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Posts Tagged ‘books in translation’

When I saw The Summer Book by Tove Jansson at The Green Hand bookstore in Portland in May, I was intrigued. Jansson is the Finnish-Swedish author of the Moomin books, and I didn’t realize she had also written books for adults. This book is about a young girl, Sophia, who spends summers on an island with her father and grandmother — by page nine we learn her mother has died. The book is made up of twenty-six brief chapters, each a glimpse into Sophia’s life.

Jansson herself spent most of the summers of her life on various islands in the Pellinki and Stockholm archipelagos. She describes both the wild natural beauty and the impact of people’s presence on the islands very vividly in The Summer Book (I could picture the house where Sophia’s family lived because two summers ago I read Finnish Summer Houses).

But far more than simply being evocative of a beautiful place, The Summer Book captures the strangeness of being a small motherless child growing up with a fair bit of freedom and a quirky grandmother who is a bit childlike herself. They talk and walk and play and Grandmother lets Sophia do things her father wouldn’t. They scold each other and use bad words and sing and Grandmother smokes.

Jansson tells readers what Sophia is feeling —  she gets angry with her cat for killing birds and stops speaking to him, she feels suddenly afraid of a seal skull she found on the beach, she shouts and gets frustrated and irritated with a friend who comes to the island and is afraid of the boat and the bugs. Jansson also tells readers what Grandmother is feeling. At one point she tells Sophia she couldn’t sleep and began “thinking about sad things.” She begins to describe being old: “I mean it all seems to shrink up and glide away,” Grandmother said, “and things that were a lot of fun don’t mean anything anymore. . . . ” Sophie gets upset and argues until Grandmother gives her an example: she can’t remember what it’s like to sleep in a tent, which Sophie has done.

“Well I’ll tell you what it’s like,” Sophia said. “You can hear everything much clearer, and the tent is very small.”

As Sophia goes on talking, Grandmother remembers better. And in exchanges like these, Jansson manages to portray what it’s like to be young and misunderstood and old and misunderstood. This is a lovely, quiet book, a series of sketches more than a story, an unfolding of life rather than a plot. If you want to be transported by your reading, this is the kind of book to do that. If you want a story with a beginning, middle and end, it might not be to your taste. I enjoyed it very much — I like to read books in translation, to experience a taste of some other place’s literature. I’m not going to any remote islands this summer, but The Summer Book took me to Tove Jansson’s and it was a wonderful place to visit.

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I read another Europa Editions book over the weekend, The Penalty Area by Alain Gillot. It was a sweet read, veering near, but not succumbing to, saccharinity. The hero, Vincent, coaches the somewhat promising but mostly uninspired U16 team at a French soccer club. He is a loner, estranged from his mother and sister, Madeleine, because of his dysfunctional upbringing and abusive father. When Madeleine shows up and leaves his nephew, Leo with Vincent while she chases a crazy opportunity to improve her life, Vincent finds the boy strange, but they form a bond. In short order, he discovers that what makes Vincent different is Asperger’s and that it also makes him a brilliant soccer goalie. The different parts of the story aren’t all that challenging and are a little predictable, but the book is still different enough to be appealing and I enjoyed it. Vincent is fumbles with inept relationship skills, is forced to face his past (and inevitably, his sister and mother are as well), struggles to adapt his life to loving people and letting them in. I needed a relatively simple read, and I like soccer. If it sounds like I’m apologizing for liking this book, it’s because I know “heartwarming” has a bad name in literary circles. But I wanted to read about decency and kindness and people who’ve had a hard time finding a little happiness. The book doesn’t have a definitive tied-in-a-bow happy ending, but it ends on a positive note, leaving the reader feeling things will more than likely work out for the characters. I needed that. The Penalty Area is charming, and it’s easy to imagine it being a film. If you need a bookish boost, you can’t go wrong with this story.

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At work we’ve started a “RivRecommends” (short for Rivier University) cart where library patrons can put a slip in a recently returned book or DVD they enjoyed and suggest it to the community. One of my co-workers recommended Soft in the Head. It’s a French novel about a man, Germain, whose mother has always told him he was a mistake, who never learned to read properly, who is very tall and is often the butt of his friends’ jokes. Germain lives in a trailer in the back yard of his mother’s house, where he can keep an eye on his garden, he works at a temp agency mostly on manual labor jobs, and he likes counting pigeons in the park. One day he sits on a bench with Margueritte, an elderly woman as small as he is large.

Margueritte doesn’t find it odd that Germain counts the pigeons. She seems to enjoy his company. Eventually, she reads to him. They talk about all sorts of things. As Germain puts it, “. . . I thought that sooner or later she’d end up treating me like a pathetic moron. But she always talked to me like I was a person. And you see, that can change a man.”

Germain narrates the book, which keeps it from being a sappy story; my co-worker calls it charming, and I think that’s a good description. Regular bookconscious readers know I have a soft spot for books in translation. I feel like they take a reader somewhere new even more than books set in unfamiliar places but written in one’s native language.

I’ve also always liked books about unusual friendships, and Margueritte and Germain are terrific characters. This was a nice book to keep my mind occupied in this, our first week of being empty nesters — yes, Teen the Younger has gone off to college. And a good book for reading in the sun on a well-earned three day weekend.

 

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