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Posts Tagged ‘literary translation’

When I began bookconscious we were still living in a small town in the Deep South. I missed the four seasons, and one of the things we enjoy about being back in New Hampshire is winter. Really!  Lots of people ask how we can stand the long winters here. In most of the places we’ve lived, winter was a drag. Wet, gray, dreary, without fluffy clean snow and bright sunshine to break up the monotony.

In New England, winter is like the other seasons — gorgeous and changeable. It may be gray and slushy on occasion, but the next day may be postcard lovely. As I write, it’s snowing lightly but the sun is breaking through, so the flakes look like mylar confetti.  It’s cold but not bone-chilling today, and the wind is calm. The bare branches look fetching with a sparkly new coating of snow.

In fairness, even where winter is pretty and bright, it gets dark early, and there is the post-holiday let down when you’ve made it through New Year’s and the promise of spring is a long way off. There’s nothing like a good fire and a good book to fight off the melancholy effect of winter’s darkness, or to revel in the long nights  if you find them cozy.

I started 2010 with a book I’d wanted to read for some time, Lev Grossman‘s The Magicians. Billed as a sort of Harry Potter for grownups, this novel opens with a young man named Quentin receiving his call to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy.  The novel follows him from those first confusing hours through his graduation and into the world(s) — ours, and the world where a series of children’s fantasy novels is set.

The Magicians is a dark look at how magic might co-exist with our world.  It’s also a coming of age novel, complete with sex and drugs. And an engrossing read that considers the impact our favorite children’s books have on our worldviews, our characters, our psyches.

Fascinating stuff for a mother in the Harry Potter era, when critics of Hogwarts’ intoxicating charms warn that J.K. Rowling has dangerously blurred children’s notions of fantasy and reality. My kids both went through phases of wishing fervently that Hogwarts were real (heck, so did I). Grossman gives us a peek at what might happen if it were, and if kids with magical powers grew up into adults with those powers.

Like The Magicians, Kate Morton‘s The Forgotten Garden was on my library list for a number of months. Morton is Australian and the book is set in Australia and England. I enjoyed the shifting setting as well as the shifting time — as the protagonist researches her mysterious family history, she reads a notebook her grandmother left. These notes tell about the previous generation, in the late Victorian and Edwardian period.

Since I’d just read Alice I Have Been, which is also set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I enjoyed the connection. Morton is a good storyteller, and once I got into The Forgotten Garden, I tore right through it.  It didn’t stay with me for days after, the way Alice did.  But I’m planning to read Morton’s other books.

A fascinating story that did stay with me for a long while after I reached the end is one I gave the Computer Scientist for Christmas: Ursala LeGuin‘s The Lathe of Heaven. We both really enjoyed the premise of LeGuin’s fascinating story: a man’s dreams impact reality.  She wrote the book in the 1970’s about the future, but the book felt fresh and even timely, as climate change and war in the Middle East both factor into the story.

Many books I’ve read recently are set during wars. At last month’s Gibson’s  book club discussion, a new participant who had also read The Piano Teacher suggested Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford. I read it fairly quickly, and again enjoyed the connection to my other reading, as the novel took place both around the time of WWII and decades later, just as The Forgotten Garden spans much of the twentieth century. Because we lived in the Seattle area for awhile, I was interested in the details about the homefront in the Pacific Northwest.

Ford explores the meaning of ethnicity and identity as well as family relationships and loyalties in Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I enjoyed many of the minor characters — a cafeteria lady who gruffly looks after the protagonist who is bullied at school; a jazz musician who befriends the boy; his mother, who is caught between her love for her son and her loyalty to her domineering husband. Some of these relationships could be better developed, but it was a fun, interesting read and would be an interesting book club pick.

Speaking of book discussions, I joined a new series at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on world religions. Their first selection was a book I’d bought at a library sale somewhere along the line and had been meaning to read, Thich Nhat Hanh‘s Living Buddha, Living Christ. Bookconscious fans know I’ve been trying to study mindfulness for a few years, and I’ve read his books The Miracle of Mindfulness and Peace Is Every Step. Both are powerful books to dip into again and again, rather than digest all at once.

This book is different, though — Hanh veers away from teaching mindfulness to explore Christ as his own “spiritual ancestor.” He finds parallels in the teachings of Buddha and Jesus. I’ve always found the interconnectedness of faiths very interesting, and his insights are thought provoking. Hanh’s writing is simple and clear, and you’re bound to come away from reading any of his work with only a glimpse of what it might mean. A few days later, the glimpse might expand a bit until you’re seeing the whole horizon.

