Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Familiar unknowns

This photo doesn't show just how large the book really is
As I neared the end of the very long The Invisible Bridge (or perhaps what should have been the end), I found myself struck by a certain reference found within its pages. One I couldn't remember seeing in fiction before.

On page 423, one of the characters first mentions the Struma tragedy and thus truly catapulting the book to my attention. The scene woke me up. Julie Orringer, in the midst of her Hungarian Holocaust novel slips in a piece of family history and not just by name. Recognizing that her readers will likely not know the name, she further explains the situation to the characters, tying it into their escape rhetoric. It's an interesting and effective method, in sync with much of the what the book aims to prove.

First Struma reference and explanation
Orringer's use of a virtually unknown Holocaust tragedy that escapes the bounds of the typical Holocaust cliché is what makes this a book worth even considering. Even beyond the Struma incident, Orringer's main characters face tragedies of a different sort than Auschwitz and they attempt escapes that don't involve desperate chases and runs through the woods. This is a Hungarian Holocaust novel and one of the only ones I've ever read.

Taking a familiar setting (the years leading up to the Holocaust and through to the end of the European war) and making it new is not an easy task. Orringer may not have written the next classic novel, but it's a pretty good take nonetheless (if way, way too inflated). The sparks of originality that slip into the narrative give the book a few fresh moments even as the story progresses in a familiar and predictable manner. That Orringer introduced me to a new story that I already knew... it's chilling and yet somewhat wonderful. I want authors to tell me different stories. I want authors to educate me. That readers of The Invisible Bridge now know about the Struma gives me some peace. Julie Orringer, I tip my hat.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Trying too hard to be the successful second

The back of Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls touts it as "her most powerfully moving novel since Speak". Fans of young adult fiction will immediately recognize one of the cornerstones in the genre, a book that I often view as revolutionary in the context of young adult literature and an all-around excellent book.

To say that Anderson did not reach the same level of success with her later books as she did with Speak is an understatement. Not because she's an unsuccessful writer - not at all - but because in a lot of senses, her marketing team insists on attempting to equate her books to that first success. On Goodreads, Wintergirls is the second most popular of her novels, and I have to wonder why. Was it the aggressive marketing or is it true that Wintergirls has something about it that makes it reminiscent of Speak?

Both. Most of Anderson's prior books dealt with similar angst-ridden themes, each book looking at different subject matters and in a different way. Until Wintergirls. There Anderson chose a writing style remarkably similar to that in Speak, as well as a narrator whose struggles echoed in tone those of Speak's Melinda. The two girls tell two painful and, yes, even moving stories but they do so in far too similar ways.

It seems to me that the publishers have "marketed" themselves into a corner. By trying so hard to make Wintergirls into the next Speak, they have given it an almost-impossible challenge - to outdo an excellent book, a classic of its genre. By proposing this comparison, I'm almost expected to note the parallels, to the note the stylistic similarities. These don't make the book as good as Speak, though. It makes the book into a wannabe. It's trying too hard. A shame, too, because it's actually not that bad a book...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Other Mother and other mothers

I want to link to this series of Mother's Day posts over at Books, Personally before it disappears into the obscurity of the archives. The most recent post is about Mrs. Coulter from The Golden Compass, one of my favorite books and is a thoughtful and different take on a character we tend to vilify. Previous posts include a lovely hat-tip to Mrs. Weasley and a look at Coraline's Other Mother. Wonderful posts, cool literary mothers.

I don't believe that I'd ever thought about mothers in literature until reading those posts. I'd be hard-pressed to think of an interesting mom not included in this list. Once named, I can nod along and agree wholeheartedly: Molly's a wonderful mother, Marisa is a weird character who you love-hate-hate throughout a great series and the Other Mother is the reason I couldn't wear a pair of black pants for a good six months because of the black buttons on the cargo pockets.

But are there more of these mothers? I look through lists of my favorite books and few (if any) memorable ones pop up. Mrs. Murry, perhaps, from A Wrinkle in Time - she was always a stable and curious character. Or even Cathy from East of Eden - a terrible mom (pure, delicious evil), but definitely memorable. Other than these flashes here and there, though, most of the mothers in my favorite books have either been nonexistent (dead/missing) or invisible (almost irrelevant to the story). That's a rather weird realization.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The widowhood memoir (scandal)

There has been a small amount of criticism and issue taken with author Joyce Carol Oates' recent memoir about widowhood, A Widow's Story (which, for the record, I have not read). Some reviewers, rather than focusing on the memoir itself, have turned a sharp gaze towards the fact that though Oates' memoir focuses on the sudden death of her husband and the grief that followed, she neglects to mention at any point that she married a little over a year after her husband's death.

This of course raises the question of full disclosure in a memoir. Does the author need to reveal what may seem (to them) as irrelevant to their story? Oates clearly did not see need to include mention of her remarriage - perhaps to her this was not part of the grief story. But it may also seem as though something is missing. Indeed, Oates has been quoted as saying that she should have added an appendix to the book, including her remarriage and that she hopes such an appendix will be added to later editions.

Commenter Kristin writes the following:
If someone can write a memoir at 22 years old, why can't Oates write a memoir about a particular time in her life? 
When you think about it, Kristin has made a pretty good point. Memoirs are not autobiographies. They don't have to include what you ate for breakfast every day. They don't have to provide a full summary of your life. Memoirs are, in fact, defined by their flexibility and the way they don't have to tell everything around the author's world. Oates decided to discuss the grief of widowhood, not the possible joy of remarriage. That's not what the book is about. That she remarried does not exactly cast the book into a new light. It's just a different story, one that may deserve its own focus (should Oates decides that's worth it).

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

In honor of Bacchus

This weekend, I happened upon my 1939 edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse. This is a poetry collection I purchased in eighth or ninth grade for that years poetry unit, enjoying the old-school styles and poems. As I now flipped through the small hardback book, I noticed that several slips of paper served as bookmarks, and also that I had dog-eared many of the pages. Surprised, I began to take more care in my perusal of the book, trying to spot which poems had struck my 13-year old fancy.

The following find particularly made me laugh. I suspect it did back then, too.

A Drinking-Song

Bacchus must now his power resign -
I am the only God of Wine!
It is not fit the wretch should be
In competition set with me,
Who can drink ten times more than he.

Make a new world, ye powers divine!
Stock'd with nothing else but Wine:
Let Wine its only product be,
Let Wine be earth, and air, and sea -
And let that Wine be all for me!
-Henry Carey

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ratings suck (or something like that)

I first started writing terrible Amazon reviews in 3rd grade, way back in 1999. Those were the days when all Amazon users would still just file away their opinions as "Customer reviews" and little distinction was made between children and adults. I grew on this system, learning to crudely translate my complex (well... to be honest, at first they were hardly complex. More like... childish...) opinions into 1-5 star ratings.

But it was only ever a crude figure. As the years went by, it became harder and harder to rate appropriately. Then sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing came around. These sites also built themselves on the 5-star rating (though LT also gave half stars, making it a 10-star rating, I guess...), each one providing a different scale than Amazon's.

This isn't the time for a rating inflation rant, but it is the time to slap these 5-star ratings away. I don't mean this as a dramatic statement against ratings, but the fact is that in today's online climate, there is no clear scale for a 5-star system. None. Every site offers its own recommendation for what each star rating could mean, leaving little room for complexities. LT's 10-star system is revolutionary in comparison. It allows for depth.

When I think of books, I don't think in numbers. I don't think in stars. I think in characters, in writing, in originality... I think about whether the book was enjoyable or tasking, whether it was rewarding or pointless, whether it entertained or educated. Two books can both get the same official 4-star rating when my reactions to them were completely different. My expectations from them are miles apart. How can any numerical system fully encompass this?

Again, I don't believe that there's something wrong with star ratings. When reading a review, it's convenient and easy to have a simple number summarize the reviewer's thoughts. That's not really a good thing, though. It is - for good and for bad - a simplification of the review. A numerical representation of complex emotions and thoughts. I like using star ratings, I like using sites that allow me to summarize my thoughts like that. What I don't like is the imbalances. I don't like 5-stars, I like 10. I don't like one site telling me that 3-stars is good while the other tells me that it's okay. I don't like the descriptions jumping from good straight to excellent. How does that make sense?

So let us raise our voices high! Let the 5-star system be forsaken, let us welcome a new age of complex reviews, a new age of a wide range of opinions and of organized, accepted descriptions for star ratings. Who's with me?