Friday, December 28, 2007

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2007, Pt. 11: Eileen Gunn and L. Timmel Duchamp

Here's Eileen's piece:

[photo of Eileen Gunn by Leslie Howle]

Here are some words, not really reviews, about some of the books that I enjoyed in 2007.

True North | Nord Vrai, by Jody Aliesan. Blue Begonia Press, 2006.
Jody Aliesan is a remarkable poet who can convey both exquisite happiness and bone-deep pain, sometimes in the same poem. I've been reading her work since 1980, and it has grown deeper and more complex, as one would expect. And yet even her recent work has stayed very close to the voice and the deep self of her early work. She is an activist in the feminist, anti-war, and social-justice communities, and her poetry reflects those concerns: she writes about what she feels most strongly.

True North is a memoir, a collage of texts from Aliesan's entire life, seamlessly stitched together with a direct but softspoken narrative. In it, Aliesan describes and reflects on her relationship with her mother, a narcissistic woman who was a pathological liar. I found it a truly gripping read. As always with Aliesan's work, I was shaken by its honesty and directness, and I marveled at her ability to distill her anger at the cruelty and violence she has experienced.

I expected that in True North Aliesan would, as she does with her poetry, lead me through the dark but not leave me there, but, even so, I was surprised at the peaceful clarity of the light that shone forth at the end of this book. I strongly recommend it to you, as I recommend her books of poetry.

Other books by Jody Aliesan: here

The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss. Houghton Mifflin, 2007.Do not be put off -- or seduced, for that matter -- by the syrupy cover and title of this new novel from Molly Gloss. This is not a syrupy book, it is not a romance, and it does not sentimentalize either horses or humans. It deals with the classic Faulknerian theme: the human heart in conflict with itself, as embodied in Gloss?s own particular interest, the emotional lives of strong, solitary women.

Once past the marketing misdirection, you'll find another compelling Molly Gloss novel, an emotionally complex tale of a young woman who understands horses and is learning to understand people. This is sort of a post-coming-of-age novel, taking place in the life of Martha Lessen after she has struck out from her family's ranch in eastern Oregon to find work at a distance, on her own. The work she knows is breaking horses to saddle, which the narrator says is a job sometimes performed at that time, in 1917, by itinerant women broncobusters. Martha rides into town in classic western style, a stranger on a horse looking for work. She is wearing a pair of outlandish rodeo chaps that draw a few skeptical stares, and has a copy of Black Beauty in her saddlebags. She gentles horses, as the other women do, by observing their behavior, respecting their differences, and making it worth their while to do what she says.

The narrative voice, which is close-in and personal, but not Martha, captivated me from the beginning. It first seems to be someone reminiscing about the past, but then quickly moves into novelistic exposition. We see things mostly from Martha's point of view, but occasionally we see Martha from someone else?s viewpoint and find out things that Martha doesn't know and never will, and it becomes clear that the narrator is that most delicate of beings, an omniscient voice that moves, when it wants, from one character to another. Gloss explains in the Acknowledgements section that the beginning of the book is taken almost verbatim from the reminiscences of a rancher's daughter in Cowgirls: Women of the American West, an oral history by Teresa Jordan.

The narrator's voice is just the beginning of the voices that emerge from this remarkable book. The various ranch women and men who struggled to make a living in a stark, dry land are for the most part not articulate, or even very talkative, but their deep, rich voices call out from a time when the American past was turning into the present, and the future arrived in bits and pieces.

As for the dust jacket: it is best viewed from Martha's point of view. Marketers are herd animals: they understand things differently from writers, but, with patience and understanding, most marketers can be taught to respect the writer's space. Perhaps the marketing department at Houghton Mifflin simply needs a bit of gentle correction.

Spook Country, by William Gibson. Penguin-Putnam, 2007. Gibson wrote Spook Country in 2005-2006, and he produced a richly imaginative work that felt very strange to read in 2006, which is when it is set. In 2007, however, I've seen traceurs glide swiftly over obstacles in front of Nordstrom, and I've so absorbed the idea of invisible artworks populating the landscape that I often wish I had the special glasses needed to view them. I'm not sure how much that is the result of Gibson always being one step ahead of the zeitgeist, and how much is the Heisenbergian effect of reality bending itself to Gibson's vision.

Spook Country is a benign thriller, exciting on a chapter-by-chapter basis, and yet it does not violate the reader's trust. It is chock-a-block full of Gibsonian felicities, and richly rewards the casual Google.

A View from the Chuo Line by Donald Ritchie. Printed Matter Press, 2004. I bought this slim collection in September, on my last night in Tokyo, at midnight in an all-night bookstore, and read it on the plane going home.

The stories in it are very short, very precise, often from a woman's point of view, or a child's. They are structured around the characters' small, internal epiphanies rather than plots, and, although they are set in present-day Japan and deal with present-day issues, they read like tiny slices of life from a film by Yasujirō Ozu: the essence of Fifties Japan thrust into the 21st Century. They are written from within a particular character's point of view, and they do not in any way meet the reader's eye.

They might even be called character studies rather than stories. I don?t know why I like them, but I do, as I liked Richie's peculiar memoir The Inland Sea, part travelogue, part. The voices and concerns of the characters remind me of Mai, the protagonist of Geoff Ryman's Air, which I also read this year.

L. Timmel Duchamp:

Aqueduct keeps me so busy that I often feel as though I never get to read anything but manuscripts and books I’ve been asked to review. But a look through the book in which I keep track of my reading shows that though my list of books read runs a good deal shorter than in past years, I did in fact do some reading for pleasure in 2007.

I have a special love for collections of short fiction, and for me these are a surer bet than the best magazines and most celebrated anthologies. If a writer consistently produces interesting short fiction, their work shows to greatest advantage in collections, since collections allow the reader to grasp themes and catch resonances that otherwise escape their notice. Early in 2007 I read Australian Kaaron Warren’s The Grinding House for review for NYRSF. I’d never seen Warren’s work before and was pleased to make its acquaintance. Though her prose style is superficially plain, her narratives are fresh and unusual. My review can now be found on my website. Other collections I especially enjoyed were Margo Lanagan’s Red Spikes (more unusual stories from Down Under!), Tamar Yellin’s Kafka in Bronteland, Alisdair Gray’s The Ends of Our Tethers, and Diane Williams’s Excitability.

I also love novellas, especially those that are published as standalone books (which is probably why I like to publish them). At Potlatch this year I purchased a standalone PS novella by Geoff Ryman, titled VAO, from my favorite Portland booksellers, Wrigley-Cross. This gentle, ingenious satire is set in a $100,000 a year retirement home where cyber-chicanery is standard operating procedure for residents and caretakers alike. What can I say? Ryman’s good!

My very favorite new stories of the year (besides either those to be found in the collections above or those I acquired and edited for Aqueduct) were Theodora Goss’s “Singing of Mount Abora” (in Logorrhea) and Vandana Singh’s “Hunger” (Interfictions).

I read several anthologies and enjoyed several (though not all) stories in each. Special mention goes to Lucy Sussex and Judith Raphael Buckrich’s She’s Fantastical, which is twelve years old now but was difficult for me to get hold of, and re:skin, ed. Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth, a gorgeous hardcover published by the MIT Press earlier this year that hasn’t been reviewed anywhere. It has both stories and essays (including a new story by me), and is, in short, a fitting sequel to the celebrated reload: rethinking women + cyberculture.

I enjoyed about a dozen novels immensely:

Samuel R. Delany’s literary novel Dark Reflections is poignant and elegant. (Steven Shaviro has posted an excellent review on his blog.)

