The OF Blog: March 2010

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I'll be editing an original anthology for publication in 2011

Last week, I blogged about how there was an exciting new opportunity about which I was awaiting final approval.  Now I've finally received word from this small press in the Pacific Northwest that they have accepted my proposal for creating a themed, original anthology of speculative fiction that will be published sometime in the second quarter of 2011.

I have always dreamed about editing an original anthology (the work I've done helping with the editing of Best American Fantasy 4 has only strengthened this resolve) and although some might have thought I was joking when I mentioned it in my Nebula Blog bio, I am finally going to get the chance to do an open reading for an original anthology of squirrel-related SF, to be called, Squirrelpunk

Below are two mock cover arts that Serbian illustrator Dunja Branovački has created for this anthology.  Doubtless, she will be adding more details once the final selection of stories is made later this year:

Hard to say which is better, but I do know that I enjoy the way she created a clockwork squirrel here.

As noted above, Squirrelpunk will be original stories only that involve squirrels in a steampunk-like setting.  The opening reading period will be from May 1, 2010 to October 31, 2010.  All submissions should be manuscript format and be sent via email to the following address:

Hopefully, there will be several dozen submissions and that it'll be very difficult to choose the finalists for inclusion in Squirrelpunk.

Walter Moers, Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures

Conversational novels, particularly those of a speculative nature, are difficult to achieve a good balance of wit, action,characterization, and prose.  Too often, the breeziness of the early sections ends up becoming laborious to read, as the author may over-indulge and end up repeating him or herself too much.  The oft-comic interplay may become too worn and played out, leaving readers to wonder if the novel should have ended much sooner.  The jokes may be too forced and the prose could fail to rise to the level of the author's ambitions.  Characters may seem too flat and forgettable after a while, once the magic of the first few chapters fades away and the reader wants more story and less banter.

German author Walter Moer's second Zamonia novel, Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures largely avoids these excesses and deficiencies.  Although the novel is nearly 700 pages long, only in a few places does it feel stretched out.  Perhaps part of the reason why Moers has written an entertaining long novel lies within its first paragraphs:

Rumo was good at fighting.

At the beginning of his story, however, he still had no inkling of this, nor did he know that he was a Wolperting and would one day become Zamonia's most illustrious hero.  He had no name, no did he have the faintest recollection of his parents. He didn't know where he came from or where he would go.  All he knew was that the farmyard where he grew up was his kingdom. (p. 12)
Right way, Moers reveals that this novel will be a Bildungsroman, a tale that will explore the life of the hero from confused youth to the time of his greatest exploits.  There is no confusion about what will transpire; the narrative will be told in a narrative fashion and the reader will get to experience Rumo's growth.  But there is much more to this novel than just that.  Even though the brief passage seems to hint at a story type that has been told innumerable times, such a story will depend upon how well it is told rather than on any narrative wrinkles that the author may introduce.

If the devil is in the details, then Moers' details set this book apart.  Take for instance the description of an early enemy, the one-eyed, monstrous Demonocles:

It mattered little what form of prey they ate - Demonocles weren't choosy.  They would even have devoured a Spiderwitch provided it was still twitching nicely.  Liveliness was the main criterion by which the one-eyed giants judged the quality of their fare.

They had developed some ingenious ways of keeping their victims alive for as long as possible while gobbling them up.  They saved vital organs such as the heart, brain and lungs till last, but eventually devoured those too, together with toenails, bones, scales, claws, eyelashes and tentacles.  The Demonocles thought it particularly important to keep any sound-producing organs and innards intact to the end:  the tongue, larynx and vocal cords were regarded as special delicacies to be reserved for the culmination of a meal.  Screams, groans or whimpers took the place of a pinch of salt, a hint of garlic, or the scent of a bay leaf.  The Demonocles were gourmets of the ear as well as the eye. (p. 22)
Moers' descriptive prose not only tells us what these creatures are, but the way he lays out what they are and what they enjoy to do allows the reader to form not just a visual picture of what is going on (helped, I should note, with Moers' vivid, playful illustrations) but also to "hear" the scene and to fill in the cadences and subtle wordplay that can go missing when a story is translated from the spoken word (or one's thoughts) to the printed page.

The above quote serves as an excellent example of how Moers' approaches this tale.  Rumo is but a dog/deer hybrid pup, oblivious to much of the world.  By use of passages such as the one provided above, Moers allows the reader to see what is transpiring through Rumo's head, without ever allowing us to get comfortable enough to be able to predict wholly what happens next.  As for what happens over the course of this novel, well, that is a dual exploration of what it means to grow up and to feel love and anguish, as well as the parallel development of Rumo and several of his companions into the heroes/adults they will become.

The pacing for the most part is well done, although there were a few times toward the end of the novel that it seemed to take just a few pages too long to transition from one scene to the next.  However, this is a minor complaint, as for the most part Rumo and his later companions are shown to have developed in nice, sometimes amusing, sometimes touching fashions.  The end result is a pleasantly-told tale with interesting, well-rounded characters.  What more would one want in a coming of age tale other than to be both entertained and to have reflective thoughts afterward?  Highly recommended.

A Hump Day Sex Scene Quote

Taken from Nadine Gordimer's 1970 novel, A Guest of Honour:

It was all understood, between them. He undressed her and took her to his bed in that bare, male room which he had never shared with a woman; at once a schoolboy's room and a lonely old man's room, the room left behind him and the room somewhere ahead of him in his life. But the narrow bed was full again, he was full again, and it was all there, the body that had run shaking into the water, the big legs shuddering, the breasts swaying. This time he saw every part of it, watched the nipples turn to dark marbles rolling in his fingers, found the thin, shining skin with a vein like an underground stream running beneath it, where the springy soft hair ended and the rise of the thigh began, had revealed to him the aureole of mauve-brown skin where the cheeks of the backside divided at the end of her spine. All this and more, before he hung above her on his knees and she said with her practical parenthesis, "It's all right" (knowing how to look after herself, trusted not to make any trouble) and she reached up under his body and took the whole business, the heavy bunch of sex, in her hands, expressing the strangeness, the marvel of otherness, between the two bodies, and then he entered all that he had looked on, and burst the bounds of his body, in hers (p. 238)


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Petals of Blood

They came for him that Sunday.  He had just returned from a night's vigil on the mountain.  He was resting on his bed, Bible open at the Book of Revelation, when two police constables, one tall, the other short, knocked at the door.

"Are you Mr. Munira?" the short one asked.  He had a star-shaped scar above the left brow.


"You teach at the New Ilmorog Primary School?"

"And where do you think you are now standing?"

"Ah, yes.  We try to be very sure.  Murder, after all, is not irio or ugali."

"What are you talking about?"

"You are wanted at the New Ilmorog Police Station."


"Murder, of course - murder in Ilmorog."

The tall one who so far had not spoken hastened to add:  "It is nothing much, Mr. Munira.  Just routine questioning."

"Don't explain.  You are only doing your duty in the world.  But lt me put on my coat."

They looked at one another, surprised at his cool reception of the news.  He came back carrying the Holy Book in one hand.

"You never leave the Book behind, Mr. Munira," said the short one, impressed, and a little fearful of the book's power.

"We must always be ready to plant the seed in these last days before His second coming.  All the signs - strife, killing, wars, blood - are prophesied here." (p. 3)

The opening scene to Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's 1977 novel, Petals of Blood, foreshadow only only the book's plot, but also the intricate web of social and religious concerns that have been a central element of Kenyan life ever since its independence from Great Britain was achieved in the 1960s.  Consider first the characters who appear in this scene above:  a schoolteacher and two police officers.  While the appearance of officers investigating a murder (in this case, a triple murder), may be cause for consternation for most anyone, there is a secondary level of apprehension that may have been felt by Kenyan's of Thiong'o's generation who were taken in for questioning.

Furthermore, consider the short policeman's reaction to Mr. Munira's carrying of the Bible with him.  "Impressed, and a little fearful of the book's power."  What does this say about the power of religious beliefs (or superstitions) among the Kenyans of the immediate post-independence years?  Can the reader at this point, after just one short snippet from the novel's opening scene, begin to guess what sort of novel may be unfolding?

Petals of Blood is a very rich, multi-layered narrative that speaks as much to the hearts and minds of Kenyans as it is a tale that also carries appeal to non-Kenyan audiences.  It is on its topmost layer a murder-mystery, but as the tale progresses, Thiong'o explores so many dividing points (ethnic, religious, social) in Kenyan society in such a penetrating form that the central metaphor of the novel becomes those "petals of blood" that appear in various guises and meanings throughout the novel. 

Although the quote above may give the impression that the novel is primarily dialogue-driven,  this is not the case.  Although the conversations between Munira and others generate some interesting insights, several of the story's more powerful themes are introduced in reflective monologues, such as the one that opens Chapter 11:

The Trans-Africa road linking Nairobi and Ilmorog to the many cities of our continent is justly one of the most famous highways in all the African lands, past and present.  It is symbolic tribute, although an unintended one, to those who, witnessing the dread ravages of crime and treachery and greed which passed for civilization, witnessing too the resistance waged and carried out with cracked hands and broken nails and bleeding hearts, voiced visionary dreams amidst sneers and suspicions and accusations of madness or of seeking pathways to immortality and the eternal self-glory of tyrants.  They had seen that the weakness of the resistance lay not in the lack of will or determination or weapons but in the African people's toleration of being divided into regions and tongues and dialects according to the wishes of former masters, and they cried:  Africa must unite. (p. 311)
Although at first this may seem to be a paean to African nationalism, there is much more involved here in this book.  If anything, Petals of Blood also explores the limitations and corruption inherent in the post-colonial movements and governments that came to dominate Kenyan (and by extension, African) governments after the 1960s.  Yes, the peoples and lands are divided arbitrarily.  Yes, there is much suffering.  No, there is not sufficient unity.  But there also much that stands in the way of this occurring that gives the lie to those organizations proclaiming their goal is social justice.  Thiong'o's works, especially this one and the ones that followed after, go into great detail revealing the dark underbelly of these post-colonial organizations and how poorly the divided, confused peoples of his native Kenya, have suffered due to their corruption and greed.  At times, those "petals of blood" appear to represent the suffering that the villagers had to suffer at the hands of the government, a suffering that still continues in some form or another even today.

Thiong'o's work did not make him a friend of the Kenyan government.  He was forced into exile just as this book was being published in English and for most of the past 33 years, he has not set foot in Kenya, except for one memorable time a few years ago where he was harassed and his wife raped, all because of their opposition to the ruling regime.  These personal facts are mentioned only to underscore the powerful effect that this novel had on the Kenyan populace and how the stinging accusations embedded in its pages angered the government.  Although much of this doubtless is missed by Western readers such as myself, there is still much to be unpacked from this dense and yet evocative social narrative.  It is well-written and even better-presented, with memorable characters and a clear, multilevel plot that unfolds in a stately pace over the course of 400 pages.  The conclusion is not clear-cut, however, but that is in keeping with several developments within the novel.  Petals of Blood is a powerful work that ranks among Thiong'o's many great works.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Saul Bellow, More Die of Heartbreak

I try to make clear to him the latest motives at work, and console him with insights more available to members of my generation.  I say, "Whatever troubles people run into, they look for the sexual remedy.  Whether it's business, a career problem, character difficulties, doubts about one's body, even metaphysics, they turn to sex as the analgesic."

"No, no, Kenneth, not an aspirin, no.  That makes it too trivial."

"All right, then; they do the act by which love would be transmitted if there were any."

"That's more like it."

"Furthermore, women are allowed to be more aggressive now.  But when they're rebuffed it's terrible for them.  It used to go the other way, women saying no to men.  The men became accustomed to it."

"I should have rebuffed her right away, without sampling.  What hurt her was that I sampled."

"She's set up to be made a fool of - the way she dresses, wears her hair, the way she speaks.  Not like a woman taking herself seriously.  How could you take her seriously?" (pp. 86-87)

Saul Bellow, 1975 Nobel Prize-winning author, is perhaps one of the greatest writers of the second half of the 20th century.  Several of his works, including The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Herzog (1964), and Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970),  have won prestigious national literary prizes.  His works are full of memorable characters, such as the protagonist of The Victim, whose oft-tortured recollections of deeds not done and misdeeds committed serve as exemplary models of how to use characterization to reflect thematic concerns and vice versa.  His characters live, breathe, sweat, and often agonize, leaving readers to feel as though they are putting coins in the 25¢ peep show to view a confessional instead of a tawdry show.  Bellow's prose is outstanding and his dialogue in particular can be mesmerizing, as readers can easily find themselves reading pages-long conversations before realizing how much has been consumed.

In his later years, Bellow's output was a bit more sporadic.  While there would be several memorable moments in his latter works, these would not be as commonplace nor as easily integrated into the narrative as was the case in his earlier work.  Sometimes, the result would be something like 1987's More Die of Heartbreak, where the parts are greater than the whole.  Despite this, even Bellow's more flawed novels are worth reading and More Die of Heartbreak, despite its unbalanced narrative, certainly is a work that reveals certain insights (not all of which are welcome) that are worth considering.

The main story revolves around members of a Jewish family.  Kenneth, the narrator, has left his native France for New York in the belief that there is "action" in the US that he cannot find in France.  He comes to spend time with one of his uncles, Benn Crader, who is both a wanderer at heart and a renowned botanist.  The two share recollections regarding their lives, their aspirations, their disappointments, and interwoven amongst all this, the power that sexual relationships of all forms and fetishes, have had on their development.

More Die of Heartbreak is a very introspective novel.  It operates on several levels.  It can be viewed as a family novel, showing the familial bonds and how they are expressed.  It can also be read as a penetrating look into post-World War II Jewish-American life and the problems that faced that ethnic/religious group.  It is also a treatise of sorts on love and its effects on the human psyche.  It is also in some ways a parable about the dangers of longing and desire.

However, these different aspects of the novel often clash and weaken the overall effect.  In trying to explore these disparate elements, Bellow often fails to develop his characters as much as he had done with previous novels.  Kenneth and Uncle Benn often feel sketched out rather than fully rounded characters.  Their concerns regarding their relationships, while moving in places, is not as powerful due to this weaker sense of these characters being sympathetic.  Sometimes, too much was going on in particular scenes to suit the narrative goals.

This is not to say that More Die of Heartbreak is not a good novel.  It is at times a very moving novel, despite its many flaws.  Even during the scenes where it appears Bellow skirts too closely the invisible line between balanced and unbalanced narrative tense, he does still display a gift for putting words to fears that few authors have managed to do.  Take for instance the scene quoted above.   In just a few exchanges, not only does the reader get a greater sense where each character stands, but a lot of insight is provided in just those few comments.  Kenneth is perhaps in some ways even more jaded than his uncle; his heartache involves being rejected by the mother of his young child.  But his Uncle Benn is the one that is suffering the most; a former paramour has died of a heart attack, as revealed in this section just after the quote above ends.

It is this sense that beneath the questing for love, the desire for some confirmation that something is right in the universe, that underlies this novel's best scenes.  To continue quoting from the same conversation given above:

"Watch out, Uncle.  Don't exaggerate."

"I had the sex with her.  I know what I know."

"It was more hysteria than lovemaking.  And when you first told me about it, you were the one who made it sound preposterous."

"Well, yes.  Maybe I did.  If I didn't treat it as a joke it would be too awful to face...But now she's dead.  It gets me, Kenneth.  I see her suffocated by swollen longings.  Poor thing, her heart gave out."

"You didn't cause it."

"I might have prevented it, but it probably does no good to harp on it, either.  A newspaperman had men on the phone a few days ago.  Vulliam, my chairman, got rid of him by putting him onto me, and he wanted a statement about plant life and the radiation level increasing.  Also dioxin and other harmful wastes.  He was challenging about it.  Well - I agreed it was bad.  But in the end I said, 'It's terribly serious, of course, but I think more people die of heartbreak than of radiation." (p. 87)
Not only does this quote reference the novel's title, it also reveals far more of the characters than virtually any other passage.  While too often there was a sense of murky distance between the characters as personages and characters as thematic cyphers, here the two converge.  Heartbreak is shown both as an intellectual discussion, as Uncle Benn says to the newspaperman, but also is revealed to be a personal affliction that is haunting Uncle Benn.  From this point, nearly one-quarter into the novel, the story begins to develop, but with several hitches along the way.  The answer to the two protagonists' problems is intriguing and is mostly good, but it fails to resonate as much as it could have, due to the shortcomings cited above.  More Die of Heartbreak is a troubled, flawed novel, but despite this, or perhaps in part because of these flaws laid bare, it still contains powerful moments that make it a good, if not great, read and (eventually) re-read.

Croatian cover art for two of Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing Books

When did Darrell Sweet start doing covert art consultation for the Croatian and Serbian fantasy markets?

Anyone remember this scene in The Thousandfold Thought?  I guess Kellhus likes to blast enemies as a post-coital exercise...

Edit:  Didn't read the email carefully enough.  These books were published in Croatia, not Serbia, although the two are as similar as American and British English.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The next two weeks of reviews

After I write my review of Saul Bellow's More Die of Heartbreak sometime Sunday, I'm going to be reading and reviewing the following books over the course of the next two weeks or so.  This perhaps will be the third and final installment in this review plan, as it would end up consuming four weeks at 32 total books in those 28 reviews.  Then again, I'm enjoying this, so if I have time, I might continue to do this for a few more weeks, or until the supply of books I've never read (and want to read) dwindles to zero.  As a twist, at least one book per inhabited continent will be reviewed.  Here's the list:

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Petals of Blood

Walter Moers, Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures

Nadine Gordimer, A Guest of Honour

 Thomas Pynchon, V.

Joel Shepard, Sasha; Petrodor

Samuel R. Delany, Neveryóna

Salman Rushdie, Shame

Brooks Hansen, The Chess Garden

Philip Roth, The Plot Against America

Roberto Arlt, El juguete rabioso

Housuke Nojiri, Usurper of the Sun

Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

Trent Jamieson, Death Most Definite

James Clavell, Shogun 

Which of these have you read?  Which are you most curious about?

Alasdair Gray, Lanark: A Life in 4 Books

"Did you find it, Lanark?"

"Find what?  What do you mean?"

"Find what you were looking for on the balcony?  Or do you go there to avoid  us?  I'd like to know.  You interest me."

"How do you know my name?"

"Oh, we all know your name. One of us is usually in the queue when they shout it at the security place.  Sit down."

Sludden patted the sofa beside him.  Lanark hesitated, then put his cup on the table and sat.  Sludden said, "Tell me why you use the balcony."

"I'm looking for daylight."

Sludden pursed his mouth as if tasting sourness.  "This is hardly a season for daylight."

"You're wrong.  I saw some not long ago and it lasted while I counted  over four hundred, and it used to last longer.  Do you mind my talking about this?" (pp. 4-5)

Alasdair Gray's Lanark:  A Life in 4 Books is perhaps one of the quintessential interstitial novels.  It sits firmly aside the imaginary dividing lines between realism and surrealism, between autobiography and mythic fiction.  It is not a novel that can be summed up easily in a few short paragraphs or even a few short pages.  It is sui generis in so many aspects, but can it be judged well on its own terms?

This book is divided into four books, going from Book Three to Book One to Books Two and Four, with an Epilogue following.  As might be expected, the story is not a linear one.  Lanark, the man  who appears in the above quote, is in equal parts a person and perhaps a personification of the Scottish town of that name.  He has entered what appears to be a Hellish version of Glasgow called Unthank, but it is hard to tell at first, considering how Gray has constructed his writing.  The prose and characterizations at first read as though the reader were engaged with a Naturalist/realist novel, but then there are sudden swerves where characters, especially in Books Three and Four, are seen to be afflicted with strange, supernatural disorders that may or may not be metaphors for social and physical diseases of our time.

The first two "books," however, follow a different narrative course, appearing to be based in large part upon Gray's own life experiences as writer and illustrator growing up in Scotland during the first half of the 20th century.  Here appears Lanark's alter ego, a young artist named Duncan Thaw.  Thaw's story is outlined in a bildungsroman that at first glance contains none of the surrealist weirdness that is found in the other two books.  However, Gray manages to weave these seemingly disparate threads together to create a haunting work that will require several reads before its full contents are revealed to the reader.

In reading this work, I found myself following easily Gray's rhythmic prose.  From description-rich passages detailing both the realist and mythic views of Scotland to the mostly excellent dialogue that allows him to not just develop the Thaw/Lanark characters but also to underscore the alienation that each was feeling within their milieu, Gray's prose was outstanding.  However, despite the seeming easiness of the passages, there are so many allusions to other events to other ideals that I am certain that I overlooked much.  A re-read certainly will be in order sometime in the next couple of years. 

As stated above, the characters are fascinating.  Gray does not utilize infodumping or sudden realizations to reveal the nature of the landscapes the character(s) are in, but instead he uses their confused, questing natures to allow the reader to draw conclusions that may or may not be correct.  Thaw's upbringing is in turns frustrating and fulfilling, but Thaw does not have to state that directly; the reader discovers that for her/himself.  Lanark's experiences are all the more interesting because he does not spell out everything; the reader has to puzzle out what is occurring based on the small clues left here and there.

The end result of this is a dual story told over the course of 560 pages that brings both character and setting (realist and surrealist alike) to life.  As our own lives contain cyphers in both the people and places we encounter, Gray's narrative contains the same.  The haunting nature of several passages contrasts nicely with the very realistic problems that both protagonists face during the course of their narrative developments.  While Lanark is not a plot-centric novel, it certain contains several moving scenes that will appeal to quite a few readers.

On the whole, this novel was one of the more challenging works I have read in quite some time.  As I noted above, I am uncertain that there are several narrative layers that I either missed or shortchanged in my brief comments above.  What I do know is that instead of feeling lost, this sense of there being more to be discovered later adds more anticipation to a future re-read.  Highly recommended.

A sixth bookcase full of books

OK, was going to wait a bit, but changed my mind when I had a bit of spare time earlier today to take these pictures.  Again, this bookcase, like the one I posted about before, is in a very dark part of its room, so the flash had to be used for these pictures.  Thankfully, most of the titles are legible.

Most of the books pictured here were a gift to me a little over a year ago.  Reviewed some, need to get around to reviewing others in the near future.

(more after jump)

Friday, March 26, 2010

50 Books that I wish other reviewers in my blogroll would review

Since in some corners of the immediate, semi-insular SF/F blogosphere there is still an ongoing discussion regarding which books to review and how many older (say pre-2005) books should be reviewed, I thought I would post a little bit of a wishlist of books I'd like to see other online reviewers tackle.  Some of these I've reviewed, others I have not (yet).  But hopefully, this will be a list that will provide something new, challenging, and/or entertainment for those willing to take up this challenge to review at least something from this list, given with no particular order in mind:

1.  Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus
2.  Alasdair Gray, Lanark:  A Life in 4 Novels
3.  Saul Bellow, The Victim
4.  Thomas Ligotti, Teatro Grottesco
5.  Edward P. Jones, The Known World
6.  Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse 
7.  M. John Harrison, Signs of Life
8.  William Gibson, Neuromancer
9.  Vladimir Nabokov, The Pale Fire
10. Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
11. Brian Evenson, The Wavering Knife
12.  Joanna Russ, The Female Man
13.  Octavia Butler, Lilith's Brood
14.  Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
15.  John Crowley, Aegypt series
16.  Dave Eggers, What is the What
17.  Art Spiegelman, Maus
18.  Monica Ali, Brick Lane
19.  Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony
20.  Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
21.  Daniel Wallace, Big Fish
22.  Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates
23.  Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
24.  Iain M. Banks, Use of Weapons
25.  Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
26.  Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
27.  Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast books
28.  Erich Maria Remarque, The Night in Lisbon
29.  John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting
30.  Steve Erickson, Arc d'X
31.  Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland's Daughter
32.  Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed
33.  Michael Moorcock, Mother London
34.  Chris Adrian, The Children's Hospital
35.  Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
36.  James Clavell, Shogun
37.  Thomas Pynchon, V.
38.  Edward Whittemore, Jerusalem Quartet novels
39.  Isabel Allende, House of the Spirits
40.  Frank Herbert, Dune
41.  Frank Norris,  The Octopus
42.  Anne Lennox, The Female Quixote
43.  Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun series
44.  Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children
45.  George R.R. Martin, Fevre Dream
46.  Jack Vance, Lyonesse series
47.  Sean Stewart, Perfect Circle
48.  Maureen McHugh, China Mountain Zhang
49.  Nicola Griffith, Slow River
50.  Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho

There are doubtless others that would be just as worthy, but I think this will serve as a nice challenge for others to read/review around their planned reviews. Certainly, these books will provide challenges to reviewers who are accustomed to approaching books from certain angles.  After all, can't review a Russ book the same way one might approach reviewing a Joe Abercrombie novel.  Different skill sets would be needed to do so and perhaps this would help reviewers grow in their craft.  I know reviewing a variety of styles/genres has helped my own reviewing, so I thought perhaps others would feel challenged enough to discover works that I hope will appeal to them and others as well.

Edit:  The titles in bold I have either reviewed in full or commented upon its author at length some point over the past six years on this blog.  Too lazy to do a full link search right now. Most of the authors I've mentioned at least in passing here.  Some I will review later this year perhaps.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Shadows of the Apt 1-3: Empire in Black and Gold, Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis

Reading stories set in an imaginary world, governed by its own rules and regulations, can be quite confusing, regardless of how closely these "world" parameters may be to the world in which we live and breathe.  There are certain conventions that multi-part secondary-world/epic fantasies tend to follow.  First, the setting is established, sometimes through the eyes of a neophyte, sometimes through the cynical viewpoint of a hardened, experienced character.  Occasionally, multiple points of view that mix these two point of view types are employed.  But regardless of the number and type of characters used to survey the imagined setting, more often than not, the first volume in a series is devoted more to exposition.  What is happening and who is there to root for/decry, or is that left more for each individual reader to decide?

Succeeding volumes may introduce further elements that either serve to deepen the reader's understanding of what is transpiring, or perhaps shake that reader out of a false sense of security that s/he knows what is going on.  The action tends to rise.  In a trilogy, the second volume may contain a cliffhanger climax, before the succeeding volume(s) supply the falling action and denouement. 

In reading the first three volumes of Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series, I was reminded of the five dramatic stages that my mother, a high school English teacher, would teach every year to her freshman English classes.  It is not a 1:1 correlation, but Tchaikovsky's first three novels (released or to be released in the US in monthly intervals between March and May 2010; the UK edition of the fourth book is already out, with a fifth due to be released this summer) do fit several of these conventions, both dramatic and epic fantasy alike.  In the first novel, Empire in Black and Gold, Tchaikovsky devotes most of the book to establish the major factions.  Tchaikovsky divides his nations into racial/ethnic groups who appear to have totemic (and to a degree, physical) connections to a variety of insects.  Due to a barely-explained feature called the Art, each insect-connected group displays personality and physical features akin to their totemic insects.  Ant-kinden are industrious, fierce warriors with telepathic connections.  Beetle-kinden are also industrious, forthright, apt to trade with all around.  Spider-kinden are clever, devious manipulators.  And the invading Wasp-kinden are ferocious, battle-hardened warriors who attack with both sword and Art-endowed stings. 

These characteristics set up some interesting plot tensions, as several of these groups have centuries of prejudice and bad blood that divide them.  At first, it felt as though Tchaikovsky might use these race/totemic characteristics as a crutch, but as the series progresses, it turns out that he has several characters go against these typologies to create situational ironies that add layers of depth to the story.

There are several characters introduced in Empire in Black and Gold.  From the spymaster Steinwold to his niece, Cheerwell/"Che" (I have to admit that thinking of Guevara in the scenes in which the female Che appears was quite comical), to the swordsman Mantis-kinden Tisamon to a local Wasp secret service commander, Thalric, Tchaikovsky uses several points of view to relay the impending devastation and how each side was viewing this conflict.  After finishing three novels in this series, the woven narrative was done fairly well, but when reading the initial volume, it make for a very difficult read at times, as the narrative kept shifting from character and character without much in the way of external action occurring to help crystallize what was actually occurring.

In Dragonfly Falling, most of the initial confusion is dissipated.  The threatened invasion has been launched and the breadth and depth of the story are expanded with the introduction of motives for why the Wasp-kinden have been expanding their territory for the past three generations.  Some reader perspectives on the characters and their motivations will shift as the deeper meta-plots are revealed. 

I found this volume to be much easier to read, not just because things are happening, but because Tchaikovsky does a better, more fluid job in developing both his characters and his settings.  There are more layers to each character, with few being anything near "pure" characters and few being anything near "total, complete bastard."  Tchaikovsky also has created a setting where elements of Steampunk (mechanical devices, steam-driven artifices, airships, etc.) are married to the more sword-based technologies of standard epic fantasy fare.  Although there were some incongruities here (such as the question of gunpowder), on the whole, it made for a fantastical setting.

Furthermore, Dragonfly Falling introduces the beginning of a quest, one that in many respects will be very familiar to epic fantasy readers.  Yet despite the almost clichéd nature of the quest, Tchaikovsky mostly pulls this off without being too derivative, in large part because of how well-rounded several of his characters are becoming.

To a degree, the third volume, Blood of the Mantis, continues building upon what occurred in Dragonfly Falling.  Developments late in that earlier volume are shown to have devastating consequences here. The main characters continue to grow and develop, even as more elements of this setting's imagined past are revealed.  But while it is difficult to talk about this volume without revealing several important plot revelations, it ought to be noted that moreso than the second volume, Blood of the Mantis feels more like a transitional, set-up novel.  Characters are moved from Points A to Points B (and sometimes beyond), but nothing is resolved.  There is something that somewhat approaches a climactic scene at the end of this novel, but the cliffhanger nature of this book's ending will leave others speculating on what its import will be until the fourth volume is released in the US later this year.

On the whole, Shadows of the Apt was enjoyable after a very rough start.  Once the characters were introduced and the various subplots were set in motion, the storylines moved at a brisk pace.  The prose was tolerably decent, although nothing evocative comes to mind.  The characters were developed fairly well over the course of these first three novels, but there were times that the character interactions, especially early on, threatened to devolve into stereotypical exchanges.  Thankfully, most of this was resolved further on and in ways that took those stereotypical exchanges and stood them on their heads.  The setting was fairly nice, with a touch of mystery about the Apt races that were revealed only in little segments scattered throughout the three novels.  The author has cited Gene Wolfe as an influence and although this is not readily discernible in the plot, in some of the ways that the characters are drawn, a slight bit of similarity may be seen.  Although this is not the best epic fantasy I have read, it certainly is well above standard fare and I am curious to see how this story arc concludes in the next volume.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Exciting news development to be discussed in full in the near future

Just got word that a potential project is close to being greenlit.  Once I receive further word, hopefully by the end of next week, I'll be able to say what this secret project is.  It could be a dream come true.

Karel Čapek, War with the Newts

More than any other century, the 20th century (and particularly its first half) is known for its dystopic novels. In an age of great upheaval brought about first by the calamitous Great War/World War I, which gave rise to the Bolshevik Revolution, Fascism, National Socialism, and the conflicts these three daughter movements caused, so much faith in the almost holy notion of "progress" was lost.  Whether one looks at Zamyatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World, or Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, the effects of this disillusionment are widely evident.  Technology is treacherous, at least as prone to betrayal as the humans surrounding the books' protagonists.  There is a vague menace in each of these books, as if "progress" was the Edenic apple being offered by the totalitarian ruler/serpent.  The palpable sense of fear and worry that radiates throughout these texts makes for exciting, troublesome reads.

Czech writer Karel Čapek wrote in 1936 an allegorical/SF novel that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the classics noted above.  His War with the Newts is in many senses an even more dystopic novel than the four novels listed above.  Instead of rooting the problems in a rapacious and/or uncaring society or government, Čapek goes further, attempting to bare the sordid shared human past and how horribly we have treated ourselves and others in the past and present.  Despite being written nearly 75 years ago, War with the Newts still has the power to unsettle us, since so few of the issues referenced there have ever really been resolved.

The story begins with the discovery of a rare, humanoid-shaped species of newts in the South Indian Ocean near Indonesia.  The discoverers quickly discover that this hitherto unknown newt species is extremely intelligent and is capable of learning and speaking human languages.  Just before discovery, the captain of the merchant ship in the area is incredulous when a native tells him of the "tapas" who inhabit this area.  The dialogue is rather revealing, as it mirrors what happens later when a "tapa" is taken into captivity:

Captain J. van Toch turned crimson.  "What?" he bawled.  "You dirty Cuban, you think that I shall be frightened of your devils?  We'll see about that," he cried, rising with all the greatness of his honest fourteen stones.  "I'm not going to waste my time here with you when I have my business to look after.  But remember there aren't any devils in Dutch colonies; if there are any anywhere, then they're in the French ones.  There might be some there.  And now fetch me the mayor of this damned kampong here." (p. 17)
Note the casual dismissal of a native's account.  Pay close attention to the dehumanizing "devils."  The unknown or rumor of the unknown often brings forth charges of the object/entity being non-human, often vaguely threatening to any sense of propriety that the holder of these opinions may have.  But what happens after first contact?  Well, what would you think people would do with a verified sentient being that has been captured?

Some time later Sir Charles was sitting beside Professor Petrov and discussing the so-called animal intelligence, conditioned reflexes, and how popular ideas overrate the reasoning powers of animals.  Professor Petrov expressed his doubts about the Elberfeld horses which, it was said, could not only count, but also raise a number to a higher power and find the square root of a number; "for not even a normal, intelligent man can extract the square root of a number, can he?" said the great scientist.  Sir Charles remembered Gregg's talking salamander.  "I have a salamander here," he began with hesitation, "it's that one known as Andrias Scheuchzeri, and it's learned to talk like a cockatoo." (pp. 114-115)
From demon to being treated like an animal.  It is really surprising that Čapek's narrative follows closely the treatment of indigenous groups at the hands of an invading, "colonizing" power?  For the first first or so of the novel, the newts are shown to be very adaptable, intelligent creatures; the humans around them are boorish, self-satisfied, rather bigoted individuals who deign to believe that the newts are suffering from this malign treatment.  A whole host of social issues, ranging from slavery to the exploitation of the proletariat by the leisure classes, underlies this first part of the novel.

But Čapek is not content to make just an allegory for human mistreatment of other humans.  Instead, he goes further, referencing World War I and the militarism of the German, Italian, Polish, and Russian governments of the 1930s.  While the newts have managed to gain some half-hearted recognition that they are not to be enslaved, the menial drudgery that they undertake in the coastal regions is supplemented by secretive arming plans by the Great Powers that are supplying "their" newts with undersea-adapted weapons.  Yet despite this arms race, the Great Powers fail to grasp the demographic pressures facing the newts as their population swells to several times that of the human populations.  Here, the echoes of Lebensraum are found in the increasingly strident demands of the hidden, secretive "Chief Salamander."  When his demands are unmet, the newts unleash destructive explosive devices that cause massive earthquakes and the creation of new coastal plains for the newts to live.  The humans go to war with them, but they are threatened with destruction by an enemy that has surpassed them without any ever realizing beforehand just how dangerous they had become.

War with the Newts is a powerful allegorical tale of how easy it is for people to ignore the needs and desires of others, how quick people can be to subjugate another group, just because of slight differences in appearance and customs.  These themes are not rooted in any one time (despite Čapek's references to "Nordic Salamanders" and other plays on Nazi racial laws), but instead are universal human concerns that have plagued societies for millennia.  Čapek addresses these issues in a way that makes for a fast-paced yet instructive read that leaves the reader with much to consider.  As a dystopia, War with the Newts is scary in just how plausible its thematic elements (e.g. of how casual dismissal of one group could lead to that group rising up to overthrow the established order)  still can be in this age and time.  It is a novel that survives the test of time precisely because of how "current" its concerns are even now in the early 21st century.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Another bookcase full of books

The first of 14 pictures of a single five-shelf bookcase (I have two others that I'll photograph later this year). Look carefully at this and the following pictures. What patterns (if any) do you see, besides some authors having their books together?

There's almost something cultural about several of these books?  What could it be?

Since this bookcase is in a part of the bookcase room where little light reaches it, I had to use the flash feature on my phone for most of these pictures, so any blurriness/overly bright areas are due to that and my laziness in not fooling around with editing the pictures.

I wonder if I should give readers the chance to guess the three most expensive (for me) books in these pictures.  One should be obvious, but I think the other two (not necessarily in this picture) ought to prove to be more difficult...

There's a certain pattern about these books, one that stretches back a few years.  I'm certain a few might get it...those who are up on certain regular occurrences, that is...

More than just Gaiman here...

Obviously this is not in alphabetical order, since Monette does not come before Miéville...

Missing a certain Miéville book here...I have it, but not here.  Why could that be so?  Perhaps Blake has the answer, unless The Book Thief decided to take matters into its own (virtual) hands...

Shakespeare between Straub/King and Rushdie.  What could be the import of this?

Perhaps the Illuminati hold the keys to understanding the organizational schema here...

I wonder what sort of conversation Pynchon, Borges, and Danielewski could have that Sedaris wouldn't mock...

Finally getting to the final shelf.  Little, Big?  Dying Earth from all these dead trees on display?

From one of the best cultural histories of World War I (by Paul Fussell) to Lem to a true Confederacy of Dunces.

Finally, the end.  DeLillo, M. John Harrison, and someone who's won a Nobel Prize in Literature.  Quality for the last picture.  Fitting, no?

This will drive you insane

Kenzaburo Oe, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness

We had come down to the crematorium in search of remains, nicely shaped bones we could use as medals to decorate our chests, but the village children had collected them all and we came away empty-handed.  I would have to beat some out of one of my friends at elementary school.  I remembered peeking two days earlier, past the waists of the adults darkly grouped around the pit, at the corpse of a village woman lying on her back with her naked belly swollen like a small hill, her expression full of sadness in the light of the flames.  I was afraid.  I grasped my brother's slender arm and quickened my step.  The odor of the corpse, like the sticky fluid certain kinds of beetles leaked when we squeezed them in our calloused fingers, seemed to revive in my nostrils (p. 114)
Wildly dissimilar as other elements of their cultures may be, Japan and the United States have a long history of mutual cultural appropriation when it comes to literature.  Starting with translations of American writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Raymond Chandler and continuing through to the present, American literature has had a profound influence on Japanese writing (in return, Americans have semi-embraced Hello Kitty, social networking technologies, and Ninja Warrior, among more prestigious cultural swap elements).  In particular, for Japanese writers who came of age during World War II, such as the Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo Oe, it was the darker elements that underlay fictions such as Huckleberry Finn that proved to be instrumental in helping them find the narrative voice necessary to express their emotions regarding a world turned upside-down after 1945.

Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is an omnibus of four novellas.  In each of these tales, there is an acute crisis facing the protagonists.  In the case of the first (and longest) tale, "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away," the protagonist is a hypochondriac who is convinced that he is dying of cancer, despite no evidence of the disease being present in his body.  In the second tale, "Prize Stock," the narrator is a young Japanese youth who during the last months of World War II encounters a black American soldier whose plane crashed near a remote mountain village, with the crisis coming with the contact of the traditional with the near-mythical.  The title story, "Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness" concerns a fat Japanese father and his rather idiotic son and the struggles that they endure, while the final tale, "Aghwee the Sky Monster," is perhaps the most fantastical of them all, with a baby ghost following the narrator.

These short synopses barely hint at the power found in Oe's writing.  Look at the passage from "Prize Stock" quoted above.  Note how direct and economical Oe is with his wording.  Even in translation, there's this sense of so much being left unsaid between and around the passages read. Why are the children collected bones from the crematorium?  Why is a body lying there outside, with nothing shrouding it?  How come the narrator/protagonist seems almost indifferent to the sight of a dead body?

These are just a few of the questions that are generated from reading Oe's stories.  Oe displays a knack for revealing crushed hopes and dreams, such as in the flashback sequence in "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away," where the protagonist recalls hearing the Emperor's voice after Japan's surrender and remember just how much was destroyed then and there that bombs had never been able to shatter.  Throughout each of these four tales, but especially in "Prize Stock," there is an unspoken commentary on Japan's new, changing role in regards to its interactions with the so-called West.  In that tale, the alternating frightened and inquisitive actions of the villagers toward this downed black American pilot emphasizes without any bald comparisons being made just how the Japanese balance themselves between xenophobia and cheerful appropriation of other cultures' best traits. 

Furthermore, there is a dark, cynical humor that lies at the root of these stories.  In many senses, that humor has some of the qualities of Mark Twain's latter works, which certainly were an influence on Oe, as the author himself as been known to state.  Perhaps it is due to personal upbringing, but in reading Oe's stories set in postwar Japan, I found myself noting similarities in the stark, almost blasted backdrops of Oe's Japan with the South of Flannery O'Connor or William Faulkner.  While there is no hard evidence that Oe had read either author, often there is a commonality in attitude among those authors who grew up viewing life through the lens of the defeated and the devastated.  This vague, threatening, apocalyptic tenor to some of Oe's stories adds a sharp edge to these four stories, making them in turns poignant and bittersweet to read and consider.  While these dark overtones may not appeal to all readers, for those who want a touching yet unvarnished look into some of the attitudes in immediate postwar Japan, Oe's works, especially Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, are worth reading, especially to see how much of ourselves we can see reflected in these tales that mix in the best of traditional Japanese and American literary influences.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Kate Griffin, A Madness of Angels, The Midnight Mayor

Not how it should have been.

Too long, this awakening, floor warm beneath my fingers, itchy carpet, thick, a prickling across my skin, turning rapidly into the red-hot feeling of burrowing ants, too long without sensation, everything weak, like the legs of a baby.  I said twitch, and my toes twitched, and the rest of my body shuddered at the effort.  I said blink, and my eyes were like two half-sucked toffees, uneven, sticky, heavy, pushing back against the passage of my eyelids like I was trying to lift weights before a marathon. (p. 3)

A Madness of Angels is the first non-YA novel that acclaimed British writer Catherine Webb (under the pseudonym of Kate Griffin for this series) has written.  It is an urban fantasy set in contemporary London.  Before continuing with the description of the novel's plot, it should be noted that the term "urban fantasy" can mean very different things.  In this review, "urban fantasy" refers to a situation that involves some supernatural agencies that is set in an actual, recognizable urban center.  The thrust of this series, now that the first two volumes has been published, is to follow the explorations and troubles of the resurrected sorcerer Matthew Swift.  In A Madness of Angels, Matthew must solve the mystery of why he was brought back to at least the semblance of life two years after a brutal attack left him with a gaping hole in his chest.  Over the course of over 500 pages, Swift and a motley crew of apprentices, mentors, and anti-magic vigilantes also struggle to understand what is transpiring in London, as mysterious events have been to occur.

In reading this novel, it took a very long time for me to get accustomed to the story.  Griffin/Webb is a native Londoner and it is obvious that her knowledge of the city and its locales plays a major role in shaping the narrative.  The City, more or less, is the real protagonist of this series, sometimes to the detriment of those characters who flit about within its confines.  One problem that I had with this novel was the rather bland character of Matthew Swift.  As evidenced by the opening scene quoted above, the narrative is told via a first-person point of view.  The problem I had with this approach, at least for this series opener, is that Matthew Swift comes across as rather bland and passive.  While Griffin does try to give him a strong, sarcastic personality, too often in this book Matthew takes a passive, observational role that does little to further the mystery surrounding his reappearance and what dangers he and his companions face.  While this does improve in the final, action-packed third of the novel, it did put a damper on any enjoyment that I might have received from reading this story.

This blandness was compounded by the overly descriptive passages that Griffin was wont to use.  Instead of embellishing and complementing the characters and the scenes, passages such as the one below gave too much description and not enough development of plot and character:

The last to come was the biker, and he certainly wasn't alone.  He came with two others, one of whom could have been three men.  When he turned sideways he just about managed to fit through the door, and when he sat down, the chair, creaking and moaning, just about managed to support his weight.  It wasn't that he was fat - not the traditional saggy-belly, drooping chin sense of fat.  He was pure and simple big:  his thighs bulged in their black leather trousers, his shoulders strained the edges of his studded, extra-large black jacket, his chest threatened to burst through his black t-shirt, his beard ruptured off his face like curling smoke from a volcano, his hands were the size of the plate from which Vera ate her salad, his fingers were thick and raw, his every breath was like the rising and falling of a glassmaker's bellows, his expressions stretched from ear to ear and twitched over the end of his expansive, Roman nose.  I had never seen such a man; and more.  There was a slippery power about him, more than just the bulk of his presence, a flash of orange and golden fire on the senses, visible out of the corner of the eye, impossible to pin down.  He smelt of dirt and car oil and the road, and uncontrolled, risky power.  He looked at us and said, "Fucking hell.  Who hit you lot with a fucking haddock and hung you out to dry?" (pp. 280-281)

It is just too much.  In providing such a vivid description for what amounts to be a minor character, Griffin disrupts the flow of the narrative, creating a herky-jerkiness that is repeated several times throughout the course of the novel; this cited passage is but one of many.  This tendency to describe too much, combined with a protagonist whose personality was sometimes too bland to fit the needs for a first-person narrative to be interesting, made what could have been a very exciting series opener into a flawed, vaguely interesting but in a more distant fashion, sort of story.

The second novel, The Midnight Mayor, however was a much better-paced novel than was A Madness of Angels.  Matthew Swift, after the mystery of why/how he was resurrected was resolved, is a much more interesting character due to the internal tension he bears within his recreated body.  Although Griffin still displays a tendency to elaborate too much on occasion, the frequency of this is much less than it was in the first novel.  Griffin also further develops the connections between City and characters, particularly Matthew.

One of the more well-done aspects of this novel is its further development of the idea of there being a nested City within the city of London.  From shadow equivalents to aldermen and headed by the mysterious Midnight Mayor, this more magical, shrouded London feels much more inventive than several other attempts by other authors to develop cities as quasi-characters.  The menacing threat this time is much more palpable than in the first volume and its metaphoric qualities add a secondary interpretative layer to the text that did not exist before.  Griffin sets up well the clashes between this nefarious outside agencies, its allies, Matthew, and the nebulous forces that serve to protect the city.  There is a much more even pace to this novel and the climax is done fairly well.

Although The Midnight Mayor is far from a flawless novel, it is at least a novel that corrects most of the shortcomings of its predecessor.  The setting is superb, the characterizations improve to the point of being more than just ciphers masquerading as realized fictional characters, and the plot conflicts are more concise and easily executed than was the case in the first volume.  Due to the strength of this second volume, the Matthew Swift  may be one of the better urban fantasies to be published in the past year or so.  Mildly recommended.

"Now Blacker Than Ever"

Or so the tag translates for this Dutch radio station's video clips advertising its jazz lineup.  I saw this posted yesterday on this international SF site that I frequent and was struck by the discussion that broke out...or perhaps, "broken down" would be a more apt description.  Knowing the handles of most of the people there and their countries of origin, it is fascinating to see how shared (or not) historical and cultural values have shaped such a discourse.

Virtually all of those who responded negatively so far to the question "Is this racist?" are Europeans (the original poster, from the Netherlands but with family in the US, being the one exception), while those who noted the possible racist interpretations (again, with one exception so far) are all from the United States.  Perhaps it's largely due to being made aware, via educational programs such as those devised for Black History Month (among quite a few possibilities), just how derogatory references to "black music" and especially to blackface (if you haven't clicked on the first link above to watch the clips, I highly suggest you do so) truly are for large segments of the American population.  Same reason why that racial slur, the now-infamous "N word," in spite of (or rather, in large part because of) its etymology referring to "blackness," is something that non-African American citizens of the United States more and more refrain from using; it's tacky at the very least and perceived as being deeply insulting at the worst, due to an increasing multi-cultural awareness and a shared understanding of the traumas of the American past.

But obviously the situation is much different in Europe.  I found the responses to be quite interesting, even if a couple came across as rather patronizing (but again, that could just be viewing things through different historical/cultural lens).  Just a little something for people to view and perhaps weigh in upon here.  What do you think?  How offensive (if it was offensive to you) was that radio ad?  How would it be viewed where you live?

Monday, March 22, 2010

A tentative working schedule

Even though I'm on recallable layoff right now (and there's the slight possibility that I might be recalled in the next few weeks as I just found out from talking to my old boss this morning), I'm not exactly sitting around not working.  Since blogging is at its heart one person blabbing about stuff in the vain hope that others will actually give a damn, here's a peek at the flexible schedule I've devised for myself, since I technically am also self-employed while doing the readings for BAF 4.  Lots of flexibility for things like networking, scheduling interviews, studying for exams, and the like:


9 AM - Wake-up, check emails, shower/dress
10 AM - Errands (getting car checked out, groceries, etc.)
11 AM - 1 PM - Studying for teacher certification exams, GRE, filling out paperwork
1 PM - 2 PM - Break, exercise
2 PM - 5 PM - Reading Journals, checking email, possible blogging
5 PM - 7 PM - Break, exercise
7 PM - 10 PM - Reading for blog reviews, arranging interviews, other assorted ends
10 PM - 12 AM - Break, watch historical videos
12 AM - 1 AM - Wrap-up of loose ends, bedtime

Not that this is firmly set in stone, other than I will have my alarm clock set for 9 AM.  Better than just saying "sitting on ass, doing little to nothing."

Monday quickie

How do you know when a story is good and not merely OK, decent, or just plain solid?  Is it something that exists in part or whole in every such story, or is it something that depends heavily on each individual story?

Just curious to know your thoughts.  Need to crash.  Long day ahead of me when I awake in a few hours.

J.K. Huysmans, The Damned (Là-Bas)

"Then you are so convinced by these new theories that you plan to jettison all the clichés of the modern novel - adultery, love, ambition - in order to write a biography of Gilles de Rais!"

After a pause, he continued:

"It is not the obscenity of Naturalism I detest - the language of the lockup, the doss house and the latrines - that would be foolish and absurd.  Let's face it, some subjects can't be treated any other way - Zola's L'Assommoir is living proof that works of tremendous vision and power can be constructed out of the linguistic equivalent of pitch and tar.  That is not the issue, any more than the fact that I have serious reservations about Naturalism's heavy-handed, slapdash style.  No, what I really object to is Naturalism's immorality on the intellectual plain - the way it has turned literature into the living incarnation of materialism, the way it promotes the idea of art as something democratic!" (p. 3)

French author J.K. Huysmans wrote during one of the more fascinating eras of modern Western literature, that period from the late 1880s to the turn of the 20th century known as the fin de siècle.  Literally "end of the century," this term carries the dual connotations of decadence and anticipation a little over a century later.  During the 1870s and 1880s, the Naturalist school of art and literature, represented by Monet, Manet, and Zola, challenged prevailing opinions on the role and purpose of Art.  Their emphasis on showing things as they were rather than in an idealized state went against the core Romantic ideas that had influenced French (and by extension, much of Western Europe due to France's continuing cultural influence on its neighbors) Art for most of the 19th century. 

Following the Naturalists were the Decadents, a loosely-associated group of artists and writers who had perhaps as much (or little) in common with each other as would any other ephemeral association.  However, these Decadents, seemingly fixated (according to their critics) on the notion of decay and ruination of the "natural order."  In several works of the period, including those of Remy de Gourmont in France and Oscar Wilde in Great Britain, there was a much greater focus on the nasty, secret elements that underlay society.  To progress was not to pro-gress, in the eyes of these artists.  The old order of the Positivists and their Naturalist heirs was coming to an end, but what would replace it?  For several of these writers, there were few, if any, positive expectations.  Several stories tell of depraved souls, of societies falling into ruination, of primal forces being once again unleashed into the world.

Huysman's 1891 novel, The Damned (Là-Bas in the original French), is at its core a conversation between the two.  He opens the novel with the quote provided above, devoting several pages to expounding upon his beliefs (given only a thin veneer of fictionalization by the authorial stand-in protagonist, Durtal), before returning to the main focus of the novel, the mystery surrounding the life, change, and death of one of the most infamous serial murderers/pedophiles of the past 1000 years, the 15th century French knight and nobleman Gilles de Rais, who is believed to have killed (and in many cases, raped beforehand) somewhere between 80-200 children of both genders (with some estimates ranging as high as over 600) between 1435 and his trial and execution in 1440.  In particular, Huysmans focuses on the traditional account that de Rais may have become a Satanist during this time.

Over the course of this 266 page novel, Huysmans begins with his general overview of the French literary scene and its treatment of such people as de Rais (who incidentally has been one possible influence on the fairy tale "Bluebeard") and then deepens his investigations into the secret, nefarious world of Satanic worship in 19th century France.  For modern-day readers, Huysmans' slow build-up may seem a bit antiquated and the pace a bit too glacial, but for his contemporaries, Là-Bas was likely one of the more horrific novels of its era.  Huysmans explores vividly what happened to de Rais's victims, laying out in what then would have been considered near-pornographic terminology just what transpired in a Black Mass.  The overall effect is still somewhat chilling, considering how the story progresses.

However, The Damned is not explicitly a horror novel.  While it contains elements of the horrific, its main intent is to explore the decay and alteration of material culture.  What would influence people to experiment with the occult?  Can such temptations still be taking place?  These are the questions that interest Huysmans the most and for the most part, he created a story that unfolds methodically into a tale whose implications go far beyond what is printed within its pages.  It is not a perfect novel by any stretch of the imagination.  The author is prone to digressions and at times the thrust of the narrative appears to be blunted.  However, these flaws are more than offset by the fascinating mystery presented through the symbolic (and sometimes very real) references to Gilles de Rais and to other periods of French history.  In addition, even when he digresses, Huysmans' critiques of the Naturalists (and through implication, the emerging Decadents and Impressionists) adds extra layers of interpretation to the text, creating a rich narrative that certainly will reward the patient, reflective reader.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

John F. Williams, Hating Perfection

Ever since I completed my MA in History in 1998, I rarely have bothered writing reviews of non-fiction.  The challenges in reviewing non-fiction are much different than those that face the reviewer considering the merits of a fictional piece.  While overall structure and prose are certainly as important for either, in order to consider a non-fiction work, a greater emphasis on methodology is usually required.  This is especially true when the non-fiction work at hand is a philosophical work.

John F. Williams' Hating Perfection presents several challenges for the reviewer.  How does one, especially one who has only a modest background in intellectual history/philosophy evaluate a work that does not rely upon established philosophical models?  Does the reviewer take the repetitive nature of some of the author's arguments as a weakness or as something that grows organically from the conversational tone of this work?  When considering personal anecdotes, should greater weight be placed on the stories and how they are told, or on the intended impact of said stories?

The answers to these questions will vary from reader to reader.  For myself, I found Williams' book to be an enjoyable read.  In large part, his eschewing of using formal models makes the reading all the more intimate and personal, because it can be seen as being inductive reasoning carried out to its fullest extent.  Take for instance the first section, where Williams discusses buying a $1 Whiskey Lao shot and the effect it had on him:

Yes, the afternoon was pleasant enough in its strange way.  The world shrugged off the bondage of time passing and took on a vivid intensity, as if some unseen hand had turned up the Bright knob and punched the Slow Motion button.  (p.20)

Contrast that with a passing from the following section:

Came the sober morning, as usual.  The cravings lingered.  I could still go back to the Lao village and their whiskey.  But some part of my tenacity failed to function.  A painful knowledge, a fearful apprehension long pushed aside, came forward.


We know what will happen this day and we do not know.  We have control and we are helpless.  We are vital and we decay.  We can change the world and we cannot change it.

All of the universe, every corner of it, conspires to keep us tantalized but unsatisfied.  The world cunningly appears as order and as chaos.  Deliberate mystery takes the disguise of accident.  We know how to proceed and we do not know.  We can predict and we cannot predict.  No virtue and no vice is the key that faithfully unlocks the universe.  Every approach has successes and every approach is flawed.  All of us have answers and none of us have answers. (p. 22)
Williams sets up an interesting argument here, one that he explores more deeply in the following sections and chapters.  Humans are both agents (causing change) and passive subjects (changes occurring to them).  In this world, in any possible world (as he later discusses) there will be moments where humans have control and other times where they are controlled.  How is happiness to be achieved in a state where capriciousness will seem to hold sway and that suffering along with joy is guaranteed?

Williams frames his discussion around the notion that there is a sort of sliding scale.  There is no outside "heaven" or outside "hell," as each person can and does experience each in his/her turn.  Without the valleys of despair, the peaks of happiness would be pointless.  Williams makes a case for each to be embraced (or at least suffered), as without the contrasts in life, there would be a numbness that would set in that would distort what is transpiring in our lives.

He uses his experiences working and living in Southeast Asia (particularly, China) as an example.  He doesn't focus on cultural differences as much as the lessons that can be learned from human interactions.  One can be deprived of most everything and still find pleasure in life, while the things you might find to be modest pleasures can turn out to be burdensome to others partaking of a similar experience.  Williams also makes repeated references to how "subtlety" is the key to human happiness.  There is, he argues, an upper limit to the amount of joy and pleasure we can experience.  After all, our minds are only capable of so much.  He uses the example of spiders and pigs and their differing cognitive levels to extrapolate about human capacities for being happy.  If an animal is not self-conscious, then how could it ever experience "hell" as being anything other than just deprivation of a vital survival element?  But for humans, we place value on things and concepts that do not necessarily correlate with necessary tools for survival.  Our capacity for having nuanced, or "subtle", interpretations of what is transpiring around us allows humans to achieve higher...and to sink lower.  Control and being controlled, two elements of the duality system that Williams posits throughout the course of this book.

Where does an outside "divine" agency, say "God," stand in Williams' musings?  It is not a vital concept, covered only in the concluding section and in a way that seems more influenced by Buddhist concepts of what the Divine might be than by anything else that I can tell, although even that would be an uneasy fit.  Here is part of what Williams has to say about this "alien presence":

This God has no "perfect" versions of our thoughts, feelings and actions.  It has no thoughts and feelings as we have.  It does not love as we do, nor hate as we do.  It pursues neither justice nor injustice as we do.  We will never know how to play our cards right with God.  It cannot be pleased or displeased as we can.

In many respects, God remains aloof.  It declines to intervene in a world already perfect.  God declines to rescue us from God. (p. 359)
And right after that, the book concludes, leaving readers to ponder what Williams has set up over nearly 360 pages.  Philosophy is the search for truth and not necessarily the claiming of Truth.  As such, Williams' book serves to stimulate a whole host of thoughts, some in reaction to what he argues and some generated as tangents to be considered later.  Dialogue of a limited sort takes place, leading perhaps to something approaching enlightenment and perhaps a bit of happiness.  Or perhaps not.  But something occurred within while reading this book and it is still occurring hours after finishing it.  For that, Hating Perfection was a worthwhile read.
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