The OF Blog: July 2011

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thoughts on e-book reading on the iPad 2 after two weeks

I am one of those people who is neither a technophile nor technophobe.  I will usually purchase something in its second or third generation or even later (iPad 2, iPhone 4) because I would rather wait and see how emerging markets such as tablets or e-book readers work out their initial kinks than to be the first person on the block with the shiny new thing.  When Amazon came out with its Kindle back in 2007, I was in no rush to get it, thinking the cost was too high and the benefits too scarce for me to justify spending over $300 for an e-book reader.  But now that I'm traveling a bit more with my current teaching/test administration job, I have found it handy to have something on hand for those 15-60 minutes of waiting here and there.

At first, I was using my iPhone 4 for testing out e-books and it was surprisingly good for its tiny size (considering how fast I read, I was constantly tapping on it to move to the next page), but I desired something larger that I could use to read (and to play games, listen to music, watch videos, and use as an instructional tool).  So I used a combination of birthday money and my meager savings to buy a 32 GB iPad 2 two weeks ago.  I have found that I use it quite a bit, both at home and at work and it has been worth the extra cost.

Leaving aside the extra features that made the iPad 2 more appealing to me than any dedicated e-book reader, here are some of the things that I've noticed about the iPad 2's e-book capabilities:

  • Apple's iBooks is my favorite e-book reader.  Unlike the Kindle for iPad app, iBooks replicates the look of actual pages, it has actual pagination rather than the annoying percentage figure, and it is much easier to bookmark and highlight passages.
  • Despite this, most of my purchases have been through Amazon's Kindle Store because it has a greater selection of books.  I did enjoy not having to pay state sales tax (something Apple does collect), but I have noticed over the past couple of weeks that Amazon has collected sales tax on some of the e-books that I've purchased.  Considering the pricing between the two is virtually the same, this might be enough to push me to buy more books from iBooks if the total cost will be the same for the books available on both.
  • Kobo and Nook suck in comparison to iBooks and Kindle.  The buying of e-books through B&N's site is more time-consuming and it often takes several minutes for e-books to arrive.  Do not like the appearance of the books on the Kobo app.
  • There is no glare problems for me while reading indoors.  Although it is more difficult to read while outside, I'm more inclined to have a printed book in those situations due to tactile preferences.  But when the lights are dimmed (such as when I'm showing an educational video to my students every few afternoons), it is nice to have the iPad 2 on a stand and to just tap away.
  • I use Classicly and Stanza for reading most Project Gutenberg books, with a few others downloaded through iBooks.  Although the first two are not as attractive as iBooks, it is even quicker to find public domain books that I want to read/re-read.  Stanza in particular is very easy to use and seems more intuitive than Classicly.
  • Over half of the e-books I've read in recent weeks have been public domain works.  Been reading a lot of 19th and early 20th century weird fiction in particular, as well as memorable works such as the 18th century edition of Letters of Abelard and Heloise or Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  Having central repositories of free e-book editions of these classics has led me to read dozens of works so far that I likely would not have read if I had to pay $5-15 for print editions.
  • Choice is nice.  One of the benefits of reading e-books on the iPad 2 is that I am not locked into a particular e-book app.  As I've stated above, some of the e-book reader apps have features that appeal to me more than others.  Having more color than just black/white for illustrations is a plus.  Also, getting 10+ hours of battery life for continuous use (or several days going by with a drop from 100% to only 70% using it 1-2 hours a day) is very nice.  Plus, there's hardly any flickering as the pages "turn," as the dual-core A5 processor is very powerful for this purpose.
  • I have been reading more since I purchased my iPad 2 on July 15.  Thirty-four books have been downloaded/read since then (July list to be posted sometime in early August).  This might be the best advantage of them all.

Any other iPad 2/other tablet readers out there?  What are your thoughts on reading on a tablet?

Oh, one final thing:  Here are three books waiting to be read (two purchased through an Amazon gift card):

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia

Glen Duncan, The Last Werewolf

Those are all Kindle on iPad purchases.  For iBooks, I'll be reading these public domain works shortly:

Algernon Blackwood, The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories

F. Anstey, The Brass Bottle

St. Thomas More, Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation

Yes, I like to read more esoteric material on occasion...

Saturday, July 30, 2011

1998 Premio Alfaguara co-winner, Sergio Ramírez's Margarita, está linda la mar

Margarita, está linda la mar,
y el viento
lleva esencia sutil de azahar;

yo siento
en el alma una alondra cantar
tu acento.
Margarita, te voy a contar
un cuento.

– Rubén Dario, "Margarita, está linda la mar"
In my review of the other 1998 Premio Alfaguara co-winning novel, Eliseo Alberto's Caracol Beach, I noted how the selection process differs from most Anglophone literary awards in that unpublished manuscripts are submitted under pseudonyms in an effort to deter bias toward established writers.  Here, I want to discuss some prevailing trends in the winning novels for those who are unfamiliar with the winners and their stories.  Spanish-language literature is not as clearly divided into realist and speculative supergenres, as are Anglophone (in particular, UK) books.  In Alberto's story, a hint of the psychotic, of the quasi-fantastic co-exists comfortably with the "real."  In Sergio Ramírez's Margarita, está linda la mar, we see another prominent literary trend, that of the political-social novel.  While there is no shortage of Anglophone novels that deal with social concerns (often encapsulated in personal crises), there is a distinct paucity of tales that deal with individual/group relations with the government.  In Central America in particular, there is a greater concern about the government and its (often deleterious) impact on human lives.

Nicaragua is a prime example of this melding of the political and the social in its national literature.  It is, after all, the birthplace of the great poet Rubén Darío, widely considered to be one of the most influential and important poets of the late 19th and early 20th century.  Even today, Darío's poems on Latin American life and the frequent struggles to establish national identity and policy in the face of insidious American imperialism speak strongly to the hearts of many, particularly in his native land.  Ramírez is no stranger to the hotbed of political discontent; he was a prominent member of the socialistic Sandinista movement that overthrew the US-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. 

Some might think that having a partisan writing about the events surrounding the 1956 assassination of the first Anastasio Somoza might lead to stilted prose and overheated rhetoric; the examples of well-written literary quasi-propaganda in English are very few and far between.  This, however, is not the case with Ramírez's tale.  It is a story of contrasts and conflicts that stretch over nearly a half-century of Nicaraguan history, from Darío's fateful visit in 1907 and his inscription of "Margarita, está linda la mar" on a little girl's fan to the events leading up to the 1956 assassination.  Ramírez alternates between discussing Darío's time and the literary "present," with several parallels running between them, in particular, the Darío-obsessed group that meets to discuss the great poet...and to plot how to take out the brutal Somoza.

The reader quickly becomes accustomed to Ramírez's shifts between the past and "present," as each flows thematically into the other in a nearly seamless fashion.  Utilizing chapter headings taken from Darío's most famous works, Ramírez skillfully constructs a tale that serves simultaneously as a panoramic view of 20th century Nicaragua and as a detailed look at the machinations of dictatorship.  His characters are developed skillfully; little space is wasted on establishing their identities before their roles in this unfolding event take place.  Even the titular Margarita makes an appearance here; her interest in the growing conspiracy serves to connect the Darían past with the Somoza "present."

Ramírez is careful to avoid cardboard depictions of the pro-Somoza and conspiracy supporters.  Margarita, está linda la mar rarely feels like a political tract, instead being a much more complex view of Nicaragua's past than what might be expected from a former Sandinista leader.  Yet there are a few problems with the text.  At times, Ramírez becomes too caught up in the attempt to parallel the events of 1907 and 1956, with strained connections existing between the two times.  Yet this is a minor flaw compared to the rich prose and the intricately-developed plot that encourages the reader to read just one more chapter, one more page, before closing the book for a break.

How does Margarita, está linda la mar compare to Alberto's Caracol Beach?  Although my personal preference is toward the psychological madness depicted in Alberto's novel, Margarita, está linda la mar comes very near to that other novel's level of technical achievement.  Ramírez's prose might be a bit subtler in places than Alberto's and while I preferred Alberto's setting, Ramírez's Nicaragua is a memorable setting filled with intriguing characters.  It is easy to understand the difficult decision the jury had to make and certainly Margarita está linda la mar is worthy of being a Premio Alfaguara winner.  Highly recommended and also available in English translation.

1998 Premio Alfaguara co-winner, Eliseo Alberto's Caracol Beach

Justo cuando emprendían la fuga Martin les cortó el paso con un pedido inaplazable:  ir por cerveza a la licorería de la autopista.  Se había fumado un segundo porro de marihuana y se sintió con bríos de subir a gatas el Himalaya con tal de que Laura se fijase en él.  Por un momento tuvo la tentación de regresar a la cueva donde se atesoraban los vinos.  Se contuvo porque no había droga lo suficientemente poderosa para hacerle perder el respeto a sus mayores.  Esa indecisión iba de costarle carísimo, pero Martin no podía saber que en el kilómetro dieciséis de la autopista a Caracol Beach el velador del deshuesadero de coches había estado soñando con un tigre de Bengala que traía una rata en la boca. (p. 76)

Just when they began the fire Martin intercepted them with an urgent request:  to go for beer at the highway liquor store.  He had smoked a second marijuana joint and he felt strong enough to climb on all fours the Himalayas as long as Laura paid attention to him.  For a moment he was tempted to return to the cave where they had stored the wine.  He restrained himself because there was no drug strong enough to make him lose the respect of his elders.  That indecision was going to cost him dearly, but Martin couldn't have known that on kilometer 16 of the Caracol Beach highway that the auto junkyard guard had been dreaming of a Bengal tiger which had brought a mouse in its mouth.

Before discussing Cuban writer/filmmaker Eliseo Alberto's book Caracol Beach, I want to note a few things about the Premio Alfaguara selection process that has made for a distinctive series of winners.  Unlike most other literary prizes, where already-published books are submitted to a jury by publishers, the Premio Alfaguara solicits manuscripts from the Spanish-speaking world (including the United States), with pseudonyms and alternate titles given in place of author and work.  The publisher/sponsor of this award, Grupo Santillana de Ediciones, S.A., then asks a jury of five individuals, usually including a famous writer (for the first year, Carlos Fuentes chaired the five-person jury), to read through the hundreds of manuscripts (usually between 400-700) over the course of several months to select a winner.  For the first year of this award's re-establishment, 1998, two novels were chosen, one of which was Alberto's Caracol Beach.

Caracol Beach is a compact, sometimes surrealistic novel whose action takes place at a ritzy Florida beach in 1994.  It features a former Cuban soldier, Alberto Beto Milanés, who was the sole survivor of a horrific series of events during the Angolan Civil War of the 1970s and 1980s.  He is haunted by a yellow Bengal tiger with wings who visits him in waking nightmares, pressuring him to seek suicide and failing at that task.  It is also a story of a tragic teen love triangle whose grisly end is foretold from the beginning chapters with remarks similar to the passage quoted above.  It is a tale of gruff ex-soldier policeman and his strained relationship with his young transvestite son and that son's Armenian lover.

However, Caracol Beach is more than the sum of its parts.  Each of these elements blends together to create something vital and moving for its readers.  Beto Milanés' chapters, full of feverish self-recrimination, evoke a sense of hysteria and self-damnation reminiscent of movies such as Apocalypse Now.  As we witness his degradation and descent into full-blown madness, or as the tiger becomes more and more "real" on-page, the tragedy of his imminent dissolution becomes inevitable.  Yet like a rubber-necking driver going past a deadly crash, we read on with fascination.  What in the hell is this crazy fucker going to do?

We learn just what when we get to the second strand, involving the teens Martin Lowell, Tom Chávez, and the object of their desire, Laura Fontanet.  Alberto reminds us throughout their plot arc of the looming deaths for two of the three involved; Laura's kidnapping ties this into Beto Milanés' story.  From there, the policeman Sam Ramos is belatedly put on the trail after his deputy screws things up.  But Ramos has connections with this unfolding violent tragedy that go far beyond trying to prevent the fateful denouement promised for several of the actors involved.

Chance and Fate are the twin themes of Caracol Beach.  What an intricate web of connections that are revealed as the story unfolds; a single conversation shifts the course of action dramatically while seemingly minor actors and actresses end up playing key roles in creating the tragedy that follows.  Fate looms large throughout all this, as we just know things are going to go down badly.  In the hands of a less skilled writer, this could be overbearing and deleterious to the overall narrative flow.  However, Alberto's use of foretold tragedy is similar to that of Gabriel García Márquez's in Chronicle of a Death Foretold (fitting, considering that Alberto often collaborated with García Márquez and adapted several of Gabo's stories for cinema).  While we know what is going to happen, the hows and whys of that we are led to anticipate.  This creates a cathartic effect similar to that achieved by the best Greek tragedians.  We care what happens to that crazed soldier and to those doomed kids and we want to see what the others learn from being witnesses to their ends.

Alberto's writing is impeccable.  He easily shifts from elegant, descriptive scenes to powerful, damning denunciations in the course of a single paragraph.  He has a tendency here to close chapters with foretelling comments such as this:

En ese preciso instante, aunque no lo supieran, los dos amigos habían comenzado a morir cerca del kilómetro dieciséis de la autopista entre Santa Fe y Caracol Beach. (p. 126)

At that precise moment, although they didn't know it, the two friends had begun to die near kilometer 16 of the highway between Santa Fe and Caracol Beach.

Anticipation without a suitable conclusion would ruin a work.  Thankfully, Alberto's final scenes weave together the various strands to create a compelling, visual work.  The panorama of human life, those ties that bind and those that cut into us, is presented here wonderfully.  Alberto has much to say about how events affect us; we see one spectrum of it through the thoughts of poor Beto Milanés, while the opposite is shown in the epilogue.   This wide range of human reactions, coupled with his expert use of scene and imagery, makes Alberto's Caracol Beach a powerful read.  His co-win sets the tone for the other Premio Alfaguara winners to follow.  Highly recommended and available in English translation.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A morning quote

Caracol Beach era un lugar tan conservador que los lecheros aún repartían puerta por puerta los litros del preciado líquido, tradición perdida en estos tiempos frívolos donde la vieja costumbre de hacer favores no está aceptada por algunos.

Caracol Beach was a place so conservative that milkmen still delivered door-to-door liters of the precious liquid, a lost tradition in these frivolous times where the old custom of doing favors is not accepted by some.

– Eliseo Alberto, Caracol Beach, co-winner of the 1998 Premio Alfaguara

Decided to start my Premio Alfaguara re-read a few days early and so far, I think that's a very wise thing to do.  This book is also available in English translation, if any want to tackle it on their own.

With the usual blathering uproar about the Man Booker Prize about to occur...

I thought I'd do something a bit different this year than just merely be bemused by the complaints from certain quarters (especially those in England) that complain about the longlist (then the shortlist and ultimately the winner) for the annual Man Booker Prize.  Sure, I could write a long bit on how there's some intriguing fictions on there that utilize certain genre (in this case, ranging from SF to fantasy to crime to romance to almost all points in-between) tropes in crafting stories that presumably are among the best written in a particular year by a Commonwealth, Irish, or Zimbabwean writer.  But no, I'm going to do something a bit different than that.

Whenever the Man Booker longlist is published, I will scan through it and buy some of the titles, no doubt, and perhaps review a few here.  But no, I'm going to do more than that.  I'm going to examine another, more international annual award (and one that pays double of what the Man Booker Prize does currently), the Premio Alfaguara.

This is my favorite literary award, not because it's in Spanish and I get a chance to read new fiction in my second language, but because the fictions have almost always been uniformly strong and without the usual artificial divisions that seem to occur in English fiction (particularly that of the UK variety).  So I think August will see me reading and reviewing the past winners since the award was revived in 1998, as well as some of the Man Booker longlist that should be released shortly.  Perhaps this will lead to some readers discovering new fictions that they might otherwise have missed (should note that some of the Premio Alfaguara books have been translated into various languages, even into English).

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A partial list of those who inspired me to purchase e-books recently

Although print reading is still dominant over e-book reading, I have been purchasing several e-books recently, especially after getting an iPad just over a week ago.  Now, the majority of these e-books have been freebies from Project Gutenberg (such as Oscar Wilde's De Profundis) that I might not otherwise been aware of in the first place, but an increasing number have come from seeing the titles mentioned elsewhere.  Here's a partial list of those e-books and those responsible for making me aware of them:

Marjorie Bowen, The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories (free, Kindle for iPhone/iPad) - first saw this mentioned in the 2006 Big-Ass Fantasy List compiled on Jeff VanderMeer's old blog.  Finally got around to downloading it in June.

Minister Faust, The Alchemists of Kush ($2.99, Kindle for iPhone/iPad) - Jeff's the responsible party, as his signal boost first caught my eye and I downloaded it the day of release last month.  Very good story.

Hanan al-Shaykh, The Locust and the Bird:  My Mother's Story ($11.99, Kindle for iPhone/iPad)- Ian Sales mentioned al-Shaykh to me and this is the e-book I chose to purchase.  Outstanding memoir/biography of a Lebanese mother and her struggles to find true love.

Chris Adrian, The Great Night:  A Novel ($11.99, Kindle for iPhone/iPad) - The New Yorker's brief article on it a couple of months ago led me to purchase it.  Not as good as The Children's Hospital, but still a good novel to read.

Sadegh Hedayat, The Blind Owl ($8.59, Kindle for iPhone/iPad) - Paul Smith raved about this novel to me months ago on Twitter.  I bought it in April and perhaps I should rave about it as well.

Rikki Ducornet, Netsuke ($11.99, Kindle for iPhone/iPad) - Jeff's again at fault.  Still, it was a pleasant read.

Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô (free, Kindle for iPhone/iPad) - Paul got me to read this, although I read it in both the original French and then in English translation to fill in the comprehension gaps.  Excellent Flaubert story.

Nick Mamatas, Starve Better ($3.99, Kindle for iPhone/iPad) - Actually, it was Nick himself mentioning it on Twitter that got me to buy it at a discounted price.  Interesting non-fiction piece; plan to re-read it before weighing in on it, though.

Gérard Nerval, Sylvie (free, iBooks) - It was a combination of Umberto Eco and Paul Smith that got me to read this tale in both French and English.  Outstanding.

Grans G. Bengtsson, The Long Ships ($9.87, Kindle for iPad) - Abagail Nussbaum just blogged about this in a post on recent reads and her reaction spurred me to check this out, which I hope to do later this week.

Cormac McCarthy, Sunset Limited ($11.99, iBooks) - Shaun Duke I believe was the one who recommended this one to me.  Better than average McCarthy, or just simply outstanding – your pick.

Frank Turner Hollon, The God File ($5.99, iBooks) - Brian Lindenmuth recommended this one to me and now I shall pass that recommendation onto others.

If I bothered to list the past three months' of recommendations that I purchased in print form, the list likely would double, but this should suffice for now.  Any of these you want to read or recommend to others?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Who would win in this battle?

Since there seem to be all sort of character/book/author/cover art "battles" out there, I thought I'd pose this question:

Who would win in a battle between Orko and Snarf?

Anarchism and Religious Morality: Thoughts on Books by Emma Goldman and Pope Benedict XVI

For eighteen hundred years, the Catholic Church has preached the gospel of peace.  Yet, when the people actually wanted to make this gospel a living reality, she urged the authorities to force them to bear arms.  Thus the dynasty of Spain followed the murderous methods of the Russian dynasty, – the people were forced to the battlefield. (p. 135)

This quote, taken from Emma Goldman's "Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School," represents a key component of her thoughts on liberty and religion.  An anarchist since her youth, Goldman approaches issues such as labor conditions, political tensions, religious belief, gender inequalities, and other related social issues from the view of what provides the most freedom for people.  As she said later on in that particular essay, Goldman views with antipathy anything hinting at discipline and restraint:  "Discipline and restraint – are they not back of all the evils in the world?  Slavery, submission, poverty, all misery, all social iniquities results from discipline and restraint. (p. 142)" 

There is much that is appealing to this virulent distrust of anything that hints at restraint or any control from an outside agency.  We live in a world where commercials exist to persuade us to "just do it," to "take the Pepsi challenge," to value as "priceless" things purchased with credit cards.  We imbibe the often-inane political mantras of all points on a spectrum of political thought – taxes are bad, the rich ought to pay a greater share, entitlements are good, entitlements are bad, the poor are wretched, the wretched are worthy of contempt – without much in the way of critical engagement with the issues at hand.  There is something ridiculous about the current arguments between the US branches of government about debt reductions, as why should some nebulous, intangible thing such as debt control our lives and futures as much as it does currently?  Cui bono?  Surely not mine nor yours, for do we ever really control the puppeteers that act out the farce that we see played out in political theaters all across the nation and world?

Goldman in several of the essays contained within Anarchism and Other Essays tackles these thorny issues.  She notes the betrayals of revolutions, of the tendency toward despotic centralism that infects even the most egalitarian of institutions.  Writing in the early 20th century, her take on woman suffrage is sobering in its blistering dismissal of it being a panacea for the social and economic ills that plagued the US a century ago.  So often we want to claim freedom, while we fasten the chains around us.

