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Women in Translation Month: Recommendations

To my disappointment, I completely forgot to prepare a TBR for Women in Translation Month during 2021. I think this was due largely to the Olympics and Paralympics occurring, and the strange – and often uncomfortable – shifts which I felt I had to make toward a more normal life once all of the restrictions were lifted in England.

This year, I definitely want to actively take part in Women in Translation Month, which runs for the entire month of August. This post marks the beginning of a whole month of applicable reviews, which I have been having so much fun preparing for. I love reading books in translation, and those by women often appeal to me so much.

To kick off the month then, I wanted to gather together several books in translation which I read in the last couple of years, and all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. If you’re taking part in the challenge, I hope you find something here which you can include in your list for the month. If not, then please enjoy anyway. Stay tuned for the rest of the month’s content, too!

1. The Communist’s Daughter by Aroa Moreno Durán; translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore

‘Katia has spent her childhood in the eastern shadow of the Berlin Wall. For her father, refugee of the civil war in Spain, the communist side of Germany represents everything he fought and suffered for. Katia knows no other way of life, until a chance encounter with a young man from the West leaves her to wonder what the other side might offer. It’s only after she’s made the perilous journey that Katia understands all she has left behind, and years until she will finally know the devastating consequences it had on her family.

Translated for the first time in English, this exquisite and powerful novel punches right to the heart of how one choice can change a whole future.’

2. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk; translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

‘One of Poland’s most imaginative and lyrical writers, Olga Tokarczuk presents us with a detective story with a twist in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. After her two dogs go missing and members of the local hunting club are found murdered, teacher and animal rights activist Janina Duszejko becomes involved in the ensuing investigation. Part magic realism, part detective story, Drive Your Plow… is suspenseful and entertaining reimagining of the genre interwoven with poignant and insightful commentaries on our perceptions of madness, marginalised people and animal rights.’

3. I’m Writing You from Tehran by Delphine Minoui; translated from the French by Emma Ramadan

‘Suffering the recent loss of her beloved grandfather and newly committed to a career in journalism, Delphine Minoui decided to visit Iran for the first time since the revolution – since she was four years old. It was 1998. She would stay for ten years.

In the course of that decade, great change comes to both writer and country, often at the same time. Minoui settles into daily life – getting to know her devout grandmother for the first time, making friends with local women who help her escape secret dance parties when the morality police arrive, figuring out how to be a journalist in a country that is suspicious of the press and Westerners. Once she finally starts to learn Persian, she begins to see Iran through her grandfather’s eyes. And so it is all the more crushing when the political situation falters. She is caught up in protests and interrogated by secret police; some friends disappear and others may be tracking her movements. She finds love, loses her press credentials, marries, and is separated from her husband by erupting global conflict. Through it all, her love for this place and its people deepens and she discovers in her family’s past a mission that will shape her entire future.

Framed as a letter to her grandfather and filled with disarming characters in momentous times, I’m Writing You from Tehran is an unforgettable, moving view into an often obscured part of our world.’

4. Inlands by Elin Willows; translated from the Swedish by Duncan J. Lewis

If you wish to read a full review of Willows’ book, you can find one which I have written on the blog.

‘A young woman from Stockholm relocates to her boyfriend’s home town, a small village in the far north of Sweden. The relationship has ended by the time she arrives.

Inlands is a story about loss and change and examines the tangible mechanics of everyday life, the mentality of a small community and the relationship between freedom and loneliness.’

5. Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson; edited by Boel Westin and Helen Svensson; translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

If you wish to read a more comprehensive review of Letters from Tove, you can find one which I have written on the blog.

‘Out of the thousands of letters Tove Jansson wrote a cache remains that she addressed to her family, her dearest confidantes, and her lovers, male and female. Into these she spilled her innermost thoughts, defended her ideals and revealed her heart. To read these letters is both an act of startling intimacy and a rare privilege.

Penned with grace and humour, Letters from Tove offers an almost seamless commentary on Tove Jansson’s life as it unfolds within Helsinki’s bohemian circles and her island home. Spanning fifty years between her art studies and the height of Moomin fame, we share with her the bleakness of war; the hopes for love that were dashed and renewed, and her determined attempts to establish herself as an artist.

Vivid, inspiring and shining with integrity, Letters from Tove shows precisely how an aspiring and courageous young artist can evolve into a very great one.’

6. A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter; translated from the German by Jane Degras

‘In 1934, the painter Christiane Ritter leaves her comfortable life in Austria and travels to the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen, to spend a year there with her husband. She thinks it will be a relaxing trip, a chance to “read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart’s content”, but when Christiane arrives she is shocked to realize that they are to live in a tiny ramshackle hut on the shores of a lonely fjord, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement, battling the elements every day, just to survive.

At first, Christiane is horrified by the freezing cold, the bleak landscape the lack of equipment and supplies… But as time passes, after encounters with bears and seals, long treks over the ice and months on end of perpetual night, she finds herself falling in love with the Arctic’s harsh, otherworldly beauty, gaining a great sense of inner peace and a new appreciation for the sanctity of life.’

7. Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto; translated from the Japanese by Ann Sherif

‘In these six stories, the author of Goodbye Tsugumi and N.P. explores themes of time, healing and fate, and how her urban, sophisticated, independent young men and women come to terms with them. The stories are a blend of traditional Japanese and contemporary popular culture.’

8. After Midnight by Irmgard Keun; translated from the German by Anthea Bell

‘Nineteen-year-old Sanna just wants to drink her beer in peace, but that’s difficult when Hitler has come to town and his motorcade is blocking the streets of Frankfurt. What’s more, her best friend Gerti is in love with a Jewish boy, her brother writes books that have been blacklisted and her own aunt may denounce her to the authorities at any moment, as Germany teeters on the edge of the abyss. Written after she had fled the Nazi regime, Irmgard Keun’s masterly novel captures the feverish hysteria and horror of the era with devastating perceptiveness and humour.’

9. Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan; translated from the French by George Miller

‘Overwhelmed by the huge success of her latest novel, exhausted and suffering from a crippling inability to write, Delphine meets L.

L. embodies everything Delphine has always secretly admired; she is a glittering image of feminine sophistication and spontaneity and she has an uncanny knack of always saying the right thing. Unusually intuitive, L. senses Delphine’s vulnerability and slowly but deliberately carves herself a niche in the writer’s life. However, as L. makes herself indispensable to Delphine, the intensity of this unexpected friendship manifests itself in increasingly sinister ways. As their lives become more and more entwined, L. threatens Delphine’s identity, both as a writer and as an individual.

This sophisticated psychological thriller skillfully blurs the line between fact and fiction, reality and artifice. Delphine de Vigan has crafted a terrifying, insidious, meta-fictional thriller; a haunting vision of seduction and betrayal; a book which in its hungering for truth implicates the reader, too—even as it holds us in its thrall.

Win a copy of the international sensation that sold half a million copies in France: a chilling work of true-crime literature about a friendship gone terrifyingly toxic and the very nature of reality.’

10. The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun; translated from the Korean by Lizzie Buehler

‘An eco-thriller with a fierce feminist sensibility, The Disaster Tourist engages with the global dialog around climate activism, dark tourism, and the #MeToo movement.

For ten years, Yona has been stuck behind a desk as a coordinator for Jungle, a travel company specializing in vacation packages to destinations devastated by disaster and climate change. Her work life is uneventful until trouble arises in the form of a predatory colleague.

To forestall any disruption of business-as-usual, Jungle makes Yona a proposition: a paid “vacation” to the desert island of Mui. But Yona must pose as a tourist and assess whether Jungle should continue their partnership with the unprofitable destination.

Yona travels to the remote island, whose major attraction is an underwhelming sinkhole, a huge disappointment to the customers who’ve paid a premium. Soon Yona discovers the resort’s plan to fabricate a catastrophe in the interest of regaining their good standing with Jungle–and the manager enlists Yona’s help. Yona must choose between the callous company to whom she’s dedicated her life, or the possibility of a fresh start in a powerful new position. As she begins to understand the cost of the manufactured disaster, Yona realizes that the lives of Mui’s citizens are in danger–and so is she.

In The Disaster Tourist, Korean author Yun Ko-eun grapples with the consequences of our fascination with disaster, and questions an individual’s culpability in the harm done by their industry.’

Please let me know if you are taking part in Women in Translation Month this August, and what your TBR is looking like.

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Ten Great Biographies and Memoirs

I read a lot of non-fiction, and although I sadly don’t have the time to review it all separately, I wanted to collect together ten recommendations in today’s post. These are all books which I have thoroughly enjoyed over the last year or so. They vary somewhat in their focus, but each delighted me, and kept me interested throughout.

  1. The Robin: A Biography by Stephen Moss

‘No other bird is quite so ever-present and familiar, so embedded in our culture, as the robin. With more than six million breeding pairs, the robin is second only to the wren as Britain’s most common bird. It seems to live its life alongside us, in every month and season of the year. But how much do we really know about this bird?

In The Robin Stephen Moss records a year of observing the robin both close to home and in the field to shed light on the hidden life of this apparently familiar bird. We follow its lifecycle from the time it enters the world as an egg, through its time as a nestling and juvenile, to the adult bird; via courtship, song, breeding, feeding, migration – and ultimately, death. At the same time we trace the robin’s relationship with us: how did this particular bird – one of more than 300 species in its huge and diverse family – find its way so deeply and permanently into our nation’s heart and its social and cultural history?

It’s a story that tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the robin itself.’

2. Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter

‘In 1934, the painter Christiane Ritter leaves her comfortable life in Austria and travels to the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen, to spend a year there with her husband. She thinks it will be a relaxing trip, a chance to “read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart’s content”, but when Christiane arrives she is shocked to realize that they are to live in a tiny ramshackle hut on the shores of a lonely fjord, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement, battling the elements every day, just to survive.

At first, Christiane is horrified by the freezing cold, the bleak landscape the lack of equipment and supplies… But as time passes, after encounters with bears and seals, long treks over the ice and months on end of perpetual night, she finds herself falling in love with the Arctic’s harsh, otherworldly beauty, gaining a great sense of inner peace and a new appreciation for the sanctity of life.

This rediscovered classic memoir tells the incredible tale of a woman defying society’s expectations to find freedom and peace in the adventure of a lifetime.’

3. A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Sweeney

‘Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend; think Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the world’s best-loved female authors are usually mythologized as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses. Coauthors and real-life friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney prove this wrong, thanks to their discovery of a wealth of surprising collaborations: the friendship between Jane Austen and one of the family servants, playwright Anne Sharp; the daring feminist author Mary Taylor, who shaped the work of Charlotte Brontë; the transatlantic friendship of the seemingly aloof George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, most often portrayed as bitter foes, but who, in fact, enjoyed a complex friendship fired by an underlying erotic charge.

Through letters and diaries that have never been published before, A Secret Sisterhood resurrects these forgotten stories of female friendships. They were sometimes scandalous and volatile, sometimes supportive and inspiring, but always—until now—tantalizingly consigned to the shadows.’

4. Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

‘Shirley Jackson, author of the classic short story The Lottery, was known for her terse, haunting prose. But the writer possessed another side, one which is delightfully exposed in this hilariously charming memoir of her family’s life in rural Vermont. Fans of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Cheaper by the Dozen, and anything Erma Bombeck ever wrote will find much to recognize in Shirley Jackson’s home and neighborhood: children who won’t behave, cars that won’t start, furnaces that break down, a pugnacious corner bully, household help that never stays, and a patient, capable husband who remains lovingly oblivious to the many thousands of things mothers and wives accomplish every single day.”Our house,” writes Jackson, “is old, noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books.” Jackson’s literary talents are in evidence everywhere, as is her trenchant, unsentimental wit. Yet there is no mistaking the happiness and love in these pages, which are crowded with the raucous voices of an extraordinary family living a wonderfully ordinary life.’

5. Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood by Christa Parravani

‘Christa Parravani was forty years old, in a troubled marriage, and in bad financial straits when she learned she was pregnant with her third child. She and her family were living in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she had taken a professorial position at the local university.

Haunted by a childhood steeped in poverty and violence and by young adult years rocked by the tragic death of her identical twin sister, Christa hoped her professor’s salary and health care might set her and her young family on a safe and steady path. Instead, one year after the birth of her second child, Christa found herself pregnant again. Six weeks into the pregnancy, she requested an abortion. And in the weeks, then months, that followed, nurses obfuscated and doctors refused outright or feared being found out to the point of, ultimately, becoming unavailable to provide Christa with reproductive choice.

By the time Christa understood that she would need to leave West Virginia to obtain a safe, legal abortion, she’d run out of time. She had failed to imagine that she might not have access to reproductive choice in the United States, until it was too late for her, her pregnancy too far along.

So she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Keats. And another frightening education began: available healthcare was dangerously inadequate to her newborn son’s needs; indeed, environmental degradations and poor healthcare endangered Christa’s older children as well.

Loved and Wanted is the passionate story of a woman’s love for her children, and a poignant and bracing look at the difficult choices women in America are forced to make every day, in a nation where policies and a cultural war on women leave them without sufficient agency over their bodies, their futures, and even their hopes for their children’s lives.’

6. A House in the Country by Ruth Adam

‘Six friends have spent the dark, deprived years of World War II fantasising-in air raid shelters and food queues-about an idyllic life in a massive country house. With the coming of peace, they seize on a seductive newspaper ad and take possession of a neglected 33-room manor in Kent, with acres of lavish gardens and an elderly gardener yearning to revive the estate’s glory days. But the realities of managing this behemoth soon dawn, including a knife-wielding maid, unruly pigs, and a paying guest who tells harrowing stories of her time in the French Resistance, not to mention the friends’ conscientious efforts to offer staff a fair 40-hour work week and paid overtime. And then there’s the ghost of an overworked scullery maid . . .

Based on the actual experiences of Ruth Adam, her husband, and their friends, A House in the Country is a witty and touching novel about the perils of dreams come true. But it’s also a constantly entertaining tale packed with fascinating details of post-war life-and about the realities of life in the kind of house most of us only experience via Downton Abbey.’

7. We’ll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to be French by Emma Beddington

‘As a bored, moody teenager, Emma Beddington came across a copy of French ELLE in the library of her austere Yorkshire school. As she turned the pages, full of philosophy, sex and lipstick, she realized that her life had one purpose and one purpose only: she needed to be French.

Instead of skulking in her bedroom listening to The Smiths or trudging to Betty’s Tea Room to buy fondant fancies, she would be free and solitary, sitting outside the Café de Flore with a Scottie dog at her feet, a Moleskine on the table and a Gauloise trembling on her lower lip.

And so she set about becoming French: she did a French exchange, albeit in Casablanca; she studied French history at university, and spent the holidays in France with her French boyfriend. Eventually, after a family tragedy, she found herself living in Paris, with the same French boyfriend and two half-French children. Her dream had come true, but how would reality match up? Gradually Emma realized that she might have found Paris, but what she really needed to find was home.

Written with enormous wit and warmth, this is a memoir for anyone who has ever worn a Breton T-shirt and wondered, however fleetingly, if they could pass for une vraie Parisienne.

8. Hungry by Grace Dent

‘From an early age, Grace Dent was hungry. As a little girl growing up in Currock, Carlisle, she yearned to be something bigger, to go somewhere better.

Hungry traces Grace’s story from growing up eating beige food to becoming one of the much-loved voices on the British food scene. It’s also everyone’s story – from treats with your nan, to cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, to the exquisite joy of cheaply-made apple crumble with custard. It’s the high-point of a chip butty covered in vinegar and too much salt in the school canteen, on an otherwise grey day of double-Maths and cross country running. It’s the real story of how we have all lived, laughed, and eaten over the past 40 years.’

9. Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man by Thomas Page McBee

‘From an award-winning writer whose work bristles with “hard-won strength, insight, agility, and love” (Maggie Nelson), an exquisite and troubling narrative of masculinity, violence, and society.

In this groundbreaking new book, the author, a trans man, trains to fight in a charity match at Madison Square Garden while struggling to untangle the vexed relationship between masculinity and violence. Through his experience boxing—learning to get hit, and to hit back; wrestling with the camaraderie of the gym; confronting the betrayals and strength of his own body—McBee examines the weight of male violence, the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes, and the limitations of conventional masculinity. A wide-ranging exploration of gender in our society, Amateur is ultimately a story of hope, as McBee traces a new way forward, a new kind of masculinity, inside the ring and outside of it.

In this graceful, stunning, and uncompromising exploration of living, fighting, and healing, we gain insight into the stereotypes and shifting realities of masculinity today through the eyes of a new man.’

10. Two Trees Make a Forest: Travels Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts in Search of My Family’s Past by Jessica J. Lee

‘Combining an immersive exploration of nature with captivatingly beautiful prose, Jessica J. Lee embarks on a journey to discover her family’s forgotten history and to connect with the island they once called home.

Taiwan is an island of extremes: towering mountains, lush forests, and barren escarpment. Between shifting tectonic plates and a history rife with tension, the geographical and political landscape is forever evolving. After unearthing a hidden memoir of her grandfather’s life, Jessica J. Lee seeks to piece together the fragments of her family’s history as they moved from China to Taiwan, and then on to Canada. But as she navigates the tumultuous terrain of Taiwan, Lee finds herself having to traverse fissures in language, memory, and history, as she searches for the pieces of her family left behind.

Interlacing a personal narrative with Taiwan’s history and terrain, Two Trees Make a Forest is an intimate examination of the human relationship with geography and nature, and offers an exploration of one woman’s search for history and belonging amidst an ever-shifting landscape.’

Have you read any of these books? Which titles pique your interest? If you have any biographies or memoirs to recommend, please do!