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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews and Recommendations’ Category

13659048_10105479182161833_7042778099053674245_nYikes, this will be the only post I make this month–and I only did one last month too. Plus, I’ve already posted about my translation of Ola Sigurdson’s Heavenly Bodies, though last time it hadn’t actually come out yet (and the release date I shared then ended up getting pushed back by almost a month). Well, it is out now, and you should all GO OUT AND BUY TEN COPIES RIGHT NOW!!!! Well, OK, not so much urgency, I guess, given that I’ve already been paid for my translation services and will not be getting royalties myself (which doesn’t surprise me with an academic translation like this–I believe the case is different with literary translations, which I confess I would like to move into eventually…). The list price of the book is $60 (actually not so bad for a rather erudite, and potentially obscure, book like this, though I hope the price will help it become less obscure), but Amazon has it for about $43. I’m waiting for it to show up at the UC Berkeley and GTU libraries here in Berkeley… may have to nudge someone about that.

The book is, in short, on the theology of the body, beginning with Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity’s scorn for the body, preferring the spiritual over the corporeal, and going on to both affirm this critique and then to place it in its proper historical situation in 19th century Protestantism–given the centrality of the Incarnation in Christianity, we have to suspect that the religion was not always so “body-denying.” The book then proceeds in three parts of several chapters each, covering first the Incarnation (both the development of the doctrine in the early Church and more recent theological contributions), the Gaze (covering philosophies thereof along with the Byzantine Iconoclasm and the particular Gaze embodied by Jesus in the Gospels), and, at most length, Embodiment (ranging from Merleau-Ponty to Foucault and Butler, from the “closed” Classical body to the open “grotesque” body, to torture, to S&M, to the Eucharist…) OK, look, you will just have to read it yourself. Only $43 on Amazon!!

Since I was (thankfully, given how little time I had finishing up) not asked to give any sort of “Translator’s Note” (I did not expect to write one–in fact, not all translators get to show up on the title page, so I’m very happy I made it to so prominent a place with my first such job), I did not have an opportunity to give the usual “Any reason you might find to dislike this book is clearly my (the translator’s) fault, and no one should blame Ola or the editors at all, because really, if there is a jackass here, it is me.” Or some such. Editors and author all seemed happy with the end result, but certainly there are plenty of places where I could wish for just one more pass of revisions, and here and there I see something where I think “I thought I’d changed that…” (and one place so far where the editors changed something without sticking to the phrasing Ola and I had agreed on, but it still works), but so far I haven’t caught any meaning-changing errors (nor, apparently, did Ola or Eerdmans), and I trust that there are not too many places (ideally very few, but it is my first time doing this…) where my clumsy prose gets in the way of Ola’s argumentation. My first drafts certainly had me thinking too much in Swedish while attempting to write in English. My many revisions (later on with Ola’s commentary) were very helpful in working this out and situating the text more firmly in the target language, but I fear there are still spots that held out till the end. I won’t share any thoughts here on particular translation choices (there were some tricky bits), but we’ll see, maybe that will be a post for the future.

13615127_10105479179038093_2631524740532332328_n.jpgThe project itself was a delight, if often challenging (certainly in scope–let me tell you, this book is a brick), and in spite of the additional stress of translating the last third or so while also filling in as a lecturer in the Scandinavian Section at UCLA (also a fun job, just, you know, more work–also more $$ tho, so that was nice). I’ve told friends and family that this project was like being paid to sit in on three or more graduate seminars in very different fields, which I note was part of the attraction for me. While the ultimate point of the book belongs to (Christian) systematic theology (itself of non-professional interest for my very [in this subject] amateur self), Heavenly Bodies also constitutes a very erudite work in both the history of religions and philosophy, in particular the more continental side of philosophy that owes so much to the later reception of phenomenology, and in particular with regard to two subjects I have long been interested in within the humanities: the gaze and embodiment (the former of which figured prominently in my dissertation on ekphrasis in Viking age poetry–but let the uninitiated beware, while treatments of the gaze and embodiment are ubiquitous from the early 20th century on, what is meant by and the significance of each can vary widely depending what school of thought you are looking at). Ola covers a lot of ground, and diligently and clearly (again, fingers crossed that damn translator did his job right) presents the thought of everyone from St Paul to Origen, Schleiermacher to Barth and beyond to various feminist theologians, laying out the relevant arguments in a sympathetic manner even if he will then go on to argue against, or beyond, them. The philosophers and theorists I am more familiar with are all on display here as well, and more, covering both hermeneutic and radical phenomenologies (ie, from Ricoeur and Merleau-Ponty to Derrida and Marion), as well as various “post-phenomenological” thinkers, from Foucault to Butler (and we also find many other disciplines represented, from psychoanalysis to cultural anthropology–but look, my fingers are getting tired so let’s stop there…). I find Ola’s presentations of these various, often very difficult, philosophies to be quite clear and helpful–well, OK, it is still philosophy and theory, and you will struggle to work through a tenth of the book if you don’t even have a reasonable sense of who Heidegger (for example) is, so I can’t recommend it as a gift for your ten year old niece–maybe wait till she’s finished college, though you will have to suggest she take Philosophy, or English, or Communications, Feminist Studies, something along those lines. Even better, I’m still looking for a teaching position for the Fall and would be happy to tutor the whole family. Look, we’ve already got a textbook…

Well, that was a bit of a ramble. I’ll close by thanking Mark Safstrom for sending Eerdmans my name when they were looking for a translator, former editor-in-chief at Eerdmans Jon Pott, who entrusted me with this job, James Ernest who took over for Jon as I was finishing up the translation, and especially Ola, who wrote this fine and fascinating book and who was so essential in his help with my revisions–I was very grateful for his willingness to spend so much time on a project that was otherwise almost a decade in his past, and I dearly hope the final result does some degree of justice to the original.

Carl

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Miles

A quick sketch of Miles Vorkosigan, aka Admiral Miles Naismith, the main viewpoint character (but not the only one) throughout the series. Will try to get a better version up eventually…

My current candy-reading (or listening, since I’ve subscribed to Audible) is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. I’d run across the series maybe 5 or 6 years earlier, but it had been 4 years since I’d last stalled out reading through the books (in chronological order, as opposed to the order written). These books are addicting–so much so that I’m inclined to call them a “guilty pleasure”, but there is enough nuance in worldview, enough (for a 80s-onward military space opera) expansion of representation, enough of a critical attitude towards cultural militarism in the same breath as a sympathetic rendition of characters who love military culture and action, that I don’t want to give the impression that this is “dumb” reading. It’s good escapism, sure, and tailor-made for that in many ways–but it is also a thoughtful exploration of our humanity and our contemporary cultural issues through the lens of space opera. And yes, this is pretty standard space opera/military sci-fi–or at least, it won’t surprise anyone as far as the setting or tech goes–but the elements are, I think, treated well and creatively, with enough twists that you can’t take this as a clone of any old space opera setting.

You can check out the list of books/stories in the series on Bujold’s website here, though the Wikipedia entry for the Vorkosigan saga also has a good chronological list, including info on the omnibus editions, which is where I first started reading–the omnibus editions are also nice since they include the short stories and novellas, which, as I’ve recently been reminded, are themselves at times very central to the overall arc (the novella “Borders of Infinity” certainly is). Personally, I love the narrator for the audio books, so I’ve recently started working through the series on Audible (alas, until I start a podcast or youtube channel I can’t become an audible affiliate–otherwise you would be able to support this blog by signing up for a free trial membership at Audible. Well, you can still sign up, it just won’t benefit me at all.).

The saga starts with Miles Vorkosigan’s parents, Aral Vorkosigan, from feudal, militaristic Barrayar, and Cordelia Naismith, from advanced, liberal, and progressive Beta Colony. I started the series with the omnibus Cordelia’s Honor, and I do recommend starting there–the two novels are good, if not as riveting (for me anyway) as the first Miles book (The Warrior’s Apprentice, which I’ve read at least 4 times), but all the rest of the series is all the more meaningful when you come to it already caring for the family–the backstory (really stories on their own right, the first of the two published before any of the Miles stories) really does enrich the rest. Miles himself is a great viewpoint character–well, this is not to say everyone will like him, but I’ve found him very engaging, and have found my own particular ways to resonate with his character, even if he is in many ways very different than myself. Additionally, Miles is a disabled character. Whether or not his portrayal successfully evades any degree of “abelism” I can’t speak to–we might extend this to other points where the Vorkosigan books are relatively progressive when in comes to representation, in that I’m reluctant to offer any authoritative judgement re: how well Bujold succeeds (this is of course not meant to diminish Bujold’s writing at all–we’re all caught up in systems of privilege, patriarchy, etc, and we all, whether we are the privileged or the unprivileged, have our path working our way out of that). Tung, one of the main characters, is Asian, and certainly the universe is not wholly white, but my impression is that it is not always a complete rainbow; there are many strong female characters, but the books I’ve read so far, minus the latest and those in Cordelia’s honor, are very thoroughly centered on Miles, and the female characters are viewed through the filter of his particular longings–but to be fair, they disrupt this wishful lens quite often; and homosexuality and bisexuality do come in, though the only book I’ve read here where it is especially prominent is one that comes off a bit awkwardly, with a whole planet of men that women are not allowed to visit. Well, I mention all this because I’ve seen others touting Bujold’s progressive representation, and I do think it’s worth celebrating (and it is an enjoyable part of the series, giving us a more realistically full universe)–it is definitely a selling point, but I don’t know that everyone will be equally impressed.[edit–I’ve read further in the series now, and my impression is that Bujold continues to expand and deepen the representation of queerness and genderqueerness–the whole series is, I think, a neat set of pictures of the potential and boundaries of (relatively) progressive (but still “popular”) sci-fi from the mid-80s till now]

Well, that’s my recommendation for now–I’m just this week further in my reading than in my previous reading, so it’s fun entering into new territory! If you are just trying to decide whether this series would be for you, I suggest checking out The Warrior’s Apprentice–if you like it enough to keep going, check out the Cordelia books (Shards of Honor and Barrayar–collected as Cordelia’s Honor), then move on through the rest in chronological order (or whatever order you want–they are all self-contained, but I find that much of the fun is in the references between books).

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WP_20160419_11_40_43_ProI’m excited to recommend Marginalia to Stone Bird, a collection of poems by Rose Lemberg, one of my many friends from grad school and elsewhere who have gone on to make their marks in the world of letters (and art and music). I’ve been following Rose’s work since around 2010, when I found out about their creative work (about the time I got a few of my own poems out there, though I still see myself as a much more naive/amateur poet than Rose), and it has been fun to see the increasing recognition for their work in the world of speculative (fantasy and science fiction) poetry and short fiction–so many award nominations! And some wins too! And all this in spite of some really horrible circumstances and trials the last few years. You can find out more about Rose on their main site, their old blog, and their (more active) twitter. Note also their Birdverse Patreon page–for just $1 a day you can support Rose’s ongoing and expanding body of stories set in the “Birdverse.” One of the most recent of these stories is a Nebula Award nominee this year (the conference is happening RIGHT NOW!!!!), and one of the poems in Marginalia, also available online at Goblin Fruit, belongs to the Birdverse as well. Oh, and Rose is also one of the founders/editors at Stone Telling, one of my favorite spots on the interwebz for speculative poetry, so check it out!

Many of the poems in this collection have been published, starting in 2009, in a variety of online and print journals/collections, such as Apex, Goblin Fruit, Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium and others–some of the more prominent platforms for speculative poetry, and many of these poems still available online if you want to get a feel for Rose’s work before committing to a book (or a Patreon). Themes of identity, particularly immigrant and (gender)queer, are prominent throughout Rose’s work, both poetry and fiction, and make for many of the more heartfelt and thoughtful passages in this collection. Rose is also an accomplished academic with experience in topics ranging from folkloristics to sociolinguistics, and I appreciate the ways in which this adds depth and nuance to their work without (at all) feeling pedantic–Rose is an inspiration and model to me as an academic creative writer. This reminds me, I need to get back to my own writing.

I was going to list many of the poems that I enjoyed that are still available online, but I’m short on time, so instead I refer you to the poetry bibliography on Rose’s webpage–many of these (not the most recent, I believe) also show up in the collection, so this is a good way to find out whether you would be interested in the book. A more thorough discussion of the collection is up on Strange Horizons. And check out Rose’s fiction bibliography as well–I know most of you fantasy and sci-fi readers out there read massive multi-volume novels, watch GoT, play WoW, or whatever, but short fiction and poetry are great places to discover new talent, support writers as they start out on their careers, and just find nice, quick, but very deep and thoughtful reads. Expand your horizons!

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Some readers may be aware that I spent a year and a half (overlapping significantly with my time teaching at UCLA) translating a book on the theology and philosophy of the body by Swedish theologian Ola Sigurdson, titled Himmelska Kroppar: Inkarnation, Blick, Kroppslighet (Heavenly Bodies: Incarnation, the Gaze, and Embodiment). It was challenging work (my first professional translation, and both very erudite and quite broad in scope), but rewarding and engaging. Ola was very responsive and a pleasure to work with, as was Eerdmans publishing, and the book itself was like sitting in on simultaneous graduate seminars in theology, church history, and the philosophy (which, in turn, ranged from Nietszche to Heidegger to Foucault to Butler–and beyond, and with at least three dozen other major and minor figures as well). On a whim I searched for the English title of the book, and lo and behold it is scheduled to come out at the end of June (I was expecting Fall) from Eerdmans! You can preorder on Amazon — $60 and over 650 pages, but hey, that’s not bad compared to, say, your textbook for college Spanish, right?

Anyway, finding this was a nice bright moment in an exhausting week as I try to figure out whether I’ll manage to find a position anywhere next year. I would love to do a project like this again (as long as folks are willing to pay chapter by chapter, rather than at the end of the project), in case anyone has a text that needs translating–but that said, I would really like to get a book of my own out there finally, or at least some articles. The book may have to wait, but at the moment I’m hopeful about getting an expanded draft of my Cultural Memory conference paper done this summer…

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File:Lars Gustafsson in 2012.jpg
 Image from Wikipedia
 

Swedish poet, novelist, and scholar Lars Gustafsson has passed away (Swedish language notice here). A literary giant in Sweden, he also made a significant mark internationally. He has been widely translated in English and was included in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. He served as a professor at the University of Austin, and the southwest of the United States figures prominently in his work (well, out of what I have read–which is not much, given his impressive output). His work could certainly be erudite (he was a professor in philosophy), but I found much of his fiction to be very accessible, and what wasn’t accessible (like some of the short fiction discussed below) was still quite interesting, even if a reread may be in order at some point (but a reread is in order any time you find something good).

Find a list of his work on Amazon here. I’ve read a bit of his poetry (currently A Time in Xanadu) and recommend it. I am a very casual poetry reader myself (despite most of my non-academic published work being poetry), but he is also quite well appreciated for his verse, so you don’t have to take my word for it! Check out a sampling of his verse here (the poems are listed in the right-hand menu). Out of his many novels some places to begin are Death of a Beekeeper (a novel written as entries in the diary of a man dying from cancer), The Tennis Players (set in Austin, a short comic novel with a professor as protagonist, touching on everything from Strindberg’s period of apparent insanity to early-80s hacking and accidental nuclear warfare), and Bernard Foy’s Third Castling (a novel within a novel within a novel, the first being a straight-up thriller).

Science Fiction nerd that I am, I first became (especially) interested in Gustafsson after randomly happening upon a minor work of his in the tiny science fiction section of Celsius bookstore in Uppsala: Det Sällsamma Djuret Från Norr (“The Strange Beast from the North”). I initially didn’t think it could be the same Lars Gustafsson–I hardly knew of him then, apart from the fact that he was “literary” and “respected”, and these were outright pulpy (well, not so pulpy) science fiction short stories, with a frame narrative on par with the best Space Opera, old or “New”. Not available in English, alas–nor is his much earlier set of short stories Förberedelser till Flykt (Preparations for Flight), a group of experimental short stories that edge into science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism. The two are collected in one hard back edition (which I have out from the UC Berkeley library), but still in Swedish. I’ve played around with translating bits myself here and there, but if I do get that done it probably won’t be especially soon–translation may be especially important for those of us who teach foreign literature, but you don’t get much credit for it academically, a problem when you are a young scholar still trying to find a tenure-track position. :/  But we’ll see–I may have a translation of one of the stories from Förberedelser till Flykt translated soon (one of Gustafsson’s favorites, according to his afterword), and the titular story is translated in, and gives, once more, its title to another collection, Robin Fulton’s collection of translations from Swedish Preparations for Flight and Other Stories (an old volume–1990 I think–but looks like Amazon has a few used copies available). This is one of my favorite stories from the collection in any case, with a very accessible premise (though some of my students still didn’t get what was going on…) and an otherworldly and quietly post-apocalyptic flavor (in my reading, at any rate).

Gustafsson’s blog is still up–mostly in Swedish, but every now and then you’ll find something in English or German. I’m afraid I’m at the limit of what I can recommend–but definitely someone to read, whether you are specifically interested in Scandinavian literature or not.

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I’d been excited about Tor.com’s move to publishing longer novellas in addition to short fiction (or the novel-length material at their parent company Tor Publishing)–I love the vast tomes of epic fantasy that have been taking over the last few decades as much as anyone, but I also love the shorter novels of earlier eras, in particular the New Wave (I’m thinking in particular of the shorter novels of Ursula LeGuin and Samuel DeLany), and I think it’s a great move on Tor.com’s part to explore this middle-ground. While I appreciate getting a variety of lengths of fiction packaged together in one volume, when I encounter a novella in, say, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction I tend to put it off, read the shorter fiction, and then forget about it–I enjoy the experience of reading mid-range fiction like this a lot more when I get it packaged separately (and the price is reasonable–$3ish for my digital copy. The paperback is nearly $10, which is a bit harder to swallow for something so short). Looking forward to reading many more from their growing list. I decided to start with Binti (click the link for a description and preview) by Nnedi Okorafor, and that is what this post will be about. Long story short–this is an excellent short Space Opera where competent world building fits perfectly with the central narrative of an engaging and believable protagonist, who in her turn fits the genre’s need for a “special protagonist” while remaining very relatable and realistic.

I’d been looking forward to this novella since it was first announced as one of the initial stories in the series. I confess the gorgeous cover influenced me a bit (that goes for all of these books though–my goodness, whether for their short fiction or for their novellas Tor.com has really got the cover game down), but I’ve also been wanting to read more by Okorafor since hitting one of her short stories a year or two ago. I’d picked up her novel Who Fears Death a few months back, but I’ve got too many novels I’ve been trying to work through lately–Binti was the perfect size to squeeze in while still working through my other books. It was definitely a quick read–the paperback is 96 pages, so you go through it a lot faster than you expect for an independently packaged text.

Binti Fanart

A quick sketch–I won’t say this is at all a canonical vizualization of Binti, and not exactly what I had in my head while I read, but it’s what came from my pen when I started doodling after finishing the book. Will hopefully get a better version (both scan and drawing) posted eventually…

The eponymous main character really makes this story–well, the fascinating far-future science fictional world, more glimpsed than spelled out in this short work, is also a main attraction here, but the narrative arc of the story, however filled with action and tragedy and problem-solving, is clearly Binti’s own character arc, and climax and closure are most satisfying when you look for them in the transformations she goes through, rather than in the resolution of the conflict on its own. Those used to longer and more complex stories (novels as opposed to short stories or novellas) may get frustrated, but you have to take it for what it is–more of a glimpse of a larger world, and a look at a particular transformative moment in the life of the main character.

To me the feel of the book is definitely YA, from the prose to the treatment of character and obstacles (as well as the youth of the MC), but if we want to think in terms of shelving at the bookstore this is definitely more at home with straight-up science fiction–this is Space Opera by someone who is well-read in the genre and has her own very competent take on the various tropes. In fact, I really loved Okorafor’s vision of a realistically diverse Space-Operatic future. Binta is Himba, and so right away we get a vision of what it looks like to enter the world of interstellar society from the perspective of a minority–and, gratifyingly, we get a vision of a future in which ethnic communities persist, rather than being erased in favor of a Star Trek-like liberal Western uniformity. Prejudice still exists, another bit of gratifying realism, and is, I think, treated very well–we get it all from Binti’s perspective, a realistically youthful one, and we get to see her reactions, her almost mundane expectation of prejudice, and the way this extra weight plays into this coming of age narrative (which it is, of course–practically a Rite of Passage in the anthropological sense. It even takes place in liminal space–literally the space between worlds–and she has a very different, in this case unexpected, identity, at the end). This all feels like a realistic element of this future world–it is specific to the concrete situation(s) of this future setting, rather than feeling like just a projection of our contemporary issues. Prejudice, systemic and otherwise, along with the drivers and mechanisms of imperialism and colonialism are real forces in cultures, societies, and individuals, and I appreciated seeing that realistically and appropriately explored here.

Communal and individual identity are also very central here, and Okorafor makes excellent use of the tropes of Space Opera in her exploration of Binti’s crisis of identity. Binti is 16 in this story, an appropriate moment for a coming-of-age story, and as I’d mentioned before she comes out the other end as, in certain ways, a very different person, but along with this movement at the level of her individual identity we also have the tension between her individual identity and her communal identity–or perhaps better to say on the one hand the tension between her identity as Himba and her identity as a member (or member to be) of the interstellar and interspecies academic community, and between her communal identity (Himba, family, culture, roots) and her individual identity as the “special one” (not meaning that to be sarcastic, despite the scare-quotes), her identity as the Space Opera protagonist with her special gift (she is marked as exceptionally gifted, and the moments when she starts “treeing” in the narrative seem like they must be intentionally reminiscent of that prototypical Special Spaceman Paul Atreides in Dune with his bred talent for seeing the future). So much of what happens (I’ll avoid spoilers) involves sacrificing what she used to be or could have been in favor (though not in all ways by her will) of becoming something new. She chose a path that would take her away from her previous identity, but ended up being transformed much more than expected, and against her will. The trope of “Special Protagonist” is so ubiquitous and overdone that it is on the one hand almost required for the genre, but on the other must be handled well and with an eye for loss and sacrifice, unintended effects, if it is to avoid turning into pure wish-fulfillment. Okorafor does this very well, and we get a story that is at once a meditation on loss (both in terms of personal choice as well as at the hands of other agents, both personal and impersonal) and a narrative of empowerment (in the face of, or alongside, the oppressive realities she is stuck with–her parents’ fears are ultimately well-founded, even if we see Binti learning to thrive as best she can).

For a spoiler-heavy review/analysis check this out. More historical context and nuance here (especially regarding the imperialist/colonialist overtones in the world of the story), and I admit it makes me feel like my reading is overly rosy (we should keep in mind, after all, that everyone else on the spaceship dies without any resolution on their behalf–and much of Binti’s transformation in the story is against her will and yet stays with her forever). Check out more of Tor.com’s novellas here–they look amazing, and I’ve got another 4 or 5 cued up on my Kindle–and of course check out Tor.com for short fiction and articles relating to Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror. The two latest announced novellas (scheduled for next Fall and the one after respectively) are by Cassandra Khaw–I’d only just heard of her through this announcement, but have already read a couple of her short stories (“Disconnect” and “When We Die On Mars“) and am really excited to see what we get from her!

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I love it when “literary” authors dip their toes (or better yet, dive in head-first) into the world of more fantastic or science-fictional literature. Sure, they sometimes get accused of “slumming” (as Ursula LeGuin apparently suggested could be the case, depending how how Ishiguro framed his new novel–from what I hear, she has retracted this comment), but that’s more a matter of how they represent their relationship to genre fiction–as for me, I just love seeing someone do something new with this particular toolbox. Those unused to the genre may still fall prey to tired iterations of the formulae of fantasy and sci-fi, but they at least tend to do it in very different ways than the usual “ghetto” authors (and sorry for still using that ghetto metaphor–I’m starting to feel a bit uncomfortable with it, but I haven’t hit on another yet), and at best these authors are a bit more conscious than their genre-peers of the particular potential of the fantastic or science-fictional mode for their topic.

WP_20151026_15_53_44_ProGiven all this, I was excited to run across Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. While I hadn’t yet read anything by him, I knew that he is most famous for his novel The Remains of the Day (maybe more famous as the movie) and thought it would be interesting to see what he was doing in this corner of the literary world. Apparently a couple of his other novels have edged towards the fantastic, one being read as magical realism by many critics and another as science fiction–more that I have to read now…

With The Buried Giant Ishiguro puts the fantastic, as well as the sense of the primordial and mythic that we associate with Arthurian and Anglo-Saxon England, to work in an exploration of memory and forgetting (two very intimately intertwined phenomena, as is often pointed out in memory studies within the humanities) at the level of both larger (ethnic) communities and individual relationships. The scene of the novel is post-Arthurian England, the land in a state of mysterious forgetfulness in the decades following the death of the King of the Britons, ogres roaming the countryside (though as a matter of course, rather than a special state of affairs), a giant buried beneath the landscape (how literal is this to be taken? though most of the other supernatural elements seem to clearly play out just as much at the literal as at the symbolic level), a dragon sleeping in the mountains, whose role in the story I will let you discover for yourself. We start following the story through the eyes of the aged pair Axl and Beatrice, and their journey to find their son is the central quest, even if it gets caught up in a much grander quest. Stereotypical fantasy “grandness” is avoided, however–there is plenty of blood, but you don’t leave a fight scene feeling like Conan the Barbarian, covered in blood and glorying in it. Certainly for duels (there are at least a couple) you leave feeling that a real person has died, not a cardboard enemy, and even the monster fights have a satisfying anti-climatic quality, a quickness in the moment of death that actually leaves more room for death in the narrative than a hack-n-slash would. Sword and Sorcery fans may find the pace unbearable, as the narrative follows a different rhythm than stories built around extended knots of action (well, there is action here, but it hardly holds itself in focus in the way many fantasy readers would want), but the novel builds its own tension as the couple’s journey towards memory and mortality and the reader’s increasing awareness of the forgotten backstory to this cursed world build chapter after chapter. In many ways it is a gentle and melancholy narrative, but by the end it is also full of terror (well, resigned terror, or horror is maybe the better word here…)–with a glimpse of hope too, maybe, but I’m not sure we can leave the final chapter in the most optimistic of moods. But yeah, spoiler alert–definitely got teary with the final chapter (but hey, I’m a sap).

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A very quick sketch from the half-remembered setting of one of the climatic scenes… May need to redo this one, haha…

I don’t want to get more specific because I personally really enjoyed piecing together the world and narrative as I inched along, but feel free to check out Neil Gaiman’s review for more details. Neil doesn’t sound especially enthusiastic about the novel here, but I would still recommend checking it out, as long as you can handle fantasy that doesn’t feel like your usual pulp epic. As someone who has done a bit of work in Cultural Memory studies, I enjoyed the treatment of memory from various angles, and especially the way the “novum” (if we can apply Suvin’s term to fantasy) allowed us to stage a particular ethical conundrum in a very concrete way–something which would have been lost had Ishiguro written this in post-WWII France or elsewhere, as I understand he considered doing. Be sure to check out Neil Gaiman’s interview with Ishiguro, as the two of them get into a very productive and engaging discussion of the issue of genre when it comes to “literary” fiction and fantasy (just keep in mind that it is an informal interview, not a rigorous dissertation). For more background to Ishiguro’s writing of the novel, check out this review. For a more negative review, there is this one. I can sympathize with some this reviewer’s points, but I think I’m just more willing to take it for what it is (and more interested in fantasy of any sort, and with no real horizon of expectations for Kazuo Ishiguro’s work)–I say enjoy the fable-like quality, the awkwardness of doddering old folks as protagonists, the “Monty Python but not funny” pitifulness of the knight who gets caught up in it all (or rather, always has been caught up in it all)–but you know, if you just can’t enjoy those things, that’s fair. I enjoyed it, but don’t know yet whether this will be a “reread until I die” book or not (to be fair, there are a lot of books on that list–and many that aren’t on that list even if they are better than most of those on the list…). And again, I am a particular fan of quirky or unusual entries into the corpus of fantastic literature, so I’m a bit predisposed to find this book engaging.

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Since I cover a bit of both Scandinavian Studies and book reviews in this blog, I thought I’d post my purchases from my August trip with some commentary (though I don’t have much to say about all of these…). All in Scandinavian languages, I’m afraid, but some of the classics listed here ought to be available in English as well.

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En dåres försvarstal, an important but not-so-happy pseudo-autobiographical novel by “woman hater” August Strindberg. Written in French, originally, since this scandalous book is Strindberg’s paranoid justification of his divorce from his first wife, and caused a bit of a kerfuffle back home in Sweden as it was. That said, I’m only about 1/8 of the way through the book, and am going primarily from the general knowledge of the book that I’ve picked up…

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And here, apparently, some short material by Strindberg that I hadn’t heard of before–since my specialty within Scandinavian Studies is more on the Old Norse side of things, I mostly just know of AS’s (hm…) more central canon.

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And where we have Strindberg, we must also have Ibsen, his Norwegian nemesis. Three of HI’s (hm…) big plays here in nice cheap editions. I just barely caught the last tour of Ibsen’s Oslo apartment on the last day I was in Oslo, so that was nice. Was surprised to find out he had a painting of Strindberg in his office, to glare at him while he wrote (I think I’d heard that before, but it hadn’t stuck with me apparently…).

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Jonas Hassen Khemiri (author of Ett öga rött) is a major figure in contemporary Swedish literature, in particular as a representative of the Swedish population with roots abroad–Swedes of color, I guess we would say. Jag ringer mina bröder (which I finished soon after I got home–short but good) brings us into the internal nightmare of someone who, after hearing that there has been a terror attack in Sweden, struggles with the feeling that everyone must be looking at him, judging him, suspecting him, because his skin and hair are darker than that of the stereotypical Swede. Included in the paperback edition that I got is Khemiri’s open letter to Swedish Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask on the subject of racial/ethnic profiling–you can read this letter, and the backstory, here at Asymptote as well. Looks like the book is already out in English, so I guess I can’t take it on as a translation project…

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Have not had a chance to read this yet, but Theodor Kallifatides is another less-than-stereotypical-Swede, in this case an immigrant from Greece (he came in 1964), who already has a long literary career behind him in Sweden. I’ve been looking forward to reading something by him–I’ve gotten a glimpse of his work in a reader for an advanced Swedish course I took almost a decade ago, and he shows up in a reality show about a group of immigrants learning Swedish as part of an episode where they write part of the story (pretty terrifying stories some of them–one man had seen his parents killed and fled for his life). Don’t know anything else about this book yet, but look forward to reading it!

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Along with the Strindberg short stories, this was a random but interesting-looking find at a beautiful used bookstore in Helsinki (finished my trip in Finland visiting some friends there). PO Enquist is certainly a name that shows up when you are involved in Swedish lit, and this had been nominated for the August prize (named, of course, after Strindberg), so I thought I would give it a try! But given how many books I’ve picked up, it may be a while…

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Have enjoyed the variety of things I’ve read by Lars Gustafsson so far, so I picked this one up as well as the used bookstore. Haven’t cracked it open yet, but sounds like an interesting frame story (voluble American barber clipping a professor’s hair) with even more interesting stories (talking to the dead and such). We will see how it goes!

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Having now taught Smilla’s Sense of Snow twice, I thought I should probably have a version in the original Danish lying around as well. Great book, and of course available in English as well (since 1993, I believe). A nice example of the Scandinavian detective novel, but also very unique, and fascinating for folks like me who like fantasy or sci-fi–definitely a whiff of the otherworldly in this book.

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I’ve been a fan of John Ajvide Lindqvist since watching the original Swedish film version of his “Let the right one in”, and more so after reading (in English) his Handling the Undead (which I taught while at Gustavus Adolphus college), so I wanted to pick up a couple of his books. The new one here is Himmelstrand, in which a group of people in campers finds themselves in the middle of an unending plain. I don’t know anything beyond that, but to me Lindqvist feels more and more like a Scandinavian Steven King. I am not a fan of horror myself, but his work feels very original to me, and I always appreciate genre fiction that both interrogates its origins as well as transcends those origins.

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I mentioned this briefly in my post about a recent English-language short story about the “Havsmannen” (the merman), so I was excited to be able to find a copy for myself! I don’t know whether there is any actual “fantastic” element to this story, as in, a real sea-man of some sort, (have just flipped through the first few pages), but it wouldn’t be too unexpected to find something of that sort, since another book by Vallgren features a telepath. Also available in English, looks like.

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Can’t remember which shop I picked this up at, but of course I have to buy another of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books while in Sweden. I think I have this one in English, but haven’t read it yet. Great children’s books, but odd enough that cool adults can enjoy them as well. If you don’t, you are not cool, sorry.

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Science Fiction Bokhandeln, Gamla Stan: The following books are more of the genre-sort–science fiction and fantasy, my favorites. I’ve been interested in learning more about the way these genres have been growing as an independent literary stream (as opposed to a collection of tropes to be used by mainstream authors), so it was exciting to realize there was a dedicated Science Ficiton bookstore in Old Town Stockholm. Will hopefully write more about all this one day! Meanwhile, here’s what I could afford to pick up while I was there.

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Oscarian steampunk! Cool! Or “kul”? Anyway… the title is a bit clever, playing off off “i varje andetag”, which would be equivalent to “with every breath” or such in English, replacing the “ande” with the Swedish word for steam. Lulz. Anyway–it is a collection of short stories set in an alternate, steampunk Scandinavia with an Oscarian (think Victorian in the Anglophone world) theme. Have read a few stories, and my impressions are mixed. Hopefully a more thorough review to come later. I’m enjoying the novelty though, and some of the stories are nice “slice of steampunk life” bits.

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I’m a lot more excited about the quality of this collection of short stories, and apparently others were as well as there were at least two sequels. The title Maskinblod (“Machine Blood”) is a slight play on “människoblod” (“human blood”), and the theme of some (all?) of the stories is what it is to be human. Haven’t gotten very far yet, but generally I’m enjoying this–turns out this publishing house has also put together a collection of translated Swedish short sci-fi for Anglophone audiences, so I’ll be posting more about this later.

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“Four women, four girls” the title says. Male author, but all female protagonists. I haven’t gotten a chance to do more than flip through this, but we’ll see how it is in the end!

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Can’t remember whether I found this one (“Evil Winter”) in the YA section or not… but looks neat anyway! Honestly, I have no idea about some of these except that they seemed likely choices as I flipped and scanned and browsed in the shop…

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The Alchemist’s Daughter–I remember this one looking really interesting to me as I browsed. Don’t have it with me at the moment, but I may try prioritizing getting to this one…

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Brimstone Winter–catchy title. The cover blurb says “A Borges for the epic format”, so I guess it has a lot to live up to… Anyway, seems like potentially a nice example of Epic Fantasy in Sweden, so we’ll see what I think.

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IMG_3164Been too long since I’ve posted (sorry), so Memorial Day seemed like a good opportunity. I don’t illustrate scenes from books very often, but it occurred to me that Astrid Lindgren’s children’s book Bröderna Lejonhjärta (The Brother’s Lionheart) is about as appropriate as you can get for a day commemorating the death of soldiers. The story as a whole is about death, and revolves around a dying boy (well, I could be more precise, but I really don’t want to spoil things–the twists and turns of the premise are powerful, though may be too much for some people). Starting as a meditation on mortality and premature death, done fantasy-style as a way of helping kids work through this difficult topic, the book soon expands into a meditation on the evil that people inflict on each other. Near the end of the book a peaceful valley rises up against its oppressors and many die, including some important to the two brothers. The main character’s idealistic (and ideal) older brother Jonatan refuses to fight in the climactic battle (let’s remember as well that he and his brother are still kids, however heroic Jonatan is throughout the book)–in response to those who say “If every man were like you, the Tengils (dictators) of the world would rule everything!” (or some such, I’m going by memory here), the main character Kalle (Karl) points out that if everyone in the world were like Jonatan, there would BE no Tengils (again, Tengil is the primary villain). Maybe feels a bit naive, but I do like it as a way of affirming pacifism at the same time that the story also affirms the freedom fighters, who have been forced to the point they are at. All in all the book is a beautiful meditation on the twin subjects of natural death and death from strife–heavy for a children’s book, but I think it fits the mood of the day. Not that I expect all the motivations and justifications for the wars our country has gotten into to be valid in the end (and plenty are already, and sometimes always have been, manifestly invalid), but I know that there are soldiers who go out there and die doing their best to make the world a better place. My heart goes out to those who have lost anyone in war, and my heart goes out to those who have been damaged by war in mind and body. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but the scene I chose to illustrate is the two boys Jonatan and Karl leading the dragon Katla up the mountain with the horn that Tengil had used to control her originally. The battle is done, but death still rides at their heels, and it takes all the bravery they have to walk in its shadow and bring everything to a finish.

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Jacksons EddaOr I suppose we should say Edda Jacksonar? Anyway, I got a(n advance?) copy of Jackson Crawford’s The Poetic Edda in the mail today, and while I don’t have time for a full review (and probably won’t for a while–way way too much to do) I wanted to give some initial impressions and put it on everyone’s radar! And OK, Jackson is an acquaintance of mine (another young scholar in my field and the guy who taught a couple of my current UCLA courses before I got here–he is a linguist though, unlike myself, but that is OK too I guess), and I am kind of a softy when it comes to people I know, so don’t expect any sort of a hyper-critical dissection here–there will be plenty of those I’m sure, as no translation is going to please everyone.

And at this point we should also note (as Jackson himself has) that this is meant to be a translation for the casual reader. He has unpacked many of the kennings, has not attempted to reproduce the original meters (no argument from me there–my favorite translation of the Beowulf poem is entirely in prose), and has left out many of the heiti (alternate names for gods and such)–and tries to avoid any verbal gymnastics, keeping things nicely pithy. You can get a feel for the difference if we contrast some of the first stanzas from Völuspá, the first poem in Poetic Edda, as translated in Andy Orchard’s recent translation and Jackson’s new one (and check out the original here if you want):

Orchard:

A hearing I ask of all holy offspring,

the higher and lower of Heimdall’s brood.

Do you want me, Corpse-father, to tally up well

ancient tales of folk, from the first I recall?

I recall those giants, born early on,

who long ago brought me up;

nine worlds I recall, nine wood-dwelling witches,

the famed tree of fate down under the earth.

It was early in ages when Ymir made his home,

there was neither sand nor sea, nor cooling waves;

no earth to be found, nor heaven above:

a gulf beguiling, nor grass anywhere.

Jackson:

Heed my words,

all classes of men,

you greater and lesser

children of Heimdall.

You summoned me, Odin,

to tell what I recall

of the oldest deeds

of gods and men.

I remember the giants

born so long ago;

in those ancient days

they raised me.

I remember nine worlds,

nine giantesses,

and the seed

from which Yggdrasil sprang.

It was at the very beginning,

it was Ymir’s time,

there was no sand, no sea,

no cooling waves,

no earth,

no sky,

no grass,

just Ginnungagap.

The latter certainly reads a bit easier, doesn’t it? The former, on the other hand, preserves a bit more data (or noise, depending on what you are reading for) from the original. Sorry I don’t have Larrington’s recent revision of her translation available–I’ve heard good things about it though. If you are wondering which translation to go for, I would say 1) Jackson if you want it made easy for you, do not typically read ancient lit (translated or otherwise), and/or are just “checking it out”, or if you are teaching Norse mythology to more of a High School age crowd, 2) Orchard or Larrington if you are more interested in getting more “data” on the original text, even if it makes the reading awkward at times, want more thorough notes (Jackson has an introduction to each poem, while Larrington and Orchard have more thorough endnotes–still aimed more at the undergrad though), and/or are taking/teaching a college level course on Norse mythology, and 3) if you are engaging at a post-undergrad level with the material, well, go learn Old Norse! These translations could be helpful “cribs” while you are starting out, and of course it is always handy to see how someone else has parsed a line, whether they are going for a looser or more direct translation.

One interesting bit about this translation–Baldrs draumar and a few of the “Eddic Appendix” poems are inserted following the poems of “Gods and Elves” (though I kind of wish it was “Gods and minor supernatural creatures”, as that lets us keep the descending momentum of “Gods>Elves>Dwarves in this section, rather than having good old Völundr sandwiched between Thor poems [the story of the smart-ass dwarf All-Wise does involve Thor, though], rather than after the Codex Regius poems (meaning, the full run of poems from the most complete medieval manuscript).

I’m not going to try to go into the relative accuracy of any translation right now, since I don’t have time to hunt down anything I disagree with and since pretty much any translation is going to have bits that scholars disagree with, and even mistakes and misreadings to be corrected in later editions. The point here: Jackson’s translation offers a lighter, more accessible alternative to the other translations out there (or: it is what it is). Even if you have one of the other translations, this is a nice one to pick up as a foil to the others, or just for a nice, quick read on a rainy evening while sitting by the fire in your… um, mead-hall, I guess.

Thanks for a great book, Jackson, and I look forward to reading more!

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