Carol Emswhiller’s The Secret City offers a fresh take on the First Contact experience. (I’ve posted my review of it on my website.)

Tricia Sullivan’s paired novels, Double Vision and Sound Mind, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons, satisfied me immensely; Sound Mind is probably too long, but for the reader who likes to think, they’re great fun. (See my review at Strange Horizons.)

I’d been saving Angela Carter’s last novel, Wise Children (the only one of her novels that I hadn’t yet read at least once), and this year suddenly realized that doing so was pointless. So, after all these years, I finally, dove into it. I found it an energetic romp with an underlying sadness, a novel more akin to Nights at the Circus (which is, I think, my favorite Carter novel) than to her earlier work.

Among the year’s rereads, I had the pleasure of rereading Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed a couple of times this year (for an essay I wrote this summer); as often happens with rereads, I found it fascinating to compare my 2007 reading with my 1980 reading.

For sheer escapism I medicated myself with mysteries as needed. Of these I can two stand out in my memory: Peter Dickinson’s King and Joker (set in an alternate history) and Håken Nesser’s Borkman’s Point.

At the experimental-lit end of the spectrum, three novels particularly moved me. Michelle Tea’s The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America reminded me of Violette Leduc, probably because the narrative revels in a gritty, raw frankness about money and class and desire and insecurity. Stacey Levine’s Frances Johnson and Dra— are not so easily described. Well, Dra—, maybe, is somewhat describable, blurring realism into dream imagery and driven by dream logic in a perfectly matter-of-fact way, a female-inflected variety of Kafka on laughing gas. One of the strangest moments of reading Dra— came when I realized that the title character’s name ends with an em-dash and not an underline (as I initially took it, assuming that the character’s name began with the letters D-R-A, as obviously it does not).

Although I was a bit wary going into Elizabeth Knox’s Black Oxen because the last novel by her I’d read (Billie’s Kiss) devolves from a fabulous beginning into a mess of shifting tropes that finally obliterate the narrative with their incoherence, I ended up loving it. Black Oxen demands a good deal of trust on the reader’s part—trust that the author knows what she’s doing and that everything in the novel is there for a reason—and then richly rewards that trust. It’s a science fiction novel that is so focused on the lives of its characters and the politics of narrative that I suspect some sf fans might disdain to call it science fiction. I loved the texture of the narrative, I loved its layered density, I loved its generosity with characters whose choices and affections and even crimes can’t be neatly compartmentalized and explained away.

One novel this year filled me with absolute, inordinate glee. Rebecca Ore’s Time’s Child doesn’t compare with Outlaw School or Gaia’s Toys, but it was such fun to read that I silently burbled with mirth all the way through (when I wasn’t outright cackling). I loved Ore’s future Philadelphia and what her motley crew transported by time-machine from the past were up to there, just adored the way the guy from OUR time was helpless to thwart them. And how perfectly apt that the idea of everyone thriving and working cooperatively to create a decent place to live just drove him up the wall, reflecting the depressing pathology of 21st-century US mores and values. There are aspects of my intellectual formation that account for my glee, of course. The book’s central character, Benedetta, a 15th-century Italian woman who as a camp follower works with artillery, helps to maintain and operate a cannon. Among other things, she and her young son hang out in Leonardo da Vinci’s studio and even help him test one of his inventions. When she’s brought forward into 24th-century Philadelphia (along with other people on the verge of death whom academics who have the use of a time-machine have snatched from other places and times), she cannily sees through the lies they tell her and decides she wants to go through the physically risky process of adapting to life outside the quarantined rooms in which a variety of historical refugees are being kept. Ore, you see, refuses to kowtow to the modernist dogma that people born into modern societies are necessarily smarter and better able to adapt to The New than people born into pre-modern societies. A friend of mine who’s a medievalist scholar constantly rants and raves about the idiotic assumptions people make about individuals living in the high middle ages, as though simply being born later makes one smarter. In this novel, a man born in 21st-century Philadelphia is unable to cope with 24th-century Philadelphia because he’s so ideologically brainwashed that he can’t believe that his rigid neoliberalist view of human nature isn’t the True one and so imagines that he can effortlessly sabotage a communal social, economic, and political organization that Benedetta, hailing from the 15th century, finds familiar and sensible. Nisi Shawl and I had a grand argument over the book with the person Nisi mentions having hated the book so much he demanded his money back; without question, he hated the very qualities of the book that I loved. It occurred to me later that Benedetta’s adaptability might not have bugged him so much if Ore had brought Leonardo da Vinci forward instead of Benedetta. Everyone cuts slack for geniuses (who are always male, of course). And the book sets out to be playful rather than Realist. In any case, I daresay most feminists and many leftists would enjoy Time’s Child.

Quickly, interesting nonfiction that I read or started reading in 2007: Linda M.G. Zerilli, Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom; Naomi Klein, Shock Therapy; Jeffrey J. Williams, ed Critics at Work; Laura Kipnis, Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender, and Aesthetics. And of course I reread Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing (which I reviewed for Strange Horizons).

I’ll conclude with mentioning three films that made a deep impression on me.

Pan’s Labyrinth delivered a vivid, frighteningly visceral reminder that fascism is totalitarian—that it takes over not only the political sphere but everything else, including the imagination.

Un Poquito de Tanta Verdad, a film about the teacher’s strike in Oaxaca that inadvertently turned into a revolution, gave me much to think about. Its focus is necessarily on documenting the takeover of (and subsequent ejection from) public space by the peoples of Oaxaca, but it offers an intriguing subtext about the anarchistic, democratic agency traditional to some indigenous peoples and briefly shows a scene in which a thousand people reach consensus on a critical political decision.

And this month I saw I’m Not There, a splendid (if overly long) film about Bob Dylan which divides his character into distinct personas (one of which is played with total plausibility by Cate Blanchett). It’s a playful and evocative film, full of lots of in-jokes and resonant images. And it constantly reminded me of bits of my life during the 1960s and 1970s. The scene in which the Dylan character and his wife Claire are sitting in an outdoor café with another couple startled me, for it was absolutely typical of the arguments that would arise in such settings, where the men argued with the women about women’s inferiority. I’d forgotten, you see. I’d forgotten what it was like to be faced with the male, stone-faced conviction that women are illogical, women can’t write good poetry, women can’t compose music, women can’t write great novels, women can’t do science, women are emotional, and so on and so forth. Just that one scene encapsulated the reality of that loud, constant pressure on women to accept that they are inferior and just get over it. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many arguments like that one I participated in back then. Each time it felt as though I were struggling for my life, struggling just to breathe, while the men used their greater vocal power to interrupt and drown us out, always laughing at our silliness for even caring. Hmm. Though some of the forgotten once-familiar scenery of the movie evoked nostalgia, obviously I have no hankering to return to those days…

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2007, Pt. 10: Jeffrey Ford and Lucy Sussex

Yes, I do actually still have a few more pieces to offer you.

Jeffrey Ford:

Here are some of the books that I enjoyed in 2007. They are in no particular order of preference save the first.

Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov was the best book I read in 2007. It’s a collection of stories based on the author’s time spent in the Siberian labor camps. It’s both a testament to survival in the face of the most brutal and degrading existence and an incredible work of art.

Lunar Park by Brent Easton Ellis is a title Jeff VanderMeer turned me onto – a contemporary horror story of psychological and supernatural terror. There are some parts of this book that are hysterical and some that are out and out creepy. Ellis delves into the themes of family and fame and the writing life. Way better than I ever thought it might be.

Generation Loss by Liz Hand is a dark, gritty thriller from one of my favorite writers. Hand expertly navigates new territory here. Maine, the setting of the novel, becomes a kind of threatening character itself. The tension builds throughout but doesn’t dissipate even after the final revelation.

Black Sheep by Ben Peek, a first novel from an Australian writer, is a dystopian tale with a great irony at its heart. At one and the same time, it is about the loss of identity at the hands of a totalitarian racial protocol but also, and more importantly, a journey of self-discovery for the protagonist, Isao. Peek’s got a good, clear, writing style. Looking forward to seeing further books from him.

Melancholy of Anatomy by Shelley Jackson was a re-discovery for me, literally. I found my copy when I was cleaning my garage this past summer. Poetic, funny, surreal, and beautifully grim, this book’s stories explore the physical realities of the body in metaphor. Just a wonderful book in every way possible. A classic.

Softspoken by Lucius Shepard is an idiosyncratic turn on the Southern Gothic; a quiet, subtle ghost story that slowly builds to an explosive resolution. Great writing here – spare and beautiful. Terrific descriptions of the everyday.

Tin House, vol.#9, Fantastic Women Issue has great work by Kelly Link, Shelley Jackson, Lydia Millet, Rikki Ducornet, etc. This single issue of the magazine is every bit a great anthology.

Under My Roof by Nick Mamatas is a crack and a half. Having grown up on Long Island, I can tell you that even though this novel is a kind of satire, Mamatas captures the heart of the place and these times. Great facility with language.

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard was listed number one on National Geographic's list of the best hundred non-fiction adventure books of all time. The author was the youngest member of the tragic Scott expedition to the South Pole. Read this one in summer and you won’t even notice the heat. Unforgettable.

The Dog Said Bow-Wow by Michael Swanwick. I was a big fan of Swanwick’s Tales of Old Earth collection, but I think he outdoes himself in this new one. 16 stories that run the gamut from Science Fiction to Fantasy to Horror – dinosaurs, voodoo, Venus, a fairy land bordello, and the great Surplus and Darger.

Strangers by Taichi Yamada is a subtle, quiet, but altogether harrowing horror story from the newish line of Japanese titles from Vertical Books. A man who is recently out of a job and a marriage takes up residence in an office building. During the day there are people there working, but at night he and one other person, a strange woman, live in the giant complex. In his searching for a job he travels back to a neighborhood he used to live in as a child and discovers his parents, who he knows died many years earlier. A dreamy creep show. Loved this book.

The Imago Sequence by Laird Barron. Barron is stylistically versatile and his stories cover a wide range of dark themes. His writing draws you in from the first line and you’re hooked just by the flow of language before the plot even kicks in.

Lucy Sussex:

The Archimedes Codex: Revealing the Secrets of the World's Greatest Palimpsest by Reviel Netz and William Noel (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Netz is an expert on science history, Noel is a curator of rare texts. What draws them to collaborate here is the Archimedes Codex, a major work by the founder of science. It was thought lost, until rediscovered as a palimpsest—a manuscript partially erased, then written over by a medieval monk. The Codex was bought by an unknown collector for 2 million dollars in 1998. He deposited it at the Walters Art Museum, and a major conservation process began. How much of Archimedes’ thought could be retrieved from the palimpsest? As Netz and Noel reveal, a surprising amount, using cutting edge imaging from the spy and astronomy fields. They contribute separate chapters, Netz on the significance of the Codex for science, Noel on the history of the book. He tends to a jokey self-deprecation, while Netz writes with the simplicity and directness of the science explicator. What the reader gains from Netz is amazement at Archimedes’ pioneering thought, and from Noel equal amazement that the book exists at all. The Archimedes Codex survived the collapse of ancient civilization, fire, wars, and near obliteration. A fascinating read.

New Legend: A Story of Law and Culture and the FIght for Self Determination in the Kimblerey by Kimberley (Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre)

Unlike many books on Aborigines, this project originated with the people themselves. The purpose is to transmit the Indigenous voice and issues of the Kimberley region. Thus legends and oral history appear, but also the fight for self-determination, and to maintain their culture. Some voices are well known in the white culture, like Pat Dodson and Peter Yu, others are respected elders. From New Legend the reader gains a sense of the Kimberly history, the work of Land Councils, arts and language preservation. The past is important, it defines the speakers, but they also have an eye on coming generations and the region’s future. Part of the process of celebration and rejuvenation is festivals, which are lavishly and beautifully illustrated here. The only criticism is that it should come with a DVD.

When Red Is Black by Qiu Xiaolong (Sceptre)

Qui Xiaolong’s subject matter is China, as seen through the prism of police work. His title refers to Cultural Revolution terminology, red meaning virtuous, black for class enemies, capitalists. The irony is that now the categories are reversed. Xiaolong’s detectives Chen and Yu investigate the murder of a dissident writer. Is her killing merely criminal, or politically-motivated? The book is rich in the depiction of ordinary Shanghai citizens, striving to live in a changing China; and also with the sense of the nation’s past. Chen is a writer as well as policeman, fond of quoting classic poetry. Yet he is aware that in the new China both of his professions are being devalued by money-grubbing. At the end of the book, Chen has made his own small step towards dissidence; but also perhaps towards corruption. When Red is Black is crime fiction as mirror of society, the genre at its best.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2007, Pt. 9: Nisi Shawl and Josh Lukin

We're not done yet! I've still got people reporting in. So here are two more--

Nisi Shawl:

My name’s Nisi Shawl. I’m a writer whose day job is writing. I review books, mostly SF, for the Seattle Times. Every year, in addition to my paid assignments, I turn in a short paragraph about my pick for Best Book of the Year, to be included with other reviewers’ picks in a sort of “summing up” article. In 2007 I reviewed fifteen books for the Times. Five of them were the best. I did pick one and write the requisite paragraph, but for some reason it wasn’t included in the article.

My Five Best Books I Reviewed for the Seattle Times: Thirteen by Richard K. Morgan, Spook Country by William Gibson, The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson, Time's Child by Rebecca Ore, and The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss. I finally picked Thirteen to write about. Here’s my paragraph on that one:

, by Richard K. Morgan (Del Rey). Science fiction reviewer Nisi Shawl called this novel an “achingly good” look at male violence and racial justice through the eyes of a genetically engineered supersoldier living three hundred years from now, full of “harrowing truths, gritty romance, complex politics, and synapse-swift action.”

I was following several Times templates in writing that paragraph, including a mandated wordcount. I didn’t have the space to mention my other four Best Books, or to say why, if forced to create a hierarchy among my picks, I’d place Thirteen at the top.

Aqueduct Press has provided me with that space.

The New Moon’s Arms
is probably Hopkinson’s best novel to date. That’s saying quite a lot. Hopkinson does quite a lot here: she provides vivid sensory impressions of the beautiful Caribbean environment, glimpses of human nature by turns hilarious and regrettable, panoramic views of grass-roots anti-neo-colonialist organizing, and the most believable scientific extrapolation on the possibility of sentient marine mammals I’ve seen since Vonda McIntyre’s 1997 novel The Moon and the Sun.

Time’s Child
was the first novel of Rebecca Ore’s I’d read. I enjoyed it so much I campaigned passionately for my book group to pick it, but at the meeting where we discussed it most everyone dismissed Time’s Child as weak and lacking in verisimilitude. One member even returned his copy to the store where he bought it, so he would not have paid money for it. Myself, I still love the book’s heroine, Benedetta. She’s a 15th-Century Italian camp-follower who hangs out in Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop, then makes the transition to a twenty-fourth century filled with plagues and time machines with an ease that gives the lie to our modern concept of people of the past as automatic idiots. Within the first few pages she won my heart, refusing to believe in the ersatz afterlife created by experimenters from our future to protect her from culture shock: "Benedetta knew she wasn't in Purgatory when she saw a scab on the angel's knuckle." Also, Benedetta, an “older woman,” winds up in a long term sexual relationship with a hot Viking hunk.

I read Molly Gloss’s The Hearts of Horses twice. It’s set in 1917, in an apocryphal Oregon. The heroine, 19-year-old Martha Lessen, trains rather than breaks horses, and gradually becomes involved in frontier society. The pleasure of the book, for me, was in its evocation of a time and place vanishing as they appeared. For the Times I wrote: “Like Carol Emshwiller and Kathleen Alcalá, two other women writing Westerns and SF (both ostensibly male genres), Gloss ignores boundaries instead of defying them. The mythic and the mundane are one. So her re-creation of a romantic past and its irrecoverable dreams feels solid, rooted in the everyday of long ago, palpable as the curve of a china mug in your hand.”

Gloss’s book isn’t SF. Neither is another of my Bests, Spook Country by William Gibson. Its otherly edge derives from immersion in the world of spies and renegade bureaucrats. The language Gibson uses is ultra-easy on my inner ear, as ever, and I was especially entranced by Tito, one of his three protagonists. Tito’s a transplanted Chinese/Hispanic Cuban, scion of a family of self-exiled secret agents. He lives under the protection of escape protocols learned by heart, and the entirely believable intervention of guerreros, Afro-Cuban warrior spirits familiar to me from altars in my own home. I won’t say any more about Spook Country, as you’ve probably heard plenty about this book elsewhere. It was one my editor did include in the Times article, as her pick.

Because my editor didn’t include my paragraph on Thirteen, no SF books were included in the “Best of 2007” article, in a year when there were so many good ones that I had enormous difficulty selecting just a single representative title. I have no idea why my choice was omitted. I just saw the article, and the editor’s out of town for the next two weeks as I write this.

Just so someone somewhere out there knows, there are two reasons why I wish that article had mentioned Thirteen; two reasons in addition to its overall excellence and the points I mentioned in the paragraph I submitted. The first reason is that it moved me more deeply than any of the others. It simply struck a deeper emotional chord. I’d quote the passage that made me cry when I read it; but it wouldn’t have the same effect, obviously, taken out of context. Buy the book. Don’t skip ahead. It’s on page 405.

The second reason is that Morgan has dared greatly, and deserves to be rewarded in like kind. Morgan is white; his protagonist, Carl Marsalis, is a black man genetically engineered to be superior—as followers of machismo measure superiority. For the most part, Morgan’s transracial writing rings true for me (I’m an African American, so though I’m not an expert on “blackness,” my take is relevant). No “magical negro,” Marsalis works entirely from his own agenda. He enjoys sexual encounters with several women while avoiding paying for that enjoyment with his life, as most fictional black men do. Another character, a woman with the same machoistic enhancements Marsalis has, illustrates the strength inherent in balancing traits traditionally viewed as masculine and feminine. But it’s the book’s racial subtext that won my approval.

I could say more. If you want to hear it, just ask me.

Josh Lukin:

I worry that it’s a sign of aging: more and more often, it seems, I look back on a year of art consumption to find that I haven’t discovered as many new artists or as much new work as I useta, instead tending either to look at the work of artists I already liked or catch up on classics I’d missed. In 2007, for example, I expanded my collection of Dave Van Ronk albums from about three to twenty-one, thanks largely to my having discovered ebay and taken to digitizing lp’s once I’d bought them there. Van Ronk was a virtuoso musician and a true pioneer, whose unnecessary death six years ago says a lot about the effects of our nation’s health care “system.” Other skillful artists whose work I continued to follow or to accumulate were Sidney Lumet, who at eighty-three came out with a very good film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and the late Stanley Elkin, whose 1984 novel The Magic Kingdom is a hilarious romp through the world of terminally ill children and narrative medicine.

I enjoyed such crime novels as George Pelecanos (The Wire)’s Right as Rain –this is a guy who knows how to tell a good masculinity story—and Lawrence Block’s Hit Parade, in which Keller the killer finally achieves the terrifying disjunction between his conscience and his profession that he has long aspired to find. Wilkie Collins’s Poor Miss Finch, which I finally got around to reading 133 years after its publication, was one of those novels dismissed during its author’s lifetime for its focus on the actual experience of people with disabilities; now it’s recognized as having shown an understanding of blindness that anticipates the work of Oliver Sacks on that impairment. Sadly, the Oxford University Press seems to have taken the novel out of print this year; happily, David G. Hartwell at Tor rocked my world by bringing Philip Dick’s ninth realist novel, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, back into print. The last of the realist novels Dick wrote in the Fifties, HD in O is one of those books that would be noir if the protagonist were not too demoralized to commit a crime: bleak, bleak tale of paranoia and frustration with the false promises of the American Dream.

Another tale of promises and lies that grew on me, after I’d initially been underwhelmed by it, was Colson Whitehead’s 2006 novella, Apex Hides the Hurt. Whitehead’s gift for lyrical snark pervades this simple parable of an injured advertising consultant who can no longer stomach being in the deception business. But the most heart-wrenching tale of promise and disillusionment that I encountered was My Name Is Buddy: Another Record by Ry Cooder. Seventeen songs and an illustrated booklet tell the story of three small animals with Popular Front ideals roaming around the country and through the past seventy-five years. It drives home the contrast between the kind of world we were supposed to be living in by now according to the dreams of the Thirties and the one we got. Drives it home like nails on Golgotha. Pete Seeger makes a guest appearance. For a more analytical view of the Red Decade and its aftermath, I finally got around to reading Michael Denning’s classic The Cultural Front, as part of a study of the Old Left into which I got so deep that I began speculating to random acquaintances about how deep Lead Belly’s support for the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact ran. Loved Denning’s historical and intellectual narrative, although I disagree with some of his conclusions. Another great document of radical history I encountered, one which hasn’t received enough attention thanks to the polarizing effect that ensues upon the mention of its author’s very name, is Mumia Abu-Jamal’s We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party. Probably the best in-print introduction to what that organization was and did.

Other classics that I read included, sixty-six years after its publication, Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. Bunny Wilson was, with only a few lapses, the literary essayist that Luke Menand and Christopher Hitchens only dream of being. Did you know that Hemingway threatened to sue Bunny for accusing his work of misogyny? Disappointingly, the title essay of the Wilson book is its weakest; but at least it called his readers’ attention to the Philoctetes, which I had read with some delight earlier this year. I’m ashamed to admit that 2007 also saw my first encounters with Carol Emshwiller’s mindbending fable Carmen Dog and John Ford’s Monumental film The Searchers. Each in its way good heartwarming fun. I have more of an excuse for only this year seeing Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, as it has not been readily available in the thirty years since its first release. My enjoyment of this sublime slice-of-life picture was briefly mitigated in the movie house by a cluster of septuagenarian culture vultures, whose voices I swear were modeled on Art Garfunkel’s 1968 Recordings of Old People, grousing at the end: “THAT WAS A BAD MOVIE!” “Didn’t it get four stars in the paper?” “What was the paper thinking?” “It had some good music, but that was it.” “Pret-ty bad.”

The other movies I delighted in this year are perhaps not widely canonized as classics, but they have an honored place in the Josh Canon. Blacklisted screenwriter Paul Jarrico, in European exile, followed up his celebrated Salt of the Earth with the Cold War romp The Hot Line, which is like the Platonic Form of 1960s farce. Anyone who doesn’t like it should be airmailed to Barcelona. Almost twenty years before The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges played a West Coast slacker with a violent Vietnam vet friend in Cutter’s Way, a neo-noir dramatization of Neil Hertz’s dictum, “People would rather get their stories straight than live.” The movie is respected and has gained some attention in the disability narrative canon, but is perhaps not widely known. A movie that would have been a big success if it had not fallen between the cracks of a turnover in studio personnel was 2005’s The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, a delightful and kinda feminist exemplar of the Julianne Moore as Struggling Fifties Housewife genre, with a nice supporting performance by Woody Harrelson.

Would I be turning this blog into an echo chamber if I were to praise Christopher Barzak’s One for Sorrow? Would I be turning this blog into an echo chamber if I were to praise Christopher Barzak’s One for Sorrow? Having spent twenty-one years of my life living right outside the inferno into which Barzak’s hero descends (Youngstown, OH), I can’t refrain. Lovely, gorgeously written, sentimental story of class tensions and rural anomie. Fun fact: the book’s wittiest exchange is between that hero and a fictionalized version of gay Youngstown secondhand bookseller Jack Peterson, whose store is called Dorian Books and who, in real life, doesn’t age! I love Barzak dearly, but an even closer friend, Rebecca Ore, released an equally nifty book this year that did not receive its due: Time’s Child, marketed as epic skiffy futuristic adventure, is in fact a small-scale intellectual fantasia held together by “Ore's dry satiric voice and astute eye for setting. She makes credible and interesting the micropolitics of smart, verbal people from various past eras struggling to determine whom to trust in a future Eastern Pennsylvania landscape . . . a soothing vernal chat with a rapier-witted polymath.” To repeat my own words, which are now owned by Jeff Bezos.

Possibly the greatest 2007 book I’ve yet read is another one that has received the attention it deserves: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by the ass-kickin’ Junot Diaz. Diaz’s widely-revered first book, the story cycle Drown, was all about masculine norms and how they fuck up their adherents: the novel attempts, sometimes with a little less confidence, to incorporate female subjectivity as well into a story whose characters and scope really necessitate that every Ford/Auster/Roth Navel-Gazing White Guy Novelist kill himself immediately. Give up, dudes. You’re over with. It’s pernicious: I was reading it and going, okay, I see what he’s doing here, okay, this is nice, okay, does this guy have to be so obsessed with using this rhetorical invention, yeah, okay, pretty intense . . . and then I finished and closed it. And two hours later I was all, HOLY SHIT! Novels aren’t supposed to be able to do that! Words aren’t supposed to be able to do that! Nothing that is signifiable in The Discourse is supposed to be able to do that. This man keeps it Real. I had to, like, take a nap. Diaz’s friend Edwidge Danticat wrote a novel a few years ago with overlapping topics, The Farming of Bones. Read and liked that one this year too: it reminded me of some great feminist sf odysseys, but was perhaps less hopeful than most, thanks to its historical setting in 1930s Haiti.

An ongoing project in my study of Contemporary US Fiction is to look at what I call Hippie Elegies –novels that look back melancholically on The Sixties (including those parts of that era that followed 1970). Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland was one of the founding documents of that genre, as was T.C. Boyle’s World’s End; Philip Roth’s American Pastoral was its conservative counterpart; Susan Choi’s American Woman, a feminist rebuttal to Roth; Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus, a nice exemplar of the genre. This year, I very much enjoyed Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, not only for its vivid contrasts between the historical portrayals of the radical Seventies and the contemporary scenes of hipsters and swells in neoliberal Seattle today but for its strengths in conveying the excitement that the earlier era’s music can elicit even in contemporary young people. The passages on Arthur Lee and the Beach Boys are worth the price. I followed the Spiotta piece with Sigrid Nunez’s Hippie Elegy, The Last of Her Kind, a powerful but very pessimistic story of female friendship with strong allusions to The Great Gatsby. Ultimately, although the novel shows an acute awareness of social injustices, its narcissistic leads and its bleak conclusion might prevent it from being a particularly progressive story itself; but that doesn’t detract from its aesthetic and intellectual substance.

Having read all three of Jennifer Egan’s novels in previous years, I turned recently to her 1997 short story collection, Emerald City. I really liked about half of it. And it helped me develop my Theory of Egan: her stories and novels almost all concern characters who commit an existential act of transgression (or in a couple of cases suffer someone else's) in the expectation that it will lead to self-realization and find that they've actually been severed from any sense of selfhood, and have often just embraced a desire that was not their own when they could have stayed rooted, or in their own skins as it were, and pursued their own enthusiasms/affections/productive loyalties. Very like Dostoyevsky or his epigone Jim Thompson or, hey, James Baldwin ("the moment when no one else is real to you, nor are you real to yourself"). In short, when you make that break, when you try to go “Outside of society” (pace Patti Smith), you’re more likely to end up George Hurstwood than Dean Moriarty.

Egan’s novel-length work tends (like that of her Brooklyn neighbor Whitehead) to show how that severance is historically-grounded, such that it’s at odds with those authors who misread social change as ontological horror, those who take what's interesting in Pynchon and PKD and put it into an ahistorical, asocial, Austere (that's the adjective form of "Auster," right?) context. In short fiction, not so consistently or explicitly (although the last two stories in her collection do emphasize class and history); but that allows a reader to get a clearer look at the affective side: her interest in how it feels when, having lost the anchor to the identity you'd been accustomed to, you're the one who "Melts Into Air" really comes through. And, not being a conservative at heart, Egan in her short stories sometimes defies Girard's and Dostoyevsky's grim prognoses: three of the happiest endings in her short fiction give a credible account of a girl taking a stand and saying "No" to a potentially annihilating mimetic desire. There’s a similar moment, I think, in her own account of her life, wherein she says part of her anorexia was an attempt to satisfy what she saw as her mother’s desires for her and recounts how becoming an artist allowed her to find a healthier and more independent sense of agency.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2007: Pt. 8: Andrea Hairston and Rosaleen Love

I love how these year-end pieces are all so different. You'll find that these are, too...

Andrea Hairston:

Before I sat down to write what books or films I appreciated in 2007, I read a theatre review in the New York Times. A friend had done a play reading and her picture accompanied the article. Her acting was wonderful, the reviewer proclaimed, but the production was a liberal harangue, a sermon to the converted without a word for the plutocrats.

Not a word for the plutocrats!

Despite my friend’s glorious acting, who knows, I might have hated this production—chin falling to chest as I slipped from boredom into dreams and snored. Since menopause, I can’t stay awake when I don’t really want to. Still, the breezy review got me to wondering.

Do we write for the plutocrats and hope they hear?

Do we sing to the choir about the joys, pain, and wonder of our common life?

What do I want from a story as a writer and as audience?

As usual, the advertisements in the Times took up more space than the reviews and articles. Two thirds of this particular page was an overt assault on my pocketbook. Indeed, given product placement within so many texts, it’s almost impossible to enjoy artistic experiences without imbibing vast quantities of mercantilist manipulation.

It is striking that we have such a high tolerance for all the spend-money sermons[1], for the lying on the mountaintop and at the crossroads about how and where and when and with whom we can be happy beyond our wildest dreams. It is, however, not all that surprising that we allow so much of our time, space, and energy to be taken up with commercialism. Advertising is such a spectacular achievement, because it successfully employs all the wonderful and delightful techniques of every kind of storyteller and artist. With a minute or less to charm us, the best visual magicians, yarn spinners, word wizard, musicians, and actors conjure legends and myths and fun, and then promise these grand experiences to us with a purchase. Publicity is speculative art, offering us the future, a grand and pleasurable future at that.

All too often I have heard folks chant the absolute power of commercialism—commodity culture is the way of the world, the way of the future, a product of human nature. No one can buy a way out, so might as well buy in!

While doing research for my latest novel, I came across a Hopi proverb:

The one who tells the stories rules the world.

I hear more complaints about art hitting us over the head with a message than I do about ADs battering our spirits with art or PR sucking on the sacred and spiritual for profane power. Advertising, publicity, and public relations have persuaded us that they are indispensable without a word about the plutocrats. We recognize the lies. However, despite media savvy and the best intentions, we believe in the PR enterprise and try to buy our way to that happy, glamorous tomorrow. Study after study[2] finds that beyond a certain level of basic comfort, things just don’t make us happy. Stories do. We can’t live without them.

Commodity cultural is empty calories for the soul. It gets its power from storytellers and artists. I often forget this and lament the declining significance of storytellers and Story. Submerged in or battered by 3000 ADs a day, I can lose track of what I think. I forget that commodity culture is propped up by a web of delicious myths that we enjoy because they are good stories well told. It’s mythology we crave, the sense of wonder at ourselves, at the Universe, and the pleasure of shared experiences, not all the junk and gadgets. Once the commodity is out of its dazzling package, the magic aura of its story quickly fades. But as speculative art, publicity keeps us buying for a tomorrow that never comes.

Plutocrats rejoice!

I don’t watch TV, because I can’t bear ADs and publicity sucking up the days of my life. At fifty-five, every minute is particularly precious. The tomorrow-that-never-comes doesn’t look nearly as good as the moment I am in. It’s a struggle to hold on to my moments. I am not paranoid. PR people are hunting me down everywhere! If we get to the Multiplex early for the best seats, we must now suffer these most commercial of fictions.

In 2007 here are the short shorts that struck me:

The National Guard had a nostalgic music video about the sacrifices we have to make for freedom (perhaps even sacrificing freedom itself). Their jingle wouldn’t let go of my brain. Sign up and be a patriot and revolutionary, like those brave men who heard the call in 1776. A Navy AD boasted of science fictional weapons for a real-life video game war. Episode One would be: The Drones Fight Terrorism. For cast info, we were exhorted to check with recruitment. Coke used brilliant animation, dramatic serendipity, and delightful shapeshifting (that drew gasps from my movie theatre audience) as we went inside a coke machine, to a world as lush and vibrant as Middle Earth, Narnia, and Oz, to produce the bottle of refreshment that after great adventures tumbled out the slot. Take a sip for an SF and F ride!

What do I want from Story?

In addition to powerful technique and narrative craft, beyond startling images and tenacious tunes, I want what Walter Benjamin calls the wisdom of the storyteller. This is not information or explanation, but experience transformed into insight. In these hard times, I read hungrily, hoping some word wizard, who doesn’t know me from shadows and smoke, will understand my particular joy and torment. As I watch a film, I pray that someone other than me has been where I am before. I sit down in the theatre, desperate for an artist to discover what’s been hiding in plain view. I want somebody to notice what I have seen and also show me what I have missed. I’ve got a Jones for dropping the skin I’m in and running around in one so different from my own, I can hardly believe what’s happening. A good story has irreducible magic and offers a unique pleasure for each listener, reader, or viewer.

In 2007, these films offered me magic that didn’t fade:

Das Leben der Anderen—The Lives of Others
Children of Men
Michael Clayton
When the Levees Broke
Pan’s Labyrinth
and The Devil’s Backbone

These are all horror films. I used to think I wasn’t a fan of horror. I cover my eyes at graphic violence.[3] Like Greek tragedy, a lot of scare-you-to-death horror is cathartic, purging an audience of the desire for transgressive action. Scare-you-to-death horror like tragedy is a communal ritual to celebrate shared values. Look at the consequences for stepping out of line and tremble—if a giant of a character bucks the Fates (status quo) he’ll marry his mother and she’ll hang herself; he’ll loose a plague on the city and his children will murder one another or get buried alive; he’ll pluck out his eyes and wander through his elder years, a broken spirit with a shattered heart. Characters get what they deserve in tragedy—the order of things is not challenged.

Scare you-to-wonder horror is something else.

The endings are open. The order of things is contingent on our collective actions, not the Fates. Our destiny, our possibilities are not written in character flaws—instead we are characters of history, of social constructions, and history ain’t over yet! Despite disagreements I might have with artistic choices[4], I stood up from viewing the films listed above invigorated by the exchange of experiences. These were speculative, communal rituals, celebrating what might be.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck crafts a scary tribute to the power of Story in Lives of Others. Spying on fellow East German citizens for the Stasi (as we in the audience spy on “fictions” in the dark of a theatre), a secret policeman is transformed by what he witnesses. Indeed he takes action in a story that he should passively observe.

Michael Moore’s Sicko had me belly-laughing with anger and guffawing with rage. Moore’s stinging interviews and escapades show how American Health Care is Theatre of the Absurd.

Nappy-headed vulnerability in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men made me worry about ships in the mist coming to rescue us from homelands where we are made refugees.

In When The Levees Broke: A requiem in four acts, Spike Lee shows what horror has been going down in plain sight. Katrina is a blinding spotlight.

George Clooney is in another “liberal harangue” on the plutocrats, but the script and directing of Michael Clayton are so compelling and Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, and Tilda Swinton do such fine acting, I didn’t fall asleep. Tragic character flaws prove not to be immutable.

Guillermo Del Toro is a master of unresolved tension. In Pan’s Labyrinth, he eschews a cathartic resolution for his political fable/horror fairy tale. Coming of age in fascism is certainly surreal. The young heroine does not passively accept the horror thrust on her. She conjures other possibilities. Imagination is resistance. Del Toro does not break apart the facts, magic, and truth. As the film ends, the life and death questions of the story continue to haunt us.

In Pan’s Labyrinth, Michael Clayton, The Lives of Others, and all of the films I appreciated, if the characters defy the monsters and hold to their heart, to their deepest, evolving values, they might lose everything or even die, but they still offer hope for the future. Working with difficult, troubling, messy hope, the characters don’t have to become the monsters to defeat them. Indeed, they transform the world.

These films, these storytellers sing to the choir about the joys, pain, and wonder of our common life. They remind me of what I think and believe. They do not create scare-you-to-death celebrations of the Fates and the way it is. Indeed these narratives interrupt the barrage of PR fictions that call for passive consumption and spiritual death. Watching Children of Men or When the Levees Broke or Sicko, I am not exhorted to postpone joy to a tomorrow-that-never-comes. I am not presented with dazzling craft emptied of meaning. These filmmakers share wisdom, counsel. Like the great Ifa masters of the West African Yoruba, they are diviners who do not rely on oracular powers to engage the future, but instead offer a story—rich and full and irreducible, an exchange of experiences. The pleasure comes as I find my particular interpretation, my own bridge to the spirit world.

[1] We encounter on average over 3000 ADs a day according to Sut Jhally of The Media Education Foundation.

[3] I covered my eyes frequently in Pan’s Labyrinth.

[4] For instance, I wouldn’t make a film as graphically violent as Pan’s Labyrinth, nor would I create an underworld benevolent King and Queen.

Rosaleen Love:

There’s been serious illness in my family, so this year my reading has been restricted to books I’ve been sent to review, and to which I turned in relief at the distraction. Some of these reviews appeared in G, an Australian green lifestyle magazine that targets the pale green market, “those searching for a lifestyle that won’t cost the earth,” to quote the cover.

Quixotic, this, to turn to environmental writing as release from everyday life. So it proved. The dominant theme tended towards ecological gloominess, through which a few feeble rays of hope did their best to glimmer. My reading certainly took me away from my personal problems to global issues of water, whaling, warming and worse.

These reviews are more or less as I sent them for publication. I’d like to be able to go back to the books and re-read and revise what I’m writing for this blog, but the publisher asked that the books be returned. I’ve never been asked to return review books before and I’m still puzzled about it. Do they resell them on E-Bay?

First book: Andrew Darby, Harpoon. Into the heart of whaling, Allen and Unwin, 2007.

A book titled Harpoon! is one the reviewer holds at arm’s length for a few moments, terrified to open the covers to expose the horrors within. I was right. Part memoir, part science, part political analysis, Harpoon is a disturbingly detailed account of the savage history of whaling.

Andrew Darby brings his expertise as conservationist, whale-watcher and journalist to his impassioned analysis of everything that’s wrong with human-whale relationships. He details the cruel exploitation, the political machinations, the pseudo-scientific justifications, and the economic pressures behind the resurgence in whaling today.

The book is more than powerful exposé. Darby writes lyrically about his personal encounters with whales. He strives to understand what inspires whalers, psychologically, to the thrill of the chase, and what impels their indifference to the suffering they cause.

Book 2: Karl-Erik Sveiby &Tex Skuthorpe, Treading Lightly. The hidden wisdom of the world’s oldest people, Allen and Unwin 2007

Treading Lightly is one of those books that at first glance could be exploiting the fashion for the Indigenous. An Australian Aboriginal painter talks business, and a professor of business follows the learning tracks of Aboriginal Ancestors.

Karl-Erik Sveiby is professor of knowledge management in Finland. Tex Skuthorpe is a Nhunggabarra man from Nhungaal country in north-western New South Wales, and a painter, story-teller and custodian of his culture.

How did the two ever get to meet? Why, at an Australian business conference, of course, where Skuthorpe, a consultant for a wine company, interpreted his paintings for businessmen.

Sveiby asked Skuthorpe the word for knowledge in his language. ‘We don’t have a word for it’, Skuthorpe replied. ‘Our land is our knowledge, we walk on the knowledge, we dwell in the knowledge…we don’t need a word for knowledge, I guess.’

Together, the two men explored what it means to ‘dwell in knowledge’, where ancient tradition pervades all aspects of life, from story-telling to dance, art, ecology, and law.

Sveiby was impressed with the Aboriginal way of living sustainably with the land. He posed the questions: “How did the Aborigines do it? How did they organise for sustainability? What type of leadership did it require?’ What was their ‘recipe for success’ over tens of thousands of years? During this time, other cultures have risen then declined as their practices proved unsustainable.

Skuthorpe teaches Sveiby how to uncover various levels of meaning in Nhunggabarra stories. Consider the story of the Crane and the Crow. The Crane is an expert fisher. The Crow wants to share in the catch. The Crane asks the Crow to wait, but the Crow is impatient and steals a fish. They fight, until the Crow turns from white to black, and the Crane develops his distinctive voice.

The Crane wants to control the fish market, while the Crow asks to share. The story is about animal behaviour, individual and community, law, and custodianship of land and life. Skuthorpe tells the story in painting.

The authors re-interpret Nhunggabarra stories in the language of modern business, with headings for mission statement, core beliefs and values, economy, resources, and leadership. The worlds of traditional Aboriginal culture and modern business are linked in ingenious ways.

Book 3: Guy Pearse, High and Dry. John Howard, climate change and the selling of Australia’s future, Viking, 2007.

This book was published before the November 2007 change of Federal government in Australia. The elections saw John Howard’s government swept from power, and a new Labour Government installed with a mandate to acknowledge the realities of global warming. High and Dry is a historical document of how things were, and why they had to change.

Strange weather we’re having now. The scientific evidence for global climate change mounts daily, with water shortages, rising temperatures, extreme weather events and more species facing extinction.

Strange weather, stranger times. Why is it, Guy Pearse asks in High and Dry, that given the overwhelming scientific evidence, Australia, under John Howard, seems absolutely committed to doing the wrong thing? Instead of cutting greenhouse emissions by 60% by 2050, as scientists demand, Australia is on track to increase its emissions by 70%.

Who wants this? Since the worst drought on record, the Stern Report, and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, polls show the Australian public wants action to curb emissions. Many businesses also urge a major shift towards reduction. Yet these voices are not heard in Canberra. Instead polluters and their lobbyists have captured John Howard’s Greenhouse agenda to the exclusion of all else.

I read this book in increasing indignation. I remember the national conference Greenhouse 87, when CSIRO scientists showed climate change was a reality and urged immediate action. Then, the Australian government agreed, and sponsored a huge public awareness campaign, Greenhouse 88.

Pearse shows what went wrong in the past twenty years. As a Liberal Party member and former Howard government advisor, Pearse once worked within the political system he dissects. His research is based on extensive interviews with 56 people prominent in the policy debate. Members of the self-styled greenhouse mafia come over as chillingly complacent about their unfettered control over Australia’s future as they are ignorant of climate science. Pearse traces where the money comes from, and where it goes.

Collectively, the lobbyists have been extraordinarily successful. In 2002, Australia refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol. John Howard’s government abandoned the ethical precept that developed countries should initiate emissions reductions. Liberal politicians stopped talking about Australia’s emissions, and started talking about global emissions. Rhetoric replaced science. Pearse unfolds a damning story of power and intrigue, where self-interest masquerades as the public good.

In December 2007, at Bali, Australia ratified the Kyoto protocol.

Barbara Kingsolver: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Our year of seasonal eating. Faber and Faber 2007

In search of the ecologically sustainable life, novelist and science writer Barbara Kingsolver lived and worked for a year on a small farm in the Appalachian Mountains. Her family chose to grow most of their own food, and resolved to buy any extras only from what was grown locally. They avoided foods produced by factory farming, or imported from far away at too high a cost in energy.

Kingsolver’s record of her food-centred year makes for warm and engaging reading. She pulls endless weeds, plucks countless chickens, learns cheese-making, and deals good-humouredly with a fifth of a ton of tomatoes.

As Kingsolver labours, she reflects on the meaning of food. From a recipe for gazpacho, she moves into the ten-thousand year history of agriculture. She spends a happy day picking cherries, then reflects on the skewed economics of corporate food production.

Kingsolver converts the reader through her enthusiasm for the good life of good food, sustainably produced.

Craig Madden and Amy Carmichael: Every Last Drop , Random House 2007.

Every Last Drop is a guide to saving water. What if each Australian saved 50,000 litres of water a year through simple changes in daily use? Shower with a bucket, harvest greywater, and compost gardens. This book provides comprehensive lists of such useful tips. Simple, but is it enough?

Craig Madden and Amy Carmichael link personal actions to the big-picture politics of water. Twenty percent of the water used in homes is flushed down the toilet. Where does this water come from? The authors examine water sources and their problems: the poor health of river basins, inadequate dams, and leaking infrastructure.

The coverage is balanced. Pros as well as cons are given for desalination projects. The section on agriculture makes compelling reading, with comprehensive statistics on water use in cotton, rice, pasture and grain production.

