Thoughts Without Cigarettes by Oscar Hijuelos

Though I’ve never read any of Oscar Hijuelos’s fiction (not for lack of wanting to… I’ve always been interested in Hijuelos, it just hasn’t happened yet), I was deeply intrigued by his memoir Thoughts Without Cigarettes.  Hijuelos moved to the United States when he was just a young boy and Thoughts Without Cigarettes chronicles his life from before his birth, when his parents met, to his struggle for success as an adult and fiction writer. Though I have never read any of Hijuelos’s fiction, it’s clear to see through this memoir how fabulous of a writer he is. Some of my very favorite parts were in the beginning when he was talking about his visit to Cuba as a young boy. He gets across that dreamy reality that is a childhood memory so well.

A lot of times it feels as though you are reading fiction or even poetry, Hijuelos just has a talent for describing every day things with beautiful language that makes it seem unreal or better than reality. That’s not a complaint or a bad thing at all, in fact I love reading memoirs like this. Like I said in my post about Breaking Up with God, everyone has a story to tell, it’s just about how well you tell it. Hijuelos has a pretty remarkable story and he tells it brilliantly. When Hijuelos moves on from telling the story of his childhood this dreamy quality disappears a little bit, but rightfully so.

My biggest complaint is that this book is long, probably longer than a memoir needs to be and there certainly were parts that interested me more than others. It’s a difficult book to get into because the amount of detail, but I recommend picking up this book for an interesting story about finding your place in between two cultures, writing, and family.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for sending me a copy of this book to review! 

Read the World (1) – Some Dream for Fools – Faïza Guène

So, I started this crazy project. It’s not a challenge, because that word makes me fail things. It’s just something I want to do. There’s no time limit, it’s not the most original idea and I’m so excited about it – I’m reading a book by an author from every country in the world.

I’ve been compiling a list of books available in my library system and you can see them all with the tag “read the world” on my GoodReads. I’m about half way through the Wikipedia list of sovereign states. It’s easier to find authors from some countries than for others. I’ve made some exceptions – I’d like it to be all fiction, but I’ve had to include some non-fiction titles and, in some cases, books that are about a country but not by an author of that country. Those are more place holders than anything else.  I will find books published by authors in every country, it just might take me a while to be able to afford them, because they aren’t available in my library.

All of this is to say, this is the first book I read for the project!

Faïza Guène is an Algerian woman who lives in France. She’s toted as one of the best young literary voices in Europe at the moment and writes about the immigrant life in France. This particular novel follows Ahlème while she tries to navigate life in the city, caring for her aging father and younger brother, trying to find permanent employment and her love life. I loved Ahlème and her dark humor and the trials she finds herself in were poignant and relevant.

It’s a relatively short novel, coming in at only 192 pages, and it felt that way. There isn’t exactly a plot, it is just a short segment of Alhème’s life. She muses on what it is like to be an immigrant in France, from fear of deportation to the danger of younger men, like her brother, joining gangs.

This is a good enough book, but unfortunately I found the translation, by Jenna Johnson, to be distracting. I don’t read French, but I have enough experience with translation, translating and reading translations that you just know when one brings you out of what you are reading. I understand – there clearly was a lot of slang in the original. That’s a difficult translating situation, because it’s a fine line between trying to translate the connotation versus trying to translate the exact meaning. I wish I had saved better examples, but this is the one I pulled out:

“He got caught in a vicious circle, that’s all, what can you do?” (101)

Now, before you leave a comment to tell me that that is a perfectly acceptable phrase in English, I really didn’t realize that people said a “vicious circle”, instead of cycle! That may seem like a small thing, but it really pulled me out of the text when I was reading it. Then I saw the Wikipedia article and realized that this is my mistake. So is this regionally based? Or just a gap in my knowledge of idioms?

But this wasn’t the only time the translation distracted me. I think the deeper I get into this project, like the Comic-A-Week project, the more I’ll be able to point out what specifically makes a good translation and what makes a bad one. I wouldn’t call this a bad translation, but it was one that had a lot of challenges and one that could have certainly been better.

All in all, this was a pleasant, informative start to this project. The whole point is to learn about the world through literature and I certainly learned a lot about Algeria and what it is like to be an Algerian immigrant in France. I also imagine that I will pick up Faïza Guène’s books in the future.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve read everything else

Literary License also has a post about Some Dream for Fools. Do you? Link to it in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Grief and humor in Looking for Bapu

“The wrinkle-nosed woman turns again.  ‘You’re brave to wear your turban, young man.  With all the anxiety!’

Young man?  Mr. Singh must be at least forty.  ‘I’ve been honored to wear this turban for many years,’  he says, holding his head high.  ‘Throughout history people have fought and died for the right to wear it.  I will not take it off  now.’

The woman purses her lips.  ‘Well, you’re very brave.’  She turns ahead  again, and the line begins to move, finally.  I glance sidelong at Dad.  He looks Indian, but he whistles ‘American Pie’ in the shower and reads the Seattle newspaper in the morning.  My dad is not what anyone calls him.  My dad is just my dad.  Is it brave to be what you are, I wonder?  Brave to just be yourself?” (pg 63)

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