Friday, December 14, 2012

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.9: Brit Mandelo

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012 
by Brit Mandelo

This hasn't been the most productive reading year for me—there's a huge pile of 2012 books I haven't made it to yet!—but there were certainly standouts in fiction and nonfiction both. The best novel I read this year, far and above all else, was The Drowning Girl: A Memoir by Caitlin R. Kiernan. The prose is stunning, the characters are rich and real, and the narrative is, quite literally, haunting. It's also full of women, and explores a great deal of complicated territory around identity, subjectivity, and the stories that we tell ourselves to survive. And, speaking of stories for survival, The Moment of Change ed. by Rose Lemberg was my favorite poetry publication in 2012—a collection of feminist speculative work that spoke intensely and intimately of all sorts of struggles and acts of survival, Lemberg's book was a real pleasure. I also had a chance to re-read Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg, which remains as wrenching and honest as ever, and to read for the first time Sarah Waters's Tipping the Velvet, which I found to be an engaging, handsomely written historical romp. I can see why folks had been recommending it to me for years; it's doing some interesting things with turn-of-the-century lesbian experience, romance, and women's rights.

As for other things that were fun, I enjoyed the X-Files-inspired action and intrigue of Malinda Lo's Adaptation, though it had its flaws. Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, too, was an intriguing novel (with flaws) that nonetheless impressed and engaged me throughout. Last but not least: it feels a bit like cheating to mention a story from Strange Horizons, but regardless of potential conflict-of-interest, "The Grinnell Method" by Molly Gloss was one of the best short stories I had the pleasure of reading in 2012—I continue to be thrilled that we had the chance to publish it.

Of course, there was nonfiction, too. My favorite this year was the inimitable Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman's anthology, Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation. It's no exaggeration to say that it made me cry, and rage, and laugh. There aren't enough genderqueer and trans* voices out there, speaking to experiences of life and self that are valuable and too-often hidden—this book does some great work to even that deficit out a little. (The short comic, "transcension," hit me particularly and personally hard.) The newest Alison Bechdel came out this year, too, and Are You My Mother? was exactly what I had hoped it would be. I read it twice, back to back, to get a fuller sense of the piece. The interwoven stories of mothers, children, and psychology in this autobiographical graphic novel are often breath-taking and always emotionally effective.

I also finally read James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips, and though I don't tend to be much on biographies, this one is well-researched and written with attractive, engaging prose in a way that seems rare in the genre. The portrait of Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.'s life that comes out of this book continues to be fascinating and somewhat haunting, and it also brings to light a particular section of American history in a personal way. On that note, I also re-read (again) The Country You Have Never Seen by Joanna Russ—another book that paints a picture, this one of the genre, in the form of her collected reviews, letters, and essays. I regularly re-read this one; I love it, and it's always as good as it was the time before.

There was also some harder to classify (but still cool) stuff, like Does Writing Have a Future? by Vilem Flusser, a weird polemical book. However, for folks interested in speculation about writing, technology, and language, it's provocative fun. He's not necessarily "right" or "accurate," but he's saying some fascinatingly odd things. Also, The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Roleplay, and the Erotic Edge edited by Tristan Taormino is a nicely intersectional, well-researched, playful anthology of essays and other writings on kink—probably the best guide out there for the curious and for the old-hats, as of now.

On the visual media front, I didn't consume much TV that blew me away this year. Mostly, I spent an absurd amount of time watching cartoons like Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated. All three strike me as a return to the batshit-weird style of 1990s cartoons, so it's no surprise I genuinely enjoy them. Adventure Time, as it builds its post-apocalyptic universe full of strange magic and discomfiting history, has a subtle kind of weirdness going on—but, their world is still our world post-magical/nuclear apocalypse, which a few of the characters lived through but only one (?) remembers. Also, Natasha Allegri is a delightful artist, and I love her work on the show. (The Sailor Moon references and the gender-swap fanfiction episode were pretty awesome.) Regular Show, on the other hand, is about being a failure in your twenties and seems to be actually set in the '90s; I'm not sure what the hell kids get out of the show, but I'm enjoying it. I've written about the new Scooby Doo series before, but it's worth noting again that it's composed almost entirely of allusions and asides toward pop culture—like, H. P. Lovecraft is a reoccurring character, and Harlan Ellison shows up once voiced by his actual self. The Shining, Werner Herzog; you name it, it's there. Also, there's an overarching supernatural plot!

As for adult shows, I re-watched seasons 3 and 4 of The X-Files over the summer. I'm sure I've mentioned (note Adaptation, above) how I feel about The X-Files: in short, I'm a pretty big fan. It's a pleasure to revisit the world of Mulder and Scully, relive their adventures and failures, et cetera. I'm glad Netflix has it, so I can do this rewatch—fun stuff. I intend to keep watching it over the summer of 2013. Also, I'm one of those folks who loved Sherlock, despite its problems. The show is visually stunning, emotionally provocative, narratively satisfying, and did I mention visually stunning? I particularly enjoy the play with sexuality and categories of sexuality—I know this is a touchy topic, but I don't think the show had a lesbian fall for a magical straight guy; I read that scene, considering Freeman's dialogue, to be about the instability of affectional categories—and the complicated relationship between Sherlock and John. I don't expect everyone to be able to look past the aforementioned problems, but I think it's sharp and wonderful.

Some movies I enjoyed, either because they were fun or moving or silly or provocative, are, respectively: Skyfall, Pariah, Dark Shadows, and Frozen River. James Bond is James Bond, and though it did have one of those queer!sociopath!villains, it also gave Craig's Bond the ability to acknowledge his own (potential) queerness in a sexy one-liner, which I found pretty awesome. Pariah is a quiet movie about a young black lesbian's coming-out experiences that does a lot of good work with subjectivity, gender, and culture. Dark Shadows was just silly good fun for a fan of the old show; it was what I wanted it to be and nothing more. Frozen River, though, is a serious picture: a story about women building alternative families together across race and culture in the frozen north, during a hard winter. Strong stuff.

Music-wise, I have a tendency to linger around albums that I'm fond of—it's been a great year for Mastodon's Crack the Skye, much like last year and the one before that—but this time around, there were a few new things that caught my ear. Mother Mother—consisting of Ryan Guldemond on guitar and vocals, Molly Guldemond on vocals and keyboard, Jasmin Parkin on keyboard and vocals, Ali Siadat on drums, and Jeremy Page on bass—have an upbeat and deviously playful sound wrapping around sharp (and often satisfyingly angry) lyrics. Try out "The Stand" or "Wrecking Ball" for a taste, or albums O My Heart and Eureka. Shamefully, I haven’t had a chance to pick up their newest offering. Another new artist that I've stumbled on (thanks to my partner, in this case) is Aesop Rock, and I know I'm late to the party. His voice is handsome and his delivery is spectacular; there's poetry in these tracks. I've been enjoying None Shall Pass, and I'm looking forward to delving into the rest of his discography.

So, it's been one of those hectic years. I haven't read nearly as many books as I wish I could have, and there's a lot left on the pile for 2013. However, I did have plenty of chances to talk about books I liked throughout the year, and I look forward to having a chance to do more reading in the coming months. In fact, I'm just now digging into Small Beer Press's two-volume Le Guin collection, The Unreal and the Real; so far, so great!

Brit Mandelo  is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction, feminism, and queer literature, especially when the three coincide. Her work—fiction, nonfiction, poetry: she wears a lot of hats—has been featured in magazines such as Clarkesworld,, and Ideomancer. She is an editor for Strange Horizons. She also writes regularly for and has several column series there, including "Queering SFF" and the ongoing "Reading Joanna Russ," which explores Russ's oeuvre book-by-book. She edited Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2012). Aqueduct published her long essay, We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling in the Conversation Pieces series earlier this year.

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