In Defense of Reviewing Mediocre Books #WITMonth

On Wednesday I posted a review of The Case of Lisandra P., a thriller written by the French writer Hélène Grémillon and translated by Alison Anderson. I began the review with a paragraph defending the position that while I felt it was a mediocre book, even mediocre books deserve reviews. That it was unfair to demand that women to produce only amazing books which are worthy of being reviewed when we do not hold male authors to the same high standard.

One of my favorite bloggers, Lisa from ANZLitLovers, called me out on that introductory paragraph, and rightly so, in the comments of that post. You can read her entire comment here. I started typing a response into the comments section as well but realized I had a lot to say on the subject and… well… it is my blog. 🙂

Lisa always pulls me into these conversations – I think that’s how we first “met”. I want to thank her for that. She’s very thoughtful about what she reads – and the comments she leaves force me to be more thoughtful about what I write.

So I’d like to start by saying that I initially agreed with many of the points she makes. We perceive women as tending to do well in genre categories, both financially and in online reviews.  Val McDermid is a writer that comes immediately to mind. But since I began analyzing my reading habits I’ve been made painfully aware that what I perceive to be true is not always actually true. So I did a quick , completely unscientific survey of the genders of the authors who made it onto two of the major crime/mystery awards shortlists before typing up my response.

Next I googled “Top Paid Mystery Writers” to see what turned up… just because. I found a list on the Christian Science Monitor website of the Top Ten Best Paid American Mystery Writers.  9 were men.

Again, the above is an entirely unscientific survey which has almost nothing to do with translations (the CWA Dagger Award does have an International category). But it does illustrate my point – these were NOT the results I was expecting.

This might also be a good time to mention that Hélène Grémillon probably doesn’t consider herself a genre writer.  Her first novel was widely praised and nominated for the prestigious Prix Goncourt due Premier Roman (past winners  included Laurent Binet for HhHH and Kamal Daoud for The Meursault Affair).

The truth is that Grémillon does not need my help to sell books or gain any kind of critical attention.  She is doing just fine and in many ways she’s proof to Lisa’s comment.  So if The Case of Lisandra P. is not a good book why bother reviewing it?  Well, mostly because I can’t definitely say that it is any worse  than The DaVinci Code, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or any number of thrillers that find their way into airport bookstores and onto the beaches every Summer.

And because I think any review makes a difference. Stephen King, Grahame Green, Simenon, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan have written a lot of books, individually and combined. Not all of those books were good, but their authors are still considered good (even great) writers in their spheres. What was the one thing all these men had in common? Most of their books got reviewed regardless of quality.

Books don’t exist in vacuums. The truth is we would never be able to identify good books if we (or someone else) hadn’t slogged through the bad ones. (Even the bad ones can still be a lot of fun.  I still smile when I think about the ridiculous over-the-top contrivance that passed for a plot in The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen). To achieve true gender equality we need to review men and women with the same consistency. Women writers need to play a bigger part in the literary conversation, whether that be in print reviews or online.

In the end it’s a numbers game.

A review is an opinion. Hopefully a well thought out opinion by someone willing to spend the time to build an argument which backs it up… but an opinion nonetheless. And we need more reviewers expressing their opinions about Women In Translation… hell, according to the VIDA Count we need more opinions out there about women’s literature in general. Which has me believing that there is still some merit in reviewing and bringing attention to those mediocre books, if only to establish a space we can eventually fill with the great ones.

 

Welcome to Women In Translation Month 2016 – #WITMonth

WomenInTranslation Logo 2016Women In Translation Month is here again.  This event, in its third year, was started by the blogger Meytal Radzinski.  The idea came out of a number of posts she wrote in which she used The Three Percent website’s yearly translation database to determine the percentage of books in translation written by women which are published each year.  The 2014 and 2015 results were depressing and this year seems to be a continuation of previous years’ trends.

In case you’ve forgotten: the goals for Women In Translation Month are simple –

  1. Increase the dialogue and discussion about women writers in translation
  2. Read more books by women in translation
  3. And if you’re a blogger or reviewer (or both) – BE AWARE!  Make sure you’re reviewing women in translation.  If publishers aren’t sending you the books, then start requesting them. It’s our job to let the readers know what they’re missing.

Want to be a part of the discussion?  –

I’ll be reading and posting about Women In Translation all of August. And while I probably won’t get to them all, here’s a peek at my TBR list –

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The Diving Pool: Three Novellas by Yoko Ogawa, tr. Stephen Snyder (a #WITMonth post)

Title:  The Diving Pool – Three Novellas
Author:  Yoko Ogawa
Translator:  Stephen Snyder
Publisher: Picador, New York (2008)
ISBN:  978 0 312 42683 5

The quality of mercy is not strain’d.

