Showing posts with label world. Show all posts
Showing posts with label world. Show all posts

Sunday, April 22, 2018

WIT, the feminist movement, and awareness

In the four years I've worked on the women in translation project, I'll admit that my goals, aspirations, and thoughts have evolved somewhat. In 2014, the day before the inaugural WITMonth began, I posted an essay about women in literature in general. The fight, as I saw it then, was about convincing readers of translated literature that women writers were worthy of the same space and recognition as men.

Four years later, I can tentatively state that I believe that the message has gotten across. The literature in translation community is quite small, and though many editors and publishers still haven't made any significant strides to correct their sexist approaches and biases, enough have. And more importantly, readers have clearly embraced the movement to promote more women writers in translation, with WITMonth growing from year to year. While the ratios have yet to change in any significant way, there is a clear effort on the part of many newer, younger publishers to produce only balanced catalogs. I am confident that we will begin to see the statistical progress in the next few years.

And so the goalposts have moved, just a bit. If four years ago I hoped that someone - anyone! - would just become aware of the problem, I have recently realized that this problem is actually far deeper than just the literature in translation community. In places where I would expect some awareness or acknowledgement of the lack of women writers in translation, of the marginalization that women creating works (or writing feminist criticism) in languages other than English face on a larger scale, I find a tremendous, very obvious gap.

My gut has been telling me for several years that the problem of women in translation belongs, in large part, to the global lack of literature in translation available in the English-speaking world. Most countries in the world import a lot of literature (much of it from English, though this is a different matter worth discussing another time), with translations subsequently normalized. English is perhaps not unique in its assumption of lingual-cultural dominance, but it certainly ends up getting away with it on a far greater scale than most other languages. The reasons for this are vast and complicated and I will not get into them at this time. However, one thing remains certain: most native English speakers, across the board, struggle to engage with art that is not originally in English, whether it is music, film, television, or books.

It's only in recent years that I've discovered that this almost willful ignorance extends to circles I naively imagined to be more aware. Intellectuals and academics aren't more prone to reading literature in translation; on the contrary, I have found many to often use that (often irrelevant) line about how "something gets lost in translation". Among feminists - even self-identified intersectional feminists - the awareness gap seems even wider.

More problematic still is the fact that many of these so-called intersectional feminists (and can feminism really be intersectional without being international...?) will even maintain that Anglo-American cultural norms are default. I have (on multiple occasions) had to argue with "intersectional" feminists that applying USian cultural norms on another culture is not only inaccurate, it may at times be entirely contrary. Not every conversation will sound the same way in a different culture. Not every feminist act will apply to every culture. And many acts that Anglo-American feminists might scoff at as "not really feminist" may actually be remarkably radical and/or outright rebellious for another culture.

Of course this ignorance applies to literature as well. As much as certain feminists do make a point to read literature in translation, you'd be hard-pressed to find most prominent feminist critics discussing and giving weight to exactly the women who most need a space in which to be heard. When I asked feminist-identifying folk on Twitter whether they read literature in translation, a surprisingly high number of respondents said they wish they read more women in translation, but felt as though they were never exposed to those books or struggled to find them in libraries/bookstores. Several noted that with so much literary hype surrounding new Anglo releases, it was hard to make time for women in translation, who are rarely hyped to the same degree (with the rare exception, as with men in translation).

It ends up being frustrating on two fronts. The first is the feeling that I have to fight for intersectionality to include internationalism, even though this is a fundamental tenant of the concept. With literature playing such an important role in terms of introducing readers to new concepts, the oversight here feels particularly egregious. I shouldn't have to explain to readers who fight for "diversity in YA" that USian kids also need to be introduced to kids from other countries, whose culture is different from theirs (and written to match that culture, and not an Anglo-American readership). I shouldn't have to explain to feminist critics that queer feminist theory is markedly different in languages that have inherently gendered words. This should be obvious.

The second front is the sense that would-be readers - those who aren't averse to anything in translation because "something gets lost in translation" - are missing out on so many opportunities to read brilliant women who are translated because these books are never promoted to remotely the same degree as lesser books in English. (For the record, I have found this to be true also in Hebrew, where translations from English almost always win out over translations from any other language. Hype is inevitable.) Most books by women in translation are published either by smaller presses or AmazonCrossing (which, due to a lot of reasons, doesn't always end up with the best translations or do a lot of self-promotion, even if some of their books are excellent; on the other hand, they also publish a lot of genre lit, so that's something!). These books are, for various reasons, not getting into the hands of readers. They are getting lost, and readers are losing.

There's a lot that we can do to improve the situation. For me, it comes back to that original WITMonth goal: raise awareness. But it is no longer my goal to raise awareness within a closed community of those who already read literature in translation in a targeted, directed way. I now want to reach all readers and raise awareness of individual books, getting them into the hands of as many prospective readers as possible (see: #WITreviews). I now want to raise awareness among intersectional feminists, to see them embrace internationalism in the way that anti-racism has become a core tenant of the movement. I now want to raise awareness among feminist critics and academics, particularly in light of how many fascinating-seeming feminist theory papers I have stumbled across in my searches that have never been translated into English.

None of this is easy. It wasn't easy getting WITMonth off the ground, either. But I firmly believe that in a few years from now, I will be able to look back and say that I have achieved my perhaps-too-ambitious goals. Certainly, I will be able to look back with a sense of pride that I have tried.

Monday, August 8, 2016

WITMonth Day 8 | Ancient writing and untranslated classics | Thoughts

Earlier this year, I stumbled across The Penguin Book of Women Poets in a wonderful used bookstore (it was there I picked up a gorgeous two-volume edition of The Mill on the Floss from the early 20th century for what even the bookseller admitted was way too little money). I leafed through it, expecting a text that would - like almost all anthologies -  focus on Anglo-American writers. At first glance, it seemed like the anthology was actually quite diverse and I impulse-purchased it.

It was only later when I got home that I realized how diverse this collection actually is. The collection starts in what they call "The Ancient World", but it's not limited to our typical scope of "classics" - alongside the predictable Greek poetry (and Sappho fragments), there's Egyptian, Israelite, Chinese and Tamil poetry too. The book then progresses to the "Middle Period" (600-1500), which includes writers from Ireland, Wales, England, Arabia, Sanskrit India, Japan, Germany, Korea, China, Moorish Spain... And onward in history: Italy, and Sephardic ballads, and Vietnam, and Mexico, and Sweden, and Cuba, and Turkey, and New Zealand Māori, and Native American. It's a stunning display of what the world has to offer, even when certain literary traditions (African, for example) are completely ignored.

The collection is imperfect in many regards, but the thing that struck me most was how practically every writer in the collection is by this point "classic". The collection was published in 1978 - even the contemporaries of the era are now classics. But many of them remain untranslated overall.

I talked about classics a lot last year, as well as the problem of untranslated masterpieces. There's something extremely frustrating in going through lists of women writers from around the world (and from vastly different eras of history) and discovering that only a handful have been translated. The same process happened with The Penguin Book of Women Poets - dozens of women writers from almost all walks of life, with rare collections here and there.

Perhaps I'm being unfair. After all, in any given collection of men (or... any given collection that dubs itself generic and then has only 15% women writers), many writers will also only have recognition within the context of the collection. Women are not unique in facing almost insurmountable difficulties in getting translated, we know this already. Yet the gap seems ever more frustrating with women writers because of how senseless it remains in the modern context.

When rediscovering writers today, why don't we look at those underrepresented women writers? What's stopping us from bringing to light those classic works, those classic writers?

Women have always written: in ancient times, in modern times, in medieval times. Did they always write as much as men? Of course not, there have been periods in history where women were not taught to read and write. (On the flip side, women today seem to write more than men by most measures and yet here we are.) I could never expect perfect parity when it comes to classic translations. But I do expect basic representation. I do expect publishers of "undiscovered classics" to identify those texts that were written by women writers as well. I do expect literary and historical scholars to commit as much attention to women throughout history as they might to contemporary men.

It's this sort of discrepancy which makes me desperately want more publishers to take part in the Year of Publishing Women. Yes, you'll probably always have more classics by men than by women. Most years will probably see only one undiscovered classic by a woman writer brought to light. But can we have one year when we get some of those well-deserving classics by women writers? One year when we can focus on how women demanded rights, criticized slavery and built abolitionist movements, fought in revolutions, ruled countries, fell in love, lived lives, wrote songs and poems and stories, and existed? Throughout all of history, across the entire world?

Is that too much to hope for...?

Friday, August 22, 2014

WITMonth Day 22 - Anthologies? More like manthologies

One of the ideas that's cropped up in the comments here for finding new authors has been exploring different anthologies to find new and perhaps more obscure women writers in translation. While this idea at first seemed a little minor to me, I quickly realized that it's actually brilliant - a lot of authors have their short stories translated long before their full-length works are.

I was so very excited. I really, really shouldn't have been.

You see, anthologies largely reflect the literary culture around them. Yes, you can occasionally find a book like Cubana (which I recently stumbled across and picked up at a used bookstore) that is dedicated to women writers in particular, but most anthologies give a broader spread. And most are so, so male.

Here's a quick rundown of the four anthologies I checked out from the library this week:

  1. Contemporary Georgian Fiction - 4 out of 20 stories are by women. 20%, less than the overall translation average
  2. Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories - 9 out of 52 stories are by women. 17%, less than the overall translation average
  3. Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories - 9 out of 35 stories are by women. 26%, just around the average
  4. Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused: Fiction from Today's China - 5 out of 20. 25%, just below the overall average
I won't pretend that I'm not discovering some old-new writers in these collections, or that because some focus on older literature it may justify the relatively low ratios. I won't pretend that they aren't doing good work for literature overall. I also won't dismiss them entirely, considering the higher male-to-female ratio in other anthologies (though when I say "higher", I mean around 33%...).

However. This is something we need to bear in mind. When we look at translations, we also need to look at short stories and at anthologies and at collections. Until now, I had sort of hoped that these collections would reflect better on translation rates than the current landscape. But it turns out that these collections - including more recently published ones, such as the Georgian collection (from 2012) - mirror the problems found elsewhere, and indeed often give us worse results.

I will continue to use collections and anthologies as a resource, for all writers. But once again we see the problem that led to the very initiation of WITMonth - where are the women writers? We keep searching, and we keep discussing. This is the only solution.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Women in Literature | An essay

Over the years I've been involved in literary review, I've said and written many different things about women writers, and particularly in recent months about women writers in translation. I've discussed possible differences in men and women's writing, a young adult literary culture that courts young women so passionately it alienates young men, VIDA statistics about women reviewers, writers espousing clearly sexist beliefs, gendered marketing, and most recently the striking gap between men and women writers when it comes to literary translations into English. There are still essentially 3 books by men for every single book by a woman in translation. My thoughts and ideas have evolved with time, often momentarily contradicting each other and occasionally living in an outrightly discordant land. The matter of gender - and gender equality - in literature has fascinated me for years, but never has it been more important to me than now. Nor, I think, more important for the broader literary community.

But numbers alone do not indicate why this is a problem, nor do they reconcile the seeming contradictions between my own arguments against the imbalance, and any reasoning for fighting. Simply put: why does it matter? What difference does it make if - as I claim - there is no tangible distinction between men and women writers?

A brief history of literary suppression

One of the books recommended to me when I began the Women in Translation project was Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing, which I think ought to be required reading for anyone interested in literary gender dynamics, feminism, or literature in general. Russ's premise for the book is that as long as there have been women writers - and she makes a point of emphasizing that as long as there has been literature, there have been women writers - there has been a male-dominated literary culture that has attempted to discredit their works. Her examples are largely Anglo-American and mostly post-18th century, yet they paint a fascinating portrait of a broader culture. Sadly, despite having been written in the 1970s, Russ's academic take-down is still depressingly relevant today. While women writers are now taught in schools and university courses, you will still find that they are taught significantly less, and that the group of women writers who have been accepted into the "canon" is very sharply focused on a handful of Anglo-American women. You'll also still find professors who disparage women's writing, and refuse to teach their works (or works by writers of color).

Russ's arguments hinge on two key points:
  1. Women write.
  2. The initial response by the literary elite will always be an attempt to discredit that woman's writing.
I do Russ a great disservice by whittling her points down to these two generalizations. Russ goes into greater detail about the methods by which academics long attempted to dismiss women writers, whether because of genre, relationships with other men, outright falsehoods (did you all know that Charlotte Brontë wrote only one book? Villette and others clearly don't exist), and a pervasive self-fulfilling prophecy about what qualifies as literature.

Do men and women really write differently?

One of our great claims in the fight against literary sexism is that there is no difference between the writing of a man and the writing of a woman. I have even gone so far as to sarcastically suggest that perhaps "men's upper body strength makes them better suited to describing dew drops on a leaf". On the other hand, we argue that women need to be better represented, because they provide us with dimensions that are otherwise unavailable.

Reconciling these two seemingly contradictory claims is surprisingly easy, and apparently critical in this discussion when responding to angry cries about imposed equality.

On the surface, on a purely technical level, when it comes down to letters and words: men and women write the same. There is no difference between when a man writes the sentence "and he slowly lifted his head to behold the sky" versus when a woman writes "and his eyes rose upwards, beholding the sky". Readers cannot actually recognize the gender of an author based on excerpts, and writing as a concept has no gender bias.

But writing as a construct does.

Let me be clear: there are differences between men and women, but these differences are not neatly divided, nor are they explicitly defined. It's much more accurate to look at a spectrum, in which almost everyone crosses the so-called gender lines. This is true of literature as well, in as much as there are certain "traits" that are more commonly interesting and relevant to women, while other fields are more traditionally associated with men, yet neither of these is ever actually exclusive. I'll also point out that while I am writing about gender as something strictly binary, I understand that many do not define themselves in this way.

Today, marketing for traditionally male genres (such as a sci-fi) is occasionally done with an eye for male readers (occasionally), yet it is understood and accepted (and expected) that women will move beyond the marketing to pick up the books. Meanwhile, women writers are ghettoized in their "own" genre ("Women's fiction"). Women are expected to read broadly, by both men and women writers (if they don't, they are haughtily called misandrists), while men can easily read only books by white men (and just be called: sticking to the "canon"). This odd dynamic is important for several reasons which will be discussed a bit later.

These are ultimately marketing choices, but we cannot separate marketing from the larger culture surrounding it. We do not live and do not read within a vacuum. A culture that largely supports men while finding women to be "the exception" will not suddenly embrace books by women. To deny the background sexism that fills our culture and our world is to simply close one's eyes. All of the sexism that we see in literature exists in exactly the same format in film, television, business, science, and just about every other aspect of our society. This means that a great part of the difference between men and women's writing is entirely in how we package our books and ideas. To rephrase the most common and sharply on-point example of this: When a woman writes about the family and home life, she is writing niche. When a man writes about family, it's universal. Another fine example: Women write romances, men write dramas.

Yet we are still left wondering - what is the real difference? Is it all constructed, all society-based, all in our heads? The answer is unequivocally no. If it were the case, there really would be no difference if men were writing or women were writing. The fact that we care, the fact that we fight for this, the fact that we demand this equality is a strong indicator that some distinction exists.

That distinction is different experiences.

Men and women experience the world differently, socially and biologically. Our hormones ultimately determine our emotions, our reactions, our behaviors, and our experiences. To take the most glaringly obvious example, childbirth is an entirely different experience for men than it is for women. These are experiences that shape people, and all of that influences writing. Literature is, after all, deeply personal. The differences between men and women are enough to explain why a balance is needed between the two.

What then is literature?

We have concluded that there are certain differences between men and women, and also that there are bigger issues with our culture surrounding those issues. Some of it has to do with dismissing women's experiences as trivial (for example women writing about raising children is pedantic, or women writing about sexual violence is feminist-niche), but much of it has to do with a long, long history of, as Russ puts it, "suppressing" women's writing. A more accurate description would be, I think, "dismissing" women's writing.

As established earlier, women have always written literature. The very first novel was written by a woman - and a Japanese woman at that. Women have always had important roles in history and culture, yet when looking over lists of "classics" - lists which serve as the basis for many peoples' reading choices - you see that women writers have only recently begun making their way onto these lists, and in my experience rarely comprise of more than 25% (and that 25% is only achieved if nearly every single one of Jane Austen's novels are included...). Furthermore, while you'll see plenty of non-Anglo-American men on these lists (Tolstoy, Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Dumas, Goethe, I can go on...), you will rarely if ever see women in translation (particularly on Anglo-American lists).

These lists reflect what the literary perception of the "canon" is at this time. This is because the concept of the canon is entirely subjective - fluid, changing and terribly defined. Some lists include Emile Zola and George Eliot, others include Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie, others have already opened their gates to J. K. Rowling and Halldor Laxness. The lists are eclectic, often entirely dependent on the country of origin and ultimately do little more than shed light on, again, what we perceive is the canon.

And right now, we perceive that canon as almost exclusively male. We perceive literature through the filter of male experiences and through centuries of defining art in the context of men. We can't ignore that, we can't disconnect that, and we can't pretend like it doesn't affect us. As a result, women have been systematically weeded out of our literary history (Marguerite de Navarre, Murasaki Shikibu, Grazia Deledda, Juana Inés de la Cruz, to name but a few).

When I was fourteen, I decided that I needed to read more "classics", to start reading like a grown-up. It didn't seem strange to me that I preferred for people to see that I was reading War and Peace as opposed to Sense and Sensibility, nor did it strike me as odd that I automatically rated those typical canon classics as more "serious" than those few books written by women that had been lucky enough to get published under the moniker of "classic".

It has taken me many years to reach this point where I can recognize how the canon has shaped my reading. It has taught me that certain experiences are worth more than others. It has taught me that there is an "objective" metric of literature, and how to define good books according to it. It has taught me which books are serious and which frivolous (this largely supported by literary journals, reviews, reviewers and publisher attitudes).

So it is no surprise that the year is 2014, and I am only just realizing that I have been letting other people determine for me what is a good book.

Bring on the pitchforks: Philip Roth is not a good author, but Hilary Mantel is. Javier Marías's The Infatuations is a pleasant enough book, but Yoko Ogawa's Revenge is simply stunning. Young-Ha Kim got all the attention at the London Book Fair, but Sun-mi Hwang blows him out of the water without a backwards glance. Everyone has by now heard of Knausgård, but who knows of his talented compatriot Merethe Lindstrøm? We know Roberto Bolaño, but what of Carla Guelfenbein?

Responses, denial, and why it's important

The above will have rankled some of you. Some will argue that the male writers I have listed here are actually some of the very best, and others will argue that the women here are clearly subpar. These are discussions we will always have and should have. Swap out each of the women's names with those of other men, and we'd have the exact same argument. It's one based on literary tastes and styles and personal opinions. This is great; this is what literary criticism is all about.

But I chose women for a reason. That's because as much as many people would like to close their eyes and plug their ears, there is a clear, glaring problem in publishing right now. And that problem is not the lack of women writers in translation (though that is without a doubt a problem). No.

The problem is the flat-out denial from most publishers. Denial, mixed with sexism, and a hefty dose of elitism.

In today's internet connected age, I can - in 140 characters - link to a review of a book I read, share it with the publisher, and within minutes have it shared to all of their followers. This happens. Constantly. But in today's internet connected age, I can get only one publisher to respond to my queries about the lack of women writers in translation, and that response is condescending, rude and sexist to its core.

So pay close attention, because these are the publisher responses I've gotten to this project:
  1. Nothing
  2. Sexist rant
  3. Nothing
  4. Nothing
  5. Nothing
I have been dismissed for writing under a pen name, dismissed for being a feminist, dismissed for focusing on women's writing, accused of wanting to impose quotas, haughtily informed that this publisher is aware of their abysmal track record when it comes to publishing women writers, and finally told, and I quote directly (though obviously somewhat out of context): "The press has a particular aesthetic that determines what gets published, and that aesthetic may in fact be practiced by more men than women." And all this in the single email response that a publisher deigned to send me.

At this point, I will praise the wonderful response from And Other Stories. After my tweet to them about the project, they acknowledged their gender imbalance in translation and have made real efforts to improve their catalog. This is the sort of publisher response we deserve.

No more

So this is where we stand. Armed with the understanding that a problem exists and ready (I hope) to do something about it, the inevitable question remains: What can we do?

We do this. We discuss.

We do not boycott these small, independent publishers because of their imbalance, but we make our voices heard. We do not point fingers (even when we'd like to), but we hope that by discussing the problems, they might understand them as well. We do not scream, but we shout. We do not kick, but we fight.

We do not impose, but we ask. We do not demand, but we challenge.

We do not pretend like this issue is black and white, or like it is the only battle. We do not act as though it's the simplest matter in the world, or that the solution we think is obvious will work for everyone. We do not belittle, we do not simplify, we do not dismiss. But we say, "No more."

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Women in translation | Responses

In the wake of my post from a couple weeks ago about the dismal percentage of women writers who have been translated into English, I cannot in good conscience leave the matter alone. It's not done. My post was meant not to throw the observations to the wind, but to search for answers and make sure that the playing field starts to change.

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone who was involved in the conversation: everyone from bloggers, to translators, to publishers play an important role in finding the source of the problem and rectifying it. Without your insights and thoughts, this really would have just floated away, never to be mentioned again. We've already taken the first steps. Now we continue.

Here on the blog and over on Twitter, a few theories arose as to why the stats look the way they do. Tony Malone of Tony's Reading List suggested that perhaps men are perceived as writing better "literature" than women, hinging on the fact that books in translation are often of a more "literary" nature. After a short debate over the use of the word "perceived" (in which I would argue that using such a claim only further implies actual, active sexism...), Tony also rightly pointed out the sad notion that while women will gladly read books by men, men are somewhat less willing to read a book written by a woman, and that perhaps publishers are merely "hedging their bets".

Meanwhile, Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press provided a publisher's view on the matter. She argued that women are simply not writing the type of Literature that Peirene, for example, want to publish, adding that women write more "genre" and less "literary fiction", and that their technique is often "not up to scratch" as compared with men. While I greatly appreciate her perspective on the matter, I'm not sure I agree with it. At all. To start with, I struggle with the definition of "literary fiction" Meike seems to be using, especially the idea that books should not form a type of escape. While we clearly have different ideas on art, its power and what even qualifies, what troubles me more is Meike's perception (again that word!) that women lack the technical talents male writers have.

This is a problematic idea for several reasons. One, there is no logical basis for it. Writing is in no way something biologically influenced - it's not as though because of their better upper body strength, men will obviously be better able to describe dewdrops on a leaf. More than that, however, is the fact that it's an extraordinarily unfair and broad generalization of both men and women's writing styles. I will not pretend to have ever read books with the same type of scouting eye that Meike must, but I have read a lot of books in my short lifetime. Usually, the only differences between writing styles stem from the very type of book itself. Does Hilary Mantel's writing lack technique? Obviously not. Does Marie NDiaye's odd writing sound like a woman or like a writer experimenting with a different style? Definitely the latter. Does Alice Munro's actual writing sound like a woman wrote it? Nope, though the topics may be viewed as more domestic and as such "effeminate" (an assessment I thoroughly disagree with, by the way).

In both Meike and Tony's comments, a certain subtext appears - that women are not writing the type of Literary and Important and Quality books that these publishers are seeking. I take particular offence at this. Besides the fact that I don't believe it (basing myself mostly off of Hebrew, where women are just as likely to produce quality Literature as men, yet significantly less likely to get translated - as we saw, no Israeli women were translated in 2013), I think it shows a greater problem with literary elitism. I don't want to get into that argument today, but if this remains the last hurdle to cross before women are properly represented in literature in translation, I will happily tear it down.

Michelle Bailat-Jones (of pieces fame) linked to a brilliant article which I wish I could have seen before writing my own paltry post: Alison Anderson's Words Without Borders article which is exactly about this lack of women in translation. Yet this article raises a point I failed to mention in my own post - the strikingly low percentage of women to be recognized by the various translations awards (to be discussed more in the next follow-up post).

Michelle and T. Olmstead (of BookSexy Review) went on to discuss what might be the source of the imbalance. Michelle pointed out that most of the books she had received in 2012 for review from publishers (unsolicited or pitched) were written by men, while she had been forced to specifically request books written by women. 2013 might emerge with better statistics (indeed, Michelle felt confident that it would), but based on the broader numbers, I am somehow skeptical that it will be a perfect split at the end. Based on other comments I've seen and my own observations of the literature-in-translation blogosphere, publishers sending more books by male authors might just be a trend. More statistics are needed before we can really point fingers - I would greatly appreciate more insight from other bloggers and reviewers who receive books for review directly from publishers.

The next stage comes in several parts, asking help from across the board. But we'll be looking at that in the next follow-up post, hopefully in the coming weeks. Brace yourselves: we've got a long way to go.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review | And the Mountains Echoed

I had only a few distracted hours separating between Between Friends and And the Mountains Echoed. It was an abrupt and rather unpleasant transition from Amos Oz's blunt, at times cold writing style to Khaled Hosseini's beautiful, emotion-steeped approach. But to Hosseini's credit, the discomfort quickly faded, and as had happened with his two earlier novels, I soon found myself oblivious to all but the book.

And the Mountains Echoed is fairly good book. I hesitate to call it much more than that, because though I enjoyed it and though I sped through it and though I think Hosseini's writing is excellent and though the story has lingered in my mind the past couple of weeks since I finished it... it's a bit problematic. Structurally speaking it's a complicated book, and in terms of writing it has its stumbles, and there were some issues with the pacing and even a smidgen with the characters. Shall we dissect?

When it comes to its structure, And the Mountains Echoed opts for that oh-so-popular "literary fiction" choice of having a bigger story told through seemingly unrelated (but obviously related) shorter pieces. And the Mountains Echoed is less roundabout in its use of this style (it's obvious from the very start that the stories fit together in terms of characters and story, if not chronology), but it does use various characters to access similar stories from all sorts of angles. This is not my favorite storytelling style, to say the least, but at least it works okay in the book, in large part because of the time jumps Hosseini opts for. The story is linear-not-linear, unfolding in the same way along different threads.

And the Mountains Echoed's strength is in its use of emotions. This is Hosseini's go-to trick, even more than his clear writing. How can our hearts not twinge at watching our characters get torn away from each other, and the twists and turns their lives take until they can, perhaps, hopefully, be united? How can we not feel while reading of loyalty and love, of friendship and family? And the Mountain's Echoed may not have the most clearly defined characters and maybe its story twists a bit too much, but beautiful writing and tugged-at-heartstrings make the book a worthwhile read.

There are some more problems. The non-linear style makes the book uneven, as we try to figure out how each story fits into the larger whole. Some of them are obvious continuations of each other. Others have only thin threads that connect them, but their overall value - their message, their emotional punch, their clear implications on the world at large - makes them worth it. But there are a few that felt weakly attached and too in-your-face with their messaging. Instead of the story flowing seamlessly from one angle to the next, we're forced to make a couple "eye opening" pit stops that really only emphasize the disconnect between the messages Hosseini (perhaps rightly) wants to convey and the natural course of the stories. This also influences the pacing, making the book feel a bit slower and clunkier than it really ought to be, even as the overall impression is one of a clean, flowing novel.

And yet. Come novel's end, I had to completely disengage myself. In the two weeks since I've finished it, I've come back to think over some of its finer moments again, and wonder at its weaker ones. The stories have not slipped my mind, the characters (though not always fully realized) have retained themselves remarkably well, and though I don't feel as though And the Mountains Echoed hit me quite as strongly as Hosseini's earlier A Thousand Splendid Suns did, it's a surprisingly accomplished and rewarding read. Though there will no doubt be readers who dislike the structure even more than I did, and find the characterization wanting, And the Mountains Echoed is a good book, one I can comfortably recommend to many readers.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review | Between Friends

Between Friends... between friends
Readers may recall a few months ago I read Amos Oz's The Black Box, saying that I was debating between reading that book and... this one - Between Friends (בין חברים). Reading The Black Box was a thoroughly interesting, but also somewhat uncomfortable feeling. I wanted to recommend the book, but I didn't like it. I was fascinated by it, but I hadn't enjoyed it at all. And I knew that it wasn't like Scenes from Village Life, which I had really enjoyed.

Between Friends is in some ways much more like Scenes from Village Life than The Black Box. This is mostly because of its format - like Oz's earlier book, Between Friends is a collection of short stories about a certain place, where characters appear and reappear throughout, and where the location is more of a main character than anyone else. Scenes from Village Life used a level of distance to tell a story about modern Israeli life; Between Friends goes back in time to the kibbutz of the fifties.

But here Between Friends finds a major similarity with The Black Box. Unlike Scenes from Village Life which had some perfectly crafted stories and characters I immediately felt connected with, Between Friends is filled with utterly unsympathetic characters in frustrating situations. The stories made me feel thoroughly uncomfortable; I honestly didn't want to spend much more time with this kibbutz and its inhabitants. But I did, because despite its rougher edges, Oz's writing is compelling and compulsively engaging. As always, his writing is distinctly "not-beautiful", but... it's worth reading.

The historical setting of this one sets it apart from either of Oz's previous novels that I've read. Between Friends takes advantage of the shadow of the Israeli War of Independence, in regards to the political situation in Israel as well as its socioeconomic situation. Oz uses his foresight as a modern author to play with the concept of the kibbutzim's socialism, through the prophecies of a dedicated founder of the kibbutz, or the hard-line beliefs of one of its prominent members, or the casual acknowledgement of its changing future from its young-generation secretary. Oz uses his distance to gently emphasize the future that is to come, but oddly enough he casts no judgement one way or the other. Oz's voice is usually a dry, almost dead tone behind his characters; this time he seemed even more unresponsive than usual.

I can't help but compare Between Friends to both The Black Box and Scenes from Village Life. In structure, it is similar to the latter; in my tepid but intrigued response to it, it is much more like The Black Box, except I think I got more from The Black Box than I did from Between Friends, which felt a bit like a weak imitation of Scenes from Village Life for me. It can work as an introduction to Oz, certainly, and it's not a bad book by any means. But it's not particularly likable either, as accomplished as it may be. In other words... it's a book by Amos Oz. Difficult to classify, but recommended reading.


Finally, a minor quibble. When I first saw the translated title on the inside cover of the Hebrew edition*, my immediate instinct was to correct what I felt was a bad translation. I hoped it was a temporary title. Now that I realize that Between Friends is indeed the final title, I'll only mention as a side-note that I personally would have translated the title as Among Friends - like many Israeli titles, there's an air of ambiguity to the original Hebrew. But this is entirely irrelevant.

* Hebrew books almost always (always) have an English version of the title inside. This isn't always the actual title once (if) the book is translated into English, but it often is.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ireland, in bookstores

So Marie (the Boston Bibliophile) kindly requested I post about my recent trip to Ireland. Simply put: it was fun. But more than the vacation itself, I had the opportunity to visit a few Irish bookstores, get some bookmarks, and experience the general Irish bookish-ness. A nice vacation, in other words.

Unsurprisingly, the big chain Eason was the most common bookstore (that I saw), and to be honest it was fairly disappointing in all its forms. Big and shiny like the best of them, the collections were fairly limited, predictable and oddly American*. The only interesting aspect in the Eason stores I encountered was their support of Sony Readers - a rare sight indeed.

Next up was Dubray, which was a significant improvement. Also a chain, Dubray actually had a lot of books (and much less noise) as compared to Eason. I visited one in Dublin and one in Galway, and both impressed me with the amount of books they managed to fit into their relatively smaller space. The Galway one (where I spent significantly more time) also had a dedicated Irish fiction bookcase that went beyond the expected hits and included several poetry collections and independently published Irish books. And though their fiction section was very Anglo-centric (little translated literature, a lot of American books), their sci-fi/fantasy section was overflowing with classics and newer titles. Quite impressive.

Lastly, I had hoped to visit the recommended Kennys Books (also in Galway). What ended up happening, however, was that I noticed a young man (reading a graphic novel, by the way - V for Vendetta, I believe? I might be mis-remembering) wearing a sign with an arrow towards Charlie Byrne's Bookshop. I followed it rather on a whim, and discovered one of those rare, astonishing bookstores. We're talking big collection - an incredibly packed bookcase lining the outer wall of the store, as well as shelves upon shelves of used and new books inside. The staff recommendations shelf came as a particular surprise, containing all sorts of unexpected and exciting books - I picked up a Peirene novella off the shelf, and in addition to my used purchases, I also snagged a new, ridiculously cheap copy of Matterhorn. I spent a long time in the store, and could have easily kept browsing for several more hours. I never did make it to Kennys (I had apparently used up my "bookstore quota" for the vacation. As if.). Next time, I suppose. But I'll definitely be returning to Charlie Byrne's as well.

As for bookmarks: I got extraordinarily lucky this trip. Rather than hunting down tacky souvenir bookmarks for purchase, lovely bookmarks kept finding me - I got two handmade bookmarks at the Celtic and Prehistoric Museum in Dingle, as well as a couple gifts from family friends. All in all, a successfully trip, both for the traveling itself and the general book buying and book appreciation. Too bad I hardly got any reading done.

* Though for the most part I'm referring to books originating in the U.S., American in this case also includes Canada... yes, I am well aware of how inaccurate a name it is.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday links

  • A great post about the impact of eReading on one's reading habits - for me, eReading will never be able to fully replace print (for practical reasons, among which is the fact that my eReader doesn't support Hebrew), but generally speaking, Greg is spot on. Not only has the eLibrary (in part because of its limited scope...) introduced me to books I might otherwise not have read, I've also started reading books concurrently, leading to, yes, more books read.

  • Israel is the guest of honor at this year's Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL), with plans for several very popular Israeli writers to be stopping by - it sounds like a trip to Hebrew Book Week, except with all the good authors there at the same time, and with a lot, lot, lot more people attending.

  • The stats on U.S. children's books reveal that most main characters are white, despite clearly changing demographics. One theory seems to be "diversity doesn't sell", but... I'm not buying it. This is something that needs to change.

  • The short lists are out for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards, and as always I'm just thrilled that this award exists, if only to remind people that sci-fi and fantasy are not, have never been, and should never be an exclusively Anglo affair.

Monday, May 20, 2013

When the translator is recommendation enough

The Goodreads group Loosed in Translation has a discussion I only just noticed, essentially asking members whether they've ever read a book because it was translated by someone specific. Short answer? Yes. But alas, short answers utterly lack the complexities that we seek here in the book blogging world. And so the long answer: yes, but usually as a crossover between my Hebrew and English reading. Does this make sense?

Here's how it goes. Last year I read 46 books that were not originally written in English. 13 of those books were originally in Hebrew, which was also the language I read them in. An additional 11 were books originally written in non-English languages that I read in translations into Hebrew. The remaining 22 were read in translations into English. In a lot of cases, I read a book in Hebrew versus English because of availability - for example, Halldor Laxness is available in Hebrew only through rather awkward double translations from Icelandic. Or alternatively, Christian Signol's Un Matin sur la Terre has not even been translated into English.

But then there are times I choose to read a translation in Hebrew or in English exactly because of a specific translator. Take Philippe Claudel, for example. I've mentioned before that I have a clear preference for the translations into Hebrew versus into English. It's obvious that I will wait a little longer to read Claudel's other works in Hebrew, just so I can enjoy what I find to be a superior translation.

There's an interesting flip side to this as well. Being a native English speaker, I obviously don't read English books translated into Hebrew. But I do take note of their translators. There are certain English-to-Hebrew translators whose tastes I like, and who have a knack for capturing the feel of a certain novel so strongly that I'll actively look into what other books they've translated, if only to get some good recommendations of books to read in English.

Does it seem like this post is heavily skewed towards Hebrew translators? It should. The Hebrew book market is significantly smaller than the Anglo one - it's surprisingly simple to learn about the most prolific translators, and it's even easier to gain an appreciation for them after face-to-face meetings (at events like HBL) or correspondences. I can't think of any to-English translators who I actively follow the way I have to-Hebrew ones, but I'm gradually learning. It'll be interesting to see how I answer this questions a few years down the line...

