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Signs Taken for Wonders

Thursday, January 1, 2015

4:44PM - My fiction this year

I had 3 stories out in 2014:

My intricate court politics story, "The Year of Silent Birds," at BCS.
"Lines on a Pamphlet Found Near the Museum," at AE.
An arctic horror tale, "Wendigo Nights" in Fearful Symmetries.

Thanks to everyone who gave feedback on drafts.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

4:39PM - Best Books of 2014: Non Fiction

Aaaand here's the non-fiction list.

(Note: not all of these are new books; some of them are books I just got around to reading for the first time in 2014.)

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Finally read this one, and wow. A profoundly affecting "Indian" history of westward expansion. Yes, there are certain archaeological claims it makes that have since been called into question, but this book remains a painfully eye-opening account of the "Indian Wars' of 1860-1890. It inspired me to start looking into the history of western Canadian settlement, which I knew little about and had never thought to particularly question.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

Although Hubbard's name gets tossed around a lot in SF studies I'd never read an account of his rise to cult-leader status, let alone the disturbing aftermath as scientology transitioned into a "religion." Structured around the conversion & rejection of a prominent Hollywood scientologist, this book is worth reading on multiple levels: as a fascinating cultural history, as a profile of indoctrination, and of abusive personalities. Also, Tom Cruise.

Nothing to Envy: Everyday Lives in North Korea

A sometimes charming, mostly terrifying account of the lives of ordinary North Koreans who later defected to South Korea. I found myself rooting, retroactively, for the young starcrossed lovers to escape and the elderly Party loyalist to see the light and escape before her family starved to death. A fascinating - and horrifying - insight into life in a truly Orwellian society.

The Black Count

Born on Haiti, Alex Dumas, the mixed-race former slave, rose to become a French aristocrat and military hero before running foul of Napoleon. His adventurous life was later used by his son, Alexandre Dumas, as the inspiration for characters and events in THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO and THE THREE MUSKETEERS. An adventurous look at Romantic era race relations in Europe - a story American cinema and history tends to ignore.

The Emperor of all Maladies

I put off reading this book for a long time because, quite frankly, I thought this history of cancer and its treatment would strike too close to home. But Bannerjee's history of the evolution of cancer treatment is highly readable and provides a grim insight into the failures as well as successes of medical research. It also is clearly written and helped me get a better grasp on the language of 'precancer,' 'clinical trial' and 'chemotherapy' actually means.

Honorable Mention:

Capital in the Twenty First Century

Probably one of the most important books of the year, but - frankly - not the most readable, Pekkety's empiricist history of capitalism from the 18thC onward buries ''trickle  down' economics and provides a grim, number-driven picture of our century's rising inequality. The first and last chapters are the most important, so if you want to know what people are talking about, go read those.

3:38PM - Best Books of 2014 (a biased list): Fiction

This year I read 76 books for pleasure: non fiction and fiction with a generous helping of SF and New York literary-awards type books. Here are my favourites.

(Note: not all of these are new books; some of them are books I just got around to reading for the first time in 2014.)

FICTION

Station 11

I picked up this 'literary apocalypse' novel expecting another THE ROAD. What I got was something I'd never read before: a beautiful apocalypse. STATION 11 interrogates art, human connection, and the meaning of life in a matter-of-fact postapocalyptic setting. I can describe the plot in trite catchphrases (it's SLINGS AND ARROWS meets THE STAND!) -- but what's great about this book is hard to put into words. Let's just say it's about a famous Shakespearean actor who dies onstage, and a lethal flu epidemic, and a new generation using art to survive in a brave new world. If you're a writer, you should read this book.

The Paying Guests

Of all the "literary" books I read this year, this one was my favourite. It's a character study of a woman out of step with her times, who discovers she's not as brave or ethical as she believed herself to be. Also, it's a page-turner about illicit love and murder. And it's beautifully written.

Fool's Assassin

Robin Hobb's latest may win no grand literary awards, but it was one of the most enjoyable books I read this year. Hobb sets her novels in a high fantasy world, but it's the domestic details that grip the reader and anchor the plot. I don't know how she does it. Note: if you've never read Hobb's novels before *don't* start with this one. Go back and read ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE, or even ROYAL ASSASSIN first.

Annihilation/Authority

I haven't read the last book in Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy, otherwise I might have three titles heading this entry. An "environmental disaster" (or was it?) has produced a mysterious zone of biological weirdness called Area X. Governments send expeditions to investigate it. Things go horribly wrong.

ANNIHILATION won my love for situating me inside the deteriorating consciousness of a biologist trying to preserve her sanity on a bizarrre jungle expedition. (Scientific explorers going mad! Love!)

AUTHORITY transfers that creepiness into bureaucracy, plunging its pov character into a 'jungle' of a new workplace. (Uncanny workplaces! Love!) It also features one of the creepiest scenes I read in any book this year.

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

This is a clever puzzle box  of a novel -- perhaps too clever to be widely successful. Still, if you enjoy trying to outhink unreliable narrators, you should check it out. The plot: Charles Jessold was a brilliant young composer who killed two people and then himself. A music critic narrates the story of his own very peripheral relationship with the doomed genius. It's a dull tale - at first. Then we get another version. And another. And things get darker and more twisted every time.

The Secret History

Finally got around to reading this study in murder, intimate friendships, and what people will do to belong to a group. As with many books of this type the real character of interest is the narrator, a young man from a lower class background determined to fit in with an elite group of students at a private college. And it has a great opening line: "The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation."

Honorable Mention:

Life after Life. A child is born, dies, restarts her life, is born, dies, restarts... This must have been a very hard novel to write. Atkinson doesn't completely pull it off, imo, but the result is a highly unusual and very readable novel.

2:46PM - 2014

I realized today that I've had this lj account for over 10 years. There are other markers of age - seeing people's kids go from babies to toddlers in the blink of an eye, meeting certain milestones - and then there are social media markers, like the fact I remember a world without internet & have now had an lj account for 10 years. Also, the fact I have an lj account at all. In my students' eyes, I might as well be listening to 60s folk singers on vinyl records.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

11:56PM - Still alive! Still alive.

Hello folks!

I'm still alive, and still on lj. But (like many?) I'm suffering from excessive guilt re: the time writing entries takes away from Other Things I Ought to be Writing. Ergo, I do not post.

But I will try to do drive-bys now and then. To note things like:

1) I'm teaching a Transatlantic Gothic graduate seminar this semester and it's AMAZING. My students have enormously smart things to say about some interesting material and, my God, I actually LIKED Udolpho this time around.

2) I'm neck deep in cover design etc. for the academic book. Very exciting.

3) My TV obsession de jour is _True Detective,_ although, like many, I'm disappointed by the show's lack of interest in its female characters.

4) I seem to be making regular trips out to Boston & Princeton this semester, so if you live around there, give me a shout.

5) I'll be at ICFA in Orlando in a few weeks. Hopefully I'll see some of you there.

6) I just finished reading my CW classmate J.M Sidorova's striking debut novel The Age of Ice, about a Russian prince plagued by his special relationship with cold. Sidorova marries luminous language to historical detail in a saga of the promise and despair of Enlightenment science. Fans of historical fantasy and Russian novels should definitely check it out.


Friday, December 27, 2013

11:27AM - Poem

I've emerged from my Christmas chaos and internet lurking with a poem for you all. I think my geek friends will particularly appreciate this:

Fragments from a Childhood

Gwendolyn MacEwen
From:   The Fire-Eaters. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1982

You are eleven years old and have finally decided you can fly. You've been through all the issues of the Marvel Family comics for the last three years, and you know the key word that will give you wings. You can fly if you pretend your white satin bed-jacket is a cape. Now for you Chazam of the Creative Word, the Logos, the formula of flight. You know you can fly, the way They do, straight out like a bullet with your arms stretched forward and your cape fluttering in the wind.

There is no doubt in your mind.

Something else delays you.

You've tied the white satin bed-jacket around your neck tightly so that the wild sleepy folds fall down properly from the shoulders. You imagine what the wind will do to it; you know what it means.

You have many words to utter before you reach Shazam. You utter them slowly, half-hoping you will not reach the end of them. half-hoping that the world will not wring from you the Final Formula, for everything would stop then. You don't really want to pronounce the Unpronounceable.

You stand poised over the steep ravine that leads down to the river. You know it will work because it works for the Marvel Family. You think about the other kids who read the same comics but who don't know what they are all about. They don't know, otherwise they'd be here with you above the ravine with their bed-jackets tied around their necks, wouldn't they, wouldn't they? Maybe they do it alone in their rooms, maybe they pose alone in front of their mirrors, but none of them are here where you are now.

In a way you really do want to have the Great Word wrung out of you, but until now you've witheld it, having sworn never to pronounce it except in a moment of extremity. After all, you don't wish to destroy the world . . .

It's a long way to the bottom of the ravine. There are no witnesses. You wanted it that way, didn't you?

Maybe God will punish you for your insolence. Icarus tried it once; Prometheus still lies chained to a rock with an eagle picking at his liver for a crime less than this. But the Marvel Family has no quarrel with God, and besides they do Good Works and have a fine sense of humour; God never punished them because they were Super.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

12:43PM - The Best Books I've read this Year (so far)

Looking for book recommendations? My list of the best books I've read for fun this year:

1) Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (fiction) - A young teenager deals with death of uncle. And it's bloody, bloody brilliant.

2) Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (fiction) - Housewife discovers butterfly migration and then herself. Some of the best characterization I read this year.

3) Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon (non-fiction) - Dry but compelling overview of parents whose children belong to a different identity category from them (autistic, deaf, musical prodigies, deaf, criminal etc.)

4) The Last Policeman/Countdown City by Ben Winters (SF/mystery) - Detective ignores apocalypse, focuses on solving crimes. Tackles some big philosophical issues in a convincing genre pairing. Mystery lovers - check this one out.

5) We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (fiction) - Young woman grapples with fallout after being raised to think of a chimp as her sister.

6) The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (YA fantasy) - For once, a YA novel that both made me root for its romance and seriously worry about the fate of the heroine. Also, it has terrifying carnivorous horses.

7) Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (SF) - Tight plot, interesting lead.

8) Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (memoir/graphic novel) - Bechdel describes her belated discovery of her dead father's secret homosexual life in graphic novel form.

9) On Saudi Arabia by Karen Elliott House (non-fiction) - Good overview of contemporary Saudi and its issues.

10) Wild by Cheryl Strayed (memoir) - It almost convinced me to hike the PCT, and that's saying something.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

8:15AM - Breaking Bad finale

So the Breaking Bad finale was good, and gave us the ending Walt's trajectory had suggested. But damn. I admit to having hoped for a happier end than that.

Conversation in the comments, those who've seen it?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

7:43PM - Still here

There's been a flurry of 'return to lj' posts from some of my f-list recently, so for the record, I'm still here & still reading. I'm also going gangbusters on academic book revisions right now, so I have basically no time for writing that is not let's-get-shit-done related. So: no posts from me for a while.

But I will quickly say that my semester has started up again and, for the first time ever, I have a student who needs accommodations after being struck by lightning.

(!!!)

Saturday, July 27, 2013

8:42AM - Your daily dose o' music

I tend to like mellow music on when I drive. This has been one of my favourites this summer:

Sunday, July 21, 2013

9:44PM - Yet another update

In a perfect world, I would post more on this lj. In a perfect world, though, I'd also have one of those Harry Potter time turners so that I'd get 36 hours out of every day. And various things like The Power of Habit (good book, you should read it) have convinced me that my writing/creative time is limited. So I'm focusing right now on academic manuscript revisions, which is tricky and irritating and occupying most of my time.

Also this week - a Barenaked Ladies concert (I have to say, they're fun performers), a local version of the Texas Chainsaw Musical, Pacific Rim, which satisfied a monsters-fighting-robots urge I didn't know I had, and Side Effects, which was a slickly made, well-acted and disappointingly misogynist movie from some very talented people. If they'd at least made the wife's character sympathetic, or anything other than a bitchy plot decice, I could have taken it. As it is

Books: I'm reading Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable; Parry's Account of 3 Voyages to the Polar Seas (research); and The Mad Scientist's Daughter.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

10:02AM - Immigration

Green Card!!!

It arrived when I was at ICFA. It is, in fact, green! Apparently I'm supposed to keep it on me at all times. I'm going to ask other immigrants about this, because I don't like taking important, hard-to-replace documents with me to the gym.

Green Card!!!

As I sat down to write this post the following Guardian article popped up in my Facebook feed: Why the Left is Wrong about Immigration .

I read it with interest, obviously. And I was left scratching my head. Maybe it's because I'm in the USA rather than Britain, and I don't know Britain's cultural immigration battles that well. But as an argument I thought it was deeply flawed.

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As an argument against easy immigration, I give this article a C- . Being what Americans would call a "big government" person, I'm for the government exerting careful control over immigration,* but I'm anti-stupidity.

At some point I'm going to post a reflection on my immigration  experience & American politics. But not today.

*P.S. Americans: Why is it that the same people who support small government and free markets tend to be the  ones calling for more government control over the mobility of international laborers -- mobility that's dictated by the supply and demand of the free market?

Monday, March 25, 2013

12:51AM - ICFA

So I once again had a lovely time at ICFA, the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts down in Florida. The final day of the conference was interrupted by a tornado passing overhead -- excitement! -- but there was no damage. Just a green sky and the smell of ozone, which Kij Johnson pointed out to me and is indeed pretty remarkable.

I'll do a fuller write-up later. In the meantime -- it was great to see you all.

12:46AM - Not about ICFA, but in the spirit of ongoing conversation

I've posted about the lack of male rape in George R.R. Martin's books before, so I was interested to read Sophia McDougall's much more developed essay on popular culture & male rape in The Rape of James Bond.

Some thoughts on the Evil Gay Man trope: Our culture is terrified of male rape. I wonder whether part of the rationale for the Evil Gay Man caricature isn't also an attempt to control the threat of male rape by positing that the people who would do THAT are <<Evilgay,>> and therefore not anyone the viewer would want to be. Only over-the-top Evilgay (TM) characters, or prisoners, would even contemplating raping a man and so that act becomes both evidence of and explanation for their deviant identity.

Meanwhile, it's perfectly possible for a character to be portrayed as both a rapist of women and normal. Even admirable. I'm looking at you, Rhett Butler, Thomas Covenant, etc. To rape a female character is merely to commit a crime, whereas to rape a male character is to define one's identity.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

1:45AM - Because this is what the internet is for, right?

For those of you who wanted to verify THE CAT's EXISTENCE: I bring you photographical evidence. Which given the camera-shy nature of said CAT, was hard to get. Much bribery, stealth, cursing, and running around with a camera phone was required.

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THE CATCollapse )

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

11:39PM - Teaching

Here's the episode of The Prisoner I made my students watch. Heh, heh.

Current mood: Like a bunch of rotten cabbages!!!

Monday, February 18, 2013

11:49AM - Boskone

On my way back from Boskone where, yes, I had a lovely time. matociquala introduced me and Fran Wilde to "Drink," a bartender's bar in which they make pale fruity things called Bohemians, which I'll be hankering after for a long time. Other things I'll be hankering after for a while included the Boskone art show, which had some of the strongest pieces I've seen so far at cons. But alas, the budget would not let me buy.

