Back when I was in junior high, my best friend and I would spend hours and hours playing Double Dribble on his Nintendo. (Fun fact! This game was called “Exciting Basket” in Japan.) I might be 100% wrong, but I’m pretty sure this was the first basketball game for the Nintendo. And man, was it ever low rent. Keep in mind, this was decades before things like “player likeness” or “realistic gameplay” became buzzwords. I mean, the fact that it sort of looked like the big square blobs took jump shots was pretty impressive. (This was in that period where Nintendo games had exploitable flaws, like getting your left fielder stuck in the wall so that the game would have to be forfeited. I did that every time my brother was about to beat me . . . Because forfeits don’t count!) Just look at this “action”:
Anyway, my friend and I were obsessed with Double Dribble, and basketball, and sports, and the NCAA tournament. We would create endless “brackets”—sometimes real, sometimes invented out of “seasons” we would play against each other—and then play out the whole tournament over the course of a sleepover fueled by endless amounts of pop and popcorn.
The thing that I remember most about these nights though is that I never won a game. Actually, I take that back. I distinctly remember playing out one particular bracket—all 63 games—and winning exactly one game. And I only won that when my boxy blob hit a half-court shot at the buzzer to win by a point. I sucked at that game.
Or, maybe more to the point, my friend was just better than me at all sports competitions. Nerf basketball, Techmo Bowl, sandlot baseball, sprinting, tennis, etc. This used to piss me off to no end. Losing sucks. But losing here and there, or half the time, or even two-thirds of the time, can be totally OK. Can help you cherish those victories. But losing 99.9% of all competitions? Fuck that.
Quitting games, giving up once I got down, trying not to try, acting like it all didn’t matter—these were all the strategies I employed, unsuccessfully, to hide the fact that I really hated losing. Instead, I’d just pout off, go to my room and read books. Everyone’s a winner when you read!
Although there are many other reasons to be jealous of my old friend—he’s actually published a book, I’m sure he makes at least twice as much as I do, he owns his own house, he lives in a nicer city than Rochester—the thing that still gets to me is that feeling of desperation when we were playing Double Dribble and I just wanted one single victory.
Over the years, my childish anger has become adult anger and I hate a whole slew of things instead of just some dumb Nintendo game. For example, I now hate Mario Kart and its cheating ways. And gross corporate ways of thinking. And Jonathan Franzen’s writing.
But I still hate losing. Which is why I get especially testy around book award season. I’m pretty sure that every single year I’ve predicted that this would be the time than an Open Letter Book would win a national award. I mean, we’ve been doing this for seven years, we publish books that people have praised and referred to as “extremely important,” we know all of the judges of these awards personally and they seem sympathetic to our aesthetic . . . but, then, nothing. And not just nothing—which is to be expected, since if there’s one rule in life it’s that no matter how good a book is, there’s one out there that’s even better—but our books never even make the list of finalists. Actually, we never even make the longlist.
There are three major national awards for literature in translation: the Best Translated Book Award (which I’m ignoring here because we administer it, putting it in a slightly different, less completely objective, category), the National Translation Award, and the PEN Translation Prize.
I was going to try and break this down statistically, look at which presses have been represented on which award lists, which languages are favored, etc., etc., but unfortunately, I can’t find anything about the NTA 2013 longlists or finalists, so screw it. I can say that we did have one book on the “2014 longlist“https://literarytranslators.wordpress.com/2014-awards/2014-nta-award/nta-longlist/ (The Dark by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary), but nothing on the shortlist. (I believe Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, which was translated by Margaret Carson, did make a shortlist back in 2012?, but of course I can’t find that anywhere now that I’m looking.)
In terms of PEN’s Translation Prize, this is only the second year that they’ve included a longlist stage in their announcements, but so far, we’re 0-for-2. And we didn’t have any titles on any of the shortlists prior to that. So, we’re likely 0-for-7. Meanwhile, all of our colleagues—Archipelago, Two Lines, NYRB, Deep Vellum, New Directions, Yale University Press—have been honored with at least one selection. (The real winner is Will Evans who has published one book, and that one book won the Typographical Era Translation Award AND is longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize. Yahoo! Go Texas and Deep Vellum!)
There are some damn fine books on these lists, and the winners have been consistently amazing across the board. Which is a testament to how many excellent translations are coming out these days. We’re living in a golden age. I’m always following these awards, reading the books I think have a chance at winning, making mental predictions, etc. It’s fun to follow, even if we don’t have a horse in the race.
And to be honest, I’m never quite sure why this bugs me, or why I take it so personally. It’s not like I wrote or translated any of the books. Although, that said, I do see the consistent shunning—on all the lists, not just the award ones—as some sort of judgement of my editorial tastes and selection process. And I’m always curious if our books would sell better and win a lot more awards if, say, Archipelago published them. Is there an Open Letter stigma? And if so, isn’t it mostly a Chad Post stigma? I’ve pissed off my fair share of people by having strident opinions and making stupid jokes, so I wouldn’t be surprised if our books got shafted just because of my proximity to them. I’m also 100% sure that if we were based in any major city—one with a legit indie bookstore and some form of books coverage—we would be doing much better. For all of its good points, and despite all of the nationally respected writers and translators living in the area, Rochester kind of sucks at books.
Regardless, the whole thing reminds me of Double Dribble and how I’m a sore, petty loser. That said, I’m sure that by book 150, one of our titles will have sunk a half-court shot and won us a slot in the Final Four! (Sorry—that metaphor is jacked.)
On to the April books!
Desert Sorrows by Tayseer Al-Sboul, translated from the Arabic by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari (Michigan State University Press)
It’s really spectacular that Michigan State University Press has committed to doing more works of literature in translation, mostly from Africa and the Middle East. Readers deserve access to more works from these parts of the world, and it’s perfect that a university press is stepping up and helping bring these voices to English readers.
Of course, I say this both because this is the first work by a Jordanian poet to come out since 2009, and because I am a Michigan State alum.
On that note, I hope MSU kicks the shit out of Duke on Saturday night. Duke wins all the time—the world will in no way be improved by a Duke victory. But if MSU wins? That’s a huge number of people whose lives just got incrementally happier.
By contrast, when Duke wins, their fans just cackle maniacally, go back to counting their gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, and run ads about how Order Has Been Restored. They don’t need any more victories in life.
(Obviously kidding. People who know me know that I’m a Duke fan—as long they’re not playing MSU. I love ACC basketball and the Duke-UNC rivalry and all of it. That said, Go Spartans!)
Jacob the Mutant by Mario Bellatin, translated from the Spanish by Jacob Steinberg (Phoneme Books)
This is Mario Bellatin:
And if that doesn’t convince you to read his books, maybe the fact that he’s Valeria Luiselli’s mentor will. (He appears several times in her new book.) In fact, the two of them will be reading together at the ALTA conference in Tucson this October.
I have yet to read this Bellatin—a copy of it should be on its way to us—but I really like Flores and Beauty Salon. He’s a strange, brilliant writer. And it’s so good that Phoneme is making a number of his books available.
The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Open Letter)
This is one of our big 2015 books. Gospodinov’s Natural Novel is a cult book, beloved by many of my favorite booksellers and readers. And The Physics of Sorrow_—his follow-up novel—is bigger, more mature, and even more amazing. Whereas in _Natural Novel he structured everything around the idea of a fly’s eye, Physics uses the myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth to convey a family’s history. It’s bold and fascinating, and a book that’s already receiving some decent Twitter love.
Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes , translated from the French by Sian Reynolds (Feminist Press)
Tom and I are planning on talking about this book (“a raucous road trip in which two mismatched private investigators—the Hyena, a mysterious and ruthless vigilante, and Lucie, an apathetic and resentful slacker—cruise the streets of Paris and Barcelona in search of a missing girl”) on the Three Percent podcast. The plan is to talk about this on May 12th, so if you want to join in and read along, get a copy of this now, and send any and all questions and comments to email@example.com.
These two books perfectly represent the importance of Will Evans and Deep Vellum.
Although Anne Garréta has been writing for decades (Sphinx was originally published in France in 1986), and although everyone loves the Oulipo, this is the first book by the first female member of the Oulipo to be published in English translation. It’s a book in which . . . Actually, following the lead taken by Daniel Levin Becker in his introduction, I’m not going to point out the Oulipian constraint. It’s better for you to read the book and figure it out . . .
Sergio Pitol is another author who has been completely overlooked. He’s written a dozen or so works, including the “Trilogy of Memory,” of which, this is the first volume. He won the Cervantes Prize in 2005, and in the words of Álvaro Enrigue, Pitol is “not just our best living storyteller, he is also the strongest renovator of our literature.” Yet the only thing of his to appear in English is “By Night in Bukhara,” which is included in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn. It’s time that Pitol has his moment.
With this start—Boullosa, Garréta, Pitol, Gnarr, and Shishkin—Deep Vellum is both making a statement and filling in some gaps for those of us obsessed with world literature. It’s only a matter of time before Deep Vellum is as well regarded and beloved as the Archipelagos and Dalkeys of the world.
Speaking of presses that are held in extremely high regard, the transformation of Graywolf from plucky Minneapolis-based nonprofit into publishing power house has been incredible to watch. Just think for a second about how they had four finalists for various National Book Critics Circle Awards this year, including three in the Criticism category. That’s the same number that FSG had, and one more than W.W. Norton. And I think that part of it stems from the success of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses.
That book—along with The Elegance of the Hedgehog_—was the first literary translation to hit the _NY Times best-seller list in ages. It was a huge boon for Graywolf and brought a lot of attention from people who may not otherwise have been paying attention. With that success they started getting “bigger” authors, more reviews, more critical attention, more sales (I suspect), and have become one of the most respected and admired presses in the country.
Just to drive this point home, I got all excited the other day when the Open Letter Twitter account hit 10,000 followers. Just for shits and giggles, I checked out some other presses to see where we stand in comparison. We’re basically the same as Dalkey Archive, but Coffee House (another Minneapolis press taking over the world) has 37,300 and Graywolf has 235,000. 235,000 followers! That’s incredible!
Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (AmazonCrossing)
This may well be the best literary book that AmazonCrossing has published to date. Bae Suah is about to become the favorite writer of every member of the “literati.” She is like a female version of Sebald, but with more emotion, a sharper writing style, and a storehouse of incredible works that will be coming out over the next few years. And she’s going to blow people’s minds.
I reviewed this book for the forthcoming issue of list: Books from Korea, and will post about that when it goes live. In short, this 60-page novel (that is a packed with as much detail and character development as most 300-page books) blends the mundane and the strange in the most evocative manner, focusing on a young woman who works a boring administrative university job, has an awkward experience trying to visit her “boyfriend” in the army, receives a couple strange calls from a lecturer on criminal sociology, and gets involved in some S&M tinged sex games.
I can’t recommend Bae Suah highly enough, and by the time her fourth and fifth books come out, everyone’s going to be talking about her as one of the great women writers of our century. Get on the bandwagon now.
A26 by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Melanie Florence (Gallic Books)
At some point this summer, I’m going to go on a Ganier and Simenon bender. Thanks to Gallic and Penguin, there are a number of titles available from both authors—all of which are quick, dark, noirish reads that would be perfect for a day at the beach. (The beach is on my mind, since it’s actually 60+ degrees here today, making it the first Rochester day above freezing since last August. Approximately.)
To be honest, I’m sort of surprised that Garnier isn’t one of Tom Roberge’s authors. (I’m not sure he’s actually read Garnier yet.) This sort of book—featuring a ramshackle house that Yolanda hasn’t left since 1945, and where her brother, dying of a terminal illness, turns “murderous”—sounds right up his alley. Maybe this could be another Three Percent Podcast Book Club book? Goes in line with the Manchette from last month . . .
The Queen’s Caprice by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)
Echenoz is such an interesting writer for the way that he’s evolved over the course of his career. The early books—_Cherokee_, Chopin’s Move, Big Blondes, _Double Jeopary_—are fun works of French noir. Or “noir.” In these novels he toys with the genre in entertaining ways, creating a great blend of “mystery” and humor.
Then there’s the “Eccentric Genius Suite,” which includes Running, Ravel, and Lightning and is a set of fictional biographies of strange dudes, like Tesla and Ravel. It’s wonderful, and a few steps removed from the early stuff.
And now, after being published for decades, we’re finally treated to a collection of Echenoz’s short fictions, which are set all over the world, and explore a number of different literary styles and modes.
Coincidentally, my class talked with Mark Polizzotti the other week, and he mentioned a new Echenoz book that’s sort of a return to the humorous-noir of old. Can’t wait to read that one as well!
Life Embitters by Josep Pla, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (Archipelago)
I know that most people are excited about the four volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle that Archipelago is bringing out this month, but the last thing the world needs now is another list of books suggesting you read his magnum opus. (Although, as best I can gather from this New Yorker article, Knausgaard or Ferrante? if you’re not knee-deep in Karl Ove’s issues, you’re engrossed in Ferrante’s Neapolitan literary soap opera.)
Pla is definitely worth checking out though. He’s one of Catalonia’s greatest authors, mostly known for The Gray Notebook, which NYRB brought out last year. This collection of stories is his first work of pure fiction to be available in English.
The Buddha’s Return by Gaito Gazdanov, translated from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk (Pushkin Press)
What I know about Gazdanov, and why I’m including this book here, can be summarized in this anecdote: When I was in Estonia last summer, Sjón was there as well, along with Gesche Ipsen from Pushkin. Sjón had just read Gazdanov’s first book, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and was raving about how strange and wonderful it was and how he wanted more Gazdanov books to come out. Well, here we go.
