Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Mediocrity, the greatest disappointment

What's worse - a bad book that makes you feel so passionately about it you're angry for days and days just thinking about the ending, or a mediocre book that slips from your memory almost immediately?

Once upon a time, when I was a less educated and critical reader than I am today, mediocrity hardly existed. When I was growing up, books generally fell into the camps of "books I love" and "books I hate", with very little in between. The more I read and grew and expanded my literary perception, the more I began to find a middle ground. I realized that I could like a book without it being good, and I realized a book could be good without necessarily enjoying one iota of it. The potential of a lukewarm response - for mediocrity, for ambivalence - suddenly arose.

It's been particularly bad this year. Besides the fact that I've read very few books this year (relatively speaking), I've noticed that few have stood out in any way, whether positively or negatively. There are some books I disliked and some books I quite liked, but nothing this year has evoked anywhere near the passion and excitement I felt after reading, say, Wolf Hall. Or The Golden Age. Or A Monster Calls, The Name of the Wind, even the absolute hatred I felt after reading In the Shadow of the Banyan or Across the Universe. Some books have been good, some have been bad. But I've been feeling utterly empty regarding most of them.

I don't like mediocrity. I don't like ambivalence. I like gaining something from the books I read, whether intellectually, emotionally, or imaginatively. I like my books to change me, for good or for bad. Books are supposed to leave an impact on their readers. A book that fails to do so is, in my mind, committing the greatest crime - worse than bad plotting, bad writing, or bad characterization will ever be. Because books need to matter.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Thoughts on poetry and Sylvia Plath

The cliche to reading Sylvia Plath entails a certain darkness. It should be nighttime, cold, the reader in a dark and hushed environment, wrapped in a heavy blanket, melancholy and sadness set deep in order to fully appreciate the distinctly depressive undertones that ripple throughout Plath's poetry. The reader is in a deeply meditative mood, contemplating each word and every sound individually and carefully. That's the cliche.

So of course I sat down to read Plath's The Colossus on a bright, sunny Friday afternoon at a pool party, with a loud, cheerful pop playlist and the happy sounds of the party-goers enjoying themselves in the pool accompanying Plath's gorgeous heavy poetry.

I've liked Sylvia Plath for years, ever since I first read The Bell Jar. I read the book in one sitting at the library, curled up in a thoroughly uncomfortable chair, but completely and utterly enraptured by the characters and the language of Plath's only novel. I was barely sixteen, at a particularly difficult point in my life, and that "gorgeous heaviness" spoke to me. A few weeks later, I started investigating Plath's poetry, but I never really delved into it fully. Now, a few years later, I find myself visiting this strange tortured land again and yes, I love it.

This isn't a review of The Colossus. At this point in my life, I absolutely lack the credentials to review poetry. I can only enjoy poetry for what it is, enjoy it for its sounds and its rhythms, for the emotional impact it leaves on me and for the way it touches me. Poetry is less about the technical, individual aspects that I can dissect novels into. Poetry is much more personal - what hits me like a ton of bricks might not even make your eyelids twitch.

I liked The Colossus. Plath has an obvious way with words (her vocabulary is unreasonably and wonderfully complex), but more than that the poems breathe. They're different and beautiful and powerful all at once. Unlike most poetry collections, I was able to sit and swallow The Colossus in one or two sittings, without feeling like the poems repeated themselves thematically or lyrically. And contrary to what we like to say, Plath's poetry isn't really dark. It's a bit heavy, yes, but I didn't feel as thoroughly depressed as I might get reading teen poetry anthologies. Or even some classic Romantic poetry. Not happy, but I left The Colossus feeling not as though I'd been emptied, but as though I'd been filled somehow - beautiful words, images and thoughts that have left me with a taste for more poetry...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A prologue to a non-existent book | In Her Absence

I wouldn't even call Antonio Muñoz Molina's In Her Absence a novella. It's a short story, or even more accurately, a prologue - the entirety of the story takes up so little space and covers so little time, it feels like a grand setup for a different, larger novel. A novel that never comes to fruition.

This has been happening to me quite a bit recently - I'll read a book, it'll be moderately worthwhile but generally disappointing, to the point that I finish it and wonder what I'm supposed to say and do now. What can I possibly say about In Her Absence, other than the fact that it's an introduction more than it's its own story? How long can I discuss the writing (good, but not particularly noteworthy or remarkable)? The clearly drawn characters who ultimately go nowhere? The utter lack of plot that leads to a bizarre and thoroughly open-ending conclusion?

Essentially, yes: I was disappointed by In Her Absence. As a stylistic exercise, I can understand the appeal of this short story - it builds two characters from scratch, presents readers with their lives and backgrounds and flashes of their personalities, all developed between the rather mysterious and inconclusive concept that opens and closes the story. The writing is definitely solid and there are no glaring issues. It's the lack of resolution that made me feel like it's a prologue. I could easily imagine a four-hundred paged novel that uses the entirety of In Her Absence as Part 1, a backdrop to a larger story, the introduction to the characters, the various mysterious plot threads, and a general mood setter. It would work wonderfully as such. By itself, it felt rather empty.

Normally I don't say things like this. Normally I tell longer novels that they need to be shorter. Normally I'll recommend threads of a story be cut down into a slim novella rather than a bloated five-hundred paged mess. I never even knew that I could want a short story to be more broadly developed. I never thought I'd ever hope for less minimalism. What a contradictory feeling...

Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday links

  • A great post about the impact of eReading on one's reading habits - for me, eReading will never be able to fully replace print (for practical reasons, among which is the fact that my eReader doesn't support Hebrew), but generally speaking, Greg is spot on. Not only has the eLibrary (in part because of its limited scope...) introduced me to books I might otherwise not have read, I've also started reading books concurrently, leading to, yes, more books read.

  • Israel is the guest of honor at this year's Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL), with plans for several very popular Israeli writers to be stopping by - it sounds like a trip to Hebrew Book Week, except with all the good authors there at the same time, and with a lot, lot, lot more people attending.

  • The stats on U.S. children's books reveal that most main characters are white, despite clearly changing demographics. One theory seems to be "diversity doesn't sell", but... I'm not buying it. This is something that needs to change.

  • The short lists are out for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards, and as always I'm just thrilled that this award exists, if only to remind people that sci-fi and fantasy are not, have never been, and should never be an exclusively Anglo affair.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

How our experiences influence our reading

I want to link to Ria's excellent post over at Bibliotropic not only because it's brilliant, but also because it's something that I've thought about a lot over the past few years. Ria wonders about whether we as readers can ever "read in a vacuum" or somehow read objectively, without prior experiences influencing the new stories we consume.
[...]I look back at some of my early reviews and wonder just what I was thinking. Some books I read and rated 3 years ago may now not pass muster if I read them for the first time today, because my experience has grown, my literary world expanded, and my opinions refined and honed beyond what they were in the past. [...] It’s a rare person, I think, who doesn’t look back on their past critiques and wonder what they might think now. Would they rate something higher or lower? Would they even bother to read that book now, if now was the first time they came across it?
I've written before about how I don't think that reviews are fixed walls, and that opinions can't change. As I mentioned in that post, I think that it's perfectly normal and understandable and legitimate to feel one thing immediately after finishing a book, and then realizing three months later that actually, no, your opinion is completely changed. Time does strange things to our perceptions of art and literature; it can certainly alter our overall opinions. There are books that I only moderately disliked when I read them, but years have turned me bitter and fiercely against them. Or books that I wasn't particularly impressed with that have slowly grown on me. Or books that I loved once when I was a certain type of reader, but years of experience (or changing tastes) means that I can no longer revisit the book without a sour taste.

This is exactly the not-vacuum that Ria is talking about. Everything influences us in some form. Ria specifically mentions the familiar "I've read it before" sentiment we bibliophiles encounter when reading a book that might have been good had it not been the twentieth book of its kind we'd read in a short while. But I think there's another, broader option. The fact is, I've found that as a book reviewer - by the sheer number and breadth of books I've read - I have inevitably changed my perceptions of literature. I can no longer read without the critical lenses on. Even when I read a book and might enjoy it on the simplest level, I can't help but pulling it apart on a deeper one. This has extended to music, to film, to television... everything.

A bookseller at this year's Hebrew Book Week made a recommendation for me based on the titles in my hand. "You've got strange choices there," she told me. "Really different books. Let me find you something else that's a bit... different." And she was right. The books I had chosen came from many different countries, represented many different styles, and had a distinctly "different" flavor from the majority of so-called mainstream literature. Years and years of reading have made me less inclined towards books whose plots I can easily pull apart, or books with cardboard cut-out characters, or books that fail to do anything new with age-old ideas. Innovation - even when I don't necessarily like it - is more important to me now than the internal elements that I once valued in books. My experiences have changed how I read - no vacuum.

It doesn't mean I can't read those old books again. It doesn't mean I can't occasionally read something predictable and still find it brilliant because of its writing or its characterization. It doesn't mean that just because there's a similar plot point to another novel I'd previously enjoyed, there is no value to the new book. It doesn't mean that I can't recognize innovation even in straight-forward contemporary novels that seem to break no boundaries. It just means that I as a reader am constantly - at every given moment - influenced by the books I've read before. Whether it's an outright comparison to a previously read book or a more general shift in my reading tastes, there is not a single moment that I can truly disconnect my individual reading experience from the hundreds of others I've had in my lifetime. I might be losing something small in terms of "spoiling" the experience and not coming "clean", but I am gaining something back as well. And it's kind of beautiful.