OK, here we are, at the final match of the first ever Women’s World Cup of Literature. If you missed any of the earlier games, or just want to read about all the incredible books that were included in this tournament, just click here.
The Championship pits two very different books against one another. On one side is Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky, translated by Tim Mohr.
Rosa Achmetowna is the outrageously nasty and wily narrator of this rollicking family saga from the author of Broken Glass Park. When she discovers that her seventeen-year-old daughter, “stupid Sulfia,” is pregnant by an unknown man she does everything to thwart the pregnancy, employing a variety of folkloric home remedies. But despite her best efforts the baby, Aminat, is born nine months later at Soviet Birthing Center Number 134. Much to Rosa’s surprise and delight, dark eyed Aminat is a Tartar through and through and instantly becomes the apple of her grandmother’s eye. While her good for nothing husband Kalganow spends his days feeding pigeons and contemplating death at the city park, Rosa wages an epic struggle to wrestle Aminat away from Sulfia, whom she considers a woefully inept mother. When Aminat, now a wild and willful teenager, catches the eye of a sleazy German cookbook writer researching Tartar cuisine, Rosa is quick to broker a deal that will guarantee all three women a passage out of the Soviet Union. But as soon as they are settled in the West, the uproariously dysfunctional ties that bind mother, daughter and grandmother begin to fray.
Told with sly humor and an anthropologist’s eye for detail, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is the story of three unforgettable women whose destinies are tangled up in a family dynamic that is at turns hilarious and tragic. In her new novel, Russian-born Alina Bronsky gives readers a moving portrait of the devious limits of the will to survive.
Oryx & Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey–with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake–through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. Margaret Atwood projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.
An aggressive, dysfunctional mother against the apocalypse. Bio-modified animals against Tartar cuisine. These are very different books . . . Both of which you should read!
Anyway, on with the match!
Emily Ballaine: Germany
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine for the win! Rosa is clearly the Carli Lloyd of this match and should be awarded a golden boot for subterfuge, force of will and outright trickery.
Hal Hlavinka: Germany
My Europa Editions-love won this one.
Lizzy Siddal: Germany
Adopting an attack-is-the-best-form-of-defence strategy, the German team comes out and plays with astonishing brio. Their striker, the ruthless dynamo that is Rosa Achmetowna, never lets the goal out of her sight. Canada in Jimmy the Snowman, their one man guardian of the human race, have a resilient defence in the integrity that Rosa does not possess.
But in extra-time, Snowman is tired. Crake’s victim inevitably becomes Rosa’s victim and the ball lands in the back of the Canadian net. Rosa’s sheer bloodymindedness (and younger legs) carry the day.
Kalah McCaffrey: Germany
Lori Feathers: Canada
As much as I loved the imperious Rosalinda and cheered on Bronsky for being the lesser known author, I just can’t get the voices of Oryx and the other Crakers out of my head. Bronsky gives us an extraordinary narrator but Atwood creates an entire world. Atwood gets my vote.
Meredith Miller: Germany
Sticking with Germany as my pony!
Sal Robinson: Canada
Oryx & Crake! I love Tim and I get the masterful thing that Hottest Dishes is, but I just couldn’t ever warm up to it (ha ha).
Rhea Lyons: Germany
Hilary Plum: Germany
In a wicked upset, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine defeats Oryx & Crake. Germany’s game is streamlined, comical, and always a little bit nasty, and it triumphs over the elaborate world-building of its opponent.
Rachel Crawford: Canada
Margaret Carson: Canada
Oryx and Crake all the way! Time for a ticker-tape parade!
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine wins!!!!!
Congrats to Alina Bronsky and Tim Mohr, and special thanks to all of our great judges who helped celebrate women’s literature and the world cup in a fun, interesting way.
I’m flipping the schedule this week, and instead of posting the results from Germany vs. Colombia today, we’re going with Canada, represented by the incredibly famous Margaret Atwood up against Australia, represented by debut novelist Hannah Kent. The Germany-Colombia match (which is incredibly close at the moment, by the way), will go up tomorrow, with the WWCOL Championship taking place on Friday.
Before we get to Atwood vs. Kent, here’s a new bracket for all of you keeping track at home:
Australia’s Burial Rites by Hannah Kent got to this point by first beating Sweden and Camilla Läckberg’s The Stranger and then upending Nigeria and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah before defeating Cameroon’s Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano by a score of 4-2.
Canada’s Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood made the semis by defeating Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain and then Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries by a combined score of 6-3, earning Atwood a bye into the final four.
So, here we go:
Hannah Chute: Canada
You know from the very beginning of both of these books that terrible things are going to happen to everyone, but Atwood manages her characters with a grace and humor that Kent just doesn’t have (yet). Plus, I’m a sucker for lushly imaginative world-building.
M. Lynx Qualey: Canada
Compared to Oryx & Crake, Burial Rites seems exceptionally ordinary.
Sal Robinson: Canada
Atwood’s tale of bioengineering gone very, very wrong handily beats out Kent’s turgid historical melodrama; any novel where a character says “But we are peasants” goes straight into my personal trash compactor. Go Canada!
Margaret Carson: Canada
The recent appearance of “pluots” (a merger of plums and apricots) at my local Farmers Market made me wonder: is this the result of grafting, forced seed fusion, DNA splicing? Fruit mash-ups still on my mind, I picked up Oryx & Crake and discovered with delight that Margaret Atwood has taken this all to the logical next level, i.e. dystopia, with pigoons (pig + human), wolvogs (wolf + dog), rakunks (raccoon + skunk), snats (can you guess?) churned out by OrganInc., the biolab from Hell. With its deep bench of interspecies players, Atwood’s wild, entertaining ride to Extinctathon triumphs over Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.
Lizzy Siddal: Canada
You could say I have season tickets to both these teams, and I was very happy to reread both for the WWCOL. Both played as well as I had come to expect. Canada scores the winner though by being a spell-binding one-sitting read even on third outing.
Lori Feathers: Canada
Although I found Burial Rites to be a more enjoyable reading experience and its characters more relatable, the imaginative genius of Oryx and Crake is nothing short of stunning. Atwood’s original, rich storytelling skills are on full display.
And there you go. Atwood comes to the semifinals and destroys. She’ll meet up with either Alina Bronsky (Germany) or Laura Restrepo (Colombia) on Friday.
This match was judged by Lizzy Siddal. You can keep up with her literary adventures at Lizzy’s Literary Life or on Twitter at @LizzySiddal.
The first second round match pits survival in a post-apocalyptic future against adventure during the 1860’s West Coast Gold Rush; Canada’s living legend against the brightest star in New Zealand’s literary firmament. This promises to be an epic fixture, not simply because Catton’s UK hardback is a whopping 832 pages long.
There’s no sense of the youngster being fazed by the reputation of her illustrious opponent. After all, New Zealand has lifted the trophies (Booker Prize, Canadian Governor’s General Award for English Language Fiction) that Canada failed to secure. This is a squad large enough to populate an astrological cosmogram and all the planets besides. It positions itself into an unorthodox golden spiral and opens with a leisurely 360 page section told by an omniscient narrator. This is an elegant homage to the 19th century greats with enough blackmail, theft, fraud, drugs, sex and murder to satisfy a modern audience. Though when the omniscient one twice refuses to let differentiating voices be heard, it’s like watching a promising team settle for possession in midfield. So confusing are the unvarying tone and the never-ending circling round of key moments that the need for a narrative recap—admittedly, a welcome respite to this reader who by then felt as though Anna Wetherell’s opium-induced haze was her own—is not only a weakness. It’s an own goal.
Atwood fields a more traditional formation; a narrative alternating between present and past. Her back passes serve only to drive the story forward and solve the mysteries established in the first 12 pages. Within a page count only 18 pages more than the first section of The Luminaries, Atwood’s precision creates two worlds (pre- and post-apocalypse), complete histories and psychologies for her main characters, a plethora of animal splicings (snats, rakunks, pigoons), and a genetically engineered species of homo not so sapiens. The story entertains and alarms in equal measure. The crime at its centre and the warning apropos rogue scientists have depths and purpose that The Luminaries cannot match.
Halftime score: Canada 2, New Zealand 0
Catton’s structural strategy, however, pays dividends during the second half. As the spiral takes shape, each section halves in length, and the text becomes less verbose. There’s more dialogue. The forward momentum gathers pace even as the timeline travels backwards to the start. As a set piece, this is neat and definitely on target.
But then another slip-up when Catton kills off the only character I actually felt for. Fortunately the appearance of Emery Staines prevents a second own goal. This injection of fresh energy is sorely needed as many of the subsidiary characters just aren’t that interesting.
Atwood, on the other hand, delivers an object lesson in intensity. Crake can teach Carver a lesson or two in villainy. Oryx can teach Anna a trick or two in the oldest profession. The dynamics of the pre-apocalypse Oryx-Crake-Jimmy triangle are, to mix my metaphors, screwed. Yet these relationships are destined to become the stuff of myth and the making of Snowman (a.k.a. Jimmy, the sole human survivor). Emotionally blackmailed into accepting a responsibility he does not desire, he nevertheless gives it his all. He may limp off the field sorely wounded, but he is, without doubt, the man of the match.
Final score: Canada 3, New Zealand 1
Canada, behind the strength of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, moves on to at least the quarterfinals. (As soon as the draw for the next round takes place, I’ll post an update.)
Tomorrow’s match features Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky going up against Côte d’Ivoire’s Queen Pokou by Veronique Tadjo. Another big match!
This match was judged by Hannah Chute, recent recipient of her MA in literary translation from the University of Rochester.
Oryx & Crake vs. The Ministry of Pain winds up being one of the stranger match-ups in terms of national identities. On the one hand, we have a novel set in a dystopian, post-Canadian future, while on the other we have an ostensibly Dutch novel about exiles that is really more Yugoslavian than anything.
I’ll start with Dubravka Ugrešić’s strange and lovely tale of Tanja Lucić, a Croatian teacher of a “servo-kroatisch” course at a university in Amsterdam, and of her complex relationships with her students, her homeland, and her language.
One of the most memorable sections is when Tanja has her students—all of whom speak Serbo-Croatian perfectly well, and who have almost exclusively come to Amsterdam from the former Yugoslavia—bring in memories of that country. Until this point it can be difficult as a reader to keep track of which student is which, but here each character’s way of speaking and choice of subject matter emerge as so distinctive that their various personalities leap off the page. The most memorable presentation is Igor’s, which details his friend Mikac’s reaction to an anthology of Yugoslav poetry. Mikac appears to be channeling Holden Caulfield in his goofy but acerbic commentary: “They’re a bunch of sickos, our poets,” he says, and “‘I know not what thou art: art thou woman or hyena?’ Shit! Did that guy get my goat!”
The narration moves smoothly between moments of syrupy intimacy between Lucić and her students (when they meet they exchange “sweet verbal saliva” and engage in “aural fondling”) and biting, bitter anger over what has become of the former Yugoslavia (Lucić expresses her disdain for “the prepacked retrofuture of the newly minted states”). This constant shifting makes the characters’ shaky and ever-changing position as exiles and émigrés all the more poignant.
Ugrešić also inserts into her narrative moments of reflection on the role of language, especially in times of war and turmoil. As she describes the breaking up of Serbo-Croatian into various regional languages: “It was a divorce full of sound and fury . . . Croats would eat their kruh, while Serbs would eat their hleb, Bosnians their hljeb: the word for bread in the three languages was different. Smrt, the word for death, was the same.” Lucić has a love-hate relationship with her native tongue; she treasures it but wonders if it is real, she loses her grip on it even as she tries to cling tighter and tighter.
Overall, Ugrešić’s novel is everything it should be: funny, tragic, strange, and thought-provoking.
Oryx & Crake is remarkable in very different ways. It is a thrilling mystery, a work of speculative fiction set in the not-so-distant future, when humanity has been all but wiped out by terrible events that gradually come to light as Snowman, the novel’s protagonist, digs back through his dark past.
Breathtaking in its scope, frightening in its ever-more-looming feasibility, Oryx & Crake is, however, no mere cautionary fable. Atwood does not just show us a frightening future in which corporate greed and the heady lure of consequence-free living have brought humanity to the brink of extinction; I can think of any number of writers who could accomplish that much. But Atwood skillfully walks the fine line between making her point effectively and hammering it into her reader’s head so hard that she forgets to write a story. Luckily for her readers, she is far too talented to make such an error.
The plot is structured with sublime pacing that compels you to keep turning the pages. Atwood moves effortlessly between Snowman’s ruined, miserable present and the past that seemed so full of promise, even if cracks were starting to show around the edges. One thing I particularly appreciated was that Atwood has not felt the need to overexplain her world. Snowman’s past is set at some point in our near-ish future, when the world as we know it has been divided into small Compounds of the intellectual and economic elite surrounded by vast “pleeblands” where anything goes. How did humanity get here? Atwood leaves it to your imagination, which I think it quite refreshing.
The beauty of Oryx & Crake’s language is particularly striking because of its contrast with the bleak realities of the novel. “A breeze riffles the leaves overhead; insects rasp and trill; red light from the setting sun hits the tower blocks in the water, illuminating an unbroken pane here and there, as if a scattering of lamps has been turned on;” Snowman’s seaside lair would almost sound paradisiacal, were it not for the devastated shell of a city strewn with bodies that surrounds him. The beauty of language becomes crucial to Snowman; he has not had human contact for some time now, and holding onto obsolete words (“wheelwright, lodestone, saturnine, adamant”) becomes a way to keep himself whole, if not quite sane.
This is a challenging match to judge, simply because it seems to me that Atwood and Ugrešić are playing two different games. If Ugrešić is playing at something vaguely resembling soccer—down and dirty, though perhaps without enough flashiness to attract a large American audience—Atwood is more likely working through a round of chess: she is precise, prescient, and highly imaginative. Also, while the scope and inventiveness of Oryx & Crake are unparalleled, The Ministry of Pain decidedly takes home the award for humor. Both novels are, in a sense, about important current events, but Atwood is painting a picture of a looming and oft-discussed future while Ugrešić is shedding light on the lives of people who have already suffered, but who have generally been shoved out of sight.
Another point in Ugrešić’s favor is that Michael Henry Heim’s translation is just about flawless. Who else would have thought to describe a bathroom remodel as “transfiguring the looscape”? And have it sound perfectly natural in context? Though with nothing to compare it with on Atwood’s end, I’m once again left feeling a little unbalanced.
It’s a rough choice, but ultimately it comes down to this: one point each for gorgeous language. Ugrešić’s humor and delightful strangeness earn her another goal. But Oryx & Crake is so provocative, so downright thrilling, that it scores two final goals, bringing it a victory over The Ministry of Pain, 3-2.
Next up, Canada’s Oryx & Crake will face off against New Zealand’s The Luminaries on Monday, June 22nd in what promises to be a huge second-round match.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Rhea Lyons, and features England’s Life after Life by Kate Atkinson up against Colombia’s Delirium by Laura Restrepo.
Last summer, to coincide with the Real Life World Cup, we hosted the World Cup of Literature, an incredible competition featuring 32 books from 32 countries, and ending with Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile (Chile) triumphing over Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (Mexico). It was glorious.
Since the Women’s World Cup is kicking off in Canada next week, it’s time to do this all over again. Except that this time, only living female authors are allowed to participate. (And, as much as possible, the books included were published within the last ten years.)
Before announcing the participating titles, I have to announce that we’re still looking for judges. And, unlike last year, we want at least two-thirds of the eighteen judges to be females. So, if you’re interested—as a judge you read two books, write up the result of that “match” complete with soccer-esque score, then chime in on the final—just email me at chad.post[at]rochester.edu. You’ll have to do this fast though. The competition launches next week . . .
Tomorrow (or later today) we’ll post the new graphics and bracket so that you can see the first round competitions and debate which book has the easiest path to the final four, but for now, here’s a listing of all the titles that we’re including. (These are alphabetical in order of the country each is representing.)
Australia: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Brazil: Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa, translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin
Cameroon: Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano, translated from the French by Tamsin Black
Canada: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
China: The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen
Colombia: Delirium by Laura Restrepo, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
Costa Rica: Assault on Paradise by Tatiana Lobo, translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz
Cote d’Ivoire: Queen Pokou by Veronique Tadjo, translated from the French by Amy Baram Reid
Ecuador: Beyond the Islands by Alicia Yánez Cossío, translated from the Spanish by Amalia Gladhart
England: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
France: Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Sîan Reynolds
Germany: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr
Japan: Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Mexico: Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee
Netherlands: The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic, translated from the Croatian by Michael Henry Heim
New Zealand: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Nigeria: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Norway: The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland
South Korea: Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
Spain: The Happy City by Elvira Navarro, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey
Sweden: The Stranger by Camilla Läckberg, translated from the Swedish by Steven Murray
Switzerland: With the Animals by Noëlle Revas, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson
Thailand: The Happiness of Kati by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva, translated from the Thai by Prudence Borthwick
USA: Home by Toni Morrison
The Rochester Institute of Technology’s conference on The Future of Reading kicks off tonight at 7pm with a presentation (and book signing) by Margaret Atwood. I’ll try and write this up thoughtfully tomorrow (the conference starts up again at 8:30 though, so don’t hold your breath), but since I recently decided to try and learn how to use Twitter (im)properly, I think I’m going to try and “tweet” the speech via my personal (chadwpost) Twitter account.
And every time she mentions the Long Pen everyone following has to do a shot.
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
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Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .