The OF Blog: January 2014

Friday, January 31, 2014

Interesting discussion on non-binary genders

I've been a bit too busy with my professional life (which has drama enough of its own to keep me occupied) to have followed this in "real time," but apparently there was this article on that led to some reactions from writers and another blogger (and I know there had to have been other, related discussions elsewhere, but I am just following a link from my blogroll due to lack of time).  Their points are best read (or in one case, perhaps laughed at?) in full, so I won't bother to recapitulate them here.  What instead I will do is ask a couple of questions that are unvoiced, at least directly, in most of this.

What are some of the "genre" books that focus on non-binary genders?  (From what I understand, it is not just Western European/American understanding of transsexuality, but also different roles/customs in non-Western societies)?  I know Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (there should be a sort of Godwin's Law written about how in the course of any discussion of "progressive" cultural/sexual issues, the probability approaches one of someone citing this book, but I digress) was mentioned, but other works are there?

Secondly, would it be more or less likely that non-SF/F books will have characters that do not fit into binary (male/female) gender roles?  I am thinking of Booker Prize-nominated Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis in particular, but I feel like there have been others that I have read in which the issue of gender is not as clear-cut.

Any suggestions?  I am much less interested in arguing the issue of non-binary gender (the linked articles alone suffice for that) as I am in learning of titles in which there are characters that are not traditional male/female in gender.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

BSFA Award shortlists announced

From the British Science Fiction Association website (bolded titles are ones read, italics are ones owned but yet to be read):

Best Novel
God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley (Gollancz)
Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell (Solaris)
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)

I need to get around to importing the Priest book, as I suspect it'll be to my liking.  Of the two I've read, the Hurley I think is a far more superior story than the Leckie.  

Best Short Fiction
Spin by Nina Allan (TTA Press)
“Selkie Stories are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons)
“Saga’s Children” by E. J. Swift (The Lowest Heaven, Pandemonium)
“Boat in the Shadows Crossing” by Tori Truslow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

I haven't any of these particular stories, but I have enjoyed previous works by Allan and Samatar.

Best Artwork
Cover for Tony Ballantyne’s Dream London by Joey Hi-fi (Solaris)
Poster for Metropolis by Kevin Tong (
“The Angel at the Heart of the Rain” by Richard Wagner (Interzone #246)

No opinion.
Best Non-Fiction
Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer (Abrams Image)
“Going Forth by Night” by John J. Johnston (Unearthed, Jurassic)
“Sleeps with Monsters” by Liz Bourke (

Haven't yet finished VanderMeer's book, but the parts I've read make it a delight to read and to behold.  Have read some of Bourke's columns, but uncertain if this one is her best.  

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

More notes on the Aeneid, Book I, lines 81-101

Haec ubi dicta, cavum conversa cuspide montem
impulit in latus: ac venti, velut agmine facto,
qua data porta, ruunt et terras turbine perflant.
Incubuere mari, totumque a sedibus imis
una Eurusque Notusque ruunt creberque procellis
Africus, et vastos volvunt ad litora fluctus.
Insequitur clamorque virum stridorque rudentum.
Eripiunt subito nubes caelumque diemque
Teucrorum ex oculis; ponto nox incubat atra.
Intonuere poli, et crebris micat ignibus aether,
praesentemque viris intentant omnia mortem.
Extemplo Aeneae solvuntur frigore membra:
ingemit, et duplicis tendens ad sidera palmas
talia voce refert: 'O terque quaterque beati,
quis ante ora patrum Troiae sub moenibus altis
contigit oppetere! O Danaum fortissime gentis
Tydide! Mene Iliacis occumbere campis
non potuisse, tuaque animam hanc effundere dextra,
saevus ubi Aeacidae telo iacet Hector, ubi ingens
Sarpedon, ubi tot Simois correpta sub undis
scuta virum galeasque et fortia corpora volvit!' 

When he had said this, he reversed his spear and he struck the side of the hollow mountain:  and even as if the winds had made rank, where a door opened, they rushed through and they blew up a storm.  Laying upon the sea and from the bottom of the sea together, Eurus and Notus rushed over the whole sea and crowded Africus, and with frequent gusts they blew a great wave toward the shore.  It was followed by a roar from the Trojans and the ropes were creaking.  Suddenly, the sky and the day were torn away from the view of the Teucrians by the storm; the sea loomed as dark as night.  The sky thundered and frequently flashed ethereal flames; everything threatened a quick death for the men.  Immediately Aeneas relaxed his limbs due to chilly fear; he groaned and stretching both palms toward heaven said the following words:  "Oh, three and four times blessed, who before the father's eyes below the high walls of Troy met death!  Oh bravest of the Greeks!  Diomedes!  Why wasn't it possible for me to meet death by your hands on the plains of Ilium when you had wounded me at the place where stern Achilles laid out Hector, where Sarpedon is, where the river Simois snatched so many shields and helmets and dragged strong men in its waters!"

As always, this is a very rough translation draft that I'm presenting here.  But what interests me in re-reading this twenty years later is the vividness of Vergil's descriptions of wind and storm.  It is poetic, yes, but it never feels overbearing or too much.  The translation loses some of the beauty of the hexameter rhythms and certainly "O terque quaterque beati" sounds a bit flat when rendered as "Oh three and four times blessed!"  But the anguished cry of Aeneas here is perhaps one of the more direct examples of that man, marked by piety, actually showing human emotions and fears.  The connections with Homer's work is nicely done here without it feeling like straightforward fan fiction.

If I have time later in the week, I'll resume the story of the Trojans having to battle against wind and surf.  Judging by my notes, it looks like I only translated fully only about half of the next 25 lines or so, which might make for an interesting translation experience, as I am a bit out of practice when it comes to Latin.  But ever onward and forward.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Can you name some poets whose lines have inspired book titles?

Late Sunday night/Monday morning on Twitter, I was quoting lines from several poems by William Butler Yeats, when it occurred to me that lines from "Easter 1916" (a terrible beauty is born); "The Second Coming" (things fall apart; the centre cannot hold); and "Sailing to Byzantium" (That is no country for old men) have inspired several memorable book titles.

I found myself musing tonight on my drive back home from work on what other poems have inspired book titles.  If you can think of a poet, ancient or modern does not matter, whose lines provided titles for books, would you please list them below?  It'd be interesting to see what titles we recall collectively after this.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Daniel Sueiro, Corte de Corteza

Las cosas empezaron a deteriorarse poco a poco, unas veces por hablar mucho, otras por callar demasiado; ella se convirtió pronto en una mujer insatisfecha por mil razones, él en un hombre por mil causas frustrado; la falta de acuerdo intelectual acerca de cuestiones elementales y por lo tanto esenciales, como la marcha del país, el papel de sus dirigentes, sus intervenciones bélicas en todo el planeta, la misma mecánica electoral, el valor de la persona humana individualizada en medio de toda aquella maquinaria de producir, consumir y guerrear sin un verdadero y último sentido, así como fundamentalmente la posición de cada uno de ellos con respecto a todas esas cuestiones, su participación en ellas, su inhibición en unos casos o su propia responsabilidad en otros, fueron nuevos motivos de desajustes que pronto salieron a la superficie de su vida cotidiana y que ahondaron de forma definitiva su total incomunicación, una dificultad absoluta y casi insalvable para del diálogo y, tal como iban las cosas, para la convivencia.  Esto era tremendo, resultada terrible y absurdo para ambos, les llenaba de confusión, de secreta vergüenza, y, en cierto modo, de pánico.  Pero se analizaban un poco más profundamente y entonces sabían que había otras razones, y una de ellas, muy sencilla, era que valoraban de distinta manera la sexualidad y el erotismo, y en este terreno estaban igualmente en desacuerdo, tanto en el plano teórico como en el prático. (Ch. XII)

Things began to deteriorate gradually, sometimes through talking too much , others for being too silent; she soon became a woman unsatisfied for a thousand reasons, he a man frustrated by a thousand causes; the lack of intellectual agreement on basic issues and therefore essential, like the progress of the country, the role of its leaders, its military interventions around the world, the electoral mechanics themselves, the value of the human individual in the midst of all machinery of production, consumption and war without a true and ultimate sense, and essentially the position of each with respect to all these issues, their participation in them, their inhibition or in some cases their own responsibility, they were new motives of disagreements which soon came to the surface of everyday life and permanently deepened their total isolation, an absolute and almost insurmountable difficulty of dialogue and, as things were going, for coexistence. It was awful, terrible and absurd for them both, it filled them with confusion, secret shame, and, in a certain way, panic.  But they analyzed it a little more deeply and then they knew that there were other reasons, and one of them, very simply, was that they valued sexuality and eroticism differently, and in this area they were also in disagreement, both theoretical and in practice.

 In its second iteration, the Premio Alfaguara winners have included several works that could, with just a little squinting of the eyes, be considered fantasies or science fictions.  In reading the 1968 winner, Daniel Sueiro's Corte de Corteza (The Court of Courtesy), it turns out that even early on, the judges were receptive of a work that is about as science fictional as they come.  But tropes ultimately are but window dressing that merely provide a template through which the author either writes a good tale or a mediocre one.  In this particular case, the former largely is on display.

Corte de Corteza is set in an unknown, futuristic time in an unspecified country.  Adam, a political dissident who is frustrated with the state of affairs in his homeland, walks out into an area known for its violence and is gravely wounded.  The doctors try their best to save his body, but the damage to his liver and other vital organs is too great, so they perform emergency brain surgery, in which Adam's brain is removed and placed in the hollowed-out cranium of a brain-dead man named David.  The rest of the novel revolves around the changes that occur in the Adam-David hybrid as Adam's brain tries to adapt to the changes present in a new body, with ever more pessimistic results.

Like many science fiction writers of the mid-20th century, Sueiro was interested in relationships between person and state, between prior and current states of being.  The narrative switches frequently between Adam-David's interactions with others and introspective passages such as the one cited above, which occurred after Adam's girlfriend and him slowly become estranged due to the changes that have taken place and which continue to take place within the new Adam hybrid.  Sueiro does an excellent job in exploring the dynamics involved here and there certainly are no easy, pat answers for what is transpiring here.

Corte de Corteza also represents a break in style for Sueiro.  Previously known as a social realist writer who carefully crafted tales set in contemporary Spain, Corte de Corteza was the beginning of a shift toward a more universal, more experimental sort of narrative in which "big question" concepts are addressed through both character interaction and monologue.  There are a few times in this novel where the "big questions" threaten to overwhelm the character who is doing these internal inquiries, but on the whole Sueiro manages to keep Adam-David's tale grounded enough in the individual/narrator that the reader finds his personality to be as key to the story as the questions he keeps raising about himself and his altered role in society.

The prose, however, is inconsistent, as Sueiro is too inclined at times to delve too broadly into the issues raised in the narrative, leading to passages that feel almost interminable before he transitions toward a new development that occurs more naturally and with less sense of slowness.  Yet despite these occasional weaknesses, on the whole, the writing is well-constructed and by story's end, the impact is greater because of the care that Sueiro took in developing Adam-David's character.  Corte de Corteza might not be the best-written or most powerful of the Premio Alfaguara winners, but it is a good tale that illustrates the variety of narrative styles and content that these award winners have had during both iterations of the Premio Alfaguara.  Recommended especially for those curious to see possible parallels between this tale and 1950s and 1960s Anglo-American SF.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ah, this brings back memories of Bush or Chimp....

There's just something about the squirrel to the right that makes me want to do this...

....tryin' to resist...

*does a funky Shatneresque dance*


*contorts face*


*sucks in air, quasi-sobbing*

Yes, squirrels make even Shatner better. 

Héctor Vásquez Azpiri, Fauna

Bueno, pues ya me reventaba.  Ya estaba harto uno de ver a esa gente que luego va y se vuelve y espera el efecto; espantapájaros amigos de la pausa, de las voces en off, o de los que siempre gritan «muy bien, muy bien», sonríen y acotan con una espátula sus gritos en los discursos.  Alquimistas de mierda que en mierda todo lo transforman.  To get the thing potruding, ser mosca o ser sardina, o que haya algún buen Dios en la enramada que te saque del lío y te perdone.  Séneca, y siglos antes de Séneca un anciano argonauta, y detrás de él un compadre de Aristótles, un físico iracundo que examinaba los procesos de la digestión.  Los procesos en vivo, con esclavos de barriga abierta, el ir y venir del bolo alimenticio, el quilo, el exudado perpetuo y excitado de las linfas.  Siempre quedan esclavos que rajar y siempre hay sabios para el peri fiseos.  Descapullar o no descapullar, y el resto déjalo en inglés, que todo el mundo entiende, a falta de esperanto.  Es ese ciertamente un problema hebreo, muy propio de eruditos.  Hay prepucios de izquierdas, sindicados, de hiedra viva que se ciñe al tronco y le impide liberarse.  A un palmo de la filosofía está el prepucio pensante, y a un palmo del prepucio la filosofía, que va del ojo reventado de Filipo a los esquíes de Heidegger.  A la nana ea, a la nana, ea. (p. 10)

Well, I was already busting. I was already fed up seeing one of those people who then goes and turns and awaits the effect; scarecrow friends on pause, of voices on "off", or those who always shout "very good, very good," smiling and narrow with a spatula their cries in speeches. Fucking alchemists that transform everything into shit.  To get the thing potruding [sic], be it fly or sardines, or there is some good God in the arbor to take you and forgive the mess.  Seneca, and centuries before Seneca an old Argonaut, and behind him a compadre of Aristotles , an angry physicist who examined the digestive process. Live processes, with belly-opened slaves, the coming and going of the bolus, the chyle, and the perpetual exudation and excitement of the lymph nodes. Always remain slaves that crack and there are always wisemen for peri fiseos . To unwrap or not, and leave the rest in English that everyone understands, lacking Esperanto. It is certainly a Hebrew problem, very scholarly.  There are left foreskins, syndicals, of living ivy that clings to the trunk and impedes it of freeing itself. In a hand of philosophy is the thinking foreskin, and in the palm of the foreskin philosophy, which will trap the eye of Philip to Heidegger's skies. A la nana ea, a la nana, ea. 

Héctor Vásquez Azpiri's 1967 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel Fauna is the most experimental winner of the first iteration of this Spanish-language award.  It is a monologue that stretches over 240 pages and covers all sorts of topics, ranging from the sample provided above (as always, errors in translation are mine, particularly with rough drafts) to matters of faith and love.  Fauna certainly is not a story read for its plot, although its themes certainly provide lots of grist for pensive mills.  

Like many writers from the mid-20th century, Vásquez Azpiri appears to be influenced by James Joyce.  In his meandering monologue, there are echoes of both Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, particularly in how certain phrases are reused in ways to accentuate the connections between phonics and semantics.  But there are some interesting parallels with Vásquez Azpiri's contemporaries.  In reading Fauna, I found myself thinking occasionally of Alfonso Grosso's Florido Mayo (which won the 1973 Premio Alfaguara) and how each used stream of consciousness to raise questions about socio-cultural issues that troubled Spain during mid-century.  Where Grosso used the past to address these matters, Vásquez Azpiri couches these concerns in questioning passages, such as this repeating question from near the end of Ch. 6, where after exploring desires embodied in classical prose, this question, «¿Era eso libertad?» ("Was that liberty?")  closes out key sections. 

Desire is never far from the surface of the narrative, as each form of it (sexual, monetary, wisdom-seeking, power-grabbing, etc.) is explored in often playful passages.  Vásquez Azpiri is careful never to sate these desires, instead raising more and more questions that drive the reader to consider more and more what is transpiring.  The free-flowing stream of consciousness narrative serves as a vehicle for question consideration, allowing the reader to shape the import of each passage to his or her liking.  The result is a monologue that somehow acts simultaneously as a dialogue, between the always-speaking narrator and the "silent" audience (in the opening paragraph, the narrator refers to this gathered silence on a couple of occasions).

Fauna is one of the better Premio Alfaguara winners that I have read over the past several years.  Its blend of introspective questioning and wild imagery make it a memorable read that promises to retain its exuberance upon future re-reads.  While it owes something to Joyce and other mid-20th century writers of stream of consciousness narrative, Fauna does not feel too derivative, as it contains enough originality of thought and theme to make it worthwhile readers' time to read.  It is a shame that it, along with most of the older Premio Alfaguara winners, are not available in English, as there likely would be some interest for these tales from those readers who are drawn to Joyce, Pynchon, or Faulkner.  Regardless, Fauna holds up well nearly fifty years after its initial publication, possessing a "freshness" that would appeal to many readers who seek more than the mundane when they open a book.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Luís Berenguer, Leña Verde

Life is a tricky creature to capture in media, whether it be film or the printed word.  The gestures endemic to one place and time do not always map out well when transported into a static medium.  The petty gestures and grandiose quirks of people often become distorted when transcribed.  Writing a story "true to life" is a much more daunting (and all too frequently, unrewarding) task than most readers realize.  This is especially true when the author is foolhardy enough to start his or her tale by looking at the lives of several people.  When done correctly, such tales have a profound power because we can see in them the people around us, their foibles and their triumphs, their dreams, aspirations, and most of all, their grounded actions and expressions.  Some great writers express this spectrum of humanity in picturesque terms, with characters that might be slight modifications of those that appear in Dickens' The Pickwick Papers.  Others, however, dig into our collective quotidian muck and dredge something profound out of it.  Ugliness can yield a repulsive beauty, sometimes, and this can be seen in some of Faulkner's works or in some of Joyce's tales.  Whenever a writer manages to achieve, even partially, this elevation of the vulgar to a artistic verisimilitude, it is a work to be cherished.

Luís Berenguer's 1972 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel, Leña Verde (Green Firewood), is one of those novels that has pretensions to achieving this difficult feat.  Set in Spain of the author's youth of the Spanish Civil War and its immediate aftermath, Leña Verde is the tale of Juan Antonio Carvajal's return to his Andalusian village after being gone for four years.  Last in a line of rich landowners, Carvajal observes the changes that have occurred in the interim, as well as the enduring problems of class divisions.  The effects of these inequalities are seen throughout the novel and they drive the plot.

If reduced to simply providing a synopsis of the main plot, that of a frustrated love and the tragedies that follow, Leña Verde would be merely yet another variation on a well-worn theme.  Yet the characterizations and Berenguer's use of imagery and symbolism make this a rather remarkable novel.  When I read it several days ago, I found myself thinking of Faulkner's use of place to create deeper connections between the characters and also with the reader.  Berenguer's countryside setting is rich with those "little things" that make this tale feel "true to life."  From the ways that the characters spoke to their actions, every little thing felt vital, imbued with a liveliness that helps the reader to identify with these characters and their situations.  The rivalry of Carvajal and Donaire is played out in such a fashion that when the final sentence is reached, the reader has the impression of lives lived out before them.

Berenguer's prose is fascinating in part because of the author's background.  Unlike most of his peers in late Francoist Spain, Berenguer was not an academic critic or trained artist.  He was a naval officer who was largely an autodidact in literature.  His writings show traces of Faulkner and Joyce, particular in the use of language to create a setting and setting to establish character.  His characters, based in part on people he knew in his youth of the 1920s-early 1940s, feel like they have walked into a novel rather than being created by their author.  Leña Verde, however, is not an "easy" novel; it does not yield up all of its treasures in a single reading.  In reading it, I was struck by the sense that there were hidden depths that I was missing.  Certainly it will be a novel that I will revisit, likely several times, in the years to come.  It may not be the most famous of the Spanish novels of the 1960s and 1970s, but it certainly is a tale that deserves the accolades that it has received and hopefully there will be a new generation of readers that will discover this fine novel in the years to come.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Brief thoughts on the 2013 Kitschies finalists

Thursday, the finalists for the fifth Kitschies awards were announced.  For those not familiar with it, this is an UK-based (with finalists from throughout the Anglophone world) juried award that seeks out titles that are "progressive" and which contain elements of the speculative and/or fantastic to them.  It may not be as visible as most SF/F genre awards, but with payments up to £1000 to the winners, it certainly is one of the highest-paying awards.  This link covers the details, now onto my initial impression of the shortlists (or rather, the first two, as I will not comment on cover art awards out of general principle; bolded titles indicate works read):

The Red Tentacle (Novel), selected by Kate Griffin, Nick Harkaway, Will Hill, Anab Jain and Annabel Wright:

  • Red Doc> by Anne Carson (Jonathan Cape)
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
  • Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Jonathan Cape)
  • More Than This by Patrick Ness (Walker)
  • The Machine by James Smythe (HarperCollins / Blue Door)
 The two highlighted titles made my year-end Top 25 and the Carson intrigues me enough to place a pre-order for the paperback.  The Ness I likely will read in the near future as well, but the story doesn't appeal to me as much as the others.  Not much interest in the Smythe title, to be honest.

The Golden Tentacle (Debut), selected by the above panel:

  • Stray by Monica Hesse (Hot Key)
  • A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock (47 North)
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
  • Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
  • Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
 The Leckie I read back in December and found it to be underwhelming.  The descriptions of the other books are fairly boilerplate and until I read something more substantive about them, I likely will not read them at all.

Yet despite the terseness of my reactions here, on the whole, I do find this award to be more to my taste than most other SF/F-oriented awards, with perhaps only the World Fantasy Awards being esteemed more.  Certainly would be nice if some of the Novel finalists would appear on other genre-related awards ballots in the coming months.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Quick update on 2014 reading goals

Barely half a month of 2014 has passed and already I see I'm going to revise my 2014 reading goals.  Not because what I listed before was too difficult, but because I have had more ideas and reading time/energy than I had expected.

January will apparently be an English-free reading month, at least in terms of completing books.  I have already read 24 books and none of those are in English.  12 Spanish, 4 Portuguese, 4 French, 3 Italian (and just begun #4), and 1 in Serbian.  I have a few others I'd like to read before month's end, so it seems that my original goal of reading at least 50 books each in Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian will be on pace or above.  If I have another month or so like January, I might extend the Spanish goal to 100 books read/re-read this year.

Next month, I probably am going to devote time to re-reading/reviewing most, if not all, of Gabriel García Márquez's output.  It surprised me to realize recently that I had never reviewed any of his works here, probably because I read them before I really was active blogging.

Starting in March, I'm going to aim to do a weekly set of posts with a World Cup theme.  I want to introduce readers (and myself, foremost) to some of the prominent writers from each of the 32 countries participating in the football tournament.  Later, I might then do "matches" after I have reviewed the works in hand.

From now until likely April or May, I'm going to continue to post my 1994 prose translation of Vergil's The Aeneid that I did for an intermediate Latin class, as I am really enjoying re-reading the poem in Latin and seeing ways that my old self understood it and how 20 years later I can still "hear" it as I read.

Beginning in June, I'm going to do a series of posts on the centennial of World War I/Great War.  There will be a few histories discussed, along with several poems, novels, and other writings from that time period, as well as writings from subsequent generations.

Also sometime in the summer, I'm going to review the major works of one of my favorite Southern writers, Thomas Wolfe, likely 1-2 books a month during that span.

Looks like my reading/reviews of the Premio Alfaguara winners might be finished sooner rather than later.  Going to write reviews of 4 books from that list later this week/weekend and I might be on pace to finish most of the 25 books (once the 2014 winner is announced in the spring) before autumn.

I know these are a lot of projects, but I'm finding this to be exciting and deeply rewarding rather than a checklist of chores to do.  Sometimes, having a direction and goals to (over)achieve is a great motivating force, at least for me.  Hope some, if not all of these, are of interest to you and that you'll continue to visit this blog in the weeks and months to come.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Finding a deep appreciation for a work is not the same as being a "fan" of something or "geeking out" over something

As I was writing my latest commentary on my republished 1994 prose translation of Vergil's Book I of The Aeneid, it occurred to me that this was a labor of love.  This was the work that cemented my loves for poetry and language and more so than any other single work with the exception of the Bible, has perhaps altered my perception on life and reading.  Yet I do not consider myself to be a "fan" of Vergil nor does my deeply-felt appreciation for what he accomplishes in this poem (something that is borne out when I recall the dozens, if not hundreds, of hours spent working on trying to find a near approximation of le mot juste in English for what Vergil is describing in his scenes and especially in his metaphors) anything akin to that worn-out, now-hackneyed phrase of "geeking out" over something.

The difference, as far as I could understand writing at nearly 4:00 AM CST while doped up on codeine cough syrup and antibiotics, is that of the scale of appreciation.  It seems to me that being a "fan" of something is as much about the fan as it is the object/person subject to the desires and expectations of the fan.  Vergil wrote this great unfinished poem nearly two thousand years before I was born.  The world in which he wrote and personages he addresses in (mostly) oblique form had sometimes very drastic differences in social/personal values than the ones that influence us today.  Yet what he wrote influenced countless other writers, even though Vergil has always been overshadowed by Homer, at least the minds of the hoi polloi.  Since it is difficult to identify the Vergilian source, seeing as it has been filtered down through Dante, Ariosto, Camões, and others, the relationship becomes a more generalized yet somehow deeper one between reader and text (or perhaps the text as metastasized by centuries of attributions and alterations of motif and wording to fit other media of storytelling) than that between an extant author and his/her "fans."  "I sing of arms and of the man..." – there are echoes of this that still reverberate around us even today.  Much as someone might like the work of a current writer, chances are that the relationship revolves more around how that "fan" can craft his/her own relationships with the author than with the text itself.

This is not to say that "fans" cannot greatly appreciate what an author has produced or means as a person him/herself, but rather that it is very possible to appreciate something quite deeply without engaging in the behaviors (including perceptions of close ties existing between fan/object of fan's passion) commonly associated with "fandom."  Related to this is the concept of "geeking out."  I find this term to be loathsome, at least in the context of it being applied to things that otherwise would fall outside the parameters of what is considered to be "geekish" actions (intense, sometimes overly so, connections with a created object being a prime example).  In coming to appreciate what a Vergil or a Dante has produced (to continue with the epic poetic references), for myself at least, there is no obsessing over what these poets could have meant in certain passages.  Yes, studying deeply their writings for themes certainly would be lauded, but such studies are generally more considered, reflective responses than the perceived overly passionate responses of those who enthuse over a subject.  Historians often are taken with the fields that they study, but their writings reflect a more reflective tone than what generally is produced when the so-called "history buffs" wax eloquent over their chosen historical era of interest.

Noting these differences is not to praise one uncritically and condemn the other, but rather is just a musing over why, for myself at least, that it is baffling when some want to conflate the two.  I enjoy what I do.  I consider what I have read and appreciate it.  But I do not feel an intense, passionate feeling toward the creators of such things nor do I believe that the measured reactions that I typically have when reading/watching these things is akin to the enthusiastic rhapsodies that some people apparently produce when they "geek out" over something.  But perhaps there are things that I am forgetting here that others can discuss?

1994 Translation Notes on Vergil's Aeneid, Book I, Lines 50-80

The story here turns to Juno's visit to the wind god Aeolus.  Juno's anger, which takes turns that might be disconcerting to modern readers, underscores just how differently moral codes were in the first decades of the Christian/Common Era compared to the early 21st century CE.  To the left is my handwritten translation notes from late January/early February 1994 (if you click on the image, it'll appear nearly the size of the original paper).  I'll transcribe here (and add lines 76-80, which are on the opposite page and were appended as part of an ad hoc assignment (the next assignment was lines 81-100).  Here at least two and maybe three edits of the translation can be seen; more undoubtedly would have been done if the class called for it.  I'll post the Latin original first, for comparison's sake:

Talia flammato secum dea corde volutans
nimborum in patriam, loca feta furentibus austris,
Aeoliam venit. Hic vasto rex Aeolus antro
luctantes ventos tempestatesque sonoras
imperio premit ac vinclis et carcere frenat.
Illi indignantes magno cum murmure montis
circum claustra fremunt; celsa sedet Aeolus arce
sceptra tenens, mollitque animos et temperat iras.
Ni faciat, maria ac terras caelumque profundum
quippe ferant rapidi secum verrantque per auras.
Sed pater omnipotens speluncis abdidit atris,
hoc metuens, molemque et montis insuper altos
imposuit, regemque dedit, qui foedere certo
et premere et laxas sciret dare iussus habenas.
Ad quem tum Iuno supplex his vocibus usa est: 
Pondering in her inflamed heart such thoughts, Juno came to the country of the stormclouds, a place teeming with raging Auster, there she came to Aeolia.  Here in a vast cave King Aeolus rules the roaring winds and storms, represses them and by bondage restrains them.  There frustrated and with a great mountain roar overhead they roar against their bolts [confinement[; in his towering citadel Aeolus sits, holding his scepter and he soothes their spirits and controls their anger; if he did not do this, the seas, lands, and the high heaven indeed [itself] the winds in their rapidity would carry them away and [they] would sweep them through the airs.  But the almighty father, in fear of this, hid them in these black caverns and the high mountain and mass he placed above them, and he gave the kingship to a sure ally who would know when ordered to restrain and when to let them go.  To whom Juno as a suppliant used these words:
A bit rough in places (I added brackets to clarify a few points; would like to reword the middle section if I had the time/former fluency), but I think one can see some of Vergil's beautiful wordplay here.  Certainly the imagery lends itself to many poetic adaptations, but needless to say, I didn't have any such training in 1994 to attempt such a thing.  Poor as it may be, the prose translation does possess some charms of its own.  Now for Juno's request and bribe:

'Aeole, namque tibi divom pater atque hominum rex
et mulcere dedit fluctus et tollere vento,
gens inimica mihi Tyrrhenum navigat aequor,
Ilium in Italiam portans victosque Penates:
incute vim ventis submersasque obrue puppes,
aut age diversos et disiice corpora ponto.
Sunt mihi bis septem praestanti corpore nymphae,
quarum quae forma pulcherrima Deiopea,
conubio iungam stabili propriamque dicabo,
omnis ut tecum meritis pro talibus annos
exigat, et pulchra faciat te prole parentem.'
 "Aeolus, for to you the father of the gods and men has granted the power to soothe the wwaves and to raise them by the wind, a [people hostile to me] a hostile people to me is sailing on the Tyrrhenian Sea, carrying with them Ilium and their conquered household gods into Italy:  strike [them] with the force of the winds, sink and overwhelm the ships, and drive them in different directions and scatter their bodies on the sea.  I have to me twice seven [fourteen] nymphs of surpassing bodies, the one who is most beautiful, Deiopea, I will join with you in permanent wedlock and I will call her your own so that she might spend all of her years with you as a reward for the sake of such merits and that she might make you the father of beautiful offspring."
The fierce anger, followed immediately by a wheedling tone that speaks much more to Aeolus' loins than to his heart, certainly is striking here.  Not much I would change with the translation, other than tightening some of the sentences to remove extraneous words/phrases.  And now for Aeolus' response, which illustrates his recognition of his lower status compared to the queen of the gods:

Aeolus haec contra: 'Tuus, O regina, quid optes
explorare labor; mihi iussa capessere fas est.
Tu mihi, quodcumque hoc regni, tu sceptra Iovemque
concilias, tu das epulis accumbere divum,
nimborumque facis tempestatumque potentem.'

Aeolus replies:  "You, O Queen, it is your task to figure out what you want.  It is proper for me to undertake your commands.  Whatever this is in way of a kingdom, you have by the uniting of your power and Jove's, you give me the right to recline at the banquets of the gods, you make for me the clouds and the powerful tempests."

This is a fitting place to close, as the next section will see the first fruits of Juno's machinations against the refugee Trojans.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Today is Squirrel Appreciation Day

Yes, that most important day on the calendar has arrived yet once more.  Today is the day to celebrate the squirrels in your life.  Give them your nuts.  Hug them if they are so inclined as to receive one.  Adore them.  Thank them for checking the wiring around you in order to make sure that you do so lest it fail catastrophically.  Appreciate the sacrifices that they've made in order to bring a smile to your face (or the exercise involved in shaking your fist).

Hope you all have a blessed Squirrel Appreciation Day and maybe the rabid ones won't bite you...too much.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A rebuttal of sorts

Last week, I wrote a post questioning if it was worthwhile or not for those wanting to get their works on the Hugo nomination ballot to expend much effort, because the tangible rewards (more exposure, sales) seemed to be paltry at best in areas other than perhaps the novel finalists.  I noted that it seemed odd to me that the lower-profile the award, the more activity there seemed to be among those who could be up for consideration (especially those in the category of "fan writer") for those awards that would pay very little to nothing in monetary terms as a direct result of being up for said awards.

Now it comes as no surprise to me that I see a particular person has parsed my words in a fashion that runs counter to the stated intent.  Generally, I would leave a simple comment and leave it at that, but after a time or two in the past where such comments were held in moderation purgatory, I shall write the rebuttal here and leave it for readers to interpret matters:

Larry Nolen declares genre awards irrelevant in general at the OF Blog, since only very few people bother to nominate and vote and the financial advantage is likely to be small to non-existent, particularly in the short fiction and fan categories. And besides, writers and publishers don’t behave in nearly such an undignified way regarding nominations for the literary awards that really matter according to Larry Nolen, namely the Booker Prize or the National Book Award.

 I do not recall ever using the word "irrelevant," but if I had, it almost certainly would have been in context to the larger reading population, for whom SF/F would be a minor field in comparison to romance, mysteries, or historical fiction.  I could see where this person gets the impression of "undignified," as I do believe that there is a sort of crassness that goes with clamoring to be on any nomination ballot.  But then again, that perhaps is a cultural matter, considering I feel the same way when it comes to campaigning for anything.  The values I learned from my mother and grandmothers...

Now for the tangential part:

Reading through this post, I couldn’t help but be struck by the privilege on display. Because apparently, Larry Nolen cannot even fathom that for many women or writers of colour or international writers or GLBT writers, being nominated for a genre award, even if it’s in a fan category, is an affirmation that they belong here and are part of the genre, that their books and stories and other contributions to the genre are welcomed and recognised. Never mind that he does underestimate the impact winning a Hugo even in the short fiction categories can have on a writer’s career. Because editors are a lot more willing to look at your work, when you are a Hugo or a Campbell winner. Especially, if you aren’t a straight white cisgendered man.

 To this, I blinked.  Once.  Twice.  Perhaps even three times.  I can forgive the writer being unaware of the conversations that I have participated in or at least read on Twitter, Facebook, blog posts, etc. on the issue of PoC/GLBTQ representation.  But when I am talking about tangible rewards and note that in a particular awards setting where at best there might be sales in the low thousands (Hugo Best Novel) directly correlated to being on a shortlist, the very real issue of representation just was not discussed there simply because that would involve another set of discussion parameters.  But since the issue has been raised, here is what I would say in response:

Yes, there is very low visibility for writers who do not happen to be white, cisgendered males from the UK, US, or Canada.  There needs to be greater awareness among the readerships of all literary genres, not just SF/F, of what is being produced by women of all ethnic groups, by GLBTQ writers, by writers from other regions/countries.  And as an intangible benefit, seeing such works appear on awards ballots will raise the awareness necessary for increased eyeballs.  But unfortunately, the economy of scale that I mentioned before rears its nasty head.  If the readership for a Hugo-nominated short story is perhaps in the hundreds (guess based on the number of ballots cast in previous years), wouldn't it be more beneficial for these writers if their stories instead appeared in the various reprint anthologies that seek to collect the "best" fiction of the previous year?  That is where the fight for greater representation should be concentrated (and where more money is made).  Yes, I could see some arguing that if the underrepresented writers do not have the "visibility" that goes with appearing on awards ballots, then why would anthology editors choose them, but I tend to believe that it is in reverse:  that it takes appearing in these anthologies to raise greater awareness among readers that this writer is worth reading.  Posting "eligibility" articles might garner a few eyeballs, but it seems to be less efficient than writing to the editors of these anthologies and politely asking them to consider their works, if they haven't already.  While yes, this would still be a bit crass to me (again, cultural matter that applies to me only), it still would seem to be a much better use of time/effort if the end goal is to raise the visibility of PoC/women/GLBTQ writers (and this also leaves aside the many excellent anthologies released in recent years that directly target these underrepresented groups.  See We See a Different Frontier and Mothership for two examples released in 2013).  And yes, I do disagree with the assertion at the end of the quoted paragraph, largely because I think it takes appearing in said reprint anthologies first (or at least very strong word of mouth) before the Hugo nominations readily come rolling in.

So instead of just rolling my eyes (which was rather tempting), I thought I would issue this apologia as a way of starting any discussion on the issue, if any are so inclined.  Perhaps there are still some "blind spots" in my views (after all, I have been reading very little SF/F fiction in recent years, and almost no short fiction in this genre) that can be pointed out.  But I will admit that it is difficult to begin a cordial rebuttal when "privilege" is so blithely tossed about, thus my reframing of the discussion in terms that I hope reduces said charge to that annoying voice in the corner.  And maybe later there can be a tackling of that "class" issue that I see has been raised in other places...

Part I of the reorganization is now (mostly) complete

I just finished rearranging some of the links in my blogrolls.  Since I do read more blogs than I was listing in my previous blogroll, I added several blogs (including some suggested by readers) and divided the blog section into Literary/Realist and Speculative and Mystery sections (taking liberties with assigning a few that do cover both). 

But there is more to come.  I know there are many deserving sites that are missing, especially those that cover topics/books that aren't often as reviewed on other sites/blogs.  In particular, I would like to have more links to sites covering translated fictions and perhaps non-translated writings as well.  Might look into adding a historical fiction section if I can find enough relevant blogs that interest me.  Again, if you know of any such sites, feel free to mention them in the comments.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

To my shame, I realized tonight that I have yet to review any of Gabriel García Márquez's work

Considering how much I loved reading One Hundred Years of Solitude/Cien años de soledad (I taught myself how to read in Spanish in part because I wanted to read this magical story in its original idiom), this is a grievous oversight.  Too often, great writers who haven't had any recent works released (and sadly, with his brother reporting two years ago that Gabo has signs of dementia, he may never release anything new in his lifetime) never really garner new reviews from readers until their passing.

I don't know if I have the time to work it into my busy schedule, but I may devote a month this spring (perhaps April or May?) to writing commentaries and short reviews of his short fiction and novels.  It might not quite be like the Borges "month" I did from late June-early August 2010, but I could see something approaching a post every day or two during that time.  After all, few writers so deserve such a treatment as that, but Gabo certainly is one of them.  Hopefully, there will be some readers interested in this possible project.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Alfonso Grosso, Florido Mayo

Some novels are easy to grasp.  The narrative unfolds from A to B to C, never varying in rhythm or pace until the denouement.  The characters float along this narrative stream, moving and being moved, but never seeing their plot arcs spinning out into eddies or drowned by plot undercurrents.  These novels are quickly digested, their basic themes and mechanics readily understood.  Some great novels have this quality of facility, of making its structure and form easy to internalize.

Then there are those tales that befuddle the reader, at least initially.  The narrative splinters, casting a prism's worth of lights, forcing the reader to consider these separate strands simultaneously.  Time flows backwards, if not sideways, looping around until the end becomes the beginning and a creased circle closes.  For some, the effort involved in parsing the text is too great, but for others, re-reads yield a treasure trove's worth of symbols and themes that enrich the (re)reading experience.  The difficulty (if such a word is truly applicable) in wresting meaning makes the reading rewards all the greater.

Spanish writer Alfonso Grosso's 1973 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel, Florido Mayo, is one of the latter novel.  The writing is lush, almost too ornate for early 21st century tastes.  There are passages full of coupled descriptions that dovetail into descriptions of times past or literary present.  At first, it was a bewildering reading experience, as I had to focus carefully on these descriptive passages in order to understand their relations to the narrative that was unfolding. 

Florido Mayo moves back and forth in time, from the period in Spanish history immediately preceding World War I to the beginning of Republican rule in the early 1930s.  It is a fictionalized autobiography of Grosso's life growing up around Seville, Spain, but the descriptions of time and place owe more to stream-of-consciousness techniques than they do to any naturalist or realist narrative modes.  His descriptions of life in Ciudad Fluvial in some senses is reminiscent of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County (there are even direct references to this in the novel, including a footnote that connects one of Grosso's characters, Emily, with "A Rose for Emily"), but in Grosso's use of language and metaphor, he is closer to Joyce, who he references several times in the narrative, including the final paragraph.  Yet Florido Mayo avoids aping these two greats.  The languid rhythm, punctuated with sharp bursts in the love/obsession story embedded within the tale, feels organic to the story and rarely derivative.

The characterizations take a back seat to the stream-of-consciousness narrative, but on the whole they are well done.  The story is at first hard to grasp, in part due to having to acclimate myself to the writing, but after the first few time sections, roughly thirty pages in, the pieces began to come together and scene flows into scene almost seamlessly.  This creates a narrative that hints at deeper levels if the reader carefully considers what is presented.  Florido Mayo left me feeling that I had only grasped only the surface details and that when I re-read it, much more will be revealed.  Considering how much I enjoyed this narrative of life and desire in a sleepy Spanish town, this bodes well.  A shame that this novel seems to have gone out of print, as it is one of the best examples of its kind that I have read in Spanish.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Of the three original genres, I find myself thinking more and more on poetry

Perhaps I should do a regular feature on poetry, maybe on Fridays.  Or maybe I should just contemplate it and wait to see what poems have fermented my mind with their symbolic images and music.  Certainly wouldn't hurt to ask, if just this second once, for others to list their favorite poems, like I did nearly three years ago.

Here is one that I recently read in translation, by Czech writer (and Nobel laureate) Jaroslav Seifert (translation by Ewald Osers):


So foolish are the hearts of many women,
of beautiful and ugly ones alike,
their footprints are not easy to distinguish
in the sands of your memory.

But what you minded most
at our final parting
was that in my poor rags
– but was it not the costume of a beggar? – 
you couldn't see your tears as in a suit of armour.  

Goodbye, you swarm of flies
which buzzed into my dreams,
goodbye, my quiet evenings and
my cigarette case with the engraved rosette!

Opening the door I heard the screams
of angels hurtling down to hell.

Any favorites you'd like to share?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

I'm going to be changing my blogroll this weekend or next

The current list seems rather stale to me.  I want to read new perspectives, whether it be on translated fiction, literary fiction, mysteries/crime, SF/F, or historical fiction/non-fiction.  This is the place for people to promote any refreshing voices.  I won't promise that I'll add every blog suggested, but I will at least visit the sites linked to.  So please, feel free to suggest any sites that you think I might appreciate that are not currently linked to in my blogroll.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Award nomination frenzies and economies of scale

As many know, I work two jobs and they keep me away from anything related to online activity for all but about an hour or so a (late) night.  So perhaps I have missed a few relevant discussions that would shine a new light on this, but what I've seen lately from certain people commenting on Twitter, Facebook, and divers blogs, Tumblrs, and the like is something about awards nominations and whether or not it is good manners to note eligible works or not.

Here is my admittedly brusque response:  in a potential audience that barely cracks four digits, if that, does it really matter if your "best" short story, novella, novel, or "fanzine" activity garners any awards consideration?  Unless it leads to multiple reprints due directly to appearing on some ballot, I suspect the short fiction writers get very little immediate tangible benefit from being up for Award X or Y.  And certainly those who want to be viewed as "fan writers" will see no increase in income from getting at best a few hundred people voting them the gold star.

So why do some care beyond the simple gratification of knowing that someone liked his/her work?  I've heard of some in the past nominating me (why, I really can't fathom, since I've eschewed the "fan" label for years), but outside of a quick "well, that's nice that they liked my writing," it's never meant anything to me.  After all, who really can recite off the tops of their heads the previous decade's worth of Hugo or Nebula winners in categories other than Best Novel (and even that would be difficult for many to do; I can barely remember last year's winners).

Yet despite there being very little to no "bump" from nominations (with the possible exception of the Hugo Best Novel winner, but even that would be modest in comparison to other prizes), there seems to be a much more overt jockeying for kudos from SF/F quarters than from other, larger literary genres.  Three big English-language literary prizes, the Booker Prize (UK/Commonwealth until this year), the National Book Awards (US), and the National Book Critics Circle Awards (US), receive much more media coverage.  Perhaps some of it is due to the members-only (NBCC) or juried awards (NBA, Booker), but I have seen nary a pitch from publisher, author, or others for such and such to be nominated/win any of these awards (yes, I'm aware that behind the scenes, outside the purview of blogs and other social media, that this often takes place).  Yet the rewards are much greater here; some of the finalists/winners see tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of books sold as a direct result (more so for the Booker Prize than for the two American ones I listed; the Pulitzers certainly would have a great impact on sales, but they don't release a shortlist prior to naming a winner).

There is no open battle for attention; attention is drawn after the release of these long/shortlists.  The economics of scale are different, as instead of the market being oriented around smaller-scale releases, for the literary prize finalists, the expectations are for a magnitude or two greater of sales to occur.  Of course, the literary cultures are different, with SF/F having a far more blurred line between reader and writer, between consumer and producer of content.  Yet I cannot help but feel that SF/F awards season is more akin to a school of fish in a fish tank swimming frantically toward a limited, paltry portion of food than any other metaphor that comes to mind.  To someone like myself who reads several genres of work, it is fascinating in a way similar to why many people watch reality TV:  the rubbernecking after the trainwreck just witnessed is too difficult to pry yourself away from immediately.  But even knowing this, these frenzies shall continue every SF/F award cycle.  Time to see which feast and which starve.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

2013 National Book Critics Circle Awards finalists and brief thoughts on the categories

The National Book Critics Circle Awards are among my favorite Anglo-American literary prizes because the finalists and winners are determined neither by a panel of judges or strict popular vote, but instead by a body of critics and book reviewers.  While I do not always agree with the winners or occasionally may find myself wishing that Book X had made a shortlist instead of Book Y, on the whole it, along with the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, provides a good sampling of the year's best works in the English language.  There certainly are some title's on this year's lists that intrigue me, although I find myself slightly disappointed that I have already read all five of the Fiction finalists (not that I don't like them, mind you).  Below are the lists:

Sonali Deraniyagala, "Wave" (Knopf)
Aleksandar Hemon, "The Book of My Lives" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Rebecca Solnit, "The Faraway Nearby" (Viking)
Jesmyn Ward, "Men We Reaped" (Bloomsbury)
Amy Wilentz, "Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti" (Simon & Schuster)

Haven't read any of these, but the Ward (she won the National Book Award a couple of years ago for her novel Salvage the Bones) intrigues me.

Scott Anderson, "Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East" (Doubleday)
Leo Damrosch, "Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World" (Yale University Press)
John Eliot Gardiner, "Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven" (Knopf)
Linda Leavell, "Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Mark Thompson, "Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kis" (Cornell University Press)

Each of these sounds good, but I plan on buying the Thompson first, due to the author-subject being one of my favorite writers of the 20th century.

Hilton Als, "White Girls" (McSweeney’s)
Mary Beard, "Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations" (Liveright)
Jonathan Franzen, "The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus," translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen with Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Janet Malcolm, "Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Franco Moretti, "Distant Reading" (Verso)

Out of these, the Beard is the one I most want to read, followed by the Malcolm.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "Americanah" (Knopf)
Alice McDermott, "Someone" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Javier Marías, "The Infatuations," translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Knopf)
Ruth Ozeki, "A Tale for the Time Being" (Viking)
Donna Tartt, "The Goldfinch" (Little, Brown) 

I've read all five of these (the Marías first in 2011 in Spanish) and I will try to write formal reviews for the four I haven't yet reviewed (the Ozeki I reviewed in 2013).

Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, "Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice" (Norton)
Sheri Fink, "Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital" (Crown)
David Finkel, "Thank You for Your Service" (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
George Packer, "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Lawrence Wright, "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief" (Knopf)

I've only read the Packer, which I thought was excellent, and I'm uncertain if I'll have the time to read the others on this shortlist before the winners are announced.
Frank Bidart, "Metaphysical Dog" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Lucie Brock-Broido, "Stay, Illusion" (Knopf)

Denise Duhamel, "Blowout" (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Bob Hicok, "Elegy Owed" (Copper Canyon)
Carmen Gimenez Smith, "Milk and Filth" (University of Arizona Press)

I will be reviewing each of the finalists here in the coming weeks.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Quotes from a few books I'm reading this week

Wise and knowing old women narrate that once, during the days of the Auspicious Fair at the Noble Village of Mehrauli around the sky-touching portal of the shrine of Khvajah Qutb sahib, Wazir Khanam and her father were on their way back to Delhi from the Fair.  Evening had broken out in the sky.  All those on the road were in a hurry to reach home.  For, in those days, the ruins of the Hauz-e-Shamsi had been clandestinely adopted by some Pandari rebels as their hideout.  Grabbing opportune moments, they preyed on the travellers of the night on that road.  So everyone was trying their best to get quickly past the environs of the Hauz-e Shamsi and the Hauz-e Khas.  AN axle of the light two-bullock cart in which Wazir and her father were travelling was worn out to start with, and had deteriorated further over the journey.  It was feared that the axle could break if the cart was driven faster.  The bullock cart was moving at a gentle pace and had been overtaken by everyone else on the road:  bullock carts, palanquins, tom johns.  Those who rode elephants, dromedaries, buggies or horse had easily overtaken all others and had disappeared quickly from sight and sound.

– from The Mirror of Beauty, by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

One morning in the predawn Loreen roused Fan from her spot next to a sweaty-headed slumbering Star and ordered her to pack a bag.  They were going to go with Quig on a trip for a couple of nights.  Loreen didn't have to explain what was happening – she'd outlined the possibility several days before – but the reason for her presence was a mystery.  Fan had no choice, so she didn't ask any questions and simply readied her few things.  Within the hour the three of them were in a newer SUV kicking up a storm of dust on the road that led down to the bottom of the hill.  The weather had been hot and dry for a long time but now it seemed a genuine drought had descended upon the Smokes.  The rains came infrequently, and when they did come, they were brief.  The streams had all but disappeared and the level of the two wells of the compound had dropped below a meter and the men were arguing about where they ought to dig a third.  Cold Pond, where Fan swam with Sewey and Eli, was plagued with spongy islands of bright green algae, and even after the water drawn from it was boiled, the essence of something reptilian or freshly born of the mud stuck to the tongue in an undying time.

– from On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-rae Lee

She was the first to arrive where it seemed the wind no longer exhaled.  Several miles from town, the trees had entangled one another.  Their branches grew toward the ground, burying the leaves in the soil to blind their eyes so the sun would not promise them tomorrow with its rays.  It was only the path that was reluctant to cloak its surface completely with grasses, as though it anticipated it would soon end its starvation for the warmth of bare feet that gave it life.

The long and winding paths were spoken of as "snakes" that one walked upon to encounter life or to arrive at the places where life lived.  Like snakes, the paths were now ready to shed their old skins for new ones, and such occurrences take time with the necessary interruptions.  Today, her feet began one of those interruptions.  It may be that those whose years have many seasons are always the first to rekindle their broken friendship with the land, or it may just have happened this way.

– from Radiance of Tomorrow, by Ishmael Beah

Which of these passages most interest you and why?  Are there any that would put you off of wanting to read the book from which they came?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

This short poem by Nobel Prize-winning poet Jaroslav Seifert contains a lot of truth, no?

This poem was translated by Ewald Osers:


Remember the wise philosophers:
Life is but a moment.
And yet whenever we waited for our girlfriends
it was an eternity.

Now I find myself remembering those times of my youth when I would wait anxiously for a "yes" or "no," or even more dreadfully, for that "maybe" to come out of their mouths.  Funny how time runs so differently when the façades of eros are involved...

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A query: What are some of the good novels of World War I?

Later this year, on July 28, the centennial of the Great War/World War I will occur.  This period, 1914-1918, and the period that immediately follows it, 1919-1938, was of great interest to me when I was completing my MA in European History (emphasis on German cultural/religious).  I am fairly well-read on the non-fiction, but I am thinking of mixing in some fictional works, both those written by those who lived though/fought in the war, as well as works that appeared decades later.  What are some of the titles that you know of/have read?  Below is an incomplete listing of works that I have already read (there are many others that I could list, but I don't want to look up how to spell the author's name or the title to make sure):

John dos Passos, The Three Soldiers

Erick Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (and its immediate sequels)

Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun

Pat Barker, Regeneration trilogy

Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War

There are a handful of others that come to mind, but what I really need to discover are works that were written in French, Italian, German, and the Slavic languages.  If you know of any, whether they were written in the 1910s or 192s or whether they were written decades later, please list the titles, as I would like to do a special series of commentaries/reviews from June-August on the war.  Already have a few memoirs/histories in mind for this as well (Modris Eksteins, Barbara Tuchman, Robert Graves, Ernst Jünger, Paul Fussell, etc.), not to mention some poetry, but I would like a few more novels to round things out.  So...what are your suggestions?

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Aeneid, Book I lines 21-49, from my 1994 translation (and reflections on said draft)

For Book I, lines 1-20, click on this link.

hinc populum late regem belloque superbum
venturum excidio Libyae: sic volvere Parcas.
Id metuens, veterisque memor Saturnia belli,
prima quod ad Troiam pro caris gesserat Argis
(necdum etiam causae irarum saevique dolores 
exciderant animo: manet alta mente repostum
iudicium Paridis spretaeque iniuria formae,
et genus invisum, et rapti Ganymedis honores)–

this nation with many kingdoms and arrogant in war would come for the destruction of Libya:  so spun the Parcae.  In fear of this and remembering the old war that she, Saturnia, had carried on at Troy for the sake of Argos (the origins of that anger and cruel pains have not fallen from her spirit; in her deepest mind she had the judgment of Paris and the injury to her rejected beauty and the hated people and the honors of kidnapped Ganymede) –
I think if I had spent more time on this passage, I would have tightened it up some, perhaps beginning the third line with "Saturnia fearing this and recalling the old war that she had carried on at Troy..."  But other than this, I would leave much of it intact now.

his accensa super, iactatos aequore toto
Troas, reliquias Danaum atque immitis Achilli,
arcebat longe Latio, multosque per annos
errabant, acti fatis, maria omnia circum.
Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem!
Vix e conspectu Siculae telluris in altum
vela dabant laeti, et spumas salis aere ruebant,
cum Iuno, aeternum servans sub pectore volnus,
haec secum: 'Mene incepto desistere victam,
nec posse Italia Teucrorum avertere regem?

There is a odd gap in my translation.  I'll try to fill in the blanks of the next two lines with my faint recollections of my lessons 20 years ago:

with her rage, tossed about on all the seas the Trojans, the remnants that the Greeks and cruel Achilles allowed to live, Juno kept them from far-off Latium, and they kept wandering through the years driven by the fates over all of the seas.  Oh so great an effort to found the Roman race!

And now the scene shifts from the scene-setting introduction to an in media res scene set seven years after Troy's destruction.  

Scarcely out of sight the land of Sicily, the Trojans delightfully were letting the sails down and were rushing through the sea with their bronze prows when Juno, nursing her eternal wound under her arm, said this:  "Shall I, beaten, desist from my undertaking and not be able to turn aside the Teucerian reign in Italy?
 Again, I had to fill in a couple of blanks toward the end.  There is quite a bit that could be restructured here, but the gist remains.  Now for the final lines of this paragraph and the end of my assignment that day:

 Quippe vetor fatis. Pallasne exurere classem
Argivom atque ipsos potuit submergere ponto,
unius ob noxam et furias Aiacis Oilei?
Ipsa, Iovis rapidum iaculata e nubibus ignem,
disiecitque rates evertitque aequora ventis,
illum expirantem transfixo pectore flammas
turbine corripuit scopuloque infixit acuto.
Ast ego, quae divom incedo regina, Iovisque
et soror et coniunx, una cum gente tot annos
bella gero! Et quisquam numen Iunonis adoret
praeterea, aut supplex aris imponet honorem?' 

Truly the Fates forbid it!  Was not Pallas able to burn the fleet of the Argives and to submerge those men in the deep because of the crimes of one man, Ajax of Oileus?  She, hurling the swift cloud of Jove, both scattered the ships and overturned the waves by the wind, and him she snatched up, breathing fire through his chest, she impaled him on a sharp rook; but I, who walks as the queen of the gods and to Jupiter is both sister and wife, with one race for so many years must wage war.  And who thereafter will adore the name of Juno or as a suppliant offer sacrifices in my honor?"
The 1994 original was very rough, so this is tidied up a little bit, although it is still rough.  I'll try to write more of a summary/reflection next week when I resume this, but hopefully this will suffice for now.  It certainly is a pleasant surprise to see how easily the Latin phrases are coming back to memory, although I am relying somewhat on the annotations at the bottom of each page of my textbook (which covers Books I-VI).  And yes, before some comment on the shifting tenses, I am aware of this, but I am (mostly) transcribing what I wrote as an initial draft as study notes back in Winter/Spring of 1994, so there are going to be some lacunae.  Nevertheless, hope this will lead to some (re)reading this fine poem, whether in translation or the original Latin.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

So I'm reading a just-released post-apocalyptic book that I suspect some SF fans will crap upon out of hand

And with that provocative title, I will say that I am currently a little over 100 pages into Chang-rae Lee's just-released On Such a Full Sea, which is set in a future, well-into-decay United States in which the descendents of Chinese workers brought into the urban cores of places like Baltimore (here renamed B-Mor) cultivate special products and produce presumably freer of environmental toxins, all for the consumption of the wealthy elites who live in walled-off villages.

Yes, the blurb manages to describe what is typically considered to be a SF novel without ever once uttering the words "science fiction" or even "speculative fiction."  Indubitably, there will be those who will examine the setting and conclude that the narrative is flawed because it resembles this-or-that previous SF setting without taking into account recent trends in the field.  On Such a Full Sea certainly is a high-profile enough book that there will likely be some debates in the coming weeks and months on its merits as a SF novel and why certain other reading communities possibly will not accept it as such.  Invariably, this happens with any well-known book that appropriates certain tropes in order to tell a different sort of narrative.

Based on the first third of On Such a Full Sea that I have read, the setting is subordinate to two things:  a mystery surrounding a B-Mor resident's disappearance and the character development of the woman who leaves the safety of her enclave to search for him.  In similar tales written by those who more closely align themselves as being SF authors, it is the setting that take precedence over the characters.  But in Lee's novel, what is interesting is the imagined history of the enclave and how that history (of a second wave of Chinese workers brought en masse into the US as a cheaper form of labor) shapes the narrative.  Lee, it appears, is more interested in power dynamics, between those who seek to keep others in their own and the deleterious effects of hegemonic influence.

While there are certainly many SF authors who do explore this, often fairly well, in their narratives (Kim Stanley Robinson comes to mind), Lee's story strikes me more as one that is more concerned with the interactions of individuals within a society than on analyzing societal mores.  It is a promising novel so far, with some wonderful prose and characterization, and it certainly may appeal to others who do enjoy SF (not to mention those who might read this as not-quite-SF-so-I'll-try-it) stories that focus on not just the effects of human actions but also on the intersections of society, culture, and individual desires and dreams.  I just hope there won't be as much nittering and nattering taking place as what I saw after Cormac McCarthy's The Road came out.  Sometimes, no matter their dressing or marketing, some narratives naturally appeal to multiple audiences and I suspect that On Such a Full Sea may prove to be such a novel, if the final two-thirds lives up to the promise of the first 100 pages or so.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Thrill is Gone

Over the past couple of days, I have seen writers, publishers, publicists, and a legion of other sundry foot soldiers of that nefarious "fandom" discuss the works that should or should not eligible for a few awards, such as the BSFA and WorldCon/Hugo Awards.  Some of their choices I think are risible; others I sigh at, knowing that these have a legitimate chance at making the final ballot.  But instead of begrudging others their choices and their rationales for promoting this work (occasionally their own, in the case of writers wanting voters to remember their own eligible writing), I want instead to reflect on something else that occurred to me last night, soon after I wrote a post listing some anticipated 2014 releases.

If you look at that list,  there are almost no epic fantasies and even fewer outright science fiction works there.  Ten years ago, just before I started this blog, there would have been many more of each that I would have cited as works of interest.  But today?  No, outside of being curious to see how a few finish their works, there is nothing that makes me want to read a secondary-world fantasy.  The imagined vistas?  They all feel much the same to me, as though they were templates upon which a few "trendy" elements such as increased violence and "geek stuff" were plastered.  Neither has ever appealed to me, but more importantly is the realization that I just don't feel my imagination stimulated anymore by reading any of this pulp fiction.  Whereas at 13 I might find myself re-reading all of Tolkien's available works because I loved maps and histories and thought it was a good substitute for the histories of the Plantagenets or the mysteries of the pyramids, today I find myself turning both inward and outward, looking at where I am as a human being entering middle age and the aspirations and dreams both realized and frustrated, as well as wanting to understand other cultures, other people, the very "other" itself.

Poetry, ever a love of mine since early adolescence when my mother, a middle school/high school English teacher, managed to get me to love it (it also helped that several older relatives such as my maternal grandparents loved it as well), has been more and more on my mind.  The symbols and metaphors embedded in verse, some of it possessing a chant-like quality, has absorbed more and more of my mind.  Instead of eagerly waiting the next Brandon Sanderson novel, for example, I find myself thinking more about Odysseus, Aeneas, and Orlando and the vistas described within.  There is something musical about poetry and while it shifts from lingua to lingua, there is a quality of singing that remains even within translated poetry.  Twenty years after the course, I find myself thinking that my university course on The Aeneid in Latin was one of the most important courses I ever took in terms of teaching me how to appreciate not just an epic poem, but also the craft of reading and the reader's pouring of him/herself into the understanding of it.  I truly believe that I wouldn't be the tenth the critic that I am today if it were not for that Latin professor, now deceased, who helped me learn how to love something so foreign to me.

There just really isn't much poetry or even any metaphoric elements to be found in what is sometimes labeled as "core genre" fiction.  There is formula and little else.  I am not opposed to writings being written to a formula (after all, some of my favorite works lift elements from anterior sources), but I do find myself wishing that there was something else, something "thrilling" out there.  Outside of the unsettling nature of the best weird fiction stories, there is very little being published today outside of some character studies/social-realist fictions that engage me.  I may not be a professor dithering about an affair with a student, but I am closer to that professor's ambivalence about growing older and more feeble than I am toward a hooded assassin or any other assorted badass.

Such things seem to be the province of youth.  Years ago, I might have liked them more (even though in my late teens and into my mid-20ths, I had barely read any genre fiction outside of Tolkien or Bradbury), but now?  No, the thrill is gone and I am left wanting something more substantive, something that speaks to my middle-age desires than to any youthful flights of fantasy.  To the younger and I suppose "young at heart," perhaps SF/F contains much to delight them.  For me, however, there is only the sense of ashes remaining on the tip of my tongue, awaiting some literary fruit to remove its acrid flavor.
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