Saturday, August 31, 2019

Women in Translation Month 2019: a conclusion

This ends another wonderful month of reading and sharing #WomenInTranslation! It was a good challenge this year -- lots of intriguing data, as usual, over at Biblibio - the originator of #WITMonth. And the 100 Best WIT! Lots to follow up on.

I enjoyed this month; I wasn't as organized as last year, and wasn't planning to review books every day, but I had a bit of a backlog of novels to talk about, and then I kept seeing such great recommendations that I just kept reading. I still have four titles that I've finished to talk about, and another half done.

And that brings me to my conclusion: Women in Translation is not just a monthly phenomenon. We should continue reading and sharing all year long. Many publishers, translators, bookstores and more are getting in on the action these days, and the more we as readers respond and ask for more, the better off we'll all be.

I'll still be sharing my reviews over the next year, and trying to read along with the 100 Best WIT list as I'm able. And also continue to read off my own shelves -- I have so many books by women in translation that I still have waiting for me. A project I'm going to try to focus on over the next year is to read more Quebecois novels as well. There are so many French Canadian writers that I haven't yet read.

I hope you have enjoyed this month as much as I have, and have added to your TBR thanks to all the wonderful reviews shared, especially on Twitter under the #WITMonth tag. Happy Reading!

Friday, August 30, 2019


 trans. from the Japanese by Megan Backus
New York: Grove Press, 2006, c1988.
152 p.
Making my list of 100 Best WIT nominees yesterday made me realize that I have never talked about one of my most cherished reads on my blog. I read it so long ago that it was pre-blog years, imagine!

So I reread it this week, and enjoyed it all over again. Reading it alongside some of Yoshimoto's later works shows that she was already an accomplished writer by the time this first work was translated.

Kitchen contains both the title novella and a slightly shorter one, Moonlight Shadow. Both are clear and simple, in her patented style, and feature food, love, loss, and a tinge of the supernatural. These themes and stylistic signatures remain in her later novellas.

In Kitchen, Mikage loses her grandmother, her last living relative. She ends up moving in with Yoichi and his mother Eriko -- she only knows them slightly but they take her in during her time of grief, when she has to move out of her grandmother's old apartment as well as dealing with her death.

She becomes emotionally involved with this eccentric duo, and when tragedy strikes again, she has to return the favour and hold Yoichi stable in his grief.

It's a beautiful story, with lovely imagery, some thoughtful commentary on love and grief, and with a thread of hope and positive resolution running through it.

Moonlight Shadow is a briefer look at the same themes: Satsuki and Hitoshi are soulmates, but when they've been together for four years, Hitoshi dies suddenly. Satsuki's overwhelming grief is shared by Hiirage, Hitoshi's younger brother, who also lost his girlfriend in the accident.

There is a much stronger presence of the supernatural in this story; Satsuki takes up running as a solace, and comes across a very unusual woman on the bridge that is the midpoint of her run. This woman invites to return on a specific day to see something unusual and wonderful that only happens once every hundred years. Satsuki is mystified but feels a strong sense that she should believe this woman -- the reader can pretty much guess what the outcome is going to be, but it's still a lovely journey through Satsuki's confusion and grief to the kind of end that we all might wish for. 

This book is still a compelling read, one that engages and wraps you in its storyline despite the brevity and the very simple narrative style. Somehow the simplicity increases the importance of the daily mundane activities that Yoshimoto describes, and imbues them with grace. 

Still a favourite. I'd recommend starting with this and then going right on to a much more recent work, Moshi Moshi, a longer and more complex book but with all the same concerns. 

Thursday, August 29, 2019

100 Best WIT

Reading along for Women in Translation month is always vastly engaging and illuminating. Not only do I find fabulous book and stories from around the world, but I also enjoy founder Meytal Radzinski's hard work compiling stats and posting information about the state of women in translation. 

This year she went even further, and crowdsourced a list of the "100 Best WIT" -- knowing of course that this is a list of favourites with all that entails. There were more than 800 nominations, and she's now posted the top 100, with promises to dig deeper into that list to examine the Eurocentric bent, the bias toward recently published titles, and more. It should be fascinating! 

There's already a Goodreads group set up to read and discuss the top 100. If you're on Goodreads, join in -- it should be fun to follow along. 

I've read 20 of the top 100 titles so far, and have 2 more started already. And the first 6 of my own nominations made it to the top 100! But to highlight my own choices, I am sharing my own current top ten picks that I nominated this year. I may change or add to this list by next year, but this is what it looks like right at this moment. There are so many great reads it is hard to narrow things down, but here are my picks for my 10 favourites:

I love this brief duo of novellas that was my first introduction to Yoshimoto many years ago. It's simple but really sticks with you. 

Read just last year, this new translation is so, so good. Looking at a family living through the Iranian revolution it is just beautifully told.

Although I have enjoyed all of Jenny Erpenbeck's books, this one was particularly memorable for me. I really liked the unusual structure and the haunting 'what-ifs' of this story.

Gorgeous! In Jansson's typical style, this book is a series of brief experiences between a young girl and her grandmother over the course of a summer. It's sharp and realistic; the girl is truly young, the grandmother fully old. Nature is mysterious and overwhelming. A must read.

A classic which I just discovered, this one is poetic, lovely, edgy and violent, dreamy. A moving reading experience.

While this long book took me a while to read, and some patience to adjust to the fragmentary style, it comes together into a powerful and unforgettable read.

Fossum usually writes crime thrillers (also good) but this one is a bit more -- it's an author haunted by her characters who want her to write their story. Fascinating and clever.

This Quebecois novel is a dreamy summer vacation all by itself. Flawed characters but a massively sensory dip into a lake community over one summer, and a young boy's obsession with Harry Potter too 

This was a wonderfully discombobulating read, unsettling, creative and thought-provoking. I want more people to read it! 

Beautifully written, historically illuminating book about two families in Turkey circa 1980 as coup d'etats and unrest shake their world. Unforgettable images and strong characters make this a powerful read. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Jewish Husband

trans. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar
NY: Europa, 2009, c2001.
209 p.
This was a really interesting read; I didn't know anything about it going in, which perhaps added to the experience. 

It's an epistolary novel, a series of letters from an older man living in Tel Aviv, to someone...we only find out who about halfway through. Dino Carpi, now David Katz, is slowly telling his life story, methodically and step by step. He's explaining how he's ended up where he is to someone who might not be inclined to listen. 

As a young man in Mussolini's Italy, Dino (son of hoteliers) falls in love with a beautiful rich girl, Sonia Gentile (really her name). Their love is strong and determined, even in the face of her family's disapproval. They finally manage to get married, in a Pauline marriage, one which allows for a Catholic to marry a non-Catholic, and they have one son. 

But fascism is growing, and Sonia's family are great supporters of Mussolini. As race laws are passed and Jews forbidden from owning property, running businesses, working in education, and more, and more, Dino loses his professorial job, his parents must quickly give the hotel over to a trusted employee, and life becomes more and more precarious. 

Then the Gentile family comes up with the perfect solution to keep Sonia and little Michele safe and privileged -- too bad it requires the erasure of Dino's existence. 

The creeping growth of indignities and oppression in Fascist Italy is not something I've read much about. This novel gives a picture of daily life in 'normal' times when prejudice against Jews is just an everyday occurrence; then traces the barely noticeable steps as prejudice grows and becomes more normalized, then becomes outright legal oppression. I think this is a valuable lesson right now; pay attention, because something that might be seen as a tiny one-off can lead to much more. 

It's a quiet, steady novel, perhaps due to its format as a series of letters. It feels formal, with the emotional impact of some of the events muted as they are told baldly, factually rather than in the heat of the moment. But in some ways I found this more striking. It has all happened, there is no recourse, there are only explanations to be given and forgiveness and understanding to be asked for. 

There are no outsize characters in this one, no outrageous eccentrics or villains or even heroes. Just real people struggling along with their regular life in very troubled times.

I was impressed, and pleased once again with Europa's choice to translate this and publish it in such a well-designed form. I really liked it.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Sleepless Night

Sleepless Night / Margriet de Moor;
trans. from the Dutch by David Doherty
Toronto: Anansi International, 2019.
102 p.
This slim novel was a treat. A widow bakes in the depth of night while her lover lies sleeping upstairs (though I did wonder why he didn't wake up with the noise of baking, mixing etc or from the delicious smells...) She thinks of her life while she's insomnia baking; the story moves back and forth between the present, the recent past, and the more distant past to explore her lingering questions about her young husband's suicide - why he did it, and whether she can trust herself to find love again.

In this small book of night thoughts, shared while her bundt is baking, we learn quite a lot about the narrator. Her short marriage, just 14 months, was ended when her husband unexpectedly killed himself. She's questioning why, looking at their past together, trying to figure out reasons when you can't ask the dead for explanations. They met at university, and she goes over their university days and the group of friends that led to their meeting and marriage. This included his sister, who is now moving away from the family farm, where the widow has stayed despite herself. 

So many small interactions cross her mind, so many connections, and yet she can't decide where she stands in all of this. The man upstairs is her potential for the future, a man who has also been abandoned, though his wife simply left him. 

It's short, spare, but thought provoking. There are clues sprinkled throughout which an attentive reader may piece together to form their own conclusions as to why he might have done it. I know I have my own theories. Because of its size and the conceit of recollections in the middle of the night by one person, there isn't a great range of characterization but it is a wonderful study of one woman and her experience of marriage and loss, and the painful continuation of life nonetheless. 

I haven't read any other of Margriet de Moor's books, but she is a prolific and award winning Dutch writer, and I'm intrigued enough by this book to search out any of her other translated works. 

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Ten Thousand Things

The Ten Thousand Things / Maria Dermout
Translated from the Dutch by Hans Koning
New York: Vintage, 1984, c1955
244 p.

This classic was a beautiful, dream like book. I first heard of it only last year during WIT Month, and so when I saw it on the shelves of my favourite second hand bookstore I grabbed it.

Set in the Spice Islands of Indonesia, it traces three generations of (mostly) women who live at the Small Garden, a family estate that was once much larger. 

From childhood legends to religious beliefs to the clash of local and Dutch culture, there is a sense of the mysterious about this story. The narrative style reflects this, too. The past seems to live within the present; time is fluid, characters come and go from their different eras in one flowing narrative. 

Felicia returns to the Moluccas from Europe with her baby son, after her husband abandons them. She comes back to the Small Garden where her grandmother still lives, and together they become the ladies of the garden. They make a bit of money for a while selling herbal concoctions, even if trade is beneath their station. They find a way to make it less obvious, with servants and boats and meetings and so forth. They are both still living in a past that is full of legend, rote, mystery, while facing a present of necessity for money, and a soldiering life for her son as he grows. 

The lives of the other inhabitants of the island intertwine with theirs; from the family in the past whose three young daughters, killed young, are said to haunt the Small Garden, to the servants and their extended families, to the colonial soldiers who are based on the island -- they all affect one another sharply.

It's hard to describe this book. It's dreamy, dangerous, dark, deceptively simple. There are moments of sharp violence and fear, and moments of beauty and peace. It evokes a life that stays constant in many ways over generations of this family, a lifestyle that is coming to an end. 

I found the writing to be gorgeously poetic, descriptive and beautiful even when relating terrible events. It felt like an enchantment was woven over the reading experience; I became completely absorbed in the pace and the setting of the story. Definitely a classic to explore, especially if this is an area you're interested in. I didn't know much about this area or its history, so this was a powerful introduction, one that has stayed in my mind for a long time after finishing it.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Time in Between

The Time In Between / Maria Duenas;
trans. from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn
NY: Atria, 2011, c2009.
615 p.
This sprawling saga was exactly the satisfying read that I was looking for. It follows Sira Quiroga, a young woman who grows up as a dressmaker's apprentice alongside her mother, in prerevolutionary Spain. She doesn't know who her father is, at least not until she is in her late teens.

When she becomes engaged to a quiet, meek young man of her own social class, she thinks she knows how the future will unroll. But she's so wrong. When they go to buy a typewriter (her fiancé is convinced that learning to type so that she can become a civil servant rather than a dressmaker is the best idea for them) she meets a charming, charismatic salesman. And her life changes.

As the civil war in Spain heats up, Sira and her lover flee to Morocco; then Sira moves on when she's abandoned, to form a new life as a society dressmaker -- which requires quite a few shenanigans to get started. And her dressmaking leads her to more: to spying, using her dress patterns and sketches to communicate her results.

The story is a series of obstacles put into Sira's way, and the revelation that she can manage all of them despite thinking of herself as a meek girl from the lower working classes. She forms and reforms herself to shape her life to what is given to her. She's a fascinating character, a very likeable main character who does what she has to but never hardens. The setting is fabulous -- I learned a lot about Spain in the era, including the geographical as well as political realities.

Sira even goes to Portugal near the end, to act as a spy in the guise of a fabric buyer; there are barely any good materials left in Spain. Her fake name is quite literally her real name backwards, which seems just a bit amateur to me. But she infiltrates the office of the man she's to track down. However, as a good dressmaker, she's distracted by the quality of the silks and fabrics he has for her and for a moment forgets the other part of her mission. I could relate!

I loved the way that sewing is an integral part of this story, not just a tacked on profession to give the main character something to do. Her sewing and designing changes her life, it gives her the ability to reinvent and better herself, to continue to live and to create, and leads to her involvement in the spy world. In the disaster of war and abandonment, she finds herself again when she picks up her needle once more:

There is verisimilitude to the sewing parts that makes me feel that I can trust the other more historical elements as well. It's an entertaining, absorbing spy novel; a historical context which breathes; and has some fabulous characters. I really loved this one and the 615 pages flew by as I could not put it down. It has romance, intrigue, smoothly flowing writing, a great setting, and strong female characters. Recommended!