Sunday Salon: the Solid Post
My hands have stopped being in pain! I’m hoping this is for reasons unrelated to my ban on typing, so I’m going to write up this post (my Sunday Salon posts are usually the longest of the week) and see what happens. On Friday, I participated in a cultural event for the first time: I bundled up in a few layers, grabbed a novel, borrowed my sister’s camping chair, and arrived at Best Buy at 1:30 am to sit in line in hopes of getting a Nook for $99. I was already awake (I’d gone to bed at 6 pm on Thanksgiving, lol), and so I just sat and read and wished I’d brought a thermos of tea until 3 am, when Best Buy employees slowly began handing out various tickets. At that point, one of the guys in line asked me if I was enjoying my book and I chatted with the group around me until the guy with the Nook tickets arrived around quarter to 4. I was thrilled to get one, then headed home to drink some tea and celebrate on twitter. Around 6, I headed back to Best Buy, waited in a really long line while reading some more and avoiding the news camera and finally got my Nook in my hot litle hands! So, for about three hours of me reading (which I would have been doing anyway), I saved $50! To be more precise, I saved my parents $50…you see, the Nook is a Christmas gift. So I can’t tell you anything else about it (I have so much will-power I didn’t even open the box) for another month. Except that I’m thrilled at the idea of all of the out-of-print classics I’ll be downloading for free! Did anyone else stand in line for a Nook? Most of the people around me had no idea what I was talking about, hehe.
Moving on to the actual books I read this week! :) As reflected in my title today, most of these reads were really solid (what I consider ‘four stars’ in my mental scheme), which was nice. First up is The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr. For the vast majority of this novel, I was in heaven. It opens in L.A. in the 1960s, when an older Japanese man receives a phone call from a journalist interested in silent films. You see, Jun Nakayama was one of the biggest stars of the earliest Hollywood era, before suddenly ending his career in 1922. After that, the book alternates between Nakayama’s reflections on that time and developments in the 60s. The whole story is told through his eyes, and his voice is pitch-perfect. For almost the entire story, Revoyr leaves it up to you to read between the lines and see what was really going on (Nakayama is, among other things, determined that racism didn’t really affect his career). She wonderfully evokes the headiness of Hollywood just being born, the quirky experiences of silent film shooting, and her characters felt very true to the era (Nakayama also mentions real Hollywood stars, such as Mary Pickford, but his studio and fellow actors and directors are fictional). Her prose is just stunning (dare I call it literary?). The plot also moves along at a good pace, as she teases us with hints of a scandal and Nakayama’s present-day concerns that the journalist will find out about it, and until the last 30 pages I was convinced this was going to be one of my very favourite reads of the year. But then, Revoyr must have gotten nervous, and rather than trusting that the reader will pick up on things, she spelled them out. All of a sudden, Nakayama comes to a realisation about the racism he hadn’t seen in earlier memories, as well as a few other things I won’t talk about here. These personal revelations didn’t really feel true to Nakayama’s character, and it disappointed me as a reader. The book is still really good, and I found the vast majority of it absolutely breathtaking, but I do wish Revoyr hadn’t stumbled at the end. Despite my disappointment, I will definitely be reading more of Revoyr in the future: she has two other novels and if they’re half as page-turning and beautifully written, I’ll be happy. Also, she’s the second author published by Akashic Books (motto: reverse-gentrification of the literary world) that I’ve read lately, and I’m getting more and more curious about their backlist. So I think you’ll be seeing a list soon of Akashic titles I want to read! ;)
I then finished up Mario Vargas Llosa’s book about Les Miserables: The Temptation of the Impossible. This is my second Llosa experience, and I enjoyed it far more than my first (which was a novel The Bad Girl that reeked of chauvinism at best and misogynism at worst). As an unabashed Les Mis fan, I loved watching Llosa analyse the various tools Victor Hugo used to make the book such a giant. And as a reader without any literary academic background, I learned quite a bit. Perhaps most fascinating for me was Llosa’s discussion of narrators, comparing the narrator Les Mis to that of Madame Bovary, published around the same time but one of the first ‘modern’ novels while Les Mis is undoubtedly a classic. My favourite was the last chapter, in which Llosa talks about the power of fiction, in a variety of contexts including why totalitarian states ban a lot of it. There were several passages that really resonated with me (I shared one of them on Friday), and I even teared up a bit during a couple parts (that I plan to share in the future). But really, I loved every chapter, and it made me look at the book with even more love, an informed love. If you’ve read Les Mis and want to know more, I highly recommend this one!
I’m a bit nervous to talk about this next book: Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons. I’m afraid what I’ll have to say is a bit blasphemous, but it took me over a hundred pages to really start enjoying it. Until then, I was pushing myself to keep going, sure that it must get better. In Cold Comfort Farm, I had immediately connected with Flora and I enjoyed her adventures trying to reform her crazy relatives. In Nightingale Wood however, all of the characters start out a bit mousy…in fact, I had no idea which one was supposed to be the heroine. I’m sure that Gibbons did this intentionally, and it’s an approach that I love in Jane Austen (Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, anyone?), but for me it got off to a rocky start. It did eventually pick up, and I especially enjoyed Tina’s story. Gibbons includes a lot of digs at ‘types’ of people, particularly those of middle-class English society, which made me giggle, and once I got over that initial hurdle I was quite happy to be reading it! I wonder if those early pages suffered in comparison to Cold Comfort Farm‘s bright beginning, and if my expectations simply needed a bit of an adjustment. I did end up loving several of the storylines, in which characters who feel their lives have been wasted end up reinventing themselves (as you might imagine, those plotlines always give me hope). And there were a couple scenes that had me laughing hysterially, with my mother wondering what I could be reading. But I think it could have been cut down to 300 pages (instead of 380) without too much of a loss, and it didn’t live up to Cold Comfort Farm (for me at least). Anyway, I can’t wait for Penguin to issue more of Gibbon’s backlist, so I can see more of her writing.
Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers by Stephanie Wellen Levine is one of my favourite reads of the year, and I’ve read quite a few books! When Levine was in graduate school, she decided to spend a year living in a Brooklyn Lubavitcher Hasidim community interviewing the teenage girls to find out what their lives were like in such a strict community. This book grew out of that, but it doesn’t have even a hint of ‘dry’ academic writing. After an introductory chapter in which Levine describes different ‘types’ of girls in the community (as perceived by the girls and teachers themselves, just like we have stereotypes in our high schools), most of the book is made up of in-depth profiles of different girls. It felt like I was right there chatting with them, and I adored getting to peek into such a different lifestyle. Levine has the perfect approach for me: respectful but not fawning, unwilling to get caught up in generalisations or stereotypes, and a feminist concern for all modern-day American girls. I seriously loved every single page, often nodding my head up and down or smiling in recognition, and I was crushed when I finished it and discovered this is the only book Levine has written. I want more! In case you can’t tell, I highly, highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys good nonfiction, or is interested in women’s studies, or teenagers, or different cultures. Also, Levine mentions several books on contemporary American teenagehood, which has inspired me to work on a booklist for that too (particularly since I might be teaching middle schoolers soon!).
Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman was an impulse grab from the shelves, and I fully expected to love it. But I did not. Rather than be a celebration of translation, it’s more of an angry defense of it/attack on people who don’t value translation, which alienated me despite my inherent interest in the topic. Grossman comes off, quite frankly, as cranky, and while some of her complaints are certainly valid (it’s a shame that only 3% of the books published in the US are translations, with the UK having a similar percentage), they lacked nuance. For example, in all of her talk about how translations opens up new cultures, Grossman seems oblivious to the fact that writers from different cultures sometimes write in English since they were colonised by the British. I can read Indian authors, Nigerian authors, and Jamaican authors (to name a few) who write in English, and I think that this is just as culturally enriching and broadening as reading a translated work. She also failed to convince me that translators are actually writers, who ‘write’ the book in a new language. Yes, I see how translators ‘write’ in the prose sense, but they don’t create the characters or plots or setting that are also integral to novels. Their work is important and artistic, but it’s not the same thing as being an author. And even in the prose sense, I question whether the translators ‘create’ the style in the new language (at least when translating prose) or try to match it…there seems some kind of difference there (without taking anything away from the incredible work of translation) that Grossman bulldosed over in her rant about book reviewers. The last two ‘chapters’ (there is an introduction plus three chapters, all based on lectures Grossman gave at Yale), which focus on Grossman’s actual experiences translating works, were much more interesting, but at that point I already had a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. I’m glad that I read this, because it gave me food for thought, but I wouldn’t precisely call it an enjoyable experience, or a book filled with the love of translation.
The Salt Roads was my second experience with Nalo Hopkinson. I must say, I didn’t love it as much as The New Moon’s Arms (and that’s still the one I’d recommend to those interested in giving Hopkinson a try), but I still enjoyed it. It’s more of a ‘concept’ novel, which I think is why I didn’t fall head-over-heels in love. The book moves between three countries and time periods (18th century Haiti, 19th century France, and Roman-era Egypt), in each case following a woman of the African diaspora. Interspersed with these stories in the larger story of a goddess, trying to figure out who (and what) she is as she keeps being ‘caught’ in the lives of the three human women, and her attempts to make their lives better. The final storyline, feauting Roman-era Egypt is introducted quite late in the book and was the weakest part…I think I would have loved the book if Hopkinson had stuck to just two human storylines (plus the goddess). As it is, she spread herself a bit thin. Nevertheless, her prose is just as wonderful as I remembered from The New Moon’s Arms. And I’m in love with the ideas of the book, even if their execution wasn’t perfect! Several kinds of love, both emotional and physical, are explored within the novel; two of the main characters have woman lovers. Two of them are also prostitutes, so there are a few steamy scenes. But they didn’t feel extraneous, and I found them quite well done. Sex is partly about power, and in the bedroom these women, who were towards the bottom of their societies, seemed to find empowerment. It was neat to watch them take control! There were so many intellectual ideas Hopkinson explored, most relating to power and love; I don’t have space to talk about them all, but when I finished the book I was left with a lot of food for thought. All in all, while the book wasn’t perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I can’t wait to read more of Hopkinson’s back list!
My right hand is getting a few twinges, so I’m going to wrap this up for now. But as you can see, I had quite a good reading week, and I’m hoping that trend continues! Now I’m off to spend the rest of my morning curled up with some books…I’m almost done with Translation Nation and in the middle of Purge. And I’ll be opening up my Google Reader a bit later; I can’t wait to be able to comment again!