Monday, December 31, 2012

Library eBook lending

This article over at NPR about eBooks and libraries echoes a lot of issues with the current eLibrary models being used: the limited scope of offered books, publishers' instance on bizarre "26 circulations" limitations, and the surprisingly low percentage of readers even using this digital option. This is a fairly good introduction to the problems surrounding eBook lending, but I think it missed part of its own point. The article opens with a sly reference to how few people check books out through these digital catalogs, yet the readers themselves are mostly absent from the article. So, to fill in the blanks, my own take.

I've been checking eBooks out from my local libraries since the day I bought my first eReader. Literally; the evening I bought Artemis, I tested out downloads from three sources: Gutenberg, Overdrive, and Scribd. The Overdrive book was the second eBook I ever read, and I have not stopped using their services since. But I know that I'm in the minority. Not only do digital databases hold an incredible advantage for me over physical ones (after all, I don't have much access to books in English here in the non-Anglo world...), but I also have a fierce resistance to paying for eBooks, and as such prefer any method of getting them for free. The ability to check eBooks out of the library was what drove me to buy a Sony Reader back in the day (over the Kindle, then the only serious competition); it's the same consideration that keeps me using my newer Seshat to this day.

But why is this so rare? I know of countless bloggers who have eReaders, as well as many other friends and family who read digital books in some form or other. These are voracious readers, many of whom hardly read physical books anymore... why aren't they taking advantage of this wonderful system?

Some of the answers are what I mentioned earlier. When you have so few options of books to check out, is it even worth it? Not to mention the fact that finding a book in these databases can be nearly impossible (not what I would call the best search engines). But I don't think all the blame should fall on Overdrive and the other eBook providers. I think some of it has to do with the fact that many readers maybe just prefer getting books in other ways - the convenience of buying a digital edition instantaneously, or even receiving a free eARC. Then there's probably the fact that these sites were at first closed to Kindle books, and have only recently started providing Kindle files for check-out.

I don't know why other readers haven't opted for checking out more library eBooks. I really don't. While it's far from a perfect system (again, NPR's article is quite good at explaining why), it's still something... and something quite incredible. Thoughts?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Bad translation of the week

Bad translations can ruin a book. It's a sad fact of life. As someone who has dealt with translations myself, I know how hard it must be to do a book justice - managing to maintain both tone and style, while making sure the writing fits the new language and its many nuances. Translating is tough stuff, but it still stings a little when a good book is poorly translated, and suffers at the hands of its new audience as a result.

Case study no. 5062: The Buddha in the Attic. A lovely, wonderfully written short novel that I really, really looked forward to seeing in Hebrew. Here was an easily accessible, interesting, and well-written book that I could recommend to readers. Today, I finally got the chance to flip through the translation and... well. It stumbles. Seriously stumbles.

Because part of what makes The Buddha in the Attic such an original book is its use of first-person plural. This is not easy to replicate, particularly not in a different language. So it turns out that the clean and powerful style that Julie Otsuka crafted in English turns into a bit of a mess in Hebrew. The "we"s become a little too casual, a little too obvious, a little too abrasive. The long sentences no longer breathe, but shudder. The tone is completely different, and it won't surprise me if readers will outright hate the book as a result. Which is just a shame. It reminds me that no matter how much I'd like to think that I'm aware of how the translation changes the text, there are cases I'll never be able to recognize, and sometimes these translations really do make all the difference in the world...

Monday, December 17, 2012

Wonders of the Invisible World

Wonders of the Invisible World is the fifth book by Patricia McKillip I've read. Truthfully, she's not such a favorite author of mine that it goes without saying that I'd read her new short story collection, but there is nonetheless something about her writing that draws me in again and again, even as some of her books fail to impress me. Wonders of the Invisible World may have been significantly better than some of the other book's I've read by her, but I was not left gushing as many other reviewers have been. The fault lies in a somewhat unexpected realm.

For starters, the eponymous opening story is fairly weak. Openers need to be strong hooks, and all "Wonders of the Invisible World" managed to do was lull me to sleep. The idea behind the story is nice, but overall... meh. The second story, while better, was also decidedly far from the top of the scale, though it did feel a little more like McKillip's standard, smooth-and-eloquent writing style. It really wasn't until the third story, "The Kelpie", that I began to be remotely interested. And "The Kelpie" is really an interesting story, both in the way it portrays art and artists, and the way it steals little bits of a more old-fashioned writing style, to suit the story's own time period.

But once I began to read the collection with more interest, I also began to read more attentively (and as such, more critically). It soon became hard to ignore the imbalances in this collection, not simply in terms of quality or style (more the latter), rather the recurring themes, ideas and even name fragments that McKillip returned to. Water is perhaps the strongest of these themes, featuring rather prominently in no less than four stories. The thing is, I liked the majority of these stories, but clumped together in the same collection... they lost some of their magic. Similarly the fairy-tale like stories. Individually, there are some fine stories in here. But they overshadow each other, leaving each a bit dimmer than what it might have been. Then there's the downside of any short story collection: quite a few of these stories are utterly forgettable. Stories like "Oak Hill", "The Fortune Teller" and "A Gift to Be Simple" simply didn't stick.

Then there's McKillip's writing style itself. In the previous four books I've read, McKillip maintained a very clean, very subtle writing style. She is a master of the contained fantasy, never overwriting what can be said in a few words. Yet I've found that her short fiction seems to lack that perfect balance. I wasn't particularly fond of her novella The Changeling Sea (though I do intend to reread it, to see how much of my opinion was colored by the circumstances under which I read the book...), and now Wonders of the Invisible World has also struck me as containing slightly... messier writing. The writing rarely feels like McKillip's traditional style. When it worked, the result was truly wonderful ("Naming Day", "Jack O'Lantern" and "The Kelpie"), but sometimes it just... didn't.

Ultimately, Wonders of the Invisible World is a pretty good short story collection. If read properly. If read in pieces, not in one sitting. I like the range of stories, I like the range of styles. The repetitive themes weigh down the collection a bit, as do some of the less memorable stories, but on the whole, this is a good choice for a reader looking for fantasy shorts. Though I would recommend some of McKillip's other books well before this one (namely The Alphabet of Thorn, which remains one of the best fantasy novels I've read), Wonders of the Invisible World is a reasonable starting point for readers new to McKillip, and certainly worth reading for long-time fans.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Middlemarch, part 4 - Ending with emotions

I want to end this extremely disorganized (and delayed) assessment of Middlemarch with the thing that hit me hardest - emotions. George Eliot is not necessarily the first writer I would describe as reaching out to readers on an emotional level - there is something distinctly intelligent in her writing that always makes it feel a bit too precise for the kind of passionate emotional connection many readers seem to have with other authors. She isn't exactly the type of writer who aims to tap readers' basest emotions. I always feel like she's above that.

Yet Middlemarch, more so than any of Eliot's other novels, touched me deeply. There were scenes that moved me nearly to tears, not because they were necessarily sad or manipulatively emotional, but because Eliot was describing some kind of feeling I myself had had hundreds of times beforehand. This may sound trivial, but think about it for a moment - how often does an author truly get it right? How often does a book describe exactly what you've felt in your own day-to-day life, with the right words, and the right inflections, and all the right passion? In my case, this has happened... next to never.

Something about Middlemarch moved me. At first I didn't like the characters... and then I didn't want their story to end. I wanted to breathe in their lives and continue to feel everything they felt forever. I felt every piece of this incredible novel moving through me, filling me up, as though until then I'd been empty and George Eliot had just given me a vital piece of my existence. Middlemarch actually blew me away. This is no ordinary book.

I've said this a few times already, but I cannot pretend that this is a remotely critical or logical reaction to Middlemarch. I don't know if I read it "properly", or took from it the "right" things. All I know is that this has to be one of the greatest books I've ever read. And to any other readers who are maybe skeptical... don't be. Middlemarch is truly something amazing, and two months later, I'm already itching to reread it. Maybe next time I'll be able to organize my thoughts into something coherent. Until then...

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Middlemarch, part 3 - Life all around

I will admit - as I reached the end of the first section of Middlemarch, I was still somewhat skeptical. The writing was brilliant, of course, but the characterization hadn't sunk in enough yet, and when on page 84 of my edition the narrative suddenly shifted towards other characters (not the titular Miss Brooke of book one), I was a little shaken. It took several chapters until I felt comfortable enough with this new cast of characters, and only then could I fully appreciate the overall marvel of Middlemarch.

Because really, looking back on it now objectively, the shift is unexpected. After having immersed ourselves in Dorothea's life until that point, it isn't exactly the easiest thing in the world to suddenly start caring about Fred, or Rosamond, etc. But once I understood that this wasn't just a temporary move, I began to pay closer attention to these new characters as well. Like with Dorothea, I wasn't exactly drawn to them, but as time went by, I became deeply attached. I don't know how, or why, but by the end of Middlemarch I cared very much for the characters and I had a clear understanding of their lives.

One of those phrases I've always heard about Middlemarch - and what is attached to it by name - is that it's about the lives of all manner of people living in that fictitious province. I didn't really feel that. Dorothea is obviously privileged, but more important is the fact that she's educated. So, it seems, is nearly every other character in the novel. Even the members of the relatively lower classes are extremely well educated. People are in debt, but they are not destitute. Middlemarch is about the lives of the middle-class and up. That lack of the lower social rung was particularly jarring for me, maybe because I was expecting something... different. And yet even so, Middlemarch does a splendid job of showing exactly these classes, showing us their lives and their struggles.

Like I said, it took me a while to get into the other stories. But as I delved deeper into Middlemarch, I stopped feeling like Ladislaw and Lydgate and Mary were foreign, and started feeling as though they were real people. I not only started caring, I started caring. Even Dorothea, who I didn't particularly like at first, became critical. I wanted desperately to know what was going to happen with these people's lives. I felt for them, and it was glorious.

Please do not for a moment mistake these as critical assessments. These are scattered, messy thoughts of someone who, even months later, cannot quite understand how or why this book was so utterly incredible. Next up: finally, an emotional response.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Middlemarch, part 2 - Dorothea and modernity

I knew George Eliot was a good writer after reading The Mill on the Floss. Then I read Silas Marner and knew that she was capable of projecting a whole lot on a relatively small canvass. And then I read Daniel Deronda and recognized her ability to create characters I wanted to keep reading about. How could Middlemarch possibly surprise me?

The book opens with Dorothea Brooks, a character who is immediately both annoying and entirely believable. Her aloofness when dealing with her sister Celia in one of the earliest scenes is striking in its ability to be relevant today. The sisters are dividing their deceased mother's jewelry, yet Dorothea rejects the jewels on account of them being something of a worldly good. Her religiosity is a curious form of Puritanism, yet I can hardly argue with its convincing naturalness. When Celia presses Dorothea to take a certain necklace, Dorothea instead switches the situation on its head and tells Celia that she should take the necklace. The scene sets up much of Dorothea's personality in a surprisingly subtle fashion, but is also entirely in tune with how people behave, and speak, and act.
Celia felt a little hurt. There was a strong assumption of superiority in this Puritanic toleration, hardly less trying to the blond flesh of an unenthusiastic sister than a Puritanic persecution.
Later, when Dorothea does indeed find jewelry she likes, she struggles to reconcile her religious inclinations with her simple desires. It's a tug of war between her drive to do what she believes is the right thing, to behave properly, and to be happy. It at times felt a bit like hypocrisy. This early in the book, Dorothea's hypocrisy and religious superiority mostly outweigh her other character traits. But the balance between the two sides of her personality are there. Her passion and beliefs are evident. Her inner strength is apparent.

We need, of course, to remember what era Middlemarch is from. Here is, perhaps, the most surprising side of the book. This is a novel that includes several very different women in it, as written by a highly intelligent woman. Sexism is, of course, rampant (Mr. Brook, Dorothea's uncle, is particularly sexist, frequently dismissing his niece and remarking on women's lack of intelligence and general inability to understand basic ideas), but it felt as though Eliot was actually mocking the sexist characters, rather than encouraging them. Even this hilarious quote: "And, of course men know best about everything, except what women know better." Maybe this is my own wishful thinking, but I couldn't help feeling like Eliot was on our side, here in the future. It was quite comforting.

Indeed, most of Middlemarch feels well ahead of its time. And I don't just mean in terms of Eliot including strong female characters, or a certain pacing to the writing that makes it feel astonishingly fresh. Rather, nothing about the book feels specifically outdated. There are the obvious technicalities, but on the whole Middlemarch didn't seem like it was very distant from my own reality. People are still people. Life is still life.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Middlemarch, part 1 - Exceeding all expectations

Whatever else I was expecting, it was not this. And that's stupid, because I've known George Eliot for five years now, and she certainly ranks very high up on my list of favorite authors. Middlemarch is one of those classics, though, that's so well-received, that it doesn't matter that I already knew that George Eliot is a brilliant writer: I was suspicious. I was hesitant. I doubted that Middlemarch could really be that good.

But it is. It really, really is.

I have a lot to say about this book. More than can, and should, fit into one post. And this isn't going to be a critical, intellectual, balanced assessment of a classic work of literature. This is going to be my own jumbled and passionate thoughts on a book that managed to surprise me. This is going to be messy. You have been warned.

Middlemarch is so often touted as a book of great scope, a book that on the one hand deals with a relatively small setting, yet manages to paint it in its entirety. I wouldn't call it an epic; I think the story is too limited, too focused on its character, too narrow in its time-span. But it is certainly big, and that word "scope" often crops up when describing the book. Unlike many other long, serialized novels of its era, Middlemarch never sprawls, never falls apart, and never even approaches bloated. It's a surprisingly concise novel.

I read Middlemarch badly. Though my edition kindly recommended pausing for a day or two between each book, I typically could not resist waiting a few hours... and as the book progressed, I could barely even allow myself a bathroom break between sections. Looking back at the book now from a safe, two-month distance, I can say that my need to rush through the book was more detrimental than it was beneficial. I might have enjoyed Middlemarch even more had I given myself some time and space to truly appreciate it. But I'm an antsy reader, and when I read something I love, it's sometimes hard to take that step back. Even when I'm told that it's the right thing to do.

Middlemarch falls into that category of books I could just keep talking about. And I will. At least for a few days more.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The greatest poem ever written - Love and tensor algebra

From Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad, translated by Michael Kandel:

In an attempt to test out a new "bard machine":
"Very well. Let's have a love poem, lyrical, pastoral, and expressed in the language of pure mathematics. Tensor algebra mainly, with a little topology and higher calculus, if need be. But with feeling, you understand, and in the cybernetic spirit."
"Love and tensor algebra? Have you taken leave of your sense?" Trurl began, but stopped, for his electronic bard was already declaiming:
Come, let us hasten to a higher plane,
Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn,
Their indices bedecked from one to n,
Commingled in an endless Markov chain!

Come, every frustum longs to be a cone,
And ever vector dreams of matrices.
Hark to the gentle gradient of the breeze:
It whispers of a more ergodic zone.

In Riemann, Hilbert or in Banach space
Let superscripts and subscripts go their ways.
Our asymptotes no longer out of phase,
We shall encounter, counting, face to face.

I'll grant thee random access to my heart,
Thou'lt tell me all the constants of thy love:
And so we two shall all love's lemmas prove,
And in our bound partition never part.

For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,
Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,
Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,
Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?

Cancel me not - for what then shall remain?
Abscissas, some mantissas, modules, modes,
A root or two, a torus and a node:
The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

Ellipse of bliss, converge, O lips divine!
The producs of our scalars is defined!
Cyberiad draws nigh, and the skew mind
Cuts capers like a happy haversine.

I see the eigenvalue in thine eye,
I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh.
Bernoulli would have been content to die,
Had he but known such a2 cos 2 φ!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

No comment | The Book of Words

You know that feeling, when you read a book that someone has told you is brilliant? And you know to go in with low expectations, because obviously people have different tastes. And then... nothing. You have no opinion of the book; you are left with nothing from its writing or its characters. Neither like nor dislike, just an empty, gaping hole of no-opinion.

So that's what I had with Jenny Erpenbeck's The Book of Words.

There may be a cheap explanation: I was heavily distracted when I read the second half of the book. I had to stop midway through the week, picking it up again over the weekend, and to say that I gave The Book of Words my full attention over said weekend would be a complete and utter falsehood - I didn't. I flitted in and out of the book, using it as a means to pass the time. Not exactly a stellar way to read.

But I don't really like this "distracted" explanation for one main reason: a good book manages to displace a reader from his/her distracted state and engage them. The Book of Words just didn't engage me. And it's not the first time, either. I've been trying to review Yoram Kaniuk's Sapir winning 1948 for weeks now, but I realized that part of my struggle with it has been that it left little to no impact on me. These are books that I spent time reading, yet they have not affected me in the least.

I hate this situation because it always feels as though I'm the one who's in the wrong. I'm the one who isn't clever enough to understand all the references and subtleties of Erpenbeck's story (if there is one). I'm the one who didn't understand the strength of the writing (even it didn't leave much of an impression). I'm the one who's wrong for not understanding why this is a good book. Having no opinion is worse than having a negative opinion. If I didn't like a book, I can explain why. When I leave a book like The Book of Words, however, I'm emptied of all opinions and thoughts. I have nothing to say.

There you have it: I have nothing to say about The Book of Words, only that I didn't understand it. Whether or not this is because of everything else that's going on right now is irrelevant. The fact is, I read a book. It made no impression. I won't recommend it. End of story.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Who says we don't read?

This is from a few weeks ago, but still: Told. You. So. Little is as frustrating as constantly being told that my generation doesn't read. Little is as delightful as finding further proof that this claim is wrong.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Footnotes vs. endnotes

If there's one thing reading in Hebrew has taught me, it's the value of a properly placed footnote. Unlike English, where footnotes are almost exclusively reserved for nonfiction or particularly whimsical books (Jonathan Stroud, Terry Pratchett, I am looking at you!), footnotes are fairly common in Hebrew translated literature, as a means of bridging the typically wide gap between cultures. This can lead to some fairly boring translations (translations of tatami are unnervingly common...), but occasionally provides interesting information on play-on-words, or locations, or... anything else.

I realized a few years back - I like footnotes. I know: technically they break the flow of the story, they can be unnecessary, they can be randomly specific or absurdly vague... But overall, I've found footnotes to be extremely useful in certain cases. They are easy to read if I want, easy to ignore if I don't, and their benefits overall outweigh any of their detriments.

Endnotes, on the other hand... I do not like endnotes. Here's why:

  1. They appear only in classics.
  2. They are usually about historical cultural differences, usually plot irrelevant.
  3. They are impossible to read within the flow of the story.
For example: I was reading Middlemarch a month ago (I will discuss it soon, I promise!). My edition has these long, bizarrely detailed endnotes about the most random details. They didn't add anything and were just entirely unnecessary. At some point I stopped reading them. So what's the point? This has happened to me many, many times and I just don't understand it. The only justification I can find for endnotes versus footnotes is in the case when they're long and even then, sometimes it'd probably be better if the notes themselves were shorter. Is this just a personal thing? What do you think - footnotes or endnotes? Or nothing at all?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Death of the dedicated eReader? I think not...

This is an interesting and vaguely weird article about the potential death of the eReader. Yes, you read that correctly - now we speculate as to when eInk technology will become obsolete because of tablets and alternative eReading devices. To which I say the same thing I say every time someone freaks about the impending death of the book: um... no? Or rather, I suppose: probably not?

The reason I am fairly confident that dedicated eReaders will survive (in some form) is similar enough to the reason I think that print books will survive. While there are relatively few people in the world who are considered dedicated readers, there is still a fairly large global market for people who read enough to justify buying an eReader. Some will prefer the shift to digital, true, but not all digital is made equal. I cannot see someone like my aunt - who now reads exclusively off her Kindle - making the move towards an iPad or any other tablet computer. It's just not the same. Every time I've tried to read off tablets, I've found that it's a little more distracting than my Sony Reader. The reason I like my Reader is because it mimics the traditional reading experience incredibly well (while also giving me a few bonuses, like internet access). A device as glossy as my laptop? Not quite as appealing.

What I find especially interesting about this article, though, is that it establishes eInk devices as part of our general reading history. By attempting to spell its doom, Jeremy Wagstaff is essentially acknowledging eInk's position as a legitimate reading form. And like with the case of critics crying about the demise of the printed word, I get the feeling that this article will only emphasize just how wrong it's assessment is...

Sunday, October 28, 2012

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Though I am a firm believer in the negative review, I can never pretend to like giving one. It gives me absolutely no pleasure to find fault in a novel, nor do I particularly enjoy reading something bad. But when I read a bad book, I often find myself wanting to discuss its failings at lengths. And also, to warn other readers away. If this makes me a bad reader, so be it.

Anyways: In the Shadow of the Banyan is a bad book.

I feel I need to be more explicit. It's not just that I didn't like the book. My biggest complaint leveled against In the Shadow of the Banyan (by Vaddey Ratner) is that from a critical standpoint, it just doesn't hold up. Neither writing, nor characterization, nor pacing are deserving of a shred of praise (I can say little about the plot itself seeing as it's mostly autobiographical, and the history of the story is actually quite fascinating). In the Shadow of the Banyan grasps at the most basic, tired cliches and does a bad job with them. So honestly, I can't say that I disliked it because I "didn't connect with the characters", or because I'm not a fan of the genre. No. This is a critical dislike.

I'll begin with the biggest and most important problem in In the Shadow of the Banyan - the main character, Raami. She is built (presumably) from Ratner's own recollections of her childhood, but there is the space of decades between Raami and Ratner. This space is clearly felt through Raami's incredibly unbelievable observations of the world around her. It would be understandable for a seven year-old girl to observe and take in what she sees. It is not, however, understandable for a seven year-old girl to verbalize these thoughts, especially not in a distinctly adult manner:
On the wall near our room's entrance there were several crimson stains - paint or perhaps dried blood - in the shape of hands and fingers stretched to shadowy lengths.
Papa caught me staring at the stains, came over with a wet rag, and scrubbed hard until they merged into one big pinkish blob on the wall.
Why does Raami consider the possibility of blood? Even assuming a child could jump straight to that idea, why does Ratner explicitly say it? This scene would have been distinctly more powerful to an adult reader had it omitted that explicit reference to blood, showing only Raami's father moving in to wipe away the vague stains, without force-feeding us the notion of blood. What about subtlety? This absolute lack of subtlety, it turns out, repeats itself again and again throughout the book. Ratner describes everything, leaving nothing to the imagination. This can be a useful tool when setting a scene. Not so much when it's endless descriptions of the grass moving in the breeze, or the butterflies, or the smell of jasmine, or about fifty other pointless over-descriptions. Ratner paints a scene to such a level of intricate details that the big picture gets lost, and the possibility of reaching any understanding yourself completely disappears. It's also fairly boring.

If it had been only this one case of Raami seeing the world through an adult perspective, I might have been able to forgive Ratner. But this is only one example of many. How about this beautiful sentence? "It was clear to me now that while books could be torn and burned, the stories they held needn't be lost or forgotten." Wonderful, right? But do you know of a single seven year-old who would: a) think this, and b) put it to words? My answer is an emphatic "no". Nor do I know any children (or even many teenagers) who use the words "bovine" or "calamity", or who would say something like "Silently, secretly, I wondered if this moment could be capture somehow, in a crystal vessel of my own, to be invoked again and again should I find myself forever alone." This is the exact opposite of how you write a child character.

Let's turn now to the writing. Because technically, this is nice stuff, right? I mean, Ratner's got the words in all the right places and these are such rich words, and such vivid descriptions, and such elegant sentences... Well, no. Ratner's writing style is the type that I especially hate - it's got all the fancy words with none of the impact. This is overwriting, folks. Also: cliched. Early in the book, Raami uses a phrase from her father's poetry to describe her mother: as a butterfly. This motif repeats itself again and again, but it isn't a subtle, gentle idea. Ratner uses her favorite descriptive words like a blunt tool, with little deviation. Even more frustrating, her way to make the reader feel that they are in the "bloody" and "devastating" Cambodia (and not in their comfortable Anglo existence) is through numerous trite descriptions, whether of food, or spirituality, or of Cambodia's landscape. It did not feel natural and true. It just felt repetitive.

Then there are the characters other than Raami. Except, there aren't any. With the exception of Raami's naturally biased impression of her parents (one of her only believable childish traits), no other character makes enough of an impact to even factor in. Raami's uncle, various aunts, grandmother... none left any impression whatsoever. Nor do any of the people Raami meets during her various journeys. Characters exist in an entirely one-dimensional existence - they appear, they disappear. But they do not exist.

Even Raami's parents: Raami sees their love and devotion to each other. She quotes her father's poetic descriptions of her mother. But we see only idealized, auto-tuned characters. Any potential traits are smoothed out. All I know of Raami's father is that he's a poet. All I know of Raami's mother is that she's beautiful. These are half-characters at best. 

I should have known to avoid In the Shadow of the Banyan. I should know by now that most authors don't know how to write child narrators, or to describe an unfamiliar locale for an Anglo audience without resorting to basic stereotypical cliches. I should know by now that most books that are described as "beautifully written" are in truth overwritten. I should know all of this by now. But it happened again: I fell for a marketing campaign. I just hope that other discerning, critical-minded readers won't.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Falling asleep while reading

What does it mean if the book I'm trying to read now lulls me to sleep almost every time I pick it up? I'm not reading it late at night, and I wouldn't necessarily define it as boring (I managed to read and finish a much more boring book recently - I'll be talking more about that one in a few days). There is something, however, about this specific book that stumps me.

It's not a long novel - 200 pages. And I'm 40 pages in. Sure, the font is small, but the pace is surprisingly pleasant for a book that does not appear to have any discernible plot for now. But these forty pages were read in very, very short segments: a couple pages here, a paragraph there. After nearly ever segment: a nap.

I don't think I've ever had this before. Certainly I've read boring books in the past, or have read books that were maybe a little more difficult, but I do not recall a single instance in which the act of reading made me fall asleep. I have to wonder if it's just a mark of a book I'm not particularly enjoying. Thoughts?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Restrained and indirect | John Williams' Augustus

John Williams is one of those authors I would not have been introduced to if not for book blogging. How could I fail to notice the universal acclaim Stoner received? How could that small tidbit just pass me over? It couldn't. At the end of the day, though, it's not Stoner that I read, but Williams' National Book Award winner Augustus, a relatively concise and restrained work of historical fiction that tells the story of Caesar Octavius through public notices, various "official reports" and the letters and journals of his friends and enemies. The result is an indirect view of an undeniably important figure in world history, and one that mostly kept me riveted.

From the very first page - from the Author's Note, essentially, which emphasizes the fact that Augustus is "a work of the imagination" and that almost all of "the documents which constitute this novel are of my own invention" - Williams sets a tone. It's a somewhat lofty tone, to be perfectly frank, placing the already secondhand story another step away from the reader. But it mostly works. Williams does an excellent job of changing the style a little for each narration, giving certain letters a little more bite than others, giving some journals scattered thoughts that are believable given the circumstances, giving certain characters more airs, while others remain firmly grounded. It creates a wholly believable environment very quickly, and rather effectively.

Augustus is the best kind of historical fiction: even if you aren't too familiar with the history of the times, you'll be able to enjoy it. And then, at the end, you'll immediately want to know what was accurate, what was glossed over, what's disputed... and so this 300-paged long book eventually leads to more studying and research than previously expected. I must respect any book that does that.

Augustus' strength lies, though, in its characters. This is the nature of historical fiction - the story remains generally the same across all books. The difficulty is in creating breathing, believable characters for readers to become acquainted with. Williams does this nicely. It is easy to understand Livia's motivations. It is easy to understand Julia's frustrations. It is easy to see Maecenas' high-minded poetical view of the world. These characters, as well as the others, make Augustus a novel worth reading.

And then, of course, there's Octavius himself. Augustus himself. Viewed almost exclusively through the eyes of others, Octavius is a contradictory character, constantly changing and oddly inconsistent. He remains thoughtful and intelligent throughout his life, but nothing else remains constant: he is both quiet and forceful. He is both proactive and hesitant. He is a human character, if a distant one for most of the book. This changes at the end of the book, when the excellent descriptions of Octavius' old age warmly capture the struggles and sorrows of outliving everyone you ever knew and loved.

Having heaped all this praise on the book, it may come as a bit of a surprise that I didn't not actually love Augustus. There was something missing. The restrained quality of the storytelling made it a little distant at times. The clean, smooth writing lacked a certain type of passion. Something mysterious about Augustus left me a little cold, preventing me from giving this one a full-throated, "best thing ever" recommendation, but I can certainly recommend it warmly. Augustus is intelligent, finely written historical fiction. And it's convinced me that John Williams is indeed the writer everyone has always said he is. Time to read Stoner.

Monday, October 8, 2012

At a Berlin flea market

Fun fact: I used to study German. For quite a while, actually. And quite willingly, too. This was no mere school language credit requirement. This was my own whim, and I ultimately studied German for several years. Circumstances forced me to quit three years ago, but the desire to master the language never really left. To be perfectly honest, I was never really trying to learn how to speak. The thing I wanted most from the language was its writing, and the ability to reads its literature in the original. I never quite got there.

I've been working on it, though. After suffering a slight disappointment at the traditional bookstores, Sunday found me browsing a couple of Berlin's many flea markets. Mixed with the furniture, the jewelry, and the old clothes, many of the sellers had little booths full of books. Most were well beyond my level, but I managed to find two books: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in German (which would bring the number of languages I've read the book up to a grand total of three; it is also the book I probably know best in the whole world), and a collection of four Magic Tree House books (which were some of my favorite books growing up... also, very simple language).

There are other books I want. I still really want to read The Neverending Story in its original German (possibly my favorite German language book of all times with All Quiet on the Western Front as a very close second), and I would love to find some additional, simple German young adult books. But this is a nice basis to go from; I've already got The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe at home (which I'm currently reading) and hopefully I'll be able to improve my German from here. Maybe some day I'll really be able to read All Quiet on the Western Front. But for now: children's books it is. Thank you, flea market.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A sophomore stumble | Dreams from the Endz

Faïza Guène's first novel, Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow (Just Like Tomorrow in the UK edition) was an interesting and thought-provoking coming-of-age novel dealing with the North African immigrant experience in France with I rather enjoyed, despite some flaws. Guène's sophomore attempt, Dreams from the Endz (which does not appear to have found a home in the US), touches on many of the same themes, but unlike Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, lacks a direction that would turn it into a coherent novel.

Guène's writing style is recognizable from the first page - I inherited Dreams from the Endz from my sister, who remarked that the book was "unreadable". But it's not truly unreadable, it's simply Guène's rough, sometimes overly speech-like style. Similar to the cynicism of the teenaged Doria from Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, twenty-four Ahlème of Dreams from the Endz speaks in a blunt, often jarring style. Doria's speech made sense for her character; Ahlème gives off the feeling of a split character, as though she's several things at once. Her speaking style is a little less believable in someone her age, even as Guène has perhaps improved certain aspects of her writing.

The problem, it turns out, is the absolute lack of story. Dreams from the Endz is a snapshot book, showing one single, struggling family in the down-life of Paris' suburbs. Ahlème's search for a job, or for a better life for her younger brother Foued, or her constant concerns about being deported... these all paint a very interesting portrait of a less-well-off portion of France's population. The immigrant experience is clearly felt. The problem is that Guène does not take it further - there is no story beyond these small images. There is no resolution, nothing towards which the novel progresses. Even the characters remain rather stiff and clumsily developed. Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow suffered from much the same problems, yet with its feet firmly planted in the coming-of-age realm, it managed to move past most of its issues. Dreams from the Endz did not.

Is Dreams from the Endz bad? No. But it's not particularly good either. I don't think I could recommend it to readers, even those who read and enjoyed Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow as I did (a book I would recommend, with some reservations regarding the writing style). The book is a short and remarkably quick read, and though the portrait it paints can teach a reader quite a bit, there isn't much around the snapshots to make it a particularly worthwhile book.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Links for the new month

"For a book publisher, a novella is too small to charge full price for, even though the costs of setting up a production run aren’t that much less. The wise choice, especially among the mass-market publishers, was to print something a little bit longer that you could charge full price for."

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Interesting is not enough | The Informers

I don't recall where I first encountered Juan Gabriel Vasquez's The Informers, but at some point it stumbled across my radar. Maybe I saw it at the library. Maybe I never even heard of it. Eventually I bought the book in the Hebrew translation. Eventually I also read it. I did both without really knowing anything about the book, going in mostly blind and allowing myself to get swept in another mysterious story that wasn't bogged down by expectations or overly revealing plot points.

Even with this advantage, The Informers disappoints. It's a book that is based on a surprisingly interesting aspect of world history (Colombia's part in World War II), and deals with a lot of big, important issues. It looks at a difficult history and delves into the mistakes people make, and the consequences of those actions. But it deals with these issues clumsily. For all its fascinating premise, for all its historical relevance, The Informers stumbles on the very basics - storytelling, writing, and character development.

The Informers is written in a strange style, and in a strange tense. The book alternates between standard first person, to first person telling actual first person narrator, to third person omnipotent, to first person omnipotent. It's weird, and jarring, and rather ineffective. The reason for this writing style is because Vasquez lets his characters tell very long stories, essentially straight-narrating the main plot of the book. But it doesn't work. Forgetting the fact that it doesn't sound believable in the least, the layers get confusing and eventually the whole structure ends up feeling clogged and awkward. It doesn't work.

The narration problems spill over into other fields. There are three truly main characters - Gabriel Santoro the son (the narrator), Gabriel Santoro the father, and family friend Sarah. Sarah is the primary source of stories for Santoro the son - she is the one who goes off on incredibly detailed stories from forty years earlier. Yet despite the sheer amount of pages she narrates, she remains a fairly distant character as whole. All of the characters are like that. Santoro the son is dry and not particularly appealing, Santoro the father is vague and unreliable, and other side characters remain fairly bland and/or undeveloped. Characters are viewed without passion and through a cold, distant lens. It puts the story even further away from the reader, making it very difficult to truly appreciate.

Then there's the fact that the story drags on. And on. Vasquez has a slightly rambling style, and by the end of the book, I couldn't always understand why certain scenes or incidents were worthy of attention. It felt uncomfortably incoherent, in desperate need of a better structure and some harsh editing. The Informers may be fascinating stuff, but at the end of the day, it's a fairly bad book.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Authors writing about authors reacting to reviews

I have a book that's been sitting on my shelf for almost two years - an Israeli satire about book reviewing. I bought it for obvious reasons (it's a satire about book reviewing). But I haven't read it yet. Indeed, as time goes by, I find myself less and less inclined towards reading it, more and more hesitant. This hesitance was reinforced while reading a different Israeli novel over the past few days (פעם בחיים - translated title would be Once in a Lifetime). This novel, which was quite a struggle to get through for a myriad of reasons I won't get into in this post, had a certain subplot surrounding the struggles of a successful debut novelist trying to follow up on that early success.

Why is this relevant? Because Miri Rozovsky, the author of the book, was writing this subplot within the pages of her own second novel, following a rather successful debut. There was an unmistakable meta air to the whole story. And then the guilt - how can I criticize a book that is half expecting my critique? The reviewers are notoriously cruel against this young author within the pages of Once in a Lifetime, in a surprisingly sharp appraisal of reviewer-speak. But because we are supposed to sympathize with the fictional author, how can we fail to sympathize with the real author? How can we fail to sympathize with Rozovsky, who is on her second, more ambitious book? How can I, as a reviewer, accurately describe the many faults of this novel?

We in the book blogging/book reviewing world have talked endlessly about the author's place in a review. We've talked a lot about authors who overreact in response to harsh reviews. We've talked a lot about whether or not harsh reviews should even be written, given all the "harm" they can cause in shooting down a book's prospects. It's a debate that will go on. It's pretty important. In the case of Once in a Lifetime, this matter is made simple. When viewed through Rozovsky's lens, the author is the victim of nefarious reviewers. I, as a reviewer who believes wholeheartedly in the negative review, struggle to see this. And so I'm left feeling wholly uncomfortable, almost as though Rozovsky is quietly laughing at me. This is a quite unpleasant feeling.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Diversity in NPR's list of 100 Best Ever Teen Books

A couple months ago, NPR hosted an online poll in order to create the "100 Best Ever Teen Books". Nominations flooded in, a list comprising of a couple hundred books was put online, people voted for their ten favorites, and the list was born. The end result is problematic, to say the least. Time to try to organize my thoughts:
  1. Your age is showing - There's a clear divide between the titles older versus younger readers voted for. When I first went over the list, I was struck by the sheer number of officially classic titles that have long faded from the generally accepted young adult literary canon. When my older sister looked at the list, she too noted the strange discrepancy between the titles she didn't recognize (as being too recent) and the titles she vaguely remembered as being "old" when she was younger.
  2. Your author bias is showing - It's clear that certain fanbases really came out in full force. Not that I have anything against John Green, but not every single one of his novels is deserving of being on a list of the top young adult books. Yet every one is on the list. Similarly, Sarah Dessen has four books on the list - sadly, these four do not include her finest novel (Dreamland), and they generally fall well below my standard for "best ever teen books".
  3. Defining young adult - NPR attempted to respond to this claim with this post, but the fact is that the list is entirely inconsistent. My Sister's Keeper, young adult? Hardly - it's a book that's mostly about adults, written for adults. And if The Dark is Rising is considered young adult, then yes, a book like Ella Enchanted is definitely young adult. And certainly a book like Ender's Game should be considered young adult.
  4. The white elephant in the room - Race. Because no matter which way you look at it, NPR's list is overwhelmingly white. Astoundingly white. This is probably in part because NPR's audience is very, very white (87%), but there's a larger issue at hand as well. I want to be clear, though: it's not because readers are racist. It's not because readers knowingly prefer books about white characters. It's because most young adult books do happen to be written by white authors, about white characters. It's because there's something of a white default in young adult literature (and no, I have no idea what the reasons for this is and I have no intention of getting into that discussion).
  5. The books that are missing - The problem with the overwhelming white-ness of the list isn't that books with characters who are not-white (or not default white, at least) do not exist. The problem is that they somehow did not make it to this incredibly subjective list (recall: this was a reader poll for favorite books, not necessarily the critical "bests"). The problem is that despite being award winners, and classics, and truly powerful works of fiction, these novels remain the exception to the rule that most main characters are white. And that is... disappointing. Angering, in fact.
  6. This is not the list I would create - NPR's list needs to be taken with a grain of salt. First of all, there's the fact that it's a poll of favorite books: it's never going to be truly definitive. In general, no list is ever truly definitive. That's the nature of best-of lists (one of the reasons why I hate them). Second, there's the obvious tilt in the direction of certain authors and fanbases which, while displaying the popularity of these authors, skews the results somewhat. Then there are the missing authors and books - the missing diversity. Because books like Monster by Walter Dean Myers would certainly make my list, as would Virginia Euwer Wolff's excellent Make Lemonade series*. If we loosen the definition of young adult, Laurence Yep, Linda Sue Park,  Pam Muñoz Ryan, and Mildred D. Taylor would all make the list as well.
  7. I don't know why this exists - It bothers me. It has to. The fact that there is a white default is an unpleasant thing to think about. The fact that it shows so obviously in a user-generated list is even more upsetting. But I cannot begin to speculate as to the cause of it, and I'm hesitant to claim that there is any kind of clear racism at work here. An imbalance, certainly, and something we should probably all think about.
So let's think about it.

* Make Lemonade is technically a racially ambiguous series. I should point out that most books that avoid specifying races do not qualify for diversity points. Virginia Euwer Wolff, however, has explicitly said on the fact that she wanted her characters to be viewed as any race, commenting that her favorite letters came from readers of all races who felt that the characters were like them.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Monsieur Linh and His Child

Philippe Claudel's Brodeck's Report is one of my absolute favorite books from the past five years. It's a powerful, beautifully written piece of fiction that hit home, and hit hard. It is one of few books that has truly haunted me and stayed with me over the years. But I read it almost by accident. That is, I read it with great reservations for two reasons: 1. The fact that I wasn't exactly a fan of Claudel's previous book By a Slow River, and 2. The fact that I read the book in Hebrew. I made the right decision - not only is Brodeck's Report a much stronger, better written novel, but the Hebrew translation was significantly smoother than the English translations of Claudel's works. And so when I saw that Monsieur Linh and His Child (הנכדה של מר לין; La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh in its original French) was recently translated into Hebrew, I bought it without a second thought*.

It strikes me again as the right decision. The writing style of this very short book is markedly different from that of either Brodeck's Report or By a Slow River, often opting for short, punchy sentences that stall the flow a little. It's an interesting stylistic choice that I quite liked, but I kept feeling like I would have struggled with it had I been reading the English translation**. Even so, this isn't a particularly fast book. There's a drawn out, restrained quality to it throughout the first half. The second half, meanwhile, picks up the pace somewhat, but it didn't really change the way Claudel wrote his story.

What is Monsieur Linh and His Child about? I'm not really sure. Is it about growing old? To a certain degree. About loss? To a much greater degree. Is it about friendship and family and immigration and change? It's all of these things. It's about the relationship between two older men who have no common tongue, yet somehow become friends through a muddled form of mutual understanding. It's about arriving in a new country when everything you knew has been destroyed behind you. It's about love.

But it's not exactly a clear, easy read. It's hard to go into details without revealing too much, but suffice to say that there is a lot more under the surface of the story than just the above-mentioned. There is, of course, the eponymous matter of Mr. Linh and his granddaughter, which forms the core of the novella. But there are aspects to the story that angered me, not so much because of how they were written, but rather because they reflected a certain aspect of humanity I did not want to glimpse. Claudel's presentations of old age and immigrants were at times exaggerated, but they also held a grain of truth that deeply unsettled me. In this respect, Monsieur Linh and His Child resembled Brodeck's Report much more than it resembled the somewhat plodding By a Slow River.

I liked Monsieur Linh and His Child. I liked it a lot. I liked the quiet way in which it told its story, I liked the unreliability of the narration, I liked the characters. It's very well contained, with hardly a single unnecessary word. It's slow, but maintains a steady flow nonetheless. It's emotional, but not trite. All in all, it's a fine book. Not on the level of Brodeck's Report nor, indeed, on the level of many other favorites, but it's a book I'm very glad to have read.

* Correction: I was a little annoyed that a 115 paged long paperback book with a large font and wide margins cost 88 NIS (almost $22).
** And yes, I realize that this says more about how differently my reading approach is in Hebrew vs. English than it does about the writing of the book itself...

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Black and white oversimplifications | Divergent

A few weeks ago I read the recently popular Divergent by Veronica Roth. The book was mostly what I expected it would be - exciting and fast-paced in the style of The Hunger Games, with the unreasonably kick-butt heroine and the ominous oppressive dystopian society, but it is otherwise uninspired. Despite the fact that I was interested enough to read the book late into the evening, I struggle to call it a good book. This is largely because Divergent has a disturbingly black-white view of the world.

This happens in young adult literature... a lot. It's been happening too frequently. Young adult literature has advanced tremendously over the past decade, but in some regards it is still its own genre. It still has its own definitions and cliches and predictable pitfalls. The predictable romances found now within the pages of almost every single young adult title is a troubling trend that alienates boys*. The current fad of dystopias-lite ignores the original purpose these novels served. And worst of all, there is a growing trend of explicit one-sidedness: there are good guys, there are bad guys, and there are the masses. This is a problem.

Divergent highlights this problem all too well. Main character Beatrice is obviously our good guy - she has to be, by definition. She is described as small and plain, but she nonetheless is special and strong. She is unique. She, aside from her love interest, is practically the only one who is unique. From a literary perspective, this is obviously a flattening of a potential character in order to make her more appealing, but I'll let it slide. No, I'm looking past the bland Beatrice to the bigger issue - everyone else. Divergent is a novel about factions that are determined by a certain personality trait or frame of mind. This already leads to gross over-simplification, in an attempt to set the stage for the sequels and to emphasize the dystopia-ness of the world. But even when I ignored this (for the sake of the story), the lack of depth in the other characters became increasingly disturbing.

Veronica Roth tackled her world with all the grace of an elephant. The good guys have "Good Guy" practically emblazoned on their foreheads. The "bad guys" are obvious from a mile away. This is all still well within the normal realm. Even when characters abruptly switch sides, it didn't feel like complexity, it felt like cheap manipulation on behalf of the author. The problem gets even worse when Roth attempted to add additional layers. Suddenly we have a layer of those who manipulate and those who are manipulated. Instead of creating believable, breathing characters with realistic motivations, Roth ensures that every character will be absolutely one-sided.

A lot of this has to do with the world of Divergent, which determines a specific character-trait faction for every character. I kept getting the feeling that Roth wanted me to see how she's "toying" with these definitions, and how she's showing that people are not defined by a single trait. But she didn't do that. Instead, almost everyone belonging to a certain faction has the same general personality and motivations. There is absolutely no grey. Except, of course, Beatrice (and possibly her love interest). I'm sorry, but I don't call that depth. I call that bad writing**.

I see the appeal of a book like Divergent. Heck, even I technically enjoyed the action of the book, until I really started to think about it (about five minutes after I finished it). Just because you know your book is going to have sequels doesn't mean that you can ignore developing your world at first. Just because you want to create a stark contrast in your "dystopia" doesn't mean you need to oversimplify your characters. Roth's mistakes aren't overt, but they're subtly problematic for any reader who takes a step back and thinks about the book for a moment. Why are we encouraging oversimplification? Why aren't we fighting this?

* And no, I don't understand how this trend flips itself for adults, such that books geared towards women are often shunted to a lower class while books geared towards men gain literary acclaim. It doesn't make sense to me either.
** In general I wasn't thrilled with Roth's writing. I'm not always a big fan of present tense and I felt like a lot of Roth's straight-up writing wasn't too clean. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Archive surprise | After the Divorce

Grazia Deledda's novel After the Divorce doesn't seem to be all that popular, and I'm not sure why. Sure, the fact that it was first published in 1905 might have something to do with it, but that's a pretty weak claim in our contemporary, classic-appreciative world. After the Divorce is a good book. It deserves more attention.

To a certain degree, After the Divorce reminded me a lot of Émile Zola's books. This is partly because Deledda, like Zola, deals with issues that are still fairly relevant in our modern age. The book feels old, but not old-fashioned. It's remarkably interesting and is told in a surprisingly modern way, with a sharp eye for religion and belief, and a little less of Zola's particular brand of preaching.

It's not just that. After the Divorce has a little bit of everything. There's love, loss, murder, an evil mother-in-law... and yet the novel never feels overwhelming. It's relatively short and is remarkably easy to read, but more importantly - it's enjoyable. I read the book in a day not because it's light fare, but because it's interesting. There are soap-opera overtones, but this never degenerates into stupidity.

After the Divorce has a seemingly narrow focus (a small Sicilian town), yet the story is generic in nature and can be applied anywhere, anytime (much like many of Zola's novels). The story opens dramatically - Giovanna's husband Constantino has been convicted of a murder he denies committing and is sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison. Giovanna is convinced to seek out a divorce from her husband under a new clause in the law that would permit her to get a divorce even in her highly Catholic society. After the Divorce - as the name indicates - follows Giovanna and Constantino... after the divorce. The story progresses much like a tragic soap, with events constantly unfolding. Yet After the Divorce isn't petty or shallow. It portrays Giovanna and Constantino's struggles realistically, as each deals with the consequences of Constantino's imprisonment. It's all very interesting... and very different from most books I've read.

After the Divorce strikes me as one of those books that stands the test of time, except for the fact that it seems to have never gained the popularity it deserves. Maybe it's my own literary ignorance, but I had not heard of Grazia Deledda until I began to look up all the Nobel Prize winning writers. She appears on no lists of "greatest novels" or "greatest authors". Like the vast majority of authors, Deledda's works have faded into the background. According to the official Nobel Prize website, Deledda earned her award "for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general". This is certainly an accurate description of Deledda's writing in After the Divorce. It's a shame she is not better remembered for it.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Review policies reviewed

The recent furor regarding Amazon book reviews being paid for frustrates me for a few reasons. Obviously there's my deep objection to the fact that people are so morally compromised that it doesn't bother them to write fraudulent reviews. There's also the fact that publishers and authors enact this practice. Deeper than that, though, I keep having this unavoidable, furious, selfish feeling that I've been cheated out of something. After writing reviews on literally since my childhood (I wrote my first reviews when I was nine years old and began to review consistently at the age of thirteen), I feel as though every minute I've spent on those reviews, every ounce of effort that went into writing a thoughtful and honest appraisal of a book I'd read... I suddenly feel as though all of this has gone to waste. My reviews have become meaningless.

My love affair with Amazon ended quite a while ago. I've felt a growing discomfort with the site for many years, these days avoiding it in favor of independent (or more forthcoming) bookstores. I continued to review on the site - indeed, I continue to receive Vine books for review (my only source for ARCs of any kind, incidentally) - but the frequency of my reviews dropped significantly. For a short time, I thought Goodreads might replace Amazon as my destination for online reviews, however it did not - Goodreads' style and approach differs so distinctly from my own that I usually feel uncomfortable truly reviewing there.

So the situation has been bad for a while. But now everyone is hesitant about the effectiveness of Amazon reviews. Now doubt has been cast about the legitimacy of every single book review that I have ever written for that site. It is obvious from my reviewing history that no publisher has ever paid for my opinion, or demanded that it be particularly positive (in fact, one of the reasons I still use the Amazon Vine program is because it is through an external dealer and not directly through the publishers). And yet it is done - my reviews will not be reaching the hoped-for audiences. The feeling that I - a simple reader sitting in front of my computer screen - can help another reader reach a particularly good book (or avoid a particularly bad one) has now been tainted.

And so I'm changing the policy of this site. Until a few months ago, I very explicitly avoided writing reviews - more specifically, the types of reviews I would have wanted to write - on the blog. Recently, I've experimented with significantly more book-oriented posts than usual, attempting to make these more similar to "standard" reviews. Today, I am taking it a few steps further. After almost four years of working on this blog, I will begin writing actual book reviews. I am not certain what the format will look like at first (and I am sure it will change before I find something I truly like), but I will begin to integrate reviews into my standard posting. Hopefully this will not change the shape of the blog too drastically - I still hope for the focus of the blog to be books in general, not book reviews, and especially not book reviews in one specific genre. But it will be changing, hopefully for the better.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A few words about images

I read the absolutely amazing A Monster Calls a few short weeks ago. Within a day of reading it, I had already gone back to it, reading it again and again. I have bestowed upon the book all manner of flattery; I will continue to sing its praises for years to come. Luckily, I can now do more - I can now hand my own copy to read. Having read A Monster Calls in eBook format, as checked out from my local library, I proceeded to purchase the original hardcover. It was, without a doubt, the right decision.

Flipping through this elegant little book revealed to me gems I had been entirely unaware of. Not only did the full-spread black and white images look significantly better when printed on glossy pages, it turned out that many other pages have elaborately drawn borders and images that twist around the text. The effect is altogether impressive, and adds a lot to the general mood of this very special story.

It goes to show: images matter. A Monster Calls was a beautiful book with just its words going for it. It is, somehow, an even more beautiful book when presented in its natural form, with the haunting, somewhat bewildering, enchanting artwork by Jim Kay. The glossy paper, the rough paper dust cover, the beautiful design of the hardcover itself... These do not change the powerful story within the book's pages. But they certainly change the reading experience, and for that I am once again deeply in awe of this book.

Monday, August 27, 2012

People use technology

This weekend, I happened to read a bad book (hereby referred to as Meh) . Among the many things that made it very disappointing, there was the small matter of the "contemporary" feel. Or rather, the lack thereof. This Israeli novel was published in 2010, and its late-teens characters stand in line to use a public phone (and not because their cell-phones have mysteriously died).

There were a lot of other factual problems with Meh that frustrated me even more, but this minor detail seemed particularly jarring. How can it be that these characters, who are supposed to be my contemporaries, do not have cell-phones? How can it be that these characters do not ever refer to the internet in their conversations? How is it possible that the author thought that readers would not feel this?

An interesting post over at The Book Lantern raises similar concerns:
It’s 2012. People hardly ever use regular mail anymore, and a great part of our daily interactions happens online. Whether we like it or not, the ways we communicate are changing and, more importantly, those interactions shape us as much as we shape them.
It's becoming a serious problem, especially in books about young adults. Meh is a great example, in which the characters' styles and interests and level of technological savviness seemed more in line with the author's generation than the one he appeared to be writing about (though to be fair, he never really specified...). So many young adult books fall into this category. Many books that feature teens only show them calling each other in the evenings... but that doesn't really happen anymore, does it? There's text messaging, there's online chat, there's Twitter, there's Facebook... And I'm not saying every single young adult uses all of these outlets all the time, but while you'll authors will give you a young adult watching TV or reading a book, nobody will ever mention if this same character went online.

I think there are two reasons for that. The first is that by naming a currently popular form of social media, the author is immediately and officially dating his/her book. Social media is an ever-changing spectrum. If I read a book that references MySpace, I chuckle. In five years, Facebook may be a mere blip on the social media timeline as well... what author wants to take the risk that their book too will become outdated well before its time?

I feel like maybe the other reason authors avoid inserting technology into their stories is a little more complicated (and speculative on my part). I can only imagine how hard it must be to keep up with online trends the older you get. I myself am still a young adult, and I can hardly keep track of the various sites and online outlets that have cropped up in recent years. It is, perhaps, a safer choice to avoid discussing technology at all, as an adult author trying to write an authentically young book. But I am not certain if it is wiser.

Not every book, not every character is the same. Some people spend their entire lives on the internet, others spend only the bare minimum. Some spend the entire day texting and utilizing their smartphones, others still use old flip-phones. There is no clear consensus. But authors have to begin integrating technology into their stories. The internet as a whole is here to stay, even if various social media sites, forums, and blogging platforms have gone the way of the dinosaur within a few short years. People use the internet for more than just the occasional Google search. The internet is a natural part of our modern society. People have laptops and cell-phones and tablets and game consuls - people use technology. Fictional characters should catch up quickly.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sci-fi shorts

A couple years back, I spent a day scouring Gutenberg for all kinds of free goodies. Specifically, I wanted to see what public domain science fiction and fantasy there was. I soon realized that the copyrights of a lot of old sci-fi magazines had long expired, and that these stories were all freely available. I didn't download all the available stories, obviously, but I downloaded somewhere in the realm of one hundred, opting for those with the silliest and most dramatic titles ("Spies Die Hard!", "Martians Never Die", etc.). It was a fun way to pass an afternoon, but my attention span is exceedingly short and I mostly forgot about the stories and never actually got around to reading them.

I started to fix that recently when I decided to organize my (no-longer-newish) Reader Seshat (a fine heir to Artemis' noble legacy). Now I read a short story once every few nights, writing up a one-line assessment at the end for the sake of my own forgetfulness.

It's an interesting experience for a number of reasons. There's the obvious one: I'm reading old stories. And these are old, mostly pulp stories. This isn't literature at its finest. It's not even sci-fi at its finest. I think it's best described as sci-fi at its mediocre-ist. But the fact that these are typically sub-par stories makes the reading experience that much more interesting. I try to put myself in the shoes of whoever read these stories back in the 30s, or 40s. I see what type of writing style was popular at the time. I see which character cliches appear again and again. It's pretty amazing.

Then there's the entertainment factor. Because a lot of these stories are ridiculous, and I don't think they were necessarily intended to be so silly. But their outdated styles and exaggerated character portrayals make them a lot more laugh-out-loud funny. When taken in small doses, it's actually a whole lot of fun.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


If not for fear of sounding too subjective, I would describe A Monster Calls as a perfect book. Maybe there's the technical issue as well, that would define "perfect" as something very far from this short, somewhat simplistic book. But there is something here that touches the reader. This reader in particular.

There is a certain level on which I have to justify my reaction to A Monster Calls. As I neared the halfway mark of the book, I began to see clear parallels between main character Conor's situation and that of a good friend of mine. The moment this happened - the moment I went from simply empathizing with the characters and instead seeing them as real people I know in my real world - there was nothing left to do. A Monster Calls horrified me. It latched itself onto me. It dug a hole straight into my emotional core and left me shuddering. At the book's end, I found myself completely emotionally compromised.

Someone who saw me in this state - literally shaking with grief - commented half-joking that this is why he doesn't read books. But this is exactly why I read books. A Monster Calls may have deeply disturbed me, but it did so in an absolutely astonishing way. With simple language and a simple setting, Patrick Ness created a story that enraptured me for three straight hours. I could not set the book aside. I literally ached from reading it. It is literature at its finest - perfect.

And here's what I think sets A Monster Calls apart from the vast majority of sad kids books. Most sad stories are "heart-wrenching" because they're constructed to be that way. The author sets the stage to make you feel for the tragic heroes. A Monster Calls is something different. It's about more than death. It's about more than grief. It's about so, so much more that I am scared to divulge for fear of ruining the book's power. It's just something special.

Recommending a book as painful as A Monster Calls is not easy. How can I wish this upon anyone else? How can I tell any other reader to experience such sorrow?

I recommend it because it's essential. A Monster Calls is a perfect book. The writing style may be simple and childish, but this is powerful stuff. This a book that I've revisited every night since first reading it, trying to go back and pinpoint where I fell completely under its spell. Each time I reach the end, I am drained. The story does not lose its power upon reread. And I suspect that it never will.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Who's your audience? | Second Person Singular

Though I have my issues with Sayed Kashua's Second Person Singular (chief among which is a disturbingly spoiler filled back-cover blurb that includes a quote from literally the last ten pages of this 300-paged book...), it struck me as a very intelligent, well-written novel. The message seemed clear, the implications obvious. Yet when I started to read various foreign appraisals of the novel, it seemed that many readers did not understand the book as I did.

Here's what I think: Kashua writes for an Israeli audience. Predominantly a Jewish-Israeli audience. Just like his columns in the Ha'aretz Weekend Supplement are geared towards Israelis, Second Person Singular is written in a tone that indicates its audience rather comfortably. Too comfortably, at times.

Second Person Singular is all about the characters' external image, not so much their internal identity. The fact is that this is a novel about two Palestinian men, yet neither places much importance on their personal identity. One character builds his entire world view in order to appear a certain way; the other character sheds his identity with hardly a backward glance. It's all about how they appear to the outside world: one of the characters comments (somewhat dispassionately) on the fact that when using a Jewish (Ashkenazi) name, he is taken for an Ashkenazi Jew without anyone asking questions.

It's this use of external image that hammers home Kashua's cultural and social points. Not only does Kashua highlight the differences between Israeli and Palestinian society, he gently points out a lot of standard Israeli racism. An Arab looking for work will be assigned as a dishwasher in the kitchen. The exact same man - using a Jewish name - will find a job as a waiter. Kashua stresses this point without exaggerating it, such that the Israeli reader will feel the necessary shame without being overwhelmed. Kashua's use of young, liberal Israelis later in the novel also creates this weird incongruity that sat oddly with me.

