Showing posts with label french. Show all posts
Showing posts with label french. Show all posts

Sunday, February 17, 2019

I am an uneducated feminist | Thoughts on Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex

I don't think I quite expected to be confronted by my ignorance to such a stark degree while reading The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir's classic of feminist literature. I am currently reading the version translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, slowly immersing myself in this book I had heard so much about in references, but had never actually read myself. I kept telling myself there would be no reason for me to actually read this "original", second-wave text; after all, I have read so much literature from future generations of the feminist movement. Right?

I'm not a new feminist, nor do I consider myself to be a young feminist. I have followed feminist discourse since my early teen years and I have even actively engaged in it through the women in translation project. Feminism is a key part of my identity and I have long made sure that I read plenty of essays and discussions about feminism. I have often found myself enlightened by online feminists, but almost as often exasperated or frustrated. At times, I've even been angry with mainstream, popular feminist writers and their writing. But I certainly never considered myself uneducated, nor did I think that they were uneducated.

It's hard to come away from reading The Second Sex and not wonder if perhaps many more of us are ignorant than I previously believed: ignorant of the history of feminism, of the literature, and of our own inflated sense of self-importance.

Early in The Second Sex, de Beauvoir writes about the ways in which being a woman is not the only determining factor in political views or approach: "women as a sex lack solidarity: they are linked to their classes first; bourgeois and proletarian interests do not intersect". The use of the word "intersect" immediately caught my attention. While the translation is modern, it seemed unlikely that the choice of this word was necessarily modern. In essence, it struck me that I was reading a clear reference to intersectional feminism, years before it was canonized as a term by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. de Beauvoir actually has several discussions that are surprisingly parallel to modern intersectional theory, specifically in reference to the complex status that racial/ethnic minorities have in society (i.e. black people in the US, Jewish people in Europe).

I was surprised by these references, though I'm not sure why. Crenshaw is certainly the figure in truly establishing intersectionalism as a concept within the feminist movement, and her status as such should not be diminished. Rather, I use this example to point toward my own recurring ignorance of how prevalent certain ideas have been in feminist discourse long before they appeared on the internet in filtered, shallow versions. Furthermore, my own interest in this specific example emphasized that while I've seen Crenshaw - like de Beauvoir - referenced time and time again in online pieces or essay collections, I had never actually read any of her works or writing on the topic. It suddenly occurred to me that I had been reading watered down versions or reworkings of feminist theory, rather than the original.

There are a lot of things in The Second Sex that are outdated (and not just funny things, like references to Queen Elizabeth... singular, since in 1949 there had only been one). It's understandable that certain norms and psychological understandings would have changed over 70 years. The clearest example of de Beauvoir being a product of her time probably comes from her now-conservative interpretations of gender/gender roles and sexuality. Specifically, her writing would place her on the border of the modern definition of "transphobic", with a sort of closed-mindedness to the fluidity of gender identity that most modern feminists of her ilk have forsaken. The adherence to Freudian psychology similarly feels rather old, and certainly some of the studies are no longer relevant or have been disproven since de Beauvoir's time. She also has a bizarre tendency to over-cite male authors writing about women, as though these are more accurate than women's own accounts. These all make some degree of sense when taken as a product of de Beauvoir's time (and if we view her work as truly revolutionary), though it is still worth pointing out. Even as de Beauvoir goes out of her way to emphasize extremely progressive-for-her-times interpretations of gender roles or sexuality, there are still gaps or interpretations that have simply proven to be false. These, if anything, emphasize the ways in which feminist discourse has changed... and the ways in which it hasn't.

Because ultimately The Second Sex remains shockingly relevant to the modern reader. More than that, it often reads like a more critical, in-depth version of a feminist blog. Topic after topic strike me as those which I still see being discussed today, even if the specific references and studies cited have changed (thankfully). Which makes me wonder... why are there so many feminist blogs of this sort, if it's already been written and analyzed? Some parts even left me embarrassed that I've tried to write about the same topics myself, yet it now becomes obvious that I was missing so much necessary context and history.

What strikes me while reading The Second Sex is that many pop-feminists are just as uneducated as I am. The uncomfortable truth is, for all my "feminist stripes", I've actually never engaged with the canon before this. Yes, I've read plenty of the fictional feminist canon (e.g. The Handmaid's Tale, The Bell Jar), and I've even read Bad Feminist (though some of you may recall what my opinion on the book was...), but I've actually read very little of the canon. Most of what I read of feminist literature is actually regurgitated online pop-feminism, and while this has benefits of a sort, I was thoroughly misled to believe that it was ever enough.

What do I mean by this? Take discussions of "intersectionality". Most online posts that discuss the importance of intersectionality (and I include my own blog here!) do so from a vague, hand-wavy perspective. We can all cite Crenshaw as the originator of the idea because just about every blog post has ever referenced her (almost furiously), but we rarely discuss what it actually means. I've seen countless arguments that center around the idea that intersectionality (or, indeed, intersections) can only refer to the intersection between race and another marginalization: namely, that since it was initially used to describe the intersection between race (specifically, being black) and gender (female). This is an odd claim when it is evident that the concept of intersectionality existed long before the phrase became popularized by Crenshaw. Again, this is not to take away from the importance of Crenshaw's writing (especially since her work focused on the black experience specifically, which is still too often ignored!), but it does remind me how easy it is to reference existing work that you (I) have never actually read or studied and moreover to reference it without any of the work that actually went into the original research/theory.

This is far from the only example. In her chapter on motherhood, de Beauvoir dedicates a great deal of time and words to describing the hypocrisy of contemporary abortion policy. It is almost identical to something that we might read today, with the only major difference being that abortion is somewhat more freely available today (somewhat). Yet her descriptions of the limitations placed on it and the moralistic arguments against it could just as easily have been posted to The Guardian last week. I've always felt vaguely uncomfortable with the way that many feminist columns or blog posts feel similar to each other; many popular feminist writers will want to place their own stamp on a certain topic and will write about it, even when it has been explored by other writers. This is not inherently wrong (since personal experience can obviously shape interpretation, and more feminist writing means more exposure to feminist thought!), but it leaves me feeling as though many writers are only constantly rehashing existing ideas rather than exploring new concepts. The Second Sex has made me feel that even more strongly, with the sense that when we have these discussions, we're forgetting for how many years feminists have already been writing about these same concepts (and often with far more depth).

I'm not quite done with The Second Sex yet and I still hope to write a review of it more fully. This, after all, is not a review. I'm not even sure it's a fair assessment of modern feminism, rather than disappointment in my own ignorance. To be perfectly honest, I'm suddenly wondering whether I even have the stripes to be able to comment on pop-feminism - is that even a thing? Have I simply misunderstood what most of the feminist writers I've been reading for years have been trying to tell me?

Here's the bottom line: I like how extensive The Second Sex is, but it's not the compiled nature of the book that makes it important. If a feminist were to focus an entire book on a topic that de Beauvoir covers in only one chapter, it would not make it a lesser work simply because it is shorter/covers fewer topics. Rather, it occurs to me that it's the pseudo-academic style that de Beauvoir utilizes that has been missing from most of the works I've read. While I often disagree with the literal sources that de Beauvoir cites (and occasionally thinks she cherry-picks anecdotes without acknowledging contradictory experience), she is still casting a wide net. She references literature, memoirs, and scientific studies. de Beauvoir is not simply reworking existing ideas through the lens of their existing context, she is compiling a comprehensive study of a wide range of topics as though from scratch. (And do I really know whether this was from scratch? Clearly many of these topics had already been widely discussed...)

