Before She Sleeps, by Bina Shah

Trigger warning for references to rape.

36544896The women of Green City have one duty. As soon as they come of age, they must take at least one husband (usually more) and have as many babies as their bodies can manage. We’re not sure how the crisis is handled in other countries in Bina Shah’s chilling novel, Before She Sleeps. In Green City, women are tracked and monitored and bombarded by propaganda about their very important role. There are some women who have managed to rebel against the system. In an underground bunker called the Panah, there are women who struggle to live a life that is not tied to their biology.

Before She Sleeps is mostly narrated by Sabine, a young woman who belongs to the second generation of Panah women. (Panah, we’re told, comes from a Persian word for sanctuary.) She found them on the Deep Web just as her father was putting plans in motion to get her married. Through Sabine’s eyes, we see how the women of the Panah maintain their independence. They take on clients—always powerful men with important connections—and sleep with them. They don’t have sex; they just sleep with these men and offer them the comfort of sleeping next to a woman who is not also married to one or more other men.

The only problem with the Procreation Bureau’s very logical plan for repopulating and dealing with the shortage of women is that, like so many other very logical plans, it does not take into account that people are not logical. Sabine’s limited freedom is jeopardized when one of her clients decides that he loves her and won’t take her repeated noes for an answer. The inevitable crises sends all of the characters rushing around Green City trying to hide their secrets, hide and move Sabine, figure out what happened, and work out what will happen next.

To be blunt, there are a lot of parts in Before She Sleeps that read like thought experiments that are more academic than realistic. I have some serious doubts about how things would play out if most of the women in the world died. There are hints that things were not always peaceful for women in Green City that ring truer to me than the (mostly) rigidly compliant citizens we see in this novel. Plus, the plight of the constantly pregnant wives is not pleasant to contemplate. By having an outsider tell the story, I think we miss out on the possibilities this book’s premise offers. At the risk of sounding harsh, I think Before She Sleeps could have used more thought and a lot more psychologically realistic character development to make it feel plausible.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 7 August 2018.

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This week on the bookish internet

  • Melissa Ragsdale has created some long-needed etiquette for how to loan books to friends and then get them back. (Bustle)
  • Jamie Rigg reports on an early reading device that could compress Innocents Abroad onto just 13 tiny cards with even tinier print for a reader that looks guaranteed to make you go blind. (Engadget)
  • TMN has a brilliant write up of post-World War I literature, inspired by a trip to a special exhibit at the Tate Modern. If this is your jam, this post has tons of recommendations. (The Modern Novel)
  • Keri Blakinger writes about lawyer Amalia Beckner‘s quest to bring books to prisoners and the ongoing battles over arbitrary prison banned books lists. (Houston Chronicle)
  • Diane Mehta discusses women in the rare books trade and the value of women’s words. (The Paris Review)
  • Librarians held storytime at one of the end family separation protests last Saturday and I’m not crying, you’re crying. (School Library Journal)
  • There are plans to award an alternate Nobel Award for Literature and I more excited than I am for the actual (now delayed) award. (The Guardian)

The Court Dancer, by Kyung-Sook Shin

36327117Yi Jin, the protagonist of Kyung-Sook Shin’s lushly written The Court Dancer, is not just star-crossed in love. It seems like she’s star-crossed with history. As a court attendant to Empress Myeongseong, Yi Jin is witness to the turmoil Korea faced as it opened its borders to foreign powers. She was trained to be a dancer and lady of the court in the court’s final years and, because she is a court lady, she has little choice but to follower her king and queen’s directives until the bitter end. The Court Dancer is one of the most melancholy love stories I’ve read in a long time.

We meet our protagonist just as she is sailing away from Korea—she is being sent to France along with the departing French legate as his fiancée—before circling back to hear the story of how Yi Jin ended up on that steamship. As an orphan, Yi Jin didn’t have a lot of options. It was pure luck that she ended up being adopted by a woman with connections to the Queen. Her memory and personality earn Yi Jin a place at the court as a favored companion. Yi Jin’s luck unfortunately sours when the Queen hears a fortune teller’s warning that Jin might catch the king’s eye. The fact that the French legate falls in love with Jin seems like it might be a good thing, but he is clearly more in love with Jin than she is with him. To be blunt, the legate seems to be experiencing some serious Asiaphilia. He collects Jin the same way he collects Korean books and celadon.

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Empress Myeongseong
(Image via Wikipedia)

The Court Dancer follows Jin as she travels to France and back, while the increasing political violence in Korea begins to pull down the monarchy. There is a surprising amount of plot, description of settings and places, and character development in this novel. It feels like it’s about 200 more pages than it actually is. The book is not at all slow; it just feels like an incredibly rich reading experience. Jin, as a character, benefits from all the attention. We see Jin’s deep, self-sacrificing loyalty to the Empress, as well as the people she grew up with. Loyalty, even to the point of death, is an important part of this novel, frequently referenced by the appearance of the legate’s Jindo, a breed of dog that will only bond with one person and is rumored to mourn their masters if their masters die. In this book, we witness what happens when Jin and the Jindo are given away to people who do not understand that the “gift” really means that Jin and the Jindo are supposed to be cared for by their “masters” even as they are servants.

Because she is an orphan and because of her four years spent in France, Yi Jin often feels like a homeless outsider. There is a powerful scene in the novel when the legate takes Jin to the Louvre. She comments to him that it seems wrong for the Venus de Milo and the Nike of Samothrace to be in Paris when they belong on the Greek islands where they were found. The legate remarks with typical imperialist paternalism that the statues will be better cared for where they are now than if they had been left. Yet, the legate treats these statues and his Korean collection as trophies and curiosities. He doesn’t understand the meaning of Jin’s costume and motions in her court dancers. Jin’s battle for identity reflects her country’s battle for independence from China, Japan, and the other foreign powers. Where does Korea belong? Where does Jin belong?

The Court Dancer places more focus on Yi Jin than on the politics, so readers may want to spend some time on Wikipedia if they’re not familiar with the history. To be honest, the focus on Jin’s heart-wrenching story instead of politics (at least until very near the end of the book) might frustrate readers. We seem to only learn about events in retrospect. Not only do we learn about them in retrospect, but the politics are very fleetingly described while paragraphs are spent on Jin’s feelings and surroundings. That said, if readers want an in-depth story about a person in a place and time that doesn’t often show up in English language fiction, The Court Dancer is a beautiful if sorrowful read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 7 August 2018.

The Third Hotel, by Laura van den Berg

36348514Grief makes people act strangely, especially when someone has lost someone very close to them. Movies and TV make grief look a certain way: lots of tears, depression, withdrawal from others, and so on. But in Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel, Clare follows an inchoate grief into dark places. When we meet her, we know that she is in Havana for a film festival her husband was looking forward to. We also know that he was killed in a car accident five weeks prior. Clare knows this, too, but then she sees her husband in a crowd in Havana.

Clare is not a fan of horror movies. She’s only in Havana, about to watch Revolución zombi, because her husband was a horror movie scholar. While she crisscrossed the United States selling elevators (yes, really), Richard was at home writing articles about Final Girls and Terrible Places. Neither of them are terrible happy. Because of Clare’s travel, however, they don’t get any opportunities to really talk about their problems and misunderstandings. And then Richard is killed and they never get a chance to make things right.

Perhaps this is why Clare goes to Havana and spends her time in something like a fugue state, catching glimpses of Richard, a man who might be following them, and the supposedly missing lead actress of Revolución zombi. We see her wrestle with her memories, her emotions, and a lot of guilt over her avoidance of Richard before his death and her father’s increasing senility.

The Third Hotel is an emotional journey. I don’t know that this book will make readers cry. The book has more of a creepy vibe most of the time, as Clare seeks out her husband to find out of he’s a ghost or if there’s been a terrible mistake. I can say that this is a wrenching read and a very honest one. Laura van den Berg has done a virtuoso job of drawing a woman’s emotional riot after the loss of her husband, the deterioration of her father’s mental state, and her realization of how unnatural her life as a traveling elevator salesperson was. I would strongly recommend this book for readers seeking honest emotion.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 7 August 2018.


Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who worry that they’re not grieving correctly or for readers who have someone bereaved in their life who is acting “strangely.”

Lost for Words About Words; Or, Some Thoughts About Reviewing Translations

I’ve been thinking about translation since a kind reader asked what I thought about a collection of short stories translated from Russian. Then I read a philosophical review of a book about literary translation. The serendipity makes it clear that I must write something about translations.

I like reading translated books. Not only do they give me a chance to visit somewhere I’ve never been, they also put me inside the mind of someone who talks about the world and their situation in a completely different way. But I usually don’t comment on translations—other than tagging them and mentioning the translator—unless it was really bad or notable for some reason. My excuse is what can I say about translations when I’m not familiar with the source material? I know some German (not near enough to actually read it). I can remember a scrap of phrases in other languages*, because I like to collect words.

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First century Pompeiian fresco.
(Image via Vroma.org)

The most obvious thing to say about a translation is that it’s accurate. Without knowing the source material, that comment is out. What’s left? As far as I know, the biggest existential question for translators circle around capturing the meaning and the feeling of the original. Capturing the actual meaning (where possible) can lead to lifeless prose. Preserving the feeling, rhythm, etc. of the original can mean taking liberties with the story. This is part of the reason why people keep re-translating books like The Iliad. There’s enough wiggle room between fidelity and fluidity that translators can put their own stamp on the text.

I’m in awe of translators. I’m also a little bit jealous, because they’re fluent in at least two languages and have access to more stories than I do. But I’m in awe of their gumption in taking a story and bringing it into another language. How much thought and effort it must take! I’m reminded of Born to Kvetch, in which Michael Wex explains the cultural, religious, and historical depth of Yiddish. To try and be completely accurate when translating Yiddish, a translator would have to put in so many footnotes to explain there reference that the book would be a complete (and unreadable) doorstop. I’ve read translations from Yiddish and Russian (by Jewish writers) and I can only wonder what I’m missing because the translators of those books stuck more to fluidity, so that the books would actually be bearable for readers.

