April has flown by in the breathless fury that always seems to associate itself with mid-spring. Although I remain devastated at my loss of the UK’s four-day Easter weekend, April remains one of my favourite months of the year. It is also just about the only mild month that the US midwest seems to get so I have made extra sure to appreciate it this year. I particularly enjoy the fact that endless storms afford me plenty of excuses for reading and browsing the endless stream of excellent articles, interviews, and new releases to grace the bookish world. April has been a fantastic month for literature, including one of the best literary releases of the year thus far. So grab a cup of tea (the arrival of my favourite oat milk in the US means that I’m currently drinking tea by the bucket) and have a look at the best of April’s offerings!
‘Washington Department Of Corrections Quietly Bans Book Donations To Prisoners From Nonprofits‘ by Kelly Jensen (Book Riot)
Although the decision has since been overturned, the news that Washington Department of Corrections had decided to ban book donations from nonprofits was certainly one of the most concerning moves from April. Without any real acknowledgement of the policy shift (so quiet was the Department, in fact, that nonprofits did not discover the news until the change had already been implemented), the decision virtually eradicated the ability of prisoners to receive books. Since individuals are prohibited from making their own donations to prisons, incarcerated individuals rely on nonprofits and bookstores for access to reading material. Despite the Department’s eventual reversal of this policy decision (largely in response to the massive public outcry that it inspired), the attempt to ban nonprofit donations reflects a growing trend in prison administration. Given the educational potential of books – both as a practical resource and a major source of increasing compassion/empathy across populations – access to books is something that must not be denied to prisoners. It will likely continue to be a major site of battle between nonprofits, human rights activists, and corrections facilities across the US.
‘Vladimir Nabokov, Literary Refugee‘ by Stacy Schiff (The New York Times)
This fascinating opinion piece from author Stacy Schiff examines the connection between Vladimir Nabokov’s experience as a refugee fleeing revolutionary Russia and his later writing. The article talks through the biographical details of Nabokov’s voluntary exile from Russia and his struggles to establish himself as a writer and literary academic. While Schiff does not dwell on the specifics of Nabokov’s writings or style, she does consider the nuances of the influence that his background as a victim of international politics had on his ability to explore and expand his own writing potential. His feelings on writing in the English language, as well as the hypocrisy involved in his political opinions (that he decried oppression, whilst supporting McCarthyism), are considered by Schiff as she relates Nabokov’s experiences. This is a fascinating piece to anyone who enjoys Nabokov’s work or is interested in learning more about his transition from life in revolutionary Russia.
‘Oops! Famously Scathing Reviews of Classic Books From The Times’s Archive‘ by Tina Jordan (The New York Times)
Technically this is a March article but it flew across my literary radar at the start of April and it’s too good not to share. This piece is an amazing collection of negative New York Times reviews of classic literature. Nabokov’s Lolita was, for instance, described with this sentiment: “There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.” Although negative reviews are a pretty universal experience for any author (and by no means a guarantee that a novel will not be esteemed as a classic some time in the future), it is always interesting to look back at the initial perceptions of books that later gained the ‘classic’ status. As an article of historical interest, this collection of review excerpts is just really funny.
‘‘It’s a silent conversation’: authors and translators on their unique relationship‘ by Claire Armitstead (The Guardian)
Since watching the incredible documentary Dreaming Murakami, I’ve been truly fascinated by the relationship between authors and their translators. There are so many dimensions to the dynamic – one that it both professional but implicitly intimate – that are generally unconsidered by reading audiences. One reason for Dreaming Murakami‘s tremendous power is the time that it gives to examining the detailed knowledge of an author required for accurate translation. In this article for The Guardian, Claire Armitstead considers the unique dynamic between authors and translators, through the lens of Man Booker nominated novelist Olga Tokarczuk and her translator, Jennifer Croft. As the demand for translated works increases, the work performed by translators – as the gate through which authors communicate all elements of their writing to the wider world – deserves parallel focus. Unpicking the fascinating work of translation, including the difference between translators as ‘originalists’ and ‘activists’, this article (and the series of interviews that it includes) is one of the most well researched and interesting pieces to emerge in April.
‘Profile: A Debut Novelist Explores Her Family’s History, And Palestine’s‘ by Joumana Khatib
If you read my review of Isabella Hammad’s debut novel The Parisian on Tuesday, you’ll already know that the novel has firmly asserted itself as one of my favourite novels of 2019. It is an incredible examination of Palestine’s history following World War I (you can find more details on the novel below) and a testament to Hammad’s integrity as an author of humanistic history. Her background – as a child of a British mother and Palestinian father, born and raised in London, and educated in part in the US – provides fertile ground for anyone seeking to understand how a young author could write a work of such powerful worldiness. This profile of Hammad from The New York Times is a wonderful consideration of Hammad’s writing and the motivations that fed The Parisian. At the very least, it absolutely solidifies Hammad’s position as a voice of significant literary consequence.
The Parisian by Isabella Hammad
What else could it be? Undoubtedly one of my favourite novels from the first half of 2019, I was dumbfounded by both the stylistic and thematic daring of Isabella Hammad’s debut. Following Midhat Kamal – a young native of the ancient Palestinian town Nablus and the son of a wealthy textile merchant – the novel journeys across both continents and decades. Midhat’s father dispatches him to France to study medicine (and coincidentally avoid having to serve in World War I). Midhat’s experience in France is one of otherness and the development of a position as outsider that follows him back to Nablus. Now viewed as ‘the Parisian’, Midhat returns to Palestine to find the country embroiled in a period of increasing violence, surrounding new British rule and a growing desire for Palestinian self-determination. The Parisian is an intimate study of the nature of cross-cultural identity and culpability in the reduction of a country to a place understandable only through its otherness.
What I’ve Been Reading
It has been another relatively slow month for me, although I’ve still managed to make my way through four novels. I finally got a chance to read Anna Burn’s 2018 Man Booker Winner, Milkman, which has taken its place on my list of favourite books. I’ll be reviewing that one on Saturday, so stay tuned for it!
– My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
– The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead