About Bellezza

Reader of translated literature, member of the Booker International Prize shadow jury since 2015.

Spanish Lit Month: July will be José Saramago for me

I haven’t been blogging much. I can hardly bear social media in general, having deactivated my Facebook page and coming close to doing the same with Twitter. There is too much unbearable news and most of the opinions are not even vaguely aligned with mine.

So, it was a pleasant relief to be reminded of Spanish lit month, hosted by Stu and Richard. Some of the best reading I’ve ever done has been for events sponsored by fellow bloggers and bibliophiles. And even though I’ve never made friends with Roberto Bolaño (gasp!, I know!), I am quite fond of José Saramago. I have never forgotten the power of Blindness, and I would reread Skylight if there weren’t the three novels pictured above in our local library. Here is a blurb for The Cave:

Cipriano Algor, an elderly potter, lives with his daughter Marta and her husband Marçal in a small village on the outskirts of The Center, an imposing complex of shops and apartments to which Cipriano delivers his wares. One day, he is told not to make any more deliveries. Unwilling to give up his craft, Cipriano tries his hand at making ceramic dolls. Astonishingly, The Center places an order for hundreds. But just as suddenly, the order is canceled and the penniless three have to move from the village into The Center. When mysterious sounds of digging emerge from beneath their new apartment, Cipriano and Marçal investigate; what they find transforms the family’s life. Filled with the depth, humor, and extraordinary philosophical richness that marks all of Saramago’s novels, The Cave is one of the essential books of our time.

~Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books

I have already begun The Cave, and I must leave you now to get back to it. Lying in the hammock, under the maple tree in our backyard, with a lovely piece of literature for Spanish Lit month…there is not a better way to spend the afternoon that I can think of.

Weather by Jenny Offill (“Aren’t you tired of all this fear and dread?”)

No pictures of books lying open on a bed, surrounded by neutral blankets, dried flowers, and half drunk cups of coffee, for me. I prefer simple. Real over artificially composed. And, an author who writes as if she understands exactly what I am thinking myself.

Such is Jenny Offill.

Her writing is lyrical. It is contemplative. Stream of consciousness, within a wry joke, within a story. Somewhere in this novel she is pointing us to hope, using the devices of humor, anecdote, reflection, and “prepping.”

What to Do If You Run Out of Candles

A can of tuna can provide hours of light. Stab a small hole in the top of an oil-packed tuna can, then roll a two-by-five-inch piece of newspaper into a wick. Shove the wick into the hole, leaving a half inch exposed. Wait a moment for the oil to slack to the top of the wick, then light with matches. Your new oil lamp will burn for almost two hours and the tuna will still be good to eat afterward.

But, this is not the stuff that appeals to me the most. It is the narrator’s reflection on her job as a librarian, her role as sister, wife and mother. (As I read, I wished I had written more of the things my son said to me when he was small. All I can remember is, “Mom? What do strangers look like?”)

I will leave you with some snippets of my favorite bits. Surely they will give you an indication of why I love this book so much:

But how to categorize this elderly gentleman who keeps asking me to give him the password for his own email. I try to explain that it is not possible for me to know this, that only he knows this, but he just shakes his head in that indignant way that means, What kind of help desk is this?

And:

The problem with assortative mating, she said, is that it feels perfectly correct when you do it. Like a key fitting into a lock and opening a door. The question being: Is this really the room you want to spend your life in?

And:

I kiss Eli’s head, trying to undo the rush. Why didn’t I have more kids so I could have more chances?

And:

Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters?

Old person worry: What if everything I do does?

And:

There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.

And:

Don’t use antibacterial soap! Catherine told me, because lalalalalalalala.

And:

I’m like a woman carrying a full cup into a room of strangers, trying not to spill it.

And:

A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.”

I think, ultimately, that she reminds us we are in charge of our own thoughts, our own outcomes. Here is one last passage:

A man is having terrible dreams. In them, he is being chase by a demon. He seeks counsel from a therapist, who tells him he must turn around and confront the demon or he will never escape it. He vows to do this, but each night in his dreams, he runs again. Finally, he manages to turn around and look straight at the demon. “Why are you chasing me?” He asks it. The demon says, “I don’t know. It’s your dream.”

The Booker International Prize 2020: our Shadow Jury’s Verdict

The official announcement of the winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize has been postponed until later in the summer, to give readers more time to get and read copies of the novels.

But our shadow jury of bloggers and reviewers of translated fiction has already completed our reading and re-reading, so it seems fitting to announce our Shadow Winner on the original date of May 19th.

As a reminder our own shortlist was, in alphabetical order of the original author’s name: 

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Farsi – Iran), tr. Anonymous (Europa Editions)
The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse (Norwegian – Norway), tr. Damion Searls (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Spanish – Mexico), tr. Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Japanese – Japan), tr. Stephen Snyder (Harvill Secker)
Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (French – France), tr. Sophie Lewis & Jennifer Higgins (Peirene Press)
The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Dutch – Netherlands), tr. Michele Hutchison (Faber & Faber)

Runners-Up:
The Other Name: Septology I-II
and
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree

Jon Fosse’s “slow prose”, unfolding his story in one long, flowing stream that reads with great fluidity, took us deep inside his narrator Asle’s mind and thoughts. And we were caught up in the heady mixture of Persian myth, story-telling and magic realism of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, a true ode to literature and to the deeply soothing role books and stories play in our survival of trauma.

But the winner of our 2020 Shadow Jury Prize is:
Hurricane Season, written by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

Comments from some of our judges:

Hurricane Season is an appropriate title for a novel that roars into the unsuspecting reader’s mind, with its long and winding sentences, and its refusal to flinch from the brutalities of its world.”

“There is anger, pain, and the understanding of the role literature plays when it comes to compassion and empathy.”

“As author M John Harrison said of Melchor’s novel ‘…she had shown me things I needed to be faced with.’ and expanded my understanding of lives so very different from my own.”

“It unflinchingly portrayed a world apart from us and artfully created another layer of distance from subject through the use of mythologized violence. That she both creates distance and ‘makes us look’ simultaneously was incredibly powerful for me.”

“Melchor’s prose, in Hughes’s stunning translation, is raw, brutal and so, so necessary.”

“As readers and intrepid voyagers down Melchor’s Dante-like vision, we are like riveted inmates, incarcerated either by law or by economics or gender, who stand to witness the depravity, despair and pain being inflicted upon this part of the world. The real evidence and reward here is not in unmasking the Witch’s killer or killers or in finding out why this happened, the true recompense of Melchor’s novel is to pay tribute by listening to the dead’s testimony,‘there is no treasure in there, no gold or silver or diamonds or anything more than a searing pain that refuses to go away.’“

And our congratulations extend to the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions who provided two of our top three, and also now have two Shadow Prize wins in three years.

Now it’s over to the official jury for their decision.

20 Books of Summer

This time, I plan to complete Cathy’s challenge: read 20 books from June 1, 2020 until September 1, 2020. It’s called 20 Books of Summer, and I can’t think of anything nicer to do during those hot months than sit with a book and a cool drink. Especially as I strongly suspect that Centennial Beach, my favorite swimming hole, will be closed due to the COVID 19 pandemic.

So, which 20 books from my shelves shall I read? We are allowed to change the titles, and even change the number (from 20, to 15, to 10), but I like to set a high goal and accomplish it. These titles are included in my list of twenty read before summer’s end. Surely, there will be time to do it.

  1. Earthlings by Sayaka Murata
  2. Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
  3. A Man by Keiichiro Hirano
  4. Shadow Garden the by Alexandra Burt
  5. The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Graham
  6. What The Wind Knows by Amy Harmon
  7. And We Came Out And Saw The Stars Again edited by Ilan Stavans
  8. Weather by Jenny Offill
  9. Three Apples Fell From The Sky by Narine Abgaryan
  10. My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing
  11. The Miracles of The Namiya General Store by Keigo Higashino
  12. The Gentlemen’s Hour by Don Winslow
  13. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  14. Savages by Don Winslow
  15. Satori by Don Winslow
  16. Broken by Don Winslow
  17. The Vacation by T. M. Logan
  18. The Cave by José Saramago
  19. Safe by S. K. Barnett
  20. Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McGammon
    (The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L’Engle)

There you have it, a nice blend of translated literature, thrillers, contemporary fiction, and what our library has of my new passion for Don Winslow.

What do you have planned for your summer reading?

How Have I Not Read Don Winslow’s Books Before?

I’ve been interested in what readers have been turning to in these days of quarantine. Some open the classics, others prefer romance. While translated literature has great favor in my reading preferences, I must admit to a weakness for thrillers. Crime. Suspense. The problem, for me, is finding a reliably good one.

I remember reading The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum in the late 80’s and being unable to put it down even though we were in the south of France, and I ought to have been more interested in the Mediterranean. I remember reading Shutter Island by Dennis LeHane and thinking it far superior to Mystic River. And there are so many books in between which I don’t remember at all. They seem to tell the same story, over and over.

I bought The Force by Don Winslow for fifty cents at our library’s Used Book Shelf long before the CoronaVirus appeared. In fact, as I perused my Goodreads shelf yesterday, I noticed I’d marked it as “to read” in 2018. After all the emotionally laden work of the Booker International Prize 2020 long list, which was certainly worth reading, it was a great pleasure to me to dive into these books, for the plots and characterization captured my mind and heart.

The Force is about the New York City Police Department’s Task Force, with a hero I will never forget. It was like reading The Godfather; you know some of the characters are dark, and flawed, and deal in illegal territory, but you can’t help loving them anyway. The dialogue alone in this book was remarkable. I saw Manhattan, in all its glory and all its shame, unveiled before me.

The Power of The Dog is about the drug lords in Mexico. And, the DEA. And, the corruption in politics. It is violent, and horrifying, and absolutely mesmerizing in its revelations. When I was a little girl, I thought that doctors healed, teachers taught, and presidents led. I have since had my eyes opened to the true nature of many in these professions. Now I can add law enforcement to my disillusionment, knowing that all of us are living in an often sad, and fallen, world.

I cannot recommend either of these two novels by Don Winslow enough, and now I leave you to begin The Cartel, which is Book 2 in The Power of The Dog trilogy.

Malicroix by Henri Bosco

the moon outside my front door one evening; most definitely not in the Camargue

I have been living with Martial de Mégremut, on the island his great-uncle required he inhabit, for several days. And, nights. For it is during the night that so much of the action seems to take place. People come and go, quietly, quickly, in the night. They suddenly appear, and suddenly disappear, and Martial often follows them through the brush, or the snow, on a muddy path which is at best obscure.

Your great-uncle Mr. Cornélius, in making you his heir (under certain conditions, moreover, as you will see) has left you but a modest inheritance:

On the mainland, along the river, two hundred fifty acres of barren ground. Nothing grows there except a little grass for the sheep. Of course, you will find a flock of one hundred head. It is not much. But Mr Cornélius eked out a living from them. It is true you will also have the island and the house of La Redousse, unproductive, alas! You will also have Balandran. He tends the sheep. He fishes. He hunts. A singular man, as you will discover. Completely devoted to Mr. Cornélius, down to his marrow; he is thought to have a harsh character.

How could he have lived without Balandran? This quiet, incredibly strong, yet small, man brings Martial his dinner. His breakfast. His coffee. He cleans with great efficiency and prepares the small iron bed with sheets smelling of soap.

I loved the little whitewashed hut in which Martial dwells. It has a bed, a desk, a chair, a fireplace and a storeroom. There are no books, no diversions of any kind other than his contemplative thoughts as he sits before the fire. This is where he must live for three months before the rest of the will’s stipulations are revealed to him.

During his stay he befriends Bréquillet, Balandran’s dog:

I returned to the fire.While I had been looking the other way, Bréquillet had slipped onto the hearthstone. He was resting there, his muzzle on his two black paws, relaxed but alert…Bréquillet sighed with well-being. Long tremors ran along his spine as he closed his eyes to savor the pleasures of a warm hearth and the closeness of man, creator of fire, friend of dogs.

During his stay, he learns of the ram, Sacristan:

A great ram, a male leader a sire. I had never before seen one so tall or so strong. His loins were huge, thick; his chest deep. Tawny wool rolled in thick curls from his rump to his warm, vibrant neck. Around his pointy ears, his horns spiraled three times, vigorously crowning his thick, woolly temples. His wide, hairy brow was boldly thrust forward, ready for combat; his eyes sparkled.

“This is Sacristan,” Balandran said solemnly, “our master ram.”

I was overcome with emotion. “Yes, I said to Balandran. “I remember. After the rain, we were supposed to go to the land, to see him.”

The rain. It rains constantly on the island:

An almost unearthly light radiated from the whitewashed ceilings and walls. Meanwhile, it was raining outside. Under the wind’s thrusts, the rain had begun again, and I heard showers lashing the roof. For the window, I could see the clayey soil of the clearing, where drops of water splattered. Nearby, elms, enormous birches, and giant willows rose. Their trucks held up a vast tangle of leafless limbs whose tips touched the storm. They tossed despairingly against the gray sky, heralding winter.

Can you not sense the mood? The almost gothic quality of the island, its inhabitants, and even the weather? Henri Bosco has done a masterful job of creating a sense of place, which for me, was even more significant than the trial of enduring on an island, virtually alone, while waiting to find out what else needs to be done to gain an inheritance. (It was a grave deed that Martial must accomplish, one so subtly described it was almost easy for me to miss.)

I loved this book, for the beautiful writing (and translation!) allowing me to contemplate the slow pace that we ourselves are now living during the self isolation of the CoronaVirus pandemic. It is a time of seclusion that proves Martial’s worth, as he must overcome severe adversity and his fears. It is a time that tests our own strength as well, in which perhaps we, too, would be well-served to sit quietly by the fire, calmly reviewing our lives.

Malicroix was published on April 7, 2020. It was my great pleasure to read it with Dorian (@ds228), Frances (@nonsuchbook), Grant (@GrantRintoul), Nat (@Gnatleech) and Kim (@joiedevivre9). Thank you, nyrb for the copy to read, and Joyce Zonana (@JoyceZonana) for an exquisitely wrought translation.

There is beauty in the slowness.

We walked today, my mother and I, on the Riverwalk downtown. It was only 34 F. degrees, a perfect temperature as far as I’m concerned. (I dislike Illinois humidity intensely.)

I put on the white coat from Eddie Bauer which my son bought me years ago, when he was in High School, and then I looked in shock at our two cars in the parking lot. They were so forlorn, when usually there is not a spot to be found.

But, I am finding a certain respite in this self-quarantine. The pace of living is quite lovely. Suddenly, we are forced to focus on the essential: family, good dinners, creating a beautiful environment, reading. I must admit that part of me is reluctant to return to a more frenetic lifestyle.

I’m reading This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald for the 1920 Club hosted by Kaggsy and Simon. I’m doing laundry and making cranberry scones. I’m taking walks, and I’m so grateful for every good thing we are finding out about ourselves, and our lives, in this unique season.

Be well, Meredith

The Booker International Prize 2020 Short List (from the Shadow Jury)

Our shadow jury of bloggers and reviewers of translated fiction has completed our reading of the International Booker 2020 longlist, and has chosen our own Shadow Shortlist.

In alphabetical order of the original author’s name our chosen six books are:

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Farsi – Iran), tr. Anonymous (Europa Editions)


The Other Name Septology I-II by Jon Fosse (Norwegian – Norway), tr. Damion Searls (Fitzcarraldo Editions)


Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Spanish – Mexico), tr. Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions)


The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Japanese – Japan), tr. Stephen Snyder (Harvill Secker)


Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (French – France), tr. Sophie Lewis & Jennifer Higgins (Peirene Press)


The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Dutch – Netherlands), tr. Michele Hutchison (Faber & Faber)

Firstly, we would like to congratulate the judges on choosing a very strong longlist. There are some stunning books on the list, and almost all of them, including those that missed out on our shortlist, had their champions among us. The books didn’t always make for an easy read – some are quite graphic in their depiction of violence – but certainly a thought provoking one,

You will see that four of our choices overlap with those of the official jury.

The Adventures of China Iron impressed many of us, but couldn’t quite squeeze on to our list. Instead we chose the cleverly connected short stories from Faces on the Tip of My Tongue.

When we were predicting books on the longlist The Eighth Life was the novel we most expected to see given its undoubted popularity both in the Anglosphere but also internationally. And we had expected it to make both the official and our shadow shortlist. Somewhat to our surprise, it missed out on both – the magic of the hot chocolate clearly doesn’t work on everyone.

We were though more surprised, and disappointed, at the exclusion of The Other Name from the official list – Jon Fosse’s trademark slow prose is stunning, and it makes for a very different reading experience from the others on the list. It is a timeless novel, and we fear the jury’s not unreasonable focus on novels relevant for the Covid-19 era may have counted against it. But with the next volume due in the autumn perhaps Fosse will make next year’s shortlist and he’s also overdue the Nobel Prize.

At the other end of the spectrum, the officially shortlisted Tyll didn’t spark much enthusiasm in our panel. But the one provoking the strongest reactions was Serotonin: several of the books on our shortlist are brutal or visceral but parts of Houllebecq’s novel simply felt gratuitous. Only three of our judges finished reading it and none of those were terribly impressed by its inclusion on the longlist.

We’ll now embark on the period of further re-reading, reflection and discussion to choose our winner. We wonder if we and the official jury will see eye to eye as we did in 2018, or reach a different view as we did last year.

(Thanks to Paul Fulcher for writing such an eloquent, and perfectly summarized, post for our short list decision. You can find him on Twitter at @fulcherpaul and on Goodreads here.)

My Personal Six for the Booker International Prize 2020 Short List

This is not the “official” shortlist from the Shadow Jury with whom I am privileged to read. We plan to reveal what we, as a group, think should be on the short list for the Booker International Prize 2020 on April 10. But, as the official list from the Booker Prize will be released tomorrow, I wanted to submit my six favorites from the thirteen books on the long list.

My very favorite was The Other Name, a quietly contemplative book with which I felt a great compassion and identity. Next, comes The Enlightenment of The Greengage Tree for its incredible power to make magical realism effective in relaying the horrors of the revolution in Iran. Then, comes The Memory Police because it has made me think about the power of memory and loss. After that is Little Eyes for its ability to explore the encroachment of technology in our lives (although, I must say that technology has certainly been a boon during this time of isolation!). The Eighth Life is included because it portrays a family’s story with great poignancy. Finally, Hurricane Season must be considered because it is written with such raw ugliness that I cannot forget it, and it has shown me what a safe life I have been privileged to live.

I am eager to see what the list from the Booker Prize will include, as it is revealed tomorrow, April 2, 2020.

The Makioka Sisters Read-along: Final Discussion

Hopefully, by now, all of us who set out to read this book have finished, for there are so many intriguing things to discuss. I am setting forth some questions that occurred to me as I read, to which I do not readily have a clear answer. I would relish an opinion from you should you care to respond to any, or all, of them listed below. Let us begin…

…(the family’s) habit of leaving everything to others led to a reputation of haughtiness. (p. 404)

Do you think the Makioka family is haughty? Or, is their concern for their sister’s future simply careful?

Do you think the sisters support, or hinder, one another?

What could the dark spot above Yukiko’s eye, which sometimes is evident and other times not, represent?

Is Yukiko’s reluctance to give direct answers to the marriage arrangements which have been made for her merely shyness? Or, is there another reason she is so reluctant to enter marriage?

To which of the sisters do you most closely identify?

I do not wish to leave my answers here. Instead, I would far rather read your opinions and respond to them in the comments section below. And, may I thank you each one, for the opportunity of reading this classic piece of literature together. I relished each page and comment.