26 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Now that Cyber Monday is underway, it’s about time for the “Best of Everything!!!” lists to start coming out. (Or, as documented at Largehearted Boy, continue coming out.) Personally, I fricking love these sorts of lists, to find books/albums that I need to check out, and to serve as fodder for my anger . . . I’ll bet at least half of an upcoming podcast will be an escalation of complaints about some utterly predictable list of shit that most four-book-a-year readers will slobber over . . . And hopefully our year end lists (in books, movies, and music) will get some other cultural elitists all bent.

But for now, the only year end list I’ve checked out is this Kirkus one, which is definitely my favorite, since it includes TWO Open Letter titles: Children of Reindeer Woods by Kristin Omarsdottir, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith and My First Suicide by Jerzy Pilch (Kirkus LOVES the Pilch), translated from the Polish by David Frick.

There are a number of interesting books on this list—Kingdom Come by J.G. Ballard, The Investigation by Philip Claudel, Arcadia by Lauren Groff, Lazarus Is Dead by Richard Beard, and Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye—but not many (any?) from small, nonprofit presses. YAY TO US FOR OVERACHIEVING!

I love both of these books, and you can buy them from your local independent bookstore, from Amazon, from B&N, or directly from us: click here for Children, and here for Suicide.

However you get them, I hope you do. And I want to take a second to give a special shout-out to Lytton Smith and David Frick for translating these. Both books set forth their own unique difficulties, and both translators totally nailed it. Congrats to both of you!

2 July 12 | Sarah Winstein-Hibbs | Comments

Click here to read the latest issue of Aldus, a new literary translation journal from Brown University. The pioneers behind this ambitious new publication are Three Percent contributors Matthew Weiss and Tim Nassau. Tim’s also a former Open Letter intern, and recently reviewed Tomas Tranströmer’s The Deleted World.

In this issue you’ll find a conversation between Steven T. Murray, translator of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and his wife and fellow translator, Tiina Nunnally. Also included in this edition: translations from Forrest Gander, winner of the 2012 Best Translated Book Award for his translation of Kiwao Nomura’s Spectacle and Pigsty ; translations by Lytton Smith, translator of Children in Reindeer Woods and The Ambassador (both published by Open Letter); and new works by C.D. Wright, Susan Bernofsky, Andrei Codrescu, and Andrew Barrett – as well as a piece or two by Tim himself.

1 June 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Children in Reindeer Woods, which Lytton Smith translated from the Icelandic and is available from Open Letter.

This is the first book of Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s to be translated into English, and it received a great amount of attention when we brought it out this past spring.

Introduced a few weeks ago, Aleksandra Fazlipour interned with me last semester and wrote a ton of book reviews, including this one.

Here’s part of her review:

In Children in Reindeer Woods, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, who is also a playwright, presents an interesting reflection on war. On what is introduced as a peaceful day, three paratroopers invade the temporary home for children where Billie lives and kill everyone except Billie right in front of her. Unexpectedly, one soldier turns against his two comrades and kills them, sparing the young girl yet again. Rafael chooses to retire from the military and start over as a farmer—he goes so far as to shoot off his toes in repentance for murders he commits. We are invited to glimpse into a world fraught with the horrors of wartime and the wonders of childhood by seeing things through the perspective of Billie (although the story is not always told directly from her point of view), an eleven-year old girl who seems too old for her years.

Ómarsdóttir pushes the limits of storytelling, testing the line between the creative mind of a child and what the audience is expected to believe as fact in this surreal world experiencing a devastating war. Billie herself is not any ordinary child—at eleven, she has many ideas about the world around her, about love and relationships, and has many interests that are way beyond her years, yet in spite of this she seems convinced that she is “retarded.” The prose is often frantic, feverish, and sometimes repetitive in a way that draws us into this vaporous, mysterious world. Although the story is not told in Billie’s perspective, the winding and often stumbling style of prose and the hopeful yet naïve tone seems characteristic of either of the two major characters in this fable-like tale.

Click here to read the entire review.

1 June 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In Children in Reindeer Woods, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, who is also a playwright, presents an interesting reflection on war. On what is introduced as a peaceful day, three paratroopers invade the temporary home for children where Billie lives and kill everyone except Billie right in front of her. Unexpectedly, one soldier turns against his two comrades and kills them, sparing the young girl yet again. Rafael chooses to retire from the military and start over as a farmer—he goes so far as to shoot off his toes in repentance for murders he commits. We are invited to glimpse into a world fraught with the horrors of wartime and the wonders of childhood by seeing things through the perspective of Billie (although the story is not always told directly from her point of view), an eleven-year old girl who seems too old for her years.

Ómarsdóttir pushes the limits of storytelling, testing the line between the creative mind of a child and what the audience is expected to believe as fact in this surreal world experiencing a devastating war. Billie herself is not any ordinary child—at eleven, she has many ideas about the world around her, about love and relationships, and has many interests that are way beyond her years, yet in spite of this she seems convinced that she is “retarded.” The prose is often frantic, feverish, and sometimes repetitive in a way that draws us into this vaporous, mysterious world. Although the story is not told in Billie’s perspective, the winding and often stumbling style of prose and the hopeful yet naïve tone seems characteristic of either of the two major characters in this fable-like tale.

Billie labels Rafael a murderer: an odd title for a soldier whose profession it is to kill people. This begins to blur the line between soldier and civilian life. However, in spite of the harsh label she bestows on Rafael, Billie is hopeful in the way that is characteristic of childhood but has ideas and wisdom beyond her years, trusting Rafael and the circumstances but still questioning him without disobeying him when she suspects he has killed an unexpected visitor who goes missing. In some ways, Rafael becomes the family that she lost when she was left at the temporary home for children in Reindeer Woods, whose whereabouts we do not know (other than that they are in fact alive). Billie’s discussion with the chickens in the henhouse captures her unique perspective:

“Good day, little chickens. I am the spring-man. I suppose I should vacuum, in here. Today’s Saturday, and that’s when people clean their residences and also the hen houses, though less frequently since animal-kind has fewer requirements. Perhaps because nature is expected to see to cleaning itself. But how are you going to get swept? God’s natural brush, storms, never reach in here, do they? Poor you. In your shitty beds. But I still envy you. A little. Not much. A little.”

Billie’s story is even stranger and more fantastical than she is as a character. Additionally, there are many different displacements that strip away the setting and add a mythical, fable-like quality to the story—the presence of modern-technology, including cell phones and computers, is confounded by a strange sense of tradition where little girls still curtsy and wear fancy dresses and lace socks daily. Furthermore, it is difficult to tell where the story takes place, because although the story is translated from Icelandic, Iceland does not have a military, the name “Rafael” has Italian or Spanish roots, and at one point the word “señorita” is used to refer to a woman. These displacements seclude Rafael and Billie in a dream-like setting where Billie’s dolls carry out conversations (with Billie and Rafael guiding them, of course) and sometimes kill themselves as part of their dramas, and where Billie’s father is a puppet who is ensnared by her mother by refusing to securely sew back on his damaged arm and thereby handicapping him:

One time, when Abraham’s arm ripped off during a brawl between the puppeteers about what should happen whether to go home or to the pub, Soffia refused to sew it back on; she took the torn arm and hid it. Borrowing a wheelchair was easy for a doctor, and so began a period of diligence in which Abraham sat at Soffia’s home in the wheelchair and wrote his work of jurisprudence; Soffia worked her shifts, and between them she sat at home too, reading medical books and pushing Abraham around in a wheelchair. She enjoyed pushing him. He enjoyed letting her push him because he loved depending on her, a change from the time when he didn’t want to depend on anyone Amidst this peaceful medical work, writing, and reading, Billie arrived. No-one had expected that. Abraham had thought his life’s mission on earth was not to have children, thought he was meant to break the mold, to exceed the frame that had been planned for him. It occurred to him that he might abandon mother and daughter before everything became too complicated and messy. Then he would leave behind a little souvenir which, amusingly enough, would grow larger, and he could fulfill his obligations as jurist somewhere else in peace and quiet.

My love, sew my arm back on, asked Abraham.

Soffia: No, Abraham. It isn’t good for you to drink beer now.

The disembodied and surreal nature of wartime that Ómarsdóttir in this story prevents the reader from knowing what is in fact real in Billie’s world, Reindeer Woods, or what is being fabricated through the eyes of a child or a nation fogged over by war. However, the dreamlike nature of the novel only increases its appeal, and makes Children in Reindeer Woods a more memorable tale.

22 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all you GoodReads users, we’re giving away 10 copies of Kristin Omarsdottir’s Children in Reindeer Woods though their special program. To enter, simply click on the button below before March 31st.

In terms of this book, it’s a very intriguing novel that’s kind of like a war book that’s not about a war. It opens in shocking fashion with a group of paratroopers descending on an idyllic farmhouse and killing everyone in site. Then one paratrooper turns on the others, and by page three, the only people remaining are Rafael—a soldier who wants to start life over as a farmer—and the eleven-year-old Billie, a precious and strange child who had been living at the Children in Reindeer Woods foster home.

As the book progresses, it becomes less about war—the when and where of this war are displaced and made intentionally irrational, transforming this into a more mythic, or universal sort of story—and more about the relationship between these two characters who are building an oasis amid a culture of violence.

Back at the MLA conference, I gave a copy of this to a friend who texted me the next day to say that it gave her “the most fucked up dreams ever . . . in a good way.” It really is that strange and powerful and vivid.

It’s also going to be reviewed in the New York Times Book Review next month. So get your copy now, either by entering below, or simply buying it through our website.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Children in Reindeer Woods by Kristin Omarsdottir

Children in Reindeer Woods

by Kristin Omarsdottir

Giveaway ends March 31, 2012.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win
14 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re bringing Lytton Smith’s translation of Children in Reindeer Woods next April, which is a ways off, I know, but it still seems like the perfect time to introduce this strange, haunting novel.

This novel takes place at a “temporary home for children” called Children in Reindeer Woods, where eleven-year-old Billie lives. The book opens with an intense clash of styles, as a very pastoral description is uprooted by the sudden arrival of a group of paratroopers who kill everyone—except for Billie. Rafael, one of the soldiers, then turns on his compatriots, kills them, and decides to get out of the war and become a farmer with Billie.

What war is this? It’s very unclear. Initially it might seem like WWII (which doesn’t make a great deal of sense), but people use cell phones, a nun passes through on her way to buy a computer, etc. This sort of murkiness adds to the fable-like quality of the novel.

Kristin Ómarsdóttir is the author of several books of poetry, short stories, novels, and plays. She received Gríman, the Icelandic playwright award, in 2005 fo the play Tell Me Everything.

Here’s an excerpt from Children in Reindeer Woods, her first book to be published in English translation.

vii. Rafael shouldered the weapon and took the crockery into the kitchen. Then he aimed the gun at the girl. “You can play for an hour before you go to bed. You’ll play here.”

With the toe of his army boot, he gestured to an empty spot on the living room floor. Billie got up from the table, pulled down the hem of her dress, and curtsied.

“Are you tall for your age?” he asked.

Tall like my father was, she was about to say, but stopped her motormouth dead.

“You said you were . . . eleven years old.” Billie nodded her head. “Then you’re tall for your age. Do you still play or not?”

“Yes.”

“How does the daughter of the house spend her time?”

“I’m not the daughter of the house.”

“How does a bright young thing spend her time?”

“With Barbie dolls,” replied Billie, bowing because she felt she was replying to a king and kings like being replied to with bows at the end of sentences. “I am not a precocious child. I am late-developing, almost retarded, though I am not dyslexic. I
believe in God, the Father, the creator of heaven and the earth.”

Billie bowed. Rafael smiled without effort, and just as effortlessly the smile vanished from his face. His ordinary facial expression was in keeping with his physical strength and his deliberate movements.

“Where are the Barbie dolls?” he asked inquisitively. She pointed to the red plastic box on the bookshelf. He rummaged around in the box. “You know what? It was a pleasure to dine with you.”

That’s how a fully-grown man talks to a fully-grown woman, not to a girl, little or big. She stretched her back. Perhaps she’d gotten big. “The pleasure was all mine,” she replied, and curtsied.

“Play,” he commanded, setting the red box on the floor. Billie sat down. She had heard offhand comments that eleven-year-old girls were too big for Barbie. Perhaps she was retarded. Her father and mother had said, they were always saying, the two of them together and each of them separately:

Billie dear, don’t constrain your inner child.

Be a child as long as you want, even if you become the object of ridicule.

What does object of ridicule mean, Mom and Dad, what does object of ridicule mean?

When you get laughed at.

Why will I get laughed at, why will I get laughed at, Mom and Dad?

We don’t know you will get laughed at, but if, if, you get laughed at, you have our word that you can be the way you want to be, so long as it doesn’t hurt others. Other people’s laughter is not a death sentence. You can’t let others change your habits.

If she asked them whether she was retarded, they laughed like baboons. And so she took note of this, she would learn the truth for herself later. When she got bigger she would go to an institution, perhaps, and get the confirmation she currently lacked. The phone rang. Rafael, who was standing at the front door holding the cat, breathing in the evening breeze and the warm country air, turned in a half-circle and stared at the telephone. It was like he hadn’t seen a phone before. Like it made a difference to stare at it. You have to answer it. Then he looked at Billie. Back at the phone. He let the cat fall from his arms and went towards the machine, which stood on a pillar in the hall. It might be Soffia. She usually rang about that time, after dinner. The phone’s ringer fell silent. The army boots continued past the girl, and the man sat down in the rocking chair.

“Does the phone ring much?” he asked, massaging his forehead.

“It sometimes rings in the morning. Sometimes in the evening. Not often.”

“Who calls?”

“Someone or other.”

“Do you know any names?

She shrugged her shoulders; she couldn’t possibly say, my Mom. Perhaps the man would be sorry to hear her mom wasn’t dead. She dressed the Barbie dolls in new clothes, she combed their hair. The phone rang again. She acted as though the machine didn’t exist. The phone went dead. Rafael’s eyes closed.

The cat slunk slowly across the f loor, nuzzled at the rocking chair and the army boots, then jumped up onto the soldier’s lap. With his eyes still closed, he made room for the animal and put a hand on its fur. The other hand grasped the weapon, which rested on his chest like a bow and violin on a sleeping fiddle player’s chest. While he slept, because he snored, the playing girl took charge, and the dolls began to speak, competing to speak as though they had eaten lots of eggs, talking in soft voices:

viii. Ragga: I’ve gotten into even more trouble because I’m pregnant and going to have a child. I’ll leave it on the doorstep of some rich folk. I wouldn’t let anyone suffer my poverty and hardship.

Sara: I’ll take the child, dear Ragga; I cannot have children because in truth I have metalbelly.

Ragga: What is metalbelly, Sara babe?

Sara: Ugh, let’s not talk about it at this elegant party. Thank you for coming, my darling angel.

Ragga: Are you going to see Gugga? Teddy cut off her hair and sold it.

Sara: Let’s go and steal something from Teddy. Quick.

Ragga: Good idea! I likewise am dead tired of this party. It’s much more entertaining to go and play outside.

Sara: I had to host this party, my darling cinnamon bun, so no one would think that I’m retarded. Sara whispers to Ragga: I am, you see, retarded.

Ragga: Me too. Don’t tell anyone. Come and steal something from Teddy, Guggalugga’s husband.

They arrive at bald Guggalugga’s home.

Ragga: Guggalugga, you’re quite the sight! You’re bald.

A bald Barbie doll is added to the group.

Gugga: Don’t say that, Ragga, please, be nice to me.

Ragga: It’s best to speak the truth my angel, my raisin bun, I hope you’re not ill, dear Gugga. Where is that guy? Where’s that jerk of a guy?

The new Barbie doll, a boy-doll, who has been added to the crowd: I’m good. I’m good. As the saying goes: everything’s hay in hard times. I’m good. God bless us, God bless us all. I’ve sinned and now I repent. All the worst things humankind has
done had gathered inside me. I repented. God bless us, my child. Everything’s hay—

Sara and Ragga beat Teddy to pieces.

Gugga: Girls, be nice to Teddy. It’s not like you think, my hair will grow back.

Ragga: It won’t grow back, you donkey, you’re a doll.

They stop beating Teddy, who cries like an old crone.

Gugga: Girls, listen, please. Teddy’s momma ordered him to steal my hair because she said she would disinherit him if he didn’t and she gave him a lot of money for the hair. We were starving. Our stomachs howled. We would have died of hunger.
Didn’t you notice that we were beginning to lose weight?

Ragga: Is it better to be rich and bald?

Ragga punches Teddy.

Gugga: You’re one to speak, Ragga, pregnant and about to sell some rich people your child.

Ragga: I’m not going to sell it. I’m giving it away. That’s quite different. My offspring won’t be bought and sold like your hair.

Sara: I shall give Gugga my hair. I’m giving Guggalugga my hair.

“Wait a moment, I need to fetch the scissors,” said Billie, standing up.

12 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Since we publish two of his novels, and since we featured his band yesterday, I thought today would be a perfect day to excerpt Bragi Olafsson’s The Ambassador, which is translated by Lytton Smith. (FYI: Lytton is the one responsible for providing me with the bottle of Brennivin featured in my upcoming “Black Death” post. So blame him.) Without a doubt, The Ambassador is the best novel ever written about a Lithuanian poetry conference. Most definitely.

Poet (and building superintendent) Sturla Jón Jónsson, is the Icelandic representative to this Lithuanian poetry conference. Which makes sense—he just has a new collection out that’s getting a lot of praise . . . Well, that is until he goes away and a major newspaper runs a story accusing Sturla of plagiarism. And that’s just the start of Sturla’s troubles. In Lithuania, someone steals his new overcoat, so he decides to swipe someone else’s jacket—which, obviously, doesn’t end up working all that well for him.

Here’s how Karen Russell—author of Swamplandia put it in a recent issue of PEN America:

Bragi Olafsson’s English language debut [Ed. Note: The Pets was his English language debut, but whatever], The Ambassador, is the strange, hilarious, and brilliant story of Sturla Jon Jonsson, a building superintendent who also happens to be a venerated Icelandic poet. He’s on his way to Lithuania to represent his nation at a literary festival, opening the door for all kinds of scathingly funny insights into the “situation of the writer.” It’s a tricky book to paraphrase—boozy, literary Icelandic black comedy? Icelandic picaresque? No “elevator story” exists for it, according to the book’s publisher, the fabulous Open Letter. It’s unlike anything else out there, anda joy to read. Sturla gets into all sorts of jams over the course of this short, weird novel, from being accused of nicking his latest poetry collection from a dead cousin to losing his overcoat, the only piece of clothing with a high thread count that this starving artist has ever owned. Kafkaesque yuks and keen insight are brought to you by the badass genius translator Lytton Smith—one of my favorite poets and author of the acclaimed debut The All-Purpose Magical Tent—and he uses all his creativity and rigor here, as well as his deep knowledge of Icelandic culture. Sturla’s inimitable voice can now infuriate and delight an American crowd.

And Agni just reviewed this, stating:

When we read as consumers we are consuming a product; but reading a novel like The Ambassador requires us to look at literature the way my father looks at ferries—to see an ingeniously designed, carefully constructed assemblage of parts, an assemblage that is good and valuable because it functions so well. Ólafsson’s novel has no flashy packaging—the main characters are devoid of youth, beauty, and conventional charm, the pacing is slow, and the plot wanders—but he has assembled these homely and mismatched materials into an exquisitely crafted novel that is gratifying to see at work.

One other bit about the book before we get to the sample. In The Abassador, everyone who attends this Lithuanian poetry conference receives a copy of The Season of Poetry featuring translated poems from a number of the conference participants. Well, Lytton actually recreated this book, which is available as a $.99 ebook and features “translations” from writers such as Jason Grunebaum, Jesse Ball, and Matthew Zapruder. So, for the price of a John Locke novel, you can get some faux-international poetry! (This actually is a brilliant collection—both the poems themselves and the games surrounding these poems are immensely satisfying.)

At long last, here’s a bit of The Ambassador. This is actually the editorial Sturla Jón Jónsson writes for the newspaper before taking off for the international poetry conference (after the jump):

Read More...

9 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As some of you might know, Bragi Olafsson’s new book — The Ambassador — released a couple weeks back. It’s an incredibly fun book centering around the journey of Icelandic poet Sturla Jon Jonsson to poetry festival in Lithuania where he loses his overcoat, steals someone else’s, is accused of plagiarism, and gets drunk a lot. While he’s there, he also receives The Season of Poetry, a small book featuring poems from the various festival participants.

In the novel, this book is referenced, and a few of the festival-goers are described, but not very many, which is what led translator Lytton Smith to come up with the fun idea of having American poets and translators recreate this poetry collection. Each of the participants invented a poet, and a poem by that poet that they then supposedly translated into English . . . In other words, this is a collection of fake poets, falsely translated, and plays off of the themes of truth, fiction, and plagiarism that run throughout the novel. (There was a panel at this year’s ALTA on imaginary translations, which this would’ve fit into perfectly.)

Click here to download a PDF, EPUB, or Kindle edition of the collection, which features “translations” from such writers as Sawako Nakayasu, Jason Grunebaum, Idra Novey, Eliot Weinberger, Jesse Ball, Matthew Zapruder, and Becka Mara McKay.

There’s also this playful intro from Lytton himself:

From the mystified pop culture references of Argentine poet Silvia Plata to the almost intangible tracings of Danish-Yogaslavian-Croatian poet Lørpsliç Bierkegårt, from the deeply personal lyrics of Greek poet Ioanna Theodorou to the distressed political writings of Hindi poet Radhika Matiyani, the selection of poems before you, translated by English-language poets from America and the U.K., offers a rare glimpse into the world of translation.

These poems originate in a strange volume, titled The Season of Poetry. _The Season of Poetry apparently gathered poems by writers from across the world who had come together in Lithuania for an International Poetry Festival one October. Based in Vilinius and the spa town Druskininkai, participants in the festival shared their verses, met one another face to face, and attended talks covering topics including “the work of German poet Günther Meierhof” and “references to overcoats in European modernist poetry.”

I stumbled across this book online—and how nice it is to still be able to stumble across a book in this digital age—via a series of chance hyperlinks in a salvo of blog comments about poetry readings and academic conferences. The only document I could find surving from this festival was a fragmentary PDF scanned from an unidentified archive. As far as I can tell, the original, assembled and edited by one Gintaras (his last name was nowhere recorded), contained the poems in Lithuanian translation and, on the facing page, in the source language.

Struck by the beauty and happenstance of this unusual assemblage of poets, all of whom had somehow escaped my notice, I contacted a number of writers and translators to see if they would bring these poems into English. My hope was to honour the original volume’s desire to spread the word about international writing, and in the process to encourage readers to discover international poets as yet unknown to them. Since each poet at the festival was asked to recommend one other poet, we now have, despite the partial nature of the PDF, a set of reading suggestions to which we might turn after this book.

Little else can be ascertained about the project. Gintaras did write a foreword, which promisingly began by explaining his desire to “assemble a poet from every corner of the globe, as though the globe has more than just four corners,” with the hope that “we will have poets we could pin onto an atlas like noticeboard pins, brightly colored and one per country.” However, the foreword soon digresses into a tirade about the pressures of organizing an international poetry festival when the organizer is faced with having to arbitrate between American and Icelandic poets and antiques dealers over the theft of items of clothing from restaurants. The reference (possibly to some work of European or Scandinavian literature?) is confoundingly mysterious.

One poem from the volume surviving as that fragmentary PDF is not translated here: a poem called “The Lesson” (or, in the original Icelandic, “kennslustund”). The poem, a meditation on how much life one is allotted on this earth, would have made a lovely addition to this translation of The Season of Poetry. Sadly, however, there was some debate as to the original author (was it really Sturla Jónsson?) and some question of plagiarism lurking around the text. While my own opinion hovers over labelling this as a case of ‘influence’ rather than literary theft, I decided to omit the poem from the current document in order that everything presented be nothing less than entirely upfront and aboveboard. Should readers be curious about the details of this literary theft, which makes for an intriguing story, they can be found in the book The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson (Open Letter Books, 2010).

Lastly, I hope this small pressing of poems might, like some form of rhizome, hypertext us all to other poems. May I suggest as a starting place the other poetry translated and written by the translators who have kindly given their time to this project, a list of which can be found in the Translators’ Bios at the end of the volume?

Lytton Smith

28 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As some people have noticed, our new Winter 2010 catalog is now available and listed on the Open Letter website..

Totally biased, but I think this is one of our strongest seasons yet, what with Zone, the new Bragi Olafsson novel, the first of a million or so Juan Jose Saer books (one of my absolute favorites! If you can’t wait for our book, check out The Event from Serpent’s Tail—absolutely incredible), and our first poetry title . . . You can download a pdf of the catalog by clicking the link above, but here are links to each of the books, along with their respective copy:



The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan Jose Saer. Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Argentina)

It’s October 1960, say, or 1961, in a seaside Argentinian city named Santa Fe, and The Mathematician—wealthy, elegant, educated, dressed from head to toe in white—is just back from a grand tour of Europe. He’s on his way to drop off a press release about the trip to the papers when he runs into Ángel Leto, a relative newcomer to Rosario who does some accounting, but who this morning has decided to wander the town rather than go to work.

One day soon, The Mathematician will disappear into exile after his wife’s assassination, and Leto will vanish into the guerrilla underground, clutching his suicide pill like a talisman. But for now, they settle into a long conversation about the events of Washington Noriega’s sixty-fifth birthday—a party neither of them attended.

Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington is simultaneously a brilliant comedy about memory, narrative, time, and death and a moving narrative about the lost generations of an Argentina that was perpetually on the verge of collapse.




Zone by Mathias Enard. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (France)

Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French-born Croat who has been working for the French Intelligence Services for fifteen years, is traveling by train from Milan to Rome. He’s carrying a briefcase whose contents he’s selling to a representative from the Vatican; the briefcase contains a wealth of information about the violent history of the Zone—the lands of the Mediterranean basin, Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, Italy, that have become Mirkovic’s specialty.

Over the course of a single night, Mirkovic visits the sites of these tragedies in his memory and recalls the damage that his own participation in that violence—as a soldier fighting for Croatia during the Balkan Wars—has wreaked in his own life. Mirkovic hopes that this night will be his last in the Zone, that this journey will expiate his sins, and that he can disappear with Sashka, the only woman he hasn’t abandoned, forever . . .

One of the truly original books of the decade—and written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence—Mathias Énard’s Zone provides an extraordinary and panoramic view of the turmoil that has long deviled the shores of the Mediterranean.




The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Catalonia)

Collected here are thirty-one of Mercè Rodoreda’s most moving and challenging stories, presented in chronological order of their publication from three of Rodoreda’s most beloved short story collections: Twenty-Two Stories, It Seemed Like Silk and Other Stories, and My Christina and Other Stories. These stories capture Rodoreda’s full range of expression, from quiet literary realism to fragmentary impressionism to dark symbolism. Few writers have captured so clearly, or explored so deeply, the lives of women who are stuck somewhere between senseless modernity and suffocating tradition—Rodoreda’s “women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty” (Natasha Wimmer).




The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson. Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith. (Iceland)

Sturla Jón Jónsson, the fifty-something building superintendent and sometimes poet, has been invited to a poetry festival in Vilnius, Lithuania, appointed, as he sees it, as the official representative of the people of Iceland to the field of poetry. His latest poetry collection, published on the eve of his trip to Vilnius, is about to cause some controversy in his home country—Sturla is publicly accused of having stolen the poems from his long-dead cousin, Jónas.

Then there’s Sturla’s new overcoat, the first expensive item of clothing he has ever purchased, which causes him no end of trouble. And the article he wrote for a literary journal, which points out the stupidity of literary festivals and declares the end of his career as a poet. Sturla has a lot to deal with, and that’s not counting his estranged wife and their five children, nor the increasingly bizarre experiences and characters he’s forced to confront at the festival in Vilnius . . .

Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador is a quirky novel that’s filled with insightful and wry observations about aging, family, love, and the mysteries of the hazelnut.




Lodgings by Andrzej Sosnowski. Translated from the Polish by Benjamin Paloff. (Poland)

Lodgings is the first representative selection of Sosnowski’s work available in English. Spanning his entire career, from the publication of Life in Korea in 1992 to his newest poems, this is a book whose approach to language, literature, and the representation of experience is simultaneously resonant and strange—a cocktail party where lowlifes and sophisticates hobnob with French theorists and British glam rockers, unsettling us with the hard accuracy of their pronouncements.

One of the foremost Polish poets of his generation, Andrzej Sosnowski’s work demonstrates a dazzling range of influences and echoes, from Ronald Firbank and Raymond Roussel to John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop. Also an influential editor and critic, he has received most of the literary honors available to poets in Poland, including the prestigious Silesius Prize.

24 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

While I was gone last week, Michael Shaub blogged about Bragi Ólafsson’s The Pets for Jacket Copy:

With its 99.9% literacy rate (seriously), and a roster of great authors (Halldór Laxness, Hallgrímur Helgason) that belies the fact that it has a smaller population than Bakersfield, the nation of Iceland could fairly be called a book lover’s paradise. (There’s even a “Library of Water” there, which, according to my Icelandic American partner, delivers exactly what it promises.)

It could also be called a rock lover’s paradise — it’s home to the acclaimed band Sigur Rós; the world’s most beloved swan-clad chanteuse, Björk; and — because no nation can claim rock cred if the stiffest available beverage is lemonade — Brennivín, nicknamed Black Death, an ungodly strong schnapps that tastes like rye bread soaked in sulfuric acid and then set on fire. (I speak from experience here. Bitter, bitter experience.)

With that in mind, it’s not entirely surprising that Iceland has given the world one of the best novels written by a former rock musician.

(Two quick notes: I have an unopened bottle of “Black Death” that Bragi brought for me during his tour. His description of how nasty—and strong!—Brennivin is sort of scared me off. But if anyone wants to give it a go . . . And secondly, in the category of random promotions, in addition to Björk and Sigur Rós, anyone interested in cool Icelandic music has to check out Múm, especially Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy. Incredible CD. And now back to The Pets . . . )

After describing the plot of the novel—Emil’s frightening old acquaintance Havard shows up in Reykjavik and, through a sequence of events you simply have to read, ends up in Emil’s living room while Emil hides under his bed for hours narrating this novel—Schaub makes his case for The Pets as the great rock novel.

So what we have is 157 dark, scary and unbelievably funny pages, much of which is narrated by a man hiding under his own bed. That might not scream “rock” at first blush, but the novel is infused, in its own way and very much on its own terms, with music. Emil is a borderline-obsessive jazz fan who takes maybe a little too much pleasure in his Miles Davis collection; Havard’s musical tastes run toward playing Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” ad nauseum and, at one point, buying a ukulele for no discernible reason. Kraftwerk’s paranoiac “Computer World” makes a brief appearance, too, at just the right claustrophobic time.

But if you were building an argument for the true rock novel being as unselfconscious about rock as possible, The Pets could be Exhibit A. More than most fiction that concerns itself with music, Bragi’s novel captures the dark side of rock — paranoia, fear, self-doubt and the cowardice that’s sometimes, maybe often, the flip side of rock-star braggadocio.

Of course it’s possible that this is all rock-nerd wishful thinking, and that Bragi didn’t intend to write a slyly great rock novel, but rather just a less slyly great novel. Perhaps it’s just his biography getting in the way. I don’t think so, but either way, we win. So how long do we have to wait for English versions of his other books? Open Letter, get Janice Balfour on the phone. Takk!

Oh, and about future books of Bragi’s, next fall we’ll be bringing out The Ambassador, which is being translated by Lytton Smith as I type. (I’ll post a sample in the not-too-distant future . . .)

8 January 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Below is a recording of Bragi Ólafsson reading from The Pets and having a conversation with Lytton Smith (who we hope will be translating Bragi’s next book The Ambassadors for us) as a part of the Reading the World Conversation Series on October 7th, 2008. We’ll be announcing the spring line-up for the Series soon!


Bragi Olafsson reads from The Pets from Open Letter Books on Vimeo.

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