stuff I read

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

‘BEOWULF: A NEW TRANSLATION’ IS A NEW, FEMINIST TRANSLATION OF BEOWULF BY THE AUTHOR OF THE MUCH-BUZZED-ABOUT NOVEL ‘THE MERE WIFE’.

Nearly 20 years after Seamus Heaney’s translation of ‘Beowulf’ – and 50 years after the translation that continues to torment high-school students around the world – there is a radical new verse translation of the epic poem by Maria Dahvana Headley that brings to light elements that have never before been translated into English, re-contextualizing the binary narrative of monsters and heroes into a tale in which the two categories often entwine, justice is rarely served, and dragons live among us.

A man seeks to prove himself as a hero. A monster seeks silence in his territory. A warrior seeks to avenge her murdered son. A dragon ends it all. The familiar elements of the epic poem are seen with a novelist’s eye toward gender, genre, and history – ‘Beowulf’ has always been a tale of entitlement and encroachment, powerful men seeking to become more powerful, and one woman seeking justice for her child, but this version brings new context to an old story. While crafting her contemporary adaptation of ‘Beowulf’, Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s long-awaited (hey, she made an adorable Grim in the middle, so we’ll accept the wait) translation of Beowulf has arrived.

It might sound weird to say a translation of an Old English poem is “bouncy” but it is. It has a very jaunty, devil-may-care feel to it since Maria mixed older words like “scop”, descriptive terms like “opened his word-hoard” (which is such a great way to set up a long speech), and of-the-minute soundbites like “hashtag: blessed” (got a zing off that one because it nails the rhythm of the line and gives it an ironic cast). Even the choice of “Bro!” as the opening “Whaet” (or however we represent that Old English term that doesn’t have a direct translation to modern English) makes me think of a bunch of dudes sitting around drinking and someone goes “Bruuuuhhhh, tell me about that time Chet went snowboarding naked” (or whatever Chets do). So fun.

The introduction really sets up Maria’s attitude toward this translation and why she made the choices she did. And while you don’t have to be familiar with other translations of Beowulf, if you’ve read the Heaney or, especially, the Tolkein translation you can really see where this new translation is finding new ground. It’s very similar to Emily Wilson’s introduction to The Odyssey which also brought new facets to an old classic.

Beowulf: A New Translation published on Tuesday, August 25!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Girl Who Reads on the Métro by Christine Féret-Fleury

43263671Summary from Goodreads:
In the vein of Amelie and The Little Paris Bookshop, a modern fairytale about a French woman whose life is turned upside down when she meets a reclusive bookseller and his young daughter.

Juliette leads a perfectly ordinary life in Paris, working a slow office job, dating a string of not-quite-right men, and fighting off melancholy. The only bright spots in her day are her metro rides across the city and the stories she dreams up about the strangers reading books across from her: the old lady, the math student, the amateur ornithologist, the woman in love, the girl who always tears up at page 247.

One morning, avoiding the office for as long as she can, Juliette finds herself on a new block, in front of a rusty gate wedged open with a book. Unable to resist, Juliette walks through, into the bizarre and enchanting lives of Soliman and his young daughter, Zaide. Before she realizes entirely what is happening, Juliette agrees to become a passeur, Soliman’s name for the booksellers he hires to take stacks of used books out of his store and into the world, using their imagination and intuition to match books with readers. Suddenly, Juliette’s daydreaming becomes her reality, and when Soliman asks her to move in to their store to take care of Zaide while he goes away, she has to decide if she is ready to throw herself headfirst into this new life.

Big-hearted, funny, and gloriously zany, The Girl Who Reads on the Metro is a delayed coming-of-age story about a young woman who dares to change her life, and a celebration of the power of books to unite us all.

I was reading along, enjoying the plotless-finding-yourself-through-books storyline of The Girl Who Reads on the Métro AND THEN there was an Epilogue….with a POINT OF VIEW CHANGE. For some reason, totally unearned and unnecessary, the POV switched from a close third to a first person and UGH. I hates it Precious. Three stars.

(Also, this is translated from the French, but I can’t figure out the translator is so I guess it’s the author. The translation is fine.)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · Reading Women · stuff I read

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
Winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize

In the village of al-Awafi in Oman, we encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla, who chooses to refuse all offers and await a reunion with the man she loves, who has emigrated to Canada.

These three women and their families, their losses and loves, unspool beautifully against a backdrop of a rapidly changing Oman, a country evolving from a traditional, slave-owning society into its complex present. Through the sisters, we glimpse a society in all its degrees, from the very poorest of the local slave families to those making money through the advent of new wealth.

The first novel originally written in Arabic to ever win the Man Booker International Prize, and the first book by a female Omani author to be translated into English, Celestial Bodies marks the arrival in the United States of a major international writer.

I was very interested in this International Man Booker winner, the first Arabic-language winner of the prize and the first-ever novel by an Omani woman to be translated to English. Catapult was kind enough to approve my galley request. It is a beautifully-translated novel comprised of linked vignettes (best descriptor I have since the narrative is only vaguely linear with many narrators and points-of-view). Alharthi’s dream-like narrative uses the many perspectives of three generations of a family to capture a country and culture transitioning into the modern world.  There are a LOT of characters and the narrative shifts back and forth in time, so this definitely isn’t a fast read, but they’re all so interesting, especially the three sisters Mayya, Asma, and Khawla, Mayya’s husband Abdullah, and Zarifa, a woman formerly enslaved to Abdullah’s father.

Celestial Bodies is out now.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence, 1944–1945 by Freya and Helmuth James von Moltke, edited by Helmuth Caspar, Johannes, and Dorothea von Moltke, translated by Shelley Frisch

43437749._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
An NYRB Classics Original

Tegel prison, Berlin, in the fall of 1944. Helmuth James von Moltke is awaiting trial for his leading role in the Kreisau Circle, one of the most important German resistance groups against the Nazis. By a near miracle, the prison chaplain at Tegel is Harald Poelchau, a friend and co-conspirator of Helmuth and his wife, Freya. From Helmuth’s arrival at Tegel in late September 1944 until the day of his execution by the Nazis on January 23, 1945, Poelchau would carry Helmuth’s and Freya’s letters in and out of prison daily, risking his own life. Freya would safeguard these letters for the rest of her long life, much of it spent in Norwich, VT, from 1960 until her death in 2010.

Last Letters is a profoundly personal record of the couple’s love, faith, and courage in the face of fascism. Written during the final months of World War II, the correspondence is at once a collection of love letters written in extremis and a historical document of the first order. Published to great acclaim in Germany, this volume now makes this deeply moving correspondence available for the first time in English.

I read the description of Last Letters in the NYRB Classics catalog and knew immediately that I had to read it. Freya von Moltke had allowed other volumes of letters from her correspondence with her husband Helmuth James to be published during her lifetime but these letters, the very intimate letters exchanged while Helmuth was imprisoned by the Nazis, she only allowed to be published after her death in 2010. They are incredible.

This is not an easy book to read in one go – it’s a collection of letters between a couple that expected almost daily that he would be executed by the Nazis and contain minute details of Helmuth’s defense and Freya’s visits to various officials to try and get Helmuth released, so they do get a repetitive when read all at once, one after the other. But their discussions of faith and love, reminiscences about their children and family, regrets, and heart-felt farewells in each letter are truly moving. Each of these letters was smuggled into and out of Tegel prison by the prison chaplain, a close friend, at risk to his own life (also included here are a few of the “official” letters that Helmuth and Freya exchanged via the usual prison mail route to avoid raising suspicion).

Reading this collection makes one wonder if one could place themselves at risk, knowing the stakes, if in the same situation the von Moltkes and their friends were in during WWII. Would I place my family in danger to deliver these letters? Or even to be a member of a group like the Kreisau Circle? These letters give so much insight into how Helmuth leaned on his faith and prayer, and supported Freya as she struggled with her own faith, during his imprisonment, right up until his execution. His execution date was kept secret so there is no real “end” to the letters, merely a note that Freya’s final letter was not received before Helmuth’s death. This is an incredibly intimate collection of letters. We are so lucky they were preserved.

Last Letters is out now.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read · translation

Käsebier Takes Berlin by Gabriele Tergit, translated by Sophie Duvernoy

38911927._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
In Berlin, 1930, the name Käsebier is on everyone’s lips. A literal combination of the German words for “cheese” and “beer,” it’s an unglamorous name for an unglamorous man—a small-time crooner who performs nightly on a shabby stage for laborers, secretaries, and shopkeepers. Until the press shows up.

In the blink of an eye, this everyman is made a star: a star who can sing songs for a troubled time. Margot Weissmann, the arts patron, hosts champagne breakfasts for Käsebier; Muschler the banker builds a theater in his honor; Willi Frächter, a parvenu writer, makes a mint off Käsebier-themed business ventures and books. All the while, the journalists who catapulted Käsebier to fame watch the monstrous media machine churn in amazement—and are aghast at the demons they have unleashed.

In Käsebier Takes Berlin, the journalist Gabriele Tergit penned a searing satire of the excesses and follies of the Weimar Republic. Chronicling a country on the brink of fascism and a press on the edge of collapse, Tergit’s novel caused a sensation when it was published in 1931. As witty as Kurt Tucholsky and as trenchant as Karl Kraus, Tergit portrays a world too entranced by fireworks to notice its smoldering edges.

Käsebier Takes Berlin jumped out at me when I was looking through the New York Review Books Classics catalog. “Cheese beer” is the literal translation of “Käsebier” – what is that name? This is the first English translation of a satirical novel from 1931 Germany, whose author fled the rise of Nazism in 1933, eventually ending up in London. OK. I’m in.

Käsebier Takes Berlin shows us a “year-in-the-life” of what happens when a mediocre Jewish Everyman (Käsebier) becomes an overnight cabaret sensation (look, it was a slow news day). He becomes a media darling, despite singing lukewarm 1930s dancehall music, and lends his name to everything from shoes to rubber dolls to the construction of a luxury apartment building by a shady speculator. Then it all falls apart. T

This is the driest satirical look at the Berlin intelligentsia and upper class of 1930. Gabriele Tergit spares no one, not even Käsebier. Tergit skewers the capitalist drive to make as much money as possible off the hot shit for the moment – a drive that still exists in ever-increasing amounts of media tie-in rubbish and branding in the 21st century. She also gives part of the narrative to Miss Kohler, also referred to as Dr. Kohler, a woman with a doctorate who is severely under-employed at a middling newspaper and is repeatedly strung along by an old boyfriend. It’s an interesting look at a woman stuck at the crossroads between the modern and the traditional roles for women just as Germany the country is about to start on the long road to atrocity. An interesting book for me to read and contrast with the Germany of Fritz Lang’s M (a favorite movie) and Isherwood’s Berlin Stories.

Käsebier Takes Berlin is out on Tuesday, July 30!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Golden Goblet: Selected Poems of Goethe by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Zsuzsanna Ozsváth (Translator), Frederick Turner (Translator)

45361728._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
The Golden Goblet traces Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poetry from the idealism of youth to the liberation of maturity. In contrast to his rococo contemporaries, Goethe’s poetry draws on the graceful simplicity of German folk rhythms to develop complex, transcendent themes. This robust selection, artfully translated by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner, explores transformation, revolution, and illumination in Goethe’s lush lyrical style that forever altered the course of German literature.

The notes on the translators’ work and the introduction explaining how Goethe’s language changed over time and influenced art and literature were very interesting.

The poems? Eh, maybe not. The translators of The Golden Goblet were very careful to preserve the rhyme scheme and meter of the poems, but in doing so the poems felt very cold. Not inspiring or passionate, which are the first things one thinks of with Goethe. It may have been better had the publishers chose to do a facing-page style presentation, with the original German on one page and the new English translation facing the other. Because it was hard to judge how much Goethe was changing since he didn’t write in English. Since I read German, that would have been fun.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

“Muslim”: A Novel by Zahia Rahmani

39831356

Summary from Goodreads:
Muslim: A Novel is a genre-bending, poetic reflection on what it means to be Muslim from one of France’s leading writers. In this novel, the second in a trilogy, Rahmani’s narrator contemplates the loss of her native language and her imprisonment and exile for being Muslim, woven together in an exploration of the political and personal relationship of language within the fraught history of Islam. Drawing inspiration from the oral histories of her native Berber language, the Koran, and French children’s tales, Rahmani combines fiction and lyric essay in to tell an important story, both powerful and visionary, of identity, persecution, and violence.

“Muslim” is a book that I ran across by accident while curating a selection of Muslim writers for a display at the bookstore. Which, in the most ironic way, plays into the central tenet of Rahmani’s novel: that “Muslim” is used as a monolith, a label that erases all nuance. The narrator of “Muslim” weaves back and forth between exploring her childhood as an immigrant from Algeria in France, losing and then finding her childhood Berber language, ruminating on the development of Islam, and contemplating the bleakness of an unnamed camp, in an unnamed location of the world, where the narrator has been taken captive because she is a “Muslim” and is therefore suspect of all manner of unnamable things.

The original French edition was published in 2005, so several later references in the book are very directly pointing to the US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq at that time. I wonder how the book would be similar or different had Rahmani written the book in 2015.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read · translation

Aladdin: A New Translation, translated by Yasmin Searle and edited by Paulo Lemos Horta

43234945Summary from Goodreads:
Long defined by popular film adaptations that have reductively portrayed Aladdin as a simplistic rags-to-riches story for children, this work of dazzling imagination—and occasionally dark themes—finally comes to vibrant new life. “In the capital of one of China’s vast and wealthy kingdoms,” begins Shahrazad— the tale’s imperiled-yet-ingenious storyteller—there lived Aladdin, a rebellious fifteen-year-old who falls prey to a double-crossing sorcerer and is ultimately saved by the ruse of a princess.

One of the best-loved folktales of all time, Aladdin has been capturing the imagination of readers, illustrators, and filmmakers since an eighteenth-century French publication first added the tale to The Arabian Nights. Yet, modern English translators have elided the story’s enchanting whimsy and mesmerizing rhythms. Now, translator Yasmine Seale and literary scholar Paulo Lemos Horta offer an elegant, eminently readable rendition of Aladdin in what is destined to be a classic for decades to come.

So, Aladdin lived in Agrabah with a small monkey and after getting tricked by Jafar and his mouthy parrot, he found a lamp with a funny blue genie and then married Princess Jasmine who lived in a palace with giant onion domes/looked like the Taj Mahal, right?

Eh, no. A new translation of Aladdin is just out from Liveright and it is a delight. This is a new translation from the French, drawn from a French edition by Antoine Galland in the early 1700s. Aladdin has a curious publication history, highlighted in Horta’s introduction. It has not been found in extant Arabic manuscripts of the 1001 Nights or The Arabian Nights, but was added to the collection by Galland after being told the story of Aladdin, and others, by a traveler from Aleppo, Hanna Diyab. If you’ve only been exposed to the Disney/Hollywood/children’s version of Aladdin this is fascinating reading. It definitely isn’t a children’s translation – the sentence structure is complex and this is an English translation of a French version of a Syrian tale that perhaps comes from centuries of oral tradition. Apparently, Aladdin’s kingdom is nearer to China than Arabia, who knew?

Searle is working on a new translation of the complete Arabian Nights, which I believe will be released in several volumes, and Aladdin is an early taste of her work as a translator of the French Galland edition. This is a very lovely translation to read and I’m definitely looking forward to the completed work.

Thanks to Liveright/Norton for the galley (I’m a little behind on my reading – Aladdin was released November 27).

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.