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 | Comments

After taking a few weeks to mull over Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture, I took a rainy afternoon and watched a movie with Chinese food. The movie was High Fidelity and I’ve seen it many times, but never have I thought about the final lines so much before. With uncharacteristic selflessness, Rob Gordon explains how to make a good mix tape:

“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.”

Pardon the vulgarity, but Mr. Gordon has a point: when making a compilation, you have to start hard and strong, go harder still, then back off for a while. He didn’t say this, but you also need to finish just as well as you started, if not better. If the same rules apply to collections of essays, Ugresic is a triumphant follower of the letter of the law. The opening essay introduces us to what a “karaoke culture” is – and it feels like seeing a liger. That is, it’s just familiar enough that you can follow along and understand, but it’s also got that touch of exotic mystery so everything seems new and intriguing. For example, everyone knows what karaoke is; but in Ugresic’s eyes, it becomes the symbol of our time. Bloggers are karaoke. Asian teenagers writing cell phone novels are karaoke. Men recreating the Hollywood sign in Serbia are karaoke. Minibars are karaoke. Victoria Beckham is karaoke. Even the Yugoslavian political struggles are karaoke. So what, then is karaoke?

Karaoke is the way communication technology has made it harder for us to communicate with each other. Karaoke is celebrating the amateur instead of the auteur. Karaoke is celebrating pop-culture idols and condemning “the classics.” Karaoke is the equality of everyone having a voice, and having everyone’s voice be equally loud. Karaoke is when Joshua Bell, a famous violinist, can make huge amounts of money at a concert in Boston, but isn’t even given the time of day performing solo in a subway station. Karaoke is complicated.

To be honest, I don’t completely understand it yet. To completely understand the concept, you’d have to sit with this collection of essays for some time, first contemplating each one individually and then try to assemble them all into a sort of argument or conclusion. I have been working at this for some weeks and have mostly marveled at the full array of delicious language and interesting assertions. Karaoke culture itself is still mysterious and alluring, and no definite conclusions have been formed; I’ll be pondering this text for some time. Fortunately, that is a pleasurable task.

According to Ugresic, karaoke culture is to be chronicled, celebrated and criticized – often all in the same breath. She writes in a way that meanders while somehow being simple and direct. At times, she comes straight out with her bits of philosophy, as when she asserts that “the absence of dialogue in contemporary films is stark proof of the humiliating absence of the need for dialogue,” because today’s women have nothing of value to say. Other times, Ugresic avoids such straightforward statements, preferring instead to tantalize the reader with beautiful language that is better to let stew in your brain. Sentences like, “Invisible files from my archive would fall on me leaves, and at times I thought I was going to faint, lose control, and be forever submerged beneath that lush and invisible pile” have haunted me for weeks. And in still other moments, the text is terribly funny, as when Ugresic recounts many tragic anecdotes about Croatians dying at sea, and then remarks that “upon hearing these brief statistics, a naïve reader might conclude that Croats in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century used the sea for nothing but drowning.” These essays touch on Tito, “fan ficcers,” literary festivals and her own experience of being censured without losing any coherence, wit or intelligence in the process. It is a book well in control of itself and in control of its reader, utterly convincing and entertaining.

Dubravka Ugresic begins her essay collection with a simple phrase: “It needs to be said upfront: I’m not a karaoke fan.” By the end of these 314 pages, though, you can tell that she confines total ridicule to regurgitated music. Cultural karaoke, on the other hand, is given a far more mixed review. If I were to make a metaphor for the way Ugresic sees our karaoke culture, I picture a city overrun with stray dogs. They can cozy up to your shinbones and give your eager knuckles a lick, or they can rush up snarling and foaming at the mouth. So you treat them with wary reverence, accepting their place in your city, taking the licks with the bites as you can. After all, that’s karaoke. Sometimes you kill a song, and other times you flop. When it comes to Karaoke Culture, however, I can do nothing but tip my hat to a masterful performance.

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 . . .

....
The Matiushin Case
The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .

Read More >

Fear: A Novel of World War I
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier
Reviewed by Paul Doyle

One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the. . .

Read More >

Little Grey Lies
Little Grey Lies by Hédi Kaddour
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those. . .

Read More >

Autobiography of a Corpse
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Reviewed by Simon Collinson

One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that. . .

Read More >

A Musical Hell
A Musical Hell by Alejandra Pizarnik
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some. . .

Read More >

Astragal
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .

Read More >

Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .

Read More >