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

Friday, August 17, 2018

WITMonth Day 17 | The Years of the Voiceless by Okky Madasari

It's difficult to review a book that I know wasn't written for me. This is one of the best parts of the women in translation project, when I get to encounter a book that is so utterly outside of my comfort zone and area of knowledge that I feel my mind reaching out and growing in response to the new information. The Years of the Voiceless by Okky Madasari (translated from the Indonesian by Nurhayat Indriyatno Mohamed) was not written for me, for a Jewish-Israeli woman specifically who has never formally learned anything about Indonesian history or culture.

That's part of what made The Years of the Voiceless so appealing to me. I often feel like the translations I read are inherently politically framed (see this post from last WITMonth), especially in terms of which books are chosen for which audiences. So many translations feel as though they are heavily vetted by whether the English-speaking audience will be able to "handle" the text (this, I should note, is true of both very "highbrow" literature, and "commercial", but this is a topic for another time). The Years of the Voiceless didn't feel like that at all, probably because it wasn't. I didn't get The Years of the Voiceless from an indie US/UK publisher. I got it from the very excited Indonesian representative at the London Book Fair in 2016, after I told her about the women in translation project. She happened to have a copy of The Years of the Voiceless on hand and gave it to me as a gift. It may have taken me two years to get around to reading the book, but I am grateful for the gift, which was more than just a book.

From a technical perspective, there are a lot of things I can point to in The Years of the Voiceless which are less than perfect. Bearing in mind that this is a translation done internally, published by an Indonesian publisher and likely not really meant for particularly broad international audiences, the writing/translation is not exactly stellar. There are clunky bits and awkwardness in the use of footnotes to explain certain cultural nuances (but not others). The pacing of the novel is also somewhat suspect, with a remarkably (disappointingly) rushed ending that feels like it cheated its characters out of a proper, dramatic denouement.

Yet these points feel minor in the face of how intelligent the novel is, and how much it demands of its readers. While reading The Years of the Voiceless, I kept wondering what it would be like if I knew more about Indonesian history or literature. Indeed, I've read only one book out of Indonesia (Leila S. Chudori's Home) and that was specifically about the expat experience. The Years of the Voiceless was the first time I had ever encountered Indonesia up close. The two books end up forming an interesting contrast, with Home bluntly addressing the source of Indonesia's conflicts (Suharto's authoritarian regime at its most obviously cruel) and The Years of the Voiceless quietly pointing to the seismic shifts in Indonesian culture under his influence (without once mentioning his name).

In this form, The Years of the Voiceless ends up feeling more sharply tuned than Home. Where Chudori uses exile as a narrative framing device, The Years of the Voiceless is immersed in day-to-day, village Indonesian life. Madasari exposes authoritarianism slowly, its creeping influence growing in the lives of the characters until it eventually encompasses them.

The Years of the Voiceless revolves around mother and daughter, Marni and Rahayu, each representing a different generation of Indonesian women and their own struggles with a "modernizing" Indonesia. Where the illiterate, traditional Marni builds herself up as a businesswoman and money-lender only to constantly face hatred/bigotry, sexism, and a corrupt system that only takes, Rahayu is a modern Muslim ashamed of her mother's "sins" who finds herself immersed in a political mess as her interest in Islamist teaching increases. The two encounter the power of the state in markedly different forms, but the outcomes remain the same - when Marni and Rahayu's story converge, the full tragic implications of authoritarian regimes may be seen on full display.

One of the things I especially liked about The Years of the Voiceless was that it never offers simple explanations. Marni's business grows as a result of her money-lending, directly borne out of her hard work. Yet her wealth is deemed to be her husband's before hers, she is loathed by the very people who use her services, she is constantly forced to "donate" to the ruling party and to petty bureaucrats in order to survive, and her daughter views her with disgust. This latter point is of particular interest, with Marni exasperatedly trying to understand how Islam can denounce her business, while their local Islamist teacher constantly uses her services without paying his debts. Marni may be illiterate, but she has a clear-eyed understanding of business. We see most of the world through her eyes, where she largely ignores the actual politics of Indonesia and focuses predominantly on her own struggles.

Rahayu's story complicates things further. It is here that the extent of state-inflicted violence becomes apparent, once Rahayu effectively abandons her agricultural studies and becomes a teacher of Islam. Rahayu is simultaneously a reflection of Indonesia's modern Islamist leanings, but she also represents a lot of the hypocrisy that came with the shift. The novel is not explicitly critical of Islam, not by any means, but there is a quiet recognition of the way it was used (and occasionally abused) in the name of power. Much like Marni's interactions with the Islamic teacher from their village, Rahayu finds herself as a second wife (unrecognized, effectively no more than mistress) in a way that seems to emphasize the hypocrisy of several men of faith taking advantage of their position and the women around them. That her relationships and their consequences ultimately drive the drama of the last portion of the book feels especially meaningful. The personal becomes the political; the political is inherently personal.

All in all, it's hard for me to assess The Years of the Voiceless in a truly objective way. From a technical perspective, there is a lot to criticize (as I mentioned earlier), but the technical feels absolutely secondary to the story and the message. But how much of my response to the story is driven by the fact that I personally have hardly been exposed to these sorts of narratives? Would The Years of the Voiceless feel as intelligent and sharply critical if I had read significantly more Indonesian literature? Perhaps it would simply feel like another narrative describing the creeping onslaught of authoritarian horrors. (And I can't possibly imagine that being relevant to any of the political situations in the world today, not one, nope.) I feel as though I lack the proper context and understanding to give The Years of the Voiceless its proper due.

But as it stands, with this reader being the uneducated, ignorant boor that she is - I found that I really appreciated The Years of the Voiceless, learned a lot from it, and was emotionally engaged. This wasn't a mere technical exercise - I truly got angry for Marni on a number of occasions, at one point even directing my anger aloud and declaring that she should just leave her village behind. It's far from a perfect book, but it worked for me and it provided me with a fascinating perspective on Indonesian history that I don't think I could have gotten in any other way. I have a feeling it might do the same for other readers as well.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

WITMonth Day 12 | 10 Recommended Historical Fiction Books


Ever since I was a child, one of my favorite genres has been historical fiction. There's just something about sinking into a world that is both richly different from my own (the way that fantasy or science fiction might be), but also rooted in history and delightfully educational. To this day, I love reading historical fiction and then immediately going to the sources: Did this really happen? What was life like in this country during this time? How did the events that affected these characters actually play out? What else was going on during that period? And so on. As a result, I'll often try to get my hands on as many historical fiction titles as possible, especially those from different countries, backgrounds, historical periods, and perspectives. There's so much of the world to explore through historical fiction!

  1. The House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende (tr. Magda Bogin): A modern classic of Latin American literature and the epitome of a "sweeping family epic", spanning decades and infusing its history with magical realism.
  2. Segu - Maryse Condé (tr. Barbara Bray): A stunning, expansive, and emotionally pulsing history of Segu (modern-day Mali), exploring religion, changing customs, war, and family.
  3. Little Aunt Crane - Geling Yan (tr. Esther Tyldesley): The history of a Japanese woman left behind in post-WWII China, taken as a secret slave surrogate womb for a childless young couple and gradually becomes a member of their family in a rapidly changing China.
  4. The Doctor's Wife - Sawako Ariyoshi (tr. Wakako Hironaka and Ann Siller Kostant): A quiet and quietly directed story of the wife of Japanese doctor Hanaoka Seishū, her influence on his work, and the lives of Japanese women during the late 18th century.
  5. Dance on the Volcano - Marie Vieux-Chauvet (tr. Kaiama L. Glover): The story of Minette, a young Haitian woman with exceptional singing talent, shunned for her race but admired for her talent, all alongside Haiti's tumultuous history and history of racism.
  6. The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem - Sarit Yishai-Levi (tr. Anthony Berris): Jerusalem through the eyes of the women of the Sephardic Ermosa family, "cursed" never to be loved by their husbands, spanning the Ottoman empire, the British Mandate, Israel's War of Independence, and through modern Israeli history.
  7. The Court Dancer - Kyung-Sook Shin (tr. Anton Hur): A young dancer in the Korean Empire's court finds herself in a new world and new life, but unable to escape the old.
  8. The Queen of Jhansi - Mahasweta Devi (tr. Sagaree and Mandira Sengupta): Something between biography and historical fiction, an account of the epic Queen of Jhansi in her battle against the British.
  9. The Free Negress Elisabeth - Cynthea McLeod (tr. Brian Doyle): The fictional history of Elisabeth Samson, a free black woman in Suriname overcoming racism.
  10. Granada - Radwa Ashour (tr. William Granara): The history of the Spanish-based Muslim-Christian conflict and Arab history at large.



