book review: Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva

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ISOLDE by Irina Odoevtseva
translated from the Russian by Brian Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg
★★★★☆
Pushkin Press, November 5, 2019
originally published in 1929

 

Isolde was my introduction to Irina Odoevtseva – a fascinating woman whose life and work is contextualized brilliantly in the introduction to this Pushkin Press edition, the first ever translation of Isolde into English, almost a century after its 1929 publication. Isolde is a delightful, sparse, and sad book set in early twentieth century France, where fourteen-year-old Liza and her brother Nikolai are essentially left to their own devices by an extremely neglectful mother who insists on pretending in public (and often even in private) that she is their older cousin. On holiday in Biarritz, Liza meets a slightly older boy, Cromwell, who becomes enchanted by her and declares that her new name will be Isolde. The story then follows this trio – Liza, Cromwell, and Nikolai – back to Paris, where they’re abandoned altogether by their mother, with disastrous results.

As explained in the introduction, Odoevtseva herself was Russian and living in exile at the time of writing Isolde, and these circumstances are reflected in her narrative. The absence of Liza and Nikolai’s home country plays heavily on their imaginations – a naive, idealistic image of Russia only grows when abandoned by their mother in Paris. After some head hopping, the focus of the novel ultimately zeroes in on Liza, whose burgeoning sexuality, parental neglect, and nebulous national identity all shape the story which is driven less by a coherent plot and more by snapshots of Liza’s adolescence.

I found this thoroughly enjoyable, at times quite dark, and altogether unexpectedly modern. Not overly modern in language – the translation by Brian Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg was excellent – but in terms of content; there’s a focus on Liza’s autonomy over her sexuality, and it rather subverts expectations in more ways than one. (There’s also a rather inconsequential scene where a character is talking about how she’s kissed other girls but she can’t imagine kissing a man.) It’s a really solid gem of a book and I’m looking forward to checking out more by Irina Odoevtseva, as well as more from Pushkin’s modern classics series.

Thank you to Netgalley and Pushkin for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of Isolde here on Book Depository.

book review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk | BookBrowse

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DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD by Olga Tokarczuk
translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
★★★★★
Riverhead, August 13, 2019

 

A subversive feminist noir mystery set in a remote Polish village, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead both dazzles and defies categorization. Olga Tokarczuk’s seventh novel (her fourth to be translated into English) follows Janina Duszejko, an elderly woman living as a recluse on the outskirts of a Polish town close to the Czech border, who spends her days reading horoscopes and translating the poetry of William Blake. But it’s a far cry from an idyllic life for Janina, whose beloved dogs have gone missing and whose neighbors keep mysteriously turning up dead.

Read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can also read a piece I wrote on Women in Translation Month HERE.


You can pick up a copy of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead here on Book Depository.

The Translated Literature Book Tag

This tag was created by Diana over at Thoughts on Papyrus, and in the spirit of Women in Translation Month I figured I should do before the end of August!  I am not focusing only on female authors for this tag, though that would definitely be a fun spin to put on it.

I. A translated novel you would recommend to everyone:

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The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.  Despite how niche its premise seems (math + baseball is a combination that would ordinarily cause me to run for the hills), I think this is one of the most universally appealing books I’ve read in a long time.  It’s sweet but not too saccharine, melancholy but not too depressing.  It’s just a nice, and short, story that I can imagine would appeal to most readers.

II. A recently read “old” translated novel you enjoyed:

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This is neither recently read nor very ‘old’, but whatever, in an effort to mix up my answers a bit and not talk about the Iliad for the billionth time: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind, translated from the German by John E. Woods – originally published in 1985.  I read this four or five years ago on the recommendation of a German friend who was suggesting some German lit for me to read and I thought it was brilliant.  Set in eighteenth century France, it follows a boy with an unnaturally keen sense of smell, and it has some of the most descriptive imagery I’ve ever read.  I’d highly recommend it, with the caveat that it’s incredibly dark and twisted and violent, and definitely not for everyone.

III. A translated novel you could not get into:

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The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves.  I desperately wanted to love this book, because Ruiz Zafón’s descriptions of Barcelona were written so gorgeously – the city itself was like a character in this book, which is something I love – but I could not get over the pervasive sexism (Clara’s narrative arc in particular horrified me) and how inexcusably predictable the plotting was.

IV. Your most anticipated translated novel release:

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The Teacher by Michal Ben-Naftali, translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir.  This is publishing from Open Letter Books in January 2020, and the summary from their website says:

“No one knew the story of Elsa Weiss. She was a respected English teacher at a Tel Aviv high school, but she remained aloof and never tried to befriend her students. No one ever encountered her outside of school hours. She was a riddle, and yet the students sensed that they were all she had. When Elsa killed herself by jumping off the roof of her apartment building, she remained as unknown as she had been during her life. Thirty years later, the narrator of the novel, one of her students, decides to solve the riddle of Elsa Weiss. Expertly dovetailing explosive historical material with flights of imagination, the novel explores the impact of survivor’s guilt and traces the footprints of a Holocaust survivor who did her utmost to leave no trace.

Ben-Naftali’s The Teacher takes us through a keenly crafted, fictional biography for Elsa—from childhood through adolescence, from the Holocaust to her personal aftermath—and brings us face to face with one woman’s struggle in light of one of history’s great atrocities.”

V. A “foreign-language” author you would love to read more of:

Sofi Oksanen (Finnish-Estonian), Yoko Ogawa (Japanese), Mathias Énard (French); these are some titles that I’m looking forward to reading by each of them.

VI. A translated novel which you consider to be better than the film:

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Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, lol.  Better than its many, many film adaptations.  Also better than the musical, and I freaking LOVE the musical.

VII. A translated “philosophical” fiction book you recommend:

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Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, translated from the Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey.  This is a hard book to explain – it’s essentially a fantasy novel set at a magical boarding school, but it isn’t interested in plot or characters as much as its central thesis: that the world is not as limited as we think it is.

VIII. A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long:

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A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous, translated from the German by Philip Boehm.  This is a compilation of diary entries kept by a woman in 1945 Berlin, in which she chronicles the sexual assault endured by German women after the occupation of Berlin by the Russians.  This sounds absolutely harrowing which is why I probably haven’t reached for it yet, but it’s been on my shelf for ages.  If I don’t read it by next August, it’s definitely going on my TBR for next year’s WIT Month.  (I only saw the ‘fiction’ part of this question after I’d already chosen this for an answer – it’s nonfiction!)

IX. A popular translated fiction book you have not yet read:

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.  I know, this is bad.  I kind of have this mental block with Elena Ferrante because I like the idea of reading these books in the original Italian, and then I’m too lazy to actually do that?  So they just remain unread.  But I know that either way I do really need to remedy this.

X. A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read:

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Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated from the French by Tina A. Kover.  There is something about this book’s summary that refuses to stick in my brain so I still have absolutely no idea what it’s actually about (it’s a family saga, maybe…?), but I have heard nothing but good things about it from those who have read it.  Plus, that cover!

Tagging: Hannah | Marija | Callum | Kristin | Laura

Hannah and I have too many ARCs: an emergency readathon

Hannah and I are always lamenting how many unread ARCs we have, so we finally decided to put our money where our mouth is and actually, you know, read some of them.  So we are doing a two-person readathon for the first 2 weeks of September, where we read only ARCs in that time.  I say it’s a two-person readathon, but feel free to join us!  This isn’t going to be a big affair with prompts and hashtags and all that good stuff.  The only prompt is to read your damn ARCs already.  But if this endeavor inspires you, please do join in, we’d love to hear from you.

So, what will I be reading?  No clue.  So I am just going to tell you all of the ARCs I have.  Please don’t judge me too unkindly.

Links are included to Book Depository for each of these titles, in case you’d like to grab a copy or read more about them.

Frontlist

Backlist

The only book I can tell you with 100% certainty that I will be reading for this readathon (assuming it arrives in the mail on time) is Liar.  Two I’ve started reading since starting this post are We, The Survivors, and Isolde and I’ll probably finish them before September so there’s really no point in including them here but I’m doing it anyway.

Otherwise, who knows.  Tell me what to read!  If a particular book gets mentioned a lot in the comments, or if someone makes a particularly compelling case, I’ll definitely be more inclined to prioritize that one.  I do know that I want to tackle a bit of backlist, so I may try to focus my attention there, but I haven’t decided yet.

Which ARCs do you have that you’re behind on reading?  Anything from this list that catches your eye?  Let’s chat!

book review: Purge by Sofi Oksanen

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PURGE by Sofi Oksanen
translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers
★★★★☆
Grove Press, 2010

 

Purge was my introduction to Sofi Oksanen and, in fact, my introduction to Finnish lit in general (Oksanen herself is Finnish-Estonian). I think this is a fascinating, flawed, and surprising book; it both delivers what it claims to on the blurb, and also takes the story in a direction that I was not at all expecting. Set in twentieth century Estonia, Purge follows the lives of two women, Aliide and Zara; Aliide is an older woman living alone in a remote Estonian village, and Zara is a young sex trafficking victim who shows up on her doorstep one day. The novel explores the relationship and the secret connection between the two women – this much I was expecting from the summary – but their relationship is almost backdrop to Oksanen’s unflinching examination of Soviet occupation.

If Purge has one major flaw, it has to be its momentum, or lack thereof. The first hundred pages which chronicle Aliide discovering Zara on her doorstep are almost entirely unnecessary (and I found the coda rather excessive as well). It’s only in Part 2 when the story makes a radical time jump backward to Aliide’s childhood do the wheels really start turning. But even then, a rather baffling and almost Victor Hugo-esque inclusion of chapter titles insists on neutering the impact of several key moments by announcing their arrival before you even begin the chapter. I won’t include examples so as to not spoil anything, but while I appreciated the effect at first, it grew wearisome. I do wonder if this is a convention of Finnish publishing or an offbeat choice on Oksanen’s part.

But all that said, once you get into the meat of this book, it has a lot to offer. Aliide is a brilliantly crafted character – shades of Atonement litter her narrative, though Purge is an altogether messier affair – and the relentless description of Soviet occupation in Estonia strongly evokes a time and a place that I previously knew almost nothing of. And it’s less a story about these two women – Aliide and Zara – coming together, than a commentary on the unending injustices faced by women in modern history. It’s a stark, bleak book that won’t have much to offer to anyone who needs levity or a protagonist to root for, but I found it very striking – I doubt it’s a book I will be forgetting in a hurry.


You can pick up a copy of Purge here on Book Depository.

book review: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

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NOTES OF A CROCODILE by Qiu Miaojin
translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie
★★★☆☆
NYRB Classics 2017
originally published in 1994

 

An occasional pitfall of reading literature from a country other than your own is that you aren’t approaching it with the necessary cultural framework to make it comprehensible. This isn’t always the case, of course; some stories are more universal than others, and some books do a better job of contextualizing the relevant sociopolitical elements. But in Notes of a Crocodile, a book about a group of queer students in Taiwan in the late 80s, I felt desperately out of my depth, and I felt like so many of my attempts to engage with this book were met with stony silence on Qiu Miaojin’s part. But I want to stress that this isn’t a fault of the book itself. I can imagine for the right reader that a book like this would be sensational. Personally I felt like I was missing references and subtleties that a Taiwanese reader (and especially a queer Taiwanese reader) would easily pick up on. I’m glad to have read this book and grappled with it as best I could, but this wasn’t the easiest or most comfortable reading experience for me.

Narrated by a nameless protagonist, nicknamed Lazi, Notes of a Crocodile chronicles the trials of a group of queer students living in late 1980s Taipei. It’s also punctuated by a series of interludes which imagine that the country have been invaded by humanlike crocodiles; a clear metaphor for a society that sees queerness as an epidemic. (The homophobic obsession of early 1990s Taiwanese media with homosexuality is explained in a little more detail in this LA Review of Books review by Ari Larissa Heinrich, who has translated Miaojin in the past.)

This book is light on plot, and whatever plot does happen usually happens off-page and is narrated to the reader much later; instead the focus is on the internal. To me Lazi felt more like an embodiment of what it means to be queer in Taiwan than an established character in her own right – while we learn almost nothing about her past or her personhood, pages and pages are devoted to philosophizing about what it means to be a woman who loves other women; what it means for your sexuality to be interpreted as a political statement. To me the philosophy ranged from stimulating to repetitive, occasionally too mired in intertextuality to drive any particular point home. This result is a rather rambling meditation that again, I tried to engage with – occasionally successfully, occasionally not.

My other main takeaway from this is is that I think I would have appreciated this book more if I’d read it in my early twenties; I hate to sound callous but the sheer amount of self-destruction in these pages did become tiresome after a while. This book never lets up from its relentless angst and self-absorption, and the whole thing is of course shadowed by the tragedy of Qiu Miaojin’s suicide at age 26. I ultimately think this is worth a read, but I think I find Qiu Miaojin herself more intriguing than this particular book.


You can pick up a copy of Notes of a Crocodile here on Book Depository.

book review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

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THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa
translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
★★★★★
Picador, 2009

 

My only experience with Yoko Ogawa before now was her terrific short story collection Revenge, and though I’d heard that all of her books are drastically different from one another, I think I still expected to see a bit of Revenge‘s dark and macabre tone here. Instead, The Housekeeper and the Professor is utterly and unapologetically charming.

It focuses on the relationship between a housekeeper, her son, and a man whose house she’s assigned to by her agency, who she refers to only as ‘the Professor.’ The Professor has a condition which prevents him from creating new memories – his memory lasts only 80 minutes. He is nevertheless a brilliant man, and the likewise unnamed protagonist becomes increasingly spellbound by his unsolicited mathematical lectures.

There are any number of reasons why this book shouldn’t have worked for me; it’s sweet in tone, it’s about math, it’s about baseball. I don’t like any of these things. However, this book’s passion is positively infectious; this was like listening to a friend tell a story about something they love which you don’t particularly care about – sometimes regardless of the content, the enthusiasm itself is contagious. Also, I will say that this book helped me understand the sentiment that ‘math is like poetry,’ that I’ve heard a few times throughout my life, better than anything else ever has. No matter how many times I’ve witnessed an individual’s passion for math, it’s always seemed to me like this cold and rigid thing, but The Professor’s perspective on the relationship between numbers, and the solace he takes in their familiarity, really moved me.

But beyond the math and baseball, what makes this quirky book near-universally appealing is the unconventional, infinitely touching relationship between the two titular characters. The Housekeeper and the Professor is about empathy; it’s a testament to the unexpected possibilities of human connection. I just found this book to be a joy to read – quiet and subtle and nostalgic and affecting. Very highly recommended.


You can pick up a copy of The Housekeeper and the Professor here on Book Depository.

book review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

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THE DRAGON REPUBLIC by R.F. Kuang
(The Poppy War #2)
★★★☆☆
Harper Voyager, August 6, 2019

 

I was never going to love The Dragon Republic as much as The Poppy War, so let’s get that out of the way; The Poppy War is a book of two halves, and I preferred the first. However, it was still a 5 star read for me (review here), and with Kuang’s assertions on Twitter that The Dragon Republic was an objectively superior book, I was still cautiously optimistic about the sequel. And I didn’t hate it, but I’m disappointed.

Pacing is an issue in both of these books; in The Poppy War, things happen too fast; it feels like two books crammed into one. But I really didn’t mind that – I read a lot of literary fiction, so when I venture into genre fiction it’s with entirely different expectations and needs to be met – I like a bit of nonstop action in my fantasy as long as it doesn’t get too overwhelming, which I don’t think it did. But with The Dragon Republic the issue is the exact opposite. Nothing – and I cannot stress this enough – happens for the first three quarters of this book. Where The Poppy War feels like two books for the price of one, The Dragon Republic feels like a novella stretched out thin across 500 pages. Things of course do happen, technically, but there is so much filler. Stakes feel low (a problem that The Poppy War certainly did not have), because for the major part of this book, it feels like you’re spinning your wheels and still waiting for the main players to enter the ring.

But let’s talk about what I did like: the characters and the setting are some of my favorites from any fantasy series that I have ever read. The returning characters are as complex, endearing, and frustrating as ever, and the new characters shine as well – Vaisra in particular is a brilliant creation. And if The Dragon Republic has one thing that’s superior to The Poppy War, it’s the world building and the magic system, which is infinitely more fleshed out here with some truly fascinating developments.

It took me three months to read this, but I want to stress that every time I did pick it up, I enjoyed it. The issue is that I just seldom reached for it. I really hope this is just second book syndrome, and I do think one thing that Kuang was able to achieve with this book was laying a really solid foundation for whatever is to come next (and with that ending, I can promise you that the third book is going to destroy me). But even though I would still recommend this series wholeheartedly, this just wasn’t as good as The Poppy War, much as it pains me to say it.

Thank you to Netgalley and Harper Voyager for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of The Poppy War here on Book Depository, and The Dragon Republic here.

book review: The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

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THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn
translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger
★★★★★
Orenda Books, 2016

 

What a bizarre, enchanting, darkly chilling little book. I am not in the habit of quoting others’ reviews in my own, but there’s a blurb from crime writer Rod Reynolds on the book that says ‘A masterclass in suspense and delayed terror, reading it felt like I was driving at top speed towards a cliff edge – and not once did I want to take my foot off the pedal’ – and I think that sums it up better than I could.

I’ve had this book on my shelf for years, and I can’t remember where or how I first heard about it, but I think I had it in my head that it was going to be a fairly standard thriller, which I had been in the mood for. But it was no disappointment to me when it turned out to be a different beast entirely. The Bird Tribunal felt to me like a modern-day Scandinavian Rebecca, following a young woman living in the shadow of her enigmatic employer’s first wife, but with all the dreary atmosphere and profound social isolation of Wuthering Heights. But though I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as a thriller, and I think it might disappoint readers who are specifically seeking out twists and turns, the tension and sense of growing dread I experienced while reading this were palpable.

The relationship between Allis and Sigurd is a tender, terrifying thing; this is the hook that gets its claws in you from the offset. Through Allis’s first person narration we’re drawn into her obsession with Sigurd, a distant, surly man who employs Allis as a kind of housekeeper while he awaits his wife’s return. Though Allis is blind to so many of the warning signs that the reader has access to, her obsession with Sigurd doesn’t feel unnatural or unrealistic or frustrating – reading this book isn’t like watching a train wreck so much as feeling like you’re the one steering the train. I wouldn’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this as the sense of discomfort I felt while reading it was pretty significant, but the fact that I stayed up until 1 am finishing this after taking Benadryl two hours earlier since I couldn’t tear myself away kind of says it all.


You can pick up a copy of The Bird Tribunal here on Book Depository.

book review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

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A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING by Eimear McBride
★★★★★
Coffee House Press, 2014

Having already read Eimear McBride’s sophomore novel, The Lesser Bohemians, I thought I was prepared for A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. And indeed, I was prepared for McBride’s signature and singular prose style, a terse, choppy sort of stream of consciousness that mimics the incompleteness of thought. It’s a difficult style to warm up to: I’ve heard that listening to this book on audio can help, but personally I tried that and as I’m not an auditory learner at all, I found it much more comprehensible in print. So I think it does depend on your personal preferences, but once you settle into the rhythm of her words, it’s not as daunting as you might expect.

“Him anxious. Not at all like. But I am happy. Satisfied that I’ve done wrong and now and now. What now? Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin. He’s on the shoreline getting small.”

What I was not prepared for was how utterly gutting this book ended up being. This has to be one of the most intense, visceral, excruciating things I have read in my life – second only to A Little Life, perhaps? Just, don’t pick this up lightly. Trigger warnings for everything. Seriously, everything.

But it’s not just brutal; it’s good. Form, style, and content all dovetail here for one of the most perceptive examinations of the psychological toll of sexual assault that I have ever read. But more than that, this book is a raw and unfiltered look at sex, isolation, terminal illness, and sibling bonds, and though it’s relentlessly internal in its construction, a commentary on growing up as a young woman in Ireland beautifully underscores the entire thing. The protagonist remains nameless, something that I often find gimmicky and unnecessary, but here it works perfectly as a constant reminder of the narrator’s fractured sense of identity as she finds herself defined by the horrifying things that happen to her and around her as a young girl. This is a hard book to recommend as it’s so impenetrable at a glance, and so harrowing once you do get into it, but I think this is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time.


You can pick up a copy of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing here on Book Depository.