Thursday, August 28, 2014

Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth): The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller

A blogger who goes by Biblibio (and only just posted her real name this last week) created an event called Women in Translation Month, to increase awareness of books in translation written by female authors, and to highlight the fact that there are far more books by men translated into English than books by women. You can read more about it on the Biblibio blog.

I've been following her posts all month and wanting to join in, if only in a small way, and finally have a small window of time to get this review up. Back in the spring of 2012, I won a copy of the novel The Hunger Angel by Nobel Prize-winning German author Herta Müller through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. (It wasn't an ARC, but an actual hardcover book -- very rare in LTER giveaways! Many thanks to Henry Holt and Company, and of course to LibraryThing, for the opportunity to read and review the book.) I posted my review on LT in August 2012, but it appears that I never posted a review here on the blog. So, I decided to copy it here from LT, in recognition of #WITMonth. I'm thrilled that Biblibio decided to create this event, and I hope it has brought some much-needed attention to women writers in translation, and the fact that we need more of them!

The Hunger Angel tells the story of 17-year-old Leo Auberg's deportation to a Soviet labor camp, and the five years he spent there. If you read novels mainly for plot or character development, this one might not be for you. It helps to know BEFORE you try to read it that the story isn't really linear, but could instead be called episodic. The chapters are very short, and some of them describe actions and events that occur during Leo's time in the labor camp. However, some of them are primarily descriptive; their purpose is not to move the story forward, but to add another layer to our understanding of Leo's experiences in the camp.

Because the chapters are short and serve these two different purposes, I found some to be more interesting than others. It also made for a slightly disorienting reading experience. But the book is well worth reading -- for the power of the writing and language, and the light it shines on a dark period in history. Müller places Leo's focus on physical experiences and specific objects, and this stylistic decision draws the reader into the labor camp. I believe that reading this novel is MEANT to be disorienting, that the reader SHOULD feel a sense of unreality and nightmare, in between moments of hypnotic focus on physical objects.

Müller made the not-uncommon decision to omit quotation marks from the novel. At some point while I read, I realized that it also contains no question marks. In the translator's note at the end of the book, Philip Boehm confirms that he followed this stylistic choice from the German original -- and that's where I learned there are also no semi-colons in the book. The limited punctuation adds to the reader's confusion and disorientation, particularly when reading a sentence that is obviously a question. The last sentence in the chapter called "Cement" is, "So why can't I disappear" (p. 33). This happens again and again, increasing the sense of confusion and dislocation.

Don't read The Hunger Angel looking for plot, and don't try too hard to keep track of all the characters mentioned -- many of them are not clearly defined, and not too important in themselves. Read it to admire the way Müller uses language to bring this dark history to life, and to pull you into Leo's world.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book review: The Appetites of Girls by Pamela Moses

When I saw this book on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers list this past spring, I knew it would be right up my alley (she said, while having an afternoon snack). So, thank you to LibraryThing, and to Putnam Books (Penguin Group), for the chance to read and review an advanced copy of The Appetites of Girls, the debut novel by Pamela Moses.

From the Penguin website:
Self-doubting Ruth is coddled by her immigrant mother, who uses food to soothe and control. Defiant Francesca believes her heavy frame shames her Park Avenue society mother and, to provoke her, consumes everything in sight. Lonely Opal longs to be included in her glamorous mother’s dinner dates—until a disturbing encounter forever changes her desires. Finally, Setsu, a promising violinist, staves off conflict with her jealous brother by allowing him to take the choicest morsels from her plate—and from her future. College brings the four young women together as suitemates, where their stories and appetites collide. Here they make a pact to maintain their friendships into adulthood, but each must first find strength and her own way in the world.

The book is divided into three “Parts,” and also has a short prologue and epilogue. Part One introduces each of the girls at a critical point during childhood or early adolescence. Part Two details their meeting at Brown University as suitemates, the development of their friendships, and some of the significant experiences they have during those college years. Part Three explores the different paths they take after graduation. Within each Part, there are four long chapters, each narrated by one of the four main characters.

The primary narrator is Ruth; the prologue and epilogue are both in her voice, and the chapter subtitles that indicate who narrates never say “Ruth’s Story,” but always “My Story.” In spite of this, the book feels fairly well-balanced among the four characters. Their voices aren’t vastly different -- which might be seen as a minor “debut novel flaw” -- but their personalities and interests are distinct enough that after a few paragraphs, I easily settled into that character’s story and perspective.

It’s probably clear from the description that this is character-driven literary fiction. Most of the “action” centers around university life and friendships, and family relationships. The novel doesn’t have a “plot” so much as incidents and vignettes, weaving together, and then shifting focus from one chapter, one narrator, to another, and so on.

Moses’s decision to use first-person narration for each of the characters seems like a wise one to me. It brought an immediacy to all four young women’s experiences that made me feel like I was right there with them through everything. I wanted to speak up for them, and defend them: Ruth’s mother really needed to get off her daughter’s back, and Setsu’s brother made me so angry, I wanted to give him a smack. During the girls’ happier moments, I felt like I was celebrating with them, watching from a quiet corner of the room.

The themes surrounding food resonate throughout the novel, of course -- eating with loved ones, bingeing alone, rewarding oneself with sweet things, sometimes overeating, other times denying oneself the tastes one most desires. The actual appetites of the characters do play a role in some of the situations, but they do not yearn only for food. It is often so difficult to discover those things that bring us true happiness, that make us feel truly fulfilled. While we’re looking for “the real thing,” we might get sidetracked by lesser pleasures, or try to fill that empty feeling, at least for a moment, with things that are close at hand: chocolate, chips, cheeseburgers. As this novel illustrates, the real appetites of many girls and women are vastly more complicated, and can’t be satisfied with only dinner and dessert. In the stories of Ruth, Francesca, Setsu, and Opal, Pamela Moses has given us four young women who had to learn what they were truly hungry for, and then decide how they might attain it. Their journeys are full of missteps and regrets, some successes, and lasting friendships. I loved spending time with them.