Showing posts with label authors. Show all posts
Showing posts with label authors. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

WITMonth Day 24 | Christine de Pizan | Thoughts

One of my personal victories from WTMonth is discovering Christine de Pizan. You might argue that it's more a sign of my earlier flaws as a reader (that I didn't know of her existence until two years ago...), but I choose to view it more positively. Here was a woman writing of feminist ideas before feminism even existed, exploring gender dynamics and topics of utmost importance to women (even today!) in 1405! And I found her!

I began with The Book of the City of Ladies, which was, in fact, better than I had expected. I came prepared to be somewhat bored, to find the text exhausting in its casual sexism and racism, reductionist and absurd all at once, while intriguing in its concept. Yet while it's obviously an old text and the cultural context is very different from our current one, Christine's writing felt shockingly modern. In fact, parts felt like they could have just as easily been written by a modern feminist blogger today.

The Treasure of the City of Ladies continued along a similar vein. The two books are very different in their message (and thus their morality...), but both had this undercurrent vibe of: You're raising the exact same issues modern feminists raise today, but you're reaching completely different conclusions. Christine's morality is inherently tied to Christianity (and a very specific type of Christianity at that), further influenced by general cultural norms of the time. That means it's lacking much of the inclusive warmth modern feminism has rightly adopted (and intersectionality as a notion is pretty much limited to Christine pointing out that women of lower social classes are not meaningless, though she spends little time arguing the point...), and there is a rigid expectation of conduct that makes little sense in today's world.

This can make for uncomfortable reading in parts, though I found it fascinating. Take, for instance, Christine's advice on how women ought to treat their husbands. On the one hand, she advocates for wives to be docile and adhere to their husbands rule (even when those husbands may be cruel or abusive). But beneath that seemingly anti-feminist message lurks another odd little piece of advice: Wives, be wise enough in the workings of your estate and your husband's work to be able to advise him. While clearly sticking to the existing tradition by which wives must serve their husbands (and suffer in silence), Christine also pointedly fights for women to have basic (and not so basic) education. Don't be passive, she argues. Don't be ignorant. Don't...

Don't let men take advantage of you when you're widowed. Because that's what it appears happened to Christine upon her husband's death. In her memoirs, she writes almost dispassionately about the various men who saw an opportunity to swindle a young widow and about the legal woes she was forced into as a result. It makes you wonder, though, how much of the advice Christine gives in The Treasure is borne of bitterness. She so often dwells on how a wife must be kind and accommodating to her husband's friends, but what happened to her? Was she taken advantage of by friends, or rather did those kinder men help her? Is the advice ironic, through clenched teeth, or is Christine again recognizing a world which would hurt women in every possible way and one tiny way which might help them?

It was the moments of pure feminism, though, that fascinated me most. Imagine the audacity of a 15th century woman writing pointedly that no woman has ever encouraged rape or sought it out. Or discussing - flatly, furiously, ferociously - that women are not inherently less intelligent than men, nor less virtuous, nor more frivilous, nor incapable of learning, nor lesser beings. The Book of the City of Ladies is a treasure-trove of passionate arguments against claims that are still depressingly prevalent, with immediate retorts to things like "women's vanity" (Christine coolly points to the prevalence of deeply vain men in the French court), rape (she was asking for it has apparently been the argument for hundreds of years, but feminists weren't having it then and they won't have it now), women's intelligence (including Christine smugly referencing her own intelligence, in a rather gratifying bit of self-glorification) or education (for which Christine strongly advocates). These are the sorts of topics I still find fascinating today.

And I also loved the way things weren't the same. I loved seeing the differences between Christine's demands for basic rights as compared to modern feminist theory. I loved seeing the way Christine almost predicts the sorts of questions women will be asking 600 years later, or the problems they might face (even if her suggestions seem hilariously outdated). I loved having to put on my 15th-century glasses in order to try to rebuild Christine's truest meaning. I loved her observations, her sharpness, her breadth, her passion and her insistence. Here was a woman who recognized the important role she played. Yes, that is radical.

I've now read 2.5 books of Christine de Pizan's writing (multiple translators and editions); I hope to read everything of hers that has been translated into English. While representing only one perspective (I would love, for instance, to read contemporary texts from other parts of the world!), Christine is a sharp, witty, intelligent writer with a lot to say and her works are well worth reading. Not just her pre-feminist texts either, but also her poetry, her stories, her criticism...

Then I wonder... Why isn't Christine de Pizan on the list of the greats? Why is she not more frequently discussed as a pre-feminist, an important stepping stone to equal rights long before the feminist movement even existed? Or is she actually that prevalent... and only I was unaware...?

*** I also find myself wondering why the academic consensus seems to be to refer to her as "Christine" (and nothing further); if it's just an overly-familiar sexist thing or for some other reason...?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The greatest poem ever written - Love and tensor algebra

From Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad, translated by Michael Kandel:

In an attempt to test out a new "bard machine":
"Very well. Let's have a love poem, lyrical, pastoral, and expressed in the language of pure mathematics. Tensor algebra mainly, with a little topology and higher calculus, if need be. But with feeling, you understand, and in the cybernetic spirit."
"Love and tensor algebra? Have you taken leave of your sense?" Trurl began, but stopped, for his electronic bard was already declaiming:
Come, let us hasten to a higher plane,
Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn,
Their indices bedecked from one to n,
Commingled in an endless Markov chain!

Come, every frustum longs to be a cone,
And ever vector dreams of matrices.
Hark to the gentle gradient of the breeze:
It whispers of a more ergodic zone.

In Riemann, Hilbert or in Banach space
Let superscripts and subscripts go their ways.
Our asymptotes no longer out of phase,
We shall encounter, counting, face to face.

I'll grant thee random access to my heart,
Thou'lt tell me all the constants of thy love:
And so we two shall all love's lemmas prove,
And in our bound partition never part.

For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,
Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,
Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,
Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?

Cancel me not - for what then shall remain?
Abscissas, some mantissas, modules, modes,
A root or two, a torus and a node:
The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

Ellipse of bliss, converge, O lips divine!
The producs of our scalars is defined!
Cyberiad draws nigh, and the skew mind
Cuts capers like a happy haversine.

