Monday, July 31, 2017

July Reading Wrapup

When I think back to the books I read in June, most of them were heavy with important social, political, and cultural issues.  They were shocking, informative, inspiring.  I was reading with a determined purpose, and those books directly reflected it.  It looks like maybe my reading inclination shifted slightly in July.  Classics of the Western Cannon, a YA love story, historical fiction, and the just-plain-bizarre played alongside xenophobia, racism, and religious intolerance.  I guess my July reading is.....well rounded?  It's also plentiful!  Partly, this is due to the shorter books that I read (poetry, novellas) but also because of the #24in48 Readathon that happened.  A 48-hour span of time completely dedicated to reading?  Yes please!

Here are the 24 (the most I've ever read in a single month!) books that I read in July:

Autopsy of a Father, by Pascale Kramer - review here
The Abridged History of Rainfall, by Jay Hopler - Throughout this poetry collection, Jay Hopler takes you on journey across time, space, and emotion - masterfully capturing the human condition and its impact on the natural world.  There is also a strong sense of play throughout, especially through the poet's word choices, rhythms, and creative phrasing.  This is an immensely beautiful collection of poetry, and one I know that I will return to again and again.
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens - The well-loved classic about Pip and the Great Expectations he, and his mysterious benefactor, have for him.
Quoof, by Paul Muldoon - Paul Muldoon is a lover of language and its many forms, interpretations, and interminglings.  In this poetry collection, he explores animal sounds-as-language, punctuation, cultural word-use variations, and differences in English, from his native Northern Ireland and the United States.
My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, by Aja Monet - review here

When Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Menon (audiobook) - This is a very sweet YA romance about the intersection of Indian and American culture, romance, and computer science.
The Nakano Thrift Shop, by Hiromi Kawakami - The book covers a few years in the life of a Japanese trinket shop, the items that come in and out of it, and the quirky and lovable people who come into contact with it.  It is the intermingling of the characters, trinkets, and plots that makes this book an absolute delight to read.
Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn - Are you a lover of words and language?  Is freedom of expression important to you?  Do you value critical thinking and rationality over blind adherence to dogma?  Would you be willing to sacrifice your principles and better judgment in order to gain acceptance?  These are questions you'll grapple with throughout this book.
What We Lose, by Zinzi Clemmons - Have you ever been so overcome with a cocktail of depressive emotions...exhaustion, longing, sadness...that you begin to lose your grasp on time?  That is the hazy experience captured by Zinzi Clemmons in her novel.
Even This Page is White, by Vivek Shraya - It's not only the creative use of imagery that's remarkable about this poetry collection.  It's the the playful and hard-hitting employment of language.  It's how the poet frames her subjects, coming at them from directions you wouldn't expect.  The poems celebrate, challenge, reinforce, reverberate.

Ordinary Light, by Tracy K. Smith (audiobook) - In this extraordinary memoir, Tracy K. Smith takes us not only through her own life, but into the complex relationship she shared with her mother.  It was the death of her mother from cancer that motivated Tracy to take on this project, and the sorrow and searching in the wake of this loss are tangible throughout the work.
Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse - The story about a young man's search for enlightenment and truth throughout his life
The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware - A mystery/thriller about a woman on a luxury cruise yacht who witnesses what she thinks is a murder
Such Small Hands, by Andres Barba - The story of orphaned 7-year old Marina, her doll Marina, and the other girls at the orphanage where she is sent.
Margaret the First, by Danielle Dutton (audiobook) - In this work of historical fiction, the reader follows Margaret Cavendish throughout her life.  But think ye not that it is dry, uninspired, or uneventful.  In fact, rather than laying out a traditional biography, Danielle Dutton takes the reader inside the mind of Margaret - simultaneously into her deep introversion and desire for notoriety.  It's the interplay of these two motivations in her life, along with the beautiful writing, that makes this a joy to read.

Urgent Unheard Stories, by Roxane Gay - This is a short and sweet collection of essays that meld bibliophilia, pop culture, and social justice.  In true Roxane Gay style, she makes you laugh, makes you think, and makes you feel.
The Wangs vs the World, by Jade Chang - This novel is a truly madcap family road trip, like a slightly more woke version of National Lampoon.
Nothing More to Lose, by Najwan Darwish - A poetry collection, by a Palestinian writer, that is full of religious, social, cultural, and familial upheval.
The Little Buddhist Monk and The Proof, by Cesar Aira - These novellas are grounded in a visceral reality that I could clearly place myself into, but that reality is punctuated by bits and pieces of the surreal.
When I Was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson - In true Marilynne Robinson style, these essays interweave threads of religion, science, literature, and personal experience to talk about important issues.

