The OF Blog: February 2010

Sunday, February 28, 2010

February 2010 Reads

Forty books (most of them re-reads, though) and 8 journals and magazines read in full this month, with a few partial reads.  This will be mostly just a listing of the book, no real commentary due to wanting to sleep before 2 AM.


41  Italo Calvino, Italian Folktales (very good; interesting variations on Anglo-French folktales that I've read for years)

42  David Foster Wallace, This is Water (re-read; helps to set priorities straight)

43  Philip Pulman, The Subtle Knife (merely OK)

44  William Kotzwinkle and Glenn Murray, Walter Canis Inflatus (Latin; farting dogs amuse me)

45  Roberto Bolaño, Estrella Distante (re-read; essay forthcoming)

46  Roberto Bolaño, Nocturno de Chile (re-read; see above)

47 Roberto Bolaño, La literatura nazi de América (re-read; see above)

48  Roberto Bolaño, Amberes  (re-read; see above)

49  Roberto Bolaño, Monsieur Pain (re-read; see above)

50  George MacDonald, Lilith (re-read; good precursor to 20th century spec fic)

51  Umberto Eco, Baudolino (Italian; merely OK for Eco)

52  Umberto Eco, Baudolino (English; re-read; see above)

53  Steven Erikson, Crack'd Pot Trail (review possibly forthcoming; not quite as good as his other Mazalan novelas/short novels)

54  Adam Rapp, Ball Peen Hammer (already reviewed)

55  Martha Greenwald, Other Prohibited Tales (poetry; good)

56  Liana Quill, Fifty Poems (poetry; author has potential, but these were more sketches than anything else)

57  Christopher Salerno, Minimum Heroic (poetry; fairly good)

58  Roberto Bolaño, Amuleto (re-read; essay forthcoming)

59  Roberto Bolaño and A.G. Porta, Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce (re-read; essay forthcoming)

60  Roberto Bolaño, El gaucho insufrible (re-read; already touched upon in an essay)

61  Catherynne M. Valente, Under in the Mere (re-telling of the Arthurian core myths; very good prose)

62  Roberto Bolaño, Llamada telefónicas (re-read; essay already written on it)

63  Roberto Bolaño, Putas asesinas (re-read; see above)

64  Roque Dalton, Las historias prohibidas del pulgarcito (re-read; poetry; work of one of Latin America's best poets of the 1970s)

65  Stefanie Freele, Feeding Strays (short story collection; good)

66  Roberto Bolaño, El secreto del mal (re-read; see above)

67  Alex Haley, Roots (meant to write an essay on this and the mini-series last week; damn good story that straddles fiction and non-fiction)

68  Roberto Bolaño, Entre paréntheses (re-read; see above)

69  Osonye Tess Onwueme, Why the Elephant Has No Butt (clever, humorous retelling of Nigerian folk tales involving animals)

70  Roberto Bolaño, La Universidad Desconocida (re-read; see above)

71  Roberto Bolaño, Los detectives salvajes (re-read; essay forthcoming)

72  Roberto Bolaño, Una novelita lumpen (essay forthcoming)

73  Roberto Bolaño, La pista del hielo (essay forthcoming)

74  César Aira, Cómo me hice monja (short, almost too short, sometimes brutal with the prose, but mostly great)

75  Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature (interesting takes on the value of literature; collected essays and interviews)

76  Kay Kenyon, Prince of Storms (excellent close to one of the better SF series of the past decade.  Might try to write a full review shortly)

77  Jorge Volpi, El fin de la locura (re-read; good)

78  Adolfo Bioy Casares, El sueño de los héroes (re-read; good, but not as appealing as two other works of his that I read on the 28th)

79  Adolfo Bioy Casares, De las cosas maravillosas (re-read; short essays on things Bioy Casares enjoyed in life.  Very good)

80  Adolfo Bioy Casares, La invención de Morel (re-read; best work of his that I've read.  Highly recommended.)

Lit Journals and Magazines

No comment on these, due to evaluating them for Best American Fantasy 4:

Ninth Letter, Fall/Winter 2009-10

On Spec, Fall 2009

Electric Velocipede 19, Fall 2009

The Kenyon Review, Winter 2010

10  Ectone 8:  The Brutality Issue, Fall 2009

11  New England Review Vol. 30, No. 3 Fall 2009

12  American Short Fiction, Spring 2009

13  Harvard Review 36, Spring 2009 

In Progress:

Roberto Arlt, El jorobadito (re-read)

The Southern Review, Fall 2009

Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (re-read)

Future Plans:

Books only:

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Empire In Black and Gold 

Roberto Bolaño, El Tercer Reich 

One of the better lines I've read in recent weeks

From Roberto Arlt's "Escritor Fracasado" ("Failed Writer")

-- ¡Abajo los conejos de la literatura!

("Down with the rabbits of literature!")

Something about that imagery just amuses me right now.

Anything of a similar vein that's entertained you in recent weeks?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Roberto Bolaño book porn, for your pleasure

For those few who may wonder what the entire output of the late Roberto Bolaño's might have looked like, I have every volume of his works (minus El Tercer Reich, which will be released in the US in about 2-3 weeks) in Spanish (plus the American/Spanish edition of Los detectives salvajes).  As you might have deduced, very few of his works went much beyond 200 pages, if that.  Last two volumes pictured in full to the right are poetry collections,  with his first (co-written) novel beside it.

I hope to resume writing more essays on Bolaño's works and his influence on contemporary Latin American and Spanish literature later this weekend.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What's more clichéd than talking about the clichés surrounding book covers?

Why, it'd be posting about other people posting about still other people's thoughts on something! In this case, you can read this little response post by Mark Charan Newton about the occasional book cover discussions that crop up here and yonder.  Newton makes some good points in regards to how market-driven book covers can be, but I finished his essay thinking that he could have developed things further.

For example, what constitutes a "good" book cover for a bookseller?  Newton notes that it is something that pretty much "sells" its similarities with certain other "known sellers."  But I believe there is more to this than just that.  If I were looking for a steampunk-style novel to read, the cover aesthetics would differ than if I were to be looking for an epic fantasy one.  Placing elements associated with one (sub)genre on a cover for a different style of story doubtless would be a recipe for disaster.  It would be akin to putting Fabio (not Fábio, mind you) on the cover of an Ursula Le Guin novel.  The steams would cross and like Egon said in the original Ghostbusters, that would be very bad.

I personally don't pay too much attention to cover art.  I notice if the artist has rendered images well, but as a consumer, I am persuaded to some extent by the type of art employed.  I like plain but well-bound books over colorful images.  Some of my favorite covers are the ones that Aio did for the American editions of Zoran Živković, such as the one below:


I love the simple design and the interplay of black and green.  Not only does it look beautiful, but it hints that the type of stories told within are more "literary" than pulp in nature.  Not that there is anything wrong with either approach, but people likely associate different cover types with different stories.  I know it certainly would be a shock if a Darrell Sweet cover were to "grace" the cover of an Alice Munro story collection.
So what's the point behind all this?  Nothing much.  Just musing, just like others might be complaining, I suppose.  Now excuse me while I reach for the next book...and almost completely ignore the cover.

For the (very) few curious about the non-English grammars and dictionaries I have

Here are pictures of most of  the non-English grammars and dictionaries I have acquired over the years (at work, I have two more Attic/Koine Greek grammars, another Romanian one, along with multiple German, French, and Italian textbooks).  Some of these originally were for students I taught in Florida almost a decade ago, while a couple of others are college textbooks of mine.

For some of these, I have no literature in those languages, but most of these I do have fiction and non-fiction published in these languages that I do want to learn, if I haven't already in some form.  And yes, that's a Quechua book up there.  One day, one day...

