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."

Sunday, August 20, 2017

WITMonth Day 20 | The importance of nonfiction

I've always loved nonfiction, though it's been sidelined in my reading for several years. As a kid, I used to devour heavy historical tomes or manuscripts. I loved reading political commentary, biographies, essays, and scientific texts. I used to read a lot more nonfiction than I do today (excluding the mass of scientific papers I read for work, which would add up to more than all literature I currently read if counted...).

Certainly, I can't say I've read all that much work by women in translation.

Now as an important disclaimer, I'll note that I've read very little nonfiction by men in translation either. But I can't pretend that I'm not painfully aware of how little nonfictional works by women in translation are translated. One need only glance over university press catalogs such as Columbia University Press (in which only one of seven recently released titles in translation is by a woman) or Harvard University Press (in which two out of fifteen titles in the Spring/Summer 2017 catalog were by women writers) to realize that an even more extreme gap between men and women in translation exists in the academic world of nonfiction texts than in fiction (and I'll note that the single title by a woman in translation from CUP is actually a novel; books by men are divided).

I've previously talked about why I find university presses to be important gatekeepers, but those stats specifically referred to fiction. When it comes to nonfiction, with an even wider gap, I find myself increasingly frustrated. Translated nonfiction is already such a minor subset. It can span basically whatever topics and fields you want, since nobody really has any expectation that you translate certain books above others (because let's be real - nonfiction published by university presses has a very specific target audience in mind). There is no real motivation to publish a new-new-new-new translation of those most masculine Greek classics, nor to specifically publish that one guy's treatise on European fascism. Yet somehow the strong bias in favor of men writers exists.

Nonfiction is important. Academic texts are important. Not simply as just "another" parameter, but also because nonfiction covers a huge spectrum of the human experience. Take, for example, the three nonfiction titles by women in translation I have read thus far in 2017: Scholastique Mukasonga's powerful memoir Cockroaches, Ece Temelkuran's thoughtful and politically sharp Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy, and Ève Curie's unique biography of her mother Marie. Each book covers a different piece of the nonfiction spectrum, though all three are certainly more on the literary side of things (than the academic). And I'm still in the midst of reading Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl, an utterly unique oral history of that horrific event.

Yet alongside these titles, I've come across so many books in the past year by early feminist scholars that have never been translated. Books by queer Latin American feminist analyzing their identities. Books by historians, scientists, researchers, and academics. Books that crop up when you sift through Wikipedia, author by author, but have yet to find a home in English (or many other languages, for that matter). Instead, nonfiction in translation (itself too tiny a field) remains steadfastly male, and predominantly European. This should change.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

WITMonth Day 19 | Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

I think there's a level on which I wanted to like Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay's Panty (tr. Arunava Sinha) a lot more than I did. Not that I disliked the book, nor that I had a negatively tinged apathy towards it like with Our Dead World. In general, I thought the book was fairly good, and I generally enjoyed it. It's also not the sort of book that I can accuse of being utterly forgettable, since it has successfully lingered in my consciousness since I read it several months ago.

No, instead of concrete sorts of frustration, the truth is simply that I drew a certain image of Panty in the mind that ended up being far from the truth. I expected something tighter and more explicit, and instead got a very different sort of story.

Panty - the first novel published by WITMonth friends Tilted Axis Press - is very much that surreal, hazy short novel that has become so popular within the translated literature community in recent years. The book is a vague, deliberately confusing mish-mash of experiences, overlayed with quiet reflections on sexuality, art, and independence. It's a uniquely written text, certainly, with alternating styles and perspectives that blur the lines between characters, reality, and imagination.

This is also a style that can work really well, honestly, but in my experience needs to come with a strong central hook in order to successfully carry the story. Here Panty (like so many other books of this sort, in my opinion) stumbles a little bit - but only a little. While the narrator's voice is deeply compelling, she doesn't quite dominate emotionally. The blurriness - alongside the sort of fuzziness she herself describes - keeps her from emerging as a definitive anchor. Not that she doesn't have an emotional pull. Panty is definitely a lot better in this regard than most other novellas of its class, since the narrator does have a clear personality. She has a loose plot (though it is somewhat sidelined) and she has a presence even when she's not the primary voice (since she colors the accompanying narratives as well).

And so I wasn't sure how quite to classify Panty. It's a very well-written novella, and I liked it. It left a mark on me, even months after setting it aside (certain images and scenes were particularly memorable and powerfully formed). It also, however, employed a literary technique that is a little less than my favorite (vagueness does not equal complexity!), and I find myself wondering how much stronger a story it could have been had a few threads been tied together just a bit more tightly. But that, of course, is personal taste. Overall, Panty is certainly worth your time. But with that single caveat - surreal doesn't work for every reader...

Friday, August 18, 2017

WITMonth Day 18 | Politics

I've been thinking about politics lately.

This shouldn't be especially surprising; the global political climate is tense and I've always been fascinated by politics. The difference is that lately I've been thinking about the politics of identity, the politics of defined identities, and questions regarding the political nature of any works by marginalized artists. These topics aren't new, and others far wiser than me have already explored them far better than I'll ever be able to.

Nonetheless, I found myself thinking about these topics in the context of women in translation, spinning off from the thought that I formalized aloud (for the first time, for the record) in my talk with Aviya Kushner at The Forward, wondering about the politics of authors translated into English based on my experiences with Israeli writers. As a bilingual reader, I am very well aware of the biases that make their way into translations, the narratives that get pushed through mere framing. These don't have to be inherently negative nor that there is something wrong in highlighting authors who represent certain views, but there are specific biases that are useful in creating a specific narrative. In this case, there is significantly more interest in "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" as a constructed concept than there is in dozens of other diverse, populated countries (I won't get into the why of this right now...). A narrative is formed.

When it comes to Israel (my personal, familiar case study), my observation has long been that when men write about families touched by political circumstances, their books get labeled as political (see: David Grossman's intimate-yet-political To the End of the Land). When women write about similar themes, their books are viewed through a purely domestic lens. Thus Israeli women have, for example, written many books that subtly and quietly examine the ethnic and racial dynamics in Israel without getting the same attention and fame that the loudly POLITICAL (TM) Grossman or Amos Oz might get. Lea Aini may write about the effects of war, yet her novels remain untranslated. Or Ronit Matalon, who writes about the dynamics between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, whose novel The Sound of Our Steps was translated into English a full seven years after its much-acclaimed publication in Israel. (A notable exception is Dorit Rabinyan, whose novel All the Rivers was swiftly translated after a widely publicized controversy regarding its non-inclusion in the Israeli high-school curriculum.)

This, of course, is all just one country, but it makes me wonder about the rest of the world. Certainly, I have noticed that there are certain political biases in many of the books I read in translation. Indeed, one need only look at the odd prevalence of books by women who are breaking free of oppressive and sexist "other" societies. Or even the way almost all women writers need to have the disclaimer regarding their gender: "Best Latin American woman writer!" Again, this does not mean that these political biases are inherently bad - most of them are pretty great, to be honest! I'm totally fine with a bias in favor of feminist literature, for instance. Bias doesn't mean bad.

But we need to recognize the politics at play. We need to recognize the way that these political biases - a bias towards what we deem to be explicitly political texts - is erasing a lot of radical, powerful writing, particularly by women. Women writing under oppressive conditions - regardless how they address those conditions - are being political. Translating these women is inherently political. Even women from "Western" backgrounds, writing simple historical romances are engaging in a political act. Women's existence in public spaces is still insecure, and should not be taken for granted.

As always, we must try to be aware of our biases. If we're favoring men writers because of how we wish to frame certain political narratives (Israel is only one example of many, obviously), we need to recognize that bias in interpreting politics. If we're romanticizing a certain "type" of woman over another because it fits with a savior-like mentality, we need to recognize that bias too. There may always remain some degree of bias, but we should at least recognize it for what it is.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

WITMonth Day 17 | Our Dead World by Liliana Colanzi

To be perfectly honest, I was mostly drawn to Liliana Colanzi's Our Dead World (tr. Jessica Sequeira) because of Colanzi origins. As I was compiling my Reading the World list, I struggled to find any titles for Bolivia. Helpful Twitter readers instantly pointed me towards this (then-forthcoming) title, and I immediately added it to my reading lists.

I had a gut feeling before reading this slim short story collection, however, that it wouldn't be entirely to my taste. The summary on the back highlighted the oddness of the stories, but I have found in recent months that I'm less interested in "weird" stories. Or rather, if the stories need to stray off the beaten track, I like to have a sense of cohesion within them and a strong sense of character. Some books do rather well at casting that "weird" spell while remaining grounded in an emotional connection... Our Dead World a little less so, and I left the book feeling generally empty. Not disappointed, exactly, nor especially frustrated. Just feeling like the book hadn't managed to leave any mark on me.

Perhaps this is unfair. Perhaps I simply read the book at the wrong time, over a weekend in which most of my time was spent stressing out about my future and things far beyond my control. Perhaps I simply didn't give the book the space that it deserved. Even so, now as I flip through the stories, I find that only one out of the eight has managed to linger in my memory, less than a week after reading the entire collection. Most of the stories in Our Dead World felt like clever little exercises: curious premises that twisted and spun around, but didn't spend too long on their characters.

But longtime readers of this blog will know that I'm rarely impressed by books of this sort. In fact, this has colored my impression of almost all single-author short story collections that I've read in the past few years. I love short stories as a form, but I often find myself bored or disappointed by collections from the same author. Here, the problem was less an author's uniform style (the "variations on a theme" problem, as I like to call it), but a uniform lack of opportunities for the reader to form emotional connections with the characters. The stories instead are brief, cool, and detached - something I am sure appeals to many readers, but not to me.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

WITMonth Day 16 | Reading the world challenge (part 1)

One of my favorite things that I've discovered since starting this blog and reading more international literature is Ann Morgan's A Year of Reading the World blog and project. The project was the first time I'd encountered anyone with the explicit goal of reading a book from every country in the world. While the project was significantly more ambitious than anything I could ever imagine for myself, I found myself enraptured both by Morgan's exploration of the world through literature, and her methodology. This was a clear, organized project.

It's been a few years since Morgan's project ended, but I often find myself thinking about it. Over the past several months, I have also begun seeing whether I can replicate it, this time only with women writers in translation. This is a significantly more difficult challenge: not only are there many countries from which no work by women has been translated, there are also quite a few countries on earth in which literature is almost exclusively written in English. 

But this doesn't mean the overall conceptual challenge is impossible. And thus the challenge I formed for myself began simply (presentation inspired by the Bechdel test):
  1. Read a written work from every country on Earth
  2. By a woman writer
  3. Originally written in a language other than English
You'll notice that I didn't say "fiction" or "literature". To be honest, my original intention was to focus on longform fiction, but I soon realized how utterly impossible that would be. Too many countries have only a handful of works coming out of them, fewer still by women. These works are often individual short stories or poems or essays, compiled in various anthologies or academic collections. I decided it would be silly to omit those, simply because they were not of enough "mass". 

As I progressed in my research, I also realized that I wanted these other works. I want to read Angolan poetry. I want to read Brazilian queer feminist critiques. I want to read Tibetan memoirs. I want to read whatever the too-often underrepresented women of the world have to tell me, whatever it may be. All the complexities of the world that are wrapped up in this.

This led to another question: Shouldn't I be seeking out as many languages too? And so the project expanded somewhat there, as well. I began searching for as many works from as many different languages, within these countries (as well as including indigenous languages in various English speaking countries). This subproject has proven significantly more difficult than I had imagined, but I'm not giving up. Unlike Morgan, I'm not even going to try to read these works within a year... perhaps not even a decade. This is a lifelong project, with the simple goal of reading as widely and as fully as I can.

I don't know if other readers will want to join me on this project. It won't be simple, certainly, but it also won't be singular. I've been working on compiling my own personal reading list for several months now, but the truth is that it's just one (very limited!) list. Many countries are still missing (though it is possible that I've simply overlooked certain works!), and even more languages are absent. The list itself is still incomplete; as of writing this post, I have only collected titles through "Pakistan". Some countries have multiple titles, others have only one. I hope that this list will grow with time, and I hope that once I start sharing it with you all (soon!), you may add your own voices - books that are missing, books that perhaps aren't all that, and authors that you believe should be translated so that they may appear on these lists in the future.

This project will take many, many years. I'm so excited.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

WITMonth Day 15 | Madame Curie by Ève Curie

When I found Madame Curie in a used bookstore, it felt like a sign. Not only was this a beautifully bound biography of one of the greatest scientists in history, it was written by her daughter Ève Curie in French (tr. Vincent Sheean). Marie Curie, a woman in translation. Quite appropriate.

Even so, it took me a long time to get around to reading this biography. In general, I find that I need more time and focus for most biographies (for most nonfiction overall, honestly), something that often clashes with my work demands and limited reading time. I love nonfiction, but I find myself reading less and less of it in recent years (for entertainment, that is; I read plenty for work...). Once I started Madame Curie, however, it took two focused sittings and I was done with the book. Enthralled by the life of this woman I have read so much about, yet ultimately know so little of.

Because yes, most of us know that Marie Curie was Polish. But how did she get to France? How did she fall in love with the sciences? What guided her to the places she reached, where she would eventually become infamous?

Curiously - or perhaps not, given that the biography was written by Curie's publicly adoring younger daughter - Madame Curie does not linger much on the traditional puzzle pieces or complexities one would expect from a biography. Most of the book details her personal life, rather than the professional aspect. Ève raises the sexism that Marie faced as a rare woman in her field, but doesn't really focus on it. I found this fascinating, since modern biographical pieces on Marie Curie (such as those found in almost every "Great Women in Science" or whatever types of collections) tend to emphasize this point, from an explicitly modern perspective. Ève doesn't do that. Yes, she acknowledges some of what Marie experienced, but she offers few interpretations of her own.

Overall, Ève Curie proves to be an interesting biographer, since she is also a character within the book. It is fairly odd to read a book in which the author alternates between referring to herself in the third person and a few paragraphs later, recounting the object of her book (in this case, her mother) through a personal anecdote. It creates a weird dissonance that I didn't always like.

However, I think it sort of goes without saying that Madame Curie is the sort of book you read with little regard for the technical writing. Not that it's bad, but I honestly wouldn't rank this as an especially good biography. It's a great piece of history, it's a great emotional assessment of a woman frequently reduced only to her science, and it's a lovely exploration of Marie Curie's life. There's something very warm about the way Ève writes of her mother, even if it at times feels like she's whitewashing her own history a little.

And of course... there's the content. I can't help but love this book for its content. I have admired Marie Curie for years, of course, not simply as a woman in the sciences, but also as a clear example of a woman who didn't let anything stand in her way. Yet the image I had in my mind seems to have been far from who Marie Curie really was. Rather than  the wunderkind I'd always imagined, a woman who did everything in her youth and spent years afterwards simply fighting the system, Marie Curie who got a Master's at 26 (like I expect to!) and married the great love of her life at 27 (what was once considered old!) and achieved her doctorate over several years. Instead of the mythical all-capable goddess of my imagination, Marie Curie instead appears as a totally brilliant human. A human like me, perhaps. With its focus on Marie Curie as a person and not just a scientist, Madame Curie gave me the hope that perhaps I too can someday be this sort of scientist. In this regard, I cannot overstate how emotional Madame Curie left me, feeling as though I had been given a small gift.

As I said, this isn't the most technically brilliant of books. But Madame Curie is nonetheless important. Ève's perspective is unique and at-times significant, besides which there are few full-length biographies of Curie from which to choose. Madame Curie is a lovely, if oddly informal (and non-academic) biography of an incredible woman. And it meant so very much to me.

Monday, August 14, 2017

WITMonth Day 14 | Almost-halfway vlog!


First vlog of WITMonth 2017! In which I mostly gush about how wonderful the first half of the month has been, and tease a little bit of the next half.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

WITMonth Day 13 | Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff

There was something instantly familiar and comfortable about Maresi.

I can't say what it was. I went into Maria Turtschaninoff's young adult fantasy (tr. A. A. Prime) knowing that the book was ostensibly a feminist-minded novel, and I couldn't help but be intrigued right off the bat. I also knew that the story takes place on a woman-only island, a sort of feminist utopia.

I didn't think of it at the time, but it seems that my mind must have subconsciously begun to call back to older feminist fantasy novels I read as a teen. Books like Marion Zimmer Bradley's novels (particularly The Mists of Avalon series) or Tamora Pierce's Tortall books. This, at least, is what happened once I started reading: I was instantly sucked into Maresi's world and found myself completely emotionally invested. Maresi - despite a fairly simple, at times more childish writing style than I was expecting - is exactly the sort of fantasy book I used to drink like water as a preteen. The characters are sharply drawn, the world is rich and easily called to mind, and the magic is present but lurking just beneath the surface.

Suffice to say: I really enjoyed Maresi.

It's not just nostalgia. Sure, there's a healthy heap of that too (who doesn't want more Tamora Pierce-like feminist fantasy novels?!), but it's mostly about the story that Maresi herself tells and the powerful message Turtschaninoff conveys about women and women's place in the world. Not only does The Red Abbey Chronicles create this pleasantly evocative little utopia, it also addresses why it's needed. Unlike many gritty, masculine fantasies that reference the subjugation of women as an afterthought, Turtschaninoff explicitly references the struggles that women - and more specifically young girls - go through. Women are abused, attacked, raped, sold off... and the Red Abbey provides a safe haven for them. Other women provide a safe haven for young girls.

In this sense, this is honest YA. The story is bluntly uncomfortable in parts, but it's never dark for the sake of being dark, and it's never painful. Maresi as a narrator frequently highlights the good moments, even as she struggles with the darkness that has come to invade her home. There is a warmth and strength in her voice that I immediately connected with, though again, I did find the writing to be a tad bit simplified in a way that didn't always match the story. The story is fairly predictable, but it also isn't really trying not to be. It works, somehow, in the same way that Tamora Pierce's early books (specifically the Lioness quartet) don't really need overly complex plotting in order to feel wonderfully rich and interesting.

This probably won't be the book for everyone. While the fantasy elements are relatively limited (mostly through a religious lens, with the three-part Goddess effectively contributing to all of the magic), it's still very much a YA fantasy. That's part of what I loved about it, but I recognize that fantasy YA is not exactly a universally beloved genre. And yet. For those readers who do love fantasy, who want to explore diverse YA, who want their historical fantasies to have just a bit (or a lot!) more feminism to them, Maresi is the way to go. It's a great little book, the sort that left me hungry for more books from this world.

Luckily, the next book in the series has already been released...

Saturday, August 12, 2017

WITMonth Day 12 | How they fight

I originally had a very different post in mind for today, but the news coming out of the US right now (along with months of news coming from there, the UK, across Europe, India, and so on) has me thinking about the way in which women writers from around the world have long fought against oppressive, racist, or fascist regimes.

I'm not just thinking about the actual writers themselves (though obviously they deserve attention and credit). I'm also left wondering what it means for women - particularly women from marginalized backgrounds - to use their voices to fight against oppression. I'm left wondering about those women writers who are willing to face the very public threats that come with being a woman in a public space, alongside their political views. I'm left wondering about those ways in which simply being a woman writer in certain spheres is a form of fighting in and of itself, and how we often fail to give women the credit they deserve for this.

I'm thinking of Elsa Morante, whose History looks at fascism directly in the eye and shows readers the reality of its effects. I'm thinking of Mahasweta Devi, who addressed political problems both within her fiction and without. I'm thinking of those who did not survive fascism, like Anne Frank or Chana Senesh, whose writing is entirely colored by their experiences. I'm thinking of writers like Herta Müller, or Mercè Rodoreda or Anna Seghers.

I'm thinking about the new generation of writers who are being forged right now, in the face of resurgent movements and existing hate. I'm thinking about young women from the around the world, whose words are fighting. And I'm left asking: will we get to hear their voices?

Friday, August 11, 2017

WITMonth Day 11 | The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane

The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy by Paulina Chiziane (tr. David Brookshaw) was the last book I bought during WITMonth 2016, and I read it in early 2017. I neglected to review it, despite, unsurprisingly, finding it to be a fascinating and important novel. Let's ask ourselves, seriously, how I could not be interested by "the first Mozambican woman ever to publish a novel"? Or a novel that explores polygamy from the eyes of the wives?

I should begin, then, by noting that from a literary perspective The First Wife isn't necessarily the most brilliantly written text you'll ever read. There were times in which the writing felt a little flat, with certain passages dragging on just a bit longer than I might have otherwise preferred. It's far from a poorly written novel, but it's also... not quite the best.

The content makes up for it, though. This is far and away one of the more culturally fascinating books I've had the pleasure to read as a result of the women in translation project, in large part because it often feels as though The First Wife really isn't trying to talk to me, but within Chiziane's own cultural consciousness. I have found that I like these sorts of books more than those that try to "talk" to a foreign audience - Chiziane doesn't try to address "Western concerns" or questions about whether polygamy is good/bad. The First Wife instead works entirely within the assumption that polygamy is... just a thing. Not a great thing, undoubtedly, but main-character Rami plots the entire concept.

The story begins with Rami - the titular "first wife" - finding out that her husband Tony has been keeping not one, but four different mistresses for years. Each woman is progressively younger and typically more beautiful than the previous, stemming from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Each woman is also deeply in love with Tony. But of course... they can't have him all the time. Under these circumstances, Rami sets out to force Tony to marry each of the mistresses and adopt a polygamous family under older traditions.

In this way, the novel fails to adhere to typical "Western" feminism. Rather than demonizing the subjugation of women (since of course the mistresses had had no legal claims before marriage...), there's an interesting exploration of what it means and how women find their strength within confining environments. Rami's initial fury over being duped turns into a fury over her husband's treatment of his various mistresses and children. Polygamy becomes a weapon not of the patriarchy against the women, but of the women against a man who seems to view them as meaningless and interchangeable in his life.

Slowly, over the course of the novel, each of the women - initially so emotionally and practically dependent on Tony - begin to change. Rami's "rivals" become more than just the younger mistresses of her husband, and she grows close with most. In her role as "the first wife", Rami exerts a great amount of control and influence over their lives, helping them achieve their ambitions and finding them stability (and indeed, sometimes love). In this way, The First Wife is able to display women's power in the places we assume women have none.

This, I think, is what makes The First Wife a uniquely feminist text. Chiziane is exploring what it means to be a woman, what it means to be women in a society that places them below men (Rami coolly refers to women's inferiority until the very end of the novel), and the ways in which women do find their voice, their strength, and sometimes their independence.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

WITMonth Day 10 | Intersections

I've found myself thinking about intersections quite a bit today. Not that I don't try to contemplate intersections in general - it's definitely a topic that comes up frequently - but today it seemed especially prominent, as more and more friends and family members began asking me about this women in translation project that they hadn't really known until now. Suddenly, people who until now had only a vague sense of what this project meant to me began wondering: What about other languages? Are there differences between countries? Is there a difference with regards to self-published literature?

At this point in the conversation, I almost always have to bring up intersectionalism as a concept. Curiously, I've found that those unfamiliar with the concept (or not explicitly in its feminist context) accept it much more simply when they themselves are challenging it. It's the easiest thing in the world to just say, "Yes, there is more than one problem". Because there is.

While WITMonth explicitly focuses on women (and trans and nonbinary) writers in translation, yes. But longtime readers of this blog will recall that I have tried to have as broad of a WITMonth since its inception, even though I don't always succeed. And regardless my reading, I have always hoped that WITMonth recognize the other ways in which women writers in translation may belong to marginalized groups.

This is why I look at classic literature. At queer literature. Why I've pointed out the overall imbalances in publishing between books from Western Europe and the rest of the world. Women in translation are not a homologous monolith, each with exactly the same sort of bias against her. Within translated literature (and within the WIT project) exist several other intersections, like sexuality, ability, country of origin, writing language, and so on.

I know I say this all the time (and I'm becoming a bit of a broken record on the matter...), but it's important that we remember this point. It's important that we challenge our reading at every step of the way, because the point isn't just to check off the "women in translation" box on our "diversity" cards (eurgh). As I've argued before, the point is to experience the world as it truly is. That entails reading women of all backgrounds, and recognizing the intersecting identities that many women hold.

We cannot ignore that literature in translation has a demographic/continental bias. We cannot ignore that literature in translation overall favors certain languages over others. We cannot ignore that literature in translation rarely explores the working class experience. We cannot ignore the fact that each and every one of these factors plays a role when it comes to the books we see published overall, and doubly so for women writers. Yes, WITMonth will remain focused on women, but that doesn't mean we can't recognize some other problems along the way. Especially since they are equally solvable.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

WITMonth Day 9 | One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun

Something that has happened more and more frequently to me in recent years is an odd tendency to start a book, be moderately disappointed by the first chapter, set it aside for a few days (or weeks), return to it, and fall in deep. This doesn't happen with every book, of course, but it's happened often enough that I've taken it as a sort of indicator: Sometimes you start a book at the wrong time. Give it a moment, give it a week, give it a few months... you might end up enjoying it a lot more when the time is right.

Hwang Jungeun's One Hundred Shadows (tr. Jung Yewon) felt very much like that sort of book. I read the first chapter during a particularly stressful week and found myself put off somewhat by the quotation-mark-less writing and the odd, almost airy style. I set it aside for a week. When I picked it up again, the prose felt like it had undergone some sort of transformation (though it was obviously I who underwent the change...). The simple style felt fresh and sharp, unburdened by unnecessary weight or false "literariness".

And I liked it.

It's an odd, sort of melancholic sort of book, framed by some rather nice symmetry and a quiet sort of social message. Curiously, based on the jacket description, I was expecting One Hundred Shadows to focus more explicitly on class differences and social inequality in modern Seoul, but... it's not that sort of book at all. Not that there aren't politics - narrator Eungyo and her friend-maybe-more Mujae discuss at some point the definition of the word "slum", and Eungyo often thinks about the state of their status as repairmen of sorts, working in a cheap market that has been marked for demolition. Both characters acknowledge the difficulties they've had, with Mujae referencing his inherited debts and the cost of college ("I didn't think what I was learning [in college] was worth getting into debt for") and Eungyo contemplating her reasons for dropping out of school as a teenager. In that sense, One Hundred Shadows is a solidly "working class" sort of a novel, something that shouldn't be as rare as it is.

In the midst of this political exploration of class comes a fantasy-like twist on it: rising shadows. The short novel begins with Eungyo following her newly-risen shadow out into the woods; Mujae is there to guide her back to reality. Over the course of the novel, several different characters describe stories of their rising shadows or undergo similar events. When his shadow rises, Eungyo notes that "it seemed as though Mujae was no longer present." These events seem to become more and more frequent as the novel progresses, linked perhaps to the anxieties of the neighborhood as the threat (and action) of demolition looms closer. Certainly references to shadow-risings that happen earlier are linked to death and despair...

And yet there's a surprising sweetness to the story. Eungyo and Mujae's friendship develops slowly, with the two supporting each other and balancing each other nicely. Each is there for the other when their shadow rises, and their growing bond seems to reflect that sort of deeper connection. It's a refreshingly honest sort of relationship, never overly explicit or harshly obvious.

This can be said of the novel overall - it's understated. The jacket, as I've already mentioned, calls this a "hard-edged novel", which seems like the last term I'd use for this sloping story (though many other reviewers have adopted it). It's certainly powerful, but the writing is almost explicitly quiet, with the fantasy elements also wrapping the story rather gently. It's more like a softly rolling dreamscape, but one that refuses to forget the world that shapes it. One Hundred Shadows doesn't have to be loud in order to make its political/social point clear to readers. On the contrary - I found that I much preferred this character-focused approach. It makes for a powerful, unique little novel, and one that I can easily recommend.

Monday, August 7, 2017

WITMonth Day 7 | The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector

Sharp-eyed readers of this blog and my Twitter feed will perhaps raise an eyebrow. "Weren't you reading this over a year ago?" you may ask. The answer is, of course: yes, yes I was. And indeed I am still reading Clarice Lispector's The Complete Stories, a giant tome that could probably last a lifetime. Translated by Katrina Dodson and edited by Benjamin Moser, The Complete Stories is that unique sort of publication that deserves every ounce of praise and recognition that it has received. It's a tremendous collection of varied and brilliant short stories, a remarkable indicator of Lispector's talents as a writer, and just a great read.

Here's what's amazing about The Complete Stories: it can work both ways. Want to read it straight through? Might be a little difficult, but you can certainly read story after story after story. Lispector's writing is sharp and always delightfully descriptive, nailing little emotions and scenes with high precision. Even when it changes style - because you cannot expect 700+ pages of short stories to have the exact same angle, style or perspective - the overall effect remains one of remarkably clean prose. You can also just pick it up in pieces. I read the first third of the book in one sitting, rushing through the stories, and have since been sampling the remainder with a story or two per week, never quite leaving Lispector's world behind, but also avoiding that full immersion I had at first.

Lispector is known for darker and dryer styles, all of which are on display in The Complete Stories. Some of these stories are light, gentle, sweet affairs, but others are creepy or downright terrifying. Lispector often uses a sort of slyly disconcerting style, in which a clearly drawn narrator will suddenly be unsettled, and the reader along with them. Even the stories which I liked less - often ones that were deliberately vague or seemingly scattered - avoid outright discomfort, opting instead for a more subtle sort of reader awareness. Lispector has this way of reminding you that you are reading - her use of language is remarkable in being an inherent character within the stories. It makes me wonder how difficult translating these sorts of works must be.

The Complete Stories also highlights a lot of what I didn't like about the first book by Lispector that I read: The Hour of the Star. I read Lispector's last (short) novel during the first-ever WITMonth, and was fairly disappointed, finding the writing technically interesting but the story almost uncomfortably emotionally dull. My conclusion was, at the time, that perhaps the brevity of The Hour of the Star was the source of the problem. I concluded that it would be best if I read one of Lispector's meatier novels next. Instead, I have found myself exceedingly satisfied by the opposite. In her short stories, Lispector's vagueness can often carry the story in its entirety. Technical exercises (in my experience) work far better as short stories than as novellas or novels. Furthermore, the wide variety between her stories keeps both individual stories and the collection at large from growing too dull.

This review is effectively superfluous. If you are a reader who can tolerate short stories (and I know that there are some readers who loathe the form...), you should read The Complete Stories. It's that simple. This is a truly wonderful collection by a brilliant writer. Go forth and read.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

WITMonth Day 6 | Rethink your PC

There's a common trope response against anyone arguing for inclusiveness: "this PC [politically correct] nonsense!" Or variations on a theme. People who - typically, but not always -  belong to the non-oppressed/over-represented group rush to tell those who do belong to (or champion voices within) an oppressed or under-represented group.

This has happened, of course, with WITMonth as well. Most egregiously, however, it happened on a totally harmless tweet: a totally lovely collection of photos that people have shared on social media detailing their favorite women in translation. The response - dismissing the collection of critically-and-reader acclaimed books as mere "twaddle" - demands to know why The Poetry Translation Centre isn't focused on "simply promoting good literature, rather than PC quota-like obsessions regardless of merit".

Ah yes. "Good literature". "Merit".

I've written extensively about the ways in which women's writing is dismissed and ignored. More importantly, Joanna Russ has written a brilliant book about it, too. The terms "good literature" and "merit" are heavily influenced by inherently gendered concepts, twisted by the bias we all have. No reader can disconnect their perception of works by women writers and their admiration for works by men, when almost all of the literature children read in schools (and in university) is by men, while women's writing is often limited to specific units or "women's studies" courses. And of course, this is not merely true for books by women writers, rather it represents a disturbingly pervasive fact when it comes to representation of writers from marginalized backgrounds (and especially those who represent an intersection of several marginalized identities).

Here's the cold, uncomfortable truth: Having WITMonth isn't about being "PC". It's not about reading women for the sake of women, to mark a checkbox and feel progressive. It's because we want the best literature, and you simply aren't going to get it if all you're reading is the same men again and again, and only ever from English. If we truly went by merit, I honestly do not believe we would ever have such a severe imbalance between men and women, nor between English-language authors and those in translation, nor between white authors and non-white authors, nor between straight authors and queer authors, nor between able-bodied authors and disabled authors. Excellent writers exist in all stripes and come from all backgrounds. We must always remember that, as well as recognize the additional hurdles writers from marginalized backgrounds must overcome in order to have the privilege of being heard.

Reading only English-language, white, straight men? Now that's just trying to be politically correct. The rest - WITMonth included - is just reality.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

WITMonth Day 5 | The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

You know those books that you almost don't want to read because of how they suddenly seem to represent everything that's going on in your life? Like when you were a child and suddenly the protagonist of the book you were reading was struggling in school like you were, or finding a book about losing a parent just as your close friend was dealing with her grief. Sometimes books just seem too real, and goodness if Basma Abdel Aziz's The Queue (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette) didn't feel exactly that.

It's been a few months since I read The Queue, a few months in which it's remained an itchy little reminder in the back of my mind. This is unsurprising, of course - the political climate of late has been so turbulent, so virulent, so baffling that it's hard not to strongly relate to a novel that details the pervasive, insistent, cancerous growth of authoritarianism. The Queue does so from a very specific angle, taking place in a not-entirely-unfamiliar version of Egypt with its own unique struggles (including explicit references to questions of religious purity and specific Islamic values).

And yet somehow, in April of 2017, the novel felt eerily familiar to this reader.

The Queue is not an especially long, heavy, or complex read. Rich with characters as it may be, the story remains focused on a few specific individuals who effectively reside in "the queue" - a long, indeed stagnant and eternal line that is waiting for The Gate to open. The Gate represents the new, authoritarian regime. Unsurprisingly, it remains closed to the public. Even as it demands that citizens acquire specific approvals, documents, and certificates from the Gate in order to conduct normal lives (in some cases, in order to live at all), it remains steadfastly closed, even as it hands down more decrees.

The Gate has remained closed since the Disgraceful Events, when protests against the state erupted. These protests represent both the strength and weakness of the Gate: its strength in eliminating the protesters and convincing the public that these Events didn't occur as witnesses clearly show they did, while also forcing its bunkered retreat. Among the victims of the Events is Yehya, who was shot by government forces. Since the official narrative rejects that the government even needed to use live weapons, the bullet that remains lodged in Yehya cannot exist and thus Yehya's declining health is fictional as well. Yehya's health forms a sort of frame story, guided by the surgeon who initially saw Yehya and identified the bullet that remained within.

Alongside Yehya's story, The Queue introduces additional characters who need the Gate's approval for various issues. One man seeks to reclaim his family's honor, a woman tries to stay afloat as her son suffers from illness, a journalist wanders the queue in a quest to understand their stories... Each story introduces one more small angle of the Gate's authority, from control of the media to control of basic businesses (like the state-run cell-phone provider that doesn't really provide service) to the gradual - and then avalanche-scale - erosion of freedom.

And here was the point at which things began to hit close to home.

A major theme in The Queue is the reliability of truth itself. The truth of the truth. Do you believe what you are told so very reasonably? Do you believe what your own eyes have seen, even if it contradicts what you're being told? At what point is the demand of the state truly too much? At what point is it obvious that you are being truly and thoroughly oppressed? These are not trivial questions, and The Queue doesn't pretend to answer them. It's not about having an answer, it's about the route taken. A small lie enables outright, blatant denials of the truth. This not only echoes the new political climate in the US - a world of "fake news" and alternative facts - but Israel, where journalists are often (quite frankly) so shallow that it is almost impossible to identify truth from propaganda. True, both countries are still democracies (if each severely flawed in its own way...), but it felt like that iceberg tip. Just a little more and things might collapse.

The Queue is a good book. Powerful, cleanly written, thought-provoking. Both Yehya's core story and Tarek's frame are emotionally engaging, while the additional fragments from the side-characters build this world in a remarkable way. Pieces of the plot felt a little thick at times, but the relatively short length of the story keeps the book as a whole from getting bogged down. It is, ultimately, a cool-headed dystopian tale of a world that is actually far too real.

Here, at least, we have one truth...

Friday, August 4, 2017

WITMonth Day 4 | Visibility and women in translation

One of my original goals for WITMonth was introducing more readers (and industry folk) to the very problem of women in translation. As more and more readers, reviewers, media outlets, translators, publishers, bookstores, and libraries join in the efforts, we're getting that done. Every tweet, every review, every post that references WITMonth means one more person learning about the cause.

This is huge, because WITMonth largely began as an obscure, minor blogging event. And while most readers still probably don't know that only ~30% of books translated into English are by women writers (and some probably don't care all that much...), more and more are discovering this - and their own reading biases - daily. And they are working to fix it.

But this post isn't just about how it's great to see more readers becoming exposed to the issue. It's more about visibility at large, and how impossible it is for any movement to advance without those who ensure that people can even be exposed to the issue. I've long hoped for greater bookstore/library involvement in WITMonth, out of a belief that the overwhelming majority of readers are introduced to books not necessarily through Twitter, but through literal visibility.

Readers - particularly younger readers - walk into the bookstore or library, and typically gravitate towards the books that are clearly labeled. This is how I do most of my bookshopping/library-hunting: I first check to see what's exposed on the display tables, then I look for the little bookseller recommendation tabs, and then aimlessly browse. The uncomfortable truth is that there are far too many books in the world for every reader to be exposed to every single one. Most of us need some sort of guidance - whether capitalistic/publisher-guided or genuine/word-of-mouth - to find good books.

WITMonth 2017 has seen a notable rise in bookstore and library involvement. This is wonderful. Even as most bookstores highlight a select collection of books that are probably familiar to hardcore readers of translated literature, they are opening the door for countless readers who haven't heard of the cause and didn't necessarily know about the publishing imbalance. Furthermore, a significant portion of literature in translation (and especially women in translation) is published by independent or lesser-known publishers. By placing these books front and center, bookstores and libraries are able to introduce readers to an entire world of literature that they might never have considered previously.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

WITMonth Day 3 | Wonderful Feels Like This by Sara Lövestam

There's a reason I often crave more YA in translation. There's something about fiction that's a little simpler, a little cleaner and clearer and geared towards younger minds, that comes stripped of a lot of the stylistic baggage that bogs down much of the high-brow "literature in translation". Whether a fair assessment or not, translated literature comes with a fairly heavy price-tag for most readers: the perception that the topics are heavy, the style is dense, and the reading experience bleak. Others still associate translated literature with those old classics, dusty and decaying on the shelf.

Wonderful Feels Like This - with its bright yellow cover and bright confetti splashed all over - seems a perfect antidote to readers who don't care for the heavier style. It's also a lovely, if at times awkward little YA novel, part historical fiction and part contemporary coming-of-age. For readers deterred by translation - particularly for younger readers seeking titles that might be a bit more relatable - Wonderful Feels Like This is a pretty nice starting point. Not the greatest contemporary YA you'll read this year, in all likelihood, but not an embarrassing addition to the collection either. A solid, pleasant, and interesting book that carries with it an important message: it's possible for YA to cross borders without anything getting lost.

In Wonderful Feels Like This, author Sara Lövestam (translated from Swedish by Laura A. Wideburg) explores pretty standard YA topics. Main character Steffi is an outcast with a deep love of music, struggling to get by at her small-town school and trying to forge her own path. She is persistently bullied by the girls at her school (and at home, by her older sister), often uncomfortable in her own skin, and isn't really sure about many aspects of her own identity. But Steffi loves music - writing music, listening to music, talking about music.

The book dives into the story immediately - one day on her way home from school, Steffi hears the sounds of her favorite jazz musician playing. This is the novel's "meet-cute", in which Steffi is introduced to the elderly Alvar (at his retirement home), a former jazz musician himself who begins detailing his history and story to the enraptured Steffi.

The stories then progress in an awkward sort of parallel, with Alvar's narration running alongside Steffi's attempts at navigating her fairly awful teenage experience. There are few thematic similarities between the two stories and at times it felt like Alvar's narrative crowded out Steffi's growth, but the stories work reasonably well. Honestly, at times it felt as though the story was actually better suited to the film medium: there's something very cinematic in the way both Steffi and Alvar's stories play out, and I can imagine a rather lovely adaptation.

As Alvar tells Steffi about his love of music and introduction into Stockholm's jazz music scene during World War 2, Steff herself is undergoing a different sort of growth. Rather than the dramatic goings on of the young Alvar, Steffi is dealing with commonplace school problems. She applies to high schools (including a music school in the city), she quietly tracks the desperate - and at times painful - messages her schoolyard nemesis sends her online alter-ego "Hepcat", she attempts to maneuver her family's assumptions that she's gay (which she doesn't really think about quite as much as they seem to), as well as a strained relationship with her older sister. These events occur fairly quickly - blink and you'll miss them - but they have a rather realistic, comfortable vibe to them too. Like I said: movie-like, with things shown and not necessarily fully developed.

I read Wonderful Feels Like This over one morning, pleased and charmed and entertained. It's truly a "feel-good" book, even as it raises difficult themes. It's not especially plot-heavy (focusing more on the characters and Alvar's backstory) and there were moments when I wished the story could have been a bit fuller, I found that I enjoyed the book a great deal. A sweet afternoon sort of read - the sort of book that leaves a pleasant taste in your mind.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

WITMonth Day 2 | Goals and things

I always like to set myself goals during WITMonth. Even though I pretty much never end up following them, I quite enjoy the process of compiling reading lists or ideas or directions and then... doing other things. It makes the whole process a bit more exciting.

This year, I'm going to focus less on my goals for reading as much as my goals for August overall. They definitely include reading, though.


  1. Read! As silly as it sounds, I'd like to read more books by women in translation this WITMonth. I've had a pretty poor reading year overall, busy as I've been with too many other things (life, that wretch!), so I'm sort of hoping I'll have some time to get some quality reading done over WITMonth. I'll have a short not-quite-vacation at the end of August, so we'll see if I get some reading done then!
  2. Review my backlog! I have so many books that I've read over the past year and a half that I've just... thoroughly neglected to review. My goal is to upload a review every other day over WITMonth - on odd days. We'll see if I can make it the whole month...
  3. Start publishing some of the work I've done on the Reading the World Through Women in Translation list! This project means so much to me, and I've already made some nice inroads. I'd love to share more of it with fellow readers, and see what gaps we can fill as a collective.
  4. Post daily Instagram book-pics! Again, we'll see if I can make it the whole month...
  5. Appreciate each and every single one of you who is taking part in WITMonth, in whatever possible form. You are all amazing.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

WITMonth Day 1 | Year four

It's August 1st. It's WITMonth again.


WITMonth is now in its fourth year. It's almost impossible to believe how much this once-small blogging event has expanded, how there are so many readers and translators and booksellers and publishers involved this year who got involved without my having to do anything.

August 1st always marks the date on which I set out some of my goals for the forthcoming month. Not so this year, when that honor will be relegated to the 2nd of the month. Today, I want to talk a little bit about where I see WITMonth going from here. Just a few thoughts.

There is no doubt that WITMonth is its own thing by now. It's no secret that I've had less and less time to blog and organize this year, and I know that I've done significantly less in preparing for WITMonth than I had originally hoped. But I also haven't needed to, not in the same way that I might have in previous years. The Twitter tag has been delightfully active for several days already, with readers gearing up. People have started posting photos up on Instagram. Blog posts are starting to roll out, events are happening in different parts of the world, and... WITMonth is happening. WITMonth is growing by itself.

I love it so much.

This is how I think it should be. Not every reader necessarily devoting all their time to reading women in translation all of August, but enough different readers and reviewers and bloggers and translators and publishers talking about the subject. People learning about the publishing imbalance in translation between men and women. People seeking out new and diverse literature by women writers from around the world. And people doing it not out of any sense of obligation or guilt, but because there are so many good books that this just becomes a month that focuses their reading. This becomes a month with a greater density of recommendations, with more posts, with more attention. Women in translation must exist yearlong, but in August we get to give them that extra platform that they might not always have.

And oh, I love it so much.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

When you can't review impartially | Maryam: Keeper of Stories by Alawiya Sobh

This review is one of the hardest I've had to write in a very long time. It's a review tinged with disappointment, discomfort, and uncertainty. I spent a long time wondering whether I should even write a review of Alawiya Sobh's Maryam: Keeper of Stories (translated by Nirvana Tanoukhi). I wondered if I could write an impartial review.

I can't write an impartial review, perhaps, so I will write an emotional one.

I was fine with Maryam for the first 100 pages. By which I mean I was engaged with these mostly tragic-sometimes-sweet fragments about the lives of mostly-Muslim Lebanese women. Maryam is a book comprised of pieces of stories, told ramblingly and often vaguely. The stories seem to overlap, with characters almost interchangeable. It's a book about women, often delving into the rougher sides of things too. Women are explicitly raped (not "hurt" by men; the text is blunt in this truth), women give birth, women befriend women, women fall in love, women are hurt, and so on. It's bleak, but there's a power to it, I suppose.

Except... something happened around 100 pages into the book. Specifically, an anecdote entered the narrative for no discernible reason. A deeply antisemitic, what-the-f***, unnecessary story.

This page-long anecdote is about the "grandfather", who goes to America to find his fortune. While there, the greedy Jew that he works with cheats the business's owner. The owner asks the grandfather to kill the Jew, which the grandfather does by... throwing "the Jew" into the oven. The grandfather is rewarded with gold, because now that the cheating Jew is gone, the bakery will make much more money. An alternative version to this story exists as well, in which it is actually the bakery owner who is Jewish and the American coworker who is burned. But this version is told in a paragraph as the alternative, rather than the page and a half devoted to the version that ends with the greedy Jew being burned in the oven.

I literally had to stop reading at this point. Sitting out on the balcony with my feet soaking up the sun, hands shaking, mouth open, utterly aghast, I set the book aside. I couldn't keep reading for several more hours. I wondered if I was being overly sensitive. I wondered if I was being unfair. I wondered if it was totally unintentional. Perhaps the Holocaust imagery was a coincidence? Perhaps the linkage between "Jew" and "money thieving" was random? Perhaps I was imaging things...

I couldn't read the book in the same way after that.

I started noticing the way Christian characters hardly existed in Sobh's Lebanon. Despite the fact that almost half of the country is Christian or Druze, the novel doesn't seem to see them the same way it sees its Muslim characters, even if it occasionally references the sectarian differences in the country that fuel so many of its conflicts. I started noticing that the narrative frequently references atrocities from Lebanon's wars with Israel (justifiably enough, though it ignores the triggers that led to these wars), but does not even mention Syrian interference in the country's civil war. The book started to feel like a smokescreen, telling one important story perhaps about the struggles of some Muslim women growing up during wars and atrocities and misogyny, but almost deliberately ignoring anything else around it.

Of course, this reading is heavily biased. I'm not going to pretend it isn't. The above feelings were always framed by that one moment, around page 100, with the Jewish worker being burned in the oven. Every time I tried to set it aside, I found myself coming back to it. Why would the narrative include it? What possible purpose did it serve? It had nothing to do with any of our main characters, provided little emotional depth, and served no purpose to the plot. Why was it there? Why was it translated so uncritically? Why should I read a book that has such a blatantly antisemitic reference and not be upset by it? Why shouldn't it color how I read the rest of the book?

I don't have any good answers to these questions.

Maryam has an interesting concept at its core. I loved the idea of telling women's stories in this muddled way. I loved that the focus really was on the struggles many women face, simply for being born female. The writing is dreamy and lovely, befitting a story that encompasses so large a time span with such a vaguely distant style. On a technical level, I can see that Maryam has a lot going for it. But does that excuse the rest? Does that excuse the dropped stories or aimless frame story? Does it excuse the smokescreen and evasion? Does it excuse a totally unnecessary antisemitic scene that is inexplicable and inexcusable and yet... included?

I was ultimately left disappointed and upset by Maryam. Triggered by personal experiences? Sure. Yes. Antisemitism is likely to hurt me more than others, fine. It meant that I couldn't read the story the way that I had wanted to. It meant that I had to reframe the entire story based on identity politics of the ugliest sort. It meant that I had to question whether lovely prose made up for ugly content. It meant I had to challenge my own definitions of ugliness, wondering if perhaps I could set aside my own emotions for the sake of other important aspects. I guess in the end I just couldn't, and I am left with a bitter taste in my mouth. Perhaps other readers will be able to look past what I could not; I remain disappointed, uncomfortable, and uncertain. What a shame.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Abandoned and archived | Malentendu à Moscou by Simone de Beauvoir

According to my Hebrew translation of Simone de Beauvoir's Malentendu à Moscou (translated into Hebrew by Nir Ratzkovsky), this very short novella was "inexplicably archived by the author" and only brought to light in 2013. The edition tries to make a strong case for while this novella is worthy of resurrection or attention. I imagine that from an academic perspective, it's quite interesting. But from a literary perspective?

I abandoned the book despite being over halfway through its very slim frame.

At this point it becomes necessary to ask why. Why abandon such a short book in the first place? Especially when I was clearly so far into it? The answer is quite simply: I was over halfway through, and all there was to the story was a tension that suggested that I didn't want to keep reading.

The novella tells of an aging couple that goes to visit the husband's daughter from a previous relationship in Moscow. The alternating segments tell of each spouse's assessment of their life and situation in Moscow. They ruminate about growing older. They consider their relationship (separately). They think about their aching bodies and the alcohol they're drinking for dinner. It gets absurdly repetitive, coupled with a stunning lack of communication between the couple. This lends a growing tension that something is going to happen, as does the novella's title. It's just that at a certain point, I no longer cared. Let something happen! I won't stick around to read it.

Part of this is in the writing. As I said, there's a deep repetitiveness to their vacation. Daily walks, complaints, and contemplations that loop and loop with hardly any adjustments. And while I'm often a fan of repetitiveness as a literary tool, here it just wasn't supplemented with anything to give it meaning. It felt more like a writing exercise than a genuine unfolding story, and I could understand why de Beauvoir archived it rather than publish it. A story that started with a clear idea, but then got lost in endless meandering.

Hence: I have abandoned and archived it myself. Perhaps next time I should stick to the works de Beauvoir wanted me to read...

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas | Review

I was about 150 pages into The Hate U Give (THUG) by Angie Thomas when a thought struck me: How many contemporary YA books had I read with a black protagonist? The mental list ran stunningly short, complicated by the realization that I had read significantly more historical fiction about young black teens than I have about today's. As well as significantly more literature about Latino, East Asian and Middle Eastern teens than black ones. This ended up framing a lot of how I kept reading THUG, with that constant question in the back of my mind if I could really accurately review a book that described a world I was only just getting to see.

So I will preface the remainder of this review with the reminder that as a non-black reader (and more specifically, a non-African American reader), there is a lot about THUG that is not really "about me". There's the added fact that as a "part-time" American (that is... someone who spent some of her childhood in the US, but grew up in predominantly Asian-American, Latino, and Jewish environments and has since lived her entire adult life in not-US), there are racial nuances from the past few years that I have only encountered secondhand or from stories. It ultimately means that there are multiple dimensions to THUG that I feel I cannot critically speak for.

But I can say what I thought of the book in spite of these limitations. Simply put: It was good.

