The OF Blog: January 2015

Monday, January 26, 2015

Testing canons or the constant restructuring of literary corpora

For a long while now, I have considered the issue of literature and its places and uses in contemporary society.  It was a secondary interest of mine when I was in graduate school (the primary being cultural religious concepts in practice in the early 20th century), ever since I had to present a brief summary of Paul Fussell's Wartime in a class and I found myself thinking about how certain literary concepts had become transformed when shifted back into an oral form and retransmitted through often-crude soldier compositions.  Nearly 20 years later, my opinions on it may be as fluid as ever, yet there are some interesting restructurings that have occurred in the interim.

The very concept of a "master list" or, which is much more palatable for the anarchist within me, a broadly-defined series of literary corpora is one that many can accept at a theoretical level.  There are, after all, certain works that a nation (defined here as a large cultural group that shares certain deep socio-cultural bonds in common and not as a synonym for a particular political organizing of peoples) very well might hold as being intrinsic for understanding that people:  religious texts, political tracts, histories, epic poems and fictions.  Things like Robert Burns' poetry being quoted in Scotland on Burns Night or recognizing who said "to be or not to be" or "behold I make all things new" are so familiar to certain cultures that one does not have to have been intimately familiar with the source material to understand the reference being made.

However, it is when we delve a bit further into the literary corpora that certain questions arise:  Is this material suitable today, centuries after its composition?  Are we neglecting other streams of thought by favoring this particular body of literature?  An old truism, albeit one fraught with fallibility, is that history is written by the "winners."  (In truth, histories are like any other power paradigm, with different expressions and strengths to those expressions.)  Are non-majority groups (working class, women, non-whites, non-Christians) adequately represented, whatever might be meant by "adequately?"

These are questions that not only should not be avoided, but instead they should be embraced if one wants to set about constructing any sort of national literary corpus.  I am the son of a retired high school English/literature teacher and I myself have taught literature and grammar in addition to social studies.  As is common practice, there were the sets of five books that we were required to read (and later, to teach) for certain high school lit courses.  Although I managed to avoid having teaching it, I remember questioning the validity of having John Knowles' A Separate Peace on the sophomore reading list when its setting (an all-white boarding school around the time of World War II) and characters were almost polar opposites of the experiences of the majority-black urban public school students I was teaching at the time.  Although there are many elements to Knowles' story that recommend it to many sorts of readers, it would have been very difficult to present it as something vital, something important to readers who had become accustomed to not being represented at all (or even worse, in token fashion) in school reading curricula.

What does a teacher or literature professor do when confronted with this reality?  After all, it isn't feasible to develop multiple, parallel reading lists or other literary canons in miniature without destroying the very concept of a national literary corpus.  Yet the possible solutions are fraught with difficulties, which those who are opposed to the reimagination of the reading lists take glee in pointing out.  How should we go about making the reading lists, and by extension, our understanding of what constitutes national "literary canon" more inclusive without seeming to "dilute" the quality of the literature or destroying even the shredded remnants of what formerly was a universally held understanding of what "all Americans should know?" (I use American literature here as an example as it is my native culture; similar arguments, albeit with different constituent works, would apply for other national literatures).

One solution, albeit not a perfect one (none are; we are a fractious species, after all) is to expand and to make the incorporation of diverse perspectives a foundational principle of understanding American culture and its literatures.  By all means introduce students to the First and Second Great Awakenings and the Transcendentalist Movement.  Just also introduce them to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance or the socialist writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Have them question why certain writers outside dominant American literary circles utilized similar sources (the Bible, Shakespeare, the Declaration of Independence, the letters of Lincoln, etc.) to argue for radically different paths for American society in the fiction, poetry, and non-fiction of the past two centuries.  By being aware of the similarity in sources as well as the divergences in interpretation and application, readers can be exposed to a wealth of different understandings of American history and literature in a way that shows the full truth of e pluribus unum without whitewashing the ideas or smothering dissenting views.

National literary corpora are not made to be static entities; they must be tested, tried, and occasionally discarded lest the national discourse become stale and enfeebled.  Two centuries ago, a "well-read" American would be able to quote Thucydides and Horace in the original Greek and Latin.  Today, while still esteemed by some, knowledge of either, in translation or in the original tongues, is not essential; their ideas, however, have been disseminated through others influenced by them.  Sometimes, it is preferable for certain texts, or at least certain interpretations derived from them, to fall away and be cast in the dustbins of history.  Surely few lament those execrable justifications for chattel slavery derived from Biblical passages!

But at the same time, as the literary corpora expand at a time when "deep" reading appears to have declined, there also should be a fight of sorts to find ourselves within our literary texts.  What does it mean to be a member of a nation?  In what do we really believe?  What is "natural law" and why do some believe that not only does it exist, but that it is essential to explaining just what we are?  Why should we study history and politics and literature in the first place, if each is controlled by other groups?  It is easy to acquiesce to current situations and to accept passively what is presented to us.  It is much more difficult, yet much more rewarding (and challenging!) to question all that is around us.

That notion of "critical thinking," however is much more easily packaged and pitched as a panacea in education than it is anything that can be instilled in readers.  To become a "critical thinker" means, at least in part, an abnegation of our own selves.  We cannot remain unchanged in this endeavor.  We have to test ourselves, deny certain preconceptions we have made.  We have to be remade anew through this enterprise.  To be anything less than "all in" is to become but a consumer of content, guzzling down pre-digested ideas and concepts and doing little else with the information but to argue matters of plot and favorite characters, with no real interest in what it all means.  I say this not to belittle those who do read for these purposes, merely to note that there are other literary worlds undreamt of in their philosophies.

All this, however, is so far only posturing.  However, I have also put into action certain practices that I hope will further and deepen my own literary education.  One such thing is a renewed focus on reading and reviewing both older and current American literary works, including non-fiction.  Over the next few years, I plan on reading and reviewing at least 20 books from the Library of America series.  These reviews (including the dozens I have already written over the past three years) shall help me in testing whether or not these works still retain their importance or if, as I suspect might be in the case for at least a few, they represent more past strains of American literary/social thought than current or future trends.

By writing about these hundreds (I have 139 volumes at present out of 266 due to be published by June) of works over a long period of time, I suspect I'll be exposed to more than just the "familiar suspects" of American letters.  Although there are certain key omissions to the Library of America series (some of which are slowly being rectified over the past two decades, namely works by women and people of color), there should be enough of a spectrum of American literature provided to make for several in-depth essays.  Hopefully, this reading/reviewing project will help me develop further as a literary critic and as a human being as well.  If this is not the ultimate purpose in testing literary canons and reconstructing my understanding of literary corpora, then what purpose is there to engage with these works at all?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Happy Squirrel Appreciation Day

Be sure to take the time today to appreciate one of nature's most engaging creatures.  Alas, I'll be spending most of the day again in bed, but I did at least get the chance to watch and appreciate one of the many fine squirrels on the property.  And yes, they are watching...

Saturday, January 17, 2015

One of my reviews has been translated and printed in a newspaper's literary supplement section.

Last week, I wrote a review of Serbian writer Zoran Živković's 1998 novella, The Writer.  Živković liked it so much that he asked if I wouldn't mind if it were translated and submitted to the literary supplement section of the Belgrade newspaper Politika.  I said sure, that would be great.  Late last night, Živković sent me this:

Although I have had other essays of mine translated into Portuguese, this is the first time that I have ever had one republished in a newspaper, much less a leading daily.  Just thought I'd share this very cool news with everyone.  And yes, I can understand bits and pieces of the translation. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

New Reading Poll

This one lists the e-ARC releases (and two print books) for upcoming releases (and one recently released) books that I likely shall be reviewing in the next few weeks.  Will be taking reader votes in consideration when choosing which book to read/review next.  Several promising titles here, including some from a few of the most well-known and recognized writers of the past half-century.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Zoran Živković, Pisac/The Writer

Uključio sam kompjuter.

Prethodno sam, naravno, spustio roletnu.  Bio je to deo jutarnjeg rituala, koji je imao praktičnog smisla za vedrih dana, kakav je bio ovaj, ali ne i onda kada bi bilo oblačno.  Svejedno, ja sam je i tada spuštao, sujeverno težeći jedinstvu ambijenta.  Moja radna soba gleda na istok, a ja sedim za stolom naspram velikog prozora, tako da bi me, bez roletne, sunce zaslepljivalo sve tamo negde do podneva, nagoneći me da čkiljim u ekran.  Ovako nisam čkiljio, ali sam zato, zarad ambijenta, naprezao oči  u nepotrebnoj polutami za oblačnih dana.

Roletna, doduše, nije bila sasvim spuštena.  Zaustavio bih je na petnaestak centimetara od donje ivice okvira, kako bi sunce ipak moglo da dopre tamo gde je svakako bilo dobrodošlo:  do osmostranog staklenog suda, smeštenog u prozoru, joji je nekada bio mali akvarijum, a sada je služio kao saksija za skupinu minijaturnih kaktusa, sa belim i ružičastim cvetićima.  Svetlost je, pored toga, dopirala i kroz tanke proreze ismeđu plastičnih rebara zategnute roletne, gradeći u polumraku sobe titrave arabeske.  Čak i da sam sedeo leđima okrenut prozoru, mislim da bih samo radi ove nestalne igre svetlihi tamnih pruga po površinama stvari držao roletnu stalno spuštenu.  Čudnovatom utisku nestvarnosti, koji je tu nastajao i koji je, ko zna zbog čega, veoma podsticajno delovao na mene, doprinosilo je i lelujanje zrnaca prašine u kosim zracima.  Znam da ima pisaca kojima je sasvim svejedno u kakvom okružju stvaraju, ali ja zasigurno ne spadam među takve.  Za mene je ambijent bezmalo sve. (pp. 5-6)

I switched on the computer.

First I pulled down the Venetian blind, of course.  That was part of my morning ritual, and on sunny days like this one it had a practical function.  Nevertheless, I also pull it down on cloudy days, superstitiously striving to maintain the ambiance.  My study looks to the east, and my desk faces a large window, so that, without the blind, I would have to squint and scowl until noon to see anything on the screen.  This way there's no need to squint, but on cloudy days, for the sake of maintaining the ambiance, I strain my eyes in unnecessary semidarkness.

Not that I pull it all the way down.  I leave a gap of about fifteen centimeters above the windowsill, so that sunshine reaches the area where it is definitely welcome:  an eight-sided glass vessel, set in the window.  That vessel, formerly a small aquarium, has been converted to serve as a flowerpot for a group of miniature cactuses, the kind with very small pink and white flowers.  Light also slants through the narrow slits between the horizontal plastic bars, creating shimmering arabesques in the dusky air of the room.  Even if I sat with my back to the window, I think I would keep the blind down at such times of the day just to enjoy the transient play of bright and dark stripes on objects in the room.  The peculiar impression of unreality thus created, one which (for reasons unknown to me) I find very stimulating, is enhanced by dust motes floating in the air, caught by diagonal beams of light.  I know that some writers are not at all influenced by their immediate surroundings.  For me, the ambient mood is almost everything. (pp. 3-4, translated by Alice Copple-Tošić)

The beginning to Zoran Živković's 1998 novella, Pisac (The Writer), is in many ways typical of his writing.  There rarely are flashy, attention-grabbing moments in these introductory paragraphs.  Rather, almost the inverse is true, as he frequently begins with the most mundane of events (here, the simple powering up of a computer) before some peculiar trait of the narrator sends the narrative careening off into something remarkable.  Ambiance, as the anonymous narrator notes, is almost everything when it comes to Živković's stories and this is especially true for The Writer, the first of a triptych of stories that involves the writer-text-reader semantic triangle.

Plot may not seem to be a primary emphasis, yet The Writer depends heavily upon the intricate placing of narrative developments.  As the writer tries to compose a tale, his dependency upon shades of light and darkness takes on several forms throughout the novella.  His musings about his difficulties (a theme that Živković would revisit in several other stories, each time with a different permutation) are stacked upon each other, creating a catalog of issues that somehow, in their seemingly digressive fashion, manages to suck the reader into considering them at hand.  This meticulous assembly of the conundrums the writer faces may not appear at first to be akin to a crime novelist's revelations of clues, yet there is a certain familial relationship in how each is presented to the reader.  Živković's carefulness in parsing out of information related to the writer and his attempts to write pays dividends by story's end.

Characterization is also surprisingly well-done, considering the paucity of characters (two) and the amount of time devoted to exploring the narrator/writer's internal thoughts and actions.  With precise wording (the English translation does a good job of capturing the essence of the Serbian original, although at several points the sentence structure had to be broken in order to preserve more of the narrative's "ambiance"), Živković creates quirky, obsessive characters whose occasional single-mindedness leads to some amusing scenes, such as the pseudo-Freudian interrogation of the writer's childhood by the writer's so-called friend (himself a writer of sorts, albeit a possibly deluded one).  These oddball moments add a levity to the narrative that makes it as much a story about humanity as it is about the addictive art of literary composition.

As hinted at above, Živković's prose, in both the original and in translation, is nearly pitch-perfect.  He is a writer who creates "atmospheric" settings that feel simultaneously plausible and utterly strange.  He never rushes the development of setting, events, or characters, yet his narratives (and this is especially true here, as The Writer is around 30 pages in the omnibus The Writer/The Book/The Reader translation published by PS Publishing) are very compact, with almost no wasted space or energy.  Yet there is a sense of grandness behind this intimate story that belies its brevity.  The result is a story that is simple in its presentation and yet very nuanced in its details.

The Writer, as one of Živković's earlier works, can almost be seen as an ur-text of sorts for his later writings.  The structure of the narrative, beginning and ending with simple, mundane actions, along with the character type of the narrator, is seen, at least in glimpses, multiple times in his latter works.  Yet here (as well as in most of his other tales), these familiar elements do not equate to staid stories, as there is always some unique element (perhaps a different mental train of thoughts from a common point, or a more or less fantastical component) that makes each story different from each other.  Certainly The Writer is a well-written story in its own right; it is merely a bonus to see certain connections between it and Živković's latter works that enrich both.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Three Upcoming Reviews This Weekend

Bben a bit busy the past couple of days, but I have three reviews that I hope to have published here by Sunday:

1.  Zoran Živković, Pisac/The Writer (part of a triptych in English translation; standalone in Serbian).

2.  Andrés Neuman, El viajero del siglo (2009 Premio Alfaguara winner).

3.  Megan Mayhew Bergman, Almost Famous Women.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A little something I'm working on now

Working on a first draft translation of these seven paragraphs to add to the ones I've already done in my translation of Roberto Arlt's "El Jorobadito" ("The Little Hunchback"):

Pero de este extremo al otro, en el que me colocan mis irreductibles enemigos, media una igual distancia de mentira e incomprensión. Mis detractores aseguran que soy un canalla monstruoso, basando esta afirmación en mi jovialidad al comentar ciertos actos en los que he intervenido, como si la jovialidad no fuera precisamente la prueba de cuán excelentes son las condiciones de mi carácter y qué comprensivo y tierno al fin y al cabo.

