book review: Valerie by Sara Stridsberg

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VALERIE (or THE FACULTY OF DREAMS) by Sara Stridsberg
translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
★☆☆☆☆
FSG, August 2019

 

When you read a quote unquote highbrow book, the impulse (at least for me) is usually to try to write a quote unquote highbrow review.  Because there isn’t much dignity in reading an intelligent book like Valerie (published as The Faculty of Dreams in the UK) and dismissing it with pedestrian critique, but whatever, I’m going to do it anyway.  I found this both boring and deeply annoying.

I can never really figure out what I want from novels which fictionalize the lives of real people.  Because my impulse is to lean more toward more factual, biography-style novels (see: Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault), but then it’s almost like… why don’t I just read a biography of that person?  Why am I even reading a novel if I’m so opposed to creative liberties?  But I have also been known to enjoy more abstract fictionalizations (see: An Imaginary Life by David Malouf) which take a real life person and imagine, fictionalize, or dramatize details of their life, so it’s not something I’m inherently opposed to. Valerie falls into the latter category to an extreme.  Sara Stridsberg in her forward admits that this is not an attempt to recreate the details of Valerie Solanas’s life; it’s more of a ‘literary fantasy’ where she loosely spins together fragments of Valerie’s life and ideologies, while deliberately skewing facts (changing Valerie’s birthplace from Ventnor to Ventor; moving it from New Jersey to a desert in Georgia).  It just… didn’t work for me.

This is a book of ideas with nothing to ground them; the narrative threads are too few and far between for me to have anything to really grasp onto.  I didn’t understand for the longest time why Stridsberg was bothering to disguise this fragmented, meandering, awkward novel as the story of Valerie Solanas, and while I did feel like that question was eventually answered, it was too little too late for me.  I read this entire book thinking ‘I don’t care, I should probably care, why don’t I care, does the author care at all about how disengaged I am?’

But I do feel the need to remind everyone that I use the star rating system subjectively and I use my reviews to explain why I react to books in a certain way; I don’t think this is a ‘bad book’ and I would dissuade no one who’s interested in it from giving it a shot.  It just did nothing for me.  Though the US cover is one of the prettiest I’ve seen in a while, so there’s that.

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


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

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book review: The Door by Magda Szabó

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THE DOOR by Magda Szabó
translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
★★★★☆
NYRB Classics, 2015
originally published 1987

 

What a brilliant, infuriating, deeply perplexing book.  The Door centers on the relationship between two very different women – the protagonist who is a writer, and her housekeeper, an older woman named Emerence.  A clash of values between the two provides the main conflict for this tense and elusive story: Ali Smith writes in her brief introduction, “Their relationship transforms into one full of the barbed hostilities of love.”

Emerence – cold, strong, and fiercely, irrationally independent – is an unforgettable character, though she doesn’t feel like a real person as much as a construct; but a construct for what is the question.  While The Door reads almost like a twisted fable, it’s morally ambiguous to the extreme: both characters engage in destructive behavior and it’s difficult at times to discern who exactly you should be sympathizing with.  Emerence herself feels like a (very deliberately constructed) contradiction: she abhors organized religion but appears to be the embodiment of something almost divine – there’s also a question of her relationship to Hungary’s shifting cultural landscape that I think could benefit from a deep dive into the sociopolitical context of this historical period.

But though I found this book brilliant from start to finish, there was something I grew to dread about picking it up the closer I got to the end.  Like Emerence herself, this book is entirely devoid of warmth in a way that started to feel draining; this from someone who genuinely loves dark fiction.  I’m happy to have read it and am eager to read more from Szabó – and from Len Rix, who did a great job with the translation – but I can’t decide if this is the sort of book I’ll want to revisit in a few years or whether I’m sufficiently unsettled as to appreciate it from afar without attempting a reread to reengage.  Time will tell.


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

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!

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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.