Women In Translation Up To No Good

So here we are again. Another August and my Twitter and Instagram feeds are filling up with photos, lists and reviews of books by women in translation. Five years in and #WITMonth is bigger than ever. All thanks to Meytal, who founded and continues to grow what has become an international event. (If you want to learn more about Meytal, click the link to see last year’s thank you post or visit her blog to get the latest news, updates, and links to WITMonth content).

This month, like everyone else in the translation community, I’ll be posting reviews — new and old — of books by women in translation. One thing I’ve noticed, possibly because so few books in translation are published in general and even fewer of those are by women, is that we all seem to be reading the same books. It’s unavoidable, of course, but there it is. You can’t even say we’re all just reading new releases because that’s not the case either. It really reinforces how small the pool to choose from actually is. (Two examples of what I’m talking about occurred in the last week or so: Meytal mentioned she plans to post a review of Suzanne Dracius’ The Dancing Other and someone else, I can’t remember who, posted on Twitter that they were reading Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. Both books are sitting on my TBR&R pile. This happens all the time). It also highlights how small presses are carrying the load in publishing translations. And how so many of the reviewers I follow, and I myself am guilty of this, seem to focus on literary fiction in translation and overlook genre in our coverage.


In other news: I’m always on the lookout for novels that feature interesting, middle-aged and above female protagonists. I’ve had some success, but I wouldn’t call it a huge category. Betty Boo by Claudia Pineiro, Eventide by Therese Bohman (which I’ll be reviewing later this month) and Minae Mizumara’s novels immediately come to mind. Last year the Best Translated Book Award judges received a little book titled An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good: Stories by the Swedish writer Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy. The only word for it is DELIGHTFUL. It was a favorite among the judges, even though it didn’t make the longlist. Tursten is best known for her Detective Inspectors Irene Huss and Embla Nystrom series, which I need to read. Both Hus and Nystrom make an appearance in the last of the five stories, but it’s the elderly lady who steals the book.

My favorite in the collection is An Elderly Lady Has An Accommodation Problem. Maud, who is 88-years-old, has been living in her rent-controlled apartment (rent-controlled = free) in a now gentrified (gentrified = expensive) section of Sweden since she was a child. The building’s housing association wants rid of her to no avail, her contract is ironclad. Her family is all dead, she never married, and she mostly keeps to herself. So when her young neighbor, a flighty artist named Jasmin, becomes extremely — even intrusively — friendly Maud can’t quite figure out why. Is the girl looking for a friend? A mother figure? A project?

It wasn’t until she read a new entry in Jasmin’s blog one day that things started to become clear. I’m so excited! I might soon be moving into a bigger apartment! Which means a bigger studio, of course!!!! I really need more space. And when I say bigger, I mean BIGGER! MUCH BIGGER!!!

…That little bitch was after her apartment.

Obviously, something will need to be done.

All the stories are Maud’s and each one is more deliciously wicked than the last. Tursten injects just the right amount of joie de vivre into the old biddy’s activities. It comes as a surprise to learn, in a brief note at the end, that Maud was a character born out of necessity. Her creator needed a short story for a Christmas anthology and had no idea what to write. Until she hit upon the idea that a frail old lady would make the perfect criminal. No one would suspect her. She could get away with murder! And so she does, quite literally, to all our amusement.

Which sounds a bit twisted when said out loud. It goes without saying that nobody likes a serial killer, even a clever one. And yet… there’s something truly endearing about Maud and her antics. Read the book and you’ll see what I mean. Honestly… all her victims had it coming. *side eye*

Title: An Elderly Lady Up To No Good
Author: Helene Tursten
Translator: Marlaine Delargy
Publisher: Soho Press, New York (2018)
ISBN: 978 1 64129 011 1

Barrelhouse Magazine & Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated by Emma Ramadan

Two things.

Thing #1 — I’ve been a listener to the Book Fight! podcast pretty much from the beginning. I own a tee-shirt. I frequently laugh out loud while listening to the two hosts, Tom & Mike, banter about NANOWRIMO, Kit-Kats, fan fiction and, occasionally, books. And it’s through them I learned about Barrelhouse, a magazine devoted to literature and pop culture (but not always in that order). I wrote my first review for their recently re-vamped Book Reviews section back in May.

Thing #2 — Did I mention I wrote my first review for Barrelhouse’s website on Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated by Emma Ramadan? It begins like this:

Brace for profanity.

Before we start, let’s get something straight: Virginie Despentes doesn’t give a shit what you think. She doesn’t care about your sexual hang-ups, trigger warnings, brands of feminism, gender constructs, or value systems. She’s a punk rock post-porn French feminist who gets her books blurbed by Annie Sprinkle. Molly Crabapple draws her covers. Her first novel, a rape-revenge fantasy story she wrote in her early twenties, is called Baise-Moi (Fuck Me).

You can read the full review on Barrelhouse’s website by clicking on the excerpt above.

Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf

I’ve long been a fan of Andrea Wulf’s non-fiction. So when the follow-up to The Brother Gardener was announced in 2011, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation (it’s a mouthful!), I immediately pre-ordered a copy. Despite my initial enthusiasm, though, it sat on the shelf. In the end, it took me eight years to read, and even then I chose to listen to the audiobook.

Meticulously researched, well-written, thoughtful and rich in detail… in short, Founding Gardners is everything I’ve come to expect from Wulf. But this particular story, which she chose to put so much effort into telling, never engaged me in the same way as The Brother Gardeners. This isn’t Wulf’s fault so much as a weakness in the material. Where her first book introduced readers to the largely forgotten character of John Bartram and described his influence over gardens on both sides of the Atlantic, this new book (new being a relative term of course) goes over what is already well-covered territory. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison – these are quite famous men who have had thousands, if not millions, of pages written about them. The question becomes, is there anything new to say?

Divided into nine parts, with each part focussing on a different event in which gardening can be tied to the birth of the United States of America, Founding Gardeners makes the case that the answer to that question is a “yes!”. Wulf devotes an entire section to how Jefferson and Adam became close friends while touring gardens in England. And in another shows Jefferson betraying that friendship a few years later, rallying political support in the Northern states under the guise of touring the gardens of New England with Madison. She describes the creation of Washington, D.C., the capital city that almost wasn’t. And how George Washington wanted his gardens at Mt. Vernon to showcase plants “Made in America”. She even revisits the 1786 visit to Bartram’s garden which facilitated the founding of a nation.

All of which is very interesting, but to my mind, the true gardening gems in Founding Gardeners get much less space. For example, both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson actively procured seeds from around the world, through a variety of means, in order to make the United States agriculturally and (as a result) economically independent. Jefferson smuggled grains of rice out of Italy in 1787 at great risk. He was looking for a type of upland rice that could be grown in dry instead of flooded fields, which were often mosquito-infested and the breeding ground for malaria and yellow fever. Franklin, ever practical, “believed that the colonists’ reliance on agriculture for their main income, combined with seemingly endless resources of land, could be turned to their advantage. America could be self-reliant…” While overseas, he was constantly sending seeds back home to friends to plant and cultivate.

Every time someone told Franklin about a new edible plant, he was thrilled by the possibility of its economic potential. “I wish it may be found of Use with us”, he told one correspondent when he forwarded seeds for a new crop, and when he heard of tofu, it so excited his curiousity, he said, that he procured the recipe from China, dispatching it together with chickpeas to a friend in Philadelphia.

The pages Wulf spends on Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Montpelier are much less interesting (and more numerous) in comparison. In the United States, these three places are hallowed ground and the destination of many a school trip and/or family vacation. Maybe that’s why much of what Wulf relays about them felt “potted”, — the kinds of facts gleaned from a group tour. And not an altogether thorough one. The flaw in Founding Gardeners is that for the amount of time she spends on Monticello, Mt. Vernon and Montpelier, too little is given to exploring the role of enslaved people in the creation and maintenance of these plantations. Because, despite their pretty names, that is what they were: Southern plantations. I’ve taken the tour at Monticello, and one of the facts we learned was that Jefferson not only built his house on a hill using slave labor, but when he was short of funds he would sell the men, women, and children who lived there in order to continue the work. So, while Jefferson’s, Washington’s, and Madison’s homes are impressive in a grand way, it’s important to understand what the grandiosity cost.

I bring this up because there’s a definite unevenness in how the gardens of the Founding Fathers are discussed, with the obvious preference being given to the men from Virginia. I couldn’t help wishing for more time spent farther North in the more modest gardens of Adams and Franklin. Peacefield, Adam’s home, remains elusive even after reading the book. And Franklin’s modest Philadelphia garden is given only one paragraph in the Prologue — and for a man who we know to have been a botanist, and are told was “proud of his botanical books and enjoyed showing them to visitors” this seems like short shrift.

Overall, while it didn’t meet my expectations and I was frustrated by what I felt were significant ommissions, I did enjoy Founding Gardeners and will revisit parts of it again. The audiobook narrator, Antonia Bath, does an excellent job – but I recommend the print format in this instance. There’s a lot of information, loosely organized, that I think needs the kind of focus that comes from reading words on a page.

Title: Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation, Nature & the Shaping of the American Nation
Author: Andrea Wulf
Audiobook Narrator: Antonia Bath
Publisher: Knopf, New York (2011)

Throwback Review –Brother Gardeners: Botany Empire & the Birth of an American Obsession

Today’s post is a throwback to my June 2009 review of Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf. I was and remain a huge fan of Wulf’s nonfiction… I even attended a reading at a local plant nursery in 2011 to hear her speak about her (then) new book Founding Gardeners.

I also seem to be a bigger fan of a certain Voltaire quote than I realized.

My review of Founding Gardeners: How the Revolutionary Generation Created an American Eden will be available later this week. I listened to it on audiobook, so it was an entirely different experience. But more on that later. For now, I think this old review holds up surprisingly well a decade on –

It was in this period of less than a hundred years that the small island of England became the metaphorical and literal greenhouse of the world. These men and their gardens would ultimately change the landscape of England and its colonies.   They would influence major, seemingly unrelated, historical events.   Carl Linnaeus’ classification system of binomial nomenclature, the colonization of Australia and the infamous mutiny on the Bounty all had their impetus in the quest for botanical discovery…. what is often viewed as just the peculiar British national hobby – was in fact the keystone of a colonial empire.  How so?  Well… if you have slaves in the West Indies that need a cheap and productive food supply you import bread trees from Tahiti.  You can ship New Zealand flax plants to Australia in order to create a niche in the linen industry.  You attempt to break China’s monopoly on tea by sending plants (and willing Chinese planters) to India. 

“The two central activities in my life — alongside writing — have been reading and gardening.” – Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively was born in 1933. She’s written over fifty books — novels for adults & children, plus some non-fiction. Life in the Garden is a collection of essays very like the series of gardening articles by the American writer Katherine S. White. Originally written for The New Yorker, White’s pieces were collected and published by her husband after her death in Onward and Upward in the Garden.

Both women, or should I say both gardeners, are refreshingly modern in their tone and approach. White wrote an entire essay dedicated to the experience of pouring over seed catalogs, while Lively isn’t above a sly aside on the influence Monty Don and Gardeners World have over the British planting public. I can’t imagine May Sarton ever being so gauche as to discuss the role of commerce in her garden – she never reveals where she bought her plants or what the local nurseries were stocking in their greenhouses that season. Sarton’s garden, we are expected to believe, was grown entirely from the clippings of memory left on the altar of her doorstep by friends and neighbors.

I’m being a bit unfair, but certainly Sarton expressed no interest in “the garden as a social indicator” — an idea Lively explores in suitably lively fashion. 🙂 She was in her seventies when she wrote Life in the Garden and had long since downsized from the Oxfordshire garden she tended with her husband Jack (who died in 1998 and whose memory is everywhere) to the more modest London plot she keeps today. Where before she and her husband employed Richard Taylor, who she calls “friend, collaborator”. “He and Jack would work together, in unceasing conversation; I would come out and find them paused, each leaning on spad or fork”. From Taylor she moves on to consider the preponderance of Scottish gardeners in literature. Wodehouse’s dour Angus McAllister waging war on the Blanding Castle slugs and Beatrix Potter’s fearsome Mr. McGregor, who Jack believed “to be a much misunderstood man”. These days Lively relies on a service which employs immigrant laborers rather than an individual whose calling has been passed down through the generations.

The two central activities in my life — alongside writing — have been reading and gardening. And there has been a sense in which the two have meshed: I always pay attention when a writer conjures up a garden, when gardening becomes an element of fiction. I find myself wondering what is going on here. Is this garden deliberate or merely fortuitous? And it is nearly always deliberate, a garden contrived to serve a narrative purpose, to create atmosphere, to furnish a character.

Lively, more than Sarton and White, connects gardens and literature — something I’d been craving since the start of this project. She opens her essay The Written Garden, with a description of the dreamt garden introducing us to Manderlay in DuMaurier’s Rebecca. She also discusses the fictional gardens found in the works of Elizabeth Bowen, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Carol Shields and several more writers I’d never heard of. Then, in the second half of this same essay, she switches to “the garden writing that is free of fictional purpose, concerned only with discussion, advice, celebration — the writing of those who garden.”

Life in the Garden is a short book, made up of six essays (seven if you count the introduction). Each reflects and is permeated with a lifetime of reading. This is distracting at times. The pages are filled with the names of authors and the titles of books, as well as descriptions of plants and planting schemes. Lively makes a seemingly endless series of connections and it can be a bit like reading a compendium or directory — each sentence opening up a rabbit warren of internet research. So much information comes at you and very little manages to stick. Fortunately, she has written the kind of book which you’ll want to pick up and re-read.

Books on gardening, whether they be practical how-tos, memoirs, or essay collections like this one, age well. Even when some of the advice has gone out of style, the components of the garden change very little over time or across regions — hardscaping, soil maintenance, planting beds, structural trees and shrubs, water features — these are still as much a part of our contemporary landscapes as they ever were. The same can be said of the plants.

Clematis appears a dozen times in Life in the Garden: in T.S. Eliot’s poems, on an Anna Pavord calendar, climbing up one of Vita Sackville-West’s apple trees and planted in a Giverny garden famous for its waterlilies. My clematis, which does not look particularly happy where I planted it (by the way), has inexplicably produced two big and beautiful white flowers. And in a weird way, it forms a tenuous connection between all those other gardeners and me. And when I think about that, about this love for and desire to interact with the natural world, I can’t help but wonder… how did they deal with the aphids?

We garden for tomorrow, and thereafter. We garden in expectation, and that is why it is so invigorating. Gardening, you are no longer stuck in the here and now; you think backward, and forward, you think of how this or that performed last year, you work out your hopes and plans for the next.

Title:  Life in the Garden
Author: Penelope Lively
Publisher: Viking (New York, 2017)
ISBN: 978-0525558392