Reading in August: to plan or not plan

Every month there are bookish challenges around and August is no different. My Twitter feed is full of Austen in August and Women in Translation Month, both of which tempt me for different reasons.

I’ve read three Jane Austen books and so far not been blown away, but I keep wondering if she’s a writer I’ll appreciate more as I get older. She’s certainly not flowery, which I have less and less patience for. And she’s smart, which I do like. It’s hard to talk myself into reading a book that I suspect I’m not going to enjoy. But I have heard good things about Mansfield Park, so maybe I’ll give that a go.

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Like a cactus you grow without bothering anyone

Me and You
by Niccolò Ammaniti
translated from Italian by Kylee Doust

Back in 2003 I reviewed Ammaniti’s bestselling novel I’m Not Scared for my student newspaper. I loved it, but I read a lot of great books that year and quickly forgot that particular one. When this novel came out and got positive reviews I recognised Ammaniti’s name but couldn’t place it. So it sat on my TBR for years before I finally picked it up – primarily because I wanted a short book to read.

This does what all good novellas do: keeps the story simple but emotionally powerful. It made me smile, it made me laugh, it made me catch my breath in shock. A misfit teenage boy narrator might be an old trope but Ammaniti does something original with it. And Lorenzo is not just any teenage misfit.

One February morning, 14-year-old Lorenzo packs for a skiing holiday with friends. He says goodbye to his family and then proceeds to hide in a rarely used cellar in the basement of his family’s apartment building. For a week.

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Recent reads in brief

While I am slowly making my way through more than 600 pages of Sophie’s Choice, I am actually a little behind on book reviews, so here are some brief thoughts on recent reads.

Letters to a Young Poet
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated from German by Stephen Mitchell

This small volume was written 1903–1908 but its advice still feels relevant and wise, which is presumably why it quickly became a classic.

Franz Xaver Kappus was put in touch with Rilke by the chaplain at his military academy, who had known Rilke when he too was a student at the school 15 years earlier. Kappus aspired to write and Rilke was a revered (rightly so) poet. These 10 letters constitute Rilke’s advice on how to look at life as well as how to write and some non-advice observations from Rilke such as his thoughts on Rome (he was not a fan) and other places he travelled to (all the letters seem to be written from a different location, and often include reference to months spent somewhere else in-between).

What most caught my attention was Rilke’s thoughts on gender equality. He was a feminist if ever I read one. He truly believed that the two sexes were created equal and that society still unfairly favoured men as a relic from a bygone age when man’s superiority of strength and size was relevant to everyday life. Rilke not only believes that the time will come when women will be considered equal in all respects to man, he also thinks that in time women will take their turn as the gender running the show.

Rilke is sweet, earnest, but also troubled. He’s also extremely eloquent. Because he’s Rilke.

“Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would have us believe, most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.”

Briefe an einen jungen Dichter published 1929 by Insel Verlag.

This translation first published 1984 by Random House.

Source: Shakespeare & Sons, Berlin.

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Recent reads round-up

I read a few good books in a row and then went on holiday before writing reviews or even notes on them and now it’s two weeks since I finished the last of them. Oops. So here is my attempt to remember what I enjoyed about them. They’re all great!

her_fathers_daughterHer Father’s Daughter
by Marie Sizun
translated from French by Adriana Hunter

I loved this book. It is simple and sparse and yet utterly moving. This seems to be a pattern with Peirene books, one that I approve of. The story is told from the perspective of “the child” (she does have a name but it’s rarely used) – a young girl living in Paris during the Second World War. She is the apple of her mother’s eye and despite the Nazi occupation is utterly happy in her little world. Then the father she has never met comes home from the POW camp and the fight for affection begins.

Sizun brilliantly depicts the changing relationships – between mother and child; between father and child; between mother and father; between grandmother and child – against a backdrop of the occupation of Paris ending, and then the war itself ending. Though the child is not the narrator, her perspective filters the story to its essential parts. This at times almost reads like poetry, it’s so distilled. But it isn’t at all abstract in the way that poetry can be. A beautiful, quick read.

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Sunday Salon: Women in translation

The Sunday SalonAugust is Women in Translation Month, and I know it’s almost the end of the month already but you see, the thing is, I had plans. I was going to pick out half a dozen books from my TBR by women translated into English, starting with Elena Ferrante and rinse the hell out of this reading promotion that seems so perfectly suited to me.

The thing is, my reading has been rather capricious of late. I could blame it on a busy period at work, or a mini-flare-up of my lupus, or the wrong choices of books. But every time I looked at those translations on my TBR shelves – Elena Ferrante, Isabel Allende, Marie Sizun, Linda Stift – something in me resisted. Something in me said that they would be hard work and that I wanted an easy read. Which is silly on two counts. One: a translation is not necessarily any harder a read than a book written originally in English and I’ve read enough works in translation to know that well enough. Two: I don’t tend to get as much satisfaction from easy reads as I do from books that challenge me at least a little.

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You see nothing but what you’re looking for

summer bookThe Summer Book
by Tove Jansson
translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal

This Scandinavian modern classic isn’t well known over here. I forget which book blogger alerted me to its existence but whoever you are, thank you! It is a thoroughly lovely book.

It’s the story of young Sophia (her age is never given exactly) and her grandmother over the course of a few summers spent at their family home on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. The events are mostly small, such as Sophia’s first camping experience or going “gathering”. (Note: I’m not sure if the quotes I’ve chosen convey this, but I did find the writing style took some getting used to. It feels a little simplistic, as if a child is being addressed. But once used to it I enjoyed this style.)

“Gathering is peculiar, because you see nothing but what you’re looking for. If you’re picking raspberries, you see only what’s red, and if you’re looking for bones you see only the white. No matter where you go, the only thing you see is bones…Sophia and Grandmother carried everything they found to the magic forest. They would usually go at sundown. They decorated the ground under the trees with bone arabesques like ideographs, and when they finished their patterns they would sit for a while and talk.”

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She succeeds in doing what no one ever dared think she would

little-communist-who-never-smiledThe Little Communist Who Never Smiled: a Novel
by Lola Lafon
translated from French by Nick Caistor

Like many who dabbled with gymnastics in their youth, I have a small obsession with former Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci. I remember a year or two when a VHS copy of the made-for-TV biopic Nadia was passed around my gym club like a precious jewel. I watched it several times during the week I took it home. Years later I realised that this was the same Nadia on our TV screens during every Olympics and World Championships, only now she was an American coach. But despite my love for Nadia the gymnast, I never really looked further into her life.

On reflection, it should have been obvious that her life was more interesting than the bare facts of her gymnastic achievements. Born in 1961, the Romania she was raised in and trained in was a “Marxist-Leninist one-party state”, as Wikipedia puts it, until the 1989 revolution that ousted – and executed – the state’s controversial leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. Nadia defected to the US just weeks before the revolution.

As the subtitle and author’s note make clear, this is fiction, but it’s fiction written in a journalistic style. Lafon uses real sources – articles, footage, interviews, even Nadia’s own memoir – and an imagined dialogue with Nadia to piece together her life from the age of 7, when she was picked for training by legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, to 1990, a year after her mysterious escape. As such this reads like a particularly well-written biography, careful in most places not to invent what cannot be verified and to be clear where events are disputed. But there is, of course, invention – not least those conversations with a current-day “Nadia C”.

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We who had known the shifting sky as our ceiling

man_i_became_webThe Man I Became
by Peter Verhelst
translated from Dutch by David Colmer

How do you approach a book narrated by a gorilla? Or, at least, a character who started life as a gorilla? Honestly, if I hadn’t received this book as part of my Peirene subscription, based on the synopsis I would not have picked it up. And I would have missed out.

This novella treads a line between science fiction and fairy tale – the dark kind of fairy tale, not light and fluffy Disney fare. The result is an odd allegory of…what, exactly? A few different things, I think, and no doubt many more things than I picked up on.

Our narrator was a gorilla snatched from the jungle, along with most of his family, and taken by boat to “the New World” to be turned into a human. So far, so clearly related to slavery, right down to the overcrowded boat and casual lack of consideration for the gorillas’ lives.

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I am more than I can dream of

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen

The Looking-Glass Sisters
by Gøhril Gabrielsen
translated from Norwegian by John Irons

Once again, I feel that I haven’t given a Peirene book a fair chance. These short novels are intended to be read in a single sitting and those I have read in a couple of large chunks do seem to be those I have enjoyed more. I haven’t had huge chunks of free time lately, so my reading has been split into 20 minutes here and there, which I don’t think really does any book justice.

But I digress. I should tell you about this book.

It’s the story of two middle-aged sisters, Ragna and her younger sister, who narrates the book. The narrator suffered a childhood illness that has left her body severely weakened, so that she never leaves the house and is largely dependent on Ragna. They have lived together alone since the death of their parents and their relationship is bitter and twisted, but it works…until a man comes into Ragna’s life. Johan upsets the delicate balance, revealing alternative paths for the sisters.

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An ‘as-if’ that feels like reality

lostintranslation-coverLost in Translation: a Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
by Ella Frances Sanders

This is essentially a coffee table book, albeit a small one. It takes a simple idea and creates a beautiful object from it.

Sanders takes a small collection of supposedly untranslatable words from all over the world. Each word is given a double-page spread with a rough translation, some information about its origin and a fun but elegant illustration. Some of the words chosen really hit a nerve, while others simply amused me. Some are effectively putting words together in a “phrase in a word” and therefore their literal translation does make sense. But the book as a whole works well because it is so well executed.

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