Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2019, pt. 25: Christopher Brown

Year in Reading — 2019
by  Christopher Brown

The book that consumed me the most this past year was an old one, and one I had read before, albeit in a different translation. Njal’s Saga is a 13th century epic about a lawyer in 9th century Iceland who specializes in complex settlements of family feuds. That the settlements never stick for long is kind of the main point of the story—someone always breaks the peace, and the cycle of violence renews over generations. I re-read Njal in search of the deep roots of the lawyer story, and it holds up well in that regard, especially since the system of proto-torts that bound that society together was very close to our own Anglo-Saxon roots. More surprising was to see how much the saga works in some of the same ways as a science fiction colonization story—a tale of people settling a hostile landscape in which the only other human inhabitants found upon their arrival were a few Irish hermits sequestered in coastal caves, and a story that shows how the basic systems human societies create to resolve disputes by means other than violence are the essence of government. 

In my year-end round-up here for 2016, I talked about another of the Icelandic sagas, Laxdaela Saga, and its storyline about Unn the Deep-Minded, a female Viking and sage who found herself leading her people and managed to briefly establish a kind of intentional community founded on equitable distributions of property, the abolition of forced servitude, and more just governance. The negative space of those stories opens portals into possibility, in the unrecorded histories of those who tried a different path, the kind of utopian path that small groups can manage where large permanent settlements cannot.

The world of Njal, crippled by the unceasing blood feuds of men who divided up the land and reflexively drew their swords to settle the merest slights, was also the world of Unn, who founded a community based on an ethos of sharing. That the world of Unn could only exist as an ephemeral island in a sea of Viking raiders tells a lot about the challenges of constructing utopia, even in terra nullius.

The search for examples of other such islands drove the wide-ranging research reading I undertook this year while working on my new book, Failed State, about a lawyer representing people who have been hauled in front of a post-revolutionary justice tribunal—a utopian legal thriller, to bookend my dystopian legal thriller, Rule of Capture, which came out this past summer. Utopia is nowhere, but it is rewarding to search for.

I learned that Gudrun Ensslin called consumer society “the raspberry Reich,” and that her comrade in arms Andreas Baader insisted on wearing his favorite hip-hugging velvet trousers instead of army fatigues even while training for combat at a PLO camp in the Jordanian desert. The Baader-Meinhof Group by Stefan Aust, a journalist who worked with Ulrike Meinhof in the early days and was exceptionally close to the material, is a remarkable examination of how youthful political activism evolved into armed struggle in West Germany. It was one of many books about revolution and justice I read or re-read, including a number from or about Germany: Peter Weiss’s masterful The Investigation, which repurposed transcripts from the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials as the material for a remarkable stage play; Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem; Abby Mann’s Judgment at Nuremberg; and Leora Bilsky’s The Holocaust, Corporations and the Law.  

I read one new book in Spanish, El Comensal by Gabriela Ybarra (published in English as The Dinner Guest), an intense and compelling short novel about the author’s investigation of her own grandfather’s kidnapping and murder by Basque terrorists in the 1970s. I read Chinua Achebe’s collection Girls at War, the engaging title story of which is a curious example of the way certain writers romanticize the figure of the female revolutionary (this writer included). I re-read Graham Greene’s The Comedians, his novel of the Haitian revolution, and found that the languorous charisma of the author’s late colonial decadence does not age well. I read Sophie Wahnich’s In Defense of the Terror, a fresh critical reconsideration of the French Revolution and its hagiography. And I read Paul Krassner’s Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders: A Tale of Two Trials, the satirist’s insightful diary of two very different but both uniquely American prosecutions of political violence in the 1970s.

Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto was one of the best new books of the year for me, an innovative story about two women collaborating on a project: a Philippine translator recently returned to her home country from New York, who gets hired to help a documentary filmmaker research her own father’s filming of a Vietnam War movie there decades earlier (think Apocalypse Now or Platoon). As they seek out the locations from the film, they confront more authentic atrocities, and uncover layers of erasure and colonization in the process.  

I also sampled a number of utopian novels, from More’s eponymous classic to SF masters like Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (re-“read” as an engaging audiobook) and The Word for World is Forest, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I even re-read chunks of James Hilton’s Shangri-La fantasy Lost Horizon, which I had read as a teen. More interestingly, many of the books I picked up this year for other reasons turn out in retrospective consideration to have been works I would categorize as utopian.  Longer by Michael Blumlein is a beautiful science fiction novella about age and longevity, from one of our most unique contemporary sf writers, a physician who at the time he was working on the book was also facing the cancer that sadly took his life this fall. (Blumlein’s Thoreau’s Microscope, like the Krassner part of PM Press’s outstanding Outspoken Authors series edited by Terry Bisson, is another amazing one I had the fortune to read this year, especially memorable for the title essay in which the author considers the wonder of his own cancer cells as viewed through the microscope.) Jessica Reisman’s The Arcana of Maps compiles a beautifully written array of stories about communities of people trying to build better realities free of conflict. Tears of the Trufflepig, the debut novel of Fernando Flores, is a literary dystopia of the Texas-Mexico borderlands that somehow harbors a utopian mirror in the memory of the reader. And Erik Davis’s High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica and Visionary Experience in the Seventies interestingly synthesizes the utopian proclivities found in the works of Robert Anton Wilson, Terrence McKenna and Philip K. Dick and their tripped-out searches for paths to higher awareness.

Ecological concerns appear in most of those utopian books, and much of the nonfiction ecology writing I read this year also straddled the utopia/dystopia axis, for obvious reasons. Silvia Federici’s Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons collects an engaging body of radical essays on capitalism, feminism, and our relationship with the land. Ashley Dawson’s Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change argues the utopian potential to reorganize more equitable and just community structures in response to the threat of climate crisis. The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells is more grim, a travelogue of what he presents as the inevitable state of the near-future world absent dramatic action to change our collective behaviors. Seeing Like a State by James Scott weighs against the possibility of utopia, and maybe even of any authentic capacity for pur collective self-improvement, with an incisive critique of the hubris inherent in human efforts to engineer better political economies atop natural systems. Along with Scott’s more recent Against the Grain, a deep history of the Anthropocene which I mentioned here last year, a compelling case is made that the only real solutions to our current ecological problems lie in a radical reworking of some of the fundamental socio-economic structures that were created by (and helped create) the agricultural revolution—a revelation of impossibility that suggests the Cassandras like Wallace-Wells may be more accurate in their dismal prognostications than I am inclined to believe.

As tonic for all this, at the end of the year I discovered a book called Frauen Auf Bäumen (Women in Trees) by Jochen Reiss, a book of found amateur photos of just what the title promises. I am not sure why, but when I picked the book up for my wife and daughter, I thought it was the most utopian thing I could find, encoding some oblique answers as to where a healthier future lies. Maybe even by climbing back into the trees, or at least planting enough of them to start our way back.

Christopher Brown’s novel Tropic of Kansas was a finalist for the 2018 Campbell Award for best science fiction novel of the year. His latest novel, Rule of Capture, was published by Harper Voyager in 2019. He lives in Austin, where he also practices law.

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2019, pt. 24: Julie Phillips

 A Year of Shifting Perceptions
by Julie Phillips

It’s been a year of shifting perceptions for me, in which some things that have been stuck for a long time came loose, I can only hope for the better. Among my favorites this year are some books and a film about how to take useful action, whether or not you know where you’re heading.

The most encouraging book I read all year was Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy, a meditation on social justice and science fiction that is also a kind of carrier bag for ideas about imagination and change. Emergence has to do with allowing small interactions to become linked together in complex patterns of community and persistence. Taking inspiration from the work of Octavia Butler, as well as from biology and chaos theory, Brown emphasizes resilience and adaptivity as useful qualities and suggests learning from the survival strategies of dandelions, mushrooms, and oak trees. 

She also advises “collaborative ideation—what are the ideas that liberate all of us? The more people that collaborate on that ideation, the more that people will be served by the resulting world(s). Science fiction is simply a way to practice the future together.” Citing Toni Cade Bambara, she says, “We must make just and liberated futures irresistible.” 

