Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Series and stuff

It was almost a year ago that I wondered about the status of series as single entities or as comprised of linked, individual novels. Since then, I haven't given the matter much thought, possibly because going one way or the other doesn't actually influence my reading habits. But over at The Book Stop, the question of whether or not to even read books in series in the first place arose and I find myself with a lot to say on the subject.

Distinctions need to be made. After all, there are many different types of series*:
  1. The stand-alones: These are series that center around a shared world that have no established, continuous plot from book to book. Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is a great example - a reader can start with just about any book in the series and not feel like they're missing much. It's a series, yes, but each book is a stand-alone. The same for Émile Zola's Rougon-Macquart books - some characters may appear here and there, some locales are familiar, but there is no need to read L'Assommoir in order to enjoy Germinal**.
  2. The character stand-alone: I find this for the most part with mystery books - a series will follow the happenings of a specific detective. Each book can stand on its own, but it helps to have read previous books, if only for the character development.
  3. The continuous epic: This would be something like A Song of Ice and Fire, which can often feel like one supremely long book cut up into little (or, uh, huge) pieces. It's hard to distinguish one book from the next, and absolutely impossible to miss a book in the series. There is no single, contained plot within each volume - at times it seems like there's absolutely no justification for it to be a separate book other than length (A Feast for Crows/A Dance with Dragons, anyone?).
  4. The planned series: A planned series is exactly what it sounds like - the writer goes into the story knowing exactly when and how the story will end. It's defined ahead of time as a trilogy (or a quartet, etc.) and sticks to it. Each book may blend into the next with cliffhangers, but there are still clear-cut boundaries between each volume. This is something like His Dark Materials - the books are individual and contained but are part of an undeniable whole. You can't read the second book without having read the first.
  5. The contained epic: A contained epic would be something along the lines of Harry Potter. There's an overarching story and you can't read one book without having read the previous, but each book still contains its own, individual story that doesn't really drag onto the next book (though the lines blur a bit with Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows). This is the the planned series taken to the extreme - a long, sometimes meandering and less defined series but contained nonetheless.
  6. The popularity mess: Books that should be stand-alones or part of planned series and eventually degenerate into a continuous series because of poor planning. These go on until they fizzle and are an embarrassment to themselves. Please let's not raise examples. It's too depressing.
But beyond the simple breakdown of series type, you have to look at intent. Is this a series simply because of length (a story on such an epic scale that it demands multiple volumes)? Or is it something inherently episodic? If you're the type of reader who decides whether or not to get involved in a series, it's important to pay attention to these qualities.

Personally, I don't really care if a book is part of a series or not. It's never been a factor for me. While I don't like ditching series halfway through, I'm not entirely averse to it. There are a few series I've given up on after realizing that the books I'd already read within them stood alone fairly well and didn't entice me enough to keep reading. If the first book was bad and I don't have to read the sequels, I'm not going to go on. As I learn to abandon books, it becomes easier to stop midway through a series. And really, it doesn't matter if it's part of a whole or not... it just matters if it's good enough to make me want to finish the series.

* And yes, I did notice that almost all of my examples are from fantasy series. What can I say, that's what came to mind...
** But you should. Read both books that is, because they're excellent.

Friday, December 23, 2011

On book trailers and the visual medium paradox

I just finished reading this post over at Ripple Effects from a couple weeks back about book trailers. Arti writes a few seriously thought-provoking passages:
Will you go and buy this book to read after watching the trailer, or, are you more likely to just add another view count to the video and a click on 'like'?
Book trailers are, at the end of the day, trailers. They're meant as a preview, not as a review. They might make something seem particularly impressive (or particularly unappealing), but that's because they're meant to. They don't aim to summarize the book, but rather present it in a particularly visual form to hook readers. Sometimes they work more effectively than others. For example, despite long believing that Lauren Oliver's romance-looking young adult novel Before I Fall was definitely not the book for me (not the style, genre or approach I typically enjoy), after watching the very sleek, very well-done book trailer, I want to read the book.


This is the rarer outcome. In my experience with book trailers, I find them to be supplements to books about which I've already made up my mind. They don't succeed in convincing me to a read a book previously disregarded... usually, only a very good review will do that.

Then there's the question of the "visual medium paradox", as I call it.
In this eWorld of ours, we need a real hardcover book to explain to children what a book is… or used to be, if you take the apocalyptic view.  We’re told a book isn’t something you scroll, tweet, or text, and no need to charge up. But the fact is, those are the very functions you do to view and share the trailer. And it’s a book trailer, with all its visual images and special effects, uploaded and viewed online and hopefully gone viral, that helps boost book sales. Another mash? Or simply an inevitable paradox nowadays?
In modern literary culture, the use of a visual medium to present a story is considered an upgrade. A book is deemed successful if adapted into a movie, and the other way around: a popular book will inevitably make it to the big screen (or even to the small screen - look at A Song of Ice and Fire). This is nothing new, obviously (look at the sheer amount of movies based on plays and books from sixty, even seventy and eighty years ago), but it still serves as an indicator.

I digress. The point of the visual medium paradox is that, well, it doesn't really exist. It's a conceptual thing. A book trailer isn't a paradox. It's just a use of a visual medium to blurb a book. Perhaps it's one that better captures a potential reader's attention, one that can give them tools to imagine the characters and the setting, and one that can use visual effects to enhance the image of the book. It's not like a movie, it's like a movie poster - a quick visual glimpse into the story, presented in a way that attempts to catch the reader's attention. But this is all - again - as a supplement. There's no need for the trailer - a reader can pick up the book, read it, enjoy it, and set it aside all without knowing that the trailer exists. The trailers may help boost sales, yes, but they are not the single factor determining the popularity of a book. The written word is much stronger than that.

On the other end of the visual medium paradox scale, I find myself thinking again about movie adaptations. Movie adaptations are reworkings. Much in the same way an adaptation of a play isn't exactly the same as the original, a movie or TV adaptation of a book takes advantage of its medium to tell the story differently. Yes, our culture views the visual medium to be more accessible to a wider range of people, but this doesn't actually mean that the adaptation is an upgrade.

And here I admit something I'm loathe to admit under any circumstance: I was wrong.

The book is not weakened by such visual reworkings, not by movie adaptations and not by book trailers. If use of the visual medium to supplement the written word is a paradox, so is a movie review that is not done in the visual format. Modern technology allows us to explore different mediums to express ourselves. I don't think it's necessarily ironic to use different mediums as supplements. It's inevitable.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The hook - free eBooks, publishers and readers

I have a pretty simple rule regarding eBooks: I don't pay for them. This typically means I scour the internet for free downloads, worship sites like gutenberg.org, and will actively seek out publisher eBook giveaways. Back in the early days of my eBook downloading, when I was just beginning my searches, I realized that a few publishers offered excerpts (and occasionally whole novels) online for free download. About once every six months or so, I remember to check these various sites - Scribd, the Baen Free library, and others - to see what new offers they might have.

So it came to be that the other day I went on a short downloading spree, hitting various publishers' Scribd accounts. And there, on Harper's page, I had the opportunity to read the first few pages of Greg Olear's brilliantly titled novel Father-mucker. I'd managed to hear about the book here and there through the bookish-internet grapevine, but was put off by the witty title. It seemed like the type of book that might try too hard to be witty and clever but then fall flat. Yet when offered the chance to read the first few pages for free in a convenient manner, not through any browser but on my own time, I decided to take it.

See, publishers may always worry about offering books for free online and may worry about piracy, but there's really no need. Free downloads, teasers and offers of this kind serve only as an advertising tool for publishers. I wasn't planning on reading Father-mucker last week. Now I can't wait to finish it. If I had the ability to buy it on the spot, I probably would (unfortunately for publishers and luckily for my wallet, I live abroad). Harper - by offering a teaser download for the book - convinced even a jaded reader like myself to pick the book up.

And though I don't remember where I downloaded it from originally, what about Perdido Street Station? It was offered for free for about a month back in 2009 and served as a pretty good hook - I now have a copy of Miéville's Embassytown on my shelves. I'm certain I would never have bought one Miéville's books just like that, but after reading Perdido Street Station (and later The City & The City, also not purchased), I realized I liked Miéville as an author and wanted to support him. So I bought Embassytown. Hardcover*.

It's like Neil Gaiman said back in the day: "Nobody who would have bought your book is not buying it because they can find it for free." Most people are introduced to their favorite authors through different means - a friend lends them the book, they check it out of the library, or in this day and age download it. Many readers will also feel as I do, that buy paying for a book they're supporting the author for writing something good. The amount of times I've bought a book after reading it for free via the public library is... high. Maybe it'll work better if we change our approach to supporting authors and publishing, but I think that publishers can do wonders to promote their authors and books by offering free eBook downloads for limited periods. It's the kind of hook that will work again and again, at least on readers like me.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to see how I can get a hold of Father-mucker.

* Okay, okay, it was at Border's going-out-of-business sale so it wasn't full price. But it was still pretty expensive, so I think it counts.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fads in cyberspace

Fads swept the youth of the Sprawl at the speed of light; entire subcultures could rise overnight, thrive for a dozen weeks, and then vanish utterly. -p.58, Neuromancer
While William Gibson is best known for coining the term "cyberspace", he should (in my mind) really be remembered for predicting our modern internet culture, as is evidenced by the above quote...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Like eating a feast after a month-long fast

That is, if the month-long fast is a period of three weeks with only one book completed and little desire to read anything else.

I finally broke down yesterday and practically forced myself to start reading Child Wonder by Roy Jacobsen. It was a weird feeling at first, almost as though I'd forgotten how to read, or how to enjoy reading. I stumbled over the first few pages, unsure what I was supposed to be understanding from the story, but I then began speeding through the pages, devouring whole chapters in just a few minutes. In the space of some 45 minutes aboard my morning bus, I managed to go through almost 100 pages. And that was only the beginning. Throughout the day, I picked the book up repeatedly, constantly trying to read more and more, growing frustrated at the situations around me that demanded my full attention.

But today, finishing the book while waiting in line at the pharmacy, I was surprised at how empty the whole reading experience had really been. Obviously I'd read the book - and had even quite enjoyed it, for a time - but as I read the last, intentionally revelation-filled-yet-nonetheless-vague pages, it didn't feel as though I'd actually read the book. It was as though I'd eaten so fast I hadn't been able to taste what exactly I was putting in my mouth... a strange experience, and not one I'm particularly eager to repeat. I suppose this should be a lesson to me - never, ever, ever stop reading.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

More on Amazon's latest dirty scheme

In continuation of what I mentioned yesterday regarding Amazon's dirty trick to snatch business away from brick-and-mortar stores, this is a thorough piece from Moby Lives on the backlash. Like I already said, this ploy by Amazon sinks lower than low and further emphasizes all that I've grown to dislike from the online retailer.

It also turns out I'm not alone in my method of looking books up on Amazon and buying them later in independent bookstores. From Shelf-Awareness:
Author Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain) tweeted his own strategy: "I like to do the Reverse Amazon: hear about a book, read about it on Amazon, then go buy it at my local bookstore! It's fun! #ReadLocal."

Friday, December 9, 2011

How we buy books

I unfortunately can't remember the hat-tip, but someone linked to this article on the habit of book-browsing in corporeal bookstores and then buying the books online, which definitely qualifies as a thought-provoker.
According to the survey, conducted in October by the Codex Group, a book market research and consulting company, 24 percent of people who said they had bought books from an online retailer in the last month also said they had seen the book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore first. Thirty-nine percent of people who bought books from Amazon in the same period said they had looked at the book in a bookstore before buying it from Amazon, the survey said.
I know I shouldn't be surprised but I am. My own use of Amazon today is completely contrary to this one. As I've mentioned in the past, one of the first things I do before considering a book is check its Amazon reviews (negative first, then positive). This is not because it's Amazon, per se, but rather because Amazon has the greatest collection of user reviews (which is one of the only remaining advantages to using the site, other than the obviously lower prices but I'll discuss that at length another time). I look at a book, investigate it, learn about it, and then decide whether or not I want to buy it. From there, I have a few options. I can order the book online or I can go to a bookstore I like and buy the book. In recent years, the most likely outcome has been the latter.

But it's much easier to go about it the "normal" way. You find a book in the flesh, you want to investigate it, you go online. Once online, you make your decision. Then you're just one click away from buying the book. And it's cheaper... so why not buy it like that? Even this thing that you go into a bookstore, look up a book on your cell-phone, realize that it's cheaper elsewhere... I understand even if I don't agree with it (and certainly don't like it). Maybe if my situation was different, I too would  be tempted to approach book-buying this way. Living abroad and having a yearly buffer zone between my book-buying sprees means I can afford to do my homework ahead of time. Today, Amazon is no more convenient to me than a bricks-and-mortar bookstore.

I know one thing, though. Indies will survive because they provide what Amazon never will - personal service, author readings, a type of convenience that can only be found in corporeal form, and provide customers with the joy of spontaneous book-buying. And I hope for one more thing: that for every customer who walks in, looks at a book and ends up buying it later on Amazon.com for a discount, there's another like me who first looks the books up on Amazon, and then goes out to the local bookstore to buy it. Because really, the feeling is much better this way.

Update: Oh, and while this "deal" in which a customer uses their cell-phone to scan the bar-code of a product and then get a discount on Amazon (instead of buying it at the store the customer is currently standing in) doesn't include books, it's still pretty despicable (via The Book Catapult). Just saying.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Thursday, December 1, 2011

SAFL #7: Solaris

It's been a while since I've done a SAFL (Science and Fantasy Literature) title but I recently finished reading Solaris by Stanislaw Lem and my mind is sufficiently blown that it's quite obvious that Solaris is SAFL. And excellent SAFL at that.

I specifically chose to read Solaris in Hebrew right around the time I first heard of the book. More specifically, upon learning that this was a classic case of double-translation gone wrong. Solaris, originally written in Polish, was translated into French not long after publication. The translation into English, for some unknown, godforsaken reason, went through French and is by most accounts atrocious.

Luckily, I faced no such problem with the Hebrew translation (which is surprising, given the increasing propensity to employ double-translations into Hebrew... but that's a rant for a separate post). I bought the book back in June and it has been quietly awaiting my attention since. I don't understand what took me so long to get to it. It's the kind of book that you can't quite let go of.

Solaris can as easily be classified philosophical or psychological fiction as it can be classified sci-fi. In the finest example of sci-fi being used as a mirror - or even as a tool - for dealing with bigger, more fundamental issues than simply aliens or star-travel, Solaris digs deep regarding the definition of man and questions of identity. And communication. And even insanity. Yes, this is all within the framework of one of the most pulp sci-fi settings ever (hyper advanced black sludge alien, anyone?), but it transcends it incredibly. It's no surprise that even in Israel - where sci-fi and fantasy are genres typically marginalized and separated from the mainstream (to the extreme) - Solaris is marketed as straight-up literature and refuses to be boxed into an (unjustly) ignored definition. Hopefully this will lead to many more readers enjoying Lem's fascinating novel.

As for the English speaking world... I can only be thankful that there is, at least, the audio book. Solaris is a classic of sci-fi for a reason... I hate to think that this masterpiece is marred only by a notoriously poor translation. Here's to hoping for a quality Polish-to-English translation to be published sometime in the near future.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Victory!, or, A Story of Remembrance

My memory isn't perfect. There are many books I read as a kid that I don't fully remember, and then there are those I remember vividly but can't quite recall their names. I often find myself browsing book sites and bookstores and libraries and stumbling upon a kids book that will raise a red flag: "Yeah, I read that one!" This is particularly common when I browse Goodreads, as I attempt to map out my history of reading.

But for the past few years, there has been one book I've been unable to recall (or rather two - book plus sequel). I've tried in vain to remember the book's name, but there was nothing there. I remembered only a few small pieces: boy named Will, a girl escapes from a castle (in winter), something with a rabbit, the girl becomes the focus of the sequel, widowed with a dead baby, the sequel is a crusade, and that these were good medieval books. I've tried a couple of times in the past to locate these books, but always unsuccessfully. Book lists typically called up the same results again and again. I gradually gave up, even as my desire to find (and re-read) the books grew and grew.

And then... this morning.

I was hanging out on Goodreads, finding all sorts of old historical fiction books from my childhood and it struck me - internet search engines are much better these days. Why not run another search? "medieval historical fiction kids" - let;s try. But though I found other lost treasures, the so-desired set remained elusive. So I tossed in two other keywords - "widowed" and "crusades". Option number two: Medieval YA. Search for widow, and...

VICTORY!


The Winter Hare and Peregrine, without a doubt. And now I can't wait to get my hands on these books to find out how they'll hold next to my memories of them...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The story of the bookseller who knew nothing

I spent the other evening browsing for books at the bookstore. This being a standard chain bookstore, the selection was limited (to say the least). I browsed through the books on sale, looking for one or two that seemed slightly more interesting than the standard. After about half an hour of indecisiveness, I decided to ask a bookseller for help. The young woman who came to my assistance seemed like she sincerely wanted to help the various customers in need, myself included.

I posed her a tough question: in a stack of predictable, popular choices, I asked for something a bit different. Something original. And I guess she tried. I mean, she spent some time trying to figure it out. The only problem was... she had no idea what she was doing.

Book after book was offered while she hurriedly glanced at the back, getting an impression of the subject matter before handing it off to me. When I asked her if she'd read the offered book, the answer was consistently, "No, not yet..." She had no idea if books were translated (and even less what language they were translated from...) and wasn't really clear on anything beyond the general, "Well, this one's a bestseller..."

Which got me thinking. How much should we expect our booksellers to know what they're selling us? Books aren't like TVs - you can't memorize a bunch of statistics and product details to spout off in front of a potential customer. To understand a book, you have to read it. You have to experience it. And this bookseller... she had no understanding of what she was selling, nor of what kind of reader she was selling to. In the end, I left the store without a single book, only deciding later (at home, with the aid of the internet and some reviews) which books I would get.

It's pretty disappointing, actually. I'm not saying I didn't stump her a bit (which is typically what happens when I ask for a bookseller's assistance...), but a passionate reader will know how to help. A passionate reader will understand and appreciate a specific customer's desire for something a little original, a little different and will do everything possible to find the right match. It won't always be easy, and it might even be impossible, but at least they'll try. They won't just rely on publisher blurbs and apparent popularity.

No, I don't expect every bookseller to have read every book in the store. It's impossible, I know. But I guess I'd like my booksellers to have a little more of an understanding of what books they're trying to push, and also of their customers. I'd like my booksellers to at least know as much about the newly published books as I do, and certainly not to simply recommend them to me based on the back-cover blurb. But sadly, it seems like more and more booksellers these days don't actually read the books and recommend only based on general information. A shame, really. Conversations with booksellers who know what they're talking about can be so much fun.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wolf Hall - now a trilogy

Yes.
Mantel is now planning a Tudor trilogy: a new novel, Bring up the Bodies to be published by 4th Estate in May 2012, will focus on the downfall of Anne Boleyn. A third book will keep the title the author had already announced for the sequel, The Mirror & the Light, and will continue Cromwell's story until his execution in 1540.
I don't think I've wanted a book this badly since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And even then... I'm not certain it's on the same level. I mean, Wolf Hall was that amazing.

All right, the countdown to May 2012 begins. Who's with me?

Friday, November 18, 2011

This thing I do

Yesterday, I mentioned to a colleague that I'm a book reviewer and that I keep a book blog. She responded with surprise. I'm not sure why. People know of my affinity for reading and are also typically aware of my ability to ramble to no end. But particularly where I live, book reviewing is seen as a somewhat exotic hobby, and I find myself having to explain it at length. And it's not that easy to explain. What is it I do?

I write anonymous reviews on random book sites across the internet (in more than one language), I write about random bookish thoughts on my blog (forsaking the standard book-review blog format for a weird approach that's neither here nor there...), I'm a somewhat disloyal Amazon Vine member (rarely requesting books, often only reviewing the books months after publication), I don't get books for review via my blog, and I make a point to read, and write, and discuss.

That's what we're all doing here. We're building the literary discourse by comparing notes and comparing notes about important literary issues (like how to fix the increasingly stumbling publishing industry). Not everyone has the same calling and I wouldn't compare an English professor's blog about George Eliot to a blog geared to getting kids and young adults to read good books, calling one truly "literary" and the other not, but on the whole we do the same thing. We all read. We all write. We all discuss. And we all do it by choice, which I find to be incredible.

True, I write online reviews that get swallowed up in the mass of other online reviews, and true, my blog isn't particularly influential or prolific, and true, I can't actually make a living off this quiet hobby. That's not the point of this thing I do. The point is to learn and broaden my horizons, encounter new approaches to literature, guide the occasional reader to a good book (or warn them away from a bad one), and enjoy literature.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hilariously bad Dumas? Impossible!

I first "met" Alexandre Dumas pere when I was ten years old. My older brother was reading The Count of Monte Cristo for school and he told me, flat-out, "You have to read this book. It's awesome."

And so I ordered a Scholastic classics abridged version from then-still-awesome Scholastic catalogs* and promptly read it. I was amazed to discover that it was, in fact, completely and totally awesome. My brother had not lied. Two years later, I bought the unabridged Penguin edition and spent three weeks out of my summer vacation working my way through it. My conclusion at the time was that overall there was too much stuff going on, but that it was still completely awesome. Just that the awesome got a little buried underneath the slightly less awesome parts. And so, basing myself on this wonderful experience, I decided to read The Three Musketeers that year. Once more, I was impressed by how much fun and adventure Dumas managed to pack into his obviously old-fashioned books. It was refreshing and was the original spark to my classics obsession.

But since then, other than writing a paper on Dumas and reading two additional abridged versions of The Count of Monte Cristo, I've taken no steps in reading Dumas' other books (though he has... lots). So a couple weeks ago I finally clicked on one of many Dumas eBooks I once got during a Gutenberg downloading blitz and went with it.

The book in question is The Black Tulip and quality-wise, it's one of the worst books I've read in a really long time (since the atrociously and disgustingly bad Across the Universe). I'm talking awkward writing, terrible characterization and one of the worst cases of wish-fulfillment storytelling that I've encountered. It's completely over-the-top, dramatized to a level unequaled in even the most dramatic of 19th century literature. It's a bit difficult to bear, at times, but it's also a great deal of fun. It's like trashy thrillers or a romantic comedy - you know the inevitable ending, but the way the author brings you there is what makes the show worth it.

Ultimately, I don't think Dumas as a writer is what makes The Black Tulip laugh-out-loud ridiculous, but rather the period it's from. This is historical fiction made even more archaic by the hundreds of years that have passed since its publication. So it's kind of... uh... outdated. And unlike the swashbuckling awesomeness that is The Count of Monte Cristo, The Black Tulip doesn't have any timeless adventure themes that can survive generations. It's a historical romance.

About flowers.
_____
* Anyone else remember the days before the whole Scholastic fair turned into an outlet to sell games and toys and was still all about books?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Quote of the day

Maybe when people take their eyes off them, inanimate objects become even more inanimate.
- The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, Haruki Murakami, p. 65

Let the rest of the world read 1Q84. I've still got Murakami's back-catalog to read, and by god it's about time I read it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Family and fantasy themes in "The Barbarian Nurseries"

When I started reading Héctor Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries, I felt a twinge in my stomach. Oh no, I thought, another disappointing book. The writing felt choppy at first: a third-person story that enabled multiple points-of-view without any clear indication of the shifts. But once I'd passed the first chapter, suddenly the movement between the POVs was seamless. The writing fell into place. The characters leapt out at me. And instead of getting annoyed about another sub-par book, I realized that for the first time in a while, I was reading a really good book and was able to just enjoy it. 

I can list several reasons why a reader might not like The Barbarian Nurseries. Unlike my favorite books, the flaws in this somewhat poorly-concluded novel jump out at me. Unlike most books, though, the flaws don't trouble me that much. That is, they're there, but for once the phrase "the good outweighs the bad" really does fit. Whatever faults The Barbarian Nurseries may have, they made little difference in the face of some truly wonderful aspects. But I don't want to review the book*, I want to discuss two themes in the book that jumped out at me.

Tobar is no ordinary author. Clearly. In addition to writing the brilliant character of Brandon Torres-Thompson, Tobar manages to play with a few themes in a clean and simple manner. There are the big, overwhelming ones - the obvious immigration theme, for starters, as well as the overarching family theme - but then there are ones that are more subtle and subdued, namely that of fantasy. 

The matter of family (and how to manage one) is an apparent theme in The Barbarian Nurseries. Right from the early pages, Tobar introduces readers to the family unit - mother Maureen, father Scott, the three kids, and housekeeper-now-nanny Araceli. Tobar spends the first hundred or so pages setting up the family dynamic, displaying the emotional strain each adult character is under in their attempt to achieve "perfection". It's a wonderful and fascinating theme, particularly because of its near-universality: few readers, I suspect, will not find some form through which to relate to Tobar's realistic family drama. Tobar raises excellent questions about child-rearing and parenthood, about boundaries and space, about responsibility and personal desires and needs. 

And yet it's the fantasy theme in The Barbarian Nurseries that truly struck home for me. Introduced in an offhand manner in the first chapter - Maureen mentions Scott's obsession with video games - it gradually lets the reader see how every character engages in some form of escapism, whether through reading, art, video games, or just extensive use of the imagination. The most successful outlet for this theme is through Brandon's literary imaginings, particularly in the scene in which he tells other children of the fantasy books he so loves. In conversation with the underprivileged young boy Tomás about various fantasy books, Tomás thinks how he "did not know books could contain dramatic and violent tales rooted in real life." This echoes Brandon's disbelief and innocence regarding the harsh truths of world outside his sheltered existence. 

The more I think about The Barbarian Nurseries, the more I find myself wanting to pull it apart piece by piece, to reread it carefully and savor its words again, to write out all the excellent passages within its pages, and to pass the book along to others. Though the abrupt shift in tone and theme in the last section could have been done a bit more realistically with fewer stereotypical characters, at the end of the day I was completely swept away by the book. The conclusion - though the weakest aspect of the book - nonetheless contains wonderful closure to the family theme. 

And the fantasy theme? One of my favorite scenes in The Barbarian Nurseries takes place in the final pages - Brandon, he of the fantastic imagination, finds himself distracted from his story recollections in the face of a stronger reality. It's a moment in which the real world wins and fantasy takes a backseat. But is Brandon done dreaming? Has he forsaken fantasy worlds? I think not. Tobar leaves this theme open, perhaps recognizing that sometimes things are best left to the imagination.
---------------------------------------
* My "real" review of The Barbarian Nurseries can be found here

Friday, October 28, 2011

Children in grown-up books - Brandon and Bran

Think of this as a teaser post for a book I'll be discussing more in depth in a few days (and a few additional thoughts on the book I read almost immediately after). The books are as different from one another as books can be, but the core of this post is the similarity between these vastly different tomes... and one of the finest aspects to both.

The books in question are The Barbarian Nurseries and A Song of Ice and Fire (technically it should be A Dance with Dragons but I don't feel like nitpicking); the main topic is children in adult literature. As a child growing up, one of the things I learned to hate about so-called "grown-up books" was the complete and total inability of adult authors to write believable children. Many of the kids books I'd read still maintained believability, but once children were set alongside adult characters and were created with an adult audience in mind, they suddenly stopped behaving like children.

Kid characters typically fall into one of two categories: exaggerated in their childishness or precocious. Typically the latter. Kids are all brilliant and clever and speak like adults and read Shakespeare and talk about adult things. Even those who don't fall into the precocious category tend to have some adult-like behaviorisms to them. It can get incredibly frustrating. There are cases, though, that somehow avoid the typical pitfalls. Not many, but in recent months I have encountered two: Brandon (Bran) Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire and Brandon Torres-Thompson from The Barbarian Nurseries.

In addition to having the same name, these two Brandons have a few common traits: both are clever kids without broaching the unrealistically talented realm, both have an undeniable romantic streak to them, both are on the cusp of their relative maturity (one of Bran's most common sentiments is that he's "almost a man grown" despite being only eight years old...), and both are given "feature" status on the surface but never the screentime they deserve.

That these two highlight my favorite characters in their respective books actually comes as a surprise to me. Bran Stark is a young boy forced to grow up all too quickly, but he retains an air of childhood around him, an air of innocence. His view of the world is simple to begin with, but gradually grows as he sees and learns more. Something to his wistful dreaming and his passion made him a character worth appreciating, a character worth loving. Meanwhile, when Brandon first appeared in The Barbarian Nurseries, I was certain he was going to be another cliched young character, another clever little reader who somehow sheds light on the adult world while the adults squabble like children. But Brandon's observations are astute and in-tune with his age.
Brandon arrived at the conclusion that Araceli was just lonely. And when he thought about her loneliness, he concluded that she should read more, because anyone who read was never alone.
Or another example: the scene in which Brandon - seeing the poor and the homeless for the first time in his sheltered life - immediately thinks of a fantasy series he'd recently read. Much as I viewed the world at the age of eleven, Brandon applies what he read in the books to this strange and frightening new world he suddenly encounters:
...as he sat in the train with his nose pressed to the glass, the violent and disturbing denouement of that epic narrative seemed the only plausible explanation for the existence of this village of suffering passing below him.
[...] Brandon had begun to warm to the idea that the [...] saga was, in fact, a thinly veiled, detailed account of a real but primitive corner of the actual world. Entire cities emptied of good people, civilians tortured, their homes and their books set to the torch. How could such injustice exist, how could humanity live with it?
The funny thing is, both Brandons are characters in books that acknowledge their importance to the story, but seem unwilling to allow them to fulfill their potential. Like most children, they're ignored in a sense - given moments here and there but never the full flow of things. Brandon is a character with much to say in the first half of The Barbarian Nurseries, but we learn of him in too few scenes and he gets very little attention in the second half of the book. Bran, meanwhile, is the neglected character in his world, often derided as boring... but there's something about him that nonetheless has me hooked, something about the way his character is drawn - childishly innocent on the one hand, cautious and wise on the other - that raises him high in my eyes.

This is how authors should be writing kids. These kids should be believable, should inspire passion, should view the world with the innocence-yet-wisdom that only children have. They don't need to be brilliant and they don't have to be bookish (for example, while Brandon is bookish, it's as much a part of his personality as is his love of video games) and they don't have to play chess. They can be clever and stupid at once (children have an often skewed way of viewing reality - this plays a key role in The Barbarian Nurseries), they can make mistakes, and they can act like kids. If only there were fewer cliches out there and just a few more Brandons.

Monday, October 24, 2011

David Grossman: emotions on display

It kills me, sometimes, to think how long it takes books to get translated into English. Even the more popular international authors - it takes a few years until the books make it international, as compared to Anglo literature which can often be translated internationally even before publication in English and becomes available almost immediately after.

But this isn't a post about international publishing. It's a post about David Grossman.

I just finished reading his most recent publication (from May 2011), Falling Out of Time. Because Grossman is, at the end of the day, an internationally renowned author, I presume this book will see an English publication within a year or two, but I have to discuss it now while it's fresh. And maybe give readers a bit of a heads up.

Falling Out of Time isn't a novel. Heck, it's barely even a book. 186 pages may be legit novel material for most books, but in this case... it's not. Half of the book is written in a strange and disorienting prose style, a cross between poetry and play-script. There are occasional bouts of exposition (two of the semi-narrating characters mostly tell their stories through standard paragraphs), but most pages have less than one hundred words. What the overall word count on this piece is... I have no idea, but it won't amount to much.

In general, if I tried to classify Falling Out of Time, I'd find myself running into a brick wall. The subtitle of the book is "A story in several voices" which is as apt a description as any, but is nonetheless somewhat lacking. A day after finishing the book, I can barely sketch out a plot or story, I can't tell you much about the characters, and the writing was so scattered (and to a degree poetic) that to call it pleasant reading would be somewhat off-base.

But holy heck was this a powerful book.

Tilting and falling
If To the End of the Land is Grossman's ambitious attempt to name the fear of the child's death notice (a disturbing premonition, as it may be), Falling Out of Time is the struggle to define the aftermath. True, Grossman does none of what an author is supposed to do in a work of fiction - there is no main character to immediately latch onto, there's absolutely no world-building to speak of (I quite literally imagined the characters walking around in a gray mist), there is no cohesive, consistent writing style (occasional bursts, intermixed with confusing and disorienting lyricism), and not much of a story. But Grossman didn't aim for any of these things. Not at all.

Grossman aimed for emotion. And hit a bullseye.

Falling Out of Time punches, and punches hard. Sure, I don't yet know if this book will leave a bruise, but right now the wounds are still fresh, the pain still raw. Can I picture the characters outside their setting? Are they fully-formed? Not quite. But I feel them. I can taste their emotions, I can absolutely imagine their innermost turmoils. It's a wonderful, frightening, almost intoxicating feeling. Whereas To the End of the Land had emotional impact because the reader knew and cared for the characters, Falling Out of Time has a veil of anonymity surrounding it which, it turns out, amplifies the emotional effect. And in such a short space, the impact is intense. And incredibly rewarding.

My favorite quote (p.130, my translation):


In August he died, and when 
the end
of that month arrived, I
spent the whole time thinking, how could
I continue onwards to September
and he would remain
in August?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Quest for the Good Blurb

It is on the back of the edition of Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles I'm currently reading that I have finally found what I long believed was a myth: a good blurb.

The Quest for the Good Blurb has been an informal search of mine for several years with one simple (and one complex) goal: to find a good blurb (or to find the practical justification for blurbs. Either/or.). I've never really been a fan of blurbs, whether because I think they blemish an otherwise clean book exterior or simply because they are almost always completely and entirely full of nonsense. Blurbs have a tendency to be dramatic and overwrought - publishers will choose the most awkward-yet-gushing phrases to slap on back (and sometimes, god forbid, front) covers. More often than not, these blurbs are also heavily edited and an experienced reader can taste the missing (and perhaps somewhat less laudatory) sentiments that used to be housed in place of those ellipses.

But then here's a blurb that (in my mind) actually works. One that even if I hadn't received numerous recommendations to read the book would probably have had me intrigued:
"Critics have variously likened him to Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Arthur C. Clarke,Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Bret Easton Ellis and Thomas Pynchon - a roster so ill assorted as to suggest Murakami is in fact an original." - The New York Times
Whoever wrote this sentence* is a genius. Or, rather, whoever picked this as a blurb really knows what they're doing. This is the anti-blurb, an honest acknowledgement of critics' obsession with comparing authors when they really should just stand alone. And yet it provides a potential reader with a kind of framework by which to judge Murakami's writing, even as it begs the reader to do the opposite. The final message, meanwhile, is wonderfully suggestive: it tells me that something about Murakami's writing is special. That it's different. What kind of reader won't fall for a blurb like that?

* Which, it turns out, is slightly edited: "Western critics searching for parallels have variously..." is the original, significantly more accurate quote

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why one must always reread The Sandman

I didn't expect to learn much from my fourth (or possibly fifth...?) reread of volume eight of The Sandman, World's End. I pulled it off the shelf to pass a few hours pleasantly, recalling that though World's End is rarely ranked among readers' top-favorite Sandman volumes, it remains the book I cherish most out of the series.

When I think to recommend The Sandman to readers, I have to overcome two major hurdles: the first is that The Sandman is in graphic novel (comic) format. The second is that The Sandman requires patience. Lots of patience. It's a series that starts out strong, fizzles a bit, flares, fizzles back, and then rises in one of the grandest story progressions I've read in my entire life (books six through nine are simply splendid, while ten has its moments of pure brilliance with a somewhat quiet, unsatisfactory ending). It is no surprise then, with this wondrous crescendo that I find it difficult to name my favorite volume, but there it is: volume eight, World's End.

The thing about The Sandman that I'm realizing as the years go by is that it's incredibly subtle. I'm not talking subtle like The Tiger's Wife (a book in which the vagueness provides an aura of subtle storytelling), but rather subtle like, Neil Gaiman leaves clues hanging around and if you pick up on it, good job! If you don't... alright! We're talking subtlety on a level unlike anything else I've ever read, some of it on a fairly obvious level (would that make it not subtle...?) and some on a level seemingly so obscure and unclear that even The Great and All-Knowing Internet hasn't provided me with any answers.

World's End is the key to almost all of The Sandman's subtlety. Or the portal. World's End includes within its pages a wide and diverse cast of characters - some returning, others new - but the entire premise is built on the notion of storytelling. Not only is World's End a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, it's convincing. Returning characters do not suffer from reintroducing, casual mentions of older stories or references are lightly done, and the story builds carefully to what is doubtless the most beautiful and poignant Sandman ending yet. There is foreshadowing - oh yes - but like everything else, a reread reveals that it's hidden within the least suspicious stories.

And so by rereading World's End I have learned much. A story that had never meant much to me (other than having a lovely two-page spread) suddenly took on secondary meaning (and had me wondering if Gaiman had slipped in a romance story without my noticing), a scene that upon first reading meant little retained its enchanting relevance (discovered upon the first reread), and I was still blown away by the way the small, seemingly insignificant stories tied into the greater Sandman world. Whatever drama volume nine may have, whatever excellent character development volume seven may house... it's the smaller, quieter World's End that astounds me again and again and again.

So if you've read (and enjoyed) The Sandman, reread it. Now. There's so much more to be found within its pages, so many subtexts and quieter truths that do not immediately present themselves upon reading. Go back and reread World's End. Enjoy its storytelling, enjoy its message, enjoy the way it ties the series together. And if you haven't read The Sandman, start at the beginning. But remember: patience. Not everything reveals itself right away. And one final thing: this can be a wonderful experience.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A sci-fi and fantasy story

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to walk around the Israeli Fantasy and Sci-fi Convention (ICon). It was an interesting experience, not least because of the rare opportunity to see Israeli fans of science fiction and fantasy. Though the ICon accommodates just about every medium for sci-fi and fantasy, I (of course) found myself more attracted to the bookish aspects of the convention.

The ICon offers a few outlets for book buying and I have to admit that all were tempting. One of the leading Israeli bookstore chains Tsomet Sfarim is a sponsor of the events and thus has a prominent tent right near the entrance of the events grounds. Within, readers can find the chain's entire sci-fi and fantasy stock spread before them in both English and Hebrew. I was surprised by the sheer amount of books in English offered, but soon realized that given the limited translations of science fiction and fantasy into Hebrew, most fans have had to make do with improving their English and reading the originals. Fans don't seem to mind whether or not they're buying an original or a translation: all that matters is reading the book.

But beyond this tent, a three minute walk away, other booths offer other treasures. One long set of tables offered heavily discounted books but across a wider variety of genres. Independent authors and publishers approached potential customers with their books, coaxing them to crack open the covers. One publishing booth boasted that their new book would soon be "interactive". When asked what exactly they mean by that, one of the sellers laughed and said, "Soon you'll be able to interact with the characters and the story on Facebook! Everything will be on Facebook!" His companion to the booth hastily added, "We hope. It's in development."

And then there was the used books booth. Here, again, one could see Hebrew and English titles shoved alongside each other. Unlike Tsomet Sfarim's booth, I was able to find books all across the spectrum - classic sci-fi, not-so-popular fantasy, standards, newbies, oldies, obscure books... everything. The bookseller - who seemed to know the prices of all his books off the top of his head - told me proudly, "You think this is a lot? This is only a tenth of what I've got in my store!" I took his advertising bookmark and resolved to visit the store soon.

But it was on the other side of his booth that I found the true treasures. Here, the bookseller had spread out his assortment of collectible and valuable items: first editions, spiffy DVDs, elegant editions of popular books... this was the shelf. And on this shelf, I also found the loveliest leather-bound edition of the excellent The Left Hand of Darkness, as autographed by Ursula K. Le Guin herself. Unable to contain myself any longer, I called the bookseller over. His tension at finding me handling this beautiful book abated once he noticed the care with which I held the volume. "I have to know... how much for this one?" I asked, holding the book close. He looked at me somewhat sadly, recognizing, I suppose, my age deficiency as an indicator of my potential income. "1200 NIS*," he said, and I slowly returned the book to its appropriate place.

"Maybe next year," I said, "when I'm a billionaire..."

The lovely collectibles/expensive shelf
* Approximately $330

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Is that even a real name?

Literary Pet Peeve #3: Girl main characters with "original" names

Among the many annoying phenomena in contemporary young adult literature, there are a few that stand out as particularly annoying - not harmful, not technically bad... but simply obnoxious.

I guess because the majority of young adult fiction is geared towards young women, there are a few things that are going to be imbalanced. This one, however, will never make sense to me: many girls in young adult books seem to have fancy, "exotic" names while the boys around them have standard, boring names.

I noticed this years ago but was reminded of it today when I saw this review over at Rhapsodyinbooks. The book has a main character named Wren (whose younger sister is named "Robin" - which by the way... seriously?). It's a weird name, to the point where I've never actually met anyone with that name, nor ever heard of it in the context of a girl's name. But there's another half to this complaint - her boyfriend's name. Because you see, her boyfriend is named Danny.

I can list dozens of books with this phenomenon and I seriously can't figure it out. Sure, sometimes exotic or different character names in general can add a level of depth to the story, but it's usually just ridiculous, particularly when it doesn't mesh with the tone of the book. There's the flip side of the coin: the fact that the boyfriends always have bland, standard names. If you're already having fun with names, why not have everyone sport a wacky, original name? Be consistent, at the very least...

Monday, October 10, 2011

True horror

There are few genres I actively dislike and fewer still that I outright avoid. Horror is one of them and the one I've often felt I had the least knowledge of. Even as a kid, I disliked the horror-lite range of books - I wasn't a fan of mysteries and I didn't much like straight-up suspense books. Horror - which seemed to me like a particularly bloody twist on suspense - never appealed to me at all.

But I recently read a book that I would have to define as horror, even if no one else would. This is a book so thoroughly disturbing, so utterly horrific and terrifying that at the end of the day, despite wearing its "literary" stripes proudly, I must label it horror. And I furthermore must admit to having enjoyed the book... in a perverse, disturbing sort of way.

The book in question is On Parole by Akira Yoshimura and to be honest, I might not have been surprised by the horror aspects had I read the book in English. The Hebrew cover is docile and calm, much like the overall tone of the novel, while the English edition comes equipt with a sharply colored piercing glare. This stark difference can easily be explained: On Parole is a paradox in much of its presentation. It's a quiet book - the passage of time is quick and gently done, jumping across seasons easily - while Yoshimura eases readers into main character Kikutani's mind and world without much dramatic flair. And yet it's impossible to forget the premise and the setting. Yoshimura spares no time in letting the reader know that Kikutani has committed a horrendous crime and though we only learn the details late in the book, the crime - and its implications - are obviously the focus of this short novel.

But what does it mean that On Parole is horror? That it's a quiet, disturbing book? That it made me think long and hard about the standard horrors in the world around us? That it brought to life the kind of character I would normally find repulsive by any means? That it managed to completely unhinge me for a few days straight? If horror isn't the combination of all these - as opposed to blood and guts like the named genre always appears to be - then what is it?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Define "good"

If I had to find the first thread of what would develop into my book-blogging mindset, it would probably be found in the question I asked myself one fall morning in 2007 - what makes a book good? To be honest, it's a question I've actively avoided on this blog. Though I've spent years with the question in mind (whether when reading, blogging, reviewing, writing or simply talking to random people), I continuously struggle to find the answer. Instead, I skirt around my fears that I'm reading "wrong", get annoyed that books suck but don't figure out why, and struggle to express my general devotion to finding the "meaning of books" or at least the meaning of a good book.

Today while walking to work, it hit me. Or at least, something hit me. Maybe it was just a pinecone.

Assume books aren't good because of technical, measurable standards. A book isn't good because of the quality of its writing, or characterization, or plotting, or originality. No, it's not what I've long postulated in my notebooks... in fact, it's completely different. Let's assume for a moment that a good book is defined not by its actual components, but rather by the balance between two further definitions: how enjoyable and how rewarding it is.

These sound like terrible options off the bat but grant me the benefit of the doubt for a moment. For starters, I don't mean "enjoyable" in the sense of necessarily fun or upbeat, but rather a book that one enjoys reading. Under enjoyable you can list several relevant factors (quality writing, emotional attachment to the characters, etc.) that ultimately make the reading experience pleasurable.

The chart below is a crude, preliminary representation of what I think might be my personal Chart to Define a Good Book.

Click to enlarge







The two categories are not mutually exclusive and are missing many possible factors of good books, such that the chart doesn't really cover all bases. I'm certain I've left some things out and included a few factors that other readers might not care about. The chart can't actually map the path to the perfect book. But it can make things a bit clearer. For me, at least.

For instance, it helps me figure out what my problem with Dubravka Ugrešić's The Museum of Unconditional Surrender was - it was a remarkably intelligent, rewarding book but I didn't enjoy reading it at all. It's bursting with technical greatness but lacked a personal spark. For me as a reader - just for me - this was not a good book. It's measurably good, yes, but that's not eough.

Or The Hunger Games, on the other end of the scale. It's fun and is quite entertaining... does that make it a good book? No. It lacks originality, breadth and fully formed characters. It's something I would recommend to certain readers (same for Ugrešić, for that matter), something I really enjoyed reading, but this also was not a good book. Enjoyable is not enough either.

Where do the two meet? Wolf Hall was endlessly intelligent and also bursting with living, breathing characters. The writing was brilliant, the pacing consistently smooth. The book is clearly enjoyable and clearly rewarding. Or Philippe Claudel's wonderful Brodeck's Report, a book that I was so pleased to have read and one I learned so much from. And of those other books, the ones that don't qualify as good... a lot of them are still worthwhile. I wasn't disappointed to have read John Green's Paper Towns or Scott Westerfeld's Behemoth (actually, Behemoth is so much fun and set in such a good world that it really does approach good). I recognized the literary merits of Han Shaogong's A Dictionary of Maqiao even if I couldn't enjoy it at all and struggled to finish it. Good is the ultimate honor in this case, not just a three-star rating. Good is the ideal book. Everything else is just approaching good.

Which is okay too. Just knowing what a good book means, just understanding the difference between enjoyable and rewarding and the juncture between the two is worthwhile in its own right. Maybe now I can stop stressing about why books have ceased to amaze me and just enjoy the reading process.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Breaking rules for Stanislaw Lem

Buying The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem broke one of my rules - never acquire more than one book by an unread author. That's the tipping point, in my mind, when the stacks begin to grow for no reason whatsoever. That and the oh-so-dangerous sales at Hebrew Book Week. But something about The Cyberiad made me forget my rule, even though Solaris is still on my shelf, waiting for me. First was the fact that it was available at Border's going-out-of-business sale (bizarre that Borders had it in the first place, awesome that it made its way to my hands). Then the second reason nailed it home: the first story entertained the crap out of me.

The Cyberiad is a collection of short stories. Sort of. I think. Because it looks like the characters are going to be consistent throughout. But these are definitely stories, individual bites of brilliance. Even from the first pages, it's clear to me that Lem has a sharp, wonderful mind. It's everything I love about old-school science fiction - the wit, the intelligence, the quick drama. Quite refreshing.

I'm not going to read The Cyberiad any time soon. First Solaris (after all, I did buy it a few months earlier) and then I'll be able to devote my attention to these stories. And knowing my flightiness and general impatience with short stories, I wouldn't be surprised if I read the book sporadically and in a most disorganized manner. Still, I'm pleased I broke my rule for once - I'd rather like to reread the opening story - How the World was Saved. That's already worth it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Poem of the month

Lo, this land that lifts around it
Threatening peaks, while stern seas bound it,
With cold winters, summers bleak,
Curtly smiling, never meek,
'Tis the giant we must master,
Till he work our will the faster.
He shall carry, though he clamor,
He shall haul and saw and hammer,
Turn to light the tumbling torrent,—
All his din and rage abhorrent
Shall, if we but do our duty,
Win for us a realm of beauty.

Master or Slave - Bjornstjerne Bjornson

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Saturday, September 24, 2011

News and views - a short roundup

A few stories and bits of news that have caught my eye this week:

* Goodreads launched its recommendations feature, finally convincing me to try to use the site properly. The functions seem so far only mildly impressive, but certainly better than some of the other sites I've seen. So far, I'm enjoying the organization process and am wondering how best to arrange my books within shelves. The fun of the recommendation feature will come later, perhaps.

* After years of lagging behind competitors on the library front, Amazon has at long last enabled a Kindle library option. Now, if only they could get rid of the DRM...

* A bit of unrelated commentary: over at A Dribble of Ink, Aidan posts about the UK release of the third book in David Anthony Durham's Acacia trilogy - or lack-thereof. It would appear that the series' UK publishers have decided that the earlier books were not strong enough sellers to warrant the release of the third book, leaving fans hanging. I have to wonder: in the case of a clearly planned and designated series (one with an obvious ending, like a trilogy), it seems somewhat unfair of the publishers to decide not to publish the last book. Even if the series has been relatively unsuccessful (something I'm not quite qualified to comment on, having no understanding of marketing or sales), there are people who want to read the rest of the series. Assuming you own exclusive rights, withholding the book seems just... wrong. The book is still available in the US (and can therefore be acquired in the UK, with a bit more effort required), yet this idea that publishers can withhold publication of the final book in a trilogy seems like one of those glitches in our current publishing system that should definitely be smoothed out.

* Finally, Scott McLemee wrote a great piece on Three Percent's published collection of rants and essays about publishing (The Three Percent Problem). Though I have yet to cough up my three dollars to purchase the actual eBook, having read most of Chad Post's essays and rants over the years, I can vouch for the fact that he's always interesting and raising important topics. (article hat tip, Three Percent)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Comparing minority Romania

I just started reading Herztier (The Land of Green Plums in English) by Herta Müller and I find myself repeatedly thinking one completely unjustified, unrelated thought - this book is the grown-up alternative to The White King. Or a complementary novel. Something of the sort.

I loved The White King. It's a good book, well-written and finding the perfect balance between child and adult without restricting itself to one particular audience. It's a book that educates and enlightens, all while telling a good story. Written by an author belonging to the Hungarian minority in Romania, it describes a child's life in totalitarian Romania in the late 80s. On the other hand, The Land of Green Plums is written by a member of the German minority in Romania. It's about young men and women growing up in the shadow of WWII during the 70s and 80s, life in totalitarian Romania.

It strikes me as odd, first of all, that my only literary knowledge of Romania is seen through the eyes of minorities. Not necessarily bad (in fact, there is something far more enlightening about this somewhat skewed view), but worth noting. More to the point, I'm noticing that as the book progresses, the dark undertones of the story become far more pronounced. Müller introduces her characters as sketches at first, gradually filling them in. It's disconcerting and quite enticing. I'd normally call this a risky move on the author's part, but Müller handles it deftly and so far (about a third of the way through, meaning there's still plenty of room to go wrong...) it's working quite well. I'm hooked, certainly.

It's these dark reflections, this adult-minded depression and gloom that makes it quite obviously different from The White King. For all the pain and sadness that book had, there was a thread of childish hope and optimism throughout. Even the wonderful downer ending did not leave the reader completely at a loss and just sad - there was something behind the pain. There was hope. The Land of Green Plums doesn't really have that. There's just an unrelenting sea of struggles and sorrows. Maybe in the end, it really is all about the child-vs.-adult mindset. Maybe the adults in The Land of Green Plums are watching the kids in The White King and thinking to themselves, "Just wait a few years, kids. Soon, you'll all be as depressed as we are..."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why I still have hopes for Sony - eReader updates and other things

It's well documented that I like Artemis, my Sony Touch Reader. Certain features - like double-tapping an unfamiliar word - have become so engrained in my mind that I sometimes try to double-tap print words. I love that it's a touch screen, I love that I can take notes, I love that I use it as a notepad when I don't have any pens nearby, and I love that it gives me access to hundreds of free books I might otherwise not be able to get my hands on.

It's also pretty well documented that I don't really like the Kindle. I don't like Amazon's business approach, I don't like DRM, I don't like the sticky-fingers attitude Amazon adopts, and I don't like the bloated eBook prices in relation to paperbacks (a statement against all eBooks, actually, but Amazon is king of the hill in this case so they can suffer my wrath).

Glaring, glare-y Artemis
Since I bought my Artemis, the eReader world has seen a few drastic changes. At the time my model (the PRS-600 Touch Edition) came out, the Kindle 2 already had 3G internet. No wi-fi. The Nook was only a rumor. Tablets weren't being marketed as potential eReaders. And most important of all: they were expensive. My 6", internet-free, somewhat glare-y little device cost $300. Granted, it quickly paid itself off. But compared to the $150 we see today for comparable models... that's one serious price cut. The only eReaders that cost upwards of $200 until now were the tablets (which aren't really eReaders anyways), Sony's high-end 3G model, and the Kindle DX (which is still the most expensive mainstream eReader out there, bizarrely priced at $379, much higher than similar models). Basically, eReaders got a lot cheaper.

New products joined the game. The Nook is a spiffy eReader but perhaps because I'm used to Sony's interface, I couldn't quite get used to it. Particularly noteworthy is the Nook Touch, again - a  worthwhile device, but one that feels to me like a cheaper version of the Sonys (no stylus, less convenient interface, smaller, awkward page-flip buttons...). All the Nook owners I've met have been immensely satisfied (like most eReader owners). The Kobo came out as well, consistently marketed as a small-brand, slightly cheaper alternative to the other eReaders.

Then there's the Kindle 3, and though it's a good product, I personally dislike it. I don't like the structure (the bulky keyboard still seems so out of place) and I don't like Amazon's business approach. But again, technically speaking, it's an almost ideal eReader. Still problematic to share eBooks, still problematic to check eBooks out of the library, still the DRM thing... but if none of these things bother you (and they don't seem to bother most people...) then the Kindle is a satisfactory plug-and-play eReader. Meanwhile, there are the tablets (any of 'em), which aren't actually eReaders, but a lot of people use them for that purpose.

All this time, people laughed at me. "You have a Sony?" a wannabe eReader developer mocked me a year ago (it should be noted that his product never actually materialized in the market... and probably won't). A colleague with a Nook teased me as well: "No internet, glare, and super expensive... boy, were you gypped!" All along, I defended my choice and Sony as well, wondering why they took such a lackluster approach to their marketing. It's lazy marketing, pure and simple - nobody ever even heard about the price cuts or about the new models. Why would they? Kindle! Nook! Kobo! Overpriced and lacking internet, the Sonys just couldn't compete.

The new Sony Reader Wi-Fi - drool-worthy
But holy cow does this new Sony model bring it. I mean, bring it. Glareless touchscreen (but stylus included, unlike the Nook), wi-fi, ePub-friendly, eBookstore access and library check-out access. At the end of the day I bought Artemis for the library option, for the ability to check books out straight to my Reader without having to be in the same county/country as the library. It's been Artemis' most wonderful asset. Being able to check books out directly through the wi-fi--that's a drool-worthy notion in its own right; toss in the ability to use Wikipedia on any word or phrase and I'm halfway to my wallet.

So, I still have hopes for Sony. The Reader Wi-Fi (as it's called) looks awesome and I can't wait to play with it once it comes out. The only real downside is that my Reader is still wonderfully alive and kicking at 2 years of age; I somehow don't think Artemis will be as excited by the Reader Wi-Fi as I am.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sigh, Amazon - recommendations

Today, we highlight one of the face-palming, head-banging, sigh-causing things that Amazon, this once-actually-kind-of-chill (maybe when I was like, ten...?) bookseller, does.

So years ago, I wrote a modestly negative review of People of the Book. There were some good points, though, so when forced to give the book a rating, I chose 2.7, or, 3 stars. Now, Amazon understands a 3-star rating to be a negative review. Look up reviews, you'll see the glowing 5-star review as compared with the less-than-gushing 3-star. 3 stars and under counts on the "negative" end of Amazon's scale.

So why, can someone explain to me, did Amazon send me an e-mail recommending some book called The Oriental Wife? The book looked boring and not to my taste so I opened the e-mail. Lo and behold: "Customers who have purchased or rated People of the Book: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks might like to know that The Oriental Wife is now available."

Amazon. Really. By your own standard, I didn't like People of the Book. Do you really think I'm going to buy a book that you claim is similar to something I didn't like? This is just another form of your crappy bookseller recommendations, except this time with even less thought...

Sigh.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why does it always have to be chess?

Literary Pet Peeve #2: Chess as the marker of intelligence

You know that thing where authors try to write realistic teenagers? Yeah, so despite the fact that almost every author in existence was, at one point, a teenager (I have my doubts about a very specific few...), most authors seem incapable of capturing the true essence of the teenage years. Part of it may have to do with the fact that the teen brain is almost like that of an adult, but with a bunch of obvious childish flaws (forgive me - I speak as someone only starting to get over this serious and potentially harmful affliction...). Whatever the cause may be, some authors use a few "handy" tricks to bridge the gap between their teenage reader and the adult mind. This typically comes in the form of intelligence. Think about it. How many less-than-average teenagers have you encountered in literature (young adult or otherwise)? They're almost always just a bit cleverer than your average kid, just a bit more intelligent.

And all too often they play chess.

Chess. I mean, seriously, why does it always have to be chess? The amount of books I've read that use chess as symbolism for the cleverness and talent of their young protagonist is... high. Very high. It's frustrating, if only because it's a cheap trick: a writer who has to elevate their character to above-average intelligence just to make them sound "realistic" is a bad writer. And chess is pretty much the cheapest way to accomplish this.

In general, the use of chess in literature is to indicate growth and intelligence. I mean, I get it. Chess is a logical game. It can be wonderful symbolism for certain thought-processes, for how certain characters think. But it's not the only way. You know what else works? Computer strategy games. Risk. In fact, I want someone to write a book in which a character is analyzed and developed throughout a game of Risk. Seriously. That would be awesome. Chess may have once been wonderful symbolism, but use of it today feels trite and inappropriate. Such a shame - I actually always liked the game...

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Justifying and dismissing hypes

Remember months back, when I wrote a quick post about different types of hype? One of my final conclusions was that based on the different types of hype, I might be convinced (or dissuaded) from reading certain books. I started thinking about this again after each of my siblings briefly asked about my opinions on two young adult phenomena (in two separate incidents). The first was Twilight. The second, The Hunger Games.

I remember Twilight from back when it first came out. My local (beloved) Borders gave it super-hype treatment, placing the then-still-attractively-original covers in prominent placement in the young adult section. Like any good 14 year-old bookworm, I approached the display. Read the dust jacket description. Wrinkled my nose. Bought other books. Left the store. A few months later, noticing that the display was still there, I read the first few pages. Still lame, I thought, abandoning the book. It should be noted that I remember nothing of what I read. But I remember thinking to myself, "Okay, not the book for me." On the other hand, when The Hunger Games came out I thought, "Cool concept but I bet everyone is totally overreacting". The basic premise intrigued me. How couldn't it? Vaguely sci-fi, heavy plotting, kick-butt story... exactly the kind of escapist young adult book I'd be bound to enjoy.

It's that fundamental difference that highlights why I refuse to read Twilight but had no problem "giving into hype" and reading The Hunger Games. The basic premise of Twilight bores the pants off me. The Hunger Games, meanwhile, hooked me. Whether it's marketing (because seriously even The Hunger Games has too much stupid romance and love triangles) or simply my tendency towards gorier stories or really that the stories are so different... I don't know. I only know that at the end of the day I read and can vaguely recommend The Hunger Games to specific people whereas very little will succeed in getting me to read Twilight.

At the end of the day, hype succeeds only if we have a shred of curiosity regarding the book. There are some books so far outside my interests that it doesn't matter how much hype they get... I'm not likely to read them. Hype backlash and all that. But if I'm even just a tiny bit interested in the premise or the plot... that's enough. That's enough to convince me that maybe the book is worth reading, even if it often isn't. So yes - I'll continue to dismiss Twilight in spite of its popularity because it holds little interest for me, and I'll continue to defend my choice to read the enjoyable-if-flawed The Hunger Games because it has a cool premise and one of my favorite teen-girl main characters in a while (even if all the other characters in the series feel pretty flat and wooden). The marketing and the type of hype really do make a difference.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Epic fantasy, as defined by Harry Potter

Adam Whitehead over at The Wertzone asks an interesting question: is Harry Potter epic fantasy? Reading the comments, opinions are various and varied. Everyone defines choice fantasy differently, looking at a number of popular fantasy epic-potentials and comparing their properties.

In Adam's points for and against Harry Potter's epicness, there are a few that rubbed off me the wrong way, perhaps in continuation of my struggle to accurately define fantasy books. The question comes down to how each one of us splits up the fantasy definitions. In my post from January, I proposed two general groups: high fantasy and modern fantasy. It's thus much simpler for me to ask the question of whether or not Harry Potter falls into the epic fantasy category: it's epic and it's fantasy, therefore it is epic fantasy. But this is easy for me because in my mind, Harry Potter is clearly defined as modern fantasy - anything else is an additional categorization, not the larger subgenre.

Let's take a step back, though. Adam, in his post, offers several arguments that could be used to justify (or dismiss) the epic qualities to Harry Potter. There's the silly one (that a lack of maps in Harry Potter could disqualify it from being epic fantasy...), but there are a few quite interesting ideas (that Harry Potter does not take place in a secondary universe, the lack of sword-fighting battles). In the comments, readers propose other arguments: the episodic nature of Harry Potter might disqualify it, but the presence of a "dark lord" with a noble hero out to fight him justifies the definition. That the young adult focus of the book doesn't fit "epic", but that according to the origin of "epic" (Greek epics), Harry Potter certainly fits.

Commenter Wastrel offers a few words of wisdom that I found particularly interesting:
"Epic Fantasy" isn't a definition, it's a family resemblance. I'd say core characteristics were things like:
- a battle that can lead to good or evil consequences for an entire world, or at least a very large chunk of it, and that is the focus of the story
- a secondary world
- improbably influential everyman characters.
Around that core, there are various other common features - but many epic fantasies may lack one or more of them.
I like this assessment because it falls in line with my own modern-vs.-high fantasy definition. That is, it allows for multiple definitions of fantasy, while placing the "epic" quality of fantasy as a possible characteristic of fantasy, rather than a genre. The list of possible features is where the differences between the commonly touted epic fantasies lie, but also the similarities. Even outside the simple question of Harry Potter's epicness, the list is certainly worth noting. For that matter, the whole discussion is worth reading. The vast range of opinions is impressive, but unsurprising - it really is that difficult to define most fantasy books.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dissmissing Némirovsky - the influence of the author's personal life

When my mother says she wants to boycott a specific musician for his politics, I find myself getting annoyed. "Separate the man and his art," I say, justifying my admiration for the man's talent. But place a book by Irène Némirovsky in front of me and chances are I'll say "No thanks". Why? Because the author made a pivotal choice in life that has since been endlessly touted... and I just don't feel like it.

I just don't want to read it
A few weeks ago, Sarah at Bookworm Blues raised the fascinating discussion prompt of how much an author's personal opinions influence our desire to read (or not read) his/her books. And while I wondered at what my own policy is, I realized how utterly inconsistent it is.

I'm using Némirovsky as my example for a reason - as a wildly popular and well-respected author, it would make sense for me to have read her novels. But one small blip on Némirovsky's biography makes me take a step back and say, "Wait, if I can choose... why should I choose her?"

There are two ways to look at it and it turns out I'm a hypocrite. On the one hand, I listen to musicians and composers with dubious backgrounds. On the other hand, I avoid authors who may have made specific choices that don't quite fit in with my personal beliefs. Némirovsky only vaguely attracted me as a reader the first time I've heard of her and the more I learned about her history, the less inclined to read her novels I became.

Ultimately, I think the difference between music and literature is in the presentation. When a pianist has a controversial opinion, it doesn't really come across in his interpretation of Beethoven's sonatas. Meanwhile, authors can (and do) present their own lives and opinions easily in literature. So much of an authors personal experience ends up embedded in the story, imbued in the personalities of the characters. I've encountered very few books that included none of the author in their characterizations, enough to realize that when I greatly disagree or sincerely dislike the author, I am far more likely to dislike the book as well.

The problem is that it's not at all clear-cut. There are authors who say dumb things who I still love (Philip Pullman, I'm looking at you!) while there are authors who I don't feel like bothering with because of footnotes in their histories. And then there are authors who have said completely controversial and idiotic statements (V.S. Naipaul!) who I still might consider reading. Why? Why not! It's my choice. At the end of the day, I don't have to justify it for anyone.

So in answer, readers can be influenced by whatever they want. Sometimes it's the fact that an author sounds lame, sometimes it's the fact that an author writes in a funky style that doesn't sit well with the reader, and sometimes it's because the author has expressed certain personal opinions that turn them off for the reader. In the end, we can't read everything. If this is another weird and inconsistent way for us to sort through all those books out there, so be it. And if I'm missing out on a brilliant writer in Némirovsky... well, I think I'm okay with that. For now, at least.