Sunday, June 23, 2013

Beautiful, inconsequential | An Armenian Sketchbook

An Armenian Sketchbook is a short book, almost an interlude. I first heard about it from Stefanie of So Many Books, and was so enamored by Vasily Grossman's writing style in the quotes Stefanie included that I decided I had to read this book. And I'm glad I did, even if by the end of it I was feeling a bit bored, a bit scattered, almost as if I myself had gone on a trip that had lasted just a bit too long.

The thing is that An Armenian Sketchbook is beautiful and incredible and powerful at times, but it also feels a bit inconsequential. Banal, even. The first half of the book is mostly comprised of Grossman making these lovely, carefully worded observations of this new land he has come upon, whether of the people or of the places. His fixation on stone, for example, is predictable but nonetheless remarkable - in these passages, Grossman contemplates civilization, history, the passage of time, architecture and so much more. It might be a bit pointless, but good god it's gorgeous.

The problem begins in the second half of this short book. Because here, Grossman shifts the focus a bit more towards himself and his experiences. Here Grossman muses about religion and faith. About culture differences. About Russia. About drinking. It's a turn inwards, and though aspects of it were again very nicely written and quite interesting, I found that it just wasn't holding my attention the same way the first parts had. It became less about the travel and more about the presence. Like I said - the trip lasted too long and I got bored.

There's also the fact that I felt as though it didn't really change anything. Travel books (or in general books about places) are supposed to change our point of view, give us something new and expand our horizons. An Armenian Sketchbook did a bit of that, but it's mostly in the title - "sketchbook". I learned a little about Armenian history and culture, but... it was only a little. Minor. I sort of hoped Grossman would delve a bit deeper, but his observations - even when sharp and utterly enchanting - still felt somewhat on the surface.

But it's a short book. Really short. There's no reason not to read it and there's no reason not to enjoy it. Grossman's writing is splendid even in the less interesting parts, and the translation is as natural as any I can imagine. This was a fine introduction to an author I've been meaning to get to for a long time - I'm now looking forward to tackling Life and Fate even more.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Brave, bizarre, disappointing | Among Others

I'll say this - Jo Walton does deserve some praise and respect. Not only does Among Others break free of many of fantasy and sci-fi's traditional tropes, it does so through crisp and readable writing. It deals with issues in a way that doesn't feel like it's "Dealing with Issues". It has characters who are foreign and local, straight and gay, disabled, complicated, realistic. Unfortunately, much as I read through it with some degree of interest, the book ultimately disappointed. Really disappointed. Not simply because of some weird stylistic choices Walton made, or because of the book's structure, or the general lack of characterization, or even because of the extremely weak and frustrating ending (though this is the primary reason). At the end of the day, Among Others read like a blog, not a novel. And I'm sorry to say that sometimes that's just a bad thing.

There were a lot of reasons I read Among Others late into the night. The style is very brisk, very contemporary, very... believable. Even with the fantasy elements, even as it's infused with a healthy dose of sci-fi fandom, Among Others is written in a natural teen tone, with natural thoughts and feelings and behaviors, all expressed extremely believably. Sometimes even too believably. Mori thinks and writes about her love of sci-fi, the fairies she sees, her family, sexual thoughts, friendships and more. The flat-written parts of Mori's diary were utterly realistic, but they were interspersed with that all-too-familiar nonsense of having quoted speech in what is supposed to be a diary. The real-time versus post-time storytelling felt skewed and awkward, as it usually does in "recorded" stories.

But then there's the matter of the story. And the characters. Because my true frustration and disappointment from Among Others stems from here. The entire first half of Among Others builds a general background story for Mori to live in - we are introduced to her family dynamic, her fantasy world, her status as a "cripple" (which we know is from a relatively recent accident). We're introduced to half sketched characters - Mori's sci-fi loving father, her trio of utterly personality-less aunts, both her grandfathers, her "close" aunt from her mother's side, her schoolmates, her friends... and of course, her absent mother. These characters are loosely drawn at the best of times, having a clearly defined personality trait for the sake of "character", but not much beyond. The characters fit in nicely as background items, but though they certainly felt believable, I never felt like I could understand them fully. Their motivations are unclear. Their behaviors are inconsistent. Believable, yes. But not real.

Place these characters in strategic locations and you'd expect to get a plot. But there's no plot. There's a bit of story, yes - Mori's struggles to fit in at school, to find friends in her sci-fi book club, to move past the accident that left her disabled, the accident that killed her twin sister, to avoid all contact with her mother... These are story elements, but when Walton tries to tie them together to form a plot, the whole thing sort of collapses. The entire premise of the final magical climax felt utterly ridiculous, so baseless, that I was certain my library's digital copy must be damaged. I was certain there must have been parts missing, because nothing in the ending felt remotely developed. Quite frankly, it fell from the sky, and not in a good way. And the final lines were even worse, a clumsy attempt at resolving everything that really resolved nothing. I finished the book and wanted to throw it. Really. Throw it.

Is magic meant here as a metaphor? Probably. Is Mori's love of sci-fi meant to show us of her desire to find new and better worlds to live in? Maybe. Does it come together to form a cohesive novel? Absolutely not. Among Others has some wonderful, brilliant moments scattered throughout, but I cannot by any means refer to it as a good book. It's nostalgic in the best of ways and it's given me a lot of classic sci-fi book recommendations, but I have no idea beyond the nostalgia and perhaps Mori's believable voice as to why it's received such high accolades. Yes, it's a brave book (to a certain degree), with the way it uses magic and sci-fi and the characters it includes and some of the half-themes it houses, but I won't pretend that overall it was anything other than a disappointment. I would love to see what Walton does with a real plot and some better developed characters, but Among Others? Just a shame.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Hope: A Hebrew Book Week story

I'm linking to this video, even though it's in Hebrew and I know the majority of you won't be able to understand it, but just in case, it's worth a view. Essentially, an "undercover reporter" goes to the two major bookstore chains in Israel to observe their downright embarrassing Hebrew Book Week selling and marketing tactics. On a superficial level, nothing in this video is new to me, but it highlights a lot of the problems I have with the Israeli publishing and bookselling markets.

Israel has two major bookstore chains. These two chains do not merely compete, they battle each other tooth and nail, while almost any other form of competition has been pushed to the sidelines. To be perfectly honest, until a year ago the only independent Israeli bookstores I knew about were secondhand shops. Recently I've discovered a few legitimate, non-chain bookstores that stock new books, but even these stores usually have discounts along the lines of the major chains, also publisher-based.

The problem with Steimatzky and Tsomet Sfarim (the two major chains) isn't just their aggressive competition. It's their ties to the publishing industry. Tsomet Sfarim is owned by two major Israeli publishers, Steimatzky is partnered with two others. There is a constant, never-ending stream of discounts and sales, but exclusively for the books that that specific store is teamed with. The popular titles from the other publishers are obviously sold, but finding a slightly more obscure, older or (god forbid) independently published book is nearly impossible. The focus is entirely on the bestsellers, and more specifically on the bestsellers from the partnered publishers.

None of this is new. I stopped buying at these bookstores years ago, once I got tired of booksellers who knew way less than me and were just trying to earn a commission. Which makes the linked video even more interesting. Because in it, an experienced worker explains that "the customers don't need to know" that the books that are on display and are discounted are actually the books that the store's owners are publishing. And it strikes me that many readers probably don't know, probably in the same way that they don't grill their bookseller enough to figure out if the recommendation is sincere or scripted.

Some take this as an opportunity to declare the end of Israeli literature. Specifically one someone: the always outspoken and rather prickish Mr Menachem Perry, himself the editor of an Israeli publishing house. Perry has been declaring the death of Israeli literary culture for at least six years now (six years that I'm aware of it, at the very least). And though I completely disagree with him when it comes to most of the crotchety old man nonsense he spouts out, he's right that the current situation is seriously harming Israel's literary culture, in the same way that any homogenized, limited and severely profit-based literary culture may be.

Here's the reason I feel hope regardless. It's possible to dig through. It's possible to find booksellers who truly and sincerely care about the literature, with no regard for the publisher. I once had a long, very detailed conversation with a seller who eventually recommended a book to me that was from a different publishing house (we'll ignore for a moment that I hated the book, though it's considered to be a grand literary achievement...). During Hebrew Book Week, some booksellers try only to peddle the bestsellers, but behind them are the selectors and the publishers and the translators, and a whole heap of people who do care. And who, when I ask for a backlog title, squeal with excitement and tell me how much they love that book. Or lean forward and whisper, "I shouldn't be telling you this, but if you liked this book, you should read [other publisher's book]." Or stare, dumbstruck, as they realize that I've read most of the books on their table and a few that aren't. And then say, "You're my hero!"

It's possible to find readers who know how to look for books. It's possible to find bookstores that - despite their perpetual discounts and attempts to match the larger chains - genuinely want to sell you good books. It's possible to find beautifully crafted Israeli novels published by both larger publishers and smaller ones. It's possible to find quality literary critique. It's possible to change things, if we're only willing to try.

This year I'm feeling more disconnected from Hebrew Book Week than I ever have in the past. It might have something to do with my unrelenting schedule, my recent reading slump, and the fact that I am far away from the major Tel Aviv fairground. But I will be attending Hebrew Book Week this year, just as I have every year. Like last year, it will be without rose-tinted glasses. It will be knowing full well which books the publishers want me to read. It will be knowing full well that there will be arguments, and glares, and difficulties getting what I truly want.

But it will be with hope.