Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower /
Brittney Cooper
NY: St. Martin's, c2018
288 p.

This is one of the books by Black women that I found in my library last month, and I really, really liked it. Brittney Cooper is indeed eloquent, and lets the rage fly. I learned so much. 

The book is a set of personal essays, ranging between topics like sexuality, anger, women's friendships, respectability politics, exceptionalism, religion, and more. In every essay, black women's lives are centred. As the book's blurb says, 
Far too often, Black women’s anger has been caricatured into an ugly and destructive force that threatens the civility and social fabric of American democracy. But Cooper shows us that there is more to the story than that. 
She certainly does. She is both justifiably angry about a lot, and extremely eloquent. It was a pleasure to listen to this on audiobook and hear her arguments and reasoning about so many things. I appreciated having to move out of the way as not the intended audience for once, which I usually am as a white middle aged female reader, and listening to her words that are completely and thoroughly based in black women's lives. 

I found her powerful in her analysis and pointing out of social absurdities, and also often very funny. Her intelligent sarcasm was refreshing and the kind of conversation I can really engage with. There were experiences she discussed, especially those of a good girl growing up in the church, that I really resonated with myself, and recognized issues that resulted from that upbringing. This isn't a churchy book, though; there's lots of swearing, discussion of sex, women's desire, and the not so great aspects of religion, even while she recognizes faith as an important element of her life. I love the way that everything is there, and not siloed off into separate things that pretend not to co-exist. 

This was both a purely enlightening and enjoyable book. Maybe not enjoyable in terms of the subject matter, when she's bringing up racism, sexism, daily microaggressions, and oppressive history, but in the way she talks about it, shines light on it, and leaves the reader with a sense of her power and personal presence in it all. A great read. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Godmother

The Godmother / Hannelore Cayre
trans. from the French by Stephanie Smee
Toronto: ECW Press, 2019, c2017.
184 p.
I'm finishing up my #WITMonth reads with this crime novel from France. I really enjoyed it!

Patience Portefeux is a translator, Arabic to French, for the judicial system in France. She's 53, and becoming an "invisible woman". She's underpaid, living in a small apartment, and not very close to her two daughters. 

She's also the daughter of two outsiders who lived on the edges of French society when their own original countries were no longer there for them to return to. They made their living on the edges of legality, well, quite far over at various points. So she knows the routine, even though she's become respectable in her own life, for her own daughters. 

But then something happens. A crime family transporting hash to France, whom she's been following via her police translations, has a crisis. Patience is connected with them in another unexpected way, when she discovers that one of them works in her own mother's old age home. So she warns them. And then has insider knowledge that she suddenly decides to make use of. 

Patience becomes The Godmother, a mysterious drug dealer who appears out of nowhere and confounds the police, including her own sometime boyfriend, a cop himself. And what she does and how she does it is a clever reflection of societal expectations and prejudices, and the social stratification in France. 

Throughout this crime book (and don't worry, if you're like me and don't like dark gory crime, this is for you) there are statements about the corruption of the state -- how some Arabic drug dealers are arrested with great pomp and publicity, but others, including the police who profit from the same drug trade, are left to do as they please. How some people are punished for crimes that others profit by, how some people make a lot of money, but begrudge anyone else a cent. How judgments are made, both social and judicial, with a very uneven hand. This adds a strong flavour of social critique to the book, which, while it doesn't necessarily excuse some of the action, does give it more context. 

And the conclusion was satisfying, to me at least. To see Patience's decisions, to see how she reads the situation and adapts instantly, how she provides for her daughters first and then takes what she needs -- it all adds to her character. 

I really liked this one. Patience was an unusual and very believable character, and this novel has a sense of modernity and expands on a woman's role in all levels of contemporary life. Lots of issues are brought in, in a natural and fitting way, but it still reads like a crime novel and is full of interest and suspense. A great genre read to finish off this month with! 

Friday, August 28, 2020

Bitter Rose

Bitter Rose / Martine Delvaux
trans. from the French by David Homel
Montreal: Linda Leith, 2015, c2009.
105 p.
This little book is really more of a novella; it's very short. And impressionistic too, in short chapters examining years of the narrator's childhood. Although Delvaux is a Quebecoise writer, this book feels a bit France-French as well. 

A young French girl moves to a Francophone community in rural Ontario; it's awful, dreary, depressing. Her friends have names like Manon-just-Manon and are generally neglected or outcasts. And girls go missing from this town, too. The years in this village are described with calm detachment, although it's clear she wants out of this dead-end place. 

When one girl too many disappears her mother decides it's time to leave, and they move to a shiny new suburb of Ottawa. The house, the other girls nearby and the lifestyle are described in much the same tone as the earlier part of the book. And after she leaves home to strike out on her own, she discovers that one of the girls she befriended there has also gone missing. 

This is a strange little story. Not much plot, just the slightly rambling discussion of childhood to adolescence to early maturity. The years fly by with a couple of impressions pinning them down. There doesn't seem to a real point to it, and the tone is so detached that I didn't really connect with it. It's a very cool French narrative, but I felt that this theme is one that's a bit overdone, and the style didn't really catch me either, despite the writing itself being very smooth and careful and well done. 

It's like a mix of Quebec Gothic and prairie realism, but unfortunately it left me a bit cold in the end.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Translation Thursday

It's Translation Thursday! Each Thursday this month I'm going to share the translation I'm currently reading plus a few more on my reading list. Here's today's list:

Currently Reading:

Confessions / Kanae Minato
trans. from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

To Read:

Breasts and Eggs / Mieko Kawakami
trans. from the Japanese by Sam Bett & David Boyd

Strange Weather in Tokyo / Hiromi Kawakami
trans. from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell

Tokyo Ueno Station / Yu Miri
trans. from the Japanese by Morgan Giles

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Desire for Chocolate

Desire for Chocolate / Care Santos
trans. from the Catalan by Julie Wark
Richmond, Surrey, UK: Alma Books, 2015, c2014.
448 p.

I enjoyed this book, another told in three parts. I started it in July to prepare for the #WITMonth proceedings but I did find it slow going at first -- the first story was the least compelling for me, so I had to keep going and find my pace in the book. I did get there, and the next two parts were delightful. 

The book is loosely based around a chocolate pot, just big enough for three cups.The book begins with the chocolate pot being knocked off a table and broken into pieces, and Max trying to fix it, and we follow this fateful pot to its origins through the stories to come.  We are first introduced to it in a contemporary story of Barcelona, a love triangle of sorts featuring Sara, daughter of a chocolate making family, her husband Max and their friend (and Sara's sometime lover) Oriol -- they met in a chocolatier class as young people. It's told in the third person and is very modern and edgy. I wasn't taken with this story, and the affairs, and the sexual content, and the fixations of the various characters, so I did nearly put this down shortly after starting. But there was enough promise that I picked it up again and kept reading. 

The second section goes back to the 19th C. where we meet Aurora, daughter of a maidservant who has a very unexpected life ahead of her. When her mistress runs off with another man, Aurora is cast out of the house under suspicion of aiding her -- untrue, and in her anger, Aurora takes with her the chocolate pot that she'd had to prepare for that feckless mistress each morning (and was fond of scooping the dregs out for herself later.) She guiltily tries to return it for years but no luck. Her new position is as housemaid to an eccentric doctor, and over the years they develop their own charming relationship, intellectual and emotional as well. I liked this story; interestingly, it's told in the second person, a hard thing to do, but it mostly works here. 

And then the finale of the book takes us back to 17th C. Barcelona where Mariana, the wife of a famous chocolate manufacturer and official purveyor to the French court, is struggling to keep her business going in her husband's absence (pretty final absence though she is hiding that). A French delegation has come to Barcelona to find out the secret of the new chocolate mill that she has invented, carrying with them the gift of a chocolate pot made by a French princess. One of the delegates falls in love with Mariana despite himself, and this is the romance we follow. And of course, it's told in the first person. This story was swashbuckling, colourful, engaging, and lots of fun. It finishes with the moment of creation of our trusty chocolate pot, an object that now holds much more interest for the reader.

It was a risky choice to write this book in reverse chronology. The further back it went, the more interesting it got -- but I nearly didn't get there because the opening did not draw me in in the same way at all. I admired the concept though, and the decision to change the narrative perspective, too. Once I got into it, I enjoyed this book a lot, especially the second and third stories, and loved the overall arc of the narrative following an object. I did find that I had a craving for hot chocolate even in the heat wave that was occurring while I was reading this though, so beware!

I do recommend it, as it is clever, with lots of great detail, and a good concept. You might also like one story more than the others, but do give them all a chance, and you'll find they work together neatly. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The City and the House

The City & The House / Natalia Ginzburg
trans. from the Italian by Dick Davis
NY: Arcade, 2019, c1984.
312 p.

I read Natalia Ginzburg's Family Lexicon last year, and was quite taken with it. So when I saw this book I snapped it up without even realizing that it is an epistolary novel, one of my favourite forms.

There are a group of friends writing to one another here; Guiseppe is moving to America to live with his brother, it's not like he really wants to go but he doesn't want to stay either. So the book begins with goodbyes. 

And throughout the letters there are continual goodbyes -- to homes, relationships, friendships, understandings -- there is loss and disaffection permeating these blunt and honest letters. The circle of friends is centred around Lucrezia and Piero, who own Le Margherite, a rambling country house outside Rome where they go to spend weekends in the freewheeling atmosphere of a house overrun with Lucrezia's badly behaved children, and to talk and eat and interact. Even the furniture becomes vital to them. 

Guiseppe's leaving is the first crack in this circle, which then begins to crumble. Le Margherite is sold, and the friends are set adrift, losing their connections, shifting allegiances and leaving the circle altogether. They write to one another furiously, terrible sad things happen, and there is no reconciliation or return to the past. 

This is simultaneously enthralling and very sad. The style, all those letters, works beautifully to tell this story. But because it is only letters there are also those loose ends that are never fully described or explored -- you don't do that in a letter. Thus it felt like there was space around and behind what we are reading; what is going on in the time that the character isn't writing? And how do the characters truly feel about some of the dreadful things that overtake them?

This evokes a certain time in Rome, and you get a sense of these characters going about their lives from the intimacy of their voices in their letters. The sadness, the attempts to save face or put the best spin on things, the honesty when despairing, the manner in which new ways of living absorb the characters and create new distance between them. 

I was absorbed in this one, waiting to hear from one character or another, hoping to hear that things were making a turn for the better. It's a gem, with strong characterizations and pithy writing, and an atmosphere all of its own. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Three Apples Fell From the Sky

Three Apples Fell From the Sky / Narine Abgaryan
trans. from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden
London: Oneworld, 2020, c2015.
256 p.
This charming book, translated by Lisa C. Hayden of Lizok's Bookshelf, was a wonderful discovery. Set in a tiny Armenian village high in the mountains, it tells the story of the village inhabitants in three parts.

The title comes from the Armenian folk saying "And three apples fell from heaven: One for the storyteller, One for the listener, And one for the eavesdropper." This is also reflected in the three part structure, and it works wonderfully.

The village of Maran is isolated, up a winding road that is difficult to navigate. The village has slowly dwindled over the years until it's now a group of elderly residents staying put. But when two of them find a second romance, the spark of unexpected romance lights up the village with unexpected joy.

The story is told in long detours of memory, giving the backstory of many of the main characters and families. There's a feel of folktale, as in the appearance of a white peacock that lives on the porch of one couple and is mysteriously the guardian of their grandson. Or the appearance of deceased members of the village passing on messages, or the young brother of one of the main characters who could foresee disasters. 

But even through war, famine, natural disasters and the slow decline of the village, there is a beautiful sense of individuals and community. There is an overarching peace to the story, and a very satisfying conclusion with notes of hope and joy. 

Anatolia Sevoyants is 58 when the story opens, and convinced she has a fatal illness she prepares herself to die. But she doesn't die, instead she promises to marry the village smith, just so she can get him out of her house so she can die in peace -- but finds herself married instead of dead. 

From this startling beginning, her story winds backward into her family history and into the families and lives of the village of Maran. And the finale of the book also focuses on Anatolia and her new husband Vasily's miraculous marriage and its results. 

I really liked Anatolia's story a lot; suddenly in the middle of the story she becomes the village librarian, as someone who can read. This was a surprise and a delightful element too; she decorates the little used library until it has a "coziness and lightness...reminiscent of a reading room in a well-tended conservatory". And she reads and reads. 

The characters in this book are just wonderful, realistic and individual. The relationships are so finely explored, the setting is brought to such realism that I feel like I could find my way around Maran if I happened to be there, the structure of the book is so finely balanced, and the writing is full of fresh imagery and a sense that someone is really just telling you a story. I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone looking for a read that will leave you feeling better than when you started.