The OF Blog: May 2012

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Narratives of SFnal Identity

This week, The New Yorker published their special themed double issue on science fiction.  As a subscriber, when I first learned about this last week, I had a sense of trepidation about the entire affair, not because I thought the staff at The New Yorker would present the topic as a literary curiosity (having read several of the fictions published in the magazine over the past three years, such a notion had already been disabused), but rather that I suspected that if they asked certain well-known SF writers, the result would come across as being much less about the qualities of the fictions they had produced and much more about real and perceived grievances.  Having just finished reading the fictions and commentaries, what I noticed is that certain narratives emerged from the short commentary pieces that the contributing writers, ranging in age from Ray Bradbury to Karen Russell, wrote.

The first narrative that appeared was childhood, or at latest early adolescence.  Let us look closely at some of their comments:


"When I was seven or eight years old, I began to read the science-fiction magazines that were brought by guests into my grandparents' boarding house, in Waukegan, Illinois.  Those were the years when Hugo Gernsback was publishing Amazing Stories, with vivid, appallingly imaginative cover paintings that fed my hungry imagination.  Soon after, the creative beast in me grew when Buck Rogers appeared, in 1928, and I think I went a trifle mad that autumn.  It's the only way to describe the intensity with which I devoured the stories.  You rarely have such fevers later in life that fill your entire day with emotion."

China Miéville:

"Of course, the stories that got you all to hush, in kindergarten, were the ones that contained exactly those elements which you still seek out.  In that class full of six-year-olds, everyone was into dinosaurs and/or magic and/or Saturday-morning monsters, just like you.  By your teens, though, you are indeed in the minority.  Sure, some readers, especially after the hip discover Dick, Butler, Gibson, will come to the field later.  But they're rarities.  Mostly those "into this" are those who simply never leave.  So you can answer your interlocutors' question with another:  How did they get out of it?"

Margaret Atwood:

"The lobster placed in a pot of cold water that's brought to a boil doesn't know it's cooking until it's far too late.  Similarly, those of us currently in the science-fiction soup didn't know we were climbing into that particular tureen:  we started too early.  Children don't read "genres"; they read stories.  Below a certain age, they don't distinguish between "true" and "not true," because they see no reason that a white rabbit shouldn't possess a pocket watch, that whales shouldn't talk, or that sentient beings shouldn't live on other planets and travel around in spaceships.  Science-fiction tropes aren't read as "science fiction"; they're read as fiction.  And fiction is read as reality.  And sometimes reality lives under the bed and has very large teeth, and it's no use pretending otherwise."


"In the early nineties, Pizza Hut sponsors Book It!, to promote reading.  For every ten books you read, you get a certificate for a free, one-topping pizza.  At the end of each month, you come home from Mrs. Sicius's fifth-grade class and slam down the Book It! certificate in front of your parents like a hunter dropping a deer carcass on the kitchen table.  Book that, Family!  We are eating tonight!

"It turns out that there is no greater pleasure than reading for pizza.  No longer do you feel guilty about eschewing the "real" world for these fantasy zones.  Now you have an unassailable, American motivation; you're a breadwinner.  Literally.  It's November.  Since September, you've earned forty dollars' worth of garlic bread for the family.  For days at a stretch, you dissolve into Terry Brooks's "The Sword of Shannara" series–a sort of Tolkien spinoff, Middle Earth for Cold War kids.  There are elves, dwarves, trolls, and Shadowen monsters. You're only ten, but you're still pretty sure you ought to feel embarrassed about the unnameable emotions stirred in you by imaginary beings, the elves especially."

William Gibson:

"When I was five, I was chastised for disagreeing with an Air Force man, a visitor to our home, who made mock of my Willy Ley book.  I knew he was wrong when he said that space travel would never happen.  And I was right, at least in the relatively short term, just a few years off from Sputnik.  I was a native, I felt unquestioningly, of Tomorrow."

Reminiscence, in both nostalgic and non-nostalgic forms, is a common tool used by essayists to reinforce their opinions on a topic.  In general, humans do form close attachments in their youth that last a lifetime.  However, in a narrative on science fiction, such recollections can possess a tinge of bitterness, of things that were forcibly cast aside.  Bradbury notes that the mania of childhood fades into something else by adulthood; it is not surprising to see in a number of his well-known fictions adolescent protagonists who have not yet lost this joie de vivre

Yet something seems to have been lost for several of these writers.  Gibson notes the challenge made to his kindergartener's perspective on the future.  He was "right," but only to a degree; something changed as he aged, even as his reasons for reading more "adult" SF like J.G. Ballard deepened into something more than wanting to imagine a future.  Miéville's piece, using the conceit of a "transmission" from "the future" to those in the early 21st century, is more biting.  Childhood here becomes a more "pure" place, where children aren't worried about what is "hip" or "cool"; they love their monsters, by God!  This ties in with Atwood's recollection of her experiences as a ten-year-old reading an unnamed SF short story (the summary of this tale is rather dreadful, which she notes with wryness).  At this age, it is "story" and not "genre" that matters.  Russell's piece deepens this with a story of a turning point in her young reading life, where a corporate-sponsored reading program turns into an investigation of just what she is reading and whether or not such should be lauded or condemned.  There is a discernible clash of what moves and what ought to move the young reader, which concludes in a rather distasteful way for the ten-year-old writer-to-be.

Some critics of SF have noted over the past half-century or more that it is a "juvenile" literary genre, that it encourages a facile view of the world that eschews a deeper, more direct wrestling with real, troubling issues.  At first glance, some SF does indeed do little to engage with historical/social issues such as war, poverty, or gender power disparities.  Yet some of these contributors prove this to be a non-universal.  Gibson says:

"By 1964, when I was negotiating puberty in the chill deeps of the Cold War, history itself had become the Atomic Disintegrator.  In those years, I was drawn to science fiction (and mainly to its prose forms) for the evidence it offered of manifold possibilities of otherness.  To a curious, anxious, white male child coming of age in an incurious and paranoid white monoculture, there was literally nothing like it – though a great deal of science fiction, possibly the majority of it, I was starting to notice, depicted futuristic monocultures that were dominated by white males.  The rest, however, had as much to do with making me the person I am today as anything else did."

Atwood's concluding paragraph reveals how the relationship between speculative and realist fictions affected her, both as a child and later as an adult:

"Heady stuff for a ten-year-old, or however old I was.  For adult readers, both then and in the future, there were several ways of decoding this story, from misogynist ("That's what women are like, the bloodsuckers") to feminist ("That's what men really think of women, the poltroons") to sadomasochist ("That's what I'd call a fun day out") to arachnologist ("That's an interesting commentary on the progeny-feeding stratagems of spiders").  But what the story gave me, as a reader, was a key new differentiator:  That was unlikely to be true, or ever to come true.  It was pure fantasy.  Whereas when I read Orwell's "1984," a scant few years later, I thought it could all too possibly become true:  in the midst of the Cold War, it more or less already was.  Such distinctions still matter.  To me, at any rate."

This second narrative of SFnal identity, the growing awareness of the adolescent-author of the distinctions between what is "real" and what is "not possible" is shown to have progressed from binaries (real/not real, fantasy/realism, true/not true) toward an assimilation, where the authors are seeing connections between what they have fantasized about in relation to their reading and their own worlds.  Russell notes that for a young child at the end of the Cold War, the devastation found in Terry Brooks's novels contains a processed reality that allows the young reader to formulate his/her own understanding of the symbolism without feeling as directly threatened by the text as Atwood did when she read Orwell at a young age.  Although this subsuming of imaginative literature into their developing world-views is not a major point in these essays (Bradbury and Miéville barely touch upon this aspect, if at all), it is still a lurking presence.

The third narrative is aggrievement.  This is especially seen in Ursula Le Guin's essay, where the perceived slights of those darn English professors and critics (and the responses given by SF writers) constitutes the first half of her essay:

"For a long time, critics and English professors declared that science fiction wasn't literature.  Most of them spoke from the modernist-realist basis of never having read any science fiction since they were twelve.  They were comfortable with a judgment that allowed them to remain both superior and ignorant, and quite a few science-fiction writers accepted exile from the Republic of Letters to the ghetto of genre, perhaps because ghettos, like all gated communities, give the illusion of safety."

This view unfortunately dominates so many SFnal narratives, not just in the magazine at hand.  All one has to do is see reiterations of these relived "clashes" between the vaguely nefarious (and doubtless wannabe-pipe smoking) "literary fiction" élites and the plucky and daring genre-defending knights, who sally forth to defend their beloved literary genre's besmirched honor.   Most of these erstwhile "defenders of the genre faith" fail to even make the distinctions that Le Guin does here.  Instead of noting it is a difference between modernist-realist adherents and others (with the subtext of this being a historical clash of ideals that has shifted over the past half-century or more), the narrative bifurcates into a) those elites are still repressing us (even though Edmund Wilson, whom Le Guin cites as the quasi-ogre of the time, has been dead for nearly forty years) and b) we are winning this battle (often with citations of SFnal movies, TV shows, and other non-prose media, with the occasional Harry Potter or Katniss tossed in).

It is a rather tired old refrain that does little for most anyone.  Considering the fiction posted in this very same issue of The New Yorker, Jennifer Egan's "Black Box" and Junot Díaz's "Monstro," the first element has to have its received validity questioned.  What critics, minus the few who possibly are purposely tweaking the sensibilities of the over-sensitive, still engage in such practices (as if there ever were a monolith of these staid English professors; here, the magazine's cover conveys a dual sense of perceptual irony)?  If as some argue, that the "gatekeepers" have fallen, then why do they keep harking back to this point?

Le Guin references the notion of "genre ghettos," with such having both beneficial and deleterious effects.  The latter often is not discussed in rah-rah pieces such as the Lev Grossman and Damien Walter pieces I linked to a few paragraphs above.  No, their focus is squarely on the promotion of this notion of SFnal/"genre fiction" as being "disruptive" to the old received truths to the point where Walter appears to bend truth to suit his need (e.g. the average output of poor Jeffrey Eugenides, who seems to have a literary "small dick" in comparison to Jack Vance and Harlan Ellison (!)) in his recent article on this so-called "new pulp," which ultimately is the same as the old bos...err, old pulp.  Nope, pieces such as theirs are pallatives meant to ease the worries and to massage the egos of those who want "their fiction" to be the fiction. 

This is a rather detestable SFnal narrative twinning, one that certainly does no favors to those who would like to suggest that if a The New Yorker reader liked the Egan and Díaz pieces, then s/he might also want to read something produced by say a Brian Evenson or Aimee Bender.  No, theirs is a haughty, chest-thumping, crotch-grabbing display, meant to call the like-minded masses to war and not to parlay at the table of literature.  It is a shame that traces of this appear in Le Guin and Miéville's essays, even though Le Guin at least notes some of the deficiencies of this approach.  After all, some who might otherwise find the other narratives of SFnal identity to be intrigued may find this final set to just reconfirm their own suspicions and worries about this branch of literature.  Rapprochement is certainly better than jingoism.  Maybe some will learn what this means and apply it in the future.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Need help with identification

When my parents went out west last summer to visit the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, they saw this squirrel during their time at the Grand Canyons.  I have been editing their photo collection (all their hundreds of photo files are now on my Mac Mini) for occasional printing.  Glancing through it tonight, I saw this picture and I can't determine for certain if this is a Western Gray Squirrel, an Arizona Gray (Wikipedia has no entry on this particular species, but I've seen references elsewhere), or a different subtype.

Anyone have an idea which squirrel species this is for certain?  I'm guessing Arizona gray, but it's hard to tell when I look at pictures of both that and the Western Gray.

Regardless, I'm certain it was a moment away from attacking my parents for not feeding it.

Friday, May 25, 2012

What I did to protest this self-proclaimed "Geek Pride Day"

Apparently May 25 is the nexus of a series of events that make some feel good about themselves because they have what others might consider to be an unhealthy fascination with towels, some use of force, and doubtless something else that promotes pasty, blotchy skin.  OK, I suppose there is something to be said for allowing these geeks to amuse themselves and to let themselves think of themselves as being supreme cultural arbiters of elegance (while the rest of us know that it is those who look good, sound good, and who have the disposition of an Irish Setter who really dominate the world).

Now I have never considered myself to be a "geek." (Doubtless, based on some of these risible definitions that include "kitchen sink" as a "geek" quality, some might disagree, but you know, I know, and the American people know better.)  I didn't even know there was such a thing called "Geek Pride Day" today until I saw a reference to it.  So I did start off "honoring" it by not even being aware of its existence until 11:30 PM CDT.  But what else did I do today that could be viewed as a sort of protest against this atrocious excuse for a "day?"  Let's see:

  • I walked for two hours today, adding to my tan.  It is known that classically-defined geeks get their rays from the monitor and not the sun.
  • I spent less than two hours, interspersed throughout the day, on the computer.  I had better things to do, like the above-mentioned walking and then weight lifting.
  • I chose not to read any fiction today.  Furthermore, I have read very little fiction this past week and what I have read this month is distinctly geek unfriendly (capital L literature that doesn't make seemingly trite commentaries that will be dated in twenty years, just like your wardrobe already has.
  • I had actual, face-to-face conversations with people, eschewing most online/electronic communications. 

So yeah, I did my part in not celebrating "geeky" things today.  So excuse me while I contemplate which other ridiculous pseudo-groups I need to mock next.  

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Freudian used book porn post

After my job interview this past Tuesday, I stopped by my favorite used bookstore, McKay's, and bought nearly $30 in books (or just over $13 after I traded in three books for store credit).  As is usual for these posts, I start with the Spanish, French, and German-language books.  Thought it'd be amusing to read some more Freud in Spanish, so I got the Spanish edition of Dreams for reading sometime in the near future.  Already owned a copy of El señor presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias, but this was from a collection of Nobel literature winners and was hardcover, so I spent $4 of credit on it.  Should make for an interesting mix of reading over the next several months/years.

Loved reading Jamaica Kincaid's My Brother, so when I saw a copy of her A Small Place, it was a must-buy.  $1.50 made it an even easier decision.  Didn't own this particular Kundera book, so it too was snatched up for $1.50.

Finding used Library of America editions in good/great shape is difficult, so while I was originally planning on not spending any actual cash during this visit, I couldn't pass up buying it for $17.50.  Now I have nearly half of the 220+ volumes in the Library of America series.  Sweet.  Plus the Poe helps counteract the Freud...although what this might say about my presumed mental state is best left unsaid here, n'est ce pas?

Any titles of interest to you?

Monday, May 21, 2012

2012 Clarke Award winner: Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb

I used to be as aimless as a feather in the wind.  I thought stuff on the news and in the papers was for grownups.  It was part of their stupid miserable complicated world.

This year's Arthur C. Clarke Award generated quite a bit of discussion, much of it about the perceived deficiencies in the shortlist.  Without repeating all of the rhetoric that has been proclaimed regarding the list, it should suffice to note that the one novel that received the least amount of criticism, the one that some perhaps view as the "default" option for the award, the one that actually won the award, was Jane Rogers' The Testament of Jessie Lamb (which also appeared on the longlist for last year's Man Booker Prize).  After reading five of the six shortlisted titles (minus the Stross entry), it is easy to see what the judges saw in Rogers' novel that was mostly lacking in the others:  a story that is not incoherent, a tale that does not contradict itself at the narrative level, a narrative that does not plod nor threaten to disintegrate due to its haphazard construction.

Yet this is ultimately defining The Testament of Jessie Lamb in negative terms.  Because it does not offend reader sensibilities in regard to structure as did Sherri Tepper's The Waters Rising or contain narrative conceits that buckle under the weight of its pretensions, as did China Miéville's Embassytown, there is the sense that The Testament of Jessie Lamb is more the least-flawed novel on the shortlist rather than a particularly outstanding work of fiction published in the UK last year.  That impression only deepened as I read the novel last week.  The Testament of Jessie Lamb is not a "bad" novel; it does not contain multiple forehead-smacking moments that make the reader want to throttle the writer, yet it also contains little that makes this reader at least want to commend the author for her vision and execution. 

The novel begins with a biological disaster, one whose root causes are in question throughout the novel.  A sort of mash-up analogue of HPV, HIV, and Mad Cow Disease has been released into the population.  This disease, Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS), targets women who get pregnant.  Their brains begin an irreversible march toward a vegetative state and then ultimately death once the embryo begins to develop.  There is no cure, despite the frantic efforts of scientists.  There is only the sense of two ticking time bombs, one for women who might potentially become pregnant, the other for humanity as a whole.

The basic premise has the potential to be thought provoking, yet Rogers manages to make a dog's supper out of it.  The mechanisms for this disease are ill-conceived and harken back too much to 1950s and early 1960s SF, where radiation/gamma rays/atomic warfare served as the trigger for similar threats to humanity's survival (One such example of this, albeit a well-conceived one, is Brian Aldiss' Greybeard).  Even taking into account the probability that Rogers purposely left this trigger event nebulous in order to explore divers reactions to this development, the execution is sloppy.  It is very difficult to take seriously any truly pandemic, sudden development that causes 100% infection (and one that continues to show apparent effects into the second and perhaps even third generations) rates.  Questioning the validity of the premise so early into the novel does place a damper on later narrative events.

The titular character, the sixteen year-old Jessie Lamb, almost manages to make this questionable premise work.  Daughter of one of the prominent scientists working on a potential cure, she is bright, inquisitive, and not ready to settle for whatever explanation or premise is presented to her.  She is our lens into this world in which problematic gender relations have crystallized around the matter of MDS.  Why does this disease directly affect only women?  Why were men only carriers?  If this was a carefully-crafted disease, then what does this say about how women were viewed?

These are important questions, yet Rogers' treatment of them feels facile, as if she decided to go down the rabbit hole only so far.  Female agency lies at the heart of Jessie Lamb's story, or rather the seeming denial of it.  Yet Rogers risks diluting this by presenting a rather strange argument when Jessie attends a FLAME (Feminist Link Against MEn) meeting.  The initial depiction of this organization is rather telling:

There were about 20 women there.  Everyone was older than me and some looked older than Mum.  They were all a bit hippy-ish, with layers of old clothes and shrunken cardigans or ponchos on top.  I wished I'd had another layer, it was freezing.

Compared to YOFI, it felt serious.  There was something almost deadly about it.  The woman running the meeting was called Gina, she was quick and fierce and she never smiled once.  She talked about the war against women.  She said the introduction of MDS is the logical outcome of thousands of years of men's oppression and abuse of women.  Women's sexuality disgusts men and they're jealous of a mother's ownership of an unborn child.  That's why they want to marry virgins and keep women subservient, because they can never be certain that a child is their own.

This is, as far as I can remember, the only feminist organization that Jessie Lamb encounters.  It reads like a propaganda account of Indigo Girl-listening, layered clothes-wearing, men haters.  There is no subtlety to this, nothing to hint that this portrayal is ironic.  It serves only to present a radical view as a normative one.  Jessie does not react against the more strident, less logical claims (such as the one quoted below) but instead compares them to her own recent experiences.  This only serves to throw the narrative off-track, especially with this bit:

I glanced at Sal but she was intent on every word.  Another woman talked about sex, and how men prefer to have sex with other men but they were obliged to have sex with women in order to make children.  She said that was at the root of religious laws against homosexuality,  because it was in the interests of religion to create as many new babies as possible, to boost membership.  But now sexual reproduction was over, all those old commandments against homosexuality were melting away and millions more men were coming out.


