The OF Blog: 2015

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best of 2015: A year-end list devoted to a year of relative non-reading

2015 was easily my worst reading year in at least a decade.  I read only 41 books all year, 14 of which were 2015 releases.  It wasn't bad from a quality point, as I would recommend almost all of the new releases  to at least some people, but it is difficult to come up with a Top Ten that would reflect those works I thought were superior efforts.  So instead, here is a list of five works that stood out to me more than usual:

5.  Jesse Ball,  A Case for Suicide.

Ball is a talented writer and this novel was his strangest and most enjoyable one yet.

4.  Umberto Eco, Numerous Zero (read it both Italian and Spanish translation).

Not Eco's best work, but it's still one of the best historical/conspiracy theory novels that I've read in recent years.

3.  Kirstin Valdez Quade, Nights at the Fiestas.

One of the best short story collections I've read this year.

2.  Berit Ellingsen, Not Dark Yet.

I'm going to attempt a review of this haunting tale after I re-read it, as I think there were elements crucial to this moving story that I missed on my initial read.

1.  Kelly Link, Get in Trouble.

One of the finest short story collections I've read this year.


Hopefully 2016 will see the return of my reading mojo, or at least the return of my highly-trained Serbian Reading Squirrels doing the reading for me.  At least I had a good excuse this year, as I did devote the year to improving my physical fitness.  Now to get ready to run my first 5K in the springtime...

Thursday, November 12, 2015

So it's been a long time since I've blogged anywhere

I had fully intended to resume regular blogging this autumn after taking a hiatus of sorts to recharge my mental batteries.  But instead, a few things conspired to occupy my time:  having to study for two Praxis exams so I could add a special education certification to my quartet of certifications; working longer at work a few nights the past two months; being exhausted more than I expected after adding longer, more intense fast jog/running elements to my daily cardio (that and trying to do trail jogging for 2-3x/week, weather permitting, in addition to 5x/week track walking/jogging); and a sudden death in my family this week.

So when I was finally upgrading my ancient Macbook to El Capitan tonight, I noticed that two months had gone by without a post of any sort; the first time in nearly ten years that there was a month without a single post.  Amazing how out of practice I became at this.  So yeah, I'll be making a greater effort to not just blog, but to read/re-read books/stories/poems so I can have things to discuss here that perhaps cannot be found in any other singular location.  Might be a bit sporadic until the 30th (my second Praxis text is then; my first was this afternoon), but I'll really make an effort this time.

In the meantime, what all have I missed in recent months?  Some on Twitter were mentioning the aftermath of the World Fantasy Convention's decision to change the appearance of the WFA trophy from H.P. Lovecraft's stylized sculpture to something, anything else.  But what else is out there?  A brief glance at my blogroll seems to reveal that either more online reviewers are shuttering their sites completely or they are continuing to join large conglomerates.  Is this a mistaken impression or just the way things are trending these days when it comes to online discussions of books?

So if there are other things that I've missed since the summertime, feel free to fill me in.  Oh, and one final thing:  the reading squirrels are beginning to become rabid.  You've been warned.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Vera Caspary, Laura

The city that Sunday morning was quiet.  Those millions of New Yorkers who, by need or preference, remain in town over a summer week-end had been crushed spiritless by humidity.  Over the island hung a fog that smelled and felt like water in which too many soda-water glasses have been washed.  Sitting at my desk, pen in hand, I treasured the sense that, among those millions, only I, Waldo Lydecker, was up and doing.  The day just past, devoted to shock and misery, had stripped me of sorrow.  Now I had gathered strength for the writing of Laura's epitaph.  My grief at her sudden and violent death found consolation in the thought that my friend, had she lived to a ripe old age, would have passed into oblivion, whereas the violence of her passing and the genius of her admirer gave her a fair chance at immortality. (p. 5, Library of America edition)
American crime fiction of the mid-20th century has, due to chance or something else, been often viewed as a male-oriented literary enterprise, with hard-nosed detectives interacting cynically with a dark world.  Yet noir-style fiction was not the only strand of crime fiction and although men like Chandler and Hammett are lauded for their ingenious plots and intricate prose, women then, as they do now, also constructed some memorable crime fiction.  In the recently-released two-volume Women Crime Writers that covers eight novels written in the 1940s and 1950s, Sarah Weinman has chosen works that not only represent some of the best crime fiction of that era, but they also are stories that challenge reader preconceptions of what constitutes a crime novel.

The first novel in this anthology, Vera Caspary's Laura (published in book form in 1943 after an earlier seven-part serialization in Colliers), contains multitudes within its 181 pages.  It is not only an exploration of the titular Laura's apparent demise, but is also a shrewd look at how an independent woman in 1940s New York manages to maneuver her way through social landmines more insidiously planted than those that World War II servicemen faced.  Caspary goes to great pains to insure that Laura is no wilted (wilting?) flower.  In the various points of view presented over the course of the novel, she is neither saint nor whore, but instead something more complex and fascinating.

Caspary's use of these multiple POV perspectives serves not only to delineate Laura's complexities, but the other characters' biases and neuroses are also illustrated in a subtle yet powerful fashion.  This can be readily seen in the very first paragraph, as Waldo, an aspiring novelist of sorts and a former lover, presents a picture of himself that differs significantly from how he views himself.  This situational irony is repeated in other characters, such as Laura's former fiancé, Shelby, and how his rakishness contrasts with his professed love for Laura, or in how the detective assigned to her case, Mark McPherson, presents more personal vulnerabilities than he is aware of doing.

At times, these multiple perspectives can almost be distracting, as these secondary characters are just as flawed and fascinating as the emerging composite portrait of Laura.  Yet by the second half of the novel, Caspary has managed to weave a compelling plot out of them, especially when she introduces a plot twist that turns topsy-turvy our expectations of how this crime investigation is going to play out.  In hindsight, this development is not unexpected; there are several clues placed through the character narratives that foreshadow this development.  But once this twist is executed, the novel becomes more urgent in tone, with the prose taking on a leaner, more menacing character.  The final scenes feel as though they could have the inspiration to countless crime TV series episodes, yet there is more to them than just characters re-enacting struggles for love and understanding that were explored earlier in the novel.

Laura is a fascinating novel not just for how well Caspary explores the innermost motivations of her characters, but also for how adroitly she depicts the social milieu.  Laura is no innocent; she has had her fair share of sexual conquests.  She is in many ways a truly "modern" woman, with values that correspond to her desire to be independent and yet not "masculine."  Some critics see in her a quasi-autobiographical sketch written by Caspary, with their similar careers (advertising) and attempts to balance career and romance.  Despite whatever surface similarities author and creation might have, Laura's character and situation are appealing to readers who see in her inner conflicts a mirror of sorts for their own.  Waldo, Shelby, and McPherson might not be self-aware enough to see the hypocritical social attitudes they hold, yet Laura in contrast was very much aware of them.  She used them as much they attempted to use her and it is in this realization that makes Laura not just a page turner, but also a well-developed exploration of sexual identity during the mid-20th century.

There are few structural weaknesses.  The biggest complaint some might have is that as well-detailed the character discussions of Laura and her life and apparent death are, there are times where the narrative flow slows to a lazy meandering.  Occasionally the prose overreaches, most notably in reading Waldo's more grandiose proclamations, yet on the whole the writing not only supports the deepening narrative, it manages to deepen the tension, making it more palpable.  Laura may not be the "perfect" crime novel, but it comes close enough on occasion to make it a very good, entertaining read that will leave readers satisfied after a couple of hours.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

April-August 2015 Reads

The paucity of books listed here should give the reader here an idea just how little I have read so far this year in comparison to previous years, when I would usually have read 250-300 books by now.  I think I'll be reading quite a bit more in the coming weeks, so there is still a chance of reading 100 for the year, but this will be by far my lowest in a decade (2005 I remember as a year being so swamped with studies and work that I only read about 50 books that year, but I didn't keep a reading log back then, so I'm uncertain of the actual count).  Anyways, here's the list of books read over the previous five months (the reading squirrels were on extended vacation):

April:


19  Milan Kundera, La fête de l'insignifiance (French; will read English translation later and review it then; entertaining)

20  Kirsopp Lake (ed.), The Apostolic Fathers, vol. I (bilingual Koine Greek/English; religious texts)

21  James Shapiro (ed.), Shakespeare in America:  An Anthology from the Revolution to Now (non-fiction; Library of America edition; already reviewed)


May:


22  Mark Doten, The Infernal (will write a mini-review sometime before the end of the year; 2015 release)

23  Jesse Ball, A Case for Suicide (see above)

24  Erwin Mortier, While the Gods were Sleeping (will review on my WWI lit blog later; 2015 US release)


June:


25  Umberto Eco, Numero Zero (Italian; 2015 release; will review after reading the English translation)

26  Umberto Eco, Numero Cero (Spanish; see above)

27  Jeff VanderMeer, Annientamento (Italian translation; 2015 release; already reviewed the English edition)


July:


28  Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (already reviewed)


August:


29  Andrzej Sapkowski, La Saison des orages (French translation from the Polish original; 2015 edition; will review in the near future)


Currently reading the two-volume Library of America anthology, Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s and I will try to review some, if not all, of those crime novels soon after finishing them.  Hope to finish at least the first volume this month.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Belatedly, The OF Blog Turns 11

Tuesday marked the eleventh anniversary of this blog, but as was par for the course this year, I was a bit too busy (jogging 7.63 miles that night) to celebrate it until now.  But really, there are things to celebrate even now, even though I haven't yet finished a book since my birthday over six weeks ago (that will change this weekend).

A year ago, I had suffered a back injury at work that left me unable to work for nearly six weeks.  I was on a lot of muscle relaxers and other steroid-based medications and my weight ballooned.  I took a picture that night, August 25, 2014, and I looked miserable.  I recall writing a rather pessimistic 10th anniversary post here that day and while I retain some of those sentiments, it is rather amazing that I am still writing, albeit sporadically until now.

I am now able to do stretches that I haven't done since my early 20s.  Balancing on one leg while doing alternating toe touches, followed by a jump scissor kick makes me feel young again (not that 41 is old, mind you).  Spending more time outdoors, even if much of it is on a local track, has also revitalized me in a way that reading alone cannot.  It is interesting to see the changes in my mood doing things that I used to do before I began reading so much.  Although reading is a pleasure, some pleasures can have deleterious effects on the mind and body and I think my re-found dedication to balance between mind and body, between activity and reading, has helped me not just get limber again, but to enjoy those moments even more when I do sit down and read some.

As for this blog, I said earlier this month that I would be "making it new again" and I think that'll mean more, miscellaneous essays, maybe along the lines of a Montaigne, in addition to occasional reviews.  Taking a break from most social media has led me to become more of an observer than an active participant and perhaps there'll be some "heresies" to espouse on occasion.

There is also a professional accomplishment that I'll discuss in the near future, when things are finalized, but it is something I'm excited to discuss when things are complete.

Finally, autumn is coming.  The Serbian literary squirrels are scurrying back to their reading dreys.  You have been warned.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Some more brief thoughts on the 2015 Hugo Awards

.

No, I have more to say than I did a few months ago when the finalists were announced.  I haven't really had much to say on those awards (or pretty much, any awards longlist or shortlist these past few months) because I have spent much of the year not reading.  It is interesting how one's perspective on things can change when removed from the immediacy of almost any situation.  I didn't care much for the way the shortlists were decided, but I just didn't have much of any real interest because there were some non-slate nominees (at least the initial list before an author withdrew from Best Novel consideration) that I thought were also mediocre to poor works.  

Since much of my Twitter feed is comprised of SF/F fans and authors (although I have several squirrel and sports feeds I follow there as well), I quickly grew bored with the same sentiments being reiterated over and over again.  Had nothing really to say; I have never really put much stock into the Hugo Awards because their finalists/winners rarely overlap with what I considered to be recent years' best fictions.  So I decided to wait until around the time the awards were announced (here's a link that shows the votes/nominations) before I would say anything really about this year's slate/winners.

I am very pleased to see that Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem won Best Novel.  Before it was added to the shortlist after Marko Kloos withdrew his novel from consideration, I thought every single one of the Best Novel nominees were not worthy of award consideration.  Needless to say, when it was added, I thought it was by far the best of the bunch and a deserving winner.  

As for the other categories and No Award winning over all of the slate nominees, nothing much to say other than people exercised their voting rights and that (like the slates did in nominating them) was that.  Nothing controversial about it in terms of procedures being followed, but I suppose there'll be months of factional arguments over next year's nomination/voting process and then maybe, eventually (right?) this will die down into the usual internecine sniping about age, group voting identities, and all the picayune things that can make SF fandom so tedious for outsiders.

But then again, I'm probably not the person to turn to these days for scintillating coverage of SF fandom awards.  I was too busy either getting in a late night 5.5 mile walk/jog or watching a replay of NXT Takeover:  Brooklyn (by the way, the Women's Championship Match was one of the best matches I've seen this year) to pay any attention to Twitter until hours after the winners were announced.  Priorities and all.  With that being said, time to rest, as I have another 10 miles I'd like to walk/jog before work Monday. 
 

Monday, August 03, 2015

Renovatio blogis

I said four months ago (using April Fool's Day as a cover) that I was contemplating shuttering this blog after nearly eleven years.  There were many reasons why I had reduced my blogging frequency (and by extension, my overall online profile) since mid-January:  focusing on weight loss/fitness improvement; burnout on reading much after a decade of reading on average 400 books a year; general ennui with the circular nature of tangentially book-related discussions; increasing discomfort with the sorts of "conversations" I was seeing on social media; etc.  I didn't really go into detail then and I'm not going to now, but being the sort of person who prefers thesis-antithesis=synthesis in the realm of ideas to rehashing ad hominem attacks or feeling pressured to give "hot takes" on ephemeral social controversies du jour, it was easier to just bow out than to continue to be inundated with repetitive crap.  I'm also much more of an extravert than many, so it was easier to find stimulating conversation at work and elsewhere than it was online, so naturally I gravitated back to things that gave me much more pleasure and less irritation and aggravation.

But there is something in the art of communicating one's assessment of ideas and people via a written, electronic medium such as a blog that continues to have some appeal to me.  Oh, it's not about the number of "hits" I draw for certain pieces or about who is talking about what I said as much as it is about expressing something that might aid another in his/her search for greater understanding on a topic (especially if it's one as august as squirrel adulation).  It is interesting to see which posts draw a steady stream of visits, month after month.  One such example was a March 2014 entry where I posted my 1994 university course-assigned translation of the final 100 lines or so of Book I of Vergil's Æneid.  As of this writing, it has been viewed 768 times, more than almost all of the 2014 releases that I reviewed that year.

It is not an anomaly; more often than not, the "classics" and older literature have stronger, longer "tails" than recent fiction when it comes to views here.  My William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston reviews (which were first posted at Gogol's Overcoat and which receive even greater views there than here) average in the high hundreds or low thousands for page views.  Doubtless a good portion of this traffic involves high school and college students seeking something they could utilize (plagiarize?) in a report/paper, but I suspect there is something more to it than just that.  I know that from time to time I search for others' opinions on works that I'm reading and it is so difficult at times to find something that isn't linked to Amazon or Goodreads, but instead is more of a "proper" length review of the work in question.

Realizing that some, even if they rarely (if ever) comment here, see value in what I write about older literature (or even the snippets that I translate into an English-language first draft) makes it easier to continue writing in spite of the above-mentioned irritants, which likely will never completely fade away.  So while I probably won't be writing more than a handful of times a month for a while still (my desktop's motherboard failed last week and my Macbook at six years is ancient; blogging via my iPhone is out of the question), I believe that when I do resume writing on a more regular basis that there might be a renewal of spirit to be found.  After all, I'm the critic whose opinion is the only one worth considering here, so the new content will reflect my interests more so than anyone else's.  So there might be some language-related material mixed in with discussion of which Library of America editions I've bought lately, topped off with occasional scandalous squirrel pornography.

Now excuse me while I try to decide which books I'm going to keep and which 150-200 I'm going to sell/trade this month.  Maybe I should post photos of those?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A serendipitous discovery

A little over a week ago I went shopping at my favorite Nashville used bookstore, McKay Books.  As usual while waiting for my books to be processed for trade credit, I browsed through the Foreign Language section (typically, somewhere between half and 100% of the books I buy during these visits are non-English-language works) when I stumbled upon a curious slipcased book:

 When I pulled the book out of its slipcase, I saw that it was leatherbound and that it looked similar to a certain set of high-quality, higher-priced French books that I had pondered ordering online whenever I had enough money to justify spending $70 or so.  So I opened this book of Paul Claudel's poetry to its title page to see that my suspicions were confirmed.


Yes, I had a 1967 Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition of Paul Claudel's poetry in my hands, with only the slipcase, yellowed with age, bearing any marks.  I glanced again at the price.  Only $4.  While more expensive than most foreign language books I buy there (most French and Spanish fiction paperbacks are 10¢ or 15¢ in price), I would have to say that finding a very good to excellent condition Pléiade edition for 1/16 of its list price to be quite a bargain.

Any of you have similar discoveries of expensive books being sold dirt cheap (and in good condition) in a used bookstore?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

In evaluating certain literary works, conventional, tried-and-true approaches sometimes must be jettisoned.  This certainly has proven to be the case with the recently-released Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman.  Much (e-)ink has been spilled on the origins of this 1950s trunk novel that later begot To Kill a Mockingbird and how after a half-century of near-silence the dubious fashion in which it came to be published has come to light.  Those lines of thought are more the provenance of journalists than literary reviewers, however.  It is more than fair to raise the issue, but when it comes to the text itself, then it comes to the text itself and all else should be ancillary.  Yet in cases like this, attempting to remove oneself from the uproar would be a Sisyphean task.

When I began reading Go Set a Watchman, I found myself thinking of the various posthumous works that I had read or listened to:  Vergil's Æneid; Jimi Hendrix's post-1970 releases; Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again; among others.  Vergil reportedly made a deathbed request that his "unfinished" epic poem be burned after his death.  While obviously this was not the case (another such example would be the majority of Franz Kafka's work that his friend and literary executor Max Brod published despite Kafka's occasional declaration that they should be burnt), the debate on the merits of publishing, whether posthumously or in a situation where an author potentially could require a conservator to make legal and business decisions, is an interesting one.  I believe that if an appropriate framework is established for evaluating the works in question, then there is little to quibble about in the case of a work that almost certainly would have been published immediately after the author's death if not beforehand.

Go Set a Watchman's complex textual history makes for a fascinating study.  Readers familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird are going to see several parallels in descriptions, characterization, and plot development.  Jean Louise/Scout Finch's journey home to Maycomb, Alabama sometime in the immediate aftermath of the 1954 Brown vs. The Board of Education Supreme Court ruling contains several flashbacks that the germ of numerous events in the latter novel.  In a weird sense, the first novel becomes a quasi-sequel to the latter, not so much for the flashbacks (which in some cases were revised and altered in To Kill a Mockingbird), but for readers' understandings of how certain characters have developed.  Although much ado has been made about Atticus Finch's seeming character shift in Go Set a Watchman, there are certain other characters, Calpurnia in particular, whose actions here in this novel may be surprising or even unsettling to those readers who approached To Kill a Mockingbird as a mostly nostalgic, mildly "heroic" Southern novel despite the heartbreak of the Tom Robinson case.

Certainly there are grounds for being startled throughout.  Go Set a Watchman slays its gods, strewing about disillusionment in the wake of its revelations.  This is no accident, as it appears that Lee originally conceived of the autobiographical Maycomb milieu as being a way of retelling the civil rights era upheavals within a slightly fictitious family account.  Lee's father, A.C. Lee, was also a lawyer who became caught up in the counter-protests common throughout the South after 1954.  But in the case of Atticus Finch, what is interesting is seeing just how fully conceived his character was in this earlier draft:  he is just as wry, courteous, and humane as in To Kill a Mockingbird, but the key difference is the narrative perspective through which he is viewed.  Young Scout's first-person narrative in To Kill a Mockingbird portrays him as a sort of demi-god, a father who may not always understand his children, but whose wisdom and humanity inspire them to be the best they can possibly be.  Go Set a Watchman, written in a limited third-person point-of-view, demonstrates this lingering hero worship that Jean Louise has for her father, but it also reveals the cracks in this façade and also how much Jean Louise has changed while becoming an independent, opinionated young woman in her late 20s.

Go Set a Watchman deconstructs these earlier views of Scout through the liberal use of flashbacks (many of which were later transported, virtually unchanged, into To Kill a Mockingbird).  Although they are invaluable in demonstrating just how Lee initially constructed this coming-of-age tale and how it later morphed into a sometimes very different "daughter" novel, at times these flashbacks weaken the narrative thrust considerably.  For example, more space is devoted to discussing Jean Louise's first period than in connecting that to her complex emotions regarding the former family cook, Calpurnia.  The near "as in" presentation of this 1950s draft as the published Go Set a Watchman does an injustice to the "new" scenes, as an occasional judicious pruning of extraneous scenes could have heightened the narrative tension that builds throughout the course of the novel.

Yet despite this uneven narrative pace and its numerous digressions, there is a strong, questing core that should captivate most readers.  The revelation of Atticus's views on race, while disappointing to his daughter (and readers), are only the tip of the iceberg.  What Lee focuses more on is how Jean Louise tries to process this sudden upheaval of her world.  It is not always a pretty sight, as 21st century readers might find Jean Louise's arguments and rationales to be rather antiquated, if not bigoted themselves.  But perhaps that is exactly a point behind this novel.  Maybe for white Southerners, especially so-called Southern progressives of the mid-20th century, there are some hypocrisies that still need to be exposed to the light. 

The final two parts of the novel are the strongest, most attention absorbing, because they distillate these inner and familial conflicts into a series of dialogues (Jean Louise-Jack, Jean Louise-Alexandra, Jean Louise-Henry, and most especially Jean Louise-Atticus) that present a wide spectrum of white Southern thought during this period.  There is little that is facile about them; Atticus's counterarguments, when viewed within the context of the times, prove to be challenging to his daughter's more idealized views.  As a reflection of contemporary social views, these concluding sections are very well realized.  However, it is difficult not to see flaws in how Lee arrived at these final scenes.  It is not just the meandering flashbacks that clog up the narrative flow, but also those false steps, such as Jean Louise's impulsive visit to Calpurnia and her rebuffal there,  where much more could have been said to even greater effect than what was ultimately achieved.

Go Set a Watchman perhaps should be judged primarily as an ur-text; it represents a genesis of thought that led to a modern classic.  It certainly shows enough in character and plot evolutions to serve as an example of how to develop a story.  But with the majority of events taking place after those of To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is in many regards its own story.  It contains characters that shift somewhat in presentation, yet on the whole these are characters that are easily recognizable as being those who appeared in the earlier tale.  No, it does not contain the same narrative magic that made To Kill a Mockingbird dear to tens of millions of years, but what it contains, warts and all, is a story of confusion and conflict that speaks most clearly to white Southerners who have tried, like Thomas Wolfe's George Webber, to "come home again," only to discover that "home" is a more repulsive, conflicting place where hatred and love make for strange bedfellows.  This is not to say there can't be other readings for this novel, but only that the central conflict, or at least how it is phrased and conducted amongst its participants, might be foreign to non-Southerners or at least not as vital to them.  As it stands, Go Set a Watchman is a flawed yet occasionally riveting work that does not weaken or ruin Harper Lee's legacy, but rather is a testament for just how deeply she conceived this retelling of how an independent-minded, idealistic daughter comes to terms with the complexities of a father she had adored and worshiped her entire life.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears..."

"What's in a name?  That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell just as sweet."

"To be, or not to be, that is the question..."

"Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war..."

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."


"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."


"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun..."

Chances are, if you are a native English speaker (or one even casually familiar with English-language culture), you could identify the composer of these quotes even though the exact source and context might elude you.  Next to the King James translation of the Bible, William Shakespeare's plays and sonnets are the lodestone of the English language; so much of this language's idiomatic expressions and metaphors orient themselves to these rich, imaginative text.  It is nigh impossible for me to fathom an English-language culture, much less literature, existing in a form similar to today's without Shakespeare's Olympian influence.  Although there are numerous great writers that have left their own indelible marks on contemporary English-language literature, Shakespeare is that rare talent whose turns of phrase are often quoted, frequently without full awareness of their source, by those who aren't regular readers of literature of any sort.

Part of this is due to Shakespeare's writings being almost chameleon-like in their ability to be adapted for almost every situation and need.  Although composed mostly before the first English settlement in what is now the United States, in the intervening four centuries, Shakespeare's work has become as much a central part of American literature as it is the keystone of English literature.  In James Shapiro's 2014 anthology, Shakespeare in America:  An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, there are dozens of selections from writers and politicians, social activists and ministers, from lay people to composers, all of which testify to Shakespeare's influence on them and their course of action.  A fascinating mosaic image emerges when these disparate threads of American social and cultural life are placed in chronological order.

The anthology begins with an anonymous 1776 publication of a Loyalist response to the demands of the First Continental Congress for the colonists to sign an "association" boycotting British goods.  Making use of Hamlet's famous soliloquy, it is also, as Shapiro notes in the introductory header, a retort to a pro-colonist screed that began "Be taxt, or not be taxt, that is the question.":

To sign, or not to sign?  That is the question,
Whether 'twere better for an honest Man
To sign, and so be safe; or to resolve,
Betide what will, against Associations,
And, by retreating, shun them.  To fly – I reck
Not where:  And, by that Flight, t'escape
FEATHERS and TAR, and Thousand other Ills
That Loyalty is Heir to:  'Tis a Consummation
Devoutly to be wished.  To fly – to want – 
To want?  Perchance to starve:  Ay, there's the rub! (p. 3)
However, in Peter Markoe's 1787 poem, "The Tragic Genius of Shakespeare," published in the year of the Constitutional Convention, already there are overt moves to claim the Bard as America's own:

Monopolizing Britain!  boast no more
His genius to your narrow bounds confin'd;
Shakspeare's bold spirit seeks our western shore,
A gen'ral blessing for the world design'd,
And, emulous to form the rising ase,
The noblest Bard demands the noblest Stage. (p. 12)
And yet as grandiose of a claim as Markoe makes here, the question still remains, over two centuries later:  Just what is an "American" view of Shakespeare?  It is fitting that our national motto, E pluribus unum, come into play when examining the disparate views presented throughout this collection.  For the nineteenth century, with "nation building" (including the horrendous treatment of the various nations that dwelt on contested land and the execrable treatment of African-descended slaves) foremost on their minds, divers writers, poets, and politicians would frequent cite Shakespeare in order to further their ambitions.  In 1849, this nationalist rendition of Shakespeare boiled over into a riot outside the Astor Place Opera House in New York City, as partisans of the American actor Edwin Forrest assailed the performance place of British actor William Charles Macready's performance of Macbeth.  Some 15,000 people participated in this riot, leading to the New York State Militia firing into the crowd, killing more than twenty and wounding perhaps over a hundred more.  Here is a brief citation from a lengthy anonymous pamphlet published soon after the riot:

The result was, that the constant rivalry of Forrest, though carried on in the most friendly manner, could not fail to injure the success of Macready.  A certain degree of partizanship was everywhere excited – for Forrest was everywhere placarded as the "American Tragedian," – and the tour of Mr. Macready was comparatively a failure.  A sensitive man could not but feel this; and whether he made any complaint or not, his friends saw what the difficulty was, and felt not a little chagrined about it; and when Mr. Forrest made his next and last professional visit to England, this feeling among the friends of Macready, in the theatrical press and the play-going public, found its vent.  The opposition to him was, from the first, marked and fatal; and, so far as the metropolis was concerned, his tour was a failure.  It was only in the provinces – away from London influence – that he met with any degree of success. (p. 67)
It is hard for a twenty-first century reader to fathom this level of outrage over who performed Shakespeare and with what accent it was performed.  And yet in accounts like this, coupled with lengthy allusions to him throughout the years, there can be seen a sort of metastasis occurring:  Shakespeare's characters, form, and very language were being assimilated into this growing American culture, being transformed by it as much as it imbued this nascent civilization.  Echoes of this can be seen in the mid-19th century literature, especially in the work of Herman Melville.  In his "Hawthorne and His Mosses," Melville not only pays homage to his mentor, but also to what lurks behind any perceived "work of genius":

In Shakespeare's tomb lies infinitely more than Shakespeare ever wrote.  And if I magnify Shakespeare, it is not so much for what he did do, as for what he did not do, or refrained from doing.  For in this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only be cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, – even though it be covertly, and by snatches. (p. 130)
It is interesting to see how observations like this are reflected in subsequent pieces for the remaining 500-plus pages.  Shapiro has placed these selections in a fashion where it is easy to discern certain currents of American thought on Shakespeare and his ability to voice deep-seated fears, hopes, and anxieties.  "The play's the thing", ironically, is where a collision of received cultural understanding of Shakespeare and divergent interpretations of that very same understanding take place.  It is the source of contemporary takes on West Side Story and Romeo + Juliet, as well as arguments over just how well (or poorly) Marlon Brando performed in Julius Caesar.  Peppered amongst critical (both senses of the word) theatrical articles are allusions made by recent authors who echo and cast back, perhaps a bit distorted, the views of Melville and others of the first half of American socio-cultural history.  For Shakespeare does not belong to any one class or nation; he is, as what was later associated with St. Thomas More, "a man for all seasons."  This can especially be seen in Langston Hughes' 1942 poem, "Shakespeare in Harlem" (there was also a play of that name by him):

Hey ninny neigh!
And a hey nonny noe!
Where, oh, where
Did my sweet mama go? (p. 450)
With pieces like this presented side-by-side with scholarly references and layperson allusions, Shapiro's Shakespeare in America serves as a good introduction to the Bard's influence on American culture.  It is a rich collection of primary source material that does not overwhelm the reader, but instead provides enough of a framework by which readers can draw their own connections to currents of thought regarding Shakespeare.  Certainly it is one of the more enjoyable pieces on Shakespeare that I have read in recent years.







Friday, May 29, 2015

A little personal update before resuming reviews

As I've said before on a few occasions, 2015 to date has been devoted much more to improving my health (2014's kidney stone and back injuries wreaked havoc on my body shape and health) than reading or translation work.  Back in January, my work held a company-wide weight loss challenge, where groups of 4-5 employees were paired up and the winning group (selected by average percentage of weight lost per team) would divide the pot.  The competition ended on May 5th and my team won.  During that span, I lost 42 lbs., so it was nice to have monetary motivation to lose the necessary weight.

Also in January, I had blood tests done to see if progress was being made in lowering my cholesterol and triglyceride levels, both of which were around the 300 level (>150 is considered normal/good for both) back in October (I was placed on simistatin then).  Although both had dropped some due to the medication, they were still elevated.  So I made a goal then that by the time that I had my next round of tests (today), that I would have lost 50 lbs.

In order to do this, I gave up drinking anything other than water; ate leaner cuts of meat and only occasionally fry/saute them; ate more nuts and dried fruits; only had two meals with any sort of meat a day, if possible; lifted weights (only up to 65% of my known maxes) at least once a week and usually 2-3 times; and tried to walk at least 20 miles a week.  It was at times grueling, having to relearn muscle movements while my stomach felt hollow, but it was interesting to see the changes.  Within a week of giving up sodas, I had a lot more energy and I only needed 5.5-6.5 hours of sleep a night on average to feel rested the next morning.  I started to feel less hungry due to drinking 3-4 liters of water a day and my chronic dehydration went away.

In March, I purchased a fitness band, the Garmin Vivofit, and began using My Fitness Pal to track what I ate.  On the latter, I was able to set goals (namely a 2 lbs./week loss) and by inputting what I ate and seeing roughly what their caloric contents were, I found myself eating less in order to meet those daily goals.  With the Garmin watch/band, I started trying to walk more and more each day, especially during the late hours at work after the residents were asleep.  This combination of tracking items and conscious effort on my part to meet the goals set out led to a very rapid weight loss in late March/April, when I lost nearly half of my weight before the competition's end.

So it was with some confidence that I went to get my blood tested today.  Turns out that my cholesterol and triglyceride levels are now in the 130s and that my HDL and LDL levels have improved greatly.  No imminent threat of Type II diabetes setting in and the anemia that showed up on the January tests had disappeared (maybe due to the further healing of my left kidney after my October procedure, or maybe also due to taking vitamin supplements regularly).  If things are much the same in four months, I get to come off of my medications, so I still have motivation to work even harder to get my body healthy and toned.

And yes, there have been days where the squirrels have pushed me to the brink...

But at least now I can rest a little bit.  No, wait, I'm going for an evening walk in a few minutes.  Maybe later this weekend I'll write my first review in a few months.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Famous writer talks about being classified as a "science fiction" writer

For many readers and even some writers of science fiction, debates on who is or is not "mainstream" writing in the field may seem to be a relatively new development, or at least one that has developed new branches.  However, fifty years ago there was this author, Kurt Vonnegut, who seemed to be astride all sorts of these literary "fault lines" that are all the rage these days.  In his 1965 essay, "Science Fiction," it is interesting to see how germane his observations are in relation to what various puppies, kittens, roadkill, and other sundry SFnal groups want to argue about in regards to the "soul" of science fiction.  Below are some selections from this 3.5 page essay, reprinted in 2012 by the Library of America for Kurt Vonnegut:  Novels & Stories 1950-1962:

Years ago I was working in Schenectady for General Electric, completely surrounded by machines and ideas for machines, so I wrote a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will.  (It was called Player Piano, and it was brought out again in both hard cover and in paperback.)  And I learned from the reviewers that I was a science-fiction writer.

I didn't know that.  I supposed that I was writing a novel about life, about things I could not avoid seeing and hearing in Schenectady, a very real town, awkwardly set in the gruesome now.  I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer label "science fiction" ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.

The way a person gets into this drawer, apparently, is to notice technology.  The feeling persists that no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works, just as no gentleman wears a brown suit in the city.  Colleges may be to blame.  English majors are encouraged, I know, to hate chemistry and physics, and to be proud because they are not dull and creepy and humorless and war-oriented like the engineers across the quad.  And our most impressive critics have commonly been such English majors, and they are squeamish about technology to this very day.  So it is natural for them to despise science fiction. (p. 781)
In light of scores of similar commentaries from other writers and readers over the intervening half-century, Vonnegut's opening statements sound very familiar.  Perhaps there is already this image of an ivory tower doing battle against the unwashed heathens of "popular fiction" floating in some readers' minds now, but the next couple of paragraphs derail this apparent train of thought, as Vonnegut veers into another topic, one that I think can still sting those who become so invested in "their" field of reading/writing:

But there are those who adore being classified as science-fiction writers anyway, who are alarmed by the possibility that they might someday be known simply as ordinary short-story writers and novelists who mention, among other things, the fruits of engineering and research.  They are happy with the status quo because their colleagues love them the way members of old-fashioned big families were supposed to do.  Science-fiction writers meet often, comfort and praise one another, exchange single-spaced letters of twenty pages and more, booze it up affectionately, and one way or another have a million heart-throbs and laughs.

I have run with them some, and they are generous and amusing souls, but I must now make a true statement that will put them through the roof:  They are joiners.  They are a lodge.  If they didn't enjoy having a gang of their own so much, there would be no such category as science fiction.  They love to stay up all night, arguing the question, "What is science fiction?"  One might as usefully inquire, "What are the Elks?  And what is the Order of the Eastern Star?" (pp. 781-782)
Now this, this puts in words my own feelings in recent years when it comes to SF:  why is it so damn important to belong to a created "community" in which there are some seemingly oddball customs and traditions whose purpose seems more to categorize and exclude, all in the name of some nebulous "essence of science fiction," while leaving those who tinker and dabble, mix and match, all on the outside, being a sort of pariah or leper to those who are in the club?  What is the sort of mentality that fuels such desires to belong and to exclude?  Vonnegut continues with a discussion of taste and desire that span several paragraphs.  Below are two segments from paragraphs that cover nearly half of the essay:

[...]The people in the field who can be charged fairly with tastelessness are 75 percent of the writers and 95 percent of the readers – or not so much tastelessness, really, as childishness.  Mature relationships, even with machines, do not titillate the unwashed majority.[...]

I taught for a while in a mildly unusual school for mildly unusual high-school children, and current science fiction was catnip to the boys, any science fiction at all.  They couldn't tell one story from another, thought they were all neat, keen.  What appealed to them so, I think, aside from the novelty of comic books without pictures, was the steady promise of futures which they, just as they were, could handle.  In such futures they would be high-ranking noncoms at the very least, just as they were, pimples, virginity, and everything. (pp. 782-783)

Yet this is not a blistering attack on "immature" readers, but rather an acknowledgement of just who, in the so-called "Golden Age of SF," read those early SF pulps.  There is something of that attitude, that desire to recapture, if not outright replicate, that initial burst of excitement, of being able to place one's self, just as we are, into stories of derring-do and heroism.  This sense I suspect underlies part of the protests of those who claim that SF has moved into realms in which they cannot participate as much.  It is never easy dealing with a sense of exclusion, especially after a period in which those with similar views were doing much of the excluding, implicitly as well as explicitly.

But this sense of inclusion also encompasses particular interests.  Sometimes readers (and occasionally writers, critics, and editors) feel the need to draw in "outside" interests to make everything nice, tidy, and all of one piece.  This can be seen in attempts to include certain literary works as SF (or inversely, to deny that certain other works cannot be viewed through other, non-SFnal perspectives).  Vonnegut addresses this in the following paragraph:

Most of them did graduate from high school, by the way.  And many of them now cheerfully read about futures and presents and even pasts which nobody can handle – 1984, Invisible Man, Madame Bovary.  They are particularly hot for Kafka.  Boomers of science fiction might reply, "Ha!  Orwell and Ellison and Flaubert and Kafka are science-fiction writers, too!"  They often say things like that.  Some are crazy enough to try to capture Tolstoy.  It is as though I were to claim that everybody of note belonged fundamentally to Delta Upsilon, my own lodge, incidentally, whether he knew it or not.  Kafka would have been a desperately unhappy D.U. (p. 783)

Vonnegut wraps up his article with a prediction, one that can be seen today.  Somehow, I suspect that if this essay could be updated with references to recent events that the substance would still stand:

The lodge will dissolve.  All lodges do, sooner or later.  And more and more writers in "the mainstream," as science-fiction people call the world outside the file drawer, will include technology in their tales, will give it at least the respect due in a narrative to a wicked stepmother.  Meanwhile, if you write stories that are weak on dialogue and motivation and characterization and common sense, you could do worse than thrown in a little chemistry or physics, or even witchcraft, and mail them off to the science-fiction magazines. (p. 784)

Something tells me that Vonnegut might take a dim view of self-professed "geek culture" advocates, or at least view them as being merely yet another iteration of a long line of those who conflate material details with subject essences when it comes to discussing the components of a cultural artifact.  But that is more likely my own interjection into some interesting thoughts initially published in 1965.  Hopefully by the time I am truly an old man that even this latest "lodge" will have dissolved and the literary circles of exclusion/inclusion of readers, writers, and ideas will have either been broken or at least transformed into something else.







Wednesday, April 08, 2015

And now, a few thoughts on the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award

... 

Just kidding.  I actually like this shortlist, having read (and reviewed) three of the six shortlisted titles last year. 


The Girl With All The Gifts - M.R. Carey (Orbit)
The Book Of Strange New Things - Michel Faber (Canongate)
Europe In Autumn - Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
Memory Of Water - Emmi Itäranta (HarperVoyager)
The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August - Claire North (Orbit)
Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel (Picador)

Saturday, April 04, 2015

February and March 2015 Reads

This list of books read in February and March ought to underscore just how little I've read so far this year compared to the past decade (the last time I read under 100 books in a year was 2005, a year in which I worked full-time and was a full-time non-trad college student).  Interesting to see what was read, however, as there were more 2015 releases than I realized (which I suppose I should write commentaries on at the least in the next month or two), plus two whose titles I won't reveal due to them being part of something I've been privy to.  So with that, here are twelve titles read over two months:

February:

7.  James G. Basker (ed.), American Antislavery Writings:  Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation (non-fiction; Library of America edition; excellent collection of primary source writing)

8.  Stewart O'Nan, West of Sunset (short review forthcoming)

9.  Jonathan Lethem, Lucky Alan and Other Stories (short story collection; short review forthcoming)

10.  Kirstin Valdez Quade, Night at the Fiesta (debut; short story collection; review forthcoming)

11.  Williams Wells Brown, Clotel & Other Writings (fiction and non-fiction; Library of America edition; titular story already reviewed; excellent overall)

12.  William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates (eds.), Slave Narratives (non-fiction; Library of America edition; outstanding primary source collection)

13.  Laura Van den Berg, Find Me (debut novel; review forthcoming)

14.  Okey Ndibe, Arrows of Rain (very good)

15.  Alicia Yánez Cossío, El beso y otras fricciones (Spanish; short story collection; very good)


March:

16.  Fatima Bhutto, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon (debut; review forthcoming)

17.  [Redacted]

18.  [Redacted]


Despite not having any set gender/language percentage goals this year, interesting to see that through 19 books (I finished a book this evening), it is 9/19 women writers and 5/19 read in a language other than English.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

After nearly eleven years, it may be time to call it quits

The days and nights are like blurs now.  Strange to realize that I only posted once in March and barely a handful of times in February.  I have read only a handful of books over the past two months and I forgot to log what I had read even then.  I've been so busy doing some practice translations (which may or may not see the light of day; one likely will in a couple of years, if I finish it this year) and re-working my entire nutrition/exercise program that I found it refreshing not thinking about reading for reviews or even about reading at all.  I have only a few moments here and there to glance at social media and for the most part, I don't miss it at all.

There is a liberating sort of feeling about changing core routines so drastically.  Seeing a much flatter stomach and more toned muscles in my arms is rewarding, especially considering that I am now 40.  Developing a nice, healthy tan from walking outside 90-120 minutes/day for 3x/week is a bonus.  Outside of a few minor issues, life is looking up.  The squirrels are frolicking more and more these days and it's hard not to think, despite all the evils in this world, that life and its multitudes of creatures just might be a wonderful thing after all.

But sometimes, things have to give.  Therefore, I'm possibly going to be shuttering this blog in the coming months if my recent job application comes through.  Nearly eleven years and perhaps it's time to admit that reviewing is best left to fans and not those who take a (much) less enthusiastic approach to discussing a work's perceived merits and deficiencies.  There just isn't really much reward in discussing books that others aren't gushing over already, n'est ce pas?  So maybe it's best to retreat into a setting where I can focus on sciuridae and obscure writers like Milan Kundera and Terry Bollea and leave the discussion of books to the experts.


Sunday, March 08, 2015

When "101" just doesn't cut it anymore

Most students who've attended an American university have experience with an "101":  an introductory survey to a discipline that is meant to provide a broad parameter of that discipline's general features.  As a survey course, it focuses much more on a bigger picture than it does on exploring any particular detail in course.  For some, 101 courses are a gateway to more advanced, specialized training, while for others they either provide only what they were seeking in the first place (broad, general knowledge) or they were just requirements that were endured and best forgotten.

The "101" can also be an analogy for certain discussions, particularly those that are meant to be a general challenge to social assumptions.  It's been a couple of weeks since I've had the time to blog about anything, but I've been vaguely aware of the number of debates spawned by an article/challenge by K. Tempest Bradford last month regarding the challenging of her readers to spend a year not reading white, straight, cisgendered male writers.  As such challenges typically go, it provoked more than just a challenge to read differently; it made several react against the very notion that they needed to be challenged at all.

In thinking about the uproar caused by this modest challenge (I say "modest" in that it is not a materially onerous goal), I found myself thinking about certain survey course debates.  One salient example is that of how much coverage should be given to certain civilizations vis à vis others.  It is an enduring, important debate in social studies and there are several valid arguments made by various sides, not all of which are in total opposition to the others.  When it comes to Bradford's challenge, several made various iterations of this particular debate, although often it was used to excuse those people from participating (as though not going whole hog on this were somehow a horrid thing!).

However, there is an inherent weakness to challenges such as Bradford's, namely that they have to be general surveys and not in-depth explorations of certain topics.  By merely saying "read more X writers," which is basically what this challenge boils down to, the reader is challenged to participate foremost in a quantitative process (increasing number of books read in the target group/s) and not so much in a qualitative assessment of why certain works should be read.  After all, it is easy to read a set number.  It is much more difficult to process what was just read and apply that to other literature read over a period of time.

Last month, I began a re-read of the two-volume Library of America collection of nine novels written by writers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.  So far, I have only reviewed one book, Jean Toomer's Cane, yet I found myself thinking about certain issues of identity expressed in that marvelous work.  Of particular interest was the author's own self-identity; he did not want to be identified as either black or white.  In knowing this, the language of the poems and vignettes there reflects this particular self-view.  It was also interesting, when doing background research on the book's initial reception, in how divided the reactions were among the black writers of the time, as Toomer's use of the then-revolutionary Modernist approach to narrative threatened, in some of their minds, the fragile equilibrium achieved in balancing white and black audience expectations for then-contemporary black literature.  In reading Cane and then beginning Richard Wright's posthumously published first novel, Lawd Today (then labeled as Cesspool), while sampling other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, there were some interesting fault lines that emerged when it came to social customs, religion, sexuality, and political views.  And through it all, threading a fine needle, was the central question of identity: "Who am I and how do I make it in this world around me?" 

This is what crops up repeatedly in the readings I've done over the years of authors who were of various skin tones, genders, ages, abilities, and faiths.  There are some interesting intersections, such as thematic resonances of the works of William Faulkner and the writers of the Latin American Boom Generation, as well as some expected (and yet sometimes surprising divergences).  This is what a reader can experience if s/he chooses to read widely, not just along the parameters of Bradford's challenge, but also across genres and non-fiction fields (W.E.B. Du Bois's 1896 history, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, is a captivating read nearly 120 years later).

However, this analysis of writers and how their thoughts reflect or oppose the espirit du temps is not "101" material.  It involves more than just saying, "I've read 30 books by X group of writers" to accomplish anything.  Anyone can read assignments and pass certain tests, but it takes much more self-reflection to integrate what one has read and make it a part of their own self-identity.  Challenges are well and good, yet they often don't go far enough.  Yes, it would be great if more people read works by writers who are not part of the dominant social group/s, but if they aren't talking about or debating these works' merits with others, then is the full benefit of such exercises being reached?

I have my doubts about this.  I do worry at times that such important things can be reduced to a sort of competition or status of belonging.  "Well, you need to read more of this!" can easily be construed as an attack on another's value/priority systems, even if such was never intended.  While I certainly don't think this is ever the intent of such challenges, it certainly can devolve to such in the minds of those who feel there is no real encouragement to discuss the merits of this works, but instead ponder if it may not be worth it.  It is difficult to combat these perceptions, honest as they are (errare humanum est, after all), unless there is a mutual willingness to go beyond "101" and delve into a host of related issues together to find, if not commonality, then at least grounds for further exploration and discussion.  It is only then, I suspect, that the true fruits of diverse reading and writing can ripen and be enjoyed fully.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Jean Toomer, Cane

Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.  Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their knees.  Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls.  God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men.  The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them.  This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her. (p. 5, Library of America edition)

One of the earliest novels of the Harlem Renaissance was a book written by a man of multiethnic descent, Nathan Jean Toomer, who was loathe to identify himself as black or white.  This book, Cane, originally published in 1923, created some controversy and few initial sales as it did not kowtow to either white or black expectations.  Yet for those critics and readers who did read this book, Cane left indelible impressions.  After re-reading it recently, it is one of those fictions that has to be experienced in toto for it to be understood fully; it defies simple, pat descriptions.

Cane is neither beast nor fowl; it moves smoothly and assuredly between poem, short story vignette, and drama.  Toomer himself conceptualized it as being a sort of thematic circle, going from simple to complex, moving from South to North and back South again.  Yet within these intricately woven passages, Toomer narrates the rhythms of black Southern life and the upheavals as some moved north during the Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s.  Characters, such as Karintha (initial passage quoted above), appear prominently in one vignette, later to disappear and reappear, sometimes in a slight disguise, in another.  And through it all, there are poems narrating life, such as this one, "November Cotton Flower":

Boll-weevil's coming, and the winter's cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take

All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground –
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance.  Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year. (p. 9)
This poem was of particular interest to me for its combination of traditional couplets (minus two lines, which use alliteration instead to carry the rhythm through to the next couplet) with some daring imagery.  Toomer's writing, whether it be prose or poesy, is often very impressionistic, with descriptors creating vivid, sharp images from text that is often pared down in order to pack more punch per line.  Cane is as much a Modernist novel as anything that Joyce or Woolf produced and this poem of death and beauty and something else, something a bit daring when "brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear" is parsed a certain way, this poem captures several things eloquently in fourteen lines.

Toomer's gift for depicting life extends to his prose passages.  Here is one section taken from "Esther," concerning another major character in his cycle:

Esther begins to dream.  The low evening sun sets the windows of McGregor's notion shop aflame.  Esther makes believe that they really are aflame.  The town fire department rushes madly down the road.  It ruthlessly shoves back and white idlers to one side.  It whoops.  It clangs.  It rescues from the second-story window a dimpled infant which she claims for her own.  How had she come by it?  She thinks of it immaculately.  It is a sin to think of it immaculately.  She must dream no more.  She must repent her sin.  Another dream comes.  There is no fire department.  There are no heroic men.  The fire starts.  The loafers on the corner form a circle, chew their tobacco faster, and squirt juice just as fast as they can chew.  Gallons on top of gallons they squirt upon the flames.  The air reeks with the stench of scorched tobacco juice.  Women, fat chunky Negro women, lean scrawny white women, pull their skirts up above their heads and display the most ludicrous underclothes.  The women scoot in all directions from the danger zone.  She alone is left to take the baby in her arms.  But what a baby!  Black, singed, woolly, tobacco-juice baby – ugly as sin.  Once held to her breast, miraculous thing:  its breath is sweet and its lips can nibble.  She loves it frantically.  Her joy in it changes the town folks' jeers to harmless jealousy, and she is left alone. (p. 29)
There is a lot to unpack here.  The dream imagery is remarkable for how deftly Toomer utilizes repetition of phrases to cast and recast descriptions of people and a fire.  There is a rebellion present, yet the reader has to integrate this with other passages to see it clearly.  This dream sequence certainly has a surreal quality to it, with the juxtapositions of the mundane and the "ludicrous."  But even more so, there is a racial element to it, one that speaks on the divide between white and black perceptions of beauty.  The baby rejected as "ugly as sin," is transformed through the woman's love, changing the others' "jeers to harmless jealousy."

As the narrative of lives unfolds and revelations made beforehand become more prominent, Cain still sticks to its circle of life motif, exploring, through uneven yet frequently brilliant passages and poems, just what is driving folks to move from South to North, from rural to urban regions.  Toomer does an excellent job in capturing these changes, with very few passages that fail to capture at least a fleeting impression of these peripatetic lives.  Excellent as many individual passages and poems are, it is when this work is considered as a whole that Toomer's design can be seen in all its glory.  Cane is not just one of the earliest and best works of the Harlem Renaissance, it is also one of the best 20th century Modernist works ever written.  Even 92 years later, it possesses a power to move readers.  It simply is a remarkable masterpiece.


Friday, February 20, 2015

William Faulkner, The Hamlet


He had quite possibly been a foreigner, though not necessarily French, since to the people who had come after him and had almost obliterated all trace of his sojourn, anyone speaking the tongue with a foreign flavor or whose appearance or even occupation was strange, would have been a Frenchman regardless of what nationality he might affirm, just as to their more urban co-evals (if he had elected to settle in Jefferson itself say) he would have been called a Dutchman.  But now nobody knew what he had actually been, not even Will Varner, who was sixty years old and now owned a good deal of his original grant, including the site of his ruined mansion.  Because he was gone now, the foreigner, the Frenchman, with his family and his slaves and his magnificence.  His dream, his broad acres were parcelled out now into small shiftless mortgaged farms for the directors of Jefferson banks to squabble over before selling finally to Will Varner, and all that remained of him was the river bed which his slaves had straightened for almost ten miles to keep his land from flooding, and the skeleton of the tremendous house which his heirs-at-large had been pulling down and chopping up – walnut newel posts and stair spindles, oak floors which fifty years later would have been almost priceless, the very clapboards themselves – for thirty years now for firewood.  Even his name was forgotten, his pride but a legend about the land he had wrested from the jungle and tamed as a monument to that appellation which those who came after him in battered wagons and on mule-back and even on foot, with fling-lock rifles and dogs and children and home-made whiskey stills and Protestant psalm-books, could not even read, let alone pronounce, and which now had nothing to do with any once-living man at all – his dream and his pride now dust with the lost dust of his anonymous bones, his legend but the stubborn tale of the money he buried somewhere about the place when Grant over-ran the country on his way to Vicksburg. (pp. 731-732, Library of America edition) 
 
One of the more striking features of William Faulkner’s writing is how well he establishes mood and setting with just a few paragraphs.  In this long second paragraph to The Hamlet (1940), he fleshes out the Frenchman’s Bend territory, located at the southern end of Yoknapatawpha Country, and makes its denizens into the hard-scrabble, barely literate heirs to antebellum nobility.  In this seeming-paean to the lost grandeur of a pre-Civil War planter, Faulkner does a clever bit of foreshadowing in hinting at the rise of the common classes with the fall of the established landed gentry.  By creating something almost epic about the movement of the Anglo-Celtic descendents of the Appalachian mountain people into northeastern Mississippi, Faulkner creates an environment in which the decline of Will Varner’s power due to the machinations of Flem Snopes becomes something more than just a changing of the guard; it is in miniature a palace coup in which a plebeian is raised up to become emperor.

Faulkner began developing the shrewd, nefarious character of Flem back in the 1920s, but it is in the 1932 short story “Centaur in Brass” where many of the events later covered in The Hamlet first occurred.  Flem’s accomplishments here, from rising above the shady past of his barn burning father to becoming first Varner’s store clerk and later his boss and son-in-law, do not quite possess the Machiavellian air found in “Centaur in Brass.”  Yet when viewed as a first act in another rise-and-all, Flem’s character here is impressive in his combination of detached coolness and ambitious shrewdness.  This Flem is a more nuanced, fleshed-out character and while he influences much of the events in The Hamlet, he does not overshadow some of the other important characters.

The Hamlet is divided into four sections, with the first, “Flem,” devoted to the Snopes family and their arrival at Frenchman’s Bend.  Some of Faulkner’s finest writing is found here, especially in his establishment of the “horse trading” prowess of the Snopes.  Two important characters, Mink Snopes and V.K. Ratliff, are introduced for the first time.  Mink’s own trading of notes proves to be vital for Flem’s later rise at the store, while Ratliff’s observations about local life serve as a sort of moral anchor against which the Snopes’ machinations twist and tug against.  The narrative is rich with the little details of Flem’s beginnings at the Varner store that enhance reader understanding of latter events.  One example of this is the story that Ratliff tells of the goat scarcity.  It is a humorous piece, a smaller brother of sorts to the “Spotted Horses” story that later formed the nucleus of the fourth part, “The Peasants.”  Yet it also reveals the Snopes’ deviousness without being too heavy-handed with the details; it manages to pull off being a funny interlude and a foreshadowing of future events without the narrative feeling stretched or overworked.

However, it is in the second part, “Eula,” where Faulkner’s skill at characterization truly is on display.  Eula is such an exaggerated caricature of early 20th century Southern femininity that it would be easy to dismiss her as being nothing more than a piece of meat for the local men to drool over.  Yet there is something within this lazy, sexualized woman that transcends the confines of such parodic characters.  Her effortless seduction of a previous schoolteacher, her desire to lose her virginity, and the series of events that leads her to become married to Flem are remarkable in that despite in most cases such events would be too wild to be narrated effectively, Faulkner manages to pull off the great feat of making this seem not only plausible, but also integral to the overall plot (it also contains connections to Eula’s unstated seduction in “Centaur in Brass”).

The third section, “The Long Summer,” is an interlude of sorts, as Flem and Eula are absent due to their honeymoon in Texas.  Yet the scenes involving the idiotic Ike Snopes and his love for Houston’s cow are hilarious, albeit in a slightly unsettling way.  On a more somber note, the Mink/Houston/wife/horse events that leads to Houston’s murder at the hands of Mink is presented in a more tragic, yet still memorable fashion.  Despite the absence of Flem, this section does not falter much in the way of narrative development, as the other Snopes, themselves in their own ways as much a danger to ordered society as Flem is becoming, prove to be interesting characters in their own right.

As noted above, “The Peasants” contains the nucleus of the story of Flem bringing back wild, unbroken ponies from Texas and engaging in a series of horseflesh tradings that enriches him at the expense of others.  Now the owner of the old Frenchman plantation house, Flem’s last exploit involves his manipulation of local legend regarding buried treasure to cement his new position as the new lord of the land.  The story ends with Flem setting off for Jefferson and the events chronicled in “Centaur in Brass.”  It is an effective conclusion to this stage in Flem’s rise to power, as it sets the stage for future events without feeling like the story was ending on a cliffhanger or hadn’t been developed properly.  The Hamlet can function well as an independent novel, albeit one full of references to other stories published both before and after its initial release.  It is not one of Faulkner’s greatest novels, but it certainly is an excellent story in its own right, full of well-developed characters and some of the funniest scenes in any of Faulkner’s fiction.  It sets the stage for several stories to follow, making it a valuable part of Faulkner’s œuvre.

Brief thoughts on the Nebula shortlists

So the latest installment of the Nebula Awards shortlists have now been released.  It's a list, yes, but as a reader of all sorts of fictions, it is a disappointing list, one that (especially in the novel category, but to some degree in other categories) still gives off that faint miasmic whiff of logrolling and "political" blocs.  Yes, there are some very good works on there (including two on the Novel shortlist), but really do we have to nominate yet another Jack McDevitt or his seeming generational successor, Ann Leckie?

Perhaps as an increasingly distant outsider, I am missing some subtly great stories, but it seems, based on admittedly spotty sampling of the finalists, that while there is some experimentation and broadening of scope beyond the so-called "core genre," that no matter how much some gussy up their tales with needed socio-cultural diverse characters and locales, the main content and story focus remain very much stuck in the same paradigms of the past four decades.  The majority of the stories I've read from these SF publishers are stagnant; they seem to focus more on demonstrating too much of an "awareness" of previous genre stories, skimping too much on developing new models, new techniques for these changing worlds of ours.

Maybe I'm just disappointed that this feels like the literary equivalent of Nickelback or Coldplay.  Sure, many loved them once, but the repetition of formula yields diminishing returns over the years.  Same seems to hold true with contemporary SF, or at least that which is heralded as being of it, by it, and for it and its dedicated readers.  The best SF these days, ironically, seems to be written by "literary fiction" writers.  Whenever it is translated into English, Antoine Volodine's Terminus radieux may be one of the better post-Collapse novels written this decade.  David Cronenberg's Consumed easily can be read as a SF novel, albeit one that focuses more on characterization and how people slot into an increasingly voyeuristic world.  John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van does a much better job at portraying a SFnal community/ethos than did Jo Walton's Among Others.  These books, which are just the tip of the iceberg of 2014 releases that contained SF elements, certainly would have made for a more interesting novel category than the majority of the nominees.  Again, McDevitt?  Leckie?  A disappointing Addison/Monette novel (she's written much better work, especially her short stories)?  These are the best SF novels of 2014 according to SFWA?  I cannot help but think either whole swaths of excellent stories were not read by the majority of the voters or that perhaps self-interest justified supporting some tales at the expense of plausibly much more qualified narratives.

But in the end, does it really matter, any of this?  Increasingly, I've become convinced that it doesn't.  I'm surprised that I wrote this much about a matter that is less important than discovering and championing stories that are published on the margins of these literary subfields.  Now back to reading other imaginative fictions, perchance to marvel over.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Jack London, The Call of the Wild

During the four years since his puppyhood he [Buck] had lived the life of a sated aristocrat; he had a fine pride in himself, was even a trifle egotistical, as country gentlemen sometimes become because of their insular situation.  But he had saved himself by not becoming a mere pampered house-dog.  Hunting and kindred outdoor delights had kept down the fat and hardened his muscles; and to him, as to the cold-tubbing races, the love of water had been a tonic and a health preserver.  (p. 6, Library of America edition)
The story of Buck, a St. Bernard-Scotch shepherd dog, is Jack London’s most famous tale.  In less than a hundred pages, he explores the changes in Buck as he transforms from a symbol of civilized life to the epitome of “savagery.”  Yet this simple description does not hint at the wealth of social commentaries that London makes in this novella.

The Call of the Wild begins in the Santa Clara valley in California in 1897 with a description of Buck before he is stolen away and told to trainers seeking suitably large dogs to haul the dog sleds during the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1899.  The depravities that Buck endures, learning the “law of club and fang,” are vividly described in the second chapter:
 He had never seen dogs fight as these wolfish creatures fought, and his first experience taught him an unforgetable lesson.  It is true, it was a vicarious experience, else he would not have lived to profit by it.  Curly was the victim. They were camped near the log store, where she, in her friendly way, make advances to a husky dog the size of a full-grown wolf, though not half so large as she.  There was no warning, only a leap in like a flash, a metallic clip of teeth, a leap out equally swift, and Curly’s face was ripped open from eye to jaw. (p. 15)
In the span of less than ten pages, we witness Buck’s initial transformation.  Exposed rudely to the violent code of kill or be killed through the sudden killing of the friendly Curly, Buck is confronted with a dilemma:  does he try to resist the changes being forced upon him, or does he learn to adapt to this brutal code of life in which there are no such concepts as “fair play” or “equal treatment.”  London does an excellent job of using Buck’s situation to allow us greater insight into not only what the more “civilized” dogs had to face in the harsh Arctic clime, but also how humans themselves had to shed off layers of civilized behavior if they were to able to survive.

London’s prose mirrors the changes in Buck.  At first, there is almost a staid pomposity to Buck’s initial self-description, but as he becomes acclimated to the sled pack and learns how to fight back against the cruel, imperious Spitz for control of the pack, his observations and thoughts become sharper, more staccato in their bursts of activity.  There is lesser and lesser room for introspective thought as the pack makes their way toward Dawson City, the hub of activity during the gold rush.  The focus shifts more to the immediate, materialistic aspects:  will there be enough food to eat tonight?; how shall dominance be shown or rejected?; and how to make shelter against the blistering wintry winds?  This narrative shift occurs gradually, enabling readers to make connections between events and their subsequent effect on Buck’s behavior and thoughts.
 
It is tempting to describe what The Call of the Wild is about:  a staging of Social Darwinist “survival of the fittest” in the Klondike; a reverse “hero’s journey” through the shedding of layers of civilization to reach a pristine primordial state; or conflicts of an anthropomorphic dog against self, nature, and other dog-men.  There certainly are elements in the story that supports each point of view, especially in how Buck comes to relate to his succession of so-called masters and his increasing unwillingness to follow the “law of club” blindly.  This can be seen in how he subverts Spitz’s authority before dethroning him in a fight to the death that resembles that of Spitz’s savage treatment of Curly; but even more in how he refuses to follow the inept Hal down into certain death in a Yukon about to shed its icy mantle.

However, there is more to The Call of the Wild than these plausible themes.  Although it is rarely stated until the final chapters, there is the condition of affectionate love that is part and parcel of Buck’s transformation from civilized dog to one who ultimately answers “the call of the wild.”  This is most evident in his time spent with the outdoorsman John Thornton and how theirs is a bond that transcends normal civilized niceties (Thornton’s swearing at Buck and Buck’s leaving teeth imprints in Thornton’s hand both are signs of rebellion against “normal” polite signs of affection).  This is most readily apparent in a wager that Thornton makes that Buck, without any cracks of the whip from Thornton, could haul a half-ton sled 100 yards.  When Buck manages to achieve the seemingly impossible, winning Thornton $1600, Thornton is made a staggering offer for Buck:
Every man was tearing himself loose, even Matthewson.  Hats and mittens were flying in the air.  Men were shaking hands, it did not matter with whom, and bubbling over in a general incoherent babel.
But Thornton fell on his knees beside Buck.  Head was against head, and he was shaking him back and forth.  Those who hurried up heard him cursing Buck, and he cursed him long and fervently, and softly and lovingly.
“Gad, sir!  Gad, sir!” spluttered the Skookum Bench king.  “I’ll give you a thousand for him, sir, a thousand, sir – twelve hundred, sir.”
Thornton rose to his feet.  His eyes were wet.  The tears were streaming frankly down his cheeks.  “Sir,” he said to the Skookum Bench king, “no, sir.  You can go to hell, sir.  It’s the best I can do for you, sir.”
Buck seized Thornton’s hand in his teeth.  Thornton shook him back and forth.  As though animated by a common impulse, the onlookers drew back to a respectful distance; nor were they again indiscreet enough to interrupt.” (p. 70)

It is here, and in two scenes at the very end of the novel, where the bonds of affection are shown to be both the last tie to civilization and the first bond to savage, pristine communion with the wild.  Here is the antidote to Buck’s first harsh treatment at the hands of the man in the red sweater, there is the rejection of absolute authority as seen in the futile attempts of Hal to drive Buck into mortal danger.  By building up Buck’s voluntary bond to Thornton, London provides a deeper answer to Buck’s series of internal conflicts:  the shedding of civilized values does not mean a rejection of communal ties but instead a truer reaffirmation of them.  This in turn makes the final scene in The Call of the Wild one of the most powerful moments in American literature and the novella one of the most moving works of American literature.
 
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