Vita Nostra

book-review-2One thing I’ve really enjoyed so far about Women in Translation month is that I’ve expanded my reading horizons. Not only that, but I’ve been able to find new books to love in genres I already enjoy. Vita Nostra has been on my shelf for a while and it was wonderful to finally start reading it. It’s a book written by a husband and wife team who have more than 30 published works – only a few of which have been translated into English so far.

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This was the most wildly bizarre fantasy novel I’ve ever read and I absolutely loved it. I devoured it whole, racing through pages deep into the night as if my life depended on it. As I came to the end of the novel, I breathed a sigh of relief, heart racing even as it shuddered for the end of such a brilliant experience.

This is the kind of book that you love or you hate.

It follows a young woman, Sasha Samokhina, as she meets a frightening stranger and is compelled to perform tasks that he requests of her. Even as she is rewarded for her efforts she loathes and fears what she doesn’t yet understand. Who is this man? Why does he ask these things of her? This is somewhat answered upon Sasha’s admittance to the Institute of Special Technologies in Torpa, but things remain shrouded in mystery and uncertainty for a large part of the novel.

I saw another reviewer refer to this book as ‘phantasy’ – as in ‘philosophical fantasy’ and I really can’t disagree. If you enjoyed slogging through assigned novels in philosophy classes and trying to derive some sort of meaning from often repetitive and contradictory statements, this is the book for you. This is a repetitive novel that it would be easy to find pointless and boring if you’re not utterly fascinated by philosophy (or pseudo-philosophy). Beautiful prose often melts into scenes with strange interpersonal relationships and small epiphanies from the main character. Still, the bulk of the book is Sasha desperately studying incomprehensible concepts that hold no meaning for her at the beginning of her school career.

I enjoyed the glimpses into the lives of Sasha’s fellows and love interests as you could tell they had their own lives and concerns happening beyond what Sasha was aware of. The glimpses into Sasha’s mother’s life help to keep things as grounded as they could be within this story. The Dyachenkos clearly have a solid grasp of the joys and struggles of personal relationships, and all of the dialogue between characters was solidly believable to me – even when they were discussing impossible metaphysical concepts.

If you’re looking for a strange read to lose yourself in, something more bleak than joyful but still engrossing – this is the book for you. If vague concepts with the promise of some deeper meaning not yet meant to be understood doesn’t sound good, maybe give this one a miss for now.

As far as the translation goes, I thought that Julia Meitov Hersey did a wonderful job. This was honestly the most readable Russian translation I’ve ever encountered. I know that she and the authors did have to compromise for the English version and change most (all?) of the quoted text. Not knowing what the originals were I can’t say if this was better or worse, only that I enjoyed it without reservation.

This is the first of “an associative cycle of novels about people finding their life and understanding of the World had to be changed,” according to the authors’ English website. Although the books in the ‘Metamorphosis Cycle’ aren’t connected by characters or plot I’m eager to see just what the next one holds! Unfortunately for readers there aren’t any announced plans to translate the next two from Russian just yet.

Have you read Vita Nostra of any of the Dyachenkos other works? Do you have any other bizarre fantasy or ‘phantasy’ to recommend? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

The Door

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I generally avoid classics of all kinds as I often feel as I’m reading or after I’ve finished them that I’ve somehow missed the point of the story or the reason the book is a classic. Still, one of the Women in Translation bingo card categories I was to read was a classic. I picked up The Door by Madga Szabo, Hungary’s most translated author, to round out my reading list and to expand my literary horizons.

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This was utterly captivating and also rather emotionally exhausting. It follows a writer (who is named only once in the book but shares her first name with the author) in her fraught and complex relationship with her elderly housekeeper, Emerence. The time frame of the book spans decades and is focused fully on Magda and Emerence’s relationship, every action and thought leading invariably back to it. If you’re looking for something plot-driven, this is not the read for you.

For those interested in checking out the NYRB edition as I did, I recommend skipping Ali Smith’s introduction and saving it until after you’ve read the book. I prefer to go into books with fresh, unbiased thoughts if possible, and the introduction doesn’t allow for that. It quotes from the text and reveals some of the events that you may not want to know of going in.

While I usually enjoy an interesting plot, it was completely unnecessary for this book. The beautiful prose and complex nature of Magda and Emerence’s interactions had me glued to every page. I can only assume that Len Rix’s translation does the original justice, for if the writing in Hungarian is somehow more lovely, I weep that I couldn’t read it’s true form. From the opening, in which Magda makes a dire confession, to the last page, I was hooked. Not knowing anything about Hungary (either in the past or present) I admit to being a bit lost when politics of any kind were mentioned. It took only some quick googling to brush up enough that I could follow along more readily. In doing so, I did wonder how much of this book (if any) was autobiographical, as Szabo and her Magda seem to share in a career, spouse, and a few seminal life events.

Setting aside any parallels to the author’s own life, I found Magda’s character to be almost unbelievably self-absorbed. Though this would generally be to a book’s detriment, instead the story works precisely because of this selfishness. All of the characters, from our two lady protagonists, to Magda’s husband, to the surrounding cast of friends and distant relatives are written to be flawed and to demonstrate the absolute cruelty and misunderstanding that we often extend to our loved ones. This is a novel that understands that every person has a private life, and that our thoughts often turn to our own lives rather than to those that surround us.

Emerence is a difficult character to like, often rude, always anti-intellectual, beating her dog, and flying into rages or cold silences when someone displeases her. For all that, every tidbit you learn of her life is enthralling. The reader can absolutely understand Magda’s obsession with her, and the love that her neighbors hold for her. She is a human puzzle, and the tragedy is that so could we all be to those who know nothing of us. What lies beyond Emerence’s front door is certainly a literal mystery, but it isn’t difficult to consider it a metaphorical one as well.

If you’re looking for a book that will make you think about topics you may not usually consider, this is a good pick. It speaks of emotions, relationships, morality, and religion, and it does so without fumbling or feeling forced in any way.

Len Rix is translating another of Magda Szabo’s works, Abigail, which will be released by NYRB in January 2020 and I’ll be pre-ordering my own copy soon. I can’t recommend trying this author enough.

Have you read The Door or any of Szabo’s other work? Do you have any other works to recommend for Women in Translation month? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

 

What Should Be Wild

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Before Women in Translation month began, I resolved to read more of the books I already have at home on my shelves. What Should Be Wild has been with me for ages  – through several job changes and a major move. It has definitely waited long enough to be read, and I’m sorry it took such a length of time!

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Maisie Cothay is born with the ability to kill and resurrect with a touch, her first casualty being her mother while she is still growing in the womb. Maisie’s father Peter raises her in almost total isolation on Urizon, his wife’s family estate. A man of science, Peter uses Maisie’s childhood as an opportunity to conduct controlled experiments testing his daughter’s capabilities and limits. As Maisie grows, so too does her longing for companionship and it isn’t to be sated until an unexpected event sends her out into the world for the first time.

Conceptually, I loved this book. The narrative certainly had a fairy-tale quality that I enjoyed, and the prose was often beautiful. This is the kind of book that it would be a pleasure to read aloud to oneself. Maisie’s narration from childhood to young adulthood was interesting, clearly unreliable but all the better for it. I did wish that she had stayed younger for more of the novel, but then I suppose it would have been more of a candidate for a duology instead.

Maisie’s perspective is interspersed with that of the ‘lost women’ of the Blakely family (her mother’s family), women who throughout the ages have sought refuge of different sorts in the woods surrounding the estate.

These two perspectives played well off each other and were probably my favourite part of the book outside of the concept itself. The ‘origin’ chapters of each woman were the parts I liked the most.

The lost women are all interesting in their vices and faults, and I would have gladly read more about them all. Maisie is exactly as you’d expect someone so isolated to be: naïve, eager to make friends, and foolish as heck. Peter (her father) was a flawed man, whose character arc I found excellent as he learned and grew during his short presence in the narrative. The two male side characters were both quite forgettable and firstly seemed to be shoehorned in as possible love interests. When one is revealed to be something else, it was a rather stale twist that didn’t quite make the impact it should have.

There were some pretty gruesome scenes in the book, but I expected that considering the subject matter.

Ultimately, the problems I have with this book are the same ones I always seem to find in magical realism or literary fiction that feels like dabbling in the fantastical: it just didn’t follow through. The author spent so much time laying the groundwork of Maisie’s (and the other women’s) circumstances, but then ignored them in favour of tying a neat little bow around the boring ending of the book. Maisie’s powers and the intrigue of the woods are the central focus of the story, but it isn’t enough to keep them the focus at the end.

While I did enjoy reading this, I was disappointed that I read through so urgently to the end only for it to be such a letdown. There was so much potential here for the story to say more about women’s bodies and agency (which I did feel it attempted) but it really let itself down at the end if that’s what it was trying for. Previous events and interactions were glossed over to the detriment of the story.

There was the possibility for the narrative to come full circle, which was entirely ignored to my dismay. Though the book does try to focus on morality and the importance of one’s actions and choices, it failed by believing the fantasy elements it introduced couldn’t further an ending with any impact – and in doing so robbed readers of any satisfying conclusion.

Still, if you’re in the mood for a book with lovely prose, and don’t mind the complete disregard laid by the fantasy groundwork in the beginning, you might be well served by giving this one a try.

Have you read What Should Be Wild? Do you have any similar recommendations? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

 

Moshi Moshi

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August has arrived, and with it Women in Translation month. While there are several different events this month, I’m participating in Tamsien’s (Babbling Books) photography and reading challenge which you can find on her instagram.

I went through my bookshelves to find translated titles, but didn’t turn up many as I generally avoid translated works on purpose. (More on that in a later post.) I headed to my local library branch to browse and turned up quite a few likely titles. The first one I’ve finished is Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto, translated from Japanese to English by Asa Yoneda.

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Moshi Moshi follows main character Yoshie as she moves into a new apartment and forges a life for herself in the wake of her father’s death. Her father was killed in a suicide-pact with an unknown woman, and Yoshie and her mother are left to come to terms with not only his loss but also the manner of his death.

This meandering novel was easy to sink into, the narration clear, and the dialogue clean (if a bit dense at times). The characters often monologue aloud to each other in a way I haven’t encountered before, expressing thoughts and feelings that can range from nebulously philosophical, to intellectual, to seemingly inconsequential.

Small every day actions and moments make up the bulk of the narrative, to it’s benefit. As I was reading I thought rather fondly back to more melancholy times in my own life and how much things have changed for me. Though the focus is on normal life, things often seemed very dreamlike as they occurred, the passage of time taking center stage in a way that worked well to highlight Yoshie’s emotions and mental state.

I really enjoyed Yoshie’s mother as a character. She’s also trying to deal with her grief in the best way she can, and it was interesting to see how her process differed from her daughter’s. The side characters throughout the book were never delved into deeply but despite that it was clear that they had their own lives and motives beyond those known to Yoshie. Their interactions with her (and her mother) really furthered the narrative.

While the loss of Yoshie’s father is the main ‘conflict’ of this book, it also focuses well on other types of grief and the changeable nature of life itself. While this book wasn’t plot-driven, I enjoyed it all the same.

If you’re going through a life change filled with uncertainty, or are in need of some kind of literary catharsis, you need look no further than this lovely little novel.

Have you read any of  Yoshimoto’s work? Are you participating in Women in Translation month? If you have any thoughts to share, let me know in the comments below!

 

 

Ring

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I picked this up a a local second hand store on a complete whim. I’ve been reading a lot more lately and decided a change of pace wouldn’t hurt, and it would be interesting to sink my teeth into a good horror novel. Plus, the cover was undeniably an eye-catcher and being a horror movie fan I immediately recognized that it had been adapted into the film series we all know and have nightmares about.

There will be some mild spoilers in the review, none which really affect storyline.

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Ring follows reporter Asakawa as he investigates the mysterious simultaneous deaths of four teens (one of whom is his niece) in search of a good story. If you’ve seen the movie ‘The Ring’ or any of it’s subsequent adaptations please know that this was a vastly different tale that didn’t at all rely on jump-scares or the physical apparition of any ghosts.

After watching the tape that promises his death if the doesn’t carry out it’s instructions Asakawa is a desperate and terrified man. Why? The instructions have been taped over and he has no way of knowing how to prevent his oncoming doom.

While I found this a suspenseful and at time successfully creepy read, there were a lot of things I didn’t like about it. Not being a Japanese speaker, I have no way of knowing what the original text is like and so I’m judging the translation alone when I say that this wasn’t very well-written. There was no finesse to the prose and many passages were over- or under-described to the detriment of the narrative. While it’s possible that in it’s original Japanese it’s a masterpiece, I simply have no way of knowing – which is the unfortunate truth for any translated work.

Another large point against it for me was the treatment of women – both in spoken word and action. I’m not sure if this was a reflection of cultural differences or if it was meant to make the characters less sympathetic. If it was the latter it worked very well, and definitely made my enjoyment of the book take a huge hit.

Asakawa’s dismissive thoughts and actions towards his wife at the beginning of the book already had me taking pause before it’s revealed that his best friend Ryuji is a rapist. Not only is he a rapist, but “Naturally, Asakawa never told anyone about Ryuji’s crime.” What? ‘Naturally’? It’s natural to not report your friend’s heinous destruction of someone’s life but you’ll still agonize over the ethics of showing him a VHS tape that may or may not kill him? It was disheartening to read about to say the least.

In saying that, sexual assault ends up playing a large part in the narrative – which I recognized right away but the main characters puzzled over what could possibly be happening for ages.

Basically, I had zero sympathy for Asakawa or Ryuji by the end and I’ve never felt so much sympathy for the ghost seeking revenge. While in the films, Sadako makes some scary physical appearances, in the book it’s only her thoughts and ‘presence’ that are felt rather than physically appearing. The parts of the book I found most interesting were the physical mechanics of the VHS curse, which they refer to often as a ‘virus’ and learning more about Sadako and her mother’s lives before their unfortunate deaths.