I see the eigenvalue in thine eye,
I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh.
Bernoulli would have been content to die,
Had he but known such a2 cos 2 φ!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Authors writing about authors reacting to reviews

I have a book that's been sitting on my shelf for almost two years - an Israeli satire about book reviewing. I bought it for obvious reasons (it's a satire about book reviewing). But I haven't read it yet. Indeed, as time goes by, I find myself less and less inclined towards reading it, more and more hesitant. This hesitance was reinforced while reading a different Israeli novel over the past few days (פעם בחיים - translated title would be Once in a Lifetime). This novel, which was quite a struggle to get through for a myriad of reasons I won't get into in this post, had a certain subplot surrounding the struggles of a successful debut novelist trying to follow up on that early success.

Why is this relevant? Because Miri Rozovsky, the author of the book, was writing this subplot within the pages of her own second novel, following a rather successful debut. There was an unmistakable meta air to the whole story. And then the guilt - how can I criticize a book that is half expecting my critique? The reviewers are notoriously cruel against this young author within the pages of Once in a Lifetime, in a surprisingly sharp appraisal of reviewer-speak. But because we are supposed to sympathize with the fictional author, how can we fail to sympathize with the real author? How can we fail to sympathize with Rozovsky, who is on her second, more ambitious book? How can I, as a reviewer, accurately describe the many faults of this novel?

We in the book blogging/book reviewing world have talked endlessly about the author's place in a review. We've talked a lot about authors who overreact in response to harsh reviews. We've talked a lot about whether or not harsh reviews should even be written, given all the "harm" they can cause in shooting down a book's prospects. It's a debate that will go on. It's pretty important. In the case of Once in a Lifetime, this matter is made simple. When viewed through Rozovsky's lens, the author is the victim of nefarious reviewers. I, as a reviewer who believes wholeheartedly in the negative review, struggle to see this. And so I'm left feeling wholly uncomfortable, almost as though Rozovsky is quietly laughing at me. This is a quite unpleasant feeling.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Who's your audience? | Second Person Singular

Though I have my issues with Sayed Kashua's Second Person Singular (chief among which is a disturbingly spoiler filled back-cover blurb that includes a quote from literally the last ten pages of this 300-paged book...), it struck me as a very intelligent, well-written novel. The message seemed clear, the implications obvious. Yet when I started to read various foreign appraisals of the novel, it seemed that many readers did not understand the book as I did.

Here's what I think: Kashua writes for an Israeli audience. Predominantly a Jewish-Israeli audience. Just like his columns in the Ha'aretz Weekend Supplement are geared towards Israelis, Second Person Singular is written in a tone that indicates its audience rather comfortably. Too comfortably, at times.

Second Person Singular is all about the characters' external image, not so much their internal identity. The fact is that this is a novel about two Palestinian men, yet neither places much importance on their personal identity. One character builds his entire world view in order to appear a certain way; the other character sheds his identity with hardly a backward glance. It's all about how they appear to the outside world: one of the characters comments (somewhat dispassionately) on the fact that when using a Jewish (Ashkenazi) name, he is taken for an Ashkenazi Jew without anyone asking questions.

It's this use of external image that hammers home Kashua's cultural and social points. Not only does Kashua highlight the differences between Israeli and Palestinian society, he gently points out a lot of standard Israeli racism. An Arab looking for work will be assigned as a dishwasher in the kitchen. The exact same man - using a Jewish name - will find a job as a waiter. Kashua stresses this point without exaggerating it, such that the Israeli reader will feel the necessary shame without being overwhelmed. Kashua's use of young, liberal Israelis later in the novel also creates this weird incongruity that sat oddly with me.

Second Person Singular is written with that strange feeling in mind. Kashua aims to tap Israeli readers in that place where culture clashes. It's mostly effective, but it's geared towards a fairly well-defined group. Presented as it is now to the greater world, I can easily imagine how many readers would find it to be a distinctly odd, offset read.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Loving the confessions, hating Noa Weber

If ever a book to have two starkly different titles in two different languages, The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven is a prime example of the new title improving on the old. The book is technically titled My True Love (though a more accurate Hebrew translation would be My Heart's Desire: שאהבה נפשי), yet this somewhat sappy, melodramatic title hardly does justice to the often cynical, rather biting book within. Similarly, the original Israeli cover does not match the content of the book at all - combined, the two give off a very trite, tacky feel regarding a novel that is far from either.

One of the reasons I like the English title a lot better is because of how easily it allows me to divide my thoughts on the book. Fact: I hated Noa Weber. I hated her attitude, I hated her personality, I hated her decisions, I hated her mistakes, I hated her political/social frame of mind, I hated her semi-wish-fulfillment internal fictional character and I seriously hated her constant self-justifications of her obnoxious behavior. And yet I seriously liked her confessions, and by extension the book overall. I'm really not sure why.
Tacky Hebrew cover

I think my appreciation for the book can be found within Noa's in-story fictional stand-in, Nira Woolf. Noa describes Nira as a strong female character, but then mentions critics who tear Nira down as a fake feminist, essentially a man in a woman's body. From the first moment this critique is mentioned, it resonated with me strongly and I immediately agreed: Nira is a cliched "strong" woman, whose behavior really isn't any different from every male lawyer/detective in every legal thriller featuring a male lead except for the fact that she's a woman.

This tiny bit of empathy with Noa's fictional critics hit me surprisingly hard once I realized that I was also judging Noa through this lens. For all her feminist framing, Noa's life revolves around a man: she readily admits this. Alek is as central to The Confessions of Noa Weber as Noa herself is. Everything Noa tries to deny about Alek or about her relationship with him starts to fall apart as she tells her story. Whenever Noa commented that "it's wasn't like this" or "it's not like that", I found myself thinking that it's actually exactly like that. She's a contradictory character, contrasted with her own internally contradictory character, Nira.

I have to give Gail Hareven credit. Despite creating a character I couldn't stand, I wanted to keep reading about her. I wanted to know more about her life, even though there was nothing in it that I liked. Hareven writes Noa with a honest feel; I've seen some reviews refer to it as a memoir-style, but it's really not. Ultimately, the U.S. title got it spot-on - these are Noa's confessional ramblings and attempts at self-justification. Noa doesn't even try to whitewash her own history, but she contradicts herself at every turn. She claims not to regret anything she's ever done, but her tone says otherwise. She claims to be this great feminist, but she immediately submits to Alek's whims and requests. She even admits to shame about this, through both words and actions.

I'm glad The Confessions of Noa Weber was translated into English. It deserves it. It's an excellent novel overall, proving that a book can tell the story of someone entirely unsympathetic and still be good. If I could only figure out how Gail Hareven did it...

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Czesław Miłosz's search for self-definition

I've blogged about Czesław Miłosz in the past: Miłosz has been one of my favorite poets since I first discovered him in the spring of 2006. His poetry has always resonated particularly strongly with me, and as the years go by, this power that his words hold over me has hardly diminished. Not long after I discovered him, I also learned that Miłosz was well-regarded for his essays and his novel The Issa Valley. After several weeks in which I debated which book of his I ought to read, I eventually bought Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition.

I would not read it for six more years.

Native Realm is anomalous for a number of reasons. Not only is it a remarkably strangely written autobiography of an undeniably fascinating writer, it is also a curious treatise on Eastern European development. Miłosz's search for self-definition is centered not around himself, but rather around his native Poland/Lithuania. Miłosz seeks more to define Eastern Europe as a whole than any kind of personal self-realization. This entails a lot of hard-core historical context, which he comfortably provides. Within this frame, readers can follow aspects of Miłosz's own life, but that doesn't feel like the main point of the book. 

Miłosz's focus on history means two things: firstly, the reader becomes acquainted with Eastern Europe's complex socio-political-religious situation in the early 20th century, and secondly, that Miłosz himself must acknowledge and tackle dark and disturbing periods in his homeland's history. In this regard, Miłosz provides one of the most powerful passages in the whole book:
As an eyewitness to the crime of genocide, and therefore deprived of the luxury of innocence, I am prone to agree with the accusations brought against myself and others. In reality, however, it is not so easy to judge, because the price of aiding the victims of terror was the death penalty. 
Native Realm loses some of its coherence as the book progresses. The chronological arrival of World War II shifts the focus from Eastern Europe in general to Miłosz's own wanderings. It is no less interesting, but the change was disconcerting, as I suspect the reality must have been as well. Native Realm was not at all what I expected (I must confess that I prefer Miłosz's poetry to his passive political descriptions), but it filled in several gaps in my understanding of the world. And even if it takes me another six years to read another book by Miłosz, at least I will have what to revisit and learn from.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Magic systems in fantasy

On her blog, fantasy author N. K. Jemisin has written about magic systems and the way magic is portrayed in fantasy in general:
Sometimes, whenever I see fantasy readers laud a work for the rigor of its magic system — we’ll come back to this word “system” later — I wonder: why are these people reading fantasy? I mean, if they’re going to judge magic by its similarity to science, why not just go ahead and read science fiction?
To a certain degree, I think Jemisin has a strong point - fantasy isn't necessarily about clearly organized and logical systems. Magic is often something inexplicable and, well, magical. Not everything has to make perfect scientific sense - indeed, many of the cornerstones of fantasy literature forgo such systematic magic systems. The best fantasy succeeds in creating something so other that it just doesn't need any kind of system or justification.

But I disagree with Jemisin to dismiss magic systems overall. First of all, I think there are enough readers whose tastes overlap enough between science fiction and fantasy to justify having the lines blur a little. Many of these magic systems Jemisin dislikes are, in fact, stand-ins for science in those particular worlds. It's not science, and it's not science fiction, but it's fantasy that does appeal to sci-fi lovers... That's not a bad thing.

Then there's Jemisin's complaint against magic systems as a whole. Here I must politely withdraw - Jemisin sees a much bigger, looming issue in the concept of a "system" than I ever will. I know what underlying problems she's referring to and recognize them, but I really don't think that they have anything to do with the fact that certain fantasy worlds have particularly organized and detailed ways to conduct magic. Correlation does not prove causation.

Lastly, I must admit: I kind of enjoy magic systems. As I mentioned earlier, many writers who use magic systems in their books use it as a form of science. On the other hand, the vast majority of fantasy that does not take place in modern-day Earth (and sometimes even those stories that do) completely eschews the mere concept of science. It just doesn't exist. As a scientifically minded person, this can sometimes come off simply as sloppy writing. A well-structured magic system can, however, make a fantasy world seem a lot more believable - it shows that the author put a lot of the world-building. It's obviously not the only factor involved in my appreciation of the book, but like originality, it can add a whole new dimension.

The source behind Jemisin's frustration? This:
I’ve seen these folks, most of whom are future fantasy novel-writers, positively agonize over their magic systems, taking great care to consider rules, required resources, the laws of conservation of magic, yatta yatta yatta, all for fear that they’ll get published someday and have their magic systems picked apart by the Fantasy Police. In some cases these writers had spent far, far more energy on trying to create a magic system than they had on trying to create plot or characters. Sadly, I’ve seen this same kind of to-the-exclusion-of-all-else focus on mechanics in the works of some published writers — and worse, I’ve seen readers going ga-ga over this sort of thing, as if the magic system really is the only part of the story that matters.
Here I once again completely agree: magic doesn't have to be organized. In fact, oftentimes "organized" magic systems aren't pulled off well and, like Jemisin points out, it ruins an otherwise interesting story. Writers shouldn't have to bend over backwards to explain how their magic works, they need to make sure it fits their world comfortably. For some worlds, this will mean that magic is like science - it's logical and clearly explained. For many other worlds, however, magic will simply be magical. Both are fantasy, and both are fine.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Splendid sequel | Bring Up the Bodies

I'll admit: I was kind of avoiding reading Bring Up the Bodies. It wasn't just the anticipation (I haven't been this excited for a book to come out in years); rather, the sheer amount of praise heaped on Bring Up the Bodies scared me away. Everyone loved it. No one was disappointed. Many reviewers said it was better than Wolf Hall - which is a pretty huge hill to climb. But then I finished the book I was in the middle of. Then I read another. The guilt mounted. The eagerness to dive back into Cromwell's complex and intelligent world became overwhelming. I prepared myself for disappointment.

If I was disappointed by anything, it's the fact that I cannot prove any of the other reviewers wrong. Bring Up the Bodies is a flat-out brilliant book. And yes: it may in fact be better than Wolf Hall. My mind is blown, just suggesting that.

A lot of what makes Bring Up the Bodies so good can be found in its predecessor. Hilary Mantel's writing is something else. It's intelligent and clever without being pretentious, descriptive without feeling overblown, detailed and packed with information without being dense, and Mantel's imagination of Thomas Cromwell is genius. The story may be familiar to many on the surface, but presenting it through the eyes of a man history has not been particularly sympathetic towards makes for fascinating reading. The depth that all characters are given - familiar and not-so-familiar - sets Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies apart from the vast majority of fiction (historical or otherwise).

What may make Bring Up the Bodies a better book has something to do with the story it tells. Wolf Hall had a lot of introductions, a lot of stage-setting; it told a story that was spread out across decades. Bring Up the Bodies is significantly more focused, in a way that makes it a quicker, more satisfying read. And there's no point denying it: it's also a bit of a juicier, more dramatic story. Who can say no to that? Mantel has also sharpened her writing style: the "he" references to Cromwell in Wolf Hall bordered on confusing, but are presented in a simpler, more accessible way in Bring Up the Bodies (often in the form of "he, Cromwell"). It's a cleaner read that seems determined to prevent Bring Up the Bodies from being mislabeled as "dense" (as its predecessor was so often unfairly dubbed).

So yes. Bring Up the Bodies is a worthy successor to Wolf Hall and a wonderful book in its own right. Now I just need to remember that when the third book in Mantel's trilogy comes out, I should not doubt her ability to complete Cromwell's story in the best possible way. I can hardly wait.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Yehoshua's earlier duet | A Woman in Jerusalem

I originally started reading A. B. Yehushua's A Woman in Jerusalem several years ago. This was before the "Hebrew explosion" (when I began reading more than just two Hebrew books a year) and I'd spent a few weeks trying to pick an appropriate title. Eventually, someone recommended A. B. Yehoshua. Being the thinnest of Yehoshua's books available to me at the time, I chose A Woman in Jerusalem (the original title in Hebrew roughly translates into The Human Resources Manager's Mission). I was immediately drawn in by Yehoshua's writing, but predictably struggled for a few months, getting only fifty or so pages into the book. Back on the shelf it went, collecting dust for four more years.

A couple weeks ago I took it down again. Since my last attempt, I'd read (and enjoyed) one of Yehoshua's more recent novels (Friendly Fire) so I was somewhat better acquainted with his writing style. This time the reading itself was significantly easier - within just a little over a week I finished this novel that has been sitting on my conscience for four years.

So what can I say about it? That it's a pretty good book. A. B. Yehoshua is one fine writer. A Woman in Jerusalem is another in a long line of Israeli novels that employs the no-quotes style (which a friend of mine has aptly described as the S. Y. Agnon style imitation). Eighty percent of the time, Israeli writers don't pull it off. But Yehoshua is not simply another writer, and A Woman in Jerusalem flows quite comfortably. No fault there.

But now that I've finished the book I understood why it was so easy to set aside years ago. A Woman in Jerusalem is a curious blend of destination and character-driven story. There's a general progression, but no real plot. The ultimate conclusion did not influence the first section of the book. There is no need to keep reading, only a kind of passive curiosity. Back when reading in Hebrew was a lot harder, it was easy to forget the book and move onwards to something else. And it's just as easy to get back into it.

As for the character-driven aspect, it's something of a twisted duet. I don't use this word lightly: Yehoshua specifically described his next novel Friendly Fire as a duet, and in that case the description is perfect. Friendly Fire is told by husband and wife through alternating chapters. The two completely separate stories balance each other nicely thematically and stylistically - a well-told duet.

I'd describe A Woman in Jerusalem as a duet of a subtly different kind. We have a world populated with characters who are not named, only referred to according to by descriptions (job titles, "the girl", "the snake", etc.), and then one single named entity: Yulia Ragayev, the woman in Jerusalem. She is the only character given a name, yet she never speaks, never breathes. She is the character that haunts the novel (effectively, I might add). The different titles in Hebrew and English emphasize the dual qualities of the novel rather nicely - is it the woman in Jerusalem who is the main character, or the HR manager? Is the book about characters, or is it about the "mission" the manager is sent on? These options do not quite contradict each other, instead highlight the differences between the two sides of A Woman in Jerusalem. In the end, passively written as it may be, A Woman in Jerusalem emerges complete, and well worth the time.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Risks pay off | The Buddha in the Attic

While I had high hopes for The Buddha in the Attic, I don't think I ever really expected to like it. Another example of my prejudices against popular, well-received books. Another example of my pervading literary cynicism. But truth be told, The Buddha in the Attic is an excellent book and it really deserves more credit than I would ever be able to give it.

What makes The Buddha in the Attic exceptional? What makes it worth your time? To begin with, the surprisingly successful use of first-person plural. Julie Otsuka uses this writing style in a way that emphasizes its inclusiveness and keeps the pace sharply in-tune. Everyone belongs to the narrating whole - individuals stand out, but are not relevant on their own. Otsuka is telling a bigger story, one that includes all the angles. It's a risky approach, but here it pays off nicely.

Then there's the story itself. The Buddha in the Attic tells of the Japanese immigrants living in California in the early 20th century. It's an uncomfortable story in many regards, gently emphasizing the prevalent racism of the era. Otsuka's multiple characters can feel vaguely bland when viewed through such a culturally gentled lens, but the stories are so short and to-the-point that the characters never truly stumble because of it.

But really, what makes The Buddha in the Attic a much better book than I expected was how the clean writing and story met in a series of powerful paragraphs:
On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee.
Using few embellishments and scant pages, Otsuka manages to create these intensely moving scenes. Together, these form the bulk of the "novel", which is really more a collection of situations and fragments tied together by shared (yet usually different) experiences. The result is something quite special, and certainly worth reading.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Abandoning There But For The

I started reading There But For The by Ali Smith because it's a book with a wonderful premise: a man has locked himself in an almost stranger's spare bedroom and he refuses to leave. The book description then does an excellent job selling the novel as the conversations between this man and the strangers who try to lure him out.

The book description is actually a lot better than the book itself. At the start of the novel, I was intrigued. I kind of liked the roundabout writing style, I kind of liked the odd character introductions, and I kind of liked the way nothing really made sense. But after one hundred pages of the same not-much, I realized I wouldn't be finishing There But For The.

Perhaps rightly so. I abandoned it only a few days ago (having begun it last week), and already I've lost it. I remember a vague sense of frustration with the novel, but the heart of my annoyance is gone. Nothing is left. The characters, who had a certain thin, slick quality to them, are all missing from my noggin. All I have is a strange aftertaste from the writing style - one I'm still not certain is either positive or negative.

A few years ago I would have done all I could to finish There But For The, ignoring other books I would have enjoyed more. Today, as I returned the book to the library, I was reminded of the three good books I've read in the days since I gave up on There But For The, and know that I made the right choice.

* Also, what is up with the cover? While somewhat striking, this has to be one of the least attractive covers I've seen in a very long time...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Literature as a social critique

Over at Words and Peace, a short prompt about a "Dickens or a Zola for our time" from a couple weeks ago, coinciding with the first Zola novel I've read in over two years, has gotten the wheels in my head turning over that question and trying to figure out what it is about Zola (and to a certain extent, Dickens) that I cannot seem to find in modern novels. In my response to that post, I recommended a few recent novels that seemed to capture a fairly good picture of modern society. But each novel aims its gaze at an entirely different section of the US and its incredibly diverse and varied population. Furthermore, I could not immediately think of a good non-US-centric novel that does the same. I suggested (in my obscenely long comment - my sincerest apologies for that) that perhaps literature today focuses less on the larger society as a whole, but more on the individual character. "Literary" novels of our era tend to be more character-based and don't set their sites as high as portraying the current social dynamic.

While I haven't read enough Dickens to be a reliable authority, I'm currently reading my sixth Zola novel and have spent many years reading about the man and his writing. In my mind, Zola is a writer unlike any other - he is a project-writer, an idealist, a sharp-eyed observer who sometimes can't hold his tongue. When he writes about alcoholism in L'Assommoir, there's a hint of his judgmental side filtering through. When he writes about strikes and poor worker conditions in Germinal, there is a persistent sense of humanity and truth emanating from the pages. His writing feels as relevant today as it must have in the 19th century, quick little dashes of truth that resonate to this very day.

In the Rougon-Macquart cycle, Zola sought to capture an entire society - a whole era - by chronicling the lives of these families. In "Les Quatre Evangiles" (his final works), Zola hoped to display French values and morals: Fruitfulness, LaborTruth, and Justice. Zola died before he could see Truth published (and it was thus unedited upon posthumous publication) and before the completion of Justice, leaving the series incomplete. Les Quatre Evangiles echoes the Rougon-Macquart cycle in that each book is a stand-alone novel, but all center around a single family - the Froment family.  Taken together, these two series (and, I presume, Zola's Les Trois Villes, which I have yet to read) paint a fascinating portrait of Zola's France. From all angles. Zola gives us wealth and poverty, struggle and ease, love and hate. I have yet to read all of Zola's novels (it's one of the only literary goals I've ever set myself), but Zola's ambition and scope are hard to refute.

So back to the original question: where are authors like this today? Where are the books that seek to tell this story in our modern age? Can one single author even attempt a project of this magnitude? I struggled to come up with even three individual examples of social critique (and one of them is "ironic"), but the fact is that if I look at the hundreds of books I've read in the past few years, very few novels would qualify, and fewer still that are good. I've read plenty of books that try to describe other, "exotic" cultures (often resulting in gross generalizations and poor writing). I've read many books that present a character in a painful and emotional state and then allow us to follow him/her. I've read fantasy and sci-fi novels that have used their alternate realities to deeply explore their mirror societies.

But no contemporary social critique like Zola. I'm starting to think it's impossible. An author would have to be devoted to writing a multitude of very different books and producing an output akin to James Patterson's. Publishers would have to be willing to support individual novels that would have varying levels of success. And the author would have to work very hard to uncover the many cores of modern society. Even in a smaller country than the U.S., this is no simple task. I'm not sure many modern writers would want to take that on. And I'm not sure many modern readers would necessarily appreciate such an important and perhaps challenging project either.

As for myself, I'll be making a point to search for a few more novels of this kind. The three that I could come up with were books that I greatly enjoyed for their social critique (American Rust, The Barbarian Nurseries, and to a lesser degree Fathermucker). With a bit more Zola in my system, I'm eager to find further titles that qualify. While perhaps no single writer can take up Zola's mantle, many individual novels (from across the globe) could ultimately serve the same purpose. I intend to find them.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Down and up in a single day

If I ever needed proof that books - literature - was capable of inherently influencing the moods of readers, I need look no further than my experiences today. I began the day with the final parts of The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart, a book that had by no means been cheerful thus far. But somehow in its final pages, the book managed to turn even more grim, and ended on a particularly painful note. The effect was powerful, and when I set the book aside I found myself quite deeply depressed.

This happens, of course, and I shouldn't have been too surprised. After a while, as I went about my day, the pure ache of the book refused to leave me. I went to my bookshelves, hoping to find another book that would take care of the funk. But every book on hand seemed too depressing, too serious, too heavy to take my mind off Schwarz-Bart's surprisingly disturbing story. They all seemed as though they would merely enhance the mood. It wasn't until several hours later that I remembered that I had just checked Fathermucker out of the library the other day and that the book was still somewhere in my bag, promising silly jokes and light-hearted jabs at our modern world.

I've been wanting to read Fathermucker since reading the hook of a first chapter Harper posted to their Scribd account a couple months ago. The book proved to be slightly less light than it gives the impression of being (actually telling an interesting story and raising some very interesting points about society), but was exactly the kind of amusing and entertaining fare I needed to clear my head (also, the second book I've read in recent months that's referenced Sufjan Stevens... which I find somewhat strange). As I finished reading it, I felt relieved of the heaviness The Last of the Just had set on me, but pondering other issues like parenthood and Asberger's. Proof that sometimes we all need a bit of a break from the "serious" stuff... even if what we end up reading isn't actually less meaningful.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wolf Hall - now a trilogy

Mantel is now planning a Tudor trilogy: a new novel, Bring up the Bodies to be published by 4th Estate in May 2012, will focus on the downfall of Anne Boleyn. A third book will keep the title the author had already announced for the sequel, The Mirror & the Light, and will continue Cromwell's story until his execution in 1540.
I don't think I've wanted a book this badly since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And even then... I'm not certain it's on the same level. I mean, Wolf Hall was that amazing.

All right, the countdown to May 2012 begins. Who's with me?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hilariously bad Dumas? Impossible!

I first "met" Alexandre Dumas pere when I was ten years old. My older brother was reading The Count of Monte Cristo for school and he told me, flat-out, "You have to read this book. It's awesome."

And so I ordered a Scholastic classics abridged version from then-still-awesome Scholastic catalogs* and promptly read it. I was amazed to discover that it was, in fact, completely and totally awesome. My brother had not lied. Two years later, I bought the unabridged Penguin edition and spent three weeks out of my summer vacation working my way through it. My conclusion at the time was that overall there was too much stuff going on, but that it was still completely awesome. Just that the awesome got a little buried underneath the slightly less awesome parts. And so, basing myself on this wonderful experience, I decided to read The Three Musketeers that year. Once more, I was impressed by how much fun and adventure Dumas managed to pack into his obviously old-fashioned books. It was refreshing and was the original spark to my classics obsession.

But since then, other than writing a paper on Dumas and reading two additional abridged versions of The Count of Monte Cristo, I've taken no steps in reading Dumas' other books (though he has... lots). So a couple weeks ago I finally clicked on one of many Dumas eBooks I once got during a Gutenberg downloading blitz and went with it.

The book in question is The Black Tulip and quality-wise, it's one of the worst books I've read in a really long time (since the atrociously and disgustingly bad Across the Universe). I'm talking awkward writing, terrible characterization and one of the worst cases of wish-fulfillment storytelling that I've encountered. It's completely over-the-top, dramatized to a level unequaled in even the most dramatic of 19th century literature. It's a bit difficult to bear, at times, but it's also a great deal of fun. It's like trashy thrillers or a romantic comedy - you know the inevitable ending, but the way the author brings you there is what makes the show worth it.

Ultimately, I don't think Dumas as a writer is what makes The Black Tulip laugh-out-loud ridiculous, but rather the period it's from. This is historical fiction made even more archaic by the hundreds of years that have passed since its publication. So it's kind of... uh... outdated. And unlike the swashbuckling awesomeness that is The Count of Monte Cristo, The Black Tulip doesn't have any timeless adventure themes that can survive generations. It's a historical romance.

About flowers.
* Anyone else remember the days before the whole Scholastic fair turned into an outlet to sell games and toys and was still all about books?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Family and fantasy themes in "The Barbarian Nurseries"

When I started reading Héctor Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries, I felt a twinge in my stomach. Oh no, I thought, another disappointing book. The writing felt choppy at first: a third-person story that enabled multiple points-of-view without any clear indication of the shifts. But once I'd passed the first chapter, suddenly the movement between the POVs was seamless. The writing fell into place. The characters leapt out at me. And instead of getting annoyed about another sub-par book, I realized that for the first time in a while, I was reading a really good book and was able to just enjoy it. 

I can list several reasons why a reader might not like The Barbarian Nurseries. Unlike my favorite books, the flaws in this somewhat poorly-concluded novel jump out at me. Unlike most books, though, the flaws don't trouble me that much. That is, they're there, but for once the phrase "the good outweighs the bad" really does fit. Whatever faults The Barbarian Nurseries may have, they made little difference in the face of some truly wonderful aspects. But I don't want to review the book*, I want to discuss two themes in the book that jumped out at me.

Tobar is no ordinary author. Clearly. In addition to writing the brilliant character of Brandon Torres-Thompson, Tobar manages to play with a few themes in a clean and simple manner. There are the big, overwhelming ones - the obvious immigration theme, for starters, as well as the overarching family theme - but then there are ones that are more subtle and subdued, namely that of fantasy. 

The matter of family (and how to manage one) is an apparent theme in The Barbarian Nurseries. Right from the early pages, Tobar introduces readers to the family unit - mother Maureen, father Scott, the three kids, and housekeeper-now-nanny Araceli. Tobar spends the first hundred or so pages setting up the family dynamic, displaying the emotional strain each adult character is under in their attempt to achieve "perfection". It's a wonderful and fascinating theme, particularly because of its near-universality: few readers, I suspect, will not find some form through which to relate to Tobar's realistic family drama. Tobar raises excellent questions about child-rearing and parenthood, about boundaries and space, about responsibility and personal desires and needs. 

And yet it's the fantasy theme in The Barbarian Nurseries that truly struck home for me. Introduced in an offhand manner in the first chapter - Maureen mentions Scott's obsession with video games - it gradually lets the reader see how every character engages in some form of escapism, whether through reading, art, video games, or just extensive use of the imagination. The most successful outlet for this theme is through Brandon's literary imaginings, particularly in the scene in which he tells other children of the fantasy books he so loves. In conversation with the underprivileged young boy Tomás about various fantasy books, Tomás thinks how he "did not know books could contain dramatic and violent tales rooted in real life." This echoes Brandon's disbelief and innocence regarding the harsh truths of world outside his sheltered existence. 

The more I think about The Barbarian Nurseries, the more I find myself wanting to pull it apart piece by piece, to reread it carefully and savor its words again, to write out all the excellent passages within its pages, and to pass the book along to others. Though the abrupt shift in tone and theme in the last section could have been done a bit more realistically with fewer stereotypical characters, at the end of the day I was completely swept away by the book. The conclusion - though the weakest aspect of the book - nonetheless contains wonderful closure to the family theme. 

And the fantasy theme? One of my favorite scenes in The Barbarian Nurseries takes place in the final pages - Brandon, he of the fantastic imagination, finds himself distracted from his story recollections in the face of a stronger reality. It's a moment in which the real world wins and fantasy takes a backseat. But is Brandon done dreaming? Has he forsaken fantasy worlds? I think not. Tobar leaves this theme open, perhaps recognizing that sometimes things are best left to the imagination.
* My "real" review of The Barbarian Nurseries can be found here

Friday, October 28, 2011

Children in grown-up books - Brandon and Bran

Think of this as a teaser post for a book I'll be discussing more in depth in a few days (and a few additional thoughts on the book I read almost immediately after). The books are as different from one another as books can be, but the core of this post is the similarity between these vastly different tomes... and one of the finest aspects to both.

The books in question are The Barbarian Nurseries and A Song of Ice and Fire (technically it should be A Dance with Dragons but I don't feel like nitpicking); the main topic is children in adult literature. As a child growing up, one of the things I learned to hate about so-called "grown-up books" was the complete and total inability of adult authors to write believable children. Many of the kids books I'd read still maintained believability, but once children were set alongside adult characters and were created with an adult audience in mind, they suddenly stopped behaving like children.

Kid characters typically fall into one of two categories: exaggerated in their childishness or precocious. Typically the latter. Kids are all brilliant and clever and speak like adults and read Shakespeare and talk about adult things. Even those who don't fall into the precocious category tend to have some adult-like behaviorisms to them. It can get incredibly frustrating. There are cases, though, that somehow avoid the typical pitfalls. Not many, but in recent months I have encountered two: Brandon (Bran) Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire and Brandon Torres-Thompson from The Barbarian Nurseries.

In addition to having the same name, these two Brandons have a few common traits: both are clever kids without broaching the unrealistically talented realm, both have an undeniable romantic streak to them, both are on the cusp of their relative maturity (one of Bran's most common sentiments is that he's "almost a man grown" despite being only eight years old...), and both are given "feature" status on the surface but never the screentime they deserve.

That these two highlight my favorite characters in their respective books actually comes as a surprise to me. Bran Stark is a young boy forced to grow up all too quickly, but he retains an air of childhood around him, an air of innocence. His view of the world is simple to begin with, but gradually grows as he sees and learns more. Something to his wistful dreaming and his passion made him a character worth appreciating, a character worth loving. Meanwhile, when Brandon first appeared in The Barbarian Nurseries, I was certain he was going to be another cliched young character, another clever little reader who somehow sheds light on the adult world while the adults squabble like children. But Brandon's observations are astute and in-tune with his age.
Brandon arrived at the conclusion that Araceli was just lonely. And when he thought about her loneliness, he concluded that she should read more, because anyone who read was never alone.
Or another example: the scene in which Brandon - seeing the poor and the homeless for the first time in his sheltered life - immediately thinks of a fantasy series he'd recently read. Much as I viewed the world at the age of eleven, Brandon applies what he read in the books to this strange and frightening new world he suddenly encounters: he sat in the train with his nose pressed to the glass, the violent and disturbing denouement of that epic narrative seemed the only plausible explanation for the existence of this village of suffering passing below him.
[...] Brandon had begun to warm to the idea that the [...] saga was, in fact, a thinly veiled, detailed account of a real but primitive corner of the actual world. Entire cities emptied of good people, civilians tortured, their homes and their books set to the torch. How could such injustice exist, how could humanity live with it?
The funny thing is, both Brandons are characters in books that acknowledge their importance to the story, but seem unwilling to allow them to fulfill their potential. Like most children, they're ignored in a sense - given moments here and there but never the full flow of things. Brandon is a character with much to say in the first half of The Barbarian Nurseries, but we learn of him in too few scenes and he gets very little attention in the second half of the book. Bran, meanwhile, is the neglected character in his world, often derided as boring... but there's something about him that nonetheless has me hooked, something about the way his character is drawn - childishly innocent on the one hand, cautious and wise on the other - that raises him high in my eyes.

This is how authors should be writing kids. These kids should be believable, should inspire passion, should view the world with the innocence-yet-wisdom that only children have. They don't need to be brilliant and they don't have to be bookish (for example, while Brandon is bookish, it's as much a part of his personality as is his love of video games) and they don't have to play chess. They can be clever and stupid at once (children have an often skewed way of viewing reality - this plays a key role in The Barbarian Nurseries), they can make mistakes, and they can act like kids. If only there were fewer cliches out there and just a few more Brandons.

Monday, October 24, 2011

David Grossman: emotions on display

It kills me, sometimes, to think how long it takes books to get translated into English. Even the more popular international authors - it takes a few years until the books make it international, as compared to Anglo literature which can often be translated internationally even before publication in English and becomes available almost immediately after.

But this isn't a post about international publishing. It's a post about David Grossman.

I just finished reading his most recent publication (from May 2011), Falling Out of Time. Because Grossman is, at the end of the day, an internationally renowned author, I presume this book will see an English publication within a year or two, but I have to discuss it now while it's fresh. And maybe give readers a bit of a heads up.

Falling Out of Time isn't a novel. Heck, it's barely even a book. 186 pages may be legit novel material for most books, but in this case... it's not. Half of the book is written in a strange and disorienting prose style, a cross between poetry and play-script. There are occasional bouts of exposition (two of the semi-narrating characters mostly tell their stories through standard paragraphs), but most pages have less than one hundred words. What the overall word count on this piece is... I have no idea, but it won't amount to much.

In general, if I tried to classify Falling Out of Time, I'd find myself running into a brick wall. The subtitle of the book is "A story in several voices" which is as apt a description as any, but is nonetheless somewhat lacking. A day after finishing the book, I can barely sketch out a plot or story, I can't tell you much about the characters, and the writing was so scattered (and to a degree poetic) that to call it pleasant reading would be somewhat off-base.

But holy heck was this a powerful book.

Tilting and falling
If To the End of the Land is Grossman's ambitious attempt to name the fear of the child's death notice (a disturbing premonition, as it may be), Falling Out of Time is the struggle to define the aftermath. True, Grossman does none of what an author is supposed to do in a work of fiction - there is no main character to immediately latch onto, there's absolutely no world-building to speak of (I quite literally imagined the characters walking around in a gray mist), there is no cohesive, consistent writing style (occasional bursts, intermixed with confusing and disorienting lyricism), and not much of a story. But Grossman didn't aim for any of these things. Not at all.

Grossman aimed for emotion. And hit a bullseye.

Falling Out of Time punches, and punches hard. Sure, I don't yet know if this book will leave a bruise, but right now the wounds are still fresh, the pain still raw. Can I picture the characters outside their setting? Are they fully-formed? Not quite. But I feel them. I can taste their emotions, I can absolutely imagine their innermost turmoils. It's a wonderful, frightening, almost intoxicating feeling. Whereas To the End of the Land had emotional impact because the reader knew and cared for the characters, Falling Out of Time has a veil of anonymity surrounding it which, it turns out, amplifies the emotional effect. And in such a short space, the impact is intense. And incredibly rewarding.

My favorite quote (p.130, my translation):

In August he died, and when 
the end
of that month arrived, I
spent the whole time thinking, how could
I continue onwards to September
and he would remain
in August?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why one must always reread The Sandman

I didn't expect to learn much from my fourth (or possibly fifth...?) reread of volume eight of The Sandman, World's End. I pulled it off the shelf to pass a few hours pleasantly, recalling that though World's End is rarely ranked among readers' top-favorite Sandman volumes, it remains the book I cherish most out of the series.

When I think to recommend The Sandman to readers, I have to overcome two major hurdles: the first is that The Sandman is in graphic novel (comic) format. The second is that The Sandman requires patience. Lots of patience. It's a series that starts out strong, fizzles a bit, flares, fizzles back, and then rises in one of the grandest story progressions I've read in my entire life (books six through nine are simply splendid, while ten has its moments of pure brilliance with a somewhat quiet, unsatisfactory ending). It is no surprise then, with this wondrous crescendo that I find it difficult to name my favorite volume, but there it is: volume eight, World's End.

The thing about The Sandman that I'm realizing as the years go by is that it's incredibly subtle. I'm not talking subtle like The Tiger's Wife (a book in which the vagueness provides an aura of subtle storytelling), but rather subtle like, Neil Gaiman leaves clues hanging around and if you pick up on it, good job! If you don't... alright! We're talking subtlety on a level unlike anything else I've ever read, some of it on a fairly obvious level (would that make it not subtle...?) and some on a level seemingly so obscure and unclear that even The Great and All-Knowing Internet hasn't provided me with any answers.

World's End is the key to almost all of The Sandman's subtlety. Or the portal. World's End includes within its pages a wide and diverse cast of characters - some returning, others new - but the entire premise is built on the notion of storytelling. Not only is World's End a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, it's convincing. Returning characters do not suffer from reintroducing, casual mentions of older stories or references are lightly done, and the story builds carefully to what is doubtless the most beautiful and poignant Sandman ending yet. There is foreshadowing - oh yes - but like everything else, a reread reveals that it's hidden within the least suspicious stories.

And so by rereading World's End I have learned much. A story that had never meant much to me (other than having a lovely two-page spread) suddenly took on secondary meaning (and had me wondering if Gaiman had slipped in a romance story without my noticing), a scene that upon first reading meant little retained its enchanting relevance (discovered upon the first reread), and I was still blown away by the way the small, seemingly insignificant stories tied into the greater Sandman world. Whatever drama volume nine may have, whatever excellent character development volume seven may house... it's the smaller, quieter World's End that astounds me again and again and again.

So if you've read (and enjoyed) The Sandman, reread it. Now. There's so much more to be found within its pages, so many subtexts and quieter truths that do not immediately present themselves upon reading. Go back and reread World's End. Enjoy its storytelling, enjoy its message, enjoy the way it ties the series together. And if you haven't read The Sandman, start at the beginning. But remember: patience. Not everything reveals itself right away. And one final thing: this can be a wonderful experience.

Monday, October 10, 2011

True horror

There are few genres I actively dislike and fewer still that I outright avoid. Horror is one of them and the one I've often felt I had the least knowledge of. Even as a kid, I disliked the horror-lite range of books - I wasn't a fan of mysteries and I didn't much like straight-up suspense books. Horror - which seemed to me like a particularly bloody twist on suspense - never appealed to me at all.

But I recently read a book that I would have to define as horror, even if no one else would. This is a book so thoroughly disturbing, so utterly horrific and terrifying that at the end of the day, despite wearing its "literary" stripes proudly, I must label it horror. And I furthermore must admit to having enjoyed the book... in a perverse, disturbing sort of way.

The book in question is On Parole by Akira Yoshimura and to be honest, I might not have been surprised by the horror aspects had I read the book in English. The Hebrew cover is docile and calm, much like the overall tone of the novel, while the English edition comes equipt with a sharply colored piercing glare. This stark difference can easily be explained: On Parole is a paradox in much of its presentation. It's a quiet book - the passage of time is quick and gently done, jumping across seasons easily - while Yoshimura eases readers into main character Kikutani's mind and world without much dramatic flair. And yet it's impossible to forget the premise and the setting. Yoshimura spares no time in letting the reader know that Kikutani has committed a horrendous crime and though we only learn the details late in the book, the crime - and its implications - are obviously the focus of this short novel.

But what does it mean that On Parole is horror? That it's a quiet, disturbing book? That it made me think long and hard about the standard horrors in the world around us? That it brought to life the kind of character I would normally find repulsive by any means? That it managed to completely unhinge me for a few days straight? If horror isn't the combination of all these - as opposed to blood and guts like the named genre always appears to be - then what is it?