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: 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.