29 December 2013

Submergence by J.M. Ledgard

People ask, what kind of writer do you want to be. I say, I want to be like Brancusi. I want my writing to have that rigour, that beauty, and that ability to see the world in a new way.
—J.M. Ledgard
Coffee House Press is one of the very few publishers whose books I will buy simply because Coffee House published them (another, in case you're curious, is Small Beer Press. Apparently, I am partial to publishers with beverages in their names). At this year's AWP conference, I happened to pass the Coffee House booth, and I was curious to see what was new. On a table at the front of the booth, J.M. Ledgard's Submergence grabbed by eye: a novel partially about events in East Africa, with a cover blurb by Teju Cole, published by Coffee House ... how could I resist? I could not. Life caught up with me, though, and I didn't have time to read the book until this week.

I begin by writing about where and why I bought the book because I'm trying to stay specific and concrete when what I most want to do is enthuse and exclaim, and I fear hyperbole, and I fear overselling the book, setting up expectations that can't be met by anything written by a mortal. I want to say: This is the best contemporary novel I have read in a long time, and I've read some excellent contemporary novels this year. I want to say: If you can only read one book in the next week/month/year, read this book. I want to say: We need more books like this book, and yet how can other books be like this book? I want to say: This book could change your life.

I won't really say any of that, though, because it all sounds jejune, and anyway, different readers respond differently. For instance, at The Guardian, Todd McEwen had a generally negative response to Submergence. Reading his review made me think terrible things about Todd McEwen, I will admit, but it also reminded me that some people are blind stupid illiterate unimaginative willfully ignorant willfully narrow in their aesthetics stupid stupid stupid opinions vary. Rather than foaming at the mouth like a madman, I shall try instead to describe a few of the many qualities I find so admirable in this extraordinary book.

(If you would rather judge for yourself, Bomb published a good excerpt.)

16 December 2013

Reading In the Heart of the Country

I create myself in the words that create me.
In the Heart of the Country
I've recently completed a draft of a paper on J.M. Coetzee's second novel, In the Heart of the Country, writing about the book and its contexts (with regard to trauma theory and Afrikaner Nationalism), but as I read various scholarly analyses of it, as well as reviews of the novel when it was first published, what struck me was the book's relative neglect compared to Coetzee's other novels, and the general lack of enthusiasm for it. When I first read it some years ago, I found it befuddling and often tedious. But it stuck with me, even haunted me, and that's why I decided to take some time digging into it. Older now, more experienced in reading Coetzee, I found it immensely rich and a powerful reading experience. Though I've spent a few months reading and re-reading it closely, I still feel like I'm only beginning to get a grasp of all it's up to.

It is impossible to sum up In the Heart of the Country through a simple phrase such as, "This novel is about _________." That blank is full of possibilities. Those possibilities are, in fact, primarily what the book is about: the possibilities (and limits) of meaning.

13 December 2013


Over at Press Play, I have a new text essay to accompany Leigh Singer's video essay on dragons in movies. Here's a taste:
In confronting dragons, humans confront an ancient, alien Nature. Unlike the other popular fantasy figures these days—vampires and zombies—dragons are not transmuted humans, but rather something beyond us, other than us. Often, they are represented as deeply greedy, and this is their fatal flaw (e.g. Smaug in The Hobbit). They guard, hoard, and covet. Within most fantasy stories, they're part of a medieval environment and their greed stands in contrast to the commons. The triumph of the little human against the dragon is a heroic reappropriation of resources and a signal of the human ability to triumph over the hoard of Nature—the dragon must die for civilization to advance. 
You can read the whole thing at Press Play.

06 December 2013


11 February 1990

I was 14 years old on the day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison. I remember the television I watched it on, the room I was in, the couch I sat on. I was a white kid in rural New Hampshire, and I remember being overwhelmed with inexpressible hope, inchoate happiness.


I knew that there was widespread interest in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, in the United States of America, but to see that reflected in the conduct of the people when I arrivedd in New York was something very encouraging, very inspiring. The excitement of the people, the remarks they made which indivated unwavering solidarity with our struggle — in the street, in buildings, offices and resident ... flats — it was just amazing; it swept me from my feet completely ... To know that you are the object of such goodwill makes one humble indeed. And that is how I felt.

—Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself p. 377


Mandela's death yesterday was certainly no surprise — indeed, obituary writers have had their copy prepared for some time — and yet I was deeply shaken. Though I have some South African acquaintances, I've never been there. Mandela's death has no practical effect on my life, because the Mandela I know is an image, a recording, a representation, something beyond his body's life or death. And yet it is wrenching to think that we now live in a world without Mandela.

There have already been countless tributes, of course, some excellent. (Keep your eyes on Africa Is a Country for some of the best. See also Timothy Burke's excellent "Be Nelson Mandela". And Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Apartheid's Useful Idiots".) Here, I want to note the moment, to remember just how sad it felt to live in the hours after Mandela had gone, and then to replace the sadness with the memory of the hopeful happiness I felt that day when I was 14.


When I was among the crowd I raised my right fist and there was a roar. I had not been able to do that for twenty-seven years and it gave me a surge of strength and joy.

—Long Walk to Freedom p. 491

01 December 2013

Film Textbooks, Take 3

A solidly popular post here continues to be one I wrote in 2009 about textbooks for introduction to film courses. I updated it once, way back in 2011, but enough time has passed that it deserves a quick update again.

First, I should say: Because I've started a Ph.D. at UNH, I'm not teaching film these days, except for a summer class online. So I haven't been thinking about film textbooks too much recently. But I do think about it, mostly because I really miss teaching film. It seeps into everything I do, though — this term, for instance, I'm taking a required course for all new grad students who are teaching First-Year Composition (yes, it's a little awkward having 15 years of teaching experience and taking a course like this...), and for my research project for the class I decided to research the use of film analysis in FYC classes. (If you're curious, you can see the results of all that research here. Creating a Weebly site was a class assignment, so I used it as a place to park my project.) I still love film textbooks, though, and have kept current with a few of them.

I was disappointed with the changes between the second and third editions of the textbook I used most frequently, The Film Experience. It's not bad, just not as thoroughly re-envisioned as I hoped it would be. I had hoped it would have more material to help students understand shot and scene analysis, for instance. These are pretty common assignments in intro to film classes, and yet I don't know of any textbook that provides a really excellent model. I still like The Film Experience best of the textbooks I know, however, because it is closest to my own approach to film history and theory.

The latest edition of Film Art is just as gorgeous as previous ones, and the book remains a tremendously thorough guide to formalist film analysis. I really considered using it for my summer course, but in the end I just couldn't justify the cost, because I need a textbook that's broader and more ecumenical.

My experiences with The Oxford History of World Cinema, The Cinema Book, and A Short Guide to Writing About Film were mixed, and I wouldn't use any of them again, though I think they're all useful books. The problem was that The Oxford History was overkill for my class, The Cinema Book just didn't have the right topics for my Deviants class, and A Short Guide is much too expensive for what it is. We used all of the books in class, but none of them as fully as I had hoped, and A Short Guide in particular was just too thin and sketchy for what the students had to pay for it.

For my First Year Composition course next term, I'm using Signs of Life in the USA, a Comp textbook with a popular culture focus, including a pretty good chapter on film (with an essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, whose presence in the book immediately made me happy). With luck, in a few years I'll get to teach a proper film course again, but until then I'm just going to have to make do...

13 November 2013

On 12 Years a Slave

Press Play has now posted an essay I wrote about 12 Years a Slave. It begins:
12 Years a Slave has arrived in theatres already barnacled with expectations. In its festival appearances, it met with critical acclaim, and Oscar odds-makers had already slated it for various awards. Viewers buy their tickets, sit down in their seats, wait for the lights to dim, and expect great things. But viewers also have other, deeper expectations. The dominant cinematic story of slavery has been the story of white redemption and white heroism against an unfortunate institution perpetuated only by the most sadistic of bad white men. Even today, it is exceedingly rare to find a story about slavery that doesn't emphasize how good-hearted white people can be and how inherently just, good, and equal America is. In American movies, black suffering redeems white characters and affirms white nobility. 
12 Years a Slave tells a different story, but because the familiar narrative has conditioned us to view “slave movies” as a genre, we — especially white viewers — may find our expectations unsettled. This unsettling is one of the great virtues of the film.
The rest is available here.

12 November 2013

Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics

Rain Taxi has posted my review of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics. It's one of the best books I've read all year, certainly one of the best poetry anthologies I've read in a long time. Here's a sample of the review:
Reading the book, with all its diversities, can be dizzying—and it’s a glorious feeling. Rarely do anthologies capture quite so much energy of expression. No reader is likely to find all of these poems to their taste, and that is part of the fun, because as we traverse the types and tones, we are challenged to define our own tastes, desires, and identities. Who am I when I read this book? we ask. And: Who might I be?

Regardless of our own relationship to gender, to bodies, to love, lust, and loss, we will find ourselves somewhere within these pages, within these lines. Here are voices to hear—voices that, because of all their differences, are ineluctably human: our friends, family, neighbors, ancestors, lovers, selves.

25 October 2013

Rob Zombie and the Cinema of Cruelty

I have a new video essay and accompanying text essay up at Press Play. This one, in honor of Halloween, is about the work of one of my favorite living directors, Rob Zombie. In it, I relate some writings by Antonin Artaud to some of what it seems to me Zombie is up to in his work.

One thing that struck me as I rewatched all of Zombie's movies over the space of just a couple days to create the essays was how very David Lynchian his last two films have become — Halloween II and The Lords of Salem both remind me of nothing so much as Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.


Other obligations have kept me away from blogging for a month, and though I fully intended to mark and celebrate the publication of Jeff VanderMeer's wondrous Wonderbook last week, time was not on my side.

I am biased toward Wonderbook because Jeff is a close friend, I was a consultant on the text, and I wrote some stuff for it. But I don't think my biases warp my perception of the book in this case, because it is just undeniably beautiful. Simply as an object, it's magnificent. (And I had nothing to do with the design, layout, or production, so I think I can be at least partially objective about that.) After Jeff sent me an advance copy, I told him I just kept carrying it around with me wherever I went so I could leaf through it. I'd seen a lot of the book before, but there's a huge difference between looking at it as a series of draft PDFs and holding the whole thing in your hands.

I think the text offers useful, new, and invigorating ideas about how to create fiction — or anything, really, because this is fundamentally a book about creativity, even if the example vehicle for creativity in it is fiction — but I couldn't possibly pretend to be unbiased there.

The accompanying website Wonderbooknow.com is also pretty darn great. I've got a couple pieces of writing there, too, but for a sense of what makes the website so great, I'd point in you first toward the Editors' Roundtable, the sample of the editing process Jeff's novel Shriek: An Afterword went through with the extraordinary editor Liz Gorinsky, and the various interviews with writers. There's tons more stuff available at the site, and it's worth taking the time to explore. It's a remarkably rich and generous website to accompany a breathtakingly original and rewarding book.

art by Scott Eagle for Wonderbook

28 September 2013

You're Doing It Wrong in the Mirror

via Wikimedia Commons

We can argue about whether Hamlet is right or not when he claims that art holds a mirror up to nature. But let’s just say he is. Here’s what Hamlet doesn’t say: that art is a mirror you choose to pick up to see yourself. Art shows you a mirror. That thing you see in there isn’t supposed to be your pre-conceived self-image. It’s something strange, and alien, and scary, or ridiculous, or dull. But it’s something that demands engagement. And sometimes, it becomes something that you realize is in fact you — but that’s not meant to be a happy realization. If the thing you see when you look into a book looks exactly like what you think you look like, you’re doing it wrong.
—Holger Syme, "The Loneliness of the Old White Male"

18 September 2013

Gun Culture, USA

Another mass shooting.

And what comes then comes from my friends who love their guns? This, now making the rounds of the gun nut Facebook page nearest you:

Welcome to the world the NRA has created. Sure, some people demand that we do something!, but it's theatre. Nothing gets done. True, most of the proposals for what to do are hasty and only vaguely more informed than the above graphic. (I've long been skeptical that we can do much of anything about gun violence in the US, given the realities. Still, practical, reasonable measures could help — treat guns like cars, for instance. But such ideas are politically impossible.) The general lack of quality to our national conversation on guns is not some fluke. It was created and is sustained by wealthy interests. The NRA fundraises and fundraises, lobbies and lobbies. Their leaders will do their best to look sad and concerned and serious, but don't miss the dollar signs in their eyes. They've spent decades training a solid subset of their membership into paranoia, which for the NRA means training those people to respond to tragedies by sending money and spreading macho idiocy.

Funding for studies by the CDC of gun violence has fallen 96% since 1996. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, & Explosives has been crippled by the NRA's minions in Congress. Including blackmarket weapons, there are almost certainly more guns than people in the U.S., but they're owned by a minority of the population. And only a small group of that minority buys into the paranoid ideology of the NRA. But boy do they buy into it. They buy the gear and they buy the hooks, lines, and sinkers. They buy and they buy and they buy.

17 September 2013

For a Trans-Inclusive Feminism & Womanism

We are committed to recognizing and respecting the complex construction of sexual/gender identity; to recognizing trans* women as women and including them in all women’s spaces; to recognizing trans* men as men and rejecting accounts of manhood that exclude them; to recognizing the existence of genderqueer, non-binary identifying people and accepting their humanity; to rigorous, thoughtful, nuanced research and analysis of gender, sex, and sexuality that accept trans* people as authorities on their own experiences and understands that the legitimacy of their lives is not up for debate; and to fighting the twin ideologies of transphobia and patriarchy in all their guises. [read more]
I agree with everything in the new "Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism", and so just sent my name in to be added to the list of signers. The statement is well-written and thoughtful, a nice counter to the reckless, hateful statements and actions of certain people who have taken to calling themselves "radical feminists". Here's to a wondrous diversity of gendericity!

Thanks to Cheryl Morgan for sharing the link. If you want to sign on, here's the info:
If you are a blogger/writer/academic/educator/artist/activist/otherwise in a position to affect feminist or womanist discourse or action and you would like to sign on to this statement, let us know!  You can use the form on the contact page or you can email us at feministsfightingtransphobia1@gmail.com.  We’d love to hear from you.

15 September 2013

"Everything is contingent, of course, on what you take yourself to be."

From "James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78" at The Paris Review:

You read contemporary novels out of a sense of responsibility?

In a way. At any rate, few novelists interest me—which has nothing to do with their values. I find most of them too remote for me. The world of John Updike, for instance, does not impinge on my world. On the other hand, the world of John Cheever did engage me. Obviously, I’m not making a very significant judgment about Updike. It’s entirely subjective, what I’m saying. In the main, the concerns of most white Americans (to use that phrase) are boring, and terribly, terribly self-centered. In the worst sense. Everything is contingent, of course, on what you take yourself to be.

Are you suggesting they are less concerned, somehow, with social injustice?

No, no, you see, I don’t want to make that kind of dichotomy. I’m not asking that anybody get on picket lines or take positions. That is entirely a private matter. What I’m saying has to do with the concept of the self, and the nature of self-indulgence which seems to me to be terribly strangling, and so limited it finally becomes sterile.

And yet in your own writing you deal with personal experiences quite often.

Yes, but—and here I’m in trouble with the language again—it depends upon how you conceive of yourself. It revolves, surely, around the multiplicity of your connections. Obviously you can only deal with your life and work from the vantage point of your self. There isn’t any other vantage point, there is no other point of view. I can’t say about any of my characters that they are utter fictions. I do have a sense of what nagged my attention where and when; even in the dimmest sense I know how a character impinged on me in reality, in what we call reality, the daily world. And then, of course, imagination has something to do with it. But it has got to be triggered by something, it cannot be triggered by itself.

What is it about Emily Dickinson that moves you?

Her use of language, certainly. Her solitude, as well, and the style of that solitude. There is something very moving and in the best sense funny. She isn’t solemn. If you really want to know something about solitude, become famous. That is the turn of the screw. That solitude is practically insurmountable.

14 September 2013

The Popular and the Good and the Doomed

As I was writing a comment over at Adam Roberts's blog (about which more in a moment), I realized I had various items of the last few days swirling through my head, and it all needed a bit of an outlet that wasn't a muddled comment on Adam's blog, but rather a potentially-even-more-muddled post here.

I don't have a whole lot to say about these things, and I certainly have no coherent argument to make, but they've congealed together in my mind, so here they are, with a few lines of annotation from me. Most of these things have gotten a lot of notice, but they haven't gotten a lot of notice together.

11 September 2013

Jerry Garcia Reads...

A friend sent me the above photo this morning. "You probably know more about Sci Fi and Fantasy publications than anyone I know," he wrote, "so can you possibly identify the book that Jerry Garcia is reading in the attached photo. It would mean a lot to thousands of Deadheads."

I like a challenge. The picture is of such low resolution I almost couldn't make out anything helpful about the book, but I was determined. The title seemed long and the more I stared at it, the more it looked like some sort of anthology title ... The Best something? ... maybe a best of the year collection? ... no, best of fantasy and science -- The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, I bet. I've got a few copies of that longrunning series of stories from the venerable magazine, but all mine are old hardcovers picked up at library sales. I'm not sure I've ever even seen one of the paperbacks, or knew that there were paperbacks of the series. But God invented ISFDB for just such moments. I didn't know which volume of the series this was, but figured if I looked up some of the paperbacks from the 1960s, I might be able to figure it out. I tried the 18th first. No, but the text and layout looked like I was maybe in the vicinity. So I just kept trying.

And there it was. The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, 14th Series.

I was particularly amused to see that the ever-wonderful Kit Reed had a story in the book ("Automatic Tiger"). I stuck the info on Facebook and asked her if she'd gotten a fan letter from Jerry. Alas, no. But still, it's nice to find direction around some corner where it's been waiting to meet you.

First Fassbinder

Over at Press Play, I have a video essay and accompanying text essay on the first films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the best of which were recently released in the US by Criterion as part of the Eclipse series.

It's a great shame that most of Fassbinder's films are not easily available on DVD in the US anymore. Criterion has done great work bringing some of them to us, though they've also had some go out of print. Many are available for streaming at Hulu Plus, thankfully. I'm holding out a bit of optimistic hope for a companion Eclipse set: Late Fassbinder, which could include Lili Marleen and Querelle. Or maybe for a release of Eight Hours Are Not a Day. Or ... well, a boy can dream...

10 September 2013

The Potential Doctor Is In

Posting has been nonexistent here for a bit because not only is it the start of a new school year (a time when posting is always light here), but, as I've mentioned before, I'm also now beginning the PhD in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire. This not only involves lots of time in classes, time teaching First-Year Writing, and time doing homework and class prep, but I'm also driving over 300 miles a week commuting to and from campus. And of course there are also the inevitable writing projects — currently, I'm writing an introduction for a new translation from the Japanese of a very interesting novel (more on that later, I'm sure), a couple of book reviews and review-essays and essay-essays, a couple of short stories, and the always very slowly progressing book manuscript on 1980s action movies. And I've got a couple video essays I want to make in the next month or so. And I'm editing a short film I shot this summer. And, well, naturally, blogging is not really at the forefront of my mind right now. But it is there, somewhere, in amidst everything else in that rattletrap of a mind.

02 September 2013

New Design

In honor of the blog's 10th anniversary, I thought it might be nice to spruce things up around here a bit. Thus, a new design.

Some of the design details will be in flux for a bit while I try it all out in different browsers and on different computers. Please pardon any mess!

24 August 2013

Now on Letterboxd

I've been playing around with Letterboxd, a sort of Goodreads-for-movies. I've put in a bunch of ratings and added some reviews, both from here and from an occasional film diary I've kept for the last couple years.

I expect I'll continue using it to keep track of what I've seen, and will probably continue to post short reviews there as time and desire allow. If you want to stand aghast at my bad taste, this will give you lots of opportunities.

19 August 2013

Zulu by Caryl Férey

This review originally appeared in the print edition of Rain Taxi in the fall of 2010. I didn't realize until I read this post at Africa is a Country that the book was being made into a film starring Forrest Whitaker and Orlando Bloom. I wrote as restrained and fair a review as I could; I hated the book. But since the movie is coming out, perhaps this review is of interest.

Caryl Férey

Europa Editions ($15)

French writer Caryl Férey's Zulu isn't likely to win any awards from the South African Department of Tourism, for though the novel is as full as a guidebook with information about the country's history and culture, the story it tells is a relentlessly brutal one, and the South Africa that emerges from the narrative is a place of chaotic violence, rampant drug traffic, densely-populated slums rife with doom and disease, and corruption bursting from every level of society.

The novel is a police procedural portraying an investigation into murders that have a connection to a new and particularly potent drug that has entered Cape Town.  The narrative drifts between various characters' points of view.  One of the protagonists, police officer Ali Neuman, chief of Cape Town's homicide division, is of Zulu ancestry, and Férey peppers the story with information about the decades of tension during the time of South Africa's white minority rule between the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party and the most prominent anti-apartheid organization, the African National Congress.  To Férey's credit, the brutality in Zulu is not portrayed as inherent to some sort of universal, barbaric African nature, but is linked to complex social and political forces, many of them the byproducts of apartheid.  (Nonetheless, at the end of the story, only whites are left standing.)

18 August 2013

Ten Years

One decade ago today, I sat down and started writing blog posts here.

This is the room I wrote in:

That room no longer exists, and not just because it doesn't have all my books and papers everywhere. The house was renovated (for the first time in decades) after I left, with the area that had been my apartment pretty well gutted.

The computer I began the blog with was an iMac G3. A year later, I got the laptop that's visible in those photos.

I've been working up to this anniversary moment by writing posts about each of the years in the decade. Here they are for easy reference, along with the primary topics of the posts:
What I haven't yet said is what most needs to be said: Thank you to you, for reading. I would have continued with the blog for a while even if nobody read it, but I wouldn't have gone on for 10 years. Audiences are necessary as soundingboards and goads and inspiration. I don't have words for how grateful I am to the folks who've stopped by, read some of my rantings and ramblings, and sometimes even returned. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I'm not myself old enough yet to sing Stephen Sondheim's great song "I'm Still Here", but 10 years of internet time has got to be close to being old enough, and I've always thought Elaine Stritch's voice would be perfect for the audio book of the blog, so let's let her sing for us in celebration...


Tomorrow, I start in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire. It's a new path, a new experience. I have no plans to end this blog. It's come this far, so why not keep going?

A Decade of Archives 10: 2003

This is the tenth in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary today, August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

Well, here we are. The beginning.

I started the blog after reading something in an emailed newsletter from my internet provider about Blogger. It sounded interesting, and I was curious to learn about HTML, which you needed to know the basics of to be able to format anything, so I took some of the last few days of summer vacation and played around.

I'd recently begun reading science fiction and fantasy again after a relatively long absence. The New Wave Fabulists issue of Conjunctions brought me back, showing that some interesting stuff had happened since I'd stopped reading SF with any regularity in the mid-'90s. I got interested in the writers associated with the New Weird, and, especially, the contentious discussions that surrounded it for a while. Kathryn Cramer's blog was a definite inspiration — I'd discovered it because of some of her political writings, then used it as a hub for links to things SFnal as well.

It's strange now to think back and remember just how relatively barren the landscape was for people using blogs to write about books, never mind about science fiction and fantasy. That's why I thought I might be able to carve a place for myself. I'd had some interest in writing about current events and politics, but I have little talent for it, and even in 2003 there were dozens and dozens of people using blogs for political purposes, often eloquently and intelligently, which was more than I could manage. So I wrote about books and movies.

The first post is just a definition of mumpsimus. I chose the name after reading about it in Forgotten English by Jeffrey Kacirk. If I was going to be offering ideas and opinions, I thought, I should at least acknowledge that I know such an endeavor to be perilous, even foolhardy.

A Decade of Archives 9: 2004

This is the ninth in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

2004 was the first full year of The Mumpsimus. It was also the year with the largest number of posts: 319. (These days, I'm able to get out about 100 or so in a year.) And it was the year when a relatively large number of people began to notice what was going on here. That initial attention is what made me think this was not, perhaps, just a useless lark. A lark, yes, and largely useless, yes, but maybe not completely so...

The year began with a post about returning: I hadn't paid a lot of attention to the site at the end of 2003, having written one post in December and none in November. The first paragraph of that post indicates that I was still thinking of this as a site about, primarily if not exclusively, science fiction. The reason for my absence, I said, was, "my life has been busy and I haven't been reading nearly as much SF as I would like."

I made up for the absence quickly, with numerous posts, some of them with real substance. The first was a comparison of Sergei Bondarchuk's film of War and Peace with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. The rest of January 2004 covers most of the major topics that the site would continue to explore for the next 9 years: a review of a novel by a writer not known as a genre writer (Genesis by Jim Crace); a plea for a writer who deserves more attention (Judith Merril); a naive but (surprisingly!) not entirely embarrassing post on sexism and reading; somewhat literary theory-ish posts on characterization and narrative (which, despite their naivety — my education in lit theory was entirely autodidactic [read: haphazard, shallow] at that point — are still recognizably in the direction of ideas I now hold); a review of Lucius Shepard's extraordinary 9/11 story "Only Partly Here"a look at Tim Burton's movie Big Fish; a mention of one of my favorite writers, David Markson; and, finally, a post that mentions Samuel Delany's Dhalgren in the context of a discussion of the baleful influence of the 3-act structure for screenplays. Clearly, it was winter in New Hampshire and I needed something to keep my mind occupied other than just teaching high school!

The rest of the year goes on in a similar manner. I hadn't look back on it all until now, and was a bit scared to — I haven't been thrilled with a few of the later years on the whole, so had no reason to assume the earliest years were of any value whatsoever. There's drivel, certainly, but also good stuff, at least in comparison to a lot of what came later.

17 August 2013

Against Silence

"I understand that the games will likely go on—as do most people calling for a boycott—but I don't think our outrage is useless, or unproductive. At the very least, it has brought worldwide attention to the treatment of LGBT people in Russia. Putin may not change his position on the issue, and the discrimination will certainly continue, but the gays in Russia will know they are not alone. This alone is justification enough, because there is one thing that is almost always more useless than outrage: silence."

—Eric Sasson

A Decade of Archives 8: 2005

This is the eighth in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

2005 was a big year around these here parts, as the blog was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. I went to the World Fantasy Convention and wrote up a report of that experience here. It was an exciting time.

From my perspective now, though, 2005 doesn't seem like all that great a year for actual blog posts,. There are lot of them — 2005 is second only to 2004 in the number of individual posts — but most of them are quick links, bits of news, etc. The stuff that I now will just throw on Twitter, or ignore altogether.

This is reassuring, actually, because I often look back on the number of posts in 2005 and 2004 with fondness and even a certain awe — how did I ever write so much? (My life was no less busy and crazy back then; indeed, it was busier and crazier.) I often fear the blog is lying fallow, victim of my other work. But if anything, the number of substantial, substantive posts here has increased over the years.

Getting back into the oldest of the archives brings about mixed feelings. A bit of nostalgia, certainly, occasionally a moment where I'm impressed with something I wrote, but mostly a lot of cringing. There's a youthful enthusiasm, a youthful naivete to a lot of it that just makes me want to hide under a table. I was 29 and 30 in 2005, and yet often wrote like a precocious 12-year-old. (Eight years from now, if I'm lucky I'll be able to say my writings in 2013 remind me of a precocious 20-year-old.)

I'm not going to go back and laugh at my younger self. The archives are there for you to explore and chuckle through all you want. Instead, I'd just like to note a few posts that don't seem to me entirely worth sending down into the memory hole quite yet...

16 August 2013

Whither the Gay Blockbuster?

The next stage will depend on the willingness of queer publics to be both accepting and demanding, for the biggest impediment to the creation of culture is not the imagination of the creator but the receptivity of an audience. Once, a public hungry for change did its part to bring the [New Queer Cinema] to life. In the decades since, queer audiences have too often retreated into a comfort zone of familiar faces and cozy narratives. The 2010-2012 seasons give me hope that change is afoot, and the harsh economic conditions of our times, the extremity of politics, and the disparity of wealth have created an audience eager to be challenged, and to change. I think it's time for queer publics to broaden their vision once again, not shut it down for legal status, gender definition, or genre formula. The creativity of queer communities ensures that anything happening right now is "just a stage" and that, far from returning to earlier iterations as the phrase used to suggest, instead will continually lead to new beginnings across ever-erased, ever-reconstructed boundaries.

—B. Ruby Rich, New Queer Cinema: The Director's Cut, pp. 281-282
At IndieWire, Peter Knegt asks a provocative question: "Why Don't LGBT Movies Make Money at the Box Office Anymore?" He evaluates five possible answers to the question: "1. There's just not as much of a need for these films anymore; 2. There are less LGBT films being made, so there will clearly be less of them grossing $1 million; 3. There are less marketable LGBT films being made; 4. All the good LGBT representation is on TV; 5. The market has simply changed" and decides that #5 is the most likely and significant. There's some good discussion in the comments (even from people who don't recognize the magnificence of Weekend).

My feelings about the whole question are conflicted, and mostly revolve around the premises, which are:

  1. Once upon a time, movies with lead characters who were gay or lesbian were successful at the box office, and that is no longer true.
  2. It would be a good thing if more movies with lead characters who are LGBT were popular with mass audiences. 

13 August 2013

A Decade of Archives 7: 2006

This is the seventh in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

Miami Vice
K: There are times when I'd really love to live in your world.
M: It's full of existential crises, but not a lot of headaches.
K: I've already got the existential crises, so it might be a nice change.
M: There's a reason the first album that ever made a strong impression on me was Stop Making Sense.
K: So that's your aesthetic credo?
M: No, I don't have a credo. It's just something I thought of and so I said it. It's probably not even true.

—"A Conversation After Miami Vice"

2006 seems to me an ideal year of The Mumpsimus, not because all of the posts are high quality (they aren't!) but because the diversity of posts covers just about everything I think of as Mumpsimusian. In other years, the balance has been in one particular direction or another, but if anyone were to ask me to sum up the most dominant ideas and concerns of this blog, I'd tell them to roam around in the 2006 archives.

I'm not one for taxonomy, but it's occasionally useful, so let's taxonomize.

12 August 2013

Watching the Dark: Zero Dark Thirty

Some notes for the above video essay:

My viewing of Zero Dark Thirty and my ideas about it were and are influenced by ideas I first encountered in writings by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Glenn Kenny, Steven Shaviro, and Nicholas Rombes. Their interpretations are not mine, and they should not be blamed for my failures, but I certainly owe them gratitude for whatever insights I have benefited from.

I worked on this video over a period of months, trying simply to gather a few of the motifs and visual patterns in the film (monitors, windows, surfaces, light/dark). It evolved to be something more impressionistic than that, but that was the initial concept.

10 August 2013

A Decade of Archives 6: 2007

This is the sixth in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

I'm Not There
2007 began with an outtake from an interview I did with Juliet Ulman of Bantam Books and ended with a rather mysterious announcement on December 24 that I would need to take a break from blogging for a while. The reason for the hiatus was something I discussed in the previous post: my father's death. I last talked with him on my cell phone as I was walking home after seeing Tim Burton's movie of Sweeney Todd, a review of which was the last substantive post I wrote that year; the next afternoon, I got the call from the New Hampshire State Police. The only thing I managed to write between the announcement of my absence and then my later return was a column for Strange Horizons that adds some context to it all, "Of Muses and Ghosts".

One of the reasons for the eventual turn to highlighting film here more often than before, and to doing more and more with film analysis and production in my life, is that it was and is a way of keeping the good memories of my father present and sending all the truckloads of bad stuff to go die with him. Movies were the one thing we incontrovertibly shared, the one thing we could discuss and enjoy together, and my taste in film is/was inextricably bound to his.

There's a Mountain Goats song to go with this (as there is a Mountain Goats song to go with everything), appropriately from the New Asian Cinema EP, "Cao Dai Blowout", which ends:
When the ghost of your father starts pushing you around,
how are you going to make him stop?
I took down all the crosses,
I let him set up shop.
Appropriately for this post, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats also recently expressed quite well what it is like to search through the archives of things you've created: "exhuming the corpses I became at several turns between then and now."

Looking back on 2007 sure feels more like exhuming corpses than the later years have. Some of this has to do with the split I was talking about last time between life before the fall of 2007 and life after. Looking back over 2008, I could read just the titles of almost all of the posts, and certainly of all the ones that weren't just announcements and links, and have at least some memory of what the post was about. I looked at lots of post titles from 2007 and had no idea what the post contained. Reading them was often like reading something written by someone else, someone familiar but now unreachable.

08 August 2013

A Decade of Archives 5: 2008

This is the fifth in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

Posting in 2008 began late because in December 2007, my father died, leaving me not only with the emotional and psychological challenge of a dead parent, but also with the challenge of now being the heir to a house, property, and gun shop 300+ miles away from where I was then living. By the end of the year, I had quit my job, moved back to New Hampshire, gained a Federal Firearms License to sell off the inventory, and started work as an adjunct professor at Plymouth State University in the English Department and the Women's Studies Program. The year ended with a post noting that George W. Bush had done a wonderful thing for New Hampshire, making our sole contribution to the U.S. Presidency, Franklin Pierce, look better.

It was a relatively thin year for The Mumpsimus — understandably, given how much my life changed over the course of that time. The whole period from summer 2007 (quit my job of 9 years, moved to New Jersey for a job that turned out to be an exhaustingly bad fit for me) to my father's death in December to getting my feet back under me in 2008 is the most difficult period of my life, a life that I now habitually think of as breaking into two periods: before-that-time and after-that-time. The struggles and shocks of that year and a half or so pretty deeply changed what it feels like to be me. It changed my writing (I simply stopped writing for a while), it changed a lot of my desires and perspectives, it changed just about everything I think of as myself. The person I was before that time seems very remote from me, someone I am connected to but do not really know anymore.

What I want to focus on here are a few posts from that year that I think are worth preserving, and then offer some thoughts on my first experiences of teaching college.

Worth preserving: A post on a Coetzee novel that could have been the title for my life: Diary of a Bad Year; a post about Lydia Millet's How the Dead Dream; a note mentioning my long Quarterly Conversation review of Paolo Bacigalupi's Pump Six [some of the only long-form reviewing I did that year, and probably the best]; a post on the great novel Stoner by John Williams; a reflection on five years of blogging; a post about the abortion documentary Lake of Fire; a consideration of the extended cut of one of my favorite movies, The New World; some thoughts on Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K; and an obituary for John Leonard, whose work had a profound influence on my reading and writing.

07 August 2013

"How Far to Englishman's Bay"

My story "How Far to Englishman's Bay" is now available at Nightmare Magazine for reading, or you could listen to it read by Paul Boehmer on the podcast. There's also an interview with me by Erika Holt about the story, though if you don't like to know any plot elements before reading, you should save the interview for after you've finished the story, because I blithely give away a few surprises.

I thought the above image, based partially on one from a 1909 Harper's Weekly story called "The Queer Folk of the Maine Coast" (which would be a perfect subtitle for "How Far to Englishman's Bay") more or less fit the story, so I put it together during a moment when procrastinating from something more important, and so, well, here it is.

05 August 2013

A Decade of Archives 4: 2009

This is the fourth in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

2009 began with an unremarkable post pointing to a couple of free items on the internets and ended with a post on introductory film textbooks (December 2009 began the shift toward more frequent film posts that I discussed in the 2010 commemoration). Looking back on it, 2009 seems like a year with some good specific posts, but overall I don't think of it as a banner year for the blog in any way. I've been struggling with coming up with much to say about it, in fact, so instead of trying to tie everything together artificially, I'm just going to offer a few thoughts on some of my favorite posts from the year.

First, not really a post here (though I mentioned it): an interview with me that Charles Tan did in February 2009. This gives a sense of some of what I was thinking about at the beginning of the year. (Note that, contrary to the bio note at the beginning of that interview, I wasn't actually teaching in New Jersey at that point. I moved back to New Hampshire in the summer of 2008.)

In February, I wrote about Joanna Russ's magnificent vampire story "My Dear Emily". The version I had read at that time did not have Russ's preferred ending. Later, I read her preferred ending, but I'm not sure I prefer it. Sometimes I do. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. Today is Monday, so I prefer the preferred ending. But tomorrow I will prefer the first-published ending. In any case, and with either ending, it's a story I continue to revere.

In March, my essay "Coetzee in the Promised Land" appeared at The Quarterly Conversation (and was, of course, mentioned around these here parts). I'm inordinately proud of this essay, so even though it didn't actually appear here in Mumpsimusland, I'm still linking to it now. Because I can.

Cuffs, bars, guns, and Shakespeare

Malcolm Harris on Shakespeare in prison. The whole essay is excellent, but I was especially taken with two paragraphs, one from Brecht and one from Harris.

