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!

 

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!

 

Borne

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It’s been far too long since I’ve picked up a sci-fi novel, and it just so happens that an excellent author recently put out a new book! Some of my favourite speculative sci-fi is the Southern Reach Trilogy, the first of which is soon to be made into a film. Jeff VanderMeer’s effective use of creeping horror in his trilogy was unparalleled and I was eager to see what he’d cooked up this time.

Thus, it was with supreme glee that I picked up his newest novel, Borne.

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Right from the beginning I knew that I was going to love this book. Why?

Partially because I so enjoyed Southern Reach, but partially because of this:

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That’s right. It’s an angry bear. Not only that, it’s an angry murder-bear that is quite an important part of this novel. He is atypical of other bears, and I’m not going to ruin things for you by telling you how. But I guarantee you’ll be surprised.

Borne was fantastic. It’s a character-driven science fiction novel that follows Rachel, a young woman living in an unnamed city as a scavenger. One day, Rachel finds Borne while out scavenging and brings him home. She’s unsure of what he is, assuming him to be some type of plant life. As Borne grows and develops, so does his relationship with Rachel.

Rachel is a first-person narrator and she’s certainly a likeable one. Though her thought processes are sometimes a bit erratic, that’s to be expected in a post-apocalyptic society. Her relationships with Wick and Borne are rich and complex things that affect each other despite her best efforts.

Wick is an interesting secondary character who gains immense dimension as the story moves forward. I liked him far more at the end of the book than I did at the beginning, but that’s perspective for you!

Borne himself was extraordinary. Remaining a mystery for the entire novel, he was both extremely likeable and quite terrifying. The more I learned of him, the more questions I had. The immense questionability and tragedy of his existence informed the feel of the entire narrative.

All characters, major and minor, are fascinating in different ways. I wouldn’t say no to a book about any of them, if VanderMeer decided to follow up with one.

The post-apocalyptic landscape is disturbing and believable, bio-modded children and alcohol minnows included. The city is seething with poisonous creations from the Company, the ever-unnamed conglomerate responsible for Mord and everything that came thereafter. As you learn more of Rachel’s past, she slowly learns more of the city and of the Company.

Unlike the Southern Reach Trilogy, Borne is a stand alone novel. Like its predecessors, it’s a novel that makes you think while you’re reading. VanderMeer’s writing is intelligent and easy to digest either in short bursts or all in one massive book binge.

With this masterpiece of creepy and (at-times) uncomfortable speculative sci-fi, Jeff VanderMeer proves himself to be a consistently excellent writer. He’s a sure thing when it comes to a great read, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he has in store for readers next!

Have you picked up a copy of Borne? Have you read the Southern Reach Trilogy? Let me know what you thought in the comments below!

Men Explain Things to Me

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I hope everyone had an excellent and restful weekend! I’ve been busy with work, and with various illnesses along with seasonal allergies. Throughout it all, I’ve attempted to keep up with my goal of reading more than YA. It’s been slow going, not due to lack of interest, but only a simple lack of free time.

When I saw Men Explain Things to Me at work, I knew that I absolutely had to pick up and read a copy. I’ve been hearing about it for ages, but having never picked up a book of essays as leisure reading I was a bit wary.

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I was already familiar with the now rather famous titular essay. It was wry, it was eloquent, and it had me nodding my head in agreement with the all-too-familiar situation. I’ve been patronised for both my age and my gender more times than a reasonable person would expect. It can be infuriating, but the author handled her situation with grace and good humour.

Still, the next essay gets very serious very quickly. A look at violence – specifically violence against women perpetrated by their partners or former partners – it would have been a jarring eye-opener had I not already familiarised myself with those statistics. For people who aren’t familiar with them, this essay is a short and painful one, with subtitles such as ‘who has the right to kill you?’, ‘the party for the protection of the rights of rapists’, and ‘the chasm between our worlds’.

The serious tone persists throughout the rest of the book for the most part, relenting occasionally to reveal Solnit’s excellent tongue-in-cheek brand of humor. You can almost see her smirk and raised eyebrow, and it’s great. The topics of discussion range through feminism, economics, politics, and literature, extrapolating upon the places in which they intersect and inviting further thought on the matter.

Certain themes or points are brought up in more than one essay, but that only serves as a reminder that they were first published separately and not as a collection.

It’s very hard to choose a favourite essay, but I think ‘Woolf’s Darkness’ and ‘Cassandra Among the Creeps’ are tied for me.

‘Woolf’s Darkness’ was an interesting exploration of ‘embracing the inexplicable’, backed up with the writing and thoughts of Virginia Woolf, along with other figures of literature, and of the author herself. It was the topic I was most unfamiliar with going into the book, which is most likely why I found it the most interesting.

‘Cassandra Among the Creeps’ explores the more familiar territory of society’s disinclination to believe women about – well, anything. It begins with the story of the seer Cassandra, who is cursed to see the future but always be met with disbelief. The author explores ‘female hysteria’, and the way that the media, society, and even other women, are led to disbelieve and malign women.

This entire selection of essays is exceptionally well-written, and something I enjoyed engaging with more actively than a fiction pick. Like I did in my school days, while reading I scribbled notes and thoughts to myself. Solnit writes in a way that makes it easy to imagine yourself having a conversation with her.

I’ll definitely be reading more essay collections, and more of Solnit’s work as well. Have you read Men Explain Things to Me? Any of Rebecca Solnit’s other books? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Company Town

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To my regret, it’s been a long while since I last posted. I’ve been very busy, as I now have three jobs so I’m always on the go! (Two bookstores, and a paper store. Living the dream.) Still, things have settled a bit and I’m getting into a routine so I’m back now. I’m hoping to be able to get back to more regular posts once more, so stay tuned.

After being on hold at the library for more than a month, I’ve finally received more of this year’s Canada Reads finalists. It’s with great pleasure that I bring you today’s review.

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Company Town was the Canada Reads candidate I was most eager to read this year. I love sci-fi, and especially more speculative stuff. Throw in the fact that Madeline Ashby is also a ‘strategic foresight consultant’, and I was chomping at the bit to get to this title.

I raced through this novel at lightning speed, reading whenever I could squeeze in the time.

The narrative follows Go Jung-Hwa, a young woman living and working in New Arcadia – an oil rig city off the coast of Newfoundland. As an organic human in a society where most choose to augment themselves with machines and drugs, she is a rarity. She is also ‘stained’ by a birthmark that spans an entire side of her body, due to her rare seizure disorder.

Hwa works as a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada union members at the opening of the book. That right there made me fall in love with this story.

The legalization of sex work has been a hot button issue in Canada recently, especially in light of the Bedford case (2009-2013). Hwa’s friends, students, and mother are all sex workers. It was amazing to read about sex work in this context, as it was neither vilified nor exalted. The reader does get to see the different attitudes people hold towards the profession, which gives a lot of insight into those characters.

When New Arcadia is bought by the Lynch company, Hwa is thrust into a new corporate position. As she struggles to adjust to her new routine, her friends begin to die gruesomely. With a burning need to bring the killer to justice, Hwa uses all of the resources at her disposal and risks her own safety to see it done.

Reading about such a self-made and competent woman was brilliant. She can take down scary drugged up dudes twice her size, but still isn’t a paragon of perfection. At times she lacks confidence, which is revealed to be a rather serious flaw of hers. Her relationships with others are intricate and genuine. Even shunned by her loved ones, she works her hardest to do what she believes is the right thing. Even pushing others away, she recognizes that she could be pulling them closer. The romance that builds slowly in the novel didn’t feel out of place at all, despite the murder and mayhem sandwiching it.

Though set in the future, Company Town feels like it isn’t that far off from our current state of affairs. Clean energy solutions are still a thing of dreams and prototypes. Women are still treated in ways that should make you weep – illustrated by some disturbing conversations, and more graphic threats of rape, as well as physical violence. Corporations are entities whose machinations affect many lives, often for the worse. These things really helped ground this book for me – it seemed like a plausible situation, even when the technology came into play.

Cue cybernetic enhancement, self-replicating nanobots, artificial intelligence, and crossing timelines.

Boom.

These things were so perfectly entrenched in the world that Ashby created that I totally believed them. Though it got a bit confusing near the end, there was never that moment you sometimes get in sci-fi books when you’ve read some clearly bogus pseudoscience and it catapults you out of the story before you can roll your eyes. I stayed entrenched in the book the whole way through, and after re-reading a specific section things clicked for me and I knew exactly what was going on.

This was my favourite Canada Reads book so far, and I only have two left to go now. I certainly intend to pick up a copy of Company Town, and Madeline Ashby’s other books. And I can always hope that as a Toronto native, she visits my bookstore one day so that I can tell her in person how much I loved this. Hopers gotta hope.

Have you picked up Company Town yet? Did you love it? Hate it? Let me know in the comments below!

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

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As you know if you’ve kept up with my posts for any length of time, I love reading YA. Lately, I’ve been trying to broaden my book horizons so I don’t limit my exposure to different kinds of literature. I’ve been browsing the Toronto Public Library’s Overdrive collection, and I came across this gem of a title.

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As far as memoirs go, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is certainly one of the most unusual that I’ve read. It details a young woman’s first forays into work at a crematorium and into the North American funeral industry.

Caitlin Doughty speaks in a frank and appealing way about her work and her evolving thoughts about death and the way it’s viewed in our society. The narrative is peppered with incidents that are morbid and hilarious – sometimes both at once. It’s a fascinating look into an industry that keeps civilians at a distance, often to their detriment.

The narrative is linear, and the reader follows Doughty as she goes from a rather naïve death idealist, to a realist seeking to promote a healthier understanding of death and all it entails.

She meets many interesting people, as you would expect from those who deal with the dead on a regular basis. Their insights added a lot to her evolving journey, as did the glimpses of the different ways that people dealt with their dead loved ones.

Peppered throughout the narrative were glimpses of the death rituals of various peoples all over the world, during various time periods. The reader also learns of the origins of the modern rituals we currently practice in North America. It was honestly fascinating, and I’m curious to learn more about many of the things I learned.

I loved this book.

Death is something I’ve thought about in a vague way, but Doughty encourages the reader to really examine it. She encourages you to talk to your friends and family about it, and to make plans for what will happen to your body once you’ve died.

Another great mark for this book is the bibliography in the back that lists all the sources quoted by the author within. There’s also a reading group guide in the back written by the author, along with resources for death and end-of-life choices.

I would absolutely recommend this book to everyone. We’re all going to die. We should all be able to face our own mortality with a sense of calm that few seem able to do. So read this book, think about life and death, and laugh at the ridiculous situations the author has witnessed and found herself in.

Have you read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes? What did you think? Can you recommend any other unusual memoirs? Let me know in the comments below!