Hello 2018! Some News & Reading Resolutions (shhhh!…. don’t wake Emma)

I began a post on my 2018 reading resolutions a few days ago.  It was so boring I fell asleep. Hell, it was so boring it put my dog to sleep. Don’t believe me? I began with a section on time management. TIME MANAGEMENT. And while that might be a very worthy endeavor, and there are quite a few very good books that tackle the subject, why would I ever inflict something like that on anyone nice enough to visit here?

But I understand why these beginning of the year posts are so popular. I, too, enjoy listening to other readers talk about how they plan to organize their bookshelves, set up their libraries or (my personal favorite) how long they hope to maintain the delusion that they will not be purchasing any books for the next 12 months. I also get a surprising amount of pleasure from reading about all the different challenges, whether my favorite blogger will be spending March reading Japanese or German literature, and marveling at how many books someone will read in the upcoming year. I don’t understand why I find these things so fascinating, but I do.

AND YET…. when it comes to writing about my own goals… I don’t know… if I can’t summon the interest how can I expect others to?

It’s not that I don’t LOVE making lists.  My goal setting usually gets done during slow periods at work in one of the softcover notebooks I carry with me at all times. These notebooks contain lists of review ideas, improvements I want to make to the site, posts/articles I promised to write for other sites, books I want to read, and general non-reading-to-dos. I also like to make diagrams – flow charts with lots of bubbles connected by arrows . Part of what makes this format appealing is that it’s messy and visually interesting.  And how do I duplicate  on a website?

But goals are being set and this is the time to share them  So below are a list of a few I hope to complete in 2018.

1. I’m a judge for the Best Translated Book Award this year, so for the next six months that is going to dictate what I read. But even without my consciously curating, I am still finding connections between seemingly random books.  I like it when the books I read inform each other – when patterns develop. For example: one topic that keeps coming up, perhaps because it is on my mind, is human migration. So many stories in translation are about refugees, expatriates, asylum seekers, immigrants, Diasporas – all pretty words describing a terrible thing: people forced to find new homes. The reasons why men, women and children leave their home countries and what happens to them is a big topic, but I think an important one. And I find myself understanding it better thanks to some great writers. So, while I don’t really like reading by country, I do like reading (and reviewing) books clustered around a specific topic.  I hope to do more of that in 2018.

2. You may have noticed that a Bookwitty affiliate badge has been added to my sidebar. Bookwitty is a website designed to help readers discover books through personalized recommendations and member generated content. You can buy books directly from the site and Bookwitty will ship them to you anywhere in the world for free. (I suppose they’re a little bit like Goodreads, but with a simpler interface and minus the evil corporate overlord).

Today, 98% of books published go completely undiscovered, with major marketplaces focusing only on the 2% that turn into best-sellers. We believe that there is a vast wealth of knowledge, ideas and entertainment in the books that go undiscovered, and it is our goal to help people find the right book for them in that vast catalogue. – Bookwitty

I’ve been keeping this blog since 2009, and in that time I’ve received other offers that would have allowed me to “monetize”. Everything from hosting blog tours and ad content, to setting up an Amazon affiliate or Patreon account. I’ve always said no because I felt it might compromise the quality and integrity of the blog. But I like Bookwitty – I like the site and I like their message. For those who would like an opportunity to support the site financially, they offer a non-intrusive way to make that available, which is nice too. So…in addition to the nifty new badge, book titles in my reviews will include links that takes you to a page on Bookwitty where you can buy the book and I will receive a commission on the sale.  And that’s it.  There is never any expectation on my part or obligation on yours to do so. Just the fact that you come here for your book recommendations means the world to me. Thank you, as always, for your support.

3. I’ve never participated in an official reading marathon before. But this year I have a hella-lotta books to read and too little time to read them. So on January 27th & 28th I am attempting to read for 24 out of 48 hours as part of the 24 in 48 Reading Marathon,  inspired by Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon. I’ll be posting my progress on social media all weekend long – so check back on the blog, my Instagram account and twitter (it may be the most I’ve ever posted to social media EVER – another marathon event, I guess).  As we get closer to the date I will start putting together my TBR stack, discuss strategies, maybe even train.  It’s all incredibly silly and ridiculous – which is why I am IN.

4. WRITE EVERY DAY – whether I post it or not, I need to get back into that routine.

5. And, finally, for those of you who came here with a burning desire to read about my time management strategies for 2018 and now feel cheated – below are some of the books that are currently rocking my OCD-world.

Check back in the next few days for my first fiction review of 2018 (spoiler: it’s a good one)!

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 In Review

2017 was not the best year. I am very aware that may be the understatement of the decade, but there it is.  I med an old blogging friend at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival and tried to explain to him why I’d retreated from Social Media (and the world) – which amounted to a list of the same reasons that everyone who eventually retreats from, and leaves, Social Media (Twitter) gives. So I won’t bore you with the details. Enough to say that I spent most of 2017 on the couch watching television or hiding behind a book. A lot of reading got done but not a lot of writing.

Looking back, though, I see that I accomplished more than I realized. But isn’t that always the way?

I’m still contributing over at Book Riot. You can find links to everything I’ve written for them on my Book Riot Contributor’s Page. I’ve also reviewed for Foreword Reviews, The LA Review of Books, Quarterly Conversation and The Rumpus. Below are 3 which I am particularly proud of:

A few other highlights:

  • In 2017 I read 60+ Books, over half were translations.
  • Books by Women Authors – 10.  This is roughly 30% of the books I’ve read in translation…  to be honest I thought there’d be more. Which just reinforces the fact that unless I make a conscious effort to read women authors, it’s just not going to happen.
  • Languages – 9 (not including English). French, Spanish & Japanese novels made up the bulk of my reading in Translation.  I also read books translated from Yiddish, Italian, German and Korean.
  • Surprise of the Year –  Return to the Dark Valley by Santiago Gamboa, translated by Howard Curtis. I’d never heard of Gamboa before picking up this book and I don’t understand why. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work in 2018.
  • Disappointment of the Year – I really didn’t like The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, translated by Janet Hong. There’s a whole list of reasons I go into in my review of Han Yujoo’s novel at the Rumpus, but for those looking for the hot take:  the book relies on a series of literary gimmicks and clichés rather than substance and structure.  The shame of it is that she is talented enough to almost pull it off, which is saying a lot.
  • I attended both the 2017 PEN World Voices Festival in New York City & AWP in Washington D.C.
  • I’m also a judge for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award, which is something I’ve wanted to be a part of for a long time.
  • And for the first time EVER I managed to complete my GoodReads Challenge for the year!

So that’s it for 2017. I didn’t want to spend too much time dwelling on this past year – I’d rather look to the future.  Check back soon for my post on goals, news and resolutions for 2018.

The Reader’s Toolbox

ReadingTackle2
Clockwise from top right corner – a Circa Jotlet, Field Notes Byline Limited Edition, generic 5-1/2″ x 8″ softcover journal, Field Notes Sweet Tooth Limited Edition, Levenger business card magnifier, variety of wood pencils (including highlighter pencils), 2 pencil sharpeners, eraser, 3 x 5 Levenger index cards, pencil case, Book Darts, Gimble (hands free reading tool).

 

When I was in art school I discovered a deep love for the materials out of which art is made: the brushes, the differences in brands of paint pigments, pens and pencils and the cases made to store them.  Hours would go by at Pearl Paint on Canal Street spent looking at different types of paper. This passion for tools has crossed over into my reading life and I’ve accumulated a bunch of little accessories, completely unnecessary, which somehow make reading even more fun. My husband gave me a book bag last Christmas and I’ve taken to carrying it everywhere.  Of course there’s always at least one book (or three) tucked inside, but there are lots of other things too.  Below is a list of my reader/reviewer toolkit –

  • An assortment of notebooks. Of course you probably only need one but, as a friend once said to me, if you’re going in then go in big. I usually have at least two Field Notes notebooks on me at all times.  I like them because 1. – the small, booklet held together by three simple staples and 2. – I’m a bit of a label whore. The Byline Limited Edition is fantastic. It’s a departure from their standard notebook format and was designed with the help of John Dickerson of Face the Nation. I also keep a small Circa Jotlet in the side pocket of my bag. Both it and the Byline are bound at the top, so they flip open and can be held in one hand. It makes it easier to take notes reporter style. I tend to jot down a lot of notes during the day, mostly things I hear or thoughts I might have for a future post. I keep a larger, softcover journal for longer sections of writing, the drafts which will be eventually be incorporated into reviews. All of the notebooks I’m currently using are softcover. I’m less precious about using them and if they get roughed up or filled with scribbles it doesn’t bother me. Whereas there’s something about a hardcover journal that feels like everything recorded in it is for Posterity.
  • Knickknacks
    Clockwise from top left: Book Darts, Gimble (hands-free book opener), KUM Masterpiece Sharpener, M+B Double Hole Brass Sharpener, Staedtler Black Rubber Eraser
    Wood pencils, a handheld eraser & (2) sharpeners. Yes, completely analog. Eventually I hack it out on the Chromebook, but all my initial thoughts and early drafts are put down in longhand using old-school wooden pencils. The benefit of writing by hand is that it forces you to slow down to choose your words and structure your sentences. I also stop more frequently to read over what I’ve written.  To this end I have accumulated a collection of several dozen pencils. Japanese are my favorites. I like softer leads, which generally means shorter point retention, so I’ve also invested in two quality metal hand sharpeners. The KUM Masterpiece Longpoint is a German-made sharpener. It’s a two-blade system, which means you sharpen your pencil in part 1 to extend the lead, and part 2 to shape it into a point that could be used to shank someone. I keep a second, brass sharpener for the fatter, less lethal highlighter pencils that don’t fit into the Masterpiece (no bleeding through the page like markers). Add a colored pencil for editing drafts and at least one rubber eraser and my pencil case is complete. The Erasable Podcast and CW Pencil in NYC have been invaluable resources for putting it together.
  • 3×5 notecards. Ever since reading that Nabokov used index cards to draft his novels I’ve been trying to find a way to incorporate them into my writing routine. The best use I’ve found for them is as bookmarks.  I also jot notes on them, usually nothing more exciting than quotes and page numbers. The Levenger cards are nice because of the vertical format, but pricey. Mine were a gift and I probably won’t replace them once they’re gone.
  • A magnifier. I haven’t needed one yet – but it seems like a good thing to have.  Another gift.
  • Magnifier2
    Magnifying Card
    Book Darts.  I am a Book Dart evangelist. These smooth, sexy, pointed metal clips that slide onto the edge of a page are fantastic for marking passages & quotes you want to reference later. IMHO the darts are vastly superior, and more environmentally friendly, than post-it-notes (which fold and become ragged over time). I cannot live without them.
  • Something to keep the pages of my book open. For those times when you need a page open and your hands free, like when you’re typing out a passage from a book.  The Gimble, which is what I use, isn’t aesthetically pleasing but it gets the job done for a fraction of the price of one of those fancy leather book weights. Plus it fits into my pencil case!

That’s it! Well… except for a confession: I’ve written this post for purely selfish reasons. As I was thinking about my own book bag I couldn’t help wondering if I’m the only one.  I am genuinely curious….do YOU have a favorite bookmark, or write on a vintage typewriter (or have a vintage typewriter sound app for your laptop)?  Do you collect fountain pens? write on stacks of yellow legal pads? put notes in the margins of your books? Please share what is or isn’t in your reading toolbox in the comments.

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.