6 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugresic, which is translated from the Croatian by David Williams, Celia Hawkesworth, and Ellen Elias-Bursac, and is coming out from Open Letter at the end of the month.

I’m really excited about this book—in my opinion, it’s one of the best things Dubravka’s ever written, right up there with Thank You for Not Reading and her fiction.

We’ve posted the first four sections of the opening essay—an essay that’s over a 100 pages long and is god damn brilliant—for you to check out.

It needs to be said upfront: I’m not a karaoke fan. This essay was not only conceived, but also half-finished, when it occurred to me to go and catch a bit of real karaoke. They say Casablanca is the most popular karaoke bar in Amsterdam. My companion and I, both neophytes, arrived at eight on the dot, as if we were going to the theatre and not a bar. Casablanca was empty. We took a walk down Zeedijk, a narrow street packed with bars whose barmen look like they spend all day at the gym and all night in the bar. Muscles and baggy eyelids—that pretty well describes our barman at Casablanca, to which we soon returned. On a little stage, two tall, slender young women were squawking a Dutch pop song into a couple of upright microphones. A concert featuring Dutch pop stars played on the bar’s TV screens but was drowned out by the evening’s young karaoke stars. The girls sang with more heart than the guys, and for a second I thought there must be an invisible policeman standing over them. The whole thing was a deaf collective caterwaul: deaf insofar as nobody actually listened to anyone. Amsterdam is definitely not the place for a karaoke initiation. I’m not sure why I even thought of going to see karaoke in Amsterdam—maybe because of the paradox that sometimes turns out to be true, that worlds open up where we least expect.

What is karaoke in actual fact? Karaoke (Japanese for “empty orchestra”) is entertainment for people who would like to be Madonna or Sinatra. The karaoke machine was invented in the early seventies by the Japanese musician Daisuke Inoue—who forgot to patent his invention, and so others cashed in. A few years ago Inoue apparently won the alternative Nobel Peace Prize (the Ig Nobel), awarded by The Annals of Improbable Research. They praised him for “providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.”

Cultural critics are people who are prepared to see more in the craze for tattoos than just a passing fashion fad. I’m a member of this dubious guild. In karaoke I’m ready to see more than just desperate squawking to the backing track of “I Will Survive.” Karaoke supports less the democratic idea that everyone can have a shot if they want one and more the democratic practice that everyone wants a shot if there’s one on offer. The inventor of karaoke, Daisuke Inoue, is a humble man, most proud of having helped the Japanese, emotionally reticent as they are said to be, change for the better. As Pico Iyer wrote: “As much as Mao Zedong or Mohandas Gandhi changed Asian days, Inoue transformed its nights.”

In addition to that long preview, you can also read a full review of the book by clicking here. And later in the week we’ll be posting an interview with translator David Williams . . .

Also, for anyone in NY, she’s going to be reading at St. Mark’s Bookstore on Tuesday, October 11th at 7pm. And for those of you in Boston, she’ll be at the Brookline Bookstore on Friday the 14th at 7pm.

Enjoy!

6 October 11 | Chad W. Post |

To even write this review is to participate in the Karaoke Culture the Dubravka Ugresic criticizes. To be one of the voices the mass experiment in democratic culture is only one more example of a worldwide culture that is collapsing into parodies of itself as we all become yet another karaoke singer demanding our moment and adding nothing. It is a hard criticism, but Ugresic has little patience for us off key singers. She has a point.

For Ugresic, the problem stems from the whole concept of Karaoke. It is not about creating something new, nor even paying homage to the artist whose work you are singing, instead it is about becoming one the artist represents. The act, though, is not transformative , it is submissive. The participant becomes a facile representation of the artist, attempting to become the artist and, worst of all, surrendering to the celebrity culture that has spawned it.

Karaoke-people are everything but revolutionaries, innovators, or people who will change the world. They’re ordinary people, readers of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, consumers and conformists. All the same, the world changes and ordinary people have their part to play.

The very foundation of karaoke culture lies in the parading of the anonymous ego with the help of simulation games. Today people are more interested in flight form themselves than discovering their authentic self. The self has become boring, and belongs to a different culture. The possibilities of transformation, teleportation, and metamorphosis hod for more promise than digging in the dirt of the self. The culture of narcissism has mutated into karaoke culture—or the latter is simply a consequence of the former.


