Kirkus just posted a longish interview by Jessa Crispin (founder/editor of Bookslut) with Dubravka Ugresic about her new collection, Karaoke Culture. (Which, not to give too much away, is one of the books on my “Best of 2011” list that Tom and I will be discussing on this week’s podcast.)
You should go there now and read the whole piece (after which, you’ll head over to your retailer of choice and buy a copy of the book), but for those of you still here, here’s a few choice excerpts:
What’s your relationship to pop culture? Detached observer? Or do you have the last season of The Good Wife on DVD?
Popular culture (or moreover, its products) doesn’t interest me so much. What interests me is cultural populism. In other words, I’m not interested in the saga of the Twilight books and movies, but in the mechanism of fascination these products instill in millions of young consumers.
The patterns of popular culture have permeated every sphere of our lives, our entire mental landscape: politics, relationships, the education system, language, our narratives, trends, fashions, art and literature. Popular culture has even penetrated scholarly enclaves. That’s why it’s impossible to talk about popular culture, because it’s a very particular cultural reservation; popular culture is more like the air we breathe, and that’s why participation in it is so hard to escape.
Much of the Karaoke Culture you write about contains this impulse to remove the viewer from reality as much as possible, or to dunk them as fully into a new world as possible. From the intense fandom sites that put you in the world of the object of your affection, whether that be a vampire book or a television show, to something like Second Life. Is it something about contemporary life that drives this, or are humans always looking for the exit ramp?
Popular culture and cultural populism work two ways. Popular culture is a carrier of “old truths,” myth-like structures, and in this respect it’s always retrograde. But it’s also highly topical, engaged and relevant, because it works as a mirror. It reflects the obsessions, fears, dilemmas and frustrations of many people, transforming them into a pleasure zone, into our contemporary myths, into screens for our projections. Today’s popular culture boasts tremendous power because its consumers are no longer passive: thanks to technology, s/he is an inter/active participant. Technology gives the consumer a strong sense of communality and the power to change things. Whether it’s just a psychological trap, whether one really can change things or not, that’s another question. [. . .]
You write at one point that the reason we don’t have children anymore, referring to the increased rates of violence amongst youths, is because we don’t have adults anymore. Certainly there is little difference in the culture we consume—every generation is listening to the same music, watching the same television shows, playing the same video games. Is there something stunting about a culture that tells us we can all pursue our dreams rather than deal with dreary obligations, and when pleasure is only a few clicks away?
We do live in infantile times, mothers increasingly look like their daughters, and they, mothers and daughters, both behave like little girls. Fathers compete with their sons. We all try to stay young until we die. Nobody wants to be lumped in the “old jerks” category anymore. That’s why the world, or the richest and “luckiest” part of it, resembles a kindergarten.
Popular culture, TV shows, movies, books, games, the Internet, media, technology—these are our favorite toys. Vladimir Putin miserably singing “Blueberry Hill,” accompanied by the best American musicians and applauded by the best American actors, is one of the most grotesque recent images of life in our kindergarten.
However, I write my essays not to preach and moralize, though that’s unavoidable, too, but to see what’s behind the curtain, how the mechanism works. One of my dearest books was, and still is, The Wizard of Oz. And my favorite literary hero is not Dorothy, or her three companions, but Toto, a little dog. He’s the one who pulls the curtain, not because he’s brave, but simply because he’s curious.
The new issue of everyone’s favorite provocatively named webmag/blog is now available and includes a few translation-related items.
First off, there’s a review of To Hell with Cronje by Ingrid Winterbach and translated from the Afrikaans by Elsa Silke. The review is solid, and starts with a nice bit that references BTBA longlist title Agaat.:
2010 might be called a banner year for Afrikaans women in English, if a few fat books can be said to make a banner. Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat won a blurb from Toni Morrison and a review from The New York Times, while a reprint of Begging to be Black by Antjie Krog flew disappointingly under the radar. Somewhere in the middle was Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell With Cronjé, published by Open Letter Books back in September in an adroit translation by Elsa Silke. Not to be outdone by the extravagant praise heaped on Agaat, Open Letter brought out the big guns: Winterbach has produced no less than “a South African Heart of Darkness,” we’re told, “an eerie reflection of the futility of war.”
Heart of Darkness, of course, was published in 1902, the same year in which To Hell With Cronjé takes place. And to be sure, there are other similarities as well: Winterbach’s novel explores the familiar “dark side” of English colonial expansion, and it does it in a chilly, not-quite-accessible way that recalls Marlow’s uncanny journey upriver. But there is a pointed irony to the fact that a book about the Anglo-Boer war should be compared to this most famous “Khaki” exploration narrative. Winterbach’s is a tale told from the other side, of a people formatively stuck between colonizer and colonized. (She is not alone in this effort: André Brink, for example, has made numerous recent forays into white South African vigilantism at the turn of the twentieth century.) While Conrad anticipated the glorious twilight of an empire, Winterbach rests on the tip of an iceberg that’s only begun to form.
There’s also a review of Javier Marias’s While the Women Are Sleeping, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa:
Given Javier Marías’s clear love for dark motivations and ghost stories — not magical realism, thanks, but the kind of creepy Poe-tasting that confounds literalists and raises kids’ hackles ‘round the campfire — While the Women Are Sleeping is initially a confusing prospect. The collection’s ten stories span thirty years, from 1968 on, but his narrators all feel like different flesh on the same skeleton, a parade of bourgeoisie vacationing with wives or visiting New York or taking sinecures in Spain; they exist as non-entities, mere witnesses with interchangeable values. Characters encounter specters both literal (“The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban”) and dubious (“One Night of Love”), but with resignment: where rabbit-hole fate draws, say, thematic predecessors like Juan Preciado (from Juan Rulfo’s classic spookfest Pedro Páramo) or Felipe Montero (Carlos Fuentes’s Aura) deep into the uncanny, Marías’s narrators operate in helpless acquiescence to the macabre. When the nameless chronicler of Sleeping’s title story discovers an acquaintance’s plan to murder his lover Inés, he’s not provoked or frightened so much as discomfited — while the prospect of another’s death gives him pause, it’s the newly discovered proximity to the dark side that makes him paranoid and neurotic.
Of course, that’s Marías’s milieu: for all his promised heebie-jeebies, his real hobbyhorse is everyday solipsism.
There’s a lot of interesting non-translation related stuff as well, including an article on the lifespan of the literary magazine, and interviews with Bradford Morrow (whose new book seems to be getting a lot of praise), Emma Straub (interviewed by super-bookseller Michele Filgate), and Evan Lavender-Smith.
Over at Bookslut, this week’s “Indie Heartthrob Interview” is with Catherine Bohne, a great drinker of wine (from personal experience), a wonderful person for late night conversations (ditto), and owner of the Community Bookstore in Park Slope (which has a great display of NYRB, Archipelago, and New Directions titles right by the front counter, and a great garden out back).
Catherine’s an very interesting person, and she’s gone through a lot with her store. As she mentioned in the interview, she purchased the store a month before 9/11. And in the days that followed 9/11, the store was transformed into a true community center where people gathered to get information and share their pain and experiences.
So it’s not that surprising that when the store really fell on hard times, a group of loyal customers stepped forward to form an investment group that recapitalized the store, created a working business plan, and pulled the store up to the level it’s at now. (As an example of Catherine’s creativity and fun personality, she once told me that when the store was really having a hard time paying its bills, she started stocking only the largest of large books — Infinite Jest, all of Dickens, etc. — to make the shelves look more crowded than they actually were.)
Anyway, the interview is interesting, and I think Catherine’s answer for how she got involved in the bookstore is similar to that of many other booksellers:
WHY did I start working in the bookstore? When I discovered the bookstore, in my early 20’s, it was the sole (it seems to me now) haven from the terrors of trying to figure out how to live and be a grownup—life was hard and scary, expensive and confusing, and I seemed to find myself in one situation after another that I’d thought I wanted but didn’t really suit me at all…the bookstore was simply the one place that felt calm and sane, peaceful and welcoming. I applied for the weekend job on a whim, got it, and just never left. Whenever other opportunities would come up I’d find that if I was honest, I’d really rather live in the world of the bookstore, and so although it sometimes seemed irresponsible (or at least quixotic) I just stayed and stayed—moving into positions of increasing authority seemed to happen naturally. And now I own it!
And in terms of the future for independent bookstores, here’s Catherine’s vision:
Based on a survey we did two years ago, we realized that even our most loyal customers probably only do about 20% of their shopping here—that’s actually really encouraging, as it means that if we can get people to shift just 5% of their buying habits to us, we’ll be doing terrifically! So the next year is going to be about reaching out to people—finding creative ways to let new people know we’re here, and making it more and more tempting for people to shop here!
Finally, it seems to me that the role of the bookstore in the future will inevitably continue to change. As more and more information is available electronically, I think the role of the bricks and mortar bookstore will shift to being more of a wondertrove of beautiful objects, and that the importance of intelligent, helpful, entertaining(!) staff will increase. The “experience” aspect of shopping will come to the fore, so we’ve been working to fix up the store physically (we’re just finishing renovating our back room, with a brand new kitchen where we’ll give away tea and fine coffee). I believe that looking after employees is terribly important—we’ve just gotten health insurance for the first time in years (yay—Brooklyn Health Works!). We’re also gradually moving into stocking more unusual, beautiful things—we really want to create a great chap book section, for example, to concentrate on selling things that you want to hold in your hands and look at, as well injest mentally. On the whole, I’m looking forward to this—sounds a lot more fun than selling, say, test prep books!
Bookslut has an interview with David Del Vecchio, the owner of Idlewild Books:
At Idlewild, “International Literature” is not hidden away, but is featured and celebrated. To uncover a particular niche that is missing in the independent bookselling business is rare and exciting. To successfully open a bookstore in today’s economy is heroic. Idlewild’s owner, David Del Vecchio answered questions about his store.
What is your vision for Idlewild Books?
To create a resource, meeting place and event venue for people who are interested in other parts of the world — whether as travelers, readers, people interested in humanitarian issues, or some combination of the three. Even though we’re only four months old, we’re getting good word of mouth among customers and publishers and have had the privilege of hosting several book launch parties for travelogues, newly translated international lit, and books related to sexual trafficking, war-affected women and children, and other humanitarian issues. I want to continue to mix these topics and people in a unique and organic way, together with authors, publishers, cultural and humanitarian organizations, and, most importantly, our customers.
Bookslut reviews Imre Kertesz’s Detective Story:
As a chronicler of the Holocaust and its aftermath, Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertesz allows no redemption and no transcendence. If you cry while reading Fatelessness or Kaddish for an Unborn Child, you’ll cry bitter, furious tears, but most likely, you won’t be able cry at all. A terrible white ball of impossibility will grow in your throat and pinch your mind and your soul. His approach to life after Auschwitz is closer to Primo Levi’s (whose poem “Kaddish” curses those who go about their daily lives without considering atrocity, and who portrays the Holocaust not as some historical aberration, but as the truth about humanity) than to Roberto Benigni’s (whose Life is Beautiful was the favorite movie of Pope John Paul II). Even when Kertesz isn’t writing about Auschwitz, he’s writing about Auschwitz.
Not that we ever had any doubt, but Bookslut has officially confirmed E.J. as a “heartthrob.”
Bookslut’s Indie Heartthrob Interview Series
A weekly interview series where someone involved in the small press (be it writer, editor, slush slave, etc.) is thrown into the spotlight, grilled over the state of the independents and sundry other items, and quickly made to return from whence they came after having graced us all with their presence.
Check out his interview for insights on the difficulties of starting a new press, on how great the University of Rochester is, and on a couple of the forthcoming Open Letter titles.
A Public Space continues to impress with pieces in the new issue from William T. Vollmann, Samantha Hunt, Bernadette Mayer, and a Letter from Buenos Aires by Jillian Weise.
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .
Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .
Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .