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.
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
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.