The OF Blog: January 2011

Monday, January 31, 2011

Cover art (and illustrations) you'll want to own


A few months ago, around the time that I received an ARC edition of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Steampunk II:  Steampunk Reloaded, I was made aware of Serbian illustrator Ivica Stevanović.  I was immediately impressed and wanted more samples of his work.


Early in December 2010, Jeff blogged about Ivica's new blog.   This blog, Edge Art, featured drawings from a book on Serbian mythology that he illustrated.  I wanted it, quite badly.  Fortunately, I know one of his students, Dunja.  Dunja just so happens to be the very talented artist who did this for me last year.   She said she would try to get a copy for me.  She emailed me a few days later saying she had acquired one and that it would be a belated Christmas gift to me.  I was quite excited.



The book arrived today and I was very surprised and elated to see this dedication.  I was feeling very ill from work exhaustion, but this has cheered me up immensely.  Many thanks to both Dunja for arranging this and Ivica for taking the time to do a personalized illustration for me.

Just thought the rest of you might want to see this very talented illustrator and just a small sampling of what promises to be a book that I'll read and re-read (once my understanding of Serbian progresses beyond elementary school-level phrases).  Hope you enjoyed these images.  If you want to see more of Ivica's work but cannot read Serbian, he is working on a few more English-language projects, including at least one (and likely more) with the VanderMeers that should see the light of day in the near future.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sure, everyone can criticize, but who really bothers with doing criticism these days?

Late last night, before going to bed, I saw a little Twitter discussion on an article in the UK paper The Guardian entitled "Everyone's a Critic Now."  Written by an American professor, Neal Gabler, the article presses all sorts of "hot topic" buttons that have been the rage for the past several years:  old guard, elitism, new trends, divides between high and popular culture, the emergence of a "new" populism, etc.  At first glance, it might seem as though the article puts into words what more and more people are feeling about issues of who ought to "control" the discourse on mass cultural elements such as literature and cinema promotion.

Yet if one looks beyond the glossy surface, Gabler's article is replete with generalizations that do not stand up well with someone, coincidentally enough, examines them with an *ahem* critical eye.  Here are a few excerpts from Gabler's article which I'll address:

And there was something else novel this time around. Despite the deafening ballyhoo, the critical consensus didn't seem to make much difference to the larger public. The Social Network did only "all right" business, not the sort of business one might expect for a celebrated cultural milestone; it has not yet broken the $100m mark at the box office and was the 29th highest grossing film last year, right under that blockbuster, Date Night. (The Coen Brothers' True Grit, by comparison, took $100m in just three weeks.) Similarly, Freedom just logged its 17th week on the New York Times bestseller list, after having fallen from the list before the holidays. It came 39th among the 100 bestselling books of 2010 on the USA Today list, despite the boost it got as an Oprah Book Club selection. And Boardwalk Empire began in September with a ratings bang of 4.8 million viewers, only to sink to 2.7 million by November. As Entertainment Weekly opined, it "doesn't seem to have the water cooler appeal" of The Sopranos or Mad Men. Critics were talking about it but ordinary people weren't.
Really... did he just go there?  There seems to be this sort of fallacy of connecting monetary success with value in this passage.  Yet if one bothers to consider the information provided in a different light, something else emerges.  If one has to take this view that critical praise does not correlate with financial success, then one would have to wonder at the benchmarks employed here.  Does a sub-$100 million grossing movie "fail" if it makes a profit and generates more interest than other movies of that type?  Since when is a book that appeared on the NYT list for 17 weeks and which was the 39th grossing book out of thousands of 2010 fiction releases a sign of anything other than it has at least some appeal to "ordinary people?"  Gabler's argument appears to be quite garbled here.

So if this was some sort of critical last stand, a desperate ploy by critics to display their power by circling the wagons, it seems to have failed. Even if The Social Network wins the Oscar as expected, Freedom the Pulitzer Prize and Boardwalk Empire the Emmy, it would only serve to confirm the breach that now seems to exist between the critics and the public. Once upon a time, critics could close that breach through a process close to cultural brainwashing. They could get people to see and love The Social Network, to read Freedom, to watch Boardwalk Empire. Now they can't.

Good Lord is his follow-up point ridiculous.  It sounds more akin to something that would have been produced by Soviet propagandists in the mid-20th century than it does anything akin to what has actually occurred in popular culture over the past few centuries.  See my above point on the thoughts of the "lack of success" of the works cited.  For God's sake, when I see Freedom sold in Krogers and Wal-Mart, I just can't buy Gabler's line of argument too readily.


The usual suspect in this immunisation is the internet. It is certainly no secret that the internet has eroded the authority of traditional critics and substituted Everyman opinion on blogs, websites, even on Facebook and Twitter where one's friends and neighbours get to sound off. What is less widely acknowledged is just how deeply this populist blowback is embedded in America and how much of American culture has been predicated on a conscious resistance to cultural elites. It is virtually impossible to understand America without understanding the long ongoing battle between cultural commissars who have always attempted to define artistic standards and ordinary Americans who take umbrage at those commissars and their standards.


Here he sets up a straw man.  What Gabler doesn't bother mentioning in this article, perhaps because it would dilute the thrust of his argument, is that for the majority of American literary history, both writers and readers alike did turn to a few sources.  For the first century of American independence, it often was English journals and the reviews found within that affected sales here.  American literature (not to mention the very language along the Atlantic seaboard) was heavily influenced by changing English customs.  Not that this would ever be mentioned in such an article, mind you.

Of course, some might want to argue that what I mention above could support Gabler's argument.  To that I would merely note that the so-called "cultural commissars" tended to be newspaper journalists who frequently came from relatively humble backgrounds.  Not too many university-educated people were proclaiming their views as if they were dictates to be imbibed immediately.


This is hardly a recent occurrence occasioned by the internet and other democratising elements. It actually began at the country's inception when political opposition to England bled into a form of cultural opposition as well. Europe was seen as effete, corrupt, supercilious and haughty. By contrast, ordinary Americans saw themselves as manly, honest, commonsensical and populist, and early on they tried to fashion a culture that manifested these characteristics – an American culture divorced from any European antecedents, a democratic culture.


This begins a few paragraphs' worth of vomit-inducing commentary.  Americans saw themselves in a variety of lights, which might be surprising to those who might take Gabler's opinion as being anything more than the recapitulation of a discredited myth which should have been taken out and shot behind the woodshed decades ago.


Not surprisingly, the conventional take on American popular culture by intellectuals is that it was the product of ignorance and a deficiency of good taste among the mass of American citizens. They had to bowdlerise culture because they couldn't appreciate the unadulterated thing.


That blasted indefinite "they!"  Would it have hurt Gabler to at least cite a few such "intellectuals," or is it much more convenient to paint with such broad tar streaks those who must be run out of town on a pole?

And yet even as they consumed high culture, they seemed to resent those who felt duty bound to impose it on them. Or put another way, it wasn't high culture they disdained so much as high culturists who, not incidentally, disdained them. Though it is impossible to prove with any certainty, it is likely that American popular culture, which is arguably the most ubiquitous and powerful culture in the world today, arose from this contrarian impulse: ordinary Americans would consciously create a culture that was everything the elitists detested. They would not only welcome the elitists' contempt; they would actively try to foment it. This was how America became engaged in its battle between high culture and low – not by accident but by design.

For someone who apparently is a professor of pop culture, that is a rather odd claim to make at the end, considering that "popular culture" has existed in some form or another for centuries, certainly since the emergence of the printing press helped accelerate the polarization of the literate and the illiterate yet folklore-heavy social groups.  This division into "high" and "popular" culture (which later morphed into "mass culture" in the late 19th century - another point Gabler fails to explore here) is not unique to the United States nor is this division a simple dichotomy of force/opposing force.  There certainly were interminglings of the "high" and "low" that created works that have moved critics and so-called "ordinary readers" alike; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and William Faulkner's works being just the mere tip of the iceberg.  Yet nary a thought given to that aspect of the evolution of American literary and cinematic cultures.


What this meant is that supposed stupidity didn't shape popular culture; rather, popular culture shaped supposed stupidity. At almost every cultural juncture – from travelling variety shows to vaudeville, which was like the English music hall, to movies to television to rock music to gaming today – the elites hectored the general public, shouting that the sky was falling. Everything popular, the elites proclaimed, would subvert American standards and values. Culture was under democratic assault. It couldn't possibly survive the masses.


Gabler's argument is becoming even more strained here.  What actually happened in the majority of the cases he cites was that sections of the "popular" culture revolted against certain developments.  It certainly wasn't the "cultural elites" who had obscenity trials for works by several authors, including James Branch Cabell, James Joyce, Henry Miller, or Vladimir Nabokov.  It certainly isn't the "elites" who campaign to ban books from local or school libraries.  How Gabler could make such an argument and not mention this is beyond me.


For a country that prides itself on its democracy, as America does, there is a long train of literature that is passionately anti-democratic, and not just from the unreconstructed right wing. Sometimes the enemy was democracy itself; sometimes the enemy was the system, as when the Frankfurt School expatriates and other neo-Marxians blamed not the masses but the mass culture industry through which devious capitalists manipulated people – dumbing them down. And sometimes the enemy was just plain obtuseness, which is why critic Dwight Macdonald coined the terms "masscult" and "midcult" to revile not only low culture but also a middle-class culture that had ridiculous pretensions to be higher than low. Today critics are less likely to excoriate popular culture as a whole than its various components – from reality TV shows to popcorn movies to Justin Bieber – but the sentiment remains. Culture needs gatekeepers to protect it from the hoi polloi.


I almost could agree with this, except I would counter by noting that several thinkers, such as Plato and John Stuart Mills (whose thoughts I excerpted in a post yesterday), have worried about the tyrannizing aspects of a democracy that devolves to simple majority rule, with the minority opinions being shut out.  Some might argue what culture needs are those dissenters who don't react in a knee-jerk fashion to latest developments and who emphasize cultural elements that run counter or at least perpendicular to mass cultural trends.  That is the real value of the critic, it seems to me.  Not to have someone rubber stamp an opinion (I do believe Gabler is correct when he notes further on that too often there appears to be too ready of a consensus among those who by dint of education or other status have earned an influential say in affairs), but rather to stop, look around, and question things.

Will the emerging fragmentation of criticism allow this to continue to happen?  That is the troubling question which Gabler's article really fails to address.  After all, the tyranny of mass opinion can be just as oppressive as that of a "gatekeeper's" if there aren't those who dare to consider things from a different vantage point and to urge others to consider those works which might run counter to mass/popular trends.  Innovation does seem to come mostly from those who take the road less traveled and that is just as true for cultural trends as for anything else.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Here's your chance to vote on read books for future review

I read a lot of books.  Currently, I am on my 35th book for this month/year, and likely will finish another 2-5 before the calendar rolls on over into February.  I am not as prolific a reviewer, however, although I did review around 150 books at this blog and the practically-defunct SFF Masterworks group blog.  I do have vague hopes of reviewing the majority of the books listed in the poll to the right of this screen, but considering it takes roughly 45-60 minutes at least to write a review, my natural tendency toward procrastination sets in and I end up reviewing a smaller fraction than I intended.

I thought it'd be a fun exercise to put up the books I've already read and have not yet reviewed (with one exception, as that book's review will go live by Wednesday at the latest, plus there is another unfinished book whose review will be readied this weekend for Tuesday posting) into a poll where readers could vote for their favorites.

Note I said favorites.  I enabled multiple selections for this blog so readers won't feel as obliged to choose between two or more favorite works.  When the poll expires on February 5 (the Saturday before the Super Bowl), I'll choose between the top 3-5 selections and write reviews of them over the course of that weekend and the following week.  There are plays, poems, and prose works, fiction and non-fiction alike, to choose from here, in addition to works read in French, Spanish, and Italian, besides English.  Should be a nice variety for readers and hopefully there will be wide participation, as it'd be interesting to see which books intrigue the readers the most.

Two passages which have troubled me lately

From Plato's The Republic, Book VIII:

And democracy has her own good, of which the insatiable desire brings her to dissolution?

What good?

Freedom, I replied; which, as they tell you in a democracy, is the glory of the State - and that therefore in a democracy alone will the freeman of nature deign to dwell.

Yes; the saying is in everybody's mouth.

I was going to observe, that the insatiable desire of this and the neglect of other things introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny.

How so?

When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs.

Yes, he replied, a very common occurrence.

Yes, I said; and loyal citizens are insultingly termed by her slaves who hug their chains and men of naught; she would have subjects who are like rulers, and rulers who are like subjects:  these are men after her own heart, whom she praises and honors both in private and public.  Now, in such a State, can liberty have any limit?

Certainly not.

By degrees the anarchy finds a way into private houses and ends by getting among the animals and infecting them.


From John Stuart Mill's Considerations on Representative Government:

If we ask ourselves on what causes and conditions good government in all its senses, from the humblest to the most exalted, depends, we find that the principal of them, the one which transcends all others, is the qualities of the human beings composing the society over which the government is exercised.

We may take, as a first instance, the administration of justice; with the more propriety, since there is no part of public business in which the mere machinery, the rules and contrivances for conducting the details of ther operation, are of such vital consequence.  Yet even these yield in importance to the qualities of the human agents employed.  Of what efficacy are rules of procedure in securing the ends of justice, if the moral condition of the people is such that the witnesses generally lie, and the judges and their subordinates take bribes?  Again, how can institutions provide a good municipal administration if there exists such indifference to the subject that those who would administer honestly and capably cannot be induced to serve, and the duties are left to those who undertake them because they have some private interest to be promoted?  Of what avail is the most broadly popular representative system if the electors do not care to choose the best member of parliament, but choose him who will spend most money to be elected?  How can a representative assembly work for good if its members can be bought, or if their excitability of temperament, uncorrected by public discipline or private self-control, makes them incapable of calm deliberation, and they resort to manual violence on the floor of the House, or shoot at one another with rifles?  How, again, can government, or any join concern, be carried on in a tolerable manner by people so envious that, if one among them seems likely to succeed in anything, those who ought to cooperate with him form a tacit combination to make him fail?  Whenever the general disposition of the people is such that each individual regards those only of his interests which are selfish, and does not dwell on, or concern himself for, his share of the general interest, in such a state of things good government is impossible.  The influence of defects of intelligence in obstructing all the elements of good government requires no illustration.  Government consists of acts done by human beings; and if the agents, or those who choose the agents, or those to whom the agents are responsible, or the lookers-on whose opinion ought to influence and check all these, are mere masses of ignorance, stupidity, and baleful prejudice, every operation of government will go wrong; while, in proportion as the men rise above this standard, so will the government improve in quality; up to the point of excellence, attainable but nowhere attained, where the officers of government, themselves persons of superior virtue and intellect, are surrounded by the atmosphere of a virtuous and enlightened public opinion.


Sometimes I worry that democratic government can devolve to the point of placing more emphasis on texting in votes on reality TV shows than on an active and educated participation in the governance of nations.  From reading all of Plato's book and half of Mill's, it seems this concern has been around for millennia.  The recent news from North Africa is both exciting and troubling to me; I hope for radical change, yet I fear what might emerge from that radical change as well.  Are there wiser, moderate voices that will take charge and think more of the yearnings of the people for liberty without using freedom from autocratic regimes as an excuse to drown out dissenters whose voices ought to be considered as well?

The same question applies here to my own country.  Who best represents my own voice when those voted in focus more on appeasing "their bases" than they do on providing what is necessary even for those citizens with whom they have a philosophical disagreement? 

That likely will be a question to haunt me for years to come.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

February shall be Mark Twain Month here at The OF Blog

Ever since I was 12 and my 7th grading reading class was assigned to read (aloud in class) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain has been a favorite author of mine.  Over the past couple of months, I've been collecting older editions (and two leatherbound editions) of Twain's works, well-known and obscure alike.  A couple of weeks ago, I decided that I would dedicate February to the reading of the Twain books that I have in my possession (plus I'm likely going to buy a few more) and to review some, if not all, of them here on this blog.

Here are some of the books, besides the one listed above, I plan on reading (and possibly reviewing):

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Tom Sawyer, Detective

Tom Sawyer, Abroad

Life on the Mississippi

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Essays and Stories

The Gilded Age

The $30,000 Bequest, etc.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, vol. I


All these and possibly a few others which I might be will be read in the upcoming month (or maybe the end of this month, but with no review until February 1 or later).  Anyone want to join in with this (re)reading project and weigh in, either in the comments or on their own blogs?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Readings some 15 years ago

Every now and again, there might be some post where the poster waxes nostalgic about books read during a formative reading period in that person's life.  For those that blog about SF books, doubtless most of them would discuss either reading the "classics" of SF fiction (long and short form alike) or might list a bunch of 1980s/1990s multi-volume epic fantasy works that they read which got them hooked onto reading works that are over 500 pages each and whose storylines often took a decade or more to unfold.

For myself, however, things are a bit different.  Since I have an area set aside for my earliest books, I can now list some of the 100+ books I owned when I was a 21-23 year-old graduate student.  I think these might be somewhat different than the typical reading selection for people my age then:

Charles Dickens, all of his novels and short stories

Aristotle, Politics

Alexandre Dumas, all of the Musketeer novels, plus Queen Margot, The Count of Monte Cristo, and a few other minor works.

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho

Matthew Lewis, The Monk

Daniel Defoe, Roxana, Moll Flanders, A Journal of the Plague Year, and Robinson Crusoe

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, Dr. Faustus, Felix Krull, Buddenbrooks

William Thackeray, Vanity Fair, Pendennis

Jane Austen, all of her novels

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

William Langland, Piers Plowman

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

James Joyce, Ulysses

Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel and You Can't Go Home Again

Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote

Stendhal, The Red and the Black

Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables

Emile Zola, several of his novels, including Germinal

Honore Balzac, Cousin Bette

Fyodor Dostoevsky, all of his major works

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace and The Death of Ivan Ilych

Several plays by Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen

Pat Barker, Regeneration trilogy

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum  



This is in addition to several dozen books that I had read on Weimar Germany, cultural history from the 18th-20th centuries, E.P. Thompson's seminal social histories, a few dozen primary sources on Hitler for my MA research, and a few assorted books whose authors I'm too lazy to look up now.

I wonder if it's time for me to re-read/review several of these as well.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Hot non-exclusive excerpt to share with you!

I have seen too many august bloggers display their mental acumen and publicity prowess by getting permission to post so-called "exclusive excerpts" to works that they want to pimp to their readers.  Here at The OF Blog, we do things a bit differently.  We like to jump on the bandwagon after the wagon has broken down, so this is not an exclusive excerpt, but perhaps it'll capture the fancy of some erudite souls here:

it-bi-e-ma dGiš šú-na-tam i-pa-áš-šar
2iz-za-kàr-am a-na um-mi-šú
3um-mi i-na šá-at mu-ši-ti-ia
4šá-am-ḫa-ku-ma at-ta-na-al-la-ak
5i-na bi-ri-it it-lu-tim
6ib-ba-šú-nim-ma ka-ka-bu šá-ma-i
7[ki]-iṣ-rù šá A-nim im-ḳu-ut a-na ṣi-ri-ia
8áš-ši-šú-ma ik-ta-bi-it e-li-ia
9ú-ni-iš-šú-ma nu-uš-šá-šú ú-ul il-ti-’i
10Urukki ma-tum pa-ḫi-ir e-li-šú
11it-lu-tum ú-na-šá-ku ši-pi-šú
12ú-um-mi-id-ma pu-ti
13i-mi-du ia-ti
14áš-ši-a-šú-ma ab-ba-la-áš-šú a-na ṣi-ri-ki
15um-mi dGiš mu-di-a-at ka-la-ma
16iz-za-kàr-am a-na dGiš
17mi-in-di dGiš šá ki-ma ka-ti
18i-na ṣi-ri i-wa-li-id-ma
19ú-ra-ab-bi-šú šá-du-ú
20ta-mar-šú-ma [kima Sal(?)] ta-ḫa-du at-ta
21it-lu-tum ú-na-šá-ku ši-pi-šú
22tí-iṭ-ṭi-ra-áš-[šú tu-ut]-tu-ú-ma
23ta-tar-ra-[as-su] a-na ṣi-[ri]-ia
24[uš]-ti-nim-ma i-ta-mar šá-ni-tam[63]
25[šú-na]-ta i-ta-wa-a-am a-na um-mi-šú
26[um-mi] a-ta-mar šá-ni-tam
27[šú-na-tu a-ta]-mar e-mi-a i-na su-ḳi-im
28[šá Uruk]ki ri-bi-tim
29ḫa-aṣ-ṣi-nu na-di-i-ma
30e-li-šú pa-aḫ-ru
31ḫa-aṣ-ṣi-nu-um-ma šá-ni bu-nu-šú
32a-mur-šú-ma aḫ-ta-du a-na-ku
33a-ra-am-šú-ma ki-ma áš-šá-tim
34a-ḫa-ab-bu-ub el-šú
35el-ki-šú-ma áš-ta-ka-an-šú
36a-na a-ḫi-ia
37um-mi dGiš mu-da-at [ka]-la-ma
38[iz-za-kàr-am a-na dGiš]
39[dGiš šá ta-mu-ru amêlu]
40[ta-ḫa-ab-bu-ub ki-ma áš-šá-tim el-šú]

Col. II.

41áš-šum uš-[ta]-ma-ḫa-ru it-ti-ka
42dGiš šú-na-tam i-pa-šar
43dEn-ki-[dũ wa]-ši-ib ma-ḫar ḫa-ri-im-tim
44ur-[šá ir]-ḫa-mu di-da-šá(?) ip-tí-[e]
45[dEn-ki]-dũ im-ta-ši a-šar i-wa-al-du
46ûm, 6 ù 7 mu-ši-a-tim
47dEn-[ki-dũ] ti-bi-i-ma
48šá-[am-ka-ta] ir-ḫi
49ḫa-[ri-im-tum pa-a]-šá i-pu-šá-am-ma
50iz-za-[kàr-am] a-na dEn-ki-dũ
51a-na-tal-ka dEn-ki-dũ ki-ma ili ta-ba-áš-ši
52am-mi-nim it-ti na-ma-áš-te-e
53ta-at-ta-[na-al]-ak ṣi-ra-am[64]
54al-kam lu-úr-di-ka
55a-na libbi [Urukki] ri-bi-tim
56a-na bît [el]-lim mu-šá-bi šá A-nim
57dEn-ki-dũ ti-bi lu-ru-ka
58a-na Ê-[an]-na mu-šá-bi šá A-nim
59a-šar [dGiš gi]-it-ma-[lu] ne-pi-ši-tim
60ù at-[ta] ki-[ma Sal ta-ḫa]-bu-[ub]-šú
61ta-[ra-am-šú ki-ma] ra-ma-an-ka
62al-ka ti-ba i-[na] ga-ag-ga-ri
63ma-a-ag-ri-i-im
64iš-me a-wa-as-sa im-ta-ḫar ga-ba-šá
65mi-il-[kum] šá aššatim
66im-ta-ḳu-ut a-na libbi-šú
67iš-ḫu-ut li-ib-šá-am
68iš-ti-nam ú-la-ab-bi-iš-sú
69li-ib-[šá-am] šá-ni-a-am
70ši-i it-ta-al-ba-áš
71ṣa-ab-tat ga-as-su
72ki-ma [ili] i-ri-id-di-šú
73a-na gu-up-ri šá-ri-i-im
74a-šar tar-ba-ṣi-im
75i-na [áš]-ri-šú [im]-ḫu-ruri-ia-ú
76[ù šú-u dEn-ki-dũ i-lit-ta-šú šá-du-um-ma]
77[it-ti ṣabâti-ma ik-ka-la šam-ma]
78[it-ti bu-lim maš-ḳa-a i-šat-ti]
79[it-ti na-ma-áš-te-e mê i-ṭab lib-ba-šú]


Warning:  Do not say these words aloud, lest you risk drawing the ire of Gozer.

