Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"What else can we add?" | Some thoughts about women in translation and publishing

I want to preface this post by emphasizing that my criticism of publishers having a poor record when it comes to women writers in translation is only about that. This post is not meant to serve as a general "shame"-post, nor is it meant to incite much more anger than the initial statistics did. The reason I have chosen to write this out as a post at all is because I felt that I would not be able to be fully expressive (and fair) in whatever comments I might put up on Twitter. And I thought that the issue was a serious enough one to justify giving it its space.

The introduction is simple: P. T. Smith tweeted about publisher willingness to talk about and improve on matters regarding women writers in translation. I noted that the positive behavior is very publisher-specific, and that there are some who are better than others, to which P. T. Smith named and tagged a few good ones, and named and tagged Dalkey Archive as one of the "less hot" publishing houses. The full thread can be found here (posted with consent; since Dalkey is not an individual person rather a public entity, I see no need in gaining their consent to re-share their public tweets).

A few hours later, the Dalkey twitter account went active and responded with a barrage of tweets:

The tweets mostly sought to list women writers in translation Dalkey are going to publish, but there were two points in reading these that I had to stop. And stop myself from responding too harshly too quickly. This list is really, really wonderful in that it shows that Dalkey Archive will be publishing women writers in translation in 2015-2016. Compared to the jaw-dropping 0% of 2014, I think we can all recognize this (with absolutely no cynicism) as a step forward. But there's a lot, a lot more here that Dalkey has not yet addressed. They end their barrage with the rather snark-tinged question: "What else can we add?" And so, Dalkey Archive, in all seriousness, here's what:

As far as I have been able to tell and certainly in response to my own inquiries in 2014, Dalkey Archive has never once made a public statement regarding women writers in translation and why their publishing house consistently falls well behind the already-low translation average for women writers. 2014 was a shocking anomaly, but it's not alone. My 2013 statistics found them at a solid 24%, when the overall average was 28% (and recall that Dalkey was the leading publisher of translated literature in 2013 by a comfortable margin).

And so simply publishing the names of women writers Dalkey plans to publish is not merely not enough, it's meaningless. Are these all of their women writers for 2015-2016? If so, we're right back to the beginning with atrocious ratios... At this stage, we are working largely from percentage-based work. Amounts are wonderful - yes, truly wonderful that each and every one of these books will be published! - but they do little to address the fact that for every woman writer it publishes, Dalkey by and large publishes 5-6 more books by men (from the years I've counted, at least, and most likely worse statistics the further back we go).

Furthermore, one tweet touts fairly balanced Best European Fiction anthologies. While I do not have the statistics in front of me, my recollection was that the 2013/4 anthologies were at around 40% when it included the English-written stories. Perhaps I am doing Dalkey a great injustice by quoting merely from my unreliable memory (and I strongly encourage anyone with access to the book to fact-check me because I absolutely do not want to spread false and hurtful claims), but I recall specifically noting that Dalkey had included an interesting array of English-written stories by women writers, and then had a similar 30% stumble when it came to the translations. I will happily correct this notion if it turns out to be wrong. I will point out that the other Dalkey anthology I've encountered (Georgian literature) had a solid 25% women writer representation rate.

The main point is this: Dalkey Archive has a pattern of publishing significantly fewer women writers in translation than men. And it has a bad track record when it comes to addressing the problem. Merely pointing to your upcoming women writers does not explain how you went an entire year without publishing a single work by a woman writer in translation. Listing writers does not tell us what their percentage is within the larger body of your publications. It does not change the pattern, and it explicitly refuses to address the problem in the way that other publishers have daringly done.

"What else can we add?" Well, answers to these questions. Clear statements regarding Dalkey Archive's future efforts to reach gender parity in publishing (I hope). Explicit publication lists with transparency regarding the gender breakdown and ratios. Explanations for 2014. Perhaps even public explanations for why women writers have until now been so marginalized.

"What else can we add?" Let's start here.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

WITMonth Prep | The Classics Challenge | Part 1

As promised, here is the first installment in my potential titles for the Classics challenge in this year's Women in Translation Month! These lists will unfortunately be very scattered and disorganized, with no consistency in terms of list-building and of course extremely limited to what is available in English. There are hundreds more works of classic literature that have simply never been translated. I'm still trying to collect as many potential titles as possible, so these lists will inevitably be messy in terms of language, era and genre. I also cannot necessarily vouch for the titles on these lists in terms of quality and/or content, as I have only read a handful...

Happy WITMonth planning!

Note: Titles in bold are readily available and are in print (in English). Translator names were not included in order to prevent any confusion as regards specific editions.
  • The Tale of Genji (c. 11th century) - Murasaki Shikibu - Japanese
  • The Diary of the Lady Murasaki (c. 11th century) - Murasaki Shikibu - Japanese
  • The Pillow Book (1002) - Sei Shōnagon - Japanese
  • Dark Soliloquy: The Selected Poems of Gertrud Kolmar (c. 1920-40s) - Gertrud Kolmar - German
  • A Jewish Mother from Berlin; Susanna (c. 1930s-1940s) - Gertrud Kolmar - German
  • The Princess of Cleves (1678) - Madame de Lafayette - French
  • The Nobleman and Other Romances (c. 18th century) - Isabelle de Charrière - French
  • The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) - Christine de Pizan - French
  • Brocade River Poems: Selected Works of the Tang Dynasty Courtesan (c. 9th century) - Xue Tao - Chinese
  • The Clouds Float North: The Complete Poems of Yu Xuanji (c. 9th century) - Yu Xuanji - Chinese
  • Complete Poems (c. 12th century) - Ching-Chao Li (Li Qingzhao) - Chinese
  • The Alexiad (c. 1148) - Anna Komnene - Attic Greek
  • Parvin E'tesami: Life and Poetry (c. 20th century) - Parvin E'tesami - Persian
  • Ruba'iyat of Mahsati (c. 12th century) - Mahsati - Persian
A few collections which include works by classic women in translation:
  • Women Poets of Japan - ed. Ikuko Atsumi and Kenneth Rexroth
  • Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism - ed. Kang-i Sun Chang, Huan Saussy
And this is just the start! Many, many, many more titles to come. Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments and let the WITMonth preparations begin!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Ways to participate in WITMonth 2015 | Video

Hi everyone! I thought it might be nice to organize some ideas for the August 2015 Women in Translation Month! Reminder: There are ZERO requirements or expectations. Even sharing the information or thinking about the issue is a lot. It would be amazing to see more readers, bloggers, vloggers, booksellers, publishers, translators and everyone involved in WITMonth. So please SHARE the video and the stats, and let's make WITMonth 2015 an event for the ages! :)

Check out other useful WITMonth resources here on the blog, under the "women in translation" tag! 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

WITMonth 2015 Intro Post: FAQs and helpful references

What is WITMonth?

WITMonth stands for Women In Translation Month! It's an annual event held in August, with the designated purpose of encouraging readers, reviewers, translators and anyone really to take part in the dialogue about women writers in translation, as well as providing us all with a convenient outlet to explore more books by women writers in translation.

Why do we even need WITMonth?

Simple - look at the stats. Women writers represent approximately 30% of translations into English. And if you don't mind me throwing in some anecdotal evidence as well, women writers in translation seem significantly less likely to get profiled by major literary outlets and are less likely to have their books sent for review. Further numerical stats: women are significantly underrepresented in translation awards and additional critical recognition. The problem is widespread and especially worth noting because of the generally low representation of translated literature in the English speaking world.

So what does it mean that I'm participating in WITMonth?

Whatever you want it to mean!

Seriously. That's it. WITMonth requires no effort on your part, except maybe some curiosity and interest in the problem. If you're like me and struggle to plan your reading or follow any sort of plan, having a designated month may seem like torture but it really doesn't have to be. There is no pressure whatsoever involved with WITMonth, and there are no actual demands. Do what you want at the pace that you want in the way that works best for you.

Okay then... what are some different ways to participate?

Here are a few suggestions, with varying levels of involvement and difficulty:
  • Share! Let other people know that you are aware of the women in translation problem. Share the stats, share this post and share the love!
  • Tweet! The hashtag is #WITMonth (original, right?) but yearlong we use the longer #womenintranslation tag to discuss the issue and link to interesting resources. Check it out!
  • Think about the issue. This is probably the easiest. If you're reading this post in August, congratulations! You're participating.
  • Read at least one book by a woman writer in translation. It'll be fun, there are a lot of brilliant recommendations.
  • Read only books by women writers in translation. If you want to be extra focused, you can say that in August, you're only reading books by women writers in translation. This is a tougher challenge, but a rewarding one: you may be inspired to pick up a book you weren't expecting. I know I was (in 2014).
  • Read books by women in translation written before 1960. Go back in time! Contrary to popular belief, non-English or American women did indeed write literature prior to the 1960s and the Feminist Revolution. There's a lot of fascinating literature out there, ready to be explored and rediscovered. In fact, some of the best classic literature was written by women writing in languages other than English. The first novel? Yep, that's a woman in translation.
  • Read books by women of diverse backgrounds. Don't get me wrong, Europe is great, but what about the rest of the world, which is also less represented in translations? What about queer women writers, whose identities are often ignored or outright erased? Diversity has many forms, and this is another extra challenge to try to explore it in as many different ways as possible!
  • Put the button on your blog, to show your support and participation:
  • Read books by women in translation in different genres. Yes, literature in translation is usually of a similar, more "literary" cut... but it doesn't have to be. Another fun challenge is to try to explore the women writing in different genres. Young adult, thrillers, sci-fi, picture books, romance, poetry, nonfiction... there's loads of diversity of genre if you know where to look...

Ahhh! Where do I look for books by women in translation?!

While this is still a work-in-progress database (and yes, you can help make it better), it's got loads and loads of titles just waiting to be tracked down. While the overwhelming majority of the metadata has not yet been filled in, you can still search for language and author for all titles. And for the few that might have some metadata, you may just find the perfect book!

Now what?

Remember how we started WITMonth? The most important thing to remember here is that we are facing a battle of awareness. Despite many people's good intentions, most readers do not realize how few titles are translated per year into English. Certainly very few are aware of the huge imbalance between publications of women vs men in translations. And so now - armed with all the knowledge on WITMonth you could possibly need - you are ready to go out and do the absolutely only thing that needs to be done: use this knowledge. Share this with other readers, so that more people can recognize this problem. Use it in the bookstore, when looking for your next translated read. Talk about in the industry, where perhaps more publishers may try to improve their publication stats. 

And read. And most importantly... enjoy!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Women in Translation | The grim improvement of 2014

It would be wonderful if when I ran the statistics on women in translation, I looked only at the raw percentage. I could come and point to the slight increase - from 28% to 31% - and say that there's been an increase. There's been an increase! Excellent! Let's pack up and go home, we're done here, right?

Well... no.

It should be fairly obvious actually. A 3% increase is fairly pathetic. I don't particularly consider it to be a significant change, considering how fluid these things are. One tiny uptick does not yet qualify a trend, and it's worth digging a little deeper into the numbers before we start to celebrate. So let's dig deeper. Warning: I will try to remain objective in this post, but I'm not going to pretend that there aren't problems where they exist.

As always, statistics were taken from the excellent Three Percent database. I'll also point out that another batch of statistics was recently released at womenintranslation.tumblr.com. Our calculations were completely uncoordinated, so take that as further proof of the existing problem. Oddly enough, we seem to have reached different calculations for many fields... I expect I used an outdated database but the percentages largely stand. I also find their charts to be less intuitive and comfortable, so I'll be posting my data regardless. Check it out though. It's grim.

I find it very interesting that women are better represented in poetry than fiction. I don't have an explanation for it, but it's interesting and worth noting, especially given (false) assumptions that women are more likely to write "thrillers" and "Genre fiction".

Some of you may recognize this graphic from Twitter, which I posted a while back. This looks at the top six translated languages, and the gender breakdown. As you can see, the "other cultures" excuse that is so loved by denialists is moot. Essentially, we see that the lack of women writers starts at the top and continues on down (evidenced by the complete language chart below, which sadly is much less visually clear but paints the picture quite well). A country like France does not for a moment lack women writers (and yes, France is the overwhelming source of books translated from French), yet it fails miserably at translating them. Is the problem really in French? Or is the problem in our translations into English?

As we can see, the overwhelming majority of languages have a male-majority translation rate. Even the usually gender-balanced Scandinavian countries suddenly have gender imbalances (Finland excepted). Again we're forced to ask ourselves whether the problem is abroad in other languages, where "women are perhaps not writing" or whether the problem is in the English-speaking world which devalues those books which women are writing and just aren't having translated.

Here we have the top publishers (published 10 or more books in translation in 2014), numerically. This chart is important alongside the next, but I want to look at it harshly for a moment. Note that the top publisher of literature in translation - AmazonCrossing aka The Devil Itself - crosses the halfway mark for women. Of the top publishers, AmazonCrossing is the only publisher to pass the 50%, with Atria the only other one to reach it at all. And note that the second highest publisher of literature in translation - Dalkey Archive - published a stunning grand total of zero books by women writers in translation. Quite frankly, we could leave the chart with just those two stacks and dust off our hands.

Chart arranged from most books published to least, with at least 6 translated titles in 2014

But now let's look at the percentages. Percentage-wise only, we see only three publishers reach/pass the equality mark. Four managed not to publish any books by women writers at all. And another eight published only one book. Taking into account only the top publishers, we see that the translation rates suddenly shift down drastically. Instead of that initial 31%, we get 27%. Uh-oh.

So what do these results even tell us? What did we get from all this supposedly pointless number crunching?


Like last year, we see that the spread of languages indicates a problem here at home rather than in the countries of origin. Like last year, we see that the problem is very publisher specific, with some publishers striving to make improvements and others distinctly not. We see that same ~28% number everywhere - awards and translations and reviews. And from the results that the Women In Translation Tumblr posted, we see that the myth of "women translators dominating the field" is just that - a myth. The Tumblr found that women actually made up just under 50% of translators. Hmmmm. It's almost as though women are perceived to "dominate" in fields even when they don't, and this is used against them...

And now the million-dollar question... what do we do?

As readers, there's a lot. First and foremost, I highly recommend taking part in the conversation. Looking at your personal reading trends. Challenging yourself as to why you picked this book over another. Challenging publishers. Questioning, checking, thinking and being aware. That's the first step, before anything else. Before you even begin to read or buy books, just ask yourself these questions.

Second: Take part in the Women in Translation Month. Yes, shameless self-promotion! Spread the word and make WITMonth a major part of the discussion. One of the biggest problems the fight for equality in literary translations has at this time is how utterly spread out it is and uncoordinated. We've got lots of different passionate people who are completely unaware of the fact that others are fighting the same fight. Let's find each other, and we can only do that through the help of the hivemind internet. Let's work together. Let's localize and give ourselves this organized space to discuss and move forward. The idea of WITMonth - far beyond just reading books by women writers in translation - is to spread the word about the specific problem of the lack of women writers in translation. So let's help fix that.

Third: Help build the Women in Translation Database! This bigger project is meant to make it easier to find books by women writers in translation, so that we're able to at least offset decades of completely unbalanced publication rates and erasure. There are many different ways to help the database: if you're wondering how to help, feel free to contact me through any of the acceptable means (email, Twitter).

Fourth: Make the change yourself. If you're a publisher or a translator or someone involved in the industry, look at these numbers. Look at the numbers over at the Women In Translation Tumblr. Look at them again and again and ask yourself what you can be doing to fix it. It's a complicated question, and I'm afraid I can't think of any easy answers (because no, I don't think that quotas are necessarily the way to go). But the moment you start to think about it, you start to fix the problem. And that's a huge first step that we need to take, readers and industry-folk alike.

Fifth: Spread the word.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Announcing WITMonth 2015!

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, the weather is getting extremely and unbearably hot (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere)... must be time to announce Women in Translation Month, 2015 Edition!
Like last year, WITMonth 2015 (still #WITMonth for those following on Twitter, mostly because it seems easier) will be taking place in August. This gives us three full months to prepare.

This year's goals:
Last year I noted that while it was incredible to see so many reviews, the books were largely very popular recent releases. I proposed - and now make official - a trickier challenge: reading older titles and less-known gems. I've been compiling (and will soon publish) a list of potential titles (with publications from the 11th century and on!), and definitely encourage readers to explore some of these older titles a bit more. The challenge will be to read books written before 1960. Obviously these will be harder to track down and likely not to everyone's taste. If this challenge isn't to your taste, feel free simply to focus on women writers in translation. 

Another one of my personal goals last year was to broaden my general horizons. While I try to maintain diversity in my reading overall (so that I'm not simply reading books from France or Scandinavia), there are areas in which I could be doing better. As with last year, I strongly encourage readers to look beyond Europe. More so, I found it extremely difficult last year to locate titles by queer women writers in translation. My hope is to find a few titles/authors to showcase this year, though at this stage it's unclear which books precisely this will be. I'm open to suggestions.

Like last year, this is a very, very open challenge. The idea is not to force yourself to read books you're not interested in, rather it's to give voice to so many women writers who perhaps get lost in the male-dominated field. Explore and experiment, read and delight. If you find yourself struggling with the challenges... don't do them. If you find yourself too busy to read any books by women writers in translation... it's fine, just join the discussion. This is a no-pressure event.

Finally: The final 2014 Women in Translation Tally will be published in the coming days. I've spent a lot longer on it this year for a number of reasons which will be mapped out in the post itself, but suffice to say that despite growing interest in reading more women writers, there's still a long way to go in terms of the actual publication statistics. And this is the reason I find WITMonth to be so important: while of course we ought to be reading women writers in translation throughout the year, the difficulty in finding many of these titles is genuine, as is the general lack of availability. As long as such a striking imbalance exists, I will continue to encourage readers to take up this mantle every August. If only for a month to raise awareness and foster a discussion. And read lots of excellent literature, of course.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Nun & Sky Burial | Two minireviews

The Nun - Simonetta Agnello Hornby
This is a weird novel to review. Simonetta Agnello Hornby's The Nun (tr. Antony Shugaar) is an odd, somewhat imbalanced, generally entertaining novel that disappointed me somewhat in its ending and in little failures throughout. The writing was solid and the main character Agata was extraordinarily alive, but there was something... off about the book.

First of all, I'll note that in terms of basic readability, The Nun passes: the moment Agata is so sympathetic (despite... not actually being a sympathetic) is the moment the reader remains hooked. Because The Nun is a novel that very much tells of Agata's growth (or lack thereof), her rebellion and struggles and traumas and dreams. Agata is interesting largely because she's complex: her initial dreams are sweetly young, but there's a bitter aftertaste of her persistent stubbornness, even in areas where she could have perhaps acted differently (especially later in the book, where her motives dissolve into a strange mess of "why is this happening?").

The Nun is all about Agata: forced into a convent by her mother in a bizarre game of politics and personal spite. Both of these factors come into play throughout the book: Agata is constantly seeking approval from her mother (despite recognizing her spite), and constantly stumbling through the political mechanics of the period. The politics frame the story interestingly, but never quite pan out, and I often found myself baffled by the lightness with which Agnello Hornby treated many of these issues (that is: she did not develop them nearly enough).

Finally, the book has a series of love stories at its heart. Truthfully, none of these stories particularly worked for me, and I would have been happier with a technically "colder" book, but with the same sharpness of mind that Agata was given. Oh well.

