This month I gave myself a small challenge to send 31 women-in-translation book recommendations to my family and friends. I wanted to do this in a casual way, especially as many who are getting these recommendations are not avid readers nor familiar with much foreign fiction. But I’d like to compile the list here, along with my off-the-cuff introductions to each book. I have now finished half of the recommendations and so here they are:
August 1: THE SUMMER BOOK, translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal.
What I love about this book is how the simple story of the summer companionship between a granddaughter/grandmother on an island in the Gulf of Finland is sad, funny, dark, and uplifting all at the same time. This is a book that I’ve read several times and I love it more with each re-read.
Aug 2: HER NOT ALL HER by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Damion Searls.
This tiny little chapbook-style book is extraordinary. It is essentially Jelinek having a stream-of-consciousness “conversation” with Robert Walser’s entire oeuvre. (That sold you, right? I know it did.) It is stunning and unusual and complicated, and there is no story (who needs story all the time? Sometimes you just need poetry and voice…) and it’s a part of the equally stunning Cahiers Series. As proof I give you the first line:
“Wait, don’t sit down! Your soul is peeping out of your body as though a work lay there inside you like a slumbering goddess, wanting to get out, even in her sleep.”
August 3: THE WALL by Marlen Haushofer (Austria), translated from German by Shaun Whiteside
Being alone in a forest is lovely, but I wouldn’t want to wake up alone in a friend’s chalet in the woods and discover that I was presumably the last woman alive on the planet. Which is exactly what happens in this very psychological novel from 1963. She has a dog – which would save me too – and she has a cow, but she must learn to survive, on her own, and it slowly dawns on her that this is for forever. It’s really dark, but it’s so incredibly good.
August 4: THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Set in South Korea, The Vegetarian is a novella about a woman who decides to become a vegetarian. But it’s also about spousal abuse, family obligations, about gender roles, about mental illness, about art and so much more. This book prompted one of the best book group discussions I’ve ever had in my lovely book group. I’m still thinking about how to understand it and it’s challenging and dark and weird – all excellent things.
August 5: SWORN VIRGIN by Elvira Dones (Albania/US), translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford.
This is a book set in Albania and the US, and it’s about Hana, and how she became Mark upon her father’s death. As ‘Mark’, she is one of Albania’s “sworn virgins” — women who vow to live their lives as chaste men in exchange for an independence that most women cannot have — but who gets the chance, by moving to America, to become Hana again. By the time she gets to the US she’s been a man for 15 years. The book is: psychological, sociological, contemporary, poetic, pretty gripping, and ultimately, very moving.
August 6: BUILDING WAVES by Taeko Tomioka, translated by Louise Heal Kawai. I’m linking to my full review, but here’s a small taste:
“Building Waves is the kind of book that comes out of a fault line, an unstable geography of changing mores and shifting cultural practices. It is a feminist book—in the way that Tomioka so baldly addresses issues of female sexuality, marriage and child-rearing—but it’s also deeply interested in what it means to be alive, what does living mean to an individual, to an entire population, and to each careful and interested reader.”
August 7: NIHILIST GIRL by Sofya Kovalevskaya, translated from the Russian by Natasha Kolchevska with Mary Zirim
A coming-of-age story set in mid-19th century Russia, about a young aristocratic woman who finds she wants to completely transform her society – politically and socially. Love! Social upheaval! Injustice! Many famous Russian male writers (*cough* Tolstoy, *cough* Chekov) have written about the same time period. Kovalevskaya’s is the first I’ve ever read from the female perspective. Also, she was a kick-ass mathematician.
August 8: THE LOOKING-GLASS SISTERS by Gøhril Gabrielsen (Norway), translated by John Irons.
This is a novel of two sisters, one who is ill and the other who cares for her. The sisters are bound by this difficult relationship, but also their loneliness in a house far out in the country. When the healthy sister falls in love and marries, bringing her husband home to live with them, the other sister (who is narrating) begins to suspect the two of plotting against her. This is an intensely psychological novel—very dark, very fascinating.
August 9: THE RED SOFA by Michèle Lesbre, translated from French by Nicole and David Ball.
A tiny book with two interweaving stories. The first is of Anne’s train journey across Siberia to find her lover Gyl, and the other is about Anne’s friendship with an older woman named Clémence. As Anne travels, she remembers her conversations with Clémence, how they talked of the young man Clémence once loved, who died when they were nineteen, but also of the famous women artists they discussed. It sounds very quiet but the book does something really interesting with the two stories and how they connect… which I won’t give away!
August 10: BABA DUNJA’S LAST LOVE by Alina Bronsky, translated from German by Tim Mohr.
Following the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Baby Dunja has returned to her small evacuated and radioactive town to live out the rest of her days. An eccentric cast of people are there alongside her, snubbing their noses at the government and living how they please. Until a small child – who is not terminally ill – is brought to the village by a strange man. I leave you to discover the rest. Despite the dark subject matter, the book is quite light and often very funny.
August 11: THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barbery, translated from French by Alison Anderson.
Hedgehog is a book about Paris, about concierges, about precocious 12 year olds. It’s about life and love, about class and intellect. It looks at philosophy and art and aesthetics, and it nods to Japanese culture, too. It’s also an excellent example of how a book can distill voice, and the two narrators – Renée (concierge) and Paloma (precious 12 year old) are fascinating. I reread my 2009 review of Hedgehog and found I was rather severe – which is curious to me now, because it’s a book I’ve continued thinking about, and I remember that everyone in my book group loved it. So I leave it for you all to decide!
August 12: ADIOS, COWBOY by Olga Savičević, translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth.
Adios, Cowboy is about Dada, a character of contradictions—tough and sensual, clever and lost, romantic and resigned—who returns from the big city to her small seaside hometown several years after the death of her younger brother. She finds her mother addicted to medication and her sister embittered. And Dada has a question—she wants to resolve the questions surrounding Daniel’s death.
August 13: LOVE, ANGER, MADNESS by Marie Vieux-Chauvet, translated from French by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur.
I reviewed the book years ago, writing: “Often called a trilogy, Love, Anger, and Madness is actually a triptych of three thematically connected novellas. The overarching preoccupation of all three stories centers on the idea of fear as a force of social destruction. Vieux-Chauvet’s characters live in fear of their political and community leaders and, ultimately, of their neighbors and friends. Even the tightest family unit warps and deforms under the influence of this pervasive fear. The novel’s stories create a three-paneled portrait of what Haitian society had become by the mid 1960s—impoverished, environmentally ravaged, chaotic and violent.”
There is extra room for celebration because another novel by Vieux-Chauvet, DANCE ON THE VOLCANO was published in English in 2016.
August 14: ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING WRITTEN BY CLARISSE LISPECTOR.
I started with HOUR OF THE STAR and absolutely fell in love with her unique, poetic vision. These books are hard to describe. They’re breathless and odd and philosophical and challenging. She is an incredibly innovative writer, but there is also something classic in her vision. I have also read and loved AGUA VIVA, THE PASSION ACCORDING TO G.H., and THE BREATH OF LIFE. I am slowly working through her complete short stories.
August 15: I, TITUBA, BLACK WITCH OF SALEM by the Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé (translated from the French by Richard Philcox)
TITUBA is loosely based on an actual person, a black slave woman who was tried for witchcraft in Salem in 1692. Condé does a magnificent re-imagining of this dark period of American history and the novel feels both historical and fairytale-esque. It’s provocative and gripping, and there is even a cameo appearance by none other than Hester Prynne!