About Bellezza

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

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.

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabazon Camara (translated from the Spanish by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Mackintyre, Booker International Prize 2020)

This cover reminded me of Pippi Longstocking at first, with those two long braids erratically standing up. As I read, I learned that they belong to China Iron, “china” being the name for someone’s woman, and “iron” coming from Fierro, her deceased husband’s last name. She cut her braids, and put on the clothing of a gaucho, as she travelled with Liz through the pampas of Argentina in 1872.

Elizabeth is a Scotswoman, familiar with English, tea, lavender-scented sheets, and soft leather shoes. China is entranced by her.

But, I am entranced by the descriptions of their beautiful, and often fearsome, surroundings. Here is an example:

Suddenly everything goes still, the wide pastures – that usually ripple and wave – stop their swaying, a heavy silence descends over everything, a black thunder cloud that had seemed far off is right overhead, imminent in an instant, billowing, swollen, whorls of mottled grey. Although its texture might appear soft to the eyes of those of us on the ground below, in the short time it would take us to get the jerky into the wagon, a torrent of rain would pour down on us, and violent lightning would flash, striking trees and sometimes animals. (p. 53)

The Adventures of China Iron is a “subversive retelling of Argentina’s foundational gaucho epic Martin Fierro…a celebration of the color and movement of the living world, the open road, love and sex, and the dream of lasting freedom.” (Charco Press)

Personally, I could do without the feminist, LGBT point of view, but that sort of thing appeals to the culture right now, so it makes sense that this novel would be included in the long list for the Booker International Prize 2020. There are other books with a more interesting perspective which I am hopeful will win.

The Other Name by Jon Fosse (translated from the Norwegian by Damion Searls) A book on the Booker International Prize 2020 long-list unlike any other, and I loved it.

Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord by Hans Gude and Adolph Tidemand

…so yes, I was pretty good at languages, it was mathematical aptitude that I always had a problem with, and what I totally don’t have is a sense of direction, a sense of place, plus I’m so clumsy, so it’s true probably the only thing I could have ended up doing was painting pictures, and if I wanted to make a living I needed to paint, and that’s both good and all wrong, but that’s what I did and kept doing I painted picture after picture, I did that at least, and when I wasn’t painting I often spent hour after hour just sitting and staring into space, yes, I can sit for a long time and just stare into empty space, at nothing, and it’s sort of like something can come from the empty nothingness, like something real can come out of the nothingness, something that says a lot, and what it says can turn into a picture… (p. 211)

How do I explain how special this book is to me? I can see parts of myself, for one thing, within Asle. I see being poor at maths, and losing my sense of direction, and having languages come easily to me. I understand his desire to be alone, an introvert in the truest sense, but also the sorrow he feels at having lost his first wife.

He tells his story in one long, flowing stream, that reads with great fluidity. It feels that I am inside his head, thinking his thoughts, for which I found myself experiencing a great compassion. I like introspection. I like reflection. I like going over the events of my life, which seem to appear to me now as in a dream, much as they do to Asle.

He stops on the road and looks out over the park where a couple is swinging. He relates their dialogue, their walk, the way they lay down in the sand together, and it becomes clear that this is not a scene he is viewing, it is one that he is remembering. It pierced my heart with its tenderness.

He visits his friend who is an alcoholic (or, is this friend really him?), and finding this man fallen in the snow, makes sure that he gets a much needed drink in the Alehouse, but then goes to the clinic. Perhaps, he is caring for himself, the person he could have been had he not given up alcohol himself.

He is an artist, who first painted by copying the famous Norwegian painting above. And now, he has just completed two dripping lines which comprise the St. Andrew’s Cross. Fosse’s reference to religion is also quite moving to me, not that I am a Catholic, or repeat famous prayers over and over in my bed while holding the rosary between my thumb and forefinger. No, it is the exploration of God that intrigued me as I read.

