The OF Blog: June 2011

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Lila Azam Zanganeh, The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness

One cobalt-blue morning of butterfly hunting, in August 1971, after climbing a Swiss mountain, looking tanned and serene, net in hand, Vladimir Nabokov told his son Dmitri he had fulfilled all he ever dreamed and was a supremely happy man.  It is on this mountainous peak that I like to imagine him, VN, exclaiming like his elated creature Van Veen:  "I, Vladimir Nabokov, salute you, life!" (p. 1)

Too often biographies can be staid, prosaic affairs.  The subject (yes, a "subject" rather than anything resembling a fascinating human being) is prodded, poked, and pinned to the narrative board in a fashion similar to the butterflies that acclaimed Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov used to hunt in his own pursuit of happiness.  Those dull, listless non-fictions do little to promote interest in the "whys" of the biographed's importance, instead settling for rote "hows" that can drain the reader of interest in the person supposedly being immortalized.  Readers, especially those seeking to know more about creative geniuses, frequently are left wanting.

However, there do occasionally appear biographies that manage to capture that elusive élan in which the original composers crafted their masterpieces.  Last year, Sarah Bakewell's biography of Montaigne, How to Live, was much more than a recapitulation of that famed essayist's essays on various parts and motivations of life.  She made Montaigne live again in those pages and that in turn spurred me to read his Essays in translation. 

Another biographer takes a different tack to covering her subject.  Iranian-French writer/professor Lila Azam Zanganeh in her first book, The Enchanter:  Nabokov and Happiness, tackles her love for Nabokov's writing and the sense of profound happiness (although other adjectives might come closer to describing the complex array of emotions he evoked in his writings and in his life) that he expressed in his fiction and life.  Perhaps "biography" is not the most apt word for Zanganeh's book:  it is in turns an exploration of Nabokov's life, Zanganeh's introduction (told in three distinct fashions; one or more of which might be "imagined" rather than "real") to Nabokov's fiction, an "interview" with the dead author, and a quasi-love letter from an older Lolita to a more demure Humbert.

For some, Zanganeh's approach might be too flippant and light on profundity.  But for others, including myself, Zanganeh's inventive approach toward biography was refreshing.  She obviously has a great respect for Nabokov, but it is tempered with some reserve, most notably when discussing Nabokov's (or VN, as she often refers to him) relations with his wife Véra and with women writers in general.  She does not cover his life from birth to death, with the usual itinerary of important authorial milestones.  Instead, she explores Nabokovian concepts of happiness in thematic chapters that vary from the academic to the intensely personal:

"Those most extraordinary eyes..." Kafka's, but also his own.  I became obsessed with imagining those eyes, VN's staring into Kafka's.  And what those two glances (stippled amber, pitch black), briefly crossing on that unlikely afternoon, might have expressed.

My own maternal grandparents had lived in Europe before the war, during those same years.  In a mirror reflection:  Paris first, then Berlin, roughly 1923 to 1939.  And as I tried to visualize VN's features in those German years, I began to consider if perchance, circa 1935, just as he himself had fancied seeing Kafka on a tram, my curious grandmother, restlessly wandering about town, might not have caught a glimpse of the young Nabokov.  I liked to picture her walking in the black-and-white Berlin of pre-war years, with that lid of dark lead hanging over the city roofs.  Although she is alone, she is not afraid (or at least this is what she tells herself).  On a day in late winter, she is sauntering in low-crouched streets, the windows a succession of opaque frames behind which she must sense here and there, the dark gleam of a human presence.  She watches the sky moments before the lanterns are lit, as the clouds dissolve, mother-of-earl drawing slowly on ash.  While the night closes in, she starts walking faster, her steps quick, almost shuffling on the blacktop, when at the turn of a street she discerns a tiny door and a window - an artisan's atelier, or a dilapidated shop.  A young man, gaunt limbs, forehead leaning toward the glass, amber eyes, is peering through the window at items she cannot tell apart.  And what attracts her attention is the eeriness of his gaze, its diffuse wonder, reaching into its own reflection, yet a world removed.  A flicker of amber in this engulfing grayness. (p. 74-76)

This passage is representative of Zanganeh's approach toward covering Nabokov.  The personal nature of this musing can be captivating, but there are also times where it feels self-indulgent in its digressions.  Yet the overall effect does not detract from the book.  Rather, it provides The Enchanter with a charming quality in which its occasional lapses into sloppiness and diversion ultimately add to a sense of the admirable qualities of the biographical subject and, even more importantly, his literary creations.  This alone makes The Enchanter a wonderful reading experience; it is an added bonus that it also has left me wanting to re-read Nabokov's writing.  What more could be asked from a biography of a famous author?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A look at 2011 reads nearing the year's halfway point

Although it is way too early for me to proclaim many (any?) sure-fire "Best of 2011" books, I thought I'd provide a run-down of 2011 reads completed or nearly completed that may (or may not) factor in discussions six months from now.  The list will only continue to grow:

2011 Releases Read

Bradford Morrow, The Diviner's Tale
Giorgio Agamben, The Sacrament of Language:  The Archaeology of the Oath (non-fiction)

J.M. McDermott, Never Knew Another

Karen Russell, Swamplandia! (debut novel)

Joe Abercrombie, The Heroes

Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife (debut novel)

Steven Erikson, The Crippled God

R. Scott Bakker, The White-Luck Warrior

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

Peter Beagle, Sleight of Hand (collection)

Tibor Moricz, O Peregrino (Portuguese)

Nick Mamatas, Starve Better (non-fiction)

David Albahari, Leeches

Michael Cisco, The Great Lover

Jonathan Strahan, Eclipse Four (anthology)

Roger Manley, Weird Tennessee (non-fiction)

Jeff VanderMeer, Monstrous Creatures (non-fiction)

China Miéville, Embassytown

Jeff VanderMeer and S.J. Chambers, The Steampunk Bible

Chris Adrian, The Great Night

Minister Faust, Journey to Mecha (collection)

Inky Johnson, Inky:  An Amazing Story of Faith and Perseverance (non-fiction)

2011 Releases Currently in Progress

S.J. Watson, Before I Go to Sleep

David Anthony Durham, The Sacred Band

Lila Azam Zanganeh, The Enchanter:  Nabokov and Happiness (non-fiction)

Drew Magary, The Postmortal (debut novel)

Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairland in a Ship of Her Own Making (revised book form; YA)

Jonathan Wood, No Hero (debut novel)

Blake Butler, There is No Year

Twenty-two books completed and another seven that will either be finished by month's end or early July that are 2011 releases.  Not too bad, although I suspect the number of books in various categories will increase once I swing my focus more toward surveying current releases like I typically do the second half of the year.  Now I suppose some people might like a provisional "top 10" list or so of these books, so here's a little something that will not be placed in order as such:

Current Best of 2011 Contenders

Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife

David Albahari, Leeches

Michael Cisco, The Great Lover

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

Bradford Morrow, The Diviner's Tale

Lila Azam Zanganeh, The Enchanter:  Nabokov and Happiness

S.J. Watson, Before I Go to Sleep

R. Scott Bakker, The White-Luck Warrior

David Anthony Durham, The Sacred Band

Karen Russell, Swamplandia!

Again, opinions are likely to change.  Oh, and I should note that when I cover anthologies in December, I'll be leaving out two reprint anthologies that I'm most excited about, September/October's ODD? and October's Weird, because those will include translations that I have done.  Otherwise, I'd be very confident about those books appearing there.  Oh, and there's some "dance" I'm supposed to read about in July, not to mention these few:

Lev Grossman, The Magician King (review copy arriving shortly)

David Lodge, A Man of Parts:  A Novel of H.G. Wells (review copy arriving shortly)

Ben Loory, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (collection; review copy arriving shortly)

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds.), The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (arriving in July)

Any of these you curious to learn more about?

Your Moment of Squirrel

I love Engrish....maybe I should visit Beijing and shop there myself.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Patricia McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

Originally posted at SFF Masterworks in September 2010.

The Wizard Heald coupled with a poor woman once, in the king's city of Mondor, and she bore a son with one green eye and one black eye.  Heald, who had two eyes black as the black marshes of Fyrbolg, came and went like a wind out of the woman's life, but the child Myk stayed in Mondor until he was fifteen.  Big-shouldered and strong, he was apprenticed to a smith, and men who came to have their carts mended or horses shod were inclined to curse his slowness and his sullenness, until something would stir in him, sluggish as a marsh beast waking beneath murk.  Then he would turn his head and look at them out of his black eye, and they would fall silent, shift away from him.  There was a streak of wizardry in him, like the streak of fire in damp, smoldering wood.  He spoke rarely to men with his brief, rough voice, but when he touched a horse, a hungry dog, or a dove in a cage on market days, the fire would surface in his black eye and his voice would run sweet as a daydreaming voice of the Slinoon River.

One day he left Mondor and went to Eld Mountain.  Eld was the highest mountain in Eldwold, rising behind Mondor and casting its black shadow over the city at twilight when the sun slipped, lost, into its mists.  From the fringe of the mists, shepherds or young boys hunting could see beyond Mondor, west to the flat Plain of Terbrec, land of the Sirle Lords, north to Fallow Field, where the third King of Eldwold's ghost brooded still on his last battle, and where no living thing grew beneath his restless, silent steps.  There, in the rich, dark forests of Eld Mountain, in the white silence, Myk began a collection of wondrous, legendary animals. (pp. 1-2)

Patricia A. McKillip's 1974 short novel, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, opens with the quote provided above.  In just two paragraphs, she has created a vivid backdrop and history around which she frames this story of love, desire, despair, and redemption.  It is a fable of sorts and it certainly contains elements of this ancient storytelling mode:  a vague past, rich characterizations, a temptatious moment around which the story revolves, and a stirring conclusion.  Such stories revel more in the atmosphere of the setting than in character development (since the use of archetypes is common in these tales and it is the interactions of these archetypes with the fully-realized backdrop that often appeals most to readers) and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld certainly will remind its readers fondly of the best fantastical fables of the past few centuries.

The story begins with one of Myk's descendents, Sybel, a sixteen year-old orphan, caring for her deceased wizard-father's fantastical beasts.  She is alone on Eld Mountain, undesirous of contact with the populace below in Mondor, until one day the Sirle Coren comes bearing an infant, an infant who through her deceased mother's side is a relative of hers.  This infant, which she names Tamlorn, is to be raised alone by her and away from his dread father, the aptly-named Drede.

Twelve years pass.  Coren returns to reclaim Tamlorn, but is rebuffed by Sybel, who worries that the youth will be used as a pawn in the Sirles' struggles against Drede.   However, Drede himself soon comes to claim his child and Sybel reluctantly parts from Tamlorn, although she sends a guardian bird, a Ter, to protect Tamlorn.  Sybel soon sinks into a depression and in her attempt to draw a mythical beast, the Liralen, she instead conjures forward the Blammor, a dark creature of shadow that induces fear.  Drede soon sends a minion to destroy Sybel, fearing her power and angry that she had possessed his son for twelve years.  This leads to an ending that is at once both literal and metaphorical at the same time.

Although the above description may seem at first glance to "spoil" the story, I would argue that it doesn't even hint at the beauty found within it.  McKillip draws upon various Celtic legends and their storytelling methods to hint at a dark, terrible tragedy that lies within the pursuit of hidden knowledge with darkness possessing one's soul.  Sybel's dark descent into depression and a desire to wreak havoc on Drede for his attempts to destroy her are reflected in the changes in her fantastical creatures.  Their anger, their hostility, and ultimately their violent acts are reflected in Sybel's mood swing.  Although some perhaps might find this story to be rather "simple" on the surface, McKillip layers this text with levels of metaphorical significance that have an impact far greater than might be expected from a novel that is roughly 200 pages.

In his review of McKillip's later series, Riddle-Master,  Neth argues that McKillip's work shows a clear influence from J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth series.  I would argue that McKillip's writing is not dependent on what Tolkien accomplished, but rather that it, like some of Tolkien's tales, draws from the wealth of folklore and legends from Irish, Scots, and perhaps Welsh tales.  I am far from an expert on insular Celtic folklore, but I seem to recall there being stories revolving around different-eyed magicians, the connection between animals and mood, and the dangers of emotional responses to magical occurrences being hinted at in some Irish legends.   However, I do know that the way the story is constructed feels more in tune with stories that I've heard of Irish mythical heroes than anything I remember appearing in Germanic tales.

Regardless of its ultimate source material, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a lyrical, evocative piece.  McKillip's prose invigorates the plot, making it feel fresh and important.  As stated above, her adroit use of metaphors to signify not just actual plot occurrences but also to denote the meanings behind those acts adds depth to the story, making it a far more complex story than it might appear at first glance.  The archetypical characters fulfill their roles almost perfectly and the end result is a short "masterwork" that hints at what the maturing McKillip later accomplished in her Riddle-Master trilogy and subsequent novels.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

M.J. Engh, Arslan

"It is true that Kraftsville was a safe and pleasant place, in comparison with other places.  Your hungriest paupers have been better fed than the chiefs of towns.  Your people have slept in security.  They were free, they were healthy, as human health and freedom go.  They had never suffered war.  But you know that in most of the world, sir, there has been war and war again, and again, and again war, so that every generation learns again.  Strange.  It is very strange."  He shook his head like a man in real puzzlement.

"What is?"

“More than a hundred years without war. A strange way of life.”

“What do you mean, without war? My God, we’ve-“

“You have made war, you have not suffered it! Your nation, sir, has been perhaps the happiest to exist in the world. And yet consider its history. The natives despoiled, displaced, cheated, brutalized, slaughtered. The most massive system of slavery since the fall of Rome… The upheaval, the upswelling, of savagery, of violence. Not revolution, sir, for revolution requires coherence. Not eighteenth-century France, but fifth-century Rome… Grotesque, sir, this combination of a primitive puritanism and a frantic decadence; very like the Romans whom you so resemble.”(pp. 80-81)

M.J. Engh's 1976 novel, Arslan, will aggravate, frustrate, and confound many readers who encounter it.  It is, among other things, a story of the United States falling under the sway of a global dictatorship, a tale of resistance, a narrative on childhood, but above all else I would argue that it is a commentary on power and the relationships engendered from it.  For some readers, Engh's seeming reduction of a vast array of complex issues down to the size of town/county affairs might not be as much an affirmation of former US House Speaker Tip O'Neill's adage, "All politics is local," as an annoying conceit that serves to cover up the sketchiness of Engh's plot.  For others, however, her decision to focus the action of the story around the rural Illinois town of Kraftsville frees herself from the encumbrances of having to explain the external mechanics which might divert the reader away from the often uncomfortable socio-political issues that Engh wants to explore here.

The basic premise can be discussed and dismissed briefly:  a young warlord, Arslan, from the fictional Central Asian country of Turkistan, has bluffed and threatened his way into gaining control of a secret Soviet anti-missile laser system (SDI a decade before the "Star Wars" program was ever announced to the American people).  In short order, the major governments in Europe, the Soviet Union, China, and the United States surrender.  Arslan and his soldiers, Turkistanis and Russians alike, suddenly set up camp in the small American town of Kraftsville, where Arslan regales his troops with a victorious gathering topped off by the raping of two selected youth:  a female and a male, Hunt Morgan, who later becomes one of the novel's two narrators.  From this graphic scene, Arslan comes and goes in Kraftsville (or District 3281) over intervals of several years for the next two decades.

Rape, especially over the past half-century since it became a war crime, is a problematic issue in any novel that contains it, but even more when the rape of a (male) child is involved.  Several reviews of Arslan focus on the shock and discomfort found when encountering the rape of Hunt Morgan in the opening chapter of the book.  Since Hunt's complex relationship with Arslan forms an integral part of the novel, perhaps it is best to explore the ways in which this rape is used.  Engh certainly does not sensationalize, nor does she dismiss with a cavalier attitude, Hunt's rape.  Rather, his rape becomes a concrete metaphor that works on several levels:  the representation of the plight of youth of both sexes in war-torn areas (the fact that the US hasn't suffered this since the end of the Civil War is harped upon in passages like the one quoted at the beginning of this review); the degradation of power relationships along the lines of imperialist resource/people exploitation (here shown in reverse); the terrorization that is unleashed on District 3281 in the immediate aftermath of Arslan's triumphant entry into the city.  This does not diminish the reactions engendered by Arslan's rape of Hunt, but it does serve to provide a context in which Hunt's later actions can be seen as much more than a sickening case of sympathy for one's own tormenter.

Arslan's character and actions might be just as disconcerting for several.  From the ceremonial rapist, Arslan moves away from the diabolical, warlord character toward something more nuanced and mystifying.  His initial actions are unequivocally brutal (the rape, the rounding up of girls for a harem, the harsh martial law established in District 3281), but the bon homme that he is portrayed as being after the first third of the novel is much more seductive than assertive.  It is, as he says about Hunt (and which could be applied to others), "after the rape comes the seduction."   In his conversations with Franklin Bond, the principal of Kraft County's high school (and later the conflicted head of the Kraft County Resistance), Arslan comes across as being more and more reasonable, even as some of his actions (the injection of people worldwide with a sterility-inducing virus) are perhaps even more horrific than his first deeds, mitigated only by the distance (the world outside of Kraft County is shrouded in a fog of non-news) and reader sympathy with the root cause (the need to reduce human overpopulation).  By the novel's concluding chapters, Engh's seduction of the reader's sympathies has been far advanced after the sudden rape of their sensibilities.

Why does this occur?  Perhaps it is because Arslan's character is never presented as being "just" evil or "just" anything; he is, just like President Clinton was a philanderer who was still admired for his policies by many despite his numerable character flaws.  Arslan is a breath of life compared to the stolid, sometimes smug Franklin Bond.  He achieves things, he overcomes certain socio-political roadblocks that just aren't broken in contemporary representative democracies.  His dismissive attitude to his own power is beguiling because it promises a possible non-corruptive personality, even if subsequent events might lead one to question that presumption.  He has power over the other characters precisely because he has control over himself.  He may weep, he may rage, but what Arslan does best is expect.  This is seen in how quickly he overcomes Bond and others with his force of personality; he expects them to hate him, distrust him, revile him, but also to ultimately obey him because they have run out of other alternatives.  This might ring untrue to most reading it, but there is a certain appeal to this powerful cult of personality that certainly has its parallels in several charismatic leaders of the past two centuries whose callous actions still garnered them admiration from their purportedly-repressed constituents.

Throughout Arslan, these unbalanced power relationships are played out.  From Hunt's subsequent treatment by the townspeople to how he, when he appears as a narrator, casts Arslan as a noble, complex personage, power relationships are presented in terms that underscore the inequalities of the relationships.  Very rarely are people presented as being co-equal.  No, what we see is a smug, pathetic "resistance" to Arslan's commander, Nizam, that amounts to nothing substantive and which presents as its only "victory" the continual honoring of those executed for an assassination.  Never is Arslan's own authority ever really challenged; even the symbolic resistance grounds down into a sullen compliance.  This subordination has become so final that even when the signs of dominance are removed, the effects of Arslan's reign still rule the people of Kraft County.  Power might corrupt, it might beguile, but it certainly does hold sway over people, even when they think themselves free from it.

Engh's up-close look at power relationships through the character of Arslan and the dramatic changes he engenders is not free of flaws.  Some might find the local/personal nature of the story to be underwhelming because so much is lost in the "fog" of events elsewhere that might seem more appealing to them.  Others might find the messages contained within the narrative to be unappealing and unconvincing because they are not argued for as much as presented as being fait accompli.  Certainly some will not experience that "seduction" which follows the "rape."  But for others, Arslan is a moving, powerful work because it forces the reader to reconsider his or her own assumptions about how power relationships work and whether or not one might be willing to be an accomplice in the subversion of ideals once held to be steadfast and true.  For those readers, Arslan will be a true masterwork that will resonate with them long after the initial read is complete and after re-reads are done in coming years.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Genre" or "Literary?"

Leaving aside my opinions on those terms, I am going to present quotes from several books I've either read recently or shall be reading presently.  I figure that for some, adamant as they are about the quality of one marketing branch of literature vis-a-vis the other, should be able to discern which is which rather quickly.  But for others, perhaps this might be a challenge.  So for those intrepid enough to play this blind challenge game, respond with "genre" or "literary" for what you associate with the respective quotes.  Bonus if you can guess the authors.

When the family came to live inside the new house, they'd found another family already there.  An exact copy of their family - a copy father, mother, and son.  The copy family members stood each in a room alone unblinking.  The copy family would not speak when spoken into - though they had heartbeats, they were breathing.  Their copy eyes were wet and stretched with strain.  Their copy skin felt like our skin.  Their copy hearts beat at their chests.
Speaking of illegitimacy, there was more than a hint of romantic, nay, melodramatic illegitimacy in the Hazard family long before Nora and myself took our first bows.  Because Ranulph Hazard, during all his lengthy marital and extramarital career, had produced no issue, as yet, until his wife's transvestite Hamlet met her Horatio's exceptional gift of gravitas, not to mention his athleticism.  Tongues wagged.  Did Melchior lend an ear?  Who can tell, at this distance in time.  All the same, he loved his boys.  He cast them as princes in the tower as soon as they could toddle.
The view over the rooftops of Avina had always transfixed Skylene, never more so than now.  From where she stood on the balcony of the offices that had once belonged to the Lvin Herith, the city looked endless.  It thrust up to the south in a jumbled bulk that went on for miles, farther than she could see:  all the towers with their sun-bright colors, flags of the clans hung now just as they always had, lines of smoke rising to a certain height at which point the wind bent each column and sent it off to the west.  Seabirds and starlings and pigeons cut arcs through the sky and filled the morning air with their calls.
It's the pretty blonde that completes the scene.  No question.  Pressed up against the side of a building?  Check.  Life-and-death situation?  Check.  Significantly more sweat running down my back than really seems appropriate?  Big check for that one.  And yes, against all likelihood, there's a pretty blonde by my side.  Check.

Because now, after years of paperwork, after years of trawling through minutia, police work is finally fulfilling the promise Tango and Cash made to my impressionable teenage self.

It is time for action.

Except that, in the heat of the moment, my heart beating a sharp tattoo against my ribcage, I rather wish that Kurt Russell had taken the time to turn to the camera and explain the sheer bowel-loosening terror involved in doing this sort of thing.  Because right now, even with a killer so close, even with a life on the line, paperwork had never seemed so appealing.
To grasp war as a machine, or in other words, to inquire into the Abrahamic war machine in its relation to the technocapitalist war machine, we must first realize which components allow Technocapitalism and Abrahamic monotheism to reciprocate at all, even on a synergistically hostile level.  The answer is oil:  War on Terror cannot be radically and technically grasped as a machine without consideration of the oil that greases its parts and recomposes its flows; such consideration must begin with the twilight of hydrocarbon and the very dawn of Earth.
The red hen looked as if she was laying another egg on my bed and Marmeen was objecting to having his tail combed out, all as usual.  The sudden apparition of Galahad in the room almost knocked me off my chair.  The last time my son visited me was when the tank burst and he came in with the plumber.  He stood mouthing in the door.  I suppose he was saying something.
Sometimes it's fun to make shit up.  Maybe as a way of getting at myself without having to go through all the boring pedestrian shit you want to hear, like where I was born and what it was like, having a brother.  Cancer Bitch made shit up all the time.  Acted in plays, acted in movies.  I was her paid companion and half-assed dresser from 1961 to 1964, beginning the year I moved to Manhattan from Peoria.  Cancer Bitch - that would be Diana Sands.
The world in the wake of the stealth floater continued to fall into itself.  Shock waves guided the tiny craft like a pinball through braids and ganglions as it carried the unwounded flesh sentient Freer home, invisible to naked eyes.  The Sniffer on his ear growled softly.  The Uncle Sam, which had married the small stealth mind for the trip, did a bee-dance blur of diagnostics inside Teardrop as it overrode the growing gnarls of plaque and kept the floater on course.  The seat held on to Freer, he held on to the seat.
I saw Archibald Murray's obituary in the Tribune a couple of days ago.  It was a long notice, because of all those furbelows he had after his name, and dredged up that old business of ours, which can't have pleased his children.  I, myself, have never spoken up before, as I've always felt that nothing I saw sheds any light, but now I'm last of us.  Even Wilmet is gone, though I always picture him such a boy.  And there is something to be said for having the last word, which I am surely having.

So, you think you can discern which would be marketed as "genre" and which would be considered "literary?"

Squirrel eating a banana peel

A squirrel eating a banana peel, for those Squirrelists who want kinkier squirrel porn that do not involve nut munching.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Feverish reads

I've been laid up most of this week with a pretty severe sinus infection, including a 100° fever.  I managed to get dismissed from a jury panel because I was nodding off and couldn't focus on what the lawyers and judge were saying (they took pity on me, no contempt this time, I think).  I feel slightly better now, as I am not shivering in 90°+ temps even when wearing long-sleeved shirts, but I've noticed that it's difficult to type this, much less read what I've already written.

Attempted to read portions of two books these past couple of days, M.J. Engh's Arslan and David Anthony Durham's The Sacred Band.  I discovered quickly that I couldn't read at more than maybe 1/5 of my typical reading speed (lower than 60 pages/hour, compared to around 300 pages/hour under normal circumstances) and that I kept forgetting what I had read.

Has this happened to any of you before when you were ill?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Matthea Harvey (poems) and Amy Jean Porter (paintings), Of Lamb

Originality, or at least the radical erasure and reconstitution of an original work, is a hard act to pull off.  There is something magical about a work that feels as though there's been layers stripped away to reveal a story that was not present when the words were initially composed.  In the came of Of Lamb, this is literally the case, as the poet Matthea Harvey took David Cecil's 1986 biography A Portrait of Charles Lamb, which chronicles his  18th and 19th centuries' history with his oft-mad sister, Mary, and created something that is an elegy to youth, to passion, to desire, and to the delusions of life and the madness it entails.

It is a challenge to write even a capsule review of this book because Harvey's erasures blend into Porter's haunting illustrations that it is difficult to talk about one without pointing out the other.  Harvey has carefully chosen each word from the available choices from the Cecil biography, with facing pages containing quotes such as "Lamb found Mary crying in the hedge" being followed by "As pretty as a poem was Mary."  Porter's images are vivid, with the languid Mary being contrasted by the sometimes pleading, yearning Lamb:

This image is representative of the book as a whole.  Notice how the words appear within the borders of the image, with the Lamb, here an odd green (he changes colors and even form often), peering into Mary's eyes.  The blue leaves accentuate the oddness of the scene and serve to underscore the "unusual" aspect of Lamb.

Lamb yearns, to be human, to be intimate with Mary.  It is a desire that takes on occasion the shape of mad jealousy, replete the horrid retaliations to Mary's diffidence.  As the erased story progresses, it deepens, touches certain raw nerves that formerly had lain dormant.  Harvey's ability to create evocative poetry (not to mention Porter's complementary illustrations) out of a biography is remarkable.  A structure emerges from erasure that bears nothing in common with the original yet is beautiful when beheld.  Of Lamb builds to a crescendo that crashes and burns in a magnificent way, leaving the reader pondering the poignant, weird beauty that can be created from the erasure of the mundane.  Highly recommended.

Pictorial evidence of why I like McSweeney's Quarterly Concern

This weekend, I quoted from an interview that touched upon one way in which print books might maintain their appeal in an e-world.  McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a quarterly literary magazine/book/journal/etc., was cited in that passage and in the comments to that excerpt which I posted.  I had recently begun a subscription and in anticipation for issue #38, I went ahead and ordered the three previous issues.  Below are pics of the covers and contents of #35, #36, and #37.  Do these appeal to you at all?  Why or why not?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day Used Book Porn

This might be one of my best quality hauls from any of my visits to McKay's over the past two years.  Two Easton Press leatherbound editions ($25 each) and a Library of America edition ($20) alone were $70, but I probably could have paid $140 for all three if I had bought these new (each appears as new as if I had purchased them at a regular bookstore).  Add to that the fifth issue of McSweeney's for $9, lower than any of the prices I see on Amazon, and I feel as though I've been fortunate with these books.  The Morrow was only $2, so that's just a throw-in bonus.

To round things off, here are some other bargains.  The most expensive item here was the $6.50 I paid for the Kafka; all but two others were $2 or under and two were under $1.  Nice, especially considering that I traded in $62 worth of books and only had to pay $51 for the entire lot.  Most, if not all, of these books will be read over the next few months. 

Any of these particularly appealing to you?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Books currently being read

Here are titles that I've been reading over the past few days:

Karen Joy Fowler, What I Didn't See

Minister Faust, The Alchemists of Kush

M.J. Engh,  Arslan

Stuart Nadler, The Book of Life

Chris Adrian, The Great Night

David Anthony Durham, The Sacred Band

C.E. Morgan, All the Living

Charles Dickens, The Essays of Charles Dickens

Any of these you've read before?  Any you want to know more about?

Excerpt from Ninth Letter's interview with Michael Martone

This is taken from the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Ninth Letter, where Matthew Baker interviews Michael Martone.  Fascinating interview (Martone's frequent use of alter egos and faux identities makes this one of the more fascinating interviews I've ever read), but I thought readers here might like to read Martone's take on e-books and print books:

Baker:  I've heard you own an iPad.  What are your feelings on print novels vs. e-books?  Do you think print's days are numbered?

Martone:  It all depends on the publishing companies.  If the print novel is going to survive, someone is going to have to start printing books that are more than cheap paper and a flashy cover.  If you can pay $8 for an e-book edition of Infinite Jest that weighs zero ounces or $13 for a print edition of Infinite Jest that weighs three pounds, and if they're exactly the same book, who's going to pay more money for a bulkier version?  E-books are cheaper to publish, they're easier to distribute, and they're more convenient to carry around.  My generation grew up with only print, so we have a nostalgia for the printed novel that might keep it around for another couple decades.  Your generation grew up between, so I suspect your loyalties will lie somewhere between the two.  But this next generation - the one that's grown up on iPods and the internet and has never known anything different - they'll be the ones that will bury the printed novel.  They'll have no use for it.  Especially as the technology develops.  The Kindle wasn't all that aesthetically appealing; it was the Atari of e-book readers.  But when we have the Wii of e-book readers, they're going to be impossible to resist.

I do think print can survive.  But for that to happen, publishing companies will have to start thinking about the book as an object - books will have to become so intricate and extraordinary looking that consumers will have a desire to own the thing, regardless of whether they want to actually read it.  Bookmaking will have to become a form of art again, instead of just a process of mass production.

My stepmother bought this 1950s crank-powered eggbeater recently, for example.  She already has an electronic hand mixer and a state-of-the-art blender - there's nothing she can do with this eggbeater that she wasn't already able to do with a faster and more efficient tool.  But she was at an antique store in Kokomo and saw this eggbeater, and she was so struck by the design of it - the polished wood of its handle, the engravings along its metal cogs - that she bought it anyway.  And now she uses that instead of her $300 hand mixer.  It's slower, it's more physically demanding, but it's so aesthetically appealing that she's willing to put in extra work just to have her hands on the object, to become a part of that design.  The electric hand mixer she keeps in a cupboard; the crank-powered eggbeater she hangs form the wall next to her stove, keeping it on display.

