Sunday, September 14, 2014

Abandoning The Rehearsal

Abandoning a book is never easy. Abandoning a book a mere fifty pages from its end? Pretty much unprecedented for me. I was looking forward to reading Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal quite a bit - I consider Catton's sophomore effort The Luminaries as one of the best books I've read this year - but from the first page, I felt like the book wasn't for me.

You know how I often say that I don't like present tense writing? There's actually a reason for that. Present tense writing can be a brilliant literary tool when properly applied (for a tense narrative, a sense of immediacy, etc.), but it's usually just used lazily as another format. When used lazily, it often gets muddled with past-tense comments. And there is almost nothing I hate in literature so much as switches between past and present tense in a narrative.

So not only is most of The Rehearsal written in present tense that often slips back into past tense... it also explicitly switches to past tense in different areas.

Deliberate literary technique applied by Catton? Obviously. Mark of a clever, thoughtful writing? Probably. Extremely annoying? Definitely.

On top of hating the writing style, I also realized fairly quickly that I hated the clever structure. Catton's writing is clearly experimental here, similar to her structural games in The Luminaries. But in her second book, Catton does a good job of using her base structure fairly subtly - you don't have to become immersed in it to appreciate the story. In The Rehearsal, the back-and-forth style, the vagueness, and the saxophone-teacher frame story are all very bluntly applied. There was no way to escape from Catton's experimentation, nowhere to hide.

Oh, and all the characters were distinctly unsympathetic. Kind of purposely, I guess. But I wanted to smack each and every one of them. And by the time I was fifty pages from the end, I realized that I didn't care one whit what happened to these people, or to their droll lives. The book went back to the library incomplete, and I am frankly happy to be rid of it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Girl of Fire and Thorns | Review

Ah, The Girl of Fire and Thorns. With your cliched title (a mix of Dragon Tattoo and Hunger Games referencing), your bland fantasy cover and your hyped marketing back when you came out, I was prepared to hate you. In fact, I wasn't even sure what drove me to read you in the first place - it may simply have been the front cover blurb by Tamora Pierce (who rarely blurbs), or perhaps I had seen a positive review recently. I'm not sure what it was. Somehow, I checked you out of the library. I read your first few pages and scoffed. And then I read the rest of you, and my mouth shut tight. Because, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, you are one of the most unexpected, subversive and intelligent young adult books I have read in very many years.

The story begins blandly enough, with a generic young adult fantasy description of "dark magic", the "chosen one" and a dull hint of romance. The first chapter echoes this emptiness as well - it begins with Elisa's marriage to the surprisingly young, handsome and friendly King Alejandro. But even in this predictable setup, Rae Carson manages to slip in important details that will shape the remainder of the book. First, we learn that Elisa is dark and fat, and that beyond her weight is an underlying eating disorder - Elisa eats at her unhappiness. These descriptions are perhaps not uncommon in young adult literature, but they are rarely found in stories of the "Chosen one".

As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that Elisa's insecurities are not simply a minor matter, but the crux on which her hero's story is built. Elisa's status as Alejandro's wife is kept secret in her new home, and she is uncomfortably aware of her "other" state. Beyond that, her status as the "chosen" (in this case, bearer of the Godstone) complicates her ability to live a normal life. Her nurse is a bodyguard, her status kept secret, and she is ultimately kept in the dark about much of the Godstone's history.

It's from this position that The Girl of Fire and Thorns takes off into wildly unexpected realms. Elisa undergoes the standard heroes journey, but her growth is genuine and believable. The story takes place over many months, during which Elisa forms believable relationships with the people around her. She's a complex character, lacking in certain forms of confidence, yet excelling in others. In one scene, she essentially muses over "fake until you make it", mimicking her more confident older sister to achieve her means. Elisa is also skilled in matters of military strategy, but we see this as a natural offshoot of her curiosity, less as a result of Mary-Sue perfection.

Much of the book focuses on confidence, largely seen through the lens of Elisa's weight. As I mentioned earlier, Elisa is a bit strange in this regard for a young adult heroine - she is not physically fit, particularly tough, or adept at playing the, ahem, game of thrones (sorry, I couldn't resist). She is, however, a sharp military mind, brave in her own way, and trying desperately to forge her own path in life. We see this reflected in the way her weight is viewed by those around her - those who recognize her even after a significant physical change (due, I should emphasize, to a legitimate plot point and not some fluffed up "progression"), those who view her weight as a nonissue (someone who casually references fitting into her old, bigger dresses in the form of a compliment), and Elisa herself, who responds to her weight loss by marveling at her own body without obsessing over it, and recognizing that she may regain some of that weight and it wouldn't be the end of the world.

Another important theme - and more plot relevant - is that of religion and faith. Like many fantasies, there's a level on which faith in The Girl of Fire and Thorns is irrelevant - there is magic, there is a Godstone, and so there clearly is a god. And yet the novel observes faith as sharply as it might be viewed in the real world. Yes, Elisa has a certain level of "proof" that her god exists, yet she doesn't understand god's motives or plans for her. The physical evidence may cheapen the effect somewhat, but religion is tackled here in an honest way that is rarely seen in young adult literature (or adult literature, for that matter). Elisa is not always certain of the religious ceremonies and traditions that rule her life. There is a journey of faith in the book, but Carson makes sure not to alienate readers by keeping the morals somewhat vague. Though the religion is clearly Judeo-Christian in style (monotheistic, with many phrases that echo Judeo-Christian values), the god of The Girl of Fire and Thrones did not feel defined enough to possibly offend readers of other religions and faiths.

These themes - confidence and faith - are only two ways in which The Girl of Fire and Thorns manages to eschew expectations. From a plotting perspective, Carson keeps things tight and believable, with a balanced timeline and good spacing. Almost all of the characters were given more than one dimension, most were even lucky to get to three. Carson, unlike almost every other author ever, also acknowledges when she isn't giving enough attention to a character: Elisa notes at some point how little she knows of one of her traveling companions because he is so quiet. It's a small moment, but it adds tremendous depth to a world that's already surprisingly broad. By acknowledging that Elisa is not aware of everyone - by tossing the notion of the "red-shirt" - Carson subtly builds a world that goes far beyond its tight, core cast.

The book is not flawless. While most of the book is carefully built and well defined, the last few pages felt disappointingly rushed, mostly in that I could not easily visualize the action occurring onscreen (even after rereading it). Small movements seemed to get lost as the story lurches towards its climax, in a scene that also felt a little clumsily written. In general, the writing is that first-person present-tense that is so common in young adult literature today, but is never really to my liking. It's not bad, but it's definitely not my favorite.

All in all, I was incredibly surprised by The Girl of Fire and Thorns and look forward to its sequels most eagerly. In a market that can easily seem saturated with sloppy fantasies and dystopias, this is a novel that deserves its own space. It's not necessarily the most unique premise for a story, but the way it develops its characters and the way it builds its world certainly is something special. Readers - younger and older - may find themselves with a lot to think over and discuss by the end.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

WITMonth | Retrospective

It's taken me a while to settle down in the post-WITMonth excitement. After a month of posting nearly every single day (I missed a couple due to illness...), I needed some time to think over what happened in August, and what would happen in the future. I've already floated my proposal for WITMonth 2015, but of course it's a long way off. For now, we need a little bit of a retrospective.

So what happened in Women in Translation Month? I'm not sure how many people actively followed the page updates or the tags, but here's the short of it: we looked at a lot of books by women in translation. As you can tell from the consolidated page, there were a lot of reviews. True, certain books/authors received far more attention than others and yes, we mostly read books from Western Europe, but overall there's a pleasant spread to the books.

This, though, isn't my main afterthought from WITMonth. What I'm seeing now - over the past couple days, in comments and tweets and people's booklists and reviews - is the remainders, books left over that will be read throughout the year.

Here's my struggle: there's nothing I can do about publishers who hold sexist beliefs that women don't write as well as men (except direct them to my paltry piece about that). But there are still ways to work with publishers who simply never noticed, or never gave it much thought. I am hardly the first person to write about the disparity in women in translation, nor do I for a moment tell myself that I'm the most influential. But WITMonth provided us - the readers, the reviewers, the community - with an organized opportunity to remind publishers that the disparity exists, to get even more readers aware, and to provide a good platform from which we can recommend titles

We did that.

There's not much I can say at this point except to say once again thank you - thank you to everyone who participated, in whatever way it may have been. Thank you for caring about this issue. Thank you for being involved. I'm now working on finding a good platform for the big database of books by women in translation, which has grown tremendously thanks to many of you. I hope WITMonth was as interesting an experience for you as it was for me, and I'd love to hear your thoughts as we move forward.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

WITMonth 2015?

I'm going to put up a full post-WITMonth post sometime later this week, but for now I present my half-baked ideas for WITMonth 2015, as per a few requests. This is a process and a group project, so please, if you have ideas or thoughts or disagreements, discuss in the comments or privately (by email). As I've said before - this is a long-term thing, and would not exist without your involvement. So once again: thank you!



Saturday, August 30, 2014

WITMonth Day 30 - Historical fiction

I've been a bit sick the past couple days (hence missing two days in a row of posts...), so today's post will also be a little light on the meat. Instead, I'll just plop down a literal list of a couple WITty historical fiction:
  • The Budding Tree by Aiko Kitahara - I've already mentioned this one as one of my favorite underrated titles, so it shouldn't be so surprising to see it crop up on a list of my recommended historical fiction. The Budding Tree is a great historical account of women living in Edo, as well as a beautiful character piece.
  • Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall - I didn't get a chance to review this novella over WITMonth (even though I did actually read it this month!), but I think it comfortably falls under the category of historical with its sharply tuned eye for the Holocaust.
  • The Time in Between (or The Seamstress) by María Dueñas - This one doesn't get talked about much in the more "literary" circles (perhaps because of its marketing, perhaps because it really is much more of a straight-up historical fiction book) but it really is quite good. It's the sort of novel that you get sucked into pleasantly, and manages to surprise you nonetheless. I read it a couple years ago and enjoyed it quite a bit, gaining more appreciation for its styling over time.
These are only a couple that come to mind, while there are many others out there which I have not yet read. Any recommendations?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

WITMonth Day 27 - Untranslated masterpieces

For today, I'm going to cheat just a little and refer readers to Day 15, when I talked about Israeli women writers I feel deserve to be translated. But of course there are many untranslated masterpieces beyond what I discussed, and many more books that I'm simply incapable of knowing...

Monday, August 25, 2014

WITMonth Day 25 - Faces in the Crowd | Review

Though I wasn't aware of Valeria Luiselli before preparations began for WITMonth, the closer we got to August the more posts and reviews of her books began cropping up on my radar. The praise was overwhelming - recognition of her prose, her style and her clever writing. I knew that I'd have to read one of her books (both translated by Christina MacSweeney), and so I opted for the novel - Faces in the Crowd.

Here I must admit to being a little less enamored than most other reviewers. I appreciated a lot of what Luiselli tried to do in her slim little book and recognize the literary talent behind it, yet truthfully I found much of it a bit tedious and, despite its short length, long-winded. Faces in the Crowd is comprised of short blurbs (sometimes only a sentence) that cover alternating stories: a young translator in New York, a mother of two writing in Mexico, and a writer in the US in the early 20th century. These three narratives overlap (particularly near the end) in what can only be described as "fiction wrapped in fiction". Luiselli takes some level of pride in her unreliable narrative - the seeming "frame" story (of the mother) is often contradicted by her husband, yet her husband in each of these stories is himself a fictional character... contradicting his fictional aspects.

This turns the entire story into an extremely meta form of fiction. There is no objective truth, because everything is a fiction. There is no clear character, because none seem to exist. While certain figures remain as fixtures (the boy, for example, remains constant throughout the mother's story, as does his baby sister), others are built fluidly and vaguely. It's unclear who the narrator of the modern New York story is - it starts out as the mother, then merges with the 1920s. Meanwhile, the husband (perhaps the most fictional character of all) decries these stories as pure fantasy (lies), but in one segment he "shouts" this, and in the next asks why his wife wrote those words down, he never actually said them.

All of these fragments are interspersed with little notes on Gilberto Owen, a poet with whom the translator/mother is obsessed with. Owen himself only becomes a main character when his own narrative enters the story (relatively late in the book), and it was at this point that I found my attention slipping. His stories felt repetitive and looped, with lots of name dropping and fictional name dropping that didn't really further the story. His perspective of course casts a lot of doubt on the other story as it overlaps more and more, but I found it... less convincing. I felt that Owen's story could have been presented differently, and though it's obviously a brilliant piece of writing, it didn't really hold my interest so well.

When it comes to the writing though... this book reigns. Faces in the Crowd has some of the best styling of any book I've read in a long time, with some truly brilliant ideas and riffs and games. The writing is quick, deceptive, clever and extremely put-together, with a sense of control that is fairly rare in books of this sort. It's also deceptively simple: short sentences, sure, but they form to create a confusing, complex landscape. Plus, there's this brilliant riff that repeats itself throughout the book: "A horizontal novel, narrated vertically". Luiselli constantly references the shape and format of this novel (or is it the fictional novel...?) in beautiful phrases that I wanted to frame and mount on the wall.

It comes down to this: there were some major aspects that frustrated me with Faces in the Crowd, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a fairly brilliant book. I didn't like all of it and also find fault in some of its more ambitious attempts, but the writing is very, very good and the ideas - though flawed - create a narrative that is both interesting and distinct. And while it took me a long time to get through it, this is not a particularly heavy, difficult read, yet it is quite rewarding. Definitely worthwhile.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

WITMonth Day 24 - America, America!

Welcome all to the final week of WITMonth! Now, having fully exhausted one half of the globe and its many literary treasures, we may turn towards the "New World", and the plethora of fine women in translation found there.

The Americas, of course, is not as limited in scope as we may think. Though the diversity of language is relatively slim (Spanish, Portuguese and French being the main three), there is huge diversity of country, culture, background, and style. Thus we have the magical realism largely associated with South America alongside the often coldly rich writing of Quebec. We have stories of magic, immigration, the future, and the past. We have histories of peoples who no longer exist, and tales of civilizations yet to rise.

This continent brings us mixed rewards - Quebec stands apart from all other parts of the world as the only region to host more women writers in translation than men, while Latin America distinguishes itself in especially poor representations of women writers. This week will see us pointing towards writers known (and less known), as we fit the final pieces of the WITMonth puzzle...

Hello, my name is...

Hello! My name is Meytal. It's nice to finally meet you all.

As some of you will know, I've been anonymous for a long time - since the advent of this blog, actually. I've gotten a lot of interesting theories over the years as to my "true identity", some fairly accurate and others wildly off-base. In recent months, I've started to open up a bit more about my age, and many of you have also guessed my gender as well (largely, I think, because it's still considered weird for men to directly address feminist causes?). And yet I've received some unpleasant comments for remaining anonymous, and it forced me to ask the tough questions: Why was I still anonymous? What was I afraid of?

Questions which are answered in my introductory video below. I'm going to be making more of these videos - about women in translation month, about books I read that I don't feel like reviewing in print, about random book-related issues that I think are particularly interesting - but will by no means be abandoning this blog. These videos are a supplement, and an easy way to start moving past my hesitance in sharing about myself online.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

WITMonth Day 23 - Brief thoughts on genre fiction

Some of the claims to counter the poor translation rates of women writers has to do with the myth that women write more "genre" fiction than men. I don't want to delve too deeply into that myth in this post (I'll do that another time, don't worry...), but let's give a couple examples of women writers in genre anyways, and a few good resources for readers interested in finding more genre women in translation. As always, please leave more recommendations in the comments! This post in particularly is a bit half-baked, so definite apologies for any glaring omissions...

First of all, anyone interested in sci-fi/fantasy should check out Cheryl Morgan's blog - she's been posting tons of wonderful WITMonth pieces and recommendations, particularly for sci-fi and fantasy writers. Lots to explore there... go check it out!

Next, there's my own obsession admiration of Angélica Gorodischer. I've written about her quite a bit, but really, if I haven't convinced you by now that you should read Kalpa Imperial... I'm just going to keep trying. Read it. It's phenomenal. I'm also going to refer once again to Cornelia Funke (last mentioned in my post about kids/YA books) - her fantasy writing may be geared towards children, but it's rich and rewarding as well.

I'm not a huge thriller/mystery fan myself, but there's no denying there's quite a bit of different eligible books here: I've heard quite a few recommendations for Juli Zeh, for example, and have encountered Camilla Läckberg quite a bit as well. Here, I encourage checking out blogs like Reading Matters, which doesn't specialize in either genre fiction or literature in translation, yet covers quite a bit of both. I know I'm missing a lot here (being largely unfamiliar with the field...) - feel free to share your favorites below!

Finally, a quick list: Sun-mi Hwang's fantasy-fable The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, fantasy elements in Yoko Ogawa's Revenge, and Isabel Allende's magical realism - all different forms of "genre", each literary and unique in their own ways.

Those are my quick jots... who have I missed?

Friday, August 22, 2014

WITMonth Day 22 - Anthologies? More like manthologies

One of the ideas that's cropped up in the comments here for finding new authors has been exploring different anthologies to find new and perhaps more obscure women writers in translation. While this idea at first seemed a little minor to me, I quickly realized that it's actually brilliant - a lot of authors have their short stories translated long before their full-length works are.

I was so very excited. I really, really shouldn't have been.

You see, anthologies largely reflect the literary culture around them. Yes, you can occasionally find a book like Cubana (which I recently stumbled across and picked up at a used bookstore) that is dedicated to women writers in particular, but most anthologies give a broader spread. And most are so, so male.

Here's a quick rundown of the four anthologies I checked out from the library this week:

  1. Contemporary Georgian Fiction - 4 out of 20 stories are by women. 20%, less than the overall translation average
  2. Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories - 9 out of 52 stories are by women. 17%, less than the overall translation average
  3. Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories - 9 out of 35 stories are by women. 26%, just around the average
  4. Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused: Fiction from Today's China - 5 out of 20. 25%, just below the overall average
I won't pretend that I'm not discovering some old-new writers in these collections, or that because some focus on older literature it may justify the relatively low ratios. I won't pretend that they aren't doing good work for literature overall. I also won't dismiss them entirely, considering the higher male-to-female ratio in other anthologies (though when I say "higher", I mean around 33%...).

However. This is something we need to bear in mind. When we look at translations, we also need to look at short stories and at anthologies and at collections. Until now, I had sort of hoped that these collections would reflect better on translation rates than the current landscape. But it turns out that these collections - including more recently published ones, such as the Georgian collection (from 2012) - mirror the problems found elsewhere, and indeed often give us worse results.

I will continue to use collections and anthologies as a resource, for all writers. But once again we see the problem that led to the very initiation of WITMonth - where are the women writers? We keep searching, and we keep discussing. This is the only solution.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

WITMonth Day 21 - Some Contemporary Russian Reading Ideas | Guest post

Today's post marks a special occasion on the blog - the first ever guest/cross-post! Many thanks to Lisa of the excellent Lizok's Bookshelf for writing the post, originally published here (reblogged with permission).


When the blogger known as Biblibio invited me to write a guest post for Women in Translation Month—it’s right now, this August—I was quick to agree to write something for both our blogs. For one thing, I’ve been enjoying Biblibio’s posts for years. For another, I knew it would be easy to put together a list of wonderful female Russian writers; I’ve even translated a book and two stories by a couple of them. Best of all, it’s always fun to make lists like this by remembering good books and the people who write them. Here are some of my favorites.

Margarita Khemlin is one of my very favorite writers, both because I love her books and stories, and because she’s one of the first writers I chose to translate. I started reading Khemlin with her first book, the story collection The Living Line, and moved on to her novels—Klotsvog, Krainii (The Endman), and The Investigator—reading each as soon as I could after it was published. Margarita’s stories and novels are generally about life in eastern Ukraine, and I particularly love the language she uses to tell, with quiet but dark humor and occasional dialogue in surzhik, a combination of Ukrainian and Russian, about Jewish heritage and the never-ending effects of World War 2. I’ve published translations of two of Margarita’s stories from The Living Line: “Basya Solomonovna’s Third World War” appeared in Two Lines (the “Counterfeits” edition, 2011) and was reprinted in the Read Russia! anthology, too (PDF download); “Shady Business” came out in issue 17 of Subtropics earlier this year. “Shady Business” took me forever: I knew the words (and got great help from Misha Klimov, a local colleague, on the ones I didn’t, those being the surzhik) but wanted to be sure I was capturing the emotions of elderly characters who’d survived the war. I still can’t believe how much feeling and history Margarita can pack into so few, seemingly simple, words. I’m sure that’s why I love her writing so much.

Marina Stepnova's novel The Women of Lazarus also looks at history, through an unconventional family saga that begins just after the Russian Revolution and continues to the present, focusing on various women in the life of Lazar Lindt, the Lazarus in the title. I loved the novel’s combination of history, various forms of poshlost’, postmodernism, and cultural commentary when I read it but didn’t truly appreciate how much Stepnova had achieved until I was working on a late draft of my translation. (The many, many levels of new-found appreciation I find through translation are a big reason I love translating so much.) Stepnova, a literary magpie, fills her novel with colorful and changeable language, historical perspectives and figures (Beria has a cameo), Soviet science, references to pre-revolutionary cookery, and ballet. Among other things. But everything comes together, creating an almost ridiculously readable and comprehensive novel about the meaning of family and the meaning of country and culture and heritage. Among other things… it’s a very rewarding book that can be read on many levels.

Alisa Ganieva won notice by winning the Debut Prize for the novella Salam, Dalgat!, which she wrote under the male pseudonym Gulla Khirachev because of taboos against a woman writing about a world that is “absolutely male.” I loved Salam, Dalgat! for its story of a day in the life of a man searching Makhachkala, Dagestan, for a relative. As I wrote earlier, “With its mixture of humor, tradition (wife stealing even gets a mention, though a character says that’s a Chechen habit), and a sense of alarm about the future, Salam, Dalgat! felt unusually energetic and organic, all as poor Dalgat, seeking but never quite managing to find, trots along, a perfectly agreeable, generally patient, nearly blank slate of a character, the ideal figure for a reader like me, who’s never been to Makhachkala, to follow.” Translations of Ganieva’s writing are available and on the way: Nicholas Allen’s translation of Salam, Dalgat! appears in the anthology Squaring the Circle (Glas, 2011), Marian Schwartz’s translation of the story “Shaitans” is in the Read Russia! anthology (PDF download), and Carol Apollonio’s translation of The Russian Wall (Праздничная гора) will be published next summer by Deep Vellum.

