The OF Blog

Thursday, November 12, 2015

So it's been a long time since I've blogged anywhere

I had fully intended to resume regular blogging this autumn after taking a hiatus of sorts to recharge my mental batteries.  But instead, a few things conspired to occupy my time:  having to study for two Praxis exams so I could add a special education certification to my quartet of certifications; working longer at work a few nights the past two months; being exhausted more than I expected after adding longer, more intense fast jog/running elements to my daily cardio (that and trying to do trail jogging for 2-3x/week, weather permitting, in addition to 5x/week track walking/jogging); and a sudden death in my family this week.

So when I was finally upgrading my ancient Macbook to El Capitan tonight, I noticed that two months had gone by without a post of any sort; the first time in nearly ten years that there was a month without a single post.  Amazing how out of practice I became at this.  So yeah, I'll be making a greater effort to not just blog, but to read/re-read books/stories/poems so I can have things to discuss here that perhaps cannot be found in any other singular location.  Might be a bit sporadic until the 30th (my second Praxis text is then; my first was this afternoon), but I'll really make an effort this time.

In the meantime, what all have I missed in recent months?  Some on Twitter were mentioning the aftermath of the World Fantasy Convention's decision to change the appearance of the WFA trophy from H.P. Lovecraft's stylized sculpture to something, anything else.  But what else is out there?  A brief glance at my blogroll seems to reveal that either more online reviewers are shuttering their sites completely or they are continuing to join large conglomerates.  Is this a mistaken impression or just the way things are trending these days when it comes to online discussions of books?

So if there are other things that I've missed since the summertime, feel free to fill me in.  Oh, and one final thing:  the reading squirrels are beginning to become rabid.  You've been warned.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Vera Caspary, Laura

The city that Sunday morning was quiet.  Those millions of New Yorkers who, by need or preference, remain in town over a summer week-end had been crushed spiritless by humidity.  Over the island hung a fog that smelled and felt like water in which too many soda-water glasses have been washed.  Sitting at my desk, pen in hand, I treasured the sense that, among those millions, only I, Waldo Lydecker, was up and doing.  The day just past, devoted to shock and misery, had stripped me of sorrow.  Now I had gathered strength for the writing of Laura's epitaph.  My grief at her sudden and violent death found consolation in the thought that my friend, had she lived to a ripe old age, would have passed into oblivion, whereas the violence of her passing and the genius of her admirer gave her a fair chance at immortality. (p. 5, Library of America edition)
American crime fiction of the mid-20th century has, due to chance or something else, been often viewed as a male-oriented literary enterprise, with hard-nosed detectives interacting cynically with a dark world.  Yet noir-style fiction was not the only strand of crime fiction and although men like Chandler and Hammett are lauded for their ingenious plots and intricate prose, women then, as they do now, also constructed some memorable crime fiction.  In the recently-released two-volume Women Crime Writers that covers eight novels written in the 1940s and 1950s, Sarah Weinman has chosen works that not only represent some of the best crime fiction of that era, but they also are stories that challenge reader preconceptions of what constitutes a crime novel.

The first novel in this anthology, Vera Caspary's Laura (published in book form in 1943 after an earlier seven-part serialization in Colliers), contains multitudes within its 181 pages.  It is not only an exploration of the titular Laura's apparent demise, but is also a shrewd look at how an independent woman in 1940s New York manages to maneuver her way through social landmines more insidiously planted than those that World War II servicemen faced.  Caspary goes to great pains to insure that Laura is no wilted (wilting?) flower.  In the various points of view presented over the course of the novel, she is neither saint nor whore, but instead something more complex and fascinating.

Caspary's use of these multiple POV perspectives serves not only to delineate Laura's complexities, but the other characters' biases and neuroses are also illustrated in a subtle yet powerful fashion.  This can be readily seen in the very first paragraph, as Waldo, an aspiring novelist of sorts and a former lover, presents a picture of himself that differs significantly from how he views himself.  This situational irony is repeated in other characters, such as Laura's former fiancé, Shelby, and how his rakishness contrasts with his professed love for Laura, or in how the detective assigned to her case, Mark McPherson, presents more personal vulnerabilities than he is aware of doing.

