Monday, July 2, 2007

My Palace of Leaves in Sarajevo

I’m feeling so frustrated by Becky Bloomwood’s debt and deceit in Shopaholic & Sister that I just have to put the book down. Why am I putting myself through this? These books are so painful for me—painful on the level of watching American Idol auditions—yet, I know I will stay up way past my bedtime tonight finishing the book; and, though I tell myself I won’t, I’ll probably read the final book in the series since I’ve already committed to the first four. Plus, I do need some brain candy to counteract my descent into genocide literature.

Shopaholic & Sister is not the only book I’m frustrated with. I’m still plodding through Over a Thousand Hills. And I read a book this weekend I just don’t know what to do with: My Palace of Leaves in Sarajevo by Marybeth Lorbiecki.

Since My Palace of Leaves is so short—around 50 pages—I picked it up only minutes after finishing Zlata’s Diary. As I said in my previous post, I enjoyed Zlata’s Diary; it inspired me. Zlata’s Diary clearly also inspired Lorbiecki. In fact, there were several passages in the book that seem to be lifted directly from Diary.

I am not accusing Lorbiecki of blatant plagiarism—her writing is not nearly as eloquent as the preteen’s—but she clearly “borrows” events and descriptions from Diary. Granted, at the end of the book, Lorbiecki acknowledges that she is “thoroughly indebted to Zlata Filipović, the young Sarajevan woman who wrote Zlata’s Diary, 1994” (51). And I probably would not have realized how indebted she is to Zlata had I not just finished Diary.

I might be able to forgive Lorbiecki for being so heavily "inspired" by Filipović. I cannot forgive her writing style.

Zlata’s Diary was written originally in Croat and translated into English. Although clearly written by a young girl, the book is rarely awkward or unwieldy. In contrast, My Place of Leaves in Sarajevo is a clunker.

The book is written in epistolary form as Nadja Didović, a ten-year-old Sarajevan, corresponds with her cousin Alex in Minnesota. Nadja writes her letters in English—and English clearly is not her native language. I grudgingly admire Lorbiecki’s attempt to recreate letters written by a non-native English speaker. However, having lived in Ukraine and corresponded for years with ESL students, Lorbiecki misses the mark.

Nadja does not sound like a young Croatian-speaking girl; she sounds like a robot or Frankenstein—“Spring finally here, pretty and warm. I want to fly kite and walk in puddles and play ball in park with Ana” (24). Instead of hearing a child’s voice in my mind, I honestly heard Borat's. Nadja’s English is simply comedic in its awkwardness.

Alex’s letters, written in perfect English, read like an adult masquerading as a child—“[M]y secret spot’s behind some junk in the garage. That’s where I keep things away from my nosy sister, Judy. YECH!” (2). Although the letters span several years, neither Nadja nor Alex seem to age or mature—despite Nadja’s firsthand experience with war. And Nadja’s command of English never improves.

I know I’m being hard on this book. I genuinely respect Lorbiecki’s desire to write about this war, but there is a fine line between respecting and reverencing a topic and unintentionally creating a mockery of it.


Wanna-Be Lit said...

Sounds like I can avoid this book. Did it get good reviews from anyone else?

Blogger said...

I've discovered the book reviews for children's lit tend to be rather gentle. I read several—most focusing on the educational value of the book. I guess this means I am too hardhearted.

Wanna-Be Lit said...

But an interesting note on the reviews of children's lit. Could be a paper all in itself.