Leatherbound Classics: Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Nous étions à l'Étude, quand le Proviseur entra, suivi d'un nouveau habillé en bourgeois et d'un garçon de classe qui portait un grand pupitre.  Ceux qui dormaient se réveillèrent, et chacun se leva comme surpris dans son travail.

We were in the prep.-room when the Head came in, followed by a new boy in 'mufti' and a beadle carrying a big desk.  The sleepers aroused themselves, and we all stood up, putting on a startled look, as if we had been buried in our work.

Translations very rarely approximate 100% of the material found in the original.  Above I quote the original French opening to Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, followed by J. Lewis May's 1950 English translation which appears in the Easton Press edition of this classic.  I provide this comparison sample because if I am to review this work, it would be best to understand that the reading of this book, more than most any work, will be affected greatly by the language in which it is read.

In this representative passage, May tries to Anglicize Flaubert's prose.  Gone is the French Proviseur; a very English Head replaces him.  Instead of the slang expression "en bourgeois," in May's translation we find this "mufti," which name might carry some meaning for the mid-20th century readers familiar with provincial English attire, but which has little in common with what the young Charles Bovary wore in mid-19th century Normandy.  Even more perplexing is the replacement of the garçon de classe with an English beadle; the two offices are not quite the same and semantic meaning is lost in the translation.

Yet to be fair to May, translating Madame Bovary had to be an almost-Sisyphean task, as Flaubert's French is full of Norman expressions which tax the understanding of most native French reader.  Although I had read this novel in the earlier Penguin translation back in 1993 and 1994 for two separate classes, this is the first time that I had attempted reading it in French (and incidentally, the first time reading May's translation).  What I discovered is that Flaubert simply is an author who must be read in the original for the full impact of his story to be felt.

Take for instance the novel's subtitle, "mœurs de province."  If the translator even bothers to provide it (it does not appear here in the Easton Press edition), it is often rendered in several ways:  Provincial Manners, Provincial Morals, and so forth.  Each contains elements of mœurs, yet there is a secondary level of meaning that is missing.  If I were having to translate this passage, I would take another unsatisfactory tact; I would substitute the even older Latin mores, as it connotes not just manners, not just mere morals, but it contains a hint of a system of life that reflects best Flaubert's story.

Emma Bovary is undoubtedly the star of this tragic tale, yet one of the reasons why this story appeals to readers over 150 years after its initial publication is how well-drawn the secondary characters are drawn.  Too often readers overlook the first few chapters, perhaps due to their impatience for the story to get to Emma and her disastrous attempts to make reality conform to her idealized views on learning, passion, and love.  Flaubert paints and exquisite picture of rural 19th century Norman life.  He carefully chooses, as he famously said, le mot juste, to describe as perfectly as possible the background, the villagers, and their accoutrements.  This made for very difficult reading in the original French, as the words are so specialized (and many of them are provincialisms that are no longer in currency in French today) that my reading comprehension suffered.  However, I caught just enough to notice just how precise Flaubert's prose was and how this preciseness was altered significantly in May's attempts to Anglicize it in order for English readers to get some idea of what Flaubert attempted.  To some degree, May succeeds in creating a lively atmosphere.  Too bad it was not that which Flaubert depicts in his novel.

Some readers have commented that in his depictions of the bumbling oaf Charles, his sometimes-waspish mother, the headstrong and foolish Emma (not to mention the rake Rodolphe, the hesitant student Léon, the pompous and callous chemist Homais, or the conniving and ruthless businessman and lender Lheureux) that Flaubert has pretty much given the dual one-finger salute to romance.  There is much to that.  One only has to look at the comic scene of Emma's first adulterous liaison with Rodolphe while the local agricultural fair is proceeding to see the cruel juxtaposition of Emma's passionate aping of Romantic breathings of love with the awarding of prizes for those farmers who had raised certain livestock.  It is a cold, black humor that pervades that crucial chapter; the mirror of disillusionment has been shined at the reader's eyes.

This continues in other scenes, such as Emma's constant sneaking out to Rodolphe and his caustic comment to her that she ought to best watch herself lest she wants to have the gossips wagging about her.  We are privy not just to seeing how Emma's ruin is achieved, but we see as well just how petty and churlish the whole lot is.  Romanticism might be portrayed as being a fool's pipe dream, but the world of Lheureux and Homais serves to remind readers that the mundane world is a bitter, dull place infested with sharks that walk on two legs.

What makes Madame Bovary so compelling to read is that Flaubert never beats the reader across the head with the points raised above.  Rather, the reader is left to decipher these elements within scenes that show almost the whole gamut of human emotion and relationships, minus the key one of faithful love.  This little element, so conspicuous in its absence, perhaps may lead some readers to question the utility of this banal tale of dreams and delusional aspirations within the context of a harsh, dreary provincial life where the villagers live under the yoke of tradition and materialist avarice.  Avarice perhaps is the glue to this tale.  It certainly underlies much of the actions such as Emma's desire to rise even further above her former station, Charles' desire to become a famous physician, Homais' lusting after the Legion of Honor, and of course Lheureux's aggrandizing behavior toward Emma and (presumably) other Yonville villagers.  It is such a petty vice, which perhaps makes it all the more appalling to read about in the context of witnessing the ruining of a family.

Despite its ultimate bleakness, Madame Bovary is an appealing story because of how "alive" the text feels.  Flaubert might not take Dickens' approach toward creating comic characters to serve as guides into the seedy urban 19th century London life, yet his provincial characters are dynamic because of the care in which he takes to make them seem true to life then.  That we can relate so easily to several of these characters today serves as a testimony to how deeply Flaubert plumbs the depth of human motivations and desires.  The end result is a majestically told story which goes beyond the "morals" of the characters and reaches the underlying mores.  Truly a classic achievement.


Note:  Not only was this book read to complete the prose part of my reviewing of three books in French, but it was also reviewed with the intent to complement this review/discussion.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Rubén Darío, Azul.../Cantos de vida y esperanza

Nada más triste que un titán que llora,
hombre-montaña encadenado a un lirio,
que gime, fuerte, que pujante, implora:
victima propria en su fatal martirio.


Nothing more sad than a titan that cries,
man-mountain chained to a lily
who strong, cries, who vigorous, implores:
victim in his own fatal martyrism.

From "A un poeta"/"To a Poet"

Born in Nicaragua in 1867 but citizen of all of Latin America, the late nineteenth/early twentieth century poet Rubén Darío is perhaps one of the two greatest poets the Americas have produced; Walt Whitman may be his only true peer.  Wheras Whitman sung this songs of self and the United States of America, Darío spoke in harsher, more personal tones of the "other" America:  those lands south of the Río Grande.  Yet Darío was not wholly preoccupied with laying out the concerns and fears of those who saw the U.S. as a threatening imperialist power.  Rather, his works, especially the two works collected in this Austral edition, Azul (1888) and Cantos de vida y esperanza (1905), contain a wealth of thought, written not just in poetry but also in short, sharp prose.

Azul was an interesting reading experience.  A century before the term "flash fiction" came into vogue, Darío was writing fictions that often failed to surpass one thousand words.  In the tales collected here, augmented in a revised edition with some sonnets, Darío concerns himself more with capturing intimate moods rather than laying out a situation.  We are often thrust in media res into events, forced to react as the characters do, trying to make sense of it all.  That Darío so often succeeds at creating memorable situations and characters pales in comparison to how superbly constructed these short fictions are.  Darío is very economical with his words and this allows each word to carry more weight, creating this sense of resonance by the time he completes each tale.

