February 1, 2016

January Reading

Look at all the books I read this month! …

… a regency romance and a comic. Putting words into my eyes is currently not a thing I enjoy at all. I’m taking some time off in February, and am hoping I’ll magically find myself inhaling and wanting to talk about books as a result.

 

Loretta Chase, Dukes Prefer Blondes: Hm. I’m not a big fan of the Dressmakers series–Chase is always going to be a good writer, but what I value most in her is her humour, and these books are relatively short on that. This was a nice evening’s read, but I can’t imagine wanting to return to it as I would many of her other books. It’s also rather suggestive of the limitations (boundaries? Limitations sounds inherently negative) of the form; the minute you discover that the un-titled, not-rich hero has a titled cousin, you just know he’s going to inherit the dukedom, even if the title hadn’t (why that title? it’s a poor title) pretty much told you this anyway.

Woods NiobeSebastian A. Jones, Amandla Stenberg, Ashley A. Woods, Darrell May, Hyoung Taek Nam, Joshua Cozine, Niobe: She Is Life #1:  I don’t read comics enough until they’re pressed on me by friends who know what I’ll like, and when I do they’re usually a) in trade form and b) things for which I already have some context. So it’s possible that my general sense that I have no idea what is happening in this story is normal for people who start reading new series in single issues that are so short that there’s not much time to find out. I’m only really reading it because the thought of Amandla Stenberg doing a fantasy comic intrigued me. However.

I’ve written elsewhere, I think, of how often reading fantasy in India in the 90s was a process full of gaps; you’d start a series in medias res, would quite likely never read the next (or the last) book, and if your interest in fantasy is in estrangement and being unsettled (and not in the Learning All The Things And Filling In All The Gaps) this is a great initiation into the genre. Reading Niobe reminded me very much of that feeling–it’s proper epic fantasy; there are a lot of people (and gods?) with important ancestries and destinies being very angry about things I don’t understand yet, but I am entirely sucked in, am planning to read Jones’s The Untamed (which, I understand, is set in this world and to which this is a sort of sequel), and am looking forward to the next issue (which I’m told will be out at the end of the month). Plus Ashley A. Woods’s art is gorgeous.

 

 

January 31, 2016

Of Interest (31 January, 2016)

Here are some good things I read this week.

Children’s Books (and media):

Rob Maslen on T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (which is of course perfect). And here is a conversation from a few months ago about The Once and Future King, in which Felix Gilman, in particular, says some good things.

Brent Ryan Bellamy at Strange Horizons on energy in The Jetsons and The Flintstones.

The results of the Hindu Young World-Goodbooks awards are here (shortlists here). I’m in Delhi soon, and am planning to pick up some of these (definitely the Venita Coelho).

Nicole Pasulka and Brian Ferree on Ursula the Sea Witch and Divine. I enjoyed this, but also I’m confused by any writing about Ursula that reads her as white.

Anne of Green Gables is pro-choice! (Mrs Lynde I’m not so sure of …)

 

Empire:

Malcolm Harris reviews Ned and Constance Sublette’s The Slave Coast; I’m particularly struck by this, near the beginning:

But to think about American slaves merely as coerced and unpaid laborers is to misunderstand the institution. Slaves weren’t just workers, the Sublettes remind the reader—they were human capital. The very idea that people could be property is so offensive that we tend retroactively to elide the designation, projecting onto history the less-noxious idea of the enslaved worker, rather than the slave as commodity. Mapping 20th-century labor models onto slavery spares us from reckoning with the full consequences of organized dehumanization, which lets us off too easy: To turn people into products means more than not paying them for their work.

Deana Heath on Britain’s national curriculum and its whitewashing of imperial history. Via Alex Adams.

So many Rhodes Must Fall thinkpieces, so little time. But this by David Olusoga and this by Christopher Phelps and this by Minesh Parekh aren’t bad. (The position of this website is, obviously, #RMF)

 

Other:

Joyelle McSweeney interviews Kamau Brathwaite on catastrophe, ecological and otherwise, and history, and home. (This is amazing, you should read it.) (via Kate Schapira.)

In Goa, coconut trees are no longer trees.

Rather terrifying (and yet also not at all surprising :/) that the effects of the caste system are literally visible in Indian DNA. Via Alok Prasanna Kumar.

Florence Okoye on realising an Afrofuturist Africa. Via An Afrofuturist Affair on twitter.

Pritesh Pal’s everyday photographs of a queer couple are rather lovely–link and some context at Gaylaxy, here.

The text of Sara Ahmed’s lecture, “Feminism and Fragility“.

Vajra Chandrasekera destroys SF and writes a really good essay.

What I loved about these books is what they had in common, this beautiful blue-shifted Soviet optimism. “I want to capture the many fleeting expressions on the faces of my youthful contemporaries—those who ride in trams and make their way on foot, those who are building towns in the taiga, those who are training for flights into space.” That’s Aksyonov talking about his book, the one without robots or artificial islands. It comes from that particular time and place when real people like Korolyov and Glushko did utterly science-fictional things, and even though I was reading it as the dream of the USSR crumbled, it managed to transport me across the thirty intervening years to a place where the dream was still alive. Communism, the future, space—no, I had it right at thirteen, that was science fiction.

