All posts by peaadmin

On Book Awards and Class…

Last week, I promised to bring up the issue of class and book awards, and since we didn’t have the time to discuss it last week, as a follow-up to our discussion of the Hugo Awards and the Puppy Invasion, I figured we might as well get to work now, dear readers.

Pardon me while I climb on my soapbox…

One of the issues that was discussed, as reported by Wired, during the Puppy Horror was the class aspect of the awards.  And while most of the points brought up were exclusionary and near-sighted, there is an element to this argument that should be addressed.

In December of 2014, author Adrian McKinty (pictured left, courtesy of The Irish Times), author of the Sean Duffy crime novels, which I adore, and the Michael Forsythe series, which I also adore, among other literary achievements, sat down and wrote a blog post about the Man Booker Prize (fair warning: there is some strong language in the post).  In it, he challenged two-time Booker-prize-winning author Peter Carey’s claim that Americans should not be allowed to compete for the prize since it would, essentially, spoil the ‘particular cultural flavour’ of the award.*   McKinty used this argument as a jumping-off point to argue that the actual “flavour” of the Booker Prize was classicism, not nationalism.  As he noted, the vast, vast majority of the judges for the Booker Prize were attended private schools (which are much more elite than our version), while only 5% of the British population as a whole had attended private schools.  The result, he stated, was that:

…the Booker Prize judging panels are almost always made up of posh people and their chairperson is almost always very posh indeed. Posh people naturally would be sympathetic towards books about their own class and resistant to challenges to the status quo, hence Peter Carey’s worry about vulgar Americans entering the fray. (Peter Carey boarded at Geelong Grammar, one of the most expensive and exclusive private schools in Australia.) In consequence the Booker Prize winning novel is often a safe middle class rather dull book.

He also proposed a short set of practices that might help the Booker Prize improve its nominations, which included allowing publishing houses to send in more than one book for consideration (that way they could be riskier in their nominations, rather than nominating books they think will win based on past years), and encouraging genre fiction, because: “The best science fiction, crime fiction and romance writing is often as good as literary fiction but these books seldom make the Booker shortlist because they are considered to be a low form of writing.”

Surprisingly, McKinty’s recommendations may have actually helped.  As he noted in a blog post last October (language, again, FYI) the last three winners of the Booker Prize have been working-class, which points to a conscious attempt at diversity among the jury (See Paul Beatty, the most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize, below).

There are two big issues here: class, especially in the United States, is less defined by income, and is much more a social thing, as the Center for Economic and Policy Research examined in a recent survey.  That is mostly because the country is so big and diverse that there is no one bracket to determine wealth (look at house prices in Massachusetts vs. Arkansas, for example).  Thus, an income that might define you as “middle class” in one area would put you firmly in the “working class”, or even the “working poor” in other places.  So there is no one experience of class, or an ideology of class cohesion.

Just the fact that a graph like this exists is proof of my point. From the Economic Policy Institute

And class is perhaps the only social identifier that is inherently anti-social.  Capitalism, by definition, is a competition.  In order to win, you have to beat someone else to resources, to funding, to markets, to jobs, etc.  It’s why the relationship between classes is always categorized as a “struggle”.  McKinty alludes to this in his blog post, but the brutal point is that this “class struggles” makes us instinctively want to punch “downward”, or at those we perceive as “downward”….which is where the intersection of race, gender, nationality, and class all become significant together.

Because one of the positive things about encouraging books from and about “working class people”, especially in the US, is that we would inherently get more books by and about women, people of color, and immigrants, all of whom make up a plurality of the “working class”, and all of whom go under-represented in fiction.

But there is a snag to this.  In order to get these stories, we need to encourage these stories.  Because the main identifiers of the “working class”, across the board are A) a lack of higher education and B) a lack of access to continuing education and self-development, for reasons of distance, finances, or familial obligations.  And that is a huge, huge issue.

Because we are not going to get those stories unless we encourage people to tell those stories.  And in order to do that, we need to give people the tools to be storytellers–reading, writing, and practice.  But more than that, we need to provide time and space.  The first two can be acquire via education.  The second two, however, are some of the most difficult to acquire, especially for those without income security.  And no book prize in the world is going to improve its “working class” prejudices until we all show that we value everyone’s stories by listening to them, and providing the space for them to be shared.

 

*I feel the need to state here that Peter Carey is the author of some of the most important books in my life, including Oscar and Lucinda and His Illegal Self, and use this moment to point out that we all, always, have lots of learning and growing to do.

The Green Carnation and The Nebula Awards!

This here is a two-part blog post, dear readers, because awards season is in full swing, and in order to bring you all the late-breaking news, we need to conserve space.  So, firstly, we’d like to congratulate David France’s insider account of the AIDS epidemic, How To Survive A Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS, for being the unanimous winner of this year’s Green Carnation Prize!

Chair of judges and internationally acclaimed author John Boyne said: ‘In this time of renewed activism in an increasingly uncertain world, France’s definitive account of the AIDS crisis and the activists who changed the fate of so many lives, seems vital and important to inspire everyone, not just the LGBTQ+ community. We couldn’t be prouder to choose this book as the rightful winner.’

And secondly….

This past weekend, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America held their annual conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and announced the winners of the Nebula Awards.

The Nebulas were first handed out in 1966, as a response to the Edgar Awards (which celebrated the best in the mystery genre).  They are selected by, and voted on, by the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.   There are those who say that the Nebula is a more discriminating (and, thus, discriminatory) award, as it is selected by other writers, who focus (allegedly) on artistry and composition over the plot elements, pacing, and surprises that might attract a reader.  On the other hand, because the Nebula voting is so limited, it also means that they have avoided the kind of scandal that hit the Hugos (see our discussion of Puppies from last week).  Thus, while most agree that the Hugo is the more well-recognized of the science fiction awards, the Nebula is a highly–prized sign of recognition from the industry, and from one’s peers.

The award celebration itself sounds like a ridiculous amount of fun, not in the least because of the event’s toast master.  As report by The Verge: 

The event’s toastmaster was Astronaut Kjell Lindgren, who spent 141 days on the International Space Station as part of the Expedition 44 and Expedition 45 missions, where he served as a flight engineer and mission specialist. You might remember him as one of the astronauts who sampled the first station-grown lettuce and took part in an EVA to upgrade the station. He spoke about how NASA was turning science fiction into science fact, and that as a science fiction fan, it was a pleasure to meet some of his heroes who wrote the stories he grew up with. “I am here today because of science fiction,” he said, “my path to space was paved with books.”

I swoon.  I also love knowing that science fiction inspired a real live person to imagine impossible things and to go chasing after them.  Let that be your inspiration today, while you head down to the Library to check out these terrific, award-winning books!

BEST NOVEL

All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders 

BEST NOVELLA

Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire 

BEST NOVELETTE

“The Long Fall Up,” William Ledbetter

BEST SHORT STORY

Seasons of Glass and Iron,” Amal El-Mohtar 

RAY BRADBURY AWARD FOR OUTSTANDING DRAMATIC PRESENTATION

Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, screenplay by Eric Heisserer, 21 Laps Entertainment / FilmNation Entertainment / Lava Bear Films / Xenolinguistics

ANDRE NORTON AWARD FOR YOUNG ADULT SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY

Arabella of Mars, David D. Levine 

“Once the World Was Perfect…”

Once the World Was Perfect
By Joy Hart

Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
Jumped through—
We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life—
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.
No one was without a stone in his or her hand.
There we were,
Right back where we had started.
We were bumping into each other
In the dark.
And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know
How to live with each other.
Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,
And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children,
And their children, all the way through time—
To now, into this morning light to you.

Joy Harjo, “Once the World Was Perfect” from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. Copyright © 2015 by Joy Harjo.

Saturdays @ the South: Another Bibliophile Confession

Ugh… I feel you, kitty.

Alas, dear readers, sometimes things just don’t go as planned. Sometimes it’s blog posts, sometimes it’s life in general and sometimes it’s books. Readers, I’ve been in a book slump lately. This is different from not having the time to read or just not being able to. I’ve been reading, but I haven’t been enjoying very much of what I’ve read. This happens to all readers, but it’s particularly frustrating when books, including the reading and recommending thereof are a significant part of what you do for work.

When things like this happen, it’s human nature to want to find someone to blame: the author for writing a provocatively titled book but instead dumping an unrelated backlist of already studied research; personal taste for finding a book that’s supposed to be a comedic classic a sad means of poking fun of mental illness; your surroundings for being too distracting to focus on this book that *gosh darn it* is supposed to be gripping and interesting.

And then you find a Book. A book that has everything in it you were looking for and everything you hoped it would be. A book that you had been anticipating, but somehow simultaneously forgot about so its appearance was a delightful surprise. For me this was that book:

I’m not going to go so far as to say this All Over the Place restored my faith in reading. (That’s a bit dramatic even for me.) Honestly, it was never my faith in reading that was shaken; it was more like  my ability to choose books that I liked, a questioning of my own taste.

I’d long been a fan of DeRuiter’s blog The Everywhereist. Her particular brand of humor, snark, frankness without being judgmental and love of cupcakes is something I’ve long admired and wanted to emulate (except the love of cupcakes; that I already innately have).  So I remember squealing with delight when I read a review that announced  her book was coming out and immediately put in on my “to order” list. Then I promptly forgot about it until it came into the library. Then, I squealed again and immediately checked it out to myself.

I devoured this book in only a couple of days and I’m not kidding when I’m saying it was everything I hoped it would be. Rather than rehashing or only slightly editing blog posts that I’d already read, she discussed topics that were familiar, but nevertheless were original content. It felt like chatting with a friend you haven’t seen in a while; you fall back into old patterns but still have new things to discuss. I laughed out loud (a rare feat for me when reading), I was moved and, more importantly, I found I could trust my own judgement in books again. I liked a book exactly as much as I thought I would (in this case, it was a lot to live up to), and maybe even a bit more.

So now, dear readers I can go forth with my confidence in what book to read next a little less shaken, which, in turn allows me to recommend books with a little more confidence to our beloved patrons. Tell next week, dear readers, I’m off to find something new to read and eat a cupcake (or two) in celebration.

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy birthday to Vietnamese poet, Tản Đà!

Nguyễn Khắc Hiếu (who used the pen name Tản Đà), was born on this day in 1889 in what is now Khe Thuong, close to Hanoi.  His father was Mandarin, Chinese, and, as a result, Tản Đà learned to speak and read Chinese, which provided him the opportunity to read a wealth of Western literature in translation (which weren’t available in Vietnamese).  His mother was a well-known singer, and it is from her that Tản Đà learned a love of the theater, and also of poetry.  Tản Đà would go on to write a number of plays, poems, and essays, and also translated a number of Chinese works into Vietnamese in order to share his love of literature with others.  His poetry, especially, is recognized today as “transitional”–that is, he blended traditional forms of poetry, images, and tropes, with Western forms of poetry, particularly from France (who controlled the area we now know as Vietnam).

Today, in honor of Tản Đà’s birthday, we wanted to share one of his poems with you (in translation).  We hope you enjoy!

The Hanoi Botanical Gardens, Courtesy of Vietnamtourism

A Stroll at the Flower Nursery

(The Hanoi Botanical Gardens)

Its distance from Hanoi’s streets is near, not far,
Could there be anything more delightful than the flower nursery?
Having a chance I stroll to cheer myself up,
Go up there at noon for some fresh air, sit and hum a tune.
Sitting, I sadly remember the stories of old:
The capitol Thang Long built long, long ago.
Were there castles, monuments, and palaces here,
Or just a few trees, patches of grass, and some flowers?
But it’s certain that since the Westerners came,
We’ve gotten an iron cage to enclose and tend the animals:
Strange beasts, beautiful birds, and shade trees,
Wide, splendid roads, and pleasant views.
During the three months of summer, many people stroll through,
Especially on cool afternoons, there are crowds of all stripes.
Monsieur, Madame, Japanese, and Chinese,
Magistrates, secretaries, old scholars, servants and nursemaids.
Cars, horses, people all come by,
Standing here, going there, talking a little with a laugh.
Butterflies take to wing, the color of fluttering shirts,
The fragrance of magnolia spreads like a perfume.
The afternoon’s late, the funlovers all have left,
At the tree’s root, sighing, I sit alone.
Of the Ly, Tran, and Le kings, all is lost,
But the sight of deer leisurely taking their stroll.

And now…on to the books!

The Fact of a Body: It took Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich years to write this “true crime memoir”, and years longer to find a publisher, but, to judge by all the popular and critical acclaim that she has received for her work, the wait was well worth it.  The child of two lawyers, a younger Marzano-Lesnevich took a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder.  She believed herself to be staunchly against the death penalty–the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes.  As soon as she hears his voice, she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.  finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining the details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, and reckon with a past that colors her view of Ricky’s crime.  But another surprise awaits: She wasn’t the only one who saw her life in Ricky’s.  A story about hope and forgiveness, and whether a single narrative can ever actually access “truth”, this is a tale as complicated as human interactions, strikingly honest, and unlike anything you’ve read before.  Publisher’s Weekly gave the book a starred review, calling it “Haunting…impeccably researched…Her writing is remarkably evocative and taut with suspense, with a level of nuance that sets this effort apart from other true crime accounts.”

New Boy: Shakespeare re-tellings are all the rage, and no one is enjoying themselves more than Hogarth Books, who are publishing a whole series of re-tellings, including this work by beloved author Tracy Chevalier that re-imagines Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello in a school yard in 1970’s Washington, DC.  In Chevalier’s world, diplomat’s son Osei Kokote knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day in another new school.  He knows he’s fortunate to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players – teachers and pupils alike – will never be the same again.  Though Chevalier’s work initially seems like it’s on a smaller scale than Shakespeare’s epic, this work still carries the weight of international politics, decades of racial tension, and the true horror of bullying, making this story about so much more than childhood mistakes and inherited prejudices.  Booklist agrees, saying that in Chevalier’s hands, “the playground is as rife with poisonous intrigue as any monarch’s court… Chevalier’s brilliantly concentrated and galvanizing improvisation thoroughly exposes the malignancy and tragedy of racism, sexism, jealousy, and fear.”

How to be Human: To understand this book, you should probably know that London is full of foxes, and they are really quite friendly (I lived in terror of the one in my backyard for months before realizing it wasn’t going to savage me).  Anyways, that fact becomes very important in Guardian columnist Paula Cocozza’s debut work, where Mary lives in a London suburb beset by urban foxes. On leave from work, unsettled by the proximity of her ex, and struggling with her hostile neighbors, Mary has become increasingly captivated by a magnificent fox who is always in her garden. First she sees him wink at her, then he brings her presents, and finally she invites him into her house. As the boundaries between the domestic and the wild blur, and the neighbors set out to exterminate the fox, it is unclear if Mary will save the fox, or the fox save Mary.  Partially a picture of a mental breakdown, partially a social commentary, and wholly fascinating, this is another book that will have you questioning reality and truth and identity, but in wholly unique ways.  The Times Literary Supplement loved this book, calling in, in its review, “Enchanting… For all its suggestiveness and sensuality, Cocozza’s narrative is artfully restrained . . . In this startling debut, Cocozza seems to be saying that, no matter how lonely the city becomes, through an open window a mass of life is listening back.”

Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently: Beau Lotto is the world-renowned neuroscientist, who studies the biological, psychological, and computational methods of human perception–that is, what the brain takes in, what is does with that information, and how it processes it into a form of understanding in the context of the world in which it lives.  In his infectiously fun and infuriating first book, Lotto tackles all the problems our brains have with perception, and proves, with a whole bunch of optical illusions, illustrations, and examples, that we aren’t seeing the world “as it is” at all–we are seeing what our beautiful, amazing, not-quite-unbiased brains are telling us to see.  But realizing the mechanisms that our brain uses to process information, and to understand why it makes the errors it does, is to come to love your brain even more, especially in a book like this one, that takes such delight in its subject matter.  Kirkus Reviews loved this book too, calling it a “sprightly look into the nature of things…Lotto’s provocative investigation into the mysterious workings of the mind will make readers just that much smarter.”

Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women: When her five-year-old son was killed by a van driving down their street, Susan Burton had no access to grief counseling or other forms of professional help.  As a result, Susan self-medicated, becoming addicted first to cocaine, then crack.  As a resident of South Los Angeles, a black community heavily targeted by the “War on Drugs”, it was but a matter of time before Susan was arrested. She cycled in and out of prison for over fifteen years, and was never offered the chance of rehabilitation until she found it on her own.  Once she got clean, Susan dedicated her life to supporting women facing similar struggles.  Her organization, A New Way of Life, operates five safe homes in Los Angeles that supply a lifeline to hundreds of formerly incarcerated women and their children—setting them on the track to education and employment rather than returns to prison.  In this book, Ms. Burton not only shares her own story with journalist Cari Lynn, but also lays out her ideas and policies for helping formerly incarcerated people live a life of dignity and fulfillment.  Susan Burton has been praised by artists, CEOs, and activists alike, and this book makes it easy to see why.  Publisher’s Weekly  stated in its review that “Susan Burton is a national treasure . . . her life story is testimony to the human capacity for resilience and recovery.”

 

Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

The Hugo Awards and Puppies

The nominations for the 2017 Hugo Awards were announced in April, dear readers, and anticipation is steadily building over which  novels will win.

The Hugo Award is the the longest running prize for science fiction or fantasy works, having been established in 1953.  Up until 1992, the award was known simply as the Science Fiction Achievement Awards, but was subsequently named after Hugo Gernsback, the founder of the pioneering science fiction magazine Amazing Stories.  Gernsback was also responsible for creating the idea of a ‘fandom’.   When readers wrote into Amazing Stories, their addresses were published along with their letters.  As a result readers began to become aware of themselves as fans, and to recognize their collective identity as devotees of the science fiction genre–not bad for 1926.

But “fandom” has its downsides, as well, as few institutions know this better than the Hugo.  See, the Hugo Award nominees and winners are chosen by supporting or attending members of the annual World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, with attendees providing nominees, and then the whole group voting in a runoff vote with five nominees per category (unless there is a tie).  For each category of Hugo, the voter may rank “No Award” as one of their choices. Voters are instructed that they should do so if they feel that none of the nominees are worthy of the award, or if they feel the category should be abolished entirely.

If Jeopardy! recognizes a Thing, it is a Thing.

Anyway, back in 2013, author Larry Correia began speaking with other sci-fi writers (all of whom had been nominated for Hugos, but hadn’t won), and saying wouldn’t it be great if Correia’s novels were nominated for the Hugo Award in order to “poke the establishment in the eye” by nominating “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy handed message fic[tion]”.  That led to the beginning of a not-so-covert voting bloc that attempted to get Correia’s work Monster Hunter Legion nominated.  The bloc called themselves the “Sad Puppies” after a commercial for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal, showing, you guessed it, Sad Puppies, after a blog comment that equated puppy sadness with “boring message-fic winning awards”.  And just so we’re clear here, Correia explained what he meant by “boring message-fic winning awards” in an interview with Wired:

He felt that the Hugos had become overly dominated by what he and others call “Social Justice Warriors,” who value politics over plot development. Particular targets of Puppy derision include two 2014 Hugo winners: John Chu’s short story, “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere,” in which a gay man decides to come out to his traditional Chinese family after the world is beset by a new phenomenon: whenever a person lies, water inexplicably falls on them; and Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice, whose protagonists do not see gender.

The movement was taken over in 2015 by Brad Torgerson, who explained, in the same Wired interview about

“…what he called “the cognitive dissonance of people saying, ‘No, the Hugos are about quality,’ and then at the same time they’re like: ‘Ooh, we can vote for this author because they’re gay, or for this story because it’s got gay characters,’ or, ‘Ooh, we’re going to vote for this author because they’re not white.’ As soon as that becomes the criteria, well, quality goes out the window.”

So the Sad Puppies coordinated, and tried to influence the Hugo nominations by presenting a whole slate of books en masse.  They weren’t terribly successful.  Seven of the twelve 2014 nominees made it to the final ballot, one nominee each in seven categories, including Correia’s Warbound.

Then, in 2015, the “Rabid Puppies” emerged.  And this where things went from generally xenophobic and unwelcoming to flat out virulence.  The “Rabid Puppies”, were led by a man named Theodore Beale, but who goes by the name Vox Day, which is a bad attempt as “Vox Dei”, or “Voice of God”.  Day is the only person to have been kicked out of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in its nearly fifty year history for horrid, racist remarks he made, and posted, directed at N.K. Jemisin (you are welcome to look them up yourself, should you wish).  He delights in being known as “the most despised man in science fiction”.   Anyways, in both 2015 and 2016, Beale published a slate of nominees, mostly conservative writers and people from his own publishing house, and told his followers to vote them. In 2016, they nabbed over 60 nominations, with four categories dominated by Beale’s picks.

Just to give you an idea of how significant this was

And authors responded.  In 2015, “No Award” was given in five categories, meaning that a majority of voters decided that not giving out an award was better than awarding a Puppy pick.  Some categories did award Hugo’s to authors that Puppies had selected, ut they were authors like Neil Gaiman, who was popular enough to win anyway.  In 2016, a number of authors declined their nominations, including Brian Sanderson who wrote a blog post regarding the issue.  In part, Sanderson said:

I didn’t like the way many of the Puppies talked. They could be belligerent and argumentative, using tactics that felt more likely to silence opposition instead of provoke discussion. In addition, they associated with people even worse…Some leaders in the movement verbally attacked people I respect and love…These awards are supposed to be about the best of sf/f. We are not supposed to vote or nominate simply for our favorite writers, nor choose things just because they advance our viewpoint. (Though things we nominate and vote for can indeed do both things.) We are to examine pieces outside of authorship and pick ones that represent the best of the community…I felt that the slate the Puppies were advocating was dangerous for the award, and against its spirit.

Seriously…

Connie Willis pulled out of presenting a prize, saying her presence would “lend cover and credibility to winners who got the award through bullying and extortion”.

But instead of giving up, or giving in, the majority of science fiction writers voted…and in the end, all four categories for works of fiction went to women, three of whom were women of color, which is pretty terrific, considering that in 2007, there was only one woman nominated at all.

It’s truly disheartening that, rather than supporting the evolution of the genre, or welcoming new authors…or publicly addressing perceived issues with the nominations process in a manner that would allow debate and discussion, a small group of disaffected people would not only attack a valued and deeply significant institution, but would take such delight in it.  Correia’s original argument was that the Hugo had become classist, discriminating against perceived ‘low-brow’ authors (we’re going to tackle this tomorrow), and while there is a very valid discussion to be had about class and ‘literature’, there is no call to punish other authors–to insult other authors, to attack other authors–because the market around you is changing.  The fact is, it’s no longer 1926, and the kind of privileged literature that could use science fiction as a vehicle for racist, sexist, and generally xenophobic messages has long passed, and the genre has grown and developed too much to go back.   And why would we want to, when there are so many other incredible worlds, fascinating ideas, and strange new futures awaiting us in the pens of new authors who are, and will continue, to bring a new worldview to the page?

After the 2016 season, the rules for the Hugo were changed in an attempt to prevent the Puppies from “breaking” the Hugo any further (George R.R. Martin claimed the award had been “broken” by Beale and his pack).  And this year’s nominations seem to be pretty straightforward, with the Sad Puppies not mounting a recognizable campaign, and the Rabid Puppies succeeding in securing only one ludicrous nomination among a spectrum of titles that have been both commercially successful, and diverse in terms of content and their author’s identities.

So maybe this year, there is hope for the Hugo.  I sincerely hope so.  You can read the full list of nominees here.

Some thoughts on the Bechdel Test

I don’t know about you, dear readers, but I literally cannot wait for Wonder Woman to appear on our screen on June 2.  I tell random strangers about it.  I rage about the lack of advertising for this movie on a regular basis.  And if it is as….unfulfilling…as the other DC films in this franchise have been, I will eat my proverbial hat.

But I digress…in the midst of scouring the internet for excellent information on this most wonderful of superheroes, I noticed a whole ton of articles regarding the now oft-remarked ‘Bechdel Test’, and I had a few thoughts about it that I wanted to share.

For background, the ‘Bechdel Test’, is not really a ‘test’ in the same way, say, a ‘Driving Test’ is a test, or a ‘Blood Test’ is a test.  It is, instead, a way of thinking about the presence of women in films, the ways in which they are represented, and whether they get to be fully human.  The idea came from American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who drew the follow comic for her regular strip in 1985:

In case you can’t read it, the rules are:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Bechdel based her test on a quote from the great and glorious Virginia Woolf, who wrote in a 1929 essay:

All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that

In other words, despite the fact that real women’s lives are shaped by personal relationships with other women, very, very few forms of fiction (particularly film) represent those relationships.  Instead, women are shown as single, isolated entities who support men’s journeys.  If more than one woman is portrayed, it is usually because one (or both of them) is trying to attract the love/attention/desire of a male hero.

The Bechdel Test isn’t perfect.  To highlight one example, the assumption that any discussion of a man makes a movie “anti-feminist”.  But the point of the test has raised a good deal of debate within film circles, and helped to emphasize how far we really have to go to achieve any nominal sense of equality in our representations.  For example, an article in The Wrap cites a study conducted by by Professor Stacy L. Smith and the Media, Diversity & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  The study examined the 100 top-grossing films from 2015 and 4,370 speaking characters for gender, racial/ethnic representation, and LGBT status.  The results?

68.6 percent of named characters were still male, and only 31.4 percent female across the 100 top‐grossing films of 2015 (making a gender ratio of 2.2 male characters to every female). This figure has not changed since 2007.

In addition, females were over three times as likely as their male counterparts to be shown in sexually revealing clothing (30.2 percent vs. 7.7 percent) and with some nudity (29 percent vs. 9.5 percent).

Additionally, this is also a great time to talk about the enormous disparity in film makers, as well.  How are we supposed to tell new stories without new storytellers?

But in studying this material, I couldn’t help but think–what about men?  How many men can you name in film or literature that have meaningful relationships with other men?

This week, Vulture magazine published an article that stated:

…but nothing has troubled filmmakers as enduringly as the mysteries of female bonding. For whatever reason — our inherited medieval imaginations, the cycles of the moon, perhaps — in their short life the movies have been perennially haunted by a fear that when two or more women are left alone together, some kind of dark magic will inevitably rear its head.

Interestingly, though, The Atlantic published an article a few years ago that discussed the very real difficulties that men suffered, especially in later life, keeping friendships.  The reasons cited were: jealousy over friends’ personal and professional achievements, a lack of communication skills, and a society that teaches men not to express emotion.   All of which indicate to me that this gendered structure we’ve set up here is hurting both women and men, forcing them to perform to strange, unrealistic expectations that are harming all of our individual and collective abilities to make connections.

So I figured we could explore some books today that celebrate close relationships that help pave the way towards thinking about relationships differently.  If we’re going to make the world a better place, after all, it’s nice to have some blueprints!

Three Comrades: We’ve discussed this book a lot since our Classics Book Group met this book last year.  Most people were introduced to Erich Maria Remarque through his novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which focuses on the experience of young German soldiers in World War I.  But Remarque wrote a great deal more than that, including this novel, which focuses on three German veterans of the First World War and the auto body/mechanic shop they open.  The narrator of the book falls in love, yes, with a woman named Pat, but that love only brings these friends together more–indeed, rather than shunning her, or shying away from the couple, Pat becomes a member of their circle of friends.  This is a story about love, friendship, loyalty and acceptance, and is absolutely unforgettable.  Also of note here is the way in which Remarque portrays Berlin at the beginning of the Nazi rise to power.  His love letter to a world about to fall is as heartbreaking as any experience of his titular Comrades.

Boy, Snow, BirdHelen Oyeyemi is a marvel at re-imagining traditional fables and fairytales with a contemporary edge, and feminist observations, and this book is a showcase of her remarkable talent.  This story, which echoes the Brothers Grimm’s  “Snow White”, emphasizes the female hatred so often found in fairytales, but with the broader canvas of the novel, and a richer story-line, Oyeyemi has woven a tale of racial tensions, familial jealousies, and complex relationships between the women. Though for much of the novel half-sisters Snow and Bird are separated by Bird’s mother, Boy, they begin to write letters to each other sharing snippets of family history as well as their own secrets and girlish curiosities about each other. Their friendship, in the end, is not about men, but about their mutual quest for a stronger kind of bond, and the sense of themselves they find in communicating with each other.

Ancillary JusticeAnn Leckie’s novel doesn’t so much pass the Bechdel Test as leave it behind in the dust, as her Radchaii empire don’t care much about gender, and their language does not make distinctions between male and female.  Moreover, Leckie’s choice to make the default gender distinction (which, in English is “he”) female makes the world of this book feel strangely alien.  Once, the heroine of this tale, Breq, was a Justice of Toren –a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.  Now, she has nothing left but her desire for revenge against the many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.  But the real power of this book lies in Breq’s relationships with One Esk and Lieutenant Awn–two characters who are difficult to describe, as Leckie does such a wonderful job letting the reader conceptualize them on their own.  Though not always an easy book to read, the characters and their bonds are so real and so believable that this story becomes a visceral treat that even readers who aren’t big sci-fi fans will enjoy.

The Kite Runner: Not only is Khaled Hosseini’s story an emotionally wrenching tale of male friendship, but it also a perfect example of our “Reading Without Walls Challenge” books, too!  The novel follows the story of Amir, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman in Kabul, and Hassan, the son of Amir’s father’s servant. As children in the relatively stable Afghanistan of the early 1970s, the boys are inseparable, spending idyllic days running kites and telling stories of mystical places and powerful warriors–until an unspeakable event changes their friendship forever.  Amir and his father flee to America as the monarchy begins to crumble, but the ties between these two young men is too powerful to be severed, and years later, Amir’s yearning for his friend’s forgiveness will lead him on a journey to a home he can no longer recognize.  Though this book deals a great deal with the pain that relationships can cause, Hossenini reminds us over and over again that they are still absolutely worth the pain, because they remind us who were truly are.

Happy reading dear friends!