The OF Blog: November 2010

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

As I near the end of Sapkowski's Witcher saga...

... I am reminded of one of the more misguided reviews of one of his books, The Last Wish, that I have ever read.  "YA" indeed!  What a joke.

Just thought I'd share this for those that missed it nearly three years ago.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Has NASA discovered signs of extraterrestrial life in our solar system?

Interesting news release for an upcoming press conference on Thursday given by NASA's Astrobiology team.  Uncertain if it'll be as groundbreaking as it might seem at first (no E.T.s trying to phone home and all), but this is still quite big news if I understand matters correctly.

What do you think?  Think this will be a small step toward a near-future discovery of advanced/intelligent extraterrestrial life?  And if this were to occur, what changes, if any, do you think such a discovery might make in how we view ourselves and our place in the world(s) around us?

"Should I stay or should I go?"

It seems one online reviewer has decided to stay, while another has decided to go.  Each has their own rationale for doing so and more power to them if this indeed are right decisions for both of them.  All this serves to underscore for myself is that even something like online story commentary, which many seem to view as a hobby of some sort, can lead to cases of burnout (if they don't lead, in some cases, to career changes and increased prosperity). 

I always am bewildered whenever I pause and think about what's transpired since I started this blog back in August 2004.  In the interim, I've seen dozens (if not hundreds) of blog sites start, often full of vim and vigor, before most would crash and burn, usually in a matter of months, if not a year or two.  Some others (and this blog is one of them) change their focus in order to enliven matters, but even then there is the threat of burnout.  I used to worry about that constantly, considering how in my professional life I have twice experienced such an acute case of burnout that I twice resigned positions (in 2002 and 2007, for those that care to know such matters).

But those events happened when I was more immature than I am today (I struggle to think of the words "maturity" and "Larry" appearing in the same sentence, to be honest).  It's funny the sort of perspective that can develop when one outlasts so many others.  It's not wisdom that emerges from "surviving" the blogging issues when others founder, but rather that sense that experience can be a callous bitch.  Of course, this is really amusing when considered in the light that so many former (and soon to be former) bloggers seem to have this approach toward blogging about books as if it were some fun event that leads to cool experiences.

I've never really indulged myself in that way.  There's something to be said for approaching online reviewing (if not the other aspects of blogging here) as a sort of practice in a particular craft.  Despite what some might think, I've never considered myself to be a particularly gifted reviewer or columnist.  If I were, don't you think I might have been more happy to have remained in grad school and have earned my Ph.D. in 20th Century German Cultural and Religious History?  No, sometimes it's instructive to have experienced burnout and to have walked away from that which you love the most.

Sometimes, the act of giving up and starting elsewhere with something new can lead to new discoveries.  Recently, I've been moving further and further away from this perceived "rat race" of certain book bloggers discussing the same types of new books as if they were great prizes that were won due luck and/or blog visibility.  In fact, I'm in the process of trying to reduce my personal library by 25-50% over the next few months.  That means I want to take around 350-500 books that I've purchased and trade them in at local used bookstores, buying mostly books for my classroom in return (minus the foreign language editions, which I'll mostly keep) or taking all those stacks of unwanted ARC editions from books over the past few years and either give them away to friends of mine or take them to Goodwill.  I'm trying to break myself of the jackdaw habit of acquisitive behavior (which seems to manifest itself primarily in books and not in other objects) and I hope this will free up some space and monetary resources in the process.

So what's the point of this?  Am I changing things again around here?  Perhaps, to some small extent.  I enjoy blogging about what interests me and I care little about what others think of what I cover (if I said I care nothing about that, I'd be a liar).  Since I'm going to have some translation projects appear online and in print in the coming months, there might be a greater focus on that (I feel most comfortable translating from Spanish into English, although I can do Portuguese to English as well now) than on anything "new."  There are a few upcoming releases I want to cover, but for the most part, I think 2011 will see me blogging about discoveries that might not promoted ad nauseam elsewhere.  Perhaps there will be a few more commentaries about matters of interest.  Certainly the focus will not remain primarily on speculative fictions; maybe more non-fiction and histories could be covered on occasion.  Maybe I'll even blog on matters of religion, since that has long been an interest of mine.  I could even review Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin for shits and giggles, I suppose...

Isn't life more fun when you can remove as many limits as possible?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Andrzej Sapkowski, Baptism of Fire (Bautismo de fuego)

Entonces le dijo la profetisa al brujo: "Este consejo te doy: ponte botas de yerro, toma en la mano un bastón de yerro. Ve con tus botas de yerro hasta el fin del mundo y por el camino agita el bastón y riega todo con lágrimas. Ve a través de la agua y el fuego, no te detengas ni mires a tu alredor. Y cuando las almadreñas se te desgasten, cuando el bastón de yerro se deshaga, cuando el viento y el calor te sequen los ojos de tal forma que de ellos ni una lágrima acierte a escapar, entonces, en el fin del mundo, hallarás lo que buscas y lo que amas. Pudiera ser”.

Y el brujo cruzó la agua y el fuego, sin mirar a su alrededor. Pero no se puso botas de yerro ni tomó bastón. Sólo llevó su espada de brujo. No escuchó las palabras de la profetisa. Y bien que hizo, porque era una mala profetisa. (p.7)

Then the prophetess said to the Witcher:  "This counsel I give you:  put on boots of sin, take in hand a cane of sin.   See with your boots of sin until the end of the world and through the road the cane shakes and waters everything with tears.  See through the water and the fire, that you do not detain yourself nor look around you.  And when the clogs are worn away from you, when cane of sin is unmade, when the wind and the heat dry your eyes to such a form that from them not a happenstance tear escapes, then, at the end of the world, you will find what you look for and what you love. It could be.”

And the Witcher crossed the water and the fire, without looking around him.  But he did not put on boots of sin nor take a cane.  He only brought his Witcher's sword.  He didn't listen to the words of the prophetess.  And he did well, because she was a bad prophetess.
Andrzej Sapkowski's third novel (and fifth overall book) in the Witcher series, Baptism of Fire, perhaps is simultaneously the most bleak of the novels in this series and one that is full of those small moments that manage to redeem the despair and destruction that rages throughout its 256 pages.  Each of the main characters (Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri) endure their own "baptisms of fire" after each have been separated by the events at the end of the previous novel.  Ciri, transported within the southern realm of Nilfgaard, has fallen in with a group of rebels and killers known as the Rats.  Thinking that Geralt and Yennefer are dead at the hands of the coup that took place in the previous novel, she has resigned herself to a life of attacks and murders, a task she finds she enjoys all too well.  While Yennefer is preoccupied with quelling the mess caused by the sorcerous uprising, Geralt recovers in the woods of Brokilon from the wounds he suffered in the fighting at Thanedd Island.  There he encounters remnants of the Squirrels, as well as a sylvan guide and a doctor who is much more than what he appears to his patients.  It is in these crucibles that Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri discover some important answers to questions they had not even thought to pose to themselves before the Second Nilfgaarden War began.

Although the above paragraph perhaps gives more "spoilers" than I am usually inclined to give, it is necessary in this case to outline for English-language readers just what is transpiring in this multi-volume series that is slowly being translated into English.  Sapkowski in this series and especially here in the middle book of the five-novel series (and seven volume overall series set in the Witcher universe) takes great pains to reveal the consequences of death, destruction, and despite.  Due to the pride, arrogance, and machinations from multiple sides (there are no true "black" nor "white" characters here; each has their own good and bad qualities, similar to most any nations at war), cities are burning and whole populaces are being massacred to assuage the feelings of disgust and xenophobia between Men, Dwarves, and Elves.  Sapkowski reveals this mostly through his dialogues, which (at least in the Spanish translation; the English translation of the first two books left me feeling cold) contain a wealth of humor, sarcasm, concern, fear, and loathing all bound up in ways that are easily related to audiences of various languages.  

Sapkowski eschews simple characterizations.  Geralt, whom some might see as being a sort of Elric-like character with his white hair and wolfish nom-de-guerre, serves here (as well as elsewhere in the series) more as a facilitator of understanding and concord than he does as a violent solver of problems.  One highlight of this book (and in the entire series as a whole) is his interaction with Regis, whose very nature one might presume would induce the Witcher to slay him.  It is in their conversations on matters great and small where Sapkowski explores issues that might seem at first ancillary to readers but which later on in the series bears unexpected fruit.  Sapkowski is rarely heavy-handed in these discourses; their "naturalness" adds much to the Sword and Sorcery-style environs, creating an atmosphere that feels more "realistic" because the characters that do appear within are realistic, dynamic characters who have defined motives but yet aren't so rigidly constructed as to seem to be little more than pawns in the author's larger narrative game.

For those readers who enjoy quick, surprising plot developments, Baptism of Fire contains that as well.  Sapkowski covers battles and pogroms in the space of a few pages, while the consequences of these actions are often seen through the eyes of his protagonists.  Perhaps some might find themselves wanting to learn more about this battle or why this group decided to take a particular course of action over another, but for the most part, the scenes are fleshed out without feeling as though they were full of bloat.  The prose, at least in the Spanish translation done by José María Faraldo, flows at a quick clip, but yet never feels rushed or underdeveloped.  The characterizations, as I noted above, are developed primarily through interactions with other characters; there are relatively few internal monologues.  The overall effect is that of a fast-paced, meaningful sprint that covers a lot of narrative ground in a short amount of time.  Baptism of Fire is certainly a good middle volume in a secondary-world series that has become one of my all-time favorites to read. 

Saturday, November 27, 2010

November 27 Used Book Porn: A Semi-Cull, Part I

Over the next several weeks, I plan to cull a few hundred books, replacing them with roughly
  only a third or so of their former number.  It started today when I traded in 64 at McKay's in Nashville and bought 32 with the store credit I received (11 of those books are for work, so only 21 in these photos; 8 of those 11 were copies of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, since I plan on teaching that story later in the school year and I need several copies of it, and the rest were German and French grammar books so some of the students can receive foreign language instruction while they are in rehab).  So I'll be focusing more on books that I cannot easily buy new for that time (and with the hope that by the end of January, my store credit will be built up to a few hundred dollars, for splurges months from now).

As always, I stop by the foreign language section first.  Although my German is barely semi-fluent these days, I could not resist the temptation of getting six Kafka books for $7.50 total, as well as a German translation of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum (which I also own in the original Italian).  Very nice editions, especially the Kafka set, no?

 My French reading comprehension has improved dramatically over the past year or so, and I thought it would be about time to challenge myself with some heavy-hitting classics here.  I did hedge my bet from an earlier purchase and got the Spanish translation of some of Moliere's plays, as well as the Spanish paperback edition of Laura Esquivel's most famous work.

 The Italian dictionary is to serve as a backup when I read Dante in the original in the near future, while the Polish dictionary I picked up for a real cheap price, just in case...

I'm still reading as much of Angela Carter's works as I can and after reading Paul Smith's piece on this book a few months ago, I've finally found a copy of Fireworks, which almost certainly will be read before the end of the year.  And it's always a pleasurable experience discovering more Naguib Mahfouz books that I don't already own...

Finally, I lucked up and found the first three volumes of 18th century Chinese writer Cao Xueqin's classic work.  Been meaning to purchase this five-volume set for quite some time, so only two volumes to go (those will be bought online in the next few weeks, I believe).

And there's the (semi?)regular used book porn post for this weekend.  Which books do you most want and why?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Andrzej Sapkowski, Time of Contempt (Tiempo del odio)

Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski's The Witcher novels have been a huge international success, with millions of copies sold in over a half-dozen translations.  In 2009, his third book (and first novel) set in the Witcher universe, Blood of the Elves, won the inaugural David Gemmell Award for Best Novel.  Despite the numerous delays for the next book to appear in English translation, the fourth volume (although only the third in English translation, as both Gollancz and Orbit inexplicably have declined to publish the second book, The Sword of Destiny, despite that collection containing the backstories of several important characters and events that are explored in greater depth in books 3-7), Time of Contempt (although Time of Hatred might be a slightly more accurate rendering of the original title; it is the literal translation of the Spanish translation, which I just finished re-reading) continues the narrative and character arcs introduced in the three previous volumes.

Time of Contempt picks up shortly after the events of Blood of Elves.  The Nilfgaard Empire has continued its invasion of the northern kingdoms.  Yennefer, the sorceress who is the Witcher Geralt of Rivera's soulmate, has decided to take Ciri, the heiress to the Kingdom of Cintra and the Child of Surprise, to the island of Thanedd, which houses three academies devoted to training adepts how to utilize their magical gifts.  Geralt, intimately linked to Ciri through bonds of destiny (established in "The Sword of Destiny" and "Something More", both found in The Sword of Destiny), has been slowly making his way through the same region when he learns that Yennefer and Ciri are nearby.  It is in this reunion, foreshadowed perhaps in "Something More," where one of the key scenes of the book transpires:

- Di algo.

- No me gustaría perderte, Yen.
- Pero si me tienes.

- Esta noche tendrá final.

No, pensó Geralt.  No quiero que sea así.  Estoy cansado.  Demasiado cansado para aceptar la perspectiva de finales que son principios, tras los que hay que comenzar otra vez de nuevo.  Yo quisiera...

- No hables. - Con un rápido movimiento, Yennefer le puso un dedo en los labios -.  No me digas lo que quieres ni lo que anhelas.  Porque podría ser que no fuera a poder cumplir tus deseos y eso me causaría daño.

- ¿Y qué es lo que tú anhelas, Yen?  ¿Con qué sueñas?

- Sólo con cosas que se pueden alcanzar.

- ¿Y conmigo?

- A ti ya te tengo.

Guardó silencio durante largo rato.  Y esperó al momento en que ella interrumpió el silencio.

- ¿Geralt?

- ¿Mmm?

-Hazme el amor, por favor. (p. 127)
"Say something."

"I wouldn't like to lose you, Yen."

"But if you have me."

"This night will be the last."

No, thought Geralt.  I don't want it to be so.  I am tired.  Too tired to accept the perception of ends that are beginnings, after which they have to begin again anew.  I wanted...

"Don't speak."  With a rapid movement, Yennefer placed a finger on his lips.  "Don't tell me what you want nor what you yearn for.  Because it could be that you aren't able to complete your wishes and that would cause me harm."

"And what is it that you yearn for, Yen?  Of what do you dream?"

"Only of things that can be obtained."

"And with me?"

"You I already have."

He kept silent for a long while.  And he awaited the moment in which she broke the silence.



"Make love to me, please."
For those readers who have read "Something More" (and for those who haven't, I translated the key passage in my earlier review), this reunion contains a poignant power because of how well Sapkowski set up Yennefer and Geralt's shared past.  Not only does it provide a thematic mirror to the earlier story collection, but it also serves as a counterpoint to the darker tone that develops throughout this volume.  As Yennefer, Ciri, and Geralt are (temporarily) reunited, the kingdoms around them collapse.  The nefarious mastermind whom the assassin Rience served in Blood of Elves is revealed and from there, at roughly the halfway point of this 272 page novel, the novel explodes into a maelstrom of action as the Nilfgaardians advance; the elvish Squirrels, the dwarves, the gnomes, and refugee humans continue to distrust and poach the weak and unwary among the others; and Ciri discovers some of the elements of her terrible power, leading to a series of surprising events that conclude this volume.

Those readers who disliked the dialogue-heavy scenes in Blood of Elves probably will not find this book to their liking.  However, for those who want to read an imaginative and character-driven Sword and Sorcery-influenced novel, then Time of Contempt will be a pleasing read.  Sapkowski explores not just the external scenic trappings, but he delves into the complex "ecological" relationships between living beings and their surroundings.  He touches upon the traumas inflicted upon individuals, families, and nations in the name of "glorious" warfare.  The "time of contempt" (I much prefer "time of hatred," as that term contains more the sense of active antipathy than does mere contempt, but since the English translation likely will be entitled Time of Contempt, I'll reluctantly employ that phrase here) are seen throughout this novel, as betrayals pile up on top of previously-buried misgivings and distrust.  It adds up to a novel that contains a depth that might not be suspected at first.   Sapkowski's ability to mix in myth (both Eastern European and Anglo-French alike) creates a narrative that moves quickly but without sacrificing the keen wit and pathos that has been a hallmark of Sapkowski's earlier Witcher stories.  If Time of Contempt were definitely being released shortly, I would recommend strongly that readers rush and pick it up.  As it stands, the publishing delays mentioned at the beginning of this review are all the more frustrating because it feels that a great narrative arc is being denied English-language monolinguals.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How people find this site

According to Blogger's referral stats, these are the top ten searches that land people here. Some are amusing, no?

of blog of the fallen

of blog

blog of the fallen

mexican porn

birthday squirrel

god emperor of dune

turkish porn

serbian porn

"jeffrey ford"


Thanksgiving Book Porn

Here are the past three days' arrivals, some of them purchases (most of the first and third pictures), with the others being review copies.  In this first picture, I have read 3/4 of Bakker's book and I am finding it to be much better written than his last attempt at a thriller, Neuropath.  Not that I'm biased because a character shares a same surname with myself, mind you...  Read a bit of Patti Smith's autobiography of her time in the late 1960s-1970s with Robert Mapplethorpe and "poignant" and "moving" are two words I've already thought in conjunction to the first couple of chapters.  Haven't read enough of the Amelia Gray or Robert Lopez collections to have firm thoughts on them.  Sarah Blakewell's "biography" of Montaigne is certainly going to garner a glowing review whenever I finish it over the next couple of weeks.

Here are four books that I've received from Pyr Books over the past few days.  More likely to read the Akers book before the three Barclay, as I'm not in much of a mood to read English-language epic fantasy at this time.  But soon, I might sample those as well.

The John Joseph Adams anthology, Brave New Worlds, is the only review copy (or English-language work) pictured above.  I am excited that the Italian original of Umberto Eco's latest novel arrived a week earlier than I had expected.  Shall be alternating between that and (re)reading the entire Saga of Geralt/the Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski.  While English-language readers have to wait and wonder if Gollancz (and Orbit for the US, I guess) have canceled the publication of the English translation of Sapkowski's lauded and bestselling series, the Spanish-language readers recently saw the eighth (and final) volume of this series released (the final volume in Polish and most other languages was split in two in Spain).  I hope to have the time in the next couple of weeks to review volumes #4-8 here.

And yes, you monolinguals may be jealous now.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Leatherbound Classics: The Analects of Confucius

Chi K'ang Tzu asked by what means he might cause his people to be respectful and loyal, and encourage them in the path of virtue.  The Master replied:  "Conduct yourself towards them with dignity, and you will earn their respect; be a good son and a kind prince, and you will find them loyal; promote the deserving and instruct those who fall short, and they will be encouraged to follow the path of virtue." (p. 2)
Reviewing a philosophical work simultaneously ought to be very challenging and quite simple.  Such works perhaps should be approached with a different tack than what would be employed when dealing with a fiction:  instead of focusing on what the text yields to us, perhaps in these cases the focus ought to be on what we yield to the truths embedded in the text.  Yet this can be a quite discomfiting experience, as who has the time and discernment to contemplate matters of truth and rightful living in a world that spins seemingly faster and faster with each passing day?  I suspect the real value of works such as Confucius' The Analects of Confucius lies in what they force us to do as much as in their worth as teaching aids.

Confucius is one of the oldest philosophers/sages whose sayings still have some merit today.  Born in 551 BCE a generation or so before the main stage of the Warring States period of Chinese history, Confucius was not someone who isolated himself from the world, as his near-contemporary, the Buddha Gautama did during his quest for enlightenment.  From the surviving records and legends, Confucius was a minor government official in the minor state of Lu.  Frustrated by the politics there, he spent much of his adult life as a wanderer from princely court to princely court, teaching and trying to sway the local rulers toward his views on how to live life properly and how to treat others.  By the time he died in 479 BCE, he had gained a following and it was through his followers that his precepts were later collected in the late 5th century BCE in the form we now know today as The Analects of Confucius.

The Analects take the form of collected sayings; in origin they are not systematic, although later editors have collated them into certain "themes" for easier processing.  In the Easton Press edition, the first section is devoted to that of how a wise governor ought to rule his people and the advice, often restated for particular times and occasions, generally devolves to following precepts of humility, respect, honor, and the double bind of loyalty.  These are not just empty sayings meant to be considered for their ostentatious prose, but rather they are simple, direct, and practical advice couched in terms that an emperor or fisherman could utilize to better one's own life.

Reading the The Analects of Confucius left me with more questions than answers.  How should I live my life?  Should I pause and think on the merits of passages such as this one:

Tzu Chang then asked:  "What are the four evil things?"  The Master said:  "Cruelty:  leaving the people in their native ignorance, yet punishing their wrongdoing with death.  Oppression:  requiring the immediate completion of tasks imposed without previous warning.  Ruthlessness:  giving vague orders, and then insisting on punctual fulfillment.  Peddling husbandry:  stinginess in conferring the proper rewards on deserving men." (p. 17)
If I cannot govern my own life to my satisfaction, then how can I impart wisdom on those who ought to follow my own teachings?  That is a troubling question, one that has no easy answer.  I suspect that underneath the advice given in The Analects lurks the troubling notion that there are some truths that have to be sought for through arduous struggle rather than being granted passively to the seeker of wisdom and truth.  Certainly my reading of The Analects was not a passive reception of knowledge, as I had to discern which elements are least suitable for my own time and locale and which elements are universals that are worthy of future consideration.  For the most part, The Analects of Confucius made for a rewarding read simply because along with the solutions came the begetting of questions that perhaps will be the foundation of future wisdom, if only I find a "noble path" to seek their solutions.

Sneak peek at my Best of 2010 lists

Although it'll be another month before I start posting my annual week-long selection of the year's best in a variety of fields, I have already begun sorting through my 2010 reads to see what I'm most likely going to be giving more coverage to in certain categories.  Here are the preliminary results:

  • My overall Top 10 likely will not feature many speculative releases.  Although I still have about 3-4 dozen books left to read, there just have not been all that many 2010 spec fic releases that have wowed me as much as certain non-speculative titles.  This might change, but I think even if I were to expand it to 20 (which I'm inclined to do), that the majority of the titles would not be those you'd see praised on SF/F blogs.
  • There are some damn fine non-fiction titles that I've read this year that I think will appeal to quite a few readers here.  Some award winners do deserve winning major literary prizes, after all...
  • There will be more titles featured in both the Translated Fictions and Libros en otros idiomas categories.  The latter will feature more languages this time, as I'm starting to expand my reading fluency in other languages beyond Spanish.  It also helps that one of my favorite reads this year was published in Spanish early this year and that a certain prize-winning author released a new book recently...
  • The Debut Author subset will be longer than in previous years, as some of my favorite reads this year have come from new authors in a variety of fields.
  • For those that bemoan my lack of focus on epic fantasies, all I can say is that I think 2010 has been a poor year for that subgenre.
  • Much as I love squirrels and squirrels in fiction, China Miéville's Kraken will not be featured in this year's list simply because I think it might be his poorest effort since his debut novel.  Lukewarm reactions from me do not equal placements in my year-end lists.
  • Separate from the main lists will be a post released sometime later this week (I hope) highlighting pre-2010 releases that I think are among the best and books worthy of being considered for Christmas gifts.

Curiouser and curiouser now?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Reason #90210 why I probably should stop reading epic fantasy forums

My IQ must have dropped 50 points or so reading this dreck.

This is a fitting example of why I really don't obsess over any work.  Lord have mercy on that person's soul for having wondered about that and also for those who actually took the time to weigh the "merits" of such a "speculation."  Those of us who read that and were completely nonplussed, like I am at the moment, we're just doomed to watch the entropic forces of the asinine overwhelm us.  Not even sure if the squirrel gods could save us now...

The joy of computer malfunctions

It seems that after nearly four years, my desktop might be dying a slow, messy death.  Lately, if I leave it unattended, it refuses to come out of hibernation and I have to reboot it and wait a while before its slowness fades.  Perhaps it's just as well, as I'm contemplating replacing my 2007 Lenovo with an iMac sometime in the spring.

In the meantime, just purchased an Apple wireless keyboard and a Miniport/VGA adapter and when I feel like using the 23.5" widescreen monitor (like I am now) as opposed to my 13.3" MacBook, I'll just hook it up and make do until I have the money to spare to buy the computer I want.

Guess this might put a little dent in my book-buying budget for the next four months or so, but we'll see.  I was already contemplating a cull of 250-350 books by the end of the year, so I might have some used book trade-ins that will make up much of the slack.  Still not really in much of a mood to purchase scads of 2010 releases right now.

Sad that 3.5 years is all most computers can give someone before they become obsolete for various reasons.

Oh, and for those who want something book-related, here are two pictures of two Easton Press editions that I purchased this afternoon while in the Hillsboro Village section of Nashville (about 3 miles from the Apple store there).  Whenever I want really cool/rare/expensive used books, I shop at the BookMan/BookWoman store on 21st Avenue.  Aren't these nice?

Just in the mood to read at least the core of Confucius' teachings, plus it's been over a decade since I last read Ivanhoe, so why not?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

November 18 Book Porn

 One of the joys of getting to know people is when we can share our love of books in a generous fashion.  A couple of days ago, I received this stack of PS Publishing editions from Robert Freeman Wexler, with the understanding that I would read and review each of the books here.  The top chapbook is by Wexler and is called Psychological Methods to Sell Should be Destroyed.  I am indebted to him and certainly shall do my best to read and review as many as possible before Christmas this year.

There is another person, whose name escapes me now, who has sent me some unsolicited books that are different than what I might typically choose to read.  Yet something oddly appeals to me about the Peter Paul Fuchs book.  Below that is the latest issue of Conjunctions, one of the finest lit journals published in the US.  This was a very good issue, with stories by Karen Russell, Brian Evenson, and Matt Bell among others being my favorites.  Just received the review copy of the latest volume of the Night Shade Books' reprint series of Clark Ashton Smith's works, this being the final volume spanning the years 1938-1961, or to around Smith's death.  And finally, I ordered a used hardcover of Dexter Palmer's debut novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion.  Have less than 100 pages to go, but this almost certainly will be added to my 2010 Best Debuts list.

Which of these do you want to know more about or to read yourself?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

2010 National Book Award winners announced

Copied from the Washington Post blog entry, which contains brief commentaries on each of the finalists:

Fiction: "Lord of Misrule," by Jaimy Gordon
Nonfiction: "Just Kids," by Patti Smith
Poetry: "Lighthead," by Terrance Hayes
Young people’s literature: "Mockingbird," by Kathryn Erskine
Lifetime achievement award: Tom Wolfe

Don't own any of these yet, but I think I shall investigate further (I have three of the five fiction finalists).  Very curious about some of these winners, especially the Patti Smith one.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

New Umberto Eco novel, Il Cimitero di Praga

I see Umberto Eco has recently published his sixth novel, Il Cimitero di Praga, and although my Italian is weaker than my reading comprehension of Spanish or Portuguese, it is good enough that I should be able to understand most, if not everything, that I read.  Interesting cover art as well; reminded of Zafón's covers for some reason.  Uncertain, but I think the English translation will be out in the next 1-2 years.


And as a bonus, here's the Spanish cover art for the book.  Very tempted to order it in both languages as an early Christmas gift to myself.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Books in my Amazon pre-order cart

I don't often pre-order books, especially for those months down the road, but here are some books that I have on pre-order for December 2010-Spring 2011 that I think might be some of my more highly anticipated reads in the coming months:

Karen Russell, Swamplandia! (February 1, 2011) - I became a fan of Russell's short fiction this past spring when I was doing readings for BAF 4 and I was delighted just now to learn that her debut novel is coming out in February!  Her stories are very difficult to classify (other than I think she has written some damn fine bizarre stories) and the synopsis sounds as though her novel will be in much the same vein.  Tempted to break my resolution not to ask directly anymore for ARCs, as I think this one would be just the sort of read for me now.

Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife (March 8, 2011) - Obreht has been featured in both Atlantic and The New Yorker's special issues on important new voices over the past year.  This is another debut novel, one that promises to mix sadness and hope in a powerful way.  The little short fiction of hers that I've read has strengthened my hope that this will be a gripping read.

Bradford Morrow, The Diviner's Tale (January 20, 2011) - Morrow edits Conjunctions, one of my favorite fiction journals, so I'm curious to see how this new novel of his will be like, since I really haven't read any of his fiction before.  Premise sounds intriguing, to say the least.

Richard Parks, On the Banks of the River of Heaven (December 7, 2010) - Parks has written several spec fic short stories that I've enjoyed, so it was a no-brainer that I would pre-order his upcoming collection of 14 stories.

Michael Moorcock, Elric:  Swords and Roses (December 28, 2010) - Sixth collection of Elric stories.  I own the previous five and have (mostly) enjoyed them all.  Of course I'm going to continue the collection.

Not a huge amount of pre-orders, but I believe most of these are flying under the radars of those who might be most drawn to reading them.  Hopefully, my few words on why each interests me, combined with the product descriptions, will lead some at least to consider purchasing one or more books on this list.

And since I'm always curious, which ones appeal to you the most and why?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

October 2010 Reads

For the second month in a row, it seems I end up waiting until nearly the halfway mark of the following month to list the previous months read.  Read almost 30 books in October, which is one of my worst months in the past couple of years (and so far, November is even worse, although I'll have some reading time around Thanksgiving that'll help me catch up to some extent).  Only the briefest of thoughts on these:

335  Tucker Max, Assholes Finish First (very "politically incorrect," but damn if I didn't laugh out loud several times)

336  Momus, The Book of Jokes (already reviewed)

337  Adrian Tchaikovsky, Salute the Dark (fourth volume in his Shadows of the Apt series; this one was decent, but it and the third volume just were not as good as the second in terms of characterization, pacing, and plotting)

338  Tim Lieder, She Nailed a Stake Through His Head:  Tales of Biblical Terror (this was a lame anthology, as several stories just failed to do anything with the Biblical premise.  Very, very disappointing, probably one of the weakest anthologies I've read in years, with nary a good story to be found within its 100+ pages)

339  F. Marion Crawford, Khaled (this short novel, reprinted in the 1970s as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, was a decent Orientalist fantasy.  Might re-read/review it next year)

340  Max Mallmann, O Centésimo en Roma (Portuguese; already reviewed)

341  Joy Chant, Red Moon and Black Mountain (decent entry in the Ballantine series, might review next year)

342  Ray Bradbury, The October Country (collection; it's f'n RAY BRADBURY, one of my favorite SF writers and this is perhaps one of his two best anthologies.  What do you think I thought about this collection?)

343  Lin Carter, Imaginary Worlds (1972 non-fiction piece on the history of spec fic; some interesting points, but laced through with some egregious errors of interpretation)

344  Mario Vargas Llosa, ¿Quién mató Palomino Molero? (Spanish; This 1986 murder-mystery, based on actual events in 1950s Peru, was a gripping read, although I consider it a step below Vargas Llosa's greatest novels)

345 Gerson Lodi-Riberio and Luis Filipe Silva, Vaporpunk (Portuguese; I'll have more to say about this 2010 Luso-Brazilian anthology after I finish my translations of four story beginnings later this week)

346  Brian Conn, The Fixed Stars (review forthcoming around Thanksgiving)

347  Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan & The Hill of Dreams (the first was one of the creepiest, weirdest fictions I've read in a while, so yeah, I liked it.  The second wasn't quite as good as the first, but still quite good on the whole)

348  Tibor Moricz, Saint-Clair Stockler and Eric Novello (eds.), Imaginarios Volume 1 (Portuguese; this SF/F anthology had some interesting stories, but outside of it serving as perhaps a sample of Brazilian SF/F writing, there really isn't a theme to it.  This isn't a criticism as much as it is a statement that it's hard to say anything other than "there are some good stories in it, but there's nothing unifying to them in terms of story types.")

