6 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lian Law on Marcelo Figueras’s Kamchatka that came out from Black Cat/Grove Press back last year.

Lian Law was an intern and in my “Intro to Literary Publishing” class last semester, which is when she wrote this review. (And yes, we are that far behind in running all of these.)

Marcelo was actually in Rochester for an event last spring in connection with PEN World Voices. You can watch the full event below, or skip forward to see the reading and interview with Marcelo:

And here’s the opening of Lian’s review:

Kamchatka: a remote peninsula in the Russian Far East. However, to the ten-year-old narrator in Marcelo Figueras’s novel Kamchatka, it represents much more. It is a territory to be conquered in his favorite game of Risk, it is “a paradox, a kingdom of extremes, a contradiction in terms,” and it is the last thing his father ever says to him.

Kamchatka is Marcelo Figueras’s English novel debut, translated by Frank Wynne. A novelist and screenwriter, Figueras has published several other books including El espía del tiempo, La batalla del calentamiento, and Aquarium. He was born in Argentina in 1962 and similar to the narrator of Kamchatka, he was a young child at the start of the Argentina’s Dirty War in 1976.

Kamchatka chronicles the life of a young boy during this time of political instability and its suffocating climate of fear and violence. When he, his brother, and his parents, are suddenly forced to flee to a safe house, they must assume new identities. The boy renames himself “Harry,” after his hero and famous escape artist Harry Houdini while his five-year-old brother rechristens himself “Simón,” after Simon Templar in the TV show The Saint (although Harry continues to refer to him by his nickname, the “Midget.” Despite all the disruptions, fear and sudden disappearances of friends and family members, Figueras’s main goal is not to write another somber novel about the Dirty War.

Click here to read the entire review.

6 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Kamchatka: a remote peninsula in the Russian Far East. However, to the ten-year-old narrator in Marcelo Figueras’s novel Kamchatka, it represents much more. It is a territory to be conquered in his favorite game of Risk, it is “a paradox, a kingdom of extremes, a contradiction in terms,” and it is the last thing his father ever says to him.

Kamchatka is Marcelo Figueras’s English novel debut, translated by Frank Wynne. A novelist and screenwriter, Figueras has published several other books including El espía del tiempo, La batalla del calentamiento, and Aquarium. He was born in Argentina in 1962 and similar to the narrator of Kamchatka, he was a young child at the start of the Argentina’s Dirty War in 1976.

Kamchatka chronicles the life of a young boy during this time of political instability and its suffocating climate of fear and violence. When he, his brother, and his parents, are suddenly forced to flee to a safe house, they must assume new identities. The boy renames himself “Harry,” after his hero and famous escape artist Harry Houdini while his five-year-old brother rechristens himself “Simón,” after Simon Templar in the TV show The Saint (although Harry continues to refer to him by his nickname, the “Midget.” Despite all the disruptions, fear and sudden disappearances of friends and family members, Figueras’s main goal is not to write another somber novel about the Dirty War. By retelling the events through a child’s perspective, Figueras explores the impact this situation had on personal and family dynamics. In the face of this situation, Harry remains a typical young boy, reluctantly attending school, obsessed with TV shows, comic books, and superheroes. He spends his time playing Risk with his father and aspiring to learn the secrets of Houdini.

In addition to Harry’s ten-year-old perspective, the adult Harry is often a companion voice, reflecting upon and filling in information that his younger self was incapable of comprehending at that time. Harry reflects on the information he gathers about the political situation.

For a long time I thought that my parents told me these little things because they believed I wouldn’t understand the bigger picture—whatever it was they were not saying, whatever they were hiding from me. Now I think that they did it deliberately, knowing that by the time I put the pieces together and could finally see the picture in the jigsaw puzzle, I would be safe, far from the danger that, right now, threatened us all.

The novel is uniquely bookended by the same moment in time as Harry and his father see each other for the last time. The interior brings the reader back to the beginning and up until this specific moment. While the end scene contains much of the same wording as the opening, the father and son’s encounter and the parting words of “Kamchatka” are full of new meaning and significance. While the opening was distinctly told in a ten-year-old voice, the final retelling is much more reflective, informed by the adult Harry’s brief interjections throughout.

Harry’s voice is most impressive, creatively and perfectly interweaving the ten-year-old and his older self. The novel is structured in five main parts, all around school subjects. In doing so, Figueras brings attention to how children, Harry and his little brother included, learn and decode meaning from their own experiences. Figueras favors short chapters, each paint their own small portrait of Harry’s life. The 81 chapters reflect how a ten-year-old breaks down his life into small episodes, much like the way his favorite television show The Invaders does. These short chapters provide vivid and beautifully colored portraits of his family and the children’s humorous exploits and adventures. The novel is filled with small touches of childhood reminiscence; Harry practicing holding his breath in the bath tub, Harry learning to slip out of knots, Harry and his brother’s attempt to save toads from drowning in the safe house swimming pool by creating a “reverse diving board” and arguments over who is better: Superman or Batman.

In telling the story from Harry’s point of view, Figueras is able to highlight the importance of family, courage and sacrifice within the context of fear, separation and ultimately loss. In the end, Harry realizes that in order to survive you need to “love each other madly.” In retelling his story, he has brought the characters to life once more. Through this act of storytelling, he realizes that “I don’t need Kamchatka any more, I no longer need the security I once felt being far from everything, unreachable, amid the eternal snows. The time has come for me to be where I am again, to be truly here, all of me, to stop surviving and start living.”

10 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Carley Parsons on Niccolo Ammaniti’s Me and You, which is translated from the Italian by Kylee Doust and available from Black Cat.

Carley Parsons was one of my interns last semester, and has previously interned at Syracuse University Press and Random House. She’s graduating this spring and hoping to find a job in publishing. (HINT.)

Black Cat has published three of Ammaniti’s novels, including I’ll Steal You Away, which was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Here’s the opening of Carley’s review:

Outcast for his seemingly baseless anger issues, fourteen-year-old Lorenzo Cumi lies to his worried mother about being invited on a ski trip with the ‘in-crowd’ in order to ease her concerns about him. After seeing how happy and relieved it makes her, Lorenzo can’t bring himself to tell her the truth—“I retreated in defeat, feeling like I had committed a murder.” Beginning with a twenty-four-year old Lorenzo unfolding a letter from his half-sister Olivia in a coffee-shop, the rest of the novella, gives a flashback account of how, ten years earlier, he took the opportunity provided by the lie to hide out in a neglected cellar attached to his family’s apartment building, where he is temporarily freed from the paranoid judgments of the adult world.

The teen-angst, adolescent narrative is not unchartered territory for Italian author Niccolò Ammaniti, whose past novels include I’m Not Scared, a coming-of-age and suspense hybrid narrative, translated into thirty-five languages, and As God Commands, which received Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega. Born in Rome in 1966 to a professor of developmental psychopathology, Ammaniti is often praised for his psychological lucidity and is known for exploring relationships between generation-gapped characters.

Click here to read the full review.

10 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Outcast for his seemingly baseless anger issues, fourteen-year-old Lorenzo Cumi lies to his worried mother about being invited on a ski trip with the ‘in-crowd’ in order to ease her concerns about him. After seeing how happy and relieved it makes her, Lorenzo can’t bring himself to tell her the truth—“I retreated in defeat, feeling like I had committed a murder.” Beginning with a twenty-four-year old Lorenzo unfolding a letter from his half-sister Olivia in a coffee-shop, the rest of the novella, gives a flashback account of how, ten years earlier, he took the opportunity provided by the lie to hide out in a neglected cellar attached to his family’s apartment building, where he is temporarily freed from the paranoid judgments of the adult world.

The teen-angst, adolescent narrative is not unchartered territory for Italian author Niccolò Ammaniti, whose past novels include I’m Not Scared, a coming-of-age and suspense hybrid narrative, translated into thirty-five languages, and As God Commands, which received Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega. Born in Rome in 1966 to a professor of developmental psychopathology, Ammaniti is often praised for his psychological lucidity and is known for exploring relationships between generation-gapped characters.

Me and You explores these themes surrounding the struggles of adolescence. The novel’s narrator, Lorenzo, must interact with misunderstanding parents and teachers, a dying grandmother, and his druggie, twenty-three-year old half sister Olivia, who unwelcomingly becomes his fellow cellar-dweller in her attempt to get clean. While the fast-paced narrative is compelling, the driving voice of the novel, in its often awkward and nonsensical structure, becomes a frustrating obstacle.

Lorenzo’s thoughts are often clunky and nonsensical, with verbose phrases like “The Dalmatian had begun barking at its owner because it wanted her to throw it a stick,” “In a trance I felt my legs as stiff as tree trunks walk me into class,” or “I yawned and in my pants and T-shirt went into the bathroom to brush my teeth.” These are particular stylistic problems that are most likely due to the quality of the translation. This leads to an overall failure of an effective narrative voice, as it ultimately creates a portrait that lacks surprise and nuance, where Lorenzo slips through the pages like a ghost – a virtually faceless figure easily interchanged with any “normal kid with problems,” a description of himself that he explicitly rejects. There is so much potential that lies within the setting itself, (the abandoned cellar), but even that fails to form a concrete image in the readerly imagination as it is denied the kind of attention it deserves, the description lasting for only a page of an unfocused catalog of objects, the most interesting being a blonde wig without a back story.

Unfortunately, I also fail to see where Ammaniti adds anything new to the all-too familiar teen-boy coming of age narrative. We see the testosterone when Lorenzo “pushed Giampolo Tinari off the wall,” and we watch him contend with his heterosexuality: “With one hand she covered her boob. And her legs looked like they were never ending. I shouldn’t even think about her. Olivia was fifty per cent my sister.” We are then shown the bonding of two unlikely outcasts as Lorenzo is given a crash course with reality when he discovers Olivia’s ugly addiction, a relationship that, alas, feels unnatural. While the narration aligns the reader with Lorenzo’s thoughts, we somehow escape from feeling in any way close to him, or even close to caring about him, for that matter. His self-reflective thoughts on his hyperbolic end-of-the-world problems work ironically to make him – the outcast – just like everyone else who has ever been fourteen. While it may be Ammaniti’s point about the mind of adolescence versus reality, I remained unaffected. By the time I was finally moved by the direction the narrative takes, around a page or so from the very end when the flashback comes back around to the present time, it was “too little, too late.”

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Some time in the past I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen. Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers. (Finland-Estonia, Grove/Black Cat)

In terms of the book itself, I don’t have a lot to add to Larissa’s perceptive review. But to tie this particular post back into the actual WPR “Here On Earth” conversation that sparked this sporadic series of posts, I have to post a picture of Sofi, aka, the “woman with the most amazing hair.” (I feel like I must’ve mentioned this a half-dozen times during that interview . . . it was like my verbal crutch of the moment . . .):

I finally met Sofi at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and really enjoyed talking with her. I say “finally” because I was supposed to meet her at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival last fall, but she wasn’t able to make it due to a bout of the swine flu. And continuing with a bit of cursed luck, prior to PEN World Voices, she was supposed to read in California, but, well, the volcano nixed that trip . . . As a friend said, she could write a book on being impacted by the not-so-insignificant global disasters of recent times.

Anyway, Purge is a really interesting book, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else Oksanen ends up writing. She’s really at the top of her game right now, having recently won the Nordic Prize for Purge, and was named Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009.

Although this may not be the most uplifting of the books in our summer roundup, it’s definitely worth checking out.

....
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