The Translator’s Bride
By João Reis. (Open Letter, 117 pages, $14.95.)
If you’re sometimes suspicious of novels-in-translation, wondering if you’re getting the voice of the original writer or the translator, then “The Translator’s Bride” may be for you.
The comic novella was translated from its original Portuguese by the guy who wrote it, João Reis, so any question of authorial intent should be settled. (Heck, he may even have improved it when he took a second crack at it.) The first-person narrator also is an unreliable one, whose bride has just left him for reasons that quickly become apparent: He’s a whiny creep.
Almost all of “Bride” consists of the main character moaning, sometimes for cause (he has not been paid for a substantial work that’s about to make a publishing-world splash) and sometimes because he’s a pill (he doesn’t like ugly people, which seems to be almost everyone).
Reis has fun exaggerating the courtly manners of the society depicted in “Bride,” with his protagonist spewing a stream of politely insincere compliments that would make Anthony Trollope proud. But the main character’s nonstop whining does grow wearying over the course of this brief, droll novel, in which I suspect there’s an element of class satire that has gotten lost in translation.
The Sun Is a Compass
By Caroline Van Hemert. (Little, Brown and Co., 308 pages, $27.)
Rare is the person with the courage, drive and gifts to travel across 4,000 miles of daunting wilderness. Rarer still is a traveler who has the scientific skills to understand and record what she’s seeing, mile by mile. And rarest of all is the poet-traveler, who later writes of it all with wisdom, grace and passion. That rare writer is Caroline Van Hemert, an ornithologist who with her husband, Pat, traveled by kayak, skis and on foot from the Pacific Northwest to Kotzebue, in northwest Alaska, in 2012.
Van Hemert had grown restless during pure lab work, and at age 33 took a break from academia to embark on a great adventure before deciding what to do next in life. Her book is both a fascinating and poetic narrative of a daunting journey in a land of “no soft edges” (accompanied by a great map and lots of color photos), a frank memoir of a young American woman and wife’s most rewarding and difficult moments, and a vicarious odyssey for those of us who dream of such treks, but have not the will nor skill to have ever made them.
Best of all, it is a reminder of nature’s power and beauty — “observation can guide us to wonder,” Van Hemert writes after illustrating in myriad ways how that is true. It’s also a frank look at the ways in which human activity is affecting the natural world, for better and worse.