Showing posts with label novellas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label novellas. Show all posts

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck | Review

I will admit, I first tried to read Visitation several years ago. There was so much buzz, so much praise, I was so excited for this slim novel. I started reading it and had to set it aside within six pages. "It's unbearable," I remember telling my father. "So stop reading it!" he responded, pointing to the towering stack of additional library books I had next to the couch. I followed his advice, and moved on to better books. It was my second negative experience with Erpenback, having read (and disliked) her novella The Book of Words a year earlier. I concluded, rather reasonably, that Erpenbeck simply wasn't a writer for me.

I would buy Visitation a few years later, after reading (and adoring) The End of Days, a book I can both admit to have loved and one that I think is a true masterpiece. The End of Days is such a brilliantly written novel - innovative, but not a slave to its innovation, clever, but not frustrating, emotional, but not tedious. Reading it felt like a revelation and a suggestion that perhaps I could love Jenny Erpenbeck's work. After all, I read The Book of Words at a time when I had little patience for more experimental fiction, and after all, I never actually read Visitation...

So I bought Visitation. It would take me almost a year and half before I could bring myself to read that book which still left a bitter taste in my mouth, only from those first few pages. And guess what? I couldn't quite figure out what specifically had left such a strong impression in those early, vague pages, but oh my goodness did I have the exact same sensation throughout the entire book.

What a shame.

And here's the thing: I'm not the same reader today as I was even three years ago. Every book I read adds to my consciousness and changes how I experience the books that follow. I read Visitation during a reading slump; I imagine this impacted how I interpretated the book. It felt clunky and slow, as though I was reading through tar. Even though it took me so long to get through it, it left no impression. It's been a month since I finished it, and I can hardly tell you a thing about it.

Oh yes, I can vaguely recall the novella's concept, and there is a plotline and a half that I recall. But the book felt so thin (content-wise, not just in terms of length) that not a speck of it remains. I formed no emotional attachment to any of the vaguely described characters. I didn't enjoy the loose sketching of post-war Germany. The politics felt distant and meaningless. And the book itself, for something so short, dragged. It was like a road cutting through a forest, that instead of taking a straight, logical line, twisted around itself as many times as possible before reaching the end.

I didn't like Visitation. I feel like a bad reader for admitting this. I feel like I've failed the book blogging community that adores Erpenbeck, that constantly praises her writing for its intelligence and depth. Goodness, I feel like I've failed as a reader, that somehow the problem is - again - that I didn't understand the book. Maybe I'm not clever enough, maybe there's a cultural context I'm missing here... And here's what's incredible: I wrote pretty much the exact same thing when "reviewing" Erpenbeck's The Book of Words five years ago.

Maybe, as with many books I've read in recent months, I have lost patience with books that are all style over substance. The End of Days worked, in my mind, because Erpenbeck found an excellent balance between the two; it's a creative exercise that works, crafting a character the reader can grow attached to and spinning a story that manages to both entice and challenge. The End of Days did more than just tell five versions of a character's life, it managed to make each the absolute focus. It managed to make each feel utterly consequential. Visitation fails in large part because it doesn't ever find its emotional hook. Like The Book of Words, I am left with absolutely nothing to say about it. The book has left no impression. There is only the concept and clever as it may be, concept just isn't enough for me. If that makes me a bad reader, so be it.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

WITMonth Day 27 | "And the Bride Closed the Door" by Ronit Matalon

It's been a whole, long WITMonth... and I haven't spoken about an Israeli writer yet. Let's talk a bit about Ronit Matalon, shall we? Bit really... only a bit.

See, I first encountered Ronit Matalon with The Sound of Their Steps, which came strongly recommended by a bookseller. I... didn't love it, mostly for the style, but it was undoubtedly good literature. Fast forward a few years, and And the Bride Closed the Door comes out. It is short, crisp, and good. Subtly political. Wholly personal. Emotionally engagimg. Quietly revolutionary. This is a novella that has a little bit of everything to it, in mostly the right amounts (a few jokes about a clearly queer cousin fall very flat) - a bride who abruptly announces that she's not getting married (day of), family trauma, love, obligation, poetry and more.

My favorite part is the balance between personal and political. Unlike The Soumd of Their Steps, in which the politics felt very direct, here they sneak in gently, while tackling similar themes of class and ethnicity. The difference in length also makes a difference, with And the Bride Closed the Door raising more issues than it claims to solve.

I promised a brief review, so here it is: Here is a novella that well deserves a home in English (and other languages). Remember it.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

WITMonth Day 9 | One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun

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

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

And I liked it.

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

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

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

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

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...

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

WITMonth Day 17 | The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto | Review

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Michael Emmerich) joins the too-long list of books with woefully inaccurate book jacket descriptions. The blurb on the inside flap makes The Lake sound like a book full of distant, unloving characters and a pervasive mystery. It's makes it sound like a dark thriller lurking behind a facade of a "quirky" love story.

It's not. And it is much better for it.

The Lake is actually a genuinely sweet story, framed by the "mystery" and oddness Nakajima, its male lead. Told from the perspective of the somewhat lonely - but otherwise kindhearted - Chihiro, the book tracks the two's slow and somewhat tentative love story. I use the word tentative to contrast "hesitant" (as used in the book jacket description) in large part because it's not that there are any indicators that either Nakajima or Chihiro are actually hesitant about entering a relationship, rather that their relationship progresses somewhat awkwardly and non-traditionally.

As a love story, there's something oddly endearing about it. Chihiro is constantly asking herself when exactly she fell in love (whether she fell in love), but her actions and behavior display how strongly she feels even when she can't quite figure it out herself. It's harder to understand Nakajima, and not just because he isn't the narrator. Nakajima is, as Chihiro notes, odd. He doesn't share everything and Chihiro knows that there are parts of him he's hiding.

But I loved the moments in which both are just normal young adults fumbling in love. The discussion the two have about their careers (Chihiro is a painter, Nakajima a biology/medical student) was almost laugh-out-loud refreshing for me, in how naturally the conversation flowed (and felt eerily familiar; the question of whether people are capable of understanding what scientists do is a conversation I've had many times...). The book also carefully examines Chihiro's relationship with her parents, a piece of her history that is complicated and difficult at times, but doesn't weigh down her story.

There were other little things that I liked a lot, too. Unlike The Briefcase, where I felt that the characters were all so cold and distant, Chihiro and Nakajima both felt living and breathing. More than that, I loved the small characterization of Chihiro as someone who cares for children. While it may seem like a minor detail, it was the sort of tiny character piece that made her seem more human and... warm. I was able to care about her. And even though Nakajima is a distant character by definition, I found that I cared about him as well, from the small moments where he reveals insecurities (despite how difficult it is for him), to more simple scenes like when he and Chihiro discuss food.

The book flows pretty well, though the writing at first felt a bit jerky and out of place. On the one hand, the bulk of the story can be condensed into a pretty short piece, but parts of it felt like long, quiet meditations. The book overall is quite short and quite a quick read, balancing these two effects out for the most part. Though I felt that the beginning and the focus on Chihiro's family didn't always fit in with the later pieces (and that the ending came on just a bit abruptly and info-dump-y), the writing is clear and simple and never quite stops. It feels like the book could have gone on for another hundred pages (or another thousand) just as easily. And though I would have wanted about five more pages of denouement and a slower final reveal, it feels like the story ultimately ended at pretty much the right place. The right feel.

The Lake isn't a loud book. It doesn't try to shout any message, and it sometimes fumbles its own plot just a little bit. It's not the most lyrical writing you'll find and it's not the most staccato storytelling and it isn't filled with the most sharply "quirky" or unique characters you'll ever meet. But I liked it. I liked it a lot. It's sweet and warm in just the right way, emotionally engaging without being overwhelming. This might not be the book for everyone, but if you're looking for a fairly quiet love story with questions of self and the nature of love itself, The Lake is a pretty good choice.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

WITMonth Day 13 | Memoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal el-Saadawi | Review

If I had to give Memoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal el-Saadawi (translated by Catherine Cobham) a one-line review, I'd probably say that it was an interesting (if forgettable) book that didn't really move me much in any direction.

That makes writing a review a bit difficult, particularly in light of the long gap between when I read it and the time of writing this review. I recall the feminist message of Memoirs of a Woman Doctor fairly clearly (particularly the fact that it doesn't always resemble "Western" feminism), as well as the relationship the narrator had with her brother. But that's about it. It's only by browsing now that I recall the narrator's failed marriage, the struggles she has in establishing her practice. The way the role of a woman within Egyptian culture is central to the plot. Even the narrator's musings on the failings of modern medicine in relation to her own desires.

This sort of amnesia doesn't bode very well for this novella. Truthfully, it's not all that good on a technical level. That is... conceptually, it's a powerful, interesting narrative, with a strong message about women's roles and feminism in an at-times unyielding world, alongside a central theme of mother-daughter relationships. But the writing is awkward, the story is that weird balance of not-fully-fleshed and poorly-padded. Parts of it felt like they were written too directly, thoughts to page without any literary adjustments along the way.

Memoirs of a Woman Doctor is a great example of a book that is improved by its context. Under normal conditions, there is little to recommend here (especially since the book is extremely slight, and the font surprisingly large...), yet the content - and the complex world this content lives within - is almost important enough to justify giving the book a second glance. No, it's not particularly well written (though there are a handful of beautiful lines and images), nor is it an inherently moving text. But its position as a frank literary piece chronicling a somewhat unique position alongside a rarely heard feminist worldview makes it interesting. And also, yes, important. Its voice may wobble, but it has something to tell.

Monday, August 25, 2014

WITMonth Day 25 - Faces in the Crowd | Review

Though I wasn't aware of Valeria Luiselli before preparations began for WITMonth, the closer we got to August the more posts and reviews of her books began cropping up on my radar. The praise was overwhelming - recognition of her prose, her style and her clever writing. I knew that I'd have to read one of her books (both translated by Christina MacSweeney), and so I opted for the novel - Faces in the Crowd.

Here I must admit to being a little less enamored than most other reviewers. I appreciated a lot of what Luiselli tried to do in her slim little book and recognize the literary talent behind it, yet truthfully I found much of it a bit tedious and, despite its short length, long-winded. Faces in the Crowd is comprised of short blurbs (sometimes only a sentence) that cover alternating stories: a young translator in New York, a mother of two writing in Mexico, and a writer in the US in the early 20th century. These three narratives overlap (particularly near the end) in what can only be described as "fiction wrapped in fiction". Luiselli takes some level of pride in her unreliable narrative - the seeming "frame" story (of the mother) is often contradicted by her husband, yet her husband in each of these stories is himself a fictional character... contradicting his fictional aspects.

This turns the entire story into an extremely meta form of fiction. There is no objective truth, because everything is a fiction. There is no clear character, because none seem to exist. While certain figures remain as fixtures (the boy, for example, remains constant throughout the mother's story, as does his baby sister), others are built fluidly and vaguely. It's unclear who the narrator of the modern New York story is - it starts out as the mother, then merges with the 1920s. Meanwhile, the husband (perhaps the most fictional character of all) decries these stories as pure fantasy (lies), but in one segment he "shouts" this, and in the next asks why his wife wrote those words down, he never actually said them.

All of these fragments are interspersed with little notes on Gilberto Owen, a poet with whom the translator/mother is obsessed with. Owen himself only becomes a main character when his own narrative enters the story (relatively late in the book), and it was at this point that I found my attention slipping. His stories felt repetitive and looped, with lots of name dropping and fictional name dropping that didn't really further the story. His perspective of course casts a lot of doubt on the other story as it overlaps more and more, but I found it... less convincing. I felt that Owen's story could have been presented differently, and though it's obviously a brilliant piece of writing, it didn't really hold my interest so well.

When it comes to the writing though... this book reigns. Faces in the Crowd has some of the best styling of any book I've read in a long time, with some truly brilliant ideas and riffs and games. The writing is quick, deceptive, clever and extremely put-together, with a sense of control that is fairly rare in books of this sort. It's also deceptively simple: short sentences, sure, but they form to create a confusing, complex landscape. Plus, there's this brilliant riff that repeats itself throughout the book: "A horizontal novel, narrated vertically". Luiselli constantly references the shape and format of this novel (or is it the fictional novel...?) in beautiful phrases that I wanted to frame and mount on the wall.

It comes down to this: there were some major aspects that frustrated me with Faces in the Crowd, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a fairly brilliant book. I didn't like all of it and also find fault in some of its more ambitious attempts, but the writing is very, very good and the ideas - though flawed - create a narrative that is both interesting and distinct. And while it took me a long time to get through it, this is not a particularly heavy, difficult read, yet it is quite rewarding. Definitely worthwhile.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

WITMonth Day 14 - There a Petal Silently Falls | Review

I read Ch'oe Yun's There a Petal Silently Falls (a collection of three fairly not-short stories, tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) on the basis of a single tweet from Tony (of Tony's Reading List fame) - I saw the tweet, looked up the book, requested it from my library... and three days later I was sitting on the couch and mulling over the book I had just read.

