20 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Katrine Øgaard Jensen. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

Mexico vs. Croatia

A few years back, during a drunken Christmas party at a Danish newspaper, I asked a colleague how she developed her opinions as a movie critic. She did not have an academic background in film, and yet there she was, at a national paper, reviewing movies every week.
“Piece of cake!” she exclaimed, “I just think of the movie as a soccer match, making up the score as I watch it. When I leave the theatre, I ask myself: How was the game?”

I decided to adopt the movie critic’s honorable method in this piece for World Cup of Literature, Mexico vs. Croatia. Furthermore, I have subjected the two competing novels, Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic, to reading in several diverse environments in exciting New York City, including a local coffee shop in Bushwick, a local bar in Bushwick, and my bed (also in Bushwick). I highly doubt that any reader will find this carefully thought-out method to be anything but utterly agreeable.

New York City Subway

It almost seems unfair; Faces in the Crowd actually depicts a NYC subway car on its cover. Its short, poetic prose, served to the reader as connected vignettes, is a match made in heaven for a ride on the L train, infested with hipsters either listening to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” by The Smiths on their iPhones, or talking loudly to their twenty-something friends about failed Tinder dates. You don’t need an attention span to read Faces in the Crowd. You could even consider displacing it on one of those orange plastic seats, to see if the book actually starts reading itself for you.

Baba Yaga, on the other hand, is an outright hassle to get through on the subway. The literary style is dense; it’s difficult to stay focused in the midst of the IT’S SHOWTIME boys breakdancing on the poles, the occasional evangelist, the Alicia Keys wannabe, and whoever else demands my attention in the subway car.

I really shouldn’t be allowed to read good literature. They should give literary licenses to responsible adults only.

GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 1 – Croatia 0)

Local Bushwick Coffee Shop

Three mornings a week, I buy a breakfast bagel and a coffee from a Colombian sunbeam of a woman. She greets me with the words, “morning sweetie, what can I get for you,” forever in the midst of entertaining the rest of the coffee shop with tales from her home country. The day I bring in my World Cup of Literature titles to read, she speaks fondly of her single-parent upbringing while taking my order.

“My mother used to beat me with a belt. Taught me not to make the same mistake twice, oh no,” she says, and laughs. I laugh too.

“I bet your mother never beat you,” she says to me, and I tell her she is right. Then we laugh again.

This morning I find myself in awe of Baba Yaga. Ugresic’s nightmarishly truthful depiction of a mother-daughter relationship through the first eighty pages of the book puts words to situations that I’ve become only too familiar with, ever since my mother’s illness transformed her into a Baba Yaga when I was twenty. Ugresic is clearly a literary master unworthy of my judgment, and oops, what’s that piece of information I overlooked on the cover? “Nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.”

GOAL TO CROATIA.
(Mexico 1 – Croatia 1)

Riverside Park

The sun is burning my Scandinavian scalp, while my blond mane is drenching the forehead and neck in sweat. I buy 3-dollar water from a cart in the park and curse the smirking salesman for just about three minutes in my head, a minute per dollar, I guess. It’s gross out, and I don’t feel like dealing with the heaviness of Baba Yaga’s 327 pages. I find a bench in the shade, try to read a few pages, but must admit defeat. Once again, I pull out Faces in the Crowd. It’s easy to get back into, it’s the guilty pleasure of having sex with your ex—it’s effortless:

Milk, diaper, vomiting and regurgitation, cough, snot, and abundant dribble. The cycles now are short, repetitive, and imperative. It’s impossible to try to write. The baby looks at me from her high chair: sometimes with resentment, sometimes with admiration. Maybe with love, if we are indeed able to love at that age. She produces sounds that will have a hard time adapting themselves to Spanish, when she learns to speak it. Closed vowels, guttural opinions. She speaks a bit like the characters in a Lars von Trier movie.

Admittedly, I have a soft spot for Lars, so Luiselli naturally scores with me right there, on a sweaty bench in Riverside Park. I think of an old boyfriend who took me to see Antichrist in the movie theatre. He was really into soccer.

GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 2 – Croatia 1)

In Bed In Bushwick

“Is that about Baba Yaga?” my new friend asks, as we lie down to read on my bed, belly first.

“Yeah, kind of,” I say. We look like book seals, although that’s not a thing.

“She’s that witch who eats children, right! Is that book going to win?”

“I don’t know, it’s kind of a masterpiece, but it’s also kind of hard to get through. I think I like this one better,” I say, and tap the cover of Faces in the Crowd.

“Well, I think this one should win!” he says, and pushes Baba Yaga closer to me. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are playing on Spotify as I begin reading. I was going to put on The Smiths, but decided we were not quite there yet.

I discover that the second section of the book is much sillier than the first; the humor is kind of adorable. I especially enjoy the scene where an elderly woman, Beba, is getting a massage from the young Mevlo:

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

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

“Hang on, what are you talking about?”

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

“No,” lied Beba.

I tell my new friend that Baba Yaga is pretty great. I also tell him that he has a huge cock.

We met on Tinder.

GOAL TO CROATIA
(Mexico 2 – Croatia 2)

Local Bushwick Bar

I’m ordering a completely legitimate Tuesday counter-drink, hair of the dog. A counter-Bacardi rum and coke; it has to be exactly the same as the night before, or it won’t help. At this point, there is no point in denying the obvious, I tell the bartender, as Brazil fails to shine against Mexico on the TV behind him.

I don’t feel like reading Baba Yaga right now. I feel like reading Faces in the Crowd. There, I said it.

GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 3 – Croatia 2)

——

Katrine Øgaard Jensen is an Editor-at-Large for Asymptote, and the Editor-in-Chief for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University, majoring in Fiction and Literary Translation.

——

Did Faces in the Crowd Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


28 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last week, The Millions ran this excellent piece by Arnon Grunberg on fellow Open Letter author Dubravka Ugresic:

The Russian word poshlost, according to a seminal essay by Vladimir Nabokov, has a number of possible definitions — “cheap,” “inferior, “scurvy,” “tawdry” — but is perhaps best grasped by example. He cites a character from a story told by Gogol. A German tries, unsuccessfully, to seduce a young girl who sits each evening on her balcony along a lake. At wit’s end, he decides at last to go swimming in the lake each evening with a pair of swans, prepared by him specially for that purpose. He succeeds in embracing both swans while swimming. The ritual repeats itself for a few successive evenings. The girl resists at first, but finally, in Gogol’s telling, “the lady’s heart was conquered.”

Poshlost, then, is the generation of sentiment in the hope that it will elicit someone else’s favor. Or, as Nabokov puts it, a form of sentimentalism “so cleverly painted over with protective tints that its presence often escapes attention.” [. . .]

Seduction is one of the great themes of the Croation writer Dubravka Ugresic’s essays . . . but not – or only rarely – the seduction that takes place between two lovers. She is far more interested in the seductive tactics of generals, intellectuals, wartime profiteers, academics, and businessmen (the latter category being one in which she also places publishers). Seduction, she suggests, is not only the lead-up to the conquest of a lover, but also the lead-up to war, ethnic cleansing, and the rewriting of history. No ideology, no sales, no religion, no democracy, and no dictatorship without seduction.

The bitter truth behind all seduction does not escape Ugresic’s notice, either: the seducee is merely an obstacle. The seducer conquers like a supreme commander, without worrying too much about the collateral damage, focusing solely on efficiency, on the result. Poshlost, Ugresic observes, is an inevitable byproduct.

Indeed, poshlost is one of Ugresic’s favorite words, cropping up all over her five collections of essays. For her, it is linked inextricably to Nabokov’s earlier essay, and is often deployed alongside her own formulation: “a gingerbread heart.” But what continues to amaze and agitate her in these essays is that the imitation, the gingerbread, turns out to be so seductive. Indeed, it is the lie that seduces us, that makes our hearts skip a beat. Two swans embraced by a German in a lake at dusk — how could one ever resist that?

Poshlost is, of course, a subspecies of kitsch; it is kitsch that is no longer recognized as such, that is to be found everywhere, including in what we may call “great art,” and from which one can never escape. The writer himself is caught up in the thick of it. He too, after all, is a seducer, he too wishes to sell something, and to the extent that he has ever felt ashamed of that, he stopped noticing a long time ago.

Ugresic, and this speaks in her favor, does not feign coyness about this situation; coyness, after all, is one of the hallmarks of poshlost. No, she is very much aware of the fact that she herself is a part of the literary and intellectual machinery and its sales techniques. She knows that she, too, seduces in a professional capacity. (Ugresic cites approvingly another remark of Nabokov’s: “In the kingdom of poshlost, it is not the book that ‘makes a triumph’, but the reading public.”) An essay in Thank You for Not Reading discusses a prostitute in America who claims not to be a prostitute but a “pleasure activist.” Ugresic ends the piece with the statement that she too is a “pleasure activist,” and that no one may take her profession away from her.

Then again, the pleasures of Ugresic’s essays are unusual ones. Some one hundred and fifty years ago now, the Dutch writer Multatuli pointed out that the author has a great deal in common with the prostitute. Multatuli himself tried to maintain his dignity, he said, by haranguing his customers. Ugresic in turn, I believe, tries to maintain her dignity by not giving her customers what they expect from a Balkan-born writer. Gripping tales of communism and post-communism, for example, stories about standing in line for butter and about no longer having to stand in line for butter.

Instead, she asks: What are we to do if we breathe in kitsch every day, if kitsch saturates even our private lives? How can intellectuals maintain a critical stance with regard to something ubiquitous, unless they, as Isaac Babel put it, become “masters in the genre of silence?” Ugresic’s melancholy conclusion is that there remains no position possible outside the world of poshlost, not for the intellectual either. A position like that would be a pose, insincere and misleading: poshlost itself, in other words. Ugresic concedes, in short, its inescapability. She admits that it would be deceitful to pretend that poshlost has not won the final victory.

The whole piece is definitely worth reading, as is Arnon’s latest book, Tirza, along with Dubravka’s two Open Letter titles: Nobody’s Home and Karaoke Culture.

Speaking of Dubravka, her new book, Europe in Sepia, is currently being translated by David Williams and will come out from Open Letter in February 2014.

4 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned back when it was awarded, Dubrakva Ugresic was awarded the Jean Améry Award for Essay Writing this past fall. As it turned out, fellow Open Letter author, Arnon Grunberg,- whose Tirza should be on everyone’s must read list for the spring, gave a speech about Dubravka at the awards ceremony during the Frankfurt Book Fair.

He also wrote this short post about Améry and Ugresis:

Jean Améry (born Hans Mayer) was a completely assimilated Austrian Jew who fled to Belgium in 1938. There he joined the resistance and was captured by the Gestapo. First he was tortured and then he was sent to Auschwitz.

After the war, he wrote under the pen name Jean Améry. His essays describe his wartime experiences and question what it means to be Jewish when this identity is forced upon you. His writings are not as well-known as Primo Levi’s, but nobody has written with as much insight and intelligence about torture as Améry. (I understand that there is some irony in the notion of writing intelligently about torture, but there is some irony in all writing about wartime experiences; the aesthetic demands of literature and the cruelty of war are an uncomfortable combination.) [. . .]

Dubravka Ugrešić is a Croatian writer who lives in Amsterdam. Although she has written a few novels, she is best known for her essays. She observes her surroundings with a keen eye, and she combines irony with engagement. Some people tend to believe that irony is the enemy of engagement, but engagement without irony is fundamentalism.

To give an example of this ironic engagement, take a look at this sentence, typical for Ugrešić : “Intellectuals are… only people who badly want to be needed by someone.”

This is an excuse, or at least an explanation, for the behavior of many an intellectual. But since Ugrešić herself is obviously an intellectual, she reflects on her own position.

Or take this sentence on contemporary literature: “Contemporary, market-oriented literature is realistic, optimistic, cheerful, sexy, explicitly or implicitly didactic, and aimed at a broad reading public. As such, it contributes to retraining and reeducation, in the spirit of the personal triumph of the good person over the bad. As such, it is social-realistic. It is merely less boring than its Soviet-Russian predecessor.”

It might be clear by now why Ugrešić manages to infuriate people, which is a side effect of a good essay. If nobody is infuriated, it probably wasn’t worth reading.

I don’t know much of anything about Jean Amery, but I do know that Dubravka Ugresic is one of the most important writers of current times, and that Karaoke Culture is a fricking masterpiece. Just read this excerpt and I’m sure you’ll agree.

31 August 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following the earlier post about the 2012 PEN Literary Awards, here’s another awards announcement—one that hits a bit closer to home.

According to Boersenblatt, Dubravka Ugresic has been awarded the Jean Améry Award for Essay Writing for the German version of Karaoke Culture.

Here’s the official statement by the jury (in Google-ese):

“Dubravka Ugrešić impresses in her essays by brilliant intellectual analysis of contemporary issues that concern us all in Karaoke Culture. The author describes the modern digital world with all its confusions and errors and shows small examples to control where the unleashed new media. Yet their words are easy to read so enjoyable because she is a master of acerbic wit, though a sometimes the laughter gets stuck in your throat.”

Dubravka will be honored at a special event during the Frankfurt Book Fair, and will be introduced by Arnon Grunberg, whose Tirza is forthcoming from Open Letter.

Dubravka is the most deserving author of this award, and if you haven’t read Karaoke Culture, you really should. It’s a stunning book, which was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

8 March 12 | N. J. Furl | Comments

So, last night was the National Book Critics Circle Awards Finalists Reading—a pre-awards-ceremony event at the Tishman Auditorium at The New School, where many of the NBCC Awards Finalists gave readings from their nominated works. Among the authors in attendance last night was our own Dubravka Ugresic, who is a Finalist for her excellent collection of essays Karaoke Culture. In fact, here she is, ripping it up:


(Thanks to Shaun for the pic.)

And tonight is the big NBCC Awards Ceremony itself. (Tickets to the ceremony are free and 50 for access to the reception.) If you’re able to make it, it’s sure to be a great event, filled with incredible nominees.

Best of luck to Dubravka tonight.

23 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This weekend, the National Book Critics Circle announced the finalists for its books wards for publishing 2011 and—not to bury the lede—including Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture as one of the five finalists in the Criticism category.

This is the first major book award that one of titles has been nominated for (not counting the BTBA), and we’re extremely psyched. I’ve been on and on and on about this book for the past year, which makes this news just that much sweeter. To celebrate this honor, we’re selling copies of Karaoke Culture through our website for the special price of $9.99.

OR, if you’d rather become an Open Letter supporter and receive all of our fantastic books, you can buy a subscription and we’ll throw in a copy of Karaoke Culture for free.

Going back to the NBCCs, I have to say, the Criticism category is the very definition of LOADED. Check out this list of finalists:

  • David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Faber & Faber)
  • Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews (Graywolf)
  • Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence (Doubleday)
  • Dubravka Ugresic, Karaoke Culture (Open Letter) (Translated by David Williams, Ellen Elias-Bursac, and Celia Hawkesworth)
  • Ellen Willis, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (University of Minnesota Press)

Bellos, Lethem, Ugresic, AND Dyer?!?!? Damn. That’s all I can say.

By contrast, the other categories—all of which contain a few truly excellent books—seem tame. You can read the full press release and list of all finalists by clicking here. And here are my picks for which titles should win in the various categories:

Fiction:

  • Teju Cole, Open City (Random House)

Nonfiction:

  • James Gleick, The Information (Pantheon)

Autobiography:

  • Deb Olin Unferth, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War (Henry Holt)

Biography:

  • Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of the Revolution (Little, Brown)

Poetry:

  • Forrest Gander, Core Samples from the World (New Directions)

Congrats to everyone, and special congrats to Dubravka Ugresic, David Williams, Ellen Elias-Bursac, and Celia Hawkesworth!

4 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In the L.A. Times, Carolyn Kellogg has an excellent review of Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture — one of the best books I read last year. (And which you can purchase here.)

Here are a few highlights from Carolyn’s review:

Dubravka Ugresic does not like karaoke. That doesn’t stop her from trying it, just as her resistance to celebrity doesn’t stop her from putting her head through a cutout on a Hollywood studio tour so that she can be photographed with Clark Gable. Ugresic, a game and inquisitive critic, looks at culture from all angles, which sometimes means picking up the mic.

Karaoke recycles rather than creates, she argues in “Karaoke Culture,” the 100-page essay that lends its name to the title of her new collection. To Ugresic, karaoke is emblematic of our contemporary moment: She sees it as a sad attempt to adopt the trappings of celebrity, an art that’s derivative without enrichment and a practice that degrades the original because it can never be quite as good. “In all its manifestations karaoke culture unites narcissism, exhibitionism and the neurotic need for the individual to inscribe him or herself on the indifferent surface of the world,” she writes. It’s not just singing on stages: Ugresic traces these themes in reality television, fandom, hobbyists, politics, art and, of course, the Internet. [. . .]

Ugresic writes in short, episodic sections, making surprising leaps. An essay that begins with a Hemingway look-alike contest hops quickly to the arrest of Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic. The connections are electric: It’s an intellect in action, ideas zapping across the page. [. . .]

Despite these small failings, “Karaoke Culture” is an essential investigation of our times. Ugresic’s best moments come when she connects the personal to the universal, when navigating a political storm is illustrated by her mother’s easy laughter in the face of unpleasantness, or when she extrapolates from her own Internet overuse: “Would Marcel Proust have written ‘In Search of Lost Time,’” she asks, “if he had had a Madeleine cookie on the computer screen in front of him?”

Read the entire review here.

15 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

At this past ALTA (which I still need to write about, I know), Dwayne Hayes of Absinthe recorded are few video interviews about people’s favorite books of the year. The first one he posted is the one that I did about . . . Karaoke Culture. You can watch it at the link above (which I approve of, since part of my face is cut off on my browser, making me seem either arty or quite possibly freakish), or below:

And in terms of Absinthe itself, you can order a copy of the new issue (#16) by clicking here. And to get a taste of it, watch the video below in which Dwayne shamelessly uses his cuter-that-should-be-legal son to help explain what’s included. Watch it for the toddler, stay for the international literature!

15 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at The New Republic Ruth Franklin (who is working on a biography of Shirley Jackson, which should be amazing) has a piece detailing the five books that came out in 2011 that she wishes she had reviewed.

It’s a great list that includes Teju Cole’s Open City (“Reminiscent of the works of W.G. Sebald, this dreamy, incantatory debut was the most beautiful novel I read this year—the kind of book that remains on your nightstand long after you finish so that you can continue dipping in occasionally as a nighttime consolation.”), Tessa Hadley’s The London Train, Caitlin Horrocks’s This Is Not Your City, Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, and Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture:

Ugresic, a Croatian novelist and essayist who now lives in Amsterdam, is one of the most stringent and wide-ranging commentators at work today, bringing an ironic sensibility honed under communism to global pop culture. In the pieces collected here, many originally published in European newspapers, she sounds like the fantasy cultural-studies professor you never had, making crazy connections between unlikely ideas that turn out to be brilliant. In the long essay that opens the collection, she riffs on the concept of karaoke as a catch-all metaphor for the new forms of creativity, technologically enabled and often anonymous, that characterize the artists of the digital age—from users of the program Second Life to a performer on “Bulgarian Idol” who became an Internet sensation for her bastardization of the English language, rendering the chorus of her song as “Ken Lee / tulibu dibu douchoo” (“Can’t live / if living is without you”). Ugresic’s anecdotes and aperçus are as irresistibly quotable—“The Internet is the final, most explosive powder keg strewn on the eternal flame of our fantasies”—as they are haunting.

As I’ve mentioned a million times (or so), and will again (see the next post), Karaoke Culture is one of my favorite books of the year. And thinking about it now, like right now, like days before the holidays start in full, I think this may well be the perfect book for this month. It can help get you through any and all less-than-ideal family experiences. You will laugh. And rage. Seriously, buy it now, read the first essay, and you’ll be hooked. (If you want a preview, click here.

9 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this week’s podcast we learn the following: Chad is working through the five stages of grief about Albert Pujols and MSU (he is filled with ANGER); Tom doesn’t read a ton of nonfiction, but when he does, it tends to focus on all things violent (see a theme?); faux-karaoke singers on the subway might suck, but Karaoke Culture is awesome; and book people like to totally flip out at most every opportunity (we are an unstable people).

Read More...

29 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Kirkus just posted a longish interview by Jessa Crispin (founder/editor of Bookslut) with Dubravka Ugresic about her new collection, Karaoke Culture. (Which, not to give too much away, is one of the books on my “Best of 2011” list that Tom and I will be discussing on this week’s podcast.)

You should go there now and read the whole piece (after which, you’ll head over to your retailer of choice and buy a copy of the book), but for those of you still here, here’s a few choice excerpts:

What’s your relationship to pop culture? Detached observer? Or do you have the last season of The Good Wife on DVD?

Popular culture (or moreover, its products) doesn’t interest me so much. What interests me is cultural populism. In other words, I’m not interested in the saga of the Twilight books and movies, but in the mechanism of fascination these products instill in millions of young consumers.

The patterns of popular culture have permeated every sphere of our lives, our entire mental landscape: politics, relationships, the education system, language, our narratives, trends, fashions, art and literature. Popular culture has even penetrated scholarly enclaves. That’s why it’s impossible to talk about popular culture, because it’s a very particular cultural reservation; popular culture is more like the air we breathe, and that’s why participation in it is so hard to escape.

Much of the Karaoke Culture you write about contains this impulse to remove the viewer from reality as much as possible, or to dunk them as fully into a new world as possible. From the intense fandom sites that put you in the world of the object of your affection, whether that be a vampire book or a television show, to something like Second Life. Is it something about contemporary life that drives this, or are humans always looking for the exit ramp?

Popular culture and cultural populism work two ways. Popular culture is a carrier of “old truths,” myth-like structures, and in this respect it’s always retrograde. But it’s also highly topical, engaged and relevant, because it works as a mirror. It reflects the obsessions, fears, dilemmas and frustrations of many people, transforming them into a pleasure zone, into our contemporary myths, into screens for our projections. Today’s popular culture boasts tremendous power because its consumers are no longer passive: thanks to technology, s/he is an inter/active participant. Technology gives the consumer a strong sense of communality and the power to change things. Whether it’s just a psychological trap, whether one really can change things or not, that’s another question. [. . .]

You write at one point that the reason we don’t have children anymore, referring to the increased rates of violence amongst youths, is because we don’t have adults anymore. Certainly there is little difference in the culture we consume—every generation is listening to the same music, watching the same television shows, playing the same video games. Is there something stunting about a culture that tells us we can all pursue our dreams rather than deal with dreary obligations, and when pleasure is only a few clicks away?

We do live in infantile times, mothers increasingly look like their daughters, and they, mothers and daughters, both behave like little girls. Fathers compete with their sons. We all try to stay young until we die. Nobody wants to be lumped in the “old jerks” category anymore. That’s why the world, or the richest and “luckiest” part of it, resembles a kindergarten.

Popular culture, TV shows, movies, books, games, the Internet, media, technology—these are our favorite toys. Vladimir Putin miserably singing “Blueberry Hill,” accompanied by the best American musicians and applauded by the best American actors, is one of the most grotesque recent images of life in our kindergarten.

However, I write my essays not to preach and moralize, though that’s unavoidable, too, but to see what’s behind the curtain, how the mechanism works. One of my dearest books was, and still is, The Wizard of Oz. And my favorite literary hero is not Dorothy, or her three companions, but Toto, a little dog. He’s the one who pulls the curtain, not because he’s brave, but simply because he’s curious.

31 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I mentioned this in passing a couple weeks back, but The Paris Review website recently posted Dubrakva Ugresic’s “Assault on the Minibar,” which is one of the many fantastic pieces in her new collection, Karaoke Culture.

A number of sites have been linking to this essay, and I particularly like the summary that The Millions posted:

Anyone who travels a lot will enjoy Dubravka Ugresic‘s essay on hotel minibars. As a matter of fact, just about anyone will enjoy this essay regardless of how often they travel.

Here’s the opening of Dubravka’s attack:

At the reception desk I filled in all the necessary details and got the key. Before I headed off to my room the receptionist asked:

“Would you like to open a hotel account?”

“What’s that?”

“It means that you don’t have to pay for everything you have or use in the hotel immediately, you just give your account number.”

I declined. What do I want with a hotel account? I’m only here for three days. Breakfast is included, and most of the time I’ll be out and about.

The room was large, luxurious, and had that fresh new smell. The furniture was certainly brand-new, the bathroom enormous, and the heavy windows opened gracefully with the touch of a button.

I hadn’t even gotten around to unpacking my things when I heard a knock at the door.

“Can I help you?” I asked the young porter.

“Sorry, but I have to lock the minibar.”

“Why?”

“Because you didn’t open a hotel account,” he said, before heading for the minibar, locking it, and leaving.

All of a sudden I felt the blade of the invisible sword of injustice pressing on the back of my neck. I don’t even use minibars. Alcohol doesn’t agree with me; I don’t like greasy, stale crisps; I hate any kind of peanuts; candy bars of uncertain origin aren’t my thing; random bottled liquids inevitably give me heartburn; and carbonated, nonalcoholic drinks are just plain bad for your health. The bottom line is that a minibar doesn’t have anything I’d ever want. So why did I feel so humiliated? Just because the bellboy locked the minibar? Did he put a padlock on the shower, the bathroom tap, the TV remote, the toilet seat? He didn’t. Rationalizing it, comforting myself with thoughts of the palatial bed or a hot shower, nothing helped. I was inconsolable. It was just the hopeless sense of deprivation.

You can read the whole thing here and can purchase the book here and can subscribe to get this and all Open Letter titles here.

6 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy!

6 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Karaoke Culture doesn’t officially come out until October 25th, but 15 lucky people will win copies of Dubrakva Ugresic’s latest (and in the opinion of some, greatest) book through this GoodReads giveaway. Just click below to enter yourself in the drawing.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugrešić

Karaoke Culture

by Dubravka Ugrešić

Giveaway ends August 15, 2011.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win
9 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hang on, what are you talking about?”

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

“No,” lied Beba.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the opening of the review:

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full review.

13 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hang on, what are you talking about?”

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

“No,” lied Beba.

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

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

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

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

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

18 January 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Dubravka Ugresic interview at The Rumpus.

The Czech Literature Portal.

Translators Struggle to Prove Their Academic Bona Fides at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

24 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

One of the best unexpected results of putting together the translation databases is being able to put together an awesome reading list of forthcoming translations. (Or, to put it in a slightly more negative light: to know about way more interesting books than I’ll ever have time to read.)

The spring is a perfect example. As the reading for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award is winding down, I’m getting jacked about 2011 . . . Just look at this list of titles coming out in January – March 2010. (Don’t even get me started on April – June . . . my “to read” bookshelf is already overflowing.) Links below go to the Idlewild Books catalog, since Idlewild is our Indie Store of the Month. (And by “month” I mean the rest of December and all of January.)

January

Georg Letham, Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss (excerpt)
translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
published by Archipelago Books

Archipelago books tend to deliver, and this sounds really intriguing. Thomas Mann gave this a killer blurb: “easily one of the most interesting books I have come across in years.” It’s the story of a scientist-hero who has killed his wife and is deported to a remote island where he “seeks redemption in science.” It was written around the same time as The Man without Qualities and The Sleepwalkers and has that same sort of middle-European, ambitious vibe.

My Little War by Louis Paul Boon
translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent
published by Dalkey Archive Press

I’m a huge Boon fan, especially of Chapel Road and Summer in Termuren, and it’s great to see more of his work making it into English. This was a first novel, an account of World War II told through “overheard conversations, newspaper articles, manifestos, and other sights and noises of daily life.” Boon had an amazing gift for language, for capturing the dirty reality and comic charms of daily life and creating something bigger and more meaningful. It’ll be very interesting to see what he created out of these materials.

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
published by New Directions

This next year promises to be yet another big year for Roberto Bolano with three books of his coming out from New Directions: Monseiur Pain, Antwerp and The Return. This novel—which we’ll be reviewing in the very near future—is about Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, a mesmerist, two mysterious gentlemen, a bribe, and guilt. With Bolano you can rest assured that it’s at least worth the price of admission.

February

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic
translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson
published by Grove

Dubravka’s one of my all-time favorite writers (which is one of the reasons why her collection of essays, Nobody’s Home, was the first book published by Open Letter) and this looks like an awesome follow-up to her last work of fiction, The Ministry of Pain. This novel is part of the “Myths” series, retelling the story of Baba Yaga who, according to Russian myth, “is a witch who lives in a house built on chicken legs and kidnaps small children.” We posted about this book a while back and included a bit of the opening chapter. This may well be the book that I’m most excited about for 2010 . . .

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marias
translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
published by New Directions

I know next to nothing about this book aside from the fact that a) it’s published by New Directions (definite plus), b) it’s by Javier Marias (another plus), and c) it’s translated by Esther Allen (three pluses and I’m sold?). That and this description, which is the very definition of “selling copy”: “In this classic Marias story, Elvis and his entourage abandon their translator in a seedy cantina full of enraged criminals.”

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) by Macedonio Fernandez (excerpt)
translated from the Spanish by Margaret Schwartz
published by Open Letter

Yeah, OK, I’m including one of our own books on this list—but seriously, I waiting almost five years to be able to read this and truly believe it’s one of the great books of the twentieth century. It opens with over fifty prologues! It’s in the meta-vein of At Swim-Two-Birds! It’s written by Borges’s mentor! It’s subtitled “The First Good Novel”! (And was a companion to Macedonio’s Adriana Buenos Aires (The Last Bad Novel)!) What more do you need to know?

March

Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga
translated from the Basque by Margaret Jull Costa
published by Graywolf Press

Atxaga’s The Accordionist’s Son came out from Graywolf earlier this year and got some good attention. Obabakoak is a collection of stories centered around the village of Obaba, and sounds really intriguing: “A tinge of darkness mingles with moments of wry humor in this dazzling collage of fables, town gossip, diary excerpts, and literary theory, all held together by Bernardo Atxaga’s distinctive and tenderly ironic voice.” Here’s a link to an audio file from PEN America of Atxaga reading Three Pieces about the Basque Language.

Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe
translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
published by Grove

Kudos to Grove for having such a great winter/spring line-up—and for publishing two of the books I’m most looking forward to in 2010. We already have a review of this novel on hand, but with the pub date so far in the future, we’re going to hold onto it for at least a few weeks before posting. The review is very positive, and this story of a man traveling from Japan to Berlin to try to understand what drove his brother-in-law to commit suicide sounds incredibly intriguing.

Wolf among Wolves by Hans Fallada
translated from the German by Philip Owens
published by Melville House

This comes on the heels of Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which did very well for Melville House. Another massive book (736 pages!), it sounds great: “a sprawling saga of the collapse of a culture—its economy and government—and the common man’s struggle to survive it all. Set in Weimar Germany soon after Germany’s catastrophic loss of World War I, the story follows a young gambler who loses all in Berlin, then flees the chaotic city, where worthless money and shortages are causing pandemonium. Once in the countryside, however, he finds a defeated German army that has deamped there to foment insurrection. Somehow, amidst it all, he finds romance—it’s The Year of Living Dangerously in a European setting.”

That’s it for now . . . More recommendations to come in a few months.

23 December 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

The International Rivers Interview Series was born of two unrelated events. The first was a Roni Horn exhibit I saw some years back in New York featuring the work Still Water (The River Thames, For Example). Horn framed multiple close-up shots of the Thames passing through central London and approached the river with a number of questions. I remember Horn asking, ‘What is the color of water?’ and the elegant simplicity of that question struck me. One answer is that it has no color, that water is a body that either reflects its surroundings by throwing back a visual reply or absorbing organic matter. Water is, Horn later said, “a master chameleon. Or the ultimate mime.” Could rivers like the Thames, I wondered, reflect more than mud, trees and bridges, but history and culture too?

They’ll be interviewing four writers: Sasa Stanisic, György Dragomán, Dumitru Tsepeneag, and our own Dubravka Ugresic. The first interview, with György Dragomán, is up now.

An idea that’s definitely worth keeping up with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dubravka really is one of the best . . .

31 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This won’t be available in the States until next spring, but Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is already getting some great press in the UK, such as this piece in the London Review of Books by Marina Warner:

Dubravka Ugrešić’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is the latest, most inventive and most substantial volume in Canongate’s series of revisioned myths. [. . .]

During the Soviet era, as Ugrešić has said, the use of traditional material gave writers freedom because it appeared to conform to the populist and nationalist policies of the state. (Lenin had claimed that folktales could be used as the basis for ‘beautiful studies about the hopes and longings of our people’.) An authentic proletarian background, supposed naivety and a child audience could also provide a cloak for subversive thoughts and political criticism; fabulist metaphors were hard to censor. Platonov’s fables, such as the story ‘Among Animals and Plants’ and the novella Soul, use the apparent innocence of the folktale form to indict the conditions of existence in Soviet Russia (though he didn’t escape censure). The same stratagems were used by Miroslav Holub in Czechoslovakia and Danilo Kis in Yugoslavia.

Ugrešić has been circling this territory for a while. In her new book, the tradition of upside-down, modernist myth-making or ironical fable has freed her tongue. Skittish at times, affectionately comic, and lavish with improbable and ingenious fairy-tale plotting, her handling of the genre is deft and light. In Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Ugrešić is in much higher spirits than in her recent collection of essays, Nobody’s Home (2007), or her withering attack on the book trade, Thank You for Not Reading (2003), or her ironic and prophetic fictions, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (1998) and The Ministry of Pain (2005).

Baba Yaga is the true Witch of the North, the supreme scare figure of the Russian nursery, a monstrous old hag who haunts children and eats them. She doesn’t exactly appear in character here, but she hovers off stage, and directs the action. Old women are Ugrešić’s heroines and old womanhood her theme. This new book is a hybrid work, a comic fable in three parts, combining autobiography, travel, memoir, fable, satire and essay. It begins with an elegy about her own mother’s decline into dementia; hoping to reawaken her mother’s memories, Ugrešić makes a pilgrimage to Sofia, her mother’s hometown, seeing herself as a bedel (the double who rich men used to pay to go to Mecca or fight in the army in their stead). But when she returns with photographs and anecdotes, her mother doesn’t recognise present-day Sofia. This is Ugrešić’s territory: the impossibility of belonging, the ineluctability of loss and the desirability, even so, of remaining apart.

18 March 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Our own Dubravka Ugresic has made the “Judges’ List of Contenders” for the Man Booker International Prize! In case you were curious:

The Man Booker International Prize…highlights one writer’s continued creativity, development and overall contribution to fiction on the world stage.

This will be the third time they’ve given the prize—Chinua Achebe won in 2007 and Ismail Kadaré in 2005. They give the winner £60,000 and also, if necessary, they give a translation prize of £15,000—I presume to translate the books that haven’t yet been translated, since the prize is for English writing or “work [that] is generally available in translation in the English language”. Here’s the entire Judges’ list:

  • Peter Carey (Australia)
  • Evan S. Connell (USA)
  • Mahasweta Devi (India)
  • E.L. Doctorow (USA)
  • James Kelman (UK)
  • Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)
  • Arnošt Lustig (Czechoslovakia)
  • Alice Munro (Canada)
  • V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad/India)
  • Joyce Carol Oates (USA)
  • Antonio Tabucchi (Italy)
  • Ngugi Wa Thiong’O (Kenya)
  • Dubravka Ugresic (Croatia)
  • Ludmila Ulitskaya (Russia)

They’ll be announcing the winner sometime in May.

It’s some awfully stiff competition, but we think Dubravka can pull it off. Plus, she’s due to win one of these times.

14 January 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [2]

The Bureaucartic Imagination has an interesting post on the Bolaño hype in the States. It also touches on one of the ‘big problems’ of literature in translation:

Moreover, his books are often about the mundane details of very specific and frankly petty literary disputes and details that must make little sense to, say, readers of The New Yorker, which just published his short story “Meeting with Enrique Linh,” wherein a first person narrator named Roberto Bolaño spills out a multi-page, unparagraphed dream in which he hangs out with the Chilean poet Enrique Linh in a bar.

Most American poets, let alone subscribers to The New Yorker, don’t know who Enrique Linh is, and I’m certain that neither group has any clue who Bertoni, Maquieira, Gonzalo Muñoz, Martínez, and Rodrigo Lira; Linh identifies these writers, along with the narrator, as “the six tigers of Chilean poetry in the year 2000.” Far from having universal appeal, this story speaks to a very particular plight, namely, that of “young poets with no support…who’d been shut out by the new center-left government and didn’t have any backing or patronage.”

Nothing much happens in “Meeting with Enrique Linh.” The Bolaño character talks to Linh at the bar then goes out into the street where he meets a “hit man” named “Jara,” who looks like a “fifties gangster.” There is no explanation in the story of who Jara is, so most New Yorker readers won’t understand the reference to Victor Jara, the Chilean poet and folk-singer who was brutally murdered after the 1973 coup.

Please beware before you click that link: the site is blood red with black type, and after looking at it for a few seconds your head will feel like it’s about to explode. Press on. Your head won’t explode. But you will be left with a bit of a headache.

15 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

19 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In his latest World Books podcast, Bill Marx — who runs PRI’s The World’s very impressive World Books website — talks with translator Ellen Elias-Bursac, the translator of Dubravka Ugresic’s Nobody’s Home and several books by David Albahari, including the brillian Gotz and Meyer for which she won the 2006 American Literary Translators Association award.

Arts Fuse has a nice introduction to the interview and references a new, long, critically acclaimed Albahari novel that Elias-Bursac is currently working on. (I assume Harcourt will be bringing this out, but I’ll try and get the pud date and other details and post an update later.)

29 October 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Novelist and critic Dubravka Ugresic talks to World Books editor Bill Marx about her latest collection of essays, “Nobody’s Home,” which trains a wryly spiky eye to a number of subjects, from the plight of public intellectuals to the fluid nature of cultural identity in the age of globalization.

28 October 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

I know we’re a bit late on this, but our own Dubravka Ugresic has been nominated for the Prix Femina Romans étranger for The Ministry of Pain. They announce the winner on Monday, so keep your fingers crossed.

13 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As Dubravka Ugresic’s reading tour winds down—her final event is a conversation with Brigid Hughes on Tuesday at 7pm at Melville House Press—her review coverage continues to expand.

Most recently Booklit gave the book a long, thoughtful, positive review, my favorite part of which is the opening:

I’ve been interested in their forthcoming output for a while now and have deliberately held off buying Nobody’s Home, published last year in the United Kingdom by Telegram Books, because I never really liked the cover.

So, first a few words on this edition. It’s a hardback, the image and text printed straight on as there’s no dust jacket. It’s always good to see a bit of cover kudos for the translator – Ellen Elias-Bursac, translating from the Croatian – and the book doesn’t let us down here. Being someone who likes a bit of uniformity to their books, I’ll be looking forward to seeing how other titles from Open Letter stand together.

No offense to Telegram, but I like our cover better as well. And if you haven’t been following Booklit, you definitely should. It’s filling the huge gap opening up as newspapers continue to dismantle their book sections. . . .

Front Table at Seminary Co-op also gave Nobody’s Home a nice review over the weekend, one that captures some of the fun of seeing Dubravka in person (she read at 57th Street a couple weeks ago):

During the discussion following her reading, a member of the audience—none other than Adam Zagajewski—asked her what she is nostalgic for. She replied, “For cottage cheese, and sour cream.” The only real cottage cheese and sour cream for her are the ones that can be found at the markets in Zagreb. Listening to her, it seemed that in speaking of her personal experience she was capturing much of the essence of the book. This answer about the cottage cheese speaks to her writing about what it means to live in exile. She is a world traveler, an exile of her homeland, but no matter what has changed politically and culturally, there is always that longing of émigrés for the familiarity of the native.

6 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The always amazing CALQUE is starting to post a series of translator’s introductions on their website, with one of the first being a piece by Ellen Elias-Bursac on Dubravka Ugresic’s Nobody’s Home.

In her work published before the outbreak of war in 1991, three collections of short stories and a novel, Dubravka Ugrešić‘s poetic was one of a cosmopolitan post-modernism. The virulence of the nationalist rhetoric was antithetical to everything that mattered to her, nor was she of any use as a voice to the rising regime. The essays that she wrote at the start of the war, sharply critical of the harnessing of literature and culture to the nationalist cause, quickly made her a scapegoat in public life. Her telephone number was even published four times in the press as active encouragement for people to hound her, which they did. [. . .]

The essays in Nobody’s Home are wry, and peppered with little stories. In fact the stories and anecdotes she uses to make her point take her essays to the brink of fiction. For instance in a short piece, “Identity”, the narrator claims a powerful allergic reaction to the word “identity”, probably due to over-exposure. Her community as it embarks on war calls on her to commit to an identity. She refuses to change her self-definition from “Yugoslav” to “Croatian” or “Serbian” or anything else. Ironically, to flee these demands she needs a passport, yet another label. And she cannot get away by simply being a writer; she is quickly labeled by the rest of the world a Croatian writer. In quick succession she juxtaposes four identity-related stories: a hairdresser whose identity it is to cut hair in the nude, Madonna with her mantra Express yourself!, a Japanese bestseller with the sentence: Come let me introduce you to my mother who used to be my father!, and Linda Evangelista whose sentiment: I have no Identity! was referring, it turns out, to a perfume. She concludes that people hold on fiercely to their identity precisely because they know that it can easily be changed, and she calls for a shift to the notion of: integrity. While identities, as she explains, are interchangeable like passports, integrities are not. [. . .]

Nobody’s Home takes the reader on a transnational tour of the world, showing us the mingling of people and places. In a New York nail salon the essayist watches the Vietnamese proprietor instruct his fledgling Mexican beautician how to do nails. She watches Europe flit by through the windows of a train like a slide show of attitudes, prejudices, and nostalgia. When she sets the beeper off as she is leaving a store where she’s been shopping in Stockholm, the kindly saleswoman suggests it might be her cellphone or an iPod. When it is neither, she tells the protagonist: “Relax, all the foreigners are beeping.”

29 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In advance of Dubravka’s reading on Friday at Novella Bookstore, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran this interview.

Q: Are Americans reading enough foreign literature in translation?

A: I inspired Open Letter Books (the American publisher of Nobody’s Home) to print a new translation of an old Russian novel, The Golden Calf, by Ilja Ilf and Evgenij Petrov. It’s wonderful when you can push them to publish a book from somebody else. I don’t know the larger audience, but I have mingled in university circles. I must say America academia is absolutely wonderful, with wonderful students who show an enormous interest in foreign cultures and, of course, literature and the language. They’re absolutely fantastic. So my experience is with the students and people from the academic world. And it’s absolutely superior.

Q: What is your next novel to be published in the United States?

A: Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. A sort of big literary game and a play on a very old motif. Baba Yaga is an old witch, basically from Russian fairytale, also present in other Slavic folk traditions.

Baba Yaga is part of the Canongate/Grove “Myths” Series and I believe it’s scheduled to come out in May.

25 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the past week or so, Dubravka’s book (Nobody’s Home) has been making its way around the internet, garnering some really nice praise along the way.

First off, it received a great review (4 out of 5) by Gwen Dawson at the always excellent Literary License.

And then yesterday, Douglas Rushkoff (whose upcoming book Life Incorporated sounds incredible—check out this post for a pre-glimpse, with more specific info found here) referenced NH in a post on BoingBoing about Great Books by Women:

this collection of essays puts her on par with Zizek or Baudrillard for observation and critique – and maybe a cut above for courage to speak the truth. There’s something decidedly female about this writing as well, which exposes a bit of the bias of the rest of post-modernism.