I sat there with these awful things swirling round in my head like leaves in a storm.  I couldn't quiet it.  What they said about men preferring to be gay reminded me of college.

The thing is, there was a change.  Back before MDS, if you said a boy was gay, it was an insult.  Everyone knew there were gay people, and that it was legal and everything, there were loads of gay celebrities on TV.  If they met a gay couple in real life of course they'd be fine and act normally, but still in school it was an insult.  If they called a boy gay it meant he was pathetic.  And the boys and girls who really were gay kept it hidden.  In fact, you wouldn't have known that anybody was.  But in the months after MDS, that changed.  It happened so gradually you almost didn't notice.

Boys started to cluster together with boys, and girls with girls.  Some girls became frightened of boys – even though we were all on Implanon it was still a terrible thought, especially for those girls who knew a woman who'd died.  Sex didn't seem worth the risk.  And the boys – well, I didn't really know what they were thinking, but the atmosphere changed.  They got more involved in their own conversations, and less interested in trying to make us laugh.  In a way they were more shy with us.  It wasn't everybody; there were people who behaved exactly opposite.  Like the gangs, where you often saw boys and girls together – or even, like Sal and Damien had been at the beginning.  People bounced from one extreme to another, as if we couldn't find out the proper way to behave.

Rogers perhaps intended this passage to serve as a commentary on the swift, dramatic changes caused by the spread of MDS, but it comes out wrong, as if sexuality were more of a sociological rather than a biological orientation.  There are no nuances to this, nothing to indicate a variety of responses.  Instead, Rogers chooses the quick and easy route of presenting in passing a revolutionary behavioral change without ever really exploring the ramifications of it.

That perhaps is the main charge that can be presented against The Testament of Jessie Lamb.  Throughout the novel, Rogers takes the shorter path, neglecting to develop the overarching premise and the ways in which the characters react to them.  Jessie Lamb feels like a cipher, like that symbolic lamb being led to the slaughter, yet it appears she (and perhaps Rogers) view it as making a dramatic statement regarding female agency and the right to choose what to do with one's own body, even if it means certain and inevitable death.  These little creeping moments of dramatic decisions, culminating in Jessie's decision to be a surrogate mother for an uninfected fetus, are lessened because Rogers has not followed through with the development of these situations, leaving instead a novel that is defined by its gestures and not by the import of its actions.  The Testament of Jessie Lamb had the potential to be a great, award-worthy novel.  It instead compromised itself at critical narrative junctures, settling instead to be a flawed work that was perhaps merely the least-flawed in a subpar award finalist cohort.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

After four years, time to update my Bible Porn collection, no?

If you want, you can blame Charles Tan for this post.  Earlier this (very early) morning on Twitter, he asked: "For Christians/Catholics, when you see a battered Bible, does your respect for the owner decrease or increase?"  After replying that for me, it would depend upon the owner and that I myself try to take very good care of the ones that I do own, I remembered that I had years ago posted a picture of the various editions of the Bible (Old, New, both alike) that I owned.   Yet over the intervening 3.5 years, I had added quite a few editions, so I thought for the rare few of you reading this who might be interested, I would post pictures and list the languages that I have.

Starting from the left, the first edition is an English New American (Catholic) study bible.  It was the one I bought nearly 10 years ago when I decided to join a church after a decade of having a mostly non-committal attitude toward Christianity/organized religion (I will not bother to explain why, just noting here that this the edition that I've owned the longest).  Then come the Greek Septuagint and New Testament editions, each with English text.  I know this is dodgy (I'm wary of recent Protestant editions), but later I'll try to buy editions that do not have such translations.  After those is the New Testament in the Revised Vulgate Latin translation done almost a century ago in Germany.  I have the full Vulgate in e-book form, but needless to say, I didn't take a picture of it.  After that, the Protestant Spanish translation, which is the 1960 Reina-Valera.  It is, of course, missing seven books.  Then comes a Protestant Haitian edition, which was the only Haitian translation I could find when I ordered it back in 2003.  It is a very odd translation, containing some phrases that really aren't in use in contemporary Haitian Kreyól.  Next is a Catholic Spanish Bible, from an authorized Colombian translation that was released in 1992.  It reads closer to the Vulgate text than does the Protestant edition.  The Protestant Serbian Bible was a gift to me; I cannot say much more than it contains only 66 books (I'm slowly learning the language; taking several months off between study sessions does not help matters).  After it are unlabeled Protestant Gideon New Testaments translated into Portuguese and Romanian.  These are placeholders until I can get fuller, more reliable translations in both languages.  Final image, barely visible, is a black, unlabeled New Testament translated into Russian.  I didn't see any stamps indicating who translated it, but the cover style makes me wonder if it too might be a Gideon edition.

The French edition is a 1970 Société Biblique Française translation.  It contains 73 books, yet it bears no Nihil Obstat from a Catholic Bishop.  Next is another Protestant Russian translation, this time of 66 books.  The remaining language editions are all by Protestant Bible Societies and are of the New Testament:  Czech, Turkish, Persian, German, Indonesian (itself being from a Dutch missionary group), and Gullah (which is mostly spoken on the Sea Islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina).  Then is The Complete Gospels, which contain virtually all of the Gnostic/rejected gospels (minus the Gospel of Judas) and a Croatian prayerbook.

For those who want to see something secular, there is always my collection of Italo Calvino translations in English (I have a further four in Italian) to go with a crucifix chain, two carvings, and a rosary.  Doubtless this was not the most titillating book porn that I've posted here, but perhaps some might find this collection to be interesting enough.  Yes, I'm aware of the evils associated with missionary activity (as I noted above, I'm not particularly thrilled to have this particular translations, but beggars cannot be choosers when picking up most of these translations at used bookstores; later on, I'll replace them with non-missionary translations), but on the whole, most of these were translated and published in the native languages.  Sixteen different languages...why am I tempted to learn all of them and more just now?  Maybe that says something about myself that I don't really want to consider now?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A quote from Carlos Fuentes in memory of his passing today at the age of 83

For the past decade, I have been a fan of Mexican (or as he preferred, "transopolitan") writer Carlos Fuentes, beginning when I read The Years With Laura Díaz in 2002 (in English; I did not start reading novels in Spanish until 2004) and continuing to the present day.  Therefore, I was sad to hear that he passed away today in a Mexico City hospital; apparently he had been suffering from heart ailments recently.  I dropped my current reading plans and began reading a 2011 non-fiction work of his, La gran novela latinoamericana (The Great Latin American Novel) when early on, in the first chapter, I discovered a passage that I think goes near to the heart of what I loved about his writing and those of his fellow writers of the Boom Generation:

Recordar el futuro. Imaginar el pasado.

Éste es un modo de decir que, ya que el pasado es irreversible y el futuro incierto, los hombres y mujeres se quedan sólo con el escenario del ahora si quieren representar el pasado y el futuro.

El pasado humano se llama Memoria. El futuro humano se llama Deseo. Ambos confluyen en el presente, donde recordamos, donde anhelamos.

William Faulkner, uno de los creadores de la memoria colectiva de las Américas, hace decir a uno de sus personajes: "Todo es presente, ¿entiendes? El ayer sólo terminará mañana y el mañana comenzó hace diez mil años." Y en Cien años de soledad, los habitantes de Macando inventan el mundo, aprenden cosas y las olvidan, y son forzados a volver a nombrar, a volver a escribir, a volver a evocar: para Gabriel García Márquez la memoria no es espontánea o gratuita o legitimadora; es un acto de supervivencia creativa. Debemos imaginar el pasado para que el futuro, cuando llegue, también pueda ser recordado, evitando así la muerte de los eternamente olvidados.

Remembering the future. Imagining the past.

This is a way of saying that, now that the past is irreversible and the future uncertain, men and women remain alone with the scenery of today if they want to represent the past and the future.

The human past is called Memory. The human future is called Desire. Both come together in the present, where we remember, where we yearn.

William Faulkner, one of the creators of the collective memory of the Americas, had one of his characters say: "It's all now, you see? Yesterday won't be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago." And in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the inhabitants of Macondo invent the world, they learn things and forget them, and they are forced to return to name, to return to write, to return to evoke: for Gabriel García Márquez memory is not spontaneous nor free nor legitimate; it is an act of creative survival. We ought to imagine the past so the future, when it arrives, also can be remembered, preventing thus the death of eternal oblivion.
There is something so achingly simple, so profoundly true in this, that perhaps it is fitting to imagine the pasts we have enjoyed reading Fuentes and remember the futures we will spend processing what it was he said in his fictions that affect us so.  Only then will that frightful death of eternal forgetfulness, of eternal oblivion, will be staved off.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

April 2012 Reads

Read 51 books in April, most of them first-time reads for me.  More non-fiction, due in part to reading some Civil War/Southeastern Amerindian books early in the month (including a day trip to the Shiloh battle site).  Not many genre fictions, but that's been the case for the past few years now.

113 Mario Vargas Llosa, Los jefes/Los cachorros (re-read; Spanish; will attempt to review at some point on Gogol's Overcoat)

114  Stephen Sears, et al., The Civil War:  The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It (excellent Library of America edition that collects primary source documents from late 1860 to the beginning of 1862)

115  Larry J. Daniel, The Civil War Series:  The Battle of Shiloh (informative chapbook on the Shiloh site, read during my visit there)

116  Ronald N. Satz, Tennessee's Indian Peoples:  From White Contact to Removal, 1540-1840 (good, but somewhat dated, look at the "Civilized Tribes" that lived in Tennessee prior to the Trail of Tears)

117  Matthew Stover, Caine's Law (had planned to write a review, but for now, let's just say its the best of his four Caine novels)

118  Petter J.J. van Thiel, The Genius of Rembrandt:  his Life and Work (decent but too short biography of the Dutch painter)

119  Joe McKinney, Flesh Eaters (winner of this year's Stoker Award for Best Novel, it was a zombie novel.  Most of those do not appeal to me and my enjoyment suffered because of this)

120  José Saramago, Deste Mundo e do Outro (Portuguese; very good)

121  Mercé Rodoreda, Aloma (Catalan; very good)

122  Phil and Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius:  Agatha Awakens (interesting steampunkish graphic novel compilation of the webcomic series, but it wasn't more than just solidly done in my opinion)

123  Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X (Edgar Award finalist; good but not great)

124  Machado de Assis, Casa Velha (Portuguese; very good)

125  Brian Evenson, Immobility (plan on writing a review sometime in the near future)

126  Kim Lakin-Smith, Cyber Circus (BSFA Award finalist; decent but weak compared to most of the shortlist)

127  Sherri S. Tepper, The Waters Rising (reviewed last month; ¿Como dice "chupó los cajones de un burro muerte" en inglés?)

128  Ismet Prcić, Shards (won this year's LA Times Book Prize for First Novel; excellent)

129  Elizabeth Hand, Available Dark (worthy successor to her excellent Generation Loss)

130  Jean Echenoz, Lightning (finalist for the Best Translated Book Award; very good)

131  Amal Al-Jubori, Hagar Before the Occupation, Hagar After the Occupation (poetry finalist for the Best Translated Book Award; bilingual English-Arabic edition; outstanding)

132  Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero (devastating in the sense that it moved me while reading it)

133  Mario Vargas Llosa, La ciudad y los perros (re-read; Spanish; will be reviewed at Gogol's Overcoat at some point in the future)

134  William Faulkner, Big Woods (some of these stories have already been reviewed at Gogol's Overcoat)

135  Jan Morris, Hav (omnibus; outstanding modern classic travelogue of an imaginary city/culture)

136  Simon Morden, Equations of Life (won the Philip K. Dick Award this year; this trilogy opener was decent but not all that appealing to me)

137  Anne Enright, The Forgotten Waltz (Orange Prize finalist; started slow, but its conclusion was very well-executed)

138  Philip Kerr, Field Gray (Edgar Award finalist; spotty but mostly good)

139  Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles (Orange Prize finalist; may review in near future)

140  N.K. Jemisin, The Kingdom of Gods (Nebula Award finalist; uneven but mostly very good)

141  Herta Müller, The Passport (excellent)

142  Nathaniel Philbrick, Why Read Moby Dick? (nice intro-level discussion of why Melville's story has captured the hearts and thoughts of generations of readers)

143  Jac Jemc, My Lovely Wife (this debut novel is one of the better novels I've read this year.  Had hoped to write a formal review, but for now, I can only note that it is an excellent novel that utilizes a deceptively-complex narrative to tell two stories (and an absence) with an economy of words)

144  Drew Magary, The Postmortal (Clarke Award finalist; better than the Bear or Tepper, but not award-worthy.  Some interesting commentary on American socio-cultural clashes is dampened by a dull narrative point of view)

145  Christopher Priest, The Islanders (BSFA Award winner; review shortly)

146  Cynthia Ozick, Foreign Bodies (Orange Prize finalist; good but too uneven to be worthy of award consideration)

147  Donald Antrim, The Hundred Brothers (very good)

148  José Saramago, A Segunda Vida de Francisco Assis (Portuguese; play; very good)

149  Judith Hermann, Alice (Independent Foreign Fiction Award finalist; very good)

150  Wisław Myśliwski, Stone upon Stone (Best Translated Book Award winner; excellent)

151  Diego Marani, New Finnish Grammar (finalist for both the Independent Foreign Fiction Award and the Best Translated Book Award; outstanding)

152  Sheri Holman, Witches on the Road Tonight (Shirley Jackson Award finalist; very good)

153  S.P. Miskowski, Knock Knock (Shirley Jackson Award finalist; excellent)

154  Livia Llewellyn, Engines of Desire:  Tales of Love & Other Horrors (Shirley Jackson Award finalist for Best Anthology; excellent)

155  Giannina Braschi, Yo-Yo Boing! (re-read; Spanglish; outstanding prose-poem dealing with the realities of bilingual life for the puertorriqueños)

156  Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars (poetry; won the Pulitzer Prize this year; outstanding collection)

157  Olympe Bhêly-Quénum, Le Chant du Lac (re-read; French; very good)

158  L. Timmel Duchamp, Never at Home (this anthology contained a story that was a finalist for this year's Tiptree Award; very good)

159  Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale (finalist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award; excellent)

160  Brian Evenson, Windeye (outstanding just-released collection by one of my favorite weird fiction writers)

161  Angélica Gorodischer, Menta (collection; Spanish; excellent)

162  Giannina Braschi, United States of Banana (this loosely-themed novel, originally written in English, continues some of the thematic explorations Braschi did in her earlier works; very good)

163  Mo Hayder, Gone (Edgar Award winner; very good)

Which ones have you read?  Which ones have you heard mentioned but want to know more about?  Which ones did you dislike and/or do not care to read?

An update and a few items of interest

Haven't been blogging much this month (this is my fourth post through nearly a half-month; with two of them being picture posts that required very little writing and the other being just a listing of books) due to a variety of factors:  taking an impromptu three-day vacation to Kansas City with my youngest brother May 3-5, focusing even more time (upwards of 90-120 minutes/day) on toning my body in preparation for a physical exam on the 30th (back in December I had borderline high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, triglyceride, and liver enzyme levels, so it was either exercise like crazy or be forced to take medication), and resume sending and job applications for nearly a dozen teaching positions.  That doesn't leave much time for being online, not that I'm complaining (I've begun to grow fond of not sitting down staring at a computer screen), but it does affect my reading and reviewing rates.

I seem to have fallen three weeks behind on my planned Friday commentaries on William Faulkner's writings over at Gogol's Overcoat, failed to write the first reviews for the planned biweekly reviews of Mario Vargas Llosa's works there as well, not to mention not writing in-depth reviews of literary and genre award winners for both here and GO.  Doesn't look like much will be done on those fronts for the rest of the month, as I likely will have at least one and possibly several interviews in the next 7-10 days.  Things may be very quiet, minus a quickie sort of post, such as one I will try to write later today catching up on what I read in April (51 books) or maybe some book porn-type posts that will highlight something of interest (I would like to write more thoughts on the Portuguese SF magazine Bang! #12 and on Portuguese writer David Soares' most recent novel, Batalha, before the week is over; we'll see).

Can say that I'm reading more of Helen Oyeyemi's fiction this week (The Icarus Girl and White is for Witching) and that my review of her 2011 novel, Mr. Fox, appears in Bull Spec #7.   Also, this past week saw the US print release of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's anthology, The Weird, which contains my translation of Augusto Monterroso's "Mister Taylor."  It would please me greatly if you would consider buying it and even more if you'll write a commentary of sorts on the translation, since it's hard to get reader feedback when it's a short fiction that's been translated. 

Finally, I would strongly urge readers here, if they have not already done so, to contribute a few dollars (or more) to the Kickstarter campaign to fund a Feminist SF Anthology (to be edited by the VanderMeers).  As of this writing, just over $7500 toward the $12,000 goal has been raised, but the deadline is May 31st.  I am intrigued by the topic (in part because I feel my own knowledge of feminist critiques in a plethora of fields is lacking) and I know the co-editors do excellent work in selecting fictions for their anthologies.  If you have $1 (or $25 or $100 or whatever amount) to spare, please consider funding this.

And now, time to try to sleep again before waking up to aggravate my mother for Mother's Day.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

This week's used book porn

Two 2012 releases.  The Englander was purchased as a "new" book.

Curious about the de Luca.  Haven't read this Kundera book either.

Kincaid as a story appearing in The Weird.  Her Annie John was a possible essay topic on my recent English Pedagogy test.  Only natural that I investigate her more, no?

I miss Grizzard's columns, nearly 20 years after his death.  Heard Battle Royale is much better than The Hunger Games, which I have not read.

Two Turgenev works in Russian (well, one is an omnibus) that I'll read once I get around to studying Russian in earnest.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Updated non-English library totals

Last fall, I did a calculation of the number of books, religious and non-religious alike, that I owned in various languages.  Thought now would be a good time to update those totals, as my non-English library continues to expand as a percentage of total books owned (if I'm really bored, I'll spend all day sometime unboxing six boxes' worth of books and count those, a few hundred unboxed/unshelved books, and over a thousand shelved books in English to know the precise number of English-language works I own).  Anyway, here are the updated totals, not separated into religious/secular or print/ebook formats:

Spanish – 476
French – 175
German – 109
Italian – 47
Portuguese – 45
Serbian/Croatian – 34
Latin – 14
Greek (ancient and modern) – 10
Russian – 7
Persian – 5
Catalan – 3
Romanian – 3
Arabic – 2
Irish – 1
Hungarian – 1
Gullah – 1
Norwegian – 1
Haitian – 1
Czech – 1
Indonesian – 1
Polish – 1
Turkish – 1

That's 939 books in 22 different languages.  No, I don't read 22 languages fluently or even well enough to decipher what is being said in those languages even when using a dictionary (most of the latter are just a hobby of collected used Bibles translated into 16 different languages), but I can say that I've read about half of the titles that consist the totals listed above.  Most of these are considered to be "classics" of prose, drama, and poetry, but with some so-called "genre" works mixed in, especially when it comes to Serbian, Portuguese, Romanian, and some Spanish.  I hope to pass the 1000 mark later this year, but that will depend in large part on what I discover used at McKay's or word of mouth.  I'll update the figures sometime later this year, maybe toward Christmas time.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

America: Succinctly summarized in two photos?

In a single one-mile stretch of I-70 just outside of St. Louis, Missouri, you can see these two contrasting images of American excess as you drive west into the city.  What do you think this says about the US?

More images from my impromptu trip this past Thursday-Saturday to Kansas City will appear later this weekend.
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