international literature reviews

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A simple story about a simple life, Robert Seethaler’s book is a perfect respite in an Austrian village. “A Whole Life” tells the life story of Andreas Egger, who arrives in the village as an orphan, grows up on a farm, works to built the first gondolas up the Alps, survives an avalanche, fights in the Second Word War and is imprisoned in Russia, and returns home to witness the gradual modernization of village life.⁣ 🏔 ⁣ One of my favorite things about “A Whole Life” is the way it resists presenting the village and Egger from an outsider’s point of view. The Alps are not described in picturesque language; rather they are just the “snow-capped peaks…starting to glow.” The avalanche is a “snow cloud…coating everything in a fine white layer;” the wind “picking the fog to pieces, shredding it and chasing it apart.” It’s only through Egger’s descriptions of the wonder on the faces of hikers and skiers that we realize just how magnificent these views are. ⁣ 🏔 ⁣ I picked this book up out of curiosity in a used bookstore in Oregon and I’m so glad I did. In a sparse 150 pages “A Whole Life” wraps the whole of life and loss, loneliness and love. It’s the perfect read for a slow weekend in a cabin or amidst the drizzle, when you’re yearning to slow down time and see just a little more. ⁣ 🏔 ⁣ – Kelsey McFaul (@kelsey_mcfaul)

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Part satire, part adaptation, part political commentary, Ahmed Saadawi’s novel « Frankenstein in Baghdad » stitches together genres just as its creature is stitched together from dismembered body parts found in the streets of the Iraqi capital. Set during the American occupation, the novel weaves together the voices of an old woman mourning her son, an untrustworthy storyteller, a journalist, and the creature itself. ⁣ 🧪 ⁣ The creature begins as a reanimated corpse taking revenge on those who did violence to the original owners of the body parts it’s made up of, but eventually kills to keep itself alive and take revenge on those who insult it. Drawing on both Shelley’s classic and the archive of pop culture renditions, Saadawi’s creature is, I think, both a meditation on the nature of American imperialism that makes Robert De Niro a recognizable figure worldwide and a condemnation of local cycles of violence that manufacture ever-new reasons for civil war. ⁣ 🧪 ⁣ I’ll admit I was initially dubious of *one more* Frankenstein adaptation, but « Frankenstein in Baghdad » won me over. On first read, it’s a simple and fast-paced thriller, but sitting with it longer makes visible all the ways Saadawi’s fidelity to and departures from Shelley’s version carry profound meaning. A fan of Frankenstein or not, check out this novel! ⁣ 🧪⁣ – Kelsey McFaul (@kelsey_mcfaul)

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Islands scars of waters⁣⁣ Islands testimony of wounds ⁣⁣ Islands crumbs⁣⁣ Islands without form⁣⁣ […]⁣⁣ Islands forming a ring, beautiful keel unique⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ And I caress you with my ocean hands. And I make you tack with my trade-wind words. And I lick you with my tongues of seaweed. And I steer you free of buccaneers. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Oh death your swamp of mud!⁣⁣ Shipwreck your hell of rubble! I accept! ⁣⁣ 🌊 ⁣⁣ Aimé Césaire first published the long-form poem « Cahier d’un retour au pays natal » in an obscure journal in 1939. In « Cahier », Césaire gives symbolic form to the distinctive experience of black people in the modern world and lays the foundation for his idea of négritude. A racial solidarity movement, négritude draws on pride in shared African cultural values as the foundation of an identity not tied to the inferior status and treatment perpetuated in Euro-American colonial thinking. ⁣⁣ 🌊 ⁣⁣ Now recognized as a classic in black liberation literature, « Cahier » is a text Césaire worked on and rewrote all his life. This new edition contains the authoritative integrated text in French and an amazing English translation (« Journal of a Homegoing » ) in side-by-side format. There’s also a great introduction and lots of explanatory notes. A super accessible text for those interested in black liberation thought and writing, especially in languages outside English! ⁣⁣ 🌊⁣⁣ – Kelsey McFaul

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“Once, everything we knew we thought we’d have forever…Cold oceans of time have changed what I once loved, but is my skin not a rope? Is my blood not an ocean? Is my bone not a mast? Are our tears not the same breach, a dirge for all we know and love? Are they not the same tide, the same salt? The broad white albatross of longing sweeps over me. I carry the memory of borders in my skin.”⁣ 🗺 ⁣ Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s debut novel about the Syrian conflict is poetic, haunting, and profoundly timely. “The Map of Salt and Stars” tells the story of two young girls, Nour and Rawiya, separated by nine centuries but both adventurers who love maps, are haunted by loss, and are searching for home. ⁣ 🗺 ⁣ The first, Nour, leaves her home in New York after the death of her father to return to Homs, Syria in 2011 just as the conflict begins. When her family’s home is destroyed, they take to the road and Nour tells herself the story of Rawiya, a twelfth-century apprentice to the famous mapmaker al-Idrisi. Rawiya traveled all around the Mediterranean world, mapping the route Nour, her mother, and her sisters would traverse many years later. ⁣ 🗺 ⁣ As the girls’ stories are interwoven within larger geographies of history, power, and conflict, Joukhadar makes it achingly clear that the identity of a refugee is never something chosen but a series of losses big and small that transform people into figures they themselves do not recognize. At the same time, Nour and Rawiya’s journeys are ultimately hopeful as they both learn to redefine “home” in ways that allow them to move forward into the future. ⁣ 🗺⁣ Some of my favorite parts of “Map” were the way Joukhadar incorporated her own experience with synesthesia into Nour’s story, relating the trauma of displacement in vivid color, and the poems that open each section as an ode to the country passed through. The novel also inspired me to seek out the stories of Syrian migrants told in their own words, including the collections “Shatila Stories” and “Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline.”⁣ 🗺 ⁣ – Kelsey McFaul ⁣(@kelsey_mcfaul)

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I didn't know very much (ok, virtually nothing) about New Zealand fiction before visiting there in 2017, but discovered « Wulf » in Unity Books in Auckland. Written by first-time author Hamish Clayton, « Wulf » recounts the history of English trader John Stewart's encounter with New Zealand chief Te Rop'raha in the early nineteenth century, but sets these historical events against the backdrop of an enigmatic 10th-century Anglo-Saxon epic. The poem is a cryptic and obscure narrative of a woman's desire for a man sometimes her lover, sometimes her son, sometimes interchangeable or part of a love triangle with a second warrior, Eadwacer. ⁣ 🌊⁣ Two thirds of the book builds toward the encounter between Te Rop'raha and the British, which when it finally happens feels anti-climatic and deeply clouded. The fluidity, beauty, and rhythm of Clayton's prose are like love letter to his homeland, making New Zealand glitter like a green gem in the sun and the novel a pleasure to read. Meantime, the visceral and metallic clarity of native history and legend, and the candidness and unabashedness of British attempts at mental and physical conquest indicate a deep respect for indigeneity and ancientness, an acknowledgement of complicity and complexity. ⁣ 🌊⁣ That Clayton wrote the novel as a doctoral student is seriously impressive, and the comparison between British epic and New Zealand history is ingenious, ironic, and haunting. If I ever to write a novel someday, I hope it'd be like this one! ⁣ 🌊⁣ – Kelsey McFaul (@kelsey.mcfaul)

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Umami by Laia Jufresa was our most recent book club read!⁣ ✨⁣ The novel is inspired by the five locations of taste on the tongue—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami—that are also the names of apartments in a Mexico City mews, whose inhabitants tell a story of loss, love, and coming of age. ⁣ ✨⁣ Five characters speak from five different time periods, including two sisters, their friend, a young artist, and an old academic who discovered umami in the Mexican diet. ⁣ ✨⁣ Umami’s composition is ambitious and complex, but we loved its windows into the minds of children navigating puberty and teenage friendship, visiting their relatives in America, and planting a milpa. ⁣ ✨⁣ Reading Gabriel Mistra’s poem “El Maiz,” we learned that milpa, an indigenous practice of crop rotation between corn, beans, and squash in central and southern America connected families with other communities and society itself. It’s a kind of metaphor for the community of the mews, whose losses begin to heal around the new life of the garden. ⁣ ✨⁣ Umami was translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes and the translation is smooth and energetic. We couldn’t believe only 8-12 books published in Mexico each year get translated into English—that’s 3% of all translated books!! ⁣ ✨⁣ We recommend Umami and will be looking out for more translated books in the future—we’d love your recommendations!

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