Friday, December 31, 2021

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2021, part 27: Lesley A. Hall



Pleasures of Reading, etc 2021

by Lesley A Hall

Another year when there were many things I would have liked to read, but did not find myself in the right mood for, alas.

Much of my reading was retrospective. I was delighted to see that Kennedy and Boyd are republishing Naomi Mitchison’s long unavailable wonderful work of Arthuriana, To the Chapel Perilous (1955). This led me to dig out my copy of the 1999 Green Knight paperback and re-read it: such a wonderful layered work about narrative, and the very varied strands that got woven into the Arthurian mythos, and who tells and controls the story. I was hopeful that by this time of year I would be able to announce the publication of an edited volume of essays on Mitchison from Edinburgh University Press, who is at last receiving some of the attention which is her due, but this is, like so many other projects, subject to the delays of the present circumstances.


Given my interest in early-to-mid-twentieth century British women’s fiction, I have been particularly grateful for the endeavors of the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press. My own particular gratitude was for the publication of previously very hard to obtain early works by Margery Sharp, a writer who, like so many of her contemporaries, had a surprising sly subversiveness. I am also pleased to see that they are putting into circulation some of the under-appreciated non-Cold Comfort Farm novels of Stella Gibbons (which I aforetimes spent a good deal of time and effort acquiring secondhand). The Bello imprint of Pan Macmillan, while not exclusively focusing on neglected women writers, has very welcomely brought back into print, at least digitally, the early works of Noel Streatfeild, before she became a prolific writer for children, which were formerly pretty much impossible to get hold of.


The recuperation of women’s literary traditions by the rise of feminist publishers in the 1970s is beginning to be documented: the most notable and enduring, Virago, has been receiving particular attention – Catherine Riley, The Virago Story: Assessing the Impact of a Feminist Publishing Phenomenon (2018), D-M Withers, Virago Reprints and Modern Classics: The Timely Business of Feminist Publishing (2021) and Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple: Behind the Scenes at Virago Press (2020). While of interest, these somehow felt liked materials toward the full story yet to be told. There was also very much the sense of an unexplored wider ecology of feminist publishing and bookselling still awaiting historians. (I was going to mention Persephone’s handsome reprint of Amber Reeves’ 1914 A Lady and Her Husband as one of a number of women newly affronting their destinies in mid or late life narratives that I enjoyed this year, but checking up, discover I read it late in 2020.) 


I was also excited to encounter a couple of studies of women writers of the early 1960s who were part of the background of my coming of age: Celia Brayfield, Rebel Writers: Seven Women Who Changed Their World (2019) and Anne Wellman, Angry Young Women: six writers of the sixties (2020). There was a good deal of overlap between the two, and some writers omitted whom I might have included. Though I may be influenced there by having twice in the course of the year been a ‘living archive’ giving oral history interviews and alluding to the impression made on me by certain works read in adolescence/young womanhood, which had very much impressed upon me the importance of reliable and readily available contraception.

In other reading, in a year in which hopes and plans for archival research were once again largely thwarted, I indulged myself by taking out an annual subscription to the British Newspaper Archive, rather than just ante-ing up on such occasions as I had specific need to look something up. This has been an entire boon and I have gone swirling down several research rabbit-holes, which I hope will result, if not in polished scholarly articles, at least in an occasional entertaining blog-post or two.



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.


Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2021, part 26: Cynthia Ward



2021 in Review:  The Fun Continues
by Cynthia Ward


It's not 2020 anymore.  So there's that.


New Spirit Has Arrived (Music)

 Arrival by ABBA - Unpausing their forty-year hiatus to record a new album, the dominant pop band of the Seventies delivers, with seeming effortlessness, classic ABBA with a more recent lyrical sophistication.  My favorite track, with lead vocals by Frida/Anni-Frid Lyngstad (my favorite singer of the four), is "I Still Have Faith in You" (a Grammy nominee, I've learned at press time).

 Monkey Business by the Black-Eyed Peas - Now I know what all the fuss is about with this group; excellent and wide-ranging, complex and imaginative.

 The Best of the Moody Blues - Gave this CD a whirl based on recognizing three titles; it turns out I've heard most of these songs by the proggish classic-rock group and I enjoy every one of the seventeen tracks.


Not That I'm a Seventies Survivor (Books)


 1973: Rock at the Crossroads by Andrew Grant Jackson - This absorbing and fairly hefty tome makes a heroic effort to cover Western popular music (not just rock) in this pivotal year, but the book is ultimately too light on discussion of African-American music, and it comes up significantly short on the subject of women singers and musicians, who, while not as numerous as the male artists, had a much bigger influence on popular music than acknowledged here (on the plus side, gay/bi/lesbian/genderbent aspects of Pop '73 get rather more coverage, including mention of the debut of the musical stage production The Rocky Horror Show, which became a far more famous movie under a longer title in 1975.)

Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World by Anne Jamison - A fascinating, feminist, though not up-to-the-minute book on the history and development of fanfiction - a subject so vast and complex, the text occasionally sags under the burden; wisely, the author invited others to contribute sections or chapters (although this shouldn't be viewed as an anthology).

 Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter by Randy Schmidt - You figure someone who died at 31 of anorexia had a few issues, but it turns out the brilliant drummer/singer had a tremendously toxic family, with bonus helpings of rotten luck.

 Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock - This memoir by the Black/Native Hawaiian trans activist and Pose scripter/director/executive producer is very candid and moving (and it provides much food for thought for those of us in cis/white/straight and other positions of privilege).

 The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock by David Weigel - This history/culture book proved a useful and entertaining overview for this neophyte, although a prog-head friend assures me it's a problematic resource, so proceed with caution.

 Underworld: How to Survive and Thrive in the American Mafia: A Self-Help Book by Roman Martín - A nonlinear overview of American gangsters in the guise of a self-improvement guide, this book is funny and vulgar as hell (and if you are struggling to define "toxic masculinity," look no further!).

 Why Karen Carpenter Matters by Karen Tongson - Not an easy book to categorize:  part biography, part memoir, part history, and part musical criticism of the gifted, ultimately enigmatic tomboy/vocalist/musician.  The author's mother was a Filipina singer often compared to Carpenter, after whom she named her daughter, a choice which affected the author's search for her identity as a young, brown, butch, lesbian immigrant/singer/musician.



American Dreamer by Adriana Herrera - In this contemporary MM romance (first in a series), a Dominican-American New York cook takes his Afro-Caribbean food truck upstate to Ithaca where, with enough hustle, he can make his dreams come true...if he can just stop getting distracted by the lovely local librarian.


Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz - The characters in Adriana Herrera's novel Finding Joy were such big fans of this years-spanning, romantic, #OwnVoices MM YA novel, I had to read it; and I discovered an exceptionally wise, graceful, and riveting work.

 Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin - An enjoyable, sweet #OwnVoices romance about an opposite-attracts/mistaken-identity MF couple who belong to the Indo-Canadian Muslim community of Toronto.

 Better Than People by Roan Parrish - Like The Remaking of Corbin Wale (to which it is connected), this contemporary MM romance is lyrical, nuanced, and deeply empathic as a relationship develops between wounded artists who prefer the company of animals to that of their fellow humans (and who doesn't, these days?).

 Black Water Sister by Zen Cho - Unwillingly relocated to her parents' homeland, a closeted young American woman finds her inner (and outer) strength as she becomes increasingly entangled with Malaysian gods and gangsters and Malaysian-Chinese relatives, particularly her dead, delightful grandmother. Beautifully written, quietly impressive - a far better novel than I've made it sound.

Charm of Magpies/Magpie World series by K.J. Charles - An excellent dark, intense, erotic Victorian historical fantasy series (actually, more than one series; click here for the overall reading order).

 The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo - This novel may be described (with a fair amount of oversimplification) as a queer, POC, female-PoV, dark-fantasy retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which many name the Great American Novel; Vo's novel mostly holds its own against the inevitable comparisons. Impressive.

