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The Watchlist: November 2017

By M. Bartley Seigel

Every month, emeritus Words Without Borders reviews editor M. Bartley Seigel reaches out into the wide world from his home on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to share a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles in translation he’s excited about, books he hopes you’ll agree are worth all our good attentions:

From The American University in Cairo Press, Cigarette Number Seven by Donia Kamal, translated from the Arabic (Egypt) by Nariman Youssef | fiction | 224 pages | ISBN 9789774168505 | US$17.95

Says the publisher: “A young woman’s story of family, love, and revolution in modern Cairo. As a child, Nadia was left with her grandparents in Egypt, while her mother sought work in the Gulf. Decades later, she looks back on her fragmented childhood from an uncertain present: it is 2011 and the streets have erupted in an unexpected revolution. Her activist father, the sole anchor in her life, encourages her to be a part of the protests and so Nadia joins the sit-in at Tahrir Square. Donia Kamal’s succinct, candid prose draws us into Nadia’s world: from the private to the public; from the men she has loved and lost, to her participation in the momentous events of the Egyptian revolution. Stunning in its simplicity, Cigarette Number Seven is a deeply intimate novel about family and relationships in turbulent times.”

Says the author herself: Read a recent conversation between Kamal and Youssef over at

Says me: “There simply isn’t enough Egyptian literature in translation in the United States (nor any other Arab-language literature). This is especially odd for the US, so utterly obsessed with the Arab world, its politics, culture, etc., as we are. Add gender to that muddled matrix, and the silence upon which we here build our faulty assumptions is deafening. Kamal is a welcome voice amid that silence. Her artistry on the page, translated expertly by Youssef, rings as true as it is enlightening. This book is a bull’s-eye.”  


From Amazon Crossing, The House by the River by Lena Manta, translated from the Greek by Gail Holst-Warhaft | fiction | 544 pages | ISBN 9781542045896 | US$14.95

Says the publisher: “The first novel by acclaimed Greek writer Lena Manta to appear in English translation, The House by the River is an intimate, emotionally powerful saga following five young women as they realize that no matter the men they choose, the careers they pursue, or the children they raise, the only constant is home. Theodora knows she can’t keep her five beautiful daughters at home forever—they’re too curious, too free-spirited, too like their late father. And so, before each girl leaves the small house on the riverside at the foot of Mount Olympus, Theodora makes sure they know they are always welcome to return. A devoted and resilient mother, Theodora has lived through World War II, through the Nazi occupation of Greece, and through her husband’s death, and now she endures the twenty-year-long silence of her daughters’ absence. Her children have their own lives—they’ve married, traveled the world, and courted romance, fame, and even tragedy. But as they become modern, independent women in pursuit of their dreams, Theodora knows they need her—and each other—more than ever. Have they grown so far apart that they’ve forgotten their childhood house in its tiny village, or will their broken hearts finally lead them home?”

Says Historical Novel Society: “In this poignant chronicle, Lena Manta examines the lives of five individual girls who leave their home. While their departures are typical, the possibility of their return forms the intriguing premise of this novel . . . The strong prose and descriptions of Greece and other locales are engrossing.”

Says me: “A gripping and deeply touching novel, The House by the River was the page-turner of my reading month, more sentimental than I typically go in for, but intricate and well wrought. Can we ever really go home? Manta has some ideas.”


From Open Letter Books, North Station by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith | fiction | 212 pages | ISBN 9781940953656 | US$15.95

Says the publisher: “A writer struggles to come to terms with the death of her beloved mentor; the staging of an experimental play goes awry; time freezes for two lovers on a platform, waiting for the train that will take one of them away; a woman living in a foreign country discovers she has been issued with the wrong ID. Emotionally haunting, intellectually stimulating, the seven stories in North Station represent the range and power of Bae Suah’s distinctive voice and style, which delights in digressions, multiple storylines, and sudden ruptures of societal norms. Heavily influenced by the German authors she’s read and translated, Bae’s stories combine elements of Korean and European storytelling in a way that’s unforgettable and mesmerizing.”

Says The Book Binder’s Daughter: “Suah’s greatest strength as a writer lies in her ability to take what at first appears to be disjointed images and scenes and weave them together into a singularly beautiful story. The attic room, the poetry, the woman on the platform he longs to kiss are all connected in her character’s mind with a meditation on time and space: ‘When was it that he had last kissed a woman so ardently, his lips as passionate as when they pronounced poetry? In that city or this, at the house of his acquaintance or on the platform in the north station, while waiting for the train.’”

Says me: “Fairy tales that don’t lean on magic as a crutch or dodge? Sign me up. North Station is a delicately woven tapestry, poetry wrapped up in rice paper and string, beguiling as any book I’ve recently read.” 


From Oneworld Publications, Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa, translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts | fiction | 224 pages | ISBN 9781786071958 | US$16.99

Says the publisher: “Sentaro has failed. He has a criminal record, drinks too much, and his dream of becoming a writer is just a distant memory. With only the blossoming of the cherry trees to mark the passing of time, he spends his days in a tiny confectionery shop selling dorayaki, a type of pancake filled with sweet bean paste. But everything is about to change. Into his life comes Tokue, an elderly woman with disfigured hands and a troubled past. Tokue makes the best sweet bean paste Sentaro has ever tasted. She begins to teach him her craft, but as their friendship flourishes, social pressures become impossible to escape and Tokue's dark secret is revealed, with devastating consequences. Sweet Bean Paste is a moving novel about the burden of the past and the redemptive power of friendship.”

Says the Herald: “As wise as it is moving, Sukegawa’s novel beguiles and seduces the reader from evocative opening to compassionate close.”

Says me: “Books that are endearing, in my experience, tend to rely on the cheap, common, and maudlin for their points of connection. Somehow Sukegawa avoids these pitfalls, layering the mundane over dark secrets to create a profoundly human and moving novel. The world is a complicated place, life is messy and fraught, and grief is right around the corner. So, too, is relief.”


From BOA Editions, The Living Theatre by Bianca Tarozzi, translated from the Italian by Jeanne Foster and Alan Williamson | poetry | 

Says the publisher: “In this first US publication of celebrated Italian poet Bianca Tarozzi, narrative poems (presented bilingually in both English and the original Italian) carry us through the poet’s childhood memories of World War II under Mussolini, harsh postwar conditions, and mid-century changes that transformed Italian life, specifically for women. A unique figure in contemporary Italian poetry, Tarozzi draws significant influence from acclaimed American poets—Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill—interweaving powerful subjects with humor and heart.”

Says nobody, so says me: “Sigh, poetry . . . It’s a bummer no one has reviewed this book yet, as BOA and company knock this one out of the park, providing a playbook for how to do poetry-in-translation right. First, provide the original poem in its original language alongside the translation. Second, find a poet as resonant as Tarozzi. Magnifico.”

Published Nov 14, 2017   Copyright 2017 M. Bartley Seigel

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