The OF Blog: September 2013

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review plans for October

So far, 2013 has been a fairly quiet year on the blogging front, due largely to the time/energy devoted to my two jobs.  However, this does not mean that I plan to forgo reviewing some, if not all, of the Booker Prize finalists or National Book Award finalists.  Right now, my plans are to start reviewing the six finalists for the Booker Prize over the next two weeks (I own 5 of the 6 books; only Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries remains to be purchased – it comes out October 15 in the US), so 5/6 should be reviewed by the time the winner is announced on October 15.  4/6 have already been read (planning to read Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland this week, maybe even tonight).

I also will read/review at least 8 of the 10 National Book Award for Fiction longlisted titles.  I have already read/reviewed George Saunder's excellent Tenth of December and there will reviews of the others sometime between October 5-October 20.  I also might review 1-2 longlisted titles for the Young People's Literature category before the finalists are announced October 16 (Kate DiCamillo's Flora & Ulysses certainly will be reviewed before then, as I've already read and enjoyed that book).  Probably will not read any of the Poetry or Non-Fiction titles until the shortlists are announced, however.

So if things go well, there should be something like 18-20 books reviewed in October (more if I decide to cover the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, which is iffy at the moment).  Plus there may be a few more titles as well.   About time that I started writing reviews again, no?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Thoughts regarding the recentering (or perhaps decentralization) of SF/F

On Monday, Strange Horizons republished in print form a lecture given in June 2013 by Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay called "Recentering Science Fiction and the Fantastic: What would a non-Anglocentric understanding of science fiction and fantasy look like?"  There is a lot to be unpacked here, too much indeed for a single blog post, so what I am going to do here is provide an annotated outline of discussion points that I may cover in the future.  Hopefully this will spark further thought and discussion from others, both native Anglophones and those who come from other traditions:

  • In discussing SF/F, more thought should be given to the various cultural strategies developed to cope with sometimes drastic changes in material life.  Too often, literary discussions that aim to cover non-Anglophone/Western matters fail to address this properly.  I suspect there cannot be a singular date or even range of decades assigned to matters dealing with how national literatures dealt with "modernity," if even such a term can be applied to developments outside certain cultural traditions.
  •  In addition to the books that Chattopadhyay cites, I would like to add Cynthia Duncan's Unraveling the Real:  The Fantastic in Spanish-American Ficciones and Mariela González's 2013 Premio Ignotus-nominated study of Rafael Marin's seminal work, Lágrimas de Luz:  postmodernidad y estilo en la ciencia ficción española to the mix for discussion of local literary/cultural traditions versus those imposed upon (or adopted with little to no coercion) from foreign cultures.
  • In discussing national scenes such as Spain and Portugal post-1980s, Brazil after the mid-20th, or Eastern Europe before, during, and after communist rule, perhaps space could be devoted to analyzing how science fiction output was encouraged and regulated by reading bodies within those nations.  To what degree do these traditions resemble those of the US and UK?  In what significant ways do they differ?  Is there a greater or lesser conflation of reader and writer in these countries and if so, how do these developments affect the interpretations of what constitutes SF/F?
  • In those countries where the local writers use English as the medium of communication (in part thinking of Filipino SF/F, but this is applicable to several other countries), how are tropes utilized and perhaps subverted to suit the readers' expectations (local and perhaps foreign as well, depending upon the writer)?
  • What are the experiences of women writers in non-Anglophone SF/F communities?  One thing often left unaddressed or cover in a cursory fashion is how women writing (or perhaps reading, since one does not necessarily exclude the other) from the perspective of non-UK/US cultures view and express gender in their writings.  
  • If one is to decentralize (perhaps a better term than recentering, if understood that decentralization does not mean a complete collapse of a concept of a "center") SF/F to avoid Anglocentrism, does this mean there should be a further eroding of the conceptual limns between "realism" and "speculative," between what haunts and what is concrete?  Thinking of works by writers such as Gonçalo M. Tavares, Ismail Kadare, Angélica Gorodischer, César Airas, and Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, among several others.
  • Finally, can "SF/F" even survive a closer examination of presumed key components when filtered through various national lens?  Or could it be that SF/F may just be one part of a spectrum of literatures that are written/told in fashions that reflect local concerns?

As I said above, these are potential articles and certainly there are few definitive answers that could be provided.  All I can do, as a multilingual critic, is continue to filter through discussions in the European languages that I can read (keeping in mind that it is only a sliver, albeit a large sliver, of the spectrum of discussions taking place in dozens, if not hundreds, of languages) and try to promote works by those writers whose fiction is worthy of greater attention even if few or none of their works have yet to be translated into English.  Conversations are difficult to have when only a few nearby can understand all that is being said, but I do think that if those further away are made aware of what is being discussed (in this case, those diver concerns that constitute SF/F), then perhaps greater efforts can be made to include those who may now exist at the peripheries of the field.  Whether or not this decentralizes the conversation (which I suspect) or recenters it, as Chattopadhyay argues, is up to the readers to determine.  All I can do is provide water for the horses to consider drinking.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

August 2013 Reads

A bit late in writing this one, due in part to August being such a slow month for reading that at one point I contemplated just combining it with the September reads in case this month was slow as well (it's not, as will be seen in 9-10 days).  Only 14 books read this month, my lowest number in a long time.  Fallen behind on three of my four reading goals (but have since caught up in September), but there's still hope for meeting all of them by December 31st.  Here's the list:

197  NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names (Booker Prize finalist; will review in early October)

198  Jim Crace, Harvest (another Booker Prize finalist to review in early October)

199  Colum McCann, TransAtlantic (longlisted for the Booker Prize; very good but not his best work)

200  Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (yet another Booker Prize finalist to review in early October)

201  Matt Bell, In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (already reviewed)

202  Carolyn Dalgliesh, The Sensory Child Gets Organized:  Proven Systems for Rigid, Anxious, or Distracted Kids (review forthcoming; non-fiction)

203  Thomas Ligotti, Death Poems (poetry; disturbing – in a way fitting for Ligotti – yet good)

204  Martín Arias and Martin Hadis (eds.), Professor Borges:  A Course on English Literature (already reviewed)

205  Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (very good)

206  Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump (non-fiction; review forthcoming)

207  Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North (very good)

208  David Foster Wallace, Both Flesh and Not (non-fiction; excellent collection of reviews and essays)

209  Fainna Solasko, Kutkha the Raven (re-read; very good)

210  Philipp Meyer, The Son (already reviewed)

Reading Goal Updates:

Overall:  210/366 (behind 32 books for the goal of reading 1 book/day + one)

Women writers:  73/210 (3 above 33% goal, but only 4/14 this month)

Foreign language:  64/100 (unchanged from last month; behind goal by 3)

Spanish:  31/50 (unchanged from last month; behind goal by 2)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Here is a list of books that I would love to see readers/reviewers consider

I have been fairly quiet the past couple of days, but that's in part because I have spent time looking at what others' have had to say about books in a variety of genres.  The Booker Prize shortlist and the National Book Award longlists have been announced (and yes, I will be reading as many of the shortlisted titles as possible, like last year, and most, if not all, of the longlisted fiction and YA titles).  There have been discussions elsewhere of other interesting books (and conversely, how certain segments of the reading population will not consider reading X because of Y...or XX). 

These have somehow melded in my mind to create a mish-mash of thoughts, but instead of elaborating on it right now, I thought I'd challenge those reading this, whether they are reviewers or just "average" readers, to choose one book from this list and tell me in the comments which book it is.  Then, if possible, they can talk about it on their blog, on Twitter, Facebook (granted, I likely won't be able to read most FB entries unless they are public), or anywhere else that they feel so inclined.  All I ask is that I hear about this, as I am curious to see what readers think.

Now this list will purposely be diverse in a number of ways, so hopefully there will be something of interest for someone (and hopefully more than one title will be unfamiliar, at least until investigated further).  So here goes:

Shani Boianjiu, The People of Forever are not Afraid

Leena Krohn, Tainaron

Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria

Nimad Sirees, The Silence and the Roar

Sherman Alexie, Blasphemy

Alaya Dawn Johnson, The Summer Prince

Liliana Bodoc, The Days of the Deer

Milorad Pavić, Second Body

Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, Where Tigers are at Home

Kate DiCamillo, Flora and Ulysses 

Was originally going to write 5, but a few more immediately came to mind, so here's a list of 10.  Should be interesting to see which works are chosen and why.  Let me (us?) know!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

So I see something has struck the fan in the past 48 hours

A lot has happened since I wrote a rebuttal post Sunday morning to an article with which I had several points of contention.  There was some excellent discussion within my thread with several readers raising their own points, some of which I have been considering in light of what I've read elsewhere.  But there was a lot of daftness (at best) and/or repulsive (at worst) in response to the original article.

There were heated discussions on Twitter regarding "silencing" or "bullying."  Such loaded terms, those two, so much so that it is disconcerting to see them bandied about so cavalierly.  I believe in a battle of ideas, a test of ideologies, but stating forcefully one's opinion (especially when said opinion was couched in polite, respectful terms and tone) does not equal either of those.  I disagreed with the assertion that authors should think several times about entering a forum where their works are being discussed (I view authorial intent to be as fallible, if not more so in a few cases, as reader interpretation of textual evidence), but that relates entirely to my previous experiences and mine alone.  As was pointed out to me, in some cases the matter of authorial intrusion into a discussion can collapse what some consider to be "safe spaces" for discussing matters.  That is something foreign to me, but it does not mean that it should be dismissed out of hand.  Certainly this desire to have discussions free of authorial presence can have positive benefits (particularly if the participants are loathe to challenge directly author statements regarding textual interpretation).  I just do not believe this is always the case.

But this is just a difference of opinion.  The original opinion piece is not invalidated because I found it to cover concerns foreign to me or to use terms that are not applicable here.  It certainly does not seek to "silence" writers but perhaps make it clear that butting in can often be quite undesired and unwelcome.  It would have been nice to see others discuss the issues regarding zones for discussion and how textual interpretations can be shaped.  Unfortunately, that is not what happened after this rebuttal was posted and others began to have their own reactions.

It's pretty obvious that I'm a male (my ethnicities, however, are not) and there are a lot of things that I can get by with, both online and in face-to-face discussion (being around 6' tall and having 16-17" biceps do tend to curb physical threats).  I don't have to worry about drawing much worse than a mild curse and certainly not epithets about my body, my sexual experiences, and so forth.  It's too easy to forget that women endure these vile things simply for voicing an opinion that runs counter to others.  Sometimes, just the fear of having a mild disparaging word can shut down people presenting their opinion on an issue.  Forget the perception of writers being told not to intrude in certain cases.  Readers are being made to feel uncomfortable, if not threatened, because others can't just disagree with them but instead attack them with sexual threats or saying that they are "dumb," "stupid," "emotion-filled," or "silly," just to use a few of the commonly-bandied about terms.  If that isn't the real "silencing" or "bullying," then perhaps I do not understand this fiasco at all.

The calls I read for there to be "authors welcomed" (or perhaps, not welcome) badges I found to be rather odd.  What is the point of it beyond the immediate moment?  What does it mean in regards to how authors/critics/readers are expected to interact?  Why has this become such an issue that at a little past 3 AM on a worknight I'm writing a post that'll pretty much say that why can't people just be civil and at least consider what others are saying before blurting out something that feels momentarily good for them?  Isn't that pretty much what should have happened, people considering other viewpoints and treating those opinions with respect while advancing their own complementary or dissenting takes?  If only...but instead, we just showed the parts of humanity that we try to keep covered up, as usual.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

What's in a cover? Six covers depicting a singular novel in very different ways

Below are six covers for the fourth Witcher novel by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski.  Last year, I finished reviewing all seven (or eight in Spain for the 1st editions) volumes of the Geralt series, but I did make plans to read the long-delayed (five years) Times of Contempt (why the title is plural here is beyond me, as it is singular in the other languages) in English soon after its August (US) 2013 release.  When I bought the e-book edition this weekend, I also saw that there was an Italian edition available and I thought that since I am currently working on improving my Italian reading comprehension that it would be a good idea to purchase an Italian e-edition as well.

I was struck by the differences in covers and as I searched for .jpgs of the two English-language editions and the Spanish and Italian editions, I came across images for the original Polish and French editions as well.  I found each cover to represent something markedly different from the others, enough so that I thought I would post brief thoughts on each cover:

Polish:  The Polish cover is simple, yet it captures an important scene from the story.  The unicorn perhaps is a stock fantasy beast, yet its appearance next to a (presumably) dead body seems to indicate many things transpiring within the narrative that aren't baldly spelled out.  I liked this cover for how it plays up and then hints at something different to the fantasy setting.

Spanish:  Depiction of Ciri, one of the main characters in this series.  Decent image (better than the original Spanish edition of a weapon), but the image is a bit too stiff and there isn't much of a sense of the character here.

French:  Why do I think this cover might be a good candidate for Good Show Sir?  It's so antiquated and doesn't really fit in with what actually transpires within the novel.  If I hadn't already read the series, covers like this would have likely dissuaded me.

Italian:  Now this cover is much better, as it captures Ciri and her balance of youth and later rough experiences quite nicely.  It feels like photoshopped and I like the use of colors here.

UK:  This is a reused cover from the Spanish edition of the second volume (not yet available in English translation), The Sword of Destiny.  Yennefer is pictured here.  See above comments about the Spanish cover, although this one I liked a bit more due to the prominence of the character; not as much background imagery to distract.

US:  Uh...uh...wha?  The image looks like Geralt is battling that sandpit monster from Return of the Jedi.  The lettering, however, is decent, but wow what an off-putting cover.

What about you?  Which covers did you like/like best?  Which ones should have been rejected before publication?

Fans: You got your fannish preconceptions all over my critic's space

I've been a bit too busy lately to keep track of the plethora of arguments regarding X, Y, or Z.  Sometimes, I'll learn of something on Twitter and click a link, only to read it 1-3 days later.  So it was with an interesting Strange Horizons article written back on September 9 by Renay of Lady Business.  Her article, "Communities:  You Got Your Industry in my Fanwork," presents in a very cogent form an opinion that many SF/F "fans" have regarding the perceived "intrusion" of authors into "their" space.  It is not a new argument, nor is it one that I have ever accepted uncritically.

