Friends. How sweet it is to be here with you again.
2020 has been a rough go, to say the least. But I hope there were moments of solace in there, too. For some of you, those moments may have come in the form of a good book. (They certainly did for me: I have many treasures to share from the reading I did for the National Book Award for Translated Literature, and here’s a great place to start.) Or perhaps you were among the binge-watching crew, or the sourdough-making crew, or the put-hats-on-your-chairs-and-pretend-you’re-having-a-dinner-party crew. If so, that’s cool, too. Whatever works.
2021 is right around the bend, though, and there is a lot to be excited about, translation-wise. For starters, I’m going to be ALL OVER these:
The Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí, Conquistador and Founder of New Catalonia by Max Besora, trans. Mara Faye Lethem
(Open Letter, Jan 2021)
From the publisher’s description: Using historical facts as raw material, and with stellar appearances of characters such as Miguel de Cervantes or the brigand Serrallonga, among others, Besora converses with the satirical tradition of works such as Gargantua and Pantagruel, Gulliver’s Travels, or Don Quixote, to paint a fresco of Catalonia in the seventeenth century and the Golden Age of the Spanish empire, creating a novel that is fresh, sharp, and bursting with exuberant adventures.
Double take: here’s the starred review from Publishers Weekly.
In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, trans. Sasha Dugdale
(New Directions, Feb 2021)
From the publisher’s description: With the death of her aunt, the narrator is left to sift through an apartment full of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and souvenirs: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia. Carefully reassembled with calm, steady hands, these shards tell the story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century. In dialogue with writers like Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, and Osip Mandelstam, Stepanova dips into various forms—essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue, and historical documents—to assemble a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offer an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.
Double take: here’s an interview with Stepanova over at the LARB.
I had a couple more but they were already snagged by these amazing booksellers who were generous enough to share their recommendations for RIGHT NOW and for 2021. Here’s what they’re loving and looking forward to… if you like what you see, please support these wonderful businesses by ordering directly from them. You’ll feel amazing. I promise.
Pilsen Community Books (Chicago, IL) is a worker owned and operated independent bookstore that specializes in literary fiction, radical history, and books about social justice. The staff’s goal is to unite their passion for bookselling with their belief that labor is entitled to all it produces.
Right now: A nimble investigation into the liminal spaces between collective unconscious, lived experience, and political reality, Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s The Society of Reluctant Dreamers, translated by Daniel Hahn, is an epistemic jaunt through postcolonial Angola. We highly recommend this stirring and surreal book—a permanent fixture on our staff picks! (Katharine’s recommendation)
2021: Elvira Navarro’s Rabbit Island, translated by Christina MacSweeney, is so haunting, wild and darkly funny that it’s guaranteed to bring a delightful nightmarish quality to long February nights. Think Lispector crossed with David Lynch with a little Leonora Carrington thrown in, perfect for Pilsen Community Books’ most adventurous readers and anyone with a wild heart. Out in February 2021. (Mandy’s recommendation)
Brazos Bookstore (Houston, TX) offers programs and curates our shelves to inspire and expand the horizons of our curious readers. We continue to be locally owned by a group of twenty-seven Houstonians who came together and purchased the bookstore in 2006. (The following are Mark Haber’s recs.)
Right now: An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from the German by Jackie Smith (New Directions). A stunning meditation on objects and animals through the exploration of memory and extinction. Ideal for fans of Sebald.
2021: If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris (Archipelago Books): A moving and heartbreaking account of a man coming to terms with the death of his mother who left Italy for Romania when he was a child. Understated and masterful.
East Bay Booksellers (Oakland, CA) is a neighborhood bookstore in Oakland, California committed to the idea that the greatest browsing experience is also a provocation—to a purchase, sure, but possibly not what you came in looking for. We are not shy about our politics or our taste, but we’re also not (normally) tyrants about either. (All recommendations from Brad)
Right now: I suppose I’m duty-bound to go with Anja Kampmann’s High as the Waters Rise. There is something Homeric about this gorgeous book, lovingly translated by Anna Posten, whose hero journeys into love and language, and discovers that in their loss there is also richness. Odysseus would be proud.
2021: I’m really looking forward to Migratory Birds, by Mariana Oliver (translated from the Spanish by Julia Sanches). My natural reading habitat is in books that are most comfortable pursuing the seams that link and disparate ideas. Oliver’s book promises something truly special. There are few topics more important today than borders, their shifting, crossings, and violence, and Migratory Birds feels like a crucial addition to the literature about them.
Right now: Christina MacSweeney’s translation of On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera has a natural musicality to it, each essay lulls you into a state of personal reflection. It’s been the perfect guiding force for 2020.
2021: If you love lewd jokes, playful puns, and Oulipian nursery rhymes, In/Concrete by Anne Garréta is the book to keep on your radar. Emma Ramadan’s translations continue to thrill me as a reader.
PHEW. How’s that for an embarrassment of riches? Or, if you really feel like luxuriating in excellence, might I recommend subscribing to an indie press? Not only will you be helping them through this gnarly moment so they can keep publishing the books we love, you’ll also get to experience the joy of book surprises! Books you didn’t even know existed! And then… there they are, in cute little covid-safe packages on your doorstep (or in your inbox)! What could be better than that? Among the many wonderful options to choose from, there’s the inspiring Tilted Axis (also available as a digital subscription), and the wonderful Transit Books, which offers their subscriptions in two cozy sizes.
What else does 2021 have in store for us? Heaps of wonderful books in translation, that’s for sure. Mixed and mingled in unexpected ways, by yours truly. And more profiles of independent bookstores, like the one we did with Riffraff in Providence approximately six centuries ago.
So stay tuned, there’s lots more to come.