Also interesting about his post is the opening:

If I were ever invited to join a secret cabal of culturally wise writers – the kind of club where you’d find Erik Davis, Douglas Wolk, Jonathan Lethem, or Luc Sante all sipping absinthe while deconstructing reruns of Man From Uncle – I imagine it would also host the kinds of women who are writing the books that have ended up in my mailbox this month.

That’s totally the sort of club I’d love to join . . .

23 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Here’s the half-hour discussion with Dubravka Ugresic and Breyten Breytenbach that we mentioned earlier:

16 September 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [2]

In what is a first for us, our lovely UR publicist June Avignone convinced a local morning news show to do a segment on Dubravka’s new book, Nobody’s Home, and Open Letter.

I must admit I was expecting out and out absurdity—and there was some of that: their segment was preceded by a piece on a new kind of gastric bypass surgery and also by a television cooking personality who gave instructions on how to cook mashed potatoes, using a bag of Ore-Ida instant mashed potatoes—but it went pretty well.

If you’d like to see the world of literary essays bumping into the wonderful world of morning talk shows (note in the photo below that we’re helpfully informed how much the Mega Millions jackpot is worth), click here.

4 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The September/October/November issue of Bookforum went online yesterday, and is absolutely loaded with reviews of great books.

Of course, in a somewhat self-serving way, I’m especially excited about this issue since it has a very positive review of the first Open Letter title: Nobody’s Home by Dubravka Ugresic.

Being at home in the world, as exile and citizen, likewise defined Russian émigré Nina Berberova: “I always sympathize with one who flees his nest, even if he flees into an anthill, where it may be crowded but one can find solitude . . . that precious and intense state of being conscious of the world and of oneself.” Ugresic might agree, as she allows The Ministry of Pain to end with a reprieve for Tanja. But what happens when borders and the identities they engender cease to have meaning or, in the case of Ugresic’s Yugoslavia, cease to exist? Ugresic cites the case of Ivo Andrić. Once considered a “Yugoslav writer,” Andrić was reclassified by a Croatian lexicon in the interest of tidying up the category of domestic literature: He was defined “by blood (as a Croatian writer), by residence (as a Serbian writer), and by themes (as a Bosnian writer).” The notion that a literary text must bear the burden of identification tags is, for Ugresic, an affront; it entails tacit approval of the idea that “the field of literature is nothing more than a realm of geopolitics.”

In addition to this review though, there’s a long list of pieces I want to read:

Rick Moody on The Sacred Book of the Werewolf by Victor Pelevin;

Rivka Galchen on The Only Son by Stéphane Audeguy;

John Freeman on To Siberia by Per Petterson;

Britt Peterson on “Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya;”:

Sarah Fay on A Manuscript of Ashes by Antonio Muñoz Molina;

Tayt Harlin on Voice Over by Céline Curiol;

and, Craig Seligman on What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? by António Lobo Antunes.

And that’s just on the fiction side . . .

2 September 08 | N. J. Furl | Comments [1]

If you’re not familiar with Talking Leaves, it’s a first-class bookstore in Buffalo, NY—and, incidentally, it’s Buffalo’s oldest independent bookstore.

Now, they’ve gotten even more first-classier because they’re the first store in which we’ve seen our inaugural release — Nobody’s Home by Dubravka Ugresic — on the shelves.

And here’s the picture to prove it.

29 August 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday, Sign and Sight ran a brand-new essay by Dubravka Ugresic called “Radovan Karadzic and His Grandchildren” and which opens in typical Ugresic fashion:

One hundred and forty-one old men

Over the weekend of the 19th and 20th of July 2008, the town of Key West in Florida played host to one hundred and forty-one — Ernest Hemingways. Hemingways from all over America gathered in Key West in a competition for the greatest degree of physical resemblance between the famous writer and his surrogates. This year the winner was Tom Grizzard, in what is said to have been a very stiff competition. The photograph that went round the world shows a collection of merry granddads, looking like Father Christmases who have escaped from their winter duties, that is to say like Ernest Hemingway. The old men, who meet every year in Key West on Hemingway’s birthday, took part in fishing and short story writing competitions.

Another old man . . .

The following day newspapers in Croatia carried a photograph of an old man who has no connection at all with the hundred and forty-one old men from the previous article. In Croatia on 21st July 2008, Dinko Sakic died, at the age of eighty-six. Who was Dinko Sakic? Sakic was the commandant of the Ustasha concentration camp of Jasenovac, where Jews, Serbs, Gyspies and communist-oriented Croats were systematically annihilated. After the war he managed to escape to Argentina, and it was not until 1999 that the Argentinian authorities handed him over to Croatia, where he was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

It’s a really interesting piece—as are all of her essays—and would have fit in nicely with the essays in Nobody’s Home, which started shipping to stores earlier this week . . .

And it’s fitting that this morning’s New York Times has this report on Karadzic refusing to enter pleas on the 11 charges brought against him by the United Nations war crimes tribunal, claiming that he is “deeply convinced that this court is representing itself falsely as an international court, whereas it is a court of NATO, which wishes to liquidate me.”

11 August 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Things have been a bit slow around here the past few weeks, but now that I’m back in the office for the rest of the month (I think), things should pick up.

We have a couple of reviews coming up in the next week or so—Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories and I’d Like by Amanda Michalopoulou—and more interviews with booksellers.

There is some Open Letter news that I’d like to pass along though. As most of you know, Dubravka Ugresic’s Nobody’s Home — our first book — arrived last week.

Copies are being mailed out to subscribers today (subscriptions to the “fall season” are only $65 plus shipping and can be found here), and will be arriving in better bookstores—and online retailers—everywhere in early-September.

To celebrate this first release, we’re offering a special discount on Nobody’s Home through our website. From now until the end of the month you can order it directly through our website for only $11.95. (30% off the cover price.)

For all LibraryThing members, 10 copies are available through the Early Reviewers program. All you have to do is “request a copy” through the Early Reviewers page and you’ll be entered into a drawing for a free copy. Registration closes on August 17th, so you’ll have to sign up soon.

16 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A couple of the early reviews for Dubravka Ugresic’s Nobody’s Home came out recently, with Library Journal stating that she “leaves no stone unturned and no thought contained, doing what she does best: writing about the human condition through her own experience” and Kirkus calling this collection of essays “taut, timely pieces by a writer who sees the cosmic in the quotidian.”

Both E.J. and I love Dubravka’s work (and both edited her in the past—E.J. did The Ministry of Pain at Ecco, and I did Thank You for Not Reading at Dalkey Archive. One of her greatest books is The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, which is available from New Directions) and feel fortunate that this will be our first Open Letter publication. (The book doesn’t officially release until September 26th, but we will be offering an advance special deal via this blog as soon as these arrive from the printer.)

Nobody’s Home is a great collection, and to celebrate it, we’ve put together a bit of a reading tour for Dubravka. We may still add some dates, and more details will be available on the Open Letter website (and our Facebook page) in the near future, but for now, here’s the current itinerary:

Tuesday, September 16th
Reading and Conversation at the University of Rochester (Rochester, NY)

Tuesday, September 23rd
Reading at the 92nd St. Y with Breyten Breytenbach (New York, NY)

Wednesday, September 24th
Harvard Book Store at 7pm (Boston, MA)

Tuesday, September 30th
57th Street Books at 6pm (Chicago, IL)

Wednesday, October 1st
Bookslut Conversation Series (Chicago, IL)

Wednesday, October 8th
McNally Jackson (aka McNally Robinson) event with Open Letter author Bragi Olafsson (New York, NY)

Tuesday, October 14th
Conversation with Brigid Hughes of A Public Space, at Melville House Press office and bookstore (Brooklyn, NY)

7 July 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

I was poking around Dubravka Ugresic’s website today, and I came across something I thought you all might find interesting:

Jasmina Lukic of Central European University lectured about Dubravka at UCLA last December, and they’ve been good enough to put the lecture up on their website here. Lukic talks quite a bit about Nobody’s Home, using one of the essays from the book as a jumping off point to understanding Dubravka’s work.

Anyway, the reason I was poking around Dubravka’s site was because I was thinking about making “microsites” for our authors: something along the lines of what ReadySteadyBook! has done, but more interactive, maybe with an editable wiki page where people can add information of their own.

For someone like Dubravka, who has quite a bit of information online, it may not be as useful, but I think it might be a good way to make more English-language information about someone like Ricardas Gavelis available.

Is this something you would find interesting? Would you participate? Is it just unnecessarily reproducing the work that could just be happening on Wikipedia? Is this the kind of thing you’d like to see on a publisher’s website?

27 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As a number of other people have already pointed out, the new issue of Bookforum is now available, both in print and online.

This is the summer “Fiction and Politics” issues, which, in addition to a heap of good reviews, has a few features on politics novels and the like. There’s even a reflections section with short bits from host of international authors like Lydia Millet, Daniel Kehlmann, Siddhartha Deb, and Dubravka Ugresic.

(I’m particularly psyched about Dubravka’s piece on Upton Sinclair’s Oil! not because of what she has to say—which is pretty interesting about the connection, or disconnection between literature and politics—but because this is the first time I’ve seen the words “which will be published by Open Letter in September” in print.)

There’s also a nice review by Benjamin Ross of Sasa Stanisic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone (a translator reviewing a translation—I like it) and a review by Michael Wood of Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States.

I’ve been looking forward to reading the latter for a while now, and hopefully will be able to find a copy at BEA later this week. . . . Wood’s review is similar to the few others I’ve seen that praise the subject and ambition of the book while questioning the overall style. Nevertheless, this sounds really interesting—and definitely a book we should review:

Early in the book, Thirlwell says he has sometimes thought of it as “an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters”; he also describes it as “an atlas.” He says it’s “written with a full acceptance of the mistake, the anachronism, the side effect,” because “the history of the novel is, simultaneously, a history of an elaborate and intricate international art form—and also a history of errors, a history of waste.” This is to say that The Delighted States is itself a quirky history of the novel, a story of the textual travels of a particular mind, and I need to add that if novelists are characters here, their own fictional characters are just as important. They leave their own books and cross into others, making many of Thirlwell’s most ingenious points for him. [. . .]

The story—inside out in the extended sense just described—involves Gogol, Sterne, Chekhov, Diderot, Machado de Assis, Proust, Kafka, Gombrowicz, Schulz, Tolstoy, Svevo, and others and, in spite of Thirlwell’s many grand and fuzzy claims about style and translation (“A style is . . . as much a quirk of emotion, or of theological belief, as it is a quirk of language”; “A style is a quality of vision”; “there is no need for a style to have a single style”), finally rests on two interesting and contradictory suggestions. Each proceeds from the fact that great writers, however monolingual they may be as speakers, rarely restrict their reading to works originally written in their own language. [. . .]

The first suggestion is that the details of errors and shifts in translation are infinitely important because one of the virtues of language is its eerie specificity, or the possibility of that specificity. [. . .] The second, contrary, and, for Thirlwell, more important suggestion is that all kinds of masterpieces, supposedly cast irreplaceably in their native tongue, manage to survive bad to mediocre translation and even butchery.

I’m sure we’ll be writing about this in more detail in the not too distant future. (Like after I finish the last 600 pages of 2666 and all of What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire?)

25 February 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

The Guardian had a nice profile/overview of Dubravka Ugresic’s life and work in this weekend’s edition:

During the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Dubravka Ugresic was denounced, she says, as “a whore, a witch and a traitor”. A reluctant citizen of newly independent Croatia, she took a stand against nationalism “and all its perversities”, and like many people became a target. As the Balkan wars escalated, she found herself the victim of a “collective paranoia: people rushed to be willing executioners. Nobody forced them to kill, spit on and humiliate others – but they did. It became acceptable. It was like being marked with a yellow star.”

11 February 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Our own Dubravka Ugresic has an essay in this week’s Telegraph:

A 10-year-old nephew of mine recently spent his Easter holidays with me in Amsterdam. I took him to the Anne Frank Museum.

He had never heard of Anne Frank. I tried to recall whether I had known of her when I was his age. Then my childhood diary came to mind. I had written to an imaginary friend in my diary and that imaginary friend’s name was Anne Frank.

Last year I spent two months teaching students of comparative literature at a German university. I was free to speak on whatever I liked. I soon realised that out of a natural desire to help the students follow me I was turning my lectures into a list of footnotes.

My students knew who Lacan and Derrida were, but the number of books they had read was astonishingly small. I would mention a name such as Czeslaw Milosz. My students did not know of Czeslaw Milosz. I would give them a word such as samizdat. It meant nothing to them.

A slightly different version of this essay will appear in Nobody’s Home, a collection of Dubravka’s essays we’re publishing this fall.

13 December 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From The Guardian post about singer and songwriter Lily Allen being named a judge for the Orange Prize:

Well, fair enough. We will let this one pass. But only because Ms Allen has demonstrated that she has a way with words. Leaving that aside, we note that this is part of an inexorable trend: that in order for any literary event to be validated, a celebrity has to be involved. And the further away from the literary world, the better.

The nadir of this trend came with the announcement of the panel for the 2001 Whitbread prize, which included: Matthew Pinsent, the Olympic gold-medalist oarsman; Penny Smith, a breakfast TV presenter; Clare Balding, a former jockey and presenter of the BBC’s racing coverage; and Alan Davies, the comedian.

We are now approaching the time when the only people allowed, or paid, to offer any supposedly meaningful aesthetic opinions on anything are those who have achieved fame in some other area. For otherwise how are the common folk to be enticed into the literary world?

Sounds like the section in Thank You for Not Reading when Dubravka Ugresic’s advises aspiring writers to first become star soccer players, then start writing books. The process of getting published is a lot easier that way, and you’ll sell far more copies . . .

18 September 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

I’m working on Dubravka Ugresic’s new book of essays, Nobody’s Home, which won’t be out until a year from now (I know, it’s a long time), and I wanted to share this tiny little excerpt since I just ran across it:

Things would be simpler if the people who did all this were willing to agree that they had been killing for the sake of killing, destroying for the sake of destroying, torching for the sake of torching. That, of course, will not happen. History and culture are the most reliable ‘banks’ for laundering a dirty conscience. History and culture are part and parcel of what is known as the national cultural identity, though the national and the identity are only figments of the collective imagination. The collective, however, is to be believed. An individual killer would never be able to say: “I killed defending William Shakespeare because he is part of my cultural heritage.” A collective, on the other hand, can. This is seen, indeed, as its right.

26 July 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Signandsight.com has an interesting article on Balkan identity by Mijenko Jergovic, the author of Sarajevo Marlboro, along with a number of other books.

This essay is totally different in tone and style, but it brings to mind a number of things Dubravka Urgresic writes about in her essays. Especially the pieces in Nobody’s Home.

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