Showing posts with label US. Show all posts
Showing posts with label US. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Gaps in history | The Rest is Noise | Review

I used to read a lot more nonfiction and history-focused books. As a kid, I loved reading books that dove into a specific topic and described them from top to bottom, getting into all the small details. And I don't even mean kid-lit history books; by the age of eleven, I was reading thick, dark tomes about the rise of white racism in the US, the history of Korea, Russian military tactics, British royal succession, and so on. Just as soon as I was capable of physically holding heavy books (thanks Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!), I was reading them, enaging with a broad range of topics but ultimately always falling back on history. I loved history, you see.

But at some point, my interests shifted, and there were many years in which I read very little nonfiction at all. Yes, there would be a few books a year, but they'd either be memoirs or contemporary texts (often feminist in nature). In recent years, with the WIT project, I've started reading a lot more historical feminist texts; still not quite history.

It was in those many years of nonfiction non-existence that The Rest is Noise languished on my shelves. And I do mean many years, as I bought the book back in 2012. When I purchased it, I was so certain that I would read it immediately. A history of 20th century classical music! Highly acclaimed! Fat and bursting with historical goodness!

So yes, it would take me six years to get around to reading The Rest is Noise. Interestingly, I ended up reading the book in one of the least musical periods of my life (or at least, least classical-music periods). If I used to listen to classical music for at least eight hours a week, these days I might listen to two hours a month. Times have changed (and also my workmates really hate classical music...). This meant that there were little references or musical cues that I found myself simply... not remembering. Since I read the book over Shabbat, I also couldn't check for them. It created this fascinating experience, in which I was reading all about music and couldn't actually engage with it. Probably the exact opposite effect of what Alex Ross was going for.

The problem with The Rest is Noise is ultimately that it proved incapable of fulfilling its own mission. The book's subtitle "Listening to the Twentieth Century" makes a very clear promise - to listen to the 20th century... - yet the book heavily focuses on the first half. You might reasonably argue that classical music has been on a decline in recent decades, but the fact is that a lot of unique and powerful classical music has emerged since 1960, and much of it goes unmentioned by Ross. His focus on the canonic composers means that readers can't even be exposed to something new; the book prefers to focus on that which is already known.

It also fails in regards to its treatment of women. You see, women almost don't exist in The Rest is Noise, and if they do, they're typically wives or muses or Alma Mahler, okay it's almost all Alma Mahler. There are only a handful (literally!) of women composers name-dropped throughout the entire book, only one prior to 1960, and the rest in a fairly rushed manner at the end. 

Now, you might again attempt to argue: "Sure, there are a few women composers, but none of them are famous! None of these women are particularly well known!" To which I say... you're right! But shouldn't a book that styles itself a history of 20th century at least attempt to rectify this awareness gap? To his credit, Ross does basically this with regards to black composers, devoting a chapter to the topic. It's a shallow recognition of the fact that yes, black composers have also always existed, but at least it's there. Women are largely left behind.

There are other odd gaps. Ross frequently points to the Jewishness of many of the 20th century's greatest composers, yet at no point tries to connect between this fact and Jewish culture. More often than not, a composer's Jewishness is used as a reminder that they had to flee Europe and that a chapter on WWII-classical music is coming up. It felt like an odd omission. Jewish culture is deeply musical, moreover it is a culture that strongly promotes education and intense work in order to best study. Of course a culture of this sort, when partially (or wholly) secularized, would become a dominant force in composing! (See also: 20th century Jewish scientists.)

What's frustrating is that I could very clearly see how Ross (and other readers, presumably) viewed his book. Here is a man, writing passionately about the topic that he loves most. Which is great! I'm glad that he was able to write this book. But the blunt truth is that this is not the book that I wanted to read. There was plenty here that I found fascinating, oh yes, and it made me crave a similar sort of text summarizing jazz's history, but it also made me grateful that I already own Anna Beer's Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Because while Ross is comfortable overlooking a lot of pieces of history, I'm not really interested in reading it. A book doesn't have to be bad to be a disappointment, or at least not what I'm looking for. A lot has changed since 2012.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Broken Earth... more like The Perfect Books

This isn't really going to be a real review. I'm not sure I'm qualified to write a real review of such a powerful series, nor do I think I really need to. Others have written intelligently about N. K. Jemisin's brilliant fantasy (almost sci-fi-esque) series.

Frankly, I just want to gush.

Do you know how long it's been since I read an entire series and adored all of its parts? I genuinely cannot recall. Most of the time, series decay along the way for me. Or there's an outright dud along the way. With The Broken Earth, I kept waiting for the sequels to disappoint. I kept expecting the sequels to disappoint me, somehow, but they never did. The Fifth Season was brilliant. The Obelisk Gate was brilliant. And The Stone Sky was brilliant. The entire series (as a single entity) was brilliant. It's a series that feels utterly confident in itself and unlike many other titles in its fantasy genre, it's a series that knows exactly where it's going. Having read the three books relatively close together (I truly forced myself to wait at least two months between each book, just to make sure I didn't get disappointed by a "binge"), the clarity of the three titles as a single series is made even more obvious. It's a refreshing sight in a genre that is cluttered with books that believe that more depth means more.

Because The Broken Earth doesn't infodump. Heck, it doesn't even answer all of its own questions. There is potential here for sixteen more books, if Jemisin chooses to write them. How did the world order become as it is? What happens afterwards? How does the world change? How does the world rebuild? How do the cultures and traditions that develop come about? There is so much more, but the lack of high-resolution details never feels like Jemisin is cheating her readers out of information. On the contrary, it feels like a reminder that fantasy can have sharp, in-depth worldbuilding without giving readers every single detail. The books end up feeling more tightly written... and clearer too.

It's a series brimming with real-life inspirations. The way that history is warped and passed down felt so real, in a way that most fantasy novels often fail at (by having too highly detailed "legends" that are clearly meant to foreshadow or serve as outright exposition). In The Broken Earth, the pieces of history feel like they contribute more to my cultural understanding rather than any plot-based need. In The Stone Sky in particular, chapter endings felt like they were there to remind readers of real-world racial injustices rather than foreshadow any particular plot point. (Though, I should point out, they always sort of did. In a very quiet way.) (There are a lot of very important other messages about persecution and oppression. They are not overdone and yet they are also not subtle. It is very well done. This series is great.)

It's also a series that despite its surface bleakness is brimming with hope and life. I can't get into more detail without spoiling a lot of the books, but know that The Broken Earth feels like the series that restored my personal faith in the world. Books are powerful and this series is wonderful.

Gushing complete. For now.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas | Review

I was about 150 pages into The Hate U Give (THUG) by Angie Thomas when a thought struck me: How many contemporary YA books had I read with a black protagonist? The mental list ran stunningly short, complicated by the realization that I had read significantly more historical fiction about young black teens than I have about today's. As well as significantly more literature about Latino, East Asian and Middle Eastern teens than black ones. This ended up framing a lot of how I kept reading THUG, with that constant question in the back of my mind if I could really accurately review a book that described a world I was only just getting to see.