That's what print novels will have to become.  Publishers will have to give consumers a reason to want the actual object of the novel:  to want to hold it, to want to be able to look at it, and have it be seen.  Ornate covers, gold letter engravings, books bound with twigs, accordion-style illustrations, that sort of thing.  That's why McSweeney's  has done so well - it's not that the actual content of McSweeney's is that extraordinary, or that much more extraordinary than the average literary quarterly, but each issue of McSweeney's has so much allure as a physical object that it's something consumers want to own.  I'm happy to read issues of The New Yorker online, but McSweeney's I want to be able to hold, to inspect, to give to my children.

Going to second Martone's thoughts on McSweeney's; can't wait for #38 to arrive next month.  What about you?  How do you feel about his comments on print books compared to e-books?

Towards a greater catholicity in my reading

I have been rather quiet the past week, mostly due to increased work demands and a lack of energy.  However, I have been following with some interest a few online discussions/arguments the past few weeks that deal with the issue of female SF writers.  It started (as so many of these cyclical discussions do, it seems) with an article from the online version of the venerable UK paper, The Guardian, on favorite SF works.  This led to some number crunching that produced a very low number of female writers having works mentioned in that reader-produced list.  This in turn lead to SF writer Nicola Griffith producing "The Joanna Russ Pledge," exhorting readers to make a greater attempt to promote female writers in order to combat any conscious or subconscious bias against female SF writers.

Of course, such a request is going to generate some discussion, much of it heated.  Over at SF Signal, there was a Mind Meld post devoted to the Russ Pledge.  Note the responses, their tones, and the probable sexes of those responding.  Contrast that with another SF Signal post made this past Friday by Judith Tarr on "Girl Cooties."  Food for thought on how easily things can be twisted to suit the desires/fears of certain readers.  Sadly, I am not surprised to see the vehement defensiveness of certain male SF readers (perhaps authors as well in other corners?) when it comes to any request to change their reading, or rather to open themselves up for new experiences.

It is easy to bemoan this fact and demonize those reluctant, while overlooking one's own reading.  It was with some consternation that I noticed a greater homogeneity in my own reading over the past year or so.  Much of this was due to a conscious decision to revisit certain "canonical" works of Western literature, which by its very nature is going to exclude large swathes of humanity.  But could there be other factors at play?  Perhaps.

I do not aim to achieve certain percentage numbers for reading X number of female authors, Y number of other ethnic groups, or Z number of non-English language works.  That would be counteractive toward any attempt to become more catholic in my reading, as it would reduce works and their authors to ciphers.  No, I will not do this.  Rather, I will attempt to read just a bit more here and there to discover new works, new authors, not because I find the same old to be limiting, but rather because I want to expand my reading horizons even more in order to understand others and myself more.

This means a continued diffusion of reading various genres and subgenres of literature (excluding those subgenres that I have tried reading several examples, only to discover I did not find the narratives to be for me), from authors of all walks of life.  I will not pledge to talk more about just female SF writers, because that would be too limiting.  Rather, I shall try to talk about, for example, a SF novel like M.J. Engh's Arslan, but also Stuart Nadler's The Book of Life or the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Ninth Letter, or perhaps Minister Faust's just-released e-books Journey to Mecha and The Alchemists of Kush.  There are several Library of America editions I want to read and perhaps discuss as well, ranging from Eudora Welty to H.L. Mencken.  I have some Brazilian, Portuguese, and Spanish works still to read and there will be more discussions of poetry, plays, and short fiction in addition to novels in the near future.

I cannot say what the percentages of all these will be; it is irrelevant as long as there is some attempt at reading something new that is not merely a reiteration of the old.  It takes commitment to increase the catholicity of one's reading, so what better time than now to recommit to it?  After all, this blog has not been a strict genre one for a long time...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mid-June Book Porn

Another busy week at work, but to break the dry spell here, thought I'd share pictures of recent review copies and books purchased.  It seems I might have been placed on a literary ARC list.  Not that I am complaining about it (more likely to read those unsolicited copies than I am for the urban fantasy review copies I receive), but just noting something that might be a belated connection to last year's run as Best American Fantasy series editor.

Any of these appeal to you?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

William Hope Hodgson, The House on the Borderland and Other Novels

 Originally posted at SFF Masterworks in July 2010.

Although barely a century separates us from William Hope Hodgson's most famous work, The House on the Borderland, out of all of the authors that appear in the Fantasy Masterworks series, his collection of four novels, The House on the Borderland and Other Novels (comprised of The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig' (1907), The House on the Borderland (1908), The Ghost Pirates (1909) and The Night Land (1912)), is perhaps, with the possible exception of E.R. Eddison's novels, the most distant in terms of narrative style from today's dominant forms out of any of the other books that appears in this series.  It is not fantasy in the sense of a constructed 'world' setting, nor is it strictly horror, and it certainly does not resemble any of the proto-SF works of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.  Instead, Hodgson's works seem to occupy a transitional stage between the 1860s "sensational novels" and each of the three main strands of speculative fiction today.  American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft cited Hodgson as being one of his main influences and for those familiar with Lovecraft's oeuvre, a close reading of Hodgson's works will show that there are indeed several similarities between the two authors.

Hodgson did not start writing until he was almost 30, in 1906.  However, between then and his death at the age of 40 in 1918 at Ypres in World War I, he produced several stories, such as The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig' or The Ghost Pirates, that referenced his time as a sailor during his youth and early adulthood.  Although Hodgson never was a bestselling author, his stories were well-received during his lifetime and in the near-century since his death, his works have repeatedly gone back into print.  He is renowned for his atmospheric tales, even though his writing may appear to be a bit archaic for some readers today.

The first novel in this omnibus, The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig', is a horror novel that takes as its central conceit that it is the true account, written in 1757, of events that took place years before.  Told in first-person PoV by a passenger on the 'Glen Carrig," the story begins as a sort of shipwreck account before veering off into the horrific.  Hodgson here uses deliberately archaic language in an attempt to capture the feel of the 18th century shipwreck tales, such as Robinson Crusoe, with mixed results.  There is no dialogue to speak of; the narrator reports other characters' conversations as indirect summations of much longer conversations.  Below is a paragraph that describes the first of the monstrous creatures that the shipwreck survivors encounter on a weed-filled island:

A little later, there came to my ears the noise of a very great splash amid the weed; but though I stared with intentness, I could nowhere discern aught as likely to be the cause thereof.  And then, suddenly, between me and the moon, there drove up from out of that great waste a vast bulk, flinging huge masses of weed in all directions.  It seemed to be no more than a hundred fathoms distant, and, against the moon, I saw the outline of it most clearly - a mighty devilfish.  Then it had fallen back once more with a prodigious splash, and so the quiet fell again, finding me sore afraid, and no little bewildered that so monstrous a creature could leap with such agility.  And then (in my fright I had let the boat come near to the edge of the weed) there came a subtle stir opposite to our starboard bow, and something slid down into the water.  I swayed upon the oar to turn the boat's head outward, and with the same movement leant forward and sideways to peer, bringing my face near to the boat's rail.  In the same instant, I found myself looking down into a white demoniac face, human save that the mouth and nose had greatly the appearance of a beak.  The thing was gripping at the side of the boat with two flickering hands - gripping the bare, smooth outer surface, in a way that woke in my mind a sudden memory of the great devilfish which had clung to the side of the wreck we had passed in the previous dawn.  I saw the face come up towards me, and one misshapen hand fluttered almost to my throat, and there came a sudden, hateful reek in my nostrils - foul and abominable.  Then, I came into possession of my faculties, and drew back with great haste and a wild cry of fear.  And then I had the steering-oar by the middle, and was smiting downward with the loom over the side of the boat; but the thing was gone from my sight.  I remember shouting out to the bo'sun and to the men to awake, and then the bo'sun had me by the shoulder, was calling in my ear to know what dire thing had come about.  And that, I cried out that I did not know, and, presently, being somewhat calmer, I told them of the thing that I had seen; but even as I told of it, there seemed to be no truth in it, so that they were all at a loss to know whether I had fallen asleep, or that I had indeed seen a devil.

And presently the dawn was upon us.

The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig' is replete with passages such as this.  The long, dense paragraphs, full of clauses and asides, can be a bit wearisome to read after a short while.  However, Hodgson for the most part manages to imbue this narrative with a sense of foreboding doom, as the narrator and the other survivors have nightly visits from the island's inhabitants to confront.  Although the description-heavy passages may be something that today's readers are unaccustomed to reading, once the rhythm of the narrative has been ascertained, the story itself moves at a brisk pace, with every few pages being devoted to outlining another horrific threat to the shipwreck survivors.

Hodgson's second novel, The House on the Borderland, is a much more accomplished novel.  Here, the story begins in 1877 in the Irish village of Kraighten, where two visitors, exploring the ruins of a quite singular house, discover the moldering diary of its previous owner.  In it, they find hints that a dark evil has existed somewhere beyond the borderland of life and of reality.

The House on the Borderland utilizes a double narrative approach, similar to that favored by many other horror writers of the past century (in this, I am especially reminded of Caitlín Kiernan's 2009 novel, The Red Tree, which utilizes a similar approach to outlining an incomprehensible evil).  Here, Hodgson's narrative is not filled with archaicisms.  Instead, it is a tale of intrepid exploration by the diary writer into the causes of the maladies that are occurring at this particular house.  Although creatures of this Evil are seen and described, the source of this Evil is never directly seen or described by the narrator.  Throughout this short novel, the tension keeps building and building, until finally the narrator succumbs to it...and the diary breaks off before the horrific end can be revealed.

It is a familiar formula now, but a century ago, this sort of writing went far beyond the previous generation's "sensational novels" with its descriptions of decay and malevolence.  The pacing is superb, as Hodgson does a slow build throughout this novel until it is time for the payoff, which proves to be well worth the time spent waiting to see what would ultimately occur to the diary writer.  It is easily the most accessible and perhaps most enduring of the four short novels collected in this single omnibus.

The third story, The Ghost Pirates, is the second nautical tale in this book.  In it, Hodgson relates the sad fates of a ship's crew as it encounters a ghostly ship intent on its destruction.  Unlike The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig,' The Ghost Pirates does not employ an epistolary, anachronistic narrative approach.  Much more than in his previous novels, Hodgson relies heavily on dialogue among the doomed ship's crew to convey the drama that is unfolding.  This is not to say that it is an entirely straightforward account.  Hodgson in his preface to this book refers to it as being the third part of a trilogy (with the two above-described books forming the first two parts), and there are indeed some "elemental kinships," as he put it, that unite these three tales on a thematic level.

The final story in this omnibus, The Night Land, is perhaps the most difficult to comprehend.  Although it is set in a Wellsian far-future where the universe has gone dark and cold and the remnants of humanity dwell in vast pyramid-like structures, the narrative and the vision behind the tale are quite archaic.  When reading this, I was struck, as I often am by pre-1914 works, by how there are none of the concerns that have worried writers and readers ever since World War I broke out.  There is no fear of human-caused annihilation; the universe may eventually grow dark and cold and creeping horrors may arise, but these feel somewhat removed from the internal fears of self-induced destruction.  And then there are some now-antiquated attitudes on gender relations, such as this short passage:

And I askt the Maid whether that she did be prepared; and she to be very white and wearied, and all besmirched with the dankness and growths upon the boulders and the hidden pools of the Gorge and the dripping of the waters; but yet did she be sound in her courage, and to show that she had all belief and abiding in me, and her judgement likewise to be with mine, in that her own Reason did approve.

And I took the bundle of her torn clothing from her, for it did be at her girdle, and like to trouble her movings; but she to refuse, very determined, in that I did be already over-burdened.  And I to be firm in my deciding, and to make her to yield the bundle, the which I hookt unto the "hold" of the Diskos, where it did be to mine hip.

And the Maid to be there, a little figure, and white in the face, and strangely angered, and her anger mixt with hidden acknowledgement that I did be her master, and half to be minded that she move not from where she did stand, and part to be reasonable and fearful of the hidden Beast; and in part also to thrill in her womanhood unto the man that did be so masterful unto her.  And all to pass in a little moment, and we to be to the Gorge side, and busied very eager to the climb.

For someone reading this in 2010, such talk and actions at best might seem to be amusing; at worst, deplorable.  In addition to this, there are references to an imagined "past" for this distant future that feels nothing like anything that has any relation to our shared recent past of mechanized warfare or of the Atomic Age and its developments.  In reading this, there is a sense of displacement, as if what is transpiring here upon the narrator's arrival near the end of time is but the horror of disassociation, as though the now-Present does not make much sense to the denizens of the now-distant Past.  This sense of alienation that runs throughout The Night Land partially preserves this novel from being cast off as being merely a pre-WWI oddity.  Nonetheless, the opaqueness of the prose and the less-developed characters made this the weakest of the four novels that I read in this omnibus.

So, is The House on the Borderland and Other Novels worthy of the title of "Fantasy Masterwork?"  Considering how influential Hodgson was on Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and other writers of the "weird" and horror narrative modes, I would have to conclude that yes, these stories, warts and all, are worthy of such an august distinction.  Even though time's passage may have aged the narratives and made them more difficult to process than it would have been for Hodgson's contemporary readers, there are still several strong elements in his stories that made most of these enjoyable tales to read.  In some ways, it is difficult, after reading this, to imagine Lovecraft achieving what he did with his horror fictions if he had not read Hodgson's works and developed his own takes on those tales.

April-May 2011 Reads

Over 90 titles to type for April and May, so nothing but the titles, alas:


102  William Shakespeare, Tragedies

103  Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, vol. I:  The Golden Days

104  Sigmund Freud, Basic Works

105  Frederik Pohl, Man Plus

106  Robert Silverberg, The Book of Skulls

107  M. John Harrison, Viriconium (re-read)

108  R. Scott Bakker, The White-Luck Warrior

109  A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

110  David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

111  Roberto Bolaño, Los sinsabores del verdadero policía (Spanish)

112  Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô (French)

113  Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô (English)

114  Jeff VanderMeer, The Compass of His Bones and Other Stories

115  Samuel Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (re-read)

116  Aristotle, Ethics

117  Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (re-read)

118  Robert Frost, Mountain Interval

119  Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antonius

120  Daniel Defore, Moll Flanders (re-read)

121  G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Knew Too Much

122  Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow

123  Frigyes Karinthy, A Journey Round My Skull

124  Peter Beagle, Sleight of Hand

125  Algernon Blackwood, The Damned

126  Boethius, The Theological Tractates and the Consolation of Philosophy

127  Kay Ryan, The Best of It:  New and Selected Poems

128  Emmanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals

129  Pindar, The Extant Odes of Pindar

130  Elie Wiesel, Night

131  Elie Wiesel, Dawn

132  Elie Wiesel, The Accident/Day

133  Elie Wiesel, The Judges

134  Tibor Moricz, O Peregrino (Portuguese)

135  Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

136  Henry David Thoreau, Walking

137  Lord Dunsany, A Dreamer's Tale

138  Sadegh Hedayat, The Blind Owl

139  Mark Samuels, The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales

140  Michel Tournier, Le Roi des Aulnes

141  Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell

142  Nick Mamatas, Starve Better

143  Eduardo Vaquerizo, La última noche de Hipatia (Spanish)

144  David Albahari, Leeches

145  Oliverio Girondo, En la Masmédula (Spanish; re-read)

146  T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

147  Wallace Fowlie, Rimbaud and Jim Morrison:  The Rebel as Poet

148  Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies (German/English)

149  Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Great English Poets:  Elizabeth Barrett Browning

150  Michael Cisco, The Great Lover

151  Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

152  John Locke, Second Treatise of Government


153  Jonathan Strahan (ed.), Eclipse Four

154  Jack London, The Iron Heel

155  Eric Basso, The Beak Doctor

156  Eric Basso, Bartholomew Fair

157  Eric Basso, The Catwalk Watch

158  Eric Basso, Earthworks

159  Eric Basso, The Sabattier Effect

160  Eric Basso, Decompositions

161  Eric Basso, Revagations

162  Eric Basso, The Golem Triptych

163  Gérard de Nerval, Sylvie (French)

164  Gérard de Nerval, Sylvie (English)

165  Paul Verlaine, Poems of Paul Verlaine

166  Roger Manley, Weird Tennessee

167  Eric Basso, Accidental Monsters

168  Eric Basso, The Smoking Mirror

169  Eric Basso, Catafalques

170  Eric Basso, Ghost Light

171  Jeff VanderMeer, Monstrous Creatures

172  Charles G. Finney, The Unholy City

173  Stéphane Mallarme, Pages (French)

174  Ferenc Karinthy, Metropole (re-read)

175  Raymond Queneau, Saint Glinglin

176  José Maria Eça de Queirós, O Mandarim (Portuguese)

177  Katherine Vaz, Saudade

178  Cormac McCarthy, Child of God

179  Cormac McCarthy, Outer Dark

180  William Faulkner, Novels 1942-1954 (Library of America omnibus edition)

181  China Miéville, Embassytown

182  Jeff VanderMeer, The Three Quests of the Wizard Sarnod

183  Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers

184  Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (re-read)

185  Jeff VanderMeer and S.J. Chambers, The Steampunk Bible

186  John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar

187 Brian Aldiss, Non-Stop

188  Arthur C. Clarke, The Fountains of Paradise

189  Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human

190  Frank Turner Hollon, The God File

191  Cormac McCarthy, Sunset Limited

192  Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed (re-read)

193  Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination

In addition, I have read 13 books in June so far, so I'm well on my way to my goal of reading at least 400 books this year.  Any of these books listed you consider a favorite or want to know more about?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Revisiting the Gollancz Masterworks lists, two years later

Almost two years ago, in late June 2009, I blogged about my plans to read and eventually review the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series of 50 books.  I have managed to read all of the books on that list and to review in some form 23 of them (24, if I want to count the half of the Viriconium stories that I reviewed earlier in 2009; do plan on combining those reviews with new material later this year).  Not too shabby, considering how I like to shift my reading about every so often.

Eleven months ago, I joined the SFF Masterworks group blog, partly so I could also tackle reading/reviewing at some point all of the Gollancz SF Masterworks list.  Currently, I have read 70 of the 89 titles released so far and have written reviews for 27 of them (not including two reviews of volumes not yet released in this format).  Not too shabby, although I do hope to finish reading the extant volumes by this time next year.

If you click on the SFF Masterworks link above, you'll see that I've either ported over several reviews I wrote in 2009-2010 for this blog or you'll encounter four new reviews that I have not yet ported over here in full.  Of particular interest might be the Le Guin review I wrote last weekend.  I hope to write 1-3 more reviews later this weekend.  Possible candidates include John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, Brian Aldiss' Non-Stop, Philip K. Dick's The Penultimate Truth, and Joanna Russ' The Female Man.

How many books from these lists have you read?  Which are your favorites and/or want to see reviewed next?

Thursday, June 09, 2011

How would you teach people to read?

Last month, I asked a largely-rhetorical question on why people read.  This month, I'm going to ask something a bit more challenging:  how would you teach people to read?  By this, I do not mean teaching someone the rudiments of a written language, but rather how to read, namely literature of any sort.  Curious to see the responses.

Why do "zhen-rah" types look dumb when talking about "literary fiction?"

Browsing through a few blogs after jury duty/work today and I see where on Grasping for the Wind a reprint of a 2009 blog entry by Mark Rayner has been posted called "Why do lit-ah-rary types look down on SF?"  If it weren't for its asinine, half-baked title, I might have merely dismissed it.  But no, the title of this piece (both the original and the reprint) brings to the fore so many of the stereotypical images of SF-centric fans (and some authors):  the inability to investigate a received comment to see if it's "true" or even static (such as the oft-repeated comment on Margaret Atwood claiming that she doesn't write SF, when for six years, there's been this little piece written by her online from one of the UK's leading newspapers); the blithe dismissals of "literary fiction" as being "unreadable;" and the  launching off onto a tangent (in Rayner's case, vintage SF magazine covers from roughly a half-century ago) that avoids addressing the very valid issues surrounding the term "literary fiction."

There are quite a few authors today (admittedly, more so in the United States than in the UK for the Anglosphere) whose works go back and forth through various tropes, modes, styles, and bents.  Atwood is but one of several, ranging from Chris Adrian, Matt Bell, Blake Butler, David Anthony Durham, Brian Evenson, Rivka Galchen, Bradford Morrow, Téa Obreht, to Karen Russell,  just to name a few, whose works move in and out of the realist approach toward literature toward something approaching the speculative.

Sure, some of the authors might feel unease at being associated with such an appropriated typology such as "genre fiction" or "SF," but that is not necessarily because they are unaware of SF (if you read the bios of several, including those of Obreht and Russell when they appeared in last year's The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list, the intrepid reader might discover certain influences and narrative preferences that show at the very least an awareness and appreciation of non-realist fictions and even major influences on their own fiction.

But these sorts of things aren't often talked about in such articles.  No, I fear the aim of articles such as Rayner's is for the article writer to beat his/her chest, bellow out "Me like genre!  Genre goooood!  Lit-ah-rary baaaaad!", and then proceed to talk about some nostalgic look at old artwork or SF fiction from an era that often is castigated for its sketchy characters, firm belief in a quasi-Positivist outlook, and whose fiction is not often imitated by contemporary writers in any genre.  Sure, it's a "throw red meat to the rabid base" sort of gesture that certainly will generate a lot of rah-rah, hell yeah! responses, but really, is there any real thought put into these sorts of statements?

Anecdotal evidence from reading several such screeds over the years indicates that this is usually not the case.  No, the exploration of "literary fiction," whatever that might mean in the eye of the blog-writing beholder, is relegated to the dustbins of historical criticism, which is not something to be entrusted in the hands of polemical bloggers who appear, on the surface at least, to fail to show any curiosity at all outside of what is occurring in their genre clan cave.  Those neighboring genre clan cave lights might as well be the ignition of dried moose dung for all that these type of readers seem to care.  Whatever it might be, the myopia in articles such as Rayner's leads me to wonder if it might be worthwhile to highlight such drivel every time I stumble across it, in order to get a counter-opinion out there so such posts will not be accepted as received wisdom.  Not that I aim to convince all readers of the many fine points of realist and other narrative fictions, but it might be past time that those readers like myself who enjoy the "literary" as well as the "genre" state that blanket dismissals of one or the other is short-sighted at best and moronic, imbecilic rabble-rousing at its worst.

P.S.  Just after I post this, I see SF Signal has posted something similar to Rayner's article.  It's a bit more thorough, but ultimately, I am unconvinced at Stevens' claims.  There just isn't enough specific examples to bolster his points, which are argued more cogently than Rayner's (which, as I re-read it, isn't saying much at all).

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Jury duty to a reading milestone passed to new arrivals

Just a bit exhausted over the past week's juggling of jury duty Tuesday (and Thursday, perhaps Friday), teaching, assessment testing, calling to make arrangements for emergency state exit exam arrangements for three students, and the usual travel back and forth.  Haven't had the desire to blog those days because of the hectic nature of the past three days, but I thought I'd share a few things.

First, I read my 200th book in 2011 yesterday.  It was a YA book, Cheryl Rainfield's Scars (you might recognize the title from that link I posted in my post Sunday).  I found it to be a fairly realistic depiction of the traumas associated with child rape and the resources provided at the back I believe would be of great interest (and hopefully, help) for the book's target readers.  I've already given the book to one of the therapists at work for her to review and to give to any of the female patients who might find the story beneficial to them.

I know I haven't posted either the April or May 2011 reading lists, but I can say that I read 51 books in April and 41 books in May.  Not that some of you will believe this, even when the rabid Serbian reading squirrels will be "paying you a visit."

I've received some interesting books, most of them purchases.  Among those are Library of America editions of H.L. Mencken's Prejudices and Eudora Welty's novels.  In addition, I purchased the hardcover of Karen Joy Fowler's 2010 collection, What I Didn't See, as this was an oversight until this weekend.  Also received the Spanish edition of Juan Francisco Ferré's Providence, which might have some connections to Providence, Rhode Island's most famous resident, some Lovecraft dude. 

Received a few review copies today, including a galley proof for David Anthony Durham's final novel in the Acacia trilogy, The Sacred Band (due out in stores in early October).  Since I have enjoyed all of David's novels to date, this one will be read in the very near future.  Undecided on when I'll get around to reading Daniel Polansky's Low Down, as the noir-meets-fantasy setting/mode could either be excellent or really, really annoying to read.

Oh, and one final line to amuse a few who know me somewhat, taken from the back of the Durham ARC:

  • Outreach to sci fi/fantasy gatekeepers

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Thoughts on Modern-Day Comstocks, Millennials, and YA

This past weekend, I have been busy reading the 2010 Library of America two-volume collection of 20th century critic H.L. Mencken's Prejudices.  Mencken has long been a writer to whom I turn whenever I feel debates about literature, politics, and social policies are becoming too confining and when I detect more than the faintest whiff of Puritanism.  In light of recent articles that I had read last week on the high school graduating classes of 2011 and on a Wall Street Journal article on recent Young Adult literature, it was comforting to read Mencken's first critical piece, "Criticism of Criticism of Criticism." 

The U.S., more so than perhaps any other "Western" democracy, has a conflicted history with literary expression and moral values.  In 1873, the anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock managed to convince Congress to pass what became known as the Comstock Laws.  Things that today a plurality of Americans take for granted and a significant minority still oppose, such as information on abortions, prophylactics, "earthy" exchanges, and the like, were banned for trade or sell.  Even today, in a weakened form several of these regulations exist and debates still rage furiously in newspaper letters to the editor or on online forums regarding the enforcement and application of these laws.  Mencken's piece, which was first collected in 1919, references this in his discussion of American literary criticism:

As practiced by all such learned and diligent but essentially ignorant and unimaginative men, criticism is little more than a branch of homiletics. They judge a work of art, not by its clarity and sincerity, not by the force and charm of its ideas, not by the technical virtuosity of the artist, not by his originality and artistic courage, but simply and solely by his orthodoxy. If he is what is called a ``right thinker,'' if he devotes himself to advocating the transient platitudes in a sonorous manner, then he is worthy of respect. But if he lets fall the slightest hint that he is in doubt about any of them, then he is a scoundrel, and hence, by their theory, a bad artist. Such pious piffle is horribly familiar among us. I do not exaggerate its terms. You will find it running through the critical writings of practically all the dull fellows who combine criticism with tutoring; in the words of many of them it is stated in the plainest way and defended with much heat, theological and pedagogical. In its baldest form it shows itself in the doctrine that it is scandalous for an artist --- say a dramatist or a novelist --- to depict vice as attractive. The fact that vice, more often than not, undoubtedly is attractive --- else, why should it ever gobble any of us? --- is disposed of with a lofty gesture. What of it? say these birchmen. The artist is not a reporter, but a Great Teacher. It is not his business to depict the world as it is, but as it ought to be. 

Against this notion American criticism makes but feeble headway. We are, in fact, a nation of evangelists; every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow citizens, usually by force; the messianic delusion is our national disease. Thus the moral Privatdozenten have the crowd on their side, and it is difficult to shake their authority; even the vicious are still in favor of crying vice down. ``Here is a novel,'' says the artist. ``Why didn't you write a tract?'' roars the professor --- and down the chute go novel and novelist. ``This girl is pretty,'' says the painter. ``But she has left off her undershirt,'' protests the head-master --- and off goes the poor dauber's head. At its mildest, this balderdash takes the form of the late Hamilton Wright Mabie's ``White List of Books''; at its worst, it is comstockery, an idiotic and abominable thing.

 What is the "purpose" of literature?  Is it, as Mencken derides brilliantly in his essay, to be a "Great Teacher," or are there other goals at play, many of which are also listed elsewhere in Mencken's essay?  To me, literature is one of the most dangerous weapons a society can ever wield.  A literate citizen can fell the mighty with well-timed, apt references to literary works that contain the essence of the whole spectrum of the human condition.  Its truths are often discomfiting, and its lies can beguile and destroy civilizations.  The wise fear the power in what they read; it is not readily controllable and its seductiveness alters its listeners irrevocably from the simple folks they may have once been.

The most impressionable humans are our young; the old are too rigid in their views to render themselves malleable enough to be influenced, or so certain received wisdom goes.  The youth are to be protected from the lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) of the outside world, that world of pederasts, pimps, drug dealers, gang members, and other assorted malicious elements waiting to corrupt the minds, bodies, and souls of our young.  It is a quasi-rational fear; after all, we do see violence every day on the news or read it online or in print publications. 

However, today's youth generation occupies a paradoxical position.  It is strange for me, being at nearly 37 a member of the so-called "latchkey generation," to see youth so coddled and so protected by their parents.  What used to be a broadly-defined "don't go up and talk to strangers in vans" became a whole host of things to watch for:  bullies, drug dealers, gang members, etc.  "Just say no" morphed into something else in the aftermath of the 9/11 bombings.  The moral watchdogs, who seem to have been slumbering through most of my generation (although there were some rumblings about Judy Blume's excellent YA novels and whether or not "backward masking" of heavy metal records would lead to satanic conversions of susceptible teens), seem to be out in greater force these days, as witnessed by the WSJ article linked above.

Yet along with this comes a much greater explicitness.  I can remember as a child the infamous "a special episode" of Diff'rent Strokes.  It was an indelible moment in my childhood, as I never really knew of child molestation until then and it wasn't too graphic.  Perhaps in someways, the "Great Teacher" element is well worth having.  But things are different today than they were in the late 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up.  Back then, I didn't know hardly a thing about homosexuality and bullying was combated by balling your fists and gettin' your licks in before being sent to the principal's office.  But that was small town life in the last quarter of the 20th century; in the 21st century, the darker elements of adolescent suffering are surfacing in ways we managed to downplay or accept as "normal."  Children now are more vocal about their hurts, whether it be at the hands of strangers, purported elders, or their peers.  The "weird" kids of my youth are now often sent to rehab for suicidal ideation or attempts.  Cutting is talked about more, and more adolescents attempt to put a voice to what troubles them.

The YA literature of these times reflects this.  I have worked much of the past three years in treatment centers for emotionally troubled and/or drug-abusing teens.  I have heard from them or read in their daily journals descriptions of pain and suffering that can break one's heart.  When I was buying small gifts for two of the units (my own class of non-custody boys and a custody/non-custody girl's class), I had several girls request that I buy some of Ellen Hopkins' books for them to read.  Although I have not sat down and read her books in whole, I did look at the synopses and read a few reviews before deciding that those books were precisely what those girls needed to read:  stories of a drug-abusing teen girl going through emotional, physical, and spiritual hell and trying to claw her way out of it toward peace.  From what I could tell from thumbing through a few pages, Hopkins was direct and rather blunt with the situation; some of it seems to be based on personal events.  Six months later, those four books I bought are still being circulated as the girls come and go through rehab.

Perhaps critics like Meghan Cox Gurdon would approve of the tone; somehow, I doubt it, because it is direct, raw, visceral in nature.  Works like Hopkins or the more fantastical Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan are not going to win over critics who bemoan the loss of "innocence" (as if that existed for those who have experienced such hells as those mentioned above); the material is too "dark" and "violent" for them.  This is not to say that parents should let their children read materials unsupervised.  It might be best for there to be actual dialogue between parent and child over the material and a heart-to-heart discussion of these issues.  To condemn whole-cloth these stories, however, would be more than a grave error.  It would be a return to the worst excesses of the Comstock Laws and it would reinforce the Puritanism that Mencken and others railed against nearly a century ago.  The truth stings and never is this more readily apparent in our reactions to literary writings.
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