Fairy Tales by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Daniele Pantano and James Reidel (New Directions)
There’s no way to improve on ND’s jacket copy, so, this:
Fairy Tales gathers the unconventional verse dramolettes by the Swiss writer Robert Walser. Narrated in Walser’s inimitable, playful language, these theatrical pieces overturn traditional notions of the fairy tale, transforming the Brothers Grimm into metatheater, even metareflections.
Snow White forgives the evil queen for trying to kill her. Cinderella doubts her prince and enjoys being hated by her stepsisters; The Fairy Tale itself is a character who encourages her to stay within the confines of the story. Sleeping Beauty, the royal family, and its retainers are not happy about being woken up their sleep by an absurd, unpretentious Walser-like hero. Mary and Joseph are taken aback by what lies in store for their baby Jesus.
Over at GoodReads, we’re giving away 20 copies of Angel Igov’s A Short Tale of Shame, co-winner of the 2012 Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest.
After deciding to take a semester off their studies to think about future plans, long-time friends Maya, Sirma, and Spartacus decide to hitchhike to the sea. Boril Krustev, former rock star and middle-aged widower who is driving aimlessly to outrun his grief, picks them up and accompanies them on their journey. It doesn’t take them long to figure out they’re connected to each other by more than their need to travel—specifically through Boril’s daughter, whose actions damaged each of the characters in this novel.
Co-winner of the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest, A Short Tale of Shame marks the arrival of a new talent in Bulgarian literature with a novel about the need to come to terms with the shame and guilt we all harbor.
Click below to enter the contest!
Tom and I will record our “official” 2013 preview podcast tomorrow, so you can look forward to that, but as a way of upping the number of books we can talk about on the blog, I’d like to start a weekly “preview” column. Something that may not always be that serious, yet will at least give some space to recently released or forthcoming titles. I’m sure that this will evolve over the next X number of weeks, so please cut me some slack on these first few . . .
Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. University of Oklahoma/Chinese Literature Today. $24.95
Jonathan Stalling of Chinese Literature Today — which really probably definitely shouldn’t be abbreviated as “CLT” . . and yes, I am 12 — spent a good 10-15 minutes of MLA explaining to me why this book was so awesome. I forget all the plot details, but I do remember the bit about an executioner taking someone apart over a series of pages . . . So, to go along with the almost nauseating amounts of meat mastication in Pow!, readers coming to Mo Yan post-Nobel Prize also have the option to read about the “gruesome ‘sandalwood punishment,’ whose purpose, as in crucifixions, is to keep the condemned individual alive in mind-numbing pain as long as possible.”
I have to say, the more I read about Mo Yan’s books, the more I dig him . . . And I’m really looking forward to reading this before teaching Pow! in my Translation & World Literature class this spring.
Generally, I’m not a huge fan of book trailers, but I have to admit, the one that CLT did for this is really pretty elegant and cool in an anime sort of way.
I have more to post about Chinese Literature Today, but I’ll save that for later. For anyone interested in checking this out, here’s a link to a sample of the novel.
The Eleven by Pierre Michon. Translated from the French by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays. Archipelago Books. $18.
The only thing I know about Pierre Michon is that one of his earlier novels, Small Lives, which is also published by Archipelago, is loved by basically everyone.
For a while I was creating a playlist on Spotify of songs with numbers in them. Things like “Water” by Poster Children, or “Slow Show” by The National, or “Airplane Rider” by Air Miami (a personal favorite), or “Universal Speech” by The Go! Team, or whatever. I’m not sure why, but there’s something about people yelling out numbers (or referencing a particular age, as in The National song) that does it for me. It’s one of my “secret cues” that cause me to almost always love a song. (That and hand clapping. And sing-along choruses.)
I don’t think that same thing works for me with book titles. But Fifty Shades of Gray? Maybe this is some sort of subconscious tic . . . (Like A Thousand Morons! Or A Thousand Peaceful Cities.)
18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel. Open Letter Books. $15.95
A few months back, Zack called Nate and I to talk a bit about plans for his book and marketing and all that. In the course of the conversation, he told us about his elderly friend who was anxious to get a copy of his book.
“She called me the other day and said she’s seen it on the table at the bookstore and was really excited for me. I told her that it couldn’t possibly be my book. That my book hadn’t been printed. But she was convinced. ‘No, no, it was your book, Zack. And it’s pretty dirty!’ Only then I realized she was talking about Fifty Shades . . . “
All books containing a number and the color “gray” are the same! If only we could somehow use this to our advantage . . . Should’ve included that choker necktie on the cover.
That said, Zack’s book does have a spot of banging in it. It’s more of a nostalgic, romantic book than an erotic one, but there is something sexy about a good number of the scenes. Especially the conversations between the protagonist and his now-missing wife that take place while he’s photographing her . . .
As promised last week, here’s a bit more information on 18% Gray, one of this year’s Bulgarian Contemporary Novel contest’s co-winners.
18% Gray is a sort of non-linear road novel. In the present, Zack is traveling to the East Coast trying to sell off the huge bag of marijuana that has come into his possession. Parallel to this storyline is a set of flashbacks detailing his obsessive romance with the now disappeared Stella. The plot shifts from present-day California to Eastern Europe in the nineties; it runs through anti-communist student rallies, and continues with the young couple’s exodus to America.
This paragraph from the synopsis also grabbed me:
Driving to New York, equipped with an old Nikon and bunch of expired black and white film rolls, Zack starts photographing an America we rarely see. Faces, roads, buildings, nature—everything caught on his film is raw and genuine. Zack captures America as if noticing it for the first time; as if he has never learned how to take pictures. Zack photographs America the way America no longer is—real.
Here’s an excerpt of the excerpt. The full book will be available to reviewers and booksellers by next summer, and will officially drop in November 2012:
She’s been gone nine mornings.
The blinds in the bedroom are shut tight, but the day still finds a way to get in, and with a roar – the garbage truck. That means it’s Wednesday. That means it’s eight-fifteen. Is there a noisier noise than the noise of a garbage truck at eight-fifteen?
I crawl out of bed, stagger to the living room, and flop down on the couch. The cool leather doesn’t help me fall back to sleep, and the garbage truck rumbles closer. I get up, push aside one of the blinds, a bright ray burns my face. I focus my powers and attempt to dismember the roaring green monster with a gaze. The effort only succeeds in waking me up completely.Read More...
It would be hard to overstate all the amazing things the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for Creative Writing (and Elizabeth herself) has done for contemporary Bulgarian writers. Sure, there’s the Sozopol Fiction Seminars, but they also organized a special day of panels on Literary Diplomacy to take place in Sofia, helped bring publishers and Bulgarian writers & translators together, sponsor the Dyankov Translation Award for the most outstanding translation from English into Bulgarian, and now have helped launch the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers website to help promote Bulgarian writers abroad.
For publishers, these sorts of sites are invaluable. Aside from random meetings at the Frankfurt Book Fair, or personal connections developed slowly and one-by-one over the years, it can be extremely hard for editors to find out about contemporary literature from countries such as Bulgaria. (And by “countries such as Bulgaria” I mean ones that don’t have an active governmental organization like the Finnish Literature Exchange, German Book Office, French Cultural Services, Japanese Literature Publishing Project, etc., promoting their contemporary writers to the rest of the world.) Beyond identifying new writers to check out, a site like this helps provide a bit of context for any submissions that an editor does happen to receive. I mean, there are only a handful of Bulgarian novels that have ever been published in English, so it’s hard to understand the tradition and evolution of Bulgarian literature.
Seriously—anyone interested in Bulgarian (or simply international) literature should check this out. I’m sure that it’ll expand greatly over the next year, but the site already features maybe two dozen writers (and a handful of Bulgarian-to-English translators), and has biographical info, excerpts, critical reviews, contact information for all of them.
One author worth looking at is Zachary Karabashliev, whose first novel won the Book of the Year Award from the Vick Foundation and was chosen as one of the 100 Most Loved Books of All Time by Bulgarians, and his first collection of short stories won the Book of the Year Award from Helikon. He’s a very funny guy, and his stories are quite sharp.
In terms of translators, Angela Rodel deserves some special attention. She translated all of the pieces by the Bulgarian writers at the Sozopol Seminars AND she just was awarded a PEN Translation Fund Award for Georgi Tenev’s Holy Light, which sounds pretty interesting:
Alloying political sci-fi with striking eroticism, the stories in Holy Light depict a world of endless, wearying revolution and apocalypse, where bodies have succumbed to a sinister bio-politics of relentless cruelty and perversion. “In first class they offered easy emancipation, perhaps even electrocution, but he was traveling economy class where they wouldn’t even serve him food.” (No publisher)
(I was actually on a panel with both Georgi and Angela—both very smart, very interesting people.)
By the way, if I haven’t said this in a while, all fiction writers should apply to the Sozopol Fiction Seminars . . .
The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .
There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .
In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .
I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .