The OF Blog: August 2012

Friday, August 31, 2012

J'accuse: Requires Only That You Hate

I'm sure some of the regulars here are familiar with the Requires Only That You Hate blog.  I've been aware of her writings, some in a more formal critical mode, others that take on the style and rhetoric of a rant, for over a year now.  While I have not always agreed with her conclusions, I generally respected her positions, considering how often she would cite copious evidence to support her assertions regarding poorly-written and/or problematic works that contained implicit or direct endorsements of sexism, racism, and colonialism, among other such elements.  I have, on occasion, reassessed my own opinions on certain works in light of the questions she raises in her reviews and commentaries.

Yet sadly I must now write this post.  She simply has gone way too far this time.  Over the past few weeks on Twitter, after I modestly noted that I could stomach reading almost anything (after all, I've not only had to read hundreds of Hitler speeches for my undergrad and grad theses, but have read/reviewed such luminaries as Robert Stanek, Terry Goodkind, and even a yaoi novel), she has taken upon herself the task of breaking my will to live, or at least to read.  I naively thought her #killallmen Twitter hashtag was just rhetoric, intended to inflame those who in most cases deserved to have their asshattery exposed.  But no, she seems to be living up to her online moniker, as she seems to be exhorting me to give in, to accept that I require only hate, or at least shitty novels as my due.

At first, I thought I could handle anything she dared me to read.  So I read and reviewed Dahlia Lu's The Dark God's Bride.  It was risible and under normal circumstances, I would have glanced at its (e)blurb, smirked, and moved on.   But no, I had to read and review this one on a dare.  After I passed that ordeal, I next was challenged with writing a substantive, honest assessment of Victoria Hoyt's execrable Save the Pearls Part One:  Revealing Eden.  Uhhh....sure, I guess, I thought.  But there was nothing to smirk at:  the content was deplorable and while the prose and characterization was shoddy, there was little else but the near-constant level of drivel espousing tired, old racist and sexist concepts.  Yet I managed to make it through.

But on Thursday, she decided that she would be cruel and up the ante.  I received two paranormal romance novels by Shirin Dubbin, Keeper of the Way and Chaos Tryst.  My sanity was almost broken by this new onslaught.  Let me share with you a few choice quotes so you can understand just how ROTYH is truly sans merci:

He wasn't technically a man, but he was seriously male.  Sweet water and shade trees.  Thank goodness she had the presence of mind to push her sunglasses tight to her face.  Never mind it'd likely leave bruises.  She had to protect herself.  His addictive-as-dark-chocolate scent made her want to get naked...That was a lie.  His scent made her want to go five or six steps past naked and straight into 'how'd they do that?' Mmm, but it was more than the way he smelled.  In her eighty-eight years of life she'd known no emotion untamed.

Uhh....ummm....don't think I really want to know what "man scent" from this "wasn't technically a man" she was smelling, thank you very much.

Two stoic  gargoyles almost as large as the dragon, but with sculpted bodies and royal bearing; several pixies possessing the large wings and spun-glitter hair that marked them elders.  Two orcs, the blue-gray skin of their baldheads [sic] polished to gleaming – each ring in their lagomorphic ears marking a century of life, and most notably, a basilisk and a gryphon – Severin's kin.

Like Severin, the other two chimeras had chosen their elf-like forms this evening.  All three were larger than most elves (but not as large as dragons or gargoyles), their shoulders broader, their ears more tapered – noticeable but minute differences.  When in elfin form the chimeras' eyes were their true distinguishing feature. The gryphons had eyes of semi-precious stone, the basilisks' granite and marble and the qilins viewed the world through pools of molten metal, liquid and mercurial.

Leaving aside the unimaginative borrowing of mythological creatures without rhyme nor reason, read those descriptions again. she trying to describe there?  Are those actual "pools of molten metal," as the lack of a true sense of the metaphorical might seem to indicate upon a first, quick skimming through this crap?

By this point in reading the first Dubbin e-story, Keeper of the Way, I had already determined that this story was poorly-written, with an unoriginal plot and a supposed heroine that spent more time thinking about a male quasi-human's trouser snake than on anything else.  Then I noticed this scene roughly 3/4 into this mercifully short novel:

"Is this how it's going to be with us?" he said, his voice husky with arousal.  "you taking me into your hands every time you want your way?"

"No," she said, cupping his softer parts in one hand while the other continued to work its magic.  "When you're really stubborn, I'll take you into my mouth."

Gulp!  She covered her face with a hand.  What in the Betwixt...?  Had she said that?

"Yeah, you did," he said, wrapping her up tighter.  "And I'm going to hold you to it."  He chuckled.

Embarrassed, she pulled away.  Wanting to escape his knowing gaze, she looked down and promptly jumped back four feet.

"What are you?  A donkey?"

"Wha–?"  He glanced at himself, and this time pride laced his chuckle.

"You're. Huge."

Gulp, indeed, but not in that way.  Yep, standard old romance trope of having the male stud be hung like a barnyard animal with the heroine making futile gestures of surprise and alarm, just so she won't be viewed as a "slut" by readers and the fictional characters that inhabit such scenes.

At this point, I was wondering if my brain was about to shut down.  I did finish it and the second novel, but I see I was so benumbed by this crap that I barely bookmarked any of its awful passages (afterward, I read Alan Garner's The Owl Service as a reading palliative, but I am afraid that my enjoyment of his YA novel was greatly lessened due to the trauma I experienced just minutes beforehand).  If it weren't that both stories were barely 200 e-pages on my iPad, I think I would have contemplated e-seppuku.  It was that bad.  Only someone as cruel or (heaven forbid!) crueler than myself could ever want to inflict this suffering on another human being.  So it is with great regret that I must accuse ROTYH of being a very cruel person who came very close to breaking my will to live.

But coming very close is not the same as succeeding.  I shudder to think what worse things she could find next in her next attempt to break my reading soul :(

Edit:  Writing this so soon after the trauma of reading those banal paranormal romance novels led me to overlook listing a few other weaknesses of the novels, which was so kindly pointed out to me on Twitter.   Due to my male "weakness," I focused overmuch on the ridiculousness of the sex dynamic and the reduction of men to polished male sex machines, while overlooking the implication that the man in question is described in terms similar to those stereotypes for non-white males.  After all, he is "not quite human," he is somewhat "exotic" based on the description, and well...there does seem to be the animalization of his sexual features/prowess.  Perhaps Dubbin intended for him to be white, but the descriptions, poor as they are, can create something even more troubling.  Then there were the references to the heroine NiaMora's "Chinese" ancestry (and her elf heritage) that were so wrong even to this non-Chinese that at the the time I just shook my head and forgot to quote that passage last night.

I could cite a few more, but in my "weakness," I think I'll just only add brief references to the other deficiencies found in these two novels.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

An interesting children's book

August apparently has become a semi-official read and (eventually) review children's/juvenile/YA fiction here at the OF Blog.  The latest book to arrive was one that I ordered online last week at Dunja's suggestion.  I will read it later today, but see what you think of the cover and the copyright page:

This book, translated into English in 1981, contains illustrated stories taken from the peoples that inhabit the far northeastern part of Siberia.  These Chukchi, Nentsi, and Eskimo stories dealing with anthropomorphic animals seems promising and the illustrations are great.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I seem to be amassing a largish e-book collection over the past 16 months

Before I finally upgraded to an iPhone 4 back in early April 2011, I had only the Kindle for Mac e-reader software.  I may have had 2-3 e-books (all free public domain works) on it, but I didn't really use it because paper books were much more portable.  But after I bought that phone, I started using the iBooks, Kindle for iPhone, and Nook software and I bought some e-books (and downloaded many more free ones).  This only intensified once I bought an iPad 2 in July 2011.  Since I was bored last night, I thought I'd do a quick count of the e-books that I have by software.  Surprised by the number I had accumulated over the interim, with something like 2/3 of them read:

iBooks – 223 e-books
Kindle for iPhone/iPad/Mac – 191 e-books
Nook for iPhone/iPad – 9 e-books
Google Play – 11 e-books (all public domain)
Kobo – 3 e-books (all public domain)
Bluefire Reader – 3 e-books (2 Filipino, 1 Portuguese bought)
Elefant (Romanian) – 3 e-books
Classic Books – 3 e-books (all public domain)
Stanza – 7 e-books (all public domain)

Total – 453 e-books

More and more, I've been favoring Apple's native iBooks e-reader, as the screen is brighter and its pagination system (which includes the remaining e-pages in chapters) makes for a more enjoyable e-reading experience.

Now I haven't done a count of my paper books for a couple of years now, but with all of the recent purges and boxing up, I would guess that I probably have somewhere in the neighborhood of 1700-1800 print volumes, with dozens arriving and leaving each month.  I suspect that in the coming years, the print and e-book numbers will achieve a rough balance, as it is sometimes convenient to read a pre-1923 e-book on the iPad's screen for $0.00 paid and there have been quite a few of these public domain e-books (many, but not all, from Project Gutenberg) added to the reading e-queue for the next few months.

What about you?  If you read e-books, do you have a rough idea about how many you have on your e-reader(s)?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Which of these rings truest to you?

I am slowly making my way through Umberto Eco's Dire Quasi la Stessa Cosa (much of the content can be found in two separate books on translation, Mouse or Rat?  Translation as Negotiation and Experiences in Translation), as it takes some time to digest the points Eco is making regarding the choices with which translators are faced (well that, and reading it in Italian to see what was included here that wasn't in the English-language books).  Here was an interesting passage regarding one of Dante's poems dealing with Beatrice.  I'll quote the original first and then provide the four English translations Eco provides (bold in the original is due to Eco's emphasis on certain words):

Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare
la donna mia, quand'ella altrui saluta,
ch'ogne lingua deven tremando muta,
e li occhi no l'ardiscon di guardare.
Ella si va, sentendosi laudare,
benignamente d'umiltà vestuta;
e par che sia una cosa venuta
da cielo in terra a miracol mostrare.

Here is how Dante Gabriele Rossetti translated his namesake:

My lady looks so gentle and so pure
When yielding salutation by the way,
That the tongue tremble and has nought to say,
And the eyes, which fain would see, may not endure.
And still, amid the praise she hears secure,
She walks with humbleness for her array;
Seeming a creature sent from Heaven to stay
On earth, and show a miracle made true.

And now one from Mark Musa:

Such sweet decorum and such gentle grace
attend my lady's greetings as she moves
that lips can only tremble in silence
and eyes dare not attempt to gaze at her.
Moving, benignly clothed in humility,
untouched by all the praise along her way,
she seems to be a creature come from Heaven
to earth, to manifest a miracle.

And Marion Shore:

My lady seems so fine and full of grace
When she greets others, passing on her way,
That trembling tongues can find no words to say,
And eyes, bedazzled, dare not meet her gaze.
Modestly she goes amid the praise,
Serene and sweet, with virtue her array;
And seems a wonder sent her to display
A glimpse of heaven in an earthly place.

And finally, Tony Oldcorn's 2001 translation:

When she says he, my baby looks so neat,
yhe fellas all clam up and check their feet.
She hears their whistles but she's such a cutie,
she walks on by, and no, she isn't snooty.
You'd think she'd been sent down from the skies
to lay a little magic on us guys.

Each of these translations diverges in some form or fashion from Dante's original text.  It might be a deviation of a word or phrase in order to make a passage rhyme in ABBCCDDA (Rossetti, Shore), 10 syllable lines (Musa), or even a total rehauling of the imagery (Oldcorn).  Yet the "truth" of a translation does not necessarily lie within its lack of deviance from the original's form.  With this in mind, which of the four translations do you think "feels best" or "truest" to you?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

One of the greatest literary dedications/kiss-offs I've ever read!

This is the dedication to Ben Hecht's Fantazius Mallare (available in public domain, Project Gutenberg e-book):

This dark and wayward book is affectionately dedicated to my enemies—to the curious ones who take fanatic pride in disliking me; to the baffling ones who remain enthusiastically ignorant of my existence; to the moral ones upon whom Beauty exercises a lascivious and corrupting influence; to the moral ones who have relentlessly chased God out of their bedrooms; to the moral ones who cringe before Nature, who flatten themselves upon prayer rugs, who shut their eyes, stuff their ears, bind, gag and truss themselves and offer their mutilations to the idiot God they Twelvehave invented (the Devil take them, I grow bored with laughing at them); to the anointed ones who identify their paranoic symptoms as virtues, who build altars upon complexes; to the anointed ones who have slain themselves and who stagger proudly into graves (God deliver Himself from their caress!); to the religious ones who wage bloody and tireless wars upon all who do not share their fear of life (Ah, what is God but a despairing refutation of Man?); to the solemn and successful ones who gesture with courteous disdain from the depth of their ornamental coffins (we are all cadavers but let us refrain from congratulating each other too courteously on the fact); to the prim ones who find their secret obscenities mirrored in every careless phrase, who read self accusation into the word sex; to the prim ones who wince adroitly in the hope of being mistaken for imbeciles; to the prim ones who Thirteenfornicate apologetically (the Devil can-cans in their souls); to the cowardly ones who borrow their courage from Ideals which they forthwith defend with their useless lives; to the cowardly ones who adorn themselves with castrations (let this not be misunderstood); to the reformers—the psychopathic ones who publicly and shamelessly belabor their own unfortunate impulses; to the reformers (once again)—the psychopathic ones trying forever to drown their own obscene desires in ear-splitting prayers for their fellowman’s welfare; to the reformers—the Freudian dervishes who masturbate with Purity Leagues, who achieve involved orgasms denouncing the depravities of others; to the reformers (patience, patience) the psychopathic ones who seek to vindicate their own sexual impotencies by padlocking the national vagina, who find relief for constipation in forbidding their neighbors the water closet (God forgives Fourteenthem, but not I); to the ostracizing ones who hurl excommunications upon all that is not part of their stupidity; to the ostracizing ones who fraternize only with the worms inside their coffins (their anger is the caress incomparable); to the pious ones who, lacking the strength to please themselves, boast interminably to God of their weakness in denying themselves; to the idealistic ones who, unable to confound their neighbors with their own superiority, join causes in the hope of confounding each other with the superiority of their betters (involved, but I am not done with them); to the idealistic ones whose cowardice converts the suffering of others into a mirror wherein stares wretchedly back at them a possible image of themselves; to the idealistic ones who, frightened by this possible image of themselves, join Movements for the triumph of Love and Justice and the overthrow of Tyranny in the frantic hope of breaking Fifteenthe mirror; to the social ones who regard belching as the sin against the Holy Ghost, who enamel themselves with banalities, who repudiate contemptuously the existence of their bowels (Ah, these theologians of etiquette, these unctuous circumlocutors, a pock upon them); to the pure ones who masquerade excitedly as eunuchs and as wives of eunuchs (they have their excuses, of course, and who knows but the masquerade is somewhat unnecessary); to the pedantic ones who barricade themselves heroically behind their own belchings; to the smug ones who walk with their noses ecstatically buried in their own rectums (I have nothing against them, I swear); to the righteous ones who masturbate blissfully under the blankets of their perfections; to the righteous ones who finger each other in the choir loft (God forgive me if I ever succumb to one of them); to the critical ones who whoremonger on Parnassus; to the Sixteencritical ones who befoul themselves in the Temples and point embitteredly at the Gods as the sources of their own odors (I will someday devote an entire dedication to critics); to the proud ones who urinate against the wind (they have never wetted me and I have nothing against them); to the cheerful ones who tirade viciously against all who do not wear their protective smirk; to the cheerful ones who spend their evenings bewailing my existence (the Devil pity them, not I); to the noble ones who advertise their secrets, who crucify themselves on bill-boards in the quest for the Nietzschean solitude; to the noble ones who pride themselves on their stolen finery; to the flagellating ones who go to the opera in hair shirts, who excite themselves with denials and who fornicate only on Fast Days; to the just ones who find compensation for their nose rings and sackcloth by hamstringing all who refuse to put them on—all Seventeenwho have committed the alluring sins from which their own cowardice fled; to the conservative ones who gnaw elatedly upon old bones and wither with malnutrition; to the conservative ones who snarl, yelp, whimper and grunt, who are the parasites of death; who choke themselves with their beards; to the timorous ones who vomit invective upon all that confuses them, who vituperate, against all their non-existent intelligence cannot grasp; to the martyr ones who disembowel themselves on the battlefield, who crucify themselves upon their stupidities; to the serious ones who mistake the sleep of their senses and the snores of their intellect for enviable perfections; to the serious ones who suffocate gently in the boredom they create (God alone has time to laugh at them); to the virgin ones who tenaciously advertise their predicament; to the virgin ones who mourn themselves, who kneel before keyholes; Eighteento the holy ones who recommend themselves tirelessly and triumphantly to God (I have never envied God His friends, nor He, mine perhaps); to the never clean ones who bathe publicly in the hysterias of the mob; to the never clean ones who pander for stupidity; to the intellectual ones who play solitaire with platitudes, who drag their classrooms around with them; to these and to many other abominations whom I apologize to for omitting, this inhospitable book, celebrating the dark mirth of Fantazius Mallare, is dedicated in the hope that their righteous eyes may never kindle with secret lusts nor their pious lips water erotically from its reading—in short in the hope that they may never encounter the ornamental phrases I have written and the ritualistic lines Wallace Smith has drawn in the pages that follow.

Planning on reading this e-book in the near future, just to see if the main body matches this glorious dedication!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy, Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England

I was talking about this short review I had to write back in 1996 for a grad class on early modern English social history with Dunja and she thought that due to the subject matter that I should post it here.  It was originally a 2.5 double-spaced page review, so keep that in mind when reading it.  It was a fascinating book, I recall, but also a frustrating one, as my review notes.  Too bad it costs nearly $200 for the hardcover edition.

Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy, Sleepless Souls:  Suicide in Early Modern England.  Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1990.

In this book, MacDonald and Murphy attempt to explain the cultural attitudes regarding suicide.  They split the book into three parts.  The first part, 1485-1660, examines the rise in felo de se, or intentional and rational self-murder, suicide convictions.  The second section, 1660-1800, notes a drop in felo de se convictions and a sharp rise in non compos mentis, or mentally deranged, verdicts on suicide.  The last section deals with the interpretations of suicide.  The authors state in their introduction that they intend to take a longue durèe approach toward studying this period, thus explaining why the focus of this book spans over three centuries.

The structure of the book, in my opinion, could have been better.  It appears that the authors focus too much attention on the suicide conviction rates than they do on the actual reasons for committing suicide.  While most of this information is useful, the various reasons why England was considered by many Europeans to be the suicide capital of the world in the eighteenth century is put off until the very last section.  Although the authors do explain why la mort à l'anglaise (p. 308) became known as such, this information could have been better used if it had been dealt with in the opening chapter.

In discussing the rise of suicide convictions and the resulting popular treatment of the corpses (burial at the crossroads with a stake driven through the body), MacDonald and Murphy note that the conviction rate was over ninety-five percent between 1485 and 1660 (p. 16).  In their explanation for this rise of suicide trials and the sentence of felo de se, Murphy and MacDonald argue that the Tudor regime instituted stricter laws regarding suicide, equating it with other felonies.  This meant that the felon had to forfeit his property, which the State then controlled (p. 16).  There were individuals, mostly churchmen, who the Tudor government authorized to seize these properties and to use them as they saw fit (p. 25).  The problem with this argument is that those with the richest properties, namely the nobility, were the ones most likely to be acquitted of intentional murder (p. 129).

While MacDonald and Murphy do an excellent job of tying in political reforms with popular attitudes regarding suicide, their emphasis on the "secularization" of suicide is slightly misleading.  They argue that before the mid-seventeenth century that suicide was considered to be caused by sin (p. 19).  They theorize that around 1660, when the Restoration signaled the decline of Puritanism, that popular attitudes toward suicide became less harsh.  They also note that although the penalty for suicide was still there, conviction rates dropped drastically in the next century.  They argue that religious views had shifted to the point where suicide could be removed from its earlier association with the devil (p. 157).  The problem with this argument, as the authors themselves note, is that there was still in the eighteenth century a strong minority, especially among Methodists, who still clung to a religious interpretation regarding suicide.

While the two authors do a good job of discussing the shift in popular attitudes toward religion, their section on the interpretations regarding suicide could have been handled better.  I believe that they should have gone into greater detail in their explanation for motives behind committing suicide.  Although they do state that monetary reasons were a primary motive (p. 270), they do not explain adequately the reason for the high rate of youth suicide, even though they note that 430 out of 1001 reported suicides in England from 1485-1714 were committed by those younger than the age of twenty-four (p. 251).

MacDonald and Murphy also neglect to discuss in great detail the formulation of suicide notes.  What do these notes mean and why were they written?  The authors theorize that suicide notes ought to be viewed as essays in persuasion, thus explaining the similarities in suicide notes, but they do not really correlate this with the rise in literacy rates during this period.  This section, like the others, leaves one to wonder why these suicides occurred the ways they did.  MacDonald and Murphy do not explain why suicides occurred in the book, and this lack of explanation makes their arguments regarding the meanings behind suicide weaker.

A Blast from the Past: A historiographical essay I wrote in 1997 for a hypothetical Early Modern European Cultural History survey course

The things I find when searching through old folders.  See if this course proposal sounds interesting to you.  I wrote this back in the Spring of 1997, when I was 22, almost 23 years old.

Cultural history, more than other subdisciplines in history, involves a wide variety of topics and a corresponding number of sources.  By necessity, culture itself is a very broad and amorphous term.  What is culture?  According to Peter Burke, in his introduction to his book on European popular culture, culture is "a system of shared meanings, attitudes, and values, and the symbolic forms in which they are expressed or embodied" (Burke xi).  In this sense of the word, culture reflects the society in which it exists.

The definition of culture as being the outward expressions of human behavior, whether articulated, as in conscious dialogue like books and stories, or non-articulated, as in rituals such as rough ridings and churchings, differs from older definitions which viewed culture as being only the recorded elements of everyday interactions among people.  In this syllabus, I intend to demonstrate the differences between these two points by including samples from each school of cultural thought.

The proposed course attempts to discuss cultural developments over a large span of European history.  Traditionally, the fourteenth century arguably has marked the beginnings of cultural self-analysis, as the humanists, beginning with Dante and continuing through Boccaccio, revived the study of classical Greek and Roman societies.  Although this period underwent rapid shifts, whether in terms of religious belief or political organization, I believe that there are certain trends that developed during this time that need to be addressed.

New cultural history has been heavily influenced by the writings of poststructuralists such as Michel Foucault.  Although I have not included Foucault in my syllabus, I intend to reviewing some of his more famous works, like his studies such as Order of Things, Human Sexuality, and Madness, as they have heavily influenced later discussions of early modern European cultural practice.  Earlier writers, like Jakob Burckhardt, have tended to place too much emphasis on the modernizing aspects of early modern European culture.  In doing so, they have often neglected to examine contemporary attitudes.  In include works by Dante and Bunyan not just to provide a glimpse into contemporary religious beliefs, but also to illustrate how these authors viewed their own societies in general.  Bunyan's descriptions of the City of Destruction is not intended just to give hope to the average Protestant Christian, but also to condemn the perverseness of late seventeenth century English life.

In developing this course, I believed that certain themes in early modern European cultural life needed to be addressed.  These themes, some of which are listed in the syllabus, include the importance of cultural symbols, the interrelationships between people and their societies, religious beliefs, individual and collective structures, as well as the exportation and importation of cultural elements from differing cultural regions.  Related to these topics are such questions as whether or not cultural polarization occurred during this time, how did cultural groups view themselves, and what were the differences and similarities between Western European societies.  I believe that a seminar class, with its increased focus on specialized topics, addresses these issues in a better manner than traditional lecture classes.

Peter Burke's book on early modern European culture is the best attempt that I have found to combine cultural events across Europe during this time in an attempt to provide a synthesis.  He was one of the first authors to try to analyze popular culture, or cultures, in relation to actions and inner expressions as well as outer expressions such as art and poetry.  Burke in his 1978 book championed the notion of cultural polarization, noting that throughout this period, there came to be a widening divergence between patrician and plebeian cultures.  In his article on seventeenth century London, Burke theorizes that popular culture by the end of this period was becoming more passive, as the elites managed, through their control of the printed media, to shape and alter popular attitudes and cultural symbols.  Although I disagree with many of his conclusions, especially about the increased passivity of popular culture, Burke's book provides an excellent starting place for a discussion of cultural symbols and the interrelationships between the elites and the poorer classes.

With this in mind, I selected a variety of books and articles to provide not just detailed studies of cultural symbols like childbirth, but also in order to test Burke's theories.  Although I did not include them in my course readings, Keith Thomas's book on religion and the decline of magic and Keith Wrightson's introduction regarding early modern English social life provide corroborating evidence for some of Burke's theses, especially regarding the cultural divergence into elite and popular culture.  Some, like Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson, focused on the differences between popular and elite culture to such a degree that, as in the case of hill's book on the radical ideas that developed during the English Revolution, all sense of interdependent relationships between the two were lost.  Natalie Zemon Davis in her book on the sixteenth century French pardon tales emphasizes the connection between plebeian pleas for royal intervention and the elite's justification of their own privileges through the tacit acceptance by the peasants of their cultural and social superiority.

The novels are included for a number of reasons.  As they are written records documenting the attitudes and prejudices of those individuals who wrote them during the early modern era, more so than secondary accounts they can provide clues to a variety of questions regarding culture.  Boccaccio's stories in The Decameron were drawn from a rich pool of popular folk tales.  Although Boccaccio himself belonged to the privileged classes, he was able to use a common cultural tradition of storytelling that transcended class in order to provide common cultural traditions.  In this sense, Boccaccio, as Burke notes in his revised introduction, acts as a mediator between patrician and plebeian cultures.  Chaucer, even more than Boccaccio, ties the elite and popular traditions together.  The pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales were a motley group that included the nobility (the Knight and his son), the peasants (the Miller), and the nascent bourgeoisie (the Wife of Bath).  Along with the religious orders present among them, the pilgrims told stories that ranged form the courtly to the bawdy.  Chaucer's skill in integrating these elements into a coherent narrative structure demonstrates his ability to move between the two cultures.

Elements of popular culture that this proposed course will examine include social interactions, like gender relations, as well as some intellectual developments, primarily in the field of political theory.  I have included these topics because during this period there was a shift away from an emphasis on the collective to a focus on the individual.  The concept of a nuclear family emerged during this time and although the village still exerted a strong pull on familial relations, it steadily declined as a social force.  This emphasis on individuality is reflected in someo f the writings of the time, namely The Pilgrim's Progress, where the valiant Christian, with the help of only a couple of like-minded souls, struggles against the iniquities of his social world.  In the intellectual writings of the time, individuals like Machiavelli and Galileo implicitly challenged earlier conceived notions of authority, whether it was a belief in the divine approval of royal authority or in a geocentric universe.  This increased focus on the centrality of the individual played a major role in the Reformation, which was unfolding during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Many authors like Hill would argue that the Reformation marked a major break with the past.  They would argue that the Reformation, especially in its Calvinist guise, placed stress upon the individual, who was to be the cultivator of his own religiosity.  Although this is in a sense true,  the continuities with the past are often overlooked in these authors' works.  Some, like Martin Brecht, are so immersed in their studies of the major Protestant figures like Luther that they sometimes neglect to analyze the sources of his religious ideas.  I include selections from the multi-volume collection of Luther's works because I believe that by examining Luther's own writings in the context of previous religious movements like the German Mystics, one can see a continuation of certain religious trends such as an inward focus on the individual, marked by Luther's call for a "priesthood of all believers" where one would be saved by faith, as opposed to the earlier emphasis on outward forms of piety, such as the veneration of the saints.

In discussing the impact of the Reformation, I have taken a nation by nation approach, since each nation, whether Protestant like England, Catholic like France, or mixed like Germany, reacted to the Reformation in different ways.  In the case of France, the course readings do not directly discuss the rise of religious turmoil, but in Davis's Return of Martin Guerre, there is a sense from the readings that many of the individuals present in her story seem to be Protestants, like the presiding judge and Martin's wife.  Combined with Davis's other book on the pardon tales, the case of Martin Guerre illustrates some of the aspects of French cultural life during the early modern era.

In the case of England, I use a number of different documents, like Bunyan's novel, Burke's article on seventeenth century London, David Underdown's case study of Dorchester, and Hill's account of the religious radicals during the English Revolution.  Each of these is designed to discuss different aspects of English religious life.  Bunyan's book, as mentioned earlier, deals with the struggles of a pious Calvinist in a harsh world.  His use of allegories to explain theology resembles in many manners Langland's book, who also used allegories to tell his story of redemption.  Although Bunyan's emphasis on inner piety stands in marked contrast to Langland's concentration on sacramental observation, the two have enough in common that they combined can present the changes that occurred in English religious life.

David Underdown in his book on Dorchester took a case study approach toward discussing the impact that Calvinism had on English society.  Although he at times appears to be too enthusiastic about the benefits of Calvinism, his book provides a detailed account of the adjustments, albeit temporary, that Calvinism made on venial actions like drinking and premarital sex.

Christopher Hill's book is included in part that it is written from an older perspective.  Unlike most of the previous authors, who in passing discuss the internal mechanics of cultural interaction, Hill focuses on the relationship between the radical ideas of reformers like Gerald Winstanley and the development of later modern political and social thought.  His book, with its attempt to demonstrate a strong connection between the past and present, is the only Marxist literature included in my reading list.  Although there are many problems with it, Hill's book gives one perspective of how to view the past.