While Koji Suzuki has written a horror novel that had me shivering at first, the fact that by the end I was cheering on Sadako’s revenge plan says a lot.

Have you read Ring or it’s sequels and have thoughts to share? Any other horror novels to recommend? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Foe

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I’ve been eager to get out of the house a bit more of late, and in doing so have re-discovered my love of the library. This book was on display and certainly caught my eye. The enormous and deceptively simple title juxtaposed against the background of a split country scene intrigued me so I checked it out without even reading the synopsis.

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Foe is narrated by Junior, a man who lives a quiet life in near-isolation with his wife, Hen. The book opens with a visit from a representative from OuterMore – an innovative company with government ties. They’ve come to offer the good news that Junior has been long-listed for an Installation that will take him away from home for years. It’s a non-voluntary (read: mandatory) trip that will separate him from his wife and throw him into completely unknown circumstances.

Iain Reid does a phenomenal job at constructing what I can only describe as a carefully clever story. Junior, Hen, and Terrance facilitate it every step of the way, providing a wonderful character study. Because there are so few characters, I was really able to focus not only on their relationships, but also on the things that made up Junior’s every day life.

I can’t go into too much detail about the plot or characters without spoiling the whole book. I will say that each character provided something valuable to the narrative. There were no unnecessary flourishes, nothing included without reason. It was an intricate and self-contained tale.

My only complaint about the book was the strange formatting when it came to dialogue. All of the characters had quotation marks around their speech except for Junior. I found it really off-putting in the beginning, not entirely sure where his speech ended and the narrative began. Even after finishing the book, I can’t see any good reason why that tactic was used and I believe it would have been better off without it.

Though I was able to guess the ending almost from the first page, I think I may be anomalous in that regard because I’ve read so many books with similar themes. Still, I enjoyed this immensely and finished it in one sitting. It’s a quiet and unassuming read that nevertheless asks some very pertinent questions about relationships and what it means to be human.

I’ll be checking out more of the author’s work, and continuing to pick up reads based purely on covers and titles to see where it takes me.

Do you have any quiet reads to recommend? Let me know in the comments below!

 

The Witches of New York

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Earlier in the year I was eager to start a book club, not finding one in my area that I was able to join. Invites had gone out, prospective members had responded, and then I was concussed. That put the whole idea on hold indefinitely. Thankfully, I had already started a two-person book club (buddy-reading?) with the lovely Rialta Erie.

I sent her a list of books I was interested in reading, and from among them she chose The Witches of New York as our first read. It didn’t take either of us very long to realize this was going to be a very long road.

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I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while now, inevitably drawn to stories with witches.
I was certainly expecting magic to play a central role in the narrative. While that was indeed the case, this was an extremely slow-paced tale. The story centers around three women: Adelaide, Eleanor, and Beatrice. I found all of them to be equally tiresome in different ways. Their good points often lost under frustrating habits or opinions.

The plot was loosely focused on each character’s goals, with Beatrice portrayed as a savior of sorts for a new generation of witches. Adelaide and Eleanor guided her towards that fate in different and sometimes conflicting ways. I thought that the secondary characters in this book were interesting and fleshed-out enough to jog the story along when our main trio lagged.

The main antagonist, Reverend Townsend, was a wicked and contemptible man whom I deeply wanted to see dead the entire book. His scenes were by turn disgusting and discomfiting, and I would rush through them as quickly as possible. I won’t deny that McKay can write a great villainous character.

This story really had a lot of potential to be gripping but I did struggle through a lot of it. It was undeniably lovely in places; the descriptions of the teashop and the Fifth Avenue Hotel were beautiful and interesting. McKay’s descriptions of ghosts, dreams, and all manner of magical things were bright spots in the narrative. I simply found myself wishing for more magic and more of a meaty plot.

I learned small things about Adelaide, Eleanor, and Beatrice, but never enough to satisfy my curiosity. Had the story centered more on one of them as a main character rather than split between them, things may have been more fulfilling. I simply didn’t care enough about the wishes and goals of the main characters. I often found the plights and personal lives of side characters more poignant than the story itself. The most interesting side plots weren’t even resolved, to my dismay.

This isn’t a book I would re-read. If you enjoy a slow paced tale with magical elements, this may be for you. If you’re looking for something contemplative and like to fill in your own blanks, this is a winner. If you enjoy a fast-paced narrative with lore explored in more depth, this is likely not for you.

Have you read The Witches of New York? Care to recommend other witchy reads? Let me know in the comments below!