Reading April

I wrote this a couple of months ago and forgot to post. Gearing up for a book launch can be crazy. So some of the descriptions this month are a bit sketchy. Please see Caveats below.

Overview

No nonfiction this month. I was travelling, writing nonfiction writing, doing interviews, holding business conversations, etc. So I started many (scores) of novels and story collections and did not have the bandwidth or patience to finish most of them.

Read

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucy Peach, Kelly Robson (2018)
Cool SF ecofiction time travel to Ur, with lots of disability themes, biotech, and knotty ethical dilemmas. Passes the Fries Test with flying colours. Novella with lots of heart and one extremely unflinching choice. Set up for a sequel. Recommended.

Hal, Kate Cudahy (2015)
Unpolished Swordspoint knockoff: secondary world fantasy with no magic, but stuffed with duellists, nobles, politics, and lesbians. If you have a miserable, heavy cold and are doped up on every over-the-counter soporific on the planet, it’s a soothing chunter through familiar tropes. First of a trilogy.

Daughters of the Storm, Kim Wilkins (2018)
Also a secondary world fantasy but this time with an early medieval flavour, and set in an analogue British Isles undergoing its own version of a Christian conversion. It’s the tale of sisters, daughters of the king of the biggest kingdom on the isle. Each sister embodies traits familiar to experienced readers of fairy tales: the Warrior, the Romantic Airhead, the Obsessive Convert, and the Saintly Healer. Their father is remarried, with all the usual attendant step-family troubles, and falls under an enchantment that the sisters, working together, must defeat. It sounds like a cliché but it’s nicely done and involves a lot of well-described outdoor travel and well-considered consequences. A perfect companion for a long, hard journey by plane, train, and automobile.

Island of the Mad, Laurie  R King (2018)
A lesser entry into the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series but, as always, worth reading, this time with queer young things in Venice, lunatic asylums, and a #MeToo moment that was seriously obvious to me from the beginning but dear Mary Russell had to be hit over the head with a zillion times before she could accept it. There again, that’s the underlying theme of #MeToo, too, so in that sense I suppose it makes sense.

Jar of Hearts, Jennifer Hillier (2018)
16-year old Georgina, known as Geo, falls for Calvin, a Bad Boy who turns out to be even worse than anyone thought. Things go very wrong and he ends up becoming known as the Sweetbay Strangler. For 14  years she escapes discovery of her part in his crime, but then the past catches up with her and she spends 5 years in prison while Calvin gets concurrent life sentences. Before she gets out, Calvin escapes. When she gets out she has to remake her life, but then dead bodies start turning up again. It looks as though someone is trying to get her attention… I kept seeing how it would fall into cliché but Hillier kept escaping cliché by the skin of her teeth. Mostly—enough to keep me reading. The last few pages go off the rails a bit, but I still enjoyed it well enough to recommend to those looking for a competent brisk canter through crime, punishment, and redemption, with a bit of straight romance to flavour the mix.

The Power, Naomi Alderman (2017)
When I first heard of this book I saw a lot of potential for Alderman to get it really wrong, to write an eye-rollingly obvious worm-turns story. (I should have read the acknowledgements—Karen Joy Fowler, Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin—before I read the book; I would have been reassured as to its lineage and aims.) But she gets it almost wholly right. It’s a cool sfnal premise: a new organ develops in women, the skein, that allows them to generate an electrical field strong enough to incapacitate. Women suddenly have the power, in every sense. Alderman does a fabulous job of imagining how that would change the world, and she uses the kind of strong, plain prose familiar to genre readers. What counts here is the story and the thought experiment. There isn’t much wasted. Her descriptions of the shocks (in all senses) the world experiences are particularly good. Recommended.

Not finished

This month the list is just too long to bother with. Wow, there’s a lot of crap out there…

TBR

The next post is just about ready to go, so read that tomorrow.


Caveats
This is not meant to function as an in-depth assessment. It’s more a way to monitor what I’m reading and get a sense of where I’m being lazy. My reading can be variable, both in terms of taste and amount. It’s a combination of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and research (for essays on various topics, and for Menewood).

The fiction and narrative nonfiction is a mix of not-yet published, old favourites, and what are frankly bargain backlist that I get for .99¢ from BookBub, sometimes because they’re old favourites I’d like to have in digital format, sometimes because it’s a book I’ve never read that promises to be a couple of hours of light reading that I can fall asleep over without worrying I’ve missed anything. (This is the kind of book I’d read with flu, or doped up on opiates: it does not require full attention but is a great distraction from discomfort.) The research is just as variable and in a variety of disciplines. Some of it is also not-yet-published, some ancient and out of date foundational reading, and almost all a combination of fascinating, difficult, annoying, and necessary.

I start many books; I don’t finish most of them. When that happens, I often won’t discuss them. Why? Because in terms of living writers, punching down isn’t acceptable and punching up can be counterproductive. On occasion I’ll do both but I have to feel seriously provoked in terms of either narrative choices (cripples as narrative prosthesis; women as victims of sexual violence) or a writing habit that has pissed me off once too often (the misuse of language; avoidance of specificity, particularly in matters of time and/or place). Punching dead writers often feels tacky, but not always. I’ll make exceptions for a) those upon whose reputation my comments will have little or no impact (which is, y’know, most of them) and b) if I believe my commentary might prove useful to a potential reader or a new writer.

30 years ago: a love story in photos

Thirty years ago today Kelley and I met in East Lansing, Michigan, on the campus of MSU. We were there for Clarion, a six-week writing workshop. Neither of us had a clue what we were in for. (Read an excerpt of my multi-media memoir, And Now We are Going to Have a Party, for more on that meeting.)

What we were in for turned out to be the beginning of the rest of my life, the fulcrum around which everything turns. But first we had to be apart for over a year, me in Hull, England, and Kelley in Atlanta, Georgia.

Today, to amuse myself, I put together a little photo story.

That autumn we were apart, in 1988, was very, very hard. Kelley was working at GE Computer Services, going to parties, and making friends in the Atlanta queer community. In Hull, I was grief-stricken (my little sister died), stressed out of my mind (in love with two women on opposite sides of the Atlantic), and frantically earning money to get back to the US. As well as my actual job as a caseworker at a street drugs agency, I was teaching women’s self defence as many evenings and weekends as I could. I hadn’t really started to get sick yet…

1989

Then I did get sick. And I lost weight. But then, finally, I managed to get back to Kelley. I’m not sure we let go of each other for more than 5 minutes at a time the whole seven weeks I was in the US. This Polaroid was taken in Tampa, where Kelley introduced me to her mother and stepfather.

This time when I left her it was to sell my house, leave my partner of 10 years, and say goodbye to my family. It took three months. It was hard.

We lived in a brand new apartment way outside Atlanta: Duluth, Georgia. Then moved closer into the city with a rented house in Decatur. Finally, with the advance I got from Ammonite, we had just enough to put down a scarily skimpy deposit and risk an adjustable rate mortgage on a little house in Atlanta itself. At some point I would either sort immigration and we’d move somewhere not so damned hot, or the immigration thing would completely implode and we’d have to leave the country. Either way, we’d be selling before the interest rate jumped too much. It was worth the risk. But money was tight, immigration was daunting, and my mysterious fatigue was not getting better.

In the photo on the left, taken in 1992, the strain is showing. We were seeing lawyer after lawyer and not getting the immigration answers we needed. I was having medical test after medical test, ditto. We knew it was serious when I began to limp. Six months later, I had my diagnosis: MS. Six months after that, we got married. I wore long sleeves because of all the IV bruises on my arms.

Although the marriage had zero legal force it had a profound effect on me. Weirdly, that manifested in me beginning to grow my hair. (Something about being settled? Being a wife? It’s a mystery.) Anyway, by the next spring it was long enough to spray and pin into an updo for a big ol’ Southern party at my editor’s father’s house: everyone who was anyone in Atlanta society was there. It was like playing dress-up. It was playing dress up.

Then I sold another book. I got my Green Card. And we moved to Seattle.

1997

1997. Seattle. We are much more at home. Kelley has a fab job and I’ve published two novels and sold a third. We have a lovely little house in Wallingford (that’s a friend’s house in the background). We’re bursting with happiness. One fly in the ointment: my hair. It’s long enough to plait, very heavy and very annoying. Here it’s scragged out of the way; I am sick of it.

1999. Vermont. I’ve started to shorten my hair. One year later, in 2000, I’ve chopped it all off and bleached it white. This is us in the Queen’s Grill onboard QE2: a transatlantic crossing that was our 40th birthday present to ourselves. We’re both wearing long dresses because they take First Class seriously on that boat. (Next time: a tux!)

2005. One last shot of Kelley taken in the kitchen of our old house-with-steps in Wallingford. One of me in the kitchen of our new single-level house a month later. Kelley has published Solitaire and just started the longest-ever rights negotiation for the movie rights. I’m working on Always.

May 2008 in Los Angeles: winning my sixth Lambda Literary Award. Then the day after in the bar feeling a leetle rough. Then June in Seattle: a dinner party at home to celebrate our 20th anniversary. I am about to start writing Hild. Kelley is writing the screenplay for OtherLife.

These are all taken between 2009 and 2012. The black and white one is me being delirious with delight at getting an offer from FSG for Hild.

2013. General happiness, and then, a few months later, a fully legal wedding on the 20th anniversary of our first nothing-legal wedding.

And that’s it, because, strangely, I just couldn’t find any photos taken in the last five years of us together without other people in them, apart from a set taken last year that we plain don’t like. We’ll have to fix that. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we’ll be spending the rest of the week in a state of general benevolence. I hope your plans are as delicious as ours…

More So Lucky reviews

A busy weekend for So Lucky reviews. Here are three (yes, I know I’ve already mentioned NYTBR but, hey, I like it):

Chicago Review of Books: So Lucky is a Powerful Indictment of Ableism
In So Lucky, a disconcerting but very necessary book, Griffith presents a protagonist with substance, complexity, and purpose. Mara is so much more than her diagnosis and limitations, but her story underlines the insidiousness of ableism and the lamentable mistreatment and neglect of the chronically ill and disabled among us.

and

Seattle Times: An intensely human tale of illness, fear and fighting back
Griffith’s brutal, unsparing style suits the brevity of the book, makes the cascading small encounter with ableism, as well as the tense climax, truly frightening. The narrative feels compacted, but not crushed. Griffith deftly reveals only what is significant, creating an effect that’s like how Mara describes a correctly executed karate strike—’butter sliding down the hot steel of a coiled spring.’

and

New York Times Book Review: Heart-Hammering Science Fiction and Fantasy Thrillers
So Lucky is beautifully written, with a flexible, efficient precision that embodies the protagonist’s voice and character… It’s also welcome and wonderful to see a book that shows queer women dealing with the aftermath of divorce and the tangled difficulties of turning deep friendship into long-distance romance. And Mara is frequently terrible, which I appreciated more than I can easily say. I’m hungry for depictions of women who make bad decisions and wrestle with the consequences, who shed prejudice and learn compassion, who are more than aspirational figureheads.

If you want to see a range of responses to book, I’ve been keeping a list of reviews, interviews, and more. Enjoy!

New York Times Book Review on So Lucky

In a new review of So Lucky just out in the New York Times, Amal El-Mohtar says:

“Nicola Griffith’s So Lucky is a compact, brutal story…fast-paced as a punch in the face… So Lucky is beautifully written, with a flexible, efficient precision that embodies the protagonist’s voice and character… It’s also welcome and wonderful to see a book that shows queer women dealing with the aftermath of divorce and the tangled difficulties of turning deep friendship into long-distance romance. And Mara is frequently terrible, which I appreciated more than I can easily say. I’m hungry for depictions of women who make bad decisions and wrestle with the consequences, who shed prejudice and learn compassion, who are more than aspirational figureheads.”

You can see more So Lucky reviews, interviews, and more here.

 

Book Bingo 2018 and ableism

Image description: A five-squares-a-side book-related bingo card with 24 items to check off (the centre square is ‘Free’), titled “Book Bingo, Adult Summer Reading for 2018.”


** Please see edit below. **

Seattle Arts & Lectures, in concert with the Seattle Public Library, has once again put together a book-related bingo card. Here are the categories:

  • recommended by a librarian
  • fiction
  • finish a book you started and put down
  • mystery or thriller
  • written by an author from another country
  • award-winning author
  • about the environment
  • by an author of color
  • recommended by an independent bookseller
  • history
  • made you cry or laugh out loud
  • graphic novel
  • author (or character) has a disability*
  • takes place in the area where you were born
  • memoir or biography
  • your best friend’s favorite book
  • a SAL speaker (past or upcoming)
  • about travel or read while traveling
  • outside your bubble
  • local author
  • LGBTQIA author or character
  • poetry or essays
  • first in a series
  • suggested by a young person

Only one of these categories, “author (or character) has a disability,” has an asterisk denoting what appears to be a qualifying statement. The qualifying statement reads “Celebrating USA Special Olympics Games – Seattle 2018 (July 1-6).” Shelf Talk, a blog run by the Seattle Public Library, elaborates: “Something special is happening in Seattle July 1 through the 6th: The USA Special Olympic Games!1 […] In honor of that event Book Bingo this year features a square for an author or character that has a disability.”2

Think about that for a bit.

First of all, look at the wording: “author (or character) has a disability.” This is the people-first language I associate with the medical model of disability in which nondisabled people are Normal and disabled people are Other.3 Much better to use identity-first language: “disabled author (or character).”

Now imagine the queer and POC squares have asterisks excusing and explaining their presence: To celebrate the Lambda Literary Awards for Pride because, wow, that’s the only time straight people think about queer people, right? Or, In honour of Martin Luther King Day, because, hey, we can afford to give you one day a year. Remember we are 20% of your community; we don’t need an excuse to be included.

A guest post by Carrie Griffin Basas for the SAL blog arguably addresses some of this, though obliquely. She challenges readers to fill 20% of the squares with books by disabled writers or featuring disabled characters, and she offers some great examples.4

Let me see that 20% and raise it. Print out the card and fill in every single square with a book by a disabled writer and/or about disabled characters. (Here’s a list to get you started.) Then send the 100% #CripLit card in. Make clear to SPL/SAL that #CripLit deserves the same attention as other literatures.

Let me use So Lucky as an example: with this one short novel you could potentially tick off nearly half the categories. At an absolute minimum you can tick off 25%:

LUCKY bingo

Image description: Book bingo card with 11 squares checked off: recommended by a librarian, fiction, mystery or thriller, written by an author from another country, award-winning author, recommended by an independent bookseller, made you laugh or cry out loud, author (or character) has a disability*, outside your bubble, local author, LGBTQIA author or character.

But the point of this exercise isn’t selling So Lucky. It’s about helping SAL and SPL remember two things:

  • Don’t put together anything mentioning disabled people without consulting disabled people: Nothing about us without us.
  • Many of us don’t read books by disabled authors and/or about disabled characters because it will make us feel good for helping those poor Special people. We don’t just read them during special events or during holidays. We read #CripLit because we love it, and we love it because it’s kick-ass, brilliant writing about fascinating characters.

Or as Xena might say, Don’t apologise, Gabrielle. Just improve.

◻︎

** ETAOn Friday, I wrote to SPL and asked for a comment. I explained that I was “unhappy about the way disability is treated in both the card and accompanying blog posts,” and why. I stated that I was sure they had not meant to offend, but that nonetheless the effect was an unhappy one and they might want to look at their language.

Jared Mills responded with a very clear and handsome apology and thanked me for my feedback. “The wording of the square used was based off of our style guides and consultation with the Communications department of the Special Olympics which indicate that people-first language is the preferred consensus, but it sounds like thought on this has been evolving lately. I have forwarded your insights to our ADA Coordinator librarian so that she can assess our style guide after engaging with some of our internal and community stakeholders to look into changing our usage. This sounds like something we should be looking at system-wide to ensure we are having the positive impact intended.” 

We also discussed the Special Olympics and the wisdom of relying on an organisatioin mostly (IMO) run by and for nondisabled interests. Since then we’ve discussed a conversation with City of Seattle’s ADA Manager regarding ‘people-first’ language and starting a conversation in the community to see what the general thoughts and feelings are.

So if you have opinions I’d love to hear them!


1 About those Special Olympics. A cursory scan of their website shows a Leadership Team predominantly composed of nondisabled marketing, branding, and corporate liaison folks. There is one disabled person (who doesn’t identify as disabled but, rather, as “a person who has an intellectual disability”) on the list: the Chief Inspiration Officer (I am not kidding). This does not fill me with confidence. See also others’ criticism of the Special Olympics.
2 The vicious-after-dealing-with-yet-another-microaggression-so-not-inclined-to-be-reasonable part of me mutters, “Poor sad crips don’t know they’re disabled. Let’s not tell them. Let’s just edge around the topic delicately: They have a disability, their disability doesn’t have them! They’re Special people who inspire us and make us want to help them out a bit and give them their very own book square! Not that they read, probably, poor things, but we can read about them and feel good. But only this once, mind; only because we’re throwing them a Special money-making inspirational porn party right here in town!” ETA: As I said to Jared, I know this implication wasn’t deliberate—and his email stance confirms this—but it’s startlingly easy to draw the inference. I decided to leave it in anyway, though relegated to the footnotes, just so readers can see just how effectively microaggression can knock a usually rational human being (that would be me…) off-centre. Also, yeah, I just needed to vent my spleen a little.
3 TL;DR: It’s the crip’s fault for being impaired, not society’s fault—not the cultural and built environment that can make life very difficult for crips. SPL informs me this wording was based on their own style guide and in consultation with the Communications department of the Special Olympics. But see edits in the main body of the post: that might change.
Basas, too, uses people-first language. Perhaps this, too, is a style guide issue, or perhaps it’s Basas’ preferred terminology. Whatever the explanation, let me be very clear: my quarrel here is not with her; this is an institutional not individual issue.

For the love of God, Montresor!

developing-stories-nicola-griffith

How a plastic disposable camera turned my lovely office window into an instant metaphor. A day-in-the-life photo story up at Work in Progress.

My 7th century bronze bird brooch

When I was in Portland last month, Wendy Neathery-Wise gave me a brooch she had made. It’s a bronze and enamel replica of this Anglo-Saxon silver-gilt and garnet bird brooch found in Bekesbourne, Kent:

beaney bird

The original, now in a Cambridgeshire museum

It’s probably 7th century. And assuming it’s the same size as this one, unearthed on Stone Farm Bridleway during excavations for the Channel Tunnel in 2007, it’s small, 2.5 cm or so.

stone farm bridleway brooch

Unearthed from Stone Farm Bridleway in 2007. Date unspecified.

It’s difficult to date these things exactly. There’s a long tradition of Frankish jewellery designs spreading to Kent, and then back again, over the sixth and seventh centuries. The bird brooches—variously called eagles, birds, ravens—are clearly from the same tradition.

For example this pair of Merovingian bird brooches, probably 6th C.

merovingian garnet cloison brooch pair 6th C

Merovingian silver-gilt and garnet bird brooches. About 3.5 cm. Circa 6th century CE.

And this bird-shaped brooch in the Met collection: silver-gilt and garnet, small, and early/mid-6th C. I’m guessing they were used to pin clothes at the shoulder, but whether for women or men I couldn’t say.

silver gilt bird

Bird-Shaped Brooch. 500–550 CE. Silver-gilt and garnet. 3.1 cm.

Then there’s this one, bronze and garnet with traces of gold and silver, described by the Cleveland Museum of Art as a Frankish eagle-shaped fibula :

eagle-shaped fibula

Frankish eagle-shaped fibula. Bronze with traces of gilding and silver, and garnets. 6th century CE. 2.9 cm.

Wendy recreated the Bekesbourne brooch using the sand-casting method. This means carving a replica from wax. Filling a flask with sand and stamping out a mould with the wax. The melting bronze and pouring it into the mould. Then enamelling and so on. With her permission, I’ve lifted some of those photos for this post but if you want more detail you should go read her account.

The Bekebourne brooch doesn’t have a back or pin, so Wendy took her best guess and soldered on a simple bronze pin.

And here’s the finished article, clutched in my greedy hand:

bird on hand

It’s a phenomenal piece of work. I don’t know if Wendy plans to sell them, but if she does, you should get one!

I now have not one but two bronze Anglo-Saxon replica brooches. The other is of the Beast of Bamburgh. I have a nifty seax, too. And the 2,000 year-old carnelians that inspired Hild’s beads.

What I long for are a 6th or 7th C Anglo-Saxon ring, or maybe a cross; a glass beaker; and a gold coin. Let me know if you happen to know of any for sale…