The OF Blog

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. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Personal news and an upcoming book review you never knew you wanted me to review

I've been busy the past couple of weeks training for my first 5K race, which was this morning.  Although I didn't break my personal best due to the cooler temps and being unaccustomed to running uphill (I usually run on a relatively flat track, since it's been too damp for me to run on trails), I did finish 23rd overall and 3rd for men 40-49 (I think there were slightly over 100 runners) at 33:17 (I walked about 1.5K out of the 5 due to the somewhat steep hills).  Won a free meal at Arby's for placing third, plus I won a door prize.  Somehow, I don't see myself using the free 30 minute massage session, but oh well.

My next scheduled race is in two weeks and is a much bigger race, so if I finish in the top third again, I'll be ecstatic.  It has been a fun journey to this point.  A year ago at this point, I could barely walk 3.1 miles/5K within an hour due to being grossly out-of-shape and with a very overweight body made much worse by my August 2014 back injury that led me to gaining almost 50 pounds (or slightly over 20 kg).  A few days ago, I stepped on the scales and saw that I had lost 101 pounds since January 12, 2015.  I am now the lightest I have been since 2008 and hopefully by the end of the year, I'll be weighing less than what I did when I was in college.

However, all of this training and weight loss has taken a toll on my reading time.  I have only finished four books this year (granted, three of them are massive Library of America volumes that contain 3-4 novels' worth of writing inside), but I am hopeful that I'll have a new review ready by Easter weekend.  Even better, this is the sort of title that long-time readers (if such exist still!) of this blog will want me to review.  After all, look at this cover:


If that gorgeous cover (squirrel!) of Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen doesn't mesmerize you enough into buying/reading it, then maybe Jeff VanderMeer's review of it, appearing in the Los Angeles Times, will convince you.  This is the book that my reading squirrels have been clamoring for me to have finished already, so hopefully I'll have the energy/time this weekend to finish reading it.  Such a good book so far.

Hopefully I'll be more regular in my blogging after my April 2nd race, but until then, you have a squirrel-centric novel review to look forward to.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A few thoughts on the passings of Harper Lee and Umberto Eco

This past Friday saw the passing of two of my favorite writers, Harper Lee and Umberto Eco.  For very different reasons, each has influenced me as a reader.  At the risk of writing treacly tripe, I just wanted to share a bit about what I enjoyed about their works.

I first encountered Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as part of my college prep junior English summer reading list.  Although there were several other "worthy" books there that I also enjoyed (Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon being one of them), there was something special about Lee's book that took me years to understand.  Perhaps it was a shared affinity for our hometowns, despite the ugliness that underlay local society.  Perhaps it was just the games of youth created before the age of internet and advanced video games that captivated me.  Or maybe it was this nascent, barely self-aware, sense of outrage at the world's cruelties that fascinated me.  But I suspect, in addition to these possibilities suggested to me through my experiences as an adult, what I really enjoyed about To Kill a Mockingbird was that it was a story of juvenile growth that did not dismiss the worries and concerns of childhood, but instead it was a story of humaneness in the midst of casual injustice.

Lee's interest in exploring Scout's growing awareness of the social hypocrisies around her is seen even further in the pre-Mockingbird draft, Go Set a Watchman, that was published last year.  Despite the controversies surrounding its publication and some of the character arcs, I found that novel exploring certain intriguing avenues (such as Jean Louise's clashes with her father and uncle) that the later To Kill a Mockingbird obfuscated due to its switch in focus to Scout's formative years.  As a Southerner who has conflicted views about his native region, I found Lee's exploration of similar concerns to be comforting, as her characters worked through certain doubts and conflicts in a fashion that enabled me to work through my own issues as a teenager.

But if Lee's works sparked an emotional response to matters of society and racism (and the hypocrisies that exist at their merging bounds), then Umberto Eco's works, fiction and non-fiction alike, stimulated a more intellectual response to human conflicts and the desire to understand collected knowledge.  I remember first discovering Eco by accident a little over twenty years ago, when I was outside looking through the free bin at the Knoxville McKay's used book and music store when I discovered a battered paperback, missing the front cover.  The blurb about a medieval mystery intrigued me, so I kept it for Christmas Break reading a few weeks later. 

