May 2021 Reading Round-Up: Taking Stock

In our third reading round-up, we are taking stock, both physically and metaphorically.

Our selections for this month include lists and inventories, which use objects as a jumping-off point to explore memory and meaning. But these books also take stock in other ways — by examining and retelling ancient stories, diving into the colonial, patriarchal, and racist systems that plague our daily interactions, and sending characters on journeys of self-reflection and discovery. These inventories aren’t just lists. They are a means of determining who we are now, how we got here, and where we are going.


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Review: The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada, trans. by Chris Andrews (Graywolf Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Allison McCausland

There is an old saying that one can tell the character of a person not by how long they have known them, but based on a single gesture. These view sinuously weaves together four characters of Selva Almada’s 2012 novel The Wind That Lays Waste. Translated by Chris Andrews in 2019, both author and translator create a character study of four individuals at a roadside garage in Argentina.

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Review: My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree by Yi Lei

My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree by Yi Lei, trans. by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press 2020)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kudlacz

Who was Yi Lei?

For many in the Western world, this leading figure in contemporary Chinese poetry is probably unknown. Thanks to the efforts of Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi, English-speaking readers can appreciate the richness of Yi Lei’s bilingual collection of poems My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree

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Review: The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, trans. by Jen Calleja (Coach House Books 2020)

Reviewed by Aramis Grant

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, translated by Jen Calleja from German, follows middle-aged German professor Gilbert Silvester. Silvester is a researcher on beard styles in film, who, after dreaming of his wife cheating on him, reacts in his waking life as if his dream reveals an unquestionable truth. He allows his anger and disappointment to carry him overseas to Japan, where he meets a suicidal young man named Yosa Tamagotchi.

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Review: Sea, Land, Shadow by Kazuko Shiraishi

Sea, Land, Shadow by Kazuko Shiraishi, trans. by Yumiko Tsumara (New Directions Books, 2017)

Reviewed by Clara Guyton

Nicknamed “the Alan Ginsberg of Japan” by Kenneth Rexroth, Kazuko Shiraishi brings readers a sight-seeing drive through the mystical mountains of Japan in her collection Sea, Land, Shadow, complete with sharp turns and curves, moments of awe-inspiring depth and darkness, and instants of effervescent lightheartedness.

“on a mountain road in a traffic jam

I have poetry, so I’m fine…” (8)

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Review: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, trans. by Stephen Snyder (Pantheon 2019)

Reviewed by Rebecca Valley

“’Long ago, before you were born, there were many more things here,’ my mother used to tell me when I was still a child. ‘Transparent things, fragrant things… fluttery ones, bright ones…” (3)

In her essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” author Kate Bernheimer defines the fairy tale for a contemporary audience – what fairy tales are made of, what doors they can open.

“With their flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic, fairy tales hold a key to the door fiercely locked between so-called realism and nonrealism, convention and experimental-ism, psychology and abstraction. A key for those who see these as binaries, that is.”

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Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Hogarth Books, 2015) trans. by Deborah Smith

Reviewed by Rebecca Valley

On the surface, the story of Han Kang’s Man Booker prize-winning novel The Vegetarian sounds almost like a fairy tale. It is the story, after all, of a woman desperate to become a tree. But the pages themselves weave a different sort of tale – one of nightmares, of abuse, of the misunderstandings and cruelties which stem from an attempt at independence. In three parts, it winds itself around one starving woman, and the myriad ways the other characters seek to control her desires. It is horrifying, stark, unflinching book which sneaks up on you, startles you. After reading this book, I was afraid to look in the mirror. Continue reading

Review: Rain of the Future by Valerie Mejer

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Rain of the Future by Valerie Mejer (Action Books, 2013) Trans. by Forrest Gander, C.D. Wright, and A.S. Zelman-Doring

Reviewed by Rebecca Valley

In her book Rain of the Future, Valerie Mejer begins underwater. She writes:

 

“In the green water I saw your eye and in it I saw that Arabian palace

filled with birds and broken glass.

My sun-baked body at the edge,

wind in my lungs, its whistle,

my torn world, my grief,

my soggy passport, my shell with no pearl,

you lift them, delicate cloud, into a liquid world.” (15)

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SNOW: Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others and Me by Teffi

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Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi (New York Review of Books Classics, 2016)

Reviewed by Rebecca Valley

I can thank Women in Translation Month for my introduction to Russian author Teffi, born Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1872. Last year, the New York Review of Books published two translations of her work, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, an account of her last few months living in the Russia and the Ukraine before she was forced into exile in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, and Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others and Me, a collection of autobiographical short stories that span everything from her flirtations with Rasputin to life as a writer in the months before the Russian Revolution. I chose the latter collection because I’m a sucker for Rasputin, but these stories delve so much deeper – into the difficulties of motherhood, finding a place for art in revolution, and discussions of power and powerlessness as a woman at the turn of the century – and they accomplish all that with a stunning balance of humor and poetic language. Suffice to say, I devoured these stories in a weekend, and I have plans to snag a copy of Memories at the next appropriate moment. Continue reading