The OF Blog: March 2008

Monday, March 31, 2008

Author Spotlight: Julio Cortázar

While I'm as much of a Jorge Luis Borges fan as most reading this little post, I cannot help but to wonder at the relative paucity of words on spec fic-related sites and blogs about one of Borges's compatriots, one who is in his own way just as much of a master of the short fiction form and of inventive prose as was Borges himself. An author whose stories contain such a richness of scene and of character as to give them an atmosphere that could be chilling whenever he so chose to explore those paths.

I am talking about Julio Cortázar. I have been reading the two-volume collection of his short stories these past few weeks, and I cannot help but to marvel at how well Cortázar constructs a vivid image with just a few brush strokes. Add to that the masterpiece that was his "novel," Rayuela (Hopscotch in the English-speaking market), and here was an author that pushed hard to find the limits of the storytelling form. There are haunted places in Cortázar's fictions, places that are much more immediate and personal than what would find in say a Borges or an Adolfo Bioy Casares. But just because Cortázar was more direct in his short stories does not mean that he failed to write stories that linger with the reader. If any have seen the 1960s movie Blow Up, they might have learned at some point that the film is based upon a translated story of Cortázar's of that name, ("Las babas del diablo" in Spanish). Although I have yet to see the movie, after reading the story, I cannot help but to think that the movie will be an experience different from most.

As for Rayuela, years before Milorad Pavić thought to write his encyclopedia-style novel The Dictionary of the Khazars, Cortázar constructed a tale in which the order of events can be read in multiple ways, creating a very non-linear flow to what on the surface appears to be a tragic love story. It is moving, original, and the narrative conceit that Cortázar employs here works extremely well. Yet there are few paeans being written for Cortázar on genre sites, at least compared to Borges and others who straddle the imaginary line between "mainstream literary" and "genre" literature. It is a crying shame. This is an author who deserves to be read by those who read within the genre as much as those who read outside it.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Coda to review philosophies

Meant to post this earlier, but over the past 36 hours or so, there have been no less than three separate posts on reviewing and what constitutes a good review that have made that reference my recent posts on the subject. Just in case there are a few people living under a rock who visit my blog and not these other fine blogs, here are a few links.

Matthew Cheney writes a very well-argued piece on reviewing that covers a wide range of topics.

Jay Tomio touches upon the issue of how different reviewers have different reviewing goals. While I agree with much of what Jay says, part of me still can't help but to wonder if online reviewers ought to be challenging themselves more if they want to perfect the "craft" part of their blogging hobby.

And finally, Jeff VanderMeer gives his thoughts on what constitutes a good review and things that a conscientious reviewer ought to avoid when writing a review.

Good stuff here in all three links, and I'm not just saying that because I got referred to in all three of them. What I'd give to be linked to a well-argued post about how some of my reviews are weak and to advice that points out ways of strengthening those reviews. Never above wanting to improve and to push myself in pursuing this mostly unpaid hobby of mine.

Edit: Abigail Nussbaum and Cheryl Morgan also have interesting comments and links related to this discussion.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Jeff VanderMeer, The Situation

Some of the strangest fiction is based on everyday relationships. From the rituals that people do in waking up, to how we hope for a desired outcome (from praying to the various "rain dances" seen during dry spells, etc.), to how we engage in power struggles along the way of developing personal and professional relationships with other people, when we extract these actions from their "normal" setting and place them in an imagined situation, all sorts of strange, unsettling interpretations can ensue.

In Jeff VanderMeer's just released novella, The Situation, office politics plays a central role in creating an atmosphere that is as haunting for how familiar it is for the reader as it is for its modified humans and the rather grotesque objects being produced in this office situation. The story opens with a description of the narrator's manager:

My Manager was extremely thin, made of plastic, with paper covering the plastic. They had always hoped, I thought, that one day her heart would start, but her heart remained a dry leaf that drifted in her ribcage, animated to lift and fall only by her breathing. Sometimes, when my Manager was angry, she would become so hot that the paper covering her would ignite, and the plastic beneath would begin to melt. I didn't know what to say in such situations. It seemed best to say nothing and avert my gaze. Over time, the runneled plastic of her arms became a tableau of insane images, leviathans and tall ships rising out of the whorling, and stranger things still. I would stare at her arms so I did not have to stare at her face. I never knew her name. We were never allowed to know our Manager's name. (Some called her their "Damager," though.) (p. 5)
Many of us have known supervisors that we would never dare think were human or who actually possessed a heart; some I never dared call by anything other than "sir" or "ma'am." Imagining a boss with such metaphorical features as a non-functioning heart as becoming literal in this story helps to draw in those readers who need some sort of "anchor" to fasten themselves to the story unfolding here. But as easy as it would be to develop a tale revolving solely around an employee's precarious position with his/her bosses, it is in the complex, byzantine relationships that the narrator/employee has with his colleagues that makes this story easy to relate with, even as the strangeness of the company grows with each passing page.

Co-workers are often as much of a nuisance as a comfort, when they are not outright being one's enemy. I have worked mostly as a schoolteacher over the past decade and while the politics there differ greatly in some aspects from those of business offices, there is still quite a bit of professional jealousy that transpires between the classrooms as there does from cubicle to cubicle. Add to that the pettiness that supervisors or other colleagues can have from time to time, and the situation can grow quite hairy:

For a while, everything went well. We built the fish by hand and it took shape with a coherent design. I noticed a certain reluctance on the part of Scarskirt and Leer, but in general everyone seemed happy with my efforts.

Then the Manager finally decided to attend a meeting. Ten minutes into the meeting, she burst into flames and stood up.

We all shied away from her as she said, "The fish was to have my face. That is the last design to materialize in my office and none of what you have done since has been sent to me for approval, or is acceptable to me in any way."

This business about approval was blatantly untrue. I had sent her several messages about the changes. I had used her favorite message method: tiny crunchy bats that spurted the long-lost flavors of marzipan, chocolate mousse, and apple pie into your mouth even as you cracked down on the bones to receive the information.

But when my Manager visited my office later, she professed ignorance. She said she had not gotten any of my messages. (pp. 20-21).
Behind this weird design product and the equally strange message delivery system lies familiar territory for a great many workers: turf battles, the desire of superiors to put their own stamp on matters, and the profession of ignorance when it suits the person involved. Perhaps the oddities mentioned in this story are all the more noticeable because many readers might find themselves remembering how the foreman somehow managed to get his/her name added at the last minute to a group project that they had shunted away to another to handle during the formative stages, only to assume control when the process was nearing completion. Maybe this situation is not as far-out as one might presume from a simple glance at the surface features.

For me, the central theme of the story is revealed when the narrator describes how one of his co-workers has changed:

Complicating matters, Mord, I soon discovered, had also become part of their network. Despite all of his promises, Mord had changed once he moved to Human Resources. He was now partially composed of some large furred animal, almost like a bear. He began to emit a musk that someone told me was supposed to have a calming effect on the employees. He retained his hands, but they morphed to become more like those of a raccoon. His eyes had been enlarged and refitted so he could see at night. In the dark hallways of some floors it was rumored that he whirled around and snarled and bit the air, as if encased in a straitjacket.

For a month or so, Mord had taken to following me around, and this gave hope that all would be normal. He wouldn't talk to me, but he would stand in the doorway of my office. Waiting.

Soon, though, I discovered it wasn't really Mord. It was just a shadow Mord had made of himself, and at the Manager's direction each employee had been assigned shadows. After a time, I ignored Mord's shadow and it went away.

As for the real Mord, he rarely came to our floor anymore, and if he did it was to visit Leer's office. I only saw him if he had official business.

When I suggested he come over to my apartment sometime, he ignored me.

When I suggested we go looking for sparrows, he ignored me.

For all intents and purposes, Mord had forsaken me. He had become Other. (pp. 22-23).

I have worked with people who have changed when they gained a promotion; currently, I am experiencing something akin to that now that I am working in a different capacity in a place with many co-workers of mine from a former department. It is odd, rather unsettling at times, how people distance themselves when new responsibilities are added. It can create a sense of alienation, especially when some question just how you managed to rise to such a position without you breaking any ties or changing from what you were. It is as lonely at any new position as it is at the top. This seems to be part of the narrative undercurrent here and in this scene, where Mord has become "Other," it feels so true, in part because I have been through it before on occasion.

These passages highlight only the beginnings of the narrative disillusionment and separation that precede the events of the last half of the novella. VanderMeer's characters stay true to the form established in the opening sections and as the narrator's situation, trapped in a place where he struggles to maintain himself against the crushing pressures from peers and supervisors alike, develops, the reader likely will find him/herself identifying more and more with what is transpiring, until the end is reached and the silly, stupid weirdness of such a corporate setting is revealed for what it truly is: a wretched situation. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: March 2008 (UK only), limited-edition hardcover; released as a free e-book.

Publisher: PS Publishing


Here I was, thinking that the recent FBS tournament matchups were tough. Then I happened to find out about this Tournament of Books matchup. Roberto Bolaño's most excellent (and posthumous) work, The Savage Detectives, versus Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Might as well asked me if I wanted my testicles or my voicebox removed.

Two outstanding books by two Latino writers, each with its own rhythm and sense of place, each with wildly different narrators and themes, yet with a similarly high prose and storytelling quality to each of them. Two books that I would have had on my Best of 2007 shortlist for certain if it weren't for two little factors (I read Bolaño's work in Spanish back in 2004; I didn't read Díaz's book until after I had crafted my shortlist). Two stories that deserve a wider genre presence than what they are getting. Because after all, it's a fucking shame sometimes that so many people's reading preferences fall so neatly in line with genre marketing categories. What I'd give for those who want to go ahead and proclaim the umpteenth volume of a multivolume work or the "edgy urban" whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it debut or whatnot to just give either/both of these books a chance. I reviewed the Díaz back in January and I believe you can search the blog archives for that. The Bolaño I'd sum up inadequately (it's been a couple of years and I don't know what choices the English translator(s) made with the rather unconventional narrative style that Bolaño used to great effect in the Spanish-language original) as being a literal and metaphorical trip for identity and the seeking out of what was lost to both time and place.

So while my own vote would change based on my current mood, I still want to urge people to at least consider reading/reviewing these excellent books that aren't garden-variety strictly-genre books. If you have read/reviewed either one and are reading this, I'd also love a link to it posted in the Comments section, if you don't mind. After all, I am still all about pimping the best literature.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A few quick thoughts

Truth truly is stranger than fiction: I have a female student who has tried to convince me that she was born in Mexico and didn't learn English until 5 years ago, when she was in the 4th grade. She has a pronounced Tennessee accent and her educational records state she was born in the state. But yet she's so convinced of this. Madness takes many forms.

An observation: so many epic fantasies seem to spend so much time regaling the reader with discussions of arcane lore, heraldry, and the latest in battle armor, but yet virtually all wildlife depicted, unless monstrous, have the most common and original names. Wherefore art the orioles or cardinals or other pretty songbirds? Whence hath the badgers, sloths, opposums, and skunks gone? I guess "worldbuilding" is only skin-deep and human shallow in its exploration of the flora and fauna.

Related observation: I have this growing sense that too many so-called "spec fic" stories either are products of a bourgeois mindset or are written in opposition to what is perceived to a bourgeois mindset. Good thing that there are more and more societies in which such "indulgent" literature and its writers can be permitted to eek out a less than precarious living.

Some authors recommend excellent books to readers such as I: I recently finished two books that Jeff VanderMeer suggested to me, Brian Evenson's 2004 story collection, The Wavering Knife, and Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods. These books are outstanding in their prose, their themes, and in how they likely will stick in my head for some time to come. And speaking of VanderMeer, I was planning on writing a short review of his just-released novella, The Situation, tonight, but then I remembered that my beloved University of Tennessee Volunteers are playing tonight. Perhaps Friday afternoon will be good, although I do have that third Abercrombie review to write as well this weekend.

Unsettling read: A little over two years ago, I was one of a handful of people who got to read an e-draft of Scott Bakker's take on the near-future thriller, Neuropath. Now it is about to be released in the UK, Canada, and the US this year and Fantasy Bookspot snared an exclusive release of the Prologue and the first chapter. This is one of the few books that gave me nightmares after I read it; it is not for those who are averse to graphic depictions of violation (as this is more than a physical rape that is explored). However, it is very well-written and the questions raised do bear consideration.

Author fighting for kudos: FBS is also hosting their second annual Author Tournament and in the Elite Eight, Nick Mamatas is matched up against Paul Kemp, who has written some well-received Forgotten Realms tie-in novels. Mamatas discovered this after an ego search and well...babies are at stake here. Since most babies aren't of the devil, I voted for Mamatas here and I'd encourage some of you to do the same before voting closes in a couple of days.

And that's about it for now. I will close by noting that Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a provocative read, one that I've enjoyed greatly during my lunch breaks the past couple of days. Shall try to finish it tonight before starting on Michael Cisco's The Tyrant.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Joe Abercrombie, Before They Are Hanged

The middle section of a trilogy series generally suffers from the "middle child" syndrome. Such books are expected to maintain the momentum of the opening section, to expand and explore more what was revealed in that volume, to ratchet up the intrigue, conflicts, and character development, while all the time doing this without a defined beginning and end. A great many middle volumes suffer under the weight of such reader expectations, often justified by the author devoting too much time towards one course of action at the expense of another.

In many ways, Joe Abercrombie's Before They Are Hanged is a standard middle volume. The events of The Blade Itself are explored in more depth, while the action expands to an even larger scale from the first volume. But unlike many other writers of multivolume epic fantasies, Abercrombie's focus is more on the characters than on the scenery. As with many other character-driven stories, one's enjoyment of the book (and the series) will ultimately depend upon how much one can empathize with his characters.

Before They Are Hanged begins very soon after the events of The Blade Itself. The Union is further pressed by the Gurkish Empire and the cannibalistic outlaws, the Eaters, led by one of twelve former apprentices to one of the greatest Mages of all time. The crippled, cynical Inquisitor, Superior Glokta, has been charged to solve the disappearance of his predecessor while the capital is threatened by enemy forces both within and outside the city walls. The mysterious and rather self-important mage Bayaz, another of the twelve former apprentices of Euz, has begun a quest to find a mysterious but deadly artifact from the old days before the First Law was declared and all contact with the Other World is forbidden. Bayaz's motley band of companions, from the feared Logen Ninefingers (often better known by his moniker of the Bloody Nine) to the surly and somewhat mysterious Ferro Maljinn to the effete nobleman Jezal dan Luthar, based on their plot situations would seem to be drawn from Epic Fantasy Casting Central. However, Abercrombie is not satisfied with following the tried-and-true formula for writing an epic fantasy quest, instead aiming to turn some of its conventions on its head. Whether or not he succeeds in this is up to the reader; for myself, a re-read this past week left me with mixed feelings regarding the execution.

As in the first book, Glokta is the most nuanced and intriguing character. Here, we learn more about how he went from being an acclaimed war hero to a tortured prisoner to the Inquisitor Superior of the present story. In a key passage early in the book, Glokta is conversing with Kahdia, one of Dagoska's councilors. The talk is of the impending Gurkish invasion, but Glokta's rather cynical appraisal of the similarities between the two groups sparks a heated response:

"To an outsider, the two of you seem to have much in common."

"To an ignorant outsider, we do. We both have dark skin, and we both pray to God, but that is the full extent of the similarity. We Dagoskans have never been a warlike people. We remained here on our peninsula, confident in the strength of our defences, while the Gurkish Empire spread like a cancer across the Kantic continent. We thought their conquests were none of our concern. That was our folly. Emissaries came to our gates, demanding that we kneel before the Gurkish Emperor, and acknowledge that the prophet Khalul speaks with the voice of God. We would do neither, and Khalul swore to destroy us. Now, it seems, he will finally succeed. All of the South will be his dominion." And the Arch Lector will not be in the least amused.

"Who knows? Perhaps God will come to your aid."

"God favors those who solve their own problems."

"Perhaps we can solve some problems between us."

"I have no interest in helping you."

"Even if you help yourself as well? I have it in mind to issue a decree. The gates of the Upper City will be opened, your people will be allowed to come and go in their own city as they please. The Spicers will be turned out of the Great Temple, and it shall once again be your sacred ground. The Dagoskans will be permitted to carry arms; indeed, we will provide you with weapons from our own armories. The natives will be treated like full citizens of the Union. They deserve nothing less."

"So. So." Kahdia clasped his hands together and sat back in his creaking chair. "Now, with the Gurkish knocking at the gates, you come to Dagoska, flaunting your little scroll as though it was the word of God, and you choose to do the right thing. You are not like all the others. You are a good man, a fair man, a just man. You expect me to believe this?"

"Honestly? I don't care a shit what you believe, and I care about doing the right thing even less - that's all a matter of who you ask. As for being a good man," and Glokta curled his lip, "that ship sailed long ago, and I wasn't even there to wave it off. I'm interested in holding Dagoska. That and nothing else." (pp. 89-90 Pyr ARC edition)
Glokta claims here to be anything but interested in doing what is "good," however his actions immediately following this and towards the end of the book belie those disclaimers. His character is done quite well, especially in this scene, however there were times in his chapters that too much emphasis is placed on telling what is transpiring, stating what these characters are, rather than relying upon the inherent tension between a knowledgeable epic fantasy reader's expectations for such a stock character's purpose and actions and what Abercrombie actually has this character and others accomplish. While this is not something that kills any enjoyment that may be derived from the book, I found myself wishing more and more as the story progressed that Abercrombie would have kept the hints of "hey, this stock character is not going to react in stock character type but instead in more cynical and 'real' ways!" to a minimum, as I felt it impeded the flow of the story.

This tendency becomes more pronounced in the Quest segment involving Bayaz and crew. While Abercrombie does not have magically easy lust/love spring up between sparring partners, the situation that does arise depends too much at times upon reader expectations of such events for there to be anything really meaningful occurring between the characters. Ferro and Logan's later interactions appear to be played up more for giggles in places than for any real establishment of a complex and rich character interaction. The same goes for Bayaz and his erstwhile apprentice, Quai; the amount of sniping and snide remarks ends up feeling as though Abercrombie laid it on too thick, making for characters that feel restrained too much by the plot demands from becoming true three-dimensional characters that are "alive" and which "breathe" outside of the plot demands.

As a plotted story, Before They Are Hanged reads well on a first read. The choppiness of the first book has been smoothed out and the action develops nicely. There are scenes full of great dramatic tension, but ultimately the uneven characterization and the over-reliance upon cynical takes on stock characters makes for a story whose promise remains somewhat unfulfilled. Before They Are Hanged is far from a bad story; it really is quite good in places. It just fails in those "little things" from rising to become an excellent middle volume. Recommended, with some reservations regarding re-readability.

Publication Date: March 2007 (UK), hardcover and tradeback; March 2008 (US), tradeback.

Publishers: Gollancz (UK); Pyr (US)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Troublesome Review

Right now, I am struggling to corral my thoughts regarding two books. One of these really has to be done in the very near future, as it's for another publication and the other is the book that precedes it in an epic fantasy trilogy. When I first read them back in mid-February, I thought they were really good, but a re-read (with notations done of passages and character shifts, etc.) has downgraded my opinion of these two books. I have come to disagree with how the author went about developing his characters and how these characterizations really do not seem to fit well with the types of situations in which these characters have been placed. But yet there is much to recommend these works for many readers and I am trying to find that balance between exploring what irked me in these two books and what I felt were some very strong points that are going to appeal to certain types of readers.

This is not the first time that I have found myself at a lost for words when it came to attempting a review of a book. Before this, I read Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss this past year and while there was much that I really liked about the book, there was that je ne sais quoi element to that liking that I could not render into words; the weaker elements I recall were easier to discern. But yet I ultimately thought this book was a strong effort, one worthy of award consideration, but I just could not find a suitable approach for discussing this in a review essay.

Normally, I would wait until some time had passed and do a re-read before writing, but for the case I mention in my opening paragraph, I just cannot, as I really have to have these two written and submitted before the end of the month if at all possible. It's like this block that I'm having; I cannot seem to go around it. I have read books that I really do want to review, but I feel as though I have to get these two completed to my satisfaction before I can in good conscience review these others. Some of these are excellent books, such as Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods, which I finished reading tonight, or Tom Corwin's Mr. Fooster: Traveling on a Whim, which is due for a June release. I really want to explore those as well as writing a comparative essay on two new books that touch upon issues of privacy in a modern world in very different ways, Isamu Fukui's Truancy and Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. But not until I can come to terms with myself on my ultimate feeling regarding those two books. Perhaps I'll just work this uncertainty into the reviews and perhaps it'll all coalesce into workable reviews in the next day or two. But damn it's frustrating when books make for troublesome reviews.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Various award finalists and my review plans for them

Ah, spring is here and with the bird chirping and the trees fucking themselves and our sinus cavities, it must mean that it is time for the usual spate of spec fic awards announcements. I decided to wait a bit before linking to the various finalists, but here are a few interesting finalists (for novels only, although I do plan on reading the shorter fiction where possible):

Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Red Men: Matthew de Abaitua - Snow Books
The H-Bomb Girl: Stephen Baxter - Faber & Faber
The Carhullan Army: Sarah Hall - Faber & Faber
The Raw Shark Texts: Steven Hall - Canongate
The Execution Channel: Ken MacLeod - Orbit
Black Man: Richard Morgan - Gollancz

I have read only one of these so far (the Morgan), but I recently placed an order for the Hall and I do hope to have bought, read, and reviewed at least some of these six months in advance of the April 30 awards ceremonies.

Nebula Award

Tobias Buckell, Ragamuffin
Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Joe Haldeman, The Accidental Time Machine
Nalo Hopkinson, The New Moon's Arms
Jack McDevitt, Odyssey

I have read the Buckell and Hopkinson last year and recently received a copy of the Chabon. I do plan on buying the other two in advance of the awards announcement, which is scheduled for the weekend of April 25-27.

Hugo Award

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Ian McDonald, Brasyl
Robert J. Sawyer, Rollback
John Scalzi, The Last Colony
Charles Stross, Halting State

I haven't read any of these yet, although I do have the Chabon and will order the others before the 2008 WorldCon in Denver, which meets August 6-10.

Of the three awards, I have to say that I am the least enthused by the Hugo list. Besides the failure of Richard Morgan's Black Man/Thirteen to make the list (along with a dozen or more 2007 releases that I believe are better quality stories than the finalists, an expected reaction I suppose), I have had lukewarm to negative reactions to stories by Sawyer, McDonald, and Stross. I did enjoy some of Chabon's earlier fiction and am looking forward to reading his entry, but I am hesitant to try Scalzi's work, mostly because I am not interested in the sort of story (based on blurbs and a few reviews I've read over the years) that he prefers to tell. I will give them all a shot, but with a sense of trepidation.

The Nebulas are a mixed bag in my opinion. I did enjoy the Hopkinson and Buckell and Hopkinson's book made it onto my personal Best of 2007 shortlist while the Buckell was on the extended list. Again, I have high hopes for the Chabon, while the Haldeman and McDevitt books just seem to be indicators of the growing belief that there is a "voting bloc" among the SFWA members that chooses friendship above story quality. Whether or not it's true doesn't matter as much as the perception that such things are occurring.

The Clarke shortlist intrigues me the most. Although I've only read the Morgan, I have been curious about most of the others on that shortlist and from what I've gathered, there is a broader range of styles between those six novels.

On a related note, Victoria Hoyle has done a lengthy and interesting two-part examination of the finalists for the Crawford Award (awarded for the best debut work in "fantasy" - with the quotation marks to indicate that there isn't a strictly-defined meaning). While I have read, enjoyed, and reviewed the winning book, Christopher Barzak's One for Sorrow, I am not as familiar with the other finalists and based on her comments and how she provided small samples of their style and prose, I might just have to go out and buy some of these to read and to review in the coming months.

I guess I better get back into the reviewing swing of things sooner rather than later if I want to have informed opinions on these books when the winners are announced.

Something for people to consider

No thoughts on this tonight, as I'm about to crash, but here's an interesting excerpt from Jacques Derrida's "Law of Genre" that I think bears some consideration when we read debates about genre classifications:

The law is mad. The law is mad, is madness; but madness is not the predicate of law. There is no madness without the law; madness cannot be conceived before its relation to law. Madness is law, the law is madness. There is a general trait here: the madness of law mad for me, the silhouette of my daughter mad about me, her mother, etc. But La Folie du jour, An (accountless) Account?, carrying and miscarrying its titles, is not at all exemplary of this general trait. Not at all, not wholly. This is not an example of a general or generic whole. The whole, which begins by finishing and never finishes beginning apart from itself, the whole that stays at the edgeless boundary of itself, the whole greater and less than a whole and nothing, An Account? will not have been exemplary. Rather, with regard to the whole, it will have been wholly counter-exemplary.

The genre has always in all genres been able to play the role of order's principle: resemblance, analogy, identity and difference, taxonomic classification, organization and genealogical tree, order of reason, order of reasons, sense of sense, truth of truth, natural light and sense of history. Now, the test of An Account? brought to light the madness of genre. Madness has given birth to and thrown light on the genre in the most dazzling, most blinding sense of the word. And in the writing of An Account?, in literature, satrically practicing all genres, imbiding them but never allowing herself to be saturated with a catalog of genres, she, madness, has started spinning Peterson's genre-disc like a demented sun. And she does not only do so in literature, for in concealing the boundaries that sunder mode and genre, she has also inundated and divided the borders between literature and its others.

OK, one related thought (or more): Can order ever be "natural," or is it always an "artificial" imposition upon chaos (which itself is a debatable term, if one goes far enough)? Are the writings that we label as being of such-and-such genre(s) more reflections of pre-conceptions of the world, or are such writings active agents in creating such pre-conceptions of the world?

I think I better go to sleep now, before I write something too esoteric for discussion.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

An open letter to self-conscious reviewers

There has been an interesting discussion occurring in the comments section of this post. When I linked to it yesterday, I did so with the intent of showing how another blogger was justifying his approach in light of my post on muddled negative reviews. Points and counterpoints on that point were made early in Pat's response, but then he shifted into territory that made a few people uncomfortable:

I've told every blogger who has asked me for advice the same thing: Be yourself. You must have your own voice and not try to do what everyone is doing. Sadly, not everyone took this counsel to heart. The problem with a lot of the newer SFF bloggers out there is that they have no voice. You read their stuff, and it feels as though they are afraid to offer their honest opinion. It seems that they don't want their personality to shine through their words, as if afraid that the supply of ARCs and review copies will dwindle and die if they say anything wrong. Gabe Chouinard had a voice. Jay Tomio has a voice. William Lexner has a voice. Rob Bedford and Mark (Hobbit) from have a voice. The same can be said of all of those who helped start the Blogosphere phenomenon which took the genre by storm a while back. We didn't give a damn and we could be brutally honest. Passion for the genre was what fuelled us, not any promises for rewards. After all, publishers saw us as little more than turds back then.
Some of the newer SFF review bloggers felt a bit uncomfortable by this, as if they were wondering whether or not Pat was referring to them when he talked about a "lack of voice." Questions were raised and addressed in the comments. If you are curious about that, just click on the link above and read all of the responses. However, I want to address a few points not raised in the comments on Pat's blog.

I do agree that too often there is a sense of "sameness" about many reviews, which is part of the motivation behind my recent posts on what I believe ought to be part of a strong review. If one wants to get the sense of what book is being "pushed," all that reader would have to do is visit a dozen or so blogs over the course of 1-2 weeks and see if the same book is being mentioned and/or reviewed during that span on at least half of those. That is all fine and dandy; it is the nature of the publicity beast. "Buzz" happens for whatever reason and far be it for me to criticize people for reviewing what they've heard about and which seems to be closest to their heart.

There is that worrisome "but what if..." behind all this, however. But what if people aren't daring to be themselves in these reviews, especially those who are receiving review copies from the publishers? But what if these reviewers are writing with an eye for publicity or for the tangible rewards of review blogging? But what if these guys and gals aren't being honest with themselves and others? But what if they are just so damn self-conscious about everything that they don't dare to explore and to challenge?

I'll answer all those "but what if..." questions with one of my own: But what if I don't give two rat shits on a stick about what others are going to believe about my motivations? I take criticism, especially that of the constructive type, quite well. I love to hear from those who have different takes from mine or from those who are willing to take the time to point out weaknesses in my writing or in my analysis. I believe if you're positively self-centered enough to spend hours a week writing words about something that another has written, you better then believe in yourself enough to go out and do what you like.

I post about multilingual matters. One of my favorite authors is a dead, blind Argentine short story writer, poet, and literary critic. Another is a Serbian fabulist. A third is a dead 20th century Irish novelist and short story writer. While there are a few similarities between the three, they differ markedly in their approaches to constructing a story and in how they use language to create vivid mental landscapes. They dared to write things that differed from others around them, while still acknowledging the influence of others from disparate writing disciplines.
I believe reviewers can take something from that. Don't just read whatever gets the most "press." Don't just read what the publishers send you. Don't just read within a narrow definition of genre. Jeff VanderMeer recently wrote on this and his advice is quite good:

Read books you don’t like. You gain as much from understanding what you don’t like and knowing why as from reading work you approve of.
Some people online and in my personal life have this mistaken belief that I am well-read. I am not. While it is true that I have read thousands of books from dozens of time periods, nationalities, genres, and so forth, I have explored just enough to know that I barely have scratched the surface. Sometimes, an active search turns up a treasure trove of books, such as my discovery from Edward Whittemore and Ngugi wa Thiong'o after I read positive comments from a few trusted authors and fellow review bloggers. Other times, I have read mediocre-to-poor books based on recs, such as Scott Lynch's disappointing second novel. But in each case, I dared enough to go out and buy those books. Too often, all I see mentioned on the majority of the blogs listed in the Review Blogs section of my blog are only the "latest" and "best" books. Where are those hunts for the diamonds in the rough? Where are the critiques of the strengths and weaknesses of books that don't fit comfortably into any pre-defined niche?

I cannot help but to wonder if there is a missing of the forest for the trees effect going on here with many review blogs. Referring back to Pat's post, he makes a comment with which I disagree strongly:

I recently read about how many SFF reviewers felt that fandom had become fragmented to a degree which was alarming. From where I'm sitting, that couldn't be further from the truth. For the first time in the history of the genre, people have a choice as to where they want to go for reviews, articles, and related material. Which, in the end, explains the proliferation of blogs and websites everywhere. And that's as it should be. Instead of being forced to read John Clute and his ilk (which we had no choice to do for years and years and years), fans now have the luxury to go where they please. Some come here, while many others visit a panoply of blogs, websites, fanzines, etc. Fandom is driven by the same passion for SFF; the last couple of years have presented them with alternatives regarding where they can now get their information.
This belief in one big happy (and unified) community I believe demonstrates a lack of awareness of all of various subgenres and approaches out there. Taking a quick glance at the blogroll at Pat's site, the vast majority reviews only a small fraction of the books out there. Considering that some of the largest spec fic bloggers (many of whom are well-known authors), especially those who are not epic fantasists, are not represented at all, nor are their concerns and interests. While one teacup tempest rages in one part of the spec fic blogosphere, another section is calm, unaware of the "momentous" debates and discussions occurring elsewhere. Even today, going to Timbuktu takes some effort and I don't believe many on any side of this make that much of a conscious effort to explore and to discover new insights from people around them.

So while I really do want to agree with much of what Pat writes in his post, I just cannot help but to think that comments such as "forced to read John Clute and his ilk" demonstrate only a provincial attitude of self-satisfaction. After all, if one is going to dare to read what might be disliked or challenging for that reader, one ought to approach all of this with the attitude of "hey, maybe there's something of worth to be discovered there." Shit doesn't smell sweeter just because it came from your asshole, you know. Being convinced that one's style, approach, or likes/dislikes is "proper" or "hey, it works for me" without showing some regard for another approach (I'm not saying you have to agree with it, only that you have tried to be aware of other points of view) is quite hypocritical.

In closing, the majority of what I have said above can be boiled down to one simple maxim that Immanuel Kant had: Sapere aude. If that is followed, then self-consciousness ought to be at a minimum. And thus concludes this so-oh-self-important scribbling. I have things to learn now.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Bad positive reviews

Almost three weeks ago, I wrote a post on "muddled" negative reviews. That post generated some good discussion, plus there were reactions from two of the people involved. I promised to make a post about flawed positive reviews of books, but the following Monday, I got hired for a new teaching position at a local residential treatment center and getting the basics set up for the students I have (with more on the way in the next few days and weeks) and I've been so swamped that I haven't had much time to even think about this topic until now. My apologies for those who have been waiting for such pontification to emerge; doubtless there are a few readers out there who prefer review essays over Entertainment Weekly-style bulletpoint/grading of books.

Reviews are very idiosyncratic writings that ought to reflect strongly the reviewer's engagement with the work at hand. If the review doesn't dare to engage the work, then in my more-than-a-novice-but-not-officially-an-expert opinion such reviews aren't going to be worth shit, to put it mildly. There are those who will disagree and argue, with some justification, that if a work is not placed in its proper context, then the review will suffer. I agree with this to a point, but only to a point. If the focus shifts away from the book at hand and threatens to draw the reader's attention to the reviewer, to other books not being reviewed, to how Bush is assraping America, it weakens the force of the review and can make the readers wonder if the book at hand is worth reading on its own merits.

Many reviewers, both online and print, in my opinion often struggle more with writing a strong positive review than they do with writing a solid negative review. Sometimes, it is quite easy being specific with what one dislikes, especially if one writes with the purpose in mind of swaying readers to consider or to reject a book. But it is much more difficult, however, for many reviewers to pinpoint what exactly it is that they like about a book. I am not referring to stating things such as "Erickson's writing in Arc d'X is fluid," but rather in describing the hows and whys of its fluidity. ­¹ A well-written review, depending of course upon space constraints, ought to contain at least some exploration of just what it was about the work at hand that caused a positive reaction. All too often (and I myself am guilty of this), reviewers at the blogs that I frequent appear to settle for pat expressions, as if such encomiums as "strong characterization" will carry the day. In a full-fledged review article (those over 1,000 words in length), the reviewer has the opportunity to expand and to go in-depth; sadly, many refuse to take the plunge.

As I said earlier, reviews ought to contain a minimum of references to other authors. Umberto Eco and Dan Brown wrote stories that contained elements of conspiracy theories, but the mechanics of their stories, how they approached character and plot development, the basic themes, etc. - all of those elements makes those authors so different as to make any passing comparison between them to be nigh ridiculous. If comparisons must be made, at least do it in a fashion that reveals an understanding of the thematic and plot similarities and differences that would enhance a reader's comprehension of just what it is that the book in question is all about. By all means, refrain from say such trite comments such as "Author Y is this year's Author X!" For those who don't know Author X from a hole in the ground and who might stumble upon an online review for Author Y's book and sees that, what in the hell are they going to glean from that? So again, I would suggest avoiding such comparisons if at all possible.

But enough of the general talk. Time to skewer a positive review. This time, I shall choose an older writing of mine from 2005, back when I believed that I didn't have to be as rigorous with my online fiction reviews as I had to be with my academic critiques of historical monographs. This is a June 2005 review of Yuri Andrukhovych's Perverzion:

A Postmodernist Bulgakov?

What in the world could I have been thinking here? For those who have read The Master and Margarita, they would be pardoned if they would ask if there might be any allusions to Satan or to metaphors for a totalitarian state. I am afraid that this title is false advertising, because Andrukhovych's writing differs greatly from Bulgakov in its style, its thematic interests, in so much more when the two works are considered in-depth.

The work of an Ukrainian novelist/poet/essayist/translator, Yuri Andrukhovych, Perverzion is a great many things all bundled up into one paperback volume of 326 pages. It is in turns a murder/suicide mystery, a exploration of morality and the interstices that take place in human lives. It is a farce, a prosy poem full of allusions to other allusions. It deals with religious matters of the soul; it is concerned with the postmodern decline and fall of the Carnival. It is also a love story, and a story of love misled. It is all of these things and many more.
This is all nice, but have I really told you anything about this book that makes it stand out from any hypothetical number of books that might touch upon similar topics? No? Then I should have, although I can make the weak argument that I did not intend for it to be a professional piece that would explore these descriptive claims at all. To make such claims with exploring their validity just leaves the curious reader hanging.

The story revolves around the last days of one Stanislav Perfetsky - poet, gadfly, one-time stripper in a club catering to older women. He is a romantic and yet utterly beyond this. His travels across Europe, from Lviv in the Ukraine to his apparent end in the canals of Venice, are the stuff of legend. But just who is Perfetsky? Andrukhovych explores this with a series of chapters written apparently from the perspective of those who knew him, who were baffled by him, who were sleeping with him, and who were spying upon him. It is a fascinating mosaic quilted together with a deft comic touch.
While this paragraph at least gives a hint of the story itself, there are no examples illustrating these various points-of-view mentioned above. If I were writing this review today, I would have included them to show just how different the characters' voices are and how adroitly Andrukhovych builds this mystery of Perfetsky's disappearance. Without them, the review lacks any real specificity.

Now I mentioned Bulgakov in my title, because the translator in his introduction refers to similar thematic elements present in both, combined with a mutual gift for the absurdly meaningful. While I need to re-read Bulgakov to ascertain just how accurate these claims are, I do recall a certain sense of devilish glee in both works, as the authors tweaked the noses of the pretentious (the chapter on the conference regarding post-Feminism is something to behold, intersplicing the "saintly" Perfetsky's making out with Ada with the speaker's Andrea Dworkinesque denunciation of almost all sex as rape) in their satirical ramage through their tomes.
I lost the focus here. Not only do I mention Bulgakov again, but I do not really provide any evidence of my claim in the first sentence of this paragraph. What "similar thematic elements" are present in both? What "mutual gift for the absurdly meaningful" is there? It just sounds like a load of bunk.

While this book certainly contains elements of the supernatural (as does Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita), it is very difficult to classify Perverzion as belonging to any one school or genre of writing. It is simply sui generis, which certainly would be pleasing to Perfetsky himself to know. If you are a reader who likes challenging books that have a high reward potential, then I highly recommend that you buy Perverzion.
I might as well waved the white flag of surrender here. You have any firmer idea about this story's plot, themes, characterization, or style? Didn't think so. I might as well have said, "Hey, this book is like really cool, you know, with these Wow! moments that made me go 'Cool, man!', so you need to go out and read this, okay?" I did the book, which I did enjoy, a great disservice here by being so vague with my praise and with my examination of what made it enjoyable to me that I might as well have written a Harriet Klausner-like review.

While there are doubtless other faults that I am overlooking in this article, I am going to close this by noting that I have found with an increased attention to detail and to questioning the book at hand, there have come more comments about the books at hand, more discussion (because there is something to discuss, regardless of whether or not the commenter agrees with me), and most importantly, more readers at least considering the books that I praised. I don't claim to be the Second Coming of H.L. Mencken, but I have found my "voice" by daring to explore the why behind the "I like this."

¹ I might write a review of this book in the coming weeks, but I still am putting the finishing touchings on two reviews, one of which will be posted by this weekend.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

New Carlos Ruiz Zafón novel to be released April 17

Source (in Spanish): Here is my quick translation:

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, author of The Shadow of the Wind, will publish next April 17, his new novel, with a print run of one million copies, according to an announcement this morning (February 28th) by Editorial Planeta. The publisher considers that this print run will reach a historical landmark in Spain.

The number of copies (printed) surpasses the 525,000 for World Without End by Ken Follet, of which, in its day, the publisher Random House Mondadori explained that it was about "the most number of books ever placed in Spanish bookstores in a single day," and that it found "was more than the number for the Harry Potter series."

Ruiz Zafón's new work, untitled [now known to be
El Juego del Ángel], will tell a story of ambient intrigue in the Barcelona of the 1920s and will return to submerging the reader in the Cementery of Lost Books, scene from his previous book.

Ruiz Zafón is considered by his publisher to be the Spanish author most read in the world. The Shadow of the Wind, published in May 2001, has been published in 50 countries and sold more than 10 million copies. This new entry (in the planned tetralogy around the Cementary of Lost Books), which is published 7 years after its predecessor, will form part of a tetralogy. The publisher has chosen this date for its publication to fall on Saint George's Day.

Sadly, it's not yet available for purchase on Amazon, but trust me, as soon as I can, I'm getting a copy of it and I'll review it to give people an idea of the book's quality well in advance of its releases en otros idiomas.

Edit: While it'll likely be a year or longer before the English translation is released, for those of us who can read Spanish, there is an official website for the book now up. Not much yet, but there is a place where you can have information sent to you (in Spanish, of course) regarding updates on the author or any other author on Planeta's roll.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Teaching spec fic

As I'm winding down my first full week at my new teaching job (at a residential treatment center for teens with emotional/behavioral disorders), I've been thinking more and more about the roles of a teacher in the Reader-Text-Author interaction. Not too much is mentioned about this, perhaps because most spec fic readers never are in the position of having to relate ideas, themes, characterizations, etc. in a pedagogical fashion for another to consider.

I started a two-week Literature/Language Arts unit on S.E. Hinton's classic, The Outsiders. From past experience teaching this novel, I knew that the characters and situations would resonate so well with them and that they'd want to know more, because they would care about characters such as Ponyboy, Sodapop, Johnny, Darry, and Two-Bits. It is so easy to get students involved when the work in question mirrors their own fractured backgrounds.

But what about situations in which the stories are just off-kilter or deals with other-worldly concerns? Are there really "easy" ways of taking spec fic stories and using them in the classroom for the "average" student, one who perhaps never really has wanted to read much? What is there about tales of created "worlds" populated with unusual creatures, who sometimes seem to "speak" in a rather stilted fashion, that could possibly appeal to such students? What is out there that might just appeal to these students?

I have some vague notions, but I am curious as to which stories (remember, short stories might be the most effective in such situations, as I did get a group of students last year to consider and ultimately enjoy Dino Buzzati's "The Colomber") of a spec fic "flavor" might be used well as a teaching tool for those who are unaccustomed to such literary stylings?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I'm feeling a bit cantankerous

I love how that word sounds, full of clashing consonants and almost-schwaed vowels. Fitting, considering that I'm finding myself feeling again a bit out-of-sorts about a few things.

First thing that comes to mind is the use of "fantasy" by certain ill-informed peoples on a few forums and blogs to mean just one tiny subset of a whole spectrum of readings. I recently recall a discussion on the Westeros forums in which a poster there, whose point was mostly civil even if I disagreed strongly with it, argued that he was "thankful" that Michael Moorcock "didn't get his way," because "it would have ruined fantasy."

What in the fucking hell is that shit supposed to mean? "Ruin fantasy?" It's as though there is some standardized format that all authors must follow for something to constitute "fantasy." I suppose the person was thinking of the epic fantasy subtype, but still, there's something just so grating about this presumed "fantasy" uniformity. Whether it be fans on epic fantasy fansite forums or bloggers of various stripes and persuasions, there just seems to be at times this sort of presumptuous belief that "fantasy" is a well-defined and laid out "this is how it is" sort of tale, with little to no time apparently being given to works that might buck this presumption. I cannot help but to wonder if those that use such a label as "fantasy" so cavalierly have even bothered to read beyond a narrow range of works.

Related to this is an ever-more apparent divide between those who read certain subgenres of spec fic and those who choose awards and honors. A week or so ago, it was announced that the Science Fiction Writers of America was going to award a Grandmaster (a sort of Lifetime Achievement Award) to Michael Moorcock. Suspecting there might be some dissension and that there might be a few who are relatively unaware of the genre's past as to fail to recognize his name, I ran a week-long opinion poll both here and on wotmania's Other Fantasy messageboard. The results were worse than I feared:

First are the results from wotmania:

What are your thoughts about Michael Moorcock being selected as being the next SFWA Grandmaster? (97 Votes)

Wonderful - he's been very influential (17.53%)
Good - he's pretty good (10.31%)
OK - decent, but others deserved it more (1.03%)
Meh - not a fan at all of his work (4.12%)
Who the hell is he? (67.01%)

And now for the ones from here (45 votes):

Wonderful - he's been very influential 25 (55%)
Good - he's pretty good 2 (4%)
OK - decent, but others deserved it more 3 (6%)
Meh - not a fan at all of his work 4 (8%)
Who the hell is he? 11 (24%)

The number of those answering "Who the hell is he?", while much lower than that of wotmania's OF section, belies any claims that any moron might make about "fantasy" being a monolithic bit. Seems to me that the entire concept of "fantasy," fracturing as it seems to becoming with each passing decade, seems to be fated to be as much of a vague and sometimes-misleading label as that older, somewhat more respected (but even more fractious) cousin called "religion." Mind you, I'm not making any truth claims on the veracity of any religion (as I've stated before, my own religious beliefs are pretty strong...and personal), but rather that I'm noting the possibility for at least superficial comparisons to how adherents to certain subtypes of both groups might tend to presume that their singular view is the only valid view.

But for now, this is just the beginning (if I deign to explore this more systematically at a later date) of an exploration of how people view this field. Right now, however, I'm a bit exhausted and more inclined to wonder if "fantasy" readers' selection of reading choices is akin to a bunch of inbred people who keep coming back to the family reunions to make their next breeding selections. Limited explorations of options by others just tends to rile me a bit. I guess that's the teacher in me speaking, though.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, Rimas

For the fortunate few, here's a little something from a book of poems from one of Spain's 19th century Romantic poets:


Yo sé un himno gigante y extraño
que anuncia en la noche del alma una aurora,
y estas páginas son de ese himno
cadencias que el aire dilata en las sombras.

Yo quisiera escribirle, del hombre
domando el rebelde, mezquino idioma
con palabras que fuesen a un tiempo
suspiros y risas, colores y notas.

Pero en vano es luchar, que no hay cifra
capaz de encerrarle; y apenas, ¡oh, hermosa!
si, teniendo en mis manos las tuyas,
pudiera, al oído, cantártelo a solas.

There's just something about the tone in which Bécquer hints at this "known giant hymn" that he cannot describe adequately in words, that reminds me of some of the themes behind of the most moving works of the speculative. Those searches for Shakespeare's "undiscovered country" or for that vista which lies just beneath the horizon; that's what seems to lie at the heart of many of Bécquer's Rimas. Just a little something that I thought I'd share before I go to bed, to rest for another day at a job that I already know will bring many surprises each and every day. And since I guess the monolinguals here will want a rough translation, here is one I did of this poem two years ago:

I know a hymn gigantic and strange
which announces in the soul's night a dawn,
and these pages are of that hymn
cadences which the air dilates in the shadows.

I wanted to write of it, of the man
taming the rebellious paltry idiom
with words that were at the same time
sighs and laughter, colors and notes.

But it is in vain to fight; there is not a number
capable of enclosing it, and scarely, oh beautiful!
if having in my hands yours
could, hearing, sing it to you alone.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Books That I Wish I Would See Others Mention or Discuss More

Although I am certain that there are people on some forums or blogs in the greater SF blogosphere who have mentioned and/or discussed these books and authors, I have found myself having to overturn quite a few stones to discover names of authors who aren't explicitly spec fic by associations but whose works contain many elements in common with the darkest and most imaginative stories. Thinking about this while reading through this huge list again for the first time in almost two years, I went through my bookshelves and identified a few authors that I would love to see others mention at least once in a blue moon (if you have discussed any of this and would be kind, post a link in the Comments section, please). This is not a systematic listing, other than these are authors that I believe have some elements in common with genre writers, but whose names generally are not considered to be strictly SF:

In no particular order:

1. Jorge Luis Borges (Ficciones; The Aleph; The Book of Sand; Universal History of Infamy; Book of Imaginary Beings; Brodie's Report, etc.)

2. Julio Cortázar (Hopscotch; Blow-Up and Other Stories)

3. Juan Rulfo (Pedro Páramo)

4. Mario Vargas Llosa (The War of the End of the World; Conversation in the Cathedral)

5. Carlos Fuentes (The Death of Artemio Cruz)

6. José Saramago (Blindness; Death at Intervals; The Duplicated Man, etc.)

7. Miguel Cervantes (Don Quijote)

8. Ignacio Padilla (The Shadow Without a Name)

9. Angélica Gorodischer (Kalpa Imperial)

10. José Hernández (Martín Fierro)

11. Roberto Arlt (Collected short stories)

12. Manuel Mujica Lainez (short stories)

13. Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude)

14. Alejo Carpentier (The Lost Steps; The Century of Lights; Baroque Concert)

15. Adolfo Bioy Casares (The Invention of Morel)

16. Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits)

17. Roberto Bolaño (The Savage Detectives)

18. Carlos Zafón (The Shadow of the Wind)

19. Zoran Živković (Seven Touches of Music; The Fourth Circle; The Library)

20. Milorad Pavić (Dictionary of the Khazars)

21. Danilo Kiš (A Tomb for Boris Davidovich; Encyclopedia of the Dead)

22. Yuri Andrukhovych (Perverzion)

23. Gao Xingjian (Soul Mountain)

24. Edward Whittemore (Sinai Tapestry; Jerusalem Poker; Nile Shadows; Jericho Mosaic)

25. Haruki Murakami (Kafka on the Shore)

26. Mark Danielewski (House of Leaves; Only Revolutions)

27. Salman Rushdie (Midnight's Children; The Satanic Verses)

28. Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolfo)

29. Matthew Lewis (The Monk)

30. Graham Greene (The Power and the Glory; The Heart of the Matter)

31. G.K. Chesterton (The Man Who Was Thursday)

32. Johann Wolfgang Goethe (Faust, Parts I & II)

33. Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White; The Moonstone)

34. Frank Stockton (short stories)

35. Albert Camus (The Stranger; The Plague)

36. Thomas De Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium Eater)

37. Venedikt Erofeev (Moscow to the End of the Line)

38. Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita)

39. Ludovico Ariosto (Orlando Furioso)

40. Günter Grass (The Tin Drum)

41. Angela Carter (Burning Your Boats)

42. Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange; Nothing Like the Sun)

43. Norman Mailer (The Gospel According to the Son)

44. William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury)

45. Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita; Pale Fire; Pnin)

46. Gustave Flaubert (The Temptation of Saint Anthony)

47. H. Rider Haggard (She; King Soloman's Mines)

48. Dino Buzzati (short stories)

49. Italo Calvino (If on a winter's night a traveler; Invisible Cities; The Baron in the Trees)

50. Arthur Rimbaud (Season in Hell)

51. Federico García Lorca (poetry)

52. David Albahari (Götz and Meyer)

53. James Thurber (The 13 Clocks; short stories)

54. Banana Yoshimoto (Asleep; Kitchen)

55. Kobo Abe (The Woman in the Dunes)

56. Rikki Ducornet (The Fountains of Neptune)

57. Charles Maturin (Melmoth the Wanderer)

58. Flannery O'Connor (A Good Man is Hard to Find)

59. Flann O'Brien (At Swim-Two-Birds; The Third Policeman)

Again, not a systematic list, but one that I think merits some consideration from those looking for something "different" to read and perhaps to discuss afterwards. I'm of the opinion that reading too much in one genre of literature is akin to incest, in that after a few "generations" of reading too much of the same-old, same-old, the imaginative part of our minds begins to atrophy, which is why I want to see "non-traditional" books being discussed or at least mentioned more often on genre forums and blogs.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Humpday Links and a Small Announcement

Here are a few tidbits that ought to warm your soul on a blustery early March Wednesday:

There are two totally legal and 100% free e-book/PDF downloads of books to read: Jeff VanderMeer's upcoming novella from PS Publishing, The Situation (due to ship in the next couple of weeks), and a Night Shades Book, Butcher Bird, by Richard Kadrey. I plan on reading/reviewing these in the next few weeks or so.

Fantasy Book Critic reviews David Debord's The Silver Serpent.

Rob Bedford reviews Felix Gilman's Thunderer, a book that I seemed to have enjoyed a bit more and which I hope to review shortly.

British author Joe Abercrombie is waiting with bated breath to see how I shall conclude my "reviewing trilogy" of his works. Sorry Joe, but this reviewing grew in the writing. It now shall consist of another review here, a third one elsewhere, and then (unless I am talked out of this) here shall appear a condensed review of your third book that shall employ the Elizabethan (or Shakespearean, as some call it) sonnet scheme, which some might call a "heroic couplet," although that would be in error. If I am so inspired, I may actually do this in the next month or so.

But that revolves around one little bit of personal news (which I rarely report on this blog): After four months of part-time work, I am returning full-time to the classroom to teach what now will be my sixth separate subject in my six years as a teacher. I will be teaching special education students at a private school for teens placed in a residential treatment facility for emotional/behavioral disorders. I start on Friday. Now I am doing this on a waiver, so starting this summer, I will also be taking 2-3 classes a semester to earn my endorsement for special ed. What does this mean for reviewing/commentaries, some might ask? Only a little bit. I do have a backlog of reviews to polish off writing/posting over the course of the next few days (Gilman, Fukui, Abercrombie's second, Ó Guilín) before I go to a slightly-reduced schedule here of maybe 1-3 reviews a week on the good weeks and maybe 1-3 days between posts on the bad. I'm happy with this arrangement and I have every intention of reading and reviewing the books that I promised others that I would review in the coming weeks. But if you want more on my personal life, I might be blogging a bit more about that elsewhere.

Now back to figuring out which words rhyme with "Glokta"...

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Borges and Bioy Casares on the Epic form

I have been reading the edited version of the diary of the late Argentine author Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges, where his entries on his friend and fellow writer Jorge Luis Borges are collected into a mammoth 1663 page one-volume work. The entry for Monday, June 1, 1959 contains an interesting bit on the epic form that struck me. Here is a rough translation that I have done of part of that recorded conversation (if any want the Spanish original, let me know and I’ll transcribe it in an edit to this post):

Borges: “Ortega y Gasset says that the epic is the genre that is about other times and which is completely distant from our lives. To its own, one will want to say. What a lack of imagination. How does he not see that the epic is there continually in life; how he doesn’t describe it in the Spanish Civil War. He says that of Achilles and Ulysses we do not know if they were men or gods. Why does he say this? Because he doesn’t reflect over that which he is going to write and think about? Like Valéry, he doesn’t document himself. A critic called Dallas characterizes so the genres: “The lyric corresponds to the first person and to the future; drama to the second person and to the present; the epic to the third person and to the past.” Very neat, but without feeling.”

Bioy: “All these people sees in the epic the theme of the origins of villages and not the impulse and the magnamity of courage.”
Considering that every now and then that there is some argument somewhere on the blogosphere about what constitutes "epic" or "heroic" fantasy, I found their brief talk about this to be interesting, since I never really considered how traditionally the narrative voice and temporal tense can play such an important role in separating the Epic form from other narrative stories. Anyone want to add their 2¢ on this?

Edit: Hal Duncan has written a post riffing on this translation of mine that I think raises some very important issues for us to consider. I'll comment over there later, but for the most part, I agree with what he is saying.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Trying to grasp muddled, poor reviews

I like to read reviews that others have written, especially of books that I have read. Sometimes, I learn quite a bit from reading a well-argued review that expresses opinions diametrically opposite to my own. There have been times that my opinion of a work improved (one recent example being China Miéville's Iron Council) after I examined what others had to say about it, while in a few cases (Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind) I had to admit there were certain structural weaknesses that I had overlooked in my initial commentary on it after reading what others had to say. A well-structured review, positive or negative alike, can be very influential in shaping, or in certain cases re-shaping, a reader's take on a novel.

However, a review that jumps all over the place and doesn't really engage the work at hand can muddy the waters a bit. When I read a review, whether it be full of ebullience or that it resembles the infamous "nattering nabobs of negativism,"and there isn't a consistent thread that ties evidence to opinion, I'm left going "buh?" There are three examples from the negative side (I may write a post in the future about the unsubstantiated hype reviews I've read) that I want to examine a bit:

The first is taken from a review that Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist wrote when he was beginning to do reviews. Since then, Pat has improved significantly, but this review of Caitlin Sweet's The Silences of Home has stuck in my craw for almost three years now, not just because I disagreed with his stance but more because it was so vague and disconnected.

Unfortunately, The Silences of Home doesn't deliver at all, basically on every level. So much so that I didn't even finish the novel. I went as far as page 318, and I was forced to abdicate. I can count on the fingers of my hands how many books I have not been able to go through in my life, so this is not something that occurs very often. Indeed, the last book I failed to finish was Weis and Hickman's Well of Darkness.
While I appreciate his honesty here about stopping roughly 3/5 into the novel, I began to wonder at his mentions of unconnected books (something that continues throughout the course of the review). I'm of the camp that believes that in most cases, a book ought to be compared only with its own self, with its aims/intentions and how well those are achieved, rather than to anything else. In this review, while Pat uses the blurb copy as a means of comparison, the analysis of aims/intents compared to results/conclusions never breaks the surface level.

The first point that needs to be made is that this novel should be considered a "Young Adults" book. Something for people who are a bit unfamiliar with the fantasy genre, who have yet to read the "powerhouses" such as Jordan, Kay, Donaldson, Williams, etc. I don't believe that any well-read person could get into this one. According to the blurb, Sweet's latest is «a saga of epic sweep.» Honestly, this novel has about as much depth as a Forgotten Realms book. The transitions are very awkward, and the entire tale doesn't flow quite right.
There is no further exploration of what "Young Adults" means to Pat and if Sweet's book actually qualifies. Again, a mention of other books without grounding the present book's themes and execution. While we get a mention of the transitions being awkward, there is no evidence provided to support his comments. To be fair, Pat has said time and time again that he isn't after a detailed analysis of a book, but rather to give a sort of "layman's take" on a book and to see if Book X stacks up with similar books that he's read. All well and good (and Pat's justified popularity bears out how much similar-minded readers appreciate this no-frills approach to reviewing), but yet I feel a great injustice has been done to Sweet's book here and to those who might not know Pat from Mork from Ork. There was nothing in that review that showcased these perceived shortcomings. No sample of the dialogue to show whether or not these characters were "one-dimensional." No discussion of the story arc at all. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. In the end, I was left wondering if we had read the same book, because there was nothing in that review that jibed with my take on it.

Back in 2006, a reviewer for Strange Horizons, C.M. Morrison, wrote a review of Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora that generated quite a visceral response in the ever-tempestuous SF blogosphere teacup, much of it dealing with this rather provocative opening paragraph:

Just like everyone else, I am rather suspicious of hype. As soon as I hear something is the best new thing ever I start to wonder what's wrong with it. Sometimes, as in the case of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the praise seems warranted. Far more often I want to know how the reviewer was bribed to tell me such lies. Which brings me to The Lies of Locke Lamora, a book awash in buildup. There's a movie deal and already a fair number of foreign rights deals, and the buzz surrounding it seems determined to convince us that it will be a best-selling novel.
While there is a time and a place for noting other reviews of a book, I felt that Morrison spent too much of her review concentrating on others' takes, not to mention focusing overmuch on the rumored deals regarding Lynch's book. I believe a review ought to be in some respects like the opening statements in a debate: present the argument, followed by evidence that supports the position. Morrison's review took too long to get started.

Unfortunately, what is within is not the next Strange and Norrell. The book opens with the following:

At the height of the long wet summer of the Seventy-Seventh Year of Sendovani, the Thiefmaker of Camorr paid a sudden and unannounced visit to the Eyeless Priest at the Temple of Perelandro, desperately hoping to sell him the Lamora boy. (p. 1)

Putting aside the excessive-capital-letter disease that Lynch apparently suffers from, it was clear from this sentence alone that my expectations for the novel needed to be drastically reset. This was not going to be the wildly original fantasy I'd heard about; rather it was going to be a hodgepodge of well-worn tropes. Think The Sting meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid meets The Godfather meets your average fantasy world.

While I can understand the reaction to the first sentence, what surrounds it is yet another case of a reviewer mentioning all sorts of other, usually unrelated, books/movies instead of discussing the story at hand. While the admission that hyped-up expectations played a role in this was honest, I believe that Morrison again focused too much attention on what others liked rather than on what she liked or disliked.

It's also the point when it was driven home to me that Lamora is not very interesting. How? When faced with being manipulated into assisting the Grey King, Lamora decides that he should do pretty much exactly as asked and get it over with as fast as possible:

"So we just sit back," said Jean, "and let him pull your strings, like a marionette on stage."

"I was rather taken," said Locke, "with the whole idea of not telling Capa Barsavi about our confidence game, yes."


"The coin involved has to be ... ludicrous. I doubt the Duke could keep a Bondsmage of rank on for this long. So who the fuck is this Grey King, and how is he paying for this?"

"Immaterial," said Locke. "Three nights hence, or two and a half now that the sun's coming up, there'll be two Grey Kings, and I'll be one of them." (p. 212)

That's right, he isn't going to try to find out the Grey King's plan or why he has been waging a war against the Capa or even who the Grey King is. No, he's just going to roll right over and do as he's told. (With the backup plan of possibly running away after.)

I enjoyed most of this, especially how she presents evidence to support her low opinion of the character. However, the review devolves more into a plot summation. There isn't as much analysis or presenting of evidence; Morrison sums up the story (including some "spoilers") and fires off a few takes without exploring this in much detail. In the end, her review read more like a school book report than anything that had a clear connection of introduction to conclusion with detailed analysis of the story.

The third such muddled, poorly-structured review I read this morning. It was a review of The New Weird anthology posted by Paul Kincaid on SF Site. The introduction in particular was just baffling to me:

I'm sure I remember a time when anthologies were basically just a bunch of similarly themed stories brought together: the best time travel stories, the best Eskimo stories, or whatever. No more. These days it seems that barely a week goes by without another anthology that has an agenda, that is meant to work as propaganda. We are being assailed with collections that are designed to convince us that something old has been revitalised (the new hard SF, the new space opera) or that something new has been discovered (the slipstream anthology, the interstitial anthology, the post-cyberpunk anthology). If we enjoy good stories in these books, it is secondary to being convinced that this totally fresh way of looking at the genre is valid, is going to take over literature.

Now we have another addition to the ranks of genre propaganda: The New Weird. If we have to continue with these desperate attempts to convince us all of some innovative take on SF, can we at least hope that the editors will follow the example of Jeff and Ann Vandermeer. I am sick and tired of anthologies which appear to imagine that just pushing together vaguely similar stories will convince us that here is an entire new genre. Even if half the stories don't seem to bear any relationship to the stated purpose of the book, if the supposed purpose of the book is never fully explained, if no attempt is made to say how these particular stories fit the overall picture.

Propaganda is such a loaded term. When I read it, I get images of goose-stepping soldiers saluting a dictator standing on a balcony, perhaps with the "Horst Wessel Lied" playing in the background. Images of purple Kool-Aid and hundreds of dead people beringing a failed prophet. Words that are convincing but yet ultimately prove to be false or misleading. It is not something that I would readily associate with genre literature. Furthermore, while Kincaid may have a point in arguing that there are anthologies that do seem to make the old into something "new," I believe he dismisses too readily the differences in style and editorial direction that occur in these anthologies. I am also finding myself questioning what substantial difference is there between "the best"-themed stories and what is transpiring today with collections that focus on thematic similarities. This opening paragraph of his is rather strange.

Then it gets stranger with his comments on the TNW anthology itself. The sentences in that second paragraph bear the strain of Kincaid's argument presented in the first paragraph. "If we have to continue with these desperate attempts to convince us all of some innovative take on SF, can we at least hope that the editors will follow the example of Jeff and Ann Vandermeer." Such a back-handed compliment, if such a thing were intended in the first place. "I am sick and tired of anthologies which appear to imagine that just pushing together vaguely similar stories will convince us that here is an entire new genre. Even if half the stories don't seem to bear any relationship to the stated purpose of the book, if the supposed purpose of the book is never fully explained, if no attempt is made to say how these particular stories fit the overall picture." Is he even talking about the anthology that the VanderMeers edited, or is this just a rant about something altogether? Again, I just wish reviewers would keep their comparisons of one book to others to a minimum, as there is a red herring presented here. I think many readers would be excused if they were to presume that Kincaid's article intends to criticize recent themed anthologies.

Perhaps the most novel thing about The New Weird is that the Vandermeers take their propagandistic duties seriously. They begin with a long, carefully thought-out essay in which they discuss the origins of the term, the possible precursors and characteristics of the style, and even whether "new weird" is an appropriate name. ("New Weird" appears to be coterminous with what Conjunctions 39 referred to as the New Wave Fabulists; one makes a link to the old Weird Tales, the other a link to Moorcockian SF of the 60s. Both linkages appear to be in equal parts suggestive and misleading.) The book also includes an extensive segment of the internet discussions that first explored the idea of new weird, accompanied by short articles giving different but generally positive views on the subject. (It is worth noting that the only voices questioning the idea of new weird are Ann and Jeff Vandermeer themselves, though that in itself is radical.) They bring together, under the heading "Stimuli," a selection of stories that laid the groundwork for new weird; followed, under the heading "Evidence," by a selection of contemporary examples, and the book concludes with "Laboratory," which consists of a round-robin story written by a bunch of writers not directly associated with new weird but influenced by it. It is a model of how such an enterprise should be undertaken. By the end, I understood what people were talking about when they discussed new weird, and I saw why these particular stories were chosen as exemplars. If I remain unconvinced, it is not a criticism of the book but rather a sign that it has done its job too well.
That first How offensive can one get without trying to be? I think it might have been better for Kincaid to have dropped that entire "propaganda" nonsense and to have concentrated on the "why is there a need for there to be a themed anthology on this?" aspect. The mention of the oft-maligned Conjunctions 39 is actually a fair one, since on the surface at least there appears to be similar ground being covered, but Kincaid does not go anywhere with that comparison, however. The last sentence of the paragraph is very intriguing, as it at first seems to run counter to the quasi-diatribe of the first two paragraphs.

It quickly becomes clear that this is a book to be dipped into, rather than read straight through at a go. It is, for instance, a genuine pleasure to re-encounter M. John Harrison's wonderful Viriconium story, "The Luck in the Head." But when, a few pages later, you encounter Thomas Ligotti's "A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing" you begin to think: I've been here before. And later still you come across "The Art of Dying" by K.J. Bishop, and again you think: I've been here before. In isolation, in the context of a more varied collection, both of these stories would stand out as brilliantly as the Harrison. But here, read in such proximity, you cannot help but notice how they are playing on the same narrow range.
Of course, when the anthology purportedly attempts to show the similarities between these authors and how there's an emerging style that runs through so many of these stories, one cannot help but to wonder if Kincaid's complaint is misguided. While I agree this is more a collection to be read a few stories at a time rather than straight through, I cannot help but to wonder if his complaint is justified.

There is the same sense of the city as the source of unease (in the most interesting of the non-fiction pieces here, "Tracking Phantoms," Darja Malcolm-Clarke equates the city with the distended body also typical of new weird), the same affectless voice, the same alienated characters responding not to emotion but to an odd metaphysic, the same sense that every accidental encounter is freighted with psychological purpose, the same way of looking at inexplicable incidents as if they do not need explanation, the same sense that the city's passing show has been arranged purely for the edification (or more usually mystification) of the protagonist, the same casual assumption that in the face of the irrational no-one would even consider trying to behave rationally. In Kathe Koja's "The Neglected Garden," for instance, when the central character discovers that the woman he was in the process of kicking out has somehow become incorporated into his garden fence, he does not even seem to consider the idea of rescuing her. Instead he simply watches her day by day, accepting, without trying to do anything about it, that his life is falling apart as she is claimed by nature. The symbolism is gruesomely effective, but to move from symbol to story requires the characters to behave as if they have no agency, no fully developed emotional life. Above all characters invariably approach terror or death, the usual if sometimes obliquely realised outcome of these stories, not with dread, anger or even acceptance, but with a strangely intellectual contentedness. As an unlikely journalist puts it in Bishop's story, capturing precisely the etiolated metaphysic that typifies these stories: "one apprehends a strangely exquisite unfurling of energies, an unravelling of reality and the expected". What does separate new weird from most horror fiction is that the horror is an almost purely intellectual experience, not an emotional one.
Here, Kincaid does an excellent job in exploring many of the elements that go into these stories, but he seems to have shifted course quite a bit from his opening statements. It would seem, based on these thematic elements of unease, of strange and shifting places, of odd cities and odder inhabitants, that one would conclude that there is much merit to their inclusion in this anthology. But Kincaid seems to vacillate in this section. Nowhere is there a hint of a "falseness" of a comparison of these stories; they are, if anything, cut from too similar of a cloth, according to him.

It is this feeling that we are revisiting the same tightly prescribed range of literary mannerisms, mannerisms which recur repeatedly throughout the collection, that convinces me that, yes, there is something distinctive about new weird. But no, it is not rich enough or varied enough or potent enough to grow into its own sub-genre. As an aside, I have often wondered why, for example, Christopher Priest's Dream Archipelago stories have never been appropriated by the new weird lobby. Now I understand. Dark and threatening as the sexual undercurrent of those stories might be, the dread is meant to be an emotional shock not an intellectual curiosity.
OK, now Kincaid seems to have settled on the idea that the anthology is justified in the sense that the stories do fit together, but he seems to argue that this isn't enough for it to grow into its own subgenre. However, I get the sense that outside of this particular collection and likely Miéville's stories, that he hasn't read too much "New Weird" fiction. There is quite a bit of a difference between a Jeffrey Ford and a Thomas Ligotti (to use two names that Kincaid singles out) and I would argue that if one examines how they approach telling their stories that one would find quite a bit of variance in style and plotting. Kincaid's point about the Priest stories is intriguing, but I would have to read those stories first before I could weigh in either way on that point.

Sometimes it seems that setting alone is sufficient to mark the story out as new weird. The models, of course, are Harrison's Viriconium and China Miéville's New Crobuzon (represented here by the story "Jack," which, lacking the space to uncurl the way his novels do, seems somehow thin fare). But there are plenty of other strange cities here, their by-ways, cafes and landmarks carefully named in a culture-free amalgam of European languages but generally not so carefully described. Here pale artists wander disconsolately, unable to take effective control of any aspect of their lives, while every festival, every eruption of life or colour into the city streets betokens some ill-defined threat.
While I'd agree with this to a point, I would argue that based on the stories and the novels that these authors have written, that much of the point is to showcase stories in which there is an underlying sense of unease precisely because the characters do not have much of an illusory control over their lives. Here it would have been nice to have seen a comparison of how these stories originated with the very real social and political climes that have dominated Western societies over the past 20 years or so, as I think it would have made Kincaid's point stronger, if he had been able to present and then dismiss those concerns. But at least he's finally engaging the stories themselves, rather than writing generalizations on anthology purposes and goals. Too bad it took him over halfway into his review to start doing this. As for his conclusion, I disagree with it of course, but I was more troubled to see that this review started out talking about one thing, went in a few other directions a few paragraphs in, and the conclusion bears very little to no relation to its introduction. I just wished Kincaid would have rewritten the first half of his reviwe to focus on the collection at hand and the very troublesome issue of the "New Weird" moniker. That at least would have made for a more compelling argument, regardless of how individuals such as myself would have differed on the conclusions.

I know there is much to discuss or to argue with my own interpretation of these three reviews. However, I believe that I have presented my problems with their structural approaches in a fashion that illustrates my comments in the first paragraph. There are many reasons to question the approaches that the authors have taken in their books, but when reviewers get sidetracked on other books and other authors, the focus is lost. I'd rather read a focused review that addresses a book's shortcomings than to read a review that negative or positive alike, fails to engage the text for the entirety of the review.
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