Por otra parte, si hubiera que tamizar mis actos, ese tamiz a emplearse debería llamarse Sufrimiento. Soy un hombre que ha padecido mucho. No negaré que dichos padecimientos han encontrado su origen en mi exceso de sensibilidad, tan agudizada que cuando me encontraba frente a alguien he creído percibir hasta el matiz del color que tenían sus pensamientos, y lo más grave es que no me he equivocado nunca. Por el alma del hombre he visto pasar el rojo del odio y el verde del amor, como a través de la cresta de una nube los rayos de luna más o menos empalidecidos por el espesor distinto de la masa acuosa. Y personas hubo que me han dicho:

-¿Recuerda cuando usted, hace tres años, me dijo que yo pensaba en tal cosa? No se equivocaba.

He caminado así, entre hombres y mujeres, percibiendo los furores que encrespaban sus instintos y los deseos que envaraban sus intenciones, sorprendiendo siempre en las laterales luces de la pupila, en el temblor de los vértices de los labios y en el erizamiento casi invisible de la piel de los párpados, lo que anhelaban, retenían o sufrían. Y jamás estuve más solo que entonces, que cuando ellos y ellas eran transparentes para mí. De este modo, involuntariamente, fui descubriendo todo el sedimento de bajeza humana que encubren los actos aparentemente más leves, y hombres que eran buenos y perfectos para sus prójimos, fueron, para mí, lo que Cristo llamó sepulcros encalados. Lentamente se agrió mi natural bondad convirtiéndome en un sujeto taciturno e irónico. Pero me voy apartando, precisamente, de aquello a lo cual quiero aproximarme y es la relación del origen de mis desgracias. Mis dificultades nacen de haber conducido a la casa de la señora X al infame corcovado.

En la casa de la señora X yo "hacía el novio" de una de las niñas. Es curioso. Fui atraído, insensiblemente, a la intimidad de esa familia por una hábil conducta de la señora X, que procedió con un determinado exquisito tacto y que consiste en negarnos un vaso de agua para poner a nuestro alcance, y como quien no quiere, un frasco de alcohol. Imagínense ustedes lo que ocurriría con un sediento. Oponiéndose en palabras a mis deseos. Incluso, hay testigos. Digo esto para descargo de mi conciencia. Más aún, en circunstancias en que nuestras relaciones hacían prever una ruptura, yo anticipé seguridades que escandalizaron a los amigos de la casa. Y es curioso. Hay muchas madres que adoptan este temperamento, en la relación que sus hijas tienen con los novios, de manera que el incauto -si en un incauto puede admitirse un minuto de lucidez- observa con terror que ha llevado las cosas mucho más lejos de lo que permitía la conveniencia social.

Y ahora volvamos al jorobadito para deslindar responsabilidades. La primera vez que se presentó a visitarme en mi casa, lo hizo en casi completo estado de ebriedad, faltándole el respeto a una vieja criada que salió a recibirlo y gritando a voz en cuello de manera que hasta los viandantes que pasaban por la calle podían escucharle:

-¿Y dónde está la banda de música con que debían festejar mi hermosa presencia? Y los esclavos que tienen que ungirme de aceite, ¿dónde se han metido? En lugar de recibirme jovencitos con orinales, me atiende una vieja desdentada y hedionda. ¿Y ésta es la casa en la cual usted vive?
One interesting challenge, looking back at what I did back in 2013-2014, is going to be conveying in English the sort of affected voice the narrator has without it appearing to be stilted.  I sense multiple rewrites in the weeks to come (I aim to have the complete first draft completed around the end of the month).  Should be a rewarding one, though, even if I'm uncertain if I could ever get my translation published elsewhere once I'm done with revisions (the author's works are now in public domain, or else I wouldn't even be posting these excerpts for translation online).

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

December 2014 Reads

Read a lot in December, 71 books in all.  One of my most prolific reading months.  Managed to achieve my main reading goals this year, although it took some effort when it came to reading works in Portugese.  Typing this on my iPad, so any formatting errors can be attributed to that.  Here's the list:

337  Ron Rash, Something Rich and Strange (already reviewed)

338  Dorthy Tse, Snow and Shadow (already reviewed)

339  Jennifer Marie Brissett, Elysium (already reviewed)

340  Elena Poniatowska, La piel del cielo (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

341  S. Yizhar, Khirbet Khizeh (already reviewed)

342  Nuruddin Farah, Hiding in Plain Sight (already reviewed)

343  Tomás Eloy Martínez, El vuelo de la reina (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

344  José Saramago, O Homem Duplicado (Portuguese; very good)

345  J.R.R. Tolkien, El retorno del rey (Spanish; already reviewed)

346  J.R.R. Tolkien, Povratak kralja (Serbo-Croatian; already reviewed)

347  J.R.R. Tolkien, Le seigneur des anneaux (French; already reviewed)

348  J.R.R. Tolkien,  Il signore deli anelli (Italian; already reviewed)

349  J.R.R. Tolkien, O Senhor dos Anéis (Portuguese; already reviewed)

350  Moacyr Scliar, Guerra no Bom Fim (re-read; Portuguese; very good)

351  Clarice Lispector, A hora da estrela (re-read; Portuguese; very good)

352  Clarice Lispector, Laços de Família (re-read; Portuguese; very good)

353  Italo Calvino, Perché leggere I classici (Italian; non-fiction; excellent)

354  Nina Allan, The Race (already reviewed)

355  Santiago Roncagliolo, Abril rojo (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

356  Margaret Killjoy, A Country of Ghosts (already reviewed)

357  Leopoldo Brizuela, Una misma noche (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

358  Adriana Lisboa, O coração as veces parca de bater (Portuguese; very good)

359  Leonardo Sciascia, Una storia semplice (Italian; very good)

360  Leonardo Sciascia, Il mare colore del vino (re-read; Italian; very good)

361  Leonardo Sciascia, Il giorno della civetta (Italian; good)

362  Erri de Luca, Montedidio (re-read; Italian; excellent)

363  Dacia Maraini, L'età del malessere (Italian; very good)

364  José Saramago, A segunda vida de Francisco Assis (re-read; Portuguese; good)

365  Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (already reviewed)

