Tag Archives: book reviews

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller

24 Aug

HungerAngelAfter I read The Land of Green Plums a few years ago, Herta Müller joined a short list of authors whose work I want to read all of.  I am not the sort of reader who methodically works through an oeuvre; I crave different voices. But this list includes Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Mavis Gallant. (It used to include Angela Carter; I adore her short fiction, but actually found trying to read her novels like trying to eat an entire chocolate mousse cake.) Müller’s fiction is poetic and harrowing and sheds light on the country my family comes from.  For me, she is a must.

For my third installment of  Women In Translation Month, I tackled The Hunger Angel. This novel tells the story of Leo Auberg, a young German man in Romania deported to a labor camp in Russia in January 1945. I was surprised to learn that this happened: all Germans living in Romania and from the ages of 17-45 were forced to “rebuild” the Soviet Union. Indeed, as Müller explains in her Afterword, this was something shameful that Germans in Romania only discussed among themselves, if they discussed it at all. (Müller emigrated to West Germany after being persecuted by Ceausescu’s secret police.)

The Hunger Angel meditates on objects. Life in a gulag is tedious, so in lieu of a tight narrative arc, the first two-thirds of the book move laterally from things like cement and coal to yellow sand and firs. There’s a weirdly loving chapter about a kind of shovel known as “the heart-shovel,” which, by virtue of its design, allows Leo to forget himself as he works in ways that other tools or tasks don’t.

And, of course, as the title implies, there’s a food problem. With just one piece of bread a day and two bowls of cabbage soup, and no mid-day meal, the hunger angel emerges an antagonist who skews how prisoners perceive their world and how they behave. But memories of food from childhood buoy Leo and his prison-mates. One day, every summer, his mother would take him to the Café Martini where he could gorge himself on sweets:

We could choose among marizpan truffles, chocolate cake, savarins, cream cake, nutcake roll, Ischler tartlet, cream puffs, hazelnut crisps, rum cake, napoleons, nougat, and doboschtorte. And ice cream–strawberry ice cream in a silver dish or vanilla ice cream in a glass dish or chocolate ice cream in a porcelain bowl, always with whipped cream. And finally, if we were still able, sour-cherry cake with jelly.

As if being in a gulag is not challenging enough, Leo is in the closet. When men and women dance on Saturday nights (who knew they had dances, albeit sad dances, in gulags?), he remains off to the side. Men and women couple in the barracks; he does not. Though he observes: “Half-starved humans are really neither masculine nor feminine but genderless, like objects.” Over the course of the novel, this meditation on objects also becomes a larger meditation on loneliness and longing and trying to stay alive.

Leo has a poet’s eye, and it is that vision, that attention to language, which makes reading this essential book bearable.

“Translation is not kale” in The Seattle Review of Books

10 Aug

WITMonth2017-2August is Women in Translation Month. This is the fourth year of the campaign, which was founded by literary blogger and biophysicist Meytal Radzinksi. I’m a big fan of this effort to raise awareness about women writers in translation and read more of them. And, I’m super excited to have my piece “Translation is not kale” in The Seattle Review of Books today, which discusses WITMonth in a wider context and revels in some of my favorite-favorite books. You can read “Translation is not kale” here. I’ve also got three reviews scheduled right here on my blog, starting today and continuing the next two Thursdays. More soon!

 

“Marital Rifts Three Ways” in Women’s Review of Books

31 Jul
WRB_34.4_cover__13062.1498484559.1280.1280

Eleanor Roosevelt in a très chic hat.

I’m happy to have a piece in the July/August issue of Women’s Review of Books, discussing Jade Sharma’s Problems (Coffee House Press), Julia Franks’ Over the Plain Houses (Hub City Press), and Angela Woodward’s Natural Wonders (FC2). You can purchase a digital copy here.

In other news, last week I had a lovely time chatting with fellow LaSalle Storyteller Award winner Peter Mountford and Scott James of Solipsis Publishing about the writing life and the impact the award has had on our work. You can watch the video here. The deadline for the 2017 award is August 28. If you’re a Washington State fiction writer, you should apply!

 

Women in Translation Month

26 Jul

Women in Translation Month is around the corner! Last year, I compiled a list of translated books by women that I enjoyed and created a Women in Translation Bingo game. I also wrote about novellas by Marguerite Duras and Eileen Chang and poetry collections from Rocío Cerón and Angélica Freitas.

This summer has been a bit more hectic as I’ve been teaching more, taking my second novel through an eighth draft, and researching my third novel. However! I’m excited for Women In Translation Month and wanted to share with you four books on my to-read pile.

What have you been reading? WITMonth2016

Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas & Diorama by Rocío Cerón

27 Aug

Thanks to Women in Translation Month, I recently learned about two fantastic contemporary poets published by Phoneme Media, which, I must say, designs some gorgeous bilingual books.

Diorama by Rocio Ceron, translated by Anna Rosenwong, Phoneme MediaDiorama, by Rocío Cerón, is super rich and multilayered. Her long poem “13 Ways To Inhabit a Corner,” under the subtitle “Pinhole” speaks particularly to peering into something very closely. The looking is so careful, the sensual details so packed in, the poem demands and rewards multiple rereadings. Each of the 13 sections builds a particular atmosphere. In section I: “In the midst of a stampede, a hand rests on the arc of a kneecap. Cigar and smoke. Rosy cypress sleep.” And, in section VII: “Hills, clouds, boreal forest. Woman undressing on a frozen bed. Beneath the folds of her clothing a constellation of sleet.” As her translator Anna Rosenwong points out, the work is associative and hallucinatory. Other poems are more political. “DIY Instructions or the National Telluric” includes the line “civil disobedience breaks out but still the dead pile up” — a line that made me sit up out of the intense dream state of “13 Ways to Inhabit a Corner.” Diorama won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award, and it’s no wonder. It’s the sort of beautiful, meaty book you need to settle into, chew on, and revisit.

Rilke Shake by Angelica Freitas, translated by Hilary Kaplan, Phoneme MediaWhereas Diorama is experimental and gorgeous and challenging, Rilke Shake,by Angélica Freitas is more fun for everyone. Playful, energetic, and irreverent, Freitas takes references to poetry greats (Rilke, Keats, Gertrude Stein, etc.) and popular culture, and simply shakes. The work is sonically chewy: “I think about stravinski / and the beard of klaus kinski / and the nose of karabtchevsky / and a poem by joseph brodsky” she writes in the poem titled “what passed through the head of the violinist as he hurled toward his death against his black hair clutching his stradivarius in yesterday’s great air disaster”. She imagines bathing with Gertrude Stein, who “lets one loose under the water” and asks in “i can’t read the cantos”: “shall we free ourselves from ezra pound?” The poems do have poignant moments, such as in “sioban 4” where the speaker wonders: “does she think of me / does she also ask what happened // to the good girls of sodom, the ones who / always // kissed on the stairs / vanished in libraries / preferred to turn to salt?” I will be pushing Rilke Shake on many people. It’s too good to be missed.

“Sisters” by Alexandra Kollontai

13 Aug

Love of Worker Bees by Alexandra Kollontai, translated by Cathy PorterI picked up Alexandra Kollontai’s Love of Worker Bees at Boneshaker Books during the AWP conference in Minneapolis. Usually, I skip a book’s introduction, dive right into the fiction, and read the introduction afterwards. Kollontai’s work is a rare look at the Russian Revolution, and since I’m also reading Dr. Zhivago, I wanted to get some background on her. This may have marred my reading experience.

The introduction made me crave reading more history, and perhaps Kollontai’s nonfiction. Her fiction served to illustrate the feminist causes she fought for, and so in reading the short story “Sisters” I felt biased against the artistry of the story, about “a deserted wife and a prostitute who find a common bond.” (Let me back up and say I think if the explicit aim of the writer is to illustrate a political cause, it would be more effective to write nonfiction. That isn’t to say fiction must be apolitical. Pretty much all art is political. I believe a fiction writer should make story primary. The politics arising out of the story tend to emerge in a more complex, satisfying way when you don’t set out to illustrate a specific agenda. Let the story drive.)

Set in the 1920s, “Sisters” is a frame story in which someone at a “delegates conference” is being confided in. The storyteller has left her husband, has nowhere to go, and fears she may have to resort to prostitution. After her daughter’s illness, she was laid off from her job. Her husband, an executive in a government trust company, has taken to coming home drunk. She would like to work and he would like her to stay home. Things get worse when their daughter dies; he brings prostitutes home. The woman is horrified, humiliated, ready to run the second prostitute out of their house–but she sees a desperation in this sad young woman’s eyes, and as they talk, realizes she is an educated young woman without money or shelter, starving, anguished. The storyteller realizes that if she hadn’t been married, she’d be in a similar situation. She leaves her husband and…is at risk at being in the same situation. The story illustrates a pressing issue that Kollontai had to fight for relentlessly, that women’s rights are an essential part of the revolution. She ended up in diplomatic exile for much of her adult life.

The story is affecting, in the way that if someone you met told you that story you would care and be concerned, and want to do something. So in this way, the story achieves a goal. However, the story is mostly told in summary, in the way that someone might relate their tale in real life, not told in scene, with the kind of sensory detail that draws you closer to the humanity of the characters. It feels one step removed. And so I didn’t love the story, and I wouldn’t press it upon anyone unless they were digging into the subject matter–the issues of feminism and Communism, the struggles of people living in Russia after the Revolution. I’ll add as another caveat that is the third piece in the book. I did not read the first two and do wonder if the book is “front loaded” with stronger stories. So take my lack of enthusiasm with a grain of salt, check it out if it intrigues you, and let me know what you think.

This series on Women in Translation continues next week with a Duras novella and will finish at the end of August with a couple surprise books of contemporary poetry, review copies I was delighted to receive in the mail.

Women in Translation Bingo

26 Jun

The Seattle Public Library and Seattle Arts & Lectures launched Summer Book Bingo in Seattle this month. I got all excited, printing out my card and jotting a book in each category I want to read, for example:

Checked out from the library: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Collection of short stories: The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol

Banned: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

There are 24 categories in all. Librarians are on hand to make recommendations. Thanks to them, I’ve added V is for Vendetta and Eleanor and Park to my reading list!

Because of my already ambitious reading plans for the summer, including Women in Translation Month, I’m not aiming for a blackout, just BINGO. But it occurred to me. Book Bingo is endlessly adaptable. What about Women in Translation Bingo? Each category satisfied by a book in translation, by a woman.

I made my own card, based on SPL & SAL’s card, simply swapping out Set in the NW, Translated from another language, and local author for Author 10+ years older than you, From a culture you want to know more about, and International bestseller. Then I really nerded out, thinking about Linguistic Diversity Bingo, based on language families. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. One Book Bingo at a time.

If you’re planning to participate in Women in Translation Month (I hope you are!) this would be a fun way to do it.

What books are you reading this summer?

BINGO!

BINGO!

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.

Minnow by James E. McTeer II

10 Jun

Minnow, by James E. McTeer, from Hub City PressFor The Los Angeles Review, I wrote about the debut fabulist novel Minnow, winner of the 2014 South Carolina First Novel Prize and published by Hub City Press. Here’s how the review begins:

Landscape reigns in Minnow, the fabulist debut novel by James McTeer II. Set in South Carolina Lowcountry, the story follows a small boy, Minnow, on his quest to find medicine for his dying father. A pharmacist sends him to a witch doctor who in turn sends the boy off on an impossible journey. In exchange for Dr. Crow’s medicine, he must penetrate wild marshlands, swamps, and pine jungles in search of the grave of Sorry George—a witch doctor who once cursed fifty-two men with a fatal, grisly fever, and “[e]ach one of them coughed up some bloody thing, like a little thing that might have been alive once.”

continue reading

Some Day by Shemi Zarhin

8 Nov

ImageMy latest bullet-point book review is up on the Ploughshares blog. I’m so glad Ross Ufberg of New Vessel Press reached out to me about Shemi Zarhin’s novel Some Day and brought to my attention this new publishing house focused on translating foreign literature into English. I’m big on linguistic and literary diversity, border-crossing and mind-opening, and I’m looking forward to reading more books from New Vessel.

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