Every week, I’m more and more impressed with the B&N Review. And I swear, it’s not just because our books turn up in there on a rather regular basis . . . The latest to be reviewed there is Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s Rupert.
Great piece by Christopher Byrd that opens:
Scout’s honor: On a purely linguistic level, there was something about Pfeijffer’s sentences with their direct, unbuttoned elegance that reminded me of Philip Roth. This comparison shimmered in my mind before I got to the third chapter of Rupert: A Confession, where an uproarious bit of mortification ties the novels lineage to Portnoy’s Complaint. Let’s just say here, too, is a novel for those who aren’t made skittish by a torrent of testosterone. Like its predecessor, Rupert takes the form of a personal disclosure, though its end point is much darker.
This was a great week for Open Letter books, with three of our recent releases getting some nice coverage:
In English for the first time in Martha Tennent’s translation, Death in Spring is about a society that finds highly elaborate ways to elude the inevitable and to conquer time. Its means are slow and insidious, ritualistic and bizarre, always teetering on the line between the real and the magical. Its members, obsessed with imprisoning themselves, pour concrete into the mouths of the dead to keep their souls from escaping. Every spring, they paint the houses pink and it’s unclear whether anyone remembers why. Though the novel is propelled forward by a linear narrative, it is its characters’ evasion of this diachrony that is most captivating. The book is driven by linguistic and thematic repetition, like a prose sestina in which the end words could be symbols or simply icons, aesthetic trends or markers that unfold and elaborate the path of the narrative. We see wisteria and bees, horses and butterflies, souls and prisoners weave in and out of the text, each time reappearing with a new relevance, a new level of meaning.
Christopher Byrd’s review of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel in the B&N Review is also pretty fantastic:
From the opening paragraph — in which the protagonist awakens to discover a couple of Mafiosi in his room who have taken it upon themselves to act as literary agents for a female poet — to the closing paragraphs that flick away the tragic arc that’s usually prefabricated for books in the end-of-the-bottle genre, Pilch teases out plenty of LOL moments from desultory situations. All told, The Mighty Angel furnishes enough Schadenfreude to stylishly blacken just about any comedic sensibility.
Becky Ferreira at L Magazine agrees:
Pilch’s prose is masterful, and the bulk of The Mighty Angel evokes the same numb, floating sensation as a bottle of oadkowa Gorzka. But it’s not until Jerzy haphazardly reveals facts of his grandfather’s life that the naked grotesquerie of alcoholism pierces through the book’s often casual and flippant wit. Though the final chapters posit a chance at redemption, it remains unclear whether Jerzy is breaking the cycle, or just trading in one vice for another. To Pilch’s credit, both of Jerzy’s possible paths seem unfortunate and equally likely.
What’s riveting about Rupert’s account is his self-assuredness. Yes, he often speaks of ‘Rupert’ in the third person, an abstraction he’s removed from — but then Rupert is, after all, the ultimate ‘I am camera’. It’s a fascinating split-personality on display here — and some . . . perversely fine writing. [. . .] Cleverly, artfully done, Rupert: A Confession is no pleasant read, but an oddly seductive one. Well worthwhile.
While reading Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker, a line from Joyce’s Ulysses surfaced in my memory, “Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end.” On at least six occasions, Gavelis (1950-2002) name-checks the Irish Zeus who commemorated the capital of his homeland by besieging it with the distorting optics of his prose. What Joyce did for Dublin, Gavelis has in mind to do for the capital of Lithuania: chide it, gossip about it, and bore it into the memory of those who may never visit it.
I know there are a million reasons why this would be a logistical nightmare and would never actually happen, but something clean, elegant, and weekly, like the B&N Review would be a perfect addition to the IndieBound program. The monthly Indie Next List is fine, but rather than providing bookseller blurbs about a dozen books each month, a weekly e-publication with five 250-word reviews (could even be in sections: a mystery, a children’s/YA book, a small press title, a nonfiction book, etc.) that could then be “pushed” out to readers via a blog would—in my opinion—be even more effective for bringing attention to smart booksellers and the unique books that they love.
Just my two cents . . . I really wrote this post because I think Christopher Byrd’s review is great, and he has a slightly different take on the novel than the other people who have written about it.
Not too terribly long ago, Barnes & Noble.com started Barnes & Noble Review a weekly web magazine featuring reviews of books, CDs, DVDs, etc. Pretty interesting strategy—rather than compete with Amazon on price, provide compelling editorial content. B&N has attracted a nice line of reviewers, including John Freeman (former NBCC president and new American editor of Granta) and Christopher Byrd.
And more relevant to this post, they’re also covering some great books, including a few Open Letter titles.
Last week, Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets was featured on the Best Fiction of the Year list and was plugged by Paul La Farge:
The best short novel I’ve read this year must be Bragi Ólafsson’s The Pets, which makes more room for strangeness in its 157 pages than most novels can find in two or three times that length. [. . .] Ólafsson, who used to play bass in Björk’s band The Sugarcubes, handles the absurdity of the situation with a droll matter-of-factness that’s reminiscent of Murakami, but as the story goes on the drollery gives way to a subtle menace. A catastrophe is about to happen, and the question is, will Emil be able to prevent it, or will he be trapped by his own cowardice? Small, dark, and hard to put down, The Pets may be a classic in the literature of small enclosed spaces—a distinguished genre, which includes “The Metamorphosis,” No Exit, and a fair amount of Beckett.
In the brand new issue, Nobody’s Home by Dubravka Ugresic is reviewed by the aforementioned Christopher Byrd:
Abreast with this endeavor, she also looks into how globalization has affected, what the stalwarts of the Frankfurt School termed, the culture industry. For instance, in the essay “Transition: Morphs & Sliders & Polymorphs,” she notes, “Only in times ruled by firm, frozen values—political, religious, moral aesthetic, has the writer enjoyed . . . a special status. . . .Today, in…market-oriented cultural zones—an intellectual is simply a ‘player’ . . . a performer, a circus performer, an entertainer, a vendor of ‘cultural’ souvenirs.” Following this idea to its logical endpoint, one wonders, does the author factors herself into her own indictment? She does. While tallying the ills of civilization, Ugrešić avoids coming across as remote or above the fray. Indeed, alongside engaging in forceful cultural readings, she discourses on things like gardening and the pleasure of having one’s nails done. In sum, her provocative bent is not cheapened by her unmitigated desire to please.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .