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.

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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 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.

Women in Translation Month 2019 TBR

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.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie

I feel like this is a bit of a modern cult classic that I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about.  I think it has to do with queer students in Taiwan; that’s all I need to know, really.

 

Valerie (or The Faculty of Dreams in the UK) by Sara Stridsberg, translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner

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.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Ogawa’s collection Revenge was as close to perfection as I think I’ve ever read in a short story collection.  So I’m interested in seeing how her writing works for me in a longer format.

Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by Jan van Heurk

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.

Women in Translation Recommendations

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!