My familiarity with American black culture is, as I've already mentioned, fairly limited: a handful of books, certain columnists and bloggers, several films by black women, and so on. This may seem like an unnecessary bit of information, but it actually became strikingly obvious once I started THUG: much of the slang was unfamiliar to me. After all, I'm not an African American teen, I'm an Israeli twenty-something who hasn't lived in the US in over a decade. This meant that it took me about two chapters to get into the rhythm of the writing, after which I was in.

Because again: THUG is a good book. It's sharp, it's timely (perhaps too timely, but I'll get to that in a moment), it's almost disturbingly nuanced, and it's wonderfully written. The book practically pulses - from the moment I got into the rhythm, there was simply no question as to whether I'd set the book down or keep reading. (Not-a-spoiler alert: I kept reading and finished the book just after midnight. Worth it.) Starr is a stellar YA narrator: mostly focused on herself, yes, but reflective enough and more importantly communicative enough that we grasp the world around her intuitively.

But what, you might ask, is THUG really about? Why is it "timely"? Why is it so buzzed right now?

THUG is about police violence, "Black Lives Matter", black culture and experiences, and more broadly what it means to be black in the modern US. Does that all sound a bit much? A bit grand, a bit heavy for a contemporary YA novel? It shouldn't - THUG isn't a difficult book. As someone who reads a lot of essays by young black writers about these issues, I can't even say that there was all that much new to THUG either. But... that doesn't mean it was fresh. And it doesn't mean it wasn't done very well.

THUG centers on Starr Carter, 16-years old and caught between her two worlds: her black "ghetto" neighborhood and her mostly-white prep school (complete with a white boyfriend and a white former-best-friend, as well as an Asian-American still-friend). The novel kicks off with Starr's old best friend Khalil getting fatally shot by a police officer... with Starr as the sole witness. From there, THUG explores many of the issues that inevitably emerge from these sorts of police shootings: media manipulations, the framing of the police officer as a "good guy" who just "wanted to get home safely to his family", Starr's problematic role as sole witness, the vilification of Khalil as a "drugdealer thug" who deserves what he got, the grand jury trial, protests, and so on.

THUG doesn't shy away from the complexities of this problem. While there is a distinct YA feel to the surrounding drama that Starr faces in her life (specifically her sense of belonging "between two worlds", boyfriend issues, friend issues, etc.), Thomas pulls no punches when it comes to addressing how deeply wrong many of the post-shooting narratives become. Starr frequently wonders to herself how it can be that the entire shooting has been reframed in such a way as to make the victim - an unarmed teenager who was simply driving home after a party - the villain who is on trial, while the perpetrator - an adult, trained police officer who shot an unarmed teenager three times - is cast as the victim. This refrain is of course familiar to anyone who has engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement, but that does not take away from its power in-text. In general, Starr emerges as a sort of proxy for many social justice ideas and concepts, but not in a way that crowds out any plot. Nor does it ever feel preachy. Starr is simply a sharp girl who rejects the social injustices around her and makes much of that rejection clear.

If I had to point to the novel's biggest flaw, there is no doubt in my mind that it will require footnotes in the future. Not simply for subtle (and sometimes not subtle) references to real-world victims of police shootings, but also for the way it's a story thrumming with modern culture. Starr does more than just talk about social media in the abstract - she specifically references certain websites and their unique social justice subcultures (Tumblr, mainly, though Black Twitter gets a few shout-outs too). While not inherently a bad thing (I have no problem with stories that embrace current technological trends, nor stories that are ostensibly "ripped from the headlines" or in other words culturally relevant), it gave me the feeling that the book will feel a tad bit dated in just a few years, which would just be a shame... This is the sort of book that should become part of the young adult literary canon, not simply as a "social justice" text, but also as an intelligent novel about what it means to be sixteen.

There are other minor quibbles too. I felt the book stumbled somewhat in its sidelining of Starr's friend Maya, whose Asian-ness only becomes relevant to Starr when it overlaps with her own experiences. For a novel that spends so much time drawing clear class-based racial lines (emphasizing the impact class differences have for black people), it felt odd that Thomas did not address the different ways class and race intersect for non-black marginalized groups. THUG would eventually recognize that Maya faces bias and bigotry herself, despite "belonging" to this "white world", but it felt oddly one-dimensional for a novel that lives and breathes in three. Obviously, this need not have been the focus of the novel - Thomas is specifically writing and examining black lives - but I found myself wishing it had been developed just a tiny bit more. This applies to Starr's occasionally binary thinking in regards to race/class as well, but these points are ultimately not the focus.

These issues are exceedingly irrelevant in the face of a novel that does two things remarkably well: THUG tells a story in rapid-fire, pulsing, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable prose, and it tells a powerful story that has cultural importance in more ways than one. As I said early in this review, I cannot speak for black teens, but I have seen how most readers have responded. Regardless of race or background, readers remain enthralled by the stellar writing and meaningful story. That is not to say all readers: some have taken issue with Starr's frustrated dismissal of "white people", though these reviewers frequently neglect to recognize the in-text examination of system racism and the ways in which that impacts things like microaggressions or racist commentary. And I also cannot shake the feeling at times that THUG is a book meant to appeal to well-meaning non-black readers who want to boost their social-justice credibility, largely because its reviewers are overwhelmingly white (or at least non-black), though this too does not diminish from the power of a book that clearly stems from the author's personal experiences (in part, at least).

THUG is one of the most highly-hyped books of the past year. Well-deserved for a well-written book.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere by Anna Gavalda | Review

I read Anna Gavalda's French Leave way back in 2011, having picked up that slim novella at a Border's going-out-of-business sale (a tragic day for my childhood nostalgia of the bookstore giant, a great day for collecting lots of books for little money). I wasn't all that impressed with the book, to be honest, finding it somewhat boring and fragmented in a not-exactly-enjoyable way. Even so, I would end up buying Gavalda's I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere (translated from French by Karen L. Marker) in 2014, during the first-ever WITMonth. And then it languished on my shelves for three years.


The truth is, I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere (hereby shortened to stories or this collection because the title is way too long) is a pretty great book. This short story collection was an exciting shift for me after a series of fairly disappointing single-author collections (in which style kept suffocating innovation or intrigue), largely because it is both delightfully short and wonderfully varied. Gavalda has a distinct enough style in each of the stories, but she plays around with different explorations of similar themes. Most of the stories are written in fairly conversational styles, but they managed to sound different and their topics varied widely enough that it didn't feel like I was rereading the same story again and again (as I had occasionally felt with Gail Hareven's most recent short story collection People Fail).

The stories range from young adult antics, to sexual escapades, to lost loves, to public tragedies, to rape, to anxiety, and more. While some of the stories made me roll my eyes (see: young adult antics), others had me on the edge of my seat, and others still had me crying softly for five minutes after the story ended. Enough of the stories wormed their way into my brain, touching me emotionally in a way that not all short stories are able to. Some just made me laugh.

The conversational, first-person will likely not be to every reader's taste. Neither will the sharp contrast between Gavalda's sly stories and the more emotionally daunting ones. To a certain degree, the uniformity of writing style compensates somewhat for the tone shifts between stories, but there remains an undercurrent of cynicism that seems to pervade every story, like Gavalda is highly aware of how her own voice is mixing with that of her characters. And while I hadn't really enjoyed it with French Leave, the brevity of these stories made sure that nothing got bogged down or too tangled. The stories don't feel especially long, but they're not quite brief either - that sweet spot of being "just right". For readers not opposed to conversational short-storytelling, this one is warmly recommended.