The Politics of Reading

February 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

Sometimes Twitter seems designed to irritate. Courtesy of social media I find myself clicking on links to articles I’d never see, on sites I’d rarely visit, in the normal course of events. It seldom ends well. Usually I keep my opinions to myself but I found this one post particularly frustrating. Because reading a book is not a political act.  At its best it can be an act of political engagement that leads to political action.  The distinction may seem to be an argument in semantics, but is not.

Just to demonstrate how flawed the logic behind this post actually is, here’s a quick example:  Just because The Hunger Games trilogy deals with the concepts of war reparations,  income inequality, propaganda, spectacle used to control the masses and social revolution doesn’t make you a political activist just because you read the books. If you were to write a paper or an article, link the film to a cause and use it as a bridge to inspire & inform – then maybe.  But for any of those things to happen you must read with an intent other than pleasure & escapism. You must make a decision to take action.

And not all books are political. Historical romance novels make great escapist reading but the vast majority have no viable or actionable political content whatsoever. Authors like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King & Arthur Conan Doyle are great writers, every one.  Finding a political message in their books and short stories is going to be a stretch.

Please don’t misunderstand – pleasure & escapism are as valid reasons as any to read a book. But the belief that you can passively engage in politics is, in my opinion, a dangerous one. It fosters complacency.  At worst it encourages it.

As in everything else in life a choice exists. A certain amount of active engagement is necessary. Do you as a reader seek out books with a political message – whether subtle or overt? Do the books you read lead you to further explore an idea, a piece of history or a culture? Do you seek out diversity – books written by women, people of color, small presses, self-published, translations? Do the books you read spark discussions on different issues and ideas? Have they led you to support a cause? Or to question your lifestyle? Do they sometimes challenge your beliefs?

I find this post frustrating partly because I don’t believe the idea it professes to support – that reading is political – is actually the argument the author of the post wanted to make.  What I believe she is arguing against is the idea that politics somehow taints the experience of reading. That a reader who chooses to avoid a book because they believe it is political – or refuse to engage in the political component of a book because they dislike the idea of politics – is making a mistake. Politics plays a part in the plots of many of the books we read (though not all) and these books, inevitably, influence our decisions. They shape our opinions.  Readers should embrace rather than avoid this reality.

Because “politics” in and of itself is not a dirty word.

n. 1520s, “science of government,” from politic (adj.), modeled on Aristotle’sta politika “affairs of state,” the name of his book on governing and governments, which was in English mid-15c. as “Polettiques.” Also see -ics.

Reading with political action in mind (or at the very least being open to political theory in what we read) sounds boring – even to me. Or, as is too often the case, divisive. Particularly if you equate politics to Republicans & Democrats, the Right & the Left, Conservative & Liberals, and all those labels that start those god-awful arguments with Uncle Bill during the holidays.  But political parties  – “political allegiances or opinions” as the quote above says –  and politics were not always synonymous. Politics was originally meant to help us navigate our relationships with one another on a macro scale.  To help us find the best way to function as a society. To help us decide whether it is better to help each other or just ourselves.

And even overtly political books don’t always have to be depressing. Or divisive.  Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn is full of hope.  It is inspirational. The authors work to empower women  and believe that the act of empowering women will make the world a better place.  Best-sellers like Reading Lolita In Tehran and Nine Parts of Desire look at the role of women in society – Muslim society in these instances – with the goal of understanding rather than condemning.  Is it so inconceivable to see yourself doing something as small as googling “microloans” or even buying a scarf from a program like Global Goods Partners, inspired by one of these books? A small step, true, but a step nonetheless.

What about novels?  Can fiction inspire political action? Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Grapes of Wrath are two historical examples of books that impacted society.  Need more contemporary examples?  His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro might have you re-thinking the U.S.’s policy in Central & South America.  The Man With the Compound Eye (about a boy from a mysterious island who lives for a time on a floating island of trash) and The Healer (set in a apocalyptic future) both deal with environmental issues and still remain entertaining/enjoyable reads. Honor by Elif Shafak deals sensitively with the often difficult and complicated subject of the familial relationships of Muslim immigrants. And anything at all by Margaret Atwood falls withing the category of “stories-with-a-message” that I’ve been describing.

Reading is about entertainment, yes, but it is also about empathy; about exploring experiences & perspectives that are different from our own. To me the one (politics) seems entirely congruous with the other (reading). But whether they influence and effect each other – in turn influencing and effecting our lives as readers and citizens – is a separate matter entirely.  It is a conscious decision we need to make as individuals. Perhaps, even, a call to action.

Confessions of a Translation Snob

January 28, 2014 § 8 Comments

My browsing habits have changed.  I noticed it a few days ago in a Barnes & Noble Bookstore.  My husband was off in Sci-Fi/Fantasy and I was wandering through the fiction section, half-heartedly looking for a book I didn’t need.  My expectations were pretty low.  I started out looking for Mario Vargas Llosa.  Nothing. And then I spotted those three FSG fishes.  And a Europa book.  And – what the hell?! – Melville House.  Wait, the Soft Skull logo is an ant with a pen nib in its butt?  How did I not know that???  By the time I’d worked my way over to my husband I had a stack of books in my arms.

Recognizing the names and identities of different publishing houses is a bit like knowing the names of your favorite fashion lines.  I could easily drop an entire paycheck on J. Crew. Ditto for New Directions.

That’s the point.  We look for what we like.  I’ve read well-written, engaging books filled with interesting characters by British and U.S. authors.  But Latin America! My god, the quality and variety of the writing that’s coming out of Latin America is ridiculous.  And the Middle East; I will read anything that’s been translated from Persian or Arabic.  Then there’s the completely unexpected – like falling in love with a book translated from Bulgarian (a country I, sadly, had to look up on the map).  I guess what excites me is discovering the slightly obscure; reading books with complicated narratives and unusual plot structures. Experiencing the unfamiliar.  Finding books I couldn’t read without the help of a translator.

True, there’s also that feeling of – and I suppose you can’t get more snobbish than this – being a member of a select club.  Where instead of wealth or income or pedigree, membership is contingent on knowing certain passwords: Aira, Shishkin, Dowlatabadi and Ogawa.  Of being able to recommend a book to friends that they won’t necessarily find on the feature table of the local B&N.

(Is that really such a bad thing?  How is a geeky obsession with translations so different from – and any worse than – someone else’s obsession with Fantasy Football, video games, The Game of Thrones? Why is it suddenly okay to judge art, wine, food, television… but not literature?)

There’s also the satisfaction that comes from supporting a cause.  Stephen King, Margaret Atwood or [insert bestselling author’s name here] don’t need assistance promoting their latest blockbuster.  Neither do their large publishing houses.  But have the majority of readers heard of Ludmila Ulitskaya?  Marie N’Diaye? Hans Fallada? Marguerite Yourcenar? What about Edith Grossman? Chris Andrews?  Or Gregory Rabassa?

So now I mostly read and only blog about translations.  I find the idea of an author and translator collaborating to create a book that is both the same and separate from the author’s original vision absolutely delightful. And, since this is a confession: I also generally don’t read YA.  I think 50 Shades of Gray sucked on multiple levels.  I love PBS, but have zero interest in Downton Abbey.  I don’t read a lot of “commercial” literary fiction because I’m busy reading other things.  I have a weakness for steampunk and *cough* romance novels.

This is what works for me.  It doesn’t need to work for everyone.

And for the record: this isn’t the first time I’ve written this kind of thing.  I just usually don’t post it.  Why now?  When I was on vacation a couple of weeks ago I came across a link to this post on Flavorwire.  Curious, I Googled “Book Snobs” and was a bit overwhelmed by the number of results. That, combined with the ongoing arguments about reviewer vs. blogger, is it okay to write a bad review, and all the other silliness that we all waste waaaaayyy too much time thinking (and reading about) compelled me to stick up for the underdog.*

Which brings me to my point…

Do I only read translations? Pretty close.

Do I want you to read more of them? Yep.

Do I care about the newest Nicholas Sparks or Jennifer Weiner novels? God no.

Do I think less of you because you read and liked it? Not really.

Does that make me a translation snob? Probably.

But I’m OK with that.

Does anyone else find it strange that some people (and book sites) aren’t?

*Not that, in the big scheme of things, we really need defending. I mean, we’re not exactly  Sumatran Rhinos.

Welcome 2014!

January 1, 2014 § 4 Comments

Untitled drawingA brand new year!  I won’t pretend that I’ll miss 2013… years ending in the number 3 are never among my best.  But now is the time to take stock of the last 12 months of reading and set some goals for the upcoming year.

How many books did I read?  A sad, sad 47 books.  Not even halfway to my goal (Damn you GoodReads!  Your badge of reading achievement eludes me once again!!!)

How many of those were translations? 32 books in 13 different languages:  French, German, Norwegian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Swedish, Turkish, Spanish, Catalan & Finnish.

Favorite book of 2013? I can’t bring myself to narrow it down to just one.  My top 3 books would be (in no particular order):  The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber, Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, In the Time of the Blue Ball by Manuela Draeger and 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev.  O.K., that’s four.  18% Gray snuck its way onto the list by way of my subconscious.  It made such a strong impression on me that it just felt wrong to leave it out.

2013 Highlights? What were the blogging highlights of 2013 for me?  All the extracurricular activities I was able to take part in this year:  hosting some of my favorite bloggers in The Rise of the Short Story at the beginning of the year;  being invited on the Mookse and the Gripes podcast not just once, but twice (some people are just glutton for punishment); contributing reviews to Necessary Fiction and Literary Kicks;  being asked by Kim at Reading Matters to take part in her Advent Calendar; finding the wonderful translator Jordan Stump through Twitter and him graciously agreeing to an interview.

There’s also been an exciting number of innovative  independent publishers who’ve released strong and important books in translation over the past year.  These indies aren’t just thinking outside of the box to publish great books, they’ve grabbed the scissors, paint, hot glue gun and turned that box into something new and refreshing. & Other StoriesReadux Books and Frisch & Co. have exciting publishing models. Readux focuses on short fiction for the digital age; & Other Stories have an AMAZING list of authors and a subscription program that makes you feel like a member of an elite club; and Frisch & Co. is tapping into the opportunities of e-books.

And last, but definitely not least, the highlight of 2013 was all the wonderful readers – old and new – of BookSexy Review.  Thank you for your comments, shares, likes and sticking with this little blog even when the post schedule got a little *ahem* erratic.

2014 Resolutions? This year my goals are more modest than last. I’ll only attempt to read & review 52 translations.  26 of which, as I wrote in my last post, will be by female authors.  I’ve also developed a large backlog on my TBR pile.  So, in 2014 I’m going to work to make a dent in that.  While I love reading new releases, there are authors like Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, more of the works of Juan José Saer, Péter Nádas and every Inspector Montalbano mystery ever written.

Happy 2014 dear readers!  Have you made any reading resolutions for the new year?  Share in the comments below!

A New Ol’ Girls Club

December 29, 2013 § 1 Comment

The blogger Biblibio posted a call to arms in this December 9th post Where In the World Are Women Writers?  and the follow-up Women in translation – responses.  After informally crunching the numbers he/she came to the conclusion that less than 30% of the literature translated into English is written by women.  After reviewing my reading history I came up with results that were startlingly similar.   Leading to the obvious question:  What the hell is going on?!

I can’t speak for the publishing world as a whole, but I can unequivocally state that I do not seek out male over female authors.  Keeping that in mind I went back and tried to determine how the books I read this last year first came to my attention.  The result was a mixed bag of publishers, podcasters, book critics, bloggers, booksellers and Goodreads.  In other words, useless.

But, just when I was getting my indignation on in defense of the feminine gender, it was brought to my attention by a recent episode of the BBC Radio 4 Open Book Podcast that the majority of literary prizes in English for 2012-2013 were won by women authors.  Alice Monro (Nobel), Hilary Mantel (too many to list), Lydia Davis (Man Booker International), Eleanor Catton (Man Booker), Angela Jackson (Edinburgh Festival First Book)… you can see the entire list on the Open Book website.  In fact, women have made a strong showing overall on the long and short lists of all the major English language literary prizes this past year.

Obviously, this doesn’t in any way refute or reverse Biblibio’s findings.  Yet it does reinforce my belief that this disparity is not happening intentionally.  Publishers care about selling books and publishing good literature (hopefully not in that order).  It’s doubtful that they have any investment (emotional or otherwise) in an author’s gender.  My hope is that what we are dealing with is residual gender bias from the 20th century… a habit easily kicked if readers are willing to make the effort.  And more importantly, if those of us who review are willing to get the word out.  Because if they sell publishers will take notice.

Case in point:  who knew that the Scandinavians were so into crime (or, let’s face it, could name the 3 Scandinavian countries off the top of their head?) before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?

Now, I realize that in some circles “quotas” is a dirty word.  But they have frequently been proven effective.  So I propose this informal challenge to fellow readers, bloggers and reviewers:  in 2014 challenge yourself to read a set number of books in translation written by women – and then review them.  The review part is key.  Whether on a blog, as a contributor to a traditional media outlet or on Goodreads it’s important to give these authors a little marketing nudge.

Hmmm… this could merit a hashtag.  Something I’m terrible at.  Anyone?

This year my personal goal is to read and review 52 books – one per week.  Half by women.  I intend to alternate – every book by a male author will be followed by a female author, and vice versa.  With a modicum of planning this shouldn’t be difficult to implement.

Until I started actively seeking books in translation I had no idea of the incredible literature from around the world I’d been missing out on.  Now I look at my bookshelves and see authors whose names, three years ago,  I didn’t know.  I can’t wait to see who gets added in the year ahead.

To Salinger, With Love & Squalor

August 27, 2013 § 2 Comments

SalingerOn September 6th a documentary on J.D. Salinger, called simply Salinger, will be released in theaters. For Salinger fans this is a big deal.  The television rights have already been sold to PBS.  A book full of photographs will be in stores September 3rd.  Those attending advance screenings of the film, or who have been given access to the book, have signed non-disclosure agreements.  Of course, tons of information has leaked out.  (You have to wonder how Salinger managed to keep his secrets for decades, when the Weinstein’s couldn’t manage it for a few weeks).  That Salinger was in the intelligence service during WWII, possibly suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, was a jerk to the women he dated (well, that wasn’t necessarily news) and that we may be seeing new works in the next 5 years –  has all been revealed over the past weekend. So I’m looking forward to seeing the actual film next week if only to find out what surprises – if any – are left.

Reading The Cather in the Rye was not a world altering event for everyone.  Some of us prefer Salingers short stories particularly those about the Glass family.  After reading Nine Stories; Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction; and Franny & Zooey I was so enamored that I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to get my hands on anything he’d ever written. What did I discover?  That there wasnt much out there to discover.  Some uncollected short stories on microfiche at the New York Public library; a copy of The Way of the Pilgrim (the source of the Jesus Prayer that Franny takes up in Franny & Zooey);  In Search of J.D. Salinger, a.k.a. – Ian Hamiltons Hail Mary attempt to see a return on years spent researching the Salinger biography he wasn’t allowed to publish; and a small 1960’s paperback collection of essays on Salingers work (more on that later) discovered in a second-hand shop.

I had and have no interest in reading Joyce Maynards memoir. Im still on the fence regarding the book written by his daughter.

I also haven’t read Kenneth Slawenski’s 2011 biography J.D. Salinger: A Life, which came out long after I’d resigned myself to waiting patiently for the subject’s death.*  (I made the calculations… being 55 years younger than Salinger, barring a horrible accident, the chances were pretty good that I’d live to see the posthumously published works).  And, anyway, I was never really interested in learning about J.D. Salinger the man.  I wanted more of the Glass family.

The 1963 collection of essays, edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald and entitled simply Salinger: A Critical & Cultural Portrait, is the book which provided the foundation of my Salinger research.  Originally published by Harper & Row in 1961, mine is the small Pocket Books paperback edition. It includes a number of essays published by the likes of John Updike, Alfred Kazin, Joan Didion and contains an introduction by the editor.  It was from this little book that I learned about Hapworth 16, 1924, the last short story Salinger ever published.  It’s a strange little story (which I can’t imagine the magazine agreeing to publish if the author hadn’t already received so much critical attention) that takes the form of letter home from camp written by a young and precocious Seymour Glass.   Salinger: A Critical & Cultural Portrait also contains the TIME magazine article which states that “a friend reports that Salinger intends to write a Glass Trilogy” and provides a brief overview of Salinger’s military career – a period Slawenski’s biography seems to have covered and the new documentary expands upon.  Less exciting (for me) was the information that the Caulfield family had a cycle of short stories, similar to the Glass family which were cannibalized and consumed by The Catcher in the Rye.  There are about four of these – two only accessible to the public through Princeton University Library – and they all seem to contain major discrepancies from the final novel: name changes, variations on the cause of Holdens younger brothers death (heart condition, drowning, and finally leukemia) and some timeline issues.  For Salinger the two families, Glass and Caulfield, were a constant work in progress.  He couldn’t let them go.

The fact that Salinger continued to write in isolation shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone with even a passing interest in the author.  The real surprise would have been learning that after all these years of waiting he had left behind no manuscripts whatsoever.  Or that he’d left instructions to burn the manuscripts.  *shudder*  Rumors of his continued work have been persistant.  Even my little 1963 paperback mentioned House of Glass – the supposed working title for the epic Glass family history that’s apparently been years in the making.  So the New York Times article published over the weekend regarding the release of new works between 2014-2020  is mildly exciting but for those of us who have been waiting patiently it raises a lot of questions

If David Shields, Shane Salerno and Slate.com are to be trusted, and there’s no reason at this point to believe otherwise, we have confirmation that there are 5 books and instructions as to when they are to be published.  And that among these manuscripts is a novel The Family Glass.  But how much of the work will be entirely new?  Is this novel a re-working of the early Glass stories – like what happened with Caulfield stories in the writing of The Catcher in the Rye - or a continuation?  We’re also told that there will be more stories featuring members of the Caulfield family. We’re told definitively that these will include new stories, as well as the re-packaged older stories. Have the continuity issues been resolved or will they be preserved?

Which leads to the next logical question:  who will act as editor?  Considering most of the famous short stories were published in The New Yorker and edited by William Maxwell this is of real interest to fans.  Or it should be.

OK, I lied.  This is all more than mildly exciting.

It’s been three year since J.D. Salinger died and I’m still making mental calculations.  If the timeline is right I’ll be under 50 when the last of the new books is published. Hapworth, 16, 1924 appeared in The New Yorker close to a decade before I was born.  I’ve been waiting since I was 14 years old for a new book or story to see the light of day.  That seems strange. (“Sad!” my husband says, looking over my shoulder). And inexplicable. Because I’ve read better authors. There are plenty of books out there with more sophisticated plots. Yet I continue to love Salinger’s stories.  I still want to know what happens to the characters.  So do a lot of other people! (I yelled that last bit back at my husband).

If you’re one of them I’d love to hear why. Are you planning to see the documentary? Are you Team Glass or Team Caulfield? If you’re looking forward to new books and stories, do you have any expectations? Or do you think Salinger was a big phony? Comments are open below… and it looks like we have at least two more years to fill them.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

*Don’t you judge me!

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Blogging category at BookSexy Review.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 891 other followers