The OF Blog: September 2009

Monday, September 28, 2009

Best Author of the Decade?

I see people are jumping the gun already on a few forums and trying to gauge which author is "the best of this decade" (I think such things should at least wait until December 31, 2010, when the first decade of the third millennium of the Common Era ends).  Since I guess a few reading this would like to weigh in, why not answer the question in any form you choose to interpret it?

In fact, I dare people to be as creative in answering this question as possible.  It'll be interesting to see what the results would be like, especially when compared to forums dominated by epic fantasy fans.  I'll refrain from sharing my answers until a bit later, since my mind changes with the tides.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

September 19-26 Reads

Although I didn't blog about it until now, I've been out sick for several days over the past week.  Some sort of stomach ailment, with abdominal pain, some nausea and vomiting, and a few other things.  Not the flu, but possibly a reoccurrence of a chronic gastrointestinal disorder.  Nothing too serious, I hope, but it is almost certainly stress-related and that unfortunately will probably last for a few weeks longer at least.  But enough about that.  The silver lining is that I had more time to read recently and I finished 18 books over the past 8 days.  Some of these I'll be reviewing, either separately or as part of a planned feature piece that I'll be writing in the next few days, others I might never review, even if I might have enjoyed the book.  Oh, and I passed 365 books read and if I were to continue at the current rate I've been reading for the past couple of months, I might have an outside shot at 500 for the year, by far the most I've read in any given year.   But this is long enough, so here are the books read, followed by a brief commentary:

351  Lavie Tidhar (ed.), The Apex Book of World SF - This 2009 anthology will be featured in a group review of several non-Anglo books that I've read recently.

352  Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House - If this doesn't win in the current poll, I certainly will have it reviewed before Halloween.  Excellent story.

353  Daniel Olson (ed.), Exotic Gothic 2:  New Tales of Taboo - Like the Tidhar anthology, this will be featured in an upcoming group review.

354  Monica Ali, In the Kitchen - Loved her characterization and her prose was fairly good.  There were a few lulls, however, but as a psychological character study of a man's sinking into a morass, this was well-done.

355  Fulton J. Sheen, Way to Inner Peace (re-read) - Inspirational book that did its job.

356  Otsuichi, ZOO - Translation of Japanese short stories that run the gamut of the speculative fiction narrative modes.  Quite a few good stories, would recommend this for those curious to see how Japanese SF is like.

357  Caitlín R. Kiernan, A is for Alien - Good as her recent novel, The Red Tree, was, I think I enjoyed this 2009 collection of her short fiction even more.  This book will be featured more in my year-end look at anthologies and collections.

358  James Thurber, Thurber:  Writings & Drawings - Library of America edition that collects most of his most famous stories and drawings.  Loved his work when I had to read him in high school, enjoyed it even more now.

359  David Toscana, El último lector - About to be released in English translation as The Last Reader, this metafiction was a bit too short (under 200 pages in Spanish) for my liking, as I would have loved to have read even more of this one "last reader"'s selection of works worth reading and why those were chosen.  Toscana is an author I'm going to have to read more, it seems.

360  Pope Benedict XVI, Saint Paul - Series of short homilies/sermons on the most influential person in Christianity outside of the Christ.  Nice mixture of the scholarly and the layman's approach toward examining this crucial historical/religious figure.

361  David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp - Outstanding graphic novel.  Easily one of the best and most-moving things that I've read in 2009.  Go out and read the damn thing now, if at all possible.  How's that for high praise?

362  Yoshihiro Tatsumi, A Drifting Life - Memoir, fittingly told in the graphic novel/manga format, of one of the more influential manga artists in Japan during the 20th century.  Story was intriguing and despite it being nearly 850 pages, it felt a bit chopped off.  Perhaps a second volume will be released in English translation in the near future?

363  Rick Geary, Trotsky:  A Graphic Biography - Interesting general-interest biography of one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution, but it is a bit too slanted in its coverage at times.  Despite it not passing muster for professional historians (and those trained to be such, like myself), I think as a general-interest biography, this format would work well.  Trotsky's life certainly lent itself to being told in a graphic novel format, to say the least.

364  Eduardo Galeano, Espejos - While it was an earlier book of his that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez pressed American President Barack Obama to read, this certainly would have made for an excellent, provocative read for most.  It's a mixture of well-known and obscure historical facts, told in an ironic, wry commentary that reflects, like a mirror, on our own problems.  Well worth the read, as it was published in English translation this year as Mirrors.

365  Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian - Review forthcoming.

366  Kazuo Ishiguro, Nocturnes - Might review this in the future.  Mostly well-done, with a few quibbles.  Interesting parallels between it and another story collection, Seven Touches of Music.

367  Betsy Tobin, Ice Land - Historical romance set in Iceland in the 11th century that has parallels between the Norse goddess Freya's story, the story of two youth on the island, and the then-inevitable rise of Christianity there.  Story was decent and it held my interest, although there was nothing "wow" about it either.

368  John Scalzi (ed.), Metatropolis - This anthology was originally released as an audiobook last year. Five stories from Jay Lake (who wrote the most interesting story here), Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, Karl Schroeder, and Scalzi.  Solid collection of interconnected stories set in a near-future, now fragmented United States.

In Progress:

J.G. Ballard, The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard

Jaime Martínez Tolentino, Cuentos Fantásticos

Future Plans:

Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Robert Holdstock, Lavondyss

Pat Barker, The Man Who Wasn't There

Italo Calvino, The Path to the Spiders' Nest

Hayao Miyazaki, Nausicaä:  Of the Valley of the Wind

Which book cover is the more appealing?

Two choices, the Portuguese translation of Gabriel García Márquez's Eyes of the Blue Dog or the 1970s era cover of Samuel Delany's Neveryóna.  Or would it be better to ask which cover screams for a new cover more?  There certainly is something about a skeleton about to drink in some spirits....

September 27 Used Book Porn

Went to the local used book store, McKay's, to trade in some hardcovers that I had received in recent months that I had never any intention of reading.  Got almost $80 in store credit for the dozen or so books I brought in, so I thought I'd see what would catch my fancy that would be close in price to it.  The books above and below were close to $70 in value.  I like to think I got quite a bit for those unwanted books, but let's see what books here interest you and which you wish I'd never consider (much less actually completed) buying.

Above, from Top to Bottom:  Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (hadn't ever gotten around to reading her poetry before, thought why the hell not); Jaime Martínez Tolentino, Cuentos Fantásticos (saw this in the foreign language section, thought it might be worth a shot for $1.50); Camilo José Cela, Los vasos comunicantes (saw this on a list of Nobel Prize winners and thought I'd add to my list of those authors of whose works I had read at least one example); Gabriel García Márquez, Olhos de Cão Azul (Portuguese translation of one of his earlier collections; bought in large part for the price - $1.50 -, language, and the cover, which I'll post shortly); Italo Calvino, The Path to the Spiders' Nests (hadn't read this one before, want to get more Calvino in the near future); Hayo Miyazaki, Nausicaä:  Of the Valley of the Wind (curious about this author, for several reasons).

Top:  J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello (another Nobel Prize-winning author I've been meaning to read for quite some time); Paul Auster, City of Glass (gift for someone); Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (I might be in a Rushdie reading mood soon and thought this collection needed to bought soon); Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children (wanted to own my own copy of this delightful book); Samuel Delany, Neveryóna (bought despite the cover, which I'll put up shortly); Pat Barker, The Man who Wasn't There (Barker writes great tales; this is one I hadn't yet read); Robert Holdstock, Lavondyss (part of the Mythago Wood cycle of stories, so I thought it was about time I bought/read it).

Top:  Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis (I enjoyed his White Noise, but hadn't read anything else by him); Nadine Gordimer, A Guest of Honour (another Nobel Prize-winning author whose works might interest me some); Scott Mills, Big Clay Pot (graphic novel whose artwork looked interesting); Mary Doria Russell, A Thread of Grace (I enjoyed her The Sparrow and Children of God, but for some reason never got around to buying her third book until now).

So...which one(s) of these do you think would make for good reading for me?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

ProLiteracy charity anthology, Last Drink Bird Head, now available for pre-orders

Last Drink Bird Head is an anthology of flash fiction featuring several of my favorite authors, with all proceeds from this limited-edition work going to benefit the ProLiteracy group, which works toward eradicating illiteracy. More details, including a pre-order discount, can be found here.

One final note: The list of contributors is impressive. For those who need to be persuaded by "name" authors, feast your eyes on these authors:

Daniel Abraham, Michael Arnzen, Steve Aylett, KJ Bishop, Michael Bishop, Desirina Boskovich, Keith Brooke, Jesse Bullington, Richard Butner, Catherine Cheek, Matthew Cheney, Michael Cisco, Gio Clairval, Alan M. Clark, Brendan Connell, Paul Di Filippo, Stephen R. Donaldson, Rikki Ducornet, Clare Dudman, Hal Duncan, Scott Eagle, Brian Evenson, Eliot Fintushel, Jeffrey Ford, Richard Gehr, Felix Gilman, Jon Courtney Grimwood, Rhys Hughes, Paul Jessup, Antony Johnston, John Kaiine, Henry Kaiser, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Tessa Kum, Ellen Kushner, Jay Lake, Tanith Lee, Stina Leicht, Therese Littleton, Beth Adele Long, Dustin Long, Nick Mamatas, JM McDermott, Sarah Monette, Kari O’Connor, Ben Peek, Holly Phillips, Louis Phillips, Tim Pratt, Cat Rambo, Mark Rich, Bruce Holland Rogers, Nicholas Royle, G Eric Schaller, Ekaterina Sedia, Ramsey Shehadeh, Peter Straub, Victoria Strauss, Michael Swanwick, Mark Swartz, Alan Swirsky, Rachel Swirsky, Sonya Taaffe, Justin Taylor, Steve Rasnic Tem, Jeffrey Thomas, Scott Thomas, John Urbancik, Genevieve Valentine, Kim Westwood, Leslie What, Andrew Steiger White, Conrad Williams, Liz Williams, Neil Williamson, Caleb Wilson, Gene Wolfe, Jonathan Wood, Marly Youmans, and Catherine Zeidler.

Think you might want to consider placing an order now, since it's for a good cause and the chances are high that there'll be some quality stories to read?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

2009 Graphic Novels Read/Owned to Date

As I did with the earlier post on 2009 Anthologies/Short Story Collections, I'm going to list the graphic novels (spec fic, non-spec fic, non-fiction) that I've read to date, plus the ones I've owned. Since I'm hoping to have a more comprehensive look at some of the best 2009 releases in graphic novel form, feel free to suggest graphic novels that I ought to consider:

1. Shaun Tan, Tales from Outer Suburbia (illustrated stories)

2. Michael Crowley and Dan Golman, 08: A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail (non-fiction, political)

3. Antony Johnston and Wilson Tortosa, Wolverine: Prodigal Son (manga-style)

4. Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files: Storm Front: Vol. I: The Gathering Storm (graphic novel adaptation of a previously-published novel)

5. Tim Hamilton, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation (graphic novel adaptation of a previously-published novel)

6. Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, Babymouse: Dragonslayer (children's story told in graphic novel form)

7. Patricia Briggs, Mercy Thompson: Homecoming (prequel to a previously-published series, originally told in graphic novel format)

8. David Petersen, Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 (collection of a previously-published comic)

9. Marvin Mann and A. David Lewis, Some New Kind of Slaughter (collection of a previously-published comic)

In Progress:

10. Yoshihiro Tatsumi, A Drifting Life (graphic novel memoir of one of Japan's most influential manga writers)

11. David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp

Add in about two dozen other graphic novels published in other years that I've read (or re-read) this year and the number seems a bit better. But I'd like to discover about another 5-6 really good 2009 graphic novel releases, so if you were to know of any, please feel free to suggest as many as you'd like!

Edit: I finished the Mazzucchelli. Damn good, that story was. It'll be a while before I can even comprehend the thought of trying to find the words for describing how many heartstrings were plucked here. Go out and buy/read it ASAP. How's that for high praise?

Monday, September 21, 2009

David Anthony Durham, The Other Lands

In the offices that had once been her father's, Queen Corinn Akaran bent over her desk, arms spread wide and palms pressed against the smooth grain of the polished hardwood. The flared sleeves of her gown formed an enclosure of sorts, a screen that shielded the document from view on two sides. She was alone in her offices, but she knew - better than anyone else in the palace - that until she had eyes in the back of her head she could not trust that she was ever as unaccompanied as she believed herself to be. She favored this posture when she wished to focus her attention on a particular document, above which she would hang like a falcon poised to drop on a field mouse far below.


If all the scheming complexity of her position had etched fine wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, so be it. If she was fuller in the hips and chest than she had been before childbirth, what did that matter? If she walked more on her heels and less on the eager balls of her feet, that was as it should be. She had been lovely as a girl, but she knew that there were other ways to be lovely as a woman. She was not yet the age her mother was in her memories, which meant she had not reached the age to measure herself against her understanding of beauty. And of mortality. That day would come, she knew, but not just yet. (pp. 29-30)
Reviewing middle volumes of a multi-volume work is very tricky. There really isn't a true "beginning" to the novel and there certainly will be no real conclusion as well. To evaluate a middle volume such as David Anthony Durham's second novel in his Acacia trilogy, The Other Lands (September 2009), perhaps it might be best to look at how it builds upon developments begun in The War with the Mein and to see how the two books complement each other, rather than trying to weigh The Other Lands' merits in a vacuum.

Character development is a good place to begin this evaluation. In my review of The War with the Mein (2007), I cited a passage where the young Princess Corinn is mourning the impending loss of her mother to a deadly illness. There, she was conflicted, noting the similarities between her and her mother, while also worrying about the ravages of mortality. Compare that with the passage I quoted at the top. Corinn, now almost twenty years older, is more confident, but yet there is still that nagging insecurity that is represented in the form of her comparisons of herself with memories of her mother. In many ways, these two short passages from the two novels give valuable insight into one of the more complex and interesting characters of this series.

The other characters also benefit from increased time delving into their character developments over the nine-year span between the events of The War with the Mein and The Other Lands. Corinn's younger sister, Mena, and brother, Dariel, each are much fuller, dynamic characters than they were in the first novel. Each has conflicts arising from their actions nine years before. Mena is torn between her gentle nature and her capability to be fierce, as the avatar of the wrath goddess Maeben. Dariel suffers constantly from his order that his brother Alavar's killer be surrounded and slaughtered after a duel between the Meinish and Acacian army leaders ends with Alavar's death. Mena and Dariel's story arcs not only highlight these tensions within them, but they are reflected on a grander scale in the plot dynamics of the novel.

The Known Lands, or the continent that the Acacian Empire mostly controls, is still reeling from the events of the past 18 years. Corinn is a shrewd ruler, but the people are beginning to grumble, especially since she has doubled the Quota of children sent via the League to the mysterious Lothun Aklan and the Auldek magicians east across the Grey Slopes. More and more supplies of the drug Mist are distributed to quell the unrest, but still things continue to boil over in the Known Lands, as each natural (and unnatural) setback is blamed upon the young queen. And while Corinn occupies herself with the magic book she discovered at the end of the first novel, it appears the threat from the East is only looming larger.

If one compares the plots and thematic developments of the two novels, a certain mirroring can be discerned. Alavar's more idealistic, egalitarian view of governance is mirrored in his sister Corinn's pragmatic rule that continues to reinforce the inequalities that the minor, "salt of the earth" characters of the two novels note in their brief PoV chapters. The combination of power lust and ancestor reverence that the Mein displayed in the first novel finds certain parallels with the Auldek of the Other Lands. But what dominates large portions of The Other Lands, whether the action be set in Acacia, in the wilds with Mena, or (later) in the Other Lands with Dariel, is the desire for change. The old systems, whether they be magical (Santoth, Lothun Aklan), commercial (the League, Quota), military (Numrek, various Acacian dependencis), or social (Auldek, the people in the Known Lands subjugated to the Quota), are all on the verge of collapse. The chains of inhumane inequality are being rattled and it appears each link is much more brittle than suspected.

This exploration of the desire for equality and freedom, referenced several times by the royal survivors in the form of Alavar's apparently stillborn movement (and then explicitly in a surprising scene at the end of the novel) is one of two themes that I believe Durham develops well here. He avoids becoming "preachy," in that there are several facets presented and the reader is never allowed to see any side (except perhaps for one revealed in the second part of the novel) as being all or even mostly "in the right." Yet Durham also manages to avoid the trap of relying too much upon relativism. While no side is pure white and light, one group certainly is darker and less good than the other. Which side that is, however, depends on how one interprets events.

The second great theme of The Other Lands concerns itself with the interconnections of events and actions. Everything in this novel and its predecessor has consequences, some of them dire and often unexpected. Demonstrated first with the corrupted magic of the Santoth and then later with the consequences of the Quota, the novel's plot is full of examples of how events are connected in ways that might surprise the reader if that reader has not paid close attention to the seemingly minor details of what Mist is, how the League and the Lothun Aklan conducted their trade, why magic practice fell out of use in the Known Lands almost 20 generations ago, and so forth.

The writing here is of a similar quality to the first novel. Some readers may become impatient with Durham's descriptive prose, but I found it (as I did with the first novel) to convey the important elements of the narrative quickly, with just enough attention to detail to spark interest, but without the turgidity that sometimes can set in when authors reach almost pornographic levels of detail about what a character is thinking or what people are wearing or eating at feasts. Sometimes, withheld detail and a more "pan out" scene setting serves to create a better narrative perspective than too much of a focus on the "showing" aspects of a narrative. Durham balances the dialogue and the narrative "telling" quite adroitly here and the story flowed at a nice, even pace throughout the novel.

On the whole, there are no resolutions to be found in The Other Lands, only more questions raised. But what else would a reader expect from a middle volume? The plot was advanced in interesting directions, the characters developed nicely, and there are hints of some interesting events on the horizon. All in all, The Other Lands complements and reinforces the qualities of The War with the Mein and it leaves me eager to read the concluding volume. This certainly was one of the better epic fantasy volumes that I've read this year. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

2009 Anthologies and Story Collections Read/Owned to Date

Since in three months or so I'll be posting my Best of 2009 list, I thought I'd take stock of the short fiction published in some new form or fashion in 2009 that I've read. This is not in chronological order or in level of preference:

Short Story Collections:

1. Peter S. Beagle, We Never Talk About My Brother

2. Caitlín R. Kiernan, A is for Alien

3. Otsuichi, ZOO

4. Terrence Holt, In the Valley of the Kings

5. Tobias Buckell, Tides from the New World

6. Brian Evenson, Fugue State

Anthologies (single-author and multiple authors):

7. John Davey, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, The Best of Michael Moorcock

8. Nick Gevers and Jay Lake, Other Earths

9. Gianpaolo Celli, Steampunk: Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário

10. Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar, Philippine Speculative Fiction IV

11. Bradford Morrow, Conjunctions: 52: Betwixt the Between

12. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Best American Fantasy 2

13. Lavie Tidhar, The Apex Book of World SF

In Progress:

14. George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, Songs of the Dying Earth

15. Vincent Michael Simbulan, A Time for Dragons: An Anthology of Philippine Draconic Fiction

16. John Scalzi, Metatropolis

On Order:

16. Jonathan Strahan, Eclipse 3

17. Peter Straub, American Fantastic Tales (two vols.)

Not too bad, I suppose, but I'm not satisfied with this. What anthologies/collections released in 2009 in the US (or first elsewhere in the world) am I missing that I ought to acquire so I can consider for inclusion in my wrapup on 2009 short fiction books?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl

Overhead, the towers of Bangkok's old Expansion loom, robed in vines and mold, windows long ago blown out, great bones picked clean. Without air conditioning or elevators to make them habitable, they stand and blister in the sun. The black smoke of illegal dung fires wafts from their pores, marking where Malayan refugees hurriedly scaled chapatis and boil kopi before the white shirts can storm the sweltering heights and beat them for their infringements.

In the center of the traffic lanes, northern refugees from the coal war prostrate themselves with hands upstretched, exquisitely polite in postures of need. Cycles and rickshaws and megodont wagons flow past them, parting like a river around boulders. The cauliflower growths of fa'gan fringe scar the beggars' noses and mouths. Betel nut stains blacken their teeth. Anderson reaches into his pocket and tosses cash at their feet, nodding slightly at their wais of thanks as he glides past. (p. 7)

Paolo Bacigalupi has established himself as a first-class short fiction writer. Stories such as "Pump Six," "The Calorie Man," and "Yellow Card Man" have been nominated (and in the case of the former story, a Locus Award winner) for the Locus and Hugo Awards. The Windup Girl is Bacigalupi's first novel and it is set in the same ecologically-devastated setting as "The Calorie Man" and "Yellow Card Man." But regardless of how talented short fiction writers might be in creating quick-developing, hard-hitting short stories, many times there is an adjustment to writing longer fiction. In Bacigalupi's case, there were times that it was painfully apparent that the fabric of this story felt stretched thin in places.

The story is set in late 22nd century Bangkok. The age of cheap energy has passed. Political entities such as the United States have collapsed, leaving behind huge agribusinesses who compete to control the current currency of "calories," which are a combination of energy units for maintaining life and a form of storage unit for future use. Genetically modified animals like the megodonts (huge versions of elephants) represent part of an interbusiness (since it seems political bodies have been mostly subsumed into competing business entities) "war" where all sorts of genetically-modified crops have been developed to remain a tiny step above the GM pests and plagues unleashed by a business's competitors in order to establish a precarious balance of power. It is a frightful world, one that Bacigalupi develops continually in this novel.

However well-realized the setting might be, the Achilles Heel of The Windup Girl is in its characterizations and plot development. As interesting as the scarcity world setting is, ultimately reader perceptions of how strong this story will rest upon how convincingly Bacigalupi develops his characters and how well-constructed the story itself was. For myself, Bacigalupi failed to develop either adequately.

There are three main PoVs in The Windup Girl, split between the "calorie man" Anderson, a representative of one of the main agribusiness interests in Bangkok; Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee-turned-"yellow card," or black market dealer in energy supplies; and Emiko, the titular "windup girl," or GM sentient being constructed mostly from human genetic material, supplemented with canine genes to ensure docility and obedience despite the "New People"'s inherently superior resistance to disease and an apparently greater intelligence in comparison to regular people.

When each of these characters were introduced, I had hopes that this would be an in-depth, insightful look into how humans might deal with issues of competition and differing definitions of what would constitute being "human." However, Bacigalupi spent so much time on developing his overall setting that at times it felt as though the characters were relegated more to being passive observers of this imagined nightmarish world than being active, multi-dimensional actors. This was most evident with the characters of Anderson and Hock Seng, as at times these characters seemed to be more akin to ciphers than being dynamic characters. But with Emiko, her character development was more troubling.

Emiko was trained to be a secretary in Japan before she was abandoned by her former master in Thailand, where the "windups"/"New People" are illegal. Emiko's genetic predeposition to obedience, combined with the herky-jerky motions endemic to the windups (in order to help people to readily identify them from the rest of sentient society) and a pheromone release that makes her irresistible to human males has led to her being forced into a submissive, degrading role of a prostitute. Bacigalupi does not skimp on the sordid details of Emiko's humilating treatment, from having beer poured over her on a strip club floor to having cold objects rammed up her ass while she has to perform cunnilingus on a human female. While he attempts to develop a strong dichotomy between this treatment and Emiko's reactions, too often he fails to get to the heart of the matter, leaving me frustrated in the process.

The plot was rather thin as well. While the three characters do interact to some extent, there rarely is a sense of real import to their interactions by the time the story nears its presumed climax. It appeared as though Bacigalupi was so focused on developing the setting that he failed to put in the necessary attention to plot detail to make the characters' stories more interesting than their environs. This was exacerbated with the concluding chapter, which failed to provide any sense of real discovery and which seemed to serve more as an opener to a possible sequel than it did to reinforce and to develop events from earlier in the book. As a result, the overall story felt stretched, very weak and underdeveloped for several of the presumed key events in the novel.

The Windup Girl read more like a good novella idea that was stretched too far in an attempt to make a true novel. Perhaps the story would have worked better if one of the two male character PoVs had been dropped or at least reduced. Perhaps it would have been stronger if the author had spent more time developing ways of showing why the characters' stories were worth telling. Perhaps it would have had more to grab readers if the plot was developed further and if there had been a strong ending rather than the anti-climatic one provided. Perhaps...but that word is just so damning. As it stands, The Windup Girl is a novel that held some promise, but ultimately it failed to provide much in the way of entertainment for this reader. Hopefully, Bacigalupi's next novel will shore up the perceived weaknesses of this one, as I think he was close to writing a finely-crafted, exciting novel, rather than the mess that The Windup Girl was at times.

September 3-18 Reads

Twenty-eight books for the past fifteen days (with a few more likely for this weekend). Eight of these are re-reads from previous years. Interesting mix of non-fiction and fiction, speculative fiction and mimetic fiction and fictions between the two. Some of these books will be reviewed at length shortly; others have already been reviewed. Here's the list, with very brief thoughts:

323 Marvin Mann and A. David Lewis, Some New Kind of Slaughter - already reviewed.

324 Dave Eggers, Zeitoun - already reviewed.

325 Tamar Yellin, The Genizah at the House of Shepher - This was a very good read. Might say more on this later. Really enjoyed the mixture of the personal and the ethnic/national elements.

326 Jorge Luis Borges, El libro de arena (re-read) - already reviewed.

327 Steve Erickson, Zeroville - I mostly enjoyed this book set in So-Cal in the late 1960s, but for some reason, it didn't click with me as well as his Arc d'X did.

328 Iain M. Banks, Use of Weapons - For some reason, the excellent elements within this novel did not gel together well, as my overall impression of the story was that it failed to live up to the promise of its beginning.

329 Sherri Tepper, Beauty - Very interesting take on updating the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale in order to have Beauty reflect changing attitudes toward women's roles in society. The story was written fairly well and while not outstanding in the prose department, it was strong enough to hold my interest throughout.

330 Kelley Eskridge, Solitaire - I enjoyed reading this novel. Nice mixture of good writing, good characterization, and a nice-moving plot.

331 Jorge Luis Borges, Biblioteca personal (re-read) - Collection of introductions that Borges had written to Spanish-language editions of several of his favorite authors from across the globe. Interesting insights to his views on literature and the writing process.

332 Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go - This story was captivating. The prose was the best part, but the characterizations were also top-notch.

333 Jorge Luis Borges, El informe de Brodie (re-read) - This 1970 collection is relatively obscure and certainly underrated compared to Borges' earlier and more famous collections.

334 Jorge Luis Borges, Historia de la eternidad (re-read) - Interesting collection of Borges' thoughts on how eternity was reflected in legend, myth, and in fiction.

335 Jorge Luis Borges, Discusión (re-read) - Collection of literary criticism pieces from Borges. Learned how to apply certain approaches to writing reviews/critiques from this.

336 Lewis Grizzard, It Wasn't Always Easy, but I Sure Had Fun - One of the best humor columns/books I've ever read. As I said in a post over a week ago, I still miss Grizzard's wit, 15 years after his 1994 death following his fourth heart surgery.

337 Thea von Harbou, Metropolis - Novelization of the classic 1927 silent film of the same name. Interesting revelations about things only hinted at in the movie. Writing is more passionate than polished, however.

338 Pope Benedict XVI, Charity in Truth - Encyclical on social justice. If I have the time, might elaborate on the ideas expressed here, as several of them intrigue me quite a bit.

339 Teresa of Ávala, The Way of Perfection - 16th century work written by one of the foremost Spanish mystics for members of her convent. Gave me a lot of food for thought.

340 Caitlín R. Kiernan, The Red Tree - Already reviewed.

341 Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, Dos fantasías memorables/Un modelo para la muerte (re-read) - Collaborative writing of policiales (police/mystery stories). Good, but not as good as the authors' individual works.

342 Gianpaolo Celli (ed.), Steampunk: Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário - Anthology of original Steampunk fictions written by Brazilian authors, released just over a month ago. Fairly good collection of stories overall.

343 Patrick Ness, The Ask and the Answer - Good followup to The Knife of Never Letting Go. Might review this in the near future.

344 Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl - review forthcoming.

345 Mark Bould and China Miéville (eds.), Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction - Review forthcoming.

346 Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., Into the Abyss of Suffering: A Catholic View (re-read) - Sometimes, one just wants to read religious thoughts on a topic when one is worried and down about things. This was one of those times.

347 Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light - This heavily-edited collection of several of her letters were not as intriguing as I had hoped when I bought this. Guess this explains why it took two years for me to finish reading the book.

348 Margo Lanagan, Red Spikes (re-read) - I enjoyed this WFA-nominated collection when I first read it in 2007. My opinion of it only improved even more on a re-read.

349 David Anthony Durham, Acacia: The War with the Mein (re-read) - Good read; enjoyed it at least as much as when I read/reviewed it back in 2007.

350 David Anthony Durham, The Other Lands - Review forthcoming.

In Progress:

Lavie Tidhar (ed.), The Apex Book of World SF

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

Otsuichi, ZOO

Future Plans:

Caitlín R. Kiernan, A is for Alien

John Scalzi (ed.), Metatropolis

Housuke Nojiri, Usurper of the Sun

Monica Ali, In the Kitchen

Daniel Olson (ed.), Exotic Gothic 2: New Ideas of Taboo

So I've been quiet for a spell

Hrmm...ever since I reactivated this blog back in May 2007, I don't recall being this quiet except maybe during September 2007, which incidentally was one of the two roughest months of my life. Thankfully, things are not as dire this September, although dealing with job-related stress combining with some minor physical ailments (I am 35 and sadly my body does not heal as quickly as it did even 5 years ago) has not been fun at all.

But I do plan on being a bit more active this weekend. Planning on reviewing at least two books (Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, which wasn't the most exciting of reads for me, and David Anthony Durham's The Other Lands, which was a better read) and maybe as many as four (still want to review Daniel Abraham's The Price of Spring and I may have something to say about Lavie Tidhar's anthology, The Apex Book of World SF) reviews, and maybe even five (if I decide to review The Atlantic's 2009 fiction issue) if I'm insane enough.

Also, I'm toying with the idea of posting a rough sketch of books, stories, and categories that I'm considering for my annual Best of Year posts in late December. Seeing that I just passed #350 for this year's reading, there is a chance that I will read close to 500 books this year and I think there'll be a lot to discuss before the year ends. Toying with the idea of adding a "pleasant discovery" category to represent authors that I discovered this year, regardless of the year in which their book(s) that I read/loved was released.

So...what have I missed while I've been largely gone from the internet this week?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Terrence Holt, In the Valley of the Kings

The first case of which any record survives was reported in a small-town daily in upstate New York. Tabitha Van Order, the brief item reads, age five, was brought into the county hospital's emergency room with "strange markings" on her face and hands. "She was playing with the newspaper," her mother reported. "I thought it was just the ink rubbed off on her." But the marks did not respond to soap or turpentine. At the hospital, initial examination determined that the marks were subcutaneous, and the child was admitted for observation. They looked, according to the triage nurse, as though someone had been striking the child with a large rubber stamp. "They look like bruises," the emergency-room physician told the Journal reporter. The department of social services was looking into the case. (p. 11)

The opening story to Terrence Holt's debut story collection In the Valley of the Kings, " 'Ο Λογοσ", serves as a represenative piece. The opening paragraph quoted above sets the stage for an apocalyptic tale to follow, as one by one, "word" by "word," people are infected with a new plague that is carried not by microbes, but instead by the etching of "the word" on their flesh. Holt's matter-of-fact, clinical prose (he has alternated between being a writing instructor, medical doctor, and storywriter for the past 15 years) is all the more chilling here because the reader knows something dreadful is happening, but the prose purposely understates this in order to allow the reader's imagination to create more and more dreadful consequences for what is transpiring within the story. By the time the final paragraph is reached, the tension has built to the point that one begins to wonder if the narrator has gone mad...or if we will.

The second story, "My Father's Heart," is much shorter (5 pages compared to the 16 devoted for the first story), but it too contains an unsettling image:

I have raged at it of late: Leech, I cry: Blooksucker. It burps clear saline in mild protest; innocence sits on every valve. I am not taken in. It has not been so many years since I have seen it raging in its turn, swollen to the size of a dirigible, as full of gas and fire, stopping raffic across four lanes of Sixth Avenue. A cab driver had refused to carry it: "I don't haul meat." I spent the balance of that day in terror, cradling the jar in my lap (we took a bus), looking into it each time the saline sloshed. It refused to look up. (p. 29)
The imagery would have been at home in an Edgar Allan Poe story; the juxtaposition of the mudane (taking the bus) and the unreal (the heart being sentient and prone to outbursts) serving to underscore the strangeness of the situation. The resolution to this story is emotional, not as it was in the first, but in a way that reminded me of how family members, whether or not their hearts literally act for themselves, clash and bond over crises.

The third story, "Charybdis," takes the story of Oddysseus's shipwreck and transports it to a futuristic Jupiter mission. The prose here is very evocative, as Holt creates a sense of loss, bafflement, confusion, and boredom, as this paragraph reveals:

I have been floating here in silence since, thinking of my alternatives, to stop at Jupiter or travel on: the journy outward, into silence so thick as to become something: a pressure, a presence here with me. As weight surrounds a mass, so silence would fill the air around me, falling in, rising from blood rustling in my ears to become a whisper, a word spoken, a cry, the roar of burning and finally the crash of everything that falls. Beyond Pluto, silence would be more than absence of speech: even zero has meaning, but what is zero taken to an infinite power? And on what fingers do I count it? Thought I could hear the singing of the sphere, see colors off the spectrum, touch nothing: how could I tell? and whom? (p. 40)

From this, Holt constructs a tale that is as much about the effects of passivity as action. What are the effects of pressure, real and imagined? How would we break if put into such a situation? Would it be a glorious thing, or a tedious one? The questions raised from reading this story added to its written prose.

"Aurora" is in many ways a complementary piece to "Charybdis." Set in the rings of Saturn, the story again plays with the notion of transcribing human experience with the near Sublime. But whereas "Charybdis" captured a darker side, "Aurora" tends to focus on the lighter, more numinous qualities of a rapturous moment:

On another revolution I see it rise again out of the Ring before me. On its long outward reach, as it dwindles to a star it seems to slow; it seems to stop; it is not falling. It is motionless against the stars. I am aching with envy.

I know it must be falling.

It hangs, as if motionless, but holds its station, high above and far ahead. It is falling. I stare at it, my cameras resisting commands to turn to the ice. I am fascinated. Why has it climbed so high? What is this within me that yearns? (p. 68)
"Eurydike" refers not just to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but also to the haunting nature of some of our innermost desires. As with the other tales, Holt uses a first-person narrative to create the sense of bafflement and intrepid curiosity:

I looked: only the corridor receding into deeper shadow, the light flickering, and in the walls everywhere vague shapes were shifting, like frescoes long since painted over struggling to return. I shuddered, and as I did the shapes within the walls all shuddered too. The cold was coming back, the systems continuing their fall toward equilibrium. A wave flowed down the corridor, beckoning. The figures writhed. (p. 98)
The centerpiece of In the Valley of the Kings is the eponymous novella that comprises 1/3 of this 224 page collection. In it, Holt touches upon several of the themes alluded to in the comments above and he expands them into an exploration of the concepts of immortality. Using the Eyptian pharoanic tombs as a setting, Holt crafts a first-person narrative that is superb. The feel of the narrator's desire to uncover the mystery behind an unnamed pharoah and his tomb, the quest to discover if that pharoah had uncovered a mystical Word (perhaps a reference to the first story in passing?), the desire to possess something of immortality - these elements strike near to the heart of several human motives in life. In many ways, these motives in our lives come close to the narrator's, as he describes them:

At first, I ignored it. At night, as I tried to sleep, it would pulse faintly, tinged with red at its borders. At times it disappeared entirely. Now it is always before me, always there at the center of my vision, a pool of ink, a hole opened in the world, a tunnel toward which I constantly move. I know already where it leads. (p. 118)

"Scylla" is the second-shortest story in this collection at ten pages. It is in many ways a reflection upon "Charybdis," in that instead of being sucked into a maelstrom, the character passes perilously close to the insatiable claws of what is referred to as "the Law." The narrator experiences a loss to this "Law," only in which this entity (being?) bears the inevitability of Loss and perhaps Death:

And so this was what the Law must be, I told myself, and felt already the strength of its claim on me. I felt it in the easy acquiescence to the loss of my ship, a ship I had not even had the chance to go down with. At low tide, I prowled the breakwater, but not a mast stuck out above the glassy harbor. A flock of pigeons broke from the steeple, wheeled once above the seaward channel, and I knew then that my ship had gone that way, and I remembered suddenly that none of us, in our eagerness for shore, had bothered to secure her. She had simply drifted out to sea. And this, I knew, must be the Law as well - not the tide, but our forgetting of our duty. (pp. 195-196)
The final story, "Apocalypse," presents readers with a look at what follows when the party is over, when the anguish, grief, love, despair, confusion, hope, and desire have played their courses. It is in some respects about coping, about reconciliation, and of course, about the ancient meaning of the word "apocalypse":

Part of me feels certain this cannot be, that all of us are in a dream, a mass psychosis: the second week of January will come after all, and we will waken, grinning at ourselves. The other part of me feels the emptiness in those words. (p. 206)
But the end of dreams and self-delusions is not necessarily bad. In many respects, the final paragraph to "Apocalyse" could serve as the epigraph for In the Valley of the Kings:

But before the end we will speak once more, of everything that matters: of the brightness of the moon; of the birds still flying dark against the sky; of the man who brought me here; of the hours that she waited; of what wwe would name the child; of the grace of everything that dies; of the love that moves the sun and other stars. (p. 223)
Through it all, In the Valley of the Kings is a true tour de force of exploring the human condition(s). At times, I was reminded of the best of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Jorge Luis Borges, among others. Holt's prose tantalizes. It hints, it promises, but at the end there are no true revelations within the text itself. It is up to the reader to fill in the spots purposely left blank. It is up to the reader to provide meaning, to establish hope, to ward off despair. Holt's collection simply is great, provocative storytelling at its best and it deserves serious consideration for any and all awards for which it may be eligible.

Publication Date: August 2009 (US). Hardcover.

Publisher: W.W. Norton and Company

Caitlín R. Kiernan, The Red Tree

I suffered through the better part of my childhood and my teenage years in a stunted little town about fifteen miles east of Birmingham, Alabama. Back in the seventies, that place was still clinging rather resolutely to the forties and fifties, I suspect. Hanging on for dear fucking life as the world rushed forward without it. I've given interviews where I made jokes about The Andy Griffith Show and such, calling my "hometown" things like Hooterville or Dogpatch or Mayberry on crack. Not so very far off the mark, no matter how snarky it might sound. I'm told that the town's public library removed my books from its shelves after i said something to that effect in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Whatever. Fuck them if they can't take a joke...or face the truth. But, I digress. Always, I digress. It's my superpower. Some asshole at the New York Times Book Review once said that my novels would benefit tremendously from "an editor willing to rein in my unfortunate propensity for digression." Or something along those lines. I suppose I shouldn't use quotation marks when paraphrasing from an unreliable memory. (pp. 21-22)
Caitlín R. Kiernan's latest novel, The Red Tree (August 2009) is in turns a pseudo-autographical novel, a psychological portrait of a first-person narrator on the verge of madness, and a sometimes terrifying mystery that surrounds a particular red oak tree in Rhode Island. The Red Tree contains several layers of framing stories, from the introductory and concluding passages that set up the tale of the main narrator, Sarah Crowe (who has several attributes of Kiernan herself, as well as several fictitious ones lest people begin to think that the author inserted herself into this story), to the epistolary-like journal entries that Sarah writes about her experiences in Rhode Island and her discovery of a decades-old journal (which serves as a third level for this rich, multilayered story). In reading The Red Tree, I was reminded at times of two other books released this decade, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves and Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss, as there are elements of each (Danielewski's adroit use of nesting framing stories to hide in plain view what was transcurring; Hand's use of the pseudo-autographical novel to blur the lines between the real and the unreal) in Kiernan's tale. Thankfully, Kiernan takes these possible influences and crafts a story that feels original and "real."

The red oak mentioned in the title has a mysterious, possibly supernatural dark past that stretches back to the colonial period. Over the centuries, farmers have been killed by wolves there, not to mention it being associated with a serial killer from the early 20th century. It is this sense of mystery that envelops Sarah, a writer who has recently fled Atlanta and a failed relationship with a lover who has recently committed suicide. Recently relocated to Rhode Island, she now occupies an old house that she shares with a mysterious painter named Constance. When going through an old chifforobe (the inclusion of such a subtle nod to Southern writers such as Harper Lee and Flannery O'Connor, as stories of theirs revolved around such a hybrid piece of furniture), Sarah discovers an unfinished manuscript written by the house's former tenant, a parapsychologist who appeared to be obsessed with the red oak tree and its past.

The strength of The Red Tree is not establishing the horror elements, as one could argue that what might constitute "horror" largely takes place off-stage. Rather, it is with Kiernan's portrayal of Sarah and how her past haunts her. Kiernan's use of an epistolary narrative technique enables the reader to get a fractured, haunting look into the past of Sarah and how her past relationship with her former lover "Amanda" has come to haunt her. Take for example the aftermath of a portentous dream that Sarah has with a few days of arriving in Rhode Island and her relating it to Constance:

And I turned to her, then, and she was standing naked, only a foot or so behind me, her clothing ripped away by the hurricane (if it was a hurricane). Jesus, I need to get laid, because - despite the horrors of the dream - I woke horny from this vision of her, and writing it down, I'm getting horny again. Amanda always said I was easy.


And in that moment, all my lust was transmuted to mere anger by the alchemy of human emotion. She was not Amanda, and I had never told her my Grecian sea turtle lie. This was a far greater intrusion than her arrival at the farm or her showing up uninvited in my dreams. This was some manner of mnemonic rape, I think, or so it seemed to me then. (pp. 143-144)
From this point nearly halfway into the novel, The Red Tree begins to become more intense. The lines between what was transpiring with the red oak blur with what is going on with the interactions Sarah is having with the dead journalist's notes, her odd association with Constance, and her constant memories of the traumatic end to her relationship with Amanda. In places, it is hard to tell what Sarah is dreaming and what is "real" to her, which serves to add depth to the story and how the reader may interpret what is happening both "on screen" and off.

Kiernan is an outstanding stylist and she masterfully weaves the various framing stories mentioned above into a compelling, gripping tale that will haunt my thoughts for some time to come. The Red Tree is one of the better psychological/horror novels that I have read in quite some time and despite the fierce competition, I suspect it'll earn a spot on my Best of 2009 lists come December. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Mentalité and recent discussions

Thirteen years ago, I was enrolled in a graduate school history class called Foundations of Graduate Study of History. It was by far the hardest history class I ever had (I passed, but my average was far below my norm in my major), but it is one that has stuck with me the most over the intervening years. One part of the class that I remember most vividly is having to give a presentation on the Annales School and in particular, to explain Jacques le Goff's views on mentalité.

For those who are unfamiliar with this French word, it simply (simply?) means the mindset or shared means of understanding the world around that is held by a specific group over a specific amount of time. It encompasses religion, art, social relations, politics, war, geographical understanding, agriculture, language, literature, etc. It is a shaper of understanding as well as an interpretative tool by which a scholar can come to understand facets of an historical culture's development and conflicts.

Why am I thinking of mentalité now? I've been following a few arguments on other sites (links not necessary, since in many respects, it's the same story retold by different fools) about the priority placements for elements of a "good story," as well as the one I discussed in a snarkish satire the other day and its fallout. The interesting thing about those arguments is not who is "right" or "wrong," but rather (for me at least) is the mindset that underlies some of these tiffs.

Primacy arguments are telling, not because of what is being argued, but instead for how these arguments come into play. If one wants to argue that Plot ought to have primacy over Characterization, then the argument shifts to how this "ought" to be. Why is Plot considered by some to hold primacy over Characterization? Is it a universally-held opinion? One that can be traced to specific antecedents in other arguments, or is it something more localized? What does the argument tell about the Person(s) involved and the relative values assigned?

The same goes true, I believe, with the review discussion lately. I've made several posts over the past couple of years on reviews and elements that I prefer. It is part of a mentalité that I adopted (was assimilated into?) during my formative university years and my first several dozen short reviews of non-fiction historical works. It is very difficult for me to conceive of a good review that does not contain at least some elements of an academic critique: well-structured prose that has an introduction that not only sets up the points to follow, but which frames a question for the reader to consider; strong "talking points" or theses that are supported with relevant evidence; an informed opinion that acknowledges dissent when logical before explaining why a point was chosen; and a conclusion that draws upon the literary journey outlined in the previous parts to create an ending that reflects back on the Introduction and its framing question(s).

But there are times that my own reviews fail to address each of these parts; I'm no saint, nor am I extremely rigid in my approach. However, such an approach can also incorporate so many elements that each individual reviewer/critic chooses to insert into the review Text. My review style contains elements from my university days (including the oh-so-lovely workshopping days where grad students get to read each other's research papers for shredding purposes later on in the week), as well as ideas on style cribbed from noted critics like Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco (just to name a couple who also happen to be excellent writers) or from personal experiences that might shape my approach. The writing of such reviews often creates a sense of Authority, not because of received wisdom from the past, but because in the crafting of such reviews, critiques, and other related essays, there often is a sense of some unifying thread that connects one reviewer/critic (in this case, myself) with others, some of whom might be famous (see the aforementioned writers/critics).

But the key to mentalité is to remember that often things are different for others. In the same of the review "scoring" debate, I suspect part of the issue in play might be related to recent cultural influences. For those who did not partake of the university grad school critiquing workshops, it may be that mass media, in the form of magazines ranging from Electronic Gaming Monthly to Rolling Stone to Amazon to Entertainment Weekly, have helped shape opinions. In each of these publications, reviews are generally broken down into specific categories, with numerical, letter, or star ratings used to indicate qualities of each. The mentalité behind these reviews may be a desire to organize, to quantify, to place into neat categories things that are subjective in nature. Rating an emotion might be unquantifiable beyond a certain general level (after all, isn't my love for another "more" than your love, since I give the "better" gifts and say the "right" things more often?), but some believe that within a general parameter, measurements such as stars, letters, or numerical values may be assigned in a way that helps the reader to classify, label, and then sort in a hierarchical fashion which is "best," "good," "OK," and "poor."

For some, this works. But what happens when the classification schema tries to relate what really might be apples and oranges in similarity? For example, if there is a review schema set up that tries to weigh a book in whole or part on its so-called "worldbuilding" (a term I still detest and will continue to place in quotation marks to indicate my distaste for the catch-all term), should such a schema be used to classify a religious document or a memoir? What about cases in which the author chooses not to tell a linear plot-driven story? Can a 5, 10, 100, or 69.69 scale "work" in these cases? For myself, it would not, in large part because I cannot wrap my mind around the idea that concepts and ideas can be weighed like produce at a supermarket.

But others can. How, I barely can comprehend. It seems so fraught with errors to judge a work by such a "ranking," especially since virtually all ranking scales (being charitable here, since I suspect none can truly exist in the fashion I will attempt to describe) are unlikely to be "true" or "fair" in cases of trying to shove that square, lyrical book into the round, plot-based review hole. But yet that's just my mentalité speaking, no? After all, I'm going to be influenced by my formative experiences to choose what I've been "trained" to see as most likely. Wouldn't it be likely that others are influenced by their own mentalité?

So how would one go about evaluating the twain? That's the million dollar question. Just depends what questions are asked in reference to what the original question's answer is. But for myself, reviews depend upon the reviewer being self-aware and to a degree conscious of the perceived audience. Whether or not being conscious of this perceived audience ought to influence the reviewer is beside the point. A good reviewer, I suspect, will manage to return the review in many cases into a window into that reviewer's wrestling with the text. I just don't think that wrestling will be graded by a team of judges (with the East German judge always giving the lowest score), but that's just my mentalité speaking, no?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Interesting new poll

I'm currently reading four books that might make for interesting reviews, but I thought I'd gauge reader reaction to see which one might be the more off-beat and thus reviewable here (not that the results would stop me from considering reviewing any of these). Here are the four I'm considering:

St. Theresa of Ávila,The Way of Perfection

Pope Benedict XVI, Charity in Truth

Thea von Harbou, Metropolis (novelization of the script to the 1927 movie directed by her then-husband, Fritz Lang)

Mark Bould and China Miéville (eds.), Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction

Probably will have this up only a couple of days, so vote early or something.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A tribute

Taking a stroll down Memory Lane is often bittersweet. Inexplicably, you might find yourself one day reading or hearing about something and one thought leads to another until you recall memories and events that you had pushed out of your head. Sometimes, these recollections are pleasant; other times, they can be heartbreaking.

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading some comments to an article posted at about a hilarious headline Lewis Grizzard once got past his drunken editor when he was a student at the University of Georgia and was a reporter for the student paper there. It was about 40 years ago and the UGA Bulldogs were about to play the University of South Carolina Gamecocks when Grizzard learned that star UGA linebacker Happy Dicks would miss the game due to injury. That night, I believe it was a Thursday night according to the story, Grizzard penned the headline that UGA Coach Vince Dooley considered to be the best ever written about his team. It said this:

Dawgs to Play Cocks with Dicks Out

That reminded me of my adolescence. Growing up just outside Nashville, Tennessee, I was a newspaper reader since grade school. Since my father was (and still is) a head football coach, he subscribed to the two local papers of the time, the Nashville Banner (evening paper) and The Tennessean (the morning paper). Although the Banner's circulation was dropping and it was in danger of closing (which it did when I was in high school), I remember the highlight of that paper (later carried over to The Tennessean after its folding) would be the weekly columns that Grizzard would have syndicated.

Anyone who grew up in the South, as well as anyone who has ever had problems dealing with women, alcoholics, changing political and cultural climates, to name a few topics, would find something in Grizzard's columns that would either infuriate them or make them bust open laughin'. Sometimes this would occur in the same article or even in the same sentence. Grizzard had an edge to his writing that I have not seen replicated in any op-ed or humorous sketch writing ever since. Reading stories about his dogs Catfish and Cornbread and how Catfish had an annual Day that was celebrated in a small Alabama town - those made me smile. Reading his tribute to Catfish when he died was devastating. Grizzard could make a funereal person laugh and then turn around and make everyone around burst out in tears.

He went through so much in his relatively brief life. He had four major heart operations and just as many wives. He survived the first three, then chuckled and laughed as the fourth ultimately killed him. It's been 15 years since his death and I thought I had put it behind me. Then I decided to order his last book, published posthumously in 1994: It Wasn't Always Easy, but I Sure Had Fun, which was a best of collection of columns from his final 10 years of writing. In reading these stories (and I am only 1/3 through them, as I only received my copy this morning), I find myself laughing, smiling, and missing that sumbitch. For those who've never read or heard Grizzard speak, here are a few YouTube clips. Perhaps you'll understand better why I think he's perhaps the best humor columnist of the past fifty years.

Trying to grasp a muddled understanding of a review

Apparently I am a coward.

Or at least that would be the implication from reading this bit from a recent interview on Temple Library Reviews:

HM: Reading your reviews I come across a very peculiar ranking system of 100 points that always aroused questions. What’s the deal behind it and what components build these 100 points?

PS: I think writing a review, and not giving it some sort of numerical score is a cop out; it’s cowardice—pure and simple—since many online reviewers don’t want to upset publishers or authors. So they write reviews that are open to interpretation, using nebulous terms like good, overemphasizing the positive aspects of the book, trying very hard not to have an opinion. It’s okay, you’re entitled to have an opinion, you’re entitled to take a stand and let people know what you think.

See, words lie; numbers don’t. And I don’t want to lie to my audience. So I score every book on a scale of 100. Like any review, the number is completely subjective; there are no underlying components. I score books by ranking them against other novels I’ve read in the genre. It’s rather simple. But effective.
Interesting. So it is not enough to view a review as being an interpretative (and occasionally persuasive) essay that attempts to reconcile the reviewer's interpretation of what is transpiring within a book with the attempt to communicate effectively with the potential reading audience. Apparently some number, letter, or parts of a gorilla's bare ass have to be employed as the final and only arbitrator between book and reader. Never mind the subjectiveness of such rankings (really, I am wondering if I should rate horror books by the number of whacks that Lizzie Borden's axe reportedly gave); the number/letter/perky tits up is the thing here. After all, "words lie," if one listens to Paul Stotts (and really, why wouldn't one? After all, read the article and see who he holds up as paragons of reviewing). Numbers/letters/strange glyphs that correspond to the number of pimples on Paris Hilton's bare ass in her sex video - those are the truth.

What a load of shit (three loads of shit out of five? 5.75 out of 10 handfuls of flung monkey crap?). A review is a review essay. Whether it be something by H.L. Mencken, Lewis Grizzard, Jorge Luis Borges, John Clute, or Pope Benedict XVI, a review consists of words strung together in a fashion to lay out an interpretation of what is transpiring in a written/visual work, how the observer responds to what is occurring, and how well the observer can translate emotions/thoughts into a coherent piece of writing that gives others things to consider, among several other things I omit for brevity's sake. I model my reviews, or at least the lengthier ones that go past 1500 words, on academic critiques. It is something of value to me and I hope for others. But as a model, I recognize there are flaws to it; it won't satisfy everyone, nor should it.

But whenever I (and I would hope others) take the time to write an essay that attempts to review aspects of a constructed work (visual, audio, written, or some combination), I would imagine that the effort is that of communication of a whole host of matters and not some attempt to reductio ad absurdum an often complex set of interactions with a text into a dumbed-down, oft-distorted summation that bespeaks more of a certain segment of an audience's unwillingness (I'm being charitable, as some might presume it'd be that audience's inability) to grasp anything much more complex than "Two legs bad, four legs good!"

But what do I know? If I were to read between the lines of Stotts' comments on the "elitists" who poormouth his almost-saintly influences, I would (without having a pictogram to illustrate this point, alas!) wonder if he were talking about the likes of poor widdle me. It is rather baffling, if not dismaying, to see the "elitist" label (misconstrued here; might as well call people such as myself pinko commie bastards who want to assrape your children, based on the context) thrown about in such a careless fashion. It shows, just as much as the condemnation of those who prefer to let words (lies as they may be to Stotts and others of his ilk!) create nuances that show at least some respect for the written language and its ability to move readers to consider the presenter's point of view in regards to a work.

But this essay is doubtlessly "cowardly" as well. So for those who refuse to consider the "lying" words, here's my one and only ranking of his comments:

Two smegma scrapings off of a diseased-ridden man's dick out of 10 possible scrapings.



Then read something elsewhere. I have to somehow try to work up the "courage" (said in a Cowardly Lion voice) to be more blunt in my criticisms, even if I still won't toss out meaningless numbers to make my reviews so easy that the Geico Caveman could grasp them. And as for the person who was interviewed and whose comments I quoted - barely know of the guy. Guess that is the most damning comment of all, unfortunately.

Monday, September 07, 2009

20 Neil Gaiman Facts

Taken from Jim Hines' recent LJ entry:

  1. Neil Gaiman once wrote a Nebula-winning story using only the middle row of his keyboard.
  2. Harper Collins has taken out a 2.5 million dollar insurance policy on Neil Gaiman’s accent.
  3. If you write 1000 words and Neil Gaiman writes 1000 words, Neil Gaiman has written more than you.
  4. Neil Gaiman does not use Microsoft’s grammar-check. Microsoft uses a Gaiman-check.
  5. Neil Gaiman once did the New York Times crossword puzzle in pen. In fifteen minutes. He won two Hugo awards for it.
  6. Neil Gaiman is who the Ghostbusters call.
  7. Most agents charge a 15% commission. Neil Gaiman’s agent pays him an extra 15% for the privilege of saying “I’m Neil Gaiman’s agent.”
  8. William Shakespeare once came back from the dead to ask for Neil Gaiman’s autograph.
  9. Neil Gaiman is the reason nobody teaches “I before E except after C” anymore.
  10. Some writers take inspiration from the muse. The muse takes inspiration from Neil Gaiman.
  11. Neil Gaiman once groped Harlan Ellison.
For the rest, do visit Hines' site (I see he'd love to have the traffic directed his way and hey, the rest are just as good as these). Oh, and if you want to think of your own, feel free to add them in the comments there or I guess here if you're lazy.

Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Sand

El hecho occurió en el mes de febrero de 1969, al norte de Boston, en Cambridge. No lo escribí inmediatamente porque mi primer propósito fue olvidarlo, para no perder la razón. Ahora, en 1972, pienso que si lo escribo, los otros lo leerán como un cuento y, con los años, lo será tal vez para mí. (p. 7)

The incident occurred in the month of February 1969, to the north of Boston, in Cambridge. I did not write it immediately because my first thought was to forget it, in order not to lose my mind. Now, in 1972, I think that if I write it, the others will read it as a story and, with the years, maybe it'll be so for me.
This opening to the first story in Jorge Luis Borges' 1975 collection, El libro de arena (The Book of Sand), "The Other," serves to illustrate how even late in his life (Borges was 76 when the book was published in Argentina), Borges was still playing with images of doubles, of secret societies, of conflicts between idealized forms and human desires, and how to represent notions of infinity. In many respects, this collection takes several of the elements present in his earlier collections, Ficciónes (1941, 1944), The Aleph (1949), and Dreamtigers (1960), and expounds further upon the mystical elements found in some of those stories.

In this collection, the metaphorical uses of sand are present in some of the stories. In "Ulrikke," the story closes with the temporal meaning of sand: "Como la arena se iba el tiempo. Secular en la sombra fluyó el amor y poseí por primera y última vez la imagen de Ulrica." (p. 26) In the titular "Book of Sand," sand represents the grains of infinity and the desire to corral not just knowledge but also infinity into something that is tangible for humans.

Another hallmark of Borges' stories in this collection (and one that stretches back into his earlier collections) is the use of first-person narrators whose introspective examinations serve to create a sense of dissonance between the observer and what has been observed. Such a separation occurs at the beginning of "The Congress" and it serves to accentuate the strangeness that is the Congress of the World. But Borges's stories are not always distant and genial. Take for instance "There Are More Things," a story dedicated to the American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Borges creates a scene of psychological horror not out of explicit images of monstrosities, but out of very rational observations of how incomprehensible the searches for grasping infinite objects can be. "The Sect of the Thirty" plays again with the notion of secret cults that possess ancient knowledge. In it, Borges again discusses the problematic issue of Judas, a theme he first explored in Ficciónes with "Three Versions of Judas."

In a way, "The Sect of the Thirty" represents a major problem for this collection. As a short 5-6 page story, it is far from bad, but when read after Borges' earlier works, the latter suffers in comparison. The stories are good, but they feel more like pale xeroxes of the themes that Borges had explored in the 1940s. While "The Book of Sand" might complement and extend the notions of infinity contained in "The Library of Babel," it does not have the same impact, likely because several of its elements have been recycled from previous stories of Borges. While I was impressed by how the stories were written and how erudite Borges is, working in references to Scandinavian skalds and mythical references to various global myths, ultimately this collection does not contain as many memorable stories as did the three earlier collections that I mentioned above. Out of these, "The Other" and "The Book of Sand" stick out the most, but they feel lighter in comparison to "Borges and I" or "The Library of Babel."

This comparison, almost inevitable when considering Borges' oeuvre, makes it difficult to be objective when assessing The Book of Sand's merits as a collection. If this book had been written by anyone other than Borges, it likely would have been lauded as a strong short story collection. But when compared to the author's earlier works, it comes across as being a lesser work because of the recycled motifs. However, this is not to say that the collection is not worth reading. I just wouldn't claim that it is as strong as his first three collections.

Fritz Lang, Metropolis (1927)

I rarely watch cinema, especially those films released in recent years. Too often, the attempt at spectacle fails to be spectacular, or there is something a bit off about the performances. Perhaps it is because I don't like sitting still for 90-120 minutes at a time. Regardless of what it is, I rarely enjoy watching films and am usually unmoved by what I watch.

But after seeing Austrian director/producer Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film, Metropolis, being promoted recently on a few sites, I decided to investigate and what I discovered intrigued me enough that I placed an order last week for the 2002 DVD that contained an 118 minute cut of the original 153 minute movie (the originals have been lost and from what I understand, this is the longest and best restored of the versions currently available). It was a wise decision, since this movie contains so many elements that I enjoy in a creative work.

Metropolis is an impressive setting, even 82 years after its original release. The set design contains elements of Art Deco and Expressionist architecture and Lang's vision of an upstairs/downstairs division between the grand bourgeoisie and the proletariat is striking. The most expensive silent film ever produced and which was released just before the first talking pictures were shown in cinemas, Metropolis depends heavily upon its visual imagery to tell its story of repression, hope, violence, and mediation. Take for instance this scene near the beginning of the movie, where the workers are going on/off their work shift:

Notice the expressions. The way the workers move, the tilt of the heads, and how the music creates a sense of drudgery. So much is being said here about the plight of the workers, now imagined to be in a future in which the elites live above ground and through their control of the machines, manage to live in a sort of Elysium, while the workers suffer and toil:

The Head (the owners, represented by Joh Fredersen) and the Hands (the workers) are not speaking the same language. There is no mediator for the two, as Lang notes in the opening title screen. But one day, Joh's son, Freder, encounters a striking young woman, Maria, who shows him the workers' children and tells him to behold his "brothers." Instantly enamored, Freder goes down into the centers of the Metropolis, the M-Machine and Heart Machine, where he encounters this horrific scene, itself the inspiration for countless films and even Rob Zombie:

From here, Metropolis hits its stride, weaving parallels between Moloch, the Tower of Babel, Christ, the Virgin, and the Harlot of Revelations into its story. The images are amazing, and Lang expertly alternates between the conflicts between father and son, between the owners and the workers, between Joh and the bereaving inventor Rotwang, and between Man and Machine. Each scene flows into the other, creating a tapestry that is moving, especially since there is this sense, looking back across the last two-thirds of the 20th century, that Metropolis contains a hope and honesty about it that was, while already injured due to the devastating Great War, shattered by World War II and the atrocities of the Holocaust. This sense of loss adds a layer of poignancy to the viewing, especially when one learns that Lang's then-wife and co-writer of the script, Thea von Harbou, was enamored with the National Socialists and later became a prominent supporter.

In some ways, there are elements that could be viewed through the lens of National Socialist thought. The argument for the liberation of the workers in the film does resonate to a degree with the Nazis' emphasis on combining elements of socialism with nationalism. But while it is fair to note there are some connections between von Harbou and National Socialism, the movie was released before the Nazis rose to prominence in Germany and that Lang certainly was not a supporter of the NSDAP due to his maternal heritage. But it is worth noting that the atmosphere and the imagery do connect with certain Modernist thought and that for this alone, Metropolis would be worth viewing as a cultural historical piece. Add to that a well-written script and excellent acting (for its medium; today it probably would be labeled as being overwrought and too melodramatic) and Metropolis ends up being a stunning vision of the future that can be unsettling to us over 80 years later. Outstanding bit of cinema.
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