The OF Blog: November 2008

Sunday, November 30, 2008

November 18-30 Reads

Since I had plenty more reading time with the Thanksgiving holiday (not to mention many of the books I chose to read were under 300 pages), there are many more books on this list than is my norm for two weeks these days:

336 Jorge Volpi, El jardín devastado - This 2008 fable/short novel by Volpi might be reviewed in a piece later in the year. Certainly enjoyable.

337 Jorge Volpi, No será la Tierra - This 2006 novel of his uses the lives of three fictional women from the former Communist Bloc and the United States to make a case about the dangers of greed and ambition. Perhaps Volpi's best novel.

338 John Ruskin, The Lamp of Memory - Part of Penguin's Great Ideas reissue of 60 collected essays, I found Ruskin's comments on architecture and society to be fascinating.

339 Kelly Link, Pretty Monsters - I reviewed this briefly in a link found below.

340 Walter Banjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction - like the Ruskin, part of the Penguin series. Liked this one even more than the Ruskin.

341 Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, A Mind at Peace - Very good work set in Turkey just after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1920.

342 Jeremy C. Shipp, Sheep and Wolves - Recently reviewed.

343 Jeffrey Ford, The Drowned Life - see above.

344 John Langan, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters - still see above.

345 Álvaro Uribe, La parte ideal - 2006 collection of essays by one of Mexico's more prominent authors and essayists. Good stuff.

346 Elias Khory, Yalo - Recently reviewed. One of my favorite novels for 2008.

347 Brian Francis Slattery, Liberation - Will review this in December. Very, very good.

348 Jeff VanderMeer, Predator: South China Sea - Planning on reviewing this in tandem with another tie-in novel, this one by Brian Evenson. What I read was good, as I read it for the adventure aspects and didn't look for VanderMeer to employ past styles which might have been detrimental to the story. I enjoyed it and I know why I enjoyed it, so I'll try to hold off until near the end of December before explaining further, okay?

349 Dennis McKiernan, City of Jade - I first read his Mithgar epic fantasy novels several years ago and despite the clichéd character types, I did find that on occasion, his character interactions were fairly good. This was not one of his better novels, as the plot was very disjointed and the setup for the finale was odd. Obviously, he has more in store for this particular story, but it certainly didn't read like a typical duology/trilogy setup; too herky-jerky in pacing.

350 Álvaro Uribe and Olivia Sears (editor and translation editor), Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction - see the review.

351 Jorge Volpi, El fin de la locura - Volpi's 2002 novel is on par with his other novels, which is a very good thing, of course.

352 Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I (re-read from 2000) - Liulevicius is a former professor of mine at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and as I'm about to start a unit on World War I, I turned to his book as one of the sources I'll use for teaching about the cultural aspects of the war to my students. It covers a neglected field of study and it brought back memories of his undergrad class on the Cultural History of World War I while reading it.

353 L. Timmel Duchamp, De Secretis Mulierum - First of two books in Aqueduct Press's Conversation Pieces that I've read. Plan on discussing this much more in a few weeks. Enjoyed it.

354 Lisa Tuttle, My Death - see above.

355 Jordan Krall, Squid Pulp Blues - a collection of three related novellas, this book is an example of "bizarro fiction," where the shocking, unsettling events are purposely put in there to create a sense of displacement, if not the occasional disgust, in the reader. While I can't say I "enjoyed" it, I did find Krall's techniques to be effective; I certainly won't forget how I kept reacting to what was transpiring in the stories. Will read future stories, if they are brought to my attention.

In Progress:

Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de soledad

Javier Negrete, Salamina

Arnold Zweig, The Case of Sergeant Grischa

Javier Negrete, El espiritu del mago

Thirty books total read in November, my highest total since June. With any luck, I might top 380 for the year.

Short Fiction Sunday: Álvaro Uribe and Olivia Sears's Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction

Whenever an anthology bears within its title "Best of," one might have a natural inclination to question whether or not the anthologist(s) really knows what s/he is talking about. Add to that title the name of the country of origin and the challenge becomes even more, as not does the anthology editor have to demonstrate cause for bestowing the label of "Best of" on a collection of works from a single country, but the reader almost has to be quite aware of the fiction being produced in the given country in order to be able to evaluate properly the breadth and depth of the editor(s)' chosen pieces. I was sent a review copy of Álvaro Uribe and Olivia Sear's forthcoming Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction bilingual anthology by another reviewer in large part due to my familiarity with very recent (post-2000) Latin American literature and my evaluation of this anthology will touch upon this awareness.

Uribe (Sears headed up the team of translators of these sixteen short stories) has certainly assembled a fine set of stories written by prominent Mexican short fiction writers born since the end of World War II. In his introduction, Uribe discusses the cosmopolitan nature of Mexican fiction, short and long alike, and how Spanish, French, and other Latin American writers have influenced the evolution of the Mexican short fiction. Interestingly (but not surprising, if one knows the complex history between these two nations), the United States is not cited (I will return to this at the end of this review). As a result of this tendency to look outside of Mexico's political boundaries for literary influences, these stories do not contain many uniting features, as Uribe notes:

Nothing unites them beyond the quality of their work and the essential, if not exactly literary, criteria of having produced their work, by happenstance or design, in the strain of Spanish common to the majority of Mexicans and of living or having lived in Mexico for most of their lives.
Uribe has ordered these stories in a reverse chronological order, beginning with "Lukin's Bed," written by Vivian Abenshushan (b. 1972) and concluding with Héctor Manjarrez's (b. 1945) "The End of the World." Uribe does this in order to take an inductive examination of Mexican short fiction, taking the reader from the more contemporary issues of Mexico's analogue to Generation X and stretching it back to the dawn of what would be the Boomer Generation in the United States. It is an interesting approach, one that allowed for some opportunity to show the diverse strains of Mexican fiction without the need to establish an artificial schema for evaluating these stories.

The stories themselves are almost uniformly strong. In particular, Ana García Bergua's "Los conservadores"/"The Preservers" struck me for its juxtapositioning of the Odd (a widow keeping her husband's embalmed corpse with her for years, dressing and undressing it according to the daily rhythms of the household) and the Mudane (the examination of the various relationships between the characters of aunt/nephew, nephew/girlfriend, girlfriend/corpse). Enrique Serna's "Tesoro viviente"/"Living Treasure" was a very subtle examination of motivation and temptation, with an ending that is all the more damning for how little things changed once the resident writer main character made her fateful decision.

While each of these stories are worthy of inclusion in "Best of"-style anthologies, I could not help but notice what was not included in this otherwise fine anthology. Where were the rising authors? Outside of Abenshushan and Álvaro Enrigue (b. 1969), there were no authors under the age of 40 included here; apparently this is an anthology for the truly-established authors. Strikingly, none of Mexico's Crack Manifesto members (Pedro Ángel Palou, Eloy Urroz, Ignacio Padilla, Ricardo Chávez Castañeda, Jorge Volpi) were included in this anthology and many of their works (especially those of Padilla and Volpi) have already begun to make their mark in international markets, including that of the United States. Perhaps it simply is a matter of their short fiction not being as well-known or regarded as their novels. However, Uribe's introduction fails to acknowledge them or the related South American McOndoist literary movement in his discussion of trends and authors that have influenced Mexican fiction, so perhaps it is something more.

Related to this is the question of how to evaluate the near-absence of Mexico's neighbor (and often antagonistic trading partner) the United States in these tales. While it certainly is true that Mexican writers drew their influences from Spain, France, and other parts of Latin America from the 19th century to the past twenty years before American culture became more influential in both Mexico and other regions of Latin America, one has to question whether or not these tales truly represent the most "contemporary" of Mexican attitudes, much less its fiction. This seeming lack of space devoted to addressing the issues and authors of "right now" however is but only a damper on what is otherwise an excellent, rich, diverse collection of stories that hopefully will inspire readers to dig deeper into Mexico's very rich literary tradition.

Publication Date: February 26, 2009 (US). Tradeback, Hardcover.

Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

Saturday, November 29, 2008

End of November Book Porn

Four books this time for the past few days, three of them being review copies and one a purchase.

Left: Jorge Volpi, El fin de la locura (finished reading it earlier today. On level with Volpi's other writings, this one might be the only novel I've read where Lacan, Focault, Barthes, et al. are important, exciting, interesting characters. Quite good.); Michael Moorcock, Duke Elric (fourth volume in the series of recent re-releases of Moorcock's Elric stories, each with illustrations from a top contemporary artist. Still need to read volumes 2 and 3 first, but I do plan on getting these read and perhaps reviewed by the fourth one's March 2009 release date).

Left: David J. Williams, Mirrored Heavens (I was sent this review copy by the author himself, so I will do my best to read/review it by the end of the year); Karen Miller, Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Wild Space (seeing as I haven't watched a full SW movie since the atrocity that was Episode I back in 1999...)

Time for a little snark

I was browsing through a few forums and came across a link to a site called Best Fantasy Books. Curious, I decided to read and see what was chosen. The author of this list seems to have read little more than multi-volume epic fantasies.

Great, just fucking great. All I need is yet another damn "greatest" list that seems to be devoted so much to multi-volume epic/secondary world fantasies as to make me wonder if this person is all that widely-read in the first place. While some of the books on that list I have enjoyed quite a bit (even if he seems to have confused Steven Erikson with the author of Arc d'X, among other brilliant standalone novels), I can't help but to wonder if that domain name is a misnomer. Sheesh.

I rarely bother pointing out annoying crap, but for some reason, reading that around 12:30 AM made me go, "Oh, really? And what else have you read besides turgid doorstopper multi-volume pieces?" I'll probably be in my more typical mildly sarcastic mood tomorrow.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Elias Koury, Yalo

Yalo did not understand what was happening.

The young man stood before the interrogator and closed his eyes. He always closed his eyes when he faced danger, when he was alone, and when his mother...On that day too, the morning of Thursday, December 22, 1933, he closed his eyes involuntarily.

Yalo did not understand why everything was white.

He saw the white interrogator, sitting behind a white table, the sun refracting on the glass window behind him, and his face bathed in reflected light. All Yalo saw were halos of light and a woman walking through the city streets, tripping on her shadow.

Yalo closed his eyes for a moment, or so he thought. This young man with his knitted eyebrows and long tan face, his slender height, closed his eyes for a moment before reopening them. But here, in the Jounieh police station, he closed his eyes and saw crossed lines around two lips that moved as if whispering. He looked at his handcuffed wrists and felt that the sun that obscured the face of the interrogator struck him in the eyes, so he closed them (p. 9).
Lebanese writer Elias Khoury's latest novel to be translated into English, Yalo, opens with an interrogation. Yalo, a former paramilitary soldier during Lebanon's tragic civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, has been accused of raping a female acquaintance of his. The novel revolves around the process in which Yalo deals with certain shady events (not necessarily inclusive of the rape accusation), the attempts by his interrogators to beat more confessions out of him, and the psychological effects of such physical and emotional traumas.

Khoury does not take short cuts here, either in detailing the torture methods (very brutal, such as the case of the cat trained to swipe its claws across the genitals of the prisoners) or with Yalo's confrontration of his past and his conflated understandings of the present and what his interrogators want from him. While some reading Khoury's book might be tempted to make some comparison to Franz Kafka's The Trial, Khoury goes even further in exploring the elastic boundaries of Truth and Remembrance, while working in references to Lebanon's bloody past and present. Yalo's narrative, almost always given in the third person-limited point-of-view, shifts from the past to the present and back again, from memories of his relationships with women to thoughts of betrayals, from the understood Now to the imagined Past. It is difficult at times to discern a linear narrative arc, yet Khoury's method of using a fractured narrative to underscore his points about the traumas inflicted by and upon people works quite well.

In reading this novel, I found myself reflecting more and more on my reactions to Yalo's confessions, my thoughts regarding the society that could produce a Yalo and his interrogators, on my interpretations of what was transpiring. What I concluded was this: Khoury has written a rich, dense narrative that flows sublimely. The more one learns about Yalo, the more questions that arise from these revelations. What is truth? Whence the source of such brutality? The way that Khoury explores these issues made for a read, that while never "light" in tone, which was one of the best I have read this year. Highly recommended for those readers who like a "challenging" read and those who want to study an author's technique for revealing psychological duress.

Publication Date: January 1, 2008 (US); Hardcover.

Publisher: Archipelago Books

Thursday, November 27, 2008

2008 Reading Discoveries

I was browsing through a few forums tonight before resuming my work on my new exercise bike and I thought I would list authors that I read for the first time in 2008 that I found to have written some really good works. I'll highlight those whose debut efforts came out in the U.S. this year:

Steve Erickson

Milan Kundera

Brian Evenson

Toby Barlow

Taha Muhammad Ali

Ma Jian

Naguib Mahfouz

Fernando Pessoa

Kay Kenyon

Barth Anderson

D.M. Cornish

Francie Lin

Amanda Michalopoulou

Etgar Keret

Jo Graham

Maurice Dantec

Sarah Hall

Joe Abercrombie

Thomas Ligotti

Holly Phillips

Felix Gilman

Jeanette Winterson

J.M. McDermott

Peadar Ó Guilín

George MacDonald

Thomas M. Disch

Brian Francis Slattery

Paolo Bacigalupi

John Langan

Javier Negrete (not available in English translation)

Elias Khoury

Susan Palwick

Antonio Orlando Rodríguez (not available in English translation)

There are still quite a few newish works I'm reading and some of those will involve debuts. I'll elaborate on the 2008 debut authors late in December. But does anyone else have any of their "discoveries" that they'd like to share here, in hopes of sparking discussion and/or people trying those authors on for size?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I was reading Brian Francis Slattery's new book, Liberation, earlier today (finished it in one sitting; excellent, shall review in the next few weeks) when I read this passage on p. 17:

We posted bail, climbed into a 1976 Gremlin with the top sawed off, bought some fake IDs, and turned onto the first curve of a two-week bender through the motels, roadside bars, and convenience stores between Dickson, Tennessee and Monroeville, Alabama.
That is the first time, either in mimetic or speculative fiction, that I've read a wide-release fiction novel that referenced my hometown. Although today I live in little more than an outer suburb/exurb of Nashville, I still find it quite cool whenever my quaint little hometown is mentioned anywhere. It's an added bonus when it's part of a very good (and relevant to today's economic climate) novel. I'd love to know how Slattery came to choose my hometown (among the many other towns he mentions in this novel) to use as a reference.

Pre-Thanksgiving Book Porn

Three purchases and two review copies this time for books that have arrived over the past couple of days. Among these is a story that already is one of my favorites for the year, as well as the first manga I've ever received, which ought to make for an interesting reading experience once I get around to reading it...

Left: Álvaro Uribe, La parte ideal (collection of this Mexican writer/anthologist's critical pieces. It was interesting to read his thoughts on Mario Vargas Llosa's La fiesta del Chivo, among other writings included here); Elias Khoury, Yalo (I'm going to review this shortly, but suffice to say, this story is one of my favorite novels. Peter Thoreaux's translation is excellent, making for a a story that felt as though it were originally written in English).

Left: Jeffrey Ford, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories (this is Ford's first short story collection and it was about damn time I got around to buying it); Nina Matsumoto, Yokaiden (this is the aforementioned manga that I received. Don't know what to make of it, since I'm very unfamiliar with Japanese literature and especially this form of it).

Peter F. Hamilton, The Temporal Void (second in a space opera trilogy that began with this spring's The Dreaming Void. I'll get around to reading the first sometime in the near future...)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Query regarding 2008 anthologies and story collections

In about a month's time, I'm going to begin writing a series of posts focusing on what I consider to be the best fiction that I've read in 2008 (mostly devoted to books released this year). I know there'll be quite a bit devoted to covering anthologies and short story collections and while I already have a dozen or more in mind for coverage, I can't help but think that I might have overlooked a few. So here's a chance for you, dear reader, to nominate certain anthologies/story collections for me to consider. And to make it extra fun, I won't even tell you which ones I've read and/or own.