To illustrate this she investigates the sub cultures of sci-fi and fantasy, hardcore gamers and strange creations such as Abba world in London. In each she see people who are escaping from reality into worlds that don’t offer any freedom, but make them docile. Her greatest vitriol, though, is for the inhabitants of the former eastern block. She often sees them as trashy fools who have traded the enforced worship of the state idols, for the unthinking idol worship of all the worst of consumer culture. Creating needle point rugs that show scenes from porn movies is not art, but just loss of any kind of objective standards. But who needs standards when we are all creating culture, our own culture that is just a pale shadow of the original. And it is in that so called freedom that we loose ourselves in our own excitement that we too are stars, and loose our ability to think critically.

For her, fan fiction is the worst of all things. It is indicative of a world in which the writer is not the creator, but at the beck and call of the fan. The writer must please like a trained seal. Writing is no longer about high and low culture, the only thing that is important is “the fact that we’re producing.” She doesn’t see any saviors, either.

Criticism has changed. Today no one dares set out the differences between master and amateur, between good and bad literature. Publishers don’t want to get involved; they are almost guaranteed to lose money on a good writer, and make money on a bad one. Critics hold heir fire, scared of being accused of elitism. Critics have had the rug pulled out from under them in any case. No longer bound by ethics or competence, they don’t even know what they’re supposed to talk about anymore. University literature departments don’t set out the differences–literature has turned into cultural studies in any case


The freedom we thought we gained with the internet and participatory culture has actually destroyed culture.

Those are strong words, but Ugresic has seen the damage that slavish and unthinking adherence to one cultural ideal can do. The rest of the book is filled with short little essays that detail her encounters with such a world. The pieces look as if they were written as newspaper columns, although the book doesn’t say, and have the conversational feel of a newspaper essay. Over and over again she encounters the paradoxes of the west, for example, describing the lives of Filipino maids serving western families in Hong Kong and living in puny little closets. Or she takes aim at the states of the former Yugoslavia, where once the people all proclaimed they were one, but at the first opportunity they turned on each other. Where ever she turns, she sees people proclaiming one thing and living another, and she can’t stand it.

Ugresic, can be funny when she makes these observations. Her experiences in the Balkans are fascinating and the stories are great. In one she describes a Serbian thug who became part of the government and has created his own folk village, one that is run on almost fascistic terms and whose purpose is really to celebrate the thug. At the same time, the man is an environmentalist interested in preserving the forest around his creation. The paradoxes amongst nationalists she describes are disturbing, a bit terrifying, and comic because there is no alternative.

Unfortunately, despite her insights, she can also sound like Andy Rooney. If I have to see another sentence that uses freshman English constructions such as, now days…, I will have to throw the book down. Her criticism is breezy and reads well, but you constantly have the feeling that shes just complaining because the world has passed her by. I don’t think it is necessarily true, but if when you keep up with the “kid these days” type of criticism, you end up sounding that way. Often times you have the idea that she doesn’t really even know the subject that well. It’s as if she heard about it on the news and is now giving her opinion, rather than first hand experience. It might be a little unfair and first had experience is not required for every criticism one makes, but that sense of the detached outsider doesn’t always work. The other draw back of the book is the short pieces that make up at least half of the book. The essay Karaoke Culture is around a hundred pages and sustains an argument, but the occasional pieces are tedious after a while. Fortunately, towards the end of the book she has some longer pieces that make for more compelling reading.

It is too bad the book has these defects because I was looking forward to reading her essays and although I think the essay Karaoke Culture is interesting, the book as a whole suffers. Nonetheless, I look forward to reading more of her work at some point, as I think it is a great lens for looking at Europe and the world, neither left nor certainly right.

This review was reposted with permission from By the Firelight, a book review blog run by Paul Doyle.

9 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week 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.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic. Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson. (Croatia/Europe, Canongate)

OK, today is much busier than expected (it started with a fairly surreal interview with the Bay City Times at 8am this morning and will end with Atwood’s presentation tonight at 7pm), but I really don’t want to fall off my summer recommendation plan, so I’m going to cheat a bit . . . Rather than try and write a whole new set of reasons as to why you should check this out (and you should—it’s one of Dubravka’s best books), I’m just going to re-run the review I wrote of this a few months back.

Promise that all future write ups will be new material . . . Most of the other books I want to recommend haven’t been reviewed on the site anyway. But regardless, here goes:

This is an admittedly biased statement (disclaimer: the first book Open Letter published was Ugresic’s Nobody’s Home, and I was responsible for Dalkey’s publishing Thank You for Not Reading a few years back), but I honestly believe that Dubravka Ugresic is one of the most interesting writers working today. Her books are consistently good, even across genres. The two aforementioned essay collections are spot-on, and her fiction — from The Museum of Unconditional Surrender to Lend Me Your Character to The Ministry of Pain — is always enjoyable, surprising, captivating, and envelope-pushing.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is a perfect example of Ugresic’s fertile imagination. The latest entry in Canongate’s “Myths Series,” this novel is presumably a retelling of the Slavic myth of Baba Yaga — an old witch who lives in a house with chicken legs and kidnaps children. Which is why it’s surprising that the novel begins with the rather mundane situation of the writer returning home to visit her elderly mother and her mother’s hometown.

Actually, the novel technically opens with a preface about old women, entitled “At First You Don’t See Them . . .”:

Sweet little old ladies. At first you don’t see them. And then, there they are, on the tram, at the post office, in the shop, at the doctor’s surgery, on the street, there is one, there is another, there is a fourth over there, a fifth, a sixth, how could there be so many of them all at once?

The presence and machinations of old women is the thread that runs throughout this triptych. The second part — my personal favorite — is much more fairy-tale-like than the first, with tragic deaths and reunions with lost children. It takes place over a week at a resort hotel and centers on three women:

In a wheelchair sat an old lady with both feet tucked into a large fur boot. It would have been hard to describe the old lady as a human being; she was the remains of a human being, a piece of humanoid crackling. [. . .] The other one, the one pushing the wheelchair, was exceptionally tall, slender and of astonishingly erect bearing for her advanced years. [. . .] The third was a short breathless blonde, her hair ruined by excessive use of peroxide, with big gold rings in her ears and large breasts whose weight dragged her forward.

In its exacting descriptions and twisted plot machinations, this section is vintage Ugresic. (Of her previous work, this section is closest in tone and playfulness to the pieces in Lend Me Your Character.) It’s also the most vulgar of the three sections of Baba Yaga — which is kind of fun. Take this scene, where one of the elderly ladies is getting a massage at the hands of the marvelous Mevlo, who is the flipside of Hemingway’s Jake Barnes:

Beba didn’t know what to say. As far as she could judge, the young man was fine in every way. More than fine.

“This thing of mine stands up like a flagpole, but what’s the use, love, when I’m cold as an icicle? It’s as much use to me as a cripple’s withered leg. You can do what you like with it, tap it as much as you like, it just echoes as though it was hollow.”

“Hang on, what are you talking about?”

“My willy, love, you must have noticed.”

“No,” lied Beba.

“It happened after the explosion. A Serbian shell exploded right beside me, fuck them all, and ever since then, it’s been standing up like this. My mates all teased me, why, Mevlo, they said, you’ve profited from the war. Not only did you get away with your life, but you got a tool taut as a gun. Me, a war profiteer? A war cripple, that’s what I am!”

If the second part is where Ugresic lets her comedic charms fly, the third is where she gets her postmodern on.

This section takes the form of a letter from a Dr. Aba Bagay (who appeared in part one) to the book’s editor, who is a bit confused as to how the first two sections of the book relate to the myth of Baba Yaga. So Bagay creates a “Baba Yaga for Beginners,” exploring the myth from a number of angles in a very scholarly way:

The elusive and capricious Baba Yaga sometimes appears as a helper, a donor, sometimes as an avenger, a villain, sometimes as a sentry between two worlds, sometimes as an intermediary between worlds, but also as a mediator between the heroes in a story. Most interpreters locate Baba Yaga in the ample mythological family of old and ugly women with specific kinds of power, in a taxonomy that is common to mythologies the world over.

Bagay’s scholarly apparatus is loaded with contradictions about the Baba Yaga myth and how it’s been interpreted and told. The one constant is the “old woman” bit, which is also the thread which runs throughout Ugresic’s novel, a novel that defies most novelistic conventions, that doesn’t so much retell the story of Baba Yaga as explode it into several very enjoyable fragments.

