The OF Blog: January 2010

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A quote from Don DeLillo's latest novel, Point Omega

The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.  The true life takes place when we're alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamingly self-aware, the submicroscopic moments.


I almost believed him when he said such things.  He said we do this all the time, all of us, we become ourselves beneath the running thoughts and dim images, wondering idly when we'll die.  This is how we live and think whether we know it or not.  These are the unsorted thoughts we have looking out the train window, small dull smears of meditative panic. (p. 17)
Received my copy of DeLillo's Point Omega in the mail a couple of hours ago.  Just now started reading it and so far, it is an engaging read.  Only 119 pages, so it shouldn't take too much longer for me to finish it.  Don't know if/when I'll write a review (after all, I have this wrist bandage I'm supposed to be wearing and it doesn't make typing a fun thing to do), but I thought people here might appreciate this little quote. 

Care to share your reactions to it?  Poor/well-written?  Sentiments jibe with your own?  Ever read any of DeLillo's works before?  Thinking about reading this book?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Q&A with Darren Campo

How did you start writing?
I was always writing stories, as far back as I can remember. In college I was a business major with a creative writing minor, so I had to turn in a short story every week. I probably had about fifty short stories written before I had a style, what is often referred to as a “voice” that was strong enough to write a novel.
What are you doing when you are not working? What are some of the interests/hobbies which keep you busy?

When I was a kid my great-grandmother gave me her big set of oil paints and I’ve been painting and drawing ever since. I also play the piano and have wondered about the similarities in structure between music and visual arts. This led to an intense fascination with physics and intimately to writing science fiction. In addition, the past few years I’ve been lucky enough to teach some classes at NYU on the business of producing television and film.
How would you describe your book to someone who is not familiar with your work?
Alex Detail’s Revolution is an adventure story of a boy who finds himself suddenly stuck in the middle of a battle and having to fight for his life. It happens to take place in the future, but the journey and challenges and questions the characters experience are familiar and could take place in any time past, present or future.

Why space and spaceships?
Spaceships are fun! I grew up watching Star Trek The Next Generation and I saw how inspiring and freeing it can be to the imagination to go out there and find something totally new, places we can’t get to or experience right now.
Do you believe there is life on other planets?
Life, absolutely. The more interesting thought is if there is life that is self-aware, or some other sort of consciousness. There are probably forms of thought we can’t imagine or detect, like some colony of sentient crystals under an ocean in another solar system.
Do some of the Alex Details Revolution's characters exist in your life?
Defiantly there are aspects and traits in just about everyone I can remember in my life that end up showing up in the characters. Sometimes they evolve into someone I once knew or sometimes they have been inspired by my very first meeting with a person. Captain Odessa is that sort of purely practical person I based on my friend Rebecka. I met her in college when she was just out of the Israeli army.
What message does the Alex Details Revolution's send out to the readers?
Go ahead and tackle the things you fear and not let that emotion stop you from doing anything, then you’ll become alive and your life will become one great adventure after another.
What kind of books do you enjoy? What are your influences?
Joseph Campbell was the primary influence in most of my choices in life, including writing. I learned from him that all the mysteries of life have been experienced by all the people who lived before us, and all the stories and myths are clues they left for us on how to deal with this question of how to really engage in life to its fullest, how to overcome all the fears and challenges with an attitude of excitement and wonder.
Could you tell us something about your future plans? Can we maybe expect a sequel to Alex Details Revolution?
Yes! The sequel exists in my head and the first three chapters have already been written. Alex, Captain Odessa and George Spell have a lot more adventures ahead of them.
Since you work as a television executive, have you thought about making movies from your books?
Writing is the thing I really love. TV shows, movies, plays are all big collaborative efforts that represent the visions of many people working as a team. A book is the purest story a single person can convey without having to change your vision for a shifting marketplace or particular demographic or competing creative visions.
Which genre of movies do you prefer, and what are some of your favorites?
I really love movies with that are funny and fun and have a “happily ever after” ending. The exception might be Star Wars Revenge of the Sith. Maybe because I know the happily ever after comes three movies later, but I could watch that a thousand times.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing the sequel to Alex Detail’s Revolution, which is currently titled “Alex Detail’s Rebellion” as well as putting the finishing touches on another novel called “Stingers” about a group of kids who use honeybees to take over the world.
Have you considered writing for the younger audience?
I write the sort of stories I enjoyed reading as a boy so I think that there’s always an intrinsic appeal to a younger audience. I have been surprised to have kids seven or eight years old talk to me about Alex Detail’s Revolution. It’s easy to forget how insightful kids are at even a very young age.

Thank you very much for your time and patience, Darren. We wish you the best of luck with your future work. :)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

So what have you been doing lately?

Yeah, been a very slow month here.  Mind's preoccupied with several matters, most of them quite good, actually.  But the fact remains that it's kinda quieter here than usual (which probably will last to the end of the month).  In the meantime, never hurts to ask what readers here have been doing.  Any projects, recent reads, goals, things of that nature to share, perhaps in hopes of generating a response from another?

Other bloggers reading this, perhaps they might respond with a link to what they've been doing?  Oh, and please don't link me to that horrid discussion going on at a certain blog where low-lives seem to have decided that they can rip into the (absent) blog owner just because he got permission to post an excerpt of a well-known author's work.  Some things tend to dissuade people from giving any sort of voice to readers, when some feel they can hide behind the "Anonymous" label and post such.  Tempted again to restrict that again (haven't only because of a couple of people I know who usually don't use Blogger for comments whose opinions I value), but since I'm quiet and not posting excerpts from an author with whom a few deluded souls seem to have this S&M-style love/hate relationship, I shouldn't have anything to worry about, no?

Anyways, whatcha up to these days?  I'll just note that besides work and BAF, I decided that I wanted to learn the elements of yet another language.  So I started studying Attic and Koine Greek, because I can.  You?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

In lieu of book porn, here's magazine/journal porn for you voyeurs

Part of the reason (besides my sore right wrist) that's kept me from blogging as much this month is that I'm now starting to receive magazines and journals for consideration for Best American Fantasy 4.  Thought I might acknowledge receipt of some of these, so pictured above are several issues of Fantasy & Science Fiction, as well as the Fall/Winter 2009-10 issue of Ninth Letter (University of Illinois), and the January 18, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, which I purchased with my own money (I have my more recent copies of The Atlantic at work, as I do read these two magazines regularly).

Will note that there have been some good stories, including several that would have been considered if they weren't so completely non-fantastical in nature.  Perhaps at a later date I'll discuss/review some of those stories, just so mimetic fiction can get more love at this joint.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Blog Review Challenge: Alexandre Dumas, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo

Umberto Eco a raison de le dire, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo est un grand roman mal écrit: "Monte-Cristo part en tous sens. Débordant de redondances, répétant éhontément un adjectif à une ligne d'écart, accumulant avec incontinence ces mêmes adjectifs, ouvrant de sententieuses digressions sans réussir à les fermer car la syntaxe ne suit pas, avançant ainsi en haletant par périodes de vingt lignes, le roman est mécanique et gauche dans la description des sentiments." 

 In this quote from a recent French edition of 19th century French author Alexandre Dumas' 1844 novel, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, Umberto Eco (in French translation, since he originally wrote it in Italian for another publication) lays bare a problem that several readers in the early 21st century might have with parsing 19th century novels.  Eco notes that this novel is "a great novel badly written."  It is full of repetitive motifs, the adjectives are piled on thicker than gravy on a country steak, there are digressions after digressions, and if twenty words could suffice instead of merely one, Dumas would utilize those twenty words...and likely a few others.  In short, the list of faults that can be found with one of Dumas' two most famous novels are numerous and if committed today, the author would likely receive the same sort of scorn reserved for the likes of Dan Brown or Terry Goodkind for their stylistically maladroit prose and their cardboard-thick, rough characterizations.  Yet The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the more well-known and beloved novels that date from the mid-19th century?  How is it that a novel so full of technical errors and plot devices that would irritate so many "modern" readers today be so popular?

I have read this story in three distinct phases.  I first read it the summer before my senior year of high school, as part of my required summer reading list for honors English.  That time, I read it in the abridged Bantam Classics edition.  About six years later, during the summer of 1997, when I had little to do except work on my MA independent studies, I found an unabridged edition and read it then.  Finally, I acquired a two-volume paperback edition in French and read it over the past three weeks.  During each of those reads, my relationship with the novel changed.

I recall being engrossed with the novel back in the summer of 1991.  I found the melodramatic parts (the escape from the dreaded Chateau d'If, Haydèe's denouncement of Morcerf) to be thrilling.  Edmond/the Count's revenge just seemed so cold, so calculated, so designed to catch my teenage self's attention.  The ending was particularly well-done, I recall thinking back then.  But by the time that I read it in its full form in the summer of 1997, my opinion had shifted.  Dumas seemed to take forever to get to a point (should note here that I had read virtually all of Dickens' work around the same time and was beginning to grow weary of mid-19th century serial narratives) and instead of Edmond's revenge being an engrossing matter, the entire matter had become so tedious, as dozens of chapters on the Count's various personae being developed and employed served to weaken the impact of the narrative.  While I can imagine contemporary audiences, reading perhaps 25-50 pages per installment over the 1844-1846 period that the novel was serialized, might have found this elaborate setup to balance well between expository advancement and anticipatory foreshadowing, it would appear that for several readers who do not care for several of the tropes of these 19th century serials, The Count of Monte Cristo would serve as an exemplary model of how not to construct a novel.

When I read it in French a few weeks ago, my earlier sense of tedium returned even more.  Seeing that the redundant dialogues and laborious character interactions were not the fault of the translator but instead that of Dumas, I began to question why this work ever managed to maintain its appeal through time, cultures, and languages.  Then a thought occurred to me.  Eco, in his essay on this novel, goes on to note that despite or perhaps even because of its numerous faults, The Count of Monte Cristo is so popular today because its plot, the exquisite revenge of the betrayed upon his betrayers, has an appeal that transcends the very text of the novel.  For readers wanting to read a tale of revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo is akin to pornography for them.  Taking Eco's definition of pornography, as found in his collection of essays, How to Travel with a Salmon, as being the detailing of all activity, no matter how tedious or mind-numbing that it might be, in order to create a simulacrum of time transpiring before the payoff, The Count of Monte Cristo would certainly qualify as such.  The reader is witness to the entire unfolding of Edmond's revenge, from his escape and discovery of who had betrayed him, down to the final encounter in the catacombs outside Rome. 

Here, the repetitive scenes, the piling upon of adjective after adjective, bon mot after bon mot, have served to create such a ponderous approximation of real-life (in a fashion similar to modern-day soap operas and their years-spanning plot lines) that the reader is ready to see the literary money shot.  They may by now be able to guess at the main thrust of the dialogue in a fashion similar to how a midnight audience will "participate" in a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, they may groan at the melodramatic speech, but in most cases, after a thousand-plus pages of buildup, the reader will have something invested in this story, something that transcends how the written story is constructed and which seems to touch upon oft-suppressed primal emotions.  It is this emotional connection, which occurs largely outside the confines of the story/text, that appears to be the main reason why The Count of Monte Cristo has been a perennial favorite for over 160 years.  It certainly is not because of the scintillating prose, sparkling dialogue, or adroit characterizations.  If it weren't for the universal appeal of a revenge plot outlined in near-pornographic detail, it is hard to imagine this novel having a higher reputation than Bulwer-Lytton's have enjoyed in the past two generations.

Blog Review Challenge review of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, plus another list and other matters

Bryce/Seak of Seak's Stamp of Approval recently posted a short review of Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 classic, Childhood's End.  In it, he raises a key point around which Clarke's novel revolves:  what value is freedom, when peace and security are achieved despite human agency? 

I read this novel several years ago and was of two minds about it.  While the premise was interesting, I found Clarke's prose to be rather pedestrian, which served to weaken the impact of the story's final pages, since I had so little emotional or cognitive attachment to what was transpiring.  Others doubtless will politely disagree.

My own pre-1960 review will be up later today, I hope.  I'll be tackling Alexandre Dumas' Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (after not having read it in any form for a dozen years, I read it for the first time in French a few weeks ago) and its structure.

Two things of interest for readers here.  First off, there is an interactive thread/poll active now at Westeros for readers to nominate up to 20 works of fiction (ranked in three tiers of 4-8-8 authors) that will then be tabulated shortly for a "Westeros 100" of works of speculative fiction.  For the curious, here is what I submitted there:

Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciónes

Gabriel García Márquez, OHYS

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

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Part Two:

Jeff VanderMeer, City of Saints and Madmen

Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

M. John Harrison, Viriconium (omnibus)

China Miéville, The Scar

Vladmir Nabokov, Pale Fire

Thomas Ligotti, Teatro Grottesco

Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun (series)

Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast novels

Third Set:

Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist

Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood

Octavia Butler, Lilith's Brood (omnibus)

Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum

Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman

Frank Herbert, Dune

Edward Whittemore, Jerusalem Quartet (series)

Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

And finally, I see hell hath no fury like mis-entitled George R.R. Martin (ex)fans.  There's an excerpt of Martin's SOIAF-related novella, "The Mystery Knight" in the upcoming Warriors anthology (which I've read and enjoyed, with a review in the near future) over at Pat's Fantasy Hotlist.  There are dozens of anonymous posters complaining about this and that in regards to the author, his health, his appearance, his professionalism, and perhaps even presumed affinities for certain barnyard animals for all I know.  Such people amuse me, before they irritate me.  I always find myself wishing that I knew where these people work, so I could demand that they work 24/7 for me (if they are in a service industry) and then rate them for every second that they are not fully engaged in their presumed tasks.  Of course, such things are just silly passing thoughts, but hey, one can dream, especially considering that my own job isn't the sort that's going to inspire a gung-ho mentality the entire 9 hours a day that I'm on the clock.

Anyways, enough of this for now. Have some readings to do.  Alternating between reading the past year's worth of Fantasy & Science Fiction issues that I've received for BAF4 purposes, re-reading Italo Calvino and Sergio Toppi in Italian, and studying elements of Koine Greek. Oh, and working out again, now that my wrist isn't so stiff and sore anymore.  Lost some needed pounds the past 10 days and am well on my way to being in the shape that I was when I was 18 in a year's time.  Don't know if I'll be dunking basketballs again, though.  Some things don't quite heal up, no matter how well in shape one might be...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Today is Squirrel Appreciation Day

In order to honor our squirrel overlords, I will post two videos for your edification (squirrels beat ninjas and pirates 9 out of 10 times, and that other time, the squirrel was too wasted and ended up taking its own nuts), as well as this link to a post on the Huffington Post that has tips for how you ought to care for your squirrel superiors.

So please, if you are a devoted worshiper (or at least someone who fears them) of the puissant arboreal rodent lords, follow the suggestions found in that link and leave a comment here. Of course, those who are mean to the squirrels today (or any day) might just receive rabies from the Birthday Squirrel rather than a nice present...

Squirrel Vs. Snake - Click here for funny video clips

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

So I had a little setback...

Remember when I said last week that my right arm was injured at work?  Well, I've been battling tendonitis in that arm due to having had it practically immobilized for the past week so the abrasions would not get infected.  This is how it looked minutes ago.  I guess I can always claim later that the scar came from a vicious knife fight in Buenos Aires....but that'd be too much like Borges, no?

Do have full range of motion, but I fatigue easily and my fine motor skills aren't there (my writing is very shaky).  Thankfully, workman's comp has covered all this so far and that I won't need to do any specialized rehab.  But it might be until the weekend before I bother typing much, as I can't do more than a couple of minutes without needing to rest these days.

But yeah, good thing I still had some muscle on that arm, huh?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Review Challenge Links: Three Reviews of Older Novels

Sorry for the lateness of this post, but I've been laid up with one of the worst sinus infections I've had in years.  Trying to stay awake for more than 3 hours proved to be too much of a challenge for most of the past two days.  Finally feeling well enough to post the first batch of what I hope will be several reviews written by others (and myself) of older works.

The first review link I received as part of this challenge was penned by Chad Hull of Fiction Is So Overrated.   He had recently written a review of John Fowles' The Collector and he forwarded me this link to it.  What I enjoyed about his review is how he approaches the characterizations of the novel in a way that shows not an understanding of his own reactions to the novel, but also how these characterizations can influence reader perception.  Very good review of the novel's strengths and weaknesses.

E.L. Fay of This Book and I Could Be Friends sent me links to two reviews that she's done recently of 1920s French novels.  The first review of hers that I read was Louis Aragon's Paris PeasantAs I've found with several of her reviews over the past year or so, there is a nice mixture of analysis and personal reaction in this review.  Since I find surrealist works to be fascinating, chances are high that I'll explore this book in the near future.

Her second book reviewed was Philippe Soupault's Last Nights of Paris.  In contrast to the Aragon book she reviewed, she loved Soupault's work almost without reservation.  Based on how well she details the structure of the book, this certainly will  be one that I'll want to read myself in the near future.

So here are the first three review links I've received.  Feel free to submit your own (pre-1960s preferably, but willing to accept some from the 1960s, provided the work in question was published before you were born).  I plan on writing a few such reviews in the coming weeks, starting with an Alexandre Dumas novel.  Hopefully, that one will be up by next weekend, time/health permitting.

After the past week's tumult, this warmed my heart

Well, my beloved Vols finally got their coach.  Very good press conference, but more importantly, new Coach Derek Dooley seems bent on restoring the traditions that made my alma mater a wonderful place to visit on Saturdays during football season.  Helps that I grew up (as a coach's son) admiring what Dooley's dad, legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley, accomplished at UGA.  And I just love this picture of Coach Dooley's youngest son, John Taylor, trying on the UT helmet.  Certainly washes away some of the stench that arose last Tuesday.

Who knows if the team will do well this upcoming season or for the next few, but at least it'll be easier cheering for a team and a coach that apparently will have tons more class than the previous head coach.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A reviewing challenge for others (and myself)

I've been reading three books tonight (Le Comte de Monte-Cristo tome 2, Op Oloop, and The Quiet American) that were written over 50 years ago (and in the case of the Dumas book, over 160 years ago).  While reading them, I thought about the challenges these books might present if they were to be reviewed as if they were "new" books.

Running with this thought some, I wondered if it might be a worthwhile endeavor to implore readers of this site (many of whom are review bloggers) to consider reading and reviewing one book that was published before 1960 (doesn't matter what genre it might be in, non-fiction or poetry would be fine as well) and posting it on their blogs and sending me an email notice that it is up (email is the full name of this blog at gmail).  I would love to highlight older books and would gladly link to the blogs of those who would be willing to do this.  So how about from today to February 15, that this challenge stand for at least one pre-1960 book being read and reviewed?  Might introduce several readers to some interesting older books.

Considering reviewing either Proust or Saki for mine.  What about you?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A third bookshelf now photo-cataloged

Nine pictures this time.

A few Spanish books, and then...

...what could be that book on the far right?

Beauty, ugliness, or something else?

What possible connections exist between these books?

Surely there are some reasons why certain books here are beside each other, no?

Or maybe not...

Well, at least four of these books have something in common, no?

But what connections exist with these?

Yes.  I put those two books side-by-side and the world did not explode.  Amazing.

So, figured out my ordering system(s) here?

Fighting is bad, mkay?

This is my right arm, a little over 24 hours after I injured myself breaking up a fight in my classroom.  In order to see just how swollen the hand is, I removed the wrap temporarily from around my wrist.  Had to go to the doctor today on a Workman's Comp claim, as there was the real possibility that I cracked a bone when I had to grab a student and spin him away from the peer trying to assault him.  My arm cracked very hard against a very sharp brick window sill, causing a 4-5 inch gash, a badly sprained wrist and various muscle and tendon strains throughout the forearm.  I have to wear a very heavy bandage for the next week and I'm not supposed to be typing much (or really, at all) for the next week.

Silly me, not wanting anyone to get hurt, huh?  Guess I won't be blogging or commenting much, if at all, through the weekend or until the swelling subsides.  Watch me ignore pain (and good advice) and do it quicker...

Very sad day to be a University of Tennessee alum

So Lane Kiffin has left my alma mater after only a single year to return to USC as head football coach.  Half of the staff leaves with him.  Signing Day is three weeks away and now virtually all of the Top 10 recruiting class has decommitted.  Former recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron called several commitments and tried to get them to follow him to USC, apparently.  Chances are high that this will devastate an already-shorthanded (scholarship wise) football program for years to come.

Oh, and the students had a near riot, including the burning of a mattress and I believe a few effigies of those involved.  Doubtless there will be more videos to appear in the coming hours and weeks in regards to this.  Just another in a series of disturbing events at my alma mater.

I suppose in a way this could be viewed as retribution of sorts.  I grew up the son of a HS football coach in Tennessee.  For the past 25 years or so, there would be occasional trips across the state to Knoxville to watch the games in person.  I was a freshman at UT when Johnny Majors got canned (or stabbed in the back, perhaps) by the AD.  I was uneasy about it at first, but then the wins kept on coming for a decade longer under Philip Fulmer, including the only football national championship in my lifetime. Then after subpar performances his last five years or so, he was forced to resign in similar circumstances to Majors (ironic, considering Majors believes Fulmer was the one who instigated his removal).  And now this. It's as if roles were reserved, with the coach screwing over the administration, but in this case, I fear the consequences will be devastating to my alma mater.

Damn, this just fucking sucks now.  Not that I'd want this now-departed crew to return, but that the loyal football players got screwed over in the worst possible way, considering the timing of events all around.  Guess this is the new face of college football.  Might come to hate it almost as much as what I see from the NFL.  At least there's the Lady Vols to make my school look decent, respectable, and in so many more ways than just wins or losses.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

January 1-10 Reads

Here is the first reading update for this year.  Unlike previous years, I will also be listing fiction magazines and lit journals that I will be reading as part of my duties as series editor for Best American Fantasy 4.  Perhaps this will spark greater curiosity in this anthology and (hopefully) more readers of this fine anthology series.  As is usually the case for me, the titles will be in order they were read, plus a tiny bit of commentary.


1  N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (debut novel due out Feb. 25.  Will be writing a full review of this work in the next couple of weeks.  Very strong debut to a trilogy that has the misfortune of having the same name as Christopher Paolini's series)

2  G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker, Air Volume Two:  Flying Machine (graphic novel collection of an ongoing comics series.  Plan on saying more about this collaborative effort when the third volume is released in a couple of months.  Highly recommended.)

3  G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker, Cairo (graphic novel set in Egypt with a mixture of current socio-political commentary and Arabic myths involving the djinn.  These two authors/illustrators do outstanding work)

4  Caitlín R. Kiernan, Silk (her 1998 debut novel.  Could tell the genesis of certain narrative traits that she manages to use to greater effect in her latter stories.  Strong debut, though.  Will read other earlier works by her in the near future)

5  Clare Dudman, One Day the Ice will Reveal all its Dead (historical novel based on German geologist Alfred Wegener's latter life and his death in Greenland in 1931.  Very good story.)

6  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval (what the future Pope Benedict XVI had to say about corrupt modern-day societies before he became Pope in 2005.  He has a way with words and I certainly had things to consider afterwards, even if I'm far from a conservative of any stripe)

7  Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (had never read his most famous YA trilogy, so I thought I'd finally take the plunge. Not bad, but a bit boring in spots, or so my Inner 10 year-old is telling me)

8  Kevin Brockmeier (ed.), Real Unreal:  Best American Fantasy Volume 3 (I will be mailing my review copy to a friend to review here, since I feel any opinions I might have on this - positive, in case you're curious - would be unduly biased due to the fact that I'm helping with the development of the fourth volume.  But do read this volume when it comes out next month, lest the rabid squirrels find you and devour your hearts and souls)

9  Mary Robinette Kowal, Scenting the Dark and Other Stories (just-released limited-edition of her first story collection. Very strong stories. Don't believe any are eligible for BAF4, though, although there weren't any bad stories in this slim collection)

10  Oliverio Girondo, Scarecrow & Other Anomalies (re-read; bilingual edition.  This gives a whole new meaning to "weird fiction."  Very good, though)

11  Alexandre Dumas, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo I (French; first volume of Dumas' secondmost famous work.  Uneven, digressive work so far.)

12  Geoff Dyer, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (if I had read this 2009 novel before now, it would have appeared among the best mimetic fictions of that year.  Outstanding execution.  Highly recommended.)

13  Martin H. Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes (eds.), A Girl's Guide to Guns and Monsters (another in a long line of monthly themed anthologies from DAW.  Read this to see if any stories merited consideration.  Not bad, but not all that good as a whole.  Some good individual stories, though.)

14  Diana Schutz (ed.), Noir:  A Collection of Crime Comics (graphic novel anthology showcasing the talents of several of the best artists working in the noir narrative mode.  Very, very good.)

Fiction Magazines and Lit Journals

No comments on these, for various reasons:

Alaska Quarterly Review, Spring-Summer 2009

Weird Tales, Fall 2009

Weird Tales, Spring 2009

In Progress

Alexandre Dumas,Le Comte de Monte-Cristo 2

David Soares, A Conspiração dos Antepassados


Thoughts on "artificiality," selection bias, listmaking and trendsetting

Just a few more odds-and-ends to wrap up a few discussions that have been ping-ponging from this blog to others and back again.

Over at The World in the Satin Bag, Shaun Duke raises an important question that has to be considered whenever discussions of reading habits arises.  He wonders if intentionally trying to read more of X and/or Y type of authors/stories creates a sense of artificiality to the reading selection/experience.  My response to that would be that at its best, reading selection tends to be an active experience, in which the reader is self-aware of his/her selection possibility and that s/he takes the time to consider the available choices.  There is nothing "organic" about it; readers end up reading the books they choose, based on a variety of factors both conscious (availability, pricing, blurbs, praise from others) and subconscious (past experiences, moods at time of trying to decide what to read or if to read).  I would instead recast the question as being whether or not readers ought to try to break a reading habit or if remaining in a particular reading habit can be an inherently "good" thing.

Selection bias is an insidious, nefarious thing.  Doesn't matter how well one tries to be cosmopolitan (or not), there is always that creeping, often subconscious, filtering out of certain elements in favor of others.  In some cases, selection bias can be good (as in refusing to eat rancid meat due to appearance and smell), but in other cases it serves to limit exploration and sometimes to blunt curiosity.  Take for example a particular "Best of Decade" list that was brought to my attention in a comment link.  Posted at a George R.R. Martin-oriented site, Tower of the Hand, "Best Fantasy Books of '00s" practically is a paean to the multi-volume serial narrative form. Although an early criticism cited in the comment link I read was in regards to the paucity of female authors, what I noticed about that list is just how devoid that list is of several other narrative modes and storytelling formats that I have emerged in the past decade.  Although the majority of the individual books selected were solid or better, based on my personal experiences, the end result felt as though blinders had been applied, narrowing the field of excellent fiction (and exciting subgenre developments) to a very small percentage of what was available.  No short fiction, nothing much about steampunk, seeing the Miéville/New Weird moment being cast as a primarily British entity (or at least that's how it felt based on the curiously small sample size), very little in the way of the various "urban" fantasies, and so forth - such a list gave very limited insight into what actually developed this time (could note more about podcasts and how a few authors gained major publishing deals off of those, as well as book "remixes" and the like, but that's a topic for another time, perhaps). 

Not directly related to the above comments but worth considering is the comment that Martin Lewis made in an earlier post of mine.  In response to a comment Aidan Moher made about how "the problem doesn't lie with the bloggers making the list, but rather with the genre as a whole and the manner in which publishers," Martin said, "It is pretty pathetic to abdicate all responsibility like this."  There is much truth to this.  If someone is going to construct a list and presume that said list will have value to others, then that list constructor better damn well be more proactive and thus not basing his/her selections on what s/he receives passively from others.  While there are certainly some valid arguments that could be made to the notion that reader/reviewers have the right to choose their "favorites," once any list is presented as reflecting any sort of "authority" (and publicly posting decade's best list, especially those derived from several who have a privileged relationship with the publishers compared to the average reader), then those reader/reviewers have certain obligations to meet in regards to considering more than their own personal tastes if they want their lists to hold any authority and if they don't want to be called out for putting blinders on and failing to see just how diverse and wide-ranging speculative fiction (or other genres of literature and material culture, for that matter) really is.

