Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Women in Translation Month at an end

Well, that's it then... the end of the official Women In Translation Month readalong.

But it is most definitely not the end of reading women in translation.

This month, thanks to Meytal's initiative in getting the project underway 3 years ago, and keeping stats on the numbers when it comes to women and the world of translation, I've discovered a plethora of new titles to read next. And I've also discovered some amazing new bloggers who are going to be so much fun to follow from now on.

Here are just a few of the titles I'd like to pick up soon:

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (reviewed at JacquiWine's Journal)

Subtly Worded by Teffi  (reviewed at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings)

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (reviewed at Biblibio) -- just one more reason to read this!

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (reviewed at Shiny New Books)

Baba Dunja's Last Love by Alina Bronsky  (reviewed at The Writes of Woman)

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura  (reviewed at Tony's Reading List)

And here are a few of the titles I already have handy, ones I'd considered reading this month, from my own shelves and from my local library. I'll never go short-handed when it comes to books!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Lise Dion's Secret of the Blue Trunk

The Secret of the Blue Trunk / Lise Dion; translated from the French by Liedewy Hawke.
Toronto: Dundurn, c2013.
168 p.

This is a strange little book; not because of the content, though. I started this month with some WWII fiction, and I'll end it with some WWII...fiction?

From all I could tell by looking this book up various places, it is a memoir of sorts -- it is based on the true story of Dion's mother, Armande Martel. And yet, it has been fictionalized enough that it is catalogued as fiction in my library (and by the official cataloguing records too). So, why is that? I can't seem to find a clear story, but as I understand it, this book was based on interviews Dion did with her mother and other Holocaust survivors, and then fictionalized the structure so that this book is purportedly a series of notebooks which Dion's mother wrote and stored in a trunk (alongside other mementos), which Dion then found after her death.

I'm not sure why she chose to structure it this way if she wanted memoir or verisimilitude. But as a story, if you consider it heavily fact-based fiction, I found it quite a good read.

Her mother/the mother character was unusual; she was a French Canadian nun who was in Brittany doing her novitiate at just the wrong time. WWII was beginning, and all British subjects in France were being arrested and sent to work camps. Armande was a bit too determined and chippy though, and so was separated from her sister nuns, and sent on to a far more vicious work camp. She quickly bonds with her 3 bunkmates, all very different from her -- a Polish girl, another Canadian who had been married to a Briton for years, and a member of the French resistance whom they all felt had been quite glamorous in her real life. They all support each other even as things get worse and worse, and help each other survive to the end of this terrible war.

The narrative voice in these journals is very dispassionate. Armande is fairly quiet, young and sheltered, so her interpretations of events can be quite naive. Her brief flirtation with a German soldier (a very young and unhappy boy) is described without a true sense of the danger of such conversations. The camp she finds herself in is horrible; one example is the guards feeling like their side is losing, and so taking it out on the prisoners by instituting a death lottery -- drawing a name each evening and shooting the woman whose name appears. The rather cold and distant narrative voice only makes this more chilling.

Once they are freed, however, she only faces more despair. Her chapter house decides that she must no longer be a virgin, that German soldiers surely violated her, so they basically boot her from their order and have her vows taken back by Rome. Armande is set adrift without the community she'd expected to return to for comfort and for her future. At that point, she states that the community of women in the camp was more charitable and truly good than any religious community, and she turns her back on the church forever.

Armande then lives another life after the war, not telling people about her past as a nun or much about the war, but her experiences shape her; she has what we might now call trauma aftereffects. Her husband, a younger man, had supported her throughout their lives together, and their adoption of his niece, Lise Dion, but unfortunately died quite young. Despite this up and down life and all the difficulties she faced, Armande was a strong woman who Dion clearly admired, enough to create this serious and loving tribute to her life, even if in fictional form.

I thought this was an unusual viewpoint on the war, from a perspective I've never heard before. Despite the issues with fact/fiction, I did find it an absorbing and unexpected read. Less emotion in the telling can sometimes throw the horrors into higher relief, and I felt that the narrative choices did just that in this book. Dion is mostly known in Quebec for her work as a humorist so this is far outside her usual milieu, and I thought she did a great job with the topic, reflecting the tone of the reportage that formed it. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

Time of the Doves

The Time of the Doves / Merce Rodoreda; translated from the Catalan by David Rosenthal.
Minneapolis: Greywolf Press, c1986.
(originally published 1962)
208 p.

How many books translated from Catalan have you read? Yeah, me either!  My husband recommended this one to me, pulling it off our shelves and handing it over. So of course I started it...and was immediately hooked. I was lucky to have this edition handy, as I later discovered that this poet's translation is considered the most effective and true to the original.

The novel is set around the years of the Spanish Civil War, after which Catalan was banned and the people who spoke it suffered greatly. But the war doesn't appear in person, so to speak -- we see its effects only through Natalia's words. Only through the death of most of the men she knows, including her husband Quimet.

Her husband who was abusive and controlling from the day they met, physically and emotionally, even changing her name to Colometa (little dove) instead of using her actual name. 

The book is written in long, sometimes repetitive run-on sentences, reflecting Natalia's constantly fretting state of mind. The book is a cumulative recounting of many small things that press down on her in a repressive, overwhelming way. From her youth, living on her own after she's lost her mother, to throwing over her sedate fiance for the overpowering Quimet (who she nevertheless early on recognizes as having 'monkey eyes'), to difficult children, the excessive care she provides to her family and the growing number of stinking doves that Quiment insists on raising... well, it's all exhausting. 

Then the war intervenes. Quimet and his close friends head off to war, and eventually Natalia hears that they are not coming back. Natalia's experience of post-war life is terrible; she can't feed her children and decides to end it all. Timely intervention averts that, but her future, even while it looks more secure, does not bring her peace. She is suffering from what we might now identify as PTSD, and has all sorts of phobias and fears. 

Until one day she retraces her steps back to the location of her trauma, the home she shared with Quimet near La Placa del Diamant. There, she says:

“I covered my face with my arms to protect myself from I don’t know what and I let out a hellish scream. A scream I must have been carrying around inside me for many years, so thick it was hard for it to get through my throat, and with that scream a little bit of nothing trickled out of my mouth, like a cockroach made of spit…and that bit of nothing that had lived so long trapped inside me was my youth and it flew off with a scream of I don’t know what…letting go?”

This seems to release her from the fetters of the past, and she is able to return home and appreciate life in the moment -- able to see her new husband for who he is and express her affection, able to recognize where she is now in life. This is a plain narrative voice, written in a mesmerizing style, covering issues of trauma both personal and national. It's one of those books that you won't want to put down, and that you won't soon forget. 


To learn more about Mercè Rodoreda and about Catalan writing in general, check out the lengthy #WITMonth review of Rodoreda's Death in Spring at Tony's Reading List, which also includes links to other books by Catalan writers.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Kim Thuy's Ru

Ru / Kim Thuy; translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.
Toronto: Vintage Canada, c2012.
141 p.

I'm late to the party with this book; I think everyone I know read it ages ago. It was hugely popular when it was published, nominated for and winning various Canadian awards and being talked about everywhere.

But I read Man first, Thuy's second novel (and enjoyed it) so thought it was about time I picked up this brief and beautiful book as well.

It really does deserve all its accolades. Told in brief segments, anywhere from a few lines to a few pages long, it captures the memories of a young woman who had to leave war-torn Vietnam as a child, escaping by boat with her family. It moves back and forth in time, from Vietnam to their refugee camp in Malaysia, to her experiences of coming to Canada - the culture shock, the snow! - to her present reflections on her past. I liked it very much.

The story sounds like someone is talking, it moves like memory does, from one fragment to another, very rapidly. It's dream-like, the images vibrant and really the whole point of the book. The narrative, such as it is, deals with the fact of displacement and war. It is all about the felt experience of this young woman who is telling us, rather detachedly, about life begun in chaos in Vietnam and how she's come to have this new life in Quebec, feeling like she half-belongs to each.

So the strength and thrust of the book lies in its storytelling, in the beautiful twists and turns of language and the precious fragility of memories. It captures moments both terrible and redemptive. And it evokes a place and time with an intensely personal perspective which makes it unforgettable. It's a brief read, but it lingers in the mind.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Douglas Notebooks

The Douglas Notebooks / Christine Eddie; translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, c2103.
184 p.

This novel is a brief and poetic story, subtitled "a fable". It is a lightly sketched story with some representative characters: a woodsman, a young apothecary, a baby, a teacher and a doctor. These characters are as much defined by their roles as their actual personalities. So perhaps there is a bit of the folktale or fable to be found here.

It's quite lovely though. The writing really is fluid and full of simple beauties, with both dark and radiant experiences set alongside one another. Romain, son of a wealthy family, doesn't seem to fit in with his life; when he is 18 he leaves home to live in the woods, becoming, eventually, known as Douglas Starling. Elena, meanwhile, grows up in a violent home, and when her father (who had murdered her mother in a rage of domestic violence) decides that he is going to trade her to a local grocer's son in exchange for a case of whiskey, she makes her getaway. She meets Romain, renaming him Douglas for the strong, noble trees he admires. They have a brief and wondrous love affair, which results in baby Rose. Rose is brought up by a whole fleet of parental figures, including that teacher and doctor referenced above -- especially after, in a fit of guilt, Douglas leaves the village and seeks his solitude in worldwide travels to remote places, communicating only through lengthy letters to Rose.

The story reveals all of these characters' lives, in light strokes. And while we see Rose growing and the others aging, we are also seeing their isolated backwoods town growing. It expands and finally begins to resemble any other town - there is a shopping centre, more housing, and new roads. As the town becomes unrecognizable, these changes break the spell, they open a gap in the metaphorical thorny hedge which has kept Rose enclosed all these years. 

As the story ends, Rose is now living in the big city studying music, but her father Douglas returns. They bridge their years of separation with Rose simply holding out a book; it's the book her stand-in mother, the teacher, has bound from all the letters he had sent -- the Douglas notebooks of the title. 

It's a simple yet touching story, with a folktale feel and some lovely evocations of place. It's structured in short named sections, with the prose in each section broken up into brief blocks of a page or two. It's as if moments of this story are caught in the light and exposed to the reader. While there doesn't seem to be a deep moral or message to this fable, it was a lovely read that kept me turning pages until the end - I didn't want to put it down and break the mood. I was also charmed by the end, in which Eddie provides the "Credits", a where-are-they-now kind of follow up to all the characters. It fit perfectly with the way the story had unfolded, and was also wryly amusing. 

This was a nice discovery to make, something a little different, and engaging and enjoyable to read on a summer's afternoon.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Sanaaq & Alego

Sanaaq: an Inuit novel / Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk; transliterated and translated from Inuktitut to French by Bernard Saladin d'Anglure, translated from French by Peter Frost.
Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, c2014.

In my search for Canadian novels that have been translated from languages other than French I recalled this one, originally written in Inuktitut by this amazing woman over many years, starting in the 50's. Published in Inuktitut in 1983, it was published in French in 2002, and now finally we have an English version.  The introduction places it in its context and give us an understanding of how and why it was written, which I found helpful. It also tells us a bit more about Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk herself.

It's an episodic novel, with Sanaaq as the main character. She is an Inuk woman who has one young daughter at the start of novel; she remarries a young hunter and has a son as the story progresses. It's told from Sanaaq's viewpoint, and is made up of brief chapters explaining or illustrating a common event in Inuit lives. In the introduction we learn that this novel was started as a way for Catholic priests to learn more local terms as they attempted to create a dictionary; Mitiarjuk was well known and respected for her many skills, so stepped in to help. But she found just writing vocabulary-heavy pieces dull so started to include imaginative chapters, morphing this task into a creative storytelling project. 

Through Sanaaq's eyes we see the daily activities of her settlement -- building igloos, hunting, fishing, digging clams, raising children, being terrified by polar bears, surviving storms, and more -- and we also get a feel for the traditional activities that women carried on, as well as the interpersonal ups and downs among the residents of her small circle. Some people are competent (Sanaaq in particular) and some are just unlucky, like Jiimialuk who loses an eye while cooking, and later dies in a hunting accident. Sanaaq's daughter grows in age and responsibility, and we see her awareness of community standards growing, as well as her understanding of why young people need to respect the knowledge of their elders. All of these characters are used to illuminate the way of life that Mitiarjuk had experienced, but more than just stand-ins for her messages, they become lively personalities.

As the book goes on, and Mitiarjuk was able to write more freely, there is more frank talk of sexuality, spousal abuse, traditional spiritual beliefs ,and more. While this book is not a novel in the sense of having a plot that is carried through and resolved, it does have some great characters and a really interesting narrative voice. Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk was given a PhD by McGill University in 2000, and was recognized by UNESCO in 2001 for her literary and artistic contributions to maintaining and communicating Inuit culture. Her lively storytelling certainly fascinated me.

The book has retained a generous amount of Inuktitut terminology - many things are referred to only by Inuktitut names. In context it is pretty simple to figure out what the word signifies, and there is also a nice glossary at the back. I liked the feel it gave to the book, like it was really a story someone was telling. But there were a few animals referred to, like sculpin or other shore creatures, that I wasn't familiar with whether in English or Inuktitut. Luckily for me, just as I was finishing Sanaaq, I came across a picture book in my library called Alego.

Alego / Ningeokuluk Teevee; translated from Inuktitut by Nina Manning-Toonoo 
Toronto: Groundwood, c2009.
24 p.

Ningeokuluk Teevee is an artist who lives in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. She wrote and illustrated this picture book, which is a brief story of a young girl, Alego, who goes clam digging for the first time with her grandmother, Anaanatsiaq. When they get to the shore, her grandmother starts collecting clams, but like any other young child, Alego wanders and explores all the different creatures she can find. All of these creatures are shared using their Inuktitut names, and luckily for me, many of them are the same as those mentioned in Sanaaq, particularly of course those in the clam digging chapter! There is also a helpful glossary in this book, which includes illustrations, which was very enjoyable and illuminated my understanding of both books.

This picture book was charming, showing the close relationship between a young girl and her grandparents. It also shares a little of the landscape of Baffin Island, an unusual setting for a picture book. I also appreciated how the text is shown in both Inuktitut syllabics and English - it really lends that sense of the story being rooted in its community.

I greatly enjoyed both these books, as excursions into a language and a lifestyle I'm not very familiar with.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Interlude: #7favWITreads

Over at Biblibio, host of this wonderful Women in Translation month, she's just shared 7 of her favourite WIT reads -- as suggested by another reader, Jacqui at JacquiWine's Journal.

I think this is a great idea! So I'm sharing mine here -- some favourites, not favourites-of-all-time, that is too hard to whittle down. Share yours too if you would like!

Kitchen / Banana Yoshimoto (translated from Japanese by Megan Backus)

Please Look After Mom / Kyung-Sook Shin (translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim)

Wildlives / Monique Proulx (translated from French by David Homel & Fred A. Reed)

Fairy Ring / Martine Desjardins (translated from French by Fred A. Reed & David Homel)

The Artificial Silk Girl /Irmgard Keun (translated from German by Kathie von Ankum)

Broken / Karen Fossum (translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barsland)

Three Bags Full / Leonie Swann (translated from German by Anthea Bell)


Friday, August 19, 2016

Memoria by Louise Dupré

Memoria / Louise Dupré; translated from the French by Liedewy Hawke
Toronto: Dundurn, c1999.

206 p.

It's strange how sometimes you have a book sitting on your shelf quietly for many years, and when you finally take it down you realize it had this beautiful life going on inside it all the time, only you didn't know it. 

Memoria is this kind of book. I decided to read it for Women in Translation Month simply because it had been on my shelf for a while. I started the first few pages to see if I'd like it, and I just kept going. The writing is dreamy, engaging, insightful. Dupre sees things with an honest and poetic eye that caught my interest right away.

The book, on the surface of it, is the story of Emma Villeray, a translator living in Montreal whose partner of 10 years, Jerome, has just left her to move to South America. We don't meet him, we only have her recollections of him --  but she is speaking to him throughout, addressing him as 'you'. It tracks her journey from shock and loss to a new and totally different life direction than she would have had with him. 

It's about the outwardly small but inwardly huge steps she takes to keep on with her life. She moves from their apartment, buying a house even if she is all alone now. She reconnects with her best friend, and through her meets a new lover, Vincent, and has to learn to trust a new relationship. She becomes friends with the previous owner of her house, Madame Girard, who is a widow and dealing with harsher loss than Emma's own. And she deals with the repercussions of her sister's disappearance as a teen, something that has always affected her remaining family. All of these strands of loss combine, sink lower, and then rise in a beautiful story of both loss and the nature of things to get better, of how hope is restored and new life begins again. 

I loved the fragmentary structure of the book and how it reflects Emma's memories rising up as discrete life moments, with brief chapters. She recollects scenes of her life with Jerome, events from her childhood, her interior life, and current daily life, as she rebuilds. The book is split into four sections, each called a 'song', and the book is kind of like a fugue, all these lines of her life harmonizing and repeating.

The support of the women in Emma's life is wonderfully drawn - from her own mother to her best friend Benedicte, her new friend Madame Girard, her neighbour Rosa, even Jerome's ex-wife - all are complex and lovely characters. This was a fantastic read, a quiet, introspective and yet visual story that captures fleeting images and emotions.

I did find the focus on Emma's finding new reasons for living in a new relationship and mothering a bit disappointing in a way; where's the strong independent woman making it on her own? But within this story Emma's choices do make her strong, do give her her own voice once more. She becomes more fully herself by going through this emotional upheaval, and at the end the reader is hoping for her future happiness as much as she is.

I'm so glad I've finally discovered Emma, and Louise Dupre's wonderful style. So glad that I had the push to finally take this down from the shelf. 

I'll finish with a couple of quotes that show how Emma copes with her losses, and yet has something within that doesn't let her completely despair.

In my life, the past forms tiny islands I swim around, sometimes until I'm utterly exhausted. But I'm swimming, not drowning.
When my own way of seeing returned, I looked at the world differently. I could now see through things, even the bugs dangling from the thread of my thoughts.

I was observing them as I used to observe Grandmama making quilts, those hundreds of squares she patiently sewed together with her elderly fingers, the scraps of her life. She would tell the story of times past, over there Mama's dress, over here Uncle Jean's coat. I never tired of watching her work. I was already learning to turn a lot of discarded pieces into a single life.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Krane's Cafe

Krane's Cafe / Cora Sandel; translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan.
London: The Women's Press, 1984, c1946.
176 p.

Taking a break from Canadian translations for a bit, I've headed off to Norway.

Despite this being Sandel's best-known novel (and adapted for the stage) I hadn't heard of it until I found it on the shelves of one of my favourite used bookstores, Attic Books.

This is the joy of publishers like The Women's Press -- they make available things that you didn't even know you needed to read until you see them by chance.

And it has a wonderful first line:

There's a lot to be heard before your ears drop off.

It's the story of Katinka Stordal, a seamstress who has just had enough of her former husband and her spoiled, ungrateful children. She goes to Krane's Cafe to have a drink. And stays in the back room over two days, drinking and loudly complaining about the injustices of life, alongside a disreputable man -- not a local -- who sits down and commiserates, drinking alongside her.

She shocks the local community with her candour and fearless crossing of social expectations as she lets her frustrations out. She complains that her children are demanding and unappreciative, that her clients are demanding and snobby, that life itself has become too full of demands. "It's just that I'm so tired" she tells her companion, only known by the name of Bowler Hat.

Katinka's drunken complaints about the lot of women in general and herself in particular, the sad stifling of ambition and dreams, the crushed love affairs, the expectations and financial burdens on single mothers -- they are all shared without much emotional uproar, at least by herself. The waitresses have their opinions, and Mrs. Krane cries for most of the two days without knowing quite why. The whole town seems to come into Krane's Cafe during these two days, meeting and re-meeting, listening to Katinka and Bowler Hat in the next room, arguing amongst themselves as to the right manner in which to behave to Katinka from now on. They've never been very kind to her, and they're not about to change now.

I can see why this was made into a play; it takes place in one location, structured over two days as if in two acts, and there is much bustling and to-ing and fro-ing with a variety of characters. Each one shows a little bit of the class structure of this town, and reacts in their own particular way to the drama unfolding. The writing is full of conversations, along with wry commentary. It was a quick and dramatic read, which was full of characters and ideas which both appalled and intrigued me. This would be a fabulous book to discuss with other readers; there are many big issues developed in it.

The theme is succinctly expressed in the epigraph, by another of my favourite Scandinavian writers, Sweden's Hjalmar Soderberg:

Poverty is terrible. Of all so-called misfortunes, it's the one that affects you most deeply internally.

Never a truer word.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Stories of Dangerous Women: Take Two

Deathly Delights / Anne Dandurand; translated from the French by Luise von Flotow
Montreal: Vehicule Press, c1991.
111 p.

These 8 stories are prime examples of the feminist macabre, if I can call it that. They all have a sense of eroticism and death closely linked; there are women who make things happen, good or bad, but whichever it is, they are the ones making the choices. They are women who are at their limits, with anger, desire, or a deep longing of some kind.

Anne Dandurand is an actor, producer, and feminist activist alongside of being an author. These elements show in her writing, and they make the stories lively and complex. Her writing style is literary, sarcastic and full of dark humour. It's an enjoyable collection, easy to read even if a bit dark at times. Each of the stories stands alone, and really should be read, as Mavis Gallant always recommends with short stories, one at a time with a break between them when you put the book down.

I think my favourite story was one called "Lost Hearts Salon", about a hairdresser who provides perfect murders for her clients who are suffering domestically; there is a police lieutenant who has just about figured this out...but his response is rather unexpected. I thought it was a well balanced and pleasing tale, with the perfect elements of surprise and rightness in it. But all of the stories have their own interest, and I'd recommend finding this collection if you do like your short stories told with a bit of a slant. The tone reminds me of another Montreal book I read a while ago, Sean Dixon's The Last of the Lacuna Cabal -- it has the same feel of young, powerful women travelling the city dispensing justice and feeling driven by intense personal circumstances.

The Perfect Woman / Suzanne Harnois; translated from the French by Jonathan Kaplansky
Montreal: Varia Press, c1999.
142 p.

This book is quite obscure, but we had it on the shelves in our 2nd hand bookshop many years ago now -- I grabbed it, and I've been meaning to read it ever since.

It's very similar to the one above. It's a collection of short stories, in this case, 10 stories. It also features feminist themes. The Perfect Woman is an ironically perfect title for this set of stories about women who are not what one expects them to be. Each of the stories opens with a quote from a literary work that condenses the theme into a brief statement, which really works.

The perfect wife, a mild and pretty German immigrant, turns into a powerful defender when her husband's ex reappears to make their lives unbearable. Her past serves her well as she takes care of the situation, practically yet in quite an unforeseen way.  Another wife, unaware of her husband's affair, has matters taken care of by her clear-eyed best friend. Husbands, wives, children, relationships, they are all entangled. The women in these stories just want things to be peaceful and secure -- but the means they go to in order to maintain equilibrium rather defeat the purpose.

I enjoyed this one even more than Deathly Delights. The writing is assured, the characters are engaging, and the stories, while also about heightened emotions and a lot of death and despair, are not quite as macabre as Dandurand's work. I appreciated the varied settings, ranging from Montreal out into other parts of Quebec, and the cohesiveness of the collection. While I really liked the story "Olga", I also found that "Autoroute" was very touching, with a conclusion that was satisfying at first glance but which Harnois shows will never be enough for the protagonist. It was a powerful story of loss and loyalty.

The feel of this book also reminds me of a more recent collection of short stories set in Montreal, though in this case written in English, Mireille Silcoff's Chez L'Arabe. They both focus on the interior lives of women facing important changes, though Silcoff's characters generally respond in a less permanently decisive manner.

I've enjoyed reading these two Quebec novels which unexpectedly spoke to one another strongly. The 90s were a good time for strong women apparently; the feminist values of the writers shine through and the variety of women that appear in these stories cover a range of life situations and personalities. I recommend reading both if you can find them.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Aurora Montrealis

Aurora Montrealis / Monique Proulx; translated from the French by Matt Cohen.
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, c1997.
240 p.

I've really enjoyed many of Proulx's works before; her Wildlives was a top read of 2012 for me. So I was eager to read this collection of very short stories, all showing a different facet of the great city of Montreal.

And I did enjoy it, overall, though there were some flaws that kept it from reaching the level of a favourite read. Proulx takes many different perspectives in this book -- from young people to older, all classes, male and female;  there's one story from the perspective of a middle-aged black man, followed by one narrated by a young Native character. Neither of these worked for me. They made me uncomfortable reading them somehow. I'm glad she was thinking of diversity in her presentation, but I just didn't feel convinced by the characters, and thought perhaps they didn't ring as true as some of the others.

There were also a couple of stories in which Quebec separatism was a strong theme. It shows the core beliefs and attitudes of the "yes" side, which is important, I think. But there was a noticeable lack of  characters from English Montreal as the teller of a story, despite the wide variety of angles for the stories. I'd have liked to see even one, as Anglos are also a vital Montreal community. But then I suppose English writers can take that on.

Anyhow, there were a lot of her regular themes woven into this collection, which I enjoyed seeing again, and her writing is always interesting. I also liked that many of the stories were very brief, allowing just a glimpse into a life, as if you are just passing by this person and will only ever get a peek into their thoughts. It allowed me to pick up and put down this book in between other reading and still feel like I was following along nicely. I think this is a clever way to approach a big city made up mainly of small neighbourhoods.

If you like short stories, give this one a try. I'd recommend her novels as a first experience of her writing, though; Wildlives (which I've mentioned) or The Heart Is an Involuntary Muscle, the two I've read so far, were both a little more engaging than this collection.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Hard Living in Northern Quebec, with Cardinals and Fireflies

I recently read two novels by Quebec authors, both of which are redolent with the kind of Quebec Gothic I've come to expect from Quebecois literature. Sometimes I really like it (ie: my fave, Fairy Ring) and sometimes I am less of a fan. Here are a couple of titles that fall somewhere in between those extremes of reaction.

Twenty-One Cardinals / Jocelyn Saucier; translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins.
Toronto: Coach House Books, c2015.
 176 p.

The Cardinal family, living in a small zinc mining town in Northern Quebec has 21 children. All in one immediate family. Trying to keep them straight is sometimes difficult. But Saucier focuses on a few of the children in particular, chapter by chapter, to make this short novel readable.

The Cardinals are the tough kids in town; nobody messes with them. They cause trouble, they bully other kids, they torture a cat (again with the animal cruelty, ugh!) But they also have a secret. There is a set of twins in this family, one girl who is tough and runs with her brothers, and the other who likes to wear frilly dresses and is endlessly and meanly teased about it. Her story turns this family inside out.

Their father is convinced they'll eventually get rich from the mine, and he allows the boys to help him there once they're old enough. But they never do get rich; in fact the mine takes more from their family than it ever gives.

It's a brief but deep story of family ties, the saintliness of a mother (of 21!), and the secrets that aren't really secrets in the end. It's also a rough and tumble story of a clutch of siblings and the way they form their own identities once they are out in the world alone. Very interesting read; I appreciated the structure and balance in it, even if I didn't fully fall in love with it.

The Goddess of Fireflies / Genevieve Pettersen; translated from the French by Neil Smith
Montreal: Vehicule Press, c2016.
163 p.

Now this is a book I *wanted* to love. The cover is beautiful, the summary is promising, and I admire the publishers a lot. This translation of a best-seller in Quebec piqued my interest. 

Unfortunately, I didn't love it. It presents itself as a tough, unflinching and realistic look at disaffected teens in the Saguenay region in the 90's, where drugs and casual sex are the norm. And it may indeed be such a thing -- but I found it included a lot of salacious detail that I didn't enjoy reading; in fact much of it felt gratuitous, as if was there solely for titillation. Besides those details, the dull boredom of these unambitious kids in a smallish town with no future was simply an uncomfortable set-up for me, probably because it reminded me of my own hometown, a place I left as soon as I could. 

I also found the conclusion unsatisfactory. The main character remains distant from her own experience through much of the book; even at the end, set during the disastrous Saguenay floods, she has no emotional affect watching the destruction. I hoped that the metaphor would be carried through, but it just seemed to sit there, underdeveloped. 

I can see how this book is shockingly timely -- how it shows a time and place clearly -- but I just couldn't connect with the characters in the way that I think many people have, with empathy and recognition. So much so that it's being adapted into a film. But this is probably a readerly failing, not a writerly one: this just isn't my book.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Tete Blanche by Marie Claire Blais

Tête Blanche / Marie Claire Blais; translated from the French by Charles Fullman.  (New Canadian Library No. 104)
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1974, c1961.
136 p.

This is an older book; it was the second novel by Québécoise author Blais. She's still writing and publishing regularly - her latest, Acacia Gardens, was just released.

Tête Blanche, though, is clearly an early work, and one that seems influenced by France-French literature. The introduction to my New Canadian Library edition, by Philip Stratford, points out that this book is similar to Francois Mauriac's La Pharisienne, in its plot points and themes, so that the influence can be seen fairly closely.

And there is also a more France-like sensibility than I'm used to from a Quebec novel. Tête Blanche is a young boy who is sent to a boarding school, alongside other boys who are pretty much neglected or orphaned. His mother is a struggling actress who is ill, and who never comes to visit him. They do exchange letters, and while it's an interesting choice stylistically, it's also quite a stretch to believe that this pre-adolescent is also preternaturally eloquent. He writes in a literary, emotionally wrought style, and 'confesses' his crimes to his mother. He's not a nice little boy - his behaviour goes from mocking and teasing weaker boys all the way to killing a cat. That's a real deal-breaker for me in fiction, unnecessary animal cruelty, and I had a hard time bothering with this disaffected young man afterwards.

There are a lot of things I didn't like - this cruelty, his love for the 14 yr old sister of a classmate (which is also both precocious and creepy, as he sees her as his mother, sister and a lover in turns), the inconclusive ending which indicates that he's gone over to his dark side.

I really don't know what to say about this one. It fits with Blais' darker eye on humanity, but I found the characters dismal, dreary, and unpleasant, and there was not enough in the plot or the writing style to really rescue it for me. So this is one of those "glad I read another Canadian classic, mostly because I won't have to read it again" books. Oh well. On to some more modern Quebec novels next!

Sunday, August 07, 2016


Gigi / Colette; translated from the French by Roger Senhouse & Patrick Leigh Fermor.
New York: FSG, 2001, c1944.
309 p.

I thought I'd try out some Colette for my Century of Books project, and since I had Gigi handy, I started there. Perhaps not the best first try.

Gigi is well-known in the English speaking world, mostly because of its adaptation into a musical. I did see that musical on stage when it was performed here in Stratford some years ago, and I had the same problem with it as I did when reading this. The whole concept of a family of courtesans, and Gigi's courting and winning by a much older man who has been a kind of 'uncle' is, well, off-putting.

The novella itself is not too bad -- it begins with Gigi talking with her very strict grandmother, who is grooming her to enter the family business, that of courtesan/coquette. They all discuss the lives of other women, and who they've snagged, and what they see for Gigi, and so on.

Into this small family is added a man. A rich, upper class man who likes to drop by and just hang out with Gigi's grandmother, which he finds a relaxing break from his regular life. Get that? He's a friend of Gigi's grandmother. And he plays games with Gigi, treating her as a sweet little girl. But then she's not so little, and he suddenly wants to make her his mistress. Gigi refuses, despite the pleas of her mother & grandmother, who think this is a marvellous opportunity.

But Gigi's stubborness wins the day, and as anyone who has seen the film or play knows, she gets not only who she wants, but what she wants...a more stable relationship than the first one proposed.

This was very light, and very, very French. I am going to have to try another of her works to see if I would enjoy another one more. Gigi felt very brief and frothy to me, not much solid content to impress me. Especially as I just read another set of short stories published about the same time, those of Elsa Triolet, whose realism and wartime valour make poor Gigi pale in comparison.

The writing style is easily read, and quite enjoyable in itself, but this storyline didn't please me too much. While I didn't dislike this in the way that I did the books I've read by Francoise Sagan, there is a certain French sensibility which just doesn't catch me. I'm hoping I'll end up liking Colette after a few more tries much more than I like Sagan.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

A Girl, Dior, and a Fox

For this August's Women in Translation month celebration, I realized that it was hard to find women's writing in translation, in the graphic novel format. In fact, I could only think of two that I've read in recent history. And I haven't talked about either yet -- now is the perfect chance!

So here are two graphic novels, both translated from French -- one France-French, one Canadian. They're quite different, but have an affinity nonetheless, in that they are aimed at younger audiences and have young women in the lead roles.

Girl in Dior / Annie Goetzinger; translated from the French by Joe Johnson.
New York: NBM Publishing, c2015.
109 p.

This one is by a well-known French artist. And the illustrations are simply beautiful. The dreamy Dior dresses are drawn beautifully; the elegance and flow comes right off the page. I'd borrow this from the library again, just to look at the illustrations. It's too bad the text didn't live up to them.

The story is almost a docudrama, using a character named Clara Nohant, a journalist who is swept up to become a Dior model after covering a show, to describe Dior's rise and influence. It's unfortunate that she's imaginary. And that the story is a bit unlikely and fairy tale-ish. (The tone reminds me of a vintage romance novel I read recently, Mary Burchell's Paris & My Love about a young girl who gets hired on at a Dior-like fashion house in Paris - though even she didn't think she could be a model...) Anyhow, the story is a bit stilted and flat, but, the book is a beautiful object. So, worth exploring for fashion fanatics like myself.

Jane, the Fox, and Me / Fanny Britt, ill. Isabelle Arsenault; translated from the French by Christelle Morelli & Susan Ouriou.
Toronto: Groundwood, c2013.
101 p.

The second title is quite different. It features Helene, an 11 yr old who is bullied by her classmates for being overweight & anything else they can think of. She takes refuge in reading Jane Eyre repeatedly. If you love Jane Eyre, you will probably want to read this as well.

Helene comes face to face with a fox near the end, at a time when she really needs it. And as she says, everyone needs a strategy, even Jane Eyre. The illustrations are clever; they differ in colour reflecting Helene's everyday life, her Jane Eyre life, or her imaginative life otherwise. And they are lovely to examine closely. The only quibble I have is that the story sort of peters out without a strong moment of resolution.

But it's thoughtful, and beautiful, and really a wonderful book. I think it could bear rereading, a few times. The emotional intensity of childhood & adolescence comes through here, with the cruelty of children in full view. Helene is a character as strong as Jane Eyre in her resolution to prevail. I enjoyed this read, and do recommend it.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Triolet's Fine of Two Hundred Francs

A Fine of Two Hundred Francs / Elsa Triolet; translated from the French by ??
London: Virago, 1986, c1944.
287 p.

A Fine of Two Hundred Francs, or Le premier accroc coûte 200 francs in the original, won the Prix Goncourt in 1944. It is made up of three short stories - plus a very short, shocking story added to the end - all about daily life in France during WWII. The characters are all active in the Resistance, or living with the knowledge of it. It is a powerful, striking set of stories, most likely because they were all written contemporaneously with the war, by an author active in Resistance work, and published under a pseudonym by underground presses. True story. Elsa Triolet was a badass.

I hadn't read anything by her before, when I discovered this book. But because it was an original green Virago**, I picked it up. The last owner had tucked an obituary inside of Louis Aragon, Triolet's husband, which had a bit of info on both of them. And the introduction by Helena Lewis is thorough, placing Triolet in her time and context. It really makes me want to read more by her; she was born in Russia, became a Communist but didn't follow the Soviet line so started publishing in French rather than Russian, wrote a ton, was active in the war, and seems to have been her own person in many ways.

As for these three stories, they are all quite interior; they follow the lives of Resistance fighters who have been drawn from normal everyday life, like the beautiful and efficient secretary, Juliet, in the first story. They find themselves in the midst of quite incomprehensible activities that have somehow become 'normal' in the circumstances. The final story is the most reflective -- it is told in the form of notebooks written by Louise Delfort, a journalist who is in hiding in a small village. She is bored and lonely, and so writes down her remembrances of her Russian childhood, her family, her doomed marriage, career, and work in the war. It's beautiful and terrible at the same time. Louise appears in the second story as well, which is focused on a painter who is trying to ignore most of the war and its effects, by fleeing Paris and trying to find a peaceful place to work. He's Jewish, however, so it's become a bit of a problem. Only in the last brief story does Triolet openly show the senseless, ghastly violence that was happening in France. But the looming danger and off-stage incidents are there throughout all these stories. It makes me wonder how they all got through it and kept on afterward.
Elsa Triolet in 1925

I really liked Triolet's writing style, a flowing narrative jumping from thought to thought of its characters. Much of what she discusses is the emotional detail of relationships created or damaged by wartime. It's a personal approach that I thought worked very well in bringing home the terror of occupied France. Interesting note - the title refers to the coded phrase "Le premier accroc coûte 200 francs" used by the BBC on August 14, 1944, to let the Resistance know that there would be a landing in Provence the next day. The phrase was a common one in billiard halls across France to let customers know that the first rip in the green felt carried a fine of 200 francs.

Triolet was a great discovery, and a writer I'll look for in future.

**Being an original green Virago, I was hoping to find more information on this book via Virago itself. Unfortunately, in the past few years, Virago has wiped all information about their past publications from their website -- you can't find any information on any of the classic books or authors. Now that it's owned by Little Brown, it's all pretty new books and no history of the press whatsoever. Very annoying indeed. There is no information in the book or anywhere online that I could discover that tells us who translated this work, originally or in any reprints. If anyone has that name, please share it here! My librarian mojo has not worked with this question!

Monday, August 01, 2016

August is #WomenInTranslation Month

It's the 3rd annual Women in Translation month, created and hosted by Meytal at Biblibio.

She says:

As the weather begins to turn, the time has come once again to prepare for the third annual Women in Translation Month! This year's goal is simple. No bells, no whistles, no drama.
Just read....

 Read women writers in translation. Share books you love. Seek out new ones. Learn about untranslated masterpieces.... Research and learn. Read.
And spread the word.

I think that is a pretty relaxed reading challenge, right up my alley. And it's also a call to action from a blogger who is doing an awful lot to examine the stats and trends in the field of translation. She tells us that only 30% of new books translated into English are by women. And there are more charts and stats to learn from at her blog, which is always being updated. So, pick up a book by a woman which has been translated from another language this month, and share it. Show that there are people reading and wanting more.

I have a handful of  books I've read recently that I'm going to share this month. Many of them are books translated from French, written by Quebec authors. Even within Canada, access to Quebecoise fiction is an issue that comes up often...I do my best to read it when I can.

You can find suggestions on Meytal's blog, on WomenInTranslation, or by asking some of your favourite book bloggers and/or librarians for ideas.

I recently built a library list sharing some of the books by women in translation that are held by my own library. If you're interested, you can take a look here and maybe get some ideas of your own. (fyi, it is 3 pages long so keep clicking)

Any favourites? Please do recommend any must-reads to me in the comments!