The OF Blog: October 2010

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Leatherbound Classics: Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I

He would have perished in this supine security had not two women, his eldest sister Fadilla, and Marcia the most favoured of his concubines, ventured to break into his presence.  Bathed in tears, and with dishevelled hair they threw themselves at his feet, and, with all the pressing eloquence of fear, discovered to the affrighted emperor the crimes of the minister, the rage of the people, and the impending ruin which in a few minutes would burst over his palace and person.  Commodus started from his dream of pleasure, and commanded that the head of Cleander should be thrown out to the people.  The desired spectacle instantly appeased the tumult; and the son of Marcus might even yet have regained the affection and confidence of his subjects.

But every sentiment of virtue and humanity was extinct in the mind of Commodus.  Whilst he thus abandoned the reins of empire to these unworthy favourites, he valued nothing in sovereign power except the unbounded licence of indulging his sensual appetites.  His hours were spent in a seraglio of three hundred beautiful women and as many boys, of every rank and of every province; and, whereever the arts of seduction proved ineffectual, the brutal lover had recourse to violence.  The ancient historians have expatiated on these abandoned scenes of prostitution, which scorned every restraint of nature or modesty; but it would not be easy to translate their too faithful descriptions into the decency of modern language. (p. 72)
For the first of a planned irregular series of reviews of certain classics I deem worthy enough of me spending a premium to acquire in leatherbound editions, I decided that I would start with Edward Gibbon's classic 18th century history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Published in six parts over a nearly twenty-year span, Gibbon's work is perhaps the most influential and enduring modern history ever published.  My thoughts in this brief review will deal solely with the first volume; other volumes will be read and reviewed in the next few weeks.

Before I ever really thought about the Internet and certainly well before I had any aspirations of being an online book reviewer, I was a historian in training.  Despite dropping out of graduate school after earning my Master of Arts degree in Modern European Cultural History, I still have maintained some interest in the origins and development of my original profession.  Too often I hear people speak of "History" (as opposed to "history") as being this sort of monolithic, judgmental entity that proclaims its sentences on past events, peoples, and actions.  Influenced as much by postmodernists as I am by neo-Marxists, I do find myself skeptical of such viewpoints.  History, for me, is a narrative of events whose retellings reflect as much the concerns of those recounting these stories as they do with matters of wie es eigentlich gewesen ist

Edward Gibbon's monumental narrative of the possible causes of the decline of the Roman Empire, from the days of the first Emperors to the fall of Trebizond in 1461, rightly is held up as a seminal work.  Even despite the advancements in methodology and epistemological approaches toward the study and interpretation of histories over the past two centuries, there are several qualities found in Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that make it worthy of being read and re-read by generations of readers to come.

Look at the passage I quote above in regards to the Emperor Commodus (180-192 CE/AD), the first of a string of bad emperors whose cyclical rise and swift descent plagued the Roman Empire until 284.  Rather than just dryly commenting on the atrocities committed by Commodus, as what a Historicist might have done a century later, Gibbon instead turns this recounting of this horrid emperor's twelve-year reign into a masterfully-written narrative that gives the reader much more to consider than just whether or not Commodus deserved the epithets that he received both during his reign and after his assassination at the hands of a common wrestler.  This is an erudite narrative, replete with numerous footnotes, but both the main narrative and the footnotes contain a wit about them that unfortunately still is rather uncommon in most histories today.

Gibbon does not follow a straight linear approach in this volume.  Instead, he has broken his chapters (and later, his six volumes) into thematic groupings that allow him to explore better issues of character, leadership, social mores, and (later, but not in this volume for the most part) religion.  An emperor such as Philip the Arab (reigned in the second half of the 240s) might be explored in terms of his character, temperament, and leadership skills in one chapter, while his religious policies might not be discussed until a succeeding volume, with a dozen more third century emperors being introduced in the interim.  While this might be frustrating to some modern readers, for those willing to approach The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a historical narrative that treats with themes more than with straightforward explorations of events, this study will make for an instructive and entertaining read.

Gibbon is far from a neutral observer, as the quoted passage reveals.  He takes sides, provides interpretations (often in the form of asides on the mores of the subjects treated), and sometimes he relies upon unreliable sources.  For those who are influenced strongly by the Rankean Historicist position on the use of sources and the desire to eliminate biases whenever possible, Gibbon's work is fraught with errors in approach.  While I am somewhat sympathetic with that attitude (my graduate adviser trained under descendants of Ranke's original school and I imbibed some of those methodological approaches early on in my studies), I also believe that it would be a mistake to ignore Gibbon's crowning graces just because he fails to follow historical approaches developed decades later.

Gibbon's prose is beautiful to read.  Frequently, I am finding myself, nearly one hundred pages into the second volume, reading slowly and then re-reading several passages, just so I can soak in the intricate beauties of his writing, as well as Gibbon's sometimes sarcastic asides.  For those readers who are not intimidated from reading the Latinisms that dominated 18th century English writing, Gibbon's prose will offer so much to them that just is not found in later histories.  There is a definite sense of historia found within this history and when this brilliantly-constructed story is mated with interpretative schema that largely survive the vicissitudes of the last two centuries, a truly classic read awaits those intrepid readers willing to read about the calamities of the third century CE/AD.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Well, one of my "secret projects" was just announced

One of the reasons why I've been somewhat quieter these days (besides spending the past month and a half teaching full-time) is my involvement in a variety of projects that are coming close to fruition.  I've hinted that I was working on something in the past, but now I can go ahead and confirm publicly (be sure to read this post at Jeff VanderMeer's site) that Fábio Fernandes and I are in the process of translating into English the first 250 or so words of each of the eight stories found in the recently-published Brazilian steampunkish anthology, Vaporpunk.  I am doing the translations for the first four stories and Fábio will translate the final four.  We plan to have these translations available no later than the middle of November.

Does this news spark your curiosity a bit?  If so, be sure to continue to check this site and a few others for more information in the coming weeks.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Max Mallmann, O Centésimo em Roma (The Hundredth in Rome)

O passo indolente do cavalo contrasta com a empertigada postura de quem o conduz.  Para o quadrúpede, não importa se estão a chegar num quartel, no Palácio ou na casa de mãe de alguém.  Para o bípede nos costados do animal, pesa a obrigação de simular dignidade; ele é um veterano, metido em seu fardamento completo:  o báculo de madeira que o distingue como centurião, o elmo encimado pelo penacho escarlate, a capa voejando nos ombros, a couraça ornada com medalhas de mérito, as grevas de bronze protegendo as canelas, o calção escondido sob a túnica de lã e a sobretúnica de couro, as botas com cravos na sola, o gládio e o punhal pendenes na cintura e, preso ao braço, o escudo riscado pelos golpes do aço germano. (p. 15)

The indolent step of the horse contrasts with the haughty posture of its rider.  For the quadruped, it's not important if they are arriving at a barracks, a palace, or the house of someone's mother.  For the biped on the animal's shoulders, he ponders the obligation of feigning dignity; he is a veteran, decked out in complete uniform:  the wooden baculus which distinguishes him as a centurion, the helmet crowned by a scarlet plume, the cape fluttering on the shoulders, the cuirass decorated with merit medals, the bronze grieves protecting the shins, the trunks hidden under the tunic of wool and the overtunic of leather, the boots with nails in the soles, the gladium and dagger hanging on the belt and, pinioned to the arm, the scratched shield due to the blows of German steel.

Historical novels set in Hellenistic or Roman times have long appealed to me.  Despite not reading as many ancient historical fictions as I perhaps could have, I scarcely have failed to enjoy what works did come my way.  Recently, this love has been extended to works published in languages other than English.  In recent years, I have reviewed two of Spanish writer Javier Negrete's historical novels and alt-histories, including the excellent Salamina, so it was with celerity that I accepted an offer a couple of months ago to receive a review copy of Brazilian author Max Mallmann's O Centésimo em Roma (I have chosen to translate the title as The Hundredth in Rome in order to preserve a bit of wordplay between the small coin - "the hundredth" - and centurion).  This book was, with few exceptions, a very enjoyable read.

Set in Rome in the months and year following Nero's "suicide" in 68 AD, the story revolves around the centurion Publius Desiderius Dolens, a veteran of the wars on the German frontier, and what he experiences after he arrives in Rome.  Known as the Butcher of Bonna, Dolens discovers that his previous deeds have created a mixture of awe, respect, fear, and hatred among the Roman populace.  Ambitious, Dolens reaches for the Equestrian rank, but he discovers that there are some dangerous currents swirling in the Eternal City, currents that can be deadly for those caught up in them.

From this premise, Mallmann has developed a fast-paced, exciting story that unfolds at a rapid pace across nearly 400 pages.  Mixing in excerpts from an apparent fictitious work called Vita Dolentis with Dolens' "present" story, Mallmann constructs a vivid rendition of first century Rome in the years immediately following the Fire.  Via his extensive use of these quotations from the Vita Dolentis, Mallmann manages to develop finely-described snapshots of Roman politics and society during this time around Dolens' story of ambition and political survival.  For the most part, this juxtaposing of montages with the main action works well, as the rapid-fire alternation between the two creates a sense that not only is the story moving rapidly, but also that it contains both breadth of action and depth of characterization and events.

However, there are some occasions where this narrative structure weakens the story's potential power.  By having so many excerpts and so many chapters, there are times that it feels as though the narrative flow has become a bit choppy.  There were a few moments in the middle of the novel where it seemed at times that Mallmann could not decide if the Vita Dolentis fragments should bear more importance than some of the middle scenes of Dolens' "present" plot.  Despite this weakness in the middle, Mallmann does manage to recapture the strong narrative flow found in the early chapters and by the story's conclusion, there is a greater integration of the fictitious epigraphs and the main plot.

Perhaps a native Portuguese reader might think differently, but for a foreigner such as myself, I found Mallmann's prose to be elegant without being too terribly difficult in its parsing.  The story is replete with passages similar to the opening paragraph that I translated above.  There is a definite flow in several of these descriptive passages and instead of weighing down the narrative with unnecessary ornate prose, I found these descriptive sections to add a sense of "local color" to the story, making it more interesting, even despite the weaknesses I noted above.

To the best of my knowledge, O Centésimo em Roma does not have an English language translation scheduled at the present.  This is a shame, as I can see fans of Roman era historical fiction wanting to read this excellent tale of ambition, political intrigue, and a fight for survival.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Over the past few years, I have made occasional posts expressing my exasperation over the perceived fetishism surrounding the term "worldbuilding" in genre circles.  A lot of that perhaps deals with my preference for the centrality of character over the centrality of setting when it comes to judging the paramount characteristic of most of my favorite novels.  Instead of rehashing those points, I thought it might be more interesting to highlight a character-oriented passage from Nicole Krauss' recently-released novel, Great House:

But you know all of this, don't you?  I sense that it's why you came.  Before I die there are things you want to say to me.  Let's have it out.  Don't hold back.  What's stopping you?  Pity?  I see it in your eyes:  While I fly up in my mechanical chair I can see your shock at my diminishment.  The monster of your childhoo defeated by something as mundane as a flight of stairs.  And yet, I only need to open my mouth in order to send your pity scurrying back under the rock it came out from.  Just a few well-chosen words to remind you that despite appearances I am still the same arrogant, obtuse asshole I've always been.

Listen.  I have a proposal for you.  Hear me out and then you can accept or reject it as you choose.  What would you say to a temporary truce, for as long as it takes for you to say your piece and me to say mine?  For us to listen to each other as we have never listened, to hear one another out without becoming defensive and lashing out, to put, for a moment, a moratorium on bitterness and bile?  To see what it's like to occupy the other's position?  Perhaps you will say it is too late for us, that the moment for compassion is long past.  And you might be right, but we have nothing more to lose.  Death is waiting just around the corner for me.  If we leave things like this it's not I who will pay the price.  I will be nothing.  I won't hear or see or think or feel.  Maybe you think I'm belaboring the obvious, but I'd venture a bet that the state of nonbeing is not something you spend much time thinking about.  Once you did perhaps, but that was long ago, and if there's one idea the mind can't sustain it is its own nullification.  Perhaps the Buddhists can, the Tantric monks, but not the Jews.  The Jews, who have made so much of life, have never known what to make of death.  Ask a Catholic what happens when he dies and he will describe the circles of hell, purgatory, limbo, the heavenly gates.  The Christian has populated death so fully that he has excused himself altogether from the need to wrap his mind around the end of his existence.  But ask a Jew what happens when he dies and you'll see the miserable condition of a man left alone to grapple.  A man lost and confused.  Wandering blindly.  Because though the Jew may have talked about everything, investigated, held forth, aired his opinion, argued, gone on and on to numbing heights, sucked every last scrap of meat off the bone of every question, he has remained largely silent about what happens when he dies.  He has agreed, simply, not to discuss it.  He who otherwise tolerates no vagueness has agreed to leave the most important question mired in a nebulous, fuzzy grayness.  Do you see the irony of it?  The absurdity?  What is the point of a religion that turns its back on the subject of what happens when life ends?  Having been defined an answer - having been denied an answer while at the same time being cursed as a people who for thousands of years have aroused in others a murderous hate - the Jew has no choice but to live with death every day.  To live with it, to set up his house in its shadow, and never discuss its terms. (pp. 173-175)
I rarely see this sort of passage in the fantasies I read, with the exception of some of the more "weird fiction" entries, where the clash between Character and Setting is more important to the story.  It is a refreshing change for me, seeing not just a situation described through a character's eyes, but to read an internal conflict that has several shadings of meaning embedded within it.  I am often weary of those complaints revolving around the "show, not tell" maxim.  Sometimes, it feels right to have a character's thoughts outlined like this.  There is more to this particular character than the passage quoted above; it is this indulgence in developing this character, in building this character, that made this scene so attractive to me.  The character appears to be more than just an instrument through which the plot is executed; by "breathing" and "living" here, the character feels more well-rounded, more "real" for elements such as this.

Sadly, I do not often see panegyrics devoted to such "characterbuilding" on most genre blogs and sites.  Depth of character and "realism," even in the light of the strangest and weirdest of situations and settings, has the potential to add so much to a fantasy story, but too often a well-realized setting has but the sketchiest of characters to be placed wherein.  Sometimes, some readers want more than that and it is refreshing to find these sorts of characters in non-speculative fictions.  Too bad they are not as common as I would have liked in spec fic, however.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

This week's book porn

 Three purchases in this ones, along with one publisher-sent copy.  I'm a fan of D.M. Cornish's work and I decided to get the hardcover version of his first book in his The Monster Blood Tattoo/The Foundling's Tale trilogy, Foundling, as a replacement copy that I plan on reading very shortly, as I have a review copy of the final volume, Factotum, that I will review in the coming weeks.  Very, very good YA series, one that I recommend highly.

Nicole Krauss's Great House is a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award in fiction and after two chapters (nearly 50 pages), I think this one might get a good review from me in the next week or two.  Bought John Vaillant's The Tiger, a non-fiction story, after seeing it featured on Jeff VanderMeer's blog.  Looked into it and it seemed promising.  Been meaning to read more non-fiction this year; I used to have a 90/10 non-fiction to fiction split until that reversed after grad school.  Time for more balance, I believe.  The other book is the latest Culture novel from Iain M. Banks and I've had a hit/miss relationship with other Culture novels, so this might might be read, but it'd be with some trepidation. 

 Three review copies, two purchases in this picture.  The Jemisin is her second novel this year and I'll likely read it (it not review it soon afterward) in the next few weeks.  The Sargent I'm uncertain about; the same is true for the Tad Williams, since I don't own the first volume.  David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet certainly will be read/reviewed in the next month or so.  I've been curious about A. Merritt after reading some of Lin Carter's ravings about him in forewords to some of the volumes of the 1960s/1970s Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

Here are two books from Portugal that arrived yesterday.  Thanks again to Luis Filipe Silva for sending these to me.  The first is a 2007 anthology and the second is a 2006 anthology of stories revolving around Lisbon.  Been meaning to read/review the second book for a while now, but both I do hope to read and write comments about in the next month or two.

And that's about that, even though I'm expecting a handful of books in the next few days, all of them purchases.  In the next week, I hope to have the final Saga de Geralt novel arrive from Spain, so I can re-read/read all eight (originally seven) volumes in that seminal Polish fantasy series. Then I can gloat and spoil everything for the poor English monolinguals...okay, maybe not spoil, but certainly gloat.  That's okay, right?

Literary award poll

For those who read this blog via RSS feeds, just thought I'd write a quick little post to point out that I've added a new poll about recent and upcoming literary fiction awards.  One should not live by bread alone, nor would I ever dream of just reading SF/F genre fiction.  Long before I began reading speculative fiction in earnest, I was reading some excellent lit fic and I think it might be interesting if I start covering (if belatedly in some cases) lit fic award finalists as much as I cover spec fic awards.  There will be some reviews in coming weeks of said works, including Nicole Krauss' Great House, a National Book Award fiction finalist that arrived earlier today.

Are you interested at all on my thoughts on any of these award shortlists?  If so, vote in the poll to the right.  If not, I guess you could choose the final option, even though it will not dissuade me in any way from covering realist fiction that intrigues me.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Emma Donoghue, Room

Today I'm five.  I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra.  Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero.  "Was I minus numbers?"

"Hmm?" Ma does a big stretch.

"Up in Heaven.  Was I minus one, minus two, minus three - ?"

"Nah, the numbers didn't start till you zoomed down."

"Through Skylight.  You were all sad till I happened in your tummy."

"You said it."  Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh.

I shut my eyes just in time, then open one a crack, then both. (p. 3)

Emma Donoghue's 2010 Booker Prize-nominated novel, Room, is one of the more intriguing novels that I have read this year.  It contains some sordid details of a horrific kidnapping/rape, but the story is not as much about that.  There are some excellent psychological portrayals here, yet instead of discussing them too directly, she employs a precocious and yet socially-limited five year-old, Jack, as the narrator.  Some might see Room as being a book about parent/child development in the face of terrible mistreatment, but I suspect that it is a simple matter of spaces and boundaries that help define and shape this excellent novel.

Look at the opening passage that I quote above.  Accept, if you can, that Jack is not a typical five-year old.  Not only is he the product of the rape of his mother by her abductor, he is defined by very strict parameters:   an eleven-by-eleven foot room (Room) inside a converted outdoor shed that is isolated from the world around.  It is a small, confined world, mostly deprived of those little elements that we take for granted:  free movement, breezes, sunlight, and open and willing interaction with other human beings.  It is a claustrophobic space, one that is only barely disguised by Jack's labels for its features:  Wardrobe, Bed, Skylight, Spider, Kit, Spoon.  With these very limited features, Donoghue manages to create a plausible, believable mini-world that is memorable not just for what is occurring nightly within Jack's limited comprehension of her mother's rapes at the hands of "Old Nick," but for how adapted Jack and (to a much lesser extent) his mother are to their confined environment.

It is very tricky to emulate a child's voice and at times, Jack's narrative, littered with references not just to some works of art and literature that his mother was permitted to keep in this "Room," but also to signs of abstract thinking that just is not very prevalent in children before the age of ten or so, just is not very believable.  But this inability to suspend disbelief gradually changes when it becomes apparent that not only is he a precocious and observant child, but that within the narrative, there are some troubling emotional attachment manifestations that become more pronounced as the story progresses.

The plot revolves not around the kidnapping/sequestering as much as it does around relationships of space, place, and people.  Although Jack does not understand the specifics of "Old Nick's" nightly visit to his mother, there is a sense of fear and dread that is all the more terrifying because we know more what is happening than he does.  Donoghue may have developed Jack to be precocious, but it is when he is at a loss that we truly begin to piece together those narrative elements that he is unable or unwilling to comprehend.  This adds a layer of depth to his character and to his environs that is subtle and deep, a stark contrast to the innocent, caring narrator.

The last two sections of this novel, roughly comprising one-half of Room, have been problematic for other reviewers.  Due to the shift away from Room and to the outside world, there is a marked shift in the narrative away from Jack and Ma and Room toward Jack, only sometimes Ma, and things very different from Room.  Connotations that previously were lacking for expressions such as "getting some" are now revealed in ways that surprise and perhaps horrify not just the other characters now appearing, but also certain readers.  What if we had grown up in a confined space and had only a limited palette of words and concepts for what surrounded us?  What if we were removed to a whole new "world," one whose shapes, features, and mores differ significantly from ours? 

There are times where Donoghue's story tries too hard.  Perhaps it is in those scenes away from Room, where too many allusions to the relationship problems others have with themselves, with Jack, or with his mother are made, that some believe slow down the plot.  Certainly, there were several instances where it felt as though the problems raised were extraneous to the plot.  In trying to show dysfunction through the eyes of a child who has never known "normalcy," Donoghue often distracts the reader too much. 

However, this is a minor complaint.  Room was a great read due to how adroitly Donoghue explores relationships.  Jack and his mother are quirky yet interesting characters.  Despite the nightly horrors each endured (even if Jack did not possess the knowledge necessary to understand just what "rape" entails), the way that each has learned to make his or her peace with the surroundings makes this novel an absorbing read.  The disorientation that Jack experiences (and we, through him) in the last two sections of the novel are all the more powerful to us because Donoghue has constructed her tale in such a fashion that we are able to "accept," in a limited fashion, their enclosed "world."  When everything broadens, the reader may feel lost and confused as to what Jack is experiencing, because it is "our" world that he is literally experiencing for the first time and we grasp much more of it than he is able to do.  But by novel's end, there is a glimmer of hope that this disorientation and dysfunction that Jack and his mother experience will lessen and that recovery from their ordeals can now begin.  Room becomes, ultimately, a beginning of awareness and not the end of hope and, sometimes, that makes all the difference.  Highly recommended.

Viscount Lascano Tegui, On Elegance While Sleeping

I write out of pure voluptuousness, I confess.  I write for myself and for friends.  I don't have a large audience or fame and don't receive awards.  I know all the literary strategies intimately and despise them.  The naiveté of my contemporaries pains me, but I respect it.  I'm also conceited enough to believe I never repeat myself or steal from other writers, to believe I never repeat myself or steal from other writers, to believe I'll always remain a virgin, and this narcissism doesn't come cheap.  I have to suffer the indifference of those around me.  But, as I said, I write out of pure voluptuousness.  And so, like a courtesan, I'll take my sweet time, and begin by kicking off my shoe.
This epigraph to Argentine writer Viscount Lascano Tegui's 1925 short novel, On Elegance While Sleeping, written by the author himself, sets the stage nicely for what follows.  It is a pseudo-personal diary; it is a macabre novel.  It has similarities with fellow South American Comte de Lautréamont; it may have some with Oscar Wilde.  Yet it ultimately is little like any of these and it is in that tension between the apparent and the actual where the adventuresome reader might discover some discomforting truths which might excite them even as they might feel repelled.  That is the genius on display here and it is long past time that this contemporary of Oliverio Girondo, Roberto Arlt, and Jorge Luis Borges receives his own translation into English.

On Elegance While Sleeping is a short novel; it is under 200 pages.  Yet its contents belie its brevity; it is full of digressions that slowly, purposely build up to tell a story that is much more than the sum of its thoughts.  Take for instance the introduction to the narrator's pseudo-diary:

The first time I entrusted my hands to a manicurist was the evening I headed to the Moulin Rouge.  The woman trimmed back my cuticles and polished my nails with an emery board.  Then she filed them to points and finished up with some polish.  My hands no longer looked like they belonged to me.  I put them on my table, in front of my mirror, and changed their positions in the light.  With the same sense of self-consciousness one feels when posing for a photographer, I picked up a pen and began to write.

That's how I started this book.

At the Moulin Rouge that night I heard a woman standing nearby say in Spanish:  "That man's taken such good care of his hands, the only thing left is to murder someone with them." (p. 3)

Underneath the banal descriptions of a dandy getting his nails filed and polished, with its near eidetic recall detailed at laborious length, there is a hint of something monstrous that is being planned.  With each entry, most rarely being more than a few pages long, Tegui develops this fascinating narrator.  Is this narrator what he appears to be?  Is he hiding something out in plain sight?  Just why does he keep engaging in digressions?

Tegui does a masterful job throughout this novel of playing off these tensions found in juxtaposing mundane details (such as the Seine river flowing through the narrator's 19th century birthplace of Bougival) with the horrific (detailed discussions of things such as "it [the river] jammed the millwheel with the bodies of drowning victims, bashful beneath its surface." (p. 4)).  The reader perhaps will find herself just wondering more about this narrator.  Is he sane at all?  Just what is he telling us that's so important that he interrupts his descriptions of depravities with trivialities and his depictions of everyday life with brutalities?

One possible approach toward reading On Elegance While Sleeping is to pay closer attention to those seemingly trivial details.  A closer examination of these dozens of entries reveals a life that is fascinating in its frustrations as much as in what has been accomplished.  The narrator is a former soldier and in those descriptions of his sensitivities and his impending dissolution (both moral and physical alike), Tegui slowly constructs a fascinating portrait of a person at the edge, both in terms of his real and imagined conflicts such as his statements on homosexuality, which are intriguing in how denial and implied acceptance of it are conmingled in such a fashion as to accentuate the divisions within the narrator's own mind.  The result is a mosaic image of a person whose desires and conflicts are not as much baldly stated but rather elements that are constructed from inferences and strengthened by seeming digressions into the quotidian, mundane world surrounding him.

Idra Novey's translation appears to contain no faults.  Although I have the Spanish original on import order now, her prose is elegant and there never is the sense that I was reading a translation.  The psychological depths of Tegui's writings are brought out here in full splendor and despite the sometimes graphic, lurid recounting of certain desires (the "sleeping" desire being foremost here), the narrative contains a force to it that almost compels the reader to continue onward.  The diary concludes abruptly, realizing the full impact of the gradual buildup prior to its sudden conclusion.  That conclusion strengthens what Tegui has developed all along, as the narrator's proclivities, his anguish, his quest for "rest" flow into a murderous crescendo that reverberates back through the narrative, creating a desire on the reader's part to re-read and reconsider just what has transpired and how Tegui relates this momentous event.

Published a generation after the Symbolists and Decadents made their mark on European and American literary scenes, On Elegance While Sleeping is a worthy successor to such memorable works as Maldoror, Là-Bas, or The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Tegui's work contains the layers of psychological depth and conflict found in the works mentioned above and the sometimes surreal-like alternation between the "real" and the narrator's feverish views of himself and the world around him creates a narrative tension that adds power to a potent tale.  On Elegance While Sleeping is quite simply one of the best successors to the literary worlds of the Symbolists and Decadents and 85 years after its initial release, it is finally receiving the English translation it so richly deserves.

This book will be published on November 30, 2010 and is available online and through Dalkey Archive Press.

Thoughts on a few blogger/reviewer-centric matters

Now that the dust clouds are beginning to settle down from the past week's controversies surrounding who said what and how much was said about a pre-release book, time to stir it up again (only a little, I hope, since I really don't have the time during the work week) and explore a few interesting patterns I've noticed in the past few months.

The first thing I've noticed in the ease in which certain bloggers can be "demonized."  Since his name was never directly stated in the original post on Floor to Ceiling Books, a lot of the talk has been about Pat St. Denis of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist.  Now I'm not a fan of some of his approaches to reviewing books and I certainly disagree with his political views (and have parodied that on several occasions), but I do feel that there was too quick of a reaction to attack him for posting initial thoughts on that WoT book.  Considering that the majority of those waxing eloquent and emotional about review "embargoes" were those who weren't even visible bloggers (if they even had a blog in the first place) when the previous volume of the WoT series was released last year, they probably didn't even consider that things might have been a bit different and that there might have been an assumption that things could be the same this time.  That's how I was able to misinterpret the request (for which I have said my piece earlier) and that's why I think Pat felt he could post what he did.  Regardless that I think his post was a bit too direct in a couple of places, I don't think it was as egregious of an error as some of the newbie bloggers have made it out to be.

The sad thing about this spectacle is that it opens up quite a few cans of worms.  Two of the more vociferous critics of this past affair, Amanda Rutter and Aidan Moher, have written columns/reviews that are hosted on  While is a separate arm of Macmillan (who owns Tor/Forge, who in turn publishes the WoT series), there could be a sense of "impropriety" in which those criticizing the most are in fact those who have the most vested in others following the publisher's wishes.  I note this not because I believe either one to have this consciously in their minds, but to raise the question of the entangled nature of reviewing, online and print alike, and its relationships with publishers.

It can be very easy for an uninformed, casual reader of several blogs, websites, and Twitter/Facebook accounts to wonder if those sites (including this one, I suppose) are a bit too "close" to the objects of their posts.  Yesterday on Mark Charan Newton's blog, I wrote about a need for a "healthy distrust" (or "skepticism," which might be more apt). on the parts of reviewers (or critics, but since quite a few seem to despise that term for one of a reviewer's jobs, I'll just merely note that semantic tension and leave it for now) when it comes to reviewing books.  Too often, I read comments where some, usually newish or more obscure bloggers but not always, state that receiving review copies is a "privilege."  If that mindset is the dominant one, then no wonder why so many online review sites have problems with credibility beyond their inabilities to review at a greater depth than a fifth grade book report bolted onto a "feelings" summary that has a blurb stapled to it!

In an ideal world, reviewers would be equally likely to rip apart a book they receive from a publisher or author as they would a book they had purchased.  It doesn't happen.  There are some built-in biases and pressures.  I know I have to be extra careful in reading/reviewing books by people I consider friends of mine because I worry I'll be too forgiving of their books' faults when I read them.  Sometimes, I might in fact be harsher in my opinions of those books precisely because I'm trying to counterbalance any initial personal bias.  But even in these cases, some could rightfully question whether or not my own entangled webs affect the reading. 

There has to be some sort of distance.  It is almost a case of the speck/mote and the beam/plank in the biblical parable of things in people's eyes being pointed out here.  Some of the people criticizing others for their actions perhaps do not realize that their own positions are tenuous at best, based on the tricky relationships in which they find themselves.  But instead of pointing fingers at others and trying to account reiterations of "J'Accuse," perhaps it might behoove all of us to get our own houses in order, try to have as few ties as possible to the objects of review (unavoidable when one is working in other areas, like I have been over the past year with editing and translations), and focus more on correcting our own faults rather than pointing out the foibles others commit.  It has, after all, been a remarkable quarter year or so for backbiting in some quarters and I regret contributing to some of it.

Upcoming blogging/reviewing plans

Working on several things right now, some of which are close to coming to fruition.  By Thanksgiving (just over a month from now), I hope to have accomplished most, if not all, of the following:

1)  Review all eight of the Dalkey Archive books that are sent to me as a gift, as the four I have read to date are different from the S.O.S. that too often is promoted on certain blogs.

2)  Write a review of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's second steampunk anthology, Steampunk II:  Steampunk Reloaded, in a week or two.

3)  Write a review of the Luso-Brazilian steampunkish anthology, Vaporpunk, in the next two to three weeks.

4)  Review a 2010 release (may be a Dalkey Archive book or another) that I feel deserves more visibility on a day in which so many others will be reviewing the exact same book.  Was planning on doing this in conjunction with said book, before I changed my mind, as I outlined in a post a few days ago.

5)  Review Emma Donoghue's Room either later today or sometime during the week.

6)  Start in earnest my planned irregular series of reviews, to be called "Leatherbound Reviews" (or something akin to that), devoted to some of the nice editions of classic works that I'm collecting every now and then.  Am in the process of collecting all six volumes of the 1974 leatherbound Easton Press edition of Edward Gibbons' The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

7)  Try to continue to resist making mocking posts about others, even if some deserve it more than what I probably deserve.  That might be the hardest goal to meet, considering who's talking now...

Oh, and a couple of delayed but still-promised reviews will be slotted in very shortly, as despite the delays (I don't like to read/review books when I'm at lulls in my reading time, as I fear that would prejudice me against a work unnecessarily) I still have every intention of reviewing them as I can find the time.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I knew there was a reason why I liked her work so!

Watch live video from Two Dollar Radio on

I was checking the Two Dollar Radio blog to see what new things were up, since I'm planning on ordering some new books this weekend and because I enjoyed reading/reviewing Grace Krilanovich's The Orange Eats Creeps.  Well, I noticed that they had a sort of video interview with her up, so I thought I'd watch it when I noticed that she has outstanding taste in toy animals!  Of course, I have to share this, so watch to your hearts' contents!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Belatedly for me, an "ethical" decision

Today, I received yet another review copy in the mail.  It might be my fourth or fifth one this week so far; I can't recall for certain.  It is a slim enough volume, perhaps a little over 300 pages.  The description is intriguing enough that I might read it and if I like it, perhaps review it sometime in the next couple of months, time permitting.  The title of the book does not matter, as it could describe any number of books, received as a review copy or purchased by myself, over the past 3.5 years.

What does matter, I suppose, is how I prioritize things.  For the past year and a half or so, I've felt more and more disinclined to participate in "herd" activities.  Sometimes, I am lauded for that, other times I am castigated, sometimes rightly.  I do try to stay true to myself, but that does not always happen.  Errare humanum est and all that.

Recently, I slipped up and said more than I meant in regards to my general impressions regarding a certain book.  I did not sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (although I have signed one in the past), but I had meant to try and keep to the letter of the request not to divulge content from the upcoming book, the thirteenth Wheel of Time book, Towers of Midnight.  I made the mistake of responding too frankly to some comments on a thread I posted at the Read and Find Out site about receiving the book and in trying to walk the fine line between not revealing spoilers and trying to answer questions about my general impressions, I slipped and in the minds of many, especially WoT fans, I crossed a line which I regret crossing.  While I do not believe that I definitively revealed anything of importance, the shadings caused by a few responses have created some regrettable controversy.

Of course, I was not alone and it seems another has been a bit more direct in stating his opinions on what he has read so far.  Perhaps Pat's posting of his initial impressions 2/3 into the book violates not just the spirit but also the letter of the "review embargo."  I'll leave that for you to decide.  But what I found to be more interesting, however, were some of the responses.  I see that in the past day or so, there have been a couple of posts by other bloggers about "ethics" and "embargoes."  In addition, I have seen in my Twitter feed several comments regarding the "legitimacy" of "certain reviewers" getting to review said books and/or whether or not "they" ought to be permitted to receive more advance review copies.  Several interesting points were made.

In reading through these (I have not responded directly to anything until now), I first found myself thinking, "well, I guess I fucked up worse than I thought," only to have that thought followed with "wait a minute, weren't some of those complainers just blogging or tweeting about receiving the 'latest' book weeks or months before its release date? "  I am not going to state much more on this line of thought except to say that it led to me considering a couple of comments in one of the links above.

In those comments, two people discuss "ethics" from the vantage point of reviewers and their relationship with companies.  One opines that perhaps "embargoes" are a ridiculous concept that only serves in the end to make the reviewer a presumed extension of the publisher's publicity department, while the other notes that there is a risk involved in breaking such embargoes, ridiculous as they might seem to others, and that perhaps the price for true reviewing "independence" might be giving up access to those advance review copies.

I have seen iterations of these arguments several times before, but this recent situation, coupled with a sea shift in interests away from focusing on recent releases and toward a mixture of exploring older fictions, promoting offbeat fictions that appeal to me, and freelance translations on occasion. Perhaps it might be more "ethical" for me to have this blog focus more on those interests, with only occasional "new" releases discussed because they interest me.

So what I have decided to do is this:  I am not going to actively agree to receive review copies or sign any more "embargoes."  I will respond to personalized inquiries, but I will not seek out any more releases unless I personally know the other party.  If I am dropped from mass mailing lists, I will understand.  If I do receive an unsolicited book, I will consider the book, but I will not "slot" it into a specific release date window.  The latest book I received is scheduled to be released in the US on October 26.  I may read it this weekend, or it might not be until mid-November before I read and possibly review it.  That way, there can be something more "natural" about the reviewing, I hope.  As for the book at the heart of this, I did have genuine interest in it after the last volume and I will review it.  However, since my comments elsewhere have stirred up enough attention as it is, I will likely wait a few days after its November 2nd release and write a review that will be more formal and thus more "spoiler-laden" than typical.  I think that will allow me to have the space for a better-written review than what I might have done and not "reward" myself with increased hits that tend to come when publishers post links to release-day reviews.

So if this means I won't receive as many advance review copies or only from people I know personally, so be it.  I believe this will be the best course of action for me in the future.  Too bad it came after a stupid mistake on my part.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Update on the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series books I now own: Part II

And here's the second set of five photos of thirteen book covers to behold and to consider.  As I asked below in the first post, which ones here are your favorites and why?

Update on the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series books I now own: Part I

Since I have over thirty of these to show (just following up on a request made to me a few weeks ago to take pictures of each of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy book covers as I receive them), this shall be the first of two posts.  Yeah, some of these covers are quite fugly, but most I happen to like.  Which are your favorites and why?

Ideations, major book awards, and an apologia for non-speculative literatures

Last week, I made a little post inquiring for others to provide their definitions of fantasy.  There were several excellent definitions provided (including one by Hal Duncan that he posted on his blog)  and I hope readers of this post will take the time to read each of the comments in both my original thread and Hal's post.  I added a little bit at the end noting that my definition of fantasy revolves around ideations, something I'll expound upon shortly.

However, I must confess that when I posted that, I had another thought in my head at the time, a thought that still hasn't worked its way through.  If it is so difficult to come up with a good, concise definition of "fantasy," then how hard it might be to define what might fall under what some would call "realist" or "mimetic" fiction, among other such titles that might be crafted to describe something equally slippery to those attempting to pin it down!

This morning (I woke up four hours earlier than I had planned, due to crashing the evening before and also due to chronic lower back pain), I was reading this post about some debate that China Miéville and John Mullan apparently had at some British lit festival about the merits of the Man Booker Prize.  Although the blog entry doesn't really give any specifics as to what Mullan said, I found myself being curiouser and curiouser about some of the issues surrounding some perspectives of major book awards.

I suppose the controversy, if there really is such beyond some spec fic fan corners, centers around "finest book" and the selection process.  It seems that the burden of proof has been placed on the Booker Prize selectors somehow to develop a criteria for selection that allows for more "genre" books to be considered.  But something tells me that trying to open up things to particular narrative styles might have some consequences.  First, I suspect there might be a sort of bias on the parts of those protesting the loudest in regards to the types of stories that are typically considered for awards such as the Booker Prize.  Perhaps some want to see cod-Wagnerian morality shows as being of paramount importance in a larger discussion of literatures that reflect societal conflicts, but to me, there seems to be something troubling about that.  I just don't quite get the shoehorning of commercial fictions that are deliberately marketed to the LCD reading market into an award that focuses on recognizing works that typically have something to say about societal and/or personal conflicts.

This is not to say that I endorse a segregation of idealized fictions (I do see fantasies of all stripes as ultimately representing facets of idealized forms, both positive and negative alike, of Self, Society, and Environment) from those fictions that largely eschew idealized presentations.  Rather, I wonder if the epistemological yardsticks being employed in these sorts of discussions vary too much for there to be more than the broadest of connections (such as each sort representing facets of a society's material culture, to be best analyzed by cultural historians, at least in regards to how each narrative type has a larger point to make than what is explicitly stated within its pages) between the so-called "fantasies" and the so-called "realist" fictions.

"Realist" fiction (I think I'll just employ that term for the remainder of this essay, even if there are other, similar terms that I also favor on occasion) has a lot to say to me.  I enjoy it greatly, even if I don't always review here as much as I perhaps should (something I might rectify in the very near future, even if it costs me some readers who would prefer that this post focus almost exclusively on recently-released speculative fictions.  To them, I will dedicate the refrain from Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name").  Often, I am much more troubled by what I read in those stories set in the here and now, starring those who could be a friend, a lover, a student, or any neighbor I happen to meet.  I do not read for "escape," but rather for engagement.  Sometimes, those engagements can be painful.  I am currently 50 pages into Emma Donoghue's Room (which I believe was shortlist for the Booker, coincidentally) and it is at times a very painful read.  The writing, for the most part, has captured my attention, despite my reservations about the narrator's voice (I don't know many five year-olds who can count into the hundreds or have some abstract perception, but this is not enough to break my suspension of disbelief).  The topic, dealing with incest/rape, is a brutal one, one that I've experienced secondhand through the lives of a very close friend of mine and some of my female students over the years.  Yet what Donoghue is describing is something worth considering, something worth reading, and it is the sort of reading that I rarely encounter in the fantasies that I have read over the years.  Sometimes, non-idealized fictions have a power and beauty of their own.

I suppose that some might argue that my apologia above misses a major point, that of access to wider public recognition.  I would have been willing to consider that, if I hadn't learned this past weekend that Grace Krilanovich (whose The Orange Eats Creeps I team-reviewed earlier this month) was selected as one of five National Book Foundation's Five Under 35 recipients.  But I'm guessing that because it isn't marketed as being anything approaching a market category fantasy that it "doesn't count" in the opinions of the most vociferous complainers?  Perhaps it might behoove all of us to figure out just what we mean by "fantasy" and "realist" fictions and understand their respective appeals to various people (often the same people, at different times) first before we start lambasting certain international book awards, no?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Busy on some upcoming projects

Despite things at work settling into a (mostly) bearable pattern, it looks like I'll be busy the next few months with a few projects.  Due to the nature of these projects, I won't say what they are, at least not directly.  First up is a little project that I'm working on Fábio Fernandes that Jeff VanderMeer blogged about earlier today.  I'm stretching my wings a bit with this one and I hope that within the next four weeks we'll have something that will intrigue readers.

The second project has been ongoing for the past month and a half and had to be postponed temporarily due to various members becoming burdened with work needs.  But sometime in the near future, hopefully by the end of this month but more likely sometime next month, there will be something released that will generate quite a bit of discussion, or at least that's the hope.

Later this week or next week, I am planning to release a list of pre-2010 books that I think would make for excellent holiday gifts or things worthy of self-purchases.  These will all be books that I read for the first time in 2010 that deserve some attention.

Finally, after I get paid this upcoming Friday, I'm going to resume my collection of the final three volumes of the 1974 Easton Press leatherbound edition of Edward Gibbons' The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Just something I want to collect in very nice editions.  Might start an irregular reading/review series of treasured classics that I've bought in limited editions.  Should make for an interesting change of pace, especially once the nasty winter rains arrive in the next couple of months.

Reviewing pitfalls

The past three days have been rather "educational" ones for me as a reviewer.  I posted Friday afternoon that I had received an autographed review copy of the thirteenth The Wheel of Time book, Towers of Midnight.  In addition to being the main blogger here, I am active at two forums and I have been asked several dozen questions, visible and via private messages alike, things about the book.  I am not by nature someone who thinks much about "spoilers," but I do respect things to the point that I won't reveal anything even as specific as what I would say in my formal reviews before a book's release date.

Yet even mentioning my thoughts on the book's style (which says nothing about the plot developments) or making the vaguest of hints (not to read the Glossary before finishing the story, due to an unfortunate entry that spoils all sorts of things, at least for the most common definitions of "spoilers," is one of a few examples) seems to have fanned a few sparks.  This morning, I discovered that there were on two other sites posts about my comments that supposedly support this or that view of plot guessing.  This is despite me saying anything much beyond something like "there also could have been something from the third book that could have been alluded to as an 'overlooked event'" (or however I worded it when I wrote that allusion).  What have I taken from this?  That hardcore WoT fans will even try to postulate things from the remarks Sanderson wrote on the review copies.  Next time there is a high-profile release, I don't know if I'll even bother mentioning anything, since it's become quite wearisome seeing not just all the proddings to try and get me to support any of a dozen particular "theories" on 'future' events, but also reading those who seem to think that I wanted to "spoil" things (despite taking great pains to say much less than what I would in a review) or that I was "playing games" with fans.

In addition, I've seen a few comments, both on forums and in my Twitter feed questioning my motivations for reviewing the book in the first place.  It appears some people (most of them WoT fans, but not necessarily all of the ones whose comments I've seen) seem to think that someone who "is not a WoT fan" somehow "cannot do justice to the books" in a review.  It is a very odd complaint, one that seems to be tied in self-defense.  I would think that it might make for a better review if the reviewer weren't necessarily a "fan" of the reviewed work's author.  This is not to say that a "fan" of an author's previous works cannot be honest and write a good review (I like to think that I've been able to do so in the past with certain authors), but rather that if a reviewer who has an open mind and yet is not afraid to be critical of a work were to write a review.  Certainly there would be points of emphasis that would differ from a fannish review of any particular work, which is far from a bad thing in my opinion.

It is not easy, though, writing reviews or discussing books or anything that comes under the purview of being a reviewer, online or print.  I am not one who believes dogmatically in objective distance, yet it is rather annoying to keep having to deny all sorts of statements because so much is becoming twisted.  It's almost as if I had read the New Testament before anyone else and I said "oh, there's some resolution to Isaiah 53" and someone then proclaims that the Messiah has kicked Roman ass and the Jews are going to par-tay!  Best to remember that some people are just going to miss the point of doing a review in the first place and that it might be best to say to yourself, "I really need to STFU, as some are going all Foucault's Pendulum on me!"  Come and think of it, there might be some reading this who will take this as being a cryptic reference to all of the previous statements being misleading ones done on purpose, done just for nefarious shits and giggles.  Who knows?

All I know is that reviewing is much more than praising or condemning elements of a book.  It seems to be an emphatic avoidance of "fans" of all stripes if the subject matter strays anywhere near to their object of fanaticism.  Otherwise, a reviewer can wake up and find people outside her window, one group proclaiming to follow The Way of the Gourd and others The Path of the Shoe.  Now if only I can figure out a polite way to tell them to "fuck off"...

Non-WoT Book Porn (some of a very high quality)

Although I have a serious post planned for later tonight (time permitting), thought I would just regale a few with the past few days' arrivals (mostly purchases) of books that, with one or two exceptions, intrigue me.  Oh, and yes, there's a Crime Masterworks series as well.  Thinking about exploring that, just so my "one crime fiction fan", Brian, can see what I make of his favorite genre of fiction ;)

Oh, and I'm halfway through collecting the entire 1974 Easton Press leatherbound editions of Edward Gibbon's epic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Look nice, don't they?  Already owned vol. 4, so below are the first two volumes.  Enjoy!

Friday, October 15, 2010

My copy of Towers of Midnight just arrived

 I received my review copy of Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson's Towers of Midnight a few minutes ago.  Here are two photos to prove that I received them, although I will not be revealing anything of a spoilerish nature until November 2, the book's scheduled US release date.  I will note that there are 861 pages in this book and that glancing at the very end of the book, it's surprising.  Might read it this weekend rather than next weekend, as I had originally planned, just on the basis of those final scenes, so I can see how it reached to that point.  But outside of that, mum shall be the word, as I have already promised elsewhere.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What is fantasy?

Just another silly/profound (?) question that's been popping up more and more often in my mind while I'm reading certain books.  Instead of just trying to address it right now, I thought I'd just pose that simple 'lil question for the readers here, just to see what they would come up with as means of explanation.

I guess I should also note that this question last appeared while I was just finishing my reading of George MacDonald's Phantastes.  Interesting book, one that I shall re-read at some future point before reviewing it at length.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mid-week, mid-October book porn

Here are five more books, all but one in the original Ballantine Books edition, of books selected to be in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. These will be read in the near future.

Here are three books that I have bought (the Gilman, Donoghue, and Conn books) and two that I received recently from DAW and St. Martin's Press.  Currently reading the Gilman book after finishing (and mostly enjoying) the Conn book this weekend.  The Donoghue will be read in the near future; uncertain about the other two.

And to close things out, here are three DAW paperbacks that I received earlier this week.  The usual monthly themed paperback anthology, plus the MMPB edition of Katharine Kerr's latest book and some urban fantasy.  Might glance through the steampunk anthology at least, but am uncertain at the moment.
Which one(s) appeal to you the most and why?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

September 2010 Reads

Better late than never, I suppose.  Forty-one books read this month.  Mostly a list and not a commentary, alas.