As a reader, I tend to prefer translations where the translator worked to make the story feel right in the target language. I’ve come across translations that have a distinct clunkiness, with word choices that read oddly or sentences with weird word order. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen very often. When a translation is good, I think, the translation work is invisible. I know that there is a barrier between me and the original words the author put down, but I don’t notice in good translations.

Thinking about this for a week has led me to resolve to be better about at least remarking on the translation in the future. If I forget, please remind me in the comments.


* One of my absolute favorite non-work things to do at work is to answer in a different language every time a particular colleague calls me. Bless caller ID.

Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal

87280One of the things librarians kvetch about (and we kvetch about a lot of things) is how our patrons drop off tons of books that we can’t use because they’re a) obsolete, b) uninteresting, and/or c) gross. But for the protagonist of Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal (and translated by Michael Henry Heim), discarded books are something to be rescued or turned into artistically ironic art. Hanta works as a paper and book baler. Every day for thirty five years, he has taken scrap paper and damaged books and baled them for their trip to the landfill or recyclers. His job has shaped him and, in this novel, he tells about what he’s learned over the years.

Hanta is a hermit. All he does is make bales and drink and read the books he steals from his job. Hanta has a serious case of bibliomania. His apartment, he tells us, is full of books. The bathroom is full. He even built a canopy over his bed for books, but now has to worry that it might collapse under the weight of the books and kill him. He’s taught himself several graduate courses worth of philosophy from rescued books. Hanta even has a nice sideline in selling books and things he recovers from the horde.

Because of his love of books, Hanta is not a good choice for his job (hence all the beer). He loves the books too much. He’s not callous enough to just shovel books and papers into the baler and send the bales on their way. It takes him ages (to his boss’ frustration) to make bales, but the mice are happy to have a mostly undisturbed habitat. Unfortunately for Hanta, his good thing is about to come to an end, in the form of an industrious group of laborers and a massive baler that puts his own to shame.

Hanta’s story comes from the end of the line for books and I admire him for being the thin dusty line and rescuing books, even if I also know how quixotic it is. I can see why Too Loud a Solitude has a warm place in so many readers hearts. The thought of getting rid of books forever—not just passing them on to other readers when we’re done with them—is gut-wrenching. Books represent so much, while the destruction of books is associated with the worst parts of western history. But as a librarian, I know that not all books belong in all libraries. I also know that books that have been ruined, sprouted mold, or infested by insects must go straight to the landfill.

The Question of Red, by Laksmi Pamuntjak

30290554I don’t know why parents name their children after tragic figures from history, literature, or religion. As Amba, the protagonist of Laksmi Pamuntjak’s The Question of Red, tells us early in the novel, Indonesian parents usually avoid those names. And yet, her parents decided to name her after a twice-scorned, much wronged woman from the Mahabharata. They even named their twin daughters after Amba after the original Amba’s twin sisters. Amba vows when she’s young that she will not follow in her namesake’s footsteps. One might think that this would be simple enough. After all, what are the odds that history will repeat? This is the kind of question that fiction likes to answer with a resounding: of course history will get a chance to repeat.

Amba has a somewhat charmed upbringing. Her intelligence and odd outlook on life make her her father’s favored confidante. She has a more fractious relationship with her mother, which only gets worse when Amba gets old and her mother finds her a potential husband with a name straight out of the Mahabharata. Amba is headed straight into her namesake’s story. So, she delays. She puts off her fiancé and heads to Yogyakarta to get a degree in English. While she always wanted an education and the independence that comes with it, she’s also take the time to figure out what she wants to do. Salwa isn’t the right man for her, even though he’s wealthy and king. He isn’t passionate about Amba and Amba wants passion. Her situation gets even more precarious when she takes a translation job at a hospital and runs smack into her kryptonite: a man named Bhisma.

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Political prisoners at a concentration camp on Buru, c. 1978. (Image via Engage Media)

The Question of Red is a love story that plays out against the political violence of the 1960s and 70s in Indonesia. While Salwa represents the safe route, Bhisma’s political ideals and his friendships with communists are increasingly dangerous. We know from the prologue and opening chapters that Bhisma ends up in one of Muhammad Suharto‘s concentration camps for communists and other enemies on the island of Buru. Amba tells her story (with documents to fill in some gaps later), guiding us through her decisions and tragedies from the early 1960s up to her visit to Buru to find out what happened to Bhisma after he was sent there.

Because of Amba, Salwa, and Bhisma’s names, I thought about free will and predestination a lot as I read The Question of Red. One might have thought that knowing the original story would count as a warning. All the latter-day Amba has to do is not what the first Amba did. But then, there’s a reason we have a cliché that tells us, “the heart wants what the heart wants.” The connection between Amba and Bhisma is irresistible. It seems that they have no choice but to pursue their love. Unfortunately, their obligations, their cultures, and their religions make things untenably complicated. Reading the book, I had my heart in my mouth until the very end, waiting to see if this Amba would have a happy ending or not. Would free will win this time? Or would fate step in? I’m not going to say; you’ll have to read it and find out for yourself.