This Was Going to Be a Hater’s Guide [3 Books]

After reading this excellent Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog yesterday (for a typical highlight, scroll down the “cookie press”) I really wished we could do something this for publishing. Like, make ignorant, funny jokes about the finalists for the National Book Awards. Or the Hater’s Guide to Literary Websites. (“Want to know about what ‘fancy’ lit-parties Paul Morris attended in NY last week while you were trying to put your kids to bed? Check out LitHub!” “BuzzFeed is great for those times when you want to find a real book to read, but decide that a gif is just so much better.”)

I even started compiling a list of 2015 translations to hate all over. Unfortunately, Simon & Schuster only did one translation this year, so that was a bit tougher than usual.

So I decided, why limit the hate? This could be part of that weekly book column that you never write because you’re too busy doing favors for other publishers and translators! There are so many awful things in this world—books, commercials, publishers, pretentious coffee places—that deserve to be ridiculed a bit. I know some of these are going to end up pissing people off, but the lovefest that the literary world has become is really boring and hypocritical. Most of those people are only chummy when they have a book coming out, or really want you to do something for them. And if we can’t ridicule ourselves, then what’s the point?


Book That I’m Reading: The Man With the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi, translated from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk (Pantheon)

When Stephen Sparks and I were polling people for our “100 Best Translations of the Century (So Far)”—a book project that most editors think we should just write for free and put online, which is proof that people are exploitative idiots with no self-awareness of the things they say and crap they publish—this book was recommended at least a half-dozen times. And so far, it’s pretty good!

There are two main plots to this book that, even if I hadn’t read the jacket copy, seem destined to intersect. In one, Atile’i, a “second son” growing up on a semi-mythical island, is sent out to sea to die because, well, he’s the “second son.” Some of his chapters trend toward becoming info dumps, establishing the peculiarities of Wayo Wayo through long expositions of the traditions and beliefs of this small, sea-worshipping island. (“If you are so careless as to eat an asamu, you will grow a ring of scales around your navel, a ring of scales that you could never finish peeling off your whole life long.”) At the same time, the social texture of this island—they worship Kabang, there are Sea and Earth Sages—brings it alive and is reinforced by the almost fantasy-novel tone of the writing.

Another day, the Earth Sage took the children to the field in the hollow, to the place where the akaba grew. One of the only starchy plants on the island, the luxuriant akaba, a word that meant “shaped like the palm of a hand,” seemed to raise innumerable hands in supplication to the sky. The island was small and the people lacked faming tools, so pebbles were piled around the plots, to keep the soil moist and to serve as a windbreak. “You must love the land, my children, and ring it in with your love. For the land is the most precious thing on this island. It is like rain, like the heart of a woman.”

This style is in stark contrast to how the Alice sections are written. Alice lives in Taiwan, where she is a writer and professor who wants to kill herself following the loss of her husband and son. (They disappeared on a mountain climb.) Her sections are straight realistic, and start to bring in the environmental themes that seem to be the backbone of this narrative.

A few minutes later, the car rounded a stretch of coastline, formerly the most famous in Haven. Years before, a developer had gone in, shoveled away part of the mountain, filled it in, firmed it up and built an amusement park. And then, with the full backing of that mayor who was knee deep in corruption charges, the developer kept right on digging away at the mountain wall on the other side of the site. But a major earthquake over nine years ago had caused the foundations of most of the facilities to shift, rendering the rides inoperable. The company filed for bankruptcy to avoid having to pay compensation. What with the rising sea level and the encroaching shoreline, the uncleared cable-car pylons and Ferris wheel looked stranded now.

I still have a ways to go with this, but I think I’ll stick with it. Something that hasn’t happened much of late . . .


Book I Want to Read: I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick by Emmanuel Carrère, translated from the French by Timothy Bent (Picador)

Last Friday I picked up Carrère’s The Adversary, hoping for something that would suck me in for an hour or two while my daughter was at gymnastics practice. Instead, I stayed up till almost 3am reading that book, going deeper and deeper into the bizarre world of lies that Jean-Claude Romand built around himself. (If you want to know more about this book, I’d recommend reading this review.)

Once I plowed through that, I wanted to read all of Carrère’s books one after another. He’s been on my list forever, but so far I’ve only made it through The Adversary and Limonov. But the first one I want to start with is his biography of Philip K. Dick.

I am a devout fan of Dick. I think I’ve read two-dozen of his books, and I love the worlds he creates, his particular voice, the sheer feats of imagination found in his novels. And given Amazon’s recent adaptation of The Man in the High Castle (which I’m totally going to watch now that I’m done with Jessica Jones), it seems like the perfect time to get back into the PKD world.

Ed Park recommended I Am Alive and You Are Dead to me years ago, but also said that it was largely based on Lawrence Sutin’s Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, which, at that time, I had just read. So I thought I’d wait until I had mostly forgotten that biography. A few years of drinking and reading has washed it almost completely away, so I think the time is right!


Book I Will Not Read: The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk, translated from the Estonian by Christopher Moseley (Black Cat)

I love Estonia and the Baltics in general and, for the most part, dig what Grove/Black Cat brings out, but man, I’ve been rejecting Kivirähk for the better part of a decade now, and with good reason.

The first time I ever met with the wonderful people from the Estonian Literature Centre, they pitched Kivirähk’s first book, The Old Barny. Yeah, “Barny.” They gushed about it, how funny it was, how he was the hottest Estonian author writing today, etc., etc. Actually, here’s a quote from the ELIC website:

Andrus Kivirähk is a most remarkably prolific, innovative and powerful figure on the Estonian literary scene of today, probably the most beloved and talented Estonian writer nowadays. He is a virtuoso who can easily shift from one style to another, producing short stories, newspaper columns, pamphlets and dramatic texts, writing for children and for TV, varying black humour with even unexpected tender sensitivity, making one smile through one’s tears.

I got none of the humor or innovation from the sample of “Barny” that I read. In part, possibly, because it’s so wedded to the folk tales of the region, of which I understand nothing. Besides, I shy away from anything including werewolves and “treasure-collecting beings called kratt.” No no no no no.

A few years later, at Frankfurt, Ilvi from the Centre pitched The Man Who Spoke Snakish. I basically gave up on this immediately, since “snakish” is dumb. But just wait:

The ‘man who speaks Snakish,’ and who is befriended by snakes, is called Leemet and belongs to a tribe of forest people in medieval Christian Europe. He is born and grows up in a period of changes, and is the last one to retain the life-style and to keep the secret of the mythical giant Frog of the North, who earlier has defended the land, but now has fallen into eternal sleep.

Mythical giant Frog of the North. I’m out. Done. No way.

Well, for some reason or another, Grove ended up publishing this. Everyone who worked on this book is fantastic, but wow is this not a book I’m ever going to spend a weekend reading. The language is so artificial and jacked up that it seems like a bad joke.

“It was slops,” she used to say to me. “You know, Leemet, I don’t believe anybody actually likes it. This bread-eating is really just showing off. They want to appear terribly fine and live like foreigners. Now a nice fresh haunch of deer is quite another thing. Now come on and eat, dear child! Who did I roast these joints for?” [. . .]

My mother was bored in the village; she didn’t care for work in the fields, and while my father was striding out to go sowing, my mother was wandering around the old familiar forests, and she got acquainted with a bear. What happened next seems to be quite clear, it’s such a familiar story. Few women can resist a bear, they’re so big, soft, helpless and furry. And besides that, they are born seducers, and moreover terribly attracted to human females, so they wouldn’t let slip an opportunity to make their way up to a woman and growl in her ear. In the old days, when most of our people still lived in the forest, there were endless cases of bears becoming women’s lovers, until finally the man would come upon the couple and send the brown beast packing.

Really?! Four hundred pages of this? I just can’t.

To be fair, according to Grove’s publicity page, some people like this book. Like Lit Hub. And Entertainment Weekly.

But as someone who has read more than one Estonian author, I think you should pass this one by and instead read Mati Unt, Tõnu Õnnepalu, or Rein Raud. Or buy an Open Letter book. They’re all 40% off till the end of the month.

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