Speaking of a book that will expand your horizon — go read The Power of Half by Kevin and Hannah Salwen. I couldn’t put it down, and read it in one sitting (while waiting for the Teenager at the indoor soccer facility where he trains). The book reads like a long piece in a good newspaper, which makes sense, since Kevin Salwen wrote for the Wall Street Journal. It’s the story of the Salwen family’s decision to sell their grand Atlanta home and give half the proceeds to a nonprofit.

The Salwens worked together, kids and parents each weighing in, to decide how best to donate the money.  Kevin writes well, and his observations about how development aid works best were enlightening, even though I have read a great deal about aid and agreed with where he was starting from (helping people help themselves is better than telling them what help they need). I like a book that teaches me something new about something I already know about. I also appreciate the way he shares the things that went poorly.

Hannah’s parts of the book are also enjoyable, and she’s an inspiring kid. She writes about her experiences volunteering, and she offers young readers exercises to help them identify ways they can make the world a better place. This makes the book much more than a memoir about one family’s giving – anyone could pick up The Power of Half and get practical ideas and support for making an impact in their community and the world. I can’t wait to meet Kevin and Hannah at Gibson’s in a couple of weeks — they are doing an event at the store and an event at an area school, both of which will benefit Capitol Region Habitat for Humanity.

Another author I look forward to meeting is Susan Hand Shetterly, who is coming to the store this week. Her book, Settled In the Wild, is a beautiful book about the resilience of the wild, as well as a reminder of the interconnectedness of the human and natural worlds. Unlike some naturalist writing, Settled neither scolds nor romanticizes.

I think the balance Hand strikes between explaining her deeply felt connection to the wild all around us and the need for humans to coexist responsibly with nature is just right. Shetterly’s thoughtful writing, graceful perception, and admirable powers of observation, along with her affectionate portrayal of her human neighbors and her own experiences making a life in small town Maine, makes this an enjoyable book for fans of memoir as well as nature lovers.

Shetterly’s book is about achieving a well-lived life as much as it’s about nature. It’s enjoyable to reflect on the role of everyday people in history — something most history books can’t or don’t cover. But it’s also inspiring to revisit the lives of those larger than life historical figures whose impact is widely known. Paul Johnson‘s Churchill is one of the most delightful biographies I’ve read, because Johnson treats his subject both as a historical figure and as an individual who lived his life well.

Johnson effectively reviews Churchill’s basic biographical details in a compact book, but he also writes eloquently of the pivotal moments when Churchill’s brilliance manifested itself. He manages to give a full picture of the great man of history (including those rare things he got wrong) and the friend, husband, and father; the statesman and the painter; the orator and the bricklayer.  Because Johnson met Churchill and those who knew him, he sprinkles the book with personal anecdotes and quotes from their conversations as well, which gives the book an amiable feel. I liked the combination of  Johnson’s masterful political and historical analysis and his convivial celebration of Churchill’s humanity.

Another astute observer of her subjects’ humanity is Edwidge Danticat. Her piece in the New Yorker about her cousin Maxo, who died in the earthquake in Haiti, is a lovely description of the impact of his short life, a life that would have gone unnoticed by most of the world, were it not for this tragedy. But she manages, in roughly 1,000 words, to present him as fully human. In The Dew Breaker, she manages to present as fully human a character who is a torturer in the regime of Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier.  I’d never read Danticat, and I thoroughly enjoyed her rich writing and the psychological depth of her storytelling.

I picked up Danticat’s book at the library because like so many people, my knowledge of Haitian culture is limited. I’ve read about Partners In Health‘s work there, and learned a little about Haiti reading Tracy Kidder‘s Mountains Beyond Mountains. But like many Americans, my exposure to world literature is not as thorough as it could be. I’d heard of Danticat, and know the work of some African and Indian writers, because they write in English.

In an effort to expand my literary horizons I read a wonderful anthology, Words Without Borders, which brings readers a selection of work in translation, selected by well known authors.  I took a workshop on literary translation last spring, and this collection made me admire that complicated art even more. I’m thrilled that this anthology is a project of Words Without Borders online magazine, where even more work in translation is available.

Most of the book is fiction, with some poetry and essays. My favorite stories were the hilarious “The Scripture Read Backward,” by Bengali writer Parashuram; “The Uses of English,” by Nigerian Akinwumi Isola; and “Swimming at Night,” by Argentinian Juan Forn. I also loved the selections by Polish poet Bronislaw Maj.  Reading this anthology was like taking an extended trip around the world. Just the thing for a dark winter’s evening.

The Computer Scientist and I have been sharing some books this winter.  Besides The Lathe of Heaven, the Computer Scientist also read The Battlefield Guide. We share similar tastes in poetry and literature, but he also likes grittier stuff, like Dennis Lehane‘s Mystic River, which he read recently. He enjoys Lehane’s direct but descriptive writing and noted the suspenseful clash between different socioeconomic segments in Mystic River.  He is still working on Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle and has started reading Churchill as well.

The Teenager is reading Profiles In Courage.  I know he’s enjoying it because when we passed the New Hampshire state house a couple of days ago, he pointed to Daniel Webster‘s statue and said, “That guy was a genius.” I asked him what caused him to suddenly feel so strongly about NH’s native son, and he said he’d read about him in Profiles.

I know he’s gotten something out of his recent American history reading, especially the graphic novel edition of the constitution, because he told me a week or so ago that our government is amazing, it’s just the people in it who are self-centered and stupid. 🙂  He knows that’s not true across the board, but he gets that the pre-occupation with gaining and holding office is interfering with the incredible idea that is America.

The Preteen has been reading the Manga series Tokyo Mew Mew. She likes the art; she’s been interested in this style of drawing for a while now and is taking a manga class. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that her favorite part is when the characters battle aliens.

The Preteen has also enjoyed the benefits of having a mother who works in a bookstore this month. She’s read a couple of books that aren’t out yet, including The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz, (due out in Feb.), and started The False Princess, by Eilis O’Neal, (it doesn’t come out until July). She’s also reading The Purloined Boy, by Mortimus Clay, which I picked up for her at the New England Independent Booksellers’ Association trade show. Of the three, she likes the Purloined Boy the most.

All three are fantasy, and it’s hard to impress her in the fantasy department, since she is a devoted fan of Harry Potter and also of the Percy Jackson series (as I write she is enjoying Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Ultimate Guide), Ursula LeGuin’s Catwings books, as well as some very good stand alone books like Ella Enchanted. We also read aloud all of the Narnia and Prydain books and Susan Cooper‘s Dark Is Rising sequence when she was younger. So she’s grown up with high standards, and is often disappointed. She keeps returning to the fantasy genre though, and sometimes she finds a new favorite, like The Amaranth Enchantment.

I’ve experienced the same thing, occasionally picking up some book I’ve been looking forward to and feeling let down. Reading leads us to new places we haven’t yet explored, and one reason I love it so much is that sense of anticipation a new book offers. Will it be a book I can’t forget? Will it enrich something I’ve recently read, making connections that lead me on to even more wonderful books? Sure there’s a chance it will let me down, but even then, I’ve added to my experience as a reader. Finding words wanting is better than not finding them at all. Besides, that new favorite is out there, just waiting for me to crack it open.


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After the reading at Gibson’s, I was primed for another evening of extraordinary poetry, an event I mentioned in last month’s bookconscious post — Dog’s Night Out. Mike Pride, the retired Concord Monitor editor and a poetry lover, organized this event and wrote about the three poets who graced the stage: Philip Schultz, Wesley McNair, and Sharon Olds.  You read that right — three blockbuster poets. Last year’s reading, Poets Three, featured Maxine Kumin, Donald Hall, and Charles Simic. Paradise, I am telling you, is right here in the Granite State.

The Computer Scientist and I decided to attend Dogs’ Night Out on a date, sans kids. We had a wonderful time. Concord is a small city, and you tend to see people you know whenever you go out. I ran into several fellow Songweavers (singing, one could argue, is musical poetry), a handful of Concord Reads pals, and other book-minded folks as we waited for the doors to open.

The Computer Scientist is a logistical and spatial genius, and he figured out the optimal spot for a height challenged person (me) to see the stage.  He is also a kind husband who is unembarrassed that his poetry geek wife had a notebook on her lap and took copious notes during the reading. As we settled into our seats we took in the art gracing the stage — a number of large wire sculptures of dogs.

Mike Pride opened the evening by explaining that the sculptures are the work of Monica Banks, who is married to Philip Schultz, and that he had first seen one of her dog pieces at an exhibition at the Fells here in New Hampshire in 2007.  When he met Schultz at the Pulitzer prize dinner last year, and invited him to read here, the theme of the evening — Dogs’ Night Out — took shape in Pride’s mind, because of Banks’ sculpture and several poems in Schultz’s Pulitzer prize winning book, failure.

Pride introduced Wesley McNair first, who I had the privilege to meet and speak with at the 2008 NH Writers’ Project Writers’ Day (quick aside: I also said hello after Dogs’ Night Out, thanked him for some advice he offered while signing a book for me last year, and introduced the Computer Scientist. McNair was warm and encouraging — what a joy, to talk with a gifted person who is so down to earth, and so willing to share his time with fans and students). Pride also pointed out that just as with the Poets Three reading, he asked each poet to read one poem by one of the others, and that each poet would be reading something about dogs, in keeping with the theme.

McNair opened with one of his own poems, “The One Who Will Save You,” which is a superb narrative piece set in central Maine, featuring a large mongrel dog. Next he read Sharon Olds’ “First Thanksgiving,” a lovely poem about anticipating a child’s return from college. McNair went on to say he became a poet to “talk about a broken family in a broken world,” and explained that his first poem was one word: “Wanted,” which he wrote beneath a picture he drew of his father. Then he read “How I Became a Poet,” which describes this first effort to create meaning, to transform ordinary experience with words.

McNair read other personal and family poems, including “The Good Boy Suit,” “The Book of A,” and “As I Am,” a poem that perfectly describes the state of absorbed distraction my family frequently notes in me. I sometimes worry that this is evidence of my lack of mindfulness, but McNair’s poem helped me see it as a different sort of mindfulness, in which one is present in that open space between the inner and outer worlds that Diana Durham mentioned in her talk at the Kalevala conference.

McNair also read a number of what I think of as his observational poems, such as “Smoking,” “Hymn to the Comb-Over,” and “An Executive’s Afterlife,” which he wrote years ago about an executive in hell. A timely topic, perhaps. These are not just poems, but cultural sketches, art work that is utterly accessible, that fit McNair’s own stated goal of writing “poems for the back pockets of Americans.” He closed with “It,” a poem that pokes fun at the way most of us are linguistically unspecific in our everyday speech.

Next Mike Pride introduced Sharon Olds. Through his introductions, it was clear that these poets came together to read because Pride is their common denominator — and McNair called attention to the fact that Pride is a wonderful advocate for the arts, and especially poetry, and his Monitor pieces bring poetry to a wide audience. He met McNair many years ago, and met Philip Schultz at the Pulitzer dinner. Pride drives Donald Hall to Harvard every year where he gives a talk with another poet, and one year that was Sharon Olds. In talking with her, they learned she was living in New Hampshire. Paradise, that is.

Olds opened with three poems by other poets: “The Garden,” by Schultz; and then two poems with dogs in them, “Dog Biscuits,” by Chase Twichell; and “Love,” by Ethan Stebbins. Then Olds began to read her own poems, opening with the delightful “Diagnosis,” a poem both humorous and profound in this age of experts. She continued with two other family poems, “High School Senior,” and “The Last Evening,” about being with her dying mother.

Reading poems set along the spectrum of female life, from babyhood to the death bed, Olds showed her evocative power. With a few words she conjures the enormity of human emotions, and sometimes probes the tender places nearly to the point of pain. If you’re a child or a parent, read Sharon Olds and you’ll shiver with recognition.

Olds also read “April, New Hampshire,” which is the most devastatingly beautiful funeral poem I’ve ever heard, and also a poignant tribute to Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall, and “Ode to a Composting Toilet,” which is hilarious, but like her other work, more philosophical than you might think if you just glance the surface. The poem set at Kenyon’s funeral also mentioned Hall’s dog. As we drove home later, the Computer Scientist remarked that her description of Hall looking eagle-like was eerie, and also really accurate.

Last, Pride introduced Philip Schultz, who opened with Wesley McNair’s “The Man He Turned Into,” praising McNair for the vulnerability in his poems — a characteristic of Schultz’s own work.  He went on to read the opening poem from failure, “It’s Sunday Morning in Early November,”  and other poems featuring his family, including “The Magic Kingdom,” a mindful poem about gratitude, and “My Dog,” a sad and wise pet elegy, as well as several parts of his long 9/11 poem from failure, “The Wandering Wingless,” whose protagonist is a dog walker. Schultz closed with two newer poems, “The Sweet Under Taste,” and “The God of Loneliness,” which the Computer Scientist said perfectly evokes being a dad.

I’d say the reading had a deeper theme than dogs, and these poets have more in common than knowing Mike Pride and being some of the greatest poets writing in America today.  McNair, Olds, and Schultz take the power of raw human emotions — straight out of everyday ordinary experiences like loving your partner, child, or parent, making your way in the world, doing work, or noticing what’s going on around you —  and hone those emotions and experiences into works of art. These are poems of the real world, poems with dirt and sweat and fear and pain, and yes, shit, in them. And they’re dead gorgeous, often witty, and incredibly wise.

I went to bed that night on a poetry high, only to wake up early to go to Writers’ Day, the spring conference of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project. If you write in NH and you don’t belong, join. The NH Writer newsletter, edited by Martha Carlson-Bradley, is excellent, and the events NHWP puts on are always well done. I signed up early for Writers’ Day, both to take advantage of the early bird price, and to get into my first choice workshops. I ran into a friend who said even though she registered early bird, many of her top choices were full.

This year’s keynote speaker was Meredith Hall, author of Without A Map. Her talk was inspiring, because her wildly successful writing career didn’t blossom until she was in her fifties. After a series of setbacks earlier in her life, Hall won a $50,000 grant, wrote a moving memoir (which she says came out as is — no revision needed!), watched it become a best seller, and heard from scores of people who wrote to tell her she’d changed their lives. It was hard to make any kind of practical take home notes for myself from this remarkable story. Hall herself admits her sudden success has been beyond her wildest expectations. The excerpts she read from Without a Map were lovely. I’ve put it on the long term “to read” list.

My first workshop session was “Writing In Open Forms,”  led by Jeff Friedman. We did two exercises, one on writing a poem about a color using all of the senses except vision, and the other on alliteration.  Despite having close to thirty people in the workshop, Friedman was able to have everyone read one of the two poems. He made some kind of positive comment about every piece, which is always nice in a one-off workshop where you don’t know any of your fellow poets and it’s excruciating to read a completely unpolished piece. He also gave us another exercise to do at home, which is a great way to end a workshop, with people eager to go out and keep writing.

“Mining Memory,” with Joseph Hurka, was my second session. Hurka writes fiction and memoir, and his books are on my “to read” list as well. I like to wait until after I’ve had a workshop with someone before I read their work, so I don’t form too many preconceived notions. Hurka talked about his belief that we all have profound stories in us, and that writers just need to work at figuring out the way to tell our own stories uniquely. He also talked about focusing on writing, not on what *may* happen later — publication, reviews, renown, fame. A grounding and important message.

Like Friedman, Hurka had us write a couple of exercises in the workshop, and left us with more to take home. I ended up with some interesting raw material for a project I’ve got in mind to combine poems and prose in a hybrid memoir. The exercises were short but really generated a burst of writing — people all around me cranked out a couple of pages in the brief time allotted. Hurka’s practical advice about what to do with these “mined memories” in terms of creating stories was helpful as well.

At my lunch break, I sat down at a table where I didn’t recognize anyone except Jeff Friedman. We talked a bit more about the poetry workshop. Several people at the table were talking about MFA’s, and I nearly felt brave enough to bring up my “independent MFA,” but then chickened out. After all, I was in their territory — most of the people at my table had MFA’s or taught in MFA programs. I spent the rest of the break networking, making sure I chatted with people I’d met at the Kalevala conference, readings, or other events. I also bought Friedman’s Taking Down the Angel, asked him to sign it.

My afternoon session was the most intriguing of the day. The exercises in the earlier sessions exceeded my expectations, and both Friedman and Hurka gave practical, helpful, encouraging writing advice. But this last session, “Getting Abroad,’ with Jim Kates, was a chance for me to try something entirely new and thought-provoking: literary translation.  I expected to just get an overview, but we actually tried it, and I’m hooked.

Kates, who is president of the American Literary Translators Association,  is clearly passionate about literary translation and that really made the workshop fun — his joy in this work was palpable. After reading some examples, and talking about the problems and issues literary translators face and what sets their work apart from literal translation, we split into two groups, one to work on a prose poem, and one to work on verse. My group had the verse, and the four of us each took a stanza of Rene Villard’s “Le Cemetiere De Saint-Nic.” Everyone in my group had at least a passing knowledge of French, but to make our work easier, Kates gave us a literal translation as well as the original French.

Literary translation brings together so many of my interests — reading, writing, the universality of human experience, the joy of discovering what’s unique in different cultures, the deep meaning of art, the creation of connections, knowing oneself and the world, relating one thing to another, contacting the space between the inner and outer worlds — it’s all there. Taking this workshop, with such an enthusiastic and accomplished person leading the way, was a fantastic finish to a couple of really intense weeks of thinking about writing.

I hung around for NH Literary Idol, which was a fun conclusion to the day, and went home full of thoughts and ideas. I had a great week of writing, and made a point of following up with some of the people I saw at the conference, which was one of my goals — to work on networking. All week, I also looked forward to the next book related event of the month, held last weekend: The Five Colleges Book Sale.

If you love buying books, check out the next post. The Five Colleges Book Sale is definitely a shopping paradise!

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