Bookish Musings for July 2021

This past month has been a strange one for me (for the rest of the world too, possibly, but I’ll stick to what I know best). It was composed of roughly four quarters/weeks. The first was extremely busy at work with a major event (which went well, but exhausted me). The second was spent recovering from the aforementioned major event, catching up on home life and cautiously venturing forth into the Big City. The third was phenomenally busy but exhilarating with the online British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School, which made me realise how much I enjoy the literary life and wish I could spend all my days on it. And the fourth was going back to work, trying to catch up on everything while suffering one of my huge three-four day migraines.

So overall, it’s been the kind of month where my head felt very ‘ouch’ (both literally and metaphorically) and I struggled to concentrate on any reading or reviewing. I feel very far behind on just about everything. But I do want to recapture some of the sheer glee of the third week of July, when I lived in a literary bubble that consisted not just of myself, but many other people equally passionate about words and cultures, about comma splices and sounds and rhythms. Rather than a lone madness, I had the pleasure and privilege of experiencing a folie à deux – or rather, folie à plusieurs, which is much more fun!

My brain is currently a jumble of ideas and sudden personal insights relating to books, reading, writing and translation, so I thought I’d jot some of them down here, while they are still fresh. Apologies for not having a nicely digested, thoughtful essay, but just random bullet points.

  1. I mentioned that several of the books I read in July were excellent, entertaining holiday reads, but not particularly memorable. However, I feel they deserve more credit than that.
    • The White Shepherd by Annie Dalton is a mix of cosy and serious crime, with older female amateur protagonists, published in 2015, well ahead of the current trend of precisely such crime novels, which seem to be taking the bestseller charts by storm, perhaps in the wake of one written by a likeable male TV celebrity. It’s hard to be ahead of a certain trend, isn’t it? To my mind, this book was better than several others in this subgenre.
    • Caro Ramsay’s The Tears of Angels is a well-written, impactful police procedural and, although I haven’t read others in the series (which made the large cast of characters a bit difficult to place at times), has a great sense of place. However, although there is a lot of talk of #TartanNoir (which this one is not, not exactly), it seems that Scotland is still not perceived as being as atmospheric as Iceland, Sweden or Norway. I’ve seen far too many mediocre ScandiNoir fiction lately, so it feels like publishers are scraping the bottom of the barrel, rather than focusing on homegrown stuff of equal or mostly higher quality.
    • I’ve grown to like Joanna Cannon on Twitter, but am embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read any of her books (although I have them all on my Kindle – which usually means: out of sight, out of mind – I am far more likely to grab something off my shelves). I thought her debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was an intriguing mix of humour and grit, mostly seen through the eyes of a child, which is notoriously difficult to do. I thought she was quite clever in giving us the perspective of a child looking back, but also additional adult perspectives, which shows us events and interpretations that a child couldn’t possibly understand. And yet this breaks all the rules of what us wannabe novelists are told to do: don’t have too many points of view, don’t switch too much between timelines so as not to confuse the reader etc. By setting out all these rules, are publishers just setting themselves up for clones of whatever has been successful in the past?
    • There was a period in my late 20s and early 30s when all I read was crime fiction and Sophie Hannah was one of my favourites for the way she managed to write her way out of the most outrageous, impossible premise. Nowadays, I usually prefer crime with a social message, strong characterisation, atmospheric details, but every now and then I crave a thorough page-turner (if it has any of the above additional elements, then all the better) and am willing to suspend some disbelief for a book that will keep me up all night. It’s harder to do this than it looks, and it hurts me to say that Hannah herself seems to have lost this capability in the final stages of the execution. But one writer who seems to have taken over the mantle of this successfully is Catherine Ryan Howard. Her Nothing Man was one of the most appreciated books we ever had at the Virtual Crime Book Club, and I embarked almost immediately upon her lockdown thriller 56 Days, which is coming out imminently (and which fits none of my August reading plans, but rules are made to be broken, right?)

2. The Translation Summer School made me realise how much I belong to this ‘tribe’, i.e. of people who are fond of and curious about other languages and cultures, even if some of them got into translation by accident. To be fair, I think fewer and fewer are getting into literary translation by accident, unless they are particularly well connected, because it is becoming very competitive. Translation courses are becoming the new MFAs – yet I think there are very few translators who can make a living entirely out of their literary translations (hence perhaps the need to teach). In particular, there are still cultural institutions, funding and awarding bodies, publishers who distrust anyone who is not a ‘native English speaker’ for a literary translation, as if the (sometimes, not always) superior command and understanding of nuances in the source language is not as important as fluency in the target language. But many of us ‘immigrants’ or ‘non-natives’ have grown up with the English language, which has become a victim perhaps of its own imperial and corporate success. Given the recent brouhaha about accents on TV in the Olympic coverage, the myth of ‘proper English’ is still alive and well, although there has never been one unitary, commonly defined and monitored English language (unlike the Académie Française – which, incidentally, is looking increasingly out of touch, conservative and ridiculous), but many Englishes.