Since I’ve been so chatty about the first three writers, I’ll keep things shorter and limit myself to brief notes on four more writers I’ve especially enjoyed reading. Each has a story in the same Read Russia! anthology I mentioned above and each has at least one novel already out in English translation… I’ve read quite a few books and stories by Ludmila Ulitskaya and think my favorite is probably Sincerely Yours, Shurik, which has never been translated into English. Of those that exist in English, I particularly enjoyed the polyphonic Daniel Stein, Interpreter, (which Arch Tate translated for The Overlook Press) about a Polish Jew who works for a Nazi officer and dies a Carmelite monk in Israel. The Big Green Tent is on the way, too, in Bela Shayevich’s translation… And then there’s Olga Slavnikova, whose 2017—beautifully stuffed with gems, metaphors, and plot lines—won the Russian Booker. I particularly enjoyed the expedition scenes and carnivalistic episodes; Marian Schwartz translated 2017 for The Overlook Press… Maria Galina’s Mole Crickets appealed to me because of the voice Galina creates for her narrator, a man who rewrites books (e.g. a classic by Joseph Conrad) by incorporating clients into the plot lines. Though Mole Crickets hasn’t been translated, Amanda Love Darragh won the Rossica Prize for translating Iramifications, published in 2008 by Glas… Finally, there’s Anna Starobinets, whose Sanctuary 3/9 kept me up late at night: the novel’s combination of folk tale motifs, suspense, and creepiness is perfect. Sanctuary hasn’t been translated into English but three other Starobinets books have: An Awkward Age, translated by Hugh Aplin for Hesperus; The Living, translated by James Rann for Hesperus; and The Icarus Gland, coming this fall from James Rann and Skyscraper Publications.

Happy reading! And a big, huge thanks to Biblibio for the invitation... and all this month’s posts about books written by women.

Disclaimers: I’ve translated work by some of the writers mentioned in this post and met all of them, if only briefly. I work on occasional projects for Read Russia and have translated a book for Glas: appropriately enough, it’s Russian Drama: Four Young Female Voices, with four very diverse plays by Yaroslava Pulinovich, Ksenia Stepanycheva, Ekaterina Vasilyeva, and Olga Rimsha.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

WITMonth Day 20 - Underrated is subjective | Thoughts

For today's prompt, I encouraged readers to think about underrated titles/authors. This is a difficult subject to discuss, because it's extremely personal. One person's favorite author may be another's unknown, unheard of masterpiece. Ratings and accessibility are subjective, so everything I write in this post will obviously be wrong for many other readers. And yet.

For me, the term "underrated" carries with it significance regarding where I've seen reference to the book. For example, a book that's been reviewed by a major outlet (like the New York Times, or the LA Times, or Three Percent, etc.) is considered... fairly rated, in my mind. There are also other books that get this treatment - I look at a writer like Elena Ferrante who appears on almost every literature in translation blog, whose books appear even in chain bookstores, and whose writing has been profiled in several different review publications. While it's true that she's not a household name like other writers and may perhaps count as underrated in the larger picture, I think the acclaim she's received within certain circles excludes her from my personal definition.

So now... who do I think is truly underrated?

Of course my first answer has to be Angelica Gorodischer - sure, she's far from underrated on this blog, but I unfortunately do not see very many mentions of her name/writings beyond my own. She's been reviewed in Three Percent and on Tor.com (the latter was my introduction to her, curiously enough), but not much beyond. She should be everywhere, and we deserve more of her books translated, pronto.

My next underrated title would probably have to be the woefully unknown The Budding Tree, by Aiko Kitahara. This book is lovely and fascinating and a wonderful read, yet I discovered it only through my extensive searches of the Dalkey Archive... archives. It seems that the book was not entirely ignored upon publication (several years ago), yet to me it seems like the sort of book that deserves more recognition and deserves a longer shelf life. If you've never heard of it or read it - do that now.

Finally we've got Inger Christensen. I've written about her a bunch, I know, but it's because she really is one of the best poets I've ever read. She deserves to be a household name, particularly among poetry lovers. Go read her works. Now. Shoo.

These are just three. And this list is so short largely because I don't feel I've had an opportunity to read many of the truly unknown women writers in translations. I get many of my recommendations from larger outlets, and many more from other readers. Yes, I read many well-rated books. But even among my stack of well-known and lesser-known titles, these are three writers who deserve more attention than what they get. They deserve to stand the test of time, and to have new readers still aware of them five, ten, fifteen years down the line.

And while you go check them out, I'm going to continue searching for those other underrated authors I don't know yet.