2 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Santiago Gamboa’s Necropolis, which won the La Otra Orilla Literary Award in 2009, is frustratingly good, inventive, and obsessed with story telling. The premise is simple: An author much like Santiago Gamboa himself, is invited to participate in a literary conference about biography—one that will also be attended by a strange array of guests, including a porn star and an ex-con turned evangelical pastor—that takes place in a besieged Jerusalem. During the conference, the ex-con evangelical—who tells one of the most captivating stories in the book—is found dead of an apparent suicide. Maybe.

What’s interesting/frustrating about this book is that that plot point takes place on page 165, then is interrupted, textually at least, for almost 200 pages as other participants in the conference tell their stories, each of which is intriguing in its own right, but which, for a reader of traditional, conventional books obsessed with pacing, plot points, and building climaxes, must be crazy-making. (But those sorts of readers don’t really read these sorts of books, do they?)

I read this way back in the fall and meant to write up a review back then when all the connections between the various stories in the novel—which, in terms of their themes, ideas, and narrative styles, overlap and play off one another in a beguiling fashion—were still fresh in my mind. Now, I’m just left with the memory that, in contrast to say The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron, this novel is much more circular in its construction, looping back on itself in a way informed by the best of twentieth-century literature.

A lot of people reading this blog probably feel the same way, but god damn is it a good time for Spanish-language literature. Vila-Matas. Gamboa. Neuman. Labbé. Marias. Chejfec. Prieto. Valenzuela. Dozens of writers I can’t think of.

22 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Good Offices by Evelio Rosero, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom, and coming out from New Directions next week.

Good Offices is the second novel by Evelio Rosero (after The Armies, 2009) to be published by New Directions. It’s also the first to be translated by Anne McLean in collaboration with Anna Milsom.

In Good Offices, we are released into the world of Tancredo, a hunchback who has a deep fear of becoming an animal. Tancredo, the sexton’s goddaughter (Sabina Cruz) and the three witchlike widows work for a corrupt priest providing charity meals for the local poor. Their endless labor has drained them of their humanity. Their daily routines are soon to be broken, however, with the arrival of a new priest: Father Matamoros, a drunkard with a beautiful voice whose sung mass is spellbinding to all. Under the magical and disillusioning presence of Father Matamoros, the women and Tancredo spill their confessions and turbulent stories.

Click here to read an extended preview, which has a pretty striking opening:

He has a terrible fear of being an animal, especially on Thursdays, at lunchtime. “I have this fear,” he says to himself, and glimpses his hump reflected in the window. His eyes wander over his eyes: he does not recognize himself. What an other! He thinks. What an other! And examines his face. “On Thursdays,” and then, “this Thursday, especially, when it’s the old people’s turn.” Tuesdays for the blind, Mondays for the whores, Fridays for families, Wednesdays for the street kids, Saturdays and Sundays for God, or so says the priest.

Additionally, we posted an interview between Dan Vitale and Anna Milsom, which is definitely worth reading in full:

DV: How did you discover the book?

AM: Well, I met Anne at the BCLT summer school too—it must be a decade or so ago. We had a lot of fun and have stayed in touch since. Two years ago I was running a literary translation evening class at London Metropolitan University where I now teach and I invited Anne to come in as a guest speaker. She had Los almuerzos in her bag and suggested we might see about doing the translation collaboratively—I leapt at the chance, as you may imagine. Anne had already translated Rosero’s The Armies and together they had won the UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, so it felt pretty amazing to be discussing the possibility of working with such a formidable team. I got hold of the book as quickly as I could and the first thing I did was fall for the swooping rush of the prose. The second thing was to wonder how on earth to render it in English. Or perhaps I did those two things simultaneously. Translators read in a very special and peculiar way, I think, taking in the words as both readers and writers at the same time. It becomes hard not to do this, even when you’re reading purely for pleasure.

Finally, here’s Dan’s review of the novel, which opens:

Evelio Rosero’s first novel to be translated into English since his award-winning The Armies takes place on a much smaller scale than that hallucinatory story about the damaging effects of civil war in Colombia. Good Offices, lighter in tone and slighter than The Armies, documents the events of a single day in a single location: a Catholic church in Bogotá. The tale is told through the eyes of Tancredo, a young man with a hunchback, who assists the priest of the church, Father Almida, as an occasional acolyte but mainly by running the daily free lunches the church offers to the city’s neediest residents: “Tuesdays for the blind, Mondays for the whores, Fridays for families, Wednesdays for the street kids, Saturdays and Sundays for God, or so says the priest.”

Click here to access all of these features and to find links where you can buy a copy of the book.

22 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Evelio Rosero’s first novel to be translated into English since his award-winning The Armies takes place on a much smaller scale than that hallucinatory story about the damaging effects of civil war in Colombia. Good Offices, lighter in tone and slighter than The Armies, documents the events of a single day in a single location: a Catholic church in Bogotá. The tale is told through the eyes of Tancredo, a young man with a hunchback, who assists the priest of the church, Father Almida, as an occasional acolyte but mainly by running the daily free lunches the church offers to the city’s neediest residents: “Tuesdays for the blind, Mondays for the whores, Fridays for families, Wednesdays for the street kids, Saturdays and Sundays for God, or so says the priest.”

Tancredo and Father Almida not only work at the church but live in its presbytery, along with Machado, the sacristan; Sabina, Machado’s goddaughter; and “the three Lilias,” a clutch of women who run the household and who have come to resemble one another so closely that they go by the same name. The novel opens on a Thursday afternoon, “when it’s the old people’s turn” to be served lunch, and Tancredo has just finished kicking out the last of the diners. The anger he feels at their insistence on remaining in the church hall long past the end of the meal stirs in him “a terrible fear of being an animal,” although he is for the most part a mild-mannered, studious, and obedient servant of the church.

Beyond its opening pages, however, this short novel barely concerns Tancredo’s primary job. We witness a meeting at which Father Almida informs Tancredo that, starting Monday, the sacristan of the church will begin assisting Tancredo with the lunches, but after this scene nothing more about the meals is mentioned, which is a disappointment—and an oddity, considering that the Spanish title of Good Offices is Los almuerzos (“the lunches”).

Sabina, who lusts after Tancredo and has been waiting for a chance to be alone with him, is excited when Father Almida and her godfather are called away Thursday evening on a mysterious errand to dissuade Don Justiniano, the church’s main financial benefactor, from withdrawing his largesse on the basis of unspecified “lies” purportedly being spread by other priests in the city about the church’s use of Don Justiniano’s funds. But ultimately it is the three Lilias, not Sabina, who take the most pleasure from what transpires in the two men’s absence.

The book’s plot turns out to be built on an archetype: the arrival of a charismatic stranger who forever changes the life of a small, well-ordered community. Father Matamoros appears during a rainstorm to fill in for Father Almida at seven o’clock Mass. In contrast to Almida’s plainspoken efficaciousness, Matamoros is dreamy and poetic (and fond of drink—he swigs aguardiente during the service). But what most endears him to the evening parishioners is that he sings the Mass rather than speaks it, in a voice of great beauty and devotion:

Beneath the cold vaulted reaches, his voice seemed to come from heaven. He repeated his invitation to repent, singing: Beloved brethren, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins. It was as if the organ were sounding. Tancredo lifted his gaze to the marble dome as if escaping and saw the host of painted angels flying among the clouds; he saw them return his gaze and still did not know whether to feel terrified or moved. How long it had been, he thought, since Mass had been sung. The purity of the voice was the air they breathed.

After this miracle of a Mass, the Lilias immediately and passionately ingratiate themselves with Matamoros, making him comfortable, bringing him food and drink and fawning over his talents. But the Mass of Father Matamoros also unleashes something disturbingly otherworldly in them, inspiring them (among other unusual behaviors) to conduct a bizarre and violent ritual in the church garden. Through the night and into the early hours of Friday, their power and ferocity grow to such an extent that not even Father Almida and Machado, when they return from their errand the next morning, are safe from it.

As difficult as it is to describe exactly what has happened to the Lilias, it is even more difficult to speculate about the significance Rosero ascribes to it. New Directions’ fall catalog states that Good Offices is a “beautifully poetic and vivid satire of the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church,” but the stability that Matamoros and the Lilias upset seems composed of far murkier and much more poorly explained elements than mere religious hypocrisy. Or perhaps it is the fervor of the Lilias themselves that is being satirized, but again, if so, Rosero is being far vaguer about his targets than true satire demands.

Further, at the end of the novel Rosero seems to be taking pains to cast Tancredo and Sabina as some kind of modern Adam and Eve, but over what new paradise (or hell?) they are to supposed to reign Rosero does not specify. We finish the book feeling we have experienced something unsettling, but unsure what, and still wondering what is to become of those daily free lunches we read about at the start.

15 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a few Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 4 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.



Today we’re featuring Colombian author Andres Felipe Solano. An excerpt from his new novel—“The Cuervo Brothers”—was translated by Nick Caistor for this issue.

In the end, I wonder if the Shavelzon Agency will be the big winner of all this Granta publicity. They represent a few of the featured authors, including Andres Neuman, Pola Oloixarac, and Andres Felipe Solano. (They also represent both Manuel Puig and Juan Jose Saer, which are two reasons why I love them. That and their brochures and catalogs are as slick as sin.)

Solano has an interesting backstory (don’t all these authors?): Back in 2007 he lived in one of the diciest neighborhoods in Medellin and worked in a factory for six months. (Which reminds me of the book Mark Binelli is writing about Detroit, except for the whole “working in a factory” bit. I think the image of Mark working in a factory will keep me in giggles all day . . .) He converted this experience into an essay entitled “Seis meses con el salario minimo” (which can be translated either as “Six Months at Minimum Salary” or “FML: Minimum Wage Is a Racket!”) that was a finalist for the prize awarded by the Fundacion Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano, chaired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (If you’re interested, you can read the entire essay here.) Solano also had a six-month literary residence in Seoul, where he met his wife. Which is sweet.

The excerpt from his novel in progress is pretty intriguing and exemplifies a lot of ways to pull a reader in—bit of a mystery, unfounded rumors, unfounded mysterious sex rumors.

The Cuervo brothers claimed to have been transferred from a school whose name we had never heard of. The older one started in the second year, a class below me. The younger one joined in the last year of primary school. From the very first week there were all kinds of stories about them. As the months went by, these grew like the number of bullfrogs in the rainy season. During these holidays, I’ve classified them all in a notebook. Going over them carefully, I’ve established four categories:

1. Sex
2. Sinister
3. Diabolical
4. Martian

As was to be expected, the first rumour spread about them was that they were queer. Gay as butterflies, but not very brightly coloured. Brown or perhaps black, those with just a flash of yellow or aquamarine blue. When we started having girlfriends, my best friend Diego told me that one night, after seeing Alien 3 with María Adelaida in the Embajador, he caught sight of the older brother selling himself on the corner of the Terraza Pasteur shopping mall. He got into a green jeep in a parking lot and began sucking off an old guy who looked like a military man. While he was face down, the guy was playing with his false teeth, or so Diego said, without the trace of a smile. The wildest story in this category was about their bodies. According to the person telling it (I can’t remember now who that was), the brothers were born hermaphrodites, and someone saw them binding up their breasts in a toilet before a PE class. After that we got on to their families. As soon as we learned they lived on their own with their grandmother, crime was added to the sex stories we swapped during break time. The worst of these concerned the double life their mother had lived. She had been a high-class whore, but their father found out when they were only little and slit her throat. He was in Gorgona prison, and had five years left to serve of his sentence. When he got out, he was going to reclaim them, and would kill everyone who had made fun of them. I remembered, though, that in a history class once, we had been told the island prison of Gorgona had been closed in 1977, when the only inmates left were poisonous snakes.

The sinister stories all started with a melodramatic incident. At first there was a rumour they had escaped from an orphanage south of the city. The wealthy spinster they were now living with helped them run away one night through a drainage pipe, and took them to live in one of the 1940s mansions that still survived in the neighbourhood around the school. Most of them had been pulled down or converted into car workshops, but the house where the Cuervos lived was just as it had always been, with its lofty English appearance. Others said they were her legitimate grandsons, flesh of her flesh, but that every weekend she chained their hands and feet, locked them in the basement, and only gave them wheat broth and stale bread to eat. That’s why they smelled so badly when they came to school on Mondays, it was said. The most dreadful aspect of the whole thing was imagining them having to eat that thick soup, that slimy gruel we all hated when it was served up in the school canteen. Some boys even said the dungeon they were kept in communicated directly with the basements in Avenida Jiménez, the ones near the spot where Gaitán was killed, and that his real killer had escaped through them. I myself invented the rumour that the younger one suffered from a strange illness which meant he could only see in black and white, and that was why his eyes were wrinkled like prunes. Nobody liked that one. So I invented a syndrome which gave him convulsions and made him clasp his balls if he spent too long in the open air. That explains why he never plays football, I said, to clinch the argument.

[. . .]

One of the more sinister rumours had it that when the drug traffickers began exploding car bombs, the brothers used to go to the scene of the explosion and take photos of the burned-out wrecks, the buildings with shattered windows, the mutilated, wounded, and even of the dead bodies. Although no one at school ever saw these photos, I discovered them one evening when they left me alone in their second-floor library. They had classified them in different folders. There were some of the bomb at the El Espectador newspaper office, and the DAS security headquarters, others of the one in the Quirigua neighbourhood, or at the Carulla supermarket on 127th Street in 1990, close to my auntie’s house. I remember that last one very well. It was a Sunday, Mother’s Day. The bomb went off an hour after we bought a cake with confectionery roses on it in the shopping mall where the bombed supermarket was. They also had photos of the bomb at the 93 Centre. It was dreadful to imagine them catching a bus to the scene of the explosion, then standing there in the midst of the tragedy, calmly taking photos. I calculate that when the DAS bomb went off they must have been thirteen and fifteen, if that. And now I come to think of it, when the school put into practice an evacuation plan in case of an attack – the son of an army officer who was at loggerheads with a drug baron was studying with us – the Cuervo brothers started carrying gas masks in their satchels. Diego and I saw them and asked where they had got them. They said their grandmother had bought the masks in the flea market. As extravagant as ever, Zorrilla assured everyone they must have belonged to their grandfather.

The first time I went to their house, the grandmother received me in a small reception room that was obviously for brief, informal visits.

Subscribe. Receive free issue. That is all.

5 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Every year BOMB puts together a special “Americas Issue” focusing on art and literature from a different part of the Americas. This tends to mean South America, but you never know, maybe Canada will be—or was?—the focus at some point in time. Regardless, this is always one of my favorite issues of the year from this esteemed magazine that’s been around since 1981, and this year’s focus on Colombia and Venezuela keeps that tradition going.

Some of the highlights:

The “First Proof” literary supplement also has pieces by Luis Enrique Belmonte, Carolina Lozada, Victor Manuel Gaviria, Yolanda Pantin, Federico Vegas, Hector Abad Faciolince, Igor Barreto, and Luis Molina-Pantin. (You have to buy the actual magazine to get access to these pieces . . .)

I don’t know as much about contemporary Venezuelan literature, but Colombia is pretty hot these days with both Vasquez’s The Informers and Rosero’s The Armies getting a lot of good attention. Not to mention Santiago Gamboa . . .