At times, these multiple perspectives can almost be distracting, as these secondary characters are just as flawed and fascinating as the emerging composite portrait of Laura.  Yet by the second half of the novel, Caspary has managed to weave a compelling plot out of them, especially when she introduces a plot twist that turns topsy-turvy our expectations of how this crime investigation is going to play out.  In hindsight, this development is not unexpected; there are several clues placed through the character narratives that foreshadow this development.  But once this twist is executed, the novel becomes more urgent in tone, with the prose taking on a leaner, more menacing character.  The final scenes feel as though they could have the inspiration to countless crime TV series episodes, yet there is more to them than just characters re-enacting struggles for love and understanding that were explored earlier in the novel.

Laura is a fascinating novel not just for how well Caspary explores the innermost motivations of her characters, but also for how adroitly she depicts the social milieu.  Laura is no innocent; she has had her fair share of sexual conquests.  She is in many ways a truly "modern" woman, with values that correspond to her desire to be independent and yet not "masculine."  Some critics see in her a quasi-autobiographical sketch written by Caspary, with their similar careers (advertising) and attempts to balance career and romance.  Despite whatever surface similarities author and creation might have, Laura's character and situation are appealing to readers who see in her inner conflicts a mirror of sorts for their own.  Waldo, Shelby, and McPherson might not be self-aware enough to see the hypocritical social attitudes they hold, yet Laura in contrast was very much aware of them.  She used them as much they attempted to use her and it is in this realization that makes Laura not just a page turner, but also a well-developed exploration of sexual identity during the mid-20th century.

There are few structural weaknesses.  The biggest complaint some might have is that as well-detailed the character discussions of Laura and her life and apparent death are, there are times where the narrative flow slows to a lazy meandering.  Occasionally the prose overreaches, most notably in reading Waldo's more grandiose proclamations, yet on the whole the writing not only supports the deepening narrative, it manages to deepen the tension, making it more palpable.  Laura may not be the "perfect" crime novel, but it comes close enough on occasion to make it a very good, entertaining read that will leave readers satisfied after a couple of hours.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

April-August 2015 Reads

The paucity of books listed here should give the reader here an idea just how little I have read so far this year in comparison to previous years, when I would usually have read 250-300 books by now.  I think I'll be reading quite a bit more in the coming weeks, so there is still a chance of reading 100 for the year, but this will be by far my lowest in a decade (2005 I remember as a year being so swamped with studies and work that I only read about 50 books that year, but I didn't keep a reading log back then, so I'm uncertain of the actual count).  Anyways, here's the list of books read over the previous five months (the reading squirrels were on extended vacation):


19  Milan Kundera, La fête de l'insignifiance (French; will read English translation later and review it then; entertaining)

20  Kirsopp Lake (ed.), The Apostolic Fathers, vol. I (bilingual Koine Greek/English; religious texts)

21  James Shapiro (ed.), Shakespeare in America:  An Anthology from the Revolution to Now (non-fiction; Library of America edition; already reviewed)


22  Mark Doten, The Infernal (will write a mini-review sometime before the end of the year; 2015 release)

23  Jesse Ball, A Case for Suicide (see above)

24  Erwin Mortier, While the Gods were Sleeping (will review on my WWI lit blog later; 2015 US release)


25  Umberto Eco, Numero Zero (Italian; 2015 release; will review after reading the English translation)

26  Umberto Eco, Numero Cero (Spanish; see above)

27  Jeff VanderMeer, Annientamento (Italian translation; 2015 release; already reviewed the English edition)


28  Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (already reviewed)


29  Andrzej Sapkowski, La Saison des orages (French translation from the Polish original; 2015 edition; will review in the near future)

Currently reading the two-volume Library of America anthology, Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s and I will try to review some, if not all, of those crime novels soon after finishing them.  Hope to finish at least the first volume this month.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Belatedly, The OF Blog Turns 11

Tuesday marked the eleventh anniversary of this blog, but as was par for the course this year, I was a bit too busy (jogging 7.63 miles that night) to celebrate it until now.  But really, there are things to celebrate even now, even though I haven't yet finished a book since my birthday over six weeks ago (that will change this weekend).

A year ago, I had suffered a back injury at work that left me unable to work for nearly six weeks.  I was on a lot of muscle relaxers and other steroid-based medications and my weight ballooned.  I took a picture that night, August 25, 2014, and I looked miserable.  I recall writing a rather pessimistic 10th anniversary post here that day and while I retain some of those sentiments, it is rather amazing that I am still writing, albeit sporadically until now.

I am now able to do stretches that I haven't done since my early 20s.  Balancing on one leg while doing alternating toe touches, followed by a jump scissor kick makes me feel young again (not that 41 is old, mind you).  Spending more time outdoors, even if much of it is on a local track, has also revitalized me in a way that reading alone cannot.  It is interesting to see the changes in my mood doing things that I used to do before I began reading so much.  Although reading is a pleasure, some pleasures can have deleterious effects on the mind and body and I think my re-found dedication to balance between mind and body, between activity and reading, has helped me not just get limber again, but to enjoy those moments even more when I do sit down and read some.

As for this blog, I said earlier this month that I would be "making it new again" and I think that'll mean more, miscellaneous essays, maybe along the lines of a Montaigne, in addition to occasional reviews.  Taking a break from most social media has led me to become more of an observer than an active participant and perhaps there'll be some "heresies" to espouse on occasion.

There is also a professional accomplishment that I'll discuss in the near future, when things are finalized, but it is something I'm excited to discuss when things are complete.

Finally, autumn is coming.  The Serbian literary squirrels are scurrying back to their reading dreys.  You have been warned.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Some more brief thoughts on the 2015 Hugo Awards


No, I have more to say than I did a few months ago when the finalists were announced.  I haven't really had much to say on those awards (or pretty much, any awards longlist or shortlist these past few months) because I have spent much of the year not reading.  It is interesting how one's perspective on things can change when removed from the immediacy of almost any situation.  I didn't care much for the way the shortlists were decided, but I just didn't have much of any real interest because there were some non-slate nominees (at least the initial list before an author withdrew from Best Novel consideration) that I thought were also mediocre to poor works.  

Since much of my Twitter feed is comprised of SF/F fans and authors (although I have several squirrel and sports feeds I follow there as well), I quickly grew bored with the same sentiments being reiterated over and over again.  Had nothing really to say; I have never really put much stock into the Hugo Awards because their finalists/winners rarely overlap with what I considered to be recent years' best fictions.  So I decided to wait until around the time the awards were announced (here's a link that shows the votes/nominations) before I would say anything really about this year's slate/winners.

I am very pleased to see that Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem won Best Novel.  Before it was added to the shortlist after Marko Kloos withdrew his novel from consideration, I thought every single one of the Best Novel nominees were not worthy of award consideration.  Needless to say, when it was added, I thought it was by far the best of the bunch and a deserving winner.  

As for the other categories and No Award winning over all of the slate nominees, nothing much to say other than people exercised their voting rights and that (like the slates did in nominating them) was that.  Nothing controversial about it in terms of procedures being followed, but I suppose there'll be months of factional arguments over next year's nomination/voting process and then maybe, eventually (right?) this will die down into the usual internecine sniping about age, group voting identities, and all the picayune things that can make SF fandom so tedious for outsiders.

But then again, I'm probably not the person to turn to these days for scintillating coverage of SF fandom awards.  I was too busy either getting in a late night 5.5 mile walk/jog or watching a replay of NXT Takeover:  Brooklyn (by the way, the Women's Championship Match was one of the best matches I've seen this year) to pay any attention to Twitter until hours after the winners were announced.  Priorities and all.  With that being said, time to rest, as I have another 10 miles I'd like to walk/jog before work Monday. 

Monday, August 03, 2015

Renovatio blogis

I said four months ago (using April Fool's Day as a cover) that I was contemplating shuttering this blog after nearly eleven years.  There were many reasons why I had reduced my blogging frequency (and by extension, my overall online profile) since mid-January:  focusing on weight loss/fitness improvement; burnout on reading much after a decade of reading on average 400 books a year; general ennui with the circular nature of tangentially book-related discussions; increasing discomfort with the sorts of "conversations" I was seeing on social media; etc.  I didn't really go into detail then and I'm not going to now, but being the sort of person who prefers thesis-antithesis=synthesis in the realm of ideas to rehashing ad hominem attacks or feeling pressured to give "hot takes" on ephemeral social controversies du jour, it was easier to just bow out than to continue to be inundated with repetitive crap.  I'm also much more of an extravert than many, so it was easier to find stimulating conversation at work and elsewhere than it was online, so naturally I gravitated back to things that gave me much more pleasure and less irritation and aggravation.

But there is something in the art of communicating one's assessment of ideas and people via a written, electronic medium such as a blog that continues to have some appeal to me.  Oh, it's not about the number of "hits" I draw for certain pieces or about who is talking about what I said as much as it is about expressing something that might aid another in his/her search for greater understanding on a topic (especially if it's one as august as squirrel adulation).  It is interesting to see which posts draw a steady stream of visits, month after month.  One such example was a March 2014 entry where I posted my 1994 university course-assigned translation of the final 100 lines or so of Book I of Vergil's Æneid.  As of this writing, it has been viewed 768 times, more than almost all of the 2014 releases that I reviewed that year.

It is not an anomaly; more often than not, the "classics" and older literature have stronger, longer "tails" than recent fiction when it comes to views here.  My William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston reviews (which were first posted at Gogol's Overcoat and which receive even greater views there than here) average in the high hundreds or low thousands for page views.  Doubtless a good portion of this traffic involves high school and college students seeking something they could utilize (plagiarize?) in a report/paper, but I suspect there is something more to it than just that.  I know that from time to time I search for others' opinions on works that I'm reading and it is so difficult at times to find something that isn't linked to Amazon or Goodreads, but instead is more of a "proper" length review of the work in question.

Realizing that some, even if they rarely (if ever) comment here, see value in what I write about older literature (or even the snippets that I translate into an English-language first draft) makes it easier to continue writing in spite of the above-mentioned irritants, which likely will never completely fade away.  So while I probably won't be writing more than a handful of times a month for a while still (my desktop's motherboard failed last week and my Macbook at six years is ancient; blogging via my iPhone is out of the question), I believe that when I do resume writing on a more regular basis that there might be a renewal of spirit to be found.  After all, I'm the critic whose opinion is the only one worth considering here, so the new content will reflect my interests more so than anyone else's.  So there might be some language-related material mixed in with discussion of which Library of America editions I've bought lately, topped off with occasional scandalous squirrel pornography.

Now excuse me while I try to decide which books I'm going to keep and which 150-200 I'm going to sell/trade this month.  Maybe I should post photos of those?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A serendipitous discovery

A little over a week ago I went shopping at my favorite Nashville used bookstore, McKay Books.  As usual while waiting for my books to be processed for trade credit, I browsed through the Foreign Language section (typically, somewhere between half and 100% of the books I buy during these visits are non-English-language works) when I stumbled upon a curious slipcased book:

 When I pulled the book out of its slipcase, I saw that it was leatherbound and that it looked similar to a certain set of high-quality, higher-priced French books that I had pondered ordering online whenever I had enough money to justify spending $70 or so.  So I opened this book of Paul Claudel's poetry to its title page to see that my suspicions were confirmed.

Yes, I had a 1967 Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition of Paul Claudel's poetry in my hands, with only the slipcase, yellowed with age, bearing any marks.  I glanced again at the price.  Only $4.  While more expensive than most foreign language books I buy there (most French and Spanish fiction paperbacks are 10¢ or 15¢ in price), I would have to say that finding a very good to excellent condition Pléiade edition for 1/16 of its list price to be quite a bargain.

Any of you have similar discoveries of expensive books being sold dirt cheap (and in good condition) in a used bookstore?
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