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."