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Posts Tagged ‘literature in translation’

I checked out the eBook version of 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool  late Saturday night, having finished a previous Europa Editions book on Hoopla. The blurb sounded good — an award winner and nominee,  translated from Italian. The main character meets a boy who teaches her Chinese ideograms, and “Camelia learns to see the world differently and, in it, a chance for renewal.” “Bittersweet and funny at times, heartbreaking at others . . . .”

My take? Dreadful. If I wanted to read about hopelessness and unhappiness, I’d read the news. Sure, there was some magical realism (it’s December for months, for example), and tragedy can, potentially, be transformative. But this book never transcended despair, and I found the unreliable time/date distracting (in a “look at me, I’m doing strange things with my narrative” manner) and the characters unlikeable and even uninteresting. I couldn’t understand the point of many of Camelia’s actions, it’s extremely unbelievable that a family, even an immigrant family, could elude the notice of social services in a place like Leeds if they were suffering to the extent that she and her mother are throughout this book, and Wen, the love interest, is two dimensional.

I don’t usually give negative reviews, but here it is: unless you like despair and pointlessness, don’t read this book.

 

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It’s been some time since I read something in translation, which longtime bookconscious followers will know is one of my favorite things to do. When I was through with the graphic memoir I wrote about last week, I shopped my shelves and nothing was jumping out saying “read me now.” So I browsed Hoopla, where I had borrowed the previous book, and came across Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata, which I heard about over the summer and hadn’t read yet.

It’s a short novel about a thirty-six year old woman, Keiko Furukura, who has worked part-time in a convenience store since she was eighteen. She was there when it opened and is on her 8th manager. We learn that growing up, Keiko was different — she reacted to things like a dead pet budgie in a park quite dispassionately, and seemed to have a literal take on the world. Her parents alternately worried and felt mortified that their child was different, and so Keiko learned to fit in by saying very little, and making sure that when she did, she sounded like those around her.

In the course of this novel, Keiko figures out that her untraditional life — living in a shabby apartment alone, not dating or socializing much, working part-time in a job mostly taken by immigrants, people stuck between jobs, or students rather than having a career trajectory — makes other people uncomfortable. People like her sister, who is married and has a baby, or the few high school acquaintances she still knows.

So Keiko tries conforming to society’s expectations. I don’t want to give away details about the way that plays out, but I will say I found myself fearing for her, and so when Keiko makes a strong stand for being herself, it came as a relief. I know that’s all vague, but you really should read this book, and I don’t want to spoil it!

Murata and her translator, Ginny Tapley Takemori, bring the culture of the Japanese convenience store alive — from the regulars and the specials to the management and the manual. I appreciated that bits of Japanese, like the greeting the store workers are expected to call out when shoppers come in, are left in tact. Murata manages to make Keiko both a sympathetic character and a symbol of conformist society’s dehumanizing effects on those who do not choose to be outsiders, but instead cannot fit in as expected. It’s a darkly funny book in some ways, although it did not make me laugh as some other readers have commented it did.

I really enjoy books like this that are windows into lives very different than mine. Convenience Store Woman is that, and it’s also a brief story that stays with you, simple in and of itself but carrying greater truths that may cause the reader to keep turning it over in their mind, wondering, and being thankful to have entered into this little world.

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I recently reviewed The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, and I just finished his earlier book, The President’s Hat. Set towards the end of Francois Mitterrand’s presidency, the book opens with Daniel Mercier treating himself to a meal at a brasserie while his wife and son are away. President Mitterrand and his party are seated beside Daniel. He’s amazed by this brush with greatness, and when the president leaves his black felt Homburg hat, Daniel does the unthinkable — he takes it.

As the novel unfolds, three other characters end up with the president’s hat: a woman in an unhappy love affair, a famous perfumer who hasn’t been able to create anything new for years and is in a deep depression, and a wealthy man who has come to disdain all that his familiar world stands for. As each of them possesses the hat for a brief time, their lives are changed. Daniel gets a promotion. Fanny finds the gumption to leave her lover. Pierre rediscovers his creativity. Bernard thinks for himself, and discovers a passion for modern art.

Does the president get his hat back? You’ll have to read the book to see. Once again Laurain transports readers to Paris, brings each scene alive with little details like the “ramekin of shallot vinegar” served alongside the seafood platter Daniel orders. Or a scene in which Pierre describes an African fetish in his analyst’s office.

This story seems a little bit like a fable or fairy tale; there’s the implication that the hat has some sort of magic or power and is bringing changes to each of the characters’ lives, but Laurain never quite says, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. To me, that makes for better reading. There’s a discussion guide in the back; a book group might enjoy discussing the many social and cultural issues Laurain touches on as well as the charm of the novel itself.

The President’s Hat would be good vacation reading — thoughtful and well done, but not too taxing.

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Welcome to my first bookconscious on-the-fly post. I’m quite literally about to fly, and since Manchester Boston airport has free Wifi (and no hoops to jump through to connect), I decided to write about the book I finished this morning after taking Teen the Younger to school.

The Guest Cat, by poet Takashi Hiraide, is a quiet, meditative book, small and polished and lovely. It’s a novel in which the narrator is writing the novel, a literary technique that reminds me of one of those wooden box puzzles you open only to find more to unlock in the next layer.

The narrator and his wife and most of the other human characters (other than poets, interestingly enough) remain nameless, which made the story feel like a fable, with universal lessons for readers to plumb. Chibi, the guest of the title, and several other cats who make briefer but nonetheless important appearances, all have names.

The narrator and his wife have recently come to live and work (they write and edit) in a guesthouse in the garden of an old fashioned Tokyo house owned by an elderly couple. Chibi belongs to a family in the house next door on “Lightening Alley,” but begins to visit the couple every day, even sleeping there at night. They feed her, play with her, observe her, and begin to find their way in a new life.

The translators notes discuss the theme of outsiderness in The Guest Catthe couple are not part of the family or even longtime residents of their neighborhood, but Chibi gives them a sense of belonging. Through the little cat they find connection in an otherwise changing, isolating world.

It’s a deceptively simple story on the surface, but philosophical as it’s settles in your mind, which is my favorite kind of read. Like other translated work I’ve read, The Guest Cat made me aware all over again of how similar human consciousness and emotion are, even in a culture as foreign (to me) as Japan’s. And I absolutely love the cover art.

Reading Hiraide’s novel felt like meditating does when I actually manage to be still. A good way to settle my heart and mind before a trip.

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