Monday, March 30, 2009

Poetry of lyrics

I'm not much of a poetry fan or poet, but there's a charm to reading poems every once in a while. Literature seems, somehow, to include poetry in it. The Guardian writes about poems about as often as it writes about novels. Some poems are actually books (I'm looking at you, Homer), long epics that tell a story in rhymes (often lost in translation). And don't get me started on the poetry translation theory. But as I was rereading my favorite Shakespeare sonnet the other day, I was struck by the opening line which was what had made it my favorite in the first place:
Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly?
Right. So not remarkable on its own, but something there is interesting. A poem (a sonnet, no less) starts out with reference to something very closely related to poetry: music. These days, poetry publications are fairly rare. People made a big deal of someone reading a poem at the presidential inauguration. There isn't much of a culture for poetry. It's not really taught in school, and if it is, it's done in a very boring way. And yet poetry is not dead. Sylvia Plath, poet and novelist, is still famous. And not simply for the incredible "The Bell Jar", but also (mostly) for her poetry. Indeed, even her early poetry is enough to make readers sit back and shiver a little:

The mindless April leaves heave sighs
And twirl in aimless sarabandes.
My fingers curl and clutch the sky;
Green blood flows in green-veined hands.

This is a snippet but it leaves an impression. Either I'm woefully uninformed (also an ominous sign) or the standard form of poetry is going out of style. Exit Shelley (Percy, beautiful poems), enter music. Lyrics, to be more precise. The last few years have seen a rise in story-like songs, songs with impressive word choices and clever games. As music styles themselves develop, so do the lyrics that accompany them. Some bands tell stories clearly with nothing particularly complex. Others choose to literally put poetry to music. I can think of many songs with very special lyrics. An example:
To dress up your wounds
Wash off the salt
Freshen the blooms
At your sea-rusted altar
While simple, this chorus from "Fire Snakes" (Laura Veirs) has an underlying poetic feel to it. Most of her songs do. This is just one example for this kind of music-driven poetry. And it seems English teachers are catching on. So while there are hundreds of poem-songs out there, some better than others (apologies to all the great lyrics that couldn't fit in this post today; the draw was entirely random), it's interesting to see the not-so-stark comparisons between these "poems" and Shakespeare, who instead wondered why we listen to music sadly. Anyone with specific poetic songs are welcome to leave bring them up.

And let's not forget: Croatian, Hebrew, and Slovenian all use the same word to mean both "song" and "poem".

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Amazon review of the week

"Richard K. Woodward", reviewing Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge" (edited out slight spoiler, otherwise complete):
See the film with Bill Murray instead The Razor's Edge. This book is so pretentious and over-written I had to finally put it down after making it halfway through... What Maugham says with five pages, Bill Murray says with a sentence, a gesture or a facial expression.
A man is entitled to his opinion, and apparently here he believes that the movie far exceeds the book. Just for the sheer originality of such a sentiment, this review should be touted, regardless of whether or not I agree (I don't agree, by the way). Woodward's review (as the sole 1-star review) shows not idiotic disregard, but rather a sincere feeling that the book was lacking. Even if I don't agree with it, I do need to respect that he chose to express it. And even be thankful that he did.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Huxley conundrum

I few months ago, I posted some thoughts on Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London", a book I thought deserved more than just fame as having been written by Mr. Orwell. Now I do the same for an author often compared to Orwell - Aldous Huxley.

In the list of books we tend to lie about, even unrelated books such as "The Selfish Gene" and "Dreams From My Father" trumped the famous "Brave New World", while the book often viewed to be its rival, "1984", reigned supreme. Huxley's novel was published years before Orwell's, yet despite being better written, more coherent, enjoyable, and all-out better, it is "1984" that time and time again gets the fame. Perhaps unjustly.

How so? Well, I've now read 3 Huxley novels and 3 Orwell novels, two dystopia types among both. Even where Huxley flubs on fluid writing, he brings forth fascinating thoughts and complex ideas ("Island"). And where he ignores plot, he instead brings forth clever, delightful writing, bringing readers to the heart of characters' lives ("Point Counterpoint"). I was originally frustrated by "Point Counterpoint"'s lack of plot, but after now finishing "Island", I think it's part of Huxley's inconsistencies as a writer. Yes, both books were enjoyable reads (though "Island" took a bit of time to plod through), but neither held a candle, in my mind, to the brilliance and wit of "Brave New World".

But where is "Brave New World"? I hadn't even heard of it until I was maybe 15 years old, but I'd heard my entire life about George Orwell and "1984". I read the two books in the same month and was immediately struck by how Orwell's writing was heavy-handed and dull, but Huxley's managed to suck me straight into the book. Later, when I asked others, they agreed - "1984" could have done with a good edit and "Brave New World" was the better book.

Does this mean Huxley is not recognized? Hardly. He is clearly known for his writing, most especially for "Brave New World". And while Orwell should, in my mind, be judged by every book other than "1984", Huxley should be judged by "Brave New World", clearly the best of his books that I've read so far.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why review?

Two weeks ago, I read the interesting if somewhat lacking Economist article about online book reviews. It's got some important points but unlike most Economist articles, it probably could have had a little more in the way of depth. Like, say, having actually spoken with Amazon or online reviewers. Still, in the comments, reader Matt Rhodes provides a link to another article that goes into much more depth:
There are a number of reasons people might write a review:
  1. They are paid to do so (as per the recent case of Belkin hiring people to rate their products five star)
  2. They are forced to do so in order to gain some other incentive (TopTable requires you to rate restaurants you have been to in order to gain points for their loyalty scheme)
  3. They write reviews to increase their standing in a community (where, perhaps more reviews give them more credibility or access to more features in the online community)
  4. They write reviews because they want to look good / impressive / intelligent amongst their peers
  5. They write reviews because they had benefit from some and they want others to benefit in the same way from their advice
  6. They write reviews because they have something to say

This concise list looks a little frightening to book reviewers, at least at first. For instance, the concept of writing positive online reviews because somebody paid you: Many online reviewers, bloggers or otherwise, get books for free from publishers. Some see this as a form of "buying off the reviewer" (mild rant here). I occasionally get ARCs but have never written a review that didn't completely and accurately represent my opinions. Still, a few reviewers and bloggers have confessed to occasionally bluffing their reviews because they felt bad about expressing their true opinions.

Yet most of us write reviews because of that last single bullet point, which the article agrees with. Reviews are also deemed important from an economic perspective. The article goes into depth about the effectiveness and importance of leaving reviews better than I can; it's quite interesting. Ultimately, while my 3501th review of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" (I haven't reviewed it specifically) may not make a profound difference, if it gives me the feeling that it might somehow help one single reader, I've done my job.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Translation roundup

Many of the books I read are translations from other languages. I think almost everybody reads a lot of translations, after all. Some of the "great classics" come from other languages. I, meanwhile, have simply spent the last few years trying to read as much literature from different corners of the earth, regardless of the language or translation. Still, as I contemplated reading the next Zola Les Rougon-Macquart novel, I thought of how modern and casual the previous ones (translated by different people, but the same publishers) had felt. This stayed on my mind as I read Literary License's post about the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I then also encountered the equally interesting Three Percent award for best translated book. All this coupled with the most interesting article from Three Percent (again) about an interesting Diversity Report was enough to raise a few questions regarding translations.

I always hear people talking about the new translations of "War and Peace" but I read the oldest one and it went fine. Dennis Drabelle at Short Stack complains about precisely this, arguing that there are too many other, good books that go ignored. Among them, the recent talk of the town, is "Every Man Dies Alone", (published in Britain as "Alone in Berlin"), which though published in German in 1947, was only just translated and published in English. It's a situation that has baffled many readers and many complained - loudly - about having been denied this book for so long.

And yet we've somehow entered the murkier waters which Three Percent led us to. Books are mainly translated from English. Yes, obviously a number of other language books get their moment in the sun every once in a while ("The Shadow of the Wind" was remarkably popular last year for a Spanish novel) but for the most part it's English speakers who get the fame and glory from writing. Awards that showcase translated books don't plead a better case. After all, if the book wasn't translated into English, the book wouldn't qualify. Thousands of gems must be passed over every year simply because the authors weren't born lucky enough to be native English speakers. Meanwhile, just about every remotely popular English (language) novel gets translated into dozens of languages. It's not nice to think of.

No, I cannot help the fact that I'm an English speaker. I can boast that I speak other languages as well (and do occasionally read in them), but I cannot deny that I read my Tolstoy in English. There will always be excellent books that will fall through the cracks. It's a sad fact. But it's sadder still to know that the reason for this originates from a slightly Anglocentric (again, in terms of the language) view of modern literature. I await my copy of "Every Man Dies Alone" knowing that it's spent fifty years with a wide German speaking audience, but little global recognition. Three Percent's description of translations "like a wealth pyramid" don't help the gloom either. All and all, these make for interesting articles and thoughts. Together, they paint a bleak picture of today's literary world.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

NYT and "Thirteen Reasons Why"

Thanks to Jay Asher's amusing and interesting blog, I was linked to this New York Time's article. I can't express particularly well how "Thirteen Reasons Why" made me feel. Some dismiss it as a "teen" book and I know many adults feel uncomfortable with the subject. Some people don't even like the book. That's okay. I encountered a review in which the reviewer complained of the at times whiny nature of the second narrator. And yet I feel there's something very important hiding in "Thirteen Reasons Why". The NYT article phrases it well (emphasis added by me):
With its thrillerlike pacing and scenes of sexual coercion and teenage backbiting, the novel appeals to young readers, who say the book also gives them insight into peers who might consider suicide. “I think the whole message of the book is to be careful what you do to people, because you never know what they’re going through,” said Christian Harvey, a 15-year-old sophomore at Port Charlotte High School in Port Charlotte, Fla. “You can really hurt somebody, even with the littlest thing.”
The NYT article is interesting to view also in terms of the difficulties authors must face in terms of publishing their books. Still, at its core, the article is about "Thirteen Reasons Why", a book that is finally perhaps getting the attention it deserves. The rise has been slow but steady. It's always interesting to see when schools adjust their reading lists to include new books (summer lists are most informative), but unlike simply good books which get a lot of rap, "Thirteen Reasons Why" is, in my mind, important. Yes, there are enough teen suicide stories out there, but none, I feel, reach the same level of clarity and importance that Asher's novel does. It's a book for boys and girls alike, teens and adults, readers and non-readers. Even as some don't appreciate it as I do, I think what's special about Asher's novel is that you leave it with a new understanding for a lot of things that you may never have thought of before. And that right there is why "Thirteen Reasons Why" deserves your attention.

Commenter Caite raises a good point I belatedly realize I should have mentioned. Those who don't like "Thirteen Reasons Why" feel, for the most part, that aspects of the suicidal premise put far too much blame on others. It's a valid point. Still, I personally found that this "blame game" ultimately adds to the story, as strange as that may sound. This is not a book to make readers feel good about themselves or about people in general. It's very human in that sense. I view this blame, which some dislike for its moral implications, as human in the same way. There is to a certain extent and need for interpretation with the book which can pull either way - one can see it as a real flaw that hurts, or one can see it as a whiny flawed character. In this regard, I cannot promise if you'll be one or the other and thus enjoy the book. I simply know that I did.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Parisian bookstore

For many readers, there's a certain magic to bookstores. It makes sense, after all. A bookstore is basically a huge room crammed with books. And while some have replaced this tangible bookstores with online stores, I think everyone can appreciate this story. It's a Parisian English bookstore (that sounds more contradictory than it is), one that "houses" writers and readers, and is home to a rich literary history. Jeanette Winterson for the Guardian:

Way back, in 1913, the original Shakespeare and Company was opened by a young American called Sylvia Beach. Her shop in rue de l'Odéon soon became the place for all the English-speaking writers in Paris. Her lover, Adrienne Monnier, owned the French bookstore across the road, and she and Beach ran back and forth, finding penniless writers a place to stay, lending them books, arranging loans, taking their mail, sending their work to small magazines and, most spectacularly, publishing James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922 when no one else would touch it.

Hemingway was a regular at the shop, and writes about it in his memoir A Moveable Feast. His spare, emotional prose makes a poignant story of those early days, when material things weren't so important, and if you could get time to read and write, and live on cheap oysters and coarse bread and sleep by a stove somewhere, then you were happy.

The theory of this alone should make Shakespeare and Company stand out. Presence to Hemingway, Joyce and Kerouac? This is a literal writer and reader's haven. In all honesty, this is rather like all those gadgets we secretly want but aren't willing to pay for - I'd fly to Paris just to enter this store, not least for the stacks of books. Then there's this passage from the Guardian article:
While there are plenty of readers who are not writers, there are no writers who are not readers, and one of the great gifts of this extraordinary bookshop is to keep writers and readers on the same creative continuum. Writers are not reduced to small-time semi-celebrities, and readers are not patronised as consumers. As Sylvia says, "We sell books for a living, but it's the books that are our life."
I rarely like linking and advertising without at least offering some new input, but this is just a story, and a nice one at that. And don't be fooled by the length either. This tale is well worth the time.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The liar within us

Are you a liar? Because if you are, this one's for you:

• 65% of people have lied about reading a book they haven’t, with 1984 being the most popular book to pretend to have read
• 41% of respondents confess to having turned to the last page to find out what happens before finishing a book
• 96% of people admit to staying up late to finish a book

George Orwell’s 1984 tops the list of books that people pretend they have read, in a survey carried out for World Book Day 2009 to uncover the nation’s guilty reading secrets. Of the 65% who claimed to have read a book which in truth they haven’t 42% admit to having said they had read modern classic 1984.

Those who lied have claimed to have read:

1. 1984 by George Orwell (42%)
2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (31%)
3. Ulysses by James Joyce (25%)
4. The Bible (24%)
5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (16%)
6. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (15%)
7. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (14%)
8. In Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust (9%)
9. Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama (6%)
10. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (6%)
This, courtesy of "Spread the Word" is (justifiably and unjustifiably) getting quite a bit of attention throughout the web. Both the Telegraph and the Guardian wrote interesting summaries; I'm sure many others have too and I've just missed them. Still, I like this paragraph from the Telegraph:
There are a number of ways to negotiate the minefield that is unread literature. The best recent guide, which, as you'd expect, I haven't read but skimmed, is Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. The author, a French university literature professor, divides books into those we are unfamiliar with, those we've glanced at, books we've heard about, and books we've read but forgotten. He recommends you bluff freely, skim novels if you want to and if you're challenged about an author you haven't read, just backtrack. But the beauty of the work, the Frenchness, resides in the fact that it's necessary at all. These are coping strategies for a culture which has certain canonical texts which, as Bayard claims, "it's practically forbidden not to have read". Don't you love that idea? I bet you anything the number of books you have to lie about is far longer there than here.
So here's what's interesting: People enjoy books by J.K. Rowling and John Grisham, but don't want to say. And on the other hand, they want to say they've read books like "1984" and "The Selfish Gene" (which, by the way, is the surest way to fall asleep... a most interesting book, but so amazingly boring). Some analyze this as a positive sign for the literary world. Someone mentioned how clearly this is a sign of how important reading is in our society, that we want to tout our knowledge and intelligence. Others find it a little weirder.

I find it a little weirder. While, sure, "War and Peace" is a great book (it's way more readable than it looks) and "1984" has its sparks of genius (even if it's pretty boring often), if someone hasn't read it, they shouldn't feel ashamed to the point of lying about it. I have read 2/3 of the Old Testament but I haven't read "Ulysses" (yet!). The two most surprising titles for me are "The Selfish Gene" (seriously?) and "Dreams From my Father" (they know the man's only been famous for about two years, right?), but this entire survey and the conclusions that emerge - that readers are very self-conscious about their reads - should give most readers quite a bit of food for thought. Should I be ashamed that I enjoy reading cheap fantasies or romances or law books? I'm actually throwing out examples here - I'm not a huge fan of romance. And if I am ashamed, does that mean I should specifically lie about it to make myself seem smarter?

A good solution is for everyone to read these "wish I'd read 'em" books so that they won't lie when asked about them. Another, simpler, solution is just to understand that each person has their own distinct, unique literary taste. Public perception shouldn't harm that. So what's the point of this survey? I don't know. Does it really say anything? I don't know.

And then, returning to the original survey, there are those "extra" stats. "96% of people admit to staying up late to finish a book." I was not aware that I needed to admit this. And as for the 41% who read the last page of a book to find out what happens before finishing? Another time.

Monday, March 2, 2009

And as for the adaptation?

It's been a week since the Oscars but the need to fully evaluate means that this entry is slightly delayed. Oh well. Still, after finally getting through Salman Rushdie's amazingly long rant on movie adaptations (and wow does somebody hate "Slumdog Millionaire"...), I wanted to add a few cents. Rushdie's ramble ends so:

Whole societies can lose their way through a process of bad adaptation. Striving to save themselves, they can oppress others. Hoping to defend themselves, they can damage the very liberties they believed to be under attack. Claiming to defend freedom, they can make themselves and others less free. Or, seeking to calm the violent hotheads in their midst, societies can try to appease them, and so give the violent hotheads the notion that their violence and hotheadedness is effective. Wishing to create better understanding between peoples, they can seek to prevent the expression of opinions unpalatable to some of their members, and so immediately make others even angrier than they were before.

Societies in motion, at a time of rapid change such as the present day, succeed, as all good adaptations do, by knowing what is essential, what cannot be compromised, what all their citizens must accept as the price of membership. For many years now, I'm sorry to say, we have lived through an era of bad social adaptations, of appeasements and surrenders on the one hand, of arrogant excesses and coercions on the other.

We can only hope that the worst is over, and that better movies, better musicals and better times lie ahead.

And these are the last three paragraphs (even the ending feels a bit long). Still, if someone has a lot of time to burn, go ahead and read the whole thing. It's interesting... in a boring way. That's not to say Rushdie doesn't say interesting and relevant things, though many have argued that his points are moot. Over at Read Street, Dave Rosenthal said, regarding similar quotes (made before the Guardian rant was published) by Rushdie:

It's fiction, remember? I do expect realistic fiction to be grounded -- I wouldn't want Puff the Magic Dragon to appear in Slumdog. But movie adapters get some license to keep the story moving. The criticisms leveled by Rushdie (at least those noted by the AJC) are so minor that they don't bother me -- not nearly as much as the depiction of Mumbai's sprawling slums.

Setting aside Rushdie's complaints about "Slumdog Millionaire" specifically, there are interesting points to be made in his 9 paged "article". Some wonderful works of art have emerged from adapting other works of art. Meanwhile, there are many, many cases where the adaptation butchered the original piece on which it was based. Rushdie is right to complain about recent adaptations on that count. It's a strange situation when a number of the more prolific and hyped movies of the decade are adaptations, whether from books, comics, or other movies.

Still, while numerous terrible movies have been made off of books, there are a lot of crowning jewels. I, for instance, am a big fan of "The Princess Bride", in book form and in movie form. I enjoy each immensely, recommend both, and find that the movie by no means ruins the book, even if it leaves out a lot of the quirkiness of the masterfully written book. It makes up for it by bringing its own charm, flair and personality.

Then there are books that have been "covered" so many times that it's gotten boring. Take "Pride and Prejudice", for instance. A classic example. The first adaptation, from 1940, is nothing like the book. Rich with anachronisms (the costumes are apparently the same from "Gone With the Wind" - speaking of movie adaptations...) and major character changes (Lady Catherine is nice), it's an example of an adaptation that actually changed the book. Then you watch the miniseries and you see something a little more realistic. The miniseries is a good adaptation - the 1940 version is not.

There are many examples where the adaptation is better known than the original ("Princess Bride" comes to mind again). Or where the adaptation is actually better than the original (Rushdie offers "Lord of the Rings" as an example for this). But rarely does a movie adaptation truly ruin the original. It'll raise awareness, yes, and if it's terrible, may keep potential readers away, but it rarely (if ever) makes those who have enjoyed it regret that feeling. Rushdie makes a few interesting, scattered points but sifting through this mess of a rant is a bit of a time-waster. And the adaptation debate will go on for a long time. Personally, I hope for an age where books have time to settle before they're instantly snapped for the big screen. I don't want to always feel rushed to read a book simply because four months after publication, it's already got a version out in theaters.