Now Read This July Pick

I’ve been challenging myself to read more widely, geographically speaking, and that means a lot of books in translation. Although it turned out not to be a very popular post, Reading a Translation was fun for me to write because I got to piece together many of the thoughts and experiences I’ve been having reading books in their non-native language. I was feeling especially scholarly after finishing my post, so I started to surf the interwebs for reading blogs and articles. Mostly, I just found book reviews: fun but not what I was looking for. Then I stumbled across the book club, Now Read This, a collaboration between PBS Newshour and the New York Times Book Review. Does it get dorkier than that?

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They choose one book per month, then post discussion questions through out the month on their facebook group. It looked like something fun to participate in and my little nerdy heart leapt when I saw this month’s pick. Not only did I know who the author was, I had another of his books already on my nightstand!

40603634._sy475_I picked up The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea last week after seeing it praised on multiple “Best of Mexico” book lists. So far I’ve only been able to read the first few chapters, but I am already enjoying it. I’ve decided to put it aside for right now to read The House of Broken Angels along with the book club. This is a synopsis posted by PBS Newshour:

It’s the story of what happens when one Mexican American family living on the border comes together for a party — and a funeral. It’s a tender, joyous and intimate novel. And it’s especially timely as questions are being raised about how immigrant families are being treated in the U.S.

I can’t wait to get started reading, thinking and discussing this book. If all goes according to plan, I’ll write out my answers to the discussion questions here, although I may wait until the end of the month and answer them all in one post.

Are you a part of a book club? Who do you like sharing your book-thoughts with?

Reading a Translation

It has been a life goal of mine to read and understand a classic Russian novel. I have picked up and put down Crime and Punishment more times than I can count; I approached Tolstoy with gusto but then backed away slowly. I was a third of the way through The Brothers Karamazov when my husband told me, “you know, so-and-so said that the new translation is so much better than that one”.  He waited two hundred and forty pages to tell me this?!

I put Dostoyevsky down and started googling (always a bad idea). I found that there  were indeed scholars who said that the newer translation was better than the classic translation I was reading. But other internet scholars said the exact opposite.

It then occurred to me that I wouldn’t know a good translation from a bad if it came up and … misconjugated itself?? So what does it matter if I was reading the “bad” translation? I wouldn’t really know unless I read the whole thing again in a different translation and, frankly,

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I picked up my book, kept reading and felt damn proud of myself when I finished it five months later, knowing I’d never have to read it again to compare translations.

In my quest to read books from around the world, I’m finding that language can be translated, but culture can not. Language is only a small inch of the gulf that lays between an intended audience and those reading a translation, although a great deal of emphasis seems to be set on it. When you read a book that’s been translated from another language and culture, you can no longer trust your intuition because subtlety in story-telling relies on a shared culture. More than language, it is cultural nuance and history that keeps a translated book slightly out of reach.

Names, fashion, even colors are significant in different ways depending on what culture you’re from. If I read a book from a Middle Eastern country and the author tells me a woman is wearing a hajib, I am not familiar enough with the nuance of Middle Eastern customs to know if the author is just describing what she looks like, or signifying something important.  In my quest to read more international books, I’m finding a lot of such issues that keep me wondering if I’m missing something important that would be obvious to a native reader, things like history, pop culture and names.

The name of a character is important; a character either lives up to their name or succeeds in spite of it. Beautiful girls have beautiful names and fat guys with pimples are named Ignatius. That’s obvious. Unless of course you’re reading a translated book. The Shadow of the Wind, originally published in Spain, is an all time favorite of mine. I read the book at least twice and then later, because I loved the story so much, listened to the audiobook. It always bothered me when I read it how the protagonist’s love interest, who was supposed to be a 16 year old girl in beauty’s first bloom, was called Bea. Such a plain and geriatric name for someone who is supposed to be the object of adolescent desire. It wasn’t until I listened to the audiobook that I learned Bea is not pronounced [Bee] in Spanish but rather a much more sultry [Bay-uh]. To the intended audience her name matched her beauty, it is only in translation that the name brings to mind The Golden Girls. Oops. Sometimes,  though, it isn’t just about something you know being used in a different way, sometimes, you just don’t know enough to begin with.

For example, 6 months ago, the sum total of my knowledge of South America was this: Evita comes from Argentina and Brazil is big, likes soccer and speaks Portuguese. I’m sure at some point in school I learned where the Rainforests stretch and where the Andes lay, but until my reading excursion to Pantagonia last year, I didn’t have anything to attach that knowledge to.  I was a completely blank ignorant canvas. Until I learned the setting, my mind had no where for the stories to play out.  The bigger story of political upheaval in My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain and Something Fierce  had to be put on hold until I sorted out how Bolivia fit in to Peru and Chile. Only then did stories of border crossings and warring dictators have any sort of context. Granted, geography did not teach me South American politics; I still have a hell of a lot of reading to do to even start understanding that labyrinth. Culture can’t always be learned, however, there comes a point, where you just have to be from a place to understand it’s fiction.

For instance, I just finished the book, The Story of My Teeth by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli. As you’d expect from a book with such a title, it was weird. I could tell I was missing something big, but I kept reading because I wanted to know what happens to that strange little man. I took little away from the story until I saw the additional chapter written by the translator. The particular translator for this book included a timeline of not only the main character’s life, but also important historical and pop culture happenings at the same time. Come to find out, the book was riddled with Mexican allusions to history, politics, movies and music and every single one of them went straight over my head! The book was originally written as a serial publication to factory workers. The workers recorded their book club meetings and sent their thoughts back to the author who adjusted the story multiple times before releasing the final edition. This was a living book breathed to life by factory workers in the suburbs of Mexico City. While it was translated to share with English speakers, it was never really intended for us.

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I do not lose sleep wondering if I read the best translation of Dostoyevsky or not. A mono-linguistic, non-academic, like myself, will never really be able to experience a book in translation to it’s fullest. There’s always a piece of it that was never truly intended for me and that’s ok. Great stories come through anyway and even if the picture in my mind is out of focus from the one the author originally painted, I’ve still been given a glimpse of something I otherwise wouldn’t have known of.

The only thing that does keep me awake at night is translated books I didn’t like: was that a really bad translation of a good book? Or a good translation of a really bad book?

My New, More Better, Not Flooded Kitchen

I must apologize to the masses who have been on the edge of their seat for the nearly three years since I last posted about our house flooding. I’d like to put your minds at rest — we fixed our house.

To catch up, a large portion of Baton Rouge and it’s surrounding cities were flooded in August of 2016. We were evacuated for nearly a year after our house got three feet of water; even after we moved back, it was almost another year before we were back to fully functional.

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But this is not a post for tears, this is a post to show off the awesome kitchen I got out of the whole deal!!

Our house was built in the mid 1970’s. When we bought it, it was being updated from the 1980’s decor. Yall. It was all salmon colored. SALMON. The kitchen was wide with lots of counter space and the wood cabinets which were in good shape. That’s about all it had going for it. The wallpapers (yes, plural, because you know everything needed a border) were uncomfortably feminine, the counter tops had been badly DIY’ed with uneven, porous floor tiles and the floor was the original linoleum. Behold! In all of it’s brown glory!

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The flood water got up to our counter tops so everything under the upper cabinets had to go. Since we had to re-build it all anyways, we decided to make a few tweaks before we put it all back together. Ta-Da!

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We moved the oven from the far left corner, which was sandwiched against the refrigerator, to the center of the back wall and added a beautiful fume hood above. When we re-built the cabinets on the right hand wall, with the sink in the middle, we added a peninsula counter which comes around parallel to the back wall with room for bar stools.  We moved the white press-board “pantry” to make room for the peninsula and built-in a ceiling height cabinet on the wall opposite.

We put down rectangle white tiles on the floor, painted the lower cabinets and deep grey and used marble-look Formica on the counter. The fur down, with it’s coordinating tea-pot wallpapers, was covered with beadboard and painted white along with the upper cabinets.

We still don’t have knobs on the bottom cabinets and need a new door front cut to cover our pull-out trash can but the kitchen works so well that we have let those last tasks slide. Although seeing the pictures makes me sad at the obvious, glaring, uncovered trash bag. A few months ago we got the biggest finishing touch when we added the subway tile backsplash.

The renovations, in the kitchen and throughout the house, gave us the chance to make the house work better for our large-ish family. Then again, we built the new counter to accommodate 4 bar stools then had a fifth kid. Oh well, Theo will just have to learn to fight early on.  All the rooms are quasi-decorated; maybe one day I’ll have it all put together and pretty like. Of course then it’ll be time to rearrange rooms or have another baby and we’ll start over again.

Is your house “done” or do you have on going projects all the time? If you could snap your fingers and change one room, what would it be?

 

Our Re-Decision to Homeschool

I always cringe when I go back and read old posts expecting to be embarrassed by the cock-eyed optimist I used to be. I was delightfully surprised however, to find that my post , written three years ago, from when we first began homeschooling all still holds true! This is huge for us! Many of our starry-eyed aspirations have fallen by the wayside over the years as we’ve grown out of our sustainable hippie phase. Our comfortable suburban home is very different from the little house we envisioned when we were first married with cloth diapers and chickens and composting toilets. But, homeschooling! That one stuck around through thick and … well, thicker. We still enjoy spending most of our days together with weekly field trips and short, specialized lessons; we have successfully homeschooled Evangeline, Felicity and Reuben’s Kindergarten year plus Evangeline’s first grade. We’ve even maintained our education theory and still use mostly Classical methods. Of all of our ideals, homeschooling is my favorite and I’m so glad it has had staying power. I’m also glad we skipped the composting toilet experience.

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In the fall of 2017, we learned our 5th baby was on his way, due July 2018. It had been 4 years since we’d had a newborn, and I panicked about being able to homeschool with a baby in tow. We started looking into school options for the older girls and, long story short, they attended a new charter school in our area, Basis Baton Rouge last year.

It didn’t take long to realize I do not have the school-mom skill set! Carpool, booksacs, dress up days?? Oh my gosh, the dress up days! I am proud to say though that we weren’t late once! Not that we were all dressed or even fully awake at carpool, but the girls got there before the first bell. So that’s a huge victory. There was a huge learning curve at the beginning but despite the rocky start, the year was a success.

Felicity loved being in a class with so many friends to play with and a different elective class every day. The big classes and all the noise that goes along with it was a bit overwhelming for Evie, but she relished all the real, official, for-a-grade homework.

While the year ended on a high note, it was clear that school life is not for us, at least not right now. The whole year was hectic and panicked, we all felt disjointed from one another, and there was an obvious disproportionate amount of attention given to the school girls’ needs over everyone else’s. Thus, we are returning to homeschooling for the 2019-2020 school year!

Evie will be going into third grade, Felicity to second, Reuben to first and little Genna is finally in Kindergarten. I updated our Homeschool tab with a run down of which books we’ll be using. While there are a few changes from where we left off, we are still continuing in a classical education route. Since Basis did such a wonderful job maintaining the girls’ pace, working a grade level ahead most of the year, I expect they are just where they would have been had we continued homeschooling.

We have an exciting year ahead of us: memberships to our Children’s Knock Knock and local Arts and Science museums are renewed and we are still a part of the local Catholic homeschool group and our parish’s catechism program. Last year we added American Heritage Girls and we look forward to a second year with our troop. In the meantime here’s to a fun summer trying to find the mythical balance between relaxation and wearing the kids out!

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Do you have your curriculum all plans for next year? Are you making any changes from last year?

2019 Reading — International Reads

I am proud and nervous to announce that I’m over halfway through my reading goals for the year! Proud because I don’t think I’ve ever maintained this rate of reading before and nervous because I fear I’ll burn out and not read another word for the rest of the year. Meh, we’ll see. As I mentioned before, I want to read 40 books and complete a reading challenge I created myself. So far I’ve read 27 books and completed these categories:

  • A Book From Each Continent
    • North America
    • South America
    • Europe: Under the Glacier (Iceland) by Halldor Laxness 
    • Asia
    • Africa: Born a Crime (South Africa) by Trevor Noah
    • Oceania
  • Biography My Life in France by Julia Child
  • Science Non-Fiction How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming by Mike Brown
  • Classic
  • Ryan Recommended
  • From the 18th Century
  • By a Louisianan Author
  • About a Current Event
  • Shakespearean Play
  • About or By a United States President

So maybe not halfway through my challenge list. But, I’ve truly been enjoying myself. Part of the fun of my read-a-book-from-every-country goal is settling into a region and getting to “know” it better. Lately I’ve been all over Scandinavia.

10822858You know, for a region that’s supposed to be the happiest in the world, their fiction is full of very dark, homicidal lunatics and the detectives who track them down.  I’ve long since read and re-read the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. I fricken love it and re-listen to the audiobooks almost once a year. Another dark, but not as dark, series I’ve discovered this year is from Denmark called Department Q— Denmark adds a new police department, Department Q, with the sole purpose of looking into cold, unsolved cases. At the beginning, the department consists of exactly one detective who has PTSD and one quasi-fluent custodian turned assistant. I’ve read the first three and have enjoyed them all. It has a good balance of character development and interesting mystery.

I’ve also read some Frederik Backman: A Man Called Ove (delightful) and Bear Town (repulsive). Its been fun reading contemporary fiction and getting a sense for things that are the same and things that are different. It’s kinda like England, but then not!  Reading Bear Town, I had to constantly remind myself that they were in Sweden and not Michigan. On the other hand, I still have no idea how the neighborhood\complex thing that Ove lives in is laid out. Their driveways face each other? But you can’t drive through there? I just don’t get it.

2638482My favorite find this year has been The Blue Fox by Sjon.  It is recently written fable set in 1883 Iceland. I’m not sure what to say about it other than it is a beautiful story. It follows first the local priest on the hunt for an elusive Blue Fox, then introduces us to a local landowner and the young down-syndrome girl who was left in his charge. A flashback shows us how they are all connected and came to be where they are during the fateful winter.

I’ve got my bookmark in a few Scandinavian classics, but my interest slowly wanned. Although I’ve put them aside, I still believe myself when I say I’ll get back to them and finish. So, I haven’t spent all my time in the wide white north. I’ve been trying to take a crack at Africa.

It’s hard to know where to start with such an expansive continent so I’ve been plumbing some “must-read” lists for a mix of contemporary and classics. In addition to Born a Crime, I’ve also read a few books from Nigeria.

I read half of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie but had to put it down because oh my gosh, I just didn’t care about the main character or what happens to her. I did enjoy the vignettes and clashes between Americans, African-Americans and Africans; decoding stereotypes is what I enjoyed the most about the book. I just didn’t like it enough to put up with Ifemelu for another 250 pages. I adore Adichie’s TED talk and do still intend to try another of her novels. Wouldn’t want to judge her on a single story, you know. See what I did there? Eh? Eh?

6490587I’ve read the first two books of The African Trilogy by Chinua Achebe and am grateful for the perspective of modern-day Africans. It is impossible for an American with no ties to any African countries to have an informed opinion of the entire continent (despite what some may say). Hearing the stories that contemporary Africans want told is helping shape a fuller picture in my mind of the history and way of life in such foreign countries. Things Fall Apart has joined Imperial Woman as my favorite stories of colonized peoples.

I am still have some continents to cross off this year and I’d like to choose books from countries I haven’t read from yet. I’m in search for Middle Eastern and Far East Asian books (not from Pakistan or Iran, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia or Singapore). A Mexican book, Central and South American books (not from Chili, El Salvador, Argentina or Bolivia) and anything from Oceania that’s not Australian. Any suggestions?

And as always, I’m open to suggestions from any country (although I can only read English). What are you reading lately? Can you read more than one language or are you a slave to translations like me?

This Will Be Our Year

Ryan and I just celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. Ten bill-paying, penny-pinching, baby-making, degree-getting, child-rearing, netflix-binging, take-out-eating years. It is hard to decide if the years have passed with the speed of a gazelle or of a snail, but indeed they have passed. We have lived in a town-house, barn, guest-room, game day condo, and a trailer; we have survived unemployment, pre-ecclampsia, 4 children under 3 years old and the Great Flood of 2016. But, damn it, this year, this will be our year!

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We’ve decided to celebrate this hallmark anniversary by going to Europe! We have long dreamed of traversing The Pond to the glorious, European beyond, but turns out, it’s really hard to have babies *and* European vacations. After the renovation dust settled from the flooding and rebuilding of our home, we found we were actually in a position to go. And we decided we’d better go now before Fortuna spins her &*$%ing wheel again. So tickets to Normandy are booked for Thanksgiving break!

We’ve each been preparing in our own ways. I found the hotels, Ryan found a French tutor. I read up on Joan of Arc and the Lost Generation, Ryan is reading Harry Potter in French and watching French sitcoms.

We have tickets to Paris where we’ll stay for two days, mostly around Notre Dame, then taking the super train to Normandy for five days, we will stay in Rouen and make day trips to surrounding villages and Mont Saint Michel. We are excited and cannot wait to see The Louve, Monet’s Gardens and the Joan of Arc Cathedral. Hell, we’re even excited for the 9 hour plane rides! Mostly we are excited to spend time together sharing this incredible experience. It took a long time to come, but this will be our year!

2019 Reading Challenge

Oh, look at that. It’s been like 2 years since I’ve posted. Whatevs, here goes the booky book talky talk.

This year I’ve opted to customize my yearly reading challenge rather than use the Goodread’s challenge like I’ve done in the years past. While I was able to find books with aubergine covers, published in the year my favorite pet was born or written by an author with a palindrome pseudonym, I didn’t actually like them. These challenges may have helped me find new books, but the books I found weren’t good. Like maybe they should have just stayed hidden, you know? *cough White Tears by Hari Kunzru cough*

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So instead I thought though what kinds of books I wanted to read: what do I want to learn about, what goals do I have, what holes are there in my reading cannon, where have I found books I love in the past etc? With these questions in mind, I created this reading challenge for 2019. I want to read 40 books with at least one from each of these categories:

  • A Book From Each Continent
  • Biography
  • Science Non-Fiction
  • Classic
  • Ryan Recommended
  • From the 18th Century
  • By a Louisianan Author
  • About a Current Event
  • Shakespearean Play
  • About or By a United States President

I intentionally kept it short to leave room for following my own fancy. If I want to go down a DC Comic hole for a month or settle into Scandinavian sagas, I won’t be left with the false feeling of urgency to read other things that fit obscure categories. Each of these are topics that I am genuinely interested in so it works more as a reminder list rather than a to-do list. Even if I don’t enjoy a book, at least I’ll feel like it was worthwhile to try.

I’ve actually been a reading-machine lately, but I’ll make that another post. Do you set reading goals for yourself? Do you like following challenges to find new things to read?