The OF Blog

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Back "procedures" suck, in case you never knew that

Well, after enduring six weeks of often excruciating back pain after initially injuring myself at work trying to keep a 6'5, 230 lb. young adult resident from running out of the room, I finally had a procedure done this morning to alleviate the pain.  It took nearly five weeks for the muscle spasms and strained muscles in my lower lumbar region of my spine (or about two inches above my waist/tailbone) to ease enough for there to be clear signs that I also had some nerve irritation.  Had an MRI done on Monday and it revealed some damage to one of my vertebral discs. 

It wasn't so serious that I needed back surgery, but it was bad enough that I was recommended to get an epidural steroid injection directly into that region of my spine.  So I had that done today.  One of the effects of the injection is that the numbing agent gets into your system, making your lower body number, making it unsafe to drive for any long length of time (not to mention it feels like you have your drunk legs all day).  This, however, does not stop the actual pressure pain from the injection site, which I was told can take up to four days before it is alleviated.  Thankfully, I did have some prescribed painkillers to help me endure this, even though this led to nearly a full night's night this afternoon.

On the bright side, before I was knocked out (much of this was done during the 45 minute drives to and from the clinic, along with the 30 minute wait at the clinic), I did manage to finish reading four recent releases that I hope to review in the next 3-4 days.  I read three National Book Award-longlisted books (John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van; Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck & Other Stories; and Gail Giles's Girls Like Us (YPL nominee) as well as Kelly Barnhill's The Witch's Boy.  Each of these were distinct in their prose and thematic approach and each will be receiving positive reviews whenever I have the time/mental focus to write them.

But for now, it's time to clear up this mental fog and see if the pain will subside some when I begin walking more next week (not to mention returning to work on Monday after a month's absence).  I'm past tired of sitting around the house not being able to do much else other than read and write reviews.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

It seems someone goofed and revealed the 2014 National Book Award longlist for Fiction a day early

Not that I mind, as it gives me a headstart on reading for it, but the Fiction longlist for the 2014 National Book Awards was released this afternoon on Huffington Post and the New York Times webpage an afternoon earlier than the planned 8 AM EDT Friday announcement.  I was wondering how many of the nominated books I had already read/reviewed/scheduled to buy and it turns out that I had already read/reviewed four of them and had two others listed on my 2014 Releases post.  Of the remaining four, the titles seem interesting (two won't be released until October 7, Robinson and Smiley), so on the whole, it's a fairly solid list, although I can think of several alternate selections that would have also fit in well with this list.  Compared to the Non-fiction list, the Fiction nominees are a bit more balanced with five men and women apiece and while there a majority Caucasian writers on the list, there is at least some diversity in narrative form and content.  Anyways, here are the ten nominees:

Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman 

Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans

John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See 

Phil Klay, Redeployment

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck & Other Stories

Richard Powers, Orfeo 

Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Jane Smiley, Some Luck

National Book Awards longlist for Non-Fiction

The longlist for the 2014 National Book Awards for Non-Fiction was just announced this morning.  Yet I find myself somewhat disappointed in the selections, despite not having read any of them so far.  Maybe I'll be able to find some compelling tales and excellent histories here, but it seems less diverse and representative of what's being produced this year compared to the Young People's Literature and Poetry longlists.  Am going to read one at least, the Roz Chast, and maybe the John Demos, but uncertain how many of the others I'll read.  Maybe something from the shortlist, but this might be the category I don't really cover this year.  Anyways, here's the longlist:

Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (also a graphic novel)

John Demos, The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic
Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes

Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941 – 1942

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

Ronald C. Rosbottom, When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944

Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic

Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence

Linda Bierds, Roget's Illusion

I will never contain the whole of it, he said,
the mirror too small for the long-necked lamp
floating swanlike near the angle of incidence.
Never, he said, stepping back from the lectern

and long-necked lamp, the mirror he held too small
for the swan.  To reflect the object entirely,
he said, stepping back to the lectern,
the glass must be half the source's height.

To reflect the object entirely – the lamp,
or a swan, or my figure before you – 
the glass must be half the source's height.
Unlike thought, which easily triples the whole.

– from "On Reflection," p. 60

Although for generations of benighted English/literature students he is most well-known for his thesaurus, Peter Mark Roget was a multi-talented person of science who also invented the slide rule and who wrote an 1824 paper on the illusion of forward-moving wheel spokes seeming to spin backwards.  It is this illusion of backwards forwardness that is both the title and major theme of Linda Bierds' 2014 National Book Award-longlisted poetry collection, Roget's Illusion.

Divided into three parts, each prefaced with a "Roget's Illusion," the majority of the poems in Roget's Illusion are akin to that found in the excerpt from "On Reflection" quoted above.  Breaking down the beginning half to "On Reflection," we encounter a narrator who is convinced that he is unable to position things just so in order to capture an image of the whole in a reflection.  The mirror, apparently "too small" for the swan-like lamp casting light, is itself a reflection, as seen in the second stanza, where the lamp has apparently become the swan, and the reflection/mirror has to be half the source's height in order for it to work.  But then there is another element, thought, that comes into play and which destroys and amplifies the reflection/illusion through its treple quality.  If the mirror, as the narrator goes on to claim, is "bound by harmony," then what is thought but a transformative quality that reflects back perceptions and appearances, until it is lost in the impossibility of never quite being able to "contain the whole of it."

This is a deceptively complex series of metaphors transpiring within the simplicity of a lamp, an image, and a source.  Utilizing Roget's theorems on distance and light casting illusive images, Bierds here has made that disorienting sense of backwards forwardness palpable, eloquently presenting the artifice before the trick, catching us thinking of it all, only for us to complete the illusion in its totality in our minds.  Yet despite seeing just how it all unfolds, despite it all being explained to us, there is still magic in the event.  There is a similar quality to discussing Bierds' mechanics here, as she lays out her approach for the reader to discern, yet in considering the wires and framework, the reader still gets caught up in the thrill of the unfolding image, seeming spinning backwards as it moves forward in poetic space.

Although this seemingly paradoxical quality is explored in several of Bierds' other poems, they are not refracted in the same fashion.  Take for instance "Details Depicted:  Insect and Hair," which begins with these lines:

In the prison of an unnamed century,
on paper coarse as sackcloth,
someone has written No reason exists 
and the innocency of my actings
in the midst of the late revolutions. 
Then stopped – and circled two perfect artifacts,
caught years before in the damp plup:
in the margin beside his curving s
a single fly wing, dried to a gauze,
and far down the page, an arc of amber beard hair. (p. 73)

Here is another natural object, a single fly wing, to serve as a point of comparison to another intruder, a strand of amber beard hair.  As the narrator continues to write his political tract, he circles back to that singular wing and that solitary hair, seeing in their placement a sort of transcendence of order.  It is this illusion of placement, of how chance is turned into an engine of order, that creates the illusory effect here.  There is a slight echo of Frost's "The Road Not Taken" here, at least in the sense of how choice's tryanny comes to hold sway over us all and how we often wish it were not so, but Bierds' take centers more on the illusion of that control, as the political screeds embedded here serve as a reminder of how ethereal it all really is if we were but to provide a Johnsonian kick to this metaphorical rock.

These two poems serve as exemplars of Bierds' concerns and her ability to manipulate image and rhetoric to create these illusions.  The rest of the collection is largely on par with these two and it was a delight to consider each of them at length.  Roget's Illusion is a powerful collection, one that can surprise readers with its depth and artifice, and it certainly is well-deserving of its place on this year's Poetry longlist.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

National Book Awards longlist for Poetry

Day two of the four-day rollout for the National Book Awards longlist is for Poetry.  Being a long-time reader of poetry, I already owned one of the longlisted titles (Louise Glück's Faithful and Virtuous Night) and have since bought two others.  Likely will own the majority, if not all, of the longlisted titles before the shortlist is revealed in mid-October.  Certainly will review at least three of the titles before then, however, and maybe as many as 6-7.  Here's the longlist of 10 poetry titles:

Linda Bierds, Roget's Illusion 

Brian Blanchfield, A Several World

Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night 

Edward Hirsch,  Gabriel:  A Poem

Fanny Howe, Second Childhood

Maureen N. McLane, This Blue

Fred Moten, The Feel Trio

Claudia Rankine, Citizen:  An American Lyric

Spencer Reece, The Road to Emmaus

Mark Strand, Collected Poems

Based on the three I've already read, some enjoyable titles for those who are curious about contemporary American poetry.  Will likely have reviews up in the next 48 hours for the Bierds and Reece.

Monday, September 15, 2014

National Book Awards longlist for Young People's Literature announced

The four day rollout for the 2014 National Book Awards began today with the announcement of the longlist for the Young People's Literature category.  Here are the ten finalists:

Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory 

Gail Giles, Girls Like Us

Carl Hiaasen, Skink—No Surrender

Kate Milford, Greenglass House

Eliot Schrefer, Threatened

Steve Sheinkin, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights 

Andrew Smith, 100 Sideways Miles

John Corey Whaley, Noggin

Deborah Wiles, Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two

Jacqueline Woodson,  Brown Girl Dreaming

While I am uncertain if I will cover the entire 10 book longlist due to a money crunch this month, I do plan on reading and reviewing the five books from this list which will make the shortlist in mid-October.  Lot of familiar names on this list (Schrefer and Sheinkin I reviewed a couple of years ago when their previous works also made the YPL shortlist).  Curious to see what others more familiar with middle grades and YA lit think of this longlist.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Things to review this week

Funny how plans change a bit when sick with an upper respiratory virus.  I did quite a bit of reading these past few days, but some of those will be tricky to review due to reading them in French, which is not one of my three best languages for reading-to-reviewing.  But I may try to review in 3-4 paragraph capsules the 2014 Prix Medicis longlisted-titles that I did read.

Also want to review at last the Murakami, Mitchell, and Jacobson books that I finished recently, but after tonight, it might be tricky, as I hope to be cleared to return to work by Tuesday after my orthopedic evaluation Monday morning.  But I'm sure I can fit those in somehow, along with reviews of Dylan Landis's Rainey Royal and Joseph O'Neill's Booker-longlisted The Dog.

But my reading squirrels are ever finicky, so who knows what will get accomplished this week...
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