Archives: Literature in Translation

Happy Birthday, Mr. Borges

August 24, 2011 

“I’ve always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

The Great Poet, Jorge Luis Borges, would have been 112 years old today. In his honor, Google’s newest doodle portrays the artist surrounded by some of the symbols in his work, including a library and a maze.

I’ve always been a fan of Borges’s surreal, fantastical stories so when I was living in Buenos Aires earlier this year I started a reading challenge in his honor: Ficciones, the 2011 Argentina Reading Challenge. Unfortunately, I was not such a big fan of some of the other Argentinian literature I was reading and the challenge got neglected. But there have been a few new participants in the last week and that’s all the reason I need to revive the challenge.

I hope you’ll consider joining. You only need to read one book by an Argentina writer, either in Spanish or in translation, to participate. I’m scrapping my previous reading list. I’m going to start off with Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras, and see how it goes from there.

And check out this wide-ranging interview Borges gave to The Paris Review back in 1966.

The Europa Editions Reading Challenge

July 01, 2011 

The Europa Editions Reading Challenge officially goes live today! One of the best things about starting this blog has been discovering indie publishers with exquisite taste who champion lesser-known authors and literature in translation. Europa Editions is one of the best among this group. A few months ago I reviewed their 100th title, Alina Bronsky’s darkly comic The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. And I already decided that three of their books would be on my summer reading list. So when I heard Marie and Liberty were organizing a reading challenge, I jumped at the chance. To see the guidelines and learn how to participate, go to the challenge website.

Unlike my overly ambitious commitments to prior reading challenges, I am going to sign up for the modest Europa Ami level (4 Europa titles by the end of the year). But I may end up upgrading because I already have 5 books on my list:

  • Broken Glass Park, Alina Bronsky’s critically aclaimed debut novel (translated from the German by Tim Mohr)
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, which spent over a year on the NYT bestseller list (translated from the French by Alison Anderson)
  • Hygiene and the Assassin, the first novel by celebrated French writer Amélie Nothomb, now being published in English for the first time (translated from the French by Alison Anderson)
  • A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé, about a Parisian bookstore (translated from the French by Alison Anderson)
  • You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik, the debut book from Europa’s new Tonga print, guest-edited by Alice Sebold

Whether you’re new to Europa or a loyal fan, I hope you’ll consider joining us.

My Summer Reading List

June 15, 2011 

Read-Alongs: Group reads-alongs are a good idea if a book seems really long and you’re afraid you won’t get through it, or if you want to discuss it with others while you’re reading it. I’ll be participating in two read-alongs this summer: a group read of Justin Cronin’s 700+ page post-apocalyptic tale The Passage sponsored by Cassandra at Indie Reader Houston, and a group read of George Eliot’s 800-page classic Middlemarch, as part of a reading group dedicated to reading “old, unreasonably long books.”

Book club: The Rumpus has a great book club. Every month they send you a new book (pre-publication); you have the opportunity to talk about it all month with other members of the book club; and then they do a Q&A with the author at the end of the month. I’ve been a member of the book club for about nine months and so far, they have a great track record for picking books. Previous selections have included The Instructions, The Chronology of Water, and The Convert. This month we’re reading Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River, a coming-of-age tale reminiscent of Huck Finn, but narrated by a sixteen-year-old girl.

Literature in translation: Granta Best Young Spanish Novelist Santiago Roncagliolo just won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Red April (translated by Edith Grossman.) According to the book jacket, it is “a chilling political thriller set at the end of Peru’s grim war between Shining Path terrorists and a morally bankrupt government counterinsurgency.” As an added bonus, it is less than 300 pages, which is pretty rare for novels these days. I’ll also be catching up on books from new favorite indie publisher, Europa Editions. Europa publishes primarily literature in translation in these fabulous paperback originals with great designs that make you want to collect all of them. They recently published their 100th book, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, which I reviewed on this blog. This summer I’ll be reading three of their titles translated from the French: Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Amélie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin, and Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore.

Indie publishers: In addition to my new found love for Europa Editions, I have the biggest crush on Other Press, who published my absolute favorite book of the year so far — Galore by Michael Crummey (review coming soon). Other Press has a great summer lineup including Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away – set amid the poverty and violence of the Niger Delta — and John Miliken Thompson’s The Reservoir — a nineteenth century Southern murder mystery.

Indie publishers, Part II: The folks at Melville House are also up to some interesting things. They have initiated a series called the Neversink Library, dedicated to championing overlooked and underappreciated books. The first in the series is Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight, originally published in German in 1937. Keun has a fascinating biography. After being arrested and interrogated by the Nazis, she fled Germany and wrote After Midnight in exile while having an affair with the writer Joseph Roth.  In 1940, she faked her own suicide and re-entered Germany under a false identity. Jessa Crispin (aka The Bookslut) has said of Keun: she “has an amazing gift for exposing the conflict at the heart of the average citizen, whose naivete is eventually and sometimes violently stripped away.” (Incidentally, Other Press will be publishing another of Keun’s books this summer, The Artificial Silk Girl. This just makes me love them more!)

Indie publishers, Part III: I am fascinated with former Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash’s new publishing community, Red Lemonade. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what it’s all about yet, but I love its emphasis on the interaction between reader and writer. One of Red Lemonade’s first books is Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen. Writing for Kirkus Reviews, Michael Schaub (also of Bookslut) called the book “a masterpiece. It is not just a novel about pain; it is a novel against pain.”

Women of letters: Two of my favorite female authors — Ann Patchett and Kate Christensen — have new books coming out this month, and both are getting great reviews. Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2002 and is one my favorite books of all time. In her new book State of Wonder, a research scientist travels to the Amazon to track down the eccentric inventor of a fertility drug that would allow women to bear children into old ago. In this month’s Elle magazine, Christensen, also a PEN/Faulkner award-winning author, has a great essay about unleashing her “inner dick” (i.e., writing in a male voice). Of her new novel, she writes, ” [E]xactly two years ago, I fell in love with a much younger man and left New York to live in his farmhouse in the wild mountains of northern New England. I quit therapy, which had become more traumatic than helpful. Suddenly, my life was quiet and happy and calm. It was as if, after being in a decades-long hurricane, I could hear the leaves rustling in the sunshine. It was out of this state of strong emotion recollected in tranquility, as Wordsworth famously described it, that the voice of Harry Quirk emerged to narrate my latest novel, The Astral.”

Sequels: Two of BEA’s hottest late summer/fall books are sequels: Lev Grossman’s The Magician King (Aug.) and Luis Urrea’s Queen of America (Dec.). Since I’ve never read either of their predecessors, I’ll be catching up over the summer. Grossman’s 2009 bestselling The Magicians has been called Harry Potter for adults, which I guess sounds enticing if you like Harry Potter and doesn’t if you don’t. I’ve never read the Harry Potter books, so I plan on judging the book on its own merit. As for Urrea’s 2005 The Hummingbird’s Daughter, I can’t believe I’ve never read it. Writing in the NYTBR, Stacy D”Erasmo called it, “a mix of leftist hagiography, mystical bildungsroman, and melancholic national anthem.”

Werewolves: It is not something I would normally pick up, but the Twitterverse is all abuzz about The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. It’s being published in mid-July and is about — yup, you guessed it — the last werewolf left in the world. While the premise sounds somewhat trite, I have heard from multiple bibliophiles whose opinions I respect that the writing is amazing. If werewolves are your thing, you might also want to pick up Wolfsbane, the second in the Nightshade series by Andrea Cremer. While this is a young adult book with a Twilight-reminiscent love triangle, Cremer has a PhD in early modern history so it’s werewolves with an intellectual bent. A perfect beach read.