It took me a long time to read The Second Sex in large part because I mistakenly assumed that I didn't need to read it. There are few topics that de Beauvoir has covered so far with which I have not already been familiar. Most of the ideas that she cites that I didn't know are ones that are clearly outdated. But that just isn't what makes the book important. At the end of the day, this is a bit like the sciences: I might read a review of a topic in order to generally learn about it and the most recent updates in the field, but if I really care about it, I'm going to have to read the source papers that the review cites.

It's time for me to read the sources.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

WITMonth Day 9 | The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal

When I bought Maylis de Kerangal's The Heart (translated as Mend the Living in the UK), I had only one impression of the book - this rare negative review from Tony Messenger's blog, that described the book as poorly written, boring, and filled with bizarre writing choices. I hesitated before buying The Heart for this reason, but ultimately my curiosity got the better of me... and the fact that the book was in the bargain bin and being sold for only $4 in the hardcover.

I started reading The Heart late on a Saturday night, intending to read only a few pages to get the taste of it. I fully expected to be disappointed - after all, a reader whose tastes and reviews I quite trust seemed to dislike it so much! - but as I read those early pages, I found myself instantly swept up in the rhythm. I had to force myself to stop reading after those first few pages in order to go to sleep.

It was somewhere in the middle of the night that a thought struck me: The Heart read like a millennial had written it. Or at least, it sounded somehow "millennial" to me. It sounded like how my writing would sound, if I wasn't just writing bad reviews on a sub-par blog. The pacing and the styling and rhythm and the almost loopy thinking... they all felt like they would be perfectly at home on a Tumblr post responding to some vague, random prompt. The writing felt like something many of my friends might write. And I liked it.

As I progressed in the novel, I discovered a few more interesting points of contrast between my interpretation and Tony's. Portions that filled in a minor character's backstory felt like little side-quests, rather than pointless distractions. The constant shifts in perspectives felt like a necessary way to describe the whole. As the story spun around Simon (whose heart is in question), I felt like I was growing to care about his world, if not him specifically.

The Heart, at its core, is a novel of the characters who surround Simon. It focuses to a significant degree on his mother Marianne, but as the narrative shifts from Simon's injury to Simon's death to Simon's "rebirth", so too does the focus, to the doctors treating Simon and eventually also those who wish to save other lives using his organs. It feels like a novel built of negative space; Simon is at The Heart's center, but he does not really exist within it.

There were a few things I outright disliked in The Heart. First, there is an odd objectification of women in a number of points throughout the book. There are full paragraphs that feel utterly unnecessary to either character development or story progression, particularly ones that focus on women. The novel felt sexist in places, which ended up throwing me out of the story more than once (though I managed to get back into it quickly, which was also pretty interesting). These are short, minor fragments, but they do cast a shadow on the book and prevent me from giving a whole-hearted endorsement (pun intended). I also found myself somewhat unimpressed by de Kerangal's constant descriptions of Simon's multi-racial background, with the fawning tone occasionally bordering a bit on fetishization. It may just be a cultural difference, but there was something about some of the descriptions that felt a bit off to me.

However, to the most important point: Perhaps you noticed that I skipped over an important bit of information at the beginning of this review. Where, you would be correct in asking, is the translator's name? Well, in the version that I read, the translator is Sam Taylor, who I think did a really great job of making the writing flow and keeping the book as engaging as it was. But when I went back to read Tony's review, I realized something interesting: the quoted passages did not match the ones that I had just read. In fact, the passages that Tony includes all felt awkward and stilted in portions compared to the gently rolling text I held in my hands.

It turns out that Mend the Living and The Heart are actually not the same book, exactly, instead being that (now rare) phenomenon of two distinct translations of a modern novel that were released at the same time in different countries. Mend the Living, despite having my personally preferred title, was translated by Jessica Moore. Though I have of course not read the entire translation, the contrast with the portions I read on Tony's blog make clear that Moore's translation creates a very different effect overall.

For example: In the passage describing Marianne's meeting with the parents of her son's friends (mostly uninjured in the accident that ultimately kills Simon), Moore's translation creates a very tight, stiff vibe. Lines like "the four of them are aware of how lucky they are, of their monster’s ball, because for them, it’s only breakage" feel like they are heavily crafted. Contrast that with Taylor's version: "all four of them are aware how lucky they are, how monstrously lucky, because their children are only a little broken". There are two main word-choice distinctions: "monster's ball" replaced with "monstrously lucky", and "it's only breakage" with "only a little broken". In both cases, I find myself preferring Taylor's word choice. Of course I have no idea what the original was, but the message here is clearly the same, as is the general style. Yet Moore's translation uses somewhat weird, rare words (breakage? monster's ball?), while Taylor spins the sentence to flow with an almost childlike appreciation. One of the translations feels like a very high-brow classic novel, while the other feels loose and modern.

Of course I am biased, having read only one of these translations and generally liked it, especially liking how fresh it felt and to my own generation's online writing style. But almost each of the examples that Tony cites sent me back to the pages of The Heart's translation, and appreciating how much smoother the text flowed there. It leads me to wonder what Moore's translation is like at large, particularly since this is a fairly rare example of a modern book having contrasting, contemporary translations. I certainly liked Taylor's approach, and appreciate it even more after comparing it to an alternative.

All in all, The Heart ended up surprising me. I fell in love with the writing style, I was (mostly) able to look past the weird/unnecessary/male-gaze-y bits, and I thought that the story was extremely moving on the whole. This is not the sort of novel to keep you on your toes, but it has its own sort of pulsing tension anyways. The end in particular felt like a thriller, as the tone and narrative largely move away from Simon. It's a book I wish I could have read in one sitting; even so, I am grateful that I read it at all.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet | Review

Truthfully, Marie Vieux-Chauvet's Dance on the Volcano (tr. Kaiama L. Glover) feels like a few books in one. Here is a chunkster novel that tells the story of an individual woman, main character Minette, alongside an important portion of Haitian history. Like many books of this sort, Dance on the Volcano ends up feeling a little overwhelming at times (and a little poorly balanced between Minette's personal drama and the wide-reaching cultural implications of her personal life), but there's no doubt that overall this is a fine, fascinating novel and one well worth reading.

Dance on the Volcano sets its tone early. Minette, her younger sister Lise, her mother Jasmine, her effectively foster brother Joseph, and the entire cast of black (free) characters are swiftly placed in contrast to the island's whites. The plot begins with Minette (and her sister Lise, to a lesser degree) "discovered" by their white, Creole neighbor as the two teenage girls sing at home. Mme Acquaire is instantly in awe of their raw talent and decides to teach the girls in the early mornings, despite the general taboo against it. As Minette grows more and more talented, it becomes clear that her future is on the stage, and indeed Minette soon becomes an outright phenomenon as the first "colored" woman to sing on the white stage.

