2010 Books in Translation

The Housekeeper and The Professor – Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and the Professor Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Five words from the blurb: maths, memory, affection, riddles, past

People have raved about The Housekeeper and The Professor ever since its release last year, but although I enjoyed reading it I wasn’t bowled over in the way most other readers have been.

The book centres on a maths professor with a short-term memory only eighty minutes long. He vividly remembers events from his past, but all new information is quickly forgotten. This means that the professor never recognises his housekeeper and she must reintroduce herself each morning. Despite this fact she becomes enchanted by him. He shows her the beauty of numbers and forms a strong bond with her son.

This is a beautiful little book, but I think its main charm is the way that it introduces a love for mathematics.

I ran my fingers over the lines of the formula, a long chain of numbers and symbols that flowed from one page to the next. As I followed the chain, link by link, the room faded and I found myself in a dark, silent place of numbers. But I felt no fear, certain in the knowledge that the Professor would guide me toward eternal, unchangeable truths.

The professor introduces prime numbers, perfect numbers, amicable numbers and many other basic mathematical concepts. The problem was that I was already aware of most of them and so they didn’t produce the magical sense of wonder that they have clearly induced in others.

The writing was simple and engaging, but it wasn’t as emotional as I was expecting. The overall feeling was one of tenderness and I think this is the type of book that you should read if you are in the mood something gentle and heartwarming.

If you can’t imagine enjoying a novel containing mathematics then I urge you to give this book a try, but if you already have a love of numbers it may be a bit too basic.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Characters, themes and a gently developing plot are perfectly blended. Fleur Fisher in her World

I would never have believed that mathematics could be so seamlessly woven into fiction that I hardly questioned its presence there. Erin Reads

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a very quiet, very subtle book. At the same time, it’s a page-turner, a book you just don’t want to put down. How often do you come across books like this? su [shu]

2010 Books in Translation Other Prizes

The Twin – Gerbrand Bakker

The Twin Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

Winner of 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

Five words from the blurb: remote, Dutch, twin, death, choices

The Twin is a quiet, tender story about one man learning to cope with the loss of his twin brother. Helmer lives on a remote Dutch farm with his dying father. He never wanted to be a farmer, but the death of his twin forced him to return to the family home. Helmer’s isolated existence is brought to an end by the sudden arrival of his twin’s fiancee.

Very little actually happens in this book, but I was captivated its emotional intensity. I quickly felt that I understood Helmer and his frustration at the way his life had unfolded. 

‘You never said anything,’ Father says. ‘You never said you didn’t want to.’

‘You didn’t have much choice.’ I walk back to the window and follow the line of the dyke until I can see the lighthouse again.


The writing was simple, but allowed subtle emotion to bubble through to the surface of every page.

From the description you’d expect this to be a depressing book, but while there were a few sad moments, I found that the tone always lifted before I had a chance to shed a tear.

This book won’t be for everyone, but if you’re in the mood for a book that investigates the inevitability of life then this is the perfect choice.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

As painful as it is, it’s a wonderous experience to dwell with them for a time. The Mookse and the Gripes

This simple book surprised me. I will read it again. Page247

The scenery is wonderfully described you get the feeling of isolation and strangeness of platteland… Winstonsdad’s Blog

2010 TV Book Club

The Radleys by Matt Haig

The Radleys

I haven’t had any success with vampire related entertainment in the past and so avoided this book for a long time. Even when people with similar aversions started to rave about it I ignored them – there was no way I’d be convinced to try another disappointing vampire book. But slowly the positive reviews started to mount and I became increasingly curious about this book. I wasn’t convinced enough to buy a copy, but when I spotted it in my local library I couldn’t resist reading the first page – if only to confirm my belief that it would be terrible. I’m almost sad to admit that my 100% failure with vampires is over. I fell in love with this book from the very beginning and enjoyed this fast paced, entertaining romp all the way to the end.

The Radleys is set in a small Yorkshire town and focuses on one family who are desperately trying to live a normal life. The problem is that they are vampires with an almost uncontrollable urge to drink blood. I admit that the premise sounds just like any other vampire book, but this one is different in that it is almost a satire of the others. It doesn’t try to scare you, but entertains with witty observations about British life and realistic descriptions of the relationships between different family members.   

The blood drinking can also be taking for a metaphor for almost any desire that we have trouble controlling. A book about giving up smoking wouldn’t have been as interesting, but the lessons about impulse control are just as relevant.

The Radleys is the perfect choice for anyone looking for a lighter read. It is an original idea that has been cleverly executed. Recommended.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

(I couldn’t find a negative review)

The writing is funny and the story is so real! Leeswammes Blog

Some of the cultural references feel quite UK-focused, so I hope that doesn’t impact how it translates elsewhere. Novel Insights

…. a great pleasure to read. Follow the Thread

2010 2011 Orange Prize Other Prizes Pulitzer Prize

A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

A Visit From the Goon Squad

Winner of 2011 Pulitzer Prize
Longlisted for 2011 Orange Prize
Winner of 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award

Five words from the blurb: popular, humourous, lives, interact, loss

A Visit from the Goon Squad seems to have won more awards than any other book this year. There is no question that it is a groundbreaking novel (how many other books do you know containing an entire chapter written as a powerpoint presentation?), but I think this is going to be one of those books that divides opinion. Unfortunately I fall into neither camp – I’m going to sit on the fence for this one. For the best music related show and all simply go and check this.

A Visit from the Goon Squad shows an array of characters at various important moments in their lives. The book flips forwards and backwards in time and it is often hard to know who is narrating, let alone what period of time each character is in. Things do eventually fall into place, but a great deal of concentration is required to piece everything together.

The writing was easy to read and allowed an instant connection to be formed to each character, but I’m afraid I didn’t have any real interest in what the characters did. The music and PR industries have never interested me and so all the wonderful satire went over my head.

Very little actually happens in the book and although some of the scenes were fantastic I reached the end feeling a little bit let down. It all felt a bit too gimmicky for me.

Charlie doesn’t know herself. Four years from now, at eighteen, she’ll join a cult across the Mexican border whose charismatic leader promotes a diet of raw eggs; she’ll nearly die from salmonella poisoning before Lou rescues her. A cocaine habit will require partial reconstruction of her nose, changing her appearance, and a series of feckless, domineering men will leave her solitary in her late twenties, trying to broker peace between Rolph and Lou, who will have stopped speaking.

There was no real message behind the book and so I didn’t think the effort was worth it.

The best thing about this book is that it is impossible to read without forming an opinion on it – you’ll love it or hate it, or perhaps, like me, you’ll find you do both in equal measure.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…it just might make your brain explode…but in a very pleasing way. The Book Lady’s Blog

I recognize the genius of what Egan is doing but my main reaction after many of the chapters was “Huh.” Life with Books

There is a very, very fine line between quirky, original, and ambitious and plain old annoying. I think that A Visit From the Goon Squad is firmly on the side of awesome. Amused, Bemused and Confused.

….it was a bitter disappointment. Always Cooking Up Something

2010 2011 Books in Translation Chick Lit Mystery

Rendezvous – Esther Verhoef

Rendezvous Translated from the Dutch by Alexander Smith

Five words from the blurb: mother, life, unravels, tension, twists

Iris is holding A Month of Dutch Literature on her blog. I wanted to join in, but had nothing to hand. I then spotted this book in a little independent book shop and was drawn towards the following sentence in the blurb:

Rendezvous is an emotional rollercoaster from start to finish and an extremely powerful story about how dangerous getting what you want can be.

That is a bit of an exaggeration, but it was a gripping read with some degree of emotional tension throughout.

The book begins with Simone, a young mother, being arrested. Over the course of the book we see how she goes from being a caring wife and mother, to being at risk of losing everything.

Simone and her family move from Holland to a rural village in the south of France. They have to cope with living in the confines of a caravan whilst their house is being renovated, but also learn the numerous differences between their culture and French etiquette.

Simone’s character is very well developed and I had a great deal of sympathy for her, despite her flaws.

Unbelievable how I was able to lie to everyone, how naturally and easily it came to me. All my life I’ve hated that so intensely, that scheming, lying and deceit. Women who cheat on their husbands with their best friends, men who say they have to work late and are actually carrying on with their secretaries – there’s a reason those kinds of clichés are clichés; they’re far too commonplace, they seem to make the world go round.

This book could almost be described as chick-lit, but the mystery surrounding Simone’s imprisonment also gives it a crime/thriller edge.

I found the entire book to be very entertaining. It isn’t groundbreaking or particularly original, but it is perfect for when you need to read something a bit lighter.


2010 Books in Translation Chunkster

The Whisperer – Donato Carrisi

The Whisperer Translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside

Five words from the blurb: missing, girls, arms, police, secrets.

I hadn’t heard of this book, but spotted it in my library and was sold by the bold lettering on the cover proclaiming it to be:

The Italian Literary Thriller Phenomenon

The blurb informed me that it had won lots of Italian book awards and was a record-breaking bestseller in Europe and so I decided to give it a try.

The plot revolves around the discovery of a circle of arms buried in a forest. The bodies of the girls that they belonged to can not be found and so the hunt for their serial killer begins.

I initially loved this book. The writing style reminded me of Sophie Hannah and I was totally gripped to the horror that was unfolding.

A fresh anxiety took hold of her. She had put her own life and the hostage’s at risk. And now she was scared. Scared of making another mistake. Scared of stumbling at the last step, the one that would take her out of this horrible lair. Or discovering that the house would never let her go, that it would close in on her like a silken net, holding her prisoner for ever.

Unfortunately things began to unravel as the plot progressed. I began to feel patronised by the way the book repeated things and over-explained every situation. It was definitely a case of being told what was happening, rather than shown.

There were several sections where I had to suspend my disbelief. I don’t mind this to some extent in a thriller, but the plot in this book stretched my tolerance threshold to the limit.

I guess my main problem with this book is the marketing. The Whisperer isn’t a literary thriller. It is a good thriller, but it doesn’t have the depth I’d expect from a book marketed with the word “literary”. I can see why thousands of people would enjoy flicking through this on the beach, but I was frustrated by the two-dimensional characters and the increasingly bizarre plot twists.

Recommended to those who enjoy fast paced thrillers that focus on plot rather than character.