Book Review: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

April 27, 2011 

As my daughter Sulfia was explaining that she was pregnant but that she didn’t know by whom, I paid extra attention to my posture.

I was hooked on The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine from the first sentence which, not surprisingly, snagged the book a spot on Poets & Writers Page One.

It is 1978 in the Soviet Union and anthrax spores have just leaked from a lab in the unnamed city in which Rosa Achmetowna lives in a communal apartment with her husband Kalganow, her “rather stupid” daughter Sulfia, and a nosy midwife named Klavdia. When her daughter tells her she has become pregnant from dreaming about a man at night — “a real man would never come anywhere near Sulfia unless he was nearsighted or perverted” —  Rosa takes immediate action. She subjects Sulfia to a scalding mustard bath and forces her to drink a vomit-inducing brew made from bay leaves. When that doesn’t work, Rosa allows Klavdia to go to town on Sulfia with a knitting needle. Klavdia assures them the procedure was successful but when a baby appears nine months later, she concludes off-handedly, “Must have been twins . . . So what?”

Rosa falls unequivocally in love with her granddaughter Aminat and, convinced that she should be the one to raise her, kidnaps the child and forges documents certifying that Sulfia is mentally incompetent to be a parent. Rosa’s stunts only grow more devious as the story progresses, culminating in her brokering of a marriage between Sulfia and Dieter, a German cookbook writer with a tendency toward pedophilia. Rosa quickly discerns Dieter’s unhealthy interest in Aminat, but pushes her concerns to one side in favor of the bigger picture — safe passage for the three women out of the quickly deteriorating USSR.

There is no doubt that Rosa is manipulative, delusional and, at times, downright cruel. She is also a riot. Take, for instance, her account of her first visit to McDonald’s in Moscow:

As we left the restaurant we had to pass a woman who said, “Thank you for your visit, we look forward to seeing you again soon!”

Sulfia was so confused she cowered against the wall. Not even I could come up with a good answer.

Or this little nugget on her relationship with her husband:

He didn’t like it when I talked to God. He didn’t believe in God and found it embarrassing that I did. Most of all he didn’t want anyone else to find out I believed in God and even talked to him. There was nobody here in our bed except the two of us, I assured him. Or rather, the two of us and God.

In choosing to tell the story from Rosa’s point of view, Bronsky also shows us another side of this hard as nails woman.  Despite her considerable personality flaws, it is clear that she does what she does, however misguided, out of love. But love in Rosa’s world, where every day is a struggle, has some sharp edges. As Rosa puts it, “the best thing a woman could do for her family was to provide clear and firm guidance. They didn’t need coddling.”

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is a darkly comic tale about the ways in which three generations of women can support and betray each other in order to survive in a crumbling Communist regime. Alina Bronsky’s biting wit (translated from the German by Tim Mohr) reminds me of another Russian émigré, Gary Shteyngart, but thankfully without all the testosterone. In an interview in the New York Times T Magazine, Bronsky described the Soviet humor in the book as “a desperate humor, rather typical of very different nations, of Jewish people, Ukrainians, and of course Russians. It’s despair — just keep laughing, until you are dead.”

This was a refreshing read for me after a series of beautiful but heartbreaking memoirs. Pick it up if you’re in the mood for something light-hearted, but with a tinge of of the tragic.

Note: I received an advance reader copy of this book from the publisher.

Book Review: An Exclusive Love

April 21, 2011 

Although Johanna Adorján’s book An Exclusive Love is billed as a memoir on the cover, it could just as well be described as a piece of investigative journalism or a detective book. On October 13, 1991, Adorján’s paternal grandparents killed themselves by taking a cocktail of sleeping pills they learned to mix from the popular manual on euthanasia, Final Exit. They were found lying in bed together, holding hands. Her grandfather Pista was in his eighties and terminally ill, but her grandmother Vera was in her seventies and in perfect health. So why did they do it, and what were their last hours like?

The absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful thing about this book is that Adorján will never know the answers, but she needs to explore the questions regardless.  Holocaust survivors, her grandparents fled communist Budapest in 1956 with nothing but their children, and eventually settled in Copenhagen. They were an elegant, cultured couple who smoked incessantly and were exceedingly private about their past. After making a trip in his old age to the notorious Nazi labor camp Mauthausen where he was imprisoned during the war, Pista would only say, “Going there by car is much nicer than going on foot.”

What Adorján does know about her grandparents she learns mostly through her own bare recollections of them and the interviews she conducts after they died with the few who knew them well. The memories of those her grandparents left behind are not always complimentary, but Adorján refuses to sentimentalize them, especially her grandmother, who she admits was her least favorite grandparent growing up. “She was temperamental, unpredictable and egotistic. Just like me, so I felt she should be punished for it.”

Interspersed throughout the book are Adorján’s vivid reimaginings of the last day of her grandparents’ life. At a time when yet another literary scandal has exploded about truth in memoir, Adorján’s account of her grandmother cleaning the house and wrapping Christmas presents and her grandfather napping on the couch is all the more powerful because of its acknowledged fiction. She will never know what happened that day, but her attempt to imagine it in such great detail rings noble and true. Take, for instance, this paragraph about her grandmother dressing for her death, rendered in spare but haunting English by translator Anthea Bell:

By now she has made herself ready for the night. She has applied a little rouge, only a touch so that it won’t rub off on the bedclothes. She has brushed her hair and put on her best nightdress. It is white silk, with a girlish frill at the collar. The silk is very lightweight, she hardly feels it. She has put on jewelry. Her mother’s gold necklace round her neck, her delicate gold watch on her wrist. She has taken off the gold ring that she normally wears all the time, three intertwining circles, and put it on the bedside table. The ring is for Erzsi, and she already feels that it is no longer hers.

Like any good memoir, Adorján’s journey ends in a shared discovery, but the paramount truth of the book is not so much the why of her grandparents’ suicide, as it is the emotional core she shares with her grandmother:

The deepest feeling known to me is the sense of not belonging . . . . No one loves me, no one can love me. This is my deepest conviction and at the same time my greatest fear . . . . And suddenly I also understand my grandmother’s love, which was so exclusive, so needy, so great, and alternatively conditional. Prove that I am worth loving, and then I will always be with you. I will follow you even into death.

Stunning, unsparing, devastating. One of my favorite books of 2011 thus far.

Introducing Ficciones, the 2011 Argentina Reading Challenge

February 01, 2011 

There has been a lot of focus lately on Argentinian literature. Of the 22 writers on Granta’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, 8 are from Argentina — more than any other country. Last year, Argentina was the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. And starting in April, Buenos Aires will begin its reign as the World Book Capital 2011.

Having spent the last four months in Buenos Aires writing and eating copious amounts of dulce de leche, I thought it would be the perfect time to start a reading challenge devoted to Argentinian literature.

The goal of Ficciones is simple: to read books written by Argentine authors (loosely defined as those writers who were born in Argentina or who spent a significant amount of their professional careers in the country). There are very few rules in this challenge, but the point is to read literature in translation (or in the original Spanish), so books originally written in English do not count.

Check out the Ficciones website for more information about the challenge and to sign up.

And now for the books I intend to read as part of the challenge. I am signing up in the “Porteño/a” category, which means that I am committing to read at least 6 books, 1 of which must be in Spanish. In keeping with my usual strategy for these reading challenges, I have tried to strike a relative balance between women and men and between younger and more established writers.

1. Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman

2. Alan Pauls, The Past

3. Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel

4. Alicia Kozamen, Steps Under Water

5. Pola Oloixarac, Las Teorías Salvajes

6. Samanta Schweblin, Pájaros en la Boca

7. Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch

8. Elsa Osorio, My Name Is Light

I hope you will join me in discovering the literature of this amazing country.

Feel free to contact me through this website with any questions or suggestions about the challenge.