Friday, June 29, 2012

Book title of the week

I love browsing through Gutenberg. Unlike standard booksellers, Gutenberg is a messy, delightfully unpredictable source of new reading material. Oh, and it's perfectly reasonably to find a book with the following title:
The Discovery of a World in the Moone
Or, A Discovrse Tending To Prove That 'Tis Probable There May Be Another Habitable World In That Planet
This find by John Wilkins was published in 1638 and has all the marks of a book from its era - spelling is random, sentence structure is bizarre, and every point seems to stretch on for eternity. For example, one of the "cautions" in the introduction:
That thou shouldst not here looke to find any exact, accurate Treatise, since this discourse was but the fruit of some lighter studies, and those too hudled up in a short time, being first thought of and finished in the space of some few weekes, and therefore you cannot in reason expect, that it should be so polished, as perhaps, the subject would require, or the leisure of the Author might have done it.
That is, based on my brief flip-through, the most easily comprehensible sentence in the entire book. Meanwhile, the ideas in the book are no less strange (and obviously hilariously outdated). Thank you, Gutenberg: this is going to be amazing.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday links

  • I'm not exactly a Lev Grossman fan, but his post about what characters in fantasy novels should do more often is spot-on and quite hilarious (via
  • John Green emphasizes his opinion that books belong to their readers.
  • Reading Rainbow returns, as an iPad app subscription. LeVar Burton on publishing:
    "I'm sure you're aware, there's been a real nervousness in the publishing universe about this necessary conversion from print to digital, and we saw that there was an opportunity for us to be a solution, really, for publishers in terms of conversion - taking their titles and bringing them to a platform that worked - but also discovery."
  • Finally, an interesting article on the cost of eBooks that, while shedding light on publisher expenses, completely fails to understand the real reasons behind consumers' demands regarding eBooks prices (i.e. resale).

Monday, June 18, 2012

Magic systems in fantasy

On her blog, fantasy author N. K. Jemisin has written about magic systems and the way magic is portrayed in fantasy in general:
Sometimes, whenever I see fantasy readers laud a work for the rigor of its magic system — we’ll come back to this word “system” later — I wonder: why are these people reading fantasy? I mean, if they’re going to judge magic by its similarity to science, why not just go ahead and read science fiction?
To a certain degree, I think Jemisin has a strong point - fantasy isn't necessarily about clearly organized and logical systems. Magic is often something inexplicable and, well, magical. Not everything has to make perfect scientific sense - indeed, many of the cornerstones of fantasy literature forgo such systematic magic systems. The best fantasy succeeds in creating something so other that it just doesn't need any kind of system or justification.

But I disagree with Jemisin to dismiss magic systems overall. First of all, I think there are enough readers whose tastes overlap enough between science fiction and fantasy to justify having the lines blur a little. Many of these magic systems Jemisin dislikes are, in fact, stand-ins for science in those particular worlds. It's not science, and it's not science fiction, but it's fantasy that does appeal to sci-fi lovers... That's not a bad thing.

Then there's Jemisin's complaint against magic systems as a whole. Here I must politely withdraw - Jemisin sees a much bigger, looming issue in the concept of a "system" than I ever will. I know what underlying problems she's referring to and recognize them, but I really don't think that they have anything to do with the fact that certain fantasy worlds have particularly organized and detailed ways to conduct magic. Correlation does not prove causation.

Lastly, I must admit: I kind of enjoy magic systems. As I mentioned earlier, many writers who use magic systems in their books use it as a form of science. On the other hand, the vast majority of fantasy that does not take place in modern-day Earth (and sometimes even those stories that do) completely eschews the mere concept of science. It just doesn't exist. As a scientifically minded person, this can sometimes come off simply as sloppy writing. A well-structured magic system can, however, make a fantasy world seem a lot more believable - it shows that the author put a lot of the world-building. It's obviously not the only factor involved in my appreciation of the book, but like originality, it can add a whole new dimension.

The source behind Jemisin's frustration? This:
I’ve seen these folks, most of whom are future fantasy novel-writers, positively agonize over their magic systems, taking great care to consider rules, required resources, the laws of conservation of magic, yatta yatta yatta, all for fear that they’ll get published someday and have their magic systems picked apart by the Fantasy Police. In some cases these writers had spent far, far more energy on trying to create a magic system than they had on trying to create plot or characters. Sadly, I’ve seen this same kind of to-the-exclusion-of-all-else focus on mechanics in the works of some published writers — and worse, I’ve seen readers going ga-ga over this sort of thing, as if the magic system really is the only part of the story that matters.
Here I once again completely agree: magic doesn't have to be organized. In fact, oftentimes "organized" magic systems aren't pulled off well and, like Jemisin points out, it ruins an otherwise interesting story. Writers shouldn't have to bend over backwards to explain how their magic works, they need to make sure it fits their world comfortably. For some worlds, this will mean that magic is like science - it's logical and clearly explained. For many other worlds, however, magic will simply be magical. Both are fantasy, and both are fine.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Glamour fades, still amazed - HBW 2012

The greatest week and a half of the year is coming to an end, and this year I visited the main Hebrew Book Week fairground twice. The first time, like last year, I simply collected catalogs and got a feel for the books being pushed. The second time I came with a concrete list and specifically bought the books on it. Even when the best 2-for-1 deals were against me, I stuck to my list - even if I didn't "save" as much money, I saved precious shelf space and time. In the end, I left with 16 books overall - significantly less than last year, but still a very respectable amount of books.

But what struck me most about this year was the fact that I saw through a lot of the glamour. The recent debate in Israel over price-setting by the large bookstore chains (a ridiculously heavy topic in its own right, one I've been struggling to untangle for quite some time) sparked something in me. My love affair with both of the large bookstore chains in Israel ended a long time ago, but now I started to feel a bit of the familiar animosity towards the larger publishers, something that had until that point been limited to the Anglo publishing world.

My solution was to try to keep an open mind, and more importantly, avoid falling into the publisher's traps. I came with specific requests, and made sure to avoid adding additional books to my list just because "they seemed good". If there's one thing I've learned from four years of attending HBW, it's that I tend not to read the books I bought just to fill a specific deal. They sit on the shelf and gather dust. Most publishers were accommodating - even books that hardly sold could be found among their stacks of bestsellers. Others were not - one of the largest publishers in Israel actually laughed at the fact that I expected the books on my list to be available. Needless to say, I did not purchase anything from them this year.

It's not even that I favored smaller publishers. The majority of my purchases came from well-established publishers. Many were actually best-seller type books. But even among the heaps of bestsellers, I discovered a relatively smaller publisher (though by no means tiny) that publishes a respectable amount of world literature of a non-pop variety.* And so I came away from HBW this year with books originally in Hebrew, Spanish, Catalan, French, Russian, Japanese, Polish and German.

But like I said, the glamour is fading. The booksellers this year tried so hard to convince me to buy books I didn't want. Deals changed from day to day (something which actually would have changed which books I was planning on buying, or which books I would have researched). I realized just how few books many of the larger publishers actually bring with them. It wasn't disappointing, exactly, but I realized that I wasn't actually saving as much money as I might have been had I been buying more unnecessary books. Both of my visits did, however, remind me why I wait for this week all year.

It's still a wonderfully diverse experience. It's easy to find most aspects of Israeli society at HBW, all mingling together for one simple, pure purpose. It's great to have a stranger next to me point and say, "That's not as good as his other book", easily assuming that I had read that previous novel. It's fascinating to find those publishers who stand at their own booths (rather than hiring simple booksellers) and share blurbs about the trade with anyone who knows what to ask. It's fun to find smaller publishers, where the time, devotion and care each customer receives is unlike anywhere else. Simply put, there may come a year where I will attend HBW and not purchase a single book. Unlikely, perhaps, but the simple joy of attending far outweighs any of the technical bookselling faults.

*It was also at this booth that I had the loveliest moment of the day, when the bookseller saw the two books I had chosen (thus fulfilling the 1+1 deal). I asked if she had any other recommendations. "No," she said, "you've got two excellent books right there."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Splendid sequel | Bring Up the Bodies

I'll admit: I was kind of avoiding reading Bring Up the Bodies. It wasn't just the anticipation (I haven't been this excited for a book to come out in years); rather, the sheer amount of praise heaped on Bring Up the Bodies scared me away. Everyone loved it. No one was disappointed. Many reviewers said it was better than Wolf Hall - which is a pretty huge hill to climb. But then I finished the book I was in the middle of. Then I read another. The guilt mounted. The eagerness to dive back into Cromwell's complex and intelligent world became overwhelming. I prepared myself for disappointment.

If I was disappointed by anything, it's the fact that I cannot prove any of the other reviewers wrong. Bring Up the Bodies is a flat-out brilliant book. And yes: it may in fact be better than Wolf Hall. My mind is blown, just suggesting that.

A lot of what makes Bring Up the Bodies so good can be found in its predecessor. Hilary Mantel's writing is something else. It's intelligent and clever without being pretentious, descriptive without feeling overblown, detailed and packed with information without being dense, and Mantel's imagination of Thomas Cromwell is genius. The story may be familiar to many on the surface, but presenting it through the eyes of a man history has not been particularly sympathetic towards makes for fascinating reading. The depth that all characters are given - familiar and not-so-familiar - sets Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies apart from the vast majority of fiction (historical or otherwise).

What may make Bring Up the Bodies a better book has something to do with the story it tells. Wolf Hall had a lot of introductions, a lot of stage-setting; it told a story that was spread out across decades. Bring Up the Bodies is significantly more focused, in a way that makes it a quicker, more satisfying read. And there's no point denying it: it's also a bit of a juicier, more dramatic story. Who can say no to that? Mantel has also sharpened her writing style: the "he" references to Cromwell in Wolf Hall bordered on confusing, but are presented in a simpler, more accessible way in Bring Up the Bodies (often in the form of "he, Cromwell"). It's a cleaner read that seems determined to prevent Bring Up the Bodies from being mislabeled as "dense" (as its predecessor was so often unfairly dubbed).

So yes. Bring Up the Bodies is a worthy successor to Wolf Hall and a wonderful book in its own right. Now I just need to remember that when the third book in Mantel's trilogy comes out, I should not doubt her ability to complete Cromwell's story in the best possible way. I can hardly wait.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Yehoshua's earlier duet | A Woman in Jerusalem

I originally started reading A. B. Yehushua's A Woman in Jerusalem several years ago. This was before the "Hebrew explosion" (when I began reading more than just two Hebrew books a year) and I'd spent a few weeks trying to pick an appropriate title. Eventually, someone recommended A. B. Yehoshua. Being the thinnest of Yehoshua's books available to me at the time, I chose A Woman in Jerusalem (the original title in Hebrew roughly translates into The Human Resources Manager's Mission). I was immediately drawn in by Yehoshua's writing, but predictably struggled for a few months, getting only fifty or so pages into the book. Back on the shelf it went, collecting dust for four more years.

A couple weeks ago I took it down again. Since my last attempt, I'd read (and enjoyed) one of Yehoshua's more recent novels (Friendly Fire) so I was somewhat better acquainted with his writing style. This time the reading itself was significantly easier - within just a little over a week I finished this novel that has been sitting on my conscience for four years.

So what can I say about it? That it's a pretty good book. A. B. Yehoshua is one fine writer. A Woman in Jerusalem is another in a long line of Israeli novels that employs the no-quotes style (which a friend of mine has aptly described as the S. Y. Agnon style imitation). Eighty percent of the time, Israeli writers don't pull it off. But Yehoshua is not simply another writer, and A Woman in Jerusalem flows quite comfortably. No fault there.

But now that I've finished the book I understood why it was so easy to set aside years ago. A Woman in Jerusalem is a curious blend of destination and character-driven story. There's a general progression, but no real plot. The ultimate conclusion did not influence the first section of the book. There is no need to keep reading, only a kind of passive curiosity. Back when reading in Hebrew was a lot harder, it was easy to forget the book and move onwards to something else. And it's just as easy to get back into it.

As for the character-driven aspect, it's something of a twisted duet. I don't use this word lightly: Yehoshua specifically described his next novel Friendly Fire as a duet, and in that case the description is perfect. Friendly Fire is told by husband and wife through alternating chapters. The two completely separate stories balance each other nicely thematically and stylistically - a well-told duet.

I'd describe A Woman in Jerusalem as a duet of a subtly different kind. We have a world populated with characters who are not named, only referred to according to by descriptions (job titles, "the girl", "the snake", etc.), and then one single named entity: Yulia Ragayev, the woman in Jerusalem. She is the only character given a name, yet she never speaks, never breathes. She is the character that haunts the novel (effectively, I might add). The different titles in Hebrew and English emphasize the dual qualities of the novel rather nicely - is it the woman in Jerusalem who is the main character, or the HR manager? Is the book about characters, or is it about the "mission" the manager is sent on? These options do not quite contradict each other, instead highlight the differences between the two sides of A Woman in Jerusalem. In the end, passively written as it may be, A Woman in Jerusalem emerges complete, and well worth the time.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

SAFL #13: Gunnerkrigg Court

Early art style, chapter 1
My labeling of Gunnerkrigg Court as SAFL breaks two "rules" I set myself when beginning this project. The first was to avoid books belonging to ongoing series. It didn't seem fair to readers (or to myself) to include incomplete stories in this account. The second (far more important) decision I reached was to avoid including any books that readers would find inaccessible for some reason or other (the point of the project being, after all, to encourage readers who normally ignore sci-fi and fantasy to give these particular gems a shot). This has often meant excluding kids books (due to the fact that many adults will not read kids books, or young adult books on principle), and would certainly mean excluding most graphic novels.

The child friendly webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court which seems far from ending certainly breaks a lot of rules. But it is absolutely worth your time.

I can spend hours discussing the gradual improvements in the striking artwork. I can talk endlessly about the use of mythology and fairy tales throughout the series. I can ramble about all that I've learned from Tom Siddell's management of the site in regards to eBooks, how to support authors, and my views on internet availability. All these points would probably make you say, "Huh, yeah, I should look into that" but then you'd forget eventually. No. That won't do.

Recent Annie: Chapter 34
The reason you should be reading Gunnerkrigg Court - the reason you should start reading it now - is because Tom Siddell is hands down the best storyteller I've come across in years.

This is a high bar to cross, and Gunnerkrigg Court has leapt over it easily. And when I say "the best storyteller", I mean the best. This is including Bartimaeus, this is including Wolf Hall, this is including the beginning of "Battlestar Galactica" (the end is pretty easy to surpass...). I'm not just saying that Siddell has written (and drawn) a good comic (though he has), I'm saying that he has written an excellent story, and in such a way that I am constantly in awe of his writing abilities.

Robot humor
Gunnerkrigg Court has everything. There's science fiction, there's fantasy, there are strong heroines, there's humor, there are gods and mythological creatures, there are robots and laser cows, and there's a bigger, looming story behind everything. Unlike many ongoing stories, Siddell manages to keep his readers confident in his ability to get the story to its conclusion. I've never wondered if Siddell has gotten lost on his way to solve mysteries introduced in the comic's earliest pages; I've never been concerned that Siddell is unsure of the story's future. Siddell seems to understand his characters through and through, and their development is both realistic and natural.

But it all comes back to storytelling, written or drawn. Siddell employs subtlety in a way that repeatedly astounds me. His characters feel alive. One wordless panel tells the reader more than twenty pages of standard exposition.

Saying Gunnerkrigg Court is my favorite webcomic is easy. Saying Gunnerkrigg Court is one of my favorite stories overall will, hopefully, encourage you to take the "plunge" and click on over to the archives (or read the lovely print books). This is a beautiful, fascinating, wonderfully entertaining story for adults and kids alike. Well worth the "rule" breaking.

Gunnerkrigg Court's Annie and Kat, chapter 6

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Translation awards

Until a few days ago, I'd never heard of the Tchernichovsky Prize for translation. You probably haven't either - it's an Israeli prize awarded by the Tel-Aviv municipality for "exemplary" translations, both literary and academic. In the Ha'aretz blurb on this year's award winners, the article mentions that Mifal Hapayis (the Israeli national lottery), which sponsors the significantly more prolific Sapir prize, has set aside funds for a similar translation prize to be awarded from next year and on.

This is interesting. The proportion of translated vs. original fiction in Israel is obviously nothing like that of the English speaking world. Whereas foreign literature hardly makes its way into English, Israel collects world literature comfortably and prolifically. Yet I'm still struck by the sheer amount of recognition translators get. When the majority of books published each year are works in translation, it would make sense that translators get a bit of credit. Still, sense does not necessarily translate into action (and certainly not into awards), so these awards are nonetheless surprising. And pleasing.