10 Books for Women in Translation Month

Here are my top ten books by women in translation.  It is Euro-centric, so if you have some more diverse recommendations, please send them my way!

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  1. Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernandez Cubas, translated by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts: Strange, compelling stories set in Barcelona and Madrid.  Assured writing, the stories portray realistic families and homes (a girl and her ‘special’ sister, a woman mourning her husband) but twist and turn with elements that make you question reality or the narrator’s state of mind. It’s not often that fiction surprises.  Her fearless exploration of the human mind reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abanonment.
  2. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein: I recommend all four books in the Neopolitan Quartet (this is the first).  Her writing is clear and lyrical, with a sense of urgency that propels the story along.  I loved the friends Lenu and Lila, the one studious, the other fierce, both vividly described so you can hear them speak, and see them gesticulate; you feel the heat, poverty and everyday violence of their neighbourhood.  I love the girls’ strength, the feeling of being in Italy and Ferrante’s honest depiction of that place and time.  IMG_9426
  3. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson: actually, everything by Tove Jansson.  I loved the Moomintroll books as a child, there is something so cosy, comforting, gently funny about them and together with her illustrations, they tap into a child’s imagination in the most delightful way.  In this book, a six year old girl spends a summer with her grandmother on an island in Finland.  It has a wonderful sense of place and nature, and a story that is compelling but lightly told.  She is so economical and her writing deceptively simple.  It leaves much to think about, but most of all her characters are quirky, unsentimental but completely lovable.  She’s an icon, what can I say! IMG_9353
  4. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith. A beautiful book.  Set in World War Two, it describes a family who flees Paris and moves to the countryside, and the tensions that arise when they have to host a German soldier during the occupation.  Irene Nemirosvksy, then a celebrated author, wrote this in in the French countryside during the war, and tragically died in Auschwitz in 1942.  I was swept away by the story of Lucile, and the contrast between the perfectly observed domestic scenes and constraints of village life, and the dangers of war, all written with musical fluidity and a sense of humour.  Nemirovsky was an impeccable writer and this is her masterpiece.  Read it!
  5. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Adriana Hunter. I loved this novella about working at Yumimoto Corporation in Tokyo.  Amelie Nothomb has a wonderful, wry sense of humour but also a deep understanding of Japanese culture.  Her empathy for her colleagues and ability to laugh at herself make for terrific, laugh-out-loud comedy and an at times poignant study of the constraints of life in Japan working for ‘the company’.
  6. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Osagawa, translated by Stephen Snyder: The housekeeper goes to work for a maths professor whose memory, damaged by an accident, lasts only 80 minutes. He communicates in maths terms: she is less educated but sensitive, and learns to appreciate his love of numbers. The professor is kind to her son & they share a passion for baseball. Much is unspoken (what was his life like before the accident?), but there is a gentle message to treat people with respect, not condescension. I liked her carefully drawn characters and clean writing style.
  7. In Diamond Square by Merce Rodoreda, translated by Peter Bush: A five-star read.  Set in Barcelona, this is the story of Pidgey, her marriage to Joe and her daily struggles to survive in the civil war. Told in a dreamlike prose, which is not normally my style, but its raw beauty, the urgency of the story and the characters won me over. A wonderful evocation of 1930s Barcelona but Pidgey’s quiet strength and the trauma of war have a timeless quality. Very moving. I loved this & will read more of Rodoreda’s work.
  8. Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre, translated by Ben Faccini: I picked this up in Waterstones just before we visited Barcelona, and am just reading it now.  It’s set in the civil war, but told with an originality and perspective (a village girl who is supposed to become a maid, until the war intervenes) that makes the story fresh.  I like her dark humour and the character of Montse, now a spirited old woman but telling the story of her youth.
  9. The Door by Magda Szabo, translated by Len Rix.  Szabo was arguably Hungary’s foremost female novelist.  The narrator (who I think remains unnamed) hires an older housekeeper, Emerance.  She is a strong, eccentric character, and we don’t know what drives her but gradually learn about her past: the reader’s sympathies ebb and flow between the narrator and Emerance. It highlights the way older people are treated in society, and the afterpains of war. Slow at times but rich and satisfying, told in finely crafted prose. The singular characters and some vivid scenes have stayed with me long after reading it. Related image
  10. Subtly Worded by Teffi, translated by Anne Marie Jackson and Robert Chandler: I enjoyed these stories very much.  Deftly written, Teffi has a deceptively light style, handling poignant subject-matter with elegance and a sense of humour.  These stories open a window into the Russian literary circles of the early 1900s – fascinating in itself, not to mention her encounters with Tolstoy and Rasputin, which are wonderfully recounted.  Teffi was forced to leave Moscow in 1917 and I recommend her memoir of this period, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea.

What are your favourite books by women in translation?

Japan with Children (and Books)

Japan is one of our favourite, but all-too-rare, holiday destinations.  So smart, so polite and well-ordered, such care taken with everything from handing you a business card to presenting a plate of sushi as a work of art.  But I also love the quirky personality of Japan: its hidden bars, pop-rock-cutie fashion and dark crime novels.

