Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You | Review

There were a lot of things in Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You by Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés which made me laugh out loud. The short story collection is not meant to be an especially humorous one, but an underlying snark accompanies a good portion of the writing and some lines were, frankly, far too familiar not to make me laugh. "Arroz con pollo, sin pollo y sin arroz" made me laugh for a solid five minutes, not because the statement is necessarily that humorous on its own, but because we frequently joke in my family about my aunt's "arroz con pollo sin pollo" (and I had not known that arroz con pollo - named as such - was not an exclusively Peruvian dish).

The collection is written with almost deliberate indifference to the notion that the reader might not speak Spanish. It fits the tone - Milanés is telling stories of Cubans and of Cuban-Americans, and at times I found myself thinking that including in text translations would have been intrusive. And the Spanish, while prevalent, is not something you'll feel lost without. And you can probably figure it out from context, even if you don't know Spanish very well.

The truth is, I liked Milanés' writing, but I'm not sure I liked the collection overall. As sharp and pointed as it is in parts, there was a very uniform tone to the stories that made it difficult for me to fully separate them in my mind. Not that they were identical (certainly nowhere near the level of similarity across Kjell Askildsen's short stories, for example...), but there wasn't quite enough separation between the majority. The best stories ended up being those that shifted from the familiar structure - a two paged slip of a story about a gay man suspecting his niece's boyfriend is gay, a story about a Chinese immigrant to Cuba, a story which drastically switches perspectives throughout its 28 or so pages with no fixed loop. These stories lingered just a bit longer in my mind, snagged on something I couldn't quite place.

Milanés broaches a lot of topics in Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You, many of which I found myself not only recognizing and appreciating, but also running through in my head again and again. Most notable was Milanés' almost aggressive focus on race, and colorism, often drawing attentions to features that were more positively viewed (pale skin, slanted eyes, smooth hair). Then there were the more general themes: family, belonging, the immigrant experience... A lot here was quite familiar in the positive sense - a sharp reflection of the world.

And yet I still am not sure that I liked the collection all that much. Some of the stories were deliberately truncated in a way that kept me on edge, others felt dragged out without much justification, and some stories felt utterly dry. Despite the relative shortness of the book, it felt long and tedious far more than it should have. And sharp writing is great only to the point where it can stand alone, and here there was a glossed over uniformity to the entire collection that lessened the effect of the writing. Some of these are certainly stories worth reading, but I'm not sure I would add Milanés to my "must read" list quite yet.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Musings for a new year

There's something uniquely literary about the Jewish High Holidays. As much as every holiday entails some reading and relaxing, the High Holidays practically demand it - with a dozen or so internet-free days, you're left with little else other than reading. (And eating. There's a lot, a lot of eating...)

Reading on Jewish holidays (or the Sabbath) is not always ideal. While you're utterly free from distractions, you also lack a lot of the day-to-day tools usually associated with reading. Do you like to annotate while reading? Yeah, that's not an option. How about researching the author of the book? Not going to happen! Are the sort of reader that needs to look up the historical context of every event mentioned in a novel? You're going to have a rough go at it. Reading during the holidays and Shabbat is reading without context or other people's opinions clouding your own or any sort of external factor (for good and bad). For this Millennial, it feels old-fashioned.

So what are the books I plan to explore this year?

After a remarkably unproductive reading year, I'm finding myself vaguely bored by most of the books I'm encountering, and abandoning stories with greater ease than ever before (likely contributing to my unproductive reading year...). I've been dipping in and out of a lot of different poetry and short story collections over the past few months (particularly during WITMonth, which was far more stressful than I had expected), and getting a bit sick of it. September holds the hope of breaking that spell with full-blooded novels.

In the women in translation department, I'm hoping to tackle Magda Szabó's much-lauded The Door. I'm also currently in the middle of Xu Xiaobin's Feathered Serpent, which isn't quite hooking me as much as I would have liked but it's not losing me yet either. I also have - humming and calling to me in increasingly louder tones - Elena Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child (and I do have reasons for putting it off, but they're starting to sound sillier and sillier to my ears).

In the broader translation department, I feel a bit stuck. I know there are many male writers I've been sidelining of late in favor of women, but... who are they? What are the books I'm supposed to be reading? Where is the rush of excitement at a new novel? Hopefully I'll find something good at the library today before the holiday begins.

But the truth is... this feels like a holiday to reinvigorate my love of reading, and the best route for that is almost always through younger stories. Books without the jaded cynicism adulthood seems to define as realistic. Books without "grittiness" or bitterness or dramatic, gratuitous violence. Books with optimism. Books with hope. (This is something I may someday discuss more in depth, but not right now.)

I have many reading days ahead of me this month, and too few books to fill those gaps. Too few books with positivity and happiness, with fun stories and sweeping narratives, with cleverness but with empathy too. I have too few books which truly give me a unique perspective on the world and add something to my perception of mankind. Too few books which challenge my cultural assumptions. I'm confident I'll find a few, but as always I miss the days when people could tell me "You have to read this book, you'll love it!" and know exactly what they're talking about.

A new year, a new year...