Random Updates: What I’m Reading, WIT Month Cometh, Summer Holiday Reading & Two Translation Awards Get Together

I’m currently enjoying The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphaël Jerusalmy – a swashbuckling Alexander Dumas kind of tale translated from the French by Howard Curtis.  It’s completely charming!  The two main characters remind me quite a bit of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser.  Jerusalmy has taken what’s best about sword & sorcery fiction and moved it into a historical setting – 15th century France, Jerusalum & (perhaps, I haven’t gotten that far yet) Italy.  I’m not sure if he did it on purpose – this is where an introduction or translator’s note would be helpful – but the parallels are there all the same.


Have I mentioned lately how I wish more books included Introductions, Forwards, Afterwards & Translator’s Notes? Obviously not all at once – there wouldn’t be much room for an actual story – but any combination/variation of the above would be acceptable & is always appreciated.


August is Biblibio’s 2nd Annual Women In Translation Month  – I’m hoping to take a more active part this year and with that in mind I’ve been putting together a tentative list of books to read & review.  There was a link on Twitter this morning to the New  Yorker article “The True Glamour of Clarice Lispector” (am I the only one who is constantly thrown off by the similarity between “Lispector” and “Inspector”?)  It was written by Benjamin Moser – well, taken from an introduction Moser wrote to a New Directions collection of her work, to be exact.  Benjamin Moser also wrote a biography of Inspector Lispector (see!?).

I’m very interested in reading that biography, titled Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, despite the fact that I still need to read anything by her. A deficiency I hope to correct soon. Thanks in a large part to New Directions the English translations of her work seem to be enjoying a well-deserved moment in the California sun. And from what I’ve heard about her books she seems to belong to The Club of Fierce Women Writers – members include Marie NDiaye, Naja Marie Aidt, Yoko Ogawa, Anne Garréta, & Therese Bohman (to name a few).  Women writers who aren’t afraid to leave it all on the page.

If you’re not already planning to take part in #WITM2015 follow this link to a great post listing FAQ’s & suggestions on ways to participate.  The only real requirement is to read women writers who’ve been translated into English.  And if you’d like some recommendations (or would like to leave some recommendations) feel free to use the comments section below.


More August News:  This year we’ve scheduled our Summer Holiday for the end of August and I’m already putting together a list of books to read poolside.  A solid seven days of uninterrupted reading time – bliss!  5 books seems to be a safe, and somewhat realistic, number.  Current contenders are:

  • War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, tr. Maruxa Relaño & Martha Tennent
  • The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker, tr. Sam Taylor
  • Decoded by Mai Jia, tr. Olivia Milburn & Christopher Payne
  • A Clarice Lispector book & biography double-header
  • Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado, tr. Antony Shugaar

Of course this list will change at least 12 times between now and then.  Not least because I don’t think the Viola De Grado book is going to last (i.e.- remain unread) until then.


By now everyone has heard that the Man Booker International Prize and the International Foreign Fiction Prize have joined forces… just when the Man Booker International Prize finally had a list that was actually interesting!  In my unsolicited opinion the whole thing seems like a step backwards for International & Translated Literature. The two prizes evaluated two entirely different things – the former celebrating an international author, the latter an individual book published within the same year.  Of course, now the translator will be recognized (obviously a good thing) .  And the Man Booker International Prize list is usually a huge disappointment.  But wasn’t it lovely seeing the likes of Mabanckou, Aira, Van Niekerk, Krasznahorkai, Condé & Ghosh all up for the same award in 2015?

Your thoughts?

The Politics of Reading

Sometimes Twitter seems designed to irritate. Courtesy of social media I find myself clicking on links to articles I’d never see, on sites I’d rarely visit, in the normal course of events. It seldom ends well. Usually I keep my opinions to myself but I found this one post particularly frustrating. Because reading a book is not a political act.  At its best it can be an act of political engagement that leads to political action.  The distinction may seem to be an argument in semantics, but is not.

Just to demonstrate how flawed the logic behind this post actually is, here’s a quick example:  Just because The Hunger Games trilogy deals with the concepts of war reparations,  income inequality, propaganda, spectacle used to control the masses and social revolution doesn’t make you a political activist just because you read the books. If you were to write a paper or an article, link the film to a cause and use it as a bridge to inspire & inform – then maybe.  But for any of those things to happen you must read with an intent other than pleasure & escapism. You must make a decision to take action.

And not all books are political. Historical romance novels make great escapist reading but the vast majority have no viable or actionable political content whatsoever. Authors like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King & Arthur Conan Doyle are great writers, every one.  Finding a political message in their books and short stories is going to be a stretch.

Please don’t misunderstand – pleasure & escapism are as valid reasons as any to read a book. But the belief that you can passively engage in politics is, in my opinion, a dangerous one. It fosters complacency.  At worst it encourages it.

As in everything else in life a choice exists. A certain amount of active engagement is necessary. Do you as a reader seek out books with a political message – whether subtle or overt? Do the books you read lead you to further explore an idea, a piece of history or a culture? Do you seek out diversity – books written by women, people of color, small presses, self-published, translations? Do the books you read spark discussions on different issues and ideas? Have they led you to support a cause? Or to question your lifestyle? Do they sometimes challenge your beliefs?

I find this post frustrating partly because I don’t believe the idea it professes to support – that reading is political – is actually the argument the author of the post wanted to make.  What I believe she is arguing against is the idea that politics somehow taints the experience of reading. That a reader who chooses to avoid a book because they believe it is political – or refuse to engage in the political component of a book because they dislike the idea of politics – is making a mistake. Politics plays a part in the plots of many of the books we read (though not all) and these books, inevitably, influence our decisions. They shape our opinions.  Readers should embrace rather than avoid this reality.

Because “politics” in and of itself is not a dirty word.

n. 1520s, “science of government,” from politic (adj.), modeled on Aristotle’sta politika “affairs of state,” the name of his book on governing and governments, which was in English mid-15c. as “Polettiques.” Also see -ics.

Reading with political action in mind (or at the very least being open to political theory in what we read) sounds boring – even to me. Or, as is too often the case, divisive. Particularly if you equate politics to Republicans & Democrats, the Right & the Left, Conservative & Liberals, and all those labels that start those god-awful arguments with Uncle Bill during the holidays.  But political parties  – “political allegiances or opinions” as the quote above says –  and politics were not always synonymous. Politics was originally meant to help us navigate our relationships with one another on a macro scale.  To help us find the best way to function as a society. To help us decide whether it is better to help each other or just ourselves.

And even overtly political books don’t always have to be depressing. Or divisive.  Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn is full of hope.  It is inspirational. The authors work to empower women  and believe that the act of empowering women will make the world a better place.  Best-sellers like Reading Lolita In Tehran and Nine Parts of Desire look at the role of women in society – Muslim society in these instances – with the goal of understanding rather than condemning.  Is it so inconceivable to see yourself doing something as small as googling “microloans” or even buying a scarf from a program like Global Goods Partners, inspired by one of these books? A small step, true, but a step nonetheless.

What about novels?  Can fiction inspire political action? Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Grapes of Wrath are two historical examples of books that impacted society.  Need more contemporary examples?  His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro might have you re-thinking the U.S.’s policy in Central & South America.  The Man With the Compound Eye (about a boy from a mysterious island who lives for a time on a floating island of trash) and The Healer (set in a apocalyptic future) both deal with environmental issues and still remain entertaining/enjoyable reads. Honor by Elif Shafak deals sensitively with the often difficult and complicated subject of the familial relationships of Muslim immigrants. And anything at all by Margaret Atwood falls withing the category of “stories-with-a-message” that I’ve been describing.

Reading is about entertainment, yes, but it is also about empathy; about exploring experiences & perspectives that are different from our own. To me the one (politics) seems entirely congruous with the other (reading). But whether they influence and effect each other – in turn influencing and effecting our lives as readers and citizens – is a separate matter entirely.  It is a conscious decision we need to make as individuals. Perhaps, even, a call to action.

Confessions of a Translation Snob

My browsing habits have changed.  I noticed it a few days ago in a Barnes & Noble Bookstore.  My husband was off in Sci-Fi/Fantasy and I was wandering through the fiction section, half-heartedly looking for a book I didn’t need.  My expectations were pretty low.  I started out looking for Mario Vargas Llosa.  Nothing. And then I spotted those three FSG fishes.  And a Europa book.  And – what the hell?! – Melville House.  Wait, the Soft Skull logo is an ant with a pen nib in its butt?  How did I not know that???  By the time I’d worked my way over to my husband I had a stack of books in my arms.

Recognizing the names and identities of different publishing houses is a bit like knowing the names of your favorite fashion lines.  I could easily drop an entire paycheck on J. Crew. Ditto for New Directions.

That’s the point.  We look for what we like.  I’ve read well-written, engaging books filled with interesting characters by British and U.S. authors.  But Latin America! My god, the quality and variety of the writing that’s coming out of Latin America is ridiculous.  And the Middle East; I will read anything that’s been translated from Persian or Arabic.  Then there’s the completely unexpected – like falling in love with a book translated from Bulgarian (a country I, sadly, had to look up on the map).  I guess what excites me is discovering the slightly obscure; reading books with complicated narratives and unusual plot structures. Experiencing the unfamiliar.  Finding books I couldn’t read without the help of a translator.

True, there’s also that feeling of – and I suppose you can’t get more snobbish than this – being a member of a select club.  Where instead of wealth or income or pedigree, membership is contingent on knowing certain passwords: Aira, Shishkin, Dowlatabadi and Ogawa.  Of being able to recommend a book to friends that they won’t necessarily find on the feature table of the local B&N.

(Is that really such a bad thing?  How is a geeky obsession with translations so different from – and any worse than – someone else’s obsession with Fantasy Football, video games, The Game of Thrones? Why is it suddenly okay to judge art, wine, food, television… but not literature?)

There’s also the satisfaction that comes from supporting a cause.  Stephen King, Margaret Atwood or [insert bestselling author’s name here] don’t need assistance promoting their latest blockbuster.  Neither do their large publishing houses.  But have the majority of readers heard of Ludmila Ulitskaya?  Marie N’Diaye? Hans Fallada? Marguerite Yourcenar? What about Edith Grossman? Chris Andrews?  Or Gregory Rabassa?

So now I mostly read and only blog about translations.  I find the idea of an author and translator collaborating to create a book that is both the same and separate from the author’s original vision absolutely delightful. And, since this is a confession: I also generally don’t read YA.  I think 50 Shades of Gray sucked on multiple levels.  I love PBS, but have zero interest in Downton Abbey.  I don’t read a lot of “commercial” literary fiction because I’m busy reading other things.  I have a weakness for steampunk and *cough* romance novels.

This is what works for me.  It doesn’t need to work for everyone.

And for the record: this isn’t the first time I’ve written this kind of thing.  I just usually don’t post it.  Why now?  When I was on vacation a couple of weeks ago I came across a link to this post on Flavorwire.  Curious, I Googled “Book Snobs” and was a bit overwhelmed by the number of results. That, combined with the ongoing arguments about reviewer vs. blogger, is it okay to write a bad review, and all the other silliness that we all waste waaaaayyy too much time thinking (and reading about) compelled me to stick up for the underdog.*

Which brings me to my point…

Do I only read translations? Pretty close.

Do I want you to read more of them? Yep.

Do I care about the newest Nicholas Sparks or Jennifer Weiner novels? God no.

Do I think less of you because you read and liked it? Not really.

Does that make me a translation snob? Probably.

But I’m OK with that.

Does anyone else find it strange that some people (and book sites) aren’t?

*Not that, in the big scheme of things, we really need defending. I mean, we’re not exactly  Sumatran Rhinos.

The Critic’s Global Voice… & Thoughts On A New Conversation Between Book Bloggers and Book Critics

https://i2.wp.com/www.pen.org/sites/default/files/PEN.banner.300x300.v2.jpgI was only able to attend one panel at this year’s PEN World Voices Literary Festival and so, based on how much I enjoyed last year’s panel on Reviewing Translations, I chose The Critic’s Global Voice.  The description and the list of panelists (Jean-Euphèle Milcé from Haiti, Ursula Krechel from Germany, Mikhail Shishkin from Russia) both seemed promising. The panel was moderated by an editor at BookForum.

The style, attitude, and role of book criticism differs from country to country. This panel will explore how reviewers and book reviews shape-shift across borders, even as each country’s literary culture forms its own responses to political, technological, and aesthetic changes.

My expectation was that the discussion would touch on topics such as:  book reviews and criticism in a global society; the influence of the internet and digital publishing on how books are reviewed and where; and the cultural differences in literary criticism traditions between countries.  Perhaps this was a little ambitious, but based on that description above I didn’t think so.

What happened instead was a series of pointed questions that appeared designed to prompt the panelists to expound on the importance of book critics to literature as a whole and to legitimize the book review as a literary form in its own right.  No one seemed to have explained this agenda to the panelists and for the most part they refused to play.  Not entirely surprising – the relationship between critics and authors is always a bit dodgy.  It’s the rare artist, or person for that matter, who embraces criticism; particularly negative.  If that was the conversation the moderator wanted to have it might have made sense to include an actual critic or two on the panel.

The impression I was left with was that literary criticism is of nominal importance in Europe.  But I know that’s not the case… so I’m not sure what the audience was supposed to take-away.   There were a few moments when the conversation could have taken a more informative turn.  Particularly a comment made by the Haitian author Jean-Euphèle Milcé (whose book I bought immediately after the panel) regarding how Haitian authors are not critiqued as simply Haitian authors, but have their works held up against the entire French literary tradition.  And when asked about the state of book criticism in Russia, Mikhail Shishkin engaged in an elegant metaphor (which my paraphrasing will not do justice to) – that a literary Cold War was still happening in Russia.  That his book sits between two sets of barricades.  Behind the barricade to the right are the Nationalists, who will not like his book. To the left are the more liberal reviewers, those who see Russia as a part of a larger, European community and who will write positively about his book.  Shishkin told us that he does not need to read his reviews in Russia because he knows without exception behind which barricade each critic stands.  Whereas with non-Russian critics he never knows what they will say in advance.

Both these points could have been expanded into a larger discussion on the difference between how a book is perceived in and outside of an author’s home country.  Different cultural contexts must be applied – and are these contexts necessarily fair, or even useful?  And (to throw in a curveball) is this why so many authors seem to be living as expatriates these days?  in part to escape cultural categorization?  But that didn’t happen.

I also found it frustrating that very little attention (with the exception of an audience question at the end) was given to the changing landscape of book criticism.  Specifically digital publishing and the internet.  Ebooks make it easier for small publishers to launch.  Readers from around the world can communicated in the comments sections of reviews, articles and blogs regardless of where they are physically located.  On Twitter and the various blogs I follow,  I learn about books and authors that may not have even found a U.S. publisher yet.  Book bloggers – like other kinds of bloggers – cross international borders and form global communities all the time.

This frustration is not a new one.  I felt it with last year’s panel on Reviewing Translations.  In my experience the professional book critic establishment tends to lump bloggers with Amazon reviewers, and so whenever there is a conversation on “serious” reviewing they (often quite literally) ignore us.  In turn, bloggers dismiss the establishment as “gate-keepers”, literary elitists or as Luddites unable (or just unwilling) to come to terms with the new age in which we all live.

Neither point of view is particularly productive.

I see comments from younger bloggers on Twitter sometimes about how only their older relatives recommend things they’ve read in the NY Times… which always makes me laugh.  Inevitably we all become that older relative.  I had no interest in current events, politics or world events when I was young.  (I did always read the lit reviews – The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and the infrequent Village Voice Literary Supplement).  But there does come a time when you realize you not only don’t know everything, you never will.  And you feel the need for a dialogue that encompasses more than an exchange between friends, because you’ve been having those exchanges for so long with those same friends that it’s necessary to either insert some fresh content or stop having them.  There is still a place for the “old guard” in today’s world – if only to acknowledge the fact that we all eventually join that old guard whether we want to or not.

There is still a place for traditional book criticism and reviews.  The literary community would be the lesser if outlets like The NYRB, BookForum and the Times Literary Supplement vanished completely.

I also see comments by bloggers that the conversation about Book Blogger vs. Book Critics is 10-years old and no longer relevant.  True.  The conversation that has happened within the separate camps has become irrelevant in light of  the current state of affairs.  Bloggers have carved out a niche for themselves, separate but very similar to the niche inhabited by book critics.  The print outlets that were once the critic’s domain have declined in numbers and popularity.  But the rise in digital and self publishing, and the histrionic (and sometimes ridiculous) hand-wringing over the decline of book sales and literature in general effects us all.  What has been lost in all this noise (and, frankly, insecurity) is that we are –  book critics and bloggers – on the same team.

I believe it was the same audience member who asked the question I referred to earlier, on digital publishing and the changing literary climate, who also made an important observation regarding the massive volume of literature that is now available and the need to help readers sort through it all.   It would be too easy to look at that question and dismiss it as elitist or, even worse,  a call for a gate-keeper.  I see it differently.  I never try to tell my readers what they shouldn’t read.  I’m not even, necessarily, telling them what they should read.  I seldom care all that much about what other people read, period.  What I am trying to do is introduce readers to books – books they may not hear about otherwise – and then explain why I find these books interesting (or not).  And, by inference, what I think they will find interesting in them (or not).  These are books – often by small publishers and in my case almost always in translation – that are often lost in the literary deluge that is currently upon us.

Don’t book critics have the same goal – to help readers discover specific books and (hopefully) appreciate them?  Perhaps the conversation between bloggers and critics should start there.

Towards the end of the panel Ursula Krechel used the terms “democratization” of reviewing and the “professional reader” – which seemed to have a negative implication.   Because book blogs – or even online book review outlets like The Millions, The Huffington Post, BookSlut – were never specifically mentioned I had to wonder who she was referring to.   Every blogger I know cares about the quality and content of their reviews.  Many spend hours, if not days, obsessing and tweaking their posts.  We love reading about books, but we also love writing about them. Perhaps we judge them by a slightly different criteria than the traditional literary critic, but we do employ standards.  Bloggers build individual followings, something most book critics don’t have.  I follow several bloggers, but very seldom do I (an acknowledged book review addict) look for specific reviewers when I open a paper or click on a review online.  I bet those traditional critics (and the outlets that employ them) would love to change that.

As for what book critics have to teach bloggers – they do have a  couple hundred years tradition on their side.   If the literary criticism world must continue to change – and, I’m sorry, it must – what form do they want to see that change take in the future?  If there is a literary standard they feel bloggers are not meeting – open a dialogue that is not dismissive or condescending.  Why not partner up with or mentor specific bloggers with the same vision (I have heard of this happening, but infrequently).  Or even invite bloggers and book critics to sit on the same panel.  At this point, it’s a zero-sum game we’re all playing here.  We can just as quickly turn that into a positive as a negative.

(Speaking of a global community – I know you’re out there – the Comments are open!)

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Is Emotionally Damaged the New Sexy?

File:Skull and crossbones.svg

April Fools seems like it’d be the perfect day to publish this particular post.

Dear readers, forgive me. In fact, I urge you to stop reading now.  Skip this post altogether. I lost a bet. I lost a bet to Lori @TNBBC (feel free to blame her) and as forfeit I had to read 50 Shades of Grey. Worse still, I have to review it.

Let’s get this over with.

To say that 50 Shades of Grey is poorly written is the definition of “understatement”.  It’s horrible.  In terms of style, the writing is almost comically repetitive. Actually take out the almost.  It’s so terribly written that I refuse to even put up a sample.

Yet the prose (I can’t believe I referred to it as prose) is not the most egregious sin perpetrated here.  Because, let’s face it, few people are reading this for it’s literary value.  What is unforgivable is the complete lack of cohesion or logic.  There is no one element to this book that works.  And the only way I can explain that is to break it down in parts and discuss each one individually.

Don’t use big words (or concepts) you don’t understand.

E.L. James seems to have a fascination with, and limited understanding of, the subconscious, using it in the place of a conscience throughout the book. To be fair, what she’s really referring to is the Superego… but that would be raising the intellectual bar of this narrative higher than I believe Ms. James can reach. The same can be said regarding the heroine’s Inner Goddess – who makes FREQUENT appearances.  She turns out to be less the Jungian psychological archetype and more of a professional dancer. At various stages of the book she dances the cha-cha, the mambo and the rumba.

Originality

It’s painfully obvious that 50 Shades’ original incarnation was as Twilight fan fiction.  Now, to their credit, the author and her publisher have never denied this.  But they have made some dubious claims that the fan fiction was heavily edited prior to being released in novel form.  But anyone who has read Twilight, or seen the films, will be able to play Spot the Twilight Character Look-A-Like.  The first book has a Rosalee & an Emmit, an Alice & Esme.  Bella’s entire family – mother, stepfather and father – are kept essentially intact for Anastasia/Ana (50 Shades’ heroine).  BUT the prize goes to Ana’s male friend who – instead of being a Native American boy named Jacob – is a Latino boy named José Rodriquez.  (Just in case there is any doubt of his ethnicity, José helpfully employs the phrase “Dios Mio!” at the appropriate moments).

With so much of the source material plot remaining intact, vampirism obviously had to be taken out of the equation.  E.L. James realized she’d need an alternative alternative-lifestyle to avoid a lawsuit for blatant copyright infringement and to create narrative tension – so the hero, Christian Grey, is into BDSM instead of bloodsucking.

I won’t bore you with the many plot points the two books share.  Suffice it to say that at the end of 50 Shades the hero & heroine break-up, and the heroine is emotionally devastated and in the fetal position… does any of this sound familiar?

But it’s sexy… right?

Yet poor writing, borderline plagiarization… all of this pales in comparison to the sex. The amazingly uninspired, non-sexy sex. There is nothing erotic in what takes place between Ana and Christian.  James is not Anais Nin, or even a Marquis de Sade. Even if she were, it’s hard to get past the fact that Christian is probably the most damaged human being I’ve ever encountered in (I use the term loosely) literature. He is not depraved or bored or evil.  He is the son of a crack whore, with burn-marks scattered over his body. He was initiated into BDSM at the age of 16 by a friend of his adopted mother’s. He does not like to be touched during intimacy. He does not make love – he “f#$% hard”. (Which, by the way, summarizes just about every sex scene in the book). He repeatedly explains to  Ana that he doesn’t know how to be in normal relationship. He is, unsurprisingly, in therapy. And he uses the endearment “baby” way too much. Creepy and disturbing yet?

Don’t worry, it gets better. Ana starts out as a virgin (because James’ seems to have a thing for stereotypes) and spends the entirety of the book crying. In one scene she emails Christian that she is breaking it off as a joke (indicative of her maturity level) and he furiously storms over to her apartment and proceeds to sexually dominate her. He gives her a spanking.  She, of course, loves it. At the same time she feels degraded.  I believe at this juncture her subconscious performs the macarena, but don’t quote me on that. Like every encounter Ana has with Christian – this one ends in tears. She’s so confused! She loves him but (the implicit message is) society has turned her into a prude!

What I find fascinating about 50 Shades of Grey is that it has so many fans who seem to be completely missing the point: that his BDSM lifestyle is the least disturbing thing about Christian Grey. My problem with this book has nothing to do with the kink… two consenting adults have the right to do as they please. But no one seems to be talking about the severe dysfunction of this relationship. Kinky sex and severe emotional damage are two different things entirely. (Kathryn Casey, in Forbes, touches on this, though I’m not sure I completely agree with her specific concerns). The latter just isn’t sexy.

But who am I to judge? How can 65 million readers be wrong? Co-dependence, emotionally torturing the person you profess to love, continuing a relationship with the person who molested you as a child – that’s obviously the new sexy.

I never thought I’d miss the sparkly vampires…

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