Conventionally Yours: True Colors Book 1 by Annabeth Albert - A classic enemies-to-lovers romance (in which two YouTube gaming stars must hit the road together in pursuit of a gaming championship which both young men desperately need to win - but only one can), from an author clearly conversant with and respectful of convention, fan, and nerd cultures.

 Date Me, Bryson Keller by Kevin van Whye - In this sweet, #OwnVoices, interracial MM YA romance, the soccer star sees no appeal in high school dating, but agrees to date the first person who asks him out at school on Monday, every Monday--and he wins the dare every week, until another boy asks him out....

 Detransition, Baby: A Novel by Torrey Peters - I've joked that the worse a book is, the easier it is to describe, and the better it is, the harder...I have almost no idea how to describe this book, other than brilliant and complex and biting without meanness or satire (although, okay, I don't like the ending, which ducks the resolution of a central issue).

 Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto - This MF crime/rom-com novel, centered on a Chinese-Indonesian family supportive enough to help the daughter/niece hide a body(!), is one of the funniest books I've ever read (although it's not a dream book-date for someone with a low tolerance of frustration, because that is what powers much of the humor).

 The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune - A very fun romantic (MM) YA novel about a neurodiverse gay teen and his closest friends in high school (another gay boy and a lesbian couple), who share their city, and perhaps more, with a superhero and supervillian.


 Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell - To cope with her anxiety, the titular college freshman writes fan fiction set in the YA "Simon Snow" universe (think Harry Potter with vampires), while her own creator provides her with a nonstandard, believable love interest and several unexpected turns of plot.

 Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender - In this beautifully written, nuanced, and thoughtful YA novel, the titular character, a young black gay trans artist cruelly pranked with his pre-transition identity at an elite NYC school, catfishes his suspected tormentor, with complicated results for many.

 Finding Joy by Adriana Herrera - This 2021 Lambda Award finalist is not only a lovely MM romance between aid workers (an Ethiopian-born Dominican-American and an Ethiopian-born Ethiopian), but a lyrical love letter to its setting.

 For the Good of the Realm by Nancy Jane Moore - This fun adventure novel blends fantasy, para-historical fiction, romance, and female musketeers in a diverse and fairly egalitarian nation; the climax and conclusion delightfully jettison certain kinds of expectations.

 The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting by KJ Charles - The villains are a bit too much of a pushover, but otherwise this standalone Regency MM caper romance is a fun, hot page-turner.

 Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir - A far-future, queer, Gormenghastly space-palace adventure (probably influenced by anime, and definitely centered around a locked-room mystery that might have impressed Agatha Christie), this first novel cranks the typically twisted relationships of gothic fiction up to eleven (however, this not a romance, despite some claims to the contrary, and I wouldn't call the ending happy).

 The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper - This romantic YA MM novel has many things going for it (NASA Mars mission, astronauts' kids, interracial romance, #OwnVoices), but it also has some significant problems, which might have been resolved by alternating the believable but grating white lead's viewpoint with the PoV of his love interest, a young black man with a complimentary (and far less vexing) set of personality traits.

 Hani and Ishu's Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar - This recent (2021) YA #OwnVoices romance novel with complex identities offers a delightful, wise spin on the popular romance trope of the pretend relationship, while also dealing with serious issues like biphobia and parental abandonment (full TW/CNs listed in the book).

 Infernal Affairs by Jordan L. Hawk - If Hellish bureaucracy and a fluffy Hellhound aren't bad enough for a beleaguered crossroads devil, the soul on offer requires him to imbue superheroic goodness in a sinfully irresistible nonbinary mortal.

 Jasmin the Unexpected: A First Love Romance (Five Friends with Chai series) - The mega-rich white American male love interest felt a little too standard-issue, but the titular Punjabi-American artist?  Jasmin very much lives up to the title.

 The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang - In this #OwnVoices interracial contemporary MF romance, an autistic math whiz with an unhappy love life decides the issue is herself and, in search of self-improvement, hires a male escort, whereupon nothing goes the way they expect; it's a sensitive and funny novel, which had me by turns hot and crying (a unique experience in my book), and the romance cliché of a perfect match in bed is believable because it is so very hard won.


Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo - This romantic YA novel, centered on a Chinese-American, lesbian high-school student waking to her desires and the Red-Scare dangers for Asian-Americans, is set in 1950s San Francisco (particularly in the vividly realized Chinatown and North Beach neighborhoods); it's a work so gracefully written, historically informed, and insightfully characterized, it lingers powerfully in the memory (and won the 2021 National Book Award for Young People's Literature).

 The Longest Night by EE Ottoman - This gentle MM trans historical romance novella is a perfect comfort read for the winter holiday season.

 The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett - It's only one of the best mystery/crime/noir novels ever written (the classic movie adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart is fairly faithful).

 Mangos and Mistletoe: A Foodie Holiday Novella by Adriana Herrera - In another of Herrera's fun food-themed contemporary romances (FF in this case), a pair of Dominican-American bakers paired on a reality-TV show generate all kinds of sparks--but too many of the wrong kind may immolate their relationship almost before it can begin.

 May the Best Man Win by ZR Ellor - In this contemporary YA romance novel, a pair of ex-lovers - a high school football star and his former "girlfriend" (he thought), a star cheerleader/student government president/big jerk/trans boy - vie furiously for Ivy League college acceptances and the post of Homecoming King; the plot suffers from a few unbelievable gaps in character intelligence, but the sparks and great ending redeem the lapses.

 Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee - In this sweet YA rom-com with complex representation, a self-involved Florida trans boy transplanted to Colorado maintains a successful blog of made-up "real" romances, but finds the real thing complicated and unpredictable.

 Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole - This contemporary FF romance novella of star- (or app-) crossed lovers is well written and enjoyable and, for all its New York setting, has a bit of a Ruritanian vibe.


Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov - Centering unreliable narration lets author write Ruritanian thriller that literature professors can allow themselves to like (okay, yes, it's also brilliant).

 Performance in a Leading Role by Mad_Lori - In this intriguing AU (alternative universe) BBC Sherlock fanfic novel, Holmes and Watson are a pair of diametrically opposed (and rather washed-up) actors who are cast against type to portray a gay couple, with surprises and repercussions for their private lives.

 A Pho Love Story by Loan Le - In this new (2021) YA MF romantic comedy, a pair of near-strangers attending an Orange County high school find themselves drawn to one another despite the bitter enmity between their families, who own rival Vietnamese restaurants.

 Point of Honour:  Sarah Tolerance Book 1 by Madeleine E. Robins - As always, I enjoyed re-reading this complex hard-boiled mystery, set in an alternate-history England in which Queen Charlotte is Regent and the titular agent of inquiry is a Fallen Woman with quick wits, a fiercely independent spirit, no time for bullshit, and a penchant for swashbuckling and cross-dressing.

 Proper English by KJ Charles - I don't particularly like to fly even when I don't need to worry about COVID-19, so I wanted something utterly absorbing to read while flying back from Maine; therefore, I re-read this romantic (FF) Edwardian English mystery novel, a whodunnit which might have earned a nod from Dame Agatha Christie herself.

 A Question of Identity by VolceVoice - A sweet MM "Johnlock" fanfic spun from the recent BBS series Sherlock, this novella offers (among other strengths) an amnesiac female murder witness-or-killer whose insights are a match for Holmes's and the exploration of a character (Watson) who is learning there is more to his sexuality than he thought.

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers - The third novel in her Wayfarers series provides a broader perspective on her far future by focusing on several residents of the human Exodus fleet, while offering along the way a secular funeral ritual/practice that will resonate with many nonbelievers.

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston - This contemporary interracial MM romance of secret sparks between a British prince and an American president's son won me over despite my antipathy to books about royals.

 Rent a Boyfriend by Gloria Chao - In this delightful contemporary romance, a rather geeky Chinese-American college student pursues the premise of the title to gain distance from her pushy parents and their icky pick of a rich-boy fiancé (it's marketed as YA but closer to NA or adult, given the ages of the romantic leads).


 The Seep by Chana Porter - In this recent (2020) literary SF novel, an alien invasion ushers in utopia, and the middle-aged lesbian trans PoV character responds with a complex, skeptical, perhaps even curmudgeonly perspective which I found extremely congenial.

 The Spare by Miranda Dubner - What is in the water, that I despise royalty but enjoyed yet another romance about a gay prince and his love interest?

 Stay Gold by Tobly McSmith - In this sweet, #OwnVoices MM YA romance, viewpoints trade and sparks fly between the stealth trans boy who's a new student at a small-town Texas high school and the cis girl cheerleading star who also has a complicated relationship with the truth (CN/TW for suicidal ideation and transphobic violence).

 Unhallowed: Rath & Rune Book 1 by Jordan L. Hawk - The insular, sinister Massachusetts town of Widdershins takes a turn for the even darker (and more tentacled) in this sexy MM page-turner, a spinoff from Hawk's Whyborne & Griffin series.

 Unkissed by 221b_hound - In this BBC Sherlock fanfic series, which springboards from the fallout of the Reichenbach Falls "death year," an allosexual Watson and asexual (and possibly autistic) Holmes face physical and emotional stress and damage to develop one of the most sensitive, nuanced, thoughtful portrayals of a loving, complicated, respectful, egalitarian romantic and sexual relationship that I've ever seen.

 The Unspoken Name: The Serpent Gates Book 1 by A.K. Larkwood - This graceful, criminally under-regarded fantasy novel is far less predictable and more nuanced (and feminist) than descriptions like "girl sacrifice rescued by wizard becomes his assistant" would suggest; even the subgenre is hard to pin down (the scale spans worlds, but the cast is small, so not epic; a romance [FF] develops, but well into the plot, so not romantic fantasy; etc).


 A Useful Woman (A Rosalind Thorne Mystery Book 1) by Darcie Wilde (who writes SF as Sarah Zettel) - This fine Regency mystery novel is more in the Jane Austin than the Georgette Heyer mode, with rather more attention paid to character that the mystery norm (for example, characters are distinctly and believably upset when they find the requisite body).

 What Angels Fear: A Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery by C.S. Harris - This series-starter Regency novel features a white cishet male lead who was a little too standard-issue to hold my interest, but the mystery itself was a compelling puzzler (TW/CN: homophobia, murder/rape).

 When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo - An interesting tales-within-tales fantasy novella with an Eastern historical feel, this is Book 2 of The Singing Hills Cycle (oops! must look for Book 1), but it stands alone.

 White Houses: A Novel by Amy Bloom - The ending was undeniably lyrical, but did everyone have to suffer hundreds of pages of pre- and post-relationship misery to get there?  Given the descriptions promising a romantic novel about Eleanor Roosevelt and pioneering woman journalist Lorena "Hick" Hickok, I went in with the misguided notion that the novel would feature more than a few moments of their purported four years together.

 Widdershins/Whyborne & Griffin series by Jordan L. Hawk - The trans author turns Innsmouth upside down, inside out, and highly queer in his essential dark romantic fantasy series (which is long and should be read in order).

 You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria - A fun, steamy contemporary MF romance about a pair of Latinx (Puerto Rican and Nuyorican/Filipina) actors who meet when they're cast as romantic leads for a sexy new "ScreenFlix" series; the chapters in which they're "in character" are quite an interesting and revealing touch.

 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 concluding novella in her Bloody-Thirsty Agent series, The Adventure of the Golden Woman.



Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2021, part 25: Mark Rich

Readings and Re-Readings, 2021
by Mark Rich

At an auction where there was hardly a book to be found, a two-dollar bid bought me one that has provided minor but distinct and ongoing pleasure: Memorial Addresses on the Life and Character of Alfred Holt Colquitt, Jan. 8-Feb. 16, 1895. The dates evidently refer to the dates of the memorial addresses and not of an amazingly brief life. I say "evidently" because I cannot read a word of the text.

In its entirety, back maybe in the 1910s or '20s, someone turned it into a scrapbook.


