The Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai

translated by William Johnson

1030303On Thursday, August 9, 1945, at two minutes past eleven in the morning, Nagasaki was wiped out by a plutonium atomic bomb which exploded at a height of five hundred meters over the city. Among the wounded on that fateful day was the young doctor Takashi Nagai, professor of radiology at the University of Nagasaki. Nagai succeeded in gathering a tiny group of survivors — doctors, nurses, and students — and together they worked heroically for the wounded until they themselves collapsed from exhaustion and atomic sickness.

As he lay dying of leukemia, Dr. Nagai wrote The Bells of Nagasaki, vividly recounting what he had seen with his own eyes and heard from his associates.

Review:

Trigger warning for the horror of war with a medical bent.

The Bells of Nagasaki is a first-person account of the bombing of Nagasaki, which is often forgotten in the shadow of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Nagai is in a unique position to discuss an atomic bomb because he was researching radioactivity in a medical context. He had basically given himself leukemia by being exposed to radiation during his experiments.

Much like Hersey’s Hiroshima, we hear the accounts of many people at the time the bomb went off, many colleagues of Nagai. We see how fate/blind luck determined who lived and died. A professor hollowing out a dugout shelter survived, but two students hauling out the dirt were killed immediately. A medical student was trapped in the rubble of his classroom. Fires soon started, and he listened to his classmates being consumed alive by the flames, and resigned to that fate himself, before working free and escaping.

This plurality of experience at the start soon narrows down to Nagai and his fellow doctors and nurses who took it upon themselves to treat as many people as they could. Like many survivors they made their way to the villages surrounding the city, helping those affected before being bedridden with radiation sickness themselves.

Nagai isn’t afraid to talk about the illness from a medical standpoint. At one point he outlines how you die – if not immediately, days later in this manner. If not then, weeks later from this and that. Some explanations call on high school physics but I didn’t find it overly technical. Then again, I work in hospitals so your mileage may vary.

The introduction is by the translator and does a good job placing the book in context and telling us about the whole of Nagai’s life. At the end he goes on about how big a role religion played in his thinking, which worried me. Thankfully there’s almost no mention of his faith until page 102 of a 115 page work but wow, he gets preachy fast. If religion isn’t your thing know you can safely skip those pages without missing anything.

As a side note – I knocked on Hiroshima for having a strong Catholic element, but Nagasaki is the most Catholic city in all of Japan. It had secret churches and harbored people when the government actively prosecuted Catholics, so if there’s going to be a large Christian influence anywhere in the country, it’s here.

Overall I found the book interesting and a good read, a valuable account of the bombing Americans overlook. It appears to be out of print right now, so check with your local library if you’d like to give it a try.

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Night School: A Reader for Grownups by Zsófia Bán

translated by Jim Tucker

43388135Zsófia Ban’s Night School: A Reader for Adults uses a textbook format to build an encyclopedia of life—subject by subject, from self-help to geography to chemistry to French. With subtle irony, Ban’s collection of “lectures” guides readers through the importance and uses of the power of Nohoo (or “know-how”), tells of the travels of young Flaubert to Egypt with his friend Maxime, and includes a missive from Laika the dog minutes before being blasted off into space, never to be seen again. A wildly clever book that makes our all-too-familiar world appear simultaneously foreign and untamed, and brings together lust, taboos, and the absurd in order to teach us the art of living.

Review:

Content warnings for short references to child abuse and sexual abuse.

I picked up this book because I love the premise – an encyclopedia of life, a reader for grownups, built up through 21 short stories. Textbook-esque questions and observations are strewn throughout, and while some are funny or just weird others are poignant and made me think.

WHAT is the meaning of allegro, ma non troppo? AND HOW DO WE KNOW when allegro is too troppo?

CALCULATE how many angels can fit on the head of a pin if each angel is approximately 45mm and faithless.

WRITE AN ESSAY on this topic: If you had the choice, which of your favorite authors would you choose not to meet?

The stories fall into several loose types. Several look at the history of Eastern Europe (Bán is Hungarian) with a dystopian bent. Some are character studies, or an experimental narrative idea that’s spun out. Others examine an aspect of a famous person’s life – how the wickedly wonderful subject of Manet’s Olympia got the artist to do the painting in the first place. Laika the dog’s thoughts before she is blasted into space, never to return. (“This recording is for you, Soviet children, so you can write its message on a sky full of meteors and stardust: THESE PEOPLE ARE ALL GALACTIC LIARS.”)

My favorite is an examination of Newton that is free-wheeling and hard to describe. I both laughed and stared into the middle distance, lost in thought. What if instead of watching an apple fall he saw a boulder careening down a mountainside? Or simply threw a ball into the air hundreds of times to watch it rise, slow, hang for an inexplicable moment, then drop? Neither of these is as romantic as an apple falling, and the latter is hard work. Would we have the same thoughts about Newton if he came up with his theory about gravity in one of these other ways?

Other little bits struck a chord, like how people make unthinking exclamations in their native language. When I was in study abroad all of my classmates were multi-lingual, and we would joke that the best way to figure out someone’s mother tongue is to punch them and see what language they swear at you in. (Not recommended, obvs.)

I didn’t understand everything Bán was getting at, but I don’t think that’s the point. Some stories are a wash of images with a thread of plot, and I enjoyed drawing connections and going where she led me. That being said, some things I were over my head. For example, one story is an email correspondence among characters from Dangerous Liaisons. I haven’t read the book and was so lost that I ended up moving on to the next piece.

Overall, though, I loved spending time with this collection. It’s odd, subversively feminist, and made me look at certain aspects of life in a new light. I took forever to get through the book because I only read one story at a time, often on a long stretch of my commute, and let it rattle around my head for a day or two. Perfect for any fan of weird and wonderful short stories.

Thanks to Open Letter and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya

translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda

38643164A housewife takes up bodybuilding and sees radical changes to her physique–which her workaholic husband fails to notice. A boy waits at a bus stop, mocking businessmen struggling to keep their umbrellas open in a typhoon–until an old man shows him that they hold the secret to flying. A woman working in a clothing boutique waits endlessly on a customer who won’t come out of the fitting room–and who may or may not be human. A newlywed notices that her husband’s features are beginning to slide around his face–to match her own.

In these eleven stories, the individuals who lift the curtains of their orderly homes and workplaces are confronted with the bizarre, the grotesque, the fantastic, the alien–and, through it, find a way to liberation.

Review:

These surreal yet grounded stories are exactly my kind of thing.

Many start in the mundane – a happy or unhappy marriage, a scene at work. One strange but believable thing happens, then something slightly more outrageous, until Motoya leads you down a path to the absolutely absurd.  It’s ridiculous, but you can’t imagine the story spinning out any other way.

Themes include knowing yourself, how we are changed by contact with other people, and the place of women in Japanese society.  Even more so than in the West, Japanese women are expected to be wives and mothers first, putting husbands and children before themselves. These women are the protagonists and navigate their way through a world where many things don’t go as planned.

The centerpiece, and one of my favorite stories, is the novella An Exotic Marriage.  A wife realizes that she and her husband look more similar as time goes on. At first she thinks it’s learned mannerisms or maybe sharing a taste in clothes, but one day she looks in the mirror and sees that her features have slipped slightly out of place, closer to those of her husband.  As soon as she notices they jump back into position, like kids caught doing something they shouldn’t, and the story spins on from there.

I was worried the longer length would mean absurdities would pile up to the point of being unbearable, but instead they’re more nuanced and layered. The page count is a strength, giving Motoya more room to develop characters and sub-plots and draw us into the world.  An Exotic Marriage won the Akutagawa Prize, arguably the highest literary honor in Japan, and it’s easy to see why.

Yoneda is an accomplished translator and her skill is well applied here.  I am in the unusual position of being able to read in both the source and target languages, but I never felt the Japanese poke through nor the need to back-translate. The reader is in good hands.

All in all I immensely enjoyed The Lonesome Bodybuilder. It’s perfect for when you want to read something delightfully different.

Thanks to Soft Skull Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Making Things Right: The Simple Philosophy of a Working Life by Ole Thorstensen

Translated by Sean Kinsella

35787524Making Things Right is the simple yet captivating story of a loft renovation, from the moment master carpenter and contractor Ole Thorstensen submits an estimate for the job to when the space is ready for occupation. As the project unfolds, we see the construction through Ole’s eyes: the meticulous detail, the pesky splinters, the problem solving, patience, and teamwork required for its completion. Yet Ole’s narrative encompasses more than just the fine mechanics of his craft. His labor and passion drive him toward deeper reflections on the nature of work, the academy versus the trades, identity, and life itself.

Review:

I am always here for non-fiction in translation so when I saw this title as an audiobook I scooped it up.  Using the framework (ha) of a loft renovation Thorstensen shows what it’s like to be an independent contractor in Norway.

Most of the book is process – how bids are calculated, how materials are ordered and brought into the loft via a crane, how you make sure the floor of a bathroom is water-tight.  It’s fine and good, but this electrician’s daughter was slightly bored by the details.

My favorite bits were the ones between – talking about how people from different places and backgrounds enter the trades, what gets played on the radio, how people in different parts of Norway opt for different kinds of construction.  I was cuted out when he gave to small kids, who were going to live in the loft once it was done, free rein to draw in pencil all over the drywall.  They marked out the rooms, still only plans, and drew airplanes as they saw fit.  Adorable and heartwarming.

27427788I ran into a few issues, though.  Unfortunately the translation and audiobook narration do not mesh well.  It sounds like a British English translation read by someone who knows Norwegian and speaks with an American accent.  On top of that it sounds like some terms were slapdash “translated” into American without much thought.

For example, at one point the text reads “6.25 feet”.  This strikes me as poor translation from metric – I’d call that “six feet three inches”.  But 6.25 feet stands, and it’s read aloud as “six point twenty five feet”, which sounds even worse.  Six and a quarter feet, six point two five feet… why “point twenty five”?

There are also some terms that seem common in European discourse that I’ve never heard before.  I found myself googling “social dumping” and “passive housing”, terms that make no sense unless you’re familiar.  I may just be ignorant but a gloss in the text would have been appreciated.

Likewise, at one point Thorstensen lists radio programs he listens to while working.  “[so-and-so] does a great radio show”, he says, with no further info.  I desperately wanted one more word in there – a great music show, a great interview show, a great comedy show… something.  I don’t think you have to explain every unfamiliar reference (there are many more) but some could use this minimal, additional info.

All in all Making Things Right is an okay book, but if you’re looking for great carpentry memoirs go for Nina MacLaughlin’s Hammer Head instead.

Women in Translation Month 2018: Suggestions and Reading List

WiTmonth2018Huzzah for August, Women in Translation Month!  This is the month to read works in translation by women, trans, and non-binary folk.  Precious few books in English are translations, and only a quarter or so of those are by women.  Summer is the perfect time to highlight these amazing books and let the world know how awesome women authors (and translators!) are.

Looking for a place to start?  Here are some #womenintranslation books I’ve read over the past year:

30186905The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

A dystopia set in modern day Egypt where a new centralized authority demands that all citizens line up at The Gate to ask permission for even everyday affairs.  The line grows longer and longer… but will The Gate ever open?

39737311Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations ed. by Sarah Cleave, translated by various

Short stories, some by women, commissioned after Trump’s discriminatory ban of immigration from Muslim-majority nations.  The pieces range from realistic to fantastical and explore themes of exile, travel, and restrictions on movement.

35049393The Farm in the Green Mountains by Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer, translated by Ida H. Washington

Translated non-fiction, huzzah!  Alice and her family came to the US as refugees, fleeing the Nazis during World War II.  By chance they end up in Vermont and fall in love with the place despite the hard winters, relative isolation, and less-than-smart livestock.  It’s everything I wanted The Egg and I to be – funny and heartwarming, you’ll fall in love with the Green Mountains just as much as Alice does.

6845839Chi’s Sweet Home by Kanata Konami (I can’t find the translator, gah)

This one is a cheat – it’s my first review for #WITmonth, posting Friday!  Chi is a lost kitten that finds a home and is everything cute and adorable.  A perfect pick-me-up for cat lovers, which, judging from twitter, is everyone.

And here’s my reading list for this month.  It tends heavily Japanese because… I’m me. 🙂  I doubt I’ll finish off everything but I’m looking forward to getting to as many as I can.

36481157The Master Key by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Grove

A puzzle mystery by an LGBTQIA+ author who has been called the Japanese P.D. James.  I know many people like curling up with mysteries in the fall but I like tackling them during the summer – I’ll take any shiver I can get, even if it’s from fear!

31203000Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

A very buzzy book at the moment!  I’m using the Japanese cover because holy cow, lookit that.

Keiko is anything but normal, working at a convenience store for 18 years where most people leave after one or two.  But what is normal, anyway?  I’ve already started reading this one in Japanese and I’m loving it so far.

20484692Ten Women by Marcela Serrano, translated by Beth Fowler

Nine women who share a therapist, but little else, meet and tell their stories.  In the process they form bonds and transform their lives, and we get insight into many corners of Chilean society.

38643164The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya, translated by Asa Yoneda

Forthcoming from Soft Skull Press.  Motoya has won all kinds of awards here in Japan, including the Akutagawa Prize for a piece featured in this collection of stories.  It’s billed as inventive, with reality slipping into the fantastic, which is just my kind of thing.

40932752False Calm: A Journey Through the Ghost Towns of Patagonia by María Sonia Cristoff, translated by Katherine Silver

Another upcoming release, this one from Transit Books.  The jacket copy says it’s part reportage, part personal essay, and part travelogue… which is all non-fiction, yea!  A look at the towns lost after the oil boom in Patagonia.

It’s going to be a great month!  Do you have any books lined up for Women in Translation Month?  How about some recommendations? Let’s have a chat in the comments 🙂

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

Translated by Srinath Perur

30267604A young man’s close-knit family is nearly destitute when his uncle founds a successful spice company, changing their fortunes overnight. As they move from a cramped, ant-infested shack to a larger house on the other side of Bangalore, and try to adjust to a new way of life, the family dynamic begins to shift. Allegiances realign; marriages are arranged and begin to falter; and conflict brews ominously in the background.

Elegantly written and punctuated by moments of unexpected warmth and humor, Ghachar Ghochar is a quietly enthralling, deeply unsettling novel about the shifting meanings—and consequences—of financial gain in contemporary India.

Review:

This book has been on my radar for a while so when it was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award I was happy to pick it up on audio.

Ghachar Ghochar may be short, clocking in at 128 pages, but it packs a punch. The history and current circumstance of a rags-to-riches family is built in layers.  Mosaic, non-linear chapters give the sense that something is going on here, and Shanbhag leaves spaces for your mind to fill with the most diabolical possibilities. I blew through the book and thought about it for days.

On one hand I’m glad I listened to the audio, as the male narrator has the accents and pronunciation firmly in hand.  The male voices are especially varied and fun to listen to. On the other hand there are times I feel the prose would pop even more on a page than in my ears, and the narrator only had one female voice that he pitched up and down for different characters.

Overall a very good read, one I may find myself returning to in print form.

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

30186905In a surreal, but familiar, vision of modern day Egypt, a centralized authority known as ‘the Gate’ has risen to power in the aftermath of the ‘Disgraceful Events,’ a failed popular uprising. Citizens are required to obtain permission from the Gate in order to take care of even the most basic of their daily affairs, yet the Gate never opens, and the queue in front of it grows longer.

Citizens from all walks of life mix and wait in the sun. Among them is Yehia, a man who was shot during the Events and is waiting for permission from the Gate to remove a bullet that remains lodged in his pelvis. Yehia’s health steadily declines, yet at every turn, officials refuse to assist him, actively denying the very existence of the bullet.

Ultimately it is Tarek, the principled doctor tending to Yehia’s case, who must decide whether to follow protocol as he has always done, or to disobey the law and risk his career to operate on Yehia and save his life.

Review:

Authoritarianism has been on my mind lately and The Queue is a fascinating way to approach it in fiction.  What struck me the most is how people can and do adapt to almost anything.  Need an eye exam?  Wait in this line so you can get a document allowing it.  No, the line is not moving – it will when the Gate opens.  Please wait.

So they do.

It’s a reminder that human resilience is a double edged sword – while it allows us to get through horrific things, we can also put up with far more than we should.

I will admit that I had a hard time getting into the story, probably because I was reading in short bursts.  With longer reading sessions I became more interested, wondering what the heck is going on and how it all will end.

While the setting and circumstances are a far cry from the current situation in the US every now and then a passage startled me, hitting too close to home.

He wrote a hard-hitting and well-researched article about the [boycott] campaign – its grounds and implications, and how many people joined each week – but the newspaper didn’t print it.  Instead, they gave him a stern warning about “fabricating the news.”

I would recommend The Queue if you like literature in translation, dystopia, and don’t mind a healthy dose of uncertainty.  It’s not a breezy read but it has given me a lot to think about.

Women in Translation Month 2017: Suggestions and Reading List

As you may know this is the Women in Translation Month, started by Meytal Radzinski at Biblibio. Only a quarter or so of books translated into English arwit1e by women so this is a time to draw attention to the awesomeness that’s out there and celebrate it.  And because it’s a look at marginalized voices transgender and nonbinary authors are included in the mix, huzzah!

This is the fourth #WiTMonth and it’s been growing up nicely.  As Radzinski put in a recent post,

This is how I think it should be. Not every reader necessarily devoting all their time to reading women in translation all of August, but enough different readers and reviewers and bloggers and translators and publishers talking about the subject. People learning about the publishing imbalance in translation between men and women. People seeking out new and diverse literature by women writers from around the world. And people doing it not out of any sense of obligation or guilt, but because there are so many good books that this just becomes a month that focuses their reading. This becomes a month with a greater density of recommendations, with more posts, with more attention. Women in translation must exist yearlong, but in August we get to give them that extra platform that they might not always have.

This.  All the this.

In that spirit I won’t be devoting my entire August to women in translation but I do have some interesting titles lined up and ready to go.  Looking for a place to start?  Here are some of my recent favorites:

25330335Seeing Red by Lina Meruane, translated by Megan McDowell

This book clawed into my brain. The prose is relentless, the story is haunting, and the fact that it’s an autobiographical novel makes the main character’s anguish all the more real.

26894137The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane, translated by David Brookshaw

Mozambique’s first published female novelist drops us into her country and tells the story of Rami, a first wife that just found out that her husband actually has five.  The prose has a delightful rhythm to it and I cheered for and commiserated with Rami every step of the way.

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero, translated by Frances Riddle30347690

The rarest of the rare – non-fiction in translation.  The Malambo quickly became my favorite dance that I never knew about as Guerriero follows the dancers that put everything into their craft… for the honor of never being able to dance it again.  Powerful and sure to be one of my favorite reads of 2017.

And now for a reading list!  I picked up The Weaver by Emmi Itäranta thinking it was a translation, but it looks like she rewrote it in English so I’m not sure it counts.  That’s okay, though, as there’s so much to pick from!  Right now I’m looking at:

  • The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
  • Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman
  • Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel, translated by Ros Schwartz (to be published November 2017) – perhaps the most fitting book ever 😉

I’d love to hear your recommendations, especially if you know of any non-fiction by women in translation!

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero

Translated by Frances Riddle

30347690Every year, at the height of summer, the remote Argentine village of Laborde holds the national malambo contest. Centuries-old, this shatteringly demanding traditional gaucho dance is governed by the most rigid rules. And this festival has one stipulation that makes it unique: the malambo is danced for up to five minutes. That may seem like nothing, but consider the world record for the hundred-meter dash is 9.58 seconds. The dance contest is an obsession for countless young men, who sacrifice their bodies and money as they strive to become the champion, knowing that if they win—in order to safeguard the title’s prestige—they can never compete again.

When Leila Guerriero traveled to Laborde, one dancer’s performance took her breath away, and she spent a year following him as he prepared for the next festival. The result is this superlative piece of journalism, told with tremendous economy and power.

Review:

The malambo is my favorite dance that I never knew about. It’s athletic, takes massive skill and commitment, and is just fun to watch.  I mean, look:

As Guerriero writes:

At three minutes, the malambo is a wall of sound, a jumble of boots, drum, and guitar that picks up speed at an asphyxiating rate.  At four minutes, his feet pound the stage with savage fury, the guitar, drum, and boots are a solid mass of blows, and at four minutes fifty seconds, the man lowers his head, raises one leg, and with colossal force, bashes it into the wood, his heart monstrously swollen, with the lucid yet frenzied expression of someone who’s just experienced a revelation.  After a few seconds of unnatural stillness, in which the public claps and shouts, the man, like someone emptying a gun into a dead body, dances off the stage with a short, furious storm of tapping, and every cell in his body seems to scream: This is what I’m made of.  I am capable of absolutely anything.

If that doesn’t make you want to watch through to the end I don’t know what will.

The yearly festival at Laborde is only known to other dancers and the title comes with a price – you can never dance the malambo in competition again.  Why do these dancers work so hard to end their career?

Guerriero examines Laborde from all sides – the dancers and their families, the practice and sacrifice required to be a contender, the place of the malambo in Argentinian society, and so much more.  The prose is powerful and comes through full force thanks to Riddle’s translation.  I purposefully limited myself to small doses so I could spread my enjoyment out as long as possible.

This book is a perfect case for non-fiction in translation: it opens our eyes to something we never knew existed that, like all things, relates back to us.  Check it out for the story, for the prose, for the dance, and for the experience.  My second five star read of the year – I heap my love upon it.

The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

Translated by Ros Schwartz

29501558Working at a job he hates, Guylain Vignolles has but one pleasure in life. Sitting on the 6.27 train each day, Guylain reads aloud. It’s this release of words into the world that starts our hero on a journey that will finally bring meaning into his life. For one morning, Guylain discovers the diary of a lonely young woman: Julie, who feels as lost in the world as he does.

This is a tale bursting with larger-than-life characters, each of whom touches Guylain’s life for the better. This captivating novel is a warm, funny fable about literature’s power to uplift even the most downtrodden of lives.

Review:

A friend lent me a hard copy of this book saying, “It’s a fun read, I think you’ll like it!  You could probably blow through it in an afternoon.”

And I totally could have but no, I had to be cute about it.  I read it on the train home after we parted.  I put random moments at home towards it, as it’s hard to fit a paper book in my work bag.  A huge chunk of my reading time is on my commute so my progress suffered, and this ‘afternoon read’ took over a month to complete.

First things first – it’s not the book’s fault.  Didierlaurent weaves a charming story that reminded me in some ways of The Red Notebook.  I like the way details are unspooled over time and the characters kept me interested.  The pages of text Guylain reads on the train may have been the best parts.  In a way that was frustrating – why wasn’t the whole book written like that? – but the contrast sets off differences nicely so I can’t complain too much.

The whole thing feels a little thin when stretched out over weeks but it would have been perfect on a lazy weekend.  So if you’re in the mood for charming with a side of ‘book on books’ give this a go – and set some quality time aside for it so you don’t end up like me.