Sunday, November 30, 2014

Yes, you really should read Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan series

If you're a reader of literature in translation (and let's be real - even if you're just a reader of good quality literature), chances are you've heard quite a bit about Elena Ferrante, her mysterious identity, and the wonders of the Neapolitan series. The books - which begin with My Brilliant Friend - are well written, interesting, emotionally engaging and ultimately extremely satisfying. As a series, they ascribe less to the idea that each book should stand on its own, rather each volume flows into the next with only quiet thematic markers to distinguish the books.

I read the three volumes currently available in English fairly one after the other. All three novels - My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (all brilliantly translated by Ann Goldstein, and kindly provided to me courtesy of the publisher) - end with quiet sorts of cliffhangers. Nothing that will leave you screaming at the page, nothing on the level of the awful non-ending that The Subtle Knife had (probably my least favorite ending to a book ever), nothing that will leave you gasping with its audacity... but cliffhangers nonetheless. Ferrante excels at making the reader truly feel for her main characters (Elena the narrator, and her best friend Lila), and in this sense any emotional turmoil that these girls/women go through, the reader goes through as well. My feeling is that Ferrante chooses to cut the story off at these specific emotional peaks which represent the tone-shifts that occur for the next book, as random as they may seem before continuing onwards to the next tome.

There's not a lot I can say about the plot without ruining the story. Since this is a 100% spoiler-free review for the three first books (book 4 is due out in about a year from now), I don't even want to refer to specific characters or large-scale events that within each novel, even if they don't seem particularly revealing within that context. And so I'll give the generic story idea that those who haven't read the book have likely already heard: the Neapolitan books tell of two girls, Elena and Lila, following them from early childhood to later life. Elena and Lila are a cross between best friends, competitors, and enemies: they love each other fiercely, but recognize the occasionally toxic nature their relationship takes on.

And so it's not too far a stretch to point out that the Neapolitan series doesn't actually have much of a plot. There is a story, yes, but it's not the sort of beginning-middle-end plotting that your middle-school teacher taught you to look for. The books are written on an epic scale, tracing the lives of far more people than just Elena and Lila (indeed, the story looks much more broadly at the cultural and social shifts occurring in Italy at the time, with the two girls serving as a very good anchor). It's this sort of writing that makes it difficult to point to a specific single topic or idea that the books deal with. All three books are big and varied and focused and generic.

There are a few points I'd like to touch on specifically that don't relate to the plot. First of all, I found the progression of the political discussion in the books to be fascinating. I was (unsurprisingly) particularly interested to see how and when the issue of feminism began to crop up. This rather gentle thematic growth ultimately gave me a lot to think about in the context of modern feminism (and modern political discourse), and I quite enjoyed it.

There is also the matter of the book titles. As silly as this may seem, I love the titles. I love how they reflect the stories, I love how they don't, I love what they say about how we could (and perhaps should?) be interpreting the stories, and ultimately I love how the fit together. (I'll admit that I do not like how they look on the shelf, but this is because the print on the spine of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is bolded while none of the other Europa Editions are and it drives me a little nuts)

There's a lot more to say about Ferrante. You've probably heard much of it. Her writing is clear and draws you in. These are not books easily set aside. The characters feel disturbingly real. Emotions are high without being smothering. This is good writing. I'm not sure if I've enjoyed the Neapolitan series more than the tightly intense The Days of Abandonment, but I've definitely enjoyed the books and I'm definitely eagerly awaiting the fourth title. I have ideas about themes and characters that I would love to discuss in spoiler filled reviews (another time), but for now let me say this to those of you who have not read these books yet: Read them. Ferrante's fame is well-deserved, and I promise that you will not be disappointed.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

History across borders - The Twins | Review

Tessa de Loo's The Twins (tr. Ruth Levitt) was another one of those unexpected women in translation finds - I checked it out of the library largely because it had seemed like the most interesting random find of the day. And indeed, the book was both "interesting" and "unexpected" - the latter because of my embarrassingly low expectations of the book (something I'm trying to correct through this project), and the former because the book really does tackle quite a bit.

The Twins has a standard enough literary premise: twin sisters Anna and Lotte are orphaned as young girls in the 1920s and separated, one staying in Germany and the other crossing the border into Dutch territory. The two meet again unexpectedly in a Belgian resort as old women, after decades of disconnect. Just from the initial framing, you could guess where the story is headed, but de Loo doesn't bother to be coy about her story's intentions. Instead of vague, false-subtleties leading up to the war, Anna and Lotte address the schism that the war created right off the bat. Lotte - Dutch at heart, with few memories of her original father and life before her second family - views Anna suspiciously from the start.

This bluntness provides the story with much needed breathing room, but also echoes some of the writing flaws in the book. While the writing is largely clean and engaging, there were moments where I hoped for a quieter story, something a little more subtle and thoughtful-behind-the-scenes. It's a creative choice that I didn't enjoy so much, though there's no doubt it made the story flow more comfortably, without the anxiety that most books of this kind have surrounding the war. It's also the safer choice, opting for a more uniformly enjoyable reading experience than one that challenges the reader directly.

de Loo seems to rely heavily on the frame story, to the point where I often wanted to shake her grip on it. We are subject to a number of descriptions of Anna and Lotte walking through town, shivering, sitting down to eat, sitting down to drink, rehashing what was just told in the flashback... These emphasize the problems with flashback narratives, because as interesting as the frame was at times (largely through Anna's strange status as an anti-hero, and Lotte's constant acquiescence), it didn't hold up.

The frame - as well as the story itself, to a lesser degree - succeeds in showing the reader how easy it is to "forgive and forget". Anna progresses from half-apologies about German "involvement" in the war to emphatically arguing that her SS husband was not actually SS, he did not believe in it, he was not at fault. Anna is a mouthpiece for a Germany at war with itself - she is contradictory, passionate, aware of her mistakes, but also remembers her virtues more clearly. Lotte, meanwhile, spends a large part of the frame arguing this point with Anna, at times baffled by her victimization and disgusted by her nonchalance.

In the flashback sections, we grow to understand both these women. Lotte - with her problematic but ultimately whole family - risks everything to take in Jewish friends and refugees. Lotte is a representation of Dutch resistance, of a musical Europe in which Jewish fiances get taken away and in which a family hides more and more Jews in their countryside home. Anna represents poverty and rejection - her traumatic childhood with abusive family coupled with her simultaneous dislike of the Nazis and later complacency echoes a Germany at large. It's a clever way to tell the stories of larger countries, while making each seem sympathetic within the context of their personal avatar, despite being largely unsympathetic on a personal level.

The Twins thus ends up being a much more interesting World War II narrative than you'd expect. It's a fairly accessible sort of book, with writing and framing geared towards a broad audience (again - safer), but it's not poorly written. There's a solid flow to the story, and both Lotte and Anna end up fully fleshed characters (if problematic ones on an internal level). I will note that I found the ending to be an unnecessary cop-out (particularly if viewed through the representative lens I mentioned above), and a cheap way to end any story. Altogether though, the book is interesting, thought-provoking, and written from a refreshing point of view (how often are women stand-ins for a whole country?). The Twins may not be a seminal literary work or the most brilliant war novel I've ever read, but it does something nonetheless unique with a fairly stock setting and is worth thinking about.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

If Roxane Gay is a "Bad Feminist", what am I? | Thoughts

I am a feminist.

This is not news to anyone who reads this blog. At least, it shouldn't be. I talk about feminism all the time. Feminism is important! Many people are feminists, even if they don't realize it, just because the word "feminism" carries with it so much baggage.

Roxane Gay seems aware of this. In the introduction to Bad Feminist, she discusses the unfair standard to which we hold feminism, writing: "When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement." With this sentence (so early in the book), I was hooked. "Roxane Gay gets me," I said aloud. I read the quote to those sitting around me. I started to read more quickly, more excitedly.

And then... everything started to come apart.

So many readers recommended Bad Feminist so convincingly. I knew ahead of time that Gay's writing was supposed to be conversational and casual, that her feminism is modern, accepting and scattered. The publisher blurb (which is not actually found anywhere on the book, because why) has a quote in which Gay describes how she likes pink, so of course that makes her a "bad feminist". I was supposed to be all over this book (even though I really should have known otherwise, because why should liking pink make you a bad feminist?). This, after all, is a book by the woman who writes in the introduction that she's a bad feminist because she never wanted to be on the "Feminist Pedestal", a sentiment I not only agree with wholeheartedly, but have never found the words for. This is the writer who wrote succinctly: "I disavowed feminism because when I was called a feminist, the label felt like an insult. In fact, it was generally intended as such." All of this in the introduction.

Alas, it turns out that the Roxane Gay who wrote the introduction and the Roxane Gay who wrote the rest of the essays in this collection are two different women, with contradictory takes on feminism and some pretty awful pieces.

So I'll start by being as blunt as possible: I hated much of Bad Feminist. Not disliked, not "didn't enjoy", not just "was disappointed by". No. I hated a good chunk of this collection. To start with, it's a bad collection: these essays are largely disconnected, unrelated and have no flow, coming almost verbatim from whatever website they were originally posted to in 2013. Bad Feminist doesn't actually have a strong central thesis, making the whole book feel a little worthless - why not just track down the original posts? The essays themselves are often out of place as well - much as I enjoy a good story about Scrabble (and I actually did like that anecdote quite a bit), it doesn't belong in a feminist text. Whoops, sorry, no.

Some essays, it's true, flow into each other remarkably well. Altogether, a few paint an important portrait of Gay herself. There were moments where this became powerfully central, like in "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence". Gay has references to her own life and experiences in surrounding essays that give further meaning to her discussion of sexual violence. Moments like those made Bad Feminist feel like a legitimate whole, with a quiet continuity and consistency. Had the whole book been like this, the review you're reading now may have been very, very different.

Yet "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence" also exemplifies all too well another aspect of the book that I seriously did not like: a total lack of citations. Gay at some point criticizes another feminist critic for referencing bad sources and statistics. That's a good, worthwhile point that is demolished by the fact that Bad Feminist contains zero sources, citations, references or even link suggestions of any kind. When Gay discusses gang rape in "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence", I have no doubt that someone has researched the fact that the victim's "reproductive system is often damaged" and that they have "a higher chance of miscarrying a pregnancy". These are almost certainly true facts. However, Gay loses credibility by not citing the research. Writing something loosely like this may be good enough for a blog post (and even then, I'm realizing that it's always better to link to sources than assume your readers are familiar with the research), but it's not good enough for a wide-release book publication.

This hope for a more critical approach is likely a problem in my own expectations than a flaw in Gay's writing, however I cannot pretend that it didn't disappoint me. Gay is a critic, yet she seems to utterly avoid any chance for real, hard-hitting criticism. Most of the essays provide little more than entry-level understanding of the subject. Many readers have praised Bad Feminist to the sky for this trait, but I find myself thoroughly unimpressed: there's a way to write critically about pop culture, and Roxane Gay just isn't doing it.

The topics frustrated me as well. Beyond the fact that there was little here I wasn't familiar with (again, Gay rarely goes beyond surface level exploration), Gay and I seem to have opposing views on many, many issues. Her essay on weight (and how to write about being overweight) actually disgusted me, not simply because of how sloppily written it is. The essay skips between legitimate criticism, personal storytelling and a discussion of how modern culture looks at fat people. Gay simultaneously talks about how it's bad to judge, while judging every aspect of the author and the character of the book she's referencing, referring to the fact that "no one who shops at Lake Bryant or the Avenues or Catherines is going to feel empathy for someone who is thirty pounds overweight". The entire essay is extraordinarily reductive, and I actually wanted to punch the book while reading it.

There's also the little issue of spoilers. I'm a fair believer in spoiler alerts, mostly because it's unfair to expect everyone to have been exposed to the exact same pop culture as other people. I also do not object to people discussing plot points at length when properly pointed out (hey, it's part of criticism!). Yet Gay opts for the mix - she spoils endings and character development and everything about certain books, without ever considering that what she's doing might be, oh, wrong. It was extremely frustrating, and it's just sloppy. Again, this might be good enough for a Jezebel blog post, but it's not good enough for a print-and-bound book that I paid $16 for.

It boils down to two main concepts: One is of the content, writing and editing - the technical matters which I felt had issues (and content, of course, includes personal disagreements - this is a feminist text, after all). The other is of how the book was presented. Truthfully, I am not so impressed by the mere fact that Gay is tackling pop culture in her criticism. Not because I feel that there's something inherent about "lowbrow" culture that excludes it from criticism, but rather the exact opposite. I have never believed in the sort of highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy that Gay perpetuates in these essays. She repeatedly points out how lowbrow X is a guilty pleasure, but that doesn't stop her from being a good literary critic (something which, again, I'm not convinced of after reading this collection). Gay flaunts herself as a rule-breaker (her publishers seem to agree), but she sticks very closely to the original definitions of low/highbrow and doesn't challenge them in any meaningful way. To be perfectly blunt, I've read lowbrow criticism on Tumblr that's at least 50 times better than the ostensibly intellectual approach Gay takes (which is actually extremely shallow and, dare I say it, timid).

I really, really disliked Bad Feminist, and it has taken me many months to come out and say this. I respect that readers will have different opinions, and I am well aware that Roxane Gay is considered one of the foremost feminist critics at the moment. The point of this review is simply to say that I disagree with Gay on too many points to be able to call Bad Feminist a remotely worthwhile text. I have read other essays of hers that angered me as much as Bad Feminist did (most noteworthy was her recent Guardian essay about who should be allowed to advocate for feminism, an article which not only made my blood boil, but made me wonder if Gay even recognizes how utterly contrary to feminism much of her "criticism" is), and I have simply concluded that while Gay and I agree on the basic ideas of feminism - namely that it should exist, that there should be a greater discussion of issues such as equal rights (whether in gender, race, sexuality, etc.), that women's "issues" need to be treated with the same gravitas we treat men's, etc etc etc - we fundamentally disagree on the details of these issues, and on many other topics that surround feminism. Gay furthermore writes from a purely American perspective of the world, a narrowing that I simply will not accept from a movement that should be defined by its global-ness.

So here it is. The review that took over a month to write, in which I cannot go into as much detail as I'd like about what angered me so much (without writing a feminist manifesto myself), in which I mostly am trying to explain why I feel that Gay is a mediocre literary critic (at best), in which I recognize that many readers I respect and admire will so violently disagree with me that we may never speak again. Goodness knows I've received some harsh feedback on my negative reviews in the past, but I don't recall ever coming this close to criticizing the writer - this is the main problem with reviewing nonfiction, unfortunately. But I feel it's important to share my thoughts on Bad Feminist. I'm curious to know what other readers feel about my disagreements with Gay, and how they interpreted the book. I doubt that I will ever come to love this collection, but I may be more forgiving of its flaws and focus on the handful of worthwhile moments, far and few between as they may be.