At last, this is a book I could read at a tough time in my life, yet come away from with ideas about what I could do at a personal level. I now have a rain-water tank that provides water for toilet and garden. I haven’t stopped global warming in its tracks, yet, but I’ve made one small change.

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2007, Pt. 7: Kelley Eskridge and Therese Littleton

Adding two more contributions to the conversation...

Kelley Eskridge:

Voices in my head, 2007

I've been trying to make a list of favorite textsI want very much to be a "good student" for Timmi, who has done so much for me this yearbut I just keep wanting to testify instead. So here it is: brothers and sisters, I've spent 2007 writing story and screenplay, trying to make characters come alive in all their human complexity, to give them big moments, big feelings, high stakes, everything to win or lose. I have given myself to "Dangerous Space" and this movie of mine more completely than anything in a long time, and it's the most enormous rush, and all I want is more.

So I've been searching for text that fuels that process, that helps me open deep doors inside myself and bring back what I find there. Flat-out no-holds-barred story told with such skill that the skill itself is transparent, so I am simply transported there and live it until it's done. And then come back and take a breath, and think, Okay, okay, if they can go there, then I can do it too. I have no patience right now for anything less.

I have tried to have this thing that people call taste. I've tried to like what I'm supposed to admire, even when it leaves me emotionally flat. But this is the year I gave it up: gave myself instead to stories that make me weep or yearn or burn with joy. Stories of love, sex, finding and losing oneself, the ecstatic moments of letting go and the desperate moments of holding onto what must not be lost. Stories where I can meet the parts of myself that make me feel like the tree the second before the lightning strikes.

So where am I finding this in fiction? Nowhere new… recent speculative fiction is leaving me flat, and a lot of mainstream fiction is just so fucking precious. But I've returned to some old friends: Patricia McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eldso delicate and so toughand her Riddlemaster trilogy, whose people live so clearly in me that I know exactly the kind of friends we would be. That's the great gift of great text, a story so true that I want it to be real. Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, which pound for pound may be the most joyful books I've ever read. The Lord of the Rings, the enormity of being human and doing what must be done. And Nicola's books this year: Always, with the beautiful Aud who is powerful and fractured and so human within the cracks; And Now We Are Going To Have A Party, which tells stories I've heard for nearly 20 years in a different way, playful and searing, that makes me see them and her anew.

I'm finding it in television and films. I love Torchwood for its matter-of-fact transgressiveness, and Jekyll for making me love a monster, for making me wonder what it's like to be so free. Buffy, Deadwood, Battlestar: Galactica, My So-Called Lifesuch different shows, but they all understand that the small moments are where we find ourselves surprised by hard choices and big feelings.

Films that did it for me this year: Ratatouille, The Woodsman, Lawrence of Arabia, A History of Violence, and I am absolutely panting to see Sweeney Todd.

And these days I often turn to music, where big feelings are expressed with the whole body and no brakes on. Eddie Vedder singing Hard Sun; Heart and Magic Man; Ani DiFranco doing her Swan Dive live: I just want to get my feet wet until I drown, she sings, and she makes me want it too.

I was in a club a few weeks ago dancing like a dervish while Trent Reznor sang I want to fuck you like an animal/I want to feel you from the inside, and he wasn't singing to me or about me, he was singing for me. I had more cognitive dissonance from that six-minute song than I did from all the science fiction I read this year: me being sung by a man, a frisson as exciting as the first time I saw a woman with tattoos or a man in earrings and thought Oh my god, that's hot!

And it all goes back into the work. I listened a lot to The Cure this year. There's a song called Wrong Number with a chorus that goes I had the best laid plans this side of America/Started off in church and finished with Angelicawhich I insisted on hearing as Started off with George and finished with Angelica. I blinked, and I smiled, and then I looked at the draft of "Dangerous Space" on my screen and thought, Okay, okay, if Robert Smith can go there then I can go there too…

Therese Littleton:

Favorite Books Read in 2007

Although in these lucky times of too many books I seldom like to retread old ground, in 2007 I re-read several favorite books: Moby-Dick (Herman Melville… I like the Norton Critical Edition), Master and Commander (Patrick O’Brian), and The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman). All three lived up to or bettered my initial assessment and I know I’ll re-re-read them all again someday.

My favorite new book of the year was The Terror (Dan Simmons). I was so absorbed in it that I took it on vacation to Hawaii to finish, even though it breaks my “No Heavy Hardcovers on Planes” rule. The scenes of freezing arctic mayhem and depredation actually had me shivering, even on the warm beaches of Oahu. The book inspired me to read the harrowing Escape from the Antarctic (Ernest Shackleton) part of the Penguin Great Journeys series of short adventure narratives. I now want to try more of these bite-sized tales of manly exploits.

Like so many others, I devoured Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling) the night it came out and loved it even through the marathon-induced headache. I also read The Privilege of the Sword (Ellen Kushner) and Riddley Walker (Russell Hoban), two very un-alike books that had two things in common: first, that I had been meaning to read each of them for a very long time, and second, that I thought they each lived up to the hype. The former is a massively enjoyable romp with a great setting and great gender-bending, two things I find irresistible. The latter is post-apocalyptic and told entirely in a difficult dialect. Swoon!

I can’t remember if I started Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell) in 2007, but I’m pretty sure I finished it during this year, so I’m going to count it as one of my favorite books of the year. I loved the symmetrical structure, the inter-narrative links, and the sense of vast time passing in this book. I suspect that if it had been written in the late ‘60s, it might have been published as a science fiction paperback, with a Richard Powers cover, instead of as a mainstream literary novel.

In nonfiction, I had a slow year. The only two that really stick out as memorable were in biology: The Big Oyster (Mark Kurlansky) is a delightful compendium of mostly accurate oyster facts and intriguing recipes, all set against the backdrop of New York City history. A Natural History of Sex (Adrian Forsyth) collects a lot of the more recent evolutionary thinking about sex and presents it through animal kingdom examples… some of which are totally, awesomely squirm-worthy.

Favorite Movies Seen in 2007

I saw a lot of mainstream theatrical releases this year, and had a great time at a lot of them. I’ve tried to narrow down my list to the ones that I’d see again.

As I mentioned in the books section, I’m a Harry Potter fan, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was my favorite film yet. I really like the actors better the older they get, and the films are getting better at special effects, costumes, sets, and plotting. Another film adaptation I loved was The Golden Compass. I completely understand why some of my friends who share my love of Pullman’s books did not like this movie, but I fell head-over-heels for the beautiful look of it, and the great casting work, too.

I love surfing movies, and I saw one this year that was a new twist on the old travel-surf idea. In Singlefin Yellow, one surfboard is shipped in turn to several different professional surfers around the world, each with a distinctive riding style. It’s fun to see how they apply their own techniques with the yellow board. Along those same lines, I thoroughly enjoyed watching animated penguins surf on hunks of ice in Surf’s Up.

For sheer, testosterone-driven action, I enjoyed both Spider-Man 3 and The Bourne Ultimatum. Enough said. For sheer, delightful parody of same, I cannot recommend Hot Fuzz highly enough. From the same guys that brought you Shaun of the Dead, this violent, surprising satire of American cop movies is excellent.

Documentaries are a big favorite with me, but this year I only saw two that were noteworthy. Michael Moore’s Sicko has a scene that both cracks me up and haunts me, as he hunts through a British hospital, looking for a cashier where people pay for treatment (he doesn’t find one, of course). A more harrowing story is told in God Grew Tired of Us, an almost unbelievably moving film about child soldiers in Africa now trying to make their way in the strange land of the United States.