Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday Salon

The Sunday

I finished Vassilis Alexakis's Foreign Words (review tomorrow) which leaves me with one more book from last week's AHB windfall to read. That would be Slobodan Novak's Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Once the Novak book is out of the way, I will re-focus my attentions on An American Tragedy, which has been the bane of my literary existence for almost three months now.

Foreign Words (translated from French by Alyson Waters) was really a wonderful book, despite its risky set-up. Specifically: it is character- and idea-driven, as opposed to plot-driven. There is actually very little structured plot to speak of, as events unfold organically, much like they do in real life (think The Catcher in the Rye or The Sun Also Rises). There was a lot of potential for the story needlessly meander and the first-person narrator to ramble on about nothing, but Alexakis is skilled enough at his craft to have kept everything together and continuously engaged the reader. I'm going to save my analysis for the review, but just to give you an idea of Alexakis's style, here is an excerpt:
I found three words that Sango and Greek have in common. Two are from Arabic: dunya, "the world" (another of Vamvakaris's songs, in which he uses this word, come to mind: "All the hooligans of the world/Show me their affection") and sandugu (sendouki in Greek), "crate" or "trunk." The third, politiki, "politics," is of course, authentically Greek. Alas in Sango it has taken on the sense of "demagogy," "lies." This just goes to show you that language is not lacking in critical intelligence. This is confirmed by the fact that, in the early 1950s when France was governed by the RFP (Rally for the French People), General de Gaulle's party, concessionary companies continued to act as ruthlessly in the colonies as they had in André Gide's time, and the initials RFP gave birth to the word erepefu, "forced labor."
The narrator is - like the Alexakis himself - a Greek novelist who lives France and writes in French. Foreign Words is about his attempt to learn the Central African language of Sango. It is listed as fiction, but the depth of Sango research exhibited in the book has me wondering how much of it was autobiographical.

Which brings up another question: when does a character clearly based on the author become a Mary Sue/Gary Stu? I addressed the Mary Sue issue awhile ago in this post about Anita Blake, but I found myself thinking of it again while reading Foreign Words. I think the Suedom occurs only when said character acts solely as a the author's and/or readers' wish-fulfillment fantasy. For example, Bella Swan from the Twilight series (who was inspired by a dream Stephenie Meyer had and seems to resemble Meyer physically) has all these boys, including a werewolf and vampire Adonis, falling in love with her. Everyone else wants to be her friend. She has amazing adventures and gets to live happily ever after as a beautiful immortal. And yet she is a cipher with no recognizeable personality and no hobbies outside some vague references to literature. Thus, she is a blank slate for the reader to project herself onto and live through vicariously. Alexakis's narrator, by contrast, is a very human one who learns Sango to deal with a recent loss and uses this new experience as a springboard to meditate on the nature of language, thought, and culture. He is 53 years old, average-looking, and lives a rather boring life. Even his trip to the Central African Republic is largely uneventful, despite his boyhood dreams of Tarzan. In other words, he's easy to identify with, yes, but hardly an idealized fantasy. But I also think the danger of writing a Mary Sue is much greater in speculative fiction, where you can give your characters all sorts of supernatural powers and incredible adversaries to overcome.

As far as the rest of my reading goes . . . I've actually been focusing quite a bit on the books Autumn Hill sent me, so I really haven't been doing any additional reading for the time being. I figured I got four free books to review, so I should really get my reviews out there as quickly as possible! Hopefully I will have much more to say about reading on my next Salon!

Update: I was just on Christine's blog She Reads Books, where I learned that Who is Mark Twain? (read my review here) can be read online for free. Check it out - I STRONGLY recommend it!

Also: Rebecca of The Book Lady's Blog has a just done a very thoughtful Sunday Salon post about blogging as a serious hobby vs. just blogging seriously. She articulated my own feelings on the subject very well.


the_young_dude said...

good review.. The Sun also rises + Catcher in the Rye.. you got me!

E. L. Fay said...

Actually, I wouldn't say it's a cross between those two books, if that's what you mean. I mean the plot structure (or lack thereof) is similar - very loose without being overly meandering. More like real life than the classic intro-conflict-resolution paradigm most novels follow.

Julie said...

Oh ha ha! I had never heard of a "Mary Sue" until I read this post, but I've been wanting a phrase to describe that, um, phenomenon for so long!

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