Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Month In Review and of Things to Come

This month has been crowned by illness. I’ve had a two week flu, or something to the effect, caused by the forty plus degrees variance in a twenty-four hour period that we see in the southeast. The “what do I wear for the day” time frame that assists in inducing illness is called, ‘spring.’ Happily, it only last about a month; then we all complain about how ungodly hot it is... Which will be tomorrow.

The bum wine party went well, but then again, I didn’t have to drink Thunderbird. Not that Wild Irish Rose is any better, but fun was had by all. As far as entertainment goes, I saw my first film in the theaters since The Dark Knight, more than two years ago: Avatar. It was fun. It definitely had more of a focus on ‘awesome’ than storytelling. Perhaps the makers of the film assumed viewers had seen Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas before and they crammed the plot into twenty minutes at the beginning. Didn’t love it. Didn’t hate it. A fun way to spend a few hours.

I got a few new guitar slides today. I have thick knuckles and long skinny fingers. I had decided to make my own until I remember that there is a glass working studio beneath where I work. I went in thinking to ask, “How do I make a slide?” Turns out they have a hundred already made. Much to my surprise, it’s a pretty regular request for them. The two I got are really thick glass, and slightly flared for extra awesome on the bottom strings. They have a 'rapture' inducing tone, I must say.

As far as book acquisitions go, I broke last months oath and bought a few. I finally tracked down all of Edward Whittemore’s work in hardback. Kinda broke the bank with the first two of the Jerusalem Quartet, about $15 each, but the other three of his works were only around five dollars. Here’s to hoping they are as good as the critics say…I needed to hit the free shipping magic number for the one of the Whittemore books and Amazon was having one of there random as hell, twenty-four-hours-only-blue-light-specials on the Graveyard Book. I love/hate Gaiman but for $3.99 in hardback it was hard to say no.

At a Barnes and Noble I’d never been to (after seeing Avatar) absolutely buried under about one hundred pounds of books was GGK Tigana for $1.99 Needless to say, I bought it. As far as forth coming acquisitions go, I’m gonna try to con some one into buy me A History of White People after reading this. Perhaps the non fiction thing is catching. After two books by Arturo Pérez-Reverte I have uncovered why I like him so much, or at least why I like the Alatrise series: each book is complete within it’s covers and there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ guys; there's really not much moral ambiguity. All characters are at an equal state of 'wretched' and do what they gotta do. (Perhaps Joe Abercrombie writes like this too, it seems to be what everyone hints at.) This series is a bit of a mash up of James Clavell and David Gemmell's best attributes: action, adventure, a stunning foreign setting, and depraved anti-heroes. I've also pinned down that Pérez-Reverte has an amazing ability to write without a true plot; crazier still, it doesn't bother me.

Also, I WON a book! A sure to be awesome book.

I’ve noticed that I read more when I tell myself (in my blog) what I going to read. I’m testing that theory this month by not doing it. I am gonna sift through my library of unread books and pick out the ones that have never been on the top of the stack. That’s right: I’m bottom feeding on my bookcase… It's a bit like looking for neglected treasure in what I consider to be my treasure trove.

April is looking very sexy right now. There is rum, reading, hopefully a return to full-time employment and to top it all off, bar golf in the Highlands.

I'm ready.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Best Short Story Anthologies

They can’t all be the best

The Best Science Fiction of the Year, edited by Gardner Dozois; The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, edited by Jonathan Strahan; The Best American Fantasy, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, and a host of other anthologies of science fiction and fantasy all have superlative titles to try to entice readers into purchasing their product. But how many compilations--covering the same time frame--can truly contain the best material?

If they all had 'the best' literature then surely then would have near identical table of contents… but they don't. I'm aware that, "The Best…" is a much stronger title, "What I think was the Best whatever publishing in 2009" but as a consumer, what makes a person choose on collection over another?

I’ve had a few subscriptions to literary magazines in the past and for me it took a year long subscription to learn which editors at which journals published stories that coincided with my interest. In the case of the anthologies, there is--as the titles implies--one published a year per editor. So using the same logic as magazines, I would have to purchase an editors' anthology every year for six years (the magazines I’m refereeing are bi-annual productions) before learning whether or not I truly like the stories that the editor touts as the years ‘best.’

Do you purchase 'years best' anthologies of short stories? While I'm always hard pressed not to buy something with Michael Swanwicks's name on the cover it does take more than a potentially awesome table of contents to get me to open my wallet when it comes to anthologies. (Okay, maybe if the cover had Swanwick's and Daniel Abraham's name on it…) Perhaps the 'best' thing about about this quandary is the fact that the sf/f short story market is alive and kicking.

How do you decide which anthology to purchase and why?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Captain Alatriste by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Considering the millions of copies the author has sold, it’s a bit absurd to say but, ‘Why aren’t more people reading his work?’ For me, Captain Alatriste is a unique, obvious labor of love and displays an innate gift for cinematic presentation due, no doubt, in small part to the author’s background as a war journalist.

I recall David Fulmer saying at one of his writing workshops, “Make your setting a character. The primary character. If not, it will be boring.” Like the best of advice it’s simple, but rarely adhered to. Historical fiction set in seventeenth-century Spain has been done before, but rarely—if ever—has it been done this well.

The plot is straightforward, perhaps even simplistic: an ex-soldier turned sword-for-hire discovers his conscious has limits to what it will suffer after accepting money for murder. Many of the characters feel familiar, and due to the sheer quantity of them I’d expect further development in later installments. What sets characters and events apart is the world that has shaped Madrid of the time. The setting makes characters what they are, and at times seems to define them and even force their hands. Unlike most writer’s characters the cast of Captain Alatrise couldn’t be picked up and placed in a derivative world or even Paris of the same time; they would be completely different as would the story. This is Spain as portrayed by one who loves its history and isn’t merely content to tell you about Madrid, but wants to take you there and give you a tour. There is an authentic layer of grit to this book that I don’t think I’ve encountered before with any other writer.

“When (Spain was) good, it was very good, but when bad, far worse than bad. It was the era of quixotic, sterile deeds that determined reason and right at the imperious tip of a sword."

The above is such a general statement in comparison to the minutiae of everyday life given in the novel. I’m always hesitant to quote an author’s prose in my commentary, and to do any more would be to deprive a potential reader a real treat in experiencing it for the first time. Pérez-Reverte’s prose alternates between succinct clarity, and being as florid as the naming structure of the times he is writing about, e.g. Álvaro Luis Gonzaga de la Marca y Álvarez di Sidonia, Conde de Guadalmedina. However, the writing is far from tedious; it yields credibility and style, the latter of which Pérez-Reverte has in abundance.

Most enjoyable of Pérez-Reverte’s writing is his resolution of tension. Considering the story and the characters, it would be easy to think that all points of conflict are concluded in a hackneyed, fantasy-like sword fight, but this is drama of a theatrical sort. Despite all of Pérez-Revere’s organic cinematic flair this is not the action movie-book you’ve been waiting for, rather the ass-kicking is inconsequential gravy.

There are some questions concerning the translation: clichés are occasionally used where perhaps idioms were lost; and due to the historic—archaic, by today’s standards—prose style and language, some of the word usage is either phenomenal by even Nabokov’s standards or a loose/poor approximation of what was intended by the Spanish. (Me and my modest use of the English language; I was sent reeling for a dictionary a few times.) There is also a good bit a poetry that naturally suffers from merely being translated, but not so much as to lose its meaning or not be enjoyable. I’ve been too lazy to read the Spanish text though I own it, but I may spot check a passage here and there. The book is eminently ‘readable.’

Background comfort with a romance language may impart slightly further understanding (Fray Emilio Bocanegra ‘black mouth’ and Gualterio Malatesta an Italian name meaning something akin to ‘not-right-in-the-head’ and all connotations that go with such a names) and knowing the subtle differences between ‘chevalier,’ ‘hidalgo,’ and ‘caballero’ are helpful, but the fact that this is a translated work shouldn’t scare anyone off.

Perhaps the most obvious question concerning the writing is also the easiest to overlook: the narration. Captain Diego Alatriste’s page, Iñigo, tells the events of the story at least twenty years after they happen. He was thirteen and only learning to write when the story takes place, so not even to question his recollection and memory I did wonder how he gained much of the information that was given to the reader when he was not immediately present—which Iñigo admits, was more often than not. It becomes a difficult detail to ignore as we are shown Alatriste’s taciturn nature and utter inability to brag or even mention his exploits. Iñigo has an odd place in the story; he is part of it, yet concurrently very detached. Pérez-Reverte easily diverts reader attention from this issue by way of being an exceptional story teller and the answers possibly lie in forthcoming installments.

As if I already didn’t want to keep reading…

It’s a good looking book too. The authors name, with its near symmetrical location of the letter ‘R’ through three names, hyphens and accent mark looks fabulous and even slightly exotic in print on the cover. These are the first hardback books from Putman I can recall owning. They are nothing exceptional but the little things are done well: a nice typeset, great spacing, and a unique but easy-on-the-eye font.

While it is the first book in a series, of which the first five are available in English and hopefully the others coming soon, this entry stands alone. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I’ll follow Captain Alatrise as long as Pérez-Reverte keeps writing about him. This work falls into a very particular genre: books-you-should-be-reading.

As to whether or not I’ll have commentary on the other works concerning Diego Alatriste that depends solely on Pérez-Reverte. If he merely copies the mold set down in the first installment, I doubt I’ll say anything further, but I have a feeling he won’t. It is evident that he has too much skill and creativity to rehash material. At the moment, I am more than content to find out for myself by reading the next book.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Non-Fiction and Fun (Or the lack there of…)

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, A Brief History of TIme by Stephen Hawking Ph.D., Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf and Structural Power and the Construction of Markets: The Case of Rhythm and Blues by Timothy J. Dowd Ph.D., an article published in Comparative Social Research, Volume 21: of all of these, I think I enjoyed the latter the most.

I don't read a lot of non-fiction so perhaps I don't know what to look for to judge it's merits and faults, but in terms of what was the most fun, or what would I recommend to someone else, I have to go with Gilsdorf. If you make it through the free online preview without laughing, then I doubt our reading interest will ever coincide. I wish I'd taken notes while reading the Hawking, my retention would then have been much higher. I should have known that Nabokov would be the most cerebral and intellectual of the bunch with his command and elegant mastery of the English language. As for beautiful writing, Nabokov again wins in terms of prose and sheer creativity in presentation of a memoir. (I still think the, 'best' bit of writing within Speak, Memory was Nabokov's 'review' of the work at the end. It is much like the forward to Lolita except greatly expanded.)

I think non-fiction has some form of reader engagement that is, at the present, foreign to me. I can't say I ever, 'got into' any of these books except for the Dowd article--which covers a subject that I knew going into would have great immediate interest to me. Perhaps I'm going about things incorrectly and I need to follow some sort of primer as to how best enjoy non-fiction, and as always, I'm open to suggestions, but at the moment, I'm at a loss to see how book stores stay in business carrying as little fiction as they do. How does non-fiction sell as much as it does?

What am I missing? Why is the fiction market so tiny and yet that is what holds all my reading interest outside of academic writing concerning sociology? I once heard that the average person reads seventy pages in a book and then puts it down forever. If that statistic took into account non-fiction I kinda understand. I'd love to know further details of that study. To all the non-fiction lovers out there, I'm not hating, but have you heard of Arturo Perez-Reverte, John Connolly or a host of other I-have-read-everything-by-this-person-ever writers?

I've never been in with the 'in crowd' and I don't take the side of the minority 'just because,' but I'm missing (or have missed) the point when it comes to most non-fiction.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Atlanta Vintage Books

With used book stores I find it best to go inside without an agenda. If there is something specific you want, sure look for it but don't be surprised with what end up purchasing.

This is a store I had to tear myself away. A prior dinner engagement on the other side of town hastened me away and probably saved me a good bit of money as well. I need to dedicate a Saturday morning to going here in an effort to take it all in. I would also need a second job to shop here with regularity. (Actually, I need a full-time job, right now...)

I've already failed in my effort to not buy any books in the month of March so I didn't feel bad about the two I picked up today. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin and Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev as translated by Constance Garret. (I usually limit my Russian translations to Richard Peaver and Larissa Volokhonsky but I seem to recall an interview where they greatly endorsed Garrent's work and haven't seen the need to do their own translation.) I've been wanting to read LeGuin for a long time, and I have been without any nineteenth century Russian literature longer than I would like.

Now to make you jealous. These are Easton Press Editions I purchased. In mint condition as defined by book antiquarians. I had never seen, or heard of these wonders of print until today, and I'm still blown away. The amazingly thick and textured paper, binding, and type surpass even what I had previously thought to be the pentacle of modern printing, the Everyman's Library. The ornate leather binding, and gold gilt edges combined to make you think of a brand new, really old book.

If you have the cash, and really like the book you are considering, they are well worth the price. If you find them as I did--in a used, second hand store-- in mint condition for twenty bucks a piece, you have to buy them. I'm here to tell ya, you may find no nicer book ever assembled than the Easton Press Editions.

These purchases bring to mind and interesting quandary and one I'd never thought to entertain before. Being these books are collectors editions, and perfect, should I got to the library and check out copies I want to read? I know myself too well. I'll read these, and enjoy them for the literature they are and the appreciate the art of the physical book, themselves. The illustrations rock something fierce for the record. Talk about, 'bringing the awesome...' Happily they are both short, so I won't have to worry about taking them around with me while reading. They look to be manageable in a small amount of reading time.

Now that you know how awesome I am because of what I bought today, I'm going to tell you why you should stop by Atlanta Vintage Books should you be in the metro area: it is a giant treasure box of stuff you didn't know you wanted, but upon entering you realize you can't do without.

Non-fiction is their staple, as is true with any book store, and they do a good bit of business with old books, like William Shakespeare's complete works in twenty volumes as published by blah blah and blah. As much as I loathe (and yes there is a difference between loath and loathe) the idea of people buying sets of books solely for looks, I do have to admit: those old books, look really cool. As do the 'new old' books I bought.

I was able to hold back and not go all out on the first edition, signed copies of Gone with the Wind or Atlas Shrugged simply because I've never made as much money as those books sell for let alone had as much expendable cash.

It's not Borders, or Barnes and Nobles, and things aren't filed or shelved as neatly as Amazon… but they do have a kick-ass espresso machine and pastry--both at no charge--in addition to providing a wonderfully unique and altogether pleasant book buying experience.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura

In this novel we are given an example of stark storytelling at it's best. You'll find none of the oft praised lyricism or deftly crafted (i.e. overwrought) literary allusions commonly employed by many writers. Instead, you are given a straightforward, dare I even say simple, account. The result may surprise some readers: power.

The emotions felt by the reader are a testament to Yoshimura's craft. He does not try to sway your feelings, but convincingly commands you to experience the story the way he wants you too. The prose itself is a bit of a paradox. I doubt the prose garnered any attention (in Japanese or English) for it's 'colorful brilliance' and yet, it is that lack of manufactured affectedness that is so often lauded and sought out in today's literature that makes Shipwrecks such a force to read. The nature of the prose is directly related to one of the major themes of the story: depravity. There is enough of all that is base and vile in human beings here to make Dostoevsky call shenanigans.

A small Japanese fishing village is incessantly teetering on the brink of starvation. This harsh reality has breed a very harsh people. Elderly and the sick are seen as mouths to feed that can make no contribution to the working healthy, and babies are mixed blessing for the same reason. Those in the prime of their life subject themselves to the hardest of work in the most difficult of conditions.

To alleviate some of the hardship--and free up on portion of food at every meal--selling family members into indentured servitude has become a viable option for many. The family can reap the monetary benefits right away, and the life of the servant is equally difficult work as life at home, or marginally harder, with better living conditions and a guarantee of regular meals.

Isaku's father has just sold himself for three years bringing his family a very large sum for so short a time. This leaves Isaku, at the age of nine, to look after his two younger sisters, one younger brother and mother. The story is of survival and of Isaku's hyper-accelerated coming of age. Making salt on the beaches to sell in the spring is a communal village custom. An extra added bonus is the occasional ship that the fires under the salt cauldrons lure into the reef in front the of the village's bay during rough weather.

The villagers treatment of a wrecked ship is reminiscent of American Indians collecting their prize on a buffalo hunt, nothing is wasted. The shipwrecks are a blessing that the villagers pray for. They look forward to the plunder, the luxuries, the huge quantity of bales of rich that a ship may have and never even acknowledge amorality of what they do.

As far as the plot goes, I haven't said anything you couldn't read on the back of the book, and there too ends the intrigue. What drives the book forward in the increasing sense of necessary moral depravity. The village occasionally lives under the threat of reprimand but not so much that they would change their ways. We are shown three years of Isaku's difficult, repetitious, not always bountiful life, and amongst the difficulty we find ourselves truly sympathizing with the lot this village has to endure. For me, there were no 'two sides of the equation.' There is no moral ambiguity to speak of as the loss of life and theft that a shipwreck brings is seen as a means of survival.

Through all of the novel's wonderfully blunt presentation it is very hard to put a finger on what propels the narrative forward but events are shaped by looming return of Isaku's father and what will be the state of the people he returns home to. A turn of events comes as the people's nature eventually comes to haunt them and all of their subtle deception and fraud amount to nothing. To say more would be to spoil a very delicate story. I encourage all to read the book and not plot summaries.

If I don't come across a more poignant work all year, I won't be surprised. I'm close to swearing off works longer than three hundred pages, as my favorite three books of the past three months have all clocked in well under that mark. Shipwrecks was a whopping one hundred eighty pages. The impact after so short a book is phenomenal. It is an alien world that feels familiar by the bounds of humanity. This is a book you talk about long after reading.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Rum Reviews: The Third Installment

Welcome to the third entry in my continuing series where I will give you the skinny on the good, the wretched, and the divine concerning what you should be drinking: rum.

It was currency in the Caribbean in the old days, George Washington demanded it be served at his inauguration, Ernest Hemingway lived off a diet of rum and shark flesh during his stint in Cuba, and now I'm here to help you navigate the top, the bottom, and all shelves in between concerning one of the world's greatest treasures.

Nothing fruity here, no flavored spirits to hide terrible production, or inept craftsmanship, just the booze. Feel free to suggest what you will for future installments and liquor representatives are more than welcome to provide me with your product concerning tasting and review.

Mount Gay Extra Old

Wow. We’re in wine country here folks. Put on your Sunday finery and brush up on your pretentious sounding phrases. The Mount Gay Extra Old is that good. A special occasion or a night of sheer debauchery is in order to crack this bottle open. $35 may be a bit much just to get you loaded for the weekend but every cent is justified. The nose on a glass of this is amazing. Few spirits achieve this kind of balance and even less come near the amount of finesse that the Extra Old displays. I could go on with the superlatives indefinitely here. This one adds instant sophistication to any mixed drink while setting you apart as one “classy motherfucker” should you drink it alone.

Verdict: There is something to be said for the experience of more than 300 years, and the Mount Gay Extra Old makes that statement. Why aren’t you drinking this? Run, don’t walk. Go buy it.

Bacardi Superior

I’m pretty sure there are fumes coming off this one. The world’s most popular spirit is what it is: booze; not bad, and not good. With that in mind, I say it needs to be mixed. It is soft enough to take alone, in fact it is not as bad as you might think; there is a very subtle--nigh undetectable flavor of ‘something’ on the palate--but let’s be honest: this is what you drink when you need to get the party started. It does the trick, a handle fits in with the budget, and everyone you know will be comfortable drinking it. I’d like to say more, but what else is there? It’s Bacardi… it is the default rum: world leader in budget, brand name booze.

Verdict: You’ve had it before. There is a lot better and there is exponentially worse. Bacardi is as far from offensive as it is really good.

Bonus Rum Barcardi Select

Select of what I'm not sure, but it cost as much as the Bacardi Gold and Superior White. I sense some heavy food coloring. This stuff made me feel bad… I didn't get sick, only I felt nauseated. It was akin to having an oily meal forcibly made to settle on your stomach or the cloying richness of a dessert made with 97% butter.

The color is disconcerting, the nose is plain awful, and the taste makes the bathtub rotgut of old sound like ambrosia of the gods.

I have nothing good to say about the Bacardi Select.

Verdict: …

Tommy bahama Golden Sun

The Tommy Bahama is in an increasingly large category of rums that are fast becoming an exceptional value for the consumer. It's a sign of the times: the high end niche manufactures are having a hard time pushing their product in the economy of no-consumer-money-spending.

It's a blend, aged for three years in oak. If you can find it for the ridiculously low price of twenty dollars as I did you will be very please with your purchase. Perhaps a bit lighter and not as 'dirty' as the Ron Bacelo, it's equally well made only going in a different direction. The Tommy Bahama is a rum you'll amazed to find yourself sipping straight considering the price.

Verdict: Ron Barcelo and Tommy Bahama are championing a new category. It's not budget drinking, rather value drinking.

You'll want to check out previous highlights if you missed them (January, February) and be sure to check back next month as I will bring you more of the best, worst, and the in between. All things concerning rum: what you should be drinking.