3 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Along with about, well, everyone else in the northeast, I’m snowed into my apartment today, so instead of answering the phones at Open Letter (HA! no one ever calls us), I’m at home, working on our forthcoming anthology of Spanish literature, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, and, as a break of sorts, I thought I’d put together our monthly list of books worth checking out. (For past versions, including one with a rant about my daughter’s Odyssey of the Mind group, just click here.)

For the past few years, every December/January, we’ve been posting a series of “Best of the Year!” podcasts—on fiction, on nonfiction, on movies, on music (my personal favorite podcast)—along with resolutions about what Open Letter/Three Percent/me personally would like to accomplish in the forthcoming year. (See last year’s post in which my number 1 resolution was to “Drink more mimosas!” Speaking of, it is a snow day, I do have some left over booze . . . )

Over the next few weeks, we’ll probably maybe get right back on that. I hesitate only because I’ve read around about 10 million year end lists over the past few weeks, each of which was, by necessity, incomplete and incapable of addressing its incompleteness and the biases underpinning that. (I even read this article about Largehearted Boy’s “List of Year End Lists.”) Thanks to Facebook and the success of all those awful click-driven, shitty websites named in this article on The Year We Broke the Internet, social media exposes us every moment of every day to absurd list after absurd list.

Which isn’t just annoying, but in the opinions of some (self included), pretty much a horrible thing for the world as a whole. (For more on Morozov, I highly recommend checking out this profile. And he lost 100 lbs on a rowing machine watching European art-house films? That’s the exercise regime I need to sign up for.)

But there’s something so compelling about seeing information in this way . . . It’s like numbered, or at least ordered, compilations of information tap right into the reptilian part of our brain and spew out all the morphine feelings. Jason Diamond’s ridiculous Top 10 List of Literary Snobs? I MUST HAVE IT. And hey look! I’m number 3!! WEEE!!

At the same time, we live in a world of way too much information. As awesome as this seems to techno-utopians, it’s pretty much fucking up our brains. (Obviously, that’s the scientific conclusion.) As I sit here, at my kitchen table, I have 20 tabs open on my browser—ranging from information about car batteries to Facebook to The Guardian’s ‘definitive’ list of 1000 books to read to Pitchfork’s list of upcoming albums to ESPN’s Soccer section—Spotify is playing one of the 596 tracks I pulled out as my “favorites of 2013,” to go along with the 5,000 more from 2010 onwards, and I’m staring right into my “to read” bookshelf (not to be confused with the “already read” and “probably going to die before I get there” bookshelves) that has 103 titles on it. And, no surprise, in between sentences, I’m getting my ass kicked at Words With Friends by both Tom Roberge and Steven Rosato. There’s too much going on.

None of which is news to anyone.

And like a lot of people, one of my personal resolutions for 2014 is to fuck as much of this shit as I can and live in the real world for more than 15 minutes at a time without checking Twitter for the latest witty hashtag meme (#AddAWordRuinAMovie) or international football scores. OK, that’s going too far. Football scores are still allowed.

I don’t want to just do my “old man screaming at the goddamn trees to get off his yard” rant though. The thing is, I kind of can’t live without all this stuff. Professionally. Without blog culture, I would never have “published” anything. Without email and Facebook and the rest of it, only a handful of people would ever have heard of Open Letter’s books.

What I wonder is if there’s a better, more effective way of providing readers with useful information. I started these monthly overviews because a) I wanted to pull out and highlight books that could get lost in somewhat overwhelming Translation Database and b) I wanted to make jokes.

This time of year always makes me a bit reflective . . . Not to mention that I take all of this a little too personally (result of being almost 40, having worked in this thankless business for 12-plus years, and chronic self-doubt) and get totally bummed when not a single Open Letter book shows up on the Quarterly Conversation Favorite Reads of 2013 lists. (SPOILER ALERT: All you’ll find behind that link is The Most Experimental Dalkey Archive Books and Seiobo There Below.)

For now, I’m not sure if there’s a better way to provide readers with information on forthcoming translations. My current mix of jokes and titles is probably not smarmy enough to go viral, and not smart enough to serve as a legitimate place to check for recommendations. (Surprise! Three Percent is not the Times Literary Supplement.) I’ll keep thinking about it over the course of the year though, and hopefully along the way we’ll provide some interesting recommendations. (And starting next month maybe we’ll say something about the books themselves. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the listicle sites, it’s that content is totally and utterly irrelevant.)

And with that, I’m ready to announce Resolution #1: No More Writing about BuzzFeed/Flavorwire and the Reasons They Annoy Me. Down with lists and resolutions! Long live lists and resolutions!

The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield (Quercus)

Resolution #2: Write More Reviews.

Every year I make the same promise—to do more reviewing—and then fail miserably. Out of the 112 books I read last year, I wrote reviews of what, four? Five? That’s pathetic. My goal is at least two a month, preferably three. And The Light and the Dark will be one of these.

(Although when I do review this, I’ll have to make a disclaimer that there is a LOT of bad blood between me and Quercus, over Shishkin’s work in particular. And thank god Shish got himself a new agent. Read into that all you will.)

