Showing posts with label the great book buying ban of tash'ach. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the great book buying ban of tash'ach. Show all posts

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Translate this book | Amilam by Hila Arazi-Hatav

I've got to say, this one surprised me. I bought it years ago at Hebrew Book Week, I think to complete a 1+1 sort of deal, something purchased in the early days of my WIT awakening. It languished on my shelves until now, and honestly I don't think I ever really processed what the book was supposed to be about. It existed, barely, at the corner of my awareness. But TGBBBOT means that I'm reading a lot more "forgotten" titles from my shelves, and so it came to be that I read Hila Arazi-Hatav's Amilam. And liked it a lot.

This is a novel split into two voices, but they're rather surprising ones at that. The narration begins with Leah, mother of two, whose life feels like it's beginning to fray at the edges. Leah's husband, Yoel, is on a prolonged business trip after months of difficult unemployment, hoping to find redemption at a foreign conference. Leah narrates her troubled thoughts to the husband that isn't there, increasingly exhausted by the strain of her mother's Alzheimer's and a sudden, unexpected pregnancy. Thrown into the mix is her older daughter Noa, the second narrator, who seems to also be slipping off the grid lately. Noa disappears for hours, is distracted at school, and seems disconnected from reality.

But as Noa's narration begins to match her mother's, it becomes clear that Noa is not simply a lazy, delinquent 12-year old, rather she is singularly concerned with keeping her grandmother healthy so that the "cousins" from Paris - twin brothers, one of whom molested Noa several times on their previous visit - have no reason to come. Noa's fear for her grandmother Elsa's health leads her to take on increasingly drastic measures, from having her best friend pretend to be Elsa's long-dead son (Noa's uncle) in order to convince Elsa to take her medication, to grinding up pills and mixing them in with the sugar, to coming up with plans for a "trap" for whichever of the brothers it is that might come into Noa's bedroom at night.

The tone, unsurprisingly, switches fairly drastically between Noa and Leah, though the stakes remain high in both cases. Noa, unlike her mother, is not unraveling quite as much as she is fighting a losing war. Her concerns jump from caring for her grandmother to whether her class will win the soccer game against the other class. She misses her father, vaguely, but seems to have no comprehension of communicating with her parents (and from Leah's end, it becomes clear that Leah and Yoel have little idea how to communicate with Noa). For Leah, as much as things are crumbling, she manages to keep a fairly firm grasp. Yet on the inside, she describes a sense of loss and confusion, abandonment and hopelessness.

The writing style for both narrators is simple, though in different ways. Noa thinks in simple terms, rarely getting too wrapped up in her own thoughts, but often looping back to the same concepts and thoughts. Leah is the opposite, imagining herself talking to her too-absent husband (and though this business trip is fairly short, it seems to represent a wider gap in her marriage that she simply doesn't know how to explain), wrapped up intensely in a widening range of contemplations. Both styles feel very conversational without being simplified. Later in the book, as Noa begins to narrate semi-fictional accounts of Elsa's past to her, Noa also switches to narrating to her grandmother. The shift leads to a slight change in style, accordingly, with the greater complexity suggesting that Noa has absorbed some of how these stories were told to her.

It's difficult for me to say what it is that works so well about Amilam. It's not that this is the most original story, yet it feels fresh. It's not the most original writing technique, yet it ends up working remarkably well. Amilam didn't win any awards and I imagine has largely been forgotten by Israeli readers. Yet I liked it, a lot. Part of it may have to do with the fact that I just recently lost my own grandmother to Alzheimer's and pieces of Leah/Noa's experiences rang too true. Part of it may have to do with the way the book made me feel very strongly for both Leah and Noa; by the end of the book, I just wanted to hug both of them and yell at them "TALK TO EACH OTHER".

This is a novel that takes place over an intense week, but it digs deep into its characters. It's the sort of book that has carved out a little corner in my mind, and I've been turning it over over the past day since I finished reading it. I think it could very well do the same for other readers.

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.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A book buying ban

After too many years of acquiring far more books than I manage to read, the time has come to take drastic action. Rather than culling my shelves outright (which, frankly, horrifies me), I have decided to engage in an extensive, purposeful, and targeted book buying ban, with the direct goal of reducing the sheer amount of unread books on my shelves.

"Okay, a book buying ban... big deal! Why are you writing a whole blog post about this?"

Good question, hypothetical reader! It's because I've decided to have a little bit of fun with my ban, and make it a little more complicated than just saying "no new books for the next six months".

No, instead of setting a specific timeframe, I have decided to limit myself based on the number of books I must read before I'm allowed to acquire new books. I have also decided that I need to archive books alongside simply reading, particularly when it comes to books that I have started, abandoned, picked up again, and abandoned several times. These will count separately, but my hope is that I can acknowledge that sometimes a book I bought five years ago just won't interest me today. And that's okay!

Here are a few of the rules for this period:
1. Seeing as I have somewhere over 120 unread books in my apartment alone (yikes!), I must read at least 40 books that I have not previously begun reading.
2. Seeing as I have 15 books that I have begun reading, but have stopped reading for some reason or other, I must finish or officially archive at least 8 partially completed books.
3. I must read at least 10 books in Hebrew. At least 4 of these must be by Israeli women.
4. I must read at least 5 books with more than 450 pages. Enough stalling! They're not that intimidating...
5. I will (try) to review at least 20 of the 40 books on this blog or on Goodreads. I might not be able to do this one, but I have to at least try.
6. I must read at least 5 books that qualify for the Women in Translation Reading the World Challenge. I hope to read more!
7. I must read at least 5 books that have been on my shelves for more than two years
Well there you have it, folks. While these rules don't say anything about library books (or gifts!) which I intend to continue reading, the hope is that these rules will both help me clear up some of the clutter on my shelves, as well as motivate me to read some excellent books! Honestly, I'm kind of excited. Time to get reading!



Note: Posts relating to the ban, including progress reports and reviews, will fall under the tag "the great book buying ban of tash'ach" since I really hope this will not last beyond this Jewish year....... wish me luck!