24 August 2013

Now on Letterboxd

I've been playing around with Letterboxd, a sort of Goodreads-for-movies. I've put in a bunch of ratings and added some reviews, both from here and from an occasional film diary I've kept for the last couple years.

I expect I'll continue using it to keep track of what I've seen, and will probably continue to post short reviews there as time and desire allow. If you want to stand aghast at my bad taste, this will give you lots of opportunities.

19 August 2013

Zulu by Caryl Férey

This review originally appeared in the print edition of Rain Taxi in the fall of 2010. I didn't realize until I read this post at Africa is a Country that the book was being made into a film starring Forrest Whitaker and Orlando Bloom. I wrote as restrained and fair a review as I could; I hated the book. But since the movie is coming out, perhaps this review is of interest.

Caryl Férey

Europa Editions ($15)

French writer Caryl Férey's Zulu isn't likely to win any awards from the South African Department of Tourism, for though the novel is as full as a guidebook with information about the country's history and culture, the story it tells is a relentlessly brutal one, and the South Africa that emerges from the narrative is a place of chaotic violence, rampant drug traffic, densely-populated slums rife with doom and disease, and corruption bursting from every level of society.

The novel is a police procedural portraying an investigation into murders that have a connection to a new and particularly potent drug that has entered Cape Town.  The narrative drifts between various characters' points of view.  One of the protagonists, police officer Ali Neuman, chief of Cape Town's homicide division, is of Zulu ancestry, and Férey peppers the story with information about the decades of tension during the time of South Africa's white minority rule between the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party and the most prominent anti-apartheid organization, the African National Congress.  To Férey's credit, the brutality in Zulu is not portrayed as inherent to some sort of universal, barbaric African nature, but is linked to complex social and political forces, many of them the byproducts of apartheid.  (Nonetheless, at the end of the story, only whites are left standing.)

18 August 2013

Ten Years

One decade ago today, I sat down and started writing blog posts here.

This is the room I wrote in:

That room no longer exists, and not just because it doesn't have all my books and papers everywhere. The house was renovated (for the first time in decades) after I left, with the area that had been my apartment pretty well gutted.

The computer I began the blog with was an iMac G3. A year later, I got the laptop that's visible in those photos.

I've been working up to this anniversary moment by writing posts about each of the years in the decade. Here they are for easy reference, along with the primary topics of the posts:
What I haven't yet said is what most needs to be said: Thank you to you, for reading. I would have continued with the blog for a while even if nobody read it, but I wouldn't have gone on for 10 years. Audiences are necessary as soundingboards and goads and inspiration. I don't have words for how grateful I am to the folks who've stopped by, read some of my rantings and ramblings, and sometimes even returned. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I'm not myself old enough yet to sing Stephen Sondheim's great song "I'm Still Here", but 10 years of internet time has got to be close to being old enough, and I've always thought Elaine Stritch's voice would be perfect for the audio book of the blog, so let's let her sing for us in celebration...


Tomorrow, I start in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire. It's a new path, a new experience. I have no plans to end this blog. It's come this far, so why not keep going?

A Decade of Archives 10: 2003

This is the tenth in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary today, August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

Well, here we are. The beginning.

I started the blog after reading something in an emailed newsletter from my internet provider about Blogger. It sounded interesting, and I was curious to learn about HTML, which you needed to know the basics of to be able to format anything, so I took some of the last few days of summer vacation and played around.

I'd recently begun reading science fiction and fantasy again after a relatively long absence. The New Wave Fabulists issue of Conjunctions brought me back, showing that some interesting stuff had happened since I'd stopped reading SF with any regularity in the mid-'90s. I got interested in the writers associated with the New Weird, and, especially, the contentious discussions that surrounded it for a while. Kathryn Cramer's blog was a definite inspiration — I'd discovered it because of some of her political writings, then used it as a hub for links to things SFnal as well.

It's strange now to think back and remember just how relatively barren the landscape was for people using blogs to write about books, never mind about science fiction and fantasy. That's why I thought I might be able to carve a place for myself. I'd had some interest in writing about current events and politics, but I have little talent for it, and even in 2003 there were dozens and dozens of people using blogs for political purposes, often eloquently and intelligently, which was more than I could manage. So I wrote about books and movies.

The first post is just a definition of mumpsimus. I chose the name after reading about it in Forgotten English by Jeffrey Kacirk. If I was going to be offering ideas and opinions, I thought, I should at least acknowledge that I know such an endeavor to be perilous, even foolhardy.

A Decade of Archives 9: 2004

This is the ninth in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

2004 was the first full year of The Mumpsimus. It was also the year with the largest number of posts: 319. (These days, I'm able to get out about 100 or so in a year.) And it was the year when a relatively large number of people began to notice what was going on here. That initial attention is what made me think this was not, perhaps, just a useless lark. A lark, yes, and largely useless, yes, but maybe not completely so...

The year began with a post about returning: I hadn't paid a lot of attention to the site at the end of 2003, having written one post in December and none in November. The first paragraph of that post indicates that I was still thinking of this as a site about, primarily if not exclusively, science fiction. The reason for my absence, I said, was, "my life has been busy and I haven't been reading nearly as much SF as I would like."

I made up for the absence quickly, with numerous posts, some of them with real substance. The first was a comparison of Sergei Bondarchuk's film of War and Peace with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. The rest of January 2004 covers most of the major topics that the site would continue to explore for the next 9 years: a review of a novel by a writer not known as a genre writer (Genesis by Jim Crace); a plea for a writer who deserves more attention (Judith Merril); a naive but (surprisingly!) not entirely embarrassing post on sexism and reading; somewhat literary theory-ish posts on characterization and narrative (which, despite their naivety — my education in lit theory was entirely autodidactic [read: haphazard, shallow] at that point — are still recognizably in the direction of ideas I now hold); a review of Lucius Shepard's extraordinary 9/11 story "Only Partly Here"a look at Tim Burton's movie Big Fish; a mention of one of my favorite writers, David Markson; and, finally, a post that mentions Samuel Delany's Dhalgren in the context of a discussion of the baleful influence of the 3-act structure for screenplays. Clearly, it was winter in New Hampshire and I needed something to keep my mind occupied other than just teaching high school!

The rest of the year goes on in a similar manner. I hadn't look back on it all until now, and was a bit scared to — I haven't been thrilled with a few of the later years on the whole, so had no reason to assume the earliest years were of any value whatsoever. There's drivel, certainly, but also good stuff, at least in comparison to a lot of what came later.

17 August 2013

Against Silence

"I understand that the games will likely go on—as do most people calling for a boycott—but I don't think our outrage is useless, or unproductive. At the very least, it has brought worldwide attention to the treatment of LGBT people in Russia. Putin may not change his position on the issue, and the discrimination will certainly continue, but the gays in Russia will know they are not alone. This alone is justification enough, because there is one thing that is almost always more useless than outrage: silence."

—Eric Sasson

A Decade of Archives 8: 2005

This is the eighth in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

2005 was a big year around these here parts, as the blog was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. I went to the World Fantasy Convention and wrote up a report of that experience here. It was an exciting time.

From my perspective now, though, 2005 doesn't seem like all that great a year for actual blog posts,. There are lot of them — 2005 is second only to 2004 in the number of individual posts — but most of them are quick links, bits of news, etc. The stuff that I now will just throw on Twitter, or ignore altogether.

This is reassuring, actually, because I often look back on the number of posts in 2005 and 2004 with fondness and even a certain awe — how did I ever write so much? (My life was no less busy and crazy back then; indeed, it was busier and crazier.) I often fear the blog is lying fallow, victim of my other work. But if anything, the number of substantial, substantive posts here has increased over the years.

Getting back into the oldest of the archives brings about mixed feelings. A bit of nostalgia, certainly, occasionally a moment where I'm impressed with something I wrote, but mostly a lot of cringing. There's a youthful enthusiasm, a youthful naivete to a lot of it that just makes me want to hide under a table. I was 29 and 30 in 2005, and yet often wrote like a precocious 12-year-old. (Eight years from now, if I'm lucky I'll be able to say my writings in 2013 remind me of a precocious 20-year-old.)

I'm not going to go back and laugh at my younger self. The archives are there for you to explore and chuckle through all you want. Instead, I'd just like to note a few posts that don't seem to me entirely worth sending down into the memory hole quite yet...

16 August 2013

Whither the Gay Blockbuster?

The next stage will depend on the willingness of queer publics to be both accepting and demanding, for the biggest impediment to the creation of culture is not the imagination of the creator but the receptivity of an audience. Once, a public hungry for change did its part to bring the [New Queer Cinema] to life. In the decades since, queer audiences have too often retreated into a comfort zone of familiar faces and cozy narratives. The 2010-2012 seasons give me hope that change is afoot, and the harsh economic conditions of our times, the extremity of politics, and the disparity of wealth have created an audience eager to be challenged, and to change. I think it's time for queer publics to broaden their vision once again, not shut it down for legal status, gender definition, or genre formula. The creativity of queer communities ensures that anything happening right now is "just a stage" and that, far from returning to earlier iterations as the phrase used to suggest, instead will continually lead to new beginnings across ever-erased, ever-reconstructed boundaries.

—B. Ruby Rich, New Queer Cinema: The Director's Cut, pp. 281-282
At IndieWire, Peter Knegt asks a provocative question: "Why Don't LGBT Movies Make Money at the Box Office Anymore?" He evaluates five possible answers to the question: "1. There's just not as much of a need for these films anymore; 2. There are less LGBT films being made, so there will clearly be less of them grossing $1 million; 3. There are less marketable LGBT films being made; 4. All the good LGBT representation is on TV; 5. The market has simply changed" and decides that #5 is the most likely and significant. There's some good discussion in the comments (even from people who don't recognize the magnificence of Weekend).

My feelings about the whole question are conflicted, and mostly revolve around the premises, which are:

  1. Once upon a time, movies with lead characters who were gay or lesbian were successful at the box office, and that is no longer true.
  2. It would be a good thing if more movies with lead characters who are LGBT were popular with mass audiences. 

13 August 2013

A Decade of Archives 7: 2006

This is the seventh in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

Miami Vice
K: There are times when I'd really love to live in your world.
M: It's full of existential crises, but not a lot of headaches.
K: I've already got the existential crises, so it might be a nice change.
M: There's a reason the first album that ever made a strong impression on me was Stop Making Sense.
K: So that's your aesthetic credo?
M: No, I don't have a credo. It's just something I thought of and so I said it. It's probably not even true.

—"A Conversation After Miami Vice"

2006 seems to me an ideal year of The Mumpsimus, not because all of the posts are high quality (they aren't!) but because the diversity of posts covers just about everything I think of as Mumpsimusian. In other years, the balance has been in one particular direction or another, but if anyone were to ask me to sum up the most dominant ideas and concerns of this blog, I'd tell them to roam around in the 2006 archives.

I'm not one for taxonomy, but it's occasionally useful, so let's taxonomize.

12 August 2013

Watching the Dark: Zero Dark Thirty

Some notes for the above video essay:

My viewing of Zero Dark Thirty and my ideas about it were and are influenced by ideas I first encountered in writings by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Glenn Kenny, Steven Shaviro, and Nicholas Rombes. Their interpretations are not mine, and they should not be blamed for my failures, but I certainly owe them gratitude for whatever insights I have benefited from.

I worked on this video over a period of months, trying simply to gather a few of the motifs and visual patterns in the film (monitors, windows, surfaces, light/dark). It evolved to be something more impressionistic than that, but that was the initial concept.

10 August 2013

A Decade of Archives 6: 2007

This is the sixth in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

I'm Not There
2007 began with an outtake from an interview I did with Juliet Ulman of Bantam Books and ended with a rather mysterious announcement on December 24 that I would need to take a break from blogging for a while. The reason for the hiatus was something I discussed in the previous post: my father's death. I last talked with him on my cell phone as I was walking home after seeing Tim Burton's movie of Sweeney Todd, a review of which was the last substantive post I wrote that year; the next afternoon, I got the call from the New Hampshire State Police. The only thing I managed to write between the announcement of my absence and then my later return was a column for Strange Horizons that adds some context to it all, "Of Muses and Ghosts".

One of the reasons for the eventual turn to highlighting film here more often than before, and to doing more and more with film analysis and production in my life, is that it was and is a way of keeping the good memories of my father present and sending all the truckloads of bad stuff to go die with him. Movies were the one thing we incontrovertibly shared, the one thing we could discuss and enjoy together, and my taste in film is/was inextricably bound to his.

There's a Mountain Goats song to go with this (as there is a Mountain Goats song to go with everything), appropriately from the New Asian Cinema EP, "Cao Dai Blowout", which ends:
When the ghost of your father starts pushing you around,
how are you going to make him stop?
I took down all the crosses,
I let him set up shop.
Appropriately for this post, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats also recently expressed quite well what it is like to search through the archives of things you've created: "exhuming the corpses I became at several turns between then and now."

Looking back on 2007 sure feels more like exhuming corpses than the later years have. Some of this has to do with the split I was talking about last time between life before the fall of 2007 and life after. Looking back over 2008, I could read just the titles of almost all of the posts, and certainly of all the ones that weren't just announcements and links, and have at least some memory of what the post was about. I looked at lots of post titles from 2007 and had no idea what the post contained. Reading them was often like reading something written by someone else, someone familiar but now unreachable.

08 August 2013

A Decade of Archives 5: 2008

This is the fifth in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

Posting in 2008 began late because in December 2007, my father died, leaving me not only with the emotional and psychological challenge of a dead parent, but also with the challenge of now being the heir to a house, property, and gun shop 300+ miles away from where I was then living. By the end of the year, I had quit my job, moved back to New Hampshire, gained a Federal Firearms License to sell off the inventory, and started work as an adjunct professor at Plymouth State University in the English Department and the Women's Studies Program. The year ended with a post noting that George W. Bush had done a wonderful thing for New Hampshire, making our sole contribution to the U.S. Presidency, Franklin Pierce, look better.

It was a relatively thin year for The Mumpsimus — understandably, given how much my life changed over the course of that time. The whole period from summer 2007 (quit my job of 9 years, moved to New Jersey for a job that turned out to be an exhaustingly bad fit for me) to my father's death in December to getting my feet back under me in 2008 is the most difficult period of my life, a life that I now habitually think of as breaking into two periods: before-that-time and after-that-time. The struggles and shocks of that year and a half or so pretty deeply changed what it feels like to be me. It changed my writing (I simply stopped writing for a while), it changed a lot of my desires and perspectives, it changed just about everything I think of as myself. The person I was before that time seems very remote from me, someone I am connected to but do not really know anymore.

What I want to focus on here are a few posts from that year that I think are worth preserving, and then offer some thoughts on my first experiences of teaching college.

Worth preserving: A post on a Coetzee novel that could have been the title for my life: Diary of a Bad Year; a post about Lydia Millet's How the Dead Dream; a note mentioning my long Quarterly Conversation review of Paolo Bacigalupi's Pump Six [some of the only long-form reviewing I did that year, and probably the best]; a post on the great novel Stoner by John Williams; a reflection on five years of blogging; a post about the abortion documentary Lake of Fire; a consideration of the extended cut of one of my favorite movies, The New World; some thoughts on Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K; and an obituary for John Leonard, whose work had a profound influence on my reading and writing.

07 August 2013

"How Far to Englishman's Bay"

My story "How Far to Englishman's Bay" is now available at Nightmare Magazine for reading, or you could listen to it read by Paul Boehmer on the podcast. There's also an interview with me by Erika Holt about the story, though if you don't like to know any plot elements before reading, you should save the interview for after you've finished the story, because I blithely give away a few surprises.

I thought the above image, based partially on one from a 1909 Harper's Weekly story called "The Queer Folk of the Maine Coast" (which would be a perfect subtitle for "How Far to Englishman's Bay") more or less fit the story, so I put it together during a moment when procrastinating from something more important, and so, well, here it is.

05 August 2013

A Decade of Archives 4: 2009

This is the fourth in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

2009 began with an unremarkable post pointing to a couple of free items on the internets and ended with a post on introductory film textbooks (December 2009 began the shift toward more frequent film posts that I discussed in the 2010 commemoration). Looking back on it, 2009 seems like a year with some good specific posts, but overall I don't think of it as a banner year for the blog in any way. I've been struggling with coming up with much to say about it, in fact, so instead of trying to tie everything together artificially, I'm just going to offer a few thoughts on some of my favorite posts from the year.

First, not really a post here (though I mentioned it): an interview with me that Charles Tan did in February 2009. This gives a sense of some of what I was thinking about at the beginning of the year. (Note that, contrary to the bio note at the beginning of that interview, I wasn't actually teaching in New Jersey at that point. I moved back to New Hampshire in the summer of 2008.)

In February, I wrote about Joanna Russ's magnificent vampire story "My Dear Emily". The version I had read at that time did not have Russ's preferred ending. Later, I read her preferred ending, but I'm not sure I prefer it. Sometimes I do. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. Today is Monday, so I prefer the preferred ending. But tomorrow I will prefer the first-published ending. In any case, and with either ending, it's a story I continue to revere.

In March, my essay "Coetzee in the Promised Land" appeared at The Quarterly Conversation (and was, of course, mentioned around these here parts). I'm inordinately proud of this essay, so even though it didn't actually appear here in Mumpsimusland, I'm still linking to it now. Because I can.

Cuffs, bars, guns, and Shakespeare

Malcolm Harris on Shakespeare in prison. The whole essay is excellent, but I was especially taken with two paragraphs, one from Brecht and one from Harris.

Shakespeare pushes the great individuals out of their human relationships (family, state) out onto the heath, into complete isolation, where he must pretend to be great in his decline … Future times will call this kind of drama a drama for cannibals and they’ll say that the human being was eaten as Richard III, with pleasure at the beginning and with pity at the end, but he was always eaten up.
If the carceral system is the country’s fundamental fact, then its fundamental logic is that of cuffs, bars, and guns. No readings or performances are going to change that, but they can change the way we see it from the outside. Without a story about 2,266,800 bad choices, America is just a country that keeps its underclasses in cages. Shakespeare’s drama for cannibals lends a sense of noble inevitability to a prison system that’s not only historically and globally specific, but exceptional. It’s fitting theatre for a society that eats its own.
Also, there is mention of C.L.R. James's great Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways.

02 August 2013

Spring Breakers and All

Spring Breakers is a passion play and a fairy tale, a cynical scream across the shallows, a whitesploitation flick, a trip, a send-up, a gonzo splash of earnestness enacted as amorality, a post-ironic irony of indulgence, an anthem to the twilight's eternal gleaming. It's a more faithful modern adaptation of The Great Gatsby than Baz Luhrman could have ever dreamed, and dream is the operative word here, one that floats through the incantatory voiceovers repeatedly, a word that can't help dredging up that tired, tattered, beloved phrase of nationalistic mythography: The American Dream.

And that's what's at the heart of this movie: the desires that rule our great nation: money, drugs, sex, guns. (What so proudly we hail.)

It made me think of William Carlos Williams and "To Elsie", from Spring and All. The pure products of America. Go crazy.

01 August 2013

Nightmare Magazine issue 11

art by Lena Yuk
The August 2013 issue of Nightmare Magazine contains my story "How Far to Englishman's Bay", which is all about why people from New Hampshire should be careful when they travel to Maine.

The story will be available online for free next week, but why wait when you can have it for $2.99 and also get stories by Jennifer Giesbrecht, Robert McKammon, and Clive Barker, plus part 2 of a great interview with Joe Hill. There's also an "Author Spotlight" interview with each writer, including one conducted with me by Erika Holt, who asked some fun questions.

I'm especially pleased to be in an issue with an interview with Joe Hill, because years and years and years ago, back when I was young and easy under the apple boughs, I interviewed Joe about his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, at that time only available from PS Publishing in the UK. Back then, he was just a mysterious short story writer who seemed to have popped up out of nowhere, and I interviewed him because I wanted to know how somebody from out of nowhere had written such excellent fiction. It turned out he'd grown up in Maine, but like any sensible person, escaped to New Hampshire.

Thanks to John Joseph Adams for publishing the story, and for helping come up with the title, which I like very much. Although now that I think about it, I should have just called the story by our NH state motto: "Live Free or Die". Too obvious, though. And too much like a Die Hard sequel.