The OF Blog: December 2013

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best of 2013: Top 25 Books Released in 2013

2013 has been a good, if not exactly great, reading year.  There were several books published in multiple genres that I felt were at least very good, if not excellent, works of fiction or non-fiction.  I read a little over 100 of these 2013 releases and having a "success rate" (or at least works that engaged me on some level) of over 50% is very good (helps that I am very careful when selecting books to read, I suppose).  It is difficult to come up with a list of great works that does not exclude at least a handful of others that are very near in quality to those that make such a list, even an expanded one as my Top 25.  In fact, the difference between #25 and #6, to use semi-arbitrary numbers is often minute enough that if I were re-list the books I chose for this list six months later, the ordering might be very different.  But such is the nature of the list beast, I suppose.  Here are the 25 titles over which you can debate their merits, if you so choose (those for which I had already written formal review will contain links to said reviews):

25.  Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
24Leena Krohn, Datura 

23.  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur 

22.  Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

21.  Helene Welker,  The Golem and the Jinni  

20.  James McBride, The Good Lord Bird 
19.  Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries  

18.  Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer 

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

16.  Cynthia Kadohata, The Thing About Luck 

15.  NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names 

14.  Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove 

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

12.  Matt Rassmussen, Black Aperture 

11.  Umberto Eco, Storia delle Terre e dei Luoghi Leggendari 

10.  William H. Gass, Middle C 

 9.  Gene Yuen Yang, Boxers/Saints 

 8.  John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, March:  Book One 

 7.  Karen Joy Fowler, We are all Completely Beside Ourselves 

 6.  Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch 

 5.  George Packer, The Unwinding 

 4.  Philipp Meyer, The Son 

 3.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah 

 2.  George Saunders, Tenth of December 

 1.  László Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below

Best of 2013: Three Books That Weren't Able to be Read in Time for Consideration

It is always inevitable, that no matter how much I try to plan reads ahead of time or how fast I can read, that there are always books that fly under my radar until it is too late in the year to read them or that something comes up in the way of me getting around to reading it before the rush of the holidays and the year-end posts (and the last-minute reads that I do manage to cram in, sometimes minutes before I do write-ups on various categories).

I just finished reading my 400th and last book for the year and have met or surpassed every single reading goal that I set for 2013.  That reading list will be posted later today if I have time or (more likely) on Wednesday afternoon before I go to work.  But here are three books (one I purchased last week, the other is arriving by UPS today, and the third I've had on my shelf for two months, awaiting the time that I can go through it carefully to see which elements I can lift and alter in case I have to teach English as well as ESL in the upcoming semester) that likely would have garnered at least some consideration for the category shortlists, if not the Top 25 itself:

3.  Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, The Mirror of Beauty

I had this book recommended to me on Twitter on Christmas night by Musharraf Ali Farooqi (2012 Man Asian Prize finalist; review here) and the premise is very promising for this novel that was only just recently released in the US in English translation from Urdu.  Hardcover copy should arrive today.

2.  Michael Cisco, Member

I think Cisco is one of the finest writers writing in the English language today, so it was to my great chagrin that it wasn't until a week or so ago (I believe it was on a Facebook post by Jeff VanderMeer) that I learned that Member had been out since mid-October.  Just not enough time to read it before the new year, alas, as I wouldn't have been surprised if it would crack my Top 25 list if I had somehow had the time to read it.

1.  Jeff VanderMeer, Wonderbook

I have been very curious about this "fully illustrated writing book" ever since Jeff started talking about it around two years ago.  A casual thumbing through has revealed quite a few interesting lines of thought when it comes to the art and craft of writing, but this book deserves much more time from me than I have been able to manage during the past two months.  It will be read in small segments during the early months of 2014 and I might just take a few notes to see how I could apply it in the classroom if I were to teach English/writing full-time again.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Best of 2013: Non-Fiction

2013 Non-Fiction Read:

Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito, The End of Oulipo?
Justin Landon and Jared Shurin (eds.), Speculative Fiction 2012
Carolyn Dalgliesh, The Sensory Child Gets Organized
Martín Arias and Martín Hadis, Professor Borges:  A Course on English Literature
Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump
Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone
Wendy Lower, Hitler's Furies
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, March: Book One
Al Gore, The Future
Denise Kiernan, The Girls of Atomic City
Gene Yuen Yang, Boxers/Saints
Umberto Eco, Storia delle Terre e dei Luoghi Leggendari 
Umberto Eco, Le Sette Meraviglie
George Packer, The Unwinding

I read more non-fiction in 2013 than in any of the previous four or five years.  There were popular histories, collections of essays (including one in which two 2012 pieces of mine appeared), autobiographies, graphic novel renderings of histories, art books in Italian, translations from Italian and Japanese, guides to help people understand special needs children, and a transcription of a college lecture series.  Even the one book on the above list that appears on my Most Disappointing Releases list will hold quite a bit of interest for the lay reader (alas, I cannot claim to be such when it comes to the Nazi era).  I learned a lot from reading these books (the Dalgliesh and Higashida in particular opened my eyes further when it came to sensory/children with autism and both provided insight that has helped me immensely at both of my current jobs) and hopefully in the years to come I will discover even more excellent non-fictions that will educate me as much or more as these did this year.  Now for the list of the three that have stuck with me the most:

3.  John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, March:  Book One
I discussed my reasons for liking this graphic novel rendering of Rep. John Lewis's early life up to the 1960 Nashville sit-ins in my previous listing of graphic novels and anthologies read this year.  It is a book that I would love to use as a supplementary reading material if I ever choose to teach 11th grade US History again.
2.  Umberto Eco, Storia delle Terre e dei Luoghi Leggendari 

Excellent art/history of how people over the centuries have envisioned both real and legendary lands near and far.  See my earlier comments in my listing of the best foreign language works released this year.

1.  George Packer, The Unwinding 

Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Non-Fiction.  Packer interviewed several Americans from all walks of life, from tech founders to those who lost their jobs when the physical economy began to shift toward a service economy in the late 1970s.  Each of these Americans' stories are fascinating and Packer does an excellent job in breaking these narrative threads into chronological years that show the various ways in which people even conceive of "America" has changed since 1980.  One of the best books I've read this year.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Best of 2013: Foreign Language Works

2013 Foreign Language Works:  

João Barreiros (ed.), Lisboa no Ano 2000 (Portuguese)
Alliah, Metanfetaedro (Portuguese)
Ildefonso Falcones, La reina descalza (Spanish)
José Ovejero, La invención del Amor (Spanish)
Umberto Eco, Storia delle Terre e dei Luoghi Leggendari (Italian)
Umberto Eco, Le Sette Meraviglie (Italian; e-book-only)
João Tordo, O Ano Sabático (Portuguese)
Mariano Villarreal and Luis Pestarini (eds.), Terra Nova:  vol. 2 (Spanish)

Despite making an effort to read at least a 1/3 of my 2013 total reads in a foreign language (current count has me at a little over 180 books read in a language other than English), it is very difficult to get very recent works.  Thankfully, more and more publishers are releasing e-editions (more so on iBookstore than on the Kindle store, I've noticed) where US readers such as myself can read them.  Three (and one of those, Lisboa no Ano 2000 was sent to me as a review copy by the publisher) of the books listed above were purchased books; the other five were e-books.  The genres are also varied, with three being SF/F, one historical fiction, two non-fiction/art books, and two more contemporary fictions.  Likely about half of these books will be translated into English in the near future (the first Eco already has, the Falcones is a near-certainty, and I suspect Ovejero and Tordo will see their works translated at some point).  All in all, the number of strong literary works belies the paucity of numbers on this list.

3.  José Ovejero, La invención del Amor 

This 2013 Premio Alfaguara winner is about love, yes, but even more about us humans who "invent" it in order to connect with one another.  I plan on re-reading it and writing a formal review sometime in 2014.

2.  João Tordo, O Ano Sabático

Tordo won the Premio Saramago for an earlier work, As Três Vidas and while I wouldn't go as far as to say that his latest matches that excellent work, it does come very close.  His characters, particularly the protagonist Hugo, are dynamic, fully-realized, with memorable scenes.  Will be reading more of his works in 2014.

1.  Umberto Eco, Storia delle Terre e dei Luoghi Leggendari

This is the fourth in a series of non-fiction/art books that Eco has written in recent years.  This time, the subject is the fantastical lands created by millennia of explorers, writers, and other mythmakers.  The accompanying art is beautiful and the essays are erudite without being too overwhelming for readers.  Although I think Eco's books on Beauty and Ugliness are better, this volume is one of the best books I've read this year.  A must-own/read for most sorts of readers (the English translation is already available).

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Best of 2013: Poetry

2013 Poetry Collections Read

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur 
Adrian Matejka, The Big Smoke 
Mary Szybist, Incarnadine 
Lucie Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion 
Matt Rassmussen, Black Aperture 
Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog
Each year I try to make a resolution to read more recent poetry collections and each year most, if not all, of that year's releases that I read end up being from the National Book Award shortlists.  So it was this year (although if I counted pre-2013 poetry read, I would have had dozens from which to consider).  Five NBA finalists and a posthumously-published epic poem fragment from J.R.R. Tolkien.  Yet the overall quality was high.  This is not the space to devote to in-depth explorations (after all, these Best of 2013 merely are what moved me most in 2013), but I will say that each and every one of these collections deserves to be read.  But there shall only be three listed on these shortlists, so here we go:

3.  Mary Szybist, Incarnadine 

Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry, this collection combines mystical, religious, and deeply personal themes to create a haunting collection that lingers in the reader's mind days after the final poem is read.

My June review covers why I loved this unfinished poem, so I'll just suggest that you click on the link above.

1.  Matt Rassmussen, Black Aperture 

Rassmussen took a tragic event (his brother's suicide) and wrote a collection that examines this trauma from a plethora of angles.  I was greatly moved by collection's end, so this is why I have selected it as my favorite poetry collection for 2013.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Best of 2013: Children's/Middle Grades/Young Adult Books

2013 Children's/Middle Grades/Young Adult Books Read

Kate DiCamillo, Flora & Ulysses
Alaya Dawn Johnson, The Summer Prince
Gene Yuen Yang, Boxers/Saints
Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone
Cynthia Kadohata, The Thing About Luck
Kathi Appelt, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
Tom McNeal, Far Far Away

I have not read much in the way of children's, middle grades, or young adult literature this year (I do, however, believe it is better to divide the "YA" category into more specific categories, as a book intended for a 9 year-old will differ significantly in some aspects from one oriented more to teen readers).  In fact, all of my reading comes from the National Book Award longlist for Young People's Literature (or 7/10 of the books on that longlist), but that does not mean that I shouldn't at least acknowledge some of the excellent works released in the past year.  Almost all of these seven works I would recommend readily to young readers (the only exception is The Summer Prince, toward which I had slightly mixed reactions) and if I had the time, I would use many of them in my classroom.  While it was difficult to pare it down to three favorites that I thought were among the year's best in the field (or at least the tiny sliver of 2013 YA/MG/Ju. lit that I've read; feel free to suggest alternatives in the comments), here are the ones that moved me the most:

3.  Kate DiCamillo, Flora & Ulysses

OK, it does star a superheroic squirrel, but I could see me enjoying this work immensely if I were about 9 or 10 today.  See linked review for more on the book and why I loved it.

2.  Cynthia Kadohata, The Thing About Luck

This book about a Japanese-American farming family and their trials and tribulations was a deserving winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.  The characters and setting are fully realized and the story contains a subtle yet powerful twist toward the end that made it a joy to read.

