28 January 2011

Astounding!


This is probably my favorite Astounding cover, the last one that magazine published by Alejandro Canedo, apparently titled "Inappropriate". It's the July 1954 issue. Canedo (or Cañedo? Same artist?) had put naked men on the cover of Astounding before -- the September 1947 is ... well, it sure puts some of the old gay pulps to shame...

25 January 2011

Happy Birthday to Virginia Woolf



When one was young, said Peter, one was too much excited to know people. Now that one was old, fifty-two to be precise (Sally was fifty-five, in body, she said, but her heart was like a girl’s of twenty); now that one was mature then, said Peter, one could watch, one could understand, and one did not lose the power of feeling, he said. No, that is true, said Sally. She felt more deeply, more passionately, every year. It increased, he said, alas, perhaps, but one should be glad of it — it went on increasing in his experience.

--Virginia Woolf,
Mrs. Dalloway


Today is Virginia Woolf's 129th birthday. Woolf is one of my touchstone writers, a writer I've been reading for the majority of my life (really, I first tried to read Mrs. Dalloway in middle school -- I didn't get too far, but I found the first pages of the book utterly entrancing, and by the time I read it fully for the first time eight or nine years later, I had those pages nearly memorized). I've read all of Woolf's novels at least once, and Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando many times. They are magic poetry.

I've known a couple of Woolf scholars over the years, and one of the things that made me a lifelong Woolf devotee was working at the 7th International Virginia Woolf Society Conference when it was held in my hometown of Plymouth, NH. I had only read Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando at that point, but I found the conference invigorating. I even coerced Hermione Lee into signing my copy of her brilliant biography while I signed her in. The next fall, I took an undergraduate course devoted to Woolf's work; I was the only male in the class, and some of the other students thought my passion for Woolf's writings was a little weird. "You don't understand!" I remember telling one of them when we happened to find ourselves sitting together on a bus. "There's nobody like her! Those sentences!" It was hardly one of my more eloquent moments, and probably led to me being considered weirder than I already was, but nonetheless the passion was real. (I had a similar, though I hope slightly more informative, moment this past term when I spent 10 minutes taking a class of writing students through one of the sentences in "The Death of the Moth." I wrote the sentence on the board, broke it into some components, talked with great enthusiasm about it and the genius of it ... and after class went to my department head and said, "Do you ever get really into something you're doing in class, then look at the students and think, 'Wow, I really am a freak.'" And she replied, "Yes, it's the foundation of my pedagogy.")

I knew Anne Fernald as a blogger before I knew she was a Woolf scholar, though she had been at the Plymouth conference. We used to hang out together at the LitBlog Co-op, and when I first moved to New Jersey, she gave me a tour of Jersey City and environs. Anne is editing an edition of Mrs. Dalloway for Cambridge University Press, work that has consumed her for a few years, and though I don't envy her the tedium of some of that work, I do envy her getting to study all sorts of editions of the novel, to see it in all its permutations, to trace its meanings and influences. If I can find a line where they're selling her edition when it is released, I will force my way to the front.

Anyway, what I wanted to say here was that a talk Anne gave at The New York Public Library about her work on Mrs. Dalloway is now available as a podcast. It's fascinating stuff (well, to those of us who love Mrs. Dalloway) and a fine way to spend an hour during Woolf's birthday.

24 January 2011

Weird Tales News




You might have heard that Ann VanderMeer was promoted from fiction editor of (the Hugo Award-winningWeird Tales to editor-in-chief. Ann is smart, brilliantly discriminating, down-to-earth, and practical*, so I've been very curious to see what she would do as editor-in-chief.

Well, now we know. Weird Tales has a revamped website, for one thing. (Writers should note that with that comes a new submission portal -- be sure to read the guidelines before submitting. Payment for fiction has also been raised to 5 cents/word.) And the staff is composed of some great folks in addition to Ann -- the great and glorious Paula Guran is nonfiction editor, the glorious and great Mary Robinette Kowal is art director. Aiding and abetting them are Tessa Kum, Dominik Parisien, and Alan Swirsky as editorial assistants.

I'm tremendously proud to have had a story in Weird Tales, a magazine I've been reading since childhood (astute collectors will find a rather embarrassing letter to the editor by someone bearing my byline in a long-ago issue, about which I will say no more), and thrilled to see the magazine seems to really be getting its feets under it for the coming years. The new issue is apparently on its way to us soon, with fiction by N.K. Jemison, J. Robert Lennon, Karin Tidbeck, and more. It's nice to see that the magazine will be back to its regular quarterly schedule, too; it provides less surprise to those of us who subscribe, but still, there's something to be said for the predictability of a schedule...

Speaking of subscriptions, they're still just $20/year.


*this is not hyperbole. If I wanted to be hyperbolic, I'd say Ann leaps tall buildings in a single bound. That's one of the few amazing feats I have not seen her perform.

22 January 2011

Are We Living in an Alternate Universe?


Glenn Beck appropriates ACT UP's Silence = Death.

I went to some ACT UP meetings and protests in the mid-1990s in New York. One of them was a protest against the Pope. People who were braver and more committed than I dropped a banner out of Saks 5th Avenue that read "CONDOMS SAVE LIVES". I was with a group of about 20 folks who were allowed into a special police-created protest area in amidst what felt like a million Catholics waiting for the Pope outside St. Patrick's Cathedral. I remember a woman coming up with her young daughter to the waist-high metal barricades that enclosed us. She threw holy water at us and told her daughter we were vampires.

Perhaps in this new alternate reality, Beck will have Larry Kramer on his show to talk about Ronald Reagan. That would be fun...

20 January 2011

20th Century Poetry

A few days ago, Scott Esposito wrote about tackling Louis Zukofsky's A, which he said was part of an informal list a poet friend had given him in response to a question from Scott: "I want to know more about poetry–what do you recommend?" I and other sufferers of 'satiable curtiosity pleaded in the comments to the post to see the full list, and now Scott has gotten permission to share it.

It's a wonderful list because it's diverse, personal, and would allow any reader to expand her or his reading. It also presumes the reader is experienced and curious; it's not a Poetry 101 list, so there are some obvious names missing (Williams, Pound) to make way for ones the list writer is particularly passionate about. And the selections are mostly of "difficult" poetry more than people like Mary Oliver or Billy Collins.

Of course, the list could be ten or a hundred times as long, but that would be much less helpful.

I'm resisting the temptation to offer my own idiosyncratic list, partly because I'm not a poet and am not nearly as familiar with contemporary poetry as Scott's friend, so my likes and dislikes among living poets are deeply idioscyncratic, full of holes and inconsistencies (although I will say, among recent discoveries, Jennifer Moxley and Donna Stonecipher make me happy to be able to read the English language). The only inconceivable lack on the list Scott posted that I see is Paul Celan, but that's just because Celan is, to me, the 20th century poet.

Maybe it's my teacherly inclinations, but I love these sorts of lists, where folks come up with obviously incomplete and personal guides to realms that can seem imposing to people less familiar with them. Modern and contemporary poetry are definitely such realms, so three cheers for Scott and his friend for creating and sharing the list.

18 January 2011

"The War of the Sexes" and "The Queen Bee"


Here are links to PDFs of a couple of old science fiction stories that may be of interest to some folks. (Both, as far as I have been able to tell, did not have their copyrights renewed and so are in the public domain; I'll get rid of the links if I discover otherwise.)

"The War of the Sexes" by Edmond Hamilton was first published in the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales and reprinted once, in the version I have a PDF of, in The Avon Science Fiction Reader, no. 1, in 1951. It's a terribly silly story, bad in just about every conceivable way, and pretty hilarious because of it.

"The Queen Bee" by Randall Garrett was published in the December 1958 issue of Astounding and has never been reprinted as far as I can tell. It is not even remotely hilarious. I found it, in fact, quite disturbing to read. It is a revolting story, a representation of a sick male fantasy made "necessary" by circumstances. (I suspect Joanna Russ may have had the story in mind when she wrote We Who Are About To...) But it reveals certain truths and assumptions. Vonda McIntyre and Susan Janice Anderson got at this in their introduction to Aurora: Beyond Equality, in which they refer to the story (not by name).

I'll put what they say behind the jump, because to get the full effect on a first reading, "The Queen Bee" really needs to be encountered with as little knowledge of its plot as possible.

13 January 2011

Out There

Some things of interest...

If you liked my recent column on Sexing the Body, evolutionary psychology, gender, etc., then you should really keep your eyes on the ongoing series of posts about sex science at the essential (though not essentialist) Echidne of the Snakes. Over the holidays, she read three books on the topic -- one I mentioned in my column, and have also praised before, Pink Brain, Blue Brain; but also two I haven't yet seen, Delusions of Gender and Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young. At the very least, read Echidne's first post of seven short conclusions reached after finishing the books. Great, great stuff.

And if you're curious to know more about this stuff, and Pink Brain, Blue Brain in particular, here's a lecture by its author, Lisa Eliot.

I was hoping Aaron Bady would respond to the New York Times article "In Sudan, a Colonial Curse Comes Up for a Vote", and lo and behold, my wishes came true: Invented Communities in Africa and America. Essential reading. Here's a taste:
One would never want to ignore the destructive effects the scramble for Africa had on Africans, and the last thing I want to do is downplay the extent to which contemporary African politics are organically related to that historical event. But history didn’t stop after that point, and this capsule account of the “colonial curse” relies on your being completely ignorant about almost all of it. The problem with colonization isn’t that Europeans drew up maps “with little concern for ethnic links,” and it isn’t true anyway. The problem is that Europeans drew up the maps they did with the intention of extracting as much in the way of labor and  resources as they could from Africans, and then did exactly that, often by quite carefully seeking to divide and conquer Africans by ethnicity.
The great and glorious Kelly Eskridge has many big ideas, but this week she got to write a Big Idea post at John Scalzi's place in conjunction with Small Beer press's re-release of her novel Solitaire.

Speaking of Small Beer Press, they're on a roll right now -- take a look at their current and upcoming books. Lots of excitement around Mumpsimus Central for Lydia Millet's forthcoming The Fires Beneath the Sea... And Karen Joy Fowler's What I Didn't See is a magnificent collection of stories -- elegantly designed, to boot.

Godard on the subject of e-books.

Jeff VanderMeer, Larry Nolen, Paul Charles Smith, and J.M. McDermott all recently wrote about Michael Cisco's latest novel, The Narrator. I haven't read or even seen a copy of The Narrator, but I've read some of Cisco's earlier work, and Jeff et al. are absolutely right -- he deserves a wider audience. I enjoyed reading all the posts, and especially liked Jeff's "Seven Views" because its form especially appealed to me.

The progressive passive: a peeve for the ages.

"Why All in the Family Still Matters" by Matt Zoller Seitz. My paternal grandmother loved All in the Family, so I remember watching it as a child with her. I've seen some episodes since, and as Seitz says, it's astounding how unimaginable such a show feels today -- it raises not only an appreciation for the writing and production, but raises a question: How did they ever get away with that?!


Have I mentioned the African Women in Cinema blog before? I don't know. I should have. But now's as good a time as any, because they have been running some fascinating interviews with women filmmakers, including Wanjiru Kinyanjui and Fatou Kandé Senghor.

Leviathan 5 news and a free PDF of Jeff VanderMeer's first nonfiction collection, Why Should I Cut Your Throat?.

12 January 2011

Huckleberry Fi

When I first heard about it, I thought maybe it was an Oulipian exercise: remove all the n-words from Huckleberry Finn.

But no, apparently the new edition only removes THE n-word. And replaces it with the word "slave".

Thus, the book will be more palatable to school boards, curriculum committees, parents, and students. They'll all be able to look past those 200+ uses of that word and pay more attention to the things that really matter in the book, because it's really a wonderful book ... except for that that word.

I really liked what novelist and teacher Nicole Peeler had to say on the subject:
...I would argue that Gribben, in choosing “slave,” does what so much of our media and our popular culture do every day: We act like racism is our history rather than our present. It’s like we’re trying to convince ourselves, as a nation, that the 13th Amendment was a cure-all for both slavery and racism. We know there are “problems,” still. We know the KKK still exists, and we’ve heard all of the statistics stating how African-American communities endure excessive rates of crime, poverty, and disease. But we are no longer a racist country, like we used to be “back then.” Right?

Wrong. While it’s true that many of its most disgusting symptoms, such as lynchings, are far, far less prevalent, racism obviously still exists. Oftentimes, it’s been replaced by other, more palatable and easily disguised incarnations. In high school, I watched white classmates sing along to gangsta rap, or call each other “nigga.” While Kakutani claims such lyrics, when used by the actual rap artists, “reclaim[…] the word from its ugly past,” there was nothing being reclaimed in the halls of my high school, by those resoundingly middle-class Caucasians.