Right now, most of my language focus is on Attic Greek, but I constantly read works in Spanish and occasionally will use my two dictionaries (bilingual, defining) to help me with translations back and forth between English and Spanish.  Will likely next return to studying Serbian, now that I have a proper textbook and a rudimentary dictionary.  Many reasons I have for wanting to learn that language, not least was learning what veverica was...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The many faces of Roberto Bolaño: Short Story Writer

In my first essay on the late Roberto Bolaño, I discussed his role in the 1970s Mexican poetry movement, the infrarealistos.  In particular, I noted the hybridization of realist and surrealist elements to create a poetry that was simultaneously intensely real and yet so "real" in some aspects as to create a sort of otherworldly ambiance in the midst of stories that were so vividly told that one might imagine that s/he smelled the cigarettes and coital fluids that so copiously flowed in many of Bolaño's compositions.  Although this is not anything unique to Bolaño's works (if anything, this conscious move away from the metaphor-laden magic realism associated with the Boom Generation was reflected in the Mexican Crack Manifesto and the Southern Cone McOndo groups, whose works, like Bolaño's, began to become prominent in the Latin American writing communities of the 1990s.  I plan on discussing this at length in another essay in the near future), Bolaño's prolific publishing history between 1996 (the short novel, Nazi Literature in the Americas, being the first of two books published that year) and his death in 2003 (10 books in total being published in the final seven years of his lifetime), plus his rather widely-repeated condemnations of older Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, garnered him critical and popular attention above that of almost all other post-Boom Latin American and Spanish writers.

During this feverish time, where Bolaño doubtless wrote against the ticking time bomb of his now-discovered liver condition, he published two short story collections, Llamadas telefónicas (Telephone Calls, 1997) and Putas asesinas (Assassin Whores, 2001).  Later, two posthumous collections, El gaucho insufrible (The Insufferable Gaucho, 2004) and El secreto del mal (The Secret of Evil, 2007) were published, with the first containing five completed stories not collected in the previous two volumes, while the latter consists of story fragments that Bolaño never completed before his 2003 death.  In some respects, Bolaño the short story writer has been overshadowed by Bolaño the novelist.  This is a shame, for several of his short fictions deserve greater attention from readers and critics alike. 

One characteristic of much of his short fiction is the use of literary hopefuls, authors and poets alike, as protagonists.  One early example is found in "Una Aventura Literaria" ("A Literary Adventure"), collected in Llamadas telefónicas.  Here, the protagonist is a satirical author who, as the direct, almost terse opening paragraph states, "writes a book where he mocks, under diverse masks, certain writers, although it would be more just to say certain archetypes of writers." (translation of "escribe un libro en donde se burla, bajo máscaras diversas, de ciertos escritores, aunque más ajustado sería decir de ciertos arquetipos de escritores.", p. 52)  In this story, as in several others found in these volumes, Bolaño the fiction writer utilizes several of the techniques that Bolaño the infrarealisto employed to critique, if not outright attack, the perceived literary establishment of the time. Fact is blended with fiction to create novel situations where the writer as a character appears, not always under the guise of truth, to break the "fourth wall" equivalent of the story and to speak as much to the reader as to the imagined fictional audience.

First-person or limited third-person points of view dominate these stories.  The protagonists are often young, callow, disillusioned idealists.  They are often portrayed as living in situations that run counter to their aspirations.  If the protagonist is a writer, there is an enemy or establishment to attack. If the main character is seeking some sort of understanding, s/he often does not achieve this.  In the title story for the first collection, "Llamadas telefónicas," Bolaño creates an impersonal situation out of what is normally the story most designed to create an emphatic connection, the love story.  Instead of utilizing names to create a sense of connection, Bolaño uses initials to create a distance, one that is necessary for relating the story that follows.  Below is the opening paragraph:

B está enamorado de X.  Por supuesto, se trata de un amor desdichado.  B, en una época de su vida, estuvo dispuesto a hacer todo por X, más o menos lo mismo que piensan y dicen todos los enamorados. X rompe con él.  X rompe con él por teléfono.  Al principio, por supuesto, B sufre, pero a la larga, como es usual, se repone.  La vida, como dicen en las telenovelas, continúa.  Pasan los años. (p. 63)
(B is enamored with X.  Of course, it is a matter of an wretched love.  B, en a period of his life, was disposed to do anything for X, more or less the same which all the besotted think and say.  X broke up with him.  X broke up with him by telephone. In the beginning, of course, B suffers, but after a while, as is usual, he recovers.  Life, as the soap operas say, continues.  Years pass.)

There is at once something cold and distant about B and X's past relationship, highlighted by the method of their breakup.  In setting up this story, Bolaño utilizes a sarcastic, cynical approach to love to set up a tale in which the reader perhaps may find him/herself wondering just what happened to B or X, if X would receive her comeuppance, or if there might be something else in store for these characters.  Perhaps some readers might imagine him or herself in the role of such characters. 

This is what I suspect lies at the heart of several of Bolaño's fictions, particularly his shorter fictions.  Characters are developed and placed in vivid situations, perhaps ones similar to what his readers might have experienced in their lives.  While some may be busy puzzling over the numerous detectives that appear within these tales or questioning whether or not the occasional appearances of Arturo Belano, who as a Chilean writer who has been imprisoned in Pinochet's Chile and who has wandered through 1970s Latin America before arriving in Spain, might signal an accurate stand-in for the author himself, I believe that taking those narrative conceits as being the meat of the story rather than viewing them as being a narrative enhancement would be a major mistake.

Instead, what I would argue would be the most important reason to read Bolaño's short stories (and indeed, most of his shorter novels as well) is to see how well he develops characters and places them in intriguing situations that although they may at times seem beyond the immediate experiences of most of his readers, they end up being attractive, exciting reads just because of the novelty of the situation.  Take for instance the titular vagabond in "Vagabundo en francia y bélgica" ("Vagabond in France and Belgium," Putas asesinas). The protagonist, again named B, is an author who has entered France after receiving a royalty advance for a novel he hasn't even yet begun.  He is in France because it interests him and he wants a break from the more dangerous Spain from which he has come.  Why is it "dangerous" there?  Why is this protagonist a writer who is late with a story?  It is a testament to Bolaño's imagination and skill as a writer that he can make assassins out of whores and detectives out of writers and poets.

It is for this ability of his to craft short, smart, snappy stories that often contain memorable characters and surprising situations that I believe Bolaño is relatively underrated as a short fiction writer. While he certainly is not an elegant writer nor one who crafts each plot and character arc with precision, there is a vibrant, raw energy in his prose that make his stories, even the unfinished ones collected in his most recent posthumous releases, appealing to readers.  And for those who perhaps grew tired of the literary digressions present in his longer novels, at least in his short fiction Bolaño reined in those tendencies enough to create stories that were interesting on their own account and not necessarily because of the digressions.  The end result is a raw, bleeding heap of tales that will stick in the craws of most readers.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Westeros develops its own lists of the best spec fic books

About a month or so, when yet another "top 100" list of spec fic works was developed and caused the usual amount of bitching and moaning on the ASOIAF fansite Westeros, I quipped that perhaps there ought to be some sort of "Westeros 100" for that board.  Well, someone with the screen name of Wastrel (his blog is here) took up the challenge and posted a thread where people at that site would nominate works for inclusion in such a list using a three-tiered system. 

Well, he finally got the votes tabulated.  Here's the copy/paste of the final lists (he divided it into a 19th/20th century list of 101 plus 10 honorable mentions and 10 works of 2000 and later with a few more honorable mentions (I'll bold the ones I have read/own):

The Main List:

The Affirmation – Christopher Priest
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon
The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers
The Autumn of the Patriarch – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Black Company – Glen Cooke
Blindness – Jose Saramago
The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Cat's Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
Childhood's End – Arthur C. Clarke
China Mountain Zhang – Maureen McHugh
The Chronicles of Amber – Roger Zelazny
The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant) – Stephen Donaldson
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
The H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus – H.P. Lovecraft
The Dark Tower – Stephen King

Discworld – Terry Pratchett
The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

Doomsday Book – Connie Willis
Downbelow Station – C.J. Cherryh
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Dune – Frank Herbert
The Dying Earth – Jack Vance

The Dying of the Light – George R.R. Martin
The Earthsea Trilogy – Ursula K. Le Guin
The Empire Trilogy – Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts
Ender's Quartet – Orson Scott Card
The Farseer Trilogy – Robin Hobb
The Fencer Trilogy – K.J. Parker
Fevre Dream – George R.R. Martin
Fictions – Jorge Luis Borges

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
The Gap Series – Stephen Donaldson
Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake
The Gospel According to Jesus Christ - Jose Saramago
A Handmaid's Tale – Margaret Atwood

The Harry Potter Series – J.K. Rowling
Hellblazer – Garth Ennis
His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Five Parts – Douglas Adams
The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
Hyperion – Dan Simmons

I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
The Illiad - Homer
Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
The Iron Dragon's Daughter – Michael Swanwick
The Last Unicorn – Peter S. Beagle
The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay
Little, Big – John Crowley
The Liveship Traders – Robin Hobb
Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny
The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

Lucifer's Hammer – David Niven and Jerry Pournelle
The Lyonesse Trilogy– Jack Vance
The Glass Bead Game – Hermann Hesse
The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

Memory, Sorrow and Thorn – Tad Williams
Midnight's Children – Salman Rushdie
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
Le Morte D'Arthur – Thomas Mallory
Mythago Wood – Robert Holdstock
Neuromancer – William Gibson

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy – Peter F. Hamilton
Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
Odyssey - Homer
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Only Forward – Michael Marshall Smith
Otherland – Tad Williams
Permutation City – Greg Egan
Planet of Adventure – Jack Vance
The Prestige – Christopher Priest
Replay – Ken Grimwood
The Riddle-Master Trilogy – Patricia A. McKillip
Sandman – Neil Gaiman

The Sarantine Mosaic – Guy Gavriel Kay
Shardik – Richard Adams
The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson
Solaris – Stanislaw Lem
The Soldier Trilogy (Soldier of the Mist, Soldier of Arete, and Soldier of Sidon)– Gene Wolfe
A Song of Ice and Fire – George R.R. Martin

The Stand – Stephen King
The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
Starship Troopers – Robert A. Heinlein
Tigana – Guy Gavriel Kay
The Tooth Fairy – Graham Priest
Transmetropolitan – Warren Ellis
Use of Weapons – Iain M. Banks
The Warlord Trilogy – Bernard Cornwell
Watchmen – Alan Moore
Watership Down – Richard Adams
We – Yevgeny Zamyatin
The Wheel of Time – Robert Jordan

Ten additional works also mentioned: Salem’s Lot (Stephen King), Till We Have Faces (C.S. Lewis), The Once and Future King (T.H. White), The Elric Series (Michael Moorcock), A Fire Upon The Deep (Vernor Vinge), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), The Vorkosigan Saga (Lois McMaster Bujold), The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), Gravity’s Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon), and The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri).

Ten Works from the 21st Century:

Acts of Caine – Matthew Stover
Black Man – Richard Morgan
The First Law Trilogy – Joe Abercrombie
The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch
The Long Price Quartet – Daniel Abraham
The Malazan Book of the Fallen – Steven Erikson
The Orphan’s Tales – Cathrynne M. Valente
Prince of Nothing – R. Scott Bakker
The Scar – China Mièville
Stories of Your Life and Others – Ted Chiang

Also mentioned: The Road (Cormac McCarthy), City of Saints and Madmen (Jeff Vandermeer), Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell), Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke), The Wizard Knight (Gene Wolfe), Chasm City (Alastair Reynolds), Anathem (Neal Stephenson), and The Separation (Christopher Priest).

So 70 out of 101 for the main list (7 out of 10 for the honorable mentions) and all 10 of the 21st century list (and 7 out of 8 for the honorable mentions) have been read and/or owned by me.  Most of those are fairly good books.  Interesting variety, but perhaps others have different opinions?  What books would you expect to appear in a fantasy forum's list that weren't there?  Which ones made this list that surprised you?  Why so?

Disjecta Membra

As the title states, a few fragments:

  • When taking into account 2nd language speakers, Spanish speakers in the United States (estimates range as high as 50 million combined native and SL) constitute the third-largest body of Spanish speakers in the world after those of Mexico and Spain.  Yet there is relatively little discussion about the increasing availability of Spanish-language works in American bookstores (and of course, online retailers such as Amazon) when topics regarding "global" literature crop up.  Yes, there is still a major problem with the paucity of translated works available in English, but at least there seems to be a growing awareness among publishers (Vintage Español and Rayo being two Spanish-language imprints of Random House and HarperCollins respectively) that there is a viable market in the United States for Spanish-language works.  Considering that I don't have to spend $60 to import Roberto Bolaño's El Tercer Reich (which was released in Spain in January) due to it being available for around $10 on Amazon in early March (published by Vintage Español), this is a very positive development.

  • Speaking of Bolaño, I hope to have the second essay ready by Sunday evening.  This one will focus on his short fiction.  Currently nearing the end of my re-read of Los detectives salvajes and certain themes and narrative devices are becoming clearer to me.  I believe the next few essays will prove of interest to those readers who concentrate primarily on speculative fiction.

  • The late Argentine writer Roberto Arlt deserves a greater reading audience in Anglophone countries.  Nice styles employed in his short fictions.

  • Listening to The White Stripes covering Dylan's "Love Sick" makes me (again) appreciate just how much talent both Dylan and Jack White have.  Got to hear this song performed live back in June 2003 in Boca Raton by The White Stripes and February 1999 in Nashville by Dylan.  Been one of my favorite songs since then.  Below is a video of the cover performance, from another show:

  • The short fiction reading is going very well now.  Current two journals being read are the 2009 issue of Witness, titled Dismissing Africa, and the Winter 2010 issue of Glimmer Train.  With one exception, there have been several good stories in the journals and magazines I have read.  Unfortunately, that doesn't mean each story is going to be "fantasy" or "the best" of the May 2009-May 2010 period that BAF4 will cover.  But at least there have been some enjoyable surprises along the way.

  • It's nearly 3 AM here.  I guess I'll try to sleep again.  

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Five general tips to "old" book bloggers

Seems that the readers here are almost evenly divided about whether they most enjoy me being snarky or me actually writing reviews or essays dealing with authors/reading/etc.  Although I don't really believe in getting what the audience what they necessarily want (nor would I be so presumptuous as to assume that I give them what they need), here are a few early-morning musings that may or may not be serious and which ought to serve as equal doses snark and something actually useful to those who read this blog for more than hoping to read about themselves or someone they may have added as a Facebook friend or Twitter follower:

1.  Don't always trust your instincts.  Yes, you heard me right.  Don't trust yourself even.  By this, I mean don't believe that you have found a "good niche" or have "established yourself."  You haven't.  You likely never will.  In many quarters, you may be viewed as the epitome of suck, even when you hear praise for covering X and Y and making people interested in Z.  In fact, you probably need to XYZ yourself.  Your fly may be open and you may not be compared favorably to the Ron Jeremies of the book blogging world.

2.  Do something new.  Hate to say it, but many erstwhile book bloggers have become stale, old acts.  Covering the same ground after a while can stamp out the creativity that perhaps led you to trod that ground in the first place.  Take up a new hobby to go along with what you're currently doing.  Review Mongolian goat slash in addition to hack-and-slash fantasies.  It will broaden your mind and teach you how to review books outside your (and the goats') comfort zones.

3.  Remember that you are part of a business.  Yes, I know several authors, editors, and others in the publishing industry.  Most of them are fine people.  Just like I am (mostly) a decent person.  But all of us have goals and agendas as well.  Mine is to cover things that interest me.  Others are to try and interest me in things that they have available. It's a business (albeit with some genuine friendships on the side outside of business).  I would suggest not going ga-ga whenever Publisher A offers information on Author B.  It's nice, but it's just business.  Never hurts to treat all the review copies, offers of interviews, and the like as business proposals that are to be negotiated, not as favors bequeathed to you.

4.  Broaden your horizons.  I know this is related to #2, but hey, if you didn't like the idea of reading/reviewing Mongolian goat slash, perhaps you need to first start by broadening your horizons.  Maybe start small, like reading Scots or Welsh sheep slash, or maybe Aussie or New Zealand sheep/cattle slash if you're feeling a bit adventuresome.  You might be surprised by how many visitors will discover your site if you make references to "porn," "sheep," "slash," and "Scotland."  I received close to a thousand visits from horny Turks a little over a year ago when I titled a book picture of mine "Turkish book porn."  Still get the odd few visits from Istanbul as a result of that late 2008 post.

5.  The third-person is not your enemy.  Using first-person in reviews is okay to an extent, but really, too often it becomes a crutch that shifts the focus to how this one particular reviewer was baffled/disgusted/overjoyed/etc. by this one book, instead of concentrating on how this book may be of interest to readers.  Sure, some people might enjoy reading about me as a person and what I think, but I imagine those who read posts here for reviews would much rather read about the book than about how "the hype" that reader might have heard about (again, see #3) might have influenced perceptions.  Few people have access to that "inside" stuff.  Don't take a press release and your inner circle (...) friend/reviewers as being the Alpha and Omega of such discussions.  Just wrestle with the text itself and leave your anecdotes about what Bloggers W, T, F had to say about the book.  Doubtless, there would be many anonymous readers who would thank you.

So yeah, snark and actual advice, all rolled into one, for your reading (dis)pleasure.  So...who's going to read those suggested genres I mentioned above?

Friday, February 19, 2010

2009 Nebula Awards shortlist announced

From the Nebula Awards blog (I'll highlight/italicize the stories I've read):

Short Story
Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela, Saladin Ahmed (Clockwork Phoenix 2, Norilana Press, Jul09)
I Remember the Future, Michael A. Burstein (I Remember the Future, Apex Press, Nov08)
Non-Zero Probabilities, N. K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld, Nov09)
Spar, Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, Oct09)
Going Deep, James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jun09)
Bridesicle, Will McIntosh (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jan09)

The Gambler, Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2, Pyr Books, Oct08)
Vinegar Peace, or the Wrong-Way Used-Adult Orphanage, Michael Bishop (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jul08)
I Needs Must Part, The Policeman Said, Richard Bowes (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dec09)
Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast, Eugie Foster (Interzone, Jan/Feb09)
Divining Light, Ted Kosmatka (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Aug08)
A Memory of Wind, Rachel Swirsky (, Nov09)

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker (Subterranean Press, Jun09)
Arkfall, Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Sep09)
Act One, Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Mar09)
Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow (Tachyon, Feb09)
Sublimation Angels, Jason Sanford (Interzone, Sep/Oct09)
The God Engines, John Scalzi (The God Engines, Subterranean Press, Dec09)

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Nightshade, Sep09) The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak (Bantam, Nov08)
Flesh and Fire, Laura Anne Gilman (Pocket, Oct09)
The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey, May09) Boneshaker , Cherie Priest (Tor, Sep09)
, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, Oct09) 

Bradbury Award
Star Trek, JJ Abrams (Paramount, May09)
District 9, Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell (Tri-Star, Aug09)
Avatar, James Cameron (Fox, Dec 09)
Moon, Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker (Sony, Jun09)
Up, Bob Peterson and Pete Docter (Disney/Pixar, May09)
Coraline, Henry Selick (Laika/Focus Feb09)

Andre Norton Award
Hotel Under the Sand, Kage Baker (Tachyon, Jul09)
Ice, Sarah Beth Durst (Simon and Schuster, Oct09)
Ash, by Malinda Lo (Little, Brown & Company, Sep09)
Eyes Like Stars, Lisa Mantchev (Feiwel and Friends, Jul09)
Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi (Tor Aug08)
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009)
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente (Catherynne M. Valente, Jun09)
Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld (Simon, Oct09)

Pretty good list, especially for the novels, where all but one (the Gilman) was read by me last year and which most were discussed in my Best of 2009 lists (the Barzak would have made it, except it was published in late 2008).  The short fiction I haven't yet read, I will be reading in the next few weeks.  Certainly more intrigued by this list, which now (largely) has abandoned the confusing "rolling eligibility" requirement, making for a list that feels more "current" and perhaps somewhat more relevant as well.

Thoughts on this shortlist?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The many faces of Roberto Bolaño: Poet

For the past 11 years or so, or shortly after the debut of one of his two "major" novels, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives), in the Hispanophone markets in 1998, the late Chilean writer/poet Roberto Bolaño has had an aura about him that is more akin to that reserved for dead musicians such as Jim Morrison than what most authors, dead or alive, ever experience (this is ironic, considering that Bolaño's first novel, co-written with A.G. Porta in 1984, was Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce - Advice of a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic).  For those who are only familiar with Bolaño through his English language translations, particularly his two large novels published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, one might have this romantic image of this heroin-addicted exile from Pinochet's Chile (who, according to some of the stories, in large part based on fictionalized autobiographical stories told by Bolaño himself, was on the verge of being killed as part of the first wave of violence against Salvador Allende's supporters by Pinchochet's junta, before being released by guards who were old friends of Bolaño's) who destroyed his liver while writing sprawling, sometimes apocalyptic screeds that deconstructed the 20th century and cast Latin American political and social life in a way that hadn't been as vivid and "important" since the days of the Boom Generation.

It is a lovely myth, but it is only a myth, as several of Bolaño's friends, family, and fellow writers have stated for the past seven years, ever since Bolaño's death in 2003 from liver failure.  Plenty has been written elsewhere, in various languages, about how much Bolaño the person is a constructed myth, but not as much attention has been devoted to Bolaño's works in various narrative forms, at least not in English.  In a large part, this is due to the incompleteness of the translation efforts from Bolaño's English language publishers (although New Directions is making strides in filling in the gaps with a new series of translations due out this year and next).  But gaps still remain for English-language monolinguals to bridge if they want to be able to judge accurately Bolaño's work.

With three exceptions (La pista de hielo, Una novelita lumpen,  and the forthcoming El Tercer Reich, each of which I expect to acquire and read in the next four weeks), I have read all of Bolaño's to-date published works in Spanish.  Over the next few weeks I'm planning to write a series of essays on Bolaño's writing, starting with his poetry and then covering his short fiction, his shorter novels, his non-fiction, and then his major novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, before I review El Tercer Reich in mid-March.  This is a project I've been contemplating for almost a year now, but it was only recently that I was mentally ready to embark upon this grueling endeavor.

It is fitting that I begin with Bolaño's poetry, as he often expressed his desire to be as known for his poetry as for his prose.  In many ways, Bolaño's poetry, to date only available in two collections, Tres and Los perros románticos (only the latter, as the bilingual The Romantic Dogs, is currently available in English), serves as a sort of précis for his other writings.  Influenced in part by poets such as the Salvadorean Roque Dalton, whom Bolaño met in El Salvador in the early 1970s before Dalton's assassination, Bolaño's poetry, sometimes expressed in a prose poem format, is often visceral, direct, and devoid of flowery prose or treacly sentiments.  Below is a passage from Tres that underscores Bolaño's tendency to rip out any sense of elevated language from his prose poems:

La situación real:  estaba solo en mi casa, tenia veintiocho años, acababa de regresar después de pasar el verano fuera de la provincia, trabajando, y las habitaciones estaban llenas de telerañas.  Ya no tenía trabajo y el dinero, a cuentagotas, me alcanzaría para cuatro meses.  Tampoco había esperanzas de encontrar otro trabajo.  En la policía me habían renovado la permanencia por tres meses.  No autorizado para trabajar en España.  No sabía qué hacer.  Era un otoño benigno. (p. 23)
(The real situation:  I was alone in my house, was 28 years old, just returned after passing the summer outside the province, working, and the rooms were full of spiderwebs.  Since I didn't have a job and the money, bit by bit, would reach me for four months.  Neither did I have hopes of finding another job.  The police had renewed my residency for three months.  Not authorized to work in Spain.  Didn't know what to do.  It was a benign autumn.)
This sample, taken from "Prosa del otoño en Gerona," is written in el estilo infrarealismo, a 1970s poetry movement that Bolaño co-founded with Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, which had as its focus a quotidian description of life in prose/poem form, often dissonant in feel and with several elements borrowed from the surrealists.  This hybridization of realism and surrealism was later utilized by Bolaño in his longer prose works, but its genesis is seen in his poetry.  In several of his compositions, such as "Un paseo por la literatura," also published in Tres, Bolaño would mix in references to his favorite writers (Philip K. Dick is referred to repeatedly in several of his prose works) in ways that appeared to make what was "real" seem simultaneously hyperreal, or edged with a feverish, surrealist quality that adds extra dimensions to what Bolaño is describing.  Below are excerpts from "Un paseo por la literatura" that illustrates these elements:

1.  Soñé que Georges Perec tenía tres años y visitaba mi casa.  Lo abrazaba, lo besaba, le decía que era un niño precioso. (p. 77)
(1.  I dreamed that Georges Perec was three years old and visited my house.  I hugged him, kissed him, and said to him that he was a precious child.)
4.  En estas desolaciones, padre, donde de tu risa sólo quedaban restos arqueológicos. (p. 78)

(4.  In these desolations, father, where of your laughter only remained archaeological remains.)
9.  Soñé que Macedonio Fernández aparecía en el cielo de Nueva York en forma de nube:  una nube sin nariz ni orejas, pero con ojos y boca. (p. 81)

(9.  I dreamed that Macedonio Fernández appeared in the skies over New York in the form of a cloud:  a cloud without nose or ears, but with eyes and mouth.)
24.  Soñé que Philip K. Dick paseaba por la Estación Nuclear de Civitavecchia. (p. 89)

(24.  I dreamed that Philip K. Dick passed by the Civitavecchia Nuclear Station.)
To a large extent, several of Bolaño's literary motifs (the melding of the everyday with the unreal, the direct, uncompromising language that he employed in his latter prose works, etc.) are present in his poetry.  But for those who may be impatient, may be wondering why I have not yet raised the issue of the use of detectives as a literary device in Bolaño's work, I will simply note that I plan on discussing this more at length in future installments.  But yes, there are references to detectives, such as this poem taken from The Romantic Dogs:

I dreamt of frozen detectives, Latin American detectives
who were trying to keep their eyes open
in the middle of the dream.
I dreamt of hideous crimes
and of careful guys
who were wary not to step in pools of blood
while taking in the crime scene
with a single sweeping glance.
I dreamt of lost detectives
in the convex mirror of the Arnolfinis:
our generation, our perspectives,
our models of Fear. 

(p. 49)
It may not be flashy (the English translation I quoted above does not really highlight the clash between the floridness of much of contemporary Spanish-language poetry and what Bolaño preferred to compose), but there is something in this poem and others in these two poetry collections that feels like double-distilled shots of the themes that Bolaño later explored as a prose writer.  In a way, to understand Bolaño the writer better, it is perhaps best to start with Bolaño the poet and to read these poems, inelegant as they may be, for the visceral rawness that he wanted to convey in each of his compositions.  It is, after all, as a poet that Bolaño wanted to be remembered and perhaps it is as a poet where his literary visions are most neatly described, if not completely realized.

Edit: I was reminded that the posthumous 2007 book, La Universidad Desconocida (The Unknown University) is another poetry book.  In my defense, it had been two years since I had read it and I had planned on discussing it with a few other books published after 2004, but since it's virtually all poetry and since it contains all of Tres and Los perros románticos as well as dozens of previously-uncollected poems, I feel I ought to add a brief note here mentioning this.  No English translation is available at this time.  Nothing else really to add, other than the poems found here for the first time match the style and feel of the ones I quoted from the previous two collections.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Just finished reading a fascinating article in the current issue of Kenyon Review

Beth H. Piatote's "Our (Someone Else's) Father:  Articulation, Dysarticulation, and Indigenous Literary Traditions" was perhaps the best non-fiction entry in a very strong field of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction submitted by Indigenous/Native American writers for the all-Indigenous Winter 2010 issue of The Kenyon Review.  Despite not finding any suitable stories for consideration for BAF4, I found myself just reading each and every piece in large part because of just how totally my own part-Cherokee heritage has been obliterated due to two centuries of cultural and political denials and stigmatization.

Of particular interest was how Piatote discussed the dynamics involved in the Nez Perce translation of the Pater Noster, given below:

Numin Pist kem in ues eis nuespa
Taz He imene wanikt paraquaneitag uag Pahatauyaitag
Taz He imin Miogatoit painag
Taz He imene nekt patuignaitag kino uetespa
kam kus Einuespa ituigneitanig.
Taksain hipt neozenim nuna
kapsisuit nas usunanim
kag kus nun nuaunaisig kakimem inaskapsisuiyutenig
ka wet met nez nikukum kapsisuitg
metu kapsieuitkinig nez nakettem.
Nunag kus.

In particular, her treatment of how there is a clash between the inclusiveness of "our" and the abstract expression of "father" perhaps serves as an apt metaphor for the dynamics involved between those indigenous peoples (and the mestizos and others who have more than one cultural grounding) and the dominant Anglo-American culture surrounding them.  Makes me wish I were still in school and could have the opportunity to learn more about Native American cultures.  Then again, I'm going to be getting that chance quite shortly, since the residential treatment center where I work recently entered into an agreement to house several teenage males from several of the nations.  Something to look forward to, I suppose.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Whose Bolaño is it anyways?

Going to be writing a couple of essays in the next couple of weeks on the late Chilean/Mexican/Spanish writer Roberto Bolaño's works (all the works available from Anagrama, minus one, which will be reviewed in March).  In particular, I am interested in how external mythmaking has influenced reception of Bolaño's works.  Therefore, in preparation for this, I read a couple of articles written months apart at Conversational Reading, where Scott Esposito discusses reactions from two Spanish-speaking authors/critics, Alberto Manguel (who wrote his diatribe in English) and Horacio Castellanos Moya (who wrote his piece in Spanish). 

There is much I could say about the two.  In particular, I could devote several paragraphs ripping into Manguel's arguments against popular assessments of Bolaño because of how poorly-written and argued the piece is (let's just say that if I wanted to write another installment of "Trying to Grasp a Muddled Review," this would be among the most muddled negative reviews I've ever read on The Guardian) or I could focus on how Castellanos knew Bolaño personally, but I don't want to delve into that now, because some of what I'm planning on discussing in my essays touches upon these topics.

But for those reading this blog who may be curious about how others outside the Anglophone countries have reacted to Bolañomania, perhaps these two links will be of interest.

Sometimes, blogging is like a massive circle jerk

Or at least I sometimes feel that way after reading posts that some small-time SF blog reviewers write about blogging that attracts other small-time bloggers to comment (and especially when another small-time lit/SF blogger, namely myself, is cited separately in two separate posts on different blogs today).  It's a very small world, I suppose (and doubtless, some might take offense at my title and depiction of this particular "scene," but hey, it isn't exactly a topic that's going to appeal to thousands of readers of these various blogs, many of whom (and mine) have a large overlapping audience), but I suppose I should just post the links and then some commentary:

First up is Grasping for the Wind's post on 5 General Tips for New Book Bloggers.  I have nothing personal against the blog owner, John, but some of his tips are a bit misguided.  Of particular concern is the very first one, where he suggests new book bloggers pay for their own domain.  Note the highlighted word.  New.  For those who may decide to hop on the blogging bandwagon thinking that they'll be on the fast track to receiving dozens of review copies a month, but whose willingness to be proactive, inventive, etc. is questionable at best.  Sure, it isn't all that much to do the Go Daddy route, I'm sure, especially if your probable audience will be less than 50 regulars/day for at least the first few months, but the benefits of doing such are negligible at best unless one is consistently drawing high fours or low five figures a day.  Then perhaps the small percentage lost to not having all posts appearing in searches will be something that would have to be combated.  Then again, it seems that I do quite well with certain reviews/topics despite using Blogger.  At best, domain purchases ought to be a secondary concern, one done after the presumed newbie blogger has decided that s/he likes to blog about books, movies, sex, etc. and that there is an audience that would justify the costs of shelling out money in an attempt to draw potential new readers.

John's second point is much better, although I'd note that reviews don't have to be the bread and butter of any site.  Voice is much more important; same for flexibility, especially since so many people end up wearying of repeating themselves after a while.  Variety is the spice of life...and of blogging.

Point 3 is pretty much a truism.  Would add that while reading and lifting elements of other blogs is okay to an extent, having a self-awareness of what would work best for one's own blogging is much better.  I certainly didn't see/read too many blogs devoted to transnational literature when I shifted the focus of this blog a couple of years ago.  Creating (or at least expanding) a "new" market has its own charm that exists outside of stats.  I'm always bemused by how my Feedburner stats are several hundred more than what shows up in Sitemeter each day.  I'm guessing either I'm just more discussed about than read or that stats are pretty misleading.  I'm leaning toward the latter, as I've been rather boring lately.

The fourth point, about publicizing, irritates me to no end.  Although I do occasionally link to this blog on the forums that I frequent (which I must admit, I frequent less consistently now, with my other responsibilities), I certainly didn't need the Facebook bit to publicize what I'm doing (I think I have fewer than 30 "friends" there and my main purpose for that is keeping track of others, not for them to keep track of me, since I rarely post more than syndicated Notes there) and I refuse to have a Twitter account.  Perhaps for some people, the main draw of book blogging is the "networking" with others who are doing similar things, but that element does not appeal to me, nor does engaging in such activities insure that one will become a better blogger.  Chances are that those who devote a lot of time to Facebook and Twitter amongst each other will end up thinking that their little discussions, their little arguments are more important than perhaps they are.  Sometimes, (mind you, sometimes) maintaining a distance from the social networking can benefit one's own blogging, since it allows the intrepid blogger to let his/her mind wander down paths that aren't so trodden by others' opinions.  So yes, there's a downside to the publicity methods suggested there.  Not saying that those couldn't be of worth, but rather that there's an inherent risk there as well.

The final point is on the surface somewhat sound.  But I happen to take a much more mercenary approach to this.  I have only once contacted an author directly about receiving a book (and I should note that was after a discussion on his blog that involved me querying about who to contact for receiving a review copy of a reprint anthology).  I have had authors that I've befriended give my contact info to publishers, but that was not the end point of getting to know these authors.  Rather, I made contacts with several publicists over the past few years and I sold them on this blog based on audience, focus, as well as offering to provide samples of past reviews.  I have only read one self-published book and that was as a favor to the author who I came to know on another's blog.  I turn down several offers each month.  It's a business.  My time is money, both in what I do with my day job and with my current part-time one, and I don't feel any obligation to review a book, especially since most what is sent to me is unsolicited.  I guess what I'm trying to state here is that of all the tips given, there is virtually nothing about how to view all of this as a business.  Sure, buddy-buddy with fellow bloggers, authors, publicists, etc., but ultimately it's a business where money is being transacted.  Always best to keep that in mind.

Enough of that one post.  Now for the second blog post that drew my attention.  Gav of NextRead poses the question of "Are you looking for book reviewers?"  Although there is nothing inherently wrong about his post or the responses, I was struck with a few similarities with the first post discussed at length above.  There seems to be a presumption that such a post ought to be directed toward those few fools who decide to start a (SF/F oriented) book blog.  As such, the discussion is oriented to those few readers who have their own blogs (incidentally, before any try to call me out on this, I am fully aware that this post is oriented toward much the same and that most, if any, comments will come from those who have their own blogs).  In the comments, several of the same blogs cited in John's blog are mentioned again (including this one, not that I feel special about it).  It's almost as if in writing about the craft of blogging, that any such examples and formats will revolve around a very particular niche and those reading such posts will tend to come from a very small and similar pool of readers, most of whom blog on occasion.

So back to the title of this thread.  A big danger that I've noticed (and have often failed to avoid) is that of assuming one's narrow field of focus is somewhat more than just a microcosm (if that; very divergent blogs about books, several of which are in the blogrolls here) of other discussions elsewhere.  In a small pond, I guess all those fish, regardless of size, feel as those their fish-like thoughts and ways of viewing matters is all that matters...until the hook is dropped and one is snatched out of his/her comfort zone.  Such coziness can breed pseudo-familiarity.  There is that danger of blogging circle jerks, where each blogger ends up writing on a similar topic (or a similar review topic, I suppose) and each afterward compares his/her "performance" to the others'.  There certainly are some attractions to that (cf.  this very blog post), but overindulgence is a bad thing.  Having a small circle of "fellow bloggers" who read and write about similar books, often using similar approaches, and who tend to congregate on Facebook and Twitter, cross-propagating what each is reading/discussing, all this can lead to what I guess might be the blogging equivalent of inbreeding.  Not that I'm going to develop this (semi)point any further, mind you, but I'll leave it hanging...perhaps to be discussed here and yonder.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Adam Rapp, Ball Peen Hammer


Ball Peen Hammer, Adam Rapp's first graphic novel, can be read as equal parts mystery and character piece.  Set in a post-apocalyptic urban environment (presumably New York, although I do not recall a particular city being named), Ball Peen Hammer follows two sets of two characters, the diseased musician Welton and the author Aaron Underjohn for one and the onetime-actress Exley and the half-feral child Horlick for the other story arc.  Although largely separate, the two arcs connect in ways that create one of the more powerful graphic novel stories that I've read in recent months.

Imagine a dark, doomed setting.  Acid rain falls from the sky and people have to go from domicile to domicile wearing gas masks and garbage bags to protect them from the corrosive downpours.  Disease is rampant, killing scores of people a day in a fashion as horrifying as the Black Death was nearly seven centuries ago.  There is a shadowy group, The Syndicate, that seems to maintain a warped control over the situation and the populace trapped inside the fetid rooms and rotting walls of the city.  It is a claustrophobic, dark, damp setting and Rapp and artist George O'Connor render this very well in this story.

Readers wanting full explanations of The Syndicate's motives or why there are "collectors" that scurry through the nights like demented rent collectors will be disappointed with Ball Peen Hammer.  But for those such as myself who can accept being placed in media res and having to fend for our own selves, Ball Peen Hammer is often a brilliant albeit morbid, twisted take on how humans bond in stressful situations.  The short, terse conversations that Welton and Aaron have while Welton soaks his sores reminded me of the short, staccato bursts that Cormac McCarthy utilized to great effect in The Road.  The world seems to be coming to some sort of end and what the hell do people have left but to reflect upon what was and what could have been?

The other arc, that of Exley and Horlick, was even more gripping in that the horrors occurring outside their shared, cramped room have found their reflection in Horlick's cruel, twisted outlook.  Children suffer the most in these situations and seeing Horlick from the first scene, where he coldly smashes Exley's valuable fresh melons, to his first confrontation with Exley is discomforting due to just how plausible his character is.  

The first half of this 134 page novel is spent developing the characters and their situations.  The final half is devoted to furthering the at-first tenuous connections between the two arcs.  Although Welton and Exley are but an apartment story or two apart, the two might as well be miles apart, due to the violent conditions outside.  Rapp and O'Connor do an excellent job reinforcing the claustrophobic setting and the viciousness of the mostly unseen "sackers" and "draggers," not to mention the sudden appearance of a character that Horlick described early on.  Each of these elements combine to create a closing that ultimately provides no closure at all; things end, but there are no satisfactory explanations, no appreciable acts of heroism, no treacly sweet reunions.  

Ball Peen Hammer thus concludes the way it began, in the middle of the action, with a paucity of explanation and an even greater lack of closure.  For some, this might be a very frustrating novel, despite the well-drawn characters and their (almost too) realistic reactions to such an unrelentingly grim environment.  Those who believe stories should have a "full" arc will inevitably be disappointed, since Ball Pen Hammer aims to tell a story that eschews such reader expectations. Instead, this graphic novel largely achieves its aim of thrusting the reader directly into the narrative, never allowing him/her the chance to "breathe."  From O'Connor dark, vivid images to Rapp's uncompromising dialogue, Ball Peen Hammer is an excellent story that will certainly stick in my mind for some time to come.  Felt like taking a shower and walking out into the sunlight after I finished reading that. Not many stories, regardless of medium employed for telling them, can achieve that effect.  Recommended.

Release Date:  September 29, 2009 (US).  Graphic novel.  Tradeback.

Publisher:  First Second

February 8-13 Book Porn

Here are five books that I've received in the past week (had to leave off a graphic novel, Ball Peen Hammer, due to space concerns, but that book will be reviewed later today).  Two of them are ARCs sent to me by Pyr which I'll read in the coming month or so, two are Russian books in English translation that I'm going to be reading later this year for an informal online discussion group, and the final book is the traycased, signed edition of Steven Erikson's fourth novella/short novel for PS Publishing, Crack'd Pot Trail, which I'll be reviewing in the next week or two.
Lots more posts coming up later today and tomorrow.  Was quiet because I was very sleepy, plus I've been working out and reading a lot of short fiction...and other stuff.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

"I would have expected the Darre to do a better job of preserving the truth."  He leaned closer, slow, subtle.  Something predatory was in his eyes - and I, entranced, was easy prey.  "Not every race of humankind worships Itempas by choice, after all.  I would have thought their ennu at least would know the old ways."

I would have thought so, too.  I clenched my hand around the silver fruitstone, felling light-headed.  I knew that once my people had been heretics.  That was why the Amn called races like mine darkling:  we had accepted the Bright only to save ourselves when the Arameri threatened us with annihilation.  But what Nahadoth implied - that some of my people had known the real reason for the Gods' War all along and had hidden it from me - no.  That I could not, did not want to, believe. (pp. 119-120)

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the opener to the other The Inheritance Trilogy and author N.K. Jemisin's debut novel, is a novel that contains as seeming contradictions as its characters.  From the first lines of this first-person narrative through to the end of this trilogy opener, there are surprises coexisting with some rather awkward narrative elements.  The beginning chapters in particular highlight the novel's unevenness.  The very first paragraphs of the book, pregnant with foreshadowing:

I am not as I once was.  They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart.  I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember. (p. 1)
have the force of this mystery and hint of the unreliable narrator blunted by indulging a bit too much in expository explanation of who the first-person narrator (the nineteen year-old bi-ethnic (racial?) princess Yeine Darre) is and what she is doing.  Throughout the first half of this debut volume, it seemed at times that Jemisin could not decide whether to let Yeine act more as a portal through which the readers could experience the intrigue Yeine was embroiled in or if Yeine's character ought to be shown as an active, dynamic force whose actions would shape her reminiscences.  This apparent indecision led to a few dead moments for the first few chapters until the novel's central conflict began to overwhelm the first, lesser confrontation that the opening chapter established.

Yeine's character twists earlier epic fantasy staples such as the overlooked, rustic farmboy rising unexpectedly to claim a largely-forgotten regal inheritance, not to mention the sometimes irritating spunky young woman character type.  Yeine begins her reflections by relating why she was traveling to the court of the Arameri to meet long-sundered relatives and to discover that she had been named by her hitherto-now distant grandfather as heir, four months after her mother's murder (itself a plot device that is left rather underdeveloped here). There she discovers she is one of three heirs named, with the expectation that the three would battle it out for control of the court and of the so-called hundred thousand kingdoms under Arameri suzerainty. 

This conflict, although at times well-illustrated, is neglected, rightfully so, for the larger conflict mirrored by this smaller, mortal clash.  It turns out that the source of Arameri power are enslaved god-children, as well as one-third of the original triumvirate that ordered and shaped the universe.  It is this ancient conflict between brother-sister-brother/lover-beloved-envious ones that drives the narrative for the second half of the novel, as the court intrigue falls into the backdrop.  It is here here Yeine as a character begins to come into her own, as she begins to reveal more of herself than had been seen in the opening chapters.  It is this plot and character development that gives the novel a powerful, surprising conclusion that more than makes up for the tentative, hesitant first half.

There are several things to praise about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms thematic elements.  Jemisin plays upon reader expectations of clashes between Light/Dark by creating a third, mediating element that forces readers to reconsider any previously-held preconceptions they may have held about the two (male) gods that still exist when the novel opens.  Furthermore, by having this third, mysterious goddess/element in the background, Jemisin creates a plausible mythology that not only is explored within the narrative, but which provides an interpretative scheme for the novel that may satisfy those such as myself who like multifaceted, challenging narratives.  As noted above, the three god/forces dominate the novel and Jemisin's skillful exploration of their motivations and their roles that infuses The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms with a compelling storyline which concludes strongly at the end in a fashion that will be simultaneously surprising and long-expected.  Love is such a strange creature and its mutations can affect so many.

Although The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is but the opener for a trilogy, it is virtually self-contained.  There is a definite, full narrative arc executed over 400 pages with a conclusion that brings all storylines but one introduced here to a close.  The only open arc is introduced in the closing chapter and it sets the stage for a completely different sort of story to be explored in the second volume.  It appears this trilogy may rely more upon thematic cliffhangers than narrative pauses to keep readers anticipating the next volume.

So how well did I like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms?  For the first half, as I stated above, I found myself being annoyed slightly by things such as Yeine's seeming digressions, the perceived lack of focus on what might be the book's central element, and the sometimes-distant, passive point-of-view character who sometimes failed to make what was transpiring vivid.  But by the time that the gods' conflict emerged as the central focus, Jemisin's prose became more taut and the sometimes languid pace of the earlier chapters picked up in such a fashion as to make the final ten chapters or so very riveting.  The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not a perfect novel, but it certainly is a very promising and intriguing debut novel, one that despite its flaws felt more polished and nuanced than the vast majority of debut novels I have read in recent years.  Jemisin has set the stage for what appears to be a redemption story and that alone would make me want to read the sequels. Knowing that, minor stumblings aside, that she has the writing chops to accomplish this leaves me anticipating the next volume more than I do most pending volumes.  Likely one of the better 2010 debuts.  Highly recommended.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Best American Fantasy 4 readings plus assorted Book Porn

Today I received a large box full of lit journals, genre magazines, and all sorts of fictions in-between that straddle those invisible borders between the Fantastic and the Speculative.  Best American Fantasy co-creators Ann and Jeff VanderMeer sent to me over two dozen magazines and journals that are eligible for consideration for Best American Fantasy 4.  As new series editor, I get the fun task of reading through each of these (and several more) to narrow it down to 75-100 possible stories for the guest editor, Minister Faust, to select from for final addition to BAF 4 (which will be released in early 2011, for those who are eager to place their pre-orders).  I thought it would be a good idea to highlight the magazines and journals being considered with pictorials and name references.  So here goes:

On Spec, Fall 2009; The Mississippi Review Poetry Series (2010); Catherynne M. Valente, Under in the Mere (2009; short fiction); Green Mountains Review (vol. XXII, no. 1, 2009); American Short Fiction, Spring 2009; New Genre, Issue Six (2009); The Florida Review, Summer 2009; American Short Fiction, Winter 2009.

Harvard Review, 36 (2009); Witness, vol. XXII (2009); New England Review, vol. 30, no. 3 (2009); The Southern Review, Summer 2009; The Kenyon Review, Fall 2009; The Kenyon Review, Winter 2010.

Electric Velocipede, Fall 2009; Glimmer Train Stories, 73 (2009); Ecotone:  The Brutality Issue (2009); The Cincinnati Review, Winter 2010; Stefanie Freele, Feeding Strays (2009).

Here are some "extras" that the VanderMeers sent me (well, one is a duplicate copy of what I received from F&SF a couple of weeks ago) for my "leisure reading," if such a thing will exist before June.  Several of these certainly will be read in short order and will be listed in my magazine/journal reading list (said list excludes my readings of various non-fiction magazines, I ought to add).

Here are several books that I received from the Penguin Group/DAW and from Night Shade Books.  Will browse through the Datlow anthology (which appears to be a reprint one) to see if any stories are eligible for BAF4, but the others will have to await a free weekend, if that, for reading.

More books from the Penguin Group/DAW and one from Orbit US.  Like I said above, if read, these will have to await a weekend free from BAF4 readings.

Offerings from Night Shade and from Tor/St. Martin's Press.  The New Dead will be read for BAF4, the Erikson I read last year when I imported the book in hardcover form from the UK, the Teppo books will be read in my free time, and I have no idea when or if I'll get to the Maberry book.

Recent purchases (or at least those I had on hand).  Learning both Serbian and Attic/Koine Greek, thus the grammar, as well as The Septuagint translation of the Old Testament (and the deuterocanonical works).  Oh, and some Calvino and Eco in Italian to balance out the Aristophanes in dual Attic Greek/English translation.  Not a bad haul.  These are to be read/studied over several months.

Think these are enough readings to occupy me for a couple of weeks at least?

Blogger reviewing writers reviewing bloggers reviewing writers who may or may not be writing about bloggers

I like to think that the overly-long title captures the essence of what's been transpiring over the past week or so on a relatively new spec fic blog, The Speculative Scotsman.  Although the subject matter (negative reviews and the possible impact they could have, as well as writers who value/discount such reviews, among other things) is rather well-trod, I found the wit and humor contained in not just the original review (of Paul Hoffman's The Left Hand of God), but also in the follow-up and in author Sam Sykes' response to be entertaining reads. 

But I cannot help but to think that something is missing from all this.  Perhaps what is needed is another blogger grading the review and its, wait, that would make it sound as though the blogger proposing to do this would have megalomaniac tendencies and/or may be a frustrated English teacher.  Not that there's anything wrong with being a frustrated English (or History, Geography, and US Government/Civics) teacher, mind you, but some might find some fault in all this and choose to focus on the real and perceived faults of said reviewer of another blogger's review of a writer who may or may not be funky in a totally non-George Clinton sense and whose prose may be as ripe as that of the hobo who swore off bathing during the Reagan administration.

Humor (or its failed attempt at such) aside, I suppose some of the issues hinted at or half-raised in this latest round-robin affair of Reviewer/Author Tag would be those of how well does the reviewer establish his/her "voice" for the audience to consider and how little shrift the "essay" part of a review essay gets in these times and locales.  Voice is very important.  Just as authors are judged on narrative voice and how coherent and noticeable this said "voice" might be, so too are reviewers judged, at least those who post regular reviews.  Voice is what makes the reviewer distinguishable from the crowd, something that provides that X factor that allows for the audience to presume that they can gain not only some insight into the work being reviewed, but also into the person who has decided to spend some time interpreting just what that tome might have meant to them. 

Although I'll cop to not being that familiar with Niall Alexander's blog (although he's commented here on occasion and always has interesting things to add - the fault is purely mine, which I'll correct in the near future), based on that review (and later on the follow-up posts) I believe I have a greater feel for his "voice" and I find it to be distinctive, even if I don't have a large enough "sample size" yet to determine just how much insight he brings to all of his reviews.  Certainly is promising so far and the way he approached reviewing a book that did not appeal to him definitely is a good one in my opinion:  gentle skewering with humor more than with raw invective.  Hopefully, that "voice" will continue to develop with time and not atrophy, like certain bloggers who changed their color scheme in the past year to refer to the 2009 Iranian protests might have done...

An important element that often is overlooked when considering reviews is the essay form itself.  Perhaps I'm too much of a language nut now, but "essay" used to carry two meanings in English (just as it still does in most Romance languages today), that not just of the writing form, but of the attempt to establish/create something.  In particular, I am thinking of the attempt to write a short narrative that not only analyzes, but also compares, contrasts, and ultimately judges a work/idea on the basis of pre-determined criteria (although these criteria may vary from work to work being considered).  A well-written essay that essays to transliterate the reviewer's thoughts into a cogent written piece can have a value worth more than whether or not someone agrees or disagrees with that reviewer's tastes in literature (or other matters).  A well-constructed review essay can give insight not just into that particular reviewer's mindset, but also into how that reviewers and perhaps others understand and apply concepts related to the art of writing itself.

Jorge Luis Borges is one of my favorite writers but, along with H.L. Mencken, he is also one of my favorite reviewers/critics to read.  Although most of his ensayos are not able in English translation, in reading his thought on Martín Fierro and other novels of the 19th and 20th centuries (all these I read in Spanish) I gained valuable insight not just into how Borges approached writing a review essay, but also in how the review essay could be utilized as a tool to help the reviewer and others to devise more interpretative measures for gauging a story's worth.

So perhaps in the debate (friendly, bantering as it has been) these issues ought to be raised.  It isn't just how in tune a reader might be with a reviewer's review (positive or negative), but perhaps it is (or at least should be) more about how well such thoughts are conveyed and how willing the reader is to process and to question what is transpiring in hopes of garnering more insight into book, reviewer, and (ultimately) one's own self.
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