Squeaking in before the bell tolls midnight and the end of 2012 (because the internet ate my first post and I’m sad to say it was much better).

Neither of my most favorite books of 2012 were published in 2012, but who cares? Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman and When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead are both middle grade. Before I read them, I would have told you I don’t read middle grade. Now I shamelessly push them on all book people and non-book people alike.

Sherman handles race, slavery, 1960s sexism and growing up without one misstep in this gem of a book. I was so afraid of the ending, but it is so so right. She’s a master. Plus it was 18 years in the making. The reader in me marvels, the writer in me weeps.

When You Reach Me has been called bittersweet, and I guess that’s the best that English can do. This book has a beauty that is enhanced and made possible by the presence of pain. It is sweet and painful, kind and unkind, each part necessary for the other.

Best why did it take me so long to read this book?: Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. I’d picked this one up once before and didn’t get very far. I tried again early this year and fell hard. So hard I tried to persuade my book club to read this one instead of the book I knew was going to make me cry (they didn’t go for it). It is difficult to get into, but it is so so worth it once you do.

Best memoir wherein the author should have died multiple times: Wild by Cheryl Strayed (2012). Hilarious and horrifying all at once, I wouldn’t have believed this story if someone had told me about it, but it must be true because publishers are more careful about those things now, right? RIGHT? Do not read this as a how-to to guide for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. She should be dead several times over.

Best categorized as a mystery but I’m not really sure that’s what it is: O Jerusalem by Laurie R. King (re-read). If there are any factual errors in this book, don’t tell me, ok? I don’t want to know. Remember how when I caught a snippet of Elementary on TV I thought Lucy Liu was Sherlock and then I cried when I found out she wasn’t, that it was the guy? This has the female Sherlock Holmes who is disguised as a boy for most of the book in 19teensomething Palestine. She learns Arabic (in addition to the other languages she already knows) and is Jewish. There is obsessive comparative religion, archeology, indigenous (if that’s the word) freedom movements and everyone is passing as something else in this book, one of my favorite themes ever. I think this book was written just for me.

Best graphic novel that unexpectedly made me cry: The Arrival by Shaun Tan. My graphic novel reading is sorely limited, complicated by the fact that the Brooklyn Public Library seems to shelve these books without alphabetizing them (the horror!) But my friend Alison has this book decoupaged or plastered (or something arty) on her wall and so I determined I must read it. Dear reader, I cried.

Best quiet book with the best friendships ever: Silence by Michelle West or Michelle Sagara (2012). Since she’s the same person I’m not going to bother to look it up again. Plenty happens in this book, it’s just not as relentlessly paced or explosiontastic as some other YA books I’ve read this year. But what shines are the friendships. I love the friendship between the girl friends. I love the friendship between the neurotypical girls and the boy with Asperger’s. I wish I had been so brave and smart as a kid. And then I read the author’s story about the dedication and I cried. (I’m pretty sure I read the original, longer entry on her livejournal. I can’t seem to find it, but this will give you an idea.)

Best fantasy: The Siren Depths by Martha Wells (2012). I’ve posted elsewhere about how much I love Martha Wells’ stories. What I love about this book and the others in the trilogy is how fantastic it is, in the sense of extravagantly fanciful, marvelous. I don’t get this feeling that often from fantasy anymore, whether because I’m jaded or because there’s so much grim-dark out there these days.

Honorable mention: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. I know it’s weird to have an honorable mention on my own list. I really really liked this book, but I didn’t love love love it like some of the books I left off this list. However, it surprised me. The concept surprised me, the dragons surprised me, the humor surprised me and the plot surprised me and that is damn rare so I’m putting it here.

Books I thought I read in 2012 but really read in 2011 and I’m going to tell you about them anyway:

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz. Best quote from the book (paraphrased) “Being wrong feels an awful lot like being right.”

Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. As Elizabeth Bear said (more or less) “This is how to write narrative non-fiction as if it were fiction.” Or really something like that. In other words, gruesome, funny, fascinating science and history writing.

A Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. For someone who won the Stoker award and has been nominated for the Nebula, Tiptree and Mythopoeic awards and more, I don’t hear that much about this author. This book is a little like Holly Black’s curse workers trilogy, without the mafia, boarding school or NJ and if Cassel had a happy home life. Ok, it’s really not, except magic runs in families and everyone has it except Gypsum and when she finally does get it, it’s unpleasant curse magic. And the book is awesome, so in that it’s alike.

Best blog: The Book Smugglers. Because why the hell not? I agree with Thea and Ana enough to trust their taste in books. Plus they’re smart, savvy smugglers with lots of sharp commentary on topics that interest me and how they intersect with books.

Best Reads of 2012

Reading Zelazny in the 21st Century

At the opening of the Isle of the Dead, Zelazny is setting out a fishing line of strangeness and ambience, reeling me in, word by word, until I trip. On page 2, “[Condoms] are almost gone now, I hear, the way of the Edsel, the klepsydra and the button hook, shot down and punctured by the safety pill, which makes for larger mammaries, too, so who complains?”

I thought, “Wow, this world is going to be weirder than I thought if men have large breasts.”

I contemplated this idea for probably 30 seconds before it hit me that he meant MEN go in for larger breasts on WOMEN.

Maybe I’m not used to reading first person POV for men, written by men, and here’s the kicker, presumably for men. Maybe I’m not used to reading books with this level of assumption about what is understood to be. Maybe I was so wrapped up in the words that I hadn’t kept any distance from them. These are all possibly true.

Now from what I’ve heard, Roger Zelanzy was a kind man. He was most likely not aware of his sexism. After all, 1969 was barely aware of its sexism, at least compared to today. (How many men today are aware of their own sexism unless it is pointed out by someone he will listen to?) Zelanzy could write this line, that to him was a fact of life so unquestionable, he did not see it as contributing to his world building of a foreign future that is still unknown to the reader. He could not envision me, or I assume any of the other 21st century women or men, taking him literally.

In her creative office, every writer should feel like she’s on a high wire twenty stories off the ground over a major highway with no net to catch her if she falls. She should worry that this book is beyond her skill level, that she might not know enough to write this one, that she might not be good enough to pull this off.

At the same time, she should be having fun—but an adrenalin-junkie kind of fun, an I-can’t-believe-I’m-up-here-trying-this kinda of fun.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch on The Business Rusch

Every writer should feel like she’s on a high wire …

Books I wish I could read right now, but must wait until 2013 for

Untold, Sarah Rees Brennan
Unspoken was a surprise favorite for me this year. Gothics: meh. Girl detectives: ambivalent. Wuthering Heights: meh. I had read one of the author’s other books and wasn’t that excited about it, but I loved Kami Glass, I loved the pushback against soul mates trope, I loved how their relationship was called out as maybe not healthy, I loved the English country setting, I loved the girl friendships. The only thing I didn’t love was the cliffhanger ending! But even that was done well. The book ended in a resting (if not safe) place, and not in the middle of the action like some books I could mention. Oh yeah, and that cover!

No cover and the blurb would probably be spoilerific, so I’m not even looking for it.

Cold Steel, Kate Elliott

Cold Steel by Kate Elliott2
Cold Magic and Cold Fire have Cat, a heroine equally at home with a sword or a sewing needle, non-stop action, steampunk I can get behind because it’s not underpinned by racist Victoriania, POC main characters and a diverse world, lots and lots of secrets and a reluctant romance (possibly the kind I like the best.) Cold Steel is supposed to wrap it all up and I’ll finally find out what’s going on!

The blurb is so spoiler-full if you haven’t read the first two books, I’m not putting it here.

Sequel to Adaptation, Malinda Lo
This book is so super duper sekret its title hasn’t even been released yet. Adaptation was a departure for Malinda Lo from her fairy tale-esque fantasies and sometimes it showed in awkward turns of phrase, but I still devoured the book in one sitting, turning the pages faster and faster to find out what was going to happen next and what would our heroes do? It also ended on a cliffhanger so I am forced to pretend I never read it until the sequel comes out.

Emilie and the Hollow World, Martha Wells

Emilie and the Hollow World by Martha Wells
I love everything Martha Wells writes. She consistently hits all the right notes for me: great heroines, fascinating  and different fantasy, romance doesn’t overpower the story, and I usually can’t tell where she’s going. Also, she sidesteps (in my opinion) the racist, sexist, default to medieval Europe fantasy tropes that tangle so many others’ feet. And that is a huge, huge plus. Because sometimes I want to turn off those parts of my brain and just freaking enjoy a story without being blindsided by someone else’s ick.

From the author’s website:
While running away from home for reasons that are eminently defensible, Emilie’s plans to stow away on the steamship Merry Bell and reach her cousin in the big city go awry, landing her on the wrong ship and at the beginning of a fantastic adventure. Taken under the protection of Lady Marlende, Emilie learns that the crew hopes to use the aether currents and an experimental engine, and with the assistance of Lord Engal, journey to the interior of the planet in search of Marlende’s missing father. With the ship damaged on arrival, they attempt to traverse the strange lands on their quest. But when evidence points to sabotage and they encounter the treacherous Lord Ivers, along with the strange races of the sea-lands, Emilie has to make some challenging decisions and take daring action if they are ever to reach the surface world again.

Red, Alison Cherry

Red by Alison Cherry
Hello, lone contemporary book on this list. And actually cheating, since I’ve read it already (but not the new ending!) and I want all of you to read it too! It’s funny, it’s fun, it has blackmail and the dubious pleasure of a beauty pagent and everyone is a red head! (Disclosure: Alison is a friend of mine, I read this manuscript in its infancy and I’m going to talk it up to everyone until my lips crack.)

