Tag Archives: movies

The pleasures of reading, viewing, and listening

I’ve been AWOL from this blog for a little while, but I have been busy elsewhere! Check out my post on the Aqueduct Press blog, “Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2014”. I talk about The Theory of Everything, Maplecroft, Doctor Who (of course), Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation,” and more!

Year’s Roundup: 2010

For the past several years, I’ve been contributing to the series Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening at the Aqueduct Press blog. What’s that? Well, it’s a bunch of blog posts written by Aqueduct Press authors showcasing shows, music, and what-have-you that we enjoyed. Want some fine recommendations from geeky, smart, creative, well-read feminists? Check it out. In the next few days, I’ll be reposting my essays on this blog.

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2010

(originally posted here)

This year, I absorbed a lot of works that upset my understanding of the world around me. If I ever thought my identity – or anything else, for that matter – stood on solid ground, I was mistaken. On what does it rest, then? An abyss, the roll of a die, or a cantering horse? I’m really not sure.

 The Short Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Diaz


Okay, so the author made up fukú – the deadly curse wrought by the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, after the interference of Europe and America in the country’s affairs. It doesn’t matter if it’s made up, doesn’t matter if you believe in it. It’ll get you just the same.

But on the other hand, there’s also a counterspell: zafa. And Oscar Wao is zafa. He exists in the intersection of oppressions, at home nowhere. He is a Dominican immigrant / refugee in the U.S. and also a nerd and overweight. The Dominicans in his community won’t acknowledge him as their own because he is a nerd. The nerds are embarrassed because he’s overweight. And yet . . . he’s wondrous. In a small but important way, and with geeky panache, he resists a dictatorship.

Oscar Wao suffers. He suffers a lot. But when he takes damage, he takes it Dungeons and Dragons-style, with hit points from the funny-shaped dice. Roll that die. Ooh – maximum hit points.

I can relate.

The Hearts of Horses

by Molly Gloss


Meet Martha Lessen. She’s the Western hero that you’ll never see in a Louis L’Amour novel or a spaghetti Western – she’s unassuming and she doesn’t shoot people. Instead, she rides into town and gets a job “breaking” horses. She’s learned horsebreaking from a “horse whisperer,” winning a horse’s trust rather than forcing it into submission through violence and fear. She fits neither the stereotype of horsebreaker or woman, but she gradually finds a place in the community through her quiet competence and love of horses and people alike.

I read this book after hearing Molly Gloss give a profoundly thought-provoking talk on the myth of “Shane,” the gunslinger who rides into town, saves the townfolk by shooting the bad guys, and rides right out again. That’s our great the Western myth that has done incalculable damage to the world. But, as Gloss argues, it’s a total lie. The true story of the West was about ordinary people homesteading and ranching, making home and community.

Her essay on Shane, “Desperado,” appears in Serving House Journal. (http://servinghousejournal.com/GlossDesperado.aspx)

The Tao Te Ching

by Ursula Le Guin


Le Guin spent hours on end reading her father’s copy of the Tao Te Ching, and is grateful to have discovered it so young so she could live with it for her whole life. Most versions are written to emphasize masculinity and authority, but she makes this one “accessible to a present-day, unwise, and perhaps unmale reader . . . listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” It’s practical and funny, and it will teach you to be like water. I get the biggest kick out of her commentary on Chapter 53, “Insight” – “So much for capitalism.”

Cheek by Jowl

by Ursula Le Guin


This book surveys children’s chapter books with animals as characters. But not the kind of animals who are really humans prowling around in a lion suit – animals who genuinely act and feel like animals. It’s a reminder of what humans have lost as we’ve set ourselves apart from the rest of the natural world. After I put the book down, I couldn’t feel superior any more.

The Man Who Lost His Shadow and Nine Other German Fairy Tales

by Gertrude C. Schwebell


There’s nothing like going into a used bookstore and finding a great collection of fairy tales. What happens to a man who sells his shadow? Does a boy with no morals ever get a second chance? These are rich, meaty, and imaginative, and the characters all get their just desserts.

Pippi Longstocking

by Astrid Lindgren


If my young daughter walks into my neighborhood independent bookstore and heads toward the children’s section, she’ll come across a couple of book spinners. They’ll be irresistible. Who cares that there are other books just a few steps away? Because these spinners have great books for girls, just the kind she craves, the kind you find at the school bookfairs and the Scholastic catalogs, the kind you even get as a prize for completing the library’s summer reading program. Yeah. Disney princesses and Barbie.

But soon . . . maybe one more year . . . she’ll be ready for Pippi. Strong, quick-witted, and owner of a large chest of pirate gold, Pippi could beat Walt Disney with one arm tied behind her back.

And then go back home, gobble up a bag of candy, and fall asleep with her head under a blanket and her feet on the pillow.


by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitriou, and Annie Di Donna


This graphic novel tells the story of the search for truth in the foundations of pure logic, intertwining the lives of famous mathematicians with the mathematical quests and political turmoil of the early- to mid-twentieth century.

Logicomix centers on the story of mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. Russell had madness in his genes and parents nobody would talk about. Lacking stable foundations for his identity, he sought them in mathematics. Euclid’s geometry gave him “the promise of certainty in total rationality” and a “dream of a perfect cosmos.”

It was a lovely dream, the Enlightenment belief that mathematics pointed the way to a final and absolute truth.

Only thing was . . . Euclid’s geometry was based on axioms, which were unprovable. Russell set about trying to rectify it, spending ten years trying to prove the obvious, that 1 + 1 = 2.

He failed. And to the shock and horror of not only Russell but also mathematicians everywhere, his failure led to an even crazier mathematician, Goedel, mathematically proving that truth is not provable and that every system based on arithmetic is incomplete.

Who cares? What did this quest do to Russell? His wife? His son? And what does it have to do with World War II, the rise of Hitler, and anti-Semitism?

Usually, after you finish a book, you know more than when you began it. But if you dare to crack open this most remarkable book, you’ll know less.

Catching the Moon

by Myla Goldberg, illustrated by Chris Sheban.


When an old fisherwoman casts her net all night long, the Man in the Moon is intrigued and decides to pay her a visit. But he accidentally lets in the tides and upsets her tea set.

“My heavens,” cried her guest. “I’m afraid I’ve caused a mess.”

This picture book is short, sweet, and lovely.

One Book that I Didn’t Read Because It Didn’t Exist

by nobody

Wouldn’t it be great if somebody wrote a book about Lily Potter? After all, it was her magic that defeated Voldemort – twice! Were they just magically bestowed on her because she is a Woman and a Mother, or did she get busy sneaking around in the invisibility cloak with her gang, reading ancient magical history, having conversations with Dumbledore about how to keep this Snape guy in line? Yeah. Somebody write that.

The Polymath, Or The Life And Opinions Of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman

directed by Fred Barney Taylor


This documentary grabbed my attention off the video shelf with the most basic of hooks – sex. Rent me, it said, and you’ll find out how novelist Samuel Delany managed to have 5,000 partners in his lifetime. Exciting? Extraordinary? No, to listen to him talk, that’s just what life was like for him in the seventies. “You felt like you were having a very ‑ a fairly interesting life,” he says matter‑of‑factly. And just as matter‑of‑factly, he shows us the world we live in, a world we think we know but don’t.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Were the porn theaters romantic? Not at all. But because of the people who used them, they were humane and functional, fulfilling needs that most of our society does not yet know how to acknowledge.

The easy argument already in place to catch up these anecdotes is that social institutions such as the porn movies take up, then, a certain social excess, are even perhaps socially beneficial to some small part of it, a margin outside the margin. But that is the same argument that allows them to be dismissed and physically smashed and flattened. They are relevant only to that margin; no one else cares.

Well, in a democracy, that is not an acceptable argument. People are not excess. It is the same argument that dismisses the needs of blacks, Jews, hispanics, asians, women, gays, the homeless, the poor, the worker, and all other margins, that, taken together ‑ people like you, people like me – are the country’s overwhelming majority ‑ those who, socioeconomically, are simply less powerful.”

I could listen to him for hours on end.

Doctor Who, Seasons 4 and 5

The tenth Doctor, a rather Shane-like figure, blows it toward the end of Season 5, turning into an anti-hero. (I loved this moment so much I wrote an essay on it for Strange Horizons: “The Fall of the Superhero: Doctor Who and the Waters of Mars” at http://strangehorizons.com/2010/20100301/king-a.shtml)

Fortunately, the Doctor can regenerate into a new body and personality – sort of reincarnating without having to go through childhood again. But at the beginning of Season 5, the eleventh Doctor takes a Tigger-ish moment to relive childhood. He turns up at the house of seven-year old Amelia Pond demands an apple, takes a bite, and spits it out. Yogurt, beans, bread and butter all go the same way – thrown or spat. Finally, just as Tigger finds his favorite food in Kanga’s Strengthening Medicine, the Doctor finds fish fingers dipped in custard. Perfect.

The eleventh Doctor’s companion, grown up Amy Pond, is the epitome of what the media requires out of girls and women in twenty-first century. She models empowerment by looking sexy, dressing in miniskirts, and having a voracious sexual appetite. Something about this is worse than, for example, the Wonder Woman who fought bad guys while satisfying the urges of the male gaze. I think it’s because Amy Pond has internalized her stereotype.

Still, Amy Pond has her moments, and my favorite is at the end of “The Beast Below” when she thwarts the Doctor, and forces the Queen of Starship Britain to abdicate.

And a Weekend of Revelations

In February I attended the Fishtrap Winter Gathering in Oregon, with a weekend of talks, readings, and workshops by Molly Gloss, Ursula Le Guin, and Tony Vogt. I wrote a little about it on the Aqueduct Press blog (http://aqueductpress.blogspot.com/2010/02/fishtrap‑winter‑gathering.html) but there’s a lot more to say and think about. I’ve been absorbing what I heard all year long. Just a few takeaways:

  • White people are largely unaware of the ways that white privilege shapes everyone’s day-to-day life. Go to the store and get a box of flesh-covered band-aids. You’ll see.
  • We need to dismantle the myth of Shane.
  • Human beings are animals who use technology. (Does this make my computer part of the natural world?)
  • Technology makes us human, and capitalism makes technology destructive by forcing it to be always bigger and better. (I have to wonder, though: isn’t capitalism just one of our technologies? And what does that mean?)
  • The words that we use matter. It’s time to ditch the war metaphors.

pencil and notebook3



Year’s Roundup: 2009

For the past several years, I’ve been contributing to the series Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening at the Aqueduct Press blog. What’s that? Well, it’s a bunch of blog posts written by Aqueduct Press authors showcasing shows, music, and what-have-you that we enjoyed. Want some fine recommendations from geeky, smart, creative, well-read feminists? Check it out. In the next few days, I’ll be reposting my essays.

Due to time constraints, I’m reposting without links or images, so I’ll also add links to the essays on the Aqueduct Press blog. Here’s the one from 2009.

A Sampling from 2009

Here is a small sampling of the books and shows I’ve enjoyed this year.

 Stories that Love Stories

In Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling, after the planet Aka joins the intergalactic community, all storytelling is forbidden. What happened? Suty comes as galactic observer and cultural anthropologist to find out. What follows is a quest of mystery and discovery that ends up on top of snowy mountains in a labyrinth of “books, thousands of books, in leather and cloth and wooden and paper bindings, unbound manuscripts in carved and painted boxes and jeweled caskets, fragments of ancient writing blazing with gold leaf . . .” Suty is trying to understand their banned religion, the Telling, which seems to come out of fragmented bits of unrelated stories, but finally comes to understand that the Telling is irreducible, that it is story itself.

Another book about the love of books is Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

Italo Calvino learned about narrative from his experience of Italian cinema, where it was common practice to enter the theater in the middle of the movie, and maybe stick around to catch the beginning or maybe not, seeing the films all out of order. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler has ten beginnings to novels, interspersed with the reader’s pursuit of the true story and of the woman Ludmilla. It is full of story, tales told in the darkness. As in the Telling, all the fragments of the story come together to make a grand narrative that defies rational explanation.

Doctor Who is a television show that has been an endless source of story since 1963. Like a book, the Doctor’s time machine, the Tardis, is bigger on the inside than the out. It can take you anyplace, to tell any story that can possibly be told. The Doctor defeats villains with his wits or, in the best of the stories (such as Hugo award-winning “The Doctor Dances”), through healing. The episode “Silence in the Library” is set on a planet that is a library, containing all the books that ever existed in the universe. It’s a treasure horde guarded by a dragon, the Vashta Nerada, devourers who live in the shadow – not every shadow, but any shadow. There, the Doctor meets one of the strongest female characters he’s ever encountered: River Song, an archaeologist who has her own adventures, knows his future, and in that future, has learned his true name.

 Stories About Borders and Bridges

A shy girl with glasses and a love of books, I learned in first grade that I didn’t fit. I’m white, and so I can “pass” as not-other, but only by lying, by holding back parts of myself that matter deeply. And so whenever I’ve become part of a community and realized I don’t quite belong, I’ve been quick to blame myself. But how I understand my identity and my part in the world has been changing, and it’s thanks to writers such as bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldúa, women I read back in 1995 and whose thoughts have been growing in my mind all these years. From Gloria Anzaldúa, I learned the concept of the border crosser, the nepantlera, who becomes a bridge between worlds, and the Borderlands, a transformational space that crosses a geographic, metaphorical, or spiritual border.

I recently picked up The Gloria Anzaldua Reader, ed. AnaLouise Keating and I’ve been slowly reabsorbing her ideas. In “La Prieta,” she writes about herself as a border person:

“Think of me as Shiva, a many-armed and -legged body with one foot on brown soil, one on white, one in straight society, one in the gay world, the man’s world, the women’s, one limb in the literary world, another in the working class, the socialist, and the occult worlds. A sort of spider woman hanging by one thin strand of thread.”

Hers was a painful life. As a child she labored as a farm worker near the Mexican border, had an adolescent’s body at the age of three and a hysterectomy at the age of five, and was so sensitive that the pain of others hurt her too. Too white, too brown, too gay . . . But, she asks, why? “Growing up,” she writes, “I felt that I was an alien from another planet dropped on my mother’s lap. But for what purpose?”

She has an answer to that question, which brings me to Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler. The main character, Akin, is a half-human, half-alien hybrid. He fits in neither place, and he suffers for it. Not only do the human and alien (Oankali) worlds reject him, but he is also torn from an all-important sibling relationship; it’s a loss that can never be repaired.

But why? His suffering makes it possible for him to bridge the gaps between the human and Oankali worlds and bring possible salvation to humanity. The Oankali believe that humans suffer from a deadly genetic contradiction of intelligence plus hierarchy, and that it will necessarily lead the human race to destroy itself. And so, after humanity has all but wiped itself out, the Oankali are not prepared to save them. But at the end of the book, Akin is ready to take on the work, and it’s because he’s traveled between both worlds.

Like Akin and like Gloria Anzaldúa, Octavia Butler suffered greatly for her differences. She was too big, too black, too dyslexic. But for what purpose? Going back to Anzaldúa’s question, perhaps it is to build El Mundo Zurdo (the left-handed world), where “the queer groups, the people that don’t belong anywhere, not in the dominant world nor completely within our respective cultures . . . can live together and transform the planet.”

It is a tragedy that both Gloria Anzaldúa and Octavia Butler died much too soon. And so in the middle of an essay on pleasures I have to add a lament, for the troubles of their lives, for our loss of their imaginings.

 Stories About the Underworld

Perhaps it’s time to make a border crossing from our physical reality to the world of the soul, the underworld. So here are a few underworld stories.

“The Beads of Ku” by Nisi Shawl is an underworld story with humor and charm. The heroine, Fulla Fulla, has a head for business and the ability to move gracefully between our world and the Land of the Dead. When her husband grows jealous of her connection with the underworld, he breaks the rules, and it’s up to her to save him, using her wits and her skill at wrangling to outwit the king of the dead. It’s one of my favorites in her collection Filter House.

Humming The Blues by Cass Daglish is a translation of an underworld story written by the first person ever to sign her name to a text. Her name was Enheduanna, and in 2350 B.C., she wrote a poem about the goddess Ananna, who descended to the underworld and, with the help of her female friends, emerged triumphant. The exact meanings of the cuneiform text are impossible to know now, so Cass Daglish did her best by making a “jazz translation” of the text, delving into different possible meanings and using them to create a work of poetry.

 Stories in Picture and Chapter Books

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula Le Guin is a defense of animals, fantasy, and children’s literature. In “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists,” she writes, “To throw a book out of serious consideration because it was written for children . . . is in fact a monstrous act of anti-intellectualism. But it happens daily in academia.”

It’s all part of a general disrespect for children in our culture. It took being a mother for me to understand how seriously dysfunctional it is to marginalize and silence children. After all, a child is at the core of every one of us. Until you have paid serious attention to children, you can understand very little of the human soul. Children are alien, other, and so are we. So go ahead, find a children’s book you loved as a child, and enjoy it all over again. You know you want to.

Here are a few children’s books that will cheer you up in the dead of winter.

bell hooks’ Homemade Love is about Girlpie, a well-loved child. She breaks something special, and the break is devastating – has she lost the right to be loved? But her parents help her fix it. This is all about forgiveness and mending ruptures.

Shibumi and the Kitemaker by Mercer Mayer is a beautifully illustrated story about an emporer’s daughter who, on seeing the squalor of the city below her palace, goes aloft on a kite and refuses to come down until the city is as beautiful as the palace. The ending is exactly as ambiguous as it ought to be. In the beginning of the book is a poem about “authority without domination,” which I wrote down on a scrap of paper and then lost on my desk. So you’ll have to get the book if you want to read the poem.

Boo and Baa Get Wet, by Norwegian authors Olaf and Lena Landstrom, is part of a series about siblings named Boo and Baa, who have the innocence of children, the autonomy of adults, and a clearly loving relationship. They have little adventures that go wrong but always end up okay. Ants on a picnic, a cat stuck up in a tree, a cabbage that rolls down a snowy hill. In Boo and Baa Get Wet, they leave their croquet set outside and have to go get it in the middle of a thunderstorm. My favorite part is when there is a flash of lightning and the text says, “Now what? What happened?” In this silence, I can stop in my reading and talk to the children about what is going on. And the series is full of these little moments.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren is the anti-Bartleby. Bartleby’s refusal was passive and led only to his death, but Pippi’s “won’t” just means she has better things to do with her time. Luckily, she can back up her “won’t” with brawn, wits, and a pirate chest full of gold. While Bartleby let the police carry him off, Pippi led hers on a merry chase on her rooftop, letting them down only when they asked nicely. Hurrah, Pippi! Hurrah, humanity!

 And A Movie

My favorite movie from this year is Not One Less, about a thirteen-year-old girl who takes the job as substitute teacher in a remote Chinese province for an entire month. She has no qualifications and seemingly little to teach, but she’s the only one who volunteered. How could she possibly take charge of a class? When one of her students leaves the school to find work in the big city and then gets lost, she knows she has to find him. It’s impossible. But she is stubborn, determined, patient, and strong. Can she bring him back? This is a good counterpoint to the travesty of No Child Left Behind.

pencil and notebook3

The Polymath – Samuel Delany

I have been watching the documentary The Polymath about the life of Samuel Delany – a great American novelist that few people have heard of because a) he writes in SF and b) he is black. I first heard of him when his book was the Book of Honor at a Potlatch convention, and somebody read some of his work out loud. It was incredible, a multisensory experience, rich in so many dimensions. The documentary – even more so.