The OF Blog: January 2013

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Steampunk and Retro-Futurism: Three Anthologies and Three Approaches

 I want to destroy steampunk.

I want to tear it apart and melt it down and recast it.  I want to take your bustles and your fob watches and your monocles and grind them to a fine powder, dust some mahogany furniture with it and ask you, is this steampunk?  And if you say yes, I want to burn the furniture.

Understand, I want to do this out of love.  I love what I see at steampunk's core:  a desire for the beautiful, for technological wonder, for a wedding of the rational and the marvelous.  I see in it a desire for nonspecialized science, for the mélange of occultism and scientific rigor, for a time when they were not mutually exclusive categories.  But sadly I think we've become so saturated with the outward signs of an aesthetic that we're no longer able to recognize the complex tensions and dynamics that produced it:  we're happy to let the clockwork, the brass, the steam stand in for them synedochically, but have gotten to a point where we've forgotten that they are symbols, not ends in themselves. (Steampunk Revolution, p. 401 e-book)

For the past five years, ever since I read the Ann and Jeff VanderMeer-edited Steampunk anthology, I have struggled to define in words my own convoluted and sometimes self-contradictory viewpoint regarding steampunk literature.  There is something fascinating about imagining a recast society, one in which the horrors of the 20th century did not occur and that technological development took a path away from petroleum and instead kept developing steam as a basis for movement and energy.  Yet too often, as Amal el-Mohtar says above at the beginning of her essay "Winding Down the House:  Toward a Steampunk without Steam," we have become too fascinated by the baubles of shiny, coppery valves and pistons that we fail to recognize that what too often occurs is a reconfirmation of certain detestable values:  the glossing over of empire when stories are set in "exotic" quasi-19th century milieus where the steampunked Western "explorers" might as well be an unironic adaptation of the original Edisonades than anything else; a reduction of women (and men) into tight, narrowed gender roles commensurate with their gear-laden bodices and tophats and waistcoats; the reinforcement of capitalist values at its most virulent, laissez-faire extreme.  For many, steampunk is little more than a dressing up of the shoddy 19th and 20th century economic and social exploitation in shiny, metallic clothing.

Yet for others, steampunk offers the possibility to blow all of these cultural underpinnings up and start, if not quite "anew," then at least with a different template than the one that privileges traditional socio-political entities at the expense of others.  In an article that appeared in translation on the popular steampunk site Beyond Victoriana in April 2012,  Mexican steampunk writer "El Halcón Hodson discusses the revolutionary potential of steampunk for recasting the miserable, horrific 19th and 20th centuries so that for a Mexico, which had all of one glorious military moment in the 19th century after achieving its independence from Spain in 1821 (the expulsion of the French in the aftermath of Cinco de Mayo), the time could be imagined as being more than a series of calamities and near-total defeats at the hands of better-equipped nations.  As he notes, it was the time of neo-imperialist colonialism:

But I dare to say that for those who live this kind of retro-futurism from the Third World, must be a little more difficult to imagine a glorious past drawn from the very distant past of their own 19th century. Just remember that the Victorian era was the era of colonialism. The steampunk retro-futurism of the Victorian era in England is diametrically different from Latin American’s Victorian era, for example, at least conceptually.

This is often reflected in the very limited amount of retro-futuristic works that are created in Latin American countries using their own past in comparison with the big paraphernalia based on countries such as England, France, Germany, Spain, United States, Russia, China, Japan or Italy, which were at the forefront of history when talking about colonization.

Even today, the legacy of neo-colonialism is very evident in the way the "global economy" is organized into producer/supplier roles, not to mention the complex ways in which steampunk writers from various countries listed under the outdated heading of "third world" struggle to find their own ways to express their hopes, desires, and dreams in a fashion that co-opts "steampunk" for themselves.  In three anthologies published over the past six months or so (the above-mentioned Steampunk III:  Steampunk Revolution, edited by Ann VanderMeer; the Brazilian anthology Solarpunk, edited by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro; and the Portuguese anthology Lisboa no Ano 2000 (Lisbon in the Year 2000), edited by João Barreiros), some of these concerns and reworkings of history to fit national imaginations that Hodson described in his essay can be seen.

Steampunk Revolution is perhaps the most-ranging of the three in terms of scope, as authors from across the world, both those writing in English and those whose fictions (in a few cases) have been translated into English, have contributed to the anthology.  As editor Ann VanderMeer notes in her introduction, the concerns embedded in many steampunk fictions are now global:  the effects of technology on our health and our climate, the lingering effects of violent socio-economic "conquests" of lands, and the eternal question of how do our pasts shape our futures.  The stories she has chosen for Steampunk Revolution have a more "political" feel to them, perhaps because there are writers from countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore, each of which have their own legacy of 19th/20th century imperialism.

Some of the strategies employed by the authors in this anthology include the transmogrification of objects from a Western-oriented context to one that more closely fits the non-Western locale and its culture(s), as well as the transformation of history to reflect a history where the colonized were instead the resisters.  Filipino writer Paolo Chikiamco's "On Wooden Wings" combines these two strategies in a simple but effective beginning:

Had she lived in any other city, Clarita Leschot Esteybar might have suspected that Nur was being facetious.  Even people who had lived in Jolo all their lives still marveled at its brass minarets, its narrow-gauge wagonways, the retractable sheets over its smaller streets and alleys.  The city of Jolo had been a center of trade and commerce even before it was integrated into the Qudarat Sultanate, but in the century since the Spaniards had been repulsed from Zamboanga, the nature of its goods had changed.  Junks from China and prahus from Celebes now sought the Fleet of Wisdom's artifices and scholarly treatises more than the pearls and precious shells that used to be Jolo's stock in trade.  Clarita took great pride in being a part of the Fleet, the strength of the Sultanate.  She just hoped that she'd be able to remain a part of it after today. (p. 46 e-book, opening page of "On Wooden Wings")
 Here there is little mention of Western powers; the Spanish were driven off a century ago from the Philippines and while there appears to still be a trace of their rule in personal names, the setting differs from the historical 19th century in the prominence of the (brass) minarets, the "wagonways," and the trade with China.  Chikiamco's story stands out because the reader immediately is forced to picture a Jolo of the southwestern Philippines that is the center of a trade rather than a "faraway outpost."  This shift in perspective opens up possibilities for stories such as "On Wooden Wings" to challenge readers, because the underlying socio-political assumptions that such settings and people are "exotic" or "faraway" have been dismissed with prejudice and the reader is forced to accept a world different from what she may have imagined.

Yet despite stories like those from Chikiamco or Leow Hui Min Annabeth, Steampunk Revolution's main weakness lies in that despite its attempts to be more inclusive of authors writing from non-Anglophone traditions, the anthology depends so heavily on English-language compositions (very few, if any, of the stories that appear here are translations, if I'm not mistaken) that large swaths of steampunk literature, particularly that of the Hispanophone and Lusophone steampunk communities, just are not represented here.  This is not as much of an indictment of Steampunk Revolution as it is an acknowledgement that despite the attempts in recent years to include writers from non-Anglophone countries, there is still a huge amount of steampunk literature being produced outside the US and UK that has yet to be translated for English-reading audiences.

Yet there are two Portuguese-language steampunk anthologies (I am aware of some Spanish-language anthologies, but have yet to read them, so my discussion here will be limited to Portuguese and Brazilian steampunk) that have come out in recent months that I think demonstrate two important developments that are largely absent from Anglo-American steampunk writing.  The first anthology, Solarpunk, is a 2012 release from Brazilian publisher Draco that is the third in a trilogy of themed anthologies regarding energy/societal changes (the first, Vaporpunk (2010), was featured on Beyond Victoriana with partial translations done by myself and Fábio Fernandes) over a period of time.  Set largely in an alt-contemporary Brazil, Solarpunk is an extrapolation of how (Brazilian) society would differ if solar energy were to become the new energy norm.  It is, as editor Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro notes in his introduction, the conclusion to a "half-optimistic" trilogy of works that restructure and reconstruct a Brazil that assumes earlier the potential that it is beginning to display today as a world power.