So...willing to help a reviewer out, please?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Short Fiction Sunday: Jeffrey Ford, John Langan, Kelly Link, Jeremy C. Shipp

Although this will not be a regular feature, I do plan to cover over the next couple of Sundays some of the short fiction that I've been reading lately, whether it be in book form (anthology or single-author short story collection) or magazine (I just began my one year subscription to Weird Tales and time/energy permitting, I'll try to be better about covering some of the better online e-zines out there, but there are no guarantees, as I am trying to cut back on my time in front of a computer). This weekend, I finished reading the following four 2008 short story collections: Kelly Link, Pretty Monsters; Jeremy C. Shipp, Sheep and Wolves; Jeffrey Ford, The Drowned Life; John Langan, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters. I will be using more of a capsule format in reviewing each of these books (and for future short fiction reviews), although I may provide a quote or two to underscore certain points I want to make. Now on with the show, I suppose...

In her first two short story collections, Stranger Things Happen (2001) and Magic for Beginners (2005), Kelly Link established a reputation for writing quirky, imaginative stories that combined B-movie staples such as zombies with settings that were simultaneously very banal and haunting in feel. Pretty Monsters is a collection of nine stories, marketed as Young Adult literature, that reprints four stories from these first two collections, along with five newer pieces. In virtually each of these tales, the protagonists are either children or adolescents. Sometimes, as in the case of "The Specialist's Hat," the children are inquisitive, wanting to know what it is like to be Dead, while in others, such as the eponymous "Pretty Monsters," the theme revolves around discovering one's lusts and desires:

The next hour was the best hour of Clementine's life. Two months earlier she'd persuaded tenor David Ledbetter that it would be really, really special if they broke into the elementary school in the middle of the night. One thing had led to another and they'd lost their virginity together in the first-grade reading hut, and even though the whole thing had been kind of a catastrophe, ever since then David Ledbetter seemed to have this idea that in order to keep Clementine happy he had to come up with new and better locations. It was making Clementine crazy.

She and Cabell didn't even kiss. Nobody saved anybody's life, and Lucinda Larkin began to scream halfway through Beauty and the Beast because Clementine hadn't remembered to fast-forward through the scene where the singing candlestick did something scary that Lucinda Larkin had never been able to explain. They had to make her promise not to tell Dancy. (p. 366)
Such scenes serve to illustrate Link's knack of capturing the craziness of growing up. For those of us who are nearing middle age, reading such tales perhaps reminds one of making up stories why so-and-so was horrid, or what really lies beyond the horizon or down below the sewers (alligators? Rat-men? giant cockroaches?). Link's matter-of-fact deadpan delivery serves to ground the Unreal in a very "realistic" setting; it is easy to empathize with the characters, leading to payoffs that almost always are worth the effort put into imagining oneself in such a bizarre situation. Each of Link's nine stories contains these elements and while I would recommend not reading all of them at once (I spread my reading over a month's time, as I began to burn myself out on reading similarly-styled tales too quickly), it certainly is a novel that I would recommend for most any teen and above.

If Link's stories contain banal discussions among rather odd situations, then Jeremy C. Shipp's debut collection, Sheep and Wolves, makes for a truly bizarro-type feel. Take for example the opening to the first story, "Watching:"

You don't have to enjoy watching while Gerald masturbates onto his first cousin, or Nadine carefully chokes herself with an antique bonnet, or Carter craps into an urn that he stores under the kitchen sink. You just have to pretend. You have to sit back, sniff the cinnamon stick that you keep hidden in your glove, and give them what they want (p. 7).
If the above paragraph didn't drive you away screaming, then good, because many of Shipp's stories operate on such a cacophonous clash of imagery and character/story advancement. In some cases, such as in "American Sheep," this literary technique works well; in others it is sometimes more "miss" than "hit," although taken as a whole, I found Shipp's stories to be provocative, attention-grabbing, and containing quite a few insights into the brutal insensitivity that pervades modern American culture. While I wouldn't recommend this collection to those who prefer more staid storytelling forms, I am glad that I did read this book and will certainly consider more offerings from Shipp in the future.

Jeffrey Ford has won or been nominated for several short fiction awards over the past decade, including a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2007 for his second story collection, Empire of Ice Cream. In his third story collection (and first to be published by HarperColllins, who publishes his novels), The Drowned Life, Ford has collected sixteen recent stories that I believe are the equal to any that appeared in his previous collection.

One thing that has struck me about Ford's stories in the past (and which certainly holds true here) is how so many of them have this "everyday, everyman" sort of feel about them. Take for example this scene from "The Drowned Life:"

The place was enormous, row upon row of shelved dead fish, their snouts sticking into the aisle, silver and pink and brown. Here and there a gill still quivered, a fin twitched. "A lot of fish," thought Hatch. Along the way, he saw a special glass case that held frozen food that had sunk from the world above. The hot dog tempted him, even though a good quarter of it had gone green. There was a piece of a cupcake with melted sprinkles, three French fries, a black Twizzler, and a red-and-white Chinese take-out bag with two gnarled rib ends sticking out. He hadn't had any lunch, and his stomach growled in the presence of the delicacies, but he was thinking of Rose and wanted to talk to her (pp. 11-12).
Although this story features a third-person limited point-of-view, one of the things I've noted about Ford's stories is the tendency to create vivid characters whose thoughts and emotions are on display for the reader to read and to process. Combined with evocative scenes such as the one above, there often is a nostalgic feel to many of the character interactions, even though in many cases this sense of comfort and familarity is overturned by what transpires during the stories. For these reasons, Ford's stories tend to stick in my head longer than most others do and I was pleased to discover that The Drowned Life contains excellent stories such as "The Manticore Spell" and "Night Whiskey," among others. In fact, if I weren't so greedy, I would have entertained the thought of shipping this collection to a female friend of mine living overseas, as this is one of those rare quality tales that I would want everyone in my inner circle of friends to read.

Speaking of Ford, I remember him praising John Lanagan on his LiveJournal a little over a month ago. After finishing reading his debut story collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters tonight, I have to share with Ford's assessment of Langan's comparison with a Glen Hirshberg (even though I think Langan's collection is stronger than Hirshberg's 2007 WFA-nominated American Morons). Dude can write some evocative, often creepy tales.

Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters contains four stories and a novella. Each of them contains elements of traditional tales such as the ghost tale or a study in the flawed protagonist and his/her downfall. Every scene in his stories moves the plot forward, develops the characters just a bit further. Take for example this scene in "Laocöon, or the Singularity:"

Of course, no one did. He watched the class's eyes dip down to escape catching on his as they swept the room. No point in dragging things out. "Virgil describes Laocöon as crying out. He says the cries were 'appalling,' awful, which makes sense. The guy's getting crushed to death by a pair of snakes. Who wouldn't cry out? Look at the statue, though." He lowered the lights again. "The son to Laocöon's right is already succumbing to the snakes. The son to his left is trying to step out of the coils, shake them off. Look at the expression on that son's face. Is he angry with his father for what he's brought down on them, for his inability to save them? Laocöon's struggling mightily, and he appears to be reasonably muscular, but the look on his face tells the whole story, doesn't it? Pain, failure - he knows what's coming, and if he doesn't understand the reason for it - which maybe he does: if he was shrewd enough to recognize the Trojan Horse for what it was, maybe he understood what was happening to him and his sons - anyway, he knows that he doesn't have a chance. When the gods have it in for you, you're done..." (p. 199).
In a way, those last two sentences summarize the fates of many of Langan's protagnonists. Like bulls being dragged off to the slaughter, these characters struggle mightily against fates that are sometimes ambiguous, othertimes horrorible in their inevitability and inexorableness. But Langan's approach to arrive at these tales' denouements is a good one. The reader is engaged in his protagonists' lives, their struggles, and eventually in their ends. And unlike a great many other story collections, this one was uniformly good; if I had to pick a favorite, the final tale, the one quoted above, would be it, but it is a very short distance between it and the other tales. Highly recommended collection.

Publication Dates:

Kelly Link: October 2, 2008 (US), Hardcover. Publisher: Viking Press.

Jeremy C. Shipp: November 15, 2008 (US), Hardcover, Tradeback. Publisher: Raw Dog Screaming Press.

Jeffrey Ford: November 4, 2008 (US), Tradeback. Publisher: Harper Perennial.

John Langan: November 30, 2008 (US), Hardcover. Publisher: Prime.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

José Saramago has a posse...err, blog

It's in both Spanish and Portuguese, for those who are curious. It seems he updates it rather frequently, about once every day or two, and he started it back in September. Some interesting points of view he has on a whole host of social and political issues, such as the one I'll post below without translation (sorry, but I have a headache right now and I don't feel like rendering this into really good English translation):

Esa mujer de ciento seis años, Ann Nixon Cooper, que Obama citó en su primer discurso como presidente electo de Estados Unidos, talvez llegue a ocupar un lugar en la galería de los personajes literarios favoritos de los lectores norteamericanos, al lado de aquella otra que, viajando en un autobús, se negó a levantarse para darle el asiento a un blanco. No se ha escrito mucho sobre el heroísmo de las mujeres. De entre lo que Obama nos contó sobre Anne Nixon Cooper no sobresalían actos heroicos, salvo los del vivir cotidiano, pero las lecciones del silencio no tienen que ser menos poderosas que las de la palabra. Ciento seis años viendo pasar el mundo, con sus convulsiones, sus logros y sus fracasos, la falta de piedad o la alegría de estar vivo, a pesar de todo. En la noche pasada esa mujer vio la imagen de uno de los suyos en mil carteles y comprendió, no podía dejar de comprenderlo, que algo nuevo estaba sucediendo. O guardó simplemente en el corazón la imagen repetida, a la espera de que su alegría reciba justificación y confirmación. Los viejos tienen estas cosas, de repente abandonan los lugares comunes y avanzan a contracorriente, haciendo preguntas impertinentes y manteniendo silencios obstinados que enfrían la fiesta. Ann Nixon Cooper sufrió esclavitudes varias, por negra, por mujer, por pobre. Vivió sometida, las leyes podrían haber mudado en el exterior, pero no en sus diversos miedos, porque mira a su alrededor y ve mujeres maltratadas, usadas, humilladas, asesinadas, siempre por hombres. Ve que cobran menos que ellos por los mismos trabajos, que tienen que asumir responsabilidades domésticas que se quedarán en la sombra, a pesar de ser necesarias, ve como les obstaculizan los pasos decididos, y sin embargo siguen caminando, o no se levantan en el autobús, contémoslo una vez más, como aquella mujer negra, Rose Banks, que hizo historia, también.

Ciento seis años viendo pasar el mundo. Quién sabe si lo verá bonito, como mi abuela, poco antes de morir, vieja y hermosa, pobre. Talvez la mujer de la que Obama nos habló anoche sintiera la serenidad de la alegría perfecta, talvez lo sepamos un día. Entretanto felicitemos al presidente electo por haberla sacado de su casa, por haberle prestado un homenaje que ella probablemente no necesita, pero nosotros sí. A medida que Obama iba hablando de Ann Nixon Copper nos dábamos cuenta de que cada palabra o ejemplo nos hacía mejores, más humanos, a la vera de una fraternidad total. De nosotros depende que dure este sentimiento.

And yes, he does know how to use traditional punctuation...

Mexican and Turkish Book Porn

These two recent arrivals hail respectively from Mexico and Turkey. The first is Jorge Volpi's just-released short novel/fable, El jardín devastado. It mixes aphorisms on the human condition with some very real (and sometimes disturbing events) taking place in Kirkuk, Iraq and elsewhere in the world. It more than lived up to my expectations and I'll have more to say on it in December.

The second book arrived today and is the 2008 translation of Turkish author Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's famous 1949 novel, A Mind at Peace. Very curious to see how this will read in translation, as Turkish literature is something that I am mostly ignorant of at the time being (well, outside of My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Jorge Volpi's latest novel, El jardín devastado

While I was planning on waiting until the Thanksgiving holiday break to write a longer feature on Mexican author Jorge Volpi, I couldn't resist sharing a few things related to his most recent novel, the just-released El jardín devastado.  My hardcover copy arrived today and I am quite eager to read this, as his 2006 novel, No será la cae bien, más o menos. ;)  And that's leaving out his most famous work to be translated into English so far, In Search of Klingsor (En busca de Klingsor), which touches upon certain scientists, some Nazism, and a few mysteries of a near quantum level.  Below is a brief review I read on Críticas (in English):

Short as it is, this extraordinarily developed novel by the ever intriguing Mexican author Volpi [En busca de Klingsor, (Looking for Klingsor)] packs an expansive cultural and temporal punch. It transports readers among Iraq, Mexico, and various university towns of the Eastern seaboard where the semiautobiographical narrator finds himself exiled, all the while moving between the real and abstract spiritual realms. The focus here is on women, both passing lovers and memorable obsessions, among them two more thoroughly examined characters—one Mexican, one Iraqi—whose development on the way to the book’s disturbing and thought-provoking climax is traced via micro-chapters (as brief as a sentence) throughout the narrative. Volpi’s distinctive global perspective informs this book, as it does so much of his work, and he leaves us to draw our own connections between seemingly disconnected episodes. Pointed criticisms of U.S. policies in Iraq, the behavior of soldiers there, the aftermath of 9/11, and electoral anomalies in Mexico all find their way into the story, which is largely about trying to come to grips with neck-snapping current events. Infused with aphorisms faintly reminiscent of Khalil Gibran, this work distills its text and part of its title from a 100-entry daily blog that the author maintained earlier this year. The book design, by Eduardo Téllez, uses Arabic letters and script to enhance the ambience. By turns cryptic, philosophical, and even poetic, this novel marks an interesting departure for a challenging writer. Recommended for libraries and bookstores serving readers of serious experimental fiction.
But what about those fortunate few here among us who really want to read Volpi's work, who love Gibran, who just want to learn more about it for free?

Well, you're in luck.  Volpi created a blog specifically for this novel.  Go check it out.

Excuse me, but I have some reading to do now.  I have to determine whether or not this short novel will make my year-end discussion of the best books of 2008.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

António Lobo Antunes

Received two recently-released (2008) English translations of Portuguese author António Lobo Antunes' work, Knowledge in Hell (originally published in 1980) and What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire? (2001) today. I came across the first book when reading through the Reading the World list for 2008 titles and when I ordered it at Amazon, the second book appeared as an "Also by..." I looked at its description and it seemed like just the thing for me.

There might be a chance of at least a brief review of one or both of these books before year's end, but if there are any who are familiar with Antunes' work, feel free to weigh in with impressions. I read that much of his work is influenced by his time serving in the Portuguese Army in Angola, as well as by his reading of William Faulkner, but if there are other influences, please let me know!

October 17-November 17 books read

Not as much time for reading this past month (and likely not until the final two weeks of the year, so it'll be a close call as to whether or not I get past #366, which is my goal for the year):

October 17-31

320 Matthew Stover, Caine Black Knife - Reviewed this. Too lazy to look up the link now. Liked it a helluva lot.

321 Javier Negrete, Alejandro Magno y las águilas de Roma - Ditto.

322 Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet - This was a great inspirational read for me.

323 Ian C. Esslemont, Return of the Crimson Guard - better than his first novel, but there's something about it that isn't quite clicking with me still. Decent to good, but nothing spectacular about it.

324 Daren Simkin, The Traveler - One of the short, reflective tales that are designed to make one think. It made me think a bit, so it was a worthwhile reading experience.

325 Andrzej Sapkowski, Blood of Elves - Already reviewed it. Enjoyed it quite a bit.

November 1-17

326 Cyril Pedrosa, Three Shadows - Poignant, sometimes sad graphic novel. Glad I read it.

327 Gabriel García Márquez, La hojarasca (re-read from 2007) - Very early Macondo novel. Good read, but sad, like most of Gabo's novels.

328 Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory - World War I as a literary/cultural history. This book is a classic of the field and deservedly so.

329 Gabriel García Márquez, El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (re-read from 2007) - Haunting, damning, with a killer closing line. Sound familiar, Gabo fans?

330 Andrzej Sapkowski, Bautismo de fuego - Fifth out of seven books in the Saga of Geralt de Rivia, this was a fine middle volume, with Regis stealing the show at times.

331 Gabriel García Márquez, Los funerales de la Mamá Grande - Collection of short stories that mostly revolve around Macondo. Good, but not his best work.

332 Gabriel García Márquez, La mala hora - This 1962 novel about divisions in Macondo is Gabo's best pre-Cien años de soledad work.

333 Roberto Bolaño, Estrella distante - Will review in the future, after another book of his is read, but it's safe to say that Bolaño has become one of my favorite Latin American authors.

334 Federico Fernández Giordano, El libro de Nobac - Might review this in the future, but this was a really intriguing mystery/metaphysics story. Enjoyed reading it quite a bit.

335 R. Scott Bakker, The Judging Eye - Will review this in the future. Worthy installment to one of my favorite epic fantasies.

In Progress:

Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de soledad (re-read from 2004, 2007)

Javier Negrete,

Kelly Link, Pretty Monsters

Jeff VanderMeer, Predator: South China Sea

International fiction

A few related points (and links) to share in a brief post before I resume getting ready for work:

This weekend, I was pointed to a couple of posts on's site written by authors Brian Francis Slattery and Jo Walton (with a second, related post by Slattery on Arab-American literary exchange). Each of them dealt with the issue of SF that isn't that of an Anglo-American flavor. The discussions are quite interesting (and I participated a bit in both, but not as much as I would have wished due to quite a few work-related projects I'm doing right now) and I encourage others to check them out.

In addition, you'll notice a few additions to my Non-English section of the blogroll. Thanks to Argentine author/editor Sergio Gaut vel Hartman for providing me with those links to Spanish-language fictions, especially that of the microfiction variety that I like to read on occasion.

Yesterday, I received my first shipment from Weird Tales after I finally remembered that I wanted to subscribe to it. To my surprise and joy, it took less than two weeks for it to be processed and I received the issue I feared I wouldn't receive due to my tardiness in subscribing: The September/October 2008 issue is subtitled "The International Fiction Special," and it contains short stories by Zoran Živković (astute readers will remember my love for his "suites"), Sara Genge, Nir Yaniv, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Juraj Červenák, Chiles Samaniego, and Alistair Rennie, as well as an excerpt from Ekaterina Sedia's excellent 2008 novel, The Alchemy of Stone. Time permitting, I'll try to have a mini-review of this and future issues every so often.

Finally, I have a few orders outstanding that ought to be arriving soon. I browsed again through the Reading the World 2008 website and chose books by Elias Khoury, António Lobo Antunes, and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar. In addition, I also bought newer fictions by Jorge Volpi Escalante and Romulo Gallego that I hope to have by the end of the month.

So...anyone care to comment on the state of "international" (i.e. non-Anglo-American) literature? Or perhaps to recommend even more authors to me, particularly Latin American authors outside the Boom Generation? I'm somewhat familiar with the Crack Manifesto and McOndo writers, but am very willing to expand my reading horizons in Spanish and perhaps Portuguese (although that'll involve a few struggles for me here and there).

Sunday, November 16, 2008

First thoughts regarding R. Scott Bakker's The Judging Eye

I finished reading R. Scott Bakker's first volume in his second Eärwa trilogy, The Judging Eye, about an hour ago. While I don't plan on having a formal review up until around its mid-January 2009 release date, here are a few thoughts that I need to sort through in the next couple of weeks before I sit down to write out a review draft:

1) The writing is more compact than in the PoN trilogy.

2) The evolution of the characters' PoVs away from direct focus on Kellhus's own PoV to him being further and further outside the direct action is a logical progression from the latter half of PoN and something I expected.

3) The reason behind this book's title (and the event surrounding this) is either setting up for some very serious metaphysical discussion in the coming novels, or it might be a decried as being an ill-explained departure from the mechanics established in the previous trilogy.

4) Having three main plot threads for this novel didn't seem to work as well as it should have, as one of them came to dominate too much of the latter third of the novel. Hard to think of how Bakker could have done it any differently right now, however.

5) Speaking of those plot threads, the one that dominates actually would have made an excellent, dark, scary novel on its own, so it's not as though it could have been cut any further.

6) The proverbs for this volume are just as cutting and just as cynical about "human nature" as were the PoN ones.

7) The humor was a little affected at times; this was a dark novel, but a bit more humor could have made the dark scenes all the more effective by highlighting the contrasts more.

8) For those who knock Bakker's portrayal of women: I thought he did a pretty good job portraying one main female character (new to the series) and how she developed her attitudes.

9) It's never simple with any of Kellhus's children. There is much more to be revealed about them. Even the mad have moments of clarity.

10) Damnation is a very scary thing indeed.

11) Much is revealed of Eärwa's past, including some truly sick scenes.

12) If I were to go much further right now, Scott likely would have my head, even if he didn't make me promise to withhold information about this book (all my comments are based strictly on my reading of the ARC Overlook sent me this week).

So...any questions?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Amazon UK SF/F Best of 2008 List

Interesting to compare the Amazon US list (compiled by Jeff VanderMeer) with the Amazon UK one, with an uncertain number of people contributing to that list. I have read/own almost all of the US ones, but only four on the UK one. Thoughts on this list given in full below?

1. Peter F. Hamilton, The Temporal Void - I have the first volume in this trilogy (still unread, at the moment), but not this one.

2. Terry Pratchett, Nation - Outside of a little bit read in an anthology years ago, I have read no Pratchett and I just haven't had the interest. Still don't.

3. Neal Stephenson, Anathem - I believe this is the only book on the list that also appears on the US one. Still need to order this in the next few weeks.

4. Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book - Will buy sometime in the near future.

5. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin - Read this back in this form. Thought it was a lovely book back then. Odd that it's making a 2008 list drawn up by Amazon's editors, though.

6. Alan Campbell, Iron Angel - Read it, thought it was an improvement over the first book.

7. Peter V. Brett, The Painted Man - I have the US ARC (to be published here as The Warded Man), but it'll be a few months before I get around to reading it.

8. Liz Williams, Winterstrike - Haven't read this particular book, but a previous book of hers, Nine Layers of Sky, was well-done.

9. Nick Harkaway, The Gone Away World - I started this book just before the school year and I got so wrapped up with preparations that I abandoned the book until I had some extended time to devote to it. What I read was intriguing, so I hope to finish it one of the two remaining holiday breaks this year.

10. Adrian Tchaikovsky, Empire in Black and Gold - Haven't bought this yet, but have considered it every now and then...

My thoughts on this list? It's not bad, but not as appealing to me as the US list was, but I suspect for many, this will be a list more similar to their likes and dislikes.

November 12-14 Book Porn

Seven books this time, all of them review copies, with six from the Putnam/Penguin/DAW group and the final one from Overlook Press.

Top-Left: Mercedes Lackey (ed.), Moving Targets and Other Tales of Valdemar (this is a festschrift of sorts, with 14 authors, including Judith Tarr and Tanya Huff among others, joining Lackey in writing 15 stories set in her Valemar universe); Laura E. Reeve, Peacekeeper (woman packing heat...err...stereotypical cover?).

Bottom-Left: Martin H. Greenberg and Janet Deaver-Pack (eds.), Catopolis (17 themed stories about the "city of cats", apparently some sort of a hidden history connection between these feline tales); John Zakour, The Flaxen Femme Fatale (okay, so that cover...wha?).

Left: Harry Turtledove, The United States of Atlantis (alt-history second volume involving what if Britain had colonized a "rediscovered" Atlantis instead of North America? Would the colonists still have rebelled?); E.E. Knight, Dragon Strike (fourth volume in a series that apparently involves quite a few dragons in it).

R. Scott Bakker, The Judging Eye (I'm going to finish reading this in a few hours, but so far, it is at least the equal to the Prince of Nothing trilogy and in some ways outstrips it in terms of characterization. Will say more closer to its January 2009 release date, as this is a book that demands more thought about its themes than what I've seen indicated in the first few advance reviews posted online recently).

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Untranslated blurbage

This is from the back cover to Premio Minotauro-winning author Federico Fernández Giordano's El Libro de Nobac. I'll do a translation later, but for now, here's the cover art in Spanish for the fortunate few:

Un misterioso anciano contrata los servicios de Edgar Pym, escritor de encargo cuya vida profesional y sentimental va a la deriva, y de la bella periodista Lisa Lynch, para que dejen constancia de una singular historia. Obra en su poder un objeto prodigioso: un extraño libro en el que de un modo enigmático, ajeno a todo postulado racional, se va narrando su propia vida, día tras día. Desentrañar las claves de ese libro supondrá asimismo seguir la pista del profesor Nobac, un excéntrico científico desaparecido años atrás en extrañas circunstancias. A ello se abocan Edgar y Lisa, sin imaginar que a partir de entonces se convertirán en actores principales de un peligroso puzle, una escurridiza galería de espejos que los atrapará poco a poco hasta extraviarlos en una siniestra trama urdida en torno a ellos y en la que nada es lo que parece ser.

Valiéndose de mecanismos policiacos y digresiones temporales, El libro de Nobac propone un misterio laberíntico donde la memoria y el tiempo recomponen la realidad y la ficción para, mediante movimientos siempre imprevisibles, diseccionar los ineluctables entresijos de la fatalidad.

Narrada con notable riqueza estilística, esta novela indaga en profundidad las sutiles relaciones entre determinismo y libre albedrío, creador y creación, tiempo y espacio, a la vez que confirma a Federico Fernández Giordano como una de las voces más originales y rigurosas de la actual literatura fantástica.
As I said above, I'll edit this later, when I have the energy to give this a full, thorough translation. Suffice to say it hints at elements of both Poe and Borges here and that alone has piqued my interest. What about others here? Did reading this (either by knowing it or using Babelfish) make you curious about how this novel is constructed?

Spanish and Pirate Book Porn

Three long-desired books arrived via parcel post today. The first two are very promising 2008 releases in Spain, including the winner of the V Premio Minotauro (Premio Internacional de Ciencia Ficción y Literatura Fantástica), while the other is an original anthology dealing with pirates (no truth yet to the rumors that there is a forthcoming anthology on ninjas).

Left: Javier Negrete, Salamina (from the Premio Ignotus-winning author, this is a very promising historical fiction regarding the Battle of Salamis, the largest naval battle in antiquity and the key point in the Persian War); Federico Fernández Giordano, El Libro de Nobac (Premio Minotauro-winning novel that according to the blurbs contains elements of Poe, Borges, and Lovecraft. I'll translate the back cover for it and for Negrete's novel in the next few hours or days, time/energy permitting).

Left: Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds.), Fast Ships, Black Sails (original pirate-themed anthology that came out a few weeks ago. Considering the VanderMeers work on The New Weird and Steampunk anthologies earlier this year, my curiosity was piqued, even if I sometimes wonder at all the pirate fanciers out there ;)).

Armistice Day and fiction

Through the wonders of postdating, this post will go live at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (well, it will in the Central Standard Timezone where I live). I will be just returning from a Veteran's Day presentation at my school and will likely acknowledge the day to some degree before I finish up a unit on Progressivism and get ready to start a new one on American imperialism and the Great War.

Writing now at the 55th minute of the 22nd hour of the 10th day, I cannot help but to feel a mixture of excitement and apprehension as I draw nearer to teaching this unit. Due to previous teaching assignments, I have not taught the First World War in almost 10 years, ever since I was a student teacher, but a large part of my undergraduate and graduate research revolves around the Great War and its aftermath. It is my favorite time period, in large part because so much visible and deep change occurred due to the war's devastating effects on a generation of youth, on the nascent global economy, and on perceptions of "human nature." While there have been other moments of great change, this was the first truly global and rapid-fire change that affected so many elements of so many cultures.

Yet as much as I love this time period, I fear I will do an inadequate job teaching it, because the best parts require so much of a background in the times before and after the horrors of Passchendaele, Ypres, or Gallipoli. But another thought lurks behind those, and that is of the transformative effect the War had on fiction. Considering the fictions that were popular before the war and those that followed after, could one make the case that much of twentieth-century fiction, whether it be "literary" or "speculative" fiction, has the tendency to explore (or reject, in some cases) the questions raised by the Great War's tumults? I am reminded of Modris Eksteins' excellent 1989 cultural history of the War, The Rites of Spring, and how he attempts to address those questions.

Whether or not such assertations can be definitively proven or not, on days such as this one that honor the dead from such charnel houses, it does merit some thought to be devoted to how fiction is in many cases but the tail wagged by history's dog. But before I submit this post, anyone have any favorite non-fiction or fiction from the First World War period or related to it in some form or fashion? I'll list my personal favorites in the afternoon after school is dismissed.

Monday, November 10, 2008

November 4-10 Book Porn

Thirteen books have arrived in the past few days, with 9 being review copies and 4 being purchases (the top and bottom photos). Expect a few features and/or reviews on many of these books before Christmas time.

Left: Andrzej Sapkowski, Bautismo de fuego (fifth Geralt/Witcher book; enjoyed it quite a bit and will review it in the future); Roberto Bolaño, Estrella distante (high, high expectations for this earlier novel of his, as I've already decided that 2666 is one of my favorite reads for 2008, although it will not appear on my year-end list simply because I read it in Spanish and in its original language, it was first published in 2005).

Left: Bruce Sterling, The Caryatids (due out in about 3-4 months, will read it later); Gene Wolfe, An Evil Guest (read it a few months ago, thought it was minor Wolfe, but will re-read it in a couple of months before making up my mind on it in a review); Edward M. Lerner, Fools' Experiments (likely a "rainy day" read at this time).

Left: Jim Butcher, Princeps' Fury (from Butcher's other series, again this will wait until another day, especially since I don't have the first few volumes); James P. Blaylock, Knights of the Cornerstone (been meaning to try his work for some time, so I'll start with this fantasy, even if it might not match his more famous work...or might it?).

Top-Left: Dana Stabenow (ed.), Unusual Suspects (apparently, this is an original paranormal mystery anthology); Deborah Chester, The Crown (billed as the second book of a new trilogy by a long-established author).

Bottom-Left: Nina Harper, Succubus Takes Manhattan (sequel to a book I received a few months ago and still have yet to read, apparently this is an urban fantasy); John Levitt, New Tricks (also a second volume in an urban fantasy series).

Left: Jorge Volpi, No será la Tierra (one of founding members of Mexico's Crack Manifesto writing group, I have high hopes for this novel. Plus, play close attention to that photo and what's transpiring there); Jeffrey Ford, The Drowned Life (anything less than a candidate for my year-end finalist list for Best Short Story Collection will be a major shock and disappointment. That's how much I have enjoyed Ford's stories in the past).

What Macondo means to this gringo

A few weeks ago, there was talk at wotmania about discussing Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez's famous 1967 novel, Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude in English translation) starting today, November 10. However, the person who initiated the talk has had some issues with the story and I am uncertain if the planned discussion there will occur. In a way, I am not surprised at her reaction or at the few negative comments I have read in those linked threads, because of the story's structure as well as the historical and cultural elements that inevitably are lost in translation.

I first read Cien años de soledad back in the late winter of 2004. I possessed a copy of the Gregory Rabassa English translation and an annotated Catedra paperback Spanish edition and I read the two editions in a sort of parallel text. My Spanish was very, very rudimentary back then and in fact this was the first novel I ever completed in Spanish. It took me almost two months of reading 5-10 pages a night and writing down every single word I didn't know before I completed the story. I remember feeling both relieved and saddened when I reached its devastating conclusion. I put the books on the shelf and I never touched the story again for three years.

In the interim, I quickly broadened my knowledge of Spanish to where a year later I was able to read novels without needing a parallel text and with only the occasional bilingual dictionary consultation. I discovered Argentine authors such as Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. I explored the Crack Manifesto and McOndo writers such as Jorge Volpi, Ignacio Padilla, Edmundo Paz Soldán, and Alberto Fuguet. I took two high intermediate/advanced Spanish grammar courses at a local university to develop further my ability to read and write in my second language. I read the online editions of dailies from Colombia and Argentina, among others. In short, minus regular contact with native speakers after my move back to Tennessee from Florida in 2003, I worked hard to become reading fluent in Spanish.

So by the time I decided in early 2007 that I wanted to read more of García Márquez's work, I had not only imbibed grammatical elements from that list of outstanding authors, but also I took in much of their attitudes toward the world. While I will never be confused with a native, I have had discussions with friends of mine from El Salvador and Argentina online about certain favorite stories of theirs and they have expressed surprise at what I "get." I am uncertain if I accept their platitudes, however, since after all, what I mostly noticed in Gabo's stories, especially his earliest novels, is a very close familiarity with the literature of my native South, particularly that of William Faulkner.

When I read La hojarasca, La mala hora, El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, and Los funerales de la Mamá Grande last year, it was my viewing them through the twin prisms of my cultural awareness of Southern literature and my acquired knowledge of 19th and 20th century Latin American historical and cultural developments that enabled me to view García Márquez's Macondo novels in a different light. My perception of Cien años de soledad changed radically as a result.

I mentioned Faulkner above. While it is debatable as to the amount of influence that Faulkner had directly on the techniques and motifs of the Boom Generation writers, there certainly are several points of explicit similarity that his Yoknaputawpha County and Gabo's Macondo. Both are fictional creations that serve to stand in place of the "real" Mississippi of the early 20th century or of the "real" Aracataca of the early-to-mid 20th century. There are Biblical allusions to floods and plagues as well as to moments of little triumphs and a greater awareness of the darkness that lurks in the human soul. Faulkner's Snopes novels perhaps might find its spiritual kin in Gabo's first few stories, contained in La mala hora and La hojarasca. Each author uses narrative techniques (such as Faulkner's application of stream of consciousness in The Sound and the Fury and García Márquez's reliance upon magic realism in Cien años de soledad in particular) to heighten the reality of the events transpiring in the novels. In the end for both authors, the unreal doesn't usurp the urgency of the real, but rather it complements it, creating metaphors and connections that eventually collapse into conclusions that can be very dark, depressing, yet also emotionally powerful.

There are of course differences; Faulkner's South contains different tragedies than does Gabo's Caribbean coastline. While there is a hint here and there of imposed social change in Faulkner's story as a consequence of the devastating American Civil War, in the Macondo novels, it is more of a post-colonial reaction to the days of Big Stick and Dollar Diplomacy, when American imperialism infiltrated Latin American societies and governments in a much more insidious fashion than British or French imperialists could penetrate the African societies that they conquered in the late 19th century.

Becoming aware that events in the Macondo novels such as the segregation of Macondo's population from the United Fruit compound or how the nameless colonel suffered through poverty and broken promises are all based on very real events such as the Banana Massacre of 1928 and the Thousand Days War of 1899-1902 has allowed me to gain further insights into why the stories are structured in the way that they are. Many people have complained about the lack of a "regular" time in the Macondo novels. It is not so much that Gabo aimed for a "timeless" feel, but I suspect it is more to convey the sense that change is ephemeral and that throughout the course of Macondo's development (whether it be seen as a more Naturalistic set of period pieces in the earlier novels or as a biblical/mythical allusion in Cien años de soledad) one can see the trail of lies, broken promises, and impositions from outside on the lives of the village's inhabitants.

When I started this latest re-read, I couldn't help but to think of these novels not as examples of the intermingling of fantasy and realism, but as very real and powerful metaphors for some of the nastiest, most hurtful, and tragic events of the past two centuries. Colombia has had a bloody past and present. It has been consumed by a three-part low-level civil war since the 1960s, around the time of these novels' publications. The paint colors of Macondo's houses takes on a whole new meaning when read as a commentary on the Liberal/Conservative divide that has produced the Thousand Days War, the infamous Treaty of Neerlandia, as well as sparking the formation of FARC. Not many Americans are going to be aware of what is transpiring under the surface of these novels. Either they'll love the prose and the hints of tragedy, but the dark humor and the full impact of the tragic events and their connections to Colombian history will be missed. Lost in translation applies to much more than how to render words. How does one translate a shared cultural/political past with a forastero?

But yet it is possible in an imperfect sense to gather more than surface-level impressions if one is not a native. However, it is very tough and it took me multiple re-reads, consultations of other fiction and non-fiction, and numerous conservations with Latino friends of mine to grasp just a few more facets of some very multi-faceted literary gems. Perhaps others here have had an easier time grasping the nuances of another culture via translated literature (or literature read in the original language)?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Andrzej Sapkowski, Blood of Elves

'She is not a child,' the voice repeated. 'She is the Flame, the White Flame which will set light to the world. She is the Elder Blood, Hen Ichaer. The blood of elves. The seed which will not sprout but burst into flame. The blood which will be defiled...When Tedd Deireádh arrives, the Time of End. Va'esse deireádh aep eigean!' (p. 88)

Andrzej Sapkowski's third book in The Saga of Geralt of Rivia, Blood of Elves, is the beginning of a five-novel sequence that builds upon the stories and characters introduced in the first two short story collections, The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny (not yet available in English translation). In particular, there are two passages from each of these books respectively that I want to cite as a way of giving a sense of how the stories relate to the novel.

From "A Question of Price," the conclusion contains an enigmatic exchange between Geralt and the Queen of Cintra, Calanthe, that plays an important role in the Saga proper:

'Duny," said Geralt seriously, 'Calanthe, Pavetta. And you, righteous knight Tuirseach, future king of Cintra. In order to become a witcher, you have to be born in the shadow of destiny, and very few are born like that. That's why there are so few of us. We're growing old, dying, without anyone to pass knowledge, our gifts, on to. We lack successors. And this world is full of Evil which waits for the day none of us are left.'

'Geralt,' whispered Calanthe.

'Yes, you're not wrong, queen. Duny! You will give me that which you already have but do not know. I'll return to Cintra in six years to see if destiny has been kind to me.'

'Pavetta,' Duny opened his eyes wide. 'Surely you're not -'

'Pavetta!' exclaimed Calanthe. 'Are you...are you - ?'

The princess lowered her eyes and blushed. Then replied. (The Last Wish, p. 156)
The other passage involves an exchange between Geralt and the young Ciri at the end of the story "The Sword of Destiny." This exchange appears to bear a hint of the storyline that follows, beginning with Blood of Elves. I have translated this from the Spanish translation, so any errors are my own:

" Geraaalt!"

He turned around. Ciri was on foot on top of the mountain, a little grey figure with disheveled hair the color of ashes.

"Don't leave!"

Geralt waved his hand.

"Don't leave!" she cried with a very high-pitched voice. "Don't leave!"

I have to do it, he thought. I have to do it, Ciri. Because I...I always am leaving.

"You won't achieve it!" she cried. "Don't believe it! You won't flee! I am your destiny, you hear me?"

Destiny doesn't exist, he thought. It doesn't exist. The only thing destined for all of us is death. Death is the other edge of a double-edged sword. I am one. The other is death, which follows me step by step. I cannot, I should not injure you, Ciri.

"I am your destiny!" reached him from the top of the mountain, a voice distant, desperate.

