Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2020, pt. 32: Isabel Schechter

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2020
by Isabel Schechter

This year’s COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left me needing to distract myself from the situation by reading and watching either very light entertainment to cheer me up, or very thought-provoking reading and viewing to engage me deeply enough that I could almost forget the pandemic.

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore was an interesting journey through Oona’s life as she tries to figure out who she is. Similar to how the pandemic has rendered time meaningless (March was 47 years ago, correct?), Oona experiences each year of her life out of sequence; she is 19 years old one year, 51 the next, and 27 the following year. Following, or not, Oona’s feeling of never knowing what comes next in life was a distraction from my own frustration with the endless limbo of never knowing when the world will emerge from quarantine.

I thought I would hate Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton because the protagonist is a crow. I have never liked anthropomorphized animals in novels, and I was not looking forward to having to see life from the point of an animal. It turned out Shit Turd isn’t that bad of a crow and is a pretty good MoFo. The zombie apocalypse is really just there to serve as a catalyst for the growth Shit Turd and the world go through.

In Yōko Ogawa’s Memory Police, the dystopia is not the result of a cataclysmic event, but rather a series of small acts committed by individuals upon themselves. When everyone wakes up one day knowing birds have disappeared, they go outside and confirm there are no birds anywhere. When books disappear, people don’t just wake up knowing it, but they then take their books to be burned, lest the Memory Police arrest them for keeping the memory of books alive. The line between a totalitarian state stripping away individual rights and people colluding in their own destruction had a similar feel to 1984’s dictionary project and to today’s headlines.

Two nonfiction books that gave me hope were Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, and Text Me When You Get Home by Kayleen Schaefer. Both books serve to refute society’s premise that a romantic relationship is more important than and takes precedence over non-romantic friendships. Women’s friendships are presented as being just as important, and even more so, and deserve the same recognition and benefits. Imagine if people were as supportive of you when you break up with a friend as when  you break up with a romantic partner. Or if funeral leave for “immediate family” included your “chosen” family, or couples’ counseling for you and your bestie was covered by insurance. I want to live in a world that recognizes the importance of the relationships discussed in these books.

Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall has received a lot of attention this year, and rightly so. For too long, mainstream (White women’s) feminism has focused on increasing and advancing opportunities for (mostly middle-class White) women, and Kendall shreds the privilege underlying the disregard for the rights or even survival of women of color. As a woman of color and as someone who grew up on food stamps, I found myself nodding along and wanting to send a copy of this book to every White woman I know.

Movies seemed like too much of a time commitment to any subject that was too taxing, so this year I watched mostly light and fluffy rom-coms, or else movies where the good guys drive fast, blow things up, and save the world. With both types of movies, there was a happy ending to distract me from real life.

My television watching, however, was mostly deep, dark, or depressing, and even downright terrifying. I read the Watchmen graphic novel years ago and saw the original movie, both of which were dark and not exactly my preference in superhero movies, but I appreciated the complexity of an anti-hero story. The television version of Watchmen is set after the events of the original Watchmen and goes beyond just an anti-hero tale. The series opens with the Tulsa Massacre to let you know right away that this will not be an easy series to watch. Good guys doing bad things, vigilantes working as law enforcement, and non-existent civil liberties are only a few of the problematic elements of the society. The fact that this was not set in some far-distant future imagined dystopia but what could very well be this country in a few short years was what made it terrifying.

The CGI version of Watership Down was disturbing as well. I did not come across the book until I was an adult, but I knew that it was not a pre-teen bunny rabbit adventure book, no matter what age group it was marketed to. This series is darker than I remember, and there are several scenes and issues tackled that should come with content warnings. It was excellently done, which only makes it hit you harder.

