Sunday, April 15, 2018

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura | Review

It feels redundant to review a book that has been praised to the skies by so many readers and critics far more eloquent than myself. I'm coming to the party so late that I can hardly imagine which readers are left unaware of this "Wuthering Heights remake" (I'll explain the quotations in a moment), and of its lingering impact. Doesn't everyone already know that A True Novel (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter) is a masterpiece of modern Japanese literature? Doesn't everyone already know that it is worth looking past the novel's length and reading it? Doesn't everyone already know, far better than I do, that this is a true novel, a truly good novel?

On the surface, I knew each of these claims when I began to read A True Novel. Like so many other titles on my shelf (particularly the longer ones...), A True Novel had spent a long time languishing before I bothered to actually read it. Sure, some of that had to do with the length, but the real reason I was put off every time was that allusion to Wuthering Heights. Because goodness, I hated Wuthering Heights. It's one of those novels that somehow even got worse in my memory as time went by (rather than simply fading away). A True Novel's blurbs all insist on reminding me that this is a Japanese reworking of that classic tale, and didn't you know that this is a reworking of Wuthering Heights, and oh! You should read this because it's an adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

So I started reading, hesistantly, and found myself baffled. The first part of the novel does not remotely resemble Wuthering Heights; in fact, it's more like autofiction, with Minae Mizumura detailing a cross-cultural youth in the US and a later literary career. It was an odd, slightly off-kilter opening to a book that promised something entirely different. I kept waiting to see what Mizumura must be hinting at, the references I must be missing... but it soon became clear that this was simply a very long, elaborate introduction. Indeed, A True Novel turns out to have multiple layers to its story - a story being told, then retold, then retold, then conveyed to the reader. Yet the submersion feels gradual, possibly because this introduction ends up taking so long. And is then followed by another introduction. And then another that leads to the actual story. And not long after, I realized I had finally gotten to the point at which that Wuthering Heights parallel came from.

Here's why A True Novel works so well: By the time I finally realized how this narrative echoed Wuthering Heights, I didn't care. Sure, the cast characters had shifted several times before the resolution focused on the "main" narrative. (Several hundred pages, in fact.) And yes, once the story itself began, it was easy to recognize how Mizumura had planted the "Wuthering Heights" seeds earlier. It just didn't matter anymore, because I was hooked. Each introduction had felt like one, but once the pieces fell into place, I recognized how this novel was progressing and I didn't want it to stop. I fell in, breathlessly, and was swept up.

A True Novel certainly has several callbacks to Wuthering Heights, but to market it as the "Japanese Wuthering Heights" is to undersell the novel by an almost catastrophic degree (and not simply because I don't love the original). A True Novel contains within its pages a unique take on the story-within-a-story model, one that manages to make each layer even more worthwhile by being just meta enough to make the withdrawal its own almost-story, challenging how stories are told and the concept of narration itself (in parts). Remarkable still is the fact that A True Novel does all of this without ever straying into the dull gray zone of having technical innovation at the cost of narrative and writing. The writing threw me off a bit, at first, with a sort of straight-forward roundedness that I couldn't quite place as being either modern or old-fashioned; it's somehow both simultaneously. Whatever it is, I enjoyed it a lot.

Bottom line: A True Novel does a lot of wonderful things within its (many) pages. It's not only an expansive modern history of Japan, but also a personal drama/tragedy and even a meta narrative about storytelling. It's written in a convincing style and ultimately kept me absolutely hooked. It's intelligent and clever (yes, those are different things!), emotionally engaging (even in the most Wuthering Heights-like plot moments that had me on occasion wanting to slap the characters, but with much less vitriol against the novel itself than Brontë's text), and well-written.

If like me, you've been put off by the length or the Wuthering Heights comparisons, do me a favor: Pick up the book and just start reading. Just start. I think, like in my case, you'll find yourself finishing the book before long...

It by Inger Christensen | Review

I basically put it on my reading list the day after I finished reading Inger Christensen's phenomenal alphabet. I positively raved about alphabet, and even four years later, I stand by those words. That poetry book (book, I emphasized then and again now, not collection) took my breath away (literally, at times) and enchanted me. It was gorgeous and intelligent and perfectly translated by Susanna Nied and I loved every piece of it. Obviously, I would have to read every one of Christensen's books available in English! And again one translated by Nied! So I promptly placed an order for it.

Not quite it
Here is the uncomfortable truth: I began it in the summer of 2014, certain that I would again fall in love with Christensen's words and unique writing style. But I didn't. In fact, I found myself largely bored and disconnected from the text, recognizing much of the technicality that made alphabet so wonderful, but none of the passionate beauty. I set the book aside, fully expecting to return to it within a few days. It (somehow) ended up in the back of my closet (?) and I forgot about it until three weeks ago, when I found it hidden underneath a pile of misfolded shirts.

The bookmark was still buried where I had remembered it being, around a third of the way through. I flipped through the earlier "poems" halfheartedly, seeing the blockish texts that had so turned me off back in the day. But I decided to resume reading, and more importantly I decided to resume reading the book from the point I had stopped. I didn't go back and reread the earlier portion of the book, despite the fact that it is as clearly a whole text as alphabet was. Yet something told me that it would be better to leave the past there, and move forward.

Getting back into the rhythm of the text was difficult. The first few poems felt disjointed, a reminder that I was effectively reading this book from the middle (though I was surprised by how strong a sense from the first part I still had, lodged away in my memory). Some of the context was clearly missing, but not so much that I couldn't keep reading. That, of course, is the beauty of poetry (even book-length, narrative-style poetry) - the vibe, for me, always wins out. How do the poems make me feel? Does the writing move me? Does the writing inspire me? Does the writing transport me? Amuse me? Enrapture me?

Even given this second chance, it largely failed in this regard. Certain poems or segments were gorgeous, trembling with power and eloquence and a sharp eye for reality. And occasionally the loopiness of the writing revisiting certain themes and phrases again and again made me feel like I was getting close to understanding what Christensen was trying to tell me, deep down. But I was never able to move past a general disinterest. For a book designed around a concept, it never got its rhythm down entirely. Most of the repetitions ended up feeling trite and dull; this was made worse by the fact that I didn't connect to some of the themes in the first place, and then having them rehashed over and over ended up leaving me even cooler on the book than beforehand.

It's not that it is bad, because it's not. As a concept, there's a lot to admire in Christensen's definition-breaking writing. There is also no doubt that Christensen had the eye for describing beautifully powerful scenes and images (the "happiness" poems were particularly moving, in my view), and it is all fantastically rendered into English by Susanna Nied. I imagine that had I read this as an independent work, I might have rated it just a bit higher - still not a great book, but a worthwhile poetry book. Yet I had already read alphabet, I already knew that Christensen would someday hone the raw talents displayed in it (a relatively early work) and go far beyond.

There is not so much of Christensen's work available in English, however, that I can ultimately be so picky. I may not have loved it, but I still found plenty to admire within its pages. There is no doubt that Christensen was a stellar poetry experimentalist and her works deserve far greater fame. There is also no doubt that even with this relative disappointment, I will be seeking out Christensen's few other works translated into English. Even if they don't come close to alphabet, they're still much more likely to leave me musing and inspired in all sorts of ways...

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Translate this book | Amilam by Hila Arazi-Hatav

I've got to say, this one surprised me. I bought it years ago at Hebrew Book Week, I think to complete a 1+1 sort of deal, something purchased in the early days of my WIT awakening. It languished on my shelves until now, and honestly I don't think I ever really processed what the book was supposed to be about. It existed, barely, at the corner of my awareness. But TGBBBOT means that I'm reading a lot more "forgotten" titles from my shelves, and so it came to be that I read Hila Arazi-Hatav's Amilam. And liked it a lot.

This is a novel split into two voices, but they're rather surprising ones at that. The narration begins with Leah, mother of two, whose life feels like it's beginning to fray at the edges. Leah's husband, Yoel, is on a prolonged business trip after months of difficult unemployment, hoping to find redemption at a foreign conference. Leah narrates her troubled thoughts to the husband that isn't there, increasingly exhausted by the strain of her mother's Alzheimer's and a sudden, unexpected pregnancy. Thrown into the mix is her older daughter Noa, the second narrator, who seems to also be slipping off the grid lately. Noa disappears for hours, is distracted at school, and seems disconnected from reality.

But as Noa's narration begins to match her mother's, it becomes clear that Noa is not simply a lazy, delinquent 12-year old, rather she is singularly concerned with keeping her grandmother healthy so that the "cousins" from Paris - twin brothers, one of whom molested Noa several times on their previous visit - have no reason to come. Noa's fear for her grandmother Elsa's health leads her to take on increasingly drastic measures, from having her best friend pretend to be Elsa's long-dead son (Noa's uncle) in order to convince Elsa to take her medication, to grinding up pills and mixing them in with the sugar, to coming up with plans for a "trap" for whichever of the brothers it is that might come into Noa's bedroom at night.

The tone, unsurprisingly, switches fairly drastically between Noa and Leah, though the stakes remain high in both cases. Noa, unlike her mother, is not unraveling quite as much as she is fighting a losing war. Her concerns jump from caring for her grandmother to whether her class will win the soccer game against the other class. She misses her father, vaguely, but seems to have no comprehension of communicating with her parents (and from Leah's end, it becomes clear that Leah and Yoel have little idea how to communicate with Noa). For Leah, as much as things are crumbling, she manages to keep a fairly firm grasp. Yet on the inside, she describes a sense of loss and confusion, abandonment and hopelessness.

