Bookselling in Carolina [Some February Translations]
Last week, the tenth version of the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute took place in Asheville, NC, at a resort straight out of The Shining.
I know! You should’ve seen the main lobby with it’s 40’ ceilings, giant fireplaces, and hidden passages. It was like something out of Hogwarts. (Actually, I have no idea if that’s true. I’m still pretty clueless when it comes to Harry Potter.)
For anyone not in the business, Winter Institute started ten years ago as a way of having the bookseller educational programs—which usually take place just before the start of BookExpo America—at a different time and place, one where it was basically all booksellers resorted off in such a way that they could share relevant information about the business of bookselling without having the Sweet Potato Queen thrusting books at you non-stop. (Not to pick on this particular book, but if you’ve been to BEA, you know that it’s filthy with over-the-top attempts to get the attention of booksellers and reviewers. Just check out the Ellora’s Cave stand and their calendar stud muffins.)
Over the past decade, Winter Institute has evolved, and is heavily underwritten by publishing houses. But even so, it’s much more classy and information-focused, rather than a buzz-producing free-for-all. For example, if a publisher sponsors Winter Institute at the mid-level (which is thousands of dollars), they get to bring two employees and spend four total hours “speed dating” with booksellers (Winter Institute is HOT), pitching a handful of books and making new connections. There are other sponsorship benefits, and most publishers arrange dinners with key stores, but nevertheless, it’s all pretty subdued and really focused on relationships and business practices.
You’ll be able to hear a lot more about this on the podcast that’s going up soon, and which features a handful of booksellers, publishers, and Naja Marie Aidt.
For years I’ve been trying to get to Winter Institute, and now that I finally made it, I’m going to be there every year going forward. It’s the best way to learn about new stores, reconnect with booksellers you don’t get to see that often, and party with other book people. Everyone working in this oftentimes thankless business needs a few days like this.
One of my favorite moments of Winter Institute was going to the special Consortium dinner with my former boss—Sarah Goddin of Quail Ridge Books! I had no idea she was going to be there, and Consortium had no idea that we had worked together, so it was a special sort of random reunion.
Since I love North Carolina (the far superior Carolina) so much, I spent a couple days after Winter Institute driving over to Raleigh-Durham, trying to find the apartment complex I lived in back in 1999 (I failed), meeting up with John Darnielle to talk about Mercè Rodoreda and book tours, and checking out all of the great bookstores. Although The Regulator seems to have shrunk quite a bit since the time I lived there (which, granted, was forever ago), the Triangle still has some incredible independent bookstores. Flyleaf in Chapel Hill is gorgeous and so well stocked (and is a store I wouldn’t have visited had I not met the very charming Travis at breakfast during Winter Institute) and over at Quail Ridge, the “International Literature” section I helped set up before Y2K didn’t do shit is still there, bigger and more international than ever.
I have no grand point to make with this intro . . . except maybe that it was rejuvenating. I would love to be back in Carolina, where there are great bookstores and breweries (sorry, Rochester, but you just can’t compete), and where I didn’t have to wear a winter jacket (it is -60 here right now, I think). But beyond the natural beauty and general coolness of Carolina, there’s that special internal joy that comes from talking with booksellers like Mark Haber and Jeremy Ellis and Robert Sindelar and Stephen Sparks and Brad Johnson and Jeremy Solomons and Paul Yamazaki and Rick Simonson and Sarah Goddin and everyone else that I talked with, but can’t remember right now.
Despite all the hardships it faces in our tech-obsessed world, bookselling is alive and well, and still populated by that special subset of book lovers who truly help make this whole book culture thing work.
The Knight and His Shadow by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from the French by Alan Furness (Michigan State University Press)
Given that MSU’s men’s basketball team kicked the living shit out of Michigan last night, I have to take a minute to say GO SPARTANS! and give a shout out to my alma mater, and to say that I will savor every minute of a Kentucky loss. I have friends who love Kentucky in that way that you do when your family tree is a straight line and teeth are considered an optional accessory (sorry, sorry), and I’d be happy for them if Kent— Screw that. That’s a total lie. I can’t stand Calipari and his dirty recruiting and am sick to death of Dickie V, who has never held a skeptical position in his life and who has obviously spent way too many hours researching thesauri for new ways to say “Calipari and what he’s done with this program is nothing short of spectacular! He’s a diaper dandy winner, baby!” Please, ESPN, retire him. Let him write a weekly column from Florida where he can hang out with all his shady sports friends and verbally fellate all the “blue blood” teams that he loves.
In terms of this book, this is the only work of fiction from Senegal listed in our Translation Database. I know there are countries (like Chad, just, you know, as an example) that have zero titles available in translation, but it’s still crazy to think that, if you want to read some recent Senegalese literature, you have exactly one choice.
On the upside, this sounds spectacular. It includes a character who is hired to “sit before an open door and tell stories into an uncertain darkness, unable to see the person to whom she speaks.” Plus, it’s great to see MSU Press getting into the translation game. The only thing that could be better is if MSU interrupts Kentucky’s “Pursuit of Perfection” in the NCAA tournament. Dickie V would never recover . . .
Flesh-Coloured Dominos by Zigmunds Skujins, translated from the Latvian by Kaija Straumanis (Arcadia)
Look, it’s Open Letter editor Kaija Straumanis’s second full-length Latvian translation to be published! With a country of this size (3 million speakers worldwide?), it’s crucial that someone become a spokesperson/go-to translator who can act as a cultural conduit, or literary ambassador. Without a Kaija, Latvian literature would be even less well-known . . . And someone like Skujins, who is considered one of the top Latvian writers of the twentieth century, would remain unknown outside of this relatively small group of readers. Every country needs a few Kaijas.
Speaking of, here’s a picture of her while translating this book.
Lies, First Person by Gail Hareven, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu (Open Letter)
2015 is going to be a huge year for Open Letter in terms of sales and publicity. I can easily see a handful of our titles on next year’s Best Translated Book Award longlist (Georgi Gospodinov, Naja Marie Aidt, Andrés Neuman, Gail Hareven), and it all starts here, with this book that is part-revenge fantasy, part-literary game. The follow up to the BTBA winning The Confessions of Noa Weber (also translated by Dalya Bilu, and sadly out of print from Melville House), Lies, First Person is about a female writer whose uncle molested her younger sister while writing his much-reviled book Hitler, First Person. Decades later, the uncle is making the rounds, apologizing for the upset his book cause, but Elinor isn’t ready to forgive anyone . . . Instead she decides to take matters into her own hands and get the ultimate revenge for what he did to her sister. Hareven complicates this storyline by exploring the gap between truth and lies in fiction, transforming a simple tale of abuse and vengeance into something that’s emotionally powerful and intellectually stunning.
No one writes with the warmth and honest of Hareven. She may well be the first female writer to claim the BTBA twice.
Guys Like Me by Dominique Fabre, translated from the French by Howard Curtis (New Vessel Press)
Since we just posted a great review of this by Peter Biello, I’m just going to quote from there:
In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying side that reflects, more than anything else, the emotional state of the storyteller, an unnamed narrator still reeling from his divorce many years ago. . . . The immersive power of the novel comes from the narrator’s voice. He begins each paragraph somewhere, then wanders somewhere else, jumping idea to idea, often without starting new sentences. The reader must slow down to figure out whether he’s integrating dialogue into his prose or recalling something someone once said or mocking someone. But in forcing us to slow down, the author has invited us to occupy the narrator’s mind perhaps more intimately than we would otherwise.
Fabre’s The Waitress Was New, which Archipelago brought out a few years ago, is brilliant, and I’m sure that this new novel is as well.
Adventures in Immediate Irreality by Max Blecher, translated from the Romanian by Michael Henry Heim (New Directions)
On its own, this sounds like a curious, strange book to read. According to the ND copy, Blecher “paints the crises of ‘irreality’ the plagued him in his youth: eerie unsettling mirages wherein he would glimpse future events.” Structured through a sort of dream-logic, this book probably isn’t for everyone, but will inspire some hard core fans.
Personally, I’m excited to read it because it’s a Michael Henry Heim translation. My love of MHH is unwavering (if you haven’t already, you should read The Man Between), and I know for certain that if he chose to work on this, it’s definitely interesting and worth reading. At the same time, the idea of reading the book Mike was working on when he passed away makes me sad . . . I know there are dozens of books he did that I have yet to read, but still, there’s something about the “final” one that makes me just miss him.
My Documents by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (McSweeney’s Books)
New Zambra! I may not have been the biggest fan of Ways of Going Home, but given the greatness of The Private Lives of Trees and Bonsai, I will always and forever read every new book Zambra writes. This is his first story collection, and features eleven stories (or, according to McSweeney’s, “eleven brief novels,” which is really brilliant marketing speak, since stories don’t sell) that are archived in a folder labeled, “My Documents.”
Zambra is always a fun read, and he really is at his best in the short form, so this has a lot of promise. (It’s books like this that make me wish I only taught books I’ve already read, and thus would have more time for fun reading . . .)
The Scapegoat by Sophia Nikolaidou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Melville House)
When she spoke to my class last spring, Karen Emmerich talked a bit about this book, in particular about the role politics play in this novel and in Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou. Not that the two books are similar, but both involve Greek political things that probably need to be explained to American readers.
The Scapegoat is about a murdered American journalist, a man who confessed to the crime under torture, and a young boy who sets off to find the truth. The bit about this that most caught my attention is that it’s based on the real story of CBS reporter James Polk, the namesake of the Polk Awards.
Also, as with Michael Henry Heim, I’m always interested in projects that Karen decides to translate. Which makes me want to run a poll/write an article about what it takes to become one of those sorts of translators (whose name signals true quality and can get me to pick up anything), and who exactly falls into this grouping . . . hmm . . .
Me, Margarita by Ana Kordzaia-Samadashvili, translated from the Georgian by Libby Heighway (Dalkey Archive)
Out of all the Georgian books Dalkey has published in their series, this is the one that I’m most interested in reading. Mostly because of this blurb:
“An unmatched achievement that simultaneously fascinates and alienates. What does cynicism taste like? And what color is disillusion? Me, Margarita is powder blue and tastes refreshingly bittersweet.“—Emil Fadel, octopus-magazin
I’ll buy a side of disillusioned cynicism for $15.95.