Sidenote for those who notice: Yes, it was intentional.

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...

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

History by Elsa Morante | Review

A colleague of mine saw my copy of Elsa Morante's History: A Novel (translated from Italian by William Weaver) at work, lifted it, and whistled. "Heavy!" he remarked, and then read the back cover. "In more than one way..."

And this seems like the simplest way to explain what History is - it's a heavy novel. Of course, any novel that delves into World War II is likely to be on the less-cheery side, but there's something uniquely bleak about History, perhaps because it is so simply written. In the introduction, Lily Tuck discusses Morante's goal of having a novel that is accessible to more than just a literary class; this effect comes across rather strongly, with a rich-blooded novel alongside a devastating war story.

There is an intentional (I presume) irony in titling the novel History when it focuses so precisely on a single narrative thread (and indeed the Italian title of La Storia implies a duality of history/the story). History alternates between a huge, panoramic scale that chronicles the crushing progress of history from the start of the 20th century, and the individual family drama of Ida Ramundo and her two sons (Nino and Useppe). And while many historical novels of this style tend to have the individual story echo the broader historical context, History curiously doesn't really do this. While there's an obvious reflection of Italian and European history in Ida's story, it's sharply limited as compared to the parallel "history". This is even acknowledged in-text, with the occasional reference to additional horrors never mentioned in the main plot.

Ida's story is more than a metaphor for a tumultuous century. Ida is described early in the novel as having these sorts of fits - clearly epileptic seizures - which often coincide with certain more "historical" events and accompany the novel. The story truly begins with Ida's rape (thankfully frequently referred to as a rape in-text, with little sugar-coating or hand-waving, with a rather cold acknowledgement of rape's role within war), in a deeply uncomfortable scene that rather predictably leads to the birth of Ida's second son, Useppe.

Useppe becomes a sort of lens for the story, focusing it and also providing it with a rather chilling context. Poverty becomes just a little more present when it's experienced by a baby. Fear of racial laws for the mixed-race Jewish Ida becomes a matter of life-and-death for her ambiguously fathered son. Survival becomes something so much more.

Ida's firstborn son fulfills another purpose. The teenage Nino starts out as a rather vocal supporter of fascism, but his character morphs and shifts almost according to public Italian opinion. He soon begins to reflect a sort of political chaos, alongside his own drive to survive and selfishness in relation to his family. Nino's story seems to link to the bigger "history" than Ida/Useppe's, but it too is kept relatively personal rather than generalized.

The novel also introduces several other characters, and here it at times stumbles. I found that I rather liked the narrator's effect of filling in two pages of side-story about a half-mentioned character, keeping the reader up-to-date about their (usually tragic) end. At times, however, some of these stories clogged the main narrative (portions of Davide Segre's story, for instance). For a novel that's over 700 pages long (heavy), History definitely had more than one subplots that could have been trimmed or entirely cut. Particularly in the latter portions of the book, Morante's almost pathological need for bleak character development dragged down the story somewhat and distracted from the stronger focus on Ida.

With regards to the writing, I found myself struck early on by the strange sensation that History read like a George Eliot novel. This might have been because I'd been rereading Middlemarch just before, but there was something about History's omnipresent first-person narrator that reminded me of Eliot's writing. This, naturally, is one of the highest compliments I can give, and I truly enjoyed the casual-yet-precise style that History employed. The occasional detours, the personal touch of the narrator that couldn't possibly know as much as she/he did, the often-conversational style... these end up making History accessible in exactly the way I imagine Morante wanted it to be.

But that first impression - this novel is heavy - remains throughout. There is no respite from the horrors of the period, there is no ultimate victory. War has a lasting effect, and History sets out to make sure we do not forget it. This is far from an easy novel, but as many others (and wiser) have said, it's necessary reading. We can all learn something from it.

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.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Nun & Sky Burial | Two minireviews

The Nun - Simonetta Agnello Hornby
This is a weird novel to review. Simonetta Agnello Hornby's The Nun (tr. Antony Shugaar) is an odd, somewhat imbalanced, generally entertaining novel that disappointed me somewhat in its ending and in little failures throughout. The writing was solid and the main character Agata was extraordinarily alive, but there was something... off about the book.

First of all, I'll note that in terms of basic readability, The Nun passes: the moment Agata is so sympathetic (despite... not actually being a sympathetic) is the moment the reader remains hooked. Because The Nun is a novel that very much tells of Agata's growth (or lack thereof), her rebellion and struggles and traumas and dreams. Agata is interesting largely because she's complex: her initial dreams are sweetly young, but there's a bitter aftertaste of her persistent stubbornness, even in areas where she could have perhaps acted differently (especially later in the book, where her motives dissolve into a strange mess of "why is this happening?").

The Nun is all about Agata: forced into a convent by her mother in a bizarre game of politics and personal spite. Both of these factors come into play throughout the book: Agata is constantly seeking approval from her mother (despite recognizing her spite), and constantly stumbling through the political mechanics of the period. The politics frame the story interestingly, but never quite pan out, and I often found myself baffled by the lightness with which Agnello Hornby treated many of these issues (that is: she did not develop them nearly enough).

Finally, the book has a series of love stories at its heart. Truthfully, none of these stories particularly worked for me, and I would have been happier with a technically "colder" book, but with the same sharpness of mind that Agata was given. Oh well.

Sky Burial - Xinran
So... Sky Burial (tr. Julia Lovell) is just a weird book. There's a level on which I absolutely understand the mass appeal (touching story, foreigner's view of a different culture, sparse language), but I also could not (could not) reconcile the genres. Was the nonfiction? Fiction? Fictionalized reality? Something else entirely?!

The story is ostensibly that of a young Chinese woman who goes to find her husband, presumed dead in Tibet. What follows is her journey through Tibet as she searches for him, getting lost multiple times and finding home with different nomads. As befits this premise, the ending is uplifting (sort of?), inspiring (ish) and meant to convey a powerful statement about love (yeah, actually).

If I sound deeply cynical, it's because I am. The story reminded me of a lot of survival stories I read as a child (specifically, Julie of the Wolves, and I'll explain further in a moment), with the same sort of saccharine appreciation of the exotic culture our narrator is suddenly cast into. As a novel of Tibet, I found myself less enlightened than confused, often wishing I had a more direct (and firsthand) narration of the experience. Xinran is writing for our narrator, who is elderly and I seriously doubt was able to remember so many extremely specific details (hence my skepticism as regards the definition of this as "fiction" versus "non"), and herself relaying a lot of secondhand information. My head hurt from all the retellings.

So why the cynicism? Ultimately, Tibetan culture is expounded upon just as much as wolf behavior was in Julie of the Wolves. Our narrator is still "The Human" and has a purpose in life that is completely separate from the "Other" nomadic group "The Human" is traveling with. It felt... wrong. Less believable, less representative.

I should point out that the book is still very interesting and informative, even if largely through native Chinese eyes. It's a fairly quick read, and probably a fair starting point for literature about Tibet (I hesitate to call it "Tibetan literature" for the obvious reasons). It's not exactly a bad book, but its memory faded somewhat unpleasantly in mind in the weeks after reading it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

History across borders - The Twins | Review

Tessa de Loo's The Twins (tr. Ruth Levitt) was another one of those unexpected women in translation finds - I checked it out of the library largely because it had seemed like the most interesting random find of the day. And indeed, the book was both "interesting" and "unexpected" - the latter because of my embarrassingly low expectations of the book (something I'm trying to correct through this project), and the former because the book really does tackle quite a bit.

The Twins has a standard enough literary premise: twin sisters Anna and Lotte are orphaned as young girls in the 1920s and separated, one staying in Germany and the other crossing the border into Dutch territory. The two meet again unexpectedly in a Belgian resort as old women, after decades of disconnect. Just from the initial framing, you could guess where the story is headed, but de Loo doesn't bother to be coy about her story's intentions. Instead of vague, false-subtleties leading up to the war, Anna and Lotte address the schism that the war created right off the bat. Lotte - Dutch at heart, with few memories of her original father and life before her second family - views Anna suspiciously from the start.

This bluntness provides the story with much needed breathing room, but also echoes some of the writing flaws in the book. While the writing is largely clean and engaging, there were moments where I hoped for a quieter story, something a little more subtle and thoughtful-behind-the-scenes. It's a creative choice that I didn't enjoy so much, though there's no doubt it made the story flow more comfortably, without the anxiety that most books of this kind have surrounding the war. It's also the safer choice, opting for a more uniformly enjoyable reading experience than one that challenges the reader directly.

de Loo seems to rely heavily on the frame story, to the point where I often wanted to shake her grip on it. We are subject to a number of descriptions of Anna and Lotte walking through town, shivering, sitting down to eat, sitting down to drink, rehashing what was just told in the flashback... These emphasize the problems with flashback narratives, because as interesting as the frame was at times (largely through Anna's strange status as an anti-hero, and Lotte's constant acquiescence), it didn't hold up.

The frame - as well as the story itself, to a lesser degree - succeeds in showing the reader how easy it is to "forgive and forget". Anna progresses from half-apologies about German "involvement" in the war to emphatically arguing that her SS husband was not actually SS, he did not believe in it, he was not at fault. Anna is a mouthpiece for a Germany at war with itself - she is contradictory, passionate, aware of her mistakes, but also remembers her virtues more clearly. Lotte, meanwhile, spends a large part of the frame arguing this point with Anna, at times baffled by her victimization and disgusted by her nonchalance.

In the flashback sections, we grow to understand both these women. Lotte - with her problematic but ultimately whole family - risks everything to take in Jewish friends and refugees. Lotte is a representation of Dutch resistance, of a musical Europe in which Jewish fiances get taken away and in which a family hides more and more Jews in their countryside home. Anna represents poverty and rejection - her traumatic childhood with abusive family coupled with her simultaneous dislike of the Nazis and later complacency echoes a Germany at large. It's a clever way to tell the stories of larger countries, while making each seem sympathetic within the context of their personal avatar, despite being largely unsympathetic on a personal level.

The Twins thus ends up being a much more interesting World War II narrative than you'd expect. It's a fairly accessible sort of book, with writing and framing geared towards a broad audience (again - safer), but it's not poorly written. There's a solid flow to the story, and both Lotte and Anna end up fully fleshed characters (if problematic ones on an internal level). I will note that I found the ending to be an unnecessary cop-out (particularly if viewed through the representative lens I mentioned above), and a cheap way to end any story. Altogether though, the book is interesting, thought-provoking, and written from a refreshing point of view (how often are women stand-ins for a whole country?). The Twins may not be a seminal literary work or the most brilliant war novel I've ever read, but it does something nonetheless unique with a fairly stock setting and is worth thinking about.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Shades of Milk and Honey | Review