We spent four days in Tokyo with Zoe (7) and George (5).  I took some Japanese books (aka ‘destination reading’) forgetting that chances to read when holidaying with children are pretty slim.  Some highlights below – bookish and otherwise!

 

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View from our room at the Prince Park Tower Hotel, which had long Murakami-esque corridors.

HARAJUKU

We loved Cat Street.  Had a great coffee and cronuts at The Roastery.  Also excellent burgers and salads at Golden Brown Burgers (recommended by Monocle).  Don’t be put off by the ‘burger’ aspect – these were nutritious, with wonderful fresh salads also on the menu.

Yoyogi Park was beautiful to walk through and we would love to see Tomigaya (the area just on the other side of the park from Harajuku), which sounded fun and Brooklyn-esque and was featured recently in New York Times.  I think I need to open a file “Things to Do When We Return to Tokyo sans kids”.

We had a sushi dinner at family-friendly Itamae Sushi – it was excellent.  There are various locations; our closest was near Shiba Park.

Books: Tokyo Precincts and Tokyo Style Guide have some beautiful ideas for neighbourhood walks.

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A Sunday stroll in Ginza

 

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We spent two hours shopping for stationery at Loft, then went next door to Muji for another suitcase. 😉

We adored Matsuya department store and could have spent longer.  Lunch tip: we bought bento boxes from the Food Hall and took them to eat on the rooftop (level R in the lift). Very relaxed.

Book: I could not help thinking of Out by Natsuo Kirino, which features factory workers who make bento boxes, and a grisly murder.

FISH MARKETS

We did a tour late morning – would be good to make the 4am commitment and see the tuna auction (another one for the file).  There is talk of moving the fish markets to a new location, so it might be one of the last chances to see the original.

A fabulous lunch at Tsukiji Edogin – it’s a five minute walk from the fish markets with excellent produce and space for 9 of us (we had met up with friends from Sydney), and they take bookings.  I highly recommend it if you have a group but want to go local.

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Winning lunch at Edogin with Penny, John and Gia

Our wonderful nanny minded the kids for us so we escaped with friends Penny and John for a fabulous dinner at Sushi Tsubaki (another Monocle recommendation) with a cool chef, wonderful traditional sushi, amazing fresh fish and flavours.

SHIMODA

Next stop, Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula.  Note to self: bring your international driver’s licence (Japan is strict on the paperwork) – a car is recommended.  Also, when renting a house, remember that coffee is number one priority!  We had to resort to the 7-11 down the hill, which had that filter style that tastes like someone has put coffee dregs into old dishwater.  Our wonderful host came to the rescue with some pods on the second day.

You need to seek out the cool spots in Shimoda and (ideally, with a car, which you will have because you’ve taken my advice) beyond.  (e.g. a surf shop on our way out which served fantastic coffee; Perry Road near the harbour).

I’m not sure we have quite nailed that area yet but Jason found it super chilled and relaxing so it’s a thumbs up!

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Iritahama Beach

Books:

Thanks to The Readers podcast – Simon and Thomas discussed Japanese books in one episode and the listeners had some great recommendations…

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

Beautiful and subtle, this was too oblique for me.   Slow-moving, with an unsympathetic protagonist and his lover, a tragic figure.  Nuanced writing, thoughtful and humane.  There is much to think about and space to read between the lines.  I would appreciate it more reading quietly on a train going through the snow country of the title (instead of at the beach with children!).

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe, translated by E. Dale Saunders

Contrary to the title, not a beach read!  A man is held captive in a woman’s house to help dig out the sand dunes that the house is buried in.  This had a nightmarish quality, both with his failure to escape, the heat and the sand (in his food, hair, clothes).  Interesting and poetic, with descriptions of thirst and being trapped by sand all too vivid.  I admired it.

Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O. Smith

I really enjoyed this detective story set in Tokyo.  It has an interesting premise (a wife suspected of murdering her husband from afar) and engaging characters: the likeable but flawed Detective Kusanagi trying to solve the mystery with the help of his physicist friend Yukawa.  I loved The Devotion of Suspect X too, and am keen to read more by Keigo Hugashino.

Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb

I loved this novella about working at Yumimoto Corporation in Tokyo.  Amelie Nothomb has a wonderful, dry sense of humour but also a deep understanding of Japanese culture.  Her empathy for her Japanese colleagues and ability to laugh at herself make for terrific, laugh-out-loud comedy and an at times poignant study of the constraints of life in Japan working for ‘the company’.

Bullfight and The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue, translated by Michael Emmerich

I love Yaushi Inoue’s beautifully spare prose and the way he reveals characters slowly, leaving us to think about where our sympathies lie.  Small but perfectly formed, these are cut like crystal.  Highly recommended.

And I could do a whole post about Haruki Murakami (I read Wild Sheep Chase while I was away, and found the most beautiful little book called Haruki Murakami Goes to Meet Hayao Kawai – inspiring).

Do you like reading for holiday destinations?  I have another one coming up (Barcelona), which has me thinking about books in translation generally.  Maybe for another post!

Now back to Inifinite Jest….