Sunday, October 28, 2012

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Though I am a firm believer in the negative review, I can never pretend to like giving one. It gives me absolutely no pleasure to find fault in a novel, nor do I particularly enjoy reading something bad. But when I read a bad book, I often find myself wanting to discuss its failings at lengths. And also, to warn other readers away. If this makes me a bad reader, so be it.

Anyways: In the Shadow of the Banyan is a bad book.

I feel I need to be more explicit. It's not just that I didn't like the book. My biggest complaint leveled against In the Shadow of the Banyan (by Vaddey Ratner) is that from a critical standpoint, it just doesn't hold up. Neither writing, nor characterization, nor pacing are deserving of a shred of praise (I can say little about the plot itself seeing as it's mostly autobiographical, and the history of the story is actually quite fascinating). In the Shadow of the Banyan grasps at the most basic, tired cliches and does a bad job with them. So honestly, I can't say that I disliked it because I "didn't connect with the characters", or because I'm not a fan of the genre. No. This is a critical dislike.

I'll begin with the biggest and most important problem in In the Shadow of the Banyan - the main character, Raami. She is built (presumably) from Ratner's own recollections of her childhood, but there is the space of decades between Raami and Ratner. This space is clearly felt through Raami's incredibly unbelievable observations of the world around her. It would be understandable for a seven year-old girl to observe and take in what she sees. It is not, however, understandable for a seven year-old girl to verbalize these thoughts, especially not in a distinctly adult manner:
On the wall near our room's entrance there were several crimson stains - paint or perhaps dried blood - in the shape of hands and fingers stretched to shadowy lengths.
Papa caught me staring at the stains, came over with a wet rag, and scrubbed hard until they merged into one big pinkish blob on the wall.
Why does Raami consider the possibility of blood? Even assuming a child could jump straight to that idea, why does Ratner explicitly say it? This scene would have been distinctly more powerful to an adult reader had it omitted that explicit reference to blood, showing only Raami's father moving in to wipe away the vague stains, without force-feeding us the notion of blood. What about subtlety? This absolute lack of subtlety, it turns out, repeats itself again and again throughout the book. Ratner describes everything, leaving nothing to the imagination. This can be a useful tool when setting a scene. Not so much when it's endless descriptions of the grass moving in the breeze, or the butterflies, or the smell of jasmine, or about fifty other pointless over-descriptions. Ratner paints a scene to such a level of intricate details that the big picture gets lost, and the possibility of reaching any understanding yourself completely disappears. It's also fairly boring.

If it had been only this one case of Raami seeing the world through an adult perspective, I might have been able to forgive Ratner. But this is only one example of many. How about this beautiful sentence? "It was clear to me now that while books could be torn and burned, the stories they held needn't be lost or forgotten." Wonderful, right? But do you know of a single seven year-old who would: a) think this, and b) put it to words? My answer is an emphatic "no". Nor do I know any children (or even many teenagers) who use the words "bovine" or "calamity", or who would say something like "Silently, secretly, I wondered if this moment could be capture somehow, in a crystal vessel of my own, to be invoked again and again should I find myself forever alone." This is the exact opposite of how you write a child character.

Let's turn now to the writing. Because technically, this is nice stuff, right? I mean, Ratner's got the words in all the right places and these are such rich words, and such vivid descriptions, and such elegant sentences... Well, no. Ratner's writing style is the type that I especially hate - it's got all the fancy words with none of the impact. This is overwriting, folks. Also: cliched. Early in the book, Raami uses a phrase from her father's poetry to describe her mother: as a butterfly. This motif repeats itself again and again, but it isn't a subtle, gentle idea. Ratner uses her favorite descriptive words like a blunt tool, with little deviation. Even more frustrating, her way to make the reader feel that they are in the "bloody" and "devastating" Cambodia (and not in their comfortable Anglo existence) is through numerous trite descriptions, whether of food, or spirituality, or of Cambodia's landscape. It did not feel natural and true. It just felt repetitive.

Then there are the characters other than Raami. Except, there aren't any. With the exception of Raami's naturally biased impression of her parents (one of her only believable childish traits), no other character makes enough of an impact to even factor in. Raami's uncle, various aunts, grandmother... none left any impression whatsoever. Nor do any of the people Raami meets during her various journeys. Characters exist in an entirely one-dimensional existence - they appear, they disappear. But they do not exist.

Even Raami's parents: Raami sees their love and devotion to each other. She quotes her father's poetic descriptions of her mother. But we see only idealized, auto-tuned characters. Any potential traits are smoothed out. All I know of Raami's father is that he's a poet. All I know of Raami's mother is that she's beautiful. These are half-characters at best. 

I should have known to avoid In the Shadow of the Banyan. I should know by now that most authors don't know how to write child narrators, or to describe an unfamiliar locale for an Anglo audience without resorting to basic stereotypical cliches. I should know by now that most books that are described as "beautifully written" are in truth overwritten. I should know all of this by now. But it happened again: I fell for a marketing campaign. I just hope that other discerning, critical-minded readers won't.

Monday, October 8, 2012

At a Berlin flea market

Fun fact: I used to study German. For quite a while, actually. And quite willingly, too. This was no mere school language credit requirement. This was my own whim, and I ultimately studied German for several years. Circumstances forced me to quit three years ago, but the desire to master the language never really left. To be perfectly honest, I was never really trying to learn how to speak. The thing I wanted most from the language was its writing, and the ability to reads its literature in the original. I never quite got there.

I've been working on it, though. After suffering a slight disappointment at the traditional bookstores, Sunday found me browsing a couple of Berlin's many flea markets. Mixed with the furniture, the jewelry, and the old clothes, many of the sellers had little booths full of books. Most were well beyond my level, but I managed to find two books: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in German (which would bring the number of languages I've read the book up to a grand total of three; it is also the book I probably know best in the whole world), and a collection of four Magic Tree House books (which were some of my favorite books growing up... also, very simple language).

There are other books I want. I still really want to read The Neverending Story in its original German (possibly my favorite German language book of all times with All Quiet on the Western Front as a very close second), and I would love to find some additional, simple German young adult books. But this is a nice basis to go from; I've already got The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe at home (which I'm currently reading) and hopefully I'll be able to improve my German from here. Maybe some day I'll really be able to read All Quiet on the Western Front. But for now: children's books it is. Thank you, flea market.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Abandoning The Fat Years

I'm giving up on The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung. I'm more than halfway through the book, but after a week of trying to read this relatively not-long novel, I'm done. The story isn't going anywhere, the writing is stiff and awkward, and none of the characters exactly evoke sympathy on my part.

Normally after passing the halfway mark, it might make more sense to plod on through. The problem with The Fat Years is that I can see exactly where it's going to go. Not only does the summary completely and utterly break the 10% rule of back-cover spoilers (if I'm 60% in and still haven't reached what the synopsis describes, something's wrong), the writing is clearly not going to suddenly improve and I highly doubt that the clumsy character development is going to magically turn around.

The synopsis promises that the ultimate message of the novel will "astound the world". I won't doubt that. The Fat Years isn't really a novel - it's a message badly wrapped with fictional characters. The writing is often blog-style-exposition which could theoretically work in another story, but here it fails. There's also the bluntness of a Chinese-to-English translation - I have yet to encounter a book translated from Chinese* that doesn't have an awkward taste in the other language (my case studies being English and Hebrew). This leads me to believe that the Chinese writing style is inherently different from the English, and in this regard I cannot fault any translator. I can, however, point fingers at the author for having melodramatic sentences and writing unbelievable dialogue. I can fault the author for flat characters and dull storytelling.

So yes. I'm giving up on The Fat Years. It's a bad book. And I'll have no problem adding it to my list of books I've read. I've read enough to understand that this book is a mess on a multitude of levels. I will happily let this library eBook expire a few days early.

* I wish I could specify what dialect it is originally, yet every Chinese translation I've read until now has only divulged the "Translated from the Chinese" aspect, not the specific dialect... I seriously don't get the reasoning behind this.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Czesław Miłosz's search for self-definition

I've blogged about Czesław Miłosz in the past: Miłosz has been one of my favorite poets since I first discovered him in the spring of 2006. His poetry has always resonated particularly strongly with me, and as the years go by, this power that his words hold over me has hardly diminished. Not long after I discovered him, I also learned that Miłosz was well-regarded for his essays and his novel The Issa Valley. After several weeks in which I debated which book of his I ought to read, I eventually bought Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition.

I would not read it for six more years.

Native Realm is anomalous for a number of reasons. Not only is it a remarkably strangely written autobiography of an undeniably fascinating writer, it is also a curious treatise on Eastern European development. Miłosz's search for self-definition is centered not around himself, but rather around his native Poland/Lithuania. Miłosz seeks more to define Eastern Europe as a whole than any kind of personal self-realization. This entails a lot of hard-core historical context, which he comfortably provides. Within this frame, readers can follow aspects of Miłosz's own life, but that doesn't feel like the main point of the book. 

Miłosz's focus on history means two things: firstly, the reader becomes acquainted with Eastern Europe's complex socio-political-religious situation in the early 20th century, and secondly, that Miłosz himself must acknowledge and tackle dark and disturbing periods in his homeland's history. In this regard, Miłosz provides one of the most powerful passages in the whole book:
As an eyewitness to the crime of genocide, and therefore deprived of the luxury of innocence, I am prone to agree with the accusations brought against myself and others. In reality, however, it is not so easy to judge, because the price of aiding the victims of terror was the death penalty. 
Native Realm loses some of its coherence as the book progresses. The chronological arrival of World War II shifts the focus from Eastern Europe in general to Miłosz's own wanderings. It is no less interesting, but the change was disconcerting, as I suspect the reality must have been as well. Native Realm was not at all what I expected (I must confess that I prefer Miłosz's poetry to his passive political descriptions), but it filled in several gaps in my understanding of the world. And even if it takes me another six years to read another book by Miłosz, at least I will have what to revisit and learn from.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Two views of the Great War

Several months ago, I read My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young. It's a book that compares two realities of the Great War: the men who go fight and the women they leave behind. Though I was not wholly impressed by My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, I did very much appreciate Young's focus on the civilian struggles of the war through the eyes of the nurses. Young's uncompromisingly grim descriptions of the trenches themselves were also noteworthy, creating a vivid and powerful image of the times.

To a certain degree, Christian Signol's Un matin sur la Terre (which I read in a Hebrew translation and does not appear to be available in English) follows this same idea. Like Young's novel, Un matin sur la Terre is as much about the women who do not go to war as it is about the three men in the trenches. Like Young's novel, Signol tackles larger issues of class differences. Like Young's novel, Un matin sur la Terre travels back-and-forth between the men and women.

The similarities end there. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is a romance in many regards of the word: it delves heavily into the romantic relationships between the couples, it tells a grand sweeping story, and its style is somewhat richer and heavier. Despite more explicitly explaining the love stories behind its couples, Un matin sur la Terre is not, on the other hand, a particularly romantic book. It's quieter, slower, and more subtly suspenseful. Young tells her story linearly; Signol opts for a reminiscing style that often loops around itself, as husband and wife remember the same event from a slightly different angle.

The biggest distinctions between the books, however, lie in the similarities. Truth is, I enjoyed Un matin sur la Terre a great deal more than My Dear I Wanted to Tell You partly because of its smaller scale and significantly fuller character development. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You felt awkwardly characterized and even more clumsily romanticized; the couples were neither well-developed, nor justified in their so-called love. In Un matin sur la Terre, the focus on the couples' love felt a great deal more 1915-style: indeed, one of the aspects I liked least about the book was the subtle sexism. The men seek to protect the women, the women seek protection. Though each wife is as developed a character as her husband (and in some cases, more), certain old-fashioned thoughts filtered down, giving the book a more authentic, but also ostensibly sexist feel.

The difference in the focus on class differences is again stark. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You bases much of its premise on a cross-class romance and the ramifications of it. Signol, meanwhile, presents three couples who each reside in three different aspects of French society in the early 20th century. One couple comes from the working class, another comes from peasantry and both have risen to become teachers, and the third belongs to the wealthier class. In presenting three stories side-by-side, Signol can provide a full and honest image of French society, without attempting to falsely modernize it (as was the feeling I got from My Dear I Wanted to Tell You).

I don't deny that both books have their strong points. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is brilliant when describing the trenches and the post-war treatment of wounded, even if it fails somewhat in other regards. Un matin sur la Terre is old-fashioned in style and taste, meanwhile, but does a much better job of creating characters. Both novels end semi-predictably, with Young taking an optimistic view and Signol pulling out the anticipated twist the book's tension consistently asked for (it's an abrupt ending, but truthfully it could end no other way). Though I am less inclined to recommend My Dear I Wanted to Tell You and have some practical difficulty recommending the not-yet-translated-into-English Un matin sur la Terre, together these two books paint an interesting portrait of France and England during the Great War. Anyone seeking a comparative case study for World War I need look no further.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Unreliable facts | Maternity Home

I've spent the past few days trying to muddle through my thoughts on the Israeli novel Maternity Home (בית היולדות). It's a weird book, made weirder by its odd juxtaposition of fact, psychological studies, and completely false manipulations. It's got the strangest pacing of any book I've read in a long time, and though it takes almost 300 pages (out of... 300 pages) to get to the dramatic revelations that are easily predicted early in the book (specifics aside), a subtle tense vibe kept me mostly in suspense until the end of the book.

It's this odd balance of reality and complete non-reality that makes me suspect that Maternity Home is not a good book. I couldn't shake off the feeling that author Daria Maoz (who has a PhD in sociology and anthropology) was telling the truth at all times, despite the fact that I knew that a lot of the "facts" were simply manipulative brain-washing.

There is also a matter of marketing and genre definition. It's hard to explain without spoiling the end (which I would rather not do, despite the fact that I highly doubt this book will ever be translated into English...), but suffice to say that there's a rather inevitable twist at the novel's end. This twist does more than simply cast doubt on many of the so-called facts listed throughout the book, it calls into question the entire premise and genre of it. Maternity Home, in the space of a few out-of-place pages, transforms into a novel of a very different sort. I'm not surprised it hasn't been a particularly good seller.

