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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.

Getting to know a living, legendary author can be challenging, as their own reticence often prevents readers from venturing too far behind the curtain. Not so with Alice Walker. Her journals have been compiled and edited by the late writer and critic Valerie Boyd, and they fully reveal a complex and at times controversial life. Walker was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1983 for The Color Purple, and she remains a force at 78. Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker, 1965–2000 offers an intimate portrait of the iconic writer, human rights activist, philanthropist and womanist—a term Walker herself coined to describe Black feminists.

The youngest of eight in a poor family from Georgia, Walker was 8 when a brother accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun. Her injury eventually led to a college scholarship, and after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, she returned to the South as a civil rights activist. In 1967, she proposed to fellow activist Melvyn Leventhal, who is Jewish. They became the first interracial married couple in Mississippi, where miscegenation was still illegal, though they divorced nine years later.

Motherhood was a fraught choice for a feminist in the 1970s, and after becoming a parent, Walker struggled with feeling distracted from her work as an artist. She applauded childless writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and wrote that her daughter, Rebecca, was “no more trouble to me the writer than Virginia Woolf’s madness was to her.” Such ambivalence shaded their relationship. Meanwhile, her friendships with feminist Gloria Steinem and movie and music producer Quincy Jones fared better. Her romantic relationships didn’t always end well, but through their ups and downs, Walker embraced “The Goddess” and prayed to the “Spirit of the Universe,” who enabled her to celebrate her bisexuality.

It was the success of The Color Purple that allowed Walker to help her troubled family, acquire properties she loved and support causes that were important to her. In the 1993 book and documentary Warrior Marks, Walker drew attention to the practice of female genital mutilation. She has also passionately protested South African apartheid, the Iraq War and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Walker says she keeps a journal “partly because my memory is notorious, among my friends, for not remembering much of what we’ve shared.” That concern vanishes with Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, which contains copious, intimate details about her life. And as with all of Walker’s writings, the stories found in these pages are beautifully told.

This compilation of Alice Walker’s journals offers an intimate portrait of the iconic writer, human rights activist and philanthropist.

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.

“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.

For the bibliophile on your shopping list, we’ve rounded up the year’s best books about books.

The Madman’s Library

The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities From History by Edward Brooke-Hitching is a must-have for any bibliomaniac. Over the course of this splendidly illustrated volume, Brooke-Hitching reviews the history of the book, investigating a variety of forms and a wide range of media but always emphasizing the extraordinary. 

Along with a number of wonderful one-offs (a book composed of Kraft American cheese slices), there are giant books (the 6-foot-tall Klencke Atlas) and tiny books (a biography of Thomas Jefferson that literally fits inside a nutshell), books that are sinister (a volume with a cabinet of poisons concealed inside) and books that are sublime (the medieval Stowe Missal with its ornate reliquary case). Astonishing from start to finish, The Madman’s Library stands as a testament to the abiding power and adaptability of the book.

Unearthing the Secret Garden

Marta McDowell looks at the life of a treasured author in Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett. Born in 1849, British novelist Burnett published more than 50 novels, including The Secret Garden. McDowell delivers an intriguing account of Burnett’s botanical and literary pursuits and the ways in which they were intertwined. She highlights Burnett’s enduring love of plants, tours the gardens the author maintained in Europe and America and even dedicates an entire chapter to the plants that appear in The Secret Garden.

McDowell, who teaches horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, has also written about how plants influenced the work of Emily Dickinson, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Beatrix Potter. Filled with marvelous illustrations and historical photographs, her new book is a stirring exploration of the natural world and its impact on a literary favorite.

The Annotated Arabian Nights

The Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales From 1001 Nights, edited by scholar and author Paulo Lemos Horta, provides new perspectives on a beloved classic. Rooted in the ancient literary traditions of Persia and India, the collection of folktales known as The Arabian Nights features familiar figures such as Ali Baba, Sinbad, Aladdin and Shahrazad, the female narrator who spins the stories.

This new volume offers a fresh translation of the stories by Yasmine Seale, along with stunning illustrations and informative notes and analysis. The tales, Horta says, deliver “the most pleasurable sensation a reader can encounter—that feeling of being nestled in the lap of a story, fully removed from the surrounding world and concerned only with a need to know what happens next.” This lavish edition of an essential title is perfect for devotees of the tales and an ideal introduction for first-time readers.

We Are the Baby-Sitters Club

We Are the Baby-Sitters Club: Essays and Artwork From Grown-Up Readers is a delightful tribute to author Ann M. Martin and the much-loved Baby-Sitters Club series she introduced in 1986. Propelled by memorable characters, primarily tween club members Kristy, Stacey, Claudia and Mary Anne, who run a babysitting service, the series tackles delicate family matters like adoption and divorce, as well as broader topics such as race, class and gender.

In We Are the Baby-Sitters Club, Kelly Blewett, Kristen Arnett, Myriam Gurba and other notable contributors take stock of the popular books and their lasting appeal. With essays focusing on friendship, culture, identity and—yes—the babysitting business, this anthology showcases the multifaceted impact of the series. Nifty illustrations and comic strips lend extra charm to the proceedings. Edited by authors Marisa Crawford and Megan Milks, the volume is a first-rate celebration of the BSC.

Bibliophile

It’s almost impossible to peruse Jane Mount’s colorful sketches of book jackets and book stacks without being possessed by the impulse to dive into a new novel or compile a reading list. For her new book, Bibliophile: Diverse Spines, Mount teamed up with author Jamise Harper to create a thoughtful guide to the work of marginalized writers that can help readers bring diversity to their personal libraries.

With picks for lovers of historical fiction, short stories, poetry, mystery and more, Bibliophile: Diverse Spines brims with inspired reading recommendations. The book also spotlights literary icons (Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Ralph Ellison) and treasured illustrators (Bryan Collier, Luisa Uribe, Kadir Nelson). Standout bookstores from across the country and people who are making a difference in the publishing industry are also recognized. With Mount’s fabulous illustrations adding dazzle to every chapter, Bibliophile: Diverse Spines will gladden the heart of any book lover.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

The universe of words is steadily expanding thanks to author John Koenig. In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, Koenig catalogs newly minted terms for hard-to-articulate emotional states: conditions of the heart or mind that seem to defy definition. Ledsome, for instance, is his term for feeling lonely in a crowd, while povism means the frustration of being stuck inside your own head.

Drawing upon verbal scraps from the past and oddments from different languages, Koenig created all of the words in this dictionary. He started this etymological project in 2009 as a website and has since given TED talks and launched a YouTube channel based on his work. “It’s a calming thing, to learn there’s a word for something you’ve felt all your life but didn’t know was shared by anyone else,” he writes in Obscure Sorrows. Koenig’s remarkable volume is the perfect purchase for the logophile in your life.

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Stumped on what to buy for the reader who’s read everything? We’ve got six picks for the book-obsessed.

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