I didn't end up attending that many panels, but those I did proved interesting. Jim Kelly gave an intriguing talk on the Virtual Utopia, which gave me some ideas for my upcoming lecture on The Matrix. And the "gamechanger" panel added to my reading list, as I knew it would. Other than that, I mainly hung out in the lobby and caught up with familiar faces, including some of the ICFA brigade and mindstalk, who I had yet to meet in his new Boston habitat.

On Sunday we were kidnapped by James D. Macdonald and Debra Doyle and taken indoor skydiving, which is, btw, AWESOME, and does not come with the same terrifying quantity of space and ground found in the other kind of skydiving. I thoroughly approve.

My observations re: indoor skydiving are limited to the fact that a) it's harder than it looks and b) I'd like to do it again. Actually, I'll add that the thing that constantly surprises me about skydiving is the nothing-beneath-you part. The hindpart of my brain equates flying with swimming, but there's a significant difference between feeling yourself supported by water and the what-the-hell-is-THAT sensation of being supported by wind. Wind's much less stable, and it's also full of light and noise and NOTHING, and to someone who's a confident swimmer, it's very odd.

Now: back to work.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

9:01PM - In the News: The Bounty

(Yoinked fro n6tqs )

Sunk: The Incredible Truth about a Ship that Never Should Have Sailed makes for some terrifying reading (at least for me, and I gather, via conversation, most people who have sailed). The author's a UD grad student, apparently, and she seems to have done a bang-up job of outlining and analyzing the Bounty's sinking. Her description of the rigging going into the water just horrifies me.

But what also horrifies me -- and tends to terrify me about survival stories in general -- is the way that social dynamics can force people into situations they are clearly realize are risky, even if the height of the stakes isn't clear. It's all very well to say, on shore and with hindsight, "I wouldn't have set sail."  But clearly even crewmembers who weren't entirely comfortable with the decision to sail didn't break ranks and leave. I don't know if it genuinely occurred to them to do so, or whether staying in port was financially or practically feasible for them. Given that any departing individuals would have been shorting the ship on crew, I also don't know if it was *socially* feasible. The urge to help out your community is pretty strong.

Anyway. If you have time, it's a worthwhile read.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

8:14AM - Wait, so everyone just came back to LJ?

....if someone said it on the Internet, it must be true!

Two weeks ago, my elderly neighbor died. She was a sweet lady who'd babysat my plants many times. And she had a cat. A cat that, for one reason and another, now had no home.

The upshot: I now have a cat. A 14-year-old grey cat that, from what i can tell, is determined to compete with me in world domination. And everything else, including the running of my life.

THE CAT has two interests in life: eating and trying to escape. Unfortunately for THE CAT, the first of these requires me to feed it. Which if THE CAT had its way, would be all the time.

For week one this resulted in an interesting standoff, in which the cat either yowled or pointedly ignored me, and I, having a cattish personality myself, pointedly ignored it.

We've now progressed to the point where we occasionally deign to notice each other's presence. And THE CAT has now learned, to its and my benefit, that just because I'm doing an impromptu song-and-dance performance of The Threepenny Opera in my kitchen does not mean I'm about to feed it. There's hope for us yet.

Current mood: Mac the Knife

Saturday, December 22, 2012

12:12AM - Book Roundup: 2012

Yep, I'm alive. And I now have a revised draft of my academic book manuscript, even if there's still some tweaking to be done. So I emerge from out of my hermit hole for a quick "best of" roundup of the books I've read for pleasure this year. Just in time for Christmas!

Books read for Pleasure:

Memorable Fantasy novels:

Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death?

Okorafor takes the familiar fantasy quest narrative, moves it to post-apocalyptic Africa, anchors it with a strong female protagonist, weaves in interesting postcolonial themes, and includes a brutal scene depicting female circumcision that's going to stick with me for years to come. With that description I've either turned you off or on this book. You decide.

Valentine, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti

It's unfortunate that Mechanique and The Night Circus came out in the same year, because they're both lovely examples of magic-realist circus fabulism. But Valentine's writing is haunted by the trauma of war and by visions of flight, and in the end, I thought it was just splendid. By a hair, Mechanique takes the "best novel about a fantasy circus" award for 2012.


Urban Fantasy Debut, Honorable Mention:

If you've read the rest of this list you'll notice that I've included a suspicious number of books whose descriptions include the word "death" or "murder." 

You know what book is NOT all about death and/or murder? And is frothy fun with an innovative magic system?

Michael Underwood's Geekomancy. In which characters "power-up" for battles by watching Buffy and The Matrix, because in this world, being able to recall dialogue from The Princess Bride translates into epic magic sword-fighting abilities. Mike's a friend of mine and his debut novel's a geekarific blast.

Memorable YA:

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

2 smart teens meet at a cancer support group and fall in love. The narrator, 16 year old Hazel, let's us know from the first page that she has a terminal diagnosis. As she and everyone around her know, this love story will not have a happy ending. But Hazel's story is witty, sharply-observed  compelling and -- like love itself -- worth the trip.

Best Lit Award Winner:

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

I don't know how Mantel managed to make a stream-of-consciousness novel about Thomas Cromwell so interesting the first time round, let alone for a sequel. If anything, Bring Up the Bodies is even better than Wolf Hall. This time, Cromwell's scheming not only serves Henry VIII's whims but Cromwell's desire to avenge his mentor's death. A bloody good book on all levels.

Memorable Psychological Thriller #1

Gillian Flynn, Dark Places

This was the year Flynn broke through with Gone Girl, the mystery every book club loved to read. But while I liked Gone Girl, Dark Places -- Flynn's 2nd novel -- was the one that really blew me away. The premise: as a 7 year old Libby Day famously survived the massacre of her family and served as the key witness in the trial of her older brother. 25 years later, manipulative Libby has blown through her charity money and is desperate for cash. So when a macabre club obsessed with notorious crimes invites her to be a paid guest speaker at one of their meetings, Libby is willing to go. What she doesn't expect is for the questions they ask to stir up ones of her own.

Flynn has a great command of voice, and it's on full display here as she jumps between time periods and points of view. Skillfully done.

Memorable Psychological Thriller #2

Tana French, Broken Harbor

It's not quite as memorable as In the Woods, but Broken Harbor is French's best since her debut. There's just something... unsettling about this story of a detective called in to investigate a horrific murder in a  nearly-empty Irish housing development. The murder seems straightforward, but like the collapse of the Irish housing economy, so much turns on perception. And perceptions can't be trusted. For those of you who read Freud's essay on the Uncanny: Exhibit A.

Memorable Non-Fiction

Katherine Boo, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers

I heard Boo speak when she came to Delaware. Having heard her stories of the personal risks she took in investigating the murder of street kids in Mumbai, I think the thing that impressed me the most about the book is: none of those stories are there. Bucking the usual investigative non-fiction trend, Boo leaves herself out of this book entirely. Instead, we get to witness the unfolding lives of Mumbai slum-dwellers as though we're flies on the wall. The people we meet are memorable and their stories are devoid of the expected cliches of struggle and triumph. Well worth the read.

Preston and Stezi, The Monster of Florence

What if you decided to research an old murder case as famous in Italy as the Jack the Ripper murders are in the Anglophone world? What if, thanks to a corrupt Italian police system, you became a suspect? This non-fiction story is a jaw-dropping narrative about random - and institutional - forms of evil.

Allende, The Sum of Our Days

Didion's Blue Nights was excellent, but f***ing depressing. In contrast, Allende's description of the years following the death of her daughter is warm, poignant, and has stories about hallucinogenic tea and domestic scandals. So this one's my pick.

Best Academic Book (I.E. Book not read for pleasure)

Lauren Benton. A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

This meticulously researched history of legal geographies examines the ways that certain types of space -- mountains, rivers, oceans etc. -- challenged imperial sovereignty. Benton convincingly argues that certain types of legal problems -- mutinies, for example -- became associated with certain types of anomalous space. For those of us interested in imperialism and geography, Benton's book is a fascinating and elucidating read.

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