Sky Burial - Xinran
So... Sky Burial (tr. Julia Lovell) is just a weird book. There's a level on which I absolutely understand the mass appeal (touching story, foreigner's view of a different culture, sparse language), but I also could not (could not) reconcile the genres. Was the nonfiction? Fiction? Fictionalized reality? Something else entirely?!

The story is ostensibly that of a young Chinese woman who goes to find her husband, presumed dead in Tibet. What follows is her journey through Tibet as she searches for him, getting lost multiple times and finding home with different nomads. As befits this premise, the ending is uplifting (sort of?), inspiring (ish) and meant to convey a powerful statement about love (yeah, actually).

If I sound deeply cynical, it's because I am. The story reminded me of a lot of survival stories I read as a child (specifically, Julie of the Wolves, and I'll explain further in a moment), with the same sort of saccharine appreciation of the exotic culture our narrator is suddenly cast into. As a novel of Tibet, I found myself less enlightened than confused, often wishing I had a more direct (and firsthand) narration of the experience. Xinran is writing for our narrator, who is elderly and I seriously doubt was able to remember so many extremely specific details (hence my skepticism as regards the definition of this as "fiction" versus "non"), and herself relaying a lot of secondhand information. My head hurt from all the retellings.

So why the cynicism? Ultimately, Tibetan culture is expounded upon just as much as wolf behavior was in Julie of the Wolves. Our narrator is still "The Human" and has a purpose in life that is completely separate from the "Other" nomadic group "The Human" is traveling with. It felt... wrong. Less believable, less representative.

I should point out that the book is still very interesting and informative, even if largely through native Chinese eyes. It's a fairly quick read, and probably a fair starting point for literature about Tibet (I hesitate to call it "Tibetan literature" for the obvious reasons). It's not exactly a bad book, but its memory faded somewhat unpleasantly in mind in the weeks after reading it.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Women in Translation Database - Update and Plea


A few months ago, I posted a general call-to-arms/plea-for-help as regards the Women in Translation database. Many of you have by now likely noticed that the database currently online is both woefully out of date and dreadfully lacking in metadata. This is something I've been striving to change, though unfortunately I have found it difficult to work according to my originally planned timetable (obviously). I have also found that the work is virtually impossible to do alone.

I have asked a number of times for help on Twitter (and thankfully received it on occasion), but the problem with Twitter is that it doesn't show the whole story. And the whole story is actually quite simple in this case: I'm a bit swamped with school and music responsibilities (reminder: I am in a band, reminder: we released our first EP at the start of the year, reminder: I am shameless in advertising myself). I literally cannot go through over 1400 titles in the database and fill in the metadata for all of them by myself. It's the definition of "too much".

Most of the column options are fairly simple. All the titles currently in the database include the basic author-title (obviously), almost all titles have the language from which the book was translated (a rare handful have unclear original languages) and a couple dozen have full metadata. The metadata options are where it gets a bit more complicated: readers are encouraged to identify the "genre" to which the book belongs. There are two genre options, and both are fairly flexible - at the end of the day, I will go through them just for the sake of consistency.

The idea of the database is to make finding books by women in translation a little easier. The idea of the metadata is to help readers. And so genre is geared with the idea that someone seeking out romance books will be able to find them. Someone seeking sci-fi will be able to find it. Someone seeking books by Chinese women writers will be able to find them. Someone seeking books by a specific indie press will be able to find them.

Here's what I need you to do: Look at your bookshelves. Find your books by women in translation. Fill out the available metadata (US/UK distinctions are obviously a lower priority). And then pick 5-10 additional books or authors to "research" and fill in the metadata. One person alone cannot fill in close to 1500 titles. But if 150 people fill in the metadata for 10 books, we're done. Encourage publishers to add whatever books may still be missing from the database with their direct details. Encourage translators to point us to the works they've translated by women writers.

The purpose of this project is to serve the broader literary community. This is meant to be helpful to any and all readers who want to find diverse writing by women, from whichever angle. As long as women writers are so poorly represented (particularly in backlog titles), it's simply difficult to find their books. And so this database is here to help.

Please spread the word and help in whatever way you can!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Goldfinch | Review

This is a difficult review to write because I feel that The Goldfinch was so far from either the book I expected from positive reviews, and so far from the book I expected from criticism. I found a book that was complex in my own response to it - I may have read it quickly and avidly and very... deeply, but I cannot claim that I liked the book. Overall, I distinctly didn't.

The problem with reviewing The Goldfinch so many months after its publication and sweeping adoration and imminent backlash is that it no longer feels relevant. Is Donna Tartt the "new Dickens"? Is The Goldfinch a stunning work of modern literature, or an overblown mess? Is this quality literature, or pedestrian writing neatly wrapped?

These honestly aren't questions that interest me.

I want instead to discuss how The Goldfinch is essentially four or so books in one. The first is my favorite, and one I actively liked: a novel of a young boy in the aftermath of his mother's death as he tries to maneuver his own emotional turmoil and that of the family who takes him in. This first novel is the story that opens The Goldfinch, and I really enjoyed it. We meet Theo, we get swept up in his drama and follow his lost narrative. It's not the most original story, but Tartt writes it well and I found myself truly feeling for Theo. I liked his agency and I liked the high-style language (which completely did not fit the voice of the narrator himself, of course, but there was something so deliberate about it that it  worked well). As a starter story, it's brilliant - it hooked me and kept up momentum for the rest of the (disappointing) book.

This book ends with little closure, and Theo is instead launched into another part of his life. And from that moment, I felt my dislike of the book settling and I felt myself growing more and more uncomfortable with the narrative.

Remember in my review of Americanah I mentioned that I found myself very disappointed by the use of a specific trope which I especially hate? So The Goldfinch takes another of my most hated storytelling pet peeves, and lives it in full: drug use. Now, to be clear: a lot of The Goldfinch deals directly with drug use. It doesn't show drug use as something without consequence or without hardship, and it doesn't just raise the topic without delving into it. Drug use is a recurring and persistent theme in the novel, one that is furthermore often linked to the artistic theme, if obliquely.

And so yes, Tartt does not merely raise drug use, Tartt seeps her novel in it. And truthfully, the loving tone with which Tartt refers to this copious drug use really disturbed me. If there's one thing that frustrates me in modern culture, it's the absolute normalization of drug use in society. Reading a novel in which drug use is so gently caressed made me wholly uncomfortable. Sue me, I have personal preferences. And these personal preferences colored much of my further appreciation of the novel.

But let me turn back to the separate books. So we have Theo's coming of age spread out across two different books, and then his strange "return to childhood" book (which I frankly found more interesting than his dull and frankly overwritten teenage years). But then the final book... is a total mess. Tartt switches gears quite abruptly at the novel's end, and it suddenly becomes something of a thriller. But it's a pretty poor thriller - I found myself skimming sections which were far too long and deeply descriptive without actually telling me anything new. The Goldfinch thus ends whimpering when it's trying to be bold and decisive, simply because it tries to make a shift into something that just doesn't work. Not that it really could have ended otherwise: the entire novel does feel like a build-up to something. I just didn't expect the something to be so dulled.

There's another thing I feel needs mentioning, as complex an issue as it may be: Tartt's treatment of women. This is something that I've struggled to put into words, but here it is: The Goldfinch writes women poorly, flatly, or not at all. As I was thinking about how to write this review, I found myself imagining words like "masculine" and "male-oriented". The "masculine" term is the more complex of the two (because it's harder to define), but it occurred to me that there is hardly any woman-to-woman interaction in the novel. The book centers around a young man, true, but it centers around him in a way that all but erases women into flat tropes: there's the obvious fridging of his mother, the later treatment of his one-time foster mother, the treatment of his father's girlfriend, the romanticization of Theo's "love", the descriptions of his fiancee as an ice-queen, who gets little agency to prove herself...

And suddenly I had the unpleasant (and frankly unfair) thought that The Goldfinch is so well-regarded because Donna Tartt has written the ultimate "white male novelist" book - full of disaffected men, one-dimensional women, drug use, cigarettes used as mood setters and a brooding young man (from New York, no less!) who is swept up in a story that's much larger than him.

That was when I realized the depths to which I was unhappy with The Goldfinch. Here's a novel that's been touted as this brilliant masterpiece by a woman, yet it's no different than dozens of other similar books (except perhaps in length, where it... trumps). The artistic angle that The Goldfinch claims to come from simply never materializes on the level it deserves. What's left is... meh. Maybe these are connections I'm not allowed to make, but that's where I am right now. I see a familiar novel in place of a revolutionary one, and it's not even a novel I particularly enjoy.

I do want to give Tartt credit where credit is due: I was rightly swept up in The Goldfinch, and the writing is largely top-notch. I'm quite curious now as to whether Tartt's previous works are actually worthwhile, or if they're similarly trapped in familiar tropes and stylings. I sort of understand why many readers enjoyed The Goldfinch as much as they did, and I absolutely understand why many award outlets flung their seal of approval at the book. But I didn't like the book. Not wholly, not as a complete novel. Aspects? Brilliant. Certain pages or observations or descriptive passages? Possibly even genius. A novel on the whole? Nope. Nope nope nope.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Americanah | Review

I'll start by saying that until page, oh, 400 (out of 477), this review was going to be overwhelmingly positive. There's a lot, a lot, a lot to appreciate in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's most recent novel Americanah, particularly for someone like me who has shuffled between the US and the not-US my whole life. Questions of race, racial identity and cultural identity resonated with me quite strongly (racial aspects perhaps less so, but the concept of "race issues" not existing outside the US, or not existing the way many within the US assume it to exist is one I've discussed at length in recent years), as did the entire discussion of how to return to a home that is no longer a home.

I won't get into details as to what happened after page 400. It's not exactly a spoiler - the book leads very heavily towards this - but I really don't want to discuss it regardless. What I'll say is that Americanah careened into one of my all-time literary pet peeves, without critiquing it as it should have. And suddenly I was able to recognize that this issue had actually come up several times throughout the book. This made my appreciation of the end... not amazing. I was disappointed, I finished the book with a whimper and not a bang, and found myself wishing, desperately, that Adichie could have been as brave with this issue as she was with others.

But let's get back to what this review was supposed to be: a discussion of why Americanah is a brilliant book for foreigners and expats and others.

Most reviews I've read have discussed where Americanah is brave in its presentation of race. And I'll say... yes. It's a pretty audacious book, when you think about it. Adichie is a non-American-black (NAB, as she calls it) writing about Ifemelu, a NAB, who writes about what it's like to be black in a society that has a heck of a lot more racial issues than it's capable of recognizing. There are multiple levels of meta in Americanah, not least within the blog posts integrated throughout Ifemelu's narrative sections. Ifemelu's blogs deal largely with race and racial disparities between African American and, shall we say, American Africans, as well as general racial observations.

Ifemelu's writing will be fairly familiar to anyone who reads feminist blogs, or black-feminist blogs, or even just blogs about racial issues (though the feminist side comes through fairly strongly, which I obviously was thrilled about). Writing like this, by itself, in a clearly elevated status without further discussion, would have frustrated me, but Adichie is more intelligent than that: though Ifemelu is clearly our protagonist and our enlightened outside observer (the one constantly critiquing narrow-minded aspects of Anglo-American racial perspectives), there is enough of an understanding that Ifemelu too has her biases and observations. Ifemelu's blog posts aren't entirely good criticism, and they're not necessarily 100% right (her own ideas evolve enough throughout the book to make that abundantly clear), but they're the closest thing we get. In that sense, Americanah forces the reader (whoever it may be - white, black, Anglo, foreigner, other) to reach their own conclusions and read more deeply. It's a wonderfully complex and thought-provoking book.

But to be honest, I'd rather spend a few more moments talking about the "outsider effect", and why having a book written by a non-American written for an audience that is simultaneously American and non-American is so very important. As you'll all know by now, I'm a very big fan of the international approach to literature (duh). I don't believe that "literature in translation" guarantees true diversity, and I don't believe that one can truly read diversely within one language alone (whatever that language may be). When readers and reviewers and writers come at stories from the perspective that Anglo-American is the norm, the default, the everything... I get angry. Apparently Adichie agrees with me

I loved that Americanah so bluntly challenged the idea that American/British English is the default (in the discussion of accents). I loved that Americanah so bluntly challenged the idea that Western melting-pot perceptions of race are the most progressive (in the discussion of the non-American black and that brilliant quote about not thinking about your race and racial identity until moving to the US). I loved that Americanah discussed the internal American discussion of African Americans and new African immigrants, and where the two groups are not entirely meshed. I loved that Americanah looked at the new immigrant experience from a place of warmth and acceptance, and didn't reject offhand the idea that someone might someday want to return, that the concept of home might trump.

I loved a lot of things in Americanah - the shift from casual blog-style writing to the larger discussion, the flow, the depth with which Adichie builds her side characters, the warmth with which Adichie delves into different sorts of love. But it's not a perfect book, and it was so close to being so much better that the disappointment stings so much more.

Before page 400, my biggest complaint would have been about the shift in tone between Ifemelu and Obinze. The book semi switches off between the two, but it's entirely unfair to present it as a balanced story - we spend significantly more time with Ifemelu than Obinze, and the story is built in such a way that I found it much easier to relate to Ifemelu than Obinze. Obinze's parts felt slower to me, and also less focused. While this is obviously a reflection of his character arc, it still managed to frustrate me as a reader. I'd have preferred for a more cohesive story told entirely from Ifemelu's perspective, but I suspect this is more about personal preference.

After page 400 (and to be clear, page 400 is an arbitrary approximation meant to symbolize my frustration with the general final arc), I found myself thinking over previous parts of the book and realizing that as talented as Adichie is (and goodness, she's talented - I'm without a doubt going back to read the rest of her books), she relied heavily on a number of tropes I absolutely hate. These tropes undermine so much of the strength of character that Adichie has built previously, and feels like sloppy storytelling to cover up the more intellectual aspects of the novel. It made me... angry. And it's something that unfortunately ruins too many good books.

Americanah wasn't ruined. It's not a bad book by any measure, and the fact that it personally fell into one of my personally most-hated traps does not for a moment mean that it's a worthless novel. Readers should absolutely read Americanah for its outsider perspective, for its blunt discussions of race and privilege and belonging and identity. Readers should absolutely read this book deeply, and wholly - it's a book to learn from, to a large degree. And in parts, it's also a wonderful feminist text (in other parts, I again note, I wanted to smash it against a wall). On the whole, it's an intelligent, thought-inducing, challenging (in that it challenges the reader to reassess much of their previous biases), engaging and readable book. You should read it.

...but I do so wish that it hadn't included that one thing.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

January in Japan: The River Ki | Review

There's no doubt about it - The River Ki (by Sawako Ariyoshi, translated by Mildred Tahara) is a book largely marred by an old-fashioned, clumsy and entirely outdated translation. Which is a shame, because the book is largely fascinating in every other regard.

I'll be honest in saying that I chose to read The River Ki for January in Japan largely because it was one of the only Japanese books I could find on my shelves (in fact, it was the only one I had in print, any other books would have had to be borrowed or borrowed digitally from the library and for some odd reason that appealed to me a little less...). My reason for owning The River Ki is somehow even sketchier - I bought the book during my summer book-buying extravaganza for very cheap at a book warehouse, and almost exclusively because it was one of the only "women in translation" appropriate titles I could find (and from a series entirely devoted to Japanese women writers!).

All this setup to say that within the first page, realizing how utterly dead the writing was going to sound, I could have - should have - abandoned the book by recognizing it as a dud.

Which of course it wasn't. Because despite the at-times-painful writing/translation, The River Ki is a deeply emotionally resonant book. And you all know me: I'm a big fan of emotional resonance. If a book manages to get me caring for its characters, or feeling something for them (it doesn't have to be positive), I'll most likely stick around. And boy did The River Ki get me to care.

The story begins with Hana, a largely passive young woman who leaves her home at the age of twenty to marry Keisaku, a well regarded young man who Hana largely inspires to greatness. Keisaku's political career becomes a curious side-plot in the novel, as Hana subtly guides him and motivates him. This is as strong a characterization as you'll find - Hana is quietly old-fashioned and submissive, but she also uses her talents wisely, if quietly. She recognizes immediately Keisaku's political potential, similarly recognizing the problems that Keisaku's younger brother will have (particularly in his antagonistic love of Hana). When she gives birth to her first son, and afterwards her first daughter (Fumio, who will star in the second section), she also recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of her children - that Seiichirō will not be as ambitious as his father might wish (and ill-suited to politics), and that Fumio has all the headstrong qualities that Seiichirō lacks.

Hana's section was interesting to me in large part because of how it framed the story - she defers to tradition (whether in terms of her grandmother's superstitions and old-fashioned beliefs, or in terms of her position as the "good wife" and "good daughter-in-law") and remains steadfastly in the old era. The River Ki begins just before the new century (the 20th, of course...), and tracks the stories of these "modern" women through just after the war (the novel was ultimately published in 1959; the story ends about a decade earlier). There's the constant question of modernity and where women fit in. Hana is supposedly the image of the submissive, old-fashioned wife, yet her grandmother had ignored tradition in sending the girl to be well-educated (for the time).

Fumio is obviously more overtly progressive, even feminist. She fights to be allowed to study (and not simply study the "female arts", rejecting almost every traditional form of study offhand), and later insists on marrying a man with whom she lives a "modern" life. At first. Because one of the things The River Ki shows quite strongly is that there is room for both tradition and modernity - Fumio gives birth to her children in hospitals, but after losing one child also joins Hana in setting out traditional breast charms. Later, Fumio's daughter Hanako is shown to be fascinated by Hana's stories of the old city and the old traditions. The symmetry of generations, of things moving forward but also always being interested in the past, is one I've always appreciated in good epic novels. The River Ki has the added advantage of being significantly shorter than most.

But now it's time to point to what dragged this novel down so significantly: the writing and translation.

I know: it would be much easier and much more courteous to pretend that the translation was clear and brilliant and serviceable. But... it's not. Translator Mildred Tahara gives The River Ki such a stilted feeling that it's really quite hard to appreciate at times. Things that should be in footnotes are integrated into the story (I'm sorry, but an explanation about a Japanese play on words will never belong in the body of the text! This is what footnotes were invented for), things that may require translation are never bothered with, and places where some historical or cultural context may have helped are altogether passed over. It's a bizarre mix of assuming the reader knows nothing (hence the constantly in-text explanations of things that most definitely belong elsewhere) and assuming the reader knows everything (there were references here I know for certain other readers would have appreciated having some background on).

And then there's the writing itself. Or rather, the framing itself. Sawako's storytelling is less focused on the "pretty writing" aspect, more on telling the story of modern womanhood. And I loved that story, I found it truly fascinating. But there's a clumsiness to the passage of time, and an awkwardness to how the characters are built. I cared about Hana and Fumio (Hanako a little less so, largely because we spent significantly less time with her), but there's something coolly distant about their characters nonetheless. It's rather interesting that I got so emotionally invested, actually (I place the blame firmly at the feet of Toyono, Hana's fierce and protective grandmother who I sort of fell in love with from the first page).

Is it worth reading The River Ki? I... don't know. I sort of wish a more modern translation existed, because I found the content very interesting in terms of showing the culture clash between modern feminism and traditionalism, while rejecting neither. It's content worth reading and thinking about and discussing, but it's also not exactly the most comfortable or enjoyable reading experience (in the literal sense). I guess I'd say that readers who are more capable of looking past an old-fashioned translation should take a whack at it, but those who think a poor translation can break a book should pass it over (no point in even trying). I'm glad to have read The River Ki, but I find it difficult to recommend, especially when there are so many other better books out there (and for a Japanese book about women's experience, I'd opt for The Budding Tree, which only gives a traditional perspective, yes, but a more cleanly defined one and it's significantly more artfully crafted).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Revisiting Speak

Contains mild spoilers for Speak which everyone probably already knows by now or doesn't care about in the first place...

I read Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak in the summer before 9th grade. I had long seen it on recommended lists for high school students, recommended lists for teenagers, on Amazon (which at the time had a slightly normal recommendation algorithm), and finally it was personally recommended to me. And so I read it.

Speak has become by now a classic of young adult literature. Regardless what I might have thought upon rereading it, there is no doubt that it deserves that status. Reading it as a teenager was enlightening - this was the first book I had ever read that had included an explicit rape scene, and had then, firmly, sharply, pointedly called it a rape. Reading it was like opening a door to an ugly new reality of adulthood - bad things happen. They happen because you make small mistakes, or even without you making any mistakes, they happen violently, they happen quietly, but they happen. And they leave their marks. At the time, Speak was a hugely powerful book, one that shook me to my core. At the time, I didn't care what adults thought of the book on a critical level (this was just a bit before I became fully immersed in the literary/critical world), but it was clear to me - from my reaction and those of other young adults around me - that the book deserved its praise and classic status.

And rereading it as an adult, I stand by my judgement.

I can't disconnect my first experience from this one. I remembered the story and I remembered the important plot points; nothing could really surprise or shock me the way it did the first time. Yet as I dove in (from the middle, then quickly rushing back to start again from the beginning, then jumping back to the point I had left off near the end), I realized how much I had forgotten about the book. I'd forgotten how much more Speak is about Melinda's struggle than it is about her growth. How little of the book takes place after her revelation and her confession. How much the book focuses on the minor (and major) hells of high school.

Speak will always be "the rape book", because ultimately that's what it's about. That's its core, that's the issue that haunts Melinda and haunts the reader as well. But bigger picture, Speak is also just an outstanding example of how young adult literature gets it right. Anderson doesn't talk down to teens, rather writes a book that feels like it's really coming from their level. Melinda's voice is pure and powerful and affecting, no matter your age.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Women in Translation | Year in review

A lot has happened this year for women in translation. If last year was the year that many readers and reviewers and translators discovered (independently!) the problems in the translation rates for women writers, this was the year in which we all (again, largely independently) worked to fix it.

For me, an obvious highlight was the Women in Translation Month held in August. I won't rehash all the conclusions from it, but suffice to say that the incredible participation from different readers, reviewers, booksellers and publishers made it a fascinating project. I think we did a brilliant job of addressing a lot of common issues, and also of raising awareness for many books that might otherwise have been ignored.

WITMonth also sparked two further interests for me: the first was the general interest in identifying and raising awareness of older titles by women writers in translation (something which a great deal of passionate readers have helped me with), and the second was a hope to improve the rather pathetic women in translation database. The latter is a serious project I have unfortunately stalled on somewhat in the past month or so, but my hope is that it will be completed before WITMonth 2015, and will serve as a good introductory guideline for readers seeking older and more obscure titles.

More dramatically, 2014 saw the brilliant panel at the London Book Fair titled "Where are the women in translation?" as a sort of response piece to Alison Anderson's initial article from 2013. I cannot overstate how important this panel is to understanding many of the concerns surrounding women in translation, nor its importance in terms of highlighting possible solutions. I again encourage every reader who is interested in literature in translation (or in feminism...) to watch this panel. I do not necessarily agree with all of the conclusions reached (as I have said in the past, I personally do not believe quotas will serve as a good solution to the current problems), however I think that they did an excellent job of explaining the problem and offering solutions.

We also had a record number of women writers shortlisted for the IFFP this year, with judges making clear for the first time that they saw a problem with the fact that no woman writer has ever won the award beforehand. This led to half of the shortlist comprising of women writers, and though the prize ultimately went to a man, the judges did choose to give a special recognition of Birgit Vanderbeke's The Mussel Feast. This is as close as a woman writer has come to winning the award, and though it's a fairly small comfort, it is progress nonetheless.

More broadly, there has been increased awareness of international literature this year. Every year, more and more readers are introduced to a wider variety of books. My feeling is that as this general exposure for translated literature grows, so too will exposure for women writers in the field, eventually leading to something closer to parity. This exposure will hopefully begin to spill over to more mainstream literary outlets - this year was Elena Ferrante's year, and I think we'll soon start to see more women writers getting that prestigious spotlight which until now has been reserved almost exclusively for men.

But there have also been struggles this year. As much as I would love to end on a purely positive note, the fact is that once again women in translation are being shut out of major awards (IMPAC), once again women writers are profiled significantly less frequently than men (pretty much every news outlet in my observation, though this is purely anecdotal and I haven't run any official statistics), once again reviewers note a significantly lower rate of women in translation titles as sent to them by publishers (I should note that this too is anecdotal, and furthermore as told to me by other reviewers who receive significantly more books for review than I do), and once again we see publishers who steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the true problem. There are still issues ahead of us which we will need to face.

Yet as I look back at 2014 - at the involvement surrounding WITMonth, at the increased awareness, and at the somewhat improving awards statistics - I see something vaguely resembling hope. We will need to see how the final 2014 translation database (courtesy of Three Percent, as always) turns out, but it will likely show a somewhat more positive outlook than the midyear update. And my hope is that 2015 will show a clear trend towards the positive.

We continue to discuss, we continue to improve.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Yes, you really should read Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan series

If you're a reader of literature in translation (and let's be real - even if you're just a reader of good quality literature), chances are you've heard quite a bit about Elena Ferrante, her mysterious identity, and the wonders of the Neapolitan series. The books - which begin with My Brilliant Friend - are well written, interesting, emotionally engaging and ultimately extremely satisfying. As a series, they ascribe less to the idea that each book should stand on its own, rather each volume flows into the next with only quiet thematic markers to distinguish the books.

I read the three volumes currently available in English fairly one after the other. All three novels - My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (all brilliantly translated by Ann Goldstein, and kindly provided to me courtesy of the publisher) - end with quiet sorts of cliffhangers. Nothing that will leave you screaming at the page, nothing on the level of the awful non-ending that The Subtle Knife had (probably my least favorite ending to a book ever), nothing that will leave you gasping with its audacity... but cliffhangers nonetheless. Ferrante excels at making the reader truly feel for her main characters (Elena the narrator, and her best friend Lila), and in this sense any emotional turmoil that these girls/women go through, the reader goes through as well. My feeling is that Ferrante chooses to cut the story off at these specific emotional peaks which represent the tone-shifts that occur for the next book, as random as they may seem before continuing onwards to the next tome.

There's not a lot I can say about the plot without ruining the story. Since this is a 100% spoiler-free review for the three first books (book 4 is due out in about a year from now), I don't even want to refer to specific characters or large-scale events that within each novel, even if they don't seem particularly revealing within that context. And so I'll give the generic story idea that those who haven't read the book have likely already heard: the Neapolitan books tell of two girls, Elena and Lila, following them from early childhood to later life. Elena and Lila are a cross between best friends, competitors, and enemies: they love each other fiercely, but recognize the occasionally toxic nature their relationship takes on.

And so it's not too far a stretch to point out that the Neapolitan series doesn't actually have much of a plot. There is a story, yes, but it's not the sort of beginning-middle-end plotting that your middle-school teacher taught you to look for. The books are written on an epic scale, tracing the lives of far more people than just Elena and Lila (indeed, the story looks much more broadly at the cultural and social shifts occurring in Italy at the time, with the two girls serving as a very good anchor). It's this sort of writing that makes it difficult to point to a specific single topic or idea that the books deal with. All three books are big and varied and focused and generic.

There are a few points I'd like to touch on specifically that don't relate to the plot. First of all, I found the progression of the political discussion in the books to be fascinating. I was (unsurprisingly) particularly interested to see how and when the issue of feminism began to crop up. This rather gentle thematic growth ultimately gave me a lot to think about in the context of modern feminism (and modern political discourse), and I quite enjoyed it.

There is also the matter of the book titles. As silly as this may seem, I love the titles. I love how they reflect the stories, I love how they don't, I love what they say about how we could (and perhaps should?) be interpreting the stories, and ultimately I love how the fit together. (I'll admit that I do not like how they look on the shelf, but this is because the print on the spine of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is bolded while none of the other Europa Editions are and it drives me a little nuts)

There's a lot more to say about Ferrante. You've probably heard much of it. Her writing is clear and draws you in. These are not books easily set aside. The characters feel disturbingly real. Emotions are high without being smothering. This is good writing. I'm not sure if I've enjoyed the Neapolitan series more than the tightly intense The Days of Abandonment, but I've definitely enjoyed the books and I'm definitely eagerly awaiting the fourth title. I have ideas about themes and characters that I would love to discuss in spoiler filled reviews (another time), but for now let me say this to those of you who have not read these books yet: Read them. Ferrante's fame is well-deserved, and I promise that you will not be disappointed.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

History across borders - The Twins | Review

Tessa de Loo's The Twins (tr. Ruth Levitt) was another one of those unexpected women in translation finds - I checked it out of the library largely because it had seemed like the most interesting random find of the day. And indeed, the book was both "interesting" and "unexpected" - the latter because of my embarrassingly low expectations of the book (something I'm trying to correct through this project), and the former because the book really does tackle quite a bit.

The Twins has a standard enough literary premise: twin sisters Anna and Lotte are orphaned as young girls in the 1920s and separated, one staying in Germany and the other crossing the border into Dutch territory. The two meet again unexpectedly in a Belgian resort as old women, after decades of disconnect. Just from the initial framing, you could guess where the story is headed, but de Loo doesn't bother to be coy about her story's intentions. Instead of vague, false-subtleties leading up to the war, Anna and Lotte address the schism that the war created right off the bat. Lotte - Dutch at heart, with few memories of her original father and life before her second family - views Anna suspiciously from the start.

This bluntness provides the story with much needed breathing room, but also echoes some of the writing flaws in the book. While the writing is largely clean and engaging, there were moments where I hoped for a quieter story, something a little more subtle and thoughtful-behind-the-scenes. It's a creative choice that I didn't enjoy so much, though there's no doubt it made the story flow more comfortably, without the anxiety that most books of this kind have surrounding the war. It's also the safer choice, opting for a more uniformly enjoyable reading experience than one that challenges the reader directly.

de Loo seems to rely heavily on the frame story, to the point where I often wanted to shake her grip on it. We are subject to a number of descriptions of Anna and Lotte walking through town, shivering, sitting down to eat, sitting down to drink, rehashing what was just told in the flashback... These emphasize the problems with flashback narratives, because as interesting as the frame was at times (largely through Anna's strange status as an anti-hero, and Lotte's constant acquiescence), it didn't hold up.

The frame - as well as the story itself, to a lesser degree - succeeds in showing the reader how easy it is to "forgive and forget". Anna progresses from half-apologies about German "involvement" in the war to emphatically arguing that her SS husband was not actually SS, he did not believe in it, he was not at fault. Anna is a mouthpiece for a Germany at war with itself - she is contradictory, passionate, aware of her mistakes, but also remembers her virtues more clearly. Lotte, meanwhile, spends a large part of the frame arguing this point with Anna, at times baffled by her victimization and disgusted by her nonchalance.

In the flashback sections, we grow to understand both these women. Lotte - with her problematic but ultimately whole family - risks everything to take in Jewish friends and refugees. Lotte is a representation of Dutch resistance, of a musical Europe in which Jewish fiances get taken away and in which a family hides more and more Jews in their countryside home. Anna represents poverty and rejection - her traumatic childhood with abusive family coupled with her simultaneous dislike of the Nazis and later complacency echoes a Germany at large. It's a clever way to tell the stories of larger countries, while making each seem sympathetic within the context of their personal avatar, despite being largely unsympathetic on a personal level.

The Twins thus ends up being a much more interesting World War II narrative than you'd expect. It's a fairly accessible sort of book, with writing and framing geared towards a broad audience (again - safer), but it's not poorly written. There's a solid flow to the story, and both Lotte and Anna end up fully fleshed characters (if problematic ones on an internal level). I will note that I found the ending to be an unnecessary cop-out (particularly if viewed through the representative lens I mentioned above), and a cheap way to end any story. Altogether though, the book is interesting, thought-provoking, and written from a refreshing point of view (how often are women stand-ins for a whole country?). The Twins may not be a seminal literary work or the most brilliant war novel I've ever read, but it does something nonetheless unique with a fairly stock setting and is worth thinking about.