Friday, April 26, 2013

Magic on other worlds | Trafalgar

There's a hint of "finally" in my discovery of Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer (translated by Amalia Gladhart). Not just because it's one of the better books I've read this year. Not even because I had to wait a few weeks between reading the first chapter in this book and the rest. Mostly, it's a feeling of finally finding what I'm looking for - high quality, well-written, unique fantastic sci-fi from an interestingly non-Anglo perspective. It's almost as though Gorodischer has tailor-made this novel-in-stories for me. Decades before my birth. And continents away. Well played, Angélica Gorodischer, well played.

If you're looking for information on Trafalgar, you'll be hard pressed to find any on its back cover. Rather than giving hints about the stories found within its pages, the blurb instead aims to set a mood. Relax, it says. Open your mind. Take in something new and different and maybe just a bit unexpected. This might be frustrating for some readers (indeed, I personally found it to be an annoying gimmick-like choice), but it does set the mood fairly well. Because these aren't whip-fast, neck-breaking stories. These aren't swashbuckling sci-fi tales to set your hair on fire. These are coffee-shop stories that happen to take place on other worlds, with other cultures, and other frames of reference.

The first thing of note in Trafalgar is its wonderful clarity. A lot of books (particularly sci-fi) stumble over how to build their world without resorting to bloated, heavy-handed descriptions, but Gorodischer leaps over this hurdle lightly, opting instead for a casually limited scope. Because each story takes place on a different world, and because the stories are being told directly to another character, they remain small and relatively undeveloped. But we don't expect there to be a lot of descriptions of the places, the buildings, the people. That wouldn't be very conversational, would it? By making these actual stories, Gorodischer is able to get away with a crisper, cleaner storytelling style. I loved it.

The stories themselves touch on such a wide array of topics that it's hard to even classify them. Our titular main character, Trafalgar, doesn't seem to find anything wrong with this either. His stories aren't quite adventures, really - he's a businessman, after all. These are just the odd things that sometimes happen on his business trips. We get glimpses of wonders through this very particular filter.

There were two things I kept finding myself comparing Trafalgar to: one with a bemused excitement and one with a fair share of annoyance. The first was related to the way certain phrases and philosophies of the book resembled Star Trek (with a particular resemblance to TNG, which would not exist for another decade as of this book's original publication). In more than one story, Gorodischer touches on themes that often crop up in Star Trek, such as various cultural distinctions and even ideas resembling the Prime Directive. The stories were just light enough to keep me from getting too bogged down in them, but also thoughtful enough to keep me thinking throughout them. Also afterwards.

The third comparison is both the strongest, and the most frustrating. Because, though a much better book, Trafalgar very strongly reminds me of Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad, a book I've been struggling with for many, many months. Both are novels in stories, surrounding the somewhat bizarre travels of seemingly ordinary people in outer space (engineers in The Cyberiad, a businessman in Trafalgar), to odd, yet often very human, societies. Superficially, this makes these books extremely similar. Except whereas The Cyberiad is utterly absurd - and seems perfectly aware of this - Trafalgar is subtly whimsical. The Cyberiad drags on and on, while Trafalgar ends quickly and as lightly as it opened. The Cyberiad piles on more and more details; Trafalgar focuses purely on its storytelling.

This, of course, is Trafalgar's major flaw. A book that is so slim and so heavily tilted towards a storytelling form cannot dig quite so deep in other areas. World building is obviously low on Gorodischer's list of priorities in this book, but so is character development. The characters are just that - characters - but they move through their stories comfortably. They didn't feel out-of-place or particularly stiff. They don't necessarily leap from the page, but... it works. Within the context of Trafalgar's storytelling style, it makes sense.

I enjoyed Trafalgar. If it had just a bit more of a firmer impact on me, I might have even said that it was brilliant. But it falls just shy of that claim. Instead it will stand as a wonderful book with a lot of interesting ideas and vividly imagined stories. Easily recommendable.

Friday, April 19, 2013

How to be social (media)

So I've been thinking about this Youtube video for the last couple of days and I've reached the following non-conclusions: generations matter. Mediums matter. Content matters. And we, as content consumers, are pretty integral to this whole thing*. Sanne (the vlogger in this video) makes the strong point that social media is not only important, it's critical. The way she stresses the fact that many publishers are trying to use social media but failing... it's an interesting argument.

There's a lot in the video that I find striking. Maybe it's because I've been writing about books for so long (writing versus any other form of media) and maybe it's because I was just thinking about social media and the reviewer-publisher relationship the other day, but it seems to me like Sanne is viewing things differently from me, even though we should be coming from the same place.

And so I'm wondering. Do social media sites really influence the way people read (or the way we consume any content, for the matter)? My instinct would be to say "no". Book blogs, I could argue, are much more in the way of traditional print media. Except that's obviously not true. Some book blogs, yes, mostly eschew the notion of social media, but many (I'd even say by now most) book blogs have integrated their blogging with Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Tumblr, Pintrest, etc. Bloggers tweet publishers to let them know that they just reviewed one of their books. Bloggers host giveaways and contests through Facebook. They display every one of their books-read on Goodreads. And, of course, the blogging itself. Is blogging really akin to a print, critical review? Or is it something, as Sanne notes, more personal? And more believable as a result?

Obviously there are generalizations at hand here. While I would agree with Sanne that I personally would be more inclined to take advice from a reviewer I know (even if only superficially, anonymously, through the internet), it's not always true. Simply put, there are bloggers I've followed for years that I don't trust (different tastes, rating inflation, etc.). The personal, social aspect isn't what convinces me; I'm certain of most reviewers' sincerity. What convinces me is a good track record. You can tweet as much as you like, but it won't change the quality of your reviews.

Generations matter. I belong to a generation that was raised on the internet. We have been encouraged from an early age to share - share content, share our opinions, share our statuses... share everything. This is a concept my parents find foreign (and somewhat appalling). This is a concept even I find somewhat jarring at times (hence my anonymity and lack of serious social media interaction**). But the fact that a generation of readers has been raised expecting information to flow freely influences how that generation will behave as consumers. John Green's popularity is a perfect example of this. He is a rock-star writer for many, many, many readers, in large part because of his prolific and open online persona. He has made his personality and his life part of his author profile. At the end of the day, it's so much easier to enjoy and appreciate a novel when you like and understand its author. I understand John Green after having watched hundreds of his videos - it colors how I read his books and how I view his characters. How can it not?

Mediums matter. Reading a long post about my thoughts on social media and book reviewing might be boring to some people, but if I used my (crappy) webcam and did cool jump-cuts, it could be more accessible to them. Reading a book review on a blog could be more engaging than a review in the NYT Book Review. Getting a recommendation from a Facebook friend could mean more than Goodread's recommendation algorithm. It's entirely subjective, but mediums do matter. Otherwise we wouldn't distinguish.

Which leaves me with one last thought: publishers.

I'll probably be discussing this more in depth over the next few weeks***, but Sanne tosses out a small reference to the reviewer-publisher relationship near the midpoint of the video. She reminds reviewers that they can just ask for review copies - they don't necessarily need to be offered by the publishers. This is something I've known about and seen over the years, but I'll be honest that I never really made the connection between asking the publishers for review copies and social media. Except it's sort of the same thing, isn't it? It's all about sharing - sharing with the publisher that you want to read a book and sharing with your blog followers (or Youtube subscribers) that you liked (or disliked) a book. Publishers give out books for review because reviews benefit them. Why shouldn't they want reviewers approaching them, essentially guaranteeing them publicity and attention? Why shouldn't they use social media to determine who best to review their books?

I'm curious to hear from those who use social media about how it influences their book buying and/or their book reviewing. I'm curious to hear from people who avoid social media to understand why they don't use it. I'm curious about how publishers view the social media aspect and I'm curious about how an older generation - one that didn't grow up with the instant gratification and constant sharing we know today - views this growing reliance on social media. Thoughts?

* My subconscious is clearly trying to remind me to finish my math homework, yes thank you I noticed the word integral, now go away.
** Also my early aversion to use of the words "I" and "me". I've gotten over it since I first started this blog.
*** Or months. Or years, since my track record is not very good in this area...

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Why have I written to you? | Black Box

"New or old?" This was the question I asked myself as I stared at the two books on the shelf. The bookstore offered autographed copies of Amos Oz's newest collection of short stories (בין חברים - Between Friends) and a new edition of his older Black Box. After several minutes deliberation, I chose Black Box. Not because I hoped that a more established title of Oz's would necessarily be better. Rather, Between Friends is another short story collection and I wasn't sure I was over the wonderful Scenes from Village LifeBlack Box, being an epistolary novel, seemed to be about as far from the wonderful constraints of a short story collection as possible.

Yes and no.

I've known for years that my mother - the original voracious reader in the family - did not like Amos Oz or his writing style. When mentioned that I had liked - even loved - Scenes from Village Life, she was surprised. She dismissed his sharp, often coarse writing style as compared to the more elegant A. B. Yehoshua, or to the exceedingly readable Meir Shalev, or to David Grossman's emotional lyricism. Oz's style, by her measure, simply couldn't hold up. And for the most part, I agree with her assessment. Oz writes more bluntly than many of his Israeli counterparts. But it doesn't matter, because one thing is clear - Oz is an author in perfect command of his writing. Black Box is an excellent example of this.

Scenes from Village Life was special in large part because of the way Oz seemed to know exactly when to end his stories. There was a perfect level of suspense in each, wrapped up cleanly into small stories that drove me to keep reading. Though Black Box obviously has a larger narrative, this same care applies to each aspect of the novel-in-letters. Though the letters may sometimes drag on for longer than I would want/expect, it's obvious that Oz knows exactly what his characters need to say, and how.

Black Box revolves around the collapsed marriage of Alex and Ilana. At the start of the novel, Ilana is contacting Alex (a well-known professor living abroad) for the first time in seven years, asking for his assistance with their angry, often violent teenage son Boaz. Ilana's writing style is clean, one-sided and lyrical. We immediately get the impression that there's more to the story than what Ilana is sharing, and as the novel progresses, we learn about why Ilana and Alex got their divorce (with Alex completely cutting off ex-wife and son). Ilana is meanwhile remarried to Michael (Michel), whose influence on the story grows alongside Alex's re-involvement in his ex-family's life.

The story is mostly told through letters between these four major characters, with the occasional correspondence between Alex and his lawyer, clippings from Alex's notes on military history or literature, and occasionally letters from other family members. Oz does a brilliant job of switching between characters, on a level I don't think I've ever encountered in an epistolary novel. If normally the reader needs to be told who is narrating the letter before beginning to read it, in Black Box each letter-writer is so clearly distinct from one another that within the first few lines, it's obvious who is writing to whom.

For example, Ilana, as I mentioned, writes pretty. Hers is a literary style; she invokes long, beautifully written passages meditating over her impressions on what Alex is doing at any given moment. She quotes entire conversations comfortably, as though writing a novel. But her letters feel like novels in other regards as well. Ilana is an unreliable narrator, admitting to certain lies and omissions from one letter to the next, gradually letting down her guard as the story progresses. Boaz, meanwhile, writes with numerous spelling errors. His style is loose, colloquial, bad. He writes like you would expect a poorly educated teenager to write.

There is no external narration in Black Box. Most of what we know about the characters is either through their writing style or through secondhand accounts. The only character who really describes her own life is Ilana, but she herself casts doubt on most of what she says. We know she is intelligent, manipulative, and passionate from her writing style, just as we know her husband Michel is religious, single-minded and vaguely possessive from his own accounts. Alex, meanwhile, comes off as stiff and cold, whether in his sharp telegrams to his harassed lawyer or in his long, oddly pained letters to the other characters.

Though each character is thoroughly unappealing, together their letters create a clear sense of intimacy between reader and fiction. Each character frustrated me for other reasons: Boaz for his aggression and impulsive view of the world, Michel for his method of applying his political beliefs, his hypocrisy and his sexism (in general, there's an uncomfortable thread of sexism running through Black Box), Alex for his violence and coldness, Ilana for her manipulations, lies and generally victimized perspective... These are people I wouldn't want to deal with in real life, but I was nonetheless drawn into their world through Oz's clear-minded writing. I cared, even if I sort of wished I didn't have to.

I didn't love Black Box. I don't think I ever could. It's hard to love a book when its characters are so unappealing or when it brushes against politics so lightly without really revealing its true feelings. But it's also hard not to like a book that creates such a strong level of intimacy between these awful characters. Past the halfway mark of the book, I felt almost overwhelmed by one of the letters: Ilana is recounting the beginning of her relationship with Alex, her former army commander. Reading what felt like such a personal, intimate letter unnerved me, unsettled me entirely. Worse are the moments from the other end - Michel's impassioned, almost fanatical letters to Boaz felt a little too believable. By the end of the book, I had to remind myself that these were fictional characters. I had to remind myself this because an already grim story turned even more inwards. The effect was... powerful. This is not as easy a book to recommend as Scenes from Village Life, but yes - it is recommended.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Fantasy of a different flavor | The Killing Moon

It is perhaps the mark of a relatively weak reading year thus far, but there's no doubt that the book I tore through the fastest (and with the most interest) is N. K. Jemisin's The Killing Moon. Jemisin is an author I've grown to respect, even as I can't pinpoint any particular trait to her writing that I especially like (I've had specific issues with each of her books thus far, though different issues every time). What's important is that Jemisin is trying something new in fantasy, and I respect it. I also happen to like it. In the case of the The Killing Moon, I happened to like it very much.

From the back cover blurb, it's easy to understand why people regard Jemisin as a "different" sort of fantasy writer. The Killing Moon, as other reviews will already tell you, takes place in a quasi-ancient-Egyptian culture. Jemisin treats her setting carefully, making her references to the real Egypt both obvious and non-intrusive. The Killing Moon doesn't get bogged down in descriptions and bloated world building, but on the other end of the scale, I never felt like I was living in a half-developed world. This in itself is rare in fantasy, where world-building is often equated with page count. Jemisin mostly opts just to show the world - it isn't until relatively late in the novel that we begin to fully understand the events of the first chapters. This may make the opening a bit shaky for some, but I was confident enough that the story would come together... and it did.

The Killing Moon is a fantasy, but it's definitely a different type. Not only does Jemisin eschew the comfortable cliches of a European Medieval fantasy, she also opts for a very different type of magic. Indeed, rather like The Inheritance Cycle (of which I've only read the first two books), The Killing Moon feels a lot more like mythology than it does fantasy. By latching the use of magic onto the in-story religion (and its in-story mythological origins), Jemisin creates a very realistic magical approach. Magic is ubiquitous, but uncommon. It's limited to a very narrow group of people, but it applies to everyone. More than anything, the magic in The Killing Moon is an acquired ability than an inherent born talent (though there's a bit of that as well). This makes it less like the dramatic high fantasies many of us associate with the genre, and more like a strange piece of historical fiction. With magic.

All of this magic, interestingly, takes left stage to the core of the novel - diplomatic intrigue. This was where I found the true strength of the book to be - the way Jemisin makes readers believe in the politics and diplomacy within this fantasy world. Toss in a good helping of mythology, magic, manipulation and murder, and you've got something special. Jemisin raises questions about life and death, never really answering them but leaving them lingering throughout the story. Ethics and morals are important; Jemisin never fully lets her readers forget that.

But much as I enjoyed the story, I have to admit that there are some important technical flaws in this one. Characterization, for example. I liked the characters and they felt fully-formed (ish), but they didn't feel particularly real. Ehiru is intriguing, but he is not particularly engaging. Nijiri, meanwhile, is engaging, but also flatter and less developed. And Sunandi is a strange blend, where I mostly liked her, but didn't really care about her. I felt little to no emotional connection with the characters. That's fine when you're breezing through a book, but it's not exactly the mark of quality literature.

The writing is also a bit strange, but here it might have been a matter of expectations. Jemisin's style felt a bit more jaded than it did in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or The Broken Kingdoms. It mostly fit the story, but sometimes I was struck by how standard it was. Though I liked The Killing Moon significantly more than Jemisin's previous efforts, I found myself preferring the writing style in those novels over this one. Now I'm wondering if the writing style even really changed, or if it's just my memory playing tricks on me. Either way, The Killing Moon is written in a super standard "easy-to-read" style that suits its pace and its story admirably. It's good enough, but I wouldn't call it good.

Yes, I enjoyed The Killing Moon a lot. It does what fantasy is supposed to do: displace the reader, tell a good story, make the reader think. Jemisin may have stumbled a bit with two-dimensional characterizations and a distinct, somewhat blunt writing style, but overall her novel works. Not necessarily an example of true fantasy literature, but a fine book nonetheless.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A predictable Goodreads/Amazon post

You've all probably heard by now that Amazon has bought out Goodreads. This is turning out to be a pretty big deal in both the book blogging world and the external business-y world, which seems to find the acquisition either amusing or bemusing. Goodreads users are, for the most part, not in either of those camps. Most seem thoroughly unhappy about the move - some on a level that they have publicly and loudly deleted their Goodreads accounts - while the rest seem cautiously optimistic. With the exception of a few Goodreads members who commented that Amazon's acquisition will hopefully mean a better integration between Kindle devices and Goodreads, nobody was really excited or happy about this move.

"Cautious optimism" is the key here. The best case scenario, as many members have pointed out, is that Amazon only takes advantage of Goodreads' vast data store and doesn't interfere with the actual community behind this information. There might be an increase in certain types of advertisements, and more syncing with Amazon owned products or Amazon affiliates (for example, in giveaways, in compatibility with Kindles, in ads, etc.), but this best case scenario assumes that the basic functionality of Goodreads won't change.

The worst case scenario is that Amazon's policy of "your reviews belong to us" (which I didn't really realize until now, and am suddenly thoroughly uncomfortable by just how much I've given them over the years) will extend to Goodreads. That the functionality will go from a bookish social networking site that aims to build a community to another extension of Amazon's dominance in the book industry. That Goodreads' recommendation algorithm will be replaced by Amazon's significantly more commercial one. That the ease of finding old, indie or little-known books will evaporate. That the option of buying a book through an independent provider will disappear. The worst case scenario? Goodreads loses everything that made it the site that it is.

Personally, I believe in the middle ground. Obviously Amazon will be mining our personal collections now in order to better understand its customers, but is that necessarily a bad thing? I've complained for years about Amazon's stupidity when it comes to book recommendations, and the clumsy way it tries to throw the bestseller-of-the-moment at readers. With this new (and significantly improved) pile of data behind it, maybe Amazon will actually improve. Maybe it'll adopt Goodreads' book recommendation algorithm, and not the other way around. Maybe it will learn

Goodreads is probably going to change. It's going to feel different, if only because everyone will expect it to change, and be on alert for any suspicious behavior on Amazon's part. Like most Goodreads users, I'm uncomfortable and nervous and a little upset by how brazenly Amazon has been going about creating a true monopoly in the book world. But I'm not about to delete my Goodreads account. Unlike most readers, I don't really need Goodreads to catalog my books (I have a significantly better Excel document that has much more information than I'll ever give the site...). I don't even use it for the social/community aspect very well, though recently I've made a bit more of an effort. I don't really like reviewing on Goodreads, and I don't necessarily love their recommendations algorithm. But all together, it's a convenient site. The ability to access simpler, more sincere reviews than Amazon is pleasant. Seeing the different methods by which people tag and label their books is fascinating. It's less severe than LibraryThing (which I also don't like because of its price tag), and it's less commercial than Amazon. Goodreads filled a certain niche in the literary world. Hopefully this will not change, even if other details do.