Monday, October 13, 2014

Women in translation database and request


Please contact me if you're interested in helping or if you have any possible resources! Your help has made the current work-in-progress database as large as it is (over 1200 titles, and growing!), and will continue to make it the best possible resource for readers seeking women writers in translation.

Thank you!

Women in translation prize? Women in translation prize!

Here's some brilliant news: Katy Derbyshire (translator and blogger of Love German Books) is organizing a new prize for books by women writers in translation. This is something I can get all over.
What I want is a women's prize for translated fiction; a little sister to the Bailey's Prize, for instance. It would raise awareness for great women's writing from the non-Anglophone world rather than for great non-Anglophone writing by women. I know that's a subtle distinction but I think it's an important one.
This is some of the best news in the women in translation front I've ever seen (even if I'm posting about it at an embarrassing delay). I have often emphasized on this blog the need for awareness and discussion and analysis, because I truly believe those to be important. Yet there is no denying the fact that action trumps all. Actually reading books by women in translation, actually recognizing books by women in translation and actually raising books by women in translation is pivotal. This award will hopefully lead to all three.

Check it out!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Shades of Milk and Honey | Review

So you know how some books are serious, intellectually stimulating, thoughtful and important? Well, Shades of Milk and Honey is not really any of those things, but instead it's a fun, lovely piece of escapism that achieves what it sets out to do marvelously and managed to keep me entertained all evening long.

Shades of Milk and Honey is billed as a sort of cross between Jane Austen and standard fantasy, and this sort of description is accurate enough in explaining its general format. Mary Robinette Kowal's writing in no way resembles Austen's (to use a word Kowal seems overly fond of, Austen's writing is a bit more "droll"), but the styling and personality match a lot of modern interpretations of Austen's style. Kowal uses little tricks to make the writing feel older ("shew", "surprize", etc.), and while they're clearly modernized and indeed the writing feels very, very contemporary at times, these small touches nonetheless create the sort of Austen-esque aura that Kowal was hoping for.

In truth, Shades of Milk and Honey reads much more like standard historical-fiction-romance than it does like Austen, but here the fantasy aspects come in and turn a fairly middling book into something much nicer. In Kowal's world, magic can be used to create various glamours, largely used by women in adding small touches to paintings, or music, or for small performances. Glamours may also be used to alter one's appearance (for a short time, since working glamour can make you ill), an interesting (if minor) point about appearances that Kowal underplays nicely. However, these glamours are also used for grander artistic effect, and much of the story revolves around one such glamourist and his relationship with our main character (a "plain Jane", no less).

Kowal does a lovely job of making her magic seem utterly real. It's viewed much like other artistic styles - something that needs to be learned, studied, and honed, but also relies on native talent. Throughout the book, Kowal explores different aspects of art through the glamour - performance art, visual art, and music as well - in a surprisingly in-depth way. It's not a brilliant meditation on the subject, but it provides depth to an otherwise largely straight-forward novel.

I liked Shades of Milk and Honey a lot, but I liked it in the same way that I like watching a lot of period dramas - it's meant more for the mood and styling than anything else. The story is extremely predictable and there were a few missed opportunities in the characterizations (particularly regarding Jane's younger sister Melody, who I wanted to see more of). And of course the writing is not really Austen-like, it's Austen-lite. There's a distinct lack of any social commentary, which I felt was another missed opportunity. Only one scene really touched on the matter, but it handled it quite well and I hope to see more care given to it in the sequels. Yes, I'll be reading the sequels - this was a wonderful way to spend an evening. The glamour adds the necessary touch to an otherwise standard romance, transforming it into a sweet and enjoyable historical-fantasy romp.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Wayfarer: New Fiction By Korean Women | Review

Before I begin this review, it's important to note that I don't feel particularly qualified in reviewing a short story collection. Short stories by one author - okay, sure, I can handle it. There's a fluidity to those books (or at least, there should be), there's a structure, there's a single underlying style that runs through the stories. With an anthology, however, there's usually very little - the styles, eras, approaches, plots, and even translators may vary. Anthologies are not necessarily meant to be read in a single sitting.

Wayfarer, however, ends up feeling a lot more like a single-author collection than a big anthology. I read it in a single sitting. It was translated by the same team (Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, at it again). There are similar themes of womanhood running through all the stories. And goodness if the collection doesn't feel whole.

Wayfarer comprises of eight stories that look at women from different angles. Most of the stories deal with women's relations with men, in some form or other, but the stories remain firmly about women. A daughter is forced to reconcile with a Communist father she's never met. A journalist struggles with a story about a man who was imprisoned for twenty years and how it relates to her own rebellious past. Mothers deal with children, wives deal with husbands, women deal with the world and try to face it, sometimes more successfully than others.

These stories are largely melancholic, with our women finding few solutions to their problems. The title story (also the final story in the collection) displays this brutally, in a sequence that left me unsettled for a while after I finished it. Some of the stories are outright uncomfortable, but they seem at home with this discomfort, knowing exactly how the reader will respond.

Not all of the stories are necessarily brilliant on their own, and some of them are downright forgettable. But as a collection, the book works fantastically. Depressing as some of the gender dynamics may be in these stories, they present a fascinating portrait of modern Korean women (from 17 years ago, yes, but still). The stories fit together nicely, without any extreme tone-shifts from writer to writer, but clear enough differences between them to make it apparent that these are many different writers.

While the book is no longer in print, and its publisher (Women in Translation - !) seems to no longer exist, I'd recommend reading the collection if you can get your hands on it. I've still not read enough Korean literature to truly gauge different cultural aspects of the stories, but I feel like I'm gaining a better grasp of it with every book I read.

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.