Saturday, January 28, 2012

Links for the weekend

From an excellent guest post by Sharon T Rose over at Drying Ink about the relevance of science fiction:
Science fiction in all it incarnations steps outside of the usual and presents us with a fresh look at some things that are actually quite familiar to most of us. Star Trek is a classic example: all the issues and conflicts in the far-flung future make-believe were actually very relevant to the modern human audience. Class battles, racism, government, love and/or lust, culture clash, inequality ... those are all issues that you and I deal with in our everyday lives.
On another end of the genre scale, a case for the classics by the ever-thoughtful Amanda of Dead White Guys (hat tip Entomology of a Bookworm):
[Classic] authors spent a great deal of time addressing the evils they saw in society. Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo attacked society’s treatment of the poor. Tolstoy’s meditations on serfdom speak to economic inequality in modern society. Dostoevsky addresses political oppression. Jane Austen and the Brontes all critique society’s treatment of women.
Finally, Biblioklept has a wonderful write-up about one of my all-time favorite books (A Wrinkle in Time, discussed here and here) in honor of the fiftieth anniversary edition:
Wrinkle endures also because of its handling of complex themes of conformity, idealism, faith, and science. It’s a book that challenges a youngish audience to read in new ways.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Quote of the week

Her laughter was never more to peal in the United Principalities or anywhere on this earth. Her sufferings had dissolved in a place of greenness and tranquility. Her face was no longer rosy, but thereafter, at least in the month of May, the color of the peonies would recall her cheeks. Now the human language, as many as she had learned, crumbled to dust in Paradise, where the children learn a single language, that of the Heavens.

-p. 173-174, The Days of the King - Filip Florian

Monday, January 23, 2012

SAFL Roundup: How to justify

Much like the very concept of SAFL, I'm stealing this idea directly from Space Station Mir. For those who may have forgotten (due to my disappointingly sporadic updates regarding this "project"), SAFL (Science and Fantasy Literature) seeks to name 20 powerhouse sci-fi and fantasy books that deserve to be ranked as straight-up Literature. I was naive at first, convinced that I'd be able to name twenty such books easily, without too much effort.

I was wrong. What I took on as a slight, light challenge, turned into an almost vicious determination to find books that qualify. My goals shifted as the project grew - I decided to minimize the number of young adult or kids books to be included in the list, I decided to try to find as many original proposals as possible, and to pick books that could be universally viewed as worthy recipients of the "Literature" stamp.

When I started seeking out SAFL, I was more open to including young adult or kids books in my list. Seeing as A Wrinkle in Time and The Giver are the first books that come to mind when I think of quality science fiction that has stood the test of time, these both made the early cut. The fact that both books are geared towards children and helped shape my perception of literature and science fiction in particular is only an asset, in my mind. The two books are intelligent, entertaining, well-written and truly timeless.

Among the adult books, though, there's a slight divide regarding my own definition of SAFL. On the one hand I have straight-up science fiction - books that undoubtedly belong to that genre but transcend it due to higher quality or classic status. These are books like Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End or Stanislaw Lem's excellent Solaris. On the other end there are books that incorporate fantasy or sci-fi within their more standard stories, books that perhaps have an easier time appealing to audiences unused to sci-fi and fantasy. Here I recommended One Hundred Years of Solitude (literature by anyone's measure, fantasy by mine) and the sadly underrated The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years. And then Flatland just lives in a world of its own.

In the space of a year, I have managed to name and justify only seven books that I feel belong to the Literature camp. But there are a lot more, I'm just not posting about them. Some, it's true, don't fully deserve to be called literature, but are worth discussing for their shuffles between the two worlds. Others are classics I greatly enjoyed, but read so long ago I feel uncomfortable writing about them now that most of the details have faded from memory (Dune and The Lord of the Rings come to mind...). Furthermore, it's easy to notice my personal skew towards science fiction as opposed to fantasy, something both unintentional and misleading.

I'd like to fix these problems. I'm still searching for twenty SAFL titles, still searching for books that maybe don't get the readership they deserve because of their genre, still looking for books that incorporate science fiction or fantasy into an otherwise "literary" story, still looking for sci-fi and fantasy that makes my mind bend in a way only quality literature can. I just need to make a point to discuss my findings a bit more periodically.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Putting John Green into context | The Fault in Our Stars

I've waited a few days to write about The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It hasn't been very easy to collect my thoughts. For starters, it's the most recent book by an immensely popular author, a book that many, many people have been eagerly anticipating (anticipating far more than I have, to be honest). But more to the point is the fact that Green's latest novel is a bit perplexing in a way I've grown to associate with his works.

The reason I've stuck with John Green over the years is because I like his style as an author. Back when I first read Looking for Alaska (and was thoroughly underwhelmed), I was struck by how easy-to-read his writing was. Green writes like he talks - a bit pretentiously, a bit unrealistically, but intelligently and with a lot of wit. Though I didn't really like the plot or characters in Green's debut, I stayed up until two in the morning to finish reading it, concluding that it just wasn't my style. And so the following year, I read Green's second novel, An Abundance of Katherines, which I quite enjoyed. In my growing, adolescent mind, the differing approaches of the two books made John Green an author worth reading, even if aspects of his writing were bothersome.

I only read Paper Towns, Green's third novel for young adults, after becoming well acquainted with Green's prolific online persona, as I reached the end of adolescence. The fact is that he truly writes like he talks - within the context of his personality, the way his male protagonists behave and the way things happen make it easier to forgive him for common young-adult novel transgressions (like the fact that all of his characters are unreasonably clever and witty and often sound very similar to each other).

Green Green signature
Which leads me back to The Fault in Our Stars, which is both very similar to every other John Green book I've read until now, and markedly different from all others. Like everything Green writes, the characters in The Fault in Our Stars are pretentious and clever and witty and thoroughly self-aware. It should be annoying, but unlike Paper Towns (where I did ultimately feel annoyed but managed to ignore it...), I wasn't even bothered. Maybe it's because The Fault in Our Stars is narrated by a girl (a first for Green), maybe it's the fact that it's such an emotionally charged book, and maybe it's just that it's better written. On a technical level, I knew I could be bothered... but I wasn't.

The Fault in Our Stars does a very good job of breaking free of its expected realm. It may be a love story, but it works as well for young men as it might for women. It may be about teenagers, but adults will find as much to relate to as their younger counterparts. It may be a bit too clever, but anyone can feel the powerful emotional punches this book throws. It may seem like a simple story, but the simplicity is deceptive - The Fault in Our Stars runs a lot deeper than would appear.

The Fault in Our Stars is the first book by John Green I've purchased, having checked out all others from the library. I'm glad this is the one I bought. This is his best book so far and though my thoughts are still formulating, I suspect that I'll be coming back to reread it sometime soon.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

On the other hand... too much Tevye

One of my favorite movies is without a doubt Fiddler on the Roof. Everything about it - from the score, to the songs, to the wit, to the cinematography, to the story - makes it one of the most powerful and amusing films I've ever had the pleasure of watching. So it makes a lot of sense that I'd eventually want to read the original Tevye the Dairyman stories by Sholem Aleichem.

I started reading the complete collection, but for now I've stopped. Stalled, even. Tevye's character is somewhat silly - a man who consistently misquotes everything, views the world through a narrow scope, and is one stubborn fellow. Tevye is somewhat loud in tone, a bit jolly and comic-relief for my taste. There's wit, yes, but it's of a dryer, more sly nature than that used in the movies. It's subtle, and apparent that Sholem Aleichem was teasing both his character and the reader with every passing page.

And it's all a bit too much.

I have no doubt in my mind that I'm going to keep reading Tevye the Dairyman. One of my greatest literary goals remains reading the Tevye stories in their original Yiddish (this may take some years of study...), and in the meantime I'll continue reading them much in the same way I read essay collections, or many short story collections - sporadically. This is a book that will remain on my bookshelf, but will not be dominated by it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Things to take pride in

I don't like to do end-of-the-year posts, but I do have some quick comments about my "official" 2011 reading year (even if I still think that it's a weird way to measure reading). Mostly, that I'm feeling fairly relaxed and calm about the way I read and the conclusions I've been reaching about literature. It's not just a numbers things, but more in terms of diversity. After years of feeling that I'm not reading right, along comes a year in which I read what I want, how I want, and without feeling like I owe anyone anything.

For starters, I've continued my trend of reading more books in Hebrew. Though a native speaker, reading in Hebrew has always been significantly harder (and slower) for me. Three years ago, I read only two books in Hebrew. This year, I read 19 books in Hebrew. Overall, only 58% of the books I read were originally in English: taking into account the fact that I read more science fiction and fantasy this year (genres almost exclusively dominated by English language books), this is a pleasantly surprising number. The remaining 42% is spread out over 19 other languages. Once books in Hebrew are taken into account, this means 35% of the books I read were in translation - not a huge statistic, but not an embarrassing one either.

This pleases me. I know it shouldn't - I know there's no reason it should - but something about the fact that I read books translated from languages I'd never read before makes me quite happy. It makes me feel as though I'm finally doing what I've always sought to do: broaden my horizons, learn about other cultures, step outside my "comfort" zone, and read what interests me. But I know that pushing myself further will ruin everything I've achieved until now. The fact that I read so much science fiction this year was a joy. The fact that I let myself read some sillier young adult books this year made it more relaxed. The fact that I didn't spend all year long counting and measuring what books I was reading meant that I was reading only for pleasure, never once telling myself that I have to read something specific.

I know it won't be easy to continue with this type of reading. Even though it's far more rewarding, I sometimes still fall back on the "reading is a race" mentality. Even this week, I found myself thinking that I was doing something wrong by not finishing a book I'd started last week and doing other things instead of reading. It's a gradual process, but at least it's happening. And I'm gaining so much more from reading this way.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Problems with the fictionalized memoir | In the Sea There Are Crocodiles

I decided to read In the Sea There Are Crocodiles based this review from BookSexy, mostly because in that review, Tolmsted mentioned that Fabio Geda's book had been marketed for both a young adult audience and an adult audience. Intrigued by the fact that a translated, fictionalized memoir could possibly be marketed as young adult fiction (which has almost no world literature), I made a mental note to look into In the Sea There Are Crocodiles. Of course, when the time came and I checked the book out of the library, I'd forgotten my original reason for reading it. In fact, it never occurred to me that In the Sea There Are Crocodiles could be marketed as young adult fiction. I'm not sure what I think about it, now that I've finished reading the book.

Like with most memoirs, I had trouble cutting the real-life person - Enaiatollah - out of the story. The closest comparison to In the Sea There Are Crocodiles is What is the What by Dave Eggers. That was also "based on a true story" and had a very confessional feel to it (though In the Sea There Are Crocodiles felt a lot more like a transcript, or a direct-to-print record). Both books flirt with the fiction-memoir line in a way that mostly just ignores the standards of both genres and creates something new and different. The thing is, Eggers managed to distance himself from the story fairly well. What is the What almost felt like a novel - there was a bigger story and there were characters we got to know and care about. In the Sea There Are Crocodiles is - by definition - not that kind of book. Enaiatollah presents his story in the most simplistic and stripped down manner, sometimes even childishly. There's no embellishment, nothing of what we would expect to see in a novel. He even says to Geda at some point:
Facts are important. The story is important. It's what happens to you that changes your life, not where or who with.
I can't begin to explain how that sentence skewed the way in which I read In the Sea There Are Crocodiles. Maybe it's because I completely disagree with statement in terms of my own life, but the moment Enaiatollah said this to Geda (and repeatedly insisted that the characters were interchangeable and that it didn't matter who did what and why, just that they did), I started to see In the Sea There Are Crocodiles in a very different light.

As a story, I cannot fault In the Sea There Are Crocodiles. It's cleanly written and presented, and very interesting. It's the kind of story that takes you to new and unfamiliar places and will put your emotions through a meat grinder. It's hard not to get involved in the story, just like it's hard not to want to know what will ultimately happen to Enaiatollah. His life, his observations, his horrors - they all come alive through Geda's crisp writing. But as a book? Even as a memoir, In the Sea There Are Crocodiles falls behind. It's vaguely like a children's book in that regard - you're given the story, but not the feelings. Enaiatollah never fully came to life and at times it was hard to imagine his world because he repeatedly insisted that it was irrelevant.

The truth is that perhaps it is irrelevant. To him. To the person telling the story, I can easily imagine how there might be little need to talk about the children who died or what kinds places he was at. But for me as a reader, it was hard to read a book that feels and tastes like fiction, but let it slide on things I normally wouldn't let slide.

At the end of the day, the fictionalized memoir is one of the hardest genre to critique. I have no qualms with the story (obviously), nor with its presentation. It was with the presentation of the characters and the world that I felt was skewed, and with the vague attitude of the narrator that I struggled with. There's much to recommend in In the Sea There Are Crocodiles and as a story it works excellently. My personal disagreement with the narrator regarding the nature of storytelling may have meant that I enjoyed this book far less than other readers have, but I certainly came away from it knowing more about the world. I only wish that I could have known more about the boy behind the story.