Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2019, pt. 22: Kate Boyes

Not Knowing What Comes Next
by Kate Boyes

 “The only thing that makes life possible
is permanent, intolerable uncertainty;
not knowing what comes next.” --Ursula K. Le Guin 

This year has been a wild ride, with Fate smirking at me from the far end of the teeter-totter and jumping off the board a few times when I reached high points. Many of my plans for 2019 had to be ditched early in January when a series of health issues hit me that lasted until autumn. More plans were sidelined when I began caring for a loved one as he went through two rounds of brain surgery, weeks of recovery, and months of anxiety before he found out the procedures were successful.

Maybe the constant uncertainty explains why I was so moved—jolted, really—when I heard a snippet of “Love Like There's No Tomorrow”playing on the radio in one of the hipper medical waiting rooms I visited this year. The song, by The War and Treaty, is from their Healing Tide album. The duo's music is raw, electrifying, and oddly comforting. Some of their songs are a fusion of jazz, blues, and soul; some are 'a little bit country, a little bit rock'n'roll.' They have a compelling backstory about creating music as a way to recover from the trauma of war, and although I delighted in other music (Synthesis, by Evanescence, for example), being introduced to The War and Treaty was a random gift.

 My need for more rest was a backhanded gift, one that gave me more than the usual amount of couch time for viewing pleasures. Narrowing my list of 2019 visual delights to the top ten has been difficult, but here they are, listed in no particular order.

She Sings to the Stars is a film about water, miracles, and the power of an intimate connection between people and place. I was impressed, most of all, by the director's ability to match the style and pacing of the film to its subject—life in the desert.

Undone, an animated series that stars Rosa Salazar and relies heavily on rotoscoping, drew me in with its realistic characters and then cleverly tied my brain in ever-tighter knots when the protagonist began moving in and out of time.

If you haven't seen Gallipoli in a while and need a gut-wrenching reminder about the absurdity of war, try the 2017 version of Journey's End.

I discovered The Bell, the Digger, and the Tropical Pharmacy playing on loop at the Portland Museum of Art during a surgery-related visit to what we in Oregon call The Big City, and I lost track of the number of times I watched this mesmerizing film in one sitting. Colonialism, the decay of Capitalism, the use of religion as a tool to destroy cultures, alien invasions: I'm not sure what this wordless film is supposed to be about, but it was about all of those and more to me. Highly recommended.

Io: A deadly gas is making life on Earth impossible—perhaps—and most humans have left the planet, but a young scientist thinks she has found a way to stay and adapt. Yes, there are technical issues with the gas in question; yes, Anthony Mackie deserved a better role than that of sperm donor; but the film's suggestion that we might be a tad too quick to give up on the old in our quest for the new and shiny has stayed with me.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, the American Masters documentary: I cry every time I watch it.

Yesterday: Beatles, then no Beatles, then all Beatles all the time, plus Kate McKinnon at her creepy best. This is the only film I saw at a regular movie theater in 2019, and I was seated next to a young child who knew the words to every song and who danced in the aisle through most of the show. In the midst of uncertainty, a child dancing with joy gave me hope.

Bird Box: Any film that combines aliens, visual impediments, river running, and Sandra Bullock is tailor-made for me.

Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale is set in the early 1800s in what is now Tasmania, where an Irish woman has been sent to serve her sentence for a minor offense. She does her time, but the British commander, who has no moral compass, refuses to release her. The film is brutal, intensely disturbing, and brilliant.

There are only nine visual delights on this list so far because I'm going to fudge a bit and count the entire vid party at WisCon as the tenth. Yes, my biggest plan for this year was to attend WisCon, something I had never done but had wanted to do since a nanosecond or two after the Big Bang. A prudent person would have ditched that plan at the onset of the first health issue. I didn't. Stubbornly, I kept making travel arrangements, paying for flights I wasn't sure I would be able to take, refusing to take a prescription that would have made me feel better but would have made travel more difficult. Uncertainty, for sure.