294  Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker (reviewed here)

295  Walter Tevis, Mockingbird (reviewed on the SFF Masterworks blog)

296  William Morris, The Well at the World's End (seminal fantasy, but dry at times)

297  Michael Moorcock, Gloriana (reviewed on the SFF Masterworks blog)

298  Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris (nice appreciation of books read.  Thanks to Fábio Fernandes for recommending it to me)

299  Patricia McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (reviewed on the SFF Masterworks blog)

300  Brian Aldiss, Helliconia (reviewed on the SFF Masterworks blog)

301 Poul Anderson, Three Hearts and Three Lions (reviewed on the SFF Masterworks blog)

302  Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man (OK to decent read)

303  Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic (interesting premise, but the story didn't impress me that much)

304  Joe Halderman, The Forever War (someday, I will re-read and review this.  Very good work)

305 Larry Niven, Ringworld (OK, but nothing all that great about it)

306  Jack London, The Scarlet Plague (excellent story of a mass near-extinction of humans)

307  John Crowley, The Solitudes (one day I'll write an appreciation of the Ægypt Cycle books)

308  George Meredith, The Shaving of Shagpat (excellent 19th century oriental fantasy)

309  Hernán Rivera Letelier, El arte de la resurrección (Spanish; fairly good work)

310  Darin Bradley, Noise (good debut effort, but not among the best 2010 debuts I've read so far this year)

311  Gail Carriger, Blameless (good, but at times I wonder if she's beginning to repeat herself)

312  Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (very good debut effort.  Moving)

313  Lord Dunsany, At the Edge of the World (nice 1970s collection of some of his earlier short stories)

314  John Crowley, Love & Sleep (see earlier comment)

315  Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia (I really ought to do a review sometime, but a re-read is in order first.  Outstanding on the initial read)

316  John Crowley, Dæmonomania (see earlier comment)

317  John Crowley, Endless Things (see earlier comment)

318  Sam Sykes, Tome of the Undergates (oil and water here.  I think some would enjoy this debut more than I did.  Just not the sort of adventure/quest I was in the mood to read, with me never really being able to engage with the prose, characters, situations, setting, etc.  Maybe next time.  Maybe)

319  Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down (good poli-sci book on contemporary problems, revolving around energy/resource usage)

320  Grace Krilanovich, The Orange Eats Creeps (three lit creeps have already eaten this orange, I believe)

321  Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds.), Steampunk II:  Steampunk Reloaded (full review in early November.  I have a hot/cold relationship with steampunk fictions and that was evident in reading this anthology)

322  Miguel de Unamuno, Niebla (Spanish; good early Modernist work)

323  William Beckford, Vathek (now one of my favorite oriental fantasies)

324  John Ajvide Lindqvist, Handling the Undead (an undead/zombie story that I actually loved!  Might need to write a full review of this sometime soon)

325  Hannes Bok, The Sorcerer's Ship (some good descriptions, marred by a sometimes flat storytelling style)

326  Katherine Kurtz, Deryni Rising (her debut book, and its Welsh/Celtic storyline was executed well)

327  Lucius Shepard, Viator (Shepard writes damn good stories, ya know?)

328  Amal El-Mohtar, The Honey Month (prose, poetry, honey tasting all blended into one odd but delightful stories that deserve to be read, one a day)

329  Viscount Lascano Tegui, On Elegance While Sleeping (review in the near future)

330  Gert Jonke, The System of Vienna (review in the near future)

331  Ann Radcliffe, The Italian (one of the best Gothic novels of the late 18th century)

332  René  Belletto, Dying (review forthcoming)

333  Poul Anderson, Hrolf Kraki's Saga (retelling of a fragmentary Norse saga.  OK rendering, but nothing special to me)

334  Lin Carter (ed.), Great Short Novels of Adult Fantasy I (four novellas, all good to very good)

As for October 1-12, I have since read another 16 works, with hopes to read another 15-20 by month's end.

Gimmick Infringement!

Been away from the computer most of the past few days, so I really didn't get the chance to feed the troll like I wish I could have.  I did notice the post when it appeared in the Referrals part of Sitemeter when I checked it and left a little comment, but I soon saw more discussion of it elsewhere

Now I could have been upset about being lumped together with others (I'm a special snowflake, dammit!), but instead, I'll just merely note that I'm the one who's supposed to be "reviewing the reviewers."  It's just blatant gimmick infringement and not only that, he does a poor job of doing it.  Instead of taking the opportunity to use other reviews as a means of self-evaluation and learning what problematic areas might need to be addressed, this newbie blogger just settles for complaints about money spent on a book he didn't enjoy.  The form of that complaint was rather bland and unoriginal, the execution was iffy (he has yet to provide counter-evidence to support his point, but hey, since when do such posts seek to provide debate points, right?) and the entire post might rank as a 7.5/10.

But enough troll feeding.  I have to leave for work now.  Be good...and watch out for a squirrel ninja or two.  They can go all Kung-Fu on your face in a blink of the eye, you know.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Some things just read strange in another language, I suppose

I'm currently reading Vaporpunk:  Relatos steampun publicados sob as ordens de Suas Majestades and for the most part, I am enjoying the stories quite a bit.  However, there are a few oddities that creep up from time to time.  Things such as having a "New Albion" founded by a mixture of Aztecs and other Amerindian groups.  But the oddest was a character name, one that I found to be hilarious.

There is a military character in one story named "Major Twat."

Yes.  Major Twat.

Uncertain if that was meant to be an homage of sorts to some of the officer names in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, but it certainly brought a few chuckles whenever I would see that character's name.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Bookshelf battle!

Since I bought a new digital 12 MP camera to take pictures instead of my 3.1 MP camera phone, I thought I'd test it out by taking pictures of three bookshelves and posting them here.  Based on the books pictured in these three images, which one of the three contains a higher number of books you want to read/own and/or editions that you wish to own?

Just a silly way to begin the weekend, but hey, might as well post something silly before I sit down and write a few reviews, right?  I do have a Brazilian novel by Max Mallmann to review in the very near future, one that I think several readers might enjoy...provided, of course, that they could read Portuguese.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize in Literature

I learned this morning that Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature.  Frankly, I was surprised, not because I don't admire his works (I am a fan), but because I had pretty much given up hope that he would be chosen, especially since he entered politics as a neo-liberal, center-right voice and the Nobel committee seems to have a bias against those who are not at least center-left in their politics.  So it was with a mixture of pleasure and surprise that I read the news.

For those who have not read Vargas Llosa, he is one of the younger members of the celebrated "Boom Generation" of Latin American writers.  But I would hesitate to conflate his works with those of Carpentier, Rulfo, Fuentes, or García Márquez.  For one, his works are less fantastical in content than the others.  But this is not to say that his works don't contain elements of "heightened realism."  Influenced by William Faulkner (Vargas Llosa repeatedly has said that Faulkner was his main influence) in how he utilizes scene and character development, several of his best-known works, such as The War of the End of the World, contain a sense of intensity and apocalyptic fervor that makes his works feel otherworldly at times, even when there is nothing overtly supernatural about the settings or situations.

Vargas Llosa frequently takes the side of the average person, whether it be Peruvian soldiers in some of his earlier novels or the characters that conspire in Conversations in a Cathedral, and it is the voice that he lends to the "voiceless" that make several of his works compelling reads.  His prose is sharp, to the point, yet also containing an elegance that I fear might not be translated adequately into other languages.  I am currently reading his 1985 murder-mystery, ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero?, and I am finding myself, halfway through this 190 page novel, marveling over how adroitly Vargas Llosa sets the mood.  This is some heavy-hitting prose and unless it takes a major turn for the worse, it might be worthy to be on the same shelf as his best-known and lauded works.

Perhaps this Nobel reception will lead to several readers of this blog to at least consider reading some of his works.  Vargas Llosa is a very talented writer, one whose humane approach to characters who suffer inhumane treatment at the hands of junta leaders and dictators.  Their stories are moving and hopefully others will enjoy them as much as I have in the original Spanish.

More Brazilian-Portuguese FC/Vaporpunk, plus other recent arrivals

Today I received this package of four books mailed to me from Brazil.  First up will be a close reading of Vaporpunk, an original collection of steampunk fictions from Brazil and Portugal, edited by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro and Luis Filipe Silva.  Expect a review of this sometime in the next few weeks.  In addition, I received the first three volumes of an annual anthology of Brazilian FC (Ficção Científica), Fantasy, and Horror.  These volumes are edited (variously) by Tibor Moricz, Saint-Clair Stockler, Eric Novello, and Erick Santos Cardoso.  Many of the authors in these four anthologies are on my Twitter follow list, so I am curious to see how much I enjoy their stories.  More on all of this at a later date.

Here are three recent purchases.  The first two are 1970s Ballantine Books releases that were or at least were intended to be part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.  Imaginary Worlds was a non-fiction piece about the history of fantasy in the late 19th and 20th centuries and it contains some comments that might be worthy of discussion at a latter date.  And of course, when two great things, David Sedaris and squirrels, are combined together, it has to be a must-buy for me, right?

And finally, here are four publisher-sent review copies.  Uncertain when, or even if, I will manage to get to these, but perhaps someone reading this is a bit curious about these four books and would like to know more later?

That does it for now.  Looks like I have some good reading ahead for myself.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

I had a near-religious experience at work today

The work day began inauspiciously today; I vomited soon after waking up, my stomach upset by some food I had eaten.  Since I really needed the money, I went into work, despite the queasiness that lasted most of the morning session.  But I am very glad that I persevered, as I got to enjoy one of life's greatest pleasures.

After lunch, a student asked if he could get a book to read from the storeroom while most of the rest of the class were in group sessions with their case managers and therapists.  I agreed and soon after we arrived in the room, I heard an odd sound, almost like a mouse squeak.  I thought at first the HVAC unit might be malfunctioning, as the sound came from near the unit.  But then there was a scratching sound from a box underneath that unit and wondering if it might indeed be a stray rodent, I got the student with me to check the box.  He lifted one end and jumped back, frightened by the animal within.

He then tried again and then he did that "awww" sound when someone is confronted with ultimate cuteness.  He reached in and pulled out...


Or rather, a two month-old squirrel that a female staff member was rescuing.  It already had its eyes open and fur, but it was perhaps only half the size of a full-grown adult.  We found a little squeezer/bottle and we bottle-fed it and then put it back and headed to room.  It was hard to leave at first, since it was like a visitation from a divine force for a Squirrelist, but ultimately I had to return to spread the squirrel gospel...or just to teach class; choose which explanation you think applies most here.

Of course, that student had to tell the others about the squirrel and I had to tell them that no, they could not worship the baby squirrel.  Of course, this led to a discussion among the handful of students in class about how one did wash and feed a squirrel.  After trying to decide what sort of squeeze/dropper would be best, one of the special ed students had a profound observation:

"Well, what if they go ahead and give a douche to the squirrel?"

Yes, these are my students.  May the squirrels have mercy on their souls.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Grace Krilanovich, The Orange Eats Creeps

This is one of a troika of reviews simultaneously posted, without prior discussion, on this blog, on Ecstatic Days, and Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream, with an additional post on Omnivoracious, the Amazon book blog.  

It's the '90s Pacific Northwest refracted through a dark mirror, where meth and madness hash it out in the woods. . . . A band of hobo vampire junkies roam the blighted landscape—trashing supermarket breakrooms, praying to the altar of Poison Idea and GG Allin at basement rock shows, crashing senior center pancake breakfasts—locked in the thrall of Robitussin trips and their own wild dreams. A girl with drug-induced ESP and an eerie connection to Patty Reed (a young member of the Donner Party who credited her survival to her relationship with a hidden wooden doll), searches for her disappeared foster sister along 'The Highway That Eats People,' stalked by a conflation of Twin Peaks' "Bob" and the Green River Killer, known as Dactyl."

Vampires have become such clichéd creatures.  From the seductive stand-ins for sexual awakening in Bram Stoker's Dracula to the suave, sophisticated killers of the 20th century horror films to the recent tamed, sensitive Edward Cullens of Twilight and its ilk, vampires reflect their times, but at a distance.  Despite their lust-filled aspect, vampires are too removed from our own psychological conflicts to represent anything truly threatening.  Or so it seemed until I recently read Grace Krilanovich's debut novel, The Orange Eats Creeps.

Read the book description provided above.  Imagine vampires that are not sexual stand-ins or sly killers, but instead are junkies looking for their next fix, searching for identity in a world stripped of it.  As the nameless female narrator of The Orange Eats Creeps states:

Dislodged from family and self-knowledge and knowledge of your origins you become free in the most sinister way.  Some call it having a restless soul.  That's a phrase usually reserved for ghosts, which is pretty apt.  I believe that my eyes filter out things that are true.  For better or worse, for good or merciless, I can't help but go through life with a selective view.  My body does it without conscious thought or decision.  It's a problem only if you make it one. (p. 5)
It is a true "teenage wasteland" that comes to (un)life here, but one that exists outside of The Who's "Baba O'Riley."  Set in the Pacific Northwest, after some indeterminate disaster, The Orange Eats Creeps does not inhabit just a locale but also takes up residence within one's psyche, especially for those of us who came of age in the 1990s.  There is none of the comforting "this is another's problem, I have nothing to worry about here" to be found within its pages.  The narrator's travels, her literal and metaphorical searches, her takes on life, people, and the bullshit that comprises life - all of these are compacted to fit into quick-hitting rabbit punches that leave the reader feeling distinctly uncomfortable within their own skins.

The Orange Eats Creeps is full of sounds and smells; decaying, rotting, festering, empty sounds and smells:

I sat awkwardly perched on a stool in the middle of the room, the only place left, while Seth rolled cigarettes with the other dudes.  A prehistoric bluegrass 45 rotated on the portable next to the door, the dead man sang a giggolo is the only way to go-o.  The record cracked and popped, the sound of slowly opening a peanut butter sandwich.  They let us sleep in an RV on the property and I woke alone in the afternoon with the sweet charred flavor of burnt baked beans wafting in through the window.  Some flaky Anarchos had been heating up some shit at the campfire next to the car and then left it there for long enough to have reduced the can of beans to a firm, dry brick on the fire. (p. 22)

Krilanovich utilizes smells and sounds throughout this story.  Not only do we get to see the last frayed edges of civilization up close in living color, we get to smell its decaying corpse belch out its rotting putrescence in variegated browns, oranges, and blacks.  It is a hopeless world, one where the wandering hobo vampires are in search of a fix, whether it be found in meth, speed, sex, or just a purpose.  It is a setting where days are divided into three distinct parts:

The night is brown browntime, the day is orange orangetime, then pink pinktime. (p. 23)
Throughout the story, there are several allusions to orange, such as this claim by one of the narrator's peripatetic companions, Jacob:

"We own nothing but what's inside.  It's the middle of the night in here," he said, pointing to his chest.  This is what we own:  our thoughts, orange and sickly.  You feed it nothing but sorrow and it grows and stars come out and you are the King of your own Island of Night!" (p. 36)

Such thoughts, whether they be those of the narrator or her occasional fellow vampiric junkies, dominate much of the story.  They have been bequeathed nothing but the rotting remains of a civilization.  Theirs is the search to find something allay the suffering, to assuage the betrayals of their parents' generation.  This desire is made concrete in the narrator's search for her older foster sister, Kim, who disappeared some months before the story begins.  This quest, which leads the narrator to travel the dangerous The Highway That Eats People, is not one tinged with hope (it is implied in several places that Kim may have been murdered), but rather one full of desperation.  The narrator frequently refers to her "undead" state, to the tensions inherent in not being able to die and possessing a teen body is that forever dying.  Throughout The Orange Eats Creeps, we witness this conflict played out in a warped, surrealistic setting, where reality seems to bend and past and present conflate into a dreamlike whole that leaves the reader puzzling over what is real and what is unreal.

The Orange Eats Creeps contains so many levels of reaction and interaction within its 172 pages that sometimes tangled knots appear.  There were times that the blurred lines between the narrator's dreamtime and her waking moments became so intertwined that it was difficult to pick out just what was really occurring, although it should be noted that this seems to be precisely Krilanovich's intent, that of exploring what happens when events crash together and are subsumed by the internal conflict of the narrator.  Sometimes, the intensity of the narrator's thoughts and the passivity she took to some horrific events overwhelmed certain elements of the story; the drug-induced ESP and the connections alluded to in the blurb quoted above to the Donner Party girl were neglected for large stretches of the story.  Yet despite these moments of confusion and underdevelopment, on the whole The Orange Eats Creeps was a horrific, visceral novel that grabbed my attention and made me confront several unsettling aspects about the banal evils that surround us.  The emptiness of the hooking up and of the consumption of speed reminded me too much of my youth and of those I knew in my teens and early twenties.  Krilanovich captures the negative vibe that so many members of the Latchkey Generation experienced in the late 1980s and 1990s in a take no prisoners-style approach.  Twist it just a little bit, away from the concretized metaphor of the bleak, brown-and-orange wasteland and toward the bland, soulcrushing nature of teen life during this time period and it could read almost as a superbiography for so many of us that endured those years while seeking to find our way and ourselves through the haze of drugs, alcohol, and abusive relationships.

Although it is far from a cheery novel, The Orange Eats Creeps contains enough elements of hope to keep its readers going until the end.  While I cannot truly claim to have "enjoyed" this novel, I certainly can say that it is one of the most powerful, moving, and unsettling stories that I have read in quite some time.  The fact that this is Krilanovich's debut novel makes this novel a greater accomplishment than the fine work it already is.  It feels as though it is a story that has been "lived" and in witnessing this, we are changed as a result.  It is truly a remarkable work, one that will leave me thinking about its uncomfortable truths for a long time.
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