While I was reading Emergent Strategy and marching in demos, an old friend took me to see Born in Flames, Lizzie Borden’s 1983 science fiction film about women plotting a revolution. It deals with the potential power of small-scale direct action, and I just can’t tell you how good this movie is and how amazing it feels to watch in this moment. Visually and thematically, it illustrates Brown’s patterns of emergence: Gangs of women on bicycles circulate for safer streets. Two pirate radio stations create links between feminist cells citywide. And an older activist (played by feminist lawyer Flo Kennedy) advises a younger one: “Which would you rather see come through the door, one unified lion or 500 mice? You know, 500 mice can do a lot of damage.”

The central narrative of armed revolution is not the film’s strongest point, although a scene of the Women’s Army hijacking a New York City TV station does have a kind of anti-Fox News satisfaction. But its class- and race-conscious analysis of feminism is fine, and I enjoyed its ’80s feminist anti-style (one of my responses to it was “Hey, I used to wear that”) and terrific punk soundtrack. You can watch it on demand here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/borninflames

The feminism of Born in Flames grows out of patterns of verbal exchange, and so do the weird liberating qualities of The Blazing World, the epically strange 1666 work of fiction by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. A friend asked me to write about it, and knowing very little about it, I expected it to be a utopia of place—its creator’s perfect world. What I found was a utopia of process, of dialogue and relationships. The Blazing World isn’t actually on fire, sadly, though it has the usual buildings made of gemstones and so on. Its most remarkable property is that many of its inhabitants are half-human, half-animal—bird-men, lice-men, fish-men, worm-men—and the human scientist who becomes its empress persuades them to help her research the causes of natural phenomena. Where the science of the time placed men above women and the natural world, Cavendish advocated scientific inquiry as interspecies collaboration. 

It’s also very funny. After a while the empress decides she needs a secretary, and the spirits of the Blazing World tell her she can choose anyone, living or dead.

Instead she asks for a contemporary philosopher like Galileo or Descartes, but the Spirits answer that they’re too arrogant to be a secretary to a woman. Then the Spirits say, why not try the Duchess of Newcastle? So she summons the Duchess, who says, I’d love to, but my handwriting is terrible. And the Empress says, I can live with that. So they start having long conversations and making up new fantasy worlds. Collaborative ideation!

Also in 2019 I wrote about Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue https://4columns.org/phillips-julie/native-tongue. I went to a great reading by my old Voice colleague Colson Whitehead, who is very funny about growing up a nerd as well as a profound and imaginative thinker about the use and misuse of power. I reviewed Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and thought about how subtly she’s always written about the space between individual women and their roles. https://www.julie-phillips.com/wp/?p=1048 I rediscovered the wonderful film Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974) by Jacques Rivette, a fantasy in which three female characters stage a jailbreak from a heterosexist love story and go off in search of a better plot.

I was sad that we lost Vonda N. McIntyre this year, and moved by her generosity in donating her estate to Clarion West. Another project she encouraged friends to support was research into the Southern Resident orcas who live in the waters of the Pacific Northwest. When I renewed my family’s orca adoption again this December, I thought of her, of the matriarchal society of the orcas, and how hard it is to keep imagining my way toward others, even though it feels like the work that needs to be done.

I don’t know if that’s part of un-stuckness, but I’m trying.

Julie Phillips is a book critic and the author of the NBCC and Hugo Award-winning biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. She lives in Amsterdam, where she’s working on a biographical look at writing and mothering in the 20th century, to be called The Baby on the Fire Escape.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2019, pt. 23: Lesley Hall

The Pleasures of Reading, Seeing, Listening 2019
by Lesley Hall

This year I made a start on the massive, almost overwhelming, task of culling my bookshelves. I look at them, and I am increasingly aware that there are an awful lot of books there that I am never going to re-read. However, a by-product of this process was coming across books and authors that I realised I did want to re-read, and hadn’t for some time, with the consequence that I fell down several rabbit-holes of rediscovery, which was rather the keynote more generally.

In particular, I re-read all the Amanda Cross (pseudonym of Carolyn Heilbrun)’s Kate Fansler mysteries. I must have started acquiring these when one could occasionally find the US mass-market paperbacks in certain London bookshops – Compendium just off Camden Market, Sisterwrite on Upper Street Islington – long before any of them were picked up by Virago Press and published in the UK. 

I wish, in retrospect, that I had taken more trouble to read them in publication order rather than picking them randomly off the shelf as I could reach them: I think I would have gained a clearer sense of how Cross was increasingly engaging with the rise of ‘second-wave’ feminism and the rediscovery of women writers and women’s literary traditions. 

There are certainly ways in which they were ‘of their period’ and written from a particularly situated perspective, but still, there are some very acute takes on the academy and male academics (did, one wonders, Cross/Heilbrun enact on the page the murders that she felt tempted to in life?). Glancing at some of the reviews on Amazon and GoodReads I gleaned a sense that readers who came to them with conventional mystery genre expectations were sometimes somewhat baffled. My own take on Cross’s increasingly cavalier way with the conventions of the genre was that she was riffing with it. Further, I surmised that, in fact, she had chosen to write within genre for the plausible deniability ‘o, it is only a novel’ reasons that women (and other marginalized groups) have used for generations to be able to write what they want, to play with story and ideas.

One of her influences was surely Dorothy L. Sayers, and among the new books I read this year, I must strongly recommend Mo Moulton’s The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women (Basic Books, 2019). While I may have a few qualms about the claims made in the subtitle, I found this an excellent study of a friendship network formed between a group of dissimilar women drawn together as contemporaries at Somerville College, Oxford, in the period just before women could even be awarded degrees. Particularly subtle on issues around sexuality and gender identity.

Another rediscovery this year of an old favourite: Marta Randall issued Mapping Winter, the restored version of her novel The Sword of Winter (1983) (which in its original publication was subjected to various undesired changes at the editor’s behest), along with an entirely new sequel, The River South. Randall was one of those women writing sf and fantasy active in the 1970s and 80s who seems to have fallen off the radar – that editorial attitude may explain why? – but perhaps will now be having a renaissance.

In the realm of other arts, recovering/rediscovering women was also a theme. This year saw several striking and memorable exhibitions in London recuperating the work of women artists. I managed to catch Lee Krasner: Living Colour at the Barbican and the Dora Marr retrospective at the Tate Modern: two women whose careers began well before their association with the male artist whose reputation has alas, so long overshadowed theirs, and continued long after that ended. Also the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery. In an era where so many artworks seem to come accompanied with ‘artist statements’, Sherman’s entitling her autoportraits ‘Untitled [number]’ is provocative and intriguing, leaving interpretation up to the viewer, though framed within overarching sequence descriptions such as ‘Film Stills’, alluding to generic tropes of female representation that Sherman played with. 

Only last week I went to a concert at which was performed the very impressive 3rd Symphony in G minor by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875), who I discover not only had a distinguished professional career (let no-one tell you it is ‘unrealistic’ to have a woman professor at the Paris Conservatoire…) but is also having something of a revival of her oeuvre moment.

Lesley Hall was born in the seaside resort and channel port of Folkestone, Kent, and now lives in north London. She recently retired from a career as an archivist of over 40 years. She has published several books and numerous articles on issues of gender and sexuality in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain, and is currently researching British interwar progressive movements and individuals. She has also published a volume in the Aqueduct Press Conversation Pieces series, Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of her life and work (2007). She has been reading science fiction and fantasy since childhood and cannot remember a time when she was not a feminist. Her reviews have appeared in Strange Horizons, Vector, and Foundation, and she has been a judge for the Tiptree and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. She has had short stories published in The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women (1996) and The Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women (1995) and, most recently, is the author of the series The Comfortable Courtesan: being memoirs by Clorinda Cathcart and Clorinda Cathcart's Circle: https://www.clorinda.org. Visit Lesley's website.