Friday, May 31, 2013

Weekend laughs

I normally don't like these types of lists, but seriously this one is spot-on. Read and enjoy.

(number nine's flowchart is particularly apt)

Monday, May 27, 2013

War, peace, love, family, life | The Time of the Doves

I was introduced to Mercè Rodoreda back in my early days of book blogging, through Three Percent and Open Letter Books. I read Death in Spring and thought the book was decidedly weird - but good. But, as is usually the case, I didn't really think much about Rodoreda until three years later, when I rather randomly bought La plaça del diamant (The Time of the Doves) in the Hebrew translation. I got it at Hebrew Book Week, as I was browsing through the output of a new-to-me publisher. Seeing the name tripped a wire in my memory, and so now, almost a year later, the verdict is in: Rodoreda is definitely a strange author, but I really, really enjoyed The Time of the Doves. Even if I'm not quite sure why.

So I liked the writing - a bit blunt, to-the-point, no loops or unnecessary lyricism that might drag the story down. No great heaving piles of interpersonal drama, but rather the much larger - and much smaller - drama of daily life during tumultuous times. I liked the brisk pace - it's a bit no-nonsense, like Rodoreda is frowning at me and saying, "Well, what did you expect? Do you really need to know what happens in those two years?" and my abashed answer would obviously have to be "No". It's a very crisp style, one that manages to say a lot more in a single paragraph than most authors can say in an entire chapter. This is exactly what all stream-of-consciousness should be like - expansive, but not rambling.

What I find most interesting about The Time of the Doves is how every reader seemed to view it differently. Some see a love story, others a family saga, others still a down-to-earth war story. One view even sees a story about the loss - and regaining - of identity. What does that say about the story? How can a single novel mean so many different things to so many different readers?

Personally, I fell in the camp of war story. The entire first half of the novel serves as a set-up for the Spanish Civil War, mainly through small hints and a subtle tense vibe. Obviously there's a bit of everything else in there too - our protagonist Natalia is not merely a figurehead for a historical story. We watch her mature, marry, have children, work, struggle, suffer and move on. The focus of the novel isn't on family, but it's impossible to extract the influence Natalia's husband and children have on her life - in fact, I would even say the way they take over her life. Yet even as this is a major theme - and critical to just about everything that happens in the book - the war looms larger. It's the war that serves as a backdrop for the most powerful scenes in the book. It's the war that catalyzes what has to be some of the quietest, most off-the-cuff dramatic scenes I've ever read. The war occupies every inch of the second half of the book, overwhelming it with fear and anxiety for both the characters and the reader. Even though most of the story takes place in peacetime, this was ultimately - for me - a story about a war.

I would say it's the strength of the small scenes scattered throughout The Time of the Doves that make it a good book. I liked everything overall, but a handful of pages really took my breath away. Because of the generally level tone, these scenes could have easily gotten lost in a worse-written book. But they didn't. Instead they managed to punch hard and fast, quickly slipping back into the general story tone. The effect may not suit all readers, but even if I'd thought the parts in between these scenes were weak (which I don't), I would probably still recommend The Time of the Doves. It's a classic for a reason - I'm very glad to have read it.

Monday, May 20, 2013

When the translator is recommendation enough

The Goodreads group Loosed in Translation has a discussion I only just noticed, essentially asking members whether they've ever read a book because it was translated by someone specific. Short answer? Yes. But alas, short answers utterly lack the complexities that we seek here in the book blogging world. And so the long answer: yes, but usually as a crossover between my Hebrew and English reading. Does this make sense?

Here's how it goes. Last year I read 46 books that were not originally written in English. 13 of those books were originally in Hebrew, which was also the language I read them in. An additional 11 were books originally written in non-English languages that I read in translations into Hebrew. The remaining 22 were read in translations into English. In a lot of cases, I read a book in Hebrew versus English because of availability - for example, Halldor Laxness is available in Hebrew only through rather awkward double translations from Icelandic. Or alternatively, Christian Signol's Un Matin sur la Terre has not even been translated into English.

But then there are times I choose to read a translation in Hebrew or in English exactly because of a specific translator. Take Philippe Claudel, for example. I've mentioned before that I have a clear preference for the translations into Hebrew versus into English. It's obvious that I will wait a little longer to read Claudel's other works in Hebrew, just so I can enjoy what I find to be a superior translation.

There's an interesting flip side to this as well. Being a native English speaker, I obviously don't read English books translated into Hebrew. But I do take note of their translators. There are certain English-to-Hebrew translators whose tastes I like, and who have a knack for capturing the feel of a certain novel so strongly that I'll actively look into what other books they've translated, if only to get some good recommendations of books to read in English.

Does it seem like this post is heavily skewed towards Hebrew translators? It should. The Hebrew book market is significantly smaller than the Anglo one - it's surprisingly simple to learn about the most prolific translators, and it's even easier to gain an appreciation for them after face-to-face meetings (at events like HBL) or correspondences. I can't think of any to-English translators who I actively follow the way I have to-Hebrew ones, but I'm gradually learning. It'll be interesting to see how I answer this questions a few years down the line...

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Unsettling, one step further | Beside the Sea

It's kind of hard to start a book like Beside the Sea without knowing how it's going to end. Maybe it had been spoiled for me in the past (a basic Google search brings up major reviews that completely spoil this novella's end...), maybe it's just something so hypnotically expectant about the writing, but the story's end didn't feel particularly surprising. That said, I'm not going to spoil it. I'll leave you anxiously expectant, as I was. But I will give you the bare-bones summary: a single mother takes her two sons on an unexpected trip to the sea. There. Story - summarized. That's a review, right?
We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us.
I've encountered reviews of Beside the Sea that tout its opening sentence as encompassing the mood of the novella.  Other readers have focused on the phrase "so no one would see us" in that first sentence, commenting that here the mysterious mood is set. Why would anyone board a bus in such fear? Who would care? But for me, the line that really captures Beside the Sea comes just a bit later, when the mother says: "I wanted us to set off totally believing in it." And here I ask another question, the one that defined my reading experience: believing in what? I felt expectant, I felt like I was waiting for something.

Beside the Sea is the type of book you'll read in one short, rather intense setting. Is this also something everyone else has already told you? Probably. Probably because it's true. Beside the Sea is short - terribly short - just that length and pulsing and hypnotizing that you don't even notice it's well past midnight and you have a test the following morning. It seems like nothing really happens until the last two pages, but then everything seems to have happened (in retrospect). It is no doubt a very unique novella, but I really don't know how much I can say I liked it.

This happens sometimes. I appreciate the artistic value behind Beside the Sea, because it's just bursting with it. The simple writing, the rather incredible pacing, those occasional punchy sentences that leap from the page... and then there's the hint of the bigger story, which Olmi never introduces to us. We catch only glimpses of the mother's life beyond her children, masterfully written in such a way that it's not as though it's just a topic she's avoiding, rather it's something that hasn't come up specifically.

And of course the ending. Not surprising in the least, it probably won't actually catch readers off guard. But if people admire the opening sentence, I have to admire the closing one - in three words, Olmi leaves readers even more unsettled and uncomfortable than everything else that had come before it. That's a pretty major achievement. But still. I couldn't actually like the book. You can't just like this type of book. And I can hardly imagine recommending it to someone. I'm not sure I'd be able to look them in the eye and hand off this strange and powerful experience. I'll leave that decision up to any prospective reader, I suppose. On your own head be it.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Flipping book cover gender expectation

This is brilliant, courtesy of Maureen Johnson.
I asked people to take a well-known book, then to imagine the author of that book was of the opposite gender, or was genderqueer, and imagine what that cover might look like.
Some of the results, as seen at the first link, are positively genius. The pink and lace on the gender-swapped A Game of Thrones is remarkably similar to endless fantasy books written by women, and On the Road is spot-on. Seriously. Spot. On.

The point here, of course, is fairly simple - covers (particularly in the young adult category) have a gender bias. It often doesn't matter what the content of the book is. Case in point. And it's not as though we can pretend that books aren't judged by their covers. Of course they are. That's why publishers make certain choices, hoping and thinking that by making a book seem more effeminate, they'll be able to draw in more female readers, absolutely disregarding any potential male readers who will most likely now completely ignore the book. And the critics, who will now most likely completely ignore the books. And our collective literary consciousness.

Basically, Maureen Johnson: thank you.

Monday, May 6, 2013

When ideas within a framework fail to impress | The Garlic Ballads

Is there something about Chinese fiction that's problematic for me? Of the four Chinese novels I've read (or gave up on for very good reasons) in the past few years, ironically only the one I read in a translation into Hebrew has been any good (Chronicle of a Blood Merchant)*. Of the English translations, I couldn't finish The Fat YearsThe Dictionary of Maqiao was a slog most of the way through despite its clever structure, and now the fourth, The Garlic Ballads... I just finished Mo Yan's novel and am feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

I've been trying to finish The Garlic Ballads for weeks, actually. It's a bit like the situation I found myself in with The Fat Years - I wanted to keep reading out of sheer inertia. The Fat Years I gave up on the moment I lost a bit of momentum. I kept reading The Garlic Ballads because one thin aspect of the story seemed like it might develop further. It ultimately developed into a rather horrifying scene, but otherwise fully failed to move me.

If the eBook hadn't been returned to the library a few days ago, I would have been able to actually quote from the passages that highlighted much of what I didn't like about the book. But even without the book in front of me, I can clearly state that somewhere - either in the translation or while actually writing the novel - someone missed an important lesson on dialogue. The Garlic Ballads has a bizarre mash-up of flowery prose alongside extremely brash colloquial speech. It has nothing to do with certain characters speaking one way or another - the same character might give a very proper, stilted speech, and two pages later use slang that seems utterly out of place. Every translation from Chinese I've read - whether in Hebrew or in English - has had a very specific stiff feel to it, recognizable even across the different languages. This, coupled with the scant Chinese I know, leads me to be more lenient when it comes to translations from Chinese. But not this lenient. You lose me once the inconsistencies start.

I don't know why I didn't like The Garlic Ballads quite so much. It's not a horrible book, but I never felt like I connected with it: I didn't care about the characters, I didn't like the writing, and the plot kept feeling like some slippery ice-cube I was trying to grab inside a giant bath. I wasn't sure if Mo was winking at the readers, or at the government, or at the Western world, or what. But it felt like he was winking. Each chapter opens with a quote from the blind minstrel's "garlic ballads", where a lot of the political stuff gets jammed. It's generally a clever idea, having quotes from one of your characters framing the story (though the minstrel remains generally background until the very end), but... did it lead to anything? Did it enlighten me? Things happened, yes, and ideas were tossed around, but was there a plot? Was there character development? Was there anything?

So I end up feeling a bit like I did after The Fat Years. Namely, that Mo had a bunch of ideas, and decided to place them within a specific framework. Unlike the awful mess that was The Fat Years, The Garlic Ballads does a much better job of telling some kind of story (even if it's unclear what that story is). The gimmick here - the framing - is much more successful. The writing is also much better. But overall, I can't say that I enjoyed this book or took something significant from it. Even when reading the "difficult" scenes, I felt like an outsider who was uncomfortable, not like a character going through these events myself. I finished the book and just felt relieved to be done with it. I could now mark a V next to its title. Going through the motions... never a good indication when it comes to literature.

* This is mostly ironic because the vast majority of Chinese books are translated into Hebrew through English. I bought Chronicle of a Blood Merchant in large part to send a subtle hint to publishers that they can translate directly from the original language, and shouldn't be quite so cheap. Turns out I liked the book.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Yes, eLibraries are improving

It was about a year ago that I wrote a fairly angry post about the Boston Public Library's general failings as, well, a library. Though it went against all my instincts to criticize any library, I felt as though the BPL and I had reached an impasse - they remained firmly in an old-fashioned, clunky, messy state of mind while I wanted them to move forward. Then, over the past couple of months, as both my other local eLibraries have made the excellent step of adopting Overdrive's new website style (and longer check-out periods as well), I began to think that maybe it was time to write off the BPL for good. Why was I still holding on?

The reason is actually quite simple - content. The BPL has a large, very diverse eBook collection. Even though everything else about their site (and their overall library) is distinctly lesser, there's no way around the fact that they often have access to books and media that smaller libraries don't. And now, despite their instance on sticking to Overdrive's old, clunky site design, the BPL has actually gained back some of my respect.

Why? Because the BPL has the option of recommending eBooks for the library to purchase. And more surprisingly, they actually listen. The day I discovered this rather hidden feature, I recommended five books immediately. When I came to recommend the sixth, I realized there was a limit. A week or two later, this limit was lifted and I was able to recommend another five books. I assumed these recommendations were going to the same place my complaints about the non-electronic library had gone, but I figured I might as well show an interest in these smaller publishers whose books I wanted to read.

The other night just as I was about to go to sleep, I saw a new e-mail from the BPL, informing me that the book I had placed on hold was ready for check out. Then another e-mail came in, and another seven in quick succession. Nine out of my ten requests were now on hold for me. The tenth was a book I had recommended the BPL purchase for the sake of other readers - Brodeck, one of my favorite books from the past few years. It too was suddenly in the library's collection.

eLibraries get a lot (a lot) of flak. Truthfully, most libraries have fairly limited collections and awkward search engines. Most probably do not enable recommendations as easily as the BPL does. Of the two other eLibraries I patron, one has no option to recommend titles, and the other has a much less intuitive recommendation form.

But the fact that the BPL is doing this is tremendous. The fact that recommended books are bought within two weeks is incredible. Digital libraries may still be flawed, but now the heaviest claims are starting to disappear. I love that browsing is improving for some eLibraries. I love that I can recommend the library purchase boatloads of translated fiction, or books from the NYRB or a publisher like Small Beer Press. I love that I recommended the BPL buy Brodeck, a gem of a book, and now within 48 hours of its purchase, it's already been checked out and there are two other people on the hold list. I love that half of the books I requested already have others clamoring to check them out. Most of the books in the BPL's digital catalog are mass-market romances, or thrillers, or books that simply don't interest me. But now there are ten more interesting, diverse, and somewhat unexpected books within the BPL's collection. More on the way, with the books I requested today. And I'm looking forward to reading them.