The OF Blog: November 2014

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Four literary awards-nominated novels reviewed

Below are four mini-reviews of books that were either longlisted or shortlisted for the 2014 Premio Strega (Italian) or 2014 Prix Médicis (French).  Due to time constraints, these will be one paragraph summary reviews.  Most, if not all, of these would likely have at least some appeal to English-reading audiences if translated into English:

Donatella di Pietrantonio, Bella Mia (2014 Premio Strega-longlisted title; Italian)

Bella Mia is set in the aftermath of the devastating April 2009 L'Aquila earthquake in central Italy.  Catherine, the protagonist, has survived while her twin sister dies.  Burdened with having to care for her sister's teenage son, Mark, the novel follows the difficult choices Catherine and her new fosterling have to make in clearing the detritus of their own pre-earthquake lives in order to build something new.  di Pietrantonio manages to craft a story that is at once familiar in its contours and yet somehow new and refreshing in its presentation.  While it was not a favorite of mine from the Premio Strega longlist, it certainly was an enjoyable novel to read.

Véronique Bizot, Âme qui vive (2014 Prix Médicis finalist; French)

Out of the eight titles that I read that were either longlisted and/or shortlisted for the 2014 Prix Médicis, I had the most difficulty grasping was was transpiring in Bizot's Âme qui vive.  Although it is only novella length, Bizot has constructed an intricate tale of four men (the narrator being now a mute), yet beyond the sometimes ornate prose stylings, it is her choice of throwing the reader in media res that makes it difficult to follow what is transpiring.  While the language barrier (I read French at an intermediate level now) might have something to do with it, it still seems that there are several narrative obstructions that lie between the reader and making sense of what otherwise seemed to be a moving story.

Pierre Demarty, En face (2014 Prix Médicis, longlisted title; French)

En face was an interesting story, precisely because its protagonist, Jean Nochez, truly is a non-entity:  no scandalous past, odd quirks, or dark secrets that beset him.  It is his seemingly sudden decision to rent a new apartment away from those with whom he has shared a fairly banal existence most of his adult life that provides the impetus for a story that somehow manages to make what would seem to be poor material for a gripping narrative into a story that kept my attention throughout its 156 e-print pages.  It was one of my favorite 2014 Prix Médicis-nominated books and while it did not advance to the finalist stage, it certainly was a book that that I thought was among the finer French-language works I read this year.

Nathalie Kuperman, La loi sauvage (2014 Prix Médicis, longlisted title; French)

La loi sauvage (The Savage Law) begins with a phrase ("Votre fille, c'est une catastrophe."; "Your daughter, she is a disaster.") that compels a mother to descend into a semantical hell of sorts in which all sorts of expressions, past and present, bubble up to the surface of her thoughts as she reexamines just how things have come to this point.  La loi sauvage was one of the more enjoyable works nominated for the 2014 Prix Médicis and like En face, while it was not chosen as a finalist for the award, it too was one of the more enjoyable French-language works published this year.  Kuperman's prose is exquisite and her characterizations are spot-on.  Simply put, this is a novel that I'll revisit in the years to come.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Weekend review plans (or rather, Sunday plans)

Been battling a severe cold these past couple of days (thus the short posts), but I hope to have the time Sunday afternoon/evening to write at least one mini-review roundup and maybe two.  I certainly will write one-paragraph reviews of 4-5 foreign language works (Italian, French, and maybe Portuguese) and if I have time/energy permitting, I'll write another mini-review post for some recent short story collections read.

Hopefully by Monday I'll be closer to full health; it was irritating having to cut short my workout Friday late night due to nausea caused by sinus drippage into my lungs.

Friday, November 28, 2014

New poll now up

This one deals with perceptions involving post-apocalyptic/dystopic stories, whether they be cinema, TV, or books.  Thought I'd post one sooner than five months after the previous one expired...

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Steven Erikson, Willful Child

"SPACE... it's fucking big.

"These are the voyages of the starship Willful Child.  It's ongoing mission:  to seek out strange new worlds on which to plant the Terran flag, to subjugate and if necessary obliterate new life-forms, to boldly blow the –" 


Hadrian spun in his chair.  "Ah, my first commander, I presume."

The woman standing before him saluted.  "Halley Sin-Dour, sir, reporting for duty."

"Welcome aboard!" (p. 21)

Parodical satires are very tricky to execute, as they depend upon an audience being not just aware of the source material being lampooned, but that the readers will be amenable to seeing something that they perhaps love being presented in a fashion that highlights (and exaggerates for comic effect) that source material's worst faults and excesses.  If not executed well, the parody can come across as stale and rather unfunny, while the satirical elements will be tone-deaf and devoid of any real interest for erstwhile readers.  It is a fine line for a writer to walk and several have failed at this.

Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to review Steven Erikson's take on the original Star Trek TV/movie series, Willful Child.  Although I am these days not much of a SF reader or viewer, when I was a teenager, I did enjoy watching re-runs of the original series (and saw some of Star Trek:  The Next Generation in first-run syndication, but that show always felt a bit "cold" for me and I stopped watching before I finished high school in 1992).  Reflecting back on those re-runs of a show made nearly a quarter-century before I watched them in the mid-to-late 1980s, there were quite a few cringeworthy elements that I failed to recognize when I was younger:  the casual sexism (namely Kirk as having a different love interest nearly every other episode and how many female officers were treated more as objects of Kirk's flirtations than as competent officers), the rather cavalier approach toward other ethnicities/humanoid species, the occasional descent into Cold War parallels and despite creator Gene Roddenberry's claims of promoting a more egalitarian society, storylines that felt a bit too jingoistic at times.  Although these elements in isolation do not weaken fatally the original series' appeal, their existence certainly indicates troublesome areas that could be exploited in a well-constructed satire.

Erikson certainly has the ability to accentuate these shortcomings through comedic exaggerations and subtle shifts in character voice and action.  Although not as prevalent in his main Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy series, in his shorter fiction set in that world, Erikson demonstrated a talent for devising witty repartee that skewered certain socio-cultural beliefs without coming across as too crass or unsubtle in its presentation.  However, in Willful Child, while there are numerous moments where I almost chortled reading a fierce parody of current socio-cultural concerns (such as a reference to social media and its effects on mood and perceptions of intelligence and ability to associate well with others), occasionally it felt too thickly laid upon, as though the gags were so funny in the author's mind that he repeats them too much for the liking of some readers such as myself.

Although there is the foundation for a strong narrative story arc in Willful Child, it is sometimes hampered by Erikson's repetitive and almost redundant references to the original Star Trek universe.  While some of this is going to be necessary in order to make clearer the ridiculousness of a character such as James T. Kirk (or Hadrian Alan Sawback here) and the attitudes expressed by such a personage, the gags at times impede the reader enjoying the underlying dialogue between the original source material and the social commentary being made through this satirical parody.  Sometimes less is more and there were times where it felt that if Erikson had dialed back the comedic elements just a bit more, let the story unfold just a bit more on its own before hitting the reader with the inherent contradictions and questionable motivations behind the characters' actions, that not only would the core storyline be more interesting, but that the satirical elements would have had even more bite to them, as the reader would have been sucked into the story just a bit more before being waylaid by the sudden vicious gutpunches of these satirical elements.

This is not to say that Willful Child is a poor, unimaginative work.  As I noted above, there were several moments that made me chuckle a bit because I got the in-joke and thought the "bite" behind those jokes was sharp and occasionally unsettling to consider at length.  However, there were also numerous times where it just felt to be a bit too much, that the jokes lost their effectiveness because they were so commonplace.  Willful Child is a flawed novel, albeit one that contains enough laugh-aloud moments that those who have enjoyed Erikson's other works and who have at least a passing familiarity with the original Star Trek series may find this to be a book well worth reading.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

David Soares and André Coelho, Sepulturas dos Pais

For the past four years now, I have championed Portuguese writer David Soares as one of the most talented writers in the Lusophone literary/SF/horror worlds who has not yet been translated into English.  His novels demonstrate an author who is comfortable with switching between genres, as his prose is rich and yet not overly florid, filled with intriguing characters, many of whom seem to be unaware of how close they are to symbolic precipices.  I have reviewed two of his works, the historical/magical The Gospel of the Hanged and the graphic novel Palms for the Squirrel, and while each differs significantly in format, genre, and presentation, each are fascinating, slightly unsettling works that capture the reader's attention.

With his latest graphic novel, Sepulturas dos Pais (The Fathers' Sepulchres is a fairly literal translation; Tombs of the Fathers is another), Soares and illustrator André Coelho have created another memorable story.  Although it is relatively short at roughly 60 pages, Sepulturas dos Pais tells a story of loss and imagination, of love and despair, all of which shift and shimmer on the sands of an unnamed shore.  The story begins with a middle-aged man, Borges, telling to a then-unknown audience his story, beginning with his childhood, when his father dies and is, by custom, buried at sea (the women of the village are buried in the sands).  He speaks of "moving sands" among the sea dunes and of the legends surrounding them, legends that the reader quickly comes to realize are real, or at least in the mind of Borges.

We see Borges' first encounter with these "moving sands" after he traces an image on the shore after fleeing his house after seeing his widowed mother with another man.  Sex, both fully consentual and coerced, is a dominant element in this tale and through the women that Borges encounters, we see variations on this.  Soares does an excellent job in tying sexual desire and actions, positive and negative alike, to Borges' "moving sands."  Often the scenes, thanks to Coelho's vividly-drawn illustrations, are graphic, as the reader is forced to confront those fine lines between full consent and coercion, that are too frequently crossed in relationships, particularly between a woman who seeks love and discovers that young men's lust confounds affection, despising it while simultaneously taking affection's physical manifestations for selfish uses.  Janeiro, a young woman who Borges encounters on the shore after a particular nocturnal tryst with two young men who humiliate her with their sexual acts upon her, comes to be a center of the story.  It is her relationship with Borges, in stark contrast to that with the two young men, that forms the core of the story, providing a concrete parallel to the legends Borges narrates after the fact regarding the burial places of men and women.

The story unfolds at a rapid but never hurried pace, yet both author and illustrator manage to make it feel as though a great deal is transpiring in those scenes.  The "moving sands" move through these encounters between Borges and Janeiro, creating imaginative backdrops that underscore the emotional and physical attachments taking place.  Yet there is a tragedy waiting to unfold and both Soares and Coelho manage to capture it eloquently in both prose and image.  By the time I read the final panel, I felt a brief sort of aching commiseration, as the things lost served to remind me of the things gained over the course of this beautifully tragic story.  Sepulturas dos Pais is another strong tale by a very talented writer.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Planning out my Best of 2014 lists

Although it'll be another four weeks or so before I begin posting my Best of 2014 articles, I've already had to begin laying out some of the parameters for this year's edition.  I have made my job easier and harder by deciding to review virtually every 2014 release that I have read.  Easier in that I have a ready-made set of links to post for those titles that I discuss in various posts on translated works, disappointing releases, short story collections/anthologies, etc., harder in that I have to have some record of my thoughts on each and every work written before compiling the lists.  While I'll whittle down the list of nearly 50 unwritten reviews over the next three weeks or so by writing a series of compilation reviews that'll contain 1-2 paragraph reviews of three dozen or so of those books, I still have to write over a dozen reviews of 800-1200 words each.

In addition, I still have 16 books left to read, including 4 to purchase.  The former will not be much of a problem to finish (I should finish 5-6 of them by Sunday), but I'll have to wait until early December to buy those 4 books.  So it'll take me until mid-December before I am ready to construct final lists.  In the meantime, I think I'll have the categories from last year, only that due to having read a little over 160 books released this year, the majority of which have made some sort of literary or genre list of good/outstanding releases already, I'll do a two-part Top 50 list.  This should allow for a bit more exposure for some worthy and entertaining releases.

Now to just "encourage" those loyal rabid Serbian reading squirrels to read and write the rest of this for me...

Monday, November 24, 2014


I came to the realization this weekend, while finishing (three months after beginning it) the Upgraded anthology, that I'm just burned out on SF/F and SF/F short fiction in particular.  Although I don't read much "core" SF/F these days, I still feel rather disinterested and rather wearied when I finish reading a SF/F book.  Maybe some of it is just seeing example after example of prose that isn't actively bad, but also isn't is beautifully-written either.  Maybe it's wanting closer connections to characters, especially non-bourgeois character types (yes, even in works written by non-Anglo, non-white, non-male writers, too often the characters felt as though they were expressing middle class sentiments).  Maybe it's just me, maybe I'm just not all that into what is developing in SF/F circles these days.

Whatever it is, when I finish writing these 2014 reviews/mini-reviews, I plan on taking months off from reading any SF/F, especially short fiction.  Come to think of it, maybe a break from reading in general will come as well for a few weeks this winter.  The Bible might say that man cannot live by bread alone, but I'm beginning to think that I can't live well as a human being by reading so much and not doing as much as I did in my late teens and twenties.  Beginning to feel a bit claustrophobic reading online discussions, to be honest.  Maybe that's a contributing factor to this sense of ennui and burnout.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Johanna Sinisalo, The Blood of Angels

The queen is dead.

She's lying in the entrance hole, delicate, fragile, her limbs curled up against her body.

I would recognize it as the queen just by the elongated lower body and clearly larger size compared to the worker bees, but there is also a little spot of colour on her back – I marked this female with yellow last year when I placed her in the nest.

Much too young to die.

And why had she left the nest to begin with?

I squeeze a puff from the smoker into the hive, but the bees don't come crawling out.  They should be languid, of course, fat and heavy with honey to protect from this imagined forest fire, but there's no movement at all at the entrance.

My heart is racing now.  I put down the smoker and pry the roof off the nest with a hive tool.  I put the roof on the ground and start lifting the honeycombs out of the box one by one and stacking them on top of it.

The workers are gone.

Every one of them. (p. 13)

After a while, post-apocalyptic stories can become rather wearisome to read.  There's a perfunctory explanation, usually some virus or super-pathogen or maybe a deliberate bio-chemical attack by some human group, followed by blah-blah-blah about the fragility of human civilization or how resilient humans truly are in a dire situation.  Even in the cases of a viral/microbe attack, the focus is not so much on how humans are just another animal species in an incredibly complex and interdependent ecosystem, but rather on human agency and how humans can overcome even their own proclivities for destruction.  It's just a bit too much to presume that any future collapse of human civilizations is going to be the central part of any biological calamity.

Therefore, it was with great interest that I ordered a copy of Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo's The Blood of Angels.  Recently translated into English by Lola Rogers, it was my first time reading this acclaimed writer's fiction in novel format.  The Blood of Angels actively works against several of the presumptions I listed above that are found in other stories of collapse and disorder.  Set in contemporary Finland, it begins with an amateur beekeeper, Orvo, discovering that two of his hives have been abandoned inexplicably, with queens dead and the brood still encased in their protective layers.  Immediately, he think of three dread words that have been uttered more and more frequently by beekeepers worldwide:  Colony Collapse Disorder.

This, coupled with his grieving for the recent death of his eco-warrior son, Eero, leads Orvo to investigate matters further.  In an attic in a nearby barn, he makes a surprising discovery:  a pathway to a parallel world, one in which the slowly spreading ecological disaster caused by the near-total extinction of European honeybees and the resulting lack of pollination of thousands of plant species vital for vast swathes of human and animal food supply systems may have been checked.  As he explores this parallel world and its connection with bees, he discovers that in most societies, bees at one point or another have been viewed as half-mystical, half-divine messenger animals who had come to represent beliefs in an afterworld and in resurrection.

Sinisalo takes some bold chances here with how she structures the narrative.  Orvo's discoveries, taking place over roughly half a month, are interspersed with blog and journal entries from Eero that detail the important roles that bees play in life, both literally and metaphorically.  At times, Orvo's own narrative arc could have been disrupted or overshadowed by these fascinating recreations of actual research into bee life, but she carefully structures these interludes in a fashion that makes their contents serve as deepening echos of Orvo's chapters.  The result is a very scary look at a very possible near-future reality:  one in which mass malnutrition arises due to the inability to find a replacement for these rapidly dying off bee colonies.  Sinisalo's narrative, especially its blog entries, echoes almost too vividly the warnings in recent years about the actual spread of Colony Collapse Disorder and, in the short asides provided throughout Orvo's chapters, the calamities this causes for all creatures great and small.

