11 December 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After reading this excellent Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog yesterday (for a typical highlight, scroll down the “cookie press”) I really wished we could do something this for publishing. Like, make ignorant, funny jokes about the finalists for the National Book Awards. Or the Hater’s Guide to Literary Websites. (“Want to know about what ‘fancy’ lit-parties Paul Morris attended in NY last week while you were trying to put your kids to bed? Check out LitHub!” “BuzzFeed is great for those times when you want to find a real book to read, but decide that a gif is just so much better.”)

I even started compiling a list of 2015 translations to hate all over. Unfortunately, Simon & Schuster only did one translation this year, so that was a bit tougher than usual.

So I decided, why limit the hate? This could be part of that weekly book column that you never write because you’re too busy doing favors for other publishers and translators! There are so many awful things in this world—books, commercials, publishers, pretentious coffee places—that deserve to be ridiculed a bit. I know some of these are going to end up pissing people off, but the lovefest that the literary world has become is really boring and hypocritical. Most of those people are only chummy when they have a book coming out, or really want you to do something for them. And if we can’t ridicule ourselves, then what’s the point?

Book That I’m Reading: The Man With the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi, translated from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk (Pantheon)

When Stephen Sparks and I were polling people for our “100 Best Translations of the Century (So Far)”—a book project that most editors think we should just write for free and put online, which is proof that people are exploitative idiots with no self-awareness of the things they say and crap they publish—this book was recommended at least a half-dozen times. And so far, it’s pretty good!

There are two main plots to this book that, even if I hadn’t read the jacket copy, seem destined to intersect. In one, Atile’i, a “second son” growing up on a semi-mythical island, is sent out to sea to die because, well, he’s the “second son.” Some of his chapters trend toward becoming info dumps, establishing the peculiarities of Wayo Wayo through long expositions of the traditions and beliefs of this small, sea-worshipping island. (“If you are so careless as to eat an asamu, you will grow a ring of scales around your navel, a ring of scales that you could never finish peeling off your whole life long.”) At the same time, the social texture of this island—they worship Kabang, there are Sea and Earth Sages—brings it alive and is reinforced by the almost fantasy-novel tone of the writing.

Another day, the Earth Sage took the children to the field in the hollow, to the place where the akaba grew. One of the only starchy plants on the island, the luxuriant akaba, a word that meant “shaped like the palm of a hand,” seemed to raise innumerable hands in supplication to the sky. The island was small and the people lacked faming tools, so pebbles were piled around the plots, to keep the soil moist and to serve as a windbreak. “You must love the land, my children, and ring it in with your love. For the land is the most precious thing on this island. It is like rain, like the heart of a woman.”

This style is in stark contrast to how the Alice sections are written. Alice lives in Taiwan, where she is a writer and professor who wants to kill herself following the loss of her husband and son. (They disappeared on a mountain climb.) Her sections are straight realistic, and start to bring in the environmental themes that seem to be the backbone of this narrative.

A few minutes later, the car rounded a stretch of coastline, formerly the most famous in Haven. Years before, a developer had gone in, shoveled away part of the mountain, filled it in, firmed it up and built an amusement park. And then, with the full backing of that mayor who was knee deep in corruption charges, the developer kept right on digging away at the mountain wall on the other side of the site. But a major earthquake over nine years ago had caused the foundations of most of the facilities to shift, rendering the rides inoperable. The company filed for bankruptcy to avoid having to pay compensation. What with the rising sea level and the encroaching shoreline, the uncleared cable-car pylons and Ferris wheel looked stranded now.

I still have a ways to go with this, but I think I’ll stick with it. Something that hasn’t happened much of late . . .

Book I Want to Read: I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick by Emmanuel Carrère, translated from the French by Timothy Bent (Picador)

Last Friday I picked up Carrère’s The Adversary, hoping for something that would suck me in for an hour or two while my daughter was at gymnastics practice. Instead, I stayed up till almost 3am reading that book, going deeper and deeper into the bizarre world of lies that Jean-Claude Romand built around himself. (If you want to know more about this book, I’d recommend reading this review.)

Once I plowed through that, I wanted to read all of Carrère’s books one after another. He’s been on my list forever, but so far I’ve only made it through The Adversary and Limonov. But the first one I want to start with is his biography of Philip K. Dick.

I am a devout fan of Dick. I think I’ve read two-dozen of his books, and I love the worlds he creates, his particular voice, the sheer feats of imagination found in his novels. And given Amazon’s recent adaptation of The Man in the High Castle (which I’m totally going to watch now that I’m done with Jessica Jones), it seems like the perfect time to get back into the PKD world.

Ed Park recommended I Am Alive and You Are Dead to me years ago, but also said that it was largely based on Lawrence Sutin’s Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, which, at that time, I had just read. So I thought I’d wait until I had mostly forgotten that biography. A few years of drinking and reading has washed it almost completely away, so I think the time is right!

Book I Will Not Read: The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk, translated from the Estonian by Christopher Moseley (Black Cat)

I love Estonia and the Baltics in general and, for the most part, dig what Grove/Black Cat brings out, but man, I’ve been rejecting Kivirähk for the better part of a decade now, and with good reason.

The first time I ever met with the wonderful people from the Estonian Literature Centre, they pitched Kivirähk’s first book, The Old Barny. Yeah, “Barny.” They gushed about it, how funny it was, how he was the hottest Estonian author writing today, etc., etc. Actually, here’s a quote from the ELIC website:

Andrus Kivirähk is a most remarkably prolific, innovative and powerful figure on the Estonian literary scene of today, probably the most beloved and talented Estonian writer nowadays. He is a virtuoso who can easily shift from one style to another, producing short stories, newspaper columns, pamphlets and dramatic texts, writing for children and for TV, varying black humour with even unexpected tender sensitivity, making one smile through one’s tears.

I got none of the humor or innovation from the sample of “Barny” that I read. In part, possibly, because it’s so wedded to the folk tales of the region, of which I understand nothing. Besides, I shy away from anything including werewolves and “treasure-collecting beings called kratt.” No no no no no.

A few years later, at Frankfurt, Ilvi from the Centre pitched The Man Who Spoke Snakish. I basically gave up on this immediately, since “snakish” is dumb. But just wait:

The ‘man who speaks Snakish,’ and who is befriended by snakes, is called Leemet and belongs to a tribe of forest people in medieval Christian Europe. He is born and grows up in a period of changes, and is the last one to retain the life-style and to keep the secret of the mythical giant Frog of the North, who earlier has defended the land, but now has fallen into eternal sleep.

Mythical giant Frog of the North. I’m out. Done. No way.

Well, for some reason or another, Grove ended up publishing this. Everyone who worked on this book is fantastic, but wow is this not a book I’m ever going to spend a weekend reading. The language is so artificial and jacked up that it seems like a bad joke.

“It was slops,” she used to say to me. “You know, Leemet, I don’t believe anybody actually likes it. This bread-eating is really just showing off. They want to appear terribly fine and live like foreigners. Now a nice fresh haunch of deer is quite another thing. Now come on and eat, dear child! Who did I roast these joints for?” [. . .]

My mother was bored in the village; she didn’t care for work in the fields, and while my father was striding out to go sowing, my mother was wandering around the old familiar forests, and she got acquainted with a bear. What happened next seems to be quite clear, it’s such a familiar story. Few women can resist a bear, they’re so big, soft, helpless and furry. And besides that, they are born seducers, and moreover terribly attracted to human females, so they wouldn’t let slip an opportunity to make their way up to a woman and growl in her ear. In the old days, when most of our people still lived in the forest, there were endless cases of bears becoming women’s lovers, until finally the man would come upon the couple and send the brown beast packing.

Really?! Four hundred pages of this? I just can’t.

To be fair, according to Grove’s publicity page, some people like this book. Like Lit Hub. And Entertainment Weekly.

But as someone who has read more than one Estonian author, I think you should pass this one by and instead read Mati Unt, Tõnu Õnnepalu, or Rein Raud. Or buy an Open Letter book. They’re all 40% off till the end of the month.

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...

8 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This was actually announced a couple days ago, but I just received an email from French publisher P.O.L. celebrating the awarding of the Prix Renaudot to Emmanuel Carrère for his new novel Limonov.

Limonov is not a fictional character. He exists. I know him. He was a lout in Ukraine; an idol of the Soviet underground under Brezhnev; a tramp, then a manservant to a millionaire in Manhattan; a trendy writer in Paris; a soldier lost in the wars of the Balkans; and now, in the immense chaos of Russian post-communism, an old charismatic chef of a party of young desperados. He sees himself as a hero, it’s possible to consider him as a bastard: I’ll reserve my judgment.

His life is adventurous and ambiguous: a true novel. And I believe his life tells us something. Not only about himself, Limonov, not only about Russia, but about the history of us all after the Second World War.

This is how Emmanuel Carrère describes his last novel. What he doesn’t say is to what extent he has succeeded in creating a breathtaking contemporary epic novel from this extraordinary life, to be read without stopping in great exaltation. Most certainly because his knowledge of the subject is complete, his inquiry was thorough, having read all of Limonov’s books, of course, and what has been written about him, meeting him himself, and all the witnesses it was possible to contact, but especially because his talent as a narrator is immense, and that he masterly rendered not only the character’s complexity, but also that of his country and his time.

This sounds fantastic, and like a great follow up to Lives Other than My Own, which came out earlier this year, and which we featured on Read This Next. FSG already bought the rights to this new book, although there’s no info available about when it will be available in English translation.

26 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

France’s Emmanuel Carrère, filmmaker, novelist and biographer, attempts to hit fate below the belt in his latest effort, Lives Other Than My Own. Difficult to classify—it could be memoir, it could be fiction, it could be a treatise on compassion—Lives Other Than My Own presents stories of grief about people the author knows. We’re not talking about typical down-on-your-luck stories either; we are talking gut wrenching and life-altering stories of grief brought on by the cruelty of fate. Under the guide of Carrère’s nuanced prose, simultaneously journalistic and emotionally astute, you will journey through this book only to rise up out of your chair shaking your fists and screaming towards the heavens, “Why, fate, why?” by the turn of the last page.

Carrere opens this book with the tragedy of the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. On vacation with his wife and their two boys in Sri Lanka, the hotel they are staying at is untouched by the disaster. Yet a couple, Jérôme and Delphine, they have befriended during their trip loses their four-year-old daughter, Juliette. As devastating as the summary of this loss sounds, Carrère’s style brings us to the edge of this loss to witness the irrefutable void of mourning:

A few dozen yards from us, in another bungalow, Jérôme and Delphine must be lying down as well, wide awake. He has taken her in his arms, or is that impossible for them as well? It’s the first night. The night of the day their daughter died. This morning she was alive, she woke up, she came to play in their bed, called them Mama and Papa, she was laughing, she was warm, she was the loveliest and warmest and sweetest thing on earth, and now she’s dead. She will always be dead.

While he lays forth the catastrophic circumstances of the tsunami, he questions his own ability to love and whether he has the strength to withstand grief and loss of this magnitude. Focusing mainly on the wake of disaster, these personal questions bring immediacy to the reader as to how we would react in these situations. As self-important as this may seem—chronicling the grief of someone else as an impetus for creativity and personal reflection—the reader can’t help but empathize with Carrère as a witness but also respect his compassion for his subjects as he does in this somber passage:

There we are, neat and clean, untouched, while around us cluster the lepers, poisoned by radiation, shipwrecked souls reduced to a savage state. Only yesterday evening they were like us and we like them, but something happened to them and not us, so now we belong to two separate branches of humanity.

After Carrère returns home from Sri Lanka, they are met with their own loss. Carrère’s wife, Hélène, loses her younger sister, also named Juliette, to cancer. Juliette leaves behind a dedicated, sweet and earthy husband and her three young daughters, the youngest only fifteen months. Through interviews with Patrice and Juliette’s friend and business colleague, Étienne, Carrère constructs the life of an ambitious, intelligent woman who was loved for her determination and fairness. What becomes most compelling about this story of loss is that it focuses mostly on Étienne, a fellow judge of Juliette’s, who was automatically drawn to her because of their physical handicaps. Etienne lost a leg and Juliette was unable to walk without crutches because of an earlier treatment of radiation that damaged the nerves in her spine.

It is clear that Carrère respects, and is somewhat mystified by, the strength and love Etienne and Patrice have for Juliette. Again, he questions his devotion to Hélène but realizes that after seeing Patrice lose the woman he had married, Carrère wants to grow old with Hélène. The story of Juliette’s cancer is brutal and takes up most of the book’s length. It does digress into the details of her work as a judge who protects clients from creditors but I am not convinced it is a necessary addition. It undermines the contemplative and somber tone set in the beginning by Carrère and takes it into the drier arena of legal mechanics.

Obviously, Carrère wants to highlight the seemingly limitless value of human connection with these two lives other than his own. The exploration of grief, shock and survival dominate the narrative while Carrère flounders for his own sense of worthiness as a person capable of offering emotional support and sustenance. He brings to light that none us truly know our limits until we have to face the death of our loved ones or our own mortality. This includes an emotional mortality that plagues some from the beginning which he purports that this emotional turmoil can develop into a life force of its own, namely cancer:

. . . but I do believe that certain people have been damaged at their core almost from the beginning and cannot, despite their courage and best efforts, really live. I also believe that one of the ways in which life, which wants to live, works its way through such people can be in disease, and not just any disease: cancer. That’s why I am so stunned by people who claim that we are free, that happiness can be decided, that it’s a moral choice. For these cheerleaders, sadness is in bad taste, depression a sign of laziness, melancholy a sin. Yes, it is a sin, even a mortal sin, but some people are born sinners, born damned, and all their courage and best efforts will not set them free.

There is a profundity and truth to many of the conclusions he draws from bearing witness to the pain of others. There is also a sense of self-exploration that deepens from his proximity to all this mourning.

As Carrère delves into grief head first, the reader has no chance to turn back. What doesn’t work for the reader is not the onslaught of damage and survival, but that the stories do not feel connected. It’s as if they should be two different books or tied together in a way that doesn’t come across so tonally different. Perhaps this was his goal in highlighting how loss can be different. There is the soul-numbing shock of sudden death as in Jérôme and Delphine’s case, or the grinding misery of a gradual loss as in Juliette’s case. The tonal shifts are so abrupt that the reader can’t help but feel they are reading two different books. Once we meet Étienne, we are taken into the world and history of someone who is still living, whose job inhabits part of Juliette’s story and whose presence is lively and vivid, almost a distraction from the loss of Juliette.

This is a powerful book filled with honest and beautiful passages that showcase Carrère’s abstract gift as a writer. Lives are disjointed, but the job of the writer is not to replicate life as is, but present a seamless version that appears as is. Rightly, he reminds us that loss takes the person away, but the survivor still carries them around in their own way and in a way that will metamorphose as they grow in life. And as Carrère points out in this apt quote from Céline, “The worst defeat in everything is to forget, and especially what did you in.”

26 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on this week’s Read This Next title, Lives Other Than My Own by Emmanuel Carrere, which is translated from the French by Linda Coverdale and forthcoming from Metropolitan Books.

Monica Carter is a contributing reviewer to Three Percent, and a member of the Best Translated Book Award fiction panel. She lives in Los Angeles where she used to work at the wonderful Skylight Books and is now concentrating on her writing.

Here’s the opening of her review:

France’s Emmanuel Carrère, filmmaker, novelist and biographer, attempts to hit fate below the belt in his latest effort, Lives Other Than My Own. Difficult to classify—it could be memoir, it could be fiction, it could be a treatise on compassion—Lives Other Than My Own presents stories of grief about people the author knows. We’re not talking about typical down-on-your-luck stories either; we are talking gut wrenching and life-altering stories of grief brought on by the cruelty of fate. Under the guide of Carrère’s nuanced prose, simultaneously journalistic and emotionally astute, you will journey through this book only to rise up out of your chair shaking your fists and screaming towards the heavens, “Why, fate, why?” by the turn of the last page.

