December 2018 Round Up: Eight Books Written by Women from Europe
I finished 2018 by reading books from the last eight countries I’ve visited in person, bringing me to a total of 26 books since September. They were an eclectic mix and just so happened to be overwhelmingly about death. While some were sad, others were mystical, funny, and moving. I struggled to find translated books from a number of these countries (Slovenia, Portugal, Belgium in particular) and continue to find myself thrown into stories I may not have otherwise chosen. But that’s the fun of it, right?
Here’s what I’ve been reading. You can see the full list on the main project page.
Book #19 - The Door by Magda Szabó (Hungary)
A story about friendship in the unlikeliest of places. The Door shares the lives of a housekeeper and homemaker whose differences become what draws them together (and eventually apart). You can read a full review here.
Book #20 - Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb (Belgium)
The funniest book I’ve read so far (and unexpectedly so). Nothomb tells the story of a young Belgium woman trying to live her dream of working for a Japanese corporation. The workplace antics of her manager and the situations she finds herself in made me want to quit working all together. Read the full review here.
Book #21 - Fox by Dubravka Ugresic, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać and David Williams (Croatia)
Fox follows a female author on adventures as she tries to reckon with her decisions and relationships. A series of chapters relate different stories with very loose connections. I kept expecting them to come together somehow, but they are meant to stand alone. Ugresic is poignant and observant, writing line after line that I would have underlined had I not gotten the book from the library. Her thoughts on women writers really stood out:
“A woman’s voice is not, of course, illegal, but women, it seems, have still not embraced or conquered every form of literary expression. The specific “dyslexia” that readers - men and women alike - show when reading literary texts, each for his or her own reasons, has made this conquest impossible. In short, more “girls” still write romance novels, while notes from underground are reserved for the “boys”; the rebellious confession is a male literary narrative because the rebel is invariably a man, he is our tragic hero. The story of a tragic heroine is read - with the “dyslexia” I mentioned - as the tale of a “madwoman.”
Book #22 - Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susana Moreira Marques, translated by Julia Sanches (Portugal)
In 2009, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, started a home palliative care project in a remote region in the north-east of Portugal. Moreira Marques spent five months traveling with healthcare professionals and meeting the families who are waiting as loved ones are living their final days. She writes about what she learned from the experience, along with more detailed stories of a few families she met along the way.
I had a difficult time finding a translated book from Portugal, but I’m so glad I discovered this one. I found her abbreviated “survival guide” notes helpful for anyone (at almost anytime):
1) Stop. Listen to the beating of your heart.
2) Think of death in detail. Don’t think of the whole.
3) Make people into characters.
4) Don’t stop crying over characters.
She finds that most of the people she meets just want a little more life to live rather than worrying about answering life’s bigger questions that so many of us ruminate on.
“The sick suffer, and then have no strength left to think or to ask themselves those moral questions - nor do they even seem concerned (is this unique to our time?) with heaven, hell, or the Last Judgment. They just want a little more life, they want just a little more time to believe that the body can triumph; everyone wants, with disproportionate and perhaps delirious intensity, to carry on living.”
Portugal is one of my favorite places and I loved honoring its people through this book.
Book #23 - Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak (Turkey)
Alternating between time periods, Three Daughters of Eve, tells the story of Peri and the life she grew into after being raised in Turkey, going to college in England, and then returning to Turkey after a controversy prompts her leave from college. Peri provides commentary on current bourgeois life in Istanbul, a reflection on family and religion, and an exploration of God through people and experiences. An unexpected twist at the end leaves unanswered questions on all three. A really accessible book to jump into.
Book #24 - Mirror Shoulder Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra (Denmark)
Sonja is over 40 and learning how to drive. She looks in the mirror, looks over her shoulder, signals, and then is on her way. Only, the way isn’t so easy. Her life isn’t exactly what she wants - her job as a translator of Swedish crime novels is fine - but her relationship with her sister is strained, she needs a new driving instructor, and her most intimate friendship is with her masseuse. As someone over 40 myself, her internal dialogue and the desire to be her true self felt all too familiar. Her story ends with more questions than answers, but she may have eventually found the way.
Book #25 - Hotel Silence by Auður A Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon (Iceland)
I was excited to receive this book on Christmas Eve in the Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóð (Christmas book flood). The tradition turns Christmas Eve into an evening of reading to calm the anticipation of Christmas day - and while it’s not terribly different from most of my nights - it’s fun to get a book I didn’t choose for myself.
In Hotel Silence, Jonas decides he’s no longer needed in the world so he tries to find a way to die that won’t require others to take care of the details. He decides to travel to a war-torn country and end his life while staying in a hotel. He doesn’t anticipate the people he’ll meet in the hotel and the ways in which they’ll need him. How he intends to spend his final days is upended by the community and a book about death eventually becomes a book about life.
Hotel Silence is quirky, funny, and heartwarming. It reminded a lot of A Man Called Ove, one of my favorite books by Fredrik Backman. I highly recommend both.
Book #26 - The Feline Plague by Maja Novak, translated by Maja Visenjak-Limon (Slovenia)
Slovenia was a tough one. The book I wanted to read was no longer available, but I luckily stumbled on The Feline Plague. Part commentary on capitalism, part mysticism, and part apocalyptic, Novak takes readers on a wild ride through the thoughts and actions of its main female protagonist, Ira. A pet empire becomes Ira’s life work and the dreams of her and her co-workers blend surrealism with reality. I was never quite sure when one ended and the other began. This is a wacky book with so many layers. I could have used reading partner to help me decipher all it’s meaning.
I’m now starting to read books from countries I haven’t been to and I’m looking forward to learning about new places, people, and cultures. I have a number of nonfiction books and memoirs sitting on my shelf from countries in Africa and the Middle East. I have a feeling I’m embarking on a month of intense stories.
I’m hoping to get to 150 out of the 197 countries by the end of 2019. Wish me luck!