Thursday, October 31, 2013

Abandoning Akata Witch

I'm just about a quarter of the way through Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor and to be perfectly frank, there is no point in continuing. I read Okorafor's Who Fears Death years ago, and while I found the novel to be an interesting break from the vast majority of modern fantasy, I had a really hard time with the technical side of things. The writing was clunky, the plotting bothered me, the characters never quite clicked... all in all, I appreciated the book much more than I actually liked it.

And with Akata Witch... I just can't.

Okay, I can see glimmers of intrigue in Akata Witch's premise. Not only its Nigerian locale, but also how quickly it hammers out messages about belonging, appearance, culture, and race... way too strongly. I'm dropping the book just as the potential for fantasy is about to hit, but something about the entire concept feels very weak to me. And then there's the writing, which reminds me a bit of how I used to write in middle school - lots of exclamations, clumsy introductions to characters, very not-subtle infodumps and a general lack of flow. This is the same type of writing that frustrated me in Who Fears Death, except here - perhaps because of its younger intended audience - it feels even clunkier.

I could force myself to finish the book - it's not too long and is far from too complex. But I'm not enjoying it. I like books to have a bit more subtlety than Okorafor is providing me with, and I find the writing to be both a distraction and an annoyance. I don't feel like in a quarter of the book Okorafor has convinced me to care about any of the introduced characters, nor feel a particular attachment to the their world. I'm sure Akata Witch has its relevance, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good book. So... abandoned.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Defining "average"

If there's one thing I don't shy away from, it's my belief in the negative review. I strongly believe that negative reviews are pivotal for criticism, and that without them we would never be able to do the proper filtering of "good" versus "bad". This is nothing new. But something that ties into this is the less-obvious realms of everything in between amazing and terrible. We get a lot in the murky regions of the ordinary, the passe, the mediocre, the average and the moderately good. Or, at least, we should.

For me, years and years of a critique-minded approach to art has "tainted" me. I can no longer read books, watch movies, listen to music, watch shows, eat food, or take in any sort of art without approaching it from a very specific, critical perspective. This has taken some of the joy out of my art appreciation, no doubt, but it also means that when I find something that moves me... it really moves me. My average is a solid five out of ten, and though I once bemoaned the fact that not all of the books I was reading were amazing, I've grown to appreciate the fact that though I could select only books that will most likely be amazing, I'd be missing out on a lot of the in between gray. And I think we learn most about literature in that unclear region where we try to distinguish between books of worth, books we like, and books that other people will like.

The truth is, I'm not sure I really believe that everything can be good. What does it mean if your average is an eight? If something you call "good" isn't worth recommending? When I see a 4.5/5 rating from a reviewer who never gives anything below a 3.5, it's not the same as seeing a 4.5 from someone who frequently gives ratings under 2. Sure, this ties into a lot of the inconsistencies with star ratings (even across similar platforms!), but there's also a clear matter of trust here. It's hard to trust someone who consistently glosses over their own quiet dislike of something without at the very least addressing it.

This isn't a real post. It shouldn't be viewed as one. This is a mishmash of thoughts on a subject that has been bothering me for over five years. I'm curious to know what others think about this and where their "average" falls, if it even exists.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Review | The Best of All Possible Worlds

It's official. Karen Lord is not only an author to watch, but she's an author to hunt, track down and follow with a passion. Last year when I read and quite enjoyed Redemption in Indigo, I appreciated Lord's use of a different literary approach than most fantasy. Redemption in Indigo didn't feel like most books in its genre, and stood out marvelously as such. The Best of All Possible Worlds is perhaps a bit less groundbreaking in that sense and I would even almost classify it as more mainstream, but it is still a surprising, unique and impressive book.

The Best of All Possible Worlds could have easily been a simple sci-fi book. The plot points are not so utterly foreign, the framing and the character types are not brand-new, and generally speaking, the single components of the book aren't exactly innovative. What's impressive is the way they tie together to create something, while perhaps not new, but original and special nonetheless.

The first easy and seemingly obvious comparison one can make about The Best of All Possible Worlds is the Star Trek one. This in large part stems from the various similarities between the Sadiri (one of the races/cultures in the book whose planet destruction sets into motion the entire plot) and Star Trek's Vulcans. Really, it's impossible not to see the similarities - like Vulcans, the Sadiri are telepathic (more so than Vulcans, actually), very logical and level-headed, lacking in many outwards displays of emotions (though unlike Vulcans they actually have them), and restrained. From around halfway through the novel, I struggled not to imagine the Sadiri characters with the characteristic Vulcan ears, or bleeding green. Minor note.

More than that fairly superficial similarity is the thematic relation The Best of All Possible Worlds has with the Star Trek universe. The story has a similar "exploration" kind of theme, except instead of exploration for the sake of it (like in Star Trek), Lord's version has a clear goal in mind - the remaining Sadiri (mostly male) are seeking appropriate brides to rebuild their society while maintaining various cultural and biological properties (namely all sorts of telepathic abilities). The main cast visits various societies and cultures on their diverse new homeworld, all the while encountering racism, complications, and gradually developing a future for the remaining Sadiri. The types of messages of diversity that emerge from each visit is reminiscent of Star Trek, but it's much more deftly handled - actions have consequences and nothing really disappears into the haze of "last week's episode", but leaves a clear impact on the characters and their understanding of the world.

The diversity theme is especially strong. This is not merely a remark on the choice of skin color for each of the characters (which is generally, though not necessarily explicitly, not-white) or a character whose gender is never revealed (narrator Grace amusingly often remarks that it's none of our business, if we're so interested we can just ask...), rather the entire premise of different cultures meshing and attempting to balance each other out. One story deals particularly explicitly with the difference between the outward appearance of people versus their various abilities. Together with messages about slavery based on appearance, it's clear that Lord has no intention of shying away from what her original point is supposed to be. This is science fiction with its own original story and ideas, but it's also meant to remind us of our own world. Lord does an excellent job of keeping the message from overwhelming the narrative, but the point gets across perfectly.

Finally - and it would be impossible to review The Best of All Possible Worlds without mentioning this - is the gentle, subtle and rather lovely romance at its heart. The Best of All Possible Worlds is in large part a story of acceptance, and part of that acceptance is of a romantic nature. It's clear from the beginning that Grace and Dllenahkh have their chemistry, but the calm, very mature form of flirtation and the gradual quality of their love story is a thing of beauty. This romance takes along with it many of the other themes mentioned throughout the book and adds to them trust, respect and friendship. This is how a literary romance should be - believably gradual, subtle and yet ultimately extraordinarily satisfying. Beyond Grace and Dllenahkh's core romance is the love between Nasiha and Tarik, a married Sadiri couple who are part of the delegation. Though they're generally side characters (Tarik in particular does not develop very much), they serve as a gentle reminder of another, perhaps more traditional, love. It complements the developing story very nicely.

The Best of All Possible Worlds is a great book. It's not perfect - some of the stories were a bit random and unresolved - but despite its seemingly traditional premise, it's a very original take on a lot of familiar ideas. That alone, however, would not make the book worth reading. Luckily, Lord's writing is clear and conversational (if at times somewhat simple), and the characterizations are excellent. Even the minor characters felt like real people, whose motives I could understand and appreciate. All in all, it's a book well worth reading.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Little Fingers | Huge disappointment

This is one of those cases where if I'd read Little Fingers first of Filip Florian's books (both translated by Alistair Ian Blyth), I would not have bothered to read anything else. Then I would have missed The Days of the King, which is actually quite a wonderful little book. So it's a good thing I started with The Days of the King, because Little Fingers? Terrible.

I don't often dislike books as much as Little Fingers. That's because there's usually at least something worth appreciating in a novel (also because usually I'd give up on a book this bad, only that Little Fingers was so short I figured I might as well finish it off). I suppose that's also true of Little Fingers, but I just. Couldn't. Find it. Little Fingers is a great example of a debut that has the individual pieces that will later fit to make a competent novel, but here in the original they absolutely fail to mesh. The vague writing isn't alluding to anything, the non-existent characterization is baffling at best, the plot is so hidden behind layers of intrigue and subplots and minor references that it ultimately disappears, and the pacing is... slow.

I suppose the greatest disappointment in Little Fingers stems from its inability to deliver on its promise. The novel is trying so hard to be a complex sort of literary, it forgets what it actually is. With all sorts of strange and surrealistic stories padding the main plot, there ultimately remains no plot. The back blurb promises all sorts of intrigue, but then the setup for this intrigue is only really revealed at the end and there's no actual outcome to it.

Florian is the sort of author who goes for this looping, very roundabout style of writing. In The Days of the King, this worked nicely - the minimal dialogue may have been jarring for many other readers, but the historical setting and the way the story grew paid off for any stumbles this somewhat awkward (yet beautiful) approach may have caused. Not so with Little Fingers. Dialogue here is more prevalent, but it's stickier and clumsier as well. It seems trite, old-fashioned and out of place. It doesn't move the story along and it doesn't flow properly.

Add to all this a series of characters I neither cared about nor understood and the recipe is for an extraordinarily frustrating, disappointing book. Little Fingers is a very short book which I read it one sitting, but it was a forced read - gritted teeth and the hope for a pay-off that never arrived. A few clever turns of phrase here and there made the reading more interesting for momentary flashes, but the moment I finished the book, I tossed it aside and felt relieved. I'll likely give Filip Florian another chance should his later books be translated, but this will only be based on the merits of The Days of the King. Little Fingers is, in my mind, a wasted book and a waste of time.

Monday, October 7, 2013

How not to teach kids to love reading

I'll be blunt: Melissa's post at Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books about children's reading scores and their according recommended books made me furious. It's not just another story of someone doing something predictably stupid when it comes to books. It's not even like book banning, which is ridiculous on a thousand different levels. Melissa's story about teachers assigning books to students only according to a computerized test (this Lexile nonsense, whatever it may be) and refusing to accept books that have lower scores is enraging. And it's set me so utterly over the edge not only because it's stupid, but because I'm convinced that it will have a lasting harm on getting kids to read.

I'm not going to pretend I wasn't lucky when it comes to my love of reading. My parents frequently read with me as a child, and encouraged my reading all throughout my childhood. We were often in bookstores and libraries. My local libraries were very helpful and welcoming, with long lists of recommended books according to genre. My schools always had libraries packed with more books than I could ever read, some of which even went "beyond" the official grade levels. I was encouraged to read and explore from a very early age. Nobody ever tried to stop me, and so I didn't. I found the books I loved, those books led me to others, and from there... the rest is history.

When I was in fourth grade, we had an incentive project to read. If we read books in five different genres and wrote reports about them, we would get a small prize and a big colorful star put up on the wall. By year's end, only two had achieved stars (myself and a good friend of mine), but many others had read many books as well, having just eschewed the writing part or had neglected a certain genre. But the incentive worked, both in an effort to broaden our reading and simply to get us to open a book.

Two years later, again I found myself in a classroom that incentivized reading - here, if our parents signed off that we had read over a certain number of hours throughout the year, we would receive a bookstore gift card. Many of us won this prize, filling our lists with the books we wanted to read. Page count didn't matter. Speed didn't matter. Even the book itself, though written down, wasn't the point. What mattered was the fact that we spent time reading. So I, who read much faster than everyone else in the class, ended up having to read twice as many books to reach the same threshold. Did it matter? No. I enjoyed every minute of it. The incentive was major enough to be worth achieving, but minor enough that I read because I wanted to read, not because anyone was forcing me to.