8 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the past few years, New Directions has put together what is arguably the best collection of contemporary Latin American literature available from any single publisher. Sure, there’s the heaps of Bolano titles. But there’s also Cesar Aira. And Horacio Castellanos Moya. There’s Guillermo Rosales’s The Halfway House. Ernesto Cardenal’s poetry collection. The two Luis Fernando Verissimo books. Felisberto Hernández and Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam. The reissues of the Borges titles. One could do a lot worse than spend a few months with the Latin American section of the ND catalog . . .

And now comes Evelio Rosero’s The Armies, the translation of which—as Dan mentions in his review—won Anne McLean her second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year.

Dan Vitale—reviewer, writer, and editor—has a lot of great things to say about The Armies and its translation in his review:

Anne McLean’s translation of Colombian novelist Evelio Rosero’s The Armies is the winner of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, given by Great Britain’s Independent newspaper to honor excellence in translated works of fiction published in the UK. (It’s McLean’s second nod from the The Independent in five years: she also won the prize in 2004 for her translation of Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas.)

New Directions has now released The Armies in the U.S. The novel—to my knowledge, the first by Rosero to be translated into English—is a deceptively calm, at times even placid look at a staggeringly violent subject: the perpetual atrocities being committed against human life and dignity by the combatants in the seemingly endless civil war in Colombia. Rosero’s ability to write so plainly about such horrors gives the book an unearthly aspect, as if its setting, the town of San José, were as bleak and forbidding as the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or the unnamed city in José Saramago’s Blindness whose inhabitants all lose their sight. The residents of San José, too, will become crippled, although by forces entirely human and familiar: the murderous bands of warring forces referred to throughout the novel only as “soldiers,” “guerrillas,” or “paramilitaries.”

Rosero’s narrator, Ismael Pasos, is a retired schoolteacher married to Otilia, also retired from teaching. Two years before the present action of the novel begins, the church in San José is dynamited, leaving fourteen dead and sixty-four wounded. As the novel opens, the town is again relatively quiet, but the small compass of Ismael and Otilia’s world soon starts to be affected by random violence: the mutilated corpse of a newborn has been discovered in a rubbish dump. Shortly afterward, Ismael and Otilia’s next-door neighbor Eusebio is kidnapped. The next day, while out for a walk, Ismael is detained by soldiers, and when he returns home, Otilia is gone. Ismael sets off to find her.

Click here for the full review.

8 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Anne McLean’s translation of Colombian novelist Evelio Rosero’s The Armies is the winner of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, given by Great Britain’s Independent newspaper to honor excellence in translated works of fiction published in the UK. (It’s McLean’s second nod from the The Independent in five years: she also won the prize in 2004 for her translation of Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas.)

New Directions has now released The Armies in the U.S. The novel—to my knowledge, the first by Rosero to be translated into English—is a deceptively calm, at times even placid look at a staggeringly violent subject: the perpetual atrocities being committed against human life and dignity by the combatants in the seemingly endless civil war in Colombia. Rosero’s ability to write so plainly about such horrors gives the book an unearthly aspect, as if its setting, the town of San José, were as bleak and forbidding as the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or the unnamed city in José Saramago’s Blindness whose inhabitants all lose their sight. The residents of San José, too, will become crippled, although by forces entirely human and familiar: the murderous bands of warring forces referred to throughout the novel only as “soldiers,” “guerrillas,” or “paramilitaries.”

Rosero’s narrator, Ismael Pasos, is a retired schoolteacher married to Otilia, also retired from teaching. Two years before the present action of the novel begins, the church in San José is dynamited, leaving fourteen dead and sixty-four wounded. As the novel opens, the town is again relatively quiet, but the small compass of Ismael and Otilia’s world soon starts to be affected by random violence: the mutilated corpse of a newborn has been discovered in a rubbish dump. Shortly afterward, Ismael and Otilia’s next-door neighbor Eusebio is kidnapped. The next day, while out for a walk, Ismael is detained by soldiers, and when he returns home, Otilia is gone. Ismael sets off to find her.

In the course of his wanderings in search of Otilia, Ismael faces one trauma after another. He learns that Eusebio’s twelve-year-old son Eusebito has also been taken away, as has the girl, also twelve, that Eusebio and his wife Geraldina took in after her parents were killed in the church explosion. He encounters wayward gunfire from a frustrated army captain and survives a grenade attack on his home. He discovers that several of his friends have been murdered, including two who were victims of a massacre at a hospital. He receives letters from his married daughter Maria in Popayán, who implores her parents to leave San José before things get worse—letters he is helpless to answer in part because he cannot bring himself to tell Maria that Otilia is missing. He commiserates with Chepe, the café owner whose pregnant wife is kidnapped, and stands his ground to await Otilia’s increasingly unlikely return, even as many of the other surviving townspeople begin an exodus out of San José.

The glimpses of the lives of the people of San José that Rosero weaves into Ismael’s narrative are as varied and engaging as those in Gabriel García Márquez’s In Evil Hour, another enduring work about political violence in a small Colombian town. For example, in a startling flash-forward, we are with Geraldina three months after the hospital massacre, when Eusebito is suddenly returned to her:

Now all her preoccupation is focused entirely on her son so reserved he almost seems dead; in vain she attempts to wake him from the nightmare he is in: she hovers around him every minute of the day, hanging on his every gesture, and falls back desperately on a kind of game of deluded songs, in which she uselessly tries to convince herself that he participates, he, a child who seems mummified, stuck in an urn.

The breathlessness of Ismael’s long sentences in this section add even more weight to the heaviness of Geraldina’s grief, as if on top of everything else she were being starved for air.

By the end of the novel, as Ismael loses track of the days and weeks, Geraldina becomes virtually his only connection to normal life. The book’s final sections are stunning: unnerving in their suspense, tragic in their clear-eyed depiction of the apparently infinite capacity of some human beings—legitimated only by the authority of brute force—to perform acts of supreme degradation upon others.

During it all, as he suffers one indignity after another, and despite the repeated pummeling his spirit takes with each new piece of ghastly news he hears, Ismael remains our diligent witness to unspeakable acts, his instinct for self-preservation not so much a heroic aspect of the human spirit as the stubborn persistence of a wounded animal. Near the end of the book Ismael rouses himself, with one last burst of strength, to continue on, in a passage so beautiful it deserves to be quoted in full:

From the trees a cluster of birds takes flight, after a series of bursts of gunfire, still distant. Far away, another group of stragglers, men and women, rush along the road: it looks as if they are fleeing on tiptoe, trying not to make any noise, with voluntary, disproportionate stealth. Some of the women point to me, terrified, as if commenting to each other on the presence of a ghost. I have sat down on a flat, white rock, under a fragrant magnolia tree; I do not remember this rock either, or this magnolia, when did they appear? With every reason I do not know this street, these corners, things, I have lost my memory, just as if I were sinking and I began to walk one by one down steps which lead to the most unknown, this town, I shall stay alone, I suppose, but in some way I shall make this town my home, and I shall stroll through you, town, until Otilia comes for me.

I shall eat what they have left in their kitchens, I shall sleep in all their beds, I shall recognize their stories by their vestiges, guessing at their lives from the clothes they left behind, my time shall be another time, I shall amuse myself, I am not blind, I shall cure my knee, I shall walk up to the high plateau as a stroll and then return, my cats will continue to feed me, if weeping is all that is left, let it be out of happiness; am I going to cry? No, just burst out laughing with all the unpredictable laughter I have been holding back all this time, and I am going to laugh because I have just seen my daughter, beside me, you have sat down on this rock, I tell her, I hope you understand all the horror that I am, inside, ‘or all the love’—this last I say out loud, laughing—I hope you are drawing near in sympathy with me, that you forgive the only one guilty of the disappearance of your mother, because I left her on her own.

As rendered by Anne McLean, these lines—and many others like them in this remarkable, haunting novel—surely warrant the accolade this translation received in Britain. Now that The Armies has been published here, U.S. readers can readily experience its immense power for themselves.

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