Unwritten book review

There's no law that says I must write a book review of every book I read, right?
For the past 15 years I've been keeping track of what I read, in a Word document that is now 52 pages long. Sometimes I jot down some impressions, other times I just note the approximate date, the title and the author. Um, no, I don't write down the name of the translator because I've been reading mostly in the original language, basically English and Hebrew. Which reminds me I really must go back to that Book Reviews document and give credit where credit is due, namely to the inimitable Nili Mirsky as the translator of the Gogol stories, Constance Garnett and Avrahm Yarmolinsky as translators of the Chekhov stories, and the one-and-only Gaio Sciloni as the translator of Italo Calvino, in case I ever get back to his If on a Winter's Night a Traveller , (Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore), which is still on my bookshelf since winter 1997, when my son's Lit teacher gave the class an excerpt to read (in the Hebrew translation)

But I digress.

My current complaint is that I have not been able to bring myself to write a brief review of the 540 page Terry Pratchett novel Unseen Academicals. It's lurking in the back of my mind, interfering with my enjoyment (if that's the right word) of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let me Go.

Now, as I said, there's no law that says I must write about the books I read. Consulting my list I can see that, of the 48 Terry Pratchetts I read so far, I have only bothered to "review" around 28, so why let Unseen Academicals trouble me? I enjoyed its treatment of some subjects (supermodels, soccer fans, the Patrician), plodded through some ploddier bits, chuckled occasionally, and totally missed various allusions to British football culture. Doesn't mean I have to put it all down on paper/hard disk/the web.

Many of my earlier "reviews" of Terry Pratchett works were extremely short, others a bit more detailed. For example (and I quote, not "polishing" anything I wrote years ago):

Moving Pictures – Hollywood or Bust. Somewhat too obvious take-off on Hollywood.
Reaper Man – Terrific. DEATH as Beau Nidle, member of the Foreign Legion…
Small Gods – Scathing commentary on organized religion. Any religion.
Soul Music – Long live Rock 'n Roll…
Interesting Times – Whence originates the curse, "May you live in interesting times…" As Rincewind says, who wants interesting? Give me boring, boring, safe and boring….
Maskerade – A new twist on the Phantom of the Opera?
Carpe Jugulum – A bit morbid, ghoulish… I think I took it too seriously… Found the threat of the New Vampyres too convincing… But Granny Weatherwax wins the day – yet again! Long live the witches, and long live Terry Pratchett for giving us heroes and saviors who are female and not necessarily young, sexy, and/or gorgeous!

The Science of Discworld (with Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen)
- In fact, a book on science. Peppered with chapters about the wizards as a palliative and comic relief. Very informative, explains complex concepts clearly, and has many an amusing and philosophical insight.

The Truth - Pratchett takes on the Press; what it's like to be a newspaper editor and a journalist by nature. Scenes with the two thugs – include direct quotes from Pulp Fiction.

The Science of Discworld II (with Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen)
- Continues along the same lines as The Science of Discworld I, but so far seems more difficult scientifically. At the moment it deals with evolution. In any case, the writers’ approach and point view is refreshing, and they do their best not to offend religious believers while in no way compromising their own principles and beliefs, which is no mean feat. Slow going for someone who does most of her reading just before falling asleep.
At some point the science became more understandable, and the book more engrossing.

Only You Can Save Mankind
The first in the Johnny Maxwell series for kids/youth. Charming and – being Pratchett – includes pretty harsh yet funny social commentary, and anti-war sentiments, which I gather are further developed in depth for adults in his more recent books, Nightwatch, and later Thud.
Sample quotation:
"What is sexist?" [says the alien captain].
"What"? says Johnny.
"It was a word you used."
"Oh, that. It just means you should treat people as people, and, you know...
not just assume girls can't do stuff. We got a talk about it at school.
There's lots of stuff most girls can't do, but you've got to pretend they
can, so that more of them will. That's all of it, really."
"Presumably there's, uh, stuff boys can't do?" [asks the alien captain].
"Oh, yeah. But that's just girls' stuff," said Johnny. "Anyway, some girls
go and become engineers and things, so they can do proper stuff if they

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents - Supposedly, a children’s book, or at least a book for young people. To me, it was a thriller, albeit one with a social/moral message, or issues, as a basis.
It was a gripping page-turner, and a mystery, and scary. Reminded me somewhat of Watership Down.
Yes, it has humor, supplied mostly by Malicia Grim whose entire outlook on life is based on stories. And by the main(?) character, the would-be cynical Maurice; and, come to think of it, some scenes with the rats, and some scenes with the schlimazel rat-catchers, and so on. But on the whole, it is more action-suspense than comedy.
The fact that it takes place on Discworld and makes some references to “familiar” locations and characters such as Unseen University, the wizards, the Watch – makes it feel more “like home”; it’s good to know I’m on familiar territory, I more-or-less know the rules along which Discworld operates. And, since it’s Terry Pratchett, the plot and the characters and the conflicts have significance and values.

Going Postal - Ha! Ha ha ha!!! Reading and chuckling, really chuckling aloud – that’s something that few writers can cause me to do. Moist von Lipwig. Really! How can he give a hero such a drippy name. Anyway, the plot is thickening, the bad guy will get his comeuppance, and Moist will get his ashtray girl. I assume.
Yes, Moist gets his girl. The plot seems a bit more conventional or straightforward, less convoluted, than some of his other novels. But definitely not too simple. The Patrician is finely etched and comes shining through as an admirable, dispassionate, cunning and capable administrator. The social criticism is as scathing as ever. Adora Bell Dearheart, known as Killer to her friends, is a typically atypical female protagonist. In that sense, Terry Pratchett does a lot more for womankind than the cerebral, academically highfalutin Carolyn G. Heilbrun.
A couple of choice quotations:
“What a place! What a situation! What kind of man would put a known criminal in charge of a major branch of government? Apart from, say, the average voter.”
“She grabbed him by the ears and gave him a big kiss on the mouth. It was like being kissed by an ashtray, but in a good way.”
Pity I didn’t write “ha!” in pencil in the margins in other places, as I used to in my university days.

Johnny and the Bomb - Whimsical and engrossing. The comments on the weirdness of time and time travel fit in very well with what I recently read about time in Brian Greene’s book.
As usual, has a strong feminine figure, though less likeable than some, because she’s such a smart-ass, smarty-pants and looks down on everyone else. She does come down a notch at the end.
I'll stop here, since I think I've made my point. If you want to read more of my book reviews, just say the word, I'll be delighted.

Anyway: I have finally made my peace with the fact that I am not writing a review of Unseen Academicals. If you want to know what it's all about, there's always Amazon.

Phew. That's a relief.
Back to Never Let Me Go. Yes, I know they've just made a movie of it. Not sure I'll want to see it. And if I get too depressed reading it, there's always a good Terry Pratchett to fall back on.

A committee's work is never done

An innocuous-looking item in the Jerusalem Post caught my eye the other day and gave me the shivers: "Public diplomacy Web site finally appears in English", said the heading.
No sooner had I come to grips with that bit of news, than another bit of similar information landed on my desk: the leaflet Masbirim Israel, called in its English incarnation Presenting Israel, is nearly ready for print.

Theoretically this is Good News. So why the shivers?
Because I know that both the website and the brochure are the result of the work of a committee of experts…  Much has been said about the painful work of a committee. For example:

To get something done, a committee should consist of no more than three men, two of whom are absent.
  - Robert Copeland
(There are some nastier barbs aimed at committees, but if you're in the mood you can go browse any number of quotation sites.)

The subject of hasbara, or public diplomacy, is very close not only to my heart but also to my keyboard and my hard disk.  I have been involved, to one extent or another, with both projects, and beg that you do not put them under a microscope and do not put me through the wringer. Or rather, if you're in the mood to criticize, go ahead, but send your feedback directly to the Ministry.  Minister Edelstein's   efforts are commendable, and I support him whole-heartedly. But the committee, the committee…

How can you expect to get any sensible decisions made, when arguments become heated, experts clash, tempers flare? Inevitably, compromises and concessions are made, and high horses have to be gotten off of.

In conclusion: any faults you may find in either website or brochure are not the fault of any one person…  they're the outcome of joint efforts by the committee. Have fun!

