Ali Smith, How to be Both

October 7, 2014 § 1 Comment

Consider this moral conundrum for a moment.

George’s mother says to George who’s sitting in the front passenger seat.

Not says.  Said.

George’s mother is dead.

What moral conundrum?  George says.

The passenger seat in the hire car is strange, being on the side of the driver’s seat is on at home.  This must be a bit like driving is, except without the actual, you know, driving.

Okay.  You’re an artist, her mother says.

Am I?  George says.  Since when?  And is that a moral conundrum?

Ha, ha, her mother says.  Humour me.  Imagine it.  You’re an artist. (p. 3)

Of the six 2014 Man Booker Prize finalists, Ali Smith’s How to be Both might be the most “artistic.”  I say this with scare quotes because often there is something about art that confounds and irritates many.  Whether it is the perceived “extra effort” that is often involved in understanding an art work’s (literary, visual, or performance, they are all the same here) merits or that niggling doubt that the viewer/reader just might be incapable of the requisite empathy in order to grasp just how that particular piece came into being, often such works are set aside in favor of more “tried and true,” less “difficult” pieces.  No, it is not a fair assessment, but it is one that takes place more frequently than any of us are ready to admit.

Yet when one does peer closer at the piece in question and when one does encounter something that captivates them, whether it be a line shadowed just so or a le mot juste or a cadence from an actress or singer that tugs at the heart’s strings, that person is then drawn into the dialogue that is symbolized by the piece or performance in front of her.  How to be Both is at its heart a dialogue that forms across the centuries between a sixteen year-old half-orphaned girl and a fifteenth century Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, whose painting of Saint Vincent Ferrer haunts young George long after her fateful first visit to the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara just a few months prior to her mother’s death.  It is her life, her changing views on it and on art, coupled with the “voice” of del Cossa through his paintings that George observes, that form a gripping dialogue on just what does ars gratia artis mean in this day and age.

How to be Both intertwines these two narratives, one of a modern young woman with her contemporary concerns about how to live with those of fifteenth century Italy and the struggles that del Cossa had in establishing his art, his vision, in a place where the mercenary wars were about to give way a generation later to the ruinous French invasion.  Smith does an outstanding job in establishing these two voices, as George and del Cossa’s concerns are shown in vivid detail.  Smith shapes the narrative to suit this dual voice perspective:  there is a mixture of monologue, dialogue, and a bit of stream of consciousness.  In a less adroit hand, these elements easily could have collapsed under the weight of their artifice, but Smith manages to meld them together in such a fashion that each complements the other, making for a great read.

However, the intricate narrative structure is only just that, a structure around which the story and its themes are constructed.  Here too Smith does a fantastic job in establishing character and motivations.  The exploration of Art is done in a fashion that does not feel trite or treacly; after all, these two characters have suffered much for their eventual understanding of what Art entails.  Each little detail, from hawkers declaiming what they know the piece in question to be to questions of perspective, builds upon each other, creating a literary piece that is stronger than the sum of its already impressive parts.

How to be Both is the most daring of the six shortlisted titles on this year’s Man Booker Prize.  Its language is captivating, its characters are powerfully dynamic despite one not being presented in a “traditional” fashion, its themes are no less ambitious than trying to discern just what “art” truly might be.  In a fairly strong field, it holds its own when it comes to being a novel that can be read and re-read multiple times for greater appreciation.  It may or may not win the award next week, but How to be Both is certainly one of my two favorites from this year’s shortlist.

Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory

October 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

At one level?  None of this mattered.  It was hard enough surviving day to day, both navigating the hordes at Zombie High and listening to the bomb that had started ticking inside my father’s head.  A little flirting with Finn?  That wouldn’t hurt.  But I concluded that it couldn’t go any further.  When we met after school for precalc tutoring, I made sure that there was always a table between us.  And when I was in his car, I kept my backpack on my lap, my face turned to the window and my attitude set to the frost level of “Don’t Touch.”

