July 26, 2015

Of Interest (26 July, 2015)

 

Unsorted:

Austin Walker on superheroes and cities, via Ben Gabriel.

Casey Plett on kindness, call-outs and having people Ally at you. I love this for the word “oogy” which is exactly right for what it describes, and I love that it reminded me of this gorgeous piece by Elena Rose, and it’s just good in several ways. Via Keguro Macharia.

A Kuzhali Manickavel thing.

Ness Io Kain on expressing gender identity in video game avatars, and Animal Crossing: New Leaf‘s weird committment to the gender binary, via Maureen Kincaid Speller. (Lots of really good linked pieces as well)

By Metta Sáma, Rage, Rage Against: For the guy who said it wasn’t about race but about bad choices in friends. Via Sridala Swami.

Always reread Sofia Samatar (as Ethan Robinson reminded me)

Kian Ganz on the Indian Supreme Court’s history with the death penalty (via @JiManish on twitter).

A collection of papers from last year’s Visualising Fantastika conference.

Deepanjana Pal on Sujoy Ghose’s Ahalya and the Ahalyas of Hindu mythology.

Genevieve Valentine on Shirley Jackson’s Let Me Tell You.

This lost documentary about homosexuality which has recently been rediscovered. Via Matthew Cheney.

Paromita Vohra on being the new girl at a school in Delhi in the 1980s. “I think one can go so far as to say it was a lot about the skirt.

I linked to a beautiful Anne Boyer thing last week and this is a different beautiful Anne Boyer thing.

Nicola Griffith on the Anglo Saxons, being elf-shot, medicine and belief.

July 20, 2015

Of Interest (19 July, 2015)

(These lists have, slightly reshuffled, been available for the last couple of weeks as part of The New Inquiry’s Sunday Reading, and will continue to be that way. Keeping any commentary on them here, but at that link you’ll also find other lists of links by people with excellent taste, so you should go and look.)

 

Not-books:

Devaki Jain on Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Indian feminism.

Eric Gurevitch’s useful contribution to the Sanskrit-and-plagiarism conversation.

We’re all agreed that Anne Boyer is amazing, right?

How early photographers saw India.

On mourning, repetition and re-memories. All of this.

Reading Comprehension, via Sayak Dasgupta.

 

 

Books:

Niall Harrison reviews James Bradley’s Clade and asks important questions about scale and empathy (and the difficulty of naming climate change fiction).

Sara Paretsky on V.I. Warshawski and talking back.

Victoria Patterson on Barbara Pym. Much that is uncomfortably familiar here. (And speaking of LARB and spinsters, this is also good.)

Sofia Samatar on writing queerly (many of my favourite words there).

Anis Shivani on “plastic realism“, in two parts.  (This comes via Ethan Robinson)

This fantastic interview with Namwali Serpell, via Sofia Samatar. Contains Afronauts, artist-readers, mutiny.

 

 

 

July 12, 2015

Of Interest (12 July, 2015)

Unsorted this week.

 

A Portrait of the Indian as a Young Dalit Girl by Priyanka Dubey.

On Whiteness and Sound Studies, by Gus Stadler.

Via Ethan, Gorgeous as a Jungle Bird, on gay marriage and religion, by Jacob Bacharach.

Keep Your Sorry”: On Slavery, Marriage and the Possibility of Love by Alexis Pauline Gumbs.

In Muse India’s SF issue, Vandana Singh on SF, Climate Change and the Future (I linked to the whole issue a few weeks ago but this essay deserves more love than I’ve seen for it).

Amartya Sen on the revival of Nalanda.

Rose Eveleth on the Subversive Science Fiction of Hip-Hop.

J.A. Micheline, the White Privilege, White Audacity and White Priorities of Strange Fruit #1.

Is fun fun? Nakul Krishna on Aubrey Menen.

Karen Burnham on SPACE

From Nowhere, an interview with Antoine Volodine.

July 5, 2015

Of interest (5 July, 2015)

So much that is good this week!

 

Books (kind of):

Megan Milks on fanfiction; this is good, and then there’s “it expresses an attitude not of denigration or gentle mockery, but desire mixed with betrayal. It’s infatuated, and it hurts. It wants”, and my heart is doing funny things. 

Tipu Sultan’s dream journal. I want to read all of this.

Peepli’s gorgeous landscape glossary, via Dala and Kate separately.

Hari Kunzru on Dune is fantastic; also well worth it for the unhappy fans wellactuallying in the comments.

Frederic Jameson on Neuromancer at Public Books.

 

Not books (kind of):

Sara Ahmed on academia and its “problem students” (hint: those scare quotes are there for a reason).

Margaret Biser on some of the questions she was asked while giving tours on a plantation.

Bree Newsome Bree Newsome Bree Newsome.

Alexander Chee on America’s queer future, and then a coda to the earlier piece.

Rakesh Dixit reporting on the bizarre Vyapam story.

Alyssa Rosenberg on (Western) pop culture’s use of white supremacist villains to create comforting narratives–this is good, though I’m not sure it goes far enough for me. Perhaps a companion piece/coda is needed?

 

July 5, 2015

June Reading

June was not a good month.  I started many books and did not finish them; my house and body broke; I did not have room in my head for reading.

 

 

Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous With Rama: I hadn’t read this since my teens, when I dutifully read my way through (part of) the SF canon. I’d forgotten almost everything about it except the rather clumsy “we are now referring to a historical parallel!” moments that felt like they must be directed at an audience that existed in the book’s present, since surely a 1970s one couldn’t be that spectacularly ignorant of the last couple of centuries’ history. I’d forgotten (or not realised) how dry it was, in the best of ways. I reread it for this, and this time I liked it a lot.

Frances Hardinge, Cuckoo Song: This was very, very good and I wrote about it here.

Sally Gardner and David Roberts, Tinder: This was quite good and I wrote about it at the link above.

 

June 28, 2015

Of interest (28 June, 2015)

 

Things that made me hurt:

“On Black grandmothers and the art of dying on your own terms” by Hanif Abdurraqib, via Rose Lemberg on Twitter.

“The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning,” Claudia Rankine in The New York Times.

This Climate Anxiety alternate history by Kate Schapira. Honestly, I cry at quite a few of these, but this one is about grief more directly than many of the others and I probably cried a bit extra.

Oh but there was Bree Newsome and this and it hurt in the best ways.

 

Other things:

This roundtable of AfroSF contributors at Omenana.

I moderated a book discussion on Rendezvous with Rama at Strange Horizons, here and here. The participants were Karen Burnham, Vajra Chandrasekera, Martin McGrath, Ethan Robinson and Vandana Singh, and the result is this fun, smart, joyful thing. Am I allowed to be proud of this when I didn’t actually contribute? Because I am.

Paromita Vohra is generally great, and she says some really insightful things about Sunny Leone, her public persona and her success, here.

Claire Light on Sense8, via Amba Azaad on Twitter. Some really good thoughts on geographic and cultural specificity and universality and the global American imagination.

Bizarre native customs.

June 22, 2015

The Carnegie shortlist: Tinder and Cuckoo Song, predictions and thoughts

Clearly we saved the most enjoyable week till the last.

TinderSally Gardner and David Roberts, Tinder: Okay, so I don’t entirely understand the Carnegie’s rules as regards illustrated works. Tinder is the only book on this year’s shortlist to also appear on the Carnegie’s sister award,  the Kate Greenaway’s  shortlist for illustration. Only Gardner’s name appears on the Carnegie, both Gardner and Roberts’s names appear on the Greenaway (this is consistent–in all other cases on the Greenaway shortlist where text and art are by different people, both are credited). But I’m not here to judge the Greenaway, and what I’m left wondering about is this–does this mean I’m supposed to be assessing Tinder only by Gardner’s words?

Tinder is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Tinderbox” (the one with the magic dogs with giant eyes), but transported to Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. I mention this because it seems important to how Gardner conceptualises the book–the specifics of the war that lies at the back of the narrative is rarely visible. That’s probably fine–the fairytale as a form is an excellent vehicle for a lot of things, but historical specificity is probably not one of them.

Form is probably going to be important to any reading of the book. One of the ways in which fairytales work is by not being very internal–it’s this detachedness that also allows them to talk about horrifying things. But then you have something like Tinder, which is longer than a fairytale (though not as long as it looks, because so much of it is the artwork) and so needs to sustain itself for that length, and is pretty explicitly about PTSD, and yet is shutting itself off from much of the interiority of the novel. I’m not convinced it works; I enjoyed reading it, but not in ways that involved much investment, and while I wouldn’t count that as a flaw in some sorts of narrative, it was something I missed here.

The art is beautiful, though, and I’m glad Roberts is receiving credit for that separately. This would be a much-diminished book without the illustrations–as it is, it’s a beautiful physical object as well as everything else. Not the best book on this shortlist (I haven’t looked at all the Greenaway books so cannot speak for that list, though the Shaun Tan book looks gorgeous) but good, and so pretty.

 

18298890Frances Hardinge, Cuckoo Song: I liked this book a lot.

Cuckoo Song begins with Triss waking up after a near-drowning and piecing herself back together, while trying to figure out what happened to her. The first section of the novel is dedicated to this mystery and it is, to me, the weakest part; still enjoyable to read (Hardinge is good at writing sentences) but not emotionally important. It’s once this particular mystery has been solved, when Triss has to face the truth of what she is, that Cuckoo Song suddenly begins to work really well.

Because Triss is (spoiler!) a changeling, and is inherently parasitic, and is dying. And Cuckoo Song hits so many character notes that I an susceptible to–Triss’s consciousness of her own destructiveness, her detachedness, that sense of feeling at a remove; toxic relationships and sisterly relationships and found family and wanting to protect. And Ellchester and its architecture work and the ways in which we move between horror and fantasy also work. It sometimes does the clever thing where things work as fantasy and allegory at the same time and sit comfortable beside each other and one does not subsume the other. I wasn’t even annoyed that it  was yet another WWI book (if I have a quibble I think it might be that I don’t endorse this book’s conception of history).

When I read A Face Like Glass many months ago, I said it felt as if Hardinge was drawing on aspects of some of my favourite authors– Joan Aiken, Mervyn Peake, Diana Wynne Jones. I see traces of so many things I love in Cuckoo Song, though it doesn’t feel derivative or even deliberately bricolage-y, and it’s extremely enjoyable to read. I don’t know, though, if this is connected to the fact that I enjoyed both of those books in quite a detached way. Even when, in the case of Cuckoo Song in particular, they were hitting all my particular emotional beats.

I’m not sure that isn’t a compliment though.

 

 

Predictions, thoughts: I suppose it would be okay if More Than This or Buffalo Soldier or maybe Tinder (though if Gardner won the Carnegie and Roberts didn’t win the Greenaway, that would feel unfair) won this year’s award, but as far as I’m concerned, Cuckoo Song is the best thing on the list by a considerable distance.

But I’m underwhelmed. I wasn’t always the biggest fan of last year’s shortlist, but other than the two particularly unfortunate titles (Ghost Hawk and The Child’s Elephant) I could see why each of those books was on that list. In a more just world the judges would have recognised that Liar & Spy was perfect, but The Bunker Diary was ambitious and had an integrity that I really do admire. This year’s shortlist has felt toothless to me; Hardinge aside, Landman and Ness’s books are the only ones that feel like they might be important, and both falter for me in crucial places. As a representative selection of the best children’s lit published in Britain over this period, this would be depressing if I didn’t know I’d read better things over this period. Where, for example, was Robin Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike? If they wanted smart, earnest, funny things (they did last year; surely that was part of the appeal of Rooftoppers and Liar & Spy?), where was Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees? Not even claiming either of these books was perfect (Murder Most Unladylike is about as close to perfect as it gets, though), but they don’t have to be.

And that’s two British children’s book awards shortlists I’ve read this year that have been made up entirely of white authors, as far as I can tell (usual disclaimers apply), and last year’s Carnegie shortlist (I did not see last year’s Little Rebels shortlist) was the same. That really is depressing.

June 21, 2015

Of interest (21 June, 2015)

Here are things I thought were good and worth reading this week.

 

Not-genre (loosely):

 

Megan Milks interviews Daviel Shy about her upcoming film based on Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack. (via Milks)

Diana George on Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, which is a thing I didn’t realise was out and I need it now and so do you, probably.

This essay by  Ken Chen starts from Goldsmith and Place and goes on and is long and meaty, so that I haven’t fully absorbed it (and therefore) nor am willing to *endorse* it, but it is certainly worth reading. (via Dala)

Nandini Ramchandran being wonderful on Jessa Crispin’s Dead Ladies Project and, relatedly, Subashini Navaratnam on spinsterhood and, relatedly, Crispin herself on Kate Bolick’s Spinster.