JR Martin on Carol, Velvet Goldmine and David Bowie.

Sridala Swami links me to Dhrubo Jyoti’s fantastic reply to a ridiculous piece about caste by Devdutt Pattnaik which Scroll.in inexplicably decided the world needed to see.

 

 

January 24, 2016

Of Interest (24 January, 2016)

A two week silence, and there are things I’m not linking to this week. I’m sorting through the sheer volume of what has been written since the death of Rohith Vemula, and can only link to a couple of things–including his own words on the subject.

(In a completely different way and for completely other reasons I find I’m unable to link to any of the thousands of editorials and personal responses that have been written since the death of David Bowie.)

Anyway.

 

Rohith Vemula:

Rohith Vemula’s last words.

Meena Kandasamy on Rohith’s death is a call to arms that feels necessary.

Let them realise that Vedic times, the era of pouring molten lead into the ears of the Shudras who hear the sacred texts, the era of cutting the tongues of those who dared to utter the knowledge that was denied to them, are long gone. Let them understand that we have stormed these bastions to educate, to agitate, to organise; we did not come here to die. We have come to learn, but let the monsters of caste and their henchmen bear in mind that we have come here also to teach them an unforgettable lesson.

 

Books:

Children’s literature has managed two painful controversies over books about happy slaves in the past few months. Debbie Reese has collections of links here and here; Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s annotated Storify is the best thing I’ve read on the subject.

There was an annoying piece about the book in the NYT recently, so here is a reminder that you should read Christina Sharpe on Alice Goffman’s On the Run.

Via Megan Milks, Kayla E. collects the thoughts of ten women and nonbinary comics creators about the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême and its failure to recognise that not-men exist.

Sneha Rajaram on growing up with Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.

Via Egbert Alejandro Martina, Nadina Botha on the necessity of Afrofuturism.

Gayatri Jayaraman on recent Indian poetry. Via Sridala Swami.

 

Bodies and Places and Histories and Things:

Mindy Hung at the Toast on her relationship(s) with her father and religion. Via Kate Schapira.

Sanam Maher on the rise of Mr Burger. Via Bilal Tanweer.

This week on television: Sunny Leone was interviewed by Bhupendra Chaubey; he could not get over the whole “used to be in porn” thing; she was unruffled and thoroughly showed him up. More here.

Elizabeth Royte (words) and Charlie Hamilton Jones (pictures) on the necessity of vultures. (several graphic pictures there)

Padmini Ray Murray and Chris Hand on Making in India.

Dallas Hunt on Mad Max: Fury Road as a totem transfer narrative. Via Hiromi Goto.

Louis Allday on the Tate Britain’s Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, which. Er. Doesn’t.

Dominique Malaquais in Chimurenga on bodies and gender and embodying/engendering Africa.

 

January 13, 2016

Bulletpoints: The Borrowers (2011)

Some disconnected notes on the 2011 BBC adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (first published in 1952–the dates are important). Since the book is a) good and b) relevant to my interests (academic and otherwise) I decided drag Erin into watching it with me (and reading the book and thinking about empire–she has some really good stuff about the book here).

  • The plot (book): A couple of frame narratives in, we learn that the Borrowers are tiny, humanoid creatures that live in big houses, stealing borrowing from the “human beans”. Our main characters are a family of three, the Clocks, the only Borrowers left in a declining country house. Arrietty, the adventurous daughter, disobeys her parents, goes outside, and meets a human boy; their subsequent friendship leads him to give the Borrowers a number of things from an old doll’s house, but it also leads to their home under the floorboards being discovered so that they must escape. They end the book as exiles, forced to abandon their home and “emigrate”. borrower2

 

  • I’ve written about the book on this site before, and it forms a biggish chunk of my thesis (which is what Erin’s referring to when she says she’s about to “read Subramanian on this”). Briefly–The Borrowers raises a number of issues around power and dependence; the Borrowers are dependent for their material needs upon humans, whom they dismiss as resources (“Human beans are for Borrowers”), but their names, language, domestic paraphenalia, are all presented as attempts at aping human cultural life, and therefore inauthentic. Through the presentation of human and borrower spaces here it’s easy  (I think) to see how domestic material culture (and national identity–think of the importance of the country house to the heritage industry) is linked to the (declining) empire. And yet the whole thing is appropriately ambivalent; as Erin says in the linked post, it never straightforwardly assigns colonizer-colonized positions. In the human boy, we even have a sort of hybrid figure.

