9 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Chris Iacono on Sun-mi Hwang’s The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, translated by Chi-Young Kim, and out last fall from Penguin.

This is a review I’ve been sitting on a while and I apologize for that—but after a quick trip to NYC for a fantastic evening with Bulgarian authors and their readers at 192 Books, and before a whirlwind of Greek, Danish-Bulgarian, and Latin American events, looking back on this title was a nice, relaxing place to stop at mid-week. A little fable-esque, a little social commentary, a little simple and charming illustration: The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a great read and chock-full of talking animals.

Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released from her chicken coop. However, she soon discovers that her new freedom comes with a loss of comforts such as shelter and food. To make matters worse, after she narrowly escapes from a menacing weasel in an open grave, the other farmyard animals, led by an arrogant rooster, reject her. “Culled?” he says. “Nobody wants you!”

Despite the harsh reality that Sprout has to face outside the coop, she doesn’t have to face it alone. While in the open grave, she meets Straggler, a mallard duck who also lives on the farm. Like Sprout, Straggler is a misfit, a wild duck among domesticated ones. He is allowed to stay on the farm, but he keeps his distance from the other ducks. Even though he isn’t able to convince the other animals to let Sprout stay on the farm, he is able to help her fulfill one wish: To sit on an egg and watch a baby hatch from it.

One day, while wandering the fields, she finds this egg and decides to sit on it until the mother returns. The mother never does, but when Straggler finds her, he agrees to stand guard while Sprout is brooding. The hen, of course, thinks this baby will be a chick. She also believes Straggler is under the mistaken impression that she laid the egg, but he really knows more about it than she realizes. In fact, before he meets a tragic end, he gives her advice on what to do with the hatchling.

For the rest of the review, go here.

9 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released from her chicken coop. However, she soon discovers that her new freedom comes with a loss of comforts such as shelter and food. To make matters worse, after she narrowly escapes from a menacing weasel in an open grave, the other farmyard animals, led by an arrogant rooster, reject her. “Culled?” he says. “Nobody wants you!”

Despite the harsh reality that Sprout has to face outside the coop, she doesn’t have to face it alone. While in the open grave, she meets Straggler, a mallard duck who also lives on the farm. Like Sprout, Straggler is a misfit, a wild duck among domesticated ones. He is allowed to stay on the farm, but he keeps his distance from the other ducks. Even though he isn’t able to convince the other animals to let Sprout stay on the farm, he is able to help her fulfill one wish: To sit on an egg and watch a baby hatch from it.

One day, while wandering the fields, she finds this egg and decides to sit on it until the mother returns. The mother never does, but when Straggler finds her, he agrees to stand guard while Sprout is brooding. The hen, of course, thinks this baby will be a chick. She also believes Straggler is under the mistaken impression that she laid the egg, but he really knows more about it than she realizes. In fact, before he meets a tragic end, he gives her advice on what to do with the hatchling.

Soon after the birth of Baby (as he is known in the novel’s earlier chapters), Sprout takes him back to the farm, where she learns that the chick is actually a duckling. As a result of this discovery, she endures further humiliation. “It’s a disgrace to the comb!” the rooster tells Sprout. “A ridiculous hen has made our kind the laughingstock of the barn.” Even the guard dog, who is intimidated by the rooster and his hen, taunts Sprout. “A chicken hatching a duck!” he says. “What a ridiculous sight!”

However, Sprout doesn’t let the other animals’ insults affect her this time.

Sprout’s thoughts were jumbled, but she was anything but ashamed. She had hatched her egg with all her being. She had wished for him to be born. She’d loved him from when he was inside the egg. She was never suspicious about what was inside. Sure, he’s a duck, not a chick. Who cares? He still knows I’m his mom!

Not only does this scene show Sprout’s determination to raise Baby in the face of hostility, but it also exhibits the strong bond that has already developed between the hen and the duckling.