The writing style for both narrators is simple, though in different ways. Noa thinks in simple terms, rarely getting too wrapped up in her own thoughts, but often looping back to the same concepts and thoughts. Leah is the opposite, imagining herself talking to her too-absent husband (and though this business trip is fairly short, it seems to represent a wider gap in her marriage that she simply doesn't know how to explain), wrapped up intensely in a widening range of contemplations. Both styles feel very conversational without being simplified. Later in the book, as Noa begins to narrate semi-fictional accounts of Elsa's past to her, Noa also switches to narrating to her grandmother. The shift leads to a slight change in style, accordingly, with the greater complexity suggesting that Noa has absorbed some of how these stories were told to her.

It's difficult for me to say what it is that works so well about Amilam. It's not that this is the most original story, yet it feels fresh. It's not the most original writing technique, yet it ends up working remarkably well. Amilam didn't win any awards and I imagine has largely been forgotten by Israeli readers. Yet I liked it, a lot. Part of it may have to do with the fact that I just recently lost my own grandmother to Alzheimer's and pieces of Leah/Noa's experiences rang too true. Part of it may have to do with the way the book made me feel very strongly for both Leah and Noa; by the end of the book, I just wanted to hug both of them and yell at them "TALK TO EACH OTHER".

This is a novel that takes place over an intense week, but it digs deep into its characters. It's the sort of book that has carved out a little corner in my mind, and I've been turning it over over the past day since I finished reading it. I think it could very well do the same for other readers.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Broken Earth... more like The Perfect Books

This isn't really going to be a real review. I'm not sure I'm qualified to write a real review of such a powerful series, nor do I think I really need to. Others have written intelligently about N. K. Jemisin's brilliant fantasy (almost sci-fi-esque) series.

Frankly, I just want to gush.

Do you know how long it's been since I read an entire series and adored all of its parts? I genuinely cannot recall. Most of the time, series decay along the way for me. Or there's an outright dud along the way. With The Broken Earth, I kept waiting for the sequels to disappoint. I kept expecting the sequels to disappoint me, somehow, but they never did. The Fifth Season was brilliant. The Obelisk Gate was brilliant. And The Stone Sky was brilliant. The entire series (as a single entity) was brilliant. It's a series that feels utterly confident in itself and unlike many other titles in its fantasy genre, it's a series that knows exactly where it's going. Having read the three books relatively close together (I truly forced myself to wait at least two months between each book, just to make sure I didn't get disappointed by a "binge"), the clarity of the three titles as a single series is made even more obvious. It's a refreshing sight in a genre that is cluttered with books that believe that more depth means more.

Because The Broken Earth doesn't infodump. Heck, it doesn't even answer all of its own questions. There is potential here for sixteen more books, if Jemisin chooses to write them. How did the world order become as it is? What happens afterwards? How does the world change? How does the world rebuild? How do the cultures and traditions that develop come about? There is so much more, but the lack of high-resolution details never feels like Jemisin is cheating her readers out of information. On the contrary, it feels like a reminder that fantasy can have sharp, in-depth worldbuilding without giving readers every single detail. The books end up feeling more tightly written... and clearer too.

It's a series brimming with real-life inspirations. The way that history is warped and passed down felt so real, in a way that most fantasy novels often fail at (by having too highly detailed "legends" that are clearly meant to foreshadow or serve as outright exposition). In The Broken Earth, the pieces of history feel like they contribute more to my cultural understanding rather than any plot-based need. In The Stone Sky in particular, chapter endings felt like they were there to remind readers of real-world racial injustices rather than foreshadow any particular plot point. (Though, I should point out, they always sort of did. In a very quiet way.) (There are a lot of very important other messages about persecution and oppression. They are not overdone and yet they are also not subtle. It is very well done. This series is great.)

It's also a series that despite its surface bleakness is brimming with hope and life. I can't get into more detail without spoiling a lot of the books, but know that The Broken Earth feels like the series that restored my personal faith in the world. Books are powerful and this series is wonderful.

Gushing complete. For now.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet | Review

Truthfully, Marie Vieux-Chauvet's Dance on the Volcano (tr. Kaiama L. Glover) feels like a few books in one. Here is a chunkster novel that tells the story of an individual woman, main character Minette, alongside an important portion of Haitian history. Like many books of this sort, Dance on the Volcano ends up feeling a little overwhelming at times (and a little poorly balanced between Minette's personal drama and the wide-reaching cultural implications of her personal life), but there's no doubt that overall this is a fine, fascinating novel and one well worth reading.

Dance on the Volcano sets its tone early. Minette, her younger sister Lise, her mother Jasmine, her effectively foster brother Joseph, and the entire cast of black (free) characters are swiftly placed in contrast to the island's whites. The plot begins with Minette (and her sister Lise, to a lesser degree) "discovered" by their white, Creole neighbor as the two teenage girls sing at home. Mme Acquaire is instantly in awe of their raw talent and decides to teach the girls in the early mornings, despite the general taboo against it. As Minette grows more and more talented, it becomes clear that her future is on the stage, and indeed Minette soon becomes an outright phenomenon as the first "colored" woman to sing on the white stage.

From here, Dance on the Volcano follows Minette's numerous struggles in becoming accepting as a successful stage singer. While there is little doubt at her talent, her color influences the entire conversation surrounding her art, indeed defining everything from her paycheck to her participation in particular concerts. Thus begins Minette's more general social awakening. Though still effectively a teenager, Minette begins to realize just how cruel the world around her is, simply on racial grounds. She learns secrets about her mother's past, she learns secrets about her brother's present, and she begins to wish for a more just world. She begins to fight for her own rights, using her immense talent as leverage against racism. She also becomes involved in efforts to rescue slaves, and to advocate (albeit privately) for their general emancipation. The story tracks much of Haiti's tumultuous history through Minette's eyes and experiences, often with tragic implications.

Curiously, another plotline begins to invade this already loaded story. Just as Minette begins her social awakening, she also experiences a sexual awakening. This story is the least engaging (by far) of the many threads running through Dance on the Volcano, with a particularly uncomfortable message about sexual/romantic desire overwhelming Minette's own beliefs and values. Minette's black, slave-owning, slave-beating lover is presented as a complex character with contradictory aims and motives, but his violence and general awfulness as a person made it very difficult for me to care about their relationship or about him at all. There was a sense that this romance was supposed to somehow emphasize the complexity of Haiti's slave-owning past, yet it ended up feeling like a waste of space that could have instead focused on Minette's own growth.

This is not the novel's only flaw. The writing is simplistic and at times grating, with awkward transitions from very plain prose to a more lyrical style. It also occasionally felt anachronistic, with some sentences sounding outright modern and others sounding much more like they'd been written in the 18th century. This also ends up affecting pacing, in a way that makes it generally less pleasant to read the novel in longer chunks.

Yet even with its flaws, I found it hard to get Dance on the Volcano out of my mind. I can't say that I loved it, but I feel like I learned a lot from it. That probably says more about my own (lack of) knowledge about Haitian history, yet I appreciated how Dance on the Volcano framed it through Minette's personal lens. The plot density may have made reading more difficult and may have bothered me at points (again, the romance subplot), but it also gave me a lot to consider. Whether I think it worked on a literary level does not change the fact that it inspired me to think about the topic of more complex racial identities and contradictions.

All in all, Dance on the Volcano is certainly a book worth reading and one I am grateful to have read. And after years of having Marie Vieux-Chauvet's writing recommended to me, it makes me all the more eager to get to Love, Anger, Madness.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck | Review

I will admit, I first tried to read Visitation several years ago. There was so much buzz, so much praise, I was so excited for this slim novel. I started reading it and had to set it aside within six pages. "It's unbearable," I remember telling my father. "So stop reading it!" he responded, pointing to the towering stack of additional library books I had next to the couch. I followed his advice, and moved on to better books. It was my second negative experience with Erpenback, having read (and disliked) her novella The Book of Words a year earlier. I concluded, rather reasonably, that Erpenbeck simply wasn't a writer for me.

I would buy Visitation a few years later, after reading (and adoring) The End of Days, a book I can both admit to have loved and one that I think is a true masterpiece. The End of Days is such a brilliantly written novel - innovative, but not a slave to its innovation, clever, but not frustrating, emotional, but not tedious. Reading it felt like a revelation and a suggestion that perhaps I could love Jenny Erpenbeck's work. After all, I read The Book of Words at a time when I had little patience for more experimental fiction, and after all, I never actually read Visitation...

So I bought Visitation. It would take me almost a year and half before I could bring myself to read that book which still left a bitter taste in my mouth, only from those first few pages. And guess what? I couldn't quite figure out what specifically had left such a strong impression in those early, vague pages, but oh my goodness did I have the exact same sensation throughout the entire book.

What a shame.

And here's the thing: I'm not the same reader today as I was even three years ago. Every book I read adds to my consciousness and changes how I experience the books that follow. I read Visitation during a reading slump; I imagine this impacted how I interpretated the book. It felt clunky and slow, as though I was reading through tar. Even though it took me so long to get through it, it left no impression. It's been a month since I finished it, and I can hardly tell you a thing about it.

Oh yes, I can vaguely recall the novella's concept, and there is a plotline and a half that I recall. But the book felt so thin (content-wise, not just in terms of length) that not a speck of it remains. I formed no emotional attachment to any of the vaguely described characters. I didn't enjoy the loose sketching of post-war Germany. The politics felt distant and meaningless. And the book itself, for something so short, dragged. It was like a road cutting through a forest, that instead of taking a straight, logical line, twisted around itself as many times as possible before reaching the end.

I didn't like Visitation. I feel like a bad reader for admitting this. I feel like I've failed the book blogging community that adores Erpenbeck, that constantly praises her writing for its intelligence and depth. Goodness, I feel like I've failed as a reader, that somehow the problem is - again - that I didn't understand the book. Maybe I'm not clever enough, maybe there's a cultural context I'm missing here... And here's what's incredible: I wrote pretty much the exact same thing when "reviewing" Erpenbeck's The Book of Words five years ago.

Maybe, as with many books I've read in recent months, I have lost patience with books that are all style over substance. The End of Days worked, in my mind, because Erpenbeck found an excellent balance between the two; it's a creative exercise that works, crafting a character the reader can grow attached to and spinning a story that manages to both entice and challenge. The End of Days did more than just tell five versions of a character's life, it managed to make each the absolute focus. It managed to make each feel utterly consequential. Visitation fails in large part because it doesn't ever find its emotional hook. Like The Book of Words, I am left with absolutely nothing to say about it. The book has left no impression. There is only the concept and clever as it may be, concept just isn't enough for me. If that makes me a bad reader, so be it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson | Review

The Impossible Knife of Memory has been on my shelves for so long, that I honestly wasn't sure I'd ever get around to reading it. Except, of course, I enacted a book buying ban on myself to exactly motivate myself to read these older, forgotten books. So it was time to visit an author that I loved as a teen, with a novel that - when it had been published - was touted as being an important, powerful novel of PTSD.

Perhaps it's that the book hasn't aged very well. Perhaps writing conventions have shifted just so in the three years since I purchased The Impossible Knife of Memory. It could be that the book just isn't very good, I don't know. It's certainly not terrible, but I found myself taking issue with quite a few portions of the novel.

To begin with, this is a book that misses so many of the opportunities it itself raises to tackle major issues. Take the central theme of PTSD. Hayley's father very clearly has PTSD, and this is well explored. However, Anderson also very clearly shows that Hayley has some form of PTSD as well, yet never expands on it. Hayley is very much defined by the fact that her memory is full of gaps and we frequently see her crumbling somewhat as a flashback hits. Yet even with these scenes (and those that show Hayley being triggered by a series of different situations), Anderson never actually builds on this idea or how it affects Hayley. We only have her response to her father's pain, not her own. (And don't get me started on the way the book glosses over abuse and false memories. Just... no.)

Similarly, the book makes several references to other struggles young adults might face and their responses to them, but fails to treat it with the expected depth. Hayley is repeatedly critical of her fellow high schoolers' behavior and hypocrisy, that their lives are dull and "zombie"-like. On more than one occasion, she links this behavior with prescription drug abuse. Later in the book, we see Hayley's close friend self-medicating in exactly the way that Hayley describes (ultimately, even Hayley is tempted by the pills) in response to problems at home, but Hayley doesn't reflect on it or wonder at her own ignorance of the struggles other teens are going through.

These are two examples, but they stem from the same underlying problem: The Impossible Knife of Memory is populated by thinly drawn characters. Even Hayley, our narrator and main girl, feels underwritten. What are her motivations? What does she like? Why does she like what she likes? This is a chiaracter with baggage galore, but no real personality. It means that while we're shown a lot about her life, it cannot be explored. It means that there is no additional wisdom or complexity to her thoughts. It's all... oddly flat.

This impacts the two main narratives as well. It's hard to be invested in Hayley's budding romance with fellow student Finn when neither character is well-developed enough to care about. Why do they like each other? We know that they're physically attracted to each other, but... that's literally it. There's nothing else except minor quips here and there. It felt like a portion from a totally different novel, that didn't quite fit in. Similarly, it's difficult to really feel the struggle that Hayley's father is going through when we neither know him, nor really understand Hayley's relationship with him.

Now, if the novel was brief, I could probably understand this level of non-depth. I've read a lot of young adult novels that walked this line relatively well (I'm thinking of Chris Crutcher's relatively concise novels), but The Impossible Knife of Memory is just under 400 pages long. And I honestly cannot understand how. The book takes place between the beginning of the school year and Christmas. That's it. The pacing is wildly inconsistent, both rushed and oddly slow. This is most strongly evident in an incredibly rushed ending, that literally time-skips eight months of recovery and healing in an honestly shockingly sloppy way. So what, I must ask, was the point? Why linger on Hayley's story if we're never going to have any sense of its impact?

It's ultimately disappointing, because it's not as though there's a plethora of young adult novels (or non-fiction) about PTSD or war or recovery. Anderson has also in the past proven her worth in writing about teens going through rough times (Speak, of course, but I also find Catalyst an underrated gem), but The Impossible Knife of Memory is just... not great. And heck, even the teen-isms are all off. It's got a lot of good pieces and is definitely "important" in parts, but it feels like a mess as an overall work. A shame.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Reading the world challenge (part 3)

I've already begun to make progress on my reading... yet haven't finished publishing the titles I hope to read! Here are a few more (of which I've already actually managed to read a couple!):

  • Denmark (Danish): Suzanne Brøgger - The Jade Cat
  • Djibouti - MISSING
  • Dominican Republic (Spanish): Various - Praises and Offenses: Three Women Poets from the Dominican Republic
  • East Timor - MISSING
  • Ecaudor (Spanish): Luz Argentina Chiriboga - On Friday Night
  • Egypt (Arabic): Nawal El Saadawi - Woman at Point Zero
  • El Salvador (Spanish): Claribel Alegría - Woman of the River
  • Equatorial Guinea (Spanish): Trifonia Melibea Obono - La Bastarda
  • Eritrea (Tigrinya): Haregu Keleta - "The Girl Who Carried a Gun" (x)
  • Estonia (Estonian): Kristiina Ehin - Walker on Water
  • Ethiopia (Italian): Gabriella Ghermandi - Queen of Flowers and Pearls
  • Ethiopia (Amharic) - MISSING
  • Finland (Finnish): Eeva-Liisa Manner - Girl Upon Heaven's Pier
  • France (French/Old French): Various - French Women Poets of Nine Centuries
  • Gabon (French): Angèle Rawiri - The Fury and Cries of Women
  • Georgia (Georgian): Various - A House with No Doors
  • Germany (German): Yoko Tawada - Memoirs of a Polar Bear
  • Greece (Greek): Penelope Delta - A Tale Without a Name
  • Guatemala (Spanish): Rigoberta Menchú - I, Rigoberta Menchú
  • Guinea - MISSING
  • Guinea-Bissau - MISSING
  • Haiti (French): Marie Vieux-Chavet - Dance on the Volcano
  • Honduras (Spanish): Clementina Suárez - Clementina Suárez: Her Life and Poetry
  • Hungary (Hungarian): Magda Szabó - The Door
  • Iceland (Icelandic): Ragna Sigurðardóttir - The Perfect Landscape
  • India (Assamese): Arupa Patangia Kalita - Written in Tears
  • India (Bengali): Leela Majumdar - The Burmese Box
  • India (Gujarati): Dhiruben Patel - Rainbow at Noon
  • India (Hindi): Geetanjali Shree - The Empty Space
  • India (Kannada): Mamta Sagar - Hide and Seek: Selected Poems
  • India (Old Kannada): Akka Mahadevi - Songs for Siva
  • India (Malayalam): K. R. Meera - Hangwoman
  • India (Marathi): Shanta Gokhale - Crowfall
  • India (Odia): Susmita Bagchi - Children of a Better God
  • India (Pali): Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women
  • India (Punjabi): MISSING
  • India (Tamil): Amai - In a Forest, a Deer
  • India (Urdu): Qurratulain Hyder - River of Fire
  • Indonesia (Indonesian): Okky Madasari - The Years of the Voiceless
  • Iran (Persian): Parinous Saniee - The Book of Fate
  • Iraq (Arabic): Dunya Mikhail - The War Works Hard
  • Ireland (Irish): Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh - The Coast Road
  • Israel (Hebrew): Leah Goldberg - Poems
  • Italy (Italian): Margaret Mazzantini - Twice Born
  • Ivory Coast (French): Véronique Tadjo - The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the Heart of Rwanda
That's it for now, still working on finalizing the list. As you can see, still many titles missing... still many places where I feel I don't necessarily have the best options picked out. If you have any recommendations for missing titles - or recommendations for India in particular, any language - I would greatly appreciate it! Regardless, feel free to share any titles you might be interested in for these (or any) countries. How would your list look?

Monday, October 30, 2017

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg | Review

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (trqnslated from Polish by Eliza Marciniak) has been shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

Sometimes I'll read a book and my mind will instantly - and consistently - go to another place. Not in the sense that the book is dull, or distracting. Not even in the sense that the book is inherently transporting (though this is typically the case). Sometimes it's just a question of connections: a certain book will automatically link itself to another story or concept. This might, at times, detract from the book I'm currently reading; with Swallowing Mercury, the connection was positive, and reflective of the book's greatest strengths.

With Swallowing Mercury, the connection that I made was to a relatively unknown (but great) novel called The White King by György Dragomán (I read a translation into Hebrew). I read The White King over eight years ago (and even reviewed it on Amazon, years later!), finding it to be a strong, captivating coming-of-age novel-in-stories. It was well-written, childlike in the right places, and told a larger story just beyond the personal narrative. Suffice to say, I loved it. And from the very first moment I began reading Swallowing Mercury, I couldn't shake off the feeling that here - finally! - was the sort of coming-of-age novel that followed in The White King's footsteps.

Mind you, the two books are far from identical. While both books follow children growing up in Communist countries around the same time, each progresses at a different pace and follows a very distinct broader plot. The two novels also sharply differ in tone, with The White King more singularly focused on its narrator as a preteen, while Swallowing Mercury tracks Wiola through early adulthood. Moreover, The White King could work as a young adult novel, while Swallowing Mercury is distinctly darker, grimmer, and addresses a harsher form of reality. 

But that initial connection made me read Swallowing Mercury through a particular lens, with a sense that I knew how the novel would unfold. Greg, like Dragomán before her, uses Wiola on two levels, telling a story that is both intimate and generic at the same time. For instance, the chapter "The Little Paint Girl" tells of young Wiola's interest in art, and her attempt at entering an art competition at school, which involves submitting a damaged, stained painting of Moscow. This leads the authorities to descend upon Wiola's small school, and demand an explanation as to why she painted Moscow so "gloomy". While Wiola is simply a young, more-or-less ignorant girl in this story (focusing on the official's grammatical errors and feeling rather uncomfortable), the reader can also sense the bigger story - a Polish paranoia that a young child has painted Moscow streaked with black. The political implications are huge... but not quite the focus of the story itself.

The writing is typically a little loose, often feeling a little conversational and casual. It makes for easy, enjoyable reading, despite the typically darker tone of the stories themselves. And Swallowing Mercury, despite the childlike framing, is dark. Greg doesn't shy away from many of the less pleasant experiences of growing up as a girl, with more than one instance of molestation taking place (presented to the reader with an almost chilling detachment). Wiola's life is ultimately far from pleasant, but it's also just... life. Swallowing Mercury seems to emphasize this point, with the vignettes skipping subjects from school, to religion, to relationships, and all over. Yet through it all, Wiola grows, leaving Swallowing Mercury an admirable addition to the coming-of-age canon. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A book buying ban

After too many years of acquiring far more books than I manage to read, the time has come to take drastic action. Rather than culling my shelves outright (which, frankly, horrifies me), I have decided to engage in an extensive, purposeful, and targeted book buying ban, with the direct goal of reducing the sheer amount of unread books on my shelves.

"Okay, a book buying ban... big deal! Why are you writing a whole blog post about this?"

Good question, hypothetical reader! It's because I've decided to have a little bit of fun with my ban, and make it a little more complicated than just saying "no new books for the next six months".

No, instead of setting a specific timeframe, I have decided to limit myself based on the number of books I must read before I'm allowed to acquire new books. I have also decided that I need to archive books alongside simply reading, particularly when it comes to books that I have started, abandoned, picked up again, and abandoned several times. These will count separately, but my hope is that I can acknowledge that sometimes a book I bought five years ago just won't interest me today. And that's okay!

Here are a few of the rules for this period:
1. Seeing as I have somewhere over 120 unread books in my apartment alone (yikes!), I must read at least 40 books that I have not previously begun reading.
2. Seeing as I have 15 books that I have begun reading, but have stopped reading for some reason or other, I must finish or officially archive at least 8 partially completed books.
3. I must read at least 10 books in Hebrew. At least 4 of these must be by Israeli women.
4. I must read at least 5 books with more than 450 pages. Enough stalling! They're not that intimidating...
5. I will (try) to review at least 20 of the 40 books on this blog or on Goodreads. I might not be able to do this one, but I have to at least try.
6. I must read at least 5 books that qualify for the Women in Translation Reading the World Challenge. I hope to read more!
7. I must read at least 5 books that have been on my shelves for more than two years
Well there you have it, folks. While these rules don't say anything about library books (or gifts!) which I intend to continue reading, the hope is that these rules will both help me clear up some of the clutter on my shelves, as well as motivate me to read some excellent books! Honestly, I'm kind of excited. Time to get reading!



Note: Posts relating to the ban, including progress reports and reviews, will fall under the tag "the great book buying ban of tash'ach" since I really hope this will not last beyond this Jewish year....... wish me luck!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

WITMonth Day 31 | Final 2017 thoughts (part 2)

And here it is... August 31st, come so soon. Didn't WITMonth just start the other day?

Yesterday, I posted about some personal goals. Today, I want to talk about the growth, expansion, and changes WITMonth has undergone since 2014. Four WITMonths have now come and gone. What's changed?

Every year, I gush about how much this project has grown. This has not changed; on the contrary, every year sees more readers made aware, more involved bookstores and libraries, more publshers, more organized events, and more awareness at every level of the literary world. To be perfectly honest, the project feels like it moves further and further away from me with every passing year. But it gains its own life. Does WITMonth still need me? Am I still its mother?

This has led me to some important conclusions this year: WITMonth needs a clearer infrastructure. My new @read_wit Twitter account helped in some regards, focusing explicitly on women in translation (and saving poor readers the discomfort of wading through my personal nonsense). My new @readwit Instagram account seeks to do for Instagram what we already did for Twitter - create a movement that reaches more than just the handful of readers who already know of the project.

But I have other ideas too. I received several queries for organized lists of WITMonth events, alas this does not currently exist in full form (womenintranslation.com began the effort, but there is more work to be done). There is still no comfortable place for a new reader to go to learn all they might want about WITMonth. There are still no convenient handouts or ready-to-print posters. There is still so much more we could be doing.

And this is the joy in WITMonth's growth. That while I know it is unlikely all of these things will be ready for next year, much will... and new things I can't yet envision. Here's to WITMonth 2018, and all the work ahead.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

WITMonth Day 30 | Final 2017 thoughts (part 1)

WITMonth is almost over, which means it's time to wrap things up and reach some conclusions. Or something. I'll talk about some big picture implications tomorrow, but let's talk today about the most important person in the room... me.

This year, I set myself a few rather varied WITMonth goals. One was to read more; I've had a generally poor reading year and hoped to have time to read more books. Alas, in this most basic goal I failed. Life has, simply put, gotten in the way. I read a few books during August, but not nearly as many as previous years.

In other goals, however, I succeeded fairly well. I had hoped to post daily Instagram pictures; I did. I had hoped to post daily on this blog, including reviews every other day; I did. I had hoped to write about the women in translation Reading the World project and begin posting my lists; I did.

In these regards, from a personal perspective, it's hard to view my WITMonth as anything but a rousing success. Sure, I didn't do everything I wanted to... but isn't that what the rest of the year is for?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

WITMonth Day 29 | How women in translation changed my life | Guest post

A very special WITMonth post today, from my dear sister (not twins) - the original inspiration for this blog! Thank you, Shiranne!

I’ve been a huge fan of Meytal Radzinski’s since before I could read, and I’ve been a huge fan of this blog since before it existed. (This is where I get to take credit for being the one who nudged her to open it!) I’m also a hardcore fan of WIT month, and I am proud to get to take part in this awesome project.

____________

It just so happens that the two biggest influences on reorganizing my mind and heart were women in translation.

The first and main one: Maria Montessori, the Italian doctor-turned-educator who developed the Montessori education philosophy and method back at the turn of the last century. The second woman: Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidying-up consultant whose KonMari method of organizing is very fashionable at the moment.

I first heard of Maria Montessori when I was hired to teach English at an Israeli Montessori school. In a typical fashion, I fell in love with the philosophy and ended up moving to the U.S. to study to be a Montessori educator. In my training we read excerpts from Montessori’s books, detailing what she had learned about children’s learning. Montessori saw the classroom itself as the teacher, and the teacher as the guide. She watched children pursuing their own innate passions and learning in a happier and healthier way than children learning in the mainstream (somewhat assembly-line-esque) education system. Montessori believed very strongly in the idea that your environment can shape you, and that if we created the right environment, then the children would learn happily and naturally. Three and a half years after first being introduced to Montessori, I am still likely to go on a half hour tangent whenever somebody asks me to explain what it is.

During the same summer of my training, I had also come across a book titled “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo. Americans, collectors of all things useless, seemed to be obsessed with this book, and knowing that I too have a tendency towards hoarding I thought I might as well give it a read. Kondo’s book transformed my perspective towards every item that I owned. From being a person who had trouble throwing away old shampoo bottles, I was suddenly able to give away clothes that had been sitting my closet for 10 years. The key to Kondo’s method (called the “KonMari” method) is simple: declutter by focusing on the things that truly give you joy. Whatever doesn’t give you the right level of joy (measured naturally by comparing to the things that give you the most joy) - thank it, and let it go.


Both of these women have helped me recognize the importance of having an organized environment in my home and workplace. It doesn’t mean I’m always able to stick to it since I imagine I will always be a naturally messy person, but it does mean that I see the value in putting effort into creating the world that I want, in every aspect of my life. It can also mean looking at my relationships (of all sorts) as something that I work on, or looking at the country I live in and figuring out how I can work on making it better. It can mean trying to see opportunities for growth in everything around me. For me, it was a huge shift in my philosophy, and I have two women in translation to thank for it.

Wishing a happy and meaningful end of WIT month to you all!

Monday, August 28, 2017

WITMonth Day 28 | In brief

Still traveling and with limited internet, so instead of writing a thoughtful post today, I'm going to briefly mention some fun things readers can do to wrap up WITMonth:

  • Catch up on the Twitter tag (or @read_wit)! Tons of great reading material, reviews, recommendations and more.
  • Check out my @readwit Instagram feed (yes, I now have an Instagram...).
  • Buy some great books by women in translation from your local indie bookstores! Especially any that might have a WITMonth display - have what to read for the next year, until WITMonth 2018...
  • Make a map of the countries you've visited this WITMonth or year! These maps are super fun to make and are a great way to keep track of where your reading has taken you.
That's all for now, folks, now back to reading!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

WITMonth Day 27 | "And the Bride Closed the Door" by Ronit Matalon

It's been a whole, long WITMonth... and I haven't spoken about an Israeli writer yet. Let's talk a bit about Ronit Matalon, shall we? Bit really... only a bit.

See, I first encountered Ronit Matalon with The Sound of Their Steps, which came strongly recommended by a bookseller. I... didn't love it, mostly for the style, but it was undoubtedly good literature. Fast forward a few years, and And the Bride Closed the Door comes out. It is short, crisp, and good. Subtly political. Wholly personal. Emotionally engagimg. Quietly revolutionary. This is a novella that has a little bit of everything to it, in mostly the right amounts (a few jokes about a clearly queer cousin fall very flat) - a bride who abruptly announces that she's not getting married (day of), family trauma, love, obligation, poetry and more.

My favorite part is the balance between personal and political. Unlike The Soumd of Their Steps, in which the politics felt very direct, here they sneak in gently, while tackling similar themes of class and ethnicity. The difference in length also makes a difference, with And the Bride Closed the Door raising more issues than it claims to solve.

I promised a brief review, so here it is: Here is a novella that well deserves a home in English (and other languages). Remember it.