Thursday, June 21, 2018

WIT+ meets Pride Month | Queer women, nonbinary, and trans writers in translation

Happy Pride Month!

If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll know that one of the main tenants of the women in translation project is that it is broadly inclusive. This means that the title "women in translation" is also fairly misleading - while the project title singles out women specifically, it also includes all trans and non-binary identifying authors. With WITMonth getting closer and Pride month nearing its end, this seemed like a good opportunity to not simply remind readers of the necessity in reading queer writers in translation (in general), but also to highlight a few recently published/publicized prominent (and less prominent!) queer women, nonbinary, and trans writers in translation, as well as select titles that specifically address queer identity.

Note: I have not personally read all of the titles or authors recommended below (indeed, most are on my TBR!). If there are any issues with a title below (or additional comments/notes/corrections), please let me know and I will include that information.

Qui Miaojin: One of the best known lesbian writers out of Taiwan and a Taiwanese queer icon in general, Qui Miaojin wrote cult favorite novels such as Last Words from Montmartre and Notes of a Crocodile (tr. Ari Larissa Heinrich and Bonnie Huie, respectively) exploring lesbian identity and relationships, before her early death.

Trifonia Melibea Obono: Not only is La Bastarda (tr. Lawrence Schimel) the first (very short) novel by a woman writer to be translated out of Equatorial Guinea, Trifonia Melibea Obono explores what it means to come of age through an explicitly queer lens.

Renee Vivien: A 19th-century lesbian poet who was vocal and open about her sexuality, Renee Vivien was perhaps largely forgotten by history until recently, with her works translated in A Crown of Violets (tr. Samantha Pious). She was also well known as a translator of Sappho's poetry.

Raquel Salas Rivera: A writer who translates themself from Spanish, Raquel Salas Rivera frames much of their poetry through a distinctly regional lens. They are currently serving as Poet Laureate of Philadelphia.

Anne Garréta: An author whose books Sphinx and Not One Day (tr. Emma Ramadan) touch explicitly on queer identity and relationships, Anne Garréta is well known for her exploration of genderqueer characterization and experimental writing.

Madame Nielsen: A Danish writer and artist who recently came out as trans, Madame Nielsen is best known for once having had herself declared dead and for the recently translated The Endless Summer (tr. Gaye Kynoch).

Catalina de Erauso: A Basque writer, explorer, and soldier, Catalina de Erauso is best known for their autobiography detailing their swashbuckling, cross-dressing and gender-nonconforming adventures in South America.

Négar Djavadi: Négar Djavadi's recently translated Disoriental (tr. Tina Kover) explores politics, Iranian history, family, and bisexuality.

Nhã Thuyên: Nhã Thuyên is a Vietnamese poet and writer whose works exploring gender, identity, and more have been translated in Words Without Borders. Their poetry will soon be published in the Tilted Axis Press' Translating Feminisms chapbooks which you can help fund here.

Sappho: While certainly not a recent release or discovery, no list of queer WIT+ is complete without the original Sapphist herself. Most of what remains of Sappho's poetry is in the form of fragments (with many different translations), but her prominence as one of the great, classic lesbian poets remains.

The truth is that there will never be an exhaustive list of queer women in translation. There are new books being published every day around the world that tackle queer identity, in every language and from every country. And this is a good thing! This list (of which I have read very little myself... and here I'd like to give a huge shoutout to Twitter and to Samantha Pious in particular for help in compiling this list) is meant more as a starting point for a range of queer and genderqueer books in translation, most of them recently released. There are dozens of other recommendations that I received that did not make it into this list today, but will appear in the general WITMonth recommendation list ahead of August. There will always be other lists and other titles and other authors. We should hope for more.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Gaps in history | The Rest is Noise | Review

I used to read a lot more nonfiction and history-focused books. As a kid, I loved reading books that dove into a specific topic and described them from top to bottom, getting into all the small details. And I don't even mean kid-lit history books; by the age of eleven, I was reading thick, dark tomes about the rise of white racism in the US, the history of Korea, Russian military tactics, British royal succession, and so on. Just as soon as I was capable of physically holding heavy books (thanks Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!), I was reading them, enaging with a broad range of topics but ultimately always falling back on history. I loved history, you see.

But at some point, my interests shifted, and there were many years in which I read very little nonfiction at all. Yes, there would be a few books a year, but they'd either be memoirs or contemporary texts (often feminist in nature). In recent years, with the WIT project, I've started reading a lot more historical feminist texts; still not quite history.

It was in those many years of nonfiction non-existence that The Rest is Noise languished on my shelves. And I do mean many years, as I bought the book back in 2012. When I purchased it, I was so certain that I would read it immediately. A history of 20th century classical music! Highly acclaimed! Fat and bursting with historical goodness!

So yes, it would take me six years to get around to reading The Rest is Noise. Interestingly, I ended up reading the book in one of the least musical periods of my life (or at least, least classical-music periods). If I used to listen to classical music for at least eight hours a week, these days I might listen to two hours a month. Times have changed (and also my workmates really hate classical music...). This meant that there were little references or musical cues that I found myself simply... not remembering. Since I read the book over Shabbat, I also couldn't check for them. It created this fascinating experience, in which I was reading all about music and couldn't actually engage with it. Probably the exact opposite effect of what Alex Ross was going for.

The problem with The Rest is Noise is ultimately that it proved incapable of fulfilling its own mission. The book's subtitle "Listening to the Twentieth Century" makes a very clear promise - to listen to the 20th century... - yet the book heavily focuses on the first half. You might reasonably argue that classical music has been on a decline in recent decades, but the fact is that a lot of unique and powerful classical music has emerged since 1960, and much of it goes unmentioned by Ross. His focus on the canonic composers means that readers can't even be exposed to something new; the book prefers to focus on that which is already known.

It also fails in regards to its treatment of women. You see, women almost don't exist in The Rest is Noise, and if they do, they're typically wives or muses or Alma Mahler, okay it's almost all Alma Mahler. There are only a handful (literally!) of women composers name-dropped throughout the entire book, only one prior to 1960, and the rest in a fairly rushed manner at the end. 

Now, you might again attempt to argue: "Sure, there are a few women composers, but none of them are famous! None of these women are particularly well known!" To which I say... you're right! But shouldn't a book that styles itself a history of 20th century at least attempt to rectify this awareness gap? To his credit, Ross does basically this with regards to black composers, devoting a chapter to the topic. It's a shallow recognition of the fact that yes, black composers have also always existed, but at least it's there. Women are largely left behind.

There are other odd gaps. Ross frequently points to the Jewishness of many of the 20th century's greatest composers, yet at no point tries to connect between this fact and Jewish culture. More often than not, a composer's Jewishness is used as a reminder that they had to flee Europe and that a chapter on WWII-classical music is coming up. It felt like an odd omission. Jewish culture is deeply musical, moreover it is a culture that strongly promotes education and intense work in order to best study. Of course a culture of this sort, when partially (or wholly) secularized, would become a dominant force in composing! (See also: 20th century Jewish scientists.)

What's frustrating is that I could very clearly see how Ross (and other readers, presumably) viewed his book. Here is a man, writing passionately about the topic that he loves most. Which is great! I'm glad that he was able to write this book. But the blunt truth is that this is not the book that I wanted to read. There was plenty here that I found fascinating, oh yes, and it made me crave a similar sort of text summarizing jazz's history, but it also made me grateful that I already own Anna Beer's Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Because while Ross is comfortable overlooking a lot of pieces of history, I'm not really interested in reading it. A book doesn't have to be bad to be a disappointment, or at least not what I'm looking for. A lot has changed since 2012.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

#WITMonth 2018 resources and goals!

It's that time of year again! The birds are chirping, the sky is blue, the breeze is magical, and WITMonth is just around the corner!

This year, like previous years, the goals remain simple: Read, review, and discuss books by women writers in translation! Support women writers in translation! Try to find solutions for the lack of women writers in translation! 

Of course, as with previous years, the hope is that we will expand our horizons as widely as possible. This, to me, means reading women writers in translation from all across the globe (not just Western Europe or South Korea or Argentina), from all sorts of backgrounds (religious, cultural, ethnic, etc.), who identify in all sorts of ways (queer, disabled, etc.), writing in all sorts of genres and designations (sci-fi, thrillers, romance, young adult, graphic novels, etc.) and reflect all sorts of lives (not just middle class). While it is often challenging to find WIT in each of these categories, one of my goals for this year is to help connect readers with as many choices as possible in each of these (and other) categories.

To do so, I've decided to try something new: Clear, exciting, and decidedly diverse reading lists for WITMonth! The idea behind these lists is to make it as easy as possible for every reader to find the sorts of books that are likely to interest them. This means, for example, compiling lists of genre titles too often ignored by most literature-in-translation blogs/reviews/awards. It means compiling broad, encompassing lists of classics by women in translation. It means having recommendation lists on hand for teens, for kids, for visually-impaired or otherwise disabled readers who rely on audiobooks, for readers seeking queer writers and narratives, lovers of graphic novels, and so on.

This is not a simple undertaking, complicated moreso by the fact that I am only one reader who has not had the chance to read all that many books in her lifetime! And so I have opened a survey, which will run for the next few weeks, with the express purpose of hearing what books you would want to see promoted on a "Top 10" sort of list. This is your chance to list all of your favorite women in translation, across a variety of groups and categories. Check it out!

Additionally, I am again compiling a list of titles by women in translation released since WITMonth of last year through WITMonth 2018! The list is so far at 145 titles (with only a couple publishing redundancies), and will likely be growing as we get closer to August. As with last year, if you spot any titles you think are missing from the list, let me know and I'll add them as promptly as I can.

And as with previous years... what would WITMonth be without a banner? Because we've now reached year five (!!!!!), I have decided to go a little wild with the banners and have a few different options below (as always, displaying my very poor graphic design skills, but whatever), which you may freely use (or make your own...):







If you have any requests, thoughts, ideas, or whatever, please let me know. In the meantime... get cracking on the survey, share it (and preferably this post!), and let's get ready for August! WITMonth, here we come!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

WIT, the feminist movement, and awareness

In the four years I've worked on the women in translation project, I'll admit that my goals, aspirations, and thoughts have evolved somewhat. In 2014, the day before the inaugural WITMonth began, I posted an essay about women in literature in general. The fight, as I saw it then, was about convincing readers of translated literature that women writers were worthy of the same space and recognition as men.

Four years later, I can tentatively state that I believe that the message has gotten across. The literature in translation community is quite small, and though many editors and publishers still haven't made any significant strides to correct their sexist approaches and biases, enough have. And more importantly, readers have clearly embraced the movement to promote more women writers in translation, with WITMonth growing from year to year. While the ratios have yet to change in any significant way, there is a clear effort on the part of many newer, younger publishers to produce only balanced catalogs. I am confident that we will begin to see the statistical progress in the next few years.

And so the goalposts have moved, just a bit. If four years ago I hoped that someone - anyone! - would just become aware of the problem, I have recently realized that this problem is actually far deeper than just the literature in translation community. In places where I would expect some awareness or acknowledgement of the lack of women writers in translation, of the marginalization that women creating works (or writing feminist criticism) in languages other than English face on a larger scale, I find a tremendous, very obvious gap.

My gut has been telling me for several years that the problem of women in translation belongs, in large part, to the global lack of literature in translation available in the English-speaking world. Most countries in the world import a lot of literature (much of it from English, though this is a different matter worth discussing another time), with translations subsequently normalized. English is perhaps not unique in its assumption of lingual-cultural dominance, but it certainly ends up getting away with it on a far greater scale than most other languages. The reasons for this are vast and complicated and I will not get into them at this time. However, one thing remains certain: most native English speakers, across the board, struggle to engage with art that is not originally in English, whether it is music, film, television, or books.

It's only in recent years that I've discovered that this almost willful ignorance extends to circles I naively imagined to be more aware. Intellectuals and academics aren't more prone to reading literature in translation; on the contrary, I have found many to often use that (often irrelevant) line about how "something gets lost in translation". Among feminists - even self-identified intersectional feminists - the awareness gap seems even wider.

More problematic still is the fact that many of these so-called intersectional feminists (and can feminism really be intersectional without being international...?) will even maintain that Anglo-American cultural norms are default. I have (on multiple occasions) had to argue with "intersectional" feminists that applying USian cultural norms on another culture is not only inaccurate, it may at times be entirely contrary. Not every conversation will sound the same way in a different culture. Not every feminist act will apply to every culture. And many acts that Anglo-American feminists might scoff at as "not really feminist" may actually be remarkably radical and/or outright rebellious for another culture.

Of course this ignorance applies to literature as well. As much as certain feminists do make a point to read literature in translation, you'd be hard-pressed to find most prominent feminist critics discussing and giving weight to exactly the women who most need a space in which to be heard. When I asked feminist-identifying folk on Twitter whether they read literature in translation, a surprisingly high number of respondents said they wish they read more women in translation, but felt as though they were never exposed to those books or struggled to find them in libraries/bookstores. Several noted that with so much literary hype surrounding new Anglo releases, it was hard to make time for women in translation, who are rarely hyped to the same degree (with the rare exception, as with men in translation).

It ends up being frustrating on two fronts. The first is the feeling that I have to fight for intersectionality to include internationalism, even though this is a fundamental tenant of the concept. With literature playing such an important role in terms of introducing readers to new concepts, the oversight here feels particularly egregious. I shouldn't have to explain to readers who fight for "diversity in YA" that USian kids also need to be introduced to kids from other countries, whose culture is different from theirs (and written to match that culture, and not an Anglo-American readership). I shouldn't have to explain to feminist critics that queer feminist theory is markedly different in languages that have inherently gendered words. This should be obvious.

The second front is the sense that would-be readers - those who aren't averse to anything in translation because "something gets lost in translation" - are missing out on so many opportunities to read brilliant women who are translated because these books are never promoted to remotely the same degree as lesser books in English. (For the record, I have found this to be true also in Hebrew, where translations from English almost always win out over translations from any other language. Hype is inevitable.) Most books by women in translation are published either by smaller presses or AmazonCrossing (which, due to a lot of reasons, doesn't always end up with the best translations or do a lot of self-promotion, even if some of their books are excellent; on the other hand, they also publish a lot of genre lit, so that's something!). These books are, for various reasons, not getting into the hands of readers. They are getting lost, and readers are losing.

There's a lot that we can do to improve the situation. For me, it comes back to that original WITMonth goal: raise awareness. But it is no longer my goal to raise awareness within a closed community of those who already read literature in translation in a targeted, directed way. I now want to reach all readers and raise awareness of individual books, getting them into the hands of as many prospective readers as possible (see: #WITreviews). I now want to raise awareness among intersectional feminists, to see them embrace internationalism in the way that anti-racism has become a core tenant of the movement. I now want to raise awareness among feminist critics and academics, particularly in light of how many fascinating-seeming feminist theory papers I have stumbled across in my searches that have never been translated into English.

None of this is easy. It wasn't easy getting WITMonth off the ground, either. But I firmly believe that in a few years from now, I will be able to look back and say that I have achieved my perhaps-too-ambitious goals. Certainly, I will be able to look back with a sense of pride that I have tried.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura | Review

It feels redundant to review a book that has been praised to the skies by so many readers and critics far more eloquent than myself. I'm coming to the party so late that I can hardly imagine which readers are left unaware of this "Wuthering Heights remake" (I'll explain the quotations in a moment), and of its lingering impact. Doesn't everyone already know that A True Novel (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter) is a masterpiece of modern Japanese literature? Doesn't everyone already know that it is worth looking past the novel's length and reading it? Doesn't everyone already know, far better than I do, that this is a true novel, a truly good novel?

On the surface, I knew each of these claims when I began to read A True Novel. Like so many other titles on my shelf (particularly the longer ones...), A True Novel had spent a long time languishing before I bothered to actually read it. Sure, some of that had to do with the length, but the real reason I was put off every time was that allusion to Wuthering Heights. Because goodness, I hated Wuthering Heights. It's one of those novels that somehow even got worse in my memory as time went by (rather than simply fading away). A True Novel's blurbs all insist on reminding me that this is a Japanese reworking of that classic tale, and didn't you know that this is a reworking of Wuthering Heights, and oh! You should read this because it's an adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

So I started reading, hesistantly, and found myself baffled. The first part of the novel does not remotely resemble Wuthering Heights; in fact, it's more like autofiction, with Minae Mizumura detailing a cross-cultural youth in the US and a later literary career. It was an odd, slightly off-kilter opening to a book that promised something entirely different. I kept waiting to see what Mizumura must be hinting at, the references I must be missing... but it soon became clear that this was simply a very long, elaborate introduction. Indeed, A True Novel turns out to have multiple layers to its story - a story being told, then retold, then retold, then conveyed to the reader. Yet the submersion feels gradual, possibly because this introduction ends up taking so long. And is then followed by another introduction. And then another that leads to the actual story. And not long after, I realized I had finally gotten to the point at which that Wuthering Heights parallel came from.

Here's why A True Novel works so well: By the time I finally realized how this narrative echoed Wuthering Heights, I didn't care. Sure, the cast characters had shifted several times before the resolution focused on the "main" narrative. (Several hundred pages, in fact.) And yes, once the story itself began, it was easy to recognize how Mizumura had planted the "Wuthering Heights" seeds earlier. It just didn't matter anymore, because I was hooked. Each introduction had felt like one, but once the pieces fell into place, I recognized how this novel was progressing and I didn't want it to stop. I fell in, breathlessly, and was swept up.

A True Novel certainly has several callbacks to Wuthering Heights, but to market it as the "Japanese Wuthering Heights" is to undersell the novel by an almost catastrophic degree (and not simply because I don't love the original). A True Novel contains within its pages a unique take on the story-within-a-story model, one that manages to make each layer even more worthwhile by being just meta enough to make the withdrawal its own almost-story, challenging how stories are told and the concept of narration itself (in parts). Remarkable still is the fact that A True Novel does all of this without ever straying into the dull gray zone of having technical innovation at the cost of narrative and writing. The writing threw me off a bit, at first, with a sort of straight-forward roundedness that I couldn't quite place as being either modern or old-fashioned; it's somehow both simultaneously. Whatever it is, I enjoyed it a lot.

Bottom line: A True Novel does a lot of wonderful things within its (many) pages. It's not only an expansive modern history of Japan, but also a personal drama/tragedy and even a meta narrative about storytelling. It's written in a convincing style and ultimately kept me absolutely hooked. It's intelligent and clever (yes, those are different things!), emotionally engaging (even in the most Wuthering Heights-like plot moments that had me on occasion wanting to slap the characters, but with much less vitriol against the novel itself than Brontë's text), and well-written.

If like me, you've been put off by the length or the Wuthering Heights comparisons, do me a favor: Pick up the book and just start reading. Just start. I think, like in my case, you'll find yourself finishing the book before long...

It by Inger Christensen | Review

I basically put it on my reading list the day after I finished reading Inger Christensen's phenomenal alphabet. I positively raved about alphabet, and even four years later, I stand by those words. That poetry book (book, I emphasized then and again now, not collection) took my breath away (literally, at times) and enchanted me. It was gorgeous and intelligent and perfectly translated by Susanna Nied and I loved every piece of it. Obviously, I would have to read every one of Christensen's books available in English! And again one translated by Nied! So I promptly placed an order for it.

Not quite it
Here is the uncomfortable truth: I began it in the summer of 2014, certain that I would again fall in love with Christensen's words and unique writing style. But I didn't. In fact, I found myself largely bored and disconnected from the text, recognizing much of the technicality that made alphabet so wonderful, but none of the passionate beauty. I set the book aside, fully expecting to return to it within a few days. It (somehow) ended up in the back of my closet (?) and I forgot about it until three weeks ago, when I found it hidden underneath a pile of misfolded shirts.

The bookmark was still buried where I had remembered it being, around a third of the way through. I flipped through the earlier "poems" halfheartedly, seeing the blockish texts that had so turned me off back in the day. But I decided to resume reading, and more importantly I decided to resume reading the book from the point I had stopped. I didn't go back and reread the earlier portion of the book, despite the fact that it is as clearly a whole text as alphabet was. Yet something told me that it would be better to leave the past there, and move forward.

Getting back into the rhythm of the text was difficult. The first few poems felt disjointed, a reminder that I was effectively reading this book from the middle (though I was surprised by how strong a sense from the first part I still had, lodged away in my memory). Some of the context was clearly missing, but not so much that I couldn't keep reading. That, of course, is the beauty of poetry (even book-length, narrative-style poetry) - the vibe, for me, always wins out. How do the poems make me feel? Does the writing move me? Does the writing inspire me? Does the writing transport me? Amuse me? Enrapture me?

Even given this second chance, it largely failed in this regard. Certain poems or segments were gorgeous, trembling with power and eloquence and a sharp eye for reality. And occasionally the loopiness of the writing revisiting certain themes and phrases again and again made me feel like I was getting close to understanding what Christensen was trying to tell me, deep down. But I was never able to move past a general disinterest. For a book designed around a concept, it never got its rhythm down entirely. Most of the repetitions ended up feeling trite and dull; this was made worse by the fact that I didn't connect to some of the themes in the first place, and then having them rehashed over and over ended up leaving me even cooler on the book than beforehand.

It's not that it is bad, because it's not. As a concept, there's a lot to admire in Christensen's definition-breaking writing. There is also no doubt that Christensen had the eye for describing beautifully powerful scenes and images (the "happiness" poems were particularly moving, in my view), and it is all fantastically rendered into English by Susanna Nied. I imagine that had I read this as an independent work, I might have rated it just a bit higher - still not a great book, but a worthwhile poetry book. Yet I had already read alphabet, I already knew that Christensen would someday hone the raw talents displayed in it (a relatively early work) and go far beyond.

There is not so much of Christensen's work available in English, however, that I can ultimately be so picky. I may not have loved it, but I still found plenty to admire within its pages. There is no doubt that Christensen was a stellar poetry experimentalist and her works deserve far greater fame. There is also no doubt that even with this relative disappointment, I will be seeking out Christensen's few other works translated into English. Even if they don't come close to alphabet, they're still much more likely to leave me musing and inspired in all sorts of ways...

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Translate this book | Amilam by Hila Arazi-Hatav

I've got to say, this one surprised me. I bought it years ago at Hebrew Book Week, I think to complete a 1+1 sort of deal, something purchased in the early days of my WIT awakening. It languished on my shelves until now, and honestly I don't think I ever really processed what the book was supposed to be about. It existed, barely, at the corner of my awareness. But TGBBBOT means that I'm reading a lot more "forgotten" titles from my shelves, and so it came to be that I read Hila Arazi-Hatav's Amilam. And liked it a lot.

This is a novel split into two voices, but they're rather surprising ones at that. The narration begins with Leah, mother of two, whose life feels like it's beginning to fray at the edges. Leah's husband, Yoel, is on a prolonged business trip after months of difficult unemployment, hoping to find redemption at a foreign conference. Leah narrates her troubled thoughts to the husband that isn't there, increasingly exhausted by the strain of her mother's Alzheimer's and a sudden, unexpected pregnancy. Thrown into the mix is her older daughter Noa, the second narrator, who seems to also be slipping off the grid lately. Noa disappears for hours, is distracted at school, and seems disconnected from reality.

But as Noa's narration begins to match her mother's, it becomes clear that Noa is not simply a lazy, delinquent 12-year old, rather she is singularly concerned with keeping her grandmother healthy so that the "cousins" from Paris - twin brothers, one of whom molested Noa several times on their previous visit - have no reason to come. Noa's fear for her grandmother Elsa's health leads her to take on increasingly drastic measures, from having her best friend pretend to be Elsa's long-dead son (Noa's uncle) in order to convince Elsa to take her medication, to grinding up pills and mixing them in with the sugar, to coming up with plans for a "trap" for whichever of the brothers it is that might come into Noa's bedroom at night.

The tone, unsurprisingly, switches fairly drastically between Noa and Leah, though the stakes remain high in both cases. Noa, unlike her mother, is not unraveling quite as much as she is fighting a losing war. Her concerns jump from caring for her grandmother to whether her class will win the soccer game against the other class. She misses her father, vaguely, but seems to have no comprehension of communicating with her parents (and from Leah's end, it becomes clear that Leah and Yoel have little idea how to communicate with Noa). For Leah, as much as things are crumbling, she manages to keep a fairly firm grasp. Yet on the inside, she describes a sense of loss and confusion, abandonment and hopelessness.

The writing style for both narrators is simple, though in different ways. Noa thinks in simple terms, rarely getting too wrapped up in her own thoughts, but often looping back to the same concepts and thoughts. Leah is the opposite, imagining herself talking to her too-absent husband (and though this business trip is fairly short, it seems to represent a wider gap in her marriage that she simply doesn't know how to explain), wrapped up intensely in a widening range of contemplations. Both styles feel very conversational without being simplified. Later in the book, as Noa begins to narrate semi-fictional accounts of Elsa's past to her, Noa also switches to narrating to her grandmother. The shift leads to a slight change in style, accordingly, with the greater complexity suggesting that Noa has absorbed some of how these stories were told to her.

It's difficult for me to say what it is that works so well about Amilam. It's not that this is the most original story, yet it feels fresh. It's not the most original writing technique, yet it ends up working remarkably well. Amilam didn't win any awards and I imagine has largely been forgotten by Israeli readers. Yet I liked it, a lot. Part of it may have to do with the fact that I just recently lost my own grandmother to Alzheimer's and pieces of Leah/Noa's experiences rang too true. Part of it may have to do with the way the book made me feel very strongly for both Leah and Noa; by the end of the book, I just wanted to hug both of them and yell at them "TALK TO EACH OTHER".

This is a novel that takes place over an intense week, but it digs deep into its characters. It's the sort of book that has carved out a little corner in my mind, and I've been turning it over over the past day since I finished reading it. I think it could very well do the same for other readers.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Broken Earth... more like The Perfect Books

This isn't really going to be a real review. I'm not sure I'm qualified to write a real review of such a powerful series, nor do I think I really need to. Others have written intelligently about N. K. Jemisin's brilliant fantasy (almost sci-fi-esque) series.

Frankly, I just want to gush.

Do you know how long it's been since I read an entire series and adored all of its parts? I genuinely cannot recall. Most of the time, series decay along the way for me. Or there's an outright dud along the way. With The Broken Earth, I kept waiting for the sequels to disappoint. I kept expecting the sequels to disappoint me, somehow, but they never did. The Fifth Season was brilliant. The Obelisk Gate was brilliant. And The Stone Sky was brilliant. The entire series (as a single entity) was brilliant. It's a series that feels utterly confident in itself and unlike many other titles in its fantasy genre, it's a series that knows exactly where it's going. Having read the three books relatively close together (I truly forced myself to wait at least two months between each book, just to make sure I didn't get disappointed by a "binge"), the clarity of the three titles as a single series is made even more obvious. It's a refreshing sight in a genre that is cluttered with books that believe that more depth means more.

Because The Broken Earth doesn't infodump. Heck, it doesn't even answer all of its own questions. There is potential here for sixteen more books, if Jemisin chooses to write them. How did the world order become as it is? What happens afterwards? How does the world change? How does the world rebuild? How do the cultures and traditions that develop come about? There is so much more, but the lack of high-resolution details never feels like Jemisin is cheating her readers out of information. On the contrary, it feels like a reminder that fantasy can have sharp, in-depth worldbuilding without giving readers every single detail. The books end up feeling more tightly written... and clearer too.

It's a series brimming with real-life inspirations. The way that history is warped and passed down felt so real, in a way that most fantasy novels often fail at (by having too highly detailed "legends" that are clearly meant to foreshadow or serve as outright exposition). In The Broken Earth, the pieces of history feel like they contribute more to my cultural understanding rather than any plot-based need. In The Stone Sky in particular, chapter endings felt like they were there to remind readers of real-world racial injustices rather than foreshadow any particular plot point. (Though, I should point out, they always sort of did. In a very quiet way.) (There are a lot of very important other messages about persecution and oppression. They are not overdone and yet they are also not subtle. It is very well done. This series is great.)

It's also a series that despite its surface bleakness is brimming with hope and life. I can't get into more detail without spoiling a lot of the books, but know that The Broken Earth feels like the series that restored my personal faith in the world. Books are powerful and this series is wonderful.

Gushing complete. For now.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet | Review

Truthfully, Marie Vieux-Chauvet's Dance on the Volcano (tr. Kaiama L. Glover) feels like a few books in one. Here is a chunkster novel that tells the story of an individual woman, main character Minette, alongside an important portion of Haitian history. Like many books of this sort, Dance on the Volcano ends up feeling a little overwhelming at times (and a little poorly balanced between Minette's personal drama and the wide-reaching cultural implications of her personal life), but there's no doubt that overall this is a fine, fascinating novel and one well worth reading.

Dance on the Volcano sets its tone early. Minette, her younger sister Lise, her mother Jasmine, her effectively foster brother Joseph, and the entire cast of black (free) characters are swiftly placed in contrast to the island's whites. The plot begins with Minette (and her sister Lise, to a lesser degree) "discovered" by their white, Creole neighbor as the two teenage girls sing at home. Mme Acquaire is instantly in awe of their raw talent and decides to teach the girls in the early mornings, despite the general taboo against it. As Minette grows more and more talented, it becomes clear that her future is on the stage, and indeed Minette soon becomes an outright phenomenon as the first "colored" woman to sing on the white stage.

From here, Dance on the Volcano follows Minette's numerous struggles in becoming accepting as a successful stage singer. While there is little doubt at her talent, her color influences the entire conversation surrounding her art, indeed defining everything from her paycheck to her participation in particular concerts. Thus begins Minette's more general social awakening. Though still effectively a teenager, Minette begins to realize just how cruel the world around her is, simply on racial grounds. She learns secrets about her mother's past, she learns secrets about her brother's present, and she begins to wish for a more just world. She begins to fight for her own rights, using her immense talent as leverage against racism. She also becomes involved in efforts to rescue slaves, and to advocate (albeit privately) for their general emancipation. The story tracks much of Haiti's tumultuous history through Minette's eyes and experiences, often with tragic implications.

Curiously, another plotline begins to invade this already loaded story. Just as Minette begins her social awakening, she also experiences a sexual awakening. This story is the least engaging (by far) of the many threads running through Dance on the Volcano, with a particularly uncomfortable message about sexual/romantic desire overwhelming Minette's own beliefs and values. Minette's black, slave-owning, slave-beating lover is presented as a complex character with contradictory aims and motives, but his violence and general awfulness as a person made it very difficult for me to care about their relationship or about him at all. There was a sense that this romance was supposed to somehow emphasize the complexity of Haiti's slave-owning past, yet it ended up feeling like a waste of space that could have instead focused on Minette's own growth.

This is not the novel's only flaw. The writing is simplistic and at times grating, with awkward transitions from very plain prose to a more lyrical style. It also occasionally felt anachronistic, with some sentences sounding outright modern and others sounding much more like they'd been written in the 18th century. This also ends up affecting pacing, in a way that makes it generally less pleasant to read the novel in longer chunks.

Yet even with its flaws, I found it hard to get Dance on the Volcano out of my mind. I can't say that I loved it, but I feel like I learned a lot from it. That probably says more about my own (lack of) knowledge about Haitian history, yet I appreciated how Dance on the Volcano framed it through Minette's personal lens. The plot density may have made reading more difficult and may have bothered me at points (again, the romance subplot), but it also gave me a lot to consider. Whether I think it worked on a literary level does not change the fact that it inspired me to think about the topic of more complex racial identities and contradictions.

All in all, Dance on the Volcano is certainly a book worth reading and one I am grateful to have read. And after years of having Marie Vieux-Chauvet's writing recommended to me, it makes me all the more eager to get to Love, Anger, Madness.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck | Review

I will admit, I first tried to read Visitation several years ago. There was so much buzz, so much praise, I was so excited for this slim novel. I started reading it and had to set it aside within six pages. "It's unbearable," I remember telling my father. "So stop reading it!" he responded, pointing to the towering stack of additional library books I had next to the couch. I followed his advice, and moved on to better books. It was my second negative experience with Erpenback, having read (and disliked) her novella The Book of Words a year earlier. I concluded, rather reasonably, that Erpenbeck simply wasn't a writer for me.

I would buy Visitation a few years later, after reading (and adoring) The End of Days, a book I can both admit to have loved and one that I think is a true masterpiece. The End of Days is such a brilliantly written novel - innovative, but not a slave to its innovation, clever, but not frustrating, emotional, but not tedious. Reading it felt like a revelation and a suggestion that perhaps I could love Jenny Erpenbeck's work. After all, I read The Book of Words at a time when I had little patience for more experimental fiction, and after all, I never actually read Visitation...

So I bought Visitation. It would take me almost a year and half before I could bring myself to read that book which still left a bitter taste in my mouth, only from those first few pages. And guess what? I couldn't quite figure out what specifically had left such a strong impression in those early, vague pages, but oh my goodness did I have the exact same sensation throughout the entire book.

What a shame.

And here's the thing: I'm not the same reader today as I was even three years ago. Every book I read adds to my consciousness and changes how I experience the books that follow. I read Visitation during a reading slump; I imagine this impacted how I interpretated the book. It felt clunky and slow, as though I was reading through tar. Even though it took me so long to get through it, it left no impression. It's been a month since I finished it, and I can hardly tell you a thing about it.

Oh yes, I can vaguely recall the novella's concept, and there is a plotline and a half that I recall. But the book felt so thin (content-wise, not just in terms of length) that not a speck of it remains. I formed no emotional attachment to any of the vaguely described characters. I didn't enjoy the loose sketching of post-war Germany. The politics felt distant and meaningless. And the book itself, for something so short, dragged. It was like a road cutting through a forest, that instead of taking a straight, logical line, twisted around itself as many times as possible before reaching the end.

I didn't like Visitation. I feel like a bad reader for admitting this. I feel like I've failed the book blogging community that adores Erpenbeck, that constantly praises her writing for its intelligence and depth. Goodness, I feel like I've failed as a reader, that somehow the problem is - again - that I didn't understand the book. Maybe I'm not clever enough, maybe there's a cultural context I'm missing here... And here's what's incredible: I wrote pretty much the exact same thing when "reviewing" Erpenbeck's The Book of Words five years ago.

Maybe, as with many books I've read in recent months, I have lost patience with books that are all style over substance. The End of Days worked, in my mind, because Erpenbeck found an excellent balance between the two; it's a creative exercise that works, crafting a character the reader can grow attached to and spinning a story that manages to both entice and challenge. The End of Days did more than just tell five versions of a character's life, it managed to make each the absolute focus. It managed to make each feel utterly consequential. Visitation fails in large part because it doesn't ever find its emotional hook. Like The Book of Words, I am left with absolutely nothing to say about it. The book has left no impression. There is only the concept and clever as it may be, concept just isn't enough for me. If that makes me a bad reader, so be it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson | Review

The Impossible Knife of Memory has been on my shelves for so long, that I honestly wasn't sure I'd ever get around to reading it. Except, of course, I enacted a book buying ban on myself to exactly motivate myself to read these older, forgotten books. So it was time to visit an author that I loved as a teen, with a novel that - when it had been published - was touted as being an important, powerful novel of PTSD.

Perhaps it's that the book hasn't aged very well. Perhaps writing conventions have shifted just so in the three years since I purchased The Impossible Knife of Memory. It could be that the book just isn't very good, I don't know. It's certainly not terrible, but I found myself taking issue with quite a few portions of the novel.

To begin with, this is a book that misses so many of the opportunities it itself raises to tackle major issues. Take the central theme of PTSD. Hayley's father very clearly has PTSD, and this is well explored. However, Anderson also very clearly shows that Hayley has some form of PTSD as well, yet never expands on it. Hayley is very much defined by the fact that her memory is full of gaps and we frequently see her crumbling somewhat as a flashback hits. Yet even with these scenes (and those that show Hayley being triggered by a series of different situations), Anderson never actually builds on this idea or how it affects Hayley. We only have her response to her father's pain, not her own. (And don't get me started on the way the book glosses over abuse and false memories. Just... no.)

Similarly, the book makes several references to other struggles young adults might face and their responses to them, but fails to treat it with the expected depth. Hayley is repeatedly critical of her fellow high schoolers' behavior and hypocrisy, that their lives are dull and "zombie"-like. On more than one occasion, she links this behavior with prescription drug abuse. Later in the book, we see Hayley's close friend self-medicating in exactly the way that Hayley describes (ultimately, even Hayley is tempted by the pills) in response to problems at home, but Hayley doesn't reflect on it or wonder at her own ignorance of the struggles other teens are going through.

These are two examples, but they stem from the same underlying problem: The Impossible Knife of Memory is populated by thinly drawn characters. Even Hayley, our narrator and main girl, feels underwritten. What are her motivations? What does she like? Why does she like what she likes? This is a chiaracter with baggage galore, but no real personality. It means that while we're shown a lot about her life, it cannot be explored. It means that there is no additional wisdom or complexity to her thoughts. It's all... oddly flat.

This impacts the two main narratives as well. It's hard to be invested in Hayley's budding romance with fellow student Finn when neither character is well-developed enough to care about. Why do they like each other? We know that they're physically attracted to each other, but... that's literally it. There's nothing else except minor quips here and there. It felt like a portion from a totally different novel, that didn't quite fit in. Similarly, it's difficult to really feel the struggle that Hayley's father is going through when we neither know him, nor really understand Hayley's relationship with him.

Now, if the novel was brief, I could probably understand this level of non-depth. I've read a lot of young adult novels that walked this line relatively well (I'm thinking of Chris Crutcher's relatively concise novels), but The Impossible Knife of Memory is just under 400 pages long. And I honestly cannot understand how. The book takes place between the beginning of the school year and Christmas. That's it. The pacing is wildly inconsistent, both rushed and oddly slow. This is most strongly evident in an incredibly rushed ending, that literally time-skips eight months of recovery and healing in an honestly shockingly sloppy way. So what, I must ask, was the point? Why linger on Hayley's story if we're never going to have any sense of its impact?

It's ultimately disappointing, because it's not as though there's a plethora of young adult novels (or non-fiction) about PTSD or war or recovery. Anderson has also in the past proven her worth in writing about teens going through rough times (Speak, of course, but I also find Catalyst an underrated gem), but The Impossible Knife of Memory is just... not great. And heck, even the teen-isms are all off. It's got a lot of good pieces and is definitely "important" in parts, but it feels like a mess as an overall work. A shame.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Reading the world challenge (part 3)

I've already begun to make progress on my reading... yet haven't finished publishing the titles I hope to read! Here are a few more (of which I've already actually managed to read a couple!):

  • Denmark (Danish): Suzanne Brøgger - The Jade Cat
  • Djibouti - MISSING
  • Dominican Republic (Spanish): Various - Praises and Offenses: Three Women Poets from the Dominican Republic
  • East Timor - MISSING
  • Ecaudor (Spanish): Luz Argentina Chiriboga - On Friday Night
  • Egypt (Arabic): Nawal El Saadawi - Woman at Point Zero
  • El Salvador (Spanish): Claribel Alegría - Woman of the River
  • Equatorial Guinea (Spanish): Trifonia Melibea Obono - La Bastarda
  • Eritrea (Tigrinya): Haregu Keleta - "The Girl Who Carried a Gun" (x)
  • Estonia (Estonian): Kristiina Ehin - Walker on Water
  • Ethiopia (Italian): Gabriella Ghermandi - Queen of Flowers and Pearls
  • Ethiopia (Amharic) - MISSING
  • Finland (Finnish): Eeva-Liisa Manner - Girl Upon Heaven's Pier
  • France (French/Old French): Various - French Women Poets of Nine Centuries
  • Gabon (French): Angèle Rawiri - The Fury and Cries of Women
  • Georgia (Georgian): Various - A House with No Doors
  • Germany (German): Yoko Tawada - Memoirs of a Polar Bear
  • Greece (Greek): Penelope Delta - A Tale Without a Name
  • Guatemala (Spanish): Rigoberta Menchú - I, Rigoberta Menchú
  • Guinea - MISSING
  • Guinea-Bissau - MISSING
  • Haiti (French): Marie Vieux-Chavet - Dance on the Volcano
  • Honduras (Spanish): Clementina Suárez - Clementina Suárez: Her Life and Poetry
  • Hungary (Hungarian): Magda Szabó - The Door
  • Iceland (Icelandic): Ragna Sigurðardóttir - The Perfect Landscape
  • India (Assamese): Arupa Patangia Kalita - Written in Tears
  • India (Bengali): Leela Majumdar - The Burmese Box
  • India (Gujarati): Dhiruben Patel - Rainbow at Noon
  • India (Hindi): Geetanjali Shree - The Empty Space
  • India (Kannada): Mamta Sagar - Hide and Seek: Selected Poems
  • India (Old Kannada): Akka Mahadevi - Songs for Siva
  • India (Malayalam): K. R. Meera - Hangwoman
  • India (Marathi): Shanta Gokhale - Crowfall
  • India (Odia): Susmita Bagchi - Children of a Better God
  • India (Pali): Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women
  • India (Punjabi): MISSING
  • India (Tamil): Amai - In a Forest, a Deer
  • India (Urdu): Qurratulain Hyder - River of Fire
  • Indonesia (Indonesian): Okky Madasari - The Years of the Voiceless
  • Iran (Persian): Parinous Saniee - The Book of Fate
  • Iraq (Arabic): Dunya Mikhail - The War Works Hard
  • Ireland (Irish): Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh - The Coast Road
  • Israel (Hebrew): Leah Goldberg - Poems
  • Italy (Italian): Margaret Mazzantini - Twice Born
  • Ivory Coast (French): Véronique Tadjo - The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the Heart of Rwanda
That's it for now, still working on finalizing the list. As you can see, still many titles missing... still many places where I feel I don't necessarily have the best options picked out. If you have any recommendations for missing titles - or recommendations for India in particular, any language - I would greatly appreciate it! Regardless, feel free to share any titles you might be interested in for these (or any) countries. How would your list look?

Monday, October 30, 2017

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg | Review

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (trqnslated from Polish by Eliza Marciniak) has been shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

Sometimes I'll read a book and my mind will instantly - and consistently - go to another place. Not in the sense that the book is dull, or distracting. Not even in the sense that the book is inherently transporting (though this is typically the case). Sometimes it's just a question of connections: a certain book will automatically link itself to another story or concept. This might, at times, detract from the book I'm currently reading; with Swallowing Mercury, the connection was positive, and reflective of the book's greatest strengths.

With Swallowing Mercury, the connection that I made was to a relatively unknown (but great) novel called The White King by György Dragomán (I read a translation into Hebrew). I read The White King over eight years ago (and even reviewed it on Amazon, years later!), finding it to be a strong, captivating coming-of-age novel-in-stories. It was well-written, childlike in the right places, and told a larger story just beyond the personal narrative. Suffice to say, I loved it. And from the very first moment I began reading Swallowing Mercury, I couldn't shake off the feeling that here - finally! - was the sort of coming-of-age novel that followed in The White King's footsteps.

Mind you, the two books are far from identical. While both books follow children growing up in Communist countries around the same time, each progresses at a different pace and follows a very distinct broader plot. The two novels also sharply differ in tone, with The White King more singularly focused on its narrator as a preteen, while Swallowing Mercury tracks Wiola through early adulthood. Moreover, The White King could work as a young adult novel, while Swallowing Mercury is distinctly darker, grimmer, and addresses a harsher form of reality. 

But that initial connection made me read Swallowing Mercury through a particular lens, with a sense that I knew how the novel would unfold. Greg, like Dragomán before her, uses Wiola on two levels, telling a story that is both intimate and generic at the same time. For instance, the chapter "The Little Paint Girl" tells of young Wiola's interest in art, and her attempt at entering an art competition at school, which involves submitting a damaged, stained painting of Moscow. This leads the authorities to descend upon Wiola's small school, and demand an explanation as to why she painted Moscow so "gloomy". While Wiola is simply a young, more-or-less ignorant girl in this story (focusing on the official's grammatical errors and feeling rather uncomfortable), the reader can also sense the bigger story - a Polish paranoia that a young child has painted Moscow streaked with black. The political implications are huge... but not quite the focus of the story itself.

The writing is typically a little loose, often feeling a little conversational and casual. It makes for easy, enjoyable reading, despite the typically darker tone of the stories themselves. And Swallowing Mercury, despite the childlike framing, is dark. Greg doesn't shy away from many of the less pleasant experiences of growing up as a girl, with more than one instance of molestation taking place (presented to the reader with an almost chilling detachment). Wiola's life is ultimately far from pleasant, but it's also just... life. Swallowing Mercury seems to emphasize this point, with the vignettes skipping subjects from school, to religion, to relationships, and all over. Yet through it all, Wiola grows, leaving Swallowing Mercury an admirable addition to the coming-of-age canon. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A book buying ban

After too many years of acquiring far more books than I manage to read, the time has come to take drastic action. Rather than culling my shelves outright (which, frankly, horrifies me), I have decided to engage in an extensive, purposeful, and targeted book buying ban, with the direct goal of reducing the sheer amount of unread books on my shelves.

"Okay, a book buying ban... big deal! Why are you writing a whole blog post about this?"

Good question, hypothetical reader! It's because I've decided to have a little bit of fun with my ban, and make it a little more complicated than just saying "no new books for the next six months".

No, instead of setting a specific timeframe, I have decided to limit myself based on the number of books I must read before I'm allowed to acquire new books. I have also decided that I need to archive books alongside simply reading, particularly when it comes to books that I have started, abandoned, picked up again, and abandoned several times. These will count separately, but my hope is that I can acknowledge that sometimes a book I bought five years ago just won't interest me today. And that's okay!

Here are a few of the rules for this period:
1. Seeing as I have somewhere over 120 unread books in my apartment alone (yikes!), I must read at least 40 books that I have not previously begun reading.
2. Seeing as I have 15 books that I have begun reading, but have stopped reading for some reason or other, I must finish or officially archive at least 8 partially completed books.
3. I must read at least 10 books in Hebrew. At least 4 of these must be by Israeli women.
4. I must read at least 5 books with more than 450 pages. Enough stalling! They're not that intimidating...
5. I will (try) to review at least 20 of the 40 books on this blog or on Goodreads. I might not be able to do this one, but I have to at least try.
6. I must read at least 5 books that qualify for the Women in Translation Reading the World Challenge. I hope to read more!
7. I must read at least 5 books that have been on my shelves for more than two years
Well there you have it, folks. While these rules don't say anything about library books (or gifts!) which I intend to continue reading, the hope is that these rules will both help me clear up some of the clutter on my shelves, as well as motivate me to read some excellent books! Honestly, I'm kind of excited. Time to get reading!



Note: Posts relating to the ban, including progress reports and reviews, will fall under the tag "the great book buying ban of tash'ach" since I really hope this will not last beyond this Jewish year....... wish me luck!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

WITMonth Day 31 | Final 2017 thoughts (part 2)

And here it is... August 31st, come so soon. Didn't WITMonth just start the other day?

Yesterday, I posted about some personal goals. Today, I want to talk about the growth, expansion, and changes WITMonth has undergone since 2014. Four WITMonths have now come and gone. What's changed?

Every year, I gush about how much this project has grown. This has not changed; on the contrary, every year sees more readers made aware, more involved bookstores and libraries, more publshers, more organized events, and more awareness at every level of the literary world. To be perfectly honest, the project feels like it moves further and further away from me with every passing year. But it gains its own life. Does WITMonth still need me? Am I still its mother?

This has led me to some important conclusions this year: WITMonth needs a clearer infrastructure. My new @read_wit Twitter account helped in some regards, focusing explicitly on women in translation (and saving poor readers the discomfort of wading through my personal nonsense). My new @readwit Instagram account seeks to do for Instagram what we already did for Twitter - create a movement that reaches more than just the handful of readers who already know of the project.

But I have other ideas too. I received several queries for organized lists of WITMonth events, alas this does not currently exist in full form (womenintranslation.com began the effort, but there is more work to be done). There is still no comfortable place for a new reader to go to learn all they might want about WITMonth. There are still no convenient handouts or ready-to-print posters. There is still so much more we could be doing.

And this is the joy in WITMonth's growth. That while I know it is unlikely all of these things will be ready for next year, much will... and new things I can't yet envision. Here's to WITMonth 2018, and all the work ahead.