He spurred the horse on with the spurs and rode forward, sinking as in a sinkhole, in a dark forest, cold and humid, in the known, friendly darkness, in a darkness that didn't seem to have an end. (La espada del destino, p. 242).
I give these passages from the first two books because without them in mind, much of the tension that develops in Blood of Elves would be lessened; it really is essential to have read these first two collections before reading the novels, although that option has been taken away from the English-language readers. However, there are contextual clues in this novel and the ones that follow after that refer to these events.

The novel opens with Ciri having a flashback to the sacking of Cintra and Geralt comforting her. In an echo of the passage I quoted above, Ciri thinks this:

Ciri had heard such reassurances in the past. They had been repeated to her endlessly; many, many times she had been offered comforting words when her screams had woken her during the night. But this time it was different. Now she believed it. Because it was Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, the Witcher, who said it. The man who was her destiny. The one for whom she was destined. Geralt the Witcher, who had found her surrounded by war, death and despair, who had taken her with him and promised they would never part.

She fell asleep holding tight to his hand. (p. 7).
From there, the action shifts to a performance given by the talented, foppish bard Danilion (Jaskier), who is one of Geralt's few friends. Danilion has finished singing a ballad based closely upon the events of the first two collections, stories involving Geralt, the sorceress Yennefer, and Ciri. Before the action commences, Sapkowski foreshadows future divisions by means of this passage:

But even during an event as exceptional as the world-famous troubadour's just-concluded performance the travellers kept to themselves, remaining in clearly delineated groups. Elves stayed with elves. Dwarfish craftsmen gathered with their kin, who were often hired to protect the merchant caravans and were armed to the teeth. Their groups tolerated at best the gnome miners and halfling farmers who camped beside them. All non-humans were uniformly distant towards humans. The humans repaid in kind, but were not seen to mix amongst themselves either. Nobility looked down on the merchants and travelling salesmen with open scorn, while soldiers and mercenaries distanced themselves from shepherds and their reeking sheepskins. The few wizards and their disciples kept themselves entirely apart from the others, and bestowed their arrogance on everyone in equal parts. A tight-knit, dark and silent group of peasants lurked in the background. Resembling a forest with their rakes, pitchforks and flails poking above their heads, they were ignored by all and sundry.

The exception, as ever, was the children. Freed from the constraints fo silence which had been enforced during the bard's performance, the children dashed into the woods with wild cries, and enthusiastically immersed themselves in a game whose rules were incomprehensible to all those who had bidden farewell to the happy years of childhood. Children of elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes, half-elves, quarter-elves, and toddlers of mysterious provenance neither knew nor recognised racial or social divisions. At least, not yet (p. 9).
Immediately after this, the action begins with Danilion being confronted about his story by a mysterious personage, one whose role in this novel (and in future volumes) appears to be malevolent. Soon after, the invasion of the realms (first with the conquest of neighboring Cintra, then continued in the backdrop into the other cities and principalities featured in the first two collections) by the Nilfgaard Empire sparks a series of conflicts; the Nilfgaardians try to divide and conquer by means of encouraging the non-humans to rise up against the humans, while simultaneously they exploit human fears and antagonisms towards the elves, dwarves, gnomes, and halflings. "Freedom fighters" such as the elvish Scoia'tael, the Squirrels, rise up and the devastation spreads in a decentralized fashion, as group hatreds explode in a bloody frenzy.

Through all this, young Ciri is taken by Geralt to the home of the Witchers, Kaer Morhen. There she is tested and trained in the ways of the Witchers, although she does not undergo the mysterious, mutation-causing infusions that the Witchers receive during the course of their training. All the while, Ciri continues to be beset by strange dreams and visitations which seem to hint at a dark, nebulous future ahead for her, Geralt, and certain others. Geralt takes heed of this and the events that follow after open the action from small, local affairs to a broader world in which the causes and consequences of prejudices, fears, and hatreds are seen to be flowering like poisonous mushrooms.

The pacing is excellent; in just over 300 pages Sapkowski ties in the events of the earlier two collections to a sprawling world that is full of conflicts, both internal and external. The characterization is well-done, as Geralt's wish to stay neutral stands in sharp contrast to what Ciri experiences when she, Geralt, and the sorceress Triss Merigold meet up with the dwarf Yarpen:

'You've got pretty good hearing, girl, like a marmot.' He grinned broadly. 'You're also a bit too bright for someone destined to give birth, cook and spin. You think you know everything, don't you? That's because you're a brat. Don't pull silly faces. Faces like that don't make you look any older, just uglier than usual. You've grasped the nature of the Scoia'taels quickly, you like the slogans. You know why you understand them so well? Because the Scoia'taels are brats too. They're little snotheads who don't understand that they're being egged on, that someone's taking advantage of their childish stupidity by feeding them slogans about freedom.'

'But they really are fighting for freedom.' Ciri raised her head and gazed at the dwarf wide wide-open green eyes. 'Like the dryads in the Brokilon woods. They kill people because people...some people are harming them. Because this used to be your country, the dwarves' and the elves' and those...halflings', gnomes', and other...And now there are people here so the elves - '

'Elves!' snorted Yarpen. 'They - to be accurate - happen to be strangers just as much as you humans, although they arrived in their white ships a good thousand years before you. Now they're competing with each other to offer us friendship, suddenly we're all brothers, now they're grinning and saying: "we, kinsmen", "we, the Elder races". But before, shi - Hm, hm...Before, their arrows used to whistle past our ears when we - '

'So the first on earth were dwarves?'

'Gnomes, to be honest. As far as this part of the world is concerned - because the world is unimaginably huge, Ciri.'

'I know. I saw a map - '

'You couldn't have. No one's drawn a map like that, and I doubt they will in the near future. No one knows what exists beyond the Mountains of Fire and the Great Sea. Even elves, although they claim they know everything. They know shit all, I tell you.'

'Hmm...But now...There are far more people than...Than there are you.'

'Because you multiply like rabbits.' The dwarf ground his teeth. 'You'd do nothing but screw day in day out, without discrimination, with just anyone and anywhere. And it's enough for your women to just sit on a man's trousers and it makes their bellies swell...Why have you gone so red, crimson as a poppy? You wanted to know, didn't you? So you've got the honest truth and faithful history of a world where he who shatters the skulls of others most efficiently and swells women's bellies fastest, reigns. And it's just as hard to compete with you people in murdering as it is in screwing - '

'Yarpen,' said Geralt coldly, riding up on Roach. 'Restrain yourself a little, if you please, with your choice of words. And Ciri, stop playing at being a coachwoman and have a care for Triss, check if she's awake and needs anything.'

'I've been awake for a long time,' the magician said weakly from the depths of the wagon. "But I didn't want to...interrupt this interesting conversation. Don't disturb them, Geralt. I'd learn more about the role of screwing in the evolution of society (pp. 136-138).
I cite this entire scene because it encapsulates perfectly many of Sapkowski's gifts as a writer. The dialogue is interesting and at turns bitter and hilarious. Ciri and Yarpen's personalities are shown via the way each addresses the other, one being inquisitive and eager to learn while the other is embittered and yet ready with sharing his own sarcastic take on the world. We learn about how the various races are not getting along, how rhetoric seeks to both divide and unite groups, as well as what is transpiring around the travelers. In short, it is a microcosm of the unfolding events and serves to make the reader focus not just on the plot actions, but also on the thematic underpinnings of the story. Sapkowski accomplishes much with scenes such as these and while Blood of Elves truly is a set-arranging opener that doesn't advance the main plot too rapidly, these undercurrents that Sapkowski explores serves to create an opener that is exciting and one that plays off of the tensions introduced in the story collections and the opening chapter, creating the promise of a rewarding payoff. One of the better opening sequences to a multi-volume fantasy series that I have read in years. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: October 16, 2008 (UK); US release scheduled for Summer 2009. Tradeback, Hardcover.

Publishers: Gollancz (UK), Orbit (US).
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