Wednesday, July 28, 2010

We should be discussing more than the blurb

Something that recently made the rounds is the blurb author Nicole Krauss attached to David Grossman's forthcoming novel, "To the End of the Land", first published in Israel in 2008. Bloggers and readers find the quote over-done, and even the Guardian finds the whole situation rather ludicrous, making a game out of it (or, as they call it, an "outblurb" challenge).

But we should be discussing more than the blurb. We should be discussing the book.

"To the End of the Land" doesn't really deserve this bad press. When first published in Israel, it was more than just a bestseller - it was a fairly monumental part of the daily culture. Popular books in Israel are split according to origin - abroad and home-grown. Here was a home-grown author, though, that went beyond simple bestseller. Grossman is known for more than just his books. He's known for his politics, and even for the fact that his son was killed in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict. "To the End of the Land", contrary to popular belief, was not written following the death of Grossman's son. Though it looks at many subjects through a lens that fits this theory, Grossman even discusses in interviews the fact that the book was conceived long before his son was killed. And, he adds in the interview, the manuscript wasn't edited afterward either. The book itself is complex and difficult to describe, even more so when taking into account culture differences between Israel and the rest of the world. And all this without getting into stylistic issues (or topics, to be more diplomatic).

Reading "To the End of the Land" is a bit like cheating at all times, because you can't, can't disconnect yourself from Grossman's reality. It's hard to read this book without looking at Grossman's personal story and taking something from it. This works well for some people. For others, less so. For me, reading Grossman's book was a little like an attempt at rock-climbing, trying to swallow this tome in large gulps, when really it should have been treated with more care. It was letting Grossman slide with stylistic things (like an incredibly abrupt, teetering-at-the-edge-of-a-cliff-seconds-before-falling ending), accepting things that might normally seem a little "out there". It was suspending belief for 600 pages, and coming down to earth feeling like something really had changed.

I would not define "To the End of the Land" as a book entirely built on one clear story. It's built of small stories that define characters, these little vague entries in a larger story that make up life. Easily split into two parts (the first presents youthful characters, while the second revisits these children middle-aged), the bridge between the two parts is, again, abrupt. Even awkward. It's hard to shift gears so suddenly in the midst of a story, but once passing that hurdle... the book is good. Good like most of Grossman's writing is. Good like you'd expect from literature. Just... good.

When Krauss writes that the book touches your essence, she's taking a serious point too far. "To the End of the Land" did affect me. Reading it caused me to shift my point of view just a little, to look at certain subjects from a slightly different angle. It made me appreciate aspects of my life, educated me a bit more about Israeli history (though rather subtly), and got me so into the lives of these characters. That's what a book is supposed to do, and Grossman does it well.

I wasn't thrilled with the translation of Grossman's "Someone to Run With" (a good book in its own right, but translated somewhat sloppily), but Jessica Cohen's work flows in a manner that seems much closer to the original (and is altogether more satisfactory). It's a book that's hard to classify. On the one hand, I didn't exactly love it: it has flaws such as the abruptness, such as vagueness, such as the occasional awkwardness... On the other hand, it's not a book I see myself getting rid of so easily. I have grown quite attached to it and someday when I revisit it, I suspect I shall learn quite a bit.

Don't judge this book by its bland, rather ugly cover. And don't judge it by the "over-wrought" quote. Judge it by Grossman's incredible writing talent, by the cultural importance, the historical context regarding Israel, and by the wonderful way Grossman builds a world out of a small cast of characters. This is not a cheerful romp through flowered fields (as the current Amazon cover indicates) - it's a rather bleak view of life.

"To the End of the Land" does not deserve ridicule for a poorly picked blurb, but rather deserves serious discussion for its literary merit. I hope this has helped.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Amazon review of the week

This one is entertaining with no additional comment. Reviewer "Mao Ze Dong" writes a review for "The Amulet of Samarkand":

London needs more communism in that book. In other words, the book really sucked.

Friday, July 16, 2010

...but you have

I firstly want to thank all readers who commented on my recent post about "The Passage" - a book I have not read, but apparently, the vast majority of readers have. The responses are varied and fascinating, and I feel this subject deserves further discussion.

Most of you don't think "The Passage" is sci-fi. A few examples of other "non sci-fi" comparison books were offered, books like "The Road" or "The Stand", books that are described as "post-apocalyptic" or "horror". While horror may fall into its own category, post-apocalyptic or dystopian novels do, in my mind, fall under the vast science fiction genre. This explains why I keep seeing people explicitly excluding science-fiction from the description of "The Passage" - we have different definitions of science fiction. This makes a lot more sense now.

Another somewhat recurring sentiment is that the book can be split into sections with different genres. This is really interesting to me, mostly because I never think to divide books like this. And, again, it further explains the gap between my mentality and the majority. By dividing the book into sections, readers see parts without any obvious science fiction as purely "literary" or horror, or romance, therefore explaining the fact that this book is many genres in one.

And a lot more fascinating thoughts you raised. Thanks to all who commented - though I'm not fully convinced that "The Passage" does not technically belong to the sci-fi genre, I do realize that everyone looks at things differently, and ultimately the genre shouldn't be defining the book quite as much as I assumed it to be. I do, however, get the impression, that "The Passage" is a good book. That should probably be enough.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Vintage, California

I read "The Grapes of Wrath" on a summer visit to an Eastern European country, an apt setting for this novel. Alongside the grim stories are beautifully written chapters about nature and land. The book went well with the corn fields flying by.

I reread it perhaps a month or two later. I was worried that my impression of the book had been altered by the way I'd read it, something not unheard of. The experience was, indeed, quite different, but actually more positive. Since then, I've only ever reread two very specific parts of Steinbeck's novel and have largely ignored the rest.

The first revisited part is, unsurprisingly, the end. At the risk of spoiling the book for those who haven't read it, I won't go into what exactly it is about the ending that called me back again and again. Just know that it's a good ending. At first I didn't like it. Even before I reread the whole novel, this one scene, these last few pages kept pulling me back in, first in annoyance, and later, growing respect and appreciation. Each revisit explained something new and made me like the book a little more.

The other part is at once more complicated and simpler. As I mentioned earlier, "The Grapes of Wrath" has descriptive chapters amidst the meat of the book. These are beautiful "literary" chapters, ignoring real characters and looking at nature and at the land. These are chapters to build the world, adding a level of descriptive depth to it.

Chapter 25 epitomizes this. This chapter lends the book its name and stands as some of the single greatest writing I've ever read. From its pure, idyllic opening ("The spring is beautiful in California."), to the title-giving final line ("In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage."), it travels the state and sums up much of the story indirectly.

These two snapshots don't make up the book. In fact, they paint a picture of a completely different type of novel, one that focuses too much, perhaps, on the aesthetic qualities of words and less their meaning. Now, a few years later, they serve as an excellent reminder that I liked this book, and this (coupled with how well "The Grapes of Wrath" grew on me) proves that I must revisit it. Preferably soon.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

I have not read this book

Following the massive buzz surrounding South African stadiums--er, Justin Cronin's incredibly well-publicized book "The Passage"-- I have found myself reading many, many reviews of the book. Most are positive. Some are not. But one book blogger sentiment that seems to crop up again and again is that the book has an "undefined" genre, that it's a difficult book to classify. Finally curious to know a reader's take on the matter, I posed to the question to Rachel of "A home between the pages", who kindly responded in full. The response:
It’s difficult to understand why I would say that it doesn’t fall into a category if you haven’t read it, and I can see how, with the plot synopses out there, why it would be easy to say it’s strictly sci-fi. The problem with that is that, yes, it does have elements of sci-fi or paranormal, but there are elements of literary fiction, romance, fantasy, scientific drama (think Michael Crichton), history, horror and many more. I think because Cronin’s background is in literary fiction, there’s depth to the writing and to the characters that’s unexpected and unusual for a straight sci-fi novel. There are things about it on the surface that would place it in sci-fi, but it bends that genre so drastically that it’s hard to keep it with two feet planted under just that umbrella.

I understand that not every buzzy book is going to be a hit for everyone. But I caution people from staying away from a book just because of the buzz. Everyone will read the same book differently, and this is certainly outside my normal comfort realm, but for me, it paid off. Even going by the official definitions of sci-fi — good sci-fi — I still think it’s a good book. I loved it, and that doesn’t change just because of the genre it may or may not fall into.


Elements of romance, "literary" fiction, etc. - these things do not disqualify a book from being science fiction. There is no contradiction. Depth to characters and writing... also not contradictory to the genre science fiction. And as I discovered in Sci-Fi Month, the science fiction genre covers just about everything.

I can't really discuss the book because I haven't read it, but something about this response seems to come from the wrong angle. It's as though (and I interject here to invite any and all other interpretations, especially those of the author) to justify the popularity, one has to distance the book from the "standard" sci-fi genre. Yet what exactly does that mean? Elements of horror, romance, deep characters... this all still sounds strictly sci-fi, but as though to detract me from ignoring the book (because the label "sci-fi" is still something bad to many readers...), readers who themselves would have otherwise ignored the book find themselves calling it genre-bending. And of course, I may be entirely wrong.

But I can't shake this feeling that the reason this book defies genre isn't really because it's actually falls into multiple genres (very possibly because I've grown to believe that most genres blend together and are virtually indistinguishable - a different topic for another day), but because publicists (and subsequently, bloggers, readers, reviewers, etc.) do not want it defined. The term "science fiction" doesn't do much for the intended audience, especially when it has grown to mean much more than its official, you know, genre.

Rachel's response indicates this as well. There is an impression that once labeled "sci-fi", "The Passage" will also be labeled as "not for general public", as though describing the book as precisely what it is will deter readers. I am curious to hear more views on the matter from readers of the book, and from those like me who have only read numerous reviews. There are so many reviews and thoughts on this book that it's hard to keep track, but it could be that I'm wrong in my impression, and that I entirely misunderstood Rachel's response. I open the floor for discussion.