Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Israeli writers today

In a comment on a review of Amos Oz's Scenes from Village Life over at Tony's Reading List, I remarked that there's a new shift in Israeli literature away from vague descriptions of the hardships and political turmoil of the region. In my haste and carelessness, I unintentionally led to some confusion, with Tony responding: "So are you saying that in the past writers preferred to allude to the issues rather than confront them?" To which I must apologize and say, No. That's not at all what I was referring to.

I generally divide Israeli literature into three categories - there's the older generation of writers (like S. Y. Agnon or even Aharon Appelfeld) who are irrelevant for this post, the middle, commonly translated era of Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, David Grossman and a few others, and then there's the modern era - authors who have only recently begun their literary careers and are writing in what seems to be a post-political age.

It's this post-political age I was referring to in my comment. Authors like Grossman and Yehoshua (and I suspect Oz as well, though I have not actually read any of his works...) often refer to the regional struggles in a vague and background sort of way - the matters always exist in the story, but they are not always explicit. They do not take center stage, or even when they do, they don't exactly. It's an effect that mainly echoes a feeling in Israeli society: life goes on, but there's always a nagging something that casts its shadow over the bigger picture.

The younger generation of Israeli writers, though, have started to step away from this coy game. Instead, there has been an explosion in social literature: you can hardly walk into a bookstore without tripping over the next great novel about a middle-aged Tel-Aviv-ite, or the life and times of a kibbutz. There are still war-stories, and historical fiction that delves into many of Israel's older wars, as well as many books that deal with the issues head-on, but fewer and fewer novels seem to have that shadow hanging over them, or political aspirations of any kind, instead falling into more distinct characterizations. The Grossman-Oz-Yehoshua triangle of political activism has paved way for a clear division, allowing authors to write books separate from any socio-political issues. A sign of the times, perhaps.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Debunking the golden age of literature idea... again

After years of arguing against the alleged "golden age" of literacy and literature, I have to admit to a bit of smug delight in seeing this chart (via Books, Inq.):

As the attached article points out, this chart seems very much indicative of the fact that reading rates have risen sharply over the past fifty years, rather than declined from a so-called better time for reading and literature. Madrigal, however, starts to get a bit muddled and distracted when attempting to explain away this statistic (or rather, what we assume to be the statistic, as this survey is outdated by a few years... also, perhaps more people today are in the middle of reading, but overall finish fewer books...? I'm going to ignore that thought for the purposes of this post...).
After I posted this chart, Twitter friends made some good points: 1) This chart does not establish that high-quality literature readers have increased. That is true. 2) There are a lot of factors that go into these numbers and variables that are unaccounted for 3) The big spike is partially driven by higher levels of higher education attainment. 4) Perhaps the quality of books has fallen, even as the number of readers has grown. 
While Madrigal is not wrong to address these points (particularly after they were raised by various readers), I feel that too many concessions are made to satisfy that awful misconception that there obviously was a golden age, and that today is the terrible, apocalyptic, polar opposite of that time. People seem to be rushing to maintain that age-old idea, whether by trying to dismiss the quality of the books people read today, or even by saying that it's only because of increased education (and that's clearly such a terrible thing, right?). Madrigal ends the article with a slight back-out, pointing out that today we only remember the best books of that golden age, while bad books of our modern era have yet to fade from the public view.

It's a bit of a weak ending, a point I feel needs to be reemphasized. Today - right now - we cannot know what will be remembered. What we see from previous generations has gone through dozens of filters, whether of literary awards, bestsellers, or simply books that have gained a following over the decades. The bad books have long ago gone out of print. Even many good books have gone the way of the dinosaur. This is, alas, the natural cycle of books (though makes a strong case for the return of many of these often-ridiculous books).

The fact is, though, that even if books today are of lower quality (and that's a huge if), I am firmly of the belief that at least people are reading, and more importantly, capable of reading. I cannot judge a reader for liking certain books, or having a particular style. I can judge a person for actively choosing not to read. It would appear that had I lived in the fifties, I would have had to be a lot more judgmental.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Childhood discoveries too late | Chrestomanci

In the space of a few short months, I've gone from having read nothing by Diana Wynne Jones to wanting to read everything she's written. The fault lies squarely with DWJ's Chrestomanci series, which is an undoubtedly entertaining and amusing series. And, to a certain degree, with the character of Chrestomanci himself, but I'll get to that in a moment.

Best of the bunch
The wonderful thing about the Chrestomanci series is how perfectly it occupies a personal, treasured niche in my reading history while remaining entirely new and fresh. I purchased the combined edition of Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant half by accident - it was available for only a couple of dollars at the Border's going-out-of-business sale, and as the only title by DWJ available, I figured it would have to do as my introduction to her writing (despite having previously concluded that it was perhaps better to start with something a bit more mature). I read it almost out of necessity - I was craving a kids fantasy, and Charmed Life fit that bill perfectly. It also happens to be a delightful book and is immediately followed by The Lives of Christopher Chant, which is an even better book (and still one of the best books I've read in recent months).

The only problem I can find with the Chrestomanci books is that I came to them too late. These are silly, witty fantasies involving young children engaging in silly and often even downright weird activities and experiencing magic in different and strange ways. It's a good deal of fun, and all I can think about is how I would have enjoyed these books as a young bookworm. The writing is unabashedly childish and fun, indeed charming. These are books to be read and enjoyed, books that remain as entertaining today as they must have been twenty-thirty-plus years ago when they were first published.

And then there's Chrestomanci himself. That is, Christopher Chant, who features as Chrestomanci in three of the four books that I've read in the series, and in the fourth is outright the main child character. Chrestomanci is one of the best characters of kids fantasy literature, period. His affinity for good clothing, his seemingly ambivalent outward demeanor, his unique sense of humor, his childhood passions and quirks, and a myriad of other original traits make him a strong character in The Lives of Christopher Chant (and the reason that that novel is the best of the bunch, by a long shot), and a delightful guest star (or even featured guest star) in the other books. Witch Week, which features perhaps the broadest cast of characters, shines brightest once Chrestomanci enters the picture and ties the story (and characters) together. The Magicians of Caprona, meanwhile, falls in part because of Chrestomanci's minimal involvement (though is rescued by an absolutely thrilling second half).

Whether or not the next DWJ book I read will be a Chrestomanci book, I cannot say. But I am certain by this point that there will be a next DWJ book, and that I will eventually want to finish reading all the Chrestomanci stories. And even more certainly, I know that when I recommend good fantasies for kids, the Chrestomanci books will be high on my list.

Friday, April 6, 2012

SAFL #12: Redemption in Indigo

Original and enticing
A friend - upon noticing a clear preference for science fiction in her recent reads - once commented that she had found herself reading less fantasy, as it all seemed grounded in the same European-Medieval tradition. While my friend presented it somewhat bluntly and black-white, the truth is that fantasy is often deeply grounded in Western European models. This is not to dismiss that setting (I happen to have a particularly cherished spot on my literary shelf for the Medieval times), but cliches of any kind can grow quite tiresome. Even though my fantasy re-education is still at its start, I make a point to steer clear of a European domination and have sought out fantasies that belong to other schools of thought.

So far, the absolute best of these is Redemption in Indigo. Relatively short, Redemption in Indigo is a book that applies an old-school storytelling style narration that sneakily presents a whole world without really presenting, well, anything. Descriptions are fairly limited in scope and content for the most part, but despite this minimalist storytelling style, Karen Lord succeeds magnificently in exactly that field: storytelling. Concise and clean, Redemption in Indigo has a strange, fable-esque story, and is populated characters drawn in a fairy-tale like manner. The result is all around impressive, allowing the book to stand out as an excellent example of non-standard storytelling.

Redemption in Indigo is, ultimately, fantasy for those who have grown tired of fantasy cliches. The village setting, the character models and the overall story come through in a wonderfully original fashion alongside the mythological and fairy-tale styling. A fine example of quality fantasy literature, especially for those seeking something with a slightly different taste.