Yiddish for Pirates: Not for me. Or for my book club people. (Or for anyone?)

I recently had a middle of the night worry that an author of a book I didn’t like might stumble across one of my I-didn’t-like-it reviews. Don’t worry. I fell quickly back to sleep. But the thought lingered. I like writing a good scathing review as much as the next blogger, but was I being fair to the novelist? Was I just having fun being a little too mean?

So in the spirit of writing a negative review that isn’t just mean, let me put forward my case for why I didn’t enjoy – or even finish – Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates. And let’s all congratulate me for becoming a better person. #haha

I found the novel too much. And not in the way we diminish women/people for being ‘too much’ when they express emotion, of put forward alternate points of view, of are so bold as to have an opinion. Too much in the sense that everything felt jumbled by excess: from setting, to character, to plot, to tone, to point. A generous reading might call it ‘exuberant,’ but this reader found it frustrating and sloppy. That is to say, the veritable outpouring of description or rapidly changing scenes seemed at once purposeful (making some point about the possibilities of language, maybe?) and entirely unrestrained and impulsive. As though the author wasn’t thinking about the reader at all, or how the reader might experience the text, but instead just. had. to. write. it. all. Perhaps indulgent is the right word for it?

Added to the excess is the inclusion of yiddish throughout the text. I’m okay with including non-English languages and expecting the reader to do a little homework, but in this instance the peppering is more of a dousing and this reader found it impossible to keep looking up words in order to make sense of what was happening. Coupled with a penchant for sentence fragments, the bilingual text made of an act of reading that was awkward and difficult, and without a payoff that might explain the work.

I became so frustrated with the lack of focus, the disorienting plot, the jumble of characters and the narrative point of view (narrated by a parrot…) that I stopped reading it. It’s important to know that this was a book club selection, so I felt compelled (by a force as strong as an undergraduate course outline) to finish it. WHAT IF IT WAS ON THE EXAM (I am a person almost entirely motivated by assessment. I have no intrinsic motivation to speak of. Perhaps someone could grade this blog entry and send me a gold star?). But I disliked it so much I was willing to face the wrath and disappointment of my Very Serious Book Club friends. And then I got to book club and learned that of the seven of us, only one person had read the whole thing. Most gave up after less than ten pages. A few of us soldiered on to the 200 page mark. But the overwhelming view was that this was… not a book for us.

So if you’re out there and you read the whole thing AND you liked it… let me know why. Certainly the Giller committee liked it when they put it on the shortlist. Ditto the Governor General’s Award for Literature. But then they like ridiculous things like novels narrated by dogs. Hmm. Maybe that’s the trick to a Giller – write a novel from a non-human perspective. Parrot. Dog. What next? (Stay tuned. I’ll write my next entry from the perspective of my cat…)


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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Funny, Giller prize, Governor Generals, Prize Winner, Worst Books

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