Women in Translation Recommendations

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! 🙂


Robert Pisani, Malta (The Bobsphere

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.


Kate Carberry

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.


Areeb Ahmad, New Delhi, India (Bankrupt Bookworm)

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.


Eric Karl Anderson, London, England (Lonesome Reader)

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (translated from Norwegian by Martin Aitken)

Full review here

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)

Full review here

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!


Kamil Lopuch, Warsaw, Poland (What Kamil Reads)

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.


Emily Polson, Brooklyn, New York, United States (@emilycpolson)

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.


Sabrina Unrein, Colorado, United States (bookish sabrina)

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.


Laura Frey, Edmonton, Canada (Reading in Bed)

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 Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (translated from the Spanish by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre)

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.


Nicola Balkind, California, United States (robotnic / instagram.com/robotnic)

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.


Cara O’Sullivan 

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.


Matthew Sciarappa, New York, United States (Matthew Sciarappa)

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.


Jennifer Helinek, New York, United States (Insert Literary Pun Here)

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.

Women in Translation Readathon 2020

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 1Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated from the French by Tina A. Kover (published by Europa Editions)

Prompt 2The 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 3Abigail 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: jreadersense@gmail.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: jreadersense@gmail.com)

I’m SO excited to see what you guys come up with!

P.S. Trans women are women ❤

wrap up: August 2019

  1. The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn, translated by Rosie Hedger ★★★★★ | review
  2. But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens, translated by Sandra Smith (audiobook) ★★★★☆ | mini review
  3. The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang ★★★☆☆ | review
  4. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder ★★★★★ | review
  5. Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, translated by Bonnie Huie ★★★☆☆ | review | buddy read with Claire Reads Books
  6. Purge by Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola Rogers ★★★★☆ | review
  7. We, The Survivors by Tash Aw ★★★★☆ | review to come mid-September for BookBrowse
  8. Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva, translated by Brian Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg ★★★★☆ | review

Favorite: The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn
Honorable mention: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
Least favorite: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, I guess?

AUGUST TOTAL: 8
YEARLY TOTAL: 80

80 was my incredibly arbitrary Goodreads goal, so yay!  Also, 6/8 of these were by women in translation.  I did want to read more for #WITmonth but I think I did okay.

Other posts from this month:

Life updates:

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.

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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).

Currently reading:

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!

P.S. Follow me!  @ Twitter | Goodreads | Instagram | Letterboxd | Ko-fi

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

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 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.