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.