Renay makes some rather strong claims early in her article.  This one in particular made me pause and reflect for a moment:

I am probably a minority in considering nonfiction reviews fanwork, but I approach all media from a place of fannish inquiry. I am interested in what I can extrapolate from a source myself, rather than relying on external canonical information from creators. Coming to book blogging fandom, and SF fandom in particular, is downright weird: book bloggers and creators interacting on social media; book bloggers and creators hanging out at conventions; and book bloggers sending review links, both negative and positive, to publishers and the creators! The classification between book bloggers as "fans" or "professionals" continues to shift and become increasingly nebulous as we adapt to the industry noticing us. This has contributed to what I see as creators and publishers carving out a space inside fan communities for themselves and settling in for the long haul. My eye is on the fact that sometimes creators will comment on my reviews and I'll have to go breathe into a paper bag, because all those "do not engage with creators over fanwork" warnings I took to heart as a teenager are exploding in the name of technological and fannish cultural progress. Because I'm aware of how badly things can go when fans seek to engage with creators, I'm intensely dubious that some creators think it's acceptable to walk into book blogger fan spaces featuring their work and argue about intentions and readings without an explicit invitation.
 There is quite a bit to unpack here.  For starters, the claim she makes that she considers "nonfiction reviews fanwork" is one that flat-out baffles me.  I just do not, cannot accept this line of reasoning, as it appears to begin from an assumption that those who write commentaries or reviews, particularly those who do not often get paid for their writing (as it seems reasonable to infer that Renay does not consider those who are regularly paid for their reviews in the same light, as this would dilute her argument), begin from the vantage point of being "fans," whatever that might ultimately mean if examined closely.  This too-close association, to the point of conflation, of online reviewer (the term "book blogger" I believe has too many misleading connotations attached to it now, or at least it is not a term that I personally think is applicable to what I and certain others write, at least as how the term is understood to be in regards to its application) with "fan" is rather disconcerting.  It is acceptable, perhaps even desired in some quarters, for some to approach this from "a place of fannish inquiry," but Renay in outlining her stance on the issue appears to leave too little space for those of us who prefer to be skeptics when it comes to the works we are considering as we read.  In blunter terms, I am no f'n' "fan" when I read something.  Perhaps I choose to read things that might bring me some enjoyment, but I reserve judgment at all times as to the considered work's aesthetic qualities.  This difference, I believe, colors quite a bit of what follows.

Leaving aside the differences in perception regarding those who write reviews and commentaries, Renay's concerns about the mixing and mingling of "creators and publishers carving out a space inside fan communities" is something that represents only the perception of a vocal (perhaps too vocal?) segment of this so-called "fandom."  Maybe it's because I am a history Ph.D. dropout who was exposed to academic journals long before I ever knew of organized SF/F groups, but the presumption that there should be this sort of "sacred space" (my words, not hers) for fans to discuss their works of choice is rather ludicrous.  Any body that rejects the inclusion of a significant segment (whether it be readers/viewers, writers, critics, etc.) risks creating something that is incomplete and unstable. 

For years, the notion that authors should not discuss their works in a public forum has been a rather bemusing bromide.  No, what worries some people is that the author, far from dying a Barthian "death," may present an argument that threatens the sanctity of their own views.  Yes, it seems that authorial presence does seem to destabilize certain aspects of "fan" discussions and that it is irritating to those who would rather wish that the author "died" at the limns of the text and that s/he couldn't have interpretive stances that could alter a reader's understanding of the text.  I almost even empathize with that desire to avoid having an authoritative person or body around, as that could, in some cases make certain readers (fans?  Whatever...) reticent to respond.  But no, ultimately I have to reject this view.

Why?  Because what such opinions do is seek to shut down particular voices.  In understanding a text, I do not believe that one should discount authorial intention in toto.  Nor should readers accept what an author says about his/her work uncritically.  Instead, there should be, in those cases of potential disagreement, a lively debate about what was intended versus what was perceived or executed within the bounds of the narrative text.  Sometimes this "liveliness" breaks down into pejorative commentaries replete with ad hominems, but often it does not (but I'd be a liar if I didn't admit to enjoying the occasional round of harsh recriminations.  See the 1980s Historikerstreit.)  Granted, it may not be conducive to fannish discussions and that this is largely what Renay is arguing here, but on the whole I believe it is much better for the health of literary discussion (and yes, there is a paradigm shift that accompanies this) for there to be a more "open market for ideas" than sequestered, almost cloistered "communities."

Renay elaborates further on what troubles her about the "intrusion" of "professional" elements into fannish quarters:

After watching many of my favorite book bloggers shift from primarily fanwork toward the industry, I contextualized what I see happening in book blogging amid all the debates about where book bloggers fit. Book bloggers are fans, but as book blogger culture has grown and the ability of blogs to create "buzz" for books has increased, they've continued to grow closer to the publishing industry, which can be a detriment to the fan community around those blogs. It's hard to build a robust fan community when The Powers That Be are so close, and discussions can easily feel observed, or even interrupted, by creators. The very basic idea is a scale, with "industry track blogs" on one end and "fannish track blogs" on the other. I think of fannish book blogs as having some, all, or more of the following characteristics:
  • Primarily purchasing books for themselves, requesting them through libraries, or via book exchange programs for the bulk of their review base. ARCs are supplemental or not accepted.
  • Content is often reviews of books for their own use, such as records of yearly reading, statistic tracking, or personal reading projects. Critical analysis, gaining experience writing, and learning more about genre(s) as a whole can also be factors.
  • Other types of publicity beyond reviews are generally absent in favor of personal reviews, in-depth discussions, and community reading projects.
  • Attending events, such as signings and conventions where creators will speak is often tied more to bloggers' experience as fans, and less to any attempt to develop an ongoing working relationship with creators/publishers or to develop a blog's brand.
  • These blogs tend to not always focus on "new" titles, but perhaps draw from to-read lists, focus on back catalogues, and follow recommendations from friends.
  • Scheduling tends to be more relaxed, less structured, and based on personal schedules of reading/reviewing, rather than connected to street dates.
  • There's a focus on wanting to share thoughts about reading primarily with their existing social networks/friends, rather than attempting to bring in a larger or different audience by "growing" their influence.
Industry track book bloggers (who may have started as fans) may do the above as well as some, all, or more than the following:
  • Support the industry and creators with guest posts from creators, giveaways, cover reveals, release announcements, reviews, round-table discussions, and interviews.
  • Attend industry events. They attend in some ways as fans, but they also attend as fans who have created a recognizable brand and use it to acquire new capital and network with people within the industry.
  • Own interactive online spaces where subscribers inform the direction of the site. "What do my readers want to see? What's relevant to them?" are driving factors in content decisions.
  • They accept review copies on a regular basis, both for themselves, to follow market trends, and to let their readers know what's upcoming.
  • New book releases are a high percentage of review content.
  • Organization includes a certain level of scheduling and planned events, and a level of consistency that persists over time.
  • There's more explicit interaction with creators and the industry (editors, publicists, etc.).
Over the last few years many previously fannish book blogs I follow have slowly shifted into industry track blogs. I suspect it's why the industry can step into these spaces, which are ostensibly fan spaces because their owners are not being compensated. Some parts of the industry feel comfortable doing so because these blogs parlayed their fannish excitement into looking appealing to publishers/creators. Creators can comment on fan conversation that they were not explicitly invited into, sometimes with interesting discussions, but sometimes with really terrible results.
 Needless to say that I reject, almost with vehemence, the presumption that "book bloggers are fans."  Renay's dichotomous presentation of "fannish track" and "industry track" blogs distorts a rather more complex situation into simplified groups that it is hard for me to look at her points here and not conclude that she fails to present a wide swath of critics and readers who do not fall into her assigned categories.  "Editorially independent" reviewers (while not a great term, it does take into account the times that reviewers such as myself have been assigned books to review for publications, with payment to follow) choose generally what they might think would be an intriguing work, but this occurs within and even outside the bounds of the two "tracks" that Renay postulates above.  Very few, if any, would meet the exact descriptions above, particularly this one:  "[o]wn interactive online spaces where subscribers inform the direction of the site."  What in the blue hells does this even mean?  I presume there is the assumption of a sort of puppet/puppetmaster role, but personal and second-hand experiences alike have shown this to be more akin to a complex set of negotiations along the lines of "hey, would you consider this?  Thanks.  And if not, no problem."  There is nothing "pure" about any interactions.  But this also means there is nothing that completely "sullies" what that site/reviewer intends to cover.  Renay's apparent bemoaning of this "shift" of some toward "looking appealing to publishers/creators" I believe is rather overblown.  Yes, there are always going to be some (like the too-often-cited case of a visible blog run by a Canadian) SF/F reviewers appearing to be corporate shills, but even that reduces matters into too simple, too neat categories when I suspect the actual situation is much more diverse (and messy.  Messiness as a good trait is a theme here, by the way).

