Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson | Review

The Impossible Knife of Memory has been on my shelves for so long, that I honestly wasn't sure I'd ever get around to reading it. Except, of course, I enacted a book buying ban on myself to exactly motivate myself to read these older, forgotten books. So it was time to visit an author that I loved as a teen, with a novel that - when it had been published - was touted as being an important, powerful novel of PTSD.

Perhaps it's that the book hasn't aged very well. Perhaps writing conventions have shifted just so in the three years since I purchased The Impossible Knife of Memory. It could be that the book just isn't very good, I don't know. It's certainly not terrible, but I found myself taking issue with quite a few portions of the novel.

To begin with, this is a book that misses so many of the opportunities it itself raises to tackle major issues. Take the central theme of PTSD. Hayley's father very clearly has PTSD, and this is well explored. However, Anderson also very clearly shows that Hayley has some form of PTSD as well, yet never expands on it. Hayley is very much defined by the fact that her memory is full of gaps and we frequently see her crumbling somewhat as a flashback hits. Yet even with these scenes (and those that show Hayley being triggered by a series of different situations), Anderson never actually builds on this idea or how it affects Hayley. We only have her response to her father's pain, not her own. (And don't get me started on the way the book glosses over abuse and false memories. Just... no.)

Similarly, the book makes several references to other struggles young adults might face and their responses to them, but fails to treat it with the expected depth. Hayley is repeatedly critical of her fellow high schoolers' behavior and hypocrisy, that their lives are dull and "zombie"-like. On more than one occasion, she links this behavior with prescription drug abuse. Later in the book, we see Hayley's close friend self-medicating in exactly the way that Hayley describes (ultimately, even Hayley is tempted by the pills) in response to problems at home, but Hayley doesn't reflect on it or wonder at her own ignorance of the struggles other teens are going through.

These are two examples, but they stem from the same underlying problem: The Impossible Knife of Memory is populated by thinly drawn characters. Even Hayley, our narrator and main girl, feels underwritten. What are her motivations? What does she like? Why does she like what she likes? This is a chiaracter with baggage galore, but no real personality. It means that while we're shown a lot about her life, it cannot be explored. It means that there is no additional wisdom or complexity to her thoughts. It's all... oddly flat.

This impacts the two main narratives as well. It's hard to be invested in Hayley's budding romance with fellow student Finn when neither character is well-developed enough to care about. Why do they like each other? We know that they're physically attracted to each other, but... that's literally it. There's nothing else except minor quips here and there. It felt like a portion from a totally different novel, that didn't quite fit in. Similarly, it's difficult to really feel the struggle that Hayley's father is going through when we neither know him, nor really understand Hayley's relationship with him.

Now, if the novel was brief, I could probably understand this level of non-depth. I've read a lot of young adult novels that walked this line relatively well (I'm thinking of Chris Crutcher's relatively concise novels), but The Impossible Knife of Memory is just under 400 pages long. And I honestly cannot understand how. The book takes place between the beginning of the school year and Christmas. That's it. The pacing is wildly inconsistent, both rushed and oddly slow. This is most strongly evident in an incredibly rushed ending, that literally time-skips eight months of recovery and healing in an honestly shockingly sloppy way. So what, I must ask, was the point? Why linger on Hayley's story if we're never going to have any sense of its impact?

It's ultimately disappointing, because it's not as though there's a plethora of young adult novels (or non-fiction) about PTSD or war or recovery. Anderson has also in the past proven her worth in writing about teens going through rough times (Speak, of course, but I also find Catalyst an underrated gem), but The Impossible Knife of Memory is just... not great. And heck, even the teen-isms are all off. It's got a lot of good pieces and is definitely "important" in parts, but it feels like a mess as an overall work. A shame.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Reading the world challenge (part 3)

I've already begun to make progress on my reading... yet haven't finished publishing the titles I hope to read! Here are a few more (of which I've already actually managed to read a couple!):

  • Denmark (Danish): Suzanne Brøgger - The Jade Cat
  • Djibouti - MISSING
  • Dominican Republic (Spanish): Various - Praises and Offenses: Three Women Poets from the Dominican Republic
  • East Timor - MISSING
  • Ecaudor (Spanish): Luz Argentina Chiriboga - On Friday Night
  • Egypt (Arabic): Nawal El Saadawi - Woman at Point Zero
  • El Salvador (Spanish): Claribel Alegría - Woman of the River
  • Equatorial Guinea (Spanish): Trifonia Melibea Obono - La Bastarda
  • Eritrea (Tigrinya): Haregu Keleta - "The Girl Who Carried a Gun" (x)
  • Estonia (Estonian): Kristiina Ehin - Walker on Water
  • Ethiopia (Italian): Gabriella Ghermandi - Queen of Flowers and Pearls
  • Ethiopia (Amharic) - MISSING
  • Finland (Finnish): Eeva-Liisa Manner - Girl Upon Heaven's Pier
  • France (French/Old French): Various - French Women Poets of Nine Centuries
  • Gabon (French): Angèle Rawiri - The Fury and Cries of Women
  • Georgia (Georgian): Various - A House with No Doors
  • Germany (German): Yoko Tawada - Memoirs of a Polar Bear
  • Greece (Greek): Penelope Delta - A Tale Without a Name
  • Guatemala (Spanish): Rigoberta Menchú - I, Rigoberta Menchú
  • Guinea - MISSING
  • Guinea-Bissau - MISSING
  • Haiti (French): Marie Vieux-Chavet - Dance on the Volcano
  • Honduras (Spanish): Clementina Suárez - Clementina Suárez: Her Life and Poetry
  • Hungary (Hungarian): Magda Szabó - The Door
  • Iceland (Icelandic): Ragna Sigurðardóttir - The Perfect Landscape
  • India (Assamese): Arupa Patangia Kalita - Written in Tears
  • India (Bengali): Leela Majumdar - The Burmese Box
  • India (Gujarati): Dhiruben Patel - Rainbow at Noon
  • India (Hindi): Geetanjali Shree - The Empty Space
  • India (Kannada): Mamta Sagar - Hide and Seek: Selected Poems
  • India (Old Kannada): Akka Mahadevi - Songs for Siva
  • India (Malayalam): K. R. Meera - Hangwoman
  • India (Marathi): Shanta Gokhale - Crowfall
  • India (Odia): Susmita Bagchi - Children of a Better God
  • India (Pali): Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women
  • India (Punjabi): MISSING
  • India (Tamil): Amai - In a Forest, a Deer
  • India (Urdu): Qurratulain Hyder - River of Fire
  • Indonesia (Indonesian): Okky Madasari - The Years of the Voiceless
  • Iran (Persian): Parinous Saniee - The Book of Fate
  • Iraq (Arabic): Dunya Mikhail - The War Works Hard
  • Ireland (Irish): Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh - The Coast Road
  • Israel (Hebrew): Leah Goldberg - Poems
  • Italy (Italian): Margaret Mazzantini - Twice Born
  • Ivory Coast (French): Véronique Tadjo - The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the Heart of Rwanda
That's it for now, still working on finalizing the list. As you can see, still many titles missing... still many places where I feel I don't necessarily have the best options picked out. If you have any recommendations for missing titles - or recommendations for India in particular, any language - I would greatly appreciate it! Regardless, feel free to share any titles you might be interested in for these (or any) countries. How would your list look?

Monday, October 30, 2017

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg | Review

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (trqnslated from Polish by Eliza Marciniak) has been shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

Sometimes I'll read a book and my mind will instantly - and consistently - go to another place. Not in the sense that the book is dull, or distracting. Not even in the sense that the book is inherently transporting (though this is typically the case). Sometimes it's just a question of connections: a certain book will automatically link itself to another story or concept. This might, at times, detract from the book I'm currently reading; with Swallowing Mercury, the connection was positive, and reflective of the book's greatest strengths.

With Swallowing Mercury, the connection that I made was to a relatively unknown (but great) novel called The White King by György Dragomán (I read a translation into Hebrew). I read The White King over eight years ago (and even reviewed it on Amazon, years later!), finding it to be a strong, captivating coming-of-age novel-in-stories. It was well-written, childlike in the right places, and told a larger story just beyond the personal narrative. Suffice to say, I loved it. And from the very first moment I began reading Swallowing Mercury, I couldn't shake off the feeling that here - finally! - was the sort of coming-of-age novel that followed in The White King's footsteps.

Mind you, the two books are far from identical. While both books follow children growing up in Communist countries around the same time, each progresses at a different pace and follows a very distinct broader plot. The two novels also sharply differ in tone, with The White King more singularly focused on its narrator as a preteen, while Swallowing Mercury tracks Wiola through early adulthood. Moreover, The White King could work as a young adult novel, while Swallowing Mercury is distinctly darker, grimmer, and addresses a harsher form of reality. 

But that initial connection made me read Swallowing Mercury through a particular lens, with a sense that I knew how the novel would unfold. Greg, like Dragomán before her, uses Wiola on two levels, telling a story that is both intimate and generic at the same time. For instance, the chapter "The Little Paint Girl" tells of young Wiola's interest in art, and her attempt at entering an art competition at school, which involves submitting a damaged, stained painting of Moscow. This leads the authorities to descend upon Wiola's small school, and demand an explanation as to why she painted Moscow so "gloomy". While Wiola is simply a young, more-or-less ignorant girl in this story (focusing on the official's grammatical errors and feeling rather uncomfortable), the reader can also sense the bigger story - a Polish paranoia that a young child has painted Moscow streaked with black. The political implications are huge... but not quite the focus of the story itself.

The writing is typically a little loose, often feeling a little conversational and casual. It makes for easy, enjoyable reading, despite the typically darker tone of the stories themselves. And Swallowing Mercury, despite the childlike framing, is dark. Greg doesn't shy away from many of the less pleasant experiences of growing up as a girl, with more than one instance of molestation taking place (presented to the reader with an almost chilling detachment). Wiola's life is ultimately far from pleasant, but it's also just... life. Swallowing Mercury seems to emphasize this point, with the vignettes skipping subjects from school, to religion, to relationships, and all over. Yet through it all, Wiola grows, leaving Swallowing Mercury an admirable addition to the coming-of-age canon. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A book buying ban

After too many years of acquiring far more books than I manage to read, the time has come to take drastic action. Rather than culling my shelves outright (which, frankly, horrifies me), I have decided to engage in an extensive, purposeful, and targeted book buying ban, with the direct goal of reducing the sheer amount of unread books on my shelves.

"Okay, a book buying ban... big deal! Why are you writing a whole blog post about this?"

Good question, hypothetical reader! It's because I've decided to have a little bit of fun with my ban, and make it a little more complicated than just saying "no new books for the next six months".

No, instead of setting a specific timeframe, I have decided to limit myself based on the number of books I must read before I'm allowed to acquire new books. I have also decided that I need to archive books alongside simply reading, particularly when it comes to books that I have started, abandoned, picked up again, and abandoned several times. These will count separately, but my hope is that I can acknowledge that sometimes a book I bought five years ago just won't interest me today. And that's okay!

Here are a few of the rules for this period:
1. Seeing as I have somewhere over 120 unread books in my apartment alone (yikes!), I must read at least 40 books that I have not previously begun reading.
2. Seeing as I have 15 books that I have begun reading, but have stopped reading for some reason or other, I must finish or officially archive at least 8 partially completed books.
3. I must read at least 10 books in Hebrew. At least 4 of these must be by Israeli women.
4. I must read at least 5 books with more than 450 pages. Enough stalling! They're not that intimidating...
5. I will (try) to review at least 20 of the 40 books on this blog or on Goodreads. I might not be able to do this one, but I have to at least try.
6. I must read at least 5 books that qualify for the Women in Translation Reading the World Challenge. I hope to read more!
7. I must read at least 5 books that have been on my shelves for more than two years
Well there you have it, folks. While these rules don't say anything about library books (or gifts!) which I intend to continue reading, the hope is that these rules will both help me clear up some of the clutter on my shelves, as well as motivate me to read some excellent books! Honestly, I'm kind of excited. Time to get reading!



Note: Posts relating to the ban, including progress reports and reviews, will fall under the tag "the great book buying ban of tash'ach" since I really hope this will not last beyond this Jewish year....... wish me luck!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

WITMonth Day 31 | Final 2017 thoughts (part 2)

And here it is... August 31st, come so soon. Didn't WITMonth just start the other day?

Yesterday, I posted about some personal goals. Today, I want to talk about the growth, expansion, and changes WITMonth has undergone since 2014. Four WITMonths have now come and gone. What's changed?

Every year, I gush about how much this project has grown. This has not changed; on the contrary, every year sees more readers made aware, more involved bookstores and libraries, more publshers, more organized events, and more awareness at every level of the literary world. To be perfectly honest, the project feels like it moves further and further away from me with every passing year. But it gains its own life. Does WITMonth still need me? Am I still its mother?

This has led me to some important conclusions this year: WITMonth needs a clearer infrastructure. My new @read_wit Twitter account helped in some regards, focusing explicitly on women in translation (and saving poor readers the discomfort of wading through my personal nonsense). My new @readwit Instagram account seeks to do for Instagram what we already did for Twitter - create a movement that reaches more than just the handful of readers who already know of the project.

But I have other ideas too. I received several queries for organized lists of WITMonth events, alas this does not currently exist in full form (womenintranslation.com began the effort, but there is more work to be done). There is still no comfortable place for a new reader to go to learn all they might want about WITMonth. There are still no convenient handouts or ready-to-print posters. There is still so much more we could be doing.

And this is the joy in WITMonth's growth. That while I know it is unlikely all of these things will be ready for next year, much will... and new things I can't yet envision. Here's to WITMonth 2018, and all the work ahead.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

WITMonth Day 30 | Final 2017 thoughts (part 1)

WITMonth is almost over, which means it's time to wrap things up and reach some conclusions. Or something. I'll talk about some big picture implications tomorrow, but let's talk today about the most important person in the room... me.

This year, I set myself a few rather varied WITMonth goals. One was to read more; I've had a generally poor reading year and hoped to have time to read more books. Alas, in this most basic goal I failed. Life has, simply put, gotten in the way. I read a few books during August, but not nearly as many as previous years.

In other goals, however, I succeeded fairly well. I had hoped to post daily Instagram pictures; I did. I had hoped to post daily on this blog, including reviews every other day; I did. I had hoped to write about the women in translation Reading the World project and begin posting my lists; I did.

In these regards, from a personal perspective, it's hard to view my WITMonth as anything but a rousing success. Sure, I didn't do everything I wanted to... but isn't that what the rest of the year is for?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

WITMonth Day 29 | How women in translation changed my life | Guest post

A very special WITMonth post today, from my dear sister (not twins) - the original inspiration for this blog! Thank you, Shiranne!

I’ve been a huge fan of Meytal Radzinski’s since before I could read, and I’ve been a huge fan of this blog since before it existed. (This is where I get to take credit for being the one who nudged her to open it!) I’m also a hardcore fan of WIT month, and I am proud to get to take part in this awesome project.

____________

It just so happens that the two biggest influences on reorganizing my mind and heart were women in translation.

The first and main one: Maria Montessori, the Italian doctor-turned-educator who developed the Montessori education philosophy and method back at the turn of the last century. The second woman: Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidying-up consultant whose KonMari method of organizing is very fashionable at the moment.

I first heard of Maria Montessori when I was hired to teach English at an Israeli Montessori school. In a typical fashion, I fell in love with the philosophy and ended up moving to the U.S. to study to be a Montessori educator. In my training we read excerpts from Montessori’s books, detailing what she had learned about children’s learning. Montessori saw the classroom itself as the teacher, and the teacher as the guide. She watched children pursuing their own innate passions and learning in a happier and healthier way than children learning in the mainstream (somewhat assembly-line-esque) education system. Montessori believed very strongly in the idea that your environment can shape you, and that if we created the right environment, then the children would learn happily and naturally. Three and a half years after first being introduced to Montessori, I am still likely to go on a half hour tangent whenever somebody asks me to explain what it is.

During the same summer of my training, I had also come across a book titled “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo. Americans, collectors of all things useless, seemed to be obsessed with this book, and knowing that I too have a tendency towards hoarding I thought I might as well give it a read. Kondo’s book transformed my perspective towards every item that I owned. From being a person who had trouble throwing away old shampoo bottles, I was suddenly able to give away clothes that had been sitting my closet for 10 years. The key to Kondo’s method (called the “KonMari” method) is simple: declutter by focusing on the things that truly give you joy. Whatever doesn’t give you the right level of joy (measured naturally by comparing to the things that give you the most joy) - thank it, and let it go.


Both of these women have helped me recognize the importance of having an organized environment in my home and workplace. It doesn’t mean I’m always able to stick to it since I imagine I will always be a naturally messy person, but it does mean that I see the value in putting effort into creating the world that I want, in every aspect of my life. It can also mean looking at my relationships (of all sorts) as something that I work on, or looking at the country I live in and figuring out how I can work on making it better. It can mean trying to see opportunities for growth in everything around me. For me, it was a huge shift in my philosophy, and I have two women in translation to thank for it.

Wishing a happy and meaningful end of WIT month to you all!

Monday, August 28, 2017

WITMonth Day 28 | In brief

Still traveling and with limited internet, so instead of writing a thoughtful post today, I'm going to briefly mention some fun things readers can do to wrap up WITMonth:

  • Catch up on the Twitter tag (or @read_wit)! Tons of great reading material, reviews, recommendations and more.
  • Check out my @readwit Instagram feed (yes, I now have an Instagram...).
  • Buy some great books by women in translation from your local indie bookstores! Especially any that might have a WITMonth display - have what to read for the next year, until WITMonth 2018...
  • Make a map of the countries you've visited this WITMonth or year! These maps are super fun to make and are a great way to keep track of where your reading has taken you.
That's all for now, folks, now back to reading!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

WITMonth Day 27 | "And the Bride Closed the Door" by Ronit Matalon

It's been a whole, long WITMonth... and I haven't spoken about an Israeli writer yet. Let's talk a bit about Ronit Matalon, shall we? Bit really... only a bit.

See, I first encountered Ronit Matalon with The Sound of Their Steps, which came strongly recommended by a bookseller. I... didn't love it, mostly for the style, but it was undoubtedly good literature. Fast forward a few years, and And the Bride Closed the Door comes out. It is short, crisp, and good. Subtly political. Wholly personal. Emotionally engagimg. Quietly revolutionary. This is a novella that has a little bit of everything to it, in mostly the right amounts (a few jokes about a clearly queer cousin fall very flat) - a bride who abruptly announces that she's not getting married (day of), family trauma, love, obligation, poetry and more.

My favorite part is the balance between personal and political. Unlike The Soumd of Their Steps, in which the politics felt very direct, here they sneak in gently, while tackling similar themes of class and ethnicity. The difference in length also makes a difference, with And the Bride Closed the Door raising more issues than it claims to solve.

I promised a brief review, so here it is: Here is a novella that well deserves a home in English (and other languages). Remember it.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

WITMonth Day 26 | Thoughts on literary magazines

Today, I finally got around to reading PEN America's Glossolalia Vol. 2, Women Writing Brazil. It's the first time I've ever read a literary magazine or chapbook, at least all the way through. Honestly, I liked it a lot. It had a lot of the strong sides of an anthology, but felt looser and more flexible - stories alongside nonfiction alongside poetry. Even a small glimpse of a photography portfolio. It's a good collection, overall, and I can genuinely recommend it.

But this isn't a review of that book. Instead, I want to (briefly) talk about how literary magazines end up filling in a lot of the blanks that standard, full-length-book publishing often misses. I've talked about anthologies (manthologies!) before, where I've found the general lack of women writers in "generic" anthologies to be lacking (like in publishing at large). The situation seems a little clearer with literary magazines, in which the turnover is higher, faster, and presumably more responsive to the times. Why shouldn't literary magazines be the first to take a step forward?

Sources like VIDA indicate that the situation isn't so great in most magazines. Indeed, I imagine if I were to go through the prominent literary magazines that focus on international literature, I would find a mixed bag. But. I also know that there's a lot of good being done. Like Women Writing Brazil. Like Words Without Borders, which breaks boundaries in all directions. Others I'm probably not aware of.

I don't read many magazines, though I'm thinking I should. There's clearly a lot that I'm missing.

Friday, August 25, 2017

WITMonth Day 25 | The Days of the Deer by Liliana Bodoc

You know what's always fun? Fantasy that isn't based on European medieval conventions!

This is a personal pet peeve of mine: I loathe the way almost all modern fantasy is not only English-language (including out in other countries, where it's predominantly translated from English) and rooted in British/European mythology and cultural norms. Often, the foreigners will be dark-skinned or have almond-eyes, will be either savage or vaguely wiser than the protagonists (depending on whether the book was written more than twenty years ago, or whether it's recent and progressive). The mythology will vaguely resemble Greek or maybe Norse or maybe even Celtic mythology. It's all very similar.

So whenever I encounter a book - whether Anglo in origin or not - that comes from a culture that is not European, I cheer. I am automatically in love with the book, just a little. And oh boy, does The Days of the Deer by Liliana Bodoc (translated by Nick Caistor, with Lucia Caistor Arendar) fulfill that wish, even if it doesn't always rise to its own ambitions.

Let me start by saying that I liked The Days of the Deer a lot, but I'm not sure that it always lives up to its own promise. Here is a fantasy novel that reimagines a land that is very clearly meant to be the Americas, before the European invasion. From the first moment, Bodoc reimagines the Americas and its diverse peoples as a variety of mostly separate tribes or creatures. In the far south, we have our protagonists, the Husihuilkes of the Ends of the Earth. We have the descendents of the Northmen, who have lighter skin and red hair (...Vikings. They're descendents of Vikings.). We have loud, jangling, bright culture in the center of the continent (Mexico?). And these exist alongside more magical creatures, like the Lukus and the Owl Clan.

A fleet of foreigners are crossing the sea. Are they invaders? Are they the Northmen, returned to reunite with their people? Are they the representation of pure evil that this fantasy world has? The book isn't especially subtle in framing this fleet as the European invasion of the Americas. Except in Bodoc's world, things play out a little differently. Here, a group of magical Astronomers are aware that the fleet is coming and have time to prepare - or at least, to figure out what to do. And this is where The Days of the Deer begins, with Dulkancellin of the Husihuilkes summoned to represent his people in figuring out what's going to happen.

Curiously, The Days of the Deer follows a very different story from what I was expecting. Its opening suggests a longer type of quest than what plays out, as well as a predictable climax that didn't end up happening. Instead, The Days of the Deer contains some genuine plot twists and unusual stylistic conventions. Bodoc never seems to go for the easy route, and indeed there are plot threads that open and close at all points of the novel. It's so different from most fantasy books, that while it might seem a bit jarring, it's also remarkably refreshing. It's not always perfect pacing, but it somehow works nicely to create a solid flow. It just doesn't always seem to take advantage of the world that it's built. Bodoc's focus is so strongly on plot developments, that she doesn't stop to enjoy the surprisingly rich treasure chest of culture, history, and myth that is available to her.

I have one main critique of the book: the writing. I always struggle to critique writing in translation, since I hate to pin blame on translators. Yet with The Days of the Deer, there was always a sense of aloofness in the writing that didn't quite vibe with the genre. Different genres have very different writing conventions for what is aloof, casual, or appropriate, and The Days of the Deer felt like it wasn't quite aware of these conventions within English. This, I imagine, is something that can stumble in translation, particularly if the translators are more used to strictly literary (or Literary) texts, as appears to be the case. This means that the story always felt like it was just slightly out of sync, though this is not so severe that it hinders the story altogether.

The second main problem I had is one unrelated to the book itself, but rather to the publishers... While The Days of the Deer has an internally closed ending (no cliffhangers, thank goodness!), it does leave quite a few loose threads that are, I imagine, meant to be picked up in the sequels. However... while The Days of the Deer was translated in 2013, there does not appear to be any intention of translating and publishing its sequels in English. Alas.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

WITMonth Day 24 | An unhappy observation

One of the primary reasons WITMonth exists is in order to give voice to women writers in translation who are too often sidelined. WITMonth is in direct response to the stunningly low rate of translations of works by women. It is in direct response to the dismal rate of review of books by women in translation. It is in direct response to the global dismissal of works by women who write in languages other than English.

I don't expect everyone to know about WITMonth. I don't expect everyone who does know about WITMonth to necessarily only read/talk about women in translation during August. But I frequently find myself a little... shall we say miffed? Miffed at the way in which anything that is not directly related to women in translation during WITMonth is often intentionally overwhelmingly skewed towards being about men.

Take, for example, publishers who choose to interpret WITMonth as a means to promote their women translators. While that's not what WITMonth was intended to do, I recognize that the more the project spreads, the less control I can have of what it means to others. That's fine! But I'm repeatedly amused - and then rather annoyed - by publishers who will highlight a certain translator only with books by men. Behold this wonderful translator! Behold four or five or six books that she has translated! Oh, yeah, I suppose they're all by men, but who cares!

If I sound cynical, it's because I've seen this a few times in the WITMonth tag. I do not share these posts, on principle.

Again: I'm not going to tell people how to recognize WITMonth (I can really only speak for myself...). But I do find it frustrating that the default - the moment people aren't explicitly talking about women in translation - is men. A list of new releases in translation for August? 80% men. A list of "10 Best Translated Fiction" from the past year? Only one woman writer. And so on and so on.

The problem isn't that men writers are getting attention. I don't expect August to be a full month devoid of men. I don't believe in that, frankly, and have myself read men in translation during previous WITMonths. I also recognize that women writers are getting so much more attention in August than they would be otherwise, and that is absolutely amazing. The problem is that otherwise, women are always in the background. At the very least, can't we just have August be even? Can't we have just one month in which women represent - and I know this is wacky, but give me a chance here - half of the books that we talk about?

Hmm, maybe that's just too much to ask...

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

WITMonth Day 23 | Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy by Ece Temelkuran

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that I mentioned three titles in my post about nonfiction a few days ago, and that two of those books have already been reviewed this WITMonth. Well, it's now time to review the third: Ece Temelkuran's Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy (tr. Zeynep Beler).

Turkey... Turkey was something a bit different. Unlike Cockroaches which is a phenomenal book, period, I can't claim that Turkey is a great book overall. It's definitely very good, don't get me wrong, but it drags in parts and rambles in others and sometimes seems to lose its own way a bit. It's also, importantly, not a memoir. Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy seeks to introduce readers to a broadly sketched Turkey. For me - a reader who has read only two or so Turkish books, and all novels - Temelkuran's sharp approach felt revelatory. It was a true learning experience, especially in portions where Temelkuran was clearly speaking to the non-Turkish reader.

It was also (like with The Queue) a remarkably familiar narrative. As I fell deeper into contemporary Turkish political drama, I found myself shuddering with the realization that these exact same things were being repeated elsewhere in the world (specifically Israel, but portions felt reminiscent of the US as well). The book was thus also more than just an education on modern Turkish politics, it was also an eye-opening warning about how easily totalitarianism can take over. Especially since I was reading the book shortly after Erdoğan's referendum on presidential power passed, and I could see how Temelkuran - who obviously did not know of this referendum while writing the book, since it was a few years in the future - anticipated it.

Reading books like Turkey can be chilling, uncomfortable experiences. It's not exactly enjoyable, nor is the educational aspect as fulfilling as a strictly historical text might be. Yet this type of nonfiction serves an important purpose in providing readers with a context for contemporary events. In this regard, Turkey is doubly unique, as it is not written in the form of isolated essays. It's a cohesive book, even if imperfect at times in its pacing.

Turkey is mainly two things, though: It's sharp, and it's thoughtful. My edition's cover has a single blurb "Engrossing and intimate", and honestly it's both of those things. Its politics - its clarity in its politics - is certainly sharp and engrossing, to-the-point while hardly skimping on information. Meanwhile, Temelkuran's personal anecdotes and loving portrayal of her flawed homeland (a tone I could 100% relate to, for the record) provide a thoughtful and intimate environment. Temelkuran makes sure that her messy Turkey becomes our fascinating, timely, and eye-opening Turkey.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

WITMonth Day 22 | Reading the world challenge (part 2)

Announcing the project is great and all, but what about the books I hope to read? Reminder: Not every country is represented by a full-length book, nor is every country or language represented. If nothing else, this is a partial list. For poems or short stories available online, I've included the site at which the work may be read.

So here's the first part of my work-in-progress "Reading the world in women in translation" list! Countries A-C...

Note: Obviously please let me know of any noticeable errors in this list! Also, feel free to chime in with your own personal recommendations for a certain country/language! Your recommendations are worth more than my own random, eclectic collection. Especially since enough of the titles here are either out of print or difficult to track down, any recommendations for the more off-the-beaten-track languages would be much appreciated!

Note the second: Due to an oversight in my own record-keeping, this list will currently be without translator credits. However, as I mark each book off my list and review them, translators will obviously get their due credit! Apologies for now.


  • Afghanistan (Dari): Zahra Hosseinzadeh - Poem (WWB)
  • Afghanistan (Pashto): Parvin Faiz Zadah Malal - "Hate" (WWB)
  • Albania (Albanian): Luljeta Lleshanaku - Child of Nature
  • Algeria (French): Assia Djebar - Women of Algiers in Their Apartment
  • Algeria (Arabic): Ahlam Mosteghanemi - Memory in the Flesh
  • Angola (Portuguese): Ana Paula Tavares - Poem (WWB)
  • Argentina (Spanish): Silvina Ocampo - Thus Were Their Faces
  • Armenia (Armenian): Yessayan Zabel - The Gardens of Silihdar
  • Armenia (Russian): Mariam Petrosyan - The Gray House
  • Australia (Nyulnyul): Mary Charles - Winin: Why the Emu Cannot Fly
  • Austria (German): Adelheid Popp - The Autobiography of a Working Woman
  • Azerbaijan (Azerbaijani): Afag Masug - Short stories 
  • Bahrain (Arabic): Hamda Khamis - Poems (from Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Arabian Gulf Poetry)
  • Bangladesh (Bengali): Begum Rokeya - Sultana's Dream
  • Belarus (Russian): Svetlana Alexievich - Voices from Chernobyl
  • Belgium (French): Madeleine Bourdouxhe - La Femme de Gilles
  • Belgium (Dutch): Chika Unigwe - On Black Sisters' Street
  • Benin - Women Writing Africa Vol. 2
  • Bhutan - MISSING
  • Bolivia (Spanish): Liliana Colanzi - Our Dead World
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina - MISSING
  • Botswana - Women Writing Africa Vol. 1
  • Brazil (Portuguese): Various - Passages: Women Writing Brazil
  • Brunei - MISSING
  • Bulgaria (Bulgarian): Elisaveta Bagriana - Penelope of the Twentieth Century
  • Burkina Faso - Women Writing Africa Vol. 2
  • Burindi - MISSING
  • Cambodia - MISSING
  • Cameroon (French): Werewere Liking - The Amputated Memory
  • Canada (French): Naomi Fontaine - Kuessipan
  • Cape Verde (Portuguese): Orlanda Amarilis - "Nina" (x)
  • Central African Republic - MISSING
  • Chad - MISSING
  • Chile (Spanish): Gabriela Mistral - Selected Works
  • China (Chinese): Can Xue - Frontier
  • Colombia (Spanish): Carolina Sanín - The Children
  • Comoros - MISSING
  • Democratic Republic of Congo - MISSING
  • Republic of Congo - MISSING
  • Costa Rica (Spanish): Tatiana Lobo - Assault on Paradise
  • Croatia (Croatian): Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić - Croatian Tales of Long Ago
  • Cuba (Spanish): Daína Chaviano - The Island of Eternal Love
  • Cyprus (Greek): Myrto Azina Chronides - The Experiment
  • Czechia (Czech): Petra Hůlová - All This Belongs to Me

That's all for today, folks, meet you back in a few days to explore countries D-H! Again, please feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments or on Twitter. The more the merrier!


Monday, August 21, 2017

WITMonth Day 21 | Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga

It's time to talk about what is probably the best book I've read in the past year: Cockroaches.

I haven't gotten around to reviewing Scholastique Mukasonga's novel Our Lady of the Nile yet, but in a sentence: I liked it enough that I bought Cockroaches (translated by Jordan Stump) soon after it came out. Our Lady of the Nile was the first book I'd ever read specifically about Rwanda, and I finished it feeling like I had learned a lot. It's a book that shrinks the Rwandan genocide down to a small scale, displaces it, and blurs it somewhat. It was an insightful, powerful novel. How wrong I was to think I understood anything.

Cockroaches.

I grimaced at the title. I loathe cockroaches. Silly as it sounds, I felt like the book was warning me somehow. Bad content here. Stay away. A warning that had little to do, it turns out, with cockroaches, and significantly more to do with the strikingly clean descriptions of utterly horrific events. This isn't surprising, of course. Cockroaches isn't about the bugs, it's about the humans that other humans deem lower than the lowest creature - simply cockroaches. It's about how humans strip other humans of their humanity and how they use this to justify genocide.

Prior to Cockroaches, the only other story I had ever encountered about Rwanda and the Rwandan genocide was Mukasonga's previously published Our Lady of the Nile. That's it. I had heard stories from family members who had been to Rwanda; one described the memorial museum as "a Holocaust museum, but with Tutsis instead of Jews". I kept thinking of that while reading Cockroaches. Pieces of the memoir felt so familiar, reminders of every Holocaust story I'd encountered in my childhood (and adulthood...), yet this is also very clearly the story of a completely different genocide.

Or rather, I should note, this isn't quite the story of the Rwandan genocide itself as much as it's the story of how Rwanda became a country in which the 1994 genocide could even occur. Mukasonga makes clear from the very first page of the memoir that her survival is the exception: The book opens with a painful dedication to all those who lost their lives and their families, and to "the few who have the sorrow of surviving". In my view, this is the line that captures the essence of Cockroaches. This is a beautifully written book that uses simple, clear writing while conveying a terrible, painful, and gut-wrenching reality.

There's more to it, of course. Mukasonga gives voice to her lost family, but she also builds an entire world around them. Mukasonga never lets the reader forget that the genocide - which technically occurred in 1994 - begins much earlier, with a series of smaller events and horrors. Genocide never occurs in a day. What begins as forced relocation turns into total extermination. First certain individuals. Later, everyone. The elderly. Children. Babies.

Cockroaches is not an easy book. It's short, yes, and Mukasonga writes simply. It's the sort of book you can read through within a few hours, but this is far from a quick, breezy read. This is a book that enters your soul. It feels like a cockroach has crawled under your skin, itching and burning as it burrows into you. It's personal, but not manipulative in its emotions. Mukasonga's survival sorrow rings powerfully, such that I cannot imagine a reader leaving this book unmoved. For this granddaughter of Holocaust survivors (and great-granddaughter, -niece, -cousin, etc. of Holocaust victims), the book felt like a necessary awakening to learn more about those horrors that I haven't been exposed to as much. It felt like an education. And it felt like a painful reminder of how absolutely easy it is for humanity to fail, and fail again.

To quote Mukasonga: "I wish I could write this page with my tears."