Saturday, November 28, 2009

Solveig's song

A couple of weeks ago, after almost three years of it sitting on my shelf, I finally read Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt". A grand achievement indeed, reading this... hmm... 223 page long play, by one of my favorite playwrights, one who has disappointed me so rarely (though Ibsen has disappointed me, here and there...). How... complex.

The thing about "Peer Gynt" is that I kept putting it off. Here's a play best known for Edvard Grieg's musical interpretation of it, not for its literary merit. That's where I know it from and I suspect the vast majority of readers associate Ibsen's work with the quite beautiful suite (my personal favorite from the bunch is "Solveig's Song"; absolutely incredible). It's a rare example where listening to the music doesn't remind the reader of the book, but rather the music paints the story and the book reminds the reader of the music. It's strange, too, because the music is meant to accompany the play. The English translation and the ultimate suite make this difficult to imagine these days, when the play is typically thought of only in reference to Grieg.

Here's what I discovered: it makes a difference. I had long intended to read the play along with the music, except I suddenly found myself wanting to dig into Ibsen and Grieg was nowhere to be found. So I just read the play. It was strange, partly because the order within the suite is different than the progression of the book (completely different, in fact), but also because I had a feel for the story before it even began. I knew key points simply because the songs were titled as such and the music to "Solveig's Song" made one scene clear just based on the musical interpretation. It actually meant that even though the play was far from the best of Ibsen's I've read, it was a moving, intense read. Scenes where I liked the music, I smiled at the words. Scenes where the music was unimpressive, I shrugged my shoulders and felt the urge to skim.Grieg and Ibsen (allegedly, according to Wikipedia and my translation) often had different ideas about how the music should sound. I have to wonder how this schism is reflected today, when Ibsen is largely ignored for his verse work and Grieg is played in concert halls round the world. And what it'll be like to reread "Peer Gynt" along with the actual incidental music (not the infamous suites...)? I'm intrigued to find out. Of course, it may take something akin to three years just to get there...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Kindle is dead. Long live the Kindle!

Now this is a new take on the Kindle's future from Joe Wikert's blog:
I'm not convinced Amazon has a long-term commitment to the Kindle hardware business. In fact, I'll go so out on a limb and predict that Amazon will completely exit the Kindle hardware space within the next 3 years.

[...] I had high hopes back in November of 2007 but Amazon is clearly hedging their hardware bet by offering the Kindle iPhone app as well as the Kindle for PC (beta) and Kindle for Mac (forthcoming) apps. That's a smart move by Amazon. If my prediction comes true and they abandon the hardware space in the next three years they'll still be a major e-content player.
Huh. While I'm certain similar thoughts have been expressed before, this is the first time I've come across anyone who thinks that Amazon will entirely exit the eReader arena (and gives a timetable too! Hmm...). The post is quite interesting, raising a number of quite relevant issues and offering places where competitors seem to win, mentioning the not-yet-available B&N Nook as a primary example and Apple's mythical "Tablet" (does this thing even have substantial rumors to suggest it will exist?) as another possibility.

I'm not sure there's a way to summarize Wikert's point so I recommend reading the whole post. What I find curious is that Wikert seems to focus so much on the Kindle's hardware issues rather than problems relating to its convenience (or lack thereof). The closed format is mentioned, but in reference to external applications (all suggestions here seem to mimic the iPhone... huh), not so much reader ease. And there's the assumption that Amazon's "e-content" is attractive. I'm not even going to approach that topic...

Also important is Wikert's claim that certain competitors are surpassing Amazon. Here the Nook seriously comes into play, except that on this count I have to shake my head and disagree. Sure, maybe the Kindle should have tried to be more like the Nook (or is it the other way around?), except we don't know anything about the Nook. Yes, aspects to it sound attractive, but it's a new product that hasn't been field tested yet and seems to be lacking here and there (like all current eReaders on the market...). I fail to understand Wikert's desire to have the Nook truly be "what the Kindle should have been", nor his belief in that statement. Still, it's an interesting look at the matter. Wikert is right in several places, including the mildly hinted idea that we should expect to see some strange and seemingly bizarre things in the future of eReaders and the currently mind-blowing concept that perhaps the Kindle isn't quite the king we assume it to be.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Good and bad

Once again, the Guardian lets me in on a brilliant award, one where Philip Roth, Amos Oz, and John Banville can be counted among the shortlisted. With so many yearly awards massively publicized (Booker, National Book Award, Pulitzer, Nobel, ...this list can go on eternally...), there are a few that perhaps deserve a bit more attention. Or much, much less attention, depending on how you look at it (and the Guardian's response posts to this award...).

I think all this one needs is the link.

Friday, November 20, 2009

National Book Award winners

The National Book Award finalists have been narrowed down even more precisely - to the winners. The full list can be found here. And an observation: what long titles all the winners have. It makes it difficult to quote the whole list...

But in all seriousness, finally an award I can comment on. I've read the winning "Let the Great World Spin" and while I thought it was interesting and good (certainly very well written), I wasn't blown away. The book is like a collection of short stories except that the stories eventually connect to form a larger tale. A great tactic, sure, but there were too many stories. The book felt overly long and at times the connections were kind of pointless. That was my opinion, at least.

Should this have been the winning pick? I haven't read the other finalists (making it a little difficult to judge...), but I can't shake off the feeling that "Let the Great World Spin" doesn't deserve such honor. It's a good book; it isn't great. It seems like the award-givers wanted their audience to be pleased with the choice, rather than giving the audience a new and wonderful book choice. Perhaps it's just that it's been a very long time since I've read a book that later won an award. Perhaps it's my personal bias or an issue with my own taste. Either way, the judges have picked a well-written, interesting, and recommendable book for the fiction category (and most likely, equally [or better...] picks in the other categories as well).

Congratulations to all winners: McCann, Stiles, Waldrop, and Hoose.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A story of young and old

Not much in recent weeks has made me as happy as discovering that I can check out the continuing "Magic Tree House" books through the Overdrive library. In the eight years since I last purchased a book in the series, I've missed out on the more expensive hardcover books (a different "series", according to Wikipedia) and have always felt like I abandoned some good friends

For me, the series ended abruptly but aptly. I started reading it in a strange order, first with the twelfth book "Polar Bears Past Bedtime" (the Lars books led to a lifelong obsession with polar bears), then backtracking to "Dolphins at Daybreak" (to understand the story arc), and then finally starting the series properly from the beginning and reading it through. "Polar Bears Past Bedtime" was perfectly suited for a "end-of-first-grade" kid, but years passed. It was difficult to let go and even though it took me about 22 minutes to breeze through "High Tide in Hawaii", I was sad to see the series off. It's a pleasure to find out that I can revisit some childhood favorites through older eyes.

*A small note - The name of the author of this blog has been slightly altered (to a perhaps more familiar title), as the old one is no longer relevant.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Quote of the week

Among many negative reviews for the book "Then We Came to the End" (which I actually quite enjoyed), I couldn't help but notice this one:
the office tv show is better
This quote, the title of an unremarkable review expressing disappointment with the story and its ending, does not cease to amuse me. It's like saying "Battlestar Galactica" is better than Isaac Asimov's books (robots!). It's like saying "Desperate Housewives" is like "A Doll's House" (...drama?). It's like saying "Futurama" is like "Snow Crash" (this one's a cheat - I haven't read "Snow Crash" but Wikipedia claims they share a pizza delivery theme).

Okay, your turn.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

PW and sexism

Publishers Weekly released their "Best Books of 2009" list. Unremarkable, typically. This time, however, the list has caused certain groups to raise the alarm because all ten titles were written by men. PW says, "It disturbed us when we were done" and goes on to mention who/what else didn't make the list. Meanwhile, via the Guardian:
"They know they're being blatantly sexist, but it looks like they feel good about that," said [WILLA's (the new US literary organisation Women in Letters and Literary Arts) other co-founder and director of the creative writing programme at Florida State University, Erin Belieu]. "I, on the other hand, have heard from a whole lot of people - writers and readers - who don't feel good about it at all."
The question: is it sexist? If in going through the thousands of books published this year, the top ten happened to be written by men, is it sexism? Answer: not really "blatant sexism", but it's kind of wrong. Literary sexism is often spoken of but is difficult to prove. It's known that men and women statistically like different styles and often view the literary differently (this is not to say that one is more right than the other). What remains is an argument over whether or not award-boards and juries prefer "manly" books over their female counterparts, and it's one complex, difficult argument that I still haven't figured out.

So what about this is wrong? If I don't think there's something inherently and outwardly sexist to this list (meaning, I don't think that PW intentionally left off women), what is it about it that bothers? Well, it's that you can't help but feel that there has to have been at least one (and probably many more) top-notch, incredible, mind-blowing book written this year by a woman. I'm not saying it has to be one of the big guns mentioned in the Guardian article (Atwood, Munro, Byatt, etc.), but it seems slightly sloppy of PW to judge like this. I wouldn't criticize them for purposely ignoring women writers, but I feel like publishing a list like this displays a slightly unbalanced view of this year's literature. So props for trying (points for non-fiction and graphic memoirs alike), but don't get too hurt by those calling foul. And for those on the other side, I'm not sure this is sexism out to get you - I honestly think it's just stupidity.

I'm curious to know how others interpret this. I suspect there's much to learn and understand from all sides of the story.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Picture books

The very best books are touted for all sorts of things. People like the writing, the characters, the stories, the emotions, the atmosphere... etc. But ultimately, good books rule with their ability to draw the reader into their new, fascinating worlds. It isn't a gift the author is giving the reader. You've got to give something too, like your attention and imagination. The reader has to build the images based on the words the author gives.

"The Arrival" gives the exact opposite. Now the book gives the images and the reader has to build the words around it. It's a curious case (not unique, I'm sure, but special), best described as similar to a silent movie. Indeed, reading "The Arrival" often feels like watching a movie except that there's still something particularly "bookish" about it. Perhaps the still shots help. Reading it, I needed to fill in the blanks in a way that a movie would ask less of me. It's a difficult book to classify.

What amazes me most about "The Arrival" is how it can work anywhere for anyone. It's a book that can be enjoyed by the illiterate and educated alike. It can be read by anybody who can see, no matter what language they speak. It is something so purely human, requiring little background knowledge (it helps to recognize certain shots as based on Ellis Island but is not necessary) and has no language barrier. There's hardly even a culture gap, given that this is precisely what the book displays - a man comes to a new world and is surprised by all that he sees there. I should like to see more books with this type of story-telling. If they're as good as "The Arrival", we'll have a lot of excellent new picture books on our hands.