24 February 2010

Music News of the Day

In case you didn't know, Shearwater released a new album yesterday.  This should cause you to jump up and down and scream, "Yes!  Now my life will feel whole and rewarding once again!"

It's too early for me to say how I like the new album in comparison with Shearwater's previous work, but it doesn't really matter.  They're a wonderfully consistent band, and I love them for it.  (And by the way, if you haven't heard their Daytrotter Session, you're missing something special -- and free!  The version of "Nobody" they did there is among my favorite recordings of all time, meaning it's up there with Sam Collins's "Lonesome Road Blues" and Yo-Yo Ma's first recordings of the Bach cello suites.)

Here's a video for one of the songs from the new album:

23 February 2010

Double Feature: Hunger and Endgame

Hunger and Endgame offer two different approaches to representing history with narrative film, and the differences are such that a comparison may be unfair to Endgame, a film of minor accomplishments that quickly fades from memory, while Hunger, whatever you ultimately make of it, contains many scenes that are difficult to forget.

The actual events of the two films are only a few years apart: Hunger focuses on the 1981 hunger strikes by prisoners in Northern Ireland, and particularly the death of Bobby Sands; Endgame portrays the secret negotiations in the late 1980s between representatives of the African National Congress (particularly Thabo Mbeki) and the ruling Afrikaners of South Africa. The films work hard to portray the humanity of both sides of their conflicts, as if the filmmakers' greatest fear is to be condemned as biased or propagandistic. Yet their sympathies are so clearly on one side that the effort seems mostly token -- in Hunger (a movie with many virtues to overcome its limitations), the occasional moments where we are reminded that the prison guards are not all unfeeling monsters, and that some of them even have mothers and wives and daughters they love (yes, all women -- women in such movies exist so men can appear sensitive), are all overpowered by the scenes of prison cells decorated with feces, of prisoners being beaten, of Bobby Sands starving to death. The only comparably visceral moment with a guard happens when one's brains get shot into his senile mum's lap, but by that point we've seen him beat Sands senseless, and the only thing rousing any real sympathy in us is the power of the image: an old woman staring off into a world of her own, her son's blood splattered on her face and seeping into her clothes.

With one large and notable exception (a long scene of Sands and a priest talking, mostly conveyed via a 17-minute shot during which the camera doesn't move), it is the imagery that drives Hunger and provides its distinction. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the director, Steve McQueen, is best known as a visual artist (including art films and installations). Endgame mostly lacks visual distinction, and its cinematography is often of the hand-held verité style that should now come with the warning label, "Sorry, we couldn't think of any better way to remind you that this is Stuff That Really Happened." One of effects of Hunger's stylistic originality is to remind us that an overly-familiar style is nothing more than an overly-familiar style, and that verisimilitude and visceral emotional effect do not rely on, and in fact may be undermined by, such a style.

19 February 2010

Nebula, Nebulae

Dear Nebula Voters,

I know what your real purpose is with the nominees for this year's award.  Don't think you can hide your secret, conspiratorial goals from me!  I know what you really want to do is cause me immense angst by putting some of my favorite people up against each other in your various (nefarious!) categories.  You know when it comes to awards I root for the people I know and like before I even consider anything else, because of course the people I know and like are all the greatest writer in the world, but what am I supposed to do when you, for instance, put VanderMeer up against Barzak in the novel category?!

I'm safe, at least, with the short story category.  Jim Kelly is the only writer I know well there, so obviously he should win.  Novelette is worse -- Paolo Bacigalupi is the one person whose short stories have caused me to write a long essay, and he's a really nice guy (well, as long as you don't burn lots of hydrocarbons in front of him.  I tried digging an oil well at the World Fantasy Convention in 2005, and he threatened to punch me).  Rachel Swirsky I've communicated with regarding Best American Fantasy (we reprinted her story "How the World Became Quiet: A Post-Human Creation Myth" in BAF 2, and all of the BAF contributors feel like family to me, even if I never talk to them, which is mostly what makes them feel like family...)  And then there's Mr. Bowes, who once attacked me with a stiletto-heeled shoe when I suggested that Cats is not the greatest musical of all time.  I've forgiven him, even though Starlight Express is obviously the greatest musical of all time, and in learning forgiveness, I have learned to appreciate the man himself, and so of course I want him to win as much as I want Paolo and Rachel to win.  Maybe they all can.  (Voters!  Coordinate your efforts to please me!)

Novella is actually easy, too, because the only person there I've met is John Scalzi, and he's alright, even if I remain dead to him.

But the novel category ... it's killing me.  I'm going to have to freebase my entire collection of pill-bottle cotton tonight just to calm my aching soul.  Not only are Messrs. Barzak and VanderMeer, two of my favorite people, present there, but Paolo Bacigalupi is hanging out in that category as well, and so is China Mieville with The City & The City, a book I adored.  And though I don't know Cherie Priest, I know her editor, who is also one of my favorite people, and thus is, by definition, the greatest editor in the world.

Okay, Nebula voters -- I give up!  Uncle!  Please please please start nominating more works by mean, nasty people I don't like!  Or at least people I don't know!  I'm working hard to be a recluse, so it shouldn't be all that difficult to locate more people I don't know.  It will save me agonized nights of writhing on the floor, my loyalties pulling me in all directions, my heart torn asunder.

What's that you say?  It's not all about me?  Yes, I've heard that before, many times.  Conspirators always deny their conspiracy.  I know the truth, though, and in the immortal words of Bob Dylan: "I don't believe you!"

Meanwhile, congratulations to all!

Patient #45403892, New Hampshire State Home for the Criminally Bewildered

Whoever has my tinfoil hat, you'd better return it!  Bowes!  BOWES!!!!

18 February 2010

Black Sunlight Available Again

I was excited to discover that Dambudzo Marechera's bizarre, beautiful, disturbing, and utterly unique book Black Sunlight is now available again in what looks like a handsome edition from Penguin as part of their new African Writers Series.  It's an even wilder book than the novel Marechera is best known for, House of Hunger, and because of that fact it hasn't gotten the same attention, but Black Sunlight deserves as much notice.  If you're curious for a taste of the prose, I've quoted it here on the blog in the past.

I discovered that the book is available again when I read Akin Ajayi's commentary at The Guardian's Book Blog, "Penguin's African Writers Series is stuck in the past" (via The Literary Saloon).  Ajayi makes the case that the five books being released in the U.K. to inaugurate the new series are all at least 15 years old (a sixth book, Karen King-Aribisala's The Hangman's Game, is part of the series in South Africa, but not available [yet] in the U.K. or U.S.; it is more recent), and this presents an odd contrast to the accomplishments of the original African Writers Series from Heinemann, which made hundreds of contemporary African works available to a wide audience.

Ajayi's general point is an important one, and one I expect Penguin is aware of, given their sponsorship of the Penguin Prize for African Writing -- they do seem interested in new writers and new writing, and I would not be surprised to learn that the decision to start with older books had something to do with a desire to launch the series with titles that already have some name recognition.  I have a very different view of literature than Ajayi, though, who writes:
I don't have anything against the selection itself, it's just that it's hard to see what the selection can tell the curious reader about lives lived across Africa today. These books can't say much about the challenges of globalisation, migration, or the struggle by the citizens of Africa's 53 countries to form an authentic identity, because these books are not of the moment. Classics, yes; contemporary, no. And in this sense at least, the new AWS disappoints.
There's lots of great writing happening on the continent right now, and that's one of the reasons why I hope Penguin will move their primary focus to new works, but Ajayi's view of what books should do or be seems to me an awfully narrow one, and the idea that African writers are primarily valuable because of the up-to-the-minute content of their writing is ridiculous.  A book like Black Sunlight will not tell you what is happening in Zimbabwe right now, no -- for that, you need journalists and eyewitnesses.  For a whole lot other than that, you need Black Sunlight.

And while we're talking about exciting books being reprinted, I should also note that Tin House will be bringing Marlene van Niekerk's extraordinary novel Agaat to the U.S. this spring in Michiel Heyns's translation from the Afrikaans (complete with a blurb from Toni Morrison).  I read the first third or so of Agaat when I was doing research for my essay on Coetzee, Promised Land, and the plaasroman, and for a while I thought I might include Agaat in that essay, but the novel was too rich and too long, and so I returned it, reluctantly, to the Dartmouth Library, hoping one day to have time and cause to return to it again.  Now that Tin House is publishing it here in the States, perhaps I will find that time and cause.

17 February 2010

Hitchcock & Me

My latest Strange Horizons column, "Revisiting Hitchcock", has been posted.  It's a first stab at what will, I hope, become a longer project eventually, but writing about Hitchcock is tough because he's been so thoroughly written about before that it's hard not to just reiterate what lots of other folks have written.  But his work maintains such a hold on me that I also feel at this point that I can't not write about it, so who knows...

16 February 2010

A Fine Argument Against Gay Marriage

"Opponents said the consummation of gay unions can't be spoken of in polite society."

How true!  

And now an assignment: Find some "polite society" and talk about the details of the, uh, consummation of your hetero union.  Let me know how that works out...

13 February 2010

Decade: Some Books

Personally, I think everyone should post a list of the books that delighted or awed them over this past decade, without pretending it’s anything definitive.
--Jeff VanderMeer

Nobody ever gets over their first camel.

I love lists and am wary of them.  They are a being that is half parlor game, half manifesto.  And half a few other things, too, including whatever's in the dumpster outside my friend Maury's apartment in Detroit.  (My arithmetic skills are impressive, I know.  And I don't have a friend name Maury.  I'm not sure I even know anybody who lives in Detroit.)

The years 2000-2009 were important ones in my life as a reader, though, and I would like to memorialize them with something.  I could spend the next decade making lists of books from the previous decade, but I've probably got better things to do. Instead, here's a list of books that come to mind this morning, Saturday, 13 February 2010, when I think about the previous ten years. I'll mostly, though not exclusively, stick to fiction here, because I read tons of nonfiction but in a very different way from fiction. Some links are to my reviews or notes about the books, though in cases of books I haven't written about or haven't written about online, I've included a link to The Book Depository, unless I knew of a better source of information.

Here's the list:

12 February 2010

Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy 3 Now Available!

I haven't seen a copy yet, but various online outlets say they're shipping Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy 3, and Powell's and St. Marks Books report they've got some in stock at this very moment, so now's your chance to get them before they become collector's items and sell for tens of thousands of dollars on the used book market.  Publisher's Weekly and Charles Tan both like it, so you should, too!

Or, if you just want to read it and aren't planning on buying a box or two of the book to hoard in preparation for the Last Days, there's always the library.

10 February 2010

Looking for a Deal?

I just discovered the other day that Tin House Books is offering a set of four of their books for $35.99 via their website as The Tin House Writers' Series.  This is a wonderful deal: The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House; The Story about the Story, a collection of thirty essays; The World Within, a collection of interviews; and The Journals of Jules Renard, which was the subject of one of my personal favorites among my Strange Horizons columns.

I'm planning to use the bundle as an assigned text for a course I'm teaching in the fall, "Writing and the Creative Process" because the content is varied and high quality and the price still allows me to assign another book if need be (I'm thinking of perhaps also using Lynda Barry's What It Is, but I'm still early in the planning process; a sales rep from Norton said he's sending me some things to look at, and he was friendly and knowledgeable, so I want to give those books a fair shake, too).

09 February 2010

"Science Fiction Has Given the Umlaut in Upper High German a Run for Its Money"

The title of this post comes from a very worthwhile audio interview with Samuel R. Delany at The Dragon Page (you'll have to listen to find out what it means!  The interview is about a third of the way into the podcast).  It was the first time I'd publicly heard the release date of Chip's new novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, which is scheduled to be releaed in November from Alyson Books, where the great Don Weise, who was the editor for Dark Reflections, is now the publisher.  A version of part of the new novel appeared in Black Clock 7 a few years ago, and Chip read some of it aloud at Readercon this past summer.  It tells the story of the relationship of two men, starting in 2007 and continuing for about seventy years into the future.

The interview also contains interesting discussions of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, of why Chip writes what he does, of his work at Temple University, and of the growing acceptance of some forms of genre writing among the country's MFA writing programs.

07 February 2010

William Tenn (1920-2010)

Among the great American satirical fictioneers of the last hundred years or so -- and Americans often tend to be satirical fictioneers, even when they're not trying to be, because it's hard to write about the vast, paradoxical, beautiful monstrosity that is America without delving, at least momentarily, into satire; but few writers can sustain a varied career as satirists, and few who do are truly great -- there are two whose works I hold close to my heart: Kurt Vonnegut and William Tenn.

The man who wrote under the name "William Tenn" was Philip Klass, and he has died at the age of 89.

I had the great honor of shaking Mr. Klass's hand at the 2004 World Science Fiction Convention in Boston, the only WorldCon I have (so far) attended.  He was the Guest of Honor, and I somehow ended up at the Hugo Losers Party, and he was there to hang out with the losers.  He seemed quite happy to be in such company.

Shaking his hand was, for me, one of those awkward moments where English suddenly seemed to stop being my native language.  All I could manage to say was, "I really admire your work," and he smiled and nodded.  I must have been about the five hundredth person that day to say such a thing to him, and probably some of the people who said such a thing to him didn't even know who he was.  I wanted him to know that I knew, that I thought everyone should know the name of the man who wrote "The Liberation of Earth", a story I cherish.  But I couldn't find the words, and so I smiled and nodded, and he smiled and nodded, and then I fled.

He wrote "The Liberation of Earth" and "Down Among the Dead Men" and "Brooklyn Project" and "The Custodian" and plenty of others.  They are currently most easily available in the three volumes of collected fiction and nonfiction published by NESFA Press: Immodest Proposals, Here Comes Civilization, and Dancing Naked.

In 2004, I wrote a long post about the short stories in general and "Liberation of Earth" in particular.

The official William Tenn website has a running list of links to remembrances and appreciations.

Words seem, once again, to be failing me, and so I will, once again, offer Phil Klass and William Tenn a smile and a nod -- this time in honor of his memory and in thanks for the stories he gave to the world.

05 February 2010

Bolaño and the Poetic Pose

Ron Silliman on Bolaño's poetry:
The pose of Bolaño-the-poet may well be more important – and certainly more powerful – than the fact of the poems themselves, but what might be most useful here is to note the whole notion of Bolaño posing. The unifying – indeed distinguishing – element of these poems, written in a post-Beat free verse that might be closest in English to Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Ray Bremser, is the consistency of the pose: the intellectual as tough guy but one who is, at all moments, hard as nails & deeply sentimental. Think of upper limit Jean-Paul Belmondo in the films of Godard, lower limit Charles Bukowski (not as Mickey Rourke so much as Johnny Depp or, had he lived, Heath Ledger). Imagine Kerouac mixed with Camus.

02 February 2010

Help Paul Tremblay Celebrate the Publication of His Second Novel By Buying It From Somewhere Other Than Amazon

Paul Tremblay and I were emailing recently, but I didn't realize until I read his comment on an excellent blog post by John Scalzi that Paul's second novel, No Sleep till Wonderland, is 1.) being published today, and 2.) published by Henry Holt, a subsidiary of Macmillan, which means that for the moment it's not being sold on Amazon.com.  (Yes, there are copies available from third-party sellers -- these are probably review copies, and they send no royalties to the writer.)

The first day of a novel's publication should be a day of celebration and joy, not a day when the world's largest monopolistic bookseller refuses to sell your book because they're in a spat with another massive corporation.

I don't know Paul well, and I haven't read his novels, but I've read his short fiction and met him a few times.  His story "The Two-Headed Girl" is included in Best American Fantasy 3.  He's a nice guy and a good writer.

So here's an idea to help alleviate some of the collateral damage of Amazon's fight with Macmillan: Buy Paul's book or encourage your local library to buy Paul's book.  If you like Paul's writing or you just want him to know that you're happy for him on this day of the release of his second novel, contact him (his website has his email address; his blog is here).  Here are some places you can buy No Sleep till Wonderland or find libraries that have it:
Lots of Macmillan writers are having their books published today, and none of those books are available via Amazon.com.  Paul is the one of those writers I happen to know about.  Let's not let a corporate argument sour a day that should be a proud and exciting one for him.

01 February 2010

Alternatives to Associating with Amazon

Every time Amazon flexes its muscle to reveal just how powerful its monopoly is (cf. the latest brouhaha), I grow a bit more uncomfortable making all the book title links on this blog ones that go to Amazon and, through their Associates program, send back some spare change to me.  I mean, I know I'm immoral for using Amazon so much, but I've already admitted to being a pox upon the bookselling body in general.  In most of my choices as a consumer, I'm a pox upon the entire world, a blight of bourgeois indifference, a hemmorhoid on the......  Well, you get the idea.

But what about you?  Why should Amazon be the only choice you have when following a link to find out more information about a book, and possibly to order a copy for yourself?  Why should I force you to be the same sort of immoral pox-blight-hemmorhoid as I?

I've stuck with the Amazon Associates program for, as I said on David Moles's blog, reasons of inertia and of not knowing of another website that was as comprehensive and useful.  (Amazon even has a widget that works with Blogger and adds Associates links quickly and easily -- it's like crack!)  I'd love to use IndieBound, but they don't offer much information on their book pages and, as David points out, good luck trying to do anything with their site if you're not in the U.S.  Powells has interesting content and some good information, but they're a bit limited in their stock because they're actual stores.  Abebooks is great for used books (it's where I check first for used books these days, because the prices often are less than used books at Amazon and the booksellers tend to be a little bit better at describing the actual conditions of the books they're selling).*

On David's blog, I suggested The Book Depository as a possible alternative, since it offers free worldwide shipping, and then saw Cheryl had had some similar thoughts and was asking publishers, especially, for feedback on their experiences.  I've used TBD to order books from the UK and have been thrilled with their service, and they also have links for lots of American editions.  I may switch over to a combination of them and Abebooks (because I do sometimes reference out of print titles, and good as TBD is, you can't order Crybaby of the Western World from them).

Or maybe I'll just mix it up more ... sometimes using Amazon, sometimes others.  That allows more of an international approach, too.  Anybody have any preferences?  I know a few of you occasionally order books through the links here (and other people order stuff like household appliances, which I'm really grateful for, because I get far more money back when you order an $800 widget than I do when you order a $10 book!)  For me what matters is that wherever the links go, they provide information -- my primary goal here is not to sell you books, but to give you information and opinions about them.  It's nice if the links can occasionally provide some money, too, since I don't have ads on the site and do put a lot of time into it all, so a passive and unobtrusive form of fundraising seems like an okay thing to me, and I've never minded such links on other people's sites.  But I don't know what blog readers other than myself think about all this, so I'm legitimately curious.

*Update 2/1: As noted in the comments, Amazon is buying AbeBooks, which also gives them a 40% share in LibraryThing.  So ... it was a good thought....

Wallace Shawn at The Quarterly Conversation

I'm happy whenever one of my favorite playwrights, Wallace Shawn, gets some attention.  Andrew Ervin has written an interesting personal essay at The Quarterly Conversation about Shawn and white privilege, his thoughts sparked by Shawn's latest publications, Essays and Grasses of a Thousand Colors.

I wrote about those two books and Shawn's whole career as a writer for the most recent print issue of Rain Taxi.  While you'll have to get your hands on the dead tree magazine itself to read it all (for now), here are three paragraphs from it to whet your appetite...