1.  Gene Luen Yang, Boxers/Saints

Yes, Yang's graphic novel duology makes its second appearance on one of my year-end lists (and it will appear again before the 31st).  It is that good.  See linked review for more details.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Best of 2013: Debut Novels

2013 Debut Novels Read

Helene Welker, The Golem and the Jinni
Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria
NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names
Matt Bell, In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods
J.M. Sidorova, The Age of Ice
Therese Anne Fowler, Z:  A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice
Bill Cheng, Southern Cross the Dog

It was a decent year for debut novels read.  Some writers who had previously published collections or novella-length work saw their first true novels released, while others were completely new to US print publishing.  The stories varied greatly in theme and narrative approach, from personal, autobiographical accounts to reconstructed histories of mythologized historical (and authorial!) characters to tales that contained at least a smidgen of the fantastical.  With one exception (already covered in another post), these books provided at least mild entertainment and some engaged me from start to finish.  But there shall only be three on this shortlist, so here they are (with a note that I was tempted to list a tie for third, as a very solid tale set in a non-quasi-European world did appeal to me):

3.  Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni

Wecker's book has the feel of a historical novel set in 1890s New York, the mythological typology of the better fantasies of that time, and a richness in prose and character development that make it a touching read.  Certainly a work that I'll be wanting to revisit in the years to come.

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

See the linked review for details as to why this was one of my favorite 2013 debut novels.

1.  NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names 

Not too often does a debut novelist see her work end up as a Booker Prize finalist.  The story moved me, short and simple, and that is why it is my favorite 2013 debut.  See linked review for more.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Best of 2013: Graphic Novels and Anthologies

2013 Graphic Novels Read:

Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe, Peanut
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, March: Book One
Gene Yuen Yang, Boxers/Saints

2013 Anthologies Read

Nisi Shawl (ed.), Bloodchildren
João Barreiros (ed.), Lisboa no Ano 2000
John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen (eds.), Oz Reimagined
Mike Allen (ed.), Clockwork Phoenix 4
Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad (eds.), We See a Different Frontier
Mariano Villarreal and Luis Pestarini (eds.), Terra Nova:  vol. 2 
 2013 was not a good year for me in terms of reading graphic novels or anthologies published that year.  Above is the list of the graphic novels and anthologies that I have read, either completely or in part, through the year to date.  Two of the three graphic novels, however, I loved, perhaps in part because of the historical content of the two (and meeting the writers in October in Nashville at the Southern Festival of Books), but certainly because the stories were compelling reads.  As for the anthologies, this is one of those years where nothing wowed me in terms of an extremely strong opening-to-close lineup of knockout stories, but each was mildly pleasing at least to read.  In the end, chose the one in which I had pledged money to in a 2012 Kickstarter, as I did feel like I got my money's worth there.

3.  Mike Allen (ed.), Clockwork Phoenix 4 

The Clockwork Phoenix series of original anthologies has been a personal fav for years and the current volume carries on the tradition of having good, solid, hard-to-classify stories.

2.  Gene Luen Yang, Boxers/Saints (boxed set) 

 See my November review for more on this 2013 National Book Award finalist for Young People's Literature book.

1.  John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, March:  Book One 

This graphic novel rendering of Rep. John Lewis's life up to the immediate aftermath of the Nashville sit-ins is one of the most moving things I've read this year.  It certainly was the most memorable of any on these two lists and so it deserves this ranking.  Go out and read it, ASAP. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Best (Worst?) of 2013: Five Disappointing Releases

In writing a series of posts regarding the "best" of this passing year in a variety of categories, I debated for some days whether or not to write a post dedicated to those new releases that I read which were either execrable reads or were so flawed in some form or fashion that they did not live up to my modest expectation of entertaining me.  Some of these works others will find to be good or even excellent reads.  Others likely will gender a response of "why the hell did you read that dreck in the first place?"  But a "failure rate" of roughly 5% (5 out of slightly over 100 2013 US releases read, with another 25-50 being a mass of decent to solidly good tales that left only fleeting impressions and nothing truly indelible on my memory) is not too bad, I suppose.  Anyway, here are the five whose stories not only failed to capture my attention, but which left me feeling at least wistful about the time lost to reading/reflecting upon them:

5.  Wendy Lower, Hitler's Furies:  German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields 

See the link above for the original review, but this excerpt summarizes many of my disappointments with the study:

The sources included in the endnotes is impressive.  Although I haven't kept up with the literature since late 1997, there are a wealth of studies on the issues of women in the Third Reich and roles of women in the Holocaust that appear to be promising reads.  Yet within the body of her study, Lower rarely mentions any of these other historians and their contributions to the field.  Perhaps this is due to Hitler's Furies being marketed more to a general audience than toward an academic one, but ultimately this leads to the sense that Lower's narrative is detached too much from the debates that historians have had on this subject over the past six decades.  While it may be understandable that Lower wants to avoid the old Intentionalist/Functionalist debate regarding the level of intent that the decision-makers had in beginning the Final Solution, the book suffers because there is insufficient grounding of her arguments within the context of larger discussions of the Holocaust's beginning, mechanics, and how its perpetrators justified their actions.  Even the women involved seem at times acting within a narrative vacuum; there is not enough explanation to cover their myriad actions.
Yet despite these serious issues that I have with Hitler's Furies, it is a book that at the very least presents vividly-described actresses and whose discussions at least point the way to possible future paths of exploration within the field.  It is a flawed work, but for non-historian readers curious about the time period, it certainly is a work that will appeal to them.  For many historians of the period, however, Lower's work may be frustrating in the sense that it seems that with just more focus on placing her work within the context of current historiography, her work could have been as important as those of Ian Kershaw and Browning in discussing the mindsets of those involved in the Shoah.  The arguments on complicity and the forms in which it took here will continue to rage on.
 4.  Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds

I bought Lord's second novel on the basis of her strong debut novel, Redemption in Indigo.  Yet when I read it soon after its February 2013 release, I found myself being distracted too frequently while reading the narrative.  There just was no "spark," nothing that interested me, as the setting had too many parallels with prior SF landscapes, the characters were earnest yet lacking in vitality, and while the prose wasn't horrendous, neither did it sparkle with wit, verve, or anything that might have given me a reason to pay closer attention.  The result was a narrative that didn't appeal to me, leaving me then (and now,  months after I traded the book in at the local used bookstore for others) so disinclined to think about its themes that I chose not to write a formal review about how disappointed I was with Lord's sophomore effort.

3.  Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice 

I reviewed this earlier this month and there is little that I would add to that review other than to note that my disappointment stems from the rare case where I tried a book despite my misgivings about the book's premise due to the enthusiastic praise of others.  I suppose in her presumed desire to write a "gender-positive" account that Leckie just failed to make her debut novel a "prose-positive" or "dynamic character-positive" one as well, as the blandness of virtually everything but her underdeveloped theme of the artificiality of gender divisions just left me cold to the pedestrian narrative.

2.  Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, A Memory of Light 

I wrote a detailed review as to why this bloated concluding volume was a major disappointment to me, considering that at one point (well, back in the late 1990s) I enjoyed reading the WoT novels, that any more commentary would just rehash what was stated earlier.  Although I will admit that livetweeting this book back in January (using the hashtag "#WoTTF") did give birth to one of my better literary putdowns:  "non-erotic pornography."

1.  Terry Goodkind, The Third Kingdom 

This is the most disappointing 2013 release read, not because I had any hopes that it would be good, but because I lost a trusted Serbian reading squirrel due to this crap.  Damn good one, Stefan was.  He still is missed, as I have yet to attempt reading another epic fantasy until I can find a suitable replacement.

So there we have it, five disappointing releases, each for different reasons (5:  professional wish for more analysis of sources; 4:  weaker sophomore effort; 3:  too high of expectations based on others' proclamations; 2:  disappointed nostalgia of a former perhaps-fan; 1:  the toil caused by reading the book).  Any thoughts on these five books or any disappointing 2013 releases that you have read this year?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Best of 2013: Short Fiction Collections

Short Fiction Read

Tamas Dobozy, Siege 13
George Saunders, Tenth of December
Yoko Ogawa, Revenge
Angélica Gorodischer, Tráfalgar
Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Jim Gavin, Middle Men
Joan Silber, Fools
Jyrki Vainonen, The Explorer & Other Stories
Ron Rash, Nothing Gold Can Stay
I have not read as many short fiction collections this year compared to years' past, or at least not those released during the calendar year, but the ones I did read I tended to enjoy greatly, so it is a pleasantly difficult task to choose those works that I enjoyed most.  One of the very first books I read this year was Tamas Dobozy's Siege 13 and it is a very striking collection of tales and if it weren't for such a passage of time that its impact has faded more for me compared to the three that I chose, it would have likely made the final three.  The same can be said for Ogawa's themed collection or even Jim Gavin's work.  Joan Silber's Fools was longlisted for the National Book Award and it certainly has several memorable stories.  Vainonen's titular story was excellent and if there were more stories in this slender collection, it too would have merited even further consideration.  And then there is Ron Rash's tales, many of them set in Appalachia, that appeal greatly to this Tennessean reader and occasional critic.  Yes, very difficult choices indeed.  But below are the three collections (and yes, I'm aware that some might argue that one is closer to a mosaic novel, but I found that the book perhaps works better as a collection of tales than a singular narrative) that stuck in my memory the longest and most vividly:

See above review for more thoughts. 

See above review for more.

Simply the best collection I have read in quite some time.  Well deserving of its nomination as a finalist for the 2013 National Book Awards (it was my favorite out of the five works chosen).

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Best of 2013: Translations into English

2013 Translations Read:
Yoko Ogawa, Revenge
Angélica Gorodischer, Tráfalgar
Ismail Kadare, The Fall of the Stone City
Xu Lei, Search for the Buried Bomber
Pierre Grimbert, The Secret of Ji:  Six Heirs
Nihad Sirees, The Silence and the Roar
Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, Where Tigers are at Home
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer
Martín Arias and Martín Hadis, Professor Borges:  A Course on English Literature
Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump
Inga Ābele, High Tide 
Liliana Bodoc, The Days of the Deer 
Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone 
László Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below 
Jyrki Vainonen, The Explorer & Other Stories 
Leena Krohn, Datura 
Andrzej Sapkowski, The Time of Contempt 
João Cerqueira, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro
Edit:  Translators for these titles are listed in the comments to this post.
I read more translated works, both fiction and non-fiction alike, in 2013 than I had in recent years.  Yet even this list does not contain every book that I've read that saw an English translation this year (Javier Marías' Infatuations is one prominent example, although as good as that tale was, it would not have made my shortlist of three works), plus there is another book, Zoran Živković's Find Me (a sequel to The Last Book), that I got to read before its English publication (and that one would have possibly cracked the top 5, if not the top 3).

The translations here ranged from autobiographies such as Naoki Higashida's insightful look into his life as a teen in Japan with autism (I credit this memoir with helping me immensely with one of my current jobs) to philosophical meanderings (Leopardi's Zibaldone, which I also read in Italian this year) to various "genre" offerings (the mystery elements present in High Tide to the SF of Tráfalgar to the high fantasy of The Days of the Deer and The Time of Contempt) and all other points in-between and around (such as Datura).  It is difficult to choose the very "best" from this list due to the diversity of the genres listed and the various tastes that readers might have (if anything, I could note a few that were not my favorites, although they were decent reads and would appeal to some readers:  The Secret of Ji, Search for the Buried Bomber), but below are three works, only one of which I have reviewed before, that I would consider to be the Best of 2013 for translations into English:

3.  Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer

This harrowing look at the effects of war and terrorism has lingered with me even more than has Nihad Siree's The Silence and the Roar (which does a very good job laying out the crumbling situation in Syria).  See the full review for my thoughts.

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

This 2013 US release was one of the more monumental reads of the year.  Blas de Robles tells what appears to be two stories in parallel, that of a 17th century philosopher/scientist and a contemporary scientist, both engaged in attempting to solve mysteries, but the tale soon becomes that about how we conceive of information systems and knowledge itself.  It sounds extremely complex to explain in a single paragraph, but what Blas de Robles does is create a magnificently-woven tapestry of images and concepts that sucks the reader into its weaving, leaving the reader bedazzled at what she encounters.  I enjoyed this work so much in translation that I sought out the French original a few months later to read it anew.

1.  László Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below

I am planning on doing a series of reviews next year of Krasznahorkai's works, but this novel (his fourth to be translated into English) is a true literary beauty.  Readers familiar with his labyrinthine sentences will encounter even more subtlety of expression and meaning (for those who are not, Krasznahorkai is akin to José Saramago in constructing pages-long sentences without using direct quotations, but with some differences to how points are conveyed within those clause-laden sentences).  The story touches upon many things, but at its heart lies the search for Art, Love, and the true Apocalypse where all of our (self-) deceits shall be laid bare.  Here is an exemplary quote fragment:

He set off from the deepest of hatreds and arrived, from deep below, and from far away, from so far below and so far away – that then, at the beginning of the beginning, he had not the slightest idea where he was heading; indeed, he didn't even suspect that there was a route toward anything at all, he had come to hate the country where he lived, come to hate the city where he resided, come to hate the people among whom he stepped onto the metro every morning at dawn, and with whom he traveled home in the evening, it is futile, he said to himself, I have no one here, nothing ties me to this place, let the whole thing go to hell and rot away; since for a good long while he could not decide, he just went with the morning metro and came back with the evening one, back home, and when the day arrived, one morning at dawn, that he no longer stepped onto that metro with the others, he just stood for a while on the platform, there was nothing in his head, he just stood, and he was pushed around, here and there; he picked up one of the free advertising newspapers, then had a beer standing at the counter, and he looked at the want ads and picked out a country along with a job offer, because he knew nothing about it, Spain, that's a good distance away, so let it be Spain, and from that point on things sped up, and a cheap airline was already dragging him along, he was traveling by plane for the first time in his life, yet he felt nothing other than fear and hatred, for he was afraid of them:  he hated the self-confident stewardesses, the self-confident travelers, and even the self-confident clouds that whirled around below him, and he hated the sun and the sparkling light as well – and then he was nearly plummeting down, plummeting down straight into that city, and hardly had he set foot here then he had already been swindled, for of course there was no job behind the job offer, and the money he had saved up was almost immediately gone – it had gone toward the traveling, accommodation for the first few days, and food, so that he could start here, there was no going back, no going back at all – he could start to look for work in this foreign land, which of course he didn't find, everything the "Romanian vagrants" and those of their ilk were chased away, he just wandered around in this beautiful city, and no one would give him any kind of work, and a week passed, and then another and then another, ... (Ch. 21, pp. 165-166)
At first these "walls of words" may be intimidating for even intrepid readers most eager to parse them, but there is a rhythm to his narrator's thoughts, to his blending of description and introspection, that lulls the reader into reading just a little bit more, into considering just a little bit more what is transpiring.  There comes a point (for myself, it was around 20 pages in) where the rhythms become so internalized that the narrative seems to "pulse" (for lack of a better work) with a force that is irresistible.  While this has been true for the other Krasznahorkai novels that I have read, here in Seiobo There Below it is intensified, perhaps because the author's explorations, which formerly focused more on matters of desolation and despair, have expanded to included the yearning qualities of hope and beauty.  It truly is a marvelous work to behold and (re)consider.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Books of My Life

Earlier this year, I was asked by Safaa Dib, the editor of the Portuguese magazine Bang!, if I would write a 2500 word essay on "The Books of My Life" for translation and publication in the 15th issue of Bang!  This issue came out in Portugal last month and today I received my contributor's copy.  For those who can't read Portuguese (and I should note that Luís Santos does an excellent job translating my florid words into fluid Portuguese), here is the article in English.  Hopefully this will allow some insight into the stories that have shaped me for over three decades now.

I have spent a long time reflecting on what truly might be the “Books of My Life,” especially in regard to those works that touch upon those imaginative vistas so frequently associated with fantasies and other speculative fictions.   There are so many works that have influenced me over the years that it is difficult to just choose a small sample of stories and discuss them without at least grounding them in my life.  Therefore, I will begin by discussing “place” and its role in the creation of the stories that have enchanted me for years.

In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus chooses to identify his place in the world by going from the intimately local (Class of Elements) to the, well, “universal” (the Universe).  This inductive approach to placing himself inside the context of a greater universe is similar to how I believe many fantasies came to be:  the original storytellers tried to place an imaginative form of their own intimate locales within a larger, stranger, and sometimes frightful world that seemed to exist outside the limns of their villages or city-states.  The earliest mythologies preserved in writing, the Sumerian tales of Gilgomesh, Enkidu, Inanna, the action frequently takes place just a few mountains or valleys away from the Mesopotamian river valley.  Fraught with a dark, subterranean underworld and god-sent bulls and a rare flower (not to mention a flood that almost certainly is the antecedent for Noah’s), these tales served to educate generations of listeners about how they should conduct their lives and how they should remember the limitations of human life.  Yet often overlooked in discussions of mythologies, ancient as well as more modern, are the visual aspects that shape the tale to fit the needs of the audience.  From the hoary frost of the Norse myths regarding the world’s foundation to the shapeless Chaos from whence Night and Day were birthed and then from them the later gods and goddesses to the Cherokee belief that the water beetle Dâyuni'sï scooped up mud in order to provide a resting place during his sojourn there from the sky realm of Gälûñ'lätï, each myth takes natural elements (or the perceived absence of them) and they create fantastical places upon which stories of truth, justice, good, evil, and despair could be enacted upon in an aural tapestry that would simultaneously entrance their listeners (and later, readers) and lead them to consider the messages embedded within the stories.

In recent centuries, these fantastical mythologies expanded roughly along national lines.  The English have their “Matter of Britain,” or the cycle of stories surrounding the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  In France and Italy, there is the “Matter of France” and the tales surrounding Charlemagne’s Twelve Paladins, particularly Roland/Orlando.  The Spanish have El Cid to represent the Reconquista.  Each of these, however, were birthed over several centuries and with the exception of the 16th century epic poem Orlando Furioso, all came before Columbus’s voyages to the so-called “New World.”

With the circumnavigation of the globe by the last ship in Magellan’s fleet in 1521, the belief in a world suspended on pillars, flat as a plane, was shattered.  Yet the melding of physical and imaginative “place” continued to produce moving works, such as Camões’s Os Lusíadas and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the metaphoric locales became at least as important as real-world parallels.  One could argue that due to this ascendancy of the metaphoric , irreal place at the expense of the “real” physical locations (slightly altered to fit the needs of the tale), the unity of locale and belief, bound together in myths that reinforced social mores, had begun to fracture into the “speculative” and “realist” fictions of today.

There is some justification, some might argue, to considering fantasies to be “lesser” works.  After all, they do not possess the believability of the earlier myths – there is little sense of there being a discovery of Hobbiton in the layers of English detritus as there still is for some faint, distant echo of a historical King Arthur.  “Place” in regards to modern fantasies, feels estranged from known realities.  Yet this is not always the case.  Take for instance my native region, the American South.  Unlike virtually any part of Anglo North America, it possesses a memory of place so strong that history itself has been warped to suit the needs of the populace.

“Place” in the American South is treacherous, full of cultural and historical landmines that can detonate if the erstwhile traveler takes a single false step.   “The South” even 152 years after the beginning of the American Civil War, carries connotations of chattel slavery, plantation life, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and of enduring memories of the “Lost Cause.”  These sordid elements combine in odd ways, creating what might be some of the finest speculative fictions of the past century, several of which have served to influence writers across the globe even today.

“The South” has been mythologized as a place of sweltering summer heat and humidity, of decaying farms and encroaching kudzu.  The very air seems to sometimes carry a hint of ruined plantations and burning homes.  The devastation of the Civil War was much more than just the loss of a significant percentage of the pre-war population or the razing of several towns and plantations.  No, in the minds of many there was a sort of metaphysical impression put on the souls of those who survived and endured:  a sort of social Original Sin in which not just the sins of the fathers would be visited upon the descendants to the fourth degree but that there would be a tendency to slip into the evils of pride, anger, and racism.  While this mindset is not totally true, there is still a sense of a sort of Hawthornian “scarlet letter” that a great many Southerners still bear in penance for the evils of their forebears and themselves. 

Such societal feelings, however negative they may be, can be the impetus for great, imaginative literature.  Take for instance the late 19th/early 20th century Brer Rabbit stories.  These tales of a clever rabbit outwitting a devious fox, a brute bear, and other anthropomorphized animals, represent two strands of Southern life, each of which were born of a melding of West African, Southeastern Native American, and  Anglo-Celtic tales.  I grew up listening to the Joel Chandler version of the tales, in which the characters are presented as quaint tales told by plantation workers, with implicit racist commentary.  Yet the Brer Rabbit stories carried another connotation, one that Zora Neale Hurston transcribes in her first non-fiction work, Mules and Men.  There, Brer Rabbit leads a subversive resistance against the established order and that buried within the fantasies is a social commentary grounded in the complex realities of post-Civil War Southern society.  These twin poles, of white manipulation of black myth in order to suit their social hierarchical views and the black subversion of this same hierarchy, represent in fantasy form in cultural topography of the South even unto my childhood in the late 1970s and 1980s.  Looking back on these tales now, especially that of the “Tar Baby,” I cannot help but see the story in two ways:  a tale of a clever rabbit who manages to escape even his own deserved comeuppance and a metaphor for the battles fought to preserve a culture that was repeatedly oppressed by the dominant racial group.  Taking into account the variations between the Chandler and Hurston recordings of originally oral tales, the Brer Rabbit stories might be some of the more controversial and yet culturally significant fantasies to be produced, not just in my native South but in the world as a whole.

The South is also known for its Southern Gothic literature, which captures in haunting, eloquent words the mixture of religious fervor, faith, despair, and ruin that seem to haunt Southerners even today.  As Flannery O’Connor once said in an essay:

“I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”

The Devil, nearly absent elsewhere, seems to lurk in the hollows and vales of the South.   When I first read O’Connor in college, I could not help but feel as though in her tales of sinners captured brilliantly the looming dread of the afterlife.  Although there is nothing explicitly supernatural about her fictions, the battle for redemption can be seen in characters such as the boy in “The River” who seeks so earnestly for a redemption that he barely understands that he continually immerses himself in a local river in a tragic effort to purge his body of sin and impurity.  Her first collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, is replete with tales of those who seek redemption or redress of grievances in one form or fashion.  O’Connor comments on the latent power of redemption in an essay that I believe goes straight to the heart of why her fictions resonate so much with readers, particularly Southerners:

“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.”

Nowhere in her fiction is this “mock damnation” felt more strongly than in her first novel, Wise Blood, and its protagonist Hazel Motes and his “Church Without Christ.”  Having read it twice in my life, the novel grows even more haunted and grotesque on the second reading.  O’Connor’s use of religious imagery, particularly Catholic symbols filtered through a Southern apocalyptic lens, served as the genesis for some of the most unsettling fictions that I have read over the second half of my life.

If O’Connor’s South is a place in which the worst religious-inspired nightmares haunt its denizens, then William Faulkner’s fictions, mostly set in the fictional Mississippi Yoknapatawpha County, strikes at the confluence of past and present that pervaded Southern customs for over a century after the Civil War.  His tales are replete with families that have come down in life after the war, yet still clinging to the shredded, rotting remnants of former familial fame.  Stories like “A Rose for Emily” capture this in an almost horrific fashion.  When I first read it as an 18 year-old in 1992, I recall feeling a vague sense that Emily could have easily been any of a number of elderly women that I knew in the 1980s, those who would rather shut themselves away from the present in order to cling to a glorified past now mostly devoid of any resemblance to the present’s grim realities.  Faulkner’s fictions play upon this struggle to reconcile the past and its atrocities with the present’s demands.  In Absalom, Absalom!, this conflict is outlined in perhaps its greatest depth, making for a tale that feels as much a synopsis of a century of cursed existence as a tale of a family’s rise and fall.  Each time that I return to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, I feel as though I am experiencing a past South that exists as much on the metaphorical level of a place struggling to find itself within a world of hide-bound tradition as it does as a penetrating look into the actual “real” world of complicated race and class struggles.  Re-reading Faulkner after reading some of the Latin American realismo mágico writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, who both have cited Faulkner as an influence, it is easy to hear within their tales of three years’ of rain and the “war of the end of the world” echoes of Faulkner’s exploration of how humans are molded by their native lands and how those histories shape us in ways that seem utterly fantastical to those who grew up outside these tortured traditions and decadent societies.

Yes, the sense of the decadent pervades Southern Gothic literature and its cousin once removed, magic realism.  Ruin is in the ascendency and no greater goal than the redemption of individual or societal souls is at stake.  This has a resonance in several fantasies, particularly epic fantasies such as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (which I read as a child, but despite re-reading it several times between 13 and 18, it did not have as large of a hold on me, perhaps due to its “foreign” qualities), but whereas secondary-world fantasies, with their invented locales, are at some remove from the high moral stakes that are often featured in Southern Gothic literature.  Although many of the classic writers of Southern Gothic literature are now dead, one writer still alive who uses its settings, themes, and techniques is Cormac McCarthy.  While McCarthy might be more famous today for his Western-set works such as Blood Meridian or The Border Trilogy, he began by writing dark, almost depraved works set in mountainous region of East Tennessee.  His  1973 novel, Child of God, describes the life of a loner, Lester Ballard, who sinks so far into depravity (necrophilia is but one of his numerous crimes) that instead of being repulsed by him, readers may instead sympathize with his transgressions against early 20th century Southern society.  McCarthy’s short, staccato bursts of dialogue and sparse description create a setting that captures, similar to O’Connor but in an even more stark fashion, the desire for redemption even when damnation looms darkly over the narrative.  Unlike Faulkner and O’Connor, both of whom I have re-read several times over the past two decades, I have yet to re-read any of McCarthy’s stories, as they are so frightening in their feverish realism that they have seared their outlines into my mind.  Those who read McCarthy can expect to find something more fantastical than surreal fantasy within his tales.  It’s as though McCarthy has through his use of rural Appalachian settings created a dark, twisted fable within what appears at first to be a grim realist work.  Place here, as in Faulkner and O’Connor, becomes as much the grounds for myths to spring up from as a location upon which we might walk across.

Thinking again on this question of “Books of My Life,” perhaps it is best to say that the place where I grew up, the American South, is as much the grounds upon which fantastical nightmares and feverish dreams arise as a region that one can find on a map.  The stories of its evils and desire for redemption are, as Shakespeare says, such stuff as dreams are made.  Our fictions merely reflect a mindset that may be foreign to others, but which it is difficult to read without sensing that something fantastical has come to nestle itself beside quotidian life.  To these tales I return time and time again, in order to understand just a little more how this wonderfully mad culture came into being.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

So another December has come bearing with it another Peter Jackson adaptation of a J.R.R. Tolkien story.  With each passing movie, my enjoyment has declined to the point where I decided that I would make the effort to see the second The Hobbit adaptation, The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug more out of a morbid curiosity to see how I would react this time to the sundry changes than out of any real expectation that what I would view would be engaging entertainment.  With such expectations, it is hard to be disappointed, as the critic then is, if not suspending her judgments, involved more in a meta-evaluation than a full-scale critique of the film at hand. 

This is, of course, merely a long-winded way of saying that some films provide exactly what they promise, dammit if viewers would have liked something more from it.  Before commencing with this review, I re-read my 2012 review of the first film and found myself thinking that I could copy/paste almost the entirety of that review here, changing only the title and specific details and it would encapsulate well what I thought of the second installment.

As I said in that earlier review, I am no "purist"; I understand that cinema and novels are very different storytelling forms and that there are things that have to be adjusted to fit the medium in question.  That being said, the questionable alterations that Jackson did in order to split the story in three (presumably in order to spend more time on the Gandalf/Necromancer side-plot) bear their dreadful fruit here.  For those who favor a tauter narrative less filled with repetitive scenes, The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug is not the movie for you.  Now onto an exploration of some of the issues I had with it (filled of course, with those ever-so-dreadful "spoilers" that some drone on about for some reason or another.)

The film begins roughly a day or two after the final events of the first installment.  While Beorn does make an appearance here (and Jackson provides a great visual of his home that suits the descriptions found in the book), his entire history and his interactions with the war party are so haphazardly presented that one might question, if it were not for the fact that the dwarves needed ponies for a little while, why this scene appeared here if it to be so sketchily presented.  But mercifully, the scene quickly shifts to Mirkwood and the visceral horrors of that place are well-rendered.

But even here there are issues with the narrative.  Jackson's Bilbo does not get that moment of character development present in the book when he fights the spiders.  Instead, this scene devolves into a more generic action-adventure scene with dizzying spirals of action as the dwarfs, hobbit, and then some elves dance hither and fro slashing at and filling their enemies full of arrows and pointy objects.  There is nothing outright "bad," per se, about having such depicted in detail (conceding of course that this alters the themes of the source material), but there is really nothing spectacular here.  In thinking back to this scene and to subsequent fighting scenes (and there are a lot of fighting scenes, since one cannot keep a good orc down, it seems), I found myself thinking of two movie trailers that appeared before the opening scene, Seventh Son and the 300 sequel.  In those trailers and here in Jackson's film, the cinematography is very similar.  The camera moves in such a vertiginous fashion that it is difficult to keep the eye focused on the movements.  The grim-faced characters, speaking with voices reminiscent of 300's King Leonidas yelling "Sparta!", back-handing foes and having evil beasts roaring in their faces – all of this runs together into a prosaic, forgettable mash-up of action at the expense of any real storytelling.  Yet for many who "like this sort of stuff," these action scenes, which comprise at least 1/3 of the film's nearly three hours, will be appealing to them (as it was for my dad, who has never read the Tolkien books).

Other additions are a bit more tedious.  While the latest elf-maiden stand-in wasn't as incongruous as the Arwen character in the LotR films, the story becomes bogged down in its own need to justify its length around the point of the elvish appearance.  Instead of a simpler means of explaining the dwarfs' escape, Jackson feels the need to provide drama in the form of extraneous attacks (and lots of fighting, some of which, like the running across the heads of some of the fighters, was ridiculous to behold).  This does not add tension to the narrative as much as it drags out the scenes, making the flight-then-fight sequences feel redundant, as if the characters were trapped in some sort of Middle-Earth Groundhog Day.  Add to that a half-developed political conflict interlude in Lake Town and the entire affair just feels bloated in order to justify earlier bloatedness.

The Gandalf scenes, left undescribed in the book, also suffers from this bloating, not so much in the scenes themselves, but in the lack of development in contrast to the too-long time devoted to going from the elvish halls to the Lonely Mountain of Erebor.  While some of the scenes in this sub-plot are well-rendered, there is a discernible lack of connection with the greater narrative, something that perhaps could have been redressed by judicious edits in the larger plot coupled with perhaps a furthering of Gandalf's narrative.  As it stands, however, his scenes feel superfluous and they too add to the sense that Jackson has delayed overlong in having the war party reach Smaug's lair.

The final hour or so of the film is pretty much non-stop action, which again will appeal to some, but for others such as myself, will be another tedious exercise in repetitive fighting.  Smaug's initial scene with Bilbo is well-done, but Jackson's choice of having the dwarfs emerge to fight the dragon leads merely to a series of capers that quickly becomes dull.  There is nothing that occurs here that justifies over 45 minutes of movements and dumping of copious amounts of ore and molten metal ad nauseam.  Even if only 20 minutes (I would have preferred less than 10) were devoted to this fight, it might have been bearable, but near the end, I began to lose focus as I kept wondering, "when will this damn thing ever end?"  Finally, it does, with a series of (expected) cliffhangers that remain to be resolved in a year's time.

The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug is not the sort of movie that I ever would enjoy.  If it weren't for the fact that I loved the book when I was 12 in early 1987, I wouldn't have considered watching it, knowing that it would be chock-full of the sorts of generic action/adventure scenes that I have come to loathe.  For this cinematic genre, however, it is decent, albeit not the sort of plot one should lose any sleep over considering its cohesiveness (or lack thereof).  But it certainly is a film that reveals in painful detail just why so many people questioned the need to have a 300 page book split into three movies that will cover nearly a combined nine hours.  A thoroughly mediocre production that illustrates well the declining abilities of its producer.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Things I am contemplating doing/reading in 2014

Although it won't be until January 1 when I post my official-official reading goals for 2014, I thought it might be of some interest to readers to see what I am contemplating having as reading challenges/goals for 2014.  This list is subject to change, dependent in large part on projected time/energy issues:

1.  Reading at least 366 books for the year.  Ever since 2008, I have read a minimum of 385 books (currently reading #370, but with the full expectation of reading another 20-35 books by the 31st), so this is an extension of the previous 6 years' accomplishments.

2.  Having at least 35% of those reads be by women writers/editors.  At the very least, I want to read a similar percentage as I have so far this year (currently, a shade under 35%), so this is another continuing annual goal.

Now for some newer ones:

3.  Reading at least 50 books each in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French.  Had thought about having the numbers be 40 each, since I turn 40 in July, but I thought a 50x4 challenge would be more fitting (plus it might make it where over 50% of the works I read will be in a language other than English).  Still might change this one before the 1st.

4.  Reprising the 2010 "World Cup" series of posts for the 2014 edition.  This is almost certainly going to happen in some form, but I haven't decided if I'll write short, silly country vs. country comparisons, or if I'll choose specific writers from the competing countries and write short reviews of their works.  If I do the latter, I probably will need to discover several new writers, which wouldn't be a bad thing at all, n'est ce pas?

5.  Doing an in-depth series of reviews of a Southern writer.  I know, I know, for the past two years I wrote several reviews of stories/novels by William Faulkner (2012) and Flannery O'Connor (2013) and by the springtime, both weekly series had been abandoned.  But perhaps if I made it something like a weekend or monthly feature, something that wouldn't tax me too much if I continue to work/travel 13-14 hrs/day for the workweek, maybe that might have lasting power?  Am considering Thomas Wolfe, one of my all-time favorite writers, for this.

6.  Doing at least one interview with a writer/editor.  Outside of the four interviews I did with certain reviewers/bloggers this year, I haven't interviewed anyone since mid-2011.  Maybe it's past time to resume interro-viewing authors/editors?

7.  Averaging writing a review a week for the year.  I'm nearly at that now, but only a few years ago, I wrote almost 3/week for the year (I think it was 2010).  Maybe that'll restore some life to this blog?

Oh, and there might be more rabid reading squirrels browsing shelves in your hometown/village in the near future.  You might want to stay out of their way...
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