The Islands by Carlos Gamerro, translated from the Spanish by Ian Barnett (And Other Stories)

Resolution #3: Sell a Lot More Books.

So, here’s some breaking news for everyone: As of June 1st, Open Letter will be distributed by Consortium. This is fantastic news for everyone involved. This should make it easier for us to get our books into East Coast and Midwest stores (the West Coast has been doing great by us, thanks to George Carroll’s efforts), and frees up some time for us to work at promoting our books.

Aside from the practical reasons for joining up with Consortium, I’m really excited to be in with a group of great publishers like And Other Stories and BOA Editions and Copper Canyon, and Dzanc, and others. Feels like the place that we should’ve been all along . . .

Trieste by Daša Drndić, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Resolution #4: Create a Special Series for the World Cup.

George Carroll announced our forthcoming World Cup of Books at Shelf Awareness today, which means it’s definitely going to happen. I’ll be posting more specifics in the not-too-distant future, but if you’re interested in helping contribute, please let me know. (Really looking for people well-versed in the literature of the qualifying countries with fewer books available in America.)

Seeing that Croatia took out my beloved Iceland—which would’ve been the smallest country ever to qualify for a World Cup—this seems like an appropriate book under which to announce our little contest.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland (New Directions)

Resolution #5: Read One Book from Every World Cup Qualifying Country.

Following up on #4, this seems like a great way to combine my interests in soccer and literature . . . Not sure The Guest Cat will be the book I read from Japan, but it does feature a cat and we all know that cats sell. I know there’s no way ND would ever put together a cute cat video compilation to promote this books, but, seriously, cats sell. This poster is pretty much the only reason so many students sign up for my spring class:



Poems to Read on a Streetcar by Oliverio Girondo, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (New Directions)

Resolution #6: Make September A Thousand Forests in One Acorn Month.

This anthology—edited by Valerie Miles—features 28 Spanish-language authors, including a lot of “Big Name” writers like Fuentes, Marias, Vargas Llosa, Vila-Matas and the like, and twelve that have never before appeared in English. What’s unique about this collection is that each piece is prefaced by an interview with the author in which s/he explains why s/he chose this particular story/excerpt as a representative of his/her “aesthetic high point” and also talks about his/her influences, etc. So, for the month of September, every day we’ll run either an excerpt from one of the interviews, or a bit from a previously untranslated story. Stay tuned—this is an incredible collection and you’re going to love the shit out of these pieces.

The Interior Landscape by A. K. Ramanujan, translated from the Tamil by the author (New York Review Books)
Resolution #7: Expand My Reading Horizons.

In a little while, I’m going to post a list of all the books I read in 2013. This is kind of pointless, but since I kept track of the titles and what languages they were originally written in, I can confirm that, out of the 111 books I read last year only 27 were by authors from courtries outside of Europe and North & South America. And that includes the 16 Korean titles I read for the LTI Korea—most of which I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up. So, to be honest, less that 10% of the books I read last year were from India, the Middle East, Africa, Asian, etc. . . . That’s kind of sad. I want to do better with that this year.

1914 by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)

Resolution #8: Create Some Sort of Translator Love Month.

Way back when, Erica Mena and I interviewed a bunch of translators at ALTA Pasadena (in 2009??) and posted all of these on Three Percent. As an advocate for translators, I think we really should do this more often, like, maybe in October, to correspond with the publication of A Man Between: The Life and Teachings of Michael Henry Heim, we could have a month of short interviews highlighting the most interesting and talented translators working today. You know, people like Linda Coverdale.

This Is the Garden by Giulio Mozzi, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris (Open Letter)

Resolution #9: More Self-Promotion.

This is probably my depression talking, but it seems like for the past few years, we’ve been talking up all sorts of interesting and fantastic projects and books, but receiving very little love in return. As a result, I’m going to take extra efforts to make sure that we get a lot of info about our new books up on Three Percent and elsewhere.

Starting with this year’s first release, the short story collection, “This Is the Garden”: by Giulio Mozzi and translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris. It’s a great collection, and one that includes angel dong. Seriously. Come for the angel dong, and stay for the beautiful prose!

All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Griasnowa, translated from the German by Eva Bacon (Other Press)

Resolution #10: Post at Least Once a Day.

When things get busy, it’s really easy to just skip posting for a day, which then becomes two . . . three . . . a week. Thankfully, Kaija has been keeping the site going with lots of book reviews (thanks to all of you!), but I’m going to make a dedicated effort to install a Five Day Plan mixing book posts, with industry posts, with links to other interesting articles.

The Literature Express by Lasha Bugadze, translated from the Georgian by Maya Kiasashvili (Dalkey Archive)

Resolution #11: Launch Open Letter After Dark.

I’m keeping most of this under wraps for now, but sometime soon, I hope we’ll have some exciting news . . .

Have a great 2014!

6 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Lightning by Jean Echenoz, translated by Linda Coverdale

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: The New Press

Why This Book Should Win: Tesla, duh. And Linda Coverdale. But mostly Tesla.

