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Marissa Lingen

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Books read, late November [Dec. 1st, 2016|10:23 am]
Marissa Lingen
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J. G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun. I’ve watched the movie several times, and it seemed like time to find out how the book is different. The book is less unified, more disjointed, aiming more at a psychological realism. There were places where the fact that it was nearly a memoir but cast as a novel distracted me a lot, mostly in the places where Ballard reported Jim’s future thoughts/feelings. I was fascinated by the way it did not try to cast anyone as nicer than they were, replicated the moral short-sightedness of Jim’s inexperience without trying to shape it into something nobler, but at the same time was not wallowing in nastiness, not being proto-grimdark. This book walks a very precise line. It isn’t a happy fun line, as you would expect for the subject matter, and now may not be the right time to read this.


Chaz Brenchley, Three Twins at Crater School, Chapter 19. Kindle. I know I shouldn’t read serials as they come out, but I was waiting for the eye doctor and it was right there. So yes, it is a serial, it is a very tiny chunk of plot, moving forward and then waiting some more. Soooooon.


Susan Cooper, Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children. Reread. A lot of the essays here are not essays but reprints of speeches given to/for different organizations. This makes a difference in tone. This is not a chewy volume of thoughts, it is a set of impressions that she can exhort people with when they might have come in late or been distracted by their neighbor chewing salad. There is also a lot of assumption that television is not an art form, or is an art form with nothing to offer, a lot of electronic alarmism. Ah well. I will go back and read The Dark Is Rising instead next time.


David Edgar, Pentecost. A short play about war and human rights and art. Explores interesting things about priorities and assumptions, context for what is derivative and what is ground-breaking. If I never read another work where someone uses a prostitute as a stand-in/metaphor for a disadvantaged country, it will be too soon.


Nicola Griffith, Stay. Reread. This book is about consequences (it’s the sequel to The Blue Place). Griffith writes gorgeously about the physicality of grief, finding your way back, figuring out a new reality after trauma. I love this book. Caveat: she appears to have been badly misinformed about borderline personality disorder and is rather stigmatizing about it. This is a brief plot point, but I’ve become more aware of mental health stigma in the fourteen years since I last read this book, and I didn’t want to gush without exception.


Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Wow, is this a gappy book. For a supposed history of class in America, it does not include, for example, labor unions, immigration, white ethnicity, international socialism, William Jennings Bryan’s populism, the GI Bill…yeah. It did not include a lot. Elvis as a “country boy/white trash” archetype: yes. Broader class distinctions in American popular music over those 400 years: surely you jest. So…there were some interesting bits, but if you read it, go in thinking about it as “some possibly interesting thoughts about class in the US” rather than a history of.


Shirley Jackson, Life Among the Savages. I said to myself, I’ve only really read the very obvious bits of Shirley Jackson, I should get some more from the library. So I chose a title more or less at random, and it was this bubbly bit of 1950s autobiography as a mom/housewife/writer (but mostly not about the writer part). Oops. I mean, not oops, it wasn’t like it was terrible, but it was not what I was aiming for. Still, it was short and fun; you could do worse.


Mikki Kendall and Chesya Burke, eds., Hidden Youth: Speculative Fiction from the Margins. An interesting and varied anthology. Some stand-out stories included Jaymee Goh’s “A Name to Ashes,” Alec Austin’s “The Paper Sword,” and E.C. Myers’s “In His Own Image.”


William Morris, Hopes and Fears for Art. Kindle. William Morris continues to be the cranky Victorian uncle of my heart. Oh dear. This set of speeches/essays contains a digression into Morris admonishing people that if they claim to care about art but don’t care about air pollution, they don’t really care about art. You can just see his whiskers quivering with indignation. I love it. He also goes into some discussion about how to get cheap art without treating artists badly, still a live question, and has a list of colors you could in good taste paint the interior of your home. For which I really wanted pantone samples of the field of possibilities he was choosing from in paint technology of the time.


Mark Rosenfelder, The Language Construction Kit. Goes into phonemes, grammar, nuts and bolts of how to make a constructed language. I am a lot more interested in how those things fit with culture and story, but if you don’t have language instincts, this could help a lot with fantasy/alien worldbuilding.


Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. This was the real win of this set of books. So lovely. I went and put everything else she’s written on one list or another halfway through, I was enjoying this so much. Solnit goes into the way people work together in disasters and in their aftermath, and the ways in which preconceptions about that can seriously hinder communities. The stories she tells from a variety of disaster types match patterns a lot with my post-tornado experiences. Really good stuff for SF writers in particular but really for anyone.


Edward Struzik, Future Arctic: Field Notes from a World on Edge. This is about a bunch of follow-on effects and second order consequences from current climate change in the Arctic, particularly on animal populations. Interesting stuff but not cheerful. Not even a little bit cheerful. But worth knowing anyway.


David Suzuki and Keibo Oiwa, The Japan We Never Knew: A Journey of Discovery. This is a very strange book. It’s a series of profiles (written in the mid-90s) of activists, ethnic minorities, and other members of Japanese countercultures. It’s basically trying to be a counterweight to the western reporting that gives us Japan as a monolith of conformity and cosplay. I’d like a modern version, but one from twenty years ago is also useful because there were, for example, still people who were adults during the Second World War and counterculturally activist because of it, and hearing about them is valuable too.


Django Wexler, The Price of Valor. Third in its series. Don’t start here. Relationships continue to unfold and develop. Still some revolutionary politics, not following the French Revolution linearly but taking inspiration from it.


Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Fascinating book about how Native American and European groups (mostly the French) created rituals and means of interaction that partook of both sets of cultural norms. Also goes into the breakdown of those crosscultural developments, not only but particularly with the advent of the British and the people who had just started thinking of themselves as Americans. Definitely worth the time, not just if you have an interest in the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada but particularly so if you do.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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In a good cause: NoDAPL and other Native Rights [Nov. 29th, 2016|10:45 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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Sometimes the obvious thing is the right thing. The NoDAPL movement–opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline–is something a lot of my friends are thinking about, talking about, wondering how to help with. So it may seem a little obvious. But obvious is sometimes right. And I think that–for example–the difficulties of reservation law enforcement in dealing with white people who commit crimes on the reservation are not necessarily obvious to people who don’t want to think about it. They’re only well-known in certain circles. So: Native rights, justice for Native people both at Standing Rock and elsewhere: generally a good cause.


Let’s start with Native American Rights Fund. They support a broad range of causes–government accountability, preservation of resources, individual rights and justice–with an ongoing umbrella organization that will not only help the people at Standing Rock, they’ll help the people at the next Standing Rock. And try to prevent the next one from happening in the first place.


Last week for Thanksgiving there were several round-up posts about what you can do, if you don’t want to go from site to site. Here’s one. And another. Please remember that if you’re going to go participate in the protests yourself, you want it to be about what the people there need, not about your own spiritual journey. (Actually that’s a good focus for any charitable/volunteer work.)


There are also individual camps taking donations, so you can take your pick: Oceti Sakowin camp; Sacred Stone Camp; Standing Rock Rosebud Camp; Red Warrior Camp. And hey. This pipeline was judged not safe enough to go through the predominantly white areas–that is, not safe enough for my cousins. So why is it safe enough for someone else’s? It isn’t. This pipeline is being built by people with some of the worst oil pipeline leak records in the country. The other question to ask is: what have I done, actively, to be a good neighbor to my Indian/Native American/First Nations neighbors? Because we are long past the point where “I didn’t personally go kick them in the shins” is enough.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Suspense [Nov. 22nd, 2016|08:41 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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I watch a lot of cop shows to get through my workouts. The pacing is right, and the fact that there’s almost always a resolution of at least an intermediate problem within a few episodes is very satisfying when I’m not thoroughly in love with the story line. (I need more workout fodder than I can find “thoroughly in love with the story line.”) But oh my golly, do they have a common misconception about how narrative tension and suspense work.


People who tell stories get told to make it personal, and to up the stakes. And apparently for a lot of writers that means “threaten the death of your protagonist, possibly along with as large a number of other people as possible up to and including the entire universe.” But this is actually a pretty decent way to decrease the suspense in your story. Is the main character going to die horribly? Particularly in a show where you have actors under contract, is the star who is under a big contract going to die horribly and not be on the show any more? No. No they are not. I was watching a show last season where people said, “I can’t believe they killed off one of the two leads!” And surprise: they didn’t. In the middle of writing this, I watched an episode where they upped the stakes from “will this kill one of the main characters?” to “will this kill the entire cast?” and guess what, no. It did not.


Some stories try to kill characters off early to show you that they mean business, that no one is safe. This almost never works unless you are not paying attention. Early deaths almost always mean less investment from the viewer/reader–you’ve been with that character for twenty minutes, not twenty hours. And it’s also less investment from the storyteller–especially in media that involve big name actors whose level of involvement in a project is going to be clear from ads. Even prose writers who don’t have to worry about that thing tend to get used to having particular characters to play with. So what early deaths mean is “this will have some level of death/gore,” not “no one is safe.” I can tell you who’s safe. Ask me.


One way to manage this kind of tension is to make the suspenseful question not whether Our Protagonist will get out of this particular bear trap but how. Getting the reader/viewer invested in the details of the story is never a bad idea. If they just want to find out yes/no on horrible deaths–if yes/no on horrible deaths is all you’ve given them as a question–their investment level will probably be pretty low anyway.


Another is to use what appear to be lower stakes problems, because they can result in more tension/suspense if they’re things that might actually happen. Are you going to kill off the protagonist of your successful series? Probably not, or at least not in any lasting way. But are you going to make their best friend or family member mad at them? Are you going to give them setbacks along the road to their goals? Almost certainly. Are you going to give them this particular setback? The reader/viewer doesn’t know. And that’s where the suspense comes in.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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In a good cause: going on [Nov. 20th, 2016|09:22 am]
Marissa Lingen
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I said I was going to make a post about charities each week until the election. And look, the election is over! I took a week to think about it, but I don’t really feel like stopping right now. I don’t really feel like now is a time when I feel less like promoting good causes to which you can donate time and money. So I’m going to keep going with weekly charity posts, because that’s the world we’re living in right now.


(You know what? These charities would still have been a good idea if Hillary Clinton had been elected. There is so much more that needs doing in the world than we will ever get done in one lifetime, even if each of us makes exquisite choices every single day from here on out. When you are disappointed, when you are elated: the work of the world will still need doing.)


So let’s talk about civil rights for Muslims in this country.The biggest Muslim civil liberties group, the one you’ve probably already heard of, is CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. They need non-Muslim support in addition to Muslim support right right now–they have for years. (Other groups are increasingly vulnerable, too. By all means recommend charities in case I don’t have your favorite one lined up for another week. Additional positive groups are always, always welcome in the comments.)


If you prefer to keep your charity work closer to home, keep in mind that your local Muslim cultural centers may be facing various problems in times when the US’s treatment of its Muslim citizens and residents is in the news. In Minneapolis area, there is, for example, the Islamic Center of Minnesota, which provides all sorts of community services (listed on webpage) for local Muslims. This sort of group providing a food shelf and burial services is exactly the sort that get targeted when racists decide they want to do bad things. If you’re able-bodied and able to help with counter-demonstrations, clean-up, etc., find the cultural centers in your area and keep them in mind when you read the news. Inter-faith (or interfaced faith-with-lack-of-faith, why not!) outreach shows that we believe in civil rights for everyone, that we cannot be divided so easily.


Here’s how broken our culture is: when I went to google “Minneapolis Muslim cultural center,” Google tried to autocomplete, “Minneapolis Muslim problems.” And for some reason they didn’t seem to think that “getting kid good ice time” and “finding halal Swedish meatballs” were the Minneapolis Muslim problems in question. Some people would like you to think that Minneapolis is a war zone, with our Somali neighbors trying to force their religion on the rest of us. Nothing could be farther from the truth. That’s fear and ignorance talking, not fact. It’s all very well to say “if there’s a registry for Muslims, I’ll register too!”, but if it’s an immigrant registry, that’s not going to help. CAIR and your local Muslim institutions almost certainly have some very concrete ideas about what will help. We’re all in this together. We always have been.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Books read, early November [Nov. 17th, 2016|06:48 am]
Marissa Lingen
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Megan Abbott, You Will Know Me. This…might not have been the best time for me to read a noir novel. It’s quite well done, and I’m not taking Abbott’s other books off my library list. But there is nobody whose age is in the double digits who is a kind and thoughtful person in this book; it is the story of how far a family is willing to go to preserve one member’s gymnastics career. It’s brutal in directions that we don’t often see people willing to be brutal in fiction.


Lloyd Alexander, Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen. Rereads. I have loved this series for thirty years. I see different things in it every time I reread it. On this reread–how circumscribed and how limited the hope. And yet hope. The image that accompanies the death of Stock the poet is one of the very specific images that has stuck with my very non-visual self. And this is where my button for barricades in fiction got installed. It still works on me. I think it always will. This time it struck me how fast people in this series fall in love and how matter of fact Alexander is about it: oh, he’s in love with her, she’s in love with him, yep, that’s what’s going on, no need to beat around the bush. Okay.


Karen Babine, Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life. These essays. Wow. This is…this is one of the books that speaks very well for me in many of its parts. We have several things in common, Babine and me. I was not expecting the chapter on the Red River flood to segue into her showing up on the Gustavus campus post-tornado. That was a little close to home. I cried. Highly recommended even for people who are not me, though.


John Bierhorst, The Mythology of Mexico and Central America.This is not a compilation of myths but a discussion of their patterns, and of how scholars figure out which regions share similar myth structures, which are culturally quite different. It’s one in a series of three, with North and South America each getting their volume. You can tell that Mesoamerica is where Bierhorst’s heart lies, though; he goes into more detail here and also puts some parts of Mexico in with North America and some parts of Central America in with South America. As if he didn’t have enough to cover in those entire continents.


Alan Bradley, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d. The most recent Flavia de Luce mystery. Not enough chemistry in this one, and not enough character development–he’s picking up the arc after what could have been a firm series ending, and the developments he’s throwing in feel a bit forced. Flavia is still a fun detective narrator, but this is not the peak of the series. If you only read one, don’t let it be this one.


Mikiso Hane, Peasants, Rebels, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan. This is the meaning of  “modern” that is not contemporary, and it is focused mainly on the countryside. With those caveats, it’s an interesting book–talking about the roles of women in rural Japan, family relationships, farming, village life, ethnicity formation within a genetically non-distinct group, all sorts of things.


Nalo Hopkinson and Kristine Ong Muslim, eds., Lightspeed: People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction. A strong collection of fiction here. The reprints were almost all things I had liked before, which would be frustrating if I wasn’t aware that I’m not the main audience for that sort of thing–and there is a main audience that will benefit from having things like Octavia Butler’s “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” which is one of my favorite stories of all time. Standout new work included Karin Lowachee’s “A Good Home,” Gabriela Santiago’s “As Long As It Takes to Make the World,” and S. B. Divya’s “Binaries.” The nonfiction and personal essays were also interesting, and the art gallery was a lovely touch (well done, Kickstarter). A valuable collection.


Charles Johnson, Dab Neeg Hmoob: Myths, Legends, and Folk Tales from the Hmong of Laos. This is extensively scholarly, with each tale told in both Hmong and English, in two aligned columns so that you could compare the translation if you spoke Hmong, plus pages of endnotes for most stories. Some of the notes are things that are kind of basic, but that’s needed in the context of an ethnic group where every single book seems to start with “the Hmong: who the heck are they anyway”–even if I’m not the target for that sort of thing and find it a bit frustrating.


Barbara Alice Mann, Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas. I wanted to love this, but I don’t find Mann reliable. She would probably say that’s because I have a Eurocentric focus, and that may be true. But it’s also true that she’s willing to belittle other Native/First Nations people and use wrong ethnic terms for them if they disagree with her, and to denigrate women from European cultures in terms that smear all cultural distinctions together. So…which parts of what she says about Iroquoian women are true? Hard for me to say, when she’s willing to do that sort of thing. Also, for a book that was supposedly about Iroquoian women, quite a lot of it was dedicated to rants about European men. I can read other books about European men, so that made it less useful to me.


Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric. A series of prose poems about Rankine’s lived experience as a Black woman in America. They very effectively sum in a way that microaggressions and racist encounters also sum, showing how one incident could be nothing but all of them together are a great burden. Interesting stuff.


Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence. I have loved a Rushdie book, but it was Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which is a bit of an outlier. This was not something I loved. It was clever and reasonably entertaining but fairly cold in its character relations.


Rick Wilber, Alien Morning. Discussed elsewhere.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Alien Morning, by Rick Wilber [Nov. 17th, 2016|06:43 am]
Marissa Lingen
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Review copy provided by Tor.


Also, Rick was one of the very first people I met in this genre, since he is the administrator of the Dell (Asimov) Award for Undergrads. The introductory acknowledgments to Alien Morning show you the kind of person Rick is in this community: he not only thanks people, he thanks them meticulously and specifically. He’s warm and considerate and always there to make sure other people get credit.


…which is why I was relieved that I liked his book, because the people you like and the books you like don’t always go together. Whew.


Alien Morning is a first contact story that’s also a near-future speculation about media, tech, and human relationships. Its protagonist, Peter Holman, is on the cutting edge of a new kind of journalism/social media, sweepcasting, which lets people share his sensory experiences. He’s walking on the beach near his Florida home when mysterious lights appear in the sky, and gradually he becomes one of the first humans to figure out even a piece of what’s going on.


The S’huddonai visitors appear to be kind and friendly at first, even slightly comical, but their tech and personal abilities are beyond what humans know how to manage–and they are not entirely forthcoming about who is doing what to whom and why. The S’huddonai politics clash pretty quickly with the politics of Peter’s own dysfunctional family. If you want the galactic brought in to the personal scale, this is a book that does that on every page. It’s setting up for the rest of a trilogy, so there are events in motion that aren’t resolved in this volume–but the others appear to be coming soon.


Please consider using our link to buy Alien Morning from Amazon.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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On preaching to the choir [Nov. 10th, 2016|11:37 am]
Marissa Lingen
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I want to say some things to you about preaching to the choir.


I’ve heard that expression a lot the last few days. We all know what it stands in for. The choir is your core group of faithful. They show up every week. They know the message by heart. Preaching to the choir means that you’re not reaching anyone new, you’re not changing hearts and minds.


But sometimes.


You look through the choir and you will find some people who are exhausted. Some people who only made it because they gave their word they’d be there. They feel hopeless, lost. Some people are frazzled to a nubbin, and their choir robe is sticking to the syrup they spilled on their shirt at breakfast. Didn’t have time to change it and still get there. They got there. But they need what you have to say just as much as anyone who has never heard it before.


In our lives, we have very few conversion moments. Very few grand revelations. Today is probably not the day for yours, statistically, and there probably won’t be one tomorrow either. But there are a lot of moments when you shift a little. When you get a slightly different angle on something, and as it percolates through your mind, through your actions, you’ll get different angles on more. And one of the things this means is that we’re not lucky enough to help other people to epiphanies very often either. Demanding an epiphany out of everyone, every time is the path to disappointment. Quite a lot of time it’s the small things–the things that you and your choir might not line up on just exactly. Nobody agrees with any other person on everything. But sometimes you can show another person something smart and interesting and compassionate about one more thing.


A choir sings together. That’s a truism. But the most expensive recordings in the world, from the biggest recording conglomerates: if they want the sound of a choir, they don’t record a hundred people singing their parts separately and mix them. Not just because the tracks would be a nightmare. Because it wouldn’t sound the same. If you’ve ever sung with a choir, you know it’s not the same as singing along to a recording of a choir. You’re surrounded by people with the same aim as you, the same goal, and you’re working together to make it happen. Solo performances are powerful, and choirs are powerful, but we need both. And sometimes the choir needs to show up and listen together. Sometimes knowing that they’re hearing it together, surrounded by people with the same aims as they have in at least one area, makes all the difference in the world.


For most people, it’s easier to show up and sing in a choir than to sing a solo in the middle of a public place. And that’s okay. Not everybody has to have the chutzpah–or the talent–to belt out “O Holy Night” in the middle of the subway station. That’s not the shape of everyone’s contributions.


We have to remember, though: the choir is not there in this metaphor to listen. They will listen. But that’s not what makes them a choir. The choir is there to sing. I know this isn’t a home metaphor for all of you, but for those of us who have experienced preaching from the choir loft, we can all think of a time when it went on too long. When each of us–and every face in the congregation–yearned silently for the sweet release of the offertory.


So don’t castigate yourself for preaching to the choir. Just don’t mistake it for the only thing you could possibly do. Make sure you have something to say, bring them together, say it–and sit down, shut up, and give them the chance to sing.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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In a good cause: arts organizations [Nov. 8th, 2016|03:15 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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Well, here we are. I said I’d make a post about worthy charities every week until the US election, and–this is it. I’ve enjoyed doing it, actually, and may at some point do another series of charity posts just because I feel like it. Because I am nowhere near out of good charities. Not by a long shot.


Today I wanted to talk about arts organizations. I think pretty much anyone who reads this blog is interested in some form of the arts and is familiar with Patreons and Kickstarters for supporting individual artists directly. And hey, more power to them! Please feel free to link to your own or someone else’s project in the comments. (Really. Please.) But larger arts organizations are important too, for wider community outreach than a single person can do, for structural support, for projects that take infrastructure and are bigger than one artist. So that’s what I’m focusing on with this post.


Many of my examples will be Minnesota-local, but


Let’s start with Juxtaposition Arts. Youth-oriented visual arts center in Minneapolis. They have a lot of great programming across cultural and arts genre lines. Here in the south suburbs in Eagan, we’re trying to get an arts center of our own, and Art Works Eagan is the group doing that. Nor are they resting on their laurels in the meantime; AWE has been hosting events in other local spaces until they get a permanent home.


Within the last week, I’ve been to hear music at the Cedar Cultural Center and at Orchestra Hall, home of the Minnesota Orchestra. Venues like these don’t stay alive on ticket prices alone, or tickets would be too expensive for the community. They also rely heavily on volunteers for various duties around the venue–a great opportunity if what you have to give is time and enthusiasm rather than cash.


I’ve also just made my first visit to The Museum of Russian Art, and I’ve been a member of the American Swedish Institute and Minneapolis Institute of Art for awhile now. These museums have a variety of great programming–again, spanning cultures and media–and serve as community focal points.


If you don’t know what the equivalents are in your community, why not find out? You don’t have to be a big city to have theater groups, art groups, music groups that need support. If you look at a program, they’ll start listing names of donors sometimes at the $50 level or below–which just shows you how much these donations matter. And when a $50 donation matters and you don’t have $50, an evening of volunteer work for which they don’t have to pay $50 also matters. Putting the word out that these groups are out there and talking about their various exhibits and productions and projects also matters. We all need the solace of art on our hardest days as well as the joy of art on our brightest ones.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Books read, late October [Nov. 5th, 2016|06:33 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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Blue Balliett, The Calder Game. The third in a series of kids’ books that are nominally mysteries. The plots basically don’t work–there is handwavium and then something falls into their laps–but that’s not the point of these books. The point of these books is to talk about things Blue Balliett thinks are cool in a way kids can understand. They’re factually rather than morally didactic–hey, kids, let’s talk about mobiles! let’s talk about modern art!–and honestly they work just fine that way.


Colin Cotterill, I Shot the Buddha. The most recent Dr. Siri book–we’re into double digits, and he’s showing no signs of stopping. We have hit the part of the series where the books get written whether Cotterill has really cool inspiration for one or not. In this case it looks like not. So this is in the category of “if you like this series, here’s another one!”, but for heaven’s sake go back and start with The Coroner’s Lunch if you don’t know whether you like the series.


R. F. Delderfield, To Serve Them All My Days. A gigantic mess of a book. It was pitched to me as “man home from the trenches of the Great War heals from shellshock as a classroom teacher in rural Devon,” and that’s true for as far as it goes, and then there are something like 500 pages more of various things. The protagonist comes right out and cheerfully states that the ups and downs of his life have paralleled those of Britain in the interwar period, and that’s true…and less interesting because it’s both fictional and stated aloud in words. Also the last third or so of the book is weirdly sketched in, in terms of character motivations, and covering 20+ years of being a teacher means he’s constantly feeling the need to remind you which boy is which when they show up again later. Which is better than asking you to remember ten gajillion British surnames, but…yeah, I don’t know. I’m not sorry I read this. It was very episodic, and the episodes were entertaining. But 600 pages was a lot of this type of episodes, and the overall arc plot got less and less satisfying as it strayed from the initial premise.


Rita Dove, Collected Poems, 1974-2004. One of the things I’ve been loving about reading large collections of poems by one poet is seeing their breadth and range. Rita Dove has quite a lot of it. Lyrical poems, prose poems, persona poems and personal poems, history poems ranging through time and space, linked series of poems…she does it all, or at least quite a lot of it. I really liked “November for Beginners”–good timing there–and “Arrow” went straight through me in a way I don’t think it would have before I hit my mid-thirties. Which is not to say there wouldn’t have been plenty to read here earlier, just–different pieces would have jumped out, I think.


Maija Gimbutas, The Balts. This is an old book about the prehistory of the southern Baltic and the people who spoke Baltic languages there–Latvians, Lithuanians, East Prussians. Lots of stuff about potsherds and axeheads, which I find interesting, and it’s a region of the world that’s hard to read about in English. It wasn’t one of those nonfiction books that transcends individual interests, but if you’re interested in this place-time, it does what it can. And the last section about the pre-Christian religion of the region is worth the price of admission. Or at least worth the price I paid for admission; hard to say what a used book might cost elsewhere.


Linda Hirshman, Sisters in Law: how Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World. Basically a joint biography of these two Supreme Court justices, and Hirshman really gets the bit between her teeth when she gets a chance to talk about their working relationship. I love working relationships, and it seemed clear to me that Hirshman found them more interesting because they worked together than she would have if they were personal besties. Also, if you’re feeling like we’ve had no progress in the last fifty years, read this book. Some of the court cases will curl your hair. Some of the ones you were alive for will make you say, “They didn’t get that settled until [year]???” and pace and rant.


James Laxer, Tecumseh and Brock: The War of 1812. This is also something of a joint biography, but more an exploration of the role of the War of 1812 in building Canadian national identity. Which is a weird thing to do, but okay. Also taking the Native American/First Nations front in that war seriously is a good thing to do and far too rare.


Ken Liu, ed., Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation. Discussed elsewhere.


Garth Nix, To Hold the Bridge. Most of the short stories in this were not to my taste. The title story was set in his most famous world, the world of Sabriel et al, and as a story its structure was very weirdly balanced. I keep saying, ruefully, that nerds love training sequences. This story was almost all training sequence. One of the common failures of novellas is to have the setup of a novel and the payoff of a short story. This did that. But the individual sentence-level and page-level reading experience was fun.


Katherine Rundell, The Wolf Wilder. A brutal and beautiful children’s book about Russia under the last days of the tsar, a girl who helps aristocrats’ pet wolves learn to be their wild selves again, a boy whose dreams don’t fit the military mold he is pushed toward, and more. I’m going to be very careful which children I give this book to, because there are sad and angry parts that will not be right for every kid who is skilled enough to read the words. And yet it’s so good.


David Salsburg, The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century. And speaking of having the idea of progress reinforced–reading history of statistics basically gives a clear picture of how little we knew in the 19th century and how we had no idea how well we knew it. This is a pop math book, so Salsburg is careful how he handles technical subjects for the amateur. A bit more careful than an amateur with a physics degree probably needs, but–dive in, the water’s fine.


Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Brooke Allen, et al, Lumberjanes: Out of Time. I love the Lumberjanes and their relationships. I am not very coherent about these comics because they hit both my “I loved Girl Scouting and 4H” buttons and my “fantasy writer and modern weirdo” buttons, all at once. Start at the beginning, not here.


Andrew Wilson, The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. I really enjoyed this author’s book about Belarus. This history of Ukraine was not nearly as vivid. More dry, more downbeat. Still interesting, still glad I read it, but there just seemed to be less spice–it’s more in the “recommended if this is an interest of yours” category than the “recommended for all” category.


Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams, eds., Press Start to Play. I feel like there are a lot of really cliched things to be done with a speculative anthology with a video game theme. For people who like these particular tropes, they’d probably be described as “tried and true,” but I ended up feeling like a lot of the stories were rote and familiar. One exception was Holly Black’s “1Up,” which handled video game playing relationships as well as other tropes, did it well, and wrapped the story up while I was still enjoying it rather than dragging on.


Yoss, A Planet for Rent. Add another entry to the list “works in translation I wanted to like.” Yoss is Cuban, and this hits the humans in the galaxy as a metaphor for Cubans in the world note early and often. I totally get why people under regimes with a lot of censorship often use that kind of correspondence to say what they can’t say out loud, but it meant that the book got fairly tedious fairly quickly. And also…also I am kind of a tough sell on sex workers as metaphors. I feel like sex workers are handled badly enough often enough in fiction that if you don’t have a really really good reason why you need to use them as a metaphor…probably don’t. Let’s go with don’t. Even if you think you have a good reason, actually. Probably just no. Sigh.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation, edited by Ken Liu [Nov. 1st, 2016|06:13 am]
Marissa Lingen
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Review copy provided by Tor Books.


I was in a book doldrums when I got this review copy, and oh, was it a relief. An anthology where I didn’t skim half the stories! What a treat. I was a little surprised to see that Ken Liu made the choice to include multiple stories by most of the authors, but I really liked that once I got used to the idea: it gives at least a little bit of triangulation on an author’s career, rather than letting a single story stand for an entire body of work.


I’m particularly pleased that Ken Liu focused so much on newer Chinese authors–I feel like the temptation and the expectation, when you know that you’re doing an anthology from a region that hasn’t appeared in that language before, is to try to rehash the entire history of a field/region, and that’s not necessarily the most readable or interesting anthology from anything but a scholarly viewpoint. Further, an anthology of this length could not possibly cover the entirety of China’s SF history. Ken Liu makes the point that it isn’t doing that, it isn’t trying, in multiple places–people will certainly try to take this anthology as representative and/or interpret it through the lens of their own politics. Immunity to the latter tendency is hard to come by. But the reader is given no excuse to do so, no encouragement–and in fact active discouragement–from the text.


Some of these stories were familiar to me and may well be familiar to you also–“A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” and “Folding Beijing” were the ones I remembered seeing before. And yet the other stories by those two authors, Xia Jia and Hao Jingfang, were at least as good in my estimation, possibly better. I also really enjoyed the Chen Qiufan stories, all of them–and I came away with a very different opinion of Chen Qiufan than any one story would have given me.


I’m not surprised that there were Liu Cixin stories in the anthology–he’s the Hugo winner, the big name in China, the person whose novels Ken Liu has translated. (The reason why I’m saying Ken Liu every time instead of just defaulting to Liu!) And yet for me these were the weak point in the anthology. Upon reflection, I don’t think they’re a weakness per se–I think including them was a good idea–but they’re not the stories that spoke most to me. And this is no surprise: when I reviewed Liu Cixin’s novels, I said that the thing that excited me most was the prospect that they were the tip of the iceberg, that there would be more new Chinese SF in translation coming our way. I’m glad to see Tor carrying through on that. Long may it last.


Please consider using our link to buy Invisible Planets from Amazon.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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