The OF Blog: May 2009

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Gotta love feedback

A little over a year ago, I reviewed Joe Abercrombie's The Last Argument of Kings for Strange Horizons. The first of a few reviews I've done for paying venues, I hadn't thought to check and see if there were any new responses to it until just now, when I checked the Referrers section of my Sitemeter stats and saw the link back to SH. So I clicked and saw that there was indeed a new comment, one from three months ago. Interesting little bit:

Posted by Paul Adrianson at February 24, 2009 1:31 AM:

The beautiful thing about fantasy novels of this caliber is that it elicits such in depth scrutiny from the likes of yourself which tells me how well written and refreshing this epic series was. You really had to dig to find some kind of critical dribble on such a well written series with such realitic characters. Glokta was by far the most well developed character. I question the depth of your assessment of this series. What is your benchmark for comparison. I would use a writer like Terry Goodkind or the like. to react to something like this? Thought about not saying anything at all, especially since it's over three months since it was posted, but it is interesting to see what someone who isn't familiar with my reading preferences thinks about them based solely on a single review. While I probably could reply with some snark about how it really wasn't that hard to "find some kind of critical dribble" when I found those asides of the author to be annoying on a regular basis, among other things, I am only left wondering how my mixed reaction to one volume equates to the response generated. I guess fanboys come in all shapes and forms.

Anyways, here's the chance to weigh in on this year-old review. Feel free to dissect it, since it won't hurt me any, being the toughened SOB that I am. Just don't mention that one author that this commentator did, OK?

Fantasy of a different sort?

You have these two guys in this photo. What sort of story would you create to explain how these two came to hang out with each other and why the backdrop is painted so?

Let's talk about Tolkien

Yo, I don't think we should talk about this
Come on, why not?
People might misunderstand what we're tryin' to say, you know?
No, but that's a part of life)

Come on


Let's talk about Tolkien, baby
Let's talk about Hobbits and Dwarves
Let's talk about all the good things
And the bad things that may be
Let's talk about Tolkien
Let's talk about
Let's talk about Tolkien
Let's talk about Tolkien

Let's talk about
Tolkien for now to the people at home or in the crowd
It keeps coming up anyhow
Don't decoy, avoid, or make void the topic
Cuz that ain't gonna stop it
Now we talk about
Tolkien on the blogs and fantasy sites
Many will know how those Trolls bite
Let's tell it how it is, and how it could be
How it was, and of course, how it should be
Those who think it's dirty have a choice
Pick up the bookmark, put it in, or just close the book
Will that stop us, Pep? I doubt it
All right then, come on, Spin


OK, now that I've butchered that song from my high school years, so wanna talk about Tolkien now? About how he's "overrated"? Or not? Or how 'bout that guy in the link provided who says that Sir Walter Scott was a major influence on Tolkien?

Just a little something for a lazy Sunday afternoon. Or we could just talk about sex, but I'd worry some would discuss Dwarf mating habits and debate whether or not modern-day Dwarves would have a Playdwarf magazine that they'd hide under their mattresses. Choice is yours, though.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

One of the strangest review items sent to me

Yes, I of all people, with my disdain for most vampire stories and my complete lack of interest (or faith) in tarot cards, get sent Vampire Tarot, by Robert M. Place. This set, which includes a 227 page book that explains how to use this tarot deck of 78 nicely-illustrated cards, is nicely-produced. However, it just isn't the sort of thing that would appeal to me.

What about you? Would you be interested in owning or playing around with this? It comes out June 23 and since there might be a few readers here interested in this (or those curious to see what sort of things I receive that leave me nonplussed), here's the post with a couple of pictures and a chance for you to weigh in on what you see here.

Wherever there are kids...

...a golden age exists.

This quote by Novalis is cited in the introduction to Platero y yo, by Spanish Nobel Prize-winning author Juan Ramón Jiménez. Just something that struck me as I just now have begun reading this excellent 1914 children's book (now in a new illustrated edition that came out in Spanish late last year). I've been reading more and more children's and YA literature the past couple of years. I wonder if that "golden age" exists not just in a temporal sense of one's age, but rather in the mindset of one who not only remembers being a child, but understands what being a child is like even now at whatever "grown-up" age that person might have.

Hopefully, there will be a golden age for decades to come for me. Ever experience anything like this with your readings?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

New cover for a book I really ought to review at length

Saw the new cover art for the reissue of Ekaterina Sedia's excellent 2008 novel, The Alchemy of Stone, just now on Bibliophile Stalker and thought I'd post it here in hopes that A) more people would go out and order this book (or any other of hers) of Sedia's, and B) That I will make the time to re-read the book and give it a proper review this time (it was one of my favorite reads for 2008, but I really do owe Kathy a full review of just what all I enjoyed about her book) before 2009 fades into memory.

A Matter of Choice

Two books are due to arrive tomorrow, Thomas Ligotti's My Work Is Not Yet Done and China Miéville's The City & the City. For some, the choice of which of these would be read first would be clear-cut, for others, it would also be clear-cut, but in a different way. A few might even vacillate between the two.

Never heard of Ligotti? You really ought to sample any of his work that you can find. Miéville? I have high hopes, but I just don't know if he's yet mastered the art of crafting prose for his stories the way Ligotti has for his. Yet most people would likely choose the new Miéville over the new Ligotti so they could choose the devil they know.

Ever wondered what it would be like to travel the road less taken?

P.S. Tamar Yellin's 2008 collection, Tales of the Lost Tribes, is excellent. She too knows how to make each word count.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Blogvolution, again

Charles Tan over at Bibliophile Stalker has an interesting article up about the changes in certain blogs from mostly book review to other types of blogs. This blog is cited as one example, as it has changed from being more review-oriented to more column-based, with only occasional reviews and interviews. That is indeed true and it is no accident. However, there are a few mitigating circumstances behind this.

I tend to review in spurts, usually centered around a lack of busyness in my professional life. The past three months have been excruciating for me in the sense of having to drag myself into work and to refrain from cursing out my boss for general incompetence and her unique talent for pissing off an entire staff of teachers beyond the ken of most principals. But that job ends tomorrow and I start one that I have worked before, one where I've been welcomed back very warmly, beginning Thursday (yes, no days off for me). I should have more energy for writing reviews then, or at least I hope I can write 2 or so a week.

But this does not mean that I want this blog to become more review-oriented. That ship has set sail a long time ago. I prefer to think of myself as being a better essayist than a reviewer and while I'll review what I want when I want (early or late matters little to me, to be honest), I'd much rather interact more with others. Whether it's by sharing what I receive and/or purchase in the mail (or in stores) or if it be a look at certain issues within a field (gender, race, religion, the awesomeness of Shatner), I like dialogue over monologue any day of the week.


There will be a review of Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman in the near future. Same for China Miéville's latest. Same for a few others. But there'll also be other posts about other matters, since sometimes those topics can get lost in the rush to say something about a book that might just hang around for a while longer...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

More May 18-22 Book Porn

Another 12 books were received in the mail this week, with six being purchases and the other six being review copies. Some interesting books in this week's mailbox arrivals, with three pictures devoted to one of the more intriguing layouts I've seen for a fictional work.

Top: Ken MacLeod, Divisions (reprint omnibus, with Fractions being the first half and this the second. Will read both of these sometime in the near future); P.R. Frost, Faery Moon (author's second novel and I think this is part of a series, so I'm uncertain if I will read this); Tanya Huff, The Enchantment Emperium (apparently this is either a standalone or a new series beginner, so I might read this sometime this summer); Simon R. Green, The Spy Who Haunted Me (another one of this NYT Bestseller's novels).

Top: Stewart O'Nan, Last Night at the Lobster (someone, I forget whom, described O'Nan as being the voice for the working class. If that's the case, then based on this short novel alone, he's an outstanding talent for developing characters and narrative voice. Loved this book and will read more of his stories in the near future); Sang Pak, Wait Until Twilight: A Novel (debut novel coming out in early August that is, according to the author and his publicist, a combination of a coming of age tale and a Southern Gothic. Since I'm a native Southerner, I plan on being all over this like white on rice, with a probable review sometime in mid-to-late July); Michael Moorcock (ed.), New Worlds (2004 reissue of an anthology of some of New Worlds more representative stories and articles. Good stuff so far); Bradford Morrow (ed.), Conjunctions: 48: Faces of Desire (Spring 2007 issue/book that contains around 30 stories that revolve around facets of desire. Some good stuff here); Bradford Morrow (ed.), Conjunctions: 47: 25th Anniversary Issue (will be reading this anthology over the next week or two).

Left: Andrzej Sapkowski, El último deseo; Sapkowski, La sangre de los elfos (just showing off the new Spanish covers for the first and third volumes in La saga de Geralt. Already have reviewed these in English, but I will say that I'm finding José María Faraldo's translation to be superior to the English translation done by Danusa Stok, although some of that is due to Spanish having a fuller archaic literary language compared to English).

J.C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman, Personal Effects: Dark Art.

This is an unusual book to examine. The first picture (above) is of the book when closed; it looks of normal size from a distance. But consider the two pictures below when the book is opened. There is a pocket to the left that contains a psychiatric report, family photos, death and birth certificates, and links to actual web sites that will further the immersive experience, according to the press kit. This book is described as being "the steller first of an interactive supernatural series" and apparently Weisman is an "alternative reality game whiz" who designed the contents of the book's packet, while Hutchins (who is the author of the audiobook podcast trilogy 7th Son) is making his print debut. Don't know if this is the second coming of Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves or something that would be a glorified mess, but this has piqued my interest, so I might read/review it before its June 11th release.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Today's book haul

While I'll be making another post soon (likely tomorrow) for the rest of the week's purchases and review copies, just thought I'd show what happens when I walk into a bookstore with money to spare and with a desire to buy what catches my fancy. Not going to be giving much in the way of specific explanations, other than to say that I've found myself wanting to: 1) Read some religious commentary, 2) Sample more literary journals, and 3) Read more libros en español. In addition, since Del Rey hasn't (yet) sent me a copy of his second novel revolving around the American Revolution being fought with the aid of magic users, I also bought a copy of C.C. Finlay's A Spell for the Revolution. Planning on reading that and most (if not all) of the others in the next few weeks. I think the titles should be clear from the pictures, but if not, just let me know and I'll pass along the name. Each of the journals is for a Spring/Summer 2009 issue.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What led to the rise of the fairy tale?

Interesting article posted the other day by The Guardian, where a folklorist, Ruth B Bottigheimer, disputes the notion that fairy tales rose whole cloth from oral culture. While at first I was tempted to disagree vociferously with her claims, after a bit of thought there is something to it. Robert Darnton in his classic 1984 cultural history, The Great Cat Massacre, explores the complex relationships between popular and elite cultures in 18th century France, including a chapter on the rise of folklore and how stories such as Little Red Riding Hood changed over time. In that book (which I wholeheartedly recommend that others read, along with Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre and Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a 16th Century Miller, in order to grasp some of the arguments for microhistories and new cultural history methodologies), Darnton touches upon the various ways that print and oral culture of the 18th century influenced one another. While he doesn't spend much time on it, one could argue that he was leaning toward the stance that "oral culture" was quite influenced by the dissemination of ideas and storytelling motifs (poverty, social relations between rigid classes, etc.) that was brought about by the printing revolution and by the revival of long-distance trade that started after 1200 CE.

So while I probably wouldn't go as far as Bottigheimer apparently does with her arguments, I would have to say that there is something to the notion that it wasn't until print culture and widespread international exchanges of stories emerged that the folk tales and fairy tales began to develop their familiar forms. After all, consider the international influence of a Fafnir or a Reynard and I suspect trade patterns and print distribution might play a role in those legendary characters crossing cultural bounds that had begun to be established after the 12th century.

What is literary fiction, redux

Received quite a few comments on my earlier post asking, "What is literary fiction?" Had thought about writing an essay on this, but am uncertain of the time when I'd have the energy to write it (as it stands, I'm waking up in less than 3 hours; naps are dangerous things when they occur in the early evening hours!), so perhaps these bullet points will suffice, at least for now:

  • The term "literary fiction" is almost like a Rorschach Test; every one reveals quite a bit of their attitudes and biases when attempting to define terms such as this.
  • Not surprisingly, most of the comments to date have approached this question from the "genre" side - noting possible oppositions to genre lit characteristics, a presumed decentralization of plot in favor of the elevation of character and prose to paramount status.
  • Very little to nothing has been said of how the audience for lit fic differs from that for various genre lit audiences. This I think is a crucial difference that should be explored more.
  • I suspect there are more lit fic and genre lit readers at this blog, namely because the discussion hasn't been as pejorative towards lit fic as it likely would have been if this question had been posted on a SF/F forum.
  • Related to bullet point #3: For issues of lit journals like Conjunctions that contain genre-related stories (see Conjunctions: 39: The New Wave Fabulists and the just-published Conjunctions: 52: Betwixt the Between: Impossible Realism), it seems internet searches turn up many more reviews written from a genre perspective than from a lit fic perspective. Is the mode of communication different (i.e. more likely the reviews are published in lit journals and not online via blogs and e-mags)?
  • Also, is this mode of communication between writers and intended audience for lit fic in danger?

Perhaps these bullet points will provide more grist for the mill as the weekend fast approaches.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Some Borges translations of mine

For some reason, I thought I had ported this over a year or so ago, but apparently I hadn't. This too was originally posted in July 2007 on my other blog, Vaguely Borgesian. Just a couple of poems and passages by Jorge Luis Borges that I enjoyed, especially the last poem. Any errors in translation are mine.

Been meaning to post these for a while now (I did the translations on the 16th), but better late than never. The first is from the Epilogue to El Hacedor(1960), while the second and third are from La Rosa Profunda (1975). I’ll provide the Spanish, followed by my very rough translations:

Un hombre se propone la tarea de dibujar el mundo. A lo largo de los años puebla un espacio con imágenes de provincias, de reinos, de montañas, de bahías, de naves, de islas, de peces, de habitaciones, de instrumentos, de astros, de caballos y de personas. Poco antes de morir, descrube que ese paciente laberinto de lineas traza la imagen de su cara.

(A man proposes to himself the task of drawing the world. Over many years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kindgoms, and mountains; of bays, ships, islands, and fish; of habitations, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Little before dying, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.)

“Mis Libros”

Mis libros (que no saben que yo existo)
son tan parte de mí como este rostro
de sienes grises y grises ojos
que vanamente busco en los cristales
y que recorro con la mano cóncava.
No sin alguna lógica amargura
pienso que las palabras esenciales
que me expresan están en esas hojas
que no saben quién soy, no en las que he escrito.
Mejor así. Las voces de los muertos
me dirán para siempre.

(”My Books”

My books (which do not know that I exist)
are as much a part of me as this face
of gray temples and gray eyes
that vainly I search in the crystals
and which go over with the concave hand.
Not without some bitter logic
I think that the essential words
which they express to me are in those pages
that do not know who I am, not in them which I have written.
It is best so. The voices of the dead
will speak to me forever.)

“El suicida”

No quedará en la noche una estrella.
No quedará la noche.
Moriré y conmigo la suma
del intolerable universo.
Borraré las pirámides, la medallas,
los continentes y las caras.
Borraré la acumulación del pasado.
Haré polvo la historia, polvo el polvo.
Estoy mirando el último poniente.
Oigo el ültimo pájaro.
Lego la nada a nadie.


There will not remain in night a star.
Night will not remain.
I will die and with me the sum
of the intolerable universe.
I will erase the pyramids, the medals,
the continents and the faces.
I will erase the accumulation of the past.
I will make dust of history, dust of dust.
I am facing the last west wind.
I hear the last bird.
I bequeath nothing to nobody.)

Dave Eggers, What is the What

This was originally posted in October 2007 on my other blog, Vaguely Borgesian. Gathering the reviews from there here so they will all be in one central location.
Dave Eggers has written some incredible books over the years spanning all sorts of genres. From his 1999 autobiographical work, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, to neo-hipster writings such as You Shall Know Our Velocity! to his editorial work/social commentary on the plight of young urban teachers such as myself, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of Today’s Teachers, Eggers has displayed a combination of a keen insight into the minutiae of everyday life that makes the difficult and sometimes outlandishly cruel quotidian elements such compelling reading material. But in this 2006 biographical “novel,” What is the What, Eggers may have written one of the most human of novels that I have read this decade to date.

What is the What tells the story of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng. Although Deng is a real person which Eggers interviewed extensively over a period of months, due to the conflation of people and situations, Deng’s story as written by Eggers is labeled as a novel. Regardless of the technically fictional work, this story has the brutal force of a kick to the genitals.

Beginning when Deng was barely out of infancy in the mid-1980s, his homeland of Sudan has been the force of tensions between the Muslim Arabs to the north and the Christian and Animist Dinka to the south, with almost continual civil war since 1983. Today, we hear so much about the plight of the refugees of Sudan’s Darfur region, but little about the Dinka who have suffered for almost 25 years. Those of us such as myself reading or hearing about this conflict might feel inclined to sigh out a “oh, that sucks!” without ever really thinking about the many layers to the suffering that a refugee undergoes when he or she is removed from the home and from family, all too often a witness to scenes of brutality and suffering that we cannot even hope to fathom, much less imagine.

Deng as the first-person narrator in this tale does a lot to strip away this distance. Beginning with him being robbed in Atlanta soon after his repatriation to the United States in 2001, Deng tells his story to a somewhat-imagined audience of a captor’s child or a distant hospital staff member, drifting between the past and the present in a way that makes not just the initial suffering but also his present struggles all the more immediate and easier for us to understand. His tales of growing tensions between the Arabs and the Dinka are intertwined with his first crushes and his oft-humorous faux pas. These interludes humanize the situation and allow the reader to break out of the “oh man, he’s lived such a dreadful life, I cannot begin to understand what he’s been through” cycle and into the “hey, I’ve been through that before!” moments that allow for a greater emotional bond with the narrator version of Deng.

Eggers does an outstanding job of constructing these moments into a story that not only feels authentic due to the source material, but which serves as a statement of the humanity contained within such inhumane experiences that affects the reader in ways that even the most graphic of documentaries cannot hope to accomplish. As a novel and even more as a story of human experience, What is the What is one of the best tales I have read in years.

David Anthony Durham, Pride of Carthage

This was originally posted on Vaguely Borgesian, my other blog, which now has fallen into disuse since I decided to cover non-speculative fictions works here as well on occasion.

History is a word fraught with ancient emotions and depths. From the ancient Greek ἱστορία, meaning roughly “narration of what is learned,” to the Latin historia, which has the extra connotation of “story” to go with the Greek meaning to the French histoire, the Spanish and Italian historia, and of course the English history, the word refers not just to the past, but also to what we’ve learned from the past, as well as the narrative tales we transmit from generation to generation in order to impress upon our youth the important “lessons” that past events can teach us.

It was for the storytelling aspects, the ability to learn from prior events and to piece together meanings and stories from people from other places and times, that led me to get my BA and MA in European cultural/religious history a little over 10 years ago. Although I currently am not working in that field, I still value and cherish it and for the most part, I have looked at “historical novels” with a skeptical eye. Common questions I have asked myself when reading historical novels have been “Will the author be more “true” to the mechanisms of change or will s/he try to be “true” to the “spirit” of the events? Will the “story” aspect of history be on display here, or will it devolve more into a hodge-podge of mostly-unexplored events and poorly-developed characters, with just a surface layer of “historicity” to top it off?”

These were some of the questions that I had when I began reading David Anthony Durham’s Pride of Carthage. Now I had earlier read his excellent fantasy, Acacia: The War with the Mein, as well as two smaller-scope historical works, Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness (I plan on re-reading the latter two before reviewing them here in the coming months), so I was familiar with Durham’s basic writing style and his approach towards characterization, but still the question still lingered about how he would approach the larger-than-life persona of the Carthinginian general Hannibal during his 218-203 BCE campaigns against the Romans during the Second Punic War. Would Hannibal be portrayed more as an übermensch, dominating without much effort or struggle, or would he be set up more as a tragic hero, whose own virtues end up being the cause of his downfall at Zama at the hands of Scipio Africanus?

What I found while reading this novel is that Hannibal is neither all of A nor all of B, but a bit of both with some surprising (but fitting) elements tossed in. Eschewing a more traditional approach of concentrating mostly on the general himself, Durham devotes quite a bit of time to his family, from his brothers Hasdrubal, Hanno, and Mago, to his father, Hamilcar, and in some of the more poignant scenes that frame the novel, his son, also named Hamilcar. In many ways, this is a tale about a father who has done many great and terrible things, at a horrendous cost to his home and family in the end.

Below is an excerpt from near the beginning of the novel that reveals quite a bit about how Hannibal came to be the leader that he was. His father has taken the then-eight year-old Hannibal to see a prisoner, one who had tried to betray Carthage:

“This man betrayed Carthage, “Hamilcar said, his voice a dry rasp that he could not shake, though he cleared his throat several times. “Do you understand that? This man conspired to open the gates of our city to the mercenaries. He did it for money, for power, out of a sheer hatred that he hid behind the mask of a countryman. He almost succeeded. had this man the power, he would yank you up by the ankles and bash your skull against the stones beneath us. He would nail me to a cross and leave me to die slowly. He’d see me a rotting, maggot-filled corpse, and he would laugh at the sight. He would slit your brother’s necks and rape your mother and have her sold into slavery. He would live in our house and eat our food and rule over our servants. This is the man before you. Do you know his name?”

Hannibal shook his head, his eyes pinned to the stones and not moving even as he answered.

“His name is Tamar. Some call him the Blessed, others the Foul. Some call him friend. Some father. Some lover. Do you understand? He has other names also: Alexander. Cyrus. Achilles. Khufu. Yahweh or Ares or Osiris. He is Sumerian, Persian, Spartan. He is the thief in the street, the councillor who sits beside you, the man who covets your wife. You choose his name, for he has many, as many names as there are men born to women. His name is Rome. His name is mankind. This is the world we live in, and you’ll find it full of men like this.”

Hamilcar released the man’s head and placed his hands on his son’s shoulders. He pulled him close and let the boy rest his forehead against his cheek. Hannibal did this willingly, for he did not want to look at the man about whom they spoke. “Son,” he said, “there was a noose around our neck and to cut it I had to kill many men most horribly. You are a child, but the world you were born into is no kind place. This is why I teach you now that creation is full of wolves aligned against us. To live in it without falling into madness, you must make of yourself more than a single man. You love with all your heart as a father and son and husband. You wrap your arms around your mother and know the goodness of women. You find beauty in the world and cherish it. But never waver from strength. Never run from battle. When the time comes to act, do so, with iron in your hand and your loins and your heart. Unreservedly love those who love you, and protect them without remorse. Will you always do that?”

Against his father’s chest, the boy nodded.

“Then I am proud to call you my firstborn son,” Hamilcar said. He pulled away and stood up straight and yanked a dagger from the sheath on his ankle and pressed the handle into his son’s hand. “Now kill this man.”

Hannibal stared at the blade in his small hand, a dagger nearly as large as the toy swords he practiced with. He closed his fingers around the handle slowly, felt the worn leather, the rough weave of it and the solidity of the iron beneath it. He raised his eyes and moved toward the man and did as his fathered ordered. He did not lift the man’s head, but he slipped the blade under his chin and cut a ragged, sloppy line that yanked free of his flesh just under the ear. He fell against the dead man’s body for a moment. Though he sprang back, the touch still stained his nightclothes with the man’s newly flowing blood. He was just eight years old that night. Of course he had not forgotten that moment. Nor would he. It would be with him on his deathbed, if the moment of his passing allowed for reflection. (pp. 88-90)

It is in this scene, one-sixth into the novel, that foreshadows so much of what transpires later. Hannibal the character becomes a well-rounded individual who flashes both the iron of necessary action and the warmth of a caring and generous heart. He inspires his men through his valor and bravery, even though he sees only out of one eye after one battle. While many of his characteristics seem to indicate that this will be the tragic hero who falls down to Death at the end, Durham chooses not to take that path. Although Hannibal remains at the center of the tale, Durham devotes much time to developing his secondary characters, especially the conflicted and complex relationship between Imco Vaca and Aradna, whose periodic encounters serve to underscore the various tensions that are on display throughout the course of this novel.

When I evaluate a historical novel, I first want to see if the invented characters blend in well with the historical main characters. In Pride of Carthage, they do for the most part. Then I want to examine the writing and see if it feels “alive,” that it is more than just a dry retelling of the past without anything really contributed in the way of an actual story. As indicated from the lengthy excerpt above, I believe that Durham’s writing suits the story very well, with the humanness of the characters on full display. Some readers might complain that the narrative approach is a bit “too distant” for them. Perhaps they’d rather have more dialogue or intense action than the panoptic third-person PoVs that Durham employs to tell his story. For me, the narrative voice works here because with the scope of the action and the amount of time that Hannibal’s story has to cover (the first 43 years of his life), I cannot think of a more appropriate narrative voice that would have managed to accomplish as much within a single 568 page novel.

However, there are a few cases in which a bit more time devoted to dialogue could have made the ending even stronger. In particular, the political maneuvering taking place both in Rome and Carthage perhaps could have been shown in more detail. It would have been nice if Scipio Africanus could have had more “talk time” in the buildup to the Battle of Zama. Maybe even more could have been said about the Battles of Lake Trasimene and Cannae. And let us not forget the rather compressed timeline, in which Hannibal’s son still appears as a child at the end rather than the young adult he would have been after being separated from his father for 15 years. But these are quibbles, for the most part. No historical novel can be completely “true” to the recorded events without encountering places where the storyline needs are going to clash with some historical gaps or contradictions. So while the compressed timeline might be annoying for those history buffs who want super-accurate renderings of battles and events, for those who want a good tale set in a particular historical mileu, Pride of Carthage is an enjoyable and rewarding novel. It certainly was one of the better historical novels that I have read in the past ten years and I would highly recommend it to others who enjoy reading historical novels or for those who like intriguing and dynamic characters.

Publication Date: January 18, 2005 (US), Hardcover; January 3, 2006 (US), Tradeback.

Publisher: Doubleday

Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic Review

Originally posted on my now-quiet other blog, Vaguely Borgesian, as I'm going to be porting over a few of the reviews I did there so they can be more readily found.

A few months ago, I received a package of Advance Review Copies from Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s graphic novel imprint, Hill and Wang. One of the books included was Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, which was mostly written, edited, and drawn by Harvey Pekar, Gary Dumm, and Paul Buhle. In this 214 page novel, these three have set out to show via a combination of printed word and illustrations the wide-ranging impact that the radical 1960s Students for a Democratic Society had on issues such as the antiwar movement, women’s lib, the democratization of campus life, and the civil rights struggle.

The book is split into many sections. In these, the editors decided to begin with an overall history (comprising the first quarter of the book) of the SDS movement, from its genesis in 1960 to its disintegration into factional infighting in 1969. The writers/illustrators don’t shy away from several touchy topics, including the use of violence by various members and splinter groups such as the Weathermen (named after a line from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”). But this introduction serves as a backdrop for the very passionate and often tragic lives of SDS members.

It is in the chapters following the initial overview that one hears the stories of various SDS members, what they had to overcome in their personal lives, the prejudices of friends and loved ones, and in a few cases, the tragic deaths of lovers. While one may not sympathize with their political views, their stories, with some very well-done artwork to emphasize the action unfolding, carry a ring of authenticity that often is lacking in textbook accounts of the 1960s in the United States.

As a former history grad student and teacher of American and World History, at first I was skeptical that the book could achieve its overall aims, despite evidence from books such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus that illustrated the possibilities that a marriage of personal (and world) historical events and the graphic novel form could have in moving the hearts and souls of the readers. For the most part, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History achieves its aims. It does an excellent job of showcasing the very interesting and conflicted lives of its members. However, one should not read this book expecting an unbiased account. The editors did not write this with the aim of doing so and the book is very clear in its endorsement of what the SDS accomplished. But with that caveat in mind, I did find this to be well-written and informative, giving the reader often-overlooked facets of the radical 1960s to consider.

For those who are curious about the 1960s in America and who want to learn more about the Students for a Democratic Society, I recommend this book as being a stepping stone to reading even more detailed and rich historical works on this very important era of American History.

Publication Date: January 8, 2008 (US), Hardcover.

Publisher: Hill and Wang (Farrar, Straus and Giroux imprint)

Brief reading notes on narrative voice

Finished reading Daniel Robb's Crossing the Water Tuesday afternoon. Everything I hoped it would be and more. The voices he gave to the troubled teens he worked with made that story resonate.

Just started Marc Bojanowski's The Dog Fighter. First-person narrator has a very distinctive voice. Sucking me into the tale right now, set in 1940s Mexico. Hard life, fighting dogs for a living. Very "real", with a presence that's hard to describe yet, as I still have another 250 pages or so to go in this novel. Wonder why more authors don't spend more time developing their narrative voices compared to developing scenery. "World building" is but a pretty backdrop if the characters don't have distinctive voices that awaken the reader to what's really going on. Perhaps that's why I'm spending more time lately reading non-genre works; the voices are the key.

However, there is one genre story that does have a well-developed narrative voice. Began reading a PDF galley of Jeff VanderMeer's upcoming (November) Ambergris novel, Finch. Almost halfway done; will finish after finals are completed on Friday. Sharp, short sentences burst forth like machine-gun fire. Finch is hard-nosed and the prose accentuates this. VanderMeer always seems to craft his prose around the type of story (and its setting) that he wants to explore. This one feels like one is smelling the fungal rot of a decayed civilization, with fear and repression overlaying that first layer. Curious to see what I'll make of its conclusion.

And hey, even blog writers can very their voices to fit what they're reading, no? I don't think I had any sentences laden with dependent clauses for once. Guess that should tell you all you need to know about these tales and my reactions to them, no?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

If you want to understand me a bit better...

Or at least what I have done/will do with my former/upcoming new job, then I would recommend that you read Daniel Robb's Crossing the Water: Eighteen Months on an Island Working with Troubled Boys - A Teacher's Memoir. While there are certainly differences between the program he worked in (from what I can tell, partway into the novel, the program described there is more of a wilderness program, while mine is more of a suburban setting that is closer to a lock-down facility), the challenges are much the same.

Nice reading this while watching my current crop of public school students taking their final exams today. Will miss most of them (and a few that I think would be much more interesting to talk with 10 years from now, after they have had more life experiences), but certainly am looking forward to working again with troubled teens.

Monday, May 18, 2009

What is literary fiction?

Consider this the question of the week. Curious to know how you would define it, what examples you would cite, and your relationship with that term. Myself? I'll be busy much of the week administering final exams and calculating final averages before I change jobs in the middle of next week. I'll weigh in later, but it might be a day or two at least.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

May 10-17 Reads

Again, not many reads these past 8 days compared to the first four months of the year. I'm a bit burned out with the sItalicoon-to-be old job (only 1.5 weeks to go, then I immediately start my job at a former place of work, teaching troubled male teens this time in a residential treatment facility in my hometown. Due to confidentiality agreements, I won't be discussing that job in great detail, other than when I worked there the first time, I enjoyed it quite a bit for the most part) and with finals to give this week, my mind has been utterly exhausted and my sleeping has been very erratic. But at least it did improve compare to the week before:

166 Bradford Morrow (ed.), Conjunctions: 52: Betwixt the Between: Impossible Realism - this latest tradebook/magazine issue from Conjunctions is a sort of followup to the 39th issue, The New Wave Fabulists. While I hope to have time in the near future to write a formal review (whenever I'm exhausted, review writing is always the first to go), I found most of the short stories to be excellent, although I'm not completely sold on the thematic arguments for "postfantasy." Do recommend this volume (which can be ordered online from Amazon and most other retailers) for those who like reading short fiction. Possible candidate for my Best of 2009 for Anthologies, although the competition isn't all that fierce at the moment.

167 Michael Moorcock, Jerusalem Commands - Third volume in his Pyat Quartet. While Pyat continues to be a fascinating character, some of the historical 1920s settings that Moorcock employs were not as interesting as those for the first two volumes. Good, solid volume on the whole, however.

168 Bradford Morrow (ed.), Conjunctions: 50: Fifty Contemporary Writers - Containing a wide ranging of styles and authors both young and new, within and without various literary and fantasy genres, this volume could serve as a primer for what Conjunctions aims to do with its volumes. Very good, even if the theme dealt with covering the past 25 or so years of the literary magazine more than anything else.

169 Michael Moorcock, The Vengeance of Rome - Fourth and final volume of the Pyat Quartet, where Pyat, the anti-semitic Jew, the bisexual, cocaine-snorting inventor/actor/spy, agrees to spy for Mussolini in 1933-1934 Germany. While I disagree a bit with the portrayal of Hitler (Moorcock used Strasser's claims, repeated in the OSS dossier on Hitler, that Hitler was into hotplating and Cleveland Steamers, among other things), this was a fascinating look at the mirrors between Pyat's own self-contradictions and those of the Nazi regime. Fitting close to a very intriguing series. Highly recommended.

In Progress:

Clark Ashton Smith, The Emperor of Dreams (collection)

Johann Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson

Nicola Griffith, Slow River

Future Plans:

Roberto Bolaño, 2666

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Revisiting my Best of 2008 lists and some 2009 early contenders

When I compiled my Best of 2008 lists last December, I remember thinking that it would be interesting to see if there would be any that I would add to the list if I were to read more 2008 releases in the first few months of 2009. Sure enough, there were a few that would have made some of the various category lists:

Neal Stephenson, Anathem - While it likely wouldn't have made the Top 5 of my 20 Favorite Fictions for 2008, it certainly was enjoyable enough to have had a shot at the 6-10 placements.

Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go - This would have made my YA list and possibly my 20 Favorite Fictions for 2008 list.

Ferenc Karinthy, Metropole - Certainly would have appeared on the Translated Fictions list and likely in the 11-15 slot on my 20 Favorite Fictions of 2008 list.

Christopher Barzak, The Love We Share Without Knowing - Candidate for the 20 Favorite Fictions of 2008 list, likely in the bottom half of that list.

James Blaylock, The Knights of the Cornerstone - May or may not have made the 20 Favorite Fictions of 2008 list, but it certainly would have been considered for that list.

Now for the early contenders for the Best of 2009, with specific categories listed in parenthesis when applicable:

Mark C. Newton, The Nights of Villjamur (debut)

Dan Simmons, Drood

Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones (translated fiction)

Peter Brett, The Warded Man (debut)

Tobias Buckell, Tides from the New World (collection)

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds.), Best American Fantasy 2 (anthology)

Bradford Morrow (ed.), Conjunctions: 52: Betwixt the Between: Impossible Realism (anthology)

Felix Gilman, Gears of the City

Brian Evenson, Last Days

Kay Kenyon, City Without End

Mind you, the year is young. Will note that I'm halfway through the PDF galley for Jeff VanderMeer's Finch and that book right now appears to be a lock for the Best of 2009 lists when they appear in December. Read an excerpt of China Miéville's The City and the City and that too appears very promising. Still need to read Jo Graham's The Hand of Isis and a few others that are currently on my shelves waiting to be read before the finalist list will begin to take firmer form.

May 11-16 Book Porn

Ten books this week, half being purchases and half being review copies that I've received. Nice mixture of the new and old, the speculative and not-so-speculative.

Top: Daniel Robb, Crossing the Water (this is a memoir of sorts of Robb's experiences teaching troubled teens on an island off Massachusetts. Since I've worked much of the past five years - and will be again in two weeks - with troubled teens, either as a teacher (again, in two weeks) or as a direct care worker, this book seems just the thing for me. Will be reading it in the next few days); Phaedra Wilson, Phantasm (part of the Zoe Martinque series. Since I haven't read the first one, don't know if I would be able to follow what would happen here); Alastair Reynolds, House of Suns (American release for this British Hard SF writer's latest novel. Might read this in the next month or so, since it is set in a different setting than his previous novels, from what I understand).

These three novels are purchases made because I wanted to have copies of Gollancz's SF and Fantasy Masterworks series. Since I'm familiar to some degree with each author, I'll just say that I'll be reading Clark Ashton Smith's The Emperor of Dreams omnibus, and Michael Moorcock's The Dancers at the End of Time and The History of the Runestaff in the near future.

Left: Kelly McCullough, Mythos (again, this appears to be part of a series that I haven't read, so for this and the next book, no clue as to when I would read them); Jes Battis, A Flash of Hex (see previous note); Bradford Morrow (ed.), Conjunctions: 52: Betwixt the Between: Impossible Realism (read this on Tuesday. Still formulating my thoughts on the theme, but most of the individual stories ranged from solid to outstanding. Recommended purchase for most).

Friday, May 15, 2009

US cover art for Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson's The Gathering Storm

Let's see...has the main character, Rand al'Thor, decided to embrace the Black Power movement with that right fist held up high? Is he about to extend the middle finger and shoot a bird at someone? Have his legs atrophied and he really has the physique of a wheelchair basketball player who is now propped up? Is that house the ruins of the one on 1313 Mockingbird Lane? Is that a dwar...err, midg...err, little person behind Rand there?

It's been four years since some fantasy fans' favorite game, Mock the Latest Darrell Sweet Cover, has been played. Seems like this one offers up all sorts of possibilities, no? What would you describe is really happening in this cover art depiction?

Thursday, May 14, 2009


The other. Others. Otherness. There is something about "other" that nags us, tugs at our thoughts, sometimes inciting us to willful ignorance. In many senses, "other" is an indefinite noun or adjective, perhaps the indefinite noun or adjective. It (rarely taking the form of "he" or "she," but the neutered, ill-defined "it") is like a mysterious black box in the room. We place our hopes, our fears, our distrust of the unknown into that magical semantic box that we call "other." What the "other" is depends upon the person doing the defining.

I have been thinking (again) about otherness lately. Quite a few stories, some from anthologies like the most recent issue of Conjunctions, some from books and histories I've read recently. In each of those, there is that "other" which exists. Sometimes it is meant to represent a mirror of sorts, turned upon ourselves (that itself being an interesting counter to "other," that sense of group identity) to reflect the limitations of our own self-awareness.

Humans are probably the most self-aware of all species on this planet. We (again, a claim to group identity based on perceived qualities of sameness) categorize and filter so many things. Does this object "belong" to me? Can I grasp it, understand it, manipulate it? What about the person over there? Is s/he akin to me? Can I communicate with him/her? Is s/he a threat? A potential friend? Can I come to understand him/her?

Those are just some of the questions we filter through hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day, often without conscious realization of what we are doing. We are so trained to do so (much of it likely due to evolutionary developments, but some of it being conditioned by cultural adaptations) that like breathing air rather than water, we never give a conscious thought to it unless it is pointed out. Or until we are faced with objects or entities that are not comprehensible to us. Things or people that are not akin to us. Beings or objects that are not possessed or grasped or manipulated by us. Those are other.

Much of the fiction I've read deals with this mysterious sense of otherness. Whether it be a strange alien (literally, "other" in Latin) force or it be clashes between the various genders (not necessarily limited to two, mind you!), often there is a sense of disorientation that takes place when a person is forced to confront this otherness. Does that person grasp for similarities? Does s/he lash out in fear, hatred, and/or revulsion because the otherness cannot be grasped or manipulated? Or does the flight part of the fight or flight response seize control, leaving us to flee, either literally by physical means or perhaps in a cognitive sense of rejecting the otherness so totally that the otherness becomes a blind spot, consciously out of sight and mind, while the subconscious mind attempts to puzzle it out, to place this otherness into some schema.

Some of the best (and weirdest) fiction that I've read places the other into a position from which it cannot be manipulated or resolved. Sometimes, humans like to engage in the fallacy that they can gain control over a situation or a person/object, when in actuality that is far from the case. It is those stories that present otherness as being outside the benign/threatening dichotomy, those tales that refuse to resolve just what the other is, leaving us with a mystery that forces us to pour our feeble thoughts, fears, and desires into that unknowable black box - those are the stories that are the most unforgettable for me. After all, if otherness is in part a mirror of the Self, who doesn't want to take a peek and see if one's mental self-image matches that of the mirror, even if it might drive us almost as mad as it does to most animals who see their reflections?

What are some of the stories that you recall in which otherness was never something defined, but something that loomed large over the tale?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Impossible realism, postfantasy, the impossible real?

My issue of Conjunctions: 52: Betwixt the Between: Impossible Realism arrived this afternoon. In the course of the two-page introduction written by Bradford Morrow and Brian Evenson, as well as on the magazine's website, each of the terms listed in my title were used. While I'll leave the semantic debates to others at the present (at least until I've read the current 347 page issue), I have to admit this issue has really piqued my interest ever since I've learned about it from Jeff VanderMeer several months ago.

Each of the labels assigned to this issue seem to indicate some sort of "gap," a space in which previously-accepted definitions of what constituted the "real" and the "unreal" do not operate. A place in which fluidity of meaning and perhaps of existence rule. A notion that depends as much upon how words and images are conceived and crafted as upon anything else.

At least that's what I suspect much of this issue will be about. It's being touted as a follow-up of sorts to the Peter Straub-edited Conjunctions: 39: The New Wave Fabulists, the Fall 2002 issue which despite its flaws seemed to emerge just when that "it" thing, the newly-emergent "New Weird" movement-moment-discontinuity-etc. began to appear on the radars of readers of all sorts of literary genres. I will reserve judgment on this issue until I have read it, but I have to say the lineup has me curious:

Stephen Wright, Brain Jelly

Elizabeth Hand, Hungerford Bridge

Ben Marcus, Secret Breathing Techniques

Stephen Marche, The Personasts: My Journeys Through Soft Evenings and Famous Secrets

J. W. McCormack, POIUYT!

Joyce Carol Oates, Uranus

China Miéville, From The City & the City

Jon Enfield, BiotekaKF

Julia Elliott, Feral

Jedediah Berry, Ourselves, Multiplied

Jonathan Carroll, The Stolen Church

Scott Geiger, A Design History of Icebergs and Their Applications

Karen Russell, Dowsing for Shadows

Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, La Tête (translated from the French by Edward Gauvin)

James Morrow, Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva

Theodore Enslin, The Spirit of a Lark

Edie Meidav, The Golden Rule, or, I Am Trying to Do the Right Thing

Stephen O’Connor, Disappearance And

Jeff VanderMeer, Predecessor

Shelley Jackson, Flat Daddy

Michael J. Lee, The Next Country

Rob Walsh, Dr. Eric

Micaela Morrissette, The Familiars

Patrick Crerand, A Man of Vision

Robert Kelly, The Logic of the World

I am curious to see what the results will be. For some reason, I am reminded of Bob Dylan and his use of the unreal in his most famous songs of the 1965-1966 period to make the real all that more hallucinatory. What about you? Any thoughts or expectations for this issue (which you can order in book form from Amazon and other outlets)?

A simple question

Thinking on this term and its many definitions for a review I want to write in the next few days, but curious to see how others here would define it, so here goes:

In as long as you feel you'd need to answer this, could you please define what the term "otherness" means to you and to the world around you?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A brief late-night observation

I slept until almost 2:30 PM my time, so me being awake at nearly 3 AM CDT isn't that shocking. Not in the mood for reading a novel right now, I decided to catch up on some of my blog reading (since I've barely visited any blogs the past few weeks), when I noticed something, something that perhaps I had thought about briefly before, but never really had bothered to write much, if anything, about until now. What I found myself noticing when reading through the reviews, interviews, and other assorted stuff on several of the blogs was a distinct lack of a "liveliness" to it.

I'm not the most informal of people when writing. I have had elements of a formal education in how to communicate my thoughts via the written form, but I'm also not super-formal when it comes to writing. But I do try to put something of myself into what I do write; having a distant, journalistic approach to blogging isn't my thing. I use first-person. I worry in places, ponder in others. Occasionally, joke and every once in a while I'll cut loose with a rant or a snarky reaction to something. I'll talk about my past experiences with depression and work-related stress (while never mentioning my places of employment by name, as I do believe in some personal/professional boundaries), all in the name of showing some facets of my personality.

While no one has to do any of the above or more, sometimes I'm reading through a blog and it's as though the person operating it has largely chosen to remove him/herself from the material being presented. It seems as though for many of the blogs that I've read, that the blogger has taken a fairly passive role to the material s/he is presenting. Yes, some will use the first-person on occasion, but it often feels tacked on, as if s/he were writing a plot summary and then decided to use a paragraph or two at the end to interject his/her opinions on the matter. Such things feel bolted-on to me, as if two separate things (description of book, reaction to book) are forcibly combined, rather than an integration of the two taking place. While useful for many as an indicator of how the reviewer reacted to a piece, as a review essay, it is rather wanting to me. Something that I too have to take care to avoid, come and think of it, although I do try to smooth out the differences between the description/opinion by mixing and mingling them a bit more.

Furthermore, when several of the blogs stray away from writing reviews, they feel more like report pieces than anything that would include that person's reactions and assessments of what has been reported. Don't just share that X is coming out, why not spend time explaining why X has had some importance in your life? Some bloggers have made attempts to do this, but sometimes it's hard to tell.

This is not a negative assessment of others as people. If anything, it is a piece that sadly notes that too often I want to know more about the people behind the pieces, but what is revealed often seems bland and uninteresting, as if the people writing are too reluctant to reveal much about themselves. Then again, it could be that I'm looking to go further too much in too many places, but hey, what else would you expect from me, based on my own posts and commentaries over the years?

May 3-9 Reads

As I hinted at a day or two ago, this will be the shortest weekly reading list so far this year, at only two completed entries and a few other in-progress reads. Perhaps it'll pick up this week, perhaps not, as I want this blahness to fade first.

164 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún - Tolkien's poetic rendering of the Old Norse version of Siegfried and the Dragon and its related myths was entertaining in places, but there were also places where he apparently struggled to keep the translated story to a natural poetic rhythm. Not a bad read, but to me it became obvious why Tolkien never really returned to polish the remaining rough spots for publication; there just wasn't a "general audience" for it in the 1920s and the need to revise perhaps was too much for a father of several young children at the time.

165 J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition - As I said in the Book Porn post below, I had read several of these pieces before in The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. Still, what he did with these fictions written in the 1960s and (I think) early 1970s was impressive. Psychological impressions combined with a clinical writing style made for some chilling entries.

In Progress:

Nicola Griffith, Slow River

Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (re-read)

Johann Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson (re-read)

Michael Moorcock, Jerusalem Commands

May 4-9 Book Porn

Nine books this week, six of them being purchases, the other three being either from the publishers or (in one case) from the author. Some of the purchases were as the result of the female authors suggested to me in a prior post (with more to be made in the coming weeks), while others reflect my interests in other literary genres.

Top: J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition (I had read part of this years ago in The Best Short Stories of J.G. ballard, but re-reading "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" again was still a fresh experience. Ballard's commentaries at the end of each story were insightful, such as the revelation that someone photocopied the above-mentioned story sans title and distributed it widely at the 1984 Republican National Convention, where it was praised!); Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Zahrah the Windseeker (this was her first novel, I believe, and since I liked her second, The Shadow Speaker, quite a bit, I finally decided now was the time to buy this book, which I'll read in the near future); Ian Cameron Esslemont, Night of Knives (this is the US tradeback edition of a Malazan story written by Steven Erikson's collaborator that was originally published in the UK four years ago. I reviewed it a couple of years ago and found it to be a solid epic fantasy, but nothing really outstanding about it); Nicola Griffith, Slow River (one of the books suggested to me after my Genderfail? post from a couple of weeks ago. Read the first 40 pages before this past week's illness led me to put aside most reading for the rest of the past week. Enjoyed what I've read so far and will finish the book in the next few days, perhaps); Kelley Eskridge, Solitaire (the other Genderfail? book that I've ordered so far. Bought a used copy that lacked a cover. Will read in the next few weeks).

Top: Edward Willet, Marseguro (after I remarked in a previous Book Porn post that I couldn't read Willet's sequel without the first book, the author found out about this and emailed me to offer me a free, signed copy. I agreed and I do plan on reading this and the sequel in the next few weeks); Johann Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson (reminiscing about my adolescence in a post a few days ago led me to order this book, which contains the original 1816 English translation and not the expanded edition that another translator added passages that were later approved by the Wyss family. Started reading it and fond memories have returned. Will finish in the next week or two); Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Petals of Blood (enjoyed his 2006 novel, Wizard of the Crow, so I thought I'd buy and read his 1977 novel, which is very well-regarded in both Kenya and elsewhere in the world); Karen Traviss, Star Wars: The Clone Wars: No Prisoners (uncertain if I'll read this tie-in novel, since I haven't even bothered seeing the last few Star Wars-related releases).

Saturday, May 09, 2009


The title pretty much says it all. Not much time for doing anything the next couple of weeks (job changeover preparations, final exams to administer and grade, that sort of thing), coupled with the lingering effects of the latest round of sinus/lung problems (wouldn't surprise me if it were the same microbe returning again and again despite the antibiotics I've taken for at least 1/3 of the time over the past 90 days). No reviews written for books that I wanted to have reviews written for. The number of books read this week is really low for me and next week doesn't promise to be much better. Haven't had the time to put into writing anything really interesting here nor to respond to the emails and comments here that I really should have done days ago.

But I think after I go back to bed again, I'm going to spend much of the day there. After having a tornado warning strike my school just before my last (and worst-behaved) class was to be dismissed and having to stay with them almost an extra two hours that were full of complaining and whining about wanting to walk out into a threatening storm...I just don't have the energy to do much else these days, except I guess to whine a little bit here as well. Oh well. Might post some book porn pictures tomorrow, might wait until Sunday or even later. At least I have some interesting purchases and review copies to show, ones that do reflect one of the results of last week's post.

Ciao. I need my rest. But before I go, a picture that has multiple layers of interpretation:

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Matter of France, or perhaps that of Britain or Rome?

Here is a copy/paste of a query I just posted on a SF forum, as I am going to begin reading/re-reading later this month (as I said I would back a few months ago) some of the earliest extant literature on Roland, one of Charlemagne's twelve Paladins:

I'm about to resume work on a series of read/re-reads (and eventually, reviews) of some of the more famous early medieval to Renaissance-era stories that comprise the Matter of France (cycle of chansons, gestes, epic poems, and prose that deal with Charlemagne and his 12 Paladins). I thought I'd ask people here not just for the English, Spanish, French, and Italian translations/originals of those those tales, but if they are aware of modern-day fantasy tales that might be viewed as direct descendants of the Matter of France tales.

So, what books might be considered as heirs to that story cycle? Or could it be argued that Anglo-American fantasy lit in particular is more dependent upon the Matter of Britain (Arthur and his knights) or the Matter of Rome (ancient Greco-Roman mythology) or even the Scandinavian sagas, which were not part of the Matters 500 years ago?

So, any suggestions? Or any questions why I'm writing this at 2 AM before a long workday when I'm still sick?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Reading over the years: Childhood through middle adolescence

This is inspired by a comment in the link provided. To the best of my knowledge, I have reproduced by the year first read several books that I consider to be important to me. Since I've read thousands of books, needless to say there won't be many of those listed here. This list ranges across all forms of literature and includes school reads and books that I really was too immature to read at the time that I did. But perhaps such a list will be of interest to those who might like a trip back into their own personal Way-Back Machine, minus Peabody, of course.


*Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
*Charles Schulz, Happiness is a Warm Puppy


*Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon


*Robert Lewis Stevenson, Treasure Island


*C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia
*"Victor Appleton," Tom Swift novels


*Alan Bullock, Hitler


*J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer


*J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings; The Silmarillion
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
George Orwell, Animal Farm
Johann Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson
George Eliot, Silas Marner


William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
*Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles


Edgar Allan Poe, "Fall of the House of Usher," "The Raven"
Nevil Shute, On the Beach
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter


Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon
Herman Melville, Moby Dick (note: I didn't finish this book then and hated it because of the horrid way it was instructed; I read it in full at 23 at a history professor's urging and loved it)


Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels
William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Hamlet
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

The asterisks mark the books that I chose to read on my own; the others were books introduced to me at school. Looking back, it is interesting to see how many non-genre (i.e. sold in the "Literature" section of a bookstore) books that some today would claim as having SF elements (Swift, Shakespeare, Shute, Keyes, Orwell) that I was introduced to via school reading lists. Mind you, this list is very incomplete and I might be editing it multiple times in the next few days as I pore through my shelves and stacks of books. Will likely make a list for my university years later. Sadly, couldn't remember the names of those historical biographies that I used to check out from the local library when I was 8-13 years old, as those books influenced my decision to earn two history degrees.

Reviewing plans for the next couple of weeks

Since I'm under the weather again and haven't even picked up a book for most of the past two days, it'll probably be this weekend at the earliest before I get around to reviewing the books voted on recently in the reader polls. Also, it might be a week or so before I run another one of those book selection polls, just because I'm drained (I've lost nearly 10 lbs. since Friday night) and the final exam schedule at my school is less than two weeks away (needless to say, me missing right now is not the best of timing). On the good news front, my fever broke this evening and I managed to sleep three hours of uninterrupted sleep, the first in five days. Waiting for my meds to kick in so I can sleep again, so I thought I'd write this little post.

But since most of you (I presume) come here for what I have to say and not for stories of my personal health, here's a question to consider: In regards to reading and/or learning, what areas would you like to improve upon the most?

For myself, it would be my ability to understand and to relate to others. This desire has driven me to learn a second language (Spanish), to begin work on several others (the other Romance languages and Serbian), and to try to read stories where people such as myself (Caucasian males) are not the center of attention. Learned much over the past few years, but still have a lot to go. So if any of you have ever wondered where I come across certain books that just don't seem to be readily available, just know that it's through long hours of searching and questioning others.

But again, what about you? What would you like to do to improve yourself?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

April 27-May 2 Reads

Feeling rather ill still (sinus infections just never seem to go away with me, but I dare not take any more antibiotics after the last round almost left me with colitis), so this will be shorter than usual. Twelve books, many of them re-reads of old favorites.

151 Enki Bilal and Pierre Christin, The Hunting Party (re-read) - Graphic novel that tells the story of a clandestine meeting of Communist Party officials from all across Eastern Europe in 1983. Good, but more of interest to those who are history fans.

152 J.G. Ballard, Vermilion Sands - Brilliant collection of interconnected stories. Will have to re-read before I can think about writing a coherent review.

153 Suzane Adam, Laundry - Bought this off of a review I read. After reading it, I wholeheartedly agree with the comments, as this is a raw, onion-layered read that progressively sucks the reader into a psychological morass, with an ending that is short, sharp, and fitting with the narrative. Highly recommended.

154 Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit (re-read) - Childhood favorite. Still a favorite of mine as I approach middle age.

155 Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat (re-read) - Rimbaud's imagery and the way it was expressed are stunning. Still get more out of it every time I read this bilingual collection.

156 Lord Dunsany, Time and the Gods - Slender short fiction collection that focuses on mimicking aspects of various world myths. Dunsany's storytelling and prose are shown nicely here. Good read, will re-read sooner rather than later.

157 Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory: Volume 1 (re-read) - This graphic novel adaptation of four of Ligotti's stories accentuates Ligotti's building of atmosphere.

158 Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory: Volume 2 (re-read) - See what I said above.

159 Ray Bradbury, The Homecoming (re-read) - Illustrated edition (Dave McKeen did the illustrations, which were excellent) of a favorite tale of mine.

160 Boban Knežević, Black Blossom (re-read) - Epic fantasy tale influenced by Serbian folklore. Chapters appear out of order in an attempt to create an effect similar to that of Julio Cortázar's Rayuela/Hopscotch. Not as good as Cortázar's work, but not bad at all.

161 Francisco Casavella, Lo que sé de los vampiros - Good historical novel of the 18th century that spans most of the time from the 1760s to the eve of Napoleon's rise to power. Title is in reference to a comment of Voltaire's.

162 Michael Moorcock, The Best of Michael Moorcock - 400 page collection of his work (well, minus most of the iconic Elric, Corum, and Jerry Cornelius stories). A few stories that didn't work as well as others, but on the whole a collection well worth owning and reading.

Another interesting SF list

Again, copying this list from M. John Harrison's post on "some interesting science fiction", with bold for books/stories I've read and italics for the ones I own but haven't yet read:

Frankenstein, 1818, Mary Shelley

The Time Machine, 1895, HG Wells

The War of the Worlds, 1898, HG Wells

The Purple Cloud , 1901, MP Shiel

The House on the Borderland, 1908, W Hope Hodgson

Metropolis, 1927, Fritz Lang

Last & First Men, 1930, Olaf Stapledon

At the Mountains of Madness, 1936, HP Lovecraft

Out of the Silent Planet, 1938, CS Lewis

The Golden Amazon, 1944, John Russel Fearn

1984, 1949, George Orwell

The Paradox Men, 1953, Charles L Harness

Shambleau & Others, 1953, CL Moore

Dan Dare: Operation Saturn, 1953/4, Frank Hampson

Them!, 1954, dir Douglas

The Man with Absolute Motion, 1955, Silas Water

Tiger Tiger, 1955, Alfred Bester

V, 1956, Thomas Pynchon

The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957, dir Arnold

Quatermass 2, 1957, Nigel Kneale

Journey Into Space, 1953/8, Charles Chilton

The Sirens of Titan, 1959, Kurt Vonnegut

Rogue Moon, 1960, Algis Budrys

The Voices of Time, 1962, JG Ballard

The Alley God, 1962, Philip Jose Farmer

A for Andromeda, 1962, Fred Hoyle & John Elliot

The Secret of Sinharat, 1964, Leigh Brackett

The Terminal Beach, 1964, JG Ballard

The Anything Box, 1965, Zenna Henderson

Alphaville, 1965, dir Goddard

Babel 17, 1966, Samuel R Delany

Mr Da V & Other Stories, 1967, Kit Reed

Report on Probability A, 1968, Brian W Aldiss

The Final Programme, 1968, Michael Moorcock

The Atrocity Exhibition, 1969, JG Ballard

Roadside Picnic, 1971, A&B Strugatsky

Vermillion Sands, 1971, JG Ballard

334, 1972, Thomas M Disch

Ten Thousand Light Years from Home, 1973, James Tiptree Jr

The Clangers, 1969/74, Oliver Postgate

The Grain Kings, 1976, Keith Roberts

Altered States, 1978, Paddy Chayevsky

Timescape, 1980, Gregory Benford

Repo Man, 1984, dir Cox

Neuromancer, 1984, William Gibson

Schismatrix, 1985, Bruce Sterling

The Unconquered Country, 1986, Geoff Ryman

Escape Plans, 1986, Gwyneth Jones

A Spaceship Built of Stone, 1987, Lisa Tuttle

Tank Girl, 1988, Martin & Hewlett

Flatliners, 1990, dir Schumacher

War Fever, 1990, JG Ballard

Sarah Canary, 1991, Karen Joy Fowler

Feersum Endjinn, 1994, Iain M Banks

Fairyland, 1996, Paul J McCauley

Event Horizon, 1997, dir Anderson

What’s He Building in There ?, 1999, Tom Waits

Under the Skin, 2000, Michel Faber

Synners, 2001, by Pat Cadigan

Natural History, 2003, Justina Robson

Samorost, 2003, Jakub Dvorsky

Dare, 2005, Gorillaz

The Weight of Numbers, 2006, Simon Ings

Not surprising how few of these I've read and/or own. Guess I have more to learn, no? And before any question why X was included and Y excluded, be sure to read Harrison's explanations, as it explains his rationale quite well.

Genderfail and me, Part II

Still been thinking a bit about last Wednesday's Genderfail discussion here. The discussion was pretty good and civil, but I wanted to see what would happen if I were to posit the same questions and positions on an epic fantasy board. So last night, I copy/pasted my post over on the Westeros board, a George R.R. Martin fansite. The discussion so far has been quite a bit different in tenor and tone than it was here.

Perhaps it might be that some took my comments on selection bias as being "too sweeping of generalizations." Others, perhaps, might have been annoyed at the thought of there being any questioning going on of "their" preferences. Still others might be curious, but not saying too much. Way too little information to say one way or the other what the general reaction/s will be over there. Interesting that respondents there were at least 4:1 male-to-female, while my original post was 10:6 male-to-female (I'm excluding myself from both samples, since I initiated the discussion). I wonder if that small, non-random sample is indicative of the types of audiences found at a blog like this and an epic fantasy forum like Westeros.

However, that is just me being curious again; it'd be almost impossible to collect reliable information. But it does raise the question of whether or not online social outlets (from forums to blogs to Facebook to Twitter to all parts in-between) might shape general reactions. I'm curious as to which would be more likely to attract female participation and which would be more likely to be dominated by males. I suspect any study that could be done would be quite revealing.
Add to Technorati Favorites