The OF Blog: March 2014

Monday, March 31, 2014

Graciela Montes and Ema Wolf, El turno del escriba

Historical novels, especially those that seek to "recreate" key moments in time, are very tricky for me to review.  Verisimilitude often can get in the way of telling a particular type of story, either by forcing the author/s to devote so much effort to "getting it right" that the story suffers as a result or, conversely, that prior knowledge of what happened can interfere with the narrative that otherwise would work wonderfully for those readers with little to no prior knowledge of the events being told in novel form.  A good re-creation requires a strong story rooted in solid yet vivid historical detail, yet not so much that the detail chokes the vitality out of the story being narrated.

In Graciela Montes and Ema Wolf's 2005 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel, El turno del escriba, Marco Polo's life as a Genoese prisoner and his fateful encounter with fellow prisoner Rustichello of Pisa are narrated in exacting detail.  The authors, both of whom previously were better known for their children's stories, meticulously describe the conditions of late 13th century Italy.  From the prison conditions to the stories that the writer Rustichello and the traveler Polo would know in common, Montes and Wolf establish a very vivid setting in which the confines of the prison serve as a contrast to the exotic lands that Polo had spent twenty years traveling through on his way to and back from the kingdom of Kublai Khan, which he narrates to Rustichello, who then proceeds to write them down in Latin on parchment provided to him.

Montes and Wolf's descriptions of the two prisoners' daily routines are very vivid, yet this attention to detail comes at a price.  The two main characters rarely take on an active role in their present (and past) lives:  they exist more to narrate Polo's adventures than to describe their own selves.  This de-emphasis on the actors in favor of the actions that they witnessed weakens the narrative, making it feel at times a listing of chronicles more than a collection of fantastic stories.  However, even this occasional descent into list creation contains some fascinating elements, such as the tying together of several medieval chansons, such as those of the Matters of France and England, into the overall framework of the story that Rustichello is transcribing from his conversations with Polo.

El turno del escriba is an uneven work, as the occasional over-emphasis on the details overwhelms the flow of the story, rendering its characters curiously devoid of life while wondrous descriptions emerge from them.  However, Montes and Wolf's limpid prose manages to overcome some of these structural weaknesses, making this 258 page novel a quick read.  Ultimately, however, the lack of character development robs this novel of the depth necessary to make this tale worth revisiting frequently.  It is a good novel but weaker than most of the other Premio Alfaguara winners.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

When I was...

When I was five, I largely taught myself how to read, according to my mother.  I had just begun kindergarten and while we learned the shapes of the letters and the sounds of the alphabet, the emphasis was not on achieving initial literacy until first grade.  My mother used to make up stories, stories sometimes involving a silly little cow named Coco the Cow, and I enjoyed hearing tales much more than I enjoyed seeing things happen.  One day, according to her, I wanted a story and she didn't have time (she was an English teacher, and when do teachers ever really have time for anything, even back in 1979?) to tell me one.  Supposedly, I told her that I would just learn how to read to get one and that within a few days, I had begun reading what was around the house.  Picture books (I remember receiving a Star Wars pop-up book from the Scholastic Book Club around this time), but also more "adult" books, like the sample US and World History textbooks that my dad (a social studies teacher and football coach) had on the bottom shelf of a long wooden bookshelf (we still have it, 34 years later).  He liked telling the story that I came up to him and said something about a "suz canul" (Suez Canal) and that this one of the earliest signs of not just my fast-improving literacy, but also my emerging love for cultures and civilizations.

When I was ten, I remember my local library having a summer reading competition where for each book completed, a ticket would be given and if you earned enough tickets, you could buy particular books.  While some others apparently cheated and only wrote down titles (there was one girl who supposedly finished several hundred books from June-August), I did read the books whose titles I wrote down.  I remember reading a two-volume history of the Plantagenets, as well as some of the old Tom Swift novels after my maternal grandmother gave me certain others of the 1980s reboot to read for my tenth birthday.  I also recall reading a history of King Richard the Lion-Hearted and his romance with a Portuguese princess (how things were covered up back then!).  I also discovered C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia that year, as I bought a couple of the books with the tickets I had earned.  I don't quite recall the exact number of books read, but I want to say it was around 40.  Could have been more, but with a limit of 8 books to my card (which by the way I still have in my wallet and very occasionally use) and my mother being unwilling to go more than once every week or two (she too would check out books, but she didn't quite have the desire to read, not having a competition to motivate her), there was only so much I could do then.

When I was fifteen, I read occasionally, but mostly it was just assigned school books.  I think I might have been the only one in my class who liked reading George Eliot's Silas Marner.  There was a competition in my sophomore English class to write a short story as a group project, with the promise that the winning story would get published in the county newspaper.  My group won, but as far as I know, there was no publication.  I recall (having wrote about half of it) that it was a sort of weird/mystery tale, with a twist at the end that straddled the line between realist and supernatural fiction.  I think maybe it was influenced a bit by Edgar Allan Poe, which we first read in class the year before (my mother taught that class) but whose poem, "The Raven," we had to memorize and recite in sophomore English.  Despite this, I never really had the desire to write fiction and I still have little interest in it today (minus the translation of certain works into English, that is).

When I was twenty, I was already a senior in college, having taken two full semester loads and summer school.  I remember being baffled by William Carlos Williams and that damnable chicken beside that execrable red wheelbarrow.  Yet I somehow made an A in that lit course.  I had begun taking cultural and social histories as part of my history major and those make a much deeper and positive impression on me.  I think it was around this time or perhaps just after I turned 21 that I read Stendhal's The Red and the Black for the first time.  Julien Sorel's complex, conflicted character appealed to me, as I could see certain parallels with my own experiences at that time.  I also read Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis for the first time.  Even nearly twenty years later, it still is one of my all-time favorite novels, although I have not read it in over ten years.

When I was twenty-five, I was a first year teacher.  I remember having four pre-fab bookshelves in my apartment and a library approaching 200 books.  I had from 22-24 been on a classics tilt, reading all of the Signet Classics or Penguin Classics that I could afford.  Henry Fielding's Tom Jones became another favorite.  It was also a couple years prior to this that I really began reading speculative fiction beyond my earlier exposure to Lewis and Tolkien (at 13).  I read the Wheel of Time series two years prior and just before the ninth volume was released in late 2000, I joined my first web board, the now-defunct wotmania fansite.  Yet in the process of becoming acclimated to internet culture, I perversely lost interest in that sort of literature, staying around more because of a few people who I liked to chat with about other matters.

When I was thirty, I began this blog, mostly as an offshoot of my then-role as administrator of wotmania's Other Fantasy section.  I was reading a lot of current spec lit, not so much epic fantasy (with the exceptions of George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson, and Scott Bakker) as the vaguely-described "New Weird".  I began learning how to read Spanish just prior to my 30th birthday and within six months, was reading fluent.  Learning Spanish changed my perspective on lit, as a lot of genres were now open to me that were not as readily available in English or English translation.  Cien años de soledad was but the tip of the iceberg and from there I began to delve into Hispanophone poetry, where I encountered Rubén Dário for the first time.

When I was thirty-five, this blog began to change from focusing primarily on new speculative fictions toward a mixture of classics, speculative and realist alike, commentaries, and squirrels.  At first, more people than ever wanted to read what I had to say, but with the rise of Twitter (I joined in May 2010) and my shift away from what others were covering toward areas that I thought were neglected and which interested me more and more, the viewership here began to decline.  Not that this was really lamented, just only noted.  In terms of what was being read, authors like Jeff VanderMeer, Brian Evenson, Milan Kundera, Steve Erickson, Salman Rushdie, Joanna Russ, Kathy Acker, Vladmir Nabokov, Michael Cisco, Italo Calvino, Milorad Pavić, and Zoran Živković were my authors of choice.  I had begun learning how to read Portuguese around this time as well and Camões was a quick favorite.

Now that I shall be forty in less than four months, I find myself reading a slight bit less than in years past.  I work two jobs that occupy the majority of my waking hours, yet I do not regret this loss in reading time, for it has been replaced with more time interacting with interesting people.  Most of what I have been reading this year has not been in English, but instead in Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese, with a little bit of Latin, Serbian, and German thrown in as I learn or strive to re-master these languages.  Poetry appeals to me more and more, yet it is something that I try to limit to certain times, lest I overindulge and lose a bit of my love for it.  Hardly any speculative fiction has been read so far this year, but I suspect that might change in the summer or fall months.  I became a published translator back in 2011 and while I have nothing firm planned for this year, I do hope to resume work on a book-sized translation of a work entering the public domain sometime this year.  Maybe I will become a writer of sorts, after all, or will it be the emergence of a re-singer of beautiful tales?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Cover Art and the Revisiting of Books Long Ago Read

Every now and then I'll see a post on other blog about upcoming books or books they desire to read/review soon.  Often these title lists will include cover art.  Without reading any blurbs, I generally can tell which type of fiction (for the majority of the blogs that I read on occasion, it's SF/Fantasy) the books are by the cover art alone.  Bold, moving characters set against a vivid landscape, with garish fonts heralding the story to come.  This seems to be the norm for these types of novels.  Yet there are other types of fictions, fictions whose cover arts may give some hints at what is within, but often the images are more muted, yet (for me at least) more pleasing to the eye.

Below are six titles that I've read at some point in my past.  A couple at least (I'll let you guess which ones) are touchstone reads that recall important moments in my personal (and reading) life.  But there are some interesting motifs illustrated in most of these, things that make me more eager to read them than any straightforward "genre" work does lately.  Feel free to give your thoughts on the covers and/or the books.  Also, I plan on re-reading these in the next 2-3 weeks.  Let me know which ones you'd like to see reviewed.

First read in 2005, right after the English translation was published.

First read in 2007.

First read in 1994.

First read in 2007.

First read in 2010.

First read in 2008.

And yes, I purposely provided no descriptions of the stories, to see if you were curious about any of these works based on their covers (or were already aware of them) without description getting in the way of visual first impression.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

"A specter is haunting Europe – the specter of Communism."  With this line, one of the most famous and enduring political pamphlets, the 1848 The Communist Manifesto, co-written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, begins. So much is associated with Marx and Engel's names, ranging from wars to authoritarian regimes to revolutionary zeal.  Leaving aside what was (and still is) inspired by their political writings, The Communist Manifesto may be the most important literary work of the 19th century in terms of its impact on socio-political thinking.

I want to begin with a few quotes from Section I of the Manifesto:

"Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power?  Where the Opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of Communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?" (p. 8)

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes." (p. 9)

"The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe.  It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers." (p. 11)

"The 'dangerous class,' the social scum (Lumpenproletariat), that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue." (p. 20)
With just a few twists in phrasing, each of these statements can find their mirror images in current political discourse.  From accusations tossed about by conservative Anglo-American political parties to their opponents who seek to establish/maintain national health care to the 2011 Occupy movements to the plight of teachers (and their occasional demonization by certain elements of society) to the xenophobic rhetoric that rises in times of economic hardship, each of these find a faint echo in Marx and Engel's Manifesto.  Although Marx and Engels were influenced by Hegel's thoughts on thesis/antithesis=synthesis, they altered this dialectic approach to fit in with the materialistic age in which they lived.  While The Communist Manifesto is more of a précis than a substantive thesis (for that, see the various volumes of Marx's Capital), its concise, energetically-written summary of the plight of worker (proletariat) in the early Industrial Age introduced several concepts, especially that of class struggle, that have been influential ever since.

When I was studying history at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, it was impossible to avoid using Hegelian/Marxist dialetics in explaining what was transpiring in a particular age/country/village.  From the struggle to establish an official "language" to the use of riot as a symbolic and material expression of class discontent to evolving gender roles to the erosion of belief in the divine right of rulers, Marx's marriage of change to material matters has proven to be enduring because it is the simplest and most effective means of describing what had transpired.  Even the weakest parts of the Manifesto, Sections II and III, are valuable in outlining the historical divisions of those who sought to change the emerging bourgeois model of power/production.  Although these sections were not as germane to my studies, they too were important in outlining the modes of opposition that Marx and Engels experienced in their lifetimes.

Should readers read The Communist Manifesto today?  It depends on how open-minded they are.  If they are able to divorce Marxism from the Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist warpings of Marx and Engel's thoughts on how class struggle would proceed to proletariat revolution, then within their concise yet elegant arguments those readers might find elements of comparison to what is transpiring today on the streets and boardrooms of every major city (and most minor ones) in the world.  One does not have to agree wholeheartedly (or at all) with their prescriptions to see that their diagnosis of industrial society's ills has had a profound influence on how we view those issues nearly two centuries later.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Okey Nbide, Foreign Gods, Inc.

At their first meeting, Ike sensed that Bernita was trouble on two legs.  She walked up to him like an old acquaintance.  Without saying a word, she gathered up the folds of his agbada made of white brocade and lavishly embroidered.  She turned the fabric this way and that, trying to hold it to what light there was in the dully lit hall.  Then, after close to a minute, she finally looked up at him.  Her eyes, guileless and frolicsome, dissolved his half-puzzled, half-consternated expression.

"Where the brother from?" she asked, in a tone that was innocent and tactless.  "You from the same town as the dude in Coming to America?"

He couldn't help smiling.  Then he said, "I'm from NIgeria.  I don't know the dude's town."

"Ni what?" she said.  "Never heard of it."

"N-I-G-E-R-I-A," he spelled out.

"It's where?"

