Sunday, November 1, 2009

Reviewer Time: Larry from "OF Blog of the Fallen"

Another Sunday has hit the calendar and it’s the official beginning of a brand new month. What better way to mark the occasion than to treat yourself to a brand new edition of your favorite feature “Reviewer Time” with your lovely host me. I’m quite excited to have Larry from “OF Blog of the Fallen” to sit on my virtual chair and answer all my nosy questions. If you have been into the whole book reviewing scene, you certainly know Larry as one of the pillars in the hierarchy.

As far as my blog hopping has led to I have four people that I truly respect and admire for the quality of content and their intellect. Larry is among them, because he is the flipside to every to every topic or occurrence. I can’t say that I find myself agreeing to all of his statements on different subjects. My agreement with him is on the 50/50 basis, but I have learned to respect the argumentation behind each one, because he manages to bring out a new depth to whatever issue has been stirring our sphere. And there is the benefit to keep coming back to “OF Blog of the Fallen”, understanding the vast and multispectral world of today’s publishing industry and the world of literature in general.

I think it’s this flipside quality to what is shaping the reviewer bloggers and the gravity of his tone that have managed to raise his status among our kind. Speaking of gravity and attitude I can speak of Larry’s reviews, which alas appear every blue moon, but cross the line between just being reviews and resemble more what I would call a book critique. It’s a rather personal and possibly mistaken judgment, but the length, voice and expression stirs me to that conclusion. The same professional attitude can be taken to his interviews, which are always insightful and prompt authors to discuss a myriad of subject at great length; a skill I find that I desire to learn myself one day.

There are certainly other factors that convince me that whatever Larry posts is a must read for the sake of one’s intellectual growth include the fact that he has the ability to read hundreds of pages in an hour and his knowledge of multiple languages. Those two combined leave almost no limits to explore the human mind through its creation in the literary world. It’s what I think it will feel like to be able to devour books at such a tempo. I wouldn’t be able to memorize all the details of my reading, but the basic designs would be burned into my mind and I would see each new book through a very different set of eyes.

Yes, I have sidetracked and gone into the realm of daydreaming. And yes, this has crossed the line between an objective commentary and a rather creepy fan boy moment of devotion, but it stands to underline how awesome I think “OF Blog of the Fallen” is for one’s brain, because reading book review blogs shouldn’t be just fun and helpful for the reader’s next reading choice, but can make you think about things.

HM: As per the long tradition at “Reviewer Time” I will require some background from our guest. Who is exactly is Larry, when he is not running his blog?

L: Hrmm...let’s see...first and foremost, I have been a teacher, off-and-on, for the past ten years. I currently am taking a break (hopefully, forever) from the public education system. I am teaching both general education and (as of this month) special education classes at a local residential treatment center for male teens who have a history of emotional, mental, and behavioral disorders that require them to be placed in a 24 hour residential care setting.

I am also 35 years old, of mixed Celtic and Native American descent, and I miss the glory days of being able to run the 40 under 5 seconds. Oh, and I miss breaking ankles as well. Or is the violent tendencies something you weren’t expecting to hear from me?

HM: As you already know I am quite fond of lists, so can you list the three things your readers probably have no clue about you? This however excludes your speed reading ability. We all know about that one.

L: Three things? Besides the violent tendencies of my youth? Let’s see... Well, first off, growing up, I was a two-sport athlete, playing both forms of football (and being on a travel team for the non-American form). I even played indoor soccer for my freshman year of school at the University of Tennessee as part of an intramural dorm floor group, so yeah, the athletic bit might surprise a few.

Another surprising thing? Through my father’s leadership in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, I have been introduced over the years to over a dozen prominent college and professional athletes, including Coach Bobby Bowden and Reggie White, among others. And even outside of that group, I’ve met a few athletes during my time at UT.

I have to list three things? Hrmm...well, there’s this years-old running commentary involving me and a lovely young woman overseas that involves referencing Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and especially the passage involving the fennec fox, that sometimes crops up in cryptic references in my posts, on a few forums, in various emails, and so forth. I even have my supervisor at work convinced that it’s a sexual thing, when it’s really much more cute than just mere lust.

