Monday, May 28, 2012

Risks pay off | The Buddha in the Attic

While I had high hopes for The Buddha in the Attic, I don't think I ever really expected to like it. Another example of my prejudices against popular, well-received books. Another example of my pervading literary cynicism. But truth be told, The Buddha in the Attic is an excellent book and it really deserves more credit than I would ever be able to give it.

What makes The Buddha in the Attic exceptional? What makes it worth your time? To begin with, the surprisingly successful use of first-person plural. Julie Otsuka uses this writing style in a way that emphasizes its inclusiveness and keeps the pace sharply in-tune. Everyone belongs to the narrating whole - individuals stand out, but are not relevant on their own. Otsuka is telling a bigger story, one that includes all the angles. It's a risky approach, but here it pays off nicely.

Then there's the story itself. The Buddha in the Attic tells of the Japanese immigrants living in California in the early 20th century. It's an uncomfortable story in many regards, gently emphasizing the prevalent racism of the era. Otsuka's multiple characters can feel vaguely bland when viewed through such a culturally gentled lens, but the stories are so short and to-the-point that the characters never truly stumble because of it.

But really, what makes The Buddha in the Attic a much better book than I expected was how the clean writing and story met in a series of powerful paragraphs:
On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee.
Using few embellishments and scant pages, Otsuka manages to create these intensely moving scenes. Together, these form the bulk of the "novel", which is really more a collection of situations and fragments tied together by shared (yet usually different) experiences. The result is something quite special, and certainly worth reading.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Not all libraries are perfect

This is blasphemy, I know, but I have to get this off my chest.

I have long supported libraries. I know that libraries face increasing budget cuts and that they're trying to do the best they can. I know that librarians are generally good people with noble intentions. But if there's one thing I've learned the hard way is that some libraries are, frankly, better than others.

My love affair with the Boston Public Library (BPL) began to fade a few months ago. I remembered the beautiful building as housing an extensive collection, but once I began to browse more extensively, I was disappointed by the limited scope. It was nice, I'll admit, to have all the genres mixed together, but there was something a bit sloppy about the whole thing as well. The organization seemed incomplete and messy. It was bearable, but I found myself struggling just to find a book.

Okay. Fine.

Then I started looking for places to sit with my laptop and study. None. Not one. There's an entire room with desktops for use (which was completely packed), but even as I searched, I could hardly find any desks to work at. And once I did find a suitable table, I was surprised to discover that there were no chairs. Okay, I told myself. It's a larger, far more central library than any I've ever frequented beforehand. It's natural. So I decided to browse a few other sections, including the teen room. I was surprised to see a sign on the door denying entrance to anyone over 18 years of age. I suppose the desire to read young adult books is cut off abruptly the moment one is allowed to vote. Though I doubt anyone would have enforced the rule, the sign itself was enough of a turnoff. I left the library thoroughly disappointed. But these were minor issues, hardly worth mentioning or getting caught up on. But then there's the bigger issue: The BPL is the worst organized library I have ever encountered.

I mean it. The sloppy bookshelves were just the tip of the iceberg. The Audio/Visual section is a complete mess - no organization whatsoever, five carts out with "recently returned items" (some of which seem to have been there for months), terrible broken cases, title and genre inconsistencies... must I go on? But here's what worse - nobody seems to care. I was searching for an item that was supposed to be on the shelves for a solid hour before I decided to turn to a librarian. She very courteously stayed in her seat and looked the item up on her computer (as I myself had done mere minutes earlier), telling me, "It's on the shelf. Just look for it." And that was all. I spent another hour looking over literally every item on the recently returned carts, eventually giving up.

I learned my lesson. The next time I needed something, I placed a hold on it. I saw that the items I requested were listed as on the shelf; I smiled, thinking that at worst it would take three days for them to make the transfer to the hold shelf. How wrong I was. I placed holds on April 22 for five items found in the library. Two books appeared on the hold shelf five days after I placed the hold on them. One book (of which four copies are allegedly in-library) did not appear by three weeks after I placed the hold, by which point it was irrelevant and I cancelled the hold. The hold I placed on one disc was cancelled three weeks in (no reason given), and the hold I placed more than a month ago on another CD that was supposedly in-library became in-transit only the other day.

Here's what drives me nuts. In today's modern world, libraries are supposed to have it easy. Tracking becomes much simpler the moment it's digitized. All that's left for libraries is to maintain some kind of shelf order. To mix up one or two items makes sense. But to lack any coherent order is unacceptable. When browsing discs, even something as simple as genre distinctions is missing, let alone any alphabetical markers. One soundtrack might be found under "pop", another under "soundtrack", a third under "classical". And don't get me started on the loose CDs found floating around as well, cases long abandoned, discs scratched and useless.

But what is most disturbing is the disdain BPL librarians seem to hold for their neighboring library system. The Minutemen Library system (which I am far more likely to patron) is comprised of many significantly smaller libraries, but has a wonderful online catalog, excellent organization, and convenient transfers of books from library to library means that just about every item is available somewhere - hence it is available everywhere. The most I've had to wait for items to move from one library to another was four days - a reasonable time frame when considering the fact that I requested the item on a Friday afternoon. When I mentioned the Minutemen system, a BPL librarian snorted and said, "Bet you've been waiting forever." That's right, but it's not the Minutemen who keep me waiting. It's the BPL. Clean up your act fast, or else you'll find yourself losing a lot more patrons...

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Franzen's Freedom... or is it Liberty?

Liberty to the left, Freedom to the right...
Following the recent publication of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom in Hebrew, this week's Ha'aretz Book Review published a sharply critical review. To be honest, it's an excellent review: well-written, interesting, just biting enough to catch my attention, and just enough praise to convince me that this isn't pure backlash. Reviewer Liat Elkayim presents the review as a letter to Franzen, which makes for fascinating reading regardless the opinion one might hold towards Franzen. It's all peaches and cream until near the end of the review, when Elkayim starts bashing the edition.

I would translate the criticism verbatim, but it won't work. Why? Because here Elkayim expresses dissatisfaction with the title's translation. Instead of using the direct translation of Freedom, the publishers opted to retitle the book as Liberty. Elkayim takes offense: she points to the sentence she feels is the origin of the title Freedom and doesn't understand why "hofesh" (the word used in the referenced sentence) didn't make the cut, and instead the word "herut" (liberty) was chosen.

It is apparent that Elkayim has never dealt with translations. While "hofesh" is indeed the proper translation of Freedom, it has an additional (stronger) meaning: vacation. But titles are important. And with Freedom's grand ambitions and big-picture Americanism, a title that implies vacation would be entirely inappropriate, while the title Liberty makes a heck of a lot more sense. I'll forgive a bit of deliberate mistranslation in this case.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Abandoning There But For The

I started reading There But For The by Ali Smith because it's a book with a wonderful premise: a man has locked himself in an almost stranger's spare bedroom and he refuses to leave. The book description then does an excellent job selling the novel as the conversations between this man and the strangers who try to lure him out.

The book description is actually a lot better than the book itself. At the start of the novel, I was intrigued. I kind of liked the roundabout writing style, I kind of liked the odd character introductions, and I kind of liked the way nothing really made sense. But after one hundred pages of the same not-much, I realized I wouldn't be finishing There But For The.

Perhaps rightly so. I abandoned it only a few days ago (having begun it last week), and already I've lost it. I remember a vague sense of frustration with the novel, but the heart of my annoyance is gone. Nothing is left. The characters, who had a certain thin, slick quality to them, are all missing from my noggin. All I have is a strange aftertaste from the writing style - one I'm still not certain is either positive or negative.

A few years ago I would have done all I could to finish There But For The, ignoring other books I would have enjoyed more. Today, as I returned the book to the library, I was reminded of the three good books I've read in the days since I gave up on There But For The, and know that I made the right choice.

* Also, what is up with the cover? While somewhat striking, this has to be one of the least attractive covers I've seen in a very long time...

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A few words about political books

Though I have a long history with nonfiction, I tend to read mostly fiction these days. And certainly of the nonfiction I do read, it's unheard of for me to read a book blatantly political in nature, let alone two in the space of a month in a half. I wrote up a long response to the first book, but I couldn't organize my thoughts properly and therefore chose not to post it, but those thoughts and feelings have hardly gone away (much of that post served to write this one). Then I made the semi-mistake of reading another "current events" book, one that is significantly more political than the first. I was left with a similarly bitter taste - not because either book was bad, exactly, but something else. Something unique.

There are several problems with these political/current events books (which I have chosen to lump together despite several differences between the two):
  1. Their shelf life is severely limited - a political memoir meant to come out parallel to a major campaign is a short-lived book. Similarly, current events books reflect only a very narrow window in our worldview, thus maintaining relevancy only for a few months (a couple of years, at most).
  2. The nature of the internet has made these books somewhat redundant, in part because of my first point. A blogger (or even newspaper columnist, those that are left) can write an essay, and a few months later update that essay with new information and bring it life once more. A book is static in this regard, and with the political situation constantly changing and shifting it loses its power. In the age of the internet, a printed book is obsolete the moment it's printed. And in the growing age of eBooks, the convenience of having all of the author's thoughts and essays localized in print is much diminished.
  3. People don't really read political books in order to accept another opinion or to learn something new. For the most part, it seems as though we read political/social/religious nonfiction and "current events" books either to reassure ourselves of our own opinions, or to secretly bash the opposing side. In my experience, the opinion I bring with me to the book is the one I leave with, meaning my appreciation  is entirely based on my personal beliefs and opinions, not those actually expressed in the book. To me, this has always felt like a cheap reason to read, and so I avoid these books.
A frustrating manifesto
In my private rant about The Crisis of Zionism, I raged at the fact that Peter Beinart got to spend 200 pages telling me his thoughts (in what is ultimately revealed to be a manifesto...), while I could not respond. It seems cruelly unfair. It reminded me why I don't read political books in the first place. But then I went out and did something stupid - I read Bill Clinton's recent Back to Work, which can be boiled down to the former president making a list of things he'd do if he were still president. Fascinating, yes, but also remarkably frustrating and tedious. And, again pointless.

Why pointless? Well, Clinton nailed it himself: at one point, he casually remarks: "If there are any militant antitax folks still reading this book, I can hear the counterattack forming in your minds." From the very first moment, it's obvious he's not writing this book for those who disagree with him. So who is he writing for? Those who agree with him? Himself?

This is not a rhetorical question. It's the same problem at the heart of The Crisis of Zionism, and it's the same sick taste I get after reading any political book. The short shelf life, the dramatic overtones, the heightened political leanings - and the out-of-place audience. Both Clinton and Beinart write with the cool attitude of a writer confident that the reader will immediately agree with his/her claims. It's arrogant and annoying, and it's been a prevalent shadow hanging over almost every single political book (or even quasi-political book, like The Crisis of Zionism) I've read in my lifetime.

I'm a bad reader. When I read a political book, I'm silently applying its beliefs to my own and judging them, rather than the book itself. Because what is a political book, if not its politics? If it's truly objective, it isn't a political book... it's something else. Something I'd much rather read.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Getting rid of DRM

Finally, a major publisher is moving in the absolutely right direction: Tor books has decided to go DRM-free, sparking a sudden boom in the eBook DRM discussion. It's about time. Of the slew of articles on the subject, few are as in-depth and on-topic as Cory Doctorow's post at the Guardian:
[Avid] readers are also the ones most likely to run up against the limits of DRM. They're the customers who amass large libraries from lots of suppliers, and who value their books as long-term assets that they expect to access until they die. They may have the chance to change their ebook reading platform every year or two (the most common platform being a mobile phone, and many people get a new phone with each contract renewal). They want to be sure that their books travel with them. When their books don't, they'll be alienated, frustrated and will likely seek out unauthorised ways to get books in future. No one wants to be punished for their honesty.
Tor's move, as well as J.K Rowling's equally excellent recent decision to sell Harry Potter in all formats, DRM-free through her website, show that things are beginning to change. DRM places serious restraints on book-buyers and comes coupled with the publishing industry's backwards approach to the modern era. Hopefully the market will begin to discard the shackles of DRM, finally advancing and not just sticking to a failing status quo...

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Greatest girl characters | The Atlantic, Tor, and myself

I came across this post by Jen Doll at The Atlantic about the greatest girl characters of young adult literature through (my number one stop for procrastination when writing papers...), where Mari Ness criticized The Atlantic's article, pointing out the fact that the majority of books on the list aren't even technically designated for a young adult audience. But setting aside the technical problems Ness is so troubled by (which truly are worth considering), the premise of the list is deeply flawed.

Doll's article is built on the premise that Katniss (of The Hunger Games fame) may be a revolutionary character in American film, but not in literature. It's a noble (if altogether warped) premise, but the execution is clumsy at best. What I'm bothered by is the fact that Doll's list is almost exclusively comprised of very old characters, with only The Book Thief as a remotely modern book. Not that these choices are necessarily void because they're old, but this is certainly not the list that I would ever come up with.

At Tor, meanwhile, Ness unsurprisingly comes up with a different list entirely and opens the floor up to nominations. As I read through the list (and subsequent comments), I was struck by how different the two approaches are. Half of Doll's heroines live in a society of young women who seem forced to exceed society's expectations, while the other half are simply well-characterized girls. It's all very reality-grounded. Ness' choices and the majority of the choices listed in comments, meanwhile, predictably lean in the direction of fantasy. Many comments name one of my personal favorite characters Lyra Belacqua (of His Dark Materials), and Ness specifically addresses another unacceptable omission in the form of Hermione Granger, who despite not being the main character of Harry Potter is definitely a main enough character to justify appearing on any list of this kind.

These omissions - among many others - make Doll's original list very puzzling. While I don't deny that these are remarkable characters, these young women share very little with Katniss, who sparked the whole debate. Beverly Cleary's Ramona is a wonderful little girl, but she is no way the predecessor to Katniss. The whole matter is quite frankly bizarre.

I have my own lists of great characters (girls or boys). I've already discussed Leslie Burke, and I can certainly discuss Hermione or Lyra for hours at an end. And I have to admit that I was thrilled to see one commenter add Antimony Carver of Gunnerkrigg Court to the list, though she's only one of many wonderful girls in the story. Others: Ella from Ella Enchanted, Cimorene of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, obviously Meg from A Wrinkle in Time (thankfully included in Doll's original list), Coraline from Coraline, Tamar from Someone to Run With (my own addition), and many, many, many others. This seems like a field worth delving into further.