Battle, Michelle West

Battle by Michelle West
WHAT? Amazon says this book will be released on December 31, 2012. I’ve been waiting since 1995 and The Hunter’s Oath to find out what happens next. Need I say more? If you haven’t read Michelle West, then you don’t know that there are like 13 other novels in this universe and related to this story line and well over a million words in them. Daunting? Yes, unless you’re thinking “All those words to read!”

To sum up: if you like fantastical books (even Red gets a pass here since it’s quirky contemporary) with strong heroines (for many qualities of strong) with minimal to no romance, you might like some of these books too. (Adaptation’s sequel will probably be the exception, with not one but two main interests, but not like a love triangle; Battle will probably be at the extreme far end of no romance given past books.) Maybe I’ll do a post about why I don’t like romance in books? That would means I’ll have to think about why.

No, I Can’t Stop Thinking about Gender Roles and Sexism, Even When I go to See The Nutcracker

I adore the music for the Nutcracker, though I haven’t seen the ballet in years, and I was excited to see the American Ballet Theater perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Friday night.

It started out so promising: the sets evocative, the costumes lush, the antics of the mice in the kitchens, before the main action opens, kid friendly and amusing. A few kids around me laughed out loud at the scurrying mice and floppy dancing of the life-sized dolls. I wiggled in my seat like a kid myself when I realized several dancers were black and more were Asian (the playbill tells me some were Latino). (This is the first ballet I’m seeing as an adult, so I don’t know if this is more common than it was when I was a kid, or if it’s because it’s NYC.)

I shrugged off the first discordant note, during the party scene, as you do. Because you don’t want to deal with the fail, with the crashing of expectations. From immersive, thrilling performance and evocation of childhood memories to tense and squirming in your seat for an entirely different reason.

It was a small moment, played for laughs, as so many gender stereotypes are. The adult male and female dancers have separated by sex. The men are at the forefront, drinking and partying it up. The women surround them and glare, arms crossed and chins up, until the men give in and ask the women to dance. How ludicrous is that — male ballet dancers pretending they don’t want to dance? Are they a token thrown to the men in the audience, who are presumed not to want to dance themselves, who have been dragged to the ballet by women and children? How stereotypical — white, middle class, Northeast, straight centric — can you get?

So that happened. But the snowflakes were beautiful in the confetti snow and the young dancers playing Clara and the nutcracker boy were full of verve and delight, and the older Clara and older nutcracker danced beautifully. The Mouse King’s costume was deliciously scary with five mouse heads attached to his shoulders and back and extra tails whirling around him as he fought the nutcracker.

In the second act, the curtain rises on a sliver of the stage. Four very little girls on the left are mirrored by four slightly bigger boys on the right, with the queen (sugar plum fairy? I’m not clear who this was) in the middle, anchoring and separating them. The girls, maybe six to eight years old, creep across the stage in these horrible mincing, stilted steps on their toes towards the boys. The boys take long, striding steps, looking like they enjoy the movement of their own bodies, towards the girls. I felt physically sick. These little girls moved like they were cobbled, magnified by the freedom of the boys stride. For no reason, except the choreographer (ABT Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky) thought it looked beautiful.

This short scene colored the rest of the ballet for me. Objectively, I don’t know if the whole second act was WTFery on a large scale or if the individual shocks of WTF affected everything else.  But I was already unhappy when the “Arabian” dancers came on.

Tchaikovsky is problematic. He was composing at a time when exoticism and othering were acceptable and the height of culture (never mind he was from the exotic and othered Russia himself). Choreographers have to be mindful that the second act is sensitive culturally. Ratmansky apparently never got that memo. Not only did he step in it culturally, but he jumped up and down on it sexually.

The “Arabian” dancers were four women with veils in their hair (not over their faces) wearing tunics and loose trousers and one bare-chested man (the first man not to be entirely clothed in the ballet). The women physically fight each other for the man’s attention, pushing each other out of the way and kicking each other. They also pursue him back and forth across the stage while he runs away. This is played for laughs. People, including kids, laughed. I wanted to vomit. Hello, sexualized, exoticizing, othering of non-Western or non-white women. Hello, sexualized, exoticizing, othering of all things “Eastern.”

For context, I had just been reading a post about liking women as essential to being feminist/a decent human being (for men and women) on Shakesville (Feminism 101 for Dudes, part 8). The post and comments are about how we are all socially conditioned to not like women, for women to compete with each other, and for men not see women as human beings. And also 18 kindergarteners had just been murdered in Newton, CT, an unholy result of easily obtainable guns, difficult to obtain and stigmitized mental health care, and the morass of restrictive and violent gender roles assigned to masculinity and men. I wasn’t feeling very forgiving.

Turns out I shouldn’t need to feel forgiving. I came home and checked the 1986 Nutcracker: The Motion Picture for comparison (the only one I had access to because it’s available streaming on Netflix). Yes, it has issues with othering cultures, but not specifically in this section. The Arabian dance is performed by one woman who looks more like a giant bird than anything else and is utterly devoid of the sexualization of this performance.

The “Arabian” dance of the American Ballet Theater production was in no way redeemed by the reversal at the end of the segment, where the four women band together and ignore the man. Especially since they re-appear later, physically carrying him away by the arms and legs. Squick.

Towards the end, the choreographer added bees to the flower dancers. Adult men with bulbous googles and funny yellow heads. The kids liked them. I wanted to like them, but they did not evoke a sense of play and fun in me. I was still too busy thinking about sex and gender roles and stereotypes, while looking at the four male bees zooming around fifteen female flower dancers.

And then, WTF! The nutcracker prince proposes to Clara as princess and they snap a white wedding veil on her head! WHAT? Because every narrative involving a woman must end with marriage? Even if the woman is 12 (Clara as girl) and Clara as princess is very young looking? (If the dancer was Sarah Lane, she’s in her late 20s but looks younger.) Ditto for the guy. Because every young girl must dream of marriage above any other goal in her life? Again I checked the 1986 version. No hint of a wedding. I don’t remember any of the versions I saw as a kid including it. (I did look at the Wikipedia page for The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,  and it does involve a marriage proposal: to a seven year old girl! Written in 1816! Haven’t we progressed at all in the 200 years since?)

The show ends with Clara the girl in bed with her godfather peering in at her through a window. Maybe this was not meant to be creepy in a pedophilia kind of way, but that was certainly the vibe I got from the juxtaposition of Clara as child, the lingering overt sexualization of the Arabian dancers and Clara as a adult and of marriageable age. Oh wait, there was one more detail. Clara cradles, in the exaggerated rocking motion used to signal “here’s a baby,” the nutcracker doll in her arms. The doll just moments ago she agreed to marry. Squick.

I hate those “the production was so good except where it failed because of all those racist and sexist moments.” We shouldn’t give those things a pass, we shouldn’t have to squelch our aversion in order “just” enjoy the good parts. I feel sad and angry that all the wonderful parts suffered and didn’t get the reaction from me they, by themselves, deserved. I’ll be keeping an eye out for Alexei Ratmansky and I won’t be going to any more programs he choreographs. And next year I’ll see The Nutcracker again, but I’m going to try the New York City Ballet.

Evolution of a Sonic Screwdriver

The War Games

The War Games (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In The War Games from 1969, the last serial of the second doctor, the sonic screwdriver is just a screwdriver. In fact, the Doctor uses it demonstrate he is from the future, by loosening and tightening a screw without touching it.

Last episodes to be filmed in black and white, as well.

What with the holiday season and deadlines at work, I probably won’t be blogging too much until the new year.

Over on her blog, Alison Cherry has a Senior superlatives: literary edition post, awarding some of the older books in her extensive collection superlatives in interesting categories. I like the idea so much I’m stealing it (the odd categories are my own):

The Book I Have Owned the Longest

The Forgotten Door

This is probably a tie between The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (1970 Collier Macmillian printing with the Roger Hane illustrated cover) and the book I’m actually going to mention, The Forgotten Door, by Alexander Key, but the latter is not as well known. I loved, loved, LOVED this book as a kid. It’s a portal fantasy, too, but holds up MUCH better than TLWW. I can’t remember a time before I read this book; it is as if I had always already read it.

The Book that Should Be On My Shelves but Isn’t

Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence by Nick Bantock. This is really my sister’s book, but since we shared a room growing up and still have joint custody of a Pooh Christmas ornament, I think it belongs here. Somewhere in all Imageour moves it got misplaced. This is a gorgeously illustrated, mysterious, pop-up epistolary novel for adults. Kind of like a multi-media book before there were multi-media books. Kinda.

The Book My Husband Most Often Tries to Claim as His Own and Steal

Crepusculario, Pablo Neruda‘s first book of poetry. I love the size (4 1/2 by 6 1/2) and feel of this slim volume issued the year I was born (originally published in 1923). My brother-in-Imagelaw gave it to me the first time I went to Chile to visit my then-maybe-boyfriend, later-husband. I think my husband married me just to keep this book in the family.

Book with One of My All-time Favorite Female Heros

The Wizard Hunters, by Martha Wells. Tremaine is one of my favorite heroes of either Imagegender. Trenchant, competent, has morbid sense of humor, knows how to pick a lock, fire a gun and kill a man, isn’t very interested in magic, gets to fly a dirigible before steampunk was a thing, doesn’t damsel, but is in no way perfect. Need I say more?

From My Bookshelf