The Pleasures of 2020
by Arrate Hidalgo
I’m terrible at keeping track of my reads, which has also been the case in this… erm, different 2020, but I reckon what I’ve gathered below is a good selection of my reading, viewing, and listening in the last 365 days:
Fever Dream, Samantha Schweblin (tr. Megan McDowell)
Samantha Schweblin is one of the Argentinian authors who have been turning to horror to dissect Argentinian social context, to extraordinary effect (if you’re into that, other excellent names to check out are Mariana Enriquez and Spanish-born, Argentina-nurtured Ariadna Castellarnau). It’s difficult to tell what’s hallucination and what isn’t in this brief but deep read into the possibility of the monstrous in one’s child, or rather, the monstrous in the landscape itself intoxicating one’s child. I recommend knowing as little as possible if you go for this unsettling, rippling read.
Marx and the Doll, Maryam Madjidi (not actually in English. See fragment tr. by Ruth Diver)
This exile novel written from the point of view of an Iranian girl (and, later, woman) forced to migrate to France with her communist parents dives into language, class, and home. Especially critical with the French state’s centralist approach to culture and tongue, the novel touched me to the core also because it has a grandma in it, and I just can’t help sobbing when long lost grandmas are involved.
Fire Logic, Laurie J. Marks
My first confinement read! Thank you, Small Beer Press! It had been a while since I had been so enthralled by a secondary world fantasy. While the queer female leads were a great point in favor, I just really enjoyed the conversations and overall worldbuilding. Personally I love it when I don’t know exactly what everybody in an unknown world is speaking about all the time, especially when discussing philosophy. I intend to check out the next volume in the tetralogy as soon as I can get hold of it.
Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora
Though I have only one volume of this journal, I’m hoping it won’t be the last. The one I have (v. 44.1, which has Sheree Renée Thomas as associate editor) includes absorbing poetry and prose by a great number of authors, among whom I want to highlight Kandace Siobhan Walker and her piece “Nowhere Native II.”
Grœnlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða
During the spring confinement I returned to my Old Icelandic learning times, which took me to researching some Icelandic sagas I hadn’t actually read back when I was pursuing my master’s in Medieval literature. Two of them were the saga of the Greenlanders and the saga of Erik the Red. According to the Wikipedia, these are “the two main literary sources of information for the Norse exploration of North America”, and they astounded me because of the off-hand way in which the Icelanders’ encounters and conflicts with the indigenous populations whose land they trespass are narrated. It’s impossible to read these stories now without the looming prospect of colonization in mind, and since reading them I’ve wanted to search for contemporary criticism on this aspect, unsuccessfully for now.
Hild, Nicola Griffith
I’m not a fast reader, especially when I’m really enjoying the way in which a story is written. It has taken me a year to finish Nicola Griffith’s historical fiction around Hilda of Whitby’s life story. Or rather, her life as a child and teenager/young woman, which is as far as this first volume goes. (There will be another two, and when I found out that Griffith has finished the second one, I actually screamed.) I’ve often described this novel as very sensorial, and it is. Some metaphors for Griffith’s thoroughly researched 7th-century Britain will stay with me for a long, long time, especially because of the way in which Hild takes it all in, observing the “natural” world not as an outsider but as a node in the great pattern of things.
Speaking of medieval literature and contemporary experiments to apply a medieval lens to the world, and vice versa (and bearing in mind that the word “medieval” comprises over a thousand years of history and a vast and complex network of territories), I wanted to highlight a quote from re-reading the intro to The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Medieval Period:
So the questions we might as as we approach these texts involve less what they ‘are’ than what they ‘do’, what they might mean not only to their imagined original audience(s) but to us, and how that meaning might change as our knowledge develops.… A reader of a contemporary novel is seldom aware of the complex web of cultural assumptions that sustains the narrative; these assumptions are transparent and automatic. For readers of early literature the assumptions are solid, opaque, at times impenetrable—but this awareness of the alterity of the reader to the text is, we think, a very healthy thing. It is always good to be reminded that meanings are not simply ‘there’ in the text, waiting for the reader to stumble over them; they are kindled by the friction between the reader, the story and the world they both inhabit. Medieval texts force this awareness upon us, by it serves us well as readers of any literary work. (Emphasis my own.)
I’d say this is applicable to life as a whole.
I’ve been watching a lot of shows this year, as one might expect. I binged on the US version of The Office and on The Witcher (I can’t wrap my head around the fact that I watched that show this year, before being confined, which feels like an age ago.) I was really excited about Lovecraft Country, and some aspects of it I found excellent (the cast, the gory scenes, the use of whiteness as an element of terror), but I think the last few episodes lost me a little. Now I’m really into Star Trek Discovery, although something I like about the franchise (the episodes being generally self-conclusive) has been done away with this time; perhaps to adapt to the current cliff-hanger based structure of media platforms.
In any case, the show I have enjoyed the most this year has been the HBO series The Young Pope (and its second season, The New Pope), directed by Paolo Sorrentino, starring Jude Law and John Malkovich (with Silvio Orlando’s character Voiello as one of my favorite fictional characters of all time). The show begins with the election of a young, inexperienced cardinal (Jude Law) as new Pope, fueled by Machiavellian cardinal Voiello —who really calls the shots in the Holy See—, who hopes that he will be tepid and malleable enough to maintain Voiello’s favored status quo in the Roman Church. Little does Voiello know that Pius XIII has his own plan and his own stormy relationship with God, which informs a quasi medieval (again that word!) approach to his role as head of the Catholic world. Does the show pass the Bechdel test? Not even close. Is it ironic that the fiction I have loved the most this year is set in the very core of Western capitalist patriarchy and basically deals with the different agents and forces invested in continuing it? Maybe! Please watch it, though! From the script, to the soundtrack, to the photography, it’s just so good!
In music, I will only mention two beautiful cello concertos in two amazing renditions (at least I think so; I’m not an expert): Jacqueline du Pré’s classic performance of Dvořák’s cello concerto in B minor (op. 104) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and young and super talented Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s BBC Prom concert performing Elgar’s cello concerto in E minor (op. 85) with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Try not to be chopping onions when you play them, if you know what I mean.
Among other things, Arrate Hidalgo is Associate Editor at Aqueduct Press. She is also an English to Spanish translator, an founder and organizer of a feminist sf con, and an amateur singer. Visit her website at arratehidalgo.com.