Sunday, November 30, 2014

Yes, you really should read Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan series

If you're a reader of literature in translation (and let's be real - even if you're just a reader of good quality literature), chances are you've heard quite a bit about Elena Ferrante, her mysterious identity, and the wonders of the Neapolitan series. The books - which begin with My Brilliant Friend - are well written, interesting, emotionally engaging and ultimately extremely satisfying. As a series, they ascribe less to the idea that each book should stand on its own, rather each volume flows into the next with only quiet thematic markers to distinguish the books.

I read the three volumes currently available in English fairly one after the other. All three novels - My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (all brilliantly translated by Ann Goldstein, and kindly provided to me courtesy of the publisher) - end with quiet sorts of cliffhangers. Nothing that will leave you screaming at the page, nothing on the level of the awful non-ending that The Subtle Knife had (probably my least favorite ending to a book ever), nothing that will leave you gasping with its audacity... but cliffhangers nonetheless. Ferrante excels at making the reader truly feel for her main characters (Elena the narrator, and her best friend Lila), and in this sense any emotional turmoil that these girls/women go through, the reader goes through as well. My feeling is that Ferrante chooses to cut the story off at these specific emotional peaks which represent the tone-shifts that occur for the next book, as random as they may seem before continuing onwards to the next tome.

There's not a lot I can say about the plot without ruining the story. Since this is a 100% spoiler-free review for the three first books (book 4 is due out in about a year from now), I don't even want to refer to specific characters or large-scale events that within each novel, even if they don't seem particularly revealing within that context. And so I'll give the generic story idea that those who haven't read the book have likely already heard: the Neapolitan books tell of two girls, Elena and Lila, following them from early childhood to later life. Elena and Lila are a cross between best friends, competitors, and enemies: they love each other fiercely, but recognize the occasionally toxic nature their relationship takes on.

And so it's not too far a stretch to point out that the Neapolitan series doesn't actually have much of a plot. There is a story, yes, but it's not the sort of beginning-middle-end plotting that your middle-school teacher taught you to look for. The books are written on an epic scale, tracing the lives of far more people than just Elena and Lila (indeed, the story looks much more broadly at the cultural and social shifts occurring in Italy at the time, with the two girls serving as a very good anchor). It's this sort of writing that makes it difficult to point to a specific single topic or idea that the books deal with. All three books are big and varied and focused and generic.

There are a few points I'd like to touch on specifically that don't relate to the plot. First of all, I found the progression of the political discussion in the books to be fascinating. I was (unsurprisingly) particularly interested to see how and when the issue of feminism began to crop up. This rather gentle thematic growth ultimately gave me a lot to think about in the context of modern feminism (and modern political discourse), and I quite enjoyed it.

There is also the matter of the book titles. As silly as this may seem, I love the titles. I love how they reflect the stories, I love how they don't, I love what they say about how we could (and perhaps should?) be interpreting the stories, and ultimately I love how the fit together. (I'll admit that I do not like how they look on the shelf, but this is because the print on the spine of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is bolded while none of the other Europa Editions are and it drives me a little nuts)

There's a lot more to say about Ferrante. You've probably heard much of it. Her writing is clear and draws you in. These are not books easily set aside. The characters feel disturbingly real. Emotions are high without being smothering. This is good writing. I'm not sure if I've enjoyed the Neapolitan series more than the tightly intense The Days of Abandonment, but I've definitely enjoyed the books and I'm definitely eagerly awaiting the fourth title. I have ideas about themes and characters that I would love to discuss in spoiler filled reviews (another time), but for now let me say this to those of you who have not read these books yet: Read them. Ferrante's fame is well-deserved, and I promise that you will not be disappointed.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

History across borders - The Twins | Review

Tessa de Loo's The Twins (tr. Ruth Levitt) was another one of those unexpected women in translation finds - I checked it out of the library largely because it had seemed like the most interesting random find of the day. And indeed, the book was both "interesting" and "unexpected" - the latter because of my embarrassingly low expectations of the book (something I'm trying to correct through this project), and the former because the book really does tackle quite a bit.

The Twins has a standard enough literary premise: twin sisters Anna and Lotte are orphaned as young girls in the 1920s and separated, one staying in Germany and the other crossing the border into Dutch territory. The two meet again unexpectedly in a Belgian resort as old women, after decades of disconnect. Just from the initial framing, you could guess where the story is headed, but de Loo doesn't bother to be coy about her story's intentions. Instead of vague, false-subtleties leading up to the war, Anna and Lotte address the schism that the war created right off the bat. Lotte - Dutch at heart, with few memories of her original father and life before her second family - views Anna suspiciously from the start.

This bluntness provides the story with much needed breathing room, but also echoes some of the writing flaws in the book. While the writing is largely clean and engaging, there were moments where I hoped for a quieter story, something a little more subtle and thoughtful-behind-the-scenes. It's a creative choice that I didn't enjoy so much, though there's no doubt it made the story flow more comfortably, without the anxiety that most books of this kind have surrounding the war. It's also the safer choice, opting for a more uniformly enjoyable reading experience than one that challenges the reader directly.

de Loo seems to rely heavily on the frame story, to the point where I often wanted to shake her grip on it. We are subject to a number of descriptions of Anna and Lotte walking through town, shivering, sitting down to eat, sitting down to drink, rehashing what was just told in the flashback... These emphasize the problems with flashback narratives, because as interesting as the frame was at times (largely through Anna's strange status as an anti-hero, and Lotte's constant acquiescence), it didn't hold up.

The frame - as well as the story itself, to a lesser degree - succeeds in showing the reader how easy it is to "forgive and forget". Anna progresses from half-apologies about German "involvement" in the war to emphatically arguing that her SS husband was not actually SS, he did not believe in it, he was not at fault. Anna is a mouthpiece for a Germany at war with itself - she is contradictory, passionate, aware of her mistakes, but also remembers her virtues more clearly. Lotte, meanwhile, spends a large part of the frame arguing this point with Anna, at times baffled by her victimization and disgusted by her nonchalance.

In the flashback sections, we grow to understand both these women. Lotte - with her problematic but ultimately whole family - risks everything to take in Jewish friends and refugees. Lotte is a representation of Dutch resistance, of a musical Europe in which Jewish fiances get taken away and in which a family hides more and more Jews in their countryside home. Anna represents poverty and rejection - her traumatic childhood with abusive family coupled with her simultaneous dislike of the Nazis and later complacency echoes a Germany at large. It's a clever way to tell the stories of larger countries, while making each seem sympathetic within the context of their personal avatar, despite being largely unsympathetic on a personal level.

The Twins thus ends up being a much more interesting World War II narrative than you'd expect. It's a fairly accessible sort of book, with writing and framing geared towards a broad audience (again - safer), but it's not poorly written. There's a solid flow to the story, and both Lotte and Anna end up fully fleshed characters (if problematic ones on an internal level). I will note that I found the ending to be an unnecessary cop-out (particularly if viewed through the representative lens I mentioned above), and a cheap way to end any story. Altogether though, the book is interesting, thought-provoking, and written from a refreshing point of view (how often are women stand-ins for a whole country?). The Twins may not be a seminal literary work or the most brilliant war novel I've ever read, but it does something nonetheless unique with a fairly stock setting and is worth thinking about.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

If Roxane Gay is a "Bad Feminist", what am I? | Thoughts

I am a feminist.

This is not news to anyone who reads this blog. At least, it shouldn't be. I talk about feminism all the time. Feminism is important! Many people are feminists, even if they don't realize it, just because the word "feminism" carries with it so much baggage.

Roxane Gay seems aware of this. In the introduction to Bad Feminist, she discusses the unfair standard to which we hold feminism, writing: "When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement." With this sentence (so early in the book), I was hooked. "Roxane Gay gets me," I said aloud. I read the quote to those sitting around me. I started to read more quickly, more excitedly.

And then... everything started to come apart.

So many readers recommended Bad Feminist so convincingly. I knew ahead of time that Gay's writing was supposed to be conversational and casual, that her feminism is modern, accepting and scattered. The publisher blurb (which is not actually found anywhere on the book, because why) has a quote in which Gay describes how she likes pink, so of course that makes her a "bad feminist". I was supposed to be all over this book (even though I really should have known otherwise, because why should liking pink make you a bad feminist?). This, after all, is a book by the woman who writes in the introduction that she's a bad feminist because she never wanted to be on the "Feminist Pedestal", a sentiment I not only agree with wholeheartedly, but have never found the words for. This is the writer who wrote succinctly: "I disavowed feminism because when I was called a feminist, the label felt like an insult. In fact, it was generally intended as such." All of this in the introduction.

Alas, it turns out that the Roxane Gay who wrote the introduction and the Roxane Gay who wrote the rest of the essays in this collection are two different women, with contradictory takes on feminism and some pretty awful pieces.

So I'll start by being as blunt as possible: I hated much of Bad Feminist. Not disliked, not "didn't enjoy", not just "was disappointed by". No. I hated a good chunk of this collection. To start with, it's a bad collection: these essays are largely disconnected, unrelated and have no flow, coming almost verbatim from whatever website they were originally posted to in 2013. Bad Feminist doesn't actually have a strong central thesis, making the whole book feel a little worthless - why not just track down the original posts? The essays themselves are often out of place as well - much as I enjoy a good story about Scrabble (and I actually did like that anecdote quite a bit), it doesn't belong in a feminist text. Whoops, sorry, no.

Some essays, it's true, flow into each other remarkably well. Altogether, a few paint an important portrait of Gay herself. There were moments where this became powerfully central, like in "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence". Gay has references to her own life and experiences in surrounding essays that give further meaning to her discussion of sexual violence. Moments like those made Bad Feminist feel like a legitimate whole, with a quiet continuity and consistency. Had the whole book been like this, the review you're reading now may have been very, very different.

Yet "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence" also exemplifies all too well another aspect of the book that I seriously did not like: a total lack of citations. Gay at some point criticizes another feminist critic for referencing bad sources and statistics. That's a good, worthwhile point that is demolished by the fact that Bad Feminist contains zero sources, citations, references or even link suggestions of any kind. When Gay discusses gang rape in "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence", I have no doubt that someone has researched the fact that the victim's "reproductive system is often damaged" and that they have "a higher chance of miscarrying a pregnancy". These are almost certainly true facts. However, Gay loses credibility by not citing the research. Writing something loosely like this may be good enough for a blog post (and even then, I'm realizing that it's always better to link to sources than assume your readers are familiar with the research), but it's not good enough for a wide-release book publication.

This hope for a more critical approach is likely a problem in my own expectations than a flaw in Gay's writing, however I cannot pretend that it didn't disappoint me. Gay is a critic, yet she seems to utterly avoid any chance for real, hard-hitting criticism. Most of the essays provide little more than entry-level understanding of the subject. Many readers have praised Bad Feminist to the sky for this trait, but I find myself thoroughly unimpressed: there's a way to write critically about pop culture, and Roxane Gay just isn't doing it.

The topics frustrated me as well. Beyond the fact that there was little here I wasn't familiar with (again, Gay rarely goes beyond surface level exploration), Gay and I seem to have opposing views on many, many issues. Her essay on weight (and how to write about being overweight) actually disgusted me, not simply because of how sloppily written it is. The essay skips between legitimate criticism, personal storytelling and a discussion of how modern culture looks at fat people. Gay simultaneously talks about how it's bad to judge, while judging every aspect of the author and the character of the book she's referencing, referring to the fact that "no one who shops at Lake Bryant or the Avenues or Catherines is going to feel empathy for someone who is thirty pounds overweight". The entire essay is extraordinarily reductive, and I actually wanted to punch the book while reading it.

There's also the little issue of spoilers. I'm a fair believer in spoiler alerts, mostly because it's unfair to expect everyone to have been exposed to the exact same pop culture as other people. I also do not object to people discussing plot points at length when properly pointed out (hey, it's part of criticism!). Yet Gay opts for the mix - she spoils endings and character development and everything about certain books, without ever considering that what she's doing might be, oh, wrong. It was extremely frustrating, and it's just sloppy. Again, this might be good enough for a Jezebel blog post, but it's not good enough for a print-and-bound book that I paid $16 for.

It boils down to two main concepts: One is of the content, writing and editing - the technical matters which I felt had issues (and content, of course, includes personal disagreements - this is a feminist text, after all). The other is of how the book was presented. Truthfully, I am not so impressed by the mere fact that Gay is tackling pop culture in her criticism. Not because I feel that there's something inherent about "lowbrow" culture that excludes it from criticism, but rather the exact opposite. I have never believed in the sort of highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy that Gay perpetuates in these essays. She repeatedly points out how lowbrow X is a guilty pleasure, but that doesn't stop her from being a good literary critic (something which, again, I'm not convinced of after reading this collection). Gay flaunts herself as a rule-breaker (her publishers seem to agree), but she sticks very closely to the original definitions of low/highbrow and doesn't challenge them in any meaningful way. To be perfectly blunt, I've read lowbrow criticism on Tumblr that's at least 50 times better than the ostensibly intellectual approach Gay takes (which is actually extremely shallow and, dare I say it, timid).

I really, really disliked Bad Feminist, and it has taken me many months to come out and say this. I respect that readers will have different opinions, and I am well aware that Roxane Gay is considered one of the foremost feminist critics at the moment. The point of this review is simply to say that I disagree with Gay on too many points to be able to call Bad Feminist a remotely worthwhile text. I have read other essays of hers that angered me as much as Bad Feminist did (most noteworthy was her recent Guardian essay about who should be allowed to advocate for feminism, an article which not only made my blood boil, but made me wonder if Gay even recognizes how utterly contrary to feminism much of her "criticism" is), and I have simply concluded that while Gay and I agree on the basic ideas of feminism - namely that it should exist, that there should be a greater discussion of issues such as equal rights (whether in gender, race, sexuality, etc.), that women's "issues" need to be treated with the same gravitas we treat men's, etc etc etc - we fundamentally disagree on the details of these issues, and on many other topics that surround feminism. Gay furthermore writes from a purely American perspective of the world, a narrowing that I simply will not accept from a movement that should be defined by its global-ness.

So here it is. The review that took over a month to write, in which I cannot go into as much detail as I'd like about what angered me so much (without writing a feminist manifesto myself), in which I mostly am trying to explain why I feel that Gay is a mediocre literary critic (at best), in which I recognize that many readers I respect and admire will so violently disagree with me that we may never speak again. Goodness knows I've received some harsh feedback on my negative reviews in the past, but I don't recall ever coming this close to criticizing the writer - this is the main problem with reviewing nonfiction, unfortunately. But I feel it's important to share my thoughts on Bad Feminist. I'm curious to know what other readers feel about my disagreements with Gay, and how they interpreted the book. I doubt that I will ever come to love this collection, but I may be more forgiving of its flaws and focus on the handful of worthwhile moments, far and few between as they may be.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Women in translation database and request


Please contact me if you're interested in helping or if you have any possible resources! Your help has made the current work-in-progress database as large as it is (over 1200 titles, and growing!), and will continue to make it the best possible resource for readers seeking women writers in translation.

Thank you!

Women in translation prize? Women in translation prize!

Here's some brilliant news: Katy Derbyshire (translator and blogger of Love German Books) is organizing a new prize for books by women writers in translation. This is something I can get all over.
What I want is a women's prize for translated fiction; a little sister to the Bailey's Prize, for instance. It would raise awareness for great women's writing from the non-Anglophone world rather than for great non-Anglophone writing by women. I know that's a subtle distinction but I think it's an important one.
This is some of the best news in the women in translation front I've ever seen (even if I'm posting about it at an embarrassing delay). I have often emphasized on this blog the need for awareness and discussion and analysis, because I truly believe those to be important. Yet there is no denying the fact that action trumps all. Actually reading books by women in translation, actually recognizing books by women in translation and actually raising books by women in translation is pivotal. This award will hopefully lead to all three.

Check it out!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Shades of Milk and Honey | Review

So you know how some books are serious, intellectually stimulating, thoughtful and important? Well, Shades of Milk and Honey is not really any of those things, but instead it's a fun, lovely piece of escapism that achieves what it sets out to do marvelously and managed to keep me entertained all evening long.

Shades of Milk and Honey is billed as a sort of cross between Jane Austen and standard fantasy, and this sort of description is accurate enough in explaining its general format. Mary Robinette Kowal's writing in no way resembles Austen's (to use a word Kowal seems overly fond of, Austen's writing is a bit more "droll"), but the styling and personality match a lot of modern interpretations of Austen's style. Kowal uses little tricks to make the writing feel older ("shew", "surprize", etc.), and while they're clearly modernized and indeed the writing feels very, very contemporary at times, these small touches nonetheless create the sort of Austen-esque aura that Kowal was hoping for.

In truth, Shades of Milk and Honey reads much more like standard historical-fiction-romance than it does like Austen, but here the fantasy aspects come in and turn a fairly middling book into something much nicer. In Kowal's world, magic can be used to create various glamours, largely used by women in adding small touches to paintings, or music, or for small performances. Glamours may also be used to alter one's appearance (for a short time, since working glamour can make you ill), an interesting (if minor) point about appearances that Kowal underplays nicely. However, these glamours are also used for grander artistic effect, and much of the story revolves around one such glamourist and his relationship with our main character (a "plain Jane", no less).

Kowal does a lovely job of making her magic seem utterly real. It's viewed much like other artistic styles - something that needs to be learned, studied, and honed, but also relies on native talent. Throughout the book, Kowal explores different aspects of art through the glamour - performance art, visual art, and music as well - in a surprisingly in-depth way. It's not a brilliant meditation on the subject, but it provides depth to an otherwise largely straight-forward novel.

I liked Shades of Milk and Honey a lot, but I liked it in the same way that I like watching a lot of period dramas - it's meant more for the mood and styling than anything else. The story is extremely predictable and there were a few missed opportunities in the characterizations (particularly regarding Jane's younger sister Melody, who I wanted to see more of). And of course the writing is not really Austen-like, it's Austen-lite. There's a distinct lack of any social commentary, which I felt was another missed opportunity. Only one scene really touched on the matter, but it handled it quite well and I hope to see more care given to it in the sequels. Yes, I'll be reading the sequels - this was a wonderful way to spend an evening. The glamour adds the necessary touch to an otherwise standard romance, transforming it into a sweet and enjoyable historical-fantasy romp.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Wayfarer: New Fiction By Korean Women | Review

Before I begin this review, it's important to note that I don't feel particularly qualified in reviewing a short story collection. Short stories by one author - okay, sure, I can handle it. There's a fluidity to those books (or at least, there should be), there's a structure, there's a single underlying style that runs through the stories. With an anthology, however, there's usually very little - the styles, eras, approaches, plots, and even translators may vary. Anthologies are not necessarily meant to be read in a single sitting.

Wayfarer, however, ends up feeling a lot more like a single-author collection than a big anthology. I read it in a single sitting. It was translated by the same team (Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, at it again). There are similar themes of womanhood running through all the stories. And goodness if the collection doesn't feel whole.

Wayfarer comprises of eight stories that look at women from different angles. Most of the stories deal with women's relations with men, in some form or other, but the stories remain firmly about women. A daughter is forced to reconcile with a Communist father she's never met. A journalist struggles with a story about a man who was imprisoned for twenty years and how it relates to her own rebellious past. Mothers deal with children, wives deal with husbands, women deal with the world and try to face it, sometimes more successfully than others.

These stories are largely melancholic, with our women finding few solutions to their problems. The title story (also the final story in the collection) displays this brutally, in a sequence that left me unsettled for a while after I finished it. Some of the stories are outright uncomfortable, but they seem at home with this discomfort, knowing exactly how the reader will respond.

Not all of the stories are necessarily brilliant on their own, and some of them are downright forgettable. But as a collection, the book works fantastically. Depressing as some of the gender dynamics may be in these stories, they present a fascinating portrait of modern Korean women (from 17 years ago, yes, but still). The stories fit together nicely, without any extreme tone-shifts from writer to writer, but clear enough differences between them to make it apparent that these are many different writers.

While the book is no longer in print, and its publisher (Women in Translation - !) seems to no longer exist, I'd recommend reading the collection if you can get your hands on it. I've still not read enough Korean literature to truly gauge different cultural aspects of the stories, but I feel like I'm gaining a better grasp of it with every book I read.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Abandoning The Rehearsal

Abandoning a book is never easy. Abandoning a book a mere fifty pages from its end? Pretty much unprecedented for me. I was looking forward to reading Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal quite a bit - I consider Catton's sophomore effort The Luminaries as one of the best books I've read this year - but from the first page, I felt like the book wasn't for me.

You know how I often say that I don't like present tense writing? There's actually a reason for that. Present tense writing can be a brilliant literary tool when properly applied (for a tense narrative, a sense of immediacy, etc.), but it's usually just used lazily as another format. When used lazily, it often gets muddled with past-tense comments. And there is almost nothing I hate in literature so much as switches between past and present tense in a narrative.

So not only is most of The Rehearsal written in present tense that often slips back into past tense... it also explicitly switches to past tense in different areas.

Deliberate literary technique applied by Catton? Obviously. Mark of a clever, thoughtful writing? Probably. Extremely annoying? Definitely.

On top of hating the writing style, I also realized fairly quickly that I hated the clever structure. Catton's writing is clearly experimental here, similar to her structural games in The Luminaries. But in her second book, Catton does a good job of using her base structure fairly subtly - you don't have to become immersed in it to appreciate the story. In The Rehearsal, the back-and-forth style, the vagueness, and the saxophone-teacher frame story are all very bluntly applied. There was no way to escape from Catton's experimentation, nowhere to hide.

Oh, and all the characters were distinctly unsympathetic. Kind of purposely, I guess. But I wanted to smack each and every one of them. And by the time I was fifty pages from the end, I realized that I didn't care one whit what happened to these people, or to their droll lives. The book went back to the library incomplete, and I am frankly happy to be rid of it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Girl of Fire and Thorns | Review

Ah, The Girl of Fire and Thorns. With your cliched title (a mix of Dragon Tattoo and Hunger Games referencing), your bland fantasy cover and your hyped marketing back when you came out, I was prepared to hate you. In fact, I wasn't even sure what drove me to read you in the first place - it may simply have been the front cover blurb by Tamora Pierce (who rarely blurbs), or perhaps I had seen a positive review recently. I'm not sure what it was. Somehow, I checked you out of the library. I read your first few pages and scoffed. And then I read the rest of you, and my mouth shut tight. Because, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, you are one of the most unexpected, subversive and intelligent young adult books I have read in very many years.

The story begins blandly enough, with a generic young adult fantasy description of "dark magic", the "chosen one" and a dull hint of romance. The first chapter echoes this emptiness as well - it begins with Elisa's marriage to the surprisingly young, handsome and friendly King Alejandro. But even in this predictable setup, Rae Carson manages to slip in important details that will shape the remainder of the book. First, we learn that Elisa is dark and fat, and that beyond her weight is an underlying eating disorder - Elisa eats at her unhappiness. These descriptions are perhaps not uncommon in young adult literature, but they are rarely found in stories of the "Chosen one".

As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that Elisa's insecurities are not simply a minor matter, but the crux on which her hero's story is built. Elisa's status as Alejandro's wife is kept secret in her new home, and she is uncomfortably aware of her "other" state. Beyond that, her status as the "chosen" (in this case, bearer of the Godstone) complicates her ability to live a normal life. Her nurse is a bodyguard, her status kept secret, and she is ultimately kept in the dark about much of the Godstone's history.

It's from this position that The Girl of Fire and Thorns takes off into wildly unexpected realms. Elisa undergoes the standard heroes journey, but her growth is genuine and believable. The story takes place over many months, during which Elisa forms believable relationships with the people around her. She's a complex character, lacking in certain forms of confidence, yet excelling in others. In one scene, she essentially muses over "fake until you make it", mimicking her more confident older sister to achieve her means. Elisa is also skilled in matters of military strategy, but we see this as a natural offshoot of her curiosity, less as a result of Mary-Sue perfection.

Much of the book focuses on confidence, largely seen through the lens of Elisa's weight. As I mentioned earlier, Elisa is a bit strange in this regard for a young adult heroine - she is not physically fit, particularly tough, or adept at playing the, ahem, game of thrones (sorry, I couldn't resist). She is, however, a sharp military mind, brave in her own way, and trying desperately to forge her own path in life. We see this reflected in the way her weight is viewed by those around her - those who recognize her even after a significant physical change (due, I should emphasize, to a legitimate plot point and not some fluffed up "progression"), those who view her weight as a nonissue (someone who casually references fitting into her old, bigger dresses in the form of a compliment), and Elisa herself, who responds to her weight loss by marveling at her own body without obsessing over it, and recognizing that she may regain some of that weight and it wouldn't be the end of the world.

Another important theme - and more plot relevant - is that of religion and faith. Like many fantasies, there's a level on which faith in The Girl of Fire and Thorns is irrelevant - there is magic, there is a Godstone, and so there clearly is a god. And yet the novel observes faith as sharply as it might be viewed in the real world. Yes, Elisa has a certain level of "proof" that her god exists, yet she doesn't understand god's motives or plans for her. The physical evidence may cheapen the effect somewhat, but religion is tackled here in an honest way that is rarely seen in young adult literature (or adult literature, for that matter). Elisa is not always certain of the religious ceremonies and traditions that rule her life. There is a journey of faith in the book, but Carson makes sure not to alienate readers by keeping the morals somewhat vague. Though the religion is clearly Judeo-Christian in style (monotheistic, with many phrases that echo Judeo-Christian values), the god of The Girl of Fire and Thrones did not feel defined enough to possibly offend readers of other religions and faiths.

These themes - confidence and faith - are only two ways in which The Girl of Fire and Thorns manages to eschew expectations. From a plotting perspective, Carson keeps things tight and believable, with a balanced timeline and good spacing. Almost all of the characters were given more than one dimension, most were even lucky to get to three. Carson, unlike almost every other author ever, also acknowledges when she isn't giving enough attention to a character: Elisa notes at some point how little she knows of one of her traveling companions because he is so quiet. It's a small moment, but it adds tremendous depth to a world that's already surprisingly broad. By acknowledging that Elisa is not aware of everyone - by tossing the notion of the "red-shirt" - Carson subtly builds a world that goes far beyond its tight, core cast.

The book is not flawless. While most of the book is carefully built and well defined, the last few pages felt disappointingly rushed, mostly in that I could not easily visualize the action occurring onscreen (even after rereading it). Small movements seemed to get lost as the story lurches towards its climax, in a scene that also felt a little clumsily written. In general, the writing is that first-person present-tense that is so common in young adult literature today, but is never really to my liking. It's not bad, but it's definitely not my favorite.

All in all, I was incredibly surprised by The Girl of Fire and Thorns and look forward to its sequels most eagerly. In a market that can easily seem saturated with sloppy fantasies and dystopias, this is a novel that deserves its own space. It's not necessarily the most unique premise for a story, but the way it develops its characters and the way it builds its world certainly is something special. Readers - younger and older - may find themselves with a lot to think over and discuss by the end.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

WITMonth | Retrospective

It's taken me a while to settle down in the post-WITMonth excitement. After a month of posting nearly every single day (I missed a couple due to illness...), I needed some time to think over what happened in August, and what would happen in the future. I've already floated my proposal for WITMonth 2015, but of course it's a long way off. For now, we need a little bit of a retrospective.

So what happened in Women in Translation Month? I'm not sure how many people actively followed the page updates or the tags, but here's the short of it: we looked at a lot of books by women in translation. As you can tell from the consolidated page, there were a lot of reviews. True, certain books/authors received far more attention than others and yes, we mostly read books from Western Europe, but overall there's a pleasant spread to the books.

This, though, isn't my main afterthought from WITMonth. What I'm seeing now - over the past couple days, in comments and tweets and people's booklists and reviews - is the remainders, books left over that will be read throughout the year.

Here's my struggle: there's nothing I can do about publishers who hold sexist beliefs that women don't write as well as men (except direct them to my paltry piece about that). But there are still ways to work with publishers who simply never noticed, or never gave it much thought. I am hardly the first person to write about the disparity in women in translation, nor do I for a moment tell myself that I'm the most influential. But WITMonth provided us - the readers, the reviewers, the community - with an organized opportunity to remind publishers that the disparity exists, to get even more readers aware, and to provide a good platform from which we can recommend titles

We did that.

There's not much I can say at this point except to say once again thank you - thank you to everyone who participated, in whatever way it may have been. Thank you for caring about this issue. Thank you for being involved. I'm now working on finding a good platform for the big database of books by women in translation, which has grown tremendously thanks to many of you. I hope WITMonth was as interesting an experience for you as it was for me, and I'd love to hear your thoughts as we move forward.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

WITMonth 2015?

I'm going to put up a full post-WITMonth post sometime later this week, but for now I present my half-baked ideas for WITMonth 2015, as per a few requests. This is a process and a group project, so please, if you have ideas or thoughts or disagreements, discuss in the comments or privately (by email). As I've said before - this is a long-term thing, and would not exist without your involvement. So once again: thank you!



Saturday, August 30, 2014

WITMonth Day 30 - Historical fiction

I've been a bit sick the past couple days (hence missing two days in a row of posts...), so today's post will also be a little light on the meat. Instead, I'll just plop down a literal list of a couple WITty historical fiction:
  • The Budding Tree by Aiko Kitahara - I've already mentioned this one as one of my favorite underrated titles, so it shouldn't be so surprising to see it crop up on a list of my recommended historical fiction. The Budding Tree is a great historical account of women living in Edo, as well as a beautiful character piece.
  • Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall - I didn't get a chance to review this novella over WITMonth (even though I did actually read it this month!), but I think it comfortably falls under the category of historical with its sharply tuned eye for the Holocaust.
  • The Time in Between (or The Seamstress) by María Dueñas - This one doesn't get talked about much in the more "literary" circles (perhaps because of its marketing, perhaps because it really is much more of a straight-up historical fiction book) but it really is quite good. It's the sort of novel that you get sucked into pleasantly, and manages to surprise you nonetheless. I read it a couple years ago and enjoyed it quite a bit, gaining more appreciation for its styling over time.
These are only a couple that come to mind, while there are many others out there which I have not yet read. Any recommendations?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

WITMonth Day 27 - Untranslated masterpieces

For today, I'm going to cheat just a little and refer readers to Day 15, when I talked about Israeli women writers I feel deserve to be translated. But of course there are many untranslated masterpieces beyond what I discussed, and many more books that I'm simply incapable of knowing...

Monday, August 25, 2014

WITMonth Day 25 - Faces in the Crowd | Review

Though I wasn't aware of Valeria Luiselli before preparations began for WITMonth, the closer we got to August the more posts and reviews of her books began cropping up on my radar. The praise was overwhelming - recognition of her prose, her style and her clever writing. I knew that I'd have to read one of her books (both translated by Christina MacSweeney), and so I opted for the novel - Faces in the Crowd.

Here I must admit to being a little less enamored than most other reviewers. I appreciated a lot of what Luiselli tried to do in her slim little book and recognize the literary talent behind it, yet truthfully I found much of it a bit tedious and, despite its short length, long-winded. Faces in the Crowd is comprised of short blurbs (sometimes only a sentence) that cover alternating stories: a young translator in New York, a mother of two writing in Mexico, and a writer in the US in the early 20th century. These three narratives overlap (particularly near the end) in what can only be described as "fiction wrapped in fiction". Luiselli takes some level of pride in her unreliable narrative - the seeming "frame" story (of the mother) is often contradicted by her husband, yet her husband in each of these stories is himself a fictional character... contradicting his fictional aspects.

This turns the entire story into an extremely meta form of fiction. There is no objective truth, because everything is a fiction. There is no clear character, because none seem to exist. While certain figures remain as fixtures (the boy, for example, remains constant throughout the mother's story, as does his baby sister), others are built fluidly and vaguely. It's unclear who the narrator of the modern New York story is - it starts out as the mother, then merges with the 1920s. Meanwhile, the husband (perhaps the most fictional character of all) decries these stories as pure fantasy (lies), but in one segment he "shouts" this, and in the next asks why his wife wrote those words down, he never actually said them.

All of these fragments are interspersed with little notes on Gilberto Owen, a poet with whom the translator/mother is obsessed with. Owen himself only becomes a main character when his own narrative enters the story (relatively late in the book), and it was at this point that I found my attention slipping. His stories felt repetitive and looped, with lots of name dropping and fictional name dropping that didn't really further the story. His perspective of course casts a lot of doubt on the other story as it overlaps more and more, but I found it... less convincing. I felt that Owen's story could have been presented differently, and though it's obviously a brilliant piece of writing, it didn't really hold my interest so well.

When it comes to the writing though... this book reigns. Faces in the Crowd has some of the best styling of any book I've read in a long time, with some truly brilliant ideas and riffs and games. The writing is quick, deceptive, clever and extremely put-together, with a sense of control that is fairly rare in books of this sort. It's also deceptively simple: short sentences, sure, but they form to create a confusing, complex landscape. Plus, there's this brilliant riff that repeats itself throughout the book: "A horizontal novel, narrated vertically". Luiselli constantly references the shape and format of this novel (or is it the fictional novel...?) in beautiful phrases that I wanted to frame and mount on the wall.

It comes down to this: there were some major aspects that frustrated me with Faces in the Crowd, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a fairly brilliant book. I didn't like all of it and also find fault in some of its more ambitious attempts, but the writing is very, very good and the ideas - though flawed - create a narrative that is both interesting and distinct. And while it took me a long time to get through it, this is not a particularly heavy, difficult read, yet it is quite rewarding. Definitely worthwhile.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

WITMonth Day 24 - America, America!

Welcome all to the final week of WITMonth! Now, having fully exhausted one half of the globe and its many literary treasures, we may turn towards the "New World", and the plethora of fine women in translation found there.

The Americas, of course, is not as limited in scope as we may think. Though the diversity of language is relatively slim (Spanish, Portuguese and French being the main three), there is huge diversity of country, culture, background, and style. Thus we have the magical realism largely associated with South America alongside the often coldly rich writing of Quebec. We have stories of magic, immigration, the future, and the past. We have histories of peoples who no longer exist, and tales of civilizations yet to rise.

This continent brings us mixed rewards - Quebec stands apart from all other parts of the world as the only region to host more women writers in translation than men, while Latin America distinguishes itself in especially poor representations of women writers. This week will see us pointing towards writers known (and less known), as we fit the final pieces of the WITMonth puzzle...

Hello, my name is...

Hello! My name is Meytal. It's nice to finally meet you all.

As some of you will know, I've been anonymous for a long time - since the advent of this blog, actually. I've gotten a lot of interesting theories over the years as to my "true identity", some fairly accurate and others wildly off-base. In recent months, I've started to open up a bit more about my age, and many of you have also guessed my gender as well (largely, I think, because it's still considered weird for men to directly address feminist causes?). And yet I've received some unpleasant comments for remaining anonymous, and it forced me to ask the tough questions: Why was I still anonymous? What was I afraid of?

Questions which are answered in my introductory video below. I'm going to be making more of these videos - about women in translation month, about books I read that I don't feel like reviewing in print, about random book-related issues that I think are particularly interesting - but will by no means be abandoning this blog. These videos are a supplement, and an easy way to start moving past my hesitance in sharing about myself online.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

WITMonth Day 23 - Brief thoughts on genre fiction

Some of the claims to counter the poor translation rates of women writers has to do with the myth that women write more "genre" fiction than men. I don't want to delve too deeply into that myth in this post (I'll do that another time, don't worry...), but let's give a couple examples of women writers in genre anyways, and a few good resources for readers interested in finding more genre women in translation. As always, please leave more recommendations in the comments! This post in particularly is a bit half-baked, so definite apologies for any glaring omissions...

First of all, anyone interested in sci-fi/fantasy should check out Cheryl Morgan's blog - she's been posting tons of wonderful WITMonth pieces and recommendations, particularly for sci-fi and fantasy writers. Lots to explore there... go check it out!

Next, there's my own obsession admiration of Angélica Gorodischer. I've written about her quite a bit, but really, if I haven't convinced you by now that you should read Kalpa Imperial... I'm just going to keep trying. Read it. It's phenomenal. I'm also going to refer once again to Cornelia Funke (last mentioned in my post about kids/YA books) - her fantasy writing may be geared towards children, but it's rich and rewarding as well.

I'm not a huge thriller/mystery fan myself, but there's no denying there's quite a bit of different eligible books here: I've heard quite a few recommendations for Juli Zeh, for example, and have encountered Camilla Läckberg quite a bit as well. Here, I encourage checking out blogs like Reading Matters, which doesn't specialize in either genre fiction or literature in translation, yet covers quite a bit of both. I know I'm missing a lot here (being largely unfamiliar with the field...) - feel free to share your favorites below!

Finally, a quick list: Sun-mi Hwang's fantasy-fable The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, fantasy elements in Yoko Ogawa's Revenge, and Isabel Allende's magical realism - all different forms of "genre", each literary and unique in their own ways.

Those are my quick jots... who have I missed?

Friday, August 22, 2014

WITMonth Day 22 - Anthologies? More like manthologies

One of the ideas that's cropped up in the comments here for finding new authors has been exploring different anthologies to find new and perhaps more obscure women writers in translation. While this idea at first seemed a little minor to me, I quickly realized that it's actually brilliant - a lot of authors have their short stories translated long before their full-length works are.

I was so very excited. I really, really shouldn't have been.

You see, anthologies largely reflect the literary culture around them. Yes, you can occasionally find a book like Cubana (which I recently stumbled across and picked up at a used bookstore) that is dedicated to women writers in particular, but most anthologies give a broader spread. And most are so, so male.

Here's a quick rundown of the four anthologies I checked out from the library this week:

  1. Contemporary Georgian Fiction - 4 out of 20 stories are by women. 20%, less than the overall translation average
  2. Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories - 9 out of 52 stories are by women. 17%, less than the overall translation average
  3. Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories - 9 out of 35 stories are by women. 26%, just around the average
  4. Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused: Fiction from Today's China - 5 out of 20. 25%, just below the overall average
I won't pretend that I'm not discovering some old-new writers in these collections, or that because some focus on older literature it may justify the relatively low ratios. I won't pretend that they aren't doing good work for literature overall. I also won't dismiss them entirely, considering the higher male-to-female ratio in other anthologies (though when I say "higher", I mean around 33%...).

However. This is something we need to bear in mind. When we look at translations, we also need to look at short stories and at anthologies and at collections. Until now, I had sort of hoped that these collections would reflect better on translation rates than the current landscape. But it turns out that these collections - including more recently published ones, such as the Georgian collection (from 2012) - mirror the problems found elsewhere, and indeed often give us worse results.

I will continue to use collections and anthologies as a resource, for all writers. But once again we see the problem that led to the very initiation of WITMonth - where are the women writers? We keep searching, and we keep discussing. This is the only solution.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

WITMonth Day 21 - Some Contemporary Russian Reading Ideas | Guest post

Today's post marks a special occasion on the blog - the first ever guest/cross-post! Many thanks to Lisa of the excellent Lizok's Bookshelf for writing the post, originally published here (reblogged with permission).


When the blogger known as Biblibio invited me to write a guest post for Women in Translation Month—it’s right now, this August—I was quick to agree to write something for both our blogs. For one thing, I’ve been enjoying Biblibio’s posts for years. For another, I knew it would be easy to put together a list of wonderful female Russian writers; I’ve even translated a book and two stories by a couple of them. Best of all, it’s always fun to make lists like this by remembering good books and the people who write them. Here are some of my favorites.

Margarita Khemlin is one of my very favorite writers, both because I love her books and stories, and because she’s one of the first writers I chose to translate. I started reading Khemlin with her first book, the story collection The Living Line, and moved on to her novels—Klotsvog, Krainii (The Endman), and The Investigator—reading each as soon as I could after it was published. Margarita’s stories and novels are generally about life in eastern Ukraine, and I particularly love the language she uses to tell, with quiet but dark humor and occasional dialogue in surzhik, a combination of Ukrainian and Russian, about Jewish heritage and the never-ending effects of World War 2. I’ve published translations of two of Margarita’s stories from The Living Line: “Basya Solomonovna’s Third World War” appeared in Two Lines (the “Counterfeits” edition, 2011) and was reprinted in the Read Russia! anthology, too (PDF download); “Shady Business” came out in issue 17 of Subtropics earlier this year. “Shady Business” took me forever: I knew the words (and got great help from Misha Klimov, a local colleague, on the ones I didn’t, those being the surzhik) but wanted to be sure I was capturing the emotions of elderly characters who’d survived the war. I still can’t believe how much feeling and history Margarita can pack into so few, seemingly simple, words. I’m sure that’s why I love her writing so much.

Marina Stepnova's novel The Women of Lazarus also looks at history, through an unconventional family saga that begins just after the Russian Revolution and continues to the present, focusing on various women in the life of Lazar Lindt, the Lazarus in the title. I loved the novel’s combination of history, various forms of poshlost’, postmodernism, and cultural commentary when I read it but didn’t truly appreciate how much Stepnova had achieved until I was working on a late draft of my translation. (The many, many levels of new-found appreciation I find through translation are a big reason I love translating so much.) Stepnova, a literary magpie, fills her novel with colorful and changeable language, historical perspectives and figures (Beria has a cameo), Soviet science, references to pre-revolutionary cookery, and ballet. Among other things. But everything comes together, creating an almost ridiculously readable and comprehensive novel about the meaning of family and the meaning of country and culture and heritage. Among other things… it’s a very rewarding book that can be read on many levels.

Alisa Ganieva won notice by winning the Debut Prize for the novella Salam, Dalgat!, which she wrote under the male pseudonym Gulla Khirachev because of taboos against a woman writing about a world that is “absolutely male.” I loved Salam, Dalgat! for its story of a day in the life of a man searching Makhachkala, Dagestan, for a relative. As I wrote earlier, “With its mixture of humor, tradition (wife stealing even gets a mention, though a character says that’s a Chechen habit), and a sense of alarm about the future, Salam, Dalgat! felt unusually energetic and organic, all as poor Dalgat, seeking but never quite managing to find, trots along, a perfectly agreeable, generally patient, nearly blank slate of a character, the ideal figure for a reader like me, who’s never been to Makhachkala, to follow.” Translations of Ganieva’s writing are available and on the way: Nicholas Allen’s translation of Salam, Dalgat! appears in the anthology Squaring the Circle (Glas, 2011), Marian Schwartz’s translation of the story “Shaitans” is in the Read Russia! anthology (PDF download), and Carol Apollonio’s translation of The Russian Wall (Праздничная гора) will be published next summer by Deep Vellum.

Since I’ve been so chatty about the first three writers, I’ll keep things shorter and limit myself to brief notes on four more writers I’ve especially enjoyed reading. Each has a story in the same Read Russia! anthology I mentioned above and each has at least one novel already out in English translation… I’ve read quite a few books and stories by Ludmila Ulitskaya and think my favorite is probably Sincerely Yours, Shurik, which has never been translated into English. Of those that exist in English, I particularly enjoyed the polyphonic Daniel Stein, Interpreter, (which Arch Tate translated for The Overlook Press) about a Polish Jew who works for a Nazi officer and dies a Carmelite monk in Israel. The Big Green Tent is on the way, too, in Bela Shayevich’s translation… And then there’s Olga Slavnikova, whose 2017—beautifully stuffed with gems, metaphors, and plot lines—won the Russian Booker. I particularly enjoyed the expedition scenes and carnivalistic episodes; Marian Schwartz translated 2017 for The Overlook Press… Maria Galina’s Mole Crickets appealed to me because of the voice Galina creates for her narrator, a man who rewrites books (e.g. a classic by Joseph Conrad) by incorporating clients into the plot lines. Though Mole Crickets hasn’t been translated, Amanda Love Darragh won the Rossica Prize for translating Iramifications, published in 2008 by Glas… Finally, there’s Anna Starobinets, whose Sanctuary 3/9 kept me up late at night: the novel’s combination of folk tale motifs, suspense, and creepiness is perfect. Sanctuary hasn’t been translated into English but three other Starobinets books have: An Awkward Age, translated by Hugh Aplin for Hesperus; The Living, translated by James Rann for Hesperus; and The Icarus Gland, coming this fall from James Rann and Skyscraper Publications.

Happy reading! And a big, huge thanks to Biblibio for the invitation... and all this month’s posts about books written by women.

Disclaimers: I’ve translated work by some of the writers mentioned in this post and met all of them, if only briefly. I work on occasional projects for Read Russia and have translated a book for Glas: appropriately enough, it’s Russian Drama: Four Young Female Voices, with four very diverse plays by Yaroslava Pulinovich, Ksenia Stepanycheva, Ekaterina Vasilyeva, and Olga Rimsha.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

WITMonth Day 20 - Underrated is subjective | Thoughts

For today's prompt, I encouraged readers to think about underrated titles/authors. This is a difficult subject to discuss, because it's extremely personal. One person's favorite author may be another's unknown, unheard of masterpiece. Ratings and accessibility are subjective, so everything I write in this post will obviously be wrong for many other readers. And yet.

For me, the term "underrated" carries with it significance regarding where I've seen reference to the book. For example, a book that's been reviewed by a major outlet (like the New York Times, or the LA Times, or Three Percent, etc.) is considered... fairly rated, in my mind. There are also other books that get this treatment - I look at a writer like Elena Ferrante who appears on almost every literature in translation blog, whose books appear even in chain bookstores, and whose writing has been profiled in several different review publications. While it's true that she's not a household name like other writers and may perhaps count as underrated in the larger picture, I think the acclaim she's received within certain circles excludes her from my personal definition.

So now... who do I think is truly underrated?

Of course my first answer has to be Angelica Gorodischer - sure, she's far from underrated on this blog, but I unfortunately do not see very many mentions of her name/writings beyond my own. She's been reviewed in Three Percent and on Tor.com (the latter was my introduction to her, curiously enough), but not much beyond. She should be everywhere, and we deserve more of her books translated, pronto.

My next underrated title would probably have to be the woefully unknown The Budding Tree, by Aiko Kitahara. This book is lovely and fascinating and a wonderful read, yet I discovered it only through my extensive searches of the Dalkey Archive... archives. It seems that the book was not entirely ignored upon publication (several years ago), yet to me it seems like the sort of book that deserves more recognition and deserves a longer shelf life. If you've never heard of it or read it - do that now.

Finally we've got Inger Christensen. I've written about her a bunch, I know, but it's because she really is one of the best poets I've ever read. She deserves to be a household name, particularly among poetry lovers. Go read her works. Now. Shoo.

These are just three. And this list is so short largely because I don't feel I've had an opportunity to read many of the truly unknown women writers in translations. I get many of my recommendations from larger outlets, and many more from other readers. Yes, I read many well-rated books. But even among my stack of well-known and lesser-known titles, these are three writers who deserve more attention than what they get. They deserve to stand the test of time, and to have new readers still aware of them five, ten, fifteen years down the line.

And while you go check them out, I'm going to continue searching for those other underrated authors I don't know yet.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

WITMonth Day 19 - Why I Killed My Best Friend | Review

I love this cover
Amanda Michalopoulou's Why I Killed My Best Friend (tr. Karen Emmerich) is another one of those books I sort of attacked, more than I technically read. While not an especially long book, somehow this long-titled novel managed to feel extremely packed - packed with humanity, with love, with hate, with friendship, with family, with politics and with history. To a certain degree, Why I Killed My Best Friend (henceforth referred to as WIKMBF) is a very old-fashioned, manly sort of novel. Except that in every case of the male friendship and male sexuality filling the story, you've got women.

The thing is, I feel like I've read a lot of books with the basic structural idea of WIKMBF. Once again, chapters alternate between the past and the present with little clumsiness in the switch. In Maria's past, we learn about how she and Anna (the referenced best friend) became friends, and how the two grew up. In the future, we see an Anna and Maria who have been apart for a few years, now becoming close again (or, as Maria often views it, falling into the trap again).

Maria's past-and-present view of her relationship with Anna is one of love and hatred. Their relationship is full of codependency and reliance, of jealousy and drama, of intimacy and isolation. These characteristics are also bound within Greece's political turmoil - the two girls are politically active, constantly spouting off different political beliefs. Truthfully, the two aren't particularly intelligent or consistent in their political/social views - whether this is an intentional reflection of Greece's constant state of quasi-democracy/occasional-anarchy or a mere indicator of their youthful idealism, I'm not sure. But it's there, and is certainly thought-provoking.

Michalopoulou also has a tendency to equate art with politics. While this is obviously true in many cases, she omits the option of art existing simply as art, or art that holds beliefs different from those radical views held by the main characters. For a novel that deals so much with art as a political statement, this seemed like a slight missed opportunity.

Michalopoulou also directly addresses female sexuality, showing not only Maria's personal experience (both in terms of sexual discovery and ultimately relationships), but also the context in which the two friends develop. Anna's dominance over Maria is shown more than once through the lens of the girls' sexual maturation, not least through "boyfriend stealing".

All of this history ultimately comes into contact with the present chapters, in which we're presented with a wholly different scenario: a Maria who has been isolated from Anna for several years. A Maria who views her friendship with Anna as something toxic. A Maria who sneers at Anna's new life and hypocrisy. A Maria who is changed, but ultimately exactly the same.

HIKMBF is well-written, and translated in a way that made me feel like it was being adjusted for an American audience. Indeed, in the translator's note, Emmerich implies that plot points may have been changed in translation (in accordance with Michalopoulou's wishes), something which I'm not capable of actually identifying just from the translation, but find quite interesting. It's a well-paced book that provides fascinating insight into Greece's recent history, and does a wonderful job of creating a realistic relationship between two young women coming into their own. One of my favorites by Open Letter so far.

Monday, August 18, 2014

WITMonth Day 18 - Sworn Virgin | Review

Important notice: Elvira Dones' Sworn Virgin (tr. Clarissa Botsford) is one of those books that once you stop reading you just can't put it down. Believe me, I tried. Several times. But the book is clearly written and flows brilliantly and is so very interesting that setting it aside for more than five minutes just wasn't an option.

Of all the books I've read for WITMonth so far, there's no doubt in my mind that Sworn Virgin is the most thought-provoking, and also the book that addresses sexism most overtly. Sworn Virgin is about Hana, who lived as Mark for fourteen years (and yes, there's a reason I'm presenting it like this). The premise is based on a legit (but uncommon) Albanian practice of gender swaps, essentially in order to cross gender role boundaries. Hana originally decides to "become a man" in response to oppressive gender dynamics in her culture that prevent her - as a woman - from being able to fulfill various roles.

And thus - even where it occasionally succumbs a bit too much to the idea of clearly defined gender boundaries - Sworn Virgin emerges as a wholly fascinating account of gender roles. Hana-as-Mark is unsure about her position at times, unsure about how her sexuality fits into Mark's life, and unsure of how her previous life as a woman can meld with her current one.

But Hana-as-formerly-Mark is even more confused. This is where the story begins - Hana has arrived in the US and is casting off the "shackles" of her gender swap. She's not gay, she explains to her cousin's young daughter, nor transgender. But she also can't easily shake off various "masculine" traits, despite her cousin Lila's constant attempts. It's in this drive to "fix" Hana and bring her back to some sort of standardized femininity that Sworn Virgin becomes a bit problematic with its treatment of gender roles, but it also constantly shows these steps as being in accordance with Hana's own desires. Hana goes about things slowly, and we as the reader go with her.

The story is non-linear, with alternating chapters of Hana's past (pre-Mark and as Mark), and the post-Mark era. Through this, we gain a good understanding of what leads Hana to become Mark, and ultimately, what also leads Mark to go back to being Hana. Plus a healthy heap of family dynamics along the way, and relationships too. Unlike a lot of other stories with back-and-forth narratives, I actually had zero preference here - I enjoyed both aspects of the novel immensely. Each section tells an important story about gender, and about culture as well. It's all interesting, and it's all well-written, and it's all completely worth reading.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

WITMonth Day 17 - The other Europe

As we enter the second half of WITMonth, so too we turn towards new regions and new writers. This week, that means looking at the parts of Europe that generally receive less attention and translations - the Center, the Balkans and the full-blown East. My definition for Eastern Europe was entirely arbitrary and fairly vague - there's no line running through Europe that indicates who's West and who's East. Or rather, there isn't one any more. Like last time, readers are free to imagine their own definitions and read however they'd like.

The reason I feel the need to distinguish between these two halves of Europe has less to do with their former politics (I'll note that the Soviet Union did not really exist in my lifetime) and more to do with the fact that it's been a slow burn getting literature translated into English. Countries like Poland, Romania, Russia and others don't lack for women writers, but they're certainly underrepresented in translations. As always, the idea is to highlight the authors we are familiar with, and hope for more.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

WITMonth Day 16 - What about the kids?

One of the things that's been really important for me in planning WITMonth is that we focus not only on very Serious Grown-Up Literature, but also take a moment to appreciate books in other genres or designations. There's not much children's literature translated from other languages, but of those few books that are translated, quite a few are actually written by women.

First up is Cornelia Funke, who is quite well known as a young adult/middle grade fantasy writer. Inkheart came out just near the end of my fantasy phase in middle school, but I remember really enjoying it at the time. Somehow I managed to never finish the series, but there's no denying that she's one of the premier women in translation of the kid-lit world.

Next is Janne Teller's Nothing, a book I found as frustrating as it was interesting. It's not a perfect book by any means and its weird mix of extremely simple writing with lots of pseudo-philosophizing made me want to throw the book at the wall several times while reading it, yet it remains the only book in translation (that I'm aware of) to have won a Printz Honor. In a younger field, we also have writers like Tove Jansson, best known in literary circles for books like The Summer Book or The True Deceiver, yet known worldwide for her Moomins series.

Breaking away from Central Europe, we also have one of my personal favorites: Daniella Carmi, whose Samir and Yonatan remains the only book translated from Hebrew that I've ever read in English and not in the original (accidentally! I did not realize at the age of nine that this was a translation, and was extremely embarrassed once I identified the original in our family's bookcase). I used to reread Samir and Yonatan a lot when I was a kid - it's a powerful book that always gave me hope.

What are your favorite kids/young adult books by women in translation?

Friday, August 15, 2014

WITMonth Day 15 - Translate these books

It would be strange of me to go through a whole month discussing women writers in translation without also talking about those women writers I don't actually read in translation, but don't read in English either. To be honest, I haven't actually read very many books by Israeli women, a curiosity which I've been trying to understand and explore over the past few months.

I've started to fix that recently, and though this list won't be particularly long (because I have not had the opportunity to truly dig deep), I thought I'd highlight a couple interesting and or particularly translation-worthy books.

The first is the inaugural (and thus far only) title in the "translate this book" tag - Bella Shaier's Children's Mate. This collection of three stories is absolutely brilliantly written, and casts such a fascinating light on different aspects of Israeli and immigrant societies. Feel free to check out my full recommendation for more.

The second is a book I'm not sure I'd define as having liked, but it was very interesting, particularly in the portrait it painted of a younger, less traditional Israel - Kinneret Rosenbloom's Loves' Story (I've seen references to other possible English titles, so please take this with a grain of salt). It's a novel unlike most translated into English - it's not a post-modern musing, nor is it a political piece. This is the sort of book I could easily see translating well, not least because much of its approach and style is very Anglo, while its attitude is purely Israeli (and purely Tel Aviv Israeli at that). I had several issues with it as a novel (and with certain stylistic and thematic choices I could not for the life of me understand the need to include), but it was the sort of book that clung to me and kept me hooked throughout.

Next up is a recent release - Inverted Cry, by Celine Assayag. Inverted Cry is the latest in a long line of Israeli child-of-immigrant stories, always emerging just as that generation is coming into its own adulthood. In this case, we have Assayag's presentation of the poverty of Bat Yam (a city near Tel Aviv) in the 1970s (when she herself would have grown up). The story is loose and messy at times, with certain scenes and incidents happening in ways that don't always make sense, and small inconsistencies that I simply couldn't figure out. But its core is very, very good. There's a lot of sharp social commentary, and an important presentation of underrepresented portions of Israeli society. Assayag doesn't shy away from discussing the actual impact of immigration either, with constant references to the previous life in Egypt, and parallel family in France.

Finally, I'd like to address a few authors whose books I personally did not enjoy very much, but who have achieved great acclaim in Israel without getting translated into English. These include women like Lea Aini, whose novel Lebanon Rose was a little drawn-out for my taste, but was quickly lauded in Israel by almost all critics, or Ronit Matalon's The Sound of our Steps (which deals with themes very similar to those in Inverted Cry, yet predates it by several years) which was recognized as one of the best Israeli books of the decade. We also have authors I have enjoyed (like Gail Hareven), who had one book translated into English (to great acclaim, I should add) and none of her other brilliant works touched.

And then there are hundreds of other Israeli women writers I simply haven't gotten around to. Yes, Hebrew is generally overrepresented in translations relative to the population, but if we're already going to be translating so much out of it, I would love to see more of our brilliant women writers getting the stage as well.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

WITMonth Day 14 - There a Petal Silently Falls | Review

I read Ch'oe Yun's There a Petal Silently Falls (a collection of three fairly not-short stories, tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) on the basis of a single tweet from Tony (of Tony's Reading List fame) - I saw the tweet, looked up the book, requested it from my library... and three days later I was sitting on the couch and mulling over the book I had just read.

Truthfully, I didn't particularly enjoy There a Petal Silently Falls while reading it, particularly the title story which seriously unnerved me. All three stories are a bit strange, but in surprisingly different ways. "There a Petal Silently Falls" is confusing in its messy, non-linear and ambiguous narrative, "Whisper Yet" felt exceedingly partial to me, as though half the story was missing, and "The Thirteen Scent Flower" (which was easily my favorite of the stories) contained such a strange and frankly fantastic (from fantasy) story and setting that it can't help but be viewed as a little offbeat.

The more I sat and thought about the collection as a whole, the more I began to wonder about what I had missed. Even a quick skim of "There a Petal Silently Falls" revealed a deeper understanding of the story, even if (after reading the afterword) I realized that I was missing fundamental historical context. This missing context suddenly put the story in a whole different category. No longer was it confusing because of poor writing, it was suddenly obvious to me that it was confusing because I lacked the necessary background to fully understand it. This doesn't take away from the fact that I was confused, but it explained how a story so vague could nonetheless get away with employing such a twisted style. Suddenly the baffling point-of-view switches in the story seemed not like a weird post-modern mess, but a fairly brilliant trick.

The same was true of "Whisper Yet". Once I reached the end of the story, I understood that there had been many small clues scattered throughout the shorter story that built up to something fairly meaningful. And yet without the proper context, the story simply felt loose and scattered. This wasn't quite as extreme as "There a Petal Silently Falls" (of course, "Whisper Yet" is significantly shorter...), but there was still just a bit of reader frustration on my part.

It may well be that "The Thirteen Scent Flower" also had some deeper level of context that I didn't pick up on, but honestly I enjoyed the story even without it. Unlike its two predecessors, "The Thirteen Scent Flower" has a bit of an uplifting message, and its characters are oddly endearing. There are certainly darker undertones to the story, but I doggedly refuse to view it as anything other than sweet, because after two grimmer stories, I honestly needed something cheerier. Plus there's a lovely bit of scientist satire there that rings particularly true. Even with its clever social commentary, it manages to be a really enjoyable story.

I didn't get the impression that there's any explicit link between any of these three stories, but I have to admit that they work fairly well as a whole. The stories balance each other's weaknesses - one with stronger messages but weaker characters, another with stronger characters but weaker writing, another with stellar writing but a blurry message... Thematically the three do all touch on modern Korean struggles and society, but in such markedly different ways that I'm hard-pressed to say that the stories are really tied together.

Once I'd thought for a while, I had to concede - yes, there was a lot to appreciate in this collection. It was less forgettable than I thought it was going to be while reading it, and also less "all over the place" (particularly after reading the afterword which - again - provided me with some much-needed context). The writing is interesting, often experimental and different (not always precisely to my liking, but there's no denying that it's very smart, very good writing), and while not all the characters were quite as memorable as others, their stories were. It's not necessarily a book I'd shove into any reader's hands, but it's definitely worth taking a look at. And while her approach isn't necessarily my favorite, Ch'oe's writing is certainly interesting enough to keep me on the lookout for more.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

WITMonth Day 13 - Queer lit (or lack thereof) | Thoughts

Today's prompt was supposed to be simple: write about queer women writers. This turned out to be a lot harder than I expected it to be.

