For Christmas, my fab sister gave me Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. (Okay, she gave it to Hassan, but she knew I’d read it too.) Bechdel is the author/artist behind the successful and hilarious comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and Fun Home is her autobiography in graphic form.
The main thrust of the story focuses on her relationship with her father, an English teacher who is obsessed with the historic restoration of their gothic revival home. His hobby makes the family’s home a bit like a museum – both in its archaic beauty and its stifling atmosphere. Dad seems more interested in restoring the shingles to their former glory than he is in showing any affection for his kids. In college, Alison comes out to her parents. She prepares herself for rejection but gets something possibly even more overwhelming: she learns her father has had affairs with men, including her former babysitter. A few months later, as she’s still processing this new understanding of her family history, her father dies in what may have been suicide.
It mean some like these are spoilers, but all of this is clear within the first few pages. Alison unfolds the narrative of her family not-quite-chronologically, going back and forth in time, creating a picture that grows more complex and fascinating with each new detail. At some point, I think I may haveto re-read the book just to get a better understanding of how she structured it.
Bechdel is an exceptional master at using the combination of words and pictures, for maximum, astoundingly efficient effect, as in the image below. She tells her story with honesty and skill, and along the way draws on everything from the Icarus-Daedalus myth to Stonewall and James Joyce. And on the final page she manages to bring her non-linear narratives together in a way that added yet another layer of complexity to her story and was also deeply moving. Go forth and read it – you won’t be disappointed!
OK, so I just finished reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and it made me oh-so-angry. (In case either of the two other people who still haven’t read this 100-million-copy-selling book happen to be reading, I’ll try to leave this spoiler free.)
Simply put, no writer should be allowed to get away with writing a mystery in which you narrate from the internal point of view of all the characters and yet still manage to surprise the reader as to who the culprit is. It’s clearly cheating! And, yet, you go back and re-read the parts that made you think what you thought, and then you realize, oh, that’s how she did it, it actually wasn’t cheating after all, and then that only makes you angrier…
The technique that she seems to use again and again, to such great effect, is deflection. She puts the answer right in front of you, but arranges such a carnival all around it that you assume that can’t possibly be the answer, until, oh wait, it is. Which makes the conclusion as superbly satisfying as it is frustrating. Curse you, Agatha! And please teach me how you do what you do.
(Side note: there are also all sorts of things going on in the book around race, class and gender – some of which is conscious and much of which probably is not, but that could be a whole dissertation unto itself.)
I recently got the news that my short story, “On the Entropy of Species,” will be appearing in The Tangled Bank, an e-anthology of stories on Charles Darwin and evolution coming out in just a few weeks. The anthology commemorates Darwin’s 200th birthday as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. I’m very excited to be part of such a cool project, and to have a story published in the theme-anthology that inspired the story – a first for me.
When I first saw the call for stories on evolution from editor Chris Lynch, nothing immediately came to me. But then I started reading excerpts from Darwin’s journal, particularly from the time of his voyage on the Beagle, and found both his voice and personality inspiring. I loved the unabashedness of his excitement in exploring new terrain and observing new species – e.g., “The day has past delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has been wandering by himself in a Brazilian forest.” He was a totally glamorous geek-adventurer. That was the initial springboard for “On the Entropy of Species,” the story of another geek-adventurer, on a voyage of exploration in a world where evolution doesn’t seem to work quite the way we’re used to.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “Self, I love science fiction, if only more of it were queer-themed, just good old-fashioned science fiction fun with aliens and laser battles and cool science-fictional devices, but also with really interesting queer protagonists and maybe some beautiful prose so rhythmic it could be half-sung to jazz music in a hipster poetry cafe?” Look no further! Check out Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery immediately.
The basic premise: Wendell Apogee’s boyfriend is a party-24-7 kinda guy, close personal friends with half the population of New York City and a good portion of the rest of the world to boot. So when he disappears, nobody even notices for the first twenty-six hours. “Everybody thinks he’s with someone else, like that time he went to the Phillipines and everyone thought he was in Jersey. He never answers his telephone anyway, they say.” But then his apartment explodes, and Wendell starts to think there might be something odd about Manuel’s disappearance. It couldn’t have anything to do with those alien robots or the cult that’s prophesized the end of the world based on complex astronomical analyses, could it?
Wendell’s quest to find his lost lover is an amazing tour de force of the many cultures of New York City – both real and imagined – taking him from cockfights to flying garbage trucks to evil alien invaders to the secret worlds beneath the subway. But ultimately of course it’s a story about human connection, about figuring out how to love yourself and others in a world that’s all kinds of crazy. One of the best books I’ve read this year.
I recently got news that my story “Tío Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts” will be reprinted in next year’s Wilde Stories, an annual year’s best anthology of LGBT speculative literature. The series is published by Lethe Press, an independent press publishing all sorts of stuff at the fun nexus of the queer and the speculative. This year’s edition of Wilde Stories is out now and features cool queer science fiction and fantasy stories by Lee Thomas, Hal Duncan, and others. The Best Gay Stories series is also worth checking out (though not exclusively speculative), with fiction by Richard Bowes, David Levithan, and others.
Just finished Changing Planes, a recent collection of short stories by Ursula Le Guin. The narrator tells us of her travels to 15 other planes, part travelogue, part anthropological essay, and part satire. LeGuin often writes nontraditional stories, and this entire collection seems to defy standard definitions of a story, all of the stories lacking even a protagonist. The stories typically start with a sweeping history of a world and then climax by zooming in on some small part of it, a specific person or group which is perhaps not what you would expect, or some cranny of the world that’s especially unique or astonishing. Sometimes these closing revelations have surprising emotional power, especially considering how non-story-like they are. The best example is probably the “Flyers of Gy,” which was originally published in Scifiction and is still available in the online archives. Like Le Guin’s classic “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” it’s a great example of a story that breaks the rules and is still compelling and powerful.
As you can imagine, the stories often read more like world-building notes than they do like stories, but even so Le Guin has such skill that her world-building notes are more intriguing and entertaining than many an action-packed story. I’d recommend this collection if you’re already a fan of Le Guin and just want to soak in more of her fabulousness. If you’re new to her, it’s not her best work and probably not the best place to start. Her classic novel The Left Hand of Darkness or story collections like The Birthday of the World would be better introductions.
On a more personal note, at the start of the week I bent over to clean up a broken glass, and a pain shot through my back … a pinched nerve. As a result, had to work from home most of the week, and typically routine activities such as putting on shoes and socks have been quite an adventure. Physical therapy is helping, though, and, on the plus side, I’ve been getting a lot of reading done…
Just finished Sabriel by Garth Nix. I’ve read a lot of good young adult fantasy in the past year or so, but this is definitely one of the best. The story follows Sabriel, the young daughter of the Abhorsen, a special kind of wizard who makes sure that the dead stay dead. Sabriel has grown up outside the Old Kingdom, in the mundane world where magic has been forgotten. When her father disappears, she’s discovered that his title as Abhorsen has passed to her, and she has to return to the Old Kingdom to rescue her father and save the Kingdom…
Nix has created a rich world, with magic that’s actually governed by rules and has limitations. Even better, the rules are interesting and limitations make sense. The whole concept of magic being created through “charter marks” is great, and leads to lots of other fun corollaries, like creatures constructed out of charter marks or the paperwing as a means of transportation. (I definitely need to get myself a paperwing.)
Garth does a great job of making sure his heroine is overwhelmed by the task at hand but is still strong and capable – always a hard thing to balance. In Star Wars, Lucas manages it by giving his heroes almost no preparation, but has them quickly rise to the occasion because “the Force is strong with them.” (Or, if you prefer the prequels, they have a high midi-chlorian count.) Nix gives his heroine some strong innate abilities inherited from her magical Dad, plus a bit of schooling – but not nearly enough, because she was raised outside the Old Kingdom where magic dominates. This also means she’s not quite clued into all the bad stuff that’s been happening in the Old Kingdom, which of course adds to the fun. (Plus, there’s a curse that stops anyone else from bringing her up to speed. D’oh!)
It’s going to be hard to resist picking up Book 2 in this series the next time I’m at the book store…