Archive | August, 2018

Umami by Laia Jufrese

23 Aug

Snapseed 5I first came upon Laia Jufrese’s Umami (translated by Sophie Hughes) thanks to the Seattle Public Library’s personalized recommendation system, Your Next 5 Books. Of the five books recommended, Umami zoomed to the top, as I have a soft spot for precocious 12-year-old narrators and an inclination toward foodie things. (You can see the whole list they recommended to me here.)

Umami is not a food novel in the sense of Like Water For Chocolate (which is not a criticism of either book and is just an observation) and it doesn’t just follow the travails of Ana, the Agatha Christie-gobbling, traditional Mexican-gardening tween. There are five narrators in this achronological story, each grappling with grief. Ana is creating a milpa in her parents’ underutilized garden, part of the mews in which they live. Doctor Alfonso Semitiel, an anthropologist who studies pre-Hispanic food systems and brought the term “umami” to the Western world, owns the mews and lives there too. He named each of the houses of the mews after each type of taste: Sweet, Bitter, Sour, Salty, and Umami.

Alfonso is a widower, Ana’s little sister Luz mysteriously drowned two years before the novel opens, and Ana’s friend Pina (named after the contemporary dancer Pina Bausch) and Pina’s father Beto have been abandoned by her mother Chela. Ana, Alfonso, and Luz all narrate their own chapters in the first person. Pina and Marina, another resident of the mews who babysits Ana and who suffers from depression, are narrated in the third person. There’s a lot going on here, and it took me a while to get into the flow of the book. Though I enjoyed Pina and Marina’s chapters, Ana, Alfonso, and Luz were more compelling to me. Their wordplay was snappier (though Marina invents names for colors, like “obligreenation…Green out of obligation”), their interests more idiosyncratic. It’s hard to feel close to every narrator, and the voices were not wildly different. Ultimately, what pulled me through was the mystery of Luz’s drowning, gradually revealed through her narration, using the fairy tale-ish perspective of a five-year-old. The other hook came somewhat late in the book, two creepy AF dolls, one of which can breathe.  The fabulist in me was charmed by this surprise, and they become quite a heartbreaking addition, in the end.

 

Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi

16 Aug

Snapseed 2I adored the film Persepolis, based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir of growing up during the Iranian Revolution. So when I stumbled upon Chicken with Plums (trans. Anjali Singh) in a Little Free Library, I knew I hit Little Free Library gold. The title, too, is tantalizing. (Some of you may be familiar with my obsession with plums.)

Set in November 1955, Chicken with Plums is the story of Satrapi’s great-uncle Nasser Ali Kahn, a pre-eminent tar player. (The tar is a string instrument from the Caucus region.) It’s a heartbreaking story—I nearly burst into tears by page 36—about love, loss, and longing. (Apropos of love, loss, and longing, what would a tango played on a tar sound like? Is that possible? Please comment with links or research leads!) Nasser’s beloved tar breaks, no replacement will do, and he loses the will to live. I read this book just after Anthony Bourdain committed suicide, so this may be why I found it particularly affecting. But Nasser finds some comfort in his brother and a beloved childhood dish, chicken with plums. (Here’s a recipe. The author of the recipe calls saffron “the world’s most expensive Prozac.”)

In addition to being heartbreaking, Chicken with Plums highlighted so many things about the history of Iran that I just didn’t know much about, such as the nationalization of the oil industry, which led to the U.K.- and-U.S.-backed coup in 1953. To paraphrase my high school English teacher Mr. Faciano: if you read literature, you get everything—in this case history, politics, music, gastronomy—plus a compelling story, gorgeously told.

Review of Alicia Kopf’s BROTHER IN ICE in The Seattle Review of Books

8 Aug

Brother-in-ice-WEBI’m happy to have my review of Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice (translated by Mara Faye Lethem) over on The Seattle Review of Books today. Here’s how it begins:

If you’re a fiend for story, Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice (translated by Mara Faye Lethem) will not necessarily scratch your itch. But if you crave novels that put the “novel” back in novel — here mashing up research in arctic exploration with travelogues, diary entries, diagrams, photographs, text messages, and the economy of Facebook likes — come a little closer, friend.

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Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

2 Aug

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille GanselOn WA-20 west toward the Anacortes Ferry Terminal, Michael and I found a Spanish radio broadcast with news relayed at a curiously slow pace, so that even we, with our limited Spanish, could understand. It was a multicultural station based in Vancouver. We got news of sex trafficking in Buenos Aires, corruption in Brazil, and an interview about traditional foods in a certain town in Mexico whose name eluded me: horchata tamarindo, pavo, taquitos fritos, plus socializing at church. There was mariachi music, then a pan flute.

In the next hour, the language switched to something I couldn’t recognize. Something Scandinavian? South Asian? I had no clue. But then bhangra music came on, so maybe it was Punjabi?

At the ferry checkpoint (we were on our way to Victoria, British Columbia), I lowered the radio, as if customs would find foreign sounds questionable. Once we were on the boat, I switched my phone to airplane mode and concentrated on Mirielle Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance (trans. Ros Schwartz), which Michael found at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, when I was there on book tour in April.

It seemed appropriate to read a memoir and philosophical treatise on the act of translation while crossing into Canadian waters. Gansel’s family survived the Holocaust; she grew up in France and remembers the special occasions when a letter would arrive from Budapest and her father would solemnly translate it aloud. Some of her memories remind me of visiting Freiburg, Germany with my grandmother, who spoke a mishmash of Romanian and Hungarian with her cousin and uncle (they saved Hungarian for dirty jokes), and where the cousin’s husband spoke German and their children spoke English to me. Here is the lovely excerpt which prompted my reverie:

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In the 1960s and ’70s, Gansel went on to translate poets from East Berlin and Vietnam. Something she touches upon which I would like to research further is the “de-Nazification” of German and the attempt to translate Vietnamese poetry without exoticization. She mentions Bertolt Brecht de-Nazified Hölderlin’s translation of Antigone without comparing examples. But she does offer this translation of poet To Huu (translated into English, in turn, by Ros Schwartz–oh, the layers!):

Casuarina forests,

Groves of green coconuts,

The shimmering of the white dunes

where the sun trembles,

garden of watermelons with red honey!

Gansel quotes Nguyen Khac Vien, who invited her work to on an anthology of Vietnamese poetry in translation: “Exoticism arouses simply a sense of foreignness, without being able to communicate the emotions, the deeper feelings that inspire a work.”

On that notion of digging for deeper feelings, Gansel shares her approach to translating the entire oevre of Nelly Sachs, a Jewish German-language poet who lived in exile in Sweden. She ended up rewriting the work four times, using the Bible’s four levels of meaning, according to the Jewish tradition of exegesis: Peshat (literal meaning), Remez (allusive meaning), Drush (deeper meaning), and Sod (secret, esoteric meaning).

I could go on and on and on about how much I love this slender volume about exile and empathy.  This book has opened so many doors for me.

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