ReaderWriterVille

Blog in progress

Mini-reviews of recent reads

I just finished two very different translated novels, one a literary novel by a highly acclaimed Chinese writer in exile, the other a police procedural by a bestselling Japanese author of mysteries. I needed the latter to give my brain a rest after the former. I also finished a highly praised novel that didn’t work at all for me. I felt as if I’d read a different book than everyone else.

China Dream by Ma Jian

Ma Jian has been writing novels and nonfiction about Chinese society since the 1980s, and his critical views have led to his books being banned in China and his life in exile in the UK. The title of this book is taken from a speech by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who used the term to herald an era of “national rejuvenation” which would lead to China becoming the world’s greatest superpower. Ma Jian explores the costs that this dream imposes on ordinary Chinese people, especially those who are left behind.

Ma Daode is a government official in a regional city who seeks to create a China Dream Device, which will be implanted in all citizens and replace their individual dreams with a collective one of Chinese hegemony. His daily life, however, involves carrying out government policies like the demolition of villages to make way for economic development. Ma Daode is an extreme parody of a corrupt official, one with so many mistresses he can barely keep track of them, who takes bribes from all comers, and who ignores the welfare of the people affected by his actions.

But Ma Daode, who was a young man at the time of the Cultural Revolution, is increasingly bedeviled by nightmares of the violence and destruction of that time, in which he was both victim and perpetrator. As the story progresses, the past and the present become fused together for him, and no amount of sex and alcohol can suppress his torment.

Read the rest of this entry »

My 20 Books of Summer

I am once again joining Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, which she hosts at her blog. I’ve sworn off most reading challenges, but this one is a fun way to mark summer reading. There’s no pressure and you can choose whatever you want. Since I read 6-7 books a month anyway, it’s not about the volume for me so much as thinking about what to read in the stretch of the year where I know I have more time for all kinds of fiction.

The Man Booker longlist will come out in late July and that will create a bit of a crunch because I plan to read as much of it as I can, but I’m going to list 20 books anyway and see how far I get.

Translated Fiction

  • In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina: Yes, I’ve been reading this for ages. This is the summer, I swear it.
  • Compass by Mathias Énard: Énard’s most highly acclaimed novel and the one which most thoroughly engages with his interest in Orientalism.
  • Fox by Dubravka Ugrešić: This was on a bunch of awards lists and comes highly recommended.
  • Celestial Beauties by Jokha Alharthi: This just won the Man Booker International Prize. I bought it when it was longlisted but haven’t read it yet.
  • Valley of the Fallen by Carlos Rojas: A 1970s novel about Spain during Goya’s and Franco’s times. Recently translated by Edith Grossman and well reviewed but has not been talked about much.
  • Not to Read by Alejandro Zambra: A book of essays about reading, authors, and literature by the always-worthwhile Chilean writer.
Read the rest of this entry »

ReaderWriterLinks

Here’s an interesting article which focuses on the rise of marketing to niche audiences in music, but is applicable to books and other cultural products. Since Game of Thrones just ended we all have to invoke it in our writing, so here’s mine: GoT stands out as a widely appealing product in a time of niche hits, and I’ve seen a number of articles pointing out that its Sunday audience exceeded Big Bang Theory’s finale numbers. But if you compare live audiences, then BBT beat GoT handily, 13.5 million to 18 million. Live broadcast TV is not quite dead. And where do they compare to series finales of the past? Neither would break the Top 10, which would require an audience of at least 35 million viewers.

But back to the point about niche markets:

Fandom is fragmenting. Streaming personalization and falling radio audiences are combining to rewrite the music marketing rulebook, ushering in a whole new marketing paradigm. Hits used to be cultural moments; artist brands built by traditional mass media. However, this fire-hydrant approach to marketing lacked both accountability and effective targeting. Now, hyper targeting, both in marketing campaigns and streaming recommendations, is creating a new type of hit and a new type of artist. Global fanbases are being built via the accumulation of local niches, while a few big hits for everyone are being replaced by many, smaller hits for individuals. Niche is the new mainstream.

We can see this in commercial fiction. Romance Twitter, as is frequently observed, doesn’t reflect the overall reading trends of the universe of romance readers (compare the waitlists for Mary Balogh at US libraries with the amount of discussion of her works on Romance Twitter, for example). But that doesn’t mean that Romance Twitter darlings don’t sell, and sell well. They just sell across different markets. They may not be Balogh level sales, but they’re healthy and can sustain careers while they’re popular.

The upside is that a lot more authors can break through. The downside is that the cultural space is fragmented and so is the discourse. Being a romance reader doesn’t mean you have the same books and authors in common anymore, at least not with as many people.


Read the rest of this entry »

Weeknote 8

We’re settling in for the summer, which should mean that except for a trip in June, blog postings should be more or less normal. Which is good, because I’m finding these Weeknote posts both enjoyable to write and useful.

Work

The semester is officially over, which means I’m only working with graduate students (those are a 12-month responsibility) and doing the off-semester admin that never goes away.

Not much this week, since the first half of the week involved the road trip to get here. But I spent half a day doing necessary administrative work and another few hours unpacking and setting up my home study space. Now I have no excuses, which is good because it’s time to get to work.

Reading/Watching/Listening

I read Spring, the most recent installment in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet. I didn’t find it as enjoyable or satisfying as the previous two, but I’m still not sure I’m being entirely fair to it. My review is in the previous post and Janine’s questions expand on some of the review points in helpful ways.

I also spent a few hours trying to read one of the new It Books in the rom com subgenre, Red, White, and Royal Blue. I tried it because a friend and I were having a long discussion while she was reading it and it was easier to just read parts of it myself. I abandoned it after 4 chapters or so because it was just so dire. It has loads of 5-star reviews at Goodreads, which reinforces my belief that people read books for a wide variety of reasons. I can only conclude that the readers who love this one are reading into the book a great deal that is not there and ignoring what is actually on the page. The characterizations are inconsistent and insubstantial, the setting bears no resemblance to anything in the supposedly real world in which it’s set (it’s an alternate timeline but not an alternate universe setting), and it is clearly supposed to be snarky and witty but for me it failed on almost every attempt. Some of the other negative reviews have described it as Tumblr-type fanfiction, which seems about right to me. The author has written an RPF fanfic of actors in The Social Network and after reading a bit of that story, I can see definite similarities in the approach and writing style.

Read the rest of this entry »

Spring by Ali Smith

The previous novels in Ali Smith’s seasonal quarter have been highlights of my reading years, so I eagerly looked forward to this third installment. And it started off well: in the first part the reader is introduced to Richard Lease, a 60-something director of TV films who is mourning the death of his longtime scriptwriter, onetime lover, and all-around mentor and conscience, Paddy. He especially misses Paddy now because he is under contract to direct a film about a chance meeting between Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, in Switzerland in 1922. Paddy gives him as much help on Mansfield and Rilke as she can before her death, but the script being written by the youngish and oh-so-hip Terp is an unmitigated disaster; departures from the historical record are the least of its problems.

Richard abandons his work responsibilities and heads way north to the Highlands of Scotland, where he serendipitously meets up with a young girl, Florence, and her companion, Brittany (Brit), who are also up from the south of England. Brit works at a refugee detainment center and Flora is somehow connected to the center and to other refugees, but she’s basically on her own. Their reasons for traveling north are revealed in the second part of the novel.

Richard resembles other Smith characters in being white, educated, affluent, and in distress over choices he has and hasn’t made in his life. His interactions with Paddy are a delight to read (I wanted Paddy to stick around for the whole novel but that was clearly not going to happen). Their dialogue sparkles and even when Paddy is reciting set pieces, they’re Ali Smith set pieces so they’re excellent.

Like Autumn and Winter, Spring explores the political and cultural environment of the current moment through art, artists, and politics. This story ramps up the role of political bureaucracy with a vengeance, as the annoying but manageable institutions like the passport office are replaced by a prison-equivalent refugee detention centre, run by the previously mysterious agency SA4A. We see the centre through Brit’s eyes; she acknowledges the misery and injustice inherent in its operation, but she accepts it as the job she has.

The debates over Brexit and family squabbles that animated Winter are absent here, though; while Brit is part of the institutional structure, her perspective is that of a coopted observer rather than an active ideologue. This is interesting to me because it seems to let her off the hook a bit. Yes, she accompanies Flora to Scotland, but she’s not about to help her out of her precarious situation. She’s a company person to her core.

Read the rest of this entry »