Sunday, April 20, 2014

When the Emperor was Divine | Review

Julie Otsuka is one severely underrated writer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Translate This Book | Children's Mate by Bella Shaier

Background: Children's Mate by Bella Shaier is an Israeli book originally published in 2011 by the New Library. It's comprised of three stories: the eponymous opening novella "Children's Mate", a shorter novella "Galit and Gordon", and finally a short story "Double".

What it's about: The main story is the opening novella, itself a collection of five stories that follow a group of children in a Soviet apartment complex. The stories are fairly independent of each other (with recurring characters, and the shared complex of course), but together form a fascinating and touching portrait of childhood (and particularly Jewish childhood) in the Soviet Union. "Galit and Gordon" tells the story of an Israeli couple across decades, presenting a perspective on class, race, and love. "Double", meanwhile, tackles immigration and position, as well as aging and disability... all in the span of ten pages.

Why it deserves to be translated: Children's Mate is a curiously broad book. It has an interesting story continuity, from the early pages which deal with childhood (indeed, specifically early childhood, with none of our children passing age six), to the middle story which looks at an unlikely and passive couple from early adulthood through to middle age, and finally to an older woman whose struggles make her position almost as precarious as that of a child's. More interesting is the fact that each of these stories centers around a different status of character - children (particularly of Jewish origin) in the Soviet Union, ordinary Israeli adults in Tel Aviv, and Russian new immigrant to Israel who speaks neither the language nor sees particularly well, instead forced to rely on others to get by.

Truth be told, it's the two outside stories that deserve more attention. "Galit and Gordon" is a familiar sort of story about relationships and growth, but with an interesting background about Israeli culture clashes that still doesn't make the story quite enough to justify translation on its own. However, the truly brilliant "Children's Mate" does, and I think that's the sort of story that can belong anywhere.

"Children's Mate" is fascinating for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it does an excellent job of getting in the mind of its child characters, without making those either unnaturally precocious or simplistically unrealistic. The kids sound and think like children their age would, misunderstanding adults and struggling with new realizations just as I remember from my own childhood. Shaier finds a fantastic balance between telling the children's stories and showing us the grown-up world around them, revealing to us painful adult truths through the eyes of those who don't fully understand the consequences yet.

Shaier's particular emphasis on Jewish children is especially revealing - we see a series of small incidents with small Jewish children living in a coldly anti-Semitic Soviet Union, sometimes recognizing incidents as what they are, sometimes misconstruing them as children often do. One of the little girls at some point mulls over the differences between the different Jewish children in the building, noting her luck that unlike a different character, her parents don't speak Yiddish to each other and so her Jewishness isn't apparent to the other children.

Finally, "Double" tells a frank, painful story about a new immigrant in Israel, facing struggles at home with her son-in-law (whose decision to move to Israel essentially forced her out of her home), struggles with learning a new language, struggles with her deteriorating eyesight, and ultimately a fundamental struggle leading a normal life. In ten precise pages, Shaier presents an entire world rarely given much attention - that of the immigrant who has not successfully integrated into Israeli society. This story works best understanding Israeli demands of integration (and a generational expectation when it comes to language and culture), but I think it stands alone as an excellent assessment of immigration struggles, as well as aging.

Translate this book! Children's Mate is a wonderfully written book, spanning topics and generations and issues. It's interesting, intelligent and does not rely too much on a certain cultural understanding, while simultaneously introducing readers to different ideas and worlds. The writing is consistently clear, with a style that adjusts subtly according to the type of story - childlike in "Children's Mate", coolly mature in "Galit and Gordon", and quietly uncertain in "Double". This is an excellent example of Israeli literature, well-deserving of a wider audience and greater appreciation.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen | Review

I read a collection of Kjell Askildsen's shorts stories (technically novella plus short stories) last year, finding him to be a surprisingly interesting writer. I liked the minimalist style and the book was overall quite successful. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when Dalkey Archive offered to send me an advanced copy of their forthcoming collection of additional stories (imaginatively titled Selected Stories), translated by Seán Kinsella. I happily accepted.

The collection, unlike the previous one I'd read, was entirely comprised of short vignettes, with virtually no stand-out story or extra-long piece that draws away from the others. In fact, the first thing that struck me about all the stories in this collection is how similar they all feel. The themes Askildsen touched upon in Thomas F and the other stories in that collection reappear here in full form. Each story is essentially about an apathetic or unhappy middle-aged man. Each story has some kind of weather or nature related theme. There's a lot of drinking, a lot of chain smoking. A lot of connectors between events that never quite pan out. A lot of innuendo. A lot of general melancholy.

Because of Askildsen's propensity for keeping things very, very simple, it turns out that this short collection ends up lacking a bit of punch. The writing is still clear and sharp and perfectly minute, but I didn't get the same overall clarity that I got with the significantly longer Thomas F. The characters aren't particularly distinguishable one from the other, to the point where I strongly suspect that Askildsen had absolutely no intention of them ever being viewed as anything but the same character in a slightly different variation. The obviously recurring character traits - bursts of sudden unexplained anger or violence, smoking and drinking patterns, treatment of women, and general attitude - all tie together so vividly it's hard to view any of them as anything other than belonging to a single male character Askildsen has in his head. I left the book strongly suspecting that this man is either heavily based on Askildsen himself, or is some sort of manly ideal which he's fascinated with.

Either case, quite frankly, would make him an extraordinarily unsympathetic man, even if he's a talented writer.

I have trouble with collections of this kind. My favorite short story collections generally have some sort of loose binding that make them novel-esque, or they have stories that are so different from each other in tone, content and style that I don't feel as though I'm going down the same path again and again. Askildsen's writing is best taken in small portions, then, not read in one sitting (though I actually read half the stories across a few days, then finished the remaining half in one evening). For fans of minimalist prose, there's really no way to go wrong here. Askildsen may not know how to build characters or spin wildly ornate plots, but he knows how to set a mood (typically an unpleasant one), how to make the reader just uncomfortable enough, and to do all this while scarcely using any words. Talent... but I think I've had enough of it for now.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Women in Translation | Moving forward (a short update)

Previous posts in Women in Translation series:

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist is out, ladies and gentlemen, and there's some fantastic news for women writers in translation. Why? Because for only the second time in its history, a full 50% of the shortlisted authors are women. Three out of six. Which is well above the baseline publication rate for women in translation. Fantastic news, right?

I'm not going to lie - this is fantastic news. For several reasons.

The first is the most obvious: three books by women writers are now in the prestigious club of shortlisted titles. They're getting coverage, attention, and respect. This is great news for Yoko Ogawa, Birgit Vanderbeke and Hiromi Kawakami. Three great books (technically I haven't read Kawakami yet, but a lot of other reviewers seemed to quite like the book), well-deserving of their place in this coveted list.

The second is a bit broader: the topic of women in translation - that thing I've been writing and ranting about, trying to raise awareness - is being discussed. Straight up. Maybe it's convoluted, maybe it's meta, maybe it's political, maybe it's discriminatory correction (which I don't think is true at all, by the way)... but the point is that we're talking about the fact that there is a problem in publishing (and a problem in award recognition). We're discussing exactly what we need to.

The third is that it states - strongly and unequivocally - that books by women are just as good as books by men. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it really isn't. Enough readers subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) weed out books written by women for a multitude of reasons. I used to be one of those readers. Sometimes it's a wildly unrepresentative cover (what the heck is going on with the Kawakami cover?), sometimes it's stereotypes about the "type of books women write" (and a general genre elitism), and sometimes it's outright sexism (the examples I raised in my review of How to Suppress Women's Writing). By including three books in their shortlist, the IFFP is directly challenging the idea that books by women writers are not at the same level as those by men. Which is wonderful.

We're moving forward. And that is, without a doubt, excellent news.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Trieste | Jumbled thoughts

It's been well over a month since I finished Trieste (Daša Drndić, tr. Ellen Elias-Bursac). Well over two months since I started it. My opinion of it hasn't changed much since I began this strange book; I appreciated some of the many things it tried to say, but I didn't like the book and overall felt like it was a form of torture to keep reading it.

Splendid, right?

The problem with books like Trieste is that it's very hard to separate between what I feel and what I know. I know that I should find Trieste to be a powerful statement on war, and love, and all politics, and the Holocaust, and literature as a whole (because goodness, it takes some audacity to spend a good chunk of a novel with a straight-up list of the names of Italy's Holocaust victims). My logical, "literary" mind sees that Trieste is probably a Great Work of Literature. It's Important, and Powerful, and is making a Statement.

That doesn't mean it's doing any of that particularly well, though. And that doesn't mean I have to like it. Because I didn't like it. I understand it, and I accept it, and I even appreciate it to a minor degree. But I didn't like or enjoy the reading experience at any single point.

Trieste is another in a long line of novels that bothered me with its completely disjointed writing style. This is a style I've seen more and more frequently in literature in translation, often with all sorts of boasts about the writing's "subtlety" or "intelligence" or a number of other code words for LITERARY. The truth is that most of these books are actually more concept that content, and the trend towards this type of writing has pissed me off on more than one occasion. Trieste can't escape the pitfalls that frustrate me: vagueness does not equal subtlety. Lack of context does not mean complex. And blurring the liens between fact and fiction to the point of including photographs with absolutely no references and without bothering to explain yourself does not make the book clever, it just makes it confusing.

So here we have a book that wears its confusion like a badge of honor, and writing that alternates between two major styles that essentially follow two major stories: one, a completely loose, meandering writing that follows the life of Haya Tedeschi, and two, tightly constructed dialogues about the Holocaust. Suffice to say I found the dialogues to be much more successful than Haya's story, in large part because there's little I hate more than a book that only reaches the blurb-promised story in its last fifty pages. And because following Haya's story was a bit like trying to keep your eyes on a mosquito late at night after it's bitten you four times - impossible.

The dialogues succeed in a way that Haya's story doesn't for a simple reason: their task and goal is clearly defined, with little room for variation or getting off track. The dialogues have their breadth, certainly, ranging from discussions about actual war crimes, to "interviews" with dead victims, to interviews with SS officers. Here, Drndić also blurs the line between fact and fiction, but the result is a powerful Holocaust narrative that succeeds in breathing new literary life into a genre typically bogged down by its predecessors. These snippets alone could have formed a very different, but altogether more successful book, in my opinion.

Alas, now we need to turn to Haya's story. Which is altogether a messy, disappointing setup to a surprisingly poignant, thought-provoking final quarter. I won't pretend that I didn't find the last portion of the book to be significantly more interesting than the first three, but there's a saying: too little too late. After an epic struggle to even reach the novel's end (despite being consistently interesting and thought-provoking), I certainly found myself thoughtful by novel's end, but also extremely unhappy and fairly disappointed.

The disappointment stems from a fundamental approach to literature - characters need to have something that draws a reader to them. Sometimes that's a powerful voice, sometimes it's a strong personality, and oftentimes it's just a rollicking good story. Haya's story in and of itself is fairly tame in the context of Holocaust literature - until the final portion of the book, her story mostly revolves around her family's history of moving around, her later years as a math teacher (a detail I quite enjoyed, I'll admit), and connectors to the broader Holocaust story. But on a personal level, it was definitely lacking.

I think to a large extent another reason I was unhappy was because of how many topics Trieste attempted to tackle. Stories about each of these individual elements - the Italian/Baltic Holocaust, the Catholic Church's policy regarding Jewish children who'd been placed in Christian homes and their abhorrent policy of keeping them from their parents post-war, a Jewish woman having a child with an SS officer, German racial policies, etc. - would have been powerful and interesting. A story that tackles each and every one of these is, for lack of a better term, too much. It's all over the place. It's exhausting. And it loses from its impact.

I don't think I can say I actively disliked Trieste, though I certainly didn't like it. I didn't want to keep reading it, and though I did ultimately feel as though I gained something from this book (can I really call it a novel?), it was the sort of wiped out feeling you get when you climbing to the top of a steep mountain and instead of the promised view, see only a cloud of fog around you. Trieste is not a book I can ever see myself handing off to other readers, nor can I possibly imagine myself rereading it. So while I can appreciate what it was trying to do, alas, I don't think it's a particularly good book. I'd be curious to see what Drndić does with a slightly less overly-ambitious setup, but let's be clear: if someone ever tries to recommend a book to me based on similarities to Trieste, you can bet your finest hat that I won't be reading it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons | Review

I'm honestly surprised that I'd never heard of Goli Taraghi's The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons (tr. Sara Khalili) before reading it. It's not that I think I know of every new book that's published, but as a longtime book blogger, there's always a bit of awareness of new titles. Particularly titles from more mainstream publishers. The irony of it is that I'm often more aware of literature in translation from smaller publishers than I am from the heavy-hitters, where they seem almost passive in their attitudes despite more newspaper coverage. The fact is that I can't recall having seen any reviews of The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons. Fairly undeserved.

It's been a bit over a month since I read this short story collection, so I won't pretend that all the facts and figures are perfectly aligned in my head. But truthfully, that's less relevant for a book of this sort. Like many short story collections, the plot is not really the point. More important is the clear-headed assessment of a culture, and a culture of emigration.

The fact that most of the stories in The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons either revolve around emigration (or return), or some form of outside cultural influence, says quite a bit about the collection as a whole and about the state of Iranian culture. This is not particularly surprising given Taraghi's current status as an expat herself, but there's power to the fact that she continues to write in Farsi. There's meaning to the fact that these stories have such strong themes of coming and going, forming a core that does not dismiss offhand cultural differences between Europe/America and Iran, but also does not entirely embrace them.

One of the nice things about this collection is in its rather excellent balance of pace and story. These are short stories that know how to breathe - nothing is rushed, but no story feels unnecessarily bloated either. One story tells of a dinner party broken up by a raid. There's anxiety running throughout the story, the narrator's tense apprehensions and unease with further complications that result from her arrest. Taraghi's writing conveys this tension without resorting to blunt measures. Everything flows gracefully and smoothly, straight through to the story's end. This makes for a nice change from most novels, and certainly from flash fiction which often ends up missing important story elements.

Though certain themes crop up again, The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons nonetheless relatively succeeds in staying fresh. This is not a collection bogged down by the same story again and again with slight variations; even the most similar stories feel distinct in their characters and settings. Some also sharply deviate from the standard mold, making for an overall bolder, more diverse collection. There's a lot here about human nature, quite a bit about passion and force of will, and sprinkles of love, often in the most roundabout way.

I liked The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons when I really didn't think I would. The stories grow on a reader, and though the writing was a little awkward at times (a fault whose source I'm not sure of - writer or translator...), generally speaking I found myself delving quite deeply into each story. Nothing bombastic happens in any of these stories, nor are they unique for their sparseness. Instead, Taraghi looks at characters (primarily women) in different situations, calmly building the broader world around these characters and ending on just the right note. All in all, a good, balanced collection, deserving of more attention.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Budding Tree | Review

I wanted to write about The Budding Tree the moment I finished reading it, but I got sidetracked by other books. Now, just over a month after finishing it, I feel that I have done the book a clear disservice. Aiko Kitahara's lovely collection of short stories (tr. Ian MacDonald) is a perfect example for why I feel there needs to be more literature in translation. Not only is The Budding Tree brilliant in its portrayals of women attempting to carve out an independent existence for themselves, but it's also a beautifully written book overall, and a fascinating historical fiction account.

The Budding Tree: Six Stories of Love in Edo is not remotely about romance, even as it is about love. This collection of loosely linked stories focuses on six women striving to live their lives in a society that maybe isn't quite ready for their independence yet. Opening with a story about identity and honor, we catch glimpses of the struggles young women had just in living their lives. We see a teacher, a restaurant owner, an artist, a designer, a performer, and a scribe, each one with her own complications (often tangentially linked to one of the previous stories). These are women with men in their lives - often in a romantic context - but the stories are about them, about their struggles, their desires and their hopes.

Ultimately, each of these stories is about women's freedom. In one story, a woman's ex-husband attempts to convince her to return to work in his failing restaurant, which she managed when they were still married. The attempts are marked with threats, both directly from the ex-husband as well as from the loan sharks currently keeping the other restaurant afloat. The story is set against the backdrop of an increasingly volatile economic situation in Edo, with rampant starvation and inflation. It's ultimately both powerful in its portrayal of economic hardship, as well as in its characterization of a woman doing all she can to remain independent in both her work and her personal life.

I should emphasize that no aspect of The Budding Tree tries to portray either men or women as caricatures. The men are not merely bullies in their attempts to dominate women. Nor are they objects of affection, occupying the entirety of the women's lives. Meanwhile, the women are neither portrayed as frivolous for their love, nor are they forced to completely forgo it. These are not "strong female characters" in the traditional sense of the word, but each of them is clearly a well-written woman with her own story to tell.

The writing in The Budding Tree is perfect - a good balance of quietly lyrical, with a clean, crisp tone overall. It's a lovely read - neither too sparse nor overwhelming with sticky prose. Coupled with a very even, calm pacing and a series of stories that are interesting, enjoyable and powerful, The Budding Tree is ultimately a very good book. Nothing here is bombastic, nothing is particularly flashy or attention-grabbing, but all together the result is of a woefully underrated book that deserves to be better known.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Women in Translation | Awards

Previous posts in Women in Translation series:
In my previous post in the Women in Translation series, I looked at the general issue of availability and bias. Today, I want to narrow that focus just a bit and take a look at various translation awards in relation to international women writers.

Let's start with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which just released its 2014 longlist. The IFFP has long had an issue with recognizing women writers, to the point where I kept hearing this year that they were making an explicit effort to find more women writers in translation. Before we look at 2014, let's have a brief recap: the prize was launched in 1990, with a grand total of zero women taking home the prize until today. According to Wikipedia (which only includes complete shortlists from 2003 and on), less than 20% of shortlisted books from 2003-2013 were written by women. This amounts on average to one book a year by a woman.

The longlists paint a darker picture, if that's even possible. Looked at one way, you can point to a slightly greater number of women writers in some years as a sign that the award is not so skewed... yet these women are somehow consistently shut out of the next stage of deliberations, snubbed of the opportunity to actually win the prize. Meanwhile, a glance at 2012 and 2013 shows that only 2 women were even longlisted, which is, quite frankly, an embarrassment that I'm glad even the IFFP recognized. This year - 2014 - the situation is definitely brighter. A grand total of 5 women (out of 15) have been honored, a number that is comfortably above the average publishing statistics. And having read two of those books, I can easily say that both are brilliant without a doubt deserve their place on the list (more, I think, than the male-written book I've read from the longlist).

Now over to the US, we look at the Best Translated Book Award (fiction). This younger award turns out much better numbers overall, with a surprising 50% win-ratio by women authors. However, despite women writers' oddly skewed propensity to win, it turns out that the proportions of women nominated are actually much worse than the overall publishing trends, with something like 15% representation.

Taking another step back and looking at broader international awards like the Nobel, we can see further examples of women writers from around the world getting somewhat sidestepped. Over half of the prizes the Nobel has handed out to women over the past 25 years (still a clear minority overall, remember) have gone to women writing in English, from English-speaking countries. Not particularly representative either, it turns out.

The number one goal of these posts is to raise awareness - I want people to think about women's place in international literature. Awards are pivotal in getting readers excited about a certain genre or field, and are often instrumental in guiding readers to many new books they never would have read otherwise. If awards are consistently failing to recognize women writers, readers are again losing out on brilliant books by brilliant authors. Which is a shame, knowing how many other wonderful books are out there. Luckily, the trends overall seem to be improving - here's to hoping for more and more balanced lists as the years progress, and lots of new and excellent books for us to read.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Range of Ghosts | Review

I saw a lot of glowing reviews for Range of Ghosts long before I was ever interested in picking it up. After a while, though, the idea of the book sort of sunk in, and I placed it on hold. A few hours later, it was directly recommended to me on Twitter in the context of fantasy novels that acknowledge diverse cultures and languages. Doubly intrigued, I made a point to read it as soon as it arrived from the library.

Maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe I was looking so hard for an utterly new fantasy novel that I missed the other indicators. Maybe my tastes have changed. The fact is that ultimately Range of Ghosts disappointed somewhat. Not because it's a bad book. It really, really isn't. I enjoyed most of it. Rather, Range of Ghosts simply felt... familiar. And familiarity in a fantasy novel of this kind can signal a death knell.

Let's begin by acknowledging the diversity of the book. Or rather, the idea of diversity. Range of Ghosts is clearly heavily influenced by Mongolian-Chinese-Arab culture. Elizabeth Bear explicitly points to Genghis Khan and the Mongolian steppes as influencing her world. Names like Khagan instead of Khan, or Uthman for Ottoman do very little to mask the real-world influences. It was here that my skepticism brow rose, mostly because it didn't feel like anything new was added. Sure, the entire religious concepts were adjusted to fit the newly magical world, but at times I felt like Bear was taking far too few risks in her worldbuilding, as though she felt that the mere fact of a non-European influenced world would already break too far from fantasy standards. And so maybe that's why she stuck so close to our real-world.

With language too, I felt like perhaps I'd simply misunderstood the innovation of the novel. Range of Ghosts has references to multiple languages and multiple cultures, and does a nice job of showing people in awkward linguistic situations where they technically have no language in common. This in itself is a nice change from books that label a certain local language as "Common" (or something else self-centric along those lines), or altogether lump each racial group into one cultural identity. The only issue is that Bear introduces the struggles without entirely developing them, so there's conveniently always someone who's bi- or tri-lingual and somehow everyone picks up languages super fast, so the problem quickly disappears. It happened a couple of times, and each time I felt like it was a clear and weak cop-out from an otherwise realistically portrayed universal barrier.

Bear's writing is solid, but again not entirely fresh. It was enough to keep me clearly engaged in the story, but not quite enough to make me lose myself in it. The best fantasies (for me) are ones that overwhelm me and blur out the rest of the world. Range of Ghosts entertained me and kept me hooked, but failed that first test. At the end of the day, the writing is like the rest of the book - definitely good, but nothing particularly new.

Ultimately, I found the strength of the book to be in the story. Though I didn't form the tightest attachments to either of the main characters, both Temur and Samarkar seemed perfectly in place within the context of the broader plot. Bear managed to make even the more outlandish coincidences feel natural, and the overall flow was surprisingly good. The use of romance, however, frustrated me multiple times throughout the book - Temur's lover Edene felt very loosely sketched and much more of a cardboard cutout MPDG lover than an actual character, and scenes later in the book showcased a romance that had shown little-to-zero chemistry beforehand.

A lot of these flaws are not individual to Range of Ghosts, of course. Many of these issues stem from certain genre expectations or time-honored requirements (e.g. the romance). What makes Range of Ghosts nonetheless enjoyable - and perhaps even unique - is its ability to move past many of these smaller flaws and attempt to shake off the shackles of those expectations. Though I was moderately disappointed in Bear's worldbuilding in terms of its clear influences, the truth is that the scope Bear employs when discussing religion and the breadth of the world regardless is quite impressive. This was a world I could easily imagine, one that I saw quite vividly.

Here's the important test: Will I read the sequels to Range of Ghosts? And the answer is probably. Despite its flaws, Bear has created a world that I'm now curious about, and the last pages of Range of Ghosts left me especially intrigued and eager to know what happens next. Now I suppose I can only hope that the character development improves in the next books...

Thursday, February 27, 2014

70% Acrylic 30% Wool | Review

Whatever Viola Di Grado writes next, I will read it. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (tr. Michael Reynolds), her first novel, is so utterly bizarre, so fantastically disturbing, so engaging and interesting and weird and thought-provoking that I honestly don't care what she plans on doing next - I will read it.

70% Acrylic 30% Wool was read in a single sitting, an intense morning dedicated 100% to this depressing, offbeat novel. Centering around "word anorexic" Camelia, the novel is a curious display of various forms of mental illness and disorders. We begin with Camelia's silent mother, who essentially stopped existing after her husband was killed in a car accident (with his mistress). Her silence spreads to Camelia, who is also grieving and suffering in her own way, miserable in her loneliness but also seemingly incapable of escaping it.

It's in this precarious state that Camelia meets Wen, a young shopkeeper who works near her home. Wen has thrown out the damaged clothing his brother makes from his shop in Camelia's dumpsters, which Camelia - in her warped reality - has adopted as new clothing. From there, Camelia returns to the study of Chinese, which she had begun at the university but given up after her father's death.

Wen and Camelia's Chinese lessons form one of the cores of the novel, specifically in the way they showcase language and essentially culture. Camelia is Italian-born, but she's lived in Leeds most of her life. Her Italian identity is occasionally touched on, but it isn't necessarily the main idea. Similarly with Wen, who is Chinese but has clearly been living in England for a long time as well. During their Chinese lessons, Camelia often tries to understand aspects of Chinese writing (why certain words are drawn as they are, why certain combinations do not form the words she would expect). Through these conversations, a more subtle understanding of language arises. As a bilingual reader myself and one who has studied other languages as well, I found these parts to be fascinating and entirely on the mark.

But the other focus of the novel is, I think, much more about depression. Much more about mental illness. Much more about the silence that has seeped into Camelia's life, and how it's impacted both her and her mother.

Di Grado shows us Camelia's mother's abrupt shut-down - her immediate response to her husband's death and the way she simply stops speaking. We see her through Camelia's frustrated eyes, but Camelia herself is tainted. Indeed, as the story progresses, Camelia is the one putting herself through worse and worse situations: an extremely misguided and intentionally problematic affair which ultimately ends in violence and more pain, repeated attempts to express her feelings for Wen while getting rebuffed, and an obsession with certain themes of holes, emptiness, and the Chinese character Camelia has invented for herself. Meanwhile, her mother is slowly awakening - no longer merely lying on the couch without bathing, we see early attempts at building a new life for herself.

I don't want to spoil the end of the novel, but I'll say this - it's fantastic. It's brilliantly subversive, unexpected and twisted. Di Grado takes everything she's done throughout 70% Acrylic 30% Wool and shows us where we were wrong in our interpretations, where our assumptions misled us, and what we should have seen all along.

This is not a happy book, but there's no doubt that it's a very good one. Di Grado's writing is young and believable, very casual but also crisply intelligent. This is the sort of writing that flows from sentence to sentence, no stutters when it comes to describing characters or locales, just a pure understanding of how to show the world. It might not appeal to readers seeking something a bit more polished, but I found it matched my tastes perfectly. Similarly, the characterization is not heavy-handed, but in light, brief lines Di Grado successfully builds the characters around Camelia (who herself is a wonderfully built character).

70% Acrylic 30% Wool is two things: it's a unique book, and it's a good book. Readers seeking something cheerful - this is not the book for you. But anyone who can stomach a bit of grimness, a bit of depression, or a bit of twisted pain should read this novel. Definitely weird; definitely good.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

alphabet | Review

I don't always fall for poetry collections. Despite loving poetry, despite having a long and personal relationship with the field, I often find myself dissatisfied with various poetry collections. Some poets, it's true, hit me particularly hard (Sylvia Plath and Czeslaw Milosz, for example), but I'm usually left very cold.

Not so with Inger Christensen's utterly breathtaking alphabet, one of the most innovative, beautiful, intelligent and finely crafted poetry books I've ever read in my life.

When I use the word "breathtaking" to describe alphabet, it is not merely a hyperbole. alphabet literally left me breathless as I found myself reading along aloud and getting utterly swept up in the words. It's not just the rhythm of the poems, which are all built with the same calm structure, all swept around existence, all flowing almost flawlessly into each other. There's also something about the way the poems lead into the next, the way they form a whole. The way I found myself mouthing the words, reading them aloud and incapable of letting them glide by me passively. This is nearly impossible for any poetry book. For one in translation? I was in awe.

I keep using the term "poetry book" for a very specific reason - alphabet is explicitly not a collection. Many poetry collections have similar themes and ideas running through them, but alphabet can and should be viewed as a single unit. Each poem is essentially a chapter in a growing story, a growing understanding of the world and of humanity. These chapters are framed by the alphabet (hence the title), going from A to N. Here we find the only possible flaw in the book, where occasionally the words that appear in the new chapter don't actually start with the official letter in English. I felt like this would have been purely entrancing in the native Danish, but truthfully it flowed so perfectly in English that except for the letter J or so, I felt no awkwardness in translation.

alphabet really is a masterpiece. It's a masterpiece of the type that I think any curious reader should seek out, a book that's both beautiful, interesting, and perfectly translated. It's truly something special, even if you don't usually read poetry. It's just brilliant, period. And you should all read it.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Summerhouse, Later | Review

It's a rare thing to enjoy a short story collection without particularly liking any of its actual components. Judith Hermann's Summerhouse, Later essentially falls into this category, though my appreciation of the book was certainly limited and I'm hesitant to recommend it.

