The OF Blog: March 2011

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Search terms people have used this week to find this blog

Search Keywords
of blog

god emperor of dune

birthday squirrel

dan simmons     


happy birthday squirrel

gene wolfe peace

sex scene blog

squirrel happy birthday    

une semaine de bonté

I'm well pleased by all the Squirrelists who discover this blog weekly as they search for how to celebrate squirrels' birthdays.  Maybe the Birthday Squirrel will visit them with some goodies this year.

Robert Bolaño, 2666

Una noche Amalfitano le preguntó, por decir algo mientras el joven buscaba en las estanterías, qué libros le gustaban y qué libro era aquel que en ese momento estaba leyendo.  El farmacéutico le contestó, sin volverse, que le gustaban los libros del tipo de La metamorfosis, Bartleby, Un corazón simple, Un cuento de Navidad. Y luego le dijo que estaba leyendo Desayuno en Tiffanys, de Capote.  Dejando de lado que Un corazón simple y Un cuento de Navidad eran, como el nombre de este último indicaba, cuentos y no libros, resultaba revelador el gusto de este joven farmacéutico ilustrado, que tal vez en otra vida fue Trakl o que tal vez en ésta aún le estaba deparado escribir poemas tan desesperados como su lejano colega austriaco, que prefería claramente, sin discusión, la obra menor a la obra mayor.  Escogía La metamorfosis en lugar de El proceso, escogía Bartleby en lugar de Moby Dick, escogía Un corazón simple en lugar de Bouvard y Pécuchet, y Un cuento de Navidad  en lugar de Historia de dos ciudades o de El Club Pickwick.  Qué triste paradoja, pensó Amalfitano.  Ya ni los farmacéuticos ilustrados se atreven con las grandes obras, imperfectas, torrenciales, las que abren camino en lo desconocido.  Escogen los ejercicios perfectos de los grandes maestros. O lo que es lo mismo:  quieren ver a los grandes maestros en sesiones de esgrima de entrenamiento, pero no quieren saber nada de los combates de verdad, en donde los grandes maestros luchan contra aquello, ese aquello que nos atemoriza a todos, ese aquello que acoquina y encacha, y hay sangre y heridas mortales y fetidez. (p. 289-290)

Ever since I read Los detectives salvajes in 2005, Roberto Bolaño's prose (and occasionally, his poetry) has enchanted me.  Yet I never have dared to write reviews of his two most well-known works, the above-mentioned 1998 release and the 2004 posthumous, unfinished 2666.  I found it daunting to try to analyze works in my native language that I read in my second language but which I experienced in a third, more primal, emotional paralanguage that uses other means to communicate the power contained within that piece.  Yet I will attempt to translate into my native English that tertiary language, while only paraphrasing what I read in Spanish.

Bolaño's sprawling 1120+ page novel (the edition I read is pictured above) is divided into five parts, each of which at first seems to be independent of others.  From four academicians whose lives ultimately revolve around the enigmatic Beno von Archimboldi and the mysteries that involve the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa (Juarez City is the model) to Amalfitano (a recurring bit character in some of Bolaño's earlier writings)'s self-identity being on the verge of disintegration to the gruesome murders in Santa Teresa to the person who became Archimboldi, each of these five parts tells, retells, constructs, deconstructs those fragments which, when meshed together, form a civilization and which, when pulled apart, create a symbolic vortex of (dis)associations that then crash into the reader's mind, leaving in its wake a profound sense of awe and discomfort.

When on his death bed, Bolaño urged his friend and literary executor Ignacio Echevarría to split 2666 into five separate novels in order to maximize revenue for his wife and children.  Wisely, Echevarría disobeyed this command, as the five parts, although each is largely independent of the others plot-wise, overlap thematically, creating a complex web of events and character interactions that make the whole stronger than the individual parts.  Although the novel's title is never explained in this story, there are connections with Bolaño's earlier works, such as Amuleto/Amulet, where the "2666" is referenced, either in context to the biblical exodus or to a future cemetery; both capture the dual sense of release and doom.

This foreboding feeling looms large throughout the parts of the story.  Each part focuses on dissolution, whether it be of the relationships explored in the first part, Amalfitano's personality, life in Santa Teresa after the long line of prostitute murders begins to the origins of the author who became Archimboldi.  Bolaño explores these iterations of dissolution in a variety of ways.  Some, like that found in the crucial fourth part that deals with the Santa Teresa murders, is told in a brutally direct style that does not skimp on the horrors; reading short biography after biography on each of the victims and how the undiscovered murderer raped them in certain fashions before killing them can be sickening to read, not just because of the murders themselves but how these murders combine tell something more chilling about our global society and its impending dissolution.  In a less direct but no less powerful way, he explores this through his characters' interactions, whether it be caustic observations about the self-deceits that we weave about ourselves (such an observation hinted at in the quote above, which deals with what works we choose to extoll their virtues without considering the struggles against which those works were conceived, or our own failure to comprehend the totality of the apocalypse that lurks around the corner.

It is no accident that Bolaño's works feature writers, poets, and other vagabonds who wander in, through, and out of deserts.  Although he does not make a direct appearance in 2666, alter ego Arturo Belano's presence is sensed in several passages.  He is a witness in so many of Bolaño's other works and apparently it was Bolaño's intention to have Belano be the narrator of these five parts.  This unfulfilled intent, noted in the afterword to the Spanish edition, brings full circle so many of Bolaño's earlier works.  In many regards, 2666 is not a work to be read in isolation, but rather is best served to be a capstone reading experience for Bolaño's previous writings.  Having read all but one of his published works (and that one, released posthumously earlier this year in Spain, I hope to have in my possession in the next week), 2666 becomes a final, epic exclamation point on a series of explorations into human society and our literatures that began a quarter-century before.  It is fitting that Bolaño's suggested ending for 2666, spoken by Arturo Belano, close this appreciation for his work:

«Y esto es todo, amigos.  Todo lo he hecho, todo lo he vivido.  Si tuviera fuerzas, me pondría a llorar.  Se despide de ustedes, Arturo Belano.»

"And that is all, friends.  All that I have done, all that I have lived.  If I had the strength, it would make me cry.  Taking leave of you, Arturo Belano."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Books that I have yet to review that perhaps I should

Ever found yourself reading a book or, even better, thinking about it some time later and wishing you had tried to capture in words just what that story meant to you?  There are several books that I have yet to review (I would list Roberto Bolaño's 2666 here, but I'm going to have that review up before the week is over, if not by tomorrow night) that I feel I should essay to do so.  Here's a partial list of the books that come to mind, in no particular order:

Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again.  Much as I love his novels, his last, posthumous release continues to dwell in my thoughts more than a decade after I first read it.  Perhaps one day soon I'll manage to write coherently about what this book means to me.

Norman Mailer, The Executioner's Song.  This "non-fiction novel" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for its account of murderer Gary Gilmore's final moments.  His portrayal at Mailer's hands is so chilling that over a decade later, it still continues to haunt my thoughts.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  When I first read this a few years ago, I was touched in ways that I found then indescribable.  Maybe I'll find the words the next time I read it.

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory.  It moved me three years ago when I first read it and I hope one day to describe in words just how so.

John Crowley, Ægypt Cycle.  There is a reason why Harold Bloom includes Crowley in his Western Canon.  I just wish I could write succinctly about my reactions to reading this four-volume series.

Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find.  I love her stories and the elements with which she infuses them with a looming menace.  Maybe I'll find more words whenever I re-read this first collection or its succeeding volumes.

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury.  One of my favorite Faulkner novels.  Much to be said, once the words are found.

William Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage.  A favorite from my early 20s.  I wonder what it'd say to me now and if I could express that in written words.

Stepan Chapman, The Troika.  Weirdness on a scale that's challenging to describe.  Soon, maybe, soon.

Albert Camus, The Stranger.  Surprising that I haven't attempted this yet.  Maybe when I re-read it in English and French.

There's 10 for your consideration and perhaps future review.  Which books, if any, would you consider to hold a similar place in your affections but which you find it difficult, if not impossible, to relate to others?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

More first lines from books I'm reading

Strether's first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted.  A telegram from him bespeaking a room "only if not noisy," reply paid, was produced for the enquirer at the office, so that the understanding they should meet at Chester rather than at Liverpool remained to that extent sound.  The same secret principle, however, that had prompted Strether not absolutely to desire Waymarsh's presence at the dock, that had led him thus to postpone for a few hours his enjoyment of it, now operated to make him feel he could still wait without disappointment.  They would dine together at the worst, and, with all respect to dear old Waymarsh - if not even, for that matter, to himself - there was little fear that in the sequel they shouldn't see enough of each other.  The principle I have just mentioned as operating had been, with the most newly disembarked of the two men, wholly instinctive - the fruit of a sharp sense that, delightful as it would be to find himself looking, after so much separation, into his comrade's face, his business would be a trifle bungled should he simply arrange for this countenance to present itself to the nearing steamer as the first "note," of Europe.  Mixed with everything was the apprehension, already, on Strether's part, that it would, at best, throughout, prove the note of Europe in quite a sufficient degree.
This is written from memory, unfortunately.  If I could have brought with me the material I so carefully prepared, this would be a very different story.  Whole books full of notes, carefully copied records, first-hand descriptions, and the pictures - that's the worst loss.  We had some bird's-eyes of the cities and parks; a lot of lovely views of streets, of buildings, outside and in, and some of those gorgeous gardens, and, most important of all, of the women themselves.

In the chamber at the top of the tower were six individuals:  three who chose to call themselves "lords" or sometimes "remedials"; a wretched underling who was their prisoner; and two Garrion.  The chamber was dramatic and queer:  of irregular dimension, hung with panels of heavy maroon velvet.  At one end an embrasure admitted a bar of light:  this of a smoky amber quality, as if the pane were clogged with dust - which it was not; in fact, the glass was a subtle sort, producing remarkable effects.  At the opposite end of the room was a low trapezoidal door of black skeel.
I was travelling post from Tiflis.  The only luggage I had on my cart was one small portmanteau half-filled with travel notes on Georgia.  Luckily for you most of them have been lost, but luckily for me the portmanteau and the rest of my things have survived.

The sun was already beginning to hide behind the snowy mountain tops when I entered the valley of Koyshaur.  Roaring songs at the top of his voice, the Ossete driver relentlessly urged on his horses so as to reach the top of Koyshaur by nightfall.  What a glorious place that valley is!  Inaccessible mountains on all sides, red-hued cliffs hung with green ivy and crowned with clumps of plane-trees, yellow precipices streaked with rivulets; high up above lies the golden fringe of the snow, while below the silver thread of the Aragva - linked with some nameless torrent that roars out of a black, mist-filled gorge - stretches glistening like a scaly snake.

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

I felt that from the moment I woke.  And yet, when I started functioning a little more sharply, I misgave.  After all, the odds were that it was I who was wrong, and not everyone else - thought I did not see how that could be.   I went on waiting, tinged with doubt.  But presently I had my first bit of objective evidence - a distant clock struck what sounded to me just like eight.  I listened hard and suspiciously.  Soon another clock began, on a loud, decisive note.  IN a leisurely fashion it gave an indisputable eight.  Then I knew things were awry.
Tush, never tell me; I take it much unkindly 
That you, Iago, who has had my purse 
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.

What, you may ask, was the origin of this book?

Though the answer to this question may at first seem to border on the absurd, reflection will show that there is a good deal more in it than meets the eye.

Long ago, when the goddess Nü-wa was repairing the sky, she melted down a great quantity of rock and, on the Incredible Crags of the Great Fable Mountains, moulded the amalgam into thirty-six thousand, five hundred and one large building blocks, each measuring seventy-two feet by a hundred and forty-four feet square.  She used thirty-six thousand five hundred of these blocks in the course of her building operations, leaving a single odd block unused, which lay, all on its own, at the foot of Greensickness Peak in the aforementioned mountains.
On this Sunday morning in May, this girl who later was to be the cause of a sensation in New York, awoke much too early for her night before.  One minute she was asleep, the next she was completely awake and dumped into despair.  It was the kind of despair that she had known perhaps two thousand times before, there being 365 mornings in a calendar year.  In general the cause of her despair was remorse, two kinds of it:  remorse because she knew that whatever she was going to do next would not be any good either.  The specific causes of these minutes of terror and loneliness were not always the words or deeds which seemed to be the causes.  Now, this year, she had come pretty far.  She had come far enough to recognize that what she had done or said last night did not stand alone.  Her behavior of a given night before, which she was liable to blame for the despair of any today, frequently was bad, but frequently was not bad enough to account for the extreme depth of her despair.  She recognized, if only vaguely and then only after conquering her habit of being dishonest with herself, that she had got into the habit of despair.  She had come far away from original despair, because she had hardened herself into the habit of ignoring the original, basic cause of all the despair she could have in her lifetime.

There was one cause.

It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.

Let me know which ones you know and also which quotes (known and unknown alike) intrigue you the most.  If these aren't in the current reading/reviewing poll, almost certainly they'll be in the next (minus one, which was a choice in an earlier poll).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A special edition of used book porn, dedicated to Paul Smith

Since I know he'd likely appreciate this book haul more than most who read this blog, I thought I'd dedicate this haul of used books to Paul Smith of Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream.

Lots of poets and Romantic, Modernist, and Existentialist authors today, no?

Forgot to post this the other day, but I also have finally collected all five paperback volumes of Cao Xueqin's The Story of the Stone, which I will be reading and likely reviewing in the following month.

Friday, March 25, 2011

After a break, some book porn for your enjoyment

It's been a while since I posted a book porn post, so I thought I'd highlight just some of a few dozen books that I have bought or received over the past month or so.  There are many others not pictured that I believe I've either mentioned directly or featured in some other way, so this is just the tip of the iceberg.  In this first photo, here are two recent Easton Press purchases (I now have close to 60% of their 100 Greatest Books Ever Written books collected; several other recent purchases aren't featured here, though), along with four books by Eric Basso that will be discussed in the near future.

Here are some foreign language acquisitions from the past month or so.  I received as a gift two book from Brazilian writer Octavio Aragão that will be read and hopefully reviewed in the next few weeks (I plan on reviewing more Brazilian/Portuguese works next month).  The Marías book will be reviewed later in the year, once I've bought/read the other two books in his trilogy.   Balzac was great (I can't recall if I featured this book before; I might have), the Flaubert will be read/reviewed shortly, and Racine will be read sometime later this year.

Just so Jason can believe me, I did purchase a used copy of Garber's Shakespeare After All.  It's about time that I read Amos Tutuola's work, so I thought I'd start with an early work of his.  Couldn't pass up the recently-released Library of America edition of Henry James' Novels 1903-1911.  Rosendorfer's The Architect of Ruins will be read and possibly reviewed in the near future (I think I'll list it in my next reviewing poll).  Thiong'o's memoir of his childhood and adolescence was excellent.  Partway through Jesse Bullington's second novel, The Enterprise of Death, and it is promising so far.  Review later this spring.

And there you go.  Some book porn to sate the appetites of those who needed their appetites sated.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Joe Abercrombie, The Heroes

Corporal Tunny tried to hop from one patch of yellow weed to another, the regimental standard held high above the filth in his left hand, his right already spattered to the shoulder from slips into the scum.  The bog was pretty much what Tunny had been expecting.  And that wasn't a good thing.
The place was a maze of sluggish channels of brown water, streaked on the surface with multi-coloured oil, with rotten leaves, with smelly froth, ill-looking rushes scattered at random.  If you put down your foot and it only squelched in to the ankle, you counted yourself lucky.  Here and there some species of hell-tree had wormed its leathery roots deep enough to stay upright and hang out a few lank leaves, festooned with beards of brown creeper and sprouting with outsize mushrooms.  There was a persistent croaking that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.  Some cursed variety of bird, or frog, or insect, but Tunny couldn't see any of the three.  Maybe it was just the bog itself, laughing at them. (p. 170)

The above quote, taken from Joe Abercrombie's fifth novel, The Heroes, at first glance may not seem to be an important scene or plot event, but it is representative of the style of writing toward which I found myself reacting a few weeks ago when I read this recently-released novel.  Abercrombie's novels, particularly his last two, have always struck me as relying heavily upon visuals in order to carry the weight of his story and sometimes this is unsatisfactory.  Although not nearly as poor as his 2009 novel, Best Served Cold, which I found to be dull, repetitive, and ultimately shallow under its glossy veneer of vividly-described scenes and occasionally amusing character dynamics, The Heroes never rose above its setting. 

Revolving around three days of battle between the Union and the Northmen for control of the northern part of the world established first in The First Law series, the story follows a set of characters, returning and new alike, who are involved in the events leading up to three days of battle and that battle's immediate aftermath.  Doubtless, fans of the so-called "gritty" fantasy would enjoy the grimness of the setting and some of the events that happened to the characters, but I found myself thinking that there was nothing new here, that Abercrombie pretty much was re-exploring the same territory already trod earlier in his first four novels, with nothing really new added to the mix.  The characters did not interest me; there were few complexities and occasionally the dialogue felt stilted and rather trite at times.  It was for me the literary equivalent of seeing Sam Worthington attempt to act in the remake of Clash of the Titans

I just was not engaged with this novel.  A contributing factor might have been reading Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov prior to this, but for whatever reason, the prose just felt flat and lifeless beyond the visuals that constitute a large percentage of this novel.  Some readers just are not drawn to having so much described to them and I certainly found myself glazing over large sections, wondering when something inventive or at least well-executed would appear; it rarely did.  Weeks later, I struggle to remember much of anything about the characters, as they are still mostly ciphers to me, yet ones devoid of any real meaning to be unlocked.

Sometimes, a reader/reviewer just is not drawn to a work and while I could see where some readers might be fascinated by Abercrombie's wit (for myself, it failed to amuse after I sensed only a few humorous notes were being played over and over again through his novels) or by what he has to say about older conceptions of heroic/epic fantasy motifs.  For myself, what he has to say in that regard just does not interest me.  Not a book that I would recommend to people who want more than just a grimmer, more sardonic take on a literary subgenre whose main tenants are so often lampooned.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: Fyodor Dostoevesky, The Brothers Karamazov

"Remember, young man, constantly," Father Païssy began, without preface, "that the science of this world, which has become a great power, has, especially in the last century, analysed everything divine handed down to us in the holy books.  After this cruel analysis, the learned of this world have nothing left of all that was sacred of old.  But they have only analysed the parts and overlooked the whole, and indeed their blindness is astounding.  Yet the whole still stands steadfast before their eyes, and the s of hell shall not prevail against it.  Has it not lasted nineteen centuries, is it not still a living, a moving power in the individual soul and among the masses of the people?  It dwells as unshakably as before in the souls of the very atheists, who have destroyed everything!  For even those who have renounced Christianity and rebel against it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardour of their hearts has been able to create a higher image of man and of virtue than the image manifested by Christ of old.  When it has been attempted, the result has been only grotesque. (p. 129)

I have stared at this screen for a long time, trying to think just how I should order my thoughts on Fyodor Dostoevsky's last and perhaps greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov.  Some novels have great characters; others, moving scenes or poignant themes.  But then there are those rare novels that are much more than even the sum of the most excellent parts.  The Brothers Karamazov (read in the Garnett/Yarmolinksy translation) is one of those novels where the reading experience is enhanced by the reader's consideration of Dostoevsky's thematic presentation of crime and the damage wrought. 

In his story of three legitimate brothers of the Karamazov family and their reactions to their father's death by parricide, Dostoevsky creates more than just a brilliantly-told crime novel.  The keen psychological depths that Dostoevsky plumbs here adds resonance to the core crime/mystery plot:  not only are the whys of the murder revealed, but also the whys of the thoughts and beliefs that lead up to this.  Layered on top of this (this is especially seen with religious characters such as Father Païssey, quoted above) is a philosophical exploration of redemption and human efforts to remove the taint of sin from their souls.  Dostoevsky was not orthodox in his beliefs; his Christianity is much less dependent upon the forms and rituals, instead emphasizing human yearnings for freedom regardless of strong or weak adherence to Orthodox beliefs.

Each of the three legitimate Karamazov brothers portray different approaches to reconciling their father's murder with their own understanding of the world and their role in it.  In sharp contrast stands their father and their bastard half-brother, Smerdyakov.  Each character can be viewed simultaneously as being well-realized, dynamic characters and as being symbols for the struggles inherent between body, mind, and soul for primacy.  It is almost impossible to discuss this without providing copious quotes, but it should suffice to say that this novel is rife with each character's relationship with social attitudes on religion and its conflict with contemporary social theories, as well as how one should live his/her life in an increasingly materialistic world.

There are very few weaknesses.  Although I usually complain about the quality of the Easton Press translations, the Garnett/Yarmolinsky does not impede the reader's enjoyment of the story Dostoevsky tells.  This is not to say, however, that this translation is great; it gives the gist of Dostoevsky's prose and mannerisms, but with the sense in a few places that a few subtleties are being missed in the translation into English.  The execution of Dostoevsky's thematic treatment of Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha's characters manages to avoid the extremes of languid self-indulgence and rushed sketchiness.  Each character arc is well-plotted and the union of theme and action is nearly flawless.  The only real complaint one might make is that Dostoevsky never lived to complete his ambitious plan for Alyosha in a sequel.  Truly a classic novel.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Steven Erikson, The Crippled God

Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follow that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are...The same distinction marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.

Aristotle, Poetics 

Over the past dozen years, Steven Erikson has worked on one of the most ambitious epic/heroic fantasies in the English language, The Malazan Book of the Fallen.  With the publication of the tenth volume, The Crippled God, this year, Erikson has brought full circle a wide-ranging web of stories that have spanned millennia, several continents, and which have seen heart-aching scenes interspersed with levity.  It is, for its fans, a vast theater in which a host of morality plays have been acted out for the reader to consider.

It is nearly impossible at this late juncture to avoid discussing events without revealing plot and thematic elements ahead of time to those who have not read at least the first few volumes in this series, therefore those who are particular about such things might be behooved to read at their own risk.  As the Bonehunter army lead by the seemingly indifferent Tavore Paran marches with its motley cast of human and non-human allies east across a desolate landscape, the reader is brought back time and time again to seemingly forgotten events from earlier in the series:  the siege of Pale in the first book, Gardens of the Moon, the spectral memories of Coltaine's Chain of Dogs, the rivening of the Tiste peoples, the ghastliness of justice doled out without mercy, among others.  These scenes, which are relived through those who were present, serve as haunting reminders of the toll of lives and souls exacted during the previous nine novels.  What The Crippled God does is unite these plot elements into a powerful, staggering conclusion.

Erikson's strength as a writer has been his treatment of themes.  Whether it be forgiveness, as in Memories of Ice, or the desire for redemption (The Bonehunters) or redemption's actual power (Toll the Hounds), the action within his novels, disparate as they may be in regards to locale and plot importance, is typically united.  This is certainly the case in The Crippled God.  Here Erikson revisits notions of suffering and the acceptance of pain, the desire to be free coupled with faith that stretches beyond one's own limited scope to embrace those who are alien.  It is a very ambitious exploration of core human motivations and despite a few longeurs here (as is the case throughout the series), on the whole Erikson manages to create a memorable unity of action and theme that adds layers of depth to its characters.

