Category: Reviews

Women in Translation Month 2021 Recommendations

August is Women in Translation month, or #WITmonth. Created and hosted by the tireless Meytal of Biblibio since 2014, and this year debuting a shiny new website, #WITmonth is just what it sounds like: a month celebrating women, transgender, and nonbinary authors who write in other languages. It’s also just a great way to discover books that are off the beaten path.

Due to unforeseen circumstances (my own poor planning), I will not be reading any women in translation this August. Deciding to read from the 1,001 Books list this summer was my first mistake. If you think the canon is bad for including women, wait until you see how many women writing in other languages there are! I’m not counting, but not many! So I will take this opportunity to hype the three qualifying books I read earlier this year.

  1. Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell: I’ve read all three of Schweblin’s books in English translation, and this may be an unpopular opinion, but I like Little Eyes the best. Fever Dream was a bit too vague for me, and Mouthful of Birds, like most story collections, suffered from unevenness. They were both a bit too showy with the magical realism as well. I’ve read a lot of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, so my expectations are pretty high on that front! But Little Eyes is the perfect blend of dystopia, speculative fiction, and character study. It’s also halfway between a novel and a story collection in a way that I found captivating. The premise, that a Furby-like toy could allow an anonymous person to watch your every move, lends itself to questions (would you try it? Would you be a keeper, who is watched, or a dweller, who watches?) and unexpected fallout for the keepers and dwellers we get to watch. This is as good as Margaret Atwood at her speculative best (and Schweblin doesn’t bristle *quite as much* at the genre label, though she doesn’t quite embrace it either).
  2. The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison: It’s been several months since I finished this International Booker Prize winner, and I don’t think I’ve processed it, so there’s not a lot I can say, except that it’s one of the most powerful and bleak books I’ve ever read. Though I am seeing several parallels to my current read, Independent People by Halldór Laxness. Both are centered on isolated farming families who are barely hanging on financially, and are then struck by losses both animal and human. Laxness’ story is from the perspective of the patriarch (thus far) while Rijneveld gives us a child narrator. Coming of age, and father-daughter relationships, are also central to both. I’ll think about this more once I finish Independent People, but in the meantime, I can’t recommend The Discomfort of Evening enough, though I do suggest you brace yourself.
  3. The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen, translation from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman: I know these are memoirs, but they read like a more direct and subversive version of Neopolitan Novels. Less flowery and lyrical than I expected from a celebrated poet, but full of perfect images and sentences, I flew through this book and desperately wanted more. Ditlevsen was a prolific writer, but there’s not a lot more out there in English. Hopefully, the success of this trilogy will spur publishers and translators to give us more.

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is #963 on the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. See the whole list and my progress here. This summer, I’m reading from the list for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, and instead of straight reviews, I’m going to compare the 1,001 Books write-ups with my own impressions.

Tristram Shandy is a tough book to summarize, let alone in the couple of paragraphs granted each 1,001 Books entry. Contributor Drew Milne makes a good attempt, touching on the absurdities of a book about “the life and opinions” of a man who isn’t even born until several volumes in, and the experimental nature of Sterne’s writing, which acknowledges the futility of trying to capture life on the page.

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Wise Children by Angela Carter

Wise Children is #173 on the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. See the whole list and my progress here. This summer, I’m reading from the list for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, and instead of straight reviews, I’m going to compare the 1,001 Books write-ups with my own impressions.

In a nice contrast with the first of these comparisons, I completely agree with 1,001 Books contributor Anna Foca that Wise Children is a “joyously exuberant unraveling of purity, legitimacy, and other cultural fantasies” and that it “gleefully documents the comic hybridizing forces of worlds colliding”. I honestly don’t know that I can put it better than that.

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The Fox by D.H. Lawrence

The Fox is #724 on the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. See the whole list and my progress here. This summer, I’m reading from the list for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, and instead of straight reviews, I’m going to compare the 1,001 Books write ups with my own impressions.

The Fox is a borderline novella, 86 pages in my wide-margined and illustrated edition. The 1,001 Books write-up begins by contrasting the length of this book with Lawrence’s major works, calling it “too brief and too self-contained” to include much more than plot. I can’t argue that it’s brief, though I would argue that there’s plenty of the “symbolism and mysticism” the reviewer found lacking, right where you’d expect it – the titular fox, who poaches chickens from two women running a small farm, is transposed onto the returning WWI solider who disrupts their solitary life:

“But to March he was the fox. Whether is was the thrusting forward of his head, or the glisten of the fine whitish hairs on the ruddy cheek-bones, or the bright, keen eyes, that can never be said: but the boy was to her the fox, and she could not see him otherwise.”

The Fox by D.H. Lawrence
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Calm with Horses by Colin Barrett / The Shadow of Violence (2020)

Acknowledgement: A series of DMs with Rachel of pace, amore, libri after my first viewing of the film in November, formed the basis of this post, and her claim that I’m a “fake fan” of Colin Barrett gave me the extra push I needed to sit down and write it. 

“The book is always better than the movie” is right up there with “life’s too short to read books you don’t like” when it comes to embarrassing bookish sayings. The latter is subjective, but the former is asserted as a universally-acknowledged truth. The main gripe with film adaptations of beloved books is that they aren’t scene-for-scene re-creations, but why should they be? Different media, different techniques, and often, different audiences.

And in fact, several movies ARE better than the books, particularly when the plot is the point. A plot-heavy, thrilling story is often better told in a visual, fast-moving format. Like, say, Jurassic Park or The Bourne Identity? This isn’t a hill for me to die on, as I don’t read many thrillers (I’ve read neither of the above, I’ve just heard that Jurassic Park the novel is bad, and can’t imagine Bourne without Matt Damon), but it makes intuitive sense that some movies are better than the books upon which they’re based.

THAT SAID.

One of the most thrilling stories I’ve read in recent years was adapted into a movie last year, and while the movie is enjoyable, I urge you to read the book, whether before the movie, after, or even instead of. 

“Calm with Horses” is a novella among short stories in Colin Barrett’s collection Young Skins. About 80 pages long, it reads like a novel, in that it’s a fully contained universe. It’s also a tightly-plotted story full of violence and reversals of fortune that seems ripe for a movie adaptation. The movie is, well, different. Upon first viewing, I told Rachel this felt like a different story with the same characters. After a second viewing, it feels like different characters in the same circumstances; the story takes a different turn because the characters react to those circumstances differently.

I didn’t read the book or film summary before starting this review, but they actually illuminate a lot of what went wrong in the adaptation. The book summary tell us about “Arm, a young and desperate criminal whose destiny is shaped when he and his partner, Dympna, fail to carry out a job” and, referring to the collection as a whole, the “local voice [that] delineates the grittiness of Irish society; unforgettable characters whose psychological complexities and unspoken yearnings are rendered through silence, humor, and violence.” In contrast, the movie tells us that “ex-boxer Douglas `Arm’ Armstrong has become the feared enforcer for the drug-dealing Devers family, whilst also trying to be a good father to his autistic five-year-old son, Jack.” It’s that “trying to be a good father” that already tells us there’s going to fewer “psychological complexities” and believe me, everyone’s yearnings are spoken. 

The first bad sign I became aware of was the title change for the North American market. “Calm with Horses” has that “cellar door” quality, it just feels good to say. “The Shadow of Violence” on the other hand, sounds like a generic crime movie. Which this is not. Or shouldn’t be. Even the movie posters have a distinctly different feel:

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The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore for #BrianMoore100

This event is being hosted by Cathy of 746 Books, who is known for celebrating all things literary and Irish. Moore’s Irish connections are always jarring to me, as he’s well known as a Canadian author here. In reality, he was a wanderer, living in many places in Europe and North America, and spent more time in the United States than anywhere. So I guess it’s not that odd that I read a “New Canadian Library” edition of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a book about Ireland, with an afterword by Australian writer Janette Turner Hospital. Actually, Hospital lived in Ontario for thirty years, later moving to the States, sharing a claim on Canadian identity and a nomadic spirit with Moore.

Hospital uses that connection, and familiarity with being “from away”, to bring forth themes of displacement in her brief afterword to this edition. Miss Hearne lives a very circumscribed life in Belfast, but Hospital shows us that she actually goes on an epic journey, including romance, hope, dashed expectations, and a crisis of faith. The afterword was illuminating, but to me the more interesting themes were those of hunger, desire, and rage – or, you know, passion – and specifically the rage of the middle aged woman. These themes reminded me of Jean Rhys’s writing, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that the same editor who shepherded Wide Sargasso Sea into the world, Diana Athill, was a champion of this book.

Miss Hearne’s dreary bedsit put me in mind of Good Morning, Midnight‘s heroine Sasha’s awful hotel rooms. Both characters are without family, of little means, near starving, drink to excess and fall prey to depraved men. If anything, Sasha had less hope than Miss Hearne, lacking an object for her anger (other than herself), with no church to storm and no one to ask for forgiveness. Sasha had only lately fallen on hard times, while Miss Hearne had been sidelined her whole life, first by her tyrannical Aunt, and then by poverty. In The Lonely Passion, we see a woman who has been made invisible her whole life finally demand to be seen.

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Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession

I didn’t plan to read this book for Reading Ireland Month 2021, it just worked out that way. I might even squeak in during the appropriate week, as March 1st through 7th is dedicated to Contemporary Irish Novels. Which this certainly is. Though it didn’t feel that way while reading; it seemed rather timeless and placeless. I can’t tell if Leonard and Hungry Paul live in a big city or a small town, let alone whether they actually live in Ireland or in the UK. References to “lollipop ladies” and “sweets” only give me a very general idea, geographically. Leonard’s open-concept workplace feels pretty urban, but then, the Chamber of Commerce holding a contest is a big event that everyone’s talking about, which feels painfully small-town. As for contemporariness, the contest in question involves inventing a new way to sign off emails, so we’re squarely in the 21st century, and people have phones, but no one spends much time online. And I suspect that guys like Leonard and Hungry Paul would probably be at least somewhat, if not Extremely, Online.

Or perhaps not. Leonard and Hungry Paul are, to varying degrees, operating outside of society. So perhaps it makes sense that we don’t know exactly where and when they are situated, as they probably don’t feel too grounded in their particular time and place either. The plot, such as it is, follows the thirty-something friends as they make tentative steps into society, one in the expected way (a new romance) and one… not (it involves mimes).

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A tale of two dinner parties

Well, one dinner party and one “dinner thing.”

I’m suseptable to seeing tenous connections and patterns in books. I succumbed to this impulse over the summer, drawing conclusions about Paul Beatty’s influences that are not borne out in reality, and I fear I’m about to do it again. Except for one blazing detail, that makes me think I must be right, but I’ll leave that for last…

In Real Life, Brandon Taylor tells the story of Wallace, a Black grad student at an unnamed, mostly-white school that is understood to be the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Wallace’s regular weekend routine of lab work, tennis, and angst is interupted by a last minute invite to a dinner “thing”, which starts out benign enough but soon Wallace finds himself under attack by his so-called friends. The dinner party is the central scene in the novel, and is much celebrated by Taylor’s contemporaries as, well, real, and necessary.

I found it overly dramatic on first read. But then I read Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner and wondered whether his late-1930s alcohol-soaked dinner party scene wasn’t the model for Taylor’s 2010s vegan hispter potluck, and if Taylor wasn’t responding directly to it.

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Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano – International Booker Prize review

The story of how Emmanuelle Pagano’s 340-page French short story collection, Un renard à mains nues, became the 128-page International Booker Prize nominated English collection Faces on the Tip of My Tongue is almost as interesting as the stories themselves. Peirene Press, the English publisher, exclusively offers books that can be read “in the same time it takes to watch a film,” so Un renard needed to be drastically shortened. Translators Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins narrowed down the stories to those that best conveyed the themes, then divvied them up, translating alone before trading drafts back and forth and critiquing each other’s work.

The result is a charming, disorienting, tightly connected collection that literally does something that many a novel tries to metaphorically do: forces the reader to consider different perspectives.

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Short Story Advent Calendar 2019: short reviews

Daily videos were great for a couple of years, but that’s gone out the window, so let’s catch up on the Short Story Advent Calendar with a few short reviews. It’s been a pretty good #ssac2019 so far, with a mix of old and new; and traditional and weird.

Day 1: Shelley Oria, “Beginnings”
A song about the end of a relationship that was doomed from the beginning(s). Reminded me of the Feist song “Let it Die”, which you’ll recall as a Seth/Summer song from The O.C., right?

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