Average Goodreads rating: 4 stars (mine is the only rating!)
Language scaling: High beginner / low intermediate (A2/B1)
Plot summary: Fourteen-year-old Reka and her family try to escape a natural disaster in New Zealand.
Recommended audience: This book is from a larger Swedish series (Polar Fish) written for younger ELLs (target audience: 12 and up) and published by the Natur och Kultur foundation here in Sweden. That said, the text is entirely in English, so there’s nothing particular here for Swedish ELLs.
In-depth thoughts: The English in Snowfall (and in the rest of the Polar Fish books) is quite simple, so intermediate and advanced learners might not find it particularly challenging. But the story was still quite good; even as an adult native English speaker I was engaged (and didn’t even see the plot twist coming). This is a great choice for a young learner with a penchant for horror movies and scary stories. (Though there is some salty language at one point.)
This is one of many middle grade/young adult English novels I picked up for a song at a library sale, and one of a few different ELL/young reader-specific series represented. Polar Fish in particular seems to be a little old and discontinued, but you can still find the books here and there.
Language scaling: High intermediate and above (B2+)
Plot summary: In 2019, humans finally receive and decode extraterrestrial messages. The aliens aren’t too far away, so The Society of Jesus sends an expedition to meet them. Things do not go as planned.
Recommended audience: Science fiction fans who are also interested in the humanities, particularly comparative religion, anthropology, and/or linguistics.
Content warning: Sexual assault; violence against children
In-depth thoughts: What Russell does best in The Sparrow is world building. She’s clearly given a lot of thought to both of the distant alien races, in terms of evolutionary biology as well as culture. World building is something I’m usually very picky about, so praise from Caesar is praise, indeed.
As far back as 1996, Russell also had a pretty good sense of what sort of technology we would have in 2019. We might not be mining asteroids in three years, let alone going on interstellar missions, but I think (and hope!) we’ll be surprised by what SpaceX will accomplish. Meanwhile, in 2016, tablets are already ubiquitous. How prescient!
That said, there were some flaws. Like a lot of science fiction, the characterization suffered a bit. Many of them are only vaguely described; others who are more fully fleshed out have significantly out-of-character moments. This would be okay, except that some of those moments are important plot points. Whenever that happens in a book, it always feel like the author is shoehorning a character into a certain role rather than letting the story develop naturally. There are a couple of plot points that I felt were glossed over, though these are apparently addressed in the sequel, Children of God.
Overall, I enjoyed it and I appreciate the thought and work that Russell clearly put into it. I would definitely recommend this for any science fiction fan, though with the warning that towards the end, things get quite brutal.
Plot summary: In Victorian England, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman are engaged to be married. While visiting Ernestina in the town of Lyme Regis, Charles meets and eventually falls in love with the tragic Sarah Woodruff, known around the village as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”
Recommended audience: Hardcore English literature fans
In-depth thoughts:The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the first book I’m discussing here to be part of my larger goal of conquering TIME magazine’s list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. I’m almost done, but it’s taken quite a while. There have been a lot of snags and pauses along the way; The French Lieutenant’s Woman is my first foray into the list after a lengthy dry spell.
I knew nothing about the book going into it. Considering that John Fowles is listed among Great Britain’s top 50 writers, that makes me maybe one of the worst English majors ever, but so it is. That’s exactly why I decided to tackle the TIME Top 100 Novels list: to fill in the gaps of my literary education. (English literature, at any rate.)
Image courtesy Jonathan Cape/Random House
Where to start with this book? Well, the writing is complex and dense. This is not a complaint; it’s good to stretch the little gray cells once in a while, and once you accustom yourself to the faux-Victorian style of the novel things continue at a relatively snappy pace. But it’s still work, and for so much work one expects some kind of reward.
By “reward,” I don’t mean a good or at least satisfying ending, plot-wise; I mean the entire reading experience. Contrast The French Lieutenant’s Woman with a book it inspired: A. S. Byatt’s Possession. On the surface, the plot isn’t too terribly exciting. What’s commendable about Possession is Byatt’s thorough commitment to her fictional poets and her parallel narrative structure. All told, Possession includes: a modern-day narrative; a Victorian narrative; considerable personal correspondence from a variety of fictional Victorians; journal entries from a Victorian-era French teenager; and a small corpus of highly formalized poetry for the two aforementioned fictional poets. That is some dedication to the craft.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman lacks any such dedication, particularly in the variety of viewpoints. The narrative chugs along in a consistent third person that is sometimes quite close and other times quite distant, with only a few winks and nods at the fourth wall to make it feel at all modern. We spend exactly zero time with Sarah Woodruff, the titular character. Instead, we spend most of the time with Charles. Sometimes we leave Charles to get to know other male characters, such as the Irish doctor or Charles’s servant, Sam, but most of the time we’re with Charles. Women are treated even more distantly, and no woman is treated more distantly than Sarah. Because of this, everything else falls apart. Without the privilege of an interior monologue, Sarah remains nothing more than the tired trope of “hysterical attention whore” and the entire novel feels much staler and older than its 1969 publication date.
The bell cannot be unrung; the book cannot be unread. Fowles’s The Magus sounds like it might be more my cup of tea, but other than that I won’t be coming back to this author anytime soon. Not even Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons can save this one for me.
It took me a long to realize it, but I love organization. Specifically, I love record-keeping: diaries, lists, even some sad attempts at scrapbooking. One of my favorite record-keeping tools is GoodReads. Reading is important to me, and being able to keep track of what I read, when I read it, and what I thought about it is immensely satisfying for reasons I can’t really identify. Since 2007, everything I’ve read has been meticulously rated and catalogued. One unintended result of this records obsession is that I can effortlessly track my reading habits and trends. What were my favorite and least favorite books in a given year? What did I read the most of?
My Favorite Books of 2015
I gave only four 5-star reviews last year: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For the Time Being (quite recent), NoViolet Buluwayo’s We Need New Names (also quite recent), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (not so recent), and Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas (also not so recent).
February 2015: Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
It’s been my goal for the last few years to read every novel on the TIME Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list, which is how I stumbled across Under the Volcano. As a revered English classic, the book needs no selling, no praise, no recommendation.
What struck me was Lowry’s complex and intricate prose and the examination of expatriate life. Having lived for a few years in South Korea, the genre of “expats and tourists behaving badly” holds a special place in my heart: The Sun Also Rises, The Sheltering Sky, Tropic ofCancer, and Giovanni’s Room were some of my favorite reads in my tour of 20th century English literature. Under the Volcano is part of that genre, but also more. It’s a lyrical character study, a sympathetic, heart-wrenching exploration of alcoholism and interpersonal relationships, and a study of Mexican politics in the 1930s.
May 2015: A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
I think the only reason A Tale for the Time Being isn’t on the TIME Top 100 list is because it was published in 2013 and the TIME list was assembled in 2005. I hope so, anyway.
In brief, A Tale for the Time Being is about a woman in Canada, Ruth, who finds and reads a diary that washed up along the coast. It turns out to be written by a Japanese schoolgirl, Nao, some years earlier.
Of course it’s also about much more than that. There’s prehistoric flora, quantum entanglement, philosophy, Zen monks, and insects (among others). But everything falls under that found diary and Ruth’s relationship to it.
Ozeki displays an incredible technical range. She ends up writing from the perspective of five different people (not all of them are equally prominent; I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the book focuses primarily on two of them, so the book is much more focused than it sounds like it would be with five different protagonists) and gives them all incredibly distinct and personal voices. There are other metatextual indications when the writing shifts perspective, like a different font or a chapter title or so on, but Ozeki gives each of them a strong enough voice that you would be able to tell anyway.
A Tale for the Time Being is not only a technical achievement, though. Ozeki also creates a compelling story. After rationing out portions of the book like literary chocolate, at maybe halfway through I just binged and read the whole thing. I might have cried. (As in: I cried.)
If you’re in the mood for experiments with narrative form, bildungsroman, or a sampling of Japanese history and philosophy, A Tale for the Time Being is for you.
December 4th, 2015: We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo
This book was a mostly-random selection from the “world literature” shelf at the library. “Mostly-random” because I’d heard a little buzz about it beforehand; enough that I checked this book out when I couldn’t find anything from my TIME Top 100 list. (It seems Stockholm biblioteket’s copy of The Buddha of Suburbia is lost forever.) Like A Tale for the Time Being, I think We Need New Names would be a strong contender for an updated and more diverse TIME Top 100 list.
We Need New Names is about the Zimbabwean Darling, first as a child in Zimbabwe and later as a teenager in the United States. Bulawayo’s short story “Hitting Budapest” won the Caine prize, and she later expanded it into a novel. The book lends itself to comparisons with Adichie’s Americanah; I think readers who like one will like the other. The difference (aside from setting) is in focus: Bulawayo focuses on details and short episodes, leaving much implied or suggested, while Adichie went for a grand epic of everything. Bulawayo’s voice is also unique and clear. For a sample, you can read “Hitting Budapest” online.
December 27th, 2015: Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist
This one was a reread for me. You might recall my earlier lament that Lagerkvist English translations are few and far between. Barabbas is one of his works that has an English translation, and a good one at that. That’s how I originally read it in university. Last year I picked up a copy from the library to give it another go, this time in the original Swedish. Lagerkvist’s style is sparse and straightforward, and the novel itself is quite short, so it was good Swedish practice for me. Likewise the English translation would be good English practice.
Barabbas is the story of Barabbas, the criminal who walked free while Christ was crucified. Lagerkvist tells us the story of this marginal figure, exploring the issues of faith, doubt, and belief through Barabbas’s struggle to understand his fate and the nascent Christian faith.
In my private life, I follow a lot of book bloggers. Sometime last year, at least one of them brought The Room to my attention. No, not Tommy Wiseau’s “masterpiece.” This The Room is a novel by the Swedish Jonas Karlsson. The premise sounded interesting and I looked high and low for the original Swedish edition, only to turn up empty-handed. I shrugged and moved on to other things.
One of those other things was NetGalley. I finally bit the bullet and signed up a few months ago. I could rationalize that decision with “it’s important to stay abreast of literary trends when you’re an editor” but really I just wanted free ebooks. (When you live outside the US and Canada, you don’t get the free physical copies.)
Last week I noticed a new title in the Literary Fiction section: The Invoice, by Jonas Karlsson. I recognized his name immediately and requested the book as a way to give him a test run. I was also curious about how the translation was handled, as my luck with English translation of contemporary Swedish books (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) has been much worse than with English translations of Swedish classics (Doctor Glass). Where would The Invoice fall in this spectrum?
The answer: somewhere in the middle.
In the case of The Invoice, there was something clunky and choppy about the writing. I noticed it, frowned, and continued reading, because at least it didn’t use any archaic or awkward turns of phrases I had seen elsewhere, and by elsewhere I mean in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (No one uses “anon” anymore; at least, not to mean “soon.”) I eventually stopped noticing the choppiness, but only because something bothered me even more: an uncomfortable mix of American and British English.
I’m all in favor of standardizing English; it would make my job (both as a tutor and as an editor) that much easier. But we haven’t accomplished that standardization yet, and while usage may dictate rules, I don’t think individual publishers deciding on their own “blends” will successfully further the International English cause. When it comes to The Invoice, this blend was:
So we had a character walking into a gray granite building, taking a lift up to the eleventh floor, and talking to a Mr. Something-or-other.
This is a minor quibble on my part, I realize. Once I figured out was going on, I was able to put my discomfort in a box and read the story for the sake of the story. It certainly didn’t hamper my understanding in any way. But I think it’s a point worth discussing: when translating into English, how much should consistency and localization matter?
After all, I had no trouble understanding the writing. The differences between British and American English have been thoroughly documented, to the point where any adult English-speaking reader (usually) knows there are differences and can (usually) switch between the two without difficulty. And how many people, exactly, really notice those differences? Literature translated into English isn’t done for the exclusive sake of native speakers. There is a huge market for non-native speakers as well; readers who might not be attuned to the differences, or who might prefer “color” and “analyze” but also “lorry” and “dustbin.” Does that make the distinction between conventions nothing more than a shibboleth on par with “rules” about ending sentences in prepositions?
For me, not quite, though I couldn’t give you a satisfactory answer as to why. I just like consistency! (Hobgoblin of a little mind it may be.) If I had been working on this project, I would have favored American terminology and made the appropriate changes, with a comment explaining why.
I asked other editors (informally) and the majority response seemed to be that this was an inconsistency, and one that “should” be rectified, validating my own thought on the issue. A not-insignificant portion replied that they had been instructed to mix conventions in similar ways, or had heard of that happening to other editors. I was surprised to learn that this is something that deliberately happens, but if that’s how a publisher or author wants to roll, that’s what they’re allowed to do.
But something that bothers word nerds might not bother the general public, so I put this question out to you, Internet: how do you feel about mixing different English conventions?
Legal “CYA” moment: in case context didn’t make it clear, I received a free preview copy of The Invoice in exchange for honest feedback and review. The translation issue I described here (in as much as it’s an “issue”) may be addressed by the time the book goes to print.
Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has been making the rounds on the book blog corners of the Internet for a while now, so I’m not that surprised to see it win the prestigious Man Brooker Prize. What is more surprising is the story of the English translator:
The book was translated by Deborah Smith, who only started teaching herself Korean in 2010.
She said she initially tried to translate the book for a publisher after only learning Korean for two years, but the translation was “awful”.
However, after publisher Portobello Books asked her if she had a Korean book that would be “right for their list”, she had another go at translating a year later.
Translating can be a tricky business. Even in neighboring languages there are discrepancies—when does “jag orkar inte” mean “I don’t want to,” and when does it mean “I don’t feel like it,” and when does it mean “I can’t be bothered”?—with languages from two different language families, the gulf will only widen. An artful translation that maintains all of the nuances of the original is a difficult task, and it seems like Smith succeeded. (“Seems like,” I say: I leave it to the bilingual readers to determine if she actually succeeded.)
I’ll admit, for a few years now it’s been my pipe dream to foster more translations of Korean literature into English. Smith’s success has rekindled the hopes I have for that pipe dream (there are Korean courses at Stockholms universitet! was my first thought on reading the news) and I find myself daydreaming a little. But maybe the daydream is more about attaining enough Korean fluency to enjoy a whole new realm of literature, and less about actually translating anything.
At any rate, there is certainly plenty of work to be done when it comes to Swedish literature in translation. There is far more in the Swedish literary tradition than Astrid Lindgren and gritty crime novels, after all. It’s a sad state of affairs when Pär Lagerkvist, one of the foremost Swedish authors of the last century and a Nobel prize winner, is still incompletely translated into English. I would love to bring his work, or help somebody else bring his work, to a larger international audience.
Again, congratulations to Han and Smith. I look forward to devouring (hah, hah) The Vegetarian in the near future, and I wish them much success, literary and otherwise.