The first reason for this is that queer literature is... fairly marginalized. In general, not just in translation. I know of a lot of young adult books that deal with coming out, for example, but I haven't read or encountered much for adults (for the record, I know that there is a lot out there and some of it even mainstream, but I personally haven't had much experience with it). So when I come and look at the intersection between these two extremely narrowed fields, it somehow becomes less surprising that I can't find much. Where are the queer women writers in translation? I don't know. Here I open the floor.

It's a curious question. When I went through the 2014 stats for literature in translation, I didn't attempt to read through every single biography, but I skimmed quite a few. I'm honestly not sure how many of the women whose pictures and bios I looked at were queer. It's an interesting indicator of the bigger issues of representation - we're not just looking at translations, we're not just looking at Western women, we're not just looking at straight writers...

Instead of the post I had originally planned, I offer instead two examples I could come up with that do look at issues of gender and have queer relevance.

The first is Yona Wallach's poem "Hebrew", which deals fairly explicitly with gender. Wallach is a rare Israeli poet to be translated into English, and an even rarer case of a bisexual woman to have been translated. Her poems are sometimes considered coarse and even vulgar (sparking controversy in Israel in regards to including her in the curriculum, which is distinctly woman-light), yet "Hebrew" is a powerful statement about gender balances, and can certainly be viewed as a sharp rebuke of the clearly drawn boundaries of binary gendered pronouns (and society).

The second is Elvira Dones's Sworn Virgin (which I plan to review next week). Sworn Virgin also tackles gender issues fairly head-on, mostly through its constant questioning of these definitions. The premise of the novel is deeply rooted in questions of gender definitions - Hana is a woman who has lived as a man. She explicitly explains that she is not gay or transgendered, yet she also struggles with other basic definitions. It's true that much of the book revolves around her trying to come to terms with more "gender-appropriate" behavior (in what might seem as a firm reinforcement of traditional gender roles, though I'm not convinced), but I think that Dones does a good job of showing the complexities of gender, identification, society and culture. It's also a book that deals heavily with gender roles and sexism, but we'll get to that in the actual review next week.

This isn't much. I know this isn't much. And we can talk extensively about why it's not much... in fact, we probably should talk about it at some point. These are questions that are worth asking, and I would love to hear thoughts from anyone who thinks they have some answers.

WITMonth Day 12 - Are we all reading the same thing? | Thoughts

An interesting idea arose today on Twitter - that many WITMonth participants are actually visiting the same writers again and again. Tony Messenger suggested that this may be as a result of lack of availability, echoing the narrow field from which we can pick and choose our women writers. This is undoubtedly a factor, however I find myself wondering if it's really the main reason. And so: post.

I've discussed in the past the fact that availability will shape what you read and how. Previously, I wrote about how if there's only a certain amount of books published in a field, it's not unreasonable that your reading rate will follow that ratio. This explains why so many readers report 25% women in translation reading rates - it falls very much in line with the general publication stats.

I think the question raised here is of a different sort, however. Given the stats that we have - given a limited number of books by women writers in translation - many readers are finding themselves tackling the same books, often "entirely independently" (that is, not as a result of direct recommendations). I don't think this is entirely due to availability, and I think it tells us a bit more about the state of literature in translation today.

First of all, let's not forget that many of the books we read are as a result of recommendations, direct or otherwise. Certainly I just read Ch'oe Yun because of a positive review, and yes, I bought Elena Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment because I had seen dozens of gushing reviews of her writing (and because of a well-timed bookseller recommendation). Word of mouth is particularly powerful in smaller communities like literature in translation, and it's often hard to escape awareness of specific titles.

But I think there's more. Certain books are pushed more by publishers - these are the books that get sent out to reviewers and ultimately create buzz. Buzz breeds more buzz. Usually. Hopefully. Most of the books that keep cropping up are those ones: well-publicized, respectable buzz, good marketing, etc. And the vast, vast majority of them are recently published.

I emphasize this last point because I think we often forget it. There is a whole huge backlog of women writers in translation that many of us are unfamiliar with - books that have fallen out of fashion, or are out of print, or are in that in-between zone of not-new but not-yet-a-classic. There are hundreds of books like these, and to be honest it's going to be extremely difficult to find them. It's much easier to look in the newspaper (or on blogs), see what they've reviewed recently, and check out the books that look interesting. In this case, I find myself inclined to believe that literal availability isn't actually what's guiding us, rather it's bigger market forces that generally decide how we pick our books.

Thoughts?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

WITMonth Day 11 - The Last Quarter of the Moon | Review

The first and most important thing to note in this review of Chi Zijian's The Last Quarter of the Moon (translated by Bruce Humes) is that before reading this book, I knew literally nothing about the Evenki (or Evenks), the ethnic group around which the novel is centered. This means that while I can comment on literary style, writing, characterization and indeed my own interest in the history at play, I have practically no knowledge regarding the authenticity of this story, and whether it stands as an accurate representation of the Evenki.

This is relevant because the cultural aspects were one of the things I enjoyed most about The Last Quarter of the Moon. Not necessarily the specific insights (though those were obviously interesting, particularly in comparison to other northern ethnic groups I've read about), rather the themes they represented. The book - which spans most of the 20th century - looks quite a bit at the clash between tradition and outside progress. At the novel's start, the Evenki are fairly isolated, yet as history marches on (and the Japanese invade...), familiar conflicts begin to arise. These are themes I find particularly evident in my own life, where the tug of war between modern culture and religious tradition can often have a significant real-world impact. Chi presents this issues without really answering them - truthfully, I don't think there are any clear answers, and I rather liked the more thoughtful ending she decided to go with.

From a story perspective, I viewed The Last Quarter of the Moon a bit like I viewed the children's classic Julie of the Wolves back in the day - it's a fascinating piece about a world I know nothing about, and now want to know more about. Chi does a wonderful job of showing different aspects of Evenki culture - art, writing (or lack thereof), family dynamics, social structure, religious order, and more all come into play throughout the novel. As per the disclaimer at the beginning of this review, I cannot make any claims on the authenticity of the book (or whether aspects of it are inaccurate), but I certainly found nothing to be outwardly offensive (to my untrained eye). The Evenki are neither overly glamorized nor garishly drawn, a nice change from the all-too-common "exotic" trope. It's unfamiliar and new, but it also flows fairly naturally (with a couple reindeer exceptions).

From a more technical perspective, The Last Quarter of the Moon holds up just a little less. It's a well enough written book, no awkwardly translated bits, and generally the flow is good. But for such a huge epic to be contained to relatively so few pages (~300 pages) means that the pacing is always going to be a bit off, plus there's a slight problem with character development. The cast of characters here is quite large, some with the same name and others with similar-enough names (Russian sounding names that start with a V...). It gets... confusing. I constantly had to refer myself to the family tree at the novel's start, which unfortunately only included family members and not other tribe members (which often made it more confusing).

As for the characterizations themselves, this was probably my biggest issue with the book. We spend some ninety years with our nameless narrator, yet truthfully I felt like she was simply a placeholder for most of the book. She is the lens through which we can learn about the Evenki, but as a character with her own motivations and personality, she was fairly lacking. Most of the other characters were similarly one dimensional, missing out on an opportunity for a greater emotional investment. Most had some sort of story-based relevance (one character's arc in particular was a brilliant bit of storytelling about "the greater good", but a disappointment in emotional resonance), but I felt like Chi could and should have fleshed them all out some more.

On the whole, I think this is definitely a novel worth recommending. The Last Quarter of the Moon is not a flawless piece of literature, but it's got quite a bit to it: history, culture, art, meditations on tradition, on violence, and even occasionally on gender roles. As a novel it's somewhat lacking (particularly in the characterization department...), but overall as a book I found it quite interesting and enjoyable.

Monday, August 11, 2014

WITMonth Day 10 - The wider world

We started WITMonth with the most prolific countries - France, Germany, Sweden, Spain... We continue now with an exponentially larger chunk of land, but one that is undeniably far less represented in literature, particularly for women writers.

The most commonly translated languages are consistently French, Spanish and German. We can all think of many French writers, but how many of us can name more than a handful of Chinese writers? How well do we know African literature? What have we read from southeast Asia? How many Arab writers are we familiar with? Without even looking at the division between men and women yet, I think it's fair to say that most of us haven't had as much experience with these regions as compared to Western/Northern Europe, simply because significantly less is available.

This week's region - all of Asia, Africa, and whatever bits of Oceania may qualify - is huge, with incredible diversity across its region. Nothing binds these different continents together, other than their lower translation rates. But this giant region encompasses so very much: it's got my own home country, the two most populated countries in the world, countries that represent some of the oldest stories in the world, countries that have largely been ignored from a literary perspective, and countries that many of us simply know little about. One week will never be enough to scratch the surface of this entire region, but it's enough to give us a taste and show that there is plenty of literature - and literature by women - coming out of "unexpected" places. Literature is not simply a European affair, and it's not limited to a privileged elite. It's everywhere, in every form, and it's worth taking a moment to finding these new voices.