From here, Dance on the Volcano follows Minette's numerous struggles in becoming accepting as a successful stage singer. While there is little doubt at her talent, her color influences the entire conversation surrounding her art, indeed defining everything from her paycheck to her participation in particular concerts. Thus begins Minette's more general social awakening. Though still effectively a teenager, Minette begins to realize just how cruel the world around her is, simply on racial grounds. She learns secrets about her mother's past, she learns secrets about her brother's present, and she begins to wish for a more just world. She begins to fight for her own rights, using her immense talent as leverage against racism. She also becomes involved in efforts to rescue slaves, and to advocate (albeit privately) for their general emancipation. The story tracks much of Haiti's tumultuous history through Minette's eyes and experiences, often with tragic implications.

Curiously, another plotline begins to invade this already loaded story. Just as Minette begins her social awakening, she also experiences a sexual awakening. This story is the least engaging (by far) of the many threads running through Dance on the Volcano, with a particularly uncomfortable message about sexual/romantic desire overwhelming Minette's own beliefs and values. Minette's black, slave-owning, slave-beating lover is presented as a complex character with contradictory aims and motives, but his violence and general awfulness as a person made it very difficult for me to care about their relationship or about him at all. There was a sense that this romance was supposed to somehow emphasize the complexity of Haiti's slave-owning past, yet it ended up feeling like a waste of space that could have instead focused on Minette's own growth.

This is not the novel's only flaw. The writing is simplistic and at times grating, with awkward transitions from very plain prose to a more lyrical style. It also occasionally felt anachronistic, with some sentences sounding outright modern and others sounding much more like they'd been written in the 18th century. This also ends up affecting pacing, in a way that makes it generally less pleasant to read the novel in longer chunks.

Yet even with its flaws, I found it hard to get Dance on the Volcano out of my mind. I can't say that I loved it, but I feel like I learned a lot from it. That probably says more about my own (lack of) knowledge about Haitian history, yet I appreciated how Dance on the Volcano framed it through Minette's personal lens. The plot density may have made reading more difficult and may have bothered me at points (again, the romance subplot), but it also gave me a lot to consider. Whether I think it worked on a literary level does not change the fact that it inspired me to think about the topic of more complex racial identities and contradictions.

All in all, Dance on the Volcano is certainly a book worth reading and one I am grateful to have read. And after years of having Marie Vieux-Chauvet's writing recommended to me, it makes me all the more eager to get to Love, Anger, Madness.

Monday, August 21, 2017

WITMonth Day 21 | Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga

It's time to talk about what is probably the best book I've read in the past year: Cockroaches.

I haven't gotten around to reviewing Scholastique Mukasonga's novel Our Lady of the Nile yet, but in a sentence: I liked it enough that I bought Cockroaches (translated by Jordan Stump) soon after it came out. Our Lady of the Nile was the first book I'd ever read specifically about Rwanda, and I finished it feeling like I had learned a lot. It's a book that shrinks the Rwandan genocide down to a small scale, displaces it, and blurs it somewhat. It was an insightful, powerful novel. How wrong I was to think I understood anything.


I grimaced at the title. I loathe cockroaches. Silly as it sounds, I felt like the book was warning me somehow. Bad content here. Stay away. A warning that had little to do, it turns out, with cockroaches, and significantly more to do with the strikingly clean descriptions of utterly horrific events. This isn't surprising, of course. Cockroaches isn't about the bugs, it's about the humans that other humans deem lower than the lowest creature - simply cockroaches. It's about how humans strip other humans of their humanity and how they use this to justify genocide.

Prior to Cockroaches, the only other story I had ever encountered about Rwanda and the Rwandan genocide was Mukasonga's previously published Our Lady of the Nile. That's it. I had heard stories from family members who had been to Rwanda; one described the memorial museum as "a Holocaust museum, but with Tutsis instead of Jews". I kept thinking of that while reading Cockroaches. Pieces of the memoir felt so familiar, reminders of every Holocaust story I'd encountered in my childhood (and adulthood...), yet this is also very clearly the story of a completely different genocide.

Or rather, I should note, this isn't quite the story of the Rwandan genocide itself as much as it's the story of how Rwanda became a country in which the 1994 genocide could even occur. Mukasonga makes clear from the very first page of the memoir that her survival is the exception: The book opens with a painful dedication to all those who lost their lives and their families, and to "the few who have the sorrow of surviving". In my view, this is the line that captures the essence of Cockroaches. This is a beautifully written book that uses simple, clear writing while conveying a terrible, painful, and gut-wrenching reality.

There's more to it, of course. Mukasonga gives voice to her lost family, but she also builds an entire world around them. Mukasonga never lets the reader forget that the genocide - which technically occurred in 1994 - begins much earlier, with a series of smaller events and horrors. Genocide never occurs in a day. What begins as forced relocation turns into total extermination. First certain individuals. Later, everyone. The elderly. Children. Babies.

Cockroaches is not an easy book. It's short, yes, and Mukasonga writes simply. It's the sort of book you can read through within a few hours, but this is far from a quick, breezy read. This is a book that enters your soul. It feels like a cockroach has crawled under your skin, itching and burning as it burrows into you. It's personal, but not manipulative in its emotions. Mukasonga's survival sorrow rings powerfully, such that I cannot imagine a reader leaving this book unmoved. For this granddaughter of Holocaust survivors (and great-granddaughter, -niece, -cousin, etc. of Holocaust victims), the book felt like a necessary awakening to learn more about those horrors that I haven't been exposed to as much. It felt like an education. And it felt like a painful reminder of how absolutely easy it is for humanity to fail, and fail again.

To quote Mukasonga: "I wish I could write this page with my tears."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

WITMonth Day 15 | Madame Curie by Ève Curie

When I found Madame Curie in a used bookstore, it felt like a sign. Not only was this a beautifully bound biography of one of the greatest scientists in history, it was written by her daughter Ève Curie in French (tr. Vincent Sheean). Marie Curie, a woman in translation. Quite appropriate.

Even so, it took me a long time to get around to reading this biography. In general, I find that I need more time and focus for most biographies (for most nonfiction overall, honestly), something that often clashes with my work demands and limited reading time. I love nonfiction, but I find myself reading less and less of it in recent years (for entertainment, that is; I read plenty for work...). Once I started Madame Curie, however, it took two focused sittings and I was done with the book. Enthralled by the life of this woman I have read so much about, yet ultimately know so little of.

Because yes, most of us know that Marie Curie was Polish. But how did she get to France? How did she fall in love with the sciences? What guided her to the places she reached, where she would eventually become infamous?

Curiously - or perhaps not, given that the biography was written by Curie's publicly adoring younger daughter - Madame Curie does not linger much on the traditional puzzle pieces or complexities one would expect from a biography. Most of the book details her personal life, rather than the professional aspect. Ève raises the sexism that Marie faced as a rare woman in her field, but doesn't really focus on it. I found this fascinating, since modern biographical pieces on Marie Curie (such as those found in almost every "Great Women in Science" or whatever types of collections) tend to emphasize this point, from an explicitly modern perspective. Ève doesn't do that. Yes, she acknowledges some of what Marie experienced, but she offers few interpretations of her own.

Overall, Ève Curie proves to be an interesting biographer, since she is also a character within the book. It is fairly odd to read a book in which the author alternates between referring to herself in the third person and a few paragraphs later, recounting the object of her book (in this case, her mother) through a personal anecdote. It creates a weird dissonance that I didn't always like.

However, I think it sort of goes without saying that Madame Curie is the sort of book you read with little regard for the technical writing. Not that it's bad, but I honestly wouldn't rank this as an especially good biography. It's a great piece of history, it's a great emotional assessment of a woman frequently reduced only to her science, and it's a lovely exploration of Marie Curie's life. There's something very warm about the way Ève writes of her mother, even if it at times feels like she's whitewashing her own history a little.

And of course... there's the content. I can't help but love this book for its content. I have admired Marie Curie for years, of course, not simply as a woman in the sciences, but also as a clear example of a woman who didn't let anything stand in her way. Yet the image I had in my mind seems to have been far from who Marie Curie really was. Rather than  the wunderkind I'd always imagined, a woman who did everything in her youth and spent years afterwards simply fighting the system, Marie Curie who got a Master's at 26 (like I expect to!) and married the great love of her life at 27 (what was once considered old!) and achieved her doctorate over several years. Instead of the mythical all-capable goddess of my imagination, Marie Curie instead appears as a totally brilliant human. A human like me, perhaps. With its focus on Marie Curie as a person and not just a scientist, Madame Curie gave me the hope that perhaps I too can someday be this sort of scientist. In this regard, I cannot overstate how emotional Madame Curie left me, feeling as though I had been given a small gift.

As I said, this isn't the most technically brilliant of books. But Madame Curie is nonetheless important. Ève's perspective is unique and at-times significant, besides which there are few full-length biographies of Curie from which to choose. Madame Curie is a lovely, if oddly informal (and non-academic) biography of an incredible woman. And it meant so very much to me.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Abandoned and archived | Malentendu à Moscou by Simone de Beauvoir

According to my Hebrew translation of Simone de Beauvoir's Malentendu à Moscou (translated into Hebrew by Nir Ratzkovsky), this very short novella was "inexplicably archived by the author" and only brought to light in 2013. The edition tries to make a strong case for while this novella is worthy of resurrection or attention. I imagine that from an academic perspective, it's quite interesting. But from a literary perspective?

I abandoned the book despite being over halfway through its very slim frame.

At this point it becomes necessary to ask why. Why abandon such a short book in the first place? Especially when I was clearly so far into it? The answer is quite simply: I was over halfway through, and all there was to the story was a tension that suggested that I didn't want to keep reading.

The novella tells of an aging couple that goes to visit the husband's daughter from a previous relationship in Moscow. The alternating segments tell of each spouse's assessment of their life and situation in Moscow. They ruminate about growing older. They consider their relationship (separately). They think about their aching bodies and the alcohol they're drinking for dinner. It gets absurdly repetitive, coupled with a stunning lack of communication between the couple. This lends a growing tension that something is going to happen, as does the novella's title. It's just that at a certain point, I no longer cared. Let something happen! I won't stick around to read it.

Part of this is in the writing. As I said, there's a deep repetitiveness to their vacation. Daily walks, complaints, and contemplations that loop and loop with hardly any adjustments. And while I'm often a fan of repetitiveness as a literary tool, here it just wasn't supplemented with anything to give it meaning. It felt more like a writing exercise than a genuine unfolding story, and I could understand why de Beauvoir archived it rather than publish it. A story that started with a clear idea, but then got lost in endless meandering.

Hence: I have abandoned and archived it myself. Perhaps next time I should stick to the works de Beauvoir wanted me to read...

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere by Anna Gavalda | Review

I read Anna Gavalda's French Leave way back in 2011, having picked up that slim novella at a Border's going-out-of-business sale (a tragic day for my childhood nostalgia of the bookstore giant, a great day for collecting lots of books for little money). I wasn't all that impressed with the book, to be honest, finding it somewhat boring and fragmented in a not-exactly-enjoyable way. Even so, I would end up buying Gavalda's I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere (translated from French by Karen L. Marker) in 2014, during the first-ever WITMonth. And then it languished on my shelves for three years.

The truth is, I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere (hereby shortened to stories or this collection because the title is way too long) is a pretty great book. This short story collection was an exciting shift for me after a series of fairly disappointing single-author collections (in which style kept suffocating innovation or intrigue), largely because it is both delightfully short and wonderfully varied. Gavalda has a distinct enough style in each of the stories, but she plays around with different explorations of similar themes. Most of the stories are written in fairly conversational styles, but they managed to sound different and their topics varied widely enough that it didn't feel like I was rereading the same story again and again (as I had occasionally felt with Gail Hareven's most recent short story collection People Fail).

The stories range from young adult antics, to sexual escapades, to lost loves, to public tragedies, to rape, to anxiety, and more. While some of the stories made me roll my eyes (see: young adult antics), others had me on the edge of my seat, and others still had me crying softly for five minutes after the story ended. Enough of the stories wormed their way into my brain, touching me emotionally in a way that not all short stories are able to. Some just made me laugh.

The conversational, first-person will likely not be to every reader's taste. Neither will the sharp contrast between Gavalda's sly stories and the more emotionally daunting ones. To a certain degree, the uniformity of writing style compensates somewhat for the tone shifts between stories, but there remains an undercurrent of cynicism that seems to pervade every story, like Gavalda is highly aware of how her own voice is mixing with that of her characters. And while I hadn't really enjoyed it with French Leave, the brevity of these stories made sure that nothing got bogged down or too tangled. The stories don't feel especially long, but they're not quite brief either - that sweet spot of being "just right". For readers not opposed to conversational short-storytelling, this one is warmly recommended.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

WITMonth Day 27 | The Man Who Snapped His Fingers - Fariba Hachtroudi | Review

Let me just start by saying that you should read The Man Who Snapped His Fingers. It's a good book. It's an interesting book. It has flashes of depth that it doesn't always explore fully, but there's enough to contemplate here and to learn from.

The Man Who Snapped His Fingers translated by the excellent Alison Anderson is the sort of novel that catches you just a bit off guard. The flap - once again - does the book a slight disservice, almost trivializing the novel to that of a relationship that isn't exactly as described. So I came into the novel expecting a flatter sort of story, and was instantly hooked by a completely different sort of narrative.

And when I say hooked, I mean hooked.

The story is almost hypnotic in how it pulses, tugs and draws the reader along. The writing is mostly conversational, often direct in its pleas and presentations. There is an urgency in the way the Colonel relates his story, his anxiety, his unhappiness, his love. Compare this with the equally tense but far less dramatic narration from Vima, whose struggles seem all too close. This is the sort of writing that doesn't release you until you're done, and luckily the book isn't too long so as to inconvenience. (I would even go so far as to say that the book felt like it was at exactly the right length, with excellent pacing.)

The alternating narration bothered me less than I expected, because the shift is relatively gradual. First we have the somewhat incoherent ramblings of the Colonel, as he describes his life as a not-yet-refugee (and all the issues it entails...) and the unclear pieces of his past life. The book does not progress chronologically at any point, with narratives refreshed at different points in the novel from different perspectives. It makes The Man Who Snapped His Fingers perhaps a little less straight-forward than it could have been (and perhaps a bit too "loopy"), but the effect is one of a much longer novel, and one with a lasting impact.

All this without having addressed the politics. And The Man Who Snapped His Fingers is full of politics - the politics of love, the politics of refugees, the politics of oppressive regimes, the politics of gender, the politics of propaganda, the politics of manipulation - without ever feeling like it's especially overwhelming. These issues are at the forefront, but not exhausting. They're intriguing and thought-provoking, without weighing down the emotional core of the novel.

