5 August 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast focuses on two main things: An article by Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books about the sales of Knausgaard’s books, and the sale of BookLamp to Apple for an obscene amount of money. Hm.

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2 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Chad W. Post. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

First off, let it be said that Barley Patch doesn’t even deserve to be playing in this match.

Sure, Mauro had his reasons for choosing Gerald Murnane’s self-conscious masterpiece over Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow, but no matter what YouPoint PowerTube images he tosses out, I would rather read 12,000 pages of this:

‘What Dearlove could not bear,’ obviously I didn’t call him Dearlove, but by his real name, ‘is that his life should end like that; in short, he would find the manner of his death almost unbearable than death itself. He would, of course, be terrified to see his successful existence truncated and to lose his life, as would anyone, even if that life had been a failure; what’s more, I don’t, as I said, believe him to be a brave man, he would be terribly afraid. What most horrifies Dearlove, though, as it does other show-business people (although they may not know it), is that the end of his story should be such that it overshadows and darkens the life he’s lived and accumulated up until now, eclipsing it, almost erasing and cancelling out the rest and, in the end, becoming the only fact that counts and will be recounted.

(You know, like how Michael Hutchence of INXS died of auto-erotic asphyxiation, which is all we really remember him for. Sorry, INXS fan.)

Than even 25 pages of this:

While I was writing the first few sentences of the previous paragraph, I was unable to recall any details of the images of persons and faces that I had had in mind while I read as a child the series of short stories referred to. At some time while I was writing the last two sentences of the previous paragraph, I found myself assigning to the female character under mention the image of a face that I first saw during the early 1990s when I looked into a book that I had recently bought on the subject of horse-racing in New Zealand.

Snoo-motherfucking-ooze.

That said, Spain’s tiki-taka style of play (which, for the uninitiated, can best be summed up in this Los Campesinos! lyric, “we need more post-coital, and less post-rock, feels like the buildup takes forever and you never touch my cock”) went down in flames in the 2014 Real World Cup, so it is kind of fitting that the same happened in the World Cup of Literature.

But, Australia?! A country of poisonous flying spiders, jellyfish that are 100 meters in diameter, snakes that can kill you by looking in your eyes, and shitty Fosters beer? The best thing you ever did for literature was serve as the setting for an episode of The Simpsons.

Then again, you’re playing Mexico here. A country whose players—to steal Kaija Straumanis’s “World Cup Taunt”—hope for a green card every time the ref reaches in their pocket. Your Real World soccer team has never made it past the quarterfinals of a World Cup (failing again in 2014!), making you the least successful Spanish-speaking fútbol country ever. (Verified fact.)

Let’s put aside the actual teams—and random uninformed jokes—for now and look at more of the book itself.

The basic argument for Barley Patch is that it’s “innovative” and “new” and “erudite.” Is Murnane a smart writer? Sure. Is Barley Patch new and innovative? Not in my opinion. Murnane is kind of a poor man’s Gilbert Sorrentino (but without Sorrentino’s sense of humor) mixed with W.G. Sebald (but without Sebald’s universality).

If you haven’t read about Barley Patch before, here’s a basic summary: The narrator of this book has decided to stop writing. For 257 pages he tries to explain why he stopped writing by writing about things that he’s written, writing about his relationship to books that he read in his youth, writing about his family, writing about images that have evolved with him over time, writing about how he’s thinking about his current writing, etc. In between all of this, he asks himself “probing” questions, trying to move his narrative along in the most self-conscious way possible.

Spoiler Alert! This is all boring as shit. It’s also one of the most self-fellating books I’ve ever read.

OK, time to blast away with a few examples, like the way-too-precious opening line, “Must I write?” NO. THE ANSWER IS ALWAYS AND FOREVER, NO.

This level of the book—wherein the narrator asks himself questions and answers them dishonestly—is super pretentious, and results in “writing” that is more or less Australian Lorem Ipsum:

Have I answered yet the question why had I written?

I would be willing to admit that I have not yet answered the impending question, but only if my hypothetical questioner would admit that a question can hardly be worth asking if its answer can be delivered in fewer than ten thousand words.

Murnane is the anti-Zen monk of world literature.

But even the straightforward parts of the book are uninspired. In a section that should be interesting since it’s all about orgies and Black Masses:

The discussions at first were simple. The young man of the upstairs flat owned a copy each of several issues of the American magazine Playboy, which had recently been allowed into Australia after having been previously a prohibited import.

Holy Jesus it should not take that many words to say that! And “a copy each of several issues”? Like, if he had written “owned several issues of Playboy” anyone would’ve assumed he had a bunch of copies of the same one?

The thing is, Barley Patch isn’t even a bad book—it’s just an incredibly boring one.

Let me kill off Australia’s last goal scoring chance with this:

Something that ought to be explained is my having begun again to write fiction only a few years after I had stopped, so I thought, for good.

Four years after I stopped writing fiction, my seventh book of fiction was published. Some of the book consisted of pieces of fiction that had been published previously in so-called literary magazines, but each of the other three pieces I had written in order to explain one or another of three matter that I could have explained by no other means than by writing a piece of fiction. One of the three pieces was intended to explain to myself and to readers of good will why I had become tired of reading book after book of supposedly memorable fiction and then being unable to remember, a year or more afterwards, any sentence of the text or any detail of my experience as a reader. Another of the three pieces was intended to explain to myself and to readers of good will why I had not been misguided whenever I had struggled from time to time during the previous forty years to devise a set of racing colours in which one or another arrangement of one or another shade of blue or of green explained about me something that could have been explained by no other means than by the appearance of a set of racing colours. The third of the pieces was intended to explain to myself and to readers of good will why I had stopped writing fiction several years before (and had presumably stopped again after having written the text that explained this) and to offer to readers of good will a hint as to what sort of project I now preferred to fiction-writing. [. . .]

I find myself now in a strange situation. Nearly sixteen years ago, I stopped writing fiction. A few years later, I wrote a piece of fiction intended to explain why I had so stopped. Now, more than ten years later again, I am trying to compose a passage of fiction that might explain my explanatory piece.

Just stop. Now. Zero goals! You’ve been Ochoa-ed.

*

Given all of that, and the fact that I read Barley Patch first, expecting to have my life altered forever by the brilliance of Murnane’s images, only to be massively under-impressed, Faces in the Crowd simply had to not suck to move on to the quarterfinals.

And not only is it a trillion times more readable, enjoyable, less-pretentious, and interesting, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in 2014.

I go back to writing the novel whenever I’m not busy with the children. I know I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn. Open doors, windows. Raise walls and demolish them.

That’s how you write a self-reflexive, intellectual passage without coming off as someone obsessed with proving how brilliant they are.

Faces in the Crowd is a short novel with three storylines: one of a young translator working at a publishing house in New York obsessed with the poet Gilberto Owen, one of a woman in Mexico City writing a book about ghosts and young translators, and one of Gilberto Owen in Philadelphia dreaming of New York. It’s made up of dozens of short bits that collage, creating a million diverse, beautiful bits, and one complex whole.

Also, Valeria Luiselli gets a goal—or three—for being funnier than Murnane. This is a bit of a lame example, but the “author” in Mexico City writes a lot of suspect things about her husband, who occasionally reads her manuscript and gets annoyed. Like when she pokes fun at his obsession with zombie films.

I don’t like zombie films. Why did you write that I like zombie films?

Because.

Please, cut the zombies.

Or a better example, in relation to Gilberto Owen’s way of defining people:

Owen would’ve said that he spoke with spelling mistakes.

If Barley Patch gets some love for being “new,” for exploring the lines between reality and fiction and how one transforms into the other, Faces in the Crowd gets another goal for this embedded explanation of its structure:

Not a fragmented novel. A horizontal novel, narrated vertically.

But the main point: Reading Faces in the Crowd is enjoyable and stimulating. Barley Patch deserves nothing. Unfortunately, a lot of the review outlets that seek out “innovative” literature seem to have given Murnane way more attention than Luiselli. I’ll red card that shit and redeem the Real Mexican team (and Robben’s god awful shitheel flop) by awarding a penalty kick.

Final result: 3-0 Mexico.

——

Chad W. Post makes people angry with his swearing, random insults, and dislike of fans of American soccer. Otherwise, he can usually be found reading or trying to buy rights to untranslated works of literature.

——

Did Faces in the Crowd Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


6 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this week’s podcast we talk about the forthcoming World Cup of Literature and about some of the summer books that we’re both looking forward to reading. Almost all are translations; a few are authors you may have already heard of (Knausgaard); and others will be new to a lot of listeners. In our “Rants and Raves” section, Chad raves about a poem (?!—seriously, but it’s a really depressing one), and Tom takes down a particular aspect of the Internet.

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3 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This podcast is all about how New Directions came to publish László Krasznahorkai and how they stuck with him—a situation that resulted in back-to-back Best Translated Book Award victories . . . Also, we now have a email address for you to send all your complaints, corrections, and suggestions. Just write to us at threepercentpodcast@gmail.com. So, if you have any show suggestions, or just want to tell us how much we suck, email away . . .

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15 May 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As a bonus for dedicated Three Percent listeners (both of you!), this podcast features the two Fulbright students studying in the translation program this past year: Ayoub Al-Ahmadi from Yemen and Jan Pytalski from Poland. We talk about their individual projects—both of which are likely to be published by Open Letter in the next few years—cultural differences, the classes they took with me (which were their favorite classes—and I didn’t even pay them to say that!), and camel jumping. Yes, camel jumping.

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25 April 14 | Chad W. Post |

OK, that’s a totally lame way to try and combine the two main topics of this week’s podcast: Gabriel García Marquez, and the awful amazingness of the NY Times Style section article on soccer’s popularity in creative circles. Our conversation ranges a bit to include other authors from “el Boom,” contemporary Spanish-language writers, and Beyond the Pampas, a GoodReads reading group focused on Latin American literature. (Currently members are reading Felisberto Hernández’s Piano Stories.) And we end with our new “Rants & Raves” segment, which allows Tom a good space to get things off his chest.

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21 March 14 | N. J. Furl | Comments

In this bonus mini-podcast, Chad and Tom talk about the NCAA tournament, making many definitely wrong predications in over-confident tones. Of course, depending on your level of knowledge of the NCAA tournament (pro wrestling, I think?), then you may have to choose a more sarcastic interpretation of the word “bonus.” Then, again, if the NCAA Tourney is your bag, then you’ve hit the jackpot—which is also the name of the thing that neither Tom nor Chad will hit when their brackets get ruined in week one.

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18 March 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast is EPIC. With a minimum of digressions, we review every single book on the 2014 Best Translated Book Awards Fiction Longlist, providing descriptions, some commentary on its chances of winning, other remarks about the titles we’ve read, etc. This may be a really long episode, but it’s also one of the most informative ones we’ve done, and I’m willing to guarantee that you come away wanting to buy and read and least two of the books we talk about.

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19 September 13 | Chad W. Post |

With Tom back from his relaxing vacation, we decided to catch up and talk about the books we read recently, including Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s mystery series, Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s “The Sound of Things Falling,” and Rafael Bernal’s “The Mongolian Conspiracy,” among others. We also talk about Amazon’s MatchBook program, making things as easy as possible for readers, and baseball. Because, baseball.

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13 August 13 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast is a special combo version featuring two separate conversations: one between Chad, Stephen Sparks (BTBA judge, Green Apple bookseller, and excellent reviewers), and George Carroll; and one between Chad and Paul Yamazaki (legendary City Lights bookseller). Topics range from soccer to Karl Pohrt to Javier Marias to Jonathan Lethem to other books we’re reading this summer. It’s always great to hear from booksellers about what they’re reading—they’re more in touch with what’s coming out than basically anyone. Additionally, it’s always fun to give a bit more love to these two epically great bookstores.

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6 August 13 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast is a hodgepodge of opinions, rants, and jokes. We talked about summer music—and our mutual dislike of Robin Thicke—“Hawthorne & Child,” my trip to Brazil, and bike thieves. And nobody talked about J.K. Rowling or her widely-known pseudonym.

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21 June 13 | Chad W. Post |

At the request of one of Tom’s friends, we tried to keep this particular podcast upbeat and cheery . . . and we sort of succeeded. Most of the podcast revolves around an interview from Publishing Perspectives that Amanda DeMarco did with German publisher Michael Krüger about the 40 years he’s spent at Hanser and what’s changed over that time. Krüger is a really interesting, brilliant guy, who doesn’t shy away from saying some controversial things, so a) this interview is interesting, and b) so is our podcast.

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14 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’ve been meaning to read Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century ever since we ran Jeremy Garber’s review back in April 2012. And then it made the Best Translated Book Award longlist, which further peaked my interest. But man, it’s a 500+ page book—something that’s never easy to fit into a reading schedule packed with editing projects, other reviews, etc., etc. When the paperback edition arrived on my desk though, I was sold—I had to make time to read this. So, on the long train rides to and from BookExpo America, I did.

Since this book has been in the Three Percent ether for a while, my review isn’t exactly standard . . . It’s an attempt to go one step beyond a typical plot-related book review and open it up a bit. I’m not sure this 100% works (I wrote it on GoodReads while watching a soccer match), but hopefully it’s interesting if for no other reason than that I alluded to it on last week’s podcast.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. Here’s the opening:

When I was about two-thirds of the way through Neuman’s very ambitious, very engrossing novel, Bromance Will Evans asked me what I thought the purpose the rapist had in this book. Not who the rapist was—something that’s held in suspense until almost the end of the book—but why he was even in there.

For the last 150 pages I thought about this and interpreted everything that happened in the book through this lens—what purpose does the rapist serve? And in the end, I think I came up with a reason . . . at least my personal reason. One that opens up the book in a few interesting ways.

Before I get to that, let me back up a bit. First off, this book—for anyone not already familiar with it—is 564 pages of philo-political discussions, talks about translation, and little action aside from one physical confrontation and some damn fine sex scenes. At its core, this novel, set in nineteenth century Germany and featuring members of all social strata—from the organ grinder living in the cave, to the town’s aristocratic benefactor, to the protagonist, the Romantic, beret-wearing, translator Hans—is really just a simple story of illicit love. Hans wanders into Wandernburg, meets Sophie, and falls in love. (And if you read this book, you will too. Which is something I want to talk more about in a second.)

Click here to read the full piece.

14 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When I was about two-thirds of the way through Neuman’s very ambitious, very engrossing novel, Bromance Will Evans asked me what I thought the purpose the rapist had in this book. Not who the rapist was—something that’s held in suspense until almost the end of the book—but why he was even in there.

For the last 150 pages I thought about this and interpreted everything that happened in the book through this lens—what purpose does the rapist serve? And in the end, I think I came up with a reason . . . at least my personal reason. One that opens up the book in a few interesting ways.

Before I get to that, let me back up a bit. First off, this book—for anyone not already familiar with it—is 564 pages of philo-political discussions, talks about translation, and little action aside from one physical confrontation and some damn fine sex scenes. At its core, this novel, set in nineteenth century Germany and featuring members of all social strata—from the organ grinder living in the cave, to the town’s aristocratic benefactor, to the protagonist, the Romantic, beret-wearing, translator Hans—is really just a simple story of illicit love. Hans wanders into Wandernburg, meets Sophie, and falls in love. (And if you read this book, you will too. Which is something I want to talk more about in a second.)

Although nothing really seems to happen in this book (like a 90s indie movie, it’s mostly talk and ideas), there are a number of settings and set pieces that flesh out Neuman’s view of the major trends in thought and society at the time. For example, the bit about the strike at the factory and the way in which the management crushes it is quite illuminating and lays out one of the main conflicts of the time.

That said, the primary setting is the weekly salon, which takes place thanks to Sophie, and features all of our main characters: Hans, Sophie, her fiancé, the Levins, the conservative old professor . . . The salon discussion unfolds for pages and pages, exploring major concepts like nationalism, the possibility of translation, the role of women in society, and Romanticism, not to mention a dozen authors/thinkers/poets/dramatists whom most people reading this (I suspect), will be unfamiliar with (which is a shame).

Anyway, it’s during these salons that Sophie comes to life. As a rebellious, independent, smart, sexy woman, she’s a sort of book-boy ideal—the woman who can namecheck all the poets while pushing all of the boundaries imposed by conservative German society and rocking an elegant dress that accentuates her womanly charms. Seriously—as a character, Sophie is fully fleshed out, and so fucking cool.

What struck me about her though—especially after talking to Bromance Will about the rapist and the fap-worthy scenes—is that she’s constantly deconstructing (in spot-on fashion) the way in which male writers and thinkers impose their ideas of Woman on women via their prose. There are several points in which Sophie calls out a poet in a way that’s much more modern than what (probably?) really existed in Germany at that time.

Which brings me to the rapist. Almost. So, one of the major planks of this book is the illicit relationship between Hans and Sophie. It takes place on the sly, on the fringes, unacceptable by all standards (especially then).

One of the reasons Neuman’s world building works so well is that he sets up a lot of parallels and opposites. In terms of the salon, Hans’s opposite is Professor Mietter, who is much more conservative and stodgy (although in many ways, the two actually agree), and in terms of the banging, the businessman Alvaro’s relationship with Sophie’s servant, Elsa, serves as a sort of parallel to Sophie’s relationship with Hans. And in terms of the opposite, we have the rapist.

A bit about the rapist: One of the darker, more traditionally suspenseful storylines in the book revolves around a man who attacks women in dark alleyways and eludes the police for quite some time. In terms of page count, this is a minor bit of the book, although the rapist’s actions impact several of our key characters. The resolution of this plot line is somewhat anti-climactic though, and it never rises above the level of sub-plot, which is why I think Will was curious about it.

One obvious reason to include the rapist is that it appeals to the traditional reader for whom 500+ pages of ideas is a bit scary. But there’s also something more at work here . . .

First off, both Hans and the rapist get their sex on outside of what’s accepted in society. Obviously one of these is much more violent and awful than the other, but within nineteenth century Germany, Hans’s plowing of a soon-to-be-married woman—who will soon be married to the richest, most important person in town no less—is really fucking unacceptable. And his attempts to get her to break off her engagement, to abandon her father and run away with him to translate contain echoes of the male poets and their ideas about women.

Stepping back a level, this is a novel written by a man in which he basically constructs a vision of an ideal woman . . . which is exactly what Sophie criticizes in all of those male poets. So, is Sophie just a male wish-fulfillment fantasy? It’s almost as if Neuman is—consciously or not—aware of this and uneasy about it. And as a result, this book contains heaps of clashing viewpoints and a sort of unceasing desire to include all of them—including the darkest sorts (rape) that offset the more romantic ideal (Hans’s pure love for Sophie).

In short, this is a really incredible book that is overflowing with ideas, told in a cool style—I love the use of parentheses to convey interjections and responses—by one of the greatest young Spanish writers of our times. So don’t be intimidated—just read it.

7 June 13 | Chad W. Post |

This post-BookExpo America podcast (with special guest, Bromance Will/Will Evans, the man behind Deep Vellum Press) is all about the good and bad of the country’s largest trade show for publishing. Mostly, it’s a series of rants—not necessarily about the show itself, but about the crap that craps it all up. From tech-speak nonsense to Mitch “Fucking” Albom, this is one of the funniest and most fiery podcasts we’ve recorded to date.

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28 May 13 | N. J. Furl |

On this week’s podcast, Chad and Tom make fun of yet another new “social book community recommendation” website. Also, they discuss the awesomeness of a number of San Francisco bookstores (and bookstores in general), on the heels of Tom’s first trip to The City by the Bay.

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3 May 13 | N. J. Furl |

We’re back! With our newest and semi-delayed installment of the Three Percent Podcast. This week, is a two-parter. First Chad and Tom run down the list of the fiction and poetry finalist for the 2013 Best Translated Book Awards. Yes, it’s true that these were announced a couple weeks ago, but, as luck would have it, today (Friday, May 3) happens to be the big awards ceremony, which is taking place at the PEN World Voices Festival in NYC (come one, come all!). So, what better time than now to brush up on the potential winners? Then, the podcast’s main event: Chad and Tom are joined by the one-and-only Richard Nash to talk about Richard’s recent article. The title and subtitle should give you a nice teaser to their discussion: “What Is the Business of Literature?: As technology disrupts the business model of traditional publishers, the industry must imagine new ways of capturing the value of a book.”

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22 March 13 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast is a bit of a hodge-podge: We start out talking about the concept of “selling used ebooks,” then Tom gets to express his admiration for Javier Marias’s new novel, “The Infatuations,” and Marias in general, and finally we talk about Houellebecq, which, as can only be expected, is controversial. Oh, and there is some talk about the NCAA Tournament. Naturally.

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4 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following Friday’s posting of our latest podcast, I received a number of requests for the full list of books that we talked about. And thanks to Tom’s diligent pre-podcast preparation (seriously, I’m not even joking), I have that complete list—in the order in which they were discussed:

  • Javier Marias, The Infatuations
  • Jose Manuel Prieto, Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia
  • Charlotte Roche, Wrecked
  • Alejandro Zambra, Ways of Going Home
  • Jacques Jouet, My Beautiful Bus
  • Juan Filloy, Faction
  • Martin Kohan, School for Patriots
  • Arnon Grunberg, Tirza
  • Zachary Karabashliev, 18% Gray (along with Anne Tenino’s 18% Gray)
  • Laszlo Krashnahorkai, Seiobo There Below
  • Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, Where Tigers Are at Home
  • Herman Koch, Dinner
  • David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life
  • William H. Gass, Middle C
  • Marie NDiaye, All My Friends
  • Santiago Roncagliolo, Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories
  • Yoko Ogawa, Revenge
  • Carlos Rojas, The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell
  • Mo Yan, Sandalwood Death

Nineteen books for your 2013 reading pleasure.

1 February 13 | Chad W. Post |

This week, Tom Roberge and I discuss a bunch of 2013 books that we’re excited about. Our preview includes everything from Javier Marias’s latest, to “18% Gray” (and the “faux 18% Gray”) to the new Laszlo Krashnahorkai to Yoko Ogawa’s “Revenge” and Mo Yan’s “Sandalwood Death” and, as always, is a mix of incisive literary observations and irreverence and soccer talk.

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28 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a book that I talk about on our yet-unpublished “2013 Preview Podcast.” Which hopefully will be up in a few days, once our podcasting computer is fixed. So when you hear me talk about Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, and published by FSG, you can temper my vocal enthusiasm with this review.

I’ve been a big Zambra fan since I read the first paragraph of Bonsai. His first two novels—one of which we published—are spectacular gems, best read in one sitting and reflected upon for days.

Which is why it’s a bit heartbreaking that Ways of Going Home is a bit of a disappointment. (To me at least.) I’ve been looking forward to this book since I read a sample way back when, and I’m really glad that FSG is behind it and will help get Zambra an even larger international audience than he currently has. But it would be intellectually dishonest to simply praise this book because Zambra’s one of our authors and a great guy, and Megan’s a friend and a great translator. Which is why I wrote this as seriously as I could.

Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra’s third book to be published in English (and second translated by Megan McDowell), packs a lot of themes—historical memory, difficulties of love, honesty in art—into a brief 139 page novel set between the two great Chilean earthquakes in 1985 and 2010. It’s an ambitious project from one of Granta’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” and one that is a bit of a mess.

Before getting into the reasons why I think this book doesn’t work, here’s a brief synopsis of the two intertwined storylines: In what I’ll call the “Claudia novel” storyline, the narrator is growing up in Chile in the mid-1980s, at the time when Pinochet was finally forced out. On the night of the 1985 earthquake, he meets Claudia, a pretty, slightly older girl who is somehow connected to the boy’s neighbor, Raúl, the only single man in the neighborhood. Two years after the earthquake, he sees Claudia again, and she asks him to spy on Raúl. That’s part one. Part two—of the Claudia novel narrative—takes place twenty years later, with the narrator decides to try and find out what’s going on with Claudia. Oh so coincidentally, she’s about to return home to deal with her father’s death, during which time, she hooks up with the narrator, explains her life story (bit more on that later), and then breaks things off with the narrator.

Interspersed between these two sections are two sections written by the “author” about writing his Claudia novel. The author and his wife have separated, he’s a bit lonely and nostalgic, and having a really hard time writing this novel. He wants Eme—his estranged wife—to read it and approve of it, and he surrounds his explication of this basic desire with a ton of quasi-intellectual observations about life and forgetting, parents and love, and everything else. He reunites with Eme briefly, but that doesn’t really work out. Then the 2010 earthquake takes place.

Two earthquakes, two failed love stories, two tellings of the same story involving his mother, Eme claiming Claudia’s story is just a retelling of hers, the end of Pinochet’s realm kicks off the book and Sebastian Pinera’s election ends it—there’s a lot of doubling in this book. Also the two narrators—one pretty obviously the novelized reflection of the other.

Overall, this set-up—which calls to mind tons of so-called metafictional works, such as Lost in the Funhouse and the vastly superior Mulligan Stew—is Zambra’s attempt to break out of the writing style that defined his first two novels. This is a very difficult situation for a young author. Those two books have a very specific style, one that’s emotionally affective, incredibly compelling to read, and instantly recognizable. The writing in those novels is very precise, almost poetic, and the stories are related from a restricted third-person point of view, allowing for certain “cheesy” moments to play more seriously than they might in a first-person voice.

Anyway. Ways of Going Home feels like a novelist trying to change his aesthetic, maturing from something simple and direct into something more complex and respectably “Literary.” Reading the representation of the author in this novel as Zambra himself, and the author’s relationship to the Claudia novel he’s writing as Zambra’s relationship to this book, it’s clear that there’s a lot of anxiety, an awareness that this book might not live up to heightened expectations. And one of the best tricks for evading that is to foreground it (it’s a book about an author who can’t write his next novel!) and then bury it in a false postmodern trick (the novel isn’t just a novel, but a novel about the difficulty of writing novels!). Everything about this rings false, and makes me feel sympathetic for Zambra—he doesn’t have to hide his talents. But then again, I have no idea what it’s like trying to create art after being anointed by just about everyone important in the world of letters.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

28 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra’s third book to be published in English (and second translated by Megan McDowell), packs a lot of themes—historical memory, difficulties of love, honesty in art—into a brief 139 page novel set between the two great Chilean earthquakes in 1985 and 2010. It’s an ambitious project from one of Granta’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” and one that is a bit of a mess.

Before getting into the reasons why I think this book doesn’t work, here’s a brief synopsis of the two intertwined storylines: In what I’ll call the “Claudia novel” storyline, the narrator is growing up in Chile in the mid-1980s, at the time when Pinochet was finally forced out. On the night of the 1985 earthquake, he meets Claudia, a pretty, slightly older girl who is somehow connected to the boy’s neighbor, Raúl, the only single man in the neighborhood. Two years after the earthquake, he sees Claudia again, and she asks him to spy on Raúl. That’s part one. Part two—of the Claudia novel narrative—takes place twenty years later, when the narrator decides to try and find out what’s going on with Claudia. Oh so coincidentally, she’s about to return home to deal with her father’s death, during which time, she hooks up with the narrator, explains her life story (bit more on that later), and then breaks things off with the narrator.

Interspersed between these two sections are two sections written by the “author” about writing his Claudia novel. The author and his wife have separated, he’s a bit lonely and nostalgic, and having a really hard time writing this novel. He wants Eme—his estranged wife—to read it and approve of it, and he surrounds his explication of this basic desire with a ton of quasi-intellectual observations about life and forgetting, parents and love, and everything else. He reunites with Eme briefly, but that doesn’t really work out. Then the 2010 earthquake takes place.

Two earthquakes, two failed love stories, two tellings of the same story involving his mother, Eme claiming Claudia’s story is just a retelling of hers, the end of Pinochet’s realm kicks off the book and Sebastian Pinera’s election ends it—there’s a lot of doubling in this book. Also the two narrators—one pretty obviously the novelized reflection of the other.

Overall, this set-up—which calls to mind tons of so-called metafictional works, such as Lost in the Funhouse and the vastly superior Mulligan Stew—is Zambra’s attempt to break out of the writing style that defined his first two novels. This is a very difficult situation for a young author. Those two books have a very specific style, one that’s emotionally affective, incredibly compelling to read, and instantly recognizable. The writing in those novels is very precise, almost poetic, and the stories are related from a restricted third-person point of view, allowing for certain “cheesy” moments to play more seriously than they might in a first-person voice.

Anyway. Ways of Going Home feels like a novelist trying to change his aesthetic, maturing from something simple and direct into something more complex and respectably “Literary.” Reading the representation of the author in this novel as Zambra himself, and the author’s relationship to the Claudia novel he’s writing as Zambra’s relationship to this book, it’s clear that there’s a lot of anxiety, an awareness that this book might not live up to heightened expectations. And one of the best tricks for evading that is to foreground it (it’s a book about an author who can’t write his next novel!) and then bury it in a false postmodern trick (the novel isn’t just a novel, but a novel about the difficulty of writing novels!). Everything about this rings false, and makes me feel sympathetic for Zambra—he doesn’t have to hide his talents. But then again, I have no idea what it’s like trying to create art after being anointed by just about everyone important in the world of letters.

Put in that context—striving to evolve as a writer in a situation in which everyone expects huge things from you—makes the bad writing in this book nearly forgivable. But only nearly.

Claudia’s first memory of the stadium is also happy. In 1977 it was announced that Chespirito, the Mexican comedian, would bring the entire cast of his show to perform at the National Stadium. Claudia was four years old then; she watched Chespirito’s show and she liked it a lot.

Her parents refused to take her at first, but finally they gave in. The four of them went, and Claudia and Ximena had a great time. Many years later Claudia found out that for her parents that day had been torture. They had spent every moment thinking how absurd it was to see the stadium filled with laughing people. Throughout the entire show they had thought only, obsessively, about the dead.

This is a pretty trite set-piece, and one that comes off as über-manipulative and totally unbelievable. (I distrust all writing that hinges on memories of a child, since most of these memories are way more specific than any person would actually have.) It’s the sort of manipulative sequence you’d find in story from a mediocre creative writer. (See how it contrasts the naive happiness of the child with the sullen awareness of the parents? And how parents sacrifice for their children? Do you see what I did there?)

But it gets worse:

I’ll always remember the pain, one night, years ago: in the middle of an argument we started caressing each other and she got on top of me, but in the middle of penetration she couldn’t control her rage and she shut her vagina completely.

SHUT IT! SHUT THAT VAGINA!

A few days ago Eme left a box for me with the neighbors. Only today did I dare open it. There were two shirts, a scarf, my Kaurismäki and Wes Anderson movies, my Tom Waits and Wu-Tang Clan CDs, as well as some book I lent her these past months.

God, that is SO PRECIOUS. At this point in time, can you really do something like this in an unironic fashion? Your Wes Anderson movie? Oh, you, Mr. Narrator, are SO SMART AND SENSITIVE. (And have very questionable taste in directors.)

This isn’t the Zambra book I wanted to read. In part because one of the challenges Zambra’s trying to face—how to write about Pinochet and the violent history of Chile when that wasn’t something you experienced first hand—could have resulted in an absolutely fascinating book.

In the Claudia section of Ways of Going Home, the one that opens in 1985, just a few years before Pinochet is deposed, the narrator is 9 years old, fairly confused about the politics of the country, in part because his parents have remained on the sidelines during the Allende-Pinochet periods. He is a character forcibly disconnected from the past, living in a sort of constructed world:

We arrived, finally, at a neighborhood with only two streets: Neftalí Reyes Basoalto and Lucila Godoy Alcayaga. It sounds like a joke, but it’s true. A lot of the streets in Maipú had, and still have, those absurd names: my cousins, for example, lived on First Symphony Way, near Second and Third Symphony, perpendicular to Concert Street, and close to the passages Opus One, Opus Two, Opus Three, et cetera. Or the very street where I lived, Aladdin, between Odin and Ramayana and parallel to Lemuria; obviously, toward the end of the seventies some people had a lot of fun choosing names for the streets where the new families would later live—the families without history, who were willing or perhaps resigned to live in that fantasy world.

“I live in the neighborhood of real names,” said Claudia on the afternoon of our reencounter, looking seriously into my eyes.

In case you don’t catch the subtext—and it’s these sort of so-obvious-as-it’s-beaten-over-your-head allusions and metaphors that marks another flaw in this book—Claudia’s family is political, was part of Allende’s government, is reactionary.

I vote with a sense of sorrow, with very little faith. I know that Sebastián Piñera will win the first round I’m sure he will also win the second. It seems horrible. It’s obvious we’ve lost our memories. We will calmly, candidly, hand the country over to Piñera and to Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ.

It’s an interesting artistic conundrum: How to write about a childhood taking place during a very important time in history, but one that you, and a lot of your characters, weren’t directly impacted by. Tricky.

Which brings me to David Shields. If you read enough David Shields, your relationship to literature is irrevocably altered. The part of Shields that always sticks with me is the idea that the best works of art are those in which the creator’s consciousness as he/she creates is revealed in the course of the work of art. Frequently, these are hybrid works that aren’t exactly autobiographical or fictional—what Shields refers to as “lyric essays.”

There are hints in Ways of Going Home that this sort of “coming clean” is something that Zambra was aiming for:

It’s strange, it’s silly to attempt a genuine story about something, about someone, about anyone, about oneself. But it’s necessary as well.

Or, more explicitly (this book excels at stating things explicitly):

Today my friend Pablo called me so he could read me this phrase he found in a book by Tim O’Brien: “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end.” I kept thinking about that and stayed awake all night. It’s true. We remember the sounds of the images. And sometimes, when we write, we wash everything clean, as if by doing so we could advance towards something. We ought to simply describe those sounds, those stains on memory. That arbitrary selection, nothing more. That’s why we lie so much, in the end. That’s why a book is always the opposite of another immense and strange book. An illegible and genuine book that we translate treacherously, that we betray with our habit of passable prose.

I think about the beautiful beginning of Family Sayings, Natalia Ginzburg’s novel: “The places, events, and people in this book are all real. I have invented nothing. Every time that I have found myself inventing something in accordance with my old habits as a novelist, I have felt impelled at once to destroy everything thus invented.”

The sort of honesty and directness that Zambra is talking about and aiming for is much more evident in his earlier works. See the opening of Bonsai:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was along some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:

The unveiling of the creative process in Ways of Going Home is way more dishonest. Instead of seeing the real Zambra struggle with the above themes and his attempt to create a more “mature” style, we get two manipulative narrators, each as “novelistic” as the other. Going back to the doubling mentioned way back in the beginning of this review, instead of having two narratives—one fictional, one an autobiographical reflection on that—we get two fictional bits, which play off each other in a way that, unfortunately, isn’t very satisfying.

All that said, I eagerly await Zambra’s next book. He is one of the best young Latin American writers, and even this book, as disappointing as it might be to me, is better than a lot of books that will come out this year. He is still an author to watch.

16 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece that I wrote about Wolf Haas’s Brenner and God, which is translated from the German by Annie Janusch and available from Melville House.

This is the first Brenner book to come out in English, but actually the seventh in the series. I believe that Melville House has rights to 2 or 4 more, so there will be more Brenner in the near future . . .

Also, if you’re interested, Tom Roberge and I spent a lot of time talking about this book on this week’s podcast.

Anyway, here’s the opening of my review:

Brenner and God_ is the first book in the “Brenner” series to come out in English, and only the second Wolf Haas title overall. The Weather Fifteen Years Ago came out from Ariadne Press a few years back and blew away the BTBA fiction committee—one reason why I was really excited to pick up this novel.

Unlike Weather, which is a postmodern, playful novel that’s one long interview between a female book reviewer and Wolf Haas, Brenner and God is a fairly straightforward detective novel. It centers around Brenner, a former detective who is now a chauffeur for a two-year-old girl whose father is a “Lion of Construction” responsible for building the controversial MegaLand, and whose mother runs an abortion clinic that is constantly besieged by protestors. So when Helena disappears from the back of Brenner’s car, he has dozens of suspects to investigate . . .

I don’t read a lot of detective novels, so I’m not sure exactly how to categorize this. Tom Roberge and I talked about on our most recent podcast—the difference between crime books that focus on the horrors of the criminal mind, and the ones that function more like a puzzle. In which case, Brenner and God fits more into the second category. There is some violence and gross killing, but the motives of those involved aren’t necessarily psychotic, per se. It’s more about business and politics and sex.

Click here to read the full review.

16 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Brenner and God is the first book in the “Brenner” series to come out in English, and only the second Wolf Haas title overall. The Weather Fifteen Years Ago came out from Ariadne Press a few years back and blew away the BTBA fiction committee—one reason why I was really excited to pick up this novel.

Unlike Weather, which is a postmodern, playful novel that’s one long interview between a female book reviewer and Wolf Haas, Brenner and God is a fairly straightforward detective novel. It centers around Brenner, a former detective who is now a chauffeur for a two-year-old girl whose father is a “Lion of Construction” responsible for building the controversial MegaLand, and whose mother runs an abortion clinic that is constantly besieged by protestors. So when Helena disappears from the back of Brenner’s car, he has dozens of suspects to investigate . . .

I don’t read a lot of detective novels, so I’m not sure exactly how to categorize this. Tom Roberge and I talked about on our most recent podcast—the difference between crime books that focus on the horrors of the criminal mind, and the ones that function more like a puzzle. In which case, Brenner and God fits more into the second category. There is some violence and gross killing, but the motives of those involved aren’t necessarily psychotic, per se. It’s more about business and politics and sex.

In that way, and in terms of the overall tone of the book, it most reminded me of early Echenoz (Cherokee, Double Jeopardy, Big Blondes) and Rubem Fonseca (High Art). (Although to be accurate, Fonesca writes about some totally fucked up characters, especially in our collection The Taker & Other Stories.)

Evaluating this as a detective novel, I found it really satisfying. A lot of “clues” are laid out, and everything unspools and fits together in a way that’s nicely paced and keeps the reader guessing right along with Brenner. It also includes a lot of the necessary tropes: a retired detective called back into service, a slew of dead bodies, clipped conversations, decent sleuthing, tense situations, a car chase, a kidnapping, a hot redhead, and some banging. It’s a very entertaining book to read, and I’m convinced that these books will gain a larger and larger following as more of the titles from the series become available.

Now, onto my issues.

One of the most notable features of this book is the narrator. Rather than being told from a first-person p.o.v. or from an omniscient, distanced p.o.v., the narrator in Brenner and God is also a sort of character—one who is maybe similar to Brenner, but has a distinct personality and is relating this story in a self-aware way that’s only somewhat successful:

My grandmother always used to say to me, when you die, they’re gonna give that mouth of yours its own funeral. So you see, a personal can change. Because today I am the epitome of silence. And it’d take something out of the ordinary to get me started. The days when everything used to set me off are over. Listen, why should every bloodbath wind up in my pint of beer? Like I’ve been saying for some time now, it’s up to the boys to take care of. My motto, as it were.

Personally, I prefer to look on the positive side of life these days. Not just Murder He Wrote all the time, and who-got-who with a bullet, a knife, and extension cord, or what all else I don’t know.

As a sort of companion through Brenner’s complicated affair, this narratorial voice works pretty well. It helps to create a sort of fun, almost jokey tone that elevates this from being a horrifying book about a child kidnapping into something that’s more literary, almost a reflexive look at what makes detective novels detective novels. (Which brings to mind Butor’s Passing Time, a truly amazing book that should definitely be reprinted by Dalkey or New Directions or Alma Books or Open Letter or someone.)

This narratorial technique also allows for shifts in scenes and perspectives in a way that feels more conversational than contrived—a line that a lot of detective books have to walk. It also allows for Haas to call attention to particular bits, either as a way of generating tension and readerly interest via heavy-handed foreshadowing (the constant references to the “five deaths” and how the city will be torn apart at the end of the book), or of distracting the reader from some other potentially useful detail.

My problem with the narratorial voice is pretty specific. First off, the sort of intentional heavy-handedness comes off as a bit condescending to me. I swear, the phrase “pay attention” appears at least 400 times every chapter1 and becomes the most irritating of authorial tics.

Pay attention: Natalie was the clinic’s psychologist, because a pregnancy’s never terminated without psychological counseling. [. . .]

Pay attention. Brenner was thinking to himself, _Milan will definitely know someone who can unlock Knoll’s phone for me, the sort of thing someone at a gas station knows. [. . .]

And I’ve got to say, Brenner had seldom been so right. Within just a few hours he would become all too conscious of just what little clue he truly had at that moment.

But for now, pay attention.

More befuddling are these two references to the reader (I assume):

My dear swan, Brenner hadn’t been in a funk like this in a long time. [. . .]

My dear swan, Knoll, the congressman, and the two bully-boys . . .

“Swan”?!? I assume I’m just not getting something here and am more than willing to own up to my ignorance. But still. It’s weird and disruptive to me as a reader.

There’s also a certain habit of Haas’s/Janusch’s of ending sentences with a comma (or “because”) followed by a clipped sort of explanation. This will make more sense in the examples below. At first, I thought this style was kind of cool, and very fitting for a detective book—there’s something stark about it, almost puzzle-like in how the “explanation” phrase fits into place. But by the end it felt more like a crutch than a technique. As if this was the only way the narrator could talk to convey his personality.

But Brenner’s shadower was bald in such an old-fashioned way, with a wreath of hair around his head, i.e., the worst kind in the rain, because the raindrops hammer way at the unprotected bald part, and regardless, wet hair. [. . .]

But now, either on account of the pills or the nonalcoholic beer or quite simply from age, or a rusty brain, or withering horomones—in all events, no line. [. . .]

Because one thing’s clear: when you’ve come as far as [SPOILER] has, you don’t waste any time coddling your witnesses, no, you mop them up like fly droppings because—no sentimentality.

Anyway, that’s probably a personal quirk that exposes more about my reading likes and dislikes than the book itself. And overall, I think this is really fun and will be greatly enjoyed by scads of readers. As a detective book, I think it’s really solid. As a work of translated fiction, I’d give it a 6.5 out of 10.

1 Slight exaggeration.

26 October 12 | Chad W. Post |

After a bit of a hiatus, Tom Roberge and Chad W. Post are back to discuss what we mean when we say that a book is “difficult.” They use a range of examples, from “Finnegans Wake” to “Mrs. Dalloway” to define a few different categories of reading “difficulty,” such as, not being compelled, and having to read a book like a puzzle.

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25 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I want to do a podcast sometime about the difficulties of reading. Everything from the amount of time it takes to read a book (and where that time comes from) to what makes a particular book (Finnegans Wake for example) tricky to get into, to books that one avoids because they “seem” like they’d be a bit of a grind. There’s a lot about this topic that I find fascinating, and a huge part of it revolves around the distance between what is expected of a book—”Gravity’s Rainbow is just so nonlinear!”—and the actual process of processing the words on the page.

One of the reasons that a lot of people give for why they do (or why they should) read international fiction is to “get a sense of what life is like in other cultures.” Which is sweet and admirable and maybe a bit LolliLove, but makes a degree of sense. Or does it? Why do we assume that a Japanese writer is going to “explain” something about Japanese culture? Is it because American writers like cough Rick Moody cough and Richard cough Ford cough can’t stop being so American? Or is this some sort of weird imperialist hangover, where we expect the Columbians we employ to entertain us to explain what life is like where they’re from?

All of this comes into play when approaching Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France, which was just published by Graywolf Press in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation from the Spanish. For anyone unfamiliar with Atxaga, and to be honest, this is the first of his books I’ve read in full, he’s considered to be the greatest contemporary writer from the Basque Country. And his earlier translated books—Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son—have much more to do with Basque life than this novel, which references France in the title, is set in the Congo, and takes place in the early 1900s featuring mostly Belgian characters.

If you think I’m playing this up too much, just check this quote from The Independent: “Don’t be put off by its non-Basque theme: Atxaga is still the master of a complex story, told with deceptive simplicity.”

I totally agree—this is a complex novel that coasts along with “deceptive” simplicity. Does it matter where Atxaga comes from? The book isn’t even translated from Basque . . .

For someone intrigued by the complexities of reviewing literature in translation, this raises a good deal of questions: how to evaluate a translation from a language the original text was translated into for instance. Or, should this be considered within the context of Basque (or Iberian) literature, or is it more appropriate to discuss it alongside books like Heart of Darkness? Is it possible to judge this book on its own terms, and what does that mean?

I’m going to cop out right now, and admit that I don’t have an answer for any of these questions. Instead, I’m just going to approach this review like I approached the book, looking at the plot, the craft, and the things I find interesting.

In terms of the plot, Seven Houses in France is simultaneously very simple and very complex. (And never quite as clichéd as that sentence.) The novel opens with an information dump of a sentence that introduces the character upon which most of the main plot points will hang:

Chrysostome Liège signed a contract to serve in King Léopold’s Force Publique at the beginning of 1903 and reached his posting in the Congo in August of the same year, having travelled by packet-boat from Antwerp to Matadi, by train as far as Léopoldville, and then, finally, on a small steamship, the Princess Clémentine, to the garrison of Yangambi.

In Yangambi, Chrysostome will prove himself the best marksman and the most stoic (and moral) soldier of the Belgian empire. He’ll also meet a range of characters—Captain Lalande Biran, a sometimes poet who is smuggling mahogany and ivory into Europe to buy his fetching wife the seven houses in France she’s always wanted; Lieutenant Van Thiegel, who wants to make Mrs. Biran his 200th conquest of the sexual sort, and isn’t so amused by Chrysostome’s accuracy with a gun; Donatien, Captain Biran’s orderly, who seems always unsure of what the morally correct choice might be; and Livo, a local who works at the club serving the army folk, which, one can imagine, is a painful privilege, experiencing firsthand the contempt these soldiers have towards the local tribes, but also being able to steal crackers for his daughter—who will all play off one another in an intricate pattern that’s related in such a way that all of the happenings feel almost inevitable.

Not to give too much away—something that matters more for this book than others, since you’re most likely to get swept away in the plot than anything else—but Chrysostome and Van Thiegel get locked into a man-take-all sort of one-sided battle (Chysostome, who is pretty much the moral heart of this book, doesn’t really go for that dick-wagging sort of thing) that results in: rape, murder, poisoning, and a duel. That may sound like the basis for a made-for-TV-movie, but in Seven Houses in France it evolves in a way that, due in large part to Atxaga’s skill in crafting a compelling narrative, is so natural that it goes unquestioned.

One of the most obvious, yet striking, aspects of Atxaga’s book is the way in which he constantly shifts perspective, retaining a certain distance (see the excerpt above) while “peeking over the shoulder” of various characters. This isn’t a unique narrative technique, per se, but the way in which he does it fuses so well with the plot that the two are inseparable—the duel is inevitable because this is a novel the needs a climax, but at the same time, the duel is inevitable because each player in the novel has to react to surrounding events in a particular way. This perspective jumping isn’t the most advanced of narrative techniques, but it’s done in such a way that it opens up scenes and complicates them in interesting ways. From Chapter XVIII:

The canoe almost capsized when Van Thiegel jumped into the prow, landing heavily on one side of the craft; fortunately, he managed, with another jump, to reposition himself in the middle, where Livo and Donatien were rowing; soon the canoe stopped rocking violently from side to side and they could get underway.

After that opening, here’s a few bits from the next few paragraphs, all describing Van Thiegel’s actions: “Van Thiegel stood up, beating his chest with his fists,” “he shrilled,” “they could hear the drumming . . . he cupped his hands round his ears so as to hear better,” “he was walking with great determination” Theses are from the first six paragraphs, which provide a straightforward depiction Van Thiegel’s purposeful existence in the world. Then suddenly:

Livo was carrying a stick he’d picked up form the ground, and suddenly he struck Donatien roughly on the thigh with it. Donatien looked at him, surprised.

From then that point onward, the chapter—which is disturbed, which is violent—is conveyed through the lens of Livo’s perspective. He becomes the “he” that reflects upon Van Thiegel’s physical impact on the world. Again, not that this is all that special a technique or interesting a critical observation, but the way that perspective opens up the narrative in a whole new direction is both interesting in terms of plot and morality: What should Livo do with Van Thiegel when he rapes and murders a girl just because she liked the wrong man?

In some ways, this book is perfect for a high school English class: you can open up these possibilities in such nice ways in a classroom, engaging students in myriad issues that are essentially unresolvable. It unfolds in a way that’s identifiable and intriguing, and maybe, just maybe, points to why Atxaga set this novel in a country that wasn’t his—where the book could take on a more grandiose universal sense of meaning that would be overshadowed if it was all “Basque Country this” and “Basque heritage that.”

Now the thing I find interesting is none of these things. They’re all cute and curious, and fun to dissent and unspool, and explain why reading rocks when all the other expectations and time stuff doesn’t get in the way, but the one thing I’ll take away from this book, is the descriptions of the various characters who have their minds split into various parts. As things get intense, Van Theigel frequently describes his mind as being “split into two,” and then four, and then an infinite number of parts. This is described in ways that resemble a state of drunkenness, with one’s mind flipping from one image/subject to another, and to a state of craziness, in which a normally normal person isn’t sure what he thinks is OK and what’s not. Donatien has a similar situation in which all of his siblings “speak to him” inside his mind and advise him what to do. In contrast to Van Theigel’s sort of dissociative disorder, Donatien reads more like someone with multiple personality disorder.

In a mysterious way, this feels like the heart of the novel, with characters black and white, colonizer and colonized, christian and killer, all experiencing this dissolution of self and sort of randomness of thought leaving them open to outside, more cosmic influences.

But you’ll have to read it to see what I mean. Get past the non-Basque, Basque aspect and let the book stand as a book that is meant to entertain, illuminate, question, and inform.

25 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a thing I wrote about Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France, which just came out from Graywolf Press in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation.

This is the third Atxaga book that Graywolf has published, the other two being Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son. All (?) of his other novels are available in English translation as well, including The Lone Man and the The Lone Woman, but aren’t technically for sale in the U.S.

Anyway, here’s a bit of the review:

In terms of the plot, Seven Houses in France is simultaneously very simple and very complex. (And never quite as clichéd as that sentence.) The novel opens with an information dump of a sentence that introduces the character upon which most of the main plot points will hang:

“Chrysostome Liège signed a contract to serve in King Léopold’s Force Publique at the beginning of 1903 and reached his posting in the Congo in August of the same year, having travelled by packet-boat from Antwerp to Matadi, by train as far as Léopoldville, and then, finally, on a small steamship, the Princess Clémentine, to the garrison of Yangambi.”

In Yangambi, Chrysostome will prove himself the best marksman and the most stoic (and moral) soldier of the Belgian empire. He’ll also meet a range of characters—Captain Lalande Biran, a sometimes poet who is smuggling mahogany and ivory into Europe to buy his fetching wife the seven houses in France she’s always wanted; Lieutenant Van Thiegel, who wants to make Mrs. Biran his 200th conquest of the sexual sort, and isn’t so amused by Chrysostome’s accuracy with a gun; Donatien, Captain Biran’s orderly, who seems always unsure of what the morally correct choice might be; and Livo, a local who works at the club serving the army folk, which, one can imagine, is a painful privilege, experiencing firsthand the contempt these soldiers have towards the local tribes, but also being able to steal crackers for his daughter—who will all play off one another in an intricate pattern that’s related in such a way that all of the happenings feel almost inevitable.

Not to give too much away—something that matters more for this book than others, since you’re most likely to get swept away in the plot than anything else—but Chrysostome and Van Thiegel get locked into a man-take-all sort of one-sided battle (Chysostome, who is pretty much the moral heart of this book, doesn’t really go for that dick-wagging sort of thing) that results in: rape, murder, poisoning, and a duel. That may sound like the basis for a made-for-TV-movie, but in Seven Houses in France it evolves in a way that, due in large part to Atxaga’s skill in crafting a compelling narrative, is so natural that it goes unquestioned.

To read the whole thing, just click here.

21 September 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast features special guest Kaija Straumanis to help preview the upcoming American Literary Translators Conference. Every fall, approx. 350 translators get together for three days of panels, discussions, readings, movies, and drinking. (Oh, and mechanical bull riding.)

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24 August 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast—the last before Tom goes off to visit the good people of Carolina—is a bit of a surprise. Tom told me he had a topic, but wanted to spring it on me and get my unprepared reaction. So, to share in the spirit of surprises, I’m not going to say anything about what we talked about, except to mention that it WASN’T about baseball or Arsenal’s post-RVP lack of firepower. It does involve Canadians, though. And the “New York Times Book Review.” Enjoy!

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3 August 12 | Chad W. Post |

I’m just back from family vacation, so this week we decided to take things easy and talk about The Dark Knight Rises (which we sort of spoil for anyone who either hasn’t seen it, or thinks it’s great), the Olympics, books we’ve read recently, and J. K. Rowling and her misguided attempt to prevent privacy of her new book.

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27 July 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week, Will Evans joins us to talk about contemporary Russian literature (READ THIS BOOK) and the Read Russia initiative at this year’s BEA. (Sidenote: click on that link just to see the section at the bottom left corner where you can share the page via “Socialist Media.” Seriously.) We talk about Zakhar Prilepin, Mikhail Shishkin, Dmitry Danilov (who looks a bit like Ignatius J. Reilly, see below), and Oleg Kashin.

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20 July 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast (which was actually recorded weeks ago) features Ryan Chapman of The Penguin Press, who came on with us to discuss the fun marketing campaign Penguin put on to celebrate the release of the ebook versions of all of Thomas Pynchon’s books. As usual the conversation swerves from that to discussing American literature in general, the Euro Cup (SPAIN!) and sundry odds and ends, such as making up blurbs for catalogs . . . like this and this

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18 June 12 | Sarah Winstein-Hibbs | Comments

Here’s a thought-provoking interview from PMc Magazine, in which editor Tyler Malone interviews Chad Post on Open Letter Books, the world of American publishing, and the importance of international literature. Chad debriefs us on Open Letter’s history and concept, and unfolds his philosophy on the mission of a small press in the U.S.: “I’m truly dedicated to the idea that a nonprofit should do all it to better the part of the world that it’s related to,” he says. “And for us that means helping spread a love and appreciation of international writing and the art of translation.” Even though it may seem like a “losing battle” to many, Open Letter is committed to publishing high-impact books from other cultures, and refuses to cater to the lowest common denominator or to sacrifice art for profit.

It’s scary, and financially daunting, to take on such an enterprise; why does Open Letter do it? – So that the American book market doesn’t degenerate into a boring swamp of cultural incest, and so that American readers have access to inventive, meaningful new books that open our minds. “The more artistic voices available to readers and writers, the better,” Chad says. “A healthy translation culture helps to ensure that the literary world in the U.S. keeps renewing itself and evolving and expanding.” If we fail to expose ourselves to voices of other cultures, the American readership winds up with “books that are “entertainments” that appeal to the largest possible audience.” To keep our culture vibrant, energized, and informed, we need to carve out a place for international writers. On the joy of publishing these new voices, Chad shares lively personal enthusiasm: “. . . there’s probably no better feeling in publishing than when a book you’ve been obsessed with for a few years comes back from the printer and you can hold it, reread it, and finally share it with all your friends.” That’s what Open Letter is here for – to scout out great works from around the globe and share them with American readers, who deserve variety, inspiration, and a truly good read.

15 June 12 | Chad W. Post |

In this week’s podcast, Tom and I talk about BookExpo America and its parties, in particular the rocking one that took place at the New Directions offices. I also rant (a bit) about why I didn’t get to go to Cape Town to present my speech, The Long Term Is the Only Race Worth Winning. There’s also a bit of baseball talk related to a bet that the two of us made, and we throw out ideas for a few future podcasts.

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15 June 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Right now I should be getting on a plane in Cape Town to head back home after the 29th International Publishers Congress. UNFORTUNATELY, the jags employees at Delta’s ticket counter in Atlanta refused to let me board the plane since my passport doesn’t contain a complete blank page. OK, I get it, I get in, countries have laws and those laws must be obeyed, but eff you ATL airport for not having extra visa pages to stick into my passport, and eff you South Africa for being so strict (supposedly Delta gets fine $10,000 for every passenger arriving there without a blank passport page).

So after spending 13 hours flying to and from Atlanta (WHERE THEY LOST MY BAG), I came back home to Rochester and wrote this speech which Jens Bammel, Secretary General of the International Publishers Association, read on my behalf.

It’s really cool that he was able to do this—I felt horrible for having to miss the conference—and also cool that Ed Nawotka ran it in Publishing Perspectives. You can read the whole thing at the link above, but here’s a bit from the end, where I tried to tie everything together into some points of advice for everyone:

The Long Term Is the Only Race Worth Winning
We have entered a confusing age in the evolution of books and publishing. After ages of conglomerations conglomerating and other inward mingling trends (e.g., B&N making the same books available everywhere in the country, like McDonalds hamburgers), the world has suddenly fragmented. Certain books are only available on Amazon, there are 10,000 for every sub-genre of a sub-genre, and readers live everywhere, accessing it all in a plethora of ways.

This is daunting to some, exciting to others. For a small press looking to do books that fit a particular niche (a la Open Letter), this is a fantastic situation. Unlike years past when we fought for space in the same five review outlets and tried to convince the same booksellers to handsell our books, we can now go directly to our customers, and can cultivate an audience in ways that never existed before.

So, to sum this all up into one list of tips and anecdotes, here are some thoughts on how authors, translators, agents, and publishers can take advantage of this situation:

Agents: Quit screwing around with e-book rights. I know that for some, this is the touchiest of touchy subjects, but when an agent doesn’t sell us the e-book rights to a translation we’re publishing, I want to condemn them to a dark circle of hell. Audiences are diverse, readers like to read in all formats, why would anyone stop the momentum a publisher might have with a book in the hopes you can sell these later to some larger company? This is ridiculous and my experiences with Zone and Children in Reindeer Woods—which sold out quickly and were unavailable while we reprinted and sat around NOT having the e-book rights—point out the stupidity of this agenting policy.

Translators: Community is your greatest hope. Most everyone in the book industry is whiny. And underpaid. And underappreciated. Translators more than most. But in a world in which expertise exists outside of the conventional outlets (newspapers, magazines, radio shows), translators can be extremely valuable in cultivating a community of readers interested in a particular book/set of books. Make all the connections you can—books aren’t sold through reviews or advertisements anymore, they’re sold when one reader talks to another reader.

There are also bits for Publishers, Authors, and Everyone, but you have to visit Publishing Perspectives to read those . . .

10 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Tom and I answered a bunch of questions for Gabrielle Gantz and the Picador Book Room tumblr. I think this makes for a fun and interesting read, and it actually became the basis for a good part of our discussion on this week’s podcast (which will be up tomorrow).

Here’s an excerpt:

What do you look for when deciding what translated work to read next?

Chad: There are so many things that go into a decision like this. Sometimes it’s the buzz around a book,1 sometimes it’s the author (I’m currently on a Clarice Lispector kick), sometimes the translator (Bill Johnston is a translation jesus!), and sometimes it’s something totally other (Satantango has a gorgeous cover, The Safety Net is about terrorism).

Tom: I don’t necessarily look to specifically read a translation or a non-translation. I look for good books. When I do find myself choosing from among the vast array of choices, I usually gravitate to plot first, style second. Country and translator are important eventually, but first, for me at least, it has to be something I’ll enjoy reading. There was a time when I read the “difficult” books for my own edification, but I’ve since realized that there are things to be learned about human nature in a wide array of books, not just difficult ones that academics deem worthy.

Do you find that you gravitate towards a certain country because of your interest in the culture?

Chad: I read a lot of Mexican and South American books because I particularly like the aesthetic sensibility prevalent in a lot of works from down there. The aforementioned Cortazar and Lispector, but also Borges, Bioy Casares, Chejfec, Zambra, Saer, Sada, etc., etc.

Tom: In the end, I read a lot of French translations. I like their philosophers and their novelists’ tendency to draw on those philosophies. And I’m a huge French film fan, so the overall outlook on art I’m very familiar with and love. But I also read a lot of stuff from Spain and Latin America — they too seem to zero in on themes I’m drawn to.

Click here to read the full interview.

1 I actually included the example that this is why I read “the very mediocre 1Q84,” but that didn’t make the final cut. But since this book IS so very overrated, I thought I’d make a point of mentioning that in the safety of my own blog.

4 May 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast features a special discussion with Daniel Levin Becker, author of Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Liteature, a history of of the Oulipo, past, present, and future. For the uninitiated, the Oulipo is a 50-year-old group of writers and mathematicians and others interested in the idea of “potential” literature. At times highly technical and esoteric in their thinking about literature, the group also has a sort of prankster streak, which comes out in the liveliness of many of their writings. Some of the most famous works produced by Oulipian writers include Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler . . ., and Harry Mathews’s Cigarettes. (Also see: all of Raymond Queneau and Jacques Roubaud, the works of Jacques Jouet, and those of Paul Fournel.)

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30 March 12 | Chad W. Post |

In this week’s podcast, we talk about the future of book reviewing, focusing on a few central questions: who reads book reviews? (A: definitely not my students), what is the function of the book review in today’s world?, is there a website/app that would be the ideal book review platform? We also digress into sports talk (as we do), with Tom explaining how he just found out about the new MLB playoff setup while I predict the winners of the Champions League quarterfinals. (A: Chelsea, Bayern Munchen, Barcelona, and Real Madrid.)

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15 March 12 | Chad W. Post |

With the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament getting underway this afternoon (I refuse to acknowledge the “First Four” games), Tom and I thought this would be a good time to talk about the fact that we both picked the exact same Final Four (Kentucky, Missouri, UNC, and Ohio State) and that The Morning News’s Tournament of Books is made up of a lot of mediocre books.

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8 March 12 | Chad W. Post |

To celebrate tonight’s announcements of the National Book Critic Circle Award winners, Tom and I decided to go through all six categories (fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, biography, criticism, and poetry) and pick out who we thought would win. Seeing that neither of us has read many of the finalists, this makes for some pretty fun times and some great digressions, like about how we’re both over WWII novels, and how “revolution” is the theme of this year’s awards.

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17 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast is a special feature on Kaija Straumanis, who recently received her MA in literary translation from the University of Rochester. Although our conversation is a bit rangy (and if you think this is random, you should visit Plüb sometime), we focus mainly on Kaija’s translation of Latvian author Inga Ābele’s Paisums (High Tide).

High Tide is a somewhat fractured novel that tells the story of three main characters: Ieva, a deeply depressed screenwriter; Aksels, her former lover; and Andrejs, her husband, who was imprisoned for murdering Aksels. Structurally, this novel is pretty interesting as well. It opens with a dream, then inhabits the minds of the main characters in a series of “present day” chapters. After we see where these characters are post-jail, post-murder, etc., the book starts counting backwards, with sections about the 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, to fill in certain aspects of the plot and characterization.

To help make this podcast make more sense, I’d highly recommend reading this fairly long sample that covers a lot of the bits that we talk about.

For more information about the University of Rochester’s Translation Programs, just click here.

And in terms of Kaija, in addition to translating from Latvian and German (on occasion), she’s a very good photographer. Oh, and she’s obsessed with Moby-Dick (in a way), which maybe explains the title of this podcast, and the reason why we’re using Yellow Ostrich’s Whale as this week’s intro/outro music.

As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes by clicking here. To subscribe with other podcast downloading software, such as Google’s Listen, copy the following link.

10 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast is remarkable both for its complete lack of curse words (not even kidding), and for its very professional discussion about Garth Hallberg’s recent essay Why Write Novels at All? that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. We were fortunate enough to get Garth in on this podcast so that he could expand on some of his ideas and observations about a few contemporary American novelists who tend to get lumped together: Franzen, DFW, Eugenides, Zadie Smith, etc.

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20 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After a run of special podcasts, we’re back to the normal Tom and Chad show . . . This week we decided to talk about books we’re looking forward to and other random predictions about 2012. (I believe that is the year we are living in. Although as you’ll hear when you listen, I have a few problems knowing what now is now.)

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2 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Since the year is coming to an end, it seemed like the perfect time for us to start creating our “best of” lists for 2011. We decided to start with the best fiction that we read over the past year. Our list is pretty idiosyncratic, and all the titles mentioned are worth checking out.

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24 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast is a mixed bag of stuff. Our main focus is on book events—why from a publisher’s perspective they can be frustrating, what makes them interesting (or not), etc. But we also talk a bit about Occupy Wall Street and books that we hope are in the OWS library.

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18 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast is our official “Fall Books Preview,” in which we list a dozen or so books we’re really excited about, diss a few states in the union, and discuss a few strange and interesting book covers.

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5 August 11 | Chad W. Post |

This week, instead of listening to me and Tom pontificate about literary matters far and wide, we decided to change things up a bit and find out what our summer interns have been up to. With Nathan Furl standing in for Tom, we talk to Taylor McCabe (left, drinking diet soda) and Lily Ye (right, carrying two backpacks filled with literary work) about what it’s like working at Open Letter and the projects they’ve been slaving away at all summer. (Spoiler: Taylor’s been working on the “Best of Three Percent” ebook, and Lily’s in charge of Read This Next.)

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1 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this week’s podcast, we talk a bit about authors we “broke up” with. Writers like, say, Philip Roth, who evokes a pretty harsh reaction from Tom . . . Additionally we talk about authors we thought we had given up on, but to whom we keep returning and returning.

