The OF Blog: December 2012

Monday, December 31, 2012

Best of 2012: 25 Notable 2012 Releases (and 10 Honorable Mentions)

I ended up reading 501 books in 2012.  Several dozen, almost 100, were released in some sort or fashion in 2012.  Some were mediocre, a few were bad.  But roughly half were enjoyable.  Out of that number I wrote down 34 titles, 25 out which I'll list in descending fashion, followed by the other 10 in unranked order.  A variety of genres and styles of writing are represented here.  Hopefully, some, if not all of these, will be of interest to you.  Due to time constraints, no links/commentaries:

25.  Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

24.  Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis

23.  Patricia McCormick, Never Fall Down

22.  Nick Tosches, Me and the Devil

21.  Zadie Smith, NW

20.  Mark Helprin, In Sunlight and in Shadow

19.  K.J. Bishop, That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote

18.  Samuel Delany, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

17.  L. Annette Binder, Rise

16.  Padgett Powell, You & Me

15.  Nick Mamatas, Bullettime

14.  Brian Evenson, Windeye

13.  Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson:  The Passage of Power

12.  Goran Petrović, An Atlas Described by the Sky

11.  Gonçalo M. Tavares, Joseph Walser's Machine

10.  Louise Erdrich, The Round House

9.  Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles

8.  Dung Kai-cheung, Atlas:  The Archaeology of an Imaginary City

7.  Michael Cisco, Celebrant

6.  Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath:  Stories

5.  Will Self, Umbrella

4.  Sherman Alexie, Blasphemy

3.  László Krasznahorkai, Satantango

2.  Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

1.  Junot Díaz, This is How You Lose Her

Honorable Mentions:

Matt Bell, Cataclysm Baby

Jesse Bullington, The Folly of the World

Steve Erickson, These Dreams of You

Steven Erikson, Forge of Darkness

Brian Evenson, Immobility

Jeffrey Ford, Crackpot Palace

Felix Gilman, The Rise of Ransom City

Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds

Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn

Best of 2012: Collections and Anthologies

2012 has seen the release of several excellent collections and anthologies from across the globe.  As I think I noted back in 2011 soon after the UK release, one work that easily would have been at or near the top of a list of collections and anthologies would have been The Weird, a reprint anthology of weird fiction from several traditions that cover most of the 20th and first decade of the 21st centuries, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.  Due to my involvement with the anthology (my translation of Augusto Monterroso's "Mister Taylor" appears within), I have chosen instead to mention it here rather than including it in the list proper.  The US edition came out this year (February e-book; May hardcover and tradeback) and if you haven't yet purchased it, consider this an exhortation for you to do so.

With that out of the way, I read 14 anthologies/collections that were released in 2012.  With two exceptions, I would recommend these to others.  Some I have reviewed, others I will be reviewing in January.  So here's the list with links or little to no commentary.

12.  Nir Yaniv, The Love Machine & Other Contraptions (brief discussion here)

11.  Dean Francis Alfar, How to Traverse Terra Incognita (very solid collection from a notable Filipino writer of SF...and works that aren't as easily classified)

10.  Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (very good collection of stories that revolve around contemporary American Jewish life)

9.  Jeffrey Ford, Crackpot Palace (brief discussion here)

8.  Amos Tutuola, Don't Pay Bad for Bad (review forthcoming in January, but an excellent stories of Yoruba folklore-influenced stories)

7.  Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn (review here)

6.  K.J. Bishop, That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote (review forthcoming in January, but most of these stories were very, very good to outstanding)

5.  L. Annette Binder, Rise (review here)

4.  Brian Evenson, Windeye (brief discussion here)

3.  Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath:  Stories (review here)

2.  Sherman Alexie, Blasphemies (review forthcoming in January, but damn if he didn't pull no punches with these often raw, gripping tales, most set on the reservations)

1.  Junot Díaz, This is How You Lose Her (review here)

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best of 2012: Translated and non-Anglophone Fictions

I have read a lot of works in languages other than English (primarily Romance languages), with a little over a quarter of 2012 reads being in foreign languages (at current count, 125, with at least one more to be finished by tomorrow night).  A few dozen others out of the nearly 500 books read this year are translations into English.  Yet for the most part, those are pre-2012 releases.  There were only 5 books released in 2012 that I read in a language other than English (3 Brazilian Portuguese, 1 Argentine Spanish, 1 book translated into Spanish from Polish), with another 7 translated into English.  Yet these twelve works were pretty good, with little separating most of these works from one another.  Some of these will appear in my overall summary of most notable 2012 releases. 

Most of these I have yet to review.  Some are due to the length of time it takes me to do a couple of translation drafts of representative passages to include in a review, others because I read them recently and haven't had much time lately due to my chronic battle with acute bronchitis.  So I will be a bit briefer than in previous Best of 2012 entries in part because I do hope to review a few of these in depth in January:

12  Nir Yaniv, The Love Machine & Other Contraptions (collection; translated from Hebrew).  This was a good collection, although some stories were much stronger than others.  On the whole, however, I enjoyed it.  Plan to say more on it in the near future.

11  Petê Rissatti, Réquiem:  sonhos proibidos (Brazilian Portuguese).  This was a dystopia involving a totalitarian state attempting to control dreams.  Interest was kept throughout its 205 pages, as it did not feel bloated or too derivative (although there were nods to other writers).  Well-written.

10  Leopoldo Brizuela, Una misma noche (Argentina; winner of the 2012 Premio Alfaguara).  This was a novel told in flashback, ranging from the 1970s to 2010, of the "Dirty War" and the terror of the "desaparecidos" during this time.  Excellent tension and very good writing.

9  Danilo Kiš, Psalm 44 (translated from Serbian).  See my earlier review.

8  Luiz Bras, Sozinho no deserto extremo (Brazilian Portuguese).  Just finished reading this work of a man who wakes up to find himself truly alone in the immense "desert" of a metropolis.  I want to re-read it before evaluating it further, but here is a fitting tentative place for a work whose prose was challenging (in the right ways) for this non-native reader.

7  Andrzej Sapkowski, Los guerreros de Dios (translated into Spanish from Polish).  See my earlier review.

6  Dung Kai-cheung, Atlas:  The Archaeology of an Imaginary City (translated from Cantonese).  This "mapping" of an imaginary city, similar in many aspects to the actual Hong Kong, will remind readers favorably of Calvino and Borges, among others.  Meant to review this in full this summer; perhaps I'll do so in 2013.

5  Brontops Baruq, O grito do sol sobre a cabeça (collection; Brazilian Portuguese).  This was an outstanding collection when I read it two months ago, combining elements of SF and weird fiction to create something memorable.  Considering writing a fuller, formal review in the next few weeks.

4  Goran Petrović, An Atlas Described by the Sky (translated from Serbian; previously read in Spanish).  This is Petrović's debut work, finally appearing in English translation (should note that this edition is from a Serbian publisher that translates several works into English for sale from Serbia).  It is a brilliant work, one that I will hopefully review at length in the near future.

3  Gonçalo M. Tavares, Joseph Walser's Machine (translated from Portuguese).  This is part of his loose Kingdom "trilogy" and it might be the best of the three.  Considering I hold the other two in high esteem, this is very high praise.

2  Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath:  Stories (collection; translated from Swedish).  See my earlier review.

1  László Krasznahorkai, Satantango (translated from Hungarian).  This was one of the more disturbing and best-written novels that I read this year.  The translation of Krasznahorkai's 1985 debut is very good and readers of his subsequent novels can see traces of those later novels' themes here.  Outstanding work.

Best of 2012: Squirrel Commercials

The past two years have seen a resurgence in squirrel-related commercials, as advertisers have realized the potent marketing potential of our sovereign rodents.  Below is the retroactive Best of 2011 squirrel commercial and the one that perhaps might be 2012's best.  Enjoy!

