Thursday, February 27, 2014

70% Acrylic 30% Wool | Review

Whatever Viola Di Grado writes next, I will read it. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (tr. Michael Reynolds), her first novel, is so utterly bizarre, so fantastically disturbing, so engaging and interesting and weird and thought-provoking that I honestly don't care what she plans on doing next - I will read it.

70% Acrylic 30% Wool was read in a single sitting, an intense morning dedicated 100% to this depressing, offbeat novel. Centering around "word anorexic" Camelia, the novel is a curious display of various forms of mental illness and disorders. We begin with Camelia's silent mother, who essentially stopped existing after her husband was killed in a car accident (with his mistress). Her silence spreads to Camelia, who is also grieving and suffering in her own way, miserable in her loneliness but also seemingly incapable of escaping it.

It's in this precarious state that Camelia meets Wen, a young shopkeeper who works near her home. Wen has thrown out the damaged clothing his brother makes from his shop in Camelia's dumpsters, which Camelia - in her warped reality - has adopted as new clothing. From there, Camelia returns to the study of Chinese, which she had begun at the university but given up after her father's death.

Wen and Camelia's Chinese lessons form one of the cores of the novel, specifically in the way they showcase language and essentially culture. Camelia is Italian-born, but she's lived in Leeds most of her life. Her Italian identity is occasionally touched on, but it isn't necessarily the main idea. Similarly with Wen, who is Chinese but has clearly been living in England for a long time as well. During their Chinese lessons, Camelia often tries to understand aspects of Chinese writing (why certain words are drawn as they are, why certain combinations do not form the words she would expect). Through these conversations, a more subtle understanding of language arises. As a bilingual reader myself and one who has studied other languages as well, I found these parts to be fascinating and entirely on the mark.

But the other focus of the novel is, I think, much more about depression. Much more about mental illness. Much more about the silence that has seeped into Camelia's life, and how it's impacted both her and her mother.

Di Grado shows us Camelia's mother's abrupt shut-down - her immediate response to her husband's death and the way she simply stops speaking. We see her through Camelia's frustrated eyes, but Camelia herself is tainted. Indeed, as the story progresses, Camelia is the one putting herself through worse and worse situations: an extremely misguided and intentionally problematic affair which ultimately ends in violence and more pain, repeated attempts to express her feelings for Wen while getting rebuffed, and an obsession with certain themes of holes, emptiness, and the Chinese character Camelia has invented for herself. Meanwhile, her mother is slowly awakening - no longer merely lying on the couch without bathing, we see early attempts at building a new life for herself.

I don't want to spoil the end of the novel, but I'll say this - it's fantastic. It's brilliantly subversive, unexpected and twisted. Di Grado takes everything she's done throughout 70% Acrylic 30% Wool and shows us where we were wrong in our interpretations, where our assumptions misled us, and what we should have seen all along.

This is not a happy book, but there's no doubt that it's a very good one. Di Grado's writing is young and believable, very casual but also crisply intelligent. This is the sort of writing that flows from sentence to sentence, no stutters when it comes to describing characters or locales, just a pure understanding of how to show the world. It might not appeal to readers seeking something a bit more polished, but I found it matched my tastes perfectly. Similarly, the characterization is not heavy-handed, but in light, brief lines Di Grado successfully builds the characters around Camelia (who herself is a wonderfully built character).

70% Acrylic 30% Wool is two things: it's a unique book, and it's a good book. Readers seeking something cheerful - this is not the book for you. But anyone who can stomach a bit of grimness, a bit of depression, or a bit of twisted pain should read this novel. Definitely weird; definitely good.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

alphabet | Review

I don't always fall for poetry collections. Despite loving poetry, despite having a long and personal relationship with the field, I often find myself dissatisfied with various poetry collections. Some poets, it's true, hit me particularly hard (Sylvia Plath and Czeslaw Milosz, for example), but I'm usually left very cold.

Not so with Inger Christensen's utterly breathtaking alphabet, one of the most innovative, beautiful, intelligent and finely crafted poetry books I've ever read in my life.

When I use the word "breathtaking" to describe alphabet, it is not merely a hyperbole. alphabet literally left me breathless as I found myself reading along aloud and getting utterly swept up in the words. It's not just the rhythm of the poems, which are all built with the same calm structure, all swept around existence, all flowing almost flawlessly into each other. There's also something about the way the poems lead into the next, the way they form a whole. The way I found myself mouthing the words, reading them aloud and incapable of letting them glide by me passively. This is nearly impossible for any poetry book. For one in translation? I was in awe.

I keep using the term "poetry book" for a very specific reason - alphabet is explicitly not a collection. Many poetry collections have similar themes and ideas running through them, but alphabet can and should be viewed as a single unit. Each poem is essentially a chapter in a growing story, a growing understanding of the world and of humanity. These chapters are framed by the alphabet (hence the title), going from A to N. Here we find the only possible flaw in the book, where occasionally the words that appear in the new chapter don't actually start with the official letter in English. I felt like this would have been purely entrancing in the native Danish, but truthfully it flowed so perfectly in English that except for the letter J or so, I felt no awkwardness in translation.

alphabet really is a masterpiece. It's a masterpiece of the type that I think any curious reader should seek out, a book that's both beautiful, interesting, and perfectly translated. It's truly something special, even if you don't usually read poetry. It's just brilliant, period. And you should all read it.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Summerhouse, Later | Review

It's a rare thing to enjoy a short story collection without particularly liking any of its actual components. Judith Hermann's Summerhouse, Later essentially falls into this category, though my appreciation of the book was certainly limited and I'm hesitant to recommend it.

Summerhouse, Later comprises of nine short stories, each of which looks rather distantly at a set of damaged, fairly unhappy characters. Despite the distance, however, Hermann manages to bring each character close to the reader, leaving the impression that though there's a certain coldness surrounding everything, we're not entirely disconnected. The distance seems to have much more to do with the story setting than as some sort of accidental flaw on Hermann's part - a coolly calculated move by an author who is in perfect control of her writing.

And so these nine stories take our damaged characters and present them to us at that crucial pivot - the moment when things change. Or rather, the moment when things can change.

This thematic idea is evident from the first story - "The Red Coral Bracelet". The narrator, rather like all the characters in the book, is not particularly likable, nor is she very substantial; meanwhile, nothing really happens in the story. What we get is that shift, a moment in which the status changes and the story gets nudged along its tracks. This might leave a lot of readers cold - the distinct lack of characterization or plot can make these stories feel a bit incomplete or shoddy. But the calm focus on those pivots proves to be an interesting storytelling technique and though I certainly felt empty after reading them, something lingered nonetheless.

Two stories seem to shy away from this model, one successfully and the other not so much. "The End of Something" is easily the weakest, most forgettable story in the collection, mostly made up of a blurry monologue that starts nowhere and ends nowhere, with nothing in between - an utterly pointless story.

But the story that immediately precedes it - "Sonja" - manages to do the exact opposite, leading to a significantly more successful story. We get a narrator who is actually sympathetic, or at least as close to sympathetic as a guy in a series of weird relationships and relative ambivalence can be. His baffling relationship with the bizarre Sonja (who is distinctly not a manic pixie dream girl) is both interesting and oddly touching (in a very weird and even somewhat unsettling way), and we also get to see the story from start to finish. I'm not sure I could call it my favorite story from the collection (indeed, I'm not sure any story qualifies for that...), but it certainly stood out in a positive light.

All in all, Summerhouse, Later is a fairly uniform, interesting read. I'd even call it pleasant, were it not for the distinctly dark and rather depressing undertones that occupy the collection from start to finish. As I said earlier, I'm not sure I'd necessarily recommend it nor do I think readers should go out of their way to read it, but if it comes across your radar, it is an interesting book. And I'm definitely curious to see what Hermann does with a full-novel canvas.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

How to Suppress Women's Writing | Review

I have a hard time reviewing nonfiction books most of the time because I feel distinctly not qualified. How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ is no exception. In fact, as a clearly feminist text, I find myself even less qualified than usual to discuss it, having very little understanding of what we generally call feminism. Yet I found myself recognizing so much of How to Suppress Women's Writing and grimly understanding where it comes from, so that I'm going to try to write about it anyways.

The core thesis of How to Suppress Women's Writing is not actually included in the book itself, but rather stems from the cover:
She didn't write it. (But if it's clear she did the deed...) She wrote it, but she shouldn't have. (It's political, sexual, masculine, feminist.) She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women!) She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. ("Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that's all she ever...") She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art. (It's a thriller, a romance, a children's book. Sci fi!) She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning. Branwell Brontë. Her own masculine side.) She wrote it, but she's an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard's help...)
She wrote it BUT...
This text - in large, bold letters - graces the cover of How to Suppress Women's Writing. Here is the unofficial outline from which Russ builds her argument, that essentially no matter what women do, they will always be sidelined using one excuse after another. In truth, by the end of the book I couldn't help but feel that this was much less about the suppression of women's writing as it was about the dismissal of existing works, shoving them into obscurity or doggedly refusing to acknowledge their influence on the literary canon.

Russ presents the reality of the late 1970s, early 1980s when it comes to literary feminism and the clear struggles women had in gaining representation and the respect they deserved. This is a darkly determined book in that regard, as Russ presents anecdotes from the then-present alongside anecdotes from times past that show the persistent sexism women writers faced. And while she follows the outline detailed above, she doesn't stick to it 100%, and occasionally a general critique of a sexist society slips in (one anecdote describes a man trying on a woman's pants and being baffled by the lack of pockets).

Russ's criticism of the "modern" suppressing of women's writing is perhaps the most outdated aspect of the book - today, women write in mass amounts, dominating many fields and genres (particularly the growing YA field). Women are not told that writing is a man's business, women are not discouraged from writing in the same way that they were only a few decades ago. In this regard, the literary landscape is much friendlier to women today. Fantastic, right?

Well, the problems begin once you realize just about everything else about the book is still pathetically relevant. Women are still underrepresented in awards shortlists (though the past couple of years have made a jaw-jutted effort to fix that). Women are still underrepresented in the official "canon", where certain male writers get multiple slots and authors like Charlotte Brontë get nothing*. Where women writers are lucky to get one of their books on the list, even if they have multiple that surely deserve a place in the canon (George Eliot!).

There are still well-respected male authors who claim that women just "aren't as good at writing" as men**. There are still professors who refuse to teach women writers for similar made-up reasons***. Still review outlets which overwhelmingly prefer male writers (and reviewers) over female****. Still publishers who consistently translate more books by men than they do books by women*****.

And ultimately, still readers who are subtly taught to read according to gender, who are taught that books by women are less serious, less high-brow, less intelligent and overall less important than books by men.

How do I know that last line is true? Because up until a couple years ago, I thought those things.

The more I read and grow, the more I set aside my teenage prejudices and misunderstandings, the more I'm able to understand that Jane Eyre wasn't just a good, "pleasant" book. It's a good book, period. I'm able to understand that by presenting Jane Austen's books as sweet romances, we're forgetting the clear social commentary that comes alongside it. Middlemarch is simply "the greatest English novel", J. K. Rowling is not merely a "popular" writer but a groundbreaking one, indeed an important writer, and Alice Munro's recent Nobel prize was not won in spite of her small, "home-centered" stories, but rather because of her superbly clean writing and sharp eye.

Big picture, How to Suppress Women's Writing didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know. It's not a groundbreaking book with new feminist ideas (not only because it's more than thirty years old). What it does is organize the many issues with the representation of women in literature, touching on everything from availability (in large part influencing my last post) to sexism in academia (presumably less serious today, but still apparent) to the glossing-over of women's achievements when building and presenting the "canon". The anecdotes and stories build an unpleasantly familiar picture, and I found myself quite unhappy in regards to how much of the book is still entirely relevant today.

Read How to Suppress Women's Writing. Read it, discuss it, see what's changed, see what hasn't. Thirty years down the line and Russ' text is still important, still worth reading. So track it down, check it out, buy it. Read it.

* The first result when searching for the 100 Best Books of All Time
** V. S. Naipaul's sexist rant from a few years ago
*** David Gilmour's sexism and racism
**** VIDA's statistics
***** My own series on Women in Translation

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Women in Translation | Availability and bias

Previous posts in Women in Translation:

One of the things that kept cropping up after I posted my original post on women in translation was a sentiment from a lot of men (and some women) that their own personal reading stats (which ended up matching the overall publishing trends almost to a T) were the result not of some problem with publishing or even with their own reading, but rather the result of their own personal bias. "I just prefer books by men" was a common sentiment. Or "Men write [X] while women write [Y], and I like [X]". Or arguments about the quality of men's writing as compared to women.

The point is basically: Don't use me as an example, I have a personal bias.

And it's wrong.

First of all, I think it's problematic that readers are so quick to declare biases as something fixed. Reading belongs to a fluid, ever-changing world. A reader may love one genre on Monday, but be sick of it by Thursday, and want to come back again by Sunday. There are no rules to reading, nothing that could ever justify a bias so firmly.

But my main problem here is that readers who are suggesting that the reason they read a lot more books by men (again: in the exact same ratios as the overall stats) are completely missing the impact that availability can have.

It's very simple: when you have 15 books with a blue cover and 5 books with a red cover, and this is the pool of books from which you can choose your next read, what are you more likely to pick? There are so many more blue books than red... it has nothing to do with the fact that they're blue, it's just that you're more likely to find something you like in that pile. And so you inevitably read more from the blue pile, and occasionally pick up a book from the red. In a ratio that's approximately 3:1.

This is what's happening with women writers in translation. It's that simple.

When publishers - and particularly publishers who specialize in literature in translation - fail to offer books by women writers in the same amounts as books by men, the inevitable fact is that fewer books by women in translation are read. And then readers become convinced that there's an inherent difference, books by women are [Y] and they don't like [Y]. They have a "personal bias".

A couple weeks ago, Chad Post of Three Percent told off Jhumpa Lahiri for implying that there isn't literature in translation by saying "look for it". His point was that there's quite a bit of literature in translation if you just seek it out. Well, here's the thing: I've been actively seeking out literature in translation by women for two months now and it's not so simple. I've been reading literature in translation for years - I know where to look. I've pored over Three Percent's translations databases, went directly to publisher websites, sifted through hundreds of books. And at the end, I could find only a few dozen writers. This, despite knowing exactly what I was looking for.

Availability is important. If the translations (or the books) don't exist, obviously people aren't going to be able to read them. When the overwhelming majority of the most prominent literature-in-translation publishers have only 25% (or less) women writers (Dalkey Archive, Europa Editions, Open Letter, and many others), it's no longer that readers are creating a bias here. The bias already exists. Readers are just having a hard time getting out of it because of a lack of availability. The sooner we recognize this bias, the sooner we can try to start fixing it. And the sooner we fix it, the sooner we'll find ourselves with a more balanced, diverse and interesting literary environment, and isn't that the point?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Dreams and Stones | Review

If ever a book to serve as a transition from solving physics problems to reading literature, Magdalena Tulli's Dreams and Stones (tr. Bill Johnston) is it. This short book - and I hesitate to call it a novel, for reasons I'll soon elaborate - has so many delightfully physics-y moments, shining in its cool appraisal of this world we live in.

Dreams and Stones is hands down one of the most quotable books I've ever read. Filled to the brim with brilliant lines about momentum, or about specific cities, or about the nature of stones, or about the nature of man, it was hard not to spend the entire book just highlighting away and writing "BRILLIANT" in the margins (eBook, of course, because I doubt I would ever highlight a print book, no matter how quotable it may be...). Individual sentences were so clever, so intelligent and so well-observed that I couldn't help but view the book altogether very positively right from the start.

And yet I don't think overall I can call this a particularly good book. Because though the writing is fairly brilliant when viewed through a microscope, the bigger picture shows a very disjointed work. I really loved each individual bite of Dreams and Stones, but the overarching narrative was loose and fairly lacking in cohesion. It's abstract writing at its most vague, its most scattered, and its most frustrating.

That said, Tulli did manage to hit on some themes fairly strongly. There were the fairly obvious hints against a totalitarian, overbearing state (and the subsequent counter-city concept), but Tulli also seemed to tackle the Holocaust through this very specific, blurred lens. This section - near the end of the book - felt a bit more directed than any of the other ideas bandied about, but it also may remain open to interpretation. With my own personal experiences, I was only able to understand it as Tulli's method of acknowledging Poland's national shame... but perhaps other readers will view it differently.

I hesitate to call this a novel for one simple reason - there isn't really much here. Dreams and Stones is a meditation: a long, hardly interrupted monologue about the growth of cities and thoughts on their subsequent influence on humans. There are no characters (except perhaps the residents of the city, but they provide as much emotional connection as the stones do), there is no plot, and there is very little in the way of emotional pull. It's a book based on ideas, but unlike others of its kind (the oft-compared Calvino, Borges), the lack of a personal dimension placed it a bit further out for me.

There is one final comparison I must make. A few months back, when I reviewed the truly astounding Kalpa Imperial, I mentioned that that novel had one of the greatest thirty pages of literature I had ever read. Those thirty pages belong to the short story "Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities". While reading Dreams and Stones (which is obviously longer than Gorodischer's phenomenal story, but not by that much), I couldn't help but compare the two. Both look at the changing face of a city, yet while Gorodischer's city sprawls and shrinks and we get a pure, clear image of it over thousands of years, Tulli's gaze is turned too deeply inwards. I could easily see Gorodischer's city in my mind's eye, but despite spending much longer with Tulli's, it remained vague and evasive. This is clearly indicative of the two author's differing styles, but I definitely preferred Gorodischer in this case (also: everyone should read Kalpa Imperial).

It's not that I disliked Dreams and Stones. It's an extraordinarily intelligent and thought-provoking book, brilliant in its individual passages and overall hits many of the right notes for me as a reader. But after having read "Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities", having read Calvino, and in general having read enough books that do abstract without just being vague, I couldn't help but feel Dreams and Stones disappointed somewhat. I'm definitely going to read more of Tulli's books, but I hope that her others have a bit more to them than just isolated brilliance. Obviously a talented writer, but as a clear, coherent novel, I'm not sure Dreams and Stones really works.