The OF Blog

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Looking at my recent reading, I almost wonder if I have entered a time warp

It is funny how sometimes the old can become new again.  When I was 23, back in 1997, I thought I was burned out on reading histories.  Back then, I thought that if I had to endure one more dip into primary source material, one more monograph, that I might explode.  Sure enough, despite having taught social studies for several years afterward, I barely read any historical non-fiction.  And yet, earlier this month, I found myself thumbing through the two-volume Library of America edition of 19th century American historian Francis Parkman's seven books on New France, France and England in North America, and I let myself get lost in his prose.  Well, until I began encountering arguments and presentations that led to think, "wait, this should have been approached from another angle" or "no, this isn't a good way of arguing the point," before finding myself engaging in the text not just as a casual reader, but as a former historian-in-training.

Now when I was in grad school, my focus was on Early Modern and Modern European cultural/intellectual/religious history, so I only had passing encounters with American history beyond the survey level (one of those, on colonial Atlantic colonies, taught me more than any other course on how to write and dissect histories).  Therefore, Parkman's histories made me look at the other Library of America volumes I had on hand.  Being typically unambitious, I selected nearly a dozen volumes to read.  However, I am not reading them sequentially, but rather in a patchwork chronological order, going from the 1760s to the 1820s.  For the curious, here's the list of books:

  • Benjamin Franklin, Silence Dogood, The Busy-Body, and Early Writings (1722-1775; already finished); Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings
  • Gordon Wood (ed.), The American Revolution:  Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1772 (almost finished); Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1773-1776 
  • George Washington, Writings (finished the pre-1775 section)
  • Thomas Jefferson, Writings (finished his Autobiography and a pre-1776 section)
  • Abigail Adams, Letters (read pre-1770 letters so far)
  • John Rhodehamel (ed.), The American Revolution:  Writings from the War of Independence (will start after finishing the Wood books)
  • James Madison, Writings (will read after finishing the Rhodehamel)
  • Alexander Hamilton, Writings (to be read concurrently with the Madison and later Jefferson)
Time/energy permitting, I'll write short commentaries on these works in the coming weeks.  It certainly has encouraged me to read more than I have at any point these past 18 months, as I've nearly doubled my 2016 reads over the past two weeks.  If my interest is still sustained after completing these reads, I'll likely read a two-volume look at the debates surrounding the U.S. Constitution and another 19th century history, this one on Jefferson and Madison's administrations.

As for fiction reading, that too seems to have reverted to what I would read in 1996-1997 when I needed a break from reading monographs.  Almost done re-reading Theodore Dreiser's outstanding An American Tragedy and a Library of America edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's pre-1923 works (This Side of Paradise is relatively underrated these days) and I might review those as well.

Yes, I know there are some readers (if any still frequent this blog, that is) who would rather see reviews of recent speculative fictions, but sometimes a reader just has to go back to the well in order to rediscover just what s/he loved about literature in the first place.  Besides, I have 175 Library of America editions that I'd like to review before I turn 50, so might as well whittle down that mountain while my interest is high, n'est ce pas?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

R. Scott Bakker, The Great Ordeal

Domination.  Over lives and nations.  Over history and ignorance.  Over existence itself, down through the leaves of reality's countless skins.  No mortal had possessed such might.  His was a power and potency that not even the Gods, who must ration themselves across all times, could hope to counter, short of scooping themselves hollow and forever dwelling as phantoms...

No soul had no owned Circumstance.  He, and he alone, was the Place, the point of maximal convergence.  Nations hung from his whim.  Reality grovelled before his song.  The Outside itself railed against him.

And yet for all of it darkness still encircled him, the obscurity of before, the blackness of after.

For those who worshipped him as a god, he remaine a mortal man, possessing but one intellect and two hands – great, perhaps, in proportion to his innumerable slaves, but scarcely a mote on the surface of something inconceivable.  He was no more a prophet than an architect or any other who wrenches his conception into labourious reality.  All the futures he had raised had been the issue of his toil...

He suffered visions, certainly, but he had long ceased to trust them. (pp. 120-121)

Despite its many flaws in form, there is something about modern epic fantasies that attracts me to read them still on occasion.  Perhaps it is the partial erasure of modernity, with its rejection of intentionalist world-views, and the resulting construction of a structured reality that is potentially pregnant with meaning in a fashion that just cannot exist today.  Struggles that are made concrete, externalized and presented frequently in anthropomorphic forms, yes, there is the possibility that something profound that could be said about life itself without reducing our own concerns to those of worker bees.  But too often, these promises of profundity dissipate into trite truisms that ring hollow, with various reiterations of pre-modern (usually) Western societies collapsing under the weight of perceived gaps in understanding humanity and its propensity to war against itself.

I have been reading R. Scott Bakker's Second Apocalypse novels for a little over twelve years now.  His mixture of philosophical concepts of mind and reality (or rather, the artificiality of such) within the trappings of a constructed society in which there is a true, "objective" reality where religious texts possess a literal meaning captured my attention when I first read The Darkness That Comes Before back in 2004.  Over the intervening years, I have struggled at times to process what Bakker is exploring, as there are several uncomfortable elements within his fiction that can be off-putting when the reader compares them to modern debates on issues such as gender, race, and general parity between individuals.  His writing is very dense, full of concepts that do not necessarily reflect those of the author himself, but instead of the mindsets that went into the construction of religious/social milieus during the pre-modern era.  It certainly takes some patience and a willingness to trust Bakker to forge on beyond the rapes, the coercions, the general "darkness" of the series to see just where he is going with his arguments and with his characters.

His sixth novel in the overall series (and third in The Aspect-Emperor sub-series), The Great Ordeal, is a revelatory one in many senses.  We come to understand the import behind certain choices made earlier in the series, such as the effects of consuming the enemy Sranc upon the titular Great Ordeal as it moves toward its dread goal or the fate of the Emperor Kellhus's natal Ishuäl.  The reader also learns more of the Non-men and the dreadful effects of their artificial immortality.  Isolated into plot developments, these events alone would provide some fodder for fans of the series to digest until the last volume in The Aspect-Emperor sub-series, The Unholy Consult, appears in the next year.  However, there are certain metaphysical points of contention raised within The Great Ordeal that provide a greater depth to these events.

One of Bakker's concerns throughout this novel, spread as it is among scenes within the Great Ordeal, Ishuäl, the Non-men mansion of Ishterebinth, and the imperial capital of Momemn, is to illustrate how various characters try to grasp the concept of the Absolute.  The quote above, which occurs before a pivotal (and perhaps problematic) scene involving Kellhus, deals with the confluence of reality and lives into a concrete Place where the Absolute dwells.  In this passage, we see some of Kellhus's mentality laid bare for us, with conceits and self-deception ever lurking on the edges of his frank self-portrayal.  This (perhaps deserved?) arrogance, mixed with an ever-growing sense of "love" that threatens to "corrupt" the Thousandfold Thought that has conditioned his path to power, serves as a partial explanation to the events that immediately follow.  By itself, it's a deep look into one of the more mysterious characters in the series, but when viewed in conjunction with scenes that transpire late in the Ishterebinth and Ishuäl chapters, it morphs into something less lofty and more fallible in terms of how Kellhus's conception of the Place/Absolute may be something beyond his ken. 

For readers who have been disturbed in the past by Eärwa's treatment of women (particularly the numerous rapes within the previous novels), Bakker tries to make explicit, through the vision of "Whale Mothers" that Mimara has, that depiction does not equal endorsement.  There are several hints that this "objective" reduction of women to beings lesser than men is due to arbitrariness on the part of those collective beings whose intentions have driven reality in this setting.  Yet despite this, there are still moments where it seems that the female characters in three of the key scenes (Ishterebinth, Ishuäl, Momemn) fall too readily into subordinate roles even when taking into consideration the unfolding situations about them.

The prose was another challenging element.  While I understand Bakker's desire to create a narrative that would reflect (and at times, reveal internal contradictions) ancient historical and religious texts, there were times where the writing was perhaps too opaque in its descriptions of event and its import.  This was especially true in those scenes where characters were considering Love in context of the world about them.  It is one thing to express the importance (and possible deceptions) of Love, but another to weave it in seamlessly with the greater narrative.  Too frequently, I felt as though I were temporarily "tossed out" of reading the text through perceiving the maladroit integration of certain concepts within the narrative.  Yet there were times, especially with the "Boatman" scene, where Bakker's prose creates a heightened sense of horror that goes beyond the visceral into something less definable yet no less terrifying when considered at length.  On the whole, the prose did serve to create a more "alien" mindscape, especially in the Ishterebinth scenes, than what might have occurred if Bakker's prose had been more direct.

For the most part, I was fascinated (I hesitate to use the word "enjoyed," considering the unsettling nature of many of the plot revelations) by many of the scenes present within the novel, yet ultimately I felt as though it ended weakly.  Many of the scenes end on the cusp of something important happening or in the midst of key developments, lacking in any sort of firm developments to help make sense of them.  There were few, if any, "natural" end places for these character/plot arcs and by the time the last page was turned, I was acutely aware that The Great Ordeal was but the first part of a larger narrative arc.  This put a damper on my overall engagement with the novel, as it felt like I was having to abandon it at an earlier place than perhaps it should have concluded.  Now I have to wait for The Unholy Consult's arrival to be able to judge better if what I had just read was as good as I found it to be for the majority of its pages.  The Great Ordeal ultimately is a good, yet flawed, volume in the Second Apocalypse series. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Walt Whitman, Poetry and Prose

1 

I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth
     them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond
     to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the
     charge of the soul.

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own
     bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they
     who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do full as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?

– opening section of "I Sing the Body Electric" (p. 250, Library of America edition)

Every so often, there comes along a literary genius who makes a genre sui generis.  Shakespeare, talented as he was, was in his lifetime merely one of several gifted English playwrights.  Goethe was a master of many trades, yet his impact on prose, drama, and poetry, while profound, did not mark as much of a break with German literary tradition as did the singular work of a 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman.  What Whitman accomplished over the course of thirty-six years of revisions of his seminal Leaves of Grass is truly remarkable.  Although there were other, earlier American poets, such as Edgar Allan Poe, who created memorable poems, there were none who captured the collective ethos of the burgeoning American republic to the depth and breadth of Whitman.

Reading Leaves of Grass is more of an experience than a passive activity.  It does not follow older poetic traditions of metre and rhyme; it often contains clashes of styles and insights within its verses (not for nothing does Whitman state in section 51 of "Song of Myself" the following:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (p. 246))
 Yet there is something within this occasionally bombastic collection that makes such poetic conventions seem restrictive, if not outmoded.  Whitman's poems are at once personal and epic, yet without an over-reliance upon Greco-Roman or English historical themes.  One example of this can be found in "O Captain!  My Captain!," which dealt with the assassination of President Lincoln.  The opening stanza is full of metaphors for his leadership during the American Civil War, yet there is nothing that immediately rises to the grandiose:

O Captain!  my Captain!  our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
                 But O heart!  heart!  heart!
                     O the bleeding drops of red,
                        Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                            Fallen cold and dead. (p. 467)

In reading this poem, at first I saw not a myth, not an Olympian figure that might be found in the Romantic poetry of the 19th century, but a man, one chained by duty to something that afflicts him.  Lincoln's conduct of the war, this "vessel grim and daring," guided by his steady, unrelenting demeanor, is presented in a vivid, yet grounded fashion; Lincoln is merely a worker, albeit one who has achieved greatness not due so much to any preternatural gifts but because of a steadiness to him that reflects the character of the young, divided nation that he helped guide through the turmoils of the War of Secession. 

Yet as moving of an elegy as "O Captain! My Captain" is (and certainly it has been referenced frequently in the following 150 years), I think it is an outlier compared to the other poems that appeared in the various editions of Leaves of Grass.  It (and by extension, the other poems in the section "Memories of President Lincoln") is more somber, less full of the joie de vivre found in earlier sections, such as the more erotic Calamus poems.  Those, such as "We Two Boys Together Clinging," in content and form presage the works of the Beat Generation a century later:

We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going, North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,
Arm'd and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning, sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming, air breathing, water drinking, on the
     turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray. (p. 282)
This perhaps is not one of Whitman's more famous poems, but within this litany of rakish acts I sensed a spirit of raw newness, something that isn't shaped by societal conventions or past models as much as it is testing those bounds, yearning to burst free and to live and by so living create experiences different from those that came before.  This yearning quality in Whitman's poetry does not always work (there are several poems that feel more like sketches of great works than anything substantial), but I would argue that even these relative "failures" make Leaves of Grass a staggering work, precisely because we can see the poet's work not as a polished work but instead as something whose flaws and virtues have blended together to create something that feels almost alive, replete with its own literary warts and scars.

The second half of Poetry and Prose, Whitman's numerous essays, letters, and various ruminations on contemporary events and the experiences that he distilled later into his poetry, is a fascinating read in its own light.  Whitman does not shy away from making strong comments about other writers (see his comment on Edgar Allan Poe in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads):

Toward the last I had among much else look'd over Edgar Poe's poems – of which I was not an admirer, tho' I always saw that beyond their limited range of melody (like perpetual chimes of music bells, ringing from lower b flat up to g) they were melodious expressions, and perhaps never excell'd ones, of certain pronounc'd phases of human morbidity. (The Poetic area is very spacious – has room for all – has so many mansions!)  But I was repaid in Poe's prose by the idea that (at any rate for our occasions, our day) there can be no such thing as a long poem.  The same thought had been haunting my mind before, but Poe's argument, though short, work'd the sum out and proved it to me. (p. 665)

But more so than his literary commentaries Whitman's diary of his time as a nurse during the Civil War makes his prose works a worthy read in their own right.  He notes several conversations with wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict, with several entries presenting in just a few lines deep insights into these soldiers' lives and their world-views.  Almost the entirety of Specimen Days is fascinating to read and consider at length.

Poetry and Prose is ultimately one of those works that is virtually impossible to review in depth in a single article under 2000 words.  There are so many poems that are worthy of deeper investigation than was possible in a short review such as this.  In composing this post, I decided that perhaps it would be better to just quote a few snippets of works that intrigued me and to discuss briefly things within them that I liked.  Hopefully those who have not read Whitman's poetry (or at least not beyond the usual suspects reproduced in literature survey anthologies) will find themselves wanting to read more.  Those who have read and enjoyed his works but who have not yet read his prose (such as myself before earlier this year) will want now to investigate those as well.  Whitman certainly is an American literary treasure, one who consciously refused to follow contemporary literary conventions.  In breaking with the literary past, Whitman ended up creating works that differed significantly from those of his peers and his influence on American poets over the past 160 years has been immeasurable.  Poetry and Prose is an excellent one-volume collection of his literary output, as it is an edition that presents the entire breadth and depth of Whitman's writing without overwhelming readers with too many citations and footnotes.  It certainly is worth the time and money spent.




Sunday, May 29, 2016

Received an ARC copy of The Big Book of Science Fiction recently


Because I don't care to give away everything, since it's a flash fiction that I translated for The Big Book of Science Fiction (edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), let's just say that there's something within the introduction that's an added bonus for readers.  The book will be released in the US on July 12th.  This is my third translation to be published.  More on this story and the anthology at a later date.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A brief update

Was busier than expected the past couple of weeks, with some times of frustration mixed in that left me with little time (or mood) to blog.  Going to be busy again this week, as I have my fourth 5K race of the year on Saturday and I have a few long runs to do (going to run a 10K by autumn).  Plus I still am trying to get some things in order to finalize my add-on certification for Special Education (the state changed some of the rules after I had registered for the Praxis tests last September, so there's been a delay in processing everything, but I will have some sort of certification in the next month or two) so I can apply for a multitude of teaching positions, but the delay might mean I'll end up having to wait a few months more before I can work again in the classroom in a full-time capacity.

However, after Memorial Day, I do have hopes of completing a few articles.  Among those will be the long-delayed review of Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen; Carla Guelfenbein's 2015 Premio Alfaguara-winning Contigo en la distancia; and an article for another site.  I have been reading a bit more this month and I hope in a month or so to have also written commentaries on the Library of America volumes on Walt Whitman and Harriet Beecher Stowe's works included in those two volumes.  Just started re-reading Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and I am still as amused by it as I was when I first read it nearly 30 years ago in 7th grade.

But as Opus said in this past Sunday's Bloom County strip, things didn't go as planned, but that's okay.  It certainly is a comforting thought after dealing with red tape these past couple of weeks.  Now it's time to sleep, perchance to dream.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Here's some of the music I'm listening to while reading this weekend

I've never really discussed it much here, but music is very important to me.  I listen to it during nearly hour-long commutes, when I go running on the streets or treadmill (but never when trail running, as there is natural music there for me to take in), or when I'm reading late at night.  I listen to a wide variety of 20th/21st century music.  Sometimes I listen to Bob Dylan for weeks on end.  Maybe 70s hard rock another time.  Lately, it's been 80s post-punk/darkwave music.  This music is both familiar and fresh to me, as I was a preteen for much of this time, so I might have at best heard snippets while growing up (I started college in 1992 when a different yet also fascinating form of alt-rock was exploding, so my interests then were in then-current music), but it was never overplayed for me then.

Here are some of these songs, taken from a playlist I created yesterday.  Not all of these are "classics," but the overall mood fits mine and it seems to be driving me to read more than I have in recent months:

Clan of Xymox, "A Day"

Death in June, "The Calling (Mk II)"

Big Black, "Kerosene"

Love and Rockets, "Rain Bird"

Revolting Cocks, "Crackin' Up"

Bauhaus, "The Spy in the Cab"

Siouxsie & The Banshees, "Spellbound"

The Church, "Under the Milky Way"

The Jesus and Mary Chain, "The Living End"

Theatre of Hate, "Do you Believe in the Westerworld"

The Cure, "World in My Eyes"

Front Line Assembly, "Provision"

Bauhaus, "Ziggy Stardust"

Screams for Tina, "Eleven Eleven"

The Sisters of Mercy, "Detonation Boulevard"

The Teardrop Explodes, "Treason"


If there are songs in a similar vein that you think I might enjoy, please list them below.

Friday, May 06, 2016

So it seems the sky has been falling since I last wrote a blog entry

In nearly two months, it would seem for some people, a lot of important things have happened.  Something about some puppies trying to get people mad while ultimately getting pounded in the butt by a butt, I think.  Something else about sites closing after a dozen years or more, leaving some to fret about "independent" book reviewing and the decline and fall of a generation of literary/genre online reviewers.

Yes, things are changing, perhaps not to the liking of many people.  Writing out thoughts takes a lot of time and energy (so says the guy writing at 3 AM on 4.5 hours sleep, 28 hours away from running his third 5K).  So easy to want a steady euphony of thoughts on certain books, so easy to confuse conformity with clarity of insight into literary works.  Does it really matter if I were to write 150 reviews in a year (which I have done before) or if I (using myself only as one minuscule example) were to write none here?  Do people really want to hear my thoughts on matters or is it more a hope or desire that I express something in conformity with their own inclinations?

Before I began training for distance walking (and after January, running) last year, my mind was often a chaotic mix of thoughts on fictions read and opinions inflicted upon me whenever I checked social media.  Sure, there is an excitement involved in coming in contact with new people and unfamiliar ideas, but after a while, it becomes tedious to encounter the same tired opinions expressed in trite fashion.  Running became an escape for me from all of this, or rather it allowed me to clear my thoughts in order to experience things in a different light.

A week ago, I ran a 14km/8.7 mile mountain bike/running trail before going to work.  Hot, humid day (it rained an hour after I finished).  Runs (later, mostly walks as my legs grew tired) along a creek bank, the only human there for a square mile or more.  Hearing a woodpecker hammering at an oak off to my right as I struggled to run up a steep, rock-strewn stretch.  Smelling blooming plants, including the heavy perfume of a honeysuckle out of my sight.  There was a sense of being enveloped here, being a panting, sweaty part of something much greater than me.

And yet words will fail to describe the totality of this.  Sure, I can use the 128 colors in my Crayola box of literary expressions to create a simulacrum, but ultimately experiencing the Sublime defeats all attempts to describe it.  Yet as I slowed down as I encountered 6.5% climbs in rapid succession, as I saw squirrels scurrying around me as I plodded on (my personal exercise trainers?), my mind became increasingly clear and focused.  One more running step forward.  One more sprint up a twisting hilly path before slowing down to brace for the steep descents.  Then it didn't matter how much or how little I had read, what I might encounter at work shortly, what I needed to do in the future.  Right then, right there, I was living within a moment that was more than the sum of myself.

Realizations like that make it hard to sit down at night to jot them down as though they were just impersonal opinions to be shared frequently.  I haven't blogged much recently not so much due to having little to say but rather in feeling that it is almost impossible to share these sorts of experiences without coming across as insincere and garrulous.  But maybe I've been looking at it from a weaker position.  Perhaps through clearing my thoughts via exercise reading itself might become something more enjoyable, as it can be another part of experiential growth.  Later this weekend or early next week, I am going to write a review of Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen.  It is an outstanding work of mediation on relationships, between humans and between the animals who live among us.  I took over a month to read it, not because I didn't have time to read it over the course of a night, but rather because I wanted to reflect in piecemeal fashion on some of the things it had to say about how wantonly we live our lives, often at a detriment to other living creatures.  Reflecting on this while running through neighborhoods where the scent of southern pines is strong, while hearing chirps and barks and the occasional hiss, made these scenes come to life for me.

All of this is just a long-winded way of saying that it doesn't matter so much what others are saying about works or whether or not you should be following trends or taking recommendations.  As Saint-Exupéry said in The Little Prince:

"And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." 
This holds true when it comes to writing commentaries on blogs such as this.  What I have to say may matter little to you, but I try to show that something mattered enough for me to write down thoughts for it, even if none of these pertain at all to you.  Writers and critics come and go, but the earth still abides and we abide within it, creatures mucking our ways around, possibly toward something greater than anything we can fathom. 
 
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