The OF Blog: March 2013

Saturday, March 30, 2013

TBR? I do not think in such terms

Every now and then, I'll see a comment on another's blog or on Twitter expressing a faux-complaint (or at least I hope it is such!) about how they have "too many books to read" and that their pile of TBR (to-be-read) books continues to grow.  At times I think it's a mixture of humble-brag (after all, that emphasis on "too much" could be juxtaposed with "hey, I'm able to have lots of books in my possession," or at least it would have seemed like such to me when I was in college 20 years ago!) and a view of books as possessions and not necessarily as facilitators of learning.

I prefer to think of my books as being component parts of a personal library.  I'm uncertain how many I currently own in physical form (I'd guess somewhere between 1700 and 2200, depending on the contents of a dozen boxes or so; I know I have a little over 600 in e-book formats), but the books I do have I consider to be a library that I can consult, even though some I will likely never read front-to-back all of the way through.  Below are certain component parts of my library, including some comments on how I utilize them:

Here is a shelf of various translations of the Bible into 17 different languages.  Not pictured are the over two dozen commentaries, mostly on Catholic interpretations but also some from other faiths.  These books are used not just for spiritual reasons (I am a practicing Catholic, for those who did not know this), but also to provide points of comparison on issues of popular religious practice that have interested me since grad school.

I've posted this picture or one like it recently of my Library of America collections (bottom row includes 10 volumes from their American Poets Project), but I include it here to note that I consider these books (of which I've read only a little over a dozen all the way through) to be valuable resources in case I ever choose to return to the classroom as either a history professor/teacher or English instructor.  There is a wealth of primary sources here regarding certain authors that I would love to cover in a class (e.g. William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Henry James, et al.) and it is convenient to have them in these hardcover editions.

I'm currently in the process of rearranging my shelves (weekends-only project that's been underway for the past month) and most of my foreign-language books have been boxed up until two new large wooden bookcases arrive, so this picture of my Portuguese and Italian-language books will have to serve as a sample of the dozens of shelves I have in languages other than English.  I view these books not just as works of art, but also as tools that will allow me greater insight into the cultures that produced these authors.  For myself, reading "enjoyment" is something that occupies the senses long after the book is reshelved, and these books contain some excellent writing and stories.

Related to the paragraph above, I do love learning languages.  But regardless of whatever aptitude I might have, it takes years and lots of hard work to learn how to read a language (especially one that utilizes a different alphabet and has a radically different syntax from English).  So these books, some for languages that I can read fairly fluently and others for those I plan on studying in the future, are an invaluable resource (most are college textbooks, while others are bilingual dictionaries).  Not all are pictured here, but I have dictionaries and/or coursebooks for roughly two dozen languages, ranging from the Indo-European languages to Arabic to Swahili to even Quechua and Basque.  There's something about languages that is a combination of solving a mystery and music to me.  I want to improve my sleuthing as well as my listening comprehension, so these books are vital for me.

But these are just components of my library.  Not pictured are books that I read for other reasons, such as reviewing for this blog (or others like Gogol's Overcoat) or for more whimsical purposes, but whatever the reason, it is nice to have books that I have not yet read in full (or in part), as that leaves room for discovering new perspectives on issues that I might want to learn more about in the future.  TBR?  Pfft!  More like potential resources to me.

So the 2013 Hugo Awards shortlists have been released

Shortlisted nominees were just announced at the UK Eastercon convention, with virtually-real time Twitter updates.  I'm too out-of-the-loop these days to have comments on the short fiction categories, the various "fan" ones interest me as much as dining on mildewed food, and the multimedia ones I ignore as always.  But I do have a few things to say on the novel finalists:

  1. Saladin Ahmed, The Throne of the Crescent Moon (reviewed it when it came out in 2012 and thought it was a good first novel)
  2. Lois McMaster Bujold, Captain Vorpatil's Alliance (sampled one of her Hugo-nominated novels about a decade ago, thought it was dreck, so no interest in reading/reviewing this)
  3. Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire), Blackout (third in a trilogy; the first I thumbed through, found it to be SOS-level story elements with writing that was rather underwhelming, so also no interest in reading/reviewing this)
  4. John Scalzi, Redshirts (again, have thumbed through some Scalzi books sent to me over the years as review copies, found none of them to be interesting enough to read more than a few chapters, so also no reading/reviewing this)
  5. Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312 (I've actually been meaning to buy this book for a while and I have enjoyed some of his writings – while finding others to be flawed conceptually as well as at a structural level – so this will be the other one that I'll be reading/reviewing).
So, the Hugo Best Novel list contains one novel I want to read, another that I enjoyed despite a few reservations (I like Ahmed's short fiction better, but that's a personal preference), and three that I probably will never read another work of theirs – even a sample – ever again.

When I think about genre fiction at the novel level (again, I leave aside commenting on other categories due to relative ignorance), I find this disconnect between what is "fresh" and "challenging" and with what garners award nominations.  It's been said by divers people over the past half-decade or more that awards like the Hugos and Nebulas in particular (and to a lesser extent, the BSFA and Clarke Awards) have engaged in a sort of "fan service" in that works that address certain fan preconceptions (and yes, this can also apply to some juried and author association awards) of what a "genre" novel should be.  There are the nudge-nudge-wink-wink-say-no-more! asides to kitschy pop culture (zombies, references to Star Trek, Star Wars, or anything "geek"-related) that do little more than just reaffirm certain tastes.  I cannot help but wonder if in a generation, these "geek"-centered stories will have gone the way of leisure suits, eight-tracks, and disco balls and are viewed as shorthand for an embarrassing pop cultural moment.  There certainly is very little to recommend most of these tales to any generation beyond a certain subset of the 40-65 year-old pale crowd.

Oh, doubtless some will counter this by noting the "diversity" of the nominations in other categories and to some extent this may be true.  Yet for those who want to equate some of the writers today with Joanna Russ or Samuel Delany (just to name two of several women and non-white writers from the 1960s and 1970s – and later), I'm going to ask this question:  which works challenge directly the social "conventions" of this day and age?  Is there a rougher, less concerned with "niceties" group of writers on these ballots that question the direction of SF/F and the values present within those stories?  Granted, one does not have to have a "political" message in order to be different, but if "diversity" is used to reference only the skin color or gender of the writer and not the stories that they write, then might there be an issue here beyond the typical mass fan votes tend to celebrate the "safe" and "conventional" at the expense of daring to say something different, something that might irritate people?

I do not know the answers to this question, but it is a question that I think should be asked whenever awards such as the Hugos announce their shortlists.  If there is an uniformity to the stories and the approaches toward telling them (leaving aside the "genre" tag), then there runs the risk of such awards becoming not the celebration of "the best" but rather of "the most conventional" and "safe to market."  That I fear has actually been the case for some time now and may continue to be so until the recent "geek" rage has receded in social consciousness and writers and fans alike feel the need to try something different.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Fiction or Non-Fiction?

Here are some quotes taken from certain volumes of the Library of America that I own.  Some will be fiction, others non-fiction.  Can you identify which is which? (bonus if you can pinpoint the author(s) as well):

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.  I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead.  With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.

Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century.  This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

The guitars cried out "Polk Country," "Red River" and just instrumental hits with no name, that still are played by all good box pickers.  The dancing was hilarious to put it mildly.  Babe, Lucy, Big Sweet, East Coast Mary and many other of the well-known women were there.  The men swung them lustily, but nobody asked me to dance.  I was just crazy to get into the dance, too.  I had heard my mother speak of it and praise square dancing to the skies, but it looked as if I was doomed to be a wallflower and that was a new rôle for me.  Even Cliffert didn't ask me to dance.  It was so jolly, too.  At the end of every set Joe Willard would trick the men.  Instead of calling out the next figure as expected he'd bawl out, "Grab yo' partners and march up to de table and treat."  Some of the men did, but some would bolt for the door and stand about the fire and woof until the next set was called.

When John Burns, the great English labor leader and present member of the Cabinet, visited Chicago, he was asked by a reporter for his opinion of that city.  "Chicago," he answered, "is a pocket edition of hell."  Some time later, when Burns was going aboard his steamer to sail to England, he was approached by another reporter, who wanted to know if he had yet changed his opinion of Chicago.  "Yes, I have," was the prompt reply.  "My present opinion is that hell is a pocket edition of Chicago."

An army of cavalry and foot was passing.  It moved like a mob; its lines broken, as though fleeing from some terrible defeat.  The dolmans of the hussars, the heavy shakos of the guards, Hanoverian light horse, with their flat leather caps and flowing red plumes, were all jumbled together in bobbing disorder.  Behind the cavalry came the infantry, a wild sea of waving sabertaches, sloped muskets, crossed shoulder belts and swinging cartridge boxes.  Tod recognized the scarlet infantry of England with their white shoulder pads, the black infantry of the Duke of Brunswick, the French grenadiers with their enormous white gaiters, the Scotch with bare knees under plaid skirts.

As we travelled towards a land of liberty, my heart would at times leap for joy.  At other times, being, as I was, almost constantly on my feet, I felt as though I could travel no further.  But when I thought of slavery with its Democratic whips – its Republican chains – its evangelical blood-hounds, and its religious slave-holders – when I thought of all this paraphernalia of American Democracy and Religion behind me, and the prospect of liberty before me, I was encouraged to press forward, my heart was strengthened, and I forgot that I was tired or hungry. 

It is well known that at the coronation of kings and queens, even modern ones, a certain curious process of seasoning them for their functions is gone through.  There is a saltcellar of state, so called, and there may be a caster of state.  How they use the salt, precisely – who knows?  Certain I am, however, that a king's head is solemnly oiled at his coronation, even as a head of salad.  Can it be, though, that they anoint it with a view of making its interior run well, as they anoint machinery?  Much might be ruminated here, concerning the essential dignity of this regal process, because in common life we esteem but meanly and contemptibly a fellow who anoints his hair, and palpably smells of that anointing.  In truth, a mature man who uses hair-oil, unless medicinally, that man has probably got a quoggy spot in him somewhere.  As a general rule, he can't amount to much in his totality.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

Time, no matter how much we attempt to quantify it, forever remains eludible to us.  In her third novel, A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki explores time's indefinite qualities by means of a dual (with intrusions of a third) narrative that stretches over two continents and encompasses momentous events such as World War II and the 2011 Japan tsunami in its exploration of Proustian remembrance of times lost and a Schrodingerian reflection on quantum entanglement.

We are first introduced to the sixteen year-old Japanese schoolgirl Nao and her diary about contemporary social life in Japan.  At first amusing for its almost-breathless narration of various school personality types, Nao's diary quickly turns toward more morbid topics, such as the suicide of her father after his failure to provide for his family in the wake of the 2000 dot com bubble burst and her own reflections (including citations from Proust) on time and in particular on "time beings," which Nao defines as "someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be" on the opening page of her diary.  Her musings on time and the Zen master Dogen's commentary that time is itself a being as everything in the entire universe is intimately linked, continuous and yet separate, as moments of time form the novel's core.  Nao's personal life is seemingly tragic (there are accounts of attempted violence toward her, among other events) and the mysteries of what happens next adds a thriller-like quality to her narrative.

Balancing out Nao's diary is the reflection of Ruth, herself an amalgamation of the author herself and a fictional character.  Ruth, living on an island just off the coast of British Columbia, discovers Nao's diary (along with the diary of a relative who fought in World War II) in the debris that washed ashore sometime after the devastating 2011 tsunami.  As Ruth reads Nao's diary, she reflects on her own experiences and the questions that arise after she fails to track down whether or not Nao is still alive, if she committed suicide, or if she were caught up in the devastation of the tsunami.  Ruth reflects on time's uncertainties, how Nao, like Schrodinger's cat, exists in a state of quantum uncertainty, as any number of events in 2011 could have left her alive or dead.  Too easily, this could have been a trite exercise, but Ozeki delves deeper into the lives of the two women and those connected with them.  Ruth is far more than a middle-aged woman baffled by a schoolgirl's diary, just as Nao is beyond just a (potentially) tragic character.

Ozeki's intermingling of their narratives in alternating chapters (along with citations of the second included journal) creates a fascinating interplay of lives and moments.  By novel's end, Ozeki arrives at a further understanding of Dogen's view of time as being something that pervades us and yet exists outside of us.  This acceptance of time (and by extension, lives) as something that fascinates and yet eludes us makes A Tale for the Time Being a powerful novel, not because we arrive at a greater understanding of events, but because it reminds us through its well-drawn characters and excellent prose that some things will forever be beyond our ken and that itself provides opportunities for personal growth and development.  Time is a being, just like we are, and it never remains static, as Ozeki reminds us eloquently in her understated yet moving novel.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Slight change in reviewing approach

Since I'm currently working upwards of 50 hours a week (not to mention an extra 12 hrs./week driving from place to place – almost 150 miles/day), I do not have as much time (or energy) for writing posts here as I did when I was underemployed.  Yet I still manage to get a decent amount of reading done a month, many on books that may be of some interest to readers.

Therefore, I'm going to experiment with something different.  Instead of writing 1000-1500 word reviews (including representative quotes), I'm going to concentrate on writing reviews in a much more concise (and tougher to write) format of around 350-500 words, similar to what might be encountered in say The New Yorker's "Briefly Noted" section (although mine would still be somewhat longer in length).  I'm going to try and tackle a backlog of recently-read books about which I have some things to say, so perhaps I can write 2-3 individual reviews a week.

There still will be some works that will get longer treatments (later this week, I plan to try and catch up with the Flannery O'Connor story reviews I've been writing at Gogol's Overcoat over the past two months – I'm 9 days behind now and would like to have three written by Friday), but these will be fewer in number and perhaps could be seen as being more of a "feature review" than a regular occurrence, at least for the next few months.

Books that I will likely cover are as follows:

Jim Gavin, Middle Men

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

Ismail Kadare, The Fall of the Stone City

Caitlín R. Kiernan, The Drowning Girl

Alain Mabanckou, Black Bazaar

John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen (eds.), Oz Reimagined

Xu Lei, Search for the Buried Bomber

There may also be occasional op-ed pieces as well, but no planned dates for those.  Oh, and there might be some squirrel-centric posts on occasion, for fellow Squirrelists.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Been a long time since I've posted some book porn

Didn't buy but four books today with store credit at McKay's, but I think the four I got each were worth the month (over $40 in store credit) spent:

Very curious about the Short Stories by Latin American Women:  The Magic and the Real anthology, as it contains a mixture of women writers that I've read and enjoyed to varying degrees (Isabel Allende, Rosario Ferré, Elena Garro, Elena Poniatowska) with another 20 that I have not yet read.  I was also very fortunate to get the Library of America volume #233, American Antislavery Writings, still in its shrinkwrap for only $20.  Toying with the idea in the future of doing a series of essays on the Civil War era volumes that LoA has produced so far (might wait until spring 2014, after the release of the fourth volume of the Civil War series they are producing is released).

Finally, couldn't pass up two Loeb Library editions of Julius Caesar's The Gallic War and Cicero V:  Brutus, Orator.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Habemus Papam: Reviews of John Thavis, The Vatican Diaries (2013) and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) and Abraham Skorka, Sobre el cielo y la tierra (2011)

 In theory, the Vatican operates according to a top-down structure of authority; in actual fact, the Vatican is a patchwork of departments, communities and individuals, all loosely bound by a sense of mission but without comprehensive management or rigorous oversight.  And, I must admit, I prefer it that way.  I appreciate the fact that functionaries often shoot their mouths off when they're not supposed to, that documents are leaked and that, at the end of the day, the Vatican is marked more by human flair and fallibility than ruthless efficiency.  I like the fact that even something as supposedly fine-tuned as a sainthood cause can be fumbled by an overzealous promoter.
The popular image of the Vatican is largely a myth.  In the news and entertainment industries, the Vatican is portrayed as an organizational behemoth – monumental, powerful and cloaked in secrecy, a well-oiled machine quietly pursuing a global agenda with a hierarchy that marches in lockstep.

The real Vatican is a place where cardinals crack jokes and lose their tempers, where each agency of the Roman Curia jealously guards its turf, where the little guys and big shots may work at cross-purposes and where slipups and misunderstandings are common.  It's a place where the pope's choice of a particular hat can become the raging controversy of the day, and where an American cardinal hell-bent on underground parking can evict a two-thousand-year-old necropolis.  It's a place where the carefully orchestrated liturgies and ceremonies sometimes come unglued.  It's a place where Paolo Gabriele and Sławomir Oder fit right in. (The Vatican Diaries, Introduction, p. 12 e-book edition)

For the past month, the affairs of the Vatican have been regularly featured in the news, first with the surprise resignation of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the unlikely (at least in the views of those with little to no actual knowledge of affairs) election of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to the throne of St. Peter as the 266th pope, Pope Francis.  It is not difficult to find opinions on the two events (and numerous possible antecedents that might tie the two together even more closely than a succession).  Words like "conservative," "reformist," "hard-liner," "out-of-touch," "abuse," "scandal," etc. appear almost as often in newspaper articles as grammatical articles such as "a," "an," or "the" themselves.  Yet despite this frequent use of "hot topic" words as a short cut to defining what has been transpiring, there is the sense that there is a dissonance between what various national medias (and their respective publics) think the Vatican must be and what it might in actuality be.

Recently-retired Catholic News Service Vatican reporter John Thavis' recounting of his thirty years covering the Vatican, The Vatican Diaries, benefited greatly from the timing of Pope Benedict XVI's retirement, as the book was published just a week later.  In it, Thavis relates his impressions of various Vatican officials, ranging from various Cardinals down to ushers in the basilica, and the fractured, disjointed hierarchy that often worked as much against other segments of the Curia as in unison.  It is easy for those raised on media accounts to view the Vatican as a large spider in the middle of a vast web, controlling events with the efficiency of a spider.  Yet as recent events, which receive some interesting interpretations from Thavis, have borne out, the Vatican is more of an ad hoc affair, operating best within the framework of a theological interpretation of its acts rather than a materialist-oriented corporation.

Thavis, over the course of ten chapters, explores the seeming dysfunction of the Vatican leadership through chapters that focus on singular matters, such as the reason behind the delay in the ringing of the bells when Benedict XVI was elected in 2005 (Ch. 1), the horrendous scandal involving the founder of the Legion of Christ order, Marcial Maciel Degollado (Ch. 3), or the troubled cause of Pius XII's sainthood (Ch. 7).  In each of these chapters, with some interludes (including the planned demolition of a recently-uncovered necropolis in Ch. 4 or the ribald Latinist Father Foster in Ch. 6) of a more comic nature, Thavis delves deeply into the murky world of Vatican interactions.  What emerges is a vividly-described series of events that reveal a Church hierarchy that is at a crossroads.  The ongoing scandal with pedophile priests and the coverups that some dioceses conducted during the reign of John Paul II in particular receives a lot of attention.  Thavis does not take a forceful, denunciatory stance regarding Benedict XVI's handling of the matter; he mostly exculpates the recently-retired pope, noting that Benedict XVI was frequently stymied by a Curia who had certain factions who were more eager to protect the vocation-generated Legion and its leader, Maciel, than they were in eradicating the pedophile element from the Legion's ranks.

This resistance to "reform," if such a word has to be applied to a patchwork entity that has a surprisingly-decentralized structure, appears frequently in other chapters.  For Benedict XVI, it seems to have been a long, wearying affair that sapped him of energy and perhaps of hope for achieving his pastoral duties, as this passage taken from the final chapter, "The Real Benedict," would seem to indicate:

By 2011 the real Benedict was beginning to look a little like Charlie Brown, convinced he couldn't win in this world but plugging away regardless, with a demeanor that often seemed either dispirited or wistful.  As a concession to the crowds and the cameras, the pope occasionally forced a smile.  He launched what he hoped would be his legacy project, a Vatican agency to promote "new evangelization" in traditionally Christian countries.  The agency played to the pope's primary theme of rediscovering the rightful place of God in personal life and in society.  But Benedict had no illusions about its success, speaking openly about the dominant "culture of death," the powerful pull of materialism, the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between rich and poor and the fact that Catholics in Europe and the Americas were leaving the church in droves.  Benedict appeared resigned to the idea that the church was condemned to struggle against the cultural mainstream, perhaps as a minority – even in places where it had once shaped civilization.

The pope operated with such detachment that one might legitimately have suspected him of having given up hope on the sorry state of earthly affairs.  Visiting a Rome parish one day, he probably shocked his listeners when he posed these dark questions:  "If we look around the modern world, where God is absent, we have to say that it is dominated by fear and uncertainty:  Is it good to be a human being or not?  Is it good to be alive?" (Ch. 10, p. 354 e-book)

Although this chapter (and the book as a whole) was written some months before Benedict XVI's abdication, it is easy to see here the germ of his resignation.  If, as it seems to be true in Thavis's account, the Curia is divided deeply over matters such as the prosecution of the pedophile priests or how best to address contentious issues such as condom usage (Thavis quotes a high-ranking member of the Curia who notes that there likely will not be an official policy on condom use in toto due to dissenting opinions within the Curia), then the Pope Emeritus' comments alluding to his inability to fulfill his pastoral duties adequately are more likely a reflection of deep, internal divisions than a new scandal that is about to be revealed.

As a look "behind the curtains," The Vatican Diaries is a fascinating portrayal of a Vatican in turmoil.  It may also provide a preview of the sorts of challenges that await the newly-elected pope, Pope Francis, as he now ascends to the papal throne.  Yet what sort of pope will Pope Francis be?  If Benedict XVI was dogged for a time by his (involuntary) service in the Nazi Waffen SS, then what about a pope, who as a Jesuit provincial in 1970s Argentina, might have been complicit in some of the atrocities of the Dirty War?  This story of possible collaboration and turning in fellow Jesuits for torture is a salacious one at the moment, as it provides not just an opportunity to define the new pope before he has written his first encyclical, but it also can be tied in to the global web of coverups and denials that have plagued the Vatican for the past few decades.

Despite this possible black mark (after all, there is conflicting information in regards to the future pope's actions during the Dirty War, not to mention that he as Archbishop of Buenos Aires issued an apology for the church's inaction in protecting more citizens), there are those who expect that Francis will prove to be a "reforming" pope.  This, however, is not to say that he will overturn centuries of Church doctrine on matters such as abortion, same-sex marriage (over which he fought a bitter, losing campaign in 2010 in Argentina), or other social/religious matters, but that he might move the focus away from strict denunciations toward reconciliation with those who are poor and suffering.  There certainly is material in his 2011 book that he co-wrote with leading Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Sobre el cielo y la tierra (On Heaven and Earth), that can support these views.  Take for instance this comment on justice and religion:
Creo que el que adora a Dios tiene, en esa experiencia, un mandato de justicia para con sus hermanos.  Es una justicia sumamente creativa, porque inventa cosas:  educación, promoción social, cuidado, alivio, etcétera.  Por eso, el hombre religioso íntegro es llamado el hombre justo, lleva la justicia hacia los demás.  En ese aspecto, la justicia del religioso o la religiosa crea cultura.  No es lo mismo la cultura de un idólatra que la cultura que crea una mujer o un hombre que adoran al Dios vivo.  Juan Pablo II tenía una frase muy arriesgada:  una fe que no se hace cultura no es una verdadera fe.  Marcaba esto:  crear cultura.  Hoy, por ejemplo, tenemos culturas idólatras en nuestra sociedad:  el consumismo, el relativismo y el hedonismo son una muestra de ello. (Ch. 4)
I believe that s/he that adores God has, in that experience, a mandate to provide justice for his brothers. It is a highly creative justice, because it invents things: education, social welfare, care, relief, etc.. Therefore, the fully religious man is called the just man, for he leads justice to others. In that respect, the justice of the religious creates culture. Not the same culture of idolatrous culture but that which makes a woman or a man who worship the living God. John Paul II made a very bold statement: a faith that does not become culture is not a true faith. Mark this: to create culture. Today, for example, we have idolatrous cultures in our society: consumerism, relativism and hedonism are signs of this.
The statements here are all orthodox; there is nothing that runs counter to the Church's teachings.  Yet the focus on justice, through God, on matters such as education, social welfare, relief, etc. is certainly not what one thinks of when the word "conservative" is bandied about.  There is little "conservatism" in a faith that seeks to redress societal wrongs and to address the aching need in people's lives.  This is made even more explicit in Ch. 10, on Death:
En los Evangelios aparece el tema del juicio final, y se hace de una manera vinculada con el amor.  Jesús dice:  A la derecha irán todos los que ayudaron al prójimo y a la izquierda, todos lo que no lo hicieron, porque lo que cada uno de ustedes hizo, me lo hizo a mí.  Para los cristianos, el projimo es la persona de Cristo. (Ch. 10)
In the Gospels appears the theme of final justice, and it is in a manner linked with love.  Jesus says:  To the right will go all which help his/her neighbors and to the left, all who do not do this, because what you do to one, you do to me.  For Christians, the neighbor is the person of Christ.
 Yet there are issues in which Francis would be considered "conservative," especially in regards to abortion.  Here is his full comment on abortion in the book:
El problema moral del aborto es de naturaleza prerreligiosa porque en el momento de la concepción está el código genético de la persona.  Ahí ya hay un ser humano.  Separo el tema del aborto de cualquier concepción religiosa.  Es una problema científico.  No dejar que se siga avanzando en el desarrollo de un ser que ya tiene todo el código genético de un ser humano no es ético.  El derecho a la vida es el primero de los derechos humanos.  Abortar es matar a quien no puede defenderse. (Ch. 14)

The moral problem of abortion is of a pre-religious nature because in the moment of conception is the genetic code of the person.  There already is there a human being.  I separate the theme of abortion from any religious concept.  It is a scientific problem.  It is unethical to stop the further development of a being that has the genetic code of a human being.  The right to life is the first of all human rights.  To abort is to kill someone who cannot defend him/herself.
Similar comments are made in regards to marriage between individuals of the same gender, in that Francis notes the Church's opposition to it as much on biological grounds as on moral ones (marriage being foremost for procreation).  Yet in the chapter on same-sex marriages (Ch. 16), he makes it clear that he separates the issue of marriage from the rights of gays and lesbians to live lives free of persecution.  This is a theme that appears repeatedly in other parts of the dialogue he conducted with Rabbi Skorka:  there are actions that the Church unequivocally considers to be sins, but that at the heart of it lies the commandment to love others as one would love God.  This would seem to set up a conflict between what is written and what is to be done, but Francis appears to emphasize the treatment of others over the actions of others.  This can be seen in his previous ministry to those who were afflicted with AIDS or those who were indigent:  one may or may not be able to "help themselves" in a situation, but this does not preclude caring for those fellow human beings who need assistance in order to make their lives slightly more bearable.

After reading Sobre el cielo y la tierra, it is difficult to view Pope Francis as being constricted by American political terms such as "reformist," "conservative," or "moderate."  Easily his views and actions could move back and forth between that axis of political thought, leaving the observer struggling for words to define him.  If I were to hazard a guess, Francis' papacy will be defined by a commitment to orthodox principles, but with a more direct, humble application.  As the Vatican's foibles and scandals are revealed to the public, it appears that Francis was elected in order to redirect the focus of the Curia away from doctrinal interpretations and toward a simpler, more pastoral approach toward ministering to the needs of the Catholic Church's parishioners.  Francis seems to not be as given to writing treatises as was Benedict XVI, but there is the hope that he will be a spark that will make the phrase renovatio mundi more meaningful in the changing world to come.  However, there will be resistance to this, if Thavis's book is any indication.  For now, it will be interesting to wait and see what will come in the days, weeks, and possibly years to come from Francis's papacy.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

I see Rover from Red and Rover is a smart dog

This was from today's comics (my mother pointed this out to me; I'm not a regular comic strip reader anymore).  And yes, you better be looking to the skies.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Brief thoughts on a few books

Don't have a lot of time this week for blogging about anything, as I am in training for my second job and the hours vary between the early morning hours and the late afternoon/evening shift for tomorrow (followed immediately by an early morning training session before I drive to Nashville for my part-time ESL teaching position; the thought of getting as few as 4 hours sleep Thursday morning - hour drive each way means I get home just after 1 AM and I have to get up by 6:30 to get ready to leave, with probably an hour to 90 minutes to eat and then try to sleep).  Next week will be much easier on me and I might write more columns, but for this week, I've been busy with things much more important than writing about books read.

But I can give a few brief impressions about books read in recent weeks.  These are not true reviews (notice the tag used), but just brief thoughts of a musing nature about a few.  The first book that comes to mind is one I read a couple of weeks ago, Karen Lord's The Best of All Possible Worlds.  I enjoyed Lord's first book, Redemption in Indigo, but her sophomore effort just did not click with me.  It's not that the writing is poor; sometimes the prose can be excellent and the story just ends up being unappealing to the reader.  This certainly was the case for me.  I am not a fan of most extraterrestrial SF settings, as too often the setting is "Earth, just slightly different or "exotic,"" and my mind loses interest before the characterizations begin to develop.  I think this was likely the case here, as I just found myself not interested in the overall story and that disinterest made it difficult to focus on the characters or what themes Lord wanted to explore.  So in lieu of writing a formal review that explores just why the story did not appeal to me, which would be unfair I suppose in terms of reviewing the book, this little paragraph can serve as a record of my initial reaction to the book.  I suspect for many other readers, it will be much more appealing than it was for me.

Lately, I've been reading more of the translated works of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare.  I enjoyed his The Palace of Dreams a few years ago, but I never really thought about exploring his other works, since I didn't know they had been translated into English.  So over the past few days, I've read three books by him:  Agamemnon's Daughter; The Successor; Chronicle in Stone (and I just received a hardcover copy of his latest novel to be translated, The Fall of the Stone City, which came out in the US in January).  It's hard to think of a succinct summation of Kadare's fictions.  At times, it feels as though the past is superimposed on the present and the two function simultaneously within the text to create multiple levels of textual interpretation.  The "real" and the "mythic" are not separate but are conjoined in a strange fashion.  This leads to stories that ostensibly are about Albania's past (20th century and its mythic, perhaps self-created origins) yet which possess some troubling elements that make the reader pause to reflect on what she has written.  These certainly have been stories worth reading, although the enjoyment is on a more nebulous level than mere entertainment, I guess.

Don't think I will have time to write a formal review of Serbian writer Danilo Kiš' A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, but these stories that outline separate betrayals of Jewish Communists is a blistering series of tales that do more than just castigate the Stalin era communist regimes.  No, they haunt the reader with stories of dreamers, idealists who live just love enough to see their visions destroyed by those in which they have placed their faith.  Beautiful writing certainly makes these tales even more poignant and moving.

Maybe this weekend I'll have time to review John Thavis' The Vatican Diaries and Alain Mabanckou's Black Bazaar, which was recently nominated (along with Kadare's above-mentioned book) for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  Over at Gogol's Overcoat, there should be another review of a Flannery O'Connor story, "The Artificial Nigger," up on Friday (or predated to Friday and posted on Saturday if I don't have time on Friday to write it).  Or maybe the squirrels will rise up and blog before then.  One can only hope, no?

Friday, March 01, 2013

February 2013 Reads

Read a little bit more in February than in January, 35 books instead of 32, but much of this occurred toward the last week or so of the month when I had adjusted to my new work schedule and thus had a bit more time to read.  Unfortunately, the non-English language books read dropped from 13 in January to only 6 in February (should note, however, that I did read 9 books in English translation in addition to these 6).  However, the number of female authors read increased from 12 to 22 and the month closed with more books by women being read than those by males.  Now for the titles themselves:

33 Adam Mansbach, Rage is Back (very good)

34  Molly Tanzer,  A Pretty Mouth (story collection; good)

35  Jamaica Kincaid, See Now Then (already reviewed)

36  Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style (this was the newly-expanded edition; excellent)

37  Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito, The End of Oulipo? (very good)

38  Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar (already reviewed)

39  Charles M. Schulz, Sreća je...toplo kučence (re-read; Serbian translation; very good)

40  Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove (story collection; already reviewed)

41  David Albahari, Mamac (Serbian; excellent)

42  David Albahari, Bait (excellent)

43  Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master's Son (re-read; review possible in near future)

44  R.A. MacAvoy, Lens of the World (good)

45  Danilo Kiš, Gronica za Borisa Davidoviča (Serbian; excellent story collection)

46  Danilo Kiš, Unha tumba para Boris Davidovich (Gallician; excellent)

47  Danilo Kiš, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (re-read; excellent)

48  Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds (might write a formal review later, but this was a disappointing novel for me)

49  Sarah Hall, The Beautiful Indifference (story collection; very good)

50  Carlene Bauer, Frances and Bernard (epistolary novel; very good in places, but inconsistent in tone)

51  Lucia Perrillo, On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths (poetry; National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; very good)

52  Juli Zeh, The Method (excellent; may write a formal review later)

53  Herta Müller, The Land of Green Plums (very good)

54  Czeslaw Milosz, Road-Side Dog (excellent)

55  Carolyn Ives Gilman, Isles of the Forsaken (good)

56  Rosa Montero, Crónica del desamor (Spanish; very good)

57  Amy Lowell, Selected Poems (re-read; poetry; excellent)

58  Elizabeth Claire, ESL Teacher's Activities Kit:  Part One (non-fiction; read for work; OK resource but more geared for elementary students than the middle school ones I teach)

59  Gwendolyn Brooks, The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks (re-read; poetry; excellent)

60  Honor Moore (ed.), Poems from the Women's Movement (poetry; very good to excellent, depending upon the poet)

61  Zoran Živković, Последња Књига (Serbian; review forthcoming)

62  Zoran Živković, The Last Book (re-read; review forthcoming)

63  John Thavis, The Vatican Diaries (non-fiction; review in the next few days)

64  Grozdana Olujić, Wild Seed (very good)

65  Beverly Cleary, Ralph S. Mouse (children's lit; re-read; still excellent after 30 years)

66  Edna St. Vincent Millay, Selected Poems (excellent)

67  Barbara Hodgson, The Tattooed Map (illustrated; very good)

Don't know if I'll read as many this month, as my second (evening full-time) job starts on Monday.  But I hope there'll be more excellent stories to discover.
Add to Technorati Favorites