The OF Blog

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

So I went silent for nearly four months...

No, I haven't forgotten about this blog.  Nor do I plan on shuttering it permanently, even if it seems that I've done so over the past year or two.  But the truth is that I really haven't had much at all to say about books or writing or anything of that sort this year because I just haven't had a desire to read novels.

Yes, I've only finished about 15 books so far this year and 2/3 of them were read while I had to proctor state exams this May.  There are a few reasons behind this:  teaching job taking up more and more of my concentration energy; trying to train when I can for distance events; personal life developments; and etc.  But for much of the past four months, I've dealt with something far more insidious and debilitating:  a reoccurrence of clinical depression, which I haven't had in nearly 15 years. 

It's hard to pinpoint what triggers any individual's depressive spells.  It could be a change in serotonin levels due to not being able to exercise as much during the hot summer nights.  Or two deaths weeks apart.  Or maybe it's due to me starting to get progressively worse vertigo-like spells, which are now combining with migraines (which I rarely had before the past year or so).  Or possibly just another bout of dealing with self-doubt, something that seems to creep up when I'm doing well in life, oddly enough.

Regardless of the cause(s), I've been dealing aggressively with it.  Discovered that medications are not a cure-all; I got sicker on some and symptoms were alleviated when I was removed from them.  Laughter seems to work best, that and getting closer to some awesome people, some that I somewhat lost touch with over the past quarter-century or so.  Religious faith is another cornerstone for me.  So far, based on the past two weeks, it seems the worst has passed.  Much more energy and focus has made me a better worker and human being.

But the effort required to enter recovery (and I consider mental health, like chemical addictions, to be where an afflicted individual will live in a perpetual state of recovery, perhaps pockmarked with occasional relapses; we are human, after all) still has left me with little time to read novels or prose (although I am finally starting to feel an urge to read some prose work).  However, my long-held love for poetry has remained strong and I have occasionally introduced some of my favorite poems as writing prompt/discussion pieces in my classroom.  Yeats, Angelou, Henley, and Hughes are recent ones.  I have quoted Beckett and the beginning to Ginsberg's "Howl," although even where I work, that would be considered off-limits for middle school students.  Hearing boys who suffer from various traumas and behavioral issues discussing how they relate to "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and "The Second Coming" has been invigorating; their insights, informed by their situations, sometimes have surprising depth.

Perhaps I should just, for a time at least, write a few reflections on those poems that I've begun to re-read in my nascent recovery and share them here.  Perhaps.  In the meantime, here's proof at least that I have not yet sailed alone into the seas of madness.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Next week will have been 13 years since I started this blog

I am writing this post in a bit of a daze after suffering through an attack of vertigo this week that left me leaving work early twice and missing today.  My thoughts are somewhat in a haze, but as I was just catching up on online stuff, something I really don't do that much these days, I realized it had been around four months since I last posted here, so I thought I would write a brief post to prove that I haven't yet totally abandoned this site.

2017 has been a different sort of year for me.  I'm working full-time during the day for the first time since 2011.  My job demands a lot out of me and for the most part, it has been the sort of "good" challenge that keeps me occupied and (mostly) content.  I don't read all that much anymore; only 14 finished books so far this year.  Frankly, I do not miss reading all that much right now, as I have found new stimuli in running, training for distance running, and developing personal connections with people in my life.  As much as I enjoyed reading, I always sensed there were things that I was missing out on because of my odd work schedules and hang-ups about the person I had seemingly become.  Thankfully, these negative thoughts seem to be fading away and I get to do more these days.

That being said, I do not plan on abandoning this blog anytime soon.  Yes, I might not really write many (or any) reviews for a while still, but eventually I will write some more.  I know online book discussions have evolved over the years and that this platform is a dinosaur of sorts compared to social media.  Yet it is still a valuable place where I can record my thoughts on matters, perhaps with a few readers discovering something new. 

There will be some cosmetic changes here, of course.  I have already removed a few squirrel-related images because I think it was past time to change the look.  I still find the animals amusing and the in-joke as to why they were here in the first place is still a treasured memory, but times do change and with that, probably a few things will, by necessity, need to fade away into fond memory.  If I do decide to post more frequently, it might be more as a personal blog than as a review one.  Or maybe this will become a list of literary-related thoughts more than anything else.  I myself do not know for sure what the future holds.  What I do know is that in some ways it is a small comfort that I do have records of my thoughts on books, even if there are a vanishingly few readers still left to read these thoughts.  But I am now 43 and I am increasingly convinced that the social media arguments are best left to those younger than me, those who perhaps have more fight left in them than a middle-aged man whose pleasures and interests have been simpler with the years.

Perhaps I am wrong, though, and what interests me may interest others.  We shall see.  All I know is that the greatest task left to me now is to simply tend my own garden and hope others shall do the same in peace and comfort.  See you around, in some form or fashion.

Friday, April 14, 2017

A few recent purchases as I attempt to break my four month-long reading slump

I haven't really had anything to say lately (at least in regards to books), so I've been a bit more quiet than expected.  I did buy a new Mac Mini last week, however, and it's nice to have a computer that isn't slower than walkers who crowd the front of a competitive 5K race before start.  That alone might get me to post more, especially since I was usually either my iPhone or iPad to make most of my posts the past couple of years.

With that in mind, here are some recent purchases I made in hopes of sparking a renewed interest in reading more than a few minutes a week:

Charles H. Beeson (ed.), A Primer of Medieval Latin:  An Anthology of Prose and Poetry

Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder

Maupassant, Pierre et Jean

Gisèle Pineau, L'Exil selon Julia

Marguerite Duras, Le Navire Night et autres textes

Boris Vian, L'écume des jours

Abbé Prévost, Manon Lescaut

André Mary, Tristan et Iseut

Fabrice Humbert, L'Origine de la violence

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings (Library of America edition)

St. Thomas More, Utopia (Latin)

A. Scott Berg (ed.) World War I and America:  Told by the Americans Who Lived It (Library of America)

Ignacio Malaxecheverría, Bestiario medieval

Plus two-volume Library of America editions of Carson McCullers and Mary McCarthy's works, and the just-released LoA second volume of Susan Sontag's later essays.

Been reading bits and pieces from many of these, just not enough to have finished any so far this year.  Might also re-read some of Andrzej Sapkowski's works, since I do have the Spanish translations of the last Hussite trilogy novel, Lux Perpetua, and the Witcher prequel La estación de tormentas, ordered and they should arrive by month's end.  Also, by then Jeff VanderMeer's Borne should be released and arrive in my mailbox.

So maybe, just maybe, I can break this streak and finish a new book for once this year.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Reading Slump

I had every intention of posting here more this year, but it seems that I've developed a rare reading slump in that from Christmas until today I hadn't read more than maybe 10 pages in any book.  Yes, I have not finished a single book this year (and only properly began one today, with a little over 100 pages read in A. Scott Berg's just-published World War I and America:  Told by the Americans Who Lived It).  Just haven't had the time (lots of 11-12 hour workdays lately, often working 6 days/week between my new residential teaching job and my PRN status at my old one) nor the energy, plus it seems that my prized Serbian reading squirrels have been more busy with their mating season than with attempting to read books.

Hopefully, the springtime will bring some time for reading once the quarterly audits are done and my paperwork is caught up.  I'd like to read more volumes in my Library of America collection (I should own 200 volumes by May) and maybe some fantasy/fantastika as well, since I haven't really read much speculative fiction over the past couple of years due to burnout.  Doubt I'll resume a daily social media presence (reading Twitter 2-3 years ago was like listening to interminable arguments; even if I agreed, it was still tedious and all joy was sucked from me if I paid attention too long), but that's OK.

But for those few who still read my blog via whatever nefarious means that still exist, what are the speculative/fantasy books du jour that I'm missing out on due to not really paying attention this past year or two?

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A few reading/blogging goals for 2017

So I've been a little quiet here the past few months.  Much of that is due to a positive change in my personal life, as I took a teaching position at a local residential treatment center for teens with neurological/emotional/behavior disorders.  It is a challenging profession and I am still in the midst of establishing my routines with them.  I am also working on a PRN basis at my old job working with teens with autism, so there are several weekends where I have little to no time to relax at home, much less read or blog about what I have read.

I do hope to change this somewhat in the next few weeks.  I purchased a new 9.7" iPad Pro today and it is much faster and more powerful than my ancient laptop, so I should be more inclined to type now that I don't have to worry so much about the screen freezing up (helps that I have paired a wireless Apple keyboard to it so I can type at my regular speed).  I do have a small backlog of 2016 reads to blog about, including posting the list of 46 books that I read last year.  I'll do that sometime tomorrow ow, as I am about to go to bed.

But before I do go to sleep, I just wanted to post a few reading goals that I have for 2017.  The first is that I hope to read at least 50 books this year, after failing to do so the past two years (my trained Serbian reading squirrels have enjoyed a long and well-deserved vacation after a decade of reading hundreds of books a year).  The second is to read and review at least a dozen Library of America editions (I own nearly 180 volumes and many haven't yet been read).  A third is to review at least twelve times this year, even if very few people these days visit my blog compared to its 2007-2012 heyday.  I think these are achievable goals and hopefully when the year ends, there will be more output here than was the case in 2015 or 2016.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

A brief overview of 2016 releases read

Although I read slightly more books in 2016 compared to 2015 (46 to 41), I only completed six books that were first printed in the US this year (I have a couple others, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's The Big Book of Science Fiction anthology and Nick Mamatas's I am Providence, to finish reading in the coming months).  I spent the majority of the year, reading slowly at my leisure around work and exercise training time 30 Library of America volumes, most of them histories, collected letters of the American Founding Fathers, and science writings by Loren Eiseley.  I am beginning to suspect this will be the new normal for me in regards to reading for the next few years, as I'm rediscovering older, mostly-forgotten loves and devoting 2-3 hours/day to reading just would be getting in the way.

Yet this does not mean that the few books published here in the US in 2016 that aren't fully reprinted material which I read didn't have some great stories in them.  No, although I didn't write reviews for four of the six books, that was in part because I found the time necessary to write fitting reviews for some of them to be rather wanting and by the time I did have more time, weeks or months had passed and I kept wanting to read something else rather than write a full-fledged review rather than a quick mention on Facebook.

But since 2016 ends for me in roughly an hour (and I have to wake up in 7 hours to work 4 hours before traveling to run my first 5K of 2017), I thought I would give a provisional "ranking" of these books, with a brief description for those curious about them:

6.  R. Scott Bakker, The Great Ordeal - reviewed back in July.

5.  Jack Kerouac, The Unknown Kerouac:  Rare, Unpublished & Newly Translated Writings - reviewed back in November.

4.  Lawrence Rosenwald, War No More:  Three Centuries of American Antiwar & Peace Writing - this Library of America anthology published this spring collects in one volume a very good selection of historical protests against war, along with the various strands of cultural thought that helped shaped diverse movements united by a common opposition to war as a means and as an end itself.

3.  Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers - originally published in 2015 in the UK, this June US release is short (barely 100 pages) but it packs the power of several gut punches as it traces a family's dealing with loss.  The quasi-lyrical arrangement of scenes adds greatly to what is already a powerfully poignant tale.

2.  Carlos Ruiz Zafón, El laberinto de los espíritus - I only finished this two nights ago, so I plan on writing a full review in the coming week or two.  I just need to dwell some more on some of the revleations made in this concluding volume to his four-part series.  What I do know is that the story, despite occasional raggedness in a few places, tied the previous volumes together in both surprising and long-expected ways.  More in the review itself.

1.  Elizabeth McKenzie, The Portable Veblen - longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award, this story contains a very important squirrel, which being a squirrel, automatically makes the book much better.  Leaving aside this bit of facetiousness, McKenzie's use of the squirrel in the midst of a young couple's internal and external conflicts is done adroitly, creating a multi-layered text that I will likely re-read again in 2017 before writing a formal review.  It is certainly the most memorable tale that I completed this year that was published then.

Hopefully my 2017 end-of-year list will contain more entries, but I think there is something here in this short list for many readers who might have diverse literary tastes.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Jack Kerouac, The Unknown Kerouac: Rare, Unpublished & Newly Translated Writings

I am French Canadian, born in New England.  When I am angry I often curse in French.  When I dream I often dream in French.  When I cry I always cry in French, and I say:  "I don't like it, I don't like it!"  It's my life in the world that I don't want.  But I have it.  I am still curious, I am still hungry, my health is excellent, I love my little woman, I am not afraid to walk far, I am not even afraid to work hard as long as I don't need to work 60 hours a week.  I can't get up in the morning but when I have to I get up.  I can work 40 hours a week if I like the job.  If I don't like it, I quit.

My family and my women have always helped me.  Without them, I think I may well have died in the snow somewhere – mayhap yes, mayhap no.  I never like alone for long.  I dream.  One day I will be a man like other men.  Today I am a child and I know it and I spend my time thinking.  I am supposed to be a writer.  I published a book, I received $1900.00 for 4 years of work on that book.  Before that I spent 10 years writing other things that I was never able to sell.  It's possible that one day, once I have gone over to the other side of the darkness to dream eternally, these things, stories, scenes, notes, a dozen impossible novels, half finished, will be published and someone will collect the money that was supposed to come to me.  But that's if I am a great writer before I die. (pp. 65-66; from the opening paragraphs to "The Night is My Woman" (originally written in French as La nuit est ma femme; translated by Jean-Christophe Cloutier, based on a partial self-translation by Kerouac))

Before The Road was La nuit est ma femme ("The Night is My Woman")Before the 1951 scroll version of The Road was transformed into the published novel, there was a short detour outlined in Sur le chemin ("Old Bull in the Bowery").  Before there was Jack Kerouac, Beat Generation writer, there was Jean-Louis Kérouac, a child of French Canadian immigrants to Lowell, Massachusetts, who did not learn to speak English until he was six and who continually inhabited spaces between two worlds, with his shared languages serving as a bridge and occasionally as a partial eraser of boundaries of thought and concept.  In the recently published Library of America volume, The Unknown Kerouac:  Rare, Unpublished & Newly Translated Writings, editor Todd Tietchen, with assistance from translator Jean-Christophe Cloutier, reveals through several never-before published (or translated) manuscripts, essays, and journal entries the various proto-Kerouacs that led to the final publication of The Road and to his latter works such as The Dharma Bums and Visions of Cody.

The Unknown Kerouac begins with a short five paragraph piece Kerouac wrote in a 1946 journal on his experience hearing Frank Sinatra sing live.  Tietchen introduces this short essay by noting how Kerouac's observation on how Sinatra's ability to vocalize moods of melancholy and loneliness may have had a connection to how Kerouac came to explore these same moods in his own writings shortly after.  The concluding sentence, does in a way, hint at what Kerouac, then 24 years old, would go on to explore in his writings, first journal pieces and later fiction:

To young America, serious, sad, and wistful [Sinatra's singing], it is no caterwauling, it is the poetry of its time, and in it, in the longing of Sinatra's soft tones and prayerful sustaining notes, is contained most of their own youthful melancholy. (p. 3)
Many of the pieces that follow during this early 1946-1950 period, such as "America in World History" and "Private Philogies, Riddles, and a Ten-Day Writing Log," reveals Kerouac's growing interests in Shakespeare, Joyce, Spenser, Rimbaud, and surrealism.  The writing in these essays and journals is full of staccato bursts of thought and energy, tightly constructed, with little verbiage to weaken the flow of images and reflections.  It is during this time that the nascent On the Road began to emerge, but it is a piece that lurks in the background of these writing logs, something that is nebulous, something toward which Kerouac is reaching toward, yearning to grasp, yet not then fully able to do so.  Contained within these journals are references to eschatological matters, to apocalypses both private and universal, to revelations that await their moment.  This is most evident in his "–Riddles–":

Answer this: –

Who is it from whose source of life flows blood, yet lives and laughs?
What is the beautiful sound that emanates from the house of the angels?
How may I encompass a star?


1.  A young child whose mother is menstruating.
2.  Church music, as a rule.
3.  By creating a puddle of my own in which I can catch the reflection of any planet. (pp. 49-50)
Yet these early pieces, critical as they may be to understanding Kerouac's mindset as he began work on The Road, provide only small glimpses of insight.  To a greater understanding of how his experiences helped shape and hone his concept of his most famous work, there are two short, embryonic texts originally composed in French, "Night is My Woman" and "Old Bull in the Bowery," the reveal the most about this "unknown" Kerouac.  Take the passage from "The Night is My Woman" quoted at the beginning of this review.  There we experience a narrative that in key aspects (tone and character) resemble that of On the Road.  Yet it is not Sal Paradise nor Dean Moriarty that we see here.  Instead it is a French Canadian-American narrator, one whose life mirrors so closely that of Kerouac's, whose narrative helped Kerouac realize just what sort of road/life voice he wanted to capture.  "The Night is My Woman" is an unfinished novella; there is no true conclusion, only a pause in the developing life of the narrator.  Yet even in its unfinished state, there is a palpable energy to the piece, albeit an uneven one, full of herky-jerky shifts in intensity.  It certainly is a fiction that makes the reader wish for a longer, more polished piece and considering that it is in origin a translated story (Kerouac did a partial translation, which Cloutier incorporates into his excellent translation) makes it all the more revealing about how Kerouac's use of language and imagery is in its origins a mediation of sorts between his conversing in English and dreaming in French.

"The Night is My Woman" likely served as a direct impetus for the 1951 "big scroll" version of On the Road, but between that draft and the final 1957 published edition, Kerouac continued to tinker with characters and their backstories.  In late 1952, he wrote a short account of Paradise and Moriarty during the Depression years over the course of five days (he would later do a partial translation in 1954 that was scattered in several notebooks during this time period) that became "Old Bull in the Bowery."  In it, Kerouac claimed to Neal Cassidy, could be found the "clues" to several narrative histories explored in On the Road.   While many of the themes introduced here did not make it into the final On the Road, two scenes from it were later inserted into Visions of Cody.  "Old Bull in the Bowery" is not as unified of a text as was "The Night is My Woman," yet despite the nearly inchoate nature of certain passages, it definitely reveals an author who dips again into his own adolescence in order to explore how to improve the setting, voice, and tenor of On the Road.

The remaining sections of The Unknown Kerouac contain more disjecta membra than anything else in that by themselves they do not reveal much that isn't already covered in the earlier sections in regards to Kerouac's thoughts and development of themes and characters in his 1950s fictions.  Yet there is one late manuscript, the 1968 fragment "Beat Spotlight," that was begun shortly before Kerouac's death.  In it can be seen Kerouac's ambivalence toward his fame and how others have interpreted his life through his fiction.  It abruptly ends too soon for much to be said definitely on its quality of prose or thought, but there certainly are enough glimpses here and there to make a reader regret that Kerouac never lived to finish this tale.  The Unknown Kerouac concludes with a 1940s noir novel that Kerouac and William S. Burroughs had begun in 1945, first titled And the Hippos were Boiled in Their Tanks, with Burroughs and Kerouac alternating chapters, before Kerouac began revising it later that year, changing its title to I Wish I Were You.  This short novel is a curiosity more than a good noir novel, although there are moments where Kerouac in the revised version published here does manage to capture a sense of place and time.  It is a curious coda, however, as the writing and thoughts expressed therein do not correlate well with the other pieces in this collection.  Despite being the longest fiction presented in The Unknown Kerouac, I Wish I Were You might be the weakest and least interesting piece published.  Although it is not outright poor, it certainly detracts from what otherwise was a very harmonious collection of newly-published (and translated) non-fiction and fiction that helps reveal quite a bit about one of the mid-20th century's most important American writers.  Despite this misstep at the end, however, The Unknown Kerouac certainly is a book that readers of Kerouac's more famous works might find to be essential to their understanding of Kerouac.

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