23 October 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of the always spectacular Asymptote includes Good Girl, a short story by Gail Hareven.

Hareven is an Israeli author who is most well-known for The Confessions of Noa Weber, an absolutely brilliant book that won the Best Translated Book Award in 2009. It was translated by the also brilliant Dalya Bilu and is available from Melville House.

Next year, Open Letter is going to be bringing out her follow-up, Lies, First Person, a really dark, fucked-up book about a woman who decides to take revenge on her uncle for crimes he committed against her sister when they were growing up. It’s really interesting and very readable, and I’ll be writing more about this in the not too distant future.

But for now, check out the new story, an excerpt of which is below:

Today is the first day of September and for a lot of people this means the beginning of a new school year. I want to experience a new beginning too, so I’ve decided to buy this notebook in which, from now on, I’ll write about everything that happens to me along with my thoughts about it. One day, when I open and read it, I’ll be able to remember how things really were—and I’m sure this will be meaningful. And, until then, I’ll have this diary, and it will be my best friend on lonely days.

So—hello, diary! My name is May Nathanson, which is short for Maya Nathanson. Daddy thinks “May” sounds better. In October I’ll be seventeen, and here’s the surprising part…I don’t go to high school anymore.

In order to explain to you, my new friend, how I grew up so quickly, and why it is that a girl like me doesn’t go to school, I need to go back a few months, to what happened in June. So be patient. (I’m sure you don’t lack patience.)

It all started when crazy Linda locked herself in the bedroom. In case you don’t know (how would you know if I haven’t told you yet?), Linda’s my mom, and please don’t think badly of me for calling her crazy. I’m not the only one who thinks so.

That evening some guests were supposed to come over: two important professors from Germany who came especially to see Daddy’s ward at the hospital, and a couple of doctor friends of his, and all of their wives, too. My dad likes to entertain, and he’s the most charming host in the world. (Okay, okay, maybe not the most charming, but pretty close to it.) If Linda wasn’t the way she is, I’m sure we’d have had guests much more often.

So this is what happened: Ofir and I were sitting upstairs in my room getting ready for the next day’s matriculation exams in government—separation of authority into legislative and judicial branches, stuff like that. At our school we can take two matriculation exams as early as eleventh grade—in language and in government—and we did language a little after Passover. (I don’t mean to brag, but I know I’ll get at least a B+.) Anyway, Ofir and I are sitting and cramming, and suddenly we hear a big metal boom from the kitchen downstairs, and then Linda’s footsteps as she runs up the stairs, and the bedroom door being slammed shut. Ofir looks at me, obviously embarrassed, asking me whether I want to go and see what’s going on, but scenes like this are pretty common with Linda, and I had no intention of encouraging her and her silliness. And guess what? Two minutes later, just as I expected, she started playing one of her stupid records—Leonard Cohen—melancholy trash that always depresses me.

Okay: So when Ofir saw that I wasn’t going to leave the room, we went back to studying. And he didn’t ask anything because he saw that I didn’t want to talk about it, and also because we’re friends and he knows a thing or two about my family. Anyway, what’s going on with Linda is not exactly a secret.

10 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Approximately five minutes, the winners of this year’s Best Translated Book Awards were announced at a special celebration at Idlewild Books in New York City. Hopefully the party is raging, and the winners are enjoying themselves . . .

Competition was pretty steep for this year’s awards. The poetry committee came to a consensus rather quickly, granting the award to Elena Fanailova for The Russian Version, translated from the Russian by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

On the fiction side of things we debated and debated for weeks. There were easily four other titles that could’ve easily won this thing. Walser, Prieto, Aira were all very strong contenders. But in the end, we gave the award to Gail Hareven for The Confessions of Noa Weber, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu and published by Melville House Press.

You can download the official 2010 BTBA Winners Press Release by clicking there. And you can visit these links for overviews of The Confessions of Noa Weber and The Russian Version.

18 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next four weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven. Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu. (Israel, Melville House)

It’s hard to write an objective overview when it comes to books like this. I first heard about this via Jessa Crispin’s review for NPR, then coming across Michael Orthofer’s review at Complete Review, where he gave it an “A-.” (Anyone who follows Complete Review knows how rare anything above a B or B+ is . . . ) Completely intrigued but living through the beginnings of my divorce—a divorce that at the time I wasn’t totally in favor of—I picked this up over the summer despite my slight fear that a book about a woman’s obsessive love for a man who left her was maybe not the best thing for my state of mind.

Who knows if it was or wasn’t, but after the first handful of pages I was in love with Noa’s voice. As I mentioned in my review, this is one of those novels in which the voice and telling of the story far outstrips the plot of the actual book. At its most basic, The Confessions of Noa Weber is about a middle-aged writer who married a man out of convenience (to escape her military duty) and continues to love for the rest of her life despite the fact that he leaves her for Russia, for another woman, for a different life.

Noa goes on to become a very successful author of Nira Woolf detective novels, but never stops loving Alek. And this book is her gut-wrenchingly personal account of her obsession and her life as a whole. In our blog & Twitter-obsessed world, this book is perfectly suited for our times. It reads like a too-personal look into someone’s life, but one that is charming, honest, smart, self-critical, sarcastic, and absolutely captivating.

The temptation always exists to be flippant at your own expense in the marketplace of anecdotes and then to go around with your hat and collect the laughter. Everything’s a joke nowadays, everything’s a laugh, it’s the fashion. So that feeling seriously has become utterly and completely pathetic. A kind of social impropriety which only a real blockhead would be guilty of. You won’t usually catch me making this kind of faux pas, because I am a polite person, I have self-respect and I don’t want to cause embarrassment either. And since I’m such a classy gal, everything about me is classy too. In other words, in the framework of the anecdote and the shtick, the best thing about a good shtick is that like a hawker in the marketplace you can dish it out to people like a tasty morsel of yourself.

So I could sell you this wild shtick about how I got turned on by Alek, and how from the thing we had together I got pregnant, and how afterwards I got back into that whole scene again; and it’ll all be terribly flippant and witty, how I’ll laugh at her, and for a few moments perhaps I’ll even feel healed, because I’ll be really capable of laughing at “her,” who by then is already not completely me.

The truth is that emotional seriousness involves not a little stupidity. The stupidity lies in that toad-like inflation itself, as if vis-a-vis all the terribly painful and terribly important and terribly, terribly terrible things happening in the world, Noa Weber jumps up and croaks out loud: Listen, listen, look, look, I too have something terribly painful and terribly important to tell. Something about my tortured soul. Something about my delusions.

Once you start reading this book, it’s almost impossible to put down. Noa Weber is an amazing character—one that you could listen to forever. In fact, I know someone who refuses to finish the last five pages just so that it won’t be over . . .

Gail Hareven won the Sapir Prize for Literature for this novel, and although I have no idea what her other books are like (she’s the author of five other novels and three story collections), I really hope Melville House (or someone) will bring them out in Dalya Bilu’s translations. Even if they’re half as good as Noa Weber, they’d still be totally amazing.

7 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today is a day of gushing posts . . . Up next: NPR’s year-end literary lists. I remember loving these last year, and am a big fan of the holiday lists they’ve posted so far. Even if I’m not planning on reading any of these books, the Indie Booksellers list is pretty cool, and Alan Cheuse has some intriguing recommendations as well.

But the best of the best of lists has to be Jessa Crispin’s write-up on the five best foreign fiction works of 2009.

Season of Ash by Jorge Volpi (translated from the Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam): For too long, the word nerd has been misused to describe the videogame-playing and Buffy-obsessed men and women of this world. That’s geek culture. For a proper definition, look no further than Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash, which, in its depth (it spans the years 1929 to 2000), breadth (it crisscrosses from Zaire to Berlin and Pittsburgh to Siberia) and bookish preoccupations (scientific advancements in genetic research, artificial life and biochemistry), is unapologetically nerdy. But it’s quality airplane reading, too.

There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers): Lately, much has been made about the absence in contemporary Russian literature of worthy heirs to the realist masters Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. But the rise of the tightly constructed “weird” tales of Petrushevskaya, Victor Pelevin and Tatyana Tolstaya suggests a secure Soviet literary future.

The Armies by Evelio Rosero (translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean): Winner of the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, The Armies is a realistic account of Colombia’s civil unrest told in a tense, stripped-down style. It avoids slipping into polemic by keeping at its emotional center an old man interested not in taking sides but just the safe return of his wife.

The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven (translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu): By deciding to mine one character’s psychology so thoroughly, Israeli novelist Gail Hareven risks not only believability but the chance that readers won’t stick around for 300 pages. Noa is a fine companion, however: intelligent, self-aware, charming and darkly witty. That risk earned Hareven Israel’s Sapir Prize and, one hopes, a growing presence in the English-language market.

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer): In its candor about the bitterness that can arise from family obligations and the responsibility of caretaking, The Twin is both touching and surprising. Bakker’s beautiful and uncluttered prose style is almost old-fashioned. A character’s remark about the farm — “It’s here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930” — could refer to the novel itself. Family drama, after all, is timeless.

Not only is this a killer list of books (including some of my personal favorites), but it’s a partial who’s who of top translation publishers with a heavy emphasis on the indie: New Directions, Archipelago, Open Letter, Melville House, and Penguin.

Well done Jessa!

18 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a review of Gail Hareven’s The Confessions of Noa Weber, which came out from Melville House Press earlier this year in Dalya Bilu’s stunning translation. (I didn’t mention her translation in the actual review, but wow, to capture this voice so convincingly, so compellingly, is quite a feat.)

I’m a big fan of this book, which, as happens to so many great books, was tragically under-reviewed when it came out this past April. (Although it was praised by Jessa Crispin at NPR and by Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review.)

Here’s the opening to my piece:

For years now, Melville House has been one of the most exciting independent presses out there. The political books they’ve done are fantastic, the Art of the Novella Series is arguably one of the most genius marketing/editorial publishing projects of the past decade, and the return of the Moby Lives blog (I still wear my “The whale is out there, man!” t-shirt every so often) is a brilliant addition to the current litblog scene. And on top of all that there’s the fine list of translations that they’ve been bringing out over the past few years. Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai. Marcel Proust’s The Lemoine Affair. Miguel de Cervantes’s The Dialogue of the Dogs. More recently, the Hans Fallada rediscovery project, which includes Every Man Dies Alone (a Best Translated Book Award nominee), The Drinker, and Little Man, What Now? And if that wasn’t enough, along comes Gail Hareven’s searing, addictive novel The Confessions of Noa Weber, another nominee for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award.

I know this is going to totally undersell the novel (honestly, I’m not sure my reviewing skills are up to this painfully honest book anyway), but The Confessions of Noa Weber reads like the best possible personal blog ever written. It’s a personal account of mystery writer Noa Weber’s lifelong obsession with Alek, a man she marries out of convenience (to escape her military duty), has a child with, and loves her whole life even though they separate pretty early on, and he moves to Russia, where he eventually finds a more placid existence with another woman.

Click here for the full review.

18 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For years now, Melville House has been one of the most exciting independent presses out there. The political books they’ve done are fantastic, the Art of the Novella Series is arguably one of the most genius marketing/editorial publishing projects of the past decade, and the return of the Moby Lives blog (I still wear my “The whale is out there, man!” t-shirt every so often) is a brilliant addition to the current litblog scene. And on top of all that there’s the fine list of translations that they’ve been bringing out over the past few years. Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai. Marcel Proust’s The Lemoine Affair. Miguel de Cervantes’s The Dialogue of the Dogs. More recently, the Hans Fallada rediscovery project, which includes Every Man Dies Alone (a Best Translated Book Award nominee), The Drinker, and Little Man, What Now? And if that wasn’t enough, along comes Gail Hareven’s searing, addictive novel The Confessions of Noa Weber, another nominee for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award.

I know this is going to totally undersell the novel (honestly, I’m not sure my reviewing skills are up to this painfully honest book anyway), but The Confessions of Noa Weber reads like the best possible personal blog ever written. It’s a personal account of mystery writer Noa Weber’s lifelong obsession with Alek, a man she marries out of convenience (to escape her military duty), has a child with, and loves her whole life even though they separate pretty early on, and he moves to Russia, where he eventually finds a more placid existence with another woman.

This is one of those books where the prose far out-strips the plot. Noa’s voice—so direct, so honest, so unabashed and sarcastic and pointed—is mesmerizing, drawing the reader in immediately:

The city of J lies at the top of the hills of J. That’s how I’d like to begin my story; at a calm distance, with a deep breath, in a panoramic shot focusing very slowly on a single street, and very slowly on a single house, “this is the house where I was born.” But you’d be making a fool of yourself if your J were Jerusalem, since every idiot knows about Jerusalem. And altogether it’s impossible to talk about Jerusalem any more. Impossible, that is to say, without “winding alleys” and “stone courtyards,” “caper bushes” and “Arab women in the market place.” And I have nothing to say about caper bushes and stone courtyards, nor do I have the faintest desire to flavor my story with the colorful patois of colorful Jerusalem characters, twirling their mustaches as they spin Oriental tales. [. . .]

It isn’t my personal problem as a writer. It isn’t my personal problem that a person who was born here can’t open with the words “I was born”—because so what? So you were born, good for you, you were born, okay, and then what? Because after “I was born” has to come an adventure story that will take the first person far, far away from his birthplace, and how far can you really get from here? To the Far East on the beaten track of the ex-warriors from the Golani Brigade? To Uman with the nutcases of the Bratslav Hassids to their rabbi’s grave? And however far you went you’d end up meeting someone who knew your cousin’s cousin. Not interesting. Not interesting at all.

As the novel progresses, Noa weaves together events from the past and present, filling out her life, from her time as a young pregnant woman to a very successful writer of feminist mystery novels, to an older woman who has never met any man who can replace her first love. An almost hypocritical situation given her politics, and one that generates self-criticism, but also this gorgeous “confession.”

There are very moving moments in this book, and it can be occasionally uncomfortable in the way that watching someone break down in a public forum (like a blog, like Facebook, like Twitter) can be a bit uncomfortable. But on the whole, this is a remarkable piece of literature. And the way Hareven chisels out the shape of Noa’s self makes me hope that her other works will also eventually make their way into English. Another amazing find by Melville House.

....
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