Summerhouse, Later comprises of nine short stories, each of which looks rather distantly at a set of damaged, fairly unhappy characters. Despite the distance, however, Hermann manages to bring each character close to the reader, leaving the impression that though there's a certain coldness surrounding everything, we're not entirely disconnected. The distance seems to have much more to do with the story setting than as some sort of accidental flaw on Hermann's part - a coolly calculated move by an author who is in perfect control of her writing.

And so these nine stories take our damaged characters and present them to us at that crucial pivot - the moment when things change. Or rather, the moment when things can change.

This thematic idea is evident from the first story - "The Red Coral Bracelet". The narrator, rather like all the characters in the book, is not particularly likable, nor is she very substantial; meanwhile, nothing really happens in the story. What we get is that shift, a moment in which the status changes and the story gets nudged along its tracks. This might leave a lot of readers cold - the distinct lack of characterization or plot can make these stories feel a bit incomplete or shoddy. But the calm focus on those pivots proves to be an interesting storytelling technique and though I certainly felt empty after reading them, something lingered nonetheless.

Two stories seem to shy away from this model, one successfully and the other not so much. "The End of Something" is easily the weakest, most forgettable story in the collection, mostly made up of a blurry monologue that starts nowhere and ends nowhere, with nothing in between - an utterly pointless story.

But the story that immediately precedes it - "Sonja" - manages to do the exact opposite, leading to a significantly more successful story. We get a narrator who is actually sympathetic, or at least as close to sympathetic as a guy in a series of weird relationships and relative ambivalence can be. His baffling relationship with the bizarre Sonja (who is distinctly not a manic pixie dream girl) is both interesting and oddly touching (in a very weird and even somewhat unsettling way), and we also get to see the story from start to finish. I'm not sure I could call it my favorite story from the collection (indeed, I'm not sure any story qualifies for that...), but it certainly stood out in a positive light.

All in all, Summerhouse, Later is a fairly uniform, interesting read. I'd even call it pleasant, were it not for the distinctly dark and rather depressing undertones that occupy the collection from start to finish. As I said earlier, I'm not sure I'd necessarily recommend it nor do I think readers should go out of their way to read it, but if it comes across your radar, it is an interesting book. And I'm definitely curious to see what Hermann does with a full-novel canvas.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

How to Suppress Women's Writing | Review

I have a hard time reviewing nonfiction books most of the time because I feel distinctly not qualified. How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ is no exception. In fact, as a clearly feminist text, I find myself even less qualified than usual to discuss it, having very little understanding of what we generally call feminism. Yet I found myself recognizing so much of How to Suppress Women's Writing and grimly understanding where it comes from, so that I'm going to try to write about it anyways.

The core thesis of How to Suppress Women's Writing is not actually included in the book itself, but rather stems from the cover:
She didn't write it. (But if it's clear she did the deed...) She wrote it, but she shouldn't have. (It's political, sexual, masculine, feminist.) She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women!) She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. ("Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that's all she ever...") She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art. (It's a thriller, a romance, a children's book. Sci fi!) She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning. Branwell Brontë. Her own masculine side.) She wrote it, but she's an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard's help...)
She wrote it BUT...
This text - in large, bold letters - graces the cover of How to Suppress Women's Writing. Here is the unofficial outline from which Russ builds her argument, that essentially no matter what women do, they will always be sidelined using one excuse after another. In truth, by the end of the book I couldn't help but feel that this was much less about the suppression of women's writing as it was about the dismissal of existing works, shoving them into obscurity or doggedly refusing to acknowledge their influence on the literary canon.

Russ presents the reality of the late 1970s, early 1980s when it comes to literary feminism and the clear struggles women had in gaining representation and the respect they deserved. This is a darkly determined book in that regard, as Russ presents anecdotes from the then-present alongside anecdotes from times past that show the persistent sexism women writers faced. And while she follows the outline detailed above, she doesn't stick to it 100%, and occasionally a general critique of a sexist society slips in (one anecdote describes a man trying on a woman's pants and being baffled by the lack of pockets).

Russ's criticism of the "modern" suppressing of women's writing is perhaps the most outdated aspect of the book - today, women write in mass amounts, dominating many fields and genres (particularly the growing YA field). Women are not told that writing is a man's business, women are not discouraged from writing in the same way that they were only a few decades ago. In this regard, the literary landscape is much friendlier to women today. Fantastic, right?

Well, the problems begin once you realize just about everything else about the book is still pathetically relevant. Women are still underrepresented in awards shortlists (though the past couple of years have made a jaw-jutted effort to fix that). Women are still underrepresented in the official "canon", where certain male writers get multiple slots and authors like Charlotte Brontë get nothing*. Where women writers are lucky to get one of their books on the list, even if they have multiple that surely deserve a place in the canon (George Eliot!).

There are still well-respected male authors who claim that women just "aren't as good at writing" as men**. There are still professors who refuse to teach women writers for similar made-up reasons***. Still review outlets which overwhelmingly prefer male writers (and reviewers) over female****. Still publishers who consistently translate more books by men than they do books by women*****.

And ultimately, still readers who are subtly taught to read according to gender, who are taught that books by women are less serious, less high-brow, less intelligent and overall less important than books by men.

How do I know that last line is true? Because up until a couple years ago, I thought those things.

The more I read and grow, the more I set aside my teenage prejudices and misunderstandings, the more I'm able to understand that Jane Eyre wasn't just a good, "pleasant" book. It's a good book, period. I'm able to understand that by presenting Jane Austen's books as sweet romances, we're forgetting the clear social commentary that comes alongside it. Middlemarch is simply "the greatest English novel", J. K. Rowling is not merely a "popular" writer but a groundbreaking one, indeed an important writer, and Alice Munro's recent Nobel prize was not won in spite of her small, "home-centered" stories, but rather because of her superbly clean writing and sharp eye.

Big picture, How to Suppress Women's Writing didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know. It's not a groundbreaking book with new feminist ideas (not only because it's more than thirty years old). What it does is organize the many issues with the representation of women in literature, touching on everything from availability (in large part influencing my last post) to sexism in academia (presumably less serious today, but still apparent) to the glossing-over of women's achievements when building and presenting the "canon". The anecdotes and stories build an unpleasantly familiar picture, and I found myself quite unhappy in regards to how much of the book is still entirely relevant today.

Read How to Suppress Women's Writing. Read it, discuss it, see what's changed, see what hasn't. Thirty years down the line and Russ' text is still important, still worth reading. So track it down, check it out, buy it. Read it.

--------
* The first result when searching for the 100 Best Books of All Time
** V. S. Naipaul's sexist rant from a few years ago
*** David Gilmour's sexism and racism
**** VIDA's statistics
***** My own series on Women in Translation

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Women in Translation | Availability and bias

Previous posts in Women in Translation:


One of the things that kept cropping up after I posted my original post on women in translation was a sentiment from a lot of men (and some women) that their own personal reading stats (which ended up matching the overall publishing trends almost to a T) were the result not of some problem with publishing or even with their own reading, but rather the result of their own personal bias. "I just prefer books by men" was a common sentiment. Or "Men write [X] while women write [Y], and I like [X]". Or arguments about the quality of men's writing as compared to women.

The point is basically: Don't use me as an example, I have a personal bias.

And it's wrong.

First of all, I think it's problematic that readers are so quick to declare biases as something fixed. Reading belongs to a fluid, ever-changing world. A reader may love one genre on Monday, but be sick of it by Thursday, and want to come back again by Sunday. There are no rules to reading, nothing that could ever justify a bias so firmly.

But my main problem here is that readers who are suggesting that the reason they read a lot more books by men (again: in the exact same ratios as the overall stats) are completely missing the impact that availability can have.

It's very simple: when you have 15 books with a blue cover and 5 books with a red cover, and this is the pool of books from which you can choose your next read, what are you more likely to pick? There are so many more blue books than red... it has nothing to do with the fact that they're blue, it's just that you're more likely to find something you like in that pile. And so you inevitably read more from the blue pile, and occasionally pick up a book from the red. In a ratio that's approximately 3:1.

This is what's happening with women writers in translation. It's that simple.

When publishers - and particularly publishers who specialize in literature in translation - fail to offer books by women writers in the same amounts as books by men, the inevitable fact is that fewer books by women in translation are read. And then readers become convinced that there's an inherent difference, books by women are [Y] and they don't like [Y]. They have a "personal bias".

A couple weeks ago, Chad Post of Three Percent told off Jhumpa Lahiri for implying that there isn't literature in translation by saying "look for it". His point was that there's quite a bit of literature in translation if you just seek it out. Well, here's the thing: I've been actively seeking out literature in translation by women for two months now and it's not so simple. I've been reading literature in translation for years - I know where to look. I've pored over Three Percent's translations databases, went directly to publisher websites, sifted through hundreds of books. And at the end, I could find only a few dozen writers. This, despite knowing exactly what I was looking for.

Availability is important. If the translations (or the books) don't exist, obviously people aren't going to be able to read them. When the overwhelming majority of the most prominent literature-in-translation publishers have only 25% (or less) women writers (Dalkey Archive, Europa Editions, Open Letter, and many others), it's no longer that readers are creating a bias here. The bias already exists. Readers are just having a hard time getting out of it because of a lack of availability. The sooner we recognize this bias, the sooner we can try to start fixing it. And the sooner we fix it, the sooner we'll find ourselves with a more balanced, diverse and interesting literary environment, and isn't that the point?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Dreams and Stones | Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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