Solarpunk takes the steampunk ethos of remaking contemporary objects and melds it with a more "futuristic" attitude similar to that found in more traditional SF narratives.  Each of the nine authors in this anthology give their own take on the transformative power of this solar-powered cultural shift.  In some, such as Antonio Luiz M.C. Costa's "Era Uma Vez um Mundo" ("It Was One Time in the World"), the entire planet has been unified and fossil fuels have been greatly restricted by the United Nations due to global warming.  In others, such as Carlos Orsi's "Soylent Green is People!," the future is seen as more frugal, more based on recycling materials than on the expansion of society due to new solar technology.  This diversity in the ways solar technology is used represents a new direction in SF literature.  The concerns expressed in many steampunk stories, particularly those originating from Brazil, are mixed in with futuristic settings.  Instead of the "why not this instead of the historical past?," the overarching question of "what if this occurs from present developments?"  emerges. 

This melding of steampunk's alt-history, alt-culture with dreams of the future has great potential and Solarpunk contains several solid and a couple of very good stories.  If there were a common theme, beyond the usage of solar energy to empower societal change, it would be the optimism that pervades most of these stories.  Whether it is a crime story or a story of emerging world peace, there was this sense that the world was slowly, if not completely, becoming a more egalitarian place.  The "great powers" of the 19th and 20th centuries do not figure as greatly here; the looming shadow of the Americans in particular is not as present here as it frequently was in 20th century Latin American socio-political literature.  Instead of reimagining a past where the imperialist powers have had their advances checked, here in Solarpunk there is this sense that the imbalances caused by imperialism have been largely redressed.  It is a small, but significant difference and perhaps one influenced here by Brazil's growing economic and political power on the global stage.

If Solarpunk envisions a 21st century in which social changes occur in part due to technological advances, the just-released Portuguese anthology Lisboa no Ano 2000 (Lisbon in the Year 2000) takes a decidedly different approach.  Edited by João Barreiros, who has three almost novella-length stories within this 438 page anthology that provide a sort of "skeleton" to the book, Lisboa no Ano 2000 is explicitly "retro-futuristic."  That is, the stories purport to tell of a Lisbon that never existed, that its past century diverged significantly from the historical 20th century.  Lisbon at the dawn of this fictional 21st century is a city of Tesla towers, of dirigibles, of technology that is not dependent upon petroleum.  It exists within a Europe dominated by Groß Deutschland, as apparently the Germans ended up winning some sort of World War I analogue, and yet Lisbon has managed to become the greatest European city free of German control.  Although some of the elements perhaps are going to be interpreted differently by non-Europeans, it is possible to see parallels to the recent PIIGS debt crisis and Germany's sometimes-autocratic approach to the Eurozone banking system and by extension, the European Union itself.

Lisboa no Ano 2000 is more unified than the other two anthologies; it is more of a shared universe collection of stories than disparate presentations of a similar theme.  This has its strengths and weaknesses.  At its best, the stories build upon one another in showing an alt-Lisbon that is, if not a great power, then at least a counterweight to the autocratic Germans.  Within this shared context, stories of Lisbon's technological achievements have a greater resonance due to this common backstory.  However, the anthology at times felt a bit too bloated because the 17 stories by 15 different authors began to feel a bit too uniform at times, with not enough to differentiate themselves to the degree necessary for truly memorable stories.  Stories that by themselves would be fine suffer due to this, as it just felt as though there were too many similar tales for the setting and that if the anthology were reduced in length somewhat, the anthology as a whole would be better for it.  This, however, is not to say that Lisboa no Ano 2000 is a poor anthology, but rather that it is a decent anthology with a solid premise that weakens its potential impact by trying to cram too much into the book.

Yet despite the problem I had with its length, Lisboa no Ano 2000 illustrates a third approach to utilizing steampunk themes.  Whereas Steampunk Reloaded focused on steampunk's socio-political potential and Solarpunk takes the steampunk ethos of reinventing and redevelopment into a near-future setting, Lisboa no Ano 2000 comes the closest to realizing what Hodson noted in his essay about the potential of steampunk as a means by which citizens outside those of the Great Powers can reshape the past to provide a context in which their stories, their heroes can stand toe to toe with imperialist powers. As such, it intrigues me as a reader even despite my sense that it did not fulfill its full potential.  In a more limited setting or maybe one that is more "open" in context, it could be a seminal work.  As it stands, however, it is a flawed yet mostly enjoyable work that shows the burgeoning steampunk community in Portugal.

Although each of the three anthologies have their weaknesses, on the whole each of them are worthwhile reads because their approaches herald new developments within the global steampunk communities.  For someone such as myself who is not too fond of the fetishized nature of many prominent Anglo-American steampunk stories, the tales told within these three anthologies were refreshing and hopefully they will be but the vanguard of the future stories to come.  One can only imagine...or is that rip apart and reconstruct, like el-Mohtar advocates in her essay?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Calling on all Lusophone and Hispanophone writers (and those who write in English from non-Anglophone countries)

Non-Anglophone authors. . .

It does have a nicer ring to it, I agree. . . But it doesn't change the fact that it's synonymous with "not-published in English writers." You can sugarcoat it any way you like, it means that you published something through a non US/UK press or something similar. You can call a squirrel an assassin tree rodent, but she's still a squirrel. One might prefer to be called an adult entertainment performer, yet he or she remains a pornstar. Ask anyone working at The Home Depot or Walmart if they're proud to be an associate instead of an employee and they'll give you the finger.
So non-Anglophone author or failing to write in English-writer amounts to the exact same thing. Like many SFF online reviewers, I refuse to read any work not published in English. There is enough crap out there that nevertheless went through the normal publishing process that I have no time to waste on something that wasn't good enough to attract the attention of an agent and then go through the usual editing process.
Eh, screw that condescending crap that comes from people like this.   I'm a reader who enjoys discovering new writers, especially those writing in Portuguese or Spanish (preference given to steampunk or weird/experimental fictions, but I will read most things outside of romances/paranormal romances, which I have not enjoyed in the past).  If you have available in e-book format (print books are expensive to import, but I may give a few a try months from now when I have more money to spend $40-80 importing two books) an individual work and/or anthology that was originally published in Spanish or Portuguese (I can read some Italian and French and a tiny bit of Serbian and Romanian, but I'm much more comfortable with Spanish or Portuguese), feel free to describe your work in the comments below (or contact me on Twitter; I don't bite...only the squirrels do), with a note if it's available in the US in e-book format.  Puedes escribir en español o português si quieres.  Eu li ambos assim.  

Can't make a promise when I'll get to it, but I have decided to review more non-Anglophone fiction in 2013, particularly from newer writers, so feel free to list your works/anthologies and I'll keep referencing this thread for more fiction to read.  Feel free to pass this information along to others who may be interested in discussing briefly their works here.

P.S.  If you are a writer from a non-US/UK/Canada country who writes in English, feel free to list your fictions as well.  I will consider those as well.

P.P.S.  If there is interest (and after I've read representative works), I may be willing to conduct interviews (in English) with certain writers from non-Anglophone countries.  There are a few I want to contact in the coming days about this.  Hopefully, this will help raise the visibility of some outstanding writers.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Interesting interview Spanish-language site/publisher Literatura fantástica conducted with Christopher Priest

I saw this on Twitter about an hour ago:  an interview that Spanish-language site/publisher Literatura fantástica conducted (and posted today) with British SF writer Christopher Priest.  Considering the fuss stirred up last year by his negative comments on the 2012 Clarke Awards, there might be some interest in what he says about that, but I think the entire interview is worth reading. 

But since many here cannot read Spanish, I'll give a few highlights and translate a paragraph or two toward the end (I wonder if there was an English original that might be posted later, but it seems it was likely conducted in English and then translated for publication there), so there might be that odd reverse-engineering effect occurring where the le mot juste is lost between the shift into Spanish and then back into English.

The interview begins with the interviewer and Priest talking about H.G. Wells and the ways in which Wells influenced Priest's works.  Roughly half of the interview is devoted to Priest talking about Wells' enduring importance in SF and the ways in which he confronted certain "timeless" issues.  Then there is talk of the ways in which Priest's Space Machine was a "modern" novel instead of a Victorian-tinged one that aimed to "recreate" some of the conditions that Wells explored in The Time MachineSpace Machine was also recently translated into Spanish (with a forward by acclaimed Spanish SF/F writer Javier Negrete) by Literatura fantástica and from there the discussion goes toward some of the themes found in that particular Priest novel, including the idea of it being a "scientific romance."  And now to quote (and translate) the last two questions and responses:

Y ahora una mirada al futuro inmediato. ¿Cuáles son sus próximos proyectos? ¿Está escribiendo ahora mismo? ¿Hay en perspectiva alguna adaptación de sus obras al cine o a la televisión?
The Adjacent se publicará en el Reino Unido en junio de 2013 y en estos momentos estoy trabajando en la siguiente novela que probablemente llevará el título de The Mariners.
Mi novela de 1984, El glamour, se va a adaptar al cine en el Reino Unido por parte del director Gerald McMorrow, que hace unos pocos años estrenó la película titulada Franklyn. La película despareció de las pantallas tan rápida como llegó, pero considero que es una de las mejores películas de ciencia ficción realizadas en el Reino Unido en los últimos 20 años. Se trata de una película sorprendente, protagonizada por Eva Green, Ryan Philippe y Susannah York. Si podéis, ¡disfrutad de ella en DVD! Después de ver Franklyn me puse en contacto con Gerald, nos hicimos amigos y ha decidido que quiere rodar El glamour. Tenemos la esperanza que se empiece a rodar este verano. También tengo en cartera una obra de teatro basada en El prestigio, que tiene previsto su estreno en el West End de Londres justo antes de las Navidades de este año. (También estamos hablando de un musical en Rusia basado en la misma novela, pero es un proyecto a dos años vista.)
And now a look into the immediate future.  What are your upcoming projects?  Is it being written now?  Is there the possibility of some adaptation of your works into film or TV?

The Adjacent will be published in the United Kingdom in June 2013 and these days I am working on the sequel, which probably will bear the title of The Mariners.

My 1984 novel, The Glamour, is going to be adapted for film in the UK by the director Gerald McMorrow, who a few years ago released a film titled Franklyn.  The film disappeared from the screens as quickly as it appeared, but I consider it to be one of the best SF films made in the UK in the past 20 years.  This is an amazing film, starring Eva Green, Ryan Philippe and Susannah York.  If you can, watch it on DVD!  After watching Franklyn I got in contact with Gerald, we became friends and he decided that he wanted to shoot The Glamour.  We have hopes that shooting will begin this summer.  I also have in plans a play based on The Prestige, which is scheduled to premiere in London's West End just before Christmas this year.  (We are also talking about a musical in Russia based on the same novel, but it is a project two years' away).

Una última pregunta: usted ha sido muy crítico con la selección de los finalistas del Premio Arthur C. Clarke de 2012, ¿cuáles son sus impresiones sobre ciencia ficción y literatura en los últimos años?

El Premio Arthur C. Clarke sufrió el año pasado a causa de la incompetencia de los jueces. No sé en lo que estaban pensando, pero por alguna razón ignoraron la mayor parte de las novelas verdaderamente interesante o ambiciosas publicadas en 2011, y se decidieron por una novela decente (The Testament of Jessie Lamb de Jane Rogers, que ganó con toda justicia), una novela mediocre de China Miéville (Embassytown) y otras cuatro más de la ciencia ficción tradicional menos imaginativas y más comunes. Había muchas más novelas que eran mejores, o más estimulantes, o simplemente más aventuradas en el tema, pero parece que los jueces no las tuvieron en cuenta. Como considero que el Premio Clarke es uno de los mejores y más fiables premios literarios, que en el pasado había dado su apoyo a obras buenas o ambiciosas, tuve la impresión que los jueces de 2012 habían fallado de una manera terrible y muy embarazosa. Lo dije públicamente y por escrito, y en consecuencia tuve algunos problemas. Pero al final, creo que sirvió para que la gente se centrase en lo que debería ser la ciencia ficción moderna y en que se debería animar a los escritores a enfrentarse con materiales nuevos o difíciles.

En cuanto a este año, algunos de los jueces siguen ahí, así que sólo podemos ESPERAR lo mejor, pero debemos temer una repetición de sus valores apocados y conservadores. (Este año hay un par de jueces nuevos, así que es posible que la cosa mejore. Esperémoslo.) En cuanto a mí, me he pasado los últimos 12 meses investigando para mi nueva novela, así que no he leído ninguno de los libros de ciencia ficción publicados en este último año, así que no tengo intención de decir nada sobre lo que ocurra…
One final question: you have been very critical of the selection of finalists for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. What are your impressions regarding science fiction and literature in recent years?

The Arthur C. Clarke Award suffered last year because of the judges' incompetence. I do not know what they were thinking, but for some reason they ignored most of the really interesting or ambitious novels published in 2011, and settled on a decent novel (The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, who won in all fairness) a mediocre novel China Miéville (Embassytown) and four more traditional, less imaginative, and more commonplace science fiction novels. There were many more novels that were better, or more exciting, or more adventurous in theme, but it seems that the judges did not take them into account. As I consider the Clarke Award is one of the best and most reliable literary prizes, which in the past had supported good works or ambitious ones, I felt that the 2012 judges had failed in a terrible and embarrassing manner. I said so publicly and in writing, and therefore I had some problems [with others]. But in the end, I think it served to make people focus on what should be modern science fiction and that should encourage writers to deal with new or difficult material.

As for this year, some of the judges are still there, so we can only HOPE for the best, but we have to fear a repeat of its timid and conservative values​​. (This year there are a couple of new judges, so it's possible that things will improve. Let's hope so.) As for myself, I've spent the last 12 months researching for my new novel, so I have not read any of the books science fiction published in the last year, so I have no intention of saying anything about what happens ...

Hopefully, this quick and rough translation (I'm certain Priest worded things in a slightly different fashion than what the retranslation states) will be of interest to readers here.  As for myself, I do plan on reading more of Priest's works in the near future and perhaps some of the Wells novels that he and interviewer discuss.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A list of what literary genres I will read/review

Saw via Cheryl Morgan earlier tonight a post made at Warpcore SF (where I'm not listed, but perhaps that's because I'm considered to be more of a "literary" reviewer than a "SF/F" one these days?) that listed various subgenres that various reviewers would read/review.  I thought it might be interesting to a few to list that I do read (and occasionally review), in order of preference:

1.  Translated literary fiction
2.  Spanish-language literary fiction
3.  Portuguese-language Steampunk/Dark Fantasy/Horror/Weird Fiction (some works straddle most of these divisions)
4.  Spanish-language SF/F/Steampunk
5.  Literary fiction
6.  Weird Fiction
7.  Italian-language fiction, all forms
8.  French-language fiction, all forms
9.  Short Fiction Collections/Anthologies
10. Squirrelpunk
11. Historical fictions
12. Horror
13. "Postmodernist" narratives
14. Anglo-American Steampunk
15. Non-Paranormal Romance Urban Fantasies of the pre-2000 version of it
16. William Shatner writings
17. Biographies
18. Non-epic fantasies
19. Science Fiction of the Le Guin variety
20. Danny Bonaduce memoirs
21. Graphic Novels
22.  Epic Fantasies
23.  Epic Fantasies involving llamas
24.  YA
25.  Graphic Novels
26.  Squirrel-penned philosophical works
27.  Histories (OK, this is really much higher, but I burned out back in 1997, so it's hard for me to admit still that I'll read them on occasion)
28.  Mysteries/Crime fiction
29.  Squirrel erotica

There, I hope that clears things up for anyone who might want to get in touch with me for review purposes...especially those purveyors of squirrel smut.

P.S.  As for "self-published" works, only in cases where I know the writer before s/he asks me to review their work.  I've done this on a few occasions, most recently reviewing K.J. Bishop's self-published story collection, but I don't plan on making a regular habit of this outside of the works being by authors with whom I'm at least somewhat familiar.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A reading map of the countries where I have read at least one writer

Interesting patterns and places I see where I need to explore more. Would have been more interesting if I could have been able to color-code it by male/female writers, but it'll do for a start. If I counted correctly, I've read at least one book from a writer who was born/lived in 86 different nation-states. That's less than half and only a little more than a third of the extant countries today. Here's another one, featuring the US states and writers from those states that I know I've read at least one author associated with that state.

Goran Petrović, An Atlas Traced by the Sky

The Serbs are a people seldom satisfied with just one life, so they double and even multiply it several times over.  And as if that were not enough, they doggedly persevere in their own dreams or live in several places at once, always with the same tempestuous ardour.  It is no wonder, then, that Serbs, who expend themselves so relentlessly, die easily, hastily and hungrily, exactly the way they live.

Undoubtedly, this might be called a good custom, were it to end there.  But it does not.  It seems that it is in death that the Serbs are at their most dangerous, as if there too they exist.  Not only do their beards and nails grow, as on any corpse, but so do their bodies, and stories about them spread and multiply even more than when they are alive.

The prevailing view among our people here is that this wild and dangerous race should not be stopped from living dreams or living several lives in one and the same place.  It would be especially good to move them from fast living to slow, and thus dilute their unruly nature in favour of calm waters that can be restrained. (p. 120)

As a child growing up in the 1980s, I can remember my early fascination with atlases.  I remember turning to the back (or sometimes the front) of my dad's social studies books (he taught social studies and PE for around three decades) and memorizing places and countries.  There were historical atlases of Egypt, the Hittite Empire, the Greeks, the Persians, and the Romans, each with their own special colors on the maps.  There were places outlined with little dots and others with larger ones; the capitals received stars.  There were colors, later on, that we had to do in my 9th grade World Geography class (1988-1989) of the 15 Soviet republics.  Fifteen colors to represent entities that had has much in common with each other as the arbitrary choices of colors we used for our crude maps.  Atlases ultimately are but our own futile attempts to place our stamp on a wild, uncontrollable, and even almost completely incomprehensible world.  Yet we still persevere in this fiction, believing somehow that it matters.

In his 1993 debut novel, Serbian writer Goran Petrović utilizes atlases as a means to create a series of connections that are in turns artificial and more natural than life itself.  An Atlas Traced by the Sky charts the dreams and manipulations of a handful of characters who inhabit worlds and possibilities, tracing their own atlases of the worlds they experience through the clouds above the open-roofed house in which they live.  Like the clouds that float across the sky, thickening, elongated, or dissipating as they move, the images and the metaphors for human life embedded within them also shift and transform as the reader moves from one page to the next.  An Atlas Traced by the Sky is not a linear work, far from it, but the effort the reader expends in processing what Petrović's characters are describing ultimately rewards greatly those who pay close attention to what is transpiring.

An Atlas Traced by the Sky perhaps best can be described by that most nebulous and troublesome of literary terms, "postmodern."  There certainly are elements of postmodernist literature within its 236 pages.  The conflation of dreams and realities, of narrators who inhabit one role in one dream/reality sequence only to play another role elsewhere, references to real and imagined works of art and literature (with an impressive list of writers cited in a bibliography that includes Borges, Calvino, Eco, Pavić, Basara, García Márquez, Cortázar, Ende, and dozens more), and the conflation of time, space, and reality all help shape a work that is ever mutable.

Such works can be off-putting to readers who want to establish an emotional connection to the characters and/or narrative(s).  For the most part, An Atlas Traced by the Sky's characters are appealing because in their construction of their atlases, their desires, fears, and dreams are illustrated with a refreshing clarity that makes their journeys through the worlds they outline and inhabit intriguing for readers.  Although there are a few places where the reader might want to pause and re-read (as I did at several points during my second reading of the book in English – I read it twice before in Spanish), for the most part the twists and turns can be followed by careful readers who are wary of accepting what is described at face value.

Petrović imbues his narrative with a host of reference to writers from the past 75 years.  Concepts developed by the writers I cited above (and others) can be seen unfolding as the characters chart their own paths.  Perhaps the concluding section sums it up best:

Even the biggest piece of paper is bound by edges.  However, if the cartographer is adept, no road will be cut by a margin.  And if he is imaginative as well, then it is here that the road will actually begin... (p. 227)

The same too can be said of outlining our lives and dreams.  If a narrator is skilled enough, and Petrović here proves to be so, then the lives and dreams of the novel's characters can be said not to be cut by the margins of the narrative, but instead their roads begin here.  It is this sense of openness within the confines of a described atlas, even one traced by the sky, that makes An Atlas Traced by the Sky a novel that can be read and re-read multiple times, with more revealed each time.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

An interesting "Best of the 20th Century English Language" list

This one that HTML Giant copy/pasted from Larry McCaffery (who has a post explaining each of his 100 selections) had some surprising choices on it.  Food for debate, I presume?  Bold for books read, italics for those owned but not yet read (just over 50 read, if I counted correctly):

1. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov, 1962.
2. Ulysses, James Joyce, 1922.
3. Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon, 1973.
4. The Public Burning, Robert Coover, 1977.
5. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner, 1929.
6. Trilogy (Molloy [1953], Malone Dies [1956], The Unnamable [1957]), Samuel Beckett.
7. The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein, 1925.
8. Nova Trilogy (The Soft Machine [1962], Nova Express [1964], The Ticket that Exploded, [1967]), William S. Burroughs.
9. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955.
10. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce, 1941.
11. Take It or Leave It, Raymond Federman, 1975.
12. Beloved, Toni Morrison, 1986.
13. Going Native, Stephen Wright, 1994.
14. Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowery, 1949.
15. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf, 1927.
16. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, William H. Gass, 1968.
17. JR, William Gaddis, 1975.
18. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952.
19. Underworld, Don DeLillo, 1997.
20. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, 1926.
21. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce, 1916.
22. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925.
23. The Ambassadors, Henry James, 1903.
24. Women in Love, D.H. Lawrence, 1921.
25. 60 Stories, Donald Barthelme, 1981.
26. The Rifles, William T. Vollmann, 1993.
27. The Recognitions, William Gaddis, 1955.
28. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, 1902.
29. Catch 22, Joseph Heller, 1961.
30. 1984, George Orwell, 1949.
32. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neal Hurston, 1937.
32. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner, 1936.
33. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany, 1975.
34. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939.
35. The Four Elements Tetrology (earth: The Stain [1984], fire: Entering Fire [1986], water: The Fountains of Neptune [1992], and air: The Jade Cabinet [1993]), Rikki Ducornet.
36. Cyberspace Trilogy (Neuromancer [1984], Count Zero [1986], Mona Lisa Overdrive [1988]), William Gibson.
37. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller, 1934.
38. On the Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957.
39. Lookout Cartridge, Joseph McElroy, 1974.
40. Crash, J.G. Ballard, 1973.
41. Midnight’s Children, Salmon Rushdie, 1981.
42. The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth, 1960.
43. Genoa, Paul Metcalf, 1965.
44. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, 1932.
45. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster, 1924.
46. Double or Nothing, Raymond Federman, 1972.
47. At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien, 1951.
48. Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy, 1965.
49. The Cannibal, John Hawkes, 1949.
50. Native Son, Richard Wright, 1940.
51. The Day of the Locust, Nathaniel West, 1939.
52. Nightwood, Djuna Barnes, 1936.
53. Housekeeping, Marilynn Robinson, 1981.
54. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., 1969.
55. Libra, Don DeLillo, 1986.
56. Wise Blood, Flannery O’Conner, 1952.
57. Always Coming Home, Ursula K. LeGuin, 1985.
58. USA Trilogy (The 42nd Parallel [1930], 1919 [1932], and The Big Money [1936]), John Dos Passos.
59. The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing, 1962.
60. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1951.
61. Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett, 1929.
62. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver, 1981.
63. Dubliners, James Joyce, 1915.
64. Cane, Jean Toomer, 1925.
65. The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton, 1905.
66. Ridley Walker, Russell Hoban, 1982.
67. Checkerboard Trilogy (Go in Beauty [1955], The Bronc People [1958], Portrait of the Artist with 26 Horses [1962]), William Eastlake.
68. The Franchiser, Stanley Elkin, 1976.
69. New York Trilogy (City of Glass [1985], Ghosts [1986], The Locked Room [1986]), Paul Auster.
70. Skinny Legs and All, Tom Robbins, 1986.
71. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace, 1995.
72. The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus, 1996.
73. Tlooth, Harry Mathews, 1966.
74. Pricksongs and Descants, Robert Coover, 1969.
75. The Man in the High Castle, Phillip K. Dick, 1962.
76. American Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis, 1988.
77. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles, 1969.
78. The Book of the New Sun Tetrology (The Shadow of the Torturer [1980], The Claw of the Conciliator [1981], The Sword of Lictor [1982], The Citadel of the Autarch [1982]), Gene Wolfe.
79. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, 1962.
80. Albany Trilogy (Legs [1976], Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game [1978], Ironweed [1983]), William Kennedy.
81. The Tunnel, William H. Gass, 1995.
82. Omensetter’s Luck, William H. Gass, 1966.
83. The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles, 1948.
84. Darconville’s Cat, Alexander Theroux, 1981.
85. Up, Ronald Sukenick, 1968.
86. Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, Ishamel Reed, 1969.
87. Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson, 1919.
88. You Bright and Risen Angels, William T. Vollmann, 1987.
89. The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer, 1948.
90. The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., Robert Coover, 1968.
91. Creamy and Delicious, Steve Katz, 1971.
92. Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee, 1980.
93. More than Human, Theodore Sturgeon, 1951.
94. Mulligan Stew, Gilbert Sorrentino, 1979.
95. Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe, 1929.
96. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser, 1925.
97. Easy Travels to Other Planets, Ted Mooney, 1981.
98. Tours of the Black Clock, Steve Erickson, 1989.
99. In Memoriam to Identity, Kathy Acker, 1990.
100. Hogg, Samuel R. Delany, 1996.

Man Asian Prize finalist: Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Between Clay and Dust

The ruination of the inner city was attributed to time’s proclivity for change.  It lay abandoned, half buried in and half surrounded by the squalor of shanty towns.  New settlements cordoning it on three sides seemed to avoid the shadow of its sunken grandeur.  Streets connecting new colonies skirted off its periphery.  Links binding old and new neighbourhoods were either never formed or broken at the start.  The wide serpentine alley of high, arched gateways dividing its residential and artisan quarters looked strangely desolate.
The ravaging winds of Partition had left it unscathed.  The turmoil that had seared the fibre of men and gored their souls had not touched this quiet habitation.  There had been anxiety that things would be greatly changed, but later there seemed hope that the worst was over and life’s routines could now be renewed.  Nobody expected that in Partition’s wake would follow a slow disintegration of values that would unravel the inner city.  In a way, the inner city was always a cat’s cradle – a crisscross of life’s many facts, each sustained by the other.  The strings of this cat’s cradle had not snapped but they had become hopelessly tangled. (pp. 9-10)
Some of the best stories involve defeat, or rather the struggle of a soul that we know almost from the beginning is doomed to be beaten down.  Those who take a perverse sort of Schadenfreude at witnessing one’s comeuppance may find something to enjoy in Pakistani-Canadian writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Man Asian Prize-nominated novel Between Clay and Dust, but there are so many layers to this slender and yet powerful 213 page novel.  There is the inevitable failure of two people, the respected clan elder and wrestling Ustad-e-Zaman Ramzi and the aging courtesan Gohar Jan, to strive against the winds of change and the effects of such upon those around them.  Within this core struggle, we see their choices juxtaposed against that of those around them, with a glaring contrast of values and actions that make early 1950s urban Pakistani life (the city is never named, although it is located apparently on the Indus River) comprehensible for those of us who came of age a generation or two later in a land and value system alien and yet in some ways akin to that of the Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan.

Between Clay and Dust stretches over a few years, beginning in 1950 with the upheavals caused by the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan still ongoing.  Ustad Ramzi has been Ustad-e-Zaman for fifteen years and to him has fallen the task of training his twenty years’ younger brother, Tamami.  Tamami embodies values foreign to ustad Ramzi:  he is impetuous, headstrong, valuing the celebrity of the clan-centered wrestling bouts over the traditions embedded within these fights.  Through both his and Ustad Ramzi’s points of view, we come to see just how flawed of a character Tamami is, as he descends through anger and puffed-up pride to despondency and ultimately drug addiction in his futile quest to at first supersede his renowned older brother and later to earn his esteem.  Farooqi does an outstanding job in developing Tamami’s character, even though he is secondary to both the Ustad and the courtesan, through not just his thoughts, but even through conversations in which a corrupt wrestling promoter (itself an affront to the likes of the traditional ustads and their followers, who view staged exhibitions as akin to sacrilege) lays out the key conflict in the novel:
Gulab Deen smiled.
‘Tamami asked me if he would come.  I said he may come.  I said I think he will come.  That was all I told him.  You know how he is these days.  But I hope very much that Ustad Ramzi does come.  A challenge fight lacks something without the blessing and presence of elders.  Ustad Ramzi knows the venue where the bout is to be held.  I will keep a chair for him in the front row.  I will do all I can.’
‘So, is he going to come or not?’
Gulab Deen did not answer his question but continued:  ‘I have heard rumours that he said he will come.  But again, he may boycott the fight.  These old ustads and their ways.  Ustad Ramzi shouldn’t think he is doing me a favour by coming.  He should remember that it was I who arranged an exhibition match for Tamami when nobody was willing to fight him.  There is no gratitude in my business.  Everyone thinks I am after money.  But what’s wrong with that, you tell me?  If I don’t make money I go hungry.  Do you know how hard I have worked to arrange this fight?  Don’t say you don’t.  But I get no thanks.  Only complaints.’ (p. 160)
Here the clash of values between the older and newer generations are crystallized.   Money and the staging of what was formerly a proud cultural tradition have pushed these older values down.  Things have begun to change after the Partition (with the undertone later that things are always changing) and not for the better.  Tamami’s pride has cost him everything that he used to cherish most.  Now he is reduced in stature, forced to throw fights against inferior wrestlers in order to make a living after disgracing himself in front of his older brother.  This has affected him greatly and Farooqi illustrates this not just through Tamami’s PoV chapters, but also through the ways in which the corrupt promoter, Gulab Deen, views him.  To Deen, Tamami is not the fallen heir to a proud tradition, but instead is a potential moneymaker for another wrestler of his, one who stands to benefit from the “rub” that he gets for “winning” against the Ustad’s former protege.

Yet Ustad Ramzi is not blameless here.  In his chapters, we see a fascinating combination of tenderness and stiff-necked pride.  We see his noble intent when he visits the kotha of the singer/prostitute Gohar Jan, as he sits within her domicile listening to her sing and yet not seeming to have the slightest intent to have sex with her.  The respect he accords her is in sharp contrast to the mixture of frustration and condescension that he gives Tamami.  To him, Tamami is irrevocably flawed, whether it is his impetuous temper, his desire for fame and acceptance, or his succumbing to the ravages of drug addiction.  He cannot forgive him and this crushes the two of them in different ways.  Farooqi’s portrayal of Ustad Ramzi, through his meticulous care for the ancestral cemetery or the traditional patterns of his actions and beliefs, is subtle in its presentation yet penetrating in how he dissects Ustad Ramzi’s character.  Here emerges a complex character that has an uncommon clarity to his beliefs and actions.  The Ustad never feels underdeveloped or a caricature of the flaws of traditionalism.

Gohar Jan is the least developed of the three main characters, although much of that is likely on purpose.  In her can be seen the effects of a patriarchal society in which a very talented singer is disdained for being nothing more than a prostitute.  Her looks are all that matter to the men who visit her; when they fade, so do they from her company.  She is quiet and resolute in her attempt to maintain the appearance of relevancy, even as age strips her of most visitors (outside of the unusual visits of the Ustad Ramzi) and leaves her near novel’s end at the brink of losing her home and kotha as unscrupulous builders have bribed city officials to take not just her property but also that of the Ustad (including the family cemetery).  Yet she fights on.  Men may call her whore and try to deny her respect, yet there is such a noble spirit about her that makes these demeaning actions futile.  She is the bedrock for the Ustad, a symbol of how traditional admonishments may, if not quite cast away, be borne with a grace and dignity that transcends her lowly station in life.  It is her ultimate fate that brings Between Clay and Dust to a close and which underscores the connections between the novel’s title and the action within it.

Farooqi’s writing is superb.  He utilizes short (rarely more than four pages) chapters to switch character PoVs rapidly, yet no chapter feels rushed or sketchy.  There is an understated elegance to his prose that reminded me at times of some of Hemingway’s best stories in their way of showing character motivation and action in an economical yet powerful fashion.  There is never the sense of padded scenes or underdeveloped dialogue.  Everything meshes well together to create a memorable, moving fiction.  Between Clay and Dust is one of the best novels in a Man Asian Prize shortlist that is stacked with excellent writers.  Highly recommended.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A poem read aloud in honor of Squirrel Appreciation Day

For those who may want to hear my rousing rendition of a squirrel poem I found online as a means of getting you in the proper mood for celebrating Squirrel Appreciation Day, here you go.

Zoran Živković, Vremenski darovi/Time Gifts

 Morao je da pobegne iz manastira.

Uopšte nije trebalo da se nalazi tu, nikada nije želeo da se zamonaši, kazao je to ocu, ali ovaj je bio neumoljiv, kao i uvek, a majka nije imala smelosti da mu se suproststavi, iako je znala da su sinovljeve naklonosti i nadarenosti na drugoj strani.  Kaluđeri su se od početka ophodili prema njemu rđavo, zlostavljali ga, ponižavali, terali da radi najprljavije poslove, a kada su počele njihove noćne posete, nije više mogao da izdrži.

Dao se u beg, a za njim je krenula čitava bulumenta zadrigle, razularene bratije, sa podignutim bakljama i zadignutim mantijama, skaredno podvriskujući, sigurna da im ne može umaći.  Noge su mu postajale sve olovnije dok se upinjao da se domogne manastirske kapije, koja kao da je hotimice uzmicala, bivajući mu svakim korakom sve dalja (p. 5)

He had to escape from the monastery.

He should not be there at all; he had never wanted to become a monk. He'd said that to his father, but his father had been unrelenting, as usual, and his mother did not have the audacity to oppose him, even though she knew that her son's inclinations and talents lay elsewhere. The monks had treated him badly from the beginning. They had abused and humiliated him, forced him to do the dirtiest jobs, and when their nocturnal visits commenced he could stand it no longer.

He set off in flight, and a whole throng of pudgy, unruly brothers started after him, screaming hideously, torches and mantles raised, certain he could not get away. His legs became heavier and heavier as he attempted to reach the monastery gate, but it seemed to be deliberately withdrawing, becoming more distant at every step. (Impossible Stories, p. 3.  Translation by Alice Copple-Tošić)

It is difficult to determine what would be the ideal starting point for reading Serbian writer Zoran Živković's fiction.  For some, the few novels that he has written may be appealing because of the space afforded for him to explore in greater depth the themes that interest him, but others might argue that his "story suites," the thematically-connected story collections that comprise the majority of his fiction, might be more representative of his work.  I myself first read Živković in translation back in 2004 when the American edition of his first novel, The Fourth Circle, came out, but as much as I enjoyed reading that novel, it wasn't until the following year, when I read the Prime Books edition of The Book/The Writer that I made a point of trying to track down any available copy of his work in a language that I could understand.  A few years ago, after someone related to him a story I had posted about a former student of mine who has severe autism and the reaction that student had when I read aloud to his class (after I learned of a classmate bullying him) the story "The Whisper" (from Seven Touches of Music), Živković contacted me by email to talk about the impact that story had.  Although we have been in touch infrequently over the years, a few years ago he offered me a set of his books in Serbian after hearing of my desire to learn how to read that language because of the many fine writers that country has produced over the past half-century.  Although I am a bit late (three years!) in truly resuming my study of the language, I am using the books he so graciously offered me as part of my language study.  Although it would be crass to say the reviews are "payment," I do think it is past time that I review more of his fictions and explore the ways in which the stories themselves appeal to me a few years since I last read them.  Hopefully these series of reviews, which will begin with the "story suites," will appeal to a wide range of readers who may not be familiar with his work.

Vremenski darovi (Time Gifts in English translation) is Živković's second book of fiction after The Fourth Circle.  Published in the late 1990s in both Serbia and the United States, Time Gifts serves as the prototype for Živković's subsequent short fiction collections, as the four stories contained within ("The Astronomer," "The Paleolinguist," "The Watchmaker," and "The Artist") share a form and approach that can be found in later collections such as Steps Through the Mist or Seven Touches of Music (both collected, along with Time Gifts, Impossible Encounters, The Library, and the stand-alone story "The Telephone" in the UK collection Impossible Stories).  Events that transpire in one story often find a hidden resonance in another, with surprising results.

The first story, "The Astronomer," begins with a single individual and a strong, almost overwhelming desire.  A simple "he" (we do not learn his identity until later in the story) wants to escape from a monastery.  This monastery, which may be in Italy, Spain, or near Mount Athos, or any other secluded holy retreat in-between, appears to be inhabited by seemingly nefarious monks who are chasing this wannabe escapee.  The reader's attention is drawn immediately to the action of the story with only the barest framework of a plot established.  We only know he is there unwillingly, that his family opposes his wishes, and that he is on the run from a band of monks who are after him.  It is not until he eludes capture that we are given insight to his story and it is one that involves time and space, science and religion, and the pride within the titular astronomer.  As is often the case in Živković's fictions, choices are laid out in an overlapping fashion.  Does this astronomer choose to live by denial of what he has observed, or does he die in denial of what others hold to be true?  Although it might be suspected that such a weighty choice would be important to the story, it surprisingly isn't.  This is not due to carelessness on Živković's part, but rather it is a purposely open-ended question that forces the reader to engage what is transpiring around the astronomer's choice.  What would we choose in such a situation?  How does the viewing centuries forward into time affect what occurs afterward?  The reader is left to ponder this at story's end.

"The Paleolinguist" begins with a lonely, somewhat befuddled expert in old (and likely "dead") languages confused and startled by a sudden knock:

The knock echoed loudly in the hollow silence, making her start.

She had not heard the steps approaching the door to her office.  She must have dozed off again.  Her head bowed, chin upon her chest, her round, wire-rimmed reading glasses had slipped to the tip of her nose.  The book remained open in front of her on the desk in the lamplight, but she was still drowsy and could not remember its title right away.  These catnips were becoming more and more frequent, causing her to feel very ill at ease.  Not because someone might find her in that unseemly position.  She was not afraid of that; almost no one visited her anymore, not even her students, let alone her colleagues.  She was an embarrassment to herself. (p. 22)

Although certainly less threatening than having a bunch of monks chasing you at night across a field, "The Paleolinguist" too opens with a sudden intrusion into the protagonist's life.  Like the astronomer, the paleolinguist is confronted by a mysterious personage, one who offers not a vision (real or not) of the future, but instead a chance to visit the past, to see if her theories on ancient languages are true, perhaps with the opportunity to change the past.  It is something that is too good to be true, perhaps, and that precisely is the point around which the story revolves.  What "butterfly effects" could occur?  Is there something nefarious about these "gifts of time," which appear in this story (and the others) in a variety of forms and metaphors?  This awaits the third story for more development.

"The Watchmaker" builds upon one of the time metaphors, that of the glass-encased watch, and it explores the ways in which we attempt to control time (and in turn are controlled by it).  The titular watchmaker, like many of Živković's characters, is in turns meticulous and oblivious to the outside world.  Timekeeping is fraught with dangers:  the smallest particle can delay the gear turning "just so" after enough turns that time is "lost" or no longer as accurate as before.  Here the mysterious visitor of the previous stories reappears in a different guise, this time with the conversation moving from simply a movement forward or backward in time toward that of paradoxes, of choices that can paralyze those who have foreknowledge or emboldened those who are ignorant of what comes before or after.  It is not an original concept, but Živković's deceptively simple prose recasts these as a series of idle musings that yet feel as though they are anything but simple musings.

By the time the final story, "The Artist," appears, the concept of time and the fantasies that we often have about the "what if" of our seeing our futures, changing our pasts, or revisiting the choices that we continually make in our lives have been developed along several lines.  The frame character appears here in his most straightforward guise.  If the astronomer seeks to capture the movement of celestial time, the paleolinguist the linguistic river along which human concepts have flowed over time, the watchmaker the encapsulation of time within a machine, the artist's conception of time encompasses each of these.  This artist, a she, knows what happens to the other three after their "time gifts" have been granted.  Furthermore, she knows the consequences that follow them, not to mention the sort of apparent omnipresence that flows through these stories.  Here metaphor and plot fuse into a almost seamless (seemless?) conclusion in which the events of the four constituent stories meld together to form a larger metanarrative that informs each individual story and makes them more meaningful than perhaps they were when each reached their conclusions. 

The overall effect is akin to that of a daydreamer awakening from her state of semi-consciousness.  The river of thoughts and images, before drying up in the harsh heat of wakefulness, leaves a residue behind for that daydreaming soul.  So too do the stories of Time Gifts leave behind traces of the storyteller's musings.  The language of these tales, simple, direct, and yet containing a profundity of thought that most complexly-crafted narratives fail to achieve, loses little in translation.  Although I am still a novice in reading Serbian, I could understand the gist of the narratives and Copple-Tošić's translation does an excellent job in capturing the tone and feel of Živković's prose.  Readers familiar with the stories of the Argentine great Jorge Luis Borges will find in Živković a kindred storyteller, as each seems to translates the idle thoughts of their lives into stories that gently probe those interstices between lives and deeds that make stories so appealing to so many.  Time Gifts is a collection that shows the writer just beginning to explore these connections, yet there is rarely the sense that anything is underdeveloped or overplayed.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Two year-spanning reading/reviewing projects

Just a brief head's up for those who might be interested:  starting shortly and spanning the rest of the year, I plan on engaging in two long-term reading/reviewing projects.  The first dovetails with my renewed study of the Serbian language.  About three years ago, one of my favorite writers, Zoran Živković, was so gracious as to send me copies of virtually all of his books then in print in the original Serbian, as he had heard that I planned on one day learning his native language.  Although I was delayed these past few years, I have resumed my studies and roughly every two weeks or so, I plan on reading the books he sent me in Serbian, compare them to the English translations that I have, and write reviews for the books that I have not yet reviewed over the past six years.  It's the least I could do, even if I had delays in doing so.

The second reading/reviewing project will debut likely this week first on Gogol's Overcoat and then later in the year here.  I plan on re-reading and reviewing the fiction of Flannery O'Connor, with a single short story or novel most of the remaining weeks in 2013.  Last year's Faulkner reviews, which I did pause in completing after 15 installments and plan on resuming at some point in the future, were some of my favorites to write and they helped me in my development as a critical reviewer.  Since I rate O'Connor very close to Faulkner in terms of quality (not to mention she provides another view of my beloved/sometimes-hated native American South), hopefully these reviews will expose more readers to her excellent fictions.

Of course, all things are subject to change, but I shall do my best to cover as many of their works this year as possible.  Combined, they're only a little over 40 reviews that involve reading in most cases less than 150 pages per review, so it shouldn't be too much of a strain.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Two UK-based SF awards shortlists announced this week

Been a bit busy the past few days (and already behind on the books I want to review, although the holiday weekend should afford me the chance to write at least one, if not 2-3 reviews), but I thought I would post links to the 2013 British Science Fiction Association Awards and the 2013 Kitschies (which are a more "alternative" set of awards, although with one of the larger award prizes in the industry).  With these being based in the UK and featuring UK publishers, some of the books listed on their shortlists have not yet (officially) been published in the US (although they can be found on Amazon).  As usual, I'll bold what I've read, italicize what I own but haven't yet read, but no links to reviews, since I don't think I've reviewed any of these, with one exception.  Some of these titles intrigue me, but I doubt I'll get to all of these before the winners are announced (Easter weekend for the BSFA, late February for the Kitschies).

BSFA Shortlists:

Best Novel

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)
Empty Space: a Haunting by M. John Harrison (Gollancz)
Intrusion by Ken Macleod (Orbit)
Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
2312 by Kim Stanley-Robinson (Orbit)

Best Short Story

“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld #69)
“The Flight of the Ravens” by Chris Butler (Immersion Press)
“Song of the body Cartographer” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Phillipines Genre Stories)
“Limited Edition” by Tim Maughan (1.3, Arc Magazine)
“Three Moments of an Explosion” by China Mieville (Rejectamentalist Manifesto)
“Adrift on the Sea of Rains” by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books)

Best Artwork

Ben Baldwin for the cover of Dark Currents (Newcon Press)
Blacksheep for the cover of Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass (Gollancz)
Dominic Harman for the cover of Eric Brown’s Helix Wars (Rebellion)
Joey Hifi for the cover of Simon Morden’s Thy Kingdom Come (Jurassic London)
Si Scott for the cover artwork for Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden (Corvus)

Best Non-Fiction

“The Complexity of the Humble Space Suit” by Karen Burnham (Rocket Science, Mutation Press)
“The Widening Gyre” by Paul Kincaid (Los Angeles Review of Books)
The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge University Press)
The Shortlist Project by Maureen Kincaid Speller
The World SF Blog, Chief Editor Lavie Tidhar


Red Tentacle:

Jesse Bullington's The Folly of the World (Orbit)
Frances Hardinge's A Face Like Glass (Macmillan)
Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker (William Heinemann)
Adam Roberts' Jack Glass (Gollancz)
Juli Zeh's The Method (Harvill Secker) (Translated by Sally-Ann Spencer)

Golden Tentacle:

Madeline Ashby's vN (Angry Robot)
Jenni Fagan's The Panopticon (William Heinemann)
Rachel Hartman's Seraphina (Doubleday)
Karen Lord's Redemption in Indigo (Jo Fletcher Books)
Tom Pollock's The City's Son (Jo Fletcher Books)

 Inky Tentacle:

La Boca for Ned Beauman's The Teleportation Accident (Sceptre)
Oliver Jeffers for John Boyne's The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket (Doubleday)
Tom Gauld for Matthew Hughes' Costume Not Included (Angry Robot)
Peter Mendelsund for Ben Marcus' Flame Alphabet (Granta)
Dave Shelton for his own A Boy and a Bear in a Boat (David Fickling Books)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

National Book Critics Circle Awards finalists announced

Missed this being posted back on Monday, but the National Book Critics Circle Awards finalists for works published in the US in 2012 is now up.  It's one of three American literary awards I try to read (the others being the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction), so by the time the winners are announced on February 27, I hope to have read/reviewed all of the fiction nominees and at least a selection from the other categories.  Below are the finalists, with links in a few cases to reviews I've already written and bolding for books already read and not yet reviewed and italics for those owned but not yet read:


Laurent Binet. HHhH. tr. by Sam Taylor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Ben Fountain. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Ecco
Adam Johnson. The Orphan Master’s Son. Random House
Lydia Millet, Magnificence. W. W. Norton
Zadie Smith. NW. The Penguin Press


Reyna Grande. The Distance Between Us. Atria Books
Maureen N. McLane. My Poets. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Anthony Shadid. House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Leanne Shapton. Swimming Studies. Blue Rider Press
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. In the House of the Interpreter. Pantheon


Robert A. Caro. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Alfred A. Knopf
Lisa Cohen. All We Know: Three Lives. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Michael Gorra. Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. A Liveright Book: W. W. Norton
Lisa Jarnot. Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography. University of California Press
Tom Reiss. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. Crown Publishers


Paul Elie. Reinventing Bach. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Daniel Mendelsohn. Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture. New York Review Books
Mary Ruefle. Madness, Rack, and Honey. Wave Books
Marina Warner. Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. Belknap Press: Harvard University Press
Kevin Young. The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness. Graywolf Press


Katherine Boo. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Random House
Steve Coll. Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. The Penguin Press
Jim Holt. Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. A Liveright Book: W. W. Norton
David Quammen. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. W.W. Norton
Andrew Solomon. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. Scribner


David Ferry. Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations. University of Chicago Press
Lucia Perillo. On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths. Copper Canyon Press
Allan Peterson. Fragile Acts. McSweeney’s Books
D. A. Powell. Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys. Graywolf Press
A. E. Stallings. Olives. Triquarterly: Northwestern University Press

I have this suspicion that much of February will be devoted to reviewing many of these shortlisted titles as well as all of the Man Asian Prize finalists that I haven't yet read/reviewed.  Not a bad way to spend a reading month, though.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

This is what I've been working on this month instead of reading as much

I decided earlier this month that instead of trying to read 500+ books for the third straight year, that I would spend more time in 2013 studying and (re)learning about 2-3 languages.  I thought that I should show what I did yesterday when working (again) on learning how to read Serbian.  There is nothing "sexy" about my approach, as there are no language squirrels tutoring me here.  Instead, what I am doing is using the textbook Bosnian Croatian Serbian:  A Textbook with Exercises and Basic Grammar (2nd ed.), written by Ronelle Alexander and Ellen Elias-Bursać.  For 3-4 times a week, usually for 1.5-3 hours a night (the time when I would normally do reading for reviews), I copy down the vocabulary lists and study them until I recognize them and their conjugations/declensions before moving on to looking at the exercises and mentally working out the answers (and double and sometimes triple-checking them) before moving on to the next exercise.

I usually cover a lesson/chapter every 1-2 days and learn about 30-40 words a day.  Before I begin work on something new, I go back through my notes (two pages photographed/scanned below) and study them for about 20-30 minutes before beginning anything new.

At this rate, in a few months I might have over a thousand words in my vocabulary, know all the case endings, and a few tenses.  Already can sense the absence of a true subjunctive mood, which is one of my favorite grammatical items to learn...well, at least for a Romance language.

Hopefully, this little post will remove any mystique about my language acquisition abilities.  I do have to study in order to learn the patterns and it's once that I recognize the patterns of how verbs are conjugated and nouns are declined that true language/vocabulary acquisition begins.  If only the squirrels would teach me one of their favorite human languages, but alas, it's work on this and Italian (and maybe a German refresher) for this year, just in case I do get to do some travels late this year or next year to Central/Eastern/Southern European locations I've been meaning to visit ever since I was a history major almost 20 years ago.

Here are some upcoming 2013 releases that I want to buy/read

Or at least the ones on two lists by Writers No One Reads and The Millions that have caught my attention (there are others elsewhere that I won't list here).  Not in alphabetical order, but roughly chronological from one list and then the other (some I already own in other editions or plan on buying in their original languages):


Yoko Ogawa, Revenge


Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Georges Perec, La Boutique Obscure

Aron Grunberg, Tirza

Maurice Sendak, My Brother's Book

Jamaica Kincaid, See Now Then

Manil Suri, The City of Devi

Ron Rash, Nothing Gold Can Stay  (OK, I'm so totally thinking of Ponyboy here)


William Gass, Middle C

Robert Desnos, Liberty or Love! and Morning for Mourning

Sam Lipsyte, The Fun Parts

Vladimir Nabokov, The Tragedy of Mr. Morn (US edition; UK out already)


Italo Calvino, Letters 1941-1985

Elfriede Jelinek, Her Not All Her

Agnieszka Kuciak, Distant Lands:  An Anthology of Poets Who Don't Exist

Fiona Maazel, Woke Up Lonely

Ma Jian, The Dark Road

Robert Perišic, Our Man in Iraq


Adam Bodor, The Sinistra Zone

Imre Kertesz, Dossier K

Elliott Holt, You Are One of Them

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

Benjamin Percy, Red Moon

Ramona Ausubel, A Guide to Being Born

A. Igoni Barrett, Love is Power, or Something Like That


Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, Advice of 1 Disciple of Marx to 1 Heidegger Fanatic (the flip side of an early Robert Bolaño book, written by a close friend and co-founder of infrarealismo)

László Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below

Ror Wolf, Two or Three Years Later:  Forty-Nine Digressions

Samuel Beckett's Echo's Bones

Stephen Romer (ed.), French Decadent Tales

Colum McCann, Transatlantic

Matt Bell, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and Woods

Steven Dixon, His Wife Leaves Him

Rawi Hage, Carnival

Joseph McElroy, Cannonball


Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone (2600 pages!)

Marguerite Duras, L'Amour

Almantas Samalavicius (ed.), The Dedalus Book of Lithuanian Literature


Marisha Pessl, Night Film

Edwidge Danticat, Clare of the Sea-Light

Date Not Yet Set:

Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge

Emil Hakl, The Witch's Flight

Bruno Jasienski, The Legs of Izolda Morgan

While I doubt I'll buy/read all 44 of these listed books by year's end, I certainly will try to read as many of them as I can, time/energy/money willing.  Oh, and that's leaving aside several others that I will get in Spanish or Italian or already own in Spanish.  Not a bad start to the year, anticipation wise.  Knowing that this is but the tip of the iceberg makes it even better for me.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

What if other writers had conceived/written the Wheel of Time series

Now that the final Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson Frankenbook, A Memory of Light (or as some might think, a memory of lighter books that didn't feel as though their fatness were about to cause a literary coronary) has passed, now comes the time on Sprockets where we danc...err, we'll skip that and move to the fun, imaginative exercise of imagining what disparate writers could have done with the basic premise if they had to write the story from scratch:

David Mitchell:

Mitchell would have taken not just the Age of Legends and Third Age eras, but all seven eras of the Wheel of Time, and he would have told within a single volume a complex, interwoven set of seven tales in which the Dragon, Moridin, the Dark One, Egwene, Perrin, Mat, the Creator, Bela, and that old man from Scene 24 who was last seen scratching himself vigorously outside a dilapidated inn in Lugard explore the issue of reincarnation and how choices made in their previous lives will come to affect them in the Ages to come.  There would be an emphasis on the language of fate and our pressing against it, minus several thousand repetitions of one's accoutrements.

Samuel Beckett:

WoT here would be recast as a play in which Ishamael and the Dark One would be sitting at Shayol Ghul with the other Forsaken, waiting for the Dragon Reborn.  Several scenes would be devoted to their attempts to come to an understanding of their predicaments and the hopes that they have for power and dominance once the effin' Dragon is Reborn.  It would encapsulate in barely 100 pages all of the Forsaken's motivations and would permit them to be complex, dynamic characters rather than the cookie-cutter bad guys of the Jordan/Sanderson series.

Brian Evenson:

Through a combination of short stories and slender novels, the inexplicable natures of the Dark One and the Creator would be explored through apocalyptic scenes in which the Dragon Reborn and his cohorts discover that the violence that they are perpetuating from Age to Age is but part of a larger struggle whereby the violence itself, like Ouroboros, is wrapped about itself, attempting to swallow itself whole.  There can be no beginning or end, as violence itself permeates all existence.

Samuel Delany:

The action would unfold through a fractured narrative in which the metanarrative aspects, namely the polarizing elements of love and violence would manifest itself in a misty environment in which the Dragon Reborn, Moridin, the Dark One, and Bela would attempt to find ways to define themselves while discovering themselves within each other...and each other's body cavities.  The language would be precise and gripping, but perhaps strike a bit too close to home at times for the more prudish readers.

Angela Carter:

WoT here would be retold as a series of fairy tales in which gender relations would receive a total makeover.  Instead of the quasi-bourgeois attitudes toward sex that both the male and female characters voiced (with the unmarried couples dying while the properly married survived), the women here would have not just the power that came from the men destroying civilization 3000 years before, but also would display a more modern and egalitarian sexual/social dynamic in which more than the "exotics" would have women soldiers and that there wouldn't have to be a constant mention of men and their amorous proclivities whenever two women or more are gathered together.

China Miéville:

MONSTERS.  Need I say more?  Oh, and the squirrel from Kraken would make a reappearance here to set up all sorts of plot devices.

Helen Oyeyemi:

All of the female characters who had been fridged by Rand and crew would burst out from Jordan/Sanderson's manuscript and proceed to explain to them why the story shouldn't reduce women to bourgeois stereotypes of feminine approaches to life (if such a thing as "feminine approaches" could ever be argued seriously).

Jeff VanderMeer:

There would be more fungi in the series and the Green Man would have a more important role.  The series would be reduced by 90%, as the Dragon Reborn would become a detective working grudgingly for the Forsaken, trying to figure out the world's past pre-Dark One conquest, before discovering his past self locked in a fungal embrace, which would provide a vital clue in how to defeat these mysterious, alien creatures.  All the while, the prose would be much less dependent upon repetitive descriptions and much more reliant upon weird imagery to forward the story toward a more memorable and worthwhile conclusion.

Terry Goodkind:

He would add an'greal that were analogues for vibrators and he would rename it The Sword of Truthiness, of course.

Ayn Rand:

"Who is Moridin?" would open the series and the greed and selfishness of the Forsaken would eventually triumph over the do-gooders and their attempts to inflict socialist attitudes on the WoT nations.  Oh, and Moridin would give a 567 page speech on the glories of laissez-faire capitalism while also denouncing altruism.  And Bela would be balefired to make this point clear.

 David Foster Wallace:

WoT would be a brilliant, but sometimes baffling work in which each individual volume would expand by 50% to include a complex, time-warping series of authorial intrusions in which early on Lews Therin and Elan's competitive tennis careers would come to play a major role in understanding the events of The Eye of the World.

William S. Burroughs:

WoT would be retold as a series of drug-induced dream sequences, in which the hash that the Two Rivers people grew for global consumption would spark a metaphorical rivulet of hallucinatory pseudo-memories in which the trials and travails of the Dragon Reborn to move from relationship to relationship while battling to protect his stash from the Dark One's minions would comprise the core of this fractured narrative.

Junot Díaz:

Shit would get real, muthafucker.   Oh, and the characterizations would be much better with copious usage of the Old Tongue as a means to show the biculturalism of several of the characters in a way that does not stereotype the Illianers, the Cairhieners, and the Sharans.

Stephanie Meyer:

It'd be just like Twilight, except Rand and Moridin would form "teams" to fight for Bela's affections, as the Last Battle would come to involve lots of CGI werewolves, sparkly channelers, and a seductive apple scene.

Doubtless there are more, worthier authors that could be imagined here, so feel free to add them, with descriptions of how they too would have rewritten WoT.


J.R.R. Tolkien

Oh wait, he already (ghost)wrote The Eye of the World.
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