Currently Reading: 5/31/2020

First, I had a lot of fun listening in on the Best Translated Book Award winner announcements on Friday. I wouldn’t normally be able to participate, as the announcements are done in-person in New York City (okay, maybe I could swing it since NYC isn’t far, but it would be complicated), but since we are using Zoom for everything right now, anyone who wanted could join in. It was great to see 100 or so people who love translated literature, including people I interact with on Twitter regularly. I have mostly avoided online literary events because more staring at a computer screen just doesn’t appeal, but I’m glad I made an exception.

The winners, by the way, are EEG by Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, for fiction and Time by Etel Adnan, translated by Sarah Riggs, for poetry. I haven’t read either, but EEG in particular appeals. The long lists are here if you are interested; the Best Translated Book Award always puts together diverse lists that are great resources for further reading.

As for what I’m reading currently, first is The Toni Morrison Book Club on audio. It’s perhaps a strange choice for me since I have read only one Morrison novel (not good, I know…) and any book involving literary criticism is perhaps not best on audio. But this one is working out great so far. It’s not really literary criticism, although there is some mixed in; it’s more a group memoir using Morrison’s novels as starting points to discuss life and culture. Four authors (Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, and Piper Kendrix Williams) collaborated on the project and each author has a couple chapters discussing one of the novels and its personal significance. Each author has a “secret,” some tidbit of information that operates as a springboard into the books, and another author writes about that secret by way of introducing each section.

I’m halfway through and enjoying it; it doesn’t matter a whole lot that I haven’t read all the books, since the authors give all the information necessary to understand their points. Their personal stories are engaging and interesting. The book reminds me of The Ferrante Letters, which I read last year, another mix of memoir and literary criticism written by a group of four people. Anybody know of any similar books?

The other book I’m reading is American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. The subtitle gives the basics: it’s about Midwestern agriculture, Christianity, and various American subcultures. Mockett gets invited to join a group of wheat harvesters as they make their way north from Texas following the ripening harvest. For many years her family has owned a farm in Nebraska, and she recently inherited it. She’s not entirely unfamiliar with the world of farming, but she grew up in California and fits into stereotypes of coastal residents pretty closely: she doesn’t believe in God, values intellect over faith, wants to buy organic food, is more comfortable working with her mind than with her hands. Southern and Midwestern farmers and harvesters are a different group entirely, and much of the book is about Mockett coming to understand their values and especially their faith.

She also describes the history of American farm land and the current state of farming as a way to make a living. She visits different types of churches and recounts conversations with the harvesters about Jesus, evolution, sexuality. Mockett is half-Japanese, so she writes about what it’s like to be a person of mixed race in an area that’s largely white.

I think this book is best for people not familiar with Christianity and its various denominations, as Mockett herself was not. She devotes a lot of energy to figuring out some of the basics, so readers in a similar situation might enjoy that process. As someone with a lot of experience in various kinds of protestant churches, I am finding this less compelling, although it’s good to imagine what it’s like to be so unfamiliar with theology and the Bible and to be seeing it very much from the outside. Her descriptions of churches and Christian subcultures sure does bring me back to my past in ways that aren’t always fun. As someone who is an atheist, a bookish type, and very happy to live on (okay, near) the east coast, I’m valuing this reminder of how other kinds of people live and think.

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Indie Press Round-Up: May New Releases (Book Riot)

Here is my latest indie press round-up published at Book Riot:

For this month’s independent press round-up, I’m happy to recommend five novels from around the world, including three in translation. These novels span the globe: they will take you to Spain, Guadeloupe, Mali, Paris, North Korea, New York City, and Appalachia. They are set in boarding schools, small towns, Caribbean Islands, and busy cities.

Most of us aren’t traveling much during these pandemic times, so reading is one way to explore new places. If you’re looking to do some armchair traveling, you might find something here that appeals. These are also good books if you simply want an enjoyable, engrossing read. Check them out and support some great independent presses along the way!

Four by Four Sara Mesa coverFOUR BY FOUR BY SARA MESA, TRANSLATED BY KATIE WHITTEMORE (OPEN LETTER, MAY 5)

This novel will appeal to those who like boarding school stories and anyone who enjoys eerie tales with a Gothic atmosphere. It’s set at Wybrany College, a school for middle and high school kids whose parents want them kept safe from the dangerous city. Something is not right at this school. It’s obsessively closed off from the outside world. The kids are divided into regular and “special” students, those who are on a scholarship, and boundaries between the two are carefully enforced. Both students and adults jostle for power and status. A little way into the novel, the point of view shifts from the students to a substitute teacher. His diary entries slowly uncover the school’s secrets (and are also an amusing look education). Four by Four is an absorbing and immersive tale that deftly explores class divisions, abuses of power, and the ugliness that can lurk under a seemingly-serene surface.

THE WONDROUS AND TRAGIC LIFE OF IVAN AND IVANA BY MARYSE CONDÉ, TRANSLATED BY RICHARD PHILCOX (WORLD EDITIONS, MAY 5)

Here is a new novel by the winner of the 2018 New Academy Prize, also known as the Alternative Nobel. It tells the story of twins born and raised in Guadeloupe. They have an extremely close bond and struggle with their feelings for each other. Ivana is content to live peacefully and accept the world around her, while Ivan struggles to find a community where he feels he belongs. Eventually they travel to Mali to live with their father and then make their way to Paris. Ivan and Ivana’s differing personalities send them down divergent paths, but their bond never wavers, even as it threatens to destroy them. Told by a charming, lively third-person narrator, the novel evokes its various settings beautifully and takes a penetrating, wide-ranging look at the effects of racism, colonialism, and inequality.

Friend by Paek Nam-nyong coverFRIEND: A NOVEL FROM NORTH KOREA BY PAEK NAM-NYONG, TRANSLATED BY IMMANUEL KIM (COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, MAY 5)

Friend is both a good read and a rare inside look into North Korean culture. It tells the story of a judge who rules on divorce cases. A woman comes to him seeking a divorce and the judge begins to look into her and her family’s lives. As he uncovers their stories, we learn about his own marital troubles as well as those of other people around them. We see how various characters met and fell in love and what made their marriages falter. It’s a sympathetic portrait of people unhappy in love and how that unhappiness affects those around them. Paek Nam-nyong explores what people owe themselves, their families, and the state, as well as what it means to be a friend. Friend is an absorbing novel of ideas with characters who vividly bring those ideas to life.

THE PRETTIEST STAR BY CARTER SICKELS (HUB CITY PRESS, MAY 19)

The Prettiest Star is a novel about a virus. In 1980, Brian Jackson left his southern Ohio small town for New York City in search of a new life. He loved the freedom and excitement he found there. But then AIDS hit, and he lost his lover and contracted the disease himself. Now, in 1986, he heads back home to reconnect with his family and escape a city in mourning. Back home, however, everything is complicated. His family tries to keep his gayness and his disease a secret, not even telling his sister and grandmother the truth. Then the town begins to wonder what’s going on. The novel is told in alternating points of view, switching from Brian to his sister and then to his mother, so we get a full picture of the family and the town. The novel captures family dynamics and small-town life in absorbing detail. It’s a heartbreaking novel of the pain caused by homophobia and an empathetic look at suffering and disease.

Distance From Four Points coverTHE DISTANCE FROM FOUR POINTS BY MARGO ORLANDO LITTELL (UNIVERSITY OF NEW ORLEANS PRESS, MAY 28)

The Distance From Four Points is a novel about returning home. Robin Besher’s husband has died and left her with nothing but decrepit rental properties in the small Appalachian town of Four Points where she grew up. Her only choice is to move back with her teen-aged daughter. She has a past she is ashamed of, however, and all she wants to do is fix up the properties and make enough money to return to the much-fancier town where she lived with her husband. This requires that she figure out how to deal with tenants and care for falling-apart rental units with basically no money. Against her wishes, she keeps running into people she once knew, and her plans to leave falter. Robin is a sympathetic character as she is forced to learn new skills and confront her past. Her story is utterly engrossing, and the novel is a moving examination of home and belonging.

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Reading Notes, 5/23/2020

My school year has ended, leaving me with a little more time and the feeling that I’d like to write about my reading more, so I’m back to this blog. I’ve found reading to be a welcome escape from pandemic worries. I do feel at times like I can’t focus on a book, but often when I give it a try anyway, focusing on something besides the news clears my head and makes me feel better. So I’ve been reading a lot, even more than usual. I already teach a lot online, so switching all my classes to that format was relatively easy (and I didn’t bother myself to try new things) and left me with no commute and more reading time. My son is home, of course, and needs/wants attention, but he’s also good at getting lost in imaginary worlds and playing by himself. He’s also getting to the point where he reads on his own, so we read quietly together sometimes. At the moment, he’s taking a piano lesson — virtually, of course.

Right now I’m reading Drifts by Kate Zambreno, my second Zambreno book this year after finishing Screen Tests. I think I may try to read them all. I love how her books are about consciousness, about writing and reading, about art and time. I’ve read enough Zambreno to know that although Drifts is a novel, it’s heavily based on her life, and I like recognizing details from her writing I’ve seen elsewhere in nonfiction. I just read a passage that mentions “autofiction” somewhat skeptically, but surely this novel fits into that category. I’ve described this book as autofiction where nothing happens — precisely the kind of book I like — but I don’t want to forget the “fiction” part of that term. The main character isn’t Zambreno. But probably it kind of is. I like writing where it doesn’t matter whether it’s fictional or not.

The main character lives in New York City and is trying to write a novel. She wanders, thinks, reads, observes, obsesses, works, and writes. She tries to capture days as they pass, tries to describe living in time. She writes a lot about her neighbors, people she sees on the streets, her dog and stray animals she encounters. It’s meandering and absorbing and a book to sink into.

Screen Tests was a mix of fiction and non — another book where the distinction doesn’t matter a whole lot. The first part is a series of short stories, although they draw heavily on Zambreno’s life as Drifts does, and the second part is essays. I loved many of these pieces (especially the essays). Others seemed slight or on topics I don’t know much about — she writes a lot about films and actresses, hence the book’s title — but I still found the book as a whole meditative and calming in its exploration of thinking and consciousness. Perhaps books about consciousness and interiority are what I need because they are the opposite of my news feed on twitter and don’t make me panic.

On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera (translated by Christina Macsweeney) is a book in a similar vein as the Zambreno books, not in terms of content, but in the way it’s meditative and about ideas and I found it soothing. It’s about … well, lighthouses, real and literary ones. It’s part travelogue as Barrera visits lighthouses around the world, part memoir, part literary history, part a contemplation on time, isolation, and collecting. It makes good company, as Barrera’s voice is calm and thoughtful, wandering into some difficult subjects (lighthouse keepers have difficult lives) and then wandering off somewhere else. Lighthouses have not been a particular interest of mine, exactly, but I still loved reading about them and even more about the emotions, ideas, and human history they evoke.

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Indie Press Round-Up: April New Releases (Book Riot)

My latest Indie Press Round-Up at Book Riot:

The world—and the book world as a part of that—is in major flux right now, but authors are still publishing great books and independent presses are still doing their great work. Perhaps now is an especially good time to support them?

This month I have four brand new small press books and one book published last year. These titles include memoirs and novels by authors from Canada, Argentina, and the U.S., with two books in translation. You’ll find family sagas, meditative accounts of personal experience, explorations of gender and sexuality, and a dive into the dark places of the human mind. I hope you find a book here you love!

A Girl's Story Annie Ernaux coverA GIRL’S STORY BY ANNIE ERNAUX, TRANSLATED BY ALISON STRAYER (SEVEN STORIES PRESS)

A Girl’s Story is an account of 18-year-old Annie Ernaux in 1958 when she leaves home for the first time to work as a camp counselor. Coming from a poor family, she feels like an outsider, but she is determined to experience new things and life fully. Most of all, she is determined to fall in love. What actually happens are complicated sexual encounters that leave her enamored but also the laughing stock of her peers. Ernaux examines not only what happened in the couple years after these events but also how she feels about the experience from the vantage point of 50 years later. The book is a beautiful contemplation of desire, memory, time, and the self. It’s also the story of how Ernaux emerged from this difficult period as a young woman ready to become a writer.

Heaven Emerson Whitney coverHEAVEN BY EMERSON WHITNEY (MCSWEENEY’S PUBLISHING)

This is a perfect book for fans of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (in fact, Maggie Nelson blurbed this book). It’s also great for anyone who loves genre-bending nonfiction, books that challenge gender norms, and books that narrate the body in frank and open ways. Emerson Whitney writes about childhood struggles with poverty, complex family relationships, and coming to terms with being gender-nonconforming. Whitney’s portrayal of their relationship with their mother and grandmother are particularly nuanced and memorable. Mixed in with this personal material are philosophical discussions of gender, self, and identity, drawing on writers such as Judith Butler and Donna Haraway. Whitney weaves these various strands into a powerful, ground-breaking account of growing up and figuring out one’s relationship to oneself and the world.

For Joshua Richard Wagamese coverFOR JOSHUA: AN OJIBWE FATHER TEACHES HIS SON BY RICHARD WAGAMESE (MILKWEED EDITIONS)

This book is a memoir written in the form of letters to Richard Wagamese’s estranged son Joshua. It’s meant to help Joshua understand the complicated life that Wagamese has led and also to fulfill Wagamese’s duty as an Ojibwe father to teach his son traditional wisdom. He describes early memories of being removed from his family and living in foster care and with an adoptive family. These moves shake his sense of security and cultural identity. As he gets older, he runs away from home and lives an itinerant life, sometimes getting by on the streets, sometimes in jail. He drinks heavily. Eventually he meets people who begin to teach him Native wisdom, and he struggles to change his life. Moving back and forth between the past and present, between struggle and insight, he weaves narrative and teaching into a powerful, inspiring whole.

Reproduction Ian Williams coverREPRODUCTION BY IAN WILLIAMS (EUROPA EDITIONS)

Reproduction won the 2019 Giller Prize, a Canadian award for fiction. This novel is a family saga set in Toronto, covering multiple generations of complicated, troubled people. At the novel’s heart is Felicia, a 17-year-old student from an unnamed Caribbean island. She meets Edgar, who comes from a wealthy German family, while the two of them visit their mothers in the hospital. Felicia ends up becoming a caretaker for Edgar’s mother, and she and Edgar develop a relationship. Later we meet their son Army, who is obsessed with making money. Other characters enter the story as the decades go on, the younger generation grappling with the actions and secrets of the older one. Williams brings the characters’ struggles and flaws to life with compassion and intelligence, and the novel deftly explores themes of inheritance, race, money, sex, and love.

Die My Love Ariana Harwicz coverDIE, MY LOVE BY ARIANA HARWICZ, TRANSLATED BY SARAH MOSES AND CAROLINA ORLOFF (CHARCO PRESS)

Die, My Love was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and was released in the U.S. last year. It was recently longlisted for the 2020 Best Translated Book Award as well. It’s narrated (with occasional point of view shifts) by a woman struggling with depression (possibly postpartum) and perhaps other mental illness. She lives with her husband and baby son in the French countryside. We don’t learn much about her except that she’s an immigrant. She feels isolated from her husband and struggles to care for her son. She lashes out, sometimes violently, and seeks an outlet in an affair with a neighbor. We get deep into her mind, seeing the world from her troubled perspective. She’s an unsparing narrator, telling her every anguished thought and action. Harwicz’s writing is astonishing. Through her unforgettable narrator she paints the world in vivid and frightening color.

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Reading Round-Up

My reading pace has been slow lately (thank you, American politics!), but I have finished a few books I can tell you about. I thought I’d write briefly about my recent reading to catch myself up a bit:

  • The Caregiver by Samuel Park: I picked this one up at the library, kind of on a whim. It was an interesting story about a girl and her mother who get caught up with a rebel group in Brazil in the 1970s, and also about the girl’s life years later in California, where she is working as a caregiver. I didn’t love this book, but I liked it — it’s one of those books that had some good sections, some interesting characters, interesting settings, but that didn’t add up to something great. The story behind the book is sad: the author died last year of stomach cancer at 41. One of the main characters in the novel has stomach cancer too.
  • Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom: this one comes out in January. I loved it. It’s about race, feminism, and culture, and it’s so smart, so insightful, so relevant to our current times. I hope it gets a lot of attention when it’s finally published. I recommend it for anyone who likes essays and/or who likes to think about race and culture.
  • Through the Evil Days by Julia Spencer-Fleming: this is the most-recently published book in the Rev. Clare Ferguson/Russ Van Alstyne series. I’m not sure what’s going on with the series, since this book was published in 2013 and it ends with uncertainty about some of the side characters. I hope another installment comes out at some point. This series is fun — it’s not breaking new ground in the mystery genre or anything, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable.
  • Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli: this is a quick read but a devastating one. Luiselli writes about her work as a translator conducting interviews with Latin-American children facing deportation. The children often don’t know how to answer the forty questions that make up the interview, and their difficulties providing answers reveal their impossible situation and even more so the injustices of U.S. immigration policy and foreign policy generally. It’s a powerful read and a good entry into learning about the subject.
  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo: this is essential reading for white people. DiAngelo herself is white, and it seems right that a white person is doing some of the work of getting white people to think about racism in its various insidious forms. The book is aimed particularly at people who think of themselves as progressive (so, me) but who get defensive when challenged about race or faced with evidence of the bias all white people have because of how we have been socialized (probably me too, although I try not to be this way). I learned a lot from this book.
  • Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft: this is a long book where things happen but without an overarching story to unify it; instead, it’s unified by theme: it’s a meditation on travel and the body. I was mesmerized by it and didn’t miss the forward momentum that plot offers. There are stories embedded within the book, and in between and around these stories are the narrator’s thoughts on her travels. It’s a weird book, but I read it happily.

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Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State

The Golden State coverThere’s so much I loved about Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State. What stands out to me most is its portrayal of motherhood, but I also loved the picture of the northern Californian landscape and culture we get in the book, the portrayal of university life in the book’s beginning, and the poignancy and political commentary in the situation with the protagonist and her husband. I also really liked the novel’s voice — it was sharp, funny, smart, and communicated a world of feeling in an understated way.

The protagonist, Daphne, works at an unnamed San Francisco university (Berkeley) and cares for her toddler-aged daughter. Her husband is stuck in Turkey, unable to return to the U.S. because he got screwed over by a nasty border officer, so Daphne has to care for her daughter alone. This part sent waves of anxiety through me, both at the knowledge that our government routinely separates families in this way, and at the thought of having to care for a young child as a single parent. Kiesling describes perfectly what it’s like to get through a very long day with a child who demands your attention but is also kind of boring, as young children are. The predicament with her husband is unsettling; he is simply stuck in Turkey with his family until the very, very slow bureaucratic wheels turn and his request to return to the U.S. is considered. Daphne is considering joining her husband in Turkey, but isn’t sure what she wants to do.

Instead, what she does is leave work suddenly one day, pick up her daughter, and drive hours up north to a mobile home her grandparents have left her in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. She thinks there’s a chance she’ll have some time and space up there to figure out how to deal with her situation. She does have some of that, but she also learns about the movement underway in that part of California to secede from the state and form the “State of Jefferson” (mainly in order to avoid taxes). She gets involved in the lives of her neighbors and an elderly woman she happens to meet in a restaurant.

I loved how the novel is politically timely, both in terms of domestic and international issues that connect in important ways, but also about experiences and situations that can happen at any time to any one — being separated from family, struggling with work, struggling with children that one deeply loves but that are hard to take care of day after day. The novel is in first person, and Daphne makes a wonderful companion, someone whose voice I was happy to have in my head for the few days it took me to read this.

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I Am, I Am, I Am

I Am I Am I Am cover I finished reading I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell on a plane, and it made me tear up, which is not ideal, when one is on a plane among strangers. Perhaps planes make me a little extra weepy because I hardly ever cry over books, but this book really did move me, especially the last chapter, which I won’t get into here. The book’s subtitle is “Seventeen Brushes with Death,” and that’s exactly what it is: essays about seventeen times O’Farrell faced death, sometimes very immediately and dangerously, sometimes in a more distanced but still real and frightening way. O’Farrell has lived a pretty exciting life, with lots of travel and serious illness, and she has a certain recklessness that leads her into trouble sometimes. But still it seems to me like seventeen brushes with death is a particularly unfortunate record. O’Farrell writes about these experiences simply, in a straightforward manner without much direct philosophizing about life and death. But she still manages to be evocative and to inspire reflection even as she sticks to the story at hand. The experiences build on one another, later stories inspiring memories of earlier ones, hospital experiences contrasting with one another, childhood dangers helping us understand adult ones. The essays are not in chronological order, but they still add up to a full sense of the person that O’Farrell is. The book is labeled a memoir, and it feels like one, even as the individual essays can stand alone as well. The last chapter is the most wrenching, and it brings the book together beautifully. I just loved it.

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