By Charlene Rue & Miriam Tuliao
Suite Française. Love in the Time of Cholera. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Inés of My Soul. The Savage Detectives. Kafka on the Shore. English-language translations of world literature are rapidly becoming staples in reading groups across the country. And yet identifying rich, accessible, and thoroughly discussable books can be challenging, especially given that‚ as Chad Post of the University of Rochester’s Open Letter Books points out‚ only three percent of all books published in the United States are works in translation.
The following new and recently released titles are highly recommended for shared reading. These books span the globe, providing readers with an opportunity to explore the literature and cultures of different regions. The titles include spellbinding page-turners, supple novels exploring questions of faith, books for the armchair traveler, and intricate stories about families and women’s lives.
Bronsky, Alina. The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. tr. from German by Tim Mohr. Europa. Apr. 2011. 304p. pap. ISBN 9781609450069. $15. F
Rosa Achmetowna thinks her husband’s a spineless, venomless jellyfish and her daughter, a stupid, “deformed,” and pathetic girl who has “as much drive as a garden slug.” However, when 17-year-old Sulfia confesses that she’s pregnant, the proud and tenacious Rosa turns sympathetic and considers what she must do to secure her daughter’s future and maintain her own reputation. “It was the simple truth: the best thing a woman could do for her family was to provide clear and firm guidance.” The distressed Rosa has distinct clarity of purpose, desiring a civilized relationship with her daughter and seeking to save her granddaughter from a squalid life in the former Soviet Union. Dark, witty, wicked, and incisive, Bronsky’s novel takes a refreshing look at family.
Giordano, Paolo. The Solitude of Prime Numbers. tr. from Italian by Shaun Whiteside.Viking. Mar. 2010 c.271p. ISBN 9780670021482. $25.95. F
In this debut by Giordano, a physicist and the youngest-ever winner of the Premio Strega, Italy’s prestigious literary award, Alice and Mattia are two misfits who gravitate toward each other as teens both scarred by tragedy: Alice has been permanently damaged in a skiing accident and will never be the championship skier she thought, and mathematically brilliant Mattia is responsible for the disappearance of his mentally challenged twin sister. Alice and Mattia interact on and off through the years, each in a parallel orbit, never really sharing the same emotional space. “A prime number can be divided only by itself or by one: it never truly fits with another,” observes Giordano, suggesting that some people are destined to be alone. That such a state can be described in mathematical terms is an interesting concept to explore during a book discussion. Moreover, Giordano’s insight into his characters is disarming.
Harstad, Johan. Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? tr. from Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin. Seven Stories. June 2011. 480p. ISBN 9781609801359. $30. F
Mattias was raised by careful and conscientious parents who cultivated his fascination with astronauts, space, and moon expeditions. His hero is Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, whose fame was overshadowed by Neil Armstrong’s. Now 29, Mattias chooses an ordinary, predictable, and invisible life over the chance to embark on a musical career, desiring to devote his days to gardening and quality time with Helle, his live-in girlfriend of more than 12 years. But when Helle decides to break off their relationship and Mattias loses his job, he becomes “officially broken.” Desperately searching for escape, he finds support in a halfway house in the Faroe Islands. Lyrical and profoundly accomplished, Harstad’s novel portrays a young man coming into his own.
Hartwig, Mela. Am I a Redundant Human Being? tr. from German by Kerri A. Pierce. Dalkey Archive. Aug. 2010. 160p. pap. ISBN 9781564785817. $13.95. F
“I’m a secretary. I have nearly twelve years of experience. My shorthand is first rate and I’m an excellent typist. I don’t mention it to brag. I just want to show that I amount to something…Even though I certainly have reason enough to be humble. Reason enough to use modesty to avoid making the deficit between my talent and my ambition too obvious.” Meet neurotic, self-obsessed, masochistic Luise Schmidt, a “neither pretty nor ugly” 30-year-old who recounts her “laughably mundane” and “incontestably banal” past, recalling personal disappointments and her heart’s own inadequacies. Written in the 1930s, this extraordinary lost novel was first published in German in 2001.
Nesser, Håkan. The Inspector and Silence: An Inspector Van Veeteren Mystery. tr. from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson. Pantheon. June 2011 c.304p. ISBN 9780375425233. $24.95. M
Nesser, winner of several awards in his native Sweden, including the Crime Writers of Scandinavia’s Glass Key Award for the best crime novel of the year (Carambole), returns with a new installment in the Inspector Van Veeteren series. After a series of tips from an unidentified caller, the inspector is called to investigate the brutal rape and murder of a young girl at a camp run by Pure Life, a religious sect headed by a messiah-like leader once imprisoned for inappropriate sexual behavior. The investigation becomes strained when the staffers refuse to answer Van Veeteren’s questions and a few of them stop speaking altogether, choosing to remain silent rather than defend themselves. When further horrifying crimes are committed, the inspector must use all of his skills to end the silence and elicit information. Unlike some of the recent popular Nordic crime novels, this is a character-driven mystery with a cerebral protagonist at the helm. Readers will ask themselves: Is it a moral obligation to reveal what you know, regardless of the consequences?
Oksanen, Sofi. Purge. tr. from the Finnish by Lola Rogers. Grove. 2010. c. 320p. pap. ISBN 9780802170774. $14.95. F
Oksanen, winner of the Great Finnish Book Club Award in 2008 and the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2010, sets this tale of two women, 40 years apart in age but with similar experiences, in the Estonia of two decades ago. Aliide, the older woman, finds the bruised and dirty Zara sleeping in her garden, and against her better judgment takes her in. Yet this story is as much about the effect of war and occupation on Estonian women in the 1940s, under the Soviet Union’s communist regime, as it is about life in Estonia in 1992: Zara has escaped from sex traffickers; Aliide has tried to forget being brutally raped by soldiers during the communist regime. This is a difficult and unforgettable story of devastating betrayal and survival at all costs.
Palma, Felix J. The Map of Time. tr. from Spanish by Nick Caistor. Atria. June 2011. c.624p. ISBN 9781439167397. $26. F
This book, which won the 2008 Ateneo de Sevila XL Prize, is the first entry in a trilogy and Palma’s first work to be published in the United States. The central protagonist is the author’s own favorite writer, H. G. Wells. The novel is set in London between 1888 and 2000, as the characters‚ both real and imagined‚ travel back and forth through time. Three main stories intertwine: that of Andrew Harrington, a spoiled aristocrat who wishes to go back in time to save the life of a beloved prostitute killed by Jack the Ripper; that of Clare Haggerty, a young woman who wants to travel to the future to escape Victorian restrictions barring young women from careers; and, thirdly, a story about the social implications of the misuse of H.G. Wells’s invention, when a man from the future arrives to kill off the great authors of the time. Interactions among such characters as Bram Stoker, the Elephant Man, and Sir Arthur Canon Doyle make this a fanciful book that stretches the fabric of time and captures a moment when anything that could be imagined seemed possible.
Shin, Kyung-Sook. Please Look After Mom. tr. from Korean by Chi-Young Kim. Knopf. Apr. 2011. 256p. ISBN 9780307593917. $24.95. F
Sixty-nine-year-old Park So-nyo has gone missing. Her husband lost her in the crowd while boarding a train at the Seoul Station. Searching for their mother, each family member wants to blame the others for her disappearance, yet each feels wounded and overwhelmed with concern and guilt. The broken-hearted father regrets neglecting his wife’s needs, thinking of her as “merely [the] children’s mother,” while the adult children become nostalgic, recalling their mother’s vivacious personality and imaginative stories. A son reveals his earlier desire to become successful so that he could give his mother a better a life. A daughter recalls their conversations about food, lamenting that she “never thought of Mom as separate from the kitchen.” Shin paints a luminous and moving portrait of family and women’s lives.
Veronesi, Sandro. Quiet Chaos. tr. from Italian by Michael F. Moore. Ecco. Apr. 2011. 432p. pap. ISBN 9780061572944. $13.99. F
After an afternoon of surfing, television executive Pietro Paladino and his brother Carlo spot two women drowning and manage to rescue them. When Pietro returns home, he discovers Lara, his longtime companion, fiancée, and mother of his child, unexpectedly dead. Pietro, 43, finds himself in a daze, numbly listening to “long prologues of condolences” while the succeeding weeks become “a roller coaster of visits, hugs, tears, reassurances, phone calls, advice, morbid details, coincidences, telegrams, obituaries, religious rites, practical problems, wedding gifts that are still coming, coffees, words, understanding‚ so much understanding.” Pietro spends his days camping outside his daughter’s school, musing about his work and familial relationships, his sexual fantasies and the strange absence of grief. Veronesi presents an illuminating story of personal challenges and the complexities of love.
Yoshimoto, Banana. The Lake. tr. from Japanese by Michael Emmerich. Melville House. May 2011 c.208p. ISBN 9781933633770. $23.95. F
Yoshimoto became a pop literary sensation in her native Japan with her debut novel Kitchen. In this, her 13th novel, she explores the unconventional love between two misfits: Chichiro, who moves to Tokyo after the death of her mother, and Nakajima, a sad and talented student of genetics who has also recently lost his mother. The two live across from each other and spend much of their time staring out their windows until they eventually begin a relationship. When they move in together, Chichiro begins to suspect that Nakajima is hiding a disturbing past. It is not until they take a trip to the lake‚ a place he once lived with his mother, now the home of two old friends, who are psychics‚ that Chichiro begins to piece together the clues. With a vivid cast of eccentric characters, mystical elements, and elegantly simple writing, Yoshimoto delivers an affecting exploration of love…a kind of love perhaps only suitable for two such unusual people, which should make for an interesting book discussion.
Charlene Rue is currently the director of collection development for the Brooklyn Public Library, former chair of ALA’s Notable Books Council, and a current member of the RUSA Awards Committee.
Miriam Tuliao is the assistant director of central collection development at the New York Public Library and a member of ALA RUSA’s Reading List and Collection Development Education committees.
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