The OF Blog: September 2014

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

National Book Awards' 5 under 35 authors for 2014

The National Book Awards have chosen the 2014 5 under 35 authors.  It's an interesting list, including one (Phil Klay) on this year's longlist for Fiction:

Yelena Akhtiorskaya, Panic in a Suitcase

Alex Gilvarry, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant

Phil Klay, Redeployment

Valeria Luiselli, Faces in the Crowd

Kirstin Valdez Quade, Night at the Fiestas:  Stories

An interesting mix.  The Akhtiorskaya and Klay are 2014 releases, the Luiselli is a 2014 translation of a 2013 original publication in Spanish, the Gilvarry came out in 2012, and Valdez Quade's debut collection comes out in March 2015.  Looks like there'll be more reading and reviewing for me in the next three months, it seems.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Kelly Barnhill, The Witch's Boy

Once upon a time there were two brothers, as alike to one another as you are to your own reflection.  They had the same eyes, the same hands, the same voice, the same insatiable curiosity.  And though it was generally agreed that one was slightly quicker, slightly cleverer, slightly more wonderful than the other, no one could tell the boys apart.  and even when they thought they could, they were usually wrong.

"Which one has the scar on his nose?" people would ask.  "Which is the one with the saucy grin?  Is Ned the smar one, or is it Tam?"

Ned, some said.

Tam, said others.  They couldn't decide.  But surely, one was better.  It stood to reason. (p. 12, e-ARC)

"Once upon a time..."  That phrase still manages to captivate readers no matter how many stories they have read since that time they picked up that one special book in their nascent reading youth and were spellbound by what followed after it.  There was that sense of something past, something important, something magical, that was about to unfold.  It could be a tale of a hapless peasant who becomes a wise king or a hidden peasant beauty who becomes a princess.  Or it could be someone who just struggles against a troubled and horrid past to create something magical and wonderful in the present.  There are so many ways that these stories can go and a good storyteller can lead us readers of all ages to reminisce about those earlier "once upon a time" moments while looking forward to seeing how this iteration will turn out.

In her third novel for middle grades (ages 8-12) readers, The Witch's Boy, Kelly Barnhill begins her "once upon a time" with twin boys, full of love for each other, who confound those around them.  They do not judge each other, but that is not the case of the villagers around them, who seem determined that one is "better" than the other, despite not being able to identify them readily.  So when one of them, Tam, drowns in a tragic accident while Ned survives, the villagers begin gossiping that the "wrong boy" survived.  This, coupled with Ned's grief over losing Tam, drives Ned into a stuttering, near mute stupor for years while his father, who only managed to rescue Ned, also tumbles into depression.

This tragedy also serves as a catalyst for change, as it turns out that Ned's mother is a "witch" who has been entrusted with a special clay pot that contains old magic that predates the creation of the village and the strange, haunting woods that cut it off from the wider world.  And one day, there comes a band of bandits crashing through the woods, led by an enigmatic man with a little talisman around his neck.  The clay pot becomes a source of contention and when Ned somehow gets the magic within attached to him (literally, as words are stitched into his flesh), along with something else a bit more intimate to him, he finds himself not only battling with the bandits, but also with the willful, sometimes amoral voices within the magic.

The Witch's Boy easily could have been a tale of Ned learning how to wield this magic and how to save his village from invaders, but Barnhill introduces a second story, this of a young girl, Áine, who lives in a cottage on the woods' cusp while her father roams far and wide after the death of her mother.  She is an accomplished archer, brave and determined, yet afflicted with loneliness due to her mother's death and her father's change in mood.  Her story becomes entwined with Ned's, yet she is not a sidekick, a simple character tossed in to make it more than just a boy's tale.  Áine's past is integral to the tale and she, along with Ned, are fated to have a role in restoring the magic to its rightful owners.

Barnhill does an excellent job in developing Ned and Áine's characters, as each feels fully developed and with easily relateable situations and reactions to the world around them.  As I read this tale, I found myself thinking back to what the nine or ten-year-old me would have enjoyed reading.  That younger me certainly would have enjoyed being able to place himself within a tale, seeing the PoV characters as being extensions of his imagination.  The current me, more interested in the mechanics of the story, also found Barnhill's narrative to be appealing, as she carefully develops the situation, not foreshadowing too heavily, but also providing just enough information for the basic narrative contours to be anticipated.  There are no lags in the story; everything moves smoothly toward a satisfying conclusion.

The Witch's Boy is one of the better middle grades fiction that I have read in the past few years.  It is a story that can easily appeal to both boys and girls and if I were teaching, for example, sixth grade language arts this year, I could see having a copy of it available for enrichment would be a worthwhile investment.  It is Barnhill's best novel to date and I am curious to see what magical tale she will write next.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A couple of pics of my leatherbound books

This weekend, I bought my 101st leatherbound book, a Franklin Library edition of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.  I now own 78 Easton Press editions, 24 Franklin Library editions, plus 4 Folio Society books bound in buckram and 135 Library of America volumes.  Since I plan on doing a review project involving books from these editions over the next few years, thought I'd post a couple of pictures of the leatherbound books.  Due to the way I have some shelves facing each other due to lack of room space, I could not get good pictures of them all, but at least 3/4 of the volumes are pictured here (the first is all Easton Press, the second mostly Franklin Library, with a few from the other editions - didn't take a photo of the bookcase where 121 of the Library of America editions are).

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Here's a list of already-read books that I want to have reviewed by October 31st

Although I have no energy to review tonight (been traveling much of the time that I wasn't watching college football), I have been trying to decide which reviews should be forthcoming.  Seems that I have almost two dozen books that I've already read for which I haven't yet written reviews.   Since these are books that I fully intend to have reviewed by year's end, I thought I'd just motivate myself a bit more and see that each of these is reviewed by the end of October.  This will mean at least 5 reviews/week for the time period, so there should at least be plenty of original content for the month to come.  Here's the list, based on their publication date:

Dave Hutchinson, Europe in Autumn

Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory

Donatella Di Pietrantonio, Bella Mia

Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck & Other Stories 

Richard Thomas (ed.), The New Black:  A Neo-Noir Anthology

Gail Giles, Girls Like Us

Kalyan Ray, No Country

Spencer Reese, The Road to Emmaus

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Richard House, The Kills

Justin Taylor, Flings

Howard Jacobson, J

Pierre Demarty, En face

Claudie Hunzinger, La langue des oiseaux

Nathalie Kuperman, La Loi Sauvage

Christine Montalbetti, Plus rien que les vagues et le vent

Valérie Zenatti, Jacob, Jacob

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van

Kelly Barnhill, The Witch's Boy

Ali Smith, How to be Both

Dylan Landis, Rainey Royal

Friday, September 26, 2014

Marco Magini, Come fossi solo (As I was Alone)

Vorrei non dovermi ancora una volta svegliare in mia compagnia.

Mi alzo e mi faccio la barba.

Sono passate le undici e anche stamani non ho salutato i bambini prima che andassero all'asilo.  Mi gira la testa, avanzo incerto verso il bagno che ha un odore chimico di lavanda.


Ha affogato nel deodorante l'odore di vomito di ieri sera.  Potesse, darebbe una spruzzatina anche sul resto della nostra vita.  Più la vedo e più mi fa schifo.  Le canzoncine della buonanotte cantate ai bambini, il sup aggiungere caro, tesoro, alla fine di ogni frase, fanno sembrare tutto ancora più sfacciatamente patetico.

