Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017, pt. 21: Carrie Devall

Pleasures of 2017
by Carrie Devall

This has been a very long and yet very short year. I did a lot of reading but much was for work, or to understand how this particular sociopolitical moment came to fruition. I watched a lot of bad TV, dubbed, to improve my Spanish for work. However, the bright spots shone that much more brightly this year.

One fiction series that I read to bookend the year was Binti and it's sequel, by Nnedi Okorafor.  I picked Binti up because it was short, not realizing the compressed story would pack such a wallop.  I am not a big fan of first contact and alien communication stories, until I read one that hits home.  Binti did this, dense in the best science fictional sense, and full of possibilty despite horrific perils.  The sequel, Binti: Home, went off in a different direction but did not let up on either possibility or realistic jeopardy.

I reread Malka Older's Infomocracy in anticipation of the sequel coming out in September, to be able to pay more attention to the worldbuilding and political details.  I was glad I did, though in both readings it took me a long time to get into the story while commute-reading in short stints.  This was also true of Null States, the sequel.  

However, each story started moving along, in worlds rich in both small details and political intrigue.  Whenever anyone says they wish someone would write a story about what comes next after this political chaos/standoff, I say, "Read Malka Older." The intriguing concept of microdemocracy and its up and down sides are illustrated with a variety of characters spread across some very different settings.

I spent a lot of 2017 immersed in Finnish language and cultural products, spurred on by the idea of another truly world Worldcon and by my ongoing infatuation with Finnish and Estonian literature.  Briefly, in August, I got to spend a week immersed in the real deal, attending my first Worldcon and hiking around Helsinki, nearby Nuuksio National Park, and neighboring Tallinn, Estonia.

We saw lots of cool sights, but the highlight of the sightseeing was the chance to experience extensive and affordable public transit while the Minnesota legislature was trying to defund our city transit.  Other highlights of Helsinki were old buildings and finding lots of good vegan food thanks to foodies, fads, and Nepali refugees.  We had an interesting conversation about American politics with guys who ran one Nepalese restaurant, after they graciously let us eat and run at closing time.  We discussed tasty recipes across the language barrier at a fancy Finnish local foods vegan restaurant in off hours. I made some people laugh with me about my very limited Finnish abilities, and fooled a few people until I became quickly tongue-tied.  We discovered the Gandhi-inspired Vegan Inspiratsioon nestled amidst the graffitied medieval towers and churches.
A highlight of Worldcon 75 was the many translation and world sff panels at the con, though they filled up quickly.  The chance to attend multiple panels with Johanna Sinisalo talking and reading her work in both Finnish and English was the main reason I saved up for this trip. I was not disappointed. I learned a lot about many of the more obscure-to-a-non-Finn references and weirder aspects of her novels. The Iron Sky sequel trailer was an unexpected pleasure.

Many of the Worldcon panels are posted on YouTube. I spent a lazy weekend watching these and have to recommend the interviews with Johanna Sinisalo and Nalo Hopkinson, for starters. Scott Edelman also did an in-depth interview of Johanna Sinisalo for his Eating the Fantastic podcast, along with many other interviews of a great selection of writers.  He asks good questions.

Not to be a broken record, but I got the chance to see many Finnish films and listen to Finnish folk music this year thanks to Suomi 100 events, for the 100th year of Finnish independence. Finnfest was in Minnesota this year.  I went to see a coworker rock on the mandolin along with some very talented musicians playing traditional instruments like the kantele. (We also got to meet the 'true' Santa, but the record 90+ degree September heat was too much for his reindeer.) The films I saw were all quite good, with an often subtle and sly sense of humor and humanism that were appreciated by the Minnesota audiences.  

Probably the best was Love and Fury (Syysprinssi, 2016, directed by Alli Haapasalo and shown at Finnfest). It did a good job of conveying a sense of 80s art/lit and political scenes and their oppositional style.  I liked how the 80s was evoked by ideas, not pop music or clothes, though these were not absent. The film seemed at first (and from the trailer) to be a study of a flashy, narcissistic, and well-funded male writer and his mental struggles.  However, the quiet but solid spine of the story was a woman writer just doing her work, finding her voice despite him, and persisting despite limited support.

A film from this year's MSPIFF that really stood out from a strong field was Sami Blood (Sameblod), a film about Sweden's treatment of the Sami people set in the 1930s, the debut film by Sami writer/director Amanda Kernel. I was curious how the film would affect the mostly Swedish-American audience. The festival often plays broad comedies as their Swedish films. The great acting and the heartbreaking, intimate story of a defiant young woman full of thwarted desires seemed to move everyone.

Another great movie was Signature Move, by writer/director Jennifer Reeder, I think also her debut.  This was in English, Urdu, and Spanish, a fun lesbian romance centered around semiprofessional wrestling. There was a pretty thick layer of familiar cheese around the cross-cultural misunderstandings and mother-daughter conflict, but it worked.

A winning documentary was Chavela, by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyl, about singer Chavela Vargas. I had not known that she was originally from Costa Rica, and knew her mainly as one of Frida Kahlo's more dramatic lovers.  She was popular first in Mexico, but alcohol took its toll.  The film spends a long time on her later life and the Spanish revival of her career. It is worth seeing for the music alone.

Some other things that lightened 2017 a little were the ever stranger but delicious forms of vegan cheese my girlfriend learned to make. I also read a lot of vegan cookbooks, to keep up.  The most original and least repetitive were Street Vegan: Recipes and Dispatches from The Cinnamon Snail Food Truck, by Adam Sobel, and But I Could Never Go Vegan! by Kristy Turner.  The spicy sandwiches in the Street Vegan and the cheeses in the Turner book are winners.

Catherine Lundoff did me a big favor by making me get off my duff on a work night to go see Cleve Jones speak at the Quatrefoil Library. It was in the middle of a long week spent thinking about and working virtually in Puerto Rico, but he was engaging and inspiring. He answered questions about his book When We Rise.  He covered a lot of ground, including being a gay teen in Indiana, running off to San Francisco, working with Harvey Milk, the Quilt Project, and his ongoing union organizing.  The admonitions that every victory is temporary, it can be done, and keep fighting are still ringing in my ears.

The French film Beats Per Minute ( 120 battements par minute), directed by Robin Campillo, was a good look at a non-New York ACT UP.  It reminded me a lot of ACT UP Boston and San Francisco and conveyed the sense of urgency, improvisation, and found community I remember. It took time to get into the arguments about tactics and the ethics and effectiveness of insider strategies that various documentaries have also explored.

Another book about organizing and community that I spent a lot of time thinking about after reading it was Sarah Schulman's latest nonfiction book Conflict Is Not Abuse.  She builds on her prior nonfiction writing and draws on her experience in a range of social movements to discuss effective and destructive strategies for ending abusive behavior without relying on police and the legal and penal systems. It's not the first discussion of these issues, but she draws on her unique points of insight and personal experience.

I read that after a very different discussion of recent social movement praxis and ethics, Jonathan Smuckers' Hegemony How-To: A Handbook for Radicals. Neither of these books said things that were news to me, after years in the same and similar groups and observing what has worked and backfired for others. But I liked how they were both rigorous and forthright in examining mistakes and detrimental assumptions the groups they were in had made.

I picked up Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera (Riverdale Ave Books) because of the cover art by Kristy Road and the catchy blurb. It turned out to be a fun and thoughtful story about a young woman from the Bronx going to Portland, OR, for a summer internship with a new-agey white woman who inspired her with a body positive manifesto.  She wrestles with the contradictions in various mentors' personal political theories and the differences in their actions, forging her own way and pursuing a sweet, sexy romance.

Carmen Maria Machado's collection, Her Body and Other Parties is the kind of short story collection you want to hate because everyone says it is a must-read to the point it seems overhyped, but then you read it and can't avoid doing the same thing.

Murder on the Red River by Marcie Rendon, a local author, is a Minnesota mystery in a familiar vein but explores the protagonist's experiences in the foster care system and the legacy of Minnesota's removal of native children from their parents.

Lucy Jane Bledsoe's latest novel, A Thin Bright Line, fictionalizes and extrapolates from what she learned about her aunt, who died in a fire. The protagonist lucks into a job working for a visionary scientist who is extracting the first-ever polar ice cores and explores various lesbian communities of the Cold War era.

Finally, I appreciated the detailed history of how various public lands and national parks came to be found in the 2005 memoir of Mike McCloskey, In the Thick of It: My Life in the Sierra Club.  As a young lawyer, he became the first field organizer of the Sierra Club, in the days before the Club became a direct mail behemoth. It was a timely read, as much of this legacy is under threat of dismantling, road building, toxic resource extraction, and other destructive uses. I also learned some new inside dirt on my uncle's longstanding environmental movement gripes and antipathies.  

As my uncle would say, the challenge is to Think Like a Mountain. But also, to win when necessary.  Here's to 2018.

Carrie Devall writes from Minneapolis, MN, where it rains a lot thanks to global warming.

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