And the emotional core itself is political as well. Is it possible to forgive your torturers? Is it possible to forgive yourself? What does a love story look like from the other angle? What happens at the end of a political love story? The Man Who Snapped His Fingers is not exactly a love story, yet it thrums like one and spoke to me on an emotional level not unlike a very different sort of story.

I liked The Man Who Snapped His Fingers a lot. It was a hypnotic read, entrancing and engaging. I found myself thinking about it a lot in the days after reading it. This is definitely one of those WITMonth books I'm glad to have read, and can comfortably recommend onward.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

WITMonth Day 16 | Segu by Maryse Condé | Review

I picked up Maryse Condé's Segu (translated by Barbara Bray) at the library book fair a year ago, a tattered copy with about three annotations at the beginning and little elsewhere. (There was also a bookstore business card stub as a bookmark.) This wasn't an example of a novel I picked up because the content interested me very much, rather it was one of a handful of books by women in translation I collected that day and hoped would fit into my project more broadly.

I was thus pleasantly surprised by how much I appreciated Segu. I use the word "appreciated" for a reason - it's not that I especially loved the book, but I felt that it gave me a lot in return for what I took. It's a messy sort of family saga, with too many characters and narrative threads to keep track of at times (and the character list, unfortunately, doesn't do such a good job of filling in the gaps), but it also takes advantage of each and every character to tell its bigger story.

Segu is the story of Dousika Traore's family: his wives, his sons, his nephews. Each narrative thread tries to represent a sliver of African history, from the rise of Islam to the slave trade to Christian/European colonialism to tribal social changes. Some plot threads are thus more purely historical than others, which may also feel timely in their concerns (religious extremism, religious wars, white supremacy, etc.). It makes for interesting reading, even when the story gets a bit muddled.

The thing that ultimately frustrated me most about Segu was its treatment of women. While in many regards the narrative tries to build the women up (through the idolizing eyes of the sons, husbands, and lovers), they are nonetheless always framed as mothers or wives. The women rarely present the story from their perspective, and even when they do it feels specifically crafted around the men's narratives. It made me wish that there was another version of Segu, one that followed the women. Not just as mothers and wives, but as women with their own agency and struggles. Stories about the women raped by our main characters. Stories about the women who give birth to and raise these men. Stories about women who hear the call of the imams and are drawn to a new religion. Stories about women who continue to practice their ancient traditions and fight the new order in their own subtle ways. It is of course unfair to ask of a novel to transform itself into a very different story, but that was the strongest feeling I walked away with.

But not the only one, by any means. Segu's density is offset by how very interesting most of its aspects are, and by how simply readable it is. It's the sort of novel that just... continues. As much as there are moments that might drag the narrative down a bit, there are no truly dull patches (since the story skips around between its characters a little too freely...) and it's the sort of book that you really can immerse yourself within. And you should, because it's interesting and different and fascinatingly full.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

WITMonth Day 6 | The Lais of Marie de France | Review

I need to open this review by criticizing this edition: As much as I normally like Penguin Classics (and for some odd reason, I've had a strong affinity for them since childhood...), The Lais of Marie de France (translated by Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby) disappointed in one simple regard: There is less than 100 pages of actual content. And the book costs as much as a 500-paged text. As much as I recognize the work that goes into translating this sort of text and I thought the introduction was fascinating, it felt absurd that such a slim volume should cost so much and furthermore that it should come with so little extra material (the end of the edition has padding in the form of two of the lais in the original Old French - super not-helpful for most readers).

Having gotten that out of the way, let's talk about these bizarre, fascinating, modern, ancient, and hilarious short stories.

I love reading old texts, I won't lie. There's something incredible about recognizing how utterly human humans have always been. We hold certain assumptions about cultures past, yet every time I explore literature from those eras, I discover that... nah, people have always been people. Cultures change, but humans don't. And so The Lais didn't actually feel all that old-fashioned.

Men and women fall in love. Women get awkwardly pregnant and try to hide it from their parents. Men and women try to awkwardly hide their affairs from their spouses. Sometimes they get caught. Sometimes "true love" prevails. Sometimes true love isn't so true after all. Sometimes a queen pettily "accuses" a knight of being gay because he brushed her off. Sometimes a young married woman complains about her crusty old husband.

Humans are humans, on full display in these stories. And they're weird stories, to be clear. A good portion lack happy endings (which rather surprised me, to be honest - I was expecting glossed over fairy tales at first), another set have ostensibly happy endings but pretty tragic developments, and then there are those that just... hey! Love story! Happy ending! Have fun!

Like most classic literature, I feel distinctly unqualified to make any scholarly remarks about these Lais. I'm sure wiser readers could comment on the morality tales, on the way sometimes infidelities are rewarded and other times dismissed, on the critique of marrying off young women to old men who hide them away in towers (a recurring theme which I actually found quite fascinating and would love to read more about), or even on the way some stories baffling just end in some horrific imagery.

But I can only point to the parts I liked. I liked when the women resisted predetermined fates, finding their own loves and lives (shockingly enough, right). I liked when parents were reunited with long-lost children, and there was no nonsense about them being "bastards" or any such talk. I liked when the stories ended happily, truthfully, because it often felt justified. Sure, the love stories themselves rarely make sense and there's a lot of descriptions of how handsome the knights are or how beautiful the fair maidens are, but these little stories often build warmly.

This isn't the greatest book I've read in the course of my classics project, nor is it the most consequential. But it's still a curious little collection that paints those familiar romantic epics in a new light. Perhaps not worth buying, but certainly worth reading or exploring if given the chance.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

WITMonth Day 16 - Spotlight on Northern Africa

Jumping around continents a bit, but it's definitely time to broaden our horizons a bit. Let's see what Northern Africa's women have to offer, shall we? Note: This list contains books translated from several different languages, as befits such a broad and diverse geographic region.

  • Leila Abouzeid (Morocco)
  • Rita El Khayat (Morocco)
  • Mririda n’Ait Attik (Morocco)
  • Malika Oufkir (Morocco)
  • Amina Said (Tunisia)
  • Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt)
  • Radwa Ashour (Egypt)
  • Hala El Badry (Egypt)
  • Mansoura Ez-Eldin (Egypt)
  • Alifa Rifaat (Egypt)
  • Maïssa Bey (Algeria)
  • Assia Djebar (Algeria)
  • Malika Mokeddem (Algeria)
  • Ahlam Mosteghanemi (Algeria)
  • Leïla Sebbar (Algeria)
As always, this list is woefully incomplete and narrow. As always, compiling this list made me realize how many writers are not translated (and I'll talk about this a bit more in depth later in the month). But once again I find myself thinking, "Well, at least it's a place to start." So... onward we march.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

WITMonth Day 4 - Sphinx - Anne Garréta

Start with the obvious: Sphinx is a weird book. If you're picking it up, you likely know that. Whether you know its underlying concept or not, you can probably figure out just from the Oulipo tag it carries that this is going to be a strange and... unique novel.

I didn't buy Sphinx for the Oulipo aspect, to be honest. I purchased the book for another tag: "A modern classic of experimental, feminist, and LGBT/queer literature". One of my goals this year was to read more literature by queer women, or about queer topics. Sphinx isn't exactly what I was expecting, but its Oulipo-style experimentation makes it an interesting statement on gender and identity regardless.

Warning: the remainder of this post describes in part the Oulipean quality of the novel. If you'd rather come in blind, I would advise against continuing this post (as well as avoiding the introduction and the back-cover blurb or really any other review of the book...).

This isn't a real review of Sphinx. You can find far more nuanced and intelligent reviews elsewhere. My experience reading Sphinx was very much colored by my expectation of the queer aspect - the gender-bending, gender nonconforming aspects that were supposed to make the book stand out (specifically the fact that neither the narrator nor their lover are ever given a specific gender). I read the book constantly trying to figure out what my gender default would have been, trying to figure out what my sexuality default was becoming, constantly trying to better understand my biases as regards identity and sexuality. This made the rest of the reading experience feel... tame.

Because crisp as the writing may be, there's not that much  here that I haven't read elsewhere. Certainly not the musings on love or the disaffected youth aspect or the glitzy night-life angle. The narrator felt dully familiar, with that false cleverness that often trips me up on books. It was tedious at times, and beyond the constant game of gender expectations, I'm not sure how much Sphinx really challenges anything at all. Because the strength of Sphinx is in its concept (the vagueness, the nondescript, effectively); it doesn't actually tackle very many queer issues. They're there - tangent to the story, hovering around the edges in implications and suggestions - but not part of the story's core. There's not much in the story's core, for that matter.

Maybe I'm just a crank. Maybe I'm not sophisticated enough for "experimental" literature (and I suspect this plays some role). But I found Sphinx to be... alright. Not much more. Aspects were good - I liked the ending and I did appreciate what Garréta was attempting with gender - but on the whole I read the book with a hint of disinterest. Then again, most other readers have agreed that Sphinx is a unique and important book so maybe I'm alone in this. So I suppose what's left is... read it yourself?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

WITMonth Day 2 - Classics Challenge - Isabelle de Charrière's sharp romanticism

I most likely would not have been introduced to Isabelle de Charrière if not for the women in translation project. And this specific collection - a rare title by a woman in translation for Penguin Classics - is a fascinating portrait of Europe at the time, and an even more interesting comparison to significantly more famous writers.

Of course de Charrière is immediately compared to Austen (despite predating her). Penguin Classics resorts to the cheapest of comparative recommendations by noting de Charrière's writing "not unlike Jane Austen" in "[tackling] the intricacies of high society, particularly in matters of love". Really? So any woman writer - since Jane Austen and indeed also before her time - is like Jane Austen for writing about... life? Oh goodness.

This is further made absurd by the fact that de Charrière's writing is nothing like Austen's. Not only does her style itself lean very heavily towards epistolary and conversational (far more than Austen's detached, droll style), de Charrière writes far more bluntly about the problems of the world. The stories rarely end happily, and the nuances of complex existence are not tossed out for the sake of a simple romance. In fact, de Charrière seems to dance around her endings altogether, usually leaving the reader hanging.

And thus does de Charrière's The Nobleman and Other Stories manage to keep the reader intrigued. Not necessarily because each story is flawless - some are distinctly unfinished and fairly dull - but because there's a clear passion in each perspective. The stories follow similar structural patterns (generally epistolary), but often differ in tone or temperament. And de Charrière does a brilliant job of actually making the letters feel realistic. Unlike most epistolary novels (and certainly modern ones...) which lose realism points for talking only of plot, de Charrière goes on tangents and side-stories and rambles about clothing or whatnot. This could be interpreted as sloppy writing (and perhaps it is...), but as a huge fan of the realism side of literature (and realistic fictional webseries, for example), these storytelling quirks actually endeared me quite a bit.

There's a lot more I can discuss as regards de Charrière - her writing, her exciting life, her intelligence, her total lack of naivety and sugar-coating, her approach to storytelling - but I'll focus for a moment on her legacy, and its general lack thereof. de Charrière is not a low-tier writer - she was prominent enough in the day, and her writing largely stands the test of time better than many of her contemporaries (men and women alike). But her placement in the canon is... nonexistent.

I suspect that most readers (like me) have not heard of Isabelle de Charrière. And so consider this your introduction. Penguin Classics has thankfully produced this interesting (if at times unbalanced and repetitive) collection of de Charrière's shorter works, and it's absolutely worth reading through. If the purpose of the Classics Challenge is to showcase classic women writers who have sadly been sidelined, I can think of no better starting point than Isabelle de Charrière's sharp romanticism.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

WITMonth Day 7 - The Elegance of the Hedgehog | Review

Most of you have, by now, heard of The Elegance of the Hedgehog (henceforth referred to as TEOTH) by Muriel Barbery (translation: Alison Anderson). It's hard not to - it was the surprise hit-in-translation of 2013. In fact, it's one of the only translated-lit success stories that's written by a woman. Hard to pass up the opportunity to discuss, no?

What's more is that TEOTH can inspire some massive debate. Just by myself, I was able to spend hours arguing points back and forth - whether the novel is simplistic or subversive, whether the focus on Japanese culture is meant comparatively or whether it's just a bizarre oversimplification, whether the pretensions of the main characters are meant to echo those of the side characters they mock or are just a marker of bad writing, etc. You'll see a lot of reviews that praise TEOTH for its focus on Art, its charm, and its warmth. You'll also see a lot of reviews that bash its pseudo-intellectualism and banality. So, you know, it can go either way.

I tend to lean more towards the pseudo-intellectualism side, but with a little less vitriol, because though I had serious issues with the book, there were parts of it that I nonetheless enjoyed.

My biggest problem with TEOTH is the ideal that occupies its entire first half (which is basically its premise). We have two narrators: Renée (a 54 year-old concierge) and Paloma (12 year-old resident of the building). Renée's narrative occupies most of the story, while Paloma's thoughts usually fill in the blanks for us. The two tones are meant, I suppose, to balance each other out - Paloma's youth versus Renée's experience. Both woman and girl are remarkably similar in their assessment of the building's wealthy residents: dismissal.

Renée is an autodidact, a point she takes great pride in yet insists upon hiding from everyone in the building. She is Cultured, quoting Tolstoy, reading Philosophy tomes, musing about Art, and name-dropping composers. All, of course, in her head. To the building's residents, she is a simple, stupid, uncultured, lazy TV addict.

There are a lot of issues with the characterizations in the book, but I have to admit that this one is probably the most harmful. Though Barbery is clearly attempting to show that bright minds can also reside in unexpected places, she is simultaneously demonizing lower classes who aren't autodidacts like Renée. Sure, there's the moment that Renée tries to make the point that she is more open than her employers (because she also watches popular films), but her whole world-view is utterly skewed towards a judgmental, pretentious belief that culture can be easily defined.

Truthfully, this pretension is not uncommon, and it's hard to tell whether Barbery is attempting to deconstruct it (poorly), or is utterly oblivious to its implications. Renée is a character who spends most of the book utterly degrading her employers for their airs, but herself puts them on. She also judges them for seeing her as the character she has built. There's a clear hypocrisy in the story - Paloma's mother is mocked for her "Socialism", but the fact that Renée reads Marx to build her mind is somehow meant to be noble.

Both Paloma and Renée are much less clever than they think. Paloma - like many "precocious" young characters - is at least redeemed by the fact that she does occasionally act and sound like a child her age. For the most part, however, both characters walk around with a self-assurance in their abilities that is never backed up by their behavior. Renée may read and may glean pleasure from Art, but we see her dismissing any academic study of it, and she never really shows us a deeper understanding (which, quite frankly, would have been more obnoxious than her existing pretension, but would have at least justified her cockiness).

This has been a long introduction to basically say: Renée and Paloma are full of themselves.

There's a bit of the "special snowflake" effect to the whole book. Our three main characters (Renée, Paloma, and the late-introduced Kakuro Ozu) all ascribe to the idea of hidden brilliance. Mr Ozu is admired by the other residents for his wealth, but Renée and Paloma clearly see beneath that to his artistic side. Renée of course is hiding all of her unique abilities and her special knowledge, and Paloma is a self-proclaimed genius.


For lack of a better term, TEOTH is kind of a douchey book. It's got "charm" (rather, swagger), it's got cleverness (or is it?), and it's got a heap-load of hypocrisy.

So what words of praise could I possibly have for it? Turns out, quite a few.

First of all, though I don't think Barbery necessarily intended for this level of thought, but the hypocrisy displayed by Renée and Paloma actually goes a long way further in emphasizing modern class distinctions than the actual explicit references. The fact that Renée should only be judged intelligent by a very narrow definition of culture is exactly the opposite of everything she espouses. Meanwhile, Paloma bemoans the banality of her older sister's life, while engaging in equally cliched behavior herself. Whether intentionally or not, Barbery does inspire quite a bit of thought on matters of class, social standing, culture and self-importance.

Even the problematic matter of Barbery's gushing descriptions of Japanese culture - as non-French readers, we can certainly learn from this our own tendency to grossly glamorize other cultures. The irony that so many reviews have referred to TEOTH as so very French is only strengthened. Again, it doesn't seem like this was a directed effort on Barbery's part, but the unintended side-effect is actually quite interesting.

Finally, a confession: I liked the last part of the book. I liked the fairly silly role Mr. Ozu played in the story, and the more I think about it, the more I liked the awfully frustrating ending (which I believe was meant to be subversive, so there's a legitimately earned point for Barbery...). It's not brilliant, but it's a pleasant read and I found myself reading the second half of the book quite energetically (certainly more than the first half, which was a bit of a slog).

Is this a bad book? No. But it's a deeply problematic one. I can think of many readers who will find the class discussions interesting as is, and others who will appreciate both Renée and Paloma as characters. There's a reason the book has been so popular in so many places around the world, but reasons for the harsh backlash as well. Basically, literature proves complex. Once again.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

WITMonth Day 5 - A Very Easy Death | Review

How much does Simone de Beauvoir's memoir-like account of her mother's death truly belong in a month devoted to literature by women in translation? Is A Very Easy Death fiction? Is it a memoir? Is it something in between? Whatever it may be, A Very Easy Death is a woefully underrated little book that does a fantastic job of blurring the fact-fiction line and ultimately telling a story that is both powerful and utterly engaging.

"Utterly engaging" is one of those reviewer cliches - what does it mean for a book like this? To be perfectly frank, it means what it sounds like - A Very Easy Death is not a passive book, which once read no longer impacts the reader. Rather, this short text plunges the reader straight into the heart of death and family. It forces the reader to contemplate, to struggle, to ache and ultimately to feel. For a book that is so inherently personal, somehow A Very Easy Death manages to be extremely relevant to just about every possible reader.

Over the course of about 100 pages, Beauvoir lays out her mother's final days. There's a touch of fiction to the whole story, a sort of glossing-over that makes both prose and story feel like they've been sharpened somewhat (hence my hesitation to call it outright nonfiction). Regardless, in these few pages is a universal truth that will likely reach every reader. Beauvoir looks at old age, illness and ultimately death with a sort of clarity I don't think I've ever encountered in literature. In asking questions about end of life - touching on issues like whether to prolong days of illness, or have a quick death - she is probing matters that apply to every single person in the world.

The attitude towards an ailing parent, meanwhile, is likely equally relevant to most readers today. Even younger readers such as myself (who are hopefully not yet remotely near imaging their parents in such a position...) can relate, whether in regards to grandparents or their own future. Throughout most of the book, I found myself thinking about my grandmother's last months - her fight to prolong her life as much as possible, and whatever further pain that may have caused her. I thought about my living grandparents, and what they might go through in the years to come. It's these sorts of thoughts that lead me to label A Very Easy Death as "engaging" - it engaged me to apply its ideas to my own world, and to think... differently.

A Very Easy Death is more than a simple story about dying. It's also - more broadly - about family. Beauvoir describes a relationship with her mother that is, like most relationships, complicated. In one particularly moving scene, Beauvoir contemplates her different reactions to her mother's body over time: openness as a child, revulsion as a teenager, and now a sort of uncomfortable openness late in life. Her discomfort at staying in the hospital, her fears of leaving her mother, her fears of staying by her mother... these help paint a strikingly clear portrait of family ties. Beauvoir discusses her mother's response to her father's death as well: a woman who essentially reinvented herself later in life. And though neither relationship is itself given the primary focus of the book, Beauvoir's relationship with her sister also provides structure to the main-stage story.

But death - the process - really is the point here. What is the dignity of dying? Or of old age at all? How should the dying elderly be treated - coddled and protected, or told the truth every step of the way? What of the physicality of it all? Beauvoir doesn't offer answers to all these questions. I don't believe there are any. What she offers, however, is better - a perspective. And it's certainly a worthwhile one at that.

* I read this book in the Hebrew translation and was unable to track down the name of the translator into English.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Unsettling, one step further | Beside the Sea

It's kind of hard to start a book like Beside the Sea without knowing how it's going to end. Maybe it had been spoiled for me in the past (a basic Google search brings up major reviews that completely spoil this novella's end...), maybe it's just something so hypnotically expectant about the writing, but the story's end didn't feel particularly surprising. That said, I'm not going to spoil it. I'll leave you anxiously expectant, as I was. But I will give you the bare-bones summary: a single mother takes her two sons on an unexpected trip to the sea. There. Story - summarized. That's a review, right?
We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us.
I've encountered reviews of Beside the Sea that tout its opening sentence as encompassing the mood of the novella.  Other readers have focused on the phrase "so no one would see us" in that first sentence, commenting that here the mysterious mood is set. Why would anyone board a bus in such fear? Who would care? But for me, the line that really captures Beside the Sea comes just a bit later, when the mother says: "I wanted us to set off totally believing in it." And here I ask another question, the one that defined my reading experience: believing in what? I felt expectant, I felt like I was waiting for something.

Beside the Sea is the type of book you'll read in one short, rather intense setting. Is this also something everyone else has already told you? Probably. Probably because it's true. Beside the Sea is short - terribly short - just that length and pulsing and hypnotizing that you don't even notice it's well past midnight and you have a test the following morning. It seems like nothing really happens until the last two pages, but then everything seems to have happened (in retrospect). It is no doubt a very unique novella, but I really don't know how much I can say I liked it.

This happens sometimes. I appreciate the artistic value behind Beside the Sea, because it's just bursting with it. The simple writing, the rather incredible pacing, those occasional punchy sentences that leap from the page... and then there's the hint of the bigger story, which Olmi never introduces to us. We catch only glimpses of the mother's life beyond her children, masterfully written in such a way that it's not as though it's just a topic she's avoiding, rather it's something that hasn't come up specifically.

And of course the ending. Not surprising in the least, it probably won't actually catch readers off guard. But if people admire the opening sentence, I have to admire the closing one - in three words, Olmi leaves readers even more unsettled and uncomfortable than everything else that had come before it. That's a pretty major achievement. But still. I couldn't actually like the book. You can't just like this type of book. And I can hardly imagine recommending it to someone. I'm not sure I'd be able to look them in the eye and hand off this strange and powerful experience. I'll leave that decision up to any prospective reader, I suppose. On your own head be it.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

And in conclusion... Three Strong Women

So I finally finished Three Strong Women by Marie Ndiaye and I've even had some time to absorb it and think about it a bit. It's an interesting book, but I find myself struggling to actually recommend it to readers. As seen through the rear-view mirror, Three Strong Women works much better than it did while I was actually reading it. Fit together, the three stories that make up this book suddenly seem clearer and more sharply tuned. But this does not detract from the book's flaws.

I mentioned in my last post that I was developing a theory about the title: Three Strong Women. Now, after having read all three stories I want to discuss it a bit more in depth because I think this is the strongest argument both in favor of reading the book, and possibly against it as well. This post will contain spoilers.

Okay. We have three women: Norah, Fanta and Khady. Norah and Khady give us their stories firsthand; Fanta's story is seen through the eyes of her husband. The three women face various struggles throughout their stories, mostly revolving around men in their lives. These are not romantic issues, though the dynamics of romantic love do come into play in each of the stories. These three women are supposed to be our "strong women". But truthfully, not one of the three is a strong woman by my definition, and this is in fact what makes the novel an interesting one.

Norah is technically the closest - she is independent, supports her daughter, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend's daughter, and is a successful lawyer despite whatever issues she may have had as a child. Yet she lives under her father's shadow, jumps when he says jump and in essence succumbs to his strength throughout her story.

Fanta is similarly submissive, but what are her character traits? We know she has had an affair (which her husband Rudy discovered), but stayed with her husband, despite all observations indicating her unhappiness with him and their general living situation. Is her strength found in the fact that she stays with a troubled husband, or is it found in the fact that she even followed him to France in the first place? Fanta is supposed to be a strong woman, but no textual evidence supports it. Seen through her husband's eyes, she is almost deliberately flattened.

And then Khady. Khady starts her story out completely submissive - indeed, admitting to having closed herself off. She then makes one pivotal decision, which she proudly views as her first shot at independence. But this strength and her independence lead her into a complex mess of issues that culminate in a rather heartbreaking ending. So what's the lesson here?

I've seen a lot of readers and reviewers call Three Strong Women conservative, and there's something about that word. When our "strong women" are not truly strong at all, it can seem as though Three Strong Women is actually conservative, restrained and old-fashioned. But I don't think that's the case. Ndiaye treats her characters with care, but there's a sense of irony behind everything she writes. Once I finished the book, the suspicion I'd had that Ndiaye was ironically referring to these women as "strong" intensified. I'm not one-hundred percent convinced, but... that's what it feels like.

Here's the thing: I will recommend Three Strong Women to certain readers. It's an interesting, thought-provoking book and even though Ndiaye's writing will probably not appeal to all readers, it didn't bother me too much. The very fact that I am still uncertain as to Ndiaye's true intentions leave me intrigued; I suspect these certain readers will be equally curious.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Three Strong Women, part two

It only seems fair that after posting about Three Strong Women's opening story, I should also post about the following novella. Attentive readers of this blog will notice the wide time-lapse between my last post mentioning the book and this one - indeed, it took me significantly longer to read the second story in the collection than the first.

The obvious reason - that the second story is fifty pages longer - is really not the main factor in why this took quite so long to read (and no, a busy life is not an excuse). The truth is that this second story is simply not as good. At least, it didn't get good until past the halfway mark, when suddenly my reading pace shot up from ten pages a week to fifty pages in one afternoon.

I saw a reader mention in some review (I unfortunately can't remember where) that the second story is not even about a "strong woman", but rather about a weak man. This is a pretty apt description. If Marie Ndiaye's collection was intended to showcase strong women, the central novella does a pretty bad job of it. The strong woman in question would be Fanta, but unlike the previous story's Norah, Fanta is nowhere near being the protagonist of the story. That honor goes, instead, to her husband, Rudy, who is perhaps one of the most miserable and down-in-the-dumps characters I've ever encountered. Fanta is instead viewed through Rudy's eyes, giving us what should be a one-sided impression (though, to credit Ndiaye's writing, Fanta feels surprisingly real).

Rudy is the heart of the second story, and truthfully, he is also what drags it down. His passive anger and general meh-ness throughout the first half of the story is powerful and relevant to the impressive culmination, but it goes on for too long. Here, Ndiaye's tendency towards questioning, one-sentence paragraphs grows a bit tedious. Rudy's thoughts repeat and loop in what is a very sharp description of a troubled mind, but this is not exactly enjoyable or smooth reading. The story doesn't really hit its stride until Rudy's outlook begins to change (and the tone of the story changes accordingly).

I've only just started the third story, but already its flow is significantly better than Rudy's story ever was. It'll be interesting to see how it fits into the collection thematically. I have some thoughts on this idea of the "strong women" so far, but I think I'll wait until after the final novella to see how it all plays out.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A sophomore stumble | Dreams from the Endz

Faïza Guène's first novel, Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow (Just Like Tomorrow in the UK edition) was an interesting and thought-provoking coming-of-age novel dealing with the North African immigrant experience in France with I rather enjoyed, despite some flaws. Guène's sophomore attempt, Dreams from the Endz (which does not appear to have found a home in the US), touches on many of the same themes, but unlike Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, lacks a direction that would turn it into a coherent novel.

Guène's writing style is recognizable from the first page - I inherited Dreams from the Endz from my sister, who remarked that the book was "unreadable". But it's not truly unreadable, it's simply Guène's rough, sometimes overly speech-like style. Similar to the cynicism of the teenaged Doria from Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, twenty-four Ahlème of Dreams from the Endz speaks in a blunt, often jarring style. Doria's speech made sense for her character; Ahlème gives off the feeling of a split character, as though she's several things at once. Her speaking style is a little less believable in someone her age, even as Guène has perhaps improved certain aspects of her writing.

The problem, it turns out, is the absolute lack of story. Dreams from the Endz is a snapshot book, showing one single, struggling family in the down-life of Paris' suburbs. Ahlème's search for a job, or for a better life for her younger brother Foued, or her constant concerns about being deported... these all paint a very interesting portrait of a less-well-off portion of France's population. The immigrant experience is clearly felt. The problem is that Guène does not take it further - there is no story beyond these small images. There is no resolution, nothing towards which the novel progresses. Even the characters remain rather stiff and clumsily developed. Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow suffered from much the same problems, yet with its feet firmly planted in the coming-of-age realm, it managed to move past most of its issues. Dreams from the Endz did not.

Is Dreams from the Endz bad? No. But it's not particularly good either. I don't think I could recommend it to readers, even those who read and enjoyed Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow as I did (a book I would recommend, with some reservations regarding the writing style). The book is a short and remarkably quick read, and though the portrait it paints can teach a reader quite a bit, there isn't much around the snapshots to make it a particularly worthwhile book.