Having taken courses in medieval intellectual history and Latin provided me with some insights into what Eco's characters were discussing and what really fascinated me was how easily he mixed the arcane with the familiar, the secular with the religious.  There was a very palpable narrative tension (William Weaver did an outstanding job with the translation; the original Italian was only slightly smoother in shifting between the erudite discussions in Latin and the vernacular) throughout the novel, yet the source of this tension was something I had never really encountered in fiction before.  Over the next few years, I read his latter novels (reading the last three soon upon their publications, the last two in Italian before the English translation was published) and found myself mesmerized by how he could mix in conspiracy theories, legenda, and humor to create engrossing tales.

Yet the more I read Eco, the more curious I became about his non-fiction.  I knew something of semiotics from grad school, but reading translations of Serendipities, Kant and the Platypus, and Mouse or Rat?, not to mention his illustrated books on beauty, ugliness, and lists, deepened my appreciation for him as a thinker.  Reading Eco is not best for more passive readers.  He wants the reader to engage with the texts, both as if they were veritable scriptures and as if they were elaborate forgeries that had to be cracked.  He "lies" to us, or perhaps reveals our possible self-deceptions through his examination of texts.  As he states in the opening chapter, "The Force of Falsity," to Serendipities regarding historical forgeries:

And yet each of these stories had a virtue:  as narratives, they seemed plausible, more than everyday or historical reality, which is far more complex and less credible.  The stories seemed to explain something that was otherwise hard to understand. (p. 17)
This "falsification" of the inexplicable in order to create coherency (albeit not a truthful one) is something he explores in multiple fashions across his works.  It is, as he said in the introduction to his book Dire Quasi la Stessa Cosa (Saying Almost the Same Thing):

Ecco il senso dei capitoli che seguono:  cercare di capire come, pur sapendo che non si dice mai la stessa cosa, si possa dire quasi la stessa cosa.  A questo punto ciò che fa problema non è più tanto l'idea della stessa cosa, né quella della stessa cosa, bensì l'idea di quel quasi. (p. 10)
This is the meaning of the following chapters: trying to understand how, despite knowing that although one never says the same thing, you can say almost the same thing. At this point the problem arises is not so much the idea of the same thing, nor that of the same thing, but the idea of that almost.

As my Italian reading comprehension is weaker than my Spanish or Portuguese, the translation is likely "rough," but yet that roughness and imprecision serves to underscore Eco's point.  It is never about saying the exact thing, providing the exact truth, but rather it's more about those almost truths from which we construct our understandings of the world and our perceived realities.  Embedded within this are our semantic memories (a topic he explores within his relatively underrated The Flame of Queen Loana), the fount from which our world views arise.

In reading Eco, especially his non-fiction, I found my interpretations of reality to be tested.  Certain narratives were rejected in favor of other, perhaps equally "false" but still more plausible, ones.  Sometimes it felt as though I were slowly being let in on a grand joke, albeit one in which I was partially the punchline.  In re-reading some of his works these past two days, I cannot help but feel we have lost a great thinker and forger of plausible lies.  Coupled with the emotional resonance I found in Lee's work, these two now-departed writers perhaps, more than most, if not all other writers, have helped mold me as a reader.  But while in certain senses the Authors are Dead, their texts still live on.  Now to free up some time to delve back into them and see how I shall be touched again on a re-read and how I might still be transformed as a reader.


Thursday, February 11, 2016

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tales and Sketches

Bartram and his little son, while they were talking thus, sat watching the same lime-kiln that had been the scene of Ethan Brand's solitary and meditative life, before he began his search for the Unpardonable Sin.  Many years, as we have seen, had now elapsed, since that portentous night when the IDEA was first developed.  The kiln, however, on the mountain-side, stood unimpaired, and was in nothing changed, since he had thrown his dark thoughts into the intense glow of its furnace, and melted them, as it were, into the one thought that took possession of his life.  It was a rude, round, tower-like structure, about twenty feet high, heavily built of rough stones, and with a hillock of earth heaped about the larger part of its circumference; so that blocks and fragments of marble might be drawn by cart-loads, and thrown in at the top.  There was an opening at the bottom of the tower, like an oven-mouth, but large enough to admit a man in a stooping posture, and provided with a massive iron door.  With the smoke and jets of flame issuing from the chinks and crevices of this door, which seemed to give admittance into the hill-side, it resembled nothing so much as the private entrance to the infernal regions, which the shepherds of the Delectable Mountains were accustomed to show to pilgrims. ("Ethan Brand," pp. 1051-1052, Library of America edition)

Like many Americans, I first encountered Nathaniel Hawthorne in high school (sophomore year for me) when we devoted six weeks to the "reading" of The Scarlet Letter.  Although I liked that novel a bit more than most of my classmates, I don't recall ever really having a desire to read any of his other works, even despite seeing encomiums to him written by divers writers whose works I did enjoy reading over the intervening twenty-six years.  Even in college, I never was assigned any of his short fiction in my English Comp classes (however, I was blessed to be introduced to William Faulkner then), so it wasn't until this past month that I ever got around to reading any of his short stories and sketches.

I say this as a long preface because the stories found within the Library of America volume, Tales and Sketches, that collect all of his extant published stories from 1830 to 1854 were a revelation to me.  It was interesting to see certain story conventions that I had encountered in other writers here in a slightly different, sometimes rawer, state decades before those other tales were written.  In reading several of his stories, particularly "Ethan Brand" and "Roger Malvin's Burial," I was struck by how chilling his backdrops were due to the elegant placement of metaphor and simile; it was no wonder to me that Henry James praised him highly, as there seem to be certain stylistic elements in common between these two stories and James' The Turn of the Screw, if memory serves (it has been, however, nearly twenty years since I last read that novella, so I might be mistaken).

Even more than any superficial or substantive influences Hawthorne might have had on some of my favorite authors is the effect that his native New England had on his writings.  Born on the fourth of July 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne might appear to be fated to be blessed and cursed to bear the burdens associated with that date and place.  There certainly is a different strand of "local color" to his stories that differentiates him from the mainstream of mid-19th century Anglo-American literature.  Sin and the desire to expiate it run like a current through many of his tales, but most explicitly in "Roger Malvin's Burial," where we witness the tortured life of Reuben Bourne and the effects that a vow made in his youth has on his life.  Or how about this passage from "Young Goodman Brown":

And there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness, in this dark world.  A basin was hollowed, naturally, in the rock.  Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light?  or was it blood?  or, perchance, a liquid flame?  Herein did the Shape of Evil dip his hand, and prepare to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mystery of sin, more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own. (p. 287)

In Hawthorne's best stories, such as the ones cited above, there is a palpable sense of emotion, sometimes verging on dread, that slowly yet steadily builds through the narrative course.  In these tales, there is an interesting interplay between the often-stern, sometimes eloquently taciturn New Englanders who populate his sketches and tales and their harsh, unforgiving environments, both natural and internal alike.  We see the predecessor of Hester Prynne and her scarlet A in "Endicott and the Red Cross," where an anonymous young adulterous woman is seen sporting the scarlet A embroidered with fine materials, "so that the capital A might have been thought to mean Admirable, or any thing other than Adulteress." (p. 544).  Yet this tale does not revolve around this arresting yet fleeting woman, but rather around another act of rebellion, one that presages, in narrative terms, that of the region against royal/Anglican authority.  Hawthorne does an excellent job plumbing the depths of emotional turmoil in order to bring to light some of our basest, most primal urges and conflicts.

Yet as outstanding as a great many of these tales are, it is equally obvious that amongst the hundreds of stories included here that there are a fair share of duds.  Some of these are truly sketches of greater stories, replete with false starts and unfulfilled promises.  Others are just tedious to read and are obviously essays into narrative craft that are otherwise unmemorable.  Then there are Hawthorne's retellings of classic myths, in which the sometimes saucy commentaries by the children toward their pompous tutor are far superior to the actual retold tales.  I was of two minds while reading those "Twice-told Tales":  First, the moralizing and occasional distortion of the Greco-Roman originals was irritating.  Second, the children's responses within the frame narratives partially redeems these moralizing tales, imbuing them with a second layer that, while not superior to that employed by Boccaccio in The Decameron, at least adds certain subtleties to the narrative that otherwise might have suffocated in its primness.  Although I suspect the latter interpretation might not have been exactly what Hawthorne had intended (after all, these were marketed then as children's tales), it certainly is a plausible reading, at least for twenty-first century readers.

Tales and Sketches shows Hawthorne before and at the cusp of his greatest literary success.  Although the collection as a whole is uneven, containing as it does the known entirety of his shorter works, there are enough gems in here to appeal to those who did enjoy his novels or to those like myself who are fascinated with stories that utilize atmosphere and internal conflicts to drive the narratives.  After reading it, I find myself more curious not just about Hawthorne's longer prose works (which I will read and likely review later this year), but also about the 19th century New England literary scene.  In particular, after seeing a reference to him in one of the frame stories of "Twice-told Tales," I especially am curious to explore the literary relationship between Hawthorne and Herman Melville.  Certainly this volume helps the reader gain a better, deeper understanding of Hawthorne and how his stories have influenced generations of American (particularly New England) writers.


 
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