349  David Sedaris, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (these reworking of fables to represent modern worries and concerns mostly hit their marks.  Plus the thought of a chipmunk worrying what her squirrel beau means by "jazz" was quite amusing to this Squirrelist)

350  Angela Carter, Wise Children (I want to re-read this novel before commenting much on it, but this wasn't a Carter novel that I took to as quickly as I did with most of her other works)

351  George MacDonald, Phantases (I plan on re-reading/reviewing this next year.  It was decent, but not a great read)

352  Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, Towers of Midnight (I already reviewed it, but for those that missed it, this novel was just a mess)

353  Emma Donoghue, Room (already reviewed)

354  Matt Bell, How They Were Found (already reviewed; collection)

355  Nicole Krauss, Great House (already reviewed)

356  Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I (already reviewed)

357  Robert Coover, Noir (enjoyed it quite a bit; amusing take on noir)

358  Tibor Moricz, Saint-Clair Stockler and Eric Novello (eds.), Imaginarios Volume 2 (Portuguese; see my earlier comments on the first volume)

359  Brendan Connell, Metrophilias (planning on reviewing this and another collection of his in the next 10 days or so)

360  Mario Vargas Llosa, El sueño del Celta (Spanish; already reviewed)

361  Franz Kafka, The Castle (very good, but I found that I got more out of his The Trial)

362  Norman Thomas di Giovanni, The Lesson of the Master:  On Borges and His Work (a combination of biography, memoir, and thoughts on translation, all of which were appealing to me)

363  A.L. Todd and Dorothy B. Weisbord, Favorite Subjects in Western Art (OK intro to its subject; outdated approach to art, unfortunately)

November 14 Used Book Porn

Just returned from my usual monthly (or so) visit to one of my favorite local used bookstores.  Bought 26 books out of the $80 of store credit I had after trading in 40 books, with only one of those being anything related to genre fiction.  My interests seem to be shifting again and I'm curious to see how long this will last.  In this first photo, I have a Croatian prayer book/hymnal (I'm slowly teaching myself how to read Serbian/Croatian), an Indonesian translation of the New Testament (bringing my foreign language count up to 14), as well as nice editions of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius' writings and of Stendhal's The Red and the Black, which has been a favorite of mine since I was a 21 year-old college senior.  Will certainly read/review the Stendhal in the near future, as I'm overdue for a re-read.

Been meaning to buy/read The Ox-Bow Incident for over a dozen years and 50¢ is a bargain, I believe.  Starting to read some more histories (if you look at the first photo, you might see that I have now completed collecting the Easton Press leatherbound edition of Gibbon's work) and I thought it was past time that I acquire a copy of Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.  Also wanted to read more Cormac McCarthy and Charles Bukowski, thus copies of All the Pretty Horses and Pulp, respectively.  And the final book in this picture is a seven-language dictionary that I bought out of curiosity.

Here are the foreign language books (seven French, two German) that I picked up for almost a song (I think it was something like $5 for all seven of these).  Mostly famous writers, as well as one historical account of the Hitler Youth that I picked up out of nostalgia for my grad school days, I suppose.

I really do love reading what The Onion produces, so when I saw a collection of their 1996-1997 era faux news reports, I just had to have it, I suppose.  Also a bit interested in Camus' non-fiction writing and even more so in the posthumous Mark Twain book that takes a few jabs at certain religious conventions.  Lermontov was purchased out of curiosity.  Priest's book will be the third by him that I will have read by the time I get around to it.  Livy, as I noted above, was bought in part to go with the other histories I've been reading recently.  Finally, another papal book because I do enjoy reading those and thinking about what is said there.

Any strike your fancy and if so, why?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Why your reading (and your reviewing) sucks

You know you hate it when someone states so baldly what you perhaps have worried about in secret or have dismissed nervously in comments on Twitter, Facebook, or other online communication tools.  You want to be the best, but perhaps view with suspicion those who proclaim "worthy" literature that ought to be considered.  Maybe you want to aspire to become a "critic" someday, only you worry that the likes of me will say to you:  "Your points are facile, your arguments weak, you lack structure and vision in outlining just why this work is important and your breath reeks as well."

I have largely stayed away from such discussions of how and why online reviewers ought to "raise their games" over the past two months, mostly because I'm much more focused on my new job than I am on anything else.  But I've seen a few links to discussions hither and yon, on blogs and on Twitter, over the past few weeks.  I just haven't had time to comment at all on them until now.  Not that there is really anything new or vital to say, mind you, but perhaps this will be a sort of sounding board for those who get their jollies from these sorts of posts.

Reviewing traditionally has been a literary art form.  It has been the province of writers and thinkers for most of the past three centuries.  It is akin to literary criticism, but yet it is not one and the same, despite the efforts of some to conflate the two.  It is above all an essay, in the more antiquated meaning of that word.  It is in the essay form, with its expectations of analysis and interpretation, that perhaps lies at the crux of the latest round of discussions on the online review form.

For myself, a good review contains a combination, often in varying levels of content, of analysis and interpretation.  A review is not a book report; just regurgitating information does little more than to show, that unlike Harriet Klausner, you likely have read the book at hand.  Reading a book does not mean that you understand it.  If you are complaining about "unlikeable" characters in a work that is meant to explore the depravities of human nature, you need to buy a clue, perhaps several.  A review is more than just stating likes and dislikes.  I can recapitulate until my face turns blue that I find Humbert Humbert to be a creepy, disgusting character.  Still doesn't challenge the perception that Lolita is a brilliant literary classic; such arguments only show that you swim in the shallow end of the reviewing pool.

But at the same point, a good, well-written review does not have to ape the mannerisms and tools used in literary criticism.  I myself, by my own admission, rarely write literary criticism.  That is not my goal nor is it conducive to my goals here on this blog.  I'm certainly capable of analyzing a text at that level, but when I am focusing on perfecting the 750-1200 word review essay form, I find it pointless to have some wish that I would write more 3000-5000 word essays.  Contrary to what some might think, it is more difficult to have a lot to say in less than 1500 words than it is to say something profound at twice that length.  If you don't believe me, try this little experiment:  Take a book that you are reading now.  Try to not only give a brief idea of what type of book it is, but also try to analyze its strengths, weaknesses, and how this book "works" (or doesn't).  Try to do all that in under 500 words.  Then come back and tell me how much over it you went in order to make it a "good, reflective" review.

Yes, it never hurts to be reminded that the quality control too often sucks when it comes to blogging.  Too often it seems that some online reviewers want to be "fans first" and reviewers second.  Perhaps there is a time and place for enthusiasm (hey, look!  Squirrel!), but showing some thought and originality is never a bad idea (unless you decide to write your reviews in iambic pentameter).  It certainly can begin by trying new things and reviewing them.  Think you could review a history?  What about a memoir or short fiction collection?  Could you handle reviewing a work of realist fiction and doing so in a fashion that befits that sort of story?

Or will it just be the familiar paths, the familiar refrains, and the familiar accusations?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A quote to reflect on afterward

Even though it is the demise of earthly forests that elicits our concern, we must bear in mind that as culture-dwellers we do not live so much in forests of trees as in forests of words.  And the source of the blight that afflicts the earth's forests must be sought in the word-forests - that is, in the world we articulate.

Neil Evernden, The Natural Alien 

This quote is the epigraph to Ch. 1 of K. David Harrison's The Last Speakers:  The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages.  Engrossing read right now.  More on it later.  Just thought it'd be something worth considering and perhaps responding to in terms of what you make of this quote.  I often put quotes like this (earlier this week, I used a Bruce Lee quote) to open as conversation starters for the daily writing journals that my students are required to write.

November 10 Book Porn

Just only a few books for this mid-week edition of book porn.  In the first photo are books that I've ordered that have arrived in the past few days.  Still soldiering on with my collection of the leatherbound Easton Press edition of Edward Gibbon's seminal work on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.  Lionel Shriver's book will be reviewed late this month or early next as part of my planned coverage of the National Book Award finalists.  The King of Kahel is the first offering from Amazon's AmazonCrossings imprint, devoted to the publication and promotion of translated fictions.  And David Harrison's recently-released book on dying languages, The Last Speakers, is the sort of non-fiction I want to read this time of year.

And here are three review copies I received, all from Pyr Books.  The Shepard book is not a high priority read, since I found the first two volumes to be rather underwhelming.  The Griffiths' book may be good (or not), but I'm not interested in vampire stories of any vein.  Alas, Enge's book is a third volume and I have not read the first two, so it might be a \while.

Any of these particularly appealing to you?

Matt Bell, How They Were Found

How They Were Found by Matt Bell is the debut collection by a talented story writer whose work often straddles the gap between realism and fantasy or horror. Formally innovative, his fiction has appeared in Conjunctions and Best American Mystery Stories. The stories range from the tale of a nineteenth-century minister creating a mechanical messiah to the documenting of a strange and failing military outpost. In advance praise for the collection, Laird Hunt called it “fierce, unflinching, funny.”

This is the second book selected for review by Larry Nolen, Paul Charles Smith, and Jeff VanderMeer. You can read the entries on this book by the other members here and here.

To begin, a key:  ⦾ is the place where the cartographer first met the girl. ⦁ is the place where they kissed for the first time.  ⊙ is any place he told her he loved her, anywhere she once said it back.


Even the compasses that break, that learn some new way, none never point him to her.  At least not yet.  It is not their fault, but his.  He is making the wrong kind of map, knows he is, but can't stop himself.  All the maps he's made since she left have been wrong, but the cartographer does not know the kind of map he needs. ("The Cartographer's Girl," p. 14)
I have followed Matt Bell's career for the past couple of years with some degree of interest.  I found his 2007 story, "Mario's Three Lives," (republished in Best American Fantasy 2) to be thought-provoking, quick-hitting, with a wry observation about life when the cameras are not on and we do not have to perform in front of a crowd.  One of the stories in his recently-released debut collection, "The Cartographer's Girl" (quoted above), made my longlist of stories I had marked for consideration for inclusion in the aborted Best American Fantasy 4.  And yet despite the excellent stories he has written over the past few years, How They Were Found proved to be a surprisingly problematic read.

The highlight of this collection definitely is the first tale, "The Cartographer's Girl."  Originally appearing in the journal Gulf Coast, this story immediately captured my attention soon after I began my series editorship for Best American Fantasy 4.  From the first paragraph, with the cartographic symbols used to signify the narrator's relationship with his ex-girlfriend and the times and places where they moved into, through, and out of each other's life, to latter passages where it felt as though narrative was beginning to dissolve into an intense, interior mindscape, Bell's story captivated me.  The deliberately formal, detached narrative set the stage well for the story to explore an interior vista where the symbols expressed on a map correlate precisely with the emotions that the narrator experiences as he explores where he became "lost," both in the symbolic landscape of his romantic past and also in regards to his current position.  Bell's more intense, forceful conclusion reinforces the sense of distant confusion and slight obsession that are hinted at in the beginning.  "The Cartographer's Girl" is one of the better-structured and executed short stories that I have read this year and it certainly is a testament to Bell's potential as a writer.

However, several of the other stories in this thirteen story collection are much weaker than "The Cartopgrapher's Girl."  The second story, "The Receiving Tower," starts off promising, as there is a hint of a deceptive identity within the first-person narrator's point of view, but Bell drags out its execution, weakening the power of the narrative.  "The Receiving Tower" is also emblematic of some of the weaknesses in Bell's short fiction here, as there is so little variation in the PoVs of the characters that populate his stories that after reading several of them in a sitting, the overall effect can be monotonous, dulling the impact that might have been felt if some of his narrative techniques (detached, cool characters, horrific situations couched in ordinary language, intense moments clouded by off-hand, sometimes wry narrative asides) had not been repeated so many times in these stories.

When I began writing this review, I remember having a generally positive impression of these stories as a whole.  But as I began re-reading the passages, I began to remark to myself that beyond occasional glimpses, the stories lacked a sense of vitality.  There were no memorable characters, with the possible exception of the cartographer.  Everything felt cold, precise, clinical even.  Bell certainly marches his characters through their situations, intriguing as some of them might be, but too often it was as if I were watching robots trudging along, devoid of the spark of life that would enliven these competently-created narratives.  Perhaps this is what Bell aimed to achieve, this sort of detached view of reality, where the characters' near-total lifelessness juxtaposes with some truly unsettling situations.  Sometimes, such stories work and to some extent, Bell's stories do create some passing interest.  However, on a re-read, there was nothing truly substantial behind the well-crafted story structures.  There was no "punch," no metaphorical kick to the junk that would make the reader pay close attention.  I do believe there is quite a bit of potential for Bell to expand his narrative palette, to develop more life-like characters to fit in with his narrative choices, but for now, I am left lamenting that the technically good How They Were Found contains too few gripping moments to help make each story stand out as a vital narrative.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Maybe the most totally self-serving, self-centered post I'll make for a while

I was bored and filled out an online Johari Window, which is designed to give a person and those who interact with that person insight into how that person views him/herself and how s/he is viewed by others.  So, I thought I'd just post a link to one I filled out, in case any wanted to bother filling one out and seeing if they know some online blogger as well as they think they do.

Actual content will be posted either later tonight or tomorrow afternoon.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa, El sueño del celta (The Celt's Dream)

«Hoy he iniciado el regreso a Boma.  Según mis planes, debería haber continuado en el Alto Congo un par de semanas más.  Pero, la verdad, ya tengo material de sobra para mostrar en mi informe las cosas que aquí ocurren.  Temo que, de continuar escudriñando los extremos a que puede llegar la maldad y la ignominia de los seres humanos, no seré siquiera capaz de escribir mi report.  Estoy en las orillas de la locura.  Un ser humano normal no puede sumergirse por tantos meses en este infierno sin perder la sanidad, sin sucumbir a algún trastorno mental.  Algunas noches, en mi desvelo, siento que me está ocurriendo.  Algo se está desintegrando en mi mente.  Vivo con una angustia constante.  Si sigo codeándome con lo que ocurre aquí terminaré yo también impartiendo chicotazos, cortando manos y asesinando congoleses entre el almuerzo y la cena sin que ello me produzca el menor malestar de conciencia ni me quite el apetito.  Porque eso es lo que les ocurre a los europeos en este condenado país.» (pp. 108-109)

"I am beginning the return to Boma.  According to my plans, I should have stayed in the High Congo for a couple of weeks longer.  But, the truth, I already have an excess of material to show en my report the things which occur here.  I fear that, from continuing to examine the extremes to which the evilness and ignorance of human beings can arrive, I will not even be capable of writing my report.  I am on the edge of insanity.  A normal human being is not able to submerge himself for so many months in this hell without losing his insanity, without succumbing to some mental disturbance.  Some nights, in my insomnia, I feel this is occurring to me.  Something is disintegrating in my mind.  I live in constant anguish.  If I continue jostling myself with what occurs here I myself will also end up imparting whiplashes, chopping off hands and assassinating Congolese between lunch and dinner without producing in myself the least trouble to my conscience nor the loss of appetite.  Because that is what occurs to Europeans here in this damned country."
In his first novel to be released after being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October 2010, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa continues his recent trend of writing novels dealing with the lives of controversial figures of the past century.  Instead of writing about individuals such as those involved in the infamous Trujillo dictatorship (The Feast of the Goat) or Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin (The Way to Paradise), Vargas Llosa tackles perhaps the most complex historical figure of those he has written about to date:  the Irish hero/British traitor Roger Casement. 

Even 94 years after his execution for his role in the failed Easter Rebellion, Casement causes controversy on both sides of the Irish Sea.  To this date, Casement's body has never been buried in his native County Antrim because of the division between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.  When his body was exhumed in the 1960s from the quicklime pit into which the bodies of traitors were buried, the aging first Irish President, Eamon de Valera (himself a leader of the Irish during the civil war/war for independence), defied doctor's orders to not exert himself, just so he could be present when Casement's body was returned to Irish soil.  His posthumous legend is still powerful all these generations after his execution, but yet there are troubling issues about his latter years.  Why did he switch from being a loyal British Civil Service official in the early 1900s to being the middleman between the German government and the Easter Rebels during World War I?  And what about those damning "Black Diaries" that were published in photographed form during his trial that apparently revealed him to be a closet homosexual at best (during a time when homosexuality was a crime punishable by hard labor) and a predatory pedophile at worst?

Vargas Llosa treads carefully through those treacherous waters in this novel.  He chooses to tell Casement's story as a sort of confessional, where the condemned Casement reflects back on the turning point in his life.  Vargas Llosa's Casement appears to have experienced a sort of epiphany during his time as a British foreign service official in the Belgian Congo.  Horrified at the casual cruelties he witnessed there, he goes to the brink of madness before deciding that what truly horrifies him is the hypocrisy of himself, a native son of Ireland, helping Ireland's oppressor force the African nations into the same imperialistic chains which first had been clasped around Ireland.  Vargas Llosa does not settle for the easy way of just highlighting only the possible reasons behind his radicalization after 1910, but he also tackles the issue of the "Black Diaries" in a way that does not deny the likelihood that said diaries are genuine (I myself still retain some doubt as to their authenticity, but that is a story for another time and place), but also without judging Casement for his actions.

The result of this "middle ground" approach is the portrayal of Casement as neither saint nor devil.  Vargas Llosa presents him as a conflicted, complex individual who warred with his own self as much as he did in his latter struggles against the forces of imperialist aggression, whether they be present in the Congo River valley, the interior of Brazil, or Ireland after the latest round of Home Rule talks had been suspended on the eve of World War I.  Vargas Llosa's prose is elegant but never verbose.  He does not eschew criticizing his subject whenever Casement's actions warrants such treatment, but he also portrays this historical figure as containing admirable elements.  Through it all, Vargas Llosa chooses to emphasize the humanitarian aspects, even when those aspects falter in the face of Casement's many personal demons.

El sueño del celta works as a historical novel because Vargas Llosa keeps the focus squarely on Casement and his internal and external struggles.  Despite the jumping back and forth in the narrative between 1910 and 1916, there is rarely confusion about the sequence of events.  If anything, the "present day" scenes serve to reinforce the developments shown in the extended flashback sequences.  The end result of this is a vivid portrayal of a fascinating historical figure, told in crisp, evocative prose that adds vitality to the scenes without distorting what happened during this time.  El sueño del celta may not be one of Vargas Llosa's greatest novels, but it certainly is a very good piece that compares favorably to most of his outstanding œvre.  Highly recommended to both Spanish speakers and to English readers whenever the translation comes out in the next year or two.
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