366  Christopher Beha, Arts & Entertainment (already reviewed)

367  Mariano Villarreal (ed.), Terra Nova 3 (Spanish; already reviewed)

368  Jay Lake, Last Plane to Heaven (already reviewed)

369  Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Stairs (already reviewed)

370  Denis Johnson, The Laughing Monsters (already reviewed)

371  Pagu, Parque Industrial (Portuguese; good)

372  Rachel de Queiroz, O Quinze (Portuguese; good)

373  José Saramago, Claraboia (re-read; Portuguese; very good)

374  Nancy Rose, The Secret Life of Squirrels (the squirrels say this is THE book you better read or else!)

375  Lydie Salvayre, Pas pleurer (French; Prix Goncourt winner; already reviewed)

376  Clarice Lispector, Aprendendo a viver (Portuguese; very good)

377  Dacia Maraini, Bagheria (Italian; very good)

378  Elsa Morante, Aracoeli (Italian; very good)

379  Elsa Morante, Racconti dimenticati (Italian; very good)

380  Anna Maria Ortese, Il mare non bagna Napoli (Italian; good)

381  Dacia Maraini, Buio (re-read; Italian; Premio Strega winner; very good)

382  Victor Hugo, Les Misérables III (French; may review in near future)

383  Natalia Ginzburg, Lessico famigliare (re-read; Italian; Premio Strega winner; very good)

384  Mario de Andrade, Macunaíma (Portuguese; very good)

385  Oswald de Andrade, Serafin ponte grande (Portuguese; good)

386  Annie Ernaux, L'événement (re-read; French; excellent)

387  Xavier Velasco, Diablo Guardián (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

388  Luis Leante, Mira si yo te querré (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

389  Antonio Orlando Rodríguez, Chiquita (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

390 Andrés Neuman, El viajero del siglo (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; review shortly)

391  C. Alberto Bessa, Poética efêmera:  Poemas Reunidos (re-read; Portuguese; good)

392  Annie Ernaux, Une femme (re-read; French; very good)

393  Marguerite Duras, L'Amant (re-read; French; very good)

394  Marie de France, Lais de Marie de France (bilingual Old and Modern French; very good)

395  Álvaro Pacheco, Seleção de Poemas (Portuguese; very good)

396  Sergio Ramírez, Margarita, está linda la mar (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

397  Eliseo Alberto, Caracol Beach (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

398  Rachel de Queiroz, Memorial de Maria Moura (Portuguese; good)

399  Luís de Camões, Selected Sonnets (re-read; bilingual English and Portuguese; poetry; excellent)

400  Carlos Nejar, Arvore do mundo (Portuguese; very good)

401  Jorge Amado, Dona Flor e seus dois maridos (Portuguese; good)

402  Madeleine Chapsal, Trous de mémoire (French; non-fiction; good)

403  Moacyr Scliar, O exército de um homem só (re-read; Portuguese; good)

404  Giacomo Leopardi, Canti (re-read; Italian; poetry; very good)

405  Margaret Mazzantini, Non ti muovere (re-read; Italian; Premio Strega winner; good)

406  Maryse Condé, Moi, Tituba sorcière... (French; very good)

407  Jeff VanderMeer, Aceptación (Spanish; already reviewed the English original)

Final 2014 Reading Goals/Tallies:

Spanish:  60/50 (surpassed goal by 10 books; 13 read this month)

French:  52/50 (surpassed goal by 2 books; 9 read this month)

Italian:  52/50 (surpassed goal by 2 books; 15 read this month)

Portuguese:  52/50 (surpassed goal by 2 books; 20 read this month)

Women writers:  144/407 (surpassed 35% goal by .38%; 28/71 read this month, or 39.4%)

It was great to be able to average a book a week in each of the four languages listed above (in addition, I finished eight books in Serbian/Croatian (I consider them to be dialects of the same literary language) and one each in Polish, Latin, and Romanian (each of these read with another translation, although I can read Latin more or less without extensive use of the dictionary).  This makes the total non-English-language count 227/407, or 55.77% of my total reads for 2014.  First time since 2006 that the majority of my yearly reads were in a language other than English.

And that wraps it up for 2014 and its reads.  I'm fairly certain 2015 will be different, not least because I'm not going to try to replicate the 50x4 language reading challenge again.  Maybe the squirrels will, or maybe they just want me to learn their native language better?

Monday, January 05, 2015

Interesting article on "canon"

I've been thinking of writing on this topic for a while (more later this week), but Matt Cheney has a great take on the tricky issue of literary canon that I think many readers here would enjoy.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days

Highgate, London, November 1985 

This morning I found a black-and-white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer.  He didn't look like a liar.  My mother, Ute, had removed the other pictures of him from the albums she kept on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, and shuffled around all the remaining family and baby snapshots to fill in the gaps.  The framed picture of their wedding, which used to sit on the mantelpiece, had gone too.

On the back of the photograph, Ute had written James und seine Busenfreunde mit Oliver, 1976 in her steady handwriting.  It was the last picture that had been taken of my father.  He looked shockingly young and healthy, his face as smooth and white as a river pebble.  He would have been twenty-six, nine years older than I am today. (pp. 7-8, e-ARC edition)

Every once in a while, there will be a news item about the abduction of a child by a relative.  Sometimes, the reasons are as mundane as anger over a divorce/custody settlement, but occasionally there is something much more bizarre about it.  Perhaps the relative (often a father or uncle, but occasionally a mother) is involved in a cult, or possibly there is a doomsday survivalist angle to it.  Regardless of the specific details, the stranger stories are the ones that capture the public's attention, especially when the child escapes or is returned to the wider world after years in seclusion.

In Claire Fuller's debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, she narrates this abduction story from the viewpoint of a then-eight-year-old girl, Peggy, whose father, James, has taken her from her English home while her German-born mother, Ute, is off on a concert tour.  Moving back and forth in time from the late 1970s to 1985, when she is returned to civilization, Fuller explores just how a young child might adapt to being thrust into a primitive world in which she is told her mother and all of civilization has been destroyed in a cataclysm and that she must learn how to survive with the help of her father.

Fuller does an excellent job in developing Peggy's character and the situation in which she finds herself, both in her initial exposure to the wild and later in the flash-forward chapters where she is trying to reintegrate herself into modern society.  Fuller utilizes detailed, vivid descriptions to great effect, such as this scene near the middle of the novel in which Peggy's father takes her out of their "die Hütte" into the greater, snow-covered wilderness deep in a German forest:

I clung to him with my arms and legs and we went outside.  It made me feel strange to think there was no one left to see us emerge from die Hütte into the snow; no one to wonder at this new double creature – a PapaPunzel.  Our two-legged, two-headed body lumbered into the clearing.

"This whole wonderful world is yours and mine, Punzel.  Everything you can see is ours.  Beyond the Fluss, over the hill" – he pointed in that direction – "there's nothing.  If you carried on over the top, you'd fall off the edge into a never-ending blackness.  Ptarrr!"  He loosened his grip on me.
I shrieked as I felt a lurch with the drop of my body, before he caught me again.

He laughed at my fright and then became serious.  "And the same with the mountain."  He turned, running his outstretched arm in a semicircle, taking in all the places I knew:  the forest, the clearing, the cabin, and the rocky slope up to the summit.  We both looked up to the sharp line slicing through the white sky.  "On the other side there is only emptiness, an awful place that has eaten everything except our own little kingdom."

"What's it called?"  I asked in an awed whisper.

He paused, and I thought it was because even the name must be too terrible to speak.  At last he said, "The Great Divide.  And you must promise never to go there.  I couldn't survive without you.  We're a team, you and I, aren't we?"(p. 187-188 e-ARC edition)

Here can be seen both the daughter's credulous wonder at this wintry expedition and her father's manipulations.  Although there are places where the reader can anticipate later plot developments, Fuller does such a good job in laying out Peggy's inner emotions that even when situations occur much as what one might expect based on the narrative, there really is not an urge to skim through to the "present" sections because the prose is so well-developed that it makes the reader want to linger over certain passages, re-reading them again for the full effect.

There are few weaknesses evident.  Perhaps at times too much is described or, conversely, a few moments that could have used a little more exposition.  These, however, are few in number and they do not affect the overall narrative flow.  As stated above, Fuller excels at writing descriptive prose through the eyes of a child, one who is not aware at first just how traumatized she has become, both by the initial abduction and her eventual return to society.  Peggy's deceptively complex character provides a perspective to the narrated events that readers might not have anticipated, based on their familiarity with abduction/rescue tales.  Our Endless Numbered Days is a very strong debut, one that readers of various genres should appreciate reading.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Kelly Link, Get in Trouble

Kelly Link has been one of my favorite short fiction writers ever since I read her debut collection, Stranger Things Happen, back in 2003.  There is something about her fiction that is hard to describe as a common thread, yet when reading individual stories, so frequently there comes a moment, often a twist of scene or turn of phrase, that makes that story easily identifiable as "a Kelly Link story."  Certainly there is a continuation of theme and narrative style across her three previous collection and it does crop up in her latest collection, Get in Trouble (due to be released in February).

Get in Trouble's nine stories (oddly, the ninth, "The Lesson," was left off of my e-ARC) often begin with a sentence that seems so outlandish, so off-center, that the reader is compelled to pay closer attention to what is transpiring.  For example, here is the beginning to "The Summer People":

Fran's daddy woke her up wielding a mister.  "Fran," he said, spritzing her like a wilted houseplant.  "Fran, honey.  Wakey wakey."
It is an interesting simile, which is immediately contrasted with descriptions of Fran's suffering from the flu ("head was stuffed with boiled wool and snot").  There is a deceptively simple narrative style, one that at times feels as though it were being narrated by a precocious child, in which the mundane and the weird are conflated, with no discernible boundaries between the twain.  This certainly is played up to great effect in "The Summer People," in which a seemingly ordinary, albeit slightly off-beat, father and daughter interaction ends up careening in a new, unexpected direction.  From a child's perspective, matters of heaven and hell might be as frightening as a thunderstorm or a lightning burst, but for adults reading this story, there are some startlingly frightful moments that seem to have been lurking just beneath the narrative surface before they quickly pop up.  However, what is really striking about "The Summer People," and by extension the majority of the other stories, is that Link elects to leave several narrative mysteries intact.  On occasion, these lack of narrative resolutions can be a bit frustrating, but in this story and the majority of the tales, these messy conclusions add to the narrative impact rather than detract from them.

A similar pattern can be seen with the second story, "I Can See Right Through You," which begins with this memorable paragraph:

When the sex tape happened and things went south with Fawn, the demon lover did what he always did.  He went to cry on Meggie's shoulder.  Girls like Fawn came and went, but Meggie would always be there.  Him and Meggie.  It was the talisman you kept in your pocket.  The one you couldn't lose.

Yet despite this similarly strange beginning, "I Can See Right Through You" differs in certain key respects from "The Summer People."  The tale is more risque, slightly erotic, yet this tale of faded fame feels more introspective than anything else.  It could almost be a tale of a woman or man in a mid-life crisis, if it weren't for the ghosts and demon lover.  Their presence alters the narrative, making it both a reflective tale and a social commentary that references both Perez Hilton and the supernatural.  Link manages to strike a fine balance between the whimsical and the serious here, as each time it seems the story might be getting too silly, there is a sobering reference to addictions or suicide to restore a morose balance.

This mixture of playfulness and direct, forthright accounts of lives altered is present, more or less, in the other stories.  At times, such as in the Wizard of Oz-related "Origin Story," it almost becomes a bit too odd, although seeing a reference to a superhero called "Mann Man," with all the powers of Thomas Mann, did crack me up a bit.  The only real shortcomings of Get in Trouble, besides the over familiarity that some readers might have with the narrative arcs, concern the collection's length.  It just feels like there should have been even more delightfully weird tales here and that perhaps there could have been an even greater variety in narrative styles.  However, this is akin to complaining that a bowl of delicious butter pecan ice cream is lacking because there is no chocolate present and that it isn't a gallon-full of churned ice cream.  For its relatively short size, Get in Trouble is a testimony to just how reliably good Link is as a writer, as the vast majority of these stories deliver on the promises made with their opening lines.  The year is young, but it may be one of the better collections released in a year that already is full of promising writers' debut collections.

Friday, January 02, 2015

A few reviewish things for this weekend

Although I only just finished my Best of 2014 posts earlier this week, I already have a couple of books that I'm going to be reviewing this weekend.  First up will be Kelly Link's upcoming collection, Get in Trouble, followed by Sait Faik Abasıyanık's A Useless Man:  Selected Stories (it comes out on Tuesday; the Link in early February).  I also hope to review Andrés Neuman's 2009 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel, Traveler of the Century, which will finish off my delayed 2014 goal of reviewing all of the previous/current Premio Alfaguara winners.

Doing well so far with my fitness goals, as I've either walked or exercised for 45 minutes+ each of the two days of this new year so far.  Will do some minor translation work tomorrow as well.

I have lots to do before Squirrel Appreciation Day arrives on the 21st!

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2015 Releases I Plan on Reading and Reviewing

Since the 2014 edition turned out nicely, with an eventual 165 books listed by late December that each received some form of review, I thought I would do something similar (albeit on a likely smaller scale, since I likely won't have as much money for purchasing books this year, although I do plan on utilizing my Netgalley and Edelweiss accounts much more in requesting e-ARCs) for 2015.  This list will start small and I'll add to it as more upcoming releases are announced.


Okey Ndibe, Arrows of Rain (2015 US release)

Dimitry Elias Léger, God Loves Haiti 

Sait Faik Abasıyanık, A Useless Man:  Selected Stories

Megan Mayhew Bergman, Almost Famous Women

Sarah Gerard, Binary Star

Thomas Pierce, Hall of Small Mammals

Stewart O'Nan, West of Sunset

Miranda July, The First Bad Man 

Michael Christie, If I Fall, If I Die

Rachel Cusk, Outline

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, The Rabbit Back Literature Society

Joyce Carol Oates, The Sacrifice


Kelly Link, Get in Trouble

Jim Harrison, The Big Seven

John Benditt, The Boatmaker

Sandra Newman, The Country of Ice Cream Star

Coralie Bickford-Smith (ed.), Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange

Laura van den Berg, Find Me 

Mark Doten, The Infernal

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods were Sleeping (US release)

Jonathan Lethem, Lucky Alan and Other Stories


Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant

Kirstin Valdez Quade, Night at the Fiestas

Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days

Fatima Bhutto, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

Christian Kiefer, The Animals


Marian Palaia, The Given World 

Antonio Tabucchi, Time Ages in a Hurry

Michal Lemberger, After Abel and Other Stories

Toni Morrison, God Help the Child

Jane Smiley, Early Warning


Anne Enright, The Green Road

Joyce Carol Oates, Jack of Spades

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins

Mark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar, Volume 1:  One Rainy Day

Mat Johnson, Loving Day

Brian Catling, The Vorrh

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds.), Sisters of the Revolution:  A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology


Judy Blume, In The Unlikely Event

Mia Alvar, In the Country

Milan Kundera, The Festival of Insignificance (read it in French)


William T. Vollmann, The Dying Grass

Jesse Ball, A Cure for Suicide

Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest

Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman


China Miéville, Three Moments of an Explosion

Angélica Gorodischer, Prodigies (already read in Spanish)


Garth Risk Hallberg, City on Fire


Steven Erikson, Fall of Light


Ludmila Ulitskaya, The Big Green Tent

Umberto Eco, Numero Zero (Italian edition came out in January; also read in Spanish translation)

2015 Goals

Unlike previous years, I aim to make 2015 a simpler year for me in terms of goals.  No wait, actually, I'm going to have fewer goals, but these might prove to be very difficult to accomplish.

I did fairly well with my goals in 2014.  I aimed to read at least 50 books each in Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese.  I finished with 60 read in Spanish, and 52 each in French, Italian, and Portuguese.  Combined with around a half-dozen in other languages (mostly read via parallel comparisons with English translations), over 54% of my total reads in 2014 were in languages other than English.

I also read 144 books (co-)written or (co-)edited by women this year, or 35.38% of the total books read.  I had set my modest goal at 35% (knowing it would be relatively more difficult to read a larger percentage in non-English books, due to limitations on how I could acquire those books), so it was nice to achieve this.

I almost achieved my goal of reviewing the remaining Premio Alfaguara winners that I hadn't reviewed by year's beginning.  I finished re-reading the last book yesterday morning, but I didn't have enough time before bed to write a coherent review and I barely had enough time to finish writing my last two Best of 2014 posts before leaving for work.  I will, however, write that review sometime this weekend.  I did read/re-read all 25 winners, in both incarnations of the award, and certainly plan on reviewing the 2015 winner soon after it is available.

But that is 2014.  This now is 2015, and with the new year, comes different goals.  I think I have spent too much time writing as a reviewer and not enough time working on honing my skills as a freelance translator.  Therefore, I have two translation-related goals for 2015:

1)  Post a rough draft prose translation of the rest of Book II of Vergil's Æneid.

I posted my 1994 Intermediate Latin translation notes last year, along with the first 30 lines of Book II that I did from scratch then.  I think another 800 lines or so can be accomplished over the course of the year.

2)  Finish translating an Argentine story collection and see if I could get it published.

Uncertain if copyright stills applies here in the US (author died in the early 1940s and this particular book was never published in the US in any language; it is in public domain in Argentina and elsewhere), but just in case, I'd like to see if I can finish a book-length project and then let the pros read it and weigh in, if they so choose.  More fun than reading nearly 200 reviews from me this year, right?

There are other goals that will take away from reading/reviewing time, things that are much more important to me than reading another page from any book.  Here they are:

3)  Exercise for at least 45 minutes on 185 days minimum this year.

I've had my fair share of injuries and pain, but I think regular exercise will alleviate some of that, including my chronic bronchitis, which I truly worry will be the death of me.

4)  Walk at least 500 miles as measured on my Nike phone app.

I walked nearly 400 miles in four months in 2012, but fell off the wagon since then due to weird work schedules and leg/back nerve pain.  I'm conditioning myself these next three months to resume walking 5-8 miles/day for 4-5 times/week.

5)  Average at least 1 lb/week weight loss for the year.

Gained nearly 30 lbs. after my back injury, due in part to the steroids I had to take.  I want to lose that and some more.  This is a multi-year goal, as I would eventually like to weigh within 15 lbs. of my high school playing weight by the end of 2016.

But for those who want some reading/reviewing goals, here goes:

6)  Review works by the 2015 Man Booker Prize, National Book Award for Fiction, Premio Alfaguara, Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction, Premio Strega, Prix Médicis, and Prix Goncourt.

Pretty straightforward, no?

7)  Read the entire Les Rougon-Macquart cycle by Emile Zola.

Only twenty books.  Oh, I plan on reading them in French.  No decision yet if I'll review them all, however.

8)  Improve my German reading comprehension.

At some point in the next few years, I hope to be able to visit Central Europe, including one of my cousins in Bavaria, so it'd be nice to work on a language that I used to be able to read a bit back when I was in school in the 1990s.  Might try to work my way through 20 books originally written in German.  Kafka perhaps?

9)  Average writing at least a post a week on my WWI blog.

I neglected it in 2014 in order to complete my ambitious 2014 reading/reviewing goals.  It'll receive much more priority this year.

10)  Review at least five more books by Zoran Živković. 

He was kind enough a few years ago to send me Serbian editions of his works and I'd like to finish reviewing those in the next couple of years.  This also means I plan on working on my reading comprehension of that beautiful language as well.

11)  Teach other reviewers how to effectively utilize rabid Serbian reading squirrels in order to improve the quantity and quality of their writing.

Still working on teaching them how to compose better prose, however.  Maybe by 2016, they will be able to translate and compose fiction as well.

Feasible goals, no?
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