For some, the relentless of the action may be too much to process in a quick time.  I found it best to read only a section or two a day, as there was so much to consider as the allies march to the aid of a suffering god.  As noted above, Erikson adroitly weaves seemingly disparate plot elements together.  As the reader begins to learn the vast scope of the game being played, she might also find herself considering thoughts that lie outside the immediate realm of the story.  This, I believe, is Erikson's intent, as throughout this series he has come back, again and again, to how individual people react to things such as another's justice or their suffering.  Sometimes, the key to empathy is through shared suffering and this certainly is a major element in this book.

There are some structural weaknesses to this approach, however.  Due to the humongous cast of characters, several seemingly important plot threads are left unaddressed at this time.  Some threads, such as that of the Bonehunters' travel through the deadly Glass Desert, are abandoned for hundreds of pages in order to develop a parallel struggle whose outcome foreshadows that of the main expedition east.  Those who read these books only for the enjoyment factor found in huge battles may find themselves frustrated at the long buildup to the explosive finale, but for those readers who pause to consider the implications of the actions Erikson explores here will find themselves rewarded greatly for the time and effort they spent reflecting upon the author's thematic treatments in his novels.

When I closed the book after finishing the last page, I felt as though I had undergone a cathartic experience.  The heroism, played up straight, is provocative not because so many survived, but rather because so many died and in dying they proved themselves to be better people than perhaps we are in our own lives.  The Crippled God I would argue fits well the Aristotelian definition of a tragedy and it is this tragedy that continues to dwell in my thoughts days after finishing it.  The Crippled God lived up to my expectations and it exceeded them.  Likely one of the best epic/heroic fantasies I'll read this year and a fitting conclusion to one of my few favorite fantasy series.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Taken from Jeff VanderMeer's site:

The anthology that poses the question, “Is this odd…or are you too normal?”
Amos Tutuola – “The Dead Babies”
Gustave Le Rouge – “The War of the Vampires” (new translation by Brian Evenson)
Jeffrey Ford – “Weiroot”
Leopoldo Lugones – “The Bloat Toad” (new translation by Larry Nolen)
Mark Samuels – “Apt 205”
Michael Cisco – “Modern Cities Exist Only to Be Destroyed” (published only in a limited edition previously)
Nalo Hopkinson – “Slow Cold Chick”
Sumanth Prabhaker – “A Hard Truth About Waste Management” (revised since publication)
Hiromi Goto – “Stinky Girl”
Eric Basso – “Logues”
Edward Morris – “Lotophagi”
Karin Tidbeck – “The Aunts” (previously unpublished)
Jeffrey Thomas – “The Fork”
Rikki Ducornet – “The Volatilized Ceiling of Baron Munodi”
Amanda le Bas de Plumetot – “Unmaking” (previously unpublished)
Karl Hans Strobl – “The Head” (new translation by Gio Clairval)
Caitlin R. Kiernan – “A Child’s Guide to the Hollow Hills”
Stacey Levine – “Sausage”

You might notice a little story up there that's being translated from Spanish.  That's part of the reason why I've been relatively quiet recently, as I've been working on that translation.  I strongly believe this anthology will be a very strong one to get when it comes out in e-book form in May and that this is precisely the sort of thing which I'd support even if I weren't (a small) part of this new e-book (and later, possibly print) anthology series.

So who here wants to read ODD?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Results of the 4th reviewing poll and the Shakespearian tragedies poll

Which Shakespearean tragedies would you most want to see reviewed?

  6 (22%)
Titus Andronicus
  7 (25%)
Romeo and Juliet
  3 (11%)
Timon of Athens
  1 (3%)
Julius Caesar
  6 (22%)
  13 (48%)
  9 (33%)
King Lear
  10 (37%)
  6 (22%)
Antony and Cleopatra
  3 (11%)
  3 (11%)
  2 (7%)

Which of these might make for the most appealing review?

Omar Khayyam, Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam
  17 (16%)
Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife
  11 (10%)
Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô
  20 (19%)
Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man's Fear
  34 (32%)
Laila Lalami, Secret Son
  7 (6%)
Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Scarab Path
  13 (12%)
Honore Balzac, Pere Goriot
  15 (14%)
Zoran Živković, The Writer/The Book/The Reader
  26 (24%)
Aristotle, Politics
  21 (20%)
Roberto Bolaño, 2666
  44 (41%)
Jesse Bullington, The Enterprise of Death
  18 (17%)
Charles Saunders, Imaro
  6 (5%)
Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
  6 (5%)
Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Cressida
  11 (10%)
Clark Asthon Smith, Hyperborea
  16 (15%)

I hope to review the bolded titles sometime in the near future, although some may be pushed back a bit.  Will shortly post a new Shakespeare poll shortly, this one on his comedies.  Feel free to comment here with your favorite Shakespearean comedies.  In a couple of weeks, I'll have a third one on his histories (I should note that these are all Easton Press editions and some may debate the merits of some plays appearing in one book and not another).

Some tentative plans

Now that I'll be done with working on translating a story later today, I think it'll be safe to post these vague reviewing plans:

1.  Steven Erikson, The Crippled God - I should finish the book today and will write the review either tomorrow or early next week.

2.  Fyodor Doestoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov - early next week, 1-2 days after the Erikson.

3.  Joe Abercrombie, The Heroes - late next week.

4.  Johann Goethe, Faust, I & II - next weekend or early the week after.

5.  Roberto Bolaño, 2666 - I will be reading the Spanish original of this in the coming days, with the English-language review in the next 1-2 weeks.

6.  Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man's Fear - will start reading this next week; review 1-2 weeks from now.

7.  Zoran Živković, The Writer/The Book/The Reader - will finish reading this shortly; review in about two weeks.

8.  Aristotle, Politics & Poetics - within the next 2-3 weeks.

9.  Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô - Will read it in both French and English; review in 2-4 weeks.

And of course, there will be reviews of some of Shakespeare's tragedies, starting with Macbeth and King Lear, that I'll mix in sometime in the next few weeks, as I hope to finish his tragedies by the end of next month.

Hope some, if not all, of these titles (plus those in the poll I just posted) will interest readers.  Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts on these books or ask questions about their types, if you like.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A short, profane post about dead horses, Jerry Springer, etc.

I've been mostly offline the past week or so (a brief respite next week before a few more storms of testing and audits), so I really didn't get the chance until now to read two recent articles that were sent to me via email:  Damien Walter's article in The Guardian, "Can fantasy tell the truth?" and Mark Charan Newton's response to the escapism discussion within.  I really wish I had not read those, because frankly what underlies a lot of the arguments made in those posts (and even more in the comments) is a steaming pile of horseshit.

What I took from the original article and the response (again, as much the comments as the actual articles) is yet another establishment of a straw man against which the commentators can joust.  Maybe there should be some sort of fucking "truth commission" (pun intended) set up to investigate all these allegations and see which ones might hold water instead of the piss that some aim to take out of half-imagined others.  The literary/fantasy horse is dead, beaten to a pulp and then ground into a grinder for horse sausages for those who like the taste of (re)processed arguments.

It is really annoying to see this sort of argument coming out so vociferously from one faction of a general readership.  It just continues, with very little new being said.  Just the same old bullshit being pumped out of the literary sump pump, I guess.  What makes it worse is this growing sense that several who participate in such "debates" are what I think of as incestuous readers:  their reading tree has no branches and they keep coming back for the close kin of whatever book they read again.  Such readers (not speaking for those who like multiple genres of literature, mind you) might as well be intellectually inbred if they are reading and re-reading stories that have few narrative modes or means of viewing the world.  Reading only for one purpose, whether it be escapism or furry buggering tips, is self-limiting.   It doesn't matter if it's a literary fiction, thriller, fantasy, or BDSM roleplaying, if the reader chooses to limit herself to a very small pool of story modes, that reader might as well be the literary version of those "I like to fuck my relatives" idiots that go on The Jerry Springer Show.

Maybe this harsh, short post will rile a few.  If so, so be it.  Rather that this be my last, very irritated response to this nonsense.  Man should not live by bread alone and all that jazz.  Now to get back to alternating between the very good The Crippled God, which has a lot of interesting things to say about the human condition, Langston Hughes' poetry, Faulkner, and several others in multiple genres who, in their own idioms, have a lot to say about truth, life, struggle, sorrow, hope, despair, and peace.  Hell if I care what labels they are given; the crossbreeding of ideas from reading each of them only serves to benefit me as a person.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I suppose some SF movie fans won't like Anthony Lane's "Out There" column in The New Yorker

I was just now reading the March 21, 2011 issue of The New Yorker when I came across Anthony Lane's movie column, "Out There," which discusses the movies Battle:  Los Angeles and Paul:

As shown by “Battle: Los Angeles,” and hordes of films before it, science fiction is nothing if not mockable. The very extravagance of its imaginings lays it wide open, to the crowing delight of a movie such as “Paul.” Directed by Greg Mottola, it was written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who also star as a pair of hapless British dorks named Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings. They visit San Diego to attend Comic-Con, like pilgrims journeying to Santiago de Compostela, and then rent an R.V. to tour those hot spots beloved of U.F.O.logists—Area 51 and the rest. And then they meet an alien.

What happened here? I yield to no one in my joy at Frost and Pegg’s earlier films, “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” which also thrived on parody, and stung with satirical precision. But they were set in England, whereas “Paul,” adrift in foreign territory, feels at once secondhand in its eagerness and unknowing in its scorn. The secondary figures look especially thin; just as I was thinking, Oh well, at least the writers haven’t resorted to some crazy-eyed trailer-park Bible-thumper toting a shotgun, in came Moses Buggs (John Carroll Lynch). More vexing, though, is the thought that science fiction is so inherently close to the absurd that the toughest challenge is not to lampoon it—as movies like “Galaxy Quest” have done before, and as Mottola does here with his blatant gestures to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.”—but to play it straight, as Spielberg managed to do. Only thus can we probe, to borrow a key verb from the aficionados, the ridiculous for the sublime: those terrors, or unlikely consolations, that lurk within. 

I suppose I could feel outraged; doubtless some reading the final paragraphs of Lane's dual review might take umbrage.  Yet, when I stopped for a moment and thought about it, I just didn't.  Rather, I find myself agreeing to some extent with Lane's comments, as they are applicable to SF movies.  There really is something ridiculous about the presentations in the vast majority of SF movies I've seen.  It might have to do with the emphasis on spectacle at the expense of characterizations.  In a novel, I can forgive powerful novels who might skimp a bit on character development, but whenever it comes to a movie, if there are not well-realized, dynamic characters, I'm likely going to tune out and become bored at the so-called "eye candy."

Having seen previews of Paul, I have no desire at all to see this movie.  I suspect I can chart its probable plot/gag path without straying far from actual events.  The same holds true to the few other SF/adventure movies I've seen in recent years (comic and serious alike).  It's just so dull and played out, the close following of a particular movie formula, that I just cannot help but sympathize with Lane's disdain for SF (or is that now SyFy?) cinema.  Maybe others more knowledgeable than I can weigh in on this?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Excerpts from books currently reading or about to read

The corpse gaped up at its killer, who squatted over it with a panel of pine steadied on the ruffled velvet covering his thigh, intently sketching the dead man's startled, stupid expression with a nub of charcoal tied to a thin stick.  It had taken no small effort to locate this particular body, the first man the artist could be sure he personally had killed in the battle.  The youth had not died in a manner any would call brave or noble, instead fumbling with his intestines like a clumsy juggler as they fell out of his split belly, and he looked even worse with the grime and blood and filth and the reek of shit and sunbaked offal, but soon he would become a saint.  Which saint exactly, the artist had yet to determine, but a saint to be sure; it was the least he could do.

I ovoga puta se, doduše, radi bez anestezije, bol koji jadna knjiga trpi nije nišsta manji nego kod sirovog čupanja, ali se zato bar rana brzo obradi, a i isečeni listovi ne završe na bunjištu, već / ako je to uopšte neka uteha / neretko budu čak i posebno ukoručeni, kao kada biste amputiranu ruku povezali s veštačkim krvotokom, tako da ona nastavi svoj zaseban život.

But there is no anaesthesia this time either.  The pain the poor book undergoes is no less than would have been inflicted by a crude tearing, but at least the wound is enacted rapidly, and the amputated pages do not end up in the bin.  With great luck they may even - if it is any kind of consolation - go through a separate binding process, just that sheaf of them, and get their own new covers:  rather like providing an amputated hand with some artificial blood circulation so that it can continue to live separately from the body.

Les soldats qu'il avait commandés en Sicile se donnaient un grand festin pour célébrer le jour anniversaire de la bataille d'Eryx, et comme le maître était absent et qu'ils se trouvaient nombreux, ils mangeaient et ils buvaient en pleine liberté.

La primera vez que Jean-Claude Pelletier leyó a Benno von Archimboldi fue en la Navidad de 1980, en París, en donde cursaba estudios universitarios de literatura alemana, a la edad de diecinueve años.  El libro en cuestión era D'Arsonval.  El joven Pelletier ignoraba entonces que esa novela era parte de una trilogía (compuesta por El jardín, de tema inglés, La máscara de cuero, de tema polaco, así como D'Arsonval era, evidentemente, de tema francés), pero esa ignorancia o ese vacío o esa dejadez bibliográfica, que sólo podía ser achacada a su extrema juventud, no restó un ápice del deslumbramiento y de la admiración que le produjo la novela.
Isaac McCaslin, 'Uncle Ike', past seventy and nearer eighty than he ever corroborate anymore, a widower now and uncle to half a county and father to no one
this was not something participated in or even seen by himself, but by his elder cousin, McCaslin Edmonds, grandson of Isaac's father's sister and so descended by the distaff, yet notwithstanding the inheritor, and in his time the bequestor, of that which some had thought then and some still thought should have been Isaac's, since his was the name in which the title to the land had first been granted from the Indian patent and which some of the descendants of his father's slaves still bore in the land.  But Isaac was not one of these:  - a widower these twenty years, who in all his life had owned put one object more than he could wear and carry in his pockets and his hands at one time, and this was the narrow iron cot and the stained lean mattress which he used camping in the woods for deer and bear or for fishing or simply because he loved the woods; who owned no property and never desired to since the earth was no man's but all men's, as light and air and weather were; who lived still in the cheap frame bungalow in Jefferson which his wife's father gave them on their marriage and which his wife had willed to him at her death and which he had pretended to accept, acquiese to, to humor her, ease her going but which was not his, will or not, chancery dying wishes mortmain possession or whatever, himself merely holding it for his wife's sister and her children who had lived in it with him since his wife's death, holding himself welcome to live in one room of it as he had during his wife's time or she during her time or the sister-in-law and her children during the rest of his and after

A tingle.  Fine, colorless hairs bristle on her arms, thighs and back.  A scratching at the pane:
(movement)  more a soft clawing in the distance with the window as sounding board, rattle of an all-but-dead time she throws back with the sheet, lifting her spine and buttocks out of their damp imprints in the mattress.
Squeak of box springs.  Her hand trembles, gropes under the lampshade.  The switch.  Light up what remains.  What she has already begun to think of as this skeletal residue ground into the window.

A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.

Each of us is all the sums he has not counted:  subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.

The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung.  Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years.  The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time.

This is a moment:

Here are eight passages from seven stories (and four languages) that I hope to finish reading by the end of the month.  Some of these I'll add to the next review poll next weekend; others perhaps are already there or will never be there.  Many of these authors are famous, some even classic; others are awaiting discovery.

Which of these do you know?  Which of these appeal to you, making you want to know if these are beginning lines, middle lines, or conclusions (or better yet, pause points) to captivating stories?  Most of these I have read before; some will be discoveries.  Which passages make you want to learn more (if you ask nicely, in a couple of days, I'll reveal the books you don't already know)?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife

In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.  He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress.  It is autumn, and I am four years old.  The certainty of this process:  my grandfather's hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park.  Always in my grandfather's breast pocket:  The Jungle Book, with its gold-lead cover and old yellow pages.  I am not allowed to hold it, but it will stay open on his knee all afternoon while he recites the passages to me.  Even though my grandfather is not wearing his stethoscope or white coat, the lady at the ticket counter in the entrance shed calls him "Doctor.' (p. 3)

For the past two years, Téa Obreht has been a literary darling.  Her first two professional sales were to The Atlantic and The New Yorker, respectively.  She was chosen last year as one of the latter's "20 under 40" list of young writers to watch and she was also the recipient of the National Book Foundation's "5 under 35."  Very high praise for a 25 year-old writer who had yet to publish a single novel.  Anticipation thus was very high for her debut novel, The Tiger's Wife, which was released earlier this month.  Even though I had extremely high expectations for this novel after having read samples of her work in the magazines mentioned above, The Tiger's Wife managed to meet and in some ways surpass them.

From the first paragraph, quoted above, I was drawn into the story.  Obreht has a talent for setting up scenes and to enliven them with intriguing, interesting people.  Most writers take several years to develop a good mixture of description and character development; Obreht, for the most part, manages to do this in her debut novel.  The several important narrative elements are introduced within the first paragraph:  the doctor grandfather and his granddaughter, the tiger at the zoo, the grandfather's copy of The Jungle Book.  From here, Obreht begins a spiraling narrative that loops in and out from the initial story of a grandfather taking his granddaughter to the zoo to see tigers.

Set in a nameless Balkan country that has undergone divisions and a twelve-year war by the time of the narrative present, The Tiger's Wife is rife with oblique references to the devastating splintering of Yugoslavia between 1992 and 2009.  Yet Obreht chooses to take no sides; her characters live in imaginary cities that could be Zagreb, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Priština, or any other locale now divided by a common language and sectarian differences.  What this does is remove most, if not all, of the tangles involved with the sordid past of the Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs, and Turks in this region, allowing for a greater focus on the personal than on the historical.

But this is background, albeit a rich one that informs the stories that the narrator Natalia's grandfather tells her.  Soon after the initial flashback unfolds, it is revealed that Natalia, herself now a young doctor working to inoculate young refugees on the other side of the new border that divides her former country into several, has learned that her grandfather died in a remote village while surreptitiously tending to the sick despite his declining health.  Natalia reflects on her grandfather, his tales to her, and the reason why he admired tigers and always carried a copy of The Jungle Book in his coat's breast pocket.

These stories, which range from the last days of Ottoman rule through World War II and its immediate aftermath, often possess a haunting, ethereal quality.  From Natalia's grandfather's initial encounters with the Deathless man, a seemingly young man who claims to be Death's nephew and who makes a wager with the grandfather, to the bombing of the town's little zoo and the release of a tiger into the area, these tales remind me of some of the better fantastical tales of a Henry James or Gabriel García Márquez (Obreht cites Gabo as a literary influence, particularly Love in Time of Cholera).  The mundane, rich as it is in tradition and in what some might term superstitious practices, meshes so well with the supernatural that it becomes easy for the reader to lose herself in the tapestry that unfolds with each flashback.

Obreht's characters are alive and dynamic.  She gives the semblance of life even to the secondary and tertiary characters, almost to the point of distracting the reader for a moment from the main narrative elements.  Her choice of looping the flashbacks into Natalia's own life works for the most part, although some might find themselves wishing that Obreht had chosen to expand these tales into full-length novels of their own.  Desirous as this wish might be, despite the occasional lag in narrative development, ultimately these well-developed side element serve to strengthen and reinforce what I perceive to be the novel's greatest strength:  the love of a granddaughter for her grandfather.  Everything else only serves to strengthen this well-expressed bond.  To date, this is my favorite 2011 release and one of the most impressive debut novels that have been released in several years.  Much to enjoy for fans of both contemporary and speculative fiction.

Slights changes in plans

Been very light on the reviewing front these past couple of weeks.  Going to have to change a few plans in order to get things back up and running, it seems.  First, I guess I was optimistic in thinking that my copy of Steven Erikson's The Crippled God would have arrived by now.  I haven't received it, so I can't read it, much less review it.  Whenever it does arrive (hopefully, early next week), I'll try to read and review it within a week.  Will start reviewing other top choices from a recent poll sometime next week.

The other reviewing change is that despite having it listed in a still-active poll, I'm going to go ahead and review Téa Obreht's debut novel, The Tiger's Wife, this weekend, likely later today.  It is one of those rare novels that has me thinking about a host of issues and I want to strike while the iron is hot.

As for why I've not been blogging or reviewing much the past week or so, it's because I took on a translation project that is due by midweek next week.  It's part of an e-book anthology which will be available in the near future.  More details after I've completed the translation, hopefully by Tuesday, if not tomorrow.

Elements of the British media (and their SF authors) bemuse and confound me sometimes

When I read screeds such as this past week's comments by Stephen Hunt (and the commentary by The Guardian), I cannot help but to think to myself that I am so thankful that I am a Southerner (and I guess, an American), because time and time again in recent months especially it seems there is one dissatisfied UK literary element taking umbrage at what another faction has said which might be viewed as being negative in tone (provided the outrage isn't over omission, intentional or unintentional alike). 

Perhaps it's just a cultural difference; after all, there are so few American cultural institutions that permeate American society to the degree that apparently the BBC, some national/local newspapers, and a few literary prizes do.  Maybe the university systems there do not possess the MFA/Creative Writing subset which champion a growing variety of narrative modes.  Possibly, there is less admixture of writers who value experimenting with their texts; it is hard to say being more than 3,000 miles removed from the UK scene. 

What does seem clear is that the debate there seems to be centered over who "drives the car" of fiction production.  While there is the occasional outburst here in the US (I am thinking of the ridiculous io9 complaint about last year's "20 under 40" list produced by The New Yorker; read the 20's profiles and their authorial influences/favorites and then read some of their fiction and see why I view the io9 article so disparagingly), there also appears to be a greater willingness among the publishers and authors to write and publish works that reside equally comfortable in literary journals or genre magazines.  This is not to say there isn't a perceived divide here, but rather that any such perceptions are generally fuzzier, likely due to a growing number of "cross-genre" works which are either finalists or winners of major awards. 

If anything, the "purists" in most of these debates, or at least based on the American voices I've heard speak on this issue, would be those who are so committed to writing SF that they cannot accept a broader range of narratives that might fall within that category (or, for some, stories that contain SFnal elements that might be championed as also being part of other literary traditions).  More and more lit journals in the US have published stories that are certainly speculative in nature and which utilize several tropes commonly associated with speculative genre fiction.  I do not know if the same is occurring in the UK and is just being drowned out by the droning whines on either side of that silly perceived literary divide or if the literary climate there discourages such "cross-talk" within narratives.

All I know is that what I'm seeing linked to these days from the UK is rather baffling.  Maybe I'm supposed to choose a side or something, hell if I know.
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