And it was with mounting terror that I read the final portion of the book, the depiction of him as a young boy, going places by the harbor with his sister where their mother told them never to go. I felt her insistence that they return, and his determination to follow his own agenda, and I knew Something Bad Was Going to Happen.

As far as I am concerned, The Other Name is a perfect book, giving me something to think about deeply. It is a book to return to often, written in an elegant, compelling style, and I truly loved it.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes, Booker International Prize 2020)

This book is violent and upsetting and something I will never forget. Usually, by the time I finish the Booker International Prize long list, my feelings are raw, and this book brought no relief.

I don’t think it is meant to.

I read on Twitter today, the following Tweet retweeted by Fitzcarraldo Editions:

‘I was left buoyed up by Melchor’s anger, elated because she had shown me things I needed to be faced with.’ @mjohnharrison reviews HURRICANE SEASON by @fffmelchor, tr. @hughes_sophie for @GuardianBooks

I would not call what I felt, after reading this book, “buoyed up.” But, being “shown things I needed to be faced with”? Most definitely.

I know a world where men protect me. For all of my childhood, my father lived an honorable life of integrity which supported our family, and my husband does the same. I didn’t see, until I read Hurricane Season, how truly brutal some families are. I didn’t understand that the fourteen year old daughter can not simply “buck up”, gather strength, and change the trajectory of her life. It is so much more complicated than that, to overcome a mother who keeps looking to men to solve her problems, keeps getting pregnant, and expects her eldest to care for them all. Her mother looks for a savior in all the wrong places, finally bringing home a stepfather who more closely resembles a demon.

I didn’t realize the pervasiveness of drugs, and alcohol, and poverty in endless cycles without hope.

I didn’t expect pages with such violence, and profanity, that I am unwilling to leave quotes here as I normally do. They are admittedly powerful. They are also horrific.

For the way that this novel will remain in my mind, it cannot be dismissed as I may have wished to do with a low, and scornful, score. It would be turning away from a dreadful reality, back into my narrow fantasy that life can be made into what we want it to be.

The Makioka Sisters Read-along: Book Three

By the very end of Book II, Itakura has died; we know, at the very least that Taeko will not end up with him. But, the focus has already shifted back to Yukiko, and we see yet another attempt at finding a suitor for her as Book III opens.

It is around this theme, finding a suitable husband for Yukiko, that the whole novel has revolved. Within this context, we see the closeness of the sisters, and their disappointments. We see the trouble Taeko brings, and although she is much loved, surely she cannot be an easy sister to manage.

In Book III, Taeko becomes deathly ill with an intestinal catarrh, or dysentery, or could it even be gonorrhea? She stays with Okubata, even though she does not love him, and while visiting her sister there, Sachiko discovers what the two have been doing for money. It seems that Taeko and Okubata have had no qualms about stealing jewels from his family’s store, and selling them not only for daily expenses, but for great luxuries.

Eventually Taeko does overcome this illness, though I feared she may not, and attention returns to Yukiko’s future. A suitor is found once more, and through more polite machinations than I can even begin to describe, arrangements are made for her marriage. It seems a very well grounded one, but before the wedding can take place, two unsettling things happen.

The first is that Taeko has been found to be with child. She is sent off with the maid, O-haru, to live in secret. Has she no thought of what this situation could do to hamper Yukiko’s marriage arrangements still in the making? Then, worst of all, the baby dies at birth due to the doctor’s unintentional negligence. Taeko returns to live with the baby’s father, ironically leaving the home before Yukiko does, after all.

And Yukiko? This quiet, extremely shy sister finally agrees to the wedding, which we the reader never see. We are left with the knowledge that she has diarrhea, and no joy about the arrival of her wedding kimonos. Instead, she sighs, and responds to her sisters’ questions with a verse:

On clothes I’ve wasted

Another good day.

Weddings, I find,

are not always gay.

There is so much to think about within the pages of this novel. I do not have a sister, let alone three, and I have not experienced the dynamics of their relationship personally. But, I am most intrigued by the strength of one, the selfishness of another, and the emotional reservedness of a third. Let us discuss these things in a week, as we wrap up the read-along, giving time, I hope, for all who were reading to complete the novel.


Sunday Salon: Reflections on the Week That Was

I added a new insert into my Midori Passport this week. I felt it was important to document the week, the arrival of the Coronavirus and how it has affected the world in which we live.

These thoughts are only my thoughts, of course, which I recorded for my own memory. My own sorting out. Wakako, of Baum-kuchen, said in her newsletter of March 5: “Whether it’s a messy scribble or neat handwriting makes no difference in the power of writing as long as we keep writing. I hope you write to remember. I hope you write to heal. And I hope you write to dream and grow.”

I share these thoughts from the past week to see if they resemble your thoughts. To share mine. To document a moment in time I have never seen before.

On February 28, I mention the Coronavirus for the first time in my journal, likening it to Stephen King’s novel, The Stand.

On March 10, the news declares more than 80,000 people are infected with the Coronavirus, and Italy has shut down. “It isn’t effecting the U.S. quite so hard,” I write.

On March 13, I learn that Wheaton College has closed. All the students are being sent home; my cousin’s daughter is clearing out her dorm room. The Irish dinner that my sister-in-law and I had been planning for a big family party is cancelled, the Forest Walk at the Morton Arboretum is cancelled, the Wade Center at Wheaton College is cancelled, and even my small book club is cancelled.

On March 14, my husband comes home from grocery shopping at Jewel and tells me the dairy case is empty. No cream. No milk. People are hoarding groceries, and Twitter has clips of women fighting over toilet paper. My son says, “I need more paper towel for my apartment.” “Why?” I ask. “Just use rags and wash them.” “Oh,” he says. “Right. There’s no shortage of laundry detergent.”

On March 15 we stream church service live, and learn that the Leaders’ meeting for Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) must also be streamed on Zoom. Our pastor preaches on John 14: “Let not your heart be troubled.” “Let,” he says, “is a permissive word.” In other words, “Do not allow your heart to be troubled. Don’t give it permission to embrace anxiety.”

My parents go to Whole Foods and bring a carton of cream for me, and a gallon of milk for our elderly neighbor. “There are plenty of things in the grocery stores,” my father says. “You just have to know where to look.” He scorns public distress.

”Self quarantine” has become a common phrase now. Meetings of more than 25 people are forbidden; restaurants, bars, libraries, health clubs are all closed, and Tucker Carlson warns that small businesses will crumble.

I go to have a manicure on March 16, and the shop is almost empty. The girls are dependent on their tips, and so I leave MyMy triple what I usually do, hoping it is somewhat helpful, feeling when I get home that it is not.

President Trump called Sunday, March 15 a National Day of Prayer. Franklin Graham is taking Samaritan’s Purse to Italy to set up a make shift hospital with 68 beds. My sister-in-law who works at Edward Hospital says people are stealing face masks and wipes from the Emergency room.

I go to see Dr. D. for an appointment I had made weeks ago, and I must stand, not sit, in his waiting room. The receptionist is wearing blue plastic gloves as she works at her desk.

At first I felt relieved about so much being cancelled. “Free time to read!” I think. And then, I go to Trader Joe’s, and I’m subdued because shelves are bare. A big sign at the entrance says, “Out of consideration for others, do not take more than two of any one item.”

All kinds of churches are calling for fasting, and I read in my daily Bible reading this verse from Isaiah, reminding us we are to live our fasting with care for one another:

”Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen; to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the the naked to clothe him, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and and the Lord will answer, you will cry for help and He will say Here am I.” ~Isaiah 58:6-9 (ESV)

My mother bakes trays of her oatmeal raisin cookies and takes them to all their neighbors.

The thing is, no one knows how big this pandemic is going to get, or how long it will last. The Edward Fitness Club said ”Closed until March 30.” District 204 has planned e-learning until April 2. But, no one knows if things will be better by then. And, we must face a troubled economy when all this goes away.