Diving PoolThe compassion Yoko Ogawa shows her protagonists, despite their flaws, consistently surprises me. These three early novellas – and novella seems a bit of a grandiose term for what are, essentially, three unrelated short stories – each feature a first person, female narrator. They are collected under the title: The Diving Pool, which is also the title of the first novella.  The three women, aging from early teens to mid-thirties, are not the most likeable of characters. In fact, much of what we learn about them seems designed to repulse us.

Ogawa has an affinity for the first person narrator. Like her 2013 book of short stories, Revenge: Eleven Dark TalesThe Diving Pool exclusively uses the “I” perspective.  The writing is disturbingly confessional in tone.  Taken together, these two characteristics make it tempting to classify Ogawa’s work as part of the Japanese I-Novel tradition.*  Ogawa’s protagonists disclose their darkest secrets to the reader.  They reveal shameful actions, though not always the motivations behind them. They are perhaps the most reliable of narrators in that they tell us things we don’t wish to hear.

The Diving Pool is, in my opinion, the strongest of the three novellas.  It’s also the most difficult to summarize. The narrator, a teenage girl, grows up neglected by her parents as they tend to the needs of the many foster children they have taken into their home – an orphanage called The Lighthouse.  Lonely and increasingly isolated, she develops a crush on one of her foster brothers and secretly spends her afternoons at the swimming pool watching him practice his diving. If this were another writer I’d say that the situation escalates, but “escalation” is too aggressive a word to apply to Ogawa.  The girl does a terrible thing; in truth has a history of doing terrible things.  The story is a perfect coalescing of the themes which obsess Ogawa – loneliness, isolation, everyday acts of desperation and cruelty.

Then, while she had her back turned, I slipped behind the kitchen door. After a few moments, the dirt on her hands began to bother her again and she dropped the shovel and bucket at her feet and stood staring at her palms. Finally, she turned for help toward the spot where I should have been sitting. As it dawned on her that I wasn’t there, that she’d been left alone, she began crying in earnest. Her sobs were violent, seemingly about to rupture inside her, and they were satisfying my cruel urge. I wanted her to cry even harder, and everything seemed perfectly arranged: no one would come to pick her up, I would be able to listen to my heart’s content, and she was too young to tell anyone afterward.

I stopped reading and put this book away for 6 months after finishing The Diving Pool.

Slightly less devastating, Dormitory features a woman in her early thirties who is waiting to join her husband in Sweden. He has found work there and has gone on ahead to settle their living arrangements. She spends her days alone, seldom leaving her home.  “My life, too, seemed to be drifting in circles, as if caught in the listless season…. I never went out to meet people and had no deadlines or projects of any sort. Formless days passed one after the other, as if swollen into an indistinguishable mass by the damp weather.” One day a younger cousin calls asking for her help finding a place to live.  He is beginning his first semester at university and knew from other family members that she’d been happy with the dormitory she’d stayed at while in school.  Six years have passed since she’d graduated, but she offered to contact the manager. “That was how I came to renew my ties with the dormitory.”

“There’s one thing I forgot to mention,” I said, finally bringing up the subject that had been on my mind all day. My cousin turned to look at me, waiting expectantly for me to continue. “The Manager is missing one leg and both arms.” There was a short silence.

“One leg and both arms,” he repeated at last.

“His left leg, to be precise.”

“What happened to him?

“I’m not sure. An accident, I suppose. There were rumors – that he’d been caught in some machine or was in a car wreck. No one could ever manage to ask him, but it must have been something awful.”

“That’s for sure,” my cousin said, looking down as he kicked a pebble.

“But he can do everything for himself – cook, get dressed, get around. He can use a can opener, a sewing machine, anything, so you won’t even notice after a while. When you’ve been around him, it somehow doesn’t seem to be very important. I just didn’t want you to be shocked when you meet him.”

“I see what you mean,” my cousin said, kicking another pebble.

WITMonth15Her cousin moves into the dormitory, in fact seems to be the only student staying there, and through him the narrator also renews her acquaintance with the dormitory manager.  A strange friendship forms between them, the narrator and Manager.  Through a series of visits a semblance of a plot begins to emerge – but Dormitory seems more of an exercise in atmosphere and sensory exploration.  Like many of Ogawa’s stories it is incredibly cinematic.  She layers sound, visual images, dialogue, even cuts in and out of scenes.  It’s easy to imagine Dormitory being made into a short, noir-style film… perhaps by a student film-maker.  The final image is profoundly haunting, – and this in a story filled with haunting imagery.

Pregnancy Diary, actually the second in order of appearance, is structured pretty much as the title implies.  A woman, living with her sister and her sister’s husband, begins keeping a diary to track her sister’s pregnancy. As the weeks progress it becomes increasingly clear that something is not right here… though I could never quite put my finger on what.

Unapologetically, Ogawa puts her damaged characters on the page and confronts us with their actions, using the first person perspective like a weapon to force our complicity.  By exposing these women so completely it would be easy to think she didn’t care, but there is a definite protectiveness to her portrayals.  She doesn’t hold them up for judgement, in fact I’d say it is just the opposite.  She treats them with gentleness and dignity – handling them more carefully than she does her readers.  There is also a visceral quality to her writing which reminds me of Naja Marie Aidt (who I’ll be reviewing next week) and other women writers I admire.  Physical cruelty, the emotionally abhorrent, the grotesque – Yoko Ogawa’s writing doesn’t shy away from the less attractive aspects of biology or human nature.

 

*As far as I know, and my understanding of the Japanese I-Novel has never been very good, the I- or True Novel genre requires an autobiographical narrative.  So in A True Novel by Minae Mizumura the author places herself into the story as a character and as part of the framing device. Ogawa, again as far as I know, never places herself into her narratives.  Though her narrators for the most part remain unnamed.

 

 

 

Women Writing About Horrible Things – Two French Novellas (a #WITMonth post)

Le Necrophile (The Necrophiliac in English) by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated by Don Bapst and Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter, are unflinching character studies – depicting mankind in its darkest moments and (as is the case of Le Necrophile) at its most depraved.

TITLE:  Le Necrophile
AUTHOR: Gabrielle Wittkop
TRANSLATOR:  Don Bapst
PUBLISHER: ECW Press, Ontario  (2011)
ISBN:  978 15502 2943 1

 

TITLE:  Beside the Sea
AUTHOR: Véronique Olmi
TRANSLATOR:  Adriana Hunter
PUBLISHER: Tin House, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 935639 42 8

One criticism I wanted to address during Women In Translation Month was that women authors write exclusively about “women’s issues”. Or, worse, the categorizing of their work as “chick-lit” or “relationship” novels.  As somehow homogenously feminine and, as such, more easily lumped together and dismissed from the company of books written by men.  With that in mind I have deliberately chosen two books that are challenging and complicated – novels not easily identified as or typical of literature associated with women.  Le Necrophile (The Necrophiliac in English) by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated by Don Bapst and Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter, are unflinching character studies – depicting mankind in its darkest moments and (as is the case of Le Necrophile) at its most depraved.

The Necrophiliac is not a metaphor (as I initially believed when I bought it). Instead it is the very literal title of a disturbing and disturbingly beautiful book about –  there’s no way to put this delicately – a man has sex with corpses. Lucien, the protagonist and narrator, is an antiques dealer.  He has no friends; no family. He is a loner;  for reasons that very quickly become apparent. He reads the obituaries the way normal people read the personals. Sometimes he attends the funeral. Then at night, while everyone is sleeping, Lucien drives his Chevrolet to the cemetery to dig up his date. The relationship can last for weeks at a time.

He has no set type.  Men, women, the very young and the very old all have their specific attractions. The Necrophiliac is written in the style of a personal journal and the graphic descriptions of the sexual encounters will make your skin crawl.  There is no easing readers in.  From page one Lucien is revolting, breaking multiple taboos. By having him narrate his own story Wittkop manages to humanize him – but barely so.  Only the beauty of the prose keeps you reading.

I went this morning for a stroll around the Ivy Cemetery, charming under the snow like an ornate centerpiece made of sugar, strangely lost in a plebeian district. Watching a widow decorate the tomb of the deceased with a little Christmas tree, I noticed suddenly how rare they’ve become, those women in full mourning in their floating veils – though often blond – who for the most part – usually, not always – professionals who practised their art behind the family monuments with an absolutely depressing absence of brilliance and sincerity.  Widows’ meat.

The passage above is one of the few in The Necrophiliac that won’t cause you to flinch. And, fortunately, is still indicative of the author’s style – which is lovely and devoid of the cloying prose style inherent to most Gothic novels. In fact, if you can move past the subject matter The Necrophiliac is surprisingly engrossing. The writing is truly gorgeous. Don Bapst translation manages to capture the contemporary Gothic flavor and the voluptuous imagery which, combined, creates a truly unique reading experience.  The size is perfect; ninety-one pages that can easily be consumed in one sitting.

And – fortunately – the book is not without some humor.  As you can imagine Lucien has a difficult time keeping cleaning ladies.

This appears to be the only book by the author, Gabrielle Wittkop, that is currently available to English readers. Before her suicide in 2002, at age 82, the author had written several novels, short stories and poems.  She saw herself as “the heir to de Sade” and is widely read in both France and Germany.  Her popularity in those countries allows me to hope that more of her work will eventually find its way into the hands of English translators.

________________________

Véronique Olmi’s novella Beside the Sea, translated by Adriana Hunter, is another book that describes the world through the eyes of a troubled protagonist.  The initial premise seems innocent: the narrator takes her two young sons on an impromptu seaside holiday. But from the first sentence – “We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us.” – it is apparent that all is not right. What unfolds is heartbreaking.  Both boys will be dead by the end of the book.

Beside the Sea explores difficult subject matter of an entirely different nature than The Necrophiliac. Matricide takes the place of perversion – and suddenly perversion seems the more palatable of the two.  This is not an easy book by any definition. Beside the Sea is another (mercifully) short novella  – only 119 pages.  But every one of those pages feels like a punch in the chest.  From the mother’s rough, uneducated voice (the grammar is ever so slightly off); to the anxiety of her two small boys ; to the ineptness of the social workers meant to help them.  There is nothing pretty about the story or the prose.  Nor is there anything comforting.  Olmi writes fiercely – refusing to shy away from all the horrible little details that make her story painfully believable. She has created a main protagonist who invokes readers’ frustration as much as she does their pity. The book’s two small children aren’t angelic – they behave & misbehave as little boys do. And their perfectly drawn imperfection makes you want to protect them from what is coming all the more.

Omni excels at character development, relying on her readers to pick up on all the little clues her oblivious narrator let’s drop.  Social workers, concerned teachers, poverty and absent fathers are all mentioned in passing.  The eldest boy, 11-year old Stan, has taken on the role of adult that she is incapable of filling.  Kevin is still too young to understand what is going on and still retains some innocence.  “Mom! Kevin cried when he saw I was awake, and that’s a wonderful thing! The way a little’un says hello to you in the morning, as if you were the surprise of the day, the piece of good news he’d given up on.”  Both boys love their mother, but Stan has learned not to trust her.  She, in turn, loves them.  That is never in question.  But she is psychologically unable to care for them properly.

We’ll go to a cafe, I said, but neither of them looked convinced by that and I added We’ll order and we’ll be served! They looked at me suspiciously like I was telling a fib, so I got up an then I couldn’t help smiling – never mind my gappy gums, I was too proud of myself, I rummaged through the blue sports bag, took out my tea tin and tipped it out onto the bed, regretting it didn’t make more noise: I spilled out all my money! All of it! Everything I’d put by to have fun someday, all my little savings scrimped from the change at the baker and sometimes at the supermarket.

The kids didn’t touch the money, they looked at it, cautiously, like they were meeting someone new. Can we have ice cream? Kevin asked to make sure, and I was convinced he was no longer missing school. Stupid! Stan said quietly, in a cafe you drink coffee! And, anyway, there’s practically only twenty-centime coins left! Really? I said. Only twenty-centime coins? And I looked a bit closer. The boys sat down next to me on the bed, peering at my treasure like some strange creature. It’s true there weren’t many ten-franc coins, but hey! It was my scrimpings, not an investment, a bit extra, okay! I didn’t want them to see my disappointment, but at the same time I resented them for showing so little enthusiasm. Stan started counting the coins with such a serious expression you’d have though he was picking up something I’d broken, sorting out some stupid accident, that’s what they teach them at school: to be distrustful…

I don’t believe Omni expects readers to sympathize with the mother, yet she manages to humanize her.  That, in itself, is an achievement.  It’s also the key to the success of Beside the Sea.  The characters and situations are hyper-realistically drawn, as if the author recognized the weight of the subject matter – the horrible, chilling, heartbreaking act that drives the plot – and realized it alone would have  to carry the reader through.  Anything else would be disrespectful – a Lifetime movie no one wants to watch.  So Véronique Omni makes the intelligent decision of telling the story without resorting to emotional manipulation or literary devices/embellishments. Without tears.  The only false note is the final sentence, which shuts the door too neatly on a situation that is anything but. Otherwise Beside the Sea is an amazing novella, one that deserves more accolades and attention than it will probably ever receive.  Therein lies the peril of taking on societal taboos in a complicated and meaningful way.*

 

*versus the exploitative 

August 2014 – Women In Translation Month

August 2014 is Women In Translation Month – an event started by the blogger Biblibio.  The idea came out of a number of posts in which she used Three Percent’s yearly translation database to determine the percentage of books in translation written by women that are published each year.  You can read the full results here (along with charts!), but the average number seems to land at a disappointing 30% .

The goals for Women In Translation Month are simple –

  1. Increase the dialogue and discussion about women writers in translation
  2. Read more books by women in translation

Want to be a part of the discussion?  Look for blog posts tagged Women In Translation and follow the hashtag #WITMonth on Twitter.  Regular updates can also be found at Biblibio’s blog: Life In Letters.