Wednesday, June 13, 2018

About Mourning: A Separation, by Katie Kitamura

The translator wife of a relatively successful non-fiction author is mourning the sudden death of her husband in Greece. The real story though, told by the wife whose name is never disclosed is of a separation. Her sudden arrival to Greece slowly searching to meet her husband was the result of an ultimatum of her mother-in-law, who sent her there to find her son, apparently on a research trip documeting mourning rituals. The meeting between the two never takes place, as he is murdered. The case will be closed after a year, with the culprit never being found.
Before arriving to Greece, the wife wanted a divorce, as the couple secretly separated for month. Upon arrival from Greece back to London, she is a widow, with a rich inheritance involved in various projects dedicated to her ex-husband. She is mourning. 'Sometimes it is comforting to think that his death was a result of his being in the world, rather than his death having occured entirely at random, as if erasing a presence that had already failred to leave its mark, that had not insisted sufficiently upon his life: that it would be truly be as though he had vanished into thin air'.
The wife's account is sometimes confusing, ambiguous, from the position of someone who assumed a shadow role, without necessarily being asked to. In fact, during the book-long monologue we are shared a limited amount of information about her, her eventual motivations and life. There are some references about her work - French translator - a relatively safe financial status, a 8-year difference between her and her husband. Everything is about her husband, whose infidelities created drama for a young lady during his short stay in Greece too, and might have been the cause of his death, but her absence although she is the one through whose eyes we are told the story, is not playing in the advantage of the story as such. 
Personally, the moment the death of the husband was announced, was like a welcomed stroke, as the letargy was almost complete and was not sure if I really have to keep reading this book. But it did not change the story too much, after all. Still, there is not clear why exactly this marriage of opposites ended - and started at all, why she accepted to just go to follow her husband although she knew well that things were finished anyway between them. Also the sudden long mourning after his death is a bit pathetic and extra-dramatic. She was engaged to a friend of the husband, after all. 
It may be an apology of mediocrity, of low life, of a woman without features. Maybe. But it's a pitty for the writing potential of the author that the characters are so lost in words, words about feelings, about 'what ifs', but completely failing to be real.

Rating: 3 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review 


Sunday, June 10, 2018

On Creativity and Genius

Once in a while I recall a discussion I had with my mother, with was a languages prodigy and a long-time teacher: she insisted there are people that are really gifted for languages, while I assumed that once you have the right mindset for learning it and also the practical need to do it, the change of learning language is equally distributed among humans. Many years after, I insist that all you need in order to learn a language is the will and the need and a lot of exercices practicing it. 
Although it is approaching the issue of creativity as a pattern which has to do with a certain historical and social context of circumstances, Allen Gannett's The Creative Curve is rejecting the genius-driven idea of the intellectual elites and cultural achievements. Mozart worked a lot, Picasso also, Beatles did it too. Their success was a matter of being the right person at the right time. 
The idea and the many premises developped in the book are not new at all. Many decades ago, the Historical French School of Annales sought for thought and ideas patterns which are creating the red thread of disparate historical events. Applied to the explanations from the book, it explains why certain songs, for instance, may look like successful overnight, when in fact it has to do with a certain pattern familiar to the public in a certain historical moment. The historicity of the moment when a certain idea emerges explains why not all new ideas are becoming instant success. It has to bring a new interpretation while maintaining the right balance with the ideas already accepted. The Harry Potter books, for instance, besides being the result of a systematic work and documentation and punctilious development of the literary structure, it also used elements of children books already present. The result and the following success were not a revolution, but a creative interpretation of expectations of the audience. And again, the lot of hard work, instead of a struck of a genial inspiration. 
Although I personally agree with most ideas shared in the book and the examples are well chosen to explain the conclusion, I may still believe that in some cases, such as playing a musical instrument, you may need a pinch of so-called talent, besides thousands of hours of practice and dedication. I personally played piano for almost 10 years, and despite the fact that I reached a certain level of technical achievement, my basic interpretation was as impressive as the wood the piano was made of. My technical accuracy was not accompanied by what you usually need in order to impress your audience: the dedication and the talent that are not for everyone. Maybe I was in the wrong place, and in the wrong time, and obviously was missing any support group and professional support that are so important to live in the highest clouds of creativity - regardless the domain - as much as possible. 
The Creative Curve is a book encouraging dedication and hard work and I am very much inclined to follow its advices.

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Book Review: The Adulterants, by Joe Dunthorne

Growing up is hard, especially when it happens at the honorable age of 30+. Growing up means not only physically and emotionally, but also from the point of view of meeting certain social and status (old school) requirements.
The characters in The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne are fine. Some work in tech journalism, or inherited some properties, or are kind of artists and creatives. Mostly over 30, not necessarily decided to have their own families. They are selfish in the mediocre way, not necessarily because they are busy traveling the world or writing books or building up a career. They just don't know for sure what to do with a new life in their own limited life. In the posh expensive London they can hardly afford a centrally-located place to rent and buying a property is almost impossible. They do have jobs but not sure if those jobs will cope with the sudden changes on the market.
The characters in The Adulterants, by Joe Dunthorne are shadows. Moving slowly from a party to another once in a while, filling up their duties and enjoying their kind of life. They are really fine.
And then, the civil disobedience took London by surprise in 2011. Angry people against the establishment, some of them those 'fine' people, put the beautiful city on fire. When you don't have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Another shock of wave for our millennial characters, because absurdly, they are part of a scenario they couldn't care less about only seconds before being themselves involved in some occurrences. Ray, the main character and the narrator of the story, will end up in prison, after being featured on a 'Shop a Looter' billboard, with his image caught on CCTV, while intruding the office of a real estate that failed to helped he and his wife Garthene to find the family house of their dreams. 
Even though I related at a minimal level with the characters, what I really loved about this book is the language. Polished to obsession, elevated and persuasive in its own right. So bad that, as the characters themselves, is so disconnected from the surrouding reality.

Rating: 3 stars 

Friday, June 8, 2018

What is Copywriting?

As a writer or journalist, you may consider copywriting as a not-so-noble profession, when you accept to sell your gifts for producing well-paid but cheap stylish pieces of writing. But copywriting, and advertising in general, may mean much more than producing some advertorial content. A good work of writing has the power of changing the world, either it is read in less than a minute or more than 100-page long. Wherever you are using your skills, you are not wasting them, only using your words for a different aim, and sometimes audience too, and as long as you write well, there is nothing to be ashamed of.
Copywriting Made Simple by Tom Albrighton offers an overview of the challenges and daily briefs a copywriter need to deal with on a daily basis. It is not aimed to someone completely new in the world of writing, but eventually to a professional looking for a career switch. The skills and knowledge in matters related to writing, there is only the need to understand how exactly a copywritter works and what his or her job involves on a daily basis.
Otherwise, if you are already active into this field, the book doesn't help too much. Personally, I would have been interested in even more examples but also how to use your well-honed writing skills to persuade difficult clients unable to understand your work. 
In other words, it is an useful book, but it also has some limitations in terms of the reading audience. Noteworthy is also the list of  bibliographical references at the end of every chapter, and the couple of exercices recommended.
It makes copywriting simple, indeed, but in a professional way.

Rating: 3 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the published in exchange for an honest review 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Peacock Ironies about the Corporate Life

If you are looking for a relaxing read in one of the uneventful summer weekend afternoon, in the German language, Der Pfau by Isabel Bogdan is a right ironic choice. If you look to improve both your vocabulary and the pronunciation, the audio version is recommended. 
A couple of bank employees are booking a team building retreat in Scotland, in a remote location at a small property with more animals than people. Among them, a peacock (der Pfau) which literally is getting crazy and starts attacking the guests. Hence, the need to kill him. But who really killed him? What to do with the remains of the poor crazy bird? How to deal with the secrets that the peacock-events are generating among the members of the team of respectful bankers? Who is really worth sharing the terrible secrets about the peacock (which in fact are just misunderstandings and the result of missing some small parts of the puzzle regarding the everyday activities around the property they are living)?
There are so many ironical situations and some slices of British and Scottish humour that it is worth considering for an insightful lecture. The interactions between characters and the comical course of the events raises so many questions recommending this book for a book club, as it allows to create a long lists of questions about the intentions and reactions of the protagonists.
All being said, I am also proud of me keeping up with my plan set at the beginning of the year, to read more books in other languages than English. 

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Laura Esther Wolfson Talks about Her Blind Date with the Russian Language

Photo by Florence Montmare
For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors stands as my literary revelation of the year thus far, an  essay collection that mixes favorite elements of mine:  subtle irony, intellectual curiosity and a love of Russian literature and of authenticity. Laura Esther Wolfson was generous enough to answer my questions about writing and her love of Russian language and literature. Follow her on Twitter as @EstherLaura and check her website for updates on book events and publications. 

How did your love story with the Russian language begin?

Like many love stories, it began as a blind date. For all that I knew about Russian, I could have chosen French, Swahili or Chinese almost as readily. (And in fact I did consider them all, and other languages too.) I sought adventures in remote latitudes, precisely where was unimportant. I boarded the Russian language as if it were a long-distance train that would carry me off to faraway places.

What tipped the scales toward Russian was a desire to read books I loved—Anna KareninaDoctor Zhivago—in the original.

During the early stages of foreign language immersion, I lived in a state of euphoria: able to speak and understand, but continually aware, as in a dream, of moving within a network of uncertain meaning and shifting shapes I could put my hand through. Everything I encountered was weightless, and so was I.

Who are your favorite Russian writers?

I love Pushkin and Babel best. And Tolstoy. But there is so much of Russian literature that I have yet to read; omissions from this list are as likely due to ignorance as to taste.

Is there a book you wish you had written yourself?

I cannot imagine writing someone else’s book. Every book is to a large extent the result of idiosyncrasies in the author’s upbringing, education, taste, reading habits, surroundings, experiences, relationships, and more. You cannot have anyone’s idiosyncracies but your own.

I want to write in my own voice, but more prolifically, and much, much better.

What kind of books in translation appeal to the American reading public nowadays?

I cannot say with any certainty what kinds of translated works the American reading public wants now—the answer is probably ‘many different kinds’— but I do think that developments of the past decade amply disprove the tired notion that American readers are not interested in translations.

Publish it, and they will come. See Elana Ferrante, Klaus Ove Knausgaard, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Haruki Murakami and other translation sensations. Publishing houses specializing in translations have proliferated: Archipelago Books, Deep Vellum Publishing, New Vessel Press, Open Letter, Two Lines Press  and more. Why, even Amazon has leapt on this bandwagon, yes, bandwagon, with AmazonCrossing, its translation arm. The magazines Words Without Borders and Asymptote specialize in literary translation. Each year, the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, founded in the aftermath of 9/11, introduces to the U.S. reading public dozens of authors working in many languages. Clearly, there has long been a thirst for high-quality literary translations that is only now being slaked.


Do certain languages become fashionable for geopolitical reasons? Was Russian such a language during the Cold War, and is Mandarin the new Russian?

My undergraduate Russian instructors, who are, thirty years on, my friends and colleagues, tell me that whenever Russia makes the headlines, enrollment spikes. But only for one semester. There is no question that during the Cold War, perestroika and glasnost, there were many more students enrolled in Russian classes than there are now, pace Robert Mueller and Donald Trump.

I cannot speak about Mandarin, though of course I’ve heard that it’s fashionable for people in certain circles to enroll their children in Mandarin classes. I cannot point to specific political events that might be a factor.

When someone asks me what language to study, I suggest Spanish. It’s such an important language in the United States, where I live, and knowledge of it unlocks the rest of the hemisphere. I also sometimes mention Arabic, whose speakers are now center stage in world affairs. But Arabic takes years to master, and unforeseen events could crowd it out at any time, pushing some other language to the fore and leaving high and dry anyone who chooses to study it based on geopolitics.

The best and most meaningful choices are often those we make for no other reason than love or obsession.


Have you tried to write in languages other than English?

Asked at a public event if she ever thought of writing in English, Russian author Tatiana Tolstaya, who lived and taught in the United States for many years, replied (in flawless English) that the only language she could ever write in was the one whose nursery rhymes and lullabies she’d heard as a tiny child. I could not agree more.

I cannot imagine writing in any language except English. My writing is shot through with wordplay and sound play, rhymes and half rhymes, alliteration, assonance, irony, literary allusions and quotations. It is sprinkled with foreign words that, stripped of their English-language scrim, would be about as interesting (and as visible) as a shooting star at noon. I could never achieve or even attempt any of this in another language.

What is for you, the most challenging part of being a translator?

It depends on whether we are talking about the work of the interpreter; the translator of commercial, technical, diplomatic or other specialized documentation; or the literary translator. (In the language services industry, ‘translator’ refers specifically to a linguist who works with written materials. The person at the dignitary’s elbow or in the booth with headphones orally transferring meaning into another language is an interpreter, not a translator. And most people who toil in the translation trenches do not translate works of literature, but mundane and necessary materials such as software and other instruction manuals, patents and legal documents.)

Subject knowledge is far more important in language work than the public realizes. How can you translate a text on astrophysics if you are not fluent in astrophysics? Fluency in the subject is as central to the task as fluency in the languages. A professional interpreter or translator specializes in a limited number of subjects that she knows well, prudently declining offers of work that fall outside that range, or, if she decides to take on something new, boning up on the topic thoroughly ahead of time and consulting specialists in the field.

Translators are generally self-employed, always hustling for the next contract. Translation work is often sent abroad to countries where the rates are so low that first-world translators cannot compete. There is also a gray market of semi-or unqualified translators who do poor-quality work and drag down the reputation of the whole profession. Staff translators in international organizations such as the United Nations must master and unswervingly adhere to house editorial and style guidelines, precedents and turns of phrase enshrined in previous documents.

Interpreters must have the words and phrases at their fingertips, improvising ingeniously when they do not. (But the latter should not happen too often.) Interpreters derive pleasure from pressure. They are skilled orators and mind readers, comfortable in the spotlight, yet adept at invisibility. Their work draws on training, habit, adrenaline, and the psychological state of flow. They prepare fiendishly before each assignment.

Literary translators capture subtleties of culture, tone and music. They convey qualities and fragrances, the drift, the waft, the weft, the woof and the whiff. FenĂȘtre=window is only the beginning. Is it bay or casement, dormer or storm? Diamond pane or stained, leaded glass or plastic?

Of course, every category of linguist should avoid the word-for-word approach where the forest becomes overgrown with trees.

What book you would love to translate into English?

After thirty years as an interpreter and translator, I now have the opportunity to devote more time to writing. Translation has, over the decades, provided me with a livelihood; training as a reader and writer; excuses for postponing getting serious about writing; and finally, a wealth of stories. Writing and translation draw on the same part of the mind. For some people, this means that they can switch easily between the two. For me, it means the opposite: Now I need to save that part of my mind for writing. So I won’t be translating much in the near future.

As I was revising For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors for publication, I noticed that the book includes a subgenre of essay about translation that I haven’t seen elsewhere: the essay about not translating, about a work the essayist/translator declined to translate, and her reasons for so deciding. The book contains two of these: “The Book of Disaster” and “Losing the Nobel.” Given how many books I have not translated and never will, this is a vein I could mine for several lifetimes.

What are your writing plans for the coming months?

I recently began something new that is best described as ‘autofiction.’ Meaning that the first-person narrator is nearly indistinguishable from the author, and that while the story hews closely to lived events, the narrative arc is paramount and the purpose of the work is not to say, ‘here’s what happened,’ but to move, entertain, delight or disturb. Thus no one can cry foul at any divergence, real or perceived, from the so-called facts of the matter.

This work, entitled Super-Pricey Royal Blue French Lace Bra, is about the impact of chronic illness and disability on a love relationship, with sections (that initially appear to be digressions) about international affairs, history and literature .

Ultimately I may choose not to publish it. It is very revealing.





Friday, May 25, 2018

An Icelandic Thriller Hard to Forget: The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Besides the pure curiosity of my first meeting with a representative of the Icelandic literature - adding one more country to the list of my literary travels - and the plan of spending some hours in a company of a thriller that was well received by the professionist book reviewers, I did not know what to expect from The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. 
Tracing the crimes committed by an aparent psychopat targetting women without any aparent connection between each other, the thriller is more than a simple criminalistic investigation. It has that pinch of life which connects the crime story with the outside context of the society, and the more or less observations about the limited social contacts between neighbours and even between people belonging to the same families make it an interesting sociological evaluation in itself. 
It is a very intense reading, where the psychopatic elaboration of the crimes intercedes with the mystery of an adoption mentioned at the beginning of the book and the question if there is any connection between those crimes and what the reader will easily guess as a terrible - blood soaked - secret. 
There are many characters in this book, with more or less forefront role in the story, and the author succeeds to connect them in so many various ways that it almost looks like a puppet theatre very well coordinated. Most of the main characters, especially the children ones, are hard to forget and at least a couple of days after finishing the book I had them in my mind, as much as you can have a complex human being from the real life, thinking about the motivation or their psychological depth.
At the end of the story, each and every one piece of the domino is falling down to its place. And what and ending this story has! Completely unexpected and exactly how I like my thriller stories: unexpected, outrageously surprising and impossible to predict.

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review