So I will preface the remainder of this review with the reminder that as a non-black reader (and more specifically, a non-African American reader), there is a lot about THUG that is not really "about me". There's the added fact that as a "part-time" American (that is... someone who spent some of her childhood in the US, but grew up in predominantly Asian-American, Latino, and Jewish environments and has since lived her entire adult life in not-US), there are racial nuances from the past few years that I have only encountered secondhand or from stories. It ultimately means that there are multiple dimensions to THUG that I feel I cannot critically speak for.

But I can say what I thought of the book in spite of these limitations. Simply put: It was good.

My familiarity with American black culture is, as I've already mentioned, fairly limited: a handful of books, certain columnists and bloggers, several films by black women, and so on. This may seem like an unnecessary bit of information, but it actually became strikingly obvious once I started THUG: much of the slang was unfamiliar to me. After all, I'm not an African American teen, I'm an Israeli twenty-something who hasn't lived in the US in over a decade. This meant that it took me about two chapters to get into the rhythm of the writing, after which I was in.

Because again: THUG is a good book. It's sharp, it's timely (perhaps too timely, but I'll get to that in a moment), it's almost disturbingly nuanced, and it's wonderfully written. The book practically pulses - from the moment I got into the rhythm, there was simply no question as to whether I'd set the book down or keep reading. (Not-a-spoiler alert: I kept reading and finished the book just after midnight. Worth it.) Starr is a stellar YA narrator: mostly focused on herself, yes, but reflective enough and more importantly communicative enough that we grasp the world around her intuitively.

But what, you might ask, is THUG really about? Why is it "timely"? Why is it so buzzed right now?

THUG is about police violence, "Black Lives Matter", black culture and experiences, and more broadly what it means to be black in the modern US. Does that all sound a bit much? A bit grand, a bit heavy for a contemporary YA novel? It shouldn't - THUG isn't a difficult book. As someone who reads a lot of essays by young black writers about these issues, I can't even say that there was all that much new to THUG either. But... that doesn't mean it was fresh. And it doesn't mean it wasn't done very well.

THUG centers on Starr Carter, 16-years old and caught between her two worlds: her black "ghetto" neighborhood and her mostly-white prep school (complete with a white boyfriend and a white former-best-friend, as well as an Asian-American still-friend). The novel kicks off with Starr's old best friend Khalil getting fatally shot by a police officer... with Starr as the sole witness. From there, THUG explores many of the issues that inevitably emerge from these sorts of police shootings: media manipulations, the framing of the police officer as a "good guy" who just "wanted to get home safely to his family", Starr's problematic role as sole witness, the vilification of Khalil as a "drugdealer thug" who deserves what he got, the grand jury trial, protests, and so on.

THUG doesn't shy away from the complexities of this problem. While there is a distinct YA feel to the surrounding drama that Starr faces in her life (specifically her sense of belonging "between two worlds", boyfriend issues, friend issues, etc.), Thomas pulls no punches when it comes to addressing how deeply wrong many of the post-shooting narratives become. Starr frequently wonders to herself how it can be that the entire shooting has been reframed in such a way as to make the victim - an unarmed teenager who was simply driving home after a party - the villain who is on trial, while the perpetrator - an adult, trained police officer who shot an unarmed teenager three times - is cast as the victim. This refrain is of course familiar to anyone who has engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement, but that does not take away from its power in-text. In general, Starr emerges as a sort of proxy for many social justice ideas and concepts, but not in a way that crowds out any plot. Nor does it ever feel preachy. Starr is simply a sharp girl who rejects the social injustices around her and makes much of that rejection clear.

If I had to point to the novel's biggest flaw, there is no doubt in my mind that it will require footnotes in the future. Not simply for subtle (and sometimes not subtle) references to real-world victims of police shootings, but also for the way it's a story thrumming with modern culture. Starr does more than just talk about social media in the abstract - she specifically references certain websites and their unique social justice subcultures (Tumblr, mainly, though Black Twitter gets a few shout-outs too). While not inherently a bad thing (I have no problem with stories that embrace current technological trends, nor stories that are ostensibly "ripped from the headlines" or in other words culturally relevant), it gave me the feeling that the book will feel a tad bit dated in just a few years, which would just be a shame... This is the sort of book that should become part of the young adult literary canon, not simply as a "social justice" text, but also as an intelligent novel about what it means to be sixteen.

There are other minor quibbles too. I felt the book stumbled somewhat in its sidelining of Starr's friend Maya, whose Asian-ness only becomes relevant to Starr when it overlaps with her own experiences. For a novel that spends so much time drawing clear class-based racial lines (emphasizing the impact class differences have for black people), it felt odd that Thomas did not address the different ways class and race intersect for non-black marginalized groups. THUG would eventually recognize that Maya faces bias and bigotry herself, despite "belonging" to this "white world", but it felt oddly one-dimensional for a novel that lives and breathes in three. Obviously, this need not have been the focus of the novel - Thomas is specifically writing and examining black lives - but I found myself wishing it had been developed just a tiny bit more. This applies to Starr's occasionally binary thinking in regards to race/class as well, but these points are ultimately not the focus.

These issues are exceedingly irrelevant in the face of a novel that does two things remarkably well: THUG tells a story in rapid-fire, pulsing, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable prose, and it tells a powerful story that has cultural importance in more ways than one. As I said early in this review, I cannot speak for black teens, but I have seen how most readers have responded. Regardless of race or background, readers remain enthralled by the stellar writing and meaningful story. That is not to say all readers: some have taken issue with Starr's frustrated dismissal of "white people", though these reviewers frequently neglect to recognize the in-text examination of system racism and the ways in which that impacts things like microaggressions or racist commentary. And I also cannot shake the feeling at times that THUG is a book meant to appeal to well-meaning non-black readers who want to boost their social-justice credibility, largely because its reviewers are overwhelmingly white (or at least non-black), though this too does not diminish from the power of a book that clearly stems from the author's personal experiences (in part, at least).

THUG is one of the most highly-hyped books of the past year. Well-deserved for a well-written book.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You | Review

There were a lot of things in Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You by Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés which made me laugh out loud. The short story collection is not meant to be an especially humorous one, but an underlying snark accompanies a good portion of the writing and some lines were, frankly, far too familiar not to make me laugh. "Arroz con pollo, sin pollo y sin arroz" made me laugh for a solid five minutes, not because the statement is necessarily that humorous on its own, but because we frequently joke in my family about my aunt's "arroz con pollo sin pollo" (and I had not known that arroz con pollo - named as such - was not an exclusively Peruvian dish).

The collection is written with almost deliberate indifference to the notion that the reader might not speak Spanish. It fits the tone - Milanés is telling stories of Cubans and of Cuban-Americans, and at times I found myself thinking that including in text translations would have been intrusive. And the Spanish, while prevalent, is not something you'll feel lost without. And you can probably figure it out from context, even if you don't know Spanish very well.

The truth is, I liked Milanés' writing, but I'm not sure I liked the collection overall. As sharp and pointed as it is in parts, there was a very uniform tone to the stories that made it difficult for me to fully separate them in my mind. Not that they were identical (certainly nowhere near the level of similarity across Kjell Askildsen's short stories, for example...), but there wasn't quite enough separation between the majority. The best stories ended up being those that shifted from the familiar structure - a two paged slip of a story about a gay man suspecting his niece's boyfriend is gay, a story about a Chinese immigrant to Cuba, a story which drastically switches perspectives throughout its 28 or so pages with no fixed loop. These stories lingered just a bit longer in my mind, snagged on something I couldn't quite place.

Milanés broaches a lot of topics in Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You, many of which I found myself not only recognizing and appreciating, but also running through in my head again and again. Most notable was Milanés' almost aggressive focus on race, and colorism, often drawing attentions to features that were more positively viewed (pale skin, slanted eyes, smooth hair). Then there were the more general themes: family, belonging, the immigrant experience... A lot here was quite familiar in the positive sense - a sharp reflection of the world.

And yet I still am not sure that I liked the collection all that much. Some of the stories were deliberately truncated in a way that kept me on edge, others felt dragged out without much justification, and some stories felt utterly dry. Despite the relative shortness of the book, it felt long and tedious far more than it should have. And sharp writing is great only to the point where it can stand alone, and here there was a glossed over uniformity to the entire collection that lessened the effect of the writing. Some of these are certainly stories worth reading, but I'm not sure I would add Milanés to my "must read" list quite yet.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Goldfinch | Review

This is a difficult review to write because I feel that The Goldfinch was so far from either the book I expected from positive reviews, and so far from the book I expected from criticism. I found a book that was complex in my own response to it - I may have read it quickly and avidly and very... deeply, but I cannot claim that I liked the book. Overall, I distinctly didn't.

The problem with reviewing The Goldfinch so many months after its publication and sweeping adoration and imminent backlash is that it no longer feels relevant. Is Donna Tartt the "new Dickens"? Is The Goldfinch a stunning work of modern literature, or an overblown mess? Is this quality literature, or pedestrian writing neatly wrapped?

These honestly aren't questions that interest me.

I want instead to discuss how The Goldfinch is essentially four or so books in one. The first is my favorite, and one I actively liked: a novel of a young boy in the aftermath of his mother's death as he tries to maneuver his own emotional turmoil and that of the family who takes him in. This first novel is the story that opens The Goldfinch, and I really enjoyed it. We meet Theo, we get swept up in his drama and follow his lost narrative. It's not the most original story, but Tartt writes it well and I found myself truly feeling for Theo. I liked his agency and I liked the high-style language (which completely did not fit the voice of the narrator himself, of course, but there was something so deliberate about it that it  worked well). As a starter story, it's brilliant - it hooked me and kept up momentum for the rest of the (disappointing) book.

This book ends with little closure, and Theo is instead launched into another part of his life. And from that moment, I felt my dislike of the book settling and I felt myself growing more and more uncomfortable with the narrative.

Remember in my review of Americanah I mentioned that I found myself very disappointed by the use of a specific trope which I especially hate? So The Goldfinch takes another of my most hated storytelling pet peeves, and lives it in full: drug use. Now, to be clear: a lot of The Goldfinch deals directly with drug use. It doesn't show drug use as something without consequence or without hardship, and it doesn't just raise the topic without delving into it. Drug use is a recurring and persistent theme in the novel, one that is furthermore often linked to the artistic theme, if obliquely.

And so yes, Tartt does not merely raise drug use, Tartt seeps her novel in it. And truthfully, the loving tone with which Tartt refers to this copious drug use really disturbed me. If there's one thing that frustrates me in modern culture, it's the absolute normalization of drug use in society. Reading a novel in which drug use is so gently caressed made me wholly uncomfortable. Sue me, I have personal preferences. And these personal preferences colored much of my further appreciation of the novel.

But let me turn back to the separate books. So we have Theo's coming of age spread out across two different books, and then his strange "return to childhood" book (which I frankly found more interesting than his dull and frankly overwritten teenage years). But then the final book... is a total mess. Tartt switches gears quite abruptly at the novel's end, and it suddenly becomes something of a thriller. But it's a pretty poor thriller - I found myself skimming sections which were far too long and deeply descriptive without actually telling me anything new. The Goldfinch thus ends whimpering when it's trying to be bold and decisive, simply because it tries to make a shift into something that just doesn't work. Not that it really could have ended otherwise: the entire novel does feel like a build-up to something. I just didn't expect the something to be so dulled.

There's another thing I feel needs mentioning, as complex an issue as it may be: Tartt's treatment of women. This is something that I've struggled to put into words, but here it is: The Goldfinch writes women poorly, flatly, or not at all. As I was thinking about how to write this review, I found myself imagining words like "masculine" and "male-oriented". The "masculine" term is the more complex of the two (because it's harder to define), but it occurred to me that there is hardly any woman-to-woman interaction in the novel. The book centers around a young man, true, but it centers around him in a way that all but erases women into flat tropes: there's the obvious fridging of his mother, the later treatment of his one-time foster mother, the treatment of his father's girlfriend, the romanticization of Theo's "love", the descriptions of his fiancee as an ice-queen, who gets little agency to prove herself...

And suddenly I had the unpleasant (and frankly unfair) thought that The Goldfinch is so well-regarded because Donna Tartt has written the ultimate "white male novelist" book - full of disaffected men, one-dimensional women, drug use, cigarettes used as mood setters and a brooding young man (from New York, no less!) who is swept up in a story that's much larger than him.

That was when I realized the depths to which I was unhappy with The Goldfinch. Here's a novel that's been touted as this brilliant masterpiece by a woman, yet it's no different than dozens of other similar books (except perhaps in length, where it... trumps). The artistic angle that The Goldfinch claims to come from simply never materializes on the level it deserves. What's left is... meh. Maybe these are connections I'm not allowed to make, but that's where I am right now. I see a familiar novel in place of a revolutionary one, and it's not even a novel I particularly enjoy.

I do want to give Tartt credit where credit is due: I was rightly swept up in The Goldfinch, and the writing is largely top-notch. I'm quite curious now as to whether Tartt's previous works are actually worthwhile, or if they're similarly trapped in familiar tropes and stylings. I sort of understand why many readers enjoyed The Goldfinch as much as they did, and I absolutely understand why many award outlets flung their seal of approval at the book. But I didn't like the book. Not wholly, not as a complete novel. Aspects? Brilliant. Certain pages or observations or descriptive passages? Possibly even genius. A novel on the whole? Nope. Nope nope nope.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Americanah | Review

I'll start by saying that until page, oh, 400 (out of 477), this review was going to be overwhelmingly positive. There's a lot, a lot, a lot to appreciate in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's most recent novel Americanah, particularly for someone like me who has shuffled between the US and the not-US my whole life. Questions of race, racial identity and cultural identity resonated with me quite strongly (racial aspects perhaps less so, but the concept of "race issues" not existing outside the US, or not existing the way many within the US assume it to exist is one I've discussed at length in recent years), as did the entire discussion of how to return to a home that is no longer a home.

I won't get into details as to what happened after page 400. It's not exactly a spoiler - the book leads very heavily towards this - but I really don't want to discuss it regardless. What I'll say is that Americanah careened into one of my all-time literary pet peeves, without critiquing it as it should have. And suddenly I was able to recognize that this issue had actually come up several times throughout the book. This made my appreciation of the end... not amazing. I was disappointed, I finished the book with a whimper and not a bang, and found myself wishing, desperately, that Adichie could have been as brave with this issue as she was with others.

But let's get back to what this review was supposed to be: a discussion of why Americanah is a brilliant book for foreigners and expats and others.

Most reviews I've read have discussed where Americanah is brave in its presentation of race. And I'll say... yes. It's a pretty audacious book, when you think about it. Adichie is a non-American-black (NAB, as she calls it) writing about Ifemelu, a NAB, who writes about what it's like to be black in a society that has a heck of a lot more racial issues than it's capable of recognizing. There are multiple levels of meta in Americanah, not least within the blog posts integrated throughout Ifemelu's narrative sections. Ifemelu's blogs deal largely with race and racial disparities between African American and, shall we say, American Africans, as well as general racial observations.

Ifemelu's writing will be fairly familiar to anyone who reads feminist blogs, or black-feminist blogs, or even just blogs about racial issues (though the feminist side comes through fairly strongly, which I obviously was thrilled about). Writing like this, by itself, in a clearly elevated status without further discussion, would have frustrated me, but Adichie is more intelligent than that: though Ifemelu is clearly our protagonist and our enlightened outside observer (the one constantly critiquing narrow-minded aspects of Anglo-American racial perspectives), there is enough of an understanding that Ifemelu too has her biases and observations. Ifemelu's blog posts aren't entirely good criticism, and they're not necessarily 100% right (her own ideas evolve enough throughout the book to make that abundantly clear), but they're the closest thing we get. In that sense, Americanah forces the reader (whoever it may be - white, black, Anglo, foreigner, other) to reach their own conclusions and read more deeply. It's a wonderfully complex and thought-provoking book.

But to be honest, I'd rather spend a few more moments talking about the "outsider effect", and why having a book written by a non-American written for an audience that is simultaneously American and non-American is so very important. As you'll all know by now, I'm a very big fan of the international approach to literature (duh). I don't believe that "literature in translation" guarantees true diversity, and I don't believe that one can truly read diversely within one language alone (whatever that language may be). When readers and reviewers and writers come at stories from the perspective that Anglo-American is the norm, the default, the everything... I get angry. Apparently Adichie agrees with me

I loved that Americanah so bluntly challenged the idea that American/British English is the default (in the discussion of accents). I loved that Americanah so bluntly challenged the idea that Western melting-pot perceptions of race are the most progressive (in the discussion of the non-American black and that brilliant quote about not thinking about your race and racial identity until moving to the US). I loved that Americanah discussed the internal American discussion of African Americans and new African immigrants, and where the two groups are not entirely meshed. I loved that Americanah looked at the new immigrant experience from a place of warmth and acceptance, and didn't reject offhand the idea that someone might someday want to return, that the concept of home might trump.

I loved a lot of things in Americanah - the shift from casual blog-style writing to the larger discussion, the flow, the depth with which Adichie builds her side characters, the warmth with which Adichie delves into different sorts of love. But it's not a perfect book, and it was so close to being so much better that the disappointment stings so much more.

Before page 400, my biggest complaint would have been about the shift in tone between Ifemelu and Obinze. The book semi switches off between the two, but it's entirely unfair to present it as a balanced story - we spend significantly more time with Ifemelu than Obinze, and the story is built in such a way that I found it much easier to relate to Ifemelu than Obinze. Obinze's parts felt slower to me, and also less focused. While this is obviously a reflection of his character arc, it still managed to frustrate me as a reader. I'd have preferred for a more cohesive story told entirely from Ifemelu's perspective, but I suspect this is more about personal preference.

After page 400 (and to be clear, page 400 is an arbitrary approximation meant to symbolize my frustration with the general final arc), I found myself thinking over previous parts of the book and realizing that as talented as Adichie is (and goodness, she's talented - I'm without a doubt going back to read the rest of her books), she relied heavily on a number of tropes I absolutely hate. These tropes undermine so much of the strength of character that Adichie has built previously, and feels like sloppy storytelling to cover up the more intellectual aspects of the novel. It made me... angry. And it's something that unfortunately ruins too many good books.

Americanah wasn't ruined. It's not a bad book by any measure, and the fact that it personally fell into one of my personally most-hated traps does not for a moment mean that it's a worthless novel. Readers should absolutely read Americanah for its outsider perspective, for its blunt discussions of race and privilege and belonging and identity. Readers should absolutely read this book deeply, and wholly - it's a book to learn from, to a large degree. And in parts, it's also a wonderful feminist text (in other parts, I again note, I wanted to smash it against a wall). On the whole, it's an intelligent, thought-inducing, challenging (in that it challenges the reader to reassess much of their previous biases), engaging and readable book. You should read it.

...but I do so wish that it hadn't included that one thing.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

If Roxane Gay is a "Bad Feminist", what am I? | Thoughts

I am a feminist.

This is not news to anyone who reads this blog. At least, it shouldn't be. I talk about feminism all the time. Feminism is important! Many people are feminists, even if they don't realize it, just because the word "feminism" carries with it so much baggage.

Roxane Gay seems aware of this. In the introduction to Bad Feminist, she discusses the unfair standard to which we hold feminism, writing: "When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement." With this sentence (so early in the book), I was hooked. "Roxane Gay gets me," I said aloud. I read the quote to those sitting around me. I started to read more quickly, more excitedly.

And then... everything started to come apart.

So many readers recommended Bad Feminist so convincingly. I knew ahead of time that Gay's writing was supposed to be conversational and casual, that her feminism is modern, accepting and scattered. The publisher blurb (which is not actually found anywhere on the book, because why) has a quote in which Gay describes how she likes pink, so of course that makes her a "bad feminist". I was supposed to be all over this book (even though I really should have known otherwise, because why should liking pink make you a bad feminist?). This, after all, is a book by the woman who writes in the introduction that she's a bad feminist because she never wanted to be on the "Feminist Pedestal", a sentiment I not only agree with wholeheartedly, but have never found the words for. This is the writer who wrote succinctly: "I disavowed feminism because when I was called a feminist, the label felt like an insult. In fact, it was generally intended as such." All of this in the introduction.

Alas, it turns out that the Roxane Gay who wrote the introduction and the Roxane Gay who wrote the rest of the essays in this collection are two different women, with contradictory takes on feminism and some pretty awful pieces.

So I'll start by being as blunt as possible: I hated much of Bad Feminist. Not disliked, not "didn't enjoy", not just "was disappointed by". No. I hated a good chunk of this collection. To start with, it's a bad collection: these essays are largely disconnected, unrelated and have no flow, coming almost verbatim from whatever website they were originally posted to in 2013. Bad Feminist doesn't actually have a strong central thesis, making the whole book feel a little worthless - why not just track down the original posts? The essays themselves are often out of place as well - much as I enjoy a good story about Scrabble (and I actually did like that anecdote quite a bit), it doesn't belong in a feminist text. Whoops, sorry, no.

Some essays, it's true, flow into each other remarkably well. Altogether, a few paint an important portrait of Gay herself. There were moments where this became powerfully central, like in "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence". Gay has references to her own life and experiences in surrounding essays that give further meaning to her discussion of sexual violence. Moments like those made Bad Feminist feel like a legitimate whole, with a quiet continuity and consistency. Had the whole book been like this, the review you're reading now may have been very, very different.

Yet "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence" also exemplifies all too well another aspect of the book that I seriously did not like: a total lack of citations. Gay at some point criticizes another feminist critic for referencing bad sources and statistics. That's a good, worthwhile point that is demolished by the fact that Bad Feminist contains zero sources, citations, references or even link suggestions of any kind. When Gay discusses gang rape in "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence", I have no doubt that someone has researched the fact that the victim's "reproductive system is often damaged" and that they have "a higher chance of miscarrying a pregnancy". These are almost certainly true facts. However, Gay loses credibility by not citing the research. Writing something loosely like this may be good enough for a blog post (and even then, I'm realizing that it's always better to link to sources than assume your readers are familiar with the research), but it's not good enough for a wide-release book publication.

This hope for a more critical approach is likely a problem in my own expectations than a flaw in Gay's writing, however I cannot pretend that it didn't disappoint me. Gay is a critic, yet she seems to utterly avoid any chance for real, hard-hitting criticism. Most of the essays provide little more than entry-level understanding of the subject. Many readers have praised Bad Feminist to the sky for this trait, but I find myself thoroughly unimpressed: there's a way to write critically about pop culture, and Roxane Gay just isn't doing it.

The topics frustrated me as well. Beyond the fact that there was little here I wasn't familiar with (again, Gay rarely goes beyond surface level exploration), Gay and I seem to have opposing views on many, many issues. Her essay on weight (and how to write about being overweight) actually disgusted me, not simply because of how sloppily written it is. The essay skips between legitimate criticism, personal storytelling and a discussion of how modern culture looks at fat people. Gay simultaneously talks about how it's bad to judge, while judging every aspect of the author and the character of the book she's referencing, referring to the fact that "no one who shops at Lake Bryant or the Avenues or Catherines is going to feel empathy for someone who is thirty pounds overweight". The entire essay is extraordinarily reductive, and I actually wanted to punch the book while reading it.

There's also the little issue of spoilers. I'm a fair believer in spoiler alerts, mostly because it's unfair to expect everyone to have been exposed to the exact same pop culture as other people. I also do not object to people discussing plot points at length when properly pointed out (hey, it's part of criticism!). Yet Gay opts for the mix - she spoils endings and character development and everything about certain books, without ever considering that what she's doing might be, oh, wrong. It was extremely frustrating, and it's just sloppy. Again, this might be good enough for a Jezebel blog post, but it's not good enough for a print-and-bound book that I paid $16 for.

It boils down to two main concepts: One is of the content, writing and editing - the technical matters which I felt had issues (and content, of course, includes personal disagreements - this is a feminist text, after all). The other is of how the book was presented. Truthfully, I am not so impressed by the mere fact that Gay is tackling pop culture in her criticism. Not because I feel that there's something inherent about "lowbrow" culture that excludes it from criticism, but rather the exact opposite. I have never believed in the sort of highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy that Gay perpetuates in these essays. She repeatedly points out how lowbrow X is a guilty pleasure, but that doesn't stop her from being a good literary critic (something which, again, I'm not convinced of after reading this collection). Gay flaunts herself as a rule-breaker (her publishers seem to agree), but she sticks very closely to the original definitions of low/highbrow and doesn't challenge them in any meaningful way. To be perfectly blunt, I've read lowbrow criticism on Tumblr that's at least 50 times better than the ostensibly intellectual approach Gay takes (which is actually extremely shallow and, dare I say it, timid).

I really, really disliked Bad Feminist, and it has taken me many months to come out and say this. I respect that readers will have different opinions, and I am well aware that Roxane Gay is considered one of the foremost feminist critics at the moment. The point of this review is simply to say that I disagree with Gay on too many points to be able to call Bad Feminist a remotely worthwhile text. I have read other essays of hers that angered me as much as Bad Feminist did (most noteworthy was her recent Guardian essay about who should be allowed to advocate for feminism, an article which not only made my blood boil, but made me wonder if Gay even recognizes how utterly contrary to feminism much of her "criticism" is), and I have simply concluded that while Gay and I agree on the basic ideas of feminism - namely that it should exist, that there should be a greater discussion of issues such as equal rights (whether in gender, race, sexuality, etc.), that women's "issues" need to be treated with the same gravitas we treat men's, etc etc etc - we fundamentally disagree on the details of these issues, and on many other topics that surround feminism. Gay furthermore writes from a purely American perspective of the world, a narrowing that I simply will not accept from a movement that should be defined by its global-ness.

So here it is. The review that took over a month to write, in which I cannot go into as much detail as I'd like about what angered me so much (without writing a feminist manifesto myself), in which I mostly am trying to explain why I feel that Gay is a mediocre literary critic (at best), in which I recognize that many readers I respect and admire will so violently disagree with me that we may never speak again. Goodness knows I've received some harsh feedback on my negative reviews in the past, but I don't recall ever coming this close to criticizing the writer - this is the main problem with reviewing nonfiction, unfortunately. But I feel it's important to share my thoughts on Bad Feminist. I'm curious to know what other readers feel about my disagreements with Gay, and how they interpreted the book. I doubt that I will ever come to love this collection, but I may be more forgiving of its flaws and focus on the handful of worthwhile moments, far and few between as they may be.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Shades of Milk and Honey | Review

So you know how some books are serious, intellectually stimulating, thoughtful and important? Well, Shades of Milk and Honey is not really any of those things, but instead it's a fun, lovely piece of escapism that achieves what it sets out to do marvelously and managed to keep me entertained all evening long.

Shades of Milk and Honey is billed as a sort of cross between Jane Austen and standard fantasy, and this sort of description is accurate enough in explaining its general format. Mary Robinette Kowal's writing in no way resembles Austen's (to use a word Kowal seems overly fond of, Austen's writing is a bit more "droll"), but the styling and personality match a lot of modern interpretations of Austen's style. Kowal uses little tricks to make the writing feel older ("shew", "surprize", etc.), and while they're clearly modernized and indeed the writing feels very, very contemporary at times, these small touches nonetheless create the sort of Austen-esque aura that Kowal was hoping for.

In truth, Shades of Milk and Honey reads much more like standard historical-fiction-romance than it does like Austen, but here the fantasy aspects come in and turn a fairly middling book into something much nicer. In Kowal's world, magic can be used to create various glamours, largely used by women in adding small touches to paintings, or music, or for small performances. Glamours may also be used to alter one's appearance (for a short time, since working glamour can make you ill), an interesting (if minor) point about appearances that Kowal underplays nicely. However, these glamours are also used for grander artistic effect, and much of the story revolves around one such glamourist and his relationship with our main character (a "plain Jane", no less).

Kowal does a lovely job of making her magic seem utterly real. It's viewed much like other artistic styles - something that needs to be learned, studied, and honed, but also relies on native talent. Throughout the book, Kowal explores different aspects of art through the glamour - performance art, visual art, and music as well - in a surprisingly in-depth way. It's not a brilliant meditation on the subject, but it provides depth to an otherwise largely straight-forward novel.

I liked Shades of Milk and Honey a lot, but I liked it in the same way that I like watching a lot of period dramas - it's meant more for the mood and styling than anything else. The story is extremely predictable and there were a few missed opportunities in the characterizations (particularly regarding Jane's younger sister Melody, who I wanted to see more of). And of course the writing is not really Austen-like, it's Austen-lite. There's a distinct lack of any social commentary, which I felt was another missed opportunity. Only one scene really touched on the matter, but it handled it quite well and I hope to see more care given to it in the sequels. Yes, I'll be reading the sequels - this was a wonderful way to spend an evening. The glamour adds the necessary touch to an otherwise standard romance, transforming it into a sweet and enjoyable historical-fantasy romp.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

When the Emperor was Divine | Review

Julie Otsuka is one severely underrated writer.

Let's back up a few years - I read The Buddha in the Attic in spite of my own better judgement, and was blown away by nearly flawless writing, a wonderful sense of mood, and a story that has not left my consciousness since then. The Buddha in the Attic was a book I never would have read had I not spotted it on the recommended table at my local bookstore, had I not opened it to the first few pages and been intrigued by the first-person plural. But the book proved to be so much more than a bland-looking "literary" piece with a gimmick. Instead, I discovered that Otsuka could both write, and she could write. I bought When the Emperor was Divine not long after, and it's languished on my shelves ever since.

Why languished, you ask? Well, because like many readers who fall in love with one book at one point, there is always the fear that the author's other works will disappoint. So I put off reading Otsuka's earlier novella more and more. Until a couple weeks ago, when I broke down and pulled it off the shelf. About time, too. There was no cause for concern - When the Emperor was Divine is just as cleanly written, just as finely tuned, and ultimately just as thought-provoking as The Buddha in the Attic. Possibly more important as well, though I don't think I liked it more.

Though The Buddha in the Attic was written later, I couldn't help but feel as though it's the natural prequel to When the Emperor was Divine. Buddha deals with the immigration of Japanese women to the US (California, specifically), gradually opening their story across decades as they adjust to life in their new country, showing racism and culture clashes vividly and powerfully.

Emperor begins in World War II. The girls who moved to the US in Buddha are now grown women, mothers, whose children are entirely American, hardly speaking any Japanese. Emperor has a more generally familiar structure, following one single family across a slice of American history that is often (improperly) ignored and forgotten: the family's time in the Japanese internment camps.

Like Buddha, which follows a group of women, none of whom are an actual protagonist, Emperor purposely blurs the boundaries of standard narration by keeping our family very generic. "The woman", "the boy", "sister", etc. - names for characters we get to know. They're placeholders, a representation for an entire group of people crammed into the same utterly unjust, baffling situation. Our family comprises of mother, daughter and son, with an absent father who was taken away not long before the rest of the family was sent to camps.

With this lightly drawn setting, Otsuka gives a surprisingly quiet, powerful account of the impact of the interment camps. Little is actually said of the camps themselves - Otsuka describes them in broad terms, referencing minor details more than anything actually concrete - but the mere choice to show them to readers through the eyes of the children (and not the mother, whose perspective opens the story as the family prepares to leave) tells quite a bit about Otsuka's intentions. The remaining sections of the novella, dealing with the family's return to standard life and a sense of normality, show this intention even more clearly.

Because Otsuka's book isn't about what happened. Rather, Otsuka seems to ask - calmly, sadly, and perhaps a little tiredly - how and why it happened. How did entire families get rounded up, how were citizens forced to declare their "loyalty" and "denounce" Japan's emperor? Why were men sent to prison and not seen for years, with only the occasional letter sent home? How did neighbors simply take from the homes of those sent away? Why was this so easy?

These questions linger. As they should. When the Emperor was Divine provides a probing look at highly focused racism that is still entirely relevant today (the book's "Chink or Jap?" turns into "Arab or Indian?"). It's a clear-eyed assessment of one of America's greatest - and generally unspoken - shames. It's the sort of book I want taught in classrooms. It's the sort of book that needs to be discussed.

I've read a lot of powerful books in my life. But this pair of Otsuka's novellas has left a greater impact on me than many of the largest epics. As I recommended The Buddha in the Attic years ago, I now recommend When the Emperor was Divine. Read them in whichever order you'd like; it doesn't matter. But the story they tell and they message they convey does. Combined with spare and breathtakingly clear writing, these are books that shouldn't be passed over for a moment.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Surprising depth | The Golem and the Jinni

It's been a very long time since I read a book like The Golem and the Jinni. I'd heard quite a bit of praise for the novel going around, but I kept feeling like this wasn't really my sort of book. Which is utter nonsense and quite frankly colored by the fact that many of the reviews I'd seen labeled the book as a romance (which is a terrible way to describe it). The Golem and the Jinni is actually very much the sort of book I like - magic mixed in with the
real. Warmth. Depth. And it even has a bit of a nostalgic historical vibe that reminds me of an earlier time in my reading life.

I happened to read The Golem and the Jinni at a perfect time - the electricity had just come back on (after over eight hours without), snow was falling on a silent, solemn Jerusalem, and I wanted nothing more than a book into which I could dive without reemerging for many hours. I chose Helene Wecker's novel more for its length than its actual content, yet the mood and the vibe and the environment soon made their way into my own living room, and I found myself hooked.

Here's the thing about books like The Golem and the Jinni - they will always get a bit shafted by certain literary groups. For some, this richly written and very traditionally "literary" novel will be too heavy and atmospheric, seemingly lacking in plot for 3/4 of its length. For certain literary snobs, on the other hand, the book will be dismissed as simplistic and pedestrian because of a relatively straight-forward narrative, its length, and the fact that it's been pretty successful. Criticism of the latter sort particularly bothers me, because The Golem and the Jinni is actually a surprisingly alert and thought-provoking book. Wecker nudges a large number of Topics and Issues, without making them feel like a crutch or utterly ignored. There's quite a bit beneath the surface here, whether it's about belief and religion, loyalty and love, friendship or even human nature. I often found myself pausing to mull over a certain sentence, or thought, or idea Wecker had quietly slipped into the narrative.

That's not to say the book is flawless. Not at all. An entire subplot felt tacked on to make it a bit more conventional and "accessible". The characters involved in this story felt driven less by actual emotions as much as a need to insert this type of romance and drama, and it bothered me every time it arose. It's the sort of thing I feel ought to be taken care of in the editing stage, yet it somehow stuck. Not bad, exactly, but unnecessary in a novel that otherwise flowed very well.

The main reason to read The Golem and the Jinni is for those two characters, and their growing interactions with the world around them. There's the outsider-tries-to-understand-humanity thing here, except each character takes it to a different place. Both the Golem and the Jinni live in immigrant societies, surrounded by people who have come to the US in the hopes of starting a better life (or, in one case, ending it). "Chava" and "Ahmad" are foreigners among foreigners, each struggling with their own nature and their own needs. The Golem must fight her inherent servile nature at every moment; the Jinni is stripped of his powers and must constantly keep those powers he has left hidden. Both are guided by humans who themselves are unsure of how to help, humans who find themselves burdened with the knowledge they carry and the potential consequences.

The truth is, The Golem and the Jinni would have been a successful story even had the two characters never met (which they obviously inevitably do, though the course of their relationship and its placement within the larger novel both end up completely different from what I was expecting - in the best possible way). Had Wecker chosen only to look at the Syrian and Jewish communities of New York City at the end of the 19th century without ever having the two threads meet, the book still would have had a lot to say. The plot might have been severely hindered, but this alternate version of The Golem and the Jinni still would have been pretty good.

I really enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni. I enjoyed it for everything it is - intelligent, well-written in a very clear, simple way, thought-provoking, entertaining, heart-warming and engaging - as well as everything it isn't. This is a novel without much of the pretension I find in other books I'm recommended - it's not trying too hard to do anything (except maybe an attempt to be more mainstream - again, the unnecessary subplot...), and it doesn't hide its point in nonsense subtleties. The Golem and the Jinni is definitely a quieter, more subtle novel than many others of its ilk, but there's no trickery here, no omission which is supposed to convey cleverness, no hint of "well, if you don't understand it, it means you missed something". It's a book that can be appreciated and enjoyed on multiple levels. And it's a book I can warmly recommend to readers of many different genres. If you're on the fence - get off it. Read The Golem and the Jinni. It's not a perfect book, but it's a pretty great one nonetheless, and you just might find yourself as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review | The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

I'm not sure what it is about Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. It's not that anything about it was inherently bad, or even specifically disappointing. It is ultimately the fact that the novel failed to move me and felt so under-resolved that leaves me with a wholly empty feeling and a sense of "what was the point?"

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky has been praised for its presentation of a character growing up mixed race, essentially growing up neither here nor there. Indeed, this would have been enough to set main character Rachel apart. Yet on top of this, Rachel has a troubled and traumatic past that is mostly revealed through different point-of-view chapters (essentially flashback chapters). These two heavy concepts alone should be enough to fill a couple hundred pages, but Durrow also tacked on multiple other threads that weakened the stronger parts of the novel.

The first major theme - that of growing up mixed race and never quite fitting in - is by far the novel's strongest. Durrow handles the racial issues deftly, using some familiar ideas and a couple new ones to emphasize Rachel's struggles. For example, Rachel's musings over her hair, her struggles with accepting it one way or another (and comparing it to her white mother's hair) felt entirely real and believable. Or how she couldn't just forget half of her origins - shown thr
oughout the book in her effort to retain her mother's Danish tongue. In these moments, Rachel truly came alive as a young woman struggling to find her identity in a society that generally views matters in a binary.

From here, though, Durrow's ideas and themes start to fall apart a bit. There was a muddled theme about redemption and drugs somewhere near the end of the book, but it utterly failed to lift off. Themes of alcoholism similarly seemed to come apart quickly. Meanwhile, the secondary plotline - that of the family tragedy that leads Rachel to live with her grandmother in the first place - didn't leave much of an impact on me. It felt much more like a straight-up plot device than an actual opportunity for character growth or development. Finally, Durrow's sharp turn towards focusing on sexuality in the latter half of the novel felt oddly out of place and did little to further either the story or character development. I have seen many readers praising the inclusion of this theme, however I found it to be in an awkward middle-ground - not given enough space to properly grow, but also intrusive to the core of the novel.

As a character herself, Rachel generally felt underdeveloped. True, the novel is a relatively short one, but in that time I didn't feel like I could understand her motives or many of her decisions. She seemed to exist in a bubble that occasionally ran tangent to the story, but was really disconnected from it. And that doesn't make sense for the main character (and generally the narrator) of a novel. The other characters didn't feel particularly better developed, though at least with them I felt as though their behavior was a bit clearer and less drawn from nowhere.

The strength of a novel like this could (and should) have been rescued by Durrow's writing. Alas, it was not exactly to my taste - neither crisp enough to compensate for occasionally awkward turns of phrase, nor beautiful enough to make up for my general disinterest in the characters. It's the sort of writing I know many readers enjoy, but it didn't thrilled and it didn't moved me, leaving very little impression.

Overall, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is an interesting novel with quite a bit of potential that just didn't live up to my expectations. I appreciated the messages it tried to get across, however I think Durrow attempted to tackle too many ideas in too short a book, ultimately leaving each one lacking for it. Besides the notable racial themes, nothing was particularly worthwhile about the book - not the characters, nor the writing, nor the way the premise played out. I can see how readers who prefer a writing style like Durrow's might have had a much greater appreciation for the book than I had, but I personally wouldn't be able to recommend it to readers.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review | And the Mountains Echoed

I had only a few distracted hours separating between Between Friends and And the Mountains Echoed. It was an abrupt and rather unpleasant transition from Amos Oz's blunt, at times cold writing style to Khaled Hosseini's beautiful, emotion-steeped approach. But to Hosseini's credit, the discomfort quickly faded, and as had happened with his two earlier novels, I soon found myself oblivious to all but the book.

And the Mountains Echoed is fairly good book. I hesitate to call it much more than that, because though I enjoyed it and though I sped through it and though I think Hosseini's writing is excellent and though the story has lingered in my mind the past couple of weeks since I finished it... it's a bit problematic. Structurally speaking it's a complicated book, and in terms of writing it has its stumbles, and there were some issues with the pacing and even a smidgen with the characters. Shall we dissect?

When it comes to its structure, And the Mountains Echoed opts for that oh-so-popular "literary fiction" choice of having a bigger story told through seemingly unrelated (but obviously related) shorter pieces. And the Mountains Echoed is less roundabout in its use of this style (it's obvious from the very start that the stories fit together in terms of characters and story, if not chronology), but it does use various characters to access similar stories from all sorts of angles. This is not my favorite storytelling style, to say the least, but at least it works okay in the book, in large part because of the time jumps Hosseini opts for. The story is linear-not-linear, unfolding in the same way along different threads.

And the Mountains Echoed's strength is in its use of emotions. This is Hosseini's go-to trick, even more than his clear writing. How can our hearts not twinge at watching our characters get torn away from each other, and the twists and turns their lives take until they can, perhaps, hopefully, be united? How can we not feel while reading of loyalty and love, of friendship and family? And the Mountain's Echoed may not have the most clearly defined characters and maybe its story twists a bit too much, but beautiful writing and tugged-at-heartstrings make the book a worthwhile read.

There are some more problems. The non-linear style makes the book uneven, as we try to figure out how each story fits into the larger whole. Some of them are obvious continuations of each other. Others have only thin threads that connect them, but their overall value - their message, their emotional punch, their clear implications on the world at large - makes them worth it. But there are a few that felt weakly attached and too in-your-face with their messaging. Instead of the story flowing seamlessly from one angle to the next, we're forced to make a couple "eye opening" pit stops that really only emphasize the disconnect between the messages Hosseini (perhaps rightly) wants to convey and the natural course of the stories. This also influences the pacing, making the book feel a bit slower and clunkier than it really ought to be, even as the overall impression is one of a clean, flowing novel.

And yet. Come novel's end, I had to completely disengage myself. In the two weeks since I've finished it, I've come back to think over some of its finer moments again, and wonder at its weaker ones. The stories have not slipped my mind, the characters (though not always fully realized) have retained themselves remarkably well, and though I don't feel as though And the Mountains Echoed hit me quite as strongly as Hosseini's earlier A Thousand Splendid Suns did, it's a surprisingly accomplished and rewarding read. Though there will no doubt be readers who dislike the structure even more than I did, and find the characterization wanting, And the Mountains Echoed is a good book, one I can comfortably recommend to many readers.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Fantasy of a different flavor | The Killing Moon

It is perhaps the mark of a relatively weak reading year thus far, but there's no doubt that the book I tore through the fastest (and with the most interest) is N. K. Jemisin's The Killing Moon. Jemisin is an author I've grown to respect, even as I can't pinpoint any particular trait to her writing that I especially like (I've had specific issues with each of her books thus far, though different issues every time). What's important is that Jemisin is trying something new in fantasy, and I respect it. I also happen to like it. In the case of the The Killing Moon, I happened to like it very much.

From the back cover blurb, it's easy to understand why people regard Jemisin as a "different" sort of fantasy writer. The Killing Moon, as other reviews will already tell you, takes place in a quasi-ancient-Egyptian culture. Jemisin treats her setting carefully, making her references to the real Egypt both obvious and non-intrusive. The Killing Moon doesn't get bogged down in descriptions and bloated world building, but on the other end of the scale, I never felt like I was living in a half-developed world. This in itself is rare in fantasy, where world-building is often equated with page count. Jemisin mostly opts just to show the world - it isn't until relatively late in the novel that we begin to fully understand the events of the first chapters. This may make the opening a bit shaky for some, but I was confident enough that the story would come together... and it did.

The Killing Moon is a fantasy, but it's definitely a different type. Not only does Jemisin eschew the comfortable cliches of a European Medieval fantasy, she also opts for a very different type of magic. Indeed, rather like The Inheritance Cycle (of which I've only read the first two books), The Killing Moon feels a lot more like mythology than it does fantasy. By latching the use of magic onto the in-story religion (and its in-story mythological origins), Jemisin creates a very realistic magical approach. Magic is ubiquitous, but uncommon. It's limited to a very narrow group of people, but it applies to everyone. More than anything, the magic in The Killing Moon is an acquired ability than an inherent born talent (though there's a bit of that as well). This makes it less like the dramatic high fantasies many of us associate with the genre, and more like a strange piece of historical fiction. With magic.

All of this magic, interestingly, takes left stage to the core of the novel - diplomatic intrigue. This was where I found the true strength of the book to be - the way Jemisin makes readers believe in the politics and diplomacy within this fantasy world. Toss in a good helping of mythology, magic, manipulation and murder, and you've got something special. Jemisin raises questions about life and death, never really answering them but leaving them lingering throughout the story. Ethics and morals are important; Jemisin never fully lets her readers forget that.

But much as I enjoyed the story, I have to admit that there are some important technical flaws in this one. Characterization, for example. I liked the characters and they felt fully-formed (ish), but they didn't feel particularly real. Ehiru is intriguing, but he is not particularly engaging. Nijiri, meanwhile, is engaging, but also flatter and less developed. And Sunandi is a strange blend, where I mostly liked her, but didn't really care about her. I felt little to no emotional connection with the characters. That's fine when you're breezing through a book, but it's not exactly the mark of quality literature.

The writing is also a bit strange, but here it might have been a matter of expectations. Jemisin's style felt a bit more jaded than it did in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or The Broken Kingdoms. It mostly fit the story, but sometimes I was struck by how standard it was. Though I liked The Killing Moon significantly more than Jemisin's previous efforts, I found myself preferring the writing style in those novels over this one. Now I'm wondering if the writing style even really changed, or if it's just my memory playing tricks on me. Either way, The Killing Moon is written in a super standard "easy-to-read" style that suits its pace and its story admirably. It's good enough, but I wouldn't call it good.

Yes, I enjoyed The Killing Moon a lot. It does what fantasy is supposed to do: displace the reader, tell a good story, make the reader think. Jemisin may have stumbled a bit with two-dimensional characterizations and a distinct, somewhat blunt writing style, but overall her novel works. Not necessarily an example of true fantasy literature, but a fine book nonetheless.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Bad translation of the week

Bad translations can ruin a book. It's a sad fact of life. As someone who has dealt with translations myself, I know how hard it must be to do a book justice - managing to maintain both tone and style, while making sure the writing fits the new language and its many nuances. Translating is tough stuff, but it still stings a little when a good book is poorly translated, and suffers at the hands of its new audience as a result.

Case study no. 5062: The Buddha in the Attic. A lovely, wonderfully written short novel that I really, really looked forward to seeing in Hebrew. Here was an easily accessible, interesting, and well-written book that I could recommend to readers. Today, I finally got the chance to flip through the translation and... well. It stumbles. Seriously stumbles.

Because part of what makes The Buddha in the Attic such an original book is its use of first-person plural. This is not easy to replicate, particularly not in a different language. So it turns out that the clean and powerful style that Julie Otsuka crafted in English turns into a bit of a mess in Hebrew. The "we"s become a little too casual, a little too obvious, a little too abrasive. The long sentences no longer breathe, but shudder. The tone is completely different, and it won't surprise me if readers will outright hate the book as a result. Which is just a shame. It reminds me that no matter how much I'd like to think that I'm aware of how the translation changes the text, there are cases I'll never be able to recognize, and sometimes these translations really do make all the difference in the world...