The OF Blog

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

And now, a few thoughts on the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award

... 

Just kidding.  I actually like this shortlist, having read (and reviewed) three of the six shortlisted titles last year. 


The Girl With All The Gifts - M.R. Carey (Orbit)
The Book Of Strange New Things - Michel Faber (Canongate)
Europe In Autumn - Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
Memory Of Water - Emmi Itäranta (HarperVoyager)
The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August - Claire North (Orbit)
Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel (Picador)

Saturday, April 04, 2015

February and March 2015 Reads

This list of books read in February and March ought to underscore just how little I've read so far this year compared to the past decade (the last time I read under 100 books in a year was 2005, a year in which I worked full-time and was a full-time non-trad college student).  Interesting to see what was read, however, as there were more 2015 releases than I realized (which I suppose I should write commentaries on at the least in the next month or two), plus two whose titles I won't reveal due to them being part of something I've been privy to.  So with that, here are twelve titles read over two months:

February:

7.  James G. Basker (ed.), American Antislavery Writings:  Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation (non-fiction; Library of America edition; excellent collection of primary source writing)

8.  Stewart O'Nan, West of Sunset (short review forthcoming)

9.  Jonathan Lethem, Lucky Alan and Other Stories (short story collection; short review forthcoming)

10.  Kirstin Valdez Quade, Night at the Fiesta (debut; short story collection; review forthcoming)

11.  Williams Wells Brown, Clotel & Other Writings (fiction and non-fiction; Library of America edition; titular story already reviewed; excellent overall)

12.  William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates (eds.), Slave Narratives (non-fiction; Library of America edition; outstanding primary source collection)

13.  Laura Van den Berg, Find Me (debut novel; review forthcoming)

14.  Okey Ndibe, Arrows of Rain (very good)

15.  Alicia Yánez Cossío, El beso y otras fricciones (Spanish; short story collection; very good)


March:

16.  Fatima Bhutto, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon (debut; review forthcoming)

17.  [Redacted]

18.  [Redacted]


Despite not having any set gender/language percentage goals this year, interesting to see that through 19 books (I finished a book this evening), it is 9/19 women writers and 5/19 read in a language other than English.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

After nearly eleven years, it may be time to call it quits

The days and nights are like blurs now.  Strange to realize that I only posted once in March and barely a handful of times in February.  I have read only a handful of books over the past two months and I forgot to log what I had read even then.  I've been so busy doing some practice translations (which may or may not see the light of day; one likely will in a couple of years, if I finish it this year) and re-working my entire nutrition/exercise program that I found it refreshing not thinking about reading for reviews or even about reading at all.  I have only a few moments here and there to glance at social media and for the most part, I don't miss it at all.

There is a liberating sort of feeling about changing core routines so drastically.  Seeing a much flatter stomach and more toned muscles in my arms is rewarding, especially considering that I am now 40.  Developing a nice, healthy tan from walking outside 90-120 minutes/day for 3x/week is a bonus.  Outside of a few minor issues, life is looking up.  The squirrels are frolicking more and more these days and it's hard not to think, despite all the evils in this world, that life and its multitudes of creatures just might be a wonderful thing after all.

But sometimes, things have to give.  Therefore, I'm possibly going to be shuttering this blog in the coming months if my recent job application comes through.  Nearly eleven years and perhaps it's time to admit that reviewing is best left to fans and not those who take a (much) less enthusiastic approach to discussing a work's perceived merits and deficiencies.  There just isn't really much reward in discussing books that others aren't gushing over already, n'est ce pas?  So maybe it's best to retreat into a setting where I can focus on sciuridae and obscure writers like Milan Kundera and Terry Bollea and leave the discussion of books to the experts.


Sunday, March 08, 2015

When "101" just doesn't cut it anymore

Most students who've attended an American university have experience with an "101":  an introductory survey to a discipline that is meant to provide a broad parameter of that discipline's general features.  As a survey course, it focuses much more on a bigger picture than it does on exploring any particular detail in course.  For some, 101 courses are a gateway to more advanced, specialized training, while for others they either provide only what they were seeking in the first place (broad, general knowledge) or they were just requirements that were endured and best forgotten.

The "101" can also be an analogy for certain discussions, particularly those that are meant to be a general challenge to social assumptions.  It's been a couple of weeks since I've had the time to blog about anything, but I've been vaguely aware of the number of debates spawned by an article/challenge by K. Tempest Bradford last month regarding the challenging of her readers to spend a year not reading white, straight, cisgendered male writers.  As such challenges typically go, it provoked more than just a challenge to read differently; it made several react against the very notion that they needed to be challenged at all.

In thinking about the uproar caused by this modest challenge (I say "modest" in that it is not a materially onerous goal), I found myself thinking about certain survey course debates.  One salient example is that of how much coverage should be given to certain civilizations vis à vis others.  It is an enduring, important debate in social studies and there are several valid arguments made by various sides, not all of which are in total opposition to the others.  When it comes to Bradford's challenge, several made various iterations of this particular debate, although often it was used to excuse those people from participating (as though not going whole hog on this were somehow a horrid thing!).

However, there is an inherent weakness to challenges such as Bradford's, namely that they have to be general surveys and not in-depth explorations of certain topics.  By merely saying "read more X writers," which is basically what this challenge boils down to, the reader is challenged to participate foremost in a quantitative process (increasing number of books read in the target group/s) and not so much in a qualitative assessment of why certain works should be read.  After all, it is easy to read a set number.  It is much more difficult to process what was just read and apply that to other literature read over a period of time.

Last month, I began a re-read of the two-volume Library of America collection of nine novels written by writers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.  So far, I have only reviewed one book, Jean Toomer's Cane, yet I found myself thinking about certain issues of identity expressed in that marvelous work.  Of particular interest was the author's own self-identity; he did not want to be identified as either black or white.  In knowing this, the language of the poems and vignettes there reflects this particular self-view.  It was also interesting, when doing background research on the book's initial reception, in how divided the reactions were among the black writers of the time, as Toomer's use of the then-revolutionary Modernist approach to narrative threatened, in some of their minds, the fragile equilibrium achieved in balancing white and black audience expectations for then-contemporary black literature.  In reading Cane and then beginning Richard Wright's posthumously published first novel, Lawd Today (then labeled as Cesspool), while sampling other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, there were some interesting fault lines that emerged when it came to social customs, religion, sexuality, and political views.  And through it all, threading a fine needle, was the central question of identity: "Who am I and how do I make it in this world around me?" 

This is what crops up repeatedly in the readings I've done over the years of authors who were of various skin tones, genders, ages, abilities, and faiths.  There are some interesting intersections, such as thematic resonances of the works of William Faulkner and the writers of the Latin American Boom Generation, as well as some expected (and yet sometimes surprising divergences).  This is what a reader can experience if s/he chooses to read widely, not just along the parameters of Bradford's challenge, but also across genres and non-fiction fields (W.E.B. Du Bois's 1896 history, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, is a captivating read nearly 120 years later).

However, this analysis of writers and how their thoughts reflect or oppose the espirit du temps is not "101" material.  It involves more than just saying, "I've read 30 books by X group of writers" to accomplish anything.  Anyone can read assignments and pass certain tests, but it takes much more self-reflection to integrate what one has read and make it a part of their own self-identity.  Challenges are well and good, yet they often don't go far enough.  Yes, it would be great if more people read works by writers who are not part of the dominant social group/s, but if they aren't talking about or debating these works' merits with others, then is the full benefit of such exercises being reached?

I have my doubts about this.  I do worry at times that such important things can be reduced to a sort of competition or status of belonging.  "Well, you need to read more of this!" can easily be construed as an attack on another's value/priority systems, even if such was never intended.  While I certainly don't think this is ever the intent of such challenges, it certainly can devolve to such in the minds of those who feel there is no real encouragement to discuss the merits of this works, but instead ponder if it may not be worth it.  It is difficult to combat these perceptions, honest as they are (errare humanum est, after all), unless there is a mutual willingness to go beyond "101" and delve into a host of related issues together to find, if not commonality, then at least grounds for further exploration and discussion.  It is only then, I suspect, that the true fruits of diverse reading and writing can ripen and be enjoyed fully.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Jean Toomer, Cane

Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.  Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their knees.  Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls.  God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men.  The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them.  This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her. (p. 5, Library of America edition)

One of the earliest novels of the Harlem Renaissance was a book written by a man of multiethnic descent, Nathan Jean Toomer, who was loathe to identify himself as black or white.  This book, Cane, originally published in 1923, created some controversy and few initial sales as it did not kowtow to either white or black expectations.  Yet for those critics and readers who did read this book, Cane left indelible impressions.  After re-reading it recently, it is one of those fictions that has to be experienced in toto for it to be understood fully; it defies simple, pat descriptions.

Cane is neither beast nor fowl; it moves smoothly and assuredly between poem, short story vignette, and drama.  Toomer himself conceptualized it as being a sort of thematic circle, going from simple to complex, moving from South to North and back South again.  Yet within these intricately woven passages, Toomer narrates the rhythms of black Southern life and the upheavals as some moved north during the Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s.  Characters, such as Karintha (initial passage quoted above), appear prominently in one vignette, later to disappear and reappear, sometimes in a slight disguise, in another.  And through it all, there are poems narrating life, such as this one, "November Cotton Flower":

Boll-weevil's coming, and the winter's cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take

All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground –
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance.  Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year. (p. 9)
This poem was of particular interest to me for its combination of traditional couplets (minus two lines, which use alliteration instead to carry the rhythm through to the next couplet) with some daring imagery.  Toomer's writing, whether it be prose or poesy, is often very impressionistic, with descriptors creating vivid, sharp images from text that is often pared down in order to pack more punch per line.  Cane is as much a Modernist novel as anything that Joyce or Woolf produced and this poem of death and beauty and something else, something a bit daring when "brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear" is parsed a certain way, this poem captures several things eloquently in fourteen lines.

Toomer's gift for depicting life extends to his prose passages.  Here is one section taken from "Esther," concerning another major character in his cycle:

Esther begins to dream.  The low evening sun sets the windows of McGregor's notion shop aflame.  Esther makes believe that they really are aflame.  The town fire department rushes madly down the road.  It ruthlessly shoves back and white idlers to one side.  It whoops.  It clangs.  It rescues from the second-story window a dimpled infant which she claims for her own.  How had she come by it?  She thinks of it immaculately.  It is a sin to think of it immaculately.  She must dream no more.  She must repent her sin.  Another dream comes.  There is no fire department.  There are no heroic men.  The fire starts.  The loafers on the corner form a circle, chew their tobacco faster, and squirt juice just as fast as they can chew.  Gallons on top of gallons they squirt upon the flames.  The air reeks with the stench of scorched tobacco juice.  Women, fat chunky Negro women, lean scrawny white women, pull their skirts up above their heads and display the most ludicrous underclothes.  The women scoot in all directions from the danger zone.  She alone is left to take the baby in her arms.  But what a baby!  Black, singed, woolly, tobacco-juice baby – ugly as sin.  Once held to her breast, miraculous thing:  its breath is sweet and its lips can nibble.  She loves it frantically.  Her joy in it changes the town folks' jeers to harmless jealousy, and she is left alone. (p. 29)
There is a lot to unpack here.  The dream imagery is remarkable for how deftly Toomer utilizes repetition of phrases to cast and recast descriptions of people and a fire.  There is a rebellion present, yet the reader has to integrate this with other passages to see it clearly.  This dream sequence certainly has a surreal quality to it, with the juxtapositions of the mundane and the "ludicrous."  But even more so, there is a racial element to it, one that speaks on the divide between white and black perceptions of beauty.  The baby rejected as "ugly as sin," is transformed through the woman's love, changing the others' "jeers to harmless jealousy."

As the narrative of lives unfolds and revelations made beforehand become more prominent, Cain still sticks to its circle of life motif, exploring, through uneven yet frequently brilliant passages and poems, just what is driving folks to move from South to North, from rural to urban regions.  Toomer does an excellent job in capturing these changes, with very few passages that fail to capture at least a fleeting impression of these peripatetic lives.  Excellent as many individual passages and poems are, it is when this work is considered as a whole that Toomer's design can be seen in all its glory.  Cane is not just one of the earliest and best works of the Harlem Renaissance, it is also one of the best 20th century Modernist works ever written.  Even 92 years later, it possesses a power to move readers.  It simply is a remarkable masterpiece.


Friday, February 20, 2015

William Faulkner, The Hamlet


He had quite possibly been a foreigner, though not necessarily French, since to the people who had come after him and had almost obliterated all trace of his sojourn, anyone speaking the tongue with a foreign flavor or whose appearance or even occupation was strange, would have been a Frenchman regardless of what nationality he might affirm, just as to their more urban co-evals (if he had elected to settle in Jefferson itself say) he would have been called a Dutchman.  But now nobody knew what he had actually been, not even Will Varner, who was sixty years old and now owned a good deal of his original grant, including the site of his ruined mansion.  Because he was gone now, the foreigner, the Frenchman, with his family and his slaves and his magnificence.  His dream, his broad acres were parcelled out now into small shiftless mortgaged farms for the directors of Jefferson banks to squabble over before selling finally to Will Varner, and all that remained of him was the river bed which his slaves had straightened for almost ten miles to keep his land from flooding, and the skeleton of the tremendous house which his heirs-at-large had been pulling down and chopping up – walnut newel posts and stair spindles, oak floors which fifty years later would have been almost priceless, the very clapboards themselves – for thirty years now for firewood.  Even his name was forgotten, his pride but a legend about the land he had wrested from the jungle and tamed as a monument to that appellation which those who came after him in battered wagons and on mule-back and even on foot, with fling-lock rifles and dogs and children and home-made whiskey stills and Protestant psalm-books, could not even read, let alone pronounce, and which now had nothing to do with any once-living man at all – his dream and his pride now dust with the lost dust of his anonymous bones, his legend but the stubborn tale of the money he buried somewhere about the place when Grant over-ran the country on his way to Vicksburg. (pp. 731-732, Library of America edition) 
 
One of the more striking features of William Faulkner’s writing is how well he establishes mood and setting with just a few paragraphs.  In this long second paragraph to The Hamlet (1940), he fleshes out the Frenchman’s Bend territory, located at the southern end of Yoknapatawpha Country, and makes its denizens into the hard-scrabble, barely literate heirs to antebellum nobility.  In this seeming-paean to the lost grandeur of a pre-Civil War planter, Faulkner does a clever bit of foreshadowing in hinting at the rise of the common classes with the fall of the established landed gentry.  By creating something almost epic about the movement of the Anglo-Celtic descendents of the Appalachian mountain people into northeastern Mississippi, Faulkner creates an environment in which the decline of Will Varner’s power due to the machinations of Flem Snopes becomes something more than just a changing of the guard; it is in miniature a palace coup in which a plebeian is raised up to become emperor.

Faulkner began developing the shrewd, nefarious character of Flem back in the 1920s, but it is in the 1932 short story “Centaur in Brass” where many of the events later covered in The Hamlet first occurred.  Flem’s accomplishments here, from rising above the shady past of his barn burning father to becoming first Varner’s store clerk and later his boss and son-in-law, do not quite possess the Machiavellian air found in “Centaur in Brass.”  Yet when viewed as a first act in another rise-and-all, Flem’s character here is impressive in his combination of detached coolness and ambitious shrewdness.  This Flem is a more nuanced, fleshed-out character and while he influences much of the events in The Hamlet, he does not overshadow some of the other important characters.

The Hamlet is divided into four sections, with the first, “Flem,” devoted to the Snopes family and their arrival at Frenchman’s Bend.  Some of Faulkner’s finest writing is found here, especially in his establishment of the “horse trading” prowess of the Snopes.  Two important characters, Mink Snopes and V.K. Ratliff, are introduced for the first time.  Mink’s own trading of notes proves to be vital for Flem’s later rise at the store, while Ratliff’s observations about local life serve as a sort of moral anchor against which the Snopes’ machinations twist and tug against.  The narrative is rich with the little details of Flem’s beginnings at the Varner store that enhance reader understanding of latter events.  One example of this is the story that Ratliff tells of the goat scarcity.  It is a humorous piece, a smaller brother of sorts to the “Spotted Horses” story that later formed the nucleus of the fourth part, “The Peasants.”  Yet it also reveals the Snopes’ deviousness without being too heavy-handed with the details; it manages to pull off being a funny interlude and a foreshadowing of future events without the narrative feeling stretched or overworked.

However, it is in the second part, “Eula,” where Faulkner’s skill at characterization truly is on display.  Eula is such an exaggerated caricature of early 20th century Southern femininity that it would be easy to dismiss her as being nothing more than a piece of meat for the local men to drool over.  Yet there is something within this lazy, sexualized woman that transcends the confines of such parodic characters.  Her effortless seduction of a previous schoolteacher, her desire to lose her virginity, and the series of events that leads her to become married to Flem are remarkable in that despite in most cases such events would be too wild to be narrated effectively, Faulkner manages to pull off the great feat of making this seem not only plausible, but also integral to the overall plot (it also contains connections to Eula’s unstated seduction in “Centaur in Brass”).

The third section, “The Long Summer,” is an interlude of sorts, as Flem and Eula are absent due to their honeymoon in Texas.  Yet the scenes involving the idiotic Ike Snopes and his love for Houston’s cow are hilarious, albeit in a slightly unsettling way.  On a more somber note, the Mink/Houston/wife/horse events that leads to Houston’s murder at the hands of Mink is presented in a more tragic, yet still memorable fashion.  Despite the absence of Flem, this section does not falter much in the way of narrative development, as the other Snopes, themselves in their own ways as much a danger to ordered society as Flem is becoming, prove to be interesting characters in their own right.

As noted above, “The Peasants” contains the nucleus of the story of Flem bringing back wild, unbroken ponies from Texas and engaging in a series of horseflesh tradings that enriches him at the expense of others.  Now the owner of the old Frenchman plantation house, Flem’s last exploit involves his manipulation of local legend regarding buried treasure to cement his new position as the new lord of the land.  The story ends with Flem setting off for Jefferson and the events chronicled in “Centaur in Brass.”  It is an effective conclusion to this stage in Flem’s rise to power, as it sets the stage for future events without feeling like the story was ending on a cliffhanger or hadn’t been developed properly.  The Hamlet can function well as an independent novel, albeit one full of references to other stories published both before and after its initial release.  It is not one of Faulkner’s greatest novels, but it certainly is an excellent story in its own right, full of well-developed characters and some of the funniest scenes in any of Faulkner’s fiction.  It sets the stage for several stories to follow, making it a valuable part of Faulkner’s œuvre.
 
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