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1 July 11 | Chad W. Post |

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece I wrote about Julio Cortazar’s From the Observatory, which is translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and forthcoming from Archipelago Books. It also happens to be this week’s Read This Next title.

Here’s the opening of the review:

It’s not like any of Cortazar’s books are easy. Hopscotch is a tricky book, even putting aside the jarring juxtapositions that arise from the strange way of reading it (if you follow the prescribed path, you read a bunch of chapters out of order). 62: A Model Kit, which applied the theory explicated in chapter 62 of Hopscotch, opens with a preface warning that “not a few readers will notice various transgressions of literary convention here.” Some of the ideas in his short stories are mind-blowing in a consciousness-raising, you-must-be-high sort of way.

But in my opinion, From the Observatory is the most challenging of all his books that I’ve read. In part, this is due to my own blindspot when it comes to poetry and poetic writing; in part, this is due to the elusive mingling of images and ideas present in this short, dense text.

In the interview I conducted earlier this week with Anne McLean, we talked a bit about the “Julio Cortazar” that Archipelago has been constructing through the publication of From the Observatory, The Diary of Andres Fava, and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute. In contrast to the Big Ideas and novelistic pyrotechnics found in the “classic” novels, these three books are quieter, and more personal. And in a way, they seem more focused on producing beautiful individual lines, than wowing the world with grand philosophical ideas.

That’s not to say that From the Observatory isn’t philosophical or removed from Cortazar’s earlier interests. Science and scientific metaphors run throughout Cortazar’s work, and are foregrounded in this piece, which intertwines information about the life cycle of eels from an article by Claude Lamotte that appeared in Le Monde with photographs and information about Jai Singh’s observatories.

You can read the complete piece here.

1 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s not like any of Cortazar’s books are easy. Hopscotch is a tricky book, even putting aside the jarring juxtapositions that arise from the strange way of reading it (if you follow the prescribed path, you read a bunch of chapters out of order). 62: A Model Kit, which applied the theory explicated in chapter 62 of Hopscotch, opens with a preface warning that “not a few readers will notice various transgressions of literary convention here.” Some of the ideas in his short stories are mind-blowing in a consciousness-raising, you-must-be-high sort of way.

But in my opinion, From the Observatory is the most challenging of all his books that I’ve read. In part, this is due to my own blindspot when it comes to poetry and poetic writing; in part, this is due to the elusive mingling of images and ideas present in this short, dense text.

In the interview I conducted earlier this week with Anne McLean, we talked a bit about the “Julio Cortazar” that Archipelago has been constructing through the publication of From the Observatory, The Diary of Andres Fava, and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute. In contrast to the Big Ideas and novelistic pyrotechnics found in the “classic” novels, these three books are quieter, and more personal. And in a way, they seem more focused on producing beautiful individual lines, than wowing the world with grand philosophical ideas.

That’s not to say that From the Observatory isn’t philosophical or removed from Cortazar’s earlier interests. Science and scientific metaphors run throughout Cortazar’s work, and are foregrounded in this piece, which intertwines information about the life cycle of eels from an article by Claude Lamotte that appeared in Le Monde with photographs and information about Jai Singh’s observatories.

The photographs of Jai Singh’s observatories are one of the most strikingly beautiful things about this book, and by themselves are worth the price of admission. Jai Singh was the ruler of Amber (later Jaipur) in the early 1700s and amid all sorts of political and social issues, he built at least five observatories. Using Hindu astronomy, these observatories were used to predict eclipses, etc. That’s interesting in and of itself, but beyond practicality, these structures are stunningly intricate and a bit mesmerizing. (Some photos from the book are available here, but you can also see a slew of color photos via this Google search.)

Cortazar took the 36 photos included in the book back in 1968, and they very much reflect the elliptical, baroque play found in the prose itself:

Everything corresponds, Jai Singh and Baudelaire thought with a century’s interval, from the lookout of the tallest tower of the observatory the sultan must have sought the system, the network in code that would give him the keys of contact: how could he not have known that the animal Earth would suffocate in a slow stillness if it had not always been in the lungs of the astral steel, the sneaky traction of the moon and the sun drawing and repelling the green breast of the waters. [. . .] Every sign of measurement on the marble ramps of Jaipur received (still receives, for no one now, for monkeys and tourists) the Morse signs, the sidereal alphabet that in another dimension of the sensitive turns into plankton, trade winds, shipwreck of the California oil tanker Norman (May 8, 1957), blossoming of cherry trees in Naga or Sivergues, lava in Osorno, eels arriving in port, leptocephali having grown to eight centimeters in three years will not know that their entry into fresher waters sets off some mechanism of the thyroid, will not know they’re now starting to be called elvers, that new calming words accompany the serpent’s storming of the reefs, its advance up the estuaries, its irrepressible invasion of the rivers; all this that has no name is called by so many names, the way Jai Singh swapped twinkles for formulae, unfathomable orbits for conceivable times.

This is pretty representative of the prose in From the Observatory: winding, digressive, soaring, playful, and looping back on itself like a Mobius Strip. As Anne McLean said in the interview, “Hey, you know, it was the still practically the sixties.”

17 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To supplement the advance preview of Jean Echenoz’s Lightning — this week’s Read This Next — book, I talked with translator Linda Coverdale about Echenoz, and the three “Eccentric Genius” books of his that she’s translated.

You can read the entire interview here, but for now, here’s an excerpt:

Chad W. Post: Were you excited when you first started translating Echenoz? These books are pretty different from his earlier works.

Linda Coverdale: When I picked up Ravel, I thought, oh goody, here we go, we’re going to have this sort of rambunctious circus-like atmosphere, it will be rollicking and lots of fun, let’s see what happens. Well, it was Ravel. My first reaction was, what? Now I’m translating Echenoz and he’s gone into a monastery? It was delightful but it certainly was a surprise. It was as if he were playing around, doing his homework, taking his exercise in all sorts of ways. But it was always Echenoz, and he was working on his style and how he would manipulate the language. It seemed that he had taken along the two things that I had most enjoyed about his writing before: that it was very antic, he had a wonderful sense of humor, and yet, it was very elegant—even when it sprawled, he was in control. He took those two aspects and he, in a way, compressed them, and raised them to a higher level, and started tackling what one might call more serious things. Which isn’t to be nasty to previous novels at all, no, he likes change, he’d been playing with different genres before and he said he was ready for a change, so, as I understand it, he was actually trying to do something different in the way of time, because previous books had always been set in the period in which they were written, so he thought he might try his hand at something else. But he didn’t want to do a historical novel, some sort of bodice-ripping thing. He wanted to set it—and this was the particular allure of this idea—in the period between the two wars, which was very rich, and he was going to have all sorts of real characters in there, real people, Ravel among them, and Ravel ended up walking off with the book that Echenoz eventually wrote. So that’s how he got into that. He was making a change, and he was experimenting with it, the experiment fizzled, but there was a by-product that proved to be, from my point of view, solid gold. That’s how he started with the Three Lives.

CWP: Do you know how historically accurate these books are? I mean, Ravel seems very much based on historical records, whereas in Lightning, Tesla’s name is changed to Gregor, which raised some questions for me.

LC: With this new style, he stuck very close to biography in the first novel—and they’re all novels, he says very specifically that they’re all novels, but in Ravel, I did the research and I checked up on lots of things, and I kept coming across information that Echenoz must himself have found. He did extensive research—he was looking at letters, he was looking at memos, he was looking at scribbles on manuscripts, looking at books about Ravel, you name it. The idea was, he would have so much . . . So when I say his style became compressed, it seems to me that, after eating all this information, he was very very choosy, he distilled all the data and events and emotions, and crafted his sentences to make them really rich and resonant. Most of the dialogue in Ravel was in fact rooted in reality, but he didn’t create a lot of it in the three novels, because what he was writing was a novel that stayed very close to the actual life that he wanted to explore. Then when he finished Ravel, he thought he’d like to do the same thing again, but he decided to pick an area about which he knew very little, and he decided, sport, sport would be good, and he found his character, Zátopek, and he also started looking into the history and politics of the period, which he didn’t touch on really at all in Ravel. So he was taking the same idea but playing changes on it, and then seeing what would happen, which turned into Running. [. . .]

CWP: And this led to Lightning . . .

LC: It was a logical progression, he thought he’d like to do it once more, and this time he was looking for a scientist, and Tesla was the one he latched on to. He relied on Margaret Cheney’s Tesla: Man out of Time, which he credited. But he had given himself more freedom with the second book when he was dealing with Emil—Echenoz was a little more roman-esque, and allowed himself some curlicues—and he decided that this time, he was going to do more of that. Frankly, he was going to take liberties that he hadn’t taken before, and structure his book more like a novel. Well, listen, Tesla’s life is like a novel. The man was insane.

So when people say it’s a trilogy, Echenoz makes a real point of saying no, it is a suite. He didn’t conceive of it as a trilogy. Each thing led to the next one, and in a way, he was moving blindly, but confidently. After he’d done his research and made his choice, then he knew where he was.

And be sure to check out all the RTN info about Lightning by clicking here.

13 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we announced last week, for the rest of June, all nine of our ebooks will be available for $4.99/title—a pretty good bargain, especially since they’ll go back to the standard $9.99 on July 1st . . .

You can find info about all our available ebooks by clicking here here. (In case anyone’s interested, the best-selling ones from the last week are: The Golden Calf followed by The Pets, and then Guadalajara and Death in Spring.)

After making our pricing announcement, Ed Nawotka of Publishing Perspectives asked me to write a piece explaining our decision, some stuff about ebook pricing in general, and my problems with the $.99 ebook.

Here’s a link to Why Selling Ebooks at 99 Cents Destroys Minds, which includes this:

But what’s really at the top of the e-book best-seller lists? As of this very moment (10:10 pm on Wednesday, June 8th), here are the top five and their prices: A Little Death in Dixie by Lisa Turner, $0.99; My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler, $1.99; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, $5.00; Summer Secrets by Barbara Freethy, $4.99; and The Help by Kathryn Stockett, $9.99.

So aside from The Help, which is the 9th bestselling book in paperback, the top five are all $5 or less. And aside from The Help, none of these books are in the top 10 for Literary Fiction paperback sales. So what does this mean?

At BEA, Keith Gessen introduced me to the works of John Locke (probably not the one you’re thinking of), a best-selling Kindle author whose books are all sold for $0.99. He made over a hundred thousand of dollars in royalties last year — far exceeding the wildest dreams of most every mid-list (if John Locke is even midlist) author in the country. Having read the opening of one of his “Donovan Creed” novels, I can assure you that he’s not selling all these books due to his talent. No offense intended, but let’s be real about this — it leads to a much more interesting conundrum.

And goes on from there . . .

Ed wrote the daily “conversation piece” for Publishing Perspectives, which he entitled Can Affordable Literature Ever Compete with ‘Palatable Plonk?’

As discussed in today’s feature story, you can now buy any number of e-books for 99 cents or less on Amazon. Few would mistake what’s being sold so cheaply as high literature, but one has to acknowledge that it takes skill to craft something that a large audience of people will enjoy.

In the wine business, the fact that you can now buy drinkable box wine in your local gas station/supermarket has indeed expanded the audience for wine. The hope is that drinkers, as their palette becomes sophisticated, will move up the price scale to sample more challenging fare. [. . .]

Can the same be said for the book business? Certainly just think of fiction as red wine, and non-fiction as white, each goes with a mood, setting, circumstance.

Ultimately, the question is not whether inexpensively priced literature entice new readers and serve as a gateway for readers to discover new writers, but can it ever compete, at lower prices, with the John Locke’s and Amanda Hocking’s of the world? And, at the end of the day, does it matter so long as everyone’s needs get met?

In my opinion, the answer is no, not when — to go back to the wine analogy — the cheap stuff can get you just as drunk. Of course, you also have to remember that with the cheap stuff, once the buzz wears off the hangover is often much worse — and you’ll have an even harder time facing yourself in the harsh light of day.

Be sure to check out the comments—that’s where the real fun comes in . . .

25 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Always fun going on the CW to talk about international literature. And I have to admit, I’m always surprised that they keep inviting us back . . .

In order of mention, here are the books that were discussed:

Time of Sky & Castles in the Air by Ayane Kawata, translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu (Litmus Press)

The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry (BOA Editions)

The Literary Conference by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions) (Why This Book Should Win)

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (New York Review Books) (Why This Book Should Win)

Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), translated from the French by David Bellos (Yale University Press) (Why This Book Should Win)

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Tin House) (Why This Book Should Win)

23 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is something I wrote on Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, which was translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis and published by NYRB earlier this year.

For a long time I was planning a post called “Albert Cossery is $%^&ing Amazing,” after reading A Splendid Conspiracy and totally falling in love with Cossery’s style, sense of humor, etc.

I’ve told this story a few times already, but I think the “how” of how I came to read Cossery is an interesting 21st-century story about how books will be recommended in the future . . . Back at the beginning of the summer, I noticed that Tosh Berman from Book Soup in L.A. had given Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy 5 stars on GoodReads. Which made me take note, since a) I’d never heard of Cossery except in typing his books into the Translation Database and b) Tosh has great taste. (See TamTam Books, his publishing company, which publishes a ton of Boris Vian works.) So I added A Splendid Conspiracy to my “to read” bookshelf—something that was automatically posted on my Facebook wall.

A couple of days go back (like literally two), and Jeff Waxman of Seminary Co-op in Chicago gives Cossery’s The Jokers 5 stars on GoodReads. Since Jeff is a) also a great reader and b) part of the BTBA judging committee for fiction, I marked The Jokers as a book “to read,” which was automatically posted to my Facebook wall.

A half-hour later, I was watching my kids try and injure themselves jumping off of dirt ramps in the forest by my house, and decided to check my e-mail. There was a message notifying me that Brad Weslake—a professor at the University of Rochester and member of our editorial committee—had posted something on my Facebook wall. This something turned out to be a link to Cossery’s wiki page and a comment about how interesting he sounded. (And the wiki page is pretty intriguing, especially this bit: “In 60 years he only wrote eight novels, in accordance with his philosophy of life in which ‘laziness’ is not a vice but a form of contemplation and meditation. In his own words: ‘So much beauty in the world, so few eyes to see it.’)

Three times makes a trend, so I picked up my dirty, sweaty children and ran off to the local bookstore to buy a copy of A Splendid Conspiracy, which I read over the next three days and also gave a 5 star rating . . .

And to drive home the connectedness of this all, as of this morning, six GoodRead friends have either marked A Splendid Conspiracy as something they want to read or gave it a 5-star rating. And of non-friends who have read/rated this, there’s at least one who also gave it 5 stars and included the comment “Tosh: You were right.”

I don’t know what this all means, but in the class I teach to my interns, we’re talking about the future of book recommendations, about how we’ll find out about stuff when it’s all e-book this and that and there are no friendly indie stores where we can go to talk to over-educated, more-than-well-read booksellers willing to give us accurate, individualized suggestions. I’m not sure if the Facebook/LibraryThing/GoodReads networks can actually ever replicate this, but it’s interesting to talk about and see in action . . .

Anyway, here’s the opening of my review:

Albert Cossery is the best dead writer I’ve discovered this year. A few of his books were published in English translation back before I was born, but this year saw the publication of two never-before-translated Cossery novels — A Splendid Conspiracy, which was translated by Alyson Waters and published by New Directions, and The Jokers, translated by Anna Moschovakis and published by New York Review Books — both of which are great fun, centering around groups of Middle Eastern pranksters determined to overthrow the oppressively mundane nature of everyday life (and/or the oppressive government) through practical jokes, entitled laziness, and constant debauchery.

It wasn’t just in his novels that Cossery supported this sort of playboy lifestyle—he truly believed that laziness wasn’t a vice, but a way of meditating, of appreciating the beauty found in world. This is even exhibited in his output. Although writing eight novels over 60 years might be an accomplishment for you, me, and Jonathan Franzen, it’s not really all that impressive for most writers of the time. Especially when titles like The Jokers clock in at fewer than 150 pages. (Although these are a tight 150 pages, filled with interweaving perspectives, a tricksy plot based on trickery, lively characters, lots of debauching, and a good deal of wit.)

That said, of the two Cossery books that came out this year, A Splendid Conspiracy is probably the better one. It’s more autobiographical: the protagonist is a very Cossery-like character who returns to Egypt from studying abroad in Paris (where, instead of getting a degree in Chemical Engineering, he spent all his time getting wasted and trolling around in whorehouses) convinced that life in this small Egyptian town will be incredibly boring. To his surprise, he winds up falling in with a group of dandy troublemakers who are under suspicion by the authorities for the disappearance of a number of wealthy men.

In many ways, The Jokers comes from a similar place, where the overbearing authorities are pitted against a group of young and hip pranksters.

To read the full piece, simply click here.

23 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

Albert Cossery is the best dead writer I’ve discovered this year. A few of his books were published in English translation back before I was born, but this year saw the publication of two never-before-translated Cossery novels — A Splendid Conspiracy, which was translated by Alyson Waters and published by New Directions, and The Jokers, translated by Anna Moschovakis and published by New York Review Books — both of which are great fun, centering around groups of Middle Eastern pranksters determined to overthrow the oppressively mundane nature of everyday life (and/or the oppressive government) through practical jokes, entitled laziness, and constant debauchery.

It wasn’t just in his novels that Cossery supported this sort of playboy lifestyle—he truly believed that laziness wasn’t a vice, but a way of meditating, of appreciating the beauty found in world. This is even exhibited in his output. Although writing eight novels over 60 years might be an accomplishment for you, me, and Jonathan Franzen, it’s not really all that impressive for most writers of the time. Especially when titles like The Jokers clock in at fewer than 150 pages. (Although these are a tight 150 pages, filled with interweaving perspectives, a tricksy plot based on trickery, lively characters, lots of debauching, and a good deal of wit.)

That said, of the two Cossery books that came out this year, A Splendid Conspiracy is probably the better one. It’s more autobiographical: the protagonist is a very Cossery-like character who returns to Egypt from studying abroad in Paris (where, instead of getting a degree in Chemical Engineering, he spent all his time getting wasted and trolling around in whorehouses) convinced that life in this small Egyptian town will be incredibly boring. To his surprise, he winds up falling in with a group of dandy troublemakers who are under suspicion by the authorities for the disappearance of a number of wealthy men.

In many ways, The Jokers comes from a similar place, where the overbearing authorities are pitted against a group of young and hip pranksters. One of the best parts of The Jokers is the opening set-piece in which a policeman, under orders to remove all homeless people from the streets, attacks a beggar who has seated himself outside of a bank. He begins with insults, moves onto kicking, goes a bit crazy, and ends up knocking the beggar over:

Bending over the old man, he grabbed him by his turban, shaking him with savage fury in an attempt to bring him back to life. This action was both rash and irreparable: as if by magic, the beggar’s head became detached from his neck and remained stuck to the turban, which the policeman continued to brandish in the air like a bloody trophy. [. . .] What had at first appeared to be a genuine flesh-and-blood beggar was in fact only a dummy, ably made up by a skilled artist, that had been left out in this respectable neighborhood precisely in order to provoke the police. [. . .] Far from calming the crowd, this discovery incited it to an opposite extreme: people began to snigger and sneer at the unfortunate cop, who stood there stunned.

And with that little prank, we’re off, leaving the dusty, baked streets behind to find Karim — the brains behind this prank — in bed with his latest “conquest.” (Whom he calls Zouzou, because he calls all of them Zouzou.) Karim wasn’t always so a joke bombing, Egyptian Yippie — as we come to find out, he spent some time in jail for his more violent revolutionary outbursts.

This philosophical conflict — do you defeat violence and oppression through more violence or jokes? — runs throughout the book, as in this somewhat pedantic and stilted debate between a joker and a more traditional revolutionary:

“Games,” [Heykal] said, looking pensive. “You’re right to talk about that. Because we’re all playing a game, aren’t we, Taher effendi? I profoundly regret that my game has given you offense and caused you trouble. But any man has the right to express his rebellion in his own way. Mine is what it is; at least it doesn’t harm the innocent.”

“How infantile!” Taher retorted disdainfully. “I don’t doubt your intelligence, Heykal effendi, not in the least. But excuse me if I tell you that you’re just having fun while people are suffering from oppression. Fun is no way to fight. Violence must be met with violence. And forget about innocence!”

It might be due to the time when this was originally written (1964), but these political diatribes are a bit of a blindspot for Cossery, coming off in stiff, naïve terms that aren’t a tenth as interesting as his more subtle depictions of the attraction his characters have for children and childlike activities. These bits really underscore the philosophical bent of the novel, such as when Karim waxes poetic about making and flying kites, or when co-conspirator Urfy starts a private school so that he wouldn’t have to spend all his time with those hideous adults:

What Urfy admired in children was, above all, their complete lack of ambition. They were content with their daily lot; they strove for nothing but the simple joys of being alive. But for how much longer? It passed quickly — childhood and the marvelous pointlessness of youth — an undeniable truth that filled Urfy with bitterness. These children would later become men. They would join the pack of wolves; they’d abandon their intransigent love of purity and lose themselves in the anonymous crowd of murderers.

Cossery’s strength is in constructing these characters out of minor quirks (Karim always calls them Zouzou, Heykal wears the same luxurious suit every day, Urfy’s anxiety about feeling bad for his insane mother, etc.) and weaving together these viewpoints into a cohesive, compelling plot. Even amid the various missteps (e.g., not detailing what’s written on the poster that brings about the governor’s downfall), it’s clear that Cossery’s most interested in the characters — the jokers of the title — and not necessarily on the jokes themselves, which is one reason this book still resonates today. It’s a rich work, and taken in combination with A Splendid Conspiracy establishes Cossery as one of the most interesting international authors — living or dead — to be published in America this year.

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