The Blood of Angels is one of the best tales of Collapse that I have read this year.  It manages to avoid the egregious mistakes that most post-apocalyptic tales make in focusing overmuch on human agency as a cause and effect of these type of global disasters.  Through its well-constructed mixture of a grieving man's search through a parallel world for clues as to what happened to both his son and to the bees, as well as detailed yet never wearisome scientifically-based blog entries written by the now-dead son, Sinisalo invokes a creeping sense of disorder, one in which the collapse of the orderly bee colonies presages much more than a collapse of human societies.  She manages to maintain this atmosphere throughout The Blood of Angels, making this one of the best written and constructed narratives of Collapse published in English this year.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Short reviews of five books

Below are short, paragraph-length reviews of 2014 releases that I've read but for one reason or another did not have the time nor the desire to pad it out to 600-1000 word-length full reviews.  Many of these books are anthologies or short story collections, and most, if not all, I would recommend with some reservations to readers.  In short, these are the works that most likely will not be featured prominently in my Best of 2014 retrospective posts next month, but some may be worthy of reader attention.

David Hutchinson, Europe in Autumn

Europe in Autumn is a near-future thriller set in a post-EU Europe in which the international quasi-state has fragmented into balkanized mini-states similar to that of the seventeeth century post-Treaty of Westphalia Holy Roman Empire.  Rudi, a courier (someone who conducts semi-legal transnational transports; think a combination of message boy and spy), conducts a series of missions, each of which ultimately delve further into the tangled web of politics and business that has arisen with the demise of the EU.  Hutchinson's strongest with setting and plot, as he deftly weaves interesting situations with vividly-detailed environs.  The characterizations, while solid, are not as successful.  Europe in Autumn is a strong, solid thriller, albeit one that breaks no real new narrative ground.

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

The New Black is a reprint anthology of twenty tales from several of my favorite authors, including Brian Evenson, Roxane Gay, Kyle Minor, and Matt Bell, among others.  I had mixed reactions to the stories included in here, however.  It's not so much that the vast majority of them weren't good or excellent (they were), it was more that the sum felt less than the component parts, as there wasn't much to unify them.  The concept of "noir," especially in its connotation of dark, rough, off-the-cuff style of writing, is not really explored much beyond what each writer chooses to explore; there could have been a stronger editorial direction given that would have allowed readers to make easier, stronger connections between themes found in these diverse stories.  As a sampler of the short fiction of several outstanding literary and genre writers, it is excellent, but it is merely a mediocre themed anthology due to this perceived lack of connecting threads between these strong stories.

Antonya Nelson, Funny Once

I had the pleasure of hearing Nelson read a section from the closing novella to her latest collection, Funny Once, at the 2014 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville this past October.  That story, "Three Wishes," was a sharp, penetrating look at relationships, familial and failed romantic, as seen through the prism of a creative writing course and two students in that class.  I remember laughing several times at scenes she read aloud; this largely occurred also when reading this and the other stories in print.  Funny Once is a very strong collection:  I could point out several stories as being excellent written, plotted, and executed.  I've spent nearly a month trying to decide how to go about describing this collection.  Perhaps I should just say that it is a uniformly good collection, with some shining moments, that will appeal to literary fiction readers who enjoy witty dialogue to go along with some poignant scenes.

Gail Giles, Girls Like Us

Girl Like Us, longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, follows the struggles of two soon-to-be-high school graduates, Biddy and Quincy, as they are about to be exited from their special education program.  Each of the girls has her own issues (Biddy cannot read nor write and had to give up a child for adoption due to her circumstances; Quincy was brain-damaged as a young child and is angry at the world, including at times Biddy) and it is their battles, accentuated by Giles' short, staccato bursts of narrative seen through each girl's PoV, that makes this a good read.  If anything, the story could have been even longer, to allow certain situations to unfold less rapidly, but this is a minor quibble to what is otherwise a very solid work of YA fiction.

Kalyan Ray, No Country

No Country is a tale that spans five generations and three continents.  Beginning with the life-altering decisions of two 19th century Irish boys, Padraig and Brendan, and the effects those choices have on descendents, biological or adopted, of the two as they move back and forth across Europe, North America, and India.  It is an ambitious family saga, one that touches upon the issue of the ultimate shallowness of national identity, and for much of the novel Ray manages to craft a narrative structure worthy of exploring such complex, complicated themes and plot developments.  However, there were times that the story lagged a bit, making No Country merely a flawed yet solid effort that will mostly reward those readers willing to devote the necessary time to processing what all is transpiring over the course of these generations and continents.

I'll likely write another set of 5-10 mini-reviews sometime over the holiday weekend.  Hopefully some of these stories/collections have piqued your interest.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Things to do (maybe) this weekend

This month has been a complete trainwreck when it comes to completing any reviewing goals, as I've reviewed only 10 books so far this month.  Much of the blame goes to the kidney stone pain and surgery prep/recovery, as there were several days where I didn't have the energy to do anything other than make short blog posts like this one.  Currently, I'm battling a slight viral infection, likely due to a weakened immune system after the past week's surgery and medications, that has sapped me of energy (I've actually slept more than 8 hours each of the past two days - about 1.5-2 hours more than usual - and I am still more tired than usual).

I have managed, however, to read 140 of the 161 books I have listed on the Upcoming 2014 Releases I Want to Read.  I have few worries about reading every book listed there (might add a handful to the list, but that's uncertain).  However, I still have 51 reviews to write if I'm going to review every one of those books.  That might prove to be unmanageable.  Won't know for another couple of weeks.  If so, I might just write summary-style reviews of the majority of those and traditional reviews of the rest.  I'm undecided on that right now.  What I do know is that I have two hardcover books that arrived today (Brian Francis Slattery's The Family Hightower and Lin Enger's The High Divide) that I plan on reading this weekend.  Maybe reviews will follow shortly.  Depends on my recovery speed from this virus, which has left me with flu-like symptoms, minus the fever.

As with everything these days, time will tell.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A couple of early Best of 2014 lists

Although it's only November, some publications are already starting to list their Best of 2014 selections.  Below are a couple of such lists:

Amazon's Editors' Top 100

Kirkus Reviews Best of 2014

I've read/own about a quarter of the books on each list of 100.  Several selections I agree with, a few I don't, but that's par for the course.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

2014 National Book Award winners

The 2014 National Book Award winners have just been announced.  Pleased to see that I've already read/reviewed three out of the four winners.  Each of the ones read were excellent.

Fiction: Phil Klay, Redeployment

Non-Fiction:  Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition:  Chasing Fortune, Truth, & Faith in the New China

Poetry:  Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night

Young People's Literature:  Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ranking the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction Finalists

The 2014 National Book Awards will be announced on Wednesday, November 19.  I haven't read all of the finalists for Young People's Literature, Non-Fiction (zero here, in fact), or Poetry yet, but I have read all 5 of the Fiction finalists (and 9/10 of the longlist), so I feel comfortable listing my personal favorites out of that list even before I write my review of Marilynne Robinson's Lila Wednesday morning.  Mind you, in the past, those I've liked the most ended up not winning at all and those I liked least have won it, so take this with the appropriate grains of salt:

1.  Phil Klay, Redeployment 

2.  Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

3.  Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman

4.  Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

5.  Marilynne Robinson, Lila

The difference between the first three is minuscule.  Even Robinson's work, which I think suffers for me not having read other related novels, is well-written and worth reading.  But if I were to factor in the longlist, it'd go like this (leaving aside Jane Smiley's Some Luck, which I won't have time to read before the announcement Wednesday):

1.  Klay

2.  Doerr

3.  John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van

4.  Alameddine

5.  Richard Powers, Orfeo

6.  St. John Mandel

7.  Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck & Other Stories

8.  Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans

9.  Robinson

Again, little differentiates the books on this list; I enjoyed reading the 9 I've read so far quite a bit.  I just happen to prefer some just a tiny bit more than others.  Multiple ones from this list will make my year-end Top 25, after all, maybe as many as 5-6.  It will be interesting to see how many, if any, from the longlist/finalists make the upcoming National Book Critics Circle Award or the Pulitzer Prize.  I suspect there'll be a bit of overlap, but not too much, as there are certainly dozens of worthy contenders that didn't make this particular list.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Phil Klay, Redeployment

We shot dogs.  Not by accident.  We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby.  I'm a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.

First time was instinct.  I hear O'Leary go, "Jesus," and there's a skinny brown dog lapping up blood the same way he'd lap up water from a bowl.  It wasn't American blood, but still, there's that dog, lapping it up.   And that's the last straw, I guess, and then it's open season on dogs.

At the time, you don't think about it.  You're thinking about who's in that house, what's he armed with, how's he gonna kill you, your buddies.  You're going block by block, fighting with rifles good to 550 meters, and you're killing people at five in a concrete box. ("Redeployment," p. 1)
For as long as the United States has existed as a nation, nearly two hundred and forty years, its wars and literature have been inextricably intertwined.  From Thomas Paine's "The Crisis" to Francis Scott Key's "The Star-Spangled Banner" to the soldier letters and memoirs from the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War; to the accounts of the Spanish-American War and the searing novels by the likes of John Dos Passos and Dalton Trumbo on World War I, soldier voices have been heard in one form or another.  Kilroy was there in World War II; before Apocalypse Now, so many found madness in the killing fields of Vietnam and somehow managed to express it in letters, memoirs, and novels.  It is little surprise that eleven years after "Mission Accomplished" was declared, that veteran voices of the plains of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan are now clamoring to be heard.

The Iraq-Afghanistan postwar/war novels have grown in number and popularity over the past five years, ever since troops began to be withdrawn from Iraq.  Some, like Kevin Powers' 2012 National Book Award-nominated novel The Yellow Birds, were written by Iraq War veterans.  One of the latest to emerge (itself a 2014 finalist for the National Book Award) is Phil Klay's debut collection, Redeployment.  In the twelve stories that comprise this collection, Klay manages to explore various facets of the war experience in Iraq and postwar life in ways that shine more insight on soldier experiences in this war.  It is a powerful collection, one that easily holds its own with Three Soldiers and The Naked and the Dead in regards to the power of the narrative and Catch-22 for exploring the ridiculousness of it all.

The eponymous opening story begins with soldiers shooting dogs.  Told in terse prose, the reader is immediately jolted from her comfort zone.  Why dogs?  Why shoot creatures often valued as much (if not more) than many human beings?  There is a purpose behind this, one beyond showing stereotypical desensitization of the soldiers.  If anything, there is a greater sensitization that is transpiring, as seen in this passage:

So I'm thinking about that.  And I'm seeing the retard, and the girl, and the wall Eicholtz died on.  But here's the thing.  I'm thinking a lot, and I mean a lot, about those fucking dogs.

And I'm thinking about my dog.  Vicar.  About the shelter we'd got him from, where Cheryl said we had to get an older dog because nobody takes older dogs.  How we could never teach him anything.  How he'd throw up shit he shouldn't have eaten in the first place.  How he'd slink away all guilty, tail down and head low and back legs crouched.  How his fur started turning gray two years after we got him, and he so many white hairs on his face that it looked like a mustache.

So there it was.  Vicar and Operation Scooby, all the way home. (p. 3)

"Redeployment" is a somber tale, one of readjusting to home life after returning from a deployment, but it is also a merging of the war with one of the toughest things any pet owner has faced, that of their pet suffering from terminal disease and choosing to end that life there instead of paying another to do it.  In re-reading it just now, I remember when I was 8 and our dog of roughly a year, Bo, came down with an illness that even today I don't know if it was rabies or a paralyzing sort of distemper.  What I remember is my dad, himself a Vietnam War vet, taking out his shotgun that he rarely used and telling us not to look outside.  I didn't.  But even tonight, I remember the shotgun blast.  It still reverberates within me, as I can imagine it doing in the narrator's mind after the story's end.  The responsibility for a life, even a dog's life, weighs heavily on those forced to choose to end it.

Yet not all the stories in Redeployment are as somber as the first one.  Some, like "In Vietnam They Had Whores," are full of the type of baudy humor one might expect from young soldiers full of lust and life.  Others, like "Psychological Operations," contain a sort of macabre humor alongside a tale of cultural misunderstandings that underscore so much of what transpired in Iraq during the war and its bloody aftermath.  "War Stories" takes some of the motifs of Vietnam war stories and warp them, make them into something more applicable to the situation in Iraq a generation later.  When I read part of this aloud to my dad on Friday when we were on our way to the urology clinic for my kidney stone surgery, he grunted a bit at some of the biting humor, something that I partially got and I suspect he understood more than he let on.  Some things, after all, do transcend specific wars and are shared grounds for veterans, I suppose.

By the time that I finished reading the final story, "Ten Kliks South," I felt as though I had read something both familiar and strange at once.  The twelve stories in this collection showed a wide range of soldier experiences, from horror to dazed bemusement to a callous attitude toward civilians to something hard to define, and each were presented in such a way that civilians such as myself could understand much of what was transpiring.  Yet there was enough of a sense of something being left unstated, something whose silence was even louder than the powerful passages contained within, that I suspect would say even more to those who were there, those who do not need to put voice to what they experienced.  Even more, there are elements in common with the wartime classics that I mentioned above that I suspect will make Redeployment not just one of the best Iraq-Afghanistan war fictions, but also will enshrine it in a rich national history of war of literature.  Redeployment is my favorite out of a strong 2014 National Book Award for Fiction finalist slate.

Warning: Graphic photo of surgical stent

If anyone, most especially myself, ever needed motivation to stop drinking sodas and drink copious amounts of water (and reduce salt intake), then this picture of the urethral stent that I removed this morning following my outpatient surgery three days ago should be motivation enough.  I'll put in a jump break for RSS readers who might not want such a warning (sorry for others who might be squeamish, but this is to give readers an idea of just what I suffered on Friday):

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A few things to read this week

Still getting used to this urethral stent.  Hopefully, I'll have it removed sometime Monday.  The pain meds are keeping me so sleepy that I don't feel up to attempting to write a review tonight, so here's a list of books I hope to complete this week (and yes, I know I have a backlog of reviews to write):

Steven Erikson, Willful Child - almost done.  Very humorous for the most part.

Neil Clarke (ed.), Upgraded - roughly halfway through it.

Josh Weil, The Great Glass Sea - only read the first couple of chapters.

Jac Jemc, A Different Bad Every Time - almost done with this short story collection.

Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher - will start this collection soon.

Nuruddin Farah, Hiding in Plain Sight - read the first couple of chapters.

Denis Johnson, The Laughing Monsters - hope to start later this week.

Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Stairs - another I hope to start later this week.

Jeff VanderMeer, Aceptación - plan on reading this sometime in the next week or two.

There might be others that might replace some, if any, on this list, but at least I'm making progress toward reading all the books on my 2014 Upcoming Releases list (only 22 to go).

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Frankétienne, Ready to Burst

My bitterness was even greater when I realized that I also needed money to be treated by a doctor.  To acquire a much-needed pair of shoes.  Or in order for Santa Claus to come.  Moreover, I was enraged by all these privations.  Source of my first revolts against the adult world.  My rage against the system.  My refusal to obey laws I didn't understand.  My taking a stand against social injustice.  My dissidence.  My revenge.  I resolved to protest in every way.  The one who had to deal most often with my bad behavior and my rebellions was Uncle Bernard.  Owner of a big boutique, he was the Croesus of the family.  Exceptionally stingy, he never forgave a cent of debt among family members.  He hated the poor.  His heart was made of neither flesh nor wood.  For the flesh is weak, and wood heats up when it burns.  Truth was, he had no heart.  Completely ungenerous.  He loved no one.  He was harsh.  Inflexible with everyone.  Cruel.  Indifferent to human suffering to the point where he'd refuse to offer the slightest help to my despairing mother, overwhelmed by the weight of her poverty.  One day when we had nothing to put on the fire, we went to him, only to be treated like vile parasites.  In front of people we didn't even know.  That's when I decided to act in my own best interest.  I initiated a veritable impoverishment campaign against him, stealing whatever I could from him... I went to his grocery store more frequently just so as to advance my plan for meting out justice.  Not a day went by that I didn't pilfer some can of something or other, or some money even.  My lifestyle improved.  I drank milk three times a day.  At night I started smoking cigarettes in the toilets.  As time went on, I increased my take to up to ten dollars a day, money I spent recklessly with boys from the neighborhood. (22% Kindle on iPad e-edition)

Frankétienne is one of Haiti's most famous 20th century writers and poets.  His 1968 novel, Mûr à crever (translated this year into English as Ready to Burst by Kaiama L. Glover), is one of a very few works of his to be translated into English.  Written during the days of Papa Doc Duvalier's dictatorship, Ready to Burst nevertheless possesses a timeless quality to it, perhaps due to the social injustices Haitians have battled against ever since winning independence from France in 1804.  Certainly, the political repression of Papa Doc's rule finds resonance with those who have paid attention to the recent political climate.  The street violence, often led by henchmen associated with the government, has never quite gone away since Baby Doc was driven out of power over a quarter century ago.

Ready to Burst is in one sense a tour of Duvalier's Port-au-Prince, as the two main protagonists, Raynaud and his near-twin, the writer Paulin, commence upon a series of adventures in its streets after Paulin rescues Raynaud from a despondency caused by a romantic affair fizzling out suddenly.  The two are complementary characters:  Raynaud, more of an idealistic dreamer, seeks out hope even beyond hope as the twain travel through a sometimes dirty and dangerous city; Paulin, who seeks to capture in verse and prose what is transpiring, is more a man of action grounded in the stark daily realities that confront them.  Much of Ready to Burst is taken up with presenting Paulin's writings, such as the lengthy autobiography above and this description of a life crisis after being injured at a political rally below:

Why me personally and not someone else?  I didn't find any convincing explanation.  I also looked for what I might have done wrong, but couldn't point to anything.  So it was that I began thinking about chance.  Religion offered no decent explanation.  Only scientific data came to my rescue and, just like that, I understood the laws of ballistics:  understood, that is, the fact that I'd been walking in line, in step with the rhythm of my column; that the rock had been thrown clumsily, in accordance with its own speed; and, finally, that at one point I'd very logically become a specific target on the trajectory of the projectile.  Sudden clarity.  I'd seen the light.  My heart beat more quickly.  I forgot the pain in my head.  Chance no longer existed for me.  My thoughts extended outward to consider the sufferings of all those who seemed to be victims of some dreadful fate.  Those who lived in slavery or misery.  Peoples oppressed by wealthy nations.  I began to understand it all.  Underdevelopment.  The appearance of political leaders, artists, scientists, geniuses.  Beauty.  Ugliness.  Natural epidemics.  Progress.  Vices.  Births.  Wars.  Victories.  Defeats.  Scientific discoveries.  Works of art.  From one thing to the next, the world unfolded before me, clear like water from a stone.  Nothing stopped me anymore, since I'd found an explanation for all cosmic phenomena.  I was now equipped to perform an autopsy on both happiness and sorrow. (37-38%)

Ready to Burst is punctuated with these frequent staccato bursts of description.  This minimalist language, however, serves as a counterpoint to the occasionally wild imagery, often expressed through Raynaud's thoughts as he travels with his new companion.  Descriptions of his "secret joy, the conquest of dawn," or the "rebellious stars fight[ing] not to disappear into the greedy mouth of the invading light in which the day sets up house." (60%)  These more fanciful metaphors not only serve as a counterpoint to Paulin's more politically-charged thoughts, but they also represent two of the many facets of Haitian society.  The horrors of the neck tire burnings gives ways to wild hopes for something different, something better in the course of quotidian life.

Although based on these descriptions one might presume that Ready to Burst is less concerned with plot than with character and scene, there is indeed a solid plot that underlies Raynaud and Paulin's travels:  finding a name for Paulin's novel.  Raynaud stumbles and starts to come up with an appropriate title, but it isn't until the final scene, in which the experiences and thoughts that the two have done and pondered about come together in a violent clash that provides not only the source of the novel's name, but it also summarizes in its violence so many of the national contradictions that Frankétienne explores through his two protagonists.

Frankétienne's style might not appeal to everyone; the prose is perhaps a bit stilted in places, at least for those used to fewer stop-start thought fragments.  There are times where Paulin feels too earnest, too wrapped up in thoughts of revolution and change, to see all that is really transpiring; sometimes, "realists" miss the forest for the trees.  Although ultimately his blindness to this is part of novel's central theme regarding the clash of Haitian ideals and political repression, at times this voice is too strong, rendering Raynaud's thoughts and actions ancillary to Paulin's.  These, however, only weaken the power of the book's final scene slightly.  On the whole, Ready to Burst is a moving work from one of Haiti's most renowned writers.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Well, the stone is gone now...

I had an ureteroscopy done this morning for a left kidney stone (8 mm) that had caused some swelling in that kidney.  Turns out that if I had paid attention when I woke up a little before 5 AM, I would have seen the crush remnants of it in the toilet, as I somehow passed it without realizing it (my dad noticed the particles remaining even after I flushed).  So yeah, I had to endure having a stent left in me for the weekend.  Not a fun feeling, that sense of pissing fire and seeing blood come out with the urine.  At least I have some really nice painkillers for the weekend.

But I also have things to write.  As I said in my last post, I've managed to do a lot of reading lately and I do plan on attempting to write 2 reviews/day for the rest of the month, starting either later this weekend or Monday at the latest.  I do have about two dozen books already read that need some sort of commentary written for them.  One of the latest, read today before the procedure, is Phil Klay's National Book Award-nominated Redeployment.  It is a fantastic read and might just be my personal favorite of the five Fiction finalists.  I'll write more about it tomorrow or Sunday.

Also started reading Steven Erikson's Willful Child this morning and finished the first 200 pages or so before leaving for the surgery.  It actually made me chortle a bit, something that rarely happens when I'm reading.  Finally, I hope to review Julia Elliott's excellent debut collection, The Wilds.  This year has been an excellent one for collections and this is one of the best of that fine crop.

Now to sit back and enjoy the haze...

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Exercise and Reading

It's interesting how (re)starting one thing can affect something seemingly unrelated.  I haven't read as much this year as in previous years (only at 319 books read so far this year, my lowest number for this date since 2008), but until recently, I was even below the average of a book a day that I had maintained since 2008's 385 books read.  I had little motivation for reading, since I had little energy for doing much of anything outside of maintaining my daily post here due to my recent back and kidney stone issues.

Then I was able to resume gym workouts this past weekend for the first time in months.  Although I'm going very easy right now (lower resistance on the exercise bike, short reps/sets on weights, fewer stations than usual), I've found myself finishing over a dozen books since Sunday.  Weird how things like that happen, although some of it no doubt is due to reading substantial portions of several e-books during the 20-25 minutes I've been on the exercise bike these past five days.  Curious to see how things will be after my (finally!) surgical procedure tomorrow (I mistakenly thought it was scheduled for last Friday).  I think there will be some pleasant surprises in store for the rest of the year.

Now to see about reducing that backlog of unwritten reviews after the procedure...

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ali Smith wins 2014 Goldsmiths Prize

Ali Smith won the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize, a new but high-paying UK literary award, for her latest novel, How to be Both.  Below is a list of the finalists, with links to those I've already reviewed:

Rachel Cusk, Outline

Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist

Howard Jacobson, J

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake 

Zia Haider Rahman, In the Light of What We Know

Ali Smith, How to be Both

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

2014 World Fantasy Awards winners

Neglected to post this on Sunday, but here are the winners of the 2014 World Fantasy Awards:


Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria (link to her comments on her speech)


Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages "Wakulla Springs"

Short Story:

Caitlín R. Kiernan, "The Prayer of Ninety Cats"


George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, eds. Dangerous Women


 Caitlín R. Kiernan, The Ape's Wife and Other Stories


 Charles Vess

Special Award - Professional:

(tie) Irene Gallo, for art direction of; William K. Schafer, for Subterranean Press

Special Award - Non-Professional:

 Kate Baker, Neil Clarke & Sean Wallace, for Clarkesworld

Monday, November 10, 2014

Blake Butler, 300,000,000

He who brought me brightest in the image of the human toward god was a series of shapes I knew as Darrel, though quickly I would come to see that's not his name.  His name had squirmed as any word, appearing burned into the pages of the unholy books composed alone in pens and tongues by men before we were we, beneath a sky propped up with our lunchmeat flab asleep and praying.  Each syllable in how anyone would say his name would deform itself depending on whose mouth was being used, and so the name could lace within all language.  His name appeared inside all ageless rails of light, invoked malformed in the mouths of all as corporations, entertainments, narcotics, art.  But with my human mouth I called him Darrel, after the son I'd never have.  I lived with Darrel in the black house for more than thirteen billion years before I ever had a body, years in which the flood of ideas we would erect from incubated and formed blood inside our brains.  The ground beneath the dirt of our whole future pressed against everything we wanted, became so thin with all the scraping of the nails and all the one-day-buried no ones and all the nothing waking up in our new bodies in the night, that what was left of the foundation underneath us was something so clear and timeless and deranged we couldn't feel it, and so wanted it again then even more, and in that wanting wanted every inch of now to produce further lengths to lust for, new skin to seethe inside of.  I mean we began again like night again like night again every time we spoke or saw or felt anything.  We were not us as we became us but someone else inside of someone else already all once again enslaved to live again as if we never had or known we could. (p. 4)

It is tempting, as other reviewers of Blake Butler's latest novel, 300,000,000, to begin this review with a warning about the grisly subject of this book, or perhaps to make thematic comparisons to works by authors like Roberto Bolaño (since purportedly 300,000,000 was written as a response to 2666, which Butler apparently found to be dull) or to Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves (after all, there are entries written by other hands at the foot of most of these journal entries).  After all, these things serve to provide a context, an anchor if you will, for a text that challenges its readers at not just the syntactical level, but also the semantic.  However, that is too easy and while I do acknowledge that there is some validity for these approaches to the novel, I think it would be best to consider the work as it is presented to the reader.

300,000,000 begins with excerpts from the journal of a 45 year-old man, Gretch Gravey, an accused serial killer who has, with the help of teen boys, has dismembered the bodies of hundreds of women over a period of years and has harvested some of their flesh for wall decor for his basement.  In entries such as the one quoted from near the beginning, he alludes to a guiding spirit, who he has named Darrel.  His mission, if such a word could be applied here, is to depopulate the United States, to reduce its roughly 300 million.  The detective who investigated and captured Gravey in his house, Flood, increasingly becomes enmeshed in what we encounters in Gravey's journal.  At first, Flood's comments are seemingly innocuous, such as his retort to the journal entry excerpted above:

FLOOD:  Whether Gravey is using this opening disorientation voice as a way of disclaiming his own actions I am unsure.  He seems sometimes to be speaking directly to the reader, while at other times at you or through you or around you; perhaps, forgive me, inside you.  Frequently one gets the sense of several of these modes in play at once.  There are as well perhaps still other modes I've yet to consider, though I hope that in my exploration of his words I can begin to draw out what lies underneath.  Unfortunately, my transcription here removes the context of Gretch Gravey's particularly mangled/child-eyed/dogshit handwriting, which even after just minutes of staring at gives me a fever. (p. 5)

 However, later on, as Flood recounts the sickening discovery of the bodies in the house, he describes the experience in an unsettling, surprising fashion:

FLOOD:  The smell was – I hate to say it – sweet.  It reminded me of waking up in a graddfield having slept all through the night without coverage against the night sky.  I mean, I don't want to sound morbid, it was revolting.  The sweetness was revolting.  But it was also – I breathed it in. (p. 124)

As the reader advances through the first two parts, "The Part About Gravey" and "The Part About the Killing," into the middle part, "The Part About Flood (In the City of Sod)," she will encounter an initially subtle yet key departure in tone and tenor, as the passages begin to show a merger of personalities, as other detectives begin to comment on the passages, sometimes excising parts of Flood's commentaries, as Flood himself begins to become disassociated from himself, perhaps due to becoming too involved in the case.  There is a palpable sense of entrapment, as though the very foundations of world-view/understanding are undergoing a semantic collapse:

Worse than knowing I needed out, I didn't know what I needed back out into.  Even when I could feel there was something else beyond the edges of any color in the street or window where no one waited even to just totally ignore me, I couldn't recognize it enough to know how to want it harder.  Along each street it was as if I were waiting for some hole to swallow my face.  Each moment it didn't made the going into the next step that much less worth doing.  This is what life had always felt like.  In my mind, expecting the absence of something or someone there before me made the presence in its place feel like the punch line to a routine no one was performing.  And where I couldn't find a way to laugh, I became my own stand-in, over and over, like painting white over a window from the inside. (p. 251)

It is nearly pointless to discuss characterization or plot here, as Butler's focus is not as much on a linear development of each, but rather on the breakdown of place and personality, ripping apart the layers of comfort and sanity that insulate readers from the potential horrors of the world.  As Flood's character breakdowns, as we begin to see Gravey's "Darrel" emerge, the story becomes more and more a revelation, of insanity for some part, but also of something more sinister feeling.  If an adjective had to be employed to describe the general mood of the final two sections, "The Part About America" and "The Part About Darrel," it would be dread.  There is just that sense of things collapsing into something that is beyond nothingness, something that is never absent yet neither is truly present.  It is this creeping no-character that creates a partial (if never total) definition of what is transpiring.  The success or failure of 300,000,000 depends largely on how a reader reacts to this quasi-entity.  For myself, my sense of this no-character helped provide some semblance of chaotic non-order that despite its occasionally baffling descriptions and thematic scene shifts made an odd sort of sense.  By novel's end, I was almost spooked by the seemingly "normal" world around me, in part because Butler's twisting of language to create this estranged environment made it difficult at first to return to the "normality" of the waking world.  This is perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to a work that demands (and takes) a lot of its readers.


Sunday, November 09, 2014

David Cronenberg, Consumed

Naomi sat on the floor, her back against the foot of the bed.  "Are you taking your clothes off?" she asked.

"Yes," said Hervé.

"You want me to shoot pictures of you naked?"


"I'm not going to have sex with you.  Really.  I'm not."

Hervé had taken off his tie, jacket, and shirt, and was working on his belt, a fussy alligator-patterned thing with the dual-pronged buckle and a double row of holes which seemed to be giving him trouble.  He was hairless and thin through the chest, just as Naomi thought he would be.  All those New Wave movies.  "If you have sex with me, I will show you something special that Célestine liked very much.  It's unusual what she liked."

Naomi lifted her camera and casually began to snap away. (p. 29, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Veteran filmmaker David Cronenberg's first novel, Consumed, is one of the creepiest novels I've read in years.  It is a very visually-oriented novel in which the "closeup" is used to make the novel's themes of voyeuristic consumerism visible in often visceral, unsettling ways.  Its intense exploration of fetishes and desires is very well done, almost too much in places, making it one of the more unforgettable stories I have ever read.

Consumed revolves around a couple, Naomi and Nathan, and their melding of avant garde photojournalist techniques with some rather kinky sexual fetishes.  Nathan becomes involved with a Slovenian cancer patient, Dunja, after arranging to photographing her immediately post-op at the clinic of a shady Hungarian doctor, Dr. Molnár.  From her, he contracts a rare and previously-considered eradicated STD, Roiphe's Disease.  This leads him to contact the namesake scientist who discovered it.  Meanwhile, Naomi has become involved, through a fleeting relationship with a man named Hervé, with a French philosopher couple, Aristide and Celestine Arosteguy, and it is in this tangled relationship where things begin to become disturbingly fascinating:  Aristide disappears, after seemingly have "consumed" parts of the now-dead Celestine along the way.  Yet what could have led to this?  There are some clues in the dialogues the couple had with Naomi about philosophy, sexual mores, and transgressions.  Later, as Nathan's own inquiries lead to a convergence with Naomi's own queries into the Aristide-Celestine relationship, there is a further muddying of the narrative waters, as their investigations delve into matters such as madness and consumerism, as though the world of objects were melding into the world of ideals and insanity. 

Consumed is at its strongest when Cronenberg devotes time to exploring connections between sexual depravity and consumerist behavior.  He peppers his narrative with technical discussions of certain objects, especially cameras, and their functions, before juxtapositioning them with almost clinical details of certain sexual acts.  In addition, he mixes the near-nihilistic philosophy of the Arosteguys with their fetishes (the question of Celestine's volition in her death looms large here) to create a truly unsettling set of circumstances for the reader to consider.

Yet there are several structural weaknesses that dampen the effect.  In creating characters "consumed" by their desires for answers and for desires' satiation, at times the narrative is too focused on them; the peripheral, in which certain key events occur, is left too unfocused for the reader to follow what is transpiring until very late in the novel.  It does not help that certain key events and players are introduced with only a relatively few pages remaining in the novel; there is little time to develop depth and breadth of character or scene import here.

Ultimately, Consumed is a novel more about effect than cause.  Cronenberg's characters and their actions and desires exist more to create a reaction in the reader than to explore the causes of these events.  This is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it certainly reads as a flawed, occasionally perplexing first novelistic effort that contains enough unsettling moments to justify reading it.  Yet there is this sense that it could make for a more disturbing, powerful cinema, or rather that the cinema medium might be an even more fit storytelling medium for this haunting tale.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Ismail Kadare, Twilight of the Eastern Gods

We played table-tennis outdoors, not far from the beach, until after midnight because even though the white lights had passed it still didn't get very dark.  Those with the best eyes played last; the rest of us lounged against the wooden railing watching the game and correcting the score.  After midnight, when everyone had gone to bed, leaving their bats on the table to get drenched by a shower before dawn, I didn't know what to do with myself – I didn't feel like sleeping.  I would wander for a while around the gardens of the Writers' Retreat (it used to be the estate of a Latvian baron), go as far as the fountain, which spurted from a group of stone dolphins, then track back to the 'Swedish House' and on down to the Baltic shore.  The nights were very cold and quickly chilled you to the bone.

I did much the same thing almost every evening.  On fine days, the mornings and afternoons went by quickly, with swimming and sunbathing, but evenings were dreary, and most of the residents were quite old.  Almost all of them were VIPs, with titles galore, but that didn't stop evenings being dull, especially as I happened to be the only foreigner staying there. (Ch. 1)

Nearly 40 years after its initial publication, Albanian writer Ismail Kadare's 1978 novel, Twilight of the Eastern Gods, is finally published in English translation (translation from the French translation by David Bellos).  Written around the same time as several of Kadare's most famous novels (Broken April and The Three-Arched Bridge were also published in 1978) and containing some themes in common with them, Twilight of the Eastern Gods may be one of Kadare's most autobiographical novels.  In some respects, the line between fiction and reality has been blurred to the point where it is difficult to see where the fictional Kadare ends and the real-life Kadare begins.

Twilight of the Eastern Gods is set in the Soviet Union in 1958.  Kadare was one of a few Communist bloc writers invited to study at the Maxim Gorky Institute for World Literature and his experiences there shape the descriptions found within the novel.  It was not a happy time for the young Kadare and his fictional counterpart illustrates this with passages such as the one quoted above at the beginning of Chapter 1.  There is a dreadful monotony to his life at the institute and the entire first chapter is devoted to exploring this soul-draining tedium in detail.

The first half of the book pretty much follows the pattern established in the first chapter, detailing the minutiae of Kadare's life at the institute, the fleeting romantic relationships he establishes, and the sometimes-contentious interactions he has with fellow students.  It is well-written, but nothing that is terribly exciting or even mildly interesting enough to justify more than a handful of pages.  The parade of shallow, politically-mindful personalities would barely be worth mentioning if it were not for the fact that these characters serve as sharp contrasts to the literary-political controversy that takes up the majority of the second half of the novel.

It is during Kadare's time at the institute that the controversy over Boris Pasternak's selection for the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature broke out in Soviet literary circles.  His Doctor Zhivago had been rejected for publication in the Soviet Union, but a smuggled copy was published in Italy and shortly in all the major European languages.  When word broke that he had won the Nobel, the reaction was swift and severe, with virtually all Soviet writers and critics denouncing Pasternak and demanding that he either reject the award or go into political exile.  Kadare's reaction to the controversy is shown both directly and obliquely through his use of an Albanian legend of Kostandin and Doruntine to illustrate his commitment to the fidelity of the given word.  Although Pasternak ultimately rejected the award, his dilemma resounded for Kadare, as he too had a choice, years later, of going into exile or trying to make some accommodation with Enver Hoxha's isolationist dictatorship.  In a sense, Kadare's use of Albanian folk tales to make certain arguments that could not be stated clearly due to the threat of exile or execution is manifested best here in this autobiographical novel.

There are some structural weaknesses.  As noted above, the first half of the novel, while illustrative of the experiences of the young Kadare, feels less vital than the more incendiary chapters dealing with the Pasternak controversy.  The other student characters, even though most are based so closely on real-life fellow students that many bore their names, rarely have any depth of character; they serve more as caricatures than developed characters.  These elements make Twilight of the Eastern Gods one of Kadare's weaker novels, although as a curio it certainly has enough appealing elements to make it a worthwhile read for readers curious about Kadare's entire literary output. 

Friday, November 07, 2014

Robert Darnton, Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature

What is censorship?  Like pornography, it seems to be a field that is hard to define, yet people feel confident that they can identify examples of it without worrying overmuch about the precision of their definition of the term.  If anything, the term "censorship" has become so broad that it could (and has been) be applied to almost any and every form of supposed information suppression, whether or not the entity or entities doing this presumed suppression are affiliated with any official government body.  Yet this increasingly diffused use of the term does little to explain the mechanics of censorship and how states, past and present, have used it to further their goals.  Beyond this, however, lurks the question of how power relationships are created and utilized in order to shape and control the dissemination of information, particularly literary works.  Are censors cogs in a monolithic machine, dispassionately stamping out works that might be a challenge to the ruling government, regardless of actual content?  Or is censorship itself but another area of socio-political discourse, in which there are frequent negotiations, implicit and explicit each, between artists and government representatives?

In his latest book, Censors at Work:  How States Shaped Literature, American cultural historian Robert Darnton tackles this tricky topic.  As he notes in his introduction, frequently in Western history there are periods in which the bounds of the permissible and the forbidden have been blurred.  All of our imagined "Wild Wests," past and present, have been "tamed" to some extent, often with at least the partial blessing of those who were once participants in less-regulated domains such as today's cyberspace, which has seen an increase of governmental regulation over the past two decades.  The main question, Darnton seems to posit, is not one of whether or not the state should be involved in the regulation of the internet, but to what degree it should have sway over the content posted there.  Furthermore, Darnton notes that the latest round of discourse on the state's role in regulating communication is not new to the 21st century, but that by analyzing past attempts by states to control communication and the means by which this was achieved, we can gain greater perspective on what is transpiring today (p. 13).

The history of censorship, therefore, is not one of aloof, monolithic governmental bodies, but instead is, as Darnton puts it, an "inside history," one that is full of back room negotiations and secret missions, where the agents of the state were as much curators of the written word as they were suppressors of seditious speech (pp. 13-14).  By delving into the available archives (which due to the spottiness of human record keeping, often limits such explorations to the past few centuries of Western states and even more recent for most non-Western states), a light can finally be shined on the players in these complex negotiations.  Just who were these censors and how did they make their decisions?  Were there times in which an individual censor's decision might purposely run counter to the implicit, if not express, desire of the state?  What differences and similarities can be found in states separated by time, space, and cultural history?  These are just some of the questions that Darnton explores in Censors at Work.

Censors at Work is divided into three main sections, each the subject of separate lectures that Darnton presented as part of the Panizzi Lectures in January 2014 at the British Library.  The first, "Bourbon France:  Privilege and Repression," concretes on peculiarities of mid-eighteenth century Bourbon policies regarding the approval of printed works.  At first glance, the ancien régime would seem to be a perfect example of the more Manichean concept of censorship/freedom of speech that many people have when they consider the effects of censorship.  As Darnton notes:

France offers the most dramatic examples:  the burning of books, the imprisonment of authors, and the outlawing of the most important works of literature – particularly those of Voltaire and Rousseau and the Encyclopédie, whose publishing history epitomizes the struggle of knowledge to free itself from the fetters imposed by the state and the church. (p. 23)

But these actions, damning as they seem to be, are perhaps only the most sensationalist examples of Bourbon censorship.  Just who were its censors and how do their activities fit into the espirit du temps?  The answers to this are far murkier and yet somehow are more illuminating than a simplistic presumption that the censors were opposed to the leading writers of the French Enlightenment.

It must be made clear that in pre-Revolutionary France, it wasn't as much the authors of works (fictional and political tracts alike) who were responsible for the contents of printed materials as it was the responsibility of the printers who agreed to publish these works and to help disseminate them.  Since 1275, these booksellers/printers had been under the authority of the University of Paris and, by extension, under that of the king. (p. 24)  Each officially-sanctioned publication bore on its title page this line:  "Avec Approbation & Privilege du Roy" ("With the approbation and privilege of the king").  Here is an interesting example of censorship in a positive fashion:  the work published has been approved and found free of questionable material, therefore it can be sold in public.  In one sense, it is literally a "seal of approval" that lets readers know that the work in question is fully legit.  In another, this approbation, or rather approbations, as many pages bear the names of those who ultimately approved the work, served as a sort of book blurb, in which the censors, often with their names printed, gave their reasons for why the work in question was approved for publication.  Instead of these censors acting as deniers of the flow of information, here in Bourbon France they often acted as curators of the arts.  Occasionally, these approbations read more like works of literary criticism (not surprising, since many of the censors were fellow writers and university professors) than something that might be expected from a government functionary.

Tied into this is the concept of "privilege," which is fundamentally different from today's conceptualization of matters of press and speech.  Darnton notes that privilege (which in turn is derived from a compound word for "private law") was the organizing principle of eighteenth century society (p. 29).  Laws did not apply equally to all; hierarchies determined the applicability of certain legal concepts.  Laws thus were not societal legal guidelines, but instead were special dispensations that proceeded from a monarch's inherent power and which were accorded to certain groups or individuals.  Printed literature, far from being a means of mass cultural dissemination of ideas, were instead understood to be artifacts of privilege, granted to an express few.  In one sense, the privileges of the book trade (who could produce it, print it, and sell it) epitomized the ancien régime's system of granting approval and withholding it from others.

Yet the official book trade had its own series of pitfalls.  Works sometimes appeared in official quarters that were critical of the king.  Sometimes the censors found themselves in trouble for this, while at other times, they took great pains in order to communicate to certain writers what had to be changed in order for the work to be published.  Other times, a submitted work could be fully orthodox and rejected on the grounds that its literary qualities were not on the level of those to be expected for the reception of the king's official approval. (p. 31)  Then there are cases in which patronage came into play, especially as the royal bureaucracy expanded in the eighteenth century.  Often the censors had to negotiate with the director of the book trade administration.  Darnton cites several examples from the 1750s and 1760s of the critical role that this director, C.G. de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, played in the negotiations between writers, censors, and their superiors in determining whether or not a work would receive royal approbation and be published by an officially licensed printer.  Sometimes these discussions were informal in nature, often conducted through a series of letters, some of which were of considerable length. (p. 40) 

Censors, themselves doing this mostly for future patronage and not for the nearly-non-existent pay, often acted more as editors than as agents of the government.  They accepted assignments from Malesherbes, most tailored to their specific academic specialties.  Occasionally, they would correspond with authors, usually via anonymous means, and even met with them, despite the pains many went to keep knowledge of their role as approbators secret from the writers with whom they were communicating. (p. 46).  These correspondences often influenced their perception of works, as sometimes works of questionable literary quality were approved due to the censors being aware of the writer's financial straits. (p. 46).  Sometimes these discussions with authors became contentious, but on the whole, Darnton argues that this form of censorship served to bring censors and authors closer together.  Far from being sworn enemies, in Bourbon France authors and censors could be seen as parts of a collaborative exercise, in which the censors served as a sort of quasi-editor whose commentaries served to improve the considered works.

But what about those works which were not sent to the censors for approbation?  In these cases of unlicensed works, the matter is more dire.  If otherwise non-offensive, works published outside France could be brought in, provided that another part of the state apparatus, the police, did not perceive them to be threats to state or national morality.  But for those works judged to be obscene, the punishments could be severe.  The case of Mlle. Bonafon and the scandalous Tanastès, concerned with the sex life of Louis XV, is emblematic of how the regime reacted when a work outside the official book privilege system was made available for sale.  Her imprisonment for over thirteen years indicates that the French system was not as cordial as might be expected after reading prior tales of chummy censors and writers.

Although Darnton devoted roughly a third of Censors at Work to Bourbon France, this review has spent a disproportionate amount of space on it due to the similarities found between it and the other two case studies.  While there is much of interest in the other two sections, much of the conclusions are similar to those found for Bourbon French censorship policies.  Yet there are some key differences.  For example, in the second section, "British India:  Liberalism and Imperialism," the focus is more on how the conflicts between the ruling British aristocracy and the native Indian constituencies are rooted in a complex understanding of British legal beliefs and Indian political reality.  Censorship did not exist as a standard system on the British Isles in the nineteenth century, but in the aftermath of the 1857-1858 Sepoy mutinies, the Raj had to develop a way of understanding their native subjects better.  Indian publications were scrutinized more, especially as there was an explosion of printed material available in the various Indian languages in the mid-nineteenth century.  Since there were very few British officials conversant in all of the subcontinent's languages, native speakers had to be recruited to play the role of censors. 

As in Bourbon France, these censors often struck up relationships with the writers they were examining.  However, there were some interesting differences, particularly in the way that texts were analyzed.  In Great Britain, copyright laws had replaced the system of royal privilege long before the conquest of India.  In addition, the censors were more concerned with matters of libel, especially as comments critical of the Raj, even obliquely, could threaten the fragile post-mutiny peace.  Frequently, the Raj utilized the legal system to prosecute questionable writers for libel for things as picayune as talking about particular planters or the suffering that many Indians experienced in their everyday lives.  While the literary censors were not as complicit here, it is worth noting that in the Raj, the courts served as the silencers of those who wrote texts that could be construed as attacks on the government.  It is here where the more traditional views of censorship come closest to actual reality.  Yet there is a curious contradiction, in that in bringing these often-ruinous libel cases to court, the Raj went to great pains to appear to be preserving British ideals of free press while in reality denying full freedom to its Indian subjects. (p. 142)  And yet even within this elaborate charade, there were negotiations between the government and writers, with more give-and-take taking place on both sides than what otherwise might be expected from a foreign-dominated government.

The third section, "Communist East Germany:  Planning and Persecution," is perhaps the most illuminating of the three cases because it is the closest to our modern conceptions of state and literature.  Darnton bases much of his essay here on interviews he did with two East German censors during that period between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the re-unification of the two Germanies in October 1990.  He discusses how integrated the East German censors were within the governmental structure and how certainly literary "plans" were developed for the publication of literary works for a given year.  For the East German government, literature grounded in socialist reality was esteemed and the role of the censors was to cultivate relationships with writers, to use a carrot-and-stick approach to get them to conform to governmental expectations.  While there were certainly times that the government arrested dissident writers, on the whole, the censors' task was to persuade writers to conform their works to government expectations.  As in the case of Bourbon France, this led to cozy relationships between the censors and writers, with certain writers receiving partial protection from other elements of the East German government.

This is not to say that conditions were ideal for East German writers.  Frequently they had to negotiate with their censors just to get certain elements included.  Christa Wolf managed to negotiate for ellipses to be left in the text of her most famous work, Kassandra, to denote the excised parts the censors had removed (these sections were later filled in with samizdat typewritten fragments to be inserted within the book).  Others would beg and sometimes even cajole the censors for passages to be preserved.  Sometimes the censors faced criticism from within the government (East German leader Erich Honecker played a personal role in many cases) for allowing certain works critical of the government to be published.  Darnton does an excellent job in outlining not just the negotiations that took place, but also their implications for the East German government.

In his conclusion, Darnton justifies the ethnographical approach toward censorship that he took.  By using archival evidence and allowing the principal actors to "speak" through their recorded thoughts and writings, he argues that a larger, more composite image of censorship emerges.  In particular, authors, far from being helpless victims, could sometimes play a strong role in determining the discourse being established between writer and state (p. 233).  They could negotiate with the government's censors in order for certain passages to be preserved, but they could also appeal to powerful political patrons.  In all three cases, the works in question could be published abroad, although there were specific consequences that could have a negative impact on the writers.  It is in these interplays between complicity, collaboration, and negotiation that the literatures of these three places, France, India, and East Germany, were shaped.

Darnton does an outstanding job in developing his approach toward the topic and exploring the comparisons and contrasts between his three chosen locales.  Through extensive citing of archival evidence, he builds a strong case for censorship being not an uniformly negative, oppressive entity, but instead a complex, nuanced field in which the concerns of the government and the artistic desires of writers converged and which produced a broad discourse through which negotiations took place.  Although there were times that it felt as though too much emphasis was placed on the literary responsibilities of these censors and not enough to the various roles, implicit and explicit alike, that other governmental bodies played in controlling written communication, on the whole Censors at Work is one of the best cultural studies of government-literary interactions that I have read since I finished grad school in 1997.  Highly recommended.

Add to Technorati Favorites