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Search tags: read-in-translation
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review 2017-05-17 17:06
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood - Marjane Satrapi,Mattias Ripa,Blake Ferris

A graphic-novel-style memoir about the author's childhood during the Iranian Revolution, this book seems written largely to educate Westerners about Iran. It is an episodic story focusing on how current events affected the author and her progressive family. This focus seems to have worked well for most of its readers, especially those who knew next to nothing about Iran beforehand. For some reason, though, I found it less gripping than others did, although all the right elements seem to be there: the stakes are high but the author keeps it personal, the characters are as well-defined as can be expected in a childhood memoir, the art is emotive. The plotting is a little off, with both individual chapter arcs and the novel as a whole either tapering off or ending abruptly. You should probably read it anyway though.

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review 2017-04-30 17:49
The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst
The Misfortunates - Dimitri Verhulst,David Colmer

Based on the protagonist’s sharing the author’s full name, and the little information about Verhulst available in English, this short, episodic novel appears to be autobiographical. Somewhat more than half of it focuses on Dimitri’s boyhood, surrounded by the raging drunks that are his father and three uncles. In these chapters Dimitri himself almost disappears, but one gets the sense of a narrator struggling with the tension between his affection and nostalgia for these incorrigible relatives, and his ultimate rejection of their lifestyle after they fail him in ways that are largely left to the reader’s imagination. In later chapters Dimitri appears as a not-particularly-endearing adult, and the book becomes even more episodic – it’s almost more of a short story collection than a novel – as major events are referenced only in passing. It makes sense thematically but leaves a great deal untold.

The book is set in Belgium and originally written in Dutch, but the translation is skillful and flows well. Early on some of the descriptions wallow in the muck to a fairly repulsive degree (generally related to bodily fluids), but this is less a feature of the entire book than of the early chapters. And they do speak to an eye for detail. The individual characters are not especially distinguishable, but the culture of Dimitri’s family and his community come to life (the encounters between the men of the family and Dimitri’s refined, well-off aunt and cousin, and later a cultured immigrant family, throw their mostly well-intentioned boorishness into particularly sharp relief). There’s an adept balancing of entertainment value and the narrator’s darker view of the world, sprinkled with brief, pointed references to the meaninglessness of life.

There’s certainly something to this book, and some readers will connect strongly to this ode to a dysfunctional family. But the narrator’s emotional distance combined with his often poor treatment of others once reaching adulthood, the episodic nature of a story without any unifying plot, the gross-out factor, and the rather limited, child’s-eye view of the primary characters made it difficult for me to become engrossed in the story. We’ll call this one a neutral reference.

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review 2016-12-29 03:14
The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul
The Murder of Halland - Pia Juul,Martin Aitken

Huh. This is a weird novella, from the perspective of a woman whose longtime partner is murdered. I hesitate to call it a mystery novel, since the mystery isn't really solved. The writing is fine and there's some decent characterization here, but in the end neither the events nor the characters nor their relationships made a lot of sense to me, and I wasn't quite sure why it ended where it did. I suppose that's a bit like life. This book didn't do much for me, but it's short enough to read in a sitting if you're interested.

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review 2016-07-31 22:10
With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz
With Fire and Sword - Henryk Sienkiewicz,W.S. Kuniczak

Over the course of 11 days I plowed through 133 pages out of a whopping 1135, and am ready to be done. Had this been a 300-page book I'd have finished and perhaps given a 3-star review. But you have to really enjoy something to want to go 1135 pages, and I wasn't looking forward to picking this up. The comparisons to War and Peace are misplaced: while Tolstoy had excellent character development and insight into human nature, this book's characters are drawn in broad strokes and their emotional reactions cliched; no one in it has sparked any interest in me thus far. It doesn't help that names of places and groups of people that presumably needed no explanation to the original 19th century Polish audience are thrown around to the confusion of this 21st century American. While I did pick up the more modern Kuniczak translation, I suspect this book is much better in the original.

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review 2016-05-30 18:55
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
Kristin Lavransdatter - Sigrid Undset,Tiina Nunnally,Brad Leithauser

As an omnibus, the length of this classic trilogy is daunting; it was on my to-read list for years before I decided to read just the first, 300-page book. Of course that was excellent and I soon read the rest of the trilogy. While I understand the omnibus packaging – the later books assume knowledge of the earlier ones such that it is akin to one three-volume novel – for me, reading three individual novels worked best.

Kristin Lavransdatter is the life story of one woman, and the people closest to her, in 14th century Norway. The first volume follows Kristin’s childhood and her teenage romance with a man her father would never have chosen for her; the second, her life as a young wife and mother, struggling with the practical and religious fallout from her choices in the first book; and the third, her life as a middle-aged woman navigating complex relationships, while her importance in her sons’ lives diminishes. Kristin is a fascinating character, because she feels entirely realistic and human. Undset never pandered to the faction who insist that female characters be “likeable” (i.e., flawless); she simply presents the character as she is, in all her strengths and weaknesses, noble impulses and bad decisions. But I think most readers will like her and relate to her fight to marry the man she loves and to build a future for her children. It’s not all domestic life, though; political maneuvering, swordfights, and other drama keeps Kristin’s life from becoming too predictable.

Many reviews discuss the religion in these books: Catholicism is a major part of the characters’ lives, and the author herself converted. But though religious themes are present throughout, I never found the books preachy. Religion was an essential aspect of medieval life, and Undset captures that well; interestingly, while Kristin is a religious woman by today’s standards and in the eyes of some of the characters, in the context of her time and in her interactions with religious folk she seems far more interested in the secular aspects of her life, but raised to be guilty about that preoccupation.

At any rate, every aspect of life at the time, from social interaction to farming to the layout of homes, seems grounded in solid research that allows the author to create an immersive and believable setting. Few authors could write about such a foreign world in a way that’s both realistic and accessible, but that’s just what Undset does; at times it was hard to believe that the story was set in medieval times, not because there’s anachronism present (there isn’t) but because the characters are so human and relatable regardless.

The writing is excellent, and Nunnally’s translation superb: the prose is smooth and absorbing, very readable but with a hint of distance that puts the reader in mind of ancient sagas. The story has a strong sense of place, and contains beautiful descriptions of the Norwegian landscape. Like the story itself, the writing manages to be entirely accessible to the modern reader and yet faithful to its medieval setting.

In sum, this is an excellent trilogy, and fully deserving of its awards. I give four stars rather than five because it didn’t rock my world (it’s been some time since any book has), and because the middle volume often felt tedious; the second book was perhaps longer than necessary, and only toward the end did it regain strength. That said, the trilogy returns to form with an exceptional final volume. It was overall a great reading experience, providing both depth and entertainment, and one I would not hesitate to recommend.

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