Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Bit More from 2014

My round-up of 2014 was a touch premature, not in terms of my writing or its publication--what was slush remains slush--but in terms of my reading. My work is closed for the holidays, so I have gotten quite a bit more reading done, and quite a bit of it has been good.

First I need to remedy my oversight of not including Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and part of Akashic Books' excellent place-noir series, in my list of good books for the year. Not every story included is great, but more are than aren't, and their cumulative impact was to remind me of the utter barbarity of this country's prison-industrial complex, in both its design and its extent.

Aside from that, I have four books to add from this past week to my list of recommendations, two fiction and two non-fiction. The fiction books are Paradise Lost by John Milton--no, I had not read it until now--and An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. The Milton, while its underlying metaphysics are utterly foreign and aporetic to me, has more passages of poetic grandeur than much of the rest of the Anglophone canon put together. I suspect that for many contemporary, secular readers, or at least those like myself who do not come from a Christian cultural/religious background, one spends much of the reading waiting for Satan to speak again. I still feel that any attempted theodicy is monstrous, which is another way of saying, God is a dick.

As for Gay, I cannot say with certainty that it was the best novel in the sphere of crime fiction to come out this year, but I suspect it might have been. It certainly was the best one I have read so far. I finished it in a single day, and slept very poorly that night.

The non-fiction books are The Politics of Wealth in Southwestern Nigeria: Why Ondo's Women Went to War by Elizabeth Anne Eames (full disclosure: I know and work with the author) and A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience by Emerson W. Baker (full disclosure: the author is an alumnus of the college where I work, though I did not know that until I read the acknowledgements). There is a peculiar connection between these books, in that both describe a cultural setting in which witchcraft is/was believed to be a real phenomenon, with attributes of both threat and protective power. The difference is that the Yoruba women whom Eames describes have institutionalized, though contested, power within their culture, whereas the Puritan women of the 17th century are far more consistently placed in the role of the subaltern (much as Milton would have it in his retelling of the Eden myth), and thus their actions and accusations were, in some ways, more disruptive than the ritualized resistance of the women of Ondo.

I finished the Baker book convinced that the witchcraft trials were in large measure a kind of white supremacist hysteria triggered by the colonials' traumatic losses, on the Maine frontier, to the last successful war of Wabanaki resistance. Baker makes a case for this, though more cautiously and as one of only several factors. The evidence seems to me more decisive, and there is more work to be done on the ways in which the witchcraft trials were formative, through both positive precedence and negative reaction, of future criminal jurisprudence in the U.S. Baker touches on one such influence, namely greater caution in the acceptance of women's testimony in the courts, with unfortunately predictable results in terms of rape prosecutions, but as I said, I think there is more to be done in the vein of critical legal theory and history. I also learned a great deal about Maine local history. It is easy to forget today, when Boston is a two-hour drive away and Mainers speak casually of "Massholes" and "people from away," that Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820. Many of those involved in the trials, as accusers, accused, and officials, had Maine connections, so the Salem trials were very much part of Maine history. For example, I learned the names of the first two white men to "own" the land on which I now live. The second of those, Bartholomew Gedney, was one of the judges.

Eames' book, being a printing of her doctoral dissertation, touches on a historical episode that she was fortunate enough to observe as an anthropology graduate student doing field work in the city of Ondo, Nigeria. In short, officials of the state government attempted to levy a tax on women (and only women), in order to capture revenue from the informal sector trading in which they were engaged. Local male traditional leaders were suspected, with reason, of complicity in this demand. The women of the city engaged in an escalating series of public protests, referred to in the local dialect as "women's war," with the result that the tax was revised to apply only to the most successful of women traders. The retelling brings together development economics, household division of labor, an epistemological questioning of standard field work methods, structural analysis of Ondo's unique local institutions, oral tradition, linguistics, and the history of Nigeria, pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial, around this event.

Not recommended is this year's Best American Short Stories. The selection seems particularly weak this year, and looking at the author list in Best American Mystery Stories, I suspect the mystery anthology will be better this year than its more "literary" counterpart. I am working on a "Meta-Anthology" post similar to the one I did last year, and expect it will come out within the next week.

Some notes about other people reading my stories, in posts that I missed from earlier in the year:

And, on a final political note, the suicide of Leelah Alcorn and some of the online reaction to it inspired me into writing a linked series of tweets with some of my thoughts about queerness, individual vs. social responsibility, and the awesome challenges of being a parent. Had I known I would go on that long, it could have been a blog post in itself.

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