But I cannot deny that I was extremely invested in Maternity Home. For all its flaws (namely the blurring of the fact-fiction line and the glibly told lies), it's an interesting book revolving around a fascinating subject: motherhood. Even through the veil of unreliability and mystery, the novel's focus on three women who have just gone through the "traumatic experience of giving birth" (as the doctors in the titular maternity home so often refer to it) is wonderfully informative. The carefully constructed manipulations, while creepy and disturbing enough, grow as the novel progresses. It's a gradual flip as the veil is pulled back slowly slowly, until it is finally whipped off within the final pages.

Overall I did gain much from reading Maternity Home. It's a curious genre-bending book that focuses on a subject that most fiction completely shies away from, offering a surprisingly blunt view of new motherhood. Even if I were to ignore the strangeness of the book, its setting, its premise, and its twist, it would remain interesting. Unfortunately, its own unreliability swings back: I may be better for having read Maternity Home, but I do not think it's the sort of book I'll be able to easily recommend. If at all.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Yehoshua's earlier duet | A Woman in Jerusalem

I originally started reading A. B. Yehushua's A Woman in Jerusalem several years ago. This was before the "Hebrew explosion" (when I began reading more than just two Hebrew books a year) and I'd spent a few weeks trying to pick an appropriate title. Eventually, someone recommended A. B. Yehoshua. Being the thinnest of Yehoshua's books available to me at the time, I chose A Woman in Jerusalem (the original title in Hebrew roughly translates into The Human Resources Manager's Mission). I was immediately drawn in by Yehoshua's writing, but predictably struggled for a few months, getting only fifty or so pages into the book. Back on the shelf it went, collecting dust for four more years.

A couple weeks ago I took it down again. Since my last attempt, I'd read (and enjoyed) one of Yehoshua's more recent novels (Friendly Fire) so I was somewhat better acquainted with his writing style. This time the reading itself was significantly easier - within just a little over a week I finished this novel that has been sitting on my conscience for four years.

So what can I say about it? That it's a pretty good book. A. B. Yehoshua is one fine writer. A Woman in Jerusalem is another in a long line of Israeli novels that employs the no-quotes style (which a friend of mine has aptly described as the S. Y. Agnon style imitation). Eighty percent of the time, Israeli writers don't pull it off. But Yehoshua is not simply another writer, and A Woman in Jerusalem flows quite comfortably. No fault there.

But now that I've finished the book I understood why it was so easy to set aside years ago. A Woman in Jerusalem is a curious blend of destination and character-driven story. There's a general progression, but no real plot. The ultimate conclusion did not influence the first section of the book. There is no need to keep reading, only a kind of passive curiosity. Back when reading in Hebrew was a lot harder, it was easy to forget the book and move onwards to something else. And it's just as easy to get back into it.

As for the character-driven aspect, it's something of a twisted duet. I don't use this word lightly: Yehoshua specifically described his next novel Friendly Fire as a duet, and in that case the description is perfect. Friendly Fire is told by husband and wife through alternating chapters. The two completely separate stories balance each other nicely thematically and stylistically - a well-told duet.

I'd describe A Woman in Jerusalem as a duet of a subtly different kind. We have a world populated with characters who are not named, only referred to according to by descriptions (job titles, "the girl", "the snake", etc.), and then one single named entity: Yulia Ragayev, the woman in Jerusalem. She is the only character given a name, yet she never speaks, never breathes. She is the character that haunts the novel (effectively, I might add). The different titles in Hebrew and English emphasize the dual qualities of the novel rather nicely - is it the woman in Jerusalem who is the main character, or the HR manager? Is the book about characters, or is it about the "mission" the manager is sent on? These options do not quite contradict each other, instead highlight the differences between the two sides of A Woman in Jerusalem. In the end, passively written as it may be, A Woman in Jerusalem emerges complete, and well worth the time.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Translation awards

Until a few days ago, I'd never heard of the Tchernichovsky Prize for translation. You probably haven't either - it's an Israeli prize awarded by the Tel-Aviv municipality for "exemplary" translations, both literary and academic. In the Ha'aretz blurb on this year's award winners, the article mentions that Mifal Hapayis (the Israeli national lottery), which sponsors the significantly more prolific Sapir prize, has set aside funds for a similar translation prize to be awarded from next year and on.

This is interesting. The proportion of translated vs. original fiction in Israel is obviously nothing like that of the English speaking world. Whereas foreign literature hardly makes its way into English, Israel collects world literature comfortably and prolifically. Yet I'm still struck by the sheer amount of recognition translators get. When the majority of books published each year are works in translation, it would make sense that translators get a bit of credit. Still, sense does not necessarily translate into action (and certainly not into awards), so these awards are nonetheless surprising. And pleasing.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Israeli writers today

In a comment on a review of Amos Oz's Scenes from Village Life over at Tony's Reading List, I remarked that there's a new shift in Israeli literature away from vague descriptions of the hardships and political turmoil of the region. In my haste and carelessness, I unintentionally led to some confusion, with Tony responding: "So are you saying that in the past writers preferred to allude to the issues rather than confront them?" To which I must apologize and say, No. That's not at all what I was referring to.

I generally divide Israeli literature into three categories - there's the older generation of writers (like S. Y. Agnon or even Aharon Appelfeld) who are irrelevant for this post, the middle, commonly translated era of Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, David Grossman and a few others, and then there's the modern era - authors who have only recently begun their literary careers and are writing in what seems to be a post-political age.

It's this post-political age I was referring to in my comment. Authors like Grossman and Yehoshua (and I suspect Oz as well, though I have not actually read any of his works...) often refer to the regional struggles in a vague and background sort of way - the matters always exist in the story, but they are not always explicit. They do not take center stage, or even when they do, they don't exactly. It's an effect that mainly echoes a feeling in Israeli society: life goes on, but there's always a nagging something that casts its shadow over the bigger picture.

The younger generation of Israeli writers, though, have started to step away from this coy game. Instead, there has been an explosion in social literature: you can hardly walk into a bookstore without tripping over the next great novel about a middle-aged Tel-Aviv-ite, or the life and times of a kibbutz. There are still war-stories, and historical fiction that delves into many of Israel's older wars, as well as many books that deal with the issues head-on, but fewer and fewer novels seem to have that shadow hanging over them, or political aspirations of any kind, instead falling into more distinct characterizations. The Grossman-Oz-Yehoshua triangle of political activism has paved way for a clear division, allowing authors to write books separate from any socio-political issues. A sign of the times, perhaps.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

SAFL #11: The Golden Age

I'll be posting more about this one in a couple of days, but even after several days of thinking about it and writing about it, I'm still amazed by how incredible this novel is. Heavily focused on the magic of words and stories, The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz has that fantastic quality that makes it the very definition of SAFL.

The Golden Age seems to begin in a somewhat standard fashion - the narrator tells us of a wonderful and exotic island. Soon, though, fantasy elements make their way into the story and internal tales begin to twist and turn around each other, eventually overtaking the original narrative. This makes for fairy-tale like stories that contain within them enough fantasy (and even science fiction, in one substory) to transform the novel into something utterly magical and beautiful.

There are many lovely and quote-worthy sentences in the book (see here), but this one has to be my favorite:
I have noticed that a lot of literary critics are bothered by the mixing of genres; indeed, some of them are so easily offended in this regard that they experience distress when faced with trifles like the use in a passage of fiction of concepts of theory (as if there were some fundamental difference between stories of people, animals, plants and objects on the one hand and stories of concepts of the other). -p. 187