When a teacher (or a parent, or a librarian, or whatever) tells a kid to read, there's a weight and meaning that comes attached with it. I remember that wonderful Arthur episode where the kids have to write book reports. Buster admits to his friends that he's never completed a book in his life. Everyone is shocked, and their response is to throw at him easier and easier books. But Buster's unable to finish any of them. In the end (the night before the report is due) we see him reading a tiny picture book ("The sky is blue. The ocean is blue."), but he abandons this as well. Instead, he starts to read some version of Robin Hood, which Arthur had lent him saying it's for when you're a real reader. When Buster hands in his incomplete report, he realizes what the problem was - he was trying to read books that didn't interest him. And honestly, that's one of the best messages I've ever seen on television. Don't try to read what you don't like. Not as a kid. Not when you're supposed to be cultivating a love of reading.

Teachers who look only at numbers are failing their students. Plain and simple. Teachers who assign books based on a computerized analysis of the reading level without taking into account whatever other books this kid may have read and enjoyed are failing their students. Educators (and to a more minor degree parents) have a responsibility to their kids. Forcing children to read won't get you readers. Finding something they'll love and want to continue with themselves just might.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review | Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public

* This review is of the translation from Norwegian into Hebrew. As far as I can tell, the lead story "Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public" was once translated in a collection of Askildsen's writing but is now out of print.

Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public by Kjell Askildsen is not really a novella - it's a relatively long short story, that in my (quite lovely) slim edition comes padded with two other shorter stories that are similar in tone if not theme. The stories follow these rather disconnected, unappealing older men as they either go about their business or are entangled in certain dramas that gradually grow in magnitude and influence.

The titular Thomas F in the main story has the calmest story of the bunch. This "novella" (but really: it's a short story) is comprised of tiny vignettes that detail minor day-to-day interactions of an old man turned major: a surprise meeting with a daughter, the kindly neighbor coming to help, the landlord's visit, etc. The back of my edition describes each of these "scenes" as "a true literary gem", and that "each sentence contains an entire world". This is not so extreme an exaggeration. In "Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public", the stories have a certain clean minimalist clarity to them that few vignettes ever truly achieve. The stories flow seamlessly into one another; I found myself telling myself after each one "After this one I'll go to bed" and then continuing onward anyways.

In all of the stories, the writing is sparse and simple. With surprising restraint, Askildsen manages to sketch out both his characters and their world. The second story in my edition, "Karl Lange" is a bit darker and heavier, but similarly light in terms of writing. The sentences don't ever drag, and they very gently get their message across. The main character in this story (Karl Lange himself) is a translator, and I want to quote from Author's and Translator's recent interview with literary translator Jamie Richards a particular sentence that exactly encompasses the core of the story: "It is not simply the solitary nature of the work that makes translation deadly but the obsessiveness of it—the anxiety of error and the lingering sense of never having finished." This sort of mood and perspective fully defines the story's drama - an accusation, a mounting isolation and increasing obsessive madness. "Karl Lange" may be the weakest of the stories in my collection, but it is hardly bad.

The fact that Askildsen chose to tell stories about fairly unsympathetic men (two nearing the ends of their lives, one in that middle-aged rut) and the fact that each seems to view the world through a decidedly tinted lens makes for interesting if somewhat uncomfortable reading. Askildsen's strong writing is enough to compensate for the rough characterizations (which seem much more like a stylistic choice than any failing on the author's part), and coupled with that excellent minimalism, the stories end up vivid, darkly memorable and enjoyable to read. Though I seem to have exhausted Askildsen's available writings at this time, he is certainly an author I'd like to meet again, and "Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public" is without a doubt a story worth tracking down.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The greatest empire, period | Kalpa Imperial

Once or twice a year, I'll read a book that is so amazing, so wonderful, so utterly entrancing that I will devour it eagerly and also hold myself back for fear of losing it too soon. Months ago, I came very close to that feeling with Angélica Gorodischer's unique Trafalgar. I was very impressed by Trafalgar, but I had to admit that I did not fall for it quite in the same way that I had in the past for other favorites. It was good enough, however, to ensure that I would read Gorodischer's earlier Kalpa Imperial, a book that Trafalgar even casually referenced.

And then, lo and behold, Kalpa Imperial is that book: beautifully written, wonderfully translated, magical, unique, imaginative, entrancing, enticing, absorbing, amazing and just... brilliant.

Really. I'm understating here.

Kalpa Imperial (subtitled The Greatest Empire That Never Was) is exactly the sort of book I've often imagined writing myself. It creates a fictional empire and tells stories about it. That's it. There's an order, sure, but I was never really certain that the story was being told entirely chronologically. There are references to previously mentioned stories, but these are calm connections that - despite being located in what is officially the same empire - could be taking place in entirely different worlds.

One of the incredible aspects of Kalpa Imperial is its ability to take full advantage of its short story style, while still making the book feel overall like a coherent, balanced whole. There are no duds in Kalpa Imperial, no stories that seem out place. It's clearly not a novel, but unlike most short story collections, Kalpa Imperial has no moment in which the standard slips even a smidgen - the stories flow seamlessly into each other, painting an ever growing portrait of this entirely fictional empire. And these stories are absolutely amazing.

Kalpa Imperial falls into the category I've decided to call "imaginative fiction". This is the genre that Borges, and Calvino, and Michal Ajvaz and a whole host of other authors belong to. I think by this point it's safe to say that I really, really like these types of books - the crossover between the believable and the imaginary, the gentle overlapping of fantasy with reality. Each of the above authors takes it to a different level and uses different techniques to tell their story, but there's no doubt that Gorodischer's imaginary kingdom (and also the lovely techniques used in Trafalgar) place her directly in this category.

Kalpa Imperial is fantasy unlike any other - there's no hero's quest, references to magic are far and few between (and even then may just be myths that have been twisted along the way), the society hardly seems based on medieval Europe (I kept imagining various Middle Eastern kingdoms, to be honest), there are vague references to modern technology such as cars and buses, the time frame is huge (thousands of years!), there are no warring gods... and yet it's all clearly fantasy. It doesn't merely build a world; it builds an entire history, legacy, culture and, indeed, empire. I wish I could describe the perfection of these stories (among which one ranks as the greatest 30-odd pages of literature I have ever read) but I can't. It has to be read, it has to be experienced.

As for the writing: clear, beautiful - a perfect storytelling technique. But there's another tone here, one that I often felt creeping into Gorodischer's style: that of Ursula K. Le Guin, the grand mistress of fantasy and sci-fi herself, who translated Kalpa Imperial. Small witticisms and offhand remarks rang so clearly as those of Le Guin that - had the translation been any less perfect and the writing even slightly less smooth - they could have jolted me out of the story. This didn't happen. Le Guin, it turns out, is also a master translator, imbibing Kalpa Imperial with just a dash of her own tone while still letting Gorodischer's style reign supreme. It's incredibly done.

I don't know what else I can say to possibly convince a reader who hasn't been convinced yet. Only this, I suppose: Kalpa Imperial is worth it. It's worth taking a day off from work to sit and read. It's worth stepping out of your comfort zone if this isn't the type of book you'd normally read. It's worth it for fantasy fans, sci-fi fans, fans of Le Guin, fans of unique stories, fans of imaginative fiction, readers who like being challenged, readers who like feeling at home, readers who like stories... It's worth reading, it's worth recommending to your library, it's worth buying. It's worth every minute you may spend on it. My list of perfect books is very, very short, but Kalpa Imperial is on it. And it's near the top.

One final note: Small Beer Press, thank you for publishing two wonderful books by Angélica Gorodischer. Now... please publish the rest.