28.6.13

Roy Jacobsen - Child Wonder

Rating 6.2

Bought in the only actual bookshop of Abingdon-on-Thames out of fondness to support a laudable independent business.
That and because I've got a fascination for bildungsroman novels set in poor pre-oil Oslo. Call it a hang-up.

Unfortunately, I should have known that Roy Jacobsen is no Jan Kjaerstad nor Lars Saabye Christensen nor Dag Solstad.
Furthermore Child Wonder suffers from a weird four-handed translation by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw.

What's the purpose of having two translators, I wonder? Especially considering how Mr Shaw's speciality is Danish (to the point he wrote a Danish-Thai-Danish dictionary!) and not Norwegian bokmaal.
I reckon how bokmaal itself is but an adaptation of written Danish with merely 106 years of history, but - for goodness' sake - it's not Danish. Nor Thai.
A good answer on the double translator business came from Robert after posting this review on Goodreads:

There are many reasons to have two translators. Some work as a team, due to different skills, most notably Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Sometimes a young translator does a mediocre job, and someone more experienced is brought in to fix it up. Sometimes the work of an American translator is Britishized by a Brit (almost never the other way around). Sometimes someone just helps out enough to be given credit. As an editor of translations, I sometimes became very involved, but never took formal credit. Having another ear and eye can be very helpful
Which makes perfect sense.
And yet, my impression is that one Don didn't help the other here. I mean, the final result of this translation is certainly a mediocre job. If not worse.

I don't know who's actually to blame for the mess they made with this book, but I'd like to discover who had the brilliant idea of NOT translating Mr, Mrs and Miss so that characters are called, say, herr Syversen and fru Amundsen.
Was that supposed to make one think of a play by Ibsen?
So why 'Uncle Bjarne' is not 'Onkel'? And 'Mother', 'Mor'? Lack of inspiration? Mere distraction?

My distant Norwegian memories shook, rattled and rolled when the butcher boys Don&Don called 'legendary restaurants' the sportsstue (literally 'sports lounge', technically cafes for skiers) of Sinober, Soerskauen and Lilloseter.
Really? I mean, we have a scene of anticipation for a Sunday ski-excursion in the forests of Lillomarka and later a working class kid in ski overalls swallowing waffles in a no-frills sportsstue and Don&Don chose the expression 'legendary restaurant' to define it.
Go check a better dictionary, guys; possibly not a Danish-Thai-Danish one.

Ah, and thank you to Don&Don for having left "the 1961 edition of 'Hvem, Hva, Hvor', an almanac" with its original Norwegian title. Which is, I am sure, extremely understandable for the standard Anglo-Saxon reader. Who? What? Where? May I add 'Hvorfor', why?

Child Wonder is no masterpiece and, overall, a somewhat frigid and dispassionate novel, but nonetheless a decent effort of a book that I would have liked to enjoy without frowning too much in the reading process. It's a pity that I couldn't rely on Don&Don in order to do that.
I hope Roy Jacobsen had the chance to have a look into this Frankenstein of a translation

21.6.13

Penelope Fitzgerald - The Bookshop

Rating 6.5

A good friend of mine is going to make her dream real. After years spent working as a bookshop assistant all around Italy, she will finally open her own bookshop in her hometown on next autumn.

This is what I call a brave decision given the state bookselling is in in these days. One may say that the rise of ebooks, bookstores chains and heavily discounted books available on Amazon pretty much killed the business for any independent bookseller, but this is only a part of the whole picture.

The bitter truth is that people don't read.
According to Istat (the Italian National Office for Statistics), 54% of my compatriots didn't read a single book on 2012.
Not. Even. One. Book.

Not that among the so called (and often self-proclaimed) 'readers' things get much better. The same study reveals that 46% of the Italians who read something on 2012, didn't manage to leaf through more than 3 books in 12 months.

So much for Italy and its love for the written page.
And good luck to my good friend who - I must say - got the right cards (i.e expertise, ideas, passion) in her hands to win over the stark numbers and whose bookshop is likely to be a smash, despite all odds.

Anyway.
You may expect that the UK - with all of its High Street booksellers, charity shops, jumble sales, literary prizes, and literary festivals - shows a completely different picture when it comes to the reading habits of its inhabitants. If you think so, you would be mistaken.

Surprisingly enough, skimming through the ONS, Yougov archives and the likes, I couldn't find any relevant study on how many UK citizens read something on 2012. Bizarre, isn't it?

However, even though the current Education Secretary stated that pupils aged eleven should read up to 50 books a year, the problem is that 17% of the UK population still struggle with literacy, according to a recent survey by the National Literacy Trust. I daresay that these 11 million people struggling with the written word can hardly be counted as potential readers.

But it's time to talk about this novella.
I'm afraid that I won't 'give The Bookshop as a gift to my owner of a bookshop to be friend.
You will see the reason why.

Set in a remote corner of East Anglia in the 1950s, the book revolves around the decision of a past her prime widow, Florence Green, to open a bookshop in her village. Quite predictably, the new bookshop is seen as a menace to the dull status quo of the little town by many of the prominent members of the local community. This means that Mrs Green will have to struggle against ignorance, envy, hypocrisy and malice to open her bookshop, keep it open and catch her customers.

As Penelope Fitzgerald herself had her own bookshop on a stage of her life, I expected this novella to be a sort of ode to the power and magnetism of books.

I didn't call for an happy ending, but I thought that the author would have drawn a provincial fairytale with the brave Mrs Green succeeding in elevating the love for the spoken word of the villagers thanks to well chosen books, visiting authors etc. Which is nowhere near what happens in The Bookshop.

Let me make myself clear, I wasn't looking for a British version of Reading Lolita in Teheran with East Anglian fishermen replacing Iranian teenagers (by the way, Lolita is the only novel being mentioned here). No, that would have been too cheesy.

I am aware that the author wanted to escape from a romanticised view of the bookselling business and focus her attention on local characters with their gossiping and petty feuds, which she did remarkably well.
And yet, I reasonably expected from Penelope Fitzgerald something more on those marvellous goods called books. At the end of the day, The Bookshop is more about bookkeeping than books.

Moreover, we are never told why Mrs Green decided to open a bookshop and not, say, a clothes shop. Is she a reader? No. Was her deceased husband a booklover? Nope. Does she have a stock of inherited novels to get rid of? Nothing like that.

Call me a harsh reviewer, but as far as I'm concerned, the whole entrepreneurial battle of Mrs Green this novella speaks about could have worked the same if she had opened a cafe or a hardware shop (none of them to be found in her village).

I reckon that Penelope Fitzgerald wrote an interesting story and I appreciated her talent more than once leafing through this neat novella. There's not a superfluous page, sentence or dialogue in this book and you will enjoy the odd pearl of British humour, but what lacks here is substance, passion, warmth.
And if you love books, you will miss all that.

14.6.13

Anne Applebaum - Between East and West (Across the Borderlands of Europe)

Rating 8.0

Stunning travelogue from Kaliningrad to Odessa passing through Poland and Belarus and a bunch of places called in three or four different names at the same time once belonging to Hungary, Romania and former Czechoslovakia.

For those who are interested in digging deeper into these fascinating - if often forgotten - places, the Polish journalist Andrzej Stasiuk travelled on a similar route in his On the Road to Babadag a decade or so later.

And yet I have to reckon Between East and West is much better than the excellent Babadag.

The year is 1991 and Anne Applebaum writes with the keen eye of a skilled reporter, the deep knowledge of a masterful historian and the flawless humor of a talented novelist.

The Prussian heydays of Königsberg, now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and the birthplace of philosopher Immanuel Kant

And, what's more, Ms Applebaum (who married the Polish Foreign Affairs Minister Radek 'Twitter' Sikorski and now entertains herself writing books on Polish traditional cuisine...sic transit gloria mundi) doesn't make confusion at all. She is as knowledgeable about the writings by Bruno Schulz and Gregor von Rezzori as she masters the political and economic intrigues of post-communist countries.

Khmelnitsky in Ukraine, formerly known as Kamenets Podoslski, the last Polish outpost against the Mongol hordes and the Turkish troops

Either if you're looking for something profound and engaging about that dreadful place named Kaliningrad (formerly Koenigsberg) or if you want to learn more about the sentimental life of Adam Mickiewicz - the poet on whose patriotism Poles and Lithuanians still quarrels for - there cannot be anything better than this.

Navahrudak in Belarus formerly known as Nowogrodek, the birthplace of the Polish bard Adam Mickiewicz also known as Adomas Mickiewicius by the Lithuanians 

PS: I've got just one annoying remark for Anne Applebaum:
Koenigsberg was heavily bombed and almost completely destroyed by the RAF well before the Red Army conquered the town. And yet, as far as I remember, the author doesn't mention the British bombing at all and that's an alarming and biased omission.

8.6.13

Niall Ferguson - Empire

Rating 6.8

Good but extremely partial book.

Niall Ferguson did his homework and reveals a good deal of interesting stuff on the rise and fall of the British Empire.

However, the author does indulge way too much in justifying British colonialism.

Take the episode he describes involving a British officer savagely killing in cold blood an unarmed boy in Calcutta.
According to Ferguson, the difference between the British forces and, say, Nazis is that whereas German soldiers would have never dared to criticize this behavior from one of their officers, the British troops in India cried 'shame, shame' to their superior.

And yet, they did nothing to stop the guy and Mr. Ferguson doesn't even bother to tell us whether the officer kept his high rank in the army (as he likely did) after his barbarian act. This is biased stuff.

Would a Turkish policeman or a Syrian soldier cry 'shame, shame' when one of his colleagues hits and kills an innocent civilian peacefully picketing on a public square? And would that cry make him more civilized?
I don't think so. Fighting to stop the killing or stepping back from his police or army ranks would.

The problem is that the scene portrayed by Niall Ferguson here sounds like edifying fiction to me. Something like 'we let the killing go, but actually we disapprove it and we're quite horrified by it'.

Honestly, could you visualize British troops standing on the ramparts of an Indian fortress in the late 19th century and giving cries of 'shame, shame' when their colonel is killing a boy down in the street?

But let's suppose for a moment that that really happened. Then what?
Did the soldiers welcome their colonel in the fortress by shaking their heads in disbelief?
Did they tell him 'What you did is wrong, sir'.
Oh. come on! Let me be skeptical about that.

What I fail to understand now that I have been living in the UK for some time is how some well-respected British historians (Max Hastings, to name another one) genuinely believe that this country has an anti-militarist tradition.

I mean, seriously? Did the British troops had picnics in the US, India, Myanmar, Afghanistan, South Africa and in a score of other former colonies of theirs?
Oh no, wait, they were actually bringing civilization. Hands up to this logic.

Something for Niall Ferguson to listen to. Pity that William Onebayor here doesn't mention Britain.

Not that Mr. Ferguson denies that the mighty British Empire actually began with privateers attacking Dutch and Spanish ships and trade ports with the blessing of the Kings and Queens of England.
No, the historian here makes that clear and that makes his book worth and quite informative.

But what follows later is not as convincing as the very first chapters of the book.
Niall Ferguson does take a side and that should have been avoided to make Empire better.