13 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece on Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. This was published by Grove as part of the “Myths” series, and was translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson. (Each of the three translators did a different section, which sort of makes sense, since this book is really a triptych written in three wildly different styles.)

Admittedly, I’m a huge fan of Dubrakva’s, but I think this is one of her best works of fiction. (My all-time favorite remains The Museum of Unconditional Surrender.)

Here’s the opening of the review:

This is an admittedly biased statement (disclaimer: the first book Open Letter published was Ugresic’s Nobody’s Home, and I was responsible for Dalkey’s publishing Thank You for Not Reading a few years back), but I honestly believe that Dubravka Ugresic is one of the most interesting writers working today. Her books are consistently good, even across genres. The two aforementioned essay collections are spot-on, and her fiction — from The Museum of Unconditional Surrender to Lend Me Your Character to The Ministry of Pain — is always enjoyable, surprising, captivating, and envelope-pushing.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is a perfect example of Ugresic’s fertile imagination. The latest entry in Canongate’s “Myths Series,” this novel is presumably a retelling of the Slavic myth of Baba Yaga — an old witch who lives in a house with chicken legs and kidnaps children. Which is why it’s surprising that the novel begins with the rather mundane situation of the writer returning home to visit her elderly mother and her mother’s hometown.

Actually, the novel technically opens with a preface about old women, entitled “At First You Don’t See Them . . .”:

“Sweet little old ladies. At first you don’t see them. And then, there they are, on the tram, at the post office, in the shop, at the doctor’s surgery, on the street, there is one, there is another, there is a fourth over there, a fifth, a sixth, how could there be so many of them all at once?”

Click here to read the full review.

13 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is an admittedly biased statement (disclaimer: the first book Open Letter published was Ugresic’s Nobody’s Home, and I was responsible for Dalkey’s publishing Thank You for Not Reading a few years back), but I honestly believe that Dubravka Ugresic is one of the most interesting writers working today. Her books are consistently good, even across genres. The two aforementioned essay collections are spot-on, and her fiction — from The Museum of Unconditional Surrender to Lend Me Your Character to The Ministry of Pain — is always enjoyable, surprising, captivating, and envelope-pushing.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is a perfect example of Ugresic’s fertile imagination. The latest entry in Canongate’s “Myths Series,” this novel is presumably a retelling of the Slavic myth of Baba Yaga — an old witch who lives in a house with chicken legs and kidnaps children. Which is why it’s surprising that the novel begins with the rather mundane situation of the writer returning home to visit her elderly mother and her mother’s hometown.

Actually, the novel technically opens with a preface about old women, entitled “At First You Don’t See Them . . .”:

Sweet little old ladies. At first you don’t see them. And then, there they are, on the tram, at the post office, in the shop, at the doctor’s surgery, on the street, there is one, there is another, there is a fourth over there, a fifth, a sixth, how could there be so many of them all at once?

The presence and machinations of old women is the thread that runs throughout this triptych. The second part — my personal favorite — is much more fairy-tale-like than the first, with tragic deaths and reunions with lost children. It takes place over a week at a resort hotel and centers on three women:

In a wheelchair sat an old lady with both feet tucked into a large fur boot. It would have been hard to describe the old lady as a human being; she was the remains of a human being, a piece of humanoid crackling. [. . .] The other one, the one pushing the wheelchair, was exceptionally tall, slender and of astonishingly erect bearing for her advanced years. [. . .] The third was a short breathless blonde, her hair ruined by excessive use of peroxide, with big gold rings in her ears and large breasts whose weight dragged her forward.

In its exacting descriptions and twisted plot machinations, this section is vintage Ugresic. (Of her previous work, this section is closest in tone and playfulness to the pieces in Lend Me Your Character.) It’s also the most vulgar of the three sections of Baba Yaga — which is kind of fun. Take this scene, where one of the elderly ladies is getting a massage at the hands of the marvelous Mevlo, who is the flipside of Hemingway’s Jake Barnes:

Beba didn’t know what to say. As far as she could judge, the young man was fine in every way. More than fine.

“This thing of mine stands up like a flagpole, but what’s the use, love, when I’m cold as an icicle? It’s as much use to me as a cripple’s withered leg. You can do what you like with it, tap it as much as you like, it just echoes as though it was hollow.”

“Hang on, what are you talking about?”

“My willy, love, you must have noticed.”

“No,” lied Beba.

“It happened after the explosion. A Serbian shell exploded right beside me, fuck them all, and ever since then, it’s been standing up like this. My mates all teased me, why, Mevlo, they said, you’ve profited from the war. Not only did you get away with your life, but you got a tool taut as a gun. Me, a war profiteer? A war cripple, that’s what I am!”

If the second part is where Ugresic lets her comedic charms fly, the third is where she gets her postmodern on.

This section takes the form of a letter from a Dr. Aba Bagay (who appeared in part one) to the book’s editor, who is a bit confused as to how the first two sections of the book relate to the myth of Baba Yaga. So Bagay creates a “Baba Yaga for Beginners,” exploring the myth from a number of angles in a very scholarly way:

The elusive and capricious Baba Yaga sometimes appears as a helper, a donor, sometimes as an avenger, a villain, sometimes as a sentry between two worlds, sometimes as an intermediary between worlds, but also as a mediator between the heroes in a story. Most interpreters locate Baba Yaga in the ample mythological family of old and ugly women with specific kinds of power, in a taxonomy that is common to mythologies the world over.

Bagay’s scholarly apparatus is loaded with contradictions about the Baba Yaga myth and how it’s been interpreted and told. The one constant is the “old woman” bit, which is also the thread which runs throughout Ugresic’s novel, a novel that defies most novelistic conventions, that doesn’t so much retell the story of Baba Yaga as explode it into several very enjoyable fragments.

5 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Thanks to Lauren Wein for sending me a galley of Dubravka Ugresic’s latest book, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. (Which is translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson.) This was released in the UK not too long ago (and has been receiving some great reviews) and will be available here in the States in, well, um, February. (Publishing time can be so whack . . .)

This is part of the Canongate/Grove “The Myths Series” and is working with the Slavic myth of Baba Yaga, a “witch who lives in a house built on chicken legs and kidnaps small children.” According to the jacket copy, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is about four women: “a writer who grants her dying mother’s final wish by traveling to her hometown in Bulgaria, an elderly woman who wakes up every day hoping to die, a buxom blonde hospital worker who’s given up on love, and a serial widow who harbors a secret talent for writing.”

Expect a full review in the not-too-distant future, but in the meantime, here’s the opening:

You don’t see them at first. Then suddenly a random detail snags your attention like a stray mouse: an old lady’s handbag, a stocking slipping down a leg, bunching up on a bulging ankle, crocheted gloves on the hands, a little old-fashioned hat perched on the head, sparse grey hair with a blue sheen. The owner of the blued hair moves her head like a mechanical dog and smiles wanly . . .

Yes, at first they are invisible. They move past you, shadow-like, they peck at the air in front of them, tap, shuffle along the asphalt, mince in small mouse-like steps, pull a cart behind them, clutch at a walker, stand surrounded by a cluster of pointless sacks and bags, like a deserter from the army still decked out in full war gear. A few of them are still ‘in shape,’ wearing a low-cut summer dress with a flirtatious feather boa flung across the shoulders, in an old half-motheaten Astrakhan, her make-up all smeary (who, after all, can apply make-up properly while peering through spectacles?!).

They roll by you like heaps of dried apples. They mumble something into their chins, conversing with invisible collo-cutors the way American Indians speak with the spirits. They ride buses, trams and the subway like abandoned luggage; they sleep with their heads drooping onto their chests; or they gawk around, wondering which stop to get off at, or whether they should get off at all. Sometimes you linger for a moment (for only a moment!) in front of an old people’s home and watch them through the glass walls: they sit at tables, move their fingers over leftover crumbs as if moving across a page of Braille, sending someone unintelligible messages.

Sweet little old ladies. At first you don’t see them. And then, there they are, on the tram, at the post office, in the shop, at the doctor’s surgery, on the street, there is one, there is another, there is a fourth over there, a fifth, a sixth, how could there be so many of them all at once?!

Dubravka really is one of the best . . .

....
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