2011's best squirrel-related commercial:

And now the Best of 2012 in Squirrel commercials:

Feel free to submit your own 2012-released squirrel-related commercials as alternates.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Control of Information: Advance Reviews, "spoilers," and "embargoes" (contains quotes of likely major spoilers from the last Wheel of Time novel)

One of the larger 21st century narratives (although it has its analogues in previous centuries in a less direct way) is that of information and who has access to it and who attempts to control or restrict it.  "Top secret" memorandums, industry secrets, "secret blend of eleven herbs and spices" – in each of these can be seen the perceived need to restrict who can view the information.  To some extent, such restrictions are acceptable, if not always laudable.  After all, the controllers of these bits of information do provide services based on them.

However, the restriction of information can be detrimental toward the development of an "open" society in which the speed and ease of information access is nearly equivalent to power.  Individuals, particularly those investing their money/resources into a project/product, tend to seek out as much information as possible in order to make an informed decision.  This is certainly the case with entertainment, in which consumers prefer to "get their money's worth" and often rely on advance media reviews and/or word of mouth before making a decision as to whether or not their money should be spent on something.

Yet for entertainment producers, it is often in their best interests to keep the consumers unaware of the specific content of their products up until the official release date, in hopes that those who found their previous offerings to be acceptable will splurge on their latest venture sight unseen, even if (especially if?) this new product may be subpar in quality.  Although the above seems to describe larger media such as music and cinema, occasionally something similar can be seen in (e)book publishing, as for a certain few releases (say the final four volumes of the Harry Potter series), publishers believe it is best to have a near-total "blackout" of information on the story's specifics in order to rope in as much of a crowd as possible.

There is some merit to this view.  Living the past 15-20 years in a near-instantaneous age of mass information sharing, details such as "I am your father, Luke" are not spread from movie-goer to potential movie-goer but from a few (sometimes rapidly multiplying) sources online to thousands, if not millions of consumers.  If the "advance" crowd dislikes the work, then opening sales, which frequently make up the majority of a book/film's total intake, can drop significantly, as consumers might choose to borrow later from the library/rent it from Netflix instead of spending full price on a work that they have heard is below-average in quality.  So it is no surprise that in high-risk, high-reward cases, such as a "blockbuster" film franchise or the latest installment in a bestselling fiction series, publishers may choose to request "embargoes" or to force people to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) in order to receive early access to a work.

These embargoes/NDAs run counter to typical marketing practice, especially in book publishing.  Since there are tens of thousands of new releases each year vying for attention, publishers often will make available a limited number (usually under 200 copies) of soon-to-be-released works in hopes that the online/mass version of "word of mouth" can develop to the point shortly before the work's official release date that enough interest is created that consumers will buy just enough of the work to ensure that a profit is made and that future volumes (if applicable) of that work might generate more advance sales.  It is why places like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews often run short columns 1-4 months before a book is released, giving a brief review of the story's strengths/deficiencies, as these are often used in the publicity kits that accompany the second round of advance review copy disbursements.  If a dozen "trusted voices" praise a work significantly enough, a mini-butterfly effect can occur, gaining an audience for an author.  Something similar did happen a decade ago with Canadian fantasy writer Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which was released in the UK in 1999, but not until 2004 in the US.  Word of mouth on large fantasy forums reached American readers, some of whom took a chance and imported the books, and praised them enough that eventually an American publisher was found for the works.

But embargos/NDAs do away with this.  There is the premise that since there is already a large readership (usually in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions) for the author(s), that it would be more risk and less reward if information were to be "leaked" early by the very same sources that had earlier provided a useful service.  It is hard to fault them for having this attitude, as it's better to keep a "captive" audience "hungry" rather than to risk damping their desire through possible early mixed or negative reviews.  But it is an entirely different matter when it comes to those who claim to be reviewers who agree complacently to such regulations.

Now, I'm not innocent of this; on a few occasions I accepted advance review copies with the expectation of an "embargo" or, in the case of the Eoin Colfer-penned addition to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, And Another Thing..., I actually signed a NDA.  But I was uneasy when I did this in 2009-2010, as I felt like I was surrendering some of my necessary independence as a critic in order to "gain access" to something that I could as easily have spent $15-20 on Amazon to purchase a month later.  Although there was no direct pressure to write a "positive" review, there was that sense that "spoilers" would be heavily frowned upon at the very least.  This caused a problem, as I like to use quoted passages to extrapolate on a story's themes, its prose, its characterizations, and so forth.  I felt like I was engaging in self-neutering when I did this, because I was muting my voice on what I believed to be the strengths and weaknesses of a story in order that a "spoiler-free" review would be made available on that book's review date.

Flash-forward to October 2010 and the problems I had with interpreting the informal tone of a Tor email regarding review copies of the 13th The Wheel of Time novel, Towers of Midnight.  Sure, I suppose I could wait until the first Tuesday in November to post a review and sure, I won't list detailed "spoilers" (which I learned later to my chagrin, is interpreted by certain WoT fans as including even vague impressions), but maybe in response to my jocular comments on a forum about having the book I could at least say in cryptic terms if anything was addressed?  Uhhh....nope, as I found out after the fact and after a few hotheads thought I was "classless" and that I "deserved" to be "punished" for breaking some sort of omertà by saying anything other than I was (dis)pleased.  The furor was surprising and I was irritated enough by it to swear off any more "embargoes" (or to solicit review copies from publishers; discussions with authors I know/respect or with smaller presses I treat differently due to the nature of the interactions.  NB:  I was leaning toward this before this kerfluffle; it only accelerated it).

But I also found that there was another side that was being served by my actions:  those who want "spoilers" in order to see in advance if it's really worth spending the money on the book in hardcover or to learn more and to think about the information.  Considering that right as some were trying to tear me a new 'hole for giving vague impressions there were those who got early copies from bookstores that didn't hold to the bookstore end of the "embargo," the exercise ultimately proved that what actually happened was that the reviewers, whether or not they had any intention of actually reviewing the book rather than gushing about their fan status, had abdicated their responsibility of informing those who wanted to make an early decision and that instead like-minded fans, following (for the most part) the protocol of labeling their info with "spoilers" in the header, provided at least some information for others on the fence.  Mind you, these were not reviews; there was only a sort of Q&A about what was included and a fan's perspective on if it interested them or not.  There wasn't any real evaluation of what happened; just a statement of plot events.  This focus on plot, coupled with the "embargoed" reviews all appearing on release date with "spoiler-free reviews," led to some perceived misrepresentations about the actual quality of the work.  I waited almost a week after release to write my review and I focused on the structural issues I had with the narrative and how it was unbalanced and created a situation where individual scenes were more effective than the whole, leaving the reader with the uneasy sense that several poor choices had been made in dividing the narrative into three parts.

Now that there's less than two weeks remaining until the final WoT book is being released, yet once again there are "spoilers" appearing from those who bought from those independent stores that DGAF about publisher requests.  In light of vapid, pandering "approved" "reviews" such as this one,  there will likely be little to no substantive reviews of the book at hand when January 8th rolls about.  Highly doubtful that anything directly referencing these "spoilers" that I saw posted earlier today will be made:

So, I'm gonna post spoilers from the DM spoiler board, and I'll add anything I get by PM as well. Please don't read unless you don't care about Spoilers.

The body count at the moment stands at two. And the two are...

Egwene and Birgette. Both are dead by chapter 40. Chapter 37 is the huge 79000 word chapter. Egwene's death is "fitting", and though this comes from someone who seems to like her character, take that word with a grain of salt.

Egwene actually dies IN that chapter. But the Last Battle isn't fully over 3 chapters later. Wonder what's going on...

ETA 2: The chapter is called "The Last Battle". Egwene's death was "beautiful" and a "huge contribution" to the LB. I guess previously mentioned grain of salt can be removed.

ETA 3: Okay... here's another big one folks. Remember that pesky old Foresaken Demandred? Guess where he was? Shara! I have no more details. But wow. Roedrean seems to have been a clever misdirection!

And Egwene's contribution to the LB did not have anything to do with TAR. Wow. I guess she's going to channel to the death...

ETA 4: So Demandred's name among the Sharans is "Wyld". I have some contradictory info here. It may be that this "Wyld" is their name for the DR. Or not.

The Sharan's apparently appear in the midst of the Last Battle through a humongous Gateway.

Egwene is not in TAR even once till she dies. Very very weird. Perrin is in it a lot, though.

At least by Chapter 40, the Asha'man and Aes Sedai have not joined into one organization.

From independent sources, Egwene "contributed VERY heavily" to the LB. And the Horn of Valere has a critical role.

ETA 5: Be ready people. Preliminary deathlist:

Birgitte, Gawyn, Egwene, Bryne, Siuan, Hurin, Bashere. Among the Foresaken: Demandred, Moghedien, Lanfear. Graendal is alive, but... has met an end similar to Lockhart in Harry Potter, so I'm guessing severe memory loss.

And the BIIIIG one: Mat isn't connected to the Horn. Someone else blows it!

ETA 6: Birgette comes back as a Hero. So she wasn't severed from the Horn after all.

ETA 7: Okay, more immense stuff coming:

Body swap between Rand and Moridin happens. Everyone except his three women think he's dead. He's last seen riding away in Moridin's body.

We don't know what happens to everyone in the future. We just see people attending Rand's "funeral".

Graendal's compuslion weave backfires on her when she's around Aviendha trying to unsuccessfully unravel a Gateway. It explodes, like Elayne's did.

Moghdein doesn't die. She gets taken as Damane.

Lan survives!

ETA 8: More insanity:

Egwene goes totally apeshit on the bad guys. Apparently its like the end of tGS times a 100. Egwene stands toe to toe with Taim. He has a special sa'angreal given to him by Demandred and is using it to fling huge amounts of Balefire around. The very fabirc of reality is threatening to unravel, and he's almost successful. Egwene "reaches down" and comes up with a weave named... The Flame of Tar Valon. Its the anti-thesis of Balefire, and she uses her sa'angreal to generate a Flame to size of a "thermonuclear warhead" that kills Taim, and also reverses all the damage done by the Balefire, thus saving the world.

The Wyld is the name of the unquestioned leader of the Sharans. Demandred somehow manages to get this title.

Now, these bits of information say nothing about whether or not the novel is good.  They are little more than that movie-goer telling an inquiring friend that Darth Vader is revealed to be Luke's father in The Empire Strikes Back.  This does not take the place of a review; it merely provides plot information for those who are eager to know if certain details are resolved.  It is, of course, much more than what I "revealed" two years ago (which in turn, ironically, is less than what Tor themselves have been releasing in their daily "Memories of Light" email releases to subscribers), but it doesn't say anything at all about whether or not it is a well-written/constructed novel or if it has a good denouement.  For those wanting to know that, they will likely have to wait much longer than January 8 to find out from others; they probably will have to read it for themselves in order to decide, as it is unlikely with "spoiler-free" reviews that much could be discussed of a book's merits.

And that's the saddest part about all this.  Those who should be most inclined to evaluate probably won't, seeing how some are more concerned about who has "access" and who doesn't that it is unlikely that anything other than a fannish encomium will be penned in the immediate aftermath.  Readers thus will have to RAFO for themselves in the meanwhile to see if it's any good.   That's the downside of having such "close" relationships between online reviewers and publishers.  The readers cannot be certain that anything truly substantive and honest will be written under such circumstances.  I know I felt like I wasn't being as honest as I could be under those strictures and I don't see how others could be straightforward, not if they are concerning themselves with securing their "early" copies.  This will be an issue that lasts far beyond the next month or so that anyone will be reading this particular book, as it will come up again elsewhere, under a slightly different guise.  Hopefully, those who want to know more information, even if it is "spoilers" that have leaked early, will not be left searching in vain.

Best of 2012: YA/Children's Literature

2012 was an interesting year for me when it came to reading Young Adult/Juvenile/Children's Lit.  Due to a conversation I had this summer with Dunja, I re-read several childhood favorites (and reviewed some of them here) and read several that were favorites of her when she was growing up.  Most of those I enjoyed quite a bit.  Yet when it comes to 2012 releases, I only read 9 works that could readily be accepted as either children's lit or YA (I almost added Samuel Delany's Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, as the two main protagonists were teens when the story began, then I thought better of it, as there would be some irate readers ready to smack me for that ;)).  Yet I enjoyed 8 out of the 9 to some degree or another, so I thought perhaps this might make for a good list for those such as myself who would like to read something new in the field that isn't the X volume in series Y (only one is a continuation of a prior story).  So here's what I read, the five National Book Award finalists for Young People's Literature (one of which is a fantasy) and four others that would likely be classified by some as YA SF/F.

9.  Leah Bobet, Above.  Despite liking her short fiction enough to list her story "Six" for consideration for BAF 4, her debut novel, Above, was an underwhelming YA urban fantasy about a humanity divided into groups based on whether or not they lived above or below the surface.  Although there were some promising moments, the dialogue felt stilted and the story lacked the necessary cohesion to achieve its ambitious goals.

8.  William Alexander, Goblin Secrets.  See my earlier review.

7.  Steve Sheinkin, Bomb:  The Race to Build – and Steal – the World's Most Dangerous Weapon.  See my earlier review.

6.  Eliot Schrefer, Endangered.  See my earlier review.

5.  Nalo Hopkinson, The Chaos.  This is a story about self-identity and ethnicity, as the mysterious black spot that appears on the protagonist's arm can be viewed as a concrete metaphor for her troubles trying to sort out her multiracial heritage.  Well-written, with a very believable character whose conflicts will resonate with many of multiracial/ethnic heritages. 

4.  Carrie Arcos, Out of Reach.  See my earlier review.

3.  Kelly Barnhill, Iron Hearted Violet.  This second novel by Barnhill that I've read this year (The Mostly True Story of Jack being her debut novel) was a delight to read.  When my niece Adyson turns that "magical" age, say around 8 or 9, I think I'd like to lend my copy to her.  Yes, I'm going to that sort of uncle, it seems (I gave her a 50th anniversary edition of Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth for her first Christmas this week).  It is a story of a brave young princess in a world where an unspoken ancient evil is threatening to re-enslave the world and her fight to prevent that.  Traditional tropes, perhaps, but Barnhill writes very well and I think it's good to see girls/women being more than plucky sidekicks or damsels in distress.

2.  Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.  Speaking of books for my niece, this second volume in her Fairyland series might be a good one to read aloud to her when she's in elementary school.  Valente is a very talented writer and her story, which I would judge to be good for the 9-12 year-old set and older, takes the portal fantasy and twists the "rules" a bit.  Well-done.

1.  Patricia McCormick, Never Fall Down.  See my earlier review.

Feel free to suggest other worthy 2012 releases in YA/Children's Lit that I've overlooked, as I certainly will give them consideration for the future, even if it'd be too late for me to post them in this article.  After all, since my brother and his wife aren't as avid of readers as I am, I'd like to screen new books for my niece to read in the future.  It's the least I could do as being the "creepy" uncle of the family ;)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Rabbi's Cat (2011 French film; Dec. 2012-January 2013 US release)

Frequently there is this mistaken notion, especially among American film audiences, that animation is primarily intended for children.  Yet animation offers possibilities that live-action film, even those heavily augmented with CGI, just cannot achieve.  In his adaptation of his own acclaimed five-volume graphic novel series, Le Chat du Rabbin (The Rabbi's Cat, available in two volumes in English translation), French writer/producer Joann Sfar has produced a film that makes full use of animation's potential for mixing the unreal with the real to create a provocative story.  Winner of the 2011 César Award (France's equivalent to the Oscars) for best animated film, The Rabbi's Cat (French, with English subtitles) debuted in New York City earlier this month and will enter a wider US release sometime in January 2013.

The Rabbi's Cat adapts volumes 1, 2, and 5 of Sfar's graphic novel series.  Set in 1930s Algeria, then part of France, it is a tale that examines the troublesome issue of religious conflict and the search for understanding in a world that seems hostile to the faithful.  The titular cat, who gains the ability to speak when he eats the family parrot, is a fascinating character.  His first words are a lie (he did not eat the parrot, thank you very much!) and his questioning of whether or not his new-found self-consciousness and verbosity makes him a potential Jew greatly vexes Rabbi Sfar.  The first half of the movie is devoted to exploring the fragile relationship between religion and science, as the more skeptical cat questions the validity of the Talmud even as he seeks a place among the local Algerian Jews.  Easily this could devolve into a trite, shallow exploration of faith, but Sfar is playing a deeper game here, as a visit to Rabbi Sfar's old teacher shows an uglier side to this conflict.

Intermixed among this are the relationships between the widowed Rabbi Sfar and his only daughter, Zlabya, and her love for the amusing, witty, and occasionally devious cat.  These scenes are animated brilliantly, as Sfar utilizes a combination of traditional ink animation and computers to create a very vivid, organic interplay of scene and people.  The characters, especially the cat and Zlabya, move in an entrancing fashion, due in part to motion-capture technology being utilized to create a framework for the animation clips.  Although I only saw this in 2D on the screener DVD provided to me by the American distributors, GKIDS, The Rabbi's Cat was designed with 3D in mind and in places in the film, it is easy to imagine that the layered effect, combined with very vivid colors, would likely make for a good 3D viewing experience (in 2D, it is one of the most colorful animated films I have ever seen).

Yet visuals can carry a movie only so far, as there needs to be a strong narrative to engage the viewer's interest for the entire 89 minutes.  Unfortunately, there were a few places where the narrative seemed to falter for a few minutes, namely in the scenes setting up the transition from the initial focus on the cat, rabbi, and daughter toward an African adventure (a subplot adapted from the fifth graphic novel volume).  The scene introducing the Russian Jewish painter and his mission to find a fabled African Jewish community, a sort of mystical Jerusalem, is choppy and there is the sense that things are rushed too much; an extra five minutes or so developing the transition scene would have made the connection between the two halves of the movie much stronger.

Other reviewers have remarked about how the second half of The Rabbi's Cat fails to live up to the promise of the first half, as the conclusion in particular comes under scrutiny.  At first glance, there is something to this, as the scenes involving the travel across the Sahara toward the "lost city" contain certain references to previous Francophone comics/colonial themes (such as the appearance of Tintin characters in a fashion that satirizes the dodgy racial depictions in that famous comics) that may be lost upon American audiences.  Yet there is an underlying unity of theme that pervades these scenes that tells a larger story about ourselves and our prejudices than what first appears to be the case.  If anything, Sfar may be a bit too subtle in places, at least for particular American audiences who prefer more explicit development of anti-racism/religious tolerance themes.  Take for instance these three images from a scene roughly 2/3 into the movie that I took with my phone's camera:

Here the cat is voicing a question that takes in such matters as religious belief and cultural identity and he makes even deeper connections between the human longing to emulate and to control nature and the means by which this longing is displayed in our symbols and actions.  Although he is quieter here in the second half compared to the first, the cat is still a voice of an outside observer, questioning just why we act in certain ways to particular beliefs.  This is especially seen toward the movie's end, as the travelers near their goal, only to discover that the goalposts have shifted.  It is not a comforting end, certainly not one with a nice, simple conclusion that is a Hollywood standard, but it fits with the issues that Sfar wanted to explore here.

The Rabbi's Cat is not a perfect movie, but despite its flaws in transitioning between key scenes, it is certainly a work that will linger in the viewer's mind longer than the vast majority of recent cinema releases.  The combination of detailed and excellently-rendered scenes and complex characters with a movie that refuses to have clear-cut answers to the questions it raises may make this a movie that will not appeal to those who prefer to have "light" entertainment, but for those who are willing to consider the themes that Sfar's characters raise, The Rabbi's Cat will be one of the better movies, domestic as well as foreign, released recently in the US.  Highly recommended.

Best of 2012: Romance and Paranormal Romance

Well, I did read some fiction that might fall into those two categories:

Victoria Foyt, Save the Pearls

Dahlia Lu, The Dark God's Bride


On second thought, perhaps this should be filed under "Worst of 2012"?

Best of 2012: Debut Novels and Collections

2012 has seen several interesting debut releases.  Some authors had their first published works of fiction made after making a name for themselves writing non-fiction, while others had their first novels published after a successful short story collection or two.  A couple had their US debuts this year after success in the UK a year or two prior.  However one chooses to define "debut," there certainly are some very strong and/or promising voices that I read this year that will not make the final list of 11 (I like prime numbers).  Below is a loose ranking of these "top" 11 out of 26 debut works read, followed by a listing of nine others that, in most cases, just barely failed to crack the final list.

11.  Adam McOmber, The White Forest (novel).  I had McOmber singled out for future reading after one of his stories made the longlist I developed for the aborted Best American Fantasy 4 and although he has a collection already out (which I will read in 2013), his debut novel, The White Forest, is a work that straddles an increasingly blurred line between realist and supernatural-tinged fiction.

10.  Jac Jemc, My Only Wife (short novel).  There is a subtlety to Jemc's use of repetition of words, theme, and tone to outline a grief-stricken husband's inability to get over his wife's sudden (and possibly violent) disappearance.  The prose is impeccable, with a narrative power that threatens to overwhelm the reader with a deluge of associations and emotions, without ever becoming maudlin. 

9.  Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (novel).  This is Heller's first novel after several non-fiction works and he eloquently captures the dual senses of freedom and loss in this near-future post-apocalyptic novel.  Although some plot elements share much in common with other works of a similar nature, Heller's narrative is taut, easily shifting from the literary present to the past without ever feeling forced or disruptive.  The prose is deceptively poignant, creating a work that feels "alive" without pretensions to be artificially profound.

8.  G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen (novel).  See my earlier review.

7.  Jennifer duBois, A Partial History of Lost Causes (novel).  See my earlier review.

6.  Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (novel).  See my earlier review.

5.  Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis (novel).  See my earlier review.

4.  Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles (novel).  2012 winner of the Orange Prize.  Miller's retelling of Achilles' life, including his love for Patroclus, could have been hackneyed.  But her gift for narrative and character voices imbues this novel with a power that most veteran novelists will never accomplish.

3.  Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (novel).  See my earlier review.

2.  Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn (collection).  See my earlier review.

1.  L. Annette Binder, Rise (collection).  See my earlier review.

Honorable Mentions:

Tupelo Hassman, Girlchild
Katie Ward, Girl Reading
Adam Wilson, Flatscreen
Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles
Domingo Martinez, The Boy Kings of Texas
Lydia Netzer, Shine Shine Shine
Christian Kiefer, The Infinite Tides
Karolina Waclawiak, How to Get Into the Twin Palms
Kevin Barry, City of Bohane

Kyung-sook Shin, Please Look After Mom (2012 Man Asian Prize winner)

Mothers are, for most of us, the most important human beings we will ever know.  They give birth to us, nourish us, scold us when we stray from their teaching, sit down with us and make sure we learn our alphabets/characters and arithmetic so we can do better in class, and when we are adults, they strive to remind us of where we came from and what we can aim to achieve.  That is the Hallmark image of motherhood and although the realities of our lives reveal differences in this image of mother as supporter and enabler, it certainly is a vision that quite a few of us reading this have of our own mothers.

Yet mothers are also often taken for granted, as if they were a nice animated machine that dispensed food, hugs, and money, not necessarily in that order.  For many of us, as we’ve grown older, our mothers fade into the background, unless they call us up an evening or two (sometimes, in the process, annoying us) to see how we were doing and if we would be coming over to visit sometime soon.  Mama can become little more than an old person that gets in our way and we try to “make something” of our lives.  It’s not as though they are hated, usually it is far from that, but they are no longer important to us because they don’t provide for us and many of us just don’t have the time or desire to provide for them as they age.

This is a rather uncomfortable social truth that spans across six inhabited continents and divers cultures.  It lies at the heart of Korean writer Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, which recounts through the points-of-view of a particular mother’s husband and children their memories of her that were reactivated after she turned up missing after she missed connecting with her husband on a commuter train a month prior.  Shin builds through these reminiscences a complex mosaic portrayal of the mother, Park So-nyo, and of the complicated relationships her children and husband (who proved to be faithless to her during their marriage) had with her and with each other.  Below is a memory that the eldest daughter, Chi-hon, had:
A few years ago, your mom said, “We don’t have to celebrate my birthday separately.”  Father’s birthday is one month before Mom’s.  You and your siblings always went to your parents’ house in Chongup for birthdays and other celebrations.  All together, there were twenty-two people in the immediate family.  Mom liked it when all her children and grandchildren gathered and bustled about the house.  A few days before everyone came down, she would make fresh kimchi, go to the market to buy beef, and stock up on extra toothpaste and toothbrushes.  She pressed sesame oil and roasted and ground sesame and perilla seeds, so she could present her children with a jar of each as they left.  As she waited for the family to arrive, your mom would be visibly animated, her words and her gestures revealing her pride when she talked to neighbors or acquaintances.  In the shed, Mom kept glass bottles of every size filled with plum or wild-strawberry juice, which she made seasonally.  Mom’s jars were filled to the brim with tiny fermented croaker-like fish or anchovy paste or fermented clams that she was planning to send to the family in the city.  When she heard that onions were good for one’s health, she made onion juice, and before winter came, she made pumpkin juice infused with licorice.  Your mom’s house was like a factory; she prepared sauces and fermented bean paste and hulled rice, producing things for the family year-round.  At some point, the children’s trips to Chongup became less frequent, and Mom and Father started to come to Seoul more often.  And then you began to celebrate each of their birthdays by going out for dinner.  That was easier.  Then Mom even suggested, “Let’s celebrate my birthday on your father’s.”  She said it would be a burden to celebrate their birthdays separately, since both happen during the hot summer, when there are also two ancestral rites only two days apart.  At first the family refused to do that, even when Mom insisted on it, and if she balked at coming to the city, a few of you went home to celebrate with her.  Then you all started to give Mom her birthday gift on Father’s birthday.  Eventually, quietly, Mom’s actual birthday was bypassed.  Mom, who liked to buy socks for everyone in the family, had in her dresser a growing collection of socks that her children didn’t take.
This passage, which is only but one of several similar flashbacks, goes straight for the jugular.  In reading it, I could remember how my mother and maternal grandmother were in regards to sewing clothing for several in the family, the simple dismissal of attention, and the stoic facing of age while the family grew up and moved into different homes (and in my case, to a different state for two years).  I could easily see myself in a position similar to Chi-hon’s, possibly sitting at a desk or table twenty years from now and wondering about my mother and just how quickly and completely she had faded into the background, despite her being so vocal about my need to learn responsibility when I was younger.  That is the devastating beauty of Please Look After Mom.  Shin utilizes a mixture of first-, second-, and third-person points-of-views to place us right in the shoes of the missing mother’s family.  How easily it could be our own mother who has wandered away, suffering from medical ailments, yet not wanting to interrupt our self-absorbed lives.  If we find ourselves thinking and reacting along with the husband and three children, then Shin’s novel has us utterly in its grasp.  We cannot turn aside, but have to confront the memories that burble up from reading a story just like this.

It is easy to forget how much and how little we understand our own family members until stories such as Please Look After Mom come along to jar us into remembering what we had forgotten or at least had tried to forget.  For that and for how adroitly Shin mixes the four narrative threads together to reveal portraits of each family member and mom, Please Look After Mom may be the best character novel of this year’s Man Asian Prize finalists.  It is difficult to imagine a story that could be more effective that portraying multiple, and sometimes conflicting, images of a family matriarch.  It simply is a moving novel that may lead to a few tears welling up as you read it.

Originally posted in March 2012 on Gogol's Overcoat.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"A bunch of rats, in a gutter, fighting over some piss."

The titular quote, taken from a comment on Twitter by Jonathan McCalmont in response to a link I posted on Twitter this afternoon.  This link to a Westeros discussion on the final The Wheel of Time book, A Memory of Light, normally would have left me with a shrug and a click to another thread if it weren't for direct mentions of myself and a few others.  As it is, I was ready to just mention it briefly in Twitter and leave it at that, if it weren't for McCalmont's comment on some of the reader/blogger reactions crystallizing some of my own ambivalent thoughts on the subject.

It goes back two years to the release of the previous WoT book and the questions of "an embargo" on reviews and so forth.  I blogged about what transpired, including the flack that I caught for giving vague impressions (which probably sounded more laudatory than the decidedly mixed-to-negative opinion I had of the book as a whole), in a few posts back in October 2010.  Although not the sole determining factor in a shift in reviewing philosophy, that mini-tempest certainly accelerated my departure from the rat race of those who appeared to have come to view review copies/galley proofs as some sort of status symbol or some semi-sacred trust that had to be kept with the publishers.  If "reviewing" meant kow-towing to publicist requests/demands, then it would be better to walk away from a potentially incestuous relationship, one fraught with the possibility of feeble paeans to the marketing sheen of a book rather than a substantive look at whether or not the book in question would be remember five years hence. 

That is still my stance 26 months later, although I do on occasion agree to consider books from certain non-Anglophone presses because of my curiosity about what is being produced in Spanish and Portuguese and because there is nothing of the entitlement that seems to permeate Anglo-American presses and certain online venues.  So no, I never was going to receive a review copy of the latest WoT and why should I, seeing how I said in one of the linked posts above that I wouldn't accept it under any terms?  So it is with some bemusement that I learned of discussions where I would explicitly not receive the said book (which will be purchased for me to send soon afterward to someone dear to me overseas), as if this is some sort of punishment.

McCalmont's right.  If such things have to be discussed in terms of who gains access, then it really has become akin to "a bunch of rats, in a gutter, fighting over some piss."  Pardon me while I clean any rat sprayings off of my clothes and resume reading books that I either purchased with my own money or which were sent to me with only the hope that I would consider reviewing them.  The rats can fight for their "access" and "privileges" without me.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Trailer for a movie I'm going to be reviewing in the next day or two

I received a DVD screener earlier this month for The Rabbi's Cat, a critically-acclaimed (it won the French equivalent for an Oscar for Best Animated Picture) animation film that is an adaptation of Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat graphic novel series.  Although it had a limited-release in New York City this month in order to qualify it for certain awards, it'll be receiving a wider release in January.  Thought perhaps this might be of interest to a few readers here, especially after having watched it and (mostly) loving it.  Review forthcoming, once I recover more from a recurrence of bronchitis.

What Santa Squirrel Brought for Me in 2012

After years of teasing my mom about how she would make everyone but me a quilt, pillow, etc., she surprised me last night (we have a tradition of exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve, as we travel Christmas Day to visit relatives on my mom's side of the family) with this quilt that she made for me.  Certainly the best Squirrelmas gift I have ever received.

In addition, I received $80 in iTunes cards, $150 in cash, and some clothes, so it has been good on that end (not that I get too enthused about gifts these days, with the notable exception above).  Going to buy some e-books and music with the gift cards shortly.  

What did you get for Christmas/Squirrelmas?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Best of 2012: Pre-2012 releases (re)read this year

Although it will be several days before I start writing the year-end posts on 2012 releases, I thought now would be a good time to mention older books that I read (or in a few cases, re-read) this year that are worthy of recognition.  There is little commonality to these books other than them being enjoyable works that many of you may want to visit (or revisit) in the years to come.  There is no "ranking" to these, as this is more of a gathering of favorites rather than a determination of "the" favorite for the year.  So in roughly chronological order of what I've read this year, here goes:


1.  Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

2.  Sohrab Sepehri, Water's Footfall

3.  Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet books (Justine; Balthazar; Mountolive; Clea)

4.  Eric Basso, The Smoking Mirror

5.  Mercé Rodoreda, Death in Spring


6.  Jean Ray, Malpertuis

7.  Teju Cole, Open City

8.  Jenny Boully, not merely because the unknown that was stalking toward them

9.  David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?:  Translation and the Meaning of Everything

10. Zoran Živković, The Five Wonders of the Danube


11.  Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia

12.  Yan Lianke, Dream of Ding Village

13.  Gonçalo M. Tavares, Jerusalem

14.  Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist

15.  Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake


16.  Mercé Rodoreda, Aloma

17.  Jan Morris, Hav

18.  Judith Hermann, Alice

19.  Diego Marani, New Finnish Grammar

20.  Giannina Braschi, Yo-Yo Bang!


21.  Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place

22.  Imre Kertész, Fatelessness

23.  Erri de Luca, God's Mountain

24.  David Soares, Batalha

25.  Helen Oyeyemi, The Icarus Girl


26.  Carlos Fuentes, La gran novela latinoamerica

27.  Yoko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor

28.  Cormac McCarthy, The Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses; The Crossing; Cities of the Plain)

29.  László Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann, Animalinside

30.  Modris Eksteins, Walking Since Daybreak


31.  Goran Petrović, Le Siége de L'église Saint-Sauveur

32.  Ernesto Cardenal, Poesía Completa:  Tomo I

33.  Branko Miljković, Fire and Nothing

34.  Joseph Brodsky, Watermark

35.  Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams


36.  Leonardo Sciascia, The Wine-Dark Sea

37.  Emilio Salgari, The Black Corsair

38.  Danilo Kiš, Early Sorrows

39.  Fainna Solasko, Kutkha the Raven

40.  Thomas Wolfe, The Web and the Rock


41.  Luigi Pirandello, Racconti fantastici

42.  Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

43.  Umberto Eco, Mouse or Rat?:  Translation as Negotiation

44.  Ivo Andrić, The Damned Yard and Other Stories

45.  Alina Diaconú, ¿Qué nos pasa, Nicolás?


46.  Ian McEwan, Atonement

47.  Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again

48.  David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

49.  Thomas Wolfe, The Hills Beyond

50.  C. Alberto Bessa, Poética efêmera:  Poemas Reunidos


51.  Alberto Moravia, Boredom

52.  Milorad Pavić, For Ever and a Day

53.  Haley Tanner, Vaclav & Lena

54.  Angélica Gorodischer, Kalpa Imperial

55.  Salvatore Quasimodo, The Selected Writings of Salvatore Quasimodo


56.  Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories

57.  Luigi Pulci, Morgante

58.  Matteo Maria Boiardo, Orlando Innamorato

59.  Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso

60.  Mark Jarman, Bone Fires

Hopefully, there'll be something of interest for you, or perhaps you'll recollect an old favorite.  I limited myself to 5 pre-2012 releases a month, in order to make sure I didn't list 100+ books.  The ones listed I think will (or have) stand the test of time, or at least long enough to remember them fondly in 2013 and perhaps beyond.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Since the End is nigh tomorrow or something...

Here is my attempt to appease the wrathful squirrel gods.  By offering them a sugary-sweet and yet nutty cookie representation of them, likely to be left under oak trees just before dawn on the winter solstice, it is my hope that this will avert catastrophic danger...

OK, not really, but for a few of you, seeing Christmas Squirrel cookies (with cashews) might be amusing, no?  And for those who refuse to be amused, I leave you with this warning:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

New and forthcoming e-book collections/novel that you should consider reading

Sometimes, the end of the year sees the (re)issuing of interesting collections and novels.  Recently, I have received or been offered four e-book collections/novel and although I have to date have completed only one of them, each of these intrigues me enough that I wanted to bring these to your attention, especially if you have e-readers/tablets and don't mind reading e-books (I believe most, if not all of these will see print editions in the near future).  Each of these have either been released since the first of the month or will be released by month's end in a variety of e-formats. 

Nir Yaniv, The Love Machine & Other Contraptions. (Infinity Plus).  Released in late November in both print and e-book editions, Israeli writer Nir Yaniv's debut English-language collection, The Love Machine & Other Contraptions, has been translated by various writers, from Lavie Tidhar to Yaniv himself, into English.  The stories here cover a wide range of ground and as this is the only one of the books that I've read before writing this post, I can safely say that I enjoyed this one quite a bit.  Uncertain if I'll be able to write a formal review before Christmas, but perhaps I'll have more to say by New Year's Eve or maybe early January 2013.

Amos Tutuola, Don't Pay Bad for Bad. (Cheeky Frawg)Released in early December in a variety of e-formats (Amazon, Wizard's Tower Press), this is a collection of some of the late Nigerian writer Tutuola's shorter fictions.  Will be reading this one later this week, as I've been meaning for ages to read his The Palm-Wine Drunkard and now I have no excuse to put off reading his work.  Review either late this month or in January.

K.J. Bishop, That Book your Mad Ancestor Wrote (self-published by Bishop).  Released so far only on Amazon US and UK, with a print format planned for next year, this is an intriguing collection that came on December 13.  I read and enjoyed Bishop's The Etched City soon after its Prime Books edition was released several years ago, so I am very curious to see how a collection of her short fiction reads.  Hope to have an e-copy shortly, with reading to take place before Christmas and possible review by early January at the latest.

Leena Krohn, Tainaron (Cheeky Frawg).  Scheduled to be released very shortly (before month's end, I believe) at the same places where Don't Pay Bad for Bad is being sold, this is the e-book reprint of Krohn's first short novel to be published in English translation.  I believe that in 2013 some more works by her and other Finnish writers will be released by Cheeky Frawg in an e-book anthology called It Came from the North:  A Finnish Fantasy Sampler and possibly another novel of hers.  I have an e-copy of Tainaron now for review purposes and will be reading it this weekend, likely for review in January if not before then.

Let me know which, if any, of these titles interest you the most and I'll see about bumping up coverage a little bit.

William Faulkner, "Centaur in Brass"

One notable feature of Faulkner’s writing is that there are very few true “villains.”  Yes, there are characters such as Light in August‘s Joe Christmas who do reprehensible deeds, yet their portrayals allow us enough insight into their characters that we feel sympathetic, at least in part, toward them.  Faulkner’s thematic explorations into how history and place affect character motivations and actions tend to leave little ground for characters that are truly repulsive or “evil.”  One possible exception might be the Snopes family.  Ever since the first Yoknapatawpha novel, Sartoris (later revised as Flags in the Dust) in 1929, members of this family have come to represent souls who have been banished to the outskirts of polite society, left there to scrounge for themselves, largely outside the influence of others.  Ab Snopes, the horsethief and resentful barn burner of The Unvanquished and “Barn Burning,” is shady enough on his own, yet it is his second son, Flem, who perhaps is the coldest, least sympathetic recurring character in all of Faulkner’s fictions, with the possible exception of Sanctuary‘s Popeye (yet even he has his moments of near-redemption).  Flem appears briefly in Flags in the Dust and is referenced in the 1930 novel As I Lay Dying, before playing a central role in the “Snopes Trilogy” (The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), The Mansion (1959).  He is described as having “eyes the color of stagnant water” and his small nose somehow manages to have the hooked appearance of a raptor bird.  He is more shrewd than his father, having moved from a position of poverty toward a powerful position in Frenchman’s Bend, located in the southernmost part of Yoknapatawpha County.

“Centaur in Brass” (1932) represents Flem as a half-legendary character whose amorality baffles and annoys the townspeople of Jefferson, yet whose ability to turn a trade into something favorable to him has made him an object of grudging admiration.  The anonymous narrator of “Centaur in Brass” certainly displays this as he recounts in the first quarter of this twenty page story some of Flem Snopes’ exploits:  the way he went from being a country store clerk to having the former store owner work for him; the fashion in which he “won the hand” of that same store owner’s beautiful daughter, Eula; their elopement in Texas and return just in front of a pony trader who sells the locals unbroken ponies; Flem’s rapid rise to prominence, first in Frenchman’s Bend and later in Jefferson.  There are hints of unscrupulous acts, such as the one involving Eula and the new Jefferson mayor, Major Hoxey:
Not impregnable:  impervious.  That was why it did not need gossip when we watched Snopes’s career mount beyond the restaurant and become complement with Major Hoxey’s in city affairs, until less than six months after Hoxey’s inauguration Snopes, who had probably never been close to any piece of machinery save a grindstone until he moved to town, was made superintendent of the municipal power plant.  Mrs. Snopes was born one of those women the deeds and fortunes of whose husbands alone are the barometers of their good name; for to do her justice, there was no other handle for gossip save her husband’s rise in Hoxey’s administration.
But there was still that intangible thing:  partly something in her air, her face; partly what we had already heard about Flem Snopes’s methods.  Or perhaps what we knew or beleived about Snopes was all; perhaps what we thought to be anyway, when we saw Snopes and Hoxey together we would think of them and adultery in the same instant, and we would think of the two of them walking and talking in amicable cuckholdry.  Perhaps, as I said, this was the fault of the town.  Certainly it was the fault of the town that the idea of their being on amicable terms outraged us more than the idea of the adultery itself.  It seemed foreign, decadent, perverted:  we could have accepted, if not condoned, the adultery had they only been natural and logical and enemies.
Yet “Centaur in Brass” is not about Snopes adding to his list of triumphs.  Instead, it is a tale in which the shrewd, almost reptilian, calculating Snopes gets the tables turned on him as he tries to make a profit by having brass parts from the power plant turned into a profit by having the two fireman, Tom-Tom (day) and Turl (night), portrayed as being guilty parties of stealing parts from the plant for their own personal profit.  Yet these two firemen, after a heated confrontation leads to mutual awareness of what Snopes has done, manage to turn the tables on him, forcing him to pay for the purloined parts.  It is a well-written inversion of the opening section of the story:  the con man is conned; the menial labor one-ups the superior.

Revealing this does not weaken the story, as it is as much a fuller introduction to Flem Snopes’ character than it is a clever tale of deceiving the decepter. One thing is notable here, however.  The Flem Snopes of “Centaur in Brass” is not quite as developed as he became in the later Snopes novels.  We only hear of his exploits, but do not see them executed.  There is not yet the sense of cold, almost malicious intent in his actions; here, he only is after a profit and nothing else.  His wife, Eula, barely factors here, compared to her role in the novels.  It is as though Flem Snopes were an idea that Faulkner had had for some time (viz. his appearance in Flags in the Dust), yet there were still questions of how best to flesh out this character.  Despite this sketchy quality to Snopes’ character, “Centaur in Brass” is a very effective story because of its contrast of the legend and the reality of Flem’s character.  We do not admire his behavior or his motivations, but there is something about the audaciousness in which he operates that captures the readers’ attentions, making them want to read more about this character and to try and understand just how this cold, calculating person operates.  This, when combined with the contrasts noted above, make “Centaur in Brass” a story that loses very little when read multiple times.

Originally posted in April 2012 on Gogol's Overcoat as part of a weekly "Faulkner Friday."  Novels  reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Nick Mamatas, Bullettime

The Ylem isn't so much a place as it is the canvas places are painted on.  Here I can live every decision and detail of an infinite number of me.  Of course the shooting cuts a huge red slash through my personal Ylem, like a line in the financial pages after a stock market crash.  Sometimes I was able to resist Eris for weeks, or months, before pulling the trigger.  A couple of times she never got to me at all.

There are endless realities shifting and swirling in the Ylem, and I've lived them all.  Nothing else to do, really.  I died a baby due to bronchitis, and never felt anything more than cold and a harsh thimble full of air.  There was an "accident" – that's what the principal called it – in eighth grade.  I was accidentally cornered and kicked so hard in the ribs that splinters of bone tore right through my guts.  I didn't even die till seventh period, in World Literature. (Ch. 7)

Nick Mamatas' latest novel, Bullettime might be his most (un)timely and socially relevant novel yet, as a novel he had published in August 2012 has connections with one of the more horrific mass shootings in American history.  I was re-reading Bullettime this weekend for this review; I began just before news broke of the killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  As a teacher (even if currently a sub while I hope that a mid-term position opens up; the day the shooting occurred, I worked with first graders), the events moved me.  As a former worker with teens with severe emotional behavioral disorders, the events in protagonist David Holbrook's life are too eerily similar to the case histories of the residential treatment patients I taught and mentored.  As a former classmate to someone who brought a shotgun (unloaded) to school back in the late 1980s, there is that belated awareness of those who "didn't fit in" with the local school cliques.  As I re-read Bullettime slowly this weekend, taking breaks due to bronchitis and the need to let the emotional moments subside, I came to appreciate Mamatas' approach toward issues such as character-felt helplessness and the callous cruelty of mass society that can turn an introverted, bullied youth into a mass killer.

Through the use of a multiverse-like entity, the Ylem, Bullettime slows down the action periodically (a metaphorical "bullet time") to show a Dave Holbrook (who sometimes addresses himself in the third person, as someone outside the immediate path of action being followed) at various critical junctures in his young life.  He is assaulted frequently at school, called "faggot" repeatedly, has no luck with women, abuses the "syrup" to make it through yet another hellacious day.  His family is dysfunctional and he has no real friends.  He is cast adrift, with only a mysterious new classmate (later revealed to be the Greek goddess of discord) who pays any sort of attention.  No matter which branching the Ylem Dave follows, in each and every case his life ends by the age of forty.

Too easily this could be a sophomoric attempt at exploring concepts of fate and what motivates mass shooters.  Mamatas, however, largely avoids falling into the pit of trite, shallow exploration of these themes by showing us a Dave who does (temporarily) find some hope, a Dave who questions if all of these poor fates are pre-ordained, then why not choose the one where he gains the notoriety that replaces the lack of affection in his life?  This question is a very troubling one, obviously, as witnessed by the frequent and mostly futile attempts to explain mass shooter motivations.  It is too easy to demonize these people, to make them "other," something somehow less than human.  As if this "less than human" status had not already been conferred upon them, either by their self-loathing or by their (perceived) shabby treatment by society.  Based on personal experience, some of the most eager to please and to be liked individuals were those who had committed horrific deeds (I once taught a resident who had set a dog on fire, for example).  By having Dave be, if not quite "likable," a sympathetic character, Mamatas derails that quick line from shooter rationale to "shooter is crazy/evil."  We are forced to confront the unsettling notion that our society may be at least as responsible for creating the environment for these shootings, not through mass media such as TV, movies, or video games, but rather through the way that Americans are conditioned to treat one another, whether it be family, friends, or people we encounter who are a bit different from ourselves.

The SF/fantasy elements (Eris, the Ylem) add a greater sense of "reality" to Dave's situation.  As Eris interacts with the various Dave timelines, we see her control him through sex, through the withholding of sex, through the manipulation of others to affect Dave's sensibilities.  She is the embodiment of discord, but also a concrete metaphor for an unbalanced society in which the school officials, parents,  and classmates display their own brutalities and pettiness that beggar anything Dave does in most of his timelines.  By showing this, Mamatas is not merely making Dave sympathetic; he is illustrating how our culture degrades and crushes the spirits of countless "lost souls" like Dave's, to the point where the sense of predetermined dark fate and helplessness set in to such a degree that mass murder becomes a plausible "out" option:

I'm not Dave Holbrook; I'm just the part of Dave Holbrook who wasn't insane.  She had so many ways and so many tricks; in the Ylem I see them all very clearly, and while poor lost Dave twists and writhes against a million predestinations, like a prisoner being prodded to the lip of a grave at bayonet point, at the crack of a whip, from the tug of a leash around his neck.  Eris is truly a goddess.  It's scary to see free will in action.  They control the rest of us.  If they're flame, we're moths. (Ch. 7)

Stories of those who commit horrific acts of violence depend upon a strong, focused narrative.  Mamatas' narrative moves at a rapid clip through its 225 print page, as it becomes evident by the novel's midpoint that Dave has three main options remaining:  1) to become the eternal bullied kid deprived of any parental love; 2) to become a cult-like leader after his murder spree, the Kallis Episkopos, devoted to the worship of Eris; 3) to forgo murder and to live out a miserable life caring for his mother in a run-down New Jersey town.  As the chapters quickly switch from Dave-in-Ylem to the various timeline Daves as they progress down their paths, the action picks up not because there is necessarily violence (even in the more violent paths, the shootings are not described in graphic detail), but because the reader becomes so invested in trying to see which path Dave will choose that there is little wasted verbiage or action.

If there were a flaw to Bullettime, it might be that things move a bit too rapidly, that some scenarios deserved more exposition.  But on the whole, the novel carefully balances its disturbing concept with a very well-developed protagonist whose lives and situations feel all too real to those of us who have known people like Dave Holbrook...or at least did not ignore them and shunt them aside like most others have done.  For some, reading Bullettime so soon after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre (or the Aurora, Colorado shootings or the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin, or...the list has grown too long already for just 2012 alone) may not "be the right time."  But a larger question, one that Mamatas himself hinted at in the Acknowledgements page discussing the difficulties he had getting this novel published due to the rash of school shootings whenever he seemed he might land a publication deal for this novel, is "why not now?"  Some stories, fictions they may be, can give us greater insight into horrific mass actions than any month's worth of vapid news coverage can ever achieve, because in the best fictions of this sort, asking the brutal questions about ourselves and our own possible roles in shaping the course of events (the fates) of people like Dave Holbrook can be more readily received than if this were a journalistic account.  Bullettime happens to be one of those rare novels (another that comes to mind when it comes to getting into the head of a killer is Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, the non-fiction/novel hybrid about Gary Gilmore's life/death) that transcends the events and goes straight toward our hearts and guts.  It may not be what many would like to read, but Bullettime does an outstanding job at making those receptive respond in a fashion that can be cathartic.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It is hard to go into a cinema adaptation of a book that you have read, much less one that you read over a dozen times between 12 and 23.  There are mental images formed from the prior reading that colors impressions, making it harder for the viewer to replicate what the reader experienced.  Add to that memories of watching the Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit and it was always going to be difficult for the three-film, Peter Jackson-directed version of The Hobbit to live up to expectations.

I am no "purist" when it comes to book-to-cinema adaptations.  I understand the two media differ significantly when it comes to narrative modes and exposition.  Although I preferred David Mitchell's narrative as it made for a very strong, thematically-unified novel that covered quite a few issues simultaneously while playing with the English language over the past and possible future, the cinema version of Cloud Atlas developed its own narrative formula that if it could not replicate all of Mitchell's themes or techniques, it at least chose a few of them to tell a story that I thought was stronger than what several other viewers did, mostly because of the Intolerance-like usage of parallel scenes that switched back and forth rapidly to create a narrative stronger than any of the individual subplots.  So when I went to watch The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey, I suspected it might be a narrative that was closer in tone and tenor to Jackson's versions of the three Lord of the Rings films than to the children's classic.  For the most part, this was the case, although there were some questionable decisions made here.

One issue that Jackson's team faced was that of the three The Hobbit movies coming out a decade after the LotR films.  For the "casual fan," the one who may have watched the movies without having read the books (my dad, who watched the movie with me, is one of them), there is a need to establish this "prequel" within the context of the LotR flicks rather than vice versa in case of the books.  Therefore, the opening minutes, which showed the older Bilbo and Frodo around the time of the Party 60 years after Bilbo's adventure, was a good way of establishing a connection between the two stories.  Add to that the scenes of Hobbiton life and the film begins well in establishing links between the two sets of trilogies.  Yet there is a cost to this, as it takes several minutes to go from the montage of flashbacks (the Smaug attack, then the Bilbo/Frodo scene) to the cinematic "present."  However, this may have been one of the more necessary decisions in a film where the director took rather unnecessary roads to reaching specific plot plots.

The characterizations are uneven.  Although the main characters (Bilbo, Thorin, Gandalf, and in his brief time, Gollum) are fleshed-out in terms of character traits and action, most of the other dwarves receive only broad characterization stroke or none at all.  Of course, the book itself does not devote much time to the bands of brothers and cousins that make up Thorin's entourage, but at times it seemed what distinguished one dwarf from another were their accents (so many different ones for those who were mostly close kin to Thorin) and occasional slapstick humor rather than anything substantive.  This is not a major flaw, as the cinematic narrative eschews close characterization in favor of focusing on developing a sense of "epicness," yet it was a missed opportunity here and it could affect the next two films if the landscape and action sequences fail to sustain a strong narrative force.

As for the enemies, it too is a mixed bag.  Although I have little problem with having Azog survive the battle outside Moria (seen in a flashback sequence) and having him instead of his son Bolg be the orc/goblin seeking revenge, his revenge story does not make all that much sense within the context of them actively hunting down Thorin's company without there being any apparent word given outside of the Blue Mountains and the Iron Hills that Thorin intended to march east to Erebor.  This lack of clarity is compounded by the dubious relationship between Azog and the goblin king, as the latter seems ready to defer to Azog once the latter arrives.  This felt like Jackson made an unnecessary and complicating departure from the books, as Azog could have easily taken the role assigned to Bolg in the book and that the goblins could have been those of the goblin king alone and that someone from that party could have merely escaped to warn Azog/Bolg and let the troop buildup begin then rather than having a couple of extraneous action/fighting scenes just to have more of those within the first film.

In general, the action scenes did not appeal to me.  Much of that is due to my general loathing for CGI-laden fight scenes, as these feel so artificial that there is little amazement and much annoyance that comes of them.  The fighting within the goblin hall was just so ridiculous even for the very low standards of this subgenre of cinema that its tedium led to answering of emails and checking time.  It just felt too drawn-out.  It didn't help that it followed just after the Bilbo/Gollum scene, which perhaps was the best scene in the movie, as it preserves most of the spirit of the riddle game from the book (both editions) while providing a bit of a hint about the Ring's shifting power between this movietrilogy and the LotR trilogy with the coloring of the Ring/Ghost world.  Sadly, after this there was almost thirty minutes of near-continuous fighting, interspersed with maybe five minutes of the dwarves, Gandalf, and Bilbo reuniting.

By the time the movie ended, it felt as though Jackson tried too hard to stretch elements from the LotR appendices into what amounts to a medium-length children's novel.  It is hard to fault him for trying to create a cinematic cohesion with his earlier LotR movies, but there were times were there was a dissonance between the source material's lighter tone and the more action-oriented tilt of this movie.  Although much of this is due to audience expectations, I cannot help but be annoyed to see that the cinematic Bilbo ends up killing in this movie, as that will likely diminish his later abhorrence of the impending violence between the dwarves, elves, and men over Erebor.  The dwarves go from near-silly to almost deathly-serious in blinks of the eye frequently enough that at times it becomes hard to tell which is predominant for the movie.  In the end, that perhaps is the most fitting commentary on The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey:  it is a movie that isn't quite sure what it wants to be and that it spends an inordinate amount of time trying to waffle between preserving the feel of the LotR films and the tone of the original book that the whole is left wavering between a good cinematic experience and a flawed one that may get worse in the following two films.
Add to Technorati Favorites