meisner

2012 Pleasures
by Karen Meisner

Maybe I ought to start jotting down little reviews every time I like something, so by the end of the year I'll have a handy list of my complete reading, viewing, and listening pleasures? But instead, I'll just sift through my blurry memories and pick out a few things that still shine brightly, now that 2012 is done.

Goblin Secrets by Will Alexander is a lovely sort of coming-of-age story, set in an original world full of strange magic with tangled roots that run deep. Beautifully written (it won the National Book Award, which is not a thing that often happens to debut novels about goblins). When I went on a long road trip in November with my husband and son, we brought the audiobook with us in the car. Listening to that story for a few hours transformed our travel into a fairytale journey. It's read by the author himself, who is a theater person from way back, and it may well be the best audio book reading I've ever heard. Recommended for anyone, but especially on road trips with kids.

As a lifelong fan of superhero comics, I've made do with a whole lot of heroines depicted through a depressingly sexist lens -- so I'm thrilled about what writer Kelly Sue DeConnick has done in the brand-new Captain Marvel. She's taken the vintage character of Carol Danvers and put her in a story that fits into canon (as well as any Marvel Comics retcon ever does, anyway) but creates an entirely new paradigm for how this character can be written. I'd say that Captain Marvel follows in the wake of the brilliant work Gail Simone did in Birds of Prey, in that it features tough, smart women for whom relationships with other women are central and meaningful. But Captain Marvel goes a step further in establishing its own modern style, from DeConnick's sharp writing to the painterly artwork by Dexter Soy, which brings out the characters as people of action. The dialogue is so good: smart, cool, funny, and utterly no-bullshit. I adore these women. The first six issues cover a time travel arc, highlighting Danvers' personal history as a fighter pilot within a wider history of American women pilots. It explores some of the struggles they faced, and how their fight to break down barriers opened doors for later generations. That's an aspect of history you don't often see in comics, especially presented the way it's done here, not as an abstract side note but as an active and ongoing part of Danvers' life, through her relationship to older female mentors and role models. Why is this sort of cross-generational friendship so rare to see that it deserves special mention? I find it tremendously moving and powerful. Don't get me wrong, though: this is no dry history lesson but a muscular action-adventure plot starring a fierce, difficult woman I'd want as a friend.

A completely different comic book that's making me happy is The Bravest Warriors. The writer is Joey Comeau, who's got a rare gift for merging sheer gleeful mayhem with a tender and genuine kindness. And through it all runs a sincere belief in the value of friendship. I've never seen the much-acclaimed show this comic is based upon, but I can't imagine it's any better, funnier, or cuter than the comic he's writing.

Babette's Feast: A 1987 Danish film based on an Isak Dinesen story, which I've watched now probably five times over the years. I always forget how much I love it. Each time it begins, I wonder: do I really want to waste two hours on this slow-paced, dreary thing? And each time, the movie pulls me in and lulls me with its subtle beauty, wraps me up in its pacing until my own modern impatience dissipates and I get attuned to its rhythms. From there, it moves through a story of emotional catharsis among all its characters. Never fails to stir and elate me. Incidentally, for foodies who like cooking shows: you may want to check it out. Babette's dinner can kick some Top Chef ass any day.

Speaking of tv! Yeah, I loved me a whole lot of television in 2012, like Scandal, Revenge, Lost Girl, Mad Men, How I Met Your Mother, New Girl, Parks & Recreation, and (god help me) The Vampire Diaries. Thanks to Netflix streaming, I could also revisit my two favorite oldies-but-goodies this year. I rediscovered the full run of Xena; it's a pretty goofy series most of the time, but also so freeform and creative and good-natured that I'm happy to just roll with it. Anyway, I'll put up with a lot to see Xena and Gabrielle stride through the world together. I'm in the middle of rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer now, and my love for that show only seems to deepen with time.

Many years ago, I read Charlotte Brontë's Villette and bounced right off it. This year, I picked it up again as an audiobook (ready by Mandy Weston) and oh, this time around the book blew my mind. What a badass Brontë was for writing such a thing! Audacious in its defiance of novelistic convention, with a narrator who describes continual heartbreak and sadness while perversely holding out on us, refusing to deliver the expected satisfactions either to herself or to the reader, and I need all my friends to read this so I can talk about it with them, because I cannot discuss the book without the context of the ending, that ending --! Wherein -- as it seems to me -- the narrator builds to a climax, then metaphorically flips the bird to reader expectations, drops the mic, and walks offstage. Oh god, I loved this crazy book so much.

I was knocked out by Andrea Hairston's novel Redwood and Wildfire (and got to be on the Tiptree jury that chose it for the award) in 2012. Hairston has written a gorgeous, painful story about people of color making their way through America at the turn of the (20th) century. In addition to being a wildly romantic and magical love story, it's also a thoughtful examination of human experience and the difficulties of creating personal identity, community, and relationships in a society that imposes false constructions and hateful damage. I found it exciting and hopeful.

Christopher Barzak wrote three stories and an essay in Birds and Birthdays, a slim book inspired by the surrealist painters Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, and Remedios Varo. The stories are wonderfully odd and dreamlike, spun off from bits of painting imagery into new magical creations. In his concluding essay, Barzak looks at the history of female painters among the male-dominated Surrealist movement, explores his own hesitations over his use of their work, and is generally awesome. As long as I'm writing about this on Timmi's site, by the way, I want to say: thank you for making Aqueduct Press a place where an oddball assortment like this can get published, because it's a beautiful set of writings, a much-deserved tribute to these painters, and one of my favorite things I read this year.

Hide Me Among the Graves: Tim Powers returns at last to the secret magical underworld of 19th century Romantic poets he first visited in The Stress of Her Regard, written over twenty years ago. This time around, the story is even more complex and richly imagined. Known history, weird facts, and imagination are woven together so well and seamlessly into a secret history that it feels like we're learning the truth about what really happened. All written in that clear Powers style, which somehow uses straightforward prose to conjure the most fantastic dark visions.

I guess I was in kind of a dark and spooky mood for much of this year, because my favorite new music is A Blessed Unrest by The Parlour Trick. Described on their webpage ( as "haunted chamber music and dark, dreamy ambience", this is a soundtrack for mythic moods. It ranges from beautifully evocative pieces like "Mare Desiderii" and "Half Sick of Shadows" to the ominous mystery of "Leafy Sea Dragon Nursery"; from the gentle dirge of "Pandora" to "Planchette" which sounds like something Erik Satie might have written after he was dead, with a ghostly backup band. And then there's "The Yellow Wallpaper", an epic seven minute work which achieves the rare effect of anguish and madness that rings true; it's both terrifying and gorgeous beyond words. The entire album is the work of multi-instrumentalists Meredith Yayanos and Dan Cantrell, and it's really something special.

 Karen Meisner concluded her eight year run as an editor of Strange Horizons this year, and went on to write for the BBC/Three Rings online game DOCTOR WHO: WORLDS IN TIME.  She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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