Sunday, November 30, 2014

Yes, you really should read Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan series

If you're a reader of literature in translation (and let's be real - even if you're just a reader of good quality literature), chances are you've heard quite a bit about Elena Ferrante, her mysterious identity, and the wonders of the Neapolitan series. The books - which begin with My Brilliant Friend - are well written, interesting, emotionally engaging and ultimately extremely satisfying. As a series, they ascribe less to the idea that each book should stand on its own, rather each volume flows into the next with only quiet thematic markers to distinguish the books.

I read the three volumes currently available in English fairly one after the other. All three novels - My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (all brilliantly translated by Ann Goldstein, and kindly provided to me courtesy of the publisher) - end with quiet sorts of cliffhangers. Nothing that will leave you screaming at the page, nothing on the level of the awful non-ending that The Subtle Knife had (probably my least favorite ending to a book ever), nothing that will leave you gasping with its audacity... but cliffhangers nonetheless. Ferrante excels at making the reader truly feel for her main characters (Elena the narrator, and her best friend Lila), and in this sense any emotional turmoil that these girls/women go through, the reader goes through as well. My feeling is that Ferrante chooses to cut the story off at these specific emotional peaks which represent the tone-shifts that occur for the next book, as random as they may seem before continuing onwards to the next tome.

There's not a lot I can say about the plot without ruining the story. Since this is a 100% spoiler-free review for the three first books (book 4 is due out in about a year from now), I don't even want to refer to specific characters or large-scale events that within each novel, even if they don't seem particularly revealing within that context. And so I'll give the generic story idea that those who haven't read the book have likely already heard: the Neapolitan books tell of two girls, Elena and Lila, following them from early childhood to later life. Elena and Lila are a cross between best friends, competitors, and enemies: they love each other fiercely, but recognize the occasionally toxic nature their relationship takes on.

And so it's not too far a stretch to point out that the Neapolitan series doesn't actually have much of a plot. There is a story, yes, but it's not the sort of beginning-middle-end plotting that your middle-school teacher taught you to look for. The books are written on an epic scale, tracing the lives of far more people than just Elena and Lila (indeed, the story looks much more broadly at the cultural and social shifts occurring in Italy at the time, with the two girls serving as a very good anchor). It's this sort of writing that makes it difficult to point to a specific single topic or idea that the books deal with. All three books are big and varied and focused and generic.

There are a few points I'd like to touch on specifically that don't relate to the plot. First of all, I found the progression of the political discussion in the books to be fascinating. I was (unsurprisingly) particularly interested to see how and when the issue of feminism began to crop up. This rather gentle thematic growth ultimately gave me a lot to think about in the context of modern feminism (and modern political discourse), and I quite enjoyed it.

There is also the matter of the book titles. As silly as this may seem, I love the titles. I love how they reflect the stories, I love how they don't, I love what they say about how we could (and perhaps should?) be interpreting the stories, and ultimately I love how the fit together. (I'll admit that I do not like how they look on the shelf, but this is because the print on the spine of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is bolded while none of the other Europa Editions are and it drives me a little nuts)

There's a lot more to say about Ferrante. You've probably heard much of it. Her writing is clear and draws you in. These are not books easily set aside. The characters feel disturbingly real. Emotions are high without being smothering. This is good writing. I'm not sure if I've enjoyed the Neapolitan series more than the tightly intense The Days of Abandonment, but I've definitely enjoyed the books and I'm definitely eagerly awaiting the fourth title. I have ideas about themes and characters that I would love to discuss in spoiler filled reviews (another time), but for now let me say this to those of you who have not read these books yet: Read them. Ferrante's fame is well-deserved, and I promise that you will not be disappointed.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

History across borders - The Twins | Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

If Roxane Gay is a "Bad Feminist", what am I? | Thoughts

I am a feminist.

This is not news to anyone who reads this blog. At least, it shouldn't be. I talk about feminism all the time. Feminism is important! Many people are feminists, even if they don't realize it, just because the word "feminism" carries with it so much baggage.

Roxane Gay seems aware of this. In the introduction to Bad Feminist, she discusses the unfair standard to which we hold feminism, writing: "When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement." With this sentence (so early in the book), I was hooked. "Roxane Gay gets me," I said aloud. I read the quote to those sitting around me. I started to read more quickly, more excitedly.

And then... everything started to come apart.

So many readers recommended Bad Feminist so convincingly. I knew ahead of time that Gay's writing was supposed to be conversational and casual, that her feminism is modern, accepting and scattered. The publisher blurb (which is not actually found anywhere on the book, because why) has a quote in which Gay describes how she likes pink, so of course that makes her a "bad feminist". I was supposed to be all over this book (even though I really should have known otherwise, because why should liking pink make you a bad feminist?). This, after all, is a book by the woman who writes in the introduction that she's a bad feminist because she never wanted to be on the "Feminist Pedestal", a sentiment I not only agree with wholeheartedly, but have never found the words for. This is the writer who wrote succinctly: "I disavowed feminism because when I was called a feminist, the label felt like an insult. In fact, it was generally intended as such." All of this in the introduction.

Alas, it turns out that the Roxane Gay who wrote the introduction and the Roxane Gay who wrote the rest of the essays in this collection are two different women, with contradictory takes on feminism and some pretty awful pieces.

So I'll start by being as blunt as possible: I hated much of Bad Feminist. Not disliked, not "didn't enjoy", not just "was disappointed by". No. I hated a good chunk of this collection. To start with, it's a bad collection: these essays are largely disconnected, unrelated and have no flow, coming almost verbatim from whatever website they were originally posted to in 2013. Bad Feminist doesn't actually have a strong central thesis, making the whole book feel a little worthless - why not just track down the original posts? The essays themselves are often out of place as well - much as I enjoy a good story about Scrabble (and I actually did like that anecdote quite a bit), it doesn't belong in a feminist text. Whoops, sorry, no.

Some essays, it's true, flow into each other remarkably well. Altogether, a few paint an important portrait of Gay herself. There were moments where this became powerfully central, like in "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence". Gay has references to her own life and experiences in surrounding essays that give further meaning to her discussion of sexual violence. Moments like those made Bad Feminist feel like a legitimate whole, with a quiet continuity and consistency. Had the whole book been like this, the review you're reading now may have been very, very different.

Yet "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence" also exemplifies all too well another aspect of the book that I seriously did not like: a total lack of citations. Gay at some point criticizes another feminist critic for referencing bad sources and statistics. That's a good, worthwhile point that is demolished by the fact that Bad Feminist contains zero sources, citations, references or even link suggestions of any kind. When Gay discusses gang rape in "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence", I have no doubt that someone has researched the fact that the victim's "reproductive system is often damaged" and that they have "a higher chance of miscarrying a pregnancy". These are almost certainly true facts. However, Gay loses credibility by not citing the research. Writing something loosely like this may be good enough for a blog post (and even then, I'm realizing that it's always better to link to sources than assume your readers are familiar with the research), but it's not good enough for a wide-release book publication.

This hope for a more critical approach is likely a problem in my own expectations than a flaw in Gay's writing, however I cannot pretend that it didn't disappoint me. Gay is a critic, yet she seems to utterly avoid any chance for real, hard-hitting criticism. Most of the essays provide little more than entry-level understanding of the subject. Many readers have praised Bad Feminist to the sky for this trait, but I find myself thoroughly unimpressed: there's a way to write critically about pop culture, and Roxane Gay just isn't doing it.

The topics frustrated me as well. Beyond the fact that there was little here I wasn't familiar with (again, Gay rarely goes beyond surface level exploration), Gay and I seem to have opposing views on many, many issues. Her essay on weight (and how to write about being overweight) actually disgusted me, not simply because of how sloppily written it is. The essay skips between legitimate criticism, personal storytelling and a discussion of how modern culture looks at fat people. Gay simultaneously talks about how it's bad to judge, while judging every aspect of the author and the character of the book she's referencing, referring to the fact that "no one who shops at Lake Bryant or the Avenues or Catherines is going to feel empathy for someone who is thirty pounds overweight". The entire essay is extraordinarily reductive, and I actually wanted to punch the book while reading it.

There's also the little issue of spoilers. I'm a fair believer in spoiler alerts, mostly because it's unfair to expect everyone to have been exposed to the exact same pop culture as other people. I also do not object to people discussing plot points at length when properly pointed out (hey, it's part of criticism!). Yet Gay opts for the mix - she spoils endings and character development and everything about certain books, without ever considering that what she's doing might be, oh, wrong. It was extremely frustrating, and it's just sloppy. Again, this might be good enough for a Jezebel blog post, but it's not good enough for a print-and-bound book that I paid $16 for.

It boils down to two main concepts: One is of the content, writing and editing - the technical matters which I felt had issues (and content, of course, includes personal disagreements - this is a feminist text, after all). The other is of how the book was presented. Truthfully, I am not so impressed by the mere fact that Gay is tackling pop culture in her criticism. Not because I feel that there's something inherent about "lowbrow" culture that excludes it from criticism, but rather the exact opposite. I have never believed in the sort of highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy that Gay perpetuates in these essays. She repeatedly points out how lowbrow X is a guilty pleasure, but that doesn't stop her from being a good literary critic (something which, again, I'm not convinced of after reading this collection). Gay flaunts herself as a rule-breaker (her publishers seem to agree), but she sticks very closely to the original definitions of low/highbrow and doesn't challenge them in any meaningful way. To be perfectly blunt, I've read lowbrow criticism on Tumblr that's at least 50 times better than the ostensibly intellectual approach Gay takes (which is actually extremely shallow and, dare I say it, timid).

I really, really disliked Bad Feminist, and it has taken me many months to come out and say this. I respect that readers will have different opinions, and I am well aware that Roxane Gay is considered one of the foremost feminist critics at the moment. The point of this review is simply to say that I disagree with Gay on too many points to be able to call Bad Feminist a remotely worthwhile text. I have read other essays of hers that angered me as much as Bad Feminist did (most noteworthy was her recent Guardian essay about who should be allowed to advocate for feminism, an article which not only made my blood boil, but made me wonder if Gay even recognizes how utterly contrary to feminism much of her "criticism" is), and I have simply concluded that while Gay and I agree on the basic ideas of feminism - namely that it should exist, that there should be a greater discussion of issues such as equal rights (whether in gender, race, sexuality, etc.), that women's "issues" need to be treated with the same gravitas we treat men's, etc etc etc - we fundamentally disagree on the details of these issues, and on many other topics that surround feminism. Gay furthermore writes from a purely American perspective of the world, a narrowing that I simply will not accept from a movement that should be defined by its global-ness.

So here it is. The review that took over a month to write, in which I cannot go into as much detail as I'd like about what angered me so much (without writing a feminist manifesto myself), in which I mostly am trying to explain why I feel that Gay is a mediocre literary critic (at best), in which I recognize that many readers I respect and admire will so violently disagree with me that we may never speak again. Goodness knows I've received some harsh feedback on my negative reviews in the past, but I don't recall ever coming this close to criticizing the writer - this is the main problem with reviewing nonfiction, unfortunately. But I feel it's important to share my thoughts on Bad Feminist. I'm curious to know what other readers feel about my disagreements with Gay, and how they interpreted the book. I doubt that I will ever come to love this collection, but I may be more forgiving of its flaws and focus on the handful of worthwhile moments, far and few between as they may be.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Women in translation database and request


Please contact me if you're interested in helping or if you have any possible resources! Your help has made the current work-in-progress database as large as it is (over 1200 titles, and growing!), and will continue to make it the best possible resource for readers seeking women writers in translation.

Thank you!

Women in translation prize? Women in translation prize!

Here's some brilliant news: Katy Derbyshire (translator and blogger of Love German Books) is organizing a new prize for books by women writers in translation. This is something I can get all over.
What I want is a women's prize for translated fiction; a little sister to the Bailey's Prize, for instance. It would raise awareness for great women's writing from the non-Anglophone world rather than for great non-Anglophone writing by women. I know that's a subtle distinction but I think it's an important one.
This is some of the best news in the women in translation front I've ever seen (even if I'm posting about it at an embarrassing delay). I have often emphasized on this blog the need for awareness and discussion and analysis, because I truly believe those to be important. Yet there is no denying the fact that action trumps all. Actually reading books by women in translation, actually recognizing books by women in translation and actually raising books by women in translation is pivotal. This award will hopefully lead to all three.

Check it out!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Shades of Milk and Honey | Review

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Wayfarer: New Fiction By Korean Women | Review

Before I begin this review, it's important to note that I don't feel particularly qualified in reviewing a short story collection. Short stories by one author - okay, sure, I can handle it. There's a fluidity to those books (or at least, there should be), there's a structure, there's a single underlying style that runs through the stories. With an anthology, however, there's usually very little - the styles, eras, approaches, plots, and even translators may vary. Anthologies are not necessarily meant to be read in a single sitting.

Wayfarer, however, ends up feeling a lot more like a single-author collection than a big anthology. I read it in a single sitting. It was translated by the same team (Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, at it again). There are similar themes of womanhood running through all the stories. And goodness if the collection doesn't feel whole.

Wayfarer comprises of eight stories that look at women from different angles. Most of the stories deal with women's relations with men, in some form or other, but the stories remain firmly about women. A daughter is forced to reconcile with a Communist father she's never met. A journalist struggles with a story about a man who was imprisoned for twenty years and how it relates to her own rebellious past. Mothers deal with children, wives deal with husbands, women deal with the world and try to face it, sometimes more successfully than others.

These stories are largely melancholic, with our women finding few solutions to their problems. The title story (also the final story in the collection) displays this brutally, in a sequence that left me unsettled for a while after I finished it. Some of the stories are outright uncomfortable, but they seem at home with this discomfort, knowing exactly how the reader will respond.

Not all of the stories are necessarily brilliant on their own, and some of them are downright forgettable. But as a collection, the book works fantastically. Depressing as some of the gender dynamics may be in these stories, they present a fascinating portrait of modern Korean women (from 17 years ago, yes, but still). The stories fit together nicely, without any extreme tone-shifts from writer to writer, but clear enough differences between them to make it apparent that these are many different writers.

While the book is no longer in print, and its publisher (Women in Translation - !) seems to no longer exist, I'd recommend reading the collection if you can get your hands on it. I've still not read enough Korean literature to truly gauge different cultural aspects of the stories, but I feel like I'm gaining a better grasp of it with every book I read.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Abandoning The Rehearsal

Abandoning a book is never easy. Abandoning a book a mere fifty pages from its end? Pretty much unprecedented for me. I was looking forward to reading Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal quite a bit - I consider Catton's sophomore effort The Luminaries as one of the best books I've read this year - but from the first page, I felt like the book wasn't for me.

You know how I often say that I don't like present tense writing? There's actually a reason for that. Present tense writing can be a brilliant literary tool when properly applied (for a tense narrative, a sense of immediacy, etc.), but it's usually just used lazily as another format. When used lazily, it often gets muddled with past-tense comments. And there is almost nothing I hate in literature so much as switches between past and present tense in a narrative.

So not only is most of The Rehearsal written in present tense that often slips back into past tense... it also explicitly switches to past tense in different areas.

Deliberate literary technique applied by Catton? Obviously. Mark of a clever, thoughtful writing? Probably. Extremely annoying? Definitely.

On top of hating the writing style, I also realized fairly quickly that I hated the clever structure. Catton's writing is clearly experimental here, similar to her structural games in The Luminaries. But in her second book, Catton does a good job of using her base structure fairly subtly - you don't have to become immersed in it to appreciate the story. In The Rehearsal, the back-and-forth style, the vagueness, and the saxophone-teacher frame story are all very bluntly applied. There was no way to escape from Catton's experimentation, nowhere to hide.

Oh, and all the characters were distinctly unsympathetic. Kind of purposely, I guess. But I wanted to smack each and every one of them. And by the time I was fifty pages from the end, I realized that I didn't care one whit what happened to these people, or to their droll lives. The book went back to the library incomplete, and I am frankly happy to be rid of it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Girl of Fire and Thorns | Review

Ah, The Girl of Fire and Thorns. With your cliched title (a mix of Dragon Tattoo and Hunger Games referencing), your bland fantasy cover and your hyped marketing back when you came out, I was prepared to hate you. In fact, I wasn't even sure what drove me to read you in the first place - it may simply have been the front cover blurb by Tamora Pierce (who rarely blurbs), or perhaps I had seen a positive review recently. I'm not sure what it was. Somehow, I checked you out of the library. I read your first few pages and scoffed. And then I read the rest of you, and my mouth shut tight. Because, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, you are one of the most unexpected, subversive and intelligent young adult books I have read in very many years.

The story begins blandly enough, with a generic young adult fantasy description of "dark magic", the "chosen one" and a dull hint of romance. The first chapter echoes this emptiness as well - it begins with Elisa's marriage to the surprisingly young, handsome and friendly King Alejandro. But even in this predictable setup, Rae Carson manages to slip in important details that will shape the remainder of the book. First, we learn that Elisa is dark and fat, and that beyond her weight is an underlying eating disorder - Elisa eats at her unhappiness. These descriptions are perhaps not uncommon in young adult literature, but they are rarely found in stories of the "Chosen one".

As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that Elisa's insecurities are not simply a minor matter, but the crux on which her hero's story is built. Elisa's status as Alejandro's wife is kept secret in her new home, and she is uncomfortably aware of her "other" state. Beyond that, her status as the "chosen" (in this case, bearer of the Godstone) complicates her ability to live a normal life. Her nurse is a bodyguard, her status kept secret, and she is ultimately kept in the dark about much of the Godstone's history.

It's from this position that The Girl of Fire and Thorns takes off into wildly unexpected realms. Elisa undergoes the standard heroes journey, but her growth is genuine and believable. The story takes place over many months, during which Elisa forms believable relationships with the people around her. She's a complex character, lacking in certain forms of confidence, yet excelling in others. In one scene, she essentially muses over "fake until you make it", mimicking her more confident older sister to achieve her means. Elisa is also skilled in matters of military strategy, but we see this as a natural offshoot of her curiosity, less as a result of Mary-Sue perfection.

Much of the book focuses on confidence, largely seen through the lens of Elisa's weight. As I mentioned earlier, Elisa is a bit strange in this regard for a young adult heroine - she is not physically fit, particularly tough, or adept at playing the, ahem, game of thrones (sorry, I couldn't resist). She is, however, a sharp military mind, brave in her own way, and trying desperately to forge her own path in life. We see this reflected in the way her weight is viewed by those around her - those who recognize her even after a significant physical change (due, I should emphasize, to a legitimate plot point and not some fluffed up "progression"), those who view her weight as a nonissue (someone who casually references fitting into her old, bigger dresses in the form of a compliment), and Elisa herself, who responds to her weight loss by marveling at her own body without obsessing over it, and recognizing that she may regain some of that weight and it wouldn't be the end of the world.

Another important theme - and more plot relevant - is that of religion and faith. Like many fantasies, there's a level on which faith in The Girl of Fire and Thorns is irrelevant - there is magic, there is a Godstone, and so there clearly is a god. And yet the novel observes faith as sharply as it might be viewed in the real world. Yes, Elisa has a certain level of "proof" that her god exists, yet she doesn't understand god's motives or plans for her. The physical evidence may cheapen the effect somewhat, but religion is tackled here in an honest way that is rarely seen in young adult literature (or adult literature, for that matter). Elisa is not always certain of the religious ceremonies and traditions that rule her life. There is a journey of faith in the book, but Carson makes sure not to alienate readers by keeping the morals somewhat vague. Though the religion is clearly Judeo-Christian in style (monotheistic, with many phrases that echo Judeo-Christian values), the god of The Girl of Fire and Thrones did not feel defined enough to possibly offend readers of other religions and faiths.

