Thursday, January 23, 2014

How to spend my upcoming vacation

I need help.

I haven't had much of a proper vacation in a year and a half. Since I started studying in the fall of last year, the stress, schoolwork, tests, work and a general lack of time has had a serious negative impact on my reading. And now, finally, I actually have a vacation. I'm going to the US. Ten days. Ten days to read.

Over the past week, I've made a list of books that I want to read. I looked at year-end lists, books that I've wanted to read for a long time, books that bloggers recently reviewed, and of course my own slightly directed intention to read more women in translation. I started compiling a list of titles to place holds on. And then yesterday I realized that the list had gotten to about 70 books. 70 books in 10 days? Not going to happen. I started trying to cut the list down, but was not entirely successful and am still left with a list that is clearly both too long and too incomplete (there is only a very small amount of non-translated literature; little sci-fi, fantasy, young adult, or kids).

Here's where you come in. I want to know which books out of these books you all think are absolute musts. Which of these 40-odd titles needs to jump up my list? Which of these will make my vacation the most magical? Which will change my thinking? And what's missing? What are the books that haven't even made the "short"list, but obviously belong?

* I've noted which books are also available as eBooks, but to be honest, for longer books I definitely prefer the print version. So they made the cut anyways. For now.

  1. In Translation: Translators on their work and what it means - Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky (editors)
  2. The King of Trees - Ah Cheng
  3. Half of a Yellow Sun - Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi*
  4. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter - Aira, César 
  5. Swimming to Elba - Avallone, Silvia
  6. The Twin - Bakker, Gerbrand*
  7. Billancourt Tales - Berberova, Nina Nikolaevna
  8. Selections - Nicole Brossard
  9. Vertical Motion - Can Xue
  10. The Luminaries - Catton, Eleanor
  11. Silences, or a Woman's Life - Chaix, Marie
  12. Alphabet - Christensen, Inger
  13. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool - Di Grado, Viola
  14. Visitation - Erpenbeck, Jenny
  15. The Russian Version - Fanailova, Elena
  16. Kamchatka - Figueras, Marcelo
  17. The Blindness of the Heart - Franck, Julia
  18. First Love & Look for my Obituary - Garro, Elena
  19. Everyone Leaves - Guerra, Wendy
  20. Summerhouse, Later - Hermann, Judith
  21. Piano Stories - Hernández, Felisberto
  22. Wake - Hope, Anna (to be released while I'm in the US)
  23. The True Deceiver - Jansson, Tove*
  24. The Shadowed Sun - Jermisin, N. K.*
  25. The Budding Tree - Kitahara, Aiko
  26. The Dispossessed - Le Guin, Ursula K.*
  27. Ancillary Justice - Leckie, Ann*
  28. Koula - Koumantareas, Menes
  29. Shades of Milk and Honey - Kowal, Mary Robinette
  30. Satantango - Krasznahorkai, László 
  31. Children in Reindeer Woods - Ómarsdóttir, Kristin
  32. The Three Fates - Lê, Linda
  33. The Hour of the Star - Lispector, Clarice
  34. I'd Like - Michalopoulou, Amanta
  35. Stone Upon Stone - Myśliwski, Wiesław 
  36. The Armies - Rosero, Evelio
  37. How to Suppress Women's Writing - Russ, Joanna
  38. Tenth of December - Saunders, George*
  39. Everything Happens as it Always Does - Stambolova, Albena
  40. The Goldfinch - Tartt, Donna*
  41. The Bathing Women - Tie, Ning
  42. Realm of the Dead - Uchida, Hyakken
  43. Code Name Verity - Wein, Elizabeth
  44. White Snake and other stories - Yan, Geling
And whatever else you recommend. Have at it, internet. Help me out.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Is American literature overrated?

Last night, Greg of the New Dork Review of Books* tweeted an article in which author Jhumpa Lahiri denounces American literature as being "massively overrated". She points towards abysmally low translation rates into English as compared to those into other languages, using her own experiences with the Italian literary market as a contrast. Greg and I started discussing the use of the word overrated - what it essentially means here, and whether or not Lahiri was oversimplifying.

Lahiri was oversimplifying - period. You can't make a blanket statement about hundreds of thousands of books without oversimplifying. Furthermore, by using the word overrated, she implied that many of the highly regarded novels published in English (her own included, I suppose) are undeserving of any praise. But the essence of her point is spot on, and here's where I find myself ultimately agreeing: Anglo-American literature is rated more frequently and more prominently than almost any other literature in the world. And often, those ratings are not entirely deserved.

Just one example: Louisa Young's My Dear I Wanted to Tell You. A distinctly midlevel novel, not a huge bestseller, no lasting impact that I've noticed, not an award winner, no particular innovation (literary or otherwise), the author is not a household name, not really hyped... nor is it exceptionally good (it's alright). Yet this fairly mediocre book got translated into Hebrew. It got translated into French. It got translated into German, and probably a couple other languages as well. This unremarkable book has made its way across the globe. Contrast that with Amir Gutfreund's excellent short story collection The Coastal Mansions**, winner of the 2003 Sapir Award, which has never been translated. Or any of acclaimed, award-winning author Lea Aini's books. Or dozens of other Israeli authors who will never be translated, and thousands upon thousands of authors worldwide whose books will never see light in English. Because, well, hmm.

Here's a fact: Anglo-American literature is given more attention, more airtime, more importance and more respect than equivalent and better literature from across the globe. The NYT Book Review almost exclusively reviews Anglo-American books. The Ha'aretz Book Review, meanwhile, looks at Israeli novels alongside American, English, Italian, French, German, Latin American, Chinese, Swedish, Japanese, and all others every week. Every issue houses books from at least two languages, to say nothing of the countries these books visit. Just as Lahiri sees an Italian literary culture that embraces far more books from across the globe, so too does Israel***. And so do most countries outside of the United States of American and Great Britain.

This too is somewhat oversimplifying matters for a very obvious reason: the U.S. and the U.K. publish significantly more books than Israel could ever hope to. Maybe even more than France, Germany and Latin American as well, though I honestly don't know. This means that it makes a lot of sense for a certain amount of Anglo-centrism, but nowhere near the levels we see today. Not a token title or two out of 100 notable books per year. Not the rare review in the most respected literary journals. Something that respects and acknowledges the excellent literature to be found worldwide.

On the whole, Anglo-American literature is kind of overrated. I won't deny that some of my favorite books have been penned by British or American writers with an Anglocentric mindset, but I can also point to the other favorites which are distinctly not originally in English, or deal with cultures and ideas beyond the standard Anglo norm, and can easily show you how much less press and attention they've gotten. English is and will remain a language with a vibrant and wonderful literary tradition, one that gives us hundreds of truly excellent books every year, but for now it also remains the language that celebrates and touts its own mediocre options over top-notch, truly excellent titles from other languages from all around the world. It's this favoritism, this Anglo-American default that leads to Lahiri generalizing and calling all American fiction "massively overrated" (when that is obviously not true).

So yes: big picture, a lot of American literature is valued more highly than it should be. And while we can choose to view that as some sort of problem, I think we should focus on the flip side - let's get more international literature, more literature in translation. Let's have a broader picture of a bigger world. Let's have the very best literature, period. No matter where it's from.

* Still one of the greatest blog names ever, by the way.
** My rough-and-fairly-literal-and-inaccurate title translation; I hope the book gets a better title if it's ever actually translated.
*** Though to be fair, many of these titles in translation are from English, and indeed a weekly column in Israel's other (more popular) newspaper that aims to showcase "titles from abroad" almost always presents American novels...

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Stop writing books about novelists

There is a trope in fiction that I'm sure you've all come across - the story of the novelist. Whether the novelist is a side character struggling with a first novel, or the main character, mired in the struggles of overcoming writers block, I think we can all agree that this is not something completely unfamiliar.

Generally speaking, there are a lot of tropes I'm sick of. There are a lot of character types that bug me, a lot of basic cliches authors rely on to build a mood (particularly for anything that wants to be billed as "exotic"), a lot of phrases and ideas that crop up even though they're very rarely true... a whole literary world of tropes, and yet the one I'm most sick of is hearing about writers. You know why?

Because it's boring.

There's the old adage - write what you know. It used to be we'd get novels about doctors, novels about lawyers, novels about noblemen or noblewomen. And then came the all the artistic writers - books about generic artists, something that echoed the literary world but wasn't strictly identical. And now? Now every third novel I stumble across is about a writer. Usually living in New York. Usually struggling.

These books don't merely suffer because they're repetitive. They suffer from a fundamental lack, and that's a lack of scope. I have no problem with novels that focus very intently on one theme, idea, character or even location. I may personally find it to be a risky creative choice, but when it pays off, focused books can come off absolutely brilliantly (something like Beside the Sea). That's not the type of lack-of-scope issue novels about novelists have. Rather, those books seem to assume that they're the norm. It's an extraordinarily narrow, limited view of the world that annoys me every time.

Because how often do you see scientists in novels? How often do you see bankers, or researchers, or linguists, or programmers? How often do you have people who have an ordinary job that isn't the core of the novel? And let's be honest - how often do you see math teachers?

Write what you know. Writers today write about writing. It isn't meta, it isn't illuminating, it isn't clever... it's just dull. I for one have had enough.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Review | Stone in a Landslide

I didn't like Stone in a Landslide.

Could that be my entire review? Could I leave it at that, in the hopes of avoiding riling up readers I know enjoyed this book? Could I avoid awkwardness with the publishers, with the translators, with everyone involved in the project and just ignore this review? I could do all of these things... but I won't. That's not how it works.

Before now, I'd read three books published by Peirene Press. Though there was one I clearly liked less (the rather uneven Next World Novella), each offered a unique perspective and each had something about it that nonetheless kept me enclosed in the story. But the three also had a rather similar writing style - a bit disjointed, a bit loose... the kind of post-modern style that is popular in certain circles. It's not my favorite style and it sometimes hindered my appreciation of these novellas, but all in all, the first three were positive experiences.

Reading Stone in a Landslide was not. For such a short novel, I found myself struggling to remain interested in the story. And for good reason too: Stone in a Landslide has neither plot nor characters to latch onto, making it extraordinarily difficult to become emotionally invested in the story. Over at Goodreads, the publisher blurb describes main character Conxa as having "a voice totally free of anger and bitterness". This is true, but it's true because you could easily change that sentence to "a voice totally free of emotion". In the next paragraph, we're told that Stone in a Landslide has "everything": love, loss, history, death, war, etc. All of which is technically true. The book mentions each of those things. It just doesn't know how to feel them.

The story is this: Conxa is forced to move to her aunt and uncle as a young girl so that her family can avoid starvation. Though the move is said to be temporary, she ends up spending the rest of her life (essentially) in this new village, for all intents and purposes losing touch with her parents and siblings (who are only ever mentioned again in brief, offhand comments). This new life is described as being full of hard work and dedication, but we see none of it. Within a few years, Conxa falls in love with Jaume. There are approximately three paragraphs worth of courting and drama, then they marry. They start a family.

Around this point in the story, Maria Barbal slips in the first explicit reference to a year, grounding us in reality. This turns out to be more of a flashing warning sign for the war ahead. Except... not really? The war and its aftereffects are treated with the same dulled hand and the same utter lack of tone that the previous sections had. Tiny flashes of clever writing and thoughtful observations make their way into the narrative at this point, but it just isn't enough. From here until the end, the story is like a toy that's running out of batteries - slower and slower until it finally comes to a halt.

Does it seem like this is the bare-bones of the story? Yes. That's exactly what it is. Stone in the Landslide does one thing well, and that's its remarkable ability to skip over many years in the space of a sentence. But the pacing is still off, because nothing fills these gaps. The story is nothing more than an outline, and there is no hope of filling it in.

I didn't like Stone in a Landslide. I didn't like Conxa as such a detached narrator, who constantly tells rather than shows. I felt nothing from her - no real love for her husband, no real love for her children, no passion, no fear, nothing. And since Conxa's head is all we have, there are essentially no other characters. Jaume is nothing more than a prop, the children are nothing more than dolls Conxa occasionally feels possessive of, and Conxa's aunt and uncle serve more as a reminder of the "old days" than they actually have personalities themselves. Nobody has any personal spark that could make them remotely interesting to me as a reader.

But surely the writing! you must say at this point. The writing must be good, if so many other readers enjoyed it! If Peirene published it! But like I said, I have a bit of a different taste when it comes to Peirene's preferred writing style. The loose style found in previous novellas was once again present here, and once again failed to impress me. More than that, the writing was sometimes downright clunky, with passages that actually jolted me out of the reading experience. ("Even in the bumping and bouncing cart, I could feel myself trembling. It was happiness.")

It was impossible to read Stone in a Landslide without immediately comparing it to the significantly superior The Time of the Doves. These two Catalan books about women in the Spanish Civil War tell very similar stories, yet in markedly different ways and with clearly different results. Barbal minimizes her story so very much and spreads it out over the years such that nothing has a particular impact. Everything is told in a bland, dead-sounding voice; nothing is felt. Rodoreda looks at a more narrow slice of time and spreads it out over many more pages, but she delves deeper into the characters. She shows the world around them.

If you read the publisher summary Peirene provides, it sounds like they readily admit that there's nothing particularly new in Stone in a Landslide. In fact, their description of what makes up for the lack of voice is very similar to how I myself described The Time of the Doves in my review. At the end of the day, I can't view Stone in a Landslide as something unique because it isn't. I can't view it as well-written, because my reading experience was uncomfortable (at best). I can't pretend like I cared about the book, because there was just nobody to care about and nothing to learn from. It's a prime example of a pointless "literary" novella - instead of admitting that it's not particularly good, we're supposed to praise the minimalism (read: emptiness), praise the "glimpses" of life (read: all we get), and praise the detachment (read: utter lack of emotional connection).

So once again: I did not like Stone in a Landslide. In fact, I really didn't like it. It's the sort of book I'm sorry to have wasted an afternoon on, and quite frankly reminds me where I often diverge with the broader literary community in terms of defining certain books as "quality" versus not. Other prospective readers may go with the crowd on this one, but I felt the need to nonetheless share my opposing review: I did not like this book.