Carrere opens this book with the tragedy of the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. On vacation with his wife and their two boys in Sri Lanka, the hotel they are staying at is untouched by the disaster. Yet a couple, Jérôme and Delphine, they have befriended during their trip loses their four-year-old daughter, Juliette. As devastating as the summary of this loss sounds, Carrère’s style brings us to the edge of this loss to witness the irrefutable void of mourning:

“A few dozen yards from us, in another bungalow, Jérôme and Delphine must be lying down as well, wide awake. He has taken her in his arms, or is that impossible for them as well? It’s the first night. The night of the day their daughter died. This morning she was alive, she woke up, she came to play in their bed, called them Mama and Papa, she was laughing, she was warm, she was the loveliest and warmest and sweetest thing on earth, and now she’s dead. She will always be dead.”

Click here to read the entire piece. And click here to read an extended preview of Lives Other Than My Own.

24 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The interview with Emmanuel Carrere about Lives Other Than My Own — this week’s Read This Next title — just went live. Here’s an excerpt:

Lily Ye: You write that this is a book for others (especially Juliette’s daughters), but has it had an effect on you as well? How do you think this narrative will affect readers who do not personally know the people you are writing about?

Emmanuel Carrere: I would not write books if I did not expect or at least hope that they would have an effect on myself (not only making myself a better writer, but a better person). I’d like for my books to be read not only by devoted and informed readers, but also, let’s say, by the kind of people who read only one or two books in a year. I try to deal with complex issues in the simplest and clearest way, and, as you know, being simple and clear is a very demanding job. And I feel gratified when people who have had to cope with illness, great poverty or mourning and, for these reasons, were afraid to open a book about such issues, tell me that reading it has helped them.

LY: How was writing this book different from writing My Life as a Russian Novel?

EC: That book was autobiographical, which this one is not—although I am present as narrator and witness. My Life as a Russian Novel was about misfortune brought on by neurosis (I don’t know how else to translate the French word “Malheur”), this book is about ordinary misfortune (by which I mean illness, separation, death)—and I agree with Freud when he says that the best thing you can expect of psychoanalysis is to exchange neurotic misfortune for ordinary misfortune. Finally, I published My Life as a Russian Novel against the will of two of its main characters (my mother and my girlfriend Sophie). I took the risk of deeply hurting their feelings (which I had to, for my own sake, but which I regret and hope never to do again). Lives Other Than My Own was written at the request and with the agreement of its main characters: I submitted the book to them before it was published and gave them the opportunity to ask for any changes they wanted (in fact, they asked almost nothing)—and for all these reasons I feel at peace with them and with myself.

Click here to read the entire interview. On Friday we’ll be posting a review of this novel, and hopefully in the next month or so, we’ll have a review of Carrere’s I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick, which I’ve been wanting to read for years. . . .

22 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For this week’s Read This Next, we have chosen a book by French author and screenwriter Emmanuel Carrère, who began his career writing fiction but has transitioned to a particularly self-examining non-fiction. His last book was the revealing autobiographic My Life as a Russian Novel, and the one before that The Adversary, the story of Jean-Claude Romand, the notorious French criminal who pretended to be a doctor for almost two decades and then killed everyone who might expose him, including his parents and family. But even within The Adversary, Carrère keeps himself in the text, including much of his correspondence and incidents in his own family life, and questioning his motives in writing the book.

In Lives Other Than My Own, the subject matter is tragic—Carrère is present at the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, and a couple whom he and his girlfriend, Hélène, have befriended lose their young daughter to the wave; Helene’s sister is diagnosed with cancer, a relapse from her teenage years. Throughout all this, Carrère suffers no personal misfortune other than his connection to these sad tales, and like an ethnographer striving for full disclosure, he presents himself, his jealousies, his sympathies, in the very telling of the stories of those the book is titled after.

This week, we have an interview with Carrère, a full review, and an excerpt from the text in which we start off by situating ourselves in Sri Lanka and becoming familiar with the complications that have arisen between Carrère and Hélène.

Click here to read an extended preview of Lives Other Than My Own, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale and coming out in September from Metropolitan Books.

....
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