Despite this strategy, the hordes gossiped about us.  Girls in my gym class asked me flat out what Finn was like.  That’s how I found out that his family had moved to the district only a year earlier and that he had led the swim team to the state title but decided not to swim this year, and no one could figure out why.  I also learned that those same girls were pissed off; they’d assumed he was gay, because why else wouldn’t he have tried to hook up with them before?

I dialed up my serial killer glare and eventually they walked away. (p. 149)

This year has seen several high-profile literary works that touch upon some aspect of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  From Joyce Carol Oates’ Carthage and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You to Iraq veteran Phil Klay’s 2014 National Book Award-longlisted short collection Redeployment, these stories have touched upon how the violence experienced by those returning soldiers have affected them and those that they love.  In Laurie Halse Anderson 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature-longlisted The Impossible Knife of Memory, the deleterious effects of PTSD are explored through the eyes of an “Army brat,” Hayley Kincain, a high school senior who has been on the move for the past five years with her vet/trucker father, Andy, with each trying, seemingly futilely, to escape their issues.

The Impossible Knife of Memory follows mostly Hayley’s point of view, as we see through her jaded eyes her unease about being in yet another new town, with yet another school of teen fish to navigate.  Anderson does an excellent job in capturing the vulnerability behind that cynical façade, as can be seen in the passage above.  Hayley is a very introspective character, one who observes her world around her in acute detail, except when it comes to the central traumas that affect her.  She loves her father, but in lines such as this, it is clear that Andy’s struggles have become such a “normal” part of her life that it is hard for her to conceive of others being happy or free of the issues that affect her and her father:

Our living room smelled a lot like chicken wings and pizza and a little like weed when I walked in the front door.

Dad looked up from the television.  “Hey, princess,” he said with a grin.  “Have a good time?”

I hung up my jacket in the closet.

“Giants are playing,” he said.  “Philly, first quarter.  I saved you some pizza.  Double cheese.”  He frowned.  “What’s that look for?”

“You’re joking, right?”

“You love double cheese.”

“I’m not talking about the pizza.”

“Is it the wings?  You gave up being a vegetarian two years ago.”

“Are we going to play ‘pretend’?”

“Vegetarians can eat double-cheese pizza.”

“It’s not the food,” I said.

“Are you still upset about the cemetery?”

“What?”

Dad muted the television.  “I was thinking about what you said.  I’ll call the cemetery and find out how much those special vases cost.  Mom didn’t like cut flowers, but she hated being outdone by her neighbors, and that headstone looks awful.  Good idea?”  He let Spock lick the pizza grease off his fingers.  “Why are you still wearing the pissy face?”

“Did you run Friday night through the Andy-filter so instead of looking like a total ass, you can feel like you were a hero or something?” (pp. 185-186)

This scene encapsulates many of the central conflicts of The Impossible Knife of Memory:  Andy’s drug use, Hayley’s mom’s death, the willing blindness that Andy has toward his failure to cope with his war experiences, Hayley’s frustrations with him and with her inability to stick long in a place with friends.  Anderson illustrates these conflicts through short, sharp dialogues that cut to the heart of the matter with ease.  Each argument, each time Hayley withdraws from the affections of another semi-loner, Finn, each moment of solitude feeds directly into the subsequent one, until there is a clear sense that Hayley and Andy are flailing their way toward a possible bad ending.

Yet the story does not go full-tilt toward that.  Despite the sense that something ominous is inevitable, the actual conclusion is more nuanced.  Not all failures are final and not all who are lost remain lost in the void of their tortured memories.  For some readers, this might seem like a cop-out, a weakening of the events that lead up to the denouement.  Yet after some consideration, Anderson’s concluding chapters set the stage for the next part of Hayley and Andy’s lives:  recovery.  This does not mean that it is a “happy” conclusion, because for traumas and addictions, recovery is a life-long process with uncertain results.  However, having a bit of hope is more than having none, and in that sense, Hayley and Andy’s stories feel like they have reached a certain stage and that after the story concludes, there are a number of paths they could follow.  Imagining these in turn helps make those scenes already read all the more intimate, because they have established these characters as flawed, dynamic ones with whom we can relate.

A few things I’d like to write about this week

October 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Been a bit busy this weekend to have much time to write reviews, but I do plan on reviewing the two Booker Prize finalists (Howard Jacobson’s J and Ali Smith’s How to be Both), along with at least two National Book Award-longlisted titles for Fiction (Phil Klay’s Redeployment and John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van).  If I have time, will cover more of the Prix Medicis longlist as well.

It’s funny how once Autumn arrives how my reading mood changes.  I seem to read more the final quarter of the year than any other time.  Maybe when it first starts to become cool at night, I just find myself staring more at my books than wanting to walk outside.  Certainly I’ve been reading some of the leatherbound books I’ve bought in recent years (recently finished re-reading Thoreau’s Walden and might write a review of it shortly; also just begun reading Hugo’s Les Miserables in both French and in the Easton Press edition of the original English translation) and I’m tempted by the idea of setting up a specialized blog just for reviews of “classics” after I’ve posted them here or on Gogol’s Overcoat.  Redundancy is never an issue when it comes to getting people to read things that I have written, n’est ce pas?

Speaking of “classics,” there have been occasional moments where I’ve toyed with the idea of compiling lists of possible “canonical” literatures, but with an interest in hybrids, of those works who can influence multiple societies and cultures.  For example, having Faulkner in not just a list of Southern literature, but also Latin American for his influence on the Boom Generation.  Sappho and Byron.  De Sade and Mirbeau.  Combinations like and unlike these.  Things that could shape world views and how we treat fellow human beings.  Such a corpus could say much more than just reiterating whatever socio-cultural “party line” you might want to follow when it comes to literature and its value today.

But for now, I’d like to dip back in to contemplating just what Hugo was saying through that sinner Jean Valjean.  Some things are ever a pleasure no matter how many times one has read it in the past or how long it has been since the last read.  Always something new to discover in certain literary works, if only we are willing to allow ourselves to be transformed by what we encounter within.

Tentative panels/signings I’ll attend at the Southern Festival of Books October 10-12

October 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Unless something comes up, I plan on attending my fourth straight Southern Festival of Books lit festival in Nashville this upcoming weekend, October 10-12.  It’s a (mostly) free event, with only parking costs being the only guaranteed expense.  I won’t be there the full lengths each day (have a physical therapy appointment early Friday afternoon and there aren’t any compelling enough Saturday morning sessions for me to forgo sleep), but here are the sessions that I would either like to attend in full or at least catch the author in the subsequent signing in cases of schedule conflicts:

Friday:

Our Weird Little Worlds:  Short Stories (Antonya Nelson, David James Poissant) – 3-4 PM

Saturday:

Immigrant Song:  Novels of New Americans (Chantel Acevedo, Elsie Augustave, Cristina Henriquez) – 11:30 AM-1 PM

Station Eleven:  A Novel (Emily St. John Mandel) – 12-1 PM

(will likely attend the first and stay in line for both signing sessions)

What Happened There:  Veterans’ Stories in Literature (Phil Klay, Michael Pitre) – 1-2 PM (will be late for session)

Radiance of Tomorrow:  A Novel (Ishmael Beah) – 1-2 PM (likely only the signing)

Little Failure:  A Memoir (Gary Shteyngart) – 2-3 PM (late to session)

Sunday:

Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson) 1-2 PM

A Path Appears:  Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity (Nicholas D. Kristof) – 2-3 PM (likely no signing session)

The Magician’s Land (Lev Grossman) – 3-4 PM

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

October 3, 2014 § 2 Comments

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.  And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad.  But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly.  Yet ever as they listened they came to greater understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent. (p. 15)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is a challenging text for reader and critic alike to parse.  It is not precisely a novel, nor is it merely a collection of short fiction; it contains elements of both, yet even applying the descriptive “mosaic novel” only scratches at the complexities of this posthumous 1977 publication culled from nearly six decades of work on the mythology of Middle Earth and of Arda as a whole.  Reading it closely reveals certain odd constructions, things that jar readers who come to The Silmarillion from reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Yet there is something moving within these oft-truncated stories, something that amplifies the echos of those wondrous murmurs from the hobbits when they heard an Elrond or Aragorn chant a snippet of tales from the Elder Days of Middle Earth.

Although Tolkien does not open here with an “In the beginning,” the opening section, “Ainulindalë” (the singing of the Ainur), certainly reveals the beginning of the Kingdom of Arda, of which Middle Earth is but a part, with the singing of the angelic host of the Ainur of themes introduced by the God-analogue Eru Ilúvatar.  The language here hearkens back to several creation myths in its lofty, at-some-remove, style.  It works on a cosmological level, but it certainly differs significantly from the later, more action-packed tales in the book.  The first Fall, that of the mightiest Ainur, Melkor, presents this Satan in a more comprehensible fashion than the Tempter found in the three Abrahamic religions, but when read independently of the rest of the tales, it is weaker precisely because there can be no further levels that it can tap; it is the source, the beginning, and many sources are small rivulets compared to the raging rivers that they begin.

The second section, “Valaquenta,” is a recapitulation of the end of “Ainulindalë” and it traces the origins and diverse nature of those Ainur, the Valar and their lesser brethren the Maiar, who chose to enter into Arda at the Beginning after Ilúvatar’s Three Themes were sung in order to make concrete the vision they beheld of the music they had sung.  It too is fascinating on a mythological establishment level, but it too is weaker because there are few connections to the later stories and to the two Third Age stories published during Tolkien’s lifetime.

The third and largest section, the “Quenta Silmarillion,” tells of the first battles on Arda between Melkor and the other Valar and how the Children of Ilúvatar, the Eldar Elves and Men, along with the adopted race of Dwarves, came into being.  The language in these tales is compressed, in part because many of these tales seem to be intended more as linking sections to three greater tales (those of Beren and Luthien, of the children of Húrin, and of the fall of the hidden Elvish city of Gondolin) than as anything that might otherwise constitute novella or novel-length stories of their own.  But yet in reading them and considering their placement, a case could be made for these tales to be a sort of echo of the Three Themes in how they unfold, with certain rises and falls of tone, as the hope of the exiled Noldor fades as they learn that their rebellion and kin-slaying before returning to Middle Earth will render any attempt to subdue Melkor/Morgoth ultimately futile.

Certainly there is a melancholic beauty to many of these stories of valiant stands and heroism in the face of calamities.  The duel of the Noldorian king Fingolfin and Morgoth, the cursing of Húrin’s family by Morgoth, the three Kinslayings due to the lust for the stolen Silmarils (the foremost reason for the war of the Elves and the Fathers of Men, the Edain, against Morgoth), each of these feels like a grandly tragic tale, one that might induce weeping from those presenting it.  It is here that the necessary editorializations by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, and Guy Gavriel Kay, are most apparent.  The two had to cobble together tales that were either completed in 1920, 1930, 1937, or maybe post-1955 LotR and make them feel uniform.  Some tales, like the end part of the “Fall of Gondolin,” were never extensively revived when others were.  Others were complete, yet their cosmology was at odds with other stories.  Although much of this was not readily apparent in 1977 when The Silmarillion was first published, the later volumes of Christopher Tolkien’s The History of Middle Earth reveal that some of the choices he and Kay made in 1977 might have been in error in light of certain textual evidence that emerged from a more careful study of Tolkien’s notes and alternate versions of certain tales.

Although these later revelations mitigate some of the concerns about the consistency of the text, The Silmarillion as presented certainly is a flawed book.  It contains powerful stories, stories that readers can find in more fleshed out (and yet “incomplete”) forms in later Middle Earth-related posthumous releases, but there is an enforced flatness to them that makes it feel that the reader is reading a detailed synopsis of a series of wonderful tales rather than moving works of their own.  The Silmarillion ultimately is just a halfway-work; it is halfway between being a collection of tales and a unified work in which the tales flow smoothly into one another.  Yet even in its unfinished, sometimes inchoate state, there is a charm about the tales that does make the reader want to learn more, to see deeper into the tale, and to experience just what it was that drove Tolkien to make this the work (with several interruptions) for nearly his entire adult life.  Despite this, The Silmarillion just is not a work that can be read independently of Tolkien’s other works; for a fuller effect, the more scholarly The History of Middle Earth will enhance these tales, provided one has the stomach for copious notes.  Sadly, the most striking thing that came of this first re-reading of these stories since my early 20s back in the mid-1990s is that there were so many promising angles that were abandoned.  What could have been!  Yet marred, like Arda after Melkor’s corruption of it, as it is, The Silmarillion certainly provides glimpses into the myriad literary and mythological concerns that Tolkien had and for this alone, The Silmarillion as is provides us with much more than if it had been left only as a series of brief allusions in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Angélica Gorodischer, Palito de naranjo

October 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Para empezar, a las mujeres encarceladas nadie las visita nunca.  A los varones sí, siempre.  Siempre la mujer o la madre, y hasta la hija, pero eso es más raro, va los jueves a las dos de la tarde con paquetes de comida y de ropa, a veces con revistas, a veces con un ejemplar de la Biblia.  Eso es maravilloso, no solo porque una ve una cara conocida y porque siente que a alguien le importa que ella esté en donde está, sino porque la visita significa que el tiempo existe.  Es maravilloso porque entre una visita y otra se escanden las horas, los minutos, los meses.  Si no hay visitas el tiempo es un largo, larguísimo intervalo blanquecino entre dos paréntesis, la vida que se va olvidando y la esperanza que va desapareciendo, convirtiéndose en otra cosa, en algo algodonoso y turbio que reclama que una lo vea y lo toque, y una sabe que no hay que rendirse a la tentación de hacerlo porque si lo hace, si toca eso, nunca va a encontrar no digo consuelo, nunca va a encontrar ni la más mínima tranquilidad, ni el más insignificante jirón de sueño.  Pero si alguien llega de visita, si viene este martes o este jueves y una puede imaginar que va a venir el próximo también, entonces el tiempo existe:  hay horas, hay días, hay espera.  El varón encarelado tiene otro horizonte a la vista y en ese horizonte está escrito «cuando yo salga ella va a estar esperándome».  A una mujer nunca la va a estar esperando alguien.  Y ella lo sabe.  Sabe que el afuera va a ser una prolongación del adentro.  Es posible que piense «aquello era preferible a esto».  Y para seguir, la mujer que está en la cárcel no encuentra nunca alguien con quien hablar.  Y no me refiero a conversaciones ni a confidencias.  Me refiero a palabras que van de una persona a otra.  ¿Ha pensado usted alguna vez que cada palabra que se pronuncia es como un morral o un zurrón que contiene carne y sangre y hueso, historia, intenciones y horror, sobre todo horror?  ¿Ese horror que es el precio que una paga por imaginar lo que de un momento al otra le va a suceder?  ¿Se ha dado cuenta de que las palabras lo traen, al horror, digo; de que las palabras no son solo sonidos ni una letra detrás de la otra sino que cada una contiene un mundo? (p. 29, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer has had several genre careers within her lengthy writing life.  From a SF writer in the 1970s to a fantasy writer in the 1980s to a contemporary fiction writer who focuses on feminism and society for the past two decades, her works, diverse as they are, have a few things in common:  PoV characters who probe deeply into their societies’ fault lines and prose that makes these examinations feel not just important, but vital for understanding our own selves and our own places in societies that may or may not be conducive for the lives that we wish to live.  In her just-released novel, Palito de naranjo (Orange Stick in English), Gorodischer utilizes a singular character, Féry, to tell of not just the burdens that the dispossessed experience today, but also the joys that they might experience on the other side of suffering.

Palito de naranjo is dialogue-heavy; almost the entire novel is devoted to the conversations that the aged Féry, who has experienced privation and incarceration, relates to an interviewer.  The stories that Féry has embedded within her comments on her rough life (the lengthy quote above is about the different prison lives that men and women experience; Féry notes the numerous visits that male prisoners receive weekly from female relatives and compares that to the near-non-existent visitors for female prisoners) are fascinating.  Characters appear in one place, living solely through Féry’s ability to make them seem alive even when they are present only for a singular moment or sentence before giving way to another.  As Féry talks, the contours of her life comes into greater focus.  The cumulative effect is to present, similar to a finely-detailed mosaic, a life that is fascinating for its experiences and its insights into modern life.

The prose here is nearly pitch-perfect.  A dialogue-heavy novel can be tricky, as the author risks loses the reader’s attention can wander if there are not breaks in the conversation and it can become easy to confound which speaker is talking at any given moment.  Yet Gorodischer manages to make this into a vivid character sketch, as Féry’s detailed accounts of her life and the people she has come to know works well within the strictures of dialogue description of these others.  As Féry talks, she begins to describe situations and people that are notable despite never speaking of their own accord.  We come to understand Féry more through her descriptions of these fellow travelers than we might have if these characters were presented through direct interactions with Féry in flashback sequences.

There is no single concrete plot here, instead it is through Féry’s numerous recollections of her past that we come to see that it is her life, her time as a prostitute and an inmate, that is the plot arc we are following.  We see her at critical points in her life, sometimes in a bitter lamentation over the social inequalities that women experience in all facets of their lives, other times in her reminisces of others in her life, and the crises that she describes (and has largely overcome in her path toward some measure of contentment, if not full happiness) feel real because of the way they are related to us.  There are no lulls to the tale; Féry slowly yet steadily builds toward a solid, moving conclusion.  Palito de naranjo may differ significantly in form and purpose than say Kalpa Imperal or Bajo las jubeas en flor, but it is no less of a significant work than these two older works of Gorodischer’s.  Highly recommended for those who are fans of her earlier fictions.

September 2014 Reads

October 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Due in part to my back injury keeping me out of work for most of the month, I had more time available for reading.  Finished 51 books this month, my highest for the year so far.  Managed to finish above the 1 book/day pace for the first time since January and I moved closer to achieving most, if not all, of my 2014 reading goals.  Here are the books I read (and in a few cases, re-read) for the month of September:

229  Niccolò Ammaniti, Come Dio Comanda (Italian; Premio Strega winner; very good)

230  Jeff VanderMeer, Acceptance (already reviewed)

231  ANtonio Pennacchi, Canale Mussolini (Italian; Premio Strega winner; good)

232  Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others (Booker Prize finalist; already reviewed)

233  José Saramago, O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (Portuguese; might review in future)

234  Marc Elder, Le Peuple de la Mer (French; Prix Goncourt winner; good)

235  J.R.R. Tolkien, El hobbit (Spanish; very good)

236  J.R.R. Tolkien, Hobbitus Ille (Latin; already reviewed)

237  J.R.R. Tolkien, Lo Hobbit (Italian; very good)

238  Jonathan Littell, Les Bienveillantes (French; already reviewed the English translation)

239  Francesco Piccolo, Il desidero di essere come tutti (Premio Strega winner; very good)

240  José Saramago, Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira (Portuguese; might review in future)

241  Jesus Torbado, Las corrupciones (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

242  Howard Jacobson, J (Booker Prize finalist; review forthcoming)

243  David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (Booker longlist; review forthcoming)

244  Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Bailys Women’s Prize for Fiction winner; already reviewed)

245  Angélica Gorodischer, Prodigios (Spanish; very good)

246  Grozdana Olujic, Wild Seed (re-read; very good)

247  Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night (poetry; National Book Award longlist; already reviewed)

248  Clarice Lispector, Uma aprendizagem (Portuguese; very good)

249  Jeff VanderMeer, Autoridad (Spanish; already reviewed the English original)

250  Kate Zambreno, Green Girl (excellent)

251  Nathalie Kuperman, La Loi Sauvage (French; Prix Medicis longlist; review forthcoming)

252  Valérie Zinatti, Jacob, Jacob (French; Prix Medicis longlist; review forthcoming)

253  Christine Montalbetti, Plus rien que les vagues et le vent (French; Prix Medicis longlist; review forthcoming)

254  David Soares, Batalha (re-read; Portuguese; already reviewed)

255  Justin Taylor, Flings (short story collection; review forthcoming)

256  Dylan Landis, Rainey Royal (review forthcoming)

257  Ludmila Ulitskaya, Sónechka (Spanish; very good)

258  Italo Calvino, Il castello dei destini incrociati (Italian; very good)

259  Italo Calvino, The Castle of Crossed Destinies (re-read; very good)

260  Spencer Reece, The Road to Emmaus (poetry; National Book Award longlist; review forthcoming)

261  Linda Bierds, Roget’s Illusion (poetry; National Book Award longlist; review forthcoming)

262  John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van (National Book Award longlist; review forthcoming)

263  Kelly Barnhill, The Witch’s Boy (YA; already reviewed)

264  Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck & Other Stories (short story collection; National Book Award longlist; review forthcoming)

265  Gail Giles, GIrls Like Us (YA; National Book Award longlist; review forthcoming)

266  Donald R. Hickey (ed.), The War of 1812:  Writings from America’s Second War of Independence (non-fiction; history; Library of America edition; excellent)

267  J.R.R. Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring:  The Late Silmarillion Part One (re-read; very good)

268  Hedwige Jeanmart, Blanès (French; Prix Medicis longlist; already reviewed)

269  Pierre Demarty, En face (French; Prix Medicis longlist; review forthcoming)

270  Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington (eds.), Phantasm Japan (anthology; already reviewed)

271  Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impssible Knife of Memory (YA; National Book Award longlist; review forthcoming)

272  Henry David Thoreau, Walden (re-read; non-fiction; might review shortly)

273  Ali Smith, How to be Both (Booker Prize finalist; review forthcoming)

274  Claudie Hunzinger, La langue des oiseaux (French; Prix Medicis longlist; review forthcoming)

275  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin (re-read; review forthcoming)

276  J.R.R. Tolkien, Los Hijos de Húrin (Spanish; review forthcoming)

277  J.R.R. Tolkien, Deca Hurinova (Serbian; review forthcoming)

278  Angélica Gorodischer, Palito de naranjo (Spanish; review forthcoming)

279  Margaret Atwood, Stone Mattress (short story collection; review forthcoming)

Updated Yearly Goals:

Spanish:  44/50 (ahead of pace by 7; 7 read this month)

Portuguese:  26/50 (behind pace by 11; 4 read this month)

French:  36/50 (behind pace by 1; 8 read this month)

Italian:  34/50 (behind pace by 3; 5 read this month)

Women writers:  104/279 (ahead of 35% pace by 2.27%; 22/51 read this month, or 43.1%)

National Book Awards’ 5 under 35 authors for 2014

September 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

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.

Kelly Barnhill, The Witch’s Boy

September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

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.

A couple of pics of my leatherbound books

September 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

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).

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    This blog receives hundreds of books each year from publishers across the United States, as well as from British and Canadian publishers. Most of them I do not bother to read. Some I cannot read, since my puppy has shredded the packages in which the books arrive before I can pick them up off of the front porch. Others I do end up reading, but I rarely say more than a sentence or two in a reading journal-like entry. Only a dozen or two books per year out of the hundreds I receive from publishers each year are reviewed in full. Some of those receive positive marks, because I found the stories to be excellent. Others receive mixed or negative comments, because I found structural weaknesses in that book's characterization, prose, and/or plot. In each case, the opinions expressed are mine and not words placed into my mouth by an author, publicist, or any other representative of a publishing firm. Now that you know this, understand that this disclaimer applies to all reviews, whether or not I actually bought or received the book as a review copy. After all, I cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars shipping the books (read or unread) back to the publishers, thus this disclaimer. Thank you and drive through.
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