What I’ve been reading lately, shedding my skin edition

What I’ve been reading lately, renewal edition

I’ve read more than this, actually, but what I haven’t listed is mostly re-reading. I’m recovering from last year and right now I just can’t muster the energy to list it all. Every day, a little more energy…or so I hope.

What I’ve been reading lately, plain February edition

  • Winterkeep, by Kristin Cashore. I had some problems with this one, though I did read it all the way through, not just once but twice. Kristin Cashore is one of “my” writers and so her works get a level of trust from me that many other authors’ don’t. For this reason I found reading Winterkeep an interesting exercise in figuring out what my problems with it were. I think it comes down to three main issues (no real spoilers in what follows). First is a world-building issue. Cashore’s previous novels in this universe (Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue) suffered from a common and extremely problematic issue in fantasy: presumed (and in some cases explicit) whiteness (some discussions of this issue in fantasy generally here and here). Perhaps in part to remedy this, in Winterkeep Cashore presents a nation of people with brown skin, and clarifies that the Lienid are also brown-skinned (albeit lighter-skinned than the people of Winterkeep). All this is well and good, except that by this choice, Cashore has created a world in which human phenotype is completely unmoored from biological reality (the people of Winterkeep live in the far north). This worldbuidling thus gives credence to some mistaken ideas about the biology of skin color and race; such mistaken ideas inform quite a bit of present-day scientific racism (this project provides some background for what I’m trying to get at here), which is clearly not what Cashore intends – but nonetheless, it bothered me. I couldn’t not see those threads as I read. My second issue is also science-related. While environment is at the heart of the conflict in Winterkeep, and Cashore emphasizes this by having two point-of-view and one additional important set of non-human animal characters, all the animals seem completely human-focused. These three types of animals are the only wild animals we’re introduced to (and one, the telepathic foxes, would really have to be considered a semi-domesticate); otherwise the world is populated by domestic animals (that is, dependent on humans) such as cows, pigs, and cats. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem except that the responsibility of the denizens of Winterkeep to take care of the earth and the impacts of their decisions on ecosystem dynamics are a significant part of the plot. Similarly, while concepts such as cascading environmental effects and ecosystem mechanics are touched upon, the superficial way in they are treated supports the idea that people are the superior beings, the most important part of this world…which is directly in conflict with the stated environmental themes of Winterkeep. Finally, one of the aspects of this book that I really liked was the theme of coming of age out of a background of family trauma. However, the many viewpoints (there are five) made it hard for me to fully connect with the character of Lovisa. And this made the way in which Winterkeep treats family trauma, for me, fundamentally unsatisfying. Together these three issues made the entire book problematic for me; they may not be so much of an issue for other readers. But thinking about why things were problematic for me in this one was also a really fruitful and interesting exercise – one that’s given me some insights into writing craft.
  • Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu. I loved this book.
  • The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, by Ha Jin.
  • Making Magic: Weaving Together the Everyday and the Extraordinary, by Briana Saussy

What I’ve been reading lately, deep dark midwinter edition

It doesn’t sound like a lot, and it is in fact not a lot. I’ve been tired, laboring under darkness both real and metaphorical. But we’ve passed the solstice now and I see a glimmer of light in the far distance…enough that I’m able to at the very least, record what I’ve been reading.

Here’s to light returning, for all of us (including those of us in the southern hemisphere, for whom the returning light will be metaphorical at this point).

What I’ve been reading lately, nightmare autumn edition

It’s autumn, getting on towards Halloween – usually, my favorite time of year. But this year I am weighed down, and though I am making an effort to get outside, to witness the birds and the leaves and the river, it’s not easy. Some of my current circumstance is flat-out on me: I am overworked, having said yes to not one but half a dozen or more obligations that I had no business taking on. (It is strange but true that the more overloaded I am, the more I say yes to demands; saying no is hard, and when I’m stressed out and busy, I don’t have the energy to do it. Which of course makes things worse.) But some of it is the state of the world. For the last four years I’ve been saying, it’s a hard time, but the difficulty has been getting more and more acute. Knowing that so many have it so much worse than I do does not make getting through the day-to-day any easier.

The weather and my mood are reflected in my reading. I’m not really a horror reader, but have read (or tried to read) two recently. Mexican Gothic received such good reviews that, despite the fact that I really didn’t go for Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, I gave it a try. But this one (though very different) was again not for me and I didn’t finish it. I’m apparently the only reader out there who found both of these works much better in concept than in execution. I see that there are some who found Mexican Gothic slow; that wasn’t my problem. I just wasn’t into the prose. Like Gods of Jade and Shadow, though, Mexican Gothic has been widely praised. What am I missing?

(Speaking of things I’m missing: I stumbled across Time’s 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time list and was horrified. I mean, really horrified, so much so that I just can’t bear to link to it. I could go on and on about the way in which it skips over everything up till about 15 years ago – after bragging that they go back to the 9th century at that! – and that is a problem for sure. So is the fact that 14% of the books on it were written by the authors consulted in making the list. But on a personal taste note, the correlation between books I’ve talked about disliking on this blog and the past 15 years portion of the list is stunningly high. There are some notable exceptions – I love N.K. Jemisin’s work, for instance, and I absolutely agree that The Fifth Season deserves a place on a top 100 list. But a lot of the others….)

By contrast, I was very impressed by The Only Good Indians (I’d never read any Stephen Graham Jones before!) and I’m enjoying Trouble the Saints so far (not a surprise, as Alaya Dawn Johnson is a favorite author for me; wow, looks like I never blogged about Love is the Drug? I’m going to have to do that one of these days). But of the set, the book that most lifted me above my current state was H is for Hawk. It is totally different and yet somehow reminded me of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.

I hope everyone is finding things to read (or just things, period) that lift them out of the nightmare. Stay safe. If you are American, vote. And above all, take care – of yourself, and of the rest of the world too.

What I’ve been reading lately, 100+ degrees Fahrenheit edition

It is hot. The world continues to be difficult. But there is reading. I was completely blown away by The Changeling – I found it to be creepy, gripping, and nuanced all three, and that doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s a master class of a novel. I’ll be reading it again, that’s for sure.

None of the other three really grabbed me, though I have barely started Vita Nostra so that may change (but I don’t think so). It may be that they are suffering by comparison to The Changeling – not an unusual problem for me when I’ve read a book that really captures me; everything I read after seems flat for a while.

Stay healthy and well, readers. I hope something – whether books or something more concrete – is bringing you hope and comfort right now.

The adventure of reading literature in translation

Anyone looking at my what I’ve been reading lately posts would probably notice: I like to read books in translation. By books in translation I mostly (but not entirely) mean, books originally published in a non-English language that I then read in English. As I’ve discussed here before, one of my all-time favorite novels is If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler, written and originally published in Italian; a sampling of other things I’ve read in the not-too-distant past that were originally published in a language other than English include Basho’s poetry, The Godmother, Baron in the Trees, Core of the Sun, and the Mirror Visitor Quartet. It’s not too hard for me to rattle off others that I love: Smilla’s Sense of Snow. The Neapolitan Novels. Momo (the book not the internet hoax). What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I could go on and on. And that’s just the ones I remember offhand, not the ones that I enjoyed but am not remembering now, or the ones that I felt equivocal about, or even the ones I hated. I am glad I read them all, because they made my world bigger.

I will sometimes give works written in French or Spanish a read in their original language as well as in translation, but usually after having read the English version. This is partly because I’m not as fluent a reader in French and Spanish as I am in English, but it’s also because I love the insight into the art of translation. Reading the translation first and then the original not only improves my comprehension of the original, it renders me in awe of translators. Sometimes it also makes me frustrated with them, but when I read this way I am acutely aware that capturing an author’s art while getting meaning across is an impossible task (see this article for more about this!). A translation always walks a fine line between too literal and not literal enough. I find this line fascinating. I’m such a geek about this that sometimes I’ll try to read something originally published in – and which I first read in – English in its French or Spanish translation, just to see what it’s like, what new shades of meaning emerge when it’s put in another language.

(At least at this point, my reading ability in other languages isn’t good enough for me to be able to do this with works not in French or Spanish, but I keep on studying. I especially hope to add Italian to the list of languages I can read in – it’s close enough to Spanish and French that I think I should be able to get there with some concentrated study, and I am especially fond of the Italian works in translation I’ve read – but I’ve been working on German, for other reasons, recently. At some point I’d like to work on Japanese.)

Given this (admittedly peculiar) interest, and given that I travel (or used to, pre-COVID19) a lot for work, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that when I travel outside the USA I always try to spend some time browsing local bookstores. I find so many books that haven’t ever been translated into English; and at the same time, I’ve found that non-American bookstores often have an excellent stock of literature in translation (and not just translated from the English, either).

All this makes me wonder: what’s behind my difficulty in finding books in translation here at home? Are plenty of works translated, but the marketing machine for these books does not reach me, for whatever reason? Or are there in fact relatively few, and if so, does this indicate American insularity/unwillingness to buy translated works, or something more general such as the difficulty of the art of translation?

(In case you are wondering, as I was, if it is really true that books in translation aren’t as widely available in English as they are in other languages, a quick search found me a number of articles suggesting that indeed, this is the case: this article, which is about English-language translations in general, and this post, titled “Why Do Americans Read so Few Books in Translation?”, were two that I found particularly interesting. It does appear that the issue is not that I’m not able to find books that have been translated, but rather that there are relatively few non-English books that are ever translated into English.)

Works in translation are on my mind right now in part as a result of the recent passing of Carlos Ruiz Zafón, described as “the most-read Spanish author since Cervantes” in his obituary in the Guardian. I did eventually read The Shadow of the Wind in Spanish, but I started with the English translation. My life would be poorer without ever having encountered his work, or Italo Calvino’s, or Hannelore Cayre’s or Haruki Murakami‘s or Elena Ferrante‘s or Michael Ende‘s or that of so many others.

What I’ve been reading lately: searching for clarity edition

Not much to say, except doing a lot of reading (more than I’m listing here…I’ve been reading some things at the urgings of others and re-learning that I generally have pretty good instincts about what I like to read. Possibly I’ll post about that sometime) and writing (stuff that will almost certainly never see the light of day. There’s a lot of freedom in this kind of writing and I encourage everyone to give it a try). And listening. And watching. There is so much to hear, to see, to learn.

What I’ve been reading lately: lockdown edition (preceded by bonus thoughts on ANDERSEN’S FAIRY TALES)

When I last wrote one of these, I mentioned I was reading Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Specifically, I was reading “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a story I knew from many childhood re-tellings but I don’t think I’d ever read in the original before. I remembered it as a story about the truth, and the importance of telling the truth. I wanted to read it for reasons that presumably are obvious; I felt like I was living in that story, and I thought reading it might give me insight into the current situation.

What I read wasn’t the story I thought it was, though. Rather than ending with the Emperor and his enablers realizing that their folly made the situation worse than it needed to be, it ends

“The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.”

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1597/1597-h/1597-h.htm#link2H_4_0001

In other words, they keep on pretending! Even when they all know the game is up! This isn’t a story about truth at all, but about lying to keep up appearances! This is a little too on-the-nose for me, in the current world situation, but even if it weren’t I would hate it.

It’s funny because this has happened to me before, and with Andersen too. I was introduced to “The Snow Queen” through a ballet performance for children, not through the story itself. I was very young, probably five or younger, when I saw it. What I remembered after was the mirror that made everything ugly and hateful, and how a sliver got into the brother’s eye and made him see the world in a twisted way. This idea really resonated with me. I carried it with me throughout my childhood. Yet for some reason I did not actually read “The Snow Queen” until I was an adult. And I discovered that first, Andersen’s tale focused on the mirror making things physically ugly, not ugly in a larger sense; and second, that the cure wasn’t knowledge or truth (which – again – I somehow had thought it was) but a combination of faith and innocence.

Anyway, that’s a long and not all-that-relevant prelude to “What I’ve been reading lately”:

  • Cold Earth by Sarah Moss (this, by the way, is a great pandemic novel and for my money better than all the more commonly-cited novels featuring viruses. I enjoyed Severance, which has made a few recent lists, but most of the other suggested reads on those lists I find…tedious at best. It’s amazing to me that Cold Earth hasn’t been on any such lists that I have seen. Well, here it is on mine.)
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (I found this because I was looking for Cold Earth. I’m surprised I hadn’t happened upon it for other reasons – but however I found it, I am so glad I did. It’s a stunning example of how powerful a short work can be.)
  • The Lost Kitchen by Erin French
  • The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre
  • Traveling Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (because the other books on this list were not helping me to sleep!)

What I’ve been reading lately, nascent projects edition

Books I've been reading, spread on a white background

Yes, that is a weird collection of books. No, they are not all for the same project. Yes, they are all related to ongoing projects – three projects, to be precise! One novel, one picture book, one cooking project.

Usual disclaimer: while some of the links above will take you to Amazon, they are for informational purposes only (when other sites associated with the books are available, I’ve linked to them instead). The links should not be taken as any kind of recommendation to buy the product from the linked source, and neither I nor this site receive any funds from links to commercial sources.