Mi gira la testa.  Mi siedo sulla tazza per pisciare in modo da non perdere di nuovo l'equilibrio.  Lo spazzolino, il dopobarba, la crema per il viso:  ogni singolo oggetto si trova esattamente dove si è sempre trovato e dove sempre si troverà.  Mi tiro su:  è solo l'immagine riflessa nello specchio a essere fuori posto in questo cazzo di bagno. (p. 9, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Wars are unsettling mass actions of violence.  They rend, they tear, they shred previously held social conventions.  Neighbors who might differ on how they say a hello or how they worship a divinity suddenly might find themselves taking up arms against each other, trying to annihilate each other in the name of some ideology or religion (or at least that's what they tell each other; the ultimate truth might be more ghastly than these convenient excuses).  Civil wars are perhaps the most odious, because there is really no excuse about other polities threatening them; the violence comes from within and even families might be divided against each other.

Atrocities are the hallmark of war.  They are perhaps its apotheosis.  Massacres and rapes, plundering and pillaging, each of these is a sign and symptom of war's disgusting trail of violence.  It is easy to make the excuse, if one were present, that s/he were powerless to stop it, helpless in the wake of destructive frenzy unleashed upon a populace.  The Endlösung, My Lai, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, Rwanda, Gaza – each of these have had some try to whitewash what has happened, claiming that if an event occurred (therefore trying to remove the indelible violence of hatred's reality), then it was something structural, something that those present could step away from and pretend that it wasn't they themselves, but those others who perpetuated it.  Do not blame them, for they were helpless, these "witnesses" of carnage claim.  We, after all, are not our brothers' (and sisters') keepers.

One particularly sobering example of this denial in the face of genocidal frenzy is Srebenica, where in July 1995, during the height of the Yugoslav wars, an entire Bosniak village of 8-10,000 men and boys was massacred while the UN observers failed to ensure their safety.  It was the worst atrocity of those wars and yet hardly anyone was ever convicted for their roles in this genocide.  Despite the relative silence of the subsequent two decades, Srebenica is a testimony to how people lose their voices when it comes to standing up or even questioning what drives peoples to "cleanse" their regions of others.  In his 2014 Premio Strega-longlisted novel, Come fossi solo (As I was Alone is a possible English translation), Marco Magini explores this issue of silence and almost-involuntary compliance with genocide.  He utilizes three characters, two of whom were present at the time of the massacre, to examine closely the antecedents for the massacre and how its aftermath affected two of the characters. 

Dirk is a Dutch soldier present as part of the UN peacekeeping mission.  He struggles to deal with the situation, trying to piece together how it all fell apart there in July 1995.   Dražen is a soldier of mixed ancestry who joins the Bosnian Serb militia and despite his own ambivalence, he is an active participant in the massacre.  Romeo is a Spanish judge who hears  Dražen's case at The Hague years later and he has to weigh the largely circumstantial evidence against him with other events that took place.  In each of the three men, the complex issues of responsibility and helplessness are examined in great detail.  Magini does an excellent job in developing internal tension in each of his three PoV characters, and by alternating between each of them (Dirk, Romeo, and Dražen in that order), we experience what was seen, what was judged, and why it may have been enacted in the first place.

However, this does not lead to settled conclusions.  Rather, the fuzziness surrounding individual understandings of this atrocity creates a growing sense of unease, as things turn out to be not as simple as one might presume.  Why did Dražen participate in the slaughter?  Not even he himself truly understands.  Magini is very careful to leave doubt open, not to exculpate anyone, but rather to force the reader to consider the true blindness of war rage and how it consumes even its enablers.

The prose for the most part is sharp and penetrating.  Magini often utilizes olfactory descriptors, such as the description of vomit's "deodorant," in order to convey the sickness of the situation.  This leads to a very concrete sort of prose, one that wastes little time in establishing the setting and the character viewpoints.  While there were a few occasions where more exposition could have been employed in order to make the impact even greater, on the whole Come fossi solo was a very good novel that I had hoped would have made the Premio Strega shortlist.  Hopefully there will be an English translation in the near future, as this debut novel appears to herald a new literary talent.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington (eds.), Phantasm Japan

But that's how it is.  It's not something unique to here.  The place and the particulars might change, but it's all the same.

It doesn't matter if you're only a tourist.  When somebody points a camera at you, you shouldn't thoughtlessly flash the V sign.

What meaning does that pose hold for the people around you?  How will it be taken in the place where you are?

Even among your fellow men, some will see it as an impression of a crab, and some won't.

What will you be communicating?

You have to think about that.  For cultural exchange.


Okay, that's enough pictures, it's time to become holes and let them in.

For the future.

– from Yusaku Kitano's "Scissors or Claws, and Holes," pp. 33-34

Places are tricky entities to pin down and define.  No matter how accurate one's GPS might be, whether one believes that 35°68'N, 139°69'E gives a precise location, places shift and shimmer, grow fuzzy and morph into something beyond a tract of land or sea.  This becomes even more readily apparent when we try to populate our conceived places with people.  So many concepts, both "true" and "false" alike (each have their own facets that belie the beliefs associated with these titles), that we bring to bear when talking about place.  We overlay our own beliefs so thickly upon certain places that it is difficult to tell where one culture's general belief pattern ends and another's begins.

As I was reading the just-released Phantasm Japan anthology, edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington, these multitude of thoughts on the inherently imprecise nature of place came to mind.  Ask someone to define "Japan," and his or her answers are going to vary wildly.  Ask an elderly World War II vet from the United States and his or her responses will be very different from those of someone who watches anime or plays the latest from Nintendo or Sony.  Even within Japanese society, the concepts of "Japan" will be staggering for outsiders.  Certainly the stories in this anthology, from both non-Japanese and Japanese writers alike, serve as a testimony and celebration of these diverse conceptualizations of Japan.

Phantasm Japan contains six translated stories and fifteen original short stories.  It also contains stories referencing environmental disorder, cultural appropriations good and bad, online stalkers, monsters, fox spirits, tricksters, and ghost tales.  For the most part, these stories manage to create an interesting collage effect, as the various elements that they explore echo and amplify points of emphasis from other stories.  For example, Yusaku Kitano's "Scissors or Claws, and Holes," from which I pulled the above quote, deals with differences in perspectives between Japanese and Westerners in things as simple as taking one's index and middle fingers and spreading them out.  Is it the sign of scissoring when moving together and apart, or is it a crab clawing at its prey?  Who is doing the perceiving shapes the narrative is part of the point of this story, and the "holes" through which one might enter might also be the absences caused by a lack of perception of how the host views the encounter.

In a different way, Tim Pratt's "Those Who Hunt Monster Hunters" plays off of these blind spots that non-natives have for native perceptions.  Using the fetishization of Asian (including Japanese) women as being docile sex dolls as a springboard, he creates a horror tale whose real effect is not felt until the very end, when the reader is finally able to piece together what has occurred around the margins of the tale.  It is in interplays between outsider and native cultural prejudices that a certain narrative tension occurs, one in which these multiple, sometimes contradictory stories of spirits and monsters, of technology and estrangement, collide. 

Although there were a few stories that felt slighter, more like mood pieces than substantive narratives, for the most part the stories in this anthology work better together than they would have independently.  Certainly there are some excellent stories.  Besides the Kitano and Pratt stories already mentioned, the novella-length "Sisyphean" by Dempow Torishima is a highlight of the anthology.  Utilizing elements of weird fiction and hard SF, Torishima has constructed a tale that might feel somewhat familiar to Western readers, yet with a certain thematic sensibility that deals more with Japanese past conceptualizations of horror and progress than with anything Anglo-American.  It is a vivid, visceral story, one that will take another re-read before it can be unpacked adequately.

As a collage of images and views of this perceived place called "Japan," Phantasm Japan does an excellent job in illustrating these various and sometimes contradictory views of Japan.  The majority of the stories are short, sharp, concise bursts of narrative and reflective prose that explore these various concepts of Japan, often with surprising twists and turns.  While there were a few tales that I thought were slighter and could have used more space for developing their themes, on the whole Phantasm Japan is an excellent anthology that showcases several developing SF/F talents from across the globe.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Elisa Ruotolo, Ovunque, proteggici

Lo chiamavano Blacmàn e immediatamente tutti capivano chi fosse.  Prima ancora del nome o di una fama qualsiasi, veniva quell'aspetto da zingaro quale in fondo era, da prestigiatore da quattro soldi:  un uomo con mani grandi abbastanza solo per suonartele, ma non per prendere la vita come si deve.  Blacmàn era lui senza possibilità d'errore, e avrebbe messo quasi paura se non fosse stato anche il tipo ridicolo che sapevo io:  per i suoi centimetri scarsi quanto quelli d'un ragazzo senza sviluppo, i vestiti attillati e a strisce di colore buoni a dare impaccio piú che allegria, i baffi a manubrio tenuti lisci e rigidi come quelli d'un sovrano senza terra, e i capelli a cespuglio, uguali al pelo degli animali che in calore se lo caricano di lappole nei giardini.  Ridicolo, come forse tutti avevano il diritto di credere tranne io, anche se piú di tutti lo pensavo cosí, vergognandomi d'averne preso il sangue e le ossa.

Blacmàn era mio padre.  E da quando ho cominciato a capire, non ho fatto altro che cercare prove e controprove di un'orfanezza, prima nei centimetri che mettevo, poi nella moralità di mia madre. (p. 12, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Italian writer Elisa Ruotolo's 2014 Premio Strega-longlisted title, Ovunque, proteggici (Everywhere, Protect is the translated title), is on its surface a family history/mystery.  Set in the aftermath of World War II, the novel details the search of an man, Lorenzo, for clues into his family's past, especially for his father, who disappeared one day.  While this plot device is rather familiar to readers, Ruotolo does add other elements to it to make it an interesting, worthwhile read.

One strength of Ovunque, proteggici is its ability to take interesting characters and to weave them in and out of the main plot in order to create a fascinating backdrop.  The Girosa family for five generations have striven to make their way in a world that seems to be set against them.  As Lorenzo explores his family's past in order to understand why his father Blacmàn disappeared during World War II, we begin to see how his ancestors' pasts have shaped his life.  From a grandfather who went to America to try to ply a trade and to send remittances home to his father becoming a jester of sorts and his mother a runaway, Lorenzo's family is full of characters who have failed and then started anew, with each permutation of failure and meager success adding to the tale.

With so many fascinating characters, Ruotolo easily could have overwhelmed the plot with flashbacks and backstories.  Yet for the most part, these interesting characters enrich the plot, making Lorenzo's investigation into his father's past more than just another bog standard missing father/family history procedural.  By the time the novel concluded, it felt as though Ruotolo had achieved two seemingly divergent things at once:  an intimate novel that also manages to contain universal appeal to those who did not grow up under the oppressive weight of family history.

Although my Italian is a bit rudimentary, I did find Ruotolo's prose to be relatively easy to follow.  Lorenzo's first-person account of his investigations is concise, never feeling too distant or grandiose for the narrative.  This results in a narrative that flowed smoothly, telling a fascinating story without ever seeming to get in the way of the unfolding tale.  Ovunque, proteggici is a novel that I will likely revisit in years to come, as I am curious to see what else might be revealed on a re-read, as it seems there are depths to it that I failed to explore on my initial read.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hedwige Jeanmart, Blanès

Pendant tout le repas je jouai avec les pages de mon cernet que j'avais déballé.  C'était un bon papier lisse, un peu jaune.  Comme dessert je choisis une crêpe aux fruits rouges.  Et quand le serveur l'eut déposée devant moi, tout se passa à nouveau en dépit de moi-même.  Mes yeux fixèrent le serveur, ses petits boutons, son fin duvet au-dessus de la lèvre, mes doigts caressaient la couverture de mon carnet, agréable au toucher, ma peau sentait un rayon de soleil sur mon avant-bras et ma bouche demanda au serveur s'il me permettait de lui poser une question:  connaissait-il par hasard Roberto Bolaño?  Le serveur fronça les sourcils et demanda s'il travaillait au Can Martí ou s'il était censé le connaisse, c'était un écrivain, il avait écrit des romans et il avait dix ou quinze ans de cela.  Le serveur dessina dans l'air un geste d'impuissance de sa seule main libre (l'autre main tenant mon assiette vide):  c'était il y a longtemps, à l'époque il vivait encore chez ses parents dans le Sud, à Rincón de la Victoria, il n'avait pas encore déménagé à Blanès, donc non, il était désolé de ne pas pouvoir m'aider, il ne connaissait pas Roberto Boliño.  Bolaño, rectifiai-je.  Le serveur s'éloigna.  L'air devint saturé.  Pourquoi m'avait-il regardée ainsi, si intensément, au moment de parler de ses parents et de Rincón de la Victoria?  D'ailleurs où diable cela pouvait-il se trouver et surtout qu'est-ce que cela pouvait me faire?  Il fallait payer et partir au plus vite, j'étais affreusement gênée.  Soudain prise d'un doute, je me retournai:  dans ma nuque, ce n'étaient pas des géraniums mais des hortensias.  Cela m'avait titillée depuis le début. (pp. 65-66, PDF e-edition)

For the past decade, the Spanish/Catalan coastal town of Blanes has become renowned for being the home of the peripatetic Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño during the last twenty years of his life.  Bolaño's reputation was mostly made, however, after his 2003 death, with a slew of posthumous translations into the major European languages.  One novel, however, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives in English), was published to some acclaim in 1998.  That tale, containing among other elements an odyssey undertaken to find two missing poets in 1970s Mexico, is perhaps Bolaño's best-executed work (2666 I would argue was left in an unfinished state at the time of Bolaño's death).  That mystery of what happened to Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (characters who appear, often fleetingly, in several of Bolaño's works) is tied in to literary movements and commentaries on the fluctuating relationships between "art" and "reality."

Therefore, it was with great curiosity that I read Belgian writer Hedwige Jeanmart's debut novel, the 2014 Prix Medicis-longlisted Blanès.  Set in the town itself, it is a mystery that unfolds on at least two levels.  The first involves a couple, Eva and Samuel, who are vacationing there when Samuel suddenly disappears.  As Eva undertakes a search for him, she begins to discover the elements of another mystery, that of a beloved author, and the various connections and relationships between him, his stories, and the people of Blanes.

Blanès is a relatively short novel, roughly 190 pages in my PDF e-edition, and Jeanmart wastes little time in establishing character, setting, and mood.  In the passage quoted above, Eva comes in contact with a server at a restaurant.  Jeanmart describes the setting with great detail, going from Eva's choices for a meal to her inquiries about Bolaño.  The server's reactions to her somewhat odd questions is shown in vivid detail.  In reading it, I was reminded of the hyperrealist, almost surrealist, quality of The Savage Detectives and while Jeanmart is not aping Bolaño's literary mannerisms, there certainly are enough touchstones here for readers familiar with that tale to see the connections.

Yet for those readers who are not familiar with Bolaño or his work, Blanès also succeeds on its own due to Jeanmart's ability to create a plausible, gripping mystery that absorbs the reader's attention.  I spent several minutes reading and re-reading certain paragraphs, not because my French is rudimentary compared to my English or Spanish, but because of the richness of the prose and the fineness of the dialogues.  It was simply a delectable reading experience, one that I do not often encounter when reading contemporary prose in any language.  Yet the plot does not suffer due to the attention to style.  In fact, Jeanmart's mixture of beautiful and stark imagery enriches the plot, making the mystery more palpable for the reader.

The characterizations are also well-rendered.  Scenes such as the one quoted above are commonplace and the people that Eva meets during her search for solving two mysteries (the disappearance of her lover and that of Bolaño's life in Blanes) are fascinating in their own right.  There are very few longeurs present here; everything flows quickly and smoothly toward a satisfying denouement.  While the other Prix Medicis-longlisted titles I've read have also been excellent, Blanès would be one that I hope would make the shortlist coming out shortly.  It certainly is one of the better books that I've read in any language so far this year.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Before Peter Jackson made his bloated The Hobbit movies, the Soviets took a crack at it

I'll just let the jokes tell themselves right now on Hobbit Day.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Hobbitus Ille (Latin translation of The Hobbit, tr. by Mark Walker)

in foramine terrae habitabat hobbitus:  nec foedum, sordidum madidumque foramen, nec extremis lumbricorum atque odore caenoso impletum, nec etiam foramen aridum, inane, harenosum, in quo nihil erat ad considendum aut edendum aptum; immo foramen-hobbitum, ergo commoum. (p. xv)
It was not on September 22, 1986 when I first read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, although it certainly would have been an auspicious day, considering it was Bilbo Baggins's birthday (if only the publisher had waited a day, as the first edition came out September 21).  No, it was sometime in the spring of 1987, around the time that school was finishing up and I, a seventh grader at the time, found a used paperback copy of The Hobbit in my mother's classroom.  I took it home with her permission and I remember it was around this time also that I first saw the Rankin-Bass animated version.  Or was it that I saw the cartoon first and then stumbled upon the book serendipitously soon afterward?  I myself am not sure, but I only know that it was the first fantasy, besides C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia books that I read when I was 9-10 years old, that ever interested me.  Over twenty-seven years later, I can still recall the opening paragraph to The Hobbit:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. 

There is an informal, cozy language in that brief passage.  Without knowing at first what a "Hobbit" is, Tolkien has established two things:  This creature lives in a hole, but not just any old hole, but one full of creature comforts.  It is easy to picture a pipe-smoking member of the now-bygone landed gentry class, minding his P's and Q's, keeping up all appearances of wealth without being so vulgar as having to flaunt his good fortune in front of others.  The descriptions in the opening chapter, "An Unexpected Party," certain convey this message clearly and concisely, living the reader to plug in his or her interpretations of certain particulars.  The prose here and through the book is uniform in its unadorned and yet excitement-tinged narrative.  It is a story that could be read by a third or fourth grader and be enjoyed, and yet if one were a parent reading this tale to a child who might think reading books aloud are solely for babies, there might be pleasure derived from this for both parent and child alike.

But how does one go about translating such a carefully-constructed novel into a foreign language, particularly a "dead" language such as classical Latin?  When I stumbled across a copy of Hobbitus Ille in a local bookstore this past spring, I bought it in part because I was curious to see how the translator, Mark Walker, would approach bearing across Tolkien's colloquial language into Latin.  In order to evaluate this translation more fairly, I read this Latin translation in tandem with the Spanish and Italian editions (no, I purposely did not re-read it in English) in order to have fresh on my mind the difficult choices the translators had in choosing how to render Tolkien into their native tongues.

Of the three translations, Walker's has the hardest row to hoe.  Whereas there are roughly equivalent social registers in both Spanish and Italian to render the various dialectal shifts (in particular, that of the three trolls near the beginning of the story), classical Latin does not easily lend itself to convey informal speech, since the preserved language is more of an artificial construct that dates back two millennia to the divergence of written and spoken (or Vulgar) Latin.  The Spanish and Italian languages are derived in large part from this Vulgar Latin and being that they are "living" languages in which a whole host of dialects are readily available for selection to represent the source English expressions into their target languages, it is much easier for them to convey a sense of informality when the situation merits it.

This is not to say that Walker fails to invent adequate solutions to many of these issues.  While there is an unavoidable flattening of dialect due to the need to preserve the structure and inflectional endings of the Latin words, Walker does at times substitute expressions that might make a Ciceronian stammer and fuss.  For the seemingly most difficult sections, the near-doggerel poesy of the Rivendell elves teasing Bilbo and the dwarves, Walker doesn't as much try to ape the stress-timed metres of English prose as he utilizes a host of Latin poetic forms to serve in their stead.  While at times this leads to a more serious tone, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Consider the tone derived from this translation of the dwarves' sonorous poem about the loss of Erebor:

trans Montes Nebulae frigore dissitos
altas ad latebras et ueteres specus
discedamus abhinc, ante oritur dies,
quaesitum in magicis auriferis locis.

maiores faciunt carmina pristine
tinnituque sonant uerbera mallei
altis in spatiis quis mala dormiunt
effossis domibus sub scopulis iugi.

et reges ueteres et Dryadum duces
thesauros nitidos et simul aureos
fingunt et fabricant, luminaque auferunt
quae gemmis tegerent in capulis ibi.

pendent florea nunc stella monilibus
albis, flectitur et uertice regio
anguis flammiferus, stamine ferreo
nunc nocturna ligant soleque lumina. (pp. xxvii-xxviii)

Here is the English original:

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.

For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gleaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought, and light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.

On silver necklaces they strung
The flowering stars, on crowns they hung
The dragon-fire, in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun.

 Latin poetry is not as dependent upon end-syllable rhyming as is English poesy, and instead of trying to replicate Tolkien's eight syllable verse, Walker instead employs (as he notes in the appendix) a type of quantitative verse (with elisions as needed between end-sound vowels and opening-vowel neighbor words) called First Asclepiad.  This alternation between "long" and "short" syllables creates a different sort of sonorous passage, one that may hearken more to Horace and Vergil than to Norse sagas, yet which manages to maintain its captivating sense despite the shift in tone and metre.  Indeed, Walker's renditions of Tolkien's various poetic styles are mostly spot-on, as he demonstrates enough range in style and form to create poems that remind the reader of the English originals without feeling as though they were but poor attempts at being English verse with Latin words.

On the whole, Walker's translation, coupled with the generally decent Spanish and Italian translations (done respectively by Manuel Figueroa and Elena Jeronomidis Conte, although there were some questionable name choices in Conte's original 1973 translation, specifically translating Trolls as "uomini neri," or "black men) reminded me favorably of an adolescent favorite.  Although my Latin is a bit rusty after twenty years since my last college course in it, Hobbitus Ille was relatively easy for me to follow.  While some of the word inventions/parallels that Walker chose were a bit confusing at first, namely using "Dryad" for "elf," for the most part he manages to preserve the essentials, namely the feel of this being a hearth tale that harkens back to a different age.  The result was a good reading experience in my fifth-best language that served to remind me of just how much I enjoyed reading and re-reading The Hobbit over a quarter-century ago.  If only more books, whether in their original language or in translation, could remind us of those treasured reading moments.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Tomorrow marks the 265th day of 2014.  As of today, I have posted 111 reviews (86 of them being of 2014 releases) this year.  I have nearly 75 books already marked for review by year's end.  While this is daunting enough, I think I'm going to aim to outdo the grueling 40 in 40 review schedule I set for the days immediately preceding my 40th birthday in July and I'm going to try to review at least 89 more novels, poems, non-fiction, and story collections/anthologies by December 31st.  While doubtless some reviews might be shorter than others (particularly when I write short summaries of the 2014 Prix Medicis longlisted titles that I've read (four to date), I think it'd make for a nice challenging.  I know I'm planning on writing 1-2 reviews a day for November alone (might as well do a parallel challenge to the annual write a novel during that month challenge and review 30+ books or write roughly 30K review/quote words that month), so I think I can extend it through the remaining 100 days of 2014 and get close at least to 200 reviews if not equal or surpass it.

Granted that I have a backlog of reviews (roughly 20) to write, so reading time shouldn't be too much of an issue until at least mid-October.  But some works will be easier than others.  Writing about Thoreau's Walden, for example, should make for an easier essay-composing session than would reviewing something read in my second, third, fourth, or fifth languages.  But if I write roughly 6 reviews a week, roughly an hour a day/night for those corresponding days, I should be able to meet this challenge.  And for those curious about some of the books I want to write about, well, in a few hours, I'll post my commentary/review of the Latin translation of The Hobbit, called HOBBITVS ILLE, and later I'll write reviews of the translations (and well, thoughts in general on the English originals) of Tolkien's The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin.

I also plan on finishing reviewing the seven remaining Premio Alfaguara winners I haven't yet reviewed (another 2014 reviewing challenge was to finish reviewing all 25 of the previous/current winners of that Spanish-language award), at least four of the Prix Medicis longlisted-titles, most of the 2014 National Book Award shortlists, if not their entire longlists for poetry, Young People's Literature, and Fiction, and maybe a few classics that I own in Easton Press or Franklin Library leatherbound editions.  Also, if time permits, I'm going to look into resuming reading some of William Faulkner's work, most likely the not-yet-reviewed novels collected in four Library of America editions.  Add to this the books I haven't yet reviewed from my 2014 releases post and the total should be close to the requisite 89.

But if/when I accomplish this, don't expect a repeat in 2015.  I have a feeling I won't be reviewing quite as many books next year.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Franklin Library's 100 Greatest Books of All Time

Just now realized that I didn't have a corresponding list of The Franklin Library's 100 Greatest Books of All Time like I do for Easton Press's edition.  Since I own several Franklin Library books, thought I'd highlight those here, so whenever I do stumble across a Franklin Library edition in a local bookstore, I can make sure that I don't already own it in either this edition or the Easton Press version:

1.  The Iliad by Homer

2.  The Odyssey by Homer

3.  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (own Easton Press edition)

4.  The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams

5.  Confessions of St. Augustine (own Easton Press edition)

6.  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

7.  The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

8.  Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

9.  The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

10.  Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen

11.  Five Comedies by Aristophanes

12.  Don Quixote de La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (own Easton Press edition)

13.  Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (own Easton Press edition)

14.  Stories of Guy de Maupassant (own Easton Press edition)

15.  Plays by Anton Chekhov

16.  Politics by Aristotle (own Easton Press edition)

17.  Selected Writings of Sir Francis Bacon

18.  Oresteia by Aeschylus

19.  Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (own in separate Franklin Library edition)

20.  Tales From The Arabian Nights by Sir Richard F. Burton

21.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (own Easton Press edition)

22.  Analects of Confucius (own Easton Press edition)

23.  Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (own Easton Press edition)

24.  The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper (own Easton Press edition)

25.  The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (own Easton Press edition)

26.  Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake

27.  The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (own Easton Press edition)

28.  The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

29.  Plays by Euripides

30.  The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

31.  Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

32.  Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (own Easton Press edition)

33.  Essays of Michel de Montaigne

34.  Philosophical Works of René Descartes

35.  Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

36.  The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

37.  Collected Poems (1909–1962) of T. S. Eliot

38.  Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson (own Easton Press edition)

39.  Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (own Easton Press edition)

40.  The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

41.  Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (own Easton Press edition)

42.  The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin

43.  The Basic Works of Sigmund Freud (own in separate Franklin Library edition)

44.  The Poetry of Robert Frost

45.  David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (own Easton Press edition)

46.  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (own Easton Press edition)

47.  Poems of John Donne

48.  Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (own Easton Press edition)

49.  Favorite Household Tales of the Brothers GrimmBrothers Grimm (own Easton Press edition)

50.  The Federalist by Hamilton, Madison and Jay

51.  The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (own Easton Press edition)

52.  The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire

53.  Jane Eyre By Charlotte Brontë (own Easton Press edition)

54.  The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (own Easton Press edition)

55.  A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

56.  Plays by Henrik Ibsen (own Easton Press edition)

57.  The Ambassadors by Henry James

58.  Nine Tales of Henry James

59.  Ulysses by James Joyce (own in separate Franklin Library edition)

60.  The Trial by Franz Kafka

61.  Poems of John Keats (own Easton Press edition)

62.  Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence

63.  The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (own Easton Press edition)

64.  Five Stories of Thomas Mann

65.  Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (own Easton Press edition)

66.  Eight Comedies by William Shakespeare (own Easton Press edition)

67.  Poems of William Shakespeare

68.  Six Histories by William Shakespeare (own Easton Press edition)

69.  Six Tragedies by William Shakespeare (own Easton Press edition)

70.  Political Writings of John Stuart Mill

71.  Paradise Lost by John Milton (own Easton Press edition)

72.  Seven Plays by Molière

73.  Four Plays of Eugene O’Neill

74.  Political Writings of Thomas Paine (own Easton Press edition)

75.  Pensees by Blaise Pascal

76.  Satyricon by Petronius

77.  The Republic by Plato

78.  Twelve Illustrious Lives by Plutarch

79.  Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (own Easton Press edition)

80.  Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

81.  Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais

82.  Six Tragedies by Jean Racine

83.  Political Writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau (own Easton Press edition)

84.  Three Plays by Bernard Shaw

85.  The Tragedies of Sophocles

86.  Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (own Easton Press edition)

87.  Nana by Emile Zola

88.  Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

89.  The Red and the Black by Stendhal (own Easton Press edition)

90.  Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

91.  Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

92.  Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (own Easton Press edition)

93.  Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (own Easton Press edition)

94.  Walden by Henry D. Thoreau (own Easton Press edition)

95.  The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

96.  Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (own Easton Press edition)

97.  The Aeneid by Virgil

98.  Candide by Voltaire

99.  Selected Poems of William Butler Yeats (own Easton Press edition)

100.  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (own Easton Press edition)

13 of these editions owned, plus 3 more Franklin Library books in other editions and 43 Easton Press editions of the same or similar work isn't too shabby, I suppose.  But I'll resume occasional collecting in the near future, as I like the Franklin Library bindings just a little bit more (slightly thicker leather for many of these), not to mention the press is defunct, making these books scarcer than the Easton Press ones, which are still available for subscription order.  I also own a further 7 Franklin Library books that are not listed here.  That, plus the 77 Easton Press editions I own, makes my current leatherbound edition count exactly 100 at the moment.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Weekend Plans

Still a bit lethargic post-procedure, so I'm not sure how much of this will get done, but here are a few things I'd like to do through Monday:

1.  Finish reading Ben Lerner's 10:04

2.  Read Michael Pitre's Fives and Twenty-Fives

3.  Review at least one of the following:  John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van; Kelly Barnhill's The Witch's Boy; Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstuck & Other Stories; and/or Gail Giles's Girls Like Us.

4.  Write review/commentary on the Latin translation of The Hobbit and maybe a full review of that work.

Now back to bed.  Can't seem to stop yawning.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Back "procedures" suck, in case you never knew that

Well, after enduring six weeks of often excruciating back pain after initially injuring myself at work trying to keep a 6'5, 230 lb. young adult resident from running out of the room, I finally had a procedure done this morning to alleviate the pain.  It took nearly five weeks for the muscle spasms and strained muscles in my lower lumbar region of my spine (or about two inches above my waist/tailbone) to ease enough for there to be clear signs that I also had some nerve irritation.  Had an MRI done on Monday and it revealed some damage to one of my vertebral discs. 

It wasn't so serious that I needed back surgery, but it was bad enough that I was recommended to get an epidural steroid injection directly into that region of my spine.  So I had that done today.  One of the effects of the injection is that the numbing agent gets into your system, making your lower body number, making it unsafe to drive for any long length of time (not to mention it feels like you have your drunk legs all day).  This, however, does not stop the actual pressure pain from the injection site, which I was told can take up to four days before it is alleviated.  Thankfully, I did have some prescribed painkillers to help me endure this, even though this led to nearly a full night's night this afternoon.

On the bright side, before I was knocked out (much of this was done during the 45 minute drives to and from the clinic, along with the 30 minute wait at the clinic), I did manage to finish reading four recent releases that I hope to review in the next 3-4 days.  I read three National Book Award-longlisted books (John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van; Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck & Other Stories; and Gail Giles's Girls Like Us (YPL nominee) as well as Kelly Barnhill's The Witch's Boy.  Each of these were distinct in their prose and thematic approach and each will be receiving positive reviews whenever I have the time/mental focus to write them.

But for now, it's time to clear up this mental fog and see if the pain will subside some when I begin walking more next week (not to mention returning to work on Monday after a month's absence).  I'm past tired of sitting around the house not being able to do much else other than read and write reviews.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

It seems someone goofed and revealed the 2014 National Book Award longlist for Fiction a day early

Not that I mind, as it gives me a headstart on reading for it, but the Fiction longlist for the 2014 National Book Awards was released this afternoon on Huffington Post and the New York Times webpage an afternoon earlier than the planned 8 AM EDT Friday announcement.  I was wondering how many of the nominated books I had already read/reviewed/scheduled to buy and it turns out that I had already read/reviewed four of them and had two others listed on my 2014 Releases post.  Of the remaining four, the titles seem interesting (two won't be released until October 7, Robinson and Smiley), so on the whole, it's a fairly solid list, although I can think of several alternate selections that would have also fit in well with this list.  Compared to the Non-fiction list, the Fiction nominees are a bit more balanced with five men and women apiece and while there a majority Caucasian writers on the list, there is at least some diversity in narrative form and content.  Anyways, here are the ten nominees:

Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman 

Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans

John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See 

Phil Klay, Redeployment

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck & Other Stories

Richard Powers, Orfeo 

Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Jane Smiley, Some Luck

National Book Awards longlist for Non-Fiction

The longlist for the 2014 National Book Awards for Non-Fiction was just announced this morning.  Yet I find myself somewhat disappointed in the selections, despite not having read any of them so far.  Maybe I'll be able to find some compelling tales and excellent histories here, but it seems less diverse and representative of what's being produced this year compared to the Young People's Literature and Poetry longlists.  Am going to read one at least, the Roz Chast, and maybe the John Demos, but uncertain how many of the others I'll read.  Maybe something from the shortlist, but this might be the category I don't really cover this year.  Anyways, here's the longlist:

Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (also a graphic novel)

John Demos, The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic
Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes

Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941 – 1942

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

Ronald C. Rosbottom, When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944

Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic

Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence

Linda Bierds, Roget's Illusion

I will never contain the whole of it, he said,
the mirror too small for the long-necked lamp
floating swanlike near the angle of incidence.
Never, he said, stepping back from the lectern

and long-necked lamp, the mirror he held too small
for the swan.  To reflect the object entirely,
he said, stepping back to the lectern,
the glass must be half the source's height.

To reflect the object entirely – the lamp,
or a swan, or my figure before you – 
the glass must be half the source's height.
Unlike thought, which easily triples the whole.

– from "On Reflection," p. 60

Although for generations of benighted English/literature students he is most well-known for his thesaurus, Peter Mark Roget was a multi-talented person of science who also invented the slide rule and who wrote an 1824 paper on the illusion of forward-moving wheel spokes seeming to spin backwards.  It is this illusion of backwards forwardness that is both the title and major theme of Linda Bierds' 2014 National Book Award-longlisted poetry collection, Roget's Illusion.

Divided into three parts, each prefaced with a "Roget's Illusion," the majority of the poems in Roget's Illusion are akin to that found in the excerpt from "On Reflection" quoted above.  Breaking down the beginning half to "On Reflection," we encounter a narrator who is convinced that he is unable to position things just so in order to capture an image of the whole in a reflection.  The mirror, apparently "too small" for the swan-like lamp casting light, is itself a reflection, as seen in the second stanza, where the lamp has apparently become the swan, and the reflection/mirror has to be half the source's height in order for it to work.  But then there is another element, thought, that comes into play and which destroys and amplifies the reflection/illusion through its treple quality.  If the mirror, as the narrator goes on to claim, is "bound by harmony," then what is thought but a transformative quality that reflects back perceptions and appearances, until it is lost in the impossibility of never quite being able to "contain the whole of it."

This is a deceptively complex series of metaphors transpiring within the simplicity of a lamp, an image, and a source.  Utilizing Roget's theorems on distance and light casting illusive images, Bierds here has made that disorienting sense of backwards forwardness palpable, eloquently presenting the artifice before the trick, catching us thinking of it all, only for us to complete the illusion in its totality in our minds.  Yet despite seeing just how it all unfolds, despite it all being explained to us, there is still magic in the event.  There is a similar quality to discussing Bierds' mechanics here, as she lays out her approach for the reader to discern, yet in considering the wires and framework, the reader still gets caught up in the thrill of the unfolding image, seeming spinning backwards as it moves forward in poetic space.

Although this seemingly paradoxical quality is explored in several of Bierds' other poems, they are not refracted in the same fashion.  Take for instance "Details Depicted:  Insect and Hair," which begins with these lines:

In the prison of an unnamed century,
on paper coarse as sackcloth,
someone has written No reason exists 
and the innocency of my actings
in the midst of the late revolutions. 
Then stopped – and circled two perfect artifacts,
caught years before in the damp plup:
in the margin beside his curving s
a single fly wing, dried to a gauze,
and far down the page, an arc of amber beard hair. (p. 73)

Here is another natural object, a single fly wing, to serve as a point of comparison to another intruder, a strand of amber beard hair.  As the narrator continues to write his political tract, he circles back to that singular wing and that solitary hair, seeing in their placement a sort of transcendence of order.  It is this illusion of placement, of how chance is turned into an engine of order, that creates the illusory effect here.  There is a slight echo of Frost's "The Road Not Taken" here, at least in the sense of how choice's tryanny comes to hold sway over us all and how we often wish it were not so, but Bierds' take centers more on the illusion of that control, as the political screeds embedded here serve as a reminder of how ethereal it all really is if we were but to provide a Johnsonian kick to this metaphorical rock.

These two poems serve as exemplars of Bierds' concerns and her ability to manipulate image and rhetoric to create these illusions.  The rest of the collection is largely on par with these two and it was a delight to consider each of them at length.  Roget's Illusion is a powerful collection, one that can surprise readers with its depth and artifice, and it certainly is well-deserving of its place on this year's Poetry longlist.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

National Book Awards longlist for Poetry

Day two of the four-day rollout for the National Book Awards longlist is for Poetry.  Being a long-time reader of poetry, I already owned one of the longlisted titles (Louise Glück's Faithful and Virtuous Night) and have since bought two others.  Likely will own the majority, if not all, of the longlisted titles before the shortlist is revealed in mid-October.  Certainly will review at least three of the titles before then, however, and maybe as many as 6-7.  Here's the longlist of 10 poetry titles:

Linda Bierds, Roget's Illusion 

Brian Blanchfield, A Several World

Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night 

Edward Hirsch,  Gabriel:  A Poem

Fanny Howe, Second Childhood

Maureen N. McLane, This Blue

Fred Moten, The Feel Trio

Claudia Rankine, Citizen:  An American Lyric

Spencer Reece, The Road to Emmaus

Mark Strand, Collected Poems

Based on the three I've already read, some enjoyable titles for those who are curious about contemporary American poetry.  Will likely have reviews up in the next 48 hours for the Bierds and Reece.

Monday, September 15, 2014

National Book Awards longlist for Young People's Literature announced

The four day rollout for the 2014 National Book Awards began today with the announcement of the longlist for the Young People's Literature category.  Here are the ten finalists:

Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory 

Gail Giles, Girls Like Us

Carl Hiaasen, Skink—No Surrender

Kate Milford, Greenglass House

Eliot Schrefer, Threatened

Steve Sheinkin, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights 

Andrew Smith, 100 Sideways Miles

John Corey Whaley, Noggin

Deborah Wiles, Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two

Jacqueline Woodson,  Brown Girl Dreaming

While I am uncertain if I will cover the entire 10 book longlist due to a money crunch this month, I do plan on reading and reviewing the five books from this list which will make the shortlist in mid-October.  Lot of familiar names on this list (Schrefer and Sheinkin I reviewed a couple of years ago when their previous works also made the YPL shortlist).  Curious to see what others more familiar with middle grades and YA lit think of this longlist.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Things to review this week

Funny how plans change a bit when sick with an upper respiratory virus.  I did quite a bit of reading these past few days, but some of those will be tricky to review due to reading them in French, which is not one of my three best languages for reading-to-reviewing.  But I may try to review in 3-4 paragraph capsules the 2014 Prix Medicis longlisted-titles that I did read.

Also want to review at last the Murakami, Mitchell, and Jacobson books that I finished recently, but after tonight, it might be tricky, as I hope to be cleared to return to work by Tuesday after my orthopedic evaluation Monday morning.  But I'm sure I can fit those in somehow, along with reviews of Dylan Landis's Rainey Royal and Joseph O'Neill's Booker-longlisted The Dog.

But my reading squirrels are ever finicky, so who knows what will get accomplished this week...

Saturday, September 13, 2014

2014 Prix Medicis longlist announced

Earlier this week, the 2014 Prix Medicis longlist was announced.  Being that the Prix Medicis is one of the premier French-language literary awards and that I am still working on my reading fluency in the language, I plan on reading several books from this longlist, although I am uncertain if I will review any at length due to my relative lack of reading fluency (at least compared to my Spanish and Portuguese).  But I might attempt to write short ~400-500 word reviews of the four I've downloaded already and read.

Aurélien Bellanger, L’aménagement du territoire
Véronique Bizot, Ame qui vive
Pierre Demarty, En face
Claudie Hunzinger, La langue des oiseaux
Jean-Hubert Gailliot, Le soleil
Hedwige Jeanmart, Blanès
Nathalie Kuperman, La loi sauvage
Frank Maubert, Visible la nuit
Laurent Mauvignier, Autour du monde
Christine Montalbetti, Plus rien que les vagues et le vent
Eric Reinhardt, L’amour et les forêts
Antoine Volodine, Terminus radieux
Valérie Zenatti, Jacob, Jacob

Friday, September 12, 2014

Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night

First divesting ourselves of worldly goods, as St. Francis teaches,
in order that our souls not be distracted
by gain and loss, and in order also
that our bodies be free to move
easily at the mountain passes, we had then to discuss
whither or where we might travel, with the second question being
should we have a purpose, against which
many of us argued fiercely that such purpose
corresponded to worldly goods, meaning a limitation or constriction,
whereas others said it was by this word we were consecrated 
pilgrims rather than wanderers:

– From "Parable," p. 6 iPad iBooks e-edition

There is a silencing quality to night that dims the day's bright nights and muffles its outlandish roars.  The night is for lovers, or for the inconsolable, or those feverish saints and melancholy sinners.  It is where we lose ourselves and find ourselves again.  In Louise Glück's newest collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night, all of these nocturnal attributes and more are explored in wry, sometimes detached, poems that combine to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In the opening poem, "Parable," the narrator muses on the Franciscan call to "divest[ing] ourselves of worldly goods."  As we meditate on this, she goes on, the "word" becomes "translated as a dream," something desired and yet not quite obtainable, while through it all, the weather shifts, with snow (and its blanketing quality) and rain (with its purifying quality) washes over these erstwhile pilgrims, changing them, making for them a purpose they had sought after, albeit one they had not expected. 

This mingling of the natural and the mental, of image and desire, continues in the next poem, an adventure, where the night takes on yet another quality, that of passions and of death:

I was, you will understand, entering the kingdom of death,
thought why this landscape was so conventional
I could not say.

– from "An Adventure," (p. 7)
The visions of this poem, with flesh evaporating into mist, of objects fading into insubstantial shadows, are haunting, yet here, like in other poems in Faithful and Virtuous Night, it is a sense of things lurking on the edges of our personal horizons rather than anything that can be perceived directly.  Silence lies at the heart of Glück's poems, and at the end of the eponymous "Faithful and Virtuous Night," she lays out one of the principal themes of this collection:

I think here I will leave you.  It has come to seem
there is no perfect ending.
Indeed, there are infinite endings.
Or perhaps, once one begins,
there are only endings. (p. 16)
This theme of indefinite, perhaps infinite, endings to stories is played out over and over again in various iterations.  In one, it is likened to a religious ceremony in which the congregation's standing about waiting is the entire point of the ceremony, that beholding is the key, not any of the ancillary activities surrounding this.  In another, through the guise of a writer whose many lauded novels were much alike each other, the complacency that surrounds disguised suffering is the key to understanding the reflection of nature in art, of suffering encapsulated in formalized artifice.  And so it goes until this chilling question is raised in "The Story of a Day":

But if the essence of time is change,
how can anything become nothing?
This was the question I asked myself. (p. 54)
The overall effect of these images, carefully embedded throughout the collection, is to create a sense of space, where answers die and contemplation of inscrutable life begins.  Night is the perfect metaphor for this and Faithful and Virtuous Night shows Glück in full mastery of image and metaphor.  It certainly is a poetry well worth reading for any who have any love at all for the poetic genre.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

Picture how she comes.  Our Lady in white, when you're not looking.  She beckons you to Christ.  Pray to be chosen.  To bear her secrets for the world.  A dying world.  Please don't to me or catch her floating on the stairway.  Reaching out.  Howabout stigmata instead?  Worse though you'd never go to school again or look at my hands in case I see it.  The Holy Spirit's in me.  Not a punishment.  It's a gift.  No not like the violin.  Any eejit can do that.  I feel it aching in my palm but when will the blood burst?  Now please Jesus or not at all.  Lickety lips of the praying wouldn't mind if I was one.  But they'd all like it for their children.  A visionary born from me?  You'll only be able to tell the seasons by the trees Malachi prophesied or Colmcille.  And they say the last secret of Fatima is destruction of the church.  The Vatican won't say either way because that'll be the end of days.  Gulp this.  But we'll know anyway from Medjugorje the day before.  Shiver I purple terror high in my throat.  The dead will knock your window.  Deadly bony spirit hands.  They'll beg for you to save their souls.  Open the latch they cry.  You will not.  Can not.  You must turn from them.  Away.  Shut the curtains.  Light a candle and pray for your salvation while the apocalypse blows your door.  And if they plead they love you, so much the worse for their souls.  Those poor souls howling.  Sucked into the forever night.  Will you save us Mammy?  I'll say easy children close your eyes for this world is coming to an end.  But Mammy it scares me.  Well better behave yourself then. (p. 24 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Some stories are not meant to be told in "easy" language.  Some tales deserve, no, need, a more "challenging" narrative structure in order to contain the necessary depth of character, plot, and theme.  In Eimear McBride's debut novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which recently won the 2014 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, her prose is not "easy," it is very "challenging" indeed.  But what sort of challenges does it entail for the reader?

The basic contours of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing are relatively straightforward and familiar to readers:  a young Irish girl dealing with multiple family issues, ranging from her brother's losing battle against brain cancer to her mother's perhaps too-staunch Catholicism to her creepy uncle.  Yet what McBride does with this basic setup is what differentiates it from most contemporary Irish family fictions.  The nameless narrator's use of "broken" grammar, where the comma disappears in favor of the full-stop, punctuates the fissures and fault lines in this narrative. 

At first glance, paragraphs like the one quoted above might be difficult to parse.  But listen to the rhythms that develops within these staccato bursts.  "Open the latch they cry.  You will not.  Can not."  In this comes a call and non-response, an urge and a resistance.  The narrator, addressing her now-dead brother throughout as "you," she is constantly battling, fighting to establish some semblance of self amongst the tugs and pulls of others.  She wants to be good, she wants to be herself, but she is degraded by those around her.  This is what comes through in this carefully-crafted prose, where the images and sounds of anguished indecision are codified within this non-conventional prose style.

For some, style is an afterthought, a mere window dressing that could cover up somehow "the story."  This is certainly far from the case here, as the style is integral to the unfolding story.  McBride's narrator is a girl who has entered puberty and has suffered from an incestuous, sometimes non-consensual relationship with an uncle.  This affects her views of sex.  It becomes not an enjoyable act or a positive part of the girl's self-identity, but instead a weapon, a means of self-annihilation through non-loving relationships that reinforce the sense of self-loathing rising within the girl's narrative.  And through it all, the language of this suffering, this cry for release, is seen in passages such as this:

These journeys.  These train journeys they are always going on.  What I.  Am I doing?  Rolling over the country.  I'll give up going soon.  Where?  Here or back or.  Enough.  Thankless pointless things I'll learn.  To.  But.  Like it matters now who inspired who and who.  Fuck that I don't.  Care.  I.  And your other one.  Stupid cow out running friend.  Drive my head round the bend with all the oh my life has troubles too.  But I better do, have got to.  Just stop see and cut the cord the thread with this life and I'll be alright.  Give it up, uncle up, that's the way.  No.  And it sounds easy.  It sounds not.  But what I want.  Not to be this.  Ripped.  Ah I see.  Not.  To.  Do.  This.  Any.  More.  What.  Nothing I don't do a thing.

Few fucks here and then and who's that to do with?  No one but myself.  See.  See.  In the future I'll decide.  If I must go home.  For good.  If I.  But now.  But now.  I'm doing fine.  Like you.  I'm.  Doing.  Fine.  (p. 97)

There is a primeval quality to this, this fractured stream of consciousness.  It is not something we may readily wish to dip into to experience, but it is still there, seething.  McBride's story works so well because of how easily she taps into this raging maelstrom, allowing readers who are willing enough to "lose" themselves in the narrative to experience the narrator's emotional conflicts on a deeper, less verbalized level than what a more "traditional" narrative might have accomplished.  McBride breaks syntax and, by extension, word context in order to create new lexical shades of meanings.  In doing so, her work resembles in this particular fashion those of Joyce's Ulysses and Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom!.  Like them, McBride's story works not just only on the surface level of plot and character, but also on the level of word/signifer contextual relationships.  It may not always be "easy" to follow, but as far as it being a "challenge" for readers, it certainly does force readers to evaluate the story in fashions they might not have been prepared to do.  That the result is a moving, poignant tale of an identity being forged is a bonus that makes A Girl is a Half-formed Thing worthy of the awards that it has already won.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Upcoming reviews

Had planned on writing a couple of reviews today, but I have been battling a kidney stone attack (my first ever) since early this morning and I haven't had energy to write anything at all until now.  But assuming that it does pass in the next 24-48 hrs., here are the books that I plan on reviewing by the end of the week:

Howard Jacobson, J (Booker Prize finalist)

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (Booker-longlisted title)

Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction winner)

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tzukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

If I have the chance/ability, I also plan on reading Angélica Gorodischer's1994 short novel Prodigios, which I learned last month will be translated into English sometime next year and published by Small Beer Press.  Here is my rough translation of the back cover blurb:

Latest novel of the current classic writer Angélica Gorodischer, cult SF author and maestra of generations of female Latin American authors, Prodigies narrates the history of the birthplace of the poet Novalis following his death, when it was converted into the pension place (workhouse) of Weissenfels.  Undulant, subtile and full of humor, irony and dreams, this novel fills the abandoned house of the poet with women who inhabit it for the rest of the 19th century, and it continues to compose, with the flow of history, the secret trauma of its destinies.
Interesting, no?

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Brief thoughts on the 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist

The 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist was announced earlier today.  Out of the six finalists, I have already read five and reviewed four (with the fifth to be reviewed later this week).  Although as is usually the case with such awards, if I were choosing six favorites, not all six would have reflected the ones on this list.  However, taking into account some of the seeming guidelines of the awards (finalists tend to reflect types of books as much as quality of works) and the chosen longlist (I've currently read 10/13 from the longlist, with another awaiting on my iPad and a second in the mail; the third hasn't yet been released in the US), there were no works that I felt were strongly out of place on the award.  Perhaps I could see a case for substituting Richard Powers' Orfeo for Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North or Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World for Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves or Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake for any of the others, but those alternates would not be necessarily better in quality but instead truly just alternate choices.  The six chosen works (or rather, the five I've read and the sixth soon-to-arrive) seem to me to be a decent selection from a uniformly good (if not terribly, inventively great) longlist of works. 

Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour 

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North 

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 

Howard Jacobson, J

Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others

Ali Smith, How to be Both

Now if I were ranking these based on the five I've read, it'd probably go something like this:


This, however, does not mean much, in that there is little discernible difference in prose or narrative quality to me.  There is, how, a difference in story types:  mid-20th century Bengali family/social history; a tale of war and violence (and its effects) in a WWII Japanese PoW camp in Thailand; a story that questions what makes humans and their families so special after all; a comic-serious account of religion and identity; and a tale of prejudice and identity loss.  Each of these has their appeal for certain readers and one's enjoyment of the tales will largely depend on how much the reader tends to like those story types.

As for the longlisted books that failed to make it, as I said above, the Kingsnorth, Powers, and Hustvedt would have been worthy of consideration.  Perhaps Niall Williams' History of the Rain as well.  David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, which I finished reading Monday night and will review later this week, was just too flawed in its presentation for it to be a true contender.  Have Joseph O'Neill's The Dog to read later this week and it won't be until late October that David Nicholls' Us is released in the US, so it is impossible for me to weigh in now on their quality and if they would have been worthy alternates for the shortlist.

Hopefully in the next couple of weeks (depending on whenever the Smith arrives), I'll have all six of the finalists reviewed.  Now to await word next week on the longlisted titles (in four categories!) for the National Book Awards, which tend to suit my tastes a bit more than the Booker Prize.  I suspect I will have read/own at least some of the titles to be announced there.
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