The central area of contention deals with religion and its role in constraining human action and apparent freedom.  Goldman criticizes not just the institutionalization of religion as represented by European Catholicsm, but also the Puritan streak (taint?) that is still visible today a century after Goldman's essay was composed.  Goldman begins by presenting a contrast between life and Puritan views:

More than art, more than aestheticism, life represents beauty in a thousand variations; it is, indeed a gigantic panorama of eternal change.  Puritanism, on the other hand, rests on a fixed and immovable conception of life; it is based on the Calvinistic idea that life is a curse, imposed upon man by the wrath of God.  In order to redeem himself man must do constant penance, must repudiate every natural and healthy impulse, and turn his back on joy and beauty. (p. 144)
This certainly rings true; several people do tend to denigrate the natural in favor of the idealistic.  Behind this, however, lurks a hidden question that Puritans and atheists like Goldman answer in opposite fashions:  just what "meaning," presuming there is one, that can be derived from life.  For Puritans, this is relatively simple:  life is meant to be lived in accordance with certain prescribed religious ideals and that the natural is subservient to a God that judges humans based on how close they hew to the idea of religious morality and its practices.  Goldman argues that life is a manifestation of change and the freedoms inherent in it.  Beauty is intrinsic; it does not require a curator to proclaim it to be "good," for it is already "good" without any need for a human to proclaim it so.  Whereas a Puritan would view discipline as the key to religious faith and the preservation of the link between humanity and God, Goldman in her essay "The Hypocrisy of Puritanism" argues that religion places fetters on human freedom and that its insistence on discipline and restraint deters humans from following a path to freedom.  Religion is the greatest and most cruel of slavemasters, as it shapes human responses to external stimuli in such a way that the fetters are not even detected by most.

Yet there is something dissatisfying about Goldman's arguments on religion.  Yes, religious dogma can easily enslave those who want to be bound to rules and regulations, yet there is that sneaking suspicion that behind the promise of anarchistic freedom lurks yet another insidious enslaving force, that of desire and the cravings it inspires.  Nothing in Goldman's essays really addresses those tendencies; they might be scarce imagined by her.  Yet there is a plethora of evidence that the non-disciplined tend to enslave themselves to certain impulses or substances.  Whether it is the drug addiction that I see everyday at my current job or if it is manifested in a vapid materialism that urges us to buy this or consume that in order to experience that fleeting high of satisfied lust, there just does not seem to be much freedom in anything humans ever create or act out.

What if there was a God?  What if that God was not the stern schoolmaster portrayed in Puritan sermons?  What if, indeed – it is a powerful question that does force us to consider the hypothetical arguments surrounding religious faiths.  This is especially true with Christianity these days, with the crises of faith it has experienced over its history.  How does one react to such a question (or to its inverse of what if there were no God)?  Do we reject it out of hand as being a tool of power-hungry humans or do we consider which elements might be true and which might be false?

In his 1968 book (revised in 2000), Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, tackles that question and other related ones.  He does not shy away from the nagging doubts surrounding the (non)existence of God; he embraces it.  Instead, he takes upon himself the difficult task of explicating a creed that is not always understood by the myriad Christian groups, much less those not members of this particular religion. 

At the heart of this book is the Apostle's Creed, conceived by the late fourth century CE.  The major part of the book is devoted to this creed, quoted below:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
 Ratzinger's thoughts are erudite and yet written with a clarity that average laypeople can understand the points being made.  One such point is the very issue of control/restraint that so irritated Goldman in the 1910s.  He does not argue for a God that sits in judgment on a holy throne; instead he argues for the God who, in the human form of his son Jesus, offered himself up for sin expiation.  This touches upon the issue of humility, a presumed virtue that is not addressed in Goldman's book.  Is humility the ultimate gesture of a free soul, or is it the sign of the most depraved slavery?  Ratzinger would almost certainly argue that it is the former, based in part on this excerpt:

According, in the New Testament the Cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below.  It stands there, not as the work of expiation that mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God's that gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about. With this twist in the idea of expiation, and thus in the whole axis of religion, worship, too, man's whole existence, acquires in Christianity a new direction.  Worship follows in Christianity first of all in thankful acceptance of the divine deed of salvation.  The essential form of Christian worship is therefore rightly called Eucharista, thanksgiving.  In this form of worship human achievements are not placed before God; on the contrary, it consists in man's letting himself be endowed with gifts; we do not glorify God by supposedly giving to him out of our resources – as if they were not his already! – but by letting ourselves be endowed with his own gifts and thus recognizing him as the only Lord.  We worship him by dropping the fiction of a realm in which we could face him as independent business partners, whereas in truth we can only exist at all in him and from him.  Christian sacrifice does not consist in a giving of what God would not have without us but in our becoming totally receptive and letting ourselves be completely taken over by him.  Letting God act on us – that is Christian sacrifice. 
Ratzinger thus would likely dismiss Goldman's arguments due to this belief in a humble God who serves, among other things, as an exemplar for ideal human behavior rather than as an immortal, capricious despot.  This is not to say that Goldman's ideas do not have merit, for one only has to look at the practices of people following various religious creeds to see how readily some utilize religion as a means of controlling people, whether it be ministers exhorting their congregations to campaign against alcohol or, at its extreme, violent cult leaders like Jim Jones or David Koresh.  By our deeds we shall be known, for good or for ill.  Yet it is hard to fathom freedom without some sense of responsibility, which Ratzinger argues later in his book when he discusses the responsibility inherent in deeds born of faith.

At this point, one might wonder whether or not Goldman or Ratzinger is more correct.  It is, of course, only natural to take sides and to judge which is more cogently argued or which fits one's own needs better.  Although I am more inclined to Ratzinger's points (being raised in a religious family does influence one's takes on such matters), Goldman's arguments on freedom do merit consideration.  Questioning our assumptions often leads to fruitful introspection that in turn leads to new conceptualizations of life, ideals, and religious belief that can benefit someone regardless of whether or not that person ultimately views religion as a positive, mixed, or negative force.  Ratzinger's book is valuable in the sense that it is one of the deeper "introductions" to a religion that has deeply influenced global philosophical, political, social, and cultural currents for two millennia now.  Whether or not one agrees with him or not (I largely do) on matters of dogma and its application in the world, he puts forth the notion of a Christianity that depends more on voluntary action and sacrifice that centers itself around the notion of humility than around the utilitarian practices that many associate with this faith.  Reading both works certainly will provide much food for thought for others and this perhaps is the greatest worth that these two books contain.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Interview I conducted with Ann and Jeff VanderMeer now appearing in Bull Spec #6

The latest issue of Bull Spec, issue #6 (online and print editions), features an interview I conducted with Ann and Jeff VanderMeer that covers a wide range of projects the two of them are currently engaged in and some future plans.  It's five pages in print, so there might be a bit of something for most everyone (not to mention the other interesting articles).  Just thought I'd give people a head's up on this.  One sad note, though:  no squirrels were discussed in this interview.  Maybe next time?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Squirrels eat more than nuts (and bananas), ya know...

Sometimes they like eating dinner rolls as well.  Enjoy your moment of squirrel food porn.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons

He knew what he would face today, and found himself tossing restlessly as he brooded on Maester Aemon's final words.  "Allow me to give my lord one last piece of counsel," the old man had said, "the same counsel that I once gave my brother when we parted for the last time.  He was three-and-thirty when the Great Council chose him to mount the Iron Throne.  A man grown with sons of his own, yet in some ways still a boy.  Egg had an innocence to him, a sweetness we all loved.  Kill the boy within you, I told him the day I took ship for the Wall.  It takes a man to rule.  An Aegon, not an Egg.  Kill the boy and let the man be born."  The old man felt Jon's face.  "You are half the age that Egg was, and your own burden is a crueler one, I fear.  You will have little joy of your command, but I think you have the strength in you to do the things that must be done.  Kill the boy, Jon Snow.  Winter is almost upon us.  Kill the boy and let the man be born." (p. 103)

If there ever were a common adjective for epic fantasies, particularly American-written works of the past twenty years, that word would be "sprawling."  More characters, more plots, more scenes, more political intrigue, more deaths, as well as more plot inertia, according to some.  One merely has to glance at various forums devoted to epic fantasy discussions to see readers complaining about the slow "pace" of "middle volumes," or of (in their minds) unnecessary delays in volumes being written to see that this "more" sometimes ends up as being a bit "less" in the eyes of many erstwhile fans.  One particular target of these accusations has been George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has "expanded in the telling" from a trilogy to six volumes to (for the moment) seven volumes; some are now fearing eight or even nine volumes will be required for this saga to come to a close.

In order to discuss the fifth volume, A Dance With Dragons, these fan concerns have to be noted because they will likely shape how this volume is perceived.  Anticipation inflicts cruel stings to both reader and writer alike; the first because they build up expectations for how the story should flow, the latter because the story cannot aspire to be what it is, but must instead contend with the phantoms of past volumes built up by readers to be something other than what the author might imagine.  For A Dance With Dragons, the fewer expectations the reader has going into it, the better this book will be for them.

There is much to like about this story-in-progress.  Characters not seen since 2000's A Storm of Swords reappear and there are noticeable signs of character growth.  The passage I quote above marks a turning point in Jon Snow's nascent career as Commander of the Black Watch.  He is leaving behind adolescence and having to contend more directly with the intrigues and betrayals around him.  Martin does not radically shift his character as much as he organically develops Jon into being the person who may (or may not, based on late developments) be someone more than just a precocious military commander.

The tone of the various PoV chapters varies considerably, making it easier to read large portions of this 1000 page volume.  Tyrion - dwarf, kinslayer, acerbic wit - serves as the cynical, sardonic counter to the weightiness of Jon's chapters.  His flight to the east leads to a host of new developments, including an introduction to a character who might upset the precarious balance of power in Westeros.  It was refreshing to see that there were some surprises still in store, things that I did not recall any fan prognosticators foreseeing on the various fan forums.

But beyond the richness of the characterizations (I could easily spend time on Daenerys, Reek, and a few minor characters), what was striking is the atmosphere looming in places.  Martin was a horror writer before he ever wrote an epic fantasy and there have been times in the series where he has utilized those motifs to create memorable scenes.  One particular boatride in particular stands out because of the creeping horror that threatens to envelop the people on board.  These touches, while not always strictly necessary for the plot, do add considerably to the overall enjoyment.

However, there are some serious structural problems with A Dance With Dragons.  Due to the enormity of the plots in motion (succession issues in Westeros and the East and the northern threat of the Others), Martin is faced with tricky timeline issues that have plagued over epic fantasists as they ground on toward the end of their series.  With so many characters in motion, it is tricky to move them about and to develop their characters and situations adequately within the space of a single novel.  This become very evident in the preceding volume, A Feast for Crows, where the northern and eastern-based characters were left for this volume while the southern characters came to the fore.  A Dance With Dragons does cover a little of the southern situation, but it is hard to tell which scenes are congruent with the fourth volume, which are coinciding with even the third volume, A Storm of Swords, and which are occurring months later.  Although there is some resolution of these timeline issues toward the end of the novel, Martin still seems to be manipulating the narrative chessboard, trying to place his character pawns in place for a planned attack.  There is no resolution to any of the plots here; everything is in a state of suspension, awaiting the sixth volume.

Perhaps it is inevitable that this would occur; after all, there is much left to be done before the series is complete.  For some, knowing that there's a wait ahead (some fear the 5-6 years that plagued the publication of the last two volumes) will curb their appreciation for A Dance With Dragons considerably.  For myself, however, Martin's prose and his characterizations were very strong here.  He continues to develop the theme of what one does in the aftermath of devastation that began in A Feast for Crows.  It might not be as "sexy" as wars, battles, betrayals, and so forth, but it does provide a depth to these events that make them more palatable and meaningful.  It is not a perfect novel by any stretch, but A Dance With Dragons is a solid addition to a long-running series that I suspect will be more important in the scheme of matters once the series is completed.  When that might be is anyone's guess, but anticipation will continue to bedevil both writer and readers alike.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ben Loory, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day

The man is on a path.  It is a funny thing.  Life sort of gives him hints.  Just before the phone rings, the man will look over.  When he gets an urge to play the lottery, he wins.

The man has a job and he does it very well.  Everything comes easily to him.  He makes the right calls; he says the right things; he gets raises and benefits and perks.

Then one day the man is walking home from work, when suddenly he is hit by a car. (p. 38)

Some stories enchant by a melodic flow of syllables that pound out a delicate, jazz-like rhythm that soon sinks into the reader's psyche.  Others depend upon staccato bursts, where the sentences are boiled down to their essentials, leaving nothing extraneous behind.  Some tales build up to a crescendo, while others crash suddenly like the smashing of waves.  Ben Loory's debut collection, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is not at first glance evocative.  He seems to write in the simplest of fashions, with simple, direct sentences that has more in common with Hemingway than with Maupassant or other prolix short fiction writers.  Yet there is much more to Loory's fictions than what might be readily apparent from excerpts such as the one taken from "The Path."

One thing Loory does in several of the forty stories is create an off-beat juxtaposition of the mundane and the unreal.  The short sentences Loory favors serve to build up expectations in one paragraph that then careen into something else in the next.  The next part of "The Path" illustrates this shift:

The man wakes up in the hospital.  He doesn't understand.

Me?  he says.  Hit by a car?

He looks around.  It doesn't make sense.

And that's when he sees - his path is gone.

The path he's always been on is gone.
The man doesn't know what to do anymore.  How to - how to do anything.  He doesn't even know how to work the water fountain, can't figure out when it's time to go to the bathroom.

His wife and children come to visit; the man doesn't know their names. (p. 38-39)

Now things have changed and the reader is left wondering about this man, who has lost his "path," who has lost the memory of his wife and children.  What will happen to him next?  Loory, without resorting to elaborate wordplay or narrative sleights-of-hand, creates tension just from the simple combinations of character and situation (surreal as many of these are).  He can have an octopus serving tea and from that WTF? moment move the story forward because the reader is paying attention to what is transpiring.

However, weirdness depends less on the grotesque or the out-of-place than it does on preconceptions of what is "normal," on what is being transgressed.  In most of these stories, there is a palpable sense of transgression taking place, such as what occurs at the very beginning of "The Hunter's Head":

A hunter returns to his village one night with a severed human head in one hand.  He jams the head onto a stake and sticks it into the ground by his hut.

Then he goes inside and falls asleep. (p. 41)

Is this story a horror?  A pastiche of oddities?  A dark, humorous tale?  Something else in-between?  There is a bit of most of these inside this tale, but its whole is more than a simple classification of its core elements into perceived genre tropes.  Throughout this collection, Loory riffs on various narrative elements, but he rarely borrows wholecloth from any particular source.  This mixing-and-mingling creates stories that feel at once familiar and strange because we recognize some of the elements they share with favorite fictions, but then the tales veer off into often-unexpected directions. 

If there is a weakness to Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, it might be that despite the individual departures from reader expectations, on the whole the stories do resemble each other in narrative structure a bit too much in places.  Although Loory's deceptively straightforward prose works well, there is a sense of sameness that occurs after reading several of these stories in a single setting.  This shortcoming, however, pales in comparison to the inventiveness that is displayed in Loory's depictions of his sometimes-oddball characters and their rather unique situations.  Readers who enjoy taking the roads less-traveled in their fiction will find much to enjoy in Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day.  Its use of the weird to say things about the mundane will appeal to many and Loory rarely lingers too long on a situation or a character's plight.  This debut collection is one of the better first offerings that I have read in a while and it ought to be attractive to a diverse set of readers.  Highly recommended.

What the Birthday Squirrel Bought for Me in 2011

Well, the Earth has completed another revolution to get to the point where I was born 37 years ago today.  Due to lots of things planned for this Sunday, the Birthday Squirrel came a bit early.  Here are the book-related items that I either bought in full with money given to me or which I bought in part:

Yes, I now am a proud owner of a 32 GB Wi-Fi iPad.  It has been a lot of fun testing this out, as I can see some possibilities for using this in my classroom.  Already read a few books using both the Kindle and iBooks app, including Minister Faust's e-book only novel The Alchemists of Kush (a real steal for only $2.99, if you ask me) and the free Project Gutenberg The Non-fictions and Essays of Charles Dickens, pictured above dealing with his history of England.  Good stuff.

I also went to McKay's, where I spent a little bit of money on buying some books in Spanish, French, and Italian, as seen in this picture and the one below.

Uncertain when I'll get around to reading all of these, but I do hope to continue to improve my Italian and French to the point where they'd approximate my reading fluency in Spanish and Portuguese.

One oversight from last year was my failure to pick up Kathe Koja's first novel in a long time.  That oversight has now been corrected.

Well, there are other new arrivals over the past week, but those will await a post later in the week.  Any of these items pique your interest?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I guess this is where I get to play the asshole again

I've mellowed somewhat over the past year or so since I took my current job.  Having a mostly rewarding job where it's easy to have fun and to see several teens battling addiction issues take the necessary steps to strengthen themselves against desire/temptation naturally leads to more and more time devoted to what benefits me.  But one consequence has been a lack of attention to those oh-so-important internet discussions.  I don't blog as much as I had been for the past three years and almost all of those posts do not tie into what others are discussing.  Nor do I have the time to follow the dozens of blogs out there on a regular basis, even the ones that I've enjoyed reading for years.

But I've also managed to stay out of the fray of those teacup tempests for the most part this year because of this isolation.  I just don't have the time to devote to this (and I probably shouldn't be writing this, as I'm trying to finalize a feature-length essay/interview tonight for mag publication shortly), but alas, I see that my apparent previous reputation for being a (self-admitted) internet asshole has preceded me.  I received a Twitter direct message this evening, directing me to some comments made earlier today by Amanda Rutter of Floor to Ceiling Books, regarding a negative anonymous comment in this post (more recent at top):

Amanda Rutter

Amanda Rutter

Amanda Rutter


Amanda Rutter

Amanda Rutter

Amanda Rutter

Amanda Rutter

Hrmm....what should I make of this?  I suppose the simple, rational thing would be to continue ignoring these sorts of odd accusations, but after a while of having others point these out to me via Twitter DMs, I think that wouldn't help too much.  I guess I should begin by noting that I have not followed Amanda's Twitter feed for around half a year or so due to a lack of interest in the type of posts and comments she was making.  That's nothing really personal, just more an admission that some people move in other circles and that it'd be best to just stop paying attention to someone rather than keep feeding fuel to that friction fire.

But this does get old after a while.  When I decide I'm going to be the asshole in anything, the last thing that would ever occur to me would be to use an anonymous name.  One would think that would be quite obvious considering I regularly use my first name in posting on forums, blogs, and this blog's name on LiveJournal those rare times I post comments there.  But perhaps it is easier to believe that someone like me who can be acerbic would choose to hide behind a cloak of anonymity than to state flat out that another person's posts, opinions, fashion (non)sense, choice of pets, etc. are drivel.

Oh, I'm sure some are thrilled to see what they hope might be a nice cat fight.  This does not interest me and I think it'd be best for others to forego sending me links to whenever Amanda goes into another one of her paranoid sob fests on Twitter, Facebook, her blog or string telephone thinking that I or another is behind those anonymous comments.  I don't care to be linked to her comments, I don't want to read her blog unless I'm extremely bored and I browse a plethora of blogs I don't have favorited but are in other's blogrolls, and I certainly would rather it be stated for the present that I prefer to maintain that wall of radio silence, but if I have to state something negative about another, I'm going to go balls out and use my usual post name, since I eschew non-signed commentaries.

Got it?  Now back to the more important stuff that actually pays me money.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Quick impression after the first fifth of A Dance With Dragons

I'm impressed with the range of emotions Martin manages to wring out of Hodor.






Sorry if this spoiled anything for people, but I just had to share this.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When I have the time...

I know I've been rather quiet on the article/review front lately, as I've been busy prepping for an audit Wednesday.  Nothing says fun like working 12 hours this weekend and another 8 hours yesterday with a sub in my room administering, grading, and scoring nearly three dozen assessment tests, then filing them and making copies of the data for inclusion in the new database.  It's very time-consuming and yet I can't complain, as it's kept my brain active.

But I do want to do more here, so here are some tentative plans:

First, expect to hear more about the first interview I've conducted in over a year in the next week.  Finalizing that one tonight/Wednesday.  It will not be posted here, however.

Second, I want to review some non-fiction.  One book I have in mind is Douglas Perry's book, The Girls of Murder City.  I already have a killer intro in mind for that pop-historical book.  If I'm up for the challenge, I could review the 1968 book that Pope Benedict XVI wrote, An Introduction to Christianity, but that might be a bit too esoteric for some people, but who knows?  And then there's Umberto Eco's latest book, Confessions of a Young Novelist, which is a fascinating read so far.  Maybe soon...

I also want to review some shorter fiction, so expect to see some reviews in the coming weeks.  Some of these will not be genre-associated works.

When I have the time, I'd like to review Jesse Ball's new novel, The Curfew.  This is a book that I think several people will want to investigate, as its language is exquisite and the story behind the tale is intriguing.  Might be one of the rare books I re-read before the year is out (I like to go years between re-reads so I can forget better).  Lots of good books being produced from some interesting corners of the publishing realm.  New Rikki Ducornet, the Ransom Riggs book, and I did finally read that Genevieve Valentine book, although I hold it to be lesser than the other books/authors I mention here.  That's not to say I found it to be a poor or even mediocre book, mind you.

Lots of things to do when I have the time.  Now only to find that time.  Not likely until I'm older, alas.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

June 2011 Reads

Summer, at least this summer, does not seem to be the time for increased reading.  June was my second-lowest month (and the first third of July sees me at only 10 books read to date).  Work and jury duty are largely to blame, along with a out-of-season severe sinus infection that laid me up for nearly three full days.  Only 25 books read, but at least the quality is fairly high on the whole.

194  Lynd Ward, vol. I:  Gods' Man, Madman's Drum, Wild Pilgrimage (Library of America omnibus; graphic, wordless novel; it and vol. II were outstanding)

195  Lynd Ward, vol. II:  Prelude to a Million Years, Song Without Words, Vertigo (Library of America omnibus; graphic, wordless novel)

196  Joanna Russ, The Female Man (re-read; reviewed)

197  William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Differance Engine (review forthcoming on the SFF Masterworks blog later this month or August)

198  Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances (good debut novel)

199  Alexander Pope, Rape of the Lock and Other Poems (good 18th century classic)

200  Cheryl Rainfield, Scars (this YA novel reminded me, sometimes painfully, of some former students.  Well worth reading)

201  Oliver Potzsch, The Hangman's Daughter (decent historical fiction)

202  Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic (re-read; review forthcoming on SFF Masterworks blog)

203  Philip K. Dick, The Penultimate Truth (meh, might review it sometime)

204  Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet (wild, surrealist novel)

205  John Gardner, Grendel (re-read; might write a longer review later)

206  Brian Aldiss, Greybeard (reviewed on SFF Masterworks blog)

207  C.E. Morgan, All the Living (good, moving debut)

208  Chris Adrian, The Great Night (not as good as his other works, but worth reading)

209  Minister Faust, Journey to Mecha (short story collection; good)

210  Inky Johnson, Inky:  An Amazing Story of Faith and Perseverance (non-fiction memoir/testimonial from a former UT cornerback who lost the use of his right arm while making a tackle in 2006.  I saw that hit live on TV and it was haunting.  His story is a moving one.)

211  Karen Joy Fowler, What I Didn't See (very good short story collection)

212  Shirley Jackson, Hangsaman (one of her minor works, with a slow build to a good conclusion)

213  Blake Butler, Scorch Atlas (this was excellent weird mosaic fiction)

214  M.J. Engh, Arslan (reviewed)

215  Jack London, The Call of the Wild (re-read; more awesome on my first re-read in over 20 years)

216  David Anthony Durham, The Sacred Band (review in late September/early October; did find it to be a very good concluding volume to an underrated epic fantasy trilogy)

217  Lila Azam Zanganeh, The Enchanter:  Nabokov and Happiness (reviewed)

218  Ben Loory, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (short fiction; review forthcoming)

Not too shabby, considering I haven't written reviews for most of these yet (or ever).  July is off to a good start, albeit a slow one due to an upcoming work audit that forced me to work 11 hours Saturday and Sunday.  I can say 8 of the 10 read to date are 2011 releases and that a few of these might garner a review in the near future.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Weird collage my students and I are doing as a work in progress

Every month or so, each classroom at the residential rehab center where I teach has to decorate a bulletin board outside our rooms, showcasing some theme or student creativity.  For July-August, my class is doing a collage of weird things that we notice in magazines,  newspapers, and online photos.  Most of these are student-chosen and some of them need a bit of context (such as their referencing of a news video I showed them last week about the Japanese making artificial steaks out of the bacteria found in human feces or the Michael Vick dogfighting case from a few years ago) for full enjoyment, but do enjoy some of the weirdness we've done (we're only 2/3 done, thus the noticeable gaps in some places).

Do rednecks really know trucks?  I leave that up to your imagination...

Yes, no collage would be complete without a lunging rabid squirrel jumping out from the University of Tennessee athletics logo.  One of my students said it looked like the squirrel was being crucified, leading to the question of the possible existence of a squirrel Jesus.  Yes, my class can be a weird place at times...

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Should we "alter" literary works to make them "accessible"?

Language is life.  Our vocabulary shapes us and the world around us.  Just as older elementary/primary school students utilize the larger boxes of crayons (Sienna being a favorite color name, along with periwinkle) compared to a kindergartener, our vocabularies expand with age, desire, and practice.  Sure, we can get by with using only a few hundred words of English to make a point, but what if we want to make a nuanced point? 

Robert Ebert writes about a simplification of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.  Although some might think his point is blunted somewhat by the fact of the simplified version being marketed to English as a Second Language students, I cannot help but to sympathize with Ebert's point.  I taught social studies for two years in the early 2000s in Florida to ESL (or ESOL in Florida) students.  I can see the appeal of simplifying texts so the student can understand them better.  But should this apply to works of literary genius?

It is a difficult place literature teachers find themselves in when they have ESL students.  How does one teach the same rubrics, the same formulae to those whose command of English is weak compared to native speakers?  It is a shame that secondary level teaching of literature in general has been reduced to a few rote themes, as this strips the text of its aesthetic appeal.  Students don't read classics like The Great Gatsby as much as they are taught another's interpretation of it.  In such a climate, having a simplified text would make some sense; students do have to pass the test and who really expects them to appreciate how adroitly the words are constructed?

This is, as Ebert puts it, a travesty.  One of the joys I've had in learning how to read other languages is the puzzling out of syntax and semantic contexts.  I don't want to read Mio Cid in a simplified form; if I'm going to read it in Spanish, bring on the Old Castilian form!  Make me look up words or to do double-takes when a word had a much different meaning several hundred years ago than it does today.  But do not reduce it to a primary school level; that replaces the actual text with something that is not a translation (itself a carrying across from idiom to idiom in an attempt to preserve the complexities of the text as much as possible) but instead a reduction of a story to a synopsis that contains virtually none of the original text's beauty or importance.  Translations can be frustrating when the beauty of the prose or poetry is altered to fit the demands of another language, but at least there is some attempt to be faithful to the notions behind the text. 

Perhaps this view is a minority one, but when it comes to introducing people to a classic, isn't it better that they read a translation that approximates the complexity of the original than to read something in a second language that distorts the original text to the point where its attractions disappear under the reduced, simplified text?  Maybe I'm just a romantic, but I'd much rather read "assí es vuestra ventura,     grandes son vuestras ganançias" than "usted tiene gran suerte y ganancías."  One carries something beautiful about it, while the other stamps out all signs of beautiful prose in service of making an outline intelligible.  Sometimes, it's just better to sink or swim in a second language and learn more complex phrases than to read something that is much worse than a good translation.

Maybe you feel differently?  If so, please weigh in, as there certainly is room for other interpretations here.

You've come a long way, baby

I had originally thought about waiting until late August, when this blog would turn 7, to write this post, but then again, why wait?

It's funny how things change with the times.  In August 2004, when I started this blog (then named OF Blog of the Fallen), there were very few blogs out there devoted to SF/F issues, or so it seemed at the time.  The one non-author (and really, that's relatively, since he has published writing) blogger I was aware of then was Matt Cheney, whose The Mumpsimus I still consider to be one of the best reading/criticism blogs out there.  So I thought I'd start this blog to be an outreach from wotmania's Other Fantasy section, which occasional original posts out there.  No real thoughts of doing anything major with it, and the post activity from August 2004-May 2007 bears this out.

Then something began to happen.  First, there began to be blogs started by people who frequented some of the same forums that I did.  You had Pat's Fantasy Hotlist (2005), The Wertzone (2006; which lately has become the most visible non-author blog that I've noticed) and Neth Space (2006) at first emerge from this corner of the SF/F online community.  Then came that annus mirabilis, 2007.  It was around then that certain bloggers had begun to receive review copies (I had received a few back in 2004-2005, but that was because I co-ran wotmania's OF section, not because of this blog) and then there seemed to be a rush of bloggers in that year and into early 2008 (too many to list here, although I'd say A Dribble of Ink is likely the most prominent of those, but it's hard to tell these days, since so many have expanded in the past 3-4 years).

With this rush came inspiration (to get me to transition from a large website's main moderator for one literary section to a blogger), confusion (what should I focus on here?), and frustration (why are so many people reviewing the same few books at the same time?).  Through it all, there came the gradual attrition (about half of the blogs I noticed in 2007-2008 are no longer active) and then a new wave in 2009-2010 that for some odd reason tried to emulate those older voices while covering some areas I never really thought about (paranormal romance, the PR-tinged elements of urban fantasy, pop-horror, etc.) or which never interested me.  While I still think a lot of those pieces are a bit too vapid for my tastes, I have to admit that several have grown very large audiences in the interim and that's nothing to poo-bah about.

But the coolest thing is seeing who has expanded from being just a blogger.  In the past two years, two of us at least (Pat and I) were asked to edit anthologies; Pat's was an original one, Speculative Horizons, I would have been a series editor for a newish best-of reprint anthology if it weren't for market reasons that the Best American Fantasy series went on hiatus.  I see Aidan has begun working with, tweeting as @tordotfantasy, as well as he and others contributing pieces to and a few other places.  British blogger James Long went even further, becoming an editorial assistant at Orbit UK.  I've done freelance work, both for free and for pay, writing review pieces, interviews,  and columns that were published at Amazon's Omnivoracious, SFWA's Nebula Awards site, Beyond Victoriana, and in a few other places via others translating my writings into Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch.

The biggest bit for me is that this fall, I will have two translated stories published.  The Weird and ODD?, two anthologies edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, contain pieces that I translated from Augusto Monterroso and Leopoldo Lugones respectively.  They are not long pieces (neither would be much more than 2,000 words), but it still seems like I'm in a dream.  I'm getting something published on paper that I can present to my family!  So surreal, thinking back over the years.  I imagine the others who are working their way from starting personal blogs toward having larger platforms within the various literary communities probably feel something similar.  Therefore, why not just write an appreciative post without snark (shocking, I know, coming from me) and make a joking reference to a Virginia Slims ad (ironic, considering I'm allergic to tobacco smoke)?

Monday, July 04, 2011

Which non-English works ought to be part of global literary awareness?

Leaving aside the arguments some might toss up in regards to "literary canons," which works not originally composed in English ought to be one of those "essential reads" that could bind global communities together?  For example, wouldn't Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude have something to say to someone whose native language is Vietnamese?  Or what about Confucius' Analects?  Wouldn't that philosophical work be interesting to a Cherokee or Quechua speaker?  Or how about the griot tales from West Africa?  Couldn't they hold some appeal to a Swede or Arab?

Just curious to see which non-English works (whether in English translation or in other translations) you feel might be of some value across linguistic/cultural divides.  If you find this to be of some interest, please feel free to repost this to your blog, Facebook, or Twitter.  The larger the conversation, the better, n'est ce pas?

Mio Cid

Decided to challenge myself a bit, so I began reading the opening to El poema de Mio Cid in Old Castilian.  Here's the first stanza:

De los sos oios     tan fuertemientre llorando,
tornava la cabeça     e estávalos catando;
vio puertas abiertas     e uços sin cañados,
alcándaras vazías,     sin pielles e sin mantos
e sin falcones     e sin adtores mudados.
Sospiró Mio Çid,     ca mucho avié grandes cuidados;
fabló Mio Çid     bien e tan mesurado:
"¡Grado a ti, Señor,     Padre que estás en alto!
"Esto me an buelto     mios enemigos malos."

Here is Mio Cid, or El Cid Campeador, if you prefer, getting ready to set out.  I love the use of description to set the stage for Mio Cid's sigh and his prayer to God.  It is promising that only a couple of words ("ca" in particular) had to be looked up in order to understand the passage fully.  Much better than when I did a parallel English/Old Castilian reading about five years ago.

Any of you familiar with El Cid or have read Cantar de Mio Cid/El Poema de Mio Cid in the original or in translation?

Fourth of July Used Book Porn

Here are the books I chose with store credit from McKay's earlier today.  Found a dozen titles in Spanish, French, and German for future reading/language improvement.  Should get around to some of these later this year.

The Gardner book in particular interests, as does the Wolfe story collection.  Curious about Iris Murdoch, so she certainly will be read shortly.  I was also pleased to find Ben Marcus' first book for only $1.50 and a nice Library of America edition of some of Willa Cather's stories and poetry.  Haven't yet read the particular Bret Easton Ellis and Christopher Priest books, so those will be read sometime in the near future.

Any of these catch your eye?

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Blake Butler, There Is No Year

The father and the mother sat close together without touching.  They weren't sure which way to aim their heads.  They remembered recent rooms from other buildings.  The house still felt so new. (p. 3)

In the nights before the new house, the father walked up streets peeping through glass.  He'd seen the light in other houses.  He'd seen people in their beds - sometimes moving in the darkness to the bathroom or the stairs.  He'd seen so many bodies fuck.  In one house he'd seen someone reading about a father at the window in a book.  All the houses touched by wire.  The grain in the glass in the windows in the frames in the walls in the rooms in the house on the yeards along the streets aligned for miles. (p. 5)

Outside, around the house, birds were landing on the roof.  The birds could not stop shitting.  The sun grew upon the white waste's sheen, showing the shrieking sky back at itself. (p. 39)

Some stories are straightforward narratives.  They establish protagonists, antagonists, settings, and perhaps a theme or plot.  Conflict may be either externalized or internalized.  The prose flows like a river, or it drips slowly, word by precious word, until it penetrates the wall of the reader's consciousness and finds its way to that vast subconscious sea of symbolic understanding.  There is something powerful about the written word, especially when it is double distilled and purged of extraneous elements.  Raw, visceral texts spread their literary mess all over the place, leaving us to attempt futilely to clean up the mess.  Love those type of stories?

If so, Blake Butler's third book, There Is No Year, might be one of the most potent literary concoctions that involve house as metaphor/dream/nightmare to emerge after Mark Z. Danielewski's awe-inspiring House of Leaves.  It is a novel that defies any simple, concise explanations.  Each reading, I suspect, will be vastly different from the initial.  Already, I see certain patterns emerging as I flip back through the text that I did not encounter when I began my first, feverish read barely twenty-four hours ago.

There Is No Year deals with a nameless father-mother-son trio who move into a new house.  Strange things (and associations) began to occur.  Told in short, pruned sentences that rely on associative descriptions rather than metaphors to create surrealistic images.  The family soon encounters a copy family, identical to them except for the mold that takes the place of teeth.  There is a growing sense of horror, contained in memorable sentences such as the following:  "There the knocking became pounding, became shouting, became bells - a chime the house had held inside it, somehow, since it had been built, a human sound." (p. 115)  There is something odd occurring and we just can't quite figure it out, as it loams on the outside looking in, while we at the center of the interpretive circle try to puzzle just why that barely-discerned entity is lurking over there, making us queasy and curious.

The whole novel, divided as it is into four parts of nineteen sections (some of which are barely more than a sentence or two or perhaps a poetic fragment), brims with a spectral force that attracts us even as we might do a double-take over a certain egg or a particular curtain.  The house, while it might not be as supernatural as the one featured in Danielewski's magnum opus, seems to be simultaneously a concrete entity and a representation of something more universal than a single family's plight.  There appear at times fractured mirrors that cast back images of our own lives, our own dreams, our own nightmares.  Butler does not explore these possibilities as much as his narrative contains spaces wide enough for us to fill in the gaps as we may see fit.

Some might find this to be a bit much, but I cannot help but to marvel at what he has created.  Using a mixture of disturbing scenes (the footnoted section on the photographs the son receives a little over halfway through the novel might be one of the most chilling things that I have read in years) and short, staccato passages, Butler has crafted a novel that will linger long in the reader's mind and even longer in her subconscious after the final page has been turned.  Not many narratives prove to be the stuff of which dreams (or nightmares) are made, but There Is No Year might be one of those rare examples.  It is one of the most original, disturbing, moving novels that I have read in 2011 and it certainly will be part of my annual Best of Year reflective essays.  Highly recommended for the intrepid.
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