Germany is tougher to analyze than either France or England due to the fragmentary nature of the German Reich during this time.  Germany was divided not only politically, but also culturally and religiously.  The doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio established as imperial law the division of Germany into armed camps, a situation which destabilized during the Thirty Years' War of 1618-1648.  In discussing German cultural life, I have included Thomas Brady's article because it provides a background for the other two books included in the section.  David Sabean's book on popular culture in Württemberg covers a long range of time and his emphasis on the interrelationships between person, community, and Herrschaft, or authority, fits well with one of my themes, that of the relationships between individuals and their societies.  H.J.C. von Grimmelhausen lived through the turmoil of the Thirty Years' War and his novel Simplicius Simplicissimus gives in his chapter on the Order of the Marauder Brothers a tongue-in-cheek account of his experiences in the last stages of the fighting in the 1640s.  As in the case of the other novels, I believe that the adventures of Simplicissimus gives a graphic account unfettered by historical analysis of the experiences that many Germans went through during this destructive conflict.

The last segment of the course, on heretics, is devoted primarily to discussing the works of Carlo Ginzburg.  His book The Cheese and the Worms, which provides an account of the heretical opinions of an Italian miller, has proved to be a very influential work.  His emphasis on detail over analysis is reflected in other accounts like that of Martin Guerre.  The relevance of Menocchio's religious theories is overshadowed by Ginzburg's storyteller approach to presenting the Inquisition's two trials of the miller.  Ginzburg, more so than Davis, takes a microhistorical approach to analyzing ideas and beliefs.  This approach reflects a trend present in many recent historical works toward de-emphasizing the role of the author in presenting the story.  Although one may question whether or not Ginzburg provides counterfactual evidence to critique or bolster his own implicit selection of the archival material, Ginzburg's book signals a shift away from direct historical analysis toward a more personalized approach, where the reader takes the evidence present and draws his or her own conclusions.

As mentioned earlier, this course presumes to discuss certain themes like the importance of cultural symbols, change, and cultural polarization.  These questions are very difficult to answer, and I believe that these questions should be addressed by the students themselves.  That is why I have purposely included the novels in the reading requirements.  I believe that the novels give not only contemporary attitudes, but by examining the material without the benefits of historical analysis, students can draw their own conclusions as to the connections between the readings that the questions posed at the beginning of this paper.  Likewise Ginzburg and Davis, although they are separated by centuries and cultural differences from their subjects, attempt to describe the cultures that they have studied without coloring their accounts with too much analysis.  However, I do believe that some historical analysis is necessary in order to understand adequately some of the problems facing historians studying this era of European history.  Therefore I have included works by authors like Christopher Hill and Martin Brecht, who despite their flaws, try to place their writings in a certain school of thought.  Although I realize that this course structure can be very challenging to most undergraduate students, I believe that those who are dedicated to attempting to discuss the changes in early modern European culture will leave the class better able to critique their own culture and their roles in it.

Although I cringed a few times as I typed this out, I thought perhaps a few might be interested to see what I had written for a course 15 years ago.  There were other elements to that paper that I didn't photocopy and save that, if available, would have provided the syllabus itself and the full list of readings and recommended other literature.

The OF Blog turns 8 today

Yes, it was back on August 25, 2004 that I created this blog and made the first post.  As I've said many times before in the past, this blog (originally named OF Blog of the Fallen after both Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy series and the now-defunct wotmania's Other Fantasy section) was originally meant to be an extension of my past duties as moderator/admin for wotmania.  How things have changed in the interim!  Not much fantasy is discussed these days, in part due to there not being all that many secondary-world fantasies that interest me (I'm more of a weird fiction reader when I do read "genre fiction") and also because there are some interesting fictions in other traditions that appeal to me more.  And yet through it all, technically this blog has always been a collaborative effort, although it seems the other members fell off on the roadside some years ago (still, open door and all).

I tried and failed to think of something witty or substantive to say when writing this post.  Therefore, I'll leave it up to you to decide what should be said in praise or denouncement of this blog.  What draws you here and what do you wish had been done differently?  While I know the lack of a (French) Canadian point of view may negatively impact this blog's visibility, I'm sure there are other things that you can say, good and bad alike, about the squirrels that do yeoman's work here, right?

So yeah, feel free to leave diatribes, spam, love letters, and nuts in the comments section.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Thoughts on "elitism," "literature," and ethical/social engagement

The e-herpes has broken out again over at the Westeros Literature forum.  Some poster with the ponderous handle name of "Screaming Turkey Ultimate" has written an exhortative post urging the denizens there to react against the "elitists" of 4Chan who have on their own board (apparently with a sneer and a perhaps a snarl have bared their teeth) extolled the virtues of certain Modernist writers while viewing other works, apparently including almost all "genre fiction," with some disdain.  E-pitchforks were raised, e-torches were written, and within a matter of hours, there were dozens (later over 150) responses, the majority of which were "anti-elitist."  All then seemed to be righted in their world, knowing that their bold e-stances against the apparently implacable forces of "elitism" (whatever that term actually meant; few ever went beyond just a simple parroting of the term, unless it was to tie it to the equally nebulous and possibly nefarious "literary establishment") had led to something.

Although the above paragraph is somewhat dismissive of certain elements found in that discussion thread, it should be noted that there is something substantive to many of their complaints.  I suggested there late last night that perhaps it would be best to try to have a discussion on the underlying issues without resorting to the use of terms such as "elitism," "elitist," or "literary snobs" because of the limiting nature of those terms.  There is something that could be said about the impact of literature on people without unnecessarily impugning the discerning qualities of certain groups of readers.  When one uses willy-nilly terms like "elitist," s/he most likely is not saying (well, some might, but not in the aggregate) "Larry, your literary value system has created an estrangement between your perceptions of literary quality and import and my own interpretative schema that accounts for other elements."  No, "elitist" is rarely seen as an individual effort but instead as being a mere branch of competing model for determining literary worth.

The majority of the readers who comment within threads such as the one linked to above are less interested in form in comparison to structure.  For many of these readers, a "good story" has to "be something," with a linear plot providing a strong narrative backbone around which the skeleton (subplots, scenes) and muscles (characterizations) and external/internal organs (themes, prose) can be attached to create something that appeals to them.  For these readers, an emphasis on form, or how the prose is used to create a moment, a reflection of something ephemeral, is as alien to them as a jellyfish.  These prose fictions do not match well with their expectations and thus it is easy to reject them out of hand.

Yet even this created hypothetical dichotomy does not go to the heart of the issue.  Few readers are literary ideologues, a point that some did raise within the context of that thread.  People can admire the form of Proust's writing while still enjoying the plot of a thriller or Stephen King novel.  For those readers, what is important is not necessarily whether or not there is a "form" or "structure," but whether or not there is some sort of "engagement" that is taking place within (and outside) the writing that does not leave an "empty," "hollow" feeling.

Aleksandar Hemon, in his introduction to the just-published Dalkey Archive translation of 20th century Serbian writer Danilo Kiš, devotes part of his essay to covering the issue of ethical/social engagement in writing and how it relates to Kiš's literary concerns:

Let me start with a complaint:  What is absent from much of contemporary fiction, which in the USA is conceived of as middle-to-highbrow entertainment, is the ethical import of literature.  As it is, the word fiction largely stands for (deliberately) made-up narratives aiming to entertain the culturally enlightened reader.  Literature, on the other hand, is nothing if not continuous ethical and aesthetical engagement with human experience and history; one reads/writes literature in order to confront the hard questions of human existence; entertainment might not be applicable.  While the word fiction applies to The DaVinci Code and Remembrance of Things Past, only one of those is literature; the other one is trash. ("Do not argue that all values are relative:  There is a hierarchy of values," Kiš wrote in his "Advice to a Young Writer.")  American populism of the knee-jerk variety requires cringing at the thought of literature (and, for that matter, at any thought that is not confirming what is already agreed to be true), because it is – what is the word flung about by the humble sons of the one percent? – elitist. (Kiš's advice:  "Do not write for an elite that does not exist:  you are the elite.")  But literature is inherently democratic, as it is the way for everyone and anyone who can read to enter the difficult and vast field of everything that comes under humanity.  "Do not write for 'the average reader,'" Kiš wrote to the Young Writer, "all readers are average." (vii-viii, Psalm 44)

Here the argument shifts away from the real and imagined "elitist" groups/institutions and toward a delineation that perhaps bears real consideration.  Very few readers are going to argue that Fifty Shades of Grey contains any real merit outside of its "safe" eroticism; one almost certainly will not be highlighting passages from an excerpt of it in a hypothetical Norton Anthology of World Literature in 2050.  Some fictions are just superior to others, whether it be through the form or the structure employed.  The mostly-false argument of what is "elitist" (myself, yourself, that homeless person under the bridge who keeps a copy of Candide in a tattered coat pocket) pales in comparison of the more difficult question of what constitutes "ethical emport."

Ethics discussions can make many acutely uncomfortable, as many feel they are having to make a strong stance when they want a bit of wiggle room.  Sure, it is easy to say that an Adolf Hitler or a Joseph Stalin were "monsters"; we dehumanize them and make them "other" by labeling them as such; out of sight and out of mind as fellow human beings.  It is a different matter (and we can see this in debates such as the one surrounding the execrable Save the Pearls) when the person is alive and whose engagements with certain social affairs may be too close to how you or I may perceive them.  Witness all of the prevarications and hemming hawing from the writer, the editors of Weird Tales magazine, and commentators on various blogs and message boards that seem to twist themselves into odd shapes in order to avoid castigating that work as something ethically/socially reprehensible.

Yet these same sort of semantic gymnastics occurs within "respectable" works, whether they be "genre fiction" or "literary fiction."  There, the writers, whether they be "elitists" or "average," according to Hemon, too often fail to engage the crises of our times:

Bullied by the cryptofascist, consumerist resistance to public thought – or thinking in public – American literature tends to avoid uncomfortable weight:  the weight of tradition; the weight of civic and historical responsibility; the weight of language, which needs to be ceaselessly reinvented and reevaluated.  The ethical fiascoes of the Bush era in perpetuity unfettered, the catastrophic wars and the insidious fantasies that prepared them and maintain them, the widespread collapse of the notion of a socially-responsible government and the related (reality-based) democracy, the rabid xenophobia indistinguishable from the socially-acceptable practices of American Patriotism, the mind-crushing lies reproducing the belief that capitalism is the best thing ever – all have been pretty much ignored in our contemporary fiction.  Not many American authors know how to confront the history we're living in; few attempt to, even fewer dare to claim an ethically/aesthetically-defined system of thought that would demand from the reader to engage with the difficulties of the early twenty-first century.


Much of American literature has been paralyzed, producing nary a novel that would fundamentally – ethically, aesthetically – question and take apart the Matrix-like reality of what is commonly referred to as America. (viii-ix)

What I suspect that some (not all, but some) of the critics of "literary fiction" are decrying is not necessarily the form nor content, but rather that sense that there is no real struggle to corral these ugly, confusing elements into a form or structure that allows us to engage them and perhaps defeat them.  Too often writers (and editors) shy away from these challenges.  After all, it is much easier to go with the flow and write something that is small (say the life of a middle-aged, middle class person suffering a small-scale crisis of identity) than something that is large and possibly threatening.  The same goes for criticism.  Consider again the Victoria Foyt/Save the Pearls debacle.  Foyt's husband, Hollywood director Henry Jaglom, posted a defense of his wife's work that doubtless will leave a few wavering in their criticism:

 The backsliding editor and ignorant publisher of Wierd Tales Magazine
should be ashamed of themselves, the one for condemning a book he
admits to not even having read, the other - more disturbingly - who read
it and loved it and wrote a truly sensational rave review about it, now
taking all that back in the face of some ignorant criticism and hysteria
from a few others who have NOT read it. Unbelievable.
This all reminds one uncannily of the Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s
when, during the insanity of McCarthyism and The House Un-American
Activities Committee, the movie industry - including all it's Studio Heads -
destroyed the careers of so many writers and directors and actors under
the slightest pressure to do so from any one of a group of disgruntled
attackers who deemed them insufficiently loyal or patriotic.
If you have read Victoria Foyt's "Save The Pearls" you know that it is a wonderfully written book,
a deeply moving warning about the very real dangers of ignorant racism,
prejudice and profound climate change in a sadly not-too-distant future,
as well as being a truly touching tale of self-discovery and young love.
How a few disturbed non-readers have been scared off by images on its web-page is a cautionary tale.
There is nothing to be frightened of here, everything to applaud.
I strongly recommend you read it for yourself and see.
You will not be disappointed.
Henry Jaglom 
Most who have actually managed to stomach reading the entire book will realize that Jaglom's description of "a wonderfully written book" is so far off from reality that s/he might question whether he has the acumen to judge a good tale from something that might have been published in Ostara a century ago.  Yet there's something deeper going on within this.  Notice the comparison to "McCarthyism" (leaving aside that Joe McCarthy, if alive today, most likely would not be on the side of those who champion greater social awareness/responsibility when it comes to depicting racial/ethnic issues) and the "House Un-American Activities Committee."  Here is a bald attempt to discredit criticisms of a work by making allusions to "censorship" and to "hysteria."  No doubt Hemon would cite this as another stumbling block to having writers (and critics) bring forth for social awareness works that truly challenge the dilemmas of our time.  Attempts to challenge the poor, muddled, and sometimes even reactionary social values present in many social and literary writings are just met with the Orwellian sheep bleatings of "Censorship bad!"  Never mind that it is through the use of such rhetoric that those who question the state of affairs (and who most certainly want to affect real social/ethical change in both fiction and in quotidian life) are too often cowed into silence.  Are there "elitists" or "elitism" when this occurs?  Are we left with a hollow argument devoid of real meaning or import?  If we (writers, critics, and readers alike) dare not engage with the ethical and social implications of our times in the works we read/write, then what are we doing, pray tell?


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Save the whi...err, Save the Pearls: A Candid Look

Eden jumped at the sound of approaching steps.  They must not see.  Hide Beauty Map!

Her mental command caused the Life-Band she wore to send a tiny white spark into the air.  In a flash, the holographic images that appeared in front of her – a blond girl playing on a sunlit beach – disappeared.

"What's going on?" a woman asked.

Eden shot to her feet, her heart racing, as a plump, dark-skinned lab assistant appeared on the other side of the partition.  It was only Peach, who wasn't as cruel as the rest of them.

Eden's blank emotional mask slammed into place.  Never let them see how you feel.

Former actress Victoria Foyt's second novel (and first self-published by her Sand Dollar Press), Save the Pearls Part One:  Revealing Eden, has, for those of you who have been living under a rock these past few months, developed a rather unsavory reputation.  Its setting, a semi-post-apocalyptic world in which UV radiation has caused widespread melanoma among whites (the "Pearls" of this story), perhaps was intended to provoke audiences to think of a role reversal in which the darker-skinned ethnic groups (the African-derived "Coals," the Asian "Ambers" and the Latino "Tiger's Eye") now dominate the fair-skinned "Pearls," to the point where these "Pearls" have to don blackface in order not just to survive but also to be able to eke out a meager living at the sufferance of the "Coal" superiors.

The usage of blackface is a very controversial element even in works which clearly have a subversive bent to them.  The problem with Save the Pearls is that there is no apparent irony to the situation, nothing that after its nearly 300 e-book pages would indicate that the reading goes deeper than the surface.  Eden Newmann (one of the less subtle cognomens encountered in SF literature) is 17 years old at the story's beginning.  If she doesn't find a mate before she turns 18, she gets cast out, left to die in the parched and ravaged outdoors.  She hates that her natural fair-skinned, blond, blue-eyed self is considered low; after all, look at the very first thing we see from her point of view:  an old image of a white girl on a beach, with "beauty map" listed.  She defines others as "they" and a major component of her character, early on at least, is her alternating revulsion and envy of the "Coals" and their power in society.  It is hard not to make the connection between this and something that one might encounter on a white supremacist site.

It is easy to read the first couple of chapters (they are available as a free sample on Amazon) and conclude that at best Foyt just does not understand the dynamics involved in racial symbolism and viewpoint interaction.  In fact, it probably would be best to just drop reading this implausible, poor excuse for a story at that point, as it does not improve.  If anything, it gets much, much worse.

Save the Pearls is a mass of contradictions.  We learn early on that due to UV radiation spikes due to weakening of the Earth's atmospheric protection, most of humanity has been driven underground, with a condition called The Heat affecting not just melanoma rates but also fertility.  Yet there is so little about this that jibes with questions of "why didn't they just use parasols and better SPFs when outside?"; "if there is an advanced genetic institute, how come it's the brutal "expose the 'Cottons' (albinos)" instead of prenatal testing and alteration or abortion?"; "doesn't Foyt know that selecting specific chromosomes doesn't work very well in trying to create cross-species hybrids?" and so forth.  Any reader who is familiar at all with genetics (or evolution or just everyday life) is likely to just facepalm at all of these egregious errors of fact and plausibility in Foyt's story.  But no, the South Park Chewbacca Defense does not hold here:  It does not make any sense, you must not acquit.

Many of the other commentaries/reviews of Save the Pearls have focused on the underlying racist elements, many of which are noted above.  Yet there are other, equally disturbing elements that perhaps have been overlooked due perhaps to sensible readers not being able to stomach more than the opening chapters.  First among these is the prevalence of sexist rhetoric:  Almost every situation in which Eden thinks about another woman she has encounter, the pejorative "bitch" is used to describe that woman.  There are no good examples of women who think or act for themselves outside of the need to meet the sexual desires of a man.  Remember, Eden has to "be mated" in six months or else she is to be cast out to die.  There is no irony or hint of subversion in this mindset:  Eden's thoughts quite often deal with her looks and how (un)desirable she may be to a potential mate.

Added to this is the troubling main plot sequence focusing on an experiment to create a hybrid jaguar (and eagle and anaconda)/man.  The man involved, at least double Eden's age, is mutated into a somewhat brooding version of a Thundercat.  Rarely referred to by his first name of Ronson, this character, Bramford, is frequently cast as "other" because of his mutated state and his threatening aura.  Of course Eden is going to lust after/fear him and most of the second half of Save the Pearls revolves around this, related in language that easily could be taken from a putridly-written romance novel crossed with "white flight" symbolism:

He pounced toward the hut, and out of view.  Eden watched, breathless, as he sprinted back.  He lashed out but his punches only struck air.  Was this some sort of primal dance or demonstration?


Bramford immediately zeroed in on her.  She swore she could feel the heat coming off of him.  Her yearning became unbearable.  Was it for her sake or Rebecca's that she flew towards him?  She no longer cared why.  She simply knew she had to be with him, whatever that meant.


Eden twirled around and laughed lightly.  What would that callous beast think of her now?

 Added to this was a laborious plot twist in which Bramford decides he rather continue his mutation, with the later reasons being sketchy at best.  To this is added the use of a South American tribe, the Huaorani, to provide the "local color" for a legend of the jaguar-man (never mind that Foyt screws up by having them speak exclusively in Spanish and not using yaguar, but instead the incorrect el Tigre for Bramford).  As if the presence of an indigenous tribe, even though reduced to being the sort of wise "nature's child", after the earlier pretense of humanity barely being able to be outside during the day was not enough, Foyt compounds this by having references to present-day Aztecs.  One might wonder if Foyt needs to learn the difference between Central and South America, not to mention the connotations of the terms and physical symbols that she employs in this story.

These poorly-thought out and argued elements, however, do not detract from the story.  No, the story itself is horrendous, making works like The Dark God's Bride feel like an objet d'art.  There is little rhyme or reason to the premise, the characterizations are hollow shells when they aren't offensive, the story is hackneyed and the conclusion is ridiculous.  There is nothing redeeming about Save the Pearls, except perhaps as a cautionary tale of why people need to check with others to make sure that something "controversial" actually might just be a flat-out reinforcement of earlier societal racism.  Easily the worst POS that I have read in years; even worse than having to read Hitler's speeches and Mein Kampf for grad school.  At least he didn't try to claim that his works were not racist at all.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Late August Book Porn: YA/Children's Fiction (and Thomas Mann)

And now, the YA/children's fictions (and Thomas Mann) that I bought.  Many of these will be reviewed and almost all will eventually be given as a gift.
Beverly Cleary was one of my favorite writers when I was like 8 or 9 years old.  Fond memories of these two books in particular.

I remember my 4th grade teacher reading these two books aloud to me.

She also read aloud Where the Red Fern Grows.  It was so quiet in the class as she finished the final chapters.  The Gaiman I haven't yet read.

Replacement/hardcover copy of one of my favorite Mann stories.

Late August Book Porn: Non-English Books

Castellanos Moya is one of the best living Central American writers today; he was a close friend of Bolaño.  The other book is a non-fiction that captured my attention.

Visited my favorite used bookstore in Nashville for the first time in over a month today.  Bought a lot more books than usual, so the book porn will be divided into two posts.  This one is devoted to non-English books I bought.

Two books associated with Mario Vargas Llosa.

Bought an extra copy of La vida es sueño to give as a birthday gift to someone dear to me; the other is a 16th century novel.

Been meaning to buy this Vallejo for a while now.  Little idea what the other is about.

A Dutch Bible and an Allende novel that I didn't have in hardcover format.

Been meaning to read Quasimodo for a while (this is a bilingual edition); the Eco is a replacement copy.

A Diderot and a Hugo novel that I didn't already own.

Curious about the Giraudoux and I have yet to read Fo in any language, so why not a play in French?

The second post will feature mostly YA fictions that will be read and likely given as gifts as part of the exchange of YA/children's favorites.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Feast of Ice and Fire cookbook review, Part III: Almond Crusted Trout

Fish is a very tricky food to prepare, at least for me.  For starters, I only have a limited selection of edible fish (while I don't consider bass to be poison, it is not something I like), with catfish being my preferred fish species for cooking purposes.  When I do prepare fish, I usually coat it with corn meal, corn flour combined with pepper and occasionally garlic salt, or cracker meal, dip it in melted butter, and bake at 400° for nearly an hour before removing it.

So I thought that I would try a slightly-altered version of the Almond Crusted Trout found in Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer's A Feast of Ice and Fire cookbook, since my local grocery store did not have trout on sale when I bought the ingredients yesterday.  It certainly was very different to the simple (and perhaps relatively bland) approach to fish cooking, as there were several herbs that went into making the coating.  In a blender, I chopped almonds, fresh parsley and dill, shallots, and bread crumbs before adding garlic, an egg, and lemon juice.  The mixture looked rather unappetizing, being a faint yellow-green in color, and the smell was an odd combination of herbs, garlic, and citrus.  So with some trepidation, I first coated the fish in flour and then spread this mixture over it (it was sticky, so I used a butter knife to coat both sides) and then set it in the oven to bake for a little over an hour at 350°.

Below is an image of the two fish after I removed it from the oven:

The flavor is hard to describe.  At first, I noticed the crunchiness that would be expected with almonds and bread crumbs forming the coat base.  Then there were the alternating hints of the herbs, shallots, and garlic, yet none of them dominated.  Somehow, they all blended together to create something that had elements of tanginess and herbs, yet the taste of the catfish itself was not overpowered by this.  Yet for some time afterward, perhaps because I am unused to using shallots or dill in cooking, there was this faint aftertaste that, while not exactly unpleasant, was noticeable for at least an hour after I finished eating.

Almond-crusted fish is something that I might want to try again, but with some modifications to avoid that above-mentioned aftertaste.  I think adding butter and taking away the fresh dill and shallots might make for a meal that is a bit lighter in taste while still having the crunchy qualities that this meal provides.  This is not a negative critique of this recipe but rather a thought of how later to incorporate elements of this recipe into preparing one of my favorite meals with elements that I have used for years.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Alice Vieira, Viagem à Roda do Meu Nome

Por tudo isto é que eu aviso:  a partir de agora só respondo pelo nome de Luís.  O Abílio morreu, emigrou, foi raptado, deu-lhe um ataque de bexigas doidas, o que vocês quisere, mas acabouse, e que ninguém, nunca mais, me chame tal nome.

(For all this is what I warn:  from now on I only respond to the name of Luís.  Abílio died, he emigrated, he was kidnapped, he came down with chicken pox, whatever you want, but it's over, and no one, evermore, shall call me by that name.)

Our names are the keys to our identities.  It is what others associate with us and what allows us to differentiate ourselves from others.  But sometimes, we are burdened with a "funny" name.  Whether it is something as innocuous as there being a recent surge of the use of my name, Larry, for ugly beer-drinking dogs, recastings of Ernest T. Bass in a food commercial, or that punching bag of a neighbor/friend that is too much of a wussy to defend himself in certain commercials, or if it's a name that rhymes with body parts (such as one schoolmate having a last name that rhymed with "pencil dick"), we can become sensitive to how our names stick out.  Sometimes, such as the case of my own father, initials are adopted to disguise the unusual names chosen.  Other times, we adopt nicknames as a means of discarding discretely those names that shame us.

In Portuguese writer Alice Vieira's children's novel, Viagem à Roda do Meu Nome (Journey Round My Name), young Abílio hates that his name stands out in a crowd and at school.  He wants it changed; he wants to fit in with the "normal" kids who have nondescript names like Manuel or Luís.  He resents the unusual name that his mother chose for him and he does his best to convince friends and family to call him by his chosen moniker of Luís.  Through all this, we see Abílio's daily school life and his interactions with others; some think of humoring him, while others are puzzled at why he is so adamant about being called by another name.

Vieira explores this youthful frustration and desire for social acceptance by dividing the narrative into two parts, one of which is seen in a limited third-person vantage point that focuses on Abílio's thoughts and another narrative that is more personal in scope.  It took a while (hindered by my spotty knowledge of written Portuguese) to grasp the connections between the main Abílio-centered narrative and the other narrative, but ultimately the two meshed together well.  Vieira does not condescend here; she treats Abílio's shame over his name quite seriously and in doing so, allows those readers who may have had their own past (or present) issues with their names to empathize with Abílio and to place themselves in his situation.

In reading Viagem à Roda do Meu Nome, I was reminded of Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing in the direct manner in which the protagonist's concerns are presented throughout the narrative.  Although there were times that I felt that Abílio's situation was foreign to me, this was largely due to encountering descriptions of everyday Portuguese primary school life, which differs in certain key elements from the late 1970s to mid-1980s American elementary school setting of my youth (it should be noted that this book came out in 1987, as doubtless many features in both countries have changed significantly over the following generation).  This did not hinder my enjoyment much (if anything, it made me focus even more on the narrative in order to decipher the classroom dynamics), but it certainly underscored some differences between 1970s-1980s American and Portuguese life for school-age children.

On the whole, I found Vieira's book to be very well-written.  As I said above, she does not talk down to her target audience and she does an excellent job in capturing the conflicting emotions that children such as Abílio may feel.  Too often children's/YA writers can be dishonest with their audiences, not truly striving to speak to them (and perhaps for them through their characters).  Vieira does not do this in Viagem à Roda do Meu Nome.  Instead, she tells a simple, unadorned story that nevertheless is evocative because it touches upon concerns that several of us may have had in the past regarding who we are and how well we fit in with the society around us.  That does not happen enough in any genre of writing, much less children's literature, and Vieira's accomplishment here makes this novel one that should be worth reading.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Feast of Ice and Fire Cookbook review, Part II: Honeyed Chicken; Oatcakes

After the success I had in making the honey biscuits (cookies), I thought I would try two more recipes from the A Feast of Ice and Fire cookbook.  The first recipe I tried was for Honeyed Chicken, which involved taking a chicken (I substituted a single breast with skin for a whole chicken and reduced the ingredient portions to 1/3 of the listed measures as a result), rubbing it with melted butter and salt, and baking it for nearly 1 hour (I baked at 410°F instead of the recipe's 450° due to the size of the breast).  In the meantime, I mixed together in a saucepan and set at simmer honey, apple cider vinegar, butter, mint (or rather 1/4 teaspoon of mint extract), and raisins.  The recipe called for this to go roughly 30 minutes, or until the dried fruit (I had no currants on hand) began to fill out. 

The problem I ran into, and this is more a matter of reduction of ingredients to 1/3 portions, is that in less than 15 minutes at simmer, the mixture began to carmelize.  Although I added enough water to rescue the mixture, you can see in the photo that the sauce turned out to be much darker and thicker.  Despite this, the mixture of sweet and sour did make the chicken breast taste delicious.  Knowing the perils of the reduced mixture simmering, I think the next time I try to make it that it'll be set at a slightly lower setting, but I certainly will try it again in the near future as even with the problems detailed above, the taste was good enough for me to want to have it again.  I just wished the raisins hadn't carmelized in the process, as I do love eating raisins from time to time.

The second recipe I made, Oatcakes, went much better.  I have made oatmeal cookies numerous times in the past, but never had I had to take a mixture of butter, ginger, cinnamon, brown sugar, vanilla extract, flour, and oats and roll it out (after chilling it as two flattened disks for an hour) as if I were making biscuits.  After doing that and making 28 halves, I experimented some and made almost half of the 14 sandwich wholes with a chopped pine nut/olive oil paste (as suggested in the recipe), others with strawberry jelly (not pictured), marshmallow paste, and even one with French Vanilla ice cream (not pictured).

By itself, the sandwich halves are a bit drier and crunchier than the oatmeal cookies I've made in the past.  However, when combined with a jam or spread, they turned out well.  The pine nut spread took some time getting used to, as there was very little sweetness to the sandwich, compared to the other mixtures.  These came very close to the image provided in the cookbook and while I am uncertain if I want to devote over an hour to making them (the oatmeal cookies I make rarely take more than 10 minutes of prep time, with no chilling), they certainly did taste very well.

Sometime later this weekend or next week, I'm going to try the Lemon Cakes recipe and perhaps a catfish variant on the Almond Crusted Trout recipe.  So far, so good with these recipes, even with the problems outlined above.
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