30 March 2008

Africa Reading Challenge

Via Meskel Square I learned of the Africa Reading Challenge created by the blog Siphoning Off a Few Thoughts:
Participants commit to read - in the course of 2008 - six books that either were written by African writers, take place in Africa, or deal significantly with Africans and African issues.
Participants will write about the books on their blogs and a list with links will be (well, is already being) kept at Siphoning Off a Few Thoughts.

There are a few reasons why I'm going to participate in the Challenge. We are lucky to live in a time when African literature of all sorts is plentiful (though, sadly, less in Africa than outside it, because the infrastructure for book production and distribution on the continent is limited to a few countries) and it's a particular interest of mine, but a recent enough one that my knowledge is still pretty superficial. I hope the Reading Challenge will increase people's curiosity about what books are out there, and I look forward to the various discussions.

I'm not going to have time to start reading for a couple months, but I want to put my list together while I'm thinking of it. It may change. Today, what I expect I will read are the following books:These are mostly books I've been meaning to get to for a little while, and the Challenge gives me a good excuse to stop procrastinating.

I hope many more people will sign up for the Challenge, particularly people who have not read much African writing. If you're looking for information on other books by Africans and/or about Africa, here are a few resources:

29 March 2008

More Blather from Moi

As if my previous post were not enough, I now present an interview with me, conducted by Nita Noveno of the Sunday Salon. (It actually repeats some of what I said in the post below, because the interview was part of what brought some of those ideas to the foreground of my consciousness and let them nag.)

Nita and I first met in Kenya in December 2006, and then I got to read at the Sunday Salon this past February. We realized then that we hadn't had much chance to chat, so we went out for tea one day, and Nita kept asking me questions about science fiction. She apparently found my answers in some way or another interesting, and asked if we could try to replicate our conversation via email. And voilá, an interview!

28 March 2008

Falling Into Oblivion without a Parachute

It ain't healthy to get too metacommentarial, but sometimes the zeitgeist blows such urges your way, and you neglect to duck. Or I do, at least. Thus, I have managed to get into some good conversations with a few different friends recently about our particular preferences when it comes to how we write and read book reviews, criticism, blog posts, etc. (out of laziness and a general aversion to taxonomy, I'm going to use the word "review" here to mean almost any commentary on books and other stuffs). Some of the conversations were sparked by thoughtful posts by Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen (e.g. here and here and here), some were sparked by reviews that annoyed one or both of us who were interlocuting (I know you and your friends just talk, but if you had the sorts of friends I have, you, too, would interlocute), and some were sparked by just saying to each other, "So what do you do when..." The ideas have caused me to keep thinking all week, and so I thought I would put some down here and see where they lead.

Larry's brave for having tackled the question of what a quality book review looks like, and I think it's a good exercise for anybody who writes about books to try now and then, but at this point it's not something that really interests me, because I've learned that my own ideas on the subject are mostly prejudices and are as full of exceptions as rules. I could, I suppose, lay out all the things I try to do when writing about books, movies, and tchotchkes, but I'd rather let the writing speak for itself. And anyway, who am I to offer pronouncements?

It takes a tremendous arrogance to write anything, and yet in most of the writers I know the necessary arrogance is tempered by a deep insecurity. For me, the insecurity wins as often as the arrogance does, and so there are as many days when I feel utterly mortified that I have ever put a sentence of my own in front of the world as there are days when I want somebody out there to pay attention to my sentences. Such feelings only grow more complex when it comes to reviewing -- what, after all, is more arrogant than spouting off in public about a book somebody has spent tremendous amounts of time and energy writing? (What's more arrogant? Asking somebody to spend hours of their life reading your book...)

There's tons of advice out there for neophyte writers, but the best advice I ever got when I was younger and more idealistic came from Calder Willingham, whose wife was head of the English department at my high school. Willingham was one of the few professional writers I encountered as a kid (the others were Jim Kelly and Lee Modesitt), and he got frustrated by my idealism. We mostly wrote letters back and forth to each other, disagreeing about movies and books quite vehemently, and some of his sentences burned their way into my brain, particularly these: "You say you have to write. Why? Who is holding a gun to your head?" Everybody else in my life had always praised the activity of writing as a wonderful and ennobling one, but Willingham knew better, knew that it could be nothing more than an extension of the ugliest egotism (he'd suffered insults from some of the most prominent writers of his generation, including Norman Mailer, who called him "a clown with the bite of a ferret ... [who] suffers from the misapprehension that he is a master mind"), and he knew that even when writing doesn't bring out the worst in people that it can consume an otherwise worthwhile life in an activity that, more often than not, leads to perpetual disappointment and the likelihood of almost all the effort disappearing into an abyss of silence.

(Here's my advice to neophyte writers: Memorize Hugo von Hoffmannstahl's "Lord Chandos Letter". And, for that matter, Chekhov's "The Bet".)

And yet we all keep writing stuff. I'm grateful for it all, too, and not the least for reviews and commentaries -- I love reading thoughtful writings about books, and often enjoy such things more than I enjoy reading the books being written about. To put it clinically, it fascinates me to see how people interact with texts. The nature and history of publishing interest me for similar reasons.

People seem to have strong opinions about the place of first-person pronouns and personal anecdotes in reviews and criticism. This is an argument happening not just among editors and writers, but among teachers and students -- my high school students invariably have been told by their teachers before me that they must at all costs avoid first-person pronouns in their papers. I tell them not to worry about it, and instead to consider what is relevant or irrelevant for their purpose and audience. Remember Thoreau:
We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.
If I were teaching a class on reviewing, I'd share a review by Borges in which the great master writes more about himself than the book under review. Why can Borges get away with this? The easy answer is: Because he was a genius. The slightly less easy answer is: Because what he has to say is more interesting and illuminating than anything else he might say in the review, and it still tells us, in a sly way, about the book. Achieve that once in your career as a writer and you should be able to die happy.

Part of the reason so much first-person reviewing is annoying is because it doesn't establish that the writer's point of view is an interesting one, and so it just comes off as narcissistic. The narcissism of great writers is mitigated by their art; the narcissism of banal writers overwhelms any virtues.

It's all about what works. Writing is an attempt to communicate, sure, but it should also be an attempt to communicate in an interesting way. Functional writing might get the job done, but we seldom want to end there. An interesting point of view can be as powerful as an interesting style. Both can also be a distraction, particularly when the writer seemingly has little to say.

Judging whether a writer actually has something to say can be more difficult than it may appear. Academic writing in the humanities often gets criticized for saying very little in as obfuscatory a way possible. Much deserves the criticism, but I still grow suspicious whenever someone starts complaining about academics and jargon, partly because it's an old argument (see also some of the posts in The Valve's symposium on Theory's Empire), partly because it smacks of anti-intellectualism ("I can't understand this, therefore it must be BAD!"), and partly because it seems like a distraction from the real problem, which tends to be a a matter of purpose and audience. If your intention is to write for a general audience, then it's self-defeating to use a specialized vocabulary, and specialized vocabularies in the wrong context are as likely to seem smug and shallow as they are to convey any meaning. Exceptions require real skill -- I think Samuel Delany's nonfiction collections are successful more often than not at using a mix of specialized vocabularies for a general audience because essays and interviews collected in his books tend to be from a wide variety of publications, and the mix of original audiences for pieces that usually have some overlapping subject matter helps the reader make a transition from the more accessible pieces to the more difficult.

An "objective" tone is no more inherently good or bad than a "personal" tone. The more I read, the less patience I have for objective tones -- indeed, the more suspicious I am of them. Too often, the pose of objectivity is a disguise for shallow thought, because it's a rare statement that can be universally true. I may be an inveterate postmodernist, but you probably don't need to be as plagued by doubts as I am to realize that the truth of almost any statement we make is subjective and contingent -- it is a claim to truth at a particular time and from a particular perception.

The most annoying sort of "objective" writing (and it is hardly objective at all) is, for me, the sort that wants to claim great authority for sweeping statements. Oracular pronouncements belong in epic poetry; elsewhere they're usually pompous. Some people have built up their reputations by intoning their words as if those words contain some special glimpse of the Truth, but this is a performance of personality, not a way to advance an argument or contribute knowledge to the world. The writings of my own that I find most insufferable now are the ones in which I took what I've come to think of as the Old Man of Olympus position, a tone of certainty and universal truth. It's disingenous. It's why most manuals on "how to write" are drivel. It's why statements such as "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation" are useless. It's why I find people like Harlan Ellison occasionally entertaining, but more often obnoxious and certainly less worthwhile than more quiet, thoughtful, less certain, less combative personalities. Certainty is the province of fools. (He says with certainty.)

I keep seeing people say that a good book review judges how well a writer has achieved her or his intentions with the book. That seems to me to be more what a writing workshop should do -- there, you can ask the writer, "So what did you intend?" (Not that the writer always knows.) I'd rather read and write reviews that show what the book made the reviewer think about, because that's knowledge the reviewer can claim, whereas an author's intentions are generally both obvious and hidden -- obvious in the broadest sense ("I wanted to write a historical romance") and hidden in most other senses ("I hoped that by creating patterns of beautiful words I could resolve some of my feelings about poodles") -- and obvious things don't lead to interesting reviews, while hidden things are inaccessible. If the writer wanted to create an effect in the reader's mind -- and that's what writing does, after all -- then the reviewer will speak to that by presenting what it is the writing did in her or his mind, which is all a reviewer can truly speak to. I sometimes fall back on the fiction of saying a particular piece of writing does x, y, or z to "the reader", but I hope when I do so the fiction is obvious -- "the reader" is always and inescapably me.

I'm all for the death of The Author. (One of my favorite authors is Barthes, I must admit. Another is Foucault.) "The Intentional Fallacy" is an old idea, and one not without its critics. Reginald Shepherd says things much better than I could here, and the conversation in the comments shows how complex the subject can become. (And yes, for the moment I'm pretending most of those complexities don't exist. We have reached the section of the post in which my doubts threaten to consume me like a cute, furry creature in the mouth of a carnivore.)

For all practical purposes, for most readers a writer's name is simply a handy organizing principle, a way to group some texts together. A reviewer's name, then, is a sign attached to a document about a document that has another sign attached to it as a byline. Booby traps of delusion and deception await when we pretend otherwise. The age of the internet has resurrected The Author to some extent, because now we can read their blogs and make comments and sometimes, if we're brave, even email them, creating levels of intertextuality previously impossible (unimaginable!) ... but texts remain texts, not people.

Here's what I said in an email to a friend, and I don't think I've much improved on it above: "The problem with most fiction, actually, is that the writer's intentions are all too clear (so, alas, they are mostly discernable), which is just no fun at all. I want more Brechts who intend to foment revolution and instead end up creating rich and nuanced characters and situations. The writer's intentions matter during the editing process, but once the book is out there, the book is what matters -- that's part of what you're arguing, but you're going about it in a way that is not logically sustainable, because it seems to assume either that we have knowledge of the author's mind while creating the text or that the writer matters more than the reader. A great review is not great because it shows us what the writer intended, but because it gives us a particularly compelling chronicle of the reader's experience of the text. That is why discussions of the writer and not what is written are irrelevant and annoying."

Ideally, we write everything with an equal determination to commit art. Practically, this seldom happens. It's more common for writers to dash off reviews and spend years writing one short story rather than vice versa. Perhaps that's how it should be. There is something suspiciously parasitic about reviews -- the image of the critic who is incapable of creating anything himself, but who nonetheless writes about what others have created. And yet isn't all writing parasitic, sucking blood and sustenance from traditions of language and culture? Borges imagined reviews of imaginary books, and Lem wrote books of them. More broadly, fictional nonfiction has many traditions -- I found the following passage from Carmen Boullosa's review of Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas exciting:
As Bolaño acknowledged in an interview with Eliseo Álvarez, published posthumously in 2005, Nazi Literature in the Americas "owes a lot to The Temple of Iconoclasts by Rodolfo Wilcock...and The Temple of Iconoclasts owes a lot to A Universal History of Infamy by Borges, which makes sense, since Wilcock was a friend and admirer of Borges. But Borges's book, A Universal History of Infamy, owes much to [a book by] one of Borges's great teachers, Alfonso Reyes, Retratos reales e imaginarios (Real and Imagined Portraits), which is a gem. And Reyes's book owes a lot to Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob, which is where this all began. These are the aunts and uncles, parents and godparents of my book." I would add one more relative: Novelas antes del tiempo (Novels Before Time), a volume by the delightful Spanish writer Rosa Chacel, which consists of notes for novels, all charmingly related, that the author thought about writing but never did.
If only our book reviewers were more creative, more playful and artful! Do any of us have the courage to be so? The risk of failure becomes so much greater -- the risk of looking like an idiot in public, which is the great risk in writing anything, but we minimize the risk by writing in safe, hand-me-down modes. To aspire to art means to open yourself to a far greater possibility of failure -- indeed, perhaps the failure is inevitable and unavoidable, and that's why everybody quotes Beckett. Perhaps more accurate than the "Fail better" quotation would be this:
Yes, there are moments, like this moment, when I seem almost restored to the feasible. Then it goes, all goes, and I'm far again, with a far story again, I wait for me afar for my story to begin, to end, and again this voice cannot be mine. That's where I'd go, if I could go, that's who I'd be, if I could be.

Virginia Woolf, from a diary entry, 18 November 1924:
What I was going to say was that I think writing must be formal. The art must be respected. This struck me reading some of my notes here, for if one lets the mind run loose it becomes egotistic; personal, which I detest. At the same time the irregular fire must be there; and perhaps to loose it one must begin by being chaotic, but not appear in public like that.

Anton Chekhov, from a letter to Alexey Suvorin, 30 May 1888 (translated by Rosamund Bartlett):
It's time for writers, especially writers of real artistic worth, to realize, just as Socrates in his time and Voltaire in his, that in fact nothing can be understood in this world. The crowd thinks it knows and understands everything; and the stupider it is, the broader the compass of its perceived horizons. But if writers whom the public trusts could only bring themselves to admit that they understand nothing of what they see, that would be a great advance in the realm of thought, a great step forward.

Dambudzo Marechera, from "The Black Insider":
"Since reading is an industry in its own right somebody somewhere is getting the profits. Publishers, critics, lecturers, second-hand booksellers and shoplifters. It's a complete study of how parasites and their hosts exist. At the same time there are all the rest of them breathing down the writer's neck telling him he must write in a certain way and not in another way; and there are those who think that because they have read what has been written have got a perfect right to say just about anything to the writer and he is supposed to take it calmly. Every man is a walking collection of aphorisms. The thing about a story lurking round every corner, and a novel resting uneasily inside every human skull. Nonsense. Apart from the initial spark of creativity in the best and worst parts of the first book, the writer's road is littered with crumpled contracts, bleeding symbols, and broken teeth, all in the wake of big business. The hidden persuaders are well dug in behind the ramparts and they know exactly how to stimulate that kind of phoneyness which a complacent reading public takes for its own good taste. At the same time you get the heels crunching down on your spine to make you think that objectivity is possible where such things as language rule. Roland Barthes has tried to blow up that balloon and quite successfully too, though they have, of course, an in-built eject-mechanism and he will probably find himself falling into oblivion without a parachute."

Liz, who was staring out the window, said noncommittally:

"Those paratroops are still coming down. Something big is going on over there."

25 March 2008

Katherine Min at The New School

Katherine Min is coming to New York for a reading and interview at The New School tomorrow night:
Fiction Forum: Katherine Min

6:30 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.
The Writing Program presents Katherine Min reading from Secondhand World and discussing her work with Jackson Taylor, associate director of the Writing Program.

Wollman Hall, Eugene Lang Building, 65 West 11th Street, 5th floor (enter at 66 West 12th Street)

$5; free to all students and New School faculty, staff, and alumni with ID
I'll be there (fashionably late, I expect), as will all my imaginary friends, and perhaps even a few of the not-quite-imaginary ones.

"The most desperate of all writers"

Victor Shklovsky, from Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot, translated by Shushan Avagyan:
In the long story "My Life", Chekhov wrote about a bad architect who designed buildings so badly, planned the interiors so poorly, the facades were all so hideous that people simply got used to the style of this person.

The style of failure becomes the style of the town.

Chekhov hated expositions and denouements; he is the one who revived the two concepts.

I'll repeat once more about how he wrote to his brother saying that the plot must be new and a story isn't always necessary.

By plot he meant the false theatre, the poetics of that theatre, especially the expositions and denouements of plays -- things that the viewer is anticipating with pleasure.

It's like a shot of morphine.

Literature became a place of false denouements, false expositions, false successes, the successes of individual people.

The young boys -- the fugitive convicts who turned rich and cried on the graves of their comrades who didn't fall under the protection of the ancient plot, the happy ending.

Even Dickens, after his discovery of ancient plot, got so bloated that he resembled an old sunken boat.

Chekhov is the most desperate of all writers, he is the most straightforward one.

He doesn't want to soften, loosen the threads of life, he doesn't want to be capable of bending them to make a false happy end.
For another excerpt, see here.

22 March 2008

So Many Books...

I have very little time for extra reading right now, which is frustrating, because a bunch of interesting books have arrived recently. (The good news: I will be making a substantial change of life this summer, and with luck that change will open up a lot more time for reading and writing. Just have to survive the next three months...) Here, then, are some comments on books I have not yet had much time to look at, but am keeping on my To Be Read pile...

Weird Tales Issue 348: Word on the street is that Ann VanderMeer's second issue as fiction editor of Weird Tales is awesome (and not just because of the fiction). I enjoyed Ann's first issue, and intend to get to this one ... very...........soon.........

Speaking of Ann VanderMeer, I also now have copies of two anthologies she and some guy named Jeff edited: The New Weird and Steampunk. I've actually been so excited by both that I couldn't help myself from dipping into them, even though I should be doing work on the book I'm working on with the VanderMeers myself, Best American Fantasy 2. But these are such fascinating books, full of strange and entertaining and hard-to-find-elsewhere material. I continue to be blown away by the commitment of Tachyon Publications to publishing really exciting collections and anthologies. They've been doing a good job of this for a while, but I don't think they've ever been better than they are now. Such books as the VanderMeers' anthologies, the two Kelly&Kessel anthos, Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology and Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, the Asimov's 30th Anniversary Anthology, the Hartwell&Kramer The Year's Best Fantasy and so many others are doing a great service for SF short fiction in our time. (And yes, I had long ago promised an interview with the Tachyon folks. I dropped the ball on that one, for various reasons, but may be able to convince them to take pity on me and continue...)

Oh, and another Tachyon book on the TBR pile: The Word of God, in which Thomas M. Disch explains how he became a deity and what his plans are for us. From flipping through, I see it contains, as it should, one of my favorite Disch poems: "Ballade of the New God".

Moving down through the pile we find ........ The Adventures of Amir Hamza, 900 pages of Urdu classic. Ancient epic fantasies can be great fun, and this is one of the books I'm saving for my future free time.

Look! More anthologies! I've actually started and will definitely finish reading John Joseph Adams's Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, because I'm a total sucker for apocalypse fiction, and the table of contents for this collection is varied and exciting. Also in this pile sits Brian Aldiss's Science Fiction Omnibus, which is a very weird book by the looks of it -- an update of his The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, it's a hodgepodge of classic (and sometimes terribly clunky) SF and more contemporary stories such as Kim Stanley Robinson's "Sexual Dimorphism", Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life", and John Crowley's "Great Work of Time" (the latter being among my favorite stories of the last 50 years, if not of all time). Also included is William Tenn's "The Liberation of Earth", and bringing that satirical masterpiece back into print is justification enough for the book's existence. (The paucity of female and non-white writers is notable, though, in a book that attempts to be a broad overview of the genre.)

The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia, which has been getting lots of good press recently. I actually started reading it yesterday, and unless I get sidelined by a bunch of other projects, I should be able to finish it in the coming days or weeks. Sedia is also the editor of Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy, which I thought I had a copy of, but I've scoured the apartment in search of it, with no luck. (If I loaned it to you, please return it sometime int he next few months, please!) And she has a blog, which I somehow didn't know about, but have now added to the blogroll.

Del Rey is publishing two anthologies that, had I the time, I would devour right now, but which will have to wait till the summer: Tales Before Narnia: The Roots of Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by Douglas A. Anderson and The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Ellen Datlow. The subtitle of the first is a bit hyperbolic (THE roots?), but the contents are diverse and interesting, with stories by E. Nesbitt, Hans Christian Andersen, Valdemar Thisted, Charles Dickens, William Morris, J.R.R. Tolkien, and a bunch of others. Ellen Datlow's anthology contains original stories by such folks as Christopher Rowe, Carol Emshwiller, Maureen McHugh, Margo Lanagan, Barry Malzberg, Jeffrey Ford, and others whose names I should also have written here, but haven't.

The Underground City by H.L. Humes -- 755 pages with narrow margins means we won't be reading this one anytime soon, but boy is it tempting! The French Resistance in WWII, geopolitics, philosophy...

But no! Heck, I haven't yet finished reading Kelley Eskridge's delightful collection of short stories, Dangerous Space, which I've had for ages, so I can't start reading Humes. No no no. And I haven't even started Lucy Snyder's even-more-compact collection, Installing Linux on a Dead Badger. And yet the books continue to accumulate. (You should see the piles of ones I have no intention of reading!)

And what have we here? Birmingham, 35 Miles by James Braziel. I know nothing about this book, but it's a post-apocalypse story, so I stuck it on the TBR pile. ("When the ozone layer opened and the sun relentlessly scorched the land, there was little that remained." Got me from the first sentence on the back cover!)

Lauren Cerand sent me Have You Found Her: A Memoir by Janice Erlbaum, another book I know nothing about, but Lauren knows my taste, so I always give a try to anything she sends. It's the story of a woman who was a homeless teen and now, twenty years later, volunteers at a homeless shelter for teens to try to help kids like she was herself and she ends up meeting a girl who is "a brilliant 19-year-old junkie savant" who needs more help than anybody knew and now this sentence will end. Yes, that gets to stay on the TBR pile, and maybe move up a few places...

The Assassin's Song by M.G. Vassanji. I've been meaning to read this for months now, especially since Vassanji was my workshop leader when I was in Kenya in '06 and I have liked the other works of his I've read. But I haven't yet had time. Hmmmph.

Somebody at Orbit kindly sent me Ian M. Banks's new novel, Matter and two paperback reprints of Banks's first Culture novels, Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games. Now, I have to admit, I read Banks's Use of Weapons, which Orbit will be re-releasing in July, a couple years ago and didn't much care for it, which surprised me quite a bit, because lots of people whose taste is similar to mine have praised that novel tremendously (VanderMeer called it "the most devastating commentary on war and the effects of war written in the 20th century"), so when I found it shallow and cloying, I figured there must be something wrong with me and not the book ("Yes," says Jeff. "To the list of things wrong with you, add that."*). (But honestly, I disliked it so much I left it in a hotel room.) Thus, I intend to read these three books and fix my perception of Banks so that I can enjoy him as much as everybody else seeems to. Because, really, even though sometimes it doesn't seem it, all I want is to be just like everybody else.

I'll probably read Chip Kidd's second novel, The Learners pretty soon, because it's short and looks like fun. I thought his first novel, The Cheese Monkeys, was strange and entertaining, and I'm glad that, when he's not working as one of the best book designers in the biz, he finds time to write.

Hey, I do have a copy of Jon Courtenay Grimwood's End of the World Blues! The title alone was enough to make me want to read it, but I didn't remember that I already had a copy, and nearly bought it at a bookstore a couple months ago, though, knowing that I wouldn't have time to read it until summer, I restrained myself. Good thing I did. I should practice restraint more often so I get better at it. (No jokes about BDSM you dirty-minded so-and-so!)

And here are two books from small presses that I was looking at in case I ever got to be a nominator at the LBC again (pause for a nanosecond of silence in remembrance): Ohio River Dialogues by William Zink (Sugar Loaf Press) and Mortarville by Grant Bailie (Ig Publishing). Neither is tremendously long, so I still hope to read them in the coming months.

I adored Zoe Wicomb's first book, You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, so when I discovered her most recent (I think...), Playing in the Light at McNally Robinson a few months ago, I scooped it up. Thinking I would read it immediately. Ahhh, the best laid thoughts of mice and ... the best laid mice of plans and.... the best Lenny........

And what is this? A new Elric book by Michael Moorcock with illustrations by the great and glorious John Picacio? Yes, indeed, it's Elric The Stealer of Souls. I've been meaning to read all the other Elric books for ages now. In time, perhaps I will. Until then, I can look at the pictures!

Richard Morgan's Thirteen is sitting here, too. I've had some problems fully embracing Morgan's other books, but he's one of those writers who I think will eventually write a book that really impresses me, and Thirteen could well be it. With luck, I'll get to see.

Finally, here's Felix Gilman's first novel, Thunderer, which, when I opened the envelope that covered it, I immediately put on the Not Right For Me pile because of the cover. It looks like a cheesey historical romance with pirate-ship-zeppelins. Pirate-ship-zeppelins are fine with me, but cheesey historical romances are not. But then I discovered it was edited by Juliet Ulman, whom I adore. And VanderMeer called him a "thrilling new fantasist". And Jay Tomio Robert at Fantasy Book Critic liked it and notes that the cover art isn't entirely a good representation of the book. And I do try hard not to judge books by their packaging. So I'll give it a try. Sometime. Sometime...

Meanwhile, I see there's another whole pile of books over there. No time to list them, though, as I still have a pile of tests and papers to grade. I'd rather be reading.

*Disclaimer: As I am practicing writing a memoir, I am now writing dialogue that I can imagine people saying, rather than dialogue they, well, did in fact say.** I haven't heard from Jeff today, nor have I ever told him about my trouble with Use of Weapons. Partly out of shame, but also because it never really occured to me. But I bet he'd say something like that. Or else, "You're a weirdo," which I get a lot. Not just from him. Not even primarily from him.

**Here's something I just wrote for J.M. Coetzee to say when a reporter asks him who his favorite contemporary writers are: "I think Matthew Cheney is at the top of that list. In fact, I don't think a better writer has ever lived. Future generations will value him in the way that current generations value Shakespeare."

21 March 2008

Gernsback: "Plausability in Scientifiction"

Through a bit of luck, I was able to get a copy of the November 1926 issue of Amazing Stories (vol. 1, no. 8) for an affordable price (because it's not in very good condition). I've wanted to see a complete issue of one of the early, Hugo Gernsback-edited Amazings for ages -- yes, aside from the material they reprinted from Wells and Verne and Poe, most of the fiction they published was atrociously bad and even occasionally illiterate, but Amazing as an idea and institution was an important step in differentiating science fiction from other types of writing.

The editorial by Gernsback in this issue has separated from the binding, so here, for your amusement, is a scan of it (click on the image for a full-size view):

18 March 2008

Arthur C. Clarke 1917-2008

As is being widely reported, Arthur C. Clarke has died. He was a unique and remarkable man, one whose influence and importance was felt in numerous fields.

It's been years since I read any of Clarke's fiction, and it never had the deep effect on me that the writings of some of his contemporaries had, but his novelization of the movie he helped imagine, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was one of the first SF books I ever tried to read, since it was just about the only SF novel my parents owned when I first got interested in such writing. I saw the movie soon after, and though I found it utterly bewildering and sometimes soporific (I was more used to things like Smokey and the Bandit at the time), it piqued my interest, and later viewings grabbed hold of my imagination in a way few films ever have.

Clarke's passing is one I find particularly notable, though, because it signals the end of an era. I don't know where the term "The Big Three Science Fiction Writers" originated, but since childhood I have thought of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke as those writers. Asimov and Heinlein, of course, started publishing during the "Golden Age" of the late '30s and '40s; Clarke first began publishing professionally after they were well established (Clarke's first stories were "Loophole" and "Rescue Party" in 1946), but eventually was seen as part of the triumvirate. The only SF writers from that era who are still with us, as far as I know (and I could be neglecting someone) are Jack Vance and Frederik Pohl -- immensely important writers, indeed, but it is strange to realize that our living links to science fiction's formative years are now mostly gone.

Ninety years is a great lifespan if they are part of a good life, and it seems that Clarke's life was a good one, so I am not sad at his passing, just ... nostalgic. And grateful to him and to his generation of thinkers and writers, people who imagined the way for later generations' imaginings. It's a strange feeling, to face a new day that elders won't themselves see. Thank you, Sir Arthur, from all of the rest of us carbon-based bipeds!

10 March 2008

Human Smoke Discussion

I first learned of Nicholson Baker's new book, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, when I saw Ed Champion carrying around a well-worn galley copy at a reading a month or so ago. It looked like the kind of book I could become obsessive about, and so I contacted the publisher and begged for a copy, and soon a finished copy (beautifully made) of the book had landed on my doorstep. I'd only read a few pages when Ed invited me to join an online roundtable discussion of the book he was putting together.

Part one of that discussion has now been posted. It includes contributions from Ed, Sarah Weinman, Levi Asher, and Brian Francis Slattery. Upcoming will be lots of argument about historiography, pacifism, Baker's representation of WWII, and much more. I've only chimed in once so far, because I'm still struggling to finish the book amidst a very busy schedule, but once I'm done, I'll have something more to add either at the roundtable, or, if it's completed at that point, here.

Update: And now Part Two, which provides lots of lively argument.

Update update: Here are the other parts: three, four (in which I make my first appearance), and five. Ed sprung a surprise on us at the end -- Nicholson Baker himself came in and responded to some of what we'd said.

I'm still reading the book (halfway through it now...) and will have a bit more to say here at The Mumpsimus about it once I'm done.

09 March 2008

Of Sunday and Macbeth

My yearnings for theatre were sated last week when, through luck and happenstance, I got to accompany friends to two of the most talked-about shows in New York at the moment: Sunday in the Park with George at the Roundabout Theatre and Macbeth at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. As events and opportunities to spend time with friends, both were completely pleasurable. As aesthetic artifacts, both were disappointing.

The better of the shows in terms of script is the lesser of the shows in terms of production: Macbeth. The central problems are that the play is a hodgepodge of ideas and techniques and that Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth gives a one-note performance in the key of overwrought. (Patrick Stewart's performance is, like the whole show, occasionally extraordinary and generally competent, but lacking coherence.) The director, Rupert Goold, has chosen to put the play in quasi-Stalinist dress and on a single set: a white-tiled hospital ward-asylum-torture chamber, augmented with projected imagery when necessary. It's an effective choice, giving the play a sense of unity and menace, particularly in conjunction with the choice to make the witches into three nurses. The opening scene with the bloody soldier is hilarious at first, because the actor playing the soldier performs like an epileptic animatron, but the segue into the next scene, when the witches wonder when they'll meet again, is marvelously creepy.

Indeed, many of my favorite moments in the play were the scene transitions. Talking with other people who have seen the show, many of whom liked it far more than I, the banquet scene gets mentioned as a high point, and for me it was so, but not as much for the scene itself as for the movement from the scene of Banquo's murder (on a train, staged clumsily) to the banquet -- there is a puzzling shift to the entire cast singing something as if they've briefly been beamed in from Sweeney Todd, but just because it's puzzling doesn't mean it's not effective (I'm a sucker for sudden choral impulses), and then the chorus becomes the banquet. It's a lovely bit of choreography. Banquo gets to charge in, face and chest drenched in gore, and jump on the table, and then comes the intermission (or "interval" as the announcement at BAM said -- apparently they even imported the house manager from England). The scene is repeated when the second half of the play begins, this time sans Banquo and gore, so we get to see that Macbeth is -- shock of shocks -- delusional! It's one of the dubious choices that gives this production of Shakespeare's shortest play a running time closer to that of your average production of Hamlet.

Ultimately, my favorite performances were those of actors in smaller roles, particularly Christopher Patrick Nolan as the porter, portrayed with such diabolical menace that the character seems to have little to do with Shakespeare's original, but is nonetheless captivating to behold -- many of the other actors strain for similarly overblown effects, but produce characters that are less compelling, less nuanced, more like a reanimated bag of tics and tricks than a person.

Nonetheless, this is absolutely the best production of Macbeth I've ever seen. That is faint praise, though, because for some reason, though Macbeth is the Shakespeare play I have seen most often (yes, even more than A Midsummer Night's Dream, but that's probably because I've vowed never to see that one ever again lest it reach levels of fatal toxicity in my system), I have nonetheless had the bad luck to see nothing but truly atrocious productions of it, including an utterly lifeless version at the 1995 Stratford Festival in Ontario.

(I should note that Rick Bowes said the only reason I didn't like Kate Fleetwood's performance was that I couldn't adjust to the nontraditional casting of a woman in the role.)

Sunday in the Park is an altogether better production, one with strong and thoughtful performances throughout, and a coherent style and vision. My primary complaint was with the orchestra -- well, band, really. The production began at a tiny British theatre (yes, this is another import, a fact Michael Feingold has complained about) and despite moving to very modern and expansive digs here in the U.S., the band has not been expanded, and the lack is painful to anyone who knows the original soundtrack -- excruciatingly painful at a couple of key moments, in fact. Plenty of musicals can survive just with a piano -- I once saw a perfectly good Sweeney Todd performed that way -- but the orchestrations of Sunday in the Park provide a level of meaning to the show that is simply not available without at least a few more instruments (preferably some brass) than the new production has. The final moments of Act I, with the song "Sunday", are breathtaking with an orchestra, and while they were still affecting at the Roundabout -- it's one of the best moments in all of Stephen Sondheim's work -- the emotional power was greatly reduced from what it could be.

Sunday in the Park provides a few gnarly problems to any production. First, there's the technical challenge: how do you assemble one of the most famous post-Impressionist paintings during the course of the first act, for instance? This production solves the technical challenges cleverly -- with projected animations. Even in these days of massive Broadway spectacles, the animations in Sunday in the Park are impressive because they make the stage itself into a blank piece of canvas, allowing quick and occasionally stunning transformations. Sometimes the animations are distracting, but more often they are magical, as props and set pieces that previously seemed solid evaporate into thin air.

The other problem with Sunday in the Park is the second act. Critics have, ever since the original production of 1983/84, complained about the second act, and its shallow satire of the 1980s art world has not aged well. This is, though, primarily a problem with one song, albeit a long one: "Putting It Together" (rewritten to somewhat better effect for the revue of that title, where it became about putting a show together) -- the rest of the act is, though a bit ethereal and certainly less impressive than the first act, not particularly painful. The new production does its best with "Putting It Together", but Daniel Evans makes George so unsympathetic, so much the stereotype of the bristling and bitter and whiny artist, that the emotional possibilities of the second act's conclusion are lost, and what remains feels forced and sour.

It is, though, a generally enjoyable production, though seldom transcendent in the way the material can be.

Awoke From Troubled Dreams, Found Self Changed Into a Monstrous Memoir

Franz Kafka's editor:
The story is true. Kafka simply wrote a completely verifiable, journalistic account of a neighbor by the name of Gregor Samsa who, because of some bizarre medical condition, turned into a ‘monstrous vermin.’ Kafka assured us that he’d made the whole thing up. We now know that to be completely false.
I wonder if Penguin will offer me a refund for the new Michael Hofmann translation of the stories that I bought a few days ago?

Meanwhile, some of my super-secret, oh-so-influential, don't-you-wish-you-were-as-connected-as-I-am-nah-nah-nah-nah sources within the publishing industry tell me that Mark Leyner's My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, will soon be revealed to be not a memoir of a family's amusing exploits down digestive tracts (as we've all thought for years), but rather a microeconomic study of the effects of household income as a determinant of natural gas consumption. Keep your eyes out for further revelations!