Lost in Translation

In a couple of weeks, I will be going to Montreal for work. Now, my French is very good, but I’m not fluent, and it’s a bit rusty. In order to get back in shape, I watch movies, read books and listen to music only in French. Usually this stretches out my muscles enough so by the time I get to where I’m going, I have no problems.

This time around, I’ve noticed something. When I read in English, I can appreciate the language in a way that I don’t in French. There has been more then one book where I disliked everything, except the writing style. I could sit back and say, “wow, this is all sorts of messed up, but man, the author could write better. Or, alternatively, “what an entertaining novel, but I wish the author could write better.” Part of my regime was a book of short stories by Balzac. And while I assume that his writing is beautiful (because, you know, Balzac), I’m too focused on comprehension to give an opinion.

And this brings up an interesting thought. Typically when I read Hugo or Dumas, they are English translations. I read them and think to myself: “I really like how these guys write.” But do I? Or do I like how the translators write? One of the things I’ve been working on for the past year or so is reading the Bible. The version I’m reading is the New Jewish Translation, which I received for my Bat-Mitzvah. One day, I came across a passage I really liked. Later, I was at my boyfriend’s, and I wanted to share it, so I looked it up in his King James’ version. Whatever I had liked about it, had been quite literally lost in translation.

The fact is, no matter how much I like the idea of reading a novel in the original language, this is really only an option for people who are fluent in the language. In the long run, you will get more out of reading it in your language. Novels that I’ve read in English, I’ve mulled over and found new depths to them that I never see when I read in French. So why be snobby about it? As with everything, you just decide that you accept the limitations inherent in the medium. I could spend the rest of life reading different translations of the same novel. But there is so much out there to read, so why should I limit myself?

Maybe someday I will read French fluently, and will be able to say with no qualification that I liked Hugo and Dumas. But for the moment, it remains an exercise in comprehension.

Bibliophilia: How I got the disease.

I’m that crazy person who always has a book on hand, who never has enough bookshelves, who knows how to read while walking and not get hit by a bus. If you are not also this brand of crazy, you might be asking yourself… why?

Like most people, I like to blame the way I am on my parents. After all, they were the ones who decided not to have a TV while I was growing up. Of course, I know other people who didn’t have TV’s, and they don’t carry around books like a security blanket. Maybe it’s because books played a role in my life before I could read them myself. My mother introduced me to C.S. Lewis and Laura Ingalls Wilder by reading them to me at bedtime, and I remember being that little tyke pretending to read from an upside down book to even younger tykes. Except for Winnie-the-Pooh, which I would quote from memory.

So maybe it’s a combination of things. Not having a TV meant I spent my quiet time doing other things, and having parents who value reading made books easily accessible. Growing up in small town Maine meant that there were only a few places to spend time, and one of these was the Library. The Jesup Memorial Library is small by some standards, but just right for the needs of a summer town. The architecture is grand enough to reflect some importance, and to feel special, but the children’s room is sunny and warm, and the librarians friendly.

Libraries taught me the freedom of reading, and the wealth of knowledge readily available to anyone who looks. Stories take you away, allowing you to travel in time and space, even if you don’t have access to a TARDIS. My first philosophical ideas came to me as a result of reading fantasy, my first forays into our past as a result of reading historical fiction.

I often turn to books out of curiosity, but I have to admit to being a reader of fiction more than anything else. Early attempts at non-fiction mostly failed. I would borrow a book, on say, the Wars of the Roses, spend that first afternoon absorbed in it, then return it to the library two weeks later without ever having opened it again. Although I am not on a strictly fictional diet, the non-fiction I do read is very selective, often first hand, or else extremely narrative, and when I want to know about the Wars of the Roses, I go to Wikipedia.

This interest in fiction does not mean that I just read light novels. I’m a big believer in balance, and this extends to what I read. Too much pop fiction makes you silly , and too many heavy classics make you pretentious. So read both. Each provides a welcome relief from the other.

Which leads me to a series called The Great Illustrated Classics. If you are not familiar with them, they are hardcover, with huge font, and a black and white picture on every other page. The provide the plot at the expense of any deeper meaning, and introduced me to the likes of Dickens and Dumas. These summaries taught me to appreciate the classics, and to not feel intimidated by them. Ultimately they were the gateway to Les Miserables, not a part of the collection, but which I read my Freshman year of High School. At 1062 pages, it was the longest book I’d read to date, and I still rank it among my literary accomplishments.

So why do I read? I suppose the answer is ultimately very simple. Entertainment. Habit. Curiosity. All of which are good reasons to read, and to read all the time. For the fact is, there are so many books, and so little time.

A Return to the Blogosphere

Last year my New Year’s resolution was to blog about every book I read. Mostly I was successful, although I did get a little behind at the end. In my defense, I did write rough drafts of the last several books I read. They just didn’t make it to publishing. So, after some thought, I’ve decided to revamp my blog. Just a little bit. New Site. New Goal. We’ll see if it works. Instead of reviewing every book I read (and lets face it, not every book is worth much of a review. Some are just brain candy), I’m just going to use it to share my own personal brand of Bibliophilia with the world. So, after 3 months, here I am, back again.

A Conversation Before Death

It’s a bummer that I don’t know what to say about The Painter of Battles; because it’s such a deeply philosophical work, I should have a lot to say about it. But maybe that’s the problem, it presents so many ideas that it’s hard to hold onto them, and then they slip away, leaving behind only impressions that the ideas were there. 
The Painter of Battles is about a terminally ill war photographer who has taken over a tumbling down lighthouse in order to spend his remaining days painting a mural that sums up his experience. In the course of this a stranger from his past arrives with the intention of killing him. First, however, he wants to talk, and what follows is a novel that is somewhat reminiscent of The Seventh Seal. According to the mini bio on the back flap, the author, Arturo Perez-Reverte, was a war journalist before he took up fiction, and with this in mind it is clear that the photographer is his alter ego that allows him to work through the emotional impact of what he must have witnessed as a journalist. 
It is a compelling novel, but for all its skinny size, a weighty and heavy one. And, while beautifully written, it is not one to be taken lightly. Sometimes I read a book that I wish I could discuss with a class or book group. This is one of those. 
I have to admit, though, that I much prefer his other novel, The Club Dumas, to this one. That one grabbed me and sucked me in. This one kept me floating on the surface, wanting to delve deeper, but not quite getting there.

Friendship and Spies

When I think of John Le Carre, I think of the gritty spy novel, full of hardened intelligence officers, making their way through various corners of the Cold War World. In this way, Absolute Friends is typical of his novels. However, it spans a larger period of time, and in the end, it is the fallout of the cold war; the “what next”, when the great game becomes a bit muddled. The intrigue by itself would be enough, but there is a certain depth that comes with this tale of friendship, come hell, high water, doubt or divided loyalties. 
What would you do for a friend?
How far would you trust your friend? 
And when push comes to shove, would you die for your friend? 
Le Carre chose his title well. Absolute Friends is exactly what this book is about. Through all the intrigue and thrilling action, John Le Carre creates a bond between two people that is tested and tempered, where these questions are asked and answered, and it ends, as the best friendships often do, in a blaze that brings Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to mind.

There is always something left unfinished at the end of a life. A knitting project, a missed conversation, dishes. Mostly they are left as a testament to a life gone by, but for authors, eventually, someone finds their notes and partial manuscripts, and decides to finish what was left behind. The results are mixed.

Poodle Springs is just such an example. The last of Raymond Chandler’s novels finds Philip Marlowe married to an heiress and trying to fit into life in the wealthy town of Poodle Springs. Unwilling to live off his wife, he sets up shop, and unsurprisingly is soon embroiled in a case that proves even the most rarefied of neighborhoods has a seedy underbelly. Chandler died before he could finish more then a few chapters, and years later, Robert Parker, often thought of as his heir apparent, took over, completing the novel in an almost seamless fashion, and in a way that is consistent with the character of Philip Marlowe.

I have to admit though, that however much I enjoy the read, however well it is accomplished, I always wonder how the original author would have finished it. In this case, I wonder if Chandler would have left Marlowe quite as lonely as Parker did. Because of course the stresses of the case bring up hidden issues between Marlowe and his bride, and the end of the novel finds him back in the city, in his old office, alone. Call me a sucker, and maybe the existing ending is more noir, but I was cheering on his marriage. And while Chandler may have left copious notes indicating this was the way it should end, a part of me will always imagine a different and better conclusion, that doesn’t return Marlowe to where we met him in the first book.

Break for Humor

Sometimes it’s nice to take a break. Sometimes it’s nice to read a bit of fluff, something that will make me smile, smirk, maybe laugh out loud. Stephanie Plum provides that. In Janet Evanovich’s latest, Smokin’ Seventeen, Stephanie faces down a vampire, a bear, an old Italian curse, and being set up by her mother. Food gets thrown, cars explode, and toes shot off. Joe Morelli and Ranger vie for her affections, and the book is called Smokin’ for a reason. As always, zaneyness bordering insanity ensues in the city of Trenton, and whether she wants to be or not, Stephanie Plum is right in the center of it all. 

Stark Beauty

Cormac McCarthy is a brilliant writer. I loved the bleak desolation of The Road. So when I found a beautifully bound book containing his novels All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain, I bought it. It was only two bucks at the stand in Harvard Square, quite the steal.
With much delay, and having read several other books in the meantime, I have finished reading the whole thing, and quite the odyssey it was too. I almost don’t know what to say. He was clearly being metaphorical, but I’m not sure as to what he was getting at. I think it is one of those books where it is as much about what you as the reader bring to it as anything else. I came up with four or five different theories, none of which I can precisely recall at this time.
The first two novels are about journeys. All the Pretty Horses follows John Grady, as he is dispossessed and travels to Mexico with his friend. They have many trials, adventures and heartbreak, and ultimately John Grady becomes a drifter, going from one ranch to another working with horses. The Crossing is by far the most metaphorical of the three. Billy Parnham traps a pregnant she-wolf, and instead of killing her, decides to take her back to the mountains of Mexico. Upon his return, months later, he finds that his family has been killed, and their horses stolen. The only survivor is his younger brother, with whom he returns to Mexico to retrieve said horses. They also have many adventures and heartache. In the third novel, John Grady and Billy Parnham work on a ranch together, and are as close as brothers. Once again John Grady has a doomed love affair, and the novel and trilogy ends after many adventures and heartache. Throughout the three novels, and especially in The Crossing, they meet people who show great kindness and compassion, and who share life stories that border on fables. Each of these seems to be somehow a sentinel, they are markers in the journey that turns these two boys into men. As with The Road, there is a bleakness to McCarthy’s writing, but behind it, there is hope. At the end of The Crossing, Billy Parnham is broken and weeping, but in the last sentence, there’s a sunrise. So even though he’s lost and desolate, there is still some beauty in the world. It’s a harsh and terrible world, but it’s that very starkness that makes it feel more real then real life. 
My one complaint about McCarthy’s writing style is his lack of punctuation. Especially in Cities of the Plain, I often found myself confused as to who did or said what. Don’t be put off by that though. Read them, and then tell me what you think they’re about.  

Time Gone By

After seeing the movie, I never would have thought I would read Brideshead Revisited. The inner turmoil of the family just made me uncomfortable. But then I read an article in Vanity Fair about Evelyn Waugh that was fascinating, and this was followed a while later with a sudden spike of interest in movies and TV shows of the Upstairs/Downstairs, Gosford Park type. Once I had seen the newest version of Upstairs/Downstairs, sped through Downton Abby and watched Gosford Park (several times), I found myself at a loss. The older seasons of Upstairs/Downstairs were not available on instant Netflix, and the newer episodes of Downton Abby were not yet out. Luckily for me, I came across Brideshead for sale cheap at the Border’s closing sale, the article from Vanity Fair came back to me, and, of course, I liked the cover.

What was the book about? There are a lot of metaphors that could be applied to it. It speaks of the end of an era, of the death of aristocracy, of the nostalgia that is often invoked in the time prior to either one of the World Wars. It also speaks to the tug of war between faith and secular life. And, in the end, it is the faith,  and lack there of, that causes the ultimate rift between the narrator and the family of Brideshead. The message seems to be that no matter how far you stray as you grow up, some core belief will remain, to pop up when you least expect it.

Brideshead reeks of nostalgic sadness, and the almost longing of times gone by. The narrator, in his middle age, has lost almost everything that made him happy when he was young. He seems more lost in these later scenes then when he talks of his past, as flawed as it may have been.

In many respects, I am left with impressions more then solid ideas. I have no inclination in this blog to write thesis papers, to prove or disprove any of these things. I’m merely relating the impressions that I came away with.

I am glad that there was the right confluence of events to get me to read this. It was beautiful and evocative, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys this particular period of time. I would also recommend reading the article from Vanity Fair, it provides an interesting background, and could add some depth.

Science Fiction Sob Story

Recently I have taken an active part in conversations about survival, and while they are by nature hypothetical, there is always a serious element to them. For example, in the event of the Zombie Apocalypse, would it be better to steal a motorcycle or an SUV to head north? If I’m out camping and wake up in Medieval England, would I be better off using my tent as shelter, or turning it into a dress so I don’t get killed for indecency? And thus, how could I not pick up How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe? It proclaimed on the front page that it was a novel, but I hoped that inside would be something of a “how to” story, with cool references, and maybe a spaceship or two. It would be the next generation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
I was disappointed.
There was time travel. And I suppose there were some tips. But it was about a man who lives in a time machine, and not like Dr. Who’s blue box. Instead, he’s hiding from life, while waiting for the next service call that will take him to rescue a time travelor who has gotten themselves stuck on a rented machine. Until, of course, that day when he goes to pick up his machine from being detailed, only to see his future self step out of it. Interspersed through this narrative is the sad story of his mother, father, and his father’s obsession with inventing time travel. Essentially, the author seems to be working through family issues against a science fiction backdrop. Well then, fine. But what I want in my science fiction is a “what if” question that cannot take place in the world as we know it, and with that, as well as my first expectations in mind, the  book was a dismal failure. 
There were some mildly interesting moments, and enough of a story to keep me involved, but in the end, not something I’d recommend to anyone, and not a story I would have called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.   

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