A to Z of American Women Leaders and Activists, by Donna Langston - An encyclopedia of American women activists, leaders, and visionaries.  Even if you've studied women's history or other related courses, you'll probably find someone here who is new to you. 
Madame Bovary, by Gustav Flaubert - French classic about a woman frustrated by her circumstances and gender.
City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology - A huge array of poems, many of the Beat Generation, republished by the City Lights Press in San Francisco.   
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood - Dystopian tale about a conservative religious order that takes control of the Eastern part of the United States and separates the citizenry into castes.

And that's it for my July reads - a really diverse and interesting mixture of books!  What did you read in July?  What are you looking forward to in August?

Librorum annis,

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

Opening the pages of Hiromi Kawakami's The Nakano Thrift Shop is like taking a cup of hot tea on a cold, damp day.  It's comforting, uplifting, and fortifying with just a touch of sweetness.  The novel takes place over a few years in the life of a Japanese trinket shop, the items that come in and out of it, and the quirky and lovable people who visit it.  It is the intermingling of the characters, trinkets, and plots that makes this book an absolute delight to read.

Twenty-five years before the story begins, Haruo Nakano quit his corporate job at a food company and decided to open a thrift shop in a Tokyo suburb.  He's an eccentric man, having a penchant for knitted hats with pom-poms on the top, being a chain-smoker who doesn't like to use ashtrays, and having a habit of starting most of his statements with "You know what I mean?", without giving his listener any context or background information.  He's also quite a womanizer - married three times, and regularly keeping mistresses over the course of the novel. 

His store is chock-full of second-hand goods, from cups and bowls to clothing, appliances to furniture, there was very little rhyme or reason to what one might find.  The stock is constantly rotating, being purchased by the neighborhood's colorful residents and nearby college students.  Mr. Nakano goes on regular "pickups", where he drives to clients' homes to examine the keepsakes, trinkets, and castoffs that they want to sell him.  This routine means that the stock in the shop is always changing, which keeps customers coming back.

There are three main people who work either full or part-time in the thrift shop.  The first is Mr. Nakano's older sister, Masayo.  She is an artist, not married, and in her mid-fifties.  She's always working on projects like embroidering, making dolls, and printing on fabrics.  Her work is regularly featured in local art shows.  Mr. Nakano sees her as flamboyant and silly, and complains about her having a quintessential artistic temperament.  He has no qualms about expressing his opinions of her art, her romantic partners, and her life choices.  Masayo keeps no set schedule, but comes in and out of the shop generally as she pleases.  She has great rapport with the customers, and many of them come in just to see her.  Besides being a foil for Mr. Nakano, Masayo also functions as a mentor to another thrift shop employee - Hiromi Suganuma.

Hiromi is in her mid-20's, single, and spends most of her time running the shop's cash register, reading books, and closing up at the end of the day.  She loves to eat pie from the neighborhood bakery, and often shares baked goods with Masayo during their tête-à-têtes.  The third employee at the Nakano Thrift Shop is the slightly odd and very reserved Takeo Kiryu.  Also in his mid-20's, with floppy hair and the end of one of his fingers missing, Takeo was hired to help Mr. Nakano go out on his pickups.  After proving his capacity to make shrewd deals with clients, he is gradually sent out more and more on solo trips.  Both Hiromi and Takeo are quiet, socially awkward, and lonely.  The form a tenuous friendship, and it's the potential blossoming of that friendship into love that makes up the only significant plot-line that extends throughout the entire novel.

As for the organization of the book, The Nakano Thrift Shop is made up of vignettes rather than traditional chapters.  Each covers a few days or weeks, and spends that time in the day-to-day lives of the characters.  Each chapter is titled after an everyday object; that object is introduced into the story as the vignette progresses, and plays a role in the plot.  While reading the book, I played a game with myself -  I noted what object was the title of the vignette and tried to guess how it would appear within the story.  How many did I get it right?  None.  The plotting is so imaginative and well-constructed that I was always surprised with how she integrated the item into the story.