On a lighter note, the Good Place was a joy to watch. Janet. Need I say more? Well, for those who haven’t seen the series, it takes place in the afterlife, where you can live in a mansion, take flying lessons (à la angel wings, not airplanes), and eat all the frozen yogurt your little heart desires. In reality, the show sneakily leads you through a course on philosophy and the idea of good and evil while making you cheer for its characters, each endearing in their own special way.

also dealt with the afterlife, but in a decidedly less cheerful fashion. In the future, you can pay to have your consciousness uploaded into a virtual reality so you can live forever. The more money you spend, the bigger the data plan that maintains your afterlife. Nathan is very lucky that his ultra-rich girlfriend Ingrid is footing the bill for his comfortable lifestyle, except of course when he doesn’t behave like she wants him to, and she cuts his allowance for the extras that aren’t included in the plan (think cruise ship). Add to this Nathan’s growing feelings for his “Angel,” the customer service agent assigned to help him transition to his virtual life. Upload makes you think about how you define living, how power dynamics affect relationships, and the inescapability of consumerism even after death.

Living with Yourself makes you think about how you define yourself. Are you the real you, or is the clone of you the real you? When Miles undergoes a procedure that is supposed to improve his life, he instead finds out he has been cloned, leading to an existential competition between himself and his clone even as he recognizes that his clone is an improved version of himself. Or is he?

I don’t know if I will use books and television to escape or distract me from the pandemic in 2021, but I’m currently reading two books and following three television shows, and I expect I will likely do more of the same next year.

 Isabel’s essays on race and representation in SF/F have been published in Invisible 2: Essays on Race and Representation in SF/F, Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and several volumes of the WisCon Chronicles; and she is Co-Editor of The WisCon Chronicles Volume 12: Boundaries and Bridges. She is Puerto-Rican, feminist, child-free, Jewish, vegetarian, and a Midwesterner living in Southern California, and embraces the opportunity to represent the fact that no one of those identities excludes any of the others.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2020, pt. 31: Eileen Gunn


The Pleasures of Reading & Listening in 2020
by Eileen Gunn

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the world’s only remaining Bronze-Age epic poem, a view into the imagination of another time, with a story as modern as any contemporary epic fantasy, and much deeper than most. Gilgamesh is a semi-divine dictator dominating the city-state of Uruk. Enkidu is a wild man of the steppes, created by the gods to bring Gilgamesh under control. The two fight, then become passionate friends; they have adventures, offend Ishtar and incur her wrath. These are brave men who, filled with fear, fight monsters, lustful men who scornfully dismiss the sexual overtures of a goddess, and potential enemies who love one another above all others. Eventually they offend other gods, and Enkidu is condemned to death and dies. This ancient literary work describes two human bonding with one another and examines the nature of grief, suggesting that fear of one’s own death is at the heart of even the most sincere grief. The poem begins as an adventure story and ends asking why people die, how we can make sense of death, and whether we can keep ourselves and the people we love from dying.

 In 1972 or thereabouts, my friend Nicholas Humez and his brother Alexander, then in their early twenties, wrote and recorded a cantata, The Life of Bongo Bill, based cater-corner on Egyptian mythology and the epic of Gilgamesh. Presented in a collage of musical styles played on a panoply of instruments--harpsichord, banjo, piano, xylophone, and more--the cantata tells tales of humans and gods, of love and frustrated passion and reconciliation, of Gilgamesh and Enkidu and Noah’s ark. Act One is a happy story of love between a demigod and a sunbeam, its 18th-century recitatives leavened by calypso rhythms and barbershop harmonies. Act Two tells the grim latter half of the Gilgamesh story, three stark songs sung in a minor-pentatonic scale, accompanied by clawhammer banjo. If I were presenting this cantata, I would design rough Expressionist sets, and costumes from the wonderfully overblown 2004 Paris Opera production of Les Indes Galantes.

 The Gilgamesh epic itself, however, in the Penguin translation I owned at the time, spoke to me more in concept than in execution, and subsequent English-language translations of the epic also sound bland to me, especially in comparison to the cantata. On one hand, the story is genuinely ageless, but on the other hand, the words and phrases used to tell it are overly familiar. Although the clay tablets holding the story lay untouched for thousands of years, I never felt that the translations were speaking in an Akkadian voice, unheard in millennia, undiluted by subsequent storytelling conventions. The story lacked immediacy: Enkidu’s lust seemed bowdlerized, and Gilgamesh’s grief seemed muted. Such blandness is a common-enough flaw in translations.

 This year, amid COVID isolation and the dubious charms of Zoom, I found a translation that excites me. Dictator: a new version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, by the Oulipian poet Philip Terry, is an evocative and resonant version of the epic that roughens the gloss of formal English and restores otherness to the poem. It’s not a retelling, and it’s not a direct translation. Guided primarily by the translation done in 1982 by John Gardner and John Meier and influenced by Charles Olson’s Bigman series of poems, Mr. Terry, using his Oulipian sensibilities and a robust sense of humor, has re-languaged the twelve broken clay tablets, written some 3300 years ago and credited to Sîn-lēqi-unninni, that provide the most complete version of the epic.

 What do I mean, re-languaged? In an afterword to the poem, Mr. Terry writes that he has translated it “translexically,” by using the 1500-word vocabulary of Globish, a subset of English that uses only 1500 words and a slice of English grammar. It was created as a pidgin for use by international businesspeople who spoke some English and had no other common language.

 Basically, a Globish text sounds like normal, slightly boring English, and Dictator sounds like anything but normal English and is in no way boring. So I hope that Mr. Terry will excuse me for doubting his claim, in his afterword (and repeated gullibly in every review of the book), that Dictator is a translation. It’s pretty clear that Mr. Terry, in making a new version of the poem, did not passively allow Globish to take the lead. He reduced and changed the Globish vocabulary, adding some simple words and relative neologisms. He modified its grammar, eliminating articles, possessives, and tenses, instantly making English sound more brutal, less refined. He used vertical lines to break the text into two-syllable units, often breaking words apart, further disrupting the text and making it seem less familiar, and used unconventional plus-signs to indicate text rubbed or broken from the clay tablets. Like other Oulipian techniques, and even like formal poetry, Mr. Terry’s use of primarily simple words required him to create new associations between words, in order to make his meaning clear with a constrained vocabulary. These associations, in turn, reveal the layers of meaning contained in common words, as does breaking those words into syllables.

 In short, it’s not a translation, it’s a new work of art. Raymond Queneau defined Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape,” and Mr. Terry has built a fine labyrinth and made a worthy escape. As a poet, he knows how to make old words new again, and the constrictions he’s placed on his language are his tools for that. His version of the Epic of Gilgamesh is dynamic and compact, and is almost impossible to resist reading out loud.

 Here is the scene in which a trapper brings a woman, perhaps a prostitute, to a waterhole to seduce and tame the wildman Enkidu. The trapper explains to her what he wants her to do. Go ahead, read it out loud.


The an | imal | come… | heart light | in the | water

and WILD | MAN son | of the | up land

he who | feed with | the wild | horse on | grass…

he drink | with the | wild an | imal | at the | water | hole…

and with | the crash | of an | imal | against | …an | imal | he heart | grow light


The mag | azine | girl see | he the | man be | fore cul | ture + + +

‘Here be | the man | party | girl get | ready | for a | kiss + + +

Open | you leg | show WILD | MAN you | love box

Hold no | thing back | make he | breathe hard

When he | see you | he mouth | will op | en…

Then he | will come | close to | take a | look + + +

Take off | you skirt | so he | can… | screw you

Make this | man be | fore cul | ture know | what a | girl can | do…

The an | imal | who grow | up in | the wild | will run | away | and des | ert he

He will | push he | body | in to | you love | box…’


The mag | azine | girl take | off she | pants and | open | she leg | and he | strike + + + | like a | thunder | storm + + +

She do | not hold | back she | make he | breathe hard

She spread | out she | skirt… | so he | can lie | on top

She make | the man | before | culture | know what | a… | woman | can do


Mr. Terry has chosen to create his work from a single transcription of the poem. Some previous translators have tried to assemble a “complete” story by combining incomplete versions of the story, composed hundreds of years apart in several different languages. As Stephanie Dalley points out in Myths from Mesopotamia, we don’t have to privilege one of these tellings over another. Elements of the stories found in Gilgamesh are also found in the Odyssey, in the Arabian Nights, and, of course, in the Old Testament of the Bible, in the story of Utanapishtim/Noah and the flood. We don’t have to find the first tale, the Ur-tale, so to speak. We can celebrate all the recombinant tales, including this newest one, as evidence of the fecundity--and the persistence--of the human imagination.

