Thursday, August 31, 2017

Moshi Moshi

Moshi Moshi / Banana Yoshimoto; translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda.
Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2016, c2010.
206 p.

I was really excited to get my hands on this Yoshimoto book; her book Kitchen was one of my favourite discoveries ever, and I've really enjoyed her work for a long time.

Moshi Moshi was even better than I'd hoped. While the plot is fairly straightforward, the execution was dreamy and satisfying.

Yoshie is a young woman whose father dies in a bizarre murder suicide pact with a strange woman he was distantly related to. She and her mother are dealing with the aftermath of this traumatic event, and Yoshie decides it's time to become more independent.

So she moves to the Tokyo neighourhood of Shimokitazawa. In fact, the Japanese title of this book is Moshi Moshi Shimokitazawa, since the neighbourhood itself is such an important element of the book.

When I came across this lengthy section of the book about the value of individual lives and the power of place, I was really struck by it, reading it over a few times. I feel like it is the heart of the book. Since it's too long to copy out, I took a quick photo to share with you.

The setting is so strong and meaningful in this story; in the afterword, Yoshimoto talks about how this real neighbourhood is changing, how chain stores are moving in and changing the slow, out of the common round kind of feeling it once had. How it offered a place for people who wanted to live at a different pace, and that this loss is an important thing to notice. Her statement is melancholy but not hopeless. 

But the story itself also includes wonderful characterizations of both Yoshie and her mother. Through their tragic event, "Mom" rediscovers her earlier, younger self, gets a job and leaves off being a wealthy housewife. It's a powerful image of middle age that resonated with me, even though I've never lived a wealthy housewife lifestyle! 

Through Yoshie's attempts to find her role in her own life, and Mom's reinvention, and the setting itself, the questions of authenticity and belonging echo through the narrative. Yoshie has a job in a tiny restaurant across from her new Shimokitazawa apartment, and even that changes -- impermanence is also a theme -- when the owner decides to close after their building is purchased by a large company. But the possibility of a new direction appears at the same time, when Yoshie is invited to study food in France. 

So there are ups and downs, changes, melancholy, beauty, relationships, spirits/ghosts/dreams, food, and more to enjoy in this quiet, leisurely told book. I found it a little slow at the start but once I slowed myself down to the pace of the story, I really, really liked it. 

There were a few elements that I wasn't keen on; Yoshie's attraction to a friend of her father's for example. It seemed like Yoshie was also looking for some boundaries in her life...

But I was taken with this story; it was thoughtful, evocative of a specific time and place, and had a lot of internal dialogue going on -- all things I like. Yoshimoto's afterword was almost as interesting as the story itself, and the book is a lovely thing, with black & white prints interspersed here and there. Thank goodness for interlibrary loan, once again! 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

In Other Words

In Other Words / Jhumpa Lahiri; translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.
New York: Vintage, c2016.
233 p.

This is a collection of small essays written by Lahiri, in Italian. They are about her fascination with the Italian language, and her attempts to live and write in Italian; her idea that language is meaningful to thought and expression in a very visceral way.

The book is small and beautifully made, with Italian on the left and English on the right. Although she could have translated it herself, she chose to use translator Ann Goldstein (who has also translated Ferrante) instead -- in the opening lines she says that translating it herself would have been difficult, she'd have wanted to rewrite instead of translate, smooth out the language and elaborate in her more native language. And this theme carries through the essays.

She talks about the longing to understand, the difficulties of grasping a new language in all its intricate and deep shadings. She became so obsessed with Italian that she and her family moved to Rome in 2012, where she spent three years living completely in Italian. And began writing these pieces, in Italian, about her sense of belonging - or not - when living neither in English nor Bengali, her first languages. 

She says, "I have to start again from the beginning, as if I had never written anything in my life. But, to be precise, I am not at the starting point: rather, I’m in another dimension, where I have no references, no armor. Where I’ve never felt so stupid.”

And these essays are not as gloriously literary as her work in English; they are more hesitant, with references to the actual putting together of words and sentences. But they are remarkably fascinating, a self-reflective study of language's role in identity, creativity, perception of the world as a whole. 

This is a slow paced and thoughtful examination of her own obsession with Italian, and what it means to her way of life. Some pieces are a little more interesting than others, to my personal taste, but the book has a theme that is expounded on in different ways, which each essay supports. 

As a book to read during a month which celebrates women in translation, it is perfect. The ideas of language itself and how you are situated within a language and a culture are powerful to ponder no matter which language you are reading in, or living in. This is a quiet book, a stone thrown into a quiet mind, which causes ripples that grow and grow upon reflection.

This was a find. I really enjoyed it, and was challenged by it. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Two Italian Women Writers

Women In Translation Month is almost over, and I have hardly shared any reviews! I've been reading quite a lot but have been so busy I haven't had time to sit down and share my thoughts on my reading. I'll try to catch up a little before August ends, though I know I'll be finishing off a couple more great reads this week so will be reviewing those later.

Anyhow, to start, I'd like to share two Italian novels that I encountered on my public library shelves. I liked one more than the other, see if you can guess which ;)

Accabadora / Michela Murgia; translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella
Berkeley: CounterPoint, c2012. (Italian c2009)
175 p.

I picked up this brief book at work and read it during lunch hours. That proved a little difficult as I didn't want to put it down! 

The premise is that Maria Listru, the fourth and rather unwanted youngest daughter of a poor villager in Sardinia is adopted as a "soul-child" by local widow & seamstress Bonaria Urrai. 

Maria learns the trade (with lots of wonderful talk about fitting suits and stitching up outfits) but she also learns, eventually, about Tzia Bonaria's other, more secret trade: she is an accabadora - essentially, a midwife for the dying, the "last mother" for many souls wishing to die.

The book delves into Maria's innocent judgement of this profession, takes Maria away to the continent where she works as a nanny for a rich Italian family, and returns her home again wiser and more mature when she gets word that Bonaria Urrai is dying. 

It's not overwritten - the language is compact but highly evocative of rural Sardinia in the 1950s. The female characters are wonderfully drawn, and the small, enclosed society of their village is clearly outlined, with all their beliefs and superstitions -- and gossip. 

This was an award-winner in its original Italian, and I can see why. It reads very quickly and smoothly, but tells a deeply significant story. I enjoyed the characters and the setting, finding that these were the strengths of this novel.

There is also a small glossary included, so that some of the local foods and professions are called by their local names, which I found added some verisimilitude.

Been Here a Thousand Years / Mariolina Venezia; translated from the Italian by Marina Harss
New York: FSG, 2010, c2009.
263 p.

This is another book I plucked from the library shelves on impulse. The description, a family saga over five generations of Italian history, seemed intriguing, as well as the inclusion of some embroidery both on the cover and in the blurb.

Unfortunately, it didn't quite live up to my hopes. Told in retrospect by Gioia, the last of the line (so far), this book starts out strongly, with powerful imagery of Don Falcone starting off the family with money, angst and an outpouring of golden oil flowing down the streets. The sense of magical realism is strong; they seem like fabled ancestors. But the book is full of unfulfilled and unhappy people, and so many of them that the family tree that is included needs to be referred to quite often. The book is told in a series of vignettes so the tone changes quite a bit between the opening and the final chapters which are more contemporary, and Gioia's own story in her own words. Unfortunately I didn't find the family, or Gioia's storytelling, all that compelling. 

In the blurb, the phrase "with their hands they create delicate and complex embroideries, while their minds embroider endless, elaborate stories" caught my attention. But there isn't much needlework in the book except for one aunt who crochets a lot, spectacularly, but as a kind of compensation. So that element was a little oversold, at least for this embroidering reader. 

It was an interesting idea for a book, and parts of it, as I've mentioned, were memorable and quite wonderful. The writing was very elaborate and poetic, and translated very readably, as well. This was a good book, but just not the most fabulous read for me -- it was ambitious, but because of that it was also too disjointed for my tastes. 

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

LM Montgomery's After Many Years

After Many Years: Twenty-One "Long Lost" Stories / L.M. Montgomery; selected & edited by Carolyn Strom Collins & Christy Woster. 
Halifax: Nimbus, c2017.
296 p.

This is a new collection of some of the multitude of short stories that L.M. Montgomery wrote for small papers and magazines over her career. 

As noted on the cover, there are 21 stories, and they are of mixed appeal. A few of them, written for Sunday School papers, strongly remind me of the moral-laden "Uncle Arthur" stories I read as a child. There is over-the-top melodrama in a few, and a touch of the uncanny in another. There are misunderstandings between friends and lovers, interfering older women, cats, cakes, needlework, and a lot of wry humour. Also heaps of descriptions of all the beautiful settings of farms, woods, shore, even cities. It's pure LMM.

If you are already a devout reader of everything LMM (as I admit to being) you will enjoy reading this even if the stories don't really stand up to the more polished work in her novels. But you can see many of themes that she worked with making their appearance here in other shapes. At the end of each story the editors note which paper it first appeared in, whether or not it's listed in the official bibliography and a few notes on what else Montgomery was working on or living through at the time of its publication. I found these notes a bit distracting and unnecessary and would have preferred to se them as notes in the back matter. I don't think general readers who aren't academics or completists would bother with the extraneous info, being more interested in the story itself. That said, I did find a real gem when the story notes for "The Pineapple Apron" shared that LMM published a doily pattern herself in a needlework magazine. I loved that! 

I especially liked the darkness of "The Mirror", the thrill of "The Use of Her Legs", and the humour of "The Matchmaker". The longest story, "Hill o' the Winds" was an entertaining look at young love at cross purposes, and the endurance of family feuds. 

Overall this was a fun collection and the proceeds go directly to the LM Montgomery Institute at the University of PEI so it's a win win to buy it and read it. If you like LMM or just generally vintage short stories you will enjoy this light read. 

Monday, August 07, 2017

Midnight Blue

Midnight Blue / Simone van der Vlugt; translated from the Dutch by Jenny Watson.
London: Harper, c2017.
327 p.

If you like historicals set in the Netherlands, something like The Girl With the Pearl Earring, you will probably also really enjoy this novel centred on the discovery and production of Delft Blue china.

This is the first of Van der Vlugt's three historical novels to be translated into English, and I hope the others will soon follow. It's a well-written, historically dense and yet character-driven story of a young woman's journey from young widowhood to the full use of her talents and drive as a mature and happy woman. 

Catrin is 25 when her older, abusive husband dies, in the spring of 1654. The other residents of her small village whisper that she had a hand in his passing; she's always been a little suspect because of her artistic tendencies anyhow. She decides very quickly that she will leave the village, finding a housekeeping job in Amsterdam and moving on despite disapproval for such a forward decision.

But her past follows her and so she must move on, and on. She ends up encountering Rembrandt and Vermeer, as well as other minor artists, who encourage her with kind words. She eventually finds herself in Delft, where she gets a job as a pottery painter. The pottery saves her; not only is it amenable work, and an income, but there she makes friends who help her through the crisis when it comes. 

Catrin is a no-nonsense woman who works hard but always has a view to art and beauty as well. She is forthright and honest, even while hiding secrets from her past that could catch her up in quite a final manner. I enjoyed hearing this story from her perspective -- some of the characters who show up in this tale are real names from history, and an afterword tells us some of the details about what happened after this story ends. The production of Delft Blue continued, and there are trails to follow if you are interested in the real-life characters. 

But as a novel, aside from the historical facts included, this stands up very well. Catrin is a complex and thoughtful character, and there are many discussions about the purpose of art, the quandries of guilt and responsibility, the reality of love and loss and much more. There is enough suspense and activity in her story to keep a reader focused and wondering what the outcome is going to look like. The writing style is quiet and restrained even when dealing with tragic accidents like the Delft Thunderclap, or the recurrence of the plague. Despite some of the darker themes, it's actually quite a light and engaging read.

It's a seamless mix of fact and fiction - with a gorgeous cover - and I read it straight through. 

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

August is Women in Translation Month!

And here it is, August again! I will be reading along with #WomenInTranslation month, created and hosted by Meytal at Biblibio.

This is an initiative to increase the visibility and enjoyment of women's writing in translation. According to her stats, only 30% of translated fiction is by women. We need to read and share and encourage more publication of women's writing. If you want more statistical info and great analysis of the state of women's writing in translation, you must check out her blog.

I have a list of potential reads for this month, but knowing me I will probably not stick to this list -- and most likely not read them all! But these are a few titles that are at the top of my list at this point.

Compartment No. 6 / Rosa Liksom (I'm about halfway through now)

Girls of Riyadh / Rajaa Alsanea

My Brilliant Friend / Elena Ferrante

Moomins Series / Tove Jansson 

If you want to see what I read during last August's Reading Challenge month, which was made up of a lot of French Canadian writing, you can see that list here.

And here are the women in translation that I've read and reviewed in the year in between #WITMonth 2016 & 2017: I honestly thought there were a lot more. I do have a few titles that I've finished but not yet shared that I will be reviewing during this month.... those titles to come!

Read & Reviewed 2016-2017

The Silent Rooms / Anne Hebert; translated from the French by Kathy Mezei

The Tin Flute / Gabrielle Roy; translated from the French by Alan Brown

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem / Sarit Yishai-Levi; translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris

The Party Wall / Catherine Leroux; translated from the French by Lazer Laderhendler

How about you? Will you be reading along at all? What are some of your favourite books by women in translation? Do you have a favourite translator?

11th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - August Roundup

1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as Melwyk (Anne of Green Gables) 4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. "This brings me up to 1/13")
5. In the comment section below, note whether you've read a book which meets the monthly
    challenge set via email for participants.

 And in prize news, congratulations to Heather at Books & Quilts for winning the amazing 13 book prize pack offered as a starting gate incentive by Simon & Schuster Canada! We hope to see some of those titles reviewed in this year's challenge!