Tag Archive for Books

Article: You’re Missing Out on Great Literature

You’re Missing Out on Great Literature

“Only three percent of everything published in the U.S. each year is translated from another language — and the majority of that is computer manuals and other technical material. Why don’t Americans read beyond their borders?”

(From Pacific Standard, February 11, 2014)

This article focuses on the lack of translations as an American issue, but I wonder how the US compares to other markets where English is primary or prominent. Is the UK also lacking in translated literature, for example?

I also wonder about the reasons behind it, some of which the article touches upon. Is it more that readers aren’t interested in books from other countries, even if translated into English, or more that publishers don’t want to invest the money translating something they aren’t sure will sell? My guess is that it’s more the latter, but perhaps this is a chicken-and-egg kind of thing.

Personally, I’m very interested in reading works from other countries, to learn about people from different places and cultures, and just for something different to read. As long as it’s translated well though. I’ve read some translations that were pretty poorly done. Granted, there are plenty of native English books published today that aren’t written very well either!

Book Review: Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine I’m really torn over this book. On the one hand, I thought the writing was good and really evoked the main character and her emotional state and thought process throughout. But, on the other hand, the story, which felt like it had great potential, was not really enjoyable and was actually quite disturbing, especially with such an unpleasant main character.

Reading the summary on the book cover, I thought that the book’s premise was not only interesting but had great potential. Unfortunately, the story strayed away from that quite a bit, not long after it became clear that the main character/narrator was not quite all there. She was not only arrogant and self-focused, but pretty much delusional, and her family and friends didn’t seem to quite get that. Even when they realized something was off and tried to help her out, the approach just seemed off and the story became less enjoyable to read. Her obsession with a work of literature wasn’t the problem, it was her entire mental state.

The ending was somewhat shocking, though it wasn’t entirely unexpected, but I was disappointed with the last few pages. It just sort of let things hang, and then that was that.

Ultimately, I don’t feel like I really enjoyed reading this book, though I have to admit that I felt compelled to read it in one day, just to see what happened. I admit I have a hard time reading books with strongly unlikeable or unpleasant characters, and this book reminded me of several others I’d read and disliked for the same reasons. But I do think the author writes really well, so I’d like to read something else by her, with the hope that it might be more enjoyable.

Book Review: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe I’m not really sure why this book caught my eye at the library, given its somber subject, the horrific plague that struck London in 1665. I was browsing nearby and decided to pull it out and take a look. I think I had 1600s England in mind, having just watched part of The Tudors on New Year’s Day, and wanting to read something from around that time period, so it seemed of interest.

Now, this book is categorized as fiction, but it certainly doesn’t read like a typical novel. It does read like someone’s journal, and does include a mixture of personal experiences, charts of numbers (mostly of how many died when and where), and occasional stories passed on from others. It does get a bit dry in parts, especially with the charts, and it’s also somewhat repetitive, with multiple mentions on certain topics, either to reintroduce them or add further detail.

That said, I thought it was also fascinating, considering this was written by someone who lived in London and actually survived the plague (and went on to write several famous novels as well!). I found some of the theories about how the plague spread really interesting, because some of them weren’t entirely off. Although some physicians thought the disease was passed by smell or breath, others theorized that it must have gotten into people’s blood, due to cases where some people may have passed it on to others, while not appearing sick themselves. They just didn’t understand fully how this worked, but they were right in some ways.

It did take me awhile to read this book, and I admit to skimming a bit at the end, but it was still interesting. Don’t expect it to be a typical work of fiction though, or you’ll be pretty disappointed.

Book Review: Journey into the Past by Stefan Zweig

Journey into the Past by Stefan Zweig Another book republished in the NYRB Classics series, Journey into the Past by Stefan Zweig is about a German man who does well at his job, and is asked by his employer to become his private secretary. He initially turns down the job, as it would require him to move to his employer’s family home, but he later accepts the job.

Without knowing it at first, he falls in love with his boss’s wife. The realization hits him after he agrees to go to Mexico for a lengthy project for his company. He sees just after and suddenly imagines not being able to see her daily, as he’s done up until now. He finds out that the feelings were mutual, but they aren’t able to do much about it before he has to leave.

The rest of the book follows his time in Mexico, with years going by, a world war beginning and ending, until finally he is able to return to Europe. Although he has since married, he wants to see this woman he fell in love with many years ago, and the book focuses on this later meeting. I wasn’t really surprised at how it turned out, but it seemed like there could have been a little more to the book. It was simple and short, but maybe because so much of it was building up to something that could happen but didn’t, it was a little disappointing.

I did like the book, but I just didn’t feel as enthused about it after I’d finished it. I’d previously read another book by Zweig — The Post-Office Girl — and I think I just liked that one a bit more.

Book Review: Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi

Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi When I first discovered the NYRB Classics series, I thought I’d try to read all of the books they’d published, especially after enjoying the first one I’d read (Don’t Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne du Maurier). Unfortunately, not all of them were hits, and after a few misses, I took a bit of a break from this “goal.”

I followed some of the new books NYRB published last year, and then, while perusing my library’s web catalog, decided to try a few more. The first one this time around, and the first book of the year, ended up being Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi. I won’t say it was a total hit, but it wasn’t a total miss either.

The book takes place in early 20th-century Hungary, focusing on a small family made up of an elderly couple and their adult daughter, who they’ve nicknamed Skylark. They are happy enough, though it’s made clear early on that Skylark, who is 35-years-old, is rather unattractive and hasn’t been able to marry because of her looks. The book starts with her heading off to the country to visit relatives, and her parents are very upset about the idea of her being gone for a whole week.

The summary on the back of the book described a sort of transformation that the couple goes through in Skylark’s absence, and that is somewhat the case. Not only do they eat out at local restaurants and notice things in town that they’ve always just passed by, but they both — especially Ákos, the father — end up socializing with other people, some of whom they’ve known but had not kept in touch with.

The story mostly follows Ákos, who is seemingly reunited with his old buddies from the Panther Club, and he seems to be realizing what he’s missed and how much has changed. And yet, it’s not clear quite what this all means to him, until near the end of the book, and it didn’t quite match what I expected. He comes home drunk after staying out late, and he and his wife end up fighting a bit, after he makes some very bold statements about their life and daughter.

The ending is actually rather depressing, because it seems like the family will all just go back to living their simple and boring life together, despite the difference this week without Skylark has made. It’s not that she’s dragging them down though, just that they wish they could do more for her, but know they can’t. And Skylark returns home with some realizations of her own, though she keeps them to herself.

Overall, I really liked the writing style, though I realize this was translated from Hungarian, so it’s hard to say how direct a translation it was. There were a few awkward bits, including a theatre performance the couple sees, which has content that would not be considered appropriate today. Despite having less of an eventful ending than I expected, I thought it was a good book. I would be interested in reading other works by the author, though I don’t know how many are available in English.

Book Review: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue I came across The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue while browsing through my local library’s online catalog, and then I happened to find a copy at the used bookstore the library runs nearby, so I bought it and dug right in. The story sounded interesting, about two women in Victorian England, good friends reunited after many years, but who are accused of having a romantic affair, the details of which are written in a sealed letter.

However, this description — which I’d read online somewhere — wasn’t actually what the book was about, which was confusing. The letter in question was actually only a minor element later on in the book, and the scandal was actually about one of the women — who is married — having an affair with a colleague of her husband’s, not about her and the other woman. There was a tiny detail about the latter possibility thrown in at the very end, but by then, it just frustrated me.

I really hate when a book is described — by others or the author — as something it ends up not becoming, or when a big emphasis is put on something that is actually not that significant in the book. Meet the expectations you’ve set up, or just get your story straight to begin with!

Book Review: The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham I’ve only read one other book by W. Somerset Maugham — Cakes and Ale — and I didn’t realize that some of his other works were slightly more contemporary, including The Painted Veil. The story follows a young English couple who get married, despite their not really being a loving couple, and then relocating to part of China, where the husband is going to work for the British government. The wife is the main focus though, and so we see her struggling with her marriage and this new life, and she eventually realizes just how selfish and uncaring she is.

The story was all right, but I had a hard time reading on, because I hated the main character so much. She was really quite a despicable character, very selfish and spoiled, and without any consideration for other people, especially her husband. I’d say it was an all right read, but I don’t really feel any urge to read other works by Maugham.

Book Review: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín I was trying to find something vaguely similar to my favorite book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith and happened across Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín in my searches. It’s certainly not quite the same, but it sounded interesting, focusing on a young Irish woman emigrating to the United States — to Brooklyn, in particular — in the 1950s.

Unfortunately, the book turned out to be very disappointing. I kept debating whether or not to keep reading, because it felt like nothing was happening, and the characters felt so flat. Eventually, some things do happen, but it didn’t make it much better. It also didn’t feel like it actually took place in the 1950s, and I didn’t feel like I cared for any of the characters.

Book Review: The Last Chicken in America by Ellen Litman

The Last Chicken in America by Ellen Litman While looking for additional novels about immigrant experiences, I found The Last Chicken in America: A Novel in Stories by Ellen Litman, which focuses on Russian immigrants and their families in Pittsburgh. The book is made up of several short stories which are intertwined by the recurring characters, including direct immigrants and their children, and the experiences they have in coming to and living in the US.

The short story collection as novel concept was interesting, and I kind of liked getting to switch from one main character to another, or to a group of characters. However, it all felt a bit repetitive after awhile, and I also started to have a hard time telling some of the characters apart, especially because sometimes references would be made to an unnamed person, who might or might not have been someone in a previous story.

Book Review: The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell

The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell follows the elderly Feliks Zhukovski, a Polish leftist who has made France is home, as he looks back on his life as a strong supporter of the Communists. He starts to feel like his life is unraveling, and he ends up really examining how his beliefs were built, and tries to justify them, despite all the Communists actually did in Eastern Europe.

Initially, I liked the story, but after awhile, it felt like there was a shift from showing the story to telling it, starting with a letter from Feliks long-lost mother. It just started feeling less compelling to me, and I started to lose interest. At the very end of the book, it felt like things were tied up too neatly, like a fairy tale ending had to be tacked on. It wasn’t very satisfying though, and felt too mushy, especially contrasted with the character Feliks had seemed to be throughout the rest of the book.