Thursday, July 26, 2012

Scenes from Village Life

My need to read something by Amos Oz has been growing for several years. It seemed unreasonable to me that I had not read anything by one of the classic Israeli novelists simply because growing up I had no books in my house (my mother doesn't like his writing style). With many of the gaps in my Hebrew literary knowledge filled, it seemed time to tackle Oz and see what all the fuss is about. I chose a relatively recent publication - Scenes from Village Life (תמונות מחיי הכפר) - and read it last weekend.

Scenes from Village Life is another in a long line of short story collections that centers around a certain character or locale. In this case, it's the latter: Tel Ilan is a small Israeli village filled with slightly offbeat characters and stories that revolve around strange and vaguely unbelievable occurrences. There's an air of distance and fantasy to the whole book, a kind of gentle mockery of the entire concept of the collection.

Scenes from Village Life is unlike many short story collections in that its opening story is its weakest. Upon reread it improves somewhat, but it opens the book on a distinctly odd note. Luckily, the following story "Relations" is simply superb. It may be one of the finest short stories I've ever read. The underlying anxiety, the gentle focus on family and familial love, and the slow, quiet pace are all incredibly done and by the story's end, I knew that Scenes from Village Life was going to be worth the read.

And it was. Each story is a bit twisted and strange and incomplete, but they fit together wonderfully to form the overall book. The writing, true, is a bit blunter than some of Israel's other literary masters, but Oz's ability to create a character with whom the reader can relate in so few pages is nothing short of astounding. Truthfully, Oz doesn't even need that much embellishment - the fictional Tel Ilan's vagueness can make it anyplace so much easier. That idyllic, pastoral impression that is constantly mentioned is the cracking outer edge of a concept that is infinitely more complex and universal.

What struck me most of all was how not-Israeli the majority of the characters are. Their setting, their anxieties, and their existence are purely Israeli, yes, but their personalities felt a little off. With the exception of the former politician in "Digging" whose reminiscing fits a certain mold , none of the characters fill the familiar Israeli stereotypes and as such feel somewhat foreign. For an Israeli reader, this enhances the distance Oz creates between reader, setting and character. I'm not sure what an international reader would get from this subtle characterization.

I can see why some readers don't like Amos Oz. His style isn't as clean and smooth as A. B. Yehoshua's, for example, nor as emotionally charged as David Grossman's, but it felt a bit more adventurous and experimental. Certainly, this short story collection is wonderfully characterized and is still beautifully written, even if it's a strange type of beauty. I finished reading Scenes from Village Life in a blur and could easily recommend it to other readers. Though I didn't really like the opening and closing stories (the last story takes the reader to a different, futuristic-seeming setting with an allegorical purpose that just didn't click for me), the meat of Scenes from Village Life is excellent. Yes, I'll be reading more by Amos Oz.

* Goodreads for some odd reason attributes the publication to 1998, though the book was actually published in 2009

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Abandoning The Fat Years

I'm giving up on The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung. I'm more than halfway through the book, but after a week of trying to read this relatively not-long novel, I'm done. The story isn't going anywhere, the writing is stiff and awkward, and none of the characters exactly evoke sympathy on my part.

Normally after passing the halfway mark, it might make more sense to plod on through. The problem with The Fat Years is that I can see exactly where it's going to go. Not only does the summary completely and utterly break the 10% rule of back-cover spoilers (if I'm 60% in and still haven't reached what the synopsis describes, something's wrong), the writing is clearly not going to suddenly improve and I highly doubt that the clumsy character development is going to magically turn around.

The synopsis promises that the ultimate message of the novel will "astound the world". I won't doubt that. The Fat Years isn't really a novel - it's a message badly wrapped with fictional characters. The writing is often blog-style-exposition which could theoretically work in another story, but here it fails. There's also the bluntness of a Chinese-to-English translation - I have yet to encounter a book translated from Chinese* that doesn't have an awkward taste in the other language (my case studies being English and Hebrew). This leads me to believe that the Chinese writing style is inherently different from the English, and in this regard I cannot fault any translator. I can, however, point fingers at the author for having melodramatic sentences and writing unbelievable dialogue. I can fault the author for flat characters and dull storytelling.

So yes. I'm giving up on The Fat Years. It's a bad book. And I'll have no problem adding it to my list of books I've read. I've read enough to understand that this book is a mess on a multitude of levels. I will happily let this library eBook expire a few days early.

* I wish I could specify what dialect it is originally, yet every Chinese translation I've read until now has only divulged the "Translated from the Chinese" aspect, not the specific dialect... I seriously don't get the reasoning behind this.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Books do not have expiration dates

At least, they shouldn't.

The past few years, I've noticed a disturbing phenomenon in Israeli bookstores: books older than a year or two, regardless their status in Israel's literary history or as a former bestseller, simply do not appear on the shelves. A book published six years ago is impossible to find; more than eight years, booksellers will laugh in your face. This trend is mostly limited to Israel's awfully limited two major bookstore chains, but has also made its way to Hebrew Book Week and I've seen the early signs in certain bookstores in the U.S. as well.

This is troubling for so many reasons. First of all, it perpetrates the myth that people need to read certain books at the same time that everyone else is reading them. If you, as a bookbuyer, know that a book won't be available in a few simple months, you will obviously prefer to buy it immediately than possibly "miss out". But it also has extremely practical ramifications, chief among which is the matter of a young reader.

Look at The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven. Winner of the 2002 prestigious Sapir prize in Israel, I first learned of the book in 2009. It makes perfect sense that I would only become aware of this book once I was of an age to read it, yet when I began to seek the novel out, I discovered that not a single bookstore had it. Even the not-so-local library had only one copy allegedly in circulation and it had been taken off the shelves for some mysterious reason (it should be noted that Israeli libraries are not renowned for their excellence). Eventually, I found a single, rather squished copy in one of the main bookstores and snatched it. This, after literally years of searching.

This has happened again and again and again in Israel, and I'm starting to see it happening in the U.S. as well. I'm not only talking about the annoying misconception that if you're not reading the big hit right now, you're doing something wrong. I've also found that certain non-classics are all-but missing from store shelves. Sure, every bookstore has its Austen, Tolstoy, and Faulkner. But bookstores are starting to pull books off the shelves very quickly. While the U.S. is significantly more accommodating when it comes to ordering books to the store, or ordering books online, this is a frustrating move in the wrong direction.

Here's a fact: good books don't have expiration dates. I read The Buddha in the Attic around the same time that everyone else did, yet I reached my own personal conclusions regarding the book with little regard for the fact that many others had just finished it around the same time. On the other end of the scale, I read The Sparrow many years after its publication: should I feel lesser for it? No. Not in the least. If it's a good book, it'll remain a good book even ten, fifteen, thirty, two-hundred years down the line. Why can't I find it at the bookstore?

Yes, there's something nice about being involved in the buzz surrounding a new book. Being part of a community and part of a movement is fun. It gives rise to wonderful conversations and is a unique aspect of book reviewing. But we need to get rid of this idea that books don't matter two or three years after they're published. We need to feel comfortable enough with the books being published to give ourselves time to read them. And as reviewers, we should never, ever feel like we cannot add to the literary discourse simply because the book was published a whole three years ago. We should embrace the ability to read a book through eyes unclouded by either hype or hype-backlash. We should encourage new readers to find these good books, even if they're a few years old. Our society's desire for only the newest and best just doesn't apply when it comes to literature: we will lose so much more by accommodating this silly idea.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Loving the confessions, hating Noa Weber

If ever a book to have two starkly different titles in two different languages, The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven is a prime example of the new title improving on the old. The book is technically titled My True Love (though a more accurate Hebrew translation would be My Heart's Desire: שאהבה נפשי), yet this somewhat sappy, melodramatic title hardly does justice to the often cynical, rather biting book within. Similarly, the original Israeli cover does not match the content of the book at all - combined, the two give off a very trite, tacky feel regarding a novel that is far from either.

One of the reasons I like the English title a lot better is because of how easily it allows me to divide my thoughts on the book. Fact: I hated Noa Weber. I hated her attitude, I hated her personality, I hated her decisions, I hated her mistakes, I hated her political/social frame of mind, I hated her semi-wish-fulfillment internal fictional character and I seriously hated her constant self-justifications of her obnoxious behavior. And yet I seriously liked her confessions, and by extension the book overall. I'm really not sure why.
Tacky Hebrew cover

I think my appreciation for the book can be found within Noa's in-story fictional stand-in, Nira Woolf. Noa describes Nira as a strong female character, but then mentions critics who tear Nira down as a fake feminist, essentially a man in a woman's body. From the first moment this critique is mentioned, it resonated with me strongly and I immediately agreed: Nira is a cliched "strong" woman, whose behavior really isn't any different from every male lawyer/detective in every legal thriller featuring a male lead except for the fact that she's a woman.

This tiny bit of empathy with Noa's fictional critics hit me surprisingly hard once I realized that I was also judging Noa through this lens. For all her feminist framing, Noa's life revolves around a man: she readily admits this. Alek is as central to The Confessions of Noa Weber as Noa herself is. Everything Noa tries to deny about Alek or about her relationship with him starts to fall apart as she tells her story. Whenever Noa commented that "it's wasn't like this" or "it's not like that", I found myself thinking that it's actually exactly like that. She's a contradictory character, contrasted with her own internally contradictory character, Nira.

I have to give Gail Hareven credit. Despite creating a character I couldn't stand, I wanted to keep reading about her. I wanted to know more about her life, even though there was nothing in it that I liked. Hareven writes Noa with a honest feel; I've seen some reviews refer to it as a memoir-style, but it's really not. Ultimately, the U.S. title got it spot-on - these are Noa's confessional ramblings and attempts at self-justification. Noa doesn't even try to whitewash her own history, but she contradicts herself at every turn. She claims not to regret anything she's ever done, but her tone says otherwise. She claims to be this great feminist, but she immediately submits to Alek's whims and requests. She even admits to shame about this, through both words and actions.

I'm glad The Confessions of Noa Weber was translated into English. It deserves it. It's an excellent novel overall, proving that a book can tell the story of someone entirely unsympathetic and still be good. If I could only figure out how Gail Hareven did it...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sci-fi vs. fantasy, revisited

In an interesting post over at, Steven Padnick writes in defense of "red matter":
Red matter is... the stuff that explains the science fiction in your story. Or, rather, the stuff that refuses to explain anything and just excuses the science fiction in your story. A single source origin story for everything impossible that you want to include, no matter how disparate and bizarre.
This premise is certainly thought-provoking, but is made even more intriguing by a later paragraph in the post:
But most science fiction isn’t really about the how. Most is about why we want the impossible to happen, and what the consequences are if it does. Wells, and Orwell, and Bradbury, and L’Engle used the impossible to comment on society, and government, and family, and love, and used only the barest explanation of how any of this was done.
Comments essentially raised the same eyebrows that I did: The moment there's an unexplained "scientific" tool to wash away any of the unbelievable occurrences, the story mostly moves from the "because it's the future, dammit" realm to "because it's magic, dammit" - to fantasy, essentially. It doesn't help that one of Padnick's leading examples is actually from a fantasy TV series...

Padnick isn't wrong that science-fiction deals with much bigger pictures than simple spaceships shooting at each other. Like most literature, sci-fi often uses the flexibility of its setting and its imagined future to drive home specific points about society, humankind, existence, etc. It's the approach towards sci-fi as something much more akin to fantasy that has me bemused. It reminds me of N. K. Jemisin's recent argument against magic systems because that essentially turns the story into sci-fi, except... backwards.

On the one hand, I believe in blurring genre definitions. I don't think there's anything wrong with fantasy and science appearing in the same work of fiction, I don't mind fantasy having scientific structures, and I really can't see anything wrong with having very out-there and scientifically unlikely sci-fi. On the other hand, I think that science fiction as a genre is rather clearly defined as its mysteries being explained by science. You can have a made-up particle that explains away your problems, but it still needs to be scientific, if not outright science. If your "red matter" falls apart under the microscope, then the book isn't really sci-fi - it's futuristic fantasy.

The truth is that once we accept genre-blurring, all of this is irrelevant. But as long as we have defined genres such as science-fiction and its (distant) cousin fantasy, there do need to be distinctions. And just because something takes place in outer space doesn't mean it's necessarily sci-fi. As one of my favorite examples, I happen to think Dune, for all its status as a sci-fi classic, is actually pure fantasy*. So I get what Padnick is trying to say, but for now, I must politely disagree and turn my head away from any kind of "red matter".

* But don't tell my brother. He "doesn't like fantasy", yet he loved Dune. I wouldn't want to ruin his innocence.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Czesław Miłosz's search for self-definition

I've blogged about Czesław Miłosz in the past: Miłosz has been one of my favorite poets since I first discovered him in the spring of 2006. His poetry has always resonated particularly strongly with me, and as the years go by, this power that his words hold over me has hardly diminished. Not long after I discovered him, I also learned that Miłosz was well-regarded for his essays and his novel The Issa Valley. After several weeks in which I debated which book of his I ought to read, I eventually bought Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition.

I would not read it for six more years.

Native Realm is anomalous for a number of reasons. Not only is it a remarkably strangely written autobiography of an undeniably fascinating writer, it is also a curious treatise on Eastern European development. Miłosz's search for self-definition is centered not around himself, but rather around his native Poland/Lithuania. Miłosz seeks more to define Eastern Europe as a whole than any kind of personal self-realization. This entails a lot of hard-core historical context, which he comfortably provides. Within this frame, readers can follow aspects of Miłosz's own life, but that doesn't feel like the main point of the book. 

Miłosz's focus on history means two things: firstly, the reader becomes acquainted with Eastern Europe's complex socio-political-religious situation in the early 20th century, and secondly, that Miłosz himself must acknowledge and tackle dark and disturbing periods in his homeland's history. In this regard, Miłosz provides one of the most powerful passages in the whole book:
As an eyewitness to the crime of genocide, and therefore deprived of the luxury of innocence, I am prone to agree with the accusations brought against myself and others. In reality, however, it is not so easy to judge, because the price of aiding the victims of terror was the death penalty. 
Native Realm loses some of its coherence as the book progresses. The chronological arrival of World War II shifts the focus from Eastern Europe in general to Miłosz's own wanderings. It is no less interesting, but the change was disconcerting, as I suspect the reality must have been as well. Native Realm was not at all what I expected (I must confess that I prefer Miłosz's poetry to his passive political descriptions), but it filled in several gaps in my understanding of the world. And even if it takes me another six years to read another book by Miłosz, at least I will have what to revisit and learn from.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Two views of the Great War

Several months ago, I read My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young. It's a book that compares two realities of the Great War: the men who go fight and the women they leave behind. Though I was not wholly impressed by My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, I did very much appreciate Young's focus on the civilian struggles of the war through the eyes of the nurses. Young's uncompromisingly grim descriptions of the trenches themselves were also noteworthy, creating a vivid and powerful image of the times.

To a certain degree, Christian Signol's Un matin sur la Terre (which I read in a Hebrew translation and does not appear to be available in English) follows this same idea. Like Young's novel, Un matin sur la Terre is as much about the women who do not go to war as it is about the three men in the trenches. Like Young's novel, Signol tackles larger issues of class differences. Like Young's novel, Un matin sur la Terre travels back-and-forth between the men and women.

The similarities end there. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is a romance in many regards of the word: it delves heavily into the romantic relationships between the couples, it tells a grand sweeping story, and its style is somewhat richer and heavier. Despite more explicitly explaining the love stories behind its couples, Un matin sur la Terre is not, on the other hand, a particularly romantic book. It's quieter, slower, and more subtly suspenseful. Young tells her story linearly; Signol opts for a reminiscing style that often loops around itself, as husband and wife remember the same event from a slightly different angle.

The biggest distinctions between the books, however, lie in the similarities. Truth is, I enjoyed Un matin sur la Terre a great deal more than My Dear I Wanted to Tell You partly because of its smaller scale and significantly fuller character development. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You felt awkwardly characterized and even more clumsily romanticized; the couples were neither well-developed, nor justified in their so-called love. In Un matin sur la Terre, the focus on the couples' love felt a great deal more 1915-style: indeed, one of the aspects I liked least about the book was the subtle sexism. The men seek to protect the women, the women seek protection. Though each wife is as developed a character as her husband (and in some cases, more), certain old-fashioned thoughts filtered down, giving the book a more authentic, but also ostensibly sexist feel.

The difference in the focus on class differences is again stark. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You bases much of its premise on a cross-class romance and the ramifications of it. Signol, meanwhile, presents three couples who each reside in three different aspects of French society in the early 20th century. One couple comes from the working class, another comes from peasantry and both have risen to become teachers, and the third belongs to the wealthier class. In presenting three stories side-by-side, Signol can provide a full and honest image of French society, without attempting to falsely modernize it (as was the feeling I got from My Dear I Wanted to Tell You).

I don't deny that both books have their strong points. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is brilliant when describing the trenches and the post-war treatment of wounded, even if it fails somewhat in other regards. Un matin sur la Terre is old-fashioned in style and taste, meanwhile, but does a much better job of creating characters. Both novels end semi-predictably, with Young taking an optimistic view and Signol pulling out the anticipated twist the book's tension consistently asked for (it's an abrupt ending, but truthfully it could end no other way). Though I am less inclined to recommend My Dear I Wanted to Tell You and have some practical difficulty recommending the not-yet-translated-into-English Un matin sur la Terre, together these two books paint an interesting portrait of France and England during the Great War. Anyone seeking a comparative case study for World War I need look no further.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Finding the balance in female characterization

I saw this very interesting post about women characters in fantasy over at Fantasy Faction and was immediately struck by how much this needs to be what we talk about, and not so much whether or not Katniss is a better role model for girls than Bella.

The argument hinges, I think, on the following statement:
[T]here still seems to be a certain hesitation to give women a fair amount of traditionally feminine traits. It’s as if by admitting that women cry, like nice furniture, or prefer to do the cooking, we’re saying that women are weak, when really, those things can be part of any well-rounded character, male or female, straight or gay, old or young.
The main point in the post is to offer alternatives. Amy Rose Davis rightly points out that there's nothing wrong with the "strong" female warrior trope, but that we need to recognize it as such - a trope. Her list of potential character traits for girls in fantasy (or sci-fi, or even contemporary fiction), which includes such traits as motherhood, disability, non-beautiful body build, seems like such a no-brainer that it's somewhat disconcerting to remember that most female characters (particularly in fantasy novels) have a few very simplistic, very familiar models in which they're allowed to reside. While there are certainly exceptions, I'd like less to delve a little deeper into what's missing, but rather the familiar cast-molds that many writers seem all-too comfortable with.

Let's use the wildly popular The Hunger Games as a case study. In a conversation about I had about the books a few months back, I mentioned that one of the reasons I had enjoyed that book, contrary to many others of its ilk, was because Katniss felt to me like a believable character in a lot of regards. Her emotionally guarded style, while enabling a stiffer personality, also contained a spark of inherent motherly protection: Katniss, as an older sister and surrogate mother, has a maternal instinct to protect the young around her. It's a small character blip, but that little bit of believable feminine behavior (as opposed to the at-times awkward romantic context the books are placed in) makes Katniss that much more believable... and that much more naturally feminine.

What The Hunger Games shows, as one of those exceptions, is that it's possible to merge a familiar character type with believable character traits. Katniss' maternal instinct is distinctly feminine, yet it can hardly be called a negative trait, nor is it exclusively a tool for her emotional turmoil (though to be fair, it is mostly used as a tool to make her life suck). But setting aside that motherly approach, Katniss is another case of the "female warrior" - she is brilliant at archery and has a particularly knack for survival. Luckily, this is also justified within story (thus making sure that it isn't simply a matter of Katniss being perfect at everything, though it can occasionally feel like that), but there is no denying that Katniss fits a familiar mold.

The problem isn't the "female warrior" trope. The problem is that pesky matter of the "strong female character", and what that has become. In an attempt to even the scoreboard between male and female characters in a lot of these genres, writers overcompensate and often make the women exaggeratedly masculine. Like Amy Rose Davis points out: you'll be hard-pressed to find a woman crying, or expressing an interest in anything outwardly feminine (except her male love interest, of course), or engaging in an active role that isn't fighting or learning with the guys or... you get the picture.

Writers aren't wrong, necessarily, to try to do this. It shows good effort. But now the time is past to have stock characters like these. Women in fantasy fiction (or, again, sci-fi, historical fiction, or contemporary fiction!) can be influential and interesting without having a sword in their hands. They can have feelings. They can be physically weak. They can, the gist of it is, be real women.

The problem is that the opposite end of the spectrum is both unappealing and subtly sexist: the passive female character. While there are certainly real-life cases of passive women, their presence in fiction is paved with sexism. Nobody really wants a character who doesn't push the story along, because that's what fiction is all about. In plot-driven tales, having a character around whom the story simply revolves without any effort on the character's part is... dull. What authors often do to counterbalance this is to have someone else be active. If it's the male lead, the female can quickly fall into the time-worn "passive princess" mold, and again: nobody really wants that.

There has got to be a balance. Readers will be able to come up with many of their own examples that go against these stereotypes, I know, but the problem is that the exceptions are just that: they are not the standard, and as exceptions they often only merge familiar molds and realistic traits. It's not wrong for women characters to fall in love and want to let their partner lead them, it's not wrong for women characters to be drawn into a more violent existence and prefer swordfighting to knitting. The problem is that there's no balance. There's no in-between. Many writers are simply too comfortable sticking to what's familiar, and that's what needs to change.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Unreliable facts | Maternity Home

I've spent the past few days trying to muddle through my thoughts on the Israeli novel Maternity Home (בית היולדות). It's a weird book, made weirder by its odd juxtaposition of fact, psychological studies, and completely false manipulations. It's got the strangest pacing of any book I've read in a long time, and though it takes almost 300 pages (out of... 300 pages) to get to the dramatic revelations that are easily predicted early in the book (specifics aside), a subtle tense vibe kept me mostly in suspense until the end of the book.

It's this odd balance of reality and complete non-reality that makes me suspect that Maternity Home is not a good book. I couldn't shake off the feeling that author Daria Maoz (who has a PhD in sociology and anthropology) was telling the truth at all times, despite the fact that I knew that a lot of the "facts" were simply manipulative brain-washing.

There is also a matter of marketing and genre definition. It's hard to explain without spoiling the end (which I would rather not do, despite the fact that I highly doubt this book will ever be translated into English...), but suffice to say that there's a rather inevitable twist at the novel's end. This twist does more than simply cast doubt on many of the so-called facts listed throughout the book, it calls into question the entire premise and genre of it. Maternity Home, in the space of a few out-of-place pages, transforms into a novel of a very different sort. I'm not surprised it hasn't been a particularly good seller.

But I cannot deny that I was extremely invested in Maternity Home. For all its flaws (namely the blurring of the fact-fiction line and the glibly told lies), it's an interesting book revolving around a fascinating subject: motherhood. Even through the veil of unreliability and mystery, the novel's focus on three women who have just gone through the "traumatic experience of giving birth" (as the doctors in the titular maternity home so often refer to it) is wonderfully informative. The carefully constructed manipulations, while creepy and disturbing enough, grow as the novel progresses. It's a gradual flip as the veil is pulled back slowly slowly, until it is finally whipped off within the final pages.

Overall I did gain much from reading Maternity Home. It's a curious genre-bending book that focuses on a subject that most fiction completely shies away from, offering a surprisingly blunt view of new motherhood. Even if I were to ignore the strangeness of the book, its setting, its premise, and its twist, it would remain interesting. Unfortunately, its own unreliability swings back: I may be better for having read Maternity Home, but I do not think it's the sort of book I'll be able to easily recommend. If at all.