I went, and it was amazing. (Note to those who have heard the ravings of too many WisCon newbies: feel free to skip this paragraph.) Most conferences I've attended attract those for whom the event is little more than a perfunctory step on the path to tenure—although one did include a moment when dozens of professors tried to dance the macarena, bless their hearts. But WisCon.... I had never seen so many kind, caring, knowledgeable, articulate, passionate, fun-loving people in one place, nor had I ever attended a conference that was so carefully planned. The days were filled with delicious sensory overload. I felt accepted, able to express my opinions without reproach, even (gasp) that I'm not particularly fond of the work of Benedict Cumberbatch. I expect WisCon is the closest I will come to experiencing an alternate reality or a parallel universe.

The vid party was a high point. I was impressed by the skillful pairings of songs and movie or TV clips: some were funny, some incisive, and most were both. My favorite, by bironic and included in the 'Sing Along' section, paired the octopus-like main character from It Came from Beneath the Sea with the song “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid to create a gem about the Other. If you didn't make it to the party, or if your heart is strong enough to relive it, you can find the vids at

Waiting: I did a lot of it this year, and it gave me so much time to read that I needed to expand my top ten reading delights of 2019 to a baker's dozen. I began the year reading work by authors I thought I might meet at WisCon. The Weave, by Nancy Jane Moore, is a great story and a master class in building a world and introducing readers to it; by the end of the novel, I was thinking in a new way. Jackie Hatton's Flesh & Wires prompted me to consider questions about what constitutes a violation of the body and about how much—and in which ways—we can change and still be human. I liked the story and politics in the Outspoken Authors edition of Eleanor Arnason's Mammoths of the Great Plains; the ghost story she read at WisCon was the funniest thing I heard there. I read Stories of Your Life and Others because a friend gave it to me, not because I expected to run into Ted Chiang at WisCon; then a quiet man asked to sit next to me during the book signing event, and it was him.

After Carol Emshwiller died, I re-read The Mount and Ledoyt (one of my favorite westerns) and was once again impressed by her ability to write books that are so completely different and still equally powerful. An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon, is startling, claustrophobic, scalpel sharp, and respectful of those on the autism spectrum. When I was able to write, the ideas in Wonderbook, by Jeff VanderMeer, inspired me; when words felt too heavy to hold, I flipped through the pages and was inspired by the graphics.

Perhaps I should have waited for a better time to read This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein, a time when I wasn't, like the environment, teetering on the brink of collapse. But I couldn't wait. Naomi's work is a carefully researched and presented reminder that we are all living with permanent, intolerable uncertainty whether or not we admit it or call it by its real name. Then, because sometimes I just don't know when to stop, I plunged right in to The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells. I recommend both books, but I also recommend taking a quick break between them to come up for air.

I'm still reading my way through the pile of books I acquired after meeting authors and visiting with booksellers at WisCon. Exile, by Lisa M. Bradley, had just been released at the time of the conference, and it is a stunning, gritty-to-the-tenth-power, carnal howl of a book that I couldn't put down. When I heard Gwynne Garfinkle read from People Change, a collection of poems and stories, I was so impressed that I made this book my go-to gift for film- and horror-loving friends. I heard Anne Sheldon read at the conference, too, and I picked up her collection of poems, The Bone Spindle. I'm glad I did: Anne's poetry is as clear, precise, and appealing as the song of a western meadowlark.

The pile of lists and spreadsheets with my plans for next year is growing already. I can't imagine entering a new year, especially one as important as 2020, without them. But if I need to throw them all out, hey, it's no big deal.

 Kate Boyes’ debut novel, Trapped in the R.A.W., was released by Aqueduct Press earlier this year. Kate is also the author of a biography of Paul McCartney, and her nature essays have been published in many anthologies, including two volumes of the American Nature Writing series. She lives on the Oregon coast and falls asleep every night to the sound of the surf.

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