Robert Weibezahl

We tend to believe that some things get lost in translation, but perhaps, as Jhumpa Lahiri suggests in her absorbing new collection of essays, Translating Myself and Others, some things are also gained. Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, and has subsequently enraptured readers with her penetrating novels and stories. She famously moved to Rome in 2015 and began writing in Italian, publishing in Italian and translating the work of Italian novelist Domenico Starnone into English.

This linguistically bifurcated existence has inspired much thought on the art of translation, which Lahiri says has always been a controversial literary form. The short essays she collects here—some written in English and some translated into English from Italian—explore her passion for translation, a subject she previously taught at Princeton. Yet interwoven with some of the more arcane nuts-and-bolts issues that face the literary translator are other things that Lahiri, as a writer of fiction, has learned from the process of rendering the words of other writers, as well as her own, into a new tongue. “Now that I have become a translator in addition to remaining a writer, I am struck by how many people regard what I am doing as ‘secondary’ and thus creatively inferior in nature,” she writes. “Readers who react with suspicion to a work in translation reinforce a perceived hierarchy in literature between an original work and its imitation.” Indeed, translators rarely even get recognition on a book’s jacket, or enduring recognition outside of academic circles. And yet, so much of the world’s literature would be inaccessible to us without their intensive work. Throughout these essays, Lahiri shows how painstaking and full of care the process of translation is.

Essays on translation might seem an unlikely conduit for a writer’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, but Lahiri is an engaging guide, and her pensive ruminations provide a window into her soul. In “Why Italian?” she ponders the longstanding connection that she, a woman who was already fluent in English and Bengali, felt to Italian even before learning it and why she was compelled to write in it. “Where I Find Myself,” fulfilling the clever double meaning of its title, examines how Lahiri finds new intentions when she translates her own work from Italian into English (something she long avoided doing but has now embraced), sometimes revising the original Italian in the process in a kind of reverse engineering that she compares to a tennis game. In a very moving afterword, “Translating Transformation,” she reconsiders her mother’s recent death through the prism of Ovid, whose masterwork she is currently co-translating. “In the face of death,” she writes, “the Metamorphoses had completely altered my perspective.”

Translating Myself and Others is a subtle yet ultimately engrossing work, somewhat academic at times, yet infused with the kind of understated, often startling capacity for observation that has always been Lahiri’s literary superpower.

Master storyteller Jhumpa Lahiri spins thoughtful and personal essays on the unsung art of literary translation.

Much of Kim Stanley Robinson’s prodigious science fiction has ecological underpinnings—so it comes as no surprise that the oft-decorated writer has a real-life passion for wilderness. More specifically, Robinson loves the Sierra Nevada, the geological backbone of California, where he has lived most of his life. In The High Sierra, a capacious and truly original work of nonfiction, Robinson expresses his enduring appreciation for these mountains and the time he has spent there. A mashup of travelogue, geology lesson, hiking guide, history and meditation, all wrapped in a revealing and personal memoir (and illustrated with scores of gorgeous color photographs and illustrations), the book is, in essence, an exuberant celebration of finding purpose in nature.

The Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award-winning writer first visited the Sierra as a college student almost 50 years ago, and since then he has made more than a hundred return visits, spending untold hours in its eternal landscape. There have been group excursions and solo treks in every season. In his hippie days, he even enhanced the mountain high by dropping acid. Accounts of these experiences, sometimes risky, sometimes funny, but always deeply meaningful, give shape to Robinson’s larger narrative. The memories are intercut and augmented by chapters delineated by categories such as geology, Sierra people, routes and moments of being. These disparate chapters coalesce into a surprisingly seamless narrative that conveys the full measure of Robinson’s deep affection for the place and its past, as well as its significance to him personally.

Robinson’s writing is companionable and welcoming, never dry or preachy, as any field guide worth its salt should be. There is unconventional humor—he classifies place names as the good, the bad and the ugly, for instance, and his chapters on fish, frogs and bighorn sheep are all grouped under “Sierra People”—but cases of appalling human behaviors, past and present, are never glossed over.

Robinson introduces the usual suspects in the history of the Sierra—John Muir, Clarence King—but devotes equal attention to less familiar faces. He taps into the work of other Sierra-loving writers, too, including early feminist Mary Austin and the poet Gary Snyder, who is Robinson’s friend and mentor. He even shares some of his own youthful, heartfelt poetry, composed amid the elation of the mountain terrain.

Although Robinson’s mountaineering focus is the Sierra, he does take readers on brief forays into the Swiss Alps (including an account of his ascent of the Matterhorn). But The High Sierra should not be narrowly viewed as a book only for the die-hard outdoorsperson. Robinson’s greater project, at which he succeeds splendidly, is to share the magic of his personal happy place, to promote not only its admiration but also its preservation. When asked why this is a lifelong project of his, Robinson says there is no satisfactory answer, except to pose a question of his own: Why live?

The venerable sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson shares his lifelong devotion to hiking the high Sierra in a kaleidoscopic love letter to a majestic landscape.

John Keats exists in many minds as an effete, epigraphic nature lover (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”) rather than the spirited, earthy man he was. The profile that historian and literary critic Lucasta Miller assembles in her engrossing Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph is a welcome corrective that seeks a truer understanding of the life and work of the iconic British poet.

Keats’ life was short (he died in 1821 at 25), and some of its details are scant (the exact day and place of his birth, for example, are sketchy), but as in her previous literary study The Brontë Myth, Miller doesn’t offer a full-fledged biography in Keats. Instead, as the subtitle plainly states, she looks closely at nine of his most representative works in chronological order, threading in literary analysis as she unspools the pertinent life events that may have inspired or unconsciously influenced each piece.

Those seeking a truer understanding of John Keats will welcome this invigorating reappraisal of his short life and enduring poetry.

Miller is an avowed Keatsian, but one of the strengths of this study is her refreshing willingness to call out the poet for some inferior writing just as often as she extols the brilliance of his more enduring masterworks. The Keats she presents here was a work in progress, cut off in his prime (or perhaps before), and Miller is quick to point out the peculiarities, and sometimes failures, of even his most revered poems. This candor adds to rather than detracts from the affectionate picture she paints of a young man who alternated between ambition and insecurity: a poet who routinely compared his own work to Shakespeare’s yet wrote his own self-effacing epitaph as, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

Keats embraced the pleasures of life and art while wrestling with childhood demons. He was born in the waning years of the 18th century, into England’s newly formed middle class, and his father died under suspicious circumstances when the future poet was 8. He was fully orphaned by 14 but was effectively abandoned by his mother years earlier, when she ran off with a much younger man. Keats may have been somewhat emotionally crippled by parental longing, Miller suggests, but he was also a full participant in day-to-day life, devoted to his brothers and sister as well as to a passel of equally devoted friends.

The extraordinary language with which Keats fashioned his then-radical poetry percolates with striking neologisms and is laced with coded sexuality. Indeed, Keats himself could be profligate in matters of sex, drugs and money (he abandoned an apprenticeship to a doctor), and Miller sharply centers his life in the context of its time, detailing the moral ambiguities and excesses of the Regency period that would later be whitewashed by the Victorians.

While the U.S. publication of this superb volume misses the 200th anniversary of Keats’ death by a year, it is never a bad time to revisit a poetic genius. Miller has given us a thing of beauty, indeed.

Historian and critic Lucasta Miller assembles a candid yet affectionate portrait of poet John Keats in this creative blend of literary analysis and biography.

Women wearing red cloaks and face-concealing bonnets at political protests in recent years speak to the enduring popularity and relevance of Margaret Atwood’s most well-known book, The Handmaid’s Tale. In a 30th-anniversary essay about the novel, featured in her delectable new collection, Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004 to 2021, Atwood lays no claim to prescience, but of course, she is just being humble. (She is, after all, Canadian.) With an inquiring mind and the razor-sharp intellect to fuel it, this cherished and award-winning writer, now 82, is never afraid to push boundaries or speak her mind about the things that matter to her and, collectively, to many of us. What may surprise casual readers of Atwood’s work is the way her mind is honed by a delicious wit that makes reading her thoughts on a wide array of subjects as entertaining as it is edifying.

There are more than 60 wide-ranging pieces gathered in this capacious collection: essays, speeches, reviews, introductions and appreciations. Somehow the book manages to be both an enchanting hodgepodge (in the best sense) and a cohesive amalgam of a writer’s vision. Many of the entries tap into one or both of Atwood’s primary concerns: literature and environmental science. The daughter of a scientist, Atwood has true bona fides in the latter category and has been sounding the call for climate change awareness for some time, such as with the MaddAddam trilogy.

In addition to providing invaluable insight into her own work, Atwood digs with enthusiasm into Shakespeare, Kafka, Dickens, Dinesen, Bradbury and the ancient Greeks. She writes with cleareyed affection about women slightly older than her who paved the way, such as Alice Munro, Doris Lessing and Ursula K. Le Guin. Rachel Carson, a clear favorite, makes numerous appearances, and the book ends with a brief reflection on the 2020 death of conservationist writer Barry Lopez.

This is the third collection of occasional nonfiction pieces Atwood has assembled over her 60-year career, and she divides it into five sections reflecting societal changes over the course of the last two post-9/11 decades. Some of the pieces are quite current—there is a piece on quarantine, for instance—but as one might expect, Atwood avoids a straightforward or navel-gazing approach even when contemplating our current state of affairs. Instead, the COVID-19 piece hearkens back to the everyday realities of quarantine (against diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping cough) when she was a child in the 1940s.

While no means an autobiography, Burning Questions scatters a generous enough smattering of personal recollections and details throughout to grant intriguing, often charming insight into Atwood’s singular life, from girlhood to her life partner’s death in 2019. Years ago, a lesser-known Toronto-based writer told me that “Peggy” Atwood was always a welcome—and hilarious—guest at dinner parties. That appraisal stayed with me, and upon reading Burning Questions, there can be little doubt it’s true.

A bracing, entertaining collection of nonfiction pieces further illuminates Margaret Atwood’s inimitable and indomitable mind.

In many respects, Lorraine Hansberry could be called a one-hit wonder. But that hit, A Raisin in the Sun, is an iconic masterwork that continues to speak to audiences more than 60 years after its premiere. Hansberry was only 29 when she seemingly came out of nowhere to become the first Black female playwright produced on Broadway. Six years later, she died tragically young, precluding further literary greatness. Charles J. Shields, best known as a biographer of Harper Lee, delves into the short yet significant life of this great writer in Lorraine Hansberry, an evenhanded and informative study that reveals truths about a woman whose complexities were largely erased from the public portrait she and her heirs fashioned.

Shields has not written a glitzy showbiz biography that takes readers behind the scenes of the theater world. In fact, the triumph of A Raisin in the Sun only takes up a couple of chapters near the end of the book, and Hansberry and the team that mounted the show—including her cheerleader husband, Bob Nemiroff—were Broadway outsiders. Instead, the story Shields tells is of a smart, reserved and gifted young woman from the Black upper class who applied her intelligence, and sometimes anger, to a quest for her authentic personal identity in midcentury America.

Hers was a life of confounding contradictions. The Hansberry family wealth was amassed by Lorraine’s father, a Chicago real estate tycoon who fought racial covenants all the way up to the Supreme Court yet was himself a slumlord who preyed on Black tenants. His daughter’s rebellion manifested in part through her embrace of communist ideals (which triggered FBI surveillance), yet she did not refuse the monthly profit checks she received from the family business. Married to a Jewish man, Hansberry eventually came to terms with her lesbianism but stayed married. While she was at the center of the Black cultural dialogue in her time—counting Paul Robeson, James Baldwin and Alice Childress among her friends and influences—she maintained that her most famous play at its heart was about class rather than race.

To paint the full landscape of the time and place that Hansberry inhabited, Shields often detours from the writer’s immediate story to place the many supporting players in context. These side trips are generally informative, although some seem extraneous and interrupt the flow of the main narrative. Shields raises interesting questions about others’ contributions to Hansberry’s work—particularly those of original A Raisin in the Sun director Lloyd Richards, and of Hansberry’s husband, who worked doggedly to shape her posthumous image and keep her literary legacy alive—but the answers remain largely unexplored. Overall, this equitable portrait of Hansberry is thoughtful and deftly rendered, a welcome corrective for the carefully curated and sanitized version that has long constituted fans’ received wisdom.

An admiring portrait of the great American playwright Lorraine Hansberry lays bare both her greatness and her complications.

“Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third,” T.S. Eliot said. James Joyce called Dante Alighieri “my spiritual food,” and Russian poet Anna Akhmatova learned Italian just to read him. The influence of Dante and his Divine Comedy permeates Western history and, clearly, the consciousness of even the most modern writers. And yet the 700th anniversary of his death in September 2021 went largely unmarked, at least in the United States. Just a few months tardy, Alessandro Barbero’s Dante: A Life arrives on these shores, translated from the Italian by Allan Cameron. Surprisingly, this is the first book by Barbero, a highly regarded historian and novelist in his native country, to be published in America.

Seven hundred years after Dante Alighieri’s death, a new biography parses the elusive life of one of civilization’s greatest poets.

Many of the details of Dante’s life, even the date of his birth, are lost to time, but Barbero is an indefatigable detective when it comes to piecing together a narrative from the historical record. His mission is not merely to sketch the possibilities of Dante’s private life but, perhaps even more so, to place Dante within the context of his times. The turn of the 14th century was a turbulent age on the Italian peninsula, and Dante was a native son of Florence, that most powerful city-state. Though likely of humble origins, the Alighieri clan had high aspirations, and Dante ambitiously immersed himself in the politics of the day. He aligned himself with the Guelphs, who supported the Pope, against the emperor-supporting Ghibellines. This divisiveness further fractured as the Guelphs themselves split into warring factions, which eventually led to Dante being banished from his beloved city. He lost his land, social status and wife and spent the last 20 years of his life in exile.

Dante’s literary legend has long been tied to his muse, Beatrice—a young woman whom he only encountered on two occasions, nine years apart. Again, Barbero plumbs the historical record to flesh out Beatrice’s story and discern how her veritable non-relationship with Dante nonetheless inspired some of the world’s great love poetry. In what might be viewed as an early form of metafiction, Dante made himself a character in the Divine Comedy, and so Barbero seeks clues to his familial and political relationships from within the pages of the epic poem, as well.

Still, given the gaps in the record, Barbero’s Dante is less biography or literary study than medieval history as seen through the foggy lens of one seminal man’s life. It raises the inevitable question that always surrounds genius: From where did this ordinary man spring, only to go on to create one of humanity’s masterpieces? Despite his erudition, Barbero is no better equipped to answer that question than his predecessors, but his well-timed work reminds us of Dante’s greatness and, perhaps, will send us back to the original source material to puzzle out the answer for ourselves.

Seven hundred years after Dante Alighieri’s death, a new biography parses the elusive life of one of civilization’s greatest poets.

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