Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books In Translation (page 1 of 6)

Britt-Marie Was Here – Fredrik Backman

Britt-Marie Was Here has been calling to me from my to-be-read shelf ever since I read My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises about a year ago. I was fairly sure that the books existed in the same universe, and the titular Britt-Marie in this story was the same Britt-Marie who lived in the apartment block with Elsa, Granny and co. Turns out, I was right! (Naturally.)

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Britt-Marie Was Here (Britt-Marie var här in the original Swedish, translated into English by Henning Koch) is Fredrik Backman’s fourth book. It was first published in 2014, and the English translation came out two years later. It didn’t make as much of a splash as A Man Called Ove, or any of Backman’s other #bookstagram darlings, which is weird because the premise and tone is classic Backman.

The story revolves around Britt-Marie, a middle-aged fusspot recently separated from her beloved husband Kent. She knew his collars sometimes smelled of perfume (before she starched them, of course), but his infidelity was confirmed when his mistress called an ambulance to attend to the heart attack he had on top of her. That was the final straw (understandable).

Fearing that, without Kent as an (albeit inattentive) witness to her life, she might someday die without anyone noticing, Britt-Marie goes out in search of a job and a life of her own. That’s how she finds herself in the backwater town of Borg, the only person desperate enough to take on the role of caretaker for a soon-to-be-demolished community center.

This is a Fredrik Backman novel, so of course, Britt-Marie finds herself drawn in to the lives and dramas of the small-town citizens. Despite her firm intentions of simply keeping the community center clean (with a bucket-load of baking soda), she ends up roped into coaching a soccer team of ragamuffins, and best friends with the drunken pizzeria owner.

Britt-Marie Was Here is a darker read than A Man Called Ove or My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises – in fact, in many ways, it reminded me of the criminally-underrated movie Green Street Hooligans. The citizens of Borg are down on their luck, poverty and family violence are common, and the kids of the town have nowhere to go and (almost) nothing going for them. But it’s still a very touching read, with Backman’s trademark life-affirming philosophy – and a few laughs, mostly at Britt-Marie’s expense.

“Britt-Marie is not actually passive-aggressive. She’s considerate. After she heard Kent’s children saying she was passive-aggressive she was extra-considerate for several weeks.”

Britt-Marie Was Here (Page 3)

Britt-Marie Was Here is a good one for fans of small-town romances, and/or movies where the kids get their sports field in the end after they defeat the evil developers. I suspect that Backman might’ve figured out he was onto something with the sports theme, as I hear Beartown (one of his best-sellers) and its sequels use ice-hockey in a similar way. That one will be the next Backman on my list, I think!

P.S. Britt-Marie Was Here was adapted into a film starring Pernilla August and directed by Tuva Novotny, released in 2019. I watched the trailer, it actually looks pretty good (better than the abomination of A Man Called Otto, anyway).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Britt-Marie Was Here:

  • “I had already read Ove; why did I need to read the same basic book over again?” – Linda S
  • “Thankfully the compulsive main character relaxed a bit toward the end.
    That’s it. Save your time.” – MeFree
  • “With all the words we have in the English language, why does practically every paragraph have to have a curse word? I don’t even hear trash like that out on the street. And the morals of the book? – no thank you.
    It was trash & that’s exactly where it went.” – SP
  • “It is just plain stupid, if you ask me. I know you didn’t ask me, but it’s my opinion just the same.” – Kathleen

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Tolstoy himself called it his ‘first true novel’. William Faulkner, when asked to name the three best novels of all time, reportedly answered: “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina”. But still, as I approached it, I was nervous. It was first published in book form in 1878, and most editions have run to 850+ pages. This book is huge, in more ways than one.

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I spent a lot of time considering my approach to Anna Karenina. I specifically sought out this translation, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, as I’d heard from multiple sources that it was the most readable version. This edition doesn’t come with an introduction or anything, though, so I was forced to simply dive in with only what I’d heard about the story around the traps to guide me.

It centers on an extramarital affair, between society woman Anna and cavalry officer Alexei Vronsky. They make a half-hearted attempt to keep it a secret, but Anna impulsively confesses to her husband (also, confusingly, called Alexei). After that, they go public, in a move that scandalises their friends and family. Anna and Vronsky move to Italy, hoping to escape the fall-out, but they’re eventually pulled back to Russia (when Vronsky’s alternative career as an artist doesn’t pan out) and their lives totally unravel.

That’s the most straightforward summary of Anna Karenina I can manage, and it feels woefully inadequate. This is a complex novel, told in eight parts, with over a dozen major characters. Anna and Vronsky are the main focus, but there’s also Levin – a wealthy landowner from the sticks – who has a big ol’ boner for Anna’s brother’s sister-in-law (see? complex!). Their love story runs parallel to Anna and Vronsky’s – and, spoiler alert, has a much happier ending.

The underlying thesis of Anna Karenina (as I read it) is this: men ain’t shit. Honestly, every single one of them made me want to flip a table. That said, the ladies are hardly peaches either. The only truly sympathetic character in the whole book is Levin’s dog.

Oh, and Tolstoy did write the perspective of Anna’s nine-year-old son beautifully – such a shame that it only lasted a few chapters. I was truly baffled by Anna’s sudden willingness to abandon him to go to Italy with her lover. For the first half of Anna Karenina, she clings to her dud marriage because of the kid, because she couldn’t bear to part with him (and she knew that Alexei would get him in the divorce, with her being a disgraced scarlet woman and all). Then, without explanation, she drops the kid like a hot potato and runs off with Vronsky – but still takes her new kid with her. Savage, eh?

(I’m going to offer the obligatory spoiler warning here. For Anna Karenina. A hundred-and-fifty year old novel that has saturated popular consciousness and influenced generations of literature that has come since. If you don’t know the ending and you don’t look away now, that’s a You Problem.)

Tolstoy’s foreshadowing isn’t subtle. Trains are a motif throughout Anna Karenina, with train carriages and stations being the setting for several major plot points. There’s also a few heavy-handed hints about their danger (including a bloke being killed on the tracks early on). So, it feels kind of inevitable when, at the novel’s climax, Anna throws herself under a train. Bye bye, heroine!

But if you’re expecting a dramatic denouement, where Vronsky and Alexei come together and mourn the loss of the woman they loved or share tear-filled regrets about how they treated her or whatever, move along. Anna is barely mentioned again. Instead, Levin spends 100 pages trying to work out whether God exists before Tolstoy wraps things up.

And that’s pretty emblematic of Anna Karenina as a whole. There’s pathos galore, but before the spark can really catch, it’s snuffed out by Levin’s poli-sci philosophising. When Levin does get involved in an actual plot, it’s a direct rip-off of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. (Kitty turns him down, lives to regret it, then eventually they get together and live – mostly – happily ever after.)

I’m glad Tolstoy isn’t around to read my thoughts on Levin, though, because apparently he’s a semi-autobiographical character and basically served as a megaphone for all of Tolstoy’s own beliefs and ethics. He borrowed heavily from his own life to inform Levin’s thoughts and actions (up to and including forcing his fiance to read his diaries, so she’d know about all of his sexual exploits before they married). If that’s the case, I’m telling you that Tolstoy was definitely the kind of guy you’d cross the room to get away from at a party.

I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but as far as I’m concerned, Anna Karenina is just… fine? It wasn’t the dreadful slog I was worried it might be, but it wasn’t brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same either. If you’re thinking about reading it, go ahead – there’s nothing to be afraid of (unless listening to rich guys bang on about how to Fix The Economy makes you want to bonk yourself over the head, in which case you might want to remove all bonking implements from your vicinity before commencing).

Tl;dr? In Anna Karenina, a bunch of rich Russians fuck around and find out. It’s okay.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Anna Karenina:

  • “The storyline about Kitty and Levin has absolutely no connection whatsoever to the storyline about Anna and Vronsky, and no business being in the same book.” – JJ McBear
  • “So much drivel. So much detailed nuance on every though that has ever been thunk. It was like having to many voice in my head saying to much about nothing. Tolstoy may wanna get himself to a psychotherapist.” – Katie Krackers
  • “I don’t know what the point of the subplot with Kitty and Levin is, except to make the book a few hundred pages longer and a lot more boring.” – grammagoulis

The Story Of The Lost Child – Elena Ferrante

Ah, here we are: the last of the Neapolitan novels. Sitting down to read The Story Of The Lost Child felt like sitting down to goodbye drinks with an old friend the night before they leave town. Having followed Lena and Lila through childhood (My Brilliant Friend), adolescence (The Story Of A New Name), and young adulthood (Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay), this last installment follows them as they mature into old age. It has been translated, as always, from the original Italian into English by the imitable Ann Goldstein.

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Lena says early on in The Story Of The Lost Child that this is “the most painful part of the story” and (spoiler alert) she’s spot on. I think this might be the most intensely felt of all the Neapolitan novels, more deeply impactful than even the sharp angst of My Brilliant Friend.

It begins in a time of painful contrasts for narrator Lena: the passion of a long-awaited love affair with Nino and the satisfaction of a revitalised career, experienced simultaneously with complete social, marital, and familial collapse. She officially leaves her husband Pietro, and believes that Nino too has left his wife… but Lila, as always, comes around with a big bucket full of truth and dumps it over Lena’s head. Nino hasn’t left his wife, and doesn’t intend to.

Even when he knocks Lena up, he stays with his wife, and splits his time between two households. Lila gets pregnant at the same time (by Enzo, with whom she still lives and runs a computer business). Finally, Lena and Lila’s lives are on the same track. They go to gyno appointments together, commiserate over the symptoms of pregnancy, and become close once again.

They grow even closer when Lena discovers Nino is cheating on her with the housekeeper, and moves into a small apartment right above Lila’s. They have daughters the same age, they trade off dinners and childcare, it’s all very Modern, takes-a-village, etc.

The big catalyst of The Story Of The Lost Child is that Lena, in desperation and lacking time to write new work, submits a copy of her old manuscript – a novel about her childhood in Naples – for publication. Apparently, being back in the old neighbourhood makes her prose just a bit too vivid. The dangerous Solaras family recognise themselves in the pages, and the ramifications – not just for Lena, but for everyone in her orbit – are huge. (There’s a hint in the title…)

I won’t reveal the Big Twists from that point (got to hold something back, eh?), but the ending – oooft! It was better than I could have ever imagined. Standing ovation. Even after thousands of pages, Ferrante still surprised me and delighted me and made my heart twist in my chest. The end of The Story Of The Lost Child is absolutely breathtaking.

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed The Story Of The Lost Child, finishing it felt bittersweet. I know there are other Ferrante books to read (some of them are already crowded into my to-read shelf!), and I’m a bit too Mature(TM) to mope about fictional characters… but still! I’m amazed and impressed with how the story ended, but quite sad that there’s no more of it for me to discover.

Some project for some future year – “when I have time”, ha! – will be to sit down and re-read all of the Neapolitan novels from start to finish, but back-to-back this time (instead of one per year, as I’ve done since 2018). I wish I could do it immediately, if I’m being honest, but naturally there are other books to be read and things to be done that have to take priority. It’s one for the bucket list.

If you’re wondering whether undertaking to read the Neapolitan novels is worth it, the answer (according to the authority of me) is absolutely YES. If you’re wondering whether the story runs out of fizz by the time you get to The Story Of The Lost Child, the answer (according to the authority of me) is a resounding NO. Of course, the series has its ups and downs, and every reader will respond differently to parts of such a complex and multi-faceted work, but on the whole: W. O. R. T. H. I. T!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Story Of The Lost Child:

  • “Who wrote those words? An algorithm? If the writer is human, she seems afraid to reveal the self behind her work. I find that irritating and cowardly. What is she hiding from? The Mob? Whatever. Brilliant marketing of four novels that could easily have been edited to one. Bravo on that point.” – rc
  • “Glad my female friends and I are not this complicated.” – Sucarichi
  • “I am not a corpse, therefore I loved this novel. The only problem with it is the depression I feel having reached the last page.” – Agaricus
  • “Without doubt written by a non Italian. 4 books and not one mention of Napoli the football team. No mention of Italy wining the World Cup. Ridiculous! No Mention of the Roman Catholic Upbringing ALL characters would have had. No mention of the local chapel and the priests. Pure fantasy!” – C. Caughey

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

Muriel Barbery is not only a French novelist; she’s also a philosophy teacher. That explains why, just a few chapters into The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, we get a cynic’s lesson on phenomenology. And then another on class consciousness. And then another… Despite that (or because of it?), this quiet little novel – L’Élégance du hérisson in the original French, translated into English by Alison Anderson – has gone on to sell millions of copies worldwide.

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The Elegance Of The Hedgehog is set in a bourgeois apartment block, and narrated by two of its residents: the building’s concierge who leads a secret life, and a troubled twelve-year-old who lives with her wealthy family on the fifth floor.

My name is Renée. I am fifty-four years old. For twenty-seven years I have been the concierge at number 7, Rue de Grenelle, a fine hôtel particular with a courtyard and private gardens.

The Elegance of The Hedgehog (Page 15)

Renée, the concierge, has gone to great lengths to conceal her true passions and pastimes from the residents of the building. She feels obligated to present herself as a “typical” concierge – fat, cantankerous, obsessed with television and cheap nutrient-deficient meals. But away from the prying eyes of her wealthy employers, she is an avid reader, an autodidact of literature and philosophy, who listens to opera and ponders phenomenology when she’s not collecting their mail or watering their plants.

Now, here’s where you need a content warning: there’s some pretty intense stuff with suicide in The Elegance Of The Hedgehog (and the rest of this review), so take care if you need to.

Paloma – the pre-teen who lives in the building – keeps two diaries, in which she details her “profound thoughts” and her observations on “the movements of the world”. She feels compelled to record these notes, as she plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. This is adolescent angst turned up to eleven. She’s seen nothing in her privileged, sheltered world to convince her that life isn’t completely meaningless – the “vacuousness of bourgeois existence” dismays her – and she doesn’t see any point in hanging around.

Paloma and Renée would be natural allies, except that they’ve never really spoken. It takes the arrival of a new resident, a cultured Japanese businessman who sees past Paloma’s age and Renée’s class confinement, to bring them together.

I’m not sure if it was just my mood at the time of reading, or the story itself, but The Elegance Of The Hedgehog was much more… smug than I’d anticipated from the blurb. And depressing, to boot. I thought this was going to be more of a feel-good story, a more philosophical A Man Called Ove maybe, but the characters were bitter and it left me feeling hollow. Perhaps there’s a certain French sensibility you need to have in order to find the fun, something I’m clearly without.

Barbery has said that she was “inspired by the idea of a reserved, cultured concierge who turned stereotypes on their head and at the same time created a compelling comic effect”. I can see how that could have happened in The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, but it fell short in execution.

Judging by the wild success of this novel, though, I might be alone in my disappointment. It stayed on the French best-seller lists for 102 weeks straight, and it has since been translated into over forty languages. The critics love it, the book clubs love it… but I don’t. The Elegance Of The Hedgehog was just okay. Don’t pick it up if you need a book to make your heart sing (but if you want one to help you with your Intro To Philosophy class, it might be a winner).

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Elegance Of The Hedgehog:

  • “If the author ever finds this review I recommend seeking therapy. To author: you are too much in you head and clearly unhappy. You should get some serious endorphins and adrenaline into your brain. I recommend some high adventure activities or possibly a spontaneous trip to Japan? This could perhaps reign-in your incomprehensible fetization of Japenese culture in the book you wrote.” – Theology reader
  • “While Renée had the potential to be a fascinating character, she just ended up being an intolerable bore. The book just felt like the author was just trying to sound super smart but had nothing to say. It was like listening to a philosophy lecture given by a narcissist. This book was originally written in French so maybe something got lost in translation. Or perhaps I am not refined and intelligent enough to “get” this book, and I am perfectly alright with that. I am OK with being just a pretty face if being smart means reading another snobby and pretentious book such as this.” – SC
  • “The largest discernible differences between these two characters — a twelve-year-old girl and a woman in her early fifties — are the fonts assigned to their respective entries.” – SQ
  • “This book was like inviting my college philosophy class over for dinner” – Kelly

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa

According to her author bio, Yoko Ogawa has won “every major Japanese literary award”, and yet I (along with a lot of other monolingual English readers) hadn’t heard of her until The Memory Police exploded on #Bookstagram. This 1994 science fiction novel (called 密やかな結晶 in the original Japanese) quietly trundled along until, in 2019, it was translated into English by Stephen Snyder. Soon, it seemed like EVERYONE was reading it – because they were.

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The Memory Police is a melancholy Kafka-esque novel, one that clearly owes a huge debt to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The story is narrated by a novelist who lives on an island under the control of the titular authoritarian force. Through an unexplained and seemingly random mechanism, everyone who lives on the island is forced to “forget” objects or concepts. Uniformed enforcement officers patrol the island, making sure the “forgotten” items are truly gone and anyone who gives the appearance of remembering them is disappeared.

All kinds of things are “forgotten” in The Memory Police, and it’s difficult to discern a pattern. Perfume, stamps, birds, emeralds, ribbon – unusually for a dystopia, nothing “forgotten” seems inherently dangerous. Props to Ogawa for foregoing the heavy-handed metaphor of “forgetting” journalism or books, but the seemingly random array of everyday objects targeted is a bit of a head-scratcher.

What’s more, the narrator of The Memory Police isn’t one of the Special People who – again, for reasons unexplained, other than a couple of lines of dialogue about how it “might be genetic” – can remember things after they’ve been “forgotten”. Her mother was one, and kept a stash of “forgotten” objects in her artist studio, before she was disappeared.

R, the narrator’s editor, also reveals himself to be one of these Special Rememberers, about a third of the way into the story. The narrator, fearing that he might meet the same fate as her mother, takes him into hiding in a fitted-for-purpose hidden room of her house.

With all these factors combined, The Memory Police is basically a dystopia told from the perspective of the Chosen One’s side-kick.

I really wanted to enjoy The Memory Police, and find the wonder and meaning in it that others seem to, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was missing something the whole way through. There’s no explicit reason given in the story for the existence of the Memory Police, or why they make the whole population forget these apparently random objects. Without a narrative justification, it was hard to get invested.

Don’t get me wrong: the writing is great, the translation is well done, the characters and the setting are believable and well-crafted… it’s just missing something. I wish Ogawa had used something more than bog-standard suspense (about whether R would be discovered in hiding) to draw us in.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for people who haven’t read The Memory Police as yet, so I’ll say this on an IYKYK basis: I feel like the dramatic conclusion was meant to be shocking or significant or moving… but I couldn’t drum up anything more than mild interest. I suppose it felt a bit “too little, too late”, given how little I’d felt engaged by the story up to that point.

But, maybe it’s just me. The Memory Police was named a finalist in the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature, as well as making the shortlist for the 2020 International Booker Prize. It was also a finalist in the World Fantasy Award that same year. So, don’t let my underwhelmed response persuade you. Give it a go, and hopefully you’ll be able to tell me what I’ve missed!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Memory Police:

  • “Depressing. R’s disregard for his wife and child was appalling.
    Book summary: Crazy lady who writes about crazy lady who writes about crazy lady, all fixated on hands” – Roger N Gallion
  • “This book was weird and never felt like it had a point. Ok if you like really strange stories.” – M in Marble
  • “So I read this book as a suggestion from Kindle. It said that it was a science fiction book, and gave the premise. This is not a science fiction novel. I am not even sure it’s a fiction novel per se. It’s a poem.” – Rob McNeil
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