In addition to ‘who gets to translate’, there is also the issue of ‘what gets translated’. There is still far too much stereotyping of what the ‘the literature of a particular culture’ should look like, or what writing style will appeal to English language readers. There is far too much emphasis on what will sell among the big publishers, and it is left up to the small independent publishers, the ones who can least afford the risk of low sales, to educate readers and try to broaden their taste (or cater to a more diverse group of readers).

On a more cheery note, the Summer School made me realise how much I enjoy theatre and all the people who work in it (I was in the Multingual Theatre Translation stream and our tutor was the very thoughtful, encouraging and thoroughly engaging William Gregory). I was very active in theatre groups throughout school and university, and there is something incredibly satisfying about seeing a coherent, beautiful whole emerge from a group effort, something that is so much better than the work of any individual, and that depends on each person performing at their best. The work of a translator is often very solitary, but this collaborative effort that is inevitable in theatre translation is something that appeals hugely to me, and I will try to keep it in my life somehow, if I can afford it. At the very least, my eight fellow theatre group participants and I are planning to keep in touch and meet up occasionally to continue sharing our play translations.

3. The joys and woes of indie publishing

In my upbeat moments, I tell myself that Corylus Books is doing great work, taking on lesser-known languages and the kinds of quirky, genre-busting works that I like to read myself and that many of my (online or not) friends tell me they too like to read. However, the sales figures tell another story. Although each one of our books thus far has received excellent reviews, it appears that English language readers are not ready for Balkan Noir, nor for crime fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the subgenres of police procedural or psychological thriller or spy thriller etc.

I don’t want to rubbish the crime fiction genre, which I truly love, and where so much great writing and experimentation is taking place. But I have to admit it is discouraging to see some of the very average and ‘samey’ offerings that are being churned out by the big publishers month after month, and which end up ranking very highly on the sales charts. Yes, maybe that is the sort of book that the wider public prefer, but I think it’s at least 50% due to the money they can afford to splurge on advertising and promotion, the connections they have to journalists and other media people, to festival organisers and celebrity endorsements etc. There is no point in being snobbish and saying that we are not influenced by the buzz: probably around 80% of readers are. It works, and that is why they do it. And if it doesn’t work for three out of ten titles, they can afford to swallow the losses, or the Amazon spokes in their wheels.

Last but not least, there is one aspect of being a small indie publisher that I hadn’t realised before (and probably should have). Namely, that if you are not a purveyor of literary fiction in translation, you are unlikely to have much chance of winning translation and publication grants from the source countries, or literary awards which can then increase sales and visibility (both are usually given to ‘works of literary merit’, which crime fiction is still not considered to be generally).

I’ve been in this position before, starting my own company, and know it can take a couple of years to find success. But at least back then, I was only tightening my own belt, while this time there are many other people that we are letting down if we don’t achieve at least a modest success. Ah well, we chose this path ourselves, so mustn’t grumble, as they say. We’ll find ways to access funding, pay our translators properly, market and distribute our books and promote our authors in innovative ways, overcoming the double barriers of Covid and Brexit.

Oh, and Happy National Day, Switzerland, miss you lots! Hop Suisse!

Book Subscription Packages

I’ve had three book subscription packages so far in my life (I tend to do a lot of impulse book buying anyway), and I wanted to share you pictures of my latest one-off box, as well as talk about two longer-term subscriptions which I have really enjoyed.

A month or so ago, I saw Janet Emson review a Books That Matter subscription box and knew that I wanted to try out the box for the following month, which was all about refugees and displaced people. The May box arrived today and it is a beautiful and thoughtful delight.

Beautifully wrapped in an appropriately coloured tissue for Love. 10% of the proceeds from the sale of this month’s box go to Choose Love, a charity supporting people fleeing war, persecution and climate change.

Quite a few of these boxes that I’ve seen in the past contain items that have nothing to do with the actual book (tea and scented candles or socks or some such stuff). Books That Matter is a feminist subscription box and, although this month’s content was not quite as rich and varied as Janet’s one last month, it was very much geared towards the book therein. The book is a winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction by author Hoda Barakat, translated by Marilyn Booth, and fits perfectly with my reading Lebanese literature this month – finally a female author, too! A keyring, a cookie, several postcards and bookmarks with Choose Love logos…

And of course the indispensable tote bag! I do have a collection of bags from publishers and festivals that should see me through to the end of my life! The one-off box costs £17, so a bit pricey, although the price does come progressively down if you have a 3 month, 6 month or 12 month subscription.

The ongoing book subscription I currently have is with Chiltern Bookshops: an entirely bespoked service, in which you chat with the bookseller to tell them about your preferences, and then they send you a book each month. Since I knew the bookseller, Jacqui, quite well via our blogs (and then we met a couple of times in person), she has a very good idea of my reading taste, so each book has been a complete hit. But what was an unexpected bonus was that I got a children’s subscription as a Christmas present for my younger son, who is not a great reader. At first he muttered and grumbled, but he was won over after having a conversation with Debbie, the children’s books specialist, and receiving some very intriguing and unusual books (certainly not babyish ones, as his older brother teased him he might receive). The adult subscription is £45 for 3 months, the children’s one £40, and, while there might not be any flamboyant extras other than a bookmark, they arrive beautifully and ecologically packed.

The first book subscription I ever got was ironically one that I had to pack and ship myself to all of our other subscribers, namely the Asymptote Book Club when it first launched. I greatly enjoyed the variety of countries and types of books on offer, and also the special q&A feature with the translators, but I had to stop for financial reasons. It is £140 a year, which is not at all bad for 12 months’ worth of well-curated titles in translation, but a bit of a chunk when my pension contributions are going up dramatically and all my domestic appliances keep breaking down. I do hope I can restart it at some point, and I gather that they are moving into the ‘virtual book club’ discussions now, which was something I was always planning to do back in the days when I was volunteering for Asymptote.

I know there are some other lovely book subscriptions out there: I am tempted by the Republic of Consciousness Prize, which works with a variety of UK small independent publishers, or some of the single publisher ones (looking at you, NYRB Classics Book Club, or Archipelago Books, but sadly both of you are in the US and the shipping is slow and costly). Closer to home, there are personal favourites like Peirene Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, And Other Stories or Persephone Books, although you already know in advance what books you are getting, so the element of surprise is gone.

#ReadIndies: Poetry Presses

One area where the independent publishers really excel is poetry. Probably because there is little money to be made from it on the whole (presidential inauguration ceremony effect excepted – hurrah for Amanda Gorman!), and so most big publishing conglomerates won’t touch it with a bargepole.

Many of these poetry publishers are tiny, often one-person outfits, operating on a shoestring, often run by other poets. And all of us who love (or write) poetry are all the richer for having them: they are worth every penny of arts funding that they can get (although many don’t get any). I have written about discovering and splurging on poetry books back in 2018, so I won’t mention Ignition, Sad Press, V Press, Tapsalteerie, Bad Betty Press, Midsummer Night’s Press, Stranger Press or Burning Eye Books again here, other than to encourage you to seek out their beautifully produced volumes of poetry (occasionally flash fiction) and explore the boundaries of both English language and translated poetry written today.

In this post, I will wax lyrical about the slightly better-known poetry publishers that appear most frequently on my bookshelves and show some of their most beautiful covers.

The cover to the bilingual edition of the epic poem by Adnan Al-Sayegh.

Seren Books is the book imprint of Poetry Wales, but does not publish poetry exclusively. It does, however, focus on English language writing from Wales, although its range has expanded more recently, for example this fine dual language (English-Arabic) edition of the epic poem Uruk’s Anthem or recent poetry from Latin America. I also admire their beautiful anthologies about Women’s Work or Motherhood, and the way many of their ‘classic’ books reflect the enormous changes in Wales over the past hundred years.

Out-Spoken Press arose from the Out-Spoken monthly poetry and music events which were started in London in 2012 by Anthony Anaxagorou and other poet friends. The press was established in 2015 to give voice to writers that had been under-represented by mainstream poetry magazines and publishers, and it has demonstrated a real knack for finding talent. I’ve been following them since their creation and have had the opportunity to read poets such as Raymond Antrobus, Sabrina Mahfouz, Wayne Holloway-Smith, Hannah Lowe before they became prize-winning household names.

An example of a beautiful Peepal Tree Press cover.

Peepal Tree Press is the Leeds-based home of Caribbean and Black British writing and literary or social studies. They always punch well above their weight and, most recently, have won the Costa Book of the Year Award with Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch. However, I encountered them through poetry, and one particular favourite is Tiphanie Yanique’s moving, by turns tender and broken, combative and submissive, Wife.

The Emma Press is the brainchild and labour of love of Emma Dai’an Wright and publishes lovely poetry chapbooks, anthologies and children’s books, including some in translation. I’ve attended a couple of their launch events and they are brilliant at creating a wonderful sense of community. I would recommend their anthologies on love, aunts and the sea (to just name a few), as well as Poems the Wind Blew In – an anthology of children’s poems translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, with amusing illustrations by Riya Chowdhury. It’s never too soon to expose children to poetry from all over the world!

Carcanet Press barely needs any introduction – it is one of the leading publishers of both classical and modern poetry (and literary criticism). Most recently, I’ve been smitten with Caroline Bird’s The Air Year and Eavan Boland’s The Historian, both shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards for Poetry (Boland’s posthumous work went on to win the prize). One of my favourite poetry collections, that I keep returning to again and again, is Her Birth by Rebecca Goss, which might explain why I was so delighted that Rebecca agreed to work with me as a mentor back in 2019.

Last and possibly the best-known of these poetry publishers is Bloodaxe Books, which, in its 40 years of existence, has really redefined poetry for the English-speaking world, always one step ahead in terms of discovering new voices, both in English and in translation. Best known perhaps for their thick, diverse anthologies such as Being Alive, Staying Alive, Being Human, I love them especially for their translations of Romanian poets (naturally!). They have introduced me to far too many poets to mention here, but let me just call out a few on my shelves: Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica, Gillian Allnutt’s Wake, Denise Levertov and Anna Akhmatova (translated by Richard McKane).

#ReadIndies: What is indie on my shelf?

I may be pottering around Canada this month, but I wanted to take part somehow in the Read Indies month co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambles. So I decided to have a look through my shelves and see which independent publishers have most caught my eye and made me take out my credit card. There are plenty of newer publishers that I haven’t yet explored – this is a list of those that I have in plentiful quantities. Please bear in mind also that I have a lot of books in other languages, and that the criteria for being an independent publisher is quite different elsewhere, so I will stick to the UK based publishers I own.

Translated Fiction:

Peirene Press – for short, concentrated bursts of brilliance from Central and Northern Europe (originally, although the selection has broadened in recent years). One of my all-time favourites was The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke. They were also the first to introduce an annual subscription model (as far as I know).

Istros Books – for SE European literature – or, to be precise – literature from countries bordering the River Danube. A recent favourite was Ludovic Bruckstein’s The Trap, and there is a new translation of Bruckstein’s work coming out now.

Alma Books – particularly for their translations of classics, from the Russian for me and all sorts of other languages for my son. Most recently enjoyed the detailed annotations and translation notes of Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island.

A good selection of Alma titles that I acquired in their annual book sale.

Tilted Axis – predominantly Asian selection of countries, forever grateful for introducing me to Thai literature via Prabda Yoon’s Moving Parts or daring Bengali author Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay.

Strangers Press – a very small outfit, linked to the UEA Publishing Programme and Norwich Writers’ Centre. I’ve been particularly interested in their Keshiki New Voices from Japan series, as you might expect, but they also have a series on Korean literature and another on Dutch literature.

Nordisk Books Рcontemporary Nordic fiction aimed at proving that there is more to Scandinavia than just crime fiction. Was particularly struck by Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen and Love/War by Ebba Witt-Brattstr̦m.

Bitter Lemon Press – I like to travel while reading crime fiction, so the mission of Bitter Lemon to cover the dark side of foreign places really appeals to me. They introduced me to Argentinian writer Claudia Pineiro and Spanish writer Teresa Solana, and The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda is the most recent book which really struck a chord.

Charco Press – an emphasis on striking, even challenging contemporary Latin American literature, with equally striking covers in a rainbow array of colours. Recommended titles include: Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love (the first I read from them and still a favourite) and Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo.

Since I arrange my books by countries, publishers like Charco mess up my system a little, since I cannot bear to not keep all their books together, so I’ve created a Latin American bookcase.

Fitzcarraldo Editions – this publisher straddles two worlds, with their blue-covered translations/fiction titles and white-covered essays/non-fiction. I discovered Olga Tokarczuk thanks to them and most recently was bowled over by Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season.

English Language:

Comma Press – another publisher which straddles two categories, their focus being on short stories, whether in English or in translation. I particularly enjoy their city series, such as The Book of Tokyo or The Book of Shanghai, and of course their Europa 28 (Writing by Women on the Future of Europe).

Persephone Books – how I miss the dinky little Persephone bookshop, which was dangerously close to my workplace! This publisher does reprints of largely forgotten titles by early to mid-twentieth century women authors. I’ve been smitten by Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski and The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood, who was the wife of painter Eric Ravilious and an artist in her own right.

Orenda Books – there are far too few independent publishers of crime fiction, and Orenda does a great job of providing readers with both translated and English crime novels. Not only do I admire the publisher’s ability to create a real sense of community around her books and authors, but she is also happy to let her authors experiment with cross-genre fiction, which the bigger publishers are seldom prepared to do. Some of the authors I particularly like are: Antti Tuomainen, Helen Fitzgerald, Will Carver, Agnes Ravatn and Simone Buchholz.

Silver Press – a small, recently-founded feminist publisher, with a very promising list of authors including Leonora Carrington, Chantal Akerman, Nell Dunn and Audre Lorde. This is the new Virago in a way. For many years, I was an avid Virago fan, and I still am, but they do not count as independent (they are currently part of Hachette).

This post is getting rather long, so I will leave the poetry publishers for next week.

But before I go, I will just very gently remind you of Corylus Books as well: translated crime fiction with a social edge from countries and languages that tend to get fewer translations. We are currently in the process of reconfiguring our website so that it will work both in the UK and abroad. Our best reviewed books from our first year of operation were Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu and The Fox by Sólveig Pálsdóttir.

Happy Birthday, Asymptote Book Club!

It’s been one year since a minuscule team of volunteers operating on a shoestring budget launched the Asymptote Book Club and what an adventurous journey around the world it has been! Although we are sometimes at the mercy of publishers’ schedules and catalogues, we’ve made a deliberate effort to be as diverse as possible: 12 countries, 12 languages, 7 men and 5 women. 

But it’s about more than just ticking the boxes. Our editors have made a real effort to find not just high-quality literature and sterling translations, but also works which make us ponder, debate, and want to explore more about a particular author or country. And they have a pretty good eye for winners: two of our selections were English Pen Translates Award winners and another two were shortlisted for the inaugural National Book Award Prize for Translated Fiction in the US.

Then there are all of the unseen skirmishes behind the scenes with late arrivals from abroad, postal delays because of snow or holidays, sudden changes in publishing dates… Still, it has been a labour of love and a venture that I’m very proud to be associated with.

And the excellent, superb, phenomenal news is that we are doing a ‘counter-Brexit’, i.e. we are expanding into the EU! In other words, as of immediately, you can subscribe to the Book Club if you have an address in the EU (previously, it was only open for the US and UK).

I have to admit I’ve not managed to read all of the books, as review demands and other reading challenges came in. The three early summer titles are a blur: Brother In Ice by Alicia Kopf, transl. Mara Faye Lethem; The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, transl. Nicky Harman and Revenge of the Translator by Brice Matthieussent, transl. Emma Ramadan, but I look forward to exploring all of them in the near future.

Of the ones that I did read, each one has meant something special to me.

December 2017: The Lime Tree by César Aira, transl. Chris Andrews – got me started on a love affair with this Argentinian writer 

January 2018: Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, transl. Rimli Bhattacharya – the dark Bengali horse which most surprised me and which I still find myself thinking about

February: Love by Hanne Ørstavik, transl. Martin Aitken – this short Norwegian novella was the most emotionally wrecking, had me on tenterhooks

March: Trick by Domenico Starnone, transl. Jhumpa Lahiri – the cleverest in its blend of everyday minutiae and intertextuality

July: The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig, transl. Isabel Fargo Cole – the most personally relatable and relevant

August: I Didn’t Talk by Beatriz Bracher, transl. Adam Morris – the most interesting from the political point of view, can see it becoming a talking point now and in the future, with Brazil descending once more into totalitarianism

September: Moving Parts by Prabda Yun, transl. Mui Poopoksakul – the boldest choice, the funniest and most experimental and also most blatantly contemporary

October: Like a Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan, transl. Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi – the most ‘moreish’ – really got swept up in the family saga, the political intrigues and historical period

November: The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrožić, transl. Ellen Elias-Bursać – have just started this one, which I expect will be very emotionally resonant with me, as one of my best friends lived through that terrible period in Yugoslavia (with a Serb mother and a Croat father)

We had our first ever Book Club meeting in London on Thursday evening and we couldn’t quite agree on an overall favourite. Do I have a personal one? I think each one gave me something different to love and I simply cannot pick between them. But if you were to twist my arm, I might have to choose Hanne Ørstavik and Ivana Bodrožić.

I cannot wait to see where the second year of our travels will take us. If you want to join us in our exploration of world literature, you can find all the details about the Book Club and how to subscribe here.