From Okla Elliott’s review of Season of Ash in Inside Higher Ed:
Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash is the kind of novel that reminds me why I read novels in the first place, but it’s also the kind that makes me wonder why I bother to write. Before the end of this review, I am going to try to convince you that Volpi is a genius, that you have to buy this book, and that he’ll end up with the Nobel Prize in Literature if there is any justice in the world (which there might not be . . .)—but before I attempt all that, you should know who Jorge Volpi is, as he is not yet well-known to North American readers.
Jorge Volpi, born in the internationally tumultuous year of 1968 in Mexico City, has written nine novels, including one other, In Search of Klingsor, that has been translated into English and which has won prizes in Spain and France, as well as Volpi’s native Mexico. He is one of the founders (along with Ignacio Padilla, Pedro Ángel Palou, et al) of the “Crack Movement” in Mexican literature, a movement attempting to free itself from what its members perceive as the chains of magical realism, hoping to return to the joys found in the work of, for example, Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. Volpi studied law at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and holds his PhD in Spanish philology from Universidad de Salamanca in Spain. He has worked as a lawyer, a political aide, and as a scholar. The evidence of this political/legal praxis and this scholarly knowledge certainly show up in his work, though never pedantically or gratuitously. In the world of Spanish-language literature, he is known for his wide-ranging intelligence, the ambition of his work, his intricate plots, and a subtly dark humor.
Season of Ash opens with the infamous 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl. (So, okay, here I have an admission: I rather disliked the first few paragraphs of the novel—so much so, in fact, I was disappointed I’d agreed to review the book, since I was worried the rest of it would be equally unpleasant. I mention this for two reasons—to let you know I’m not such a fan of Volpi’s novel that I can’t admit its failings, and to make sure if you pick up a copy of the book, that you force past the first two pages, because after that, it’s pretty much perfect.) Here is Volpi, several pages in, at his lyric finest, personifying the radiation from the reactor’s meltdown as a monster the hopeless Soviet soldiers die trying to fight:
Wind and rain were carrying its humors toward Europe and the Pacific, its dregs were piling up in lakes, and its semen was filtering its way through the geological strata. The monster was in no hurry. It was patiently planning its revenge: Every baby born without legs, without a pancreas, every sterile sheep, dying cow, every rusty lung, every malignant tumor, every eaten-away brain would celebrate its revenge.
That wide narrative view—which takes in so much geography, time, and human suffering—is paradoxically one of the joys throughout the novel. The various plotlines, however, occasionally focus very closely on certain characters, the POV embedding so deeply into the consciousness of a particular character in the ensemble cast that we forget the novel spans four continents, eight decades, and over a dozen important characters (not to mention such historical figures as Joseph Stalin, Ronald Reagan, and Boris Yeltsin). Though, now looking over the above excerpt, I see just how intricately Volpi weaves his narrative lines, how flawlessly he modulates his narrative registers; I say this because while I enjoy the excerpt by itself, it loses much (most?) of its power out of context, where we see Soviet soldiers sent to their deaths, ordered to bury the site of the incident with sand, ordered to axe to death all the animals in the region and incinerate them, all the while dying slowly or quickly of radiation poisoning. We also are worried about the political well-being of the scientists involved as we read all this. And on, and on.
And as a not-so-subtle reminder, this is available as part of our 2 for $22 offer. And as a reminder, when you buy any 2 Open Letter books for $22, you’re automatically entered in a drawing to win a year’s subscription . . .
A few weeks back I spoke at a media class here on campus and was shocked when the majority of students said they would rather buy a physical text book for $XXX than a cheaper, e-based one. I think the whole etextbook sounds like a sure thing . . . thankfully I’m not the only one:
Continuing their campaign to draw attention to the cost of textbooks, the Student Public Interest Research Groups celebrated Tuesday what they’re calling a major milestone — reaching 1,000 professors who’ve signed a statement supporting the use of free, online and open source textbooks.
Colleges and individual faculty members continue to experiment with putting course information and material online, and “open textbooks” typically are licensed to allow users to download, share and alter the content as they see fit, so long as their purposes aren’t commercial and they credit the author for the original material. This allows instructors to customize e-textbooks and offer them to students for free online or as low-cost printed versions. (via Inside Higher Ed)
Open Library is a new online tool for finding information about books – even (perhaps especially) for titles that are out-of-print, scarce, or likely to find one reader per decade, if even that. It is, so to speak, a catalog with benefits. If a text is available in digital format, there is a link. Citations and excerpts from reviews will be available. Likewise, cross-references to other works on related topics. A user of Open Library can see the cover of the book and, in some cases, search the contents.
The whole interview is interesting, and Open Library sounds like a cool project. And here’s a bit about Swartz’s motivation:
Q: What will Open Library offer that you can’t already find online? What was missing from the existing array of online book-data resources – WorldCat, Google Books, Amazon, etc. – that makes it worthwhile to create a new one?
A: As the kind of person who reads Intellectual Affairs (an academophile?), I’m often looking for interesting books on an obscure topic. I can look on Amazon, but its coverage of out-of-print books is pretty poor. (In my experience, most of the really interesting books are out of print.) I can search an academic library or WorldCat, but the quality of data is pretty weak — you can get basic bibliographic info, but no reviews and weak search and a painful interface and most require a subscription.
So I wanted to build a site where one could more easily find those hidden great books, by combining all the data we have on them in one place and letting the people who love them go back and annotate and highlight them.
Did I already mention that he’s only 21?
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Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .