Cary's Shelf: Best in Translation

Published Thursday, August 24, 2023

When I began ordering items for the adult library almost nine years ago, I had to really search for diverse titles. Today, social media, bloggers, authoritative and novice book reviewers, and popular media have filled the void with much needed "best of" lists and recommendations. Publishers and book vendors have had to catch up, but now they too offer easily browsable diverse lists for me to choose from, including multi-cultural, ethnic, and LBGTQ themes.

I am also happy to report we now have access to wonderful, award-winning book translations from the best authors all over the world. Here are just a few translated books I've acquired for the library (the summaries are collated from multiple book reviews). We are all richer for these very human, universal reading experiences.

I Went to See My Father, by Kyung-Sook Shin (Korean)

Two years after losing her daughter in a tragic accident, Hon finally returns to her home in the countryside to take care of her father. After years of emotional isolation, Hon will finally learn the whole truth about her father, her siblings, and the family's financial hardships. At first, her father appears withdrawn and fragile, an aging man, awkward but kind around his daughter. Then, after stumbling upon a chest of letters, Hon discovers the truth of her father's past and reconstructs her family history.

Consumed with her own grief, Hon had been blind to her father's vulnerability and her family's fragility. Unraveling secret after secret, and thanks to conversations with loving family and friends, Hon grows closer to her father, who proves to be more complex than she ever gave him credit for. What Hon uncovers about her father builds towards her understanding of the great scope of his sacrifice and heroism, and of his generation as a whole.

More than just the portrait of a single man, I Went to See My Father opens a window onto humankind, family, loss, and war. An instant bestseller in Korea.

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The Illiterate, by Agota Kristof (Hungarian/French)

Narrated in a series of stark, brief vignettes, The Illiterate is Ágota Kristóf's memoir of her childhood, her escape from Hungary in 1956 with her husband and small child, her early years working in factories in Switzerland, and the writing of her first novel, The Notebook. Few writers can convey so much in so little space. Fierce yet documentarian in tone, Kristóf portrays with a disturbing level of detail and directness an implacable message of loss: first, she is forced to learn Russian as a child (with the Soviet takeover of Hungary, Russian became obligatory at school); next, at age twenty-one, she finds herself required to learn French to survive: "I have spoken French for more than thirty years, I have written in French for twenty years, but I still don't know it. I don't speak it without mistakes, and I can only write it with the help of dictionaries, which I frequently consult. It is for this reason that I also call the French language an enemy language. There is a further reason, the most serious of all: this language is killing my mother tongue."

"Her descriptions of those with whom she escaped offer an uncomfortable insight into the extreme vulnerability of those obliged to seek asylum abroad." A timely theme - illuminating with a unsparing, yet empathetic light.

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The Liar, by Martin A. Hansen (Danish)

When the first chapter of Martin A. Hansen's The Liar was broadcast by Danish state radio in the spring of 1950, Denmark's towns and villages fell silent. Combining terse, Nordic Saga-like prose with an unreliable narrator, The Liar is one of the greatest works of modern Scandinavian fiction, and in Paul Larkin's translation of Hansen's masterpiece now finds its true voice in English.

The Liar tells the story of Johannes Lye, a teacher and parish clerk on tiny Snipe Island, off the coast of Denmark, a place that in winter ice entirely cuts off from the world at large. It is winter when the book begins, and for years now Lye has lived alone, even as he nurses a secret passion for Annemari, a former pupil.

Annemari, however, is engaged to be married to a local man, Olaf--away now, but expected to return in the spring — while she is also being courted by a young engineer who has come to work on the island. Such are the main players in the book's compact drama, which we observe through the lens of Johannes's at once ironic and self-lacerating diary.

Hansen's novel beautifully evokes the stark landscape of Snipe Island and the immemorial circuit of the seasons as well as the mysterious passage of time in the human heart while proceeding to a supremely suspenseful conclusion.

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Our Share of Night, by Mariana Enriquez (Spanish)
A woman's mysterious death puts her husband and son on a collision course with her demonic family in the first novel to be translated into English by this International Booker Prize-shortlisted author.

A young father and son set out on a road trip, devastated by the death of the wife and mother they both loved. United in grief, the pair travel to her ancestral home, where they must confront the terrifying legacy she has bequeathed: a family called the Order that commits unspeakable acts in search of immortality. For Gaspar, the son, this maniacal cult is his destiny. As the Order tries to pull him into their evil, he and his father take flight, attempting to outrun a powerful clan that will do anything to ensure its own survival. But how far will Gaspar's father go to protect his child? And can anyone escape their fate? Moving back and forth in time, from London in the swinging 1960s to the brutal years of Argentina's military dictatorship and its turbulent aftermath, Our Share of Night is a novel like no other: a family story, a ghost story, a story of the occult and the supernatural, a book about the complexities of love and longing. This is the masterwork of one of Latin America's most original novelists.

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The Only Daughter, by A.B. Yehoshua (Israeli)

From the internationally acclaimed, award-winning Israeli author, a stunning novella that brilliantly illuminates a young girl's crisis of faith and coming of age in Padua, Italy.

Rachele Luzzato is twelve years old when she learns her father is gravely ill. While her family plans for her upcoming Bat-Mitzvah, Rachele finds herself cast as the Madonna in her school's Christmas play. Caught between spiritual poles, struggling to cope with her father's mortality, Rachele feels as if the threads of her everyday life are unravelling.

A diverse circle of adults are there to guide young Rachele as she faces the difficult passing of childhood, including her charismatic Jewish grandfather, her maternal Catholic grandparents, and even an old teacher who believes the young girl might find solace in a nineteenth-century novel. These spiritual tributaries ultimately converge in Rachele's imagination, creating a fantasy that transcends the microcosm of her daily life with one simple hope: an end to the loneliness felt by an only daughter. In this wondrous story, Yehoshua paints a warm and subtle portrait of a young girl at the cusp of her journey into adulthood.

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Look at the Lights, My Love, by Annie Ernaux (French)
For half a century, the French writer Annie Ernaux has transgressed the boundaries of what stories are considered worth telling, what subjects worth exploring. In this probing meditation, Ernaux turns her attention to the phenomenon of the big-box superstore, a ubiquitous feature of modern life that has received scant attention in literature. Recording her visits to a store near Paris for over a year, she captures the world that exists within its massive walls. Through Ernaux's eyes, the superstore emerges as "a great human meeting place, a spectacle"--a flashy, technologically advanced incarnation of the ancient marketplace where capitalism, cultural production, and class converge, dictating our rhythms of desire. With her relentless powers of observation, Ernaux takes the measure of a place we thought we knew, calling us to question the experiences we overlook and to gaze more deeply into ordinary life.
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About the Author

Cary's idea of a perfect day is a complete stereotype: reading or watching British crime fiction with a cup of hot tea close at hand, her favorite quilt, and her cats Clio & Junie on her lap.