In this episode of The Desk Set, we’re thinking internationally! For 10 to Try categories Read a Book in Translation and Read a Book Set in a Place You’ve Never Been, we’ll talk to two amazing guests. We chat with Kristin Hannah, New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone. We also talk to Megan McDowell, who was recently nominated for a Man Booker International Prize for her heart-stopping translation of Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream. Then, hear about our favorite books set in places you might not have been, learn how to get a personalized list of picks by using BookMatch, and develop your world language skills with Mango. Plus, we explore the unique challenge of translating the magical world of Harry Potter for a global audience.
A transcript of this episode is available at the end of our show notes.
Looking for more? Check out Britta's picks and Emily's picks for books in translation and books set place they've never been. Speaking of reading, guest Kristen Hannah used a publishing term in this episode that you might not be familiar with; ARC stands for "Advanced reader copy." An ARC is a copy of a book that hasn't officially been released yet but might be sent to lucky folks like book critics, librarians, or authors, to read before it hits the shelves at bookstores and libraries. Also, if you like to read more about Harry Potter in translation, check out this article at The Guardian and Harry Potter Wiki.
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The Desk Set is brought to you by the King County Library System. Most of the audio heard on the podcast was recorded at the ideaX Makerspace at the Bellevue Library. The show is hosted by librarians Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins, and produced by Britta Barrett. Our theme song is "I Know What I Want" by Math and Physics Club. The closing song featured in this episode is "Voldemort Can't Stop the Rock" by Harry and the Potters. Other music provided by Chad Crouch, from the Free Music Archive.
Emily Calkins: You're listening to The Desk Set.
Britta Barrett: A bookish podcast for reading broadly.
Emily Calkins: We're your hosts Emily Calkins
Britta Barrett: And Britta Barrett.
Emily Calkins: In each episode, we'll talk about two themes from our 2018 reading challenge 10 to Try. Learn more about the challenge and see a list of all the categories at kcls.org/10-to-try.
Emily Calkins: On this episode of The Desk Set, we're thinking internationally. For 10 to Try categories Read a Book in Translation and Read a Book Set in a Place You've Never Been, we'll talk to two amazing guests.
Britta Barrett: First up, we chat with Kristin Hannah, New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone. After that, Megan McDowell, who was recently longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for her heart-stopping translation of Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream.
Emily Calkins: Then, our favorite books set in places you might not have been. Plus, we explore the unique challenge of translating the magical world of Harry Potter for a global audience.
Emily Calkins: Kristin Hannah is the bestselling author of The Nightingale, this year's Alaska-set family drama The Great Alone, and 20 other novels. We invited her for this episode to talk about The Great Alone and its vivid setting. We haven't been to Alaska, but The Nightingale's been made into a movie, so that novel counts for the movie or TV adaptation category too. Kristin's also a UW grad and a resident of the Pacific Northwest, and we were thrilled to talk to her about her books, relationships between women, and The Great Alone's larger than life setting.
Kristin Hannah: I'm Kristin Hannah, and I guess I'm a recovering attorney turned full-time novelist. I've written over 20 novels, and my latest, The Great Alone, is actually in bookstores right now.
Emily Calkins: So The Great Alone is your first novel since your hugely successful World War II novel The Nightingale, which is being made into a movie, and was on all kinds of end of the year best lists, and was a big bestseller. Did having a runaway bestseller like that change your writing experience?
Kristin Hannah: You know, I don't know that it changed my writing experience so much. But it was definitely sort of a lot to deal with. And I guess I wasn't quite expecting the changes that come with having such a big success so long into your career. And it took me a while to kind of get my footing again and stop trying to either repeat The Nightingale or write that kind of book again, and just sort of realize and remember who I am as a writer, and to do what it is I do best, and that is to write emotional female-driven stories that I want to read.
Emily Calkins: So speaking of emotional female-driven stories, the relationship between the teenage protagonist of The Great Alone, Leni, and her mother Cora is sort of at the heart of the story. It's one of the major driving forces. And that's ... Like you said, that's true of many of your other novels as well, relationships between mothers and daughters, relationships between sisters, relationships between female friends. What makes those relationships interesting to you?
Kristin Hannah: Well, obviously I am a woman, which gives me sort of that perspective on life in general. I'm also a mother, a daughter, a sister, and I guess it probably started back with a book called Winter Garden, where I started sort of getting the sense that women's stories were being lost, or were going unheard. And I really wanted to sort of explore history from a female perspective, and talk perhaps less about what the battles were, or what was going on in the big geopolitical sense, and focus a little bit more on ordinary women trying to survive extraordinary times. And The Nightingale was sort of an obvious expression of that, because it is the women of World War II France. And so we all have kind of a collective sense of what was going on then. But I have found, in speaking to readers and in hearing from people who survived that time and place, that too many women's stories had been lost. And so it felt really good to sort of put women in the foreground there. And then in The Great Alone, it's perhaps a little less obvious, because it's Alaska in the 1970s. But it really comes down to, again, this community of women, and especially this mother-daughter, who find themselves trying to survive not only the harshness of the climate and the difficulties of living off the grid and completely remotely, but also having to deal with the man in their life, the father and husband, who becomes sort of increasingly unhinged and dangerous as he gets deeper and deeper into the darkness of the Alaska winter.
Emily Calkins: So speaking of the Alaska winter, the wilderness is really almost a character in The Great Alone. It's very present for the characters all the time. How did you go about creating such a vivid setting?
Kristin Hannah: Well, the truth is Alaska is part of the fabric of my life. My family owns a sport fishing and adventure lodge in Alaska, and has since the early '80s. And we've been going up there, as a family, forever. And three generations of my family have worked at the lodge, and so I have a real affinity for Alaska, and I love it. And I really ... When you go up to Alaska, you definitely have this sense that you are in this expansive, remarkable, almost otherworldly kind of place. And so I really wanted to bring to people my vision of Alaska, and what I see up there, and the kind of people that I meet up there, because they are unusual and remarkable, the kind of people who can live in that kind of an environment, especially the women.
Emily Calkins: Speaking of those women, there is this whole community of colorful characters that surrounds the Albrights. There's all those women you talked about, the general store owner, Large Marge, and the school teacher, Tica, as well as some other men, including the conspiracy theorist Mad Earl, who sort of stood out to me as this really vivid character. Do you have a favorite, or a character who was either the most fun or the most difficult to write?
Kristin Hannah: Well, the most difficult to write, obviously, was Ernt, the father. Because there was a lot to say about him, and he goes through quite a metamorphosis, and he's a very difficult character. He's suffering from undiagnosed, untreated PTSD at a time when veterans were not treated very well. And so he was very difficult, he was so dark, he was so dangerous, he was so explosive. And you put him in this dark, confined space, and it felt very much like writing about sort of a wild animal. So he was definitely the most difficult to write.
New Speaker: Absolutely the most fun character to write was Large Marge, because she really embodies sort of all of my feelings about Alaska women. They're tough, they're independent, they protect each other, they help each other, they can do almost anything. And I love sort of their resourcefulness and their sense of community, and one of the interesting things about the sort of colorful characters who inhabit Alaska in real life, is they do come from a variety of backgrounds. You might be talking to someone who lives in a school bus on the side of the road and used to be a professor at MIT. You just never know who you're going to find there, or what their backstory is. And so that made Large Marge really fun to sort of create.
Emily Calkins: So it sounds like there are lots of other Alaska-inspired stories sort of hanging around in the background. Do you think you'll write about Alaska again?
Kristin Hannah: I would like to. I mean it's a huge state, and I touched on a very limited time period in its history, and a very limited amount of sort of landscape. There's still all of the really, deep, deep wilds of Alaska, so it's still to go. So I wouldn't be surprised if I came back.
Emily Calkins: Can I ask you what I feel like is the worst question to ask a writer? What are you working on now?
Kristin Hannah: Oh, what am I working on now? Yes, I was actually just working on it when you called. So I'm writing another story about powerful women, women who find the ability to sort of become extraordinary while living their ordinary lives. And it's set against a very tumultuous and difficult time period in American history, but I guess that's about all I can say right now.
Emily Calkins: One of the thing that I really liked about The Great Alone is, you know, the 70s are not that far away, and yet there's this huge sense of remove, not only geographically, but there's a scene early on where they go and Cora's trying to get a credit card, and she can't apply for a credit card without her husband or father's permission. So all of these little details that aren't sort of central to the story, but just such a vivid reminder of how much life has changed for women, even in the last 35 or 40 years.
Kristin Hannah: And that's interesting you would say that, because it sort of happens that I'm writing about this, the evolution of women's rights, whether it's from the credit card, or how women are treated in domestic abuse, how the law treats women, all these kind of little issues that make up the whole of The Great Alone. And it sort of comes at a moment where it seems that the world is focusing on this, that we're actually looking at ... Whether it's the #MeToo movement or women in the workplace, just this idea that we still have a ways to go. Yes, we've come a long ways from the 70s, but we still have a long ways to go.
Emily Calkins: So the other question that I always like to ask is what are you reading now?
Kristin Hannah: I am currently reading Kate Morton's The Clockmaker's Daughter. It's great, I love Kate Morton. She's a historical novelist from Australia, and I just love her stuff.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, I'm looking forward to that one as well. Any other recent favorites that you'd recommend to our listeners?
Kristin Hannah: Well, I just got the ARC for the new Gregg Hurwitz. Unfortunately, I can't remember the title, but I love his stuff. He wrote Orphan X and The Nowhere Man, and I'm a real fan of his. And the next book on my reading pile the new Robert Galbraith, which I also love. I read a wide range, from thrillers to historical fiction, literary fiction ... I'll read just about anything.
Britta Barrett: Megan McDowell is a Man Booker nominated translator, who works primarily with living Latin American and Spanish writers. She's a Kentucky native who now lives in Chile. Her translations have been published in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, McSweeney's, and more. And we were delighted to talk to her about the fascinating work of translation.
Megan McDowell: My name is Megan McDowell. I am a literary translator. I am from the United States, from Kentucky, and I live in Santiago, Chile. So, a lot of my authors are from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay. And almost all of them are alive. I work almost always with contemporary writers.
Emily Calkins: So, can you tell us how you ended up with a career in translation? How did you become interested in it and how did you decide to make it your profession?
Megan McDowell: I studied English literature, and at a certain point I realized that what I was reading for my degree, and what I was reading for fun, weren't really the same things. I was much more interested in literature that came from other countries.
New Speaker: After I graduated, I got a year-long fellowship at a publisher called Dalkey Archive Press, and I spent a year working there. And that was kind of my education in translated literature. They focus on experimental fiction and literature in translation. And I loved it, and I kind of wanted to stay working in publishing. That's what I was interested in at first, was publishing, specifically translation. And then, I interviewed to get a full-time position at Dalkey Archive. They didn't hire me, and the reason that they didn't hire me was because I didn't speak another language. So I got it in my head that if I learn another language, it would be easier for me to get a job in publishing. Which is just patently false. But, it inspired me to save up some money and move to Chile. And that's what I did! I spent three years in Chile learning Spanish and I spent a year here working as a translator. And then, I decided to go back to grad school. By that point, I had decided that I wanted to be a translator. So I went and got a master's degree in literary translation. And that's how it happened.
Emily Calkins: So you didn't learn to speak and read and write Spanish until after you had graduated from college?
Megan McDowell: Right. Yeah, I was about 24 when I moved to Chile.
Megan McDowell: And, you know, I had a basic understanding of Spanish. I could conjugate verbs and that kind of thing. But I really didn't ... I couldn't have a conversation when I first moved here.
Emily Calkins: There's an idea in 'Fever Dream' about rescue distance, which is the distance that the narrator can be from her young daughter and still be able to get to her in time to save her, basically. So I read an interview with you in the Paris Review where you said that's a phrase in Spanish. And in fact, it's the Spanish title of the book. But it's not a phrase in English. How do you approach those instances where an idea isn't ... it's not just the language that isn't shared but it's an idea that's not shared between the original language and the language that you're translating a work into?
Megan McDowell: With the title, we went back and forth a lot on that. The thing is that the concept isn't exactly, it's not like a widely used concept. It's not something that you hear everyday. And I also think that it's not, "Well, we don't necessarily have that phrase or that idea in English." It's not a difficult one to get across. Like, it's right there in the phrase, "rescue distance." I don't think it was that difficult in the book, but we didn't think it really worked as a title. And so, we went back and forth about what to call it. And it's interesting because 'Fever Dream' really has made a difference in how people read the book. If you read a lot of reviews, people always talk about the title. I think that's really interesting because that's something that only exists in English. And people oftentimes talk about the otherworldly nature of it. They don't know how much of it is supposed to be real and not real. Whereas when I read it in Spanish, you know, I thought of it all as real within the world of the book, right?
New Speaker: There are things that are difficult in translation. The things that I've had the most difficulty with are kind of plays with words, tongue twisters, poems, things that need to rhyme, those kinds of things. In terms of concepts, a lot of times I can work in a definition into the text and make it sound natural. That's part of the good thing about generally working with my writers, because I have a lot more freedom. I can say, "I need to explain this, are you okay with this?" And most of the time, they are. That's really important to me. And that's something that has changed over my career. When I first started out, I was very reticent and reluctant to ask questions or to be unsure about anything, like I felt like I needed to know everything. And now, I really want to talk to the writer and tell them, these are the problems that I'm having, and ask questions. A lot of times, it helps me to just listen to the writer talk about the book. Even if they're not necessarily directly addressing any of my questions. It just helps to hear background and to hear the cadence of their voice, even. And there are a lot of things that I've done ... you know, when the writer is working with you, it's a lot easier to address the translation as like an editing process. Like you can make suggestions and things that ... you don't necessarily have to approach the text as if it were written in stone. You know? You can say, "This problem arose. This is how I'd like to solve it." And you can kind of work through it.
New Speaker: There's one book that I translated by Alejandro. It's called 'Multiple Choice.' That is based on a multiple choice test, and a lot of it, there are multiple choice questions, and a lot of them, especially in the beginning, had a lot of wordplay and double meanings. Also, there are a lot of cultural references. So, with that book, we kind of rewrote it. You know? We took the idea of the original book and a lot of themes and ideas and images, but we redid it in English, if that makes sense. So we use the resources that are available in English. So we kind of played with things like phrasal verbs or rhyming or certain sayings. We even changed some of the cultural references. And that's something that obviously, I would not feel nearly as comfortable doing if I weren't doing it kind of in collaboration with Alejandro.
Britta Barrett: In that way, do you conceptualize your work as creating an original work? Or like, how much freedom and distance do you feel like you can sort of wander away from that source material?
Megan McDowell: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, that is the question! You know, it's not an easy question to answer. Like, where does the line lie between translation and interpretation, or a version. You know, that's always a question. And you're always kind of walking this kind of tightrope between fidelity and, I don't know, creativity, I guess. I mean, any translator will tell you that it has to work in English. So, I've never used footnotes to explain things. Like, I'm 100% against it. And it's kind of a cop-out for me to say, "Well, I work with the writer, and I make suggestions." You know, because I have this idea that if the writer says that it's okay, then it's okay. But, you know, maybe someone would look at what I do and say, "Oh, that's not a translation" or "That's a mistake. How could she do that?" You know, translation is definitely a creative practice. It does have a large creative aspect to it, and also a large critical aspect to it. You know, I think there's no one answer to your question. I think it's like, it's something that is like a tug-of-war through the whole translation process.
Britta Barrett: And in that tension between sort of fidelity and maybe creating understanding for your reader, is there one that you place first or prize?
Megan McDowell: Yeah. I would definitely prioritize the experience of the reader. I don't necessarily want to take the reader out of the text in order to explain something, in order to be faithful to the original. It's not just saying like, "cat" is "gato," "gato" is "cat". You know, it's more getting into the text and thinking about ... I mean, the same way a writer has to think, "What would this character say?" The translator also has to think, "What would this character say?" Especially when it comes to dialogue. And you have to think more in terms of the tone and to the guiding idea of the book.
Emily Calkins: So, speaking of tone and guiding ideas, I discovered your work when I read 'Fever Dream,' which, as far as tone goes, is so gripping and it just sort of swallows you whole. I read it in a single sitting. I don't think I could have put it down even if I had wanted to. What was it like to live with that kind of really intense, haunting work for a long period of time while you're doing the work of translating?
Megan McDowell: Right. Well, I love that book. I also, when they ... yeah, I sat down and read it in one night also. You know, I had other things I was supposed to be doing, and I did not do them. It's really great to translate a book that you love, because you have to spend a lot of time with it, and you have to read it over and over and over again. And that book doesn't get old. So, on the one hand, there's that. On the other hand, I did have a nightmare or two while I was working on it. I don't know, I think the pleasure of the book definitely wins out. You know, it's just a pleasure to spend time in a world that's so well-created and so engrossing.
Emily Calkins: And, is there anything that you're reading now that you're really enjoying? Do you get to read for pleasure, or are you just reading so much for work that when you're not working, you want to do something else?
Megan McDowell: No, I still ... I don't read as much as I should, but I have a day job, and that kind of keeps me from reading as much as I'd like, 'cause I work a lot. But I always try to read a little bit every night, so I'm always reading something. And I do try to read a book in English and a book in Spanish. So the Spanish tends to be more research, you know, to see if it's something interesting. And the English is kind of to keep me thinking in English. And, let's see, right now I'm reading 'The Blazing World' by Siri Hustvedt. I honestly don't know if I'm pronouncing that right. And that book is kind of rocking my world. I really love it. And I'm reading 'A Manual for Cleaning Women' by Lucia Berlin. Which is really interesting for me. I mean, she writes in English, but you know, she spent some time in Chile. So I feel ... and her stories are so, so good. And in Spanish, I just finished a book by Sara Mesa, who is a Spanish writer who I have liked for just a really long time. I love her first book and really wanted to do it, but. This book is called Cara de Pan and it's also excellent. And I think that's all I'm reading right now.
Britta Barrett: And when you close these books at night on your bedside and fall asleep, do you dream more in English or in Spanish lately?
Megan McDowell: It's interesting you ask that. I just last night had an anxiety dream where I had to give a speech in Spanish.
Megan McDowell: And I couldn't read what I had written down. I think I have those kinds of dreams sometimes where I should be able to speak Spanish and I can't. Other than that, I'd say it's more English than Spanish, and then maybe about 20% just in regular Spanish that's not anxiety dreams.
Emily Calkins: Is there something you wish that readers understood about translation, or the process, or the work that goes into it that you think is misunderstood?
Megan McDowell: Something that is misunderstood. Oh, that's a difficult question because it's true that I don't think anyone really understands what translation is. They think it's you sit down and you read a line and you type that line. You read the next line and you type that line. But there's a lot more that goes into it than that. This goes back to what I was saying before. There's a creative process behind it. And it also has a lot in common with the editorial process. Once I get a text in English, I work on it in the same way any editor would work on it. I kind of think about it, think about how I can make it work in English. And it's a complicated process, but there's really no way to explain that process unless someone just sits beside me and watches me do it. It's hard to explain what goes into translation. I don't think anyone really knows what goes into it except for translators. But I do think ... Maybe this isn't really answering your question. But I do think that people are more and more interested in translation as an art form and as a practice. And people are more interested in reading books in translation. The next time somebody asks me that question, I'm going to have a better answer for it.
Emily Calkins: Hearing about that process of translating a book from English to Spanish or vice versa, made me think about books that get translated into lots of languages all over the world, but also come with their own special language that then has to be translated. I'm thinking of Harry Potter.
Britta Barrett: Yeah. And there's some interesting examples of what that translation looked like depending on the audience. So a lot of people know that there's a difference between the British/UK version of the book title and the one that appears in English. You know what it is?
