Sunday, December 31, 2023

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening 2023, pt. 26: Mark Rich



Readings & Echoes, 2023: Two Notes
by Mark Rich



First Note

    "The boy had heard once that some people had so many books that they only read each book once."

 It was only last night, as I write this, that I happened on this line.

 And how happy I was, that I read these words while actually re-reading that particular book! 

I read it when quite young — although the echoes in my mind of the scenes as they progress are so clear, sometimes, that I begin to suspect this is not my first re-reading.

I have been thinking about those echoes partly because of J.S. Bach. The other day I was page-scrutinizing one of the fugues I have memorized, being curious if the restatements of the theme saw modification through the course of the piece, or if they cleaved to the lineaments of the original statement. It turns out that Bach, in Book II Fugue 17, restates his original theme, which takes a question-and-answer form. When he moves it up or down in the scale, he accommodates the scale but retains the lineaments. The musical context, along the way, bows to the theme, not vice-versa.

This surprised me, since the musical effect is one of great exploration and variation. Most of that occurs around the theme — above, below, and in the trailing-along after-phrases. The theme itself appears as statement and restatement, then slightly altered statement which is itself restated, then restatement. 

The ear reacts to the iterations positively, thanks to that precision in their character.You might think the world would value the fantasia or musical fantasy above the fugue, for by its very nature the fantasy must show a constant level of invention and cannot rely upon a structure of strict reiterations. Yet the fugue tends to win higher regard. 

Wm. Armstrong, who wrote Sounder, the book I am re-reading, states in a prologue that it is not his story that he is telling. It belonged to an old black man whose personal story it apparently was. For Armstrong, the act of composition was in itself the act of echoing.

Each act of reading, then, adds a reverberation, or a new echo in the reader's soul.

The copy that I am now reading I picked up at a thrift store. Yesterday I came across the prior owner's bookmark, a folded-up foil inner wrapper from a famous-name chocolate which is, to me, worthless stuff, being mainly sugar. This placemark was around page 32 or so. I suspect the prior owner gave up reading the book around there, because the book has so little sugar in it. 

So very little, in fact, that I like it greatly.


Second Note

The boy should have heard, too, that some people have so many books that they only hope to open each book at least once.

This spring or summer, Martha and I were in a valley thrift store that opens two Saturday per month. I had already scouted through the closet where books are shelved, but in coming back from looking at kitchenware in the basement found Martha there. She held out a book. "Don't you want this one?"

I did, although I figured it would go into the pile of books to read sometime or never. Last year I re-read Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, however; and because of my interest in that cusp period in the early 1950s when Galaxy magazine seemed to be transforming the field, it had become a small goal to dig out the issue, buried somewhere in those sometime-or-never piles, that contained "The Fireman," the Galaxy story that became the famous novel.

This book Martha dug up, though, was a Bradbury collection: A Pleasure To Burn: Fahrenheit 451 Stories, published in paperback in 2011. It includes "The Fireman." Out of curiosity one day, I read the first story in the anthology, which purports to contain sixteen works that prefigure the novel. In a way that some Bradbury stories can, this story both dissatisfied and refreshed me. The notions of books and of burning played into it. They play into nearly all the stories here; and then they numb the reader who persists through the novellas that presumably are both pre-envisionings of the Montag-quest novel: "Long After Midnight" and "The Fireman." I emerged from the anthology, after many bedtime readings, having the clear sense that I had read a half-dozen tales that followed Montag and his fellow characters. But apparently there are just these two.

 Have you ever read Bradbury's Surround Yourself with Your Loves and Live Forever? In 2008, through the efforts of John L. Coker, III, editor and publisher, it brought together seven accounts by Bradbury of his pivotal and literally galvanizing youthful meeting with "Mr. Electrico." While nothing might seem less enticing than a collection of stories each of which tell the same story, I found this sequence of tales fascinating in the way that waves on a beach are fascinating. Each one has its own claim to existence; no two are alike.

I am not sure I would recommend A Pleasure To Burn as highly as Surround Yourself. Yet it offers a window into Bradbury's soul that does not diminish it, in the way some windows can.

I say this because I clearly recall the point when, in my teens, I gave up reading Bradbury. In one of his seemingly endless R Is for Ray and B Is for Bradbury anthologies in the 1970s, I came across a story I had read before, in another of these Bantam collections. I read it again anyway, only to find that here it had a different ending. I felt as though I had caught Bradbury stealing from himself, and then trying to hide the fact.

Apparently I was responding to echoes and reiterations even then. How would I respond to those stories, which were the same except in their endings, today? I am not sure. In A Pleasure To Burn, in contrast, I came to feel the struggle that must have stirred in Bradbury, between the themes that obsessed him, that insisted on rearing their heads in his work time and again, and the contrary striving he felt toward the new. In a sense his work yearned itself toward the fugue while he himself yearned toward the fantasy.

    I am cutting this short due to this week's health and time constraints, but think I can close on a note that may ring nearer the hearts of some Aqueduct stalwarts. 

At another thrift shop I found a book I expected to just price and try to sell for a few dollars: Karenna Gore Schiff's Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America. I still expect to do that. One afternoon, though, I idly picked it up and looked at the contents and thought to myself that I really should know more than I do about at least three of the book's subjects — Ida B. Wells, Mother Jones, and Frances Perkins. I have gotten as far as Mother Jones, so far. Schiff's book is clearly stated and seemingly reliable in its sources; is a good, solid effort, admirable and useful. 

I should have known beforehand that Mother Jones's great issue was child labor. Now I do.

I have a fat old paperback, an Oscar Williams-edited poetry anthology that I have been perusing nightly, more or less randomly. One afternoon during the week I was reading Schiff more actively, I had the brilliant notion to look at Williams's contents pages and see what poets exactly were included. Coming across the name Sarah N. Cleghorn, I had the inevitable jerk of the knee: "Who the hell is — ?"

I went instantly to her page, and her quite short verse — which must have been touched by Mother Jones.

    The Golf Links

The golf links lie so near the mill
    That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
    And see the men at play.

It was more likely touched, I should say, by the echoes of Mother Jones. (And the verse has no sugar! I like it.)

— Cashton, Wisconsin, 13 & 15 December 2023

 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.  His poems have recently appeared in The Lyric, Penumbric, British Fantasy Society's Horizons, and Blue Unicorn. He lives in Cashton, Wisconsin, with partner-in-life Martha Borchardt and two partners-in-happy-hours Scottie dogs.

Friday, December 29, 2023

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2023, pt. 25: Christopher Brown


Aqueduct Year in Review 2023

by Christopher Brown


The only real vacation we took this year was to South Padre Island the week of July 4, with extended family ranging from ages 4 to 83. An old school Texas beach trip, where you pack your own portable sun shade structures to protect you from the ever more intense local star that radiates the day, as you watch the tanker traffic come and go in the deepwater distance and wonder whether the water is really safe to swim in. It ended up being the hottest week on the modern meteorological record, not just there, but around the world, and you could feel it on the sand, and even in the water. The wetland refuges on the bayside were desert dry, full of folks rampaging across the paradise turned wasteland on all terrain vehicles like the members of some Mad Max recreation club.

Above the kites floated a tethered aerostat operated by the U.S. Border Patrol, a cute white blimp loaded with advanced avionics, scanning for climate refugees and smugglers in the zone where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf. And right along the horizon line shimmered the big rockets of the Space X factory and launch pad, their golden age Destination Moon forms making me wonder if the heat had me hallucinating some waking dream of the spacefaring 21st century my late 20th century childhood had promised. The evident truth was less promising: the richest men on Earth are using the libertarian business platform of Texas to try to get to another planet, now that we have trashed this one to a point where our culture and very survival is threatened. Roll over, Heinlein, and tell Bradbury the news.

Sitting there in my beach chair in our true dystopia, one of the paperbacks I had brought along was an old (1994) Penguin collection of Colonial American Travel Narratives edited by the women’s studies scholar Wendy Martin. It opened with A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, one of the earliest American captivity narratives, a first-person recollection of the author’s capture and 11 weeks captivity by a mixed group of Narragansett, Wampanoag and Nashaway in 1675, during the conflict known as King Phillip’s War. Rowlandson was around 40 when she was taken, and wrote with great command of her story, telling it through a series of removes that give it a curiously cinematic structure, framed with a Puritan Biblical theme that very slowly erodes as her alienation from the people she has been taught to view as unredeemed savages becomes more complicated, and viscerally experienced by the reader through her detailed daily descriptions of the foods she is fed, from a singed seared horse liver to the unborn calf of a doe killed in the hunt—so tender, she explains, you could eat the bones. 

It was the second captivity narrative I had read this year. The first was Fanny Kelly’s Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians, recounting the attack on the author’s wagon trail on the Oregon Trail in the summer of 1864, and her five months with the Lakota. The book had been on my shelf for a while, one of the many little hardbound editions I had accumulated over the years from Lakeside Press—the volumes the financial printer R.R. Donnelley used to send to its customers at the holidays every year for most of the twentieth century and the first two decades of the twenty-first, a series I had discovered as a securities lawyer who got on the mailing list for a while. The books were always classics of Americana, beautifully made, and accompanied by an introduction that mixed historical background with an epistolary business message from management to the stakeholders. They finally killed the series when traditional financial printing became an anachronism and the company was carved up into the remaining valuable parts, but I still keep an eye out for the books, which, in the way of all freebies, have a knack for showing up on the shelves of suburban used book stores.

I found myself binging those sorts of books this year, as intuitive writerly research. After five years of writing dystopian novels, I made the pivot to narrative nonfiction, with a pitch for a book about urban wildlife and ecology, green futures, and the story of my family’s project making a home in a Texas edgeland where industrial land use bleeds into interstitial wilderness. In the way one does after selling a book off a proposal, as I started actually writing it I found myself grappling with what sort of story it really was, and eventually realized what I was really doing was in a tradition most American readers have internalized so completely they forget about its existence as a distinct genre—the tales of exploration, discovery, colonization, conquest and frontier settlement that are the real post-Columbian literature of the Americas. Where we came from, what we found here, how we changed it, how it changed us. The quintessential American narrative archetype, one could argue, and perhaps a variant of the seminal human story—especially as our migratory natures are being reawakened by the climatic changes our permanent settlements have wrought.

I reread Cabeza de Vaca’s journal of his years among the indigenous peoples of Texas and northern Mexico after washing up on the coast following a shipwreck in 1528, and Haniel Long’s remarkable poetic riff on that narrative, An Interlinear to Cabeza de Vaca. I read translations on university websites of Cortes’ letters to King Carlos reporting on the wonders of Tenochtitlan, as smallpox began to winnow the local population and he effected his conquest. I re-read Bernal Diaz’s first person account of the same events, The Conquest of New Spain. On my mother’s shelves, I found Audubon’s memoir of his childhood and early life as a kid who always gravitated toward the wild spaces, in the form of a manuscript found by his family in a barn on Staten Island, and published by his granddaughter Maria along with his nature journals in 1897 as Audubon and His Journals, a text that reads like a letter to the author’s children at the same time as it encodes, from its first page’s account of his mother’s death in the successful Haitian slave uprising, the way so much nature writing situates ecological diversity as a private estate of white privilege.


I tracked down volumes of the strangely esoteric histories of American highways that are out there, like Milo Quaife’s 1923 Chicago’s Highways Old and New, revealing how the engineered routes of our automobiles and Internet cables often follow the paths of pioneer trails made from Native American trails, many of which had their origins as the trackways of migratory megafauna we have mostly banished from existence. I read the bizarre annotated journal of The Expedition of Zebulon Pike, the young Army officer dispatched by Aaron Burr co-conspirator General James Wilkinson in 1805 to explore the upper reaches of the Mississippi following the Louisiana Purchase, as edited in 1895 by the naturalist, surgeon and Madame Blavatsky protegé Elliott Coues, who fills most of the pages with rambling footnotes riffing on the weird ways the collisions of languages express themselves through the ever-morphing names of places and peoples in the North American landscape. I discovered William Bartram’s journals of his trips into the southern swamps of the 1770s, Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1840s saddle trip across Texas, and re-considered Thoreau’s Walden and the illusion of solitude it constructs like some paradigm of the view from nowhere.


I read pioneer settlement accounts, like John Woods’ Two Years’ Residence on the English Prairie of Illinois, and similar stories of the first generation of colonists in my home state of Iowa. I reread pieces from John Keene’s brilliant Counternarratives, published by New Directions in 2015, which repurposes such narratives in stories and novellas that conjure a more honest and emancipatory window into the pan-American past and present. And I dug out the copy of Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality some 70s stoner high school teacher assigned us, and freshly examined what was really going on there.


Through it all, I found windows into the continent that was, and the one we have made. The journals of early travelers like Pike, Audubon and Bartram into the wilds reveal a natural ecology we have mostly erased under plow and pavement, and a diverse and complex human ecology that reflected millennia of habitation of and movement across this land. I devoured material on the Pleistocene extinction and the curious ecology of common American plants co-evolved to be eaten and dispersed by animals that no longer exist, in books like Connie Barlow’s fascinating The Ghosts of Evolution.

I started to see the newer stories we tell, including the science fictions that fuel the interstellar yearnings of Gen X technobarons to lord over their own new worlds, through the prism of those narratives of colonization. And to wonder how, through narrative inversion and interrogation, we might reinvent those operating systems of identity in a way that starts the process of decolonizing the world, and ourselves. I started to see many of the new books arriving through that prism, including, in the spring, my editor Makenna Goodman’s powerful and incisive first novel The Shame, and at the end of the year, Ed Park’s epic Korean-American literary alternate history Same Bed Different Dreams, and I look forward in 2024 to exploring what other new work I have been missing while bunkered down on my own.



Christopher Brown is the author of the novels Tropic of Kansas, Rule of Capture and Failed State. His climate memoir The Secret History of Empty Lots: Field Notes from an American Edgeland, which draws on the same material as his popular urban nature newsletter Field Notes, is forthcoming from Timber Press in the fall of 2024.








Thursday, December 28, 2023

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2023, Part 24: Lynne Jensen Lampe



What I read in 2023

by Lynne Jensen Lampe


My mother was working on her master’s in social work when she met my dad on a blind date. He’d left school as a teen to join the Navy, eventually getting his GED and going on to a couple of months of college. Both of them loved reading. Mama died in 2011. Daddy had a stroke in 2017, after which he re-learned to walk, eat, speak, everything. Now 89, he still has difficulty moving his right side. Every step, every reach requires intense concentration. Widowed, long-retired from working on train cars, and no longer able to tend a yard, he reads for hours a day. The table by his chair had a book on it. Along the way he developed a love of reading. He travels the globe from his chair, and he finds joy in the escape, even reading thrillers and espionage (eg, The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei or Better Off Dead, the latest Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child and Andrew Child).

I inherited a love of mysteries—my favorite genre when I want to forget life’s details—from my dad and my maternal grandfather. Grandpa Sam loaned me his collected Sherlock Holmes when I was still in elementary school. My reading list has expanded considerably since then, though I still have a soft spot for Holmes pastiches (eg, The Whole Art of Detection and Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay Faye). In 2023 I spent time with various Substack newsletters, poetry collections, books on literary craft, and nonfiction. Here are some highlights.



Oldster Magazine—a wonderful set of interviews and long posts curated by writer/editor Sari Botton, aimed at those 50 and older: Sober Oldster, general Q&A, and other lovelies related to aging.

Erin in the Morning—investigative reporting on legislative and other news about the trans community. Erin Reed’s writing is thorough, timely, expansive.

Lit Mag News—info about lit mags, submission how-to’s and support, generally thorny issues in the writing community that no one else but Becky Tuch seems ready to tackle honestly and upfront.


***I do still read social media and follow family, friends, writers, and writing organizations on Facebook, Instagram, Bluesky and, yes, X. I somehow avoid the meanies yet find discourse that drives to me to deeper thought. And joy—babies, puppies, graduations, and new books.


The Sealey Challenge

August is the month to read one poetry collection or chapbook per day. The challenge started with Nicole Sealey in 2017. This year, I resolved to complete it and pulled 31 books from my shelves. Months later I’m still working my way through my stack—turns out I don’t like rushing poetry as a writer or a reader. When I did finish a collection in a day, I marked poems to revisit and linger over. Some faves from the challenge:


Judas Goat by Gabrielle Bates—A Judas goat leads sheep to slaughter but is not itself killed. These poems compelled me to follow with no regard for comfort. Random lines: “cervix slapping the fifty-yard line / like a fried egg flipped down on a griddle to burn” (from “Strawberries”).

Partial Genius by Mary Biddinger—These prose poems jangle, discordant in pitting 1960s expectations of women against various identities, including French club president. I read this collection in 2022 too. The juxtapositions satisfy me, tweak my thinking. Random lines: “When I walked into the hallowed basement of the courthouse I felt like a manifesto or particularly bold haircut” (from “Some Truths”).

Who Will Cradle Your Head? by Jared Beloff—The collection comprises lineated poems, prose poetry (some about Sasquatch), and vispo (visual poetry) and erasures that investigate both environmental disaster and restoration. Random lines: “I am arrested as the water spreads, unhinges its jaw to swallow the land” (from “Sasquatch sees the ocean for the first time”).



The Marion Lane series by T.A. Willberg—The three YA books begin in 1958 London and involve a secret investigative group that operates in abandoned tunnels below London. The books do question the validity of extra-legal agencies and the use of gadgetry and technology for good vs evil (and which is which).



How to Fight Racism
by Black theologian Jemar Tisby—The book specifically deals with a process for predominantly white churches to become antiracist, beginning with a framework called A.R.C. (awareness–relationship–commitment).



My own book

I read from Talk Smack to a Hurricane, my debut poetry collection, throughout the year in Missouri, Kansas, and Illinois as well as online for readings in the UK and North Carolina. Reading the poems about my mother’s mental illness and its impact on our relationship, psychiatry’s treatment of women, and antisemitism did not get easier with repetition. Instead, I’ve realized how angry I am at psychiatry and ways my own internalized antisemitism diluted my mother’s joy.



I was a beta reader for a friend’s memoir, began freelancing as a book reviewer, and joined Tinderbox Poetry Journal as a submissions reader.


Craft books, essays, and articles

Poets & Writers—A journal chock-full of submission calls, inspiring interviews, features on debut authors, advice from lit biz folks

The Art of _______ series from Graywolf Press—of attention, daring, description, syntax, recklessness, and more

A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry by Gregory Orr—A book I come back to again and again for Orr’s discussion of the threshold between order and disorder

Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio—full of writing exercises and also the concept of “necessary coldness” (where restraint, rather than blatant drama-trauma, creates the deeper emotional reaction in the reader)

PR for Poets by Jeannine Hall Gailey


Lynne Jensen Lampe’s poems appear in Stone Circle Review, THRUSH, Rise Up Review, Yemassee, and elsewhere. Her debut collection, Talk Smack to a Hurricane (Ice Floe Press, 2022), a 2023 Eric Hoffer Book Award-winner, concerns mother-daughter relationships, mental illness, and antisemitism. She edits academic writing, reads for Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and lives in mid-Missouri with her husband, two dogs, and lots of squeaky toys. She designed a number of covers for Aqueduct books in the first few years of the press.; Bluesky/X @ljensenlampe; or IG @lynnejensenlampe.


The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2023, Part 23: Joanne Rixon



The Pleasures of Reading 

by Joanne Rixon


 This year I did a lot of comfort reading, which for me consists of re-reading books I read years ago. I consumed stacks of old YA fantasy novels and obscure science fiction trilogies that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend to anyone who didn’t love them in the '90s. But I also encountered some real gems.

My absolute favorite kind of novel is the one that blends literary seriousness with speculative weirdness. Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield is a strange, deep book about grief. Death as the sloughing off of our solidity as we enter the dark currents of the underworld. The confirmation at the end that the strange and menacing shadow is a real monster feels almost but not quite unnecessary. I was left feeling like I’d made contact with something primordial—and also like someday I need to write a queer book that isn’t about grief.

Malka Older’s sensibility and clarity in The Mimicking of Known Successes is something I envy as a writer. Here are the stairs, the doorway. Here are your boots and coat, the delicate teacup on its saucer. Here are the flickering gas lamps that glow in the fog, shaping the world without illuminating it. And here is the fog, between you and the knowledge you seek. Holmes and Watson and a missing body, reincarnated among the rings of a gas giant. I’ll be re-reading this one as soon as I get my hands on the sequel that is coming out in the spring.

My most-recommended books of the year are Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy. I devoured all three like a fat dog who has stolen a whole rotisserie chicken off the counter, in gulps, and then I told everyone I knew that they must read them too. Not just because this series is a damn fine coming of age with magic and monsters and world-changing intrigues, but because the whole point of telling each other stories like we do is so we can figure out how to learn from our mistakes and do better at being people in a society. And I truly think these books are a beacon of moral clarity for understanding the world.

 The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez took me more than a month to read. Almost always, if a book is giving me that much trouble, I stop reading it, but this book is different. Jimenez’ prose was very difficult for me, but it was rewarding at the same time, and the rewards of the rest of the book, which is a twisting, complex intergenerational battle for the soul of the world, were great. And the difficulty of the prose was necessary—the writing was dense and oblique, but also ornate and creative in a way that meant every word was surprising. The creativity itself meant that I had to slow down and read every single word. I couldn’t predict what words were coming next. I was not in the driver’s seat, I was holding on for dear life as the story careened around blind turns, and I enjoyed it immensely.

A pattern I noticed in myself this year is that I ingested almost all of my longform nonfiction via podcast. I had good luck with podcasts this year, starting with Lead Us Not, an investigation by Jenna Barnett at Sojourners into the leader of L’Arche, a religious community of co-op homes for people with and without disabilities. The founder of this movement was a deeply compassionate spiritual man who inspired many people to devote their lives to service—and also a sexual predator who took advantage of a number of women who looked to him for spiritual guidance. There’s something particularly awful about a spiritual leader coercing people sexually; it distorts the spiritual life of the victim. I have a friend who works within L’Arche as a chaplain, and this podcast gave me enough light to have good conversations with them about their work, their faith and their doubts.

On a lighter note, The Big Dig podcast by NPR and WBGH public radio in Boston, hosted by Ian Coss, is absurd to the point of comedy. A winding path through the conception, labor, and birth of the multi-tunnel interstate highway project in Boston known as the Big Dig, this podcast is an incredibly useful look at infrastructure. Every writer should understand infrastructure—it’s real life worldbuilding. Construction permits and architectural designs shape our lives in ways obvious and subtle.

On an even lighter note, If Books Could Kill is my favorite podcast of the year. Michael Hobbes, investigative journalist, and Peter Shamshiri, lawyer and co-host of the Supreme Court podcast 5-4, tear apart “the airport bestsellers that captured our hearts and ruined our minds.” There’s something intensely satisfying about scathing mockery of the worst books in the world, the bestsellers full of maliciously useless pablum. Blowhards use these books to get famous and make money off of people who are just looking for a little guidance, and this podcast is the only justice the world will ever see for them. It’s a beautiful work of art, and, like the YA fantasy novels of my teenage years, a comfort to read—or listen to—when the rest of my life is not very comforting at all.

Joanne Rixon's short speculative fiction has appeared in venues including Terraform, Fireside, and Lady's Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. They are a member of STEW and the Dreamcrashers, and are an organizer with the North Seattle Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Meetup. They are represented by Jennifer Goloboy of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, and you can find them yelling about poetry and politics on bluesky, or at