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Showing posts from June, 2011

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

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Most people my age have never heard of Phil Ochs, a singer-songwriter of the 1960s who, for a brief time at least, was as prominent in the folk music world as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Ochs's early work was mostly very topical (his first album was titled All the News That's Fit to Sing), and his later, less-topical songs never really caught on beyond Ochs's already-established audience, many of whom wanted him to return to recording songs with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. His later years were marred by alcoholism and mental illness, and by the time he hanged himself in 1976, at age 35, he was remembered -- if he was remembered at all -- as a relic of the previous decade.

But when I was growing up, Ochs was famous in our house. As a radio DJ in Massachusetts in the mid-60s, my father almost lost his job because of an Ochs song called "The Ballad of William Worthy". My father was no bomb-throwing radical -- he always voted for Republicans, including N…

Someone is Wrong on the Internet, and It's Me!

One word can change everything.

Take, for instance, my latest Sandman Meditations column at Gestalt Mash. It now begins with this note:
UPDATE: A portion of this essay is based on a misreading. Not just a questionable interpretation or one of my more idiosyncratic reveries — no, literally a misreading, and one I did not learn about until after my mistake was already public. Please see the note at the end. As you'll see if you go and read the piece, my eyes were blind to the word "it" in a speech bubble. A little word, not the sort you might expect to cause major problems, a simple pronoun, no big deal.

But the presence or absence of that it determines the meaning not just of some events, but of the motivations of the protagonist of the story.

This is further confirmation of Mark Twain's great insight that "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."…

Paris Review 197

The latest issue of The Paris Review includes not only fiction by Jonathan Lethem, Roberto Bolaño, David Gates, and Amie Barrodale along with poetry by, among others, Frederick Seidel and Cathy Park Hong, but it also includes interviews with Samuel R. Delany and William Gibson.

An excerpt to whet your appetite:

DELANY Gide says somewhere that art and crime both require leisure time to flourish. I spend a lot of time thinking, if not daydreaming. People think of me as a genre writer, and a genre writer is supposed to be prolific. Since that's how people perceive me, they have to say I'm prolific. But I don't find that either complimentary or accurate.
INTERVIEWER Do you think of yourself as a genre writer?
DELANY I think of myself as someone who thinks largely through writing. Thus I write more than most people, and I write in many different forms. I think of myself as the kind of person who writes, rather than as one kind of writer or another. That's about the cloest I…

Readercon Schedule

I just got my schedule for Readercon events, so for folks attending, here's a preview of some of the fun (updated July 6):

Friday July 15 
11:00 AM   The Readercon Classic Nonfiction Book Club: The Jewel-Hinged Jaw.
Matthew Cheney, Elizabeth Hand (leader), David G. Hartwell, Barry N. Malzberg, Chris Moriarty.
Matthew Cheney's introduction to the most recent edition of Samuel R. Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (Wesleyan University Press, 2009) makes the case for the importance of this critical work: "Since 1977, when The Jewel-Hinged Jaw appeared, it has been impossible for anyone writing seriously about the nature and purpose of science fiction to ignore the ideas of Samuel Delany. Disagree with them, yes. Take a different approach, certainly. But the ideas first expressed in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and then refined and reiterated and revised in numerous other books [including his novels] are ideas that have so powerfully affected how science fiction has been discussed sinc…

Blogging the Caine Prize: "In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata"

(This is the latest in a weekly series of posts about the short stories nominated for this year's Caine Prize for African Writing. For more information, see my introductory post. The other posts about this story so far can be read at: Method to the Madness, Zunguzungu, and The Oncoming Hope. To keep up with it all, follow the Twitter hashtag #cainepr.)


Lauri Kubuitsile's"In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata" (PDF) is a delightful little story about, among other things, sex. The story is written in the style and manner of a comic folktale, its characters cartoonish and its situations amusingly absurd. Though sex is the topic of the story, at its heart this is a tale of equilibrium lost and regained -- just about the most surefire and time-tested template for comedy.

I'm wary of saying much about this one, because it would feel a bit like trying to explain a joke, and explaining jokes is the quickest way to kill them. Certainly, there's a bit to say about the gender …

A Stranger Comes to Town...

Via Tempest Bradford I read the call for stories for a proposed anthology called Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations. The title and description are utterly screaming out for submissions filled with casual, ignorant, and textually-inherited exoticization and racism.

The "lost race / lost civilization / lost world" story derives from an imperialist history and view of the world, but at its most benign it's a version of the old "a stranger comes to town" story, with the stranger as the explorer and the town as the "lost" place. ("Lost" only to the stranger; to the inhabitants, it's been there all along and this "lost" talk is very odd, though maybe helpful if you're seeking to build a tourist industry.)

On Twitter, Cheryl Morgan wonderfully suggested, "What you need is an anthology full of brown people discovering the lost society of the USA. Gods of Mt. Rushmore?" David Moles said he'd already written that story wi…

Elsewhere

I've got a couple of new pieces elsewhere:

At Tor.com, "Mr. Modesitt & Me", a personal essay in honor of the 20th anniversary of L.E. Modesitt'sThe Magic of Recluce. An interview I did with Lee for the anniversary will be posted later this week.

And after a week's break, I'm back with a new Sandman Meditations column (the 41st!), this one on "Parliament of Rooks".

Also, I'm not the only one writing an issue-by-issue chronicle of The Sandman -- fellow Caine Prize blogger The Oncoming Hope is doing so as well. Check it out!

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books

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The folks at NPR are asking for summer suggestions of "The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books", from which they will compile a final list.

There are 1,850 comments and counting right now. Plenty of the sorts of books that have inhabited such lists for decades (The Foundation Trilogy, Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, Lord of the Rings, etc.), but also lots of idiosyncratic choices, which is, I think, exactly what such a list should get -- indeed, I would love them to get so many eclectic comments that it's impossible for a list of fewer than 534 titles to be created from it.

In that spirit, I submitted two lists:
The Odyssey by Homer
Hamlet by Shakespeare [though, on reflection, I think if I were to do it again I'd put Twelfth Night here]
The Double by Dostoyevsky
The Castle by Kafka
Orlando by Woolf

The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison
We Who Are About To by Joanna Russ
The Return to Nevèrÿonseries by Samuel R. Delany
The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad
The Affirmati…

Blogging the Caine Prize: "What Molly Knew" (and a bit of a rant about Nice Writer Fiction)

(This is the latest in a weekly series of posts about the short stories nominated for this year's Caine Prize for African Writing. For more information, see my introductory post. The other posts about this story so far can be read at: Method to the Madness, Africa is a Country, and The Oncoming Hope. To keep up with it all, follow the Twitter hashtag #cainepr.)


Tim Keegan's "What Molly Knew" (PDF) tempts us toward reading it as allegory -- indeed, some of the other bloggers have read the story that way, and I expect it is its allegorical possibilities that landed it a nomination for the prize (it has few other distinguishing virtues that I can see), but I resist granting it many layers of meaning because I find the unallegorized story and its characters clunky, forced, and utterly unconvincing.


It may be that Tim Keegan intended his characters to stand for various tendencies within South African society and history; this would at least partly explain why they feel to m…

Hear Solaris in a New Translation

As reported in The Guardian (via The Literary Saloon), esteemed translator Bill Johnston has completed the first Polish-to-English translation of Stanislaw Lem's novel Solaris. The existing English translation is actually a translation from the French translation, and as such is barely an approximation of Lem's style or, in some cases, meaning.

Johnston's translation is currently available as an audio download from Audible.com and will be available as an ebook in 6 months. Lem's family say they would love to see it as a book, but, Lem's wife said, "Currently this is impossible due to legal issues, but recognition of the new translation might persuade the publisher to rethink their position."

What can the publisher's position possibly be? "We like to keep this inaccurate translation of this writer's most famous book in print because it would take too much effort to do otherwise..." or "What do translators and a writer's family kn…

An Important Clarification

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I stopped by the University library yesterday to take a look at the latest issue of American Literaturebecause it includes not only some interesting essays about Samuel R. Delany, a fellow I've written about a bit myself, but also a fabulous essay by Aaron Bady, "Tarzan's White Flights: Terrorism and Fantasy Before and After the Airplane".

In this essay, there is what may be my favorite statement-required-by-a-rights-holder evah (as they say). It accompanies a drawing by Robert Baden-Powell, author of Scouting for Boys, that appeared in the Daily Mail in 1938 and is titled "Policeman Aeroplanes":
Reproduced by kind permission of the Scout Association Trustees. The Scout Association does not endorse Mr. Bady's article or the use of air power against civilians. So relieved to have that cleared up!

The cover for this issue of American Literature, by the way, reprints the famous August 1928 cover of Amazing Stories. If Duke University Press, the journal…

Blogging the Caine Prize: "Butterfly Dreams"

(This is the latest in a weekly series of posts about the short stories nominated for this year's Caine Prize for African Writing. For more information, see my introductory post. To read what the other Caine Prize bloggers have written, see the post on this story at Zunguzungu, which is being updated as they come in, or follow the Twitter hashtag #cainepr.)

Reading "Butterfly Dreams" by Beatrice Lamwaka (PDF), I had constantly mixed feelings. Lamwaka is a Ugandan who has worked with FEMWRITE, a wonderful organization from what some of its members have told me, and so I went into the story really really wanting to like it. Certain elements caused me some problems, however, and I ended up with very mixed feelings about the story overall, though admiring some elements of it considerably.

From the first sentence ("Labalpiny read out your name on Mega FM."), it's clear the story is addressed to another character, making the narration almost an apostrophe, though…

Thoughts for the Day: Imagination

The fact of the thing is this: We don't get to choose our teachers. If you're going to be an artist, or a thinker, or even a full person, you better be able to make yourself into something more than the shadow of someone else's bankrupt philosophies. You better be more than an obvious and predictable reaction.

--Ta-Nehisi Coates
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As imagination is considered a childlike, and often childish attribute, writers don’t learn to cultivate their imaginations. When writers don’t use their imaginations...state and capital do. So we arrange our white men up front and put the black men behind, parade our own pasts to the public for collective amusement—Look, I was poor, but then I wrote a book! Look, I drank too much, but then I stopped and wrote a book!—and retell the adventure stories we remember seeing on television as kids.  
Our first step is to see this stuff when we do it, to realize that we didn’t make this up. It was made up for us. The second step is to cl…

Blogging the Caine Prize: "Hitting Budapest"

This post is part of a series initiated by Aaron Bady of Zunguzungu in which various bloggers will write about the five short stories nominated for this year's Caine Prize for African Writing. For more information, see my introductory post.

I think Aaron is right to say that NoViolet Bulawayo's "Hitting Budapest" fits into a genre of African writing (fiction and memoir): "the story of children left behind by their society, either running wild in perverse and monstrous ways (as in the child soldier narrative, in particular) or festering in horrible ignorance and social pathology" -- and genre is a pretty good word for it, because such stories vary considerably in quality and effect while displaying some common features. It's a genre the Caine Prize is particularly welcoming toward, as I noted in my review of the anniversary anthology of Caine winners. The paragraph about "Jungfrau" in that review applies pretty equally to "Hitting Budapest…

"Gender & Science Fiction": The Novels

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I previously discussed how I used The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction in the "Gender & Science Fiction" course I taught this past term, and promised to discuss the novels in another post. Well, here we are!

The students had to read five novels: four that we all read together, and one of their choice from a list I gave them.

The four we read together were:
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler
Shadow Man by Melissa ScottThe list of novels they needed to choose one from was:
The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
Native Tongue by Suzette Haden-Elgin
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
Life by Gwyneth Jones
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
Air by Geoff Ryman
City of Pearl by Karen TravissI chose these texts for a variety of reasons -- the four we read together are all books I thought…

Books for Men

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Inspired by a list from Esquire of "The 75 Books Every Man Should Read" -- which, aside from perhaps a few other problems*, includes only one book by a woman (Flannery O'Connor) -- Emily Schultz and Brian Joseph Davis at Joyland asked folks for suggestions of books by women that men should read. The resulting list is a lot of fun, and a fine place to go if you're looking for suggestions for what to read.

(Also, you should read Ta-Nehisi Coates's commentary on it. But you read his blog anyway, so I don't need to tell you that, right?)

I'm in a frivolously list-making mood, so thought I would add and ditto a few choices, though I'm going to narrow my parameters a little...


25 Works Of Fiction By People Identified As Women (As Far As I Know) That I At This Particular Moment Think Might Be Interesting To Men Who Are Curious To Read More Of Such Things, Though Of Course Tastes Vary
Empire of the Senseless by Kathy AckerSo Long a Letter by Miriama BâNightwood

Read This: How Not to Write a Trans Character

Cheryl Morgan has written two things you must must must read: "How Not to Write a Trans Character" and the piece it introduces, "The Bone Palace", a review of a novel by Amanda Downum. The review is comprehensive and thoughtful, using the novel as a problematic example, and so it is about much, much more than the book itself. I haven't read The Bone Palace, so can't comment on whether I agree or not with Cheryl's take on it, but the evaluation is not the important thing -- what's important is that Cheryl generously offers us a way of thinking and rethinking representations that have real effects in the world.

Toward the end, the review includes a discussion of the Sandman story A Game of You, with reference to something I wrote about it that Cheryl took exception to. I left a comment on Cheryl's post to clarify what I at least thought I was trying to say, however incoherently, but I'm not going to reprint that here because really I think eve…