 PS: I want to thank Manjula Menon and Nisi Shawl for many helpful Zoomversations on the topic while I was writing this essay. Also, for anyone who’s interested, here’s a good short review of The Life of Bongo Bill, for which the reviewer scanned the front and back of the record album, and transcribed its helpful liner notes, none of which is in the YouTube posting. Nice review, and several amusing comments about its inception. I was there, and yes, it was recorded in a shoe box at the back of a closet, and yes, we were all probably stoned at the time.


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 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 has served as instructor at Clarion West. 





Monday, December 28, 2020

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2020, part 30: Cynthia Ward

2020 in Review:  So Much Fun, We Can Hardly Contain Ourselves
by Cynthia Ward

On the first day of 2020, Joe and returned from holiday travel, mysteriously and seriously ill, to find our beloved cat Schwa dying, and I said, "I hope the year goes uphill from here."

We all know how that turned out.

Herewith, the entertainment pleasures (and occasional pains) I remember from the year:

 * * *

Hit or Miss (Film and Television)

Babylon Berlin Season One - Like the mystery novels it's based upon, the German television series has strengths and weaknesses (though not the same ones), and it becomes aggravating when it turns its middle-class woman cop-to-be into a poverty-stricken prostitute and exoticizes queer and genderqueer aspects of Weimar Berlin (also, watch the show with subtitles, not overdubs).

Birdbox - The adaptation of the hit novel is John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids meets Stephen King's The Mist, only not very credible, engaging, or easy on queer or POC characters (I'm told the novel is better).

Captain Marvel - I wanted to like this major female superhero movie from the Marvel Comics universe, but it had difficulty holding my attention; I'll try again later.

Enola Holmes - An enjoyable adaptation of Nancy Springer's novel The Case of the Missing Marquess, from her YA mystery series about Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes' younger sister - I wish this feminist mash-up movie had been around when I was a kid.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey - A wonderful movie - fun for the whole family, gorgeous, imaginative, with fabulous costumes, great acting, awesome singing, and beautiful orchestration - and it's speculative fiction, too.

La La Land - Why this dull, chemistry-free romantic musical should win a single award, let alone six Academy Awards and seven Golden Globes, must forever remain a mystery; we quit when we reached 38 minutes and realized there were still some 90 left.

Supergirl Season One Episode One - Seems to be aimed at middle grade/junior high students, and weakly so; perhaps we should skip ahead to the episode which introduces Nicole Maines, the trans actress from Maine who plays the future superhero Dreamer.

 * * *

Wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn (Music)

Autobahn et alia by Kraftwork - Delving into albums by the electronic music pioneers, I discovered this German band (which was founded in 1970 and influenced hip-hop) was recording (or inventing) techno, electronica, and electro-funk years or decades before the genres were named. RIP co-founder Florian Schneider.

"Caravan" et alia by the Richard Carpenter Trio - Did you know the Carpenters started out as a jazz trio?  Richard is nineteen here.  Karen is sixteen.  Sixteen.

Oro Grandes Éxitos by ABBA - It wasn't enough for the superstar Swedish band to record a bunch of their songs fluently in a second language, English - they did it again in Spanish, and just as brilliantly.

 * * *

You'd never guess, but I had more time to read this year (Books)


A is for Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup - A chemist's knowledgeable and fascinating overview of the poisons used (in her fiction) by Agatha Christie.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss - The fascinating, jaw-dropping, and beautifully written biography of the father of the French writer Alexandre Dumas:  General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, a giant of the French Revolution and a warrior who makes Conan the Barbarian look like an underachiever.

Thank you For Arguing, Third Edition by Jay Heinrichs - In my limited experience, the Internet features much fighting but little arguing, and I'm far better at the former than the latter, so I'm reading this guide to rhetoric; it's informative and entertaining, but also dense and demanding, so I anticipate many re-reads before I grow my skills in debate and logic.


Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch Book 2) by Ann Leckie - This sequel about an embodied, gender-blind ship-mind navigating a female-centric, star-spanning future is nearly as strong as the first novel in the trilogy.

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie - An absorbing Hercule Poirot novel, although ultimately I found it too contrived, especially by the Queen of Mystery's usual high standards; I also found her sledgehammering of the "wrong" kinds of strong females to be aggravating and disappointing.

Babylon Berlin series by Volker Kutscher, translated by Niall Sellar - The novels feature intriguing crime situations and settings in and around Weimar Berlin, but I tend to find the protagonist annoying and dull, and wish his far more interesting girlfriend were the protagonist (also, if you're looking for a decadent Cabaret vibe here, you'll largely come up empty).

Band Sinister, Lilywhite Boys series, The Magpie Lord, The Price of Meat, Proper English, The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal, Sins of the Cities series, A Society of Gentlemen series, Spectred Isle, Think of England, Unfit to Print, Wanted: A Gentleman, the Will Darling Adventures by K.J. Charles - If I could bottle whatever the hell it is this brilliant, genre-blending author is doing, I'd guzzle a six-pack every time I sat down to write.

Beau Brummell series by Rosemary Stevens - Four entertaining historical mystery novels featuring the sharp-witted Regency dandy, fashion trend-setter, and remaker of society (note: Book 4 is notably darker, and the Beau is presumed allo-heterosexual throughout).

Best Laid Plaids: A Paranormal Historical Romance (Kilty Pleasures Book 1) by Ella Stainton - This fun, sexy, paranormal MM romance novel set in the '20s treats its disabled co-leads respectfully, and I suspect it passes the Fries Test.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler - With this re-read, I am once again reminded that Chandler was a brilliant prose stylist and god of hardboiled detective fiction, and that there's a reason I never binge-read his Philip Marlowe series (for my tastes, character behavior is too often a cross between Kabuki-esque stylization and idiot-plot foolishness, which I find wearing).

Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb - I re-read the classic mystery novel for the first time since the '90s, and it is very funny (in a satirical, snarky, mean-spirited way that offers insight into the female co-lead's vulnerabilities and defense mechanisms) - the book is also utterly fatphobic (in line with other '80s fiction, I am sorry to say), and it is set at a science fiction convention and hated by many in fandom. Caveat lector.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite - This Regency FF romance goes for rather more of a slow burn that I like (there are years of pining), but it has many strengths, among them the well-drawn middle-aged co-leads and the careful consideration of the emotional costs of a lavender marriage of convenience, however open and respectful.

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood - This retro mystery novel featuring a well-off, mostly-het, 1920s Bright Young Thing is amusing fluff, and it leaves me curious to try the Netflix series.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle - Brilliant as ever.

Damned Pretty Things
by Holly Wade Matter - A pair of Weird sisters, a romantic triangle (or quadrangle), a magical family, a witchy town, a deal with the devil - all these elements are present, but none are what you expect.  Best debut I read this year.

The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow - An absorbing, evocative surf-noir mystery which recurrently reminded of my crack to Nisi Shawl that much of fiction is fanservice for men; and, as for the choice of a villain from its diverse cast...major facepalm.

The Family Vault by Charlotte MacLeod - A contemporary mystery in '79, but a historical read now, this strong first novel in the Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn cozy mystery series was a bittersweet pleasure, allowing me to revisit my homeland of New England, where I haven't been for two years, and which I cannot be sure of seeing again in the era of COVID-19.

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue (Montague Siblings Book 1) by Mackenzi Lee - This historical romantic (MM) YA novel deals with abuse, racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia, but is more oriented to its historical, romantic, action, and speculative elements, and its protagonist's voice is a delight.

Hope Rides Again (Obama/Biden Mysteries Book 2) by Andrew Shaffer - Narrated by a certain president-elect, this fun mystery novel captures Biden('s public persona) well, though ultimately it's a little flat compared to the prequel - still, I'd be happy to read another volume in the series, if not as happy as I'll be to see a second Biden/Harris term and a couple of Harris terms.

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera - The vibrant page-turner of a debut novel by Marvel Comics' first Latina writer (most famously of the America series) celebrates queer and genderqueer PoC cultures and does a precise job of skewering Portland hipsterism and straight white cis feminism.

Let Us Dream by Alyssa Cole - Featuring an African-American businesswoman/club owner/ex-prostitute and an immigrant East Indian chef/incognito gentleman in 1917 Harlem, this fun, hot, feminist MF romance novella proved informative for me (I hadn't realized early-20th-Century Harlem had an East Indian immigrant community [among others]).

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann - A charming, insightful romance about a mixed-orientation cis MF pair of romantics (asexual and allosexual), but the ask ultimately accepted by one character is so enormous, it's the reason gay/straight MF marriages are typically not recommended.

The Light Brigade
by Kameron Hurley - A queer, time-slipping, brutally hardboiled, and brilliant SF critique of war and late capitalism, which also tips its hat gracefully to every SF war novel I've ever read, and no doubt to those I haven't, as well.

Metropolis by Philip Kerr - This is the last novel in the late British author's Bernie Gunther historical mystery series, but the first by internal chronology; here, the widower protagonist is a newly-minted and rather idealistic young Weimar Republic Homicide detective, which means he's not nearly as wearingly womanizing and cynical as the damaged, Nazi-stalked, ex-cop PI of the official Book One, March Violets.

Murder on Black Swan Lane (A Wrexford & Sloane Mystery Book 1) by Andrea Penrose - A solid Regency mystery which is slowly building up a romance (MF) between its nobleman/scientist and its incognita satirist/cartoonist.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells - A semi-far-future cyborg-esque soldier circumvents its lethal programming to pass as human and binge-watch future television, and how can a series be so damned excellent from book to book, anyway?

Potato Surprise (Brimstone Book 1) by Angel Martinez - Hellboy in space, with helpings of bio-jewel heist and cis/trans queer HFN romance.

The Radio Man (a.k.a. An Earthman on Venus) by Ralph Milne Farley - I quite enjoyed this interplanetary romance novella when I first read it as a teen in the '70s, but the re-read demonstrated why Farley's contemporaries, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, became much bigger names in spec-fic pulp.

The Remaking of Corbin Wale: An M/M Holiday Romance by Roan Parrish - A lyrical and gentle Hanukkah romance.

Seducing the Sedgwicks trilogy (Two Rogues Make a Right, A Gentleman Never Keeps Score, and It Takes Two to Tumble) by Cat Sebastian - Enjoyable series of MM Regency romances, one interracial, with serious concerns, but not too heavy (the last volume gets quite fluffy).

Silent Sin by E.J. Russell - Gentle and absorbing, this romantic Roaring Twenties historical novel, set in Hollywood and centered on a gay couple, takes some surprising turns.

The Tiger's Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera - Dense, demanding, and ambitious, this fantasy novel centered on a budding lesbian couple is influenced by manga/anime and Asian history and legends, though it's not much like what I've read or seen of those.

Trans Wizard Harriet Porber and the Bad Boy Parasaurolophus: An Adult Romance Novel by Chuck Tingle - Having not previously read the author of Pounded in the Butt by My Own Butt, I was pleasantly surprised by the gentleness and metafictional wisdom in this recent tingler, which I had incorrectly supposed would be a savage satire of the TERF creator of Harry Potter--recommended if you're okay with explicit dino-sapiens sex and spotty proofreading.

Venus + X by Theodore Sturgeon - This gender-bending mid-century science fiction novel about the war between the sexes is structured like a Utopian novel, which vitiates tension, but whether it's actually Utopian is, shall we say, up to the reader.

Wayfarers series Book 1-2 (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit) by Becky Chambers - I haven't quite put my finger on what subgenre would describe these slow-to-build, tangentially related novels--perhaps cozy, humane SF?--but they largely eschew standard conflicts, in keeping with their ethos, even as they keep you reading.