These themes - confidence and faith - are only two ways in which The Girl of Fire and Thorns manages to eschew expectations. From a plotting perspective, Carson keeps things tight and believable, with a balanced timeline and good spacing. Almost all of the characters were given more than one dimension, most were even lucky to get to three. Carson, unlike almost every other author ever, also acknowledges when she isn't giving enough attention to a character: Elisa notes at some point how little she knows of one of her traveling companions because he is so quiet. It's a small moment, but it adds tremendous depth to a world that's already surprisingly broad. By acknowledging that Elisa is not aware of everyone - by tossing the notion of the "red-shirt" - Carson subtly builds a world that goes far beyond its tight, core cast.

The book is not flawless. While most of the book is carefully built and well defined, the last few pages felt disappointingly rushed, mostly in that I could not easily visualize the action occurring onscreen (even after rereading it). Small movements seemed to get lost as the story lurches towards its climax, in a scene that also felt a little clumsily written. In general, the writing is that first-person present-tense that is so common in young adult literature today, but is never really to my liking. It's not bad, but it's definitely not my favorite.

All in all, I was incredibly surprised by The Girl of Fire and Thorns and look forward to its sequels most eagerly. In a market that can easily seem saturated with sloppy fantasies and dystopias, this is a novel that deserves its own space. It's not necessarily the most unique premise for a story, but the way it develops its characters and the way it builds its world certainly is something special. Readers - younger and older - may find themselves with a lot to think over and discuss by the end.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

WITMonth | Retrospective

It's taken me a while to settle down in the post-WITMonth excitement. After a month of posting nearly every single day (I missed a couple due to illness...), I needed some time to think over what happened in August, and what would happen in the future. I've already floated my proposal for WITMonth 2015, but of course it's a long way off. For now, we need a little bit of a retrospective.

So what happened in Women in Translation Month? I'm not sure how many people actively followed the page updates or the tags, but here's the short of it: we looked at a lot of books by women in translation. As you can tell from the consolidated page, there were a lot of reviews. True, certain books/authors received far more attention than others and yes, we mostly read books from Western Europe, but overall there's a pleasant spread to the books.

This, though, isn't my main afterthought from WITMonth. What I'm seeing now - over the past couple days, in comments and tweets and people's booklists and reviews - is the remainders, books left over that will be read throughout the year.

Here's my struggle: there's nothing I can do about publishers who hold sexist beliefs that women don't write as well as men (except direct them to my paltry piece about that). But there are still ways to work with publishers who simply never noticed, or never gave it much thought. I am hardly the first person to write about the disparity in women in translation, nor do I for a moment tell myself that I'm the most influential. But WITMonth provided us - the readers, the reviewers, the community - with an organized opportunity to remind publishers that the disparity exists, to get even more readers aware, and to provide a good platform from which we can recommend titles

We did that.

There's not much I can say at this point except to say once again thank you - thank you to everyone who participated, in whatever way it may have been. Thank you for caring about this issue. Thank you for being involved. I'm now working on finding a good platform for the big database of books by women in translation, which has grown tremendously thanks to many of you. I hope WITMonth was as interesting an experience for you as it was for me, and I'd love to hear your thoughts as we move forward.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

WITMonth 2015?

I'm going to put up a full post-WITMonth post sometime later this week, but for now I present my half-baked ideas for WITMonth 2015, as per a few requests. This is a process and a group project, so please, if you have ideas or thoughts or disagreements, discuss in the comments or privately (by email). As I've said before - this is a long-term thing, and would not exist without your involvement. So once again: thank you!



Saturday, August 30, 2014

WITMonth Day 30 - Historical fiction

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

WITMonth Day 27 - Untranslated masterpieces

For today, I'm going to cheat just a little and refer readers to Day 15, when I talked about Israeli women writers I feel deserve to be translated. But of course there are many untranslated masterpieces beyond what I discussed, and many more books that I'm simply incapable of knowing...