This was one of the first books we included in the currently-on-hiatus “Read This Next” project. As part of that, we ran a preview of the book, and interviewed Linda Coverdale, and ran a review of the book. And then, on the the Three Percent podcast on the Best Fiction of 2011, I plugged this again. As I did in last week’s podcast. In other words, I am fond of this book. (Worth noting that on last week’s podcast, Tom chose this as the book he thinks will win the award.)

Unlike similarly constructed sentences, such as “everyone likes a reenactment,” or “haven’t you always wondered what it would be like to live in Ireland in the 1800s?,” it’s FACT that everybody is interested in Tesla.



Just look at that shit! That is totally wicked insane. And named after TESLA. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg—this guy invented EVERYTHING.1

In addition to all the awesomeness of his experiments (dude almost destroyed most of New York when he was just fucking around) and his strange obsessions with electricity and pigeons, one of the reasons Tesla keeps resurfacing every few years (most recently in Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else) and seizing the public imagination is his captivating life story and how it can be interpreted into so many different archetypal myths.

For instance, there’s the idea of the solitary, eccentric inventor. Someone who is maybe a bit socially awkward (recluse), has some odd quirks (pigeons obsession), but can see the world in ways that no one else ever has (death ray).

Also, the thing that struck me in reading this book, and in reading about Tesla in general, is how he was one of the last pure inventors outside of the corporate world. Part of that was because he was THE WORST at business matters, some of that is because Edison was a total bastard (electrocuted an elephant), and because capitalist assholes have seemingly always taken advantage of the brain-muddled and trustworthy.

Getting to the book itself, this is part of Echenoz’s “Eccentric Genius” trilogy that includes Ravel and Running. These are very different from his earlier works, which are a bit more noirish and funny. Here’s what Linda Coverdale had to say in the aforementioned interview that we did:

Chad W. Post: Were you excited when you first started translating Echenoz? These books are pretty different from his earlier works.

Linda Coverdale: When I picked up Ravel, I thought, oh goody, here we go, we’re going to have this sort of rambunctious circus-like atmosphere, it will be rollicking and lots of fun, let’s see what happens. Well, it was Ravel. My first reaction was, what? Now I’m translating Echenoz and he’s gone into a monastery? It was delightful but it certainly was a surprise. It was as if he were playing around, doing his homework, taking his exercise in all sorts of ways. But it was always Echenoz, and he was working on his style and how he would manipulate the language. It seemed that he had taken along the two things that I had most enjoyed about his writing before: that it was very antic, he had a wonderful sense of humor, and yet, it was very elegant—even when it sprawled, he was in control. He took those two aspects and he, in a way, compressed them, and raised them to a higher level, and started tackling what one might call more serious things. Which isn’t to be nasty to previous novels at all, no, he likes change, he’d been playing with different genres before and he said he was ready for a change, so, as I understand it, he was actually trying to do something different in the way of time, because previous books had always been set in the period in which they were written, so he thought he might try his hand at something else. But he didn’t want to do a historical novel, some sort of bodice-ripping thing. He wanted to set it—and this was the particular allure of this idea—in the period between the two wars, which was very rich, and he was going to have all sorts of real characters in there, real people, Ravel among them, and Ravel ended up walking off with the book that Echenoz eventually wrote. So that’s how he got into that. He was making a change, and he was experimenting with it, the experiment fizzled, but there was a by-product that proved to be, from my point of view, solid gold. That’s how he started with the Three Lives.

Partially because it’s Tesla, partially because his style really fits the content, but of the three “Eccentric Genius” books, Lightning is the most successful and captivating. It recounts the life of Tesla (referred to as “Gregor” in the book) from birth to death in a chatty, informed narratorial voice.

To give you a taste, here’s a bit from the beginning when Gregor is born right around midnight:

We all like to know, if possible, exactly when we were born. We prefer to be aware of the numerical moment when it all takes off, when the business begins with air, light, perspective, the nights and the heartbreaks, the pleasures and the days. [. . .]

Well, that precise moment is something Gregor will never find out, born as he was between eleven at night and one in the morning. Midnight on the dot or a bit earlier, a bit later—no one will be able to tell him. So throughout his life he will never be sure on which day, the one before or the one after, he has the right to celebrate his birthday. [. . .]

Gregor’s birth proceeds like this in the clamorous darkness until a gigantic lightning bolt—thick, branching, a grim pillar of burnt air shaped like a tree, like its roots or the claws of a raptor—spotlights his arrival and sets the surrounding forest on fire, while thunder drowns out his first cry. Such is the bedlam that in the general panic, no one takes advantage of the frozen glare of the flash, its instant broad daylight, to check the precise time according to clocks that, cherishing long-standing differences, have disagreed among themselves for quite a while anyway.

A birth outside of time, therefore, and out of the light, because in those days the only illumination comes from candle wax and oil, since electric current is as yet unknown. Electricity—as we employ it today—has yet to impose itself on custom, and it’s about time for someone to deal with that. It’s Gregor who’ll take charge, as if sorting out another item of personal business: it will be his job to clear the matter up.

This one is a MUST READ for any and everyone. It’s short, charming, and utterly enjoyable. And, I think, a definite finalist.

1 Because this is absurd, yet makes the point, here’s a list from Wikipedia of “Electromechanical devices and principles developed by Nikola Tesla”:

Various devices that use rotating magnetic fields

The Induction motor, rotary transformers, and “high” frequency alternators

The Tesla coil, his magnifying transmitter, and other means for increasing the intensity of electrical oscillations (including condenser discharge transformations and the Tesla oscillators)

Alternating current long-distance electrical transmission system (1888) and other methods and devices for power transmission

Systems for wireless communication (prior art for the invention of radio) and radio frequency oscillators

Robotics and the electronic logic gate

Electrotherapy Tesla currents

Wireless transfer of electricity and the Tesla effect

Tesla impedance phenonomena

Tesla electro-static field

Tesla principle

Bifilar coil

Telegeodynamics

Tesla insulation

Tesla impulses

Tesla frequencies

Tesla discharge

Forms of commutators and methods of regulating third brushes

Tesla turbines (e.g., bladeless turbines) for water, steam and gas and the Tesla pumps

Tesla igniter

Corona discharge ozone generator

Tesla compressor

X-rays Tubes using the Bremsstrahlung process

Devices for ionized gases and “Hot Saint Elmo’s Fire”.55

Devices for high field emission

Devices for charged particle beams

Phantom streaming devices56

Arc light systems

Methods for providing extremely low level of resistance to the passage of

electric current (predecessor to superconductivity)

Voltage multiplication circuitry

Devices for high voltage discharges

Devices for lightning protection

VTOL aircraft

Dynamic theory of gravity

Concepts for electric vehicles

Polyphase systems

17 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To supplement the advance preview of Jean Echenoz’s Lightning — this week’s Read This Next — book, I talked with translator Linda Coverdale about Echenoz, and the three “Eccentric Genius” books of his that she’s translated.

You can read the entire interview here, but for now, here’s an excerpt:

Chad W. Post: Were you excited when you first started translating Echenoz? These books are pretty different from his earlier works.

Linda Coverdale: When I picked up Ravel, I thought, oh goody, here we go, we’re going to have this sort of rambunctious circus-like atmosphere, it will be rollicking and lots of fun, let’s see what happens. Well, it was Ravel. My first reaction was, what? Now I’m translating Echenoz and he’s gone into a monastery? It was delightful but it certainly was a surprise. It was as if he were playing around, doing his homework, taking his exercise in all sorts of ways. But it was always Echenoz, and he was working on his style and how he would manipulate the language. It seemed that he had taken along the two things that I had most enjoyed about his writing before: that it was very antic, he had a wonderful sense of humor, and yet, it was very elegant—even when it sprawled, he was in control. He took those two aspects and he, in a way, compressed them, and raised them to a higher level, and started tackling what one might call more serious things. Which isn’t to be nasty to previous novels at all, no, he likes change, he’d been playing with different genres before and he said he was ready for a change, so, as I understand it, he was actually trying to do something different in the way of time, because previous books had always been set in the period in which they were written, so he thought he might try his hand at something else. But he didn’t want to do a historical novel, some sort of bodice-ripping thing. He wanted to set it—and this was the particular allure of this idea—in the period between the two wars, which was very rich, and he was going to have all sorts of real characters in there, real people, Ravel among them, and Ravel ended up walking off with the book that Echenoz eventually wrote. So that’s how he got into that. He was making a change, and he was experimenting with it, the experiment fizzled, but there was a by-product that proved to be, from my point of view, solid gold. That’s how he started with the Three Lives.

CWP: Do you know how historically accurate these books are? I mean, Ravel seems very much based on historical records, whereas in Lightning, Tesla’s name is changed to Gregor, which raised some questions for me.

LC: With this new style, he stuck very close to biography in the first novel—and they’re all novels, he says very specifically that they’re all novels, but in Ravel, I did the research and I checked up on lots of things, and I kept coming across information that Echenoz must himself have found. He did extensive research—he was looking at letters, he was looking at memos, he was looking at scribbles on manuscripts, looking at books about Ravel, you name it. The idea was, he would have so much . . . So when I say his style became compressed, it seems to me that, after eating all this information, he was very very choosy, he distilled all the data and events and emotions, and crafted his sentences to make them really rich and resonant. Most of the dialogue in Ravel was in fact rooted in reality, but he didn’t create a lot of it in the three novels, because what he was writing was a novel that stayed very close to the actual life that he wanted to explore. Then when he finished Ravel, he thought he’d like to do the same thing again, but he decided to pick an area about which he knew very little, and he decided, sport, sport would be good, and he found his character, Zátopek, and he also started looking into the history and politics of the period, which he didn’t touch on really at all in Ravel. So he was taking the same idea but playing changes on it, and then seeing what would happen, which turned into Running. [. . .]

CWP: And this led to Lightning . . .

LC: It was a logical progression, he thought he’d like to do it once more, and this time he was looking for a scientist, and Tesla was the one he latched on to. He relied on Margaret Cheney’s Tesla: Man out of Time, which he credited. But he had given himself more freedom with the second book when he was dealing with Emil—Echenoz was a little more roman-esque, and allowed himself some curlicues—and he decided that this time, he was going to do more of that. Frankly, he was going to take liberties that he hadn’t taken before, and structure his book more like a novel. Well, listen, Tesla’s life is like a novel. The man was insane.

So when people say it’s a trilogy, Echenoz makes a real point of saying no, it is a suite. He didn’t conceive of it as a trilogy. Each thing led to the next one, and in a way, he was moving blindly, but confidently. After he’d done his research and made his choice, then he knew where he was.

And be sure to check out all the RTN info about Lightning by clicking here.

15 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is my review of this week’s Read This Next book, Lightning by Jean Echneoz, which is translated from the French by Linda Coverdale and coming out from The New Press.

Lightning is the third of Echenoz’s “Eccentric Genius Suite,” which also includes the novels Ravel and Running. Each of these books takes a historical figure as it’s base—one who was a bit quirky, and as a result, also very fascinating. These are still novels in the sense that Echenoz creates situations around historical facts, providing unverifiable insights, and bringing these characters to life—while avoiding the typical traps of “historical fiction.”

I have yet to read Running, but I’d highly recommend Ravel in addition to Lightning. But as I say in the review, Lightning plays to my obsession with Tesla, which is one reason we chose to include this as a Read This Next title. Speaking of, click here to read a sample from Lightning.

And here’s the opening of the review:

There’s something fundamentally compelling about Nikola Tesla’s life. The fact that he was born either right before midnight on July 9th, or right after on July 10th. His ability to visual things in 3-D and then create them exactly how he saw them. His photographic memory. The “War of Currents.” How he invented basically everything, including alternating current electrical power systems, radio, radar, neon lights, VTOL aircraft, Tesla coils. His idea to provide free energy to everyone. His death ray. The fact that he may have invented all these things, but died penniless. His obsession with pigeons. Lots of compelling aspects to his life.

And clearly, I’m not the only one who finds Tesla’s life so interesting. In 2008, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, which features Tesla near the end of his life, living in The New Yorker hotel and tending his pigeons. Studio 360 did an episode on him. So did PBS. These people are trying to preserve Wardenclyffe, Tesla’s last and only existing laboratory. Google his name and you end up with over 8,100,000 hits. There’s something fundamentally compelling about Tesla’s life.

I’ve been intrigued by Tesla for quite some time, but in reading Jean Echenoz’s Lightning, it became clear that Tesla was one of (if not the) last inventors who existed outside of big business. Case in point: The War of Currents.

Click here to read the entire piece.

15 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

There’s something fundamentally compelling about Nikola Tesla’s life. The fact that he was born either right before midnight on July 9th, or right after on July 10th. His ability to visual things in 3-D and then create them exactly how he saw them. His photographic memory. The “War of Currents.” How he invented basically everything, including alternating current electrical power systems, radio, radar, neon lights, VTOL aircraft, Tesla coils. His idea to provide free energy to everyone. His death ray. The fact that he may have invented all these things, but died penniless. His obsession with pigeons. Lots of compelling aspects to his life.

And clearly, I’m not the only one who finds Tesla’s life so interesting. In 2008, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, which features Tesla near the end of his life, living in The New Yorker hotel and tending his pigeons. Studio 360 did an episode on him. So did PBS. These people are trying to preserve Wardenclyffe, Tesla’s last and only existing laboratory. Google his name and you end up with over 8,100,000 hits. There’s something fundamentally compelling about Tesla’s life.

I’ve been intrigued by Tesla for quite some time, but in reading Jean Echenoz’s Lightning, it became clear that Tesla was one of (if not the) last inventors who existed outside of big business.

Case in point: The War of Currents. Back at the turn of the twentieth century Thomas Edison (whose reputation has not been well-served by the passage of time) was promoting the direct current model of electricity distribution. Not to get into all the technicalities of this, but basically, because this system required all electricity to move in one direction only (generator to outlet), it caused for a lot of start/stop problems for things like trams, was very limited in how far it could be distributed, and was overall not that efficient. Tesla had an idea for an alternating current system that would solve a lot of these problems, by using transformers and whatnot.

While working at Edison Electric, Tesla brought up his idea, but Edison “explodes each time as if his assistant were extolling the Antichrist.” But over time, Edison might be developing some doubts as to his system and lets Tesla (named Gregor in the book—more on that in a minute) take a shot at solving the problem:

Fine, go to it: there’s $50,000 in it for you if you succeed. Gregor goes to it, for six months, at the end of which the generator winds up in fine fettle indeed. Gregor hurries to report to his employer.

Great, exclaims Edison, lounging in his armchair with his feet propped up on his desk. Good, very good. Really? asks Gregor uneasily. You’re pleased? Ecstatic, declares Edison, delighted. So, then, ventures Gregor, unable to finish his sentence because—So then what? breaks in Edison, whose face has turned to stone. Actually, says Gregor, screwing up his courage, I seem to remember something about $50,000. Young man, snaps Edison, sitting up and taking his feet off his desk, you mean to tell me you don’t know an American joke when you hear one?

Prick. And it’s not like this is the only d-bag move Edison makes. When Gregor ends up working with Western Union (after losing all his money to the backers of his successful arc light), the so-called “War of Currents” kicks off, with Edison protecting his DC distribution model at all costs. Such as by demonstrating the dangers of AC by electrocuting cats and dogs on the streets. And then an elephant. He even creates a really brutal electric chair and kills a convict.

In some ways, Edison is the anti-Tesla—at least when it comes to business. He claimed the patents for inventions his workers came up with. The lengths he went to to preserve his monopoly more resemble today’s corporations than the image I have of Edison from my grade school textbooks.

To bring this home, when Tesla signed a contract with Westinghouse, he was promised a modest sum for the sale of electricity via his AC system. When they “won” the current war, Western Union owed him $12 million. Since this would dismantled Western Union, Tesla tore up the contract, content to go off to Colorado to play with electricity. (And supposedly discover a way to deliver free electricity to everyone, everywhere. Something that’s as anti-corporate as it gets.)

That’s how it will go with Gregor: others will discreetly make off with his ideas while he spends his life bubbling away with new ones. But it’s not enough to keep things boiling, one must then decant, filter, dry, crush, mill, and analyze. Count, weigh, sort out. Gregor never has the time to cope with all that. The others, off in their corners, will take the time they need to carry out his ideas while he, dashing on, will have already pounced on something else. And his patent applications won’t help, won’t any more keep Roentgen from claiming the X-ray than they’ll prevent Marconi later on from saying he invented radio.

Echenoz, who changed Tesla’s name from Nikolai to Gregor to emphasize that this was a novel and not a biography, does an amazing job capturing the fascinating eccentricities of this genius. Because not only was Tesla a great inventor, he was quite a showman as well, such as in this description of his “demonstration” at the 1893 World’s Fair:

As mystified by these scientific matters as I am, the audience at this point is already goggle-eyed and openmouthed at such a spectacle. When Gregor begins, however, in a crashing din, to pass between his hands currents in excess of 200,000 volts, which vibrate a million times a second and appear as shimmering phosphorescent waves—and then turns himself into a long cascade of fire, the crowd screams for the rest of the act. After which, in the gradually falling silence, Gregor’s motionless figure continues briefly to emit vibrations and haloes of light that fade slowly into the returning darkness, until the audience holds its breath in a theater as black and silent as the crypt.

For such a short book (142 pages), Echenoz (and superstar translator Linda Coverdale) sure cover a lot of ground. There’s the Edison bit, the time in Colorado when he “communicates with martians,” his time at the Waldorf Astoria, his time at the much less chic New Yorker hotel, the time when he falls in love with a pigeon.

This book works though, not just because of the wealth of awesome material that was Tesla’s life, but because of the compression (Linda Coverdale’s term) of his writing. It’s concise, but not minimalist. Serious and very precise on one hand, but with that typical Echenoz flair, such as the occasional references to “I” and “we” and the general “lightness” that makes all of his fictions so incredibly enjoyable. And makes Lightning one of my favorite books (so far) of 2011.

13 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Lightning by Jean Echenoz, a book that I truly love. Simply put, Echenoz’s charm + Tesla’s crazy genius = Incredibly Engaging Novel.

Over the rest of the week, we’ll be posting a few things about Echenoz’s general career (his noir books, his transitional period, the Eccentric Genius suite), along with an piece about an interview I did with translator Linda Coverdale, and a full length review of the book.

For now, check out the preview here, and here’s the short intro to the book:

Echenoz has had an interesting and diverse career as a writer. His first few books—_Cherokee_, Big Blondes, Double Jeopardy, Chopin’s Move_—are fun, noirish sort of novels. A few years back though, after _I’m Gone and Piano, Echenoz embarked on a “suite” of three books about historical figures: Ravel (about Maurice Ravel), Running (about Emil Zátopek), and Lightning (about Nikola Tesla).

These three novels may signal a sort of new direction in terms of what Echenoz is writing about, but all three are infused with the typical Echenoz voice. And it’s that signature voice that transforms the “Eccentric Genius Suite” from a series of biographies or historical works into charming novels that lucidly depict the quirky lives these people led.

Over the past few years, Tesla has sort of come back into the public eye, especially thanks to Samatha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else. The reasons for this resurgence of interest are varied, ranging from the general strangeness of his person and the movie-like quality of his life, to the way that Tesla was one of the last pure inventors—one who was destroyed by big business and his own inability to function in that world.

Lightning is a stunning novel that is captivating right from the start. In our advance preview, you can read about Gregor/Tesla’s birth, his early successes, his fall out with Edison (who always comes off as a bastard when you read about Tesla), and the start of the “War of Currents.”

1 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Admittedly, things have been a bit slow around here lately. I’ve been in NY for the Festival of New French Writing (more below), and hard at work on a grant for the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s due next week, but, I have to finish tomorrow (along with review for Bookforum) or suffer the bureaucratic wrath of the ORPA.

Which is all a long winded way of saying that Three Percent will be back in full on Thursday with reviews, “Why This Book Should Win the BTBA” write-ups, and all the usual randomness.

For now, a couple quick things:

  • The Festival of New French Writing was a huge success. All seven panels were fantastic, and very well attended. After hearing Philippe Claudel talk, I’m definitely going to read Brodeck, and the conversation between Mark Lilla and Pascal Bruckner about the role of religion in society was very interesting. Might have some more detailed notes later, but for now, I wanted to thank and congratulate everyone who put this together and recommend checking this festival out when it comes around again in two years.
  • Amid the heap of stuff that arrived while I was gone was a galley of Jean Echenoz’s Lightning, which is translated by Linda Coverdale and is “drawn from the life of Nikola Tesla.” EXCITED. (In fact, I’m going to try and review all three of Echenoz’s short novels on “accomplished eccentrics”: Running, Ravel, and Lightning.)
  • Sadly, Moaycr Scliar passed away this past Sunday. In the words of The Americas Series editor Irene Vilar, “Moacyr Scliar was one of Latin America’s most important contemporary writers who was repeatedly awarded the most distinguished prizes of his country and a great contribution to Brazilian society. He leaves us the memory of a deeply compassionate man who, marked by his own experiences as the son of Jewish-Russian immigrants, spared no efforts to ease other people’s suffering. His extensive oeuvre of over 70 books in Portuguese language and uncountable translations all over the world gives testimony to his life, what moved him, what he dreamed of and what he shared with all of us.” The Americas Series (which, someday, we will write about in full) published three Scliar books: The Centaur in The Garden, War at Bom Fim and Kafka’s Leopards (forthcoming this Fall 2011).
  • The new issue of World Literature Today is available and focuses on Jazz Poetry and Neustadt Laureate Duo Duo.
22 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by our own E.J. Van Lanen on Jean Echenoz’s Running, which was recently released by The New Press in Linda Coverdale’s translation.

Personally, I’m a big Echenoz fan—especially of his earlier noir-detective books like Cherokee—and this is one of the many books I’m looking forward to reading for the 2011 Best Translated Book Awards. (Since it released in December, this isn’t eligible for this year’s award.) In fact, there are a slew of Dec-Feb books that I can’t wait to read . . . but more on that tomorrow.

Here’s the opening of E.J.‘s review:

Jean Echenoz’s Running is a fictional investigation of the life and athletic genius of Emil Zátopek, a Czech long-distance runner who is widely regarded as one of the great runners of the 20th Century.

The novel opens in World War II, with the German invasion of Moravia. Emil, a teenager at the time, is working at the Bata shoe factory, his hoped-for future as a schoolteacher having fallen by the wayside. To promote themselves, the factory organizes sports teams and athletic events, and despite his loathing of all athletic activity, Emil is compelled to represent the factory in a cross-country race against several members of the Wehrmacht. To his surprise, Emil finishes second in the race and is invited to join a running club, which he resists at first:

“Against all odds, he soon starts enjoying himself. He doesn’t say anything but seems to be getting into it; after a few weeks he even begins running on his own, just for the pleasure of it, which astonishes him, and he prefers not to mention this to anyone. After nightfall, when no one can see him, he does the round trip between the factory and the forest as fast as he can. Although he doesn’t breathe a word about this, the others catch on in the end, pressure him again, and, too nice a guy to resist for long, he gives in since it means so much to them.

“Well, nice as he is, he begins to realize that he likes a good fight: the first few times they let him loose on a track, he goes for all he’s worth and easily wins two races, of 1,500 and 3,000 meters. People congratulate him, encourage him, reward him with an apple and a slice of bread and butter, tell him to come back again and he goes back again and starts training in the stadium, at first for a laugh but not for long.”

Click here for the full review.

22 December 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

Jean Echenoz’s Running is a fictional investigation of the life and athletic genius of Emil Zátopek, a Czech long-distance runner who is widely regarded as one of the great runners of the 20th Century.

The novel opens in World War II, with the German invasion of Moravia. Emil, a teenager at the time, is working at the Bata shoe factory, his hoped-for future as a schoolteacher having fallen by the wayside. To promote themselves, the factory organizes sports teams and athletic events, and despite his loathing of all athletic activity, Emil is compelled to represent the factory in a cross-country race against several members of the Wehrmacht. To his surprise, Emil finishes second in the race and is invited to join a running club, which he resists at first:

Against all odds, he soon starts enjoying himself. He doesn’t say anything but seems to be getting into it; after a few weeks he even begins running on his own, just for the pleasure of it, which astonishes him, and he prefers not to mention this to anyone. After nightfall, when no one can see him, he does the round trip between the factory and the forest as fast as he can. Although he doesn’t breathe a word about this, the others catch on in the end, pressure him again, and, too nice a guy to resist for long, he gives in since it means so much to them.

Well, nice as he is, he begins to realize that he likes a good fight: the first few times they let him loose on a track, he goes for all he’s worth and easily wins two races, of 1,500 and 3,000 meters. People congratulate him, encourage him, reward him with an apple and a slice of bread and butter, tell him to come back again and he goes back again and starts training in the stadium, at first for a laugh but not for long.

Emil’s running style and training methods are self-taught and unorthodox—Echenoz makes a few attempts to describe Zátopek’s strained and painful-looking style—but these methods prove effective for Emil. He begins winning races around occupied Czechoslovakia and comes in fifth at the European Championships in Oslo, breaking the Czech record. After the end of World War II, Emil is drafted into the army, whom he represents at the Allied Forces Championships in Berlin. During the race he laps several of the competitors and the crowd goes wild—Emil suddenly finds himself world famous.

His fame makes him the perfect propaganda tool for the fledgling communist country, so Emil is made an “Athlete of the State”. He marries a fellow athlete, and he wins gold in the 10,000 meters in the 1948 Olympics in London—the first such medal for Czechoslovakia. This is the beginning of Emil’s dominance of distance running. He wins everywhere he goes and sets a world records almost every time out. He is the fastest man on earth. His career reaches a peak at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where he wins gold in the 5,000 meters, the 10,000 meters, and, incredibly, in the marathon—a race he had never run before in his life.

Inevitably, age catches up with Emil, and he begins losing races, until he finally retires following the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

In Running, Echenoz has chosen a compelling figure to focus on. Zátopek’s story—a reluctant athlete who, through serendipity and will, becomes a legend and a hero to his country—is truly fascinating. Echenoz’s style here is perfectly suited to the action, the races in particular are well described, and Linda Coverdale’s translation is transparent.

The novel, however, can at times feel like a simple recapitulation of Emil’s victories. There isn’t really any psychological depth to the ‘character’ of Emil nor much tension in the telling of his story. This seems intentional for the most part; Echenoz appears to be more interested in the accomplishments, which are astounding, than in the man, and much of the political background of the novel serves more as context, or simple fact, than as motivation for anything that takes place. I’d categorize it as creative non-fiction rather than as a novel. At a really brief 128 pages, Running is a fascinating story that rescues, for me at least, an important and highly influential athlete from obscurity.

3 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I mentioned this just before I left for BEA, but last Wednesday the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation hosted the Twenty-First Annual Translation Prize ceremony in New York.

This Prize is for the best fiction and nonfiction translations from French into English over the past year and comes with a $10,000 case award. The shortlist was loaded with great books and translators, all of whom were incredibly deserving.

In the end though, the winners were Linda Coverdale for her translation of Jean Echenoz’s Ravel, and Linda Asher for her translation of Milan Kundera’s The Curtain. Congratulations to both Lindas!

20 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

There’s a great fiction chronicle Sunday’s New York Times Book Review by Alison McCulloch. A few international writers are featured, including two of my favorites: Jean Echenoz and Robert Walser.

Ravel by Jean Echenoz has been getting some decent praise, and Ms. McCulloch calls it a “beautifully musical little novel.”

The Assistant by Robert Walser has already gotten some play here at Three Percent, and it’s great to see it get some deserved attention in the Times.

Benjamin Weissman reviewed the Walser for the L.A. Times this past weekend, and has this to say:

The Assistant has, at times, the rambling feel of a journal. Perhaps it could have benefited from a rigorous edit, but Walser fans will appreciate the loose approach. Not since Laurence Sterne has the digression been taken on such lovely excursions, in the form of a mental walkabout that occurs in nearly every scene.

Which makes me even more interested in reading this.

3 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

Robert Birnbaum’s weekly review digest is now available online and contains a couple books of note.

The one that caught my eye is Ravel by Jean Echenoz and translated by the award-winning Linda Coverdale. There are a number of Echenoz books available in English—Cherokee and Double Jeopardy from University of Nebraska Press, Chopin’s Move from Dalkey Archive, and I’m Gone from New Press just to name a few. And although it’s true that he’s never had a best-seller, Echenoz does have his fan base of people interested in the way he plays with the detective genre in a humorous, fun-loving way with great, three-dimensional characters. (Although in his recent books, like Piano he’s been getting away from the detective thing and exploring new ground.

I’m the first to jump on the “Americans read stupid books” bandwagon, but I’m not sure I agree with Birnbaum’s assessment about this title.

No doubt various strains of xenophobia, Francophobia, and indifference contribute to the American public’s ignorance of Jean Echenoz’s bestselling (in France) novel, Ravel.

I think it’s much more complicated than that, with a lot of blame to be laid at the feet of New Press. Never known for their marketing savvy, New Press continues to do a disservice to Echenoz with this title. To date, this is only the second mention I’ve seen of this book, which, according to their precision-based website, released in “Spring.” (If nothing else, an official pub date at least shows you care.)

When I was at Dalkey Archive Press, it just so happened that we released Chopin’s Move on the exact same day that New Press brought out Piano. Dreaming of review-tastic symmetries, I contacted them months ahead of time to try and coordinate our publicity efforts. There’s no reason to rehash the whole story, but let’s just say that in terms of promotional effort, they didn’t do a damn thing for their book. We did get a number of reviews though, but because I actually wanted people to read our book, we outsold them at a pace of two-to-one. (Which is sort of a rumor. Publishers never share sales figures, and when they do, they exaggerate. By like four times the real amount. So we probably outsold New Press ten-to-one. But whatever.)

The point is, it’s not just American xenophobia or French bashing that drives an author to obscurity. It’s a publisher’s responsibility to create an interest in its books. Sometimes this is more difficult than it should be, and sometimes publishers just don’t bother.

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