Shakespeare pushes the great individuals out of their human relationships (family, state) out onto the heath, into complete isolation, where he must pretend to be great in his decline … Future times will call this kind of drama a drama for cannibals and they’ll say that the human being was eaten as Richard III, with pleasure at the beginning and with pity at the end, but he was always eaten up.
If the carceral system is the country’s fundamental fact, then its fundamental logic is that of cuffs, bars, and guns. No readings or performances are going to change that, but they can change the way we see it from the outside. Without a story about 2,266,800 bad choices, America is just a country that keeps its underclasses in cages. Shakespeare’s drama for cannibals lends a sense of noble inevitability to a prison system that’s not only historically and globally specific, but exceptional. It’s fitting theatre for a society that eats its own.
Also, there is mention of C.L.R. James's great Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways.

02 August 2013

Spring Breakers and All

Spring Breakers is a passion play and a fairy tale, a cynical scream across the shallows, a whitesploitation flick, a trip, a send-up, a gonzo splash of earnestness enacted as amorality, a post-ironic irony of indulgence, an anthem to the twilight's eternal gleaming. It's a more faithful modern adaptation of The Great Gatsby than Baz Luhrman could have ever dreamed, and dream is the operative word here, one that floats through the incantatory voiceovers repeatedly, a word that can't help dredging up that tired, tattered, beloved phrase of nationalistic mythography: The American Dream.

And that's what's at the heart of this movie: the desires that rule our great nation: money, drugs, sex, guns. (What so proudly we hail.)

It made me think of William Carlos Williams and "To Elsie", from Spring and All. The pure products of America. Go crazy.

01 August 2013

Nightmare Magazine issue 11

art by Lena Yuk
The August 2013 issue of Nightmare Magazine contains my story "How Far to Englishman's Bay", which is all about why people from New Hampshire should be careful when they travel to Maine.

The story will be available online for free next week, but why wait when you can have it for $2.99 and also get stories by Jennifer Giesbrecht, Robert McKammon, and Clive Barker, plus part 2 of a great interview with Joe Hill. There's also an "Author Spotlight" interview with each writer, including one conducted with me by Erika Holt, who asked some fun questions.

I'm especially pleased to be in an issue with an interview with Joe Hill, because years and years and years ago, back when I was young and easy under the apple boughs, I interviewed Joe about his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, at that time only available from PS Publishing in the UK. Back then, he was just a mysterious short story writer who seemed to have popped up out of nowhere, and I interviewed him because I wanted to know how somebody from out of nowhere had written such excellent fiction. It turned out he'd grown up in Maine, but like any sensible person, escaped to New Hampshire.

Thanks to John Joseph Adams for publishing the story, and for helping come up with the title, which I like very much. Although now that I think about it, I should have just called the story by our NH state motto: "Live Free or Die". Too obvious, though. And too much like a Die Hard sequel.

28 July 2013

A Decade of Archives 3: 2010

This is the third in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

2010 began here with a look at the extraordinary film Munyurangabo and ended with a look at the extraordinary writings of Wallace Shawn. During the year, I turned my general education class called "The Outsider" into a course on the idea of the image of Africa, a turn that revitalized the course for me, personally, but which faced some huge obstacles in making it work for the students. (Nonetheless, one of those students, now a senior, stopped me last term when he saw me on campus and said the course was really influential and valuable for him. So it worked for one person...) Teaching that course also led to one of my favorite posts from 2010: a look at The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner.

Lots more happened. The third and, alas, final volume of Best American Fantasy was released and sold 3 or 4 copies. I exhorted people to read Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death, and lo and behold it went on to win the World Fantasy Award. People died and I wrote about them: Howard ZinnWilliam TennDavid MarksonJosé Saramago. We had a Third Bear Carnival. One of the most popular posts in the history of the site is from 2010: "Some Good Fantasy Short Stories Online", popular because it's something people seem to Google frequently (I should update the post to get rid of the dead links, but most of the links are, amazingly, still alive). And toward the end of the year, I reminded us all that Jorge Luis Borges's first appearance in English was in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, translated by Anthony Boucher, a fact that continues to amuse and please me.

What I'd like to reflect on here, though, is a turn the blog took in 2010.

24 July 2013

Rejecting Doris Lessing

When crime writer Robert Galbraith was revealed to be J.K. Rowling, I of course thought of Richard Bachman and Stephen King, but I also thought of Jane Somers and Doris Lessing. Lessing wrote and submitted two books under the Somers pseudonym, they were rejected by her publisher (Jonathan Cape) in Britain, and when they were eventually published by Michael Joseph in the UK and Knopf in the US, they were barely noticed and didn't sell well.

The story itself is interesting and, as these stories tend to do, reveals much about the power of expectations created by a recognizeable writer's name.

Now, in a short piece at the New Yorker website, James Lasdun has revealed himself to be the in-house reader at Jonathan Cape who rejected Lessing's first Somers novel. Once Lessing's ruse was revealed, it seems he was a bit of a laughingstock, which is unfortunate — I expect most, if not all, of the people who criticized him for rejecting the book would probably have done the same themselves. (And not because it's a terrible book. I haven't read it. But because any manuscript by an unknown writer has huge hurdles to jump. Most of us are more patient, more thoughtful, more prepared when reading something with a byline we recognize, because we have a template of knowledge and expectations to fit it into. That gets magnified when you're reading from a slush pile, where, to just get through it all, you have to read quickly.)