However much I liked the short stories here, Azul's poems are my favorite part of this first collection.  Of particular note is "Ananke," whose very title is foreboding and whose rapid descent from the carefree boasting to its sudden conclusion makes this a startling poem to read no matter how many times it is pored over by a reader.  Darío is often considered to be one of the first and most influential Modernists in Latin America, due to his influence on other writers and poets.  But in reading this poem and the ones in Cantos de vida y esperanza, his greatest strengths as a poet are capturing emotional moments that transcend time, space, and culture.

Cantos de vida y espanza (Songs of Life and Hope) contains one of my favorite poems composed in Spanish, "A Roosevelt" (or "To Roosevelt" in translation).  Here is the original text of the poem:

Es con voz de la Biblia, o verso de Walt Whitman,
que habría que llegar hasta ti, Cazador!
Primitivo y moderno, sencillo y complicado,
con un algo de Washington y cuatro de Nemrod.

Eres los Estados Unidos,
eres el futuro invasor
de la América ingenua que tiene sangre indígena,
que aún reza a Jesucristo y aún habla en español.

Eres soberbio y fuerte ejemplar de tu raza;
eres culto, eres hábil; te opones a Tolstoy.
Y domando caballos, o asesinando tigres,
eres un Alejandro-Nabucodonosor.
(Eres un profesor de energía,
como dicen los locos de hoy.)

Crees que la vida es incendio,
que el progreso es erupción;
en donde pones la bala
el porvenir pones.

No.

Los Estados Unidos son potentes y grandes.
Cuando ellos se estremecen hay un hondo temblor
que pasa por las vértebras enormes de los Andes.
Si clamáis, se oye como el rugir del león.

Ya Hugo a Grant le dijo: «Las estrellas son vuestras».
(Apenas brilla, alzándose, el argentino sol
y la estrella chilena se levanta...) Sois ricos.
Juntáis al culto de Hércules el culto de Mammón;
y alumbrando el camino de la fácil conquista,
la Libertad levanta su antorcha en Nueva York.

Mas la América nuestra, que tenía poetas
desde los viejos tiempos de Netzahualcoyotl,
que ha guardado las huellas de los pies del gran Baco,
que el alfabeto pánico en un tiempo aprendió;
que consultó los astros, que conoció la Atlántida,
cuyo nombre nos llega resonando en Platón,
que desde los remotos momentos de su vida
vive de luz, de fuego, de perfume, de amor,
la América del gran Moctezuma, del Inca,
la América fragante de Cristóbal Colón,
la América católica, la América española,
la América en que dijo el noble Guatemoc:
«Yo no estoy en un lecho de rosas»; esa América
que tiembla de huracanes y que vive de Amor,
hombres de ojos sajones y alma bárbara, vive.
Y sueña. Y ama, y vibra; y es la hija del Sol.
Tened cuidado. ¡Vive la América española!
Hay mil cachorros sueltos del León Español.
Se necesitaría, Roosevelt, ser Dios mismo,
el Riflero terrible y el fuerte Cazador,
para poder tenernos en vuestras férreas garras.

Y, pues contáis con todo, falta una cosa: ¡Dios!

A full translation can be found at this link.   But even if you choose only to read my words and not the translation, consider the tone in which Darío delivers these words.  "It is with the voice of the Bible, or Walt Whitman's verse...", such a powerful, evocative way to begin a poetic address to the Hunter President, whose policies threaten to shadow the entire Americas.  Darío minces no words here.  By casting Roosevelt as a modern-day Nimrod, he is playing upon the ambiguity found within that Biblical personage, who was (depending upon the translation and interpretation) a mighty hunter, with the implication that this hunting could embrace more than just the stalking of animal prey.  In contrast to Roosevelt's Hunter, Latin America is portrayed as an ancient, proud, and yet vulnerable to the growing Yankee power.  Yet despite this, Darío's poem does not slip into a simple dichotomy of powerful/weak, rich/poor.  There is a subtlety that underlies this poem, removing it from the first decade of the twentieth century and permitting interpretations that are applicable to situations in the first decades of the twenty-first century.

Although "A Roosevelt" is my favorite Darío poem, the rest of the collection is nearly as moving.  Darío largely eschews extended metaphors, instead utilizing shorter yet no less powerful metaphors and direct allusions to create moods that linger in the reader's mind long after the final poem is read.  Darío is one of the finest poets that Latin America has ever released, yet perhaps due to his ambiguous attitude toward the North American governments, he has not ever received quite the reception in English that a Pablo Neruda enjoyed.  Yet Darío's poems are, for me at least, at least as elegant and often are more powerful for expressing sentiments that the later Chilean poet rarely attempted to cover in his poetry.  Highly recommended.

More Easton Press books



Updating the Easton Press photos (which I plan on using when I review the books pictured here) to reflect new arrivals and new arrangements.  Recent arrivals in this photo include Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote, Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, and The Poems of Robert Browning.




In this picture, new arrivals include Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.




Only three new purchases in this photo:  Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Ivan Turgenev's Fathers & Sons, and Plato's The Republic




Three more in this one:  Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Conrad's Lord Jim, and Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.



All of these have been pictured before, minus perhaps the few Franklin Library leatherette books I've acquired recently (I'm planning on trading those out later and placing them with Franklin Library full-leather books from their list of "100 Greatest Books" that aren't also found on the Easton Press edition).  Might buy a few more Folio Society editions as well in the coming months.

Lots of wonderful re-reads ahead in the coming weeks and months, it seems.  And I think it's safe to say that if one wants outstanding cover pictures, these beat trade releases hands down.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Why should I care about what you're peddling?

Before anybody takes offense (not that I've ever offended anyone, of course), this question arises from personal reflection.  It is, I believe, one of those core, essential questions that applies to so many facets of life.  It is especially true for me when I ready discussions in my classrooms, for if I do not know my audience, then I am much more likely to lose them.

But when it comes to reviews, it is a very applicable question.  Just why should I (or any other potential customer) care about what you peddle?  Do you think it makes a bit of difference if you are not the first on the street?  Ought I give a damn about whether or not you are email/Facebook/Twitter pals with the particular author in question?  Should I pay greater heed because you were invited to publisher parties and if I am to do so, will it be just merely focused on questioning of allegiances?  Should I give two rats' asses that you write from "a fan's perspective," whatever the hell that might mean?

Why should I take your opinion into account?  Can you display any engagement with the text beyond stating whether or not "the pacing is fast" or that "the protagonist(s) is/are likable?"  Are you capable of writing your way out of a wet paper sack?  If you have the tendency to gush over most of your reads and those reads tend to be "flavors of the month" that I rarely, if ever, see mentioned at your blog a year or more later as being among the best books of the past several years, then why would I (or any reader) take you seriously?

Conversely, is what is being written in the review relevant at all?  This is another question I have to ask on occasion.  Do I write just for myself?  Not really, although I envision myself as being the audience as much as the creator of the discourse on display.  I won't be reviewing "hot new releases" for the most part this year and likely for years to come.  What I will review is likely more for Stendhal's "happy few" than for those who want to see me give a 8.675309 out of 10 "score" as a stamp of approval for the anointed release.  I have to be careful when reviewing older works or "alternative" selections that I do not fall into the different trap of speaking only to the cognoscenti.  What I peddle has to be relevant for more than just like-minded souls, even when I can't envision those readers visiting my blog.

Likewise, the header question applies to authors and others associated with pitching books.  Am I supposed to understand the "code" involved that references a book in relation with other authors.  What if I haven't read (or cared for, if read) the particular authors cited?  Tell me why I should choose your opening volume to a multi-volume epic fantasy over umpteen over works that use the same language in hopes of capturing readers who want more of the same.  What's so special about your book (or the book(s) that you're marketing to me and my ilk) that I ought to take note of it?

Just something to think about, I suppose.  But these are actual questions that I do apply not just to myself, but when I'm reading others' blogs or receive the occasional review copy.  Still puzzled at seeing a hooded dude with a sword out with an impractical ship/airship floating in the skies above on this one unsolicited review copy I received today.  Just looks derivative in two ways to me.  Maybe someone could pitch it to me to where I would reconsider my viewpoint.  Maybe, or maybe not.

Today is Squirrel Appreciation Day


Just a reminder for all you Squirrelists who visit this blog:  Today is Squirrel Appreciation Day, that one day out of the year where we offer up nuts of all sorts (including politicians) to squirrels, rabid or not.  Be sure to read the link provided above for fun tips and activities to make the 2011 Squirrel Appreciation Day awesome for both you and your squirrel overlords.

Oh, one final thing:  today is also National Hug Day, but be careful hugging squirrels.  They do want your nuts, after all.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Seminal works

Just finished reading Plato's The Republic earlier this morning.  It has left me with much to consider; the upcoming review will be a challenge.  It is a seminal work, one of those rare pieces that take the disparate threads of earlier conversations and weave them into something so powerful and influential that a whole host of conversations, whether they be in person, on paper, in prose, poetry, or drama, springs from it.

There are several other such seminal works whose seeds sprout forth a plethora of responses in literature, music, and the other arts.  Which works do you consider to be "seminal" and why?  Seems like 2011 will be the year of seminal readings for me and I'd like to add to the number already read.  Maybe others will be inspired as well, so give what you think are seminal works in a variety of fields, por favor!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

If I really wanted to garner more hits for this blog, this is what I'd do

Feeling pedantically frisky this lunch break, so I thought I'd write some tips for those attention who...err, bloggers seeking more visibility for their blogs.  Can't guarantee 100% satisfaction, but most of these will work to some point:

1.  Post "controversial" thoughts and refer to others by name.  This especially works when discussing Canadians who seem to think redheads don't get any action.

2.  Do a spoof of another's post.  You know, something like threatening to host a giveaway contest for Robert Stanek or Terry Goodkind's latest dreck.  Then mention it on Twitter, Facebook, and every blog on your blogroll and/or RSS reader.

3.  Post pictures of vicious creatures.  The third-most popular post of 2010 at this blog was me blogging about "What the Birthday Squirrel Bought for Me in 2010."

4.  Make fun of the English and/or Canadians and/or Yankees and/or Australians.  Southern pride takes one far, ya know.

5.  Post a random list of books, then pretend such a list is important to you.  Bonus points if said list contains any references to Lawrence Welk.

6.  When you aren't feeling "inspired" anymore, just repeat #1 or #2.  Write a review of a cookbook and dither on whether or not it deserves a 7.5 or 7.75.

7.  Or you could just actually write something that's well-written and argued, rather than getting in a huff and claiming you are "writing from a fan's perspective and not the critic's" when someone notes that s/he does not often read your posts because they are shallower than the kiddie pool.


So...hop to it, you insecure cretins who wish you had a team of rabid reading squirrels!

Easton Press's The 100 Greatest Books Ever Written

As some of you already know from previous posts, I've begun collecting the Easton Press series of leatherbound, gilt-edged books, The 100 Greatest Books Ever Written.  For later review/collection purposes, I'm going to list the 100 books, then bold the books I've bought in that edition which I've read (italics for those now owned but not yet read and plain text for books left to be acquired).  This is not the same as the number of books from this list that I've read in other editions over the years.  If it were, over 90% of the books would be marked as read.

  1. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne
  2. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  3. Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  4. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  5. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
  6. Moby Dick, or The Whale by Herman Melville
  7. A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  8. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
  9. The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
  10. The Odyssey by Homer
  11. The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
  12. A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce
  13. Paradise Lost by John Milton
  14. Tales From The Arabian Nights by Richard Burton
  15. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  16. Candide by Voltaire
  17. Oedipus The King by Sophocles
  18. The Hunchback Of Notre Dame [Notre-Dame De Paris] by Victor Hugo
  19. The Last Of The Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
  20. The Sea Wolf by Jack London
  21. Cyrano De Bergerac by Edmund Rostand
  22. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  23. The Poems of Robert Browning by Robert Browning
  24. The Essays Of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Ralph Waldo Emerson
  25. The Portrait Of A Lady by Henry James
  26. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  27. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  28. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  29. The Poems of John Keats by John Keats
  30. On The Origin Of Species by Charles Darwin
  31. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  32. Collected Poems by Robert Frost
  33. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories by Washington Irving
  34. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  35. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  36. She Stoops To Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith
  37. Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck
  38. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen
  39. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  40. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
  41. The Iliad by Homer
  42. Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
  43. The Count Of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  44. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  45. Aesop's Fables by Aesop
  46. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
  47. The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
  48. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
  49. Politics And The Poetics by Aristotle
  50. The Aeneid by Virgil
  51. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  52. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
  53. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  54. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  55. Pygmalion And Candida by George Bernard Shaw
  56. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  57. Romeo And Juliet by William Shakespeare
  58. The Cherry Orchard And The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov
  59. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
  60. The Analects of Confucius by Confucius
  61. A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare
  62. Collected Poems by William Butler Yeats
  63. The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  64. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
  65. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
  66. Beowulf
  67. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  68. The Necklace And Other Tales by Guy de Maupassant
  69. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  70. Fathers And Sons by Ivan Turgenev
  71. Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  72. War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  73. The History of Early Rome by Livy
  74. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  75. The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott
  76. Tess Of The D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  77. Alice's Adventure In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  78. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  79. The Rubáiyát Of Omar Khayyám by Omar Khayyám
  80. The Red And The Black by Stendhal
  81. A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  82. The Republic by Plato
  83. Collected Poems by Emily Dickinson
  84. Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  85. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  86. The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay
  87. Silas Marner by George Eliot
  88. The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine
  89. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
  90. Billy Budd by Herman Melville
  91. The Confessions by St. Augustine
  92. Tales of Mystery And Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe
  93. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
  94. The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
  95. The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner
  96. Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  97. Grimm's Fairy Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
  98. Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  99. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  100. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

 Any of these that you own in the Easton Press edition?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

December 2010 Reads

Continuing a trend from the past few months, I list last month's reading over halfway into the succeeding month.  Lots of short books read this month, it seems, as I finished off the year by re-reading some art illustration books from the Sparrow series that gave me some pleasure.  Since there's close to 70 books on this monthly list, I'll keep any comments brief.

380  Vizconde de Lascano Tegui, De la elegancia minentras se duerme

381  Andrzej Sapkowski, Camino sin retorno

382  Umberto Eco, Il Cimitero di Praga

383  Umberto Eco, El cementerio de Praga 

384  Patti Smith, Just Kids

385  Javier Negrete, Atlántida

386  Richard Parks, On the Banks of the River of Heaven

387  Hiromi Goto, Half World

388  Andrzej Sapkowski, Narrenturm

389  Henry David Thoreau, Walden

390  Miguel de Unamuno, San Manuel Bueno, Martír

391  Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule

392  R. Scott Bakker, Disciple of the Dog

393  Angela Carter, Fireworks:  Nine Profane Pieces

394  Camilo José Cela, La familia de Pascual Duarte

395  Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question

396  Amelia Gray, Museum of the Weird

397  Roberto Arlt, El juguete rabioso

398  Herman Melville, Moby Dick

399  Alejo Carpentier, Guerra del tiempo

400  John Milton, Paradise Lost

401  Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. III

402  Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room

403  Ian Cameron Esslemont, Stonewielder

404  Michael Cisco, The Narrator

405  Tom McCarthy, C

406  Peter Carey, Parrot & Olivier in America

407  Andrea Levy, The Long Song

408  Oliver Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer

409  Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel

410  Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker

411  Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. IV

412  John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress

413  Carlos Fuentes, La Silla del Águila

414  Fernando Arrabal, El cementerio de automoviles/El Arquitecto y el Emperador de Asiria

415  Henry Fielding, Tom Jones

416  Lionel Shriver, So Much for That

417  Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

418  Niccolo Macchiavelli, The Prince

419  Gabriel García Márquez, Los funerales de la Mamá Grande

420  Anthony Huso, The Last Page

421  David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

422  Sarah Bakewell, How to Life or A Life of Montaigne

423  Robert Lopez, Asunder

424  Felix Gilman, The Half-Made World

425  Livy, History of Early Rome, Books I-V

426  Naguib Mahfouz, Adrift on the Nile

427  Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

428  Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. V

429  Naguib Mahfouz, Arabian Nights & Days

430  Dexter Palmer, The Dream of Perpetual Motion

431  Walter Scott, Ivanhoe

432  Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. VI

433  Ashley Wood, Sparrow #0

434  Ashley Wood, Sparrow #1

435  Phil Hale, Sparrow #2 

436  Kent Williams, Sparrow #3

437  Shane Glines, Sparrow #4

438  Phil Hale, Sparrow #5

439  Rick Berry, Sparrow #6

440  Ashley Wood, Sparrow #7

441  Glenn Barr, Sparrow #8

442  William Wray, Sparrow #9

443  Jim Mahfood, Sparrow #10

444  John Watkiss, Sparrow #11

445  Sergio Toppi, Sparrow #12

446  Camilla d'Errico, Sparrow #13


There, all of my 2010 reads/re-reads are now available on this blog.  Feel free to inquire about particular titles, since I was in no mood at the time to write anything more than the reading number and the author/title.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tentative schedule for the group reviews I'm doing with Jeff VanderMeer, Paul Smith, and various friends

We figured many of you would like to know the next few months' plans, so here's me copying what Jeff wrote:


Early February: Elmer by Gerry Alanguilan (graphic novel)—”Gorgeously drawn black-and-white artwork combines with outstanding storytelling in this modern-day fable of ethnic strife, identity, friendship, and family. The titular character has been a writer all his “human” life, keeping a secret diary that his son Jake discovers and reads after Elmer’s death. Along with his newly engaged sister and gay movie-star brother, Jake returns to his childhood home for Elmer’s last days, stays on for his funeral, and helps his newly widowed, delicate mother. Oh, and Jake and family are sentient, well-spoken chickens.”

Late March through May: The collected works of Eric Basso. This writer of what I would call avant garde gothic/weird literature is criminally under-appreciated and under-reviewed, and requires an extensive re-visiting. (His “Beak Doctor” is included in Ann and my The Weird antho from Corvus.) Therefore, we will be reading multiple texts, with others read as reference points for the main volumes under review. We’ll have writer Matthew Pridham joining the team as a special guest sharing his opinion as well. We will cover, in multiple blog posts:



The Beak Doctor and Other Stories: 1972 to 1976—”For years, Eric Basso’s novella, “The Beak Doctor,” has sustained a cult reputation among a hard core of avant-garde writers. This collection of short stories begins with a tale of death and hideous resurrection, moves on through a quest for the great horse who rules a subterranean polar kingdom, an atmospheric cycle of short prose pieces, a tragicomic roman noir set in Istanbul (in which the great horse appears in a new guise), and concludes with the harrowing odyssey of a masked man in a fogbound city turned upside down by a plague of sleeping sickness: “The Beak Doctor.”



The Golem Triptych: A Dramatic Trilogy—”According to Jewish legend, the golem is an automaton in human form created through magic, a spirit that could be called upon to perform tasks for its master. The central character in this dramatic trilogy, Joseph Golem, is an old man who dies in a prison camp and is brought back to life by a young woman. Moving through time and various identities, Joseph finds himself in 16th-century Prague, where he assumes the identity of Rabbi Judah Loew, creator of the golem.”



Bartholomew Fair (novel)—”Set in London during a killing heat wave, the novel unfolds as a terrible cataclysm is about to devastate the city. Begun in the Middle Ages as a religious festival in commemoration of St. Bartholomew the Great, over the centuries Bartholomew Fair passed through several metamorphoses. Now it has gone underground. Its lone survivor recounts the story of the Fair’s final, sordid incarnation, and the bizarre odyssey which brings him face-to-face with the unspeakable.”



The Sabattier Effect (novel)—”An investigation into the death of an old man takes place in a French village, but nothing about this investigation is as it first appears. Its prime witness, a photographer, is interrogated by a police inspector about the dead man, his connection with two mysterious younger women, and the enigmatic painting the man had hired him to photograph. His account of events triggers a series of flashbacks in which the immediate past comes dangerously alive. The investigation becomes a desperate quest to rescue a present threatened with extinction by the unpredictable past that is about to engulf it.”

We will also be reading and referring to the following by Basso:



Decompositions: Essays, Art, Literature 1973-1989—”Decompositions collects all of Basso’s essays on art and literature in one volume. Basso approaches his subjects not as a critic but as an artist reflecting on the works, lives, deeds and frailties of other artists. These studies cut to the quick of what it means to create, and be created or destroyed by, a great poem, story, novel or painting.”



Revagations: A Book of Dreams, Vol. 1: 1966-1974—”In these pages, we discover an unconscious life laid bare in a myriad of bizarre adventures and intrigues.”



Accidental Monsters: Poems and Texts 1976—”Completed in six months, on the eve of the poet’s twenty-ninth birthday, Accidental Monsters was Eric Basso’s first collection of poems. The author carries us through a world where landscapes and interiors merge, a terrain vague of fleeting visions, gnomic adventures, enigmas, grotesque creatures and bizarre mechanisms. We eventually journey to an unnamed planet, and are witness to several sinister tableaux.”



Catafalques: Poems 1987-1989—”A dark magic works here, sustained by poetry that is often complex, ironic, disquieting, impassioned, and sometimes even wildly comic. In these pages we are confronted with the poet in midair, the Walrus Voluptuary, a tree that becomes a woman, a man with the head of a black swan.”

June-July: Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias. Writer Kai Ashante Wilson, who suggested Marias’ work, will join us as a special guest blogger. This is a three-volume novel, and will probably require three separate posts. Here’s a description from PW of volume one: “In his leisurely, incisive latest, these preoccupations fuel a plot with a spy-novel gloss. Jaime Deza, separated from his wife in Madrid, is at loose ends in London when his old friend Sir Peter Wheeler, a retired Oxford don, introduces him to the head of a secret government bureau of elite analysts with the ability to see past people’s facades and predict their future behavior. A cocktail party test proves Deza to be one of the elect, and he goes to work clandestinely observing all sorts of people, from South American generals to pop stars.”



August: Helen Oyeyemi, novel(s) to be determined.


Anyone want to join in with us and read (and review) these works?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Alternating between eight books and not to the halfway point of any yet

While most people on other blogs and fora I think had some sort of resolution to read more books this year, mine was to read more books that require contemplation for fullest effect. To that end, I have been reading a variety of works this week, most of them classics of some sort, that have slowed my reading down considerably. Here are the eight books, my current place in each of them, and a little something more about them:

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (French). Currently on p. 105 of 564 in this paperback edition, or Ch. 7 of the first part. Reading about 1-3 chapters a day, dwelling on Flaubert's use of French and trying my best not to utilize a dictionary. "Sonorous" is perhaps the best adjective to describe my experience so far.

Plato, The Republic (translation). Currently on p. 120 of 622 in the Easton Press edition. Beginning of the synopsis for Book Three out of Ten. Reading 1 synopsis/book in the morning and one in the evening (about to read book 3 after reading only one part yesterday evening). Much to think about in regards to the questions of justice and injustice that have been raised so far.

Robert Browning, The Poems of Robert Browning. Currently on p. 138 of 299 in the Easton Press edition. Reading roughly 50-70 pages of poetry a night (have already read the planned daily reading for tonight). Browning is quieter, less emotional than Keats. Still getting a feel for his use of rhyme. Motifs less appealing to me than Keats, but far from poor.

C.F. Ramuz, Jean-Luc persécuté (French). Currently on p. 95 of 233 in the paperback edition I own, or the beginning of Ch. 5. This story is beautifully told. Losing myself in how well everything fits together. Plot is not as strong as the prose, however. Aim to finish this in the next couple of days.

Rubén Darío, Azul.../Cantos de vida y esperanza (Spanish). Currently on p. 92 of 259 in the paperback edition I own. This is my first re-read of Darío in over two years. His short stories are good, but am anticipating the re-reading of his poetry, as Darío is one of my two or three favorite Spanish-language poets. Aim to finish this in the next day or two.

Miguel Cervantes, Don Quijote (Spanish). Currently on p. 99 of 766 in this hardcover edition, or the beginning of Ch. 16 of the First Part. First time re-reading Cervantes since 2007 and the first re-read in Spanish. After having read more of the romances that Cervantes skewers here, this is brilliant satire.

Cervantes, Don Quixote (translation). Currently on p. 120 of 682 in the Easton Press edition. See above for commentary, as I'm reading the translation alongside the original to see how well this was translated for the Easton Press edition. So far, the 19th century translation provided here does an excellent job not just with the satirical elements, but also with providing concise but informative notes on elements that would have been known to early 17th century readers but lost on contemporary readers.

Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (translation). Currently on p. 90 of 235 in the Easton Press edition. First re-read of Turgenev since my early 20s. Will review this one later in the week or next week (as I hope to review the others listed above before the month is over), but so far, this is a good story. Reading it at around 5-10 chapters a day, currently on Ch. 16.

So far, none of these works is hindering my enjoyment of them all. By reading these slowly (or rather, not spending more than 30 minutes at a time on any one), the rhythm is established but not to the point where I might lull myself into missing a subtle change of discussion or theme. Having read all but the Browning, Plato (well, in collected form, that is for each) or Ramuz, it is akin to revisiting old friends, seeing how they are and how I have changed in relation to the text I am re-encountering now after the passage of time and many labors won and lost. Might not be for everyone, but I certainly would recommend others trying to re-read works after suitably long intervals of time and experience gained. Well, for good works, as I highly doubt Goodkind improves with age.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Want to read an original anthology that'll contain new and exciting voices?

I just saw this posted over at Jeff VanderMeer's site:  He and his wife Ann are going to be reviving the Leviathan original anthology series, one of the best genre/weird/surrealist/etc. anthology series of the past dozen years or so.  They want Leviathan 5, which will consist of around 100,000 words (think somewhere around 400-450 pages) of original fiction, none of which would be by authors who have had more than two books published in English.  In addition, the goal is to have up to 30,000 of those 100,000 words be devoted to authors whose stories would be translated into English.  Envious of those who rave about how good this story is in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Chinese, Japanese, etc., while you know you have a snowball's chance in hell of being able to read it because you don't know the language?  This anthology would serve those who have ever found themselves wishing that they could get at least a hint of the rich treasure of stories being produced outside of the Anglo-American publishing sphere, in addition to the promotion of new and exciting voices writing in English.

There's a catch, however.  Translators have to be paid, along with others associated with collating and producing these things, so VanderMeer is pledging to take 100% of the royalties received from his latest works, 2010's story collection The Third Bear and 2011's non-fiction collection Monstrous Creatures, and apply them to funding those extra expenses that make translated fiction anthologies/collections a difficult venture.  More details are found at the link above. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: John Milton, Paradise Lost

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat, 
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos:  or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th'Anonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rime.
John Milton's 1665 epic/religious poem, Paradise Lost, is often compared to the works of Homer, Vergil, and Ariosto.  It certainly is the most ambitious epic poem extant in English, covering nearly 10,000 lines and twelve books (or parts) of poesy, but there is more than just mere length that makes Paradise Lost an enduring monument to English Renaissance literature.  It also contains historical value, for its (limited) insight into mid-17th century religious attitudes, particularly during a time when the Puritan movement was fracturing into Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and other Dissenters from the established Church of England.  But even more than that, Paradise Lost is an oddity in which classical forms are followed slavishly, even when it might be odd to consider the role of the Muse in the world of the omnipotent and omnipresent triune God.

Most readers of Paradise Lost focus their praise on the first two books and the depiction of the fallen Satan as a brooding, pre-Romantic anti-hero whose motivations we relate to and with which we perhaps may sympathize.  Certainly there is something seductive about this bravado outburst in Book I:

Here at least
we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

However, Milton's story is about more than just the insidiousness of evil and its desire to give full reign to ambition while forswearing any oaths of allegiance or servitude to God.  Consider the opening remarks of God the Father to Christ the Son in Book III:

'Only-begotten Son, seest thou what rage
Transports our Adversary?  whom no bounds
Prescribed, no bars of Hell, nor all the chains
Heaped on him there, nor yet the main abyss
Wide interrupt, can hold; so bent he seems
On desperate revenge, that shall redound
Upon his own rebellious head.'

Here we begin to see the true conflict of the poem.  It is not that of the rebel Satan fighting the good (evil?) fight against the heavenly despot, alluring as that chic image of a diabolic Che Guevara might be to many.  Rather, the main conflict in Paradise Lost revolves around the frailty of those who desire to be free of the bonds they imagine enveloping themselves.  Satan, in his desire to wreak havoc upon Creation during his descent from servant to covetous, rebellious outlaw, is to learn that all things, good and bad alike, only serve to reflect the greater glory.  This is a troubling sentiment for many readers, both during Milton's day and today; God certainly appears at first glance to be callous toward humans and their suffering due to Adam's Sin.

However, when viewed as both a literal and metaphoric expression of Calvinist theology, Paradise Lost takes on a different shade of meaning.  After the Fall, the poem does not content itself with alluding to the host of afflictions that torment humanity.  Rather, as is the case in Book XI with the scenes involving Noah, the emphasis is on the Elect, those whom God has foreseen as being just and righteous and how it is through that mystery of grace that humanity comes eventually to the Redeemer.  As a poetic presentation of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, Paradise Lost certainly captures the hopeful element of that theological school much more than the hell and brimstone sermons of a Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards could ever aspire to do.

This is not to say that Paradise Lost is free from deficiencies.  Its structure certainly is unwieldy at times.  Milton apes the mannerisms of the Classical poets to such a degree that his poetic metaphors clash with his religious theme.  Often too much space transpires from the laudatory opening lines of several books to the actual thematic issues addressed later on in those Argument sections, resulting in muddled lines whose power is reduced by Milton's propensity to wax eloquent just a bit too long.  This is especially evident in scenes such as the one late in Book III where he attempts to contrast humanity's failed attempts at reconciliation (such as the references to the Dominicans and Franciscans to underscore the faults of Catholicism) with the divine Will and Judgment.  Milton frankly often takes too long to get to the point and several scenes meant to underscore the Divine plan for redemption suffer under the weight of the artificiality of poetic devices such as the raging of the muse, the in media res cutaway scenes, and the hearkening back to Classical poets, none of whom were Christians and whose works dealt with themes very different from those Milton essayed to cast into verse.

Yet despite these problems, Paradise Lost certainly packs a punch nearly 350 years after its initial publication.  Next to the King James translation of the Bible, it perhaps was one of the most quoted English poems from the 17th century to influence English and American writers.  Its synthesis of Classical poetic elements with Calvinist doctrine served to inspire generations of writers to seek out ways to weave elements of both into their own writings.  Even today, in our much more secular age, Milton's poetry moves us because of how easily we can relate to several of the characters, from Satan to Adam and Eve.  Paradise Lost may not be the easiest poem to read, especially when it comes to considering its thematic elements, but it certainly is a powerful work that serves as the epitome of 17th century English writing, particularly that of a religious bent.
 
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