The OF Blog: May 2010

Monday, May 31, 2010

Sébastien Doubinsky, The Babylonian Trilogy

In 2009, PS Publishing put out an interesting book by acclaimed French author Sébastien Doubinsky.  I recall reading all sorts of positive reviews at the time, but for some reason, I never got around to buying this book until a few weeks ago.  Needless to say, I am regretting that I waited so long before purchasing this book, as this was a challenging, inventive set of interconnecting vignettes that form an engrossing serial murder mystery and a complex look at a modern-day Babylon.

As the title suggests, the book is broken down into three connected novellas.  The first, "The Birth of Television according to Buddha," contains cryptic references to a war that is transpiring around the lives of several characters.  Not all of them reference this war, but bits and pieces of it are revealed in the 1 to 2 page vignettes that appear in this section.  Take for instance two such vignettes:


"You're a dog!"  she said, and suddenly Waldo realized that it was true.  He fell on his four legs and began to chase her out of the apartment, barking, drooling and growling.  When she was gone, he curled up on the carpet and got ready for a nap.  Right before falling asleep, he wearily looked up and saw that the world was much better when you looked at it from underneath. (p. 18)


The village was empty.  Or rather, there wasn't much left of the village.  The Air Force had done a pretty good job.  Acrid smoke filled the air.  Large holes poked the ground, surrounded by scattered bodies, torn and black like strange trees.  Steve began to count them mentally.  One, two, three.  The captain moved cautiously in front of the column, gun in hand.  Four, five, six, seven eight.  He told Steve to check a ruined hut.  Nine, ten, eleven.  Then another ruined hut.  Twelve.  And another.  Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.  "How many did you find?" the captain asked a soldier who was coming from the other side of the village.  "About twenty, sir."  About twenty, Sir.  About?  What in the hell did he mean by "about?"  Steve felt a rage napalm his heart.  What was the point in counting when he was the only one doing it seriously? (p. 19)
At first, these two vignettes, although side-by-side, do not seem to fit well together.  However, as Doubinsky adds layer upon layer of vignettes for the first hundred pages of this 297 page book, a composite image of war in the city begins to unfold.  This use of short fragments told from a plethora of viewpoints may be a bit confusing at first, but it is within this very confusion that Doubinsky's overarching story gains its strength, ultimately creating a much more interesting and fractured tale than what would have been the case if this had been a straightforward linear narrative.

The second novella, "Yellow Bull," revolves around a police commissioner, Georg Ratner, who is trying to solve the case of a serial murderer while his wife has become a mental vegetable after a car accident.  Again, Doubinksy utilizes short, fractured vignettes to create a mosaic that explores Ratner's grief, his guilt over having a mistress who always said "yes," and his tortured feelings regarding his profession.  I found this middle section to be the most powerful of the three, as Ratner's character is seen from several perspectives, allowing the reader to construct a mental image that perhaps would be more vivid than if his character had been developed in a more traditional pattern.

The final novella, "The Guardians of Babylon," revolves around three characters trying to escape the city.  Elements of the first two novellas are present in this short novella of barely 70 pages, and while it was fascinating, it did not have as much of the vitality to it that I found in the previous two novellas.  However, it does serve as a fitting coda for this novel.

Overall, The Babylonian Trilogy is a story (or rather, interlocking stories) that I enjoyed greatly.  Due to the very short, fractured storytelling format, the pacing was very rapid for me, with a series of jolts and clashes that I believe Doubinsky purposely included in order to create this sense that the narrative was not as straightforward as one might expect.  For some readers, this type of tale likely would be quite frustrating; for me, it was like manna from heaven.  Great read.

Shirley Jackson, Novels and Stories

Ever since I watched a short film on "The Lottery" in high school, I have been a fan of Shirley Jackson's works, both in novel form (such as The Haunting of Hill House) and in short form (the above-mentioned "The Lottery").  Recently, I had learned that Library of America was devoting a volume to collecting two of Jackson's finished novels (The Hanting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle) and two short story collections, including a posthumous collection of early stories from the 1940s as well as previously unpublished works.  While this is not the entirety of her work, this Library of America edition (edited by Joyce Carol Oates) does contain representative works of hers.

This review will be rather brief, in part because I may want to revisit some of the novels in the near future, particularly around Halloween (as I had intended to write a full review of The Haunting of Hill House for Halloween last year, but got sidetracked by work demands at the time).  What I would like to focus on are a few elements in common in her novels and short fiction, because I believe that as spooky, strange, and scary as several of her tales were, it was in the manner in which they were presented that makes her one of the best writers of the mid-20th century.

Jackson was a consummate stylist.  Even in her earliest short stories, there is a measured pace to the tales.  Characters are often introduced as being average, ordinary people placed in strange situations, or (in a few cases) as abnormal people residing in a more mundane setting.  The clash between character and setting occurs in several of her more famous works.  For example, in "The Lottery," it is the female character's protests over the unfairness of the town's annual Lottery that accentuates the alienation that often exists between a person and his/her society.  This is furthered when the Lottery is revealed to be harsh, strange, and unsettling for readers trying to grasp the full import of what was happening throughout that short story.

In her most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, this conflict between character and setting becomes even more apparent, as a group of people who have scoffed at the House's dark legend, have decided to reside there to prove that these tales are just exaggerations and superstitious fabrications.  However, there is much more to the House and Jackson slowly and subtly introduces elements that not only freaks out the characters, but the reader as well.  There is nothing really overt about what happens, but her slow, atmospheric buildup, the sense that something that goes bump in the night is lurking behind the next corner or behind a wall where a character is resting is very effective in creating a sense of spookiness.

This sense of atmosphere carries over into the other novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, except here the setting is balanced by a narrator who at times appears to be rather distant and maybe even unhinged.  While this novel does not have the chilling conclusion of The Haunting of Hill House, it is a good companion for this famous work.  However, I could not help but to wonder why none of Jackson's non-fictional works (she was very interested in portrayals of witchcraft and wrote an account of the Salem Trials) were not presented in this volume, unless perhaps there are plans for a second or third volume of her works where those would be included.  This lack of some of her more interesting work is my only complaint about an edition that presents one of the best 20th century writers in a very gorgeous and well-constructed edition.  Highly recommended for those who are curious about Shirley Jackson's works.

Malazan Re-Read Series: Steven Erikson, House of Chains

After the helter-skelter events of Memories of Ice, it is easy to overlook the more staid, focused narratives found in the fourth Malazan book, House of Chains.  When I first read it in December 2002, it took a while for me to get into the flow of the narrative.  I recall one major hurdle at the time was having one-quarter of the book devoted to telling the backstory of Karsa Orlong, who was a minor character known as Toblakai in Deadhouse Gates.  Added to that was the change back over from then-more interesting Genabackis-based novels (Gardens of the Moon, Memories of Ice) to the Seven Cities tales (Deadhouse Gates, House of Chains).  It was a difficult transition, especially considering the wham-bam ending for the last novel.  At the time, I seem to recall my impression being that this novel was not as powerful as the other three, although it had its moments where some of the series backstory made for some intriguing possibilities for future novels.

Fast-forward around seven and a half years.  I had re-read House of Chains I believe twice between 2002 and 2005, but it has been five years since my last reading of it.  Having read all of the published Malazan stories to date, I now have a slightly better idea of how to gauge this novel.  What I discovered during this latest re-read is that this is actually one of the most focused and well-written novels in the series.

Some of the complaints about the previous novels revolve around Erikson's rather sketchy characterizations.  Although there were individual characters (Felisin in particular) that I thought were well-drawn, there still was not enough backstory for several of the presumed major characters for me to be able to see them more as Figure A or Figure B doing Action X or Action Y.  But here in House of Chains, several characters and their motivations become more dynamic and well-rounded.  I noted above that on my initial read that the first section revolving around Karsa's past history was a hurdle that I had to overcome.  Here in this latest re-read it became a strength.  Seeing how Karsa evolved as a character was interesting as with very few exceptions, there really haven't been good revisions on the Conan-style overwhelming barbarian.  I found Karsa's conflicts, both internal and external alike, to be much more fascinating because of how his issues with his people, his gods, and with those who had mistreated and deceived him over the past few years were presented throughout the novel.  The scenes in which he appeared were among my favorite in the novel.

Another enjoyable part of this novel was showing the doubts and fears that existed among the Malazan 14th Army, led by Ganoes Paran's sister, Adjunct Tavore.  Although Tavore is kept isolated and to the margins throughout the novel, this actually served to underscore the divisions that beset her army as it arrived at the port city of Aren and began retracing the Chain of Dogs to the holy desert of Rakuru, where Sha'ik (or Felisin, Tavore's younger sister) and her rebel army awaited.  Whereas Memories of Ice perhaps had too much solider banter and odd attempts at humor, the humor here in House of Chains is more constrained and yet ends up being more effective because it doesn't feel as forced as it did in the previous novel.

As I said above, there were some interesting plot and character developments in this novel.  The conflict between the three Tiste peoples (Andii - Dark, Edur - Shadow, Liosan - Light) is explained in much more depth.  The Edur Trull Sengar, whom I had found earlier to be dull and rather irritating, provides some interesting moments of pathos (later revealed in full in the next novel, Midnight Tides) regarding the tragic histories of these warring kin.  His friendship with the battered T'lan Imass Onrack the Broken was understated and yet effective for the scenes in which the two wander in search of renegades (who are now minions of the Crippled God) who seek to capture the Imass First Throne, not used since Emperor Kellanved's apparent assassination.  Futhermore, the Crokus/Apsalar angst did not bother me as much in this novel, perhaps because of the revelations surrounding the Patron of Assassins, Cotillion.  Here he has much more depth of character and surprising motives than what one might expect from an assassin god and I found the hints regarding his and Shadowthrone's real plans to be intriguing.

There is of course a huge convergence at the end, where the forces of the Whirlwind goddess battle not just the Malazans, but also the spirits of the land.  This part was actually the weakest, in large part because there were so many subplots (several of which revolving around the rival factions in Sha'ik's forces) that it took over one hundred pages just to cover the battle in full.  This resulted in a rather turgid affair that sapped the vitality from what had been a very strong novel for its first 600 or so pages.  However, this did not fatally hurt this book in my estimation, but rather it was a noticeable flaw in what had otherwise been a very good read.  Now onwards to the fifth volume, Midnight Tides.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Minister Faust, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad

Comic satires, especially those that are steeped in recent pop (or geek) culture references, are for me among the hardest types of books to review.  Either I end up feeling as though I have to quote copiously to show just exactly what type of pop/geek culture is being sent up, or I find myself just thinking, "Well, it's one of those novels where the reader's own relationships to the material being referenced will determine the success or failure of this story for them."  But then there are those rare hip novels where more than just the pop culture references can be examined and where I can say more than "I loved this novel, but tastes vary and some people may just hate it for the exact same reasons that I loved it."  Minister Faust's 2004 debut novel, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, happens to be one of those fast-paced, quirky, often humorous and yet at times deadly serious novels that does more than just come off as the book equivalent of Kevin Smith's breakthrough film, Clerks.

The story is set in Edmonton, Canada and revolves around the two "Coyote Kings," the Sudanese Hamza and the Trinidadian Yehat.  College-educated and yet underachieving slackers, Hamza and Yehat work menial jobs while conversing with each other and a few others in language steeped in references to films and shows of the past half-century.  Below is a short scene from Yehat's perspective as he works in a video store and a customer keeps asking dumbass questions about movies and their availability:

I'm ecstatic. I tap away frantically at my computer, but - wait for it -

"It's...out," I whisper.  I'm a Roman Masada.

And then he does it.

The Bad Year Jimp, looking very dismayed, chirps, "Hey, do you have Madonna's Truth or Dare?"


The guy bolts out the door in his Thriller coat, running like Michael J. away from all those zombies.  Considering how the neighborhood's changed here on Whyte Ave, that's not a bad idea, given the proliferation of drunks and punks. (pp. 18-19)
Much of the novel is told in such a fashion, where pop culture references stand in place of typical character development.  One problem that I have had with several recent "geek culture" novels is the lack of true character development, but Faust largely avoids this trap, as the first third or so of his novel does build up the characters and conflicts of both Hamza and Yehat.  During these early chapters, some rather complex examinations of Edmonton's immigrant communities, especially those from various parts of Africa and the West Indies, are presented.  I found myself enjoying these snippets of this burgeoning immigrant society that had formed within Canada's northernmost major city.  The cultural clashes, the mistrust between denizens of various communities, all of this helped make Edmonton feel in turns both exotic and cosmopolitan at the same time, which makes the remaining two-thirds of the novel rise above its pastiche origins.

As Hamza, Yehat, and their friends and enemies are introduced, there begins to be shaped a plot revolving around a mysterious woman, Sherem, and a dark, looming threat in the form of an ancient Egyptian artifact.  Faust does a great job in switching between the various characters, including Sherem, and each has his or her own distinct way of talking.  While doubtless some might find a few of the character PoVs difficult to process due to the use of slang and in one case, a phonetic representation of Jamaican patois, I found this to add a richness to the plot and it kept me reading almost non-stop until I had reached the end.

It must be noted that there is little original in the plot itself, but that pales in contrast to the way that Faust dresses up the standard good/evil adventure plot with his unique takes on his rather geeky main characters and the hot Sherem.  While I could guess elements that were about to happen, the way in which these were presented managed to make these stale plot conventions feel fresh.  The end result was a story that somehow simultaneously was traditional in feel and radically different in tone, feel, and execution.  Highly recommended.

Ursula Le Guin, The Eye of the Heron

Ursula Le Guin is as widely known for her YA fictions as she is for her SF Hainish Cycle tales.  Recently, I was browsing through the aisles in a used bookstore when I stumbled across her 1978 YA short novel, The Eye of the Heron.  I decided to buy it despite having mixed reactions to several of her YA fictions in the past, most notably her most recent YA trilogy, Annals of the Western Shore, which felt more like a regurgitation of themes she had explored deeper and with more subtlety in her earlier novels.  After reading The Eye of the Heron, I found this to be one of her lesser novels.

The story is set a few centuries into the future.  Humans have begun colonizing space and at some point, an Australia-like prison planet named Victoria was set aside for the repatriation of convicts and their families.  Although by the novel's beginning this prison colony status was now firmly in the past, the planet is ruled by a rigid hierarchy, while the planet's population is divided into two symbiotic yet troubled groups, the farmers of Shantih and the urban city dwellers.  Into this maelstrom of social and cultural divides and suspicions is raised a young girl named Luz.  She ends up representing her namesake, the light that is shown on the pettiness and corruption that are inherent in political manners.

Le Guin tells her story and those surrounding Luz in a simple, clear narrative that manages to avoid becoming too condescending in its attempt to reach a younger audience while also keeping the story grounded on a level that preteens and teens could understand easily.  Take for instance Luz's rejection of compromising with the authorities:

"Where would that be?" Andre said, his voice patient again, ironic and miserable.

"Anywhere!  Farther east, into the forests.  Or southeast.  Or south, down the coast, down past where the trawlers go - there must be other bays, other town sites!  This is a whole continent, a whole world.  Why do we have to stay here, here, huddled up here, destroying each other?  You've been in the wilderness, you and Lev and the others, you know what it's like - "

"Yes.  I do."

"You came back.  Why must you come back?  Why couldn't people just go, not too many of them all at once, but just go, at night, and go on; maybe a few should go ahead and make stopping-places with supplies; but you don't leave a trail, any trail.  You just go.  Far!  And when you've gone a hundred kilometers, or five hundred, or a thousand, and you find a good place, you stop, and make a settlement.  A new place.  Alone." 

"It's not - it breaks the community, Luz," Andre said. "It would be...running away."

"Oh," Luz said, and her eyes shone with anger.  "Running away!  You crawl into Marquez's trap in the South Valley and call that standing firm!  You talk about choice and freedom - The world, the whole world is there for you to live in and be free, and that would be running away!  From what?  To what?  Maybe we can't be free, maybe people always take themselves with themselves, but at least you can try.  What was your Long March for?  What makes you think it ever ended?" (pp. 154-155)
Here Le Guin states baldly, through her young protagonist Luz, notions of a pacifist anarchism that she has raised in several of her adult-oriented novels, particularly The Dispossessed.  But due to the brevity of The Eye of the Heron (it is 178 pages full of wide margins and large font) and to its relatively simple construction, the full impact of passages such as this is much less than what it might have been if the subject were treated similar to those of her adult SF novels.  This is not to say that The Eye of the Heron is a shallow, polemical novel, although it certainly does not contain the depths found in several of her other writings, but rather that the nature of the story being told does not correlate well with some of the themes Le Guin wanted to explore here.  The result is a short, vaguely interesting novel that has the unfortunate status of being lesser in comparison to her longer, more well-developed works.  The Eye of the Heron is worth reading, but it is far from Le Guin at her best.

Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

Science fiction, particularly that of its so-called "Golden Age" of the 1950s, has had an interesting relationship with real-world concerns.  Much of the SF of the 1950s, whether it be print or film, contained elements of paranoia:  the aliens are amongst us!, who really controls the leadership, what if the aliens are hostile to us and want to eliminate humanity?  Much has been made of this paranoia-influenced SF, whether in non-fiction studies or via fictional works that reference the time periods in question.

Most of the fictional representations of this time period have centered around the US and/or its NATO allies and their views on UFOs, aliens, and the possibilities of ray guns and laser warfare.  But what about the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union?  After all, SF flourished in the Warsaw Pact nations around this time and their concerns, while sometimes mirroring those of the NATO countries, often differed in key respects.

British author Adam Roberts addresses some of this in his 2009 novel, Yellow Blue Tibia (the title being an English approximation of the Russian phrase for "I love you").  Spanning a time from the last years of Josef Stalin's dictatorship in 1946 to the immediate aftermath of the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986, the novel follows the life of Russian SF writer Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky during this tumultuous period of Russian history.  During the course of this novel, distinctions between the fictional and the "real" become blurred, perhaps as a way of reflecting Soviet propaganda at the time.  Take for instance Stalin's directive to Konstantin and other SF writers assembled before him:

'Besides,' said Stalin, with force, 'I give America five years.  Do you think that defeating America will be harder than defeating the Germans?  The Nazi army was the most modern and best equipped in the world, and we made short work of them.  And now our weapons are even stronger; our troops battle-hardened and our morale high.  I can tell you, comrades, that America will fall within five years.'

'Tremendous news,' said Sergei, in a loud, brittle voice.

'Indeed,' we all said.  'Excellent.  Superb.'

'But it is my duty,' said Stalin, 'to consider longer-term futures than a mere five years.  It is my duty to ensure that the revolutionary vigour is preserved long into the future.  And this is where you can help me.  Yes, you, science fiction authors.  Once the west falls, as it inevitably will, and the whole world embraces Communism, where then will we find the enemies against which we can unite, against which we can test our collective heroism?  Eh?'

This was a tricky question - tricky in the sense that it was not immediately obvious which answers were liable to provoke official displeasure.  We pretended to ponder it.  Fortunately Comrade Stalin did not leave us to stew.

'Outer space,' he said, in a low voice.  'Space will provide the enemies.  You, comrades, will work together - here, in this dacha.  All amenities will be provided.  I myself will visit from time to time.  Together we will work upon the story of an extraterrestrial menace.  It will be the greatest science fiction story ever told!  And we will write it collectively!  It will inspire the whole of the Soviet Union - inspire the whole world!  It is, after all, the true Communist arena.  Space, I mean.  Outer space is ours!  That is your task, comrades!' (p. 8)
From this directive springs a narrative where the tail (the conceived stories of an alien menace) ends up wagging the dog (or actual 1980s Soviet life).  Roberts utilizes satire to very good effect in this novel; the stultifying effects of a stratified Soviet society are parodied in several passages throughout the novel.  Skvorecky, who went from being a whiz kid of sorts on this scenario-developing team to gulag prisoner to broken-down alcoholic in the 1980s, represents several of the changes that have taken place in Soviet society over this time span.  After elaborately setting up the scenario that later unfolds, the novel comes into its own a little over the halfway point, where all sorts of bizarre events, some of which center around a Stalin, converge to create a tale that is in equal parts a satire of 1950s alien menace SF tales and a warped look at communism as practiced in the Soviet Union during the Cold War years.

Such satires are difficult to review effectively because so much depends on how well the reader knows the source material and also how inclined that reader may be to reading a work that parodies elements of Soviet history and period-piece SF.  For myself, I found the humor to be hit-and-miss.  Sometimes, it felt as though Roberts strained the narrative a bit too much in trying to fit all of the pieces together.  But there were also times, such as the case involving the American Scientologist, where the manic pace and comedic writing collide nicely with some rather brutal truths about that time period.  So while some of Yellow Blue Tibia was a mess to sort through, the end result for me was a mess that was gloriously sloppy, often funny, and well worth the time devoted to deciphering just what in the hell was actually taking place.

Tariq Ali, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree

There is something awe-inspiring when cultures (or, as earlier historians used to say, civilizations) clash.  Although one might conjure images of a martial field where cultural combatants duel it out to see whose language, whose religion, whose legal customs, whose views on what constitutes a family, and whose social customs will prevail, there are few true "winners" and "losers" in these clashes; elements of each side are absorbed by the other.  Yes, some cultural elements will come to dominate and whole elements of prior ways of lives will disappear for those who do not gain hegemonic control of a particular religion, but there are always subversive currents that underlay a conquest.  Lip service may be given to a particular ideal (say, a religion or language), but underneath it, tensions may boil within elements of a conquered society, riving friends, neighbors, and even family members as each tries to cope with the changing politico-cultural climes.

Tariq Ali is a British-Pakastani historian and novelist whose works, fiction and non-fiction alike, over the past forty years or so have dealt with these effects of cultural clashes.  Ali in particular has taken an interest in exploring elements of the history of Islam over the course of five novels, starting with the 1992 novel Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree.  Much of the international news over the past two decades has been devoted to covering the rise of jihadism in certain sectors of Muslim societies, but not as much has been focused on exploring how the clash of Western cultural values with those of traditional Muslim societies has fueled this torrent of uncertainty, fear, hope, frustration, and hatred.  In reading Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, I was reminded of just how confusing these cultural clashes and their consequences can be for societies, especially on the family level.

The setting for Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree is the region around Granada around a decade or so after its fall to the Spanish conquistadors.  Granada, the last bastion of Al-Andalus in Spain, had preserved the rich cosmopolitan culture of the Cordoba caliphs.  But during the decade following the surrender to the Spanish, the Moors of Granada learned that the Spanish were not keen on keeping their promises of preserving Granada's culture and religious freedoms.  Led by Cardinal Ximénes de Cisneros, Queen Isabella's adviser, the Spanish government quickly overturned the provisions of the 1492 treaty with the Granadan Moors.  The public use of Arabic was banned and the children of the Moors were to be educated by Catholics.  This enforced Christianization led to a century of half-conversions, family members converting in truth in order to advance in society, subtle rebellion against the new customs, disparaging satires of both the conquerors and the vanquished, and so forth.  In this novel, Ali creates a fictional history of the Banu Hudayl family in order to show the devastating effects of the Reconquista's final stages on the remaining Spanish Moors.

Ali utilizes short, to the point descriptions and dialogue to set the stage.  He begins his tale in the year 1500, just as Ximénez is beginning the controversial forced conversions of the Moors (later referred to as Moriscos).  Through the eyes of young Yazid, Ali shows how difficult life became for the Moors and how some, including his uncle Miguel, had chosen to collaborate with the Spanish and become Christians in order to advance while kinsmen were being forced to give up their trades, their language, and (publicly) their religion.  Below is one key passage that illustrates the plight of Yazid's family:

This family, which for centuries had not thought about anything more demanding than the pleasures of the hunt, the quality of the marinade used by the cooks on the roast lamb being grilled that day, or the new silks which had arrived in Gharnata [Granada] from China, was tonight confronting history.

Miguel had dominated the evening.  At first he had sounded bitter and cynical.  The success of the Catholic Church, its practical superiority, he had argued, lay in the fact that it did not even attempt to sweeten the bitter taste of its medicine.  It did not bother to deceive; it was not searching for popularity; it did not disguise its shape in order to please its followers.  It was disgustingly frank.  It shook Man by the shoulders, and shouted in his ear:

'You were born in excrement and you will live in it, but we might forgive you for being so foul, so vile, so repulsive if you sink to your knees and pray every day for forgiveness.  Your pitiful, pathetic existence must be borne with exemplary humility.  Life is and will remain a torment.  All you can do is to save your soul, and if you do that and keep your discontent well hidden, you might be redeemed.  That and that alone will make your life on earth a mite less filthy than it was on the day you were born.  Only the damned seek happiness in this world.' (pp. 124-125)
This cited passage contains the heart of Ali's narrative.  Even the apparent lickspittle uncle Miguel notes the brutality involved with the Christian conquest of Granada.  Ali focuses on the controlling aspect of religion here, just as he notes elsewhere the effects that hegemonic power has on the society's (and family's) public and private life.  Enforced acculturation is a messy, sordid affair and in this novel, Ali uses the fictional structure of telling the family history of the Banu Hudayl to explore the deleterious effects of the cultural clash between the Christian Spanish and the Muslim Moors.

Ali's novel is best read as a historical narrative covered with a thin veneer of fiction.  As characters, Yazid, his sister Hind, as well as the above-mentioned uncle Miguel are more akin to representations of what did transpire for hundreds of thousands of Moriscos during the 16th century than as fully-realized characters.  There is a stark contrast between Moors and the Christians here.  The Spanish are never seen as being anything more than brutal, uncultured louts who have by force of arms and law have seized control and are making the Moriscos suffer for the effrontery of having conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula eight centuries before.  While Ali does a good job illustrating the cracks in Moorish society brought out by the Spanish conquest, his dialectical approach to the situation was a bit too heavy-handed in places.  At times, the novel stopped reading as such and began to resemble more some of the Marxist interpretations of cultural history that I have had to study in the past.  Although there is nothing wrong with this approach (in fact, on several occasions, this made the story more interesting to me), it does bear noting that in places the novel suffers as a result of Ali's polemics.

On the whole, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree was a quick (240 pages), decent read that felt more like reading a history of the times than it did being a historical novel.  However, the story never really rose being above a thinly-fictional account of the times.  The characters existed more to illustrate Ali's interpretations of the early 16th century Moorish-Spanish cultural clashes than anything else; I often was not engaged with the characters at all.  The polemical nature of Ali's work was a bit overwhelming at times, even though I was on the whole sympathetic with most of his arguments presented within the text.  I do not regret reading the novel and I think it provides a fascinating look at the historical period which it covers, but the fictional story itself was a bit too thin for me to recommend it wholeheartedly.   

Peter Burke, Varieties of Cultural History

Although for the past decade virtually all of my reading have been fictions of one genre or another, there was a time around 15 years ago that the opposite was true.  Several times in passing over the years, either in comments here or on the several forums that I have frequented, I have mentioned that my graduate schools studies concentrated on cultural history, with most of my research being on the interwar (1919-1938) period of German history.  But I have never really reviewed a work of cultural history ever since I matriculated in May 1998 from the University of Tennessee.

When I was a graduate student, one the authors that impressed me the most was Peter Burke and his work on exploring cultural developments in early modern Europe.  Recently, I found myself wanting to refresh my memories of his approaches, so I ordered a copy of his 1997 collection of essays, Varieties of Cultural History.  I found it to be a good, if somewhat limited, introduction to my former field of studies.  I am not going to analyze this book as if I were still active in researching cultural histories, but instead I will broadly explore its contents and try to tailor this short review for those who are not cultural historians or even history majors, but those who might want to learn a bit more about this field called "cultural history."

Burke's book is comprised of twelve essays, eight of which had appeared in various journals and other monograph publications dating back to the 1970s.  These twelve essays can be further subdivided into three parts, introduction to the field, case studies, and exploration of various methodological methods.  In his preface, Burke notes that his intent is "to discuss and illustrate some of the main varieties of cultural history which have emerged since the questioning of what might be called its 'classic' form, exemplied in the work of Jacob Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga.' (p. vii)  Burke posits that cultural history, despite the advances done in the related fields of social and cultural anthropology, really has not changed much since the times of Burckhardt and Huizinga, an argument that I find somewhat puzzling, considering how the rise of the New Social History in the 1970s has had a profound influence on the ways that historians have broadened their methodological approaches to the written and oral histories recorded over the past two centuries.

Burke's introductory essay, "Origins of Cultural History," provides a good, broad overview of the evolution of the term Kultur and its implications for how people, not just historians, have conceived the connections between language, literature, legal relations, religion, the arts and sciences. Although Burke does acknowledge the influence that Hegel had defining some of the epistemological approaches of the Enlightenment period, he tends to favor a broader, more cosmopolitan exchange of ideas to explain how the spread of Kultur, as an area of emphasis, occurred.  This chapter serves its purpose of introducing its readers to the history of cultural history as a concept, but it is incomplete in that there is no immediate followup that explores the various varieties of cultural history that emerged over the past two centuries.  For that, the reader has to wait until the final two essays in the book on mentalité and other approaches to outlining concepts of culture over time, space, and philosophical association.

Burke's second essay, "The Cultural History of Dreams," is perhaps the best essay in this book.  Although I believe it, the chapter on social memory, and the following seven case histories of Italian and Brazilian cultural histories, would have benefited more if the theoretical aspects of this book were concentrated in the first section of the book, there is much in this essay that would appeal to readers.  For example, here is a brief cross-cultural dream study that Burke cites:

One cross-cultural study of 'typical dreams' showed that the relative frequency of different anxiety dreams varied considerably.  Americans, for example, dreamed more often of arriving late for appointments and of being discovered naked, while Japanese dreamed of being attacked.  The contrasts suggest what other evidence confirms, that Americans are more concerned with punctuality and with 'body shame," while Japanese are more anxious about aggression. (p. 27)
Burke also explores how dreams are interpreted from culture to culture and the similarities and differences that each culture has in processing their individual and collective dreams.  It really is a fascinating chapter, easy to follow for the layperson, and it sets the stage for his essays on social memory and how cultures process their shared past and understandings of events mundane and extraordinary, as well as the Italian and Brazilian case studies on gestures, comedies, cross-cultural confusion, differences between the public and private spheres in late Renaissance Genoa, the cultural polarization between learned and popular culture, concepts of chivalry in the New World, and the translation of Carnival from Italy to Brazil.  I will not devote much space to discussing these various essays, in large part because of the self-constraints I'm imposing on this brief review, but I will note that Burke uses clear, concise descriptions to set up his arguments and theoretical approaches to each of these topics.  Doubtless, a reader who is somewhat familiar with the historical periods but who is largely ignorant of the cultural aspects of those times will find these essays to be fascinating, informative reads.

The final section on mentalité and the various methodological approaches to cultural history was largely a disappointment to me, mostly because Burke barely describes several of the schools of thought before moving on to the next topic.  Mentalité in particular gets short-shrifted here, as outside of noting the research that Jacques Le Goff and others of the Annalist School have done, little is done other than to note how the Neo Marxists have developed their own approach toward the study of cultural mindsets in reaction to (and in several cases, opposition to) what Marc Bloch, Le Goff, and others had posited in the immediate post-World War II era.  Perhaps this is due to the introductory nature of this book, but I felt like Burke could have said much more on the topic.  This is also true for his concluding chapters.  There really isn't much said of a substantive nature about the methodological approaches of the various schools, especially that of the E.P. Thompson-influenced Neo/Cultural Marxist school, which happens to be one of the largest and most influential of the various schools of cultural history to develop after 1945.  Much more could have been made of the "new cultural history" school, which has adopted principles of the study of semiotics, or symbolic communications, in crafting its own conceptual school of thought on the study of cultural history.

But despite these shortcomings, much of which are related to the introductory approach to the field of cultural history, Burke's Varieties of Cultural History is well-worth the read.  Although several theoretical concepts are treated in passing, Burke's prose never becomes stilted or weighed down with ponderous explanations.  The case histories are interesting and they serve well to illustrate how the quirks and habits of people of a particular time and place can be of great interest to people living in the here and now.  Hopefully, there will be some readers who do read Burke's work and who may go on to explore those historians cited in his footnotes and bibliography.  Cultural history is to me the most wonderful, exciting, and challenging of the various historical disciplines and Burke's essays capture much of that excitement.  Highly recommended.

Friday, May 28, 2010

How I am able to review so many books

Lately, I seem to be getting more and more comments in my posts asking how in the world am I able to read and review so many books without drifting off into the Harriet Klausner Zone of cuckoo attempts at "reviewing."  Time and time again, I would give prosaic answers about how I am an autodidact that taught myself how to read and that I seem to be processing words not as "sounds" so much as a bunch of pictorial representations similar to when someone is walking along in a crowd and notices and recognizes everybody all at once.

But this type of answer does not seem to satisfy readers here.  Some seem to think that I must be fudging matters, since "no one" can read 300-400 pages an hour for 3 or so hours a day on average and get "full enjoyment" or "real comprehension."  This being said despite my decision to write reviews of virtually every single book that I have read so far this month (I currently lack reviews of Peter Burke's Varieties of Cultural History, Tariq Ali's Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, Adam Roberts' Yellow Blue Tibia and Ursula Le Guin's The Eye of the Heron, but I might squeeze in reviews of each before Tuesday).  So instead of using actual evidence to support my assertions, I'm going to invent a reason that I will give to those who keep pestering me about my reading speed/comprehension:

See that squirrel over to the right?  That's one of several squirrels I have trained to read books and to write reviews for me.  Sure, an infinite number of monkeys typing randomly may produce Hamlet, but all I require are two dozen Serbian squirrels to do my book selection for me, my reading, and my review writing.  Why Serbian squirrels?  Because I have been assured that they are the most vicious and voracious of all the international squirrels and that they can quickly tell if a book sucks or not.  In addition, these squirrels darn my socks, cook my meals, and they can tap dance while they eviscerate their prey.  But I suppose you only care about the bookish qualities of these fine Serbian squirrels and not about their other Renaissance Squirrel proclivities.

The routine the squirrels follows is this:  They rustle through a stack of books I present them.  Then a team of three will alternate holding the book open and devouring its pages, which then is regurgitated for me to interpret and to type out for others to read.  It typically takes the squirrels about 2 hours to digest the entire book and to ruminate on its qualities and deficiencies.  For works such as WoT or Goodkind, the squirrels might take a bit longer, since they tend to have a sort of gag reflex that has to be overcome.  Afterward, they often proceed to shit that shit out of their systems, informing me as to the shitty quality of those works.

Hopefully, this confession will help stave off questions about how I am able to read quickly and with a decent amount of comprehension.  Just remember, my squirrels deserve a lot of recognition, so would you please give it (or your nuts) to them?

Hyperion Cantos Re-reads: Dan Simmons, The Fall of Hyperion

When I originally read the immediate sequel to Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, several months had passed.  I had completed my move back to Tennessee from South Florida and I hadn't had much time to read during that span, due to having to fill in unexpectedly for my mother teaching English grammar and literature within a month of moving back to my hometown.  So when I finally had time to read The Fall of Hyperion, my expectations were tempered by months of little reading and the notion that it would be very difficult to follow the near-perfect story arcs of the first novel.

Sometimes, these attitudes lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.  I enjoyed reading this book the first time, but it was almost despite my own self.  The structure was very different from that of the preceding novel, with a whole host of new characters and little sustained focus on the original pilgrims to the Time Tombs and the Shrike.  I was not prepared for this or for how Simmons concluded this novel, so I dismissed it at the time as being enjoyable, but a letdown compared to the story that I thought I wanted to read after Hyperion

However, there are occasions where a re-read can rehabilitate a book's image in the mind of its reader.  False expectations being stripped away, the reader can be free to examine the book on its own merits and perhaps to discover narrative gems that were invisible during the first read.  This certainly was the case with The Fall of Hyperion, which I found to be a much more absorbing read the second time around, six years after reading it for the first time.

As I noted above, the narrative structure is much different for this sequel.  There are no Chaucer or Boccaccio-like framing stories to dominate the narrative.  Instead, Simmons broadens the story out beyond the six remaining pilgrims to cover the Hegemony leadership and the looming battle with the Ousters, those modified humans who have resisted Hegemony control for the four centuries since the Hegira from Earth following an apparent "accident" that created a mini-black hole that consumed that planet.  Beside the Hegemony leader, Meina Gladstone (a name teeming with historical allusions), is a second cybrid replica of the Romantic poet John Keats, this time going by the name of Severn, named after the companion of Keats during his fatal pilgrimage to Rome in 1821.  Severn has a strange sort of dream-like connection to the pilgrims and his narrative roles revolve around him as being a sort of mediator between humans and the TechnoCore, as well as mediating between the experiences of those living and the poetry born of human travails.  In this, Severn is perhaps a complement to the role that Martin Silenus played in the first novel.

A problem that I had during my first reading of the novel is that Simmons seemed to jump around too much with his chapters and scene switches.  Perhaps the intent was to create a sense of chaos surrounding the events unfolding on Hyperion, but at times (and this was especially true for the first half of the novel), things just felt a bit too disjointed.  However, once Severn embarks upon a fatal reenactment of Keats' Roman pilgrimage, things begin to click into place and events make much more sense. 

If in the first novel Simmons used a variety of storytelling styles to set up some emotional payoffs, here in The Fall of Hyperion these climaxes mostly fulfill the promise of their set-ups, albeit in some surprising ways.  The fate of the young priest Hoyt is fitting and yet open-ended enough to set the stage for the next two books in the sequence.  Martin Silenus, however, seemed to be more of a third wheel than a vital part of this particular storyline, although he had his moments.  Kassad and Sol's stories, however, prove to be central to this story and I found upon re-reading them that Simmons did a good job foreshadowing what was going to occur with both of these central threads, providing logical conclusions and leaving some speculation for the future.  The Brawne Lamia and Consul subplots were a bit disjointed in places and while their story arcs in this novel largely made sense, there were times where it seemed to take a bit too long for the action to unfold.

However, on the whole, things did work out well, with conclusions that left much for me to ponder about human initiative and the dangers involved when that is abdicated for leisure activities, about how jealous and petty humans can be toward those perceived to be "other" than them, and even a little bit about matters of faith.  Those readers expecting every thread to be tied off here will be disappointed, as Simmons left just enough threads open for the two-part Endymion subseries to explore.  But for what was concluded, The Fall of Hyperion provided good, thought-provoking entertainment that made me glad that I chose to re-read this powerful SF series.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Malazan Re-Read Series: Steven Erikson, Memories of Ice

For a book that I recently described as perhaps my favorite of the Malazan Series, it took me several more days than usual to complete a re-read of the third book, Memories of Ice.  This is curious, as it was not that I was too busy (I did finish reading another half-dozen or so books this past weekend) nor that I was disinclined to read the book (I would read for 15-20 minutes some days, between other reads), but rather that it seems that in re-reading this book for the first time in five years, I felt as though I were simultaneously reading each of the last four novels that Erikson has written in this series.

When I first read this book in October 2002, I was impressed with the thematic elements that Erikson introduces in this work.  In many ways, Memories of Ice feels like the "true" beginning to the series proper, as Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates began to seem to be little more than prologues to the action that unfolded within this volume.  The main antagonist for this series, the Crippled God, makes his first true appearance in this volume, after passing mentions in the first two volumes.  Incidents from the first two books (the second occurring near-simultaneously with this novel) have their importance amplified here.  From the menacing threat of the Pannion Seer to the mystery surrounding a Tiste Edur corpse and the hints of their rise to power, Memories of Ice lies at the heart of what follows afterward in the Malazan series, for good or for ill.

The structure of this novel differs in several respects from the first two.  Although each had their moments of comedy (Kruppe, Iskaral Pust), it is here where Erikson reveals more fully a wide range of comic styles, not all of which I found to be successful.  From the necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Brauch (who star in their own series of novellas, which I will re-read/review after the main series) and the black humor involved with them to the ludicrous send-up of artists (and the frog Critic), there is much more levity present here to balance out the heavy scenes that occur later in the novel.  For the most part, these lighter scenes fulfilled their purposes, but at times it just seemed to be a bit too much.  Reflecting  back on the past few Malazan novels that I had re-read for the first time in 2007-2009, many of the complaints I had about their structures perhaps could be tied back to the patterns of sometimes-forced levity and numerous subplots that emerged here in Memories of Ice.  But this is only a suspicion; my opinions of the latter novels may improve when I re-read them, after all.

I alluded to certain thematic issues in this novel that appealed to me.  What I noticed the first time (and still do, upon my fourth read of this volume) is the level of compassion that is directed toward former/current foes in this novel.  Erikson easily could have portrayed the Pannion Seer and the cannibalistic Tenescrowi in broad black strokes, as that would have been acceptable for a war-related novel.  But he chose not to do this and those choices I have suspected for a long time will have repercussions that will be seen in the series' conclusion.  After all, why introduce a character such as Itkovian and make such an issue out of the ability of a man to embrace the pains and sorrows of disparate peoples and to do a sort of quasi-absolution of their sins and shortcomings?  There were several powerful scenes involving this, scenes that I am unaccustomed to seeing in an epic fantasy series and I believe my continuing interest in the series depends strongly upon the hope that there will be similar emotionally-moving scenes such as the ones depicted in this novel.

But despite these several moving passages, the narrative flow to this novel was all over the place.  There were times where I wondered why the pace had slowed to a glacial level and if Erikson felt constrained to introduce so many plot foreshadowings and subplots just to convey a sense that the war against the Pannion Seer was merely a microcosm of a coming apocalyptic struggle.  Then toward the end, it felt as if too much was being crammed into two very lengthy chapters spanning most of the final 150 pages.  This lurching pace and the resulting herky-jerkiness of the characterizations felt rough, as if Erikson had not polished the story enough, something that I seem to recall being an increasing problem later on in the series.

However, despite these grave concerns about how the narrative was structured and executed, I enjoyed what I read for the most part.  Erikson threw enough elements on the canvas that enough good elements remained visible to overshadow the weaker points in the narrative.  It was akin to seeing a car spinning out on the interstate and correcting itself just before crossing the median into oncoming traffic (I actually had this happen to me five years ago, thus the vivid analogy that came to mind).  Somehow, despite the flaws and wrong steps, things come together in the end and it all works out without the narrative train jumping the rails completely.  Might not be the best of stories to read from a technical standpoint, but the thematic elements contained within perhaps will appeal to quite a few people trying to figure just what it is about this series that appeals to others.  Now onward to the fourth volume, House of Chains, which hopefully won't take parts of five days to read.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Well, you can follow me if you'd like

Just go to that handy button to the right.  There are a few tweets to sate your squirrel lust until the mid-morning at least, or so I hope.  Enjoy?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

So I posted a poll about Twitter

Some other bloggers are trying to get me to become active on Twitter.  I'm tempted with doing this similar to how I communicate on Facebook, if that gives you any idea about how involved I'd be.  But before I'll take the plunge and do more than just create an account for safe keeping, I have a challenge.

I want at least 30 different people replying to this thread saying that they'd want to read what sorts of tweets this twit might post on Twitter and why they'd want for me to limit myself to 140 characters or less.  If enough people do this in the next few hours, I'll think about doing something special to mark the occasion.  But it has to be 30 different people replying to this post before midnight CDT tonight, each saying why they'd want me to be a twit on Twitter.

Think this can be done?  I'm doubtful of people's abilities to muster up enough energy to give a damn, but hey, I could be wrong ;)

Michal Ajvaz, The Golden Age

Czech writer Michal Ajvaz's second novel to be translated into English, The Golden Age, is as deceptive on the surface as was his earlier novel, The Other City.  At first glance, the story appears to be a sort of a Gulliver's Travels-esque travelogue, with the narrator sojourning on an Atlantic isle where its inhabitants have several strange habits that have drawn that narrator/historian to study them.  But just as Swift's tale contains several more layers than just a mere travelogue, so too does The Golden Age have much depth to its narrative.

When I began reading it a couple of days ago, I remarked on Facebook that there were several interesting parallels that I saw between it and Zoran Živković's Escher's Loops (which I reviewed earlier today).  This is not to say that the two works are mirrors, but rather that I found some complementary points about storytelling being made within their texts.  If anything, this realization augmented my enjoyment of Ajvaz's novel, making for a very quick read of an absorbing story.

The basic plot is that the narrator, writing from a first-person point of view, is studying the inhabitants of a remote Atlantic island and, after prior three year sojourn with them, he is about to return.  But this narrator does not tell us everything about the native population and their unique culture at first.  Instead, he uses anecdotal asides to convey information out of order, leaving the reader to piece together certain elements that later become central to the second half of the novel. 

The first half of the book is devoted to creating a sort of ethnography of the island and its people.  The narrator/historian's attempts to outline the history of this people runs into several difficulties.  One important clue as to why there is such a difficulty in examining their past is embedded within this passage quoted below:

When the islanders repeated the theories of the Europeans, they did not change in them a single word or concept; no article of proof was missing, nor were any laws of logic violated.  Yet it seemed to the foreigners that in the act of repetition the logic they had used to this point was revealed to be a dreamlike game, its logical structures to be labyrinthine.  Although the methodical approach was disturbed in none of its aspects, it was transformed into a ritual that hinted at sorcery.  It remained the case that if man is mortal and Socrates is a man, then Socrates, too, is mortal, but suddenly it seemed that the mechanism that transmits to the conclusion by means of a central article the predicate of the upper premiss, was started up by an unknown force, a force that the Europeans had never before been aware of; now it seemed that behind the figures of their judgments they were seeing the outlines of mechanisms wholly different, driven by this force with the same willingness and perseverance; they also thought they glimpsed the contours of fantastic syllogisms in whose judgments the place of Socrates was taken by scaly, malodorous monsters and in whose conclusions were revealed flashes of venomous light and muted cries which, by some strange irresistible method, flowed out of the colours of sounds and the rhythm of premisses.  It would have been bad enough if this transformation was just a sickness that afflicted logic in the tropics; but the Europeans felt an ever-growing anxiety that something worse was going on, that in this accursed place they had got themselves into a trap from which there was no escape, that logic had taken off its mask and with a grimace of irony exposed the true nature it had hitherto kept hidden. (p. 33)
If I were to choose a single adjective to describe The Golden Age, it would be "labyrinthine."  Starting with the narrator's failed attempts to outline the people's history (they disdain the past, or rather view it as something too sacred to be profaned by probing historians), the story then spirals inward until the island people's most precious trove, a singular Book in which stories are written, crossed out, added to, and rewritten, becomes the central focus of the novel's second half.

Once the Book is introduced, the labyrinths of identity, past, present, and future become more and more complex.  Ajvaz imbues these tales taken from the Book with vitality.  The stories "breathe," and there are deep connections between them that are left unstated.  By the time the novel closes, the lines between reality and fiction have blurred for the narrator, creating this sense of "otherness" that lingers well after the last page is turned.  The narrator near the conclusion speaks of a "void" which may bother the reader; there certainly is something troubling about the vortex created by these swirling tales and how they seem to suck at the reader's subconscious.  Ajvaz has created a story in which setting has become unmoored from plot or characterization; each seems to be fragile representations of something else.  The overall effect for me was akin to becoming lost in a textual maze, but not feeling afraid or terrified at finding myself lost within the stories being told.  If anything, I found this to be "magical" in the sense of feeling that so much is waiting to be uncovered, much of it depending upon looking slantwise rather than directly at the text itself.  Few stories accomplish this and although The Golden Age certainly is not for readers who want a lineal plot and text, this certainly was a treat to read.  Highly recommended.

Zoran Živković, Escher's Loops

For the past six years, ever since I picked up a copy of his The Fourth Circle, I have always had great pleasure in reading anything that Serbian author Zoran Živković has written.  In previous reviews of Steps Through the Mist and Twelve Collections and the Teashop, I discussed how Živković's less-is-more approach toward storytelling appeals to me as a reader.  I enjoy being allowed the freedom to approach stories at cross-angles, without the author intruding too much into the text that s/he has created.  In virtually all of Živković's stories, whether they be part of his "story suite" mosaics or more traditional novel-length tales, he leaves plenty of gaps through which an imaginative reader can delve further into the mysteries hinted at but often never directly stated within the texts.

One device that Živković utilizes in several of his stories (and one that José Saramago uses to great effect in his Blindness and Seeing novels, among others) is labeling the characters by profession rather than by name.  This creates a sort of "everyman" type of character; could be me or you or that guy or gal across the street.  It also allows for a subtle distancing of the characters from the settings, creating a sense of "otherness" cohabiting with mundane existence.  But does this sort of storytelling approach, which owes much to centuries' worth of Central European fables, hold up when expanded to a 330 page novel?

When I learned that Escher's Loops would combine the elements that Živković employs in his story suites with the length of a novel, I worried that the result might be somewhat of a mess to follow.  After all, when there are bifurcating stories that are designed to loop around and back into a broader narrative, patterned on Escher's most famous illustration, there is a real risk for the inattentive reader becoming lost in what is unfolding.  However, this was far from the case for me, as these "loops," broken down into four main movements/sections, actually augmented the joy I had while reading the narrative.

To best illustrate what Živković is doing, let me quote from the very beginning of the story:

The surgeon had just dried his hands in a stream of hot air from the hand dryer next to the wash basin, pulled on his gloves and headed for the operating room, when a sudden recollection made him stop in front of the double glass door.  Even though he was urgently awaited inside, the thought disconcerted him so much that he was rooted to the spot.

Those who knew him better would certainly have assumed that he'd remembered the incident he most wanted to forget.  It was the only stain on his career.  He'd left surgical tweezers inside a patient.  There was no excuse for this oversight.  What could he say in his defense?  That he'd been captivated by her face and couldn't keep his eyes off her?  The anesthesia had seemed to bestow an angelic quality on the beautiful young woman.  Mentioning this enchantment as the cause of his distraction would only have aggravated his position. (p. 5)
As I noted above, there is no wasting of time giving this character a name.  The surgeon has had something unusual (and embarrassing) happen.  There is a moment of thought and recollection and then the story branches from there, seeking out others in the environs who have had experiences, both good and bad, and how each of their lives, whether they be the Dylanesque priest who plays pinball or the priest who takes pictures of birds, of the failed suicide who has attempted suicide seventeen times before having an epiphany, or of the beautiful actress and her admirer, are interconnected with one another's.  Živković is not heavy-handed in this.  He introduces (and re-introduces) these characters in different forms and it feels so casual that the reader at first may wonder where s/he had read about that particular character before.

The overall effect is like a woven tapestry of images.  The life threads that run through our own lives are put through the warp and woof before being re-thread back into our life journeys.  The same holds true for Živković's characters.  Although failure, frustration, and death greet several of his characters, there is this sense of optimism that pervades this story.  Živković does not focus as much on suffering as much as on how experiences end up enriching the lives of the characters involved.  This sense of optimism makes for a suitable ending to these interconnected life threads that constitute Escher's Loops.  Certainly one of the more enjoyable reads I have had this year and on par with Živković's other fictions.  Very highly recommended.

Monday, May 24, 2010

It's okay to say that a book sucked donkey balls

When browsing through a few of the sites listed on my blogroll, I came across this Q&A of (mostly) British bloggers and authors concerning negative reviews.  While I was not surprised by any of the answers (I mean, what is an author going to say, other than yeah, it's not much fun reading those, but that reviewers have a right to voice their opinions and perhaps something can be gleaned from the criticisms that can be used to strengthen future stories), it did serve to remind me that yet once again there are several blog reviewers, especially those who are relatively new to online reviewing, that are uncomfortable with the idea of saying negative things about any particular work.

If anything, the lack of negative criticism can reflect badly on the reviewer; the author will doubtless get his/her fair share of negative comments from Amazon reader reviews.  If a work being considered generates only a lukewarm response and you don't respond to it, just state why and move on.  Sure, there will be authors who use Google Alerts and Addictomatic to find any mention of their name, but most of the time, nothing bad happens.  If anything, if a reader reads only positive praise and later discovers that the reviewer apparently doesn't know his/her ass from a hole in the ground when it comes to what is a "good story," then what benefit has that reviewer supplied the readers?

Differences of opinion occur.  For example, say Pat of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist and I are reading the same book.  Chances are that he's going to love certain elements that I won't and vice versa.  But each of us would have given an honest assessment based on personal preferences and the readers of our pieces would know, based on a history of such reviews, that there are things of merit within a flawed work and that what appeals to one type of reader will not appeal to another type and so decisions can be made accordingly.  But if a blogger never bothers to state flaws that s/he has detected in a particular work and really isn't engaging with the work as a whole, then who is benefiting?  I doubt the readers are, or even the reviewer.

Honesty is a valuable trait in most anything.  In reviewing, I believe there is value in being honest and stating baldly that if a particular work sucks donkey balls, then it sucks donkey balls and here is why.  Sure, that reviewer may have misinterpreted certain elements (errare humanum est) and may, in some case, be called out for it, but even that is preferable to a Pollyanna-type scene where everything is either praised or politely and gently ignored.  Why some have a problem with that is not beyond me, though.  I understand the reluctance to state strong opinions, especially those that may spark arguments.  But I'd much rather see arguments started than to see too many middling to poor works getting a free pass.

I sometimes ask myself, "What Would H.L. Mencken say?"  Not that I would agree with much of what the hypothetical Mencken-Reviewer might say, but at least there would be something to the writing that would reveal more about the work being reviewed (and the reviewer) than anything approaching the tepid, timid pieces that are often put forth (sometimes I'm guilty of not being strident enough in discussing what bothered me about a particular work).

So yes, feel free to say that a book sucked donkey balls.  Or perhaps a hairy baboon's filthy asscrack.  If it conveys your opinions better than an avoidance of exploring why a story didn't work for you, then why not be honest with yourself and just state right out what you're thinking?  It sure beats worrying about the consequences of raising any negative points about a work.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Manuel Mujica Lainez, El unicornio (The Wandering Unicorn)

Manuel Mujica Lainez was one of Argentina's foremost fantasists during the mid-20th century.  About four years ago, I received as a gift from an Argentine friend of mine a copy of his Misteriosa Buenos Aires, where he explored that city's four centuries of history utilizing both mythic and historical records.  I enjoyed that book quite a bit and have re-read it on three other occasions in the interim.  So it was with high expectations that I began reading his most overt fantasy, El unicornio (or The Wandering Unicorn in English).  Sadly, those expectations were mostly unfulfilled. 

The story revolves around the medieval legend of Melusine, a hybrid fairy-human who is cursed to have the (occasional) appearance of a woman from the waist up and a serpent from the waist down.  In Mujica Lainez's version of the tale, Melusine meets up with a descendant of hers, Aiol, and she relates her history to him as he travels across Europe to join with the Third Crusade.  Since much of the story revolves around Melusine's past, there are many digressions into her past and themes of forbidden and lost love are explored in several fashions.

This story is one of those rare few novels where I found myself marveling over the prose and totally failing to engage with the story.  Mujica Lainez, at least in the Spanish original (I have heard that the English translation is poor in comparison, but since I have not read it in translation, I cannot weigh in on its qualities), writes beautifully.  I found myself reading and re-reading several passages throughout the novel, especially in the first three chapters, because of how ornate and beautiful the prose was for me.  However, I had great difficulty in caring for the actual stories embedded.  In particular, Aiol was mostly a cipher for me and I really could not engage with the scenes in which he appeared.  Melusine was more interesting, but after a while, the digressions became too much and the story felt weighted down by these flashbacks to her tragic past.  While the story does a good job in giving the sense that it is medieval in origin, ultimately I just could not engage with the text, making for a tedious story despite the beautiful passages interspersed among its pages. 

Perhaps a re-read in the future will improve my opinion of the story, but for now, The Wandering Unicorn is one of the worst stories I have read this year that was not part of the WoT series.  Considering that there are some good qualities to the story, that is in turn damning of the tale and a testament to the novels that I have read for the first time this year (the WoT series being the notable exceptions).  Maybe others can enjoy the story as much as the prose; I just could not.

Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer

Thomas Ligotti is, in my not-quite-so-humble opinion, one of the greatest horror writers writing today.  Ever since I discovered him a couple of years ago, I have been a huge fan of his works.  Dark as his fictions in collections such as The Nightmare Factory and Teatro Grottesco are, what I have especially enjoyed about Ligotti's stories is his masterful use of the English language to create atmosphere and to unsettle me whenever I might have become a bit too comfortable.

But I have not read much of his work.  Since most of his collections until recently had been released in short print runs from small presses, the cost of acquiring his work can run into the hundreds of dollars for some of his rarer collections.  However, this appears to be changing, as Subterranean Press is planning on issuing new editions of several of Ligotti's collections, starting with the revised edition of his earliest collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, which was originally released in 1985 and expanded in 1989.  Apparently the Subterranean editions will be the "definitive" ones, as Ligotti has reworked elements of each individual story for this collection and this presumably will be the case for upcoming collections.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer is divided into three main parts:  "Dreams for Sleepwalkers," "Dreams for Insomniacs," and "Dreams for the Dead."  Each of these sections are thematic, although there are also certain elements shared in common.  As I stated above, Ligotti's masterful prose is key to my enjoyment of his tales.  Take for instance this opening paragraph to "Alice's Last Adventure":

A long time ago, Preston Penn made up his mind to ignore the passing years and join the ranks of those who remain forever in a kind of half-world between childhood and adolescence.  He would not give up the bold satisfaction of eating insects (crispy fries are his favorite), nor that peculiar drunkenness of a child's brain, induplicable once grown-up society has set in.  The result was that Preston successfully negotiated within a few decades without ever coming within hailing distance of puberty.  In this state of arrested development, he defiantly lived through many a perverse adventure.  And he still lives in the pages of those books I wrote about him, thought I stopped writing them some years ago. (p. 37)
What strikes me most about passages such as this is this apparent sense of detachment within the prose; Ligotti is seemingly just reporting the facts about this insect-devouring Peter Pan type.  But "apparent" and "seemingly" do not equate with "true" dispassion.  Ligotti's narrators, often speaking in first-person, often have their own problems, some of them quite deep.  Again, a passage from "Alice's Last Adventure":

I remind you that I've been drinking steadily since early this afternoon.  I remind you that I'm old and no stranger to the mysteries of geriatric neuroticism.  I remind you that some part of me has written a series of children's books whose hero is a disciple of the bizarre.  I remind you what night this is and to what zones the imagination can fly on this hallowed eve.  I need not, however, remind you that this world is stranger than we know, or at least mine seems to be, especially this past year.  And I now notice that it's very strange - and, once again, untidy. (p. 53)
This sense of the bizarre intermixing with the mundane, of madness coexisting with banality, creates a slow, creeping sense of unease that horrifies not at what is revealed about the characters as much as ends up being revealed to the reader about his/her own interactions with the world.  Horror, after all, isn't all that effective if its impact hits just the characters.  Ligotti, with his meticulous approach toward crafting stories, infuses a sense of personal connection to what ends up being some very disturbing scenes.

Most of what's disturbing is nothing that can be explicitly stated; Ligotti's horror does not work as much at the visceral level as it does at the existential.  Several of his stories, including many in this collection, revolve around the breakdown of ritual and tradition, or the subversion of each.  The pillars of everyday life are shown to have cracks in them and things held in common to be "true" are questioned through the use of bizarre characters and/or situations.  The end result are stories that slowly eat at the reader's subconscious, undermining several of that reader's preconceptions.  Although Songs of a Dead Dreamer has not developed this subversiveness that is evident in Ligotti's latter works, it certainly is a fine introduction for readers curious to know more about this critically-acclaimed author.  Highly recommended.

A slight detour was taken

I needed a bit more variety, so I decided to read new (at least to me) fictions this weekend before resuming my re-reading projects.  So far, I have finished the following books since last Friday night:

Peter Burke, Varieties of Cultural History (don't know if I'll review it, but if enough interest is expressed in the comments, I'll do so)

Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer (review either tonight or tomorrow)

Michal Ajvaz, The Golden Age (review probably tomorrow)

Manuel Mujica Lainez, El unicornio (who wants a review of this, published in English as The Wandering Unicorn?)

Zoran Živković, Escher's Loops/Esherove petlje (review in the next day or two; read this alternating between the Serbian original and the English translation)

Tariq Ali, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (again, who wants a review of this?  Respond, please)

Plus I'm likely to finish Adam Roberts' Yellow Blue Tibia later tonight.

Erikson's third Malazan book, Memories of Ice, might be finished by tomorrow.  I'm at the 1/8 point right now.  Simmons' Fall of Hyperion will fall to Tuesday or Wednesday for its completion.  Nice to have so many reading possibilities at my fingertips.  I'm only about 2/3 into my book cataloging and I'm already near 1400 books.  A little over 300 of those are not in English.  Need to keep (re)reading those as well.  Maybe a Borges/Bioy Casares month later this year?  Who wants that?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hyperion Cantos Re-reads: Dan Simmons, Hyperion

I first began reading Dan Simmons' four-part Hyperion Cantos in early 2003, when I still lived in South Florida.  I had seen passing references to how good it was, the first volume, Hyperion, being a Hugo Award winner in 1990.  So when I finally got around to looking for it in a bookstore, I had this vague notion that this book would be some sort of epic story involving some mysterious creature named after a bird.  How right and wrong I was at the same time.

When I read this series from 2003-2004, the first volume seemed to be leaps and bounds above the rest in terms of quality, a complaint that I have frequently made about Simmons' other multi-volume stories (and within the bounds of a single volume as well).  The beginnings appear to be much better than his conclusions.  Although I am uncertain how I will react to the next three volumes after a six-year span, I can at least say that my already high opinion of Hyperion as a story has increased even more upon this second reading.

When pressed to give a basic description of the novel, most readers likely would say that in structure it approximates that of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  There is something to that, although perhaps a more apt comparison might be to Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, with its sense of lurking doom looming over the storytellers.  What is certain, however, is that each of the pilgrims to the Time Tombs and to the Shrike have different motives and each of their stories is told in distinct fashions that engage the reader almost immediately.

The first story told by the pilgrims is that of a Roman Catholic priest.  His story involves his predecessor's journey deep within Hyperion's tesla tree field to a stunted, retarded people called the Bukura.  The priest intertwines his own experiences years later with the field journals found on the person of the first priest.  This epistolary approach allows for a necessary distance to be created between the storyteller and the horrific tale he tells of his predecessor's suffering and inability to die completely.  The story of the parasitic cruciform at first seems out of place with the other pilgrims' tales, but it does play a vital role in future volumes, if I recall.

The soldier Kassad's tale of his life as a Palestinian refugee on Mars, his joining the Hegemony's military force, and his mysterious meetings with a woman named Moneda (money? coin?) and the fleeting appearance of the Shrike provides the love interest story of this novel.  Although it is unclear so far as to what Kassad's true aspirations are, elements introduced in this tale influence the later narrative in the series.

The poet Martin Silenus's story is in turns poetic and bawdy, and is always full of literary allusions, some of which are to living writers, such as the horror writer Steve (Rasnic) Tem, which delighted me when I re-read this portion of the novel.  If the first two stories provide the horror and the love elements, the poet's tale supplies the love of literature and of tragedy that runs its threads through the remaining narratives.

The fourth story, that of the scholar Sol Weintraub, is the most heart-wrenching of the six.  It is not as much a story about himself, but about his daughter Rachel's accident at the Time Tombs nearly 30 years before and her reverse aging, day by day, back to being an infant only weeks away from her birth/death.  Although this too contains elements of a horror tale, it also is a story of two devout parents and the traumas they have suffered (and which ultimately led to the suicide of the mother Sarai).  Out of all the tales this is the one that connects deepest and which seems to make this ultimate pilgrimage to the Time Tombs and to the Shrike to be worth all of the travails that await the pilgrims.

The fifth tale, told by the private eye Brawne Lamia, echoes the Soldier's and Poet's tales, as she explores a mystery into the heart of the TechnoCore and discovers that the AIs there have split into three factions, some of which are not friendly to human interests.  In addition, her encounter with the reconstructed Romantic poet William Keats (who, after all, wrote "Hyperion," after which the planet is named) sets the stage for future events in the series.

The final tale, that of the Consul, is in parts a retelling of a love story and of a revenge tale cloaked with layers of subterfuge.  It is not as immediately gripping as most of the other tales, but it serves to reinforce reader suspicions about elements introduced in the other tales.  It is a suitable concluding tale and with its ending, the pilgrims are at the final approach to the Time Tombs and whatever destiny may await them there.  Simmons has at this point created six intriguing characters and six compelling tales, each that differ in tone and feel from the others.  There are hints of deeper themes embedded in these tales, creating an enchanting narrative that leaves me eager to read the second volume, The Fall of Hyperion.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Malazan Re-read Series: Steven Erikson, Deadhouse Gates

In my commentary on Gardens of the Moon, I mentioned that it took me reading the second volume, Deadhouse Gates, before I found myself wanting to read the Malazan series in full.  This was back in 2002, when only three volumes had been the released and the fourth was near its release date.  Since then, I believe I have re-read this particular book three other times, all before mid-2005. 

Each of those previous reads left me considering this book to be the second-best in the entire series, behind only the third novel, Memories of Ice.  But I am curious to see how a five year break will affect my perception of this book (as well as the series as a whole).  There was much, after all, that I enjoyed in previous reads:  the introduction of the tragic friendship of Icarium and Mappo, the deepening of the events, the Chain of Dogs, Kalam's quest to assassinate Empress Laseen, and the Path of Hands subplot.  But were each of these elements integrated well into the text? 

What I noticed more about this book (just as I recall noting about the last four books written by Erikson) compared to the first book is that there is more of a buildup to the action-oriented scenes.  Whereas Gardens of the Moon placed the readers in the midst of a multi-sided war with little information provided that would orient the reader as to what was happening (this was intentional, I believe, rather than a mistake in approach, although the execution certainly was not flawless, as I noted in my prior commentary), Deadhouse Gates begins with a vivid scene in the Malazan capital city of Unta.  New characters, such as Captain Paran's youngest sister, Felisin, the ex-priest Heboric, the mysterious Baudin, and the Wickan leader of the Malazan Seventh Army, Coltaine, are given strong introductions that allow the reader to find more depth to their characters than the staccato bursts of dialogue that marked much of the character interactions in the first novel.  This greater focus on character I believe is the main factor that separates this novel from its predecessor and it serves to offset the structural problems I noticed with the narrative.

Felisin often has been criticized by several readers for being "unsympathetic."  I, on the other hand, have always found her to be one of the more complex characters in this series to date and this re-read only strengthened my belief.  Erikson does a good job, through the use of this character's actions and her comments to her companions, to show just how battered and embittered she had become during the course of her imprisonment on the orders of her older sister, Tavore, and her subsequent selling of her body in the slave pits in order to gain concessions for herself.  Her bitterness at how Heboric and Baudin view her is in part justified, but the times where her actions cannot be defended end up feeling as though Erikson were showing this character's foibles instead of being entirely sympathetic toward her plight.  By the time she comes to be Sha'ik Reborn and the leader of the Seven Cities' Rebellion, she has become perhaps the most well-rounded and morally ambiguous characters in the series to date.  The scenes where she appears ended up being among my favorites this time.

Most readers would cite the Chain of Dogs as being the emotional heart of the novel.  While I agree that it is a well-written novel of honor and courage in the face of antipathy and greed on the part of those being protected by Coltaine's forces, I am not for certain if it is greater than the rise of Felisin from the ashes of her imprisonment.  I believe both of these subplots serve to establish the tumults that are taking place in the novel.

The other subplots, however, were at best underdeveloped (or rather, unfinished, since elements of events here appear in the next few novels with greater elaboration) and at worst a detraction from the two main subplots noted above.  As intrigued as I was (and to a degree, still am) by the Icarium/Mappo mystery, I felt as though that and the entire Path of Hands were there more to set up events of another novel than building on the thematic issues contained within the Felisin and Chain of Dogs subplots.  While I recognize that the Iskaral Pust scenes were meant to provide humorous relief from the traumas of Felisin's experiences and from the tragedy of the Chain of Dogs, there were moments that I felt that those scenes added little and detracted a lot from the narrative flow.

But despite these concerns about the unevenness of the subplots, on the whole I enjoyed my re-read of Deadhouse Gates.  As I stated above, two of the subplots were very well-done, with the others feeling a bit underdeveloped or extraneous for this particular novel.  If those had been pared down or excised and placed in a succeeding novel, I believe the story would have been stronger.  As it stands, this is where the Malazan story, sprawling and messy as it can be at times, takes off.  Looking forward to my re-read of Memories of Ice this weekend.
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