Media Recommendations: Kate Nash, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ellen Kushner

Kate Nash. Like Laura Viers, she’s one of those female artists they play on WERS but utterly fail to promote. Mabye I’m a tad sensitive or maybe shit is still broken and needs fixing, but I do wish I could go a day without noticing how many more MALE artists get major promos — in music, in the visual arts, in poetry, in the mainstream book publishing world. Anyway, Kate Nash. After hearing her song “Foundations” for like the hundredth time and wishing they would tell me who the hell was singing it, it finally stuck in my head. Thank God/dess for Google solving the search problem. Wikipedia entry here, official website here. (I’m not linking to the Myspace page because Myspace hurts my designer’s eyes. It buuuuurrrns!!) I went ahead and gave Universal Music all my personal information so they can spam me incessantly and get free market demographics data. In return, I got a music download and a peek at the video for “Foundations”.When I listened to her song on the radio, I had this image of Kate Nash as a tough Londoner, possibly of color, the kind of woman who wears jeans and leather jackets and yells really loud at soccer matches and can kick ass if she needs to. Turns out she’s actually super-feminine, curvy, given to wearing girly dresses with puffy bodices in ice-cream colors. The video is extremely well-done. In very detail-oriented sort of way, it does an excellent job of evoking the general sense of wrongness that accompanies the end of a relationship.It reminded me of a moment when Army Guy and I were walking through the Pru. A woman at one of those little carts stopped me to demonstrate a little device I’d heard about that gives your nails a shine without the use of nail polish. I’m a sucker for personal care products, especially if they’re made with natural ingredients, and I’d been meaning to seek out exactly what this woman was selling. Of course, she was offering it at a tremendous markup (I got the same thing on eBay for less than $10 later). But I digress. Army Guy patiently waited because he’s a sweetie like that. When I showed him my new, shiny thumbnail, his reaction clearly showed that he didn’t see much of a difference.

“Women notice the details more,” I said.
“I guess so.”

This sort of statement veers closely toward gender essentialism and doesn’t really do justice to the full range and diversity of gender expression in this country. But while I certainly have many gender-atypical aspects to my personality, I present as pretty feminine. And after about a year of dating straight men, I’ve finally come to understand the differences in the way they think.

Kate Nash’s new album is called Made of Bricks

Dragonsong, by Anne McCaffrey. This is one of the classics of science fiction literature. I remember buying all the Pern books (or all the Pern books there were back then) from the Waldenbooks in the local mall when I was still in elementary school. Somewhere along the way, I thought I had to put aside childish things and traded in my collection of paperback by Alan Dean Foster and Anne McCaffery for Hemingway’s collected work. I still regret the day I dumped them down the garbage chute. After a B.A. in English firmly established my lit cred, I got old enough to re-embrace childish things. I’ve re-purchased some of the books and it’s nice to see that some have been reprinted, but I still long for my original collection. It’s an excellent example of the artwork of the 60s and 70s.A friend of mine recently lent me Dragonsong, the fourth in the original six Pern Novels (Dragonflight, Dragonquest, The White Dragon; Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, Dragondrums). As she said, “you can read it in five minutes.” The prose is, of course, not as finely jeweled as, say Barbara Kingsolver’s, but the story and the themes stand up. Reading it as a woman in my 30s, the issues of gender and sexual politics (and the Scottish overtones) really ring true. As an artist who has at times been less than encouraged in my craft, I also identify strongly with Menolly’s story. Plus: dragons!

On the subject of science fiction novels for grown-ups that deal with gender issues, I also highly recommend Marion Zimmer Bradley‘s Darkover novels. MZB is best known for The Mists of Avalon, a retelling of the legends of King Arthur from the perspectives of Guenevere, Morgan Le Fay, and other female characters. When Anita Diamante came out with The Red Tent a few years ago, the jacket copy described it as The Mists of Avalon for the Old Testament.In her acknowledgments page, MZB thanked her husband for believing in her and encouraging her to try her hand at something other than potboilers. Some of those potboilers she’s referring to are the Darkover novels. The sheer number of volumes and the uneven quality of writing from one novel to another means that I’ve never read the entire series. I do highly recommend the three Renunciate books, though: The Shattered Chain, Thendara House, and City of Sorcery. I’m also very fond of The Forbidden Tower. While MZB does an excellent job of world-building (an essential skill for any good scifi writer), three recurring themes truly distinguish her work:

  1. Gender and sexual politics. For reasons discussed in many novels, Darkover is a very patriarchal society, yet MZB’s characters are often strong women who manage to eke out freedom in spite of the dominant culture. She also writes about people on the edges of that society who have found ways to remain true to their own gender and sexual expression. As a woman who came of age after the heydey of the lesbian separatist movement, I appreciate that she avoids the trap of lesbian escapist literature that paints all men as brutes and rapists.
  2. Cultural differences and the impact of technology on society. The difference between the technologically oriented Terrans and the Darkovans, with their own, hidden kind of technology, makes for wonderful mind-fodder.
  3. Variety of sexual expression. MZB’s writes about a world that allows for a variety of sexual and gender expression, rather than the false dichotomy of straight/gay, monogamous/polyamorous, and male/female promulgated in mainstream America. And she doesn’t hit you over the head with it like that last sentence did.

Ellen Kushner‘s Riverside novels. The producer of Sound and Spirit on Public Radio also happens to have written a number of books in the scifi/fantasy genre. Her work, like MZB’s, deals with gender and sexuality within an anachronistic, pre-industrial society. The Riverside novels remind me a great deal of Venice in the 15th century, but with more snow. I read The Privilege of the Sword, about a young girl forced by her crazy uncle to learn swordfighting and wear men’s clothing. I’ve picked up the one that tells the story of the uncle in his younger days as well. Privilege has good prose, themes that interest me, and interesting characterization, but the story line comes to a rushed conclusion that ties itself up a bit too neatly. Still, a very entertaining read.

4 Replies to “Media Recommendations: Kate Nash, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ellen Kushner”

  1. You’ve never read the Dragonsong trilogy??? Love love love. 🙂 I was actually part of an online Pern-based role playing game back in college. When my geek quotient was much higher than it is now. 🙂
    I completely related to Menolly for many, many reasons. In fact, when I was in the roleplaying game, I played a harper who became a dragonrider.
    Read the whole trilogy. They’re fantastic. Great guilty pleasure, easy reads. The Dragonflight trilogy is good, too. But definitely more male-centric than the Dragonsong one.

  2. I still have all my old McCaffrey novels displayed on my bookshelf. I get endless shit for them, but I don’t care. They had such a profound effect on me when I was a kid.

  3. “Foundations” is a pretty awesome song. Once you’ve listened to it, it’s hard to get it out of your head…Like me. I think I’ll go dig up my copy of the album now.
    So, I’ll bite: What is the difference/what are the essential differences between how women and men think?

  4. Oh, yes. I read them all long ago. I just REread them.
    There’s more than a trilogy. McCaffrey wrote a ton of them — we used to even shell out the $20 for the hardcovers sometimes — and then later Mercedes Lackey (how’s THAT for a pen name?) cowrote them with her.
    I’m also a HUGE fan of the Crystal Singer books.

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