Category: Bronsky Alina

Second Impressions: Alina Bronsky

Much as I like discovering unfamiliar writers, one of the pleasures of reading an author for the second time in particular is that it allows you to start making connections and building a tentative picture of that author’s approach and concerns. The picture might eventually turn out to be inaccurate, but that’s all part of the exploration of reading.

I’ve now read two novels by Alina Bronsky, so I can form a better picture of her work. Vivid narrators are a key element, which is no surprise following the powerful presence of Rosa in The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, but it’s still good to have this underlined. If Marek in Just Call Me Superhero isn’t quite as a strong a presence – well, few would be. Besides, his distance from the reader (from everyone, from himself) is a central part of his nature as a character.

Bronsky also filters reality through the perception of her narrators in striking ways. Rosa is so sure of her self-image that there’s a certain wry humour (and, later, melancholy) in realising that the actuality is rather different. Marek isn’t so much deluded about his situation as too guarded to let others in, including the reader. We’re with him as he crosses the boundaries into unfamiliar territory, and we see his ambivalence about getting closer to someone else.

Here’s hoping, then, for many more interesting characters’ worlds to come from Alina Bronsky.

Book details (Publisher link / Foyles affiliate link)

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2010) by Alina Bronsky, tr. Tim Mohr (2011), Europa Editions paperback

Just Call Me Superhero (2013) by Alina Bronsky, tr. Tim Mohr (2014), Europa Editions paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

Just Call Me Superhero: into the unknown

If To Mervas is a novel of moving from inside to outside and back again, Alina Bronsky’s Just Call Me Superhero (translated from the German by Tim Mohr) is one of crossing into unfamiliar worlds. It begins with our narrator, Marek, arriving at what he thinks will be a tutorial to help him pass his high school diploma – only to find that his mother has actually sent him to a support group for disabled people. Marek was disfigured after being attacked by a Rottweiler, but he wants nothing to do with any sort of disability group – until, that is, he spots the beautiful Janne sitting there in her wheelchair.

One of the first things I began to notice about Just Call Me Superhero was how tightly controlled was the flow of information about Marek– for instance, we never learn the full story of his disfigurement. We are firmly in the ‘here and now’ of Marek’s life; there is a clear sense of going only as far into his world as he will allow. That’s what it’s like for Marek with the disability group (particularly the frosty reception he gets from Janne), though there’s also reluctance on his part to enter the group and open himself to them.

Bronsky’s novel is effectively structured into two halves, with Marek taking reluctant steps into two of these unfamiliar spheres. In the first half, it’s the disability group; in the second, it is the family of his father, who eloped with the au pair and had a son whom Marek barely knows. Bronsky draws intriguing parallels between the two groups, and one question hangs above all: is there a family for Marek, among all these people?

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Just Call Me Superhero (2013) by Alina Bronsky, tr. Tim Mohr (2014), Europa Editions paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

My favourite books of 2013

I love end-of-year list time, because it’s a chance to reflect on the best moments. I read over 150 books this year, which I’m sure must be a record for me, and is certainly unusually high. There were plenty of highlights amongst all those books, but I have managed to sift them down to twelve, my usual number for these lists.

You can see my previous best-of-year lists here: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009. I’ve kept changing the format over the years (ranked or unranked; books from all years, or just the year in question); I’ve settled on including books from all years of publication (as long as I read them for the first time this year); but I think it’s more fun to rank them, so I’m also going to do that. And, taking a leaf from Scott Pack’s book, I’m going to list them in reverse order.

So, here (with links to my reviews) are my Top 12 Books of 2013:

70 acrylic

12. Viola Di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (2011)
Translated from the Italian by Michael Reynolds (2012)

Of all the books I read in 2013, this may be the one that most thoroughly depicts the real world as a strange and treacherous landscape. This is a novel about the power of language to shape perception, as it depicts a young woman gradually discovering a new way to look at life (and, just possibly, finding love) when she meets a boy who teaches her Chinese.

11. Andrew Kaufman, Born Weird (2013)

This is the third Andrew Kaufman book that I’ve read, and he just gets better and better. Born Weird tells of five siblings who were given ‘blessings’ at birth by their grandmother, which she now plans to undo on her death-bed. Kaufman has a wonderfully light touch with the fantastic: there’s just enough whimsy to illuminate the family story, and there’s real bite when the novel gets serious.

10. Project Itoh, Harmony (2008)
Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith (2010)

A searching exploration of self-determination and authoritarianism in a future where remaining healthy is seen as the ultimate public good. One of the most intellectually engaging books I read all year.

9. Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (2012)

Chalk this one up as the book I liked that I wasn’t expecting to. A short but powerful character study of a mother becoming distanced from her son as he is swept away by social change and the great tide of story. This would have been my second choice for the Man Booker Prize. (My first choice? That’s further down/up the list.)

twelve tribes8. Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (2012)

A wonderfully fluid composite portrait of an African-American family making their way in the North across the twentieth century. Just recalling the range and vividness of this novel makes me want to read the book again.

7. Sam Thompson, Communion Town (2012)

Ten story-chapters that make the same fictional city seem like ten different places. Communion Town depicts the city as an environment crammed with stories, each vying for the chance to be told. It’s invigorating stuff to read.

6. Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)

With one of the strongest voices I’ve encountered all year, this is a nuanced account of a man’s pragmatic rise from childhood poverty to business success – with a keen sense that there are costs to be borne along the way. The second-person narration, which could so easily have been a gimmick, works beautifully.

all the birds

5. Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (2013)

It has been really exciting over the last five years to see fine writers of my age-group emerge and establish names for themselves. Evie Wyld is one such writer; her debut was on my list of favourite books in 2009, and now here’s her second novel. Wyld remains a superb writer of place, in her depiction both of the English island where sheep farmer Jake Whyte now lives, and of the Australia that Jake fled. I also love how elegantly balanced this novel is, between the volatile past and the present stability that’s now under threat.

4. Alina Bronsky, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2010)
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr (2011)

Here’s the most memorable character of the year for me: the gloriously ghastly Rosa, who will do anything for her family if it suits her, and will do anything to them if it suits her better. This book is a joy – blackly hilarious, with a bittersweet sting.

3. Shaun Usher (ed.), Letters of Note (2013)

My non-fiction pick of the year. This is a lavish collection of facsimile letters, which is both beautiful to look at, and a window on very personal aspects of history.

2. Jess Richards, Cooking with Bones (2013)

Jess Richards’ work was my discovery of the year: Cooking with Bones is a magical novel that defies easy summary; but it includes a girl who doesn’t know who she wants to be, when all she can do is reflect back the desires of others; supernatural recipes; and one of the most richly textured fictional worlds I’ve come across in a long time. More fool me for not reading Richards’ debut, Snake Ropes, last year; but at least I have the wonderful promise of that book to come.

luminaries1. Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)

Once in a while, a book will come along that changes you as a reader, affects you so deeply that the experience becomes part of who you are. Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal was like that for me, which is why it topped my list of books read in 2009. With The Luminaries, it has all happened again. Several months after reading it, I am in awe at the novel’s range and richness; yet I feel that I’ve still glimpsed only a fraction of what Catton has achieved in the book. I was overjoyed at her Man Booker win, and can only hope that it will bring Catton’s work to the attention of as many people as possible. My wish for all readers is that they find books which mean as much to them as a work like The Luminaries means to me.

Now, what about you? What are your favourite books of the year? Also, if you’ve read any on my list, let me know what you thought.

German Literature Month: Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2010)
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr, 2011

abI would call this book delightful, but that doesn’t seem quite the right word for a novel with such a splendidly awful protagonist, and which actually carries quite a bitter sting. I was taken with The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine from the first two paragraphs, so perhaps I’ll quote those:

As my daughter Sulfia was explaining that she was pregnant but that she didn’t know by whom, I paid extra attention to my posture. I sat with my back perfectly straight and folded my hands elegantly in my lap.

Sulfia was sitting on a kitchen stool. Her shoulders were scrunched up and her eyes were red; instead of simply letting her tears flow she insisted on rubbing them into her face with the backs of her hands. This despite the fact that when she was still a child I had taught her how to cry without making herself look ugly, and how to smilr without promising too much.

This voice belongs to one Rosa Achmetowna; already we get a sense of the kind of person she is: concerned about how she appears (which must be proper), and possessed of a very low opinion of her daughter.

What we see shortly after is that Rosa will go to extraordinary lengths to achieve her goals, and that she’ll change her attitude in a heartbeat if it suits her. Her first reaction to Sulfia’s pregnancy is to try to stop it; her folk remedies don’t work, but a knitting needle does the trick – except it turns out that Sulfia had twins, and one of them comes to term. Rosa is horrified at the thought of Sulfia having a child – until little Aminat is born, and proves (unlike Sulfia) to share her grandmother’s Tartar features. Aminat promptly becomes the apple of Rosa’s eye, so much so that Rosa thinks the girl would be better off with her than Sulfia.

Much of the humour in Alina Bronksy’s book comes from seeing just how far Rosa is prepared to go. For example, when Rosa is casting about trying to find Sulfia a good husband, she learns of a German man in a coma who’s been brought into the hospital where Sulfia works (Dieter Rossmann; “What a nice name!” says Rosa), she sees her chance, even entertaining the thought that Sulfia could tell him when he wakes up that the two of them are in a relationship, in case he’s lost his memory. Rosa is even more delighted to discover that Dieter is a journalist researching Tartar cuisine – until she finds out that he cooks himself, at which point she wants nothing more to do with him. That changes again when the prospect arises of the family being invited to move to Germany, where Rosa thinks they’ll have a much better life.

Rosa has a very clear image of herself and her worth: she always thinks that she’s the best looking, the best dressed – better than those around her. How much of what she does is for the good of her family, and how much for her own self-worth, is open to question; the two are so bound up with each other that perhaps there is no difference in Rosa’s mind. The real sting of the novel comes from seeing how Rosa’s view of herself doesn’t always correspond with reality. When her family makes it to Germany, Rosa gets a job as a cleaner; she’s very pleased at this, and suddenly we experience the jolt of recognition that Rosa’s high opinion of herself may not be as high as we thought.

This feeling of dissonance returns – though developing more slowly, and with a more melancholic undertone – as Rosa grows older, and starts to lose her grip on the world around her. If she was out to improve her family’s lot in life – well, that’s happened in some ways, but not in others. If she was out to improve her own, I suppose that has also happened, if not quite in a way Rosa would have anticipated. In other words, the outcome is a typically bittersweet jumble of life – but the book that chronicles it is a joy. Bronsky has one other novel in English, Broken Glass Park; you can be sure that it’s on my to-read list.

Some other reviews of this book: Janet Potter for The Millions; Boston Bibliophile; Lizzy’s Literary Life; Leafing Through Life.

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