The Confessions of a Young Nero by Margaret George

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“Let them call me cruel. Better that than dead.”

I have had a strong desire to know more about Rome’s emperors and history ever since I read Captivity in January, for not only am I entranced by all things Italian, I like to have a reference point for the New Testament. (Which I read regularly.)

Margaret George is a new author to me. I have not read any of her previous novels: Elizabeth 1; Helen of Troy; Mary, Called Magdalene; The Memoirs of Cleopatra; Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles; The Autobiography of Henry VIII. But, in reading The Confessions of a Young Nero, I find her research to be as exhaustive as I could imagine it to be.

She paints a portrait of Nero which is compassionate and sympathetic to what must have been a truly anxious life. From the very first chapter, his uncle (Caligula) attempts to murder him by throwing him overboard at the age of three. His mother, Agrippina, is no better. She is a manipulative, conceited woman whose allegiance lies with whomever can give her the most power. It is a wonder Nero grew up to be emperor at all, with such attempts on his life and enemies within his own family.

We catch a glimpse of his sorrows and disappointments, his life and achievements, his hunger for music and affection through Margaret George’s eyes. The novel is easy to read, filled with historical research, and fascinating in its portrayal of Nero’s life.

Man Booker International Prize 2017: The Shadow Panel’s Official Response

img_3846The Shadow Panel for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize would like to extend its congratulations and thanks to the official judges for their hard work in whittling down the 126 entries to the thirteen titles making up the longlist. In some ways, it is a somewhat unexpected selection, with several surprising inclusions, albeit more in terms of the lack of fanfare the works have had than of their quality. However, it is another indication of the depth of quality in fiction in translation, and it is heartening to see that there is such a wealth of wonderful books making it into our language which even devoted followers of world literature haven’t yet sampled. Of course, at this point we must also thank the fourteen translators who have made this all possible, and we will endeavour to highlight their work over the course of our journey.

In the second year of the prize’s new incarnation, there is a definite sense of quality being prioritised, with many of the titles promising heavy topics and quality writing (we note, with trepidation, that the longlist is also literally far heavier than its 2016 counterpart). This second year of the MBIP book prize is also the first of the post-Tonkin era, and it will be interesting to see what effects the departure of the longtime IFFP/MBIP Chair will have. Will the new age bring a different feel to the prize, ushering in a longlist notable more for the writing and less for emotional turmoil? Time will tell…

Turning to the actual books, we note a pleasing spread of languages (eleven) and countries (twelve), with five of the longlisted titles by writers hailing from outside Europe. There are some notable omissions, though, with no books translated from Arabic, Japanese, Portuguese or Russian (a language particularly poorly represented over the past few years). The list of writers shows a mix of old friends (Ismail Kadare, Jón Kalman Stefánsson, Yan Lianke, Alain Mabanckou) and newcomers to the prize (Wioletta Greg, Clemens Meyer, Roy Jacobsen), some of whom will no doubt become new favourites for many readers.

While the female authors longlisted (in particular Samanta Schweblin) should prove to be strong contenders, the fact that only three women made the cut is disappointing. However, we fully acknowledge that this is less a reflection on the judges than further evidence of the gender imbalance in what is published in translation in the UK (it would be enlightening, and perhaps useful, to learn how many of the 126 submissions were by women). On that point, it was interesting to note in the week leading up to this announcement the start of a new initiative, The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. Hopefully, this will encourage the commissioning of more translations of works by female authors, which may then encourage more submissions for the MBIP in future years.

Another interesting feature of the list is the spread of titles published by independent presses and major publishing houses. Peirene Press’s six-year run may have come to an end, but that has more to do with the high standard of the competition than with weak entries. Other small presses to miss out include And Other Stories, Comma Press, and Istros Books (although we feel it is only a matter of time before they finally achieve a longlisting). Among the small presses who did manage to have titles selected, particular congratulations must go to both MacLehose Press and Fitzcarraldo Editions, with two nominations apiece rewarding their commitment to high-quality, challenging literature. We were particularly pleased by the recognition of Mathias Énard’s novel Compass; perhaps this decision will go some way to righting the wrong of the omission of his work Zone from the 2015 IFFP longlist (a decision we at the Shadow Panel saw fit to rectify…).

