Lyrical Translated Nonfiction From the Sea + Giveaway

Programming note: It’s been a long, inadvertent break; oops! I’m in Berlin, where my husband is working, and we’re moving from a little temporary apartment into our own. I’ve been trying to work as normal while dealing with the move, buying every piece of furniture, houseware, appliance, etc. (a nightmare), and taking time for bike rides, trips to Hamburg and the lake and the forest, and a lot of Berliner Kindl and Alsterwasser whenever possible. All to say: sorry for the radio silence and thanks for sticking with me, book friends 🙂 I’ll try to get back into the swing of things soon.

Although it’s still Women in Translation month for a couple of days, I have one by a guy to talk about this month as well. Translated nonfiction is such a scant genre as is, and this one is really excellent, I promise. I wouldn’t interrupt WITM for anything less!

You had just heard the voice of the sea, and its very first story — a story that is a blend of all its other stories at once.

Marine scientist Bill Francois shares stories of fish and other aquatic species shot through with a bit of memoir. This was a fantastic selection for translation, because it shows how differently other cultures and languages approach these topics. Even in comparison to the last ocean nonfiction I read, this was worlds apart – strange, surreal, dreamy but still informative and scientific.

Francois writes lyrical narrative nonfiction that includes accessible science, the kind peppered with lots of fascinating factoids. The memoir element is rather scarce and I would’ve liked more of it, because the stories he tells of why he felt drawn to the ocean are compelling and often lovely — like his recollections of being painfully bored in school and finding his place in the water instead.

Each chapter explores a different species, weaving marine biology into a very telling story of the animal in connection to humans. As you might have guessed, it’s often not good. Not that we need any reminders of how badly we’ve treated the ocean and everything in it, but Francois has a way of singling out individual species and emphasizing their place in the world that makes it hit so hard. And makes you care so much about a little sardine (although the story of their extreme flatulence that caused a provocation between Sweden and the Soviet Union is utterly delightful). But humans can be living nightmares in how we treat other creatures, and unfortunately it resonates more from the up-close, detailed angles Francois uses.

What I loved so much was how he took one creature – an eel in a Swedish well, an orca named Old Tom, a giant clam off the shore of the Philippines, the idea of the “cry” of the tuna — and showed how much of the world each one of these things is. It reminded me strongly of Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, where each animal becomes a character, with its thoughts and feelings and drives explored, although I found this more scientific than fanciful.

Most delightfully, there are octopuses, and Francois’ interpretation of how close we may have come to these super-intelligent, skilled cephalopods running things is witty but also, not really a joke:

This inability to educate their young may have cost the octopuses their potential conquest of dry land, and with it the creation of cities, cathedrals, 4G satellites, subways at rush hour, social media arguments, tax paperwork, and all the other delights of modern civilization.” Perhaps they’re better off, but it’s regrettable all the same.

It manages to be funny, poetic, and highly informative — Francois is an excellent translator of marine science for the lay reader. He also has that lovely skill of being beautifully descriptive without going overboard — “The sea swelled in and ebbed out like a slow respiration, and when it breathed in, the water was so smooth you could see, through its crystal-clear depths, all that hid beneath the surface.”

I can’t stress enough how much impact he makes with these fairly brief stories, and these are important things to be aware of: I’ve thought a lot about one chapter detailing the business of flying codfish from the North Atlantic to China where factory workers inject them with chemicals to improve their color to appeal to European and North American buyers, then they’re flown back across the world, and the cheap labor coupled with the higher selling price of more cosmetically appealing fish is cost-effective enough to justify the flight, never mind the carbon footprint. Why are we like this.

Not to end on a bad, sadnote: this is book is kind of weird, kind of surprising, and all-around delightful, plus it’s illustrated with pen-and-ink sketches of the fish described. It’s an immersive, insightful gem.

The publisher, St. Martin’s Press, was kind enough to give me an ARC to gift to one of you. Comment and tell me anything to enter – why you’d like to read this, your favorite ocean nonfiction or favorite nonfiction in translation – whatever! – and enter your details in a Rafflecopter giveaway (Here’s another link in case that one doesn’t work).

Only open to entries from US addresses – so sorry that it has to be this way for my international friends, but publishing rights are strict.

Entries close on September 6 at 12 AM Eastern time. I’ll receive your address to mail you the book (it’ll be around the third week of September once I’m back in New York). Good luck!

Eloquence of the Sardine: Extraordinary Encounters Beneath the Sea
by Bill Francois, translated from French by Antony Shugaar
published August 17, 2021 by St. Martin’s Press
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

22 thoughts on “Lyrical Translated Nonfiction From the Sea + Giveaway

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    1. Thanks Jonetta! Hope you’re doing well 🙂

      I remember you lived here for some time as a kid 🙂 I lived in Berlin for a year before, 10 years ago now, and it’s strange to see how different the city is already. And you’re right, such a beautiful country.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I love finding good nature writing. I read another of Lyanda Haupt’s books, about Mozart’s sparrow, and I was kind of so-so on it, but Crow Planet sounds really interesting! I like the element of looking at stories and myths around crows, that must be fascinating.

      Thanks so much for the well-wishes! I love being here but living between the two countries is a lot to deal with, I needed the blogging break 😂 and thanks for entering, glad I could interest you in the book!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Glad you’re back!

    I’ve only been to Berlin once, on a business trip many years ago. I remember it being an interesting and beautiful city. So great that you’re getting the chance to live there.

    Your review captures a sadness I’ve felt myself recently as I’ve been reading more about the environment and sustainability. We’ve screwed up the planet so badly yet it’s also still within our power to save it and to save ourselves. Do we have the will, though?

    The book looks really worthwhile. Will try to get to it soon. Thanks for the review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I moved to Berlin for a year a decade ago, when I first moved to Europe, and it’s strange how much the city has changed just in that time. Especially after being back in the US these last few years, it’s a bit surreal at the moment! It’s definitely a place worth visiting again if you get the chance, but avoid the winter if you can! It gets very gray and bleak. Otherwise it’s such a fun and interesting city, and really green and lovely in summertime.

      It’s funny you mention that sadness because I felt pretty emotional at the end of this book and wondered if it was just me. I think I just feel so disappointed in and frustrated with humanity lately and how we’re treating each other and the environment. I agree we have it in us to change things but I think too many people aren’t interested.

      Do enter the giveaway if you think it sounds interesting, might get you to read it even sooner 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sound like a great book and I’m a sucker for everything octopus related. Hope you have settled down in Berlin by now. I have been there a couple of times and in my opinion it’s one of the most interesting cities in Europe (besides from London of course 😉 )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love anything octopus related too! I feel like I always learn something new and interesting 🐙

      Thanks, I’m finally feeling more settled and it’s almost time to go home to NYC 😂 My husband is working here, I’ll still be back and forth for the time being until we figure out the long term!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Nicki! We’re half here, half in NYC, it’s exciting if a bit exhausting at the moment 😅 I’m glad I could introduce you to the book and I’m so sorry it could only be for US entries, was the publisher’s request…but I’ll have something in the works for including international pals soon! 😂

      Like

  3. Super, thanks for offering a copy! I used to keep an aquarium and it was so fascinating and relaxing, even though upkeep was a bit of a hassle.

    I’m so glad you are reunited with your husband. How often will you need to return to NYC? Are you keeping residence there too? The light in your new apartment looks AMAZING, I hope you enjoy settling in with your hubby. Cheers!

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  4. This sounds so cool! Thanks for offering a copy… I used to keep an aquarium and it was so fascinating and relaxing despite the hassle of upkeep.

    How often are you going to return to NYC? Are you keeping a residence there? The light in your new apartment looks AMAZING. Have fun settling in with your hubby.

    Like

  5. Reading that first line you shared, I had a little tingle go up my back. Could it have been my shirt tag tickling the back of my neck? Yeah, sure, maybe. But it’s a really good line!

    And what an incredibly thoughtful review. This sounds like an amazing book. Adding it to my TBR pile in between typing these sentences. That section you quoted on octupuses! Perfect.

    I do hope the back and forth and the moving and the generally hectic parts of life are going well. Weirdly, I’ve also been missing lately because of a move. Our lives continue their occasionally funny overlap. Fingers crossed things get to slow down a little, you get to read (and breathe!), and we all get to take in more of your brilliant writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That SO made me laugh, but also; YES! It was the same for me reading this, some gorgeously, spine-tinglingly beautiful lines that had me surprised at how emotional I sometimes was in a book about aquatic life! But it was just so good!

      I hope you had a good and painless move, although it seems to be tough and unbelievably time-consuming no matter how it goes! I thought I could still do a couple of shorter, less-involved posts but nope, brainpower was gone. Even back in the US now I’m still not quite on track, but hopefully soon. And so weird how we do have these little alignments, isn’t it? Thank goodness we have each other to commiserate with! I hope things settle into a more comfortable rhythm for you too, and THANK YOU so much for that compliment!! I didn’t feel much brilliance while trying to be coherent but I couldn’t be more thrilled it’s perceived that way 🙂

      Like

    1. Well, no, I didn’t really move, we’re just maintaining the half-here, half-there thing for the foreseeable future, at least. But I’ll start spending more time there, I think going every 2-3 months as long as it’s sustainable, while he looks for a job more flexible in where he’s allowed to work from. So I was really only trying to get the apartment set up there plus work but it was pretty time-consuming and I’m still not totally back on track yet!

      Liked by 1 person

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