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 30, 2014

WITMonth Day 30 - Historical fiction

I've been a bit sick the past couple days (hence missing two days in a row of posts...), so today's post will also be a little light on the meat. Instead, I'll just plop down a literal list of a couple WITty historical fiction:
  • The Budding Tree by Aiko Kitahara - I've already mentioned this one as one of my favorite underrated titles, so it shouldn't be so surprising to see it crop up on a list of my recommended historical fiction. The Budding Tree is a great historical account of women living in Edo, as well as a beautiful character piece.
  • Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall - I didn't get a chance to review this novella over WITMonth (even though I did actually read it this month!), but I think it comfortably falls under the category of historical with its sharply tuned eye for the Holocaust.
  • The Time in Between (or The Seamstress) by María Dueñas - This one doesn't get talked about much in the more "literary" circles (perhaps because of its marketing, perhaps because it really is much more of a straight-up historical fiction book) but it really is quite good. It's the sort of novel that you get sucked into pleasantly, and manages to surprise you nonetheless. I read it a couple years ago and enjoyed it quite a bit, gaining more appreciation for its styling over time.
These are only a couple that come to mind, while there are many others out there which I have not yet read. Any recommendations?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

WITMonth Day 11 - The Last Quarter of the Moon | Review

The first and most important thing to note in this review of Chi Zijian's The Last Quarter of the Moon (translated by Bruce Humes) is that before reading this book, I knew literally nothing about the Evenki (or Evenks), the ethnic group around which the novel is centered. This means that while I can comment on literary style, writing, characterization and indeed my own interest in the history at play, I have practically no knowledge regarding the authenticity of this story, and whether it stands as an accurate representation of the Evenki.

This is relevant because the cultural aspects were one of the things I enjoyed most about The Last Quarter of the Moon. Not necessarily the specific insights (though those were obviously interesting, particularly in comparison to other northern ethnic groups I've read about), rather the themes they represented. The book - which spans most of the 20th century - looks quite a bit at the clash between tradition and outside progress. At the novel's start, the Evenki are fairly isolated, yet as history marches on (and the Japanese invade...), familiar conflicts begin to arise. These are themes I find particularly evident in my own life, where the tug of war between modern culture and religious tradition can often have a significant real-world impact. Chi presents this issues without really answering them - truthfully, I don't think there are any clear answers, and I rather liked the more thoughtful ending she decided to go with.

From a story perspective, I viewed The Last Quarter of the Moon a bit like I viewed the children's classic Julie of the Wolves back in the day - it's a fascinating piece about a world I know nothing about, and now want to know more about. Chi does a wonderful job of showing different aspects of Evenki culture - art, writing (or lack thereof), family dynamics, social structure, religious order, and more all come into play throughout the novel. As per the disclaimer at the beginning of this review, I cannot make any claims on the authenticity of the book (or whether aspects of it are inaccurate), but I certainly found nothing to be outwardly offensive (to my untrained eye). The Evenki are neither overly glamorized nor garishly drawn, a nice change from the all-too-common "exotic" trope. It's unfamiliar and new, but it also flows fairly naturally (with a couple reindeer exceptions).

From a more technical perspective, The Last Quarter of the Moon holds up just a little less. It's a well enough written book, no awkwardly translated bits, and generally the flow is good. But for such a huge epic to be contained to relatively so few pages (~300 pages) means that the pacing is always going to be a bit off, plus there's a slight problem with character development. The cast of characters here is quite large, some with the same name and others with similar-enough names (Russian sounding names that start with a V...). It gets... confusing. I constantly had to refer myself to the family tree at the novel's start, which unfortunately only included family members and not other tribe members (which often made it more confusing).

As for the characterizations themselves, this was probably my biggest issue with the book. We spend some ninety years with our nameless narrator, yet truthfully I felt like she was simply a placeholder for most of the book. She is the lens through which we can learn about the Evenki, but as a character with her own motivations and personality, she was fairly lacking. Most of the other characters were similarly one dimensional, missing out on an opportunity for a greater emotional investment. Most had some sort of story-based relevance (one character's arc in particular was a brilliant bit of storytelling about "the greater good", but a disappointment in emotional resonance), but I felt like Chi could and should have fleshed them all out some more.