"West Africa"

"Neat."  She regarded him with blithe curiosity."  "So you's a king or what?" (p. 28)
Nigerian writer Okey Ndibe's latest novel, Foreign Gods, Inc., is the rare sort of novel that straddles several narrative lines without teetering over to one side or the other.  It is an immigrant's tale, but it is also a biting social commentary.  It narrates a protagonist in inner and outer conflict, but it also is a tale of imperialism past and present.  Yet these descriptors do not define Foreign Gods, Inc., as it is much more than the sum of its parts.

Ike (pronounced ee-kay, as he himself makes quite clear early in the novel) is a Nigerian taxi cab driver whose past dream of a career in finance has been dashed due to his Nigerian accent.  He has bounced from city to city along the east coast, trying to make ends meet, despondent over not being able to provide the "food money" that his relatives back in Nigeria keep asking him for in daily emails.  Recently divorced and hurting for cash, he turns to a shady rare items store, Foreign Gods, Inc., that offers quick cash for exotic foreign deities that are brought to their store.  Foreign Gods, Inc. is a narration of Ike's attempt to bring his village's war god, Ngene, to this store.

Foreign Gods, Inc. utilizes flashbacks, both to Ike's earlier life and to the arrival of Europeans over a century before to his village, to narrate Ike's efforts to steal Ngene.  Ike easily could have been a narrative cipher, a blank canvas for the action to transpire.  Ndibe, however, has imbued Ike with a personality that is complex and yet easy to relate to.  He is not the stereotypical immigrant dumbfounded by the wiles of America; he often responds in a sardonic fashion to those who consider himself so.  The passage quoted above, told in a flashback early in the novel, is about the first encounter between him and his recently-divorced wife, Bernita.  Her blithe ignorance, masked in uncouth directness, is played up in the few scenes where she appears.  Her taking of Ike's money in the divorce settlement, a divorce triggered in part by Ike's gambling and alcohol addictions, serves as the catalyst for his plan to steal Ngene.  Ndibe does an excellent job establishing Ike's character traits and flaws, which makes the subsequent scenes more powerful as a result.

As Ike makes arrangements to travel back to Nigeria for the theft, his interactions provide subtle yet strong descriptions of the social milieu in which he moves.  We see haggling negotiations over material matters, both in New York and in Nigeria.  Graft and greed are always near and present.  There are times that Ike's encounters take on a sarcastic mantle, as the latent seediness in informal money exchanges proves to be ripened fields for narrative harvesting.  There are moments where the story becomes a near-farce, as Ike struggles to make any headway toward collecting the money necessary to pay for his mounting bills, but by the novel's end, a much more somber, sober tone has been established, albeit one that remarkably is in harmony with the earlier, more jocular tone.

Ndibe's characters are well-drawn.  Characters that appear for maybe a handful of paragraphs have a depth to them that distinguishes them from the others around them.  From old, now-rich friends exploiting those around them under the guise of being a benefactor to grasping relatives who see Ike as more of a living ATM than as a blood relative, these characters possess a life of their own.  Ndibe's prose is sharp and economical, telling an expansive story in 330 pages without feeling truncated or bloated.  This, combined with the vivid characterization, makes Foreign Gods, Inc. a delight to read.

There are few weaknesses to this novel.  Perhaps at times it seems certain themes are overly emphasized, but on the whole, Ndibe has written a novel that reads well not just for those from the Nigerian diaspora but also for readers such as myself who are natives of the United States.  Ndibe's ability to make his characters relateable to a diverse readership makes Foreign Gods, Inc. an excellent read.  It is one of the better novels that I have read this year. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Kyle Minor, Praying Drunk

We begin with the trouble, but where does the trouble begin?  My uncle takes a pistol and blows his brains out.

Now we may proceed to the aftermath.  The removal of the body from his bedroom.  The cleanup.  The reading of the will.  The funeral in West Palm Beach, Florida.  The woman he wanted to marry, taking the ring he gave her and putting it on her finger after the death.

But the beginning is not satisfactory.  The mourners are now parsing their theories of why.  Did you know that he was brain-damaged when that city dump truck hit him twenty years ago?  Look at his children grieving in the front pew of the funeral room.  Why wouldn't they visit him except when they wanted his settlement money?  Had his settlement money run out?  And where is his ex-wife?  Why couldn't she love him enough to stay with him (for better or for worse, right?)  Do you think it's true he was physically violent with her like she told the judge? ("The Question of Where We Begin," p. 3)

Kyle Minor's second collection, Praying Drunk, is not one of those collections where you can choose an interesting title at random and read out of ToC order.  He admonishes readers who are considering to do this in his introduction, noting that there is a careful arrangement of stories whose themes, situations, settings, and characters build a larger narrative and thematic structure with each successive story.  There certainly are resonances that can be found in reading these stories in sequential order that would be lost if the reader were to skip from the opening "The Question of Where We Begin" to say the opening section of Part II, "There Is Nothing But Sadness in Nashville," a title that immediately grabbed the attention of this native of the metro Nashville region.  Tempting as it was to skip ahead, after completing the collection, it was worth it to hold off until the preceding stories had been read.

Praying Drunk is not a light-hearted affair.  The opening story, "The Question of Where We Begin," immediately sets the mood for the collection with its description, through a backwards chain of events and questions, of a life "lost," of all of the things that could have been and weren't.  Minor early on discusses chance and this statement establishes the tenor for the following tales:

"But this, chance, isn't story.  Chance doesn't satisfy the itch story scratches, or not chance entirely.  Story demands agency.  But whose?" ("The Question of Where We Begin," p. 4)

In subsequent stories, this issue of chance/agency is explored in several ways.  In the apparently autobiographical second story, "You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace," Minor relates a tale of middle school bullying.  As he meticulously describes the torments and rages against this verbal and physical intimidation, the narrator makes the following observation years later as a friend of his dies:

"I didn't want to know.  If this, dear reader, was a story like the kind I'd like to write, maybe there would have been a miracle.  Most likely.  Tony would die, but something else miraculous would happen.  There would be a turn toward beauty that would reflect the joy-from-sadness in the prophet Isaiah's words, the comfort:  You shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace.

But I can't do it.  Not this time." (p. 26)
There are no easy outs for Minor's characters.  Again and again, they go through life's wringer, transformed into something else, not particularly better, if they survive.  Yet despite these travails, despite these losses of faith, despite the failures to communicate with those they most desperately want to connect, Minor's characters persevere.  There is the sense of something that moves many of them to strive forward, to try to create at least the illusion of agency in their lives.  It is this quality that relieves the darkness, albeit temporarily in some cases, of their situations and makes these stories worth considering at length.

In reading the thirteen stories in this collection, I was struck by the thematic and stylistic similarities that these tales had with Flannery O'Connor, Brian Evenson, and Donald Ray Pollock.  In particular, the crises of faith that several of the characters have, such as the preachers who abandon their pulpits and perhaps their faith, reminds me in their execution of these scenes of several of O'Connor's stories, especially "The River."  Minor's use of stark, often violent backdrops reminded me of Evenson and Pollock, particularly in the connections between violent ends and metaphysical matters.  The sharp, emotionally raw prose creates this sense of creeping apocalypse, of doom coming to the characters.  By the collection's end, as Minor revisits some of the characters introduced beforehand, the reader is left feeling as though she has been on a harrowing and yet ultimately rewarding experience.  Praying Drunk, with its allusions to the unfocused faith of the semi-repentant sinner, is one of the more powerful collections that I have read in some time.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans

I knew the second Katka saw any of this onstage it would all be over, but I couldn't think about that now.  Because for this moment Daniela looked as if she believed every word.  Or probably just wanted to badly enough.  Her gaze was fixed and wide, as if she were watching television.  I couldn't tell which of us had scooted closer or if we'd done it simultaneously.  But she was so near our elbows were almost touching, and as I continued to talk, I wondered if any of what I was saying would begin to feel like the truth.  It didn't yet, but I was just getting started. (from "The Quietest Man")
From the time I first heard about her debut collection on The Millions' The Great 2014 Book Preview back in January, I have been eager to read recent National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 author Molly Antopol's stories.  The short description provided in the link above made me curious about how a relatively young writer would go about exploring those "characters lost in the labyrinth of history."  What I discovered is that Antopol is indeed a rising talent, one whose stories contain fascinating characters placed in untenable situations.  Sometimes, these tales work wonderfully and, at worst, they merely explore already trodden ground.  But on the whole, The UnAmericans may be one of the strongest collections in a 2014 publishing year that has seen several excellent story collections (two of which I'll be reviewing later this week).

The UnAmericans is a themed collection, revolving around the identity issues of those who consider themselves (or in a few, more sinister cases are considered to be such) to be "un-American."  Whether the stories revolve around characters who live outside the US, in places like Belarus, Ukraine, or Israel or if they are immigrants to the US, each of the eight stories focuses on aspects of life or character that set these characters apart from their times.  Although there are times that Antopol comes close to repeating motifs explored in previous tales, for the most part, reading each of her stories led to a sense of reverie, albeit not a "pleasant" one.

Antopol's characters are often simultaneously active and passive in relation to their environs.  Some, like the narrator for the first story, "The Old World," find themselves caught in the confusion of the times, wondering if the world of which they were so certain was slipping past them.  Others, like the father in "The Quietest Man," quoted above, seek to manipulate personal (and perhaps by extension cultural) history in order to present a desired narrative for others.  Yet ultimately there is this sense of each of them wallowing in a mire of the past and conflicted futures.

In the hands of lesser writers, this could lead to a narrative morass from which the reader might have to struggle mightily in order to escape.  Antopol for the most part manages to establish narrative bridges that enable the reader to focus more on the individual characters in relation to their plights and not so much on the murky plights themselves.  Sometimes she achieves this through the establishment of strong personalities whose force of will manages to captivate the reader.  Other times, it is just the simple beauty of her prose, the mixing of creative metaphors with direct, emotionally raw and honest discourse that carries the stories to fitting, if not always fulfilling, conclusions.

While there are occasions where the narratives appear to be straining to contain the disparate elements within them, on the whole The UnAmericans is a powerful collection whose weaknesses mostly can be excused as those of a newer writer finding her voice and whose strengths will make readers eager to read her next work, whether it be a novel or another story collection.  Certainly a writer worth paying attention to in the future.

Reminding Hugo Awards voters that I am ineligible for consideration for Fan Writer

I see that Monday was some sort of mass silliness in some quarters, called by some a quasi-official day of reminding people of his/her eligibility for some category or another of the Hugo Awards.  In response, I thought I would let Hugo voters know, in case there were 1-2 who actually had heard of myself or this blog, that I am permanently ineligible for consideration for Fan Writer on the Hugo award ballot.

There are two reasons for this:  1) I loathe the very moniker of "fan" and I consider "fans" of anything to be akin to those blithering blowhards who constant berate the sources/leaders of their presumed "fan" interest.  I am the son of a former HS football head coach and let's just say my dislike of the term of "fans" goes back over 30 years.  2) Since there is no category anywhere on the ballot for squirrel-influenced fiction and that squirrels have been historically been ignored for less interesting species such as cats, dogs, parakeets, and Kardashians, as a sign of solidarity with my squirrel leaders, I have to reject any and all attempts to nominate me for something that does not recognize their important roles in life, society, and fiction.

So, does this post sound as bad as some of the other pleas out there earlier in the week?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird

Nobody ever warned me about mirror, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.  I'd hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction.  Many, many me's.  When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last.  The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton.  I felt the reflection at my shoulder like a touch.  I was on the most familiar terms with her, same as any other junior dope too lonely to be selective about the company she keeps. (p.3)
As a child growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one particular enjoyment my younger sister and I had was playing over and over again a recording of Disney songs and fairy tales on our parents' stereo LP player.  Of particular interest was the tale of Snow White, which contained some variations from the movie version.  Yet there was always this mysterious mirror, mirror on the wall, telling whoever asked who was the fairest one of all.  At the time, six or so not being the sort of time where most young boys ask themselves how beautiful they are in relation to the world, questions such as this did not affect me.  Yet in looking back over thirty years, there is something about those scenes, especially in the cartoon movie version, that is a bit unsettling to consider.  What is beauty?  Is it in the eye of the beholder or within the ken of those to whom it is not an objective, distant object but instead something intrinsic to their very beings?  Do our desires, latent or expressed, to be associated with beauty affect or even define our relationships to others?

In Helen Oyeyemi's just-released fifth novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, these questions are played out across a cultural landscape that is not as far distant as many of us would wish, that of segregationist America of the early 1950s.  Here, color becomes a driving factor.  I say this not just to reference the language of the time for racial difference, but also because of the key role it plays within the narrative.  The story of a wicked stepmother is a familiar one in Euro-American fairy tale traditions, but Oyeyemi's marriage of that with fixations on color in race divides creates a tale that can make many of us uncomfortable to consider all of its import.

The story revolves around the first-person narrator, Boy, who marries a widower, Arturo Whitman, with a young daughter, Snow.  At first, the marriage is a happy one, until the birth of Boy's first child, Bird, reveals a secret that Arturo and Snow had kept from her:  they were "passing for white."  This development sparks a change in Boy, a change that Oyeyemi explores masterfully in the second half of the novel.  Through her questioning of herself and how her views do not jibe with the reality of the situation, Boy's character is shown in a sympathetic yet ultimately negative way.  She is, after all, "the product of her times." 

Yet Boy, Snow, Bird is not exclusively about mid-20th century racism.  Through its use of sometimes magical events and especially through the metaphor of the mirror that haunts the Whitmans throughout the novel, it becomes several things:  a contemporary fairy tale, an exploration of the nature of beauty, and a look at the yearning that people have to be something different than what they are.  Oyeyemi delves into these themes with prose that is a joy to read, as each descriptive passage and metaphoric image build upon each other, like the gentle lapping of waves, until it finally crashes into the reader at full force. 

It is difficult to pick out any structural weaknesses, as Oyeyemi does an excellent job with plot, characterization, prose, and theme.  Perhaps there is a surfeit of each, causing the reader to pause overlong at a passage, possibly missing some key element in her consideration of another, but on the whole, Boy, Snow, Bird is one of those rare novels whose exploration of touchy cultural issues does not overwhelm the intimacy of the characters' situations.  It contains universal themes, yet without sacrificing the personal qualities that endear themselves to many readers.  It simply is one of the best novels released this year and deserves to be discussed at length by a wide diversity of readers.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Books I plan on reviewing this week

I'm currently on spring break from one of my two jobs, so I have a bit more time this week to devote to reviewing, so here are the titles I plan on reviewing over the next seven days or so:

Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird

Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun

Kyle Minor, Praying Drunk

Ismael Beah, Radiance of Tomorrow

Okey Ndibe, Foreign Gods, Inc.

Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans

And maybe Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea, although I did write a semi-review inside a post regarding my reaction to Ursula Le Guin's review of it.  It might not be a bad bonus 2014 challenge if I review all the books listed in this January post.  Should have the first one up by late morning Monday.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Today is William Shatner's birthday

This was a typical squirrel reaction to the news that William Shatner just celebrated his 83rd birthday on March 22, 2014:

Friday, March 21, 2014

Brief thoughts on the Clarke Award

I know I'm a little late in posting this, but a couple of days ago, the shortlist for the 2014 Arthur C. Clarke Award was announced.  Below are the shortlisted titles, bold representing works already read.
God’s War, Kameron Hurley (Del Rey UK) 

Ancillary Justice, Anne Leckie (Orbit) 

The Disestablishment of Paradise, Phillip Mann (Gollancz) 

Nexus, Ramez Naam (Angry Robot) 

The Adjacent, Christopher Priest (Gollancz) 

The Machine, James Smythe (Blue Door)

While it is not execrable as some of the recent Clarke shortlists, I cannot claim to be excited by this list.  While I did like Hurley's first two novels in her series (and perhaps should see to buying the third volume sometime in the near future), the Leckie strikes me as the sort of book that will see its current praise fail to translate into something that is remembered even five years from now.  The Priest I'll likely import at some point, but I'm not really enthused about the other finalists, as their synposes do not appeal to me at all.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Jorge Franco wins the 2014 Premio Alfaguara; Alfaguara imprint sold to Penguin Random House for $100 million

In the past 48 hours, two exciting bits of news has come out of the Spanish publication field:  1) On the eve of Alfaguara, the imprint founded 50 years ago this summer by Nobel Prize-winning writer Camilo José Cela, was sold, along with related imprints by the Prisa Group for $100 million to Penguin Random House.  This in effect creates a duopoly in the Hispanophone market, as the various imprints under the PRH and Planeta groups will control the vast majority of works published in Spanish across the globe.

This news comes on the eve of the announcement of the winner of the 2014 Premio Alfaguara, which was awarded tonight.  The winner was just announced about an hour ago and for the third time a Colombian, Jorge Franco, has won the award.  Here is a screencap of the synopsis pic tweeted out after the announcement:

Franco's book should be available in stores in 2-3 months, if recent publication histories of previous winners is any indication. I plan on reviewing that, along with other Premio Alfaguara winners, during the course of this year.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Brief thoughts regarding the inaugural Folio Prize, awarded March 10

Some awards just garner more attention than others, apparently.  Or perhaps some of us who have pretensions of being aware of English-language literary awards just are not all that aware.  Regardless, the inaugural Folio Prize shortlist (announced February 10) and the winner (announced March 10) managed to slip by without me being aware of it (to be fair, I did not see any mention of it on any of the lit sites that I regularly browse).  It is a bit of a shame, as the shortlist intrigues me, containing works that I have read and a few I've been meaning to check out for some time.  Perhaps in late April, when I resume buying books, I'll check some of these titles out.

Red Doc by Anne Carson (Random House/Jonathan Cape) - I believe this was a finalist for one of the Kitschie Awards.  Just released in the US; will buy in April.
Schroder by Amity Gaige (Faber & Faber)
Last Friends by Jane Gardam (Little, Brown)
Benediction by Kent Haruf (Picador)
The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner (Random House/Harvill Secker) - National Book Award finalist
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press)
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (Maclehose Editions)
Tenth of December by George Saunders (Bloomsbury) - Winner.  Also National Book Award finalist.

The Saunders collection was one of my favorite 2013 reads (the Kushner was another), so at first glance, without having read six of the other shortlisted titles, it seems like a good selection.  Now to pay greater attention around this time next year.  Perhaps the Folio Prize will have a higher profile by then.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What would a starter list of "100 Great Novels of the 21st century" look like in 2014?

Almost six years ago, I wrote a post about "100 20th Century Fictions:  A Starter List," where I listed 100 books (without any ranking) that I thought deserved such a lofty consideration.  At the time, I did not consider it to be a "definitive" list (such things never really should be anything more than a gauge of a particular person/group's thoughts on a particular day), but rather as something meant to stoke curiosity.  If I were constructing such a list today, there would be several changes made to reflect my reading in the interim (more non-Anglo-American literature and certainly more women writers).

But what about more recent literature?  If I were to construct a list of 50/100 "21st Century Fictions" as a starter list for discussion, what works would you reasonably expect to be listed there?  Would the criteria differ due to a relative lack of influence on other writers/works?  Would certain styles and themes be emphasized more?  I might take a stab at this over the weekend, but I am curious to see which works should be considered for any such sort of list (who knows, it might lead to myself or others to investigating what is listed!). 

Monday, March 17, 2014

An interesting quote by Nobel Prize winner Odysseas Elytis on poetry and death

I was thumbing through a used copy of Odysseas Elytis's Eros, Eros, Eros:  Selected & Last Poems  when I saw this highlighted passage from his "Open Papers" (translation from the Greek by Olga Broumas):

It is correct to give the unknown its due; that's why we must write.  Because Poetry unlearns us from the world, such as we find it; the world of decay we come to see as the only path over decay, just as Death is the only path to resurrection.  I know I speak as if I had no right, as if I were almost ashamed to love life.  It's true, once they forced me even to this.  No one knows; no one has ever discovered from where our passionate hatred toward the possibility of our salvation comes.  Perhaps we'd rather not know – but do know – that it exists, and that we are the reason we can neither know nor surpass it.  Willing or not, we are all hostages of the joy of which we deprive ourselves.  Here springs love's pre-eternal sadness. (p. 104)

His comment about "Poetry unlearns us from the world" rings very true for me.  One of the reasons why I enjoy reading poetry of all sorts is that sense of being unraveled and spun into something different, an experience I do not get anywhere near as much when I read prose or even when I watch a drama being performed.  Elsewhere in the collection, he returns to this theme when he states:  "Poetry begins where death is robbed of the last word."  This timeless yet deeply intimate quality of well-constructed poetry is something that I would love to teach others how to appreciate, but yet it is akin to walking up to a couple in a deep, engrossing conversation and trying to butt our ways in; decorum does play a role, sometimes.  But perhaps the key to entering into the poetic conversation will be easily discovered, if not in this time and place, then in another locale and period.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The things people search for when they arrive at this blog

Truly amazing.  This is from the last month, according to Google.  Surprisingly, no squirrels this time.


blog spot

thomas ligotti rar

blasphemy bible porn


english porn blogspot

héctor vázquez azpiri

jerusalem quartet whittemore review

of blog

a circle in the fire analysis o'connor

Saturday, March 15, 2014

National Book Critics Circle Award winners

I meant to blog about this yesterday, but the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award winners were announced earlier this week.  Below are the winners, along with bolded titles for the ones that I have already read. 


Frank Bidart, “Metaphysical Dog” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)


Franco Moretti, “Distant Reading” (Verso)


Amy Wilentz, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti” (Simon & Schuster)


Leo Damrosch, “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World” (Yale University Press)


Sheri Fink, “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital” (Crown)


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Americanah” (Knopf) 

The Adichie is a very deserving winner and perhaps I should finally get around to re-reading it and writing a proper review.  The Bidart was also a finalist for the 2013 National Book Awards and while it was good, it wasn't as spectacular as the other finalists on that other list, so I am uncertain if I will re-read/review it in the future.  The Moretti book seems interesting, but I am uncertain if I have the time to read/review that or any of the other finalists.

Friday, March 14, 2014

New poll up, concerning books for possible future reviews

It's been a little over a month since the last poll expired (results below), so I decided to add a new one, seeing which works might interest readers.  Depending on my time in April (state tests toward the end of the month will mean even more work to do after I finally get home each late night), I will try to review the top 3-4 selections.  Some might seem more ridiculous than others, but I seriously will read the works listed (I do own all but one of those books...well, maybe two, I suppose) if there are enough votes to do so.

Curious to see how cruel my readers are... ;)

Previous Poll:  Which 2014 Project of Mine Interests You?

Reviewing all of the Premio Alfaguara winners
  6 (10%)
Reading/reviewing a series of histories, poems, and novels on World War I
  18 (32%)
Reading at least 50 books each in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French
  10 (17%)
Reading/reviewing the works of Thomas Wolfe
  14 (25%)
Having at least 35% of my reads be (co)written/edited by women
  17 (30%)
"World Cup" posts on the national literatures of the countries in the tournament
  13 (23%)
Re-reading the Aeneid/posting old translation notes on Book I
  6 (10%)
Antagonizing those who love to talk about "fandom" or "geekdom" in glowing terms
  26 (46%)

56 total votes (multiple selections allowed)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

David Soares and Pedro Serpa, Palmas Para O Esquilo (Palms for the Squirrel)

A few weeks ago, Portuguese writer David Soares contacted me and asked if I would be interested in reading a new graphic novel he had recently published.  Not being familiar with the title of the work, I said yes, as Soares, in my opinion, is one of the best living Portuguese fantasists today.  Yesterday, I received the promised graphic novel and while I am much too dignified to do anything akin to a squee, I will admit that I laughed a bit at the title, considering that he is very aware of my healthy squirrel fascination.  This late 2013 graphic novel, Palmas para o Esquilo (Palms for the Squirrel), however, is no joking matter, as it is one of the more profound graphic novels that I have read in recent years.

The story begins with the end and it proceeds to a beginning, a beginning of a little boy who identifies himself as a squirrel, despite the social condemnations of this.  In some senses, it could be the tale of someone who has "gone mad," or at least lives in a sort of dissociative state, where the mundane and the weird, the "normal" and the "insane," mesh.  Pedro Serpa's illustrations integrate Soares' words on madness and the oft-self-delusional state of human existence to create a work that troubles those readers who pause to consider the characters and their reflections on life and reality.

In his earlier prose works that I have reviewed here, I have noted Soares' talent for creating memorable scenes through deft use of dialogue and description.  In the graphic novel medium, where words are at a premium and which often depend upon the ability of the illustrator to render the characters' internal monologues and dialogues as near to pitch-perfect as possible, Serpa's drawings of the protagonist's struggle to understand why he considers himself to be as much squirrel as human deepen Soares' dialogue, making for a worried, concerned main character whose experiences, while perhaps far beyond the norm for most of us, allow the reader to be sympathetic toward him and to consider his dilemma at length.

Some might consider the premise, a man who sees himself as a squirrel and who yearns to be as wild and free as one, to lack an appropriate amount of gravitas.  Yet the contrary occurs here.  There is a plethora of thought-provoking moments and comments and while I wish I could quote a few of them here, they are alas too integrated with the accompanying illustrations (not to mention they would reveal the climax too much for those readers who might be curious enough to order a copy of this work).  Suffice to say that Palmas para o Esquilo is a work that surprised with with its depth of emotion and its keen insight into human nature.  Soares is a very talented writer and his second foray into writing graphic novels demonstrates his wide-ranging abilities.  Very high recommended for those who can read Portuguese and who have a willingness to read graphic novels for more than just vapid action/adventure scenes. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist

It seems early March is a popular time for announced award longlists.  This one is an American-based fiction translation award, the Best Translated Book Award, which provides an interesting alternative to the UK-based Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  Below is the longlist of 25, with works read bolded and works owned but not yet read in italics.  Finalists will be announced April 15th, with winners announced on April 28th for fiction (there is also a poetry list that I'll post later).  Three read and one owned - reading work to be done after Lent ends, it seems.

Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, translated from the French by Lulu Norman (Morocco; Tin House)

Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Romania; Archipelago Books)

Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu (Israel; Feminist Press)

Sleet by Stig Dagerman, translated from the Swedish by Steven Hartman (Sweden; David R. Godine)

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy; Europa Editions)

Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)

Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Austria; Sylph Editions)

My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway; Archipelago Books)

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary; New Directions) 

Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull (Ukraine; NYRB)

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (Argentina; New Vessel Press)

The Infatuations by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain; Random House) - Read in Spanish

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters (Japan; Other Press)

In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Spain; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray (Guatemala; Yale University Press)

Through the Night by Stig Sæterbakken, translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella (Norway; Dalkey Archive)

Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated from the French by Christine Schwartz Hartley & Anna Moschovakis (France; Ugly Duckling Presse)

Leg Over Leg Vol. 1 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Lebanon; New York University Press)

The Whispering Muse by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland; FSG)

The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (Netherlands; Pushkin Press)

The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker (Czech Republic; Portobello Books)

The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Spain; McSweeney’s)

Red Grass by Boris Vian, translated from the French by Paul Knobloch (France; Tam Tam Books)

City of Angels, or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Germany; FSG)

Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (China; University of Oklahoma Press)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction longlist announced

Somehow, I missed hearing about this over the weekend (I blame the people I follow on Twitter; very spotty coverage, etc.), but the Women's Prize for Fiction, now sponsored by Baileys, just released their longlist of 20 titles.  I have had the good fortune to read a quarter of the nominees and if these are any indication, then the longlist may be one of the more impressive ones announced so far this year.  Here is the list (finalists to be announced April 7th, with the winner to be announced June 4th).  If I have time in May, I'll review the finalists.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Americanah

Margaret Atwood - MaddAddam

Suzanne Berne –  The Dogs of Littlefield

Fatima Bhutto - The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

Claire Cameron –  The Bear

Lea Carpenter - Eleven Days

M.J. Carter - The Strangler Vine

Eleanor Catton - The Luminaries

Deborah Kay Davies - Reasons She Goes to the Woods

Elizabeth Gilbert - The Signature of All Things

Hannah Kent - Burial Rites

Rachel Kushner - The Flamethrowers

Jhumpa Lahiri - The Lowland

Audrey Magee - The Undertaking

Eimear McBride - A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

Charlotte Mendelson - Almost English

Anna Quindlen - Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Elizabeth Strout - The Burgess Boys

Donna Tartt - The Goldfinch

Evie Wyld - All The Birds, Singing

Monday, March 10, 2014

Aeneid translation notes, Book I, lines 657-756

Now to post my translation of the final 100 lines of Book I.  In these lines, Venus, as if she were in an old Folger's cofee commercial, has secretly replaced Ascanius, Aenea's son (and her grandson), with her son Cupid, in order to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas.  Yes, this is one of the earliest soap opera angles still extant, but the payoff perhaps is a bit different than typical soap opera fare.  The concluding lines set up Aeneas' recounting of the previous seven years, between the Fall of Troy and his arrival in Carthage, in Books II and III.  Speaking of said books, outside of a stray passage on an exam, I did not translate anything from those books for my 1994 intermediate Latin course, so I am likely going to engage in a years-long translation of those books and others not covered (we did translate about half of Book IV and a couple excerpts from Book VI), just to say that I did so.  And now for the rest of Book I:
At Cytherea novas artes, nova pectore versat
Consilia, ut faciem mutatus et ora Cupido
pro dulci Ascanio veniat, donisque furentem
incendat reginam, atque ossibus implicet ignem;
quippe domum timet ambiguam Tyriosque bilinguis;
urit atrox Iuno, et sub noctem cura recursat.
Ergo his aligerum dictis adfatur Amorem:
'Nate, meae vires, mea magna potentia solus,
nate, patris summi qui tela Typhoia temnis,
ad te confugio et supplex tua numina posco.
Frater ut Aeneas pelago tuus omnia circum
litora iactetur odiis Iunonis iniquae,
nota tibi, et nostro doluisti saepe dolore.
Hunc Phoenissa tenet Dido blandisque moratur 
vocibus; et vereor, quo se Iunonia vertant
hospitia; haud tanto cessabit cardine rerum.
Quocirca capere ante dolis et cingere flamma
reginam meditor, ne quo se numine mutet,
sed magno Aeneae mecum teneatur amore.
Qua facere id possis, nostram nunc accipe mentem.
Regius accitu cari genitoris ad urbem
Sidoniam puer ire parat, mea maxima cura,
dona ferens, pelago et flammis restantia Troiae:
hunc ego sopitum somno super alta Cythera
aut super Idalium sacrata sede recondam,
ne qua scire dolos mediusve occurrere possit.
Tu faciem illius noctem non amplius unam
falle dolo, et notos pueri puer indue voltus,
ut, cum te gremio accipiet laetissima Dido
regalis inter mensas laticemque Lyaeum,
cum dabit amplexus atque oscula dulcia figet,
occultum inspires ignem fallasque veneno.'
Paret Amor dictis carae genetricis, et alas
exuit, et gressu gaudens incedit Iuli.
At Venus Ascanio placidam per membra quietem
inrigat, et fotum gremio dea tollit in altos
Idaliae lucos, ubi mollis amaracus illum
floribus et dulci adspirans complectitur umbra. 
All the while Cytherean Venus keeps turning new plans, new artifices in her heart, so that Cupid's face and mouth may arrive in place of dear Ascanius, may inflame the queen's bones to madness.  Truly the goddess fears the deceitful, double-tongued Tyrians, the thought of fierce Juno keeps vexing her at night.  Therefore these words she addressed to winged Love:  "Son, my strength, my great power, you alone disdain the Typhoean weapons of Jupiter.  I flee to you and as a suppliant I seek your divine power.  That your brother Aeneas is being tossed about all the seas because of the fierce hatred of Juno, this you know, and you have often grieved with me.  Now Phoenician Dido has him and is delaying him with her blandishments and I fear what may come of her Junoian hospitality:  by no means will she cease at such a crisis.  For this reason, I am considering capturing her with wiles and encircling her with passion, so that she will not be changed by another divinity, so that she herself may be held by me with a great love for Aeneas.  Now accept my thought on how we will do this:  the royal son, beloved by his father, has been called to the city of the Phoenicians and he is preparing to go, whom I care about the most, bringing gifts of Troy remaining from fire and sea; I will hide him drugged into sleep upon high Cythera or upon Idalium in a temple sacred to me, whereby he will not be able to know my deceit or to interfere in the midst of them.  You shall for one night, no longer, by cunning assume his appearance and don the boy's face, since it is well known to you, in order that, when Dido takes you in her royal lap amid the table and the Lyaean wine, when she gives you and embrace and plants a fragrant kiss, you shall breathe into her the invisible fire and poison of love and she will not know."  Cupid obeyed the words of his beloved mother and he doffed his wings and laughing he strode the walk of Iulus.  But Venus diffused quiet and rest into Ascanius' limbs, and taking him to her bosom the goddess bore him to the groves of high Idalia, where the soft, sweet marjoram flowered and breathed its sweet shade, embracing him.  
And now for Cupid to have his fun...along with more feast descriptions that would make an epic fantasy author weep for the ability to describe the feast so:
Iamque ibat dicto parens et dona Cupido
regia portabat Tyriis, duce laetus Achate.
Cum venit, aulaeis iam se regina superbis
aurea composuit sponda mediamque locavit.
Iam pater Aeneas et iam Troiana iuventus
conveniunt, stratoque super discumbitur ostro.
Dant famuli manibus lymphas, Cereremque canistris
expediunt, tonsisque ferunt mantelia villis.
Quinquaginta intus famulae, quibus ordine longam
cura penum struere, et flammis adolere Penatis;
centum aliae totidemque pares aetate ministri,
qui dapibus mensas onerent et pocula ponant.
Nec non et Tyrii per limina laeta frequentes
convenere, toris iussi discumbere pictis.
Mirantur dona Aeneae, mirantur Iulum
flagrantisque dei voltus simulataque verba,
[pallamque et pictum croceo velamen acantho.]
Praecipue infelix, pesti devota futurae,
expleri mentem nequit ardescitque tuendo
Phoenissa, et pariter puero donisque movetur.
Ille ubi complexu Aeneae colloque pependit
et magnum falsi implevit genitoris amorem,
reginam petit haec oculis, haec pectore toto
haeret et interdum gremio fovet, inscia Dido,
insidat quantus miserae deus; at memor ille
matris Acidaliae paulatim abolere Sychaeum
incipit, et vivo temptat praevertere amore
iam pridem resides animos desuetaque corda.

And now happy Cupid goes obeying his mother's words, bearing gifts to the Tyrians, happily following the lead of Achates.  When he arrives, the queen has placed herself on a couch in the middle with golden tapestries about her.  Now father Aeneas and the Trojan youths come together and recline upon a crimson tapestry.  Servants give them water for their hands, and baskets of bread and they brought out napkins with clipped tufts of hair.  Within there are fifty maidservants, in a long line, whose task it was to lay out the food and to worship the household gods with flames, one hundred other women servants and men servants of similar age, they are the ones who load the table with the feast and hand out the goblets.  Likewise also the Tyrians, crowding through the happy doors, come together, biddened they recline on the embroidered couch.  They admire Aeneas's gifts, Iulus, with the glowing face of the god and his feigned words, and the cloak and robe embroidered with yellow acanthus.  Especially unfortunate, plagued by future doom, her mind unable to be satisfied, Dido burned with gazing and by the boy and the gifts was equally moved.  When he embraces Aeneas he hung on his neck and satisfies the great love of his pretended father, he seeks the queen.  Dido's eyes and her heart hang wholly on him and sometimes fondling him on her lap, the unfortunate woman unaware how a great god sat there.  But mindful of his Acidalian mother, gradually he begins to remove the memory of Sychaeus from Dido and trying to surpass with a loving love for Aeneas a spirit for some time unstirred and a heart now having become unaccustomed to love.
And now that Love has struck Dido, the action falls toward the final scene of Book I, where she asks Aeneas to tell of his adventures from the Fall of Troy to his arrival here in Carthage.
Postquam prima quies epulis, mensaeque remotae,
crateras magnos statuunt et vina coronant.
Fit strepitus tectis, vocemque per ampla volutant
atria; dependent lychni laquearibus aureis
incensi, et noctem flammis funalia vincunt.
Hic regina gravem gemmis auroque poposcit
implevitque mero pateram, quam Belus et omnes
a Belo soliti; tum facta silentia tectis:
'Iuppiter, hospitibus nam te dare iura loquuntur,
hunc laetum Tyriisque diem Troiaque profectis
esse velis, nostrosque huius meminisse minores.
Adsit laetitiae Bacchus dator, et bona Iuno;
et vos, O, coetum, Tyrii, celebrate faventes.'
Dixit, et in mensam laticum libavit honorem,
primaque, libato, summo tenus attigit ore,
tum Bitiae dedit increpitans; ille impiger hausit
spumantem pateram, et pleno se proluit auro
post alii proceres. Cithara crinitus Iopas
personat aurata, docuit quem maximus Atlas.
Hic canit errantem lunam solisque labores;
unde hominum genus et pecudes; unde imber et ignes;
Arcturum pluviasque Hyadas geminosque Triones;
quid tantum Oceano properent se tinguere soles
hiberni, vel quae tardis mora noctibus obstet.
Ingeminant plausu Tyrii, Troesque sequuntur.
Nec non et vario noctem sermone trahebat
infelix Dido, longumque bibebat amorem,
multa super Priamo rogitans, super Hectore multa;
nunc quibus Aurorae venisset filius armis,
nunc quales Diomedis equi, nunc quantus Achilles.
'Immo age, et a prima dic, hospes, origine nobis
insidias,' inquit, 'Danaum, casusque tuorum,
erroresque tuos; nam te iam septima portat
omnibus errantem terris et fluctibus aestas.'

When the first lull in the feasting comes with the removal of the tables, they set up great bowls full of wine and they wreathe it with garlands.  Noise fills the palace and their voices roll in the spacious hall; they hand down lamps from the gold-paneled ceiling and being lit the lamp's flames conquer the night.  Dido demands the bowl heavy with gems and gold and fills it with unmixed wine, which Belus and all from Belus were accustomed to drink; then silence was made in the hall:  "Jupiter, for they say that you give the laws for hosts, may you wish this day to be happy for the Tyrians and those who had set out from Troy and may you want our children to remember this happy day.  May Bacchus the giver of joy and good Juno be present and may you, O Tyrians, celebrate this favorable union."  She speaks and she pours the sacrifical wine onto the table and then after the libation has been poured, she first touches it, just barely, with the top of her lip; then chiding she gives it to Bitius; he quickly guzzles it, splashing the frothing wine over himself, after which the other nobles follow suit.  Long-haired Iopas plays his gilded harp, which great Atlas taught him.  He sings of the wandering moon and the sun's eclipses, from what source the human race and animals came, causes of rain and lightning, of Arcturus and watery Hyades and the twin Triones; why the winter suns hasten so much to dip themselves into Ocean, or what delay hinders the lazy nights.  The Tyrians redouble their applause and the Trojans follow.  Likewise, unfortunate Dido was drawing out the night with varied conversation and she was drinking deep draughts of love, asking much about Priam, much about Hector, now what Aurora's son's armor was when he came, now about the type of Diomede's horses, about how great was Achilles.  "Rather that you come and from the first speak to us, guest, of the beginning of the treachery," she said, "of the Greeks and the cause of your wanderings; for this is now the seventh summer that has carried you on every land and sea."
And with this, my 1994 translation of Book I comes to a close.  I have come to enjoy editing and posting this 20 year-old translation more than I realize, and perhaps after a short break, I will test my rusty Latin translation skills and present a prose translation of the other books in the months and years to come.  Later, I'll post my thoughts on the overall story of Book I, more in the vein of an appreciation than anything else.

Add to Technorati Favorites