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.