Why This Book Should Win the BTBA: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Three Percent is posting write-ups of each of the 25 books nominated for the long list of this year’s Best Translated Book Award (BTBA). I was pleased to be asked to contribute my own piece for Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? It’s a casual recap/list of awesome things about this great book, but gave me a good excuse to go back and re-read much of the book, which was among my favorites last year. The re-read did nothing but confirm my positive feelings about the book, so I highly recommend that you check it out.

While I was reacquainting myself with Buzz Aldrin, I also ran across some interesting related links that I wanted to call to your attention:

  • Harstad has had three pieces of short fiction published at Words Without Borders, which are all available online, here.
  • The Power of Second,” and interview conducted with Harstad for The Brooklyn Rail, in which the author admits that despite what Buzz Aldrin might suggest, he’s “not a great Cardigans fan,” and also that “the novel as a whole will possibly read nicely to the sound of Beck’s Sea Change and Sigur Ros’s Ágætis Byrjun,” which sound like great pairings to me as well.
  • A 2010 piece in N+1 called Into the Woods: On Norwegian Literature” by Silje Bekeng uses Harstad and his work as an example of young Norwegian writers who “have found ways to use classic themes to reflect on the era they’re writing themselves into.” I remember reading this piece at the time and really enjoying it, but Harstad’s book hadn’t been published in English yet. Having read Buzz Aldrin now, Bekeng’s observations resonate more, but it’s still an interesting article if you haven’t read the book.

My “Why This Book Should Win” piece for Buzz Aldrin is on the Three Percent website, here. The full text is also below.

***

When we meet 29-year-old Mattias, the narrator of Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, he is happy and satisfied with his life. He loves his girlfriend, Helle, who he has dated for twelve years. He loves his job as a gardener at a local nursery–so much that he often comes in early to just sit in the quiet of the garden alone. Idolizing Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, Mattias only wants to “be a smooth running cog in the world. To do the right thing. Nothing more.” Instead of seeking recognition for his talents (he’s a wonderful singer, for instance) or trying to distinguish himself in an impressive career, Mattias instead hopes to blend into the background, “to vanish into the commotion out there, to be number two, a person who made himself useful instead of trying to stand out, who did the job he was asked to do.”

The simplicity of Mattias’ world is upended in short order, however, when Helle leaves him for another man (someone who “wanted to be seen in the world”), and he loses his job at the now-bankrupt nursery. Depressed and hopeless, he follows his friend’s band to a music festival on the Faroe Islands. The next thing he remembers is waking up face down in the rain, in the middle of a dirt road in the Faroe countryside, with 15,000 kroner in his pocket.

Norwegian author Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? was, without a doubt, one of the best books I read last year. Won over almost immediately by just the title, I picked up the book on a whim and then spent the next few days delightedly underlining each wonderful sentence or clever bit of dialog until I realized that if I didn’t stop, I’d soon have underlined the whole book. As I read it, I talked about the book incessantly, reading bits aloud in bars, and generally recommending it to every third person I met on the street. The book is extremely well written, it’s funny, and it’s affecting without being trite. But as is so often the case with books that I’ve truly loved, it’s hard to go back and objectively critique it. What’s easier–and more fun–is to give you a short list of reasons that Buzz Aldrin is a fantastic book that you should go read now, and a great contender for this year’s BTBA:

1. It’s wonderfully written. Johan Harstad is an incredible prose stylist who pays particular attention to natural details. (All due credit to translator Deborah Dawkin that the language reads so fluidly.) Harstad has a knack for intermixing delightfully odd observations (“Tuesday. The week’s most superfluous day.”) with fantastically long, melodic trains-of-thought which fully immerse you in Mattias’ perspective. The opening paragraph of the book has a great example of this:

“I bend over the tulips, gloves on my feet, small pruning shears between my fingers, it’s extremely early, one April morning in 1999 and it’s beginning to grow warmer, I’ve noticed it recently, a certain something has begun to stir, I noticed it as I got out of the car this morning, in the gray light, as I opened the gates into the nursery, the air had grown softer, more rounded at the edges, I’d even considered changing out of my winter boots and putting my sneakers on.”

2. The Faroe Island Setting: A write-up in Kirkus Reviews embarrassingly referred to Buzz Aldrin as “the long-awaited Great Faroese Novel,” by which they probably meant not to discredit the brilliant (and actually Faroese) novels by William Heinesen, but rather to point out that the Faroe Island setting is as much a character in this book as any of the people. As described by Harstad, the Faroese landscape is not only evocative and otherworldly, it also provides an important counterpoint for Mattias’ isolationist worldview. There are less than 50,000 people living on the Faroe Islands, so it’s impossible to blend into the background as Mattias would like. As he comes to realize, “…for each person that died, there was one less inhabitant, one less person to meet on the road, one less person who spoke the same language.”

3. The Cardigans: Never has a book paid better homage to this Swedish pop band (you know you loved them, too). One of the book’s main characters listens exclusively to albums by The Cardigans because “…everything I need is in this band.” Also, each of the book’s four sections is named after a different Cardigans album. (Funnily enough, Harstad said in an interview that he isn’t really a big fan himself. “I chose the band because I couldn’t figure out who would love such a band.”)

4. The Cultural Collage: Harstad brings together a variety of historical and cultural reference points (beyond The Cardigans)–from Radiohead and Top Gun to the unsolved murder of Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme, the start of Bosnian War, the Chernobyl disaster, and the Challenger space ship explosion–not just to prove his zeitgeisty prowess, but also to create a fully contextual background for his characters and their general sense of unease and displacement. The main action of the book takes place between the mid-eighties and late nineties–not so long ago, and yet, long enough to be able to reflect back now on what a unsettling couple of decades it was.

5. The Epic Thor Heyerdahl-esque Escape: Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian adventurer and anthropologist who sailed roughly 8,000 km from Peru to Polynesia on a homemade raft (the Kon-Tiki) in 1947. After a particularly unexpected plot development, Mattias and his companions make a similar voyage from The Faroe Islands to the Caribbean. It’s awesome.

Amsterdam Stories

My latest review (on The L Magazine website here) is of the Dutch short story collection Amsterdam Stories by Nescio.

Nescio (“I don’t know” in Latin) was the pen name of businessman J.H.F Grönloh, who, born at the end of the 19th century and dying in the 1960s, lived through a rather fascinating time period in the world, which is certainly reflected in his writing. He wasn’t a prolific author by any means, but he is beloved to this day in his home country–as recently as 2007, a newspaper survey of Dutch readers included his major short story collection in list of the ten Best Dutch Novels of all time (“novels” is a bit of a misnomer, but still).

A few reviews/articles of interest related to Nescio:

“I am nothing and I do nothing”: On the Untranslated Nescio
An article on Bookslut written by Kevin McNeer, prior to the NYRB publication of Amsterdam Stories

Amsterdam Stories reviewed on The Complete Review

Amsterdam Stories reviewed in the KGB Bar & Lit Journal

My own review is below.

***

A slim collection of novellas, short stories, and excerpts from an unfinished novel, Amsterdam Stories introduces English readers to the complete works of Nescio, one of the most beloved Dutch authors. Neither a particularly prolific nor commercially successful author during his lifetime, Nescio’s fiction now resonates as a love song to Amsterdam, a snapshot of The Netherlands in an era of profound change, and a bittersweet reflection on talent and youth fallen short of its promise.

Latin for “I don’t know,” Nescio was the pseudonym of J.H.F Grönloh (1882-1961), a co-director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. In his professional life, Nescio embodied the middling bourgeois existence that haunts nearly all of his bohemian characters. Four of the best pieces in Amsterdam Stories explore this tension and follow the lives of a motley group of disaffected artists, including Koekebakker, a struggling journalist, and Bavnik, a self-deprecating painter.

In “The Freeloader,” Bavnik befriends Japi, an echo of Melville’s Bartleby who declares “I am nothing and I do nothing.” This pursuit intrigues as much as irks his acquaintances, each of whom is attempting to evade the numbing grind of office jobs and banal respectability. The story also showcases Nescio’s poetic use of language and lyrical repetitions: “The freeloader you found lying in your bed with his dirty shoes on when you came home late; the freeloader who smoked your cigars and filled his pipe with your tobacco and burned your coal…”

Koekebakker narrates in retrospect, balancing light-hearted nostalgia with loss. “We were on top of the world, and the world was on top of us, weighing down heavily,” he sighs in “Young Titans.” And yet, even though these young men were poor, working jobs which “confiscated the better part of our time… [and] kept us out of the sunshine,” even though Bavnik couldn’t paint the world as he really saw it, and their hopes came to nothing—the wonder of this age of possibility is clearly what matters to him in the end.

The romantic undertone of the Koekebakker stories may be attributable to the time of their writing—all between 1909 and 1914, prior to World War I. Contrast this with the “world in tatters” that Nescio describes in the astounding “Insula Dei,” which was written and set in 1942, during the Nazi occupation. Where his young artists spent their days wandering outside Amsterdam, admiring the setting sun “blazing yellow” on the dikes, “Insula Dei” finds its narrator, Dikschei, freezing on a “gray, icy day” waiting for a meager share of milk at the market. Meeting an ailing old friend, Dikschei takes him to a cafe, splurging his ration tickets on bread and ham. “These aren’t the first eventful times I’ve lived through,” he says, resigned. “[A]nd if I’m granted even more years… I will most likely get to my third war.” But in his friend’s declaration that he is “an island,” that no man can himself be occupied, Dikschei recognizes and embraces a quiet self-possession, an internal rebellion against forces beyond one’s control.

Fun Reads for Friday: BTBA Finalists / 100 Great Books for Kids

25 Days of the BTBA (Three Percent)

As you may remember, Three Percent recently announced this year’s long list for the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA). Leading up to the announcement of the short list of ten titles on April 10, 3P is running a daily series of posts explaining why each of the 25 books on the long list should win the award. All of the posts are archived here, and many are rather compelling. (I’ll actually be writing one of these myself for the only book on the list that I’ve read–Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?) Chad Post’s pithy one-liners on why each book should win are also pretty fun. Some of the more amusing examples:

On Upstaged by Jacques Jouet, translated by Leland de la Durantaye:

Why This Book Should Win: Oulipians have the most fun.

On New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry [Ed: and this book sounds awesome]

Why This Book Should Win: Because Marani invented Europanto, a “mock international auxiliary language.”

On Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger, translated by Ross Benjamin

Why This Book Should Win: Two reasons: 1) during Thomas’s reading tour, three consecutive events were disrupted by a streaker, a woman passing out and smashing a glass table, and a massive pillow fight amid a Biblical thunderstorm; 2) the phone number. [Ed: Not sure about this reason…]

On Lightning by Jean Echenoz, translated by Linda Coverdale

Why This Book Should Win: Tesla, duh. And Linda Coverdale. But mostly Tesla.

Scholastic’s Parent and Child Magazine’s “100 Greatest Books for Children”

A friend who works at Scholastic brought this list–which actually includes Young Adult titles, as well as those for children–to my attention on the evening of St. Patrick’s Day. While drunken faux-Irish bar patrons sloshed about around us, we had quite a nice time of guessing books which were included on the list. I was happy to have guessed several in the top twenty, and was surprised at some of the omissions (Ed Young’s Lon Po Po; anything by J.R.R. Tolkien, but mostly The Hobbit). Since authors were only represented once on the list, some of the representative selections were also a bit suprising (Green Eggs and Ham over Cat in the Hat, even though I like the former better; Matilda for Roald Dahl over James and the Giant Peach or The Witches; The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik instead of Wonderstruck; The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks over basically any other Magic School Bus book…)

Of course, the question of what makes something a “great” book for kids is a big and incredibly vague one. P&C attempts to clarify their selection process here, although I think there is still some ambiguity. But here’s the gist:

“To create our list, we asked several highly respected literacy experts, educators, and parents for suggestions. (See “Contributors” on our bookshelf.) They came through in a big way — nearly 500 books were in the running. We used a variety of criteria to narrow down to 100 and then rank our titles, including diversity of genre, topic, format, ages and stages, authorship, and cultural representation. Factors such as literary and/or illustration excellence, popularity, and longevity or innovative freshness were all qualities of books in the final round.

Along the way, a few familiar and well-loved titles made way for fresh, unique books that children today know and love. Some authors’ secondary works stepped aside to allow for a greater variety of names and faces who may be new to you. We also included nonfiction, a rarity among these kinds of lists, but a must, given the high demand for it in schools today and the great quality of these works. In the end, we came up with a diverse range of timeless titles, classic and new, that children of all ages will learn from, grow through, and enjoy.”

And here’s the top 10:

  1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  2. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown / Illustrated by Clement Hurd
  3. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
  4. The Snowy Day written/ illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats
  5. Where the Wild Things Are written / illustrated by Maurice Sendak
  6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling / Illustrated by Mary GrandPré
  7. Green Eggs and Ham written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss
  8. Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  9. The Giving Tree written / illustrated by Shel Silverstein
  10. Frog and Toad Are Friends written / illustrated by Arnold Lobel

See any glaring omissions/terrible choices? Especially happy about a selection? (I was thrilled that The Phantom Toll Booth and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH were included, myself.) Discuss…

Trail of the Spellmans

My newest review is of Lisa Lutz’s Trail of the Spellmans. This is actually the fifth installment in Lutz’s humorous series, but the first of the Spellman novels that I’ve read. I enjoyed the good-natured family chaos in this one, though, and some of the earlier titles sound enjoyable, so I wouldn’t write off the possibility of going back and giving another of these a shot.

My review was published on Reviewing the Evidence here. The full text is below.

***

In Trail of the Spellmans, the fifth installment (or “Document #5”) of her popular Spellman Files series, Lisa Lutz’s hard-drinking, wise-cracking P.I. Isabel (Izzy) Spellman has her hands full dealing with several compromising surveillance jobs, a house-sitting assignment for an OCD mathematics professor, and all-out chaos at home. Which is, of course, what makes it fun.

Much in the vein of a Carl Hiaasen caper, Lutz’s Spellman novels are delightfully humorous romps, more about the zany characters and their convoluted mishaps than about any serious investigation. For those new to the series, a little background: Izzy, a former rabble-rouser and incorrigible snoop, has been an investigator in her family’s San Francisco business since the age of twelve. She shares her caseload with her parents and also her college-age sister, Rae, who not only seems bored at work these days, but has inexplicably begun to fake her surveillance reports. Then there’s Izzy’s older brother David, once an “excessively fashionable,” type-A lawyer who has now given up his career to be a stay-at-home dad for his eighteen-month-old daughter.

This time around, we find Izzy juggling three or four loosely interconnected mini-mysteries (some professional, some not) which give the story a bit of structure around the ongoing family drama. Among other upheavals, the Spellman parents now have a new household member: Demetrius Merriweather, (‘D’) a former client who was wrongfully imprisoned on a murder charge for fifteen years. Rather than pursue a lucrative lawsuit against the state, however, D spends his time baking delicious treats that then must be locked away from Izzy’s dieting father. Additionally, her relationship with San Francisco cop (and live-in boyfriend) Henry Stone is threatened by the prospect of a ‘serious talk,’ that Izzy continually dodges by going on drinking bouts with her new friend, Henry’s mother. Add to that her toddler niece inexplicably referring to everything as ‘banana,’ her harried brother throwing Rae out of his guest house for reasons that neither sibling will explain, and her mother’s sudden craze for jam-packing her days with Russian lessons, book clubs, and crafts, and you get a sense of the dizzying antics that Lutz seamlessly integrates into one sitcom-esque novel.

Although the family back-story is central to the plot of Trail of the Spellmans, new readers to the series need not worry about jumping into the fray mid-series. Important family history is folded neatly into the current plot, and Izzy peppers her ‘file’ with snarky explanatory footnotes, as well as an appendix with dossiers on each of the primary characters. And while none of the discoveries that she makes throughout the novel are even remotely surprising to the reader, the overall narrative about Izzy’s relationship with her family and the family business does reach a watershed moment at the book’s conclusion. In this way, Trail of the Spellmans feels like a transitional installment in the series—a lighthearted bridge between the more fully developed plots that have preceded it, and the inevitable drama to come.

The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning

Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning
My newest review (in The L Magazine) is of Icelandic author Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning. I’ll actually have a second review of the book published shortly, so I’ll dispense with giving much background about the book. But a little about the author, who should be familiar to many English-readers after the success of his novel 101 Reykjavík, which was also made into a popular movie. (Anecdotally, I might add that 101 Reykjavík is, after Independent People,the book that most people who I’ve had conversations about Icelandic literature with seem to know about.)

Anyhow, here are a few links of interest re: Hallgrímur, who in addition to being a talented author, is also a painter, translator, and newspaper columnist:

  • Back in 2002, The Guardian asked Hallgrímur to list his top ten books. The list includes the aforementioned Independent People by Halldor Laxness, Ulysses by James Joyce, and Lolita by Nabokov. He also includes Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, which really made a lot of sense to me in terms of his own writing. Of that book, he commented:

“None of us could continue to write in the same way after this. At the time, I was preparing to write 101 Reykjavik and I have to say that American Psycho helped me a lot in finding the right tone. As I always find violence in books and films a bit silly, the strongest parts for me were the small bits on pop music: Genesis, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, etc. This was an absolute revelation.”

  • He maintains a rather entertaining, (mostly) English language Twitter feed here.
  • And lastly, a YouTube video of Hallgrímur performing his poem “Suit and Tie” about the Icelandic financial meltdown. Written and performed in English, this will give you a good sense of his rather lyrical and rhythmic use of language, which is one of the more enjoyable aspects of The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning.

The full text of my review is below.

***

Tomislav Boksic, or Toxic, is the go-to hitman for the Croatian mafia in New York. A former soldier, Toxic prides himself on his impeccable hit record, his “sex bomb” girlfriend, and his decadent Manhattan lifestyle. But when kill #67 turns out to be an undercover FBI agent, Toxic has to flee America, assume the identity of a televangelist named Father Friendly, and hide in Iceland, a country he only knows from travel advertisements of “lunar landscapes and sunny faces.”

In the wake of its financial collapse, Iceland has invested significant energies in exporting itself both as a tourist destination (think of all those alluring subway ads), and—justifiably—as a hotbed of cultural innovation. A new partnership between AmazonCrossing and the Icelandic Literature Fund is representative of this effort: The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrímur Helgason is one of ten Icelandic novels that the press will release in English this year. Hallgrímur previously gained attention in the U.S. with his slackers-in-the-city novel 101 Reykjavík, and Baltasar Kormakur’s subsequent film adaptation. (There’s a fun moment in Housecleaning when Toxic discovers “the most famous bar in the land, heavily featured in some hip movie years back”—referring to the iconic Kaffibarinn in 101 Reykjavík.)

Housecleaning shares much of 101 Reykjavík’s sensibilities. On one hand, both protagonists—with their respective rating systems for women—could use some feminist sensitivity training. On the other, both books make for great mini-guides to Icelandic culture. It’s a clever device in Housecleaning—Toxic is essentially a tourist, so there’s ample reason to share factoids about Iceland: the country has no army, prostitutes, or handguns; and on particularly warm days (60ºF), businesses close for a “sun-break” so that “employees can go outside and enjoy the heat wave.”

Housecleaning is also notable in that it wasn’t actually translated from Icelandic—Hallgrímur wrote the novel in English. The prose is rhythmic and fluid, and showcases his linguistic creativity. Toxic not only has a flare for descriptions (“her hair… has the color of butter fresh from the fridge”) but also converts all the Icelandic names and words he hears into a phonetic English hitman-ese: he hears a woman’s name, Gunnhildur, as “Gunholder.” The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning was written prior to Iceland’s meltdown, but these efforts to familiarize outsiders with Icelandic culture and situate the country in a greater global context feel particularly appropriate for the current moment.

Retaining the Strange: Tomas Transtromer (and Ismail Kadare) in (Re-)Translation

Last week, poetry critic David Orr published a great piece (“Versions: Tomas Transtromer’s Poems and the Art of Translation“) in the New York Times about two competing English translators of Swedish poet (and recent Nobel laureate) Tomas Transtromer’s work. While it’s typical, Orr explains, for Nobel laureates “outside the Anglophone world” to experience “a fair amount of pushing and shoving among your translators (if you have any)…”

…[T]he most interesting debates over English versions of [Transtromer’s] work actually took place before his Nobel victory. In this case, the argument went to the heart of the translator’s function and occurred mostly in The Times Literary Supplement. The disputants were Fulton, one of Transtromer’s longest-serving translators, and Robertson, who has described his own efforts as “imitations.” Fulton accused Robertson (who doesn’t speak Swedish) of borrowing from his more faithful versions while inserting superfluous bits of Robertson’s own creation — in essence, creating poems that are neither accurate translations nor interesting departures. Fulton rolled his eyes at “the strange current fashion whereby a ‘translation’ is liable to be praised in inverse proportion to the ‘translator’s’ knowledge of the original language.” Robertson’s supporters countered that Fulton was just annoyed because Robertson was more concerned with the spirit of the ­poems than with getting every little kottbulle exactly right.

Orr then goes on to examine–in really a very illuminating fashion–the tonal/metaphorical/stylistic variations between the two translators’ versions of Transtromer’s work, and how those do (and don’t) reflect back on the originals. (His thoughtful but accessible analysis of the few Transtromer poems in the article actually makes a very convincing sell for Orr’s forthcoming book, Beautiful & Pointless, a guide to poetry in which he “argues that readers should accept the foreignness of poetry in the way that they accept the strangeness of any place to which they haven’t traveled—that they should expect a little confusion, at least at first.”)

Orr’s explanation of why Transtromer’s poetry is “exactly the sort of writing that tends to do well in translation, at least in theory” is also useful. As he explains,

“The plainer a poem looks — the less it relies on extremities of form, diction or syntax — the more we assume that even a translator with no knowledge of the original language will be able to produce a reasonable match for what the poem feels like in its first incarnation.”

Ultimately, Orr is skeptical of Robertson’s “alterations,” although he concedes that they “do a fine job of conveying a poem’s spirit.” But what I found perhaps the most interesting about the article is that Orr does not dismiss out of hand the possibility that Robertson could have produced a successful version of Transtromer’s work, even though he doesn’t understand Swedish. Instead, he looks at two shot poems in alternate translations by the two translators and comes to the conclusion that in Robertson’s versions, “The changes generally make Transtromer less, well, strange and more typically ‘poetic.'”

For my own part, I have to say that I audibly tsked when I read that Robertson didn’t speak Swedish and had used, presumably, other (English) translations to render his own versions. It sounded to me more like a cover song (a parallel Orr draws himself late in the article), or an homage, maybe–but not a translation.

I won’t use this as a moment to completely digress into debates about translation theory and practice (which honestly, I’m not even fully equipped to have yet), but suffice to say that maybe before completely writing off Robertson’s viability as a translator, I should have taken Orr’s approach and considered–for one–how his ‘translations’ were or weren’t appropriate for the medium. After all, there have been scenarios in which “twice-removed translations” have been successful.

I’m referring in particular to the English translations (by David Bellos) of Albanian author Ismail Kadare’s works. For a whole host of viable–and fascinating–reasons, Kadare’s novels have almost entirely been translated into English not from Albanian, but from French. Kadare not only hasn’t minded that his works have been translated in this manner, he’s preferred it.

The history of Kadare’s body of work and its later translations is complicated (and again–really, really interesting), so when the Orr piece got me thinking about “re-translation,” I took the opportunity to re-read a piece that Bellos wrote in 2005 called “The Englishing of Ismail Kadare: Notes of a retranslator.” I would highly recommend this (short) piece, if any of the above topics are of interest. As with everything Bellos writes about translation, it’s sensible, articulate, and nuanced, and provides a fresh lens through which to consider the roles of translation and translators.

Fun Reads for Friday: Rural Libraries (and Cake Pan Collections), NBCC Award Winners,Yrsa Sigurðardóttir in New York

A grab bag of events, award announcements, and more today:

Photo by Tina King at The Good Midwest Life

“Morality and Cake Pans: The Rural Library”
by Marcel LaFlamme, via The Daily Yonder

A very interesting review of a recently-published book by library historian Wayne A. Wiegand called Main Street Public Library: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876-1956. (The review title, I should note, alludes to a “lending collection of cake and muffin pans at the public library in Atkinson, NE,” which is pictured with the review (and above) but not mentioned, so far as I can tell, in the book itself.)

Main Street Library sounds fascinating, as does some of the methodology that Wiegand employed in his research. From the review:

Wayne Wiegand’s new book delves into the histories of four small-town libraries in the American Midwest. Although 80% of public library systems today serve populations of less than 25,000, Wiegand argues that “we know little about the overall history of the small-town public library.” Each of the four libraries that Wiegand considers was established by transplants from the East, first on a subscription basis for the merchant and professional classes and then, with tax support, for the town at large. Three of them received funds from Andrew Carnegie to erect a library building. And each, despite the rhetoric that emerged later about libraries as “arsenals of democracy,” was first imagined as a source of moral uplift in a culturally barren region aspiring to respectability.

In addition to more conventional sources like meeting minutes and newspaper clippings, Wiegand makes imaginative use of the accession books in which his four libraries recorded the new titles they bought. (An army of work-study students entered the records into a database, which Wiegand has generously made available for other researchers to mine themselves.) Examining how the four collections changed over time leads Wiegand to some interesting comparisons and speculations: were summer tourists in Lexington, Michigan, the reason that the Charles H. Moore Library was the only one of the four to subscribe to Cosmopolitan? Why did the Bryant Library in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, collect Hardy Boys and Tom Swift novels, only to spurn the Bobbsey Twins?”

The review also included the supremely heartening factoid that “the United States presently has more public libraries in operation than it does McDonald’s restaurants,” which: who knew? (Yay!)

The NBCC Award Winners for Publishing Year 2011
via Critical Mass

At an award ceremony last night, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) announced this year’s award winners in fiction, nonfiction, biography, poetry, autobiography, and criticism. I hadn’t read many of the nominees this year, but was rooting for either David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear  or Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture in the criticism category. Neither won, but I have to admit that the Geoff Dyer book that took the prize is actually on my bookshelf at home, and seems an admirable winner. Both Dyer’s book and the fiction winner looked particularly interesting to me, so here’s a little info on both (descriptions from the publishers’ websites):

  • Fiction: Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision

    “…these 21 vintage selected stories and 13 scintillating new ones take us around the world, from Jerusalem to Central America, from tsarist Russia to London during the Blitz, from central Europe to Manhattan, and from the Maine coast to Godolphin, Massachusetts, a fictional suburb of Boston. These charged locales, and the lives of the endlessly varied characters within them, are evoked with a tenderness and incisiveness found in only our most observant seers.”

  • Criticism: Geoff Dyer: Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews

 “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition collects twenty-five years of essays, reviews, and misadventures. Here he is pursuing the shadow of Camus in Algeria and remembering life on the dole in Brixton in the 1980s; reflecting on Richard Avedon and Ruth Orkin, on the sculptor Zadkine and the saxophonist David Murray (in the same essay), on his heroes Rebecca West and Ryszard Kapuscinski, on haute couture and sex in hotels. Whatever he writes about, his responses never fail to surprise. For Dyer there is no division between the reflective work of the critic and the novelist’s commitment to lived experience: they are mutually illuminating ways to sharpen our perceptions. His is the rare body of work that manages to both frame our world and enlarge it.”

Upcoming Event at Scandinavia House: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir in Conversation with Elizabeth Hand

A good opportunity for New York-based Nordic crime aficionados, particularly because author conversations are, I find, often more ‘productive’ than a straight Q&A. Yrsa (Last Rituals; My Soul to Take) is in New York on March 27.

“Icelandic crime author Yrsa Sigurðardóttir joins American writer Elizabeth Hand in a conversation about their work, the current Scandinavian crime fiction renaissance, what drew them to the genre, and ideas for future Iceland-related crime stories.”

And lastly:

Chad Post over at Three Percent recently posted about a new transdisciplinary journal called Translation. The biannual journal is “published by St. Jerome Publishing in Manchester and Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura in Rome.” From the journal’s site:

With this publication, the editors present the new international peer-reviewed journal translation, which from January 2012 will be published twice a year. The journal—a collaborative initiative of the Nida School of Translation Studies—takes as its main mission the collection and representation of the ways in which translation as a fundamental element of culture transforms our contemporary world. Our ambition is to create a new forum for the discussion of translation, offering an open space for debate and reflection on what we call post-translation studies, moving beyond disciplinary boundaries towards wider transdisciplinary discourses on the translational nature of societies which are increasingly hybrid, diasporic, border-crossing, intercultural, multilingual, and global.