 

  • The plot (film): This is set in the present. The human family here are a boy named James, his unemployed father, and his grandmother Mrs Driver. They live in London and are poor; the dad’s doing all he can to afford a nice family Christmas. Mrs Driver believes her house is infested by tiny creatures who  steal–James and his dad think she drinks too much. James befriends Arrietty, the Borrowers are found out; this is relatively close to the book’s plot but only a small part of the film. Because Stephen Fry plays Richard Dawkins Professor Mildeye, a blustering scientist who is something of a joke; he’s convinced that tiny humanoid creatures exist and that he must catch them (and then display and dissect them) in order to make a name for himself in the scientific world. Pod and Homily are captured (heroically sacrificing themselves for Arrietty’s freedom) and the rest of the film is devoted to Arrietty, another Borrower named Spiller, and James attempting to rescue them before Mildeye can display them at a huge press conference. Toy cars and planes are involved; also chase scenes and Mildeye’s inept attempts at romancing Mrs Driver.

 

  • What does the change in setting do? As Erin noted, the obvious consequence for me is that the immediate colonial context is gone; there’s probably stuff to be said about the ways in which the current economic climate is reflected in the film, but the very specific material relations that constituted (part of) empire are lost. As is Homily Clock’s obsession with perfect housekeeping, but that’s probably a relief. And yet there’s something in Mildeye’s handling of his “specimens”. Granted, this is a made-for-TV children’s movie with a lot of plot and little time to explore nuance, but we were both surprised by the scientists’ unabashed villainy–there’s no attempt to justify to themselves the displaying (like zoo animals), attempted stripping (that was an uncomfortable scene) and planned dissection of sentient beings with whom they’re able to communicate. Of course Europeans displaying or killing colonial subjects for science/curiosity/lulz has a long, proud history–though most of those earlier academics at least made the effort of trying to convince themselves their subjects weren’t fully human. (Coincidentally, we watched this film a few days after the Daily Mail reported on a story about a projected Saartjie Baartman film, referring to Baartman as the “bum woman”.)

 

  • This chimes with other issues of power within the book, and in other, contemporary (with Norton), children’s books. In The Borrowers, the friendship between Arrietty and the boy may be genuine and well-meant, it may give them both wonderful things (they’re both lonely before they meet; she reads to him; he performs tasks she’s too small and vulnerable to do) but good intentions cannot erase that difference in power. When they’re found out, it’s Arrietty and her family who lose everything.

 

  •  I’m thinking as well of T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946), which deals with questions of power, tiny people and sentience even more directly. In the book, which is about a girl in a declining English country estate who discovers and befriends the tiny descendants of some Lilliputians (I know; I promise this is a different book), the attempts of various people to capture the Lilliputians for display in circuses are very clearly seen as bad. And yet our ‘good’ characters aren’t immune to these impulses– the kindly Professor fantasises about capturing and displaying a Brobdingnagian before guiltily deciding he would pay the giant, of course. More importantly Maria, who also means well, has to learn to overcome the tendency to treat the Lilliputians like toys just because she can–she learns an important lesson when she puts a Lilliputian in a toy aeroplane and flies it, and he falls out and is badly injured. (The Lilliputians also learn an important lesson, but decide to forgive Maria anyway. I’m not sure that was wise.) Both The Borrowers (book) and Mistress Masham’s Repose demonstrate that  good intentions don’t protect you, if you’re powerful, from causing harm to vulnerable people; MMR further suggests that a disparity of power is going to make it inherently harder for the more powerful party to see the less powerful as fully human (for want of a better word).

 

  • There’s a weird echo of the aeroplane scene in MMR in this film. James shoots Arrietty out of a sling, and I’m wincing and waiting for her to be badly hurt. She doesn’t–conveniently unbreakable, she thanks him for the exciting ride. Later on the plot to rescue her parents has her taking rides in toy aeroplanes and cars. James is Arrietty’s friend; he likes her and so cannot harm her. (Their relationship is presented as even more egalitarian because the Clocks give the human family a rare coin that solves their financial dificulties). It’s the bad people who are a threat to the Borrowers’ personhood–power in and of itself is rendered irrelevant.

 

  • The other possibility, of course, is that issues of personhood and power aren’t raised in any sustained way because practically every man in this film is evil and terrifying. In the book, the Clocks live in isolation because they genuinely don’t know where to find the other Borrowers and it’s too dangerous to go looking; and what if Borrowers are dying out? They might be the last of their kind, holed up in this hiding place, waiting for the end. Pod does plan to teach Arrietty how to Borrow, because this is a basic survival skill she needs to learn. In the film, he refuses to let his daughter go out at all, insisting that he  provides enough for his small family that she shouldn’t need to. This feels like the beginning of a horror story–and when we discover that there are in fact hundreds of Borrowers living communally in London, and that Pod and his family are welcome among them, it gets more suspicious still (and then Pod gets violently protective of the young man flirting with his daughter. This could so easily be a much more sinister story). Eventually we’re given the backstory–Pod is a hero among the other Borrowers but there was one girl he couldn’t save from a disaster–his niece. See? Says the film. We told you there was a reasonable explanation! Except that this is not a reasonable explanation for locking up your wife and child for years and refusing to let them see other people ever, so this backstory hasn’t helped at all. borrower film

 

  • It’s rather a pity that all these other Borrowers exist. One effect is to take away our focus on the isolation of this family–there are moments in the book that feel genuinely apocalyptic (though there’s a wonderful moment in the film [see picture] when all three Clocks hide under their dining table that recalls Cold War era duck and cover drills).There’s a version of this story (it wouldn’t be The Borrowers, but hey) in which film!Pod is aware that the world has ended, and he’s keeping the two women locked up in a misguided attempt to protect them from that knowledge until they all die together. (I think I’ve read that horribly bleak SF short story.)

 

  • About the only bit of Pod’s overprotectiveness that does make sense is his initial distrust of Spiller, the young Borrower boy the family hire to guide them to a safe new home. Spiller is gross. Spiller’s flirtation technique is to sexually harrass Arrietty into exhausted compliance. Spiller is from that really horrible moment in 90s Bollywood and someone should punch him, though I’d prefer Arrietty rather than Pod to be the one to do so. Unfortunately, when Pod and Homily are trapped by Mildeye, he decides to literally hand his daughter over to Spiller to look after. Solid parenting as ever there, Pod.

 

  • To be fair, there’s a solid argument for reading Arrietty’s sex life as central to the book and film. As Erin says, there are some erotically charged moments in the book, when Arrietty first goes outside, and as she and the boy learn about each other. But on an even more basic level the book, and Arrietty herself, are concerned with “saving the race”–it doesn’t seem to occur to her that to do that she might need to find a nice Borrower boy. In the film this does seem to occur to her and everyone else–early on, when Pod protests that he provides everything Arrietty needs, we’re reminded that she has Other Needs (though there’s no un-disturbing answer to how Pod should provide for those).

 

  • James finds a dollshouse bed for Arrietty and Spiller to sleep in. “Is there another bed?” asks Arrietty (I’m paraphrasing) as the two boys smile at her (James innocently, Spiller leeringly) and ask what the problem is. She has to get into bed with Spiller. But she does manage to kick him out when he gets too threatening (the film presumably doesn’t think of its target audience as one likely to have experienced sharing beds with men who will not stop, and apparently sees this as all in good fun).

 

  • Arrietty eventually admits she has feelings for Spiller and the two leave to have adventures, with Pod and Homily’s blessing. UGH.

 

  • How many people are likely to have read The Borrowers? Erin observed that adaptations of other children’s books tend to be a lot more faithful–and I wonder if part of the reason this is able to be the film it is is because this book has fallen out of the popular canon (is it in bookshops? do actual children read it?) to some extent. Everyone knows it’s about tiny people; the rest is optional. (Erin: “[but] it could as easily be Jim the little fairy who lives in your house. Fae are common property.”)

 

  • A thing I miss  about the book is the sense you get of a switch in perspective. I love what Erin says in her post about the clever cover art of her edition and the tricks it plays with regard to size. In the book, most of the time we’re seeing through the eyes of Arrietty who is the right size for a Borrower, and so the human world is huge to us. It’s no accident that I refer to the boy in the book as The Boy, and to James in the film–the film roots itself in the human, gives the humans context and story and thus loses its capacity for estrangement. This is a vital difference for me. The book is set in a vast and terrifying landscape populated by huge creatures that can kill you–the film is set in your nan’s house with cute tiny creatures scurrying around. It keeps the Borrowers small. And it renders the film safe–the heartwarming tale of How Little James Helped The Friendly Tiny People With No Bad Consequences For Him Or Them looks a lot more fraught from the other side.

 

Which is a lot of words to say “this film is mediocre”, but hey.

January 10, 2016

Of Interest (10 January, 2016)

Here are links to some things I read this week.

 

Books:

I hadn’t realised quite how much discussion the LARB had devoted to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (which is a book which should be spoken about lots) until a link from Natalia Cecire to the first part of this symposium–the links at the end of the piece lead to the second part, as well as a two-part roundtable; I haven’t read the roundtable yet but I’m glad it’s there.

Maureen McLane on Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women.

Did I mention (I did) that Danez Smith’s [insert] boy was one of the best things I read last year? From “summer, somewhere”, in this month’s Poetry, via Sridala Swami. And here’s “I’m Going Back To Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense,” via half of my twitter feed this week.

A new Anne Carson story, “1=1“.

Salman Hussain in Dawn on Deepa Kumar’s Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.

 

Film and TV:

When Casey Plett tweeted a link to this conversation between her and Jonathan Kay about The Danish Girl she said she’d thought to suggest titling it Ok Fine Goddammit Let’s Talk About The Danish Girl so that is what I am going to call it because it’s a good title. Related, very good, and linked to from that piece, Plett’s essay Rise of the Gender Novel. And less formal, but still great, Red Durkin’s livetweet of the film here (via Sabine on Twitter).

Via Rohan Maitzen, Maddie Rodriguez on three versions of Jane Eyre‘s red room scene.

I haven’t seen the Sherlock Christmas special. I’m  torn between my continuing bemusement at the British national pastime, so it seems to me, where everyone must always watch the same things on TV always and forever no matter how angry (Question Time) or disappointed (Doctor Who) one expects to be, and my shiny new bemusement at how little I care–I remember waiting for season two a few years ago and actually being excited. I mention this mostly to explain why I am the only Strange Horizons book reviews editor not to have written about it– but these pieces by Maureen and Dan are great, so you’re not missing anything.

I don’t know much about 6 Pack Band, who are being marketed (by Yash Raj Films?!) as India’s first trans band, but this cover of Pharrell’s “Happy” is making me very, er. Happy.

Deepra Dandekar performs a feminist reading of Mastani’s religion and caste in Bajirao Mastani.

 

Bodies in Space (i.e. miscellaneous?):

I’m not sure where else to classify this great conversation between Amandla Stenberg and Solange Knowles, on the subject of being young, black and amazing, but it’s so good, and so full of excellent pictures, and I’m very glad Stenberg is alive in the world (and also writing SFFnal comics!).

Medical student Bahar Orang on touching naked bodies. (Via Shruti Ravi)

Chandrahas Choudhury on food historian Pushpesh Pant. (I will admit to giggling at the “ey khaana to ey gaana” story.) (via Chapati Mystery)

The Ladies Finger have posted a best of the year list that has so many good things I want to link to. For a start: this lovely, warm piece by Aneela Z. Babbar on her Pakistani-Indian-Australian family (I’ve met her, she really is that funny in person), this useful illustrated guide to women on panels, and everything Sneha Rajaram has ever written.

 

January 5, 2016

2015 in numbers and broad generalisations

Broad generalisation 1.:

Well it’s been a pretty shit year, hasn’t it? Good things happened (people I love got engaged or married, or had babies or achieved book deals or degrees), but wow, on a macro level 2015 was bad.

 

Disclaimer:

Before the numbers, the bit where I point out that the numbers are wrong. I made a decision this year to leave out rereads (I reread for comfort the way real people watch TV, and obviously my PhD work often requires me to go back to a book several times) in my reading round-ups; I made an exception for books where those rereads “mark a huge change in how I read the book in question”, but that’s an arbitrary judgement too. And obviously I read parts of books (anthologies, collections, plus there are several books this year that I didn’t finish, and that I plan to return to), short stories, literary theory (because thesis), and things on the internet (which you can partly track because of my infrequent Sunday Reading posts).

Over and above this already-wrongness, as it were, the numbers regarding authorial identity are also far from certain– people’s races and genders aren’t always going to be evident; the criteria by which we make those judgements are themselves often deeply flawed (I worry that my gender count might be erasing nonbinary authors, for example, and can’t imagine how I’d reasonably track how many queer authors I read); in any case, I haven’t figured out a reasonable way to take multiple-author or author-illustrator works into account within this framework. The best I can do is therefore to remind you at length (two paragraphs so far!) that these numbers can only ever be approximate.

 

Numbers:

All that being said, as near as I can make it out I read (about) 82 books this year. Of them, (about) 55 were authored by women, (about) 32 were authored by people of colour (of whom [about] 20 were women). Which is not perfect (what would perfect be?) but feels a lot closer to where I want to be than last year did–and though rereads are not counted, I think I did do less rereading than I did last year.

 

Shortlists:

I read two awards shortlists; the Carnegie and Little Rebels (thoughts on individual books at those links). I suspect I’ll be reading the Carnegie shortlist at least in 2016, and if I have access to the Little Rebels shortlisted books will be looking at that as well. However. Both of these shortlists, as far as I could tell at the time, were comprised entirely of white authors and illustrators. This is an issue for me–my work requires me to take an interest in contemporary UK children’s publishing, which currently appears to be so blindingly white (Broad Generalisation 2, except it unfortunately isn’t) that a couple of years of all-white shortlists aren’t treated as a crisis but as the natural order of things. Characters of colour do occasionally pop up, with very mixed results (this isn’t the place to rant about how a mostly white literary establishment is what leads to books like this and this being legitimised, but the thought of how many decent, well-meaning adults must have read them and thought “this is fine” before they ended up on the shortlist is mindboggling). So what’s a reader with a particular interest in the related topics of children’s literature in the UK and canon formation to do?  I’ve cut SFF shortlists out of my life, and that was a good choice, but children’s lit is what I work on and I can’t apply the same solution here.

What I can do, I suppose, is seek out alternatives. I’ve spoken elsewhere about my discomfort with #diversity! campaigns, and I love this Kavita Bhanot essay. But I’ve tied myself to these awards, and for as long as I continue to do so, this is a pledge that I’ll also seek out other contemporary children’s authors and books for every white British or American writer that a shortlist makes me read. And if the Crossword (or Raymond Crossword now, I’m informed) awards put out a children’s shortlist this year, I will be reading that as well.

 

My year in books and film:

The Strange Horizons year in review is up, with a couple of paragraphs from me. Here’s what I said (I have shamelessly replaced links to legit SH reviews to links to my own thoughts, but you should read the SH reviews):

It may not quite be SF, but if you have not yet read Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman), you should probably do so immediately. Other highlights of my year in fiction: Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, and Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium. I loved Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song, shortlisted for the 2015 Carnegie award, and JiHyeon Lee’s Pool, a picture book about a fantastic underwater world. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season was a book I had Issues with, but when it was good was intoxicatingly so. And though almost none of the nonfiction I read was new or SF-relevant, Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice Vol. I, edited by Rasheedah Phillips, is a collection I think I’ll be coming back to over and over.