The White Mountains (The Tripods Book 1) by John Christopher - A boy's own adventure released in 1967, and very "traditional" (male/straight/white/cis/European - although I found the severely myopic French sidekick quite diverse in the '70s); if you can get past these elements, this YA/MG novel of alien occupation is a page-turner.

A Woman of the Road and Sea (The Honest Thieves Trilogy Book 2) by Amy Wolf - The fun, fast-paced adventures of the cross-dressing highway "man" Megs take a more serious turn as her beloved secret daughter grows older.

Would I Lie to the Duke (The Union of the Rakes Book 2) by Eva Leigh (who also writes as Zoe Archer) - This Regency MF romance did not quite engage my interest until the sparrow scene (which alone is worth the price of admission), but the rest kept me locked in (bonus element: fem-dom).

Zero Saints by Gabino Iglesias - A brutally hardboiled, very violent, entirely unsparing supernatural crime novel of the modern Mexico-Texas border.

Cynthia Ward has published stories in Analog, Asimov's, Nightmare, Weird Tales, and other magazines and anthologies. For WolfSinger Publications, she edited the diversity-themed anthologies Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West Volumes 1-2. With fellow Aqueductista Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored the Locus Award winning fiction-writing guide, Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. Aqueduct Press recently released the latest novella in her Bloody-Thirsty Agent series, The Adventure of the Naked Guide.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2020, pt.29: Christina M. Rau



Inspiration and Entertainment
by Christina M. Rau


Poetry became my prime go-to for reading this year—for escape, for inspiration, for enjoyment. Also, a book on Buddhism changed my life, made me realize I can replace my desire to become the best Buddhist with the simple practices of being Buddhist. Here are all those things I read plus some watching and listening pleasures.


 In the category of speculative poetry, I began Spill by Alexis Pauline Gumbs ( It’s slow-going because I mark up almost everything Gumbs writes. It’s all golden.

 More specpo includes

Soft Science by Franny Choi (

Twelve: Poems Inspired by the Brothers Grim Fairy Tale by Andrea Blythe (

Maps of A Hollowed World by T. D. Walker (

Cyborg Detective by Jillian Weise (


Non-speculative collections I enjoyed were Matthea Harvey’s weirdly wonderful Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of Human Form ( and Maureen N. McLane’s also wonderfully weird This Blue. I like poems that I don’t really understand at first.

Other collections I enjoyed were

There’s a Box in the Garage You Can Beat with a Stick by Michael Teig

Sagittarius Agitprop by Matthew Gavin Frank (

Dropping Death by Duane Esposito

Gimme Back My Radio by Russ Green

Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora (

When The Only Light Is Fire by Saeed Jones


In the category of It Has Pictures! I took a crack at Where’s Bowie? by Kev Gahan ( It’s like the Waldo books, only with David Bowie and friends. I also read the graphic novel of The Handmaid’s Tale by Renee Nault (!).


 In nonfiction, Tea and Cake with Demons: A Buddhist Guide to Feeling Worthy by Adreanna Limbach ( was that aforementioned life-affirming gem. It’s the kind of book I want to read every day, and sometimes I do go back and re-read a few pages at random.


Another incredibly moving and difficult book was Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison ( Then I also read America (The Book) by Jon Stewart, which was funny but also disturbing because it still holds true.


 I dove into some fiction, too. I loved An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin for the most part. There was a certain point I got to when I wasn’t sure if I liked it anymore, but I persevered and did enjoy it. It also has pictures! In young adult fiction, I enjoyed The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert (


Let’s not forget literary journals! My favorites are

The Disappointed Housewife (

Zingara Poetry Review (

fillingStation (


For watching, I binged the 90s show Dharma and Greg. Everything else was mostly in the game show category: The Misery Index, Jeopardy!, The Weakest Link, Match Game, and the new version of Supermarket Sweep. Speaking of super and shopping, I also watched Superstore, which is one of the smartest and funniest written sitcoms on television right now, and how Lauren Ash doesn’t win an Emmy every year is beyond me.

 The movie I saw in a movie theatre this year was The Way Back. I mention it only because I was in a theatre this year at least once, and I’m grateful for that.

I usually listen to podcasts and talk radio on my commute. This year, my commute was walking from one room of my house to another, so my podcast listening lessened. Still, here are the ones that have kept me entertained. On the airwaves (and then online later) are Truth To Power Show on Radio Free Brooklyn ( and Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction ( out of Stonybrook, NY.

 On your podcast apps, you can find much needed enjoyment with 90 Day Gays ( and The Dork Forest (

 Grateful for all these sources of inspiration and entertainment.

Christina M. Rau is the author of the Elgin Award-winning sci-fi fem poetry collection, Liberating The Astronauts (Aqueduct Press) and the chapbooks WakeBreatheMove (Finishing Line Press) and For The Girls, I (dancing girl press). She was named 2020 Poet of the Year by Walt Whitman Birthplace Association and Poet In Residence for Oceanside Library NY 2020 and 2021. She also won the 2020 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Creative Endeavors. In her non-writing life, when she’s not teaching yoga, she’s watching the Game Show Network. Find her links on

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listenng, part 28: Lesley Hall

Comfort rather than pleasure was perhaps the keynote
by Lesley Hall

It is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope over these long months of staying indoors and going nowhere to contemplate what, at the time, I thought was the precursor to the usual year’s round of conferences and meetings and research and travel. In mid-February I went to a conference in Granada, Spain which was held in the very lovely Carmen de la Victoria, in weather that was a welcome change from London at that time of year. Besides the exciting sessions and much animated discussion over coffee, lunch, and dinner, attendees also had the enormous treat of a specially organised tour with guide of the Alhambra.

And very shortly after my return any plans and hopes and expectations for the year were put on hold. I am still very saddened that it seems unlikely that I shall be able to get to the fabulous

Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at the National Gallery, which had been on my must-see list ever since I first saw it was in prospect.

So what have been the pleasures of this strange and terrible year?

Well, there has been the happy opportunity to get back to Naomi Mitchison: for some while I have had a paper on my hard drive,  versions of which I had presented at assorted seminars and conferences, and kept thinking that I should work up for publication. And lo and behold, there is an edited volume on Mitchison in prospect, and I have been enjoyably re-reading several of her works, and having productive thoughts about certain themes to do with reproduction she was dealing with across the decades. This led to so much re-working that it’s a very different piece now, but, on the other hand, the original included a lot of necessary background on Mitchison and general context for an audience that probably wouldn’t have much prior knowledge: which would have been inappropriate in a whole volume dealing with her life and works.

But a lot of the reading I was doing fell very much into the category of comfort reading – either re-reading of old favorites, or work by tried and trusted writers. There was quite a bit of getting absorbed in series, with their familiarity and repetition – though I found myself very picky about these – not all of them can really sustain the reader and I found that some I once enjoyed had lost their charm.

However there were new books (new to me) that gave me delight: in the category of tried and trusted writers, there was an unexpected Gail Godwin, Old Lovegood Girls, and on thinking it over, I  must have first encountered her work nearly fifty years ago. There was the weird and lovely – well, it pushed some of my very particular buttons, I’m not sure how far that would generalize – LOTE by Shola von Reinhold.

I rather belatedly got to Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other (2019) – I think the first Booker winner I have read since Byatt’s Possession. And rather like the Byatt had an almost nineteenth-century richness: blending the panoramic with the individual, and revealing hidden connections. I also loved her New Statesman/Goldsmiths Prize Lecture, "The longform patriarchs, and their accomplices." She doesn’t actually name-check E. M. Forster and his ‘O dear, yes: the novel tells a story’: but kicks off with a sharp manifesto for story-telling: ‘The novel only exists because of the stories elaborated upon inside its pages’. Evaristo is among those bringing fresh stories into the novel and relishing its multiplicity and plurality, rather than gatekeeping and canon-izing.

So, I was not quite "curling up in the [non-existent] window-seat with Little Women," but that has been rather the vibe.

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: Visit Lesley's website.