Friday, February 15, 2019


In case you missed it, so you don't:

Hey readers! A lot going on, a lot coming up!

Recent Recaps:
  • Maria Dhavana Headley talks The Mere Wife & Beowulf at Northwestern.
  • Nisi Shawl talks about Octavia Butler at the Woodson Library.
  • Still need to write it up, but just caught a great talk from Dr. Teresa K. Woodcraft up at Northwestern, on the "History, Context, and Relevance of Reproductive Dystopias".
Upcoming Talks & Events:
Tons of stuff coming up, thanks especially (but not exclusively) to CPL's One Book One Chicago (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Northwestern's One Book One Northwestern (The Handmaid's Tale).
  • Capricon (one of Chicago's main SF cons) is happening right now, running through this weekend! Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) is the Guest of Honor.
  • Sun. 2/17: Charlie Jane Anders (All The Birds in the Sky, The City in The Middle of The Night) @ Anderson's Naperville.
  • Thur. 21/21: Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics, How To Invent Everything, Adventure Time) @ the Harold Washington Library.
  • Fri. 2/22: Maryse Meijer (Rag) @ 57th Street Books.
  • Sat. 2/23: Ytasha Womack (Afrofuturist scholar) @ Bezazian Library.
  • Mon. 2/25: The Golden Age of Science Fiction with Alec Nevala-Lee and Gary K. Wolfe @ Blackstone Library.
  • Thur. 2/28: The Handmaid's Tale: Three Literary Perspectives @ Northwestern City Campus.
  • Thur. 3/7: Spring edition of Deep Dish! Don't have the lineup yet, but this has been shaping up to be the premier SF/F reading event in Chicago.
  • Sat. 3/9: The Chicago Nerd Social Club's 8th Annual Almost Pi(e) Day @ Open Books!
  • Fri. 3/15: Jonathan Lethem & Stacie Williams @ the American Writers Museum.
  • Fri. 3/22-Sun. 3/23: C2E2 is Chicago's biggest nerdy thing; has an unusually strong writerly guest roster this year.
  • We're also not too far away from the DePaul Pop Culture Conference's "Celebration of Disney".
  • And, before too long, Wiscon will be upon us!
Book Clubs!

"Unholy Land" by Lavie Tidhar

This is a fun read! Alternate histories colliding, based around multiple potential states of the nation of Israel, with some clever meta-narrative and voice tricks going on. Quite rarely, for me, I found myself wishing it was longer.

Our protagonist, Lior Tirosh, is flying home to "Palestina", the Jewish nation established, in this timeline, in early 20th-century Africa (our Uganda). For reasons not immediately clear, Tirosh is experiencing a kind of slippage between worlds, half-remembering other histories. In Palestina, an old acquaintance turns up dead in his hotel room, catching Tirosh up in a conspiratorial tangle of nationalism, terrorism, and some kind of transdimensional plot.

I'm a sucker for a little bit of meta done right, and, if anything, I could do with more here. Tirosh has written or considered writing books with the same names and themes as Tidhar; one can't help but wonder if his very name, Lior, is a pun. That aside, one of my favorite elements of Unholy Land is the occasional jump through alternate worlds, where we catch glimpses of our history, Tidhar's fiction, and even stranger worlds—including scenes from Lovecraft's mythos.

I really love the way that Tidhar's play with multiple alternate histories allows him to punch up the "what if"—his nation of Palestina is tantalizingly close to our timeline, based on actual consideration of establishing a Jewish state in Uganda. Not content with the idea of thus preventing the Holocaust, Tidhar tosses around timelines that seem even worse, or at any rate radically different, and in all the worlds we visit focuses our attention on the xenophobic and even genocidal force that the Promised Land, no matter where situated, might prove to be. Investigator Bloom, the Palestinan intelligence agent following Tirosh, displays a callous violence that is explained, if not excused, in the terrifying reasoning that "they're not my people"; we're left with little doubt that the wall being constructed around Palestina is far more about ideological separation than any effective defense. It's a fairly biting critique of Israel's relationship with Palestine, albeit couched in a plausibly-deniable fantasy that would do the Strugatskys proud.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

"Friday Black" by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Adjei-Brenyah is a name I'll be watching for. This collection is intense: filled with violence, racism, death, and magic. These stories are heavy. But, thanks to Adjei-Brenyah's writing, they're light on their feet, lively and passionate, tinged with dark humor, and rich with detail and empathy that stop most of them short of despair.

There's really not a weak story here; they often feel worth reading on the sheer brashness of their Kilgore Trout-ish premises, but the writing is strong even in the quieter stories. Fantastic, science fictional, and magical realist techniques flesh out ideas and characters that are almost uncomfortably, clearly drawn from present reality.

"The Finkelstein 5", the opening story, launches the collection at full strength. In the wake of a brutal chainsaw-murder of five young black people by a white man who goes free, spontaneous incidences of black-on-white violence erupt while the victims' names are ritually spoken. Both a parody of miscarriages of justice and frighteningly plausible, there's both horror and a kind of bleak, surreal humor in the coverage of the trial. The narrator's storyline captures the confusion and pain around the double violence of the attack and acquittal, and his ability to "dial" his blackness up or down in a quantified way.

"Dreyer's English" by Benjamin Dreyer

Neither speculative fiction nor even fiction at all, I must recommend this in the highest of terms, regardless. A sometimes-snarky love letter to reading and writing, equal parts useful and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the controlled demolition of many illegitimate "rules" of English, tempered as it is with constant attention to how the look, sound, and meaning of the language is being conveyed—the spirit the "laws", such as they are, should be serving.

It was a rare page of this book that passed without at least a chuckle on my part, but Dreyer doesn't feel like he's stretching (much) for laughs. The wit is baked-in.

Structurally, the book is a bit front-loaded—the latter third or so is rather list-y with specifics, though Dreyer keeps it interesting. The book shines most in carefully-drawn examples, illustrating the differences small changes in word choice or punctuation can make. Dreyer mounts a number of impassioned arguments for or against specific grammatical points without seeming fussy or overblown. If you are a writerly type of reader, or a readerly type of writer, one who has opinions on serial commas or the species of dash: this is for you.

Genre fans will also note a few lovely passages on Shirley Jackson—a comma in the opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House is, Dreyer says, his favorite bit of punctuation in written English—and the use of Gollum to indicate what manner of phrases may properly be said to be "hissed".

Sunday, February 10, 2019

"The Autobiography of Red" by Anne Carson

I've been meaning to read this for quite a while, and one of City Lit Books' clubs was reading it, so I finally did!

This was full of delights, so I'm glad I got around to it. It's a novel-in-verse, but to my fairly-untrained-eye not too heavy on formal poetic structures: no rhyming or fixed meter. Mostly it's structured as "long line/short line". The enjambment throughout made me really slow down; it allows the imagery to strike with more force than if it had been written as straight prose.

A re-telling of the myth of Geryon (a monster killed by Hercules), Autobiography of Red recasts the tale as a coming-of-age story. Geryon is still, perhaps, a monster—completely red, and bearing wings—but also just a boy, and the novel pushes playfully at our belief/disbelief in Geryon's physical monstrosity. Growing up on an unspecified island at some unspecified time (seemingly the latter part of the 20th century), Geryon falls in love with his Herakles, eventually running into him again in South America.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Nishi Shawl on Octavia Butler talk

photo by Caren Corley
Last weekend, I was lucky enough to catch Nisi Shawl giving a talk on Octavia E. Butler at the Woodson Library: a crossover event with One Book One Chicago and Black History Month.

I've been fortunate enough to catch Nisi's talks a couple times, at Wiscon and ConFusion, and it was great to hear her thoughts on Butler. Brief notes below, mistakes all mine:

  • Shawl references her interview with Butler in Strange Matings by Aqueduct Press. She first met Butler in 1999.
  • Butler believed in living her dreams, how does that translate? Butler's now-famous "I shall be a best-selling writer" and other notes to self. Shawl also talks about Butler's writing advice from "Furor Scribendi" in Bloodchild and Other Stories.
  • Butler was the first SF author to get the MacArthur grant, used it to buy a house so she could write without worrying about rent. Butler took many "jobs that didn't make her smile" to support herself as a writer. Shawl talks about the importance Butler placed on persistence.