Zone was the first book ever called in by the Shadow Panel, and one of our main tasks after the longlist announcement this year was to decide whether this was required again. It is no secret that Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream would have been the automatic pick, but thankfully the official panel has made that decision for us. Works that were perhaps unlucky not to be chosen include Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, Marie Sizun’s Her Father’s Daughter and Sjón’s Moonstone, yet the only other title we seriously considered calling in was László Krasznahorkai’s War and War. However, a combination of his previous success in both the MBIP and the American Best Translated Book Award and doubts as to whether the novel was eligible (or even submitted) have led us to decide not to do so.

Therefore, we set off on our journey at the same point as the real judges, ready to explore the thirteen titles selected for the official longlist. However, this is where our paths will (and should) diverge. Over the coming months, our eight shadow judges will do their best to examine these books and explain why they were selected (or question those decisions). We give the longlist a cautious nod of approval; the shortlist, of course, is another matter entirely.

Have I Shown You My Midori Traveler’s Notebook? Have I Told You How Much I Love It?

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I have long been a record keeper, from trips to France as a child, to the horrible years before my first husband died, and beyond. I have a large selection of Italian leather bound journals, Moleskines, and various notebooks from places such as the Art Institute of Chicago. But none of them seem quite right because once filled their purpose seems largely done.

However, the Midori Traveler’s Notebook from Japan is more ideal than any I have ever used before. If only you could feel the patina of the cowhide leather, turning to velvet beneath the repeated touch of my hands. I have my name stamped in gold on the bottom cover, and a charm hanging off the bookmark such as Japanese girls like to hang on their phones.

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Inside are various inserts, such as the 2017 Weekly Diary which I use as a calendar and memory keeper,

as well as lined inserts which I use as a type of commonplace book: one for scripture verses I love, and one for a book journal.

But, the possibilities are endless! Once an insert is finished, it can easily be removed and replaced with another. There are all kinds of inserts to choose from: lightweight paper, grid, lined, sketch, or kraft. They are only about $6.00 each, and they all hold up to fountain pen ink without bleeding through.

My favorite shop is Baum-kuchen in Los Angeles, where Wakako weaves magic in the merchandise she sells. Today, this package arrived containing the items I had ordered all wrapped so beautifully.

There is a new lightweight paper insert (#013), a roll of 4 Season washi tape, a box of brass paper clips, and an Essential wallet to carry valuables such as credit cards and money.

 

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For I, too, believe that, “logic will take you from A to B. imagination will take you everywhere.”

The Man Booker International Prize and the 2017 Shadow Jury Panel

img_3846It is with great anticipation that I await March 15, for that is when the Man Booker International Prize long list will be made known to us. It is from this list that many of my favorite books of the year are read; several of them linger still in my memory so great is their power. If you have not read The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker, or The Dark Road by Ma Jian or The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefansson perhaps you should stop reading this post and begin them now.

I became a member of the shadow jury panel in 2014, the year after I learned about the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It has since evolved into the Man Booker International Prize. Fortunately, Stu and Tony have invited me back, and now for the second year in a row our panel consists of the following book bloggers:

Stu Allen is returning to chair the first Man Booker International Prize shadow jury after hosting four shadow IFFP juries. He blogs out of Winstonsdad’s Blog, home to 500-plus translated books in review. He can be found on twitter (@stujallen), where he also started the successful translated fiction hashtag #TranslationThurs over five years ago.

Tony Malone is an Anglo-Australian reviewer with a particular focus on German-language, Japanese and Korean fiction. He blogs at Tony’s Reading List, and his reviews have also appeared at Words Without Borders, Necessary Fiction, Shiny New Books and Asymptote. Based in Melbourne, he teaches ESL to prospective university students when he’s not reading and reviewing. He can also be found on Twitter @tony_malone

Clare started blogging at A Little Blog of Books five years ago. She does most of her reading during her commute to work in London and reviews contemporary literary fiction and some non-fiction on her blog. She particularly enjoys reading French and Japanese fiction in translation. Twitter: @littleblogbooks

Tony Messenger is addicted to lists, and books – put the two together (especially translated works) and the bookshelves sigh under the weight of new purchases as the “to be read” piles grow and the voracious all-night reading continues. Another Tony from Melbourne Australia, @Messy_tony (his Twitter handle) also reads Australian Poetry, interviewing a range of poets on his blog, which can be found at Messengers Booker (and more) and at Messenger’s Booker on Facebook – with a blog containing the word “booker” why wouldn’t he read this list?

Lori Feathers lives in Dallas, Texas and is co-owner and book buyer for Interabang Books, an independent bookstore in Dallas. She is a freelance book critic and board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She currently serves as a fiction judge for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. Her recent reviews can be found @LoriFeathers.

David Hebblethwaite is a book blogger and reviewer from the north of England, now based in the south. He has written about translated fiction for Words Without Borders, Shiny New Books, Strange Horizons, and We Love This Book. He blogs at David’s Book World and tweets as @David_Heb.

Grant Rintoul is a Scottish reviewer who lives on the coast not far from the 39 steps said to have inspired Buchan’s novel. Luckily the weather is generally ideal for reading. He blogs at 1streading, so-called as he rarely has time to look at anything twice. He can sometimes be found on Twitter @GrantRintoul

Although we comprise an unofficial jury, I think our opinion matters, for we represent the readers. Our passion lies with translated books, and each year we have unanimously agreed on which is the best work of literature from those presented on the long list. Please follow our thoughts on our collective blogs as we once again embark on a journey to discover which will be named the Man Booker International Prize winner on June 14, 2017.

And thank you, Daniel Hahn, for your brilliant work editing, writing and translating literature, as well as following me on Twitter. 😉

Mailbox Monday: a plethora of delectable temptations

If it looks like there are a lot books which have come my way, it is largely because I have not put up a Mailbox Monday post for far too long. But, as these books are so exciting to me I thought a few might interest you as well.

First, there is a Valentine present from my parents. The book inside the beautifully wrapped red paper, underneath a golden heart, is Perfume by Lizzie Ostrum.

The incredible stories of 100 perfumes from a whole century of scents.

Signature scents and now lost masterpieces; the visionaries who conceived them; the wild and wonderful campaigns that launched them; the women and men who wore them – every perfume has a tale to tell.

Join Lizzie Ostrom, dubbed ‘the Heston Blumenthal of perfume’ (Daily Mail), on an olfactory adventure as she explores the trends and crazes that have shaped the way we’ve spritzed.

Next, we have from SoHo Press:

Cruel is The Night by Karo Hämäläinen (Finnish):

Prizewinning Finnish author Karo Hämäläinen’s English-language debut is a literary homage to Agatha Christie and a black comedy locked-room mystery about murder, mayhem, and morality in our cynical modern world.

and

The Boy in The Earth by Fuminori Nakamura (Japanese):

As an unnamed Tokyo taxi driver works a night shift, picking up fares that offer him glimpses into the lives of ordinary people, he can’t escape his own nihilistic thoughts. Almost without meaning to, he puts himself in harm’s way; he can’t stop daydreaming of suicide, envisioning himself returning to the earth in obsessive fantasie…

Trysting by Emanuelle Pagano, comes from Two Lines Press (French):

A seductive blend of Maggie Nelson and Marguerite Duras, Trysting seizes romance’s slippery truths by letting us glimpse nearly 300 beguiling relationships: scenes between all genders and sexualities. Proving that the erotic knows no bounds, almost anything can be a means of attraction: from amnesia and throat-clearing to sign language, earplugs, back hair, arthritis, PVC, and showers. Combining aphorisms, anecdotes, and adventures, Trysting is a tour de force that gives a new perspective on a question as old as humanity.

Milena, or The Most Beautiful Femur in The World  by Jorge Zepeda Patterson came from Restless Books (Spanish):

Winner of the prestigious Premio Planeta, Milena, or The Most Beautiful Femur in the World is an enthralling international political thriller about sex, power, and information—and the extreme lengths people will go to attain them.

Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac (Spanish):

Savage Theories wryly explores fear and violence, war and sex, eroticism and philosophy. Its complex and flawed characters grapple with a mess of impossible, visionary theories, searching for their place in our fragmented digital world.

My Husband’s Wife by Jane Corry has been hailed as this Winter’s “must-read thriller”.

My Last Lament by James William Brown is, “A poignant and evocative novel of one Greek woman’s story of her own—and her nation’s—epic struggle in the aftermath of World War II.”

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George is historical fiction based on the life of “Emporer Nero, one of the most notorious and misunderstood figures in history.”

and finally,

Lenin’s Last Roller Coaster by David Downing is a British spy novel set in 1917 which commemorates the Bolshevik Revolution.

I hardly know where to begin, but I hope I have given you some interesting titles to put on your radar.

 

If A Picture Paints a Thousand Words, This One Fits With Testing Today

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We used to pass out #2 pencils and Scantron sheets.

Now we give laptops, log in codes and headphones. To 8 year olds.

Of course the headphones have not been put back into their proper Baggies. Of course three of them are tangled almost irretrievably. (See the photo of my lap, left.)

I miss Crayolas and paper and newly sharpened pencils. I thoroughly enjoy teaching cursive, and holding read aloud time after lunch, or Social Studies discussions about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Chinese New Year.

But this morning one of my special education kids, practically the brightest student in my class, typed something different from his password. Instead of BKM4BP, he typed, “Die, computer, die.”

It was the perfect bit of comedic relief I needed. I burst out laughing when I read it, and he looked at me in surprise.

“That is exactly how I’m feeling right now,” I said, and he laughed, too.

And then he went on to produce the third highest score in the class.

Books Read in 2016

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~January~

~February~

~March~

~April~

~May~

~June~

~July~

~August~

~September~

~October~

  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  • The Last Hurrah by Frank O’Connor
  • Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving
  • I.Q. by Joe Ide
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
  • The Haunting of Hillside School by Kristina Gregory

~November~

  • The Trespasser by Tana French
  • The Secret Ways of Perfume by Cristina Caboni
  • I’ll Take You There by Wally Lamb
  • Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten and Other Thankful Stuff by Barbara Parks

~December~

  • The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  • A True Novel by Minae Mizumura
  • The Bible

Not As Simple a Christmas As Planned, but Lovely Nonetheless

The house was prepared for Christmas early this year, on Thanksgiving weekend in fact, when I usually wait until after my son’s birthday on December 7. I’d hoped for simplicity, but somehow that always escapes me; a balsam tree with only twinkling fairy lights became a full blown event as bins were drawn out of the basement crawl space by my husband ad infinitum.

However, now that each event (a concert at Wheaton College, a family party, a Secret Santa book exchange) is ticked off the calendar, I find myself quite filled with joy. There is no time to read, of course, and probably won’t be until December 26, but it is better to focus on the moment at hand rather than rush past them toward the ones to come.

I wish you could be with me at school. You can’t imagine the excitement that 29 third graders produce the week before Christmas. We will read The Jolly Christmas Postman, What Do Snowmen Do At Night?, and are currently devouring The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Every day after lunch they clamor, “Read one more chapter!” It is my favorite refrain.

Just as C. S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors. I am anticipating reading much more of his work this year, as a dear friend has invited me to the C. S. Lewis Reading Group she attends at Wheaton College every Saturday. They focus on him, and the authors who influenced him, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, and G. K. Chesterton. So, I will be posting about those discussions, and authors, a lot more in January.

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Until then, may your days be bright. May Christmas stars shine on you and fill you with peace.