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The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015 and Fabulous Give-away Opportunity

IFFP 2015

Ever since I began reading the books listed for the  Independent Foreign Fiction Prize two years ago, I have been mesmerized by the beauty of books in translation. As a whole I have found them often dark, but always unique, opening my eyes to the larger world around me. Through the words of the authors on both the long list, and the short, I have traveled to Iraq, China, Sweden, Holland, Colombia, Russia, Germany, Italy and France. I have alternately longed to live in some of these lands and been grateful for the country I call home. But, I have never closed a book listed for the IFFP and not been enlightened. (The London Review of Books recently wrote an article on this feeling entitled, “The Unstoppable Rise of Translated Fiction.”)

Now it is nearing the time when the winner for the IFFP 2015 will be announced. The award ceremony takes place in London, on Wednesday, May 27. I can’t even describe how sad I am that I unable to accept the invitation to attend, as my teaching career and Chicago location prohibit such a trip at this time.

However, I am able to do a marvelous thing. I am able to give away a complete set of all six of the books on the short list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. They include:

  • By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories)
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (Harvill Secker)
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books)
  • F by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway (Quercus)
  • In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne (Pushkin Press)
  • While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (Pushkin Press)

We will have to see which one is named the winner on May 27. Until then, please leave a comment if you wish to be entered in the give-away which is graciously open to UK and US residents. I will determine the winner through a random sequence generator on May 31, and announce the winner on this post.

Best of luck to all who enter!

I’ve Been Missing Japanese Literature So Much of Late…Coming Soon: Japanese Literature Challenge 9

As June approaches, so my thoughts turn to Japanese literature. For that is when I typically begin the Japanese Literature Challenge which runs through January. I wondered how I would make it fresh this year, but my friend Parrish Lantern felt that it needs no added incentive; reading Japanese Literature is its own reward. For those of us who love it, that is surely so.

But, I’ve been reading Jacqui‘s, and MarinaSofia‘s, posts concerning their #TBR20 (stack of twenty books waiting to be read), and I realized I’d like to do the same with my own stack of Japanese literature. It has accumulated to double stacked shelves, since the first Japanese Literature Challenge begun in 2006, and now I plan to read these books for the ninth Japanese Literature Challenge this year:


I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying For Awhile by Taichi Yamada (purchased because I loved Strangers so much);


Evil and The Mask and Last Winter We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura (because I loved The Thief so much);


The Tattoo Murder Case and Honeymoon to NoWhere (because I’ve not read anything by Akimitsu Takagi before);


Asleep and The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto (because a dear friend bought me Asleep when she heard how much I enjoyed Kitchen, and I was sent a first edition of The Lake years ago);


South of the Border, West of The Sun, After the Quake,and Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami (because those are the only three books left that I haven’t read of all he’s written);


Spring Snow and Runaway Horses by Yukio Mashima (because they are books 1 and 2 of his Sea of Fertility series);


The Decay of the Angel and The Temple of Dawn by Yukio Mishima (because they are books 3 and 4 of the Sea of Fertility series);


Nocturnes and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, as well as:


A Pale View of Hills and The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (because the only book I’ve read by him is The Remains of The Day)


Naomi and Seven Japanese Tales by Junichiro Tanizaki (because I’ve not yet read anything by him, and the Tanizaki Prize is one of the most sought-after writing awards in Japan).


Soon the Japanese Literature Challenge 9 will begin. The review site is here, where those who wish to participate can leave links to their reviews. As a reminder, the challenge runs from June, 2015 until January, 2016, and all you “have” to do is read at least one work of Japanese Literature.

The review site has a page called Suggested Reading in case you’re looking for further titles. However, if anyone wishes to read any of the books I have listed above, I would love to have a shared read together. Just let me know.


I hope you are as eager to begin as I, and remember these famous words from Haruki Murakami: “Whatever it is you’re seeking won’t come in the form you’re expecting.”

We will hold ourselves wide open to possibility.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes


“The problem, dear professor, is that you wanted someone who could be made intelligent but still be kept in a cage and displayed when necessary to reap the honors you seek. The hitch is that I’m a person.”

I last read this in high school. I haven’t read it since for the sorrow it still brings to the pit of my stomach. Charlie Gordon is so realistically created, so humble and gentle, that he reminds me of all of the students I went to school with, and all the students I’ve taught since then, who have special needs. How easy it is for some to forget that a person lies within, especially when the doctors want accolades for their skills and the mothers want everything to be all right.

What Charlie wanted more than anything was to be smart. His teacher, Alice Kinnian, saw that trait in him at the Beekman school he attended and nominated him for an experimental surgery such as the little white mouse, Algernon, had. The problem is that no one took into account the emotional and psychological side effects of messing about with intelligence. No one bothered to look past the hopes of a successful surgery into what might happen if it failed.

Which, of course, it does.

I think of the irony in this book, that Charlie’s mother was so caught up in the appearance of perfection that she could not accept him as he was. She sent him away to a home rather than loving him in hers, and when he visits her in a brief period of intellectual strength, she is the one who is feeble minded. Who we are, our frailty and imperfection, catches up with each one of us.

Daniel Keyes reminds us, through the powerful voice of Charlie, that intellect is nothing in and of itself. “Don’t misunderstand me,” I said. “Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. This is something else I’ve discovered for myself very recently. I present it to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain.”

This is what makes the book so exquisite, the truths wrapped up within a mentally retarded man who has a bigger heart than anyone else around him.

Little, Big (Book 3: Old Law Farm)

Photo credit here

Photo credit here

…they were led down concave weed-spined lanes in an endless land, down the twists and turns of a long, long story, a boundless and-then, toward a place something like the place Sophie at Edgewood contemplated in the dark-etched trump called the Banquet: a long table clothed in just-folded linen, it’s claw feet absurd in the flowers beneath twisted and knotty trees, the tall compote overflowing, the symmetrical candelabra, the many places set, all empty. (p. 263)

I want to be there. Even if I don’t know for what, or whom, we’re waiting.

Little, Big (Book 2: Brother North-Wind’s Secret)

photo credit here

photo credit here

I have grown so fond of these characters, felt such an affinity for Daily Alice and Smoky and Sophie, that I was a little shocked to read that Smoky had been unfaithful with Sophie. “Only three and a half times,” to be sure, but still he was unfaithful with his wife’s sister.

I guess I was even more surprised that this seemed to bother Daily Alice not at all. It seems that she and her sister have a closeness that not even a husband can come between.

Meanwhile, there is a chapter in this book entitled “Little, Big” such as the entire novel itself is called. We find the three (Daily Alice, Smoky and Sophie) holding hands all under the night sky. As Sophie watches the falling stars, Daily Alice contemplates her size within the world. Are we little? Are we big?

Daily Alice couldn’t tell if she felt huge or small. She wondered whether her head were so big as to be able to contain all this starry universe, or whether the universe were so little that it would fit within the compass of her human head. She alternated between these feelings, expanding and diminishing. The stars wandered in and out of the vast portals of her eyes, under the immense empty dome of her brow; and then Smoky took her hand and she vanished to a speck, still holding the stars as in a tiny jewel box within her.

So they lay a long time, not caring to talk any more, each dwelling on that odd, physical sensation of ephemeral eternity–a paradox but undeniably felt, and if the stars had been as near and full of faces as they seemed, they would have looked down and seen those three as a single asterism, a linked wheel against the wheeling dark sky of the meadow. (p. 178)

And another thing; I understand how it was that Smoky thought of himself as a whole crowd of people, for I’ve felt that way myself. Maybe not exactly as he does, but I’ve balanced my persons of woman, mother, wife, daughter, teacher and listened to their voices clamor in my ear each vying for undivided attention. How interesting that Smoky would feel that, too.

“Santa,” he wrote, “I would like to be one person only, not a whole crowd of them, half of them always trying to turn their backs and run whenever somebody”–Sophie, he meant, Alice, Cloud, Doc, Mother; Alice most of all– “looks at me. I want to be brave and honest and shoulder my burdens. I don’t want to leave myself out while a bunch of slyboots figments do my living for me.” (p. 165)

If Santa can fix that for you, Smoky, as you burn your Christmas Eve letter in the fireplace and watch the smoke go up the chimney into the night sky, you let me know.

As for Brother North-Wind’s Secret, it is as “simple” as the fact that after Winter, Spring comes. I think this is one of the first times that Crowley brings up the cyclical nature of the world, of its inhabitants. One generation follows another, passing down its sins and its secrets, while hope lies ever ahead.

Tomorrow, thoughts on Book 3: Old Law Farm. Please feel free to leave links to your thoughts, or comments, below.

Little, Big (Book 1: Edgewood)

photo credit here

photo credit here

I live on a street called Edgewater. It has trees all the way down a gently curving path lying parallel to the river. I’m sure it has tunnels harboring unseen creatures who live hidden in the bramble. But, it doesn’t have quite the same aura which Crowley has created for Edgewood, the first book of Little, Big. I don’t have quite the same home that his characters live in, try as I might to establish one.

Take for example, the domicile of the Junipers:

“It was a white bungalow snuggled within bushy evergreens. Roses just blown grew up trellises beside the green dutch door. White-painted stones marked the path from the door; on the darkling lawn a young deer looked up at him immobile in surprise, and dwarves sat cross-legged on toadstools or snuck away holding treasure. On the gate was a rustic board with the legend burned on it: The Junipers. Smoky unlatched the gate and opened it, and a small bell tinkled in the silence…

The house was tiny and tidy and stuffed with stuff. An old, old dog of the dust-mop kind sniffed at his feet, laughing breathlessly; he bumped into a bamboo telephone table, shouldered a knickknack shelf, stepped on a sliding scatter rug and fell through a narrow archway into a parlor that smelled of roses, bay rum and last winter’s fires. Jeff put down his newspaper and lifted his slippered feet from their hassock. “Edgewood?” he asked around his pipe.

“Edgewood. I was given directions, sort of.” p. 20

I’d practically like to stay there, with Smoky, with the Junipers. But Smoky is on his way to Daily Alice’s house, named Edgewood, being careful to follow her great-aunt Cloud’s directions. He is to arrive on Midsummer Day, walking not riding, with a wedding-suit in his pack old not new, and food made not bought. If he needs a place to spend the night he must beg for it, or find it, but not pay for it. This is what Nora Cloud has read in the cards.

And why might Smoky follow such an odd order? Because he loves Alice, to be sure. But also because he has been invisible and anonymous until he met her. And then he became solid.

It all seems very serious and fulfilling, until we come to the marriage ceremony which I had to read over several times, smiling for the way it turned a typically solemn occasion upside down:

Doctor Word fluttered the pages of his book and began to speak quickly, his words shot through with champagne and tremblings and the harmonium’s unceasing melody; it sounded like “Do you Barble take this Daily Alice to be your awful wedded life for bed or for worse insidious in stealth for which or for poor or to have unto whole until death you do part?”

“I do,” Smokey said.

“I do too,” Daily Alice said.’Wring,” Doctor Word said, “And now you pounce you man on wife.”

Aaaah, said all the wedding guests, who then began to drift away, talking in low voices. (p. 64)

There’s only one nagging question in the back of my mind. When Smoky follows Alice out of the wood, after their marriage, he loses her for a moment. He comes to a house in the Woods, where Mr. Woods welcomes him and Mrs. Underhill takes out a single hot-cross bun on which is drawn a five-pointed star in white icing sugar. Five pointed stars have appeared before, but what is also curious is that Smokey sees the wet woods he had come through with Alice, and far off, Alice herself, within the doors of a tall wardrobe. How strange that a wardrobe should appear here as well as in C. S. Lewis’ works, a magical wardrobe through which one leaves to follow one’s dream. Or, to find one’s Destiny.

Find thoughts on Book Two: Brother North-Wind’s Secret, tomorrow. If you wish to leave links to your posts, or thoughts on any part of Little, Big please feel free to do so. I’m looking forward to seeing the parts you highlight.

Humphrey’s Heart

He’s just a little guy. But he’s shown me so much this week that I once knew and have since forgotten.

He wakes up in the morning full of joy. Each day holds fresh promise for him, and he greets it with eager anticipation. Will he get to hurl himself in the grass with untold abandon? Will he spend hours with a new chew toy to massage his mouth? Will there be cottage cheese in his bowl for lunch?

I’ve forgotten what it means to be so full of wonder.

The two kitties, once queens of the house, are in dismay. They can’t imagine what has happened to the tranquility they took for granted. Humphrey asks them with regularity to play, and he is met with hisses which are now accompanied by low growls in the throat. From cats. 

But he is not daunted. This puppy with one mode of locomotion, bouncing, has one attitude: “Do you want to play? Do ya wanna play? D’yawannaplay?” He asks them repeatedly, each time more eagerly, and every time he is rebuffed he returns in a little bit to ask anew.

I’ve forgotten what it means to forgive.

So he bounces and cries and coughs and wags and works his way into our hearts. Like the kitties, we have now forgotten what it meant to live quietly, which we did only a short while ago.

But I will not forget the lessons I learned from this little one,  just in his first week of training me.

Mailbox Monday: Two Books From Cuba and One Puppy from Illinois


“Out of the modern-day dystopia of Cuba comes an instant classic from the island’s most celebrated science fiction author.

A Planet for Rent draws parallels between ’90s Cuba and a possible Earth of the not-so-distant future. Wracked by economic and environmental problems, the desperate plant is rescued, for better or worse, by alien colonizers, who remake the planet as a tourist destination. Ruled over by a brutal interstellar bureaucracy, dispossessed humans seek better lives via the few routes available: working for the colonial police, eking out a living as black marketeers, drug dealers, or artists; prostituting themselves to exploitative extra-terrestrial visitors – or facing the cold void of space in rickety illegal ships.” (back cover)


“The first book by the father of Cuban science fiction to be translated into English, this mesmerizing novel, reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, is a science-fiction survival story that captures the intense pressures-economic, ideological and psychological-inside Communist Cuba.

A Legend of the Future takes place inside a spaceship on a groundbreaking mission to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons; back home, a final conflict between warring superpowers threatens the fate of the Earth. When disaster strikes the ship, the crew members are forced into a grand experiment in psychological and emotional conditioning, in which they face not just their innermost fears, but the ultimate sacrifice[their very humanity.” (back cover)


…and with a story yet to unfold came Humphrey, a nine week old Labrador puppy who called my husband’s name. We could not resist this tired boy, of whom I shall probably write more when I get to know him better. For now, let me say he is a sweet addition to this home of ours.

As for your mailbox, did you find any translated literature? Any wet noses? Any spectacular surprises you wish to share?

Of Contempt and Edgewood and Hard-Boiled Wonderlands (Read-alongs This May)

Frances and Richard, two bloggers whose opinion I have long valued, are hosting a read-along of Contempt by Alberto Moravia, which is the “…story of a failing marriage. Contempt (which was to inspire Jean-Luc Godard’s no-less-celebrated film) is an unflinching examination of desperation and self-deception in the emotional vacuum of modern consumer society.” Their read-along is to take place on May 23-25.

In lieu of reading the novel, or perhaps in addition to one’s reading, we are also invited to see the film produced by Jean-Luc Godard in 1963:

contempt Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 film

(Produced by Carlo Ponti, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 Contempt, based on Alberto Moravia’s novel, Il Disprezzo, was an Italian and French co-production. ~ DoBianchi)

Little Big

But before I come to that, I am fully immersed in John Crowley’s Little, Big. It is the perfect read for me now, in a time of frenetic activity involved with closing school and the heaviness of many  books I recently read for the IFFP. I am absorbed every night in cottages which smell of roses and old fires, or the edge of a wood whose floor is covered in moss. The peace there is soothing beyond words.

Hard-Boiled Wonderfland

This morning, Terri sent me a tweet reminding me of our shared read for Haruki Murakami’s Hard-boiled Wonderland and The End of The World. In 1985 it won the Tanizaki Prize, which is one of Japan’s most prized literary awards, named in honor of the Japanese novelist Juni’chio Tanizaki. This book, too, has long been anticipated for reading this May.

So today begins a month which is filled with exciting reads for me. I can barely bring myself to school when I want to read all day long, yet the evenings to be spent with each piece of literature here hold great anticipation. I’m so glad that several of you are joining Tom and Helen and I with Little, Big, and I encourage all others who want to join in any of these three to do so.

It will be such good reading.

The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed (Or, How I Stand Apart From The Shadow Jury on This One)

The Ravens

The Ravens fly over the farmer’s house, shrieking, predicting death.

The cover for this book is particularly well done. It shows the raven trying to soar upward, but appearing as if it will ultimately fall into some dreadful descent. Its tail becomes a smear, ineffective, and marring the picture of beauty. Marring the picture of freedom, as it seems this bird will be forever tethered to the ground instead of the heavens where it belongs.

I had a difficult time with The Ravens. It took me all of April to read 132 pages. I struggled every night to get at least five read, but they were ponderous…almost too heavy to turn. I vowed I would complete it yesterday, during the 24 Hour Read-a-thon, and so I read for several hours without relinquishing my goal until it was done. The reading didn’t get any easier for me. It became harder as I went.

The story takes place in Sweden, in the 1970’s. A boy named Klas lives with his mother, father and little brother in the country where they struggle to make a living on the farm. The dryness of the potatoes, the scratchiness of the hay, the beauty of the milch cows, and the wealth of birds which Klas observes in great detail become as real as if we lived there ourselves.

His mother is gentle and sweet, uncomplaining as she strives to hold the family together. She prepares all the meals, bakes pretzel rolls and buns, even handles the blood of butchering and preparing the meat. It seems manageable, somehow, compared to handling the life she lives with her husband.

As he descends into madness, he becomes frightening and unpredictable. He is tormented by the sound of ravens in his ears which will not stop, not even when he takes pills the hospital has given him to lighten his suffering. But his mental illness does not effect only himself, as no illness in a family can be contained within just one member. The entire family listens for unusual sounds which indicate what he may be up to. (Is he setting fire  to the house in the boiler room where he has chosen to sleep? No, he’s simply beating the rugs and furniture to rid it of bugs that only he can sense.)

One lives with a terrible fear when one lives with a person who is mentally ill. Not only is the health of the person at risk, normal everyday life becomes impaired. What one, little thing will disrupt the day and make everyone live on edge for the rest of the week?

Bannerhed does a brilliant job of portraying such a life. His writing is beautiful, and his description, if not lengthy beyond imagination, is quite picturesque.  But the utter hopelessness of this story, the way there was nothing that could redeem any of them, brought me to a despair I still feel this morning. Perhaps that is a mark of a talented writer; perhaps this piercing writing is why so many of my fellow Shadow Jury members gave this a perfect score.

But, I am not surprised it didn’t make the official IFFP short list. I could not bear the laborious reading which became bleaker at every page and offered only death as a way out.

Find other thoughts from fellow Shadow Jury members here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.