The OF Blog: August 2014

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ludmila Ultiskaya, Daniel Stein, Interpreter

4.  January 1946, Wroclaw 


Dear Avigdor,

Did you know I managed to find Dieter back in August last year?  He is alive, but stuck in a monastery!  When I heard he had become a monk I could not believe it.  We were in Akiva together, we were Zionists, we were going to go to Israel, and suddenly this!  A monk!  After the war there are not that many of us still around.  He is one of the lucky few, and all just to become a monk?  When someone said he was in Kraków I went straight there.  I was sure, and I still haven't changed my mind completely, he must have been tricked.  To tell the truth, I took a pistol along just in case.  I captured a good Walther a while back. (p. 36)

Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya's 2006 novel, translated ably by Arch Tait in 2011 as Daniel Stein, Interpreter, is not a true novel in the sense of a unified narrative.  Instead, it is an epistolary narrative, told through dozens of real and fictitious letters that narrate the life and beliefs of an extraordinary man, Oswald Rufeisen, the model for the titular Daniel Stein.  In these various letters, excerpts of speeches and even brochures, the broad parameters of his life and his conversion from Judaism to becoming a controversial Barefoot Carmelite monk living in Israel after the Holocaust are established.  It is a challenging work, one that can excite and frustrate even the most curious and cautious readers.

Daniel Stein, Interpreter is divided into five parts, yet these are not as much chronological divisions as they are thematic ones.  In them, real and fictitious characters based on actual people narrate in their letters to others (which in turn engender other conversations with still other readers, until each section concludes with a letter written by the author herself) their experiences in the past war, the Holocaust, their issues and crises of faith, and, sometimes in passing, their memories of this Jewish boy, Dieter/Daniel, who became a monk and who tried to re-create the Jewish Christianity of St. James of Jerusalem.  It is a fascinating tale, but one that requires quite a bit of parsing as to determine what is being said and what is being withheld.

Daniel's character is one of the few things that are established solidly.  He is a smart, sensitive soul, yet one who manages to act as a mediator between intransigent groups.  He manages to survive the Holocaust by convincing the local Gestapo leaders that he is a Pole who is fluent in German and Yiddish and he uses this position of trust to shield over 300 refugees who have fled from their local ghetto to the surrounding forest, where they somehow manage to survive.  This ability to communicate across linguistic, cultural, and religious divides serves him well later in life, as he tries to reconcile the various branches of Christianity with Judaic practices.  For this, he becomes a thorn in the side of both the State of Israel, who granted him residency but refused to recognize him as a Jew, and the Catholic Church, whose leadership questioned in the 1980s if this monk preaching a return to Jewish Christianity should be muzzled.  Daniel's efforts, quixotic as they may seem, are shown to have had a tremendous influence on the lives of several, including those who only came to know of him through the written and oral testimonies of others.

However, the other narrative threads, especially those related to how people choose their faiths or non-beliefs in moments of crisis, are more difficult to follow, as they are often not developed further.  There were several, at least three, sub-narratives that in their own right could have made for intriguing, if not outstanding, novels.  Yet here there are so many disparate elements suborned into the greater narrative of one man's transforming faith and ability to interpret the various languages of desire spoken by his congregants.  It would have been nice to have seen more of this, as there are spaces of several letters where Daniel largely disappears into the background without much in the way of payoff later.

Yet despite these flaws, Daniel Stein, Interpreter is a powerfully constructed epistolary novel that largely works.  Although some character/letter sets are more poignant than others, for the majority of them, the effects that this largely historical convert/monk had on their lives are palpable.  The result is a story that promises to reveal new facets upon a re-read and is one well-worth visiting regardless of one's creed or belief system.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Looking at my 2014 reading/reviewing goals, 2/3 into the year

Today marks the 242nd day of 2014.  There are 123 days remaining in the year, so roughly 2/3 have already passed.  Thought I would post an update on my 2014 reading/reviewing goals, note some changes, and lament one or two that have already failed.  Here is a link to my original January 2 post on the topic.

1.  Read (or re-read) at least 50 books each in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French.

As of right now (totals will change when I finish reading a few by midnight on the 31st):

Spanish:  37/50 - ahead of pace by 4
Portuguese: 21/50 - behind pace by 12 (might finish 1-2 by tomorrow night)
French:  28/50 - behind pace by 5
Italian:  27/50 - behind pace by 6 (should finish 2 by tomorrow night, however)

Since I'm planning on reading a lot more non-English literature in September and October, these totals will shift significantly.  Portuguese is the only one in real danger of not being reached, but even there I have almost 60 print volumes and over 30 e-book editions.

2.  Have 35% or more of my reading/re-readings this year be of works (co)-authored or (co)-edited by women. 

Currently at 80/224 2014 reads, or 35.7%.  Just above pace.  Have two more books by women that I want to finish by tomorrow, so percentage may rise slightly.

3.  To (re)-read and review each of the Premio Alfaguara winners, including those of the 1965-1972 incarnation.

I have only 8 out of 25 books left to review, so this is still very doable.  Planning on reviewing more in September and October.

4.  During the months leading up to the 2014 World Cup, reprise my 2010 "World Cup" series of posts by writing a combination of reviews of prominent writers from participating countries or summaries of national literature.

I wrote Group previews, but no real reviews of nationally-prominent writers of these 32 nations during that time.  Partial fail.

5.  Do an in-depth series of articles/reviews on a Southern writer.

Haven't started this yet, but likely to start reviewing Eudora Welty's novels in the coming month or two, along with a few more Faulkner reviews if I have the time.  Thomas Wolfe, however, will likely be shunted to next year.

Newer Goals:

1.  Write at least one post a day in 2014.  

So far, so good.

2.  Write 150 reviews in 2014.

I've written 103 so far, so slightly above pace.

3.  Read/review all the books listed in the 2014 Upcoming Releases post from January.

I've reviewed all but 20 of the books already released and am quickly closing the gap, writing at least 4-5 reviews/week for the past three months.  Already have over 80 2014 releases read/reviewed.

4.  Average at least a book a day read, as I've done since 2008.

Behind pace by 18 right now, but should catch up in the coming weeks.  Be off work due to injury certainly has given me more time to read, plus I like to read more when it's cooler.

If you came up with reading goals, tell me how you're doing.  Curiosity and all that.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Bryan Lee O'Malley, Seconds

 Many stories, whatever their medium of expression or genre of storytelling, often begin with real-life encounters with people and a simple "what if?" pondering that leads to a series of other questions that in turn engender a story.  This was the case for Bryan Lee O'Malley (author of Scott Pilgrim) in his latest graphic novel, Seconds.  In this story of a young, independent-minded, and occasionally obstinate woman, Katie, O'Malley explores the concepts of seconds, whether they be key seconds in one's life, the desire for second (or multiple) chances to make amends, or the second "doubles" that represent the roads we should (not) have taken, the paths that we wished we (never) had explored.

Seconds begins with Katie, who had been working at a small sit-down restaurant of that name, planning after four years of work there as the chef in charge, to establish her restaurant.  She is someone is so involved in her projects that she is a bit intimidating to the staff who do not know her well and her aloofness, which covers up some of her insecurities, plays a major role in the events to come.  As she readies for the move, stressing over things like the budget and the name for this upcoming restaurant (initially she chooses Katie's), she comes to know better a timid yet intelligent young woman named Hazel, who informs Katie (who incidentally lives in an upstairs studio apartment on the top floor of the building where Seconds is) that there is a house spirit there who is capable, through the use of magic mushrooms on the premise and the writing down of the mistakes one wishes to correct, of giving that person who has ingested the mushrooms a second chance to atone for a mistake.  After Katie's ex-boyfriend (and former staff member) Max appears at the opening of her new restaurant, causing Katie to babble and to make a fool of herself, she stumbles back to her apartment and discovers the mushroom and on a whim, eats it and writes down her wish that she had never broken up with him.

What follows is a series of follies, as the alt-Katies (Katie keeps a memory of all of pre-mistake events, but does not recall the alt-changes until she wakes up on the day the change has reverted herself to) have made even further messes.  O'Malley does an excellent job in telling this familiar story, as each alt-Katie's decision making, self-centered as many of them are, further fleshes out her character and those of the kitchen staff at Seconds.  The result is an absorbing read where the reader may find herself turning the pages quickly to discover what happens next.

This fast-paced and familiar plot of using up "second chances" to discover just who you really are is augmented by several choices that O'Malley made for his secondary characters.  While it would have been easy for him to populate his characters with strictly Caucasian people, the characters in Seconds resemble the people that you would find in most any restaurant or business today:  people of various ethnic groups, a loving gay couple, overweight and malnourished people,  people who are not move-star attractive.  Furthermore, O'Malley does not place over-emphasis on this diverse cast of characters:  they are people first and foremost and their loves and lusts, faults and virtues, are shown to be as natural as those of Katie herself.  It is their interactions with her and how the alt-Katies respond to them, that make Seconds different from most other based-on-life graphic novels.

Although I am far from an expert on illustration, I did like the illustration style here.  There seems to be a combination of North American and Japanese manga comic styles here, with vivid colors and wide eyes adding greatly to the effect.  The lettering is a bit small, but the clever dialogue (often expressed in bracketed smaller print to underscore sotto voce commentary) fits the style employed here.  The only quibble I had is that there could have been perhaps even more expression on the faces of the characters, but for the most part O'Malley and his team did an excellent job in rendering the characters and their situations.

Seconds is one of the best graphic novels I've read in the past few years.  Its combination of a personal yet universal narrative with a "butterfly effect" alt-timeline story works very well.  Its characters are dynamic and fleshed out superbly.  It is one of those rare graphic novels that will appeal to audiences of various ages, genders, and ethnicities.  It simply is a very good story that is illustrated well.  If you like intelligently-written graphic novels, this is one worth reading.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Some late August Foreign Book Porn

Made my monthly trip to McKay's today.  Found quite a few titles in translation in languages that I want to learn.  Above are four Serbian translations:  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin; Tolkien, The Silmarillion; Salvador Dali, I am a Genius; and Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Being somewhat of a Tolkien enthusiast (at least for his non-LotR works) and certainly one who enjoyed Gabo's most famous work, I was almost ecstatic to see these four books available for a grand total of $6.50.  Will likely re-read these stories in tandem with these translations in the coming year or two, maybe sooner in the case of Tolkien, as I don't have published reviews of those two books.

More works in translations (and two in the original idiom, albeit one seems to have been modernized):  Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in Italian; Gide's Les Faux Monnayeurs in the original French; three Dostoevsky short stories in Spanish translation; and a prose, modernized French edition of Tristan et Iseult.  All of these for language practice (and the Dostoevsky because it was only 15¢).  All this for $1.55.

Got lucky here and found the "first edition" (a limited edition published by arrangement before the mass release) of the English translation of Elsa Morante's Historia (I've already read the Italian original, but this is a leatherbound, gilt edition from The Franklin Library and it was a steal at $18 for its very good condition).  Also found an Attic Greek-Brazilian Portuguese translation of the middle third of The Odyssey for $3 and Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek's most famous work, The Piano Teacher, in the original German for only 75¢.

Spending $29.80 in store credit (and having almost $7 remaining from the books I traded in) for these classics makes me very thankful that I can travel to a wonderful bookstore 1-2 times a month and always find surprises and excellent fiction for cheap rates.  Now to find the time to work again on my languages so I can read the German and Serbian editions almost as quickly as I do the English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian books bought.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Kameron Hurley, The Mirror Empire

"Sorry," Roh said.  "I'm Rohinmey Tadisa Garika, a student of Ora Dasai's.  Forgot about Saiduan privacy.  I meant no offense.  We're very open here."

The sanisi sheathed his blade.

Roh had not gotten a good look at the sanisi back in the foyer.  Now that he was up close, he realized he had made a false assumption.  The sanisi was tall, far taller than any Dhai, and dark, with twisted rings of black hair knotted close to his head, though it looked like it had been shorn short not many months back.  The ends were ragged.  It was the sanisi's face, though, that made Roh pause.  The hair that graced the sanisi's upper lip and the sides of the cheeks was soft and downy.  Roh had seen pictures of Saiduan men, and they all had short but noticeable beards. (p. 38)

Epic fantasies, especially their opening volumes, are difficult books to review.  The reviewer has to not only take into account that there likely will be no complete character or plot arcs, that there will be a suspension of events in order to build for the subsequent volumes.  Then there is the necessary acclimation to created "worlds" and cultures, with alien-sounding character and place names and perhaps ways of life that differ considerably from those depicted in more realist stories.  Although certainly not a prerequisite, there is often more mass violence (battles, assassinations, duels) in epic fantasies than in most other literary genres.  If a reviewer has difficulties with some of these elements, it can make it much more difficult to enjoy the opener to an epic fantasy series even when the author has gone to some length to introduce elements, such as gender and race, that are often either neglected or presented in a fashion that would alienate those who are not males or are Caucasian.

For readers who want to find "something different" in epic fantasy, Kameron Hurley's first epic fantasy, The Mirror Empire, may appeal greatly to them.  Over the course of 449 pages (I presume the Nook e-edition I read equates to the print pages), there is a lot that transpires within its pages:  two seemingly parallel worlds starting to merge; a five-gender system in which "traditional" power/status structures are upended; three distinct cultures, each with its own dynamics, including a sordid pogrom taken up against one of those cultures; semi-sentient mobile plants who are a terror and people who use bears with forked tongues as a mount; and a magical system based on the waxing and waning of satellites.  This should be excellent fodder for those who long for imaginative, inventive fantasy elements, but yet... Yes, but yet..., as there were several major flaws that kept me from enjoying The Mirror Empire.

Structurally, the opening chapters are a mess.  Hurley has to expend a lot of pages to establish these series of subplots that it makes it not just a bit difficult to follow, but it also makes them rather prosaic.  Introduce quickly a setting, don't devote the space to making these settings "organic" to the plot, move on to the next subplot setting, rinse, repeat.  By the time the first quarter is over, everything is just so muddled.  There are two main reasons this confusion is exacerbated, the prose and characterizations.

To be honest, Hurley's writing feels much more like an extended outline than a polished narrative at the syntactical level.  The narrative is just too staccato.  The descriptions are sparse, feeling perfunctory.  This leaves the settings, which should be interesting with these inventive creatures like the acid-spitting plants and forked-tongued bear mounts, barren of anything of real interest.  The fact that there are two portal worlds that seem to be bleeding into each other only makes this lack of scenery development all the more disappointing.  There really was nothing that stood out here in terms of setting.  The spartan prose also affects the dialogue, as those to often felt as though a bunch of high school Drama I students forced to take the class were just mumbling their lines, with little conviction behind them.

This makes the characterizations feel hollow, flat.  Hurley tries to present a plethora of views and have certain scenes that underscore the different socio-gender power structures, but as can be seen in the scene quoted below, the potential falls short:

Zezili must have shown her disapproval in her face, because he interrupted before she could dissent, hurried on.  "Just the daily papers from Daorian.  I know your feeling about books, and Daolyn feels that way as well, but surely, what harm is there in papers?  Just some news from outside?  There was a silk merchant through here last week, she –"

"I regret that we have had no children," Zezili said.  A sore subject indeed, in any company.  "I have heard that a man assisting in the raising of children often finds some fulfillment from it, but I'm here to take life in Rhea's name, not give it."

"You should just dedicate your body to her as well, then," Anavha said.  A bit too cutting for Zezili's taste.

Zezili's anger stirred.  "You would like that, wouldn't you?" she said.  "Having a sexless woman for a wife?  Yes, you'd like taking solace in none but your own body.  Because that's all I would allow you.  My sisters have no use for you.  Who will touch you then?  Or will you content yourself to be a mad little thing, running after dajian effeminates?"