Truthfully, I didn't particularly enjoy There a Petal Silently Falls while reading it, particularly the title story which seriously unnerved me. All three stories are a bit strange, but in surprisingly different ways. "There a Petal Silently Falls" is confusing in its messy, non-linear and ambiguous narrative, "Whisper Yet" felt exceedingly partial to me, as though half the story was missing, and "The Thirteen Scent Flower" (which was easily my favorite of the stories) contained such a strange and frankly fantastic (from fantasy) story and setting that it can't help but be viewed as a little offbeat.

The more I sat and thought about the collection as a whole, the more I began to wonder about what I had missed. Even a quick skim of "There a Petal Silently Falls" revealed a deeper understanding of the story, even if (after reading the afterword) I realized that I was missing fundamental historical context. This missing context suddenly put the story in a whole different category. No longer was it confusing because of poor writing, it was suddenly obvious to me that it was confusing because I lacked the necessary background to fully understand it. This doesn't take away from the fact that I was confused, but it explained how a story so vague could nonetheless get away with employing such a twisted style. Suddenly the baffling point-of-view switches in the story seemed not like a weird post-modern mess, but a fairly brilliant trick.

The same was true of "Whisper Yet". Once I reached the end of the story, I understood that there had been many small clues scattered throughout the shorter story that built up to something fairly meaningful. And yet without the proper context, the story simply felt loose and scattered. This wasn't quite as extreme as "There a Petal Silently Falls" (of course, "Whisper Yet" is significantly shorter...), but there was still just a bit of reader frustration on my part.

It may well be that "The Thirteen Scent Flower" also had some deeper level of context that I didn't pick up on, but honestly I enjoyed the story even without it. Unlike its two predecessors, "The Thirteen Scent Flower" has a bit of an uplifting message, and its characters are oddly endearing. There are certainly darker undertones to the story, but I doggedly refuse to view it as anything other than sweet, because after two grimmer stories, I honestly needed something cheerier. Plus there's a lovely bit of scientist satire there that rings particularly true. Even with its clever social commentary, it manages to be a really enjoyable story.

I didn't get the impression that there's any explicit link between any of these three stories, but I have to admit that they work fairly well as a whole. The stories balance each other's weaknesses - one with stronger messages but weaker characters, another with stronger characters but weaker writing, another with stellar writing but a blurry message... Thematically the three do all touch on modern Korean struggles and society, but in such markedly different ways that I'm hard-pressed to say that the stories are really tied together.

Once I'd thought for a while, I had to concede - yes, there was a lot to appreciate in this collection. It was less forgettable than I thought it was going to be while reading it, and also less "all over the place" (particularly after reading the afterword which - again - provided me with some much-needed context). The writing is interesting, often experimental and different (not always precisely to my liking, but there's no denying that it's very smart, very good writing), and while not all the characters were quite as memorable as others, their stories were. It's not necessarily a book I'd shove into any reader's hands, but it's definitely worth taking a look at. And while her approach isn't necessarily my favorite, Ch'oe's writing is certainly interesting enough to keep me on the lookout for more.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly | Review

This novella right here is one of the reasons I so strongly believe in having a dedicated Women in Translation month. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, right here, this book, serves as such a perfect example for why I've been championing this, and why it means so much to me.

Sidebar: the cover is positively lovely in print
The reason I read literature in translation is the same reason I read sci-fi, the same reason I read fantasy, the same reason I don't like mysteries, the same reason my tastes shift every few years - it's because above all else, I seek diversity in my reading. I don't want to read formulaic novels and I don't want to read about ideas that I'm already familiar with. International literature checks off many of these boxes comfortably, because often a different upbringing and a different culture heavily influences the type of book an author is likely to write. In the same way, gender is likely to influence it as well.

So we come to The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, a short fable about a hen who, yes, dreams she can escape her coop, lay an egg and fly away from the life she's lived until now. When the story opens, our hen Sprout (a name she chose herself, since of course to her human masters she's nothing more than an egg-laying hen and useless as long as she is not fulfilling that task...) is reaching the end of her egg-laying days. She can feel it coming on. And she wants, desperately, more than anything, to be a mother to a chick.

The story that continues from there is sweet. It's powerful. It's meaningful. Anyone who reads The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly will recognize the strength of the maternal theme that runs through the core of the novella. Sun-mi Hwang (ably translated by Kim Chi-Young) doesn't simply look at the ordinary desire for motherhood (and yes, I recognized while reading the book that there might be a perception of an assumption that motherhood is the default for females, though I really don't think that's the point...), but at the actual practical implications. Motherhood appears in different forms - desperate, voluntary, loving, frightening, overbearing, understanding - it's almost overwhelming. If we're ever going to discuss whether men and women write differently (which I really, really don't believe), I think this would actually serve as a good example for different styles: men writing about motherhood so warmly is fairly rare...

But The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is not just about motherhood, and it's not just cheerful, plucky hens flapping around trying to get their way. The messages here about family in general, culture, belonging, and even farming as a concept stand fairly central in the story. It's a fascinating little book, one that made me think about all sorts of issues for several days after I finished it. Unique, different, pleasant, thoughtful and intelligent... what more could you ask for?

I really recommend The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly. I've seen certain reviews call it a "lighter" fable as compared to something like George Orwell's Animal Farm; to be perfectly honest, I think that assessment has a bit of the "male=serious, female=fluff" mentality to it. This is a novella that packs major punch in its "domesticity" (quite literally, actually), and while it doesn't aim to represent totalitarianism or hypocrisy or anything Orwellian of the sort, its piercing and, yes, lovely focus on motherhood, love and family is equally powerful.

The writing style is very, very simple, as befits a story narrated by a chicken. Readers who like their prose a bit meatier may find the childlike style frustrating; I personally felt that it matched the story quite well. Sprout is a fascinating character (beyond her chicken-isms), and her world is one filled with messages we could all do well to remember. This is a book I'm very glad to have found, and very glad to have read. There's a lot to love here.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

When the Emperor was Divine | Review

Julie Otsuka is one severely underrated writer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Dreams and Stones | Review

If ever a book to serve as a transition from solving physics problems to reading literature, Magdalena Tulli's Dreams and Stones (tr. Bill Johnston) is it. This short book - and I hesitate to call it a novel, for reasons I'll soon elaborate - has so many delightfully physics-y moments, shining in its cool appraisal of this world we live in.

Dreams and Stones is hands down one of the most quotable books I've ever read. Filled to the brim with brilliant lines about momentum, or about specific cities, or about the nature of stones, or about the nature of man, it was hard not to spend the entire book just highlighting away and writing "BRILLIANT" in the margins (eBook, of course, because I doubt I would ever highlight a print book, no matter how quotable it may be...). Individual sentences were so clever, so intelligent and so well-observed that I couldn't help but view the book altogether very positively right from the start.

And yet I don't think overall I can call this a particularly good book. Because though the writing is fairly brilliant when viewed through a microscope, the bigger picture shows a very disjointed work. I really loved each individual bite of Dreams and Stones, but the overarching narrative was loose and fairly lacking in cohesion. It's abstract writing at its most vague, its most scattered, and its most frustrating.

That said, Tulli did manage to hit on some themes fairly strongly. There were the fairly obvious hints against a totalitarian, overbearing state (and the subsequent counter-city concept), but Tulli also seemed to tackle the Holocaust through this very specific, blurred lens. This section - near the end of the book - felt a bit more directed than any of the other ideas bandied about, but it also may remain open to interpretation. With my own personal experiences, I was only able to understand it as Tulli's method of acknowledging Poland's national shame... but perhaps other readers will view it differently.

I hesitate to call this a novel for one simple reason - there isn't really much here. Dreams and Stones is a meditation: a long, hardly interrupted monologue about the growth of cities and thoughts on their subsequent influence on humans. There are no characters (except perhaps the residents of the city, but they provide as much emotional connection as the stones do), there is no plot, and there is very little in the way of emotional pull. It's a book based on ideas, but unlike others of its kind (the oft-compared Calvino, Borges), the lack of a personal dimension placed it a bit further out for me.

There is one final comparison I must make. A few months back, when I reviewed the truly astounding Kalpa Imperial, I mentioned that that novel had one of the greatest thirty pages of literature I had ever read. Those thirty pages belong to the short story "Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities". While reading Dreams and Stones (which is obviously longer than Gorodischer's phenomenal story, but not by that much), I couldn't help but compare the two. Both look at the changing face of a city, yet while Gorodischer's city sprawls and shrinks and we get a pure, clear image of it over thousands of years, Tulli's gaze is turned too deeply inwards. I could easily see Gorodischer's city in my mind's eye, but despite spending much longer with Tulli's, it remained vague and evasive. This is clearly indicative of the two author's differing styles, but I definitely preferred Gorodischer in this case (also: everyone should read Kalpa Imperial).

It's not that I disliked Dreams and Stones. It's an extraordinarily intelligent and thought-provoking book, brilliant in its individual passages and overall hits many of the right notes for me as a reader. But after having read "Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities", having read Calvino, and in general having read enough books that do abstract without just being vague, I couldn't help but feel Dreams and Stones disappointed somewhat. I'm definitely going to read more of Tulli's books, but I hope that her others have a bit more to them than just isolated brilliance. Obviously a talented writer, but as a clear, coherent novel, I'm not sure Dreams and Stones really works.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Review | Stone in a Landslide

I didn't like Stone in a Landslide.

Could that be my entire review? Could I leave it at that, in the hopes of avoiding riling up readers I know enjoyed this book? Could I avoid awkwardness with the publishers, with the translators, with everyone involved in the project and just ignore this review? I could do all of these things... but I won't. That's not how it works.

Before now, I'd read three books published by Peirene Press. Though there was one I clearly liked less (the rather uneven Next World Novella), each offered a unique perspective and each had something about it that nonetheless kept me enclosed in the story. But the three also had a rather similar writing style - a bit disjointed, a bit loose... the kind of post-modern style that is popular in certain circles. It's not my favorite style and it sometimes hindered my appreciation of these novellas, but all in all, the first three were positive experiences.

Reading Stone in a Landslide was not. For such a short novel, I found myself struggling to remain interested in the story. And for good reason too: Stone in a Landslide has neither plot nor characters to latch onto, making it extraordinarily difficult to become emotionally invested in the story. Over at Goodreads, the publisher blurb describes main character Conxa as having "a voice totally free of anger and bitterness". This is true, but it's true because you could easily change that sentence to "a voice totally free of emotion". In the next paragraph, we're told that Stone in a Landslide has "everything": love, loss, history, death, war, etc. All of which is technically true. The book mentions each of those things. It just doesn't know how to feel them.

The story is this: Conxa is forced to move to her aunt and uncle as a young girl so that her family can avoid starvation. Though the move is said to be temporary, she ends up spending the rest of her life (essentially) in this new village, for all intents and purposes losing touch with her parents and siblings (who are only ever mentioned again in brief, offhand comments). This new life is described as being full of hard work and dedication, but we see none of it. Within a few years, Conxa falls in love with Jaume. There are approximately three paragraphs worth of courting and drama, then they marry. They start a family.

Around this point in the story, Maria Barbal slips in the first explicit reference to a year, grounding us in reality. This turns out to be more of a flashing warning sign for the war ahead. Except... not really? The war and its aftereffects are treated with the same dulled hand and the same utter lack of tone that the previous sections had. Tiny flashes of clever writing and thoughtful observations make their way into the narrative at this point, but it just isn't enough. From here until the end, the story is like a toy that's running out of batteries - slower and slower until it finally comes to a halt.

Does it seem like this is the bare-bones of the story? Yes. That's exactly what it is. Stone in the Landslide does one thing well, and that's its remarkable ability to skip over many years in the space of a sentence. But the pacing is still off, because nothing fills these gaps. The story is nothing more than an outline, and there is no hope of filling it in.

I didn't like Stone in a Landslide. I didn't like Conxa as such a detached narrator, who constantly tells rather than shows. I felt nothing from her - no real love for her husband, no real love for her children, no passion, no fear, nothing. And since Conxa's head is all we have, there are essentially no other characters. Jaume is nothing more than a prop, the children are nothing more than dolls Conxa occasionally feels possessive of, and Conxa's aunt and uncle serve more as a reminder of the "old days" than they actually have personalities themselves. Nobody has any personal spark that could make them remotely interesting to me as a reader.

But surely the writing! you must say at this point. The writing must be good, if so many other readers enjoyed it! If Peirene published it! But like I said, I have a bit of a different taste when it comes to Peirene's preferred writing style. The loose style found in previous novellas was once again present here, and once again failed to impress me. More than that, the writing was sometimes downright clunky, with passages that actually jolted me out of the reading experience. ("Even in the bumping and bouncing cart, I could feel myself trembling. It was happiness.")

It was impossible to read Stone in a Landslide without immediately comparing it to the significantly superior The Time of the Doves. These two Catalan books about women in the Spanish Civil War tell very similar stories, yet in markedly different ways and with clearly different results. Barbal minimizes her story so very much and spreads it out over the years such that nothing has a particular impact. Everything is told in a bland, dead-sounding voice; nothing is felt. Rodoreda looks at a more narrow slice of time and spreads it out over many more pages, but she delves deeper into the characters. She shows the world around them.

If you read the publisher summary Peirene provides, it sounds like they readily admit that there's nothing particularly new in Stone in a Landslide. In fact, their description of what makes up for the lack of voice is very similar to how I myself described The Time of the Doves in my review. At the end of the day, I can't view Stone in a Landslide as something unique because it isn't. I can't view it as well-written, because my reading experience was uncomfortable (at best). I can't pretend like I cared about the book, because there was just nobody to care about and nothing to learn from. It's a prime example of a pointless "literary" novella - instead of admitting that it's not particularly good, we're supposed to praise the minimalism (read: emptiness), praise the "glimpses" of life (read: all we get), and praise the detachment (read: utter lack of emotional connection).

So once again: I did not like Stone in a Landslide. In fact, I really didn't like it. It's the sort of book I'm sorry to have wasted an afternoon on, and quite frankly reminds me where I often diverge with the broader literary community in terms of defining certain books as "quality" versus not. Other prospective readers may go with the crowd on this one, but I felt the need to nonetheless share my opposing review: I did not like this book.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review | Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public

* This review is of the translation from Norwegian into Hebrew. As far as I can tell, the lead story "Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public" was once translated in a collection of Askildsen's writing but is now out of print.

Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public by Kjell Askildsen is not really a novella - it's a relatively long short story, that in my (quite lovely) slim edition comes padded with two other shorter stories that are similar in tone if not theme. The stories follow these rather disconnected, unappealing older men as they either go about their business or are entangled in certain dramas that gradually grow in magnitude and influence.

The titular Thomas F in the main story has the calmest story of the bunch. This "novella" (but really: it's a short story) is comprised of tiny vignettes that detail minor day-to-day interactions of an old man turned major: a surprise meeting with a daughter, the kindly neighbor coming to help, the landlord's visit, etc. The back of my edition describes each of these "scenes" as "a true literary gem", and that "each sentence contains an entire world". This is not so extreme an exaggeration. In "Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public", the stories have a certain clean minimalist clarity to them that few vignettes ever truly achieve. The stories flow seamlessly into one another; I found myself telling myself after each one "After this one I'll go to bed" and then continuing onward anyways.

In all of the stories, the writing is sparse and simple. With surprising restraint, Askildsen manages to sketch out both his characters and their world. The second story in my edition, "Karl Lange" is a bit darker and heavier, but similarly light in terms of writing. The sentences don't ever drag, and they very gently get their message across. The main character in this story (Karl Lange himself) is a translator, and I want to quote from Author's and Translator's recent interview with literary translator Jamie Richards a particular sentence that exactly encompasses the core of the story: "It is not simply the solitary nature of the work that makes translation deadly but the obsessiveness of it—the anxiety of error and the lingering sense of never having finished." This sort of mood and perspective fully defines the story's drama - an accusation, a mounting isolation and increasing obsessive madness. "Karl Lange" may be the weakest of the stories in my collection, but it is hardly bad.

The fact that Askildsen chose to tell stories about fairly unsympathetic men (two nearing the ends of their lives, one in that middle-aged rut) and the fact that each seems to view the world through a decidedly tinted lens makes for interesting if somewhat uncomfortable reading. Askildsen's strong writing is enough to compensate for the rough characterizations (which seem much more like a stylistic choice than any failing on the author's part), and coupled with that excellent minimalism, the stories end up vivid, darkly memorable and enjoyable to read. Though I seem to have exhausted Askildsen's available writings at this time, he is certainly an author I'd like to meet again, and "Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public" is without a doubt a story worth tracking down.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A prologue to a non-existent book | In Her Absence

I wouldn't even call Antonio Muñoz Molina's In Her Absence a novella. It's a short story, or even more accurately, a prologue - the entirety of the story takes up so little space and covers so little time, it feels like a grand setup for a different, larger novel. A novel that never comes to fruition.

This has been happening to me quite a bit recently - I'll read a book, it'll be moderately worthwhile but generally disappointing, to the point that I finish it and wonder what I'm supposed to say and do now. What can I possibly say about In Her Absence, other than the fact that it's an introduction more than it's its own story? How long can I discuss the writing (good, but not particularly noteworthy or remarkable)? The clearly drawn characters who ultimately go nowhere? The utter lack of plot that leads to a bizarre and thoroughly open-ending conclusion?

Essentially, yes: I was disappointed by In Her Absence. As a stylistic exercise, I can understand the appeal of this short story - it builds two characters from scratch, presents readers with their lives and backgrounds and flashes of their personalities, all developed between the rather mysterious and inconclusive concept that opens and closes the story. The writing is definitely solid and there are no glaring issues. It's the lack of resolution that made me feel like it's a prologue. I could easily imagine a four-hundred paged novel that uses the entirety of In Her Absence as Part 1, a backdrop to a larger story, the introduction to the characters, the various mysterious plot threads, and a general mood setter. It would work wonderfully as such. By itself, it felt rather empty.

Normally I don't say things like this. Normally I tell longer novels that they need to be shorter. Normally I'll recommend threads of a story be cut down into a slim novella rather than a bloated five-hundred paged mess. I never even knew that I could want a short story to be more broadly developed. I never thought I'd ever hope for less minimalism. What a contradictory feeling...

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.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Monsieur Linh and His Child

Philippe Claudel's Brodeck's Report is one of my absolute favorite books from the past five years. It's a powerful, beautifully written piece of fiction that hit home, and hit hard. It is one of few books that has truly haunted me and stayed with me over the years. But I read it almost by accident. That is, I read it with great reservations for two reasons: 1. The fact that I wasn't exactly a fan of Claudel's previous book By a Slow River, and 2. The fact that I read the book in Hebrew. I made the right decision - not only is Brodeck's Report a much stronger, better written novel, but the Hebrew translation was significantly smoother than the English translations of Claudel's works. And so when I saw that Monsieur Linh and His Child (הנכדה של מר לין; La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh in its original French) was recently translated into Hebrew, I bought it without a second thought*.

It strikes me again as the right decision. The writing style of this very short book is markedly different from that of either Brodeck's Report or By a Slow River, often opting for short, punchy sentences that stall the flow a little. It's an interesting stylistic choice that I quite liked, but I kept feeling like I would have struggled with it had I been reading the English translation**. Even so, this isn't a particularly fast book. There's a drawn out, restrained quality to it throughout the first half. The second half, meanwhile, picks up the pace somewhat, but it didn't really change the way Claudel wrote his story.

What is Monsieur Linh and His Child about? I'm not really sure. Is it about growing old? To a certain degree. About loss? To a much greater degree. Is it about friendship and family and immigration and change? It's all of these things. It's about the relationship between two older men who have no common tongue, yet somehow become friends through a muddled form of mutual understanding. It's about arriving in a new country when everything you knew has been destroyed behind you. It's about love.

But it's not exactly a clear, easy read. It's hard to go into details without revealing too much, but suffice to say that there is a lot more under the surface of the story than just the above-mentioned. There is, of course, the eponymous matter of Mr. Linh and his granddaughter, which forms the core of the novella. But there are aspects to the story that angered me, not so much because of how they were written, but rather because they reflected a certain aspect of humanity I did not want to glimpse. Claudel's presentations of old age and immigrants were at times exaggerated, but they also held a grain of truth that deeply unsettled me. In this respect, Monsieur Linh and His Child resembled Brodeck's Report much more than it resembled the somewhat plodding By a Slow River.

I liked Monsieur Linh and His Child. I liked it a lot. I liked the quiet way in which it told its story, I liked the unreliability of the narration, I liked the characters. It's very well contained, with hardly a single unnecessary word. It's slow, but maintains a steady flow nonetheless. It's emotional, but not trite. All in all, it's a fine book. Not on the level of Brodeck's Report nor, indeed, on the level of many other favorites, but it's a book I'm very glad to have read.

* Correction: I was a little annoyed that a 115 paged long paperback book with a large font and wide margins cost 88 NIS (almost $22).
** And yes, I realize that this says more about how differently my reading approach is in Hebrew vs. English than it does about the writing of the book itself...