30 January 2014

Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor

The start of a new term and then a huge computer disaster caused me not to post a link here to my review of Nnedi Okorafor's first short story collection, Kabu Kabu, which Strange Horizons recently published. Here, for anyone who missed it and is interested, it is. The first paragraph, to give you a sense of it all:
Nnedi Okorafor's first short story collection begins and ends with tales that evoke histories and challenge orthodoxies. "The Magical Negro" liberates an unfortunate cliché of fantasy fiction to go his own way, and so plants a sign in the narrative ground to let us know that these journeys, though fantastical, will seek some roads less traveled. "The Palm Tree Bandit" (first published here at Strange Horizons in 2000) reconfigures a different sort of mythos, shaking up the cartography of West African folktales to open some paths for women to play around with symbols and tools too often reserved for men. Both stories are narrative manifestos, fictions that are also metafictions. They exude a hope common to the whole book, a hope in human imagination. We have, these stories suggest, imagined badly, narrowly, oppressively—but just because we have does not mean that we must.
Continue reading at SH.

20 January 2014

The Affect Effect: Notes on Sherlock and Hannibal

Last night, viewers in the US got to see what viewers in other parts of the world have already seen: the first episode of the third season of the phenomenally successful BBC show Sherlock. I've already seen it — twice, in fact — because I enjoyed previous seasons of the show enough to work around the BBC website's geographical limitations and watch the episode when it first aired, and then I saw it again at a local cinema's preview showing, where my friend Ann McClellan gave a presentation on Conan Doyle and Sherlock. I've also seen the other two episodes of the season, watching episode 2 twice and episode 3 once.

Recently, I watched the 13-episode first season of NBC's Hannibal, based on Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter character, and I've been thinking about certain overlaps and significant contrasts between the two shows in their approach to their material. The comparison first occurred to me after I re-watched the first episode of Sherlock in preparation for the new season and heard, again, Sherlock refer to himself as a "high-functioning sociopath" — immediately, I thought, "No you're not. But Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal is..."* That then got me thinking about connections between the two shows.

10 January 2014

"The book transforms me and transforms what I think"

I'm perfectly aware of always being on the move in relation both to the things I'm interested in and to what I've already thought. What I think is never quite the same, because for me my books are experiences, in a sense, that I would like to be as full as possible. An experience is something that one comes out of transformed. If I had to write a book to communicate what I'm already thinking before I begin to write, I would never have the courage to begin. I write a book only because I still don't exactly know what to think about this thing I want so much to think about, so that the book transforms me and transforms what I think. Each book transforms what I was thinking when I was finishing the previous book. I am an experimenter and not a theorist. I call a theorist someone who constructs a general system, either deductive or analytical, and applies it to different fields in a uniform way. That isn't my case. I'm an experimenter in the sense that I write in order to change myself and in order not to think the same thing as before.

—Michel Foucault,
interview with D. Trombadori, 1978;
from Power pp. 239-240

09 January 2014

Jay Lake, The Cancer Journals

© 2009 Mari Kurisato
I don't want to be the cancer guy. I want to be the sci-fi guy. ... One of the things I realized almost out of the gate, literally the second day I was in the hospital, was I'm not going to get very much that's good out of this experience, maybe get to keep my life for a while, so I may as well make something of it that will help other people.
—Jay Lake
In all of my recent reflecting on 2013, I neglected to mention one of the most powerful and educational bodies of writing that I read through the year: Jay Lake's blog posts on his experience with terminal cancer. (An index to early entries is here. See also: "A brief user’s guide to this blog".)

While Jay refers to these posts as "cancer blogging", which is entirely accurate, at some point I began to think of them by another name, conflating them with the title of a book by Audre Lorde: The Cancer Journals. The word journal also evokes the word journey, and that's what it feels to me Jay has given us: a journey. Not his journey, which is his alone, shared with closest friends and family, beyond the realm of language only — but the kind of journey narrative provides, and particularly, in this case, serial narrative. Another title might be morbidly appropriate, from a translation of Céline: Death on the Installment Plan.

