Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Surprising depth | The Golem and the Jinni

It's been a very long time since I read a book like The Golem and the Jinni. I'd heard quite a bit of praise for the novel going around, but I kept feeling like this wasn't really my sort of book. Which is utter nonsense and quite frankly colored by the fact that many of the reviews I'd seen labeled the book as a romance (which is a terrible way to describe it). The Golem and the Jinni is actually very much the sort of book I like - magic mixed in with the
real. Warmth. Depth. And it even has a bit of a nostalgic historical vibe that reminds me of an earlier time in my reading life.

I happened to read The Golem and the Jinni at a perfect time - the electricity had just come back on (after over eight hours without), snow was falling on a silent, solemn Jerusalem, and I wanted nothing more than a book into which I could dive without reemerging for many hours. I chose Helene Wecker's novel more for its length than its actual content, yet the mood and the vibe and the environment soon made their way into my own living room, and I found myself hooked.

Here's the thing about books like The Golem and the Jinni - they will always get a bit shafted by certain literary groups. For some, this richly written and very traditionally "literary" novel will be too heavy and atmospheric, seemingly lacking in plot for 3/4 of its length. For certain literary snobs, on the other hand, the book will be dismissed as simplistic and pedestrian because of a relatively straight-forward narrative, its length, and the fact that it's been pretty successful. Criticism of the latter sort particularly bothers me, because The Golem and the Jinni is actually a surprisingly alert and thought-provoking book. Wecker nudges a large number of Topics and Issues, without making them feel like a crutch or utterly ignored. There's quite a bit beneath the surface here, whether it's about belief and religion, loyalty and love, friendship or even human nature. I often found myself pausing to mull over a certain sentence, or thought, or idea Wecker had quietly slipped into the narrative.

That's not to say the book is flawless. Not at all. An entire subplot felt tacked on to make it a bit more conventional and "accessible". The characters involved in this story felt driven less by actual emotions as much as a need to insert this type of romance and drama, and it bothered me every time it arose. It's the sort of thing I feel ought to be taken care of in the editing stage, yet it somehow stuck. Not bad, exactly, but unnecessary in a novel that otherwise flowed very well.

The main reason to read The Golem and the Jinni is for those two characters, and their growing interactions with the world around them. There's the outsider-tries-to-understand-humanity thing here, except each character takes it to a different place. Both the Golem and the Jinni live in immigrant societies, surrounded by people who have come to the US in the hopes of starting a better life (or, in one case, ending it). "Chava" and "Ahmad" are foreigners among foreigners, each struggling with their own nature and their own needs. The Golem must fight her inherent servile nature at every moment; the Jinni is stripped of his powers and must constantly keep those powers he has left hidden. Both are guided by humans who themselves are unsure of how to help, humans who find themselves burdened with the knowledge they carry and the potential consequences.

The truth is, The Golem and the Jinni would have been a successful story even had the two characters never met (which they obviously inevitably do, though the course of their relationship and its placement within the larger novel both end up completely different from what I was expecting - in the best possible way). Had Wecker chosen only to look at the Syrian and Jewish communities of New York City at the end of the 19th century without ever having the two threads meet, the book still would have had a lot to say. The plot might have been severely hindered, but this alternate version of The Golem and the Jinni still would have been pretty good.

I really enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni. I enjoyed it for everything it is - intelligent, well-written in a very clear, simple way, thought-provoking, entertaining, heart-warming and engaging - as well as everything it isn't. This is a novel without much of the pretension I find in other books I'm recommended - it's not trying too hard to do anything (except maybe an attempt to be more mainstream - again, the unnecessary subplot...), and it doesn't hide its point in nonsense subtleties. The Golem and the Jinni is definitely a quieter, more subtle novel than many others of its ilk, but there's no trickery here, no omission which is supposed to convey cleverness, no hint of "well, if you don't understand it, it means you missed something". It's a book that can be appreciated and enjoyed on multiple levels. And it's a book I can warmly recommend to readers of many different genres. If you're on the fence - get off it. Read The Golem and the Jinni. It's not a perfect book, but it's a pretty great one nonetheless, and you just might find yourself as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Women in translation | Responses

In the wake of my post from a couple weeks ago about the dismal percentage of women writers who have been translated into English, I cannot in good conscience leave the matter alone. It's not done. My post was meant not to throw the observations to the wind, but to search for answers and make sure that the playing field starts to change.

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone who was involved in the conversation: everyone from bloggers, to translators, to publishers play an important role in finding the source of the problem and rectifying it. Without your insights and thoughts, this really would have just floated away, never to be mentioned again. We've already taken the first steps. Now we continue.

Here on the blog and over on Twitter, a few theories arose as to why the stats look the way they do. Tony Malone of Tony's Reading List suggested that perhaps men are perceived as writing better "literature" than women, hinging on the fact that books in translation are often of a more "literary" nature. After a short debate over the use of the word "perceived" (in which I would argue that using such a claim only further implies actual, active sexism...), Tony also rightly pointed out the sad notion that while women will gladly read books by men, men are somewhat less willing to read a book written by a woman, and that perhaps publishers are merely "hedging their bets".

Meanwhile, Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press provided a publisher's view on the matter. She argued that women are simply not writing the type of Literature that Peirene, for example, want to publish, adding that women write more "genre" and less "literary fiction", and that their technique is often "not up to scratch" as compared with men. While I greatly appreciate her perspective on the matter, I'm not sure I agree with it. At all. To start with, I struggle with the definition of "literary fiction" Meike seems to be using, especially the idea that books should not form a type of escape. While we clearly have different ideas on art, its power and what even qualifies, what troubles me more is Meike's perception (again that word!) that women lack the technical talents male writers have.

This is a problematic idea for several reasons. One, there is no logical basis for it. Writing is in no way something biologically influenced - it's not as though because of their better upper body strength, men will obviously be better able to describe dewdrops on a leaf. More than that, however, is the fact that it's an extraordinarily unfair and broad generalization of both men and women's writing styles. I will not pretend to have ever read books with the same type of scouting eye that Meike must, but I have read a lot of books in my short lifetime. Usually, the only differences between writing styles stem from the very type of book itself. Does Hilary Mantel's writing lack technique? Obviously not. Does Marie NDiaye's odd writing sound like a woman or like a writer experimenting with a different style? Definitely the latter. Does Alice Munro's actual writing sound like a woman wrote it? Nope, though the topics may be viewed as more domestic and as such "effeminate" (an assessment I thoroughly disagree with, by the way).

In both Meike and Tony's comments, a certain subtext appears - that women are not writing the type of Literary and Important and Quality books that these publishers are seeking. I take particular offence at this. Besides the fact that I don't believe it (basing myself mostly off of Hebrew, where women are just as likely to produce quality Literature as men, yet significantly less likely to get translated - as we saw, no Israeli women were translated in 2013), I think it shows a greater problem with literary elitism. I don't want to get into that argument today, but if this remains the last hurdle to cross before women are properly represented in literature in translation, I will happily tear it down.

Michelle Bailat-Jones (of pieces fame) linked to a brilliant article which I wish I could have seen before writing my own paltry post: Alison Anderson's Words Without Borders article which is exactly about this lack of women in translation. Yet this article raises a point I failed to mention in my own post - the strikingly low percentage of women to be recognized by the various translations awards (to be discussed more in the next follow-up post).

Michelle and T. Olmstead (of BookSexy Review) went on to discuss what might be the source of the imbalance. Michelle pointed out that most of the books she had received in 2012 for review from publishers (unsolicited or pitched) were written by men, while she had been forced to specifically request books written by women. 2013 might emerge with better statistics (indeed, Michelle felt confident that it would), but based on the broader numbers, I am somehow skeptical that it will be a perfect split at the end. Based on other comments I've seen and my own observations of the literature-in-translation blogosphere, publishers sending more books by male authors might just be a trend. More statistics are needed before we can really point fingers - I would greatly appreciate more insight from other bloggers and reviewers who receive books for review directly from publishers.

The next stage comes in several parts, asking help from across the board. But we'll be looking at that in the next follow-up post, hopefully in the coming weeks. Brace yourselves: we've got a long way to go.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review | Too Much Happiness

I'm really beginning to doubt whether or not it was wise to start my literary relationship with Alice Munro through Too Much Happiness. As a collection it is surprisingly strong, but though I recognized an obvious brilliance to Munro's writing (something which is often lacking in Nobel laureates, oddly enough), I didn't feel quite the emotional resonance I was expecting. It'll come, I'm certain - unlike an author like Mo Yan (who will take me a long time to revisit...) or an author like Herta Müller (with her depth and quiet pounding who can only be visited on rare, carefully planned occasions) - I have every intention of reading another of Munro's collections within the coming months.

The stories in Too Much Happiness generally follow the same idea - characters' lives revolving around a before-and-after pivot. These pivots are misleadingly quiet plot points, usually so calmly dealt with they almost lose their whiplash strength. These are not quiet events - divorce and death and children and love - but they lack the grandeur and pomp many other writers would ascribe to them. In "Fiction", the pivot is most strongly felt by a chapter-like division, giving us the set-up and then an entirely different story in the second half. Or the powerful opening story "Dimensions", which has reveals the backstory in bits, then all at once.

With the exception of the titular "Too Much Happiness" (the final story in the collection and by far the weakest - I'll get to it in a moment), each of the stories seemed to strike me like a punch while I was reading them, then leave behind a mildly bitter aftertaste (except "Dimensions", which simply left me speechless and almost physically winded), and then appear remarkably clearly in retrospect. Looking back on the stories a couple weeks later, I'm reminded of the characters and their lives. I'm reminded of Munro's absolutely clean writing. The stories have stuck, even if it seemed for a short time like they might not. They still don't scream, but they've firmly pushed their way to the front. They will not be forgotten so easily.

Weierstrass was last semester 
My main struggle with the collection on the whole comes from the final story - "Too Much Happiness". This, it should seem, would be right up my alley, telling the story of Sophia Kovalevsky, a mathematician in the late 19th century (with extra Weierstrass references!). But it's not. The back cover describes this one as being about Sophia's "yearnings", but if so, her yearnings are decidedly dull. "Too Much Happiness" is too long, too clumsy in its characterizations (namely, its lack of it - the previous story "Wood" managed to make me significantly more emotionally invested in the struggles of its lead than the almost-sprawling-by-comparison "Too Much Happiness". It's a story that seemed hemmed in by its own ambitions of telling a bigger story, but also hindered by a lack of space in which to grow and breathe. The story is also unique in that Munro seems to be experimenting with a different writing style (a bit more old-fashioned, less coolly detached and more dramatically involved). It's a nice idea, but I don't think it worked particularly well within the story, and certainly not within the rest of the collection. Much less as the closing story.

All in all, I liked Too Much Happiness. I wasn't blown away by it (no absolute adoration here) but I appreciated it very much. After hearing so much about Munro's stellar writing, it was a joy to experience it myself, and the multi-layered strength of her stories will stick with me for a while longer. It may not turn out to be Munro's best collection, but Too Much Happiness certainly made me want to read more of her stories... perhaps it wasn't such a bad introduction after all.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Where in the world are women writers?

A realization: most of the books in translation I've read this year have been written by men. A quick run through my reading list confirmed this suspicion: 21 written by men, 7 written by women.

This is a shockingly disproportionate number (especially since my overall male to female writer ratio is a perfect 50:50). I considered that it might just be my own personal reading tastes or biases, so I decided to run through Three Percent's list of titles in translation for 2013. The list is a bit outdated, but the results are strikingly similar to what I found in my own reading. Based on my rough calculation*, women writers contribute less than 30% of the literature that is translated into English.

The top three languages from which books were translated in 2013 are French, Spanish and German. Out of 59 books translated from French, 17 were written by women. Out of 41 books translated from Spanish, 7 were written by women**. Out of 35 books translated from German, 12 were written by women. Even here we see statistics that heavily favor male writers. Meanwhile, my (very brief) survey of French and German bestseller lists seemed to show a fairly balanced playing field - certainly there wasn't as wide a gap as what I found in the translations.

Closer to home for me, the four books that were translated from Hebrew were all written by men, despite the fact that I can firmly attest that Israeli literature tends to be very balanced in terms of men-women writers. The fact of the matter is that nobody has yet translated one of 2011's most highly regarded Israeli novels Rose of Lebanon, nor any of Gail Hareven's other novels (despite the fact that her one translated title won the Best Translated Book Award!), nor dozens of other highly respected novels and bestsellers written by Israeli women. And this is clearly something that is happening across the board, across the world.

What does this mean? For starters, it doesn't seem as though the source of the problem is in various countries around the world. Rather, it seems that the problem lies in the process of translation. It isn't that women aren't writing books, or that they aren't getting published in their own countries***. The problem is on the English-speaking world's receiving end. With us.

These are only preliminary findings. Without more information about Spanish, French, German and any other language bestsellers and without more understanding about the selection process for translation, there is little more to be said. Only this: readers of literature in translation, take note. If we were looking at a ratio of 40% to 60%, I would be able to accept it as a minor bias. But we're not talking about a small preference for male writers. We're talking about a preference for men that is over 70%... and that is a problem.

So readers: share your own stats. Let's find out where the problem starts - whether I'm missing something in France and Germany and Latin America, or whether something is getting stuck in the publisher's offices in the Anglo publishing world. Let's be aware that this problem even exists. Maybe then we can start to fix it.

* My calculation was generally based on first names (easily recognizable male-female names like Paul or Charlotte didn't get double-checked, names I was uncertain about I attempted to track down)
** One of these happens to be one of my favorite books of the year
*** Though I'm certain that this is the case for certain countries in which women do not have much freedom, it does not appear to be true for the major sources of literature in translation, nor would it make much sense given which countries we're talking about...