Review: Real World, Natsuo Kirino

Important update: Based on the two samples of this genre that I have read so far (this and The Thief, both by widely acclaimed Japanese authors), I have concluded that Japanese thriller mystery type books are not for me. I am not sure why I ever thought they were, given that I struggle with books in translation and I do not like thriller mystery type books above half.

Natsuo Kirino has been on several of the lists for A More Diverse Universe, with specific praise for her ability to write about the disaffection of teenagers in the modern world. (Red flag: I hate disaffected protagonists.) Real World is about four teenage girls who decide to help out a neighborhood boy, Worm, who has just beaten his mother to death with a baseball bat. (Greenish flag: I like reading about people who have done crimes and are waiting to see if they will be caught.) We hear from all the girls, and from Worm, in alternating chapters (green flag: I loooove multiple viewpoints), as they struggle to deal with the tedium and hypocrisy they encounter in their own lives, and as they become more and more enmeshed in Worm’s attempt to escape from the law.

These are the disaffectedest kids you ever saw, and I guess my tolerance for whiny protagonists is on the low side. Apart from Toshi, all these kids fall on the wrong side of the line. They’re angry with the adults in their lives for–as they see it–failing them: their parents for giving them unrealistic expectations of what their lives will be; their teachers for pretending to care about them; the creeps and salespeople who accost them on all sides as they move through the world.

To an extent, this is interesting to me. Past that extent, I start thinking, Oh boo flipping hoo, everybody’s got stuff to deal with. GROW UP. Which probably means I’d be one of the adults these kids would be happy to see disappear. The trick of writing about kids this age is that we (the readers) have gotten older and realized that everyone has to make compromises; and we know that the kids are going to eventually realize this too; and it can be a little tiresome to listen to them complain about it in the meantime.

Lesson learned: No more Japanese mystery thriller type books. Mysteries in translation are not likely to lead to an increase in love for mysteries or books in translation. They are only going to make me crabby probably.

(But I’m still going to read The Murder Farm before I finish with translated mysteries for good.)

This has been a read for Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe blogging event! (I intended it to be a read for Women in Translation Month, which was August, but my library hold didn’t arrive in time for that to happen. Luckily, Bibliobio is not the only blogger devoted to promoting diversity in the reading world!) If you haven’t yet, stop by Aarti’s sign-up page and see what everyone else has been reading!

HHhH, Laurent Binet

THIS BOOK RIGHT HERE. LISTEN.

Listen to me about this book. It is awfully good, and I am going to recommend it to you very highly. I am going to highly recommend it in spite of:

  1. Nazi brutality; and
  2. Translated (from French)

Never mind about the grammar of that list. Just understand that it is a list of two things I am unfond of. I read HHhH because I got a copy for free from a coworker and finished my other book on the subway. And also because I picked HHhH to win the Tournament of Books (it did not), and I felt an obligation to it for that reason. I did not expect to feel fond of it. I also did not expect that in the eventuality of my loving it, I would have any difficulty in describing to other people why I loved it so much. The reason for that is you can’t put “dear sweet book” into the same sentence with “assassination of a Nazi spymaster”. I mean you can. But it looks disingenuous and denies the emotional oomf the book has.

The beginning: The narrator’s father tells him a story about a Czech and a Slovak who killed Himmler’s right-hand man, Reinhard Heydrich.

The end (not spoilers, just history): Some brave people died, and you wish they had not.

The whole: HHhH (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is the dearest book about Nazi officers that ever I have read, though admittedly it did not face much competition. It is the story of Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague and one of the architects of the Final Solution, and of the two men who assassinated him and were later killed by Nazi soldiers. Binet is not writing fiction, exactly, though he calls the book a novel–everything he writes about Reinhard Heydrich and the men who killed him is true.

Everyone finds it normal, fudging reality to make a screenplay more dramatic, or adding coherence to the narrative of a character whose real path probably included too many random ups and downs, insufficiently loaded with significance. It’s because of people like that, forever messing with historical truth just to sell their stories, that an old friend, familiar with all these fictional genres and therefore fatally accustomed to these processes of glib falsification, can say to me in innocent surprise: “Oh, really, it’s not invented?”

No, it’s not invented! What would be the point of “inventing” Nazism?

I loved the narrator’s openness. Binet’s narrator (I am trying not to assume it’s really Binet himself) talks about history the way Nicholson Baker’s Anthologist talks about poetry: generously, in full awareness of its tragedy and comedy, and admitting freely his own feelings and wishes about it. He tells stories because they are moving, and then admits he didn’t need to tell them but he just wanted to. He refuses to buy a book (Heydrich’s wife’s memoirs) that he thinks might humanize Heydrich, except that in a later section he says off-handedly that he bought the book after all. In one chapter he sneers at a scholar for getting an easy detail wrong, and two chapters on, he remarks that actually that writer was quite correct and he was wrong.

Some reviews I’ve seen of HHhH have said that they found the narrator fussy. He does fret a lot and openly about the veracity and manner of his storytelling. But luckily this is one of those books where you can probably tell right away whether you’ll like it or not, because the way the writing is at the beginning is exactly the way it is all the way through. For me it was perfect. When I read historical fiction, I tend to fret about what’s real and what’s invented, and I live for the notes at the end that tell you what is what. Binet draws back the authorial curtain to reveal his own anxiety about the perils and pitfalls of converting history into fiction, and I loved it.

Oh, I don’t know what to say about this book. I loved it. You should please read it and then comment on this post or email me to tell me how much you loved it.

Edit to add: The lovely Jackie of Farm Lane Books informed me that Binet’s publisher redacted references Binet made to Jonathan Littell’s book The Kindly Ones, a fictional memoir of an aged SS officer. Evidently the passages were left out of all editions of the book, not just the English translation as I initially thought. This made me sad because the Littell references that stayed in the book charmed me to pieces; and anyway I have a grudge against The Kindly Ones for having the same title as (and being better SEO’d than) the ninth volume of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

As in so many other cases, we find that The Millions is there for us in the clinch. Knowing what the people would want, they published the missing pages. Hurrah! Some of these bits ended up staying in HHhH, but many were cut. Here is my favorite cut-out bit, which also encapsulates a lot of what I love about Binet’s narrator.

Yesterday, I met a young woman who works in a library. She told me about an old lady, a former Resistance fighter, who regularly borrows books. One day, the old lady took home Littell’s The Kindly Ones. Soon afterwards, she brought it back, exclaiming: “What is this shit?” When I heard this, I thought straightaway that it would require a great deal of willpower not to put this anecdote in my book.

So there you go.

Review: An Accident in August, Laurence Cossé

My half-assed, unenthusiastic effort to make myself love books in translation continues apace. Yes, I am aware that it is a very very half-assed effort indeed. No, I would probably not have done anything about it had not Europa contacted me to offer me a copy of An Accident in August for review. (Hey FTC! There’s a disclosure encased in that last sentence, if you care to look for it.)

On a late night in August 1997, Lou has a minor car accident. Minor for her: the car that sideswipes her crashes spectacularly, and Lou speeds off in terror. The next morning, she learns that the car that crashed was carrying Princess Diana (or, as the French very correctly call her, Lady Di) (I only know this from Amelie, y’all). Lou realizes that she sort of caused the accident, that she will be caught up in a media frenzy if she comes forward, that she will lose any semblance of a private life, forever, that she will be blamed and universally loathed for not stopping to help. And from there, her life falls apart.

I think I have said before that I find unbearable suspenseful stories in which people have done wicked deeds and are eaten alive by guilt and fear and are waiting waiting waiting to see if they will be found out. Macbeth is my favorite of the Shakespeare tragedies (though this may be attributable to its having been the first one I ever read; or to the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, which, goddamn, is just a magnificent piece of writing); The Secret History rocks my world each and every time I read it; and some third example to complete this ascending tricolon. (I can’t think of a third example. I love guilt books, is what I’m saying.) So in spite of the presence of my usual problems with books in translation, the maybe-will-get-caught stuff kept me reading and interested. Plus I am a fairly private person my own self, and I greatly sympathized with Lou’s terror of permanent, unrelenting media attention.

However, there were parts of the book that went a little slowly for my taste, and stopped me getting emotionally involved. I wanted Lou to confide in someone — let’s face it, what’s interesting about books (and life, dude) is interaction between characters, and there’s precious little of that in the first half of An Accident in August. We have very little opportunity to know who Lou is apart from her predicament, and that makes it hard to care. I didn’t know what the stakes were. What did she have to lose? Who were the people she loved, what were the things she enjoyed, what kind of life did she have? The book suffered by maintaining such a tight focus on the circumstances.

In spite of this and in spite of my translation-phobia, I enjoyed An Accident in August, and I am looking forward to Cossé’s other translated work by Europa, A Novel Bookstore. Up with books about bookstores! One day by God I will learn to love books in translation. YES. I. WILL.

An Accident in August will be published by Europa on 30 August 2011. Watch for it!

Review: The Hottest Dishes in the Tartar Cuisine, Alina Bronsky

It turns out that a TBR shelf was the best idea I ever had. I’ve made the top section of my little bookshelf into a priority-reads shelf. Now when I am wondering what to read, and I think longingly of library books, my TBR shelf is like a stern little taskmaster going “Oh no you don’t, missy. You have all these books right here in your own very room.” And then I read those books instead, and honestly? I bought or asked for most of those books myself. There is no reason to suppose that I will like them any less than the books I would have gotten at the library.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is the first of a number of books I received for review at various points in the year, and now am going to review over the next week or two. I have this TBR shelf and it has made me into a responsible book blogger who reads the books she receives for review. (Not promptly, I can’t say I always do it promptly, but from now on, I’m going to bring it with the promptness.)

Anyway, this is Alina Bronsky’s second novel published with Europa. It is about Rosalinda Achmetowna, a Tartar woman of exceptional beauty, intelligence, and organizational skills (or so she says), whose ugly daughter Sulfia finds herself pregnant. Though Rosa tries several times to induce an abortion, Sulfia has the baby, a beautiful little girl whom Rosa names Aminat and on whom she utterly dotes. She knows what is best for Aminat. For Sulfia as well. And for her husband. And for everyone, ever.

I was getting a hell of a kick out of Rosa for about the first half of this book. She’s so utterly convinced of her rightness in every situation, what’s best for her husband, what restrictions will make Aminat into a poised, well-behaved little girl, what sneaky little manipulations will obtain a husband for Sulfia. It is funny. I have a soft spot for characters who think they know best. I can neither confirm nor deny rumors that this is attributable to a character trait in me by which I always think I know best.

But then Rosa did something — and it wasn’t the something you might think — that made me stop liking her permanently. I am often surprised by the things that turn out to be moral event horizons for me, like that time I gave up on Snape forever for making fun of Hermione’s teeth (look, I don’t know why that was the thing for me), and I was surprised about this. I won’t spoil the book for you by telling you what Rosa did that put me off her. It’s really very funny, if you are a fan of exceptionally black humor, and it’s also quite sad. I would have liked to see a few more cracks in the facade of Rosa’s virtue, but mostly I was contented with the unreliableness of this narrator.

Here’s the warning on the label: If you are like my Mumsy and you are unduly bothered by mistreatment of children, this book maybe isn’t for you. Just for your information.

Other reviews:

Fizzy Thoughts
Leafing Through Life
The Boston Bibliophile
Largehearted Boy
JenandthePen
Indie Reader Houston
Conversational Reading

Tell me if I missed yours!

CAVAFY

For National Poetry Month, I am going to gush about Cavafy. I’m going to do this instead of reviewing books. I am a rotten blogger. I swear I will get back to the business of reviewing books really soon. I’ve written several reviews of ARCs, but I can’t post them yet. They exist though! Regular programming will commence shortly, I hope to God. In the meantime, you’ll have to get by with guilt-fueled excuses for my bad posting habits, and gushy posts full of my new favorite poet, Constantine Cavafy.

I discovered Cavafy via the Poetry Foundation, a glorious resource for all!, during National Poetry Month last year, but I only truly fell in love with him this year (thereby fulfilling my New Year’s Resolution to read more translated modern poetry and find a translated modern poet to love). Since January, I’ve acquired three different translations of Cavafy, and it would have been four had I not accidentally talked someone else into buying the fourth one, and then I felt like I’d talked her into it and could not, at that late hour, demand she let me buy the book for myself instead. Later this week I’m going to a talk by one of my Cavafy translators; updates as warranted.

Having three translations is interesting. I like to lie in bed and read three translations of the same poem, and investigate what the differences are. It’s like doing a miniature language excavation, and I instantly refer myself to the Greek text, Greek being a language I don’t read even in the ancient, let alone the modern, to try and figure out which word means candles (it has been a while since I knew the Greek alphabet, so this is tricky all on its own), and then whether Cavafy has actually used candles the four times Dalven claims, or only three as Sherrard and Keeley would have it. I find that I read much more closely and carefully this way. I have three different shots at feeling the emotion Cavafy was trying to evoke. In honor of National Poetry Month, here are three translations of a poem about the Trojans. I like to pretend to myself that Cavafy, though Greek, was nevertheless #teamtrojans. I shall disregard any evidence I may discover to the contrary.

(If, like a normal person, you are not interested in the minor differences in translation, feel free not to read all of these translations. To me they are fascinating.)

Trojans
trans. Evangelos Sachperoglou

Our efforts are those of ill-fated men;
our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We succeed a little, we regain
our strength a little, and we start
to have courage and high hopes.

But always something comes along to stop us.
Achilles at the moat before us
comes forth and shouting violently scares us.–

Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We believe that with resolve and bravery
we’ll alter our fate’s malevolence,
and we stand outside ready to fight.

But when the great crisis comes,
our bravery and our resolve vanish;
our soul is troubled, paralysed;
and around the walls we run,
seeking to save ourselves in flight.

Yet our fall is certain. Already, up on
the walls the lamentation has started.
Memories and feelings of our days are weeping.
Bitterly for us Priam and Hecuba wail.

Trojans
trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

Our efforts are those of men prone to disaster;
our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We just begin to get somewhere,
gain a little confidence,
grow almost bold and hopeful,

when something always comes up to stop us.
Achilles leaps out of the trench in front of us
and terrifies us with his violent shouting.

Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We think we’ll change our luck
by being resolute and daring,
so we move outside ready to fight.

But when the great crisis comes,
our boldness and resolution vanish;
our spirit falters, paralyzed,
and we scurry around the walls
trying to save ourselves by running away.

Yet we’re sure to fail. Up there,
high on the walls, the dirge has already begun.
They’re mourning the memory, the aura of our days.
Priam and Hecuba mourn for us bitterly.

The Trojans
trans. Rae Dalven

Our efforts are the efforts of the unfortunate;
our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We succeed somewhat; we regain confidence
somewhat; and we start once more
to have courage and high hopes.

But something always happens and stops us.
Achilles in the trench emerges before us
and with loud cries dismays us.–

Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We think that with resolution and daring,
we will alter the downdrag of destiny,
and we stand outside ready for battle.

But when the great crisis comes,
our daring and our resolution vanish;
our soul is agitated, paralyzed;
and we run all around the walls
seeking to save ourselves in flight.

However, our fall is certain. Above,
on the walls, the dirge has already begun.
The memories and the feelings of our own days weep.
Priam and Hecuba weep bitterly for us.

Of particular interest to my dorky self is that Dalven and Sachperoglou make “memories and days” the subject of “weep”, whereas Keeley and Sherrard imply that the subject is Priam and Hecuba. I am so curious about the Greek on this. I can picture how a Latin sentence would allow for either translation, but I don’t know Greek. Are Keeley and Sherrard taking unwarranted liberties because they don’t like the image of memories and days weeping? Or is it an ambiguous noun-verb structure in the Greek?

In general, Sachperoglou and Dalven seem to be more like each other than they are like Keeley and Sherrard. The line about altering fate is “we’ll alter our fate’s malevolence” in Sachperoglou, “we will alter the downdrag of destiny” in Dalven, and, rather more blandly, “we’ll change our luck” in Keeley and Sherrard. The curious thing is that in places like this, or the memories and days line, where Keeley and Sherrard are noticeably different from the other two translators, the altered line isn’t better in any noticeable way. It’s just different.

Does anyone here know anything about translation, proper translation for publication, not the kind of translation I did in my high school Latin classes? How do you deal with the examples set by your predecessors? How much do you worry about using the identical words that another translator has used before? Keeley and Sherrard say “the dirge has already begun,” the exact phrase Dalven uses — is that just inevitable? Or should you slightly alter the phrasing? I am hoping that these and other mysteries will be solved after I go to a talk about translating modern Greek, but I would value your input first. Then I will have clever questions to ask at the talk.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon; trans. Lucia Graves

Y’all. What is wrong with me?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. What really is wrong with me? Lovely Kristen of We Be Reading, one of my favorite people in the blogosphere and fellow Diana Wynne Jones lover, gave me this book as part of her blogiversary giveaway last summer, and I am only just getting to it now. What? Why am I like this? I was fully aware that this was a delightful adventurey booklover’s novel, and yet I let it sit around my Louisiana room for months and months, and then I let it sit around my New York room for three months more. What? Why would I ever do this?

(That one was not a rhetorical question. I know why I would ever do this. It is because of the translation issue. I am shy of books in translation and tend to avoid them because I think I’m going to dislike them. I’ve only read like ten books in translation since I started this blog. That’s terrible. I deeply enjoyed a third of those books, which isn’t an awful record, but it should be borne in mind that I only read translated books when I am moderately to extremely confident that I will love them.)

The Shadow of the Wind was just the reading experience I was after this week. On paper it should have been the best book in the world for me, and in real life, that’s exactly how it worked out. Don’t you love that?

Our protagonist, young Daniel Sempere, discovers and adores a book called The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax. When he goes looking for more books by the author, he discovers that a mysterious figure who goes by the name of the devil character in Shadow of the Wind has been going around finding every copy of Carax’s books and burning them up. There are wicked police officers, abandoned mansions, unreceived letters, unrequited love, coveted Montblanc fountain pens: basically everything you need for a lovely, bookish, gothic mystery story.

The Shadow of the Wind was the fully satisfying version of The Thirteenth Tale. I loved the characters and wanted good things for them. I was entranced by the mystery of Julian Carax, the unraveling of the story behind the book-burner, the relationships of the characters, particularly between Daniel and his friend Fermin (I kept thinking of Phantom of the Opera — anyone else?). There was also one particular mystery strand (I won’t spoil it for you) that I was sure would resolve in a predictable way that would irritate me, but instead of that the resolution was quite unexpected, and I think far more interesting. I was delighted with Carlos Ruiz Zafon when I got to that bit.

Not that it was a perfect book, but its flaws were the kinds of flaws I like, such as straying into the realm of melodrama at times, and having slightly soapy elements. These are flaws that remind me of Victorian sensation novels, and those are novels I love in my heart. If you are not a Victorian sensation novel lover, The Shadow of the Wind might not be for you. But if you are, then this book will fill your heart with joy.

When Mumsy and I went to London in 2009, and I was strolling down the South Bank, Carlos Ruiz Zafon was having a signing in the South Bank Foyles. I didn’t care about Carlos Ruiz Zafon so I didn’t go in, but I remember thinking, Gosh, if I ever start to love Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I’m really going to regret this moment. That has happened now. Same with Shaun Tan signing books in the Charing Cross Foyles. Bother. Bother. If I still lived in Louisiana, I would regret these moments even more. I feel like in New York I’ll have a second chance to see these authors, whereas publishers don’t really send authors to the South because they think we don’t read. (This post on that subject made me want to give Neil Gaiman a hug.)

Many, many other people have read this, so I’ll refer you to the Book Blogs Search Engine. One of you who has read this and loved it, may I inquire if you felt the same way about the other two of Zafon’s books that have been translated into English? Are they equally full of letters and books and gothic streets and joyless gay-hating police officers and book-burners? Should I read them tomorrow, or will a Shadow of the Wind hangover make them less fun for me?

Review: The Exception, Christian Jungersen

Buried in Print posted a review of Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life the other day, and as I was preparing jubilant remarks in my head to comment on the post, I saw that there was already a jubilant-remarks comment on the post, by Jenny, and I was like, Whoa, did I comment on this post in a fugue state? It freaked me out, so I hastily clicked “Jenny” and that is how I found….British Jenny! Hooray! (Hi, British Jenny!) British Jenny had just read a book that was translated from the Danish (I am trying to read more books in translation) and featured multiple unreliable narrators as well as numerous fun facts about genocide. You know I had to get on that.

The Exception is about the women who work at a (fictional) Danish institution for the study of genocide. They start getting threatening emails, which they assume at first to be the work of a particular terrorist about whom they have written in the past. However, they soon begin to suspect that someone at their own institution was responsible for the emails. This gives rise to some very unpleasant office politics and causes everyone to reflect on the nature of evil. Throughout the book, we get the points of view of each of the four women in the office, so that we are always having to re-evaluate what we thought we knew about them and the dynamics of the office they work in.

When you say a book is about office politics, that doesn’t necessarily send people dashing to the bookstore to acquire it, but I really enjoyed those parts of the book. Jungersen does it so well, the disputes about tiny things (keep the door to the library open or don’t keep it open) that begin to assume a disproportionate level of importance the longer they go unresolved; the way you hear a rumor about what’s happening to the office and its occupants, and suddenly everyone has heard the rumor and cannot stop whispering about it. What made all this even better (to me) was the “Can This Marriage Be Saved”-like way I was never sure which side of any conflict was the right side, because it looked so utterly different depending on who was narrating.

There was some psychobabble that mildly annoyed me, and I am not crazy about third-person present-tense – as Memory points out, how would that work anyway? – but seriously, this book is damn good, and overcomes its minor flaws to be awesome. You know, upsetting, but awesome.

Here is what I did that was stupid. I started reading The Exception in the afternoon on Friday (or Saturday maybe?), when everything was bright and cheerful, and then the book was absorbing so I carried on reading it as darkness fell. The book talked about the evil that lurks in the hearts of men. It talked about this, and also about scary torture techniques and breaking into houses and raping and looting. I took a short break from all the reading to let my puppy out, and she let out a barrage of urgent barks, which usually just means she wants to come back inside. So I let her inside, but she didn’t start barking. She stared furiously at the back door and barked her stupid puppy head off, and she did this at intervals for twenty minutes. And I was like, Aaaaaa, there’s a burglar, but I turned on all the outside lights and peered out the windows, and nope, no burglar. I was still sort of spooked, and the puppy continued to flip her shit for no reason, and I really didn’t want to carry on reading my genocide book.

But instead of putting aside my genocide book and reading Hilary McKay and L. M. Montgomery until bedtime, I foolishly thought about it a lot, and I decided that I wasn’t going to let fear dictate my reading choices, by God! I thought, I will never become brave if I don’t actively try not to be fearful. In retrospect I’m not sure why it seemed so important to finish reading The Exception right then rather than waiting for morning. All this to say, I do not know if this book would ordinarily count for the RIP Challenge, but since I read the last third of it with my heart racing, and my ears all alert for bad guys breaking into my house, and my stupid overactive brain imagining fifteen different (bad) ways that could play out, I’m counting it.

Other reviews:

All Lit Up (thanks for the recommendation!)
Ready When You Are, C.B.
Prairie Progressive

Let me know if I missed yours!

Review: Broken Glass Park, Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)

FTC darling, I am constantly getting you mixed up with the FCC.  I am always saying, Grrr, that FTC, cranky censorship snarl can’t even say swear words on the television grumble grumble grumble, and then remembering twenty minutes later that I’ve been ranting about the wrong acronym.   Sorry, FTC!  It was unkind of me to call you an ugly poophead and a fascist bastard, even if it was just to my sister!  Also, I thought you’d want to know that I received Broken Glass Park for review from the lovely people at Regal Literary Agency.

What I liked about Broken Glass Park:

  • The protagonist, Sascha, is an orphan.  I love a book about an orphan.  Indeed, the sentence that made me decide to like Love Walked In was “All of Clare’s favorite characters were orphans.”  For I, too, love orphans.  I dote upon orphans.  Especially plucky orphans.
  • Sascha is a fantastic protagonist with a clear, honest voice that drew me into the story straight away.  She’s tough, and she goes after what she wants, but not in an unrealistically sensible and fearless way.  Which is to say: She plans to murder her stepfather when he gets out of prison, lovingly reviewing her options for poison, breaking bottles over his head, and so forth, but when a local newspaper writes a sympathetic article about her stepfather, and she goes to confront the author of the article, she is madly intimidated by the newspaper office.  So right.  Teenagers find it easy to make murder plans and hellishly difficult to navigate adult spaces.  (At least I did.  And so does Polly Whittaker in Fire and Hemlock.)  (Er, I didn’t make murder plans as a teenager.  The other half.  Easily intimidated by having to interact as an adult with adults.)
  • I liked the way Sascha’s backstory unfolds gradually, so that you have mostly figured out what happened by the time the story confirms it.  Rather than trying to build up to a reveal, and BAM, explain everything at once, the book lets you see bits of the picture at a time until the whole thing becomes apparent.  It made the situation sad, rather than sensationalizing it.
  • Sascha’s relationships with her family rang absolutely true: her frustration with her mother’s romantic entanglements, her fierce devotion to her younger half-siblings, and her half-tolerant, half-nasty frustration with her guardian, a relation of her stepfather.  Lovely, lovely, lovely.
  • The end.  It was one of those endings that is emotionally satisfying endings and not too pat.
  • The translation!  Ah, yes, it is not often I have nice things to say about translated works.  I find them a trial.  Unless, of course, I have translated them myself, like The Aeneid and bits of The Metamorphoses, in which case I find them to be the best thing ever because I have conquered them WITH MY WITS (and sometimes a dictionary and nearly always the invaluable input of a commentary or two).  In the case of Broken Glass Park, however, I never felt I was reading in translation.  Props to translator Tim Mohr.
  • Getting this book in the post.  I do not often get new books at all, let alone as delightful treats through the post.  If I can get them used I do it, as I am an impoverished receptionist trying to decide on a Life Plan.  Still, there’s nothing like new books, with their shiny covers and sharp corners.  I was surprised at how excited I was when this one arrived.

What I did not like:

  • You saw this coming: Violence against women. It upsets me.  After finishing this book, I had a nightmare that a guy broke into my apartment and was just engaged in bashing up the mirrors in my bathroom when I woke up and confronted him.  I noticed I was dreaming, tested it by flicking the light switches to see if it changed the light levels in the room (it didn’t), and then went right on having the nightmare.  This was my second unsatisfactory experience of lucid dreaming in two nights.  I was led to believe that if I learned to dream lucidly, I would be able to have whatever sort of a dream I wanted.  I feel like instead of having a scary dream where I tried to figure out ways to get to my car and push the intruder down the stairs, I should have been able to start having a delightful dream where I traveled back in time and met Oscar Wilde and went to Greece and Rome with him and gossiped about the Theban Band.  So, not good.  The violence against women (Sascha herself as well as her mother) was not excessive, nor extensively described, but it upset me anyway.
  • Along the same lines: Sascha’s predictably self-destructive behavior.  It didn’t ring false or anything.  It just made me sad.
  • This one thing that happened with Volker.  Volker is a kind newspaperman who takes Sascha under his wing and takes care of her.  She becomes fast friends with his son Felix, and then THIS THING HAPPENS.  This thing happens that I can’t stand!  It felt out of character for Volker.  I wanted him to be lovely, but I couldn’t actually like him, because there was this thing.  I could not work out what Sascha’s feelings on the matter were, and the whole episode was jarring.

The Volker thing threw the whole rest of the book (until the end) off-kilter for me.  Still, I cannot emphasize enough how impressed I am with the writing and then translating of Sascha’s voice.  I love it when authors (and translators) can make first-person narrations work this well.  (Muriel Barbery, take note.) (Monsters of Men, wish you were here.)

Have you reviewed this too?  Let me know and I will add a link!

Review: The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch and Ordinary Victories Part Deux

See me starting challenges all over the place?  It’s a new year and I am on the ball.

The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch, Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli

I didn’t start out my Graphic Novels Challenge reading with quite the satisfactory bang that I was hoping for (probably because I didn’t start by doing the January mini-challenge but OH that is all about to change).  The Facts, etc., etc., disappointed me.  Illustrated by Michael Zulli, this graphic novel tells the tale of a strange night out, with a strange woman whose real name wasn’t Miss Finch.  The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch is a good title, if you’re writing that sort of story, edged with primness rather than ferality.  I thought maybe Gaiman was intending to play up the contrast? But it didn’t really work.

Essentially (spoilers for the whole!), Miss Finch likes sabre-toothed tigers; she goes out with the narrator and his friends; they all see a very strange circus; and she gets transported back in time to live with (and boss around) sabre-toothed tigers.  And then everyone goes home and thinks about how strange it all was.  As a short story, this is already rather thinly plotted.  Put it into comic book form and publish it as a hardback, it just (of course) makes this problem more noticeable.  Then of course, the whole thing is framed by the narrator’s remembering it, and it hardly seems worth remembering.

Not that – well, I mean, obviously if that happened in real life, you’d remember it and talk about it a lot.  It’s not every day that you go out with a woman and she gets zapped back in time and prevents sabre-toothed tigers from eating you all up, and then trots back into prehistoric times to hang out there forever.  But that’s all that happens.  The story is more about the setting, than the plot, and although Michael Zulli is a good illustrator and makes a very beautiful setting, that doesn’t make up for how essentially dull it is.  Nothing happens to the narrator at all.  You are never in fear of their lives or anything.  I just – I know that Neil Gaiman can do creepy stories, and the reason I know that is that I’ve read Coraline.  I wanted The Facts – that title is ridiculously long – I wanted the book to be creepy, and it was dull instead.  Bah.  Plus, I’ve read this Gaiman story before, with the theatre show.  Several times.  Better versions.

Ordinary Victories, Manu Larcenet

Onward to Ordinary Victories: What Is Precious, which I got for Christmas from my lovely mum and dad (along with the original Ordinary Victories, which I reread and found to be as wonderful as I had initially thought it was).  I shall have spoilers in this review, for the first volume as well as the second.  The protagonist’s father has just committed suicide (this happened towards the end of Ordinary Victories), and he, his brother, and his mother are all struggling to come to terms with that.  Marc’s girlfriend Emily is longing for a child, and Marc himself is still not sure of his place in the world – as a son or a potential father or an artist.  Which is to say, many of the same elements that I so loved in Ordinary Victories were present in What Is Precious, especially the juxtaposition of very strong emotions with the tiny details of everyday life.

I didn’t like it quite as much as the first volume, though, and I’m not sure why.  Maybe because I had expectations going into the second volume that weren’t present for the first.  Marc and Emily’s having a kid shifted the tone of the book.  I loved how Ordinary Victories was able to contain a lot of important, difficult issues, without giving the impression that it was Addressing and Attempting to Resolve them.  Once the kid shows up in What Is Precious, though, I lose all patience for the characters’ indecision and uncertainty.  That sounds very intolerant of me.  Another possibility is that I was cranky after reading Slaughterhouse Five.  I should have read The Ask and the Answer next, as a palate cleanser, and proceeded to What Is Precious subsequently.

Have you read either of these?  Let me know and I’ll put a link!

Censoring an Iranian Love Story, Shahriar Mandanipour

Censoring an Iranian Love Story is all about an Iranian writer who’s tired of writing books about oppression and misery in Iran, and he wants to write a love story, maybe not one with a Hollywood ending, but one that will be a true love story, and will not make its readers never want to love.  However, because of the censorship in Iran, he keeps crossing out pieces of the story that would not get past the censors.  The lovers, Sara and Dara, must act very chaste, never talk about political oppression, and not say or do anything that might cause the readers to think sinful thoughts.  As the book goes on, the writer’s life blends in with the lives of Sara and Dara, and the story takes on a life of its own.

Oh what a cool book this was!  I am so sad this author’s other books have only been published in Farsi!  (Eek, I am reading this book about Iran by an Iranian author, and he says it’s affected to call Persian “Farsi” – like saying “I speak francais”.  Is that right?  It’s affected?  I have never heard anyone say Persian, and I have been saying Farsi since I was – let me think – ten.  I don’t want to be affected!)  I would really like to read others of his books.

The author in the story tries desperately to keep his story apolitical and completely “moral”.  He tells the reader things about the characters that can never go into the story, but these things are part of the characters anyway, and eventually they begin to rebel against the strictures he has placed upon them.  Eventually he comes to realize that the story cannot work as he has written it – despite his best attempts, the censorship (even self-imposed) is destroying his story.  The characters ignore what he says, and do what they want; Dara even takes him to task for writing him as a pathetic and spineless character that nobody could ever love.

It’s a spoof!  On censorship!

Other views: S. Krishna’s Books (thanks for the recommendation!!), Devourer of Books

Tell me if I missed yours!