The form is powerful because not only does it capture the day-to-day ups, downs, rollovers, bang-ups, jumping jacks, high-fives, and collapses of this experience, but it provides them to us in pieces. The story isn't finished. Further, while before the terminal diagnosis there was a desire for it to be finished — a desire for the cancer to go away — now the most likely ending is the one anyone who cares about Jay dreads. Each new entry to the cancer journals, no matter how painful, is a statement of life and the ability to keep sending words out to the world.

That's the personal part. But to read Jay's cancer journals as simply and solely a personal chronicle is a mistake. Given the state of the American health care bureaucracy and all the laws governing it, no chronicle of encounters with that bureaucracy can be solely personal. In sickness, the personal is very much political. And not only political: informational. And for anyone with even a minor tendency toward reflection, metaphysical.

07 January 2014

Samuel Delany: The E-books

Today, Open Road Media releases e-book editions of a number of Samuel R. Delany's best books. I've had the chance to look at the Kindle edition of Dhalgren, and it's really excellent. Indeed, it looks to be the most accurate text, incorporating the corrections to errata in the Vintage editions, which were, until now, the most accurate.

The other Open Road editions (which I haven't yet seen) are: Babel-17, Nova, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, The Motion of Light in Water, and the four Nevèrÿon books.

06 January 2014

Again with the 2013!

Strange Horizons has just published a collection of short notices from reviewers about what they read and viewed in 2013.

I thought there were too many good things in 2013 for me to be able to even simply list them all in the 250 words I was allowed, so I decided instead to focus on the writer who had, to my knowledge, the best 2013: Richard Bowes.

The other entries are also fascinating, so it makes for a great reading list.

Thinking back on 2013 after I wrote my previous post looking back on the year, I realized I left two important books out that would have been there if I'd remembered they were 2013 books — for some reason, in my mind, they were 2012 books.

The first is Kit Reed's extraordinary retrospective collection The Story Until Now. In a great year for story collections, this was among the absolute best.

The other is the second published and translated volume of Reiner Stach's eventually 3-volume biography of Franz Kafka, Kafka: The Years of Insight, translated by Shelley Frisch. John Banville said:
On the evidence of the two volumes that we already have, this is one of the great literary biographies, to be set up there with, or perhaps placed on an even higher shelf than, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, George Painter’s Marcel Proust, and Leon Edel’s Henry James. Indeed, in this work Stach has achieved something truly original. By a combination of tireless scholarship, uncanny empathy, and writing that might best be described as passionately fluent, he does truly give a sense of “what it was like to be Franz Kafka.” He has set himself the Proustian task of summoning up, and summing up, an entire world, and has performed that task with remarkable success. The result is an eerily immediate portrait of one of literature’s most enduring and enigmatic masters.
Reading the book for me was even more thrilling than reading Kafka: The Decisive Years in 2005, because there's something about the last part of Kafka's life, which is what The Years of Insight covers, that is especially strange, haunting, and powerful. (The final volume will be about Kafka's early years; Stach reportedly held off on it in the hope that a Max Brod archive would become available, but he has apparently decided that is unlikely, and the book should be released in the next few years.) Shelley Frisch's translation deserves much praise, as the book reads beautifully.

01 January 2014


It feels like it was 2013 for a long time. Mostly, that's because I started a Ph.D. program this fall, so my year breaks into a before and after, and the before feels far away. It was also the 10th anniversary year of this blog, and so I feel that, though activity hereabouts was relatively thin given my other commitments, I should bid this year some special adieu.

Given how full the year was, I thought I'd try to remember some of my reading, writing, viewing, etc. and see what comes of it. I haven't kept systematic lists (my Letterboxd film diary is about as close as it gets), so I will inevitably forget or miss things, but just trying to get the year in perspective ought to be a useful, if unavoidably narcissistic, activity...