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3 Apr

Occasionally I fantasize about opening bookshop. It would be on a corner, with big windows, and the curated tables and shelves would feature literature from as many corners of the world as I could muster, and there would be lots of calming blue colors and it would be real cute. Who knows if I’ll ever dive into such an endeavor? In the meantime, it was remarkably easy and fun to curate a affiliate page. If you’ve not heard about Bookshop, it’s a new way of buying books online while supporting local, independent bookstores. Most profits are split among the 400 or so participating brick-and-mortar stores. I expect my curated lists will grow and change over time. (And, why, yes, Daughters of the Air is on there too.) Take a look! Hope you find something good to read.

Women in Translation

25 Jun

August is Women in Translation Month (WITMonth), designed to encourage readers, reviewers, publishers, and translators to explore more books in translation by women. If you’ve been following the VIDA count, then the grim statistics around women in translation (gathered diligently by Meytal Radzinski) is, unfortunately, not a surprise: women writers comprise only about 30% of books translated into English. As I’m passionate about cultivating a diverse literary ecosystem, this is a project near and dear to my heart. And though I’m happy WITMonth is an annual event, I’m getting started right now. Because there are SO MANY good books and I’m sure there are SO MANY MORE out there waiting to be picked up by a publisher and gobbled by readers.

I immediately pulled all the books from my shelves that fit the bill. I made a read pile and a to-be-read pile. Of the read pile, I’d like to make some recommendations, for those of you who’d like to join me in WITMonth. Read these books! And I’ll be diving into the to-be-read pile and writing about the gems in that pile in August. Read those books too! Let’s talk about ’em!

Recommended Books

Tasty pile of books in translation

Tasty pile of books in translation.

Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from Catalan by Martha Tennent (Open Letter, 2009). A gorgeously written and harrowing novel about cruelty among humans and violence in nature.

Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2005). A dark, slender novel about a woman abandoned by her husband spiraling into terrifying psychological territory, with a helpful dash of absurd humor and redemption. After devouring this book, anything else was VERY difficult to get into. So good. This brief review in The New Yorker is spot on. I have not cracked open her more recent Neapolitan series, but it is definitely on the docket.

The End of the Story by Liliana Heker, translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger (Biblioasis, 2012). Another dark novel. I’m sensing a trend? This metafictional work explores Argentina’s Dirty War. I reviewed it for Ploughshares.

Death as a Side Effect by Ana Maria Shua, translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). As I note briefly in my review of Heker’s novel, Shua‘s is “dark and wry and screwed up in the best possible dystopian way.” Is it weird to quote myself? Oh well.

Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli, translated from Polish by Bill Johnston (Archipelago Books, 2004). I adore Archipelago for focusing on translation and producing truly beautiful books. Dreams and Stones is probably the least dark book on my list, a kind of treatise on cities and imagination.

Mile End by Lise Tremblay, translated from French by Gail Scott (Talon Books, 2002). I read this novel a few times, starting in a class in college on literary Montreal. It’s set in the neighborhood I lived in while at McGill, which may be part of my attachment to it. And, yes, yes, this is another dark story, about an obese pianist at a ballet school teetering toward psychosis.

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller, translated from German by Michael Hoffman (Metropolitan Books, 1996). Muller, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature, paints a grim picture of life in Romania under Ceausescu. The language is highly poetic, and I’ve been working on an essay about it (among other things) for quite some time. In fact, the assignment I’ve given myself for the next few weeks is to cut that essay up paragraph by paragraph to figure out how to keep going with it.

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi, translated from German by Vincent Kling (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012). Told from the point of view of an unnamed young woman, this is the story of Romanian refugees who travel through Europe as circus performers. Yes, yes, dark. But also with absurd humor. (Some criticize Muller for being humorless. I say, bah. Read her still. Not everything is funny ha ha.)

Phew. That’s a lot of recommendations. There are more in my pile. I may write more about them. More likely I will tweet my favorite bits from them in August. But not just August. Probably all year. WITForever!

My To-Be-Read Pile. Stay tuned for reviews & more !

Another tasty pile of translated books.

Another tasty pile of translated books.

autumn books

1 Nov

It took me most of the semester to read Halldor Laxness’s Independent People and all its Icelandic digressions on sheep guts and merchant cooperatives; it took me four days to read Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli. But then, they are very different works. Even more different is Mile End, by Lise Tremblay, which I reread while in the thick of Laxness’s novel.

How to put them all together? They do share a thread.

Independent People is the grandest in scope, putting rural Iceland and the stubborn shepherd Bjartur in an epic frame, with violent ghosts haunting sheep, World War I a distant event in the periphery, and America a destination to which a young, ambitious son escapes (and, we are told, dies). It is through Bjartur’s son and daughter that we see a yearning for cities (the mysterious glories of Reykjavik never revealed)– a tugging away from the rustic life Bjartur clings to, though conditions for the sheep and shepherds are so grim (we read of constant summer rain, green snot, heaps of snow, ring worms, and tuburculosis) it can hardly be described as pastoral.

The other two works are slender and focus their energies on those urban tugging forces. At first I thought Dreams and Stones was a novel, but it is difficult to call it that. A treatise on cities and imagination? One hundred pages of generalizations, punctuated with wonderful specificity? A long prose poem, perhaps– a poetic myth. Trees vs. machines. City vs. countercity (our conceptions of cities). Does she say that memory = water? Or that water = oblivion? Or was there a more complex equation? There was an archaeological bend to it: dreams as stones. Stones as building blocks. Buildings, stones, as representations of our elusive dreams. Something concrete to dig our fingernails in.

There is no specific character in Tulli’s work. A city emerges. Then groups of people. Workers and builders are of different classes. Our imagined Paris, Belfast, Hong Kong, New York. The A of the Eiffel Tower. The Arc de Triomphe. The mythic quality of the book complements Laxness’s epic; the subject matter works well with the next and last book.

Mile End is set in Montreal. The obese narrator buries her anger under her layers of “yellow fat,” drinks Southern Comfort in large glasses, and hovers toward psychosis as a mediocre pianist at a ballet school. Paris and New York are mentioned as stand-ins for other forces, influences on the Quebecquois city. So cities here have characters too, but the narrative, the characters are specific again. The language is more simple than Tulli’s and Laxness’s works and the underlying anger of the book seems to compel a quick read like a gust of hot air, whereas Bill Johnston’s translation of Tulli’s book requires a careful chewing of sentences. Laxness’s book, finally, is sprawling and wonderful, but may send one’s imagination careening to other places in multiple digressions (not always a bad thing). Read slowly and enjoy.

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