Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review | And the Mountains Echoed

I had only a few distracted hours separating between Between Friends and And the Mountains Echoed. It was an abrupt and rather unpleasant transition from Amos Oz's blunt, at times cold writing style to Khaled Hosseini's beautiful, emotion-steeped approach. But to Hosseini's credit, the discomfort quickly faded, and as had happened with his two earlier novels, I soon found myself oblivious to all but the book.

And the Mountains Echoed is fairly good book. I hesitate to call it much more than that, because though I enjoyed it and though I sped through it and though I think Hosseini's writing is excellent and though the story has lingered in my mind the past couple of weeks since I finished it... it's a bit problematic. Structurally speaking it's a complicated book, and in terms of writing it has its stumbles, and there were some issues with the pacing and even a smidgen with the characters. Shall we dissect?

When it comes to its structure, And the Mountains Echoed opts for that oh-so-popular "literary fiction" choice of having a bigger story told through seemingly unrelated (but obviously related) shorter pieces. And the Mountains Echoed is less roundabout in its use of this style (it's obvious from the very start that the stories fit together in terms of characters and story, if not chronology), but it does use various characters to access similar stories from all sorts of angles. This is not my favorite storytelling style, to say the least, but at least it works okay in the book, in large part because of the time jumps Hosseini opts for. The story is linear-not-linear, unfolding in the same way along different threads.

And the Mountains Echoed's strength is in its use of emotions. This is Hosseini's go-to trick, even more than his clear writing. How can our hearts not twinge at watching our characters get torn away from each other, and the twists and turns their lives take until they can, perhaps, hopefully, be united? How can we not feel while reading of loyalty and love, of friendship and family? And the Mountain's Echoed may not have the most clearly defined characters and maybe its story twists a bit too much, but beautiful writing and tugged-at-heartstrings make the book a worthwhile read.

There are some more problems. The non-linear style makes the book uneven, as we try to figure out how each story fits into the larger whole. Some of them are obvious continuations of each other. Others have only thin threads that connect them, but their overall value - their message, their emotional punch, their clear implications on the world at large - makes them worth it. But there are a few that felt weakly attached and too in-your-face with their messaging. Instead of the story flowing seamlessly from one angle to the next, we're forced to make a couple "eye opening" pit stops that really only emphasize the disconnect between the messages Hosseini (perhaps rightly) wants to convey and the natural course of the stories. This also influences the pacing, making the book feel a bit slower and clunkier than it really ought to be, even as the overall impression is one of a clean, flowing novel.

And yet. Come novel's end, I had to completely disengage myself. In the two weeks since I've finished it, I've come back to think over some of its finer moments again, and wonder at its weaker ones. The stories have not slipped my mind, the characters (though not always fully realized) have retained themselves remarkably well, and though I don't feel as though And the Mountains Echoed hit me quite as strongly as Hosseini's earlier A Thousand Splendid Suns did, it's a surprisingly accomplished and rewarding read. Though there will no doubt be readers who dislike the structure even more than I did, and find the characterization wanting, And the Mountains Echoed is a good book, one I can comfortably recommend to many readers.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review | Between Friends

Between Friends... between friends
Readers may recall a few months ago I read Amos Oz's The Black Box, saying that I was debating between reading that book and... this one - Between Friends (בין חברים). Reading The Black Box was a thoroughly interesting, but also somewhat uncomfortable feeling. I wanted to recommend the book, but I didn't like it. I was fascinated by it, but I hadn't enjoyed it at all. And I knew that it wasn't like Scenes from Village Life, which I had really enjoyed.

Between Friends is in some ways much more like Scenes from Village Life than The Black Box. This is mostly because of its format - like Oz's earlier book, Between Friends is a collection of short stories about a certain place, where characters appear and reappear throughout, and where the location is more of a main character than anyone else. Scenes from Village Life used a level of distance to tell a story about modern Israeli life; Between Friends goes back in time to the kibbutz of the fifties.

But here Between Friends finds a major similarity with The Black Box. Unlike Scenes from Village Life which had some perfectly crafted stories and characters I immediately felt connected with, Between Friends is filled with utterly unsympathetic characters in frustrating situations. The stories made me feel thoroughly uncomfortable; I honestly didn't want to spend much more time with this kibbutz and its inhabitants. But I did, because despite its rougher edges, Oz's writing is compelling and compulsively engaging. As always, his writing is distinctly "not-beautiful", but... it's worth reading.

The historical setting of this one sets it apart from either of Oz's previous novels that I've read. Between Friends takes advantage of the shadow of the Israeli War of Independence, in regards to the political situation in Israel as well as its socioeconomic situation. Oz uses his foresight as a modern author to play with the concept of the kibbutzim's socialism, through the prophecies of a dedicated founder of the kibbutz, or the hard-line beliefs of one of its prominent members, or the casual acknowledgement of its changing future from its young-generation secretary. Oz uses his distance to gently emphasize the future that is to come, but oddly enough he casts no judgement one way or the other. Oz's voice is usually a dry, almost dead tone behind his characters; this time he seemed even more unresponsive than usual.

I can't help but compare Between Friends to both The Black Box and Scenes from Village Life. In structure, it is similar to the latter; in my tepid but intrigued response to it, it is much more like The Black Box, except I think I got more from The Black Box than I did from Between Friends, which felt a bit like a weak imitation of Scenes from Village Life for me. It can work as an introduction to Oz, certainly, and it's not a bad book by any means. But it's not particularly likable either, as accomplished as it may be. In other words... it's a book by Amos Oz. Difficult to classify, but recommended reading.


Finally, a minor quibble. When I first saw the translated title on the inside cover of the Hebrew edition*, my immediate instinct was to correct what I felt was a bad translation. I hoped it was a temporary title. Now that I realize that Between Friends is indeed the final title, I'll only mention as a side-note that I personally would have translated the title as Among Friends - like many Israeli titles, there's an air of ambiguity to the original Hebrew. But this is entirely irrelevant.

* Hebrew books almost always (always) have an English version of the title inside. This isn't always the actual title once (if) the book is translated into English, but it often is.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Twitter, author interactions and other thoughts

One of the reasons I joined Twitter a couple months ago was to breach what I felt was an uncomfortable divide between myself and the greater literary world. Does this sound pretentious? Stupid? It's probably a bit of both. For so long, I had seen bloggers shifting towards Twitter for their quicker thoughts and opinions, for wit and for a much simpler blogger-publisher connection. And blogger-author bonds, for those who read a lot of books by living, English-speaking authors. To put it simply: I wanted in.

Whether or not my attempt to enter the Twitterverse has been successful is up to debate; what isn't is my new awareness for aspects of the literary world that I never even imagined. Bloggers give each other advice, talk directly to publishers, authors, bookstores... it's rather incredible*. There's an entire community of book lovers who live only on Twitter, just like those who live on Youtube, or Tumblr, or even here in what I think of as "book blogging central".

This is a long and hesitant opening to what is a rather difficult post to write. Because a few hours ago, I witnessed a fairly painful, intense argument between many different book bloggers I follow. I don't particularly feel like linking to it, but the argument (in Hebrew I would say "ספק דיון, ספק ויכוח", essentially meaning not really a discussion, implying an argument...) covered topics ranging from authors involvement on blogs to the definition of bullying and... more.

I mostly want to talk about the first point. Like I said earlier, part of the reason I started using Twitter in the first place was to be a bit closer to authors and publishers. When I write a review of a book, I don't assume the author or the editor or the publisher are actually reading my review**. I write reviews for two purposes: firstly, to share my thoughts on a book with other readers, and secondly for myself - I enjoy the process of approaching a book from different angles, whether analytically, critically, emotionally or anything else.

But here's the catch: I don't object to authors reading my reviews. And I definitely don't mind if they want to talk to me about my thoughts. I know that authors have been trained to avoid responding to negative reviews (and let's be honest, most of my reviews are not exactly glowing), but I have no problem with an author politely engaging me in a debate. I probably won't change my opinion on the book, though it will certainly change my approach. Vaddey Ratner probably wouldn't like my reviews of In the Shadow of the Banyan. But if she wanted to tell me why she chose to avoid subtlety and why she opted for certain tropes I felt were cliches, I would listen. I would probably also gain something from it.

I understand that some readers want a bit of distance between themselves and authors. It's not easy to have that "face-to-face" interaction. I understand getting frustrated by authors who leave defensive comments on reviews. Not everyone wants to deal with it, and I'm not sure they have to. I honestly don't know. But I definitely think that authors have the right to respond (politely), and I feel like it might be a bit of a double standard to invite certain authors for interviews and allow them that personal interaction, but then avoid interaction with authors who maybe aren't as thrilled with your appraisal. But... it depends. And not wanting it and expressing that feeling, while maybe not something I personally agree with, isn't bullying. So there's also that.

I don't really know how to summarize these thoughts. I know pockets of arguments like this often crop up online and will probably continue to exist until long after I've quit this corner of the internet***. I can only hope for calmer discourse in the future, and maybe this is the advantage of old-school blogging - we have to pause and take the time to really think about what we're writing... and even then, we may not have all the answers.

* The other day I tweeted a recommendation for the next Goodreads app update. I received a response. Whether or not they actually take my advice to heart, someone noticed.
** This is in large part because I have a generally under-the-radar blog, which can be both a blessing and a... something boring and unnoticed.
*** Not something I'm planning on doing any time soon. I know, I know, so disappointing...

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Before I Burn | Thoughts

Rather like the time it takes to start a fire, it took me a while to get into Before I Burn, and possibly even longer to finish it. Before I Burn came at a difficult time for me - it sat nestled between exams, papers and reality. It saw me through most of my exam season, as well as on vacation (where it was usually shunted aside in favor of more hours of sleep), and through the writing of my final assignment for this school year (only a month before the start of the next). I finally finished Before I Burn the other night, and it seems like this prolonged period spent with the book did not actually harm it in any way. Before I Burn affected me in a way this year's books simply haven't. Though it's far from being one of those books I will tout nonstop - or even a top-tier book in my mind - it's got something special. It's worth it.

Before I Burn is a book that surrounds empty spaces. It slips from one plotline to another, focused mostly on its young, intelligent men. These men - their struggles, their triumphs, their failures - form the backbone of the novel. There's something a bit distant to the whole thing, but Gaute Heivoll writes with so much compassion for his characters (one of whom is himself, sort of, maybe, who knows?) that I couldn't help but feel for them. The distance is a bit like the setting - houses in a small town, everyone knows everyone, but there are patches of empty land between each home. How else could you not notice a pyromaniac setting your houses alight?

I was talking to one of my many literary aunts about the book just after I finished it. She was saying how she likes her books to be full of color and smell. She doesn't like "gray books". I told her she wouldn't like Before I Burn - full of gray shadows and gray spaces. Except for when it burns red. Before I Burn is a slow build, but it does build. It builds beautifully and powerfully, and though I knew the end, it managed to surprise me anyways. It's a book that I can easily see myself opening at random just to enjoy its environment and its world.

I liked Before I Burn. I liked its characters, I liked its perspective, I liked its plot and I liked the way it built around it. There are no compromises here, but small tragedies. There is disappointment and love side-by-side. Before I Burn looks at families with a calm eye. It looks at mental illness with unequaled coolness. It shifts through decades and generations with ease and expertise. It is, in all honesty, a good book. It may have taken me a while to get through, but I'm very glad to have read it.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Reading on time

I don't plan my reading. I don't have books I "bump up the TBR". I don't look at my books and say which is going to be read when. It doesn't work for me, I never do it, and I can never stick to my plan. Readalong? Nope. Book club? Not going to happen. Even just saying, "The next book I read will be..." just ends up getting tossed in the corner by the time I come to choose a book.

Which is why I inevitably never end up reading the books that I technically should be reading. Say I check a book out from the library. I have a limited period to read it. One would expect that I would prioritize that book... but I don't. Or a recently released book. I should review it around the same time as everyone else. Instead, I usually end up reading it four years later, after the hype, the hype backlash and the re-hype have all faded away. And by then, nobody is really supposed to care anymore.

There's this concept in the literary world (and particularly the book blogging world) that books need to be read "on time". For official review outlets like the NYTBR, it makes sense that they would review only new books - that's part of their job description. But for so many book bloggers to focus so pointedly on having reviews of new books hot off the presses - coupled with the review outlet mentality, it seems to encourage our general collective amnesia. Books published only two years ago feel old. What would it look like if I suddenly posted a review of The Casual Vacancy, which still sits unopened on my shelf? Or if I read and enjoyed The Savage Detectives? I've seen so many bloggers post these funny disclaimers of "yes, I know everyone and their mother has already read this..." before posts about slightly older books, but is it really a problem? Do we all need to read the same books at the same time?

I understand wanting to feel a sense of belonging. Reading books together and at the same time provides a nicely structured sense of community, and is a great outlet for literary discourse. But I feel like we've taken it a bit too far. We don't need to wait fifty or a hundred years to explore the backlogs. Books published fifteen or ten or even five years ago may still be incredible and relevant today. We don't need rules about how to read - when and why and what. Flexibility is important. Time and space are important.

So I'll continue reading books on my own time. I'm willing to wait a bit. And if everyone has already read the book - all the better. Now we can talk about it.