The scrapbook and the obsessive project must be one and the same, at some point in their spectra. My Colquitt scrapbookist's obsession focused on verse, with occasional allowance for writing by or for children, along with a few illustrations. It also focused on covering-over every word of prose, assiduously. All I know about Colquitt, therefore, comes from the three or four verse fragments quoted by memorialists, which remain carefully unscrapbooked-over. This tells me not a lot, since Bryant's "Thanatopsis" must have come in for a nod at every gathering of eulogists, in those decades. (Though I recognized the lines when I encountered them, I like the fact that the scrapbookist penciled in the poem's title beside the verse.) Remarkably, on pages where the memorial text ended before the bottom of the page, leaving a blank space, the scrapbookist left that blankness there to speak for itself. A need to obliterate prose moved the scrapbookist. An empty space was somehow sacrosanct, and as worthy to preserve as a quoted verse.

For some reason in the autumn — when reading, as an activity, began to seem a possibility for me again — I picked up a volume of Sophocles and read it through with pleasure. I then picked up an old Dell Laurel edition of King Lear on a similar whim, and similarly enjoyed it — partly, I think, because it offered the text without notes. I then read a series of other Shakespeare plays, my choice determined entirely by whatever old, slender paperback editions I had to hand. These were "improved" editions, so that my enjoyment was less: for try as I might I cannot keep my eye from flitting to a facing-page or page-bottom note. Even if I know what old Shake is shaking from his venerable verbal saltcellar, my eye still flits over or down — to check my or the editor's acuity.

This sort of presentation makes it hard to simply read a play without stopping — making these volumes, in common with most editions of Shakespeare, akin to on-line reading with its myriad electrical distractions. It makes me think that reading's degradation from a form of immersive experience festers in seed within these overly explicated and glossed pages. Personally, I love notes and glosses and marginalia and bottom-of-page minuscules. Yet in reading the Dell Laurel edition of Sophocles and then a single Shake play, and in going from there to a later Dell non-Laurel and other paperback-publisher editions, it seemed clear to me that I immersed myself pleasantly in the former, despite whatever erudite observations or even simple word- or phrase-meanings I was missing; and that, in contrast, I went a bit glossy-eyed through those other paperbacks. So: I love glosses. And I hate glosses. I hope these utterly simple statements of mine last ages enough to warrant an intrusive footnote.

I fell into liking Dell Laurel editions, by the way, for a nontextual reason. The poetry entries boast Richard Powers covers; and I think his ink depiction of Poe magnificent. (I have only three authors in this series, having also Dickinson and Donne, but four volumes — since I have two copies of Poe and am keeping both. Richard Wilbur's introduction being so cogent, I have ruined the spine of one copy.)


Memory plays interesting tricks. I mean that not in the usual sense. For instance, I had learned some Shakespeare lines quoted without context in an old poetry volume — one which I watch getting grubbier by the year, residing as it does in the workshop where I raise wood- and rust-dust while cleaning old boxes, pulleys, drawknives, and sadirons. I knew the passage about "the quality of mercy" came from The Merchant of Venice, for instance. Yet in reading that play, this fact slipped far from mind. When unexpectedly, then, I plowed into Portia's soliloquy about the quality of mercy, I felt a sudden glow and warmth. For I discovered that within my being I contain an atom that belongs to one of Shake's most attractive female intelligences.

In one of my passes through my dusted and well-fingered workshop volume, I had settled on Polonius's advice to Laertes, to learn — not really remembering much about my long-ago reading of that play nor my viewings of it, also long ago. So when I came to this Polonius soliloquy in Hamlet it brought me up a bit short. The glow did arrive, as from meeting a friend unexpectedly. Yet also to me, at that point, came lines from T.S. Eliot: "No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor ever meant to be; am an attendant lord, one that will do to swell a progress, etc." (My apologies to Eliot, for probably mangling his words.)

This is to say that I have taken in an atom, too, of a secondary figure of dubious if conscientiously upright character. A priss and a toady, he, to my mortification, dies stabbed by the prince when concealed behind a screen. Talk about death in obscurity! Do I have an atom of that doom in me?

We all do, I suppose.

A scrapbook, in a way, repudiates memory. It simply presses between covers the tidbit, the picture, the verse, making it unnecessary to truly remember any of it. One just goes back to the pressed-flat thing. When I was reading Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, which I naturally enjoyed since I enjoy snails, the scrapbook notion kept coming to mind. The author draws in many a thought or quotation from a Darwin or Humboldt, often seemingly out of the blue; and though it seems clear she actually read and studied at least some of her sources, I could never leave behind the image of the screen-lit visage of the Internet writer, the Barney Google who draws forth from all knowledge the pertinent quotation from antiquity but who actually never learns a thing. With all human knowledge right there at the fingertip, why disturb those happily sleeping neurons? Again, Bailey is no Barney Google type: she shows herself to be truly intent on the observational mini-drama before her, involving a snail. Yet the scrapbook impression kept reappearing, in my reading. Her ruling organization has to do with the memories of an illness in which she had molluscan company — a wonderful circumstance if one can overlook the dread hours of the long debility itself. The Colquitt scrapbookist's ruling organization had to do with covering prose over with verse — making me wonder if Bailey's scrapbooking, too, was covering over something that the reader, as a consequence, never learns about. Since, by the end, the reader remains clueless about the illness, the author's need for the old scissors and paste may well relate to that. The book's silence about her long debility comes across rather loudly.

Colquitt I tend to dip into, reading a few pages at a time. A book similar to it, though, I did plod and sometimes zipped steadily through: Verse and Worse: A Private Collection by Arnold Silcock. With its emphasis on minor verse, you might think it off-putting as a book. Yet when I found it at a flea market I wanted to read it, and soon did. It lacked pretense, in its favor. It was hardly offering itself as the best of the worst verse, or any such thing. It is an assemblage reflecting a taste, much as Colquitt is. I feel grateful when encountering honest slices of life, which is what this seems to be. I especially feel grateful for the section in it that initially sent my dubiety-sense a-wiggling, which contains poems written in Pidgin English. Anyone thinking about cultural appropriation would do well to look at these verses. They preserve a certain vernacular with neither shame nor pride; they make addled sense without too much nonsense. My mind in reading them entered another world and time, where and when some Chinese dockside workers appropriated English-language sounds and notions to their need — which sounds and notions these versifiers then appropriated back, for theirs. I have a respect for the fact of Pidgin's existence that I lacked before.

If some would insist that these versifiers were intrusive opportunists and freeloaders, I might suggest that all cultural work is intrusive. Some of us do it more openly than others, is all. (And some of us hide ourselves behind screens, so as to be less obtrusively intrusive — only to get stabbed by the prince for all our troubles, and for our sensitivity to the situation.)

A scrapbook becomes interesting due to the obsession behind it — the obsession obliterated by yellowing newsprint clippings, while yet revealed by the same. The obsession in Colquitt almost becomes its subject, as in Snail — and as in another book I pick up now and then: Stewart Lee Allen's The Devil's Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee. However fascinating I find it, I put it aside between chapters — for a week or more at a time. Why I should do this eludes me. Does it suit the episodic nature of the author's search? Putting it aside does underline how poor is my retention of facts when reading on impulse. But do I need to be reminded?


Although the doings of the racist-fascist political element in the U.S. fractured my attention this year, I did have some cohesive reading experiences. Three quite short experiences have proven especially memorable. Julia L. Sauer's Fog Magic I found both delicate and moving. Clyde Robert Bulla's White Bird shows what can be conveyed, even emotionally, by an objective approach to one's words. In contrast to these young-adult novels, Richard Winters, in his novella Sawhorse, compellingly offers glimpses into a damaged soul. Winters writes in a way I cannot quite fathom but wildly admire. He has also released a new version of his novel Ila, now named Hillborn. I stood bedside one day, fully meaning to not begin reading it. Then I stood there reading that lengthy opening section despite myself — just as taken by it, once more, as when I first read it umpteen years ago.

Then I hid the book away for a later time — now, maybe — when I might myself be less the damaged soul that I was, through the summer.

Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America ranks high among the weightier readings of my year. It offers insight into the lives and thoughts of the Holmses, Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James, among others. Although I thought Menand unnecessarily condescending regarding Emerson, I wished that I could immediately give it a second reading.

