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.