Monday, February 26, 2024

The Ukraine

The Ukraine / Artem Chapeye
trans. from the Ukrainian by Zenia Tompkins
NY: Seven Stories Press, c2024.
272 p.

This is a recent translation, a collection of fiction and non-fiction by Artem Chapeye. Zenia Tompkins of the translation agency TAULT is focusing on writing by those involved in the war this year, and this is one of those works. 

Chapeye is fairly well known as a journalist, but the title short story The Ukraine is one that was published previously in the New Yorker (in 2022). This fiction plays with "The", an article that is contentious in English -- he refers to "The" Ukraine as something shallow, surface; Ukraine as seen by outsiders, in stereotypical ways. It's a strong story, which finishes this collection. 

This book is made up of 26 short pieces, many of which mix the idea of fiction/non-fiction. Some of them are reportage, of Chapeye's many trips around regions of Ukraine on his motorbike. They all engage with the idea of Ukraine, with expectations, regional differences and the idea of one country. It's a really good read. 

The only thing I found a little difficult was the mix of fiction & non-fiction, from one piece to another. I would have like to see the non-fiction first, followed by stories. However, since some are a mix of each, perhaps that was too complicated. In any case, even if it isn't clearly indicated which is which, I did find that it was fairly easy to figure out as each began. And all of them were interesting and well worth reading. 

The new intro to this collection was written by Chapeye on his phone, while on the front lines. It's a perfect intro to his works on the idea of Ukraine, on the essence of Ukrainians. Recommended. 


Monday, February 19, 2024

Ukraine - A Spring for the Thirsty

Ukraine: A Spring for the Thirsty / ed. by Arthur Thompson
Dupond, c2022.
252 p.

Ukraine has been on my mind even more as we head up to the 2 year mark of the Russian invasion. I have been looking for some more Ukrainian reading, and came across this collection of interviews with five publishers and four translators, all talking about the actuality of translating work from Ukrainian (mostly to English). I am interested in having more Ukrainian fiction translated, and I am interested in translation itself, so I thought I might like this. I wasn't prepared for how fascinating I found it! 

It covers a lot of ground, although it was published in 2022, so a lot of it was researched and written prior to the full scale invasion, which has changed a lot -- including how many people are now aware of Ukraine. However, there were a few mentions of it in some of the conversations. 

The book interviews four translators - Uilleam Blacker, Mark Andryczyk, Michael M. Naydan, and one of my favourites, Nina Murray. They each talk about how they got into translating Ukrainian literature, and some of their ideas about future projects. There's also discussion of the details of translating, from the actual work to finding publishers for books they'd like to translate. 

The publishers interviewed start with Osnovy Publishing in Kyiv - a long-time publisher of Ukrainian language books and classics & non-fiction. When the current owner took it over from her parents a decade ago, she found that that formula wasn't working, and has moved to kids books, photo books and mainly English language publishing. It's a fascinating discussion of the way the book scene has changed, and what they do to keep Ukrainian literature flowing. 

Then we meet Lost Horse Press, a Seattle based poetry publisher. They have a Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Series, in which most collections are published in a dual-language format. Their series editor is an academic specializing in Slavic studies, who also does translations from Ukrainian and Russian. This conversation covers a lot about the independent publishing scene in the US and what it's like to publish poetry as a small press. Also about how bigger houses don't want to take as many risks on 'unknown' literatures like Ukrainian. Really interesting overall, and now I have a list of poetry books to read. 

Next up is Glagoslav Publications, which publishes only in digital format (my library has many of their ebooks, which is a great help to me!) They operate from Ukraine, England and the Netherlands, and publish Ukrainian works as well as Russian, Belorusian, Georgian and the like, books from the wider region. They say they prefer classics as many of those have not been shared with the English speaking world, but at the time of the interview, they noted that there isn't the support for Ukrainian translations (ie: grants and government support) as for others like Polish literature. Hopefully that is now changing! This is a long-standing publisher so it was intriguing to see how they develop and what they focus on. 

Then we have Jantar Press, based in the UK and focused on publishing English translations of Central and Eastern European literature. They have one Ukrainian translation that I'm aware of, Andriy Lyubka's Carbide. It's interesting how the same issues come up in every interview - scarcity of translators from Ukrainian, few grants or governmental push to spread Ukrainian literature. 

And finally there is Deep Vellum, based in Dallas, and much better known already than it was just a few years ago. They've published a few excellent Ukrainian books so far, by big names like Serhiy Zhadan and Andriy Kurkov. The interview goes over some of their titles and the translators they've worked with, and also talks about the mechanics of running a small press interested in translations. 

Anyhow, these are not short interviews -- they are all lengthy and interesting and bring up different perspectives and ideas. I was so enthused by the idea of new translations by the end that I certainly hope the translators that were interviewed are getting more work now! 

And one more unmissable bit of this book is the Bibliography at the end. Absolutely invaluable. As they say, there are so few translations from Ukrainian that it is actually possible to make a list of them all -- they do note that their list can't be guaranteed to be comprehensive, but it's pretty close. It lists all Ukrainian fiction that has been translated into English between 1890-2022. There will be a bunch more to add since 2022 and continuing forward, probably more than the last ten years together. But this is a fantastic resource and a great reading list for anyone aiming to read more Ukrainian literature. They also mention the small excerpts of translations that can be found in journals like Apofenie or World Literature Today, or Ukrainian Literature: a Journal of Translations. Great places to check out. 

So you can see from my very wordy review of this book that I found it so good, so thorough, so intriguing. I hope that people interested in translation in general will find this one as it gives such a good look at publishing translations from a less trendy literature. So much to think about, and also a fabulous reading list included to get you started. Highly recommended. 

Sunday, January 28, 2024

A Tale of Two Families

A Tale of Two Families / Dodie Smith
London, UK: Hesperus Press, 2015, c1970.
272 p.

Following on from Yoshimoto's Premonition, I picked up another story of families and strange relationships. Not intentionally - but I absolutely adore Smith's I Capture the Castle so thought I'd read this one when it appeared in my library catalogue. 

If I'd read this first I would probably have never picked up another Dodie Smith book. It's bland, the time it's set is uncertain (50s? 60s?), the characters are not compelling, and there is far too much inbreeding going on. May and June are two middle aged sisters married to two brothers, George and Robert. June and Robert are much less well off, and when May decides they are all moving to the country (partly to deter George's womanizing) she invites June and her family to live at no cost in the cottage on the grounds. Each sister has two children, around the same ages. The eldest of each, Corinna and Hugh, are quite certain that they are going to marry each other. Despite their being close cousins with both parental sets siblings. Another ick! 

June has a hidden passion for George, her brother in law who seems much more vibrant and successful than Robert. This enforced isolation and togetherness brings that feeling out more than is useful. But other than this little spark, not much else happens in their country retreat. Hugh meets the daughter of the big house, who is odd and very countrified but there is a possible wrench in the works of his expected future there. 

My favourite characters were the grandparents -- May and June's mother Fran, a stylish city woman who tries not to interfere and is still youthful and involved with her own life, and George and Robert's father Baggy (nickname) who is an old duffer being taken care of by his daughters-in-law in turn. I thought these two characters were interesting and individual, with interests beyond their love affairs and domestic rounds. 

But this story felt a bit unfinished and inconsequential; alongside the apparently quite accepted notion of double cousins marrying, this really didn't add up for me. I didn't much like it, it's not funny or striking or even very memorable. Disappointing indeed! I will try a couple of others by Smith that I haven't yet read, but I don't think any of her later fiction will match up to I Capture the Castle

Saturday, January 20, 2024

The Premonition

The Premonition / Banana Yoshimoto
trans. from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda
Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2023, c1988.
144 p.

I really love Banana Yoshimoto. So I was delighted when I saw that there was a new translation of one of her earlier books. I got it from the library as soon as I could, and started in.

It's a very Yoshimoto book - disaffected main character, odd family configurations, intense melancholy/nostalgia, slow moving with lots of quiet moments. I enjoyed much of that. 

The main character, Yayoi, is 19, from a stable nuclear family, but starting to feel like she's missing something. She feels more connected to Yukino, her odd recluse aunt, recently, and decides to go stay with her. Maybe in her aunt's odd way of living, Yayoi will find the peace she's looking for. 

Things start to shift, and Yayoi discovers that her family isn't quite what she thought it was. Then Yukino disappears, and Yayoi and her ever-cheery brother head off to look for her, encountering Yukino's love interest along the way. 

And this is where it got weird and lost me. There are two taboo relationships that appear here, the student-teacher one with Yukino and the "not really" incest relationship between Yayoi and her so-called brother. Not sure how this went over in 1988 in Japan, but it made the story too much for me now. There have been relationships on the edge in some of Yoshimoto's other books, but with this one there isn't much else to the story, so there's nothing to balance it out. I found the book a bit vague and forgettable in many ways. Definitely not my favourite Yoshimoto. Waiting for the next translation, to see if another story might live up to Kitchen or Moshi Moshi for me! 

Thursday, January 18, 2024

The Goodbye Cat


The Goodbye Cat / Hiro Arikawa
translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
Toronto, ON : Viking, 2023, c2021.
278 p.

Starting off the year with a review for the January Japanese Literature Challenge, with the second book I've read by Hiro Arikawa, the author of The Travelling Cat Chronicles. In this charming collection of seven stories, we encounter seven distinct cats and their varied owners. If you’re in the mood for domesticity with a touch of the fantastic, you’ll enjoy these tales, full of both wry talking cats and touching family stories.

There have been a number of Japanese translations in the recent past which feature cats. This one has ties to the author’s very popular first book – the final story in this collection features the original characters from The Travelling Cat Chronicles, which I really enjoyed. 

In these varied stories, there are many different kinds of families represented, with the cats often strays that are taken in. There are young children who bond with their cats, grumpy dads who soften up a little thanks to the feline influence, and moms who seem to be doing a lot of the caretaking. Having a cat commenting on family dynamics gives a bit of an outsider’s view, pointing out all the unusual things that people do – which can be amusing!

Reading this is also like a quick trip to Japan. Details about food, neighbourhoods, and social relationships make these stories richly evocative of place. But these stories are also sweet and sad, uplifting and moving. If you’re ready for some suspension of disbelief and want to hear stories from a cat’s perspective, this book might be just right for you. It's not a challenging read, with a gentle tone to most of it, just on the right side of twee. Definitely a hit for cat lovers!

Friday, January 05, 2024

Japanese Literature Challenge

The Japanese Literature Challenge is running for the 17th year, created and hosted by Dolce Bellezza. The goal is to read and review Japanese books in translation throughout January and February. 

I've participated in the past -- only one review is 'required' to participate. I have a few that I will be sharing! I do enjoy Japanese literature; in fact, it was the most frequent language in the translated books I read over 2023.  I wasn't planning on taking on any more challenges but this one is such a fun one, and I know I have books to share that fit right in :) 

If you want to join as well, go on over to her blog and grab the button. The review linkup page is a sticky post at the top of her blog so you can add your contribution whenever it's up. Have fun! 

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Best of 2023!


Already time for the yearly roundup of some of my best reads this year. I always wait until the very last possible moment to post my list; you never know what you'll come across around Christmas! I like to give every book I've read this year a chance to appear on my favourites list, no matter if I read it in the first week of January or the last few days of December. 

I also create a statistical summary each year, for my own geekish pleasure. As I've said before, I don't think of reading as a competition -- I keep track of numbers and various stats for my own interest, not to prove anything or compare myself to anyone. 

Here are my reading stats for 2023:

Total Reading: 158


Female: 147
Male: 7
Both/Neither: 4


Fiction: 112
Non Fiction: 46
Poetry: 0

In Translation: 41

Japanese: 10
Ukrainian: 8
French: 4
Spanish: 3
Korean: 3
Quebecois French: 2
Norwegian: 2
German: 2
Montenegrin: 1
Afrikaans: 1
Danish: 1
Icelandic: 1
Catalan: 1
Italian: 1
Romanian: 1

My Own Books: 33
Library Books: 121
Review Copies: 4

Rereads: 5
E-reads: 40

Author who I read the most from

Elizabeth Pewsey - 5 (plus 1 reread of this series of 5)
(also one book each by her, under varied pseudonyms, Elizabeth Edmonston & Gally Marchmont)

2023's Weird Random Stat: 
Books with Personal Names in the title: 15

I seem to have picked up my reading slightly over last year, although not in the areas of poetry or audiobooks.

Like always, I read a big majority of women authors, and quite a few more library books than my own this year. But I am happy with all the great books I am able to find through the library!


And now for the Best of 2023!

These are titles that were memorable, unusual, or caught me with their great storytelling or rich characters. Just books that hit the right note with me when I picked them up! I read a lot of good books this year -- it was hard to pick out the great ones. 

1. Best Book of the Year! 
The Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Oksana Zabuzhko was the most absorbing, memorable book of the year for me. The writing style was fresh and engaging, and the content was timely. Ranging between WWII era Ukraine and today -- well, it was originally published in 2009, so just before the Russians invaded again. But it covers so much history, and family drama, with energy and pathos and vitality. Loved this one. 

2 & 3. Two more Ukrainian books made it to my top ten reads this year. Episodic Memory by Liubov Holota was a slower paced read, with history, family, and politics all wrapped up in a more lyrical prose style and philosophy. Lots to it, although the ending still puzzles me. Ivan & Phoebe by Oksana Lutsyshyna was a new translation this year, and it's full of energy and historical truths. Through this story, not only do we encounter families and relationships but also the larger story of history and politics, and how they are all enmeshed. Very timely and compelling reading. 

4. I just finished this one a few weeks ago but it jumped to the top of my favourite reading of the year. Cross Stitch by Jazmina Barrera is a translation of a novel by a Mexican writer, which explores the role of female friendship, interspersed with the history of embroidery, to create a resonant feminist narrative. Three girls develop a strong school friendship, and the book looks back from their adult viewpoint at their past together, when one of them dies.

5. Another book with sewing content, The Seamstress of Sardinia by Bianca Pitzorno was also a really engaging historical novel starting in Sardinia in 1900 and following the century alongside a young sartina (household seamstress). It was dramatic, a bit soapy, and enjoyable both for the historical/feminist content, and for the great descriptions of sewing and the main character's occupation. 

6. I really enjoyed the random discovery of Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy series this summer. I found Unaccustomed Spirits at a thrift store, and loved it, so much that I searched out the rest of the series online (though couldn't find #1) This one is my favourite of the series, and I reread it over the holidays, as it is set during the Christmas season and it seemed suitable!

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim was a book that I ordered for myself as soon as I saw it was being issued by the British Library Women Writers series. I have nearly all of her books that are in print, and will read anything she wrote. So this was a welcome addition, and it was as arch and amusing and trenchant about the plight of women and marriage as ever. 

8. Business as Usual by Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford was a lucky find, a store novel, in epistolary format, from 1933 -- all things I love! Hilary is determined to make her way in the world and spends a year working in the book/lending library area of a large department store in London. Her eyes are opened to a world beyond her middle class upbringing. It was charming but not twee.

9. These last two were just enjoyable stories. I liked the characters and the concepts and found them easy but memorable. What You Can See From Here by Mariana Leky is set in a small German town where the residents are closely enmeshed, and the main character has to eventually make her way into the wider world. Some dark bits, but overall a read that isn't too challenging. 

10. Last pick is a recent read,
Connie Willis' The Road to Roswell. I find Willis hugely entertaining, and this one has aliens, casinos, Men in Black and unexpected romance. Very fun & imaginative. 

Besides these 10 novels, I also read two non-fiction books in particular that are worth mentioning as outstanding reads. These were both fashion/textile related. Worn by Sofi Thanhauser is a history of clothing from around the world - it covers a lot more than European history, and was fascinating. The other one is Willi Smith: Street Couture, an exhibition catalogue for a show highlighting Willi Smith, fabulous designer from the 70s & 80s. It's a series of essays by various academics and people who worked with him, and it's a social history of his times as well as the story of his career. Plus so many fantastic images!


So there's another yearly roundup of my reading. There were more books that were great reads that just missed this list of top tens, and lots of authors that I'd like to read more of. Wishing us all a new year of fabulous finds in 2024!