Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura | Review

It feels redundant to review a book that has been praised to the skies by so many readers and critics far more eloquent than myself. I'm coming to the party so late that I can hardly imagine which readers are left unaware of this "Wuthering Heights remake" (I'll explain the quotations in a moment), and of its lingering impact. Doesn't everyone already know that A True Novel (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter) is a masterpiece of modern Japanese literature? Doesn't everyone already know that it is worth looking past the novel's length and reading it? Doesn't everyone already know, far better than I do, that this is a true novel, a truly good novel?

On the surface, I knew each of these claims when I began to read A True Novel. Like so many other titles on my shelf (particularly the longer ones...), A True Novel had spent a long time languishing before I bothered to actually read it. Sure, some of that had to do with the length, but the real reason I was put off every time was that allusion to Wuthering Heights. Because goodness, I hated Wuthering Heights. It's one of those novels that somehow even got worse in my memory as time went by (rather than simply fading away). A True Novel's blurbs all insist on reminding me that this is a Japanese reworking of that classic tale, and didn't you know that this is a reworking of Wuthering Heights, and oh! You should read this because it's an adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

So I started reading, hesistantly, and found myself baffled. The first part of the novel does not remotely resemble Wuthering Heights; in fact, it's more like autofiction, with Minae Mizumura detailing a cross-cultural youth in the US and a later literary career. It was an odd, slightly off-kilter opening to a book that promised something entirely different. I kept waiting to see what Mizumura must be hinting at, the references I must be missing... but it soon became clear that this was simply a very long, elaborate introduction. Indeed, A True Novel turns out to have multiple layers to its story - a story being told, then retold, then retold, then conveyed to the reader. Yet the submersion feels gradual, possibly because this introduction ends up taking so long. And is then followed by another introduction. And then another that leads to the actual story. And not long after, I realized I had finally gotten to the point at which that Wuthering Heights parallel came from.

Here's why A True Novel works so well: By the time I finally realized how this narrative echoed Wuthering Heights, I didn't care. Sure, the cast characters had shifted several times before the resolution focused on the "main" narrative. (Several hundred pages, in fact.) And yes, once the story itself began, it was easy to recognize how Mizumura had planted the "Wuthering Heights" seeds earlier. It just didn't matter anymore, because I was hooked. Each introduction had felt like one, but once the pieces fell into place, I recognized how this novel was progressing and I didn't want it to stop. I fell in, breathlessly, and was swept up.

A True Novel certainly has several callbacks to Wuthering Heights, but to market it as the "Japanese Wuthering Heights" is to undersell the novel by an almost catastrophic degree (and not simply because I don't love the original). A True Novel contains within its pages a unique take on the story-within-a-story model, one that manages to make each layer even more worthwhile by being just meta enough to make the withdrawal its own almost-story, challenging how stories are told and the concept of narration itself (in parts). Remarkable still is the fact that A True Novel does all of this without ever straying into the dull gray zone of having technical innovation at the cost of narrative and writing. The writing threw me off a bit, at first, with a sort of straight-forward roundedness that I couldn't quite place as being either modern or old-fashioned; it's somehow both simultaneously. Whatever it is, I enjoyed it a lot.

Bottom line: A True Novel does a lot of wonderful things within its (many) pages. It's not only an expansive modern history of Japan, but also a personal drama/tragedy and even a meta narrative about storytelling. It's written in a convincing style and ultimately kept me absolutely hooked. It's intelligent and clever (yes, those are different things!), emotionally engaging (even in the most Wuthering Heights-like plot moments that had me on occasion wanting to slap the characters, but with much less vitriol against the novel itself than Brontë's text), and well-written.

If like me, you've been put off by the length or the Wuthering Heights comparisons, do me a favor: Pick up the book and just start reading. Just start. I think, like in my case, you'll find yourself finishing the book before long...

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson | Review

The Impossible Knife of Memory has been on my shelves for so long, that I honestly wasn't sure I'd ever get around to reading it. Except, of course, I enacted a book buying ban on myself to exactly motivate myself to read these older, forgotten books. So it was time to visit an author that I loved as a teen, with a novel that - when it had been published - was touted as being an important, powerful novel of PTSD.

Perhaps it's that the book hasn't aged very well. Perhaps writing conventions have shifted just so in the three years since I purchased The Impossible Knife of Memory. It could be that the book just isn't very good, I don't know. It's certainly not terrible, but I found myself taking issue with quite a few portions of the novel.

To begin with, this is a book that misses so many of the opportunities it itself raises to tackle major issues. Take the central theme of PTSD. Hayley's father very clearly has PTSD, and this is well explored. However, Anderson also very clearly shows that Hayley has some form of PTSD as well, yet never expands on it. Hayley is very much defined by the fact that her memory is full of gaps and we frequently see her crumbling somewhat as a flashback hits. Yet even with these scenes (and those that show Hayley being triggered by a series of different situations), Anderson never actually builds on this idea or how it affects Hayley. We only have her response to her father's pain, not her own. (And don't get me started on the way the book glosses over abuse and false memories. Just... no.)

Similarly, the book makes several references to other struggles young adults might face and their responses to them, but fails to treat it with the expected depth. Hayley is repeatedly critical of her fellow high schoolers' behavior and hypocrisy, that their lives are dull and "zombie"-like. On more than one occasion, she links this behavior with prescription drug abuse. Later in the book, we see Hayley's close friend self-medicating in exactly the way that Hayley describes (ultimately, even Hayley is tempted by the pills) in response to problems at home, but Hayley doesn't reflect on it or wonder at her own ignorance of the struggles other teens are going through.

These are two examples, but they stem from the same underlying problem: The Impossible Knife of Memory is populated by thinly drawn characters. Even Hayley, our narrator and main girl, feels underwritten. What are her motivations? What does she like? Why does she like what she likes? This is a chiaracter with baggage galore, but no real personality. It means that while we're shown a lot about her life, it cannot be explored. It means that there is no additional wisdom or complexity to her thoughts. It's all... oddly flat.

This impacts the two main narratives as well. It's hard to be invested in Hayley's budding romance with fellow student Finn when neither character is well-developed enough to care about. Why do they like each other? We know that they're physically attracted to each other, but... that's literally it. There's nothing else except minor quips here and there. It felt like a portion from a totally different novel, that didn't quite fit in. Similarly, it's difficult to really feel the struggle that Hayley's father is going through when we neither know him, nor really understand Hayley's relationship with him.

Now, if the novel was brief, I could probably understand this level of non-depth. I've read a lot of young adult novels that walked this line relatively well (I'm thinking of Chris Crutcher's relatively concise novels), but The Impossible Knife of Memory is just under 400 pages long. And I honestly cannot understand how. The book takes place between the beginning of the school year and Christmas. That's it. The pacing is wildly inconsistent, both rushed and oddly slow. This is most strongly evident in an incredibly rushed ending, that literally time-skips eight months of recovery and healing in an honestly shockingly sloppy way. So what, I must ask, was the point? Why linger on Hayley's story if we're never going to have any sense of its impact?

It's ultimately disappointing, because it's not as though there's a plethora of young adult novels (or non-fiction) about PTSD or war or recovery. Anderson has also in the past proven her worth in writing about teens going through rough times (Speak, of course, but I also find Catalyst an underrated gem), but The Impossible Knife of Memory is just... not great. And heck, even the teen-isms are all off. It's got a lot of good pieces and is definitely "important" in parts, but it feels like a mess as an overall work. A shame.

Friday, August 11, 2017

WITMonth Day 11 | The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane

The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy by Paulina Chiziane (tr. David Brookshaw) was the last book I bought during WITMonth 2016, and I read it in early 2017. I neglected to review it, despite, unsurprisingly, finding it to be a fascinating and important novel. Let's ask ourselves, seriously, how I could not be interested by "the first Mozambican woman ever to publish a novel"? Or a novel that explores polygamy from the eyes of the wives?

I should begin, then, by noting that from a literary perspective The First Wife isn't necessarily the most brilliantly written text you'll ever read. There were times in which the writing felt a little flat, with certain passages dragging on just a bit longer than I might have otherwise preferred. It's far from a poorly written novel, but it's also... not quite the best.

The content makes up for it, though. This is far and away one of the more culturally fascinating books I've had the pleasure to read as a result of the women in translation project, in large part because it often feels as though The First Wife really isn't trying to talk to me, but within Chiziane's own cultural consciousness. I have found that I like these sorts of books more than those that try to "talk" to a foreign audience - Chiziane doesn't try to address "Western concerns" or questions about whether polygamy is good/bad. The First Wife instead works entirely within the assumption that polygamy is... just a thing. Not a great thing, undoubtedly, but main-character Rami plots the entire concept.

The story begins with Rami - the titular "first wife" - finding out that her husband Tony has been keeping not one, but four different mistresses for years. Each woman is progressively younger and typically more beautiful than the previous, stemming from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Each woman is also deeply in love with Tony. But of course... they can't have him all the time. Under these circumstances, Rami sets out to force Tony to marry each of the mistresses and adopt a polygamous family under older traditions.

In this way, the novel fails to adhere to typical "Western" feminism. Rather than demonizing the subjugation of women (since of course the mistresses had had no legal claims before marriage...), there's an interesting exploration of what it means and how women find their strength within confining environments. Rami's initial fury over being duped turns into a fury over her husband's treatment of his various mistresses and children. Polygamy becomes a weapon not of the patriarchy against the women, but of the women against a man who seems to view them as meaningless and interchangeable in his life.

Slowly, over the course of the novel, each of the women - initially so emotionally and practically dependent on Tony - begin to change. Rami's "rivals" become more than just the younger mistresses of her husband, and she grows close with most. In her role as "the first wife", Rami exerts a great amount of control and influence over their lives, helping them achieve their ambitions and finding them stability (and indeed, sometimes love). In this way, The First Wife is able to display women's power in the places we assume women have none.

This, I think, is what makes The First Wife a uniquely feminist text. Chiziane is exploring what it means to be a woman, what it means to be women in a society that places them below men (Rami coolly refers to women's inferiority until the very end of the novel), and the ways in which women do find their voice, their strength, and sometimes their independence.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

WITMonth Day 9 | One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun

Something that has happened more and more frequently to me in recent years is an odd tendency to start a book, be moderately disappointed by the first chapter, set it aside for a few days (or weeks), return to it, and fall in deep. This doesn't happen with every book, of course, but it's happened often enough that I've taken it as a sort of indicator: Sometimes you start a book at the wrong time. Give it a moment, give it a week, give it a few months... you might end up enjoying it a lot more when the time is right.

Hwang Jungeun's One Hundred Shadows (tr. Jung Yewon) felt very much like that sort of book. I read the first chapter during a particularly stressful week and found myself put off somewhat by the quotation-mark-less writing and the odd, almost airy style. I set it aside for a week. When I picked it up again, the prose felt like it had undergone some sort of transformation (though it was obviously I who underwent the change...). The simple style felt fresh and sharp, unburdened by unnecessary weight or false "literariness".

And I liked it.

It's an odd, sort of melancholic sort of book, framed by some rather nice symmetry and a quiet sort of social message. Curiously, based on the jacket description, I was expecting One Hundred Shadows to focus more explicitly on class differences and social inequality in modern Seoul, but... it's not that sort of book at all. Not that there aren't politics - narrator Eungyo and her friend-maybe-more Mujae discuss at some point the definition of the word "slum", and Eungyo often thinks about the state of their status as repairmen of sorts, working in a cheap market that has been marked for demolition. Both characters acknowledge the difficulties they've had, with Mujae referencing his inherited debts and the cost of college ("I didn't think what I was learning [in college] was worth getting into debt for") and Eungyo contemplating her reasons for dropping out of school as a teenager. In that sense, One Hundred Shadows is a solidly "working class" sort of a novel, something that shouldn't be as rare as it is.

In the midst of this political exploration of class comes a fantasy-like twist on it: rising shadows. The short novel begins with Eungyo following her newly-risen shadow out into the woods; Mujae is there to guide her back to reality. Over the course of the novel, several different characters describe stories of their rising shadows or undergo similar events. When his shadow rises, Eungyo notes that "it seemed as though Mujae was no longer present." These events seem to become more and more frequent as the novel progresses, linked perhaps to the anxieties of the neighborhood as the threat (and action) of demolition looms closer. Certainly references to shadow-risings that happen earlier are linked to death and despair...

And yet there's a surprising sweetness to the story. Eungyo and Mujae's friendship develops slowly, with the two supporting each other and balancing each other nicely. Each is there for the other when their shadow rises, and their growing bond seems to reflect that sort of deeper connection. It's a refreshingly honest sort of relationship, never overly explicit or harshly obvious.

This can be said of the novel overall - it's understated. The jacket, as I've already mentioned, calls this a "hard-edged novel", which seems like the last term I'd use for this sloping story (though many other reviewers have adopted it). It's certainly powerful, but the writing is almost explicitly quiet, with the fantasy elements also wrapping the story rather gently. It's more like a softly rolling dreamscape, but one that refuses to forget the world that shapes it. One Hundred Shadows doesn't have to be loud in order to make its political/social point clear to readers. On the contrary - I found that I much preferred this character-focused approach. It makes for a powerful, unique little novel, and one that I can easily recommend.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons | Review

I'm honestly surprised that I'd never heard of Goli Taraghi's The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons (tr. Sara Khalili) before reading it. It's not that I think I know of every new book that's published, but as a longtime book blogger, there's always a bit of awareness of new titles. Particularly titles from more mainstream publishers. The irony of it is that I'm often more aware of literature in translation from smaller publishers than I am from the heavy-hitters, where they seem almost passive in their attitudes despite more newspaper coverage. The fact is that I can't recall having seen any reviews of The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons. Fairly undeserved.

It's been a bit over a month since I read this short story collection, so I won't pretend that all the facts and figures are perfectly aligned in my head. But truthfully, that's less relevant for a book of this sort. Like many short story collections, the plot is not really the point. More important is the clear-headed assessment of a culture, and a culture of emigration.

The fact that most of the stories in The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons either revolve around emigration (or return), or some form of outside cultural influence, says quite a bit about the collection as a whole and about the state of Iranian culture. This is not particularly surprising given Taraghi's current status as an expat herself, but there's power to the fact that she continues to write in Farsi. There's meaning to the fact that these stories have such strong themes of coming and going, forming a core that does not dismiss offhand cultural differences between Europe/America and Iran, but also does not entirely embrace them.

One of the nice things about this collection is in its rather excellent balance of pace and story. These are short stories that know how to breathe - nothing is rushed, but no story feels unnecessarily bloated either. One story tells of a dinner party broken up by a raid. There's anxiety running throughout the story, the narrator's tense apprehensions and unease with further complications that result from her arrest. Taraghi's writing conveys this tension without resorting to blunt measures. Everything flows gracefully and smoothly, straight through to the story's end. This makes for a nice change from most novels, and certainly from flash fiction which often ends up missing important story elements.

Though certain themes crop up again, The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons nonetheless relatively succeeds in staying fresh. This is not a collection bogged down by the same story again and again with slight variations; even the most similar stories feel distinct in their characters and settings. Some also sharply deviate from the standard mold, making for an overall bolder, more diverse collection. There's a lot here about human nature, quite a bit about passion and force of will, and sprinkles of love, often in the most roundabout way.

I liked The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons when I really didn't think I would. The stories grow on a reader, and though the writing was a little awkward at times (a fault whose source I'm not sure of - writer or translator...), generally speaking I found myself delving quite deeply into each story. Nothing bombastic happens in any of these stories, nor are they unique for their sparseness. Instead, Taraghi looks at characters (primarily women) in different situations, calmly building the broader world around these characters and ending on just the right note. All in all, a good, balanced collection, deserving of more attention.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

70% Acrylic 30% Wool | Review

Whatever Viola Di Grado writes next, I will read it. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (tr. Michael Reynolds), her first novel, is so utterly bizarre, so fantastically disturbing, so engaging and interesting and weird and thought-provoking that I honestly don't care what she plans on doing next - I will read it.

70% Acrylic 30% Wool was read in a single sitting, an intense morning dedicated 100% to this depressing, offbeat novel. Centering around "word anorexic" Camelia, the novel is a curious display of various forms of mental illness and disorders. We begin with Camelia's silent mother, who essentially stopped existing after her husband was killed in a car accident (with his mistress). Her silence spreads to Camelia, who is also grieving and suffering in her own way, miserable in her loneliness but also seemingly incapable of escaping it.

It's in this precarious state that Camelia meets Wen, a young shopkeeper who works near her home. Wen has thrown out the damaged clothing his brother makes from his shop in Camelia's dumpsters, which Camelia - in her warped reality - has adopted as new clothing. From there, Camelia returns to the study of Chinese, which she had begun at the university but given up after her father's death.

Wen and Camelia's Chinese lessons form one of the cores of the novel, specifically in the way they showcase language and essentially culture. Camelia is Italian-born, but she's lived in Leeds most of her life. Her Italian identity is occasionally touched on, but it isn't necessarily the main idea. Similarly with Wen, who is Chinese but has clearly been living in England for a long time as well. During their Chinese lessons, Camelia often tries to understand aspects of Chinese writing (why certain words are drawn as they are, why certain combinations do not form the words she would expect). Through these conversations, a more subtle understanding of language arises. As a bilingual reader myself and one who has studied other languages as well, I found these parts to be fascinating and entirely on the mark.

But the other focus of the novel is, I think, much more about depression. Much more about mental illness. Much more about the silence that has seeped into Camelia's life, and how it's impacted both her and her mother.

Di Grado shows us Camelia's mother's abrupt shut-down - her immediate response to her husband's death and the way she simply stops speaking. We see her through Camelia's frustrated eyes, but Camelia herself is tainted. Indeed, as the story progresses, Camelia is the one putting herself through worse and worse situations: an extremely misguided and intentionally problematic affair which ultimately ends in violence and more pain, repeated attempts to express her feelings for Wen while getting rebuffed, and an obsession with certain themes of holes, emptiness, and the Chinese character Camelia has invented for herself. Meanwhile, her mother is slowly awakening - no longer merely lying on the couch without bathing, we see early attempts at building a new life for herself.

I don't want to spoil the end of the novel, but I'll say this - it's fantastic. It's brilliantly subversive, unexpected and twisted. Di Grado takes everything she's done throughout 70% Acrylic 30% Wool and shows us where we were wrong in our interpretations, where our assumptions misled us, and what we should have seen all along.

This is not a happy book, but there's no doubt that it's a very good one. Di Grado's writing is young and believable, very casual but also crisply intelligent. This is the sort of writing that flows from sentence to sentence, no stutters when it comes to describing characters or locales, just a pure understanding of how to show the world. It might not appeal to readers seeking something a bit more polished, but I found it matched my tastes perfectly. Similarly, the characterization is not heavy-handed, but in light, brief lines Di Grado successfully builds the characters around Camelia (who herself is a wonderfully built character).

70% Acrylic 30% Wool is two things: it's a unique book, and it's a good book. Readers seeking something cheerful - this is not the book for you. But anyone who can stomach a bit of grimness, a bit of depression, or a bit of twisted pain should read this novel. Definitely weird; definitely good.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Little Fingers | Huge disappointment

This is one of those cases where if I'd read Little Fingers first of Filip Florian's books (both translated by Alistair Ian Blyth), I would not have bothered to read anything else. Then I would have missed The Days of the King, which is actually quite a wonderful little book. So it's a good thing I started with The Days of the King, because Little Fingers? Terrible.

I don't often dislike books as much as Little Fingers. That's because there's usually at least something worth appreciating in a novel (also because usually I'd give up on a book this bad, only that Little Fingers was so short I figured I might as well finish it off). I suppose that's also true of Little Fingers, but I just. Couldn't. Find it. Little Fingers is a great example of a debut that has the individual pieces that will later fit to make a competent novel, but here in the original they absolutely fail to mesh. The vague writing isn't alluding to anything, the non-existent characterization is baffling at best, the plot is so hidden behind layers of intrigue and subplots and minor references that it ultimately disappears, and the pacing is... slow.

I suppose the greatest disappointment in Little Fingers stems from its inability to deliver on its promise. The novel is trying so hard to be a complex sort of literary, it forgets what it actually is. With all sorts of strange and surrealistic stories padding the main plot, there ultimately remains no plot. The back blurb promises all sorts of intrigue, but then the setup for this intrigue is only really revealed at the end and there's no actual outcome to it.

Florian is the sort of author who goes for this looping, very roundabout style of writing. In The Days of the King, this worked nicely - the minimal dialogue may have been jarring for many other readers, but the historical setting and the way the story grew paid off for any stumbles this somewhat awkward (yet beautiful) approach may have caused. Not so with Little Fingers. Dialogue here is more prevalent, but it's stickier and clumsier as well. It seems trite, old-fashioned and out of place. It doesn't move the story along and it doesn't flow properly.

Add to all this a series of characters I neither cared about nor understood and the recipe is for an extraordinarily frustrating, disappointing book. Little Fingers is a very short book which I read it one sitting, but it was a forced read - gritted teeth and the hope for a pay-off that never arrived. A few clever turns of phrase here and there made the reading more interesting for momentary flashes, but the moment I finished the book, I tossed it aside and felt relieved. I'll likely give Filip Florian another chance should his later books be translated, but this will only be based on the merits of The Days of the King. Little Fingers is, in my mind, a wasted book and a waste of time.

Monday, May 27, 2013

War, peace, love, family, life | The Time of the Doves

I was introduced to Mercè Rodoreda back in my early days of book blogging, through Three Percent and Open Letter Books. I read Death in Spring and thought the book was decidedly weird - but good. But, as is usually the case, I didn't really think much about Rodoreda until three years later, when I rather randomly bought La plaça del diamant (The Time of the Doves) in the Hebrew translation. I got it at Hebrew Book Week, as I was browsing through the output of a new-to-me publisher. Seeing the name tripped a wire in my memory, and so now, almost a year later, the verdict is in: Rodoreda is definitely a strange author, but I really, really enjoyed The Time of the Doves. Even if I'm not quite sure why.

So I liked the writing - a bit blunt, to-the-point, no loops or unnecessary lyricism that might drag the story down. No great heaving piles of interpersonal drama, but rather the much larger - and much smaller - drama of daily life during tumultuous times. I liked the brisk pace - it's a bit no-nonsense, like Rodoreda is frowning at me and saying, "Well, what did you expect? Do you really need to know what happens in those two years?" and my abashed answer would obviously have to be "No". It's a very crisp style, one that manages to say a lot more in a single paragraph than most authors can say in an entire chapter. This is exactly what all stream-of-consciousness should be like - expansive, but not rambling.

What I find most interesting about The Time of the Doves is how every reader seemed to view it differently. Some see a love story, others a family saga, others still a down-to-earth war story. One view even sees a story about the loss - and regaining - of identity. What does that say about the story? How can a single novel mean so many different things to so many different readers?

Personally, I fell in the camp of war story. The entire first half of the novel serves as a set-up for the Spanish Civil War, mainly through small hints and a subtle tense vibe. Obviously there's a bit of everything else in there too - our protagonist Natalia is not merely a figurehead for a historical story. We watch her mature, marry, have children, work, struggle, suffer and move on. The focus of the novel isn't on family, but it's impossible to extract the influence Natalia's husband and children have on her life - in fact, I would even say the way they take over her life. Yet even as this is a major theme - and critical to just about everything that happens in the book - the war looms larger. It's the war that serves as a backdrop for the most powerful scenes in the book. It's the war that catalyzes what has to be some of the quietest, most off-the-cuff dramatic scenes I've ever read. The war occupies every inch of the second half of the book, overwhelming it with fear and anxiety for both the characters and the reader. Even though most of the story takes place in peacetime, this was ultimately - for me - a story about a war.

I would say it's the strength of the small scenes scattered throughout The Time of the Doves that make it a good book. I liked everything overall, but a handful of pages really took my breath away. Because of the generally level tone, these scenes could have easily gotten lost in a worse-written book. But they didn't. Instead they managed to punch hard and fast, quickly slipping back into the general story tone. The effect may not suit all readers, but even if I'd thought the parts in between these scenes were weak (which I don't), I would probably still recommend The Time of the Doves. It's a classic for a reason - I'm very glad to have read it.