Again this goes back to the issue of party involvements.  I believe it is foolish to reject out of hand the involvement of what Renay calls "creators," just as I believe it to be asinine to accept without skepticism what said people present.  Yes, it may be desirable in certain times and contexts for there to be walled off, segregated corners for discussion, but it should not be a hard-and-fast rule that governs all interactions between interested parties.  Renay does acknowledge the potential for interesting discussions when all parties are present, but I believe she overplays the moments when things become "really terrible."  Nothing is "really terrible" unless there is no honesty of expression, no moment where one cannot at least learn that some texts (and their authors) are not infallible but only flawed, works of human hands.

And then there's this:
I saw this happen recently in SF at The Book Smugglers: "Smugglers' Ponderings: On the Peter Grant Series by Ben Aaronovitch". To me as a fan, this looked like a case of an author walking into an explicitly fannish discussion to throw around his canonical weight. From my perspective, the blogger (Ana Grilo) reacted much better than I know some fans (including myself) would have if an author had made that choice. The fact that Grant preceded his comment with "Authors commenting on reviews is usually a mistake but . . ." suggests to me he knew that the playing field was not level, yet he spoke, anyway. The nature of the shift from fan blogs to industry blogs is making creators bolder, and perhaps, allowing them to think less complexly about their positions. it's now pretty much about power relations?  Does it matter any if the discussion is right or wrong?  The use of the term "canonical weight" reveals a few things.  First, that despite the annoyance presented at the author making a comment about his text, that he has a "privileged" view of the narrative.  I'm guessing there's a sense of intimidation present, a belief that it is hard to argue against authorial intent?  But perhaps Renay is right in concluding that "the playing field was not level."  If one does not want to pitch intentional battle with/against writers, then perhaps the readers in those cases are to be reduced to secondary roles in narrative interpretation. 

This is a very different interpretation than what I suspect many derived from that paragraph, but it does strike closer to what I found to be deficiencies in Renay's article.  Her view is consistently that of the aggrieved "fan," the reader who feels somewhat threatened when a writer (or "creator" in her parlance, which I presume takes into account TV/film in addition to written stories) makes his/her own assertions regarding the narrative being considered.  This view does not seem to take into account those who view themselves foremost as critics, those who want to tear into the text and to pry it apart, exploring its innards.  For these readers, authorial involvement does not necessarily lead to a sense of being threatened, but rather as an opportunity to delve further, to question and perhaps interrogate the authors, to see in what ways the text itself may be "independent" (in terms of interpretation) of its creator/s.  "Fans" often just get in the way of this because they frequently are not as concerned about what interests the critics and some just refuse to recognize the value of intermingling.  Maybe it's the Hegelian-influenced thinker in me, but I prefer to synthesize information and that involves the occasional conflict with others.

Renay concludes by noting:

As a book blogger who identifies primarily as a fan; with only author signings under her belt, without the review copy (except as a special treat); with the lack of explicit organization in my writing; and with my history as a member of media fandom, I'm dubious about the crumbling of this wall between fans and creators. I call this my Fourth Wall Complex; I am intensely uncomfortable in fan/creator interactions because I'm never sure where the conversations about the work will go. Will it cause a fandom pileup with creators and fans at odds, or worse, different groups of fans? Will it challenge fannish interpretation in negative ways? Because once I read a work, that work is mine. I'm going to interpret it my way, disregard authorial intention, embrace alternate readings of the canonical facts, and probably consider writing explicit fanfic about characters an author likely never intended to be together. Years of fanwork debates, watching creators discover fandom, and horrible characterizations of fans have made me guarded against creators. I promise, industry/creators/publicists/editors: it's not you (okay, sometimes it's you; please stop comparing fanwork creators to thieves, okay?), it's me.

Over the last few years, we've been watching creators slip into our communities and our social circles; sometimes we invite them in and sometimes we don't, but as some book blogs, born from fannish beginnings and with fannish goals, become industry blogs, we'll continue to see incidents where creators step in and find themselves the target of severe discomfort that takes form as anger and hostility. The line between fan/professional has blurred, and I think we're in for even more breakdowns of the fannish and authorial fourth walls as fandom expands and spreads across more platforms, as fans continue finding ways to be fannish and support their fandoms at the same time, and as technology improves. For me, the takeaway is still, and probably will always be, that creators have canonical power and fans have interpretive power; bringing them both into a critical discussion is a recipe for fireworks.

 As I said above, while I can be sympathetic to an extent toward the desire for separate conversations regarding a text, I just do not accept the premise she lays out here.  Yes, there have been some disagreeable conflicts and yes some "fans" are viewed in a less-than-positive light (not that this is anything unique to writers/publishers).  But what Renay seems to be lamenting is the lack of clear lines between the self-identified "fan" and the labeled "professional."  I just do not share that concern.  Yes, there is an increased risk for too-cozy relationships, but the solution is not to wall off those interested parties who might have an informed opinion.  No, instead it probably would be better to be skeptical of what is presented, to kick its metaphorical tires and bite its presumed gold coins, and to question everything, including one's own preconceptions, in order to arrive at a synthesis that incorporates a wider body of viewpoints.  A good narrative should not only survive this lively debate and vivisection, but it should be strengthened as a result.  This is why, as an occasional lit critic, that I reject several of the premises behind Renay's article.  It is one thing to be a fan and to desire "fannish" things.  It is another, however, to extrapolate from that viewpoint and to include others who likely will not consider themselves part of the matter.  Sometimes critics do need fans to stop smearing their preconceptions of textual analysis all over our spaces.  Or rather, it's OK to do so as long as they can accept that those preconceptions might be questioned and shredded as need be.  The results might astound and enlighten all of us.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

So you find yourself wanting to discover works in translation...

Perhaps you came here from Twitter, where shortly after the last word is typed, a link will be posted there.  Perhaps you arrived via a Google search for an author.  Maybe you are reading this blog on an RSS feed.  Regardless of how you arrived, perhaps there will be some intriguing recent releases that will appeal to you, as I am one of those readers who believe that it is of paramount importance that cultures thrive best when they are in constant dialogue with one another and that no singular voice drowns out another.  Therefore, I am going to list below a few works that have recently been translated into English that I think readers should consider picking up.  These are in no particular order other than what I see on my e-book readers or shelves:

Alain Mabanckou, Black Bazaar – Congolese writer.  Translated from French in 2012 (2009 original).  Here is an excerpt.  Made the 2013 International Foreign Fiction Prize longlist.  Among many other things it is a satirical look at how outsiders view African societies.

Laurent Binet, HHhH – French writer.  Translated from French in 2012.  Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.  Review here.

Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale – Icelandic writer.  Translated from Icelandic in 2011.  Finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize.  Review here.

Diego Marani, New Finnish Grammar – Italian writer.  Translated from Italian in 2011.  Finalist for 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  I discussed it briefly in a post that also lists other outstanding translated fictions near the end of the post.

Liliana Bodoc, The Days of the Deer – Argentine writer.  Translated from Spanish in August 2013 (originally published in 2000).  I enjoyed her Spanish-language epic fantasy when I read it several years ago and I perhaps might write a review after judging the translation against the original.

Shani Boianjiu, The People of Forever are Not Afraid – Israeli writer.  Originally written in English and published in 2012.  Including this because Boianjiu is a non-native English speaker and her story is a wonderful look into contemporary Israeli society, particularly in regards to young Israeli women and the effects of continual guardedness have on their outlooks on life.

Inga Ābele, High Tide – Latvian writer.  Translated from Latvian in September 2013.  Open Letter, the translator, claims this might be the first Latvian novel translated into English and if this is indeed the case, then Ābele's twisted mystery narrative is an excellent choice.  Wish I could read more of her works.

Juli Zeh, The Method – German writer.  Translated from German in 2012.  One of the better dystopian novels that I've read and one that comments more forcefully on women's issues in particular than most other such dystopian fictions.

Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, Where Tigers are at Home – French writer.  Translated from French in 2011.  This book is one of the best I've read in years in any language (also read it in French).  A must-read for most readers.

Zoran Živković, Find Me – Serbian writer.  Translated from Serbian, but not yet available from US or UK publishers.  Sequel to his excellent literary mystery, The Last Book.  Lives up to the standards of that book.  Will attempt to write a review before the year is out.

Yuri Andrukhovych, Perverzion – Ukrainian writer.  Translated from Ukrainian in 2005.  Older translation than others listed here, but when I was thumbing through my books to come up with a short starter list of translated fictions that I enjoyed, I just had to include this one.

I could easily spend several more hours writing a very exhaustive (and exhausting!) list of other translated works that I think deserve greater consideration.  But these should make for an excellent beginning.  Feel free to suggest other recent translations of literary and/or genre fictions.  Doubtless I'm overlooking several, perhaps because I didn't read them in translation and thus cannot comment on the quality of the translations.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

A rabid squirrel reviews Terry Goodkind's The Third Kingdom

After learning that he had been assigned the arduous task of reading Terry Goodkind's recently-released The Third Kingdom, the leader of the highly-trained and vicious Serbian reading squirrels, Stefan Veverica, sighed.  Ever since the calamitous attempt by his lost love, Marija, to read Robert Stanek's Keeper Martin's Tale for Larry had resulted in her full-on descent into rabidness, there had been limits placed on what the reading squirrels would have to endure.  Larry himself had to agree to read Dahlia Lu's The Dark God's Bride alone, as the squirrels were too busy licking their metaphorical and all-too-physical wounds to spare time for reading such dreck.

But Goodkind?  Really?  Why, oh rabid squirrel gods, why must this bitter cup be passed to me, Stefan thought.  If I make it out alive, some one is going to be eviscerated for this outrage.  Well, perhaps it won't be so bad if it's read really fast...

And so hundreds of pages were read in a near blur.  Not because much of anything was happening, the squirrel mused, but rather because everything was explained in such a redundant fashion that he, despite having not read any Goodkind in years, could fill in all of the backstory.  Richard was being Richard, spending dozens of chapters chit-chatting with a talented yet naive young sorceress about things which he could learn in a minute.  Such as how to read this oh-so-mystical thing called "the language of Creation," which due to this super-duper, hidden away for over a dozen books until the previous book, the eponymous "omen machine" could do this neat trick of "issuing prophecy by using focused beams of light to burn the symbols composing the language of Creation onto metal strips." (p. 159)  It was like the 1980s had reached Dick and K'lan Land and CDs of Hal Lindsey prophecies were now being mass-produced!

As the squirrel read on, it began to twitch.  Gah!  Why is Kahlan yet again separated from her dear beloved Dick and why oh why is she without powers and at the mercy of henchmen who probably failed the admission exam for Villain U and instead had to settle for an Associate's Degree in Criminalology?  Why does Dick ejaculate for page after page about the discoveries he makes from reading a language that he only discovered a few weeks ago?  Does he have some sort of special Rosetta Stone that teaches him these things or is he a mannikin from which plot information is yanked out of his ass like you might yank a series of knotted handkerchiefs from a magician's hat?  And for the love of juicy, succulent human flesh are there zombies in this book that have less mental capability than a spastic night crawler who had ingested 'shrooms?

Grr!  Gah!  Killkillkillkillkillbitedestroyevisceratemaimshatnerbonaduceattackchitterchitterchitter!

And with that, Stefan Veverica began running wildly around his tree, barking madly and baring his fangs at any who approached.  Looks like this review will have to be finished by Larry after all.  Damn, Stefan was such a good, devoted, discerning reading squirrel...

As you might already guess from reading the paragraphs above, The Third Kingdom is a very poorly-written novel by an author renowned for his clunky prose, paper-thin characterizations, and odious political philosophy.  It is a novel that tries to create suspense from yet another separation of the two main protagonists, Richard Rahl and his wife Kahlan, yet such suspense fails because the author has utilized this tired, exhausted plot device so frequently that one might be pardoned if he took the wrong inspiration from watching the movie Groundhog Day.  But, as I can hear Goodkind's most rabid fans cry, it is different this time because the two have been infected with death and their precarious balance between the unnatural combination of life-and-death in a body has to be redressed quickly, lest they die!  To which I merely note that the laborious effort Goodkind makes into trying to make a state of being, death, into a concrete, reified entity ultimately serves to make the entire concept rather ridiculous even for a literary subgenre, secondary world fantasy, that contains a plethora of asinine plot devices.  It's one thing to just say "hey, they're like uh...*in a Butt-head-like voice* huh-huh-huh poisoned."  At least then the urgency can be sensed and (mostly) accepted.  But the notion that a state of being, death, is a poisonous entity that affects Dick's powers is risible.  Trying to even explain this shoddy attempt at creating an obstacle for our heroes makes me feel as though I were trying to explain the concept of water to fish.

