Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts

Monday, February 11, 2019

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi | Review

I find myself, once again, at odds with the broader literary community.

It's exhausting, isn't it? You must be saying to yourself: "Why do I even bother to read this book blog, when all the writer ever does is muse about her inability to agree with most readers about whether or not a book is good? (When she even bothers to write at all!) Isn't it obvious that she's just not a very good reader?" And, dear reader of this blog, I wouldn't blame you for a moment if you packed your bags and left these dusty halls forever. Believe me, I'm just as exasperated as you are.

The case of Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone feels a little bit more complicated than most of my recent literary disagreements. To begin with, I did generally enjoy the book! I thought there were a lot of things it did fairly brilliantly, and I enjoyed many aspects of its mythology a great deal. But as I read it, I was repeatedly struck by a rather curious sensation that I was not reading something particularly... original.

If you're rolling your eyes now and declaring me to be an absolute fool, it's okay. I understand. After all, Adeyemi's young adult novel has been touted for its originality in rooting a fantasy story in West African mythology! And I don't deny that for a moment. The ways in which Adeyemi sidestepped the more common (and yes, at this point boring) Western European fantasy tropes was quite refreshing. It speaks to a boldness of storytelling. Yet it wasn't quite enough for me.

One of my favorite book blogs, The Book Smugglers, write in their Goodreads review that Children of Blood and Bone is "a superb, exciting, astonishing mix of Avatar: the Last Airbender and Black Panther". It's the sort of endorsement that should really set my blood pulsing. I have my issues with "Black Panther" as a film overall, but I loved the worldbuilding and the degree to which it played with different mythologies at its root. And I adore the show "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (ATLA).

Perhaps if I had read this review before reading Children of Blood and Bone, it would have more positively shaped my impression. Ultimately, I agree with half of the Book Smugglers' assessment: Children of Blood and Bone most definitely could feel like the lovechild of ATLA and "Black Panther", and it is precisely this that made me rate the novel that much lower.


It occurred relatively early in the book. As the narrative settled down and three POV were introduced, I was struck by several seemingly superficial similarities between Children of Blood and Bone and ATLA. We have a brother and sister from a persecuted class, in which the sister has a previously untouched form of magic and the brother is magic-less. We have a princess with a powerful artifact joining the siblings (quickly becoming a love interest for the brother). And we have her brother, the prince, hell-bent on chasing these three fugitives across a wide swathe of land in order to capture them, though his motivations may actually be more pure than previously believed... or maybe not. Oh, and the trio have to achieve their highly specific goal to restore balance... er, I mean magic... on the date of a celestial eclipse. Which is in less than a month!


With the exception of the princess, does this sound a bit familiar?


Like the Book Smugglers, my first thought was instantly of ATLA. The similarities to the story felt so pronounced that I could quickly guess how the story was panning out. In fact, it even ruined certain plot points for me because I could so easily figure out what they were supposed to be. For an "original" story, Children of Blood and Bone simply felt like a West African inspired version of ATLA, though perhaps a little bit more grown-up. Unfortunately, comparisons to ATLA will rarely end well for the piece of art in question - ATLA is one of the rare shows that works on a stunning range of levels. Few stories have quite reached its caliber, fewer still that attempted to mimic it too strongly.


Children of Blood and Bone does a lot of good things in its pages. Its exploration of racist power structures is obviously important, and there is no doubt that there's a lot to enjoy in the way Adeyemi crafts her world. I was also particularly impressed by her decision to include a meta-question about whether or not magic is inherently good and should be brought back. In the second half of the book, characters are confronted with both the importance and danger of magic. The lingering question remains, with little in the way of an easy answer or neat solution. In fact, the cliffhanger ending almost seems to emphasize the question. And when magic is so clearly linked to ethnicity and cultural expression, doesn't its suppression inherently mean the oppression of those who have it? These are interesting questions that fantasy too rarely explores, particularly when magic is a weak stand-in for real-world prejudices.


In other aspects, unfortunately, Children of Blood and Bone just falls apart. First and foremost, as I already mentioned, the story didn't feel original to me. The overwhelming similarities to ATLA (just swap the roles of a couple characters and you're good!) had me rolling my eyes, rather than delighting in the story as an homage. It's possible that this is simply my own, unfair jaded reading, but I couldn't shake off the feeling the entire time I was reading and I grew tired of constantly comparing certain creative choices with those that so neatly aligned with those from ATLA. It also left me cold whenever the book did diverge, because it felt like too little too late. At the end of the day, it felt too familiar, and not in a way that gave me warm, nostalgic vibes. (Maybe if I had seen ATLA as a child and not as an adult just a few years ago...?) 


It's not just that, though. The book also does a fairly bad job as distinguishing the voices of its three POV characters. Our magical Avatar stand-in (or rather, Aang-Katara mix), Zélie, doesn't sound all that different from her fierce enemy-later-love-interest (Zutara wish-fulfillment...?) Inan, nor from his sister Amari. I often forgot whose chapter I was reading until a reference to one of the other characters clarified it for me, and that is not the way POVs should work. The characters had such distinct character traits, yet they ended up feeling so similar on the page.


And there's also the writing.

Or rather. The melodrama of the story.

The way every line of moderate importance gets its own punchy paragraph.

But then these are quickly followed by more punchy paragraphs.

The chapters are short and dominated by writing of this style. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with punchy chapter-ends as a concept. I actually kind of love them as a way to build drama. I rather write that way myself, with all my sentences that begin with "but"! But... the insistence on having so many dramatic pauses and paragraph breaks left me tired. It felt like I was reading a book that simply hadn't been edited properly. Rather than feeling focused and tight, every chapter felt like it lost some sort of thread as it tried to sound more and more dramatic.

If it sounds as though I'm being unduly harsh on Children of Blood and Bone, I... don't really mean to be. It's not a bad book! But it's also not as great a book as I was hoping. Even setting aside ostensibly personal things like the ATLA comparison (which is clearly very subjective, since different fans had different reactions to the degree of similarities), I was deeply bothered by the way the romances were written. I thought the pacing was rushed (largely due to the compressed time-scale the book had to work with). I struggled with the writing in many parts. But I also liked a lot, which left me feeling almost more disappointed. I was looking forward to this book more than almost any other recent YA, yet even something so universally acclaimed let me down somehow. Children of Blood and Bone may simply emerge as another example of hype not bearing out, but considering the praise, it's hard not to wonder at this point what is wrong with me specifically.

Friday, January 25, 2019

An open letter to Elena Ferrante | Frantumaglia

Dear Elena Ferrante,

It's a little odd for me to be writing this post in the form of an open letter. I could, after all, just write a real letter, I suppose, but it feels so unlikely that it would ever reach you (and thus, anyone) that I find myself more inclined towards simply writing an open letter, sending it out into the void known as the internet, and hoping that maybe (maybe!) you'll see this letter someday and find it interesting or worthy of your time.

I've finished reading the collection of letters and fragments published in English as Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey (translated by Ann Goldstein and a few others). It was, I have to admit, a bit of an odd, at times unsettling read for me. The first section was perhaps the least interesting, to a certain degree, because I have yet to read Troubling Love. I know, I know, what sort of fan am I? (I also haven't read The Lost Daughter, and I've had that on my shelf for almost four years! I am soundly ashamed...) I definitely want to read it now, but it complicated my ability to read Frantumaglia, since I tried to skim through the early section and had to skip entire portions. I suddenly feel as though I'm missing a whole lot of necessary context to understand and engage with your writing, but there you have it.

The unsettling part for me, though, wasn't so much in the content. I've thought a lot about narratives over the past year or so, specifically the degree to which modern journalism is built around the idea of building narratives from nothing and then perpetuating them by giving them more and more airtime. So it becomes easy to craft a narrative about, say, a certain politician. Or about a certain demographic. Or even craft a narrative about a complex conflict or disagreement. It's enough to suggest that there is a narrative, and then build a whole story around that suggestion.

And as I read your repeated, almost exhausting (frustrated?) responses to journalists and readers persistently questioning you about your "identity", I grew angry. Truly, I grew angry for your sake. I realize, rationally, that these journalists weren't coming from my perspective of reading your interviews/letters/responses one after the other and could thus see with cold clarity the degree to which you have explained your stance over the course of almost thirty years, but it seems to me honestly shocking how persistent they are in disregarding your obvious wishes. Why every interviewer felt the need to re-ask the same questions that they knew (and cited!) from previous interviews about information they felt they deserved to know... I'm sorry, I truly am.

I was struck by your response and how it ties into this question of narrative that I've been obsessing over for so long. You say it exactly right - the story comes from the fact that the media wants there to be a story. After all, many writers don't engage in much publicity of their works. There's nothing too shocking about wanting to stay out of the limelight or writing under a pen name. Would anyone have even noticed if you'd used a fake jacket photo and written a bland blurb about living in a fake town with your fake children and your fake dog? I'd offer my photo, but seeing as I was barely alive when your first novel was published, I don't think it'll fly.

I wish I could undo the nonsense that others have asked you. I wish I could remove the question from our lexicon. And yet you see, even without me asking the questions (because, frankly, I don't think it's necessary; my curiosity is secondary to my respect for an individual's privacy and I steadfastly refuse to read or acknowledge attempts to dismantle it), I have to address it. It's become a necessary part of the story of your works. How exceedingly disappointing and frustrating. Here's to hoping the narrative will truly die down, and with that I will leave the matter behind.

There are so many interesting points raised within the pages of Frantumaglia that it's a little overwhelming to try to address them all. I honestly don't think I can, and as I write these words it occurs to me that perhaps I also shouldn't. I'm not nearly clever enough to be able to adequately address so much of what you have written about your own works, and I'm the sort of reader who doesn't retain very much in the way of plots or individual lines from a text, rather holds on to the emotions I felt while reading, which means that I can hardly be viewed as an expert on any book I haven't reread at least a dozen times. (And I have only read each of your works once, alas. This will change soon.)

I think the biggest point of contention I have with you is about feminism. While not as ubiquitous as the Big Question That Shall Not Be Named, it's a topic that cropped up again and again in many of your interviews. The evolution of your response to the question was actually fascinating to me, particularly the way you seemed almost cautious to use the label in the 1990s, and then more confidently embrace the term (and adjacent phrases such as "the patriarchy"!) by the early 2000s. I found some of your comments disappointing, though. I'm not going to argue how you view your feminism, particularly when your writing has inspired so many women readers (young and old) from a deeply feminist perspective. Death of the author and all that. But I find your characterization of young feminists to be somewhat concerning.

Are there young feminists today who don't fully appreciate what battles feminism won in the past? I'm sure! I also have no doubt that you have encountered modern feminists who perform a sanitized, stripped down version of feminism that feels as though it is little more than a game. I certainly have! But the vast majority of young women that I know who identify as feminists are nothing like what you write. I am nothing like what you write. And I am not quite "militant" myself (though I think I wouldn't feel as uncomfortable with the term as you seem to be). I feel you have engaged in a rather serious act of oversimplification, viewing the young generation as lazy and substandard simply because you are unfamiliar with what our causes actually are. I'd also argue that the degree to which so many of my feminist friends adore your novels is an indication that we probably speak a much more similar language than you realize.

It's an odd experience, reading a book that feels so intimate while being thoroughly repetitive. I'm not saying that to be cruel, it's obvious to me why themes repeat and recur. When journalists constantly pose the same questions, it seems inevitable. Unfortunately, it does complicate matters from my own critical perspective; I can't quite say that I loved the book when I glossed over so much of it. Some of your conversations are so detailed that they also felt like an infringement upon my own interpretations of the text. As interesting as it is to read, it's not necessarily something I want to adopt. Does that make sense?

I'm glad I read Frantumaglia, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have spent this time with you. I like your writing and I like what you have to say about it, even if we don't always agree. I feel that you approach the world in an interesting way, which probably explains why I like your novels - they seem to capture a perspective that I connect with, even when I have nothing in common with the characters or the narrative. It was an honor to get a glimpse of some of the thought process behind your writing.

Sincerely yours,
Meytal (aka Biblibio)

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

DNF | "House Arrest"

Noa Yedlin's novel בעלת הבית (House Arrest) won Israel's top literary prize in 2013. It's a novel that had been largely praised and admired, plus it seemed like Yedlin was an up-and-coming star I ought to actually read (I've had her earlier novel, Shelf Life unread for... years). It turned out that the same thing that kept me from ever actually getting around to reading Shelf Life (an odd pretentiousness that has kept me away, again, for literally 7ish years) kept me from getting into House Arrest.

The truth is, I abandoned House Arrest around a third of the way through not even because I thought I couldn't finish it. The style is clear enough that I probably could have managed to finish, plus there's a certain swiftness to the writing that makes it generally pretty "readable" (ah, that word). But here's the thing: I got stuck somewhere around a third, my attention drifting instead to other books. And when I came back to finish reading the book for my "partially read" challenge in the Great Book Buying Ban, I realized I didn't want to.

I didn't want to spend any more time with the insufferable characters that populate House Arrest, I didn't want to have to listen to the obnoxious main character (Asa), a man so pretentious I almost wished he really existed in real life just so I could smack him. I didn't want to spend any more time in a book that feels like it starts 70 pages too late, taking its time to "establish" the characters before getting to the drama that the back cover has already revealed.

One of the things I've been trying to work on in recent years is abandoning books more easily. And it's true, sometimes my motivations aren't entirely fair. Like here. House Arrest probably gets better not long after the point I abandoned it. I'm sure the internal character conflicts grow more interesting. Maybe even the characters themselves become less annoying (though I doubt it). I kept feeling like there was something I was missing; here is a novel that presents one of the more privileged portions of Israeli society, yet continuously casts them as hero-victims. There seemed to be such a huge dissonance between the world Yedlin expects me to recognize and the real world. This, I should note, is actually quite common in "well-received" Israeli literature, particularly of the sort that wins the Sapir prize (indeed, I rarely like the books they select, and even those I did like fit this description).

And so... I abandoned House Arrest. Maybe someday in the (far off) future I'll try to read it again. For now, I have removed the bookmark, placed the book on a high, far-off shelf, and dusted my hands.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

WITMonth Day 21 | Lieutenant Nun by Catalina de Erauso

Listen up, Hollywood. Here is your next major blockbuster adventure film or miniseries. Are you listening? Catalina de Erauso's Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World is your next summer hit, I promise, just don't mess up the casting. This story (translated by Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto) is so utterly wild, it's impossible not to appreciate it (even if you're likely to spend half your time reading scratching your head and raising your eyebrows).

There are a few things I should point out right off the bat. First, yes, the title is a little... bad. The term "transvestite" rather clearly displays this edition's age (and it has not aged particularly well). Second is the questionable approach (in general) taken in attempt to contextualizing the author's gender/identity within (not so) modern definitions, that ultimately left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable. The introduction (and again the title) attempts to define who Catalina de Erauso was, but I'm not certain that the conclusions are entirely apt (I'll get to this in a moment). This is certainly a shame, but that should not erase the content within the book itself. Which, again, absolutely ridiculous.

Because Lieutenant Nun is a memoir of sorts, but it's the sort of memoir that leaves you wondering whether the author is just having a good laugh. The story is chock-full of unbelievable coincidences, recurring characters (since when does that actually happen in real life...?), absurd adventures, suave romances, gender-bending apathy, and constant drama. Was the author really pretty much the coolest Spaniard roaming around Latin America in the 17th century? Or is this a case of epic trolling?

Of course I did not know any of this before I picked up the book. I purchased Lieutenant Nun (for a nice $1 at a used bookstore) precisely because of the gender question posed by my edition; I was intrigued by the contrast between the nun and the soldier. As I learned more about Erauso, I found myself drawn into scholarly debates about gender and sexual identity (a taste of this is available on Wikipedia, surprisingly!). This debate is, of course, heavily influenced by current cultural interpretations of gender and sexuality, and I personally have often been uncomfortable with attempts to define historical figures by modern categories of gender/sexuality. Even so, reading Lieutenant Nun, exploring Erauso's own casual dismissal of femininity (at times) and flirtations with women (frequent) and alternating identification, I think the characterization of Erauso as genderqueer or gender nonbinary is ultimately the most descriptive (especially since Erauso used both masculine and feminine pronouns).

Erauso begins the memoir by detailing the childhood of a young girl, destined for the convent. This is where the adventure begins, with Erauso quickly leaving the confines of cloistered life behind and embarking on a series of terrible exploits that ultimately lead to their arrival in the New World. Here, Erauso ends up involved in an almost endless stream of complications, ranging from "I basically made all the pretty noble girls fall in love with me" to "I lost a ton of money" to "I shot and killed my brother" to "I got out of murder charges six more times in a variety of ways". In a rather dry, thin style, Erauso tells of each adventure as though it's all perfectly normal. As I read their account, I couldn't help laughing aloud. It's all so ridiculous... yet so entertaining. Made for film, I tell you.

It's surprisingly difficult to actually summarize or review Lieutenant Nun. There's the narrative itself, of course, with the intense and dramatic adventures that is pretty much impossible to describe without doing its absurdity injustice. But then there's also the meta-commentary, the modern interpretation of Erauso's gender (and why is it that we're so obsessed with their gender/sexuality anyways...?) and the extensive discussions surrounding it. I'm not particularly qualified to get into that, nor into the more historical analyses of the veracity of Erauso's various stories. But they cast an interesting light on this short book, adding depth to a swashbuckling maybe-totally-trolling brief memoir. Even without getting into the meta conversations though, the book is definitely worth reading just for the wild ride you'll end up on... and again, Hollywood, your next hit is calling!

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.

Friday, August 10, 2018

WITMonth Day 10 | Stats (part 2)

Introduction
Much as I love the cold, hard data behind the general publishing stats when it comes to women in translation (spoiler alert: I love very little about them), there's only so much that publishing can tell us. True, publishers are a fairly major gatekeeper when it comes to the existence of women in translation (indeed, perhaps the only gatekeeper... and the reason I'll be visiting this topic again later this month), but there are many stages from the moment a book is published to the point at which it reaches the reader.

One of these is literary publications and media. Much as we would love to think that nothing affects our tastes and interests, the fact is that marketing does work. This is certainly true of book marketing, with review outlets, bloggers, and the media at large playing a huge part in how books ultimately become hits or misses. Even among indie presses, the way a book is promoted can heavily shape the way it will be sold/recommended in the future.

And so I decided to again check the status of literary reviews, to see whether the situation has improved for women in translation since 2016 (when I last checked this metric). It's pie chart time!

Methodology
Journals and review sites were selected partially on the basis of visibility within the literary community and recommendations (not a particularly scientific metric, I know), as well as ease of data collection (i.e. chronological posting, well-labeled reviews). Due to the relative limitations in translation-focused literary reviews, this may lead to certain bias simply because of the smaller range of options. This analysis is not nearly as comprehensive as that of VIDA, but is inspired by their work. All assessments done manually, so of course there is the possibility that I have made some mistake - please let me know if this is the case and I will happily make any corrections!

Results

In 2016, The Guardian presented me with a bit of a conundrum. That was the year of Elena Ferrante, with several articles going back and forth as to her identity (remember that?) and her literary merits, and a time in which Asymptote Journal had a weekly feature in the "Fiction in Translation" tag. Ultimately, I found that of reviews, 22% had been of books by women writers in translation, even as the general Fiction in Translation tag had more features and pieces about women writers (30%). This year, the metric is flipped, with only 22% of the general features, reviews, and so on about women writers in translation, but among reviews alone, that number goes up to 29%. Neither percentage, I should note is particularly good. (I should also point out that I have a very strong suspicion as to why women writers are relatively better represented now in reviews - Nicholas Lezard who used to have a column in The Guardian's book pages no longer writes there, and that column featured perhaps three women over the course of the three two I looked at it...)

The reason I start with The Guardian now (and the reason I started with it in 2016 as well) is because I can think of no other newspaper with such a prominent literary review that easily and clearly labels its forays into translated literature, while also not having a paywall. More than that, The Guardian also prominently features online, is frequently shared, and is regarded quite highly as a general book page. Think of the exposure a book reviewed in the NYT or The Guardian has as compared to a book reviewed in a niche journal - the impact of widespread publicity is huge. That The Guardian is still reviewing and featuring so few women writers in translation in their pages is deeply disappointing.


I next looked at two of the major "niche" literature in translation journals, Words Without Borders (which I had checked in 2016) and World Literature Today. While neither journal has quite the reach of a site like The Guardian, they nonetheless have tremendous influence within certain spheres and represent a lot of the brilliant content related to literature in translation. Here, I was pleasantly surprised by review rates. While Words Without Borders does not publish nearly as many reviews as it does original translations or excerpts, it is still a commanding voice when it comes to literature in translation and perhaps the first resource that most readers think of when seeking voices in translation. That their reviews are solidly split between women and men writers is absolutely thrilling, particularly in light of their mediocre rates in 2016. WWB have long supported the women in translation movement and this support is not simply words, as is evidenced both by the numbers and the improvement over time. They have made an active effort to seek out women writers from all over the world, publish them at equal rate as men writers, and, it would appear, also review them at equal rates. This is wonderful.

World Literature Today, meanwhile, (which has significantly more reviews over the same one-year period) is a more complicated situation. 36% is the frustrating zone of "I see that you're slightly better than average, but is this really all I'll settle for?", where ultimately - this is still not a great rate, but it's just a teensy bit better than the industry standard of 30%. It's where WWB was two years ago. With a stunning 83 reviews over a one-year period (significantly more than any other review outlet I examined), WLT has tremendous potential to shift the focus to a more balanced playing field and give exposure to dozens of women writers in translation. I hope they improve on this matter in the future, following in WWB's footsteps.


The next tier was popular online reviews, sites clearly associated with literature in translation that also publish reviews, again ones that I had looked at in 2016. Here, neither result is particularly thrilling. Three Percent is the blog-arm of publisher Open Letter (and where I get all the amazing raw data for my publishing stat posts!), which itself publishes a fair amount of women in translation (but has never reached 50% in a single year I've counted, always clocking in somewhere between 30-40%). The dissonance between a blog praised for its role in the women in translation movement (by virtue of their database, and I'll admit that having gender added has made my life significantly easier than back in 2013 when I went through title by title and added author genders myself!) and a 17% rate of review of books by women writers in translation is jarring, and it should be, especially since that number reflects a significant drop from 2016's 31%. It indicates an additional gender bias beyond the publishing imbalance, one that I do not think reflects well on any publication or review.

And then again, we have a flip: Asymptote, which had a 22% rate in 2016, has now moderately improved that rate to 29%. Neither rate is particularly good, of course, and again there's this significant conceptual gap between how Asymptote present themselves in terms of the women in translation project and how they actually review books.


Finally, I took to Twitter to ask for recommendations of literary journals that review international titles. I ultimately chose three journals for my assessment (again, mostly based on scope, comfort, and accessibility): Latin American Literature Today, Literary Review, and Reading in Translation. None of the three presented with particularly thrilling rates of review, again serving as a disappointing reminder that the bias against women writers in translation (or women writers in languages other than English, more accurately) is pervasive and widespread. It's not a few bad apples; the entire orchard is tilted.

Discussion
I won't pretend that I'm not largely disappointed by rates that I see. Words Without Borders is a thrilling exception, but it should not be an exception. Having parity is not an unreasonable demand, nor is expecting literary journals to more carefully curate which books they promote. Considering the degree of unknown books I encountered in the last three entries (particularly the Literary Review, which included a lot of nonfiction) and how dominated literature in translation is by independent presses, this is not simply the fault of pushy marketing executives at corporate publishers. Every review we write is a choice of a single book out of hundreds published each year, and journals may choose whether they review significantly more works by men writers than by women. It may not be easy, but one simply has to look at WWB to see how it's done - no fuss, no issue, no grandstanding. Just interesting, thoughtful, and insightful reviews of books by women writers at equal rates as men writers. It's that easy.



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Thursday, August 9, 2018

WITMonth Day 9 | The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 5, 2018

WITMonth Day 5 | The Country Road by Regina Ullmann | Brief thoughts

I had tried to read Regina Ullmann's The Country Road (tr. Kurt Beals) once before, about a year ago. The initial title story rather bored me, and I soon found myself drifting away. Like so many of the titles I review here, I set the book aside for a later date, assuming that the problem was me and not the book. As I revisited more and more books from that period of abandonment in recent months, liking several, The Country Road seemed like a good candidate for a renewed effort. Let's see, I thought, how the book fares this time, with a fresh mind.

It turns out I was even less forgiving of the book this time. Because while yes, technically I finished the book, I was bored by just about every short story. (I almost typed "episode", which I think sums up my thoughts on this book rather well.) I ended up skipping over the ends of just about half of the stories. I disliked the writing. I disliked the frames of most of the stories. I disliked the airy conclusions and concepts.

I disliked this book, and I truly was not expecting to. There's a degree to which I'm still not sure what it was about The Country Road that meant that I actively disliked it, rather than just being passively disinterested. This was a book that felt like work, and not the sort of rewarding work that is ultimately worth it. No, The Country Road was the sort of work that you realize, as you're doing it, that you don't want to be doing, there's no reason you should be doing it, and honestly... who even gave this task?

Not to my taste, certainly. Oh well.

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...

It by Inger Christensen | Review

I basically put it on my reading list the day after I finished reading Inger Christensen's phenomenal alphabet. I positively raved about alphabet, and even four years later, I stand by those words. That poetry book (book, I emphasized then and again now, not collection) took my breath away (literally, at times) and enchanted me. It was gorgeous and intelligent and perfectly translated by Susanna Nied and I loved every piece of it. Obviously, I would have to read every one of Christensen's books available in English! And again one translated by Nied! So I promptly placed an order for it.

Not quite it
Here is the uncomfortable truth: I began it in the summer of 2014, certain that I would again fall in love with Christensen's words and unique writing style. But I didn't. In fact, I found myself largely bored and disconnected from the text, recognizing much of the technicality that made alphabet so wonderful, but none of the passionate beauty. I set the book aside, fully expecting to return to it within a few days. It (somehow) ended up in the back of my closet (?) and I forgot about it until three weeks ago, when I found it hidden underneath a pile of misfolded shirts.

The bookmark was still buried where I had remembered it being, around a third of the way through. I flipped through the earlier "poems" halfheartedly, seeing the blockish texts that had so turned me off back in the day. But I decided to resume reading, and more importantly I decided to resume reading the book from the point I had stopped. I didn't go back and reread the earlier portion of the book, despite the fact that it is as clearly a whole text as alphabet was. Yet something told me that it would be better to leave the past there, and move forward.

Getting back into the rhythm of the text was difficult. The first few poems felt disjointed, a reminder that I was effectively reading this book from the middle (though I was surprised by how strong a sense from the first part I still had, lodged away in my memory). Some of the context was clearly missing, but not so much that I couldn't keep reading. That, of course, is the beauty of poetry (even book-length, narrative-style poetry) - the vibe, for me, always wins out. How do the poems make me feel? Does the writing move me? Does the writing inspire me? Does the writing transport me? Amuse me? Enrapture me?

Even given this second chance, it largely failed in this regard. Certain poems or segments were gorgeous, trembling with power and eloquence and a sharp eye for reality. And occasionally the loopiness of the writing revisiting certain themes and phrases again and again made me feel like I was getting close to understanding what Christensen was trying to tell me, deep down. But I was never able to move past a general disinterest. For a book designed around a concept, it never got its rhythm down entirely. Most of the repetitions ended up feeling trite and dull; this was made worse by the fact that I didn't connect to some of the themes in the first place, and then having them rehashed over and over ended up leaving me even cooler on the book than beforehand.

It's not that it is bad, because it's not. As a concept, there's a lot to admire in Christensen's definition-breaking writing. There is also no doubt that Christensen had the eye for describing beautifully powerful scenes and images (the "happiness" poems were particularly moving, in my view), and it is all fantastically rendered into English by Susanna Nied. I imagine that had I read this as an independent work, I might have rated it just a bit higher - still not a great book, but a worthwhile poetry book. Yet I had already read alphabet, I already knew that Christensen would someday hone the raw talents displayed in it (a relatively early work) and go far beyond.

There is not so much of Christensen's work available in English, however, that I can ultimately be so picky. I may not have loved it, but I still found plenty to admire within its pages. There is no doubt that Christensen was a stellar poetry experimentalist and her works deserve far greater fame. There is also no doubt that even with this relative disappointment, I will be seeking out Christensen's few other works translated into English. Even if they don't come close to alphabet, they're still much more likely to leave me musing and inspired in all sorts of ways...

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet | Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson | Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 30, 2017

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg | Review

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (trqnslated from Polish by Eliza Marciniak) has been shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

Sometimes I'll read a book and my mind will instantly - and consistently - go to another place. Not in the sense that the book is dull, or distracting. Not even in the sense that the book is inherently transporting (though this is typically the case). Sometimes it's just a question of connections: a certain book will automatically link itself to another story or concept. This might, at times, detract from the book I'm currently reading; with Swallowing Mercury, the connection was positive, and reflective of the book's greatest strengths.

With Swallowing Mercury, the connection that I made was to a relatively unknown (but great) novel called The White King by György Dragomán (I read a translation into Hebrew). I read The White King over eight years ago (and even reviewed it on Amazon, years later!), finding it to be a strong, captivating coming-of-age novel-in-stories. It was well-written, childlike in the right places, and told a larger story just beyond the personal narrative. Suffice to say, I loved it. And from the very first moment I began reading Swallowing Mercury, I couldn't shake off the feeling that here - finally! - was the sort of coming-of-age novel that followed in The White King's footsteps.

Mind you, the two books are far from identical. While both books follow children growing up in Communist countries around the same time, each progresses at a different pace and follows a very distinct broader plot. The two novels also sharply differ in tone, with The White King more singularly focused on its narrator as a preteen, while Swallowing Mercury tracks Wiola through early adulthood. Moreover, The White King could work as a young adult novel, while Swallowing Mercury is distinctly darker, grimmer, and addresses a harsher form of reality. 

But that initial connection made me read Swallowing Mercury through a particular lens, with a sense that I knew how the novel would unfold. Greg, like Dragomán before her, uses Wiola on two levels, telling a story that is both intimate and generic at the same time. For instance, the chapter "The Little Paint Girl" tells of young Wiola's interest in art, and her attempt at entering an art competition at school, which involves submitting a damaged, stained painting of Moscow. This leads the authorities to descend upon Wiola's small school, and demand an explanation as to why she painted Moscow so "gloomy". While Wiola is simply a young, more-or-less ignorant girl in this story (focusing on the official's grammatical errors and feeling rather uncomfortable), the reader can also sense the bigger story - a Polish paranoia that a young child has painted Moscow streaked with black. The political implications are huge... but not quite the focus of the story itself.

The writing is typically a little loose, often feeling a little conversational and casual. It makes for easy, enjoyable reading, despite the typically darker tone of the stories themselves. And Swallowing Mercury, despite the childlike framing, is dark. Greg doesn't shy away from many of the less pleasant experiences of growing up as a girl, with more than one instance of molestation taking place (presented to the reader with an almost chilling detachment). Wiola's life is ultimately far from pleasant, but it's also just... life. Swallowing Mercury seems to emphasize this point, with the vignettes skipping subjects from school, to religion, to relationships, and all over. Yet through it all, Wiola grows, leaving Swallowing Mercury an admirable addition to the coming-of-age canon. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

WITMonth Day 25 | The Days of the Deer by Liliana Bodoc

You know what's always fun? Fantasy that isn't based on European medieval conventions!

This is a personal pet peeve of mine: I loathe the way almost all modern fantasy is not only English-language (including out in other countries, where it's predominantly translated from English) and rooted in British/European mythology and cultural norms. Often, the foreigners will be dark-skinned or have almond-eyes, will be either savage or vaguely wiser than the protagonists (depending on whether the book was written more than twenty years ago, or whether it's recent and progressive). The mythology will vaguely resemble Greek or maybe Norse or maybe even Celtic mythology. It's all very similar.

So whenever I encounter a book - whether Anglo in origin or not - that comes from a culture that is not European, I cheer. I am automatically in love with the book, just a little. And oh boy, does The Days of the Deer by Liliana Bodoc (translated by Nick Caistor, with Lucia Caistor Arendar) fulfill that wish, even if it doesn't always rise to its own ambitions.

Let me start by saying that I liked The Days of the Deer a lot, but I'm not sure that it always lives up to its own promise. Here is a fantasy novel that reimagines a land that is very clearly meant to be the Americas, before the European invasion. From the first moment, Bodoc reimagines the Americas and its diverse peoples as a variety of mostly separate tribes or creatures. In the far south, we have our protagonists, the Husihuilkes of the Ends of the Earth. We have the descendents of the Northmen, who have lighter skin and red hair (...Vikings. They're descendents of Vikings.). We have loud, jangling, bright culture in the center of the continent (Mexico?). And these exist alongside more magical creatures, like the Lukus and the Owl Clan.

A fleet of foreigners are crossing the sea. Are they invaders? Are they the Northmen, returned to reunite with their people? Are they the representation of pure evil that this fantasy world has? The book isn't especially subtle in framing this fleet as the European invasion of the Americas. Except in Bodoc's world, things play out a little differently. Here, a group of magical Astronomers are aware that the fleet is coming and have time to prepare - or at least, to figure out what to do. And this is where The Days of the Deer begins, with Dulkancellin of the Husihuilkes summoned to represent his people in figuring out what's going to happen.

Curiously, The Days of the Deer follows a very different story from what I was expecting. Its opening suggests a longer type of quest than what plays out, as well as a predictable climax that didn't end up happening. Instead, The Days of the Deer contains some genuine plot twists and unusual stylistic conventions. Bodoc never seems to go for the easy route, and indeed there are plot threads that open and close at all points of the novel. It's so different from most fantasy books, that while it might seem a bit jarring, it's also remarkably refreshing. It's not always perfect pacing, but it somehow works nicely to create a solid flow. It just doesn't always seem to take advantage of the world that it's built. Bodoc's focus is so strongly on plot developments, that she doesn't stop to enjoy the surprisingly rich treasure chest of culture, history, and myth that is available to her.

I have one main critique of the book: the writing. I always struggle to critique writing in translation, since I hate to pin blame on translators. Yet with The Days of the Deer, there was always a sense of aloofness in the writing that didn't quite vibe with the genre. Different genres have very different writing conventions for what is aloof, casual, or appropriate, and The Days of the Deer felt like it wasn't quite aware of these conventions within English. This, I imagine, is something that can stumble in translation, particularly if the translators are more used to strictly literary (or Literary) texts, as appears to be the case. This means that the story always felt like it was just slightly out of sync, though this is not so severe that it hinders the story altogether.

The second main problem I had is one unrelated to the book itself, but rather to the publishers... While The Days of the Deer has an internally closed ending (no cliffhangers, thank goodness!), it does leave quite a few loose threads that are, I imagine, meant to be picked up in the sequels. However... while The Days of the Deer was translated in 2013, there does not appear to be any intention of translating and publishing its sequels in English. Alas.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

WITMonth Day 23 | Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy by Ece Temelkuran

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that I mentioned three titles in my post about nonfiction a few days ago, and that two of those books have already been reviewed this WITMonth. Well, it's now time to review the third: Ece Temelkuran's Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy (tr. Zeynep Beler).

Turkey... Turkey was something a bit different. Unlike Cockroaches which is a phenomenal book, period, I can't claim that Turkey is a great book overall. It's definitely very good, don't get me wrong, but it drags in parts and rambles in others and sometimes seems to lose its own way a bit. It's also, importantly, not a memoir. Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy seeks to introduce readers to a broadly sketched Turkey. For me - a reader who has read only two or so Turkish books, and all novels - Temelkuran's sharp approach felt revelatory. It was a true learning experience, especially in portions where Temelkuran was clearly speaking to the non-Turkish reader.

It was also (like with The Queue) a remarkably familiar narrative. As I fell deeper into contemporary Turkish political drama, I found myself shuddering with the realization that these exact same things were being repeated elsewhere in the world (specifically Israel, but portions felt reminiscent of the US as well). The book was thus also more than just an education on modern Turkish politics, it was also an eye-opening warning about how easily totalitarianism can take over. Especially since I was reading the book shortly after Erdoğan's referendum on presidential power passed, and I could see how Temelkuran - who obviously did not know of this referendum while writing the book, since it was a few years in the future - anticipated it.

Reading books like Turkey can be chilling, uncomfortable experiences. It's not exactly enjoyable, nor is the educational aspect as fulfilling as a strictly historical text might be. Yet this type of nonfiction serves an important purpose in providing readers with a context for contemporary events. In this regard, Turkey is doubly unique, as it is not written in the form of isolated essays. It's a cohesive book, even if imperfect at times in its pacing.

Turkey is mainly two things, though: It's sharp, and it's thoughtful. My edition's cover has a single blurb "Engrossing and intimate", and honestly it's both of those things. Its politics - its clarity in its politics - is certainly sharp and engrossing, to-the-point while hardly skimping on information. Meanwhile, Temelkuran's personal anecdotes and loving portrayal of her flawed homeland (a tone I could 100% relate to, for the record) provide a thoughtful and intimate environment. Temelkuran makes sure that her messy Turkey becomes our fascinating, timely, and eye-opening Turkey.

Monday, August 21, 2017

WITMonth Day 21 | Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga

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

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

Cockroaches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 19, 2017

WITMonth Day 19 | Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

I think there's a level on which I wanted to like Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay's Panty (tr. Arunava Sinha) a lot more than I did. Not that I disliked the book, nor that I had a negatively tinged apathy towards it like with Our Dead World. In general, I thought the book was fairly good, and I generally enjoyed it. It's also not the sort of book that I can accuse of being utterly forgettable, since it has successfully lingered in my consciousness since I read it several months ago.

No, instead of concrete sorts of frustration, the truth is simply that I drew a certain image of Panty in the mind that ended up being far from the truth. I expected something tighter and more explicit, and instead got a very different sort of story.

Panty - the first novel published by WITMonth friends Tilted Axis Press - is very much that surreal, hazy short novel that has become so popular within the translated literature community in recent years. The book is a vague, deliberately confusing mish-mash of experiences, overlayed with quiet reflections on sexuality, art, and independence. It's a uniquely written text, certainly, with alternating styles and perspectives that blur the lines between characters, reality, and imagination.

This is also a style that can work really well, honestly, but in my experience needs to come with a strong central hook in order to successfully carry the story. Here Panty (like so many other books of this sort, in my opinion) stumbles a little bit - but only a little. While the narrator's voice is deeply compelling, she doesn't quite dominate emotionally. The blurriness - alongside the sort of fuzziness she herself describes - keeps her from emerging as a definitive anchor. Not that she doesn't have an emotional pull. Panty is definitely a lot better in this regard than most other novellas of its class, since the narrator does have a clear personality. She has a loose plot (though it is somewhat sidelined) and she has a presence even when she's not the primary voice (since she colors the accompanying narratives as well).

And so I wasn't sure how quite to classify Panty. It's a very well-written novella, and I liked it. It left a mark on me, even months after setting it aside (certain images and scenes were particularly memorable and powerfully formed). It also, however, employed a literary technique that is a little less than my favorite (vagueness does not equal complexity!), and I find myself wondering how much stronger a story it could have been had a few threads been tied together just a bit more tightly. But that, of course, is personal taste. Overall, Panty is certainly worth your time. But with that single caveat - surreal doesn't work for every reader...