Monday, December 12, 2016

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016, pt. 2: Sarah Tolmie

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2016
by Sarah Tolmie

1. The Found and the Lost: Collected Novellas of Ursula Le Guin (Saga Press, 2016)

I love novellas and I learned to love them from reading Le Guin. Indeed, it was her precise and firm judgement about how long a story should be, apparently divorced from all marketing concerns — for I have since found that this is a length very hard to sell — that subliminally formed mine.

Ursula, it is all your fault that all my short stories turn into novellas! (Bless you.)

This is the latest in the Le Guin anthology drive, which is presumably supposed to reinforce the question: why has she not won the Nobel Prize? So far, it is one of my favourites. I have read all the different tales separately, but they read well together; the book is a kind of masterclass in the form. Not to belabour the point, but she is the kind of quintessentially American voice that is a useful corrective to these times; hers is the most sustained, reasoned, pitiless but compassionate exploration of the big American themes that I know of: the psychological burden of freedom, the profits and losses of internationalism, the ways in which individuals and collectivities relate. She has articulated for a lifetime the value of art and language, and also championed non-sexual love. I would say she is the high priestess of agape for our era. There are erotic relationships in her work everywhere, but people also love places, objects, traditions and ideas. It is refreshing to hear about these and they are powerfully important. She is the only person ever to make me care about western landscape for more than a microsecond, and, more importantly, the only person ever to use the word “pious” (as she does, memorably, in Lavinia) in a way that doesn’t make me want to puke. Her oeuvre has been, from first to last, entirely free of Christian messianism in any form, which is a great achievement, as it is still one of the driving forces of the sf genres right across the board. Sacrificial gambits in her stories always work another way, and most monotheists are barbarians. It’s a huge relief.

In short: keep reading Le Guin, and reassure yourself that not everyone in the English-speaking world is insane.

2. Time’s Oldest Daughter, Susan Lyons (Aqueduct, 2017)

I read this book to blurb it for Timmi. It made me feel very important, blurbing. But everyone else should read it for less narcissistic reasons. It’s great, and truly unusual. I still remember reading, years ago, in some introduction that Tolkien wrote, that he “cordially disliked” allegory, and at the time I thought I did, too. I have since realized that I do like allegory; in fact, when well handled, it is a medium I love: subtle, flexible, polyvalent, leaving lots of room for readerly action. Time’s Oldest Daughter is like this. It is brief and intellectually dense, but lyrical. Not many people are willing to take on Milton, or if they do, they make a big fuss about it. Lyons just gets the job done, in surprisingly Miltonic language (not the bombastic Milton, the smart and efficient Milton), taking feminism right back to the beginning — or before it, indeed, prequeling Milton’s prequel of the historical human world. You’ll see what I mean. Highly worth reading.

3. Eugene Onegin, choreographed by John Cranko, performed by the National Ballet of Canada, Toronto.

The best ballet performance I have ever seen. I am a big Balanchine fan; I like that tick-tick-tick modernist/neo-classical precision and the sheer technical demands of it. Cranko is very different, much more romantic. The vocabulary is more modern-dancey to my mind; some lifts and floor work look like contact improvisation. But the duets in this ballet just knock your eye out. The emotional range of them within Pushkin’s simple plot is stunning: upbeat Rom-Com courtship; adolescent Twilight fantasy; homosocial regret; married-people-are-sexy-too; and, most importantly, revisit-and-abandon-your-Twilight-fantasy-like-a-grownup. I saw Guillaume Coté dance Onegin. He was fantastic, a privilege to witness. And Greta Hodgkinson as Tatiana. Miraculous. One of the cool things about the National right now is how many senior dancers they have — really experienced old hands who have been with the company for 20 years, who haven’t lost their physical edge but have gained tremendous power and nuance. Absolutely wow.

4. Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, on Netflix.

I watched these with my ten-year-old son, who loves anime. Now he is obsessed with Japanese food and is cooking it at home and combing through our recipe books and reading about ramen online. All of this is good. The episodes are lovely, if a bit uneven, each titled after a particular dish made at an all-night diner in Shinjuku. The cast is diverse, the stories charming and wonky, and the master chef presides with terrific gravity. Now we are set to watch the original Japanese-made (and much longer) series upon which it was, apparently, based. Many enjoyable family movie nights ahead.

This doesn’t seem like much, does it? I guess it was a busy writing and teaching year. I will say that I either read or false-started a number of new books this year that I didn’t like, some from small presses and some from the Big Five. The whole experience reinforced what seems to me to be the sheer arbitrariness of the publishing world. It is a crapshoot at every level from the reader’s point of view. Weird. It may also be that I am in a retreatist state of mind. This is the year in which, after much faffing around and moral wrestling, I gave up on social media (an odd thing to say on a blog, of course). And it wasn’t really prompted by the horrors of the recent US election, either, or at least not directly. It was its role as a purveyor of illusions. Plus its addictiveness. So, now I am stuck with all my other addictions, but at least not that one. And while I am a firm believer in the power and usefulness of illusion, what the Dutch call houding (or used to be in the 17th century, anyway) I need mine to be better crafted. So I’m going to read books instead.

Sarah Tolmie is an Associate Professor in the English department at the University of Waterloo, where she teaches medieval and renaissance literature, general British literature, and creative writing. She publishes on the bizarre late medieval visionary poem Piers Plowman and its relations to logic and language and has been developing a virtual reality translation of the text — what she calls a “wearable poem” that the reader walks into via a head-mounted display — called the Salvation Suit, since 2009. This technological experiment has led to several other research-creation projects, among them building an augmented reality angel out of a human dancer and a pair of dynamically-responsive virtual wings, and making a whispering gallery of voices saying “goodbye” with a Kinect, an interactive theatre piece about mourning. Aqueduct Press published her debut novel, The Stone Boatmen, which was nominated for the Crawford Award, and NoFood, a suite of stories, in 2014. This year we published a pair of her fictions as Two Travelers.

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