The OF Blog: November 2011

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

"...I no longer knew how to go forward, and I didn't know how to go forward because I had lost what came before.  That's it, that's how I am.  I'm holding a long note, like a stuck record, and since I can't remember the opening notes, I can't finish the song.  I wonder what it is I'm supposed to finish, and why.  While I was singing without thinking I was actually myself for the duration of my memory, which in that case was what you might call throat memory, with the befores and afters linked together, and I was the complete song, and every time I began it my vocal cords were already preparing to vibrate the sounds to come.  I think a pianist works that way, too:  even as he plays one note he's readying his fingers to strike the keys that come next.  Without the first notes, we won't make it to the last ones, we'll come untuned, and we'll succeed in getting from start to finish only if we somehow contain the entire song within us.  I don't know the whole song anymore.  I'm like...a burning log.  The log burns, but it has no awareness of having once been part of a whole trunk nor any way to find out that it has been, or to know when it caught fire.  So it burns up and that's all.  I'm living in pure loss." (p. 37)

What makes each of us a "human being?"  Even that compound word, "human being," implies a sort of dynamic action, where the living person is in a fluid state between conception and death.  What are we "being?"  A series of actions, thoughts, mistakes, deceptions, and attempts to wrest order out of chaos seem to delineate human beings from rocks, trees, or even squirrels.  We are constantly "being" because of our attempts, benighted as some might see them, to remake and reorder our environs, to utilize that evolutionary tool called "memory" to recall, however imperfectly, our past experiences, never permits us to be static; we have to keep living in order to postpone dying, whether that be a metaphorical or biological death.

But what if our memories were taken from us?  What if we could not recall why that ray of sunshine shining through the patio makes us sigh and smile wistfully?  What if we hear a voice and do not associate that voice with a lover, with a child, or with a friend?  If our identity, those things that we devise to center ourselves at the crux of so many semantic associations, is lost, then who are we?  Are we that burning log described above, burning but without knowing that it was once part of something grander?

This is the issue that Umberto Eco tackles in his fifth novel, 2004's La Misteriosa Fiamma della Regina Loana, published in English translation in 2005 as The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.  A late middle-aged (roughly 60 years old) rare books dealer, Yambo, wakes up in a Milanese hospital in 1991 (roughly around the time that the Persian Gulf War ends, based on internal evidence) with no memory of his individual past, only the snippets of information that he learned from songs, comic strips, poetry, and prose.  Over the next couple of months, he is reintroduced to his family, his assistant (and possible mistress?) and friends before visiting his childhood home in Solari, where a treasure trove of material from his youth is stored at the family residence.

Eco is renowned for his erudite cataloging of minutiae, errata, and other material evidence of belief structures (he was a leading semiotics professor before he became a novelist in 1980).  At first glance, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana would seem to share little with works such as The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, The Island of the Day Before, or Baudolino, as the narrative is grounded firmly in the present and there are no esoteric theories on reality or the structure of the universe on display.  Even the narrative contains a deceptively simpler, more personable tone to it.  Yet appearances can be deceiving.  Re-reading The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana two years after reading his non-fiction The Infinity/Vertigo of Lists, there are certain parallels can be made between those two works and from there with his other novels.  Yambo's exploration of his past through the comic books and penny dreadful-type pulp novels that were common reading materials of Italian youth in the 1930s and 1940s opens up new possibilities.  How would we be affected if we were to see beloved childhood texts for the first time in years?  Would we have deep associational memories attached to say Harold and the Purple Crayon or Happiness is a Warm Puppy (two of my earliest books that I read)?

As Yambo delves into this obscured literary/personal history, he begins to recall more and more information.  The "fog" that he often would note (and quote from divers literary sources) starts to dissipate, with interesting new connections being revealed.  When I first read The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, I found these recalled memories and associations to be almost impenetrable, as they were not images of my generation (just as perhaps the post 9/11 generation might not fully grasp what the Iranian hostage situation or the Challenger explosion meant to my age cohort) and there was a barely-perceived invisible barrier that kept me from understanding what was transpiring during the latter quarter of the novel.  Although still difficult at times to process during the recent re-read, the combination of nostalgia and recalling of past dreams and memories is more understandable to me now that I'm nearing middle age.  Interesting how perceptions can change with time and experience, something that I suspect Eco had at least partially in mind as he was constructing this novel.

Despite The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana being different in structure and focus from his previous novels, I still found it to be a challenging yet ultimately rewarding read.  It may not present at first the formidable challenges that his most famous works do, being that it is centered around a nearly-average man's struggle to recall his life and first love, but it too contains layers of depth that make it a novel that deserves several re-reads spaced out over a long period of years for more of its hidden treasures to be revealed to readers.  Eco is never an "easy read," but like its predecessors, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is a worthwhile read for those readers who want a deeper challenge than what they typically find in most literature today.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Epic fantasy or non-speculative fiction?

Let's see who can identify which is which based on small descriptive passages:

He cleared his throat, preparing the way for words, but as had happened more than once, decided at the last minute not to say anything.  There is no knowing if it was from a wish to irritate her with silence or simply the result of contented laziness, or perhaps an unconscious fear of dealing a final blow to something he wanted to preserve.
He had the strangest sensation, the only way he could have described it was to say that it felt like her, but he had never touched her, nor any woman that he could remember.  Still, the touch seemed to carry her signature, the note of her, like a distinctive perfume, almost.  The pain and the indignities had not daunted him.  This did.  No one had touched him but to lift or bathe him since he had been seven years old.  A chill went through him, a delicious cold tingle from his forehead to his knees.

Jons Allanbridge, who found this reaction from his native city somewhat galling, proceeded to get straight into a row with the man and the exchange became sufficiently heated for the passengers packed below to come up to see what was going on.  Because they were who they were, and in a foreign land, they came up fully armed and expecting trouble.
Sometimes you'll see nothing but blue skies; sometimes you'll see the muck in the mud piles along the road. And you'll accuse the man carrying the mirror in his basket of being immoral! His mirror reflects muck, so you'll accuse the mirror, too! Why not also accuse the highway where the muck is piled, or, more strongly still, the street inspector who leaves water wallowing in the roads, so the mud piles can come into being.

The steady clang of iron on stone sounded to Will like the remorseless proclamation of a funeral bell.  He felt the vibrations run through his Spanish leather boots, up his black-clad legs and into the pit of his stomach as he crouched on Paul's Walk in the dark belly of the cathedral.  His stomach responded with a queasy sensation that only added to his feeling that the world was out of kilter.

"A caged bird reserves to herself, by the good will of her gaoler, her material liberty.  The joy of the fowler would surely be greater if he knew that he had captured a soul – but that can never be known, can it?  How can one penetrate the mysteries of metempsychosis, to assure oneself that the quarry is animated by some divine breath?"

He found he couldn't answer her.  What if he did think that the length of a person's grief was a measure of their love?  He was as troubled by the simple fact of her asking that question as by his own inability to answer.

Death stalked the field.  As the last of the sun's rays winked out of the sky, a heavy shroud settled over the fields beyond Byora.  It was followed by an unnatural hush that rolled in like sea-fog.  Bird calls became distant before gradually fading into nothing, but as the gloom deepened there came other sounds:  whispers and low, mournful cries from the torpid fens.  Uncertain lights winked in the misty distance in cold imitation of life, but then even the voices of spirits and daemons quietened in the presence of something more terrifying yet.  In the broken silence the darkness on the edge of the fens slowly deepened and took form.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Prisoner of Heaven (El Prisionero del Cielo)

– Observe la marca de agua.  Y estas líneas.  La textura...

– ¿El cabellero es un experto en falsificaciones?

– Todo es falso en este mundo, joven.  Todo menos el dinero. (p. 31)

"Observe the watermark.  And these lines.  The texture..."

"The gentleman is an expert in forgeries?"

"All is false in this world, young man.  All except money."

In 2001, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's La Sombra del Viento (later published in 2004 in English as The Shadow of the Wind) was published.  Through word-of-mouth, this book went on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide by 2008, when the second volume, El Juego del Ángel (The Angel's Game) was published.  Nearly three and a half years later, the third volume in the planned four volume sequence of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, El Prisionero del Cielo (to be published in English in June 2012 as The Prisoner of Heaven), has now been published to great fanfare in Spain.

El Prisionero del Cielo, unlike the previous two standalone volumes, needs to be read after them, as it depends too heavily on events in both novels for its stories.  The main action takes place in Barcelona around Christmas 1957, a little over a year and a half after the concluding events in La Sombra del Viento.  Its two main protagonists, young Daniel Sempere and his older friend and quasi-guardian, Fermín, feature heavily in this work.  The story begins with Daniel receiving a visit from a strange gentleman who deposits an old copy of The Count of Monte Cristo with the following inscription:

Para Fermín Romero de Torres, que regresó de entre los muertos y tiene la llave del futuro.


For Fermín Romero de Torres, who returned from among the dead and who has the key to the future.


From this point, the action of El Prisionero del Cielo switches into exploring the mystery behind this inscription and just why Fermín may be near the nexus of a series of events that stretch back to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Franco's fascist government.  The mysteries behind "13" and why The Count of Monte Cristo are explored in depth in a flashback that takes up most of the second and third sections of the book.  In the previous two books, Zafón kept the historical events in the background, to the point where there was barely any mention in La Sombra del Viento of the repression of political dissent in Franco's Spain.  Here in El Prisionero del Cielo, however, this repressive regime plays a larger role in explaining not just "13" but also who "the prisoner of Heaven" might be.  In this shift toward providing a stronger historical background to the fictional events, Zafón also introduces the first true villain of the series, albeit one who lurks in the background for most of the novel.  

Like its predecessors, El Prisionero del Cielo mixes in several references to literature.  Whereas the earlier volumes referenced in passing Benito Pérez Galdos, one of Spain's leading writers of the mid-to-late 19th century, here and there in the text are references to Miguel de Unamuno, one of Spain's greatest essayists/poets/novelists of the 20th century and one whose criticism of the nascent rebels against the Republicans did not endear himself to Franco's supporters.  Although one can read the novel without needing to be aware of Unamuno's writing, having a fair knowledge of his works can add a little touch to the plot, just as such literary references did with the previous two novels.  In addition, the aforementioned The Count of Monte Cristo plays a more direct role in the plot besides being the book in which the quoted inscription appears.  Zafón's use of these references feels more integrated here than it did in the previous two volumes, perhaps due to the book being over a hundred pages shorter than La Sombra del Viento and nearly 300 shorter than El Juego del Ángel.

El Prisionero del Cielo's shortened length is almost certainly due to not needing to introduce new characters; Fermín and Daniel should already be familiar to readers.  This does not mean that Zafón does not flesh out their characters (one of the few complaints I had about La Sombra del Viento was the sense that Daniel's character was too much of a cipher), as we see how Fermín came to be associated with the Semperes plus we witness the stress and strain in Daniel's life, first from being a new father and then later as he deals with the explosive revelations told in the flashback sequences.  We also learn a bit more about certain characters that first appeared in El Juego del Ángel, with certain surprises that lead the reader to reconsider what s/he had read in that book and perhaps in the first volume.

The past, whether it be that of the city of Barcelona or the literature of previous generations, has always played a major role in Zafón's recent novels.  This continues in El Prisionero del Cielo, not just with the literary or political references, but also with the revelations revolving around the Sempere family.  Zafón's imbuing the narrative with traces of a mysterious historical past is a hallmark of his recent writing and it continues to be a strength here.  The past, both real and imagined alike, feel "alive" throughout El Prisionero del Cielo and that local color adds immensely to the enjoyment of the plot.

Despite the novel being less self-contained than the others (not only does it depend upon the previous two for its setup, but the story also ends with a quasi-cliffhanger), El Prisionero del Cielo is a more streamlined novel that sheds some of the narrative bloat that plagued El Juego del Ángel, not to mention having the narrative PoVs narrowed down to Fermín and Daniel make for easier transitions than found in La Sombra del Viento.  This leads to a more focused story that conveys at least as much as the previous volumes but without the bloat or narrative juggling that sometimes slowed down the narratives in the previous two volumes.  The action is strong, reminiscent of the best 19th century sensational novels, with good characterization and character motivation throughout the book.  The main weakness of El Prisionero del Cielo is the seeming lack of resolution; it introduces the main villain and sets the table for what ought to be an explosive finale, but in and of itself, it concludes with the characters being able to integrate the revelations of the preceding chapters into their lives and adjusting the best they may.  Despite this lack of a strong conclusion, El Prisionero del Cielo is my favorite volume in the series to date and I cannot wait until the next time one of the characters dares visit The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  One of the best novels I've read in 2011.

Note:  I use Spanish titles throughout due to the fact that I read each volume in the original Spanish and I've never read any of the translations.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A literary family heirloom

Nearly two weeks ago, my maternal grandmother died.  Earlier today, my mother and her siblings met to divide the material property.  Among the things my mother chose were several 19th century Bibles that both of my grandparents had inherited over the years from their ancestors.  There was also one anthology, published in 1826, that my mother said I could have for my own.  It is a leather-bound book, with only the spine still intact, called simply The English Reader.  In its 252 pages are excerpts from classical, medieval, and early modern writers and poets, with each selection chosen to stimulate and benefit the reader's intellectual and moral development.

This particular book was one of my grandfather's ancestors.  Here is the inscription he wrote to mark that this book was his.  Notice the difference in handwriting from what we are accustomed to seeing in the early 21st century.  Interesting spelling as well for some of the words.

When I hold this book, I think of my mother and grandmother telling me after my grandfather's death that despite not liking fiction (he thought it was daft to read "a bunch of lies"), he was a lover of poetry.  Perhaps he inherited that from his own grandparents and maybe they from this particular grandparent several generations before me.  Maybe my own love of poetry runs in the family, or at least I'd like to think so.  And yes, I will read this book and think on all of this and maybe there will be some intellectual and moral instruction for me as well.

My copy of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's El Prisionero del Cielo arrived

While one of my trained Serbian reading squirrels reads it, you have my permission to weep.

Only eight days after its release in Spain, my copy of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's third volume in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books quadrilogy, El Prisionero del Cielo, arrived this morning.  I hope to finish it this holiday weekend and perhaps write a review shortly afterward.  For those of you wanting to know when the English translation will be released, I hear it'll be June in the UK and no firm date yet in the US.  I'll also note that it will behoove readers to re-read the prior two volumes, particularly The Shadow of the Wind, as it seems several characters from that first volume reappear here.  More later, after I'm done reading this 379 page book, the shortest of the three volumes.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Three reviews that I think others ought to read

I don't link enough to other online reviewers enough these days.  It's not because I view them as "competition" (few have similar interests), but rather because I've fallen behind in keeping up with other blogs.  That being said, I've noticed in the past week that three of my favorite novels have been reviewed by two people whose taste in literature I generally respect.  So I thought I'd provide links to those reviews so others can discover some worthwhile reading without having to listen to me blather about it:

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream)

Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood (Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream)

Stewart O'Nan, Songs for the Missing (Dazed Bastard)

Go forth and read these reviews, then the books (if you haven't already).

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Books to read/re-read before the end of the year

While I'm not the sort of reviewer that regularly schedules reads, I do often have a few goals in mind for a week, month, or even a year.  Some goals are modest, like reviewing a certain book just before its release date, while others are a bit grandiose (like reading a novel, poem, and play in five different languages – I lack only reading a play in Italian in achieving this).  But I rarely ever set a specific date for posting about a specific work.

Therefore, with that in mind, here are the books that I'm hoping to have read or re-read before the year is out.  Tell me if you think this might be a bit ambitious (mind you, I plan on reading dozens of books around these):

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, La sombra del viento (re-read)
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, El juego del Ángel (re-read)
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, El prisionero del cielo (copy should arrive in the next 2-7 days)
Umberto Eco, La Misteriosa Flamma della Regina Loana (hoping copy arrives in the next few days)
Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (re-read)
Umberto Eco, Тајанствени Пламен Краљице Лоане (Serbian translation I received as a gift)
Milorad Pavić, Drugo Telo (re-read)
Milorad Pavić, Second Body (re-read)
Milorad Pavić, Unique Item - Delta Novel
Milorad Pavić, Blue Book
Catherynne M. Valente, The Habitation of the Blessed
Catherynne M. Valente, The Folded World
Caitlín R. Kiernan, Two Worlds and In Between
Geoff Ryman, Paradise Tales
Marcel Proust, volumes 3-7, in both French and English, of In Search of Lost Time
Russell Banks, Lost Memory of Skin
J.M. McDermott, Women and Monsters
Christopher Bollen, Lightning People
Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories (in-progress)
Various, The King James Edition of the Bible (halfway through)

Hopefully, I can get some of these done by the end of the month, while others will be spread over the following month, as I won't be working much this winter and therefore should have plenty of time for reading and reviewing and maybe even translating.

Which of these have you read?  Which would you like to see receive a full review from me?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Milorad Pavić, The Tale That Killed Emily Knorr

But all this is just seemingly so.  The underwear is something completely different and did not serve the purpose of keeping the sultan warm, for there were those to make sure that the sultans were not cold.  This underwear is covered in the finest expensive embroidery in several colors.  But this, too, is just seemingly so.  For, nothing in this world is as it seems at first glance.  The embroidery is not embroidery at all in fact, but if you look closely and can read from right to left, you can decipher numerous verses upon it, lines from the Koran, formulas and curses meant to defend the sultan's spirit and body from the enemy, wounds, illness and accidents.  These writings, vows, mantras and latches, whatever you wish to call them, had the task of protecting the sultan's life and health from all kinds of mishaps, and the colors of the silk, or thread with which these writings "against evil spells" were woven, also had an important role.  Red was supposed to protect the sultan from unhappiness in love, green made sure that the path beneath his horse's hooves would be covered in grass, yellow guarded his heart against stabs from the left and purple against stabs from below.  Blue protected him from the sword, black from the arrow... (p. 11-12)

Storytelling can be a dangerous art.  From a simple snippet of a tale (true or not does not matter), the reader/listener can be sucked into a world in which the tale teller and not the reader/listener is in full control.  In passages such as the one quoted above, when a presumably simple "man with rosy cheeks" (we later learned he wrote some Italian book called Dicionario dei Khazari) recites, people like Emily Knorr die.  What power such tales must have, if they can influence people to commit suicide or die of heart attacks!

The Tale That Killed Emily Knorr is a bilingual Serbian/English tale that barely lasts 50 pages in translation, yet over the course of its six short chapters, we witness meditations on stories, on the beliefs that people have in the efficacy of the written charms (even today we see remnants of this in the signs that many families post in their homes regarding warmth and charity), and the power of words to create and transform images.  Like most fables, it has a certain charm to it, a sense that it is not the mystery that is important as much as it is what creates a mystery out of words that possesses our thoughts as we read it.

Milorad Pavić in his unusually constructed stories (ironically, the layout for this is one of the most traditional he ever employed) often sought to capture that juju that transforms vocalizations into powerful entities that could influence human thought and action.  Here in The Tale That Killed Emily Knorr he distills this in a deceptively simple tale which allows our thoughts to meander in daydreams as he largely succeeds in pulling off a literary sleight-of-hand of shifting our focus away from the death and toward the power of the tale.

Doubtless, there will be those who will find this tale to be lacking in plot or resolution.  Those dour readers will in their denial of the story only serve to reinforce the questions implied within the text, those regarding how do stories affect us and how do readers/listeners interpret and alter those "landscapes" that the author/storyteller presents for our consideration?  It is due to these raised (and not necessarily answered) questions that The Tale That Killed Emily Knorr bears a quaint charm that only improves upon subsequent re-reading.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Translating Weirdness: The New Translation of Augusto Monterroso's "Mister Taylor" for The Weird

Menos rara, aunque sin duda más ejemplar – dijo entonces el otro –, es la historia de...

Less strange, although without a doubt more exemplary, is the story of how Augusto Monterroso's classic political fable, "Mister Taylor," came to be translated anew for publication in the recently-released anthology The Weird:  A Compendium of Dark and Strange Fictions, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.  This piece is not as much a commentary on the author and his most famous fiction but rather more a look at the strangeness of translating this deceptively devilish short story. 

Before I was asked by Jeff to translate "Mister Taylor," I was only vaguely familiar with Monterroso's name.  He was often cited as an example of Boom Generation fiction to explore when one had already read Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, or Mario Vargas Llosa, but until Jeff suggested that I translate "Mister Taylor," I had never gotten around to reading him.  So the first thing I did was get a copy of this story (I have an Alianza Editorial edition of his collected Cuentos) and I began to read "Mister Taylor" in earnest.

The first thing that I noticed was that Monterroso uses complex clauses to create a contrasting playful and serious effect.  Those readers who are apt to skim descriptive passages (and I sometimes do this, to my chagrin) will find themselves needing to re-read Monterroso's sentences several times, as he buries humor and biting satire inside these passages.  In turn, these elements, when placed beside troubling, surreal aspects (such as the desire to engage in mass headhunting), evokes a sense of weirdness, that this should not be happening and yet for the characters it is the most natural thing in the world!  Without Monterroso's carefully placed descriptions, connected together with a plethora of dependent clauses, the weird effect would be ruined.

Delightful as it may be to read such elegantly constructed sentences in the original Spanish, it was a real struggle to render this literary effect into English.  It took several drafts to reproduce this.  Typically, when I translate a passage (say for some of the reviews that I do of Spanish-language works), I first begin by making as literal of a translation as I can, even if it sounds stilted and unnatural to Anglophones.  Then I begin to go through each paragraph and change the order of adjectives and if it would sound better, tighten the sentences by removing extraneous modifiers (e.g. "the braying donkey" in place of "the donkey that brayed") to create something more harmonious for English speakers.

However, doing this too often in a story such as "Mister Taylor" risks destroying the delicate structure he has created.  Yet some compromises have to made in translation lest both the letter and spirit of the text be lost.  Below is a passage that underwent several modifications over the drafts I first did and then when Jeff submitted it to a few more rounds of copyediting:

Grande fue el regocijo con que Mr. Taylor regresó a su choza.  Esa noche, acostado boca arriba sobre la precaria estera de palma que le servía de lecho, interrumpido tan sólo por el zumbar de las moscas acaloradas que revoloteaban en torno haciéndose obscenamente el amor, Mr. Taylor contempló con deleite durante un buen rato su curiosa adquisición.  El mayor goce estético lo extraía de contar, uno por uno, los pelos de la barba y el bigote, y de ver de frente el par de ojillos entre irónicos que parecían sonreírle agradecidos por aquella deferencia.

Great was Mr. Taylor's joy as he returned to his hut.  That night, lying on his back on a precarious palm mat which served as his bed, interrupted only by the buzzing of the aroused flies that flew around him making love obscenely, Mr. Taylor contemplated with delight for a long time his curious acquisition.  He took the greatest aesthetic pleasure from counting, one by one, the hairs of the beard and moustache and looking straight into the pair of half-ironic eyes that seemed to smile at him, pleased by his deference.

When I first handwrote my translation back in the spring of 2010, I rendered the first sentence as "Great was the joy with which Mr. Taylor returned to his hut."  It is more literal and while some might think it would sound better or at least represent the Latin American Spanish-ness of the text, I ultimately decided that it was unnecessary, since Monterroso did not construct that sentence to be any stranger than the usual "con que" construction is in Spanish.  Therefore, I went with the simpler "as."  Similarly, "boca arriba" literally means "face up," but what native English speaker ever speaks of sleeping "face up?"  Likewise with the flies buzzing around Mr. Taylor.  Sure, "que revoloteaban en torno" sounds grander than "that flew around him," but rendering it as "that were revolving in turn" just throws the reader off a bit too much.

This is not to say that there weren't times when a more ornate (and weird-reading) construction wasn't called for.  If I recall correctly, the passage below was perhaps of the most problematic for Jeff and me when we were working on the final draft:

El Ministro de Salud Pública se sintió sincero, y una noche caliginosa, con la luz apagada, después de acariciarle un ratito el pecho como por no dejar, le confesó a su mujer que se consideraba incapaz de elevar la mortalidad a un nivel grato a los intereses de la Compañía, a lo que ella le contestó que no se preocupara, que vería cómo todo iba a salier bien, y que mejor se durmieran.

The Minister of Public Health, feeling sincere one dark night, with the light turned off, after unceasingly caressing for a little while his wife's breast, confessed to her that he considered himself incapable of elevating mortality rates to a level pleasing to the Company's interests, to which she replied that he should not worry, that he would see that everything would turn out well and that it would be best that they sleep.

I seem to recall that the adjective "sincero" was a topic of discussion.  Ultimately, its literal "sincere" translation was left in, in part because it sets up an amusing allusion to "sincere – truthful – politicans," but also because that adjective describes so much of what follows in the second half of the story.  But that sentence was torturous to translate and ultimately we decided to leave it mostly as was, in order to impart the strangeness of the situation and the "off" quality that can accompany even the best translations from one language to another.  Yet even here are modifications:  "después de acariciarle un ratito el pecho como por no dejar" describes rather strongly the unspoken desire to massage his wife's breasts as if he couldn't ever stop, while for simplicity's sake "after unceasingly caressing for a little while his wife's breast" is substituted.  Yes, some might argue that changes the mood slightly from desire to (temporary) action, but the intent is largely conveyed without interrupting the larger flow of that key passage, which is to note that while in the midst of lovemaking, there is concern that the shrunken head quota isn't being met.

Yet despite these changes, whether one thinks they are for the better or for the worse (I think they help improve the clarity of several key passages), what I hope readers will discover when they read my new translation of "Mister Taylor" is a story that depends heavily upon its juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrificly weird to create a satirical fable whose impact will be strongest after the final words are read and the true import of the story becomes clear to readers.  It was a difficult but yet instructive experience "carrying across" Monterroso's original into a new English translation, but I hope readers will be appreciative of the result of this labor of love.

October 2011 Reads

I think I'm doing slightly better, only waiting until two-thirds of the month is complete before posting the previous month's reads. I read 52 books, of which 6 were re-reads, 17 were at least partially by women, 8 were in Spanish, 2 in Italian, 1 in French, 8 were collections, 2 were anthologies, 5 were debut collections or novels, and 27 were released in the US for the first time in 2011.  I leave it up to you to figure out which is which.  And yes, I'm still currently on pace to read more than 500 books for the second time in three years.

386  Olympe Bhêly-Quénum, Le Chant du Lac (French; brilliant, quasi-weird tale of the clash between Western-educated modernists and the more superstitious Vodoun-worshipping locals who believe evil spirits inhabit a lake.)

387  Kate Beaton, Hark!  A Vagrant (graphic novel; f'n awesome, as she skewers history and 19th century Romantic novels in a way that made me chuckle quite a few times)

388  Ross E. Lockhart (ed.), The Book of Cthulhu (might have more to say in the future on this reprint anthology of Lovecraft-influenced weird fictions)

389  Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus (might review this later, but it is one of the best 2011 debut novels that I've read, albeit slightly below The Tiger's Wife)

390  Vladimir Nabokov, King, Queen, Knave (one of his lesser works, but still quite good)

391  Olympe Bhêly-Quénum, Snares Without End (one of his earlier works; very good)

392  Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory:  Volume 1 (re-read; graphic novel; good adaptation of four stories from the 1996 collection)

393  Kameron Hurley, God's War (above-average debut that left me wanting to read more)

394  Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory:  Volume II (re-read; graphic novel; see above)

395  Caitlin Sweet, The Pattern Scars (excellent writing, yet I didn't like the subject matter as much as I did for her first two novels)

396  Helen Oyeyemi, Mr. Fox (I have a review of this appearing in a future issue of Bull Spec)

397  Kameron Hurley, Infidel (excellent sequel to a strong debut)

398  Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory (outstanding omnibus collection of his first few collections)

399  Thomas Ligotti, Teatro Grottesco (I prefer this over The Nightmare Factory, which should say plenty for some)

400  Dino Buzzati, L'opera completa di Bosch (Italian; before Eco wrote his art books, Buzzati wrote this late 1960s piece to accompany reproductions of Bosch's works.  Effective, although I prefer the images)

401  Leopoldo Lugones, Cuentos fatales (Spanish; very good collection of some of Lugones' later stories)

402  Elena Poniatowska, Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela (Spanish; very good epistolary novel showing through absence of responses a lover's rejection of his clinging ex)

403  Leopoldo Lugones, Cuentos completos (Spanish; inaccurate title, but good stories nonetheless)

404  Evaristo Carriego, Misas Herejes (Spanish; poetry; easy to understand how some of his work influenced Borges as a poet)

405  Leopoldo Lugones, Las fuerzas extrañas (early collection of his, contains "El escuerzo," which I translated for the next read)

406  Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds.), ODD? (my opinion is biased by having the aforementioned translation in it, but I loved the other stories at least as much as the one I translated)

407  Moacyr Scliar, Kafka's Leopards (brilliant)

408  Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (flawed 2011 Booker Prize-winning novel)

409  Stewart O'Nan, Songs for the Missing (poignant without ever ringing false, a very difficult task to accomplish in a novel)

410  Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (already reviewed)

411  Umberto Eco, Il Cimitero di Praga (re-read; Italian; already reviewed)

412  Umberto Eco, El cementerio de Praga (re-read; Spanish; already reviewed)

413  Leonid Andreyev, The Crushed Flower and Other Stories (good collection)

414  Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones (already reviewed)

415  Andrew Krivak, The Sojourn (already reviewed)

416  Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision (already reviewed)

417  Deborah Baker, The Convert (already reviewed)

418  Colson Whitehead, Zone One (might review in near future; enjoyed it)

419  Stewart O'Nan, Wish You Were Here (good)

420  Stewart O'Nan, Emily, One (very good sequel to the above title)

421  Graham Joyce, The Silent Land (already reviewed)

422  Lauren Beaukes, Zoo City (already reviewed)

423  Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo (re-read; already reviewed)

424  Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again (already reviewed)

425  Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven (already reviewed)

426  Gary D. Schmidt, Okay for Now (already reviewed)

427  Albert Marrin, Flesh & Blood So Cheap:  The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy (already reviewed)

428  Lauren Redniss, Radioactive:  Marie and Pierre Curie:  A Tale of Love and Fallout (already reviewed)

429  Bruce Smith, Devotions (already reviewed)

430  John Warner, The Funny Man (very good; might review at length later)

431  Donald Ray Pollock, Knockemstiff (Pollock's debut collection from 2008 is a tour de force)

432  Amit Majmudar, Partitions (very good)

433  Teresa Milbrodt, Bearded Women (already reviewed)

434  Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future (very good Stalin-era collection)

435  Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern (already reviewed)

436  Daniel Sada, Casi nunca (Spanish; very good)

437  Roberto Arlt, El criador de gorilas (Spanish; very good collection that deserves to be translated into English)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Revisiting H.L. Mencken's "Criticism of Criticism of Criticism" in a world full of jackanapes

The really competent critic must be an empiricist.  He must conduct his exploration with whatever means lie within the bounds of his personal limitation.  He must produce his effects with whatever tools will work.  If pills pail, he gets out his saw.  If the saw won't cut, he seizes a club... (p. 8, Library of America edition of Mencken:  Prejudices:  First, Second, and Third Series)

Over the past several months, I have been reading H.L. Mencken's six series of Prejudices, as I find myself reacting to and being inspired by a critic whose works cited above were published between 1919 and 1927 and came from reproduced newspaper columns and pieces that appeared in his The Smart Set.  Mencken was a shrewd critic; he said what he believed, he said it with force, and he accepted the consequences of those observations.  He had a dim view of early 20th century American institutions, those now-quaint and defanged American Lodges, chautauquas, Rotary Clubs, Ku Klux Klan local chapters, and other assorted products of a society that couldn't decide if it wanted to be forward-thinking and progressive or if it wanted to remain hide-bound to the hypocritical moral codes of the previous two centuries.  Reading his Prejudices is bound to get a rise out of most anyone who has any sort of moral or political code, as the sharp criticisms Mencken had for the then-venerable institutions reads too uncomfortably for some as blasts against their modern counterparts, whether that be the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, or anything else that might be viewed as being placed upon some social, political, or economic spectrum.

Like most other art forms, the Critic has been reduced to being a jackanapes, scurrying about and trying to maintain the appearance of importance while off to the side readers whisper about the Critic being defanged and beholden to interests that stifle his or her critiques.  Look about us today.  Where can one find a true Critic?  On any of the plague-infested political shows, where they appear to caper and foam at the beck and call of marketeers?  In the newspaper columns, where what interests them is the story that can be "sold" rather than the story that might bring the entire editorial house of cards tumbling down?  Blogs?  Ninja, please.  Even in the remotest brackish regions of the literary blogosphere, too often the meta-commentary among the neophyte reviewer wannabees concerns their access to publisher review copies, sometimes with the undertone that it is not wise to irritate the "hand that feeds you."

It is a world almost devoid of those who can say what needs to be said.  Oh, sure, it is easy to find those who possess the trappings of provocativeness, yet scratch the surface and most always one will find someone seeking to gain further wealth and/or fame rather than someone who tests the system surrounding everything and finding it to be lacking.  Narrowing the topic down to book reviewing (lest this essay go several thousand words), are there many reviewers who strive to be like what Mencken describes in the quote at the beginning of this essay?  I am uncertain of this.

All I know is that we do not go far enough most of the time.  There are times when I re-read an older piece I've done and I think to myself, "I shouldn't have been 'nice.'  I should have just said, 'the author is at best a xerox of a xerox of a faded carbon copy of a ditto where any hint of originality or value has been scrubbed nearly clean from its surface.'" It would have been more honest when discussing those interminably mediocre works that clog stores in a way similar to arteriosclerosis sets in after one has consumed too many so-called Happy Meals. 

Yet tell someone that those "supersized meals" are not good for you and chances are high that one will hear various iterations of "what do you know about that?"; "why should I listen to you?" or "my tastes are not those of an elitist."  It is hard to counter this at first.  After all, do you really want to dictate tastes to someone who is not receptive to experimentation?  Yet too often we retreat back into polite mutterings and then the subject is dropped.  Unfortunately, this leaves the floor to the third-rate, to the sycophants, to those whose literary tastes are so bland that one can almost predict what they'll like by encountering a derivative work of something they favored on a previous occasion. 

In today's world, those who try to be critics are relegated to the sidelines of book promotion (that itself a sign of capitalist times) because their tastes are too idiosyncratic.  No, the current arbiter elegantiarum will espouse the least original works, because they are so self-identified with the "marketable middle" that they serve as barometers of what the mouth-breathing masses unthinkingly desire rather than as beacons for those who wish to stand the literary world on its head.  In such a situation, the most influential "critics" will be those who are akin to market analysts or accountants, as they will be best suited to select what will appeal to the unwashed hordes than anyone who is liable to be a loose cannon and deride the commercial whenever its values threaten to stamp out originality or creativity. 

When Mencken wrote his "Criticism of Criticism of Criticism," he spent much time denouncing the moralists who sought to reduce art and literature to whatever "higher purpose" they could serve.  Nearly a century later, he likely would be railing at the dominant literary mood, but in this case the likely targets would have been the marketers who are on the cusp of succeeding at reducing literature and literary criticism to mere appendages of the buy/sell regime.  He would not have thought of using the pill; he would have eschewed the club and gone straight for the axe and he likely would be tempted to go Lizzie Borden on them.  If only we are brave enough to take up the axe in these times...

Pre-Thanksgiving Book Porn

Just highlighting the past two weeks of purchases, used copy trade-ins, review copies, and subscriptions that I've received.  In the first picture, you can see two Francisco Goldman books (Say Her Name I bought after the heartfelt article he wrote online a few years ago about his late wife Aura and her love of Roberto Bolaño's writing), a book by Pope John Paul II, one of Doris Lessing's more famous works, The Grass is Singing, and then French-language editions of works by Collette, Chrétien de Troyes, Simone de Beauvoir, and Raymond Radiguet.

Four more used book purchases:  The Easton Press edition of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and three Library of America editions of an anthology of American poetry, some of Philip Roth's 1980s and early 1990s fiction, an anthology of writers writing about Mark Twain, and some of Twain's travel writings.  In addition, there are three PM Press review copies that I've received of works by Cory Doctorow, Nick Mamatas, and an anthology of original fiction.

All of these are French and Spanish-language fictions that I bought earlier today at McKay's.

Pictured here are the newest issues of Conjunctions, Glimmer Train Stories, and Agni, as well as three books I bought on Tuesday (Aimee Bender's Willful Creatures, Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio, and a translation of the 14th century Persian Sufi Poet Hafiz.  Then there are four more used Spanish and French-language works bought at McKay's earlier today.

Which of these works intrigue you the most or that you wish you owned in this form or another?

Teresa Milbrodt, Bearded Women

I spent the first seven months of 2010 reading hundreds of literary journals, magazines, and a few original anthologies in search of stories that would make good candidates for publication in the later-aborted Best American Fantasy 4 (here is the list of stories I wrote down for further consideration).  One of the stories that caught my attention was Teresa Milbrodt's "Cyclops," published in the Summer 2009 issue of Indiana Review).  What I liked about it was the tension between the strange (the girl born with a Cyclops eye, a reliquary inside a coffee shop) and the mundane (worries about how to fit in while struggling to accept just who you are as a person).  The weirder elements in "Cyclops" work because Milbrodt grounds the extraordinary inside a framework that forces the reader to look away from the freak-show qualities of a single-eyed girl and instead focus on how one would cope with that situation.  The payoff is quiet and poignant, but powerful in unexpectedly ways because the oddity of the protagonist's appearance does not single her out as much as it makes us all too aware of the frustrations, dashed hopes, and resigned sighs that we all experience in our lives, especially for those of us who feel stuck in dead-end jobs or stagnant relationships.

When Milbrodt contacted me a few months ago and offered me a review copy of her debut collection, Bearded Women, I readily accepted because "Cyclops" was very good and I wanted to see if her collection contained stories of a similar quality.  If anything, Bearded Women more than fulfilled my expectations because the unified themes, particularly that of how "freaks of nature" can stand in place of some very real social issues, particularly those that trouble women, with their strangeness allowing the reader to step back and see the larger picture in a way that might not have always been the case if the protagonists had been normal women.

One of the highlights of Bearded Women is the first story, "Bianca's Body."  The first-person narrator is a thirty-five year-old professional who works as a news anchor and who is contemplating whether or not to have a body.  There is one complication:  she has an attached lower torso, reproductive organs, and legs that hang at a forty-five degree angle from her abdomen that she calls Bianca.  Milbrodt uses this dual-torsoed/legged woman to make some pointed remarks about how feminine bodies are viewed:

We've been having this problem for six years, ever since we started trying to get pregnant.  Doug prefers to have sex with Bianca and for a long time I did not mind this.  I feel what Bianca feels, and to be honest she has better orgasms.  Bianca has gotten pregnant twice and both times the foetus miscarried.  For two years we've tried impregnating my walking half.  It's not easy since Bianca grows out of my body at a diagonal.  (p. 10)


We lapse into silence.  I don't know who to believe.  The doctors.  My husband.  Everyone has an agenda.  I know the doctors would be celebrities.  I know Doug is afraid for my health.  I also think he's afraid of losing Bianca.  Sometimes I get jealous.  Bianca is sexier than my walking half.  Her legs and hips are smooth and slender, belong to a twenty-year-old girl, while my walking legs belong to a thirty-five-year-old woman.  Even though I work out at the gym and my walking legs are muscular, there is a little cellulite and some varicose veins. (p. 12)

Notice the alternation between "my walking half" and "Bianca."  Here, Bianca stands in for the woman as an object of sexual action.  It is "Bianca" who is the preferred sex entrepôt, because her legs and lower form remind the narrator's husband of a nubile young girl.  It is the narrator who bears the burden of being on the cusp of middle age, with the sagging body parts.  It is obvious from these two excerpts that the narrator is conflicted.  On one hand, she identifies "Bianca" as part of her and it is her body, her choices, whatever the doctors or her husband Doug might say.  On the other, she is resentful of having her core body being ignored in favor of "Bianca."  The weirdness of this body underscores the conflicts women have with their bodies.

In "Mr. Chicken," there is a woman who hides her hirsute facial features by constant shaving.  She works at a restaurant where a strange, gawking man (who she nicknames Mr. Chicken) orders 100 chicken nuggets each day and as he eats them, he stares unpleasantly at her and at the other customers.  It is a touching meditation on body image and how external forces (say, the prejudices of certain males) can have deleterious effects on feminine self-image.  What makes this story so effective is that Milbrodt carefully develops the narrator's situation, as she goes into reflective monologues surrounding her awkward interactions with Mr. Chicken about how men react when they learn that she shaves every morning.  Their stammering responses and subsequent "escapes" leave hanging in the air, ready to explode upon contact, the discomfort many males feel about "masculine" and "feminine" roles, particularly when a woman seems to be violating those seemingly rigid divisions.  The psychological tension increases until it is released in a simple and yet cathartic action that ties together both the narrator's dilemma and Mr. Chicken's own rude gawking nature.

Most of the other thirteen stories are similar in theme if not in narrative structure or execution as "Bianca's Body," "Cyclops," and "Mr. Chicken."  For the most part, I found their narrative arcs and situations to be effective, in part part to Milbrodt's ability to use freakishly weird situations and characters to explore and then dismantle reader expectations regarding gender roles and sexuality.  There were very few dips in story quality and the collection as a whole serves to reinforce through reiteration and re-exploration the themes of strangeness and feminine struggle for acceptance.  Bearded Women is one of the best debut short story collections I've read over the past few years and Teresa Milbrodt will be a writer whose future I shall follow with keenness, as she already displays more command over her stories than several veteran story writers.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

2011 National Book Award non-fiction nominee: Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

But atheism – or, more accurately, the indifference of the gods – was not the only problem posed by Lucretius' poem.  Its main concerns lay elsewhere, in the material world we all inhabit, and it is here that the most disturbing arguments arose, arguments that lured those who were most struck by their formidable power – Machiavelli, Burno, Galileo, and others – into strange trains of thought.  Those trains of thought had once been eagerly explored in the very land to which they now returned, as a result of Poggio's discovery.  But a thousand years of virtual silence had rendered them highly dangerous.

By now much of what On the Nature of Things claims about the universe seems deeply familiar, at least among the circle of people who are likely to be reading these words.  After all, many of the work's core arguments are among the foundations on which modern life has been constructed.  But it is worth remembering that some of the arguments remain alien and that others are hotly contested, often by those who gladly avail themselves of the scientific advances they helped to spawn.  And to all but a few of Poggio's contemporaries, most of what Lucretius claimed, albeit in a poem of startling, seductive beauty, seemed incomprehensible, unbelievable, or impious. (Ch. 8, e-book edition)

Imagine a world where our internet has crashed and petabytes of data about our lives, worldviews, and histories are irretrievably lost.  Envision the scientific method rejected out of hand due to its dangerous potential to undermine certain philosophical views of the world.  Such a place would be radically different within a few generations of this massive change.  Then try to picture someone discovering a long-lost fragment of this past society and realizing that this little scrap piece might overturn currently-accepted views of religion, cosmology, and the very nature of things.

Such a thing did happen in the early 15th century when a former secretary to the disgraced anti-Pope John XXIII, Poggio Bracciolini, discovered a long-lost manuscript of the 1st century BCE poet/philosopher Lucretius' On the Nature of Things, which until that point had appeared only in a few fleeting references in other works.  Discovered only a generation before Gutenberg developed his movable type press, this work was a slow-release detonation that rocked the foundations of late-medieval/Renaissance thought.

Professor Stephen Greenblatt, one of the founders of the literary New Historicism movement, which seeks to contextualize literary works with their times and Zeitgeist, steps back a bit from his main research area of Elizabethan literature to explore the ramifications of this book-length poem/philosophical piece being reintroduced after a millennium.  He breaks his book The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern into a historical component that revolves around Poggio's time and his motives for searching for lost manuscripts and a philosophical one that examines Lucretius' transmission of Epicurean thought and how that philosophy was so alien and enticing to several leading thinkers of the 15th century and beyond.

The eponymous "swerve" is an explanation of ancient Atomist thought.  The world is, according to Lucretius, is composed of a countless number of atoms, which interact in strange ways:

But because throughout the universe from time everlasting countless numbers of them, buffeted and impelled by blows, have shifted in countless ways, experimentation with every kind of movement and combination has at last resulted in arrangements such as those that created and compose our world. (On the Nature of Things, 1.1024-28)

This "swerve," which according to Greenblatt Lucretius variously referred to as declinatio, inclinatio, or clinamen, involves only minute motions.  But what waves are created from these motions!  Nearly-infinite particles merge and mate and clash and rip themselves apart to create new beings, new forms.  This belief, which is derived from some of Epicurus' thoughts on cosmology, has little room for gods (or God).  It is little surprise, as Greenblatt surmises at several points throughout the book, that anything with a hint of Epicurean thought to it, particularly the more "atheistic" ones that focus on the material, concrete world to the near-complete dismissal of the spiritual, was going to be denounced and destroyed by the Church leaders in the immediate aftermath of the rise of Christianity to state religion in the late Roman Empire.  Greenblatt does an excellent job centering the "lost" status of Lucretius' poem, not to mention other fragments of Epicurean thought, around the potential danger they held for the dominant philosophical/religious system in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century.

It is hard to find fault in Greenblatt's presentation, as he builds a persuasive case for the importance of Poggio's discovery through the use of early chapters devoted to reconstructing the dominant religious ideology and the constraints many philosophers of the time operated under (or against) before he lays out in detail just how the rediscovery of Lucretius' poem introduced new ways of thinking into a society that was seeing the reemergence of long-distance markets, both commercial and philosophical alike.  Perhaps Greenblatt could have provided more counter-evidence to test his argument that exposure to Lucretius' Epicurean-influenced work irrevocably changed European thought, but that would be splitting hairs, as most historians would readily admit that the rediscovery of works such as that of Lucretius and other ancient poets and philosophers did have a profound impact on the course of modern philosophy.  In fact, if it weren't for the discovery of such works, it would be almost impossible to imagine our modern world-views developing in the patterns that they did.

The Swerve is one of the best cultural/philosophical histories that I have read in recent years.  Its scholarship is superb and Greenblatt eloquently argues his points without neglecting to provide evidence to support his arguments.  If I had written this review before last night's awards announcements, I would have listed more reasons why I felt this was by far the best of the nominees for the 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction, but it did win the award and it certainly is a very deserving winner.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

2011 National Book Award non-fiction nominee: Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

On March 17, 1945, Malcolm was arrested and turned over to the Detroit Police Department, charged with grand larceny.  Wilfred posted a bond of a thousand dollars, and for a short time Malcolm found menial jobs at a Lansing mattress maker and then a truck factory.  When his trial was postponed, he decided that his best move was to get out of town.  Sometime in August 1945, he fled the jurisdiction; a warrant was issued for his arrest.

The Autobiography is completely silent about these events.  Undoubtedly, Malcolm was profoundly ashamed about this phase of his past.  He likely felt that the deepest violation he had committed was the humiliation he inflicted on his family through his career as a pretty criminal.  But he may have also dropped these incidents from his history as part of the attempt to shape his legend.  His amateurish efforts at gangsterism in Boston and Lansing – the clumsy theft of his aunt's coat, the ridiculous armed robbery of an acquaintance – undermined the credibility of his supposed criminal exploits in New York, and even he must have realized that the Michigan arrest warrant, combined with his parole violation from Massachusetts, would follow him across the country.  If he was ever arrested again for even a minor crime, these other violations would be brought against him.

He first returned to New York City and subsequently to Boston, desperately trying to survive through a variety of hustles.  It was during this time that Malcolm encountered a man named William Paul Lennon, and the uncertain particulars of their intimate relationship would generate much controversy and speculation in the years following Malcolm's death. (Ch. 2, e-book edition)

Even forty-six years after his assassination in February 1965, Malcolm X still remains one of the most controversial figures in 20th century American history.  One of the leaders of the Nation of Islam before his 1963 ouster and subsequent conversion to orthodox Sunni Islam, Malcolm X has sparked all sorts of outrage over his racially-charged speeches decrying integration and his diatribes against the "blue-eyed devils."  Some see him as a prophet of freedom, others as a vile race-baiting firebrand whose words worsened the racial violence of the late 1950s and 1960s.  Even the Autobiography of Malcolm X, published just after his death and "told to" Alex Haley (of Roots fame), provokes more questions than it answers.  Just who in the world was Malcolm Little/X and why does he spark such diametrically opposite opinions from Americans of all walks of life?

Marable's biography attempts to fill in the gaps found in The Autobiography of Malcolm X; it also is a critical look at how Malcolm X and his supporters may have distorted his pre-Nation of Islam and NoI time in order to cast him in a more positive light.  Marable's history of Malcolm Little/X cites extensively from several recent biographies written about him, some of which raise contentious points such as the case of Malcolm's rumored homosexual acts for pay during his street hustler days in the mid-to-late-1940s.

The passage quoted above is indicative of Marable's approach.  Marable often begins discussion of important episodes of Malcolm's life by first concisely presenting the known facts.  He then refers to The Autobiography of Malcolm X to see if such episodes are mentioned before then analyzing these events based not just on the available evidence but also on commentary with former associates and family members whenever possible.  At times, Marable feels compelled to rely upon conjecture, such as the case of Malcolm's rumored acts with William Paul Lennon.  This approach does open Marable up to criticism from those who either believe what Malcolm told Alex Haley or those who believe rumor and innuendo about Malcolm's sexual past are calculated attempts to destroy the myth surrounding Malcolm X that has been built up during the 46 years since his assassination.

Reinvention certainly is the focus of Marable's biography.  He posits that Malcolm was conscious of his legacy and that during the last two years of his life, he made conscious efforts to sanitize certain parts of his life, mostly through omission of facts or details, or, conversely, he set out to create more striking differences between his pre- and post-conversion lives.  The Malcolm X of legend was a gangster who did a complete 180° after he was exposed to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad while he was serving a prison sentence for robbery.  The Malcolm that appears in Marable's biography is more of a small-timer who hustled in order to live and whose outlook on the world and on race relations did not as much shift radically during his time in prison and his subsequent joining of the Nation of Islam as it gradually shifted over time while maintaining a continuity of outlook that stretched back to his youth in Michigan being raised by parents who were supporters of Marcus Garvey.  Much of Marable's book is a welcome fact checking and questioning of the Malcolm X legend and this marks an important transition in Malcolm's life going from a near-hagiography (as found in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and a few subsequent biographies and bio-pics released by admirers such as Spike Lee) or demonized individual (as found in several news articles of the times; see The New York Times' obituary article on him) to a more balanced look at a person whose internal conflicts manifested themselves during the most contentious decade of the Civil Rights Movement.

Yet while Marable's biography is a welcome addition to the conversation about Malcolm X's life and his influence on others, it is not a perfect book.  There were too many times during the course of the book where Marable took opinion or supposition and stated it, similar to what he did in the passage quoted above, as if it were fact.  Malcolm's sexuality receives an inordinate amount of time, as the most the tenuous evidence (namely, Malcolm's telling of a possible fictional friend who did certain acts for pay for Lennon that sounded too much like the creation of an alter ego to stand in place of his actual deeds) hints that he was desperate for money, as the issue is mostly dropped after that single period in his life.  Malcolm's wife, Betty Shabazz, comes under harsh scrutiny during the book, with lots of descriptions about Malcolm's apparent fleeing from his wife's bedside immediately after their children were born and the rumored sexual dysfunction that he suffered while with her.  This information is jarring not just because it feels as though the private life of the biographical subject is being explored in too much detail, but also because these passages do not connect well with what is known of Malcolm's private and public statements regarding his wife.  This is the weakest part of Marable's book, as he just does not provide enough supporting evidence to confirm his arguments on an issue that is at best peripheral to the biography.

Malcolm X:  A Life of Reinvention is a well-researched biography, yet its occasional reliance on rumor and hearsay, especially when it comes to Malcolm's sex life as well as the possible "real murderers," weaken the biography considerably.  Malcolm X continues to be a fascinating, controversial character and while Marable's book certainly underscores the difficulties in writing a balanced account of his life and importance, it contains enough flaws in its presentation to leave the door open for more substantive biographies to be written in the future.  It is worth reading, provided one has an interest in the subject, warts and all.

Personal ranking of the 2011 National Book Award finalists (and now the actual winners)

I know the awards banquet is taking place now and that shortly all of the winners will be announced (I'll post them after I finish writing the reviews for Manning Marable's Malcolm X:  A Life of Reinvention and Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve), but I thought I'd post in list form my ranking of the books in each of the four categories.  For most of these, it's very difficult to identify a clear winner; others are more clear-cut.  On the whole, this was a very good group, on par with last year's shortlist for fiction and non-fiction at least and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend about 75-90% of these books to readers here.  But enough of the chatter, here's how I felt about them:

Edit:  I'm going to put an asterisk by the books that won the award in each category.


1.  Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife  
2.  Andrew Krivak, The Sojourn
3.  Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision
4.  Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
5.  * Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones

The difference between #1 and #5 for me is that of a fingernail's thickness.  Very good group of finalists.  


1.  * Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern
2.  Manning Marable, Malcolm X:  A Life of Reinvention
3.  Lauren Redniss, Radioactive:  Marie and Pierre Curie:  A Tale of Love and Fallout
4.  Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital:  Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution
5.  Deborah Baker, The Convert

There is some bias here, I'll admit, as the rankings reflect the authors' academic standing, but the errors in presentation became more and more evident as I progressed down through the names.


1.  Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch
2.  Bruce Smith, Devotions
3.  Carl Phillips, Double Shadow
4.  Adrienne Rich, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve
5.  * Nikky Finney, Head Off & Split

Sliver of difference on the first three, then a slight drop to Rich and a further one to Finney in terms of my preferences when reading their collections, all of which contain at least moments of power to them.

Young People's Literature:

1.  * Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again
2.  Debby Dahl Edwardson, My Name is Not Easy
3.  Gary D. Schmidt, Okay for Now
4.  Albert Marrin, Flesh & Blood So Cheap:  The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy
5.  Franny Billingsley, Chime

Another strong group, with the top 3 being a step above the other two.  Lai and Edwardson's books are at least on the level of the Fiction finalists in terms of how I received them and how they were written.

Again, I'll post the winners after I have finished writing the last two reviews tonight.  Now to go see if they are online yet, as the banquet began an hour ago. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

2011 National Book Award non-fiction nominee: Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital

Marx was proud of Jenny – proud of her beauty, which even amid the celebrated women of Paris was remarked upon, but also of her intelligence.  From the earliest days of their marriage, he regarded Jenny as an intellectual equal, and that was no mere token sentiment:  Marx was ruthless when it came to things of the ind, and he would not have relied on Jenny's judgment if he did not think she was in fact brilliant.  Indeed, throughout his life Marx held only one other person in a position of such high esteem and trust, and that was his alter ego and collaborator, Friedrich Engels.  But where Engels understood and supported Marx intellectually, Jenny also humanized him.

In private Marx was warm, loving, kind, and generally described as excellent company when he was not plagued by sleepless nights or stricken by disease, both due to anxiety over his work.  In public, however, he was most often fiercely argumentative, intellectually arrogant, and notoriously impatient with anyone who disagreed with him.  His frequent drinking episodes with colleagues throughout the years in Bonn, Berlin, and Cologne often devolved into verbal if not physical fights.  He had little time for social niceties; for someone so conceptually fascinated by the alienation of man, Marx routinely alienated those who encountered him.   (Ch. 5, e-book edition)

Karl Marx the man is difficult to separate from the revolutionary philosopher who still sparks arguments almost two centuries after his birth about just what constitutes Marxism and whether or not Marxism (however it might be understood by the persons arguing) is a viable socio-economic theory in the early 21st century.  There certainly are grounds for exploring Marx the man and Marxism the theory in today's troubled times, when some of the old criticisms of capitalism are reemerging as a possible explanation for the recessed and depressed masses of the so-called "99% percenters" who are searching for an answer to the difficult problems confronting their societies.

Mary Gabriel, a former Reuters editor, does not try to tackle the Gordian's Knot of defining Marxism.  Instead, she is much more interested in Karl Marx the husband, father, and friend.  Naturally, Marx's ideology is going to take up much space in Gabriel's massive book, Love and Capital, but Gabriel concentrates much more on the private Marx and how his complex personality is tied into his philosophical writings.  However, with as complex of a personality as Marx's, it is very difficult to separate the wheat of his private life from the chaff of his volatile public activities and writings and there are several places in Gabriel's biography where Marx the revolutionary takes over and the Karl Marx of modest means retreats with his wife and children to the background.

Unlike most biographers who are interested in Marx from the 1840-1883 period, Gabriel surveys not just his life growing up in the German Confederation but also continues the narrative nearly three decades after his death, when his last legitimate child, Laura, dies in a suicide pact with her husband.  At times, this longer view provides more perspective on Marx and how his ideas were transformed by his self-proclaimed followers into various Marxist ideologies (such as the mutated forms that Lenin/Trotsky/Stalin and Mao utilized to gain control of Russia and China respectively), but at the same time, these chapters are largely devoid of the energy found in the earlier chapters devoted to Marx's first years with Jenny just prior to the 1848 Revolutions.

Gabriel's greatest strength is her ability to humanize Marx, to suss out his shy, awkward habits and to center his public outbursts around the pressures he put upon himself due to his discomfort being in the spotlight.   She also for a time helps bring Jenny into the spotlight, illustrating in several passages, such as the one quoted above, how she was more than just the wife and mother to Marx's legitimate children.  It is during those moments when Love and Capital is at its best, as it provides new insights into Marx's life and how his private life may have influenced his political writings.

Conversely, Gabriel is weakest whenever she tries to explain Marx's political philosophy and how it was applied by his followers (and some of his critics) over the years.  While the time is ripe for a new study of Marx's writings, Love and Capital fails to provide any in-depth understanding of Marx's positions.  This is especially lamentable when it comes to covering Marx's thoughts on gender roles.  Not much has been said about this outside of the recent second and third-wave feminist critiques of Marxism and their adaptation of Marx's epistemological approach to outlining the development and external/internal conflicts inherent within the establishment of gender roles and functions.

Ultimately, Love and Capital is a promising work that falls short in a few key areas.  As a love story, Gabriel covers adequately the Marx family dynamics, yet there is a sense of sketchiness in several areas, particularly during Marx's latter years.  This likely is due to a paucity of non-Marx family primary sources, but it is worth reminding that for a person as controversial as Marx has been over the past 170 years, the source material is often too unreliable for clear, unassailable opinions on the man and his work.  Unfortunately, this seeming lack of verifiable primary sources outside the Marx letters and Engels' preserved correspondence makes it difficult to evaluate the veracity of opinions on Marx.  There is still much wiggle room for another biographer or historian to write a new history of Marx and Marxism that could incorporate the strengths of Gabriel's biography while shoring up the deficiencies of her text.  Love and Capital is certainly a positive contribution to Marxist studies, yet its incompleteness can leave readers wishing there was more to the story than what we were told.

2011 National Book Award non-fiction nominee: Deborah Baker, The Convert

According to the Mawlana, among every people in every period of history there have been the good and the righteous and, whatever creed they professed, they are the true Muslims.  He saw these qualities in me.  There were even true Muslims before the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him), a period traditionally held to be a time of total pagan ignorance, or jahiliyya.  The Mawlana believes that Western values exported to the Muslim world by colonialism created only the most recent manifestation of this sorry state, and, like me, he went through a period of ignorance and upheaval before alighting on the Right Path.  In Arabic they call this path the Sunnah, meaning the Way of the Prophet.

On the advice of the jailed Islamic leader Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, over a year ago I sent the Mawlana Mawdudi some of my writings on Islam as a way of introducing myself.  He responded with an invitation to share the coming Ramadan holiday with his family in Pakistan.  "When I was reading your articles," Mawdudi wrote me, "I felt as if I were reading my own mind."  He was certain I'd feel the same when I read his work and of course I did.  He was impressed but only midly surprised that a girl born and brought up in America could come to hold the exact same views he had been preaching for the past thirty years of his life.  Naturally, Mawlana Mawdudi wanted to know how a young American girl, from a Jewish family, no less, could arrive at a clear and genuine conception of Islam all by herself.  He asked if I might find the time to write a brief story of my mental evolution and send it to him.

For the past few weeks, I've been trying to order my thoughts on Deborah Baker's biography of the former Margaret Marcus, a native New Yorker of Jewish ancestry, who converted to Islam in 1961 and changed her name to Maryam Jameelah.  It is a fascinating story, one that promises a look at that hardest of creatures to pin down in writing, the possibly crazed/inspired fanatic, but yet there are some troubling aspects to Baker's book that made The Convert a disappointing read.

Baker traces Margaret/Maryam's journey from a possibly mentally ill young woman (she spent two years in voluntary commitment at a New York psychiatric hospital in the late 1950s) to one of the more prominent voices in a radical Islamist movement in Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami, the forerunner to the current jihadist movements and an important influence on both the Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin-Laden.  The main source for The Convert are a series of letters that Margaret/Maryam wrote to her parents and whose copies she later donated to the New York Public Library over a period from 1961 to 2005.

Baker quotes extensively from these letters, using them as a framework to analyze Maryam's theological development from a secular Jew to a radical Islamist.  She explores Maryam's childhood, her troubled relationship with her Jewish heritage, her growing fascination with Islam, and how from an early age she displayed an "all or nothing" approach (one that caused her all sorts of problems in both New York and Pakistan).  Maryam's letters, as presented, are fascinating in that there is this growing sense that she is not quite in touch with reality, a point that Baker insinuates but rarely directly discusses in The Convert.  Baker divides her chapters by broad chronology, with some emphasis given to certain thematic points in her letters during these span of years.  Much of the writing is devoted to Maryam's early years as a convert and her explanations to her parents back in New York what she is doing in Lahore, Pakistan.

Valuable as primary sources can be in constructing biographies and other histories, they can also be notoriously unreliable.  It is enough to know early on that Maryam is not stating every thing that is happening, but there are also times in which there is a sense that Baker herself is editing out information that would challenge the picture she presents of Maryam as a talented and yet troubled activist.  For many, and I am one of this group, such manipulation of the source material (the reader doesn't learn until late in the book that Baker rewrote most of Maryam's letters to make them more concise and less rambling) makes it very difficult to trust what truth is being presented.  Ranke's maxim of Wie es eigentlich gewesen (What truly happened) certainly is violated here.

In the end, The Convert is not as much of a non-fiction as it uses non-fictional materials to construct a portrait of its subject that may or may not be accurate in the general features as in its particulars.  It tries to capture the complexities of its subject, but due to the mistrust engendered by the author's admission that she rewrote several of the quoted letters, not to mention Baker's reluctance to spend much time on how Maryam's writings became influential in jihadist circles, it is impossible for me to view The Convert as a terribly flawed work that raises more mysteries about its subject than it answers over the course of its pages.  Certainly it is by far the weakest of the shortlisted books for the National Book Award for Non-Fiction.

2011 National Book Award non-fiction nominee: Lauren Redniss, Radioactive

Encouraged by his father, a physician in the lab of neuroanatomist Louis Pierre Gratiolet, labeler of brain lobes, Pierre tracked salamanders and frogs in the forests outside Paris.  He was a draydreamer; it was suggested he was perhaps even a bit dim. PIERRE:  "I can't let my head go with every breeze, losing it to the slightest breath it meets."  He began studying Latin and math, and soon dispelled the early doubts about his intelligence.  By fourteen, he was working to expand the mathematical theory of determinants into the third dimension.  By sixteen Pierre had a university degree.  At twenty-one he published a paper on heat waves.  After joining the Sorbonne's laboratory of mineralogy, he began an extended study of crystals.  He was fascinated by the symmetries he found in crystalline structures, mirroring spun out in all directions. (p. 16)

At first glance, it would be tempting to dismiss Lauren Redniss' Radioactive:  Marie & Pierre Curie:  A Tale of Love and Fallout as a cutesy survey-level biography of two of the most prominent scientists of the early 20th century, leavened with illustrations meant to take the place of "serious, scholarly work."  Such a presumption would be wildly off the mark, for Redniss adroitly mixes in biographical information about the Curies, evocative illustrations full of glowing colors that remind readers of the radioactive elements that they devoted their lives to studying, and concise yet detailed looks not just at their time but also at the world shaped by their discoveries.

Radioactive is a survey-level biography, but that is not said with a sneer or dismissive tone.  Rather, it is a well-designed illustrated non-fiction that tells a compelling story of their lives and how their personal lives intertwined with their research.  Redniss' illustrations contain a sense of foreboding. particularly when we see x-ray-like drawings of the two near passages describing their experiments on themselves and others using radioactive elements such as polonium and radium, the latter which they discovered and named.  She mixes in reproductions of letters, both from the Curies' time and from redacted documents related to the later American research during the Manhattan Project, to provide an even greater sense of verisimilitude to this combination of a love story, tragedy, and scientific history.

Histories of even the most intriguing characters and situations risk being tedious affairs if the historian is not able to present his/her information in an enticing package.  Radioactive works as a history because Redniss not only provides an eye-appealing illustration-filled layout, but also she carefully researched the information and provides simple and yet direct social commentaries on the prejudices Marie Curie faced, both before, during, and after Pierre's accidental death, as well as remarking upon the consequences of their research in the century following their initial discoveries.

Although, as noted above, some readers may find the presentation to be "cutesy" and not of a "serious" nature, Radioactive for the most part balances the needs of providing a good introduction for those readers unfamiliar with the histories of the Curies with those who want to see their stories placed within a broader historical context.  While there were a few times, namely during the latter part of Marie Curie's life, where I would have liked more discussion of how she interacted with fellow scientists (and lovers), for the most part I thought Redniss did an excellent job in covering the topic in a fashion that mostly sates the curiosities of both causal readers and those who are more used to scholarly tomes without leaving the sense that she either dumbed down everything or overloaded the book with endnotes.  Radioactive is a very good biography, one that I can understand being on the National Book Award shortlist for non-fiction. 
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