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.

Advertisements

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.

The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

Translated by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush

32988669How do you clothe a book?

In this deeply personal reflection, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jhumpa Lahiri explores the art of the book jacket from the perspectives of both reader and writer. Probing the complex relationships between text and image, author and designer, and art and commerce, Lahiri delves into the role of the uniform; explains what book jackets and design have come to mean to her; and how, sometimes, “the covers become a part of me.”

Review:

While this book, an essay really, is only 80 pages long there isn’t much here here. Lahiri likes some of her covers and doesn’t like others. We learn that she has little say in what clothes her book… but that’s it. I think it would be compelling at a shorter length, maybe as an article in the New Yorker, but it doesn’t grab me here.

Lahiri would like it if more English-language books were dressed up in uniforms. I wanted to ask if she’s ever strolled down a genre aisle.  Harlequin Presents fits her ideal perfectly – similar look to the series, go together on a shelf, each different but part of a larger editorial whole. Or look at the first nine books of the Mercy Thompson series, where the head to knees three quarter pose of the heroine gives the line a unified feel. Avon designs a cover font for each author so the books hang together, as well as give them striking spines. Literary fiction may be letting her down but the rest of the book store has her covered and she doesn’t realize it. Sigh.

I was hoping to learn something or be enlightened but no dice.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

Translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce

25058120Bookseller Laurent Letellier comes across an abandoned handbag on a Parisian street and feels impelled to return it to its owner. The bag contains no money, phone or contact information. But a small red notebook with handwritten thoughts and jottings reveals a person that Laurent would very much like to meet. Without even a name to go on, and only a few of her possessions to help him, how is he to find one woman in a city of millions?

Review:

I was looking for a quick read and stumbled upon The Red Notebook.  While it’s short and easy to get through it’s not fluff – there are beautiful observations and turns of phrase, just enough to keep your brain happy without overload.  Many are of the ah-yes-I-know-that sort:

As soon as she stepped inside the door, she was hit by that feeling of coming home after a long time away, when the dust seems to have been blown off things you had become so used to looking at you had stopped seeing them.  Everything suddenly seems more intense, like a photograph restored to its original colour and contrast.

The story stays small and fills out the short-ish page count perfectly.  There are just enough secondary characters, the right amount of conflict and romance, and a satisfying ending, all rolled into 200 pages.  It’s not a life changing book, or a thinking book, or a testament to the beauty of language… it’s a good yarn.  And sometimes that’s exactly what you need.  Just the thing for a lazy Sunday.

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

Translated by George Bird

Synopsis:

11125891Aspiring writer Viktor Zolotaryov leads a down-and-out life in poverty-and-violence-wracked Kiev—he’s out of work and his only friend is a penguin, Misha, that he rescued when the local zoo started getting rid of animals. Even more nerve-wracking: a local mobster has taken a shine to Misha and wants to keep borrowing him for events.

But Viktor thinks he’s finally caught a break when he lands a well-paying job at the Kiev newspaper writing “living obituaries” of local dignitaries—articles to be filed for use when the time comes.

The only thing is, it seems the time always comes as soon as Viktor writes the article. Slowly understanding that his own life may be in jeopardy, Viktor also realizes that the only thing that might be keeping him alive is his penguin.

Review:

Viktor is doing alright – his apartment is nothing special but he shares it with Misha, his penguin (long story). He just landed a job writing obits for famous people, so when they die there will be copy waiting and ready. The articles end up sitting in a drawer at the newspaper office but the money keeps Viktor in food and Misha in fish, so it can’t be all bad.

One day, however, an obit subject dies, having plummeted from a sixth story window. Then another, and another. Viktor is left to wonder what he got into, and if it’s even worth trying to find his way out.

I love this book – serious writing that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Along with the “what the…” moments are tidbits that are just absurd enough to be plausible in post-Soviet Kiev. The plot hums along at a steady pace, helped along by short chapters that go down like potato chips, one after the other. There are some nice insights, too:

The cafe was empty and quiet – an ambience suitable for dreaming, or conversely, for recalling the past.

The characters are fleshed out wonderfully and feel like real people, right down to Misha the penguin. I love that there’s another man named Misha that gets referred to as Misha-non-penguin. It’s a little joke that isn’t overplayed, wonderful restraint that applies throughout the novel, even with all the crazy.

George Bird does a wonderful job translating from the Russian. I especially like how he handles the flowery obits, such as this one for an opera singer:

The voice is a sign of life. It may grow in strength, break off, be lost, sink to a barely audible whisper. In the chorus of our lives the individual voice is not easily distinguished, but where, suddenly, it falls silent, there comes an awareness of the finitude of any sound, of any life.

The book ends on a cliffhanger with several plot threads hanging but that’s the only bad thing I can say. I was transported to another world and look forward to seeing what happens.