Second Person Singular is written with that strange feeling in mind. Kashua aims to tap Israeli readers in that place where culture clashes. It's mostly effective, but it's geared towards a fairly well-defined group. Presented as it is now to the greater world, I can easily imagine how many readers would find it to be a distinctly odd, offset read.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"Not for resale" - ARCs and the publisher-reviewer contract

I only just read this post about ARCs being sold en masse on eBay over at Staffer's Book Review, and I'm seriously annoyed. The whole post is very important, but I think this paragraph is perhaps the most relevant:
Every ARC I've ever received has a few words clearly printed on the back cover, "Uncorrected proofs. Not for sale." When a publisher sends me a title for review, they're entrusting me not to distribute it, not to sell it, and not to spoil it. They're hoping I review, so it's not to say their action is a favor to me, but the unspoken contract between publisher and reviewer does not include the reviewer making a "profit" off the novel itself, only the words the reviewer writes about it. To break that contract (to profit off the book itself), calls into question all other layers of trust between the two parties. Just as I would argue the publisher requiring a review or influencing the content of the review does the same.
I'm really bothered by this.

First of all, Justin is absolutely right in that first sentence: any galley edition or ARC will always come with the words "Not for sale" on them. It's difficult to miss. This means that anyone selling a galley copy is knowingly making money off something that was given to them for free and for a specific purpose. That in itself is blatantly unethical.

I struggled at first to understand why, but I think I've figured it out. It's not just the publisher-reviewer contract. It's also an unfair way to profit off the author's loss. True, I can resell all of my physical books, but those books were paid for originally, one way or another. Even if I won the book from a giveaway or got it as a gift, someone paid for that book. It could have been another buyer, it could have been the publisher willing writing off a small loss in order to increase buzz. But the author got money for it. When someone sells an ARC, they are cheating the author. This is a copy that was never meant to be profitable (therefore did not contribute to the author's income), yet now this lucky seller - who received the book through a publisher's (typically) honest hope for a review - is making money off that. It stinks.

I won't deny that there are many problems with ARCs, ethical and practical. How to get rid of them is high on that list. A standard galley edition or pre-publication draft is in no condition to be donated to a library, nor should it be resold*, nor does it necessarily deserve to be recycled**. So what can be done? I've seen many blogs host giveaways for exactly this purpose. Rather than profiting off the ARC, reviewers will pass the book along to further reviewers. Though this too could be seen as a prevention of further purchases of legitimately paid-for books, it is well accepted that reviewers may receive free books. This is the best approach, in my opinion (aside from holding onto the book yourself, of course).

I wanted to share this story because I think we should be more aware of it. The vast, vast, vast majority of reviewers and bloggers and magazines and publishing-involved-people are honest and treat their ARCs with integrity. The vast, vast majority get rid of their ARCs and galleys in perfectly legal and ethical ways. But the fact that there is this one tiny sliver of the population that does not understand why this is wrong is extremely frustrating. I only wish I knew what could be done to stop it.

* In this regard I differ from Justin, who suggests that selling an ARC after the book's publication date should be fine.
** Unsurprisingly, the notion of recycling a book - galley or otherwise - thoroughly disturbs me...

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

How Hebrew changed my reading habits

Readers of this blog will know that I'm a bilingual reader. I frequently post about Israeli novels, publishing and news, and will occasionally also post about translated fiction I read in Hebrew that has yet to be published in English. Hebrew has become as natural a part of my reading life as English ever was.


It wasn't always like this. Just until four years ago, the number of books I read in Hebrew per year was two, as opposed to some seventy-eighty books in English. English was, and remains, my dominant language for reading and writing. Yet as the years go by, the gap has narrowed. If in 2008 I read only two Hebrew-language books, in 2009 I read ten, in 2010 thirteen, and in 2011 seventeen. So far in 2012, I'm on my twelfth Hebrew book. This remains mindblowing to me.

I read much slower in Hebrew than in English. I read more precisely and perhaps in a more discriminatory manner. I abandon books more easily. Reading in Hebrew remains a minor difficulty, if only because I cannot rip through the book at the pace I am used to English. It shakes things up. But something has happened since I started reading more books in Hebrew: I've started to slow down my English reading pace as well. I've started to apply many of the same rules I use in Hebrew for books I read in English.

Reading in Hebrew has changed my habits. It couldn't have been any other way. The fact that I spent more time on certain books than others meant that I was appreciating stylistic choices more in Hebrew-language books than English. I realized that a lot of this enjoyment had to do with the more deliberate reading approach, as well as the laid-back pace. Reading in Hebrew has made me appreciate language and an author's writing style a lot more. It's helped me understand what makes certain books better than others. And that is a gift as wonderful as the books themselves.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Scenes from Village Life

My need to read something by Amos Oz has been growing for several years. It seemed unreasonable to me that I had not read anything by one of the classic Israeli novelists simply because growing up I had no books in my house (my mother doesn't like his writing style). With many of the gaps in my Hebrew literary knowledge filled, it seemed time to tackle Oz and see what all the fuss is about. I chose a relatively recent publication - Scenes from Village Life (תמונות מחיי הכפר) - and read it last weekend.

Scenes from Village Life is another in a long line of short story collections that centers around a certain character or locale. In this case, it's the latter: Tel Ilan is a small Israeli village filled with slightly offbeat characters and stories that revolve around strange and vaguely unbelievable occurrences. There's an air of distance and fantasy to the whole book, a kind of gentle mockery of the entire concept of the collection.

Scenes from Village Life is unlike many short story collections in that its opening story is its weakest. Upon reread it improves somewhat, but it opens the book on a distinctly odd note. Luckily, the following story "Relations" is simply superb. It may be one of the finest short stories I've ever read. The underlying anxiety, the gentle focus on family and familial love, and the slow, quiet pace are all incredibly done and by the story's end, I knew that Scenes from Village Life was going to be worth the read.

And it was. Each story is a bit twisted and strange and incomplete, but they fit together wonderfully to form the overall book. The writing, true, is a bit blunter than some of Israel's other literary masters, but Oz's ability to create a character with whom the reader can relate in so few pages is nothing short of astounding. Truthfully, Oz doesn't even need that much embellishment - the fictional Tel Ilan's vagueness can make it anyplace so much easier. That idyllic, pastoral impression that is constantly mentioned is the cracking outer edge of a concept that is infinitely more complex and universal.

What struck me most of all was how not-Israeli the majority of the characters are. Their setting, their anxieties, and their existence are purely Israeli, yes, but their personalities felt a little off. With the exception of the former politician in "Digging" whose reminiscing fits a certain mold , none of the characters fill the familiar Israeli stereotypes and as such feel somewhat foreign. For an Israeli reader, this enhances the distance Oz creates between reader, setting and character. I'm not sure what an international reader would get from this subtle characterization.

I can see why some readers don't like Amos Oz. His style isn't as clean and smooth as A. B. Yehoshua's, for example, nor as emotionally charged as David Grossman's, but it felt a bit more adventurous and experimental. Certainly, this short story collection is wonderfully characterized and is still beautifully written, even if it's a strange type of beauty. I finished reading Scenes from Village Life in a blur and could easily recommend it to other readers. Though I didn't really like the opening and closing stories (the last story takes the reader to a different, futuristic-seeming setting with an allegorical purpose that just didn't click for me), the meat of Scenes from Village Life is excellent. Yes, I'll be reading more by Amos Oz.

* Goodreads for some odd reason attributes the publication to 1998, though the book was actually published in 2009

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Abandoning The Fat Years

I'm giving up on The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung. I'm more than halfway through the book, but after a week of trying to read this relatively not-long novel, I'm done. The story isn't going anywhere, the writing is stiff and awkward, and none of the characters exactly evoke sympathy on my part.

Normally after passing the halfway mark, it might make more sense to plod on through. The problem with The Fat Years is that I can see exactly where it's going to go. Not only does the summary completely and utterly break the 10% rule of back-cover spoilers (if I'm 60% in and still haven't reached what the synopsis describes, something's wrong), the writing is clearly not going to suddenly improve and I highly doubt that the clumsy character development is going to magically turn around.

The synopsis promises that the ultimate message of the novel will "astound the world". I won't doubt that. The Fat Years isn't really a novel - it's a message badly wrapped with fictional characters. The writing is often blog-style-exposition which could theoretically work in another story, but here it fails. There's also the bluntness of a Chinese-to-English translation - I have yet to encounter a book translated from Chinese* that doesn't have an awkward taste in the other language (my case studies being English and Hebrew). This leads me to believe that the Chinese writing style is inherently different from the English, and in this regard I cannot fault any translator. I can, however, point fingers at the author for having melodramatic sentences and writing unbelievable dialogue. I can fault the author for flat characters and dull storytelling.

So yes. I'm giving up on The Fat Years. It's a bad book. And I'll have no problem adding it to my list of books I've read. I've read enough to understand that this book is a mess on a multitude of levels. I will happily let this library eBook expire a few days early.

* I wish I could specify what dialect it is originally, yet every Chinese translation I've read until now has only divulged the "Translated from the Chinese" aspect, not the specific dialect... I seriously don't get the reasoning behind this.