On the whole, I think this is definitely a novel worth recommending. The Last Quarter of the Moon is not a flawless piece of literature, but it's got quite a bit to it: history, culture, art, meditations on tradition, on violence, and even occasionally on gender roles. As a novel it's somewhat lacking (particularly in the characterization department...), but overall as a book I found it quite interesting and enjoyable.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

When the Emperor was Divine | Review

Julie Otsuka is one severely underrated writer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Trieste | Jumbled thoughts

It's been well over a month since I finished Trieste (Daša Drndić, tr. Ellen Elias-Bursac). Well over two months since I started it. My opinion of it hasn't changed much since I began this strange book; I appreciated some of the many things it tried to say, but I didn't like the book and overall felt like it was a form of torture to keep reading it.

Splendid, right?

The problem with books like Trieste is that it's very hard to separate between what I feel and what I know. I know that I should find Trieste to be a powerful statement on war, and love, and all politics, and the Holocaust, and literature as a whole (because goodness, it takes some audacity to spend a good chunk of a novel with a straight-up list of the names of Italy's Holocaust victims). My logical, "literary" mind sees that Trieste is probably a Great Work of Literature. It's Important, and Powerful, and is making a Statement.

That doesn't mean it's doing any of that particularly well, though. And that doesn't mean I have to like it. Because I didn't like it. I understand it, and I accept it, and I even appreciate it to a minor degree. But I didn't like or enjoy the reading experience at any single point.

Trieste is another in a long line of novels that bothered me with its completely disjointed writing style. This is a style I've seen more and more frequently in literature in translation, often with all sorts of boasts about the writing's "subtlety" or "intelligence" or a number of other code words for LITERARY. The truth is that most of these books are actually more concept that content, and the trend towards this type of writing has pissed me off on more than one occasion. Trieste can't escape the pitfalls that frustrate me: vagueness does not equal subtlety. Lack of context does not mean complex. And blurring the liens between fact and fiction to the point of including photographs with absolutely no references and without bothering to explain yourself does not make the book clever, it just makes it confusing.

So here we have a book that wears its confusion like a badge of honor, and writing that alternates between two major styles that essentially follow two major stories: one, a completely loose, meandering writing that follows the life of Haya Tedeschi, and two, tightly constructed dialogues about the Holocaust. Suffice to say I found the dialogues to be much more successful than Haya's story, in large part because there's little I hate more than a book that only reaches the blurb-promised story in its last fifty pages. And because following Haya's story was a bit like trying to keep your eyes on a mosquito late at night after it's bitten you four times - impossible.

The dialogues succeed in a way that Haya's story doesn't for a simple reason: their task and goal is clearly defined, with little room for variation or getting off track. The dialogues have their breadth, certainly, ranging from discussions about actual war crimes, to "interviews" with dead victims, to interviews with SS officers. Here, Drndić also blurs the line between fact and fiction, but the result is a powerful Holocaust narrative that succeeds in breathing new literary life into a genre typically bogged down by its predecessors. These snippets alone could have formed a very different, but altogether more successful book, in my opinion.

Alas, now we need to turn to Haya's story. Which is altogether a messy, disappointing setup to a surprisingly poignant, thought-provoking final quarter. I won't pretend that I didn't find the last portion of the book to be significantly more interesting than the first three, but there's a saying: too little too late. After an epic struggle to even reach the novel's end (despite being consistently interesting and thought-provoking), I certainly found myself thoughtful by novel's end, but also extremely unhappy and fairly disappointed.

The disappointment stems from a fundamental approach to literature - characters need to have something that draws a reader to them. Sometimes that's a powerful voice, sometimes it's a strong personality, and oftentimes it's just a rollicking good story. Haya's story in and of itself is fairly tame in the context of Holocaust literature - until the final portion of the book, her story mostly revolves around her family's history of moving around, her later years as a math teacher (a detail I quite enjoyed, I'll admit), and connectors to the broader Holocaust story. But on a personal level, it was definitely lacking.

I think to a large extent another reason I was unhappy was because of how many topics Trieste attempted to tackle. Stories about each of these individual elements - the Italian/Baltic Holocaust, the Catholic Church's policy regarding Jewish children who'd been placed in Christian homes and their abhorrent policy of keeping them from their parents post-war, a Jewish woman having a child with an SS officer, German racial policies, etc. - would have been powerful and interesting. A story that tackles each and every one of these is, for lack of a better term, too much. It's all over the place. It's exhausting. And it loses from its impact.

I don't think I can say I actively disliked Trieste, though I certainly didn't like it. I didn't want to keep reading it, and though I did ultimately feel as though I gained something from this book (can I really call it a novel?), it was the sort of wiped out feeling you get when you climbing to the top of a steep mountain and instead of the promised view, see only a cloud of fog around you. Trieste is not a book I can ever see myself handing off to other readers, nor can I possibly imagine myself rereading it. So while I can appreciate what it was trying to do, alas, I don't think it's a particularly good book. I'd be curious to see what Drndić does with a slightly less overly-ambitious setup, but let's be clear: if someone ever tries to recommend a book to me based on similarities to Trieste, you can bet your finest hat that I won't be reading it.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Budding Tree | Review

I wanted to write about The Budding Tree the moment I finished reading it, but I got sidetracked by other books. Now, just over a month after finishing it, I feel that I have done the book a clear disservice. Aiko Kitahara's lovely collection of short stories (tr. Ian MacDonald) is a perfect example for why I feel there needs to be more literature in translation. Not only is The Budding Tree brilliant in its portrayals of women attempting to carve out an independent existence for themselves, but it's also a beautifully written book overall, and a fascinating historical fiction account.

The Budding Tree: Six Stories of Love in Edo is not remotely about romance, even as it is about love. This collection of loosely linked stories focuses on six women striving to live their lives in a society that maybe isn't quite ready for their independence yet. Opening with a story about identity and honor, we catch glimpses of the struggles young women had just in living their lives. We see a teacher, a restaurant owner, an artist, a designer, a performer, and a scribe, each one with her own complications (often tangentially linked to one of the previous stories). These are women with men in their lives - often in a romantic context - but the stories are about them, about their struggles, their desires and their hopes.

Ultimately, each of these stories is about women's freedom. In one story, a woman's ex-husband attempts to convince her to return to work in his failing restaurant, which she managed when they were still married. The attempts are marked with threats, both directly from the ex-husband as well as from the loan sharks currently keeping the other restaurant afloat. The story is set against the backdrop of an increasingly volatile economic situation in Edo, with rampant starvation and inflation. It's ultimately both powerful in its portrayal of economic hardship, as well as in its characterization of a woman doing all she can to remain independent in both her work and her personal life.

I should emphasize that no aspect of The Budding Tree tries to portray either men or women as caricatures. The men are not merely bullies in their attempts to dominate women. Nor are they objects of affection, occupying the entirety of the women's lives. Meanwhile, the women are neither portrayed as frivolous for their love, nor are they forced to completely forgo it. These are not "strong female characters" in the traditional sense of the word, but each of them is clearly a well-written woman with her own story to tell.

The writing in The Budding Tree is perfect - a good balance of quietly lyrical, with a clean, crisp tone overall. It's a lovely read - neither too sparse nor overwhelming with sticky prose. Coupled with a very even, calm pacing and a series of stories that are interesting, enjoyable and powerful, The Budding Tree is ultimately a very good book. Nothing here is bombastic, nothing is particularly flashy or attention-grabbing, but all together the result is of a woefully underrated book that deserves to be better known.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Surprising depth | The Golem and the Jinni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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