I have been nursing some thoughts about a few oldish popular novels that I have read recently. But I push those aside in favor of ending with the classics — Milton and Virgil, both represented in Colquitt. Milton Murdock, I mean, with his poem "My Mother" — and Virgil Keller, with his "Ode to Ambition." Such little things do contain delight in them — not least my delight that I feel no desire to labor over their memorization.

Just yesterday (as I write these words), Martha and I had our booster shots; and while I sailed through the previous installments, this sequel gave me a rough night and a weary, bleary, achey morning. Virgil hits it on the head, with "Ode to Ambition": "O, I wish I were a little rock,/ A sittin' on the hill."

Today, a century after the scissors and paste, this sounds about right.

Mark Rich  has had two collections of short fiction published — Edge of Our Lives (RedJack) and Across the Sky (Fairwood) — as well as chapbooks from presses including Gothic and Small Beer. He is also the author of a major biographical and critical study, C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, published by McFarland and, most recently, of Toys in the Age of Wonder: Science Fiction, Society and the Symbolism of Play. With partner-in-life Martha Borchardt and two Scotties-in-life he lives in Cashton, Wisconsin, and gardens, shovels snow, still reads Bach daily, and remains faithfully behind in his book revisions.

Monday, December 27, 2021

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2021, part 24: Anne Carly Abad



On Dreaming
by Anne Carly Abad


Among the things I enjoy reading are manga and manhua. Being both a writer and a designer has me looking for material that satisfies both my thirsts for visual and written art. For 183 chapters, Kochou no Yumeji had me scrolling through page-after-page of beautiful art and characters. The opening chapter begins with a line by one of the main characters, Shirogane—“Do you want to live?”

In the past two years, there has been a proliferation of isekai literature. The kanji 異世界 is literally translated into “different world” or “otherworld.” It is the world of the Other. While in the past, isekai would have a character jumping into a different dimension (through a portal or a magic book), more recent isekai appear to connect Death with the Other. And it is a meaningless death at that. Suddenly getting hit by a car or drowning are common tropes in this genre. But perhaps with good reason. When one dies, is there any meaning to it or the life one leaves behind?

In Kochou no Yumeji, Shirogane’s question is so important because he asks Sumi if she would like to live. What does life mean to a human like Sumi who has lived an unending nightmare of insignificance? Shirogane, the dream seller, offers her a second chance, and she takes it. By tethering her soul to a butterfly’s dream, Sumi is reborn in the monster’s world as Kochou (Butterfly).

But Kochou, formerly Sumi, must now start all over. While a lot of isekai pieces focus on the main character using his/her former life’s knowledge to his/her advantage, Kochou no Yumeji explores the terrible situation of escaping one nightmare and then jumping into yet another.

What little she has so far built in her past life as a human is now lost. Instead of seeing this as a fresh start, Kochou is crushed by the overwhelming weight of having nothing again.

In the world of monsters, a butterfly is a far too delicate thing. She flits from one friend made to the next, trying to make something of herself, trying to be useful. But what can a butterfly practically do? Why did Shirogane choose her?

It is interesting how after dying once and living a second time, only then does Kochou wonder why she was saved, or why she was born at all. In this strange world, something as fleeting as a dream enraptures monsters who can’t see beyond their own reality. A spirit who has lost its way, a god who could not save his human lover, every creature in the underworld needs to see beyond their own darkness. And Kochou has found meaning in helping these creatures dream of a different place and time. In this brief lull during her pursuit of purpose, Kochou learns of the beauty of struggling. Even as a little butterfly, her efforts are hard proof that she is leaving a mark in this world and the other that she left behind.

Truly after dreaming the bittersweet dream of this butterfly, the question changes: How do I want to live?


Anne Carly Abad received the Poet of the Year Award in the 2017 Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. She has also received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in Apex, Mythic Delirium, Omni Reboot, Strange Horizons, and numerous other venues. Aqueduct Press will be publishing her collection of poetry, We've Been Here Before, in 2022, as a volume in our Conversation Pieces series. Anne lives in the Philippines.