I saw a bookish blog post which sounded like an interesting review of the half-year so far, and was not quite as challenging to complete as the Six in Six tag. But I refuse to call it the Mid-Year Book Freakout Tag – too American a term for my taste! It is now July rather than June, but I have too much happening at once.
Best Book You’ve Read so Far
This was quite a hard category, because although I’ve read a lot of good books this year, there wasn’t one that completely saw off the competition. I suppose I will stick to tried and tested old favourites like: Shirley Jackson: The Sundial(which is both very funny and sinister, my favourite combination) and the rather depressing Simone de Beauvoir: The Woman Destroyed
New Release You Haven’t Read Yet but Want To
Tawada Yoko: Scattered All Over the Earth, transl. Margaret Mitsuutani
The reviews for this book are somewhat mixed, but I cannot resist a book about language and cultural identity, and this blurb sounds crazy:
Welcome to the not-too-distant future: Japan, having vanished from the face of the earth, is now remembered as “the land of sushi.” Hiruko, its former citizen and a climate refugee herself, has a job teaching immigrant children in Denmark with her invented language Panska (Pan-Scandinavian): “homemade language. no country to stay in. three countries I experienced. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language.” As she searches for anyone who can still speak her mother tongue, Hiruko soon makes new friends. Her troupe travels to France, encountering an umami cooking competition; a dead whale; an ultra-nationalist named Breivik; unrequited love; Kakuzo robots; red herrings; uranium; an Andalusian matador.
This seems a little unkind, as I know it’s considered a classic of Australian literature, but I found Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Childrenreally hard going. I also really wanted to like Berlin-set Other People’s Clothesby Calla Henkel but found it annoyingly self-absorbed.
From opposite ends of the social class in two very different countries: Princess Martha Bibescu showing subtle understanding and political flair in her war-time Political Journals, while Nakagami Kenji portrays the hard and violent life of Japa’s outcasts in The Cape, transl. Eva Zimmerman.
I don’t usually cry at books, but, as one might expect, The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman does not leave you indifferent, while Gael Faye’s Petit Pays, based on his experiences of civil war in Burundi and Rwanda, show that humans are incapable of learning the lessons of the past.
Book That Made You Happy
This sounds counterintuitive, perhaps even crass, but I found much gentle optimism and encouragement in Josie George‘s remarkable memoir about living with disability A Still Life, while Ways of Walking: Essays edited by Ann de Forest (appropriate name, that) is a lovely collection of essays about all sorts of walking: in urban and rural areas, across forbidden lines, around airports and on ancient pilgrim routes. A collection to dip into and savour!
I’m on holiday for the next two weeks and not sure how much time or internet access I will have for posting anything new (other than Friday Fun posts, which I’ve scheduled already). So here is a quick summary of the month of March and see you in mid-April!
Not a massive quantity of books this month (eleven rather than the twelve shown in the picture, because I read the Doina Rusti in both Romanian and English). I decided somewhat upon a whim to dedicate this month primarily to the small number of contemporary Italian books I have on my shelf (I’ve read hardly anything published after Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and most of the translations were in Romanian rather than English, because I believed the cultural and linguistic similarities would be helpful). I read a total of six Italian books, which I divided up into two blog posts of mini-reviews:
Non-fiction: Alberto Prunetti’s Down and Out in England and Italy (trans. and Natalia Ginzburg: The Little Virtues
Fiction: all very moving in different ways – Andrea Bajani’s If You Kept a Record of Sins (trans. Elizabeth Harris), Concita de Gregorio’s The Missing Word (trans. Clarissa Botsford – which I think is more fictional than non-fictional, although it is based on a real case and real people), Italo Svevo’s A Perfect Hoax (trans. J. G. Nichols) and Claudia Durastanti’s Cleopatra Goes to Prison (trans. Christine Donougher).
Not sure I can generalise about modern Italian literature on the basis of just a few books, but all of the ones I seem to have picked have been remarkable in their acute observation and restrained style. Quite, quite different from the exuberant, virtuoso storytelling style of The Book of Perilous Dishes, which makes 18th century Bucharest really leap off the pages.
To finish off my Italian sojourn (and because finally my library reservation arrived, after several months), I loved reading about Alan Taylor’s account of his friendship with Muriel Spark when he met her at her house in Arezzo. I love Spark’s writing, but was always doubtful I’d have enjoyed meeting her in person – but this is a loving (not gushing) memoir which slightly changed my mind about her.
Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms was very well written and subtle – but oh boy, if you English consider that a difficult mother-daughter relationship (when they only see each other once a year in London for their birthdays), you have no idea how difficult the parent-child relationship can be in other cultures!
I had seen the film adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place, but of course with Humphrey Bogart in the main role, it was never going to be as dark and mean as the book. Remarkable depiction of psychological self-justification and unravelling – perhaps the book that American Psycho wanted to be but didn’t quite manage.
Although I wished Down and Out in England and Italy could have had more wit and depth, the only book that disappointed me this month was The Twyford Code (I loved the unusual storytelling style in the first book The Appeal, but the audio transcripts here got annoying and repetitive rather quickly, and it was trying a bit too hard to be clever).
The eight films I’ve watched this month can be divided into :
heartwarming (Studio Ghibli to the rescue once again, with a rewatch of Howl’s Moving Castle and wistful new entrants From Up on Poppy Hill and The Tale of Princess Kaguya)
sinister (featuring strong-minded and cruel female leads: Lady Macbeth and Black Medusa or dodgy, damaged male leads in The Master)
‘talkie’ comedies (where the script and dialogue are the most important components, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
This month I got a chance to remember how rewarding but also energy-consuming it is to work with primary-school children. I ran an assembly and a couple of translation workshops for six and seven-year-olds, introducing them to my favourite little penguin, Apolodor, an intrepid but not very bright traveller from a well-loved Romanian children’s book in verse by Gellu Naum. As students during Communist times, we adapted the story for the stage… and promptly got censored for daring to talk about travelling abroad. But this time, the story had a happy ending and the children enjoyed it a lot (although not necessarily the ‘having to translate it’ bit).
After a brief hiatus while we were all busy translating and working on other projects, Corylus is now back on track with editing and finalising our next two titles, which should be out before the summer. I sent out our very first newsletter, and there was so much I wanted to say that I had to be really, really selective, so as not to make it an overlong reading experience. In future months, I hope to talk about international crime fiction more widely, have guest contributors, cover reveals and exclusive additional material (such as short stories). If you think you’d like to be part of the Corylus family, you can sign up for the newsletter on our homepage.
At the beginning of this month I had the honour and pleasure to be invited to join the readalong for The Book of Perilous Dishes by Doina Ruști, translated by James Christian Brown, published recently by Neem Tree Press. You can find further information about the book’s background and how it was translated on the Neem Tree Press site. I attended a Q&A with the author and translator, which helped me understand the book better (and the vast amount of research that went into it, both at the time of writing and at the time of translating).
N.B. I have just realised that I forgot to tag this as part of the #ReadIndies initiative launched by @Kaggsy59 and @LizzySiddal.
Set predominantly in 1798 Bucharest (although the older heroine travels to Germany and France and looks back upon the events of that year from the year 1829), this is a book that is full of colour, street noises, market aromas, as well as larger than life characters. I knew the historical research was accurate and detailed, but I was surprised to hear that many of the characters are actual historical figures.
It was a tricky time in Romanian history. This is a part of the world which has always been at the mercy of feuding empires. The dichotomy between Cartesian West (associated with modernity) and Balkanic East (associated with oppression but also the church and traditional values) has dominated all of Romanian history and culture.
Wallachia was for several centuries under the indirect rule of the Ottoman Empire, which in practice meant that money and goods had to be sent to the Sultan every year in return for a quasi-autonomy. However, the Sultan’s court couldn’t be bothered to get their hands dirty with administrative details. So instead they appointed wealthy Greeks from the Phanar quarter of the city to oversee these vassal states. It was a much sought-after position (lots of money to be earned through taxation) and there was no shortage of candidates prepared to pay money to be appointed prince of the country.
One of the greatest amusements of the Sublime Porte was to fool some Greek with the notion that he could make himself lord and master over the land of Wallachia for the modest price of a mere four hundred bags of loose change. No one had any idea what the price of a country should be. But it was not the real value that counted, so much as that ‘yours for only…’ which even today makes people restless…
…there and then he became the master of Wallachia, where he fondly dreamed that he was going to spend the rest of his days with subjects falling at his feet. A year later, however, another sucker for a cut-price offer would turn up, with another four hundred bags. Consequently, when I arrived there, Bucharest had already had the pleasure of being ruled by at least thirty Greeks, not to mention the Russian army, which made its way there from time to time, and drove out whoever happened to be the ruler… Fortunately, the Russian soldiers had itchy feet and they never stayed long.
But fear not! This book is anything but a dry old history lesson. This is the story of the fiery fourteen-year-old Pâtcă who suddenly finds herself alone in the world when her grandmother Maxima gets arrested for witchcraft in the Transylvanian town of Brașov. She respects Maxima’s command to go back to her home town of Bucharest, seek out her great-uncle Zăval and acquire the magical recipe book of Perilous Dishes. Alas, she finds her great-uncle has been murdered and a bottle of powerful poison is missing, while the whole city is in uproar over a cook kidnapped by the Prince, who is able to cook gourmet dishes out of this world. Pâtcă soon figures out that the cook has somehow got hold of her uncle’s book, but is not aware of the dangerous powers of his recipes he is preparing, so the girl has to use all her resources to stay out of prison, recover the recipe book and keep her true identity secret. For she has been told that she is the notorious Cat O’Friday (Mâța Vinerii in Romanian, the original title of the book), the last descendant of a family of magicians who follow the cult of the great pagan god Sator.
The book is stuffed to the gills with fascinating characters of all nationalities or ethnic backgrounds, some of them criminals and hustlers like Ismail Bina, some impossibly charismatic and naive (like the French diplomat Dubois), others simply going along with things in order to survive (like the pragmatic Caterina Greceanu, who takes the girl into her household). There are so many plot twists that your head will spin, but I advise just allowing yourself to gallop along. Some flashbacks have been tidied up to create a more logical chronological order in the translated version.
I also like the way the translation manages to convey the funny, irreverent, confessional tone of the young girl, with all of the moodiness, stubbornness and know-it-all attitude of her age. Pâtcă itself is a nickname, meaning ‘Tiny’ or ‘Little’Un’, but the girl is so used to it, she doesn’t understand why people laugh when they hear her name. It’s little details like this, plus her difficulties in summoning up Sator’s powers or finding the houses she is supposed to have inherited, which make me wonder if she is… not exactly an unreliable narrator, but rendered unreliable because her family has been withholding secrets from her.
Translator James Christian Brown has been teaching English at the university in Bucharest for a long time, and his respect for and knowledge of Romanian culture and language shows clearly in this book. However, he admitted that if he hadn’t coincidentally also been given some 18th century documents to translate at roughly the same time, it would have been a huge challenge to do this book justice. It’s not just the vocabulary, but many of the concepts themselves which have fallen into oblivion, so even if you find the ‘correct’ term in English, it would not mean much to a modern reader. I found myself sighing in relief on many a page that I didn’t have to translate this!
With its fast-paced plot and young heroine, I suspect it is being marketed as YA literature in the English-speaking world. However, it is a rollicking good read for adults as well, particularly for its vivid recreation of a vanished world. It reminded me somewhat of Carlos Ruis Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind or Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, so if you liked either of these, I would definitely try this one.