On translations

Let’s put a quick trigger warning for sexual assault here; it’s an unavoidable plot point of a book I’ll be discussing several paragraphs into the piece, and it won’t be dwelled upon.

I’m on my third book in a row that I’m reading in translation, and my fourth in a row that wasn’t written in especially modern English, since the Ernest Shackleton book was published in 1909. I haven’t loved any of the three that I’ve finished, but I’m not far enough into the fourth one to really have an opinion of it yet– maybe 40 pages deep on a 600-page novel. And the bit that I’m having trouble wrapping my head around is that I’m not sure how to discern between a book that I didn’t enjoy and a translation I didn’t enjoy. I can think of one particular series where the first book was translated by one person was great and the second was translated by someone else and it was so bad that I couldn’t get even a third of the way through it; that I can blame on the translator. But when it’s the only book I’ve read by a given person, or sometimes the only book by that person available in English, it’s a lot harder to tease that apart and it may actually not be a difference worth bothering to tease apart in the first place.

It’s the most recent book that’s really got me thinking about this, honestly– and if you’re wondering why I’m not specifically naming the book, it’s because this is pretty clearly running into my Don’t Shit on Books Without a Good Reason rule, and my Goodreads is right there anyway– because this book was very clearly deliberately written in a certain way, and I’m not sure it survived translation into English very well.

(Let me reiterate the trigger warning)

The book is about a woman whose father sexually abused her for several years when she was a child, and she is, as a result, estranged from her family, most of whom don’t believe her. She is very much not over her trauma, and in fact dwells upon it more or less constantly. The book is told entirely from her perspective, and, well, she’s not in an especially mentally healthy place; the entire book is about disputes over inheritance, and her father passes away partway through the narrative. Now, I think what’s going on here is that the author is trying to mimic in text what is going on in this person’s head, and as a result the entire text is very very repetitive, constantly circling back to the same events and the same conversations, and also with insanely long sentences that can sometimes take up a page or more. The text is never pauses for breath, never slows down, and constantly loops back to retread the same material, sometimes phrased differently and sometimes repeating the exact same language several times in a (paragraph-length) sentence.

I made fun of this on Twitter while I was reading it, and the fact is this isn’t that far off from what’s going on:

So, like, I can see what the author is trying to do here, and I even appreciate the technique, but the unfortunate result is that, in English and to me at least, the book is really damn difficult to read. Imagine a book where every sentence was like that Tweet, and each sentence in the book was similar to the Tweet in a way that was very like the Tweet, and not like things that are not like that Tweet, that’s what you’re trying to imagine right now, you’re imagining a book where every sentence is like that Tweet, because the sentences in this book are all like that Tweet and you’re imagining them.

I am not kidding. Like, I’ll post examples if I have to.

And the thing is, I didn’t dislike the book, I just didn’t enjoy it at all, if that’s something that makes any sense. I mean, I finished it instead of putting it down, and I don’t think I regret buying and reading it, and it made a big splash in its country of origin when it came out so it even remains a good choice that way. But I wish I could read it in its original language to see behind the scenes, so to speak, on how the translator did her job, because this book must have been a nightmare to translate.

I need to be able to read all of Earth’s languages, is what I’m getting at here. Is that the Moderna shot, maybe?

#REVIEW: Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi

This is going to be kind of a difficult post to write, because Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom is not like most of what I read, and it’s messing with my ability to talk about it in a coherent sense. Y’all know me by now; I prefer plot-driven books, and my enjoyment of a book is more often focused on what happens in the book rather than concerns about theme and character and highfalutin literary stuff. But this book is enormously character-driven. You know everything that’s going to “happen” in the book within the first few pages (and, to complicate things, I don’t really want to reveal any of it) and there are no big twists or plot reveals; it’s all about listening to Gifty, the main character, tell you about her life.

But, God, it’s beautiful, and I read it cover-to-cover between around 6:00 yesterday evening and 11:00 this morning, and I woke up this morning knowing that I wasn’t doing anything until I’d finished it. Transcendent Kingdom is about grief, and loss, and neuroscience, and addiction, and family, and it’s about being a Ghanaian immigrant in America when America isn’t always a good place to be. It’s also about Christianity and atheism in a way that got straight past all of my filters; in a weird way this book made me wish I were more religious, and that is not a thing that happens, like, ever.

And I really think that’s all I’m telling you, other than to also point out that this is another one of those “this book is amazing as a physical artifact” types of books as well; definitely get it in hardback. I’ve read 24 books so far in 2021 and I’ve read several that I really enjoyed but this is the first one that has ended with me feeling absolutely certain it will be on my end-of-year list. Grab it up, and while you’re at it pick up Gyasi’s Homegoing from a couple of years ago as well.

REVIEW: The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

Every so often, a book scratches an itch that you didn’t even know was there, and Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink is such a book. Those of you who have either been around for a minute or know me in the real world are aware that an earlier version of me wanted to be a college professor. I triple majored at IU, in Religious Studies, Jewish Studies, and Psychology, and then went on to earn a Master’s degree in Biblical studies, which is where I hit a wall when I realized that I liked being in class a hell of a lot more than I liked independent research. But I still have a couple of bookshelves about religion, and along with that is a fair number of volumes about Jewish history.

The Weight of Ink tells two parallel stories about two women scholars, a young, unmarried Jewish woman in the mid-1600s, when women knowing how to read and write much less participate at the highest levels of scholarship was forbidden, and a modern-day scholar of seventeenth-century Judaism, suffering from Parkinson’s and nearing retirement. A cache of documents is found in a seventeenth-century home, and the owner calls his former professor in to look at them, and the book takes off from there. Ester and Helen’s stories are interwoven throughout the book, along with Helen’s assistant Aaron, a postgraduate who she more or less grabs at random because he is able to read the right languages to help her with her research.

Mix in some Shakespeare, some Spinoza, a blind rabbi, the Inquisition, Sabbatai Zevi, and a little bit of fire and plague and you’ve got yourself a hell of a book. I’m making this sound a bit more like a detective novel than I probably should; this is indisputably capital-F Fiction, and may indeed be a litratcher, as (I hope) Hilary Custance Greene described it when she recommended it to me. But … yeah, if you’re going to drag me away from nonfiction and genre fiction, writing a book about seventeenth-century Jewry, making translation a bigger part of the action than one might expect, and making the two modern-day figures scholars is a key with a very specific shape that nonetheless opens one of my locks.

Or something; that may be too overwrought of a figure of speech, I’m not sure. At any rate, while it’s a bit slow-moving, which may not be surprising to those of you who just read the description, and it’s a bit on the dense side– it took me over a week to read, which is really rare for a 560-page book– I loved this book a whole lot. Kadish writes about seventeenth-century London like she lived there, and everything about this really worked for me. I hope to hell it actually was Hilary who recommended I read it, because I can’t find the comment anywhere, but I owe her one.

In which you should read this: CONJURE WOMEN, by Afia Atakora

Something you may not know about me: despite my fairly high degree of confidence in my own intellect in many domains, I actually don’t think I read very well. Which may sound really. strange, coming from someone who regularly reads well over a hundred books a year. The thing is, my greatest weakness as a reader is that I’m a very surface-level guy. While I can handle complex narratives, I have to be in the right mood for them, and the fact that I read so fast can really hurt my comprehension if I’m not deliberately paying careful attention to what I read. This means that I tend to stay away from anything that, broadly classed, might be literature, which I nearly spelled litratcher in order to convey a sort of condescension toward the entire concept. If a novel feels the need to tell me it’s a novel on the cover, that’s a sign that it may not be for me. You know what never says “a novel” on the cover? A book with a dragon or a space ship in it. Not once. Not never. The closest to an exception I can come up with is John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which some editions of declare to be “a novel with three codas,” and which I think Scalzi put on the cover more as a lark than anything else.

In short, whenever I read literature, I always feel like I’m missing something; that there is some theme or some Hidden Meaning or some Deeper Symbolism that I’m not seeing, either because I’m being sloppy or the book is just smarter than I am. Is it there? No idea. But I’m convinced it’s there and I just can’t see it. This may be a sign that I’ve been poorly served by my English teachers; I have a copy of A Tale of Two Cities from high school that has a big chunk of the first page circled and the word “foreshadowing” written next to it, and as someone who has read that book as an adult I have no idea what I thought the foreshadowing was or what it might have foreshadowed. I still can’t handle Jane Austen.

Afia Atakora’s Conjure Women needs to become part of The Canon, because it belongs next to books by Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. That’s it. That’s the review. The book is magnificent. You should read it. I took my time with this one, because I wanted to savor it; normally it’s a good sign if I read a book in a day, and this one took several because I didn’t want it to be over with too quickly. It’s set in and around the Civil War, on a plantation, and the two main characters are mother and daughter, so the book alternates between the two of them, jumping back and forth between just before the war to just after it. A third significant character is Varina, the daughter of the former landowner, who has a bond with Rue, the daughter of the pair, and her story weaves in and out through theirs in a way that isn’t really typical of– here’s that word again– literature set in this time and place. Both Rue and her mother are … well, the title Conjure Women does the job to some extent; they are healers and midwives, and while Rue in particular is generally at some pains to think of her work as entirely natural and (though she doesn’t use this word) scientific, those around them generally don’t, and the book does have just a tinge of the supernatural around it to keep genre-obsessed dopes like me interested. Everything’s just a little better with a little hoodoo sprinkled on it, as my mom never once said in her life.

Every so often someone will ask me, generally not in especially good faith, why I do things like decide I think I’ll read 52 books by women of color this year, when I could … not, I guess. Well, this is part of it; I might not have looked at this book were I not focusing on a certain kind of author, and I’ll freely admit that had Afia Atakora been Ahmad Atakora I probably wouldn’t have bought it. (That said … a man couldn’t have written this book, but that’s not quite the point I’m making.).

In other words, the reason I work on diversifying my reading is that when you go looking for new and/or different reading experiences, you get them, and this book all by itself kind of pays off the whole experiment. Go read it.

On reading, 2018 and 2019

Alternate title: In which I write about something else. This was originally going to be a saleswanking post, which I haven’t done in quite a while and I wanted to do mostly for my own information and share with you guys because someone out there has to love spreadsheets as much as I do, but once I went through everything on Amazon and Squarespace just to figure out where I was at for 2018 and where (roughly) I might be for my sales since Benevolence Archives 1 came out in 2014, this was what my desktop looked like:

I’m still gonna do it, don’t get me wrong– I want this information, and I am exactly the kind of geek for whom “spend a couple of hours sorting through spreadsheets and pulling together an overall data set” actually describes a fun couple of hours. But I’m not doing this shit tonight. So, instead, since I’m no more than a day or two away from doing my 10 Best Books list, let’s talk about what I read this year. Which still involves spreadsheets. 🙂

Assuming I finish the book I’m reading right now in the next three days, I’ll have read 104 books in 2018, which was four more than my goal of 100. Here they are, excepting only S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass, which I’m reading right now:

For the last several years I’ve been working on aggressively diversifying my reading after discovering that I was reading far more white men than I felt like I ought to be. I’ve had different goals for different years, but this year I decided to focus on making sure half of my books were from people of color. And, in fact, exactly half of them ended up being by PoC: 52 of the 104. In previous years I’ve set goals to read books by, basically, anyone other than white men, but I noticed last year that white women seemed to be the beneficiary of that policy so I decided to focus more on people of color this year. I did not specifically track books by women vs books by men, but a quick count indicates that I did pretty well there too– and, if anything, I think I read slightly more books by women than by men. 50 of these books were by authors I hadn’t previously read anything by, too.

The interesting thing is, while my 10 best list isn’t finalized yet– again, sometime this week– I have reason to believe that a substantial majority of the books on it will be by women of color, and this was a phenomenal year for reading. I read some fucking amazing books this year, and choosing the top 10 from this list is gonna be hard.

Damn near every book on the list– upwards of 90%, and probably above 95%– was read in print. Which is why next year I’m gonna pull back a little bit, and the only things I plan to track all year long, other than new authors, are rereads. My bookshelves are about to collapse on me, y’all, and they are on every wall in the damn house. I think I’m going to set a goal of 90 books, with 30 of those being books that I already own. At the end of the year, I’ll take a look at how I did in reading from diverse authors when I wasn’t specifically tracking it. I haven’t been doing a ton of rereading lately because it doesn’t really mix well with the notion of broadening the authors I’m reading work by.

What did you read this year?