Jennygadget on this week’s whole John Green thing.

 

Genre (loosely):

Joshua Clover on change, Mad Men, Mad Max and The Coca-Cola Kid.

Annie Mok on queerness, community and Moomins (this wrecked me).(via Ben Gabriel)

 

 

June 21, 2015

The Carnegie shortlist: When Mr Dog Bites and The Fastest Boy in the World

Short version: I’m not particularly into these books either.

 

wmdbBrian Conaghan, When Mr Dog Bites: After my lukewarm feelings about the last couple of books on this list, I was almost surprised to find that I was quite enjoying When Mr Dog Bites. The story of a teenage boy who has Tourette’s, a missing dad and an unreciprocated crush and, at the beginning of the book, discovers that he has a bigger problem: (spoiler!) he’s going to die within a few months.

In the context of a very earnest shortlist, something that involves wordplay and swearing (the sort that is the result of coprolalia as well as the sort that isn’t) was refreshing, even though it was hard to see why Dylan would have decided to randomly adopt cockney rhyming slang as his chosen medium, considering that he is in Scotland. It was also refreshing that the book didn’t seem to be trying to make a well-meaning point about disability or mental health; the bulk of the plot is to do with Dylan discovering family secrets and failing to be cool around the prettiest girl in school. And I love everything about his mother.

But, but, but. The mannered writing doesn’t feel right, Dylan himself feels inconsistent (I kept having to check his age because it seemed to be fluctuating all over the place), and there are so many little things that put me off. Like the Pakistani best friend who smells of curry (but it’s okay, because Dylan likes curry!), who is unmoved by Dylan yelling racial slurs at him because he doesn’t mean them, and who protests at being romantically paired with the only brown girl in the school before … entering a relationship with the only brown girl in school (she’s Indian, he’s Pakistani, how will they tell their families???); the attitude towards bodies, whereby Michelle Molloy’s leg is treated well enough by the text (she can still be sexy, hurrah) but the school bully has to be fat and therefore grotesque.

And it’s so pleased with itself for the swearing. Look, I think we could all do with a bit more profanity in children’s books–sometimes it’s warranted by situations, sometimes it’s just beautiful and creative and fun. Much of the swearing in this book is attributed, as I say above, to Dylan’s Tourette Syndrome. Except that coprolalia is not that common in Tourette’s patients, and yet is disproportionately prominent in media representations, and with that context, something about the choice to sell this book with the tagline “a story about life, death, love, sex and swearing” feels a bit gross.

 

Elizabeth Laird, The Fastest Boy in the World: I do not have a long list of complaints about this book, which is perfectly inoffensive. It’s about a few days in the life of an eleven year old Ethiopian boy named Solomon, who loves to run and dreams of becoming a famous long distance runner like one of his sporting heroes–I did like that one of those heroes is Derartu Tulu because it is (I was going to say “surprisingly” but it’s not really surprising) rare to see a sportswoman casually positioned as someone a boy might look up to. Solomon and his family live twenty miles (a long day’s walk or a bus ride) away from Addis Ababa, which Solomon has never visited, mainly (as far as I can tell) so Laird can show us his First Glimpse of a Big City. Solomon and his grandfather visit the capital, walking the whole way, which proves to be a bit too much for his grandfather’s health. They show up at the home of relatives (whose vague annoyance at unannounced visits is proof that there’s something a bit wrong with them); the relatives are found to be hiding something; we learn about grandfather’s mysterious past; grandfather takes ill and may be dying; Solomon heroically runs most of the way home to tell his family what has happened.

I phrase it all this way to show that there’s no lack of actual incident in this book. Mysteries past and present, an unexpected connection with Haile Selassie, the death of a beloved relative, Solomon’s triumphant run and bright future,  each of these would be more than enough to fill a book in its own right. So I’m not sure how it is that this book manages to strip most of the conflict out of them; skipping over each one so lightly that I’m left wondering why it bothered including them at all. There’s nothing wrong with The Fastest Boy in the World, it just sort of … exists. I’m not sure what the point of it is.

June 17, 2015

Sarah Hall, The Wolf Border

From a recent column, and also a very loosely sketched outline of several things I’ve been thinking about recently. Also relevant, possibly: Adam Roberts on the “strange pastoral” of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach books, and pretty much anything that contains the word “anthropocene”. I’ve decided, basically, that The Wolf Border is absolutely a book about climate change.

There’s a Lionel Shriver review of The Wolf Border, here,  in which she is a bit unimpressed at Hall’s choice to have Rachel keep the baby she isn’t sure she wants. And I absolutely get that in the context of women’s ongoing struggle for reproductive rights we could all do with seeing more fictional abortions. But then that choice against certainty, against decisive action (or decisive feeling) is fundamental to my reading of this book. I don’t know how I can advocate for the continued assertion of women’s rights to our bodies and control over our reproductive selves and also the necessity of fiction that imagines women (and men, and everyone) not in control of our bodies and surroundings (in ways different from the ways in which we already socially lack that control), or choosing to give up the sorts of control we do have and here we are anyway.

 

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badgerOne of my favourite facts about Britain is that its largest remaining native carnivore is the badger. This is not to disparage badgers or their abilities (a simple internet search will lead to several stories of badger aggression*) but it’s hard to imagine them as a threat—the lasting image for me, at least, is of the fussy character in a dressing gown in The Wind in the Willows. It would probably be unfair to blame Kenneth Grahame entirely for the domestication of the British landscape, in imagination or reality, but he does rather leave one with an impression of it as populated by the animal world’s equivalent of elderly men in slippers.

More intimidating predators are still a possibility, through multiple rewilding projects taking place across Europe. Already there are plans to reintroduce lynxes, as well as wolves, though within protected territories.

It’s with the rewilding of wolves that Sarah Hall’s most recent novel, The Wolf Border, is concerned. Its protagonist, Rachel Caine, has been working on a reservation in Idaho for years, but returns to her native Cumbria to participate in a project to reintroduce the grey wolf to a private estate, in the face of local opposition to the project. The estate in question belongs to the Earl of Annerdale (the name echoes the rewilding projects in Ennerdale in England and Alladale in Scotland), whom Rachel immediately dislikes. She is shown to have good reason—the project is tied up in larger political concerns and the Earl’s interest is (predictably) hardly altruistic. Yet he, and the world he represents, fade into the background for most of the book, which is in the main about Rachel herself; her family, her pregnancy, her relationship with this landscape that is familiar from her childhood and that she has not seen for years.

Set in a world where last year’s Scottish referendum resulted in a victory for the “yes” side, The Wolf Border is also speculative fiction of a sort. The political and ecological differences between this world and our own are not particularly big ones; if Annerdale isn’t quite where the book says it is this is a divergence from reality no greater than most realist fiction, and if the Scottish referendum didn’t go as the book says it did, for (presumably) most of the book’s genesis it was still possible. Yet there’s something else The Wolf Border is doing, something that to me feels inherently speculative.Wolf Border

At one point in the book, Rachel invokes the Chernobyl disaster, which had occurred when she was ten years old.

“They told us not to go outside if it was raining. Where I come from, it’s always raining. We had exercises in school for nuclear disasters afterwards. This bell would ring and you’d have to duck under the desk and count to one hundred. […] They’ve only just stopped testing the lambs before sending them to the market.”

Her companion recalls being in school when Mount St Helens erupted and he and his brother “[stayed] under the bed for three days […] There was black shit on everything.” Whether it’s the ravages that humans have wrought on the world, or nature itself, the “dark old republic” whose past and future Rachel imagines, we have never truly been safe.

So much of The Wolf Border is about discomfort, about plunging into discomfort even when one doesn’t have to. Rachel’s pregnancy, about which she is ambivalent but which she chooses not to terminate. Landscape and bodies and borders are mutable; and the sheer physicality of Hall’s prose insists that we engage with them as such.

And if I, however unfairly, blame the domestication of the British landscape on Kenneth Grahame’s anthropomorphic animals, part of the work of rewilding it must also belong to literature. It is becoming harder to pretend that we’re safe in the world, that hiding under desks or beds will shield us. We must live unsafe in the world and one of literature’s tasks for the near future must be the speculative work of imagining ourselves no longer at ease.

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*A good place to do this is in a university library where the person working at the next computer can look over and see you googling “badger attack” and lose all respect for you forever.