Indeed, as I think about my teaching of “The Artificial Nigger” at LSUS, I have to confront a lot of hard truths. I think I had a hard time saying “nigger” in front of my class because I was afraid I would be misinterpreted. I think I was afraid that my students would assume I was a racist. Because, if I’m honest, I think I’m afraid that I am a racist. I’m afraid that because I grew up in a nation that no longer talks about race, except to roll its eyes and say, “Oh, that’s history,” I don’t spend enough time questioning ideas, stereotypes, actions, and cultural messages that are racist. I tell myself, “Some of my best friends are black,” and then I laugh, mostly out of exasperation, at the impossibility of it all. The fact that I’m proud to have black friends disgusts me, even as I’m proud to have black friends. “Look at me!” I think, “I’m not a racist!” As if I deserve some kind of reward. Then again, considering my grandfather was a member of the KKK, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.

Which leads me to my final point about such obfuscations of our past and of our present that Gribben’s censoring of Huckleberry Finn represents, and that is of confrontation. We must confront our own assumptions about race, as a nation, or we risk a dangerous complacency.
And that's just a taste of a long and thoughtful essay on the subject, the whole of which is well worth your time.

I've taught Huck Finn four or five times (maybe more) at the high school level, and every time it led to some of the best discussions I've had with any of my classes, because every time I have made the presence of the word nigger throughout the text a central part of our early discussions, and have often had one of the assignments be an argumentative paper about whether the novel should be taught in schools. Whenever possible, I've used the Norton Critical Edition, because it not only has great annotations, but also some excellent discussion of the controversies the book has incited ever since it was first published (and was first banned because it was thought to encourage bad behavior in youth). Norton also includes the original illustrations, which are useful for discussing representation and history (Earl Briden's useful essay in the Norton edition calls the illustrations a "pictorial countertext").

Eventually, my students have been able to get to the point where they can see the artistry of the novel, the extraordinary scenes on the raft, Twain's tremendous command of language; and they can argue about other things -- the meaning and purpose of the final third of the novel, for instance -- but there's no way to avoid the prevalence of the word "nigger", so that's what I've always dealt with first.

10 January 2011

Sexing the Body


My latest Strange Horizons column has been posted. It's about one of my favorite books of nonfiction, Ann Fausto-Sterling's Sexing the Body.

I first tried to write it as a straightforward appreciation, but for reasons that will become obvious from the column, I couldn't do that right now. So I broke the voices in my head into two configurations, X and Y, and had them talk to each other -- they're neither and both "me", and that proved to be just the distancing effect I needed.

Here's a sample:

X: Anyway, what I was saying was that I wanted to talk about Sexing the Body, which was one of those books that, when I first encountered it, completely changed my way of viewing the world.
Y: No it didn't.
X: What?
Y: I was there. You first read it for a graduate course on sexuality and science where a chapter was in the course packet. You sought out the book for a paper you wrote about Eugen Steinach, one of the crazier of the crazy bunch of early endocrinologists. That summer, you read the whole book cover to cover. Then a few months ago, you read the whole thing again.
X: Yes, and it completely changed my—
Y: No, no, no. It confirmed what you already believed, even if you couldn't quite articulate it as well as you could after you read the book.
X: How did it confirm what I already believed if it was full of information I'd never encountered before?
Y: Because you already believed that social construction is a more satisfactory explanation of just about everything than biological determinism is. And you've got a complex relationship to your own gender identity, so naturally you were receptive to a book that complexifies questions of gender.
X: Well, yes. But it also blew my mind.
Y: Because yours was the sort of mind ready to be blown. Plenty of people you've foisted the book off on have found it a good cure for insomnia.
X: Well, anyway, it doesn't really matter. What matters is it's a hugely important book, and the reason I wanted to write about it was that it's such a convincing argument against so many of the idiocies about gender that get tossed around in the media and popular culture, and, indeed, enter academia through pseudosciences like "evolutionary psychology," which seems to me about as valid as Scientology.

Utopia and the Gun Culture

Me and a Gun

It's not Bob Dylan's best by any means, but for quite a while I've had a fondness for his little-known early folk song, "Let Me Die in My Footsteps", which I first heard in a recording by Happy Traum (with Dylan in background) from the Best of Broadside album, a marvelous collection that I gave to my mother as a Christmas present ten years ago.

When I first heard the song, this verse is one that quickly stuck in my mind, and is one that has a habit of floating through my mind's ear with some regularity:
If I had rubies and riches and crowns
I’d buy the whole world and change things around
I’d throw all the guns and the tanks in the sea
For they are mistakes of a past history
It was a constant earwig this weekend after I learned of the massacre in Arizona.

07 January 2011

Elif Shafak: The Politics of Fiction

Via various Facebook folks -- this is a talk well worth watching:

06 January 2011

Today's Idea

Rummaging through some old poems
for ideas -- surely I must have had some
once? Some people have an idea a day,
others millions, still others are condemned
to spend their life inside an idea, like a
bubble chamber. And these are probably
the suspicious ones. Anyway, in poems
are no ideas. No ideas in things, either--
her name is Wichita.

--John Ashbery,
from "And the Stars Were Shining"

04 January 2011

A Few Lists, Mostly of Films

The new year is a time of many lists. I have a love/hate relationship with lists; here are a few ones I have recently loved more than hated:

Reverse Shot's List of Best Films of 2010
A lot of "best of the year" lists of movies are terribly similar, and this year they seemed especially so. I like such lists mostly as ways to discover film I haven't heard of, and though by the time I got to Reverse Shot's list, I knew about most of the titles on it, I found the selection refreshingly different from most. (My basic criterion for whether I trusted a critic's listmaking this year was if they included Inception on their list or not. If it was there, I didn't think they'd either seen enough movies or developed enough judgment; if it was absent, I was willing to take a look at what they had to say.) Reverse Shot's list of the 11 films they most hated this year is amusing, but not nearly as valuable as their list of bests.

New Deal Sally: 2010 Top Ten
This may be the best-written top ten list I've read yet this year. I like a lot of the choices, but more than that, the whole thing reads as much like a personal essay as a list.

Matt Zoller Seitz's video essays on the Best Scenes of 2010
Seitz's video essays are always worth watching, and these are no exception -- creative, precise, informative. Any of us might come up with a totally different set of scenes from 2010's films, but few people are as skilled at creating video essays to explicate what they see in a film the way Seitz is.

DVD Beaver's List of the Best DVDs and Blu-Rays of the Year
This is actually a bunch of different people's lists, and then at the end is an aggregated list. DVD Beaver is one of the essential internet sites for me, with hugely valuable comparisons of different home video editions of all sorts of films. They're global, though English-language-focused, in the editions they compare, which is helpful, and these lists are no exception to that.

Finally, a non-film list:

John Sutherland's Top 10 Books About Books
What I most like about this list is that it doesn't go in for cheap shots against academics, and it's also a nice corrective to folks who say that the only people who should write criticism are people who also write novels or poetry or some such thing -- Sontag is the only one on the list who I know to have done so with any seriousness. These are writers whose art is criticism, and though my own pantheon might be somewhat different, or I might choose different samples of their work (for instance, starting with S/Z seems to me a tough way to get to know Barthes) -- but if a reader wanted to get a sense of some of the possibilities serious literary criticism can offer, they could do a lot worse than to take a look at these books.

Spring Classes


Some readers seem interested in my (Machiavellian) thought process when creating classes, so here is another in an occasional series about what I'll be teaching in the upcoming term.

First off, I owe thanks to all the folks who offered ideas and experiences when I asked for opinions about gender and science fiction. Your responses not only helped me clarify my goals, but also helped at least one other teacher who, it turns out, is proposing a similar class at his university.

The Gender & SF class looks like it will have about 10 students, a few of whom I've had before and who were among the best students I've taught, so, naturally, I'm excited. Selecting the final list of books was painful because as I plotted things out day by day, there just wasn't enough time to do all I'd thought I should even minimally do. I'm compensating for this a little bit by having the students each read a book of their own (I may do this in pairs, maybe singles -- I'm going to wait to meet the students and talk with them before deciding. Our library now has a strong enough collection of SF that we can accommodate either without the students needing to buy more books.)

When students go to buy their books at the bookstore, these are the ones they will find waiting for them on the shelf: