Saturday, April 30, 2011

Six months...

...since I last purchased a book. Until yesterday, when I finally caved in and bought two books at half price. Will the floodgates open?

Since I last purchased a new book, I've learned a few things about how to take the stress out of my reading. For instance, my appreciation for the books already resting on my shelves grew, as did my understanding of the wondrous spontaneity of a library find. I relaxed a lot more in terms of what books I read, partly because I didn't feel the crushing weight of new and old purchases bearing down on me, but also because I found myself reading a lot of good and diverse books.

For instance, since the start of 2011 (one month after the new regime began), 40% of the books I've read have been translated, representing 9 languages other than English. I've read three non-fiction titles (in all of 2010 I read only two titles... and one falls into the last month, when I'd already stopped purchasing new books), several science fiction and fantasy books (truth be told, A Song of Ice and Fire make up a good portion of the English titles...), and a number of books that have languished on my shelves for years.

Now that I've broken the spell, will I run out to buy more and more and more? No. I'm a lot more attentive to the books I see on sale and a lot more hesitant before snapping up a new title. Of the two books I purchased, one is a relative bestseller while the other is so obscure that the bookseller looked at me a little weirdly as I paid (the book was a random find I'd never heard of before... let's hope it's good...). I don't feel as driving an urge to have the newest books right away. I know that they'll still be around in a few months and maybe by that point I'll realize that I don't actually want to read it. Then I can refocus my attention on the other great books I have on my shelves.

But I'm not going to be as strict about the ban anymore. While my ultimate goal is to reduce the number of books in the stacks, I'm going to continue buying new books and reading them. I just might do it a little smarter from now on.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Amazon review of the week

In a surprising twist, this week's highlighted review is not a wholly negative one, nor is it a simple, amusing one-liner. It's a long, even rambling review of Diana Wynne Jones' The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1 (which I am considering reading as a stepping stone to DWJ's writing). One paragraph in particular caught my eye:
i'd rather have harry potter, where there are good people who are kind and loyal, and teh selfish people are clearly what they are, and Harry is smart enough to see who is who. I don't know why Diana Wynne Jones thinks its fun to have a hero who can't tell good from selfish, or even good from evil, and who does quite wicked things himself out of innocence. and her good people are often so cold hearted and self involved, they mistreat our lonely little hero almost as badly as the wicked people. again, it's kind of creepyl 
Ever since I was young, one of my favorite things in literature was the anti-hero. Villains. Who doesn't love a good, complex character? This is my first encounter of someone wanting more black-white, wanting less complexity of characters and good-vs.-evil. It's hard for me to write this without judging the reviewer harshly. For a reader to prefer clear-cut fantasy is legitimate, even if it's not at all what draws me. It surprises me, though, that there's a school of thought that prefers for the approach (in fantasy or otherwise) to be simpler and to forsake the complexities of the real world in favor of obviously drawn black-white situations and characters.

Good people do bad things. Bad people do good things. The world will never fall into two simple, clear categories. Yes, sometimes the dismissal of bad as done by the "good guys" is very problematic (my issues with the Millennium series, among others...) but to simplify humanity's characteristics to such an extreme degree... I find it hard to believe that any reader would truly prefer this.

As I have not read the book, I can't say if it's simplistic in the opposite direction or if the reviewer is attempting to describe a different phenomenon that I simply can't understand yet, but my impression of other less-than-satisfactory reviews indicate that readers didn't like the ambiguity of DWJ's characters (and that not all are immediately likable). Are some readers mistaking their other issues with the book as a problem with the gray areas, or is a black and white world really that much better of them?

Friday, April 22, 2011

A poetry story

A lovely 'Even Hoshen' edition
Czesław Miłosz and I "met" in late spring of 2006. The days were warm and sunny, the atmosphere carefree and happy. The school year was coming to a close. Our end-of-the-year English unit was poetry, as was our summarizing final project and exam (more details here). I was impressed enough with Miłosz writing to give him the front-centre spot in the project, and enough to remember his name. And yet.
And yet it took me an additional five years to read further Miłosz poems, this time in another language. When an article in the Ha'aretz Book Review (partial English representation here) mentioned a newly published translation of a collection of Miłosz poems, I immediately took note. During the National Book Week, I visited the booth of this publisher (small, independent and almost entirely unknown... sadly). I picked up the book was struck by the beauty of the edition. This was not a simple publication. I could discuss the publishers at length (at a later time), but suffice to say that the edition is positively lovely - heavy paper, a distinct blue font, and specially drawn images scattered throughout the book. A book for a true bibliophile. And Miłosz lover.

I did not immediately dive into It (as the collection is called in this edition). I took my time, occasionally reading a poem here and there. One evening, I sat down to read a few poems before bed. One left a particularly strong impression. "Meaning":

When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
What never added up will add up,
What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.

And if there is no lining to the world?
If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,
But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day
Make no sense following each other?
And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?

Even if that is so, there will remain
A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams.

(translation Robert Hass)

It's a poem that can impact a reader in two languages (or possibly more). This is why I return to Miłosz, why I do like some poetry. I'm not a huge poetry reader, but poems like this - poems that move a reader enough to read them again and again and again without the words growing old - are the reason I will continue to seek out new poets. And return to the talented ones.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Stop me if you've heard this one before

Literary Pet Peeve 1: When I find myself reading/reading about the same book I've read a thousand times before. Particularly when it isn't even riding a bandwagon.

Note: I did not seek out any of these titles. The first two I read (sadly - I wish I could take those hours back...), the second two I came across in my daily book travels.
  • Exhibit A: Saving Zoe, Alyson Noel; Plot: Little sister Echo is the normal kid, big sister Zoe is the exotic, popular, beautiful one. Zoe is murdered - Echo starts following in big sis' footsteps, including involvement with boyfriend. She uncovers secrets. Drama ensues.
  • Exhibit B: Goldengrove, Francine Prose; Plot: Little sister Nico is a normal kid, big sister Margaret is the exotic, popular, talented, beautiful one. Margaret drowns - Nico starts following in big sis' footsteps, including involvement with boyfriend. Drama ensues.
  • Exhibit C: The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson; Plot (as summarized by Goodreads): Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker, bookworm and band geek, plays second clarinet and spends her time tucked safely and happily in the shadow of her fiery older sister, Bailey. But when Bailey dies abruptly, Lennie is catapulted to center stage of her own life—and, despite her nonexistent history with boys, suddenly finds herself struggling to balance two. Toby was Bailey's boyfriend; his grief mirrors Lennie's own. [...]
  • Exhibit D: Between Here and Forever, Elizabeth Scott; Plot (as summarized by Goodreads): Abby accepted that she can’t measure up to her beautiful, magnetic sister Tess a long time ago, and knows exactly what she is: Second best. Invisible. Until the accident. Now Tess is in a coma, and Abby’s life is on hold. It may have been hard living with Tess, but it's nothing compared to living without her. She's got a plan to bring Tess back though, involving the gorgeous and mysterious Eli, but then Abby learns something about Tess, something that was always there, but that she’d never seen. Abby is about to find out that truth isn't always what you think it is, and that life holds more than she ever thought it could...
Exhibits A, B and C are almost identical to each other, down to the bizarre name choices for the sisters' names. I mean, seriously, with the exception of Margaret, none of these names are common for girls (Zoe is marginally acceptable but still fairly unbelievable). Get real. Furthermore, the plots of all four closely follow the same formula: meek little sister steps into the glamorous older sister's shoes following death/horrible accident.

For some odd reason, this storyline seems to be incredibly popular among writers. Please let me know if you come across any other examples so that I may shun those titles for completing spitting in the face of originality. Thank you.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Organization, "bookshelves" and Goodreads

Organizing the mess?

I don't use Goodreads all that often or all that well. I signed up years ago but never really took advantage of the site for anything more than a way to keep track of what books I read. Usually I don't even add details like dates - the when always seems to define itself in my mind - and limit my shelves to the standard offered ones.

I'm uneducated about much regarding my Goodreads page. On the one hand, I recognize that a lot of book bloggers use this tool, both on the social level but also for categorization. Book social networking sites provide readers with different takes on book categorization. (it should be noted I focus on Goodreads as it is the most popular of the free sites, even if it lacks the categorization wonder and depth of LibraryThing, which requires payment)

What are the correct uses for Goodreads? Friending internet strangers because you liked a review they wrote? Connecting with fellow book bloggers? Tagging the books you've read in an organized manner however you want? Or simply maintaining a list of books read with the rare review and the occasional personal comment (eBook, date read, etc.)? At this point, I've added over 600 books to my Goodreads account, including books I read as a child, series I've forced myself to complete and even the occasional textbook I've studied from.

Their recommendations
Yet in my account, these all fall in the same category: "read". I have added no books to my TBR shelf (for fear of discovering that number does, in fact, exceed 100... by a lot, perhaps...) and as I typically start and finish books over the course of a day without updating Goodreads, only a title here and there could qualify for the "currently-reading" shelf. I have no shelves based on genres, no shelves based on ratings, no shelves based on year (or to be more accurate, era)... nothing.

I suppose part of it is a lack of appeal for definitions and fixed facts. Ratings are flexible - I can amend them if needed (and do so frequently when my opinion of a book changes over time). Reviews are multi-faceted - they express the thinking behind the reader. But shelves? Genres are so flexible and ever-changing... how can I just come up with a bunch of genres that ought to make sense to other readers within such tight confines?

A few months ago, I sorted my Calibre eBook library. One of the most difficult tasks was tagging the books. In this case,these are books I haven't read. Their titles reveal little. I have trouble remembering their authors and their titles. One of the ways I organized the books was by genre. Another was century. A third still was region. For the most part, regional and genre bookshelves were given silly and eccentric titles (not something that works as well on Goodreads).

Doing something like this for my Goodreads library just doesn't click. I can't really see it happening. But if that's the case, is there something else I should be doing with Goodreads? Am I truly misusing the site, ignoring its primary uses? Is this even possible? It leads me to wonder how most readers use their book social networking site of choice. Do they, like me, maintain anonymity and avoid any personal disclosures? Or do most prefer to take advantage of the tools and choices offered to them, writing numerous reviews and sharing titles?

Monday, April 11, 2011


Astronomy in Netanya
You know those books that seem to be missing a point? Any kind of point at all? That's the kind of book that Netanya [נתניה - 2010] is (last mentioned here). This is an at-times fascinating, occasionally amusing, always casually written, short "memoir" that completely lacks a point. But I mean: completely.

Dror Burstein seems like the kind of guy I'd want to have a conversation with. And not the internet kind either. He's a writer who managed to write a memoir-esque book with almost no personal intervention. Whether or not this worked particularly effectively is a whole other matter. We'll get to that in a moment. His blog, meanwhile, seems a lot like Netanya. Or the other way around. Netanya vaguely resembles three or four extremely long blog posts. Put together, they make for a short, rather strange little book.

Netanya isn't really a memoir. Nor is it an autobiography. I wouldn't even say that it's 100% nonfiction either. It's one long monologue, thoughts beamed directly to the reader, sometimes evening coming off as fictionalized. Burstein barely even features in this book. He's around, sure, but he's like this quiet side character watching and quoting a lot. He has little to add.

Facts and photos
There are two main themes in Netanya: Burstein's family history (mostly his grandfather) and Earth's history. Both stories are interesting. Neither really work within the context of the book. The astronomy/science story - which was far more interesting to me - seemed to get lost in the number of quotes and references to specific scientists. At times I felt like Burstein was simply copying and pasting chunks of these books that so influenced him. I'm not saying it isn't effective and interesting, but in such a short book, is it particularly impressive? No.

The family story, meanwhile, is less coherent in my mind, but more influential in that it has the emotional impact on the reader. But because it lacked structure and coherence, the story scattered. And then there's the entirely legit question: what's the point? What is Burstein trying to tell his readers? He isn't a hugely popular author - Netanya was published fairly calmly and I came across it somewhat by mistake - and this doesn't have a "great" and "huge" message that seemingly "justifies" the looseness. It's got wonderful writing. It's got two interesting, random stories. It's got some great moments. But as a book? Not the greatest.

I will certain read Burstein's novels. His writing, the way he successfully kept me reading despite Netanya's flaws is enough to convince me that he's a writer worth noting.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Armenian genocide, out of context

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh has been sitting on my bookshelves for six years. I finally started reading it last week. Now, after devouring the first of three sections (er... books), I'm going to set the book aside for a short time. It should be noted that this book is brilliant so far.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is one of those rare books that makes me want to highlight passages, quote them, analyze them and dissect them to their tiniest commas and dashes. It's a dense book, no doubt, heavy with expectation and meaning. It's also only the second book I've ever read (or encountered) about the Armenian genocide, the first having been a kids book from seven years ago (an Amazon recommendation thus brought The Forty Days of Musa Dagh to my attention).

Reading about the Armenian genocide in today's world is a fairly difficult task. Like Peter Sourian, writer of the introduction in my edition of the book, I repeatedly find myself making connections to the Holocaust. The more famous one, that is. The one that is heavily represented in literature. It's actually rather hard not to make such connections. Allow me the indulgence of quoting some lengthy passages.
For many people it is depressing even to move house. A lost fragment of life always remains. To move to another town, settle in a foreign country is for everyone a major decision. But, to be suddenly driven forth, within twenty-four house, from one's home, one's work, the reward of years of steady industry. To become the helpless prey of hate. To be sent defenceless out on to Asiatic highroads, with several thousand miles of dust, stones and morass before one. To know that one will never again find a decently human habitation, never again sit down to a proper table. Yet all this is nothing. To be more shackled than any convict. To be counted as outside the law, a vagabond, whom anyone has the right to kill unpunished. To be confined within a crawling herd of sick people, a moving concentration camp, in which no one is so much as allowed to ease his body without permission. - p. 93-94
According to Wikipedia, Franz Werfel's novel has always been interpreted as referencing Jews and anti-Semitism. Werfel himself faced much anti-Semitic behavior in his life and twice had to flee the Nazis - the first time from Austria and later from France. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was written in 1933, "prefiguring the atrocities of World War II" (as the back of the book refers to it). It's an eerily accurate and apt description.
Germany, luckily, has few or no, internal enemies. But let's suppose that, in other circumstances, she found herself with traitors in her midst - Alsace-Lorrainers, shall we say, or Poles, or Social Democrats, or Jews - and in far greater numbers than at present. Would you, Herr Lepsius, not endorse any and every means of freeing your country, which is fighting for its life against a whole world of enemies without, from those within?... Would you consider it so cruel if, for the sake of victory, all dangerous elements in the population were simply to be herded together and sent packing into distant, uninhabited territory? - p. 135-136
This second quote is taken from a conversation between the German priest Dr. Lepsius and the Turkish leader Enver Pasha. The conversation is full of comments that make the noble Lepsius (as well as the reader) want to rip his hair out. 
I agree that among Armenians one finds an alarming proportion of intelligence. Are you really so much in favor of that kind of intelligence, Herr Lepsius? I'm not. We Turks may not be very intelligent in that way, but we're a great and heroic people, called to establish and govern a world empire. Therefore we intend to surmount all obstacles. - p. 138-139
There's also a fair amount of anti-Semitism in the conversation (as is evidenced above). At one point, Enver Pasha says of the American ambassador (who has eye-witnessed atrocities): "Mr. Morgenthau [...] is a Jew. And Jews are always fanatically on the side of minorities." - p. 134

But what's remarkable is the way the similarities are drawn by the reader, not by Werfel himself. Werfel, at the time of writing The Forty Days of Musa Dagh could not have imagined what horrors Jews would face in Europe only a few years later. Some parallels are apparent - the fact is that by the 1930s, anti-Semitism was rampant in Austria. Werfel inserts the same fears, paranoias, stereotypes and false beliefs in as the views of the Turks against Armenians. The Turks are seen as jealous of the wealth and power of some Armenians. Of their positions in fields like medicine and accounting.

Then the connections that I draw: the same absolute fear of a people deemed to be outsiders. The same desire to entirely destroy a race that is viewed as a "traitor", working from within to bring down an empire (and even more specifically, the new regime that represents a far more ancient empire). The methodological manner of completely destroying a group of people. True annihilation. Genocide.

I'm certain I will have more to say after I read the second two "books" that comprise of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. So far, it's been fascinating. Not only does it tell of a wonderful (also difficult) story (resistance is always interesting), it has taught me a lot and given me much to think about. I'll take some time to mull it over before diving back in, but I'm certainly looking forward to completing this book. I'm glad I'm finally giving it a chance.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Things that are also ruining literature: me

When I read articles like this Huffington Post take on the NYT Book Review (via A Momentary Taste of Being), I'm at once fascinated, in agreement and completely annoyed and frustrated. The article rambles a bit, but Anis Shivani focuses a sharp glare in the direction of what he views to be: "an incestuous system of backslapping and mutual admiration, rather than any independent judgment of the quality of books under review." Ouch.

Shivani throws out examples easily and angrily - why was Franzen so praised? What is this publication that so likes A Visit From the Goon Squad and Room? Most of the article is composed of example-tosses like this and it's hard not to feel like Shivani is jealous of the powerful, influential review. Some of his hits fall flat - if the NYT Book Review feel like focusing on fiction (and a dash of popular non-fic here and there) as opposed to poetry... that's allowed. It may not be a popular choice in Shivani's mind, but it suits the majority of readers and if the NYT staff realized that discussing poetry doesn't draw in readers, so be it. It may suck, but this is how it goes.

Shivani also disparages the popularity of the books that the NYT choose to review, what he calls "safe consensus books". This is possibly his strongest point. He also discusses political takes and reviewer bias (irrelevant for the sake of this post). And then there's Shivani's annoyance with hype.
Commercial interests conveniently merge with political bias to create a propagated landscape of erosion and waste, hiding the real vibrancy of books in America. The books that end up in the Times's Top 100 or Top 10 every year are simply the ones with the most advertising muscle and public relations hype behind them. This year, as always, these lists were utterly predictable[.]
Here Shivani is at once completely right and also completely wrong. On the one hand, he has a point - the NYT Book Review looks a lot like a publishing magazine or Amazon's bestselling list or the galleys I might be offered by publishers. On the other hand, he's wrong - this is not at all exclusive to the NYT. We're all guilty. Allow me to explain.

Much as I tell myself that I'm a reader of varied tastes and have broadened by horizons, that's absolute nonsense. If I look over the books I've read, most of them fall into the "standard" category - popular book-of-the-moment finds. Now, I don't assume that all readers are like me. In fact, I presume most of you guys have your niches and the books you want to read, but are probably better than me when it comes to reading different books. Or not. That's okay too.
The thing is, even if we don't all read the books-of-the-moment because they're super popular, we're aware of them. Most of us - readers, reviewers and bloggers - can't pretend that we haven't heard of most of the books that Shivani mentions in his article. Many of us have probably read a few, here and there. Some because they received an ARC, others because they read a great review and others still because they kept seeing the name and wanted to form an opinion of their own. As upsetting as it may be (why do no small presses make it big?), it's the normal way of things. Good advertising -> leads to lots of reviews -> leads to lots of sales -> leads to bestseller status -> leads to more sales. Read: the way publishing works.

Shivani isn't wrong to question and challenge this. I entirely agree that the over-exposure of a select few books as opposed to complete radio silence regarding most is frustrating. I agree even more that the link between massive hype/publicity and well-publicized gushing reviews is rather disgusting. But to throw all the blame on the NYT Book Review is as stupidly generalized and wrong as it is to say "the book is dead". Dramatic statements like his sound like whiny finger-pointing when a large portion of the blame lies on most of us - the consumers who put up with it and even benefit from it, gaining a reasonable amount of quality literature even as it's mixed with the bad. Before crying foul, we should take a long, hard look at ourselves.