Antler Review: February Was Cold and Tentacular

It’s time again for the Antler Review! In case you’re new around here, I’m gonna rehash my reasons for doing this.

The Antler Review is a curated list of my favorite things from the last month on the calendar. It’s mostly short fiction and articles, but I typically also recommend one book a month. And sometimes I include movies or TV, or a video essay (there’s one right below!)

Why do I do this? I do this because reading these days is like drinking from the firehose. There’s too much to be able to read it all, and great stuff flows past your face all the time. I’m hoping I can point out the things that I’ve loved so that more people can love them, too. Also, I have a lot of a opinions and I have a blog where I share them. So welcome to my living room; please enjoy the reading material and the stuff I’m casting on the screen.

This February has been exceedingly cold (a week in the Missouri ice storms certainly helped with that) and I’ve had a lot of reasons to seek the company of good books. So let’s start there.

The best novel-length work of fiction I read last month was “The Mere Wife” by Maria Dahvana Headley. Whenever a book is sold as a retelling of a story I already love, I get leery. In this case, the original work in question is Beowulf, which I studied at Berkeley and absolutely adore. I was worried that stripped of its figurative, mysterious language, this story would lose its magical luster for me.

I was wrong.

Headley’s retelling of Beowulf turns Grendel’s mother into a disabled army veteran. The author turns Herot Hall into the contested territory that always exists in generations after colonization. The dynamic between the people in the village and the people in the mountain is explored on so many levels, culminating in an intimate understanding of the monster. Beowulf, no longer titular, is a former soldier turned cop; a tool leveraged between the women whose story this really is. The matriarchs of Herot Hall and the monster’s mother struggle mightily and on an epic scale in this beautifully written and beguiling work. Whether you love Beowulf or you’ve never read it, I recommend this book. It is dynamite dropped into the underground seas of your heart.

In shorter works, I loved “Exit Stage Left: The Chronicles of Snagglepuss,” by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan. I married a librarian, and sometimes he puts something into my hands that I’d have never chosen. But he knows me pretty well. When I saw “the Hanna-Barbera universe” written at the top of this thing, I laughed. What, like gritty Flintstones? Yes, exactly that. Within one page, I went from reading the lines aloud in my best foppish Snaggletooth voice to choking up. This story puts Snaggletooth into the Red Scare, trying to protect his queer friends in the literary scene in the 1950s and conversing with contemporaries like Lillian Hellman. I don’t want to give too much of this graphic novel away, but it really stuck with me. It is strange to recommend a pink cat who never was as a vital reading in queer history. But here we are, and that is what I am telling you. Also, the art is fantastic.

In short fiction this month, I felt rich and lucky to discover so much good stuff. I adored Jenn Reese’s dialogue between sentient spaceships from Fireside, called “Symphony for the Space Between the Stars.” This read will take minutes and you’ll remember it for months. It’s simple, beautiful, and executed with economy and style.

Caroline Cantrell came in this month with another quick read; a poem, in this case. Strange Horizons published her “Modern Girl’s Guide to Dating the Paranormal.” This is so many things at once: tongue-in-cheek, funny, thought-provoking, and the kind of clever truism that makes you laugh out loud and demand to read it to a friend.

Speaking of things you’ll clamor for your friends to read, I highly recommend John Wiswell’s “The Tentacle and You,” published in Nature. Wiswell is a fantastically whimsical author, making all that slithers tickle, as well. This one barely came in under the wire on the last day of the month, but I knew at once that it would slip through.

And now we take a turn for the serious.

In February, my dear friend Elsa wrote for CNN about her experience being born with Congenital Rubella Syndrome and how it gives her a unique perspective on the scourge that is the anti-vax conspiracy. Many people never hear from anyone with experiences like these. Elsa is a brilliant, wonderful person and I wouldn’t change a thing about her. This is complicated. Read it in her own words. 

Wiccans, witches, pagans, and other folks who do magic are in the middle of a long reckoning with racism and appropriation in our practices. We are not good at acknowledging these things, and I hope we are moving toward something better. Cowlitz essayist Elissa Washuta wrote about this from the point of view of an Indigenous/First Nations practitioner, and it’s a compelling, shaming read. If you’re a witch, you need to read this one. It’s past time for us to do better, and that starts with listening to the people that we’ve harmed.

Finally, I am a Patreon supporter and a big fan of the Pop Culture Detective. The creator is an excellent critic of cultural phenomenons and norms, and takes on huge topics in an accessible way. His work on the casual misogyny in such shows as “The Big Bang Theory” got my attention a while ago, but this month’s post made me physically sick. In the video essay “Sexual Assault of Men Played for Laughs,” the essayist points how how gruesomely pervasive this awful trope is. He spots it in places I never realized it existed, including in media made for small children. Starting with toddlers, we teach little girls that sexual assault is inevitable and little boys that it only happens to the weak and deserving among them; that if it happens, people will laugh and shrug it off. This is a monstrous problem and it makes life terribly difficult for men who survive assault. Prison rape is not a just punishment, and jokes about it aren’t funny. This gag is tired and dangerous, and it’s got to be routed out. Watch this one if you can, but be gentle with yourself. It turned my stomach as a well-informed survivor with a very thick skin.

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