She saw Anavha clenching his fists, saw the anger in him, and saw it dissipate into tears.  Rhea only allowed him tears. (pp. 66-67)

The first thing I noticed in this passage is that Hurley depends too much on description between the quotes.  The pair's faces have to be described, as apparently the words alone cannot give an accurate depiction.  Even worse, there are extraneous sentences, such as "A sore subject indeed, in any company.", whose incomplete fragments do not further the emotional establishment, but instead feel like placeholders for more direct, intense descriptors.  This occurs so frequently in the narrative that this is not an isolated case, but instead is a prominent flaw in the narrative.  The characters' emotions and thoughts are reduced to sounding almost robotic that this plethora of weak narrative intrusions.

These choppy, weak sentences made for a difficult reading experience.  There was no elegance to these scenes.  I could see the narrative bolts so often that it was difficult to put that aside and to concentrate on the unfolding story.  This is a shame, for there were times that the story was interesting, that I was engaged, and that I wanted to see how these subplots  involving power and resistance while so many strange, magical things were occurring would unfold.  As I write this a day after finishing it, all that comes to mind is that there were a lot of things happening, but few things that meant much at all.  Perhaps the fault is in the stars, or in my inability to connect with this complex series of plot and character developments.  But perhaps it's as simple as a good story being held back by structural flaws that, if fixed, could have made The Mirror Empire a great epic fantasy opener.  As it stands, this novel is just a hot mess.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be.  Characters who don't follow this code become unlikeable.  Critics who criticize a character's unlikeability cannot necessarily be faulted.  They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability.

Why is likability even a question?  Why are we so concerned with whether, in fact or fiction, someone is likable?  Unlikable is a fluid designation that can be applied to any character who doesn't behave in a way the reader finds palatable.  Lionel Shriver notes, in an essay for the Financial Times, that "this 'liking' business has two components:  moral approval and affection."  We need characters to be lovable while they do right. ("Not Here to Make Friends," p. 70, iPad iBooks e-edition)

I have been following Roxane Gay on Twitter ever since I read and reviewed her debut novel, An Untamed State, back in June.  It is a different experience witnessing a writer and cultural critic holding forth on a variety of issues "in real time" before sitting down and reading her debut collection of thirty-eight essays, Bad Feminist.  Many of the issues raised in her essays I first experienced in truncated form on Twitter, but in both media, what immediately becomes apparent is Gay's wit and honesty.

The essays that appear in Bad Feminist are culled from columns that have appeared in the past few years at places such as The Rumpus, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Salon, among others.  Grouped into five categories ("Me," "Gender & Sexuality," "Race & Entertainment," "Politics, Gender & Race," and "Back to Me"), Bad Feminist's essays explore a variety of topics, ranging from the personal to cultural flash points such as the depiction of blacks in American cinema ("Surviving Django" and "Beyond the Struggle Narrative").  In these essays, Gay is not a polished, aloof critic.  Instead, she allows her virtues and flaws to be on full display, showing an individual who is deeply engaged with her subject matter, sometimes to the point of self-conscious subjectivity.  This, however, is not a flaw but a feature in her essays, one that makes Bad Feminist an absorbing read.

One shining example can be found in "What We Hunger For."  Starting as an admission that she cannot critique The Hunger Games effectively due to her fannish attachment to it, Gay proceeds to write a passionate essay that touches upon a traumatic time in her life (a gang rape in middle school) before proceeding to tie this in to the question of "darkness" in contemporary YA fiction:

In June 2011, Meghan Cox wrote, in the Wall Street Journal, about how Young Adult fiction has taken too dark a turn, has unnecessarily exposed young readers to complex, difficult situations before they are mature enough to make sense of those situations.  She wrote,

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.  There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader – or one who seeks out depravity – will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds. 

She is correct in noting that there is darkness in some Young Adult fiction, but she largely ignores the diversity of the genre and the countless titles that aren't grounded in damage, brutality, or loss.  More troubling, though, is the suggestion that somehow reality should be sanitized for teen readers. (p. 115)

The remainder of "What We Hunger For" discusses this desire for sanitizing YA literature, making it somehow "safer" for readers and how it is a misleading goal in light of those young readers, much more than what one might presume, who find solace and strength in these accounts of others battling difficulties and horrendous moments in order to come out on the other side.  Gay argues her point persuasively, using personal experience to flesh out her points without ever denigrating those who believe otherwise.  This ties in directly to the next essay, "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion," in which Gay explores her unease about the notions that lie behind the usage of the label "Trigger Warning."  She is compassionate toward those who have suffered traumatic flashbacks, but she nonetheless sees an issue of not feeling protected, not feeling safe, when such warnings are issued.  It is a view with which I have a deep sympathy for, as what she says on it jibes with my experiences:

This is the truth of my trouble with trigger warnings:  there is nothing words on the screen can do that has not already been done.  A visceral reaction to a trigger is nothing compared to the actual experience that created the trigger.

I don't know how to see beyond this belief to truly get why trigger warnings are necessary.  When I see trigger warnings, I don't feel safe.  I don't feel protected.  Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (p. 122)

An interesting feature of Gay's essays is that while she sets up interesting discussion matters, she rarely, if ever, concludes them with strong, assertive stances.  Instead, these pieces feel like conversation starters, presenting a topic through a deeply personal lens (albeit one that is informed with critical theory as well as knowledge of pop kitsch), but leaving enough "space" for the reader to leave his or her comment as an appendix.  Several times, I felt like I wanted to write a response, to ask a question or inquire about the source material, and this sucked me further into Gay's essays than if they had been polished, academic affairs.  Their structure betrays their original purpose as columns, many of which would have been online and have featured a Comments section.  Some might not like this, but for myself, this works wonderfully because it allows the reader space to draw her own conclusions about the topics raised.

The breezy nature of these essays might not appeal to everyone, but for the most part, Gay displays a sharp, introspective mind that is constantly asking questions about the world and its peoples.  The topics are engaging and while there might be a perceived dearth of firm conclusions, this actually ties into her opening and concluding sections, in which Gay explains why she has labeled herself as a "bad feminist."  If Montaigne's Essais were the foundation for the essay genre, Bad Feminist is an excellent example of the early 21st permutation of that form.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Ceremony of Innocence: The OF Blog Turns 10

On August 25, 2004, I began this blog as an extension of the now-defunct wotmania's Other Fantasy section.  Originally I intended to make only occasional posts of interviews and other content originating on that site, but after three years and barely any posts (I think there were only 1-2 posts/month done by myself and my former co-mods at OF), I decided to try my hand at reviewing current fantasy fiction, despite having not grown up as a primarily SF/F-reading fan.  For a while, this was sufficient, as there were quite a few interesting works released in the wake of the past decade's New Weird moment and I hadn't had to deal with arguments about cover art related to hoods and chainmail yet.

But people change as they age.  When I founded The OF Blog as OF Blog of the Fallen (a reference to Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series),  I had just turned 30 the month before and I was planning on going back to college in order to work as a therapist instead of a public school teacher.  As I write this now, having turned 40 and suffering from several pains that the intervening years have inflicted upon me, it is hard to believe that a quarter of my life has been devoted to maintaining this site.  I have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of blogs start up and fail during this time.  I've seen forums like wotmania go under, with successor sites failing to capture any of the energy and creativity of those early years of the 21st century.  I was blogging before Facebook and Twitter rose to dominate the then-nascent "social media."  I remember using MSN Messenger to keep in touch with friends and loved ones.  So much is dust, now.

I had contemplated making a series of posts reflecting the changes that had occurred here, but I became more and more depressed in glancing through the archives.  I saw glimpses of the arguments of the day:  should a blog's focus be on current or overlooked works?  Should we worry about the influence that publishers might have on us by sending us review copies?  Are posts depicting "book porn" or cover art frivolous, detracting from a blog's "true" purpose?

How strange those arguments back then, 5-7 years ago, compared to those of today!  This weekend, I was re-reading some of William Butler Yeats' poetry when I encountered these lines from "The Second Coming":

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Reflecting back, I feel as though this "ceremony of innocence," this writing about books and poems and stories real and imagined, as though all of this were just dandelion puffs floating away under the force of a cold wind.  Today, I review as many books as ever (I just finished my 100th review for 2014), but there is little discussion about specific books here or anywhere else these days.  Oh, there are discussions that have books as a tangent, discussions about authors and their socio-political views, some of which are perhaps worthy debates, but there really aren't places to discuss these specific stories.  If I'm lucky, there might be a couple of comments left here in a given month or maybe a handful of retweets on Twitter or Likes on Facebook, but there really isn't any conversation about literature that appeals to me.

In their place are discussions of matters that make me uncomfortable to discuss.  Not because I often disagree with the main ideas introduced by people I follow, because I don't, but rather because the way these ideas are presented are sometimes too strident for my academic-trained perspective.  It is a good thing to see a wider variety of people writing stories that touch upon their personal experiences, but sometimes I just want more of a discussion of those stories and less a denunciation of those who likely aren't going to listen to their views in the first place.  I am far from the best in a whole host of areas, but I seem to be lacking in the conviction that so many others have in their views being not just correct, but "right" ones.

It's hard being a dinosaur who has outlived his era.  I don't want to see if my words spark any lightning; I am failing to rage against the dying of the light.  There are days where I just want to retire to this little corner and write secretly, none reading my words, about a wide range of works.  I don't want to think about whether or not Author X or Critic Y has said something non-progressive about Topic Z.  At times, the arguments about identities, whether they be that of groups or of literary genres such as SF/F, divide without expanding the discussion to encompass a diversity of opinions.   I care, but there's also a frustration that I'm not aware of enough discussion of excellent books that exist in a variety of genres due to this focus on authors at the expense of analyzing their works.  With so many people being labeled as fools or worse, I wonder if those epithets could be applied to me for just being unready to commit at the drop of a hat to a cause or a position. 

Then again, there are still worlds to visit and to describe.  Maybe what's best is not to focus so much on matters outside of the realm of literature but to continue to accentuate what is enjoyable and delightful about the act of reading, about the power of poetry, about the music embedded in magical prose.  This is something that I fear I often fail to capture in my posts, but perhaps I am mistaken.  I shall endeavor to presume so and try to trudge on.  The OF Blog may now be 10 and it may no longer be oriented toward SF/F, but it is still a place of expression and hopefully a newer perspective will emerge that will make this a place where others can find discussions that they haven't discovered elsewhere.  In the meantime, I'll probably retire to being a voice crying in the wilderness, as surely some revelation is at hand.  But it's alright, ma, it's life and life only...

Rachel Pollack, The Child Eater

After dinner he was looking out of the window while he dried the dishes, and he noticed a pair of squirrels in the backyard.  There was nothing strange about them.  The place was full of squirrels, and chipmunks, and occasionally deer, but these were a grey and a red, like in the game, and they didn't dart back and forth, they just stood on their hind legs, facing each other, as if they were having a conversation.  'I'll be right back,' Jack said, and put down the towel.

Outside he didn't know what to do, so he just stood there and watched them.  It startled him when they appeared to watch him back.  They turned to stand side by side, and then they looked up at him.  Though he knew it was crazy to think these actual squirrels could have anything to do with the game, and almost as crazy to talk to them, he said, 'I'm sorry I can't seem to win.  To get you out of the maze.'  The squirrels looked at him.  'I'll keep trying.'  Then, feeling really dumb, and ashamed, as if he'd let down his dad in some way, he went back inside and finished drying the dishes. (pp. 19-20)

Rachel Pollack's latest novel, The Child Eater, is her first novel-length fiction since 2002.  It is an interesting novel in that it contains elements in common with portal fantasies, most especially a force that threatens two worlds, without there ever being an actual crossing over from one world to another.  It is a story of two boys, separated by time and dimensional space, who depend nonetheless on each other in order to defeat the eponymous "child eater" who has been terrorizing both worlds.

Pollack, in alternating chapters, focuses on the lives of two young boys, the wizard-to-be Matyas and a prescient boy on Earth named Simon Wisdom.  Utilizing elements from tarot, including the Tarot of Eternity, to construct her tale, Pollack weaves together Matyas and Simon's lives to create a fascinating tale of ambition and redemption.  The reader is first introduced to Matyas and we see him struggle to be admitted into training by the wizards.  We see his burning ambition, his desire to become powerful and famous.  In contrast, Simon is the product of a father who wishes to be normal and a mother who seems to be otherworldly.  At the time of the story, she has been gone for a decade, presumed dead.  Simon turns out to be prescient, able to read minds and to foretell the immediate future.  This alarms his father and Simon is urged to suppress these talents, despite Simon being well-liked and admired by his peers.

Yet one day, similar to what happened to his father Jack, Simon begins to see an odd squirrel pair, a grey and a red (uncertain if this is the American Red or the more commonly-known Eurasian Red Squirrel), and he has visions associated with suffering and the desire for release.  Meanwhile, Matyas finds himself drawing perilously close to a powerful wizard who has managed to hide his name from discovery, allowing him to indiscriminately prey upon young children and consume their souls.  Pollack does a good job in developing these parallel stories, as there were only a few rare occasions where one story would lag or become too focused on scene development at the expense of character growth.

The plot progresses steadily between these two stories, as Matyas and Simon each discover on their own clues toward the resolution of the mysteries confronting them (ultimately the Child Eater).  Pollack's use of tarot terminology at first was confusing to me, but after a few occurrences, the mysticism associated with tarot decks made better sense.  By novel's end, there is a resonance between Matyas and Simon's stories that goes beyond the similarities of their struggles.  Yet for me, the most fascinating thing about Pollack's novel is her choice of using squirrels as a medium between the two worlds that Matyas and Simon inhabit.  This is not merely because of my long-standing references to my favorite rodents, but because there truly is a surprising depth to the mystery surrounding these appearances by the grey and red squirrel that is not resolved until the concluding chapters.

The Child Eater is a hard novel to evaluate, because Pollack does several things well, but nothing is ever really outstanding.  The prose is adequate to the task, but there is little that is memorable about the dialogue or what the two protagonists reflect upon.  The characterizations are fine, yet ultimately the two act in familiar fashion for those familiar with tales of young protagonists battling a threatening evil.  Ultimately, if it were not for the squirrels, The Child Eater would be your typical run-of-the-mill portal fantasy, albeit a well-told one.  But there are those intriguing, mysterious squirrels and they helped me engage enough with the story until their mystery was also explained, making this tale an enjoyable experience.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Corrine Duyvis, Otherbound

In the world of the Dunelands, Amara was sleeping.

Striding through the Walgreens aisles, Nolan wished he could do the same—just curl up in bed, shut his eyes, see nothing but the insides of his eyelids.

No: see nothing but the insides of Amara’s eyelids. He hadn’t seen his own in years.

If he hurried, he could buy the notebooks and get home before Amara woke up. He stopped by the office supplies, adjusted his backpack, and hunted the shelves for the right kind: hard-backed, easy to stack, and with thick enough paper that his ink wouldn’t bleed through when his pen paused at the same spot too long.

“Can I help you find anything?” A perky salesclerk appeared to his right.

Nolan offered a smile. Not quite his teacher-smile, but close—he didn’t visit stores often enough to have a sales- clerk-smile. All these fluorescent lights and shoppers made him uneasy. If something happened in Amara’s world, he had nowhere here to hide. At least his school had bathrooms. Sometimes he even got to use a teacher’s office. When the disabled kid said he felt a seizure coming, teachers listened, if only out of fear that Dad would threaten to sue them again. (p. 9, iPad iBooks e-edition)

The first fantasies I remember reading, C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, were portal fantasies.  There was something about being a young child and being whisked away to a different world, with different rules, customs, and beings.  Oh to escape the tedium of fourth grade (on a very different note, Judy Blume was a godsend about that age) and the now-petty worries of pre-adolescence.  No parents, no bossy adults, nothing but the freedom to explore and to have adventures.  Yes, there is something very enticing about portal fantasies.

But what about those who in our too-real lives who do not have this freedom of movement?  Would there be perhaps an even greater appeal to go somewhere else, be someone else, be in a place where your real-world difference is mitigated or at least not castigated as it is here?  As a child, my interest in portal fantasies was selfish; I dreamed of places suitable for the likes of me.  As an adult, however, with decades of experience with children limited here due to their physical appearance and presumed capabilities, I have come to see the greater appeal that portal fantasies and their escapist qualities have for those who have viewed differently because of their ethnic origin, physical appearance, or socio-sexual attachments.  Therefore, when I read Dutch writer Corrine Duyvis's first YA novel, Otherbound, I was reminded at several points that there are children of all sorts and shapes who dream of traveling to somewhere magical, being the hero or heroine in a tale of their own.

Otherbound's premise is relatively straightforward:  a Nahua-descended American boy, Nolan, has discovered that whenever he has seizures, he enters into the mind of a young servant, Amara.  The opening chapter immediately makes it clear that this will not be a standard tale of a hero/heroine from afar entering through the portal to save the world in the fashion of great white hopes of countless tales.  Duyvis is very careful to avoid the tropes of that field:  communication, empathy, and cooperation are the core traits here.

The narrative does contain some touchstones for readers, especially in there being a nefarious enemy that threatens Amara's world of the Dunelands.  But what Duyvis does with this is establish that Amara is a very independent girl whose life, difficult as it is, is hers and hers alone to live.  We see, through her/Nolan's eyes her lovers, her bucking up against restrictive social confines, all things that have traditionally been muted or left out of most portal fantasies.  In addition, Nolan is not just an occasional escapee to another world; his often-difficult life is shown in great detail.  He is a tough yet sensitive individual, one who refuses to be defined by his two disabilities (he has had a foot amputated in addition to his seizures).  The two, after Amara recovers from the initial shock of realizing that she has been observed her entire life by Nolan, figure out a way to work together to defeat the evil threat.  There is no portal hero taking charge from the natives; Amara and Nolan's cooperation shows them to be equal in determination and in agency.

Duyvis narrates this tale with a clarity that is impressive for a debut novel.  The scenes flow together nicely and while certain elements may be overly familiar to certain readers, for those middle grades readers, say 10-13, the reading experience may prove to be magical.  Otherbound is also notable for its mixing in of "non-traditional" elements (non-binary gender, same-sex orientation, non-Caucasian protagonists, disabled individuals) in a fashion that feels organic and integral to the narrative without being too noticeable for being anything other than elements in a well-told tale.

Lily King, Euphoria

She rolled a pencil beneath her palm on the table and then she looked up at me.  'Helen and I were lovers,' she said.

'Ah.'  This explained a few things.

She laughed at my 'ah' and told me they had met during Nell's first anthropology class with Boas.  Helen, a decade older, was his graduate assistant.  Their connection was instant and though Helen was married with a house in White Plains, she stayed in the city many nights a week.  She had encouraged Nell to go and study the Kirakira, but wrote her angry letters accusing Nell of abandoning her.  They she surprised her by meeting the boat in Marseille with the news that she had left her husband.

'But you had met Fen.'

'I had met Men.  And it was awful.  Before Helen, I would have said that the desire to possess others is more male than female in our culture, but I think temperament comes into it.'  She tapped the pencil on our Grid.

'Was she bread to you?'

She shook her head slowly.  'People are always wine to me, never bread.'

'Maybe that's why you don't want to possess them.' (pp. 159-160, iPad iBooks e-edition)

When I began classes at the University of Tennessee in the early 1990s, I had the vague notion that I might complete a minor in Anthropology.  Although I lacked a couple of classes of completing that by the time I graduated in 1996, I did enjoy the three classes that I did take in the field, especially the Cultural Anthropology class.  Of particular interest to me as a cultural historian trainee was the value and perils of ethnologies, or the studies of particular cultural groups.  One name that was repeatedly brought up was Margaret Mead and her pioneering work in New Guinea.  Even then, she was a very controversial character.  Her monographs on sexuality in New Guinea caused a firestorm of debate in early 20th century Anglo-American culture, where birth control could not be sent in the mail and the Comstock Laws were in full effect.  What is known of her own life, her loves and passions, were also equally the stuff of legend and disdain, even into the present time. 

In her first historical novel, acclaimed novelist Lily King takes a pivotal time in Mead's personal and professional lives, an expedition in early 1930s New Guinea with her second and future third husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson (Fen and Bankson in the novel), and she fictionalizes accounts of that fateful expedition in order to highlight not just the tensions between the characters, but also between the three's Western perspectives and the cultural practices of the villagers they have been observing.  Mead/Nell's interactions are the driving force of King's narrative and the convoluted dynamics of their relationships makes for an intriguing, sometimes fascinating read, even for those who are somewhat familiar with Mead's personal life.

Euphoria is told via Bankson's PoV, punctuated with entries from Nell's journals.  It is an effective storytelling mode, as it allows for a contrast of the deeply personal with the more antiseptic, clinical approach associated with observation journals.  As the story shifts between these two poles, the reader manages to get a clearer impression of what is truly transpiring than if either one of the two narrative modes had dominated.  Yet there are times where there is a bit of a bleed-over, as Bankson's account of Nell's initial pregnancy during the expedition takes on an odd mixture of theoretical views of sex with personal disappointment of the lack of fruitfulness in his own relations with her:

I walked down the men's road.  A cluster of pigs were muscling each other for a scrap of food beneath one of the houses and making a racket.  There was very little light in the sky, but whether it was sunrise or dusk, I wasn't sure anymore.  I had been spun around by them.  I was seven hours away from my work, and had been for who knew how many days.  Nell was pregnant.  She and Fen had made a baby.  When I was with them it was easy to convince myself that she hadn't fully made her choice yet.  She played her part in that.  Her eyes burned into mine when I had an idea she liked.  She followed every word I said; she referred back.  When I had written down Martin's name on the graph she'd passed her finger over the letters.  I felt in some ways we'd had some sort of sex, sex of the mind, sex of ideas, sex of words, hundreds and thousands of words, while Fen slept or shat or disappeared.  But his kind of sex with her produced a baby.  Mine was useless. (p. 161)

The plot depends more upon character interactions than upon external events to drive the narrative.  The tension between the three anthropologists simmers before threatening to explode, making for a quick read for the majority of the time.  Yet there is more than just character tension developing within the narrative.  Nell's journals, focused more on the people through which the three move, refers back to the historical Mead's accounts of her time in New Guinea, replete with the then-shocking revelations about sexual relations and family-kinship connections.  Those brief entries serve as a counterpoint to Bankson's narrative, creating a multi-layered tale that works equally as a fictionalization of a key moment in a historical figure's life and as a social commentary on how Mead's views themselves perhaps have been superseded by subsequent ethnological research.  Although there are a few places where Euphoria perhaps plays up the romantic tensions a bit too much, weakening the overall narrative in the process, on the whole it is a very solid effort, one that will encourage its readers to learn just a little bit more about the extraordinary anthropologist who inspired it.

Niall Williams, History of the Rain

I know what that's like too, when the last thing you feel is the pinch in your arm and this might hurt just a little and you're off into the wherever depending on the length and breadth of your imagination.  My father has a whole section of his library just for this.  Here's Thomas Traherne (1637-74), poet, mystic, entering Paradise (Book 1,569, The Faber Book of Utopias, John Carey, Faber & Faber, London):  "The corn was orient and immortal wheat which never should be reaped nor was ever sown...the dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold.  The Gates were at first the end of the world.  The green trees, when I saw them first through the gates, transported and ravished me... The men!  O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem!  Immortal Cherubims!  And the young men glittering and sparkling angels; and maids, strange and seraphic pieces of life and beauty!  Boys and girls tumbling in the street and playing were moving jewels.'

Paradise has actual gates? (pp. 31-32)

Forget Marx's observation that religion was the opiate of the masses.  For bibliophiles, the act of reading serves as a pallative, giving voice to our pains and providing, sometimes, a numbing agent for those pinpricks of the soul.  In Niall Williams' 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, History of the Rain, he explores the ways in which literature, both composed and collected, can communicate those awful little family secrets that mere conversations fail to do.  It is an interesting approach to the staid family history genre, albeit one that depends in part upon the reader's familiarity with the books referenced.

Nineteen-year-old Ruthie Swain is an invalid, confined now to her family's County Clare home, replete with thatched roof and lack of certain modern amenities.  Desperate to understand her family's history, especially that of her late father, a poet, Ruthie turns to his vast library of books in a search to understand not just the man her father was, but just how these thousands of volumes shaped him.  As she reads and narrates her thoughts on her family and their literary influences, the diary-like tone of certain passages gives way to amusing anecdotes grounded in the literature she is perusing:

That's how I see it anyway.  That's how I see it when I ask Mam 'How did you first meet Dad?' and each time she tells me the story of Not Meeting, of Passing by, and how it seems to me God was giving them every chance not to meet, and the singular nature of their characters will mean their stories will run parallel and never do a Flannery O'Connor.  Never converge. (p. 180)

Over the course of a few hundred pages, Ruthie discusses the known facts of her parents' lives, of her father's existence as a failed poet and even worse farmer; of her mother's exasperation in dealing with him; of the impossibly high standards that her father, Virgil, holds himself to; of how her twin brother Aeney drowns and how that affected her father and his attempts to write publishable poetry.  But most importantly, there is within the family notes and the scribbled margins of her father's books a reference to a poem, "History of the Rain," that might hold clues to understanding just how Ruthie's father came to be the enigma that he was for her.

Williams rarely tells the Swain family's history in linear fashion.  Instead, he favors a more elliptical approach, in which the volumes that Ruthie mentions contains clues to not just what happened in her parents' lives and why they were reluctant to share those moments with her, but also why her father tried his level best to become a poet.  This quest to understand familial past is not original, far from it, but Williams' use of literary references to a wide range of authors spanning the globe imbues the narrative with a secondary layer that enlivens it, making it feel fresher for its more universal approach to discussing the personal.

However, there are times where the dependence upon the literary perhaps goes too deep into the well.  Ruthie's copious references to literary works at times felt a bit too much, as though she were not a fully-fleshed human but instead a literary quote generator that could spout a phrase suitable for any and all emotional moods.  However, these moments thankfully are few in number and on the whole, Williams manages to integrate well the personal family history narrative with the use of literary references as a means of exploring the human condition.  As the narrative unfolds, Ruthie arrives at the conclusion that there is a price to becoming different from others, a toll exacted for those poetic souls who seek to go so deep into this earth that they are transformed by this search for understanding.  It is perhaps a little trite, but in light of the journey that Ruthie has narrated, it is a fitting one.  History of the Rain works best if viewed as a bibliophile's relation of human thought to the real world, connecting our sorrows with those narrated by others.  It may not be a perfect novel, but it is a very human tale, one that I enjoyed reading.

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Something was happening inside Dorrigo Evans as he watched.  Here were three hundred men watching three men destroying a man whom they knew, and yet they did nothing.  And they would continue to watch and they would continue to do nothing.  Somehow, they had assented to what was happening, they were keeping time with the drumming, and Dorrigo was first among them, the one who had arrived too late and done too little and now somehow agreed with what was happening.  He did not understand how this had come to be, only that it had.

For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god.  It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal.  For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence. (pp. 352-353 iPad iBooks e-edition)

As a young child, I was fascinated with the two World Wars.  I have two distinct memories related to this.  My father, a Vietnam War veteran, very occasionally would talk about what he experienced in that latter war, namely witnessing the torturing of a Viet Cong prisoner by Korean soldiers.  The other thing he would recollect was how a history professor of his had been in the Bataan Death March and how his harrowing stories of slave labor and brutal mistreatment by the Japanese affected him decades later.  These stories have shaped my images of warfare, especially in relation to PoWs, as being an excruciating series of terrors punctuated with witnesses (if not direct experience) of torture and depraved behavior.

In his 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Australian writer Richard Flanagan follows the lives of a group of Australian PoWs and their Japanese captors as they are charged with building the infamous Burma Railway.  This railroad, known also as the Death Railway for the tens of thousands of forced laborers' deaths during its construction, and its construction has been described in many novels and movies, mostly famously in Pierre Boulle's The Bridge on the River Kwai.  Boulle's account of the PoWs' experiences during the building of the infamous Bridge 277, however, does not accurately describe the sufferings experienced by the PoWs.  In contrast, Flanagan's novel devotes much of its space to covering these depravities in substantial detail.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, named after a haiku by a 17th century Japanese poet, is divided into five parts that chronicle the lives of several soldiers, most especially that of Dorrigo Evans, over the course of the twentieth century to the dawn of the twenty-first.  At first, the action is slow in developing, as the prewar lives of Evans and other PoV characters only barely hints at the transformations to occur after their capture and forced labor on the Burma Railway.  It is in the final three parts of the novel where the gradually building tension in the soldiers' lives blows up in spectacular ways.  As Evans, a medical doctor, is placed in charge of a thousand man detail, he daily has to confront the awful decisions of survival and death that he is forced to make.  He witnesses several brutal beatings, such as that quoted above, and these dehumanizing experiences change him and others around him, including some of his captors.

Flanagan asks a lot of his readers.  Not only are these sufferings outlined in sometimes graphic detail (the discovery of a man who had just died from amoebic dysentery being but one example), but just when it would seem that the Japanese and Korean soldiers had been built up to be cruel, inhuman monsters, he turns around and has several chapters in the crucial middle section told from their perspectives.  This, however, serves to create a larger dynamic here, that of how violence shapes lives.  In the final two sections, following the end of fighting, Flanagan shows these now ex-soldiers and how they struggle to adapt to their new surroundings.  The results are not always pretty, as denials and self-exculpations for what has transpired abound.  Violence continues to haunt these men, even as some struggle to justify their actions in order to prevent themselves from being condemned.

As noted above, The Narrow Road to the Deep North starts very slowly.  Although the character development established there eventually pays dividends, it was a very sluggish first couple of sections and it was not until nearly 200 pages into the novel that the story truly comes into its own.  However, the second half of the novel is so powerful in its treatment of violence and how these soldiers try to cope with what is happening to and around them that it more than makes up for the slow pace of the beginning sections.  Flanagan's prose is chilling at times, especially in his depictions of the punishments inflicted on the soldiers.  Even more than this, it is how he turns these graphic portrayals around and makes of them a commentary on the human condition that makes The Narrow Road to the Deep North a worthy nominee for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Karen Joy Fowler, We All Are Completely Beside Ourselves

Those weeks I spent with our grandparents in Indianapolis still serve as the most extreme demarcation in my life, my personal Rubicon.  Before, I had a sister.  After, none.

Before, the more I talked the happier our parents seemed.  After, they joined the rest of the world in asking me to be quiet.  I finally became so.  (But not for quite some time and not because I was asked.)

Before, my brother was part of the family.  After, he was just killing time until he could be shed of us.

Before, many things that happened are missing in my memory or else stripped down, condensed to their essentials like fairy tales.  Once upon a time there was a house with an apple tree in the yard and a creek and a moon-eyed cat.  After, for a period of several months, I seem to remember a lot and much of it with a suspiciously well-lit clarity.  Take any memory from my early childhood and I can tell you instantly whether it happened while we still had Fern or after she'd gone.  I can do this because I remember which me was there.  The me with Fern or the me without?  Two entirely different people. (p. 56)

What constitutes a family?  Is it a grouping of genetically-related persons who lodge together in a common dwelling?  Does the adoption of others into the home create family bonds?  If so, what happens to a family's bonds when the adopted member is removed suddenly?  These questions are just a few of the ones raised and addressed in Karen Joy Fowler's 2013 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, recently selected for the 2014 Man Booker Prize longlist.

The story centers on the relationship that Rosemary Cooke, now in her early 20s in the narrative present of 1996-1997, formed in the late 1970s with Fern, who later was removed from the family in 1979 when Rosemary was five.  Theirs was an unusual relationship, one that was in equal parts grand social experiment and extended familial bonding, and for the first section of the novel, the reader only learns just a tiny bit about what made this experiment special and how their separation affected the entire Cooke family.  Fowler's story is built around a slow unraveling of the central mystery surrounding Rosemary and Fern's too-brief siblinghood and a direct discussion of that might ruin for some potential readers the magic of this tale.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is largely told from Rosemary's point-of-view.  We see flashbacks to various key points in her young life, to how she struggled to conform to social expectations for kindergarteners and how her various social relationships reflected a lack in her life.  Her parents, but especially her father, are shown in a negative light, as the experiment conducted by them has had a deleterious effect on all four remaining members of the Cooke family.  But it is Rosemary's brother, Lowell, who is the most readily damaged by the sundering of the Rosemary-Fern relationship.  He turns against his parents, against his society, and becomes what might be described as an eco-terrorist, one who is on the run from the FBI during part of the 1990s narrative sections.  Fowler does an excellent job in fleshing out the other family characters with short, sharp observations that give each family member a backstory without the need for much description.

Fowler has carefully constructed the narrative, as Rosemary's reminisces combine with her current social interactions to create a contrasting before-after effect that leads to a gripping tale of loss and recovery.  Fowler subtly shows these gradual changes in Rosemary after her separation from Fern and how over the intervening 17 years she has come to terms with the changes caused by that loss.  Rosemary, like her parents and brother, is not the same as she was "before," but the "after" Rosemary, despite her closer relationship to Fern than what the rest of her family experienced, is somehow more resilient, less prone to the self-destructive behavioral changes that have afflicted the others.  These less damaging changes enable Rosemary to deal well with Fern when she re-encounters her nearly two decades later in a very different social milieu.  Their brief meeting is poignant without ever slipping into maudlin melodrama.

We Are Completely Beside Ourselves was my seventh-favorite 2013 US release and it is not surprising to see that it was nominated for the 2014 Man Booker Prize after its UK release.  It is a touching story that displays a keen level of insight into what makes us social beings.  Fowler's prose is carefully crafted to fit the characters and plot.  The characterization, as I noted above, is top-notch and the plot moves steadily, with very few hiccups, towards its emotional denouement.  It is a fitting nominee for this award, one that I would highly recommend to readers of a wide variety of literary genres.

Friday, August 22, 2014

A few revived projects to supplement current reviewing goals

This weekend is going to be a very busy one, as I plan on writing six reviews between now and Sunday night (likely three each for Saturday and Sunday), as I have a reason for wanting to have written 100 reviews in 2014 by the 25th.  Most, if not all, of these reviews will be for 2014 releases, as I want to have reviewed as many 2014 releases read as possible by late December and I still have another 50 unread books on my January list of 2014 releases (most of them not-yet-published here in the US).

I'm also considering reviving the aborted Faulkner and possibly Flannery O'Connor review projects from 2012/2013.  I've noticed that those reviews, when I cross-post them over at Gogol's Overcoat, get the most consistent views of any reviews that I've written in the past three years.  There's just something about having reviews of several volumes that appeals to me, even though I won't commit to a weekly review schedule like I attempted the past two years.

Also am likely to start writing reviews of individual sections of the Tim Cross anthology, The Lost Voices of World War I, for initial publication at my newest blog, World War I Literature, Art, and Cinema.  It's about time that I added more content over there, as I've been putting it on the backburner in order to catch up with my 2014 releases reviews.

Oh, and there might be a poetry discussion or two somewhere in the near future as well...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Frances Hardinge, Cuckoo Song

Her head hurt.  There was a sound grating against her mind, a music-less rasp like the rustling of paper.  Somebody had taken a laugh, crumpled it into a great, crackly ball and stuffed her skull with it.  Seven days, it laughed.  Seven days. 

'Stop it,' she croaked.  And it did.  The sound faded away, until even the words she thought she had heard vanished from her mind like breath from glass.

'Triss?'  There was another voice that sounded much louder and closer than her own, a woman's voice.  'Oh, Triss, love, love, it's all right, I'm here.'  Something was happening.  Two warm hands had closed around hers, as if they were a nest for it.

'Don't let them laugh at me,' she whispered.  She swallowed, and found her throat dry and crackly as bracken. (Ch. 1, introductory paragraphs, Kindle e-edition)

The cuckoo bird is famous (infamous?) for its ability to mimic the appearance and sound of dozens of other birds in order to lay its eggs in a "host's" nest.  In certain Eurasian legends, it has served to represent the myth of the changeling, of a replaced body that mimics the voice and actions of an original child, but with subtle differences that serve to warn others that this is a nefarious replacement.  For centuries, changeling tales have appeared in various European folk tales, usually representing a hidden monster or a looming disaster.

Frances Hardinge's latest YA novel, Cuckoo Song, is a mystery tale that appropriates several of the motifs associated with these cuckoo/changeling tales to create a quasi-historical story that is fascinating.  The story begins with young eleven-year-old Triss waking up one day after being unconscious for a week, feeling strangely out of sorts,  As she tries to come to terms with what has unfolded in her family in post-World War I England, a series of nefarious actions take place, some of which surround a mysterious doll that seems to speak to Triss.  As she begins to question what is going on, not to mention wondering why she is oh so hungry all the time, a series of revelations occur that shed light on these mysteries.  It seems there are more monsters out there than what might presume.

The Cuckoo Song depends heavily on its plot structure to carry the story.  Triss begins the story ignorant of her past and as she fills in the gaps in her memory, pieces of the central mystery are set in place.  Hardinge does a good job in doling out information, as there are few apparent infodumps over the course of this story.  Related to this balanced plot pace is the development of Hardinge's characters.  Triss and her family members are fleshed out nicely over the course of this 416 page novel, with their development tied directly to new information discovered.  While at times the mysterious element was overplayed, at least in that character development was too closely tied to corresponding plot developments and not allowed to develop organically, on the whole these characters are dynamic enough that it is easy to overlook this minor flaw.

Enjoyable as the plot was, if there was a major flaw in Cuckoo Song, it might be that the plot progressions are too pat and predictable.  There were times that I skimmed through chapters, sensing that the information provided within could have been pared down some while still maintaining a nice plot-centered origins mystery.  Yet while this high degree of predictability may have dampered my own enjoyment slightly, for others more able to keep their focus on the current developments instead of trying to anticipate each upcoming major development, the story, prose, characterization, etc. will likely prove to be intriguing enough to make Cuckoo Song a very enjoyable reading experience.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Paula Bomer, Inside Madeleine

I don't want to jump out any window.  I just want to breathe something that makes me feel like living.  They pump the air in here out of machines.  It stinks like Play-Doh.  Open a window, please – I won't jump – I'm not a suicide patient.  I just don't eat.

My neighbors don't eat either.  Eye socket girls.  Nurses drag them with their IVs to the scale.  Some girls get weighed once a day, others, two or three times.  Liquids pump into our bodies through plastic tubing, adding pounds to our emaciated frames.  We don't like the pounds.  We look voraciously at one another.  We envy the protruding bones of someone who is that much closer to not being here at all.

You may think that I don't know I'm emaciated.  I know every curve and angle of my rib cage.  I know my breasts have disappeared completely and my nipples lay flat against my chest.  I am aware that the new girl has hair growing out of her face.  This girl's body sprouts hair like moss on a tree stump, everywhere, to keep itself warm, to protect itself.  I know about these things.  I'm aware of the effects of my disease. ("Eye Socket Girls," p. 10 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Paula Bomer's third book, the collection Inside Madeleine, is one of the more direct books on women's issues, particularly body image, that I have read.  The eight stories are raw, sometimes visceral stories of women fighting, often failing, to maintain their sense of identity despite the plethora of pitfalls that await them.  These were not easy stories to read, but Bomer manages for the majority of them to make them compelling reads, leaving me feeling like I was rubbernecking, looking at the carnage of her characters' lives.

The opening story, "Eye Socket Girls," sets the tone for the tales that follow.  Set in a hospital ward for anorexic girls, the first-person narrator pulls no punches when it comes to describing how she and others like her ended up in treatment.  The passage quoted above, taken from the introductory paragraphs, makes it quite clear that this will not be a pitiable character, but instead a more vindictive one who is convinced by that starving herself, she is defying a system that judges young women by impossible standards.  As she continues her narration, the topic switches to a rather uncomfortable topic:

That's why people fight us.  No one likes to see a young girl win.  We're supposed to be nice, well-behaved things.  Pliable, fearful things that cry a lot, especially when we have our periods.  I don't get my period anymore.  I haven't bled since I was fourteen. (p. 12)

This is not the standard cautionary tale and in the next story, "Breasts," the third-person protagonist, Lola, also confounds reader expectations by her uses of her "assets" ending not in trouble, but instead in something more ambiguous.  This is a motif that Bomer returns to several times in the stories that follow, that of a young woman defying social conventions and often, albeit sometimes with visible and metaphorical bruises, making her way through a society that seems bound and determined to see them fail.

Despite the mostly-excellent stories of the first seven tales, it is the novella-length eponymous concluding story that makes Inside Madeleine a memorable read.  It is a tale of a young woman some might call a slut, Madeleine, and how she utilizes her body to get what she wants.  A slightly chubby (this is emphasized at several points early in the story to set up the conclusion) middle school girl, she tries to befriend some high school boys at a local skating rink by going down on them.  As word of her "talents" spreads, her demeanor changes to an outwardly haughty yet vulnerable young woman.  It is her interactions with a socially nondescript boy her age, Mark, and their tumultuous relationship over the intervening years that makes this story a fascinating read.  Bomer pulls no punches, as both Madeleine and Mark have their own issues with manipulation until finally the story spirals down to a conclusion that connects Madeleine's tale, albeit thematically, with others in the collection.  It is a powerful denouement, one that the reader will not forget anytime soon.

Bomer's prose sparkles in most of these tales, as her characters feel alive and defiant thanks to her ability to string emotion and setting together with monologues that seethe with frustration and the desire to spite those who presume to keep them down.  The characterizations are top-notch and the plots surprise without feeling illogical or disjointed.  While the middle tales are not as memorable as the ones discussed above, the novella "Inside Madeleine" alone would make this collection one worth reading.  Inside Madeleine is destined to be one of those rare collections that I'll revisit several times in the years to come.

Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

I encouraged my patients to floss.  It was hard to do some days.  They should have flossed.  Flossing prevents periodontal disease and can extend life up to seven years.  It's also time consuming and a general pain in the ass.  That's not the dentist talking.  That's the guy who comes home, four or five drinks in him, what a great evening, ha-has all around, and, the minute he takes up the floss, says to himself, What's the point?  In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark, bacteria consumes the pancreas, flies lay their eggs, beetles chew through tendons and ligaments, the skin turns to cottage cheese, the bones dissolve, and the teeth float away with the tide.  But then someone who never flossed a day in his life would come in, the picture of inconceivable self-neglect and unnecessary pain – rotted teeth, swollen gums, a live wire of infection running from enamel to nerve – and what I called hope, what I called courage, about all what I called defiance, again rose up in me, and I would go around the next day or two saying to all my patients, "You must floss, please floss, flossing makes all the difference."

A dentist is only half the doctor he claims to be.  That he's also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself.  The ailing bits he tries to turn healthy again.  The dead bits he just tries to make presentable.  He bores a hole, clears the rot, fills the pit, and seals the hatch.  He yanks the teeth, pours the mold, fits the fakes, and paints to match.  Open cavities are the eye stones of skulls, and lone molars stand erect as tombstones. (pp. 3-4)

If you had told me before reading Joshua Ferris's Booker Prize-longlisted novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour that a story centered around a depressed dentist whose love for Red Sox baseball was only matched by his failure to maintain any relationship would be one of the funniest novels released this year, I would have looked askance at you.  But it is true, this novel tackles some potentially drab situations (in addition to the above, add the search of an atheist for some sort of meaning) and manages to find brightness within them.  It is an impressive accomplishment.

Paul O'Rourke on the surface has an ideal life.  He is a very successful New York dentist, having a large practice located in a posh Park Avenue office complex.  However, the rest of his life is a shambles, much of it due solely to his self-destructive behavior.  His obsession over religion and meaning, trying on religious customs as though they were thrift store clothing despite his constant declarations that he is an atheist, his repetitive and borderline creepy conversations with former and current employees, his rapid cycling through of hobbies, all of these show a person on the edge of a complete and total breakdown.  Yet as he keeps circling around his core problems, reluctant to tackle what truly is the cause of his insomnia and mild depression, his observations are genuinely funny.  Yet Ferris's humor, like much great comedy, does not detract from the root pain and suffering.  Instead, Paul's humorous observations (including an insane tying in of a dental patient to Ross and Rachel from Friends) about what he experiences happening around him serves to accentuate his inner ennui, his desire to fit in and to find some meaning, any meaning in his life.

Paul's world, jumbled and rudderless as it is, is turned upside-down when it turns out that someone has created Facebook, Twitter, and a webpage using his dental practice name.  Furthermore, these pages contain religious tracts of an obscure group known as the Ulms, who claim ancestry from the few survivors of the first biblical genocide, that of the Amalekites.  As this "other Paul" makes status updates and tweets despite Paul's protests, Paul finds himself more and more drawn into what is unfolding.  People relatively close to him, from family to former lovers, find this "new" Paul fascinating in ways that the maladroit Paul just cannot be.  Paul himself begins to find, if not answers, then at least possibilities, to some of the issues, particularly faith-related ones, that have troubled him for years.

For most of the narrative, the story balances precariously between being intense and tedious.  It is a testimony to Ferris's ability to turn a phrase that moments devoted to the minutiae of matters such as the 2011 Red Sox September collapse end up being wry, attention-grabbing moments that sustain the story through a middle part that is less well-developed than the introduction and conclusion.  There is nothing actively bad about this middle section, but in Ferris's showing the reader precisely how Paul's depression and self-defeating actions have constrained his life, the narrative at times too closely resembles this repetitive downward spiral.  However, even in these less interesting moments, there are still moments of profound silliness that break up the monotony of these scenes, making them more bearable for readers.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour succeeds primarily because Ferris's prose is outstanding.  It isn't just his clever wit and juxtaposing Paul's foibles with his monologues, but it is seen in how he mixes in controversial elements like non-faith and religious sentiment to create sparks that kindle a reader's interest rather than burning away any further desire to read.  The revelations toward the end about who is behind the "other Paul" online identity is handled well and the implications of that revelation tie in nicely with the novel's thematic explorations of non-faith and the desire to create meaning out of life.  This is not to say that the ending is predictable.  If anything, it is a conclusion that, while fitting for Paul's character and situation, does not follow standard conventions and yet, somehow, it all works.  To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is sharp, smart, and yet has a compassionate take that makes the humorous elements feel more humane and less biting than they could be, considering the serious topics that are the targets here.  It certainly is a fitting nominee for the Booker Prize and is one of the better humorous novels that I have read in years.
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