The OF Blog

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

National Book Awards' 5 under 35 authors for 2014

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

Yelena Akhtiorskaya, Panic in a Suitcase

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

Phil Klay, Redeployment

Valeria Luiselli, Faces in the Crowd

Kirstin Valdez Quade, Night at the Fiestas:  Stories

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

Monday, September 29, 2014

Kelly Barnhill, The Witch's Boy

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

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

Ned, some said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A couple of pics of my leatherbound books

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

Saturday, September 27, 2014

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

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

Dave Hutchinson, Europe in Autumn

Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory

Donatella Di Pietrantonio, Bella Mia

Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck & Other Stories 

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

Gail Giles, Girls Like Us

Kalyan Ray, No Country

Spencer Reese, The Road to Emmaus

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Richard House, The Kills

Justin Taylor, Flings

Howard Jacobson, J

Pierre Demarty, En face

Claudie Hunzinger, La langue des oiseaux

Nathalie Kuperman, La Loi Sauvage

Christine Montalbetti, Plus rien que les vagues et le vent

Valérie Zenatti, Jacob, Jacob

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van

Kelly Barnhill, The Witch's Boy

Ali Smith, How to be Both

Dylan Landis, Rainey Royal

Friday, September 26, 2014

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

Vorrei non dovermi ancora una volta svegliare in mia compagnia.

Mi alzo e mi faccio la barba.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

What will you be communicating?

You have to think about that.  For cultural exchange.


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

For the future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Elisa Ruotolo, Ovunque, proteggici

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

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

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

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

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

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

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