On March 20 the streets and shops are virtually empty as people practice terms I’d never heard of a month ago because Governor Pritzger called for Illinois to shut down: #social distancing, #shelter-in-place, #self-quarantine, #life in isolation. As things get more and more restrictive, it is important not to lose hope.

”Meredith,” my father says to me yesterday. “There is a beginning, a middle and an end to everything. This is the beginning of the end (of the virus).” We can only trust that is true, for the saddest thing I heard last night was that hundreds of people in Italy died all alone, as they were required to be in isolation.


These snippets are from my week. I wonder if they resemble anything like yours? I wonder if you will join me in embracing hope, rather than anxiety, trust rather than fear?

Bless you all, Meredith

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Booker International Prize 2020) An incredibly unusual, and important, book.

When my son was in second grade, Tamagotchis were all the rage. I bought him one, as he longed to fit in with the other kids, and he spent hours “feeding” it, amongst the other things required to “keep it alive”.

“But,” my parents said, “it’s not real!” They could not understand the significance of a virtual pet, and I must say that I agreed with them. How do you keep a machine alive? How can a machine be a pet?

Twenty years later we come to Samanta Schweblin’s magnificent novel, Little Eyes. I was riveted from the first page, and I stayed that way throughout my reading. For it is about technology, and socializing, and the way that people can put feelings on a plastic animal covered with felt or feathers.

They are called kentukis, these creatures costing $279.00 which come in a box and must be activated with a special code. People who buy them become ‘keepers’, while those who are connected to them via technology are called ‘dwellers’. The two people never meet, yet their lives are intimately woven together as the kentuki has ‘eyes’ which serve as cameras, and wheels allowing them mobility; the apartments which they occupy, and the privacy therein, is shown in all its reality to strangers with whom they are connected.

However, the strangers gradually cease to feel that they are anonymous. Suddenly, they find themselves caring deeply about the lives of the people who own the kentuki; worse,they care deeply about the kentuki itself, as if it was real. Or, capable of human emotion.

…it seemed like the idea of kentuki liberation had just been invented. It occurred to someone that mistreating a kentuki was as cruel as keeping a dog tied up all day in the sun, even crueler if you considered that it was a human being on the other end. Some users had tried to found their own clubs and free kentukis that they considered were being abused.

I have never read a book like this. The imagination of Samanta Schweblin is extraordinary, and the world she brings to life is frightening. For I do not believe we are far from the power that machines can exert on our lives.

About the Author: Samanta Schweblin was chosen as one of the 22 best writers in Spanish under the age of 35 by Granta. She is the author of three story collections that have won numerous awards, including the prestigious Juan Rulfo Story Prize, and been translated into 20 languages. Fever Dream is her first novel and is longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Originally from Buenos Aires, she lives in Berlin.

The Makioka Sisters Read-along: Book Two

a066bc10-6f18-4f66-b701-678b2eeff1aeBook Two begins with the awareness that Okubata’s favor is resting lightly on Taeko’s heart. Whereas once they had tried to elope together, and created a scandal which even the newspaper picked up, now their relationship seems significantly cooled, at least on Taeko’s part. She tells her sisters that she wishes to learn sewing, to study in France, and thus have the skills required to support herself if necessary. This does not sit well with the oldest sister and her husband, living in the main house now in Tokyo; they feel that Taeko is being too “modern”. Why does she need a job?

Also, early in Book II, there comes a description of a most terrifying flood, which I read about with great trepidation. I was fearful for Etsuko away at school, Taeko away from home at her sewing class, and Teinsuke out searching for them while his wife, Sachiko, waits for news at home. But, who should be instrumental in saving Taeko? None other than the photographer Itakura, and surely it is more than mere coincidence that caused him to pass by the building she was in as the flood waters rose.

Yukiko’s story, involving the search to find her a suitable husband, is not as dominant in Book II. Instead, the focus is on Taeko, who has not had the advantages her elder sisters had while their father was alive. Neither does Taeko seem to act appropriately: she does not sit with her legs folded under her; she does not pour the tea, as the youngest sister ought; she searches out a career, and yearns to go to Paris. Most concerning of all, to her elder sisters, is her desire to pursue marriage with Itakura. Her former lover, Okubata, has acted deceitfully in the teahouse with the geisha, and one dancer who has even born a child. Surely he can not be considered a worthy candidate for marriage? Yet, the older sisters esteem him more highly than Itakura because he has a good job and refined clothes (which he did not want to muddy while in the flood).

It is interesting to me how much is built around appearance. Of course, The Makioka Sisters was first published in 1936, and much in the world has changed since then. But, the Japanese lead a very cultured life, one which is steeped in tradition and respect. They are refined and almost delicate physically, especially in comparison to those from other countries. Consider this description of their friend Katharina’s German friend:

One knew immediately that he was a German, she (Taeko) said: he was tall and strongly built, not so much handsome as rugged. (p.290)

This friendship of Katharina’s, and Etsuko’s friendship with the Stolz’s children (who once were their neighbors) is intriguing. We are on the brink of WWII, and I wonder if Tanizaki will bring these relationships with German people into his plot…

Are you enjoying it so far? Do you have any predictions? Will a husband ever be found for Yukiko? Will Taeko continue in her defiant ways? I am completely caught up in the world which Tanizaki is creating for us, and I am filled with curiosity about the Makioka family and their place in Japan.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (translated from the German by Ross Benjamin, Booker International Prize 2020

There’s nothing I like quite so much in a book as a story. And, who better to bring us a story of great imagination than the Germans? I think of tales from the Brothers Grimm, into which Tyll could fit in small ways: there is a dark forest, a poisoned apple, a witch, a laughing man on a tightrope, and an executioner. There are Jesuits and a hangman, forged testimonies, and an abundance of fear from the villagers.

Combined with the fear is no small amount of paranoia, which, in my opinion, seems completely justified when someone can just come into your home, dislocate your shoulders, and try you for sorcery with no justification.

Dr. Oswald Tesimond and Dr. Kircher, both Jesuits, meet Tyll when he is but a boy, left alone in the forest to guard a cart filled with flour all night. It actually ends up being two nights, as his mother left him to return home when birthing pains suddenly came upon her. Who knows what terrors he endured? But, when his father and two other strong men come upon him, Tyll is up in a tree, covered in flour, and the donkey which had been pulling their cart is beheaded. He is wearing the scrap of flesh bearing the donkey’s two ears on his head.

It is right after this accursed state that’s the two Jesuit priests come upon him, and decide that it is time to visit the boy’s home, suspicious that they have crossed paths with a warlock.

How easily, Dr. Kircher thinks, pity could overcome you, but you must not permit yourself to believe the appearance, for they are in league with the greatest power of the fallen world, and their lord is with them at every moment. That’s why it is so dangerous: during the trial, the devil can always intervene. (p. 86)

Groats, small beer, pentagrams, spells and superstition, paranoia, witch hunts and hangings. I am caught up in this medieval world that Kehlmann has created, that strangely resembles our own. Suspicions forced into fact. People wrongly accused, then killed. Tyll’s father, Claus, is hanged, and Tyll decides he must leave. Nele, he says, is coming with him.

She knew she must not think,or else she would lose her courage; or else she would stay here, as was in store for her; but he was right, you really could leave. The place where everyone thought you had to stay – in actuality nothing was keeping you there. (p. 118)

How strange it is to read this book while under quarantine from the Corona virus. The disease, poverty, and human ills become all the more tangible to me, safely ensconced within my own home but well aware of the evils without.

It is when we land in the middle of the story of the Winter King, Frederick V, and the Winter Queen, Elizabeth Stuart, that I feel we have wandered off course. Is this a story of fiction, or am I suddenly in a history book? My enthusiasm immediately dwindled in the last third of the book, which for me, ruined what had been a perfectly intriguing novel up until then.