Emily Calkins: Yeah. So the American one is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. That's book one. And in the UK, it's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
Britta Barrett: Exactly correct. And there are lots of tiny changes between ... Even though they share a common language of English, the American and UK versions. So that's something that's called localization. And it's done just so that people and the audiences in other places have a really familiar reading experience. So maybe, mum becomes mom, or football is soccer. And jumpers are sweaters. I didn't know that a torch is a flashlight. And those are pretty easy to do, but Harry Potter's got all of these like unique fantastical words that are much trickier to translate into other languages. But you've got a fun example of a French word, right?
Emily Calkins: I read part of the French version and one of my favorite things that I discovered in that process was that the Sorting Hat in French is called the choixpeau which is the portmanteau of the French word for choice, choix, with the French word for hat, chapeau.
Britta Barrett: That's adorable.
Emily Calkins: Isn't that cute? Also, the French term baguette magique literally means "magic stick", so that's what they call a wand but if you're anything like me, it conjures images of young wizards dueling with bread.
Britta Barrett: I can totally picture that.
Britta Barrett: Yeah and there's lots of different words in the books that are describing magical creatures and, some examples of that, a Boggart in Portuguese is called Sem Forma, which means "without shape". In Ukrainian they call it Hovchyk, which means "one who hides".
Emily Calkins: In Chinese, the translation of Quaffle is "flying ghost ball" and the terrifying Czechoslovakian for a Dementor means "brain plague".
Britta: That's amazing. Another thing, one of my favorite fun facts, was that when they were translating different products from the Weasley's Joke Shop into new languages, the constipating product, U-No-Poo has a Finnish title that means, "the poo that shall not come." So it's clearly a play on Lord Voldemort's unmentionability.
Emily Calkins: Incredible. Speaking of play, it's a challenge to translate word play.
Britta Barrett: Yeah, and so, in the book there's something called the Mirror of Erised?
Emily Calkins: I think that's how it's pronounced, yeah.
Britta Barrett: Which is the backwards word for "desire," so translators made up their own new backwards words in their own languages.
Emily Calkins: Another thing that's interesting is that the spells in Harry Potter in English, take their names from Latin roots. Which makes sense, because English is primarily derived from Latin. But in the Hindi versions of the books the spells are inspired by Sanskrit, so it creates a similar effect for readers.
Britta Barrett: That's so cool. And it's not just words that change, sometimes characters names change, right?
Emily Calkins: Sure. So in Italian, Dumbledore's last name becomes Silente, which feels sort of stern and serious. On the other end in Norwegian, you get Albus Humlesnurr, which means "dizzy or tipsy bumblebee". Regardless of what you call him, I think we're both inclined to agree with his oft quoted words of wisdom, that "words themselves are our most inexhaustible source of magic."
Emily Calkins: As Megan mentioned, more and more people are reading books in translation. But if you've ever searched the library catalog trying to find a translated work, you know it's not always easy to tell if a book has been translated from another language or not. The same is true books set in a place you've never been. There's no one list that will work for everyone. Luckily the library is here to help. Use Bookmatch to get a list of personalized recommendations created just for you by a librarian. Visit kcls.org/bookmatch to get started.
Britta Barrett: So speaking of staff recommendations, do you have any suggestions for us Emily?
Emily Calkins: Sure. I picked out two that are set in places that I've never been so these may or may not work for our listeners. The first is Who is Vera Kelly? By Rosalie Knecht. This is a little spy novel about a young woman working for the CIA in the 1960s and it's set in Buenos Aires, which is a place that I hadn't even really thought about beyond Evita, which I listened to a lot as a child. But it gives you a really wonderful sense of that city in this time period. These sweeping boulevards, and these big colonial buildings, but also the sense of unrest that was happening there. The novel follows Vera Kelly as she plants wireless bugs in government buildings and infiltrates a group of students that the CIA thinks are KGB sympathizers. That plot is interspersed with flashbacks from her previous life. She falls in love with her best friend, she's kicked out of her house in a fancy D.C. suburb, and she moves to New York, where she tentatively starts going to queer bars and working for a radio station, which leads to her recruitment by the CIA. This is not your typical spy novel. It's got action and intrigue but it's really a character study of this young woman discovering who she is and of the city at a time period that might not be familiar to you. So again, that's Who is Vera Kelly? By Rosalie Knecht.
Emily Calkins: My second pick for a place I've never been is Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile. You might know this one. It's inspired the TV series that's on Oprah's O Network. It wrapped up its third season earlier this year. I haven't seen the TV show but the book is wonderful. It's the story of Charley, she's a young African American woman who finds out after her father dies that she's inherited 800 acres of sugar cane. She has no farming experience, she's lived in L.A. her whole life, but the only way for her to claim the inheritance is to farm the land. So she and her daughter Micah move to rural Louisiana, where her father grew up to try her hand at farming cane.
New Speaker: There's a great essay by Natalie on Buzzfeed where she writes about a road trip she took through rural Louisiana to scatter her fathers ashes, so here's a quote from that. "I loved the heat and the crumbling buildings overtaken by Kudzu. I loved the endless hours my aunts, uncles and cousins spent in church. I loved Louisiana's earthiness, her accents and her twisting bayous. I loved it all." That love is woven throughout Queen Sugar. Rural Louisiana and a big cast of characters come to life through Natalie's lyrical writing. When I finished Queen Sugar I immediately started dreaming of a trip to see the crawfish farms, the store front churches, the small town festivals and most of all, the sugar cane fields that are at the heart of this lovely novel.
New Speaker: How about you, do you have some travel recommendations?
Britta Barrett: Yeah so I've also got a few picks for books that'll take you places that you've probably never been before.
Britta Barrett: The first one is The Geography of Bliss, it's a book that took me to Qatar and Bhutan alongside author Eric Weiner. He's a former foreign correspondent for NPR and he starts his journey with this trip to an institute in the Netherlands that's trying to quantify happiness the same way we do gross domestic product. So using that research he travels to destinations like Iceland and Moldova, some of the happiest and unhappiest respectively. And he's trying to figure out what is it about these cultures and their politics and their policies that make people happy. So the book blends travel memoir with science and psychology, lots of humor, and it makes a great read to tuck into your travel bag.
Emily Calkins: Sounds great.
Britta Barrett: And the next book I'm gonna suggest is a place that most likely none of you have ever been. It's about North Korea, and it's a graphic novel called Pyongyang. The author is a French animator Guy Delisle and he had this rare opportunity to travel in North Korea while he was on a work visa. North Korea is mysterious and secretive and this first hand account offers a more intimate glimpse than many of us have ever seen. So even though Guy can't explore without his mandated translator and guide, he still manages to observe more about the culture and conditions of the country than the government probably wanted him to. And so there are these beautiful sketches of the capital city, statues of dictators and propaganda, and it's both grim and illuminating.
Emily Calkins: I love his work. I haven't read Pyongyang but I've read some of his others and his work is so stylish and then it manages to capture even in the simplified lines the feeling of the place that he's been.
New Speaker: So if all this talk of translated books and travel has you interested in learning a new language, you should check out Mango. Have you tried Mango, Britta?
Britta Barrett: I totally have. I used it the last time I was taking a trip to Paris to get ready for the trip. And it's got these great conversational lessons, I was able to navigate the Metro, visit museums, order at cafes, all without embarrassing myself. My accent still needs some work, but the conversational lessons I picked up totally helped.
Emily Calkins: Nice. And you can use it both on your desktop and on your phone, right? There's an app.
Britta Barrett: Yeah and there's 70 languages to choose from.
Emily Calkins: That's incredible.
Britta Barrett: If you have a trip coming up or just a New Years resolution to learn a new language, definitely check it out.
Emily Calkins: And you can do that at kcls.org/mango.
Britta Barrett: Thanks for listening! You can find all the books mentioned in todays episodes in our show notes.
Emily Calkins: The Desk Set is hosted by librarians Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins. Produced by Britta Barrett, and brought to you by the King County Library System.
Britta Barrett: If you liked the show be sure to subscribe, rate, and review us on Apple Podcasts.