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PEN America #14: The Good Books

The new issue of PEN America, PEN’s literary journal, came out during last week’s World Voices Festival. As always, it’s loaded with good stuff, including excerpts of Marcelo Figueras’s Kamatchka, Andrzej Sosnowski’s Lodgings, Herve Le Tellier’s erotic as hell The Sextine Chapel, and Quim Monzo’s Guadalajara. (BTW, the Monzo story, “Literature,” is absolutely amazing.)

Additionally, this issue contains a lot of pieces from the 48th Congress of International PEN, which took place back in 1986, and became the basis for this year’s Festival since it “explored how writers use their imagination naturally and gracefully to speak to one another across boundaries, and the way governments, too, are capable of using their vision to improve the world’s troubles.” Included in this issue are pieces by Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, John Barth, Salman Rushdie, Kobo Abe, Danilo Kis, Adam Zagajewski, Gunter Grass, Margaret Atwood, etc., etc. (Really looking forward to exploring all this.)

But the main reason I’m writing this post is to praise “The Good Books: A Forum.” Basically, this grew out of the idea that all the writers at the festival could bring a book they love and swap it with the Gideon Bible in the hotel where they were staying. (BTW, DO IT!!! This should become common practice among all.)

Instead, PEN put together this feature in which scads of authors recommended the one book they would bring to some sort of mythical “book swap.” The Book of Disquiet by Pessoa was recommended any dozen number of times, and Don Quixote got plugged a couple times. The whole list is interesting, but for obvious reasons, the one that caught my eye was Karen Russell’s The Ambassador:

Bragi Olafsson’s English language debut, The Ambassador, is the strange, hilarious, and brilliant story of Sturla Jon Jonsson, a building superintendent who also happens to be a venerated Icelandic poet. He’s on his way to Lithuania to represent his nation at a literary festival, opening the door for all kinds of scathingly funny insights into the “situation of the writer.” It’s a tricky book to paraphrase—boozy, literary Icelandic black comedy? Icelandic picaresque? No “elevator story” exists for it, according to the book’s publisher, the fabulous Open Letter. It’s unlike anything else out there, anda joy to read. Sturla gets into all sorts of jams over the course of this short, weird novel, from being accused of nicking his latest poetry collection from a dead cousin to losing his overcoat, the only piece of clothing with a high thread count that this starving artist has ever owned. Kafkaesque yuks and keen insight are brought to you by the badass genius translator Lytton Smith—one of my favorite poets and author of the acclaimed debut The All-Purpose Magical Tent—and he uses all his creativity and rigor here, as well as his deep knowledge of Icelandic culture. Sturla’s inimitable voice can now infuriate and delight an American crowd.

You can purchase your own copy of The Ambassador by clicking here, and you can get PEN America right here. (FYI: this post is so on top of things that the new issue isn’t even available for sale yet. But it should be up there momentarily.)



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