Six University Press Books [My Year in Lists]
I was hoping to have more time to write about the books on this list today, but after having technical problems recording the podcast, I’m going to have to rush through this so that I have enough time at the end of the day to mail out Loquela to all of our subscribers.
Considering how many translations are coming out from university presses these days, and how infrequently these titles receive any attention, I feel like it’s really important to highlight these six books and presses. (I was going to include Michigan State here as well—they’re doing great stuff—but since I had The Knight and His Shadow on a different list I thought I’d focus on some other notable university presses.) To be completely honest, I don’t think I read a single review of any of these titles, which might be due to the media’s dismissal of books from university presses as “too academic,” or possibly because the presses aren’t doing as much outreach to trade outlets as they could. Regardless, it’s a shame these books weren’t more talked about. Hopefully this post can at least connect these books with a handful of new readers . . .
The Lost Garden by Li Ang, translated from the Chinese by Sylvia Li-Chun Lin with Howard Goldblatt (Columbia University Press)
Columbia is one of the best sources for interesting works from East Asia, such as Atlas by Kai-Cheung Dung or Horses, Horses, In the End the Light Remains Pure by Hideo Furukawa (one of the 2016 books I’m really looking forward to). In fact, since 2008, they’ve brought out twenty-four works of fiction and poetry from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, and India. That’s a much better record for diversity than any commercial press . . .
Li Ang has received the Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres award from the French government, and is considered one of the “most sophisticated contemporary Chinese-language writers.” She has a few other titles available in English, but this is the first one to come out since 1995.
The novel features two storylines: one focusing on Zhu Zuyan, who was imprisoned in the early part of the twentieth-century during Chiang Kai-shek’s rule, the other taking place in contemporary Taiwan and featuring a real estate tycoon.
The Perception of Meaning by Hisham Bustani, translated from the Arabic by Thoraya El-Rayyes (Syracuse University Press)
Just as Columbia has a focus on East Asian writers, Syracuse has one on Arabic literature. According to the Translation Database, they’ve brought out fifteen works of Arabic fiction and poetry since 2008, most of those in the last few years.
This book is interesting in part because it’s so of the moment and breaks out of the assumptions of what Arabic literature is like:
This award-winning collection of seventy-eight pieces of flash fiction presents an intense and powerful vision of today’s world seen through the eyes of an alienated and sardonic author. The Perception of Meaning reads like an alternative history to our world—a collage of small nightmares brought to life by a canon of unlikely historical figures, including Mark Zuckerberg, the lead singer of Megadeth, Stanley Kubrick, the Korean activist Lee Kyoung Hae, and the Mayan poet Humberto Akabal, among others. A dazzling exemplar of contemporary experimental Arabic literature, The Perception of Meaning deftly captures a historical moment in which Arab societies are increasingly questioning the status quo and rebelling against it.
“Simone”: by Eduardo Lalo, translated from the Spanish by David Frye (University of Chicago)
There are a bunch of reasons why I’m including this book here. For one, the cover looks like a trade press cover (reminds me of a Quercus books). I also like the bold, almost over-confident phrasing at the beginning of the jacket copy: “Eduardo Lalo is one of the most vital and unique voices of Latin American literature, but his work is relatively little known in the English-speaking world. That changes now.” And the fact that Lalo is one of only five Puerto Rican writers in the Translation Database. Plus, there’s the book itself:
A tale of alienation, love, suspense, imagination, and literature set on the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Simone tells the story of a self-educated Chinese immigrant student courting (and stalking) a disillusioned, unnamed writer who is struggling to make a name for himself in a place that is not exactly a hotbed of literary fame. By turns solipsistic and political, romantic and dark, Simone begins with the writer’s frustrated, satiric observations on his native city and the banal life of the university where he teaches—forces utterly at odds with the sensuality of his writing. But, as mysterious messages and literary clues begin to appear—scrawled on sidewalks and walls, inside volumes set out in bookstores, left on his answering machine and under his windshield wiper—Simone progresses into a cat-and-mouse game between the writer and his mystery stalker.
The Scarecrow by Ibrahim Al-Koni, translated from the Arabic by William Hutchins (University of Texas)
I just really like this cover. Not to mention that this final volume of Al-Koni’s trilogy opens with, “a meeting of the conspirators who assassinated the community’s leader at the end of the previous novel, The Puppet.”
The Walnut Mansion by Miljenko Jergovic, translated from the Croatian by Stephen M. Dickey with Janja Pavetic-Dickey (Yale University Press)
Yale—who has been kicking ass on the translation front for years, with Can Xue, Patrick Modiano, Romain Gary, Claudio Magris, and many more—sure isn’t afraid of doing huge books. Cyclops by Ranko Marinkovic is 576 dense pages. Blindly by the aforementioned Magris is only 400 pages, but of knotty, attention-requiring prose. The Last Days of Mankind by Karl Kraus is a 647-page play. By contrast, The Walnut Mansion seems slight at only 429 pages, but you should see this typeface! These are massive, impressive Works. Most translation publishers shy away from books like this because the cost of the translation alone—not to mention the printing bill—more or less makes breaking even an impossibility. I suspect the donation that funds Yale’s “Margellos World Republic of Letters” series makes this moot, but still, they deserve some props for undertaking these massive books that most other presses would run away from. Maybe they’ll be the ones to do those 1,000-page novels by Tokarczuk and Clemens Setz . . .
The Ravens by Vidar Sundstøl, translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally (University of Minnesota Press)
It’s so perfect that University of Minnesota Press published Sundstøl’s “Minnesota Trilogy,” which concludes with this volume. According to his bio, Sundstøl lives in Southern Norway, but I assume he has some sort of connection to Minnesota. Otherwise, why would he write a series of crime novels set there, featuring the Twin Cities, Duluth, and members of the Ojibwe tribe? I hope the University of Minnesota sells thousands of copies of all of these to the really nice people of Minnesota . . .