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.