Där vinden vilar

Out of all the books I’ve read in my life, in all the places, Samar Yazbek‘s Där vinden vilar was the first to have me so engrossed that I missed my stop on the subway. Maybe that’s really the only review I need to write.

A young soldier in the Syrian civil war has been grievously injured by friendly fire. Ali’s struggle to reach the shelter of a nearby tree is interspersed with flashbacks to important people and moments of his short life. The lyrical translation from Marie Anell paints a vivid picture of a dreamy and mystical young man with a deep reverence for nature, completely ill-suited for the battlefield. Yazbek also uses this limited perspective to depict dictatorships from a grassroots, ground-up perspective.

If there’s any criticism to be made, you could argue that Ali is deliberately crafted to have the maximal emotional impact; to be the perfect war casualty. He is just too kind, too innocent to be anything but deeply sympathetic. The comparison to Frère d’âme is a natural one to make here, given their similar topics and structures. In Frère, however, it seems like Diop makes at least some effort to present unsavory or off-putting aspects of Alfa’s character alongside his more admirable traits. As a result he ends up as a perhaps more realistic, or at least more typical, teenage boy.

But I think if Yazbek had taken the same approach, it would have landed very differently, potentially undermining the point of the book. In a way, Ali is less of a character and more of a symbol, a way to link the anonymous violence of the battlefield to the people and the communities it devastates. He’s the best parts of everyone’s lost son, the physical embodiment of the collective hope a village or town has for their young people, the perfect angel doting parents see in their children. Alfa’s story is about himself; Ali’s story is about the people around him.

En flöjt av mörker

Somaya el Sousi was one of the writers featured in the flash fiction edition of Karavan, and one of the poets reading at Litteraturmässan, so that’s how I became aware of her. I picked up her slim Swedish collection, En flöjt av mörker, at Litteraturmässan in a fit of optimism. I had just read a whole book on how to read poetry metaphorically! Work was beginning to slow down! I could give this poetry collection my best college try and immerse myself in, according to the back of the book:

en berättelse där vi färdas genom tid och rum, och bortom tystnaden*

and fight alongside el Sousi in, quote:

kampen att vara sann mot sig själv som människa**

and bear witness to, quote:

hur samkönad kärlek kan gestaltas i sammanhang där den är förbjuden***

I really gave it my best possible try. I read things slowly, multiple times, out loud. I diligently looked up every unfamiliar word, and most of the vaguely familiar ones as well. It took ten years of collaborative work to translate the collection from Arabic to Swedish; el Sousi is a Palestinian refugee currently residing in Norway. I have mountains of respect for what she’s been through as a person and for the work it took to make this small volume of work available to me in Swedish.

And yet.

I’m still left feeling like the back-of-the-book description above is on par with a hackneyed description of a mediocre wine, and I pick that metaphor deliberately. A friend of mine was once asked to take over the tastings at a winery for a couple hours while the real owner had to run some kind of emergency errand. He and his companions made up the most ridiculous descriptions, really bonkers off-the-wall stuff, as they served wine they had only just tasted themselves to the guests arriving after them.

And the guests all went along with it. No one thought to question their authority or their presentation of the wine. The owner returned and took over tasting duties at an appropriate moment, and my friend’s group went on their way.

I get the impression that the same thing happens with any poetry that is still too new to have been put through the crucible of time to emerge either as a classic or just cruft. The owner is out to lunch and we have people who don’t know any better stringing together vague phrases and aphorisms to try to sell the product to us.

It’s either that, or I have to give up and admit that the problem is me.

*a story that takes us through time and space, beyond the silence

**the struggle to stay true to one’s self as a person

***how same-sex love can be depicted in an environment where it’s forbidden

The Dawn of Everything

What a doorstopper!

The reason I meticulously note (almost)* everything I read here is so that I remember reading it. I don’t know enough about the brain to know if writing about things really helps it transfer over to long-term memory, but I’ve already had the experience of completely forgetting something I said or did until I re-read a journal entry about it, so I assume the same holds true for books.

All of that to say, I don’t think I’m capable of doing The Dawn of Everything justice here. In a nutshell, David Graeber and David Wengrow look at archeological and anthropological evidence to (in their own words) “ask better questions.” The paradigm that they’re trying to upend is actually quite similar to the one that Stephen Jay Gould also sought to demolish in Full House:

The argument Gould makes in Full House is basically one against the teleological framework of evolution: that things evolve for some higher purpose, or more specifically deliberately towards complexity; that complexity is somehow the best, most special, or most desirable form of life.

(quoting my own summary there)

But instead of deconstructing a teleology with complexity as the end goal, here Graeber and Wengrow are deconstructing a teleology with agriculture and the state as an end goal; that agricultural was an instant revolution that inevitably led to an apparatus we currently call “the state,” and that the world we are living in now is more or less the inevitable end state of things. They also occasionally take the time to dunk on Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.

The whole book is something like 400, 500 pages to argue against this conclusion, and frankly I don’t have the recall or the comprehension to reconstruct it here. Like David Graeber’s Debt, I’ll have to read this one multiple times to really be able to confidently explain its premise. What I can say after one read-through is that they believe the archeological evidence points towards a history of mankind that experimented with flexible and novel arrangements of power that, even on a large scale, preserved what they call the three basic freedoms: the freedom to make promises, the freedom to disobey orders, and freedom of movement (the freedom to leave a place if the situation becomes too onerous).

There’s a lot of non-fiction that I read because I have weird niche interests, or because I ran across it at the library and it seemed interesting. There’s also non-fiction that I tackle because I want to better understand the world I live in, and The Dawn of Everything falls squarely in that category. More than that, there’s a category of non-fiction that I wish were required reading so we could start building consensus reality again and so we could maybe learn something from history. The Dawn of Everything is one of those books.

*Some are so niche and special interest that I don’t really see the point in including them here in my public record of reading. My commonplace book, as it were.

I Have Come on a Lonely Path

Seo Choi has put out multiple successful Kickstarter projects, including several books, that highlight various aspects of traditional Korean spiritual practices. The latest one that just went to print was Keum-Hwa Kim’s I Have Come on a Lonely Path: Memoir of a Shaman. (Original Korean: 비단꽃 넘세)

According to Choi’s initial Kickstarter description, the original edition of I Have Come on a Lonely Path published in 2007 was popular enough to be made into a movie, but fell into obscurity (or maybe just “hard to obtain” territory) when the publisher went out of business in 2011. An American friend of Choi’s happened to have a copy and gave it to Choi, who has made it available for the first time in English through her micropublishing company Alpha Sisters. I supported the Kickstarter at the ebook tier and received my copy back in April.

Seo Choi’s copy of the original Korean edition. Read more at the Kickstarter page.

The book isn’t especially long; I read the entire thing on commutes, lunch breaks, and waiting for friends at bars. The chapters are relatively short so you can dip in and out as you have time. Peace Pyunghwa Lee’s translation is excellent, with plenty of explanatory footnotes for historical context and specific cultural or technical terminology—the names of items of clothing, food, or particular rituals and so on.

Through Lee’s translation, Kim presents her story directly, without needless digressions or flowery ornamentation. The introduction to I Have Come on a Lonely Path includes a content warning for “domestic abuse, physical violence, war, mental illness, suicide, poverty, police brutality, and discrimination” but the depictions thereof were rather plain and brief. I’ve read much more unsettling accounts, in fiction as well as non-fiction. Through it all, Kim remains humble, compassionate and empathetic. We follow her from her birth in 1931 in what later became North Korea, through early poverty and her shamanic initiation as a teenager, to her middle years living on the fringes of society in South Korea, until the latter stage of her life as a recognized carrier of intangible cultural property (the Seohaean baeyeonsingut) with performances in the US and on live South Korean television, a feature-length biopic, and the founding of her shrine on Ganghwa-do. She speaks frankly of these accomplishments without any sense of self-aggrandizement, maybe because the struggles of her early years kept her humble. First and foremost for Kim is the preservation of a tradition and living a life of service; those honors seem to be more about that preservation and service than about herself. She also lived through interesting times, as the expression goes. We don’t get any commentary on the titans of twentieth century Korean  history here, however. Kim only mentions events directly impacting her or her clients. This is mostly in the form of ill-tempered Japanese officials or South Korean discrimination against North Koreans, but to my embarrassment her story was also the first I’d heard of the New Village Movement.

In light of the New Village Movement, particularly the less savory aspects that bring to mind Mao’s Cultural Revolution, translation projects like I Have Come on a Lonely Path are important for maintaining the traditions and integrity of a culture. The thought struck me sometime afterwards that in some ways it’s comparable to the translation movement in Arabic that preserved so many manuscripts in Greek and Latin for scholars in Medieval Europe to rediscover and to include in the early years of the European academic tradition. Sometimes knowledge, ideas, and stories need to drift from one language or culture to another to ensure their own longevity. Power consolidation, especially within the structure of colonialism, is often based on rendering these ideas forgotten.

Overall this was a quick and fascinating read, at least for any Koreaboo (such as myself) curious about Korean folklore and traditions. The English edition includes an afterword from Kim’s niece, who continues in the same shamanic tradition (she is Kim’s “spirit daughter”—mentee—in addition to being her brother’s daughter) and currently maintains the shrine Kim established on Ganghwa-do. If it’s not your bag, it’s not your bag, but in the informal itinerary I’m building for my next trip to Korea I just added Incheon and Ganghwa-do.

Singulariteten

Balsam Karam is my most recent Baader-Meinhof phenomenon: I first heard of her when an Internet associate announced that he had been invited to host a panel discussion called “Read the World,” with Karam as one of the guests, at the Fold literary festival. Not long after that, a précis by Karam about Brazilian author Jeferson Tonorio was featured in the issue of Karavan I was reading at the time. Then when skimming the events for Litteraturmässan I saw that she would holding a talk with Peter Englund about the role and potential of libraries. Three points make a line and all of that.

I looked up Karam as soon as I learned she wrote in Swedish, always trying to fight the inertia to read books in English by default. If the timestamps in Discord conversations are anything to go by, then, I’ve been working on Singulariteten since February 20. I have Händelsehorisonten on deck, too, but Singulariteten was just so much that I might admit defeat with Händelsehorisonten for the moment and save it for later.

Singulariteten is a tale told backwards, starting at the end of two stories, two lives. The paths of two nameless women cross, briefly, along a trendy corniche in the tourist district of an unnamed country recently emerged from (or perhaps still intermittently engaged in) sectarian violence. One of the women is a mother in search of her missing daughter; the other is a pregnant tourist who witnesses the first woman’s suicide. Later, back home, she has a miscarriage. Out of this intersection unfolds lifetimes of loss and trauma, as the rest of the book looks back to tell each story in its entirety. The whole thing is so grim and heavy that I was surprised when the living, breathing Karam in the discussion on stage was light, breezy, quick to laugh and quick to make jokes. Serious emotional whiplash.

Which is not to say that Singulariteten was so dour and joyless that I didn’t enjoy it; I came out the other end with a sense of satisfaction and catharsis (Aristotle would be pleased). This was due in part to the dense, complex language that forced me to read passages multiple times and to construct little sentence diagrams in my head, so all credit to English translator Saskia Vogel for excellent work. This isn’t Karam’s first novel, but thanks to Vogel it’s the first available in English.

The topic matter does prompt reflection over the kinds of novels we expect from certain kinds of authors. I want to say that there’s a James Baldwin essay, perhaps his own commentary on Giovanni’s Room, on the limitations of being expected on certain topics (in Baldwin’s case, racial discourse) simply by virtue of a facet of one’s identity (race), but maybe that essay doesn’t exist. Maybe I’m thinking of (and misremembering) “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Unsure. But there is a tension for me because I can’t help wondering: for a Kurdish author like Karam, do publishers, reviewers, readers expect a certain kind of book? If Karam had instead written an easy read feel-good romance, would it still have been published? (I have every confidence that it still would have been good.) Or do themes of being marginalized, racialized, and elsewise Othered have a demonstrably limited appeal to a mainstream audience that mean they get scrubbed down and sanitized? (Thinking again of Giovanni’s Room, which Baldwin was advised to burn lest it alienate his audience.)

Nell Irvin Painter to the rescue, with this essay for LitHub that I got in my inbox this morning but that is not yet available on their website.

I asked: who can I and we write about when I and we are Black authors? Those accomplished authors I mentioned [Imani Perry, Honorée Fanon Jeffers, and Zora Neale Hurston] wrote about Black people, and Black people and race in America are the subjects of virtually every book by a Black author of fiction, of nonfiction, and of journalism. I’m tempted to conclude that literary convention limits Black authors to a limited range of subject matter. Yes, there’s infinite variety within the realm of Blackness. Yet still, Black people only.

Painter is describing an English-language publishing industry with an American audience, but I think there are parallels to be made with Sweden. In the end I suppose I just have to trust in the fact that Singulariteten demonstrably exists, and take the book as proof of the fact that Karam wanted to write a story, any story at all, and accept that speculation about how that story may or may not have been crafted according to particular expectations from her publishers as unknowable and therefore irrelevant.

Homeboy

I summarized my “acute TBR” a few weeks ago thusly:

the English translation of Frère d’âme, Homeboy (borrowed from a bookish friend), Händelsehorisonten and Singulariteten (ahead of another bookish acquaintance’s panel moderation with author Balsam Karam in May), and a pair of niche but mercifully brief Swedish reference books before a test in October (and ideally before a third English reference book arrives sometime next month).

Since then I have finished Frère d’âmeone of those Swedish reference books, and that third English reference book. And now Seth Morgan’s Homeboy! Will I wrap up the acute TBR before my trip to the US rolls around in May? Who knows!

This particular entry on the acute TBR was more acute than I realized at the time. By the time this post goes up, the book’s owner will be en route back to the UK, unlikely to return to Sweden again. I could have returned it to him unfinished, of course, and eventually procured my own copy. Or I could have held on to it and returned it on a future visit—a bold move on my part, but I know I would have followed through. Nothing wrong with either of those!

But Homeboy wasn’t just any recommendation—it was one that came up in a conversation about what I term “bagel books,” books that you like so much you simultaneously want to tear through them as quickly as possible and never want to keep reading because you don’t want them to be over. A bagel book is a very particular, almost hallowed kind of recommendation. Being able to spend a friend’s farewell party talking to him about one of his own bagel books was therefore an appropriate and meaningful send-off.

Personal circumstances aside, Homeboy is also an interesting work from a historical? biographical? perspective, the only novel from the man who was Janis Joplin’s fiancé at the time of her death. That’s the other reason I was keen to get into the book, even though by all accounts Morgan and Joplin had a really dysfunctional relationship. You could make an argument that Morgan was a contributing factor in her overdose, even, but that’s neither here nor there. This isn’t about my weirdly in-depth knowledge of Janis Joplin’s biography, it’s a book review!

In my farewell party extemporaneous analysis, I described Homeboy as a mash-up of Elmore Leonard and Jack Kerouac, though my friend didn’t entirely agree, so take that with a grain of salt. The plot centers around the theft of a rare diamond, the Blue Jager Moon, from pimp Baby Jewels Moses by protagonist Joe Speaker, and everyone’s subsequent attempts to recover it. Joe wants to eventually move it and get clean; Moses wants it for blackmail material over a judge on the California State Supreme Court; Officer Tarzon needs it as evidence to put Moses away and complete his own private revenge.

There’s a lot more than that going on, but reading it in summary isn’t the same thing as reading the book itself. Homeboy has an ensemble cast of street life characters who all have assorted arcs, rises and downfalls interwoven with the main Blue Jager Moon narrative. Morgan also has a knack for the right kind of details that make even one-off side characters instantly distinctive, like dealer Rigo La Barba:

Rigo La Barba slumped on the nod in the crushedvelvet front seat of his ’62 Impala lowrider at the corner of Sixth and Mission. He was called La Barba, the Beard, after his carefully groomed goatee.

Next to the highgrade chiva he dealt, La Barba was proudest of  his lowrider. It had jeweled vanity mirrors attached to the sun visors, a miniature crystal chandelier in place of the dome light, a goldplated chain steering wheel, and, next to the ivory Virgin atop the minklined dash, a keyboard on which he could play “Besame Mucho,” “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” or, more to the point, “Chinga Tu Madre,” according to his cholofied caprice. Over twentyeight handrubbed coats of topaxflake lacquer, sequined rococo script announced La Barba’s philosophy on one rear fender: Low ‘n’ Slow; and on the other he christened his chrome galleon Crystal Blue Persuasion.

Joe hits up La Barba once for some heroin and that’s it. We never meet La Barba again.

The whole thing is great fun and imbued with a surprising amount of pathos; I’m honestly surprised it hasn’t been turned into a movie yet, given the break-neck pace and the visuals, both comic and gory. Speaking of which, there is a fair amount of casual gore, and in fact a fare amount of casual just-about-everything. A good chunk of the story is set in prison, and when we’re not in prison we’re following the progress of pimps, hired goons, or sex workers, so it’s a lot. The two things worth mentioning are:

  1. Someone could probably write an essay on Baby Jewels Moses and anti-Semitic tropes. Is it so cartoonish and over the top that it circles back to become lampshade and subversion? Is it just Problematic? I’m not equipped to answer these questions.
  2. Someone could a probably write another essay on gender and sexuality in prison culture as depicted in Homeboy. The “queens” in the prison are central characters to some of the later events and fellow prisoners are mostly untroubled by their gender presentation. The AIDS epidemic also looms large in portions of the novel, with sympathetic rather than terrified undertones.

A fun, meaty book. A bagel book, even.

Rätt och rättfärdigande: en tematisk introduktion i allmän rättslära

After I walked out of Kammarkollegiet’s auktorisationsprov last October, I sent a joke about going to law school to a friend married to a lawyer. Her response was, “It’s OK, we all have intrusive thoughts sometimes.”

Not that I would actually make a huge life-altering decision just because I found a particular translation assignment appealing, of course. I sent the same joke to the lawyer husband of the aforementioned friend and he observed that legal texts will probably the least likely to get outsourced to machine translation, so not necessarily a bad career move. He’s certainly not wrong!

After I found out I failed the legal translation portion of Kammarkollegiet’s auktorisationsprov, the joke became a bit more serious. Again, I wouldn’t actually make a huge life-altering decision just because I failed a test… but if it was the legal text (and specifically, incorrectly using legal terminology) that knocked me out of the running, I could at least make sure to be better prepared. I found the reading list for an introductory course in business law and dutifully added the most relevant volumes to my TBR, including Christian Dahlman’s brief introductory text Rätt och rättfärdigande: en tematisk introduktion i allmän rättslära.

This one might be even more niche than Den högsta kasten or Språkets myller so literally the only point to me noting it here is for my own recollection. It’s short and it’s nothing I didn’t already have in the back of my head thanks to a background in philosophy, especially since one of my intro courses was taught by a member of the philosophy department who specialized in law. Worth having the vocabulary in two languages, I suppose? Though I don’t think anything in here is the kind of terminology I need for Kammarkollegiet.

More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor

While I was on my last library errand of 2023, I happened upon this one in the shelf alongside Språkets myller. Since I’m an incurable fan of George Lakoff and his work on metaphor I figured “why not?” and threw it on the pile. I finally finished it last week and here’s to hoping this will uncork the backlog of reading I have for the year. I accept my long-term 600+ book TBR as something like a calculus limit, to be approached but never quite reached, but the acute TBR has hit critical mass where I now have an inner urgency to do something. The current acute TBR: the English translation of Frère d’âme, Homeboy (borrowed from a bookish friend), Händelsehorisonten and Singulariteten (ahead of another bookish acquaintance’s panel moderation with author Balsam Karam in May), and a pair of niche but mercifully brief Swedish reference books before a test in October (and ideally before a third English reference book arrives sometime next month). Until last Friday, More Than Cool Reason was also on the list. One down, five to go.

More Than Cool Reason is a much briefer work than the highly specialized Philosophy in the Flesh (what book isn’t briefer than that one) and also slightly shorter than the general interest Metaphors We Live By. This time Lakoff and cowriter Turner…turn…their attention to metaphor as it is deployed in poetry. Here their stated audience is undergrad-level literature students, so the book functions as an introduction to Lakoff’s theory of metaphor, with poetry specifically as a test case. They begin by dissecting a few short poems (or selections from longer ones), mixing familiar classics like Shakespeare sonnets and Dickinson with some translations from outside the classic English language canon, and note how the conventional metaphors we have for understanding everyday concepts make for effective poetry (“People are plants,” “Death is a journey,” “A lifetime is a day,” “A lifetime is a year,” etc.). There’s also discussion of what makes metaphors effective versus nonsense and some philosophical discussion of Lakoff’s theory, criticisms of it, and Lakoff’s response to the criticism. The book ends with a close reading of William Carlos’ Williams “To A Solitary Disciple” as well as some Chinese proverbs.

The other reason I picked up More Than Cool Reason was because I don’t get poetry. At the end of the day I’m just too literal minded to really be receptive to most of it, I think, so I thought that this kind of nuts and bolts approach to poetry would help me be a better reader. Did it? Unsure. I don’t know that I’m a better reader of poetry now, having finished the book—I would have to go out and actually read poetry with this insight fresh in my brain—but the approach Lakoff and Turner take in this kind of literary analysis is so thoroughly grounded in the text and in the concrete that I at least feel like I’m a better reader of the poems they dissected in the book.

I would rank Metaphors We Live By as the better general interest introduction to the topic. Not everyone is interested in becoming a more informed reader of poetry, but I think most of us are vaguely interested in becoming better communicators and in better understanding how other people think. I also wish that More Than Cool Reason had been course literature for my poetry class in undergrad (no shade on Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form). For all I know, it would have helped demystify poetry for me twenty years earlier.

Empty Mansions

According to my arbitrary rules for the blog, I’m cheating with this pick since I haven’t finished reading Bill Dedman’s Empty Mansions yet. It’s a biography, though; there’s no shocking twist or reveal to be had in here that might cause me to revise the opinion I’ve formed so far. It’s fair game to have an opinion now, even if I’m only a third of the way in.

Back in January I got lost down an Internet rabbit hole that I am now utterly unable to recreate and ended up listening to some author talks from the Amagansett Free Library released as podcast episodes over on The Internet Archive. The episode I found was a double header with Pam Belluck and Bill Dedman, each promoting their own new (at the time) book.

Back in 2009, looking at real estate in New England prompted Bill Dedman to investigate the mystery of a very empty and very expensive mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut. Who owned it? Why were they selling it? Why was it empty? These questions led him to stupendously wealthy heiress Huguette Clark (now deceased, though still alive in 2009) and Empty Mansions is Dedman’s attempt to trace not only Clark’s life story but the historical context that shaped it.

To the extent that there is a mystery or hook in the book, Dedman resolves it fairly early on: Clark maintained the New Canaan mansion, and several other properties, as a place for the hired help to retreat to in case of unimaginable emergency. (The original mansion that sent Dedman on his quest had been purchased during the height of Cold War “Duck and Cover” paranoia, to give some context to her thinking.) I appreciate that level of honesty with readers: “I sold you this book based on a mystery but gave away the answer right away. If that’s what you wanted, you can put it down now. But I think the story behind the answer is a really fascinating one, so I hope you’ll let me tell it to you.” My words, not Dedman’s.

In the course of his research, Dedman was contacted by one of Clark’s extended family members, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., the co-writer listed on the cover (now also deceased). Newell was in frequent telephone contact with Clark in the 90s and until her death in 2011, and the book includes several excerpts from these conversations in punchy little asides: Clark recalling a particular dinner party, or a family trip to Hawaii, those sorts of things.

I’m reading an ebook copy from one of my US libraries, and the short sections make it an excellent choice for phone reading on a commute. Empty Mansions is very easy to dip in and out at a moment’s notice, the same as with The Big Balloon. That’s probably the reason that it’s the book I’ve been reading the most at the moment, to be honest. I was originally fairly ambivalent about checking it out. I felt like I had a good enough sense about what it was and who it was about just from the podcast episode. Reading the whole book—when I have over 600 books on my TBR! oof—felt like…a bit of a waste of time? Or not a waste as such, but more like a book-length treatment of the concept was unnecessary. Thanks to the podcast episode, I now knew who Huguette Clark was, so I had already gotten to the end, so to speak. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. At any rate, every checkout is a win for your local library’s circulation numbers and therefore its funding, so in the end I figured it was at least worth it in that sense!

But Dedman also provides an account of Clark’s father, W. A. Clark, which makes for an interesting if breakneck tour of US history from the frontier days up to nearly the present day. Clark was born in 1906, when W. A. Clark was already in his sixties: he had been of age to serve in the American Civil War (though dodged the conflict by heading west to prospect).

Empty Mansions is thoroughly researched, and Dedman makes a point at the beginning to not put words in the mouth of a dead woman he had never met himself (she had passed away before the book’s publication). In that respect, it’s a stark and noteworthy contrast to A Lenape Among the Quakers, though Dedman had the incalculable advantage of abundant primary resources. That said, there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering or enlightening in here, either. Dedman doesn’t break new historical ground or propose any revolutionary new theories, and while several of the family photographs had never before been published, they’re not necessarily of historical import. At the end of the day, Empty Mansions is more entertaining than educational, but that’s what makes it such a great commute read.

Frère d’âme

I added David Diop’s Frère d’âme to my TBR by way of a review in the Karavan literary magazine, and to be honest I was a bit leery of it going in. The review was positive, but it gave the impression that the book was a gritty, grim, hyper-realistic portrayal of war, which is not a thing I’m usually into. I approached the book the same way I might approach eating a strange new vegetable: accepting that it might not be an enjoyable experience, but that it would at least be good for my (reading) health.

Frère d’âme is a wartime bildungsroman centered on the young Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese soldier in the French trenches of WWI. The book opens with the gruesome death of his best friend, adoptive brother, and “plus que frère” Modemba Diop in the battlefield, and from there on we follow Ndiaye through grief, trauma and regret.

That’s an incredibly pretentious way to describe the story but it’s the best I can do, I suppose.

Let’s get the content warning stuff out of the way first: there is plenty of frank description of gruesome wartime (and otherwise) acts. People are disemboweled, heads are blown off, and as a narrator Ndiaye doesn’t hesitate to describe all of this in detail, often repeating or lingering on the images.

But somehow the book is more dreamlike (if sometimes nightmarish) than gritty realism. The first-person narration keeps the reader in Ndiaye’s head rather than out in the action, and Ndiaye himself is so apparently unbothered by it that his descriptions of violence and gore become more surreal than anything else. Ndiaye’s language is also highly repetitive, not in a way to suggest that he lacks ideas or words but rather in a way that creates rhythm, like all of those iterations of “rosy-fingered Dawn” in The Odyssey. That rhythm also made it easy for me and my mediocre French to immediately get lost in Diop’s writing. There’s a certain musicality to it that draws you in. I bet the audiobook is a work of art.

I say “apparently” unbothered because the subtext is of course that Ndiaye is deeply traumatized by the death of his friend and by the brutality of war in general. The conversant tone in his language, along with the repetition and verbal tics (“je sais, j’ai compris” and variations thereof; “par la vérité de Dieu”), create speech patterns you might expect from someone talking to themselves; the deliberate attempt to shift the mind’s focus away from something painful.

I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that I’m of two minds about it. I’m not thrilled with the choice Diop made for the actual events, but I deeply appreciate the ambiguity he allows the reader for interpreting them. Are we watching Ndiaye have a mental breakdown, or is he genuinely possessed by the spirit of his dead friend? Why can’t it be both?

As with most of the French books I read, once I finished Frère d’âme I immediately picked up the Swedish translation (Om natten är allt blod svart). So far I’ve been pretty well satisfied with them, but this time around less so. Om natten isn’t a hatchet job on par with Stick or anything, but the rhythm is still…different. Here are the first three sentences:

“…je sais, j’ai compris, je n’aurais pas dû. Moi, Alfa Ndiaye, fils du très vieil homme, j’ai compris, je n’aurais pas dû. Par la vérité de Dieu, maintenant je sais.”

“…jag vet, jag förstår att jag inte borde ha gjort det. Jag, Alfa Ndiaye, son till den gamle, gamle mannen, förstår att jag inte borde ha gjort det. Vid Guds sanning vet jag det nu.”

I have my own opinions about how I would translate the French into Swedish, but I’m not about to pop off here and potentially make a fool of myself. I couldn’t grab a hold of the English translation before sitting down to write this post, so I have no idea how that fared, either (except to note that it won the International Booker Prize). Hopefully at some point an ebook version will appear in one of my US library apps.

Overall, Frère d’âme is a great example of why I think the checklist approach of my reading goals is at least a good start. It’s not a book I would have encountered if I weren’t making a deliberate effort to seek out different things, and my bookish life is that much richer for having read it.