HM: Speaking of your super power, because for a bookaholic that is a super power; when did you learn you could read as fast and how does the speed affect the reading experience for you in general? When I try to read faster than I do the story doesn’t exactly sink in and I am just curious how this applies to a tempo like yours.

L: Hard to say, since no one really taught me how to read. I taught myself that when I was just beginning kindergarten when I was 5, and I think what I learned was how to combine pictorial references with phonemes and to mash the two together at an extremely high rate. There are times that I comprehend what’s happening in my vision (such as reading an entire poster in one glance) before I can “hear” it in my head.

It’s extremely difficult to explain (much less to try and teach to someone), but that’s how it goes. How does it affect reading rates/comprehension? As long as I’m focused on the book, I can go about as fast as 500-600 pages/hour with good comprehension. If I’m not focused, I could attempt to slow it down to say 120-150 pages/hour (can’t go much lower than this, or else I begin to forget everything in straining to go much slower than my native speed) and it’d still be the same level.

HM: When did you discover you had a passion for reading?

L: When my mother wasn’t able to read to me as much as I liked when I was 4-5 years old and I told her that I was so mad at her that I’d just learn how to read myself...and I did?

HM: You have a wide range of tastes and the ability to indulge into all your interests. What does each genre offer for you intellectually and emotionally and do you have an utmost favorite?

L: I rarely had the time/desire to read fiction growing up. The books I used to teach myself to read? Those were my dad’s high school history textbooks (he taught history and physical education and my mother taught English when I was growing up) and I found myself entranced by the cultures, the changes in life, wars, destruction, and cultural advancements. This has never left me, despite my becoming burned out on studying cultural history when I was completing my Master of Arts degree a dozen years ago.

Most of the fiction that I read, outside of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, between 5 and 23 were “literary” works of the 11th-early 20th centuries from Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States mostly. Had little desire to read more fantasy/spec fic works at this time, since nothing then was as unsettling as reading cultural histories of the Great War/World War I or as strange as reading about how differently suicides were treated in Great Britain and France over a time stretching from the 14th century to the mid-18th century. Come and think of it, perhaps one of the reasons why so many readers eschew fiction, genre or not, is because of just how strange, cruel, scary, and enchanting our own pasts have been.

But that was then. Today, I tend to read religious texts because of my interests in exploring my own Catholic faith (I’m an adult convert and those are strange birds). I also read Marxist texts, which might seem to be in opposition to my religious affiliation, but I consider the epistemological models developed by Marxists of all stripes over the years to be invaluable in critiquing texts.

I also find social commentaries in fiction form to be fascinating. The recent trends in some Latin American countries towards a form of global hyperrealist approach to fiction writing is fascinating, as are examinations of how the Boom Generation used elements of the speculative to make insightful comments into the problems in their native lands.

But in the end, I’m still very much going to approach literature of all forms as being facets of a society’s material culture. That’s why I tend to be more bemused than passionate these days about the presumed literary/genre divide.

HM: You also can read in a multitude of languages. Have you ever read a title both in its native and then translated? If you had can you share how the story is affected by the linguistic change?

L: Yes, although I rarely do that these days with Spanish-language texts. What I can tell you is that (based on having taken a university Latin class on Vergil’s Æneid, is that there is a sense of “music” lost between the various tongues. I find myself to be a very “musical” person, as I like to listen to the cadences and rhythmic flow of various languages and I’ve found in reading works in translation, that the music has changed. In some cases, the difference is that of tone and not of quality, while in other cases, it reads like an text to me.

HM: On the same topic what is your hold on the quality of translations and do they do justice to the stories and novels?

L: English-language readers generally are lucky that there is more money available for the publishers to pay for highly-qualified translators. People like William Weaver (who translated Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco) are treasures. That being said, there is an inevitable shift in semantic meaning, something that Eco addresses in his book on translations, Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation. It’s been my experience, both as a reader of translated texts and as an amateur translator of both Spanish-language prose and poetry, that a “good” translation captures the spirit of a text more than it attempts (Quixotically, of course!) to capture the literal text in a different lingua.

HM: Okay, we all know that you have a massive book collection. How do you fit all these books in your house and do you even manage to organize them?

L: Ha! Yes, I recently had somewhere around 2100-2200 books that I crammed into a little space. Yet despite having almost a dozen bookcases to store them, over half of my books are unshelved, with the majority stacked from floor to ceiling in a walk-in closet of mine that now hold no clothes. I’m in the process of pruning my collection, mostly through giving away dozens of books to three close friends of mine, plus trading in hundreds more at a local used bookstore, so I can use that credit to buy some expensive non-fiction books, especially French, Italian, and German grammars.

HM: So once again, although you have discussed this topic on your blog, can you tell us the origin story behind your site?

L: Back in October 2001, I became an Admin for the nascent Other Fantasy section of the now-defunct wotmania fansite. Around August 2004, I began to become discontented with the webmaster’s laissez-faire approach toward the site (several needed changes were never implemented) and I thought I might best channel my creative energies by creating a blog that would serve as a conduit between the Other Fantasy section at wotmania and the still-developing SF/F blogosphere.

So I created a blog and named it after the Other Fantasy section, while referencing not just Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy series, but ultimately also Napoleon’s list of his fallen soldiers. But soon after creating it, I found myself swamped at work (plus I was about to go back and take university classes again for all of 2005), so I let the blog lay fallow for most of 2005 through June 2007, when I reactivated it after I had more free time and because I had decided (again) that wotmania and its Other Fantasy section were not enough to hold my attention. After several shifts in focus, from mostly new SF/F works to the current wide range of topics, here it is.

HM: What is the best thing about blogging that makes you return every day and what is the the aspect that makes you want to stay offline?

L: I like to communicate with others and while this electronic form is a pale form of what I used to experience as a history major/grad student, it certainly provides me with my RDA of arguments! As for what tends to keep me offline for stretches? Besides the demands on my time from my current position, I do tend to get rather bored quickly when browsing through other sites and seeing the same sets of topics/books reviewed being covered in rather predictable ways. Ennui is the bane of my existence.

HM: And have you ever felt like closing your site?

L: Yes. Still debating whether or not to switch everything over to my other blog, Vaguely Borgesian. Copied most of the posts recently from the OF Blog to there, just in case. There is something odd about having the OF Blog still running when its namesake and quasi-“parent” is now defunct, no?

HM: For a successful blog owner, who even got called to edit the Best American Fantasy series, you surely must have gotten some interesting moments while running your blog for so long. Can you share the weirdest or most peculiar?

L: Well, I’ve had Wheel of Time fans in the past email me to ask if I knew any particulars about that series, but outside of that and the spammers who wish that I’d link to their new blogs (when I see stereotypical dragons, rather shallow approaches to reviewing/commentaries, and web designs that remind me of geocities, I tend to click out and forget), there’s not really all that much to share in regards to wackos.

HM: And speaking of your editorial involvement with the 2010 and 2011 volumes of Best American Fantasy, can you share how you got approached and how this has been going on for you?

L: I’ve covered Latin American literature of all forms for much of the past three years on the OF Blog and on a few forums that I frequent. During that time, I’ve come to make the acquaintance of several people who have similar interests. One person I’ve come to know during that time is Jeff VanderMeer, who along with his wife is a very good anthologist and someone who takes an interest in all forms of literature.

Several months ago, due to other commitments on his time, Matthew Cheney, who had been the series editor for the Best American Fantasy series since its inception a few years ago, stepped down and Jeff and his wife Ann took over. Jeff wanted to expand the focus of the anthology series to include translated fictions from Latin America and he knew that I and a Brazilian friend of ours, Fábio Fernandes, had a passion and some knowledge of the Latin American scenes. So he asked both of us if we would be interested in assisting them and the annual guest editors in selecting short fiction translated into English that was written by Latin American authors. We said yes (or rather, Hell Yes! would be more suitable here) and starting shortly, we’ll be scouring the 2010 journals, print and online alike, for suitable stories. I expect to fall dead from it within a week and then revive myself and enjoy myself until I fall dead again.

HM: Now that you have hit five years of blogging and thus earned quite a followship and respectability do you have any particular plans for your blog or just going to do what you like?

L: My main plan is to avoid falling into a rut and repeating myself. I have nebulous goals of concentrating more on my other reading passions, so there might be (time permitting) more discussion of poetry, translations that I’ve done of short works, and other odds and ends. It certainly won’t be limited to SF/F fiction, as that at best comprises just over 1/3 of my reading these days.

HM: Did you ever have writing ambitions yourself?

L: Not really, at least not as a fiction writer. Before I burned out during my MA studies, I had planned on writing a groundbreaking piece of cultural/religious history on the problems of trying to categorize Adolf Hitler’s thoughts and actions in regards to Christianity in general and Catholicism specifically. When I began that research back in late 1995, there was almost nothing in English or German that even touched upon this topic. I did get as far as writing a mini-thesis on it, but I since I had decided to drop out after my MA, I never polished it up for submission as an academic paper.

But back in 2001, I did try my hand at writing a piece of fiction that would have been part of a mosaic. I wrote one out of a conceived six interconnected stories that revolved around people meeting at a book-related fansite and how they interacted with one another. While the fansite was SF/F, the writing had nothing at all to do with genre conventions. I posted the 10,000 word novelette on wotmania and it was well-received, but I lost interest in it, since I apparently have little desire to create stories. I do love to interpret them, however, which probably explains why any “writing ambitions” that I might possess would be best described as my desire to become a well-rounded and influential online essayist and critic.

HM: Thank you very much for your participation in my feature and you are welcome to finish as you see fit.

L: Welcome to finish as I see fit? Hrmm... you really shouldn’t leave things to be so open-ended! Here goes:

Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avoc le coeur. L’essential est invisible pour les veux.

There is much power in that “simple” phrase. It’s almost as powerful as this one:

Si linguis hominum loquar et angelorum, caritatem autem no habeam, factus sum velut aes sonans aut cymbalum tinniens. Et si habuero prophetiam et noverim mysteria omnia et omnem scientiam, et si habuero omnem fidem, ita ut montes transferam, caritatem autem non habuero, nihil sum.

So much power in these expressions, especially if one stops to consider the wisdom contained in these disparate sources. But since you asked earlier about translations and their changes, here’s a second rendering of the second phrase, quoted by someone who means the world to me:

Ако језике човјечије и анђелске говорим а љубави немам, онда сам као звоно које звони, или прапорац који звечи. И ако имам пророштво и знам све тајне и сва знања, и ако имам сву вјеру да и горе премјештам, а љзбави немам, ништа сам.

It is in these things, if one looks deeply enough, that one can discover more about my view of the world (and thus, of books and fiction) than any of the thousands of words I said above.

Thanks for asking me these questions, Harry. Maybe next time I’ll explain in depth the deep, inner meaning of a rabid squirrel.


Fabio Fernandes said...

Great interview! Larry is indeed a name to be respected in the field - or should I say fieldS, since he excels in blogging, reviewing and I have no doubts we´ll have a great (exhausting, as he said, but great all the same) time together helping Ann and Jeff with the Latin American section of BAF. It will be a pleasure and an honor to work with him.

Mihai (Dark Wolf) said...

Very nice interview! I have to say that when it comes to blogging Larry is one of the influential figures. And reading his blog it always make me want to achieve more.

Harry Markov said...

Thanks for your comments guys. They are much appreciated and I share your sentiments completely. Larry is a one in a million guy. :)

Larry said...

Thanks for the compliments, although one thing I regret is that my sense of humor doesn't always translate well to the written (electronic?) page. I'm really a much less serious person away from the article writing.

That being said, it's always fun to challenge one's self...and others, even when that might irritate a few ;)

And Fábio, you're going to have to make sure that I don't slack off too much, as I've done lately :P

Harry Markov said...

I can understand. I don't think I am as funny as I know I can be live on the webs and more like resemble an idiot imbecile.

In any way I wish I had the opportunity to expand with follow-ups, but that pesky time and other things on my daily agenda have been unkind to me.

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