For example, the seventh chapter is titled "Sewing Machine".  I guessed that the sewing machine would be something used by Masayo in one of her art projects, and kept reading to find out if I was correct or not.  The chapter begins with Mr. Nakano and a business associate developing an online auction site for some of the thrift shop's items.  They're talking specifically about an piece that Takeo is bringing to the shop, from a pickup that day.  Takeo walks in with what turns out to be a life-sized, full-body, stand-up cardboard photo of a Japanese actress and singer.  This unusual item was from a 1980's advertising campaign for a sewing machine company.  In the photo, she's holding a sewing machine in one hand, and pointing to her chest with the other hand.  It is decided that this advertisement will go up for auction on the store's site, but will be displayed in the thrift shop until the bidding is concluded.  Hiromi and Takeo continue their flirtation, begun in the first chapter, until Hiromi initiates a fight between them.  Because she finds Takeo hard to make sense of, Hiromi fluctuates between infatuation and the desire to distance herself from him entirely.  After he brings in the advertisement, he seems to ignore her completely, which she interprets as him wanting nothing to do with her.  She tells him that she wants him to leave her alone, which hurts his feelings deeply, and leads to the argument.  Near the end of the chapter, a customer comes in with a large white case, hoping that the thrift store will to make her an offer for it.  It tuns out that inside the case is a sewing machine - identical to the one in the advertisement.  Mr. Nakano decides to buy it, and creates a special display with the two items sitting next to each other.  He remarks that the photo advertisement must not be exactly life-sized, because in-person the sewing machine is larger than it appears in the advertisement.  This distortion between what is perceived and what is real is symbolic of the relationship between Takeo and Hiromi at that point in the novel.  What Hiromi perceives of Takeo may not be quite accurate of his reality, and she makes a mistake that has long-lasting repercussions for both of them.  As you can see, I was wholly wrong with my guess of how the sewing machine would appear in the vignette!  It had nothing to do with Masayo whatsoever.

Other items that appear in the vignettes include an envelope, a letter opener, a bowl, and a dress.  Each is presented in a beautifully mysterious way, and it's through the author's creative storytelling that these common items are given power and meaning.  They, as was the case with the sewing machine, are also more than just everyday goods - they are also symbols of what's going on in the characters' lives, and as such they function on many levels.  The ability of the author to imbue these workaday pieces with such multifaceted metaphor is an example of her creativity and craft.

The novel was translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell, an American who only started studying the Japanese language in college.  You can find out more about her here.  Overall, I thought this was a stellar translation.  It was incredibly easy to read - so much so that, if it hadn't been clearly stated that it was a novel in translation, I would have believed that it was originally written in English.  For me, that is the sign of a well-translated work; the reading experience flows with a natural ease and rhythm.  There are no awkward phrases or unnatural-sounding word choices.  It was seamless.

If The Nakano Thrift Shop is indicative of Hiromi Kawakami's oeuvre, then I hope that more of her novels will be translated into English and made widely available.  This story was well-crafted and engaging, the characters endearing, and the overall reading experience was joyful and sweet.  This feeling is rare with modern novels, so having this book on my shelves will allow me to return to it whenever I'm in need of being enveloped by warmth and comfort.

Librorum annis,

Monday, July 24, 2017

The #24in48 Reckoning or, The Wrapup

In my last post, I laid out my overly ambitious TBR for the #24in48 readathon:

I was all ready and rearing to go for the 12:01am ET start time.  I had a big pot of tea brewed, my new mermaid blanket sprawled out on the sofa, and my first book picked.  Since it was so late/early, I decided that I needed to begin with something that would grip my attention.  So I picked Ruth Ware's The Woman in Cabin 10, about a young woman on a cruise ship who believes she's a witness to a murder.  Or is she?  Even my cat decided to get in on the readathon action.

It was the absolute right choice!  I was definitely swept up in the suspense and whodunnitness of the protagonist's story, enough so that the hours flew by.  However, it was quite late when I finally finished it.  Having been up since 6am that morning for work, I decided that it would be a good idea to get a few hours of sleep before starting another book.  Zzzzzz...

I woke up, got myself up and around, fixed some breakfast, and dove straight into Andres Barba's novella Such Small Hands.  As I was eating the mini almond croissants, I thought that they would be the perfect size for small hands.  Oh the thoughts that rattle through a readathon brain...

After that slim tome, I moved on to a collection of Roxane Gay's essays called Urgent Unheard Stories.  It was one of the Independent Bookstore Day swag items from a few years ago, but I had never gotten around to reading it.  Rectified.  Each essay dealt in some way with publishing, literature, and/or reading - but, as is Roxane's trademark, also spoke to larger social, civil, and political issues.

After that, I curled up with The Wangs vs the World, a family road trip adventure par excellence.  The father lost his makeup manufacturing business, his house, and all his millions in the 2009 recession.  His big plan to rebuild his fortune is to drive from where his family lived in Bel Air to his eldest daughter's home, north of New York City.  Himself, his two younger children, his second wife, and his nanny all pile into a Mercedes station wagon and have a bonkers trip, like something out of National Lampoon.  I fixed myself a lunch of steamed dumplings to nibble whilst I read.

After that, I picked up the only poetry collection on my TBR.  Nothing More to Lose, written by Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, focuses on issues of ethnicity, Jewish/Arab relations, personal identity, political radicalism, and many more.  As this was a collection of poetry in translation, NOT about love, this also ticks a box on my Book Riot Read Harder Challenge list!  Woohoo!

Many of these poems were hard-hitting, so I decided my next read should go in a different direction.  Plus, it was rounding the bend toward midnight, so I knew it had to be something I wouldn't get bogged down in.  I decided to read the bindup of two of Cesar Aira's short stories - The Little Buddhist Monk/The Proof

With a guest appearance by the break dancing hot dog from Snapchat!
I only was able to get through the Monk story before my eyelids got too darn heavy, so I had to call it a night.  I was up bright,but not so early, on Sunday morning, the last day of the readathon.  After breakfast, I plowed through the very bizarre story The Proof, and moved on to what was my last read of the weekend - Marilynne Robinson's essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books.  Despite the title, the collection centered around the author's usual stable of topics - religion, science, political discourse, community, and literature.  I started reading this in physical form, but had checked out the audiobook from my local libary (hey-o Hoopla!) so I listened to it the rest of the way.  And that, reader, took me past the 24-hour mark.  I made it!

Oh, and the good folks who ran #24in48 (Hi Rachel, Kristen, and Kerry!) set up fun challenges every 3 hours on the Readathon's blog.  They'd give you a prompt, and you posted your response (linked to your Twitter/Instagram/Litsy/blog/etc.) to share with everyone.  Here were some of my challenge posts -

Selfie: Book Face Edition!
We Need Diverse Books!
Spine Poetry!
Forget monsters, my favorite thing is tote bags!  Bookish tote bags!

In the span of 24 hours, I was able to read 7 books!  Not my entire TBR pile, but pretty darn close.  I got little sleep, ate some nibbles, and had a great time with my fellow 'thon-ers!  I can't wait until the next one!!!

Did you end up participating in the #24in48?  How did it go?  Are you feeling like a zombie on this Monday morning?  And, in case you want to mark your calendars now, the next #24in48 Readathon will be happening January 27-28, 2018!!! 

Librorum annis,

Thursday, July 20, 2017

#24in48 Readathon TBR

It's that time again!!  This coming weekend is the next installment of the 24in48 Readathon.  It's one of my favorite excuses to relax and do practically nothing, except read as many books as I can, all in one glorious weekend.  If you're interested in joining in on the fun, you can sign up here, and read about my previous readathon adventures here and here.  I'll be posting throughout the weekend on Litsy and Instagram, and on Monday you'll see exactly how well I got on with the reading.

When it comes to what books I read, I've tried lots of different arrangements.  Sometimes I pick a book series and read as many of them as I can.  Sometimes, I pick a few books that have been languishing on my shelves for a long time (*cough* years *cough*) and do my best to finish them.  While those tactics certainly have their merits, I've found that, for me, it's more fulfilling to read shorter books, because I get that great sense of accomplishment for finishing the things.  That's not to say that it's a bad idea to read longer books during a readathon - not at all.  In fact, it might be the perfect excuse to psych yourself up to read that doorstopper you've been putting off.  It's just not my preference. At least not this time.

I always make a TBR pile in advance of readathons, so that I don't have to spend time wondering what to read.  As the name suggests, this challenge is to read for 24 hours over the 48-hour weekend, so time is of the essence.  I like having diversity of genres, topics, writing styles, formats, etc.  Therefore, my readathon stack is usually pretty tall and interesting.  I don't think there's ever been a time when I've read all the books on my TBR, and that doesn't get me down. 

These are the books that I'm putting on my 24in48 Readathon TBR -   

Urgent Unheard Stories, by Roxane Gay
The Little Buddhist Monk and The Proof, by Cesar Aira
Nothing More to Lose, by Najwan Darwish
Such Small Hands, by Andres Barba
Oola, by Brittany Newell
One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, by Lucy Corin
Eve Out of Her Ruins, by Ananda Devi
When I Was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson
Six Decades at Yaddo, edited by John Cheever
The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware
The Wangs vs. The World, by Jade Chang

Another fun part of readathon prep is to consider the food and drinks that I want to have on hand.  Since the readathon starts at midnight, it's important to have nibbles and drinks on hand to make sure I don't get too drowsy...probably brewing a large pot of English breakfast tea.  To keep things balanced throughout the weekend, I'll need to make sure I have things from each of the C Food Groups: Cheese, chips, crudites, caffeine, and chocolate.  I might even mix up a garden salad if I'm feeling extra wild. Who knows?!

We'll see how I get on with these books, the foodage, and the readathon in general, in the next post.  Are you participating in the 24in48 readathon?  What books are you planning to read?

Librorum annis,

Monday, July 17, 2017

My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter by Aja Monet

My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter by Aja Monet is a heartbreaking, beautiful whirlwind of locations and emotions.  In the 76 poems, the reader travels around poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Brooklyn, upscale wealth in Manhattan, occupied Palestine, and everywhere in between.  There are topics of race and racism, relationships, police brutality and targeting, diaspora, the cyclical nature of poverty, the necessity of education, domestic violence, food, love, and death.  She lays out the beating heart of the children growing up in a world full of dashed hopes, the women who struggle to survive in the face of a society that doesn't seem to care about them, and cultures living at odds with each other within the same space. 

The collection is broken into three sections - "inner (city) chants", "witnessing", and "(un)dressing a wound".  The first grouping focuses on the experiences of growing up in a particularly poor and violence-prone area of Brooklyn.  The normalized violence, the children growing up too soon, the parents doing their best in the harshest of circumstances, the crime that is a byproduct of this crushing life, and the ways that the poverty, violence, and crime are reinforced and proliferated systematically.  In spite of a daily life that could and can crush the soul, there is beauty, music, love, and truth.  The second section focuses on bearing witness to the social, cultural, and religious aggressions that affect women around the world and at home.  The title of the collection comes from the last poem in the second section.  In it, the author bears witness to, and celebrates, all women throughout time, from the era of woolly mammoths until modern times.  Women have made the world, and by their work they are the measure of humanity.  The final portion lays bare the pain and anger of and against women.  Those things we want to cover up or cover over, that are unpleasant to talk about, the poet brings out to the wide world.  The poems are loosely collected under these themes, but there is such a universality and timelessness to the themes that they really speak to any/all of these things. 

My favorite poem in the entire collection comes from "inner (city) chants", and is called "limbo".  It starts off with a child, living in a large inner-city apartment building, watching a boy who is dying after jumping out of a 17th floor window.  The reader is lead to believe that what she's seeing could be part of a television program, until she gives you the lines "i watched his circulating tissue/soak the pavement/from up there in the sky - we weren't heaven/we just didn't have cable".  The narrator goes on to describe the smells she finds in the building and uses them as a metaphor to introduce imagery for the treatment of the poor and minorities - particularly African Americans and Latinos.  The narrator explains that, in her neighborhood, girls learn early that it's entirely acceptable and expected for men to sexually harass them, and the only thing that matters is what kind of attention their words give you.  Essentially, men are in control of how women see themselves and each other - the locus of their identity is external and patriarchal-focused.  She then spins from her young experience back to the boy who is dying, and is disgusted by the waste of violence and helplessness that ended his life far too soon.  In fact, she is at his side as life leaves his body - "the i hope he knew that i saw the breath leave his chest/the amber divorce his eyes/the nike air force ones lay stagnant/after shaking goodbye/you have left/your mark, young man".  She then uses this specific event as a leaping off point to discuss the relationship between humanity and spirituality, between living and surviving.  She is hoping with all her might that the world she is living in is limbo or purgatory, not heaven.  Because, "in heaven there is no need for blood". 

I was completely blown away by the breadth and depth of the poems in My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, especially considering this is a debut collection.  The raw honesty of the poems is incredibly affecting, and don't be surprised if you have to put the book down at times to process what you've just read.  The poet's imagery, rhythm, and wordplay are exquisite, and combine to incredibly powerful effect.  It is essential reading.  If you are a grandmother, mother, daughter, son, human living in the world today, you need to read this.

Librorum annis,

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Slightly-More-Than-Mid-Year Book Challenge Update

Way back at the beginning of 2017, I took on a few bookish & reading challenges.  Beyond just reading the books that caught my fancy, I wanted to direct my reading and interaction with books.  Since we're just a bit beyond the halfway point of the year, I thought it might be a good idea to check in and see how I'm getting on.

1. Goodreads Goal - I'm happy to report that I have far surpassed my initial goal of reading 52 books.  In fact, I finished my 52nd book (The Joy of Leaving Your S*it All Over the Place by Jennifer McCartney) on May 7.

2. Poetry365 - I've been consistent with posting a new poem every day!  I recently checked the #LitsyPoetry365 hashtag on Litsy, and I think I'm the only person who's still going with this challenge.

3. Litsy A to Z - So.  I'm still committed to reading through my Penguin Drop Caps, which was my original challenge, but I'm not as far along as I thought I'd be at this point.  We're in the 7th month of 2017, and I've only read 4 out of the 26 in the collection.  There's still plenty of time, so I'm not quite at DEF CON 1 (or am I).

4. Litsy Reading Challenge - For this one, I was randomly generated a BINGO-type card, and had to read books that fit the different criteria.  You could "complete" this challenge any number of ways, but I want to push myself and read a book for every space.

I'm happy with my progress, but there are still quite a few categories left to complete:

  • Starts with Z - I have no ideas...
  • Non-Fiction about Food/Drink - I'm planning to pick up a copy of Bianca Bosker's Cork Dork to read when I'm out in CA Wine Country this autumn
  • 2016 Award Winner - I have a copy of Paul Beatty's The Sellout, which won the Man Booker prize in 2016, on my shelf.  I just need to get to it.
  • Set in the 1970's - This is a decade I don't read about very often, so I'm looking for ideas...
  • Person of Color Memoir - Roxane Gay's memoir Hunger is on my hold list at the library!  
  • Freezer-Worthy Horror - Admittedly, I don't read much in the "horror" genre (I don't like being scared by fiction), but I have Mary Shelley's Frankenstein on my TBR, so I may choose that to meet this challenge.  

5. Book Riot's "Read Harder" Challenge
There are a whopping 24 tasks on this reading adventure, and so far I've completed 19 of them.  These are the remaining items, and what I'm considering as possible books:

  • Read a Book About Sports - I'm not up for The Sport of Kings (my initial choice) at this point, so a more manageable option might be 10 Speed Press' Women in Sport: 50 Fearless Athletes Who Played to Win by Rachel Ignotofsky
  • Read a Book That is Set Within 100 Miles of Your Location - Every year, on Christmas Eve eve, I re-read 2AM at The Cat's Pajamas, which is set in Philadelphia, right around the 100 mile mark, so I'm setting that as my challenge read.
  • Read a Book That Has Been Banned or Frequently Challenged in Your Country - I'm doing a re-read of The Handmaid's Tale in conjunction with watching the Hulu series once all of the episodes have been released.  I'm going to binge the whole thing over a weekend, if I can handle it.  
  • Read a Book Published By a Micropress - I'm struggling with finding micropresses, let alone books published by them, so any suggestions are welcomed!
  • Read a Collection of Poetry in Translation on a Theme Other Than Love - I recently aquired a collection of translated poetry from Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, which should fulfill this requirement perfectly.

And that's all of my challenges.  I think I'm in a pretty good place, except perhaps with Litsy A to Z.  I still have a bunch of big books (Great Expectations, Moby Dick) on that list, but I'm staying positive about being able to complete them all by New Year's Eve.  How are you doing on your reading challenges?  Any recommendations for my remaining challenge tasks?

Librorum annis,

Monday, July 10, 2017

Autopsy of a Father by Pascale Kramer

Ania and her son Theo are traveling by train, en route to visit her father, Gabriel, at his country home.  Unbeknownst to them, Gabriel is riding on the same train car.  He observes them from a distance, and sketches a scene of the two of them in his notebook, capturing an emotional scene between mother and son, a scene he does not truly understand.  It is a voyeuristic encounter, and the scene is a distillation of the relationship between father and where they interpret and misinterpret each other from a distance, feeling no closeness but only disappointment and frustration.

Gabriel came from a wealthy family, was an intellectual, a journalist, and a bit of a celebrity in the small town where they lived.  Ania was socially awkward, a poor student, and suffered feeling that she was never the child her father hoped for.  She performed so poorly in school that she was held back repeatedly, causing embarrassment for Gabriel, and eventually going away to boarding school.  When she graduated, she had no interest in returning home and instead moving to the Paris suburbs.  The things in her bedroom remained exactly as she had left them when she went to school, until Gabriel's housekeeper boxed them and moved them to the attic.  Ania met an Eastern European man, they married when she was pregnant with Theo, and are now finishing divorce proceedings.  It was those many years, until that train journey, since Gabriel and Ania last saw each other for any significant length of time.

Gabriel uses his covert status to alight from the train far in advance of his daughter and grandson, speeding to arrive at his house long before they do.  Once they arrive, he never acknowledges their shared transportation, and spends most of the time criticizing the fact that Ania came without giving any advanced notice.  While he is secretly glad that they're there, he behaves as though their presence is a great inconvenience.  She explained that, after seeing him in the newspaper that day, she made a knee-jerk decision to see him.

But why was Gabriel in the news, and why was it such a big deal for Ania?  As a mildly public figure, Gabriel's presence in print wasn't uncommon, but the particulars of this publicity were quite shocking.  Not long ago, a black man was murdered by some teenagers who lived in Gabriel's village.  The victim was a homeless immigrant who was walking alone on a remote road, trying to find work, and the teenagers brutally attacked him for no reason.  He was left to die in a field; his body was not discovered for days.  The case made national headlines because it was racially-motivated hate crime, and most people denounced the boys...except for Gabriel.  He came to their defense, in a xenophobic rant that sent shockwaves around the country.  He was immediately a pariah, was publicly and prolifically ridiculed, and relieved of his job.  It was her encountering these events that prompted Ania to make the rushed visit to her father - to try to make sense of why he did and said what he did.  The visit brought no semblance of reconciliation or exposition, and actually further deepened the divide between them.

The next day, Ania received a call from a woman she didn't know, but found out that she was Gabriel's second wife, Clara.  She explained that he committed suicide overnight, and Ania was needed to help with the funeral and estate preparations.  From there, the story followed Ania, Clara, and the plethora of characters who surround them, literally and figuratively, during this tumultuous time.  From those characters, Ania learns a lot about her father, seeing things from an adult's perspective now, but to what conclusion - does she come to terms with her father and his legacy?

Autopsy of a Father begins with a train ride, and from that point there is a constant sense of motion.  Whether by bicycle, car, on foot, or by train - characters are all in some state of motion.  Not just from place to place, there is also regular movement between the past and the present.  The story constantly slides back and forth from present day in a small French village, to the Parisian suburbs, and then to various points in the past.  The motion happens quickly, often without clear notice, which imbues Autopsy of a Father with a disorienting quality.

Another matter is the translation.  You know when you read a translated work, and the writing feels so natural and easy that it's almost as if it wasn't translated at all?  That wasn't the case with this book.  In fact, there was a lot of awkward or confusing phrasing throughout the novel.  The meaning was there, but it certainly impacted my enjoyment of the story.  I suspect that this is the translator trying to keep the text close to the original French as possible, but in the end it detracted from the reading experience for me.

Autopsy of a Father is certainly an interesting reading experience.  It expertly weaves in and out of the complexities of father-daughter relationships, class struggles, and small town life.  It incorporates the xenophobia that is all too common throughout our world, and the brutal violence that surrounds it.   It shows how public shaming and outrage impacts not only the object of that rage but a whole community.  It is a story that, in many ways, is as much from the current day as it could be from any time in history; the factors at play transcend time.  While I was unsatisfied with the translation, the work itself is compelling and definitely worth exploring.

Librorum annis,

Thursday, July 6, 2017

An Evening with Yuri Herrera

Last month was a reading revelation for me, as I discovered the works of Yuri Herrera. As you know from my June wrap-up, I devoured all three of his English-translated works and absolutely loved them! I truly couldn't put down the novels, with their masterful translations by Lisa Dillman, and read each of them in quick succession. I was so blown away by the prose, characterization, allegory, musicality, and complexity of the works that I wanted to make a point to go to one of his events, if I ever got the chance.

As his most recent novel, Kingdom Cons, was published on June 13th, and I hoped that there might be a possibility he would go on some amount of book tourage to promote it. I checked the publisher's website, and  low and behold Yuri WAS doing a tour...but there were only 6 stops - New Orleans, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Washington DC, San Francisco, and Portland OR.  Luckily, I live within a reasonable driving distance to DC, so I made plans to attend the event, hosted at one of my favorite bookstores - Politics and Prose

Roy Kesey on the left, and Yuri Herrera on the right
For the event, Yuri was in conversation with Roy Kesey, an author of novels, short fiction, non-fiction, as well as being a noted Spanish-English translator. There was a natural ease between the two men, and they started off with a dialogue, then Yuri read some pages from Kingdom Cons.  When they were discussing a chapter that take place inside one of the character's heads, the two men did a really interesting thing - Yuri read the passage in Spanish, and then Roy read the English translation.  It was a moment where I desperately wished I understood Spanish, so that I could fully appreciate the differences and similarities between the two texts. 

Yuri gave a bit of the origin story for Kingdom Cons, which was actually his first published novel in Mexico, back in 2004.  The publishing rights were bought by a Large UK Publisher in 2010, and Lisa Dillman was selected as the English translator. Once the translation was in progress, however, said Large UK Publisher deemed the text not to be commercially viable, so they gave up the rights, allowing another publisher to buy the book.  Eventually, the press that released all three of his works - And Other Stories - bought the rights, and the novel's journey had a happy ending. 

When it comes to translation, Yuri Herrera has played on both sides.  He has had three novels translated from Spanish to English by Lisa Dillman, and his adult novels have been translated into 9 languages so far.  He has also translated works from English into Spanish.  From these experiences, he had some thoughtful observations about what the process is like. Because Yuri also speaks English fluently, he and Lisa were able to have quite a collaborative relationship during her translation work, often sending each other daily emails with questions and sample passages.  It was this deep collaboration that influenced him most, he said.  Lisa's questions made him think about the decisions he made while writing the novel.  This kind of consideration, he felt, made him a more nuanced and thoughtful writer. 

He believes that translation is not just moving words and phrases from one language to another, it's a total reimagining of the work.  Sometimes, that linguistic movement can create tension, because those words don't necessarily belong in the same place and in the same way for every language.  It's successfully navigating that tension which is the true art of a translator.  He also mentioned that it's not only the words and phrases, but the ways that some meanings get altered as a necessary sacrifice of the process, to preserve something else in the text. 

When asked what he is working on, since he is also now a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, Yuri mentioned that he has written two children's books that may be translated sometime in the near future.  One, a book he was requested to write, is called Leah's Eyes.  It is about a young, Mexican girl who witnesses an act of horrific violence, and tries make sense of it. The notion that such a topic is in demand for a kid's book is itself a statement about the nature of childhood in modern day Mexico. 

Yuri discussed these weighty and important topics with such intelligence, clarity, and (at times) humor.  It was easy to see how his narrative voice was present in the works.  As someone who does not speak or read Spanish, I'm so grateful to Yuri, Lisa Dillman, and And Other Stories for making these works available to a me.  And a very special "thank you" to Politics and Prose Bookstore for hosting this amazing event.  It was such a thrill to be able to meet such a captivating and fascinating author.

Librorum annis,

Monday, July 3, 2017

My Brand of Patriotism

Tomorrow, July 4th, is the 241st anniversary of the founding of America as a sovereign nation.  It's a time for barbecues, fireworks, parades, and other happy gatherings.  Last year, my partner and I had some friends and family over for the afternoon, ate a lot of food, played lawn games, enjoyed a campfire, and overall had a lovely time.  Our neighbors, always happy to play with mild explosives, set off so many fireworks that the sky was quite literally aglow.  There was such a sense of happiness and contentment...

Cut to this year.  The mood is very different, for all the reasons.  There will still be barbecues, parades, and my neighbors will still light up the sky.  But my sense of America and what it represents has changed. For me, and the people closest to me, it feels as though there is little reason to be celebratory; there is less of which to be proud.  The face of this country is so altered, and I wonder what those revolutionary patriots would think of the current assaults to democracy and their founding principles.

It's with this thought in mind, and the fact that I'm a naturally bookish person, that I decided to think about this July 4th holiday in terms of the kind of patriotism that is so necessary right now.  That is, fighting for the principles that, when adopted, can make America great in the future - social justice, equal rights, education, tolerance, empathy, love.  With this in mind, here are a few books that I've been reading, and would recommend for those of you who, like me, crave progressive patriotism in these dark times.

Activism and Advocacy

What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump's America edited by Dennis Johnson and Valeria Merians
A collection of essays from prominent activists, politicians, religious leaders, and others who give readers concrete actions to take in order to resist the current political leadership.

Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals by Jonathan Matthew Smucker
A true handbook that gives actionable steps for those looking to build social movements

Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now edited by Amit Majmudar
A diverse collection of poems that challenge our current political leadership, repressive perspectives, and the modern cultural climate.

March Trilogy by Rep. John Lewis
A 3-part graphic memoir of one of the most well-respected civil rights activists in American history, who serves the country as a member of the US House of Representatives.

Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-First Century by Nato Thompson
A cultural critic analyzes how art can be used to subvert and promote societal values and political opinions.  

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
A fictional, yet well-researched, account of the WTO protests that took place in Seattle, WA in 1999.  It humanizes and gives agency to the many actors in the events - protestors, police, politicians, and bystanders.

Awareness and Consciousness-Raising

Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi
The first-person account of the author's time spent in detainment, and the extreme torture (called "enhanced interrogation") he endured at the hands of the US government in Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility and other sites.  He was a prisoner for 16 years, but never charged with a crime.

Look: Poems by Solmaz Sharif
A poetry collection that looks at the costs of war and humanity, as well as the manipulation and abuse of language to serve those ends

Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times edited by Carolina de Robertis
A collection of essays from over 30 authors, writing about how American society has changed since the 45th President took office, and why we cannot give up hope 

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
 A memoir that explores two specific topics - Ward's experience growing up in Mississippi, and the deaths of 5 men in her life in a 5-year period - in order to make a larger commentary on what life is like for the communities of poor and Black people in the American South. 

Political Rhetoric and Power

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit
A powerful collection of essays, deeply criticizing the conservative agenda and its effects on society

The Ministry of Nostalgia by Owen Hatherley
A criticism of employing "the good old days" as a rhetorical device, which almost always serves only a particular group at the expense of everyone else

The Anatomy of Inequality by Per Molander
A popular culture-minded investigation into different economic/social/political factors and religious/secular justifications for or against (in)equality in modern times

Intersectional Feminism, Immigration, Racism, and More

Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli
This brilliant little book is a searing exploration of immigration, not only from the author's own experiences but also from those of the children she met during her time as a translator in the New York Immigration Court.

Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis
This book is a strong argument for intersectionality, in a time when that word did not yet exist.  In order to make measurable, impactful progress in our society, the concepts of feminism, racism, and class struggles need to be examined in combination rather than as separate issues.

Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power edited by Toni Morrison
A collection of essays focusing on racism, sexism, the heterosexual agenda, and other prominent social topics in the context of popular cultural events and moments in modern, American history

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
A collection of poetry that directly addresses police brutality, microaggressions, and other regularly experienced hardships in the lives of minority and oppressed groups in American society

Librorum annis,