Doesn't mean that one should not develop such lists if one fears to be unable to cover everything (Lord knows that as much as I have read in recent years, there is a helluva lot that I miss each year).  Instead, one ought to be open to the possibility that one's "authority" is going to be limited in some cases and that if this is at least tacitly acknowledged with the presumption that the honest critic will try to explore more than one's own comfort zones, then such lists will develop a more true "authority" to them.  Plus doing this has the additional benefit of not coming across as a trend follower, but instead a trend setter, for those that put any stock in such things (I don't).  But people like Martin are correct to note that true critics have a responsibility not just to reflect trends in publishing, but also to take note and to praise (or denounce) works that are not being as heavily pushed by the publishers.  Being a trend setter (or advocate, as I prefer to call what I do) is much more than just book pimping.  It is displaying a particular taste for stories that often stands out in relation to other critics, whose tastes presumably are equally distinct and worth consideration.  It is not "artificial," in that it springs from an active, non-passive relationship between the critic and the text/s being considered.  It does not involve more than a casual consideration of what other critics are covering (if something is presented as being worth considering, then explore it, but don't settle for another's opinion.  Makes me happy when others read what I've suggested and found new things to like, as well as things that worked for me but didn't for them.  Makes for great discourse).  It is the development of an "authority" that stems not from what others have proclaimed to be good, but what one has discovered to be worth some people's time, if not everyone's.

It is, simply, daring to question and challenging everything before presenting what undoubtedly will be a flawed list in some regard.  But as I've said before, based off of a quote from Samuel Beckett, "Fail again.  Fail better."

Final 2009 Reading List: December 2-31

Planning on posting the first 2010 Reading List update either later today or Monday, but here's a list of the final 50+ books I read over the final 30 days of 2009.

507  Pat McGreal, David Rawson, Chaz Truog, Rafael Kayanan, Chiaroscuro:  The Private Lives of Leonardo da Vinci (graphic novel; decent-to-good)

508  Neil Gaiman, Odd and the Frost Giants (YA; merely OK)

509  Čarls M. Šhulc, Sreća je...toplo kučence (Serbian translation of one of my favorite children's books)

510  Neil Gaiman, The Books of Magic (graphic novel; not bad, but not all that great either)

511  Ken Grimwood, Replay (this is one of the better SF novels that I read in 2009)

512  Philip K. Dick, VALIS and Later Novels (Library of America omnibus; spotty)

513  Dan Simmons, Song of Kali (took awhile before I got into it; very good toward the end)

514  Milorad Pavić, The Tale That Killed Emily Knorr/Priča koja je ubila Emiliju Knor (very good story)

515  Javier Cercas, Soldados de Salamina (re-read from 2008; good)

516  Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James, A Short History of Fantasy (uneven, but interesting)

517  Gene Wolfe, Sword and Citadel (re-read; it's GENE WOLFE!)

518  George R.R. Martin, Fevre Dream (better than his ASOIAF novels)

519  Fernando Pessoa, Quadras (Portuguese; poetry; very good)

520  Andrzej Sapkowski, La dama del lago:  volumen 1 (Spanish; penultimate volume in the Saga de Geralt; good-to-very good)

521  Erich Maria Remarque, The Night in Lisbon (perhaps the best of his post-WWII novels)

522  Javier Cercas, La velocidad de la luz (re-read from 2008; good)

523  Paul McAuley, The Quiet War (decent premise, but some of the particulars irritated me, throwing me out of being engaged with the novel.  Decent at best.  Will read and perhaps review the sequel at length in the next month)

524  Hal Duncan, Escape from Hell! (re-read from 2008; not bad, but I didn't like it as much as his earlier novels)

525  Greer Gilman, Cloud & Ashes:  Three Winter's Tales (poetic, with evocative passages.  Recommended.)

526  Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis:  The Story of a Childhood (graphic novel; autobiography; engaging story)

527  James Blish, Cities in Flight (good)

528  Rudyard Kipling, The Mark of the Beast and Other Fantastical Tales (several excellent stories, along with several that were much weaker and perhaps could have been left out)

529  Daniel Wallace, Big Fish (moving tale that reminded me of my own complex relationship with my father)

530  J.G. Ballard, The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard (must-read omnibus of Ballard's short fiction)

531  Salma Khadra Jayyusi, Modern Arabic Fiction (too many short excerpts, but there were several great shorts to balance it out)

532  Apuleius, The Golden Ass (clever tale; very good)

533  Nnedi Okorafor, Long Juju Man (YA, engaging, among the best in YA that I read in 2009)

534  Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters:  An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (already reviewed)

535  Milorad Pavić, Last Love in Constantinople (very good)

536  Erich Maria Remarque, Spark of Life (one of the earliest tales of concentration camp horrors; very good)

537  Robert E. Howard, The Conan Chronicles Volume 2:  The Hour of the Dragon (meh)

538  Leigh Brackett, Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories(dated; meh)

539  Erich Maria Remarque, Arch of Triumph (OK, but far from his best work)

540  George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (eds.), Songs of the Dying Earth (several very good stories, with a sound editorial arrangement)

541  Washington Irving, Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, The Alhambra (Library of America edition; good)

542  Gary Larson, Wiener Dog Art:  A Far Side Collection (re-read; classic)

543  A.S. Byatt, The Children's Book (already reviewed)

544  Gary Larson, The Far Side Gallery 5 (re-read; classic)

545  Gary Larson, The Chickens are Restless (re-read; classic)

546  Gary Larson, Cows of Our Planet (re-read; I think you can guess my thoughts by now)

547  Horacio Quiroga, Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte (Spanish; re-read; excellent)

548  Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (excellent)

549  Catherynne M. Valente, The Labyrinth (re-read; very good)

550  Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City (very good)

551  Gene Wolfe, The Best of Gene Wolfe (see above comment about Wolfe)

552  Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan (eds.), The New Space Opera 2 (not bad, but space operas rarely appeal to me and most of the stories here did not overcome my natural antipathy)

553  Ellen Datlow (ed.), Lovecraft Unbound (very fine original anthology)

554  Mike Allen (ed.), Clockwork Phoenix 2 (best original anthology I read in 2009)

555  Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics (excellent)

556  G. Willow WIlson and M.K. Perker, Air:  Letters from Lost Countries (graphic novel; excellent; want to write more about their series shortly)

557  Milorad Pavić, The Inner Side of the Wind or The Novel of Hero and Leander (creative way to tell a story of two kindred souls separated by time and space)

558  Lope de Vega, Obrad Completas:  Poesía I (challenging, but worth the read to see how his epic poems stacked up)

559  Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois (eds.), The Dragon Book (OK anthology, but few stories that grabbed my attention)

560  John Layman and Rob Guillory, Chew Volume One:  Taster's Choice (graphic novel; very odd crime/procedural story with some strange twists.  Oddly enjoyable)

561  Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness (story collection; would have made my year-end roundup of story collections if I had read it earlier; excellent)

562  Bradford Morrow (ed.), Conjunctions 47:  25th Anniversary Issue (another fine issue from one of the better lit journals I've read in some time)

Well, that concludes the 2009 reading list.  Almost 200 more than 2008.  Something like a quarter of the books were read in languages other than English and a little over one-sixth were novels, graphic novels, collections, or anthologies (co)written or (co)edited by women, a slight improvement over the previous few years.  Will be keeping more detailed notes of the backgrounds of the authors I read in 2010, just to see if there are changes due to an increased awareness on my part.

Friday, January 08, 2010

There's something twisted about all this...

I alternate between being amused and annoyed by certain trends I've noticed in my blogging, or rather in the reactions/comments to my blogging.  Posts that deal more directly with books and the book publishing industry get far fewer comments than those almost-throwaway musings about "whoring" one's self out, group associations, and other matters of self-consciousness.  While each of these are invitations to explore possible approaches to certain topics, there never really is anything prescriptive (and certainly nothing resembling a proscription) in these reflective essays.

Let I see another post has been posted recently where someone takes an incidental comment of mine (one which moved quickly onwards to another specific example before addressing a more global concern) and makes it seem as though that were the central part of my writing.  It wasn't, or else I wouldn't be bothered to note this in passing.  I'm an advocate by nature and to a degree by training.  Advocates don't tend to avoid ruffling feathers on occasion and while I certainly will not condemn anyone for having opinions contrary to my own, I certainly will question and challenge them on occasion, as much to learn from the probing as in any attempt to sway or dissuade another.  That's about as much justification as I'll give, since it usually is a waste of time to justify at length things that really aren't all that important in the longue durée

But at the same time, it is odd to have (as in those links provided above) so many comments that attempt to justify a stance or position.  Is my opinion that valuable or challenging that dozens of comments have to be made?  Or are these more conversations where each participant attempts to understand another's viewpoint?  If it's the former, it might be a sign of self-doubt, but the latter could be an example of self-faith that does not stray over into inflexibility.  Perhaps it is a bit of both or nothing of each. 

All I know is that it's rather strange and twisted to have more reactions from people when I touch upon incidental issues that are of importance to maybe a dozen people combined than when I'm blogging about trends and stories that should have greater exposure.  But perhaps that's just human nature to center things around the Self and not consider as much areas that don't impact one's own self as much?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

New Category, New Place for Blogging

Been very, very busy the past couple of days (oh, and I'm posting this early in the morning because I crashed after work, in case you're wondering at the time stamp here).  Between work-related and (now) anthology-related readings, not much time for blogging.

Do want to note two things, however, both of which are related. The first is that after the official announcement that I was the new series editor for Best American Fantasy (well, at least for BAF4), the previous series editor (who is still a consultant), Matthew Cheney, added me to the team list for the Best American Fantasy blog.  In the near future, I will be making posts there related to the anthology series, with only brief mentions or links here, so I suggest people bookmark the link above and visit it in the near future, as hopefully there will be some interesting content to be posted there (of course, this depends on whether or not I am interesting, no?).

Secondly, there is a new category of links.  Although I'm not going to duplicate in full the list that will be available on the BAF blogroll, I did want to highlight just a few of the magazines (and e-zines) and lit journals that I read and will be reading heavily these next few months.  I will be adding a few more here, but a fuller list will be found at the BAF blog.  Do check these out, as many post original content there and perhaps you'll get a jump on reading a story that might just make it into the BAF series before any of us editors get around to reading it...

So yeah, while the pruning will still continue here and there, there will be added, new content to make up for it.  Now back to wondering just how much of that damn snow I'll have to deal with on Thursday...

Monday, January 04, 2010

Best American Fantasy 4 reading period announced, plus a new series editor

I only have enough time to provide the link, but for those wanting to know more about the reading period for Best American Fantasy 4, plus the new series editor, be sure to click on the link here.

Tengo que muy loco....

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Odds and Ends, Including the Pruning of My Blogroll

I've been too busy with other things in my life (including things to be announced in the near future) to really devote time to a few brewing mini-teacup tempests, but there were a few semi-interesting things argued over a few yonders in the past week or so.

First, I noticed that my little post about noticing gender splits in a few Best of 2009 posts has generated a bit of discussion over at Fantasy Book News and Reviews.  Jeff spends quite a bit of time justifying his reading habits and explaining how he's not a "sexist" reader.  Related, although certainly independent of the discussion sparked by a few passing comments of mine, is Shawn Speakman's Best of 2009 list that he posted on Suvudu.  The discussion is much more interesting than the list, but yet that, being of a much more combative level than that found in the Fantasy Book News and Reviews post, seems to bring out another dimension to this topic.

Very few things in life are either/or in nature; same seems to hold true for reading/writing demographics. One is not necessarily a "sexist" if one read fewer female (or male) authors than the other gender, but one might be one if certain stereotypes are held and that there is no willingness to challenge oneself. There is no "magic" solution to these issues; only possibilities fraught with uncertainties. 

However (yes, there had to be a 'however' here), why not just take note of one's "weak spots" and see if things can be improved by just merely daring to explore more.  As I have noted on this blog before, my reading (and subsequent enjoyment) of female authors increased once I realized just how few, relatively speaking, I read in comparison to male authors (I say relatively, as I read almost 100 books written by female authors in 2009 alone).  Same held true years ago of my reading of works by non-Anglo-American/non-Caucasian writers.  Starting to read more works by LGBT writers or which star LGBT characters, something that really took an adjustment period for me, considering my background and sexual orientation.  But it has been rewarding, not just for discovering new authors and new narrative voices, but also learning more about myself and how I relate to the world around me.  So perhaps the best advice for those who want to justify this or claim that others are being too militant (and yes, some are likely being too pushy and thus come across as being little more than mirror images of those they want to excoriate) is to just stop settling and just continue exploring.

Although on the surface this is not related related to the first topic, the post that Mark Charan Newton made the other week about what he, as a writer, wanted to see from review blogs touches a similar nerve among some, I believe.  Read through all the responses.  Note the justifications and the attempts to provide qualifications and counter-arguments.  Then note the final responses there and the links.  Not only has such a topic been brought up before (several times, including by myself), but there's almost the same attitude that persists.  I believe Jeff VanderMeer summed it up best there in his response:  defensiveness.

I would argue that another word would complement and strengthen it:  self-consciousness.  I've blogged about this topic before in regards to another matter, but I will elaborate briefly here.  If one wants to be a successful reviewer (by that, one whose opinions are valued for doing more than just regurgitating what umpteen other people are saying, or the cover blurb for that matter), then that reviewer will learn to be reflective without hem-hawing and trying to make excuses and justification for elements in his/her reviews that need improvement.  I don't consider myself to be a leading reviewer in terms of quality of style and argument, but I certainly won't accept my current state as being the best I could achieve.  If I'm weaker in coverage of (and understanding of) certain books and the authors who write these books, perhaps I ought to reflect upon my own abilities and develop my own solutions or at least work out a few possibilities before worrying about what others think?  I believe the operative phrase here is "Fail Better."

Enough about the self-consciousness of certain reviewers.  How about an interesting article written last week by debuting novelist N.K. Jemisin on "Power and Privilege in Fantasy"?  She has certain interesting things to say about many elements of epic/secondary-world fantasies that perhaps many readers (and writers) take for granted.  Although what she says is nothing new to me, I do believe it does bear consideration, especially in relation to certain assumptions that are made about the construction of and execution of imagined settings and the implications contained within the narratives.

Finally, there will be a few changes in the next few days at this blog.  Some of you may have already noticed that I have begun pruning my blogroll.  In several cases, this is because the blogs were mostly "dead."  In others, it is because I failed to find much of interest.  I will likely shrink it by quite a bit and add a few newer blogs for a while, to see if they might post more of interest to me.  If not, more pruning and discovery.  I'm also probably going to start a new category in my links lists in the next few weeks for listing the many fine e-zines out there or for those lit journals who also have a web presence.  The reasons for this are many, some of which I'll explain later.  But since this blog's core mission is to explore new paths and ideas, it is a long overdue change.

Now back to reading and exercising on my bike.  I do have a personal goal of sorts to work toward getting myself closer to the shape I was in when I was 18.  I have a lot to go...many miles before I sleep tonight.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

I swear I wasn't drunk or stoned when I wrote this!

Thought a few might be amused by the "guide" to how to write a more effective book review that I came up with in a forum discussion this evening:

It's not that hard

Just imagine that you are writing a post about the best/worst sex you ever had and you're trying to describe just what about it was/wasn't exciting to a friend of yours who might have a vague idea what it's about, but would like the juicy details.

And since so many here I imagine like porn on occasion, you go into details. Give them each thrust of the titillating (or not) narrative, the moans and groans of character interactions, and then top it off with hints of the (plot) climax.

What's so hard about that?

So...does help any of you struggling with your reviews to focus on how to relate your thoughts to others?

2010 Plans

New day/night, new year, new...something.  Not going to do resolutions as such (although I did meet virtually every one of the 2009 ones I posted) as I'm going to outline some broad goals, particularly those related to this blog and my reading/reviewing responsibilities.

1.  To read much more short fiction, collected and uncollected alike, than I have in previous years.  I think this is a safe bet.

2.  To review at least a half-dozen authors I have never reviewed before.

3.  To continue concentrating on books, authors, and movements that are not discussed as much (or at all) on the majority of the blogs currently on my Blogroll.

4.  To keep full-time employment long enough to a) travel the Blue Ridge Parkway in June and b) perhaps to finally attend a SF/F convention for the first time ever.  Most likely bet, if such a thing were to come to pass, would be the WFC, since it's only a 4-5 hour drive for me and I ought to have some vacation time then (provided, of course, that I don't change jobs, which is a 50/50 proposition right now).

5.  To begin some needed lifestyle changes that hopefully will leave me free of most of the nagging pains that I've had the past few years (resigned to the fact that my neck and lower back, with the four bulging disks from my 2003 auto accident, will continue to hurt on occasion for the rest of my life).  Perhaps I'll finally achieve the goal I set for myself in my early 20s of benching more than 300 lbs. with free weights (personal best was 270 in 1998, just before I turned 24).

6.  To continue writing op-ed pieces for this blog and also for other venues, both in English and for translation into other languages.

7.  Related to #6:  To strive to improve awareness and communication between various national spec fic communities.  This includes trying to help non-Anglophone writers to have more of their stories translated into English...and perhaps to make various authors/critics aware of what's going on outside their own national regions.

8.  To observe Squirrel Appreciation Day this year.  I've been slack in my observance, to say the least, and the rodent overlords are not pleased...

9.  To write a more comprehensive 2010 in Review series of posts compared to years past. 

And that's about that.  Have already been off to a good start.  First book read/completed in 2010 was a debut novel by N.K. Jemisin called The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  This was a very good book with which to start the year.  Hope to review it before its February 25 release date.  Also read part of the Spring/Summer 2009 issue of Alaska Quarterly Review and began reading Caitlín R. Kiernan's 1998 debut novel, Silk.  Keeping true so far to my late 2009 resolve to read more quality female writers this year.

Will have the final 2009 reads up in a day or two, perhaps with some facts and figures to go with them. 562 books in total, by far the most I've read in a single year.  Don't think I'll try to match that this year.
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