Friday, January 3, 2020

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2019, pt. 27: Eileen Gunn

The Pleasures of Reading, 2019
by Eileen Gunn

I have a confession to make, though it may not surprise anyone. I am a person who does not readily finish books. All over my house, stacked on chairs, lying half-open on tables, tucked temporarily into bookshelves in an order that makes no sense, are all the books I’m in the process of reading. So when Timmi asks me to join her year-end roundup of the books we’ve all been reading, I rush frantically to finish a few of my books-in-progress. This year I have failed to finish any of the books I am currently most enjoying, so I have have decided to dispense with all pretense and finish the books at the leisurely pace they deserve. So here are the books I am in the middle of reading that I am enjoying most, plus three books I actually did finish this year, though I’m not going to tell you directly which those are.

Stray Bats, words by Margo Lanagan, Illustrations by Kathleen Jennings. A demonically wonderful book. Fifty tiny intense tales, little windows into the minds and lives of fearsome, magically inclined women and a few hapless men. Ms. Lanagan is a master of endings that do more than twist: they writhe in your mind, transforming the story you think you just read. Ms. Jennings’s evocative pencil illustrations, as warm and fully fleshed as the mama witch on the cover, are sweetly reassuring. There is an intriguing inventory of poems by Australian women at the back of the book, an adventure I’ve just begun. And, yes, there are bats.

Agency, by William Gibson. A problem for writers of science fiction right now is how to write about the near future without depicting it as a time of bleak misery, a time in which the bulk of humanity will be powerless, at the mercy of criminals and oligarchs, unable to act in their own interests—in other words, how to break with the present. In this book, Mr. Gibson returns to us our agency, at least for as long as we are reading. I admit that I was pathetically happy to be, however briefly, living in a sane, modestly prosperous future. I won’t tell you how he did that.

River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, by Rebecca Solnit. This is the book about which men explained things to Ms. Solnit--the really important book that was reviewed in really important places, at the same time her own book on Muybridge came out…. Actually, as you and I know, that’s her book. And it’s a remarkable book, exploring the interconnectedness between place and technology and complex personalities--everything history is made of, really. It takes us places we would not have thought to go, and pays attention to the people who often get short shrift from history: the people at the edges. Muybridge seems at times like an excuse for the book, rather than its subject, as the readers’ attention is frequently directed at seemingly peripheral topics, such as the lives of individual Native American fighters in the Modoc War--whom Muybridge photographed--or the state of free-love feminism in the late 1870s—with which Muybridge, having murdered his wife’s lover, clearly disagreed. It is concerned, as is much of Ms. Solnit’s journalism, with what things mean and how they are connected.

Talk Like a Man, by Nisi Shawl. This is a Nisi Shawl sampler, with three stories, a novella, an essay, a detailed Shawl bibliography, and an interview of Shawl by Terry Bisson, cultural icon and editor of this series of chapbooks from PM Press. One of Mx. Shawl’s magnificent gifts is an ear for dialogue, both spoken and internal; another is an ability to anchor stories in time and space, in a specific moment. Even if you have their earlier collection, Filter House, you will find new people and places here. Isn’t it time for another major Nisi Shawl short-story roundup? Let’s get those dogies movin’!

Rule of Capture, by Christopher N. Brown. This is a grimly realistic, exceptionally well-observed novel that desperately cares about our near future of drought, misery, oligarchs, and criminals, and wants its characters to be able to fight back. Fighting back is a tough job, and Mr. Brown does not underestimate the forces being brought, in real life, to keep the powerful in control, nor is he mistaken about the nature of the struggle: a not-actually-fictional moment in the book, an encounter with a coyote in a post-industrial wilderness, suggests that humanity may not survive in the long run. The story continues in Failed State, which is due out in January, fast on the heels of Rule of Capture.

The Tales of Uncle Remus, as told by Julius Lester, illustrated by Jerry Pinckney. I do love Julius Lester, have for over fifty years. I trust his voice: he said what he meant, he said it directly, he did not mess around. And here, in this four-book series, is his voice in the service of African-American folklore, telling stories that were collected a century ago, taking them out of 19th-century dialect, retelling them in what he says is contemporary southern black English, meaning in a voice that reflects his own speech and sense of humor. These are stories such as one might tell while putting the kids to bed, if one was the kind of witty, funny, slightly prankish storyteller that Julius Lester was. And, omigod, they’re illustrated by Jerry Pinckney, one of the greatest American illustrators of the past 70 years. These are not cartoons, thank you very much. These are gorgeous gouache illos of realistically imagined, beautifully drawn talking animals wearing human clothes. Do not settle for less!

"The Curve of the World," by Vonda N. McIntyre. A most enjoyable book, a rich portrait of Minoan Crete, with details drawn from existing artifacts, rigorous extrapolation, and an informed love of art, technology, textiles, and food. It introduces readers to the mostly peaceable trading peoples of the ancient eastern Mediterranean, and then whips them through the Pillars of Hercules for a brisk sail across the Atlantic and adventures in the new world. Part of the fun is trying to figure out when it’s set and where it’s going. Publication details are still being resolved. I am reading a typescript on my iPhone and trying to make it last and last.

There are lots more open books taking up space on my dining room table and in my brain. One of them may be yours. I’ll finish it soon—maybe for next year.

Eileen Gunn is the author of two story collections: Stable Strategies and Others (Tachyon Publications, 2004 and Hayakawa, 2007) and Questionable Practices (Small Beer Press, 2014). Her fiction has received the Nebula Award in the US and the Sense of Gender Award in Japan, and been nominated for the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and World Fantasy awards and short-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr. award. Her most recent story, “Trudy on the Lam,” appeared in Asimovs, April 2019. Her non-fiction has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Locus, Paradoxa, Science Fiction Eye, the New York Review of Science Fiction, and other magazines covering science fiction, technology, and culture. She is the author of The Difference Dictionary, a guide to and analysis of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine. Gunn serves on the board of directors of the Locus Foundation, which publishes the genre newsmagazine Locus, and served for 22 years on the board of directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. After leaving the board, Gunn was an instructor at Clarion West in 2015, and will return as one in 2020. 

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