Not a Sophomore Slump if You Were Never Great [3 Books]

I’ve been waiting all week to write this post of three things that I’m loving, can’t wait to read, and hate. It’s rare that I know which books I want to include so far in advance, but immediately after posting last week’s edition, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

Since the lists I’ve been posting the past few days—and plan on continuing for as long as I can—have been taking up so much time, I’m just going to jump into this week’s stuff.

Book I’m Reading and Loving: The Boys by Toni Sala, translated from the Catalan by Mara Fay Lethem (Two Lines)

A lot of times, the books I choose for my spring “World Literature & Translation” are ones that I’ve wanted to get to for a while, but haven’t found the time or motivation to actually get to. By assigning them to my students, I feel OK about setting aside some of my other work to dive into these.

I have a bunch of books like this I have to read over the next couple months, but I decided to start with Toni Sala’s The Boys, and holy shit this is so good. Initially, I was a bit worried about reading it. All year I’ve been having severe death anxiety panic attacks, and anything related tends to make my mind go crazy, and the basis of this novel is that there’s a car accident that takes the lives of two young men.

That aspect’s not very unnerving to me, but bits like this one—from the first part, which is narrated by an aging banker—really hit home:

Being an adult is accepting death, harboring it inside you like a cancer, dying. How can he accept that his own daughter were already adults, that they were already infected? Accept death, how could he? How can you accept something you don’t understand? How can you continue to be a person, if you accept the incomprehensible? Accepting death is accepting loneliness, and the commotion over the death of the two brothers was in fact his resistance to facing up to his age, to his death; his resistance to separating from his daughters, to the death of his daughters—dying, the brothers had freed their parents from killing them, as he would have to kill his daughters the day he died.

For whatever reason, all the talk about death in here doesn’t wig me out. Instead, it’s pretty compelling, and interesting to see how this accident, this forced exposure to death, works its way through the various characters and their life stories.

It helps that there are so many great lines in this book, little reflections that I was particularly drawn to. Also from Ernest, the same narrator as above:

When you have children you spend your life risking your dignity. Your existence lies in the hands of someone else. That’s what children are. They destroyed you. There should be some way to retire after having them. Retire from being a parent.

The book moves through a series of voices, from Ernest to the crazy truck driver he meets at the scene of the accident (and whose section is all about creating online personas, whores, and Catalan independence), to Iona, the girlfriend of one of the dead brothers, which is the section I’m in now.

There’s a lot more to say about this book and its mediations on being on the outside, marginalized in some way, and how, for such a relatively simplistic plot, keeps sucking me in. But I’ll save my further reflections for class. (And for once I’ve finished this.)

Overall though, it’s absolutely worth picking up a copy. The Catalan literature being translated into English these days is really fantastic.

Book I Can’t Wait to Read: Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs by Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Frank Perry (And Other Stories)

I’m really excited to read this because Lina Wolff will be in Rochester on March 2nd as part of our Reading the World Conversation Series. Even if she weren’t coming, I’d be into this book though. And Other Stories (along with Two Lines, who published The Boys) are one of those great young presses bringing out really interesting books that are beautifully produced. This isn’t my favorite of the And Other Stories covers, but then again, I hold them to a really high standard, given how great their books look.

Anyway, in terms of this novel, it’s set in Caudal, Spain and features prostitutes who collect stray dogs and name them after famous male authors, like, Bret Easton Ellis. I haven’t started it at all, yet, so I don’t know how the whole novel functions, but Stefan Tobler (founder, publisher of And Other Stories) said this, which got me really intrigued:

It’s like a Bolaño novel with more of a feminist bent. A pretty unflinching and dark look at love and violence—while also being very, very funny often, and having an incredibly spiralling structure around a central character’s friends and acquaintances.

I like funny and I like spirals. I’m in!

And if you want more Lina Wolff, be sure and check out this story from Granta, where she also wrote this recommendation urging someone to translate the short fiction of the Swedish author Oline Stig.

Podcast I’m Definitely Not Listening To: Season Two of Serial (This American Life)

I wasted weeks of my life listening to the first season of this show, which contains all the things I hate about NPR: that smug, annoying NPR voice; the wishy-washy nature of the reporting; the manipulative way the story is constructed, with more of a focus on playing with the listener’s emotions than the facts of the reporting itself; the way Carol, or whatever her name is, seems genuinely surprised to find out that people in this country are jailed because of flimsy, or incorrect evidence. All of it drove me insane, yet I felt compelled to keep listening, to be part of the conversation.

Obviously, I wasn’t the only one with these opinions:

What do I know after listening to every episode of Serial? Nothing. I know absolutely nothing, except that it wasted my damn time, and I really hate it when that happens. Did you know sometimes we send people to prison on flimsy evidence? Did you know investigators can manipulate a witness narrative to fit the evidence they think they have? Did you know sometimes the wrong people go to jail? Did you know the American criminal justice system sucks?

Yes. You did. Either you did, or you should have before listening to Serial. If you didn’t, please don’t be proud of just now realizing this. That’s like admitting you just learned where to vote; it implies all those times you weren’t voting. And you gotta ignore a lot of things to think anything Serial showed us was new. Unless, of course, you get most of your news from public radio, which mostly ignores local murders, making you that person who has no idea about the local string of smash-and-grabs at the 7-Eleven, but knows all about the government in the Balkans. Great: That person learned something. Maybe that counts for a bonus point.

When I read that season two was finally coming out, and was about Bowe Bergdahl, I was momentarily interested. I would’ve preferred something less exposed, less already covered by major media outlets, but whatever. Then I saw this picture:

No. Absolutely not.

But what’s worse is that Kaija listened to the first episode of this new season and told me the teaser at the end for episode two:

“Hello, this is Sarah.” That’s me, calling the Taliban.

Hell no. I can’t take this. Even though I unsubscribed months ago, I feel like my iTunes just won’t let me. Every time I open up the podcast app, there’s information about Serial and a dozen other podcasts that are breaking down every episode of Serial. It’s like she invented the very idea of podcasts AND journalism!

On the upside, it sounds like the backlash is in full swing and not as many people are losing their minds over this season of the show. Maybe there is some hope for humanity after all.

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