25 October 13 | Chad W. Post |

Like most people in publishing—or most readers I know—I have approximately a hundred million books on my “to read” shelves. Which in no way stops me from buying more and more books, or, in this case, setting aside everything I “should” be reading to check out a book that won’t be available until April of next year.

The sort of cryptic, yet promising opening of the jacket copy first caught my attention:

Viviane is both an engrossing murder mystery and a gripping exploration of madness, a narrative that tests the shifting boundaries of language and the self. For inspiration, author Julia Deck read the work of Samuel Beckett, because, as she says, “he positions himself within chaos and gives it coherence.”

But it’s this line from the second paragraph that convinced me that I should read this right now:

You are not entirely sure, but it seems to you that four or five hours ago, you did something that you shouldn’t have.

Writing in the second-person is tough to pull off, but that sentence is basically perfect.

Aside from that, I don’t know too much more about this book. It’s published by Minuit—which is surprising, since they don’t often publish debut novels—and will be coming out New Press next year in Linda Coverdale’s translation. And it was nominated for the Prix Femina, the Prix France Inter, and the Prix du Premier Roman, three of France’s ten thousand literary awards.

Also of importance: This is a slim 149 pages, which is the perfect length for me to read tonight, seeing that most of the rest of my weekend will be consumed with baseball watching . . . I’ll let you know on Monday if it’s as good as Wacha’s postseason.

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

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...

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.

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.

1 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Julianna Romanazzi on the punctuation-confused “There Are Things I Want You to Know” About Stieg and Me by Eva Gabrielsson, translated by Linda Coverdale and published by Seven Stories.

Julianna’s been posting here for the past few months during her summer internship. She’s currently studying at Hobart & William Smith, and likes to tango.

This book isn’t exactly the sort of book we usually review here, but the whole Stieg Larsson phenomenon sure is something. And Eva Gabrielsson’s situation is pretty interesting. (See this Publishing Perspectives piece for more info about the boo.)

The book itself is meant to be a “biography“—take that as you will—of the late author’s long time partner Eva Gabrielsson, whom he met at age nineteen (she was eighteen), and stayed with for over 30 years. Eva chronicles the ups and downs of their life together, the different political movements and counter movements the couple was involved in, the roots and creation of the Millennium Trilogy, and their reasons for avoiding marriage. The last part of the book is also devoted to Eva’s loss of control over Stieg’s legacy and the downward spiral of his estate.

Gabrielsson writes “This book . . . I wish I hadn’t had to write it. It talks about Stieg, and our life together, but also about my life without him.” Reviews call the book “poignant,” “romantic,” and “touching”; and it is. There are moments of great accomplishment and personal danger mixed with the little everyday couples’ rituals that keep a relationship alive. But there is, of course, another tension.

The book admits early on, in both a foreword by Marie-Francoise Colombani and in the first chapter, that Eva is “today fighting to obtain control over Larsson’s literary estate.” An estate that is according to some sources worth $15 million dollars or more (over 97 million Swedish kronos), the sixth largest estate attributed to a dead celebrity after Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, JRR Tolkien, Charles Schulz, and John Lennon. But that is not to say that the book does not have its moments of emotion and poignancy.

Click here to read the entire review.

1 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I will admit, right off the bat, that I have never read anything by Stieg Larsson. Not a word, not a page, not even the back of a book cover. Yes, I am aware of the existence of the Millennium Trilogy, with the movies and the books and the commercials and whatnot, and I have perhaps eavesdropped on a few hushed, excited conversations; I am aware of the franchise that is approaching a kind of cultural phenomenon and of its rising popularity. But I haven’t read a word of it.
Really.

And now that I have established my unbiased-ly biased position, I have some things to say about Eva Garbrielsson’s “There Are things I want you to know” About Stieg Larsson and Me.

The book itself is meant to be a “biography“—take that as you will—of the late author’s long time partner Eva Gabrielsson, whom he met at age nineteen (she was eighteen), and stayed with for over 30 years. Eva chronicles the ups and downs of their life together, the different political movements and counter movements the couple was involved in, the roots and creation of the Millennium Trilogy, and their reasons for avoiding marriage. The last part of the book is also devoted to Eva’s loss of control over Stieg’s legacy and the downward spiral of his estate.

Gabrielsson writes “This book . . . I wish I hadn’t had to write it. It talks about Stieg, and our life together, but also about my life without him.” Reviews call the book “poignant,” “romantic,” and “touching”; and it is. There are moments of great accomplishment and personal danger mixed with the little everyday couples’ rituals that keep a relationship alive. But there is, of course, another tension.

The book admits early on, in both a foreword by Marie-Francoise Colombani and in the first chapter, that Eva is “today fighting to obtain control over Larsson’s literary estate.” An estate that is according to some sources worth $15 million dollars or more (over 97 million Swedish kronos), the sixth largest estate attributed to a dead celebrity after Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, JRR Tolkien, Charles Schulz, and John Lennon. But that is not to say that the book does not have its moments of emotion and poignancy.

I was an animal acting on instinct—a protective measure that kept anyone harmful to me a t a distance. I went through life like a zombie. Every morning I woke up in tears, although my nights were dreamless. Absolute darkness. The animal in me was restless and kept me constantly in motion. I did a lot of walking, but never alone, because I no longer dared to go out on my own. Not recognizing the woman I’d become, I had no idea what she might be capable of doing, to myself or to the people I might meet. Like a hunted beast, I fed only on little things picked up in passing: dates, nuts, fruits.

All the while Erland kept saying that he didn’t want any part of Stieg’s estate.

While the potential for gold digging and a character assassination of the Larsson family is there it is, as Eva promises, not the focus of the book. Short chapters further break down into vignettes on the couple’s life together and their experiences both political and personal, snapshots of 32 years, including the daily threats and phone calls from extremist groups retaliating against Stieg’s investigative journalism writing. Within this the writing is at some times fantastically picturesque and on point and at others of absolutely no relevance.

The writing itself has a kind of choppy, almost stilted quality. For someone who apparently spent many years translating magazine articles as well as doing editorial work, Eva’s work is somewhat unpolished and, in a few spots, clearly unedited. Whether this is due to a flat out refusal to make any changes, as some rumors have suggested, or simply Eva’s style, it is for the reader to decide.

And I suppose, in the act of reviewing this, that if I were a more suspicious person I would note that her writing becomes more fluid, coherent, and lyrical—and readable—in the second half of the book where she focuses on the creation of the Trilogy and her eventual loss of control over the Stieg Larsson estate. But that might be my small inner cynic talking.

However, it must be said that never in the book does Eva Gabrielsson write of a time when she asked for control of the estate’s money, only its intellectual property rights to protect, as she says, Stieg’s vision and his work’s integrity. Nor does she ask for money outright to continue her crusade, although a short chapter is devoted to her website supporteva.com, which has stopped taking donations as of January 10, 2011.

Bottom line, while “There Are things I want you to know” About Stieg Larsson and Me is no Millennium Trilogy novel (I am guessing) it will be an interesting read for book fans and people who are interested in Stieg Larsson’s life. Information is included on the backgrounds of the series’ characters and the real life inspiration for the plots, places, and names as well as some information on the unpublished fourth novel. If the book is perhaps not a great piece of writing, it is at least an intriguing read.

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.”

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.

17 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Children of Heroes by Lyonel Trouillot and translated from the French by Linda Coverdale.

Phillip Witte, a University of Rochester student, Open Letter intern, and employee of the UR Bookstore wrote this piece.

17 July 08 | E.J. Van Lanen |

Every so often, a tiny corner of the world, little seen and little heard in recent times by the rest of the globe, produces an artist whose voice speaks out to all of us, whose work displays such competence and quality as demands immediate attention. Lyonel Trouillot of Haiti is a novelist of such caliber. He is also a poet and essayist, and in 2004 his book Street of Lost Footsteps was a finalist for the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation prize (trans. Linda Coverdale).

Coverdale now brings us Trouillot’s 2002 novel, Children of Heroes, a small but powerful showcase of Trouillot’s diverse talent. The author’s uses of style, voice, and plot structure cohere to form a little book that is much more than the space between its covers. A captivating work of art, the book reads as a miniature epic, a tragic journey, and poignant love story.

The novel takes place in Haiti, where an abusive husband and father is murdered by his two children. It follows their subsequent journey through their overcrowded city evading capture, and their final surrender after three days. While it is narrated in the first person by the younger of the children, Colin, the main figure of the story is truly Mariéla, his older sister, for she is the object of all of his affection; he loves and idolizes her. It is in this respect a tragic romance story as well.

The construction of the narrative is inventive and carefully assembled. The events documented spiral out from the murder itself, tracing what happens after it chronologically while simultaneously doubling back further and further into the past before the murder, and occasionally leaping ahead into the future beyond the three days that could be considered the novel’s real time-span. There are several techniques Trouillot uses to make you feel disoriented as you read, and this is foremost among them. This disorientation reflects the emotional state of the characters. This is not to say that the book is confusing: in reading it, I never felt lost or confused, except in the first few pages, where a bombardment of narrative and character information is a bit overwhelming at first:

It must have been noon when we began to run. We could have put up with the smell for a lot longer, but when Mariéla saw the mailman coming, a guy who never failed to have a drink with Corazón and reminisce about the legendary greats of boxing, she dumped our savings out of their jar and, warning me not to lose them, slipped the coins into my pocket, then told me to run without stopping until I was out of the slum.

The relevant information identifying these characters comes gradually, settling the picture and further elaborating it as the novel grows and fleshes out.

The second technique of disorientation is use of chapters unbroken by paragraphs: that is, the text itself is divided into untitled, unnumbered chapters, but there are no paragraph breaks within them. All dialogue is embedded without demarcation, which is less confusing than one would expect, and at times—particularly in the question game scene—incredibly powerful and effective:

Are they going to lock us up? I mean in a prison or a reformatory? I don’t know. Yes, probably. And will we be locked up together? I don’t know. But we’ll always be together. And Joséphine, what will she think? Maybe she won’t see things the way others will, since she’s all alone now? Joséphine, she won’t think anything, she’ll just stick with suffering and let God think for her.

This lack of identifiers allows you to ascribe these questions and answers to any combination of Colin or Mariéla; the narrative present (having never actually occurred, they could be Colin’s addition in recounting the events long afterward) or the narrative past (having actually occurred at the time of the events and recounted verbatim); and actual conversation or introspection.

In refraining from the use of paragraphs, Trouillot strikes a fine balance between rambling and concision. This is the most immediately tangible device of many he uses, the result of which is a small but densely packed narrative, a miniature epic which does not belabor any point, never drags, and is finely orchestrated to travel in two directions at once while these directions remain parallel: one backward, and one forward, in time from the sparking event of the murder.

Finally, Trouillot tells you a great deal simply by the careful development of a very specific narrative voice. The voice is far more mature than the narrator’s character, suggesting either a great passage of time between the events and the narration (the past tense is used throughout); a blending between the character narrator and an outside narrative voice; or both. In a more minute instance, the chapter in which the aftermath of the murder is related to Colin and Mariéla by Colin’s friend Marcel is delivered with greater maturity, omniscience, and immediacy of reflection than expected from the young Marcel:

The mailman had arrived early, because he enjoyed having a little glass with Corazón even though it was against regulations. . . . Such a good-looking man, A little violent, true, but you can’t choose your temperament, and he didn’t deserve to end up like this. It was in the mailman’s interest to appear shaken by his discovery: people expecting letters were pissed off at him for pitching the mailbag into the pond.

Again this suggests a blending with, or perhaps filtering through, an outside (or significantly later, i.e. more mature) narrator.

Children of Heroes is a small epic, a moving journey, a little treasure-trove of captivating and inventive storytelling. Author Lyonel Trouillot has used every tool at his disposal to demonstrate an enormous talent. This is a book to be widely read and enjoyed, and this is an author who deserves greater attention and praise.

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!

....
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