Shana Tova -- One-Size-Fits-All

No point in waxing nostalgic over old New Year's greeting cards… Things change. Fact of life. Yes, when I was a school girl, sending Shana Tova cards was quite a project (only it wasn't referred to as a project, nor an enterprise or an assignment). We walked into the center of town, to our favorite bookshop or kiosk, that now had a table laid out with an enormous selection of cute, small cards with matching envelopes: with and without cherubs and doves, with and without silver or gold sparkles. You had to choose carefully, which you'd send to whom, how much you'd spend, how many plain ones you needed and how many fancy ones. Anyone from my generation, growing up in Israel when I did, remembers this, and I'm sure it's been documented in various novels, short stories, newspaper articles.

So, if there's no point in pining for Old Times, what am I complaining about?
I'm complaining about the other extreme: Sending one Shana Tova greeting to your entire list of Contacts, Friends, or Customers, or your entire Address Book. By email or by texting (SMS, to Israelis.)

I know it's efficient. I know you simply don't have the time to send an individual email greeting to each. I know that most of the people who include me in their Shana Tova mailing list do indeed mean it, and do indeed think of me not only on Rosh Hashana. Still, it simply doesn't have the same impact. No matter how clever and original your copywriting, it's still impersonal, and I have not gotten used to it.

Do I have a solution? Not exactly... not as such. I've become so upset by this phenomenon in the past couple of years that I've stopped sending greetings altogehter. I phone some people; I send a few personal emails; I enclose a real, tangible card when sending, say, an invoice/receipt or any other bit of correspondence that requires the use of snail-mail; and of course I reply to the greetings I receive by email. Because, as I said, the senders are my friends who truly wish me well and whom I really want to wish a Happy [Jewish] New Year. But I just can't bring myself to create and send a mass message.

Hope I haven't offended my friends. I'll probably get my comeuppance next year, when my friends will say, "Well, ma'am, if that's the way you feel about it, no problem, I'll just delete your name from the list." And I'll be the only person in Israel not getting any New Year greetings, and shall feel very forlorn…

I wonder whether there's an in-between method. How would that work?

- First of all, either phone or send a paper greeting card to elderly people who don't have a computer and/or computer skills.

- Next, prepare one e-greeting for family. If you don't have too huge a family, you can even give their names in the body of the email, and/or make the text a bit more specific, e.g., Sweetie – may your enterprise flourish, Honeybunch – knock their socks off, Baby – enjoy your new job/apartment, Auntie – hope you can go back to running this year; and so forth.

- Stage three – prepare one text for friends in Israel, wherein you can allude to local issues; and a slightly different text for friends abroad, wherein you can express your hope of their coming to visit you in Israel next year (or not).

- Stage four – a text for customers, both current and prospective. Should be easy to wish them success in their business ventures, with the implied hope that they count you in and send some work your way. And a separate text for colleagues, who have helped you in the past and whom you wish to thank and wish well.

- Stage five – well, anyone else who has not been included in the previous categories, but whom you do not wish to leave out.

Does this sound like a lot of work?... Almost as time-consuming as going into town and hand-picking paper cards, addressing them and sticking on stamps?... Aw, shucks! I guess it's time I got used to the mass e-greetings.

Thank you, my friends, for thinking of me. Shana Tova to all.

Back to autobiographies

Reading biographies and autobiographies can be a terrible bore. For the most part, unless the protagonist is a figure of note, the tale is relevant and interesting only to close family members. Even autobiographies of famous people can be a bore. I am told that Churchill's contains some very tedious passages…

Years ago, I asked a friend to get me Virginia Woolf's latest biography, a heavy tome, considered by critics to be "definitive". Guess what – it was tedious beyond words, containing entire paragraphs along the lines of "… and the teapot on the mantelpiece described in Woolf's story XYZ turns out to be an accurate description of the teapot that was found in her home, given to her apparently by her Aunt Gertrude on her 20th birthday." Who cares, I ask you?

My mother loved autobiographies, so long as they were written by brilliant people and/or focused on subjects that were close to her heart (the theater, science fiction, Zionism & Israel…) Among her favorites were Neil Simon's memoirs, Rewrites and The Play Goes On; Golda Meir's autobiography My Life; and Stephen Fry's Moab Is My Washpot -- an autobiography of the first 20 years of his life; Clara was so sorry he stopped there, that she wrote to Fry to tell him how much she enjoyed his book and asked him to write another, of the next twenty years… He answered very kindly, but declined. (Am scanning his letter for you as I write, so scroll down to see it.) She also read Woody Allen's biography by Eric Lax, and at least one memoir by Isaac Asimov, I'm not sure which one - he wrote several.

Most of the above are on my bookshelf, of course, just waiting to be read… The only one I read so far, quite a while ago, is Rewrites. What can I tell you – pure agony, what a writer goes through. You read or watch a Neil Simon play, and the witty, funny dialog flows so naturally, so effortlessly. Ha! There's never writing, there's only rewriting, say the real pros.

Clara (a.k.a Mom), too, wrote her memoirs. She wrote them in longhand and dictated them to me on weekends when she stayed with us. I have plenty of letters, diaries and notebooks that can help me fill in gaps, if any. I do intend to complete that document one of these days, before it's too late, bind it and give it to her closest friends and family – should they be interested. I won't blame them if they decline. You can love and admire a person but not have the patience to wade through their autobiography.

And so – I said to myself – I shall do my best with translating the autobiography of the American gentleman mentioned in my previous post, in the hope that some of his kith and kin will read and appreciate it. But meanwhile, the project has been put on hold, or given to someone else, or perhaps canceled. Funnily, I'm a bit curious about this man's history. Maybe I'll read it all the same…

Brush up your Grossman

The other day I started a new translation project. It's a biggie – over 44,000 words – and – surprise, surprise – it's a rush job. Why did I agree? Heaven knows. Probably because I'm tired of doing little bits and pieces and would rather sink my keyboard keys into a longish, hopefully consistent text. And also because the text is a manuscript, the memoirs of an elderly gentleman, and as such I deem it important. A mitzvah, if you will.

Thing is, the author is American, and the manuscript is in English, which means the translation is into Hebrew. Theoretically, shouldn't be a problem. Been there, done that, and so on; I'm a native Hebrew speaker, lived and studied here in Israel… But after a lengthy period of translating mostly Hebrew > English, I have to brush up my active Hebrew. I need the words to come to me quickly and easily. Can't afford to wrack my brain and agonize over it.

A case in point occurred fairly early on in the text. A certain character's occupation was described – though not in so many words – as a carter or wagoner in a shtetl. The text used the Yiddish word, which was foreign to me. My mind went totally blank. I consulted an online English/Yiddish dictionary, (completely forgetting that I have the original 1928 hardcover on my shelf) but had difficulty finding the word I wanted, because it was misspelled in the manuscript. I gave up in disgust.

Solution? Or rather, pre-emptive action? – Pick up a well-written Hebrew novel and read it, to rev up the literary Hebrew generator, as it were. Especially in this case, since the text calls for elegant, high register Hebrew. Chatty everyday language or cool, modern-day Etgar Keret type style won't cut it.

I can do that. As a matter of fact, the pile of unfinished books on my night table (which includes, for instance, Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case and Stamboul Train, mentioned previously on this blog, also includes an Amos Oz and a David Grossman – my two favorite Hebrew writers. Respectively, these are Rhyming Life and Death, and Her Body Knows – Two Novellas.

But as good and enjoyable as these two may be, it means I must put down the book I am currently reading, viz., Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals, with its biting social satire and quirky characters.

It was quite a relief to revert to Pratchett after the last book I read – Larry Niven's A World Out of Time. I found JB Corbell's adventures in Time and Space very tiring, in addition to downright scary at times. I do most of my reading around bedtime, and prefer not to read scary stuff, lest it should give me nightmares.

But I digress.

Back to the problem at hand. As I got up for my lunch-break, an old Hebrew song suddenly started playing itself, loud and clear, in my head: "Kor'im lo Lipa ha'eglon…" [Lipa the carter/wagoner]
Problem solved, this time around.

I really ought to pick up that Grossman. Or Oz.