THE DANGERS OF SMOKING IN BED by Mariana Enríquez translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell ★★★☆☆ Hogarth Press, 2021
I wasn’t the biggest fan of Mariana Enríquez’s collection Things We Lost in the Fire, an intriguing collection which I was disappointed to find favored the grotesque over the psychological, something that never fully works for me with horror, so this is more or less what I expected it to be. I did actually like The Dangers of Smoking in Bed much better (in spite of the fact that I’m giving these two collections the same star rating, lol), but it took a while to get going and fair amount of the stories fell into that same trap for me, where I felt like Enríquez was prioritizing shock value over something more organically unsettling.
Highlights for me were Meat, a sinister story about two teenage girls idolizing a recently-deceased pop star; Where Are You, Dear Heart?, about a woman attempting to satiate her sexual desire for the human heart; and Back When We Talked to the Dead, the collection’s final story which ends it on a deliciously spooky note.
The least successful for me were Angelita Unearthed, the first story which actually caused me to DNF this book two months ago as it suggested to me that this collection would be everything I didn’t like about Things We Lost in the Fire — though I evidently decided to come back to it and give the rest of the book a shot; Kids Who Come Back, a promising concept literalizing the horrors of Argentina’s disappeared children which meanders and ultimately goes nowhere; and The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, the titular story which I couldn’t tell you a single thing about as it fell so flat for me.
So even though this didn’t completely work to my tastes, there’s something about Enríquez that I keep finding myself drawn back to. I love her creativity, I love the way she brings different areas of Argentina to life so distinctly, and when her stories strike that eerie, unsettling chord, they work beautifully for me. I’ll probably keep reading her books as they get translated into English, though I’m unsure whether I’ll end up loving any of them or whether they’ll remain in this murky promising-but-unsatisfying territory for me.
THE REVOLT by Clara Dupont-Monod translated from the French by Ruth Diver ★★★★★ Quercus, 2020
Both epic and intimate, The Revolt tells the stories of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her son Richard I — a complex piece of history deftly distilled down to about 200 pages in Clara Dupont-Monod’s novel. A baseline familiarity with the Plantagenets I think is a strong asset in approaching this book — its function isn’t didactic and as such I can imagine it’s easy to get a bit lost in the historical narrative, which is presented coherently, but without much interest in the broader historical context.
But as someone already deeply invested in this particular period of English history, this read like a dream. The characters are all so well-drawn and Ruth Diver’s translation is stunning. Dupont-Monod manages to imbue this period of history with a vibrancy and heightened emotional landscape that does border on the anachronistic, but this isn’t the sort of historical fiction that aims for perfect historical accuracy — these figures are more of a vehicle for Dupont-Monod to explore the bigger ideas that preoccupy us today when we look back at the Plantagenets. The complex and thorny relationships within that family are a never ending source of fascination, and here those relationships are excavated alongside a potent commentary on familial love and power. This won’t be for everyone, but it’s a must-read for anyone who enjoys looking at history through an imaginative, literary lens.
As I mentioned in this post, the lovely Jennifer asked you guys to submit Women in Translation recommendations, which we’ve compiled into this post here. We got some really incredible submissions – so enjoy, and read Women in Translation year round! 🙂
The Museum of Unconditional Surrender by Dubravka Ugrešić (translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth)
If one looks up a definition of a museum, one will get an explanation on the lines of a building containing artifacts of importance. However technically, going by that definition, every dwelling is a museum of sorts. In The Museum of Unconditional Surrender Ugrešić takes this concept to interesting territories.
Throughout the novel we readers are presented with pictures and artifacts while the narrator of the book explains their significance to her own personal history , these memories and objects range between quirky to bleak. By the end of the book the reader learns how a personal history, encapsulated in objects, has a way of contributing to events in world history. I’m a fan of playful narratives and this does not disappoint.
Rachel Matthews, Nottingham, England
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich (translated from Russian by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait)
In Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich manages to create beauty out of devastation. She brings together a series of monologues from the people of Chernobyl affected by the 1986 nuclear power plant accident. The choices she makes in how the monologues are structured elevate this from being a simple record of events to something closer to poetry with themes of hope, duty and uncertainty running throughout. The reference to prayer in the book’s title is fitting as those sharing their stories do so without confirmation they will be read, some will die before the book is even published, but they speak anyway in hopes that their sacrifice will not be forgotten. Alexievich has immortalised their words in this wonderful book and it was a truly humbling experience to read.
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez (translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell)
Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire is a beautiful and chilling short story collection which most definitely warrants a read. Under the shadow of Argentina’s former dictatorship, characters must undergo constant challenges to their values and must negotiate between their morals and their survival. The horror in these stories succeeds because it strikes a balance between the violence visited upon the characters’ bodies and the psychological terror that comes with self-knowledge and experience.
Father Maybe an Elephant, and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… by Gogu Shyamala (translated from Telugu by Various)
Shyamala’s stories, written in Telugu which is a prominent Indian regional language, are cut from the fabric of her own life and seek to depict the complexity of Dalit experiences. Even though each story has a different translator, overall it’s a translation that mimics and retains the unique flavours of Shyamala’s Telugu, quite distinct from the more standardized version. These stories deal with serious themes like discrimination, caste violence, and emancipation, yet are never pedagogic or heavy-handed. The prose is simple but sensuous, especially in its lush descriptions of nature. Published by an indie press that prides itself on its anti-caste focus, this collection creates marvels out of the mundane, distils the essence of life, and leaves a bit of itself inside the reader.
Breast Stories by Mahasweta Devi (translated from Bengali by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak)
Mahasweta Devi focused on women’s lives in her writing and explored how a female subaltern is doubly marginalized, first for being female and second for being subaltern (here meaning belonging to a lower caste or class). This micro-collection of three stories centres around the image of breasts to highlight the callous oppression and gross objectification of women through their bodies. During any conflict or war, a woman’s body becomes the primary target of an attack as she is seen as a receptacle of honour and shame by a patriarchal society. Devi explodes this extremely twisted notion in these three stories and shows how a body, especially the female body, can become a site of exertion of authoritarian power as well as of gendered resistance against that power.
Emma Wilson, Canberra, Australia
Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated from German by Susan Bernofsky)
In this slim and eerie novel, Erpenbeck tracks the fortunes of one lakeside house in Brandenburg. At first I couldn’t be fully immersed because of how removed the perspective seemed, as the different inhabitants over the course of a century come in and out of focus. But in the end I think that’s the book’s strength: its wider view of a century of massive change for Germany. I loved the idea that places are haunted by disappearances, dispossessions, and repossessions, and how the house itself remains both stoic and affected throughout.
There’s an aching feeling of loneliness as well as a foreboding sense of danger throughout Hanne Ørstavik’s short, razor-sharp novel Love. The story concerns Vibeke and her adolescent son Jon who have recently moved to a small town in the north of Norway. Jon is about to turn nine years old, but rather than prepare to celebrate they embark on independent journeys deep into the night meeting strangers and travelling through the freezing near-empty landscape. The narrative continuously switches focus between the mother and son’s points of view without any line breaks or indications that it’s changing. This produces the curious effect of a synchronicity and connection between the two, but, as the novel continues, it becomes apparent there’s a dangerous disconnect between them. Although there’s little plot, a quiet tension hums throughout each section making this a deeply meditative, haunting and curiously mesmerising novel which captures an eerie sense of estrangement from the people we’re supposed to be closest to.
Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (translated from Latvian by Margita Gailitis)
Soviet Milk alternates between the perspectives of an unnamed mother and daughter over a number of years from 1969 to 1989. They have a tumultuous relationship with each other and both struggle to find their place in society because this was a period of time when Latvia was still under Soviet rule. The mother is a skilled doctor specializing in female fertility, but finds life in the communist system stiflingly oppressive. Equally the daughter struggles to grow and nurture her developing intellect in such a regimental system. This is a moving and deeply poignant story of an unconventional mother-daughter relationship and a country undergoing radical social change as Latvia regains its independence. It illuminates the distinct personalities of certain characters in how the weight of history impacts them, but also shows a cumulative sense of national identity.
Elena Faverio, Smithtown, New York, United States (Elena Faverio)
Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya (translated from Japanese by a few different companies and a lot of hardworking fans!)
Fruits Basket is about a young orphan, Tohru Honda, who gets involved with the mysterious Soma family who are suffering under an ancient family curse. Whenever one of the family members is ill, stressed, or embraced by a member of the opposite sex, they transform into one of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. This was the first ever manga I read (way back in 2007) and it has recently come back into mainstream popularity with a reanimation of the 26-episode anime series (it was first animated in 2001)! It is one of the most popular Japanese manga of all time, with over 18 million copies sold. Fruits Basket is light-hearted, tender, heart-wrenching, and funny in turns–and it’s a great read for young and mature readers alike!
Shielding the Flame by Hanna Krall (translated from Polish by Joanna Stasinska & Lawrence Weschler)
Shielding the Flame if translated word for word from Polish would be titled “To make it before God,” which doesn’t sound as smooth as the former, but illustrates more clearly the doomed fight Krall’s reportage describes.
In the seventies of the last century, Hanna Krall published a series of interviews with Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Edelman, a man reluctant to talk about the past in a myths-creating manner, in Krall’s reportage, commemorates the ghetto’s insurgents, but he also exposes everyday life during the most dehumanising circumstances.
Those who have never read Holocaust literature, fiction or non-fiction, need to brace themselves for the inhumane imagery of that period. Additionally, this set of interviews alternates between the Ghetto Uprising and the post-war life of Edelman, who became a well-known cardiac surgeon, which might make it a bit harder to follow. However, even though it’s a gut-wrenching read, it is gripping and extremely current too, due to its overarching humanism.
Marek Veselý, Czech Republic
Purge by Sofi Oksanen (translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers)
This book was intense but so good! Aliide is an old woman living alone in Estonia when a Russian girl named Zara shows up on her door, running from some kind of trauma. You learn about both their (very traumatic) backstories, but probably the most memorable thing is the atmosphere. There’s resentment and unspoken pain behind every interaction. And the more you learn about both (especially Aliide) the more sympathies change. Not a book for the faint of heart but definitely well-written and impactful.
La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono (translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel)
Set in Central Africa, this coming-of-age novella follows the orphan Okomo whose grandmother has warned her away from befriending a group of young women she considers “indecent and mysterious.” Naturally, Okomo begins spending time with them. When she finds herself falling in love with their leader, she has to decide whether to follow the strict conventions of her Fang culture or rebel and become an outcast alongside her gay uncle. La Bastarda subverts all kinds of cultural norms and western ideas about queer love, community, and identity, which scholar Abosede George does an excellent job of contextualizing in the afterword. It’s also worth noting that this is the first novel by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English, making it a landmark addition to the canon of translated literature.
Vagabonds by by Hao Jingfang (translated from Chinese by Ken Liu)
Set in the year 2196, Vagabonds follows a group of young delegates returning to Mars after a five-year cultural exchange on Earth. Mars won the war for independence a hundred years prior, but now escalating tensions between the two planets threaten the peace. After her return, Luoying, a Martian dancer, struggles to reintegrate to her homeland’s collectivistic society after experiencing the independence and creative freedom of life on capitalist Earth. Meanwhile, Eko, a documentary filmmaker from Earth, experiences opposing internal conflicts over his surprising appreciation for Martian society, with its open access to information and non-existent intellectual property laws. The two are vagabonds, stuck between cultures, never to be fully at home again on either planet. It’s easy to think of Mars as representative of China and Earth as Western society, but this meandering, philosophical novel cracks open readers’ assumptions and veers away from simple metaphors. It’s a lengthy tome, but well worth the investment.
Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri (translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles)
Tokyo Ueno Station paints a picture of life in modern-day Tokyo as if observed from a crowded train platform. You may only catch snippets of conversation, the call of a bird as it passes overhead, or a glimpse of an umbrella dripping with rain. These observations are woven together with reflections and ruminations of an unhoused man who later becomes a ghost. Both in life and death, he occupies a park near the Ueno train station and reflects on his life and his surroundings. There is so much to consider in this novel about Japanese history, our legacies, death, and how we treat one another. I really loved it for its brevity and thematic complexity, although its style may deter some readers.
Tender is the Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica (translated from Spanish by Sarah Moses)
This is a novel about a near-future in which people begin breeding and raising humans for consumption. The normalization of cannibalism is blurred and ambiguated through carefully controlled language and a redefinition of what it means to be a person. What makes this novel great is how it goes beyond its premise to examine the power of language, the danger of individualism, and the lengths people will go to in order to get what they want. I don’t consider myself to be a squeamish person, but this novel had my stomach fluctuating between queasy churning and a knotted pit of dread. Tender is the Flesh is a visceral, often unpleasant read that will not appeal to everyone, but I found it quite impactful. I was also grateful that it was relatively short, as I do not know if my constitution could have handled much more body horror.
The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (translated from the French by Barbara Bray)
This novel is about the end of slavery on the Caribeean island Guadaloupe and the end of a family line, Télumée being the last of a long line of mothers and daughters. But of course it’s not really the end; the effects of slavery are ongoing, and Télumée is such a vivid, arresting presence that it’s impossible to believe she’ll leave no trace. You may have gathered that this is not a light novel, but the writing and the translation is light, as in airy, and dreamlike. The prose is so effortless and perfect, it’s easy to forget this is a translation, but it’ll also make you want to read in the original French, if you can.
The International Booker Prize isn’t always the most accessible place to start diving into translations. They tend to favour the experimental. This 2020 shortlister probably qualifies, but it’s actually accessible at many levels. Are you familiar with the foundational Argentinian epic poem El Gaucho Martín Fierro? Perfect, this is a satire and you’ll love it. Not so much? That’s fine too, you can relax and enjoyr a drug-fueled romp across the pampas, or get serious and appreciate the sharp post-colonial and feminist critique. Oh, and if you need a 19th century lesbian romance to hold you over till Ammonite is released, China Iron‘s got you covered.
Four by Four by Sara Mesa(Translated from Spanish by Katie Whittemore)
Insular communities are an excellent setting for gothic stories, and Four by Four is no exception. Set at Wybrany College –– only allegedly established in 1943 –– is an “elite alternative to the orphanages and shelters of the day,” where the wealthy keep their kids away from the rapidly depopulating city of Vado. The “Specials”, those on scholarship, become pets to the elite students; students pets to the masters; and on it goes. Through its short chapters, erratic timeline, and two-part narration the school’s web of exploitation is gradually weaved. Just try to find your footing in this unsettling milieu.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney)
Valeria Luiselli’s irreverent second novel in Spanish was written in collaboration with workers at a Jumex factory in Ecatepec. The workers would listen to chapters as they worked, discuss them, and return the recordings of their discussions back to the author. The story follows Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, an auctioneer in Mexico City. His wares? The teeth of notorious and infamous people from Petrarch to Marilyn Monroe. Highway is endearingly eccentric and charming company on this hilarious, madcap journey on which his only aim is to impress his son.
After the Wall by Jana Hensel (translated from German by Jefferson Chase)
This is a memoir about growing up in East Germany, and what it’s like to have childhood experiences that don’t exist anymore. My favorite element is the contrast of generations; older East Germans find it harder to adapt to the change, but younger Germans can’t completely understand what it was like to grow up in a divided country with such different experiences on either side of the wall. Hensel writes in a collective voice to show that she’s speaking for her cohort who have one foot in the past and another in the present. Really recommend this!
Isy Abraham-Raveson, Philadelphia, United States
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lingren (translated from Swedish by Florence Lamborn)
Pippi Longstocking is a joyful story of an unconventional, super-strong girl teaching others the importance of breaking conventions and being oneself. Pippi is wonderfully imperfect. She can be self-centered and is easily annoyed, but also hates injustice and always stands up to bullies, whether they are little boys or police officers. Unfortunately, the book is not free of racism–Pippi is full of strange tales of racialized others from her worldly travels. If sharing this book with children, it would certainly require a discussion about prejudice. But overall, Pippi is a role model for all of us, embodying courage, strength, independence, playfulness, and the power of eccentricity.
The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous (translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette)
The Frightened Ones explores the psychological traumas of living under dictatorship in present-day Syria through an intimate look into the pressure-cooked minds of two women. It is an emulsion of reality and memory, blurring storytelling boundaries between an in-person narrator and one in a manuscript. The effect creates a sort of meta-autofiction, where truth is overrun by fear and we as readers are left questioning what is commentary, biography, or fiction. The complexity of Wannous’ text softens its focus, making it hard to describe, but its propulsive pace and meticulous sense of atmosphere make it worth the effort. Ultimately, The Frightened Ones reads less like a novel and more like an experience.
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated from Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers)
Gessen and Summers collected various stories from this renowned author and placed them into four categories: Songs of the Eastern Slavs, Allegories, Requiems, and Fairy Tales. But they all share dark, fable-esque perspectives on jealousy, repression, and revenge. I realized while reading this that I’d come to expect a certain interiority from short stories in general, and a focus on minute personal psychology. But Petrushevskaya’s stories are externalized; the outside world is treated as a nightmarish reflection on the grimness inside. There’s a sense that we’ve made the world in our image, and that the result is not pretty. This then raises the question of how you cope if what’s inside you doesn’t match the stories the world is feeding you, forcing characters to create or to find their own worlds. It’s fabulous in all senses of the word, and whether or not you speak Russian, I encourage you to look up some video interviews with this author, if only to appreciate her enviable hat collection.
Wait, what, I have reading interests outside Shakespeare?!
Last summer I wrote a piece on Women in Translation month that you can read HERE if you’re looking for a primer on what this is all about!
Every August the wonderful Matthew, Kendra, and Jennifer from booktube host the Women in Translation Readathon – this year it’s taking place from August 24th – 31st. There are 3 prompts this year:
Prompts (bonus for any if the translator is also a woman!):
1. Read a book published by an independent press
2. Read a genre title (SFF, romance, crime, thriller, horror, etc.)
3. Read a book that was published in its original language pre-2000
My own TBR is as follows:
Prompt 1 – Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated from the French by Tina A. Kover (published by Europa Editions)
Prompt 2 – The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (thriller)
OR Out by Natsuo Kirino, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (thriller – also works for prompt #3, originally published in 1997)
Prompt 3 – Abigail by Magda Szabó, translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix (originally published in 1970)
My big priority here is Disoriental, but I will be getting to as many of these as I can that week!
But this year there’s an exciting component to the readathon that affects me – and potentially all of you!
If you’ve wanted to try your hand at written reviews but don’t have your own platform (or maybe you have a smaller platform that you’re looking to grow), there are two exciting options. You can review ANY book by a woman in translation and submit your pieces to Jennifer – they’ll either be featured in Open Letters Review or here on my blog! Guidelines below:
Written Review Options:
1) Open Letters Review (https://openlettersreview.com/): Any full reviews of 2019-2020 releases. Send to me by Sunday, September 6th and she’ll edit them so they can run on the site. Welcome to send before that date as well! Typical review is 600-800 words. (Contact: email@example.com)
2) Pace, Amore, Libri (https://paceamorelibri.wordpress.com/): Rachel has agreed to host shorter bits about WIT books published in any year on her blog! We’ll be doing a collective piece: people can contribute 6 sentences per title, 2 titles maximum per person, and we’ll run them as a big recommendations post together. Deadline for this will also be Sunday, September 6th. (Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)
So, like I said, I didn’t read as much in August as I had planned, but I ended up being kind of busy so I guess I’ll forgive myself. For the first half of August I was cat-sitting and I ended up having a lot to do that week, and then this past weekend (technically the beginning of September, but whatever, it’s the reason this wrap up is late so I’ll talk about it now) I went to New York for the long weekend.
It included many highlights: I went to the US Open and saw Naomi Osaka play Coco Gauff (which was wonderful); I saw the current production of Oklahoma which positively blew me away (I am not an Oklahoma fan so I did not have very high expectations, but seriously, if you have a chance to see this production, DO IT); I saw Sleep No More for the fourth time (I’m obsessed); and I met Matthew Sciarappa for brunch, after which we went to The Strand and he picked out books for me and my friends to buy. I ended up with a copy of Compass by Mathias Énard, which I recently mentioned on here that I’m dying to read. It was such fun. Matthew was lovely and it was great to see my NYC friends again (New York is where my main irl friend squad lives, hence the fact that I return there so frequently).
I’m failing miserably at my and Hannah’s readathon, but the Women in Translation show must go on! I still need to finish these three books before I can pick up anything else: Cassandra by Christa Wolf (loving it), The Door by Magda Szabo (loving it), and Valerie by Sara Stridsberg (not loving it – sorry – though it is technically an ARC, so, win for me).
What was the best book you read in August? Comment and let me know!
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.
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.
THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa
translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
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.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Women in Translation Month, or #WITmonth, this Twitter account is a good place to start. But it’s pretty self explanatory: in the month of August, should you feel inclined, you can challenge yourself to read books by women (or nonbinary folk) which were initially written in a language other than English. These can either be books written or translated by a woman, or both, and you can read one or ten or twenty or however many you like. I wrote a little recommendations post last year that you can check out, and this year I thought I’d share my TBR with you guys.
I can already tell you this TBR is overly ambitious, but I want to give myself a lot of options, so here we are. Linking all of these to Book Depository in case you’d like to pick up any for yourself.
I’ve been going a little NYRB classics crazy in my recent hauls, and I’ve been saving all of these for this month.
White Walls by Tatyana Tolstaya, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambell and Antonina W. Bouis
This is a short story collection that I’ve had on my TBR for about a year (I THINK this was recommended to me by Ren but correct me if I’m wrong?!) but I only picked up a copy recently. The amount of Russian lit I’ve read is painfully lacking (I actually think the only translated Russian book I’ve ever read is War and Peace) so I’m looking forward to expanding my repertoire a little bit.
The Door by Magda Szabo, translated from the Hungarian by Lex Rix
I put this on my latest 5 star reads prediction list without knowing much about it; sometimes you’ve just gotta go off a vibe. Plus, introduction by Ali Smith! Yes please.
Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang, translated from the Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury and Eileen Chang, & Little Reunions by Eileen Chang, translated from the Chinese by Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz
I’ve never read Eileen Chang before but I know Claire loves her and that’s good enough for me! I’m almost certain I’ll start with Love in a Fallen City, but I picked up Little Reunions recently so I wanted to include it as an option here in case I’m up for both.
This is the only ARC I’ve got on this list. I didn’t read any of the Man Booker International longlist this year (though I will be picking up Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk in a couple of days, which I’m not including in this post as I have to finish it before August), but The Faculty of Dreams, or now Valerie in the US, is the one whose premise excited me the most off that list. And I have heard nothing but good things.
Purge by Sofi Oksanen, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers
This was another one of my 5 star read predictions; and again, I know next to nothing about it. That’s my favorite way to go into books, as I’m sure you can tell by now.
This has been on my TBR for literally years. Hannah has given it the coveted title of her favorite book, I adored Wolf’s Medea, I put this on my 2019 Backlist TBR (which I am kind of failing at – or at least, I’m behind by 2.5 books at this point). Anyway, all things considered, I just need to read this immediately. I mean, it’s a novel about Cassandra. And then four essays. There is nothing that could go wrong here.
I am almost certainly not going to finish, or even start, all of these books. And I might end up reading a couple of other non-WIT things (I know I’m going to be seduced by the Booker longlist, but after my frustrating experience with the Women’s Prize this year I’m going to try to resist, so I can save some of my literary prize stamina for next year’s WP). But this is a selection of titles that I am very, very excited about at this point. We’ve got Russian, Hungarian, Chinese, Swedish, Finnish, Japanese, and German language books on this list and that’s a variety that excites me very much indeed.
What’s your favorite book by a woman in translation? Are you planning on taking part in #WITmonth, and what are you looking forward to reading? And have you read any of these books? Come chat with me in the comments! And if you’ve done your own TBR or recommendations posts for #WITmonth, feel free to link them here so I can check them out.
It’s Women in Translation Month! The idea behind this is to use the month of August as an opportunity to read more translated books by women, as the vast majority of books translated into English are written by men. There’s a readathon you can check out over on booktube (hosted by Matthew Sciarappa, Kendra Winchester, and Jennifer Insert Literary Pun Here, who’s recently decided to end her channel but we’re not talking about that as I’m still in mourning). But even if you don’t want to participate or follow the prompts, #WITmonth is still a fantastic excuse to prioritize some translated books by women that you’ve been meaning to get to. So I’m following Callum‘s example and posting some recommendations!
If Not, Winter by Sappho, translated from the Greek by Anne Carson: Most of Sappho’s lyric poetry (written to be accompanied by a lyre) is now lost, and most of what remains is only in fragments, sadly. But this beautiful collection by Anne Carson is a must-read for anyone interested at all by antiquity, as Sappho provides a look at the daily lives and desires of women on the Ancient Greek island of Lesbos where she’s from. I’m a huge fan of Anne Carson’s work, and she does a stunning job with this.
Medea by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by John Cullen: This is a stellar and politically-driven retelling of Euripides’ Medea, which focuses on the question of whether the court at Corinth had something to gain by Medea’s downfall. With clear parallels to her own sociopolitical reality as she grew up in the GDR, Wolf spins this familiar story in an unfamiliar direction, while still staying faithful to the original. I also think Cullen’s translation is just gorgeous. This is such a thoughtful and powerful book.
Penance and Confessions by Kanae Minato, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Stephen Snyder (respectively): Both of these books follow a very similar formula, starting with a murder and culminating in acts of revenge. They’re some of the best examinations of female rage that I’ve read in any contemporary thrillers, and Kanae Minato’s unique style reads with the air of a fable. Her work is both twisted and darkly compelling.
The Vegetarian, The White Book, and Human Acts by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith: Kind of a #basic recommendation because who hasn’t heard of Han Kang, but I adore her too much to leave her off this list. The Vegetarian absolutely blew me away when I read it a couple of years ago, as it’s one of the darkest and strangest and most haunting things I’ve ever read. But it’s her quietly breathtaking Human Acts that’s actually my favorite of her novels, which focuses on the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 and provides a brutal look at humanity’s capability for violence. The subtly affecting White Book is probably my least favorite of the three, but I still gave it 4 stars. I cannot recommend Han Kang highly enough.
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein: I actually read this in Italian, but I’m sure the translation is excellent as Goldstein is a rather prolific Italian translator, well known for translating the works of Elena Ferrante (who I still haven’t read, shamefully). But anyway. This memoir is very close to my heart as I also spent some time living in Italy, which was an incredibly immersive experience in terms of both language and culture, and Lahiri deftly examines what it’s like to live in that country as a foreigner who’s learning the language purely by choice. But I think it’s a memoir anyone can relate to who’s spent some time living in a foreign country, it doesn’t have to have been Italy.
My #WITmonth TBR is brief and overly ambitious since I’m also doing the Man Booker longlist thing, but if I manage to read any this month, it’ll be some combination of these three:
I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Sora-Kim Russell. This is the one I’m currently reading, though I’m not very far at all.
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.
Cassandra by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by Jan van Heurck.
What are your favorite translated books by women? And are you planning on participating in #WITmonth? What’s your TBR? Comment and chat with me about Women in Translation!