I missed many of the films I wanted to watch, but of those I saw I loved Mad Max: Fury Road and will defend Jupiter Ascending to the death. Avengers: Age of Ultron, meanwhile, convinced me that tolerating the MCU is no longer just artistically/intellectually lazy, but morally abhorrent as well. But perhaps the best pieces of SFF I watched this year were the utopian alternate universes (our world, if our world was good) of Magic Mike XXL and Paddington. One of the virtues of SF is its ability to help us conceive of alternate presents—I suggest that these films did just that in a year when they were sorely needed.

Other favourites: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Danez Smith’s [insert] boy, Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol, Leela Gandhi’s Affective Communities, Robin Stevens’s Arsenic For Tea. I’m incredibly grateful to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted for giving me a sort of reading experience I very rarely have nowadays. Moviewise, other than the big films I mention above, I loved Girlhood, identified a bit too closely with parts of Appropriate Behaviour, really enjoyed Carol and … I sat through Hard to be a God; that’s got to count for something, right?

Obviously I’m not entirely serious above when I claim Magic Mike XXL as a form of science fiction. But if art is about helping us find ways to navigate the world (Broad Generalisation 3 but let’s assume for the space of this post that it is), and if one of the reasons SFF is important is that it has such scope to do this (Broad Generalisation 4 but see above) the books and films I value most at a time like this (do I need to explain the hundreds of reasons the world is currently bad? are there people existing and moving about in the world thinking “well, that was a fun year! bring on 2016!”?), the ones that feel most radical, are the ones that offer some sense of that.

In May I wrote, of Gill Lewis’s Scarlet Ibis (which subsequently won the Little Rebels award):

There’s a magical moment towards the end of the book in which Scarlet’s new school friends think that she has done something terrible, but then they verify her story (well done, responsible kids!), ascertain that she’s doing something they find morally okay, and then stand by her in solidarity and give her what help they can. There are no mean girls here. Whether they are random employees of the local zoo, interfering but kindly neighbours, teenage boys who have just had a foster sister thrust upon them or primary school students, every person in this world is fundamentally decent; it is possible to ask for help and receive it. As a fantasy fan and a children’s literature fan I end up being presented a lot of literature that insists on confronting the grimdarkness of the world by reproducing it endlessly, and to me Scarlet Ibis felt radical in its goodness. This isn’t escapism, it’s imagining a world as it could be.

There’s something of this sense about Magic Mike XXL, as incongruous as these titles may look together, not just in the men’s attitudes towards women but towards each other as well. None of these worlds are entirely free of badness (Paddington, for example, has imperialism and UKIP), but their niceness still feels central to what I value in them. I don’t fully understand yet how to hold on to this position and also to the importance (moral, transformative, cathartic) of anger; I don’t want to defang us or to suggest that we sit here exchanging platitudes about the importance of kindness while the world burns. If I’ve got a resolution for 2016 (and for my thirties) it’s to be more uncompromising, if anything. And yet.

Or I could have just quoted Kate Schapira, here: “I read more and more not to escape in the often derogatory way that word is used, but to slip the limits on my own habitual knowledge of what is possible, to think of ways of living and, yes, even dying that I could not have thought of on my own.” That.

January 3, 2016

Of Interest (3 January, 2016)

Links of interest for this fortnight or so (because last week I completely forgot).

 

Book Things:

Sandeep Parmar’s piece on race and poetry in the UK felt very close to home (I have almost nothing to do with poetry) and was a thing my heart needed this month.

Somewhat related (and I don’t know yet how I feel about this one, which is probably good); Amit Chaudhuri on literary success and the ‘Mehrotra campaign’.

And Mehrotra himself on Kipling’s 150th birth anniversary. What Mehrotra loves about Kipling is not what I love about Kipling, but it’s related.

Alexander Chee on merging libraries.

Kavita Bhanot on #diverse whatever gets at a lot of what makes me uncomfortable about how this conversation plays out.

Nilanjana Roy on the legacy of books from the USSR in India.

Roy again, this time on Sake Dean Mahomet, the first Indian to publish a book in English (and to successfully exoticise himself for English consumption).

 

Other Things:

(Why is the Great British Bake Off called the Great British Baking Show in America? I do not know, but) Tom Whyman reads the show as a reflection of postimperial Britain and it’s great.

Genevieve Valentine on Gods of Egypt, talking semen, other important things.

Everything about this report about a priest on a hoverboard is good–but my favourite may be Scroll’s choice of “Religious Gathering” for a heading.

Via Sofia Samatar, Safia Aidid on the history of Somalis in Britain.

On Okay Africa, the highlights of 2015 in African SF. (mostly not-books, but also books! I was torn over where to put this.)

JR (who is amazing and who I wish wrote more) on yelling at Trump and what followed.

 

 

January 2, 2016

December Reading

I had grand plans, once term ended, to do nothing BUT read and get through a book a day. That didn’t happen (I was lazy, there was a cat, there was someone I’d rather talk to, the cat pushed a Georgette Heyer book off a box and it wasn’t even a Heyer I like much but), but I did manage to read a few things. Here they are; a post with reading statistics and general thoughts on literature and film in 2015 will follow in the next day or so, when I have the headspace for such a thing.

 

Deirdre Sullivan, PrImperfect: I’ve written briefly about the first two books in this series before–I’d been saving this third and final one since I bought it a few months ago. My feelings about it are pretty much the same as they were about the earlier books; it’s pretty good at mental health, at people being quite imperfect and finding ways to love each other, at poor romantic choices (you can do so much better than Robb With Two Bees!); this particular book is interspersed with extracts from Prim’s late mother’s diary and they’re not used to structure the book so much as they are to deepen and complicate Prim’s own life and relationships.Also, there’s Steve the Goblin, who was so familiar that I cringed.

Altaf Tyrewala, Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation: I’ll admit to approaching this with a little bit of But Is It Genre? about me. It’s … not, entirely, though I think one could claim the title story and a couple of the others. What it is is Tyrewala’s continued chronicling of Bombay and some well-deserved trolling of Indian literary circles. Uneven, as are all anthologies; “The Watchman” and “Thirteenth Floor” I particularly appreciated, as well as (for less admirable reasons) particular episodes of the “MmYum’s” section.

Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault, Jane, the Fox, and Me: Long-time readers of this blog are presumably aware that I’ve enjoyed Arsenault’s work before. This book is a graphic … short story, really, about Helene, who no longer has any friends, who is teased for being overweight, and who is reading Jane Eyre. It’s gorgeously illustrated, it’s about teenage feelings and body dysphoria and one of my favourite books. Why am I underwhelmed? (But I’m underwhelmed.)

Courtney Milan, Once Upon a Marquess: Oh dear. I started to write about the many reasons this to dislike this book, and trying to explain the major one, and it took up so much space that it is now in a separate post, to be described at length. I’ll link to it when it’s up. For now: I was not a fan.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Signal to Noise: I liked this a lot, and yet I worry that talking about the things that I liked about it might sound like damning with faint praise. It would have been so easy for its city to feel less lived in, its musical choices to feel more self-conscious, its structure (skipping between the past and present) to feel too structured. I liked how its treatment of magic as essentially a teenage phase positioned it as definitely from an adult perspective, while still validating and embracing teenage-ness (and the fine tradition of teenage girls dabbling in magic and things going Horribly Wrong). I liked that Meche did not magically become more tractable, family relationships didn’t always become magically easier and fonder with increased perspective/understanding, and that after all this it is still able to be a fantasy about being pursued by the (now) gorgeous man you loved in school.

Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World: I read this book twice this year; once from May to November, in little bits (it’s a novella, so this is even slower than you’re thinking it is) and then again, in a day, in December. It’s one I’m hoping to read again, and write about at some length–it does things with borders, with genre, with language (and translator Lisa Dillman has clearly done an incredible job). Definitely one of my favourite things this year.

C.H.B Kitchin, Crime at Christmas: Seasonal, golden-age-y, it was alright.

Anne Digby, Me, Jill Shepherd, and the School Camp Adventure: I didn’t know about this series, by Anne Digby (who wrote the Trebizon books) until I came across this one. It opens with the heroine writing a Geography exam and, due to lack of time, cramming all the information she has into one final sentence. I mention this because I had just finished marking a set of essays where this was a common issue (though “lack of time” can hardly have been the excuse there), and so it hit a sore spot. (Reader, I winced.) But grammar and syntax are worthwhile angles from which to approach this book–you might reasonably suppose, from the title, that the story is about the narrator, her friend Jill Robinson, and a school camp adventure. It is not. It is about the narrator, whose name is Jill Robinson, and a school camp adventure. Why title the series thus unless to make a point about grammar? The book itself was fine, I suppose.

Celeste Rita Baker, Back, Belly & Side: Like Suba (here), I found this collection a bit uneven, moving between stories that are brilliant and stories that felt to me rather inconsequential. But the stories that are good are SO good. Like Sofia Samatar (here), I found that my favourite story was the wonderful “Single Entry“.

Salman Rushdie, Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights: Are Djinn having a moment? There was the Helene Wecker book a couple of years ago, there’s Solaris’s forthcoming Djinnthology which I look forward to with more trepidation than anticipation, and now there’s Rushdie, turning the philosophical disagreements between Ibn Rushd and Al-Ghazali into a massive supernatural war that spans centuries, with Djinn playing a starring role–though contributing little to the debate. Perfectly fine (though lightweight) in the sections when random supernatural events are exploding into the world, weak and annoying when the whole thing (and nothing about this book suggests a particularly deep theological engagement) is suborned into a trite religion vs rationality debate.

Rasheedah Phillips (ed), Black Quantum Futurism Theory & Practice Vol. I: I should not list this here, probably, because I haven’t finished reading it (I have read most of the individual essays), but then I’m not sure what that would mean in this context. That “practice” in the title is relevant here–I suspect I’m going to be returning to this book constantly over the next few years, and it already feels central to my sense of how I want to think about, and write about SF.

December 20, 2015

Of Interest (20 December, 2015)

Unsorted and not that plentiful this week:

I’m not on Metafilter and so missed the extended discussion around emotional labour, that was set off by an article by Jess Zimmerman. It has now been condensed and compiled into a shareable document by Olivia K. Lima and Timid Robot Zehta and it’s quite spectacular. Via Lili Loofbourow.

This essay by Agri Ismail (via, it seems, half the internet) is stunning and probably the best thing you will read on this list (or anywhere) this week, even though the list contains several very good things.

This despite the fact that this was a week when we had a new Rebecca Solnit piece and it was very good.

“She had always wriggled against the restrictions of becoming good copy.” Nisha Susan on Josephine Tey and Elena Ferrante and literary romance.

Desiree Lewis on student activism in postcolonial Africa. Great for several reasons, not least for introducing me to the word “cyberpessimist”. Via Keguro Macharia.

Aman Sethi on the Vyapam scam.

Lots of complex, easily bruised feelings about this essay by Arabelle Sicardi. Beauty is Broken. Via Anannya Baruah.

Via Supriya Nair,  this story (by Jonathan Selvaraj) about Divya Kakran, a seventeen year old girl wrestling in the dangals.

Here are Silvia Boarini’s pictures of al-Araqib, a village demolished over and over again by Israel over the past few years.

Supriya Nair on India’s year of “dead and devastated journalists” in the Caravan, here.

Anita Roy on whales, which are magical. For Kate and Marie, and probably everyone else.

I think Hilda is lovely.

 

 

December 13, 2015

Of Interest (13 December, 2015)

Assorted, after a couple of weeks of silence:

Rebecca Solnit in the Guardian, on the links between oil and everything else that is wrong. Via Kate Schapira, as many of these links probably are.

Angelica Jade Bastién’s series on the feminine grotesque and madness is great–here’s the introductory post. Via Sofia Samatar.

Pankaj Mishra on responses to terrorism in the West.

Victoria Best’s interview with Gabriel Josipovici, here, is honestly one of the best I’ve ever read. There’s so much here–I’ve read through it a few times now and I’ll want to keep going back to it. Via Ethan Robinson, who loves it even more than I do.

Evan Calder Williams on crises and Chris Chitty and related important things.

Mihir Sharma on Delhi’s murderous air and class (“Only the Indian elite would rather not breathe than be ordinary”). The Ladies Finger’s collection of despatches on Delhi, air and class–I think this is a fantastic structure for a layered understanding of shifts in living in a city in crisis, except that by its very nature, venue and other factors this discussion of class is, so far, entirely among people who can, as Padmaparna Ghosh does in her section, speak of a “we” and an “our class”.

On a ‘new’ W.E.B. Du Bois story from over a century ago.

Rohin Guha on Alisha Chinai’s Madonna covers and reparations. I have mixed feelings about this piece–I also grew up in the nineties with a fraught relationship to both my cultures (which is to massively oversimplify) and I don’t recognise the traumatised, healing Indians that Guha sees– but that readers of the Toast have now possibly discovered the “Made in India” video is surely important in itself. (Someday I am going to write about that video and the existence of an early 90s Indian epic fantasy aesthetic, but that day is not today.)

Jane Hu on Eve and Hal Sedgwick’s relationship made me a bit teary.

Biographical criticism really doesn’t interest me, and nor does the sort of reading of a book that feels like it’s shutting it down rather than opening it up, and yet Sady Doyle has decided Frankenstein is about Mary Shelley’s sister and … it’s pretty convincing? I link to it knowing that Ethan (hi Ethan) will hate it.

Kuzhali Manickavel and Minal Hajratwala watch the first episode of Sense8. I have not yet watched (may never watch) this show, yet for months the spectacle of Indians watching what can only be described as The Ganesha Episode has afforded me quantities of entertainment.

Here is Erin Horakova being brilliant and incisive and funny on the subject of Over the Garden Wall and its critical reception.

Here is an interview with Nalo Hopkinson in which she talks about her most recent collection, how her writing has changed over time, teaching, and a bunch of other things.

Kate Schapira on snails in Cape Cod Bay and other things (like change and loss and family and love).

Ravish Kumar on The Intolerance Debate is searing and brilliant. (In Hindi, so those of you who don’t understand will just have to miss out on a very good thing.) Via several people, all about as thrilled with it as me.

Who is the Smart City for? asks Stephen Assink, and he cites (though he links to the wrong piece, alas) this piece about India’s smart city ambitions from a few months ago by Shruti Ravindran. (Link to Assink via Subashini Navaratnam.)

Supriya Nair is typically wonderful on M. S. Dhoni’s stardom.

This collaboration theorizing black and indigenous relationships to land is amazing–the piece I link to here (via Kate again) is by Eve Tuck, Allison Guess and Hannah Sultan, but you’ll want to read all the links as well.