It doesn't get much better when the enemies are concerned.  Apparently the old, old, old bad guys from centuries before created soulless people, now gifted with the inventive name of "half people."  Yes, these soul-bereft people want a soul to replace their stolen ones, so they think, hey, I bet cannibalism is the answer, as life is in the blood!  Or is it the heart?  Maybe it's in the anus?  Who cares, let's munch!  And so most of these baddies devolve into mindless flesh eaters that barely display even a modicum of humanity.  This is not as much an oversight on Goodkind's part as it is an intentional feature

Goodkind has long been criticized for the flimsiness of his themes.  Yet here the hollowness of his argument that "reason must rule" is displayed.  The cannibals have to be reduced to such an abject, passion-ruled state in order to create an easy dichotomy, but when the situation is even considered for a moment, it all collapses like a deck of cards.  How can people, even extremely long-lived yet ultimately mortal soulless cannibals, possess even the rudiments of clothing or even subsistence if their minds are focused solely on eating the flesh of the souled?  Why are there literally thousands of these witless bodies being slaughtered as the hero allows his rage to fuel his deadly magic sword?  If anything, it is the passion behind Richard's actions, not the lip-service to ideals that he voices in a redundant fashion for long stretches in the first half of the novel, that is to be the appeal of the story.  If the quasi-zombies aren't being slaughtered en masse, then the story would be reduced even further to diabolical laughter®, maniacal scheming, and mustache-twirling, followed by heroic declaration, improbably escape from predicament and rushed conclusion that leaves the villains free to plot poorly for another day. 

The Third Kingdom is like the anti-apotheosis of Goodkind's prose, characterization, and theme development.  Virtually everything he has tried (and failed) to develop in his previous novels is present here (OK, there are no barbed Namble cocks, but there are flesh eaters and nearly toothless wannabe almost-rapists!); these elements, somehow, are presented in an even worse fashion than before.  The writing is atrocious.  Goodkind's repetitive descriptions, written in short, declarative sentences that feel too simple to belong even in a children's lit book, make The Third Kingdom perhaps an even worse reading experience than Robert Stanek.  It is that poor.  There is nothing redeeming about this story, this overarching plot, these characters, themes, etc.  The book is perhaps the epitome of what the late David Foster Wallace noted in an essay, "Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama," that touches upon the issue of reviewing (poor) genre fiction:

This sort of oddity is, in fact, a frequent problem in reviewing or assessing "genre fiction," which is a type of narrative it's usually fair to call "the sort of thing someone who likes this sort of thing is apt to like."  The evaluative criteria tend to be rather special for genre fiction.  Instead of the basically aesthetic assay the reviewer gets to make of most literary fiction – "Is this piece of fiction good?" – criticism of genre fiction is ultimately more rhetorical – "To whom will this piece of fiction appeal?" (Both Flesh and Not, p. 212)

As a reviewer of literary fiction, I can easily say that The Third Kingdom is as far from good as Shatner is to being an excellent singer.  But in regards to the criteria for assaying this book as genre fiction, it is the sort that will appeal only to those who like to read poorly-written works, who found Goodkind to be empty entertainment, and to those who partake of mind-altering substances on a regular basis and who thus want pablum in order to create a shifted perspective.  For everyone else, I think it is pretty safe to say The Third Kingdom will have no appeal.

Now pardon me while I go check on Stefan...

And as the human approached, Stefan began sniffing the air.  Yes, Las Vegas shall be a nice place to visit.  Come, Marija, we have an author evisceration to do.  And then it will be onto Washington state, where we can inflict revenge for you as well, my dear....

And with a tail twitch and a few body tics, the two now-rabid squirrels venture out to gain their revenge on the authors that had made them suffer so...

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

So I was challenged recently to read "a more recent SF/F book"

Last week I posted an interview I conducted with Mihir Wanchoo of Fantasy Book Critic.  In it, he (very politely) challenged me to read/review "a more recent SFF book," a challenge I agreed to undertake.  I decided that I would read and then review the next fantasy book sent my way, no matter who it was or what volume in a series it might be.

Well, I received such a book yesterday in the mail.

It was the latest Terry Goodkind book, The Third Kingdom.

I guess, despite my antipathy for his socio-political views and having read only one book of his in the past decade, I will drain this cup set before me to its bitterest dregs.  May the squirrels have mercy on me, because I think I'm going to have one of them not only read this book but also review it.  Hopefully, I will not be punished too severely for this.  Wish me (and the unlucky squirrel) luck.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

List of Premio Alfaguara winners

Unlike most other lists of literary prize winners, there will be little need for me to acquire the books, as with the exception of the winners during the first iteration (1965-1972), I have already bought and read each winner since the Premio Alfaguara was revived in 1998.  I consider the Premio Alfaguara to be one the best Spanish-language literary awards, not just for the high quality of the winners, but also because the revolving jury of prominent writers (Carlos Fuentes was once a jurist) and critics read over 600 submissions yearly that are submitted under pseudonyms (the winner gets $175,000 and the book published; it is a manuscript prize, basically).  I do plan on re-reading and writing at least short reviews in coming months/years of the winners of the revived prize (and perhaps I'll track down copies of the 1965-1972 winners as well), so in the interests of having a centralized article in which I can link reviews (three were written some years ago), here is the list (many have since been translated into English and other languages, so feel free to search out these titles, each of which I would recommend)  Note that for the first iteration of the award, the award was given near the end of the year listed, with the actual publication date often being early in the following year.

1965 Jesús Torbado, Las corrupciones
1969/70 No Award
1971 Carlos Droguett, Todas esas muertes
1972 Luis Berenguer, Leña verde
1973 Alfonso Grosso, Florido mayo
1973/4-1997  No Award  

1998 Eliseo Alberto, Caracol Beach
         Sergio Ramírez, Margarita, está linda la mar 
2000 Clara Sánchez, Últimas noticias del paraíso
2001 Elena Poniatowska, La piel del cielo
2002 Tomás Eloy Martínez , El vuelo de la reina
2003 Xavier Velasco, Diablo guardián
2004 Laura Restrepo, Delirio
2005 Graciela Montes & Ema Wolf, El turno del escriba
2006 Santiago Roncagliolo, Abril Rojo
2007 Luis Leante, Mira si yo te querré
2008 Antonio Orlando Rodríguez, Chiquita
2009 Andrés Neuman, El viajero del siglo
2010 Hernán Rivera Letelier, El arte de la resurrección
2011 Juan Gabriel Vásquez, El ruido de la cosas al caer
2012 Leopoldo Brizuela, Una misma noche
2013 José Ovejero, La invención del amor 
2014 Jorge Franco, El mundo de afuera 2015 Carla Guelfenbein, Contigo en la distancia

Monday, September 02, 2013

The Premio Strega

Last week or so, I had an email conversation with the squirrel mistress about Elsa Morante.  She asked me if I had read her Premio Strega-winning 1957 novel, L'isola di Arturo.  I said no, although I did search my Italian books and saw that I had a copy of her famous 1974 novel, La Storia (History).  Then that lead to me being me and deciding that I would have to try harder to read Italian books, so I have embarked on another Quixotic journey and am going to try to read (in Italian, whenever possible) as many of the Premio Strega (Italy's most prestigious literary prize) winners as I can over the next few years.  Below is the list of the winners since the award's inception in 1947.  I have read a grand total of one (in both Italian and English) and have purchased another four (including three e-books).  No promises on reviews, but I will update this list with books that I will purchase/read as I acquire more of these books:


    1947 – Ennio Flaiano, Tempo di uccidere
    1948 – Vincenzo Cardarelli, Villa Tarantola
    1949 – Giambattista Angioletti, La memoria
    1950 – Cesare Pavese, La bella estate
    1951 – Corrado Alvaro, Quasi una vita
    1952 – Alberto Moravia, I racconti
    1953 – Massimo Bontempelli, L'amante fedele
    1954 – Mario Soldati, Lettere da Capri
    1955 – Giovanni Comisso, Un gatto attraversa la strada
    1956 – Giorgio Bassani, Cinque storie ferraresi
    1958 – Dino Buzzati, Sessanta racconti
    1959 – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Il gattopardo
    1960 – Carlo Cassola, La ragazza di Bube
    1961 – Raffaele La Capria, Ferito a morte
    1962 – Mario Tobino, Il clandestino
    1963 – Natalia Ginzburg, Lessico famigliare
    1964 – Giovanni Arpino, L'ombra delle colline
    1965 – Paolo Volponi, La macchina mondiale
    1966 – Michele Prisco, Una spirale di nebbia
    1967 – Anna Maria Ortese, Poveri e semplici
    1968 – Alberto Bevilacqua, L'occhio del gatto
    1969 – Lalla Romano, Le parole tra noi leggere
    1970 – Guido Piovene, Le stelle fredde
    1971 – Raffaello Brignetti, La spiaggia d'oro
    1972 – Giuseppe Dessì, Paese d'ombre
    1973 – Manlio Cancogni, Allegri, gioventù
    1974 – Guglielmo Petroni, La morte del fiume
    1975 – Tommaso Landolfi, A caso
    1976 – Fausta Cialente, Le quattro ragazze Wieselberger
    1977 – Fulvio Tomizza, La miglior vita
    1978 – Ferdinando Camon, Un altare per la madre
    1979 – Primo Levi, La chiave a stella
    1980 – Vittorio Gorresio, La vita ingenua
    1981 – Umberto Eco, Il nome della rosa
    1982 – Goffredo Parise, Il sillabario n.2
    1983 – Mario Pomilio, Il Natale del 1833
    1984 – Pietro Citati, Tolstoj
    1985 – Carlo Sgorlon, L'armata dei fiumi perduti
    1986 – Maria Bellonci, Rinascimento privato
    1987 – Stanislao Nievo, Le isole del paradiso
    1988 – Gesualdo Bufalino, Le menzogne della notte
    1989 – Giuseppe Pontiggia, La grande sera
    1990 – Sebastiano Vassalli, La chimera
    1991 – Paolo Volponi, La strada per Roma
    1992 – Vincenzo Consolo, Nottetempo, casa per casa
    1993 – Domenico Rea, Ninfa plebea
    1994 – Giorgio Montefoschi, La casa del padre
    1995 – Maria Teresa Di Lascia, Passaggio in ombra
    1996 – Alessandro Barbero, Bella vita e guerre altrui di Mr. Pyle, 'gentiluomo'
    1997 – Claudio Magris, Microcosmi
    1998 – Enzo Siciliano, I bei momenti
    1999 – Dacia Maraini, Buio
    2000 – Ernesto Ferrero, N.
    2001 – Domenico Starnone, Via Gemito
    2002 – Margaret Mazzantini, Non ti muovere
    2003 – Melania G. Mazzucco, Vita
    2004 – Ugo Riccarelli, Il dolore perfetto
    2005 – Maurizio Maggiani, Il viaggiatore notturno
    2006 – Sandro Veronesi, Caos calmo
    2007 – Niccolò Ammaniti, Come Dio comanda
    2008 – Paolo Giordano, La solitudine dei numeri primi
    2009 – Tiziano Scarpa, Stabat mater
    2010 – Antonio Pennacchi, Canale Mussolini
    2011 – Edoardo Nesi, Storia della mia gente
    2012 – Alessandro Piperno, Inseparabili
    2013 – Walter Siti, Resistere non serve a niente 
    2014 –  Francesco Piccolo, Il desiderio di essere come tutti 

Philipp Meyer, The Son

It was prophesied I would live to see one hundred and having achieved that age I see no reason to doubt it.  I am not dying a Christian though my scalp is intact and if there is an eternal hunting ground, that is where I am headed.  That or the river Styx.  My opinion at this moment is my life has been far too short:  the good I could do if given another year on my feet.  Instead I am strapped to this bed, fouling myself like an infant.

Should the Creator see fit to give me strength I will make my way to the waters that run through the pasture.  The Nueces River at its eastern bend.  I have always preferred the Devil's.  In my dreams I have reached it three times and it is known that Alexander the Great, on his last night of mortal life, crawled from his palace and tried to slip into the Euphrates, knowing that if his body disappeared, his people would assume he had ascended to heaven as a god.  His wife stopped him at the water's edge.  She dragged him home to die mortal.  And people ask me why I did not remarry. (p. 1)
Today, it is almost quaint to say that a writer has attempted to write "the great American novel."  A glance at the bestseller lists and heavily-promoted books reveal book after book devoted to the picayune features of our lives:  reflections on mortality, sexual desire, the seeking of something that is beyond our grasp or our ken.  Writing something of a "national" or even regional nature is to try to write something that fell out of vogue decades ago.  Yet occasionally there appear novels so powerful in their characterizations and their portrayal of themes that simultaneously are universal and seemingly unique to a nation that grandiose terms such as "great American novel" do not feel out of place when describing the narrative at hand.  Philipp Meyer's second novel, The Son, just very well may be one of those rare contemporary novels that manage to capture an essence larger than that of a singular person or group of persons.

The Son covers a span of nearly two hundred years, from the founding of the Republic of Texas in 1836 to the present day.  Six generations of a fictitious Texan aristocratic family, the McCulloughs, are seen through the eyes of three key members:  Eli, the titular son (and the first male child born after the establishment of the Republic of Texas) whose story encompasses the mid-to-late 19th century and beyond; his disgraced son, Peter, whose diaries from the 1910s narrate a tumultuous time along the US-Mexico border; and Peter's grand-daughter, Jeanne Anne, who has established a different sort of empire from that of her great-grandfather.  Each of these narrators captures within their accounts segments of a grand sweeping narrative that encompasses decadence and renewal, of empires rising and falling.

Of the three narrators, Eli's most immediately grabs the reader's attention.  Readers familiar with Western narratives (especially Cormac McCarthy's The Border trilogy) will find certain elements of Eli's narrative familiar to them.  Captured as a teen by a marauding Comanche band, Eli's description of his three years with the Comanches is eloquent in its contrasts between nature and civilization, between the values of community and solitude, between a code of honor and a code of commerce.  Here is an example of the cultural clash that the teenaged Eli (or Tiehteti, as he was known among the Comanches) observed:

To white ears, the names of the Indians lacked any sort of dignity or sense and made it that much harder to figure why they ought to be treated as humans rather than prairie niggers.  The reason for this was that the Comanches considered the use of a dead person's name taboo.  Unlike the whites, billions of whom shared the same handful of names, all interchangeable in the end, a Comanche name lived and died with a single person.

A child was not named by his parents, but by a relative or a famous person in the tribe; maybe for a deed that person had done, maybe for an object that struck their fancy.  If a particular name was not serving well, the child might be renamed; for instance, Charges the Enemy had been a small and timid child and it was thought that giving him a braver name might cure these problems, which it had.  Some people in the tribe were renamed a second or third time in adult life, if their friends and family found something more interesting to call them.  The owner of the German captive Yellow Hair, whose birth name was Six Deer, was renamed Lazy Feet as a teenager, which stuck to him the rest of his life.  Toshaway's son Fat Wolf was so named because his namer has seen a very fat wolf the previous night, and being an interesting sight and not a bad name it had stuck. (p. 232)
 Meyer fills his narrative with these asides, virtually all of which serve to reinforce the themes of cultural clashes and decadence/renewal.  There is a subtle economy of images here, as Meyer uses these little details to compress his narrative, allowing him to skip months, if not years, in the narration of Eli and his progeny's lives by relating important events and self-discoveries in short, incisive passages.  Here the Comanches are seen less as an "other" and more as people who follow an alternate, perhaps more honest path than those of the white settlers.  This contrast of beliefs appears again and again in the three narratives, with subtle changes occurring within each of the three that lead to surprising twists near the end of the novel.

Meyer's characters frequently face moral dilemmas, such as how to make one's way in a hostile world without falling too much into the trap of operating purely on expediency.  Eli's decisions, hinted at in the narratives of Peter and Jeanne Anne, are often brutal, at least for those of us who have grown up in more "civilized" times.  Yet as these events unfold, the consequences are shown in no lesser detail.  As Eli bitterly notes in the first chapter, his disgraced son Peter is "[s]eed of my destruction."  How this comes to be, how Peter's actions contain the seeds for the destruction of Eli's land/cattle (and later oil) empire of 250,000 acres, occupies most of this 561 page novel.  It is a testimony to Meyer's skills as a writer that a novel of this size does not feel bloated but instead seems to be brimming with energy.

Beyond the three McCullough narrators (to describe in detail Peter or Jeanne Anne's subplots would give away too much), Meyer adroitly connects their decisions and actions to greater, more American issues.  Although Eli is the titular "son" of this novel, it could be argued with some supporting evidence that the "son" could also be expanded to include those "sons" of the pioneers, those children who took the wilderness that their forebears knew and who corralled it, tamed it, and broke it in the profane name of "prosperity."  This certainly would be a view that Eli himself would have supported and it most definitely would be a concern of his son, who walked away from the blood-soaked empire bequeathed to him.  This is perhaps as "American" of a theme, the subjugation of nature and the twisting of human ideals to support avarice, as any of the previous four centuries.  That Meyer is able to argue this within a clear, flowing novel is a testimony to his strength as a writer.  The characterizations are never shallow, even when some (such as Peter) seem to be overwhelmed at times by the beguiling power of Eli.  The Son may perhaps be one of those rare novels that will capture readers' attentions decades removed from its initial publication.  It certainly has the feel of a novel that will be lauded for years to come (and rightfully so) for its treatment of theme and character.  Very highly recommended.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Matt Bell, In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

Beneath the unscrolling of the new sun and stars and then-lonely moon, she began to sing some new possessions into the interior of our house, and between the lake and the woods I heard her songs become something stronger than ever before.  I returned to the woods to cut more lumber, so that I too might add to our household, might craft for her a crib and a bassinet, a table for changing diapers, all the other furnishings she desired.  We labored together, and soon our task seemed complete, our house readied for what dreams we shared – the dream I had given her, of family, of husband and wife, father and mother, child and child – and when the earliest signs of my wife's first pregnancy came they were attended with joy and celebration. (p. 3)
For a single person such as myself, the tugs and pulls of marriage is something that is barely grasped in a second-hand fashion.  The competition of wills trying to forge a melding of personalities into a harmonious relationship can threaten to rift any partnership, no matter how strong the couple may believe their bonds to be.  Who dominates?  Who submits?  Who blazes paths and who smooths them?  Mix in various levels of desire for offspring and the complicated chemistry becomes even more fragile and liable to be dissolved into acrimony.  Or so it seems to some who have not yet succeeded in discovering the magic formula that will weather these assaults on companionship.

Matt Bell tackles this complex, complicated issue in his third book (and debut novel), In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.  Bell easily could have chosen to cast this story of a newly-married couple and their pitfalls and (little) triumphs in a more traditional narrative in which the interior monologues, peppered with brief yet incisive dialogue, could convey to readers the stresses of this marriage.  Yet Bell eschews this, instead choosing to create a narrative that feels fabulistic in tone and universal in its theme.  This is a riskier approach to take, as readers accustomed to strict realism may find the imagery to be too unsettling for their tastes.  However, for the most part Bell manages to achieve most of his literary ambitions here.

In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods frequently employs metaphors to convey the emotional divide between the husband and the wife.  In the paragraph quoted above (taken from the first page), Bell connects song (and through it, communication/language) to creation of new, wondrous things within the new household.  He later reinforces this with the previously-alluded to creation of a new moon:

There my wife again began to sing, and with some new song – on more powerful than any other I had yet heard or imagined – she took something from me, and also a similar portion from herself, and into the sky she lifted what she had taken until it took on some enlarged shape, until it became a heavenly body with its own weight and rotation and orbit:  At the request of her melody, our flesh became a new moon, a twin to the one already hung.

Beneath the new light, my wife explained that her moon was a shape meant not to reveal the sky but perhaps to split the dirt, to destroy what house I had built, its shifting walls.  Not a memorial to her sorrow, but at last a way to end it:  With the crashing shatter of the moon, the lake would empty its waters, and the woods would burst into flame and even the cities across the far mountains might shake with the horror of our divorce.  The moon would someday fall – this she promised, regardless of her pregnancy's outcome, for the sky was not made to hold its weight – but with song she could delay its plummet into the far future, for the sake of this new joy in her belly. (p. 22)
There are many conceptions embedded within this moon metaphor.  Where the reader might at first be tempted to connect the moon to femininity, Bell seems to be striving to create new associations.  The taking from each partner implies a creation that is akin to but separate from its progenitors, but with the threat of this new creation, this new light reflector, being torn asunder.  The wife's song moreover serves as a connector.  It is through her voice, her communication of desires and wants, that this "moon" is able to sustain itself.  In this sense, it is her singing (which occurs repeatedly throughout the narrative) that embodies the central conflict of this novel:  the voicing of different aims and desires.

Granted, Bell's extensive use of allusion and metaphor makes it more difficult for readers to wrest meaning from the narrative.  This, however, is not a condemnation nor a criticism; it merely notes that the narrative does not easily yield its riches.  If the reader is diligent and considers not just the imagery but also the emotions that exist around the symbolic speech and action, then she will discover a wealth of poignant scenes and powerful moments.  However, there are times where the metaphors fail to convey suitable nuances of intention.  Although relatively small in number, there are occasions where Bell's metaphors fall flat, as though he tried too hard to infuse his narrative with symbolic portents, leading to scenes that feel depressed, crushed under the weight of their metaphors.  Furthermore, rich as most of his images are, there are occasions that it seems that a more direct, less allusive approach might have yielded even greater emotional impact.

These, however, are issues that only dampen slightly the impact of Bell's narrative.  The conclusion is rendered near pitch-perfectly, leaving readers believing that the effort that they put into processing and deciphering Bell's symbolism-laden text was more than worth the effort.  In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is a debut novel that shows that its writer is beginning to realize the promise shown in his previous shorter fiction.  Looking forward to seeing what Bell produces in the future, as this is one of my favorite debut novels released so far this year.

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