However, as the story progresses, this bond is tested on more than one occasion. After Sprout and Baby move to the reservoir, the leader of the farmyard ducks tries several times to convince the hen to give up the duckling. This leader feels that if Baby doesn’t grow up as a domesticated duck with clipped wings, he will experience the same fate as Straggler. Sprout refuses to let Baby go, but as the duckling learns by himself how to swim and catch fish, they both begin to realize how different they really are.

These differences threaten their happiness in the novel’s later chapters, when Sprout starts calling the adolescent duck Greentop. “It did break Sprout’s heart to see Greentop with a brooding expression on his face. He had become moody from time to time after the leader had visited them in the reeds. These episodes recurred after his feathers changed color. Sprout asked him what was wrong, but he wouldn’t confide in her.” He finally tells her that he wants to join the brace of ducks at the farm. While this hurts Sprout, she allows it for the sake of his happiness. Although his brief return to the farm turns out to be a disaster, Greentop eventually becomes a strong, confident duck that makes her proud.

Meanwhile, Sprout and Greentop have to constantly move to avoid the relentless weasel. They are especially vulnerable because they lack the shelter of the farmyard and have to make their homes in reeds, rice paddies, and caves. Despite living on the run, though, mother and child become braver over time; at one point, Sprout even defends herself against the weasel’s attacks. Later, in the story’s climax, Sprout shows the weasel just how far a mother will go to take care of her children.

Although The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is heartbreaking at times, readers cannot help but admire Sprout’s strength and courage as she not only makes her wish come true, but as she honors the memory of her friend Straggler and helps Greentop fulfill his destiny. The sparse illustrations by Nomoco offer an elegant accompaniment to the story. However, it’s the combination of simple prose, beautifully translated by Chi-Young Kim, and colorful characters that really makes this novel an unforgettable experience. In conclusion, Sun-mi Hwang’s fable is a celebration of freedom and motherhood that both teenagers and adults will probably want to read more than once.

21 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This slender, uncanny volume—the second, best-selling collection of stories by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya to appear in the U.S.—has already received considerable, well-deserved praise from many critics and high profile publications. Its seventeen short tales, averaging ten pages each, are grouped into four sections: “A Murky Fate”; “Hallelujah, Family!”; “My Little One”; and “A Happy Ending.” But there is little in them that readers might associate with true love or happy endings. Instead, Petrushevskaya delivers a smoking, cast-iron skillet upside the head: promiscuity, serial mendacity, domestic violence, dangerous liaisons, ineptitude, ignorance, geriatric romance, and cringing fear. Love stories? Seamy debacles. Hookup sagas set in a grim Moscow and environs. Coupling stories fraught with meanness, misery, and egregious misunderstanding. Workaday women sharing sour, collective apartments and tawdry, loveless lives. Young women who flower, suffer abuse, and wither. Collision stories: hapless women, old before their time, thwarted by brutal men. Though the men hardly fare better.

In “A Murky Fate,” an unmarried thirty-something living with her mother engineers a drab tryst with a man who services her with perfunctory courtesy and patronizing affection. But in her sterile office-life world, this confers a blissful memory: “There was nothing but pain in store for her, yet she cried with happiness and couldn’t stop.”

“The Fall” offers a dry comedy of manners at a state-run seaside resort where vacationers escaping the rainy north come together only to multiply one another’s misery. A gaudy temptress attracts a mooning pack of suitors before efficiently selecting her tall, confident “Number One.” They find the sex lovelorn travelers yearn for, only to fall prisoner to their coveted exclusion and inevitable teary separation: “Our golden couple has departed. The delicate Carmen and her faithful husband, Number One, are jetting through the frozen air away from each other, back to their children and spouses, back to the cold, and to hard, grim work.”

In “The Goddess Parka” a schoolteacher called A.A. goes to summer in the country, rents a porch on a cabin, and falls sway to old Aunt Alevtina who plays Yentl to his bachelor, setting him up with young Nina, but it’s a hard sell: “Nina didn’t impress A.A. She was heavy, very shy, with large pale eyes. But he did notice her casual, almost indifferent manner when she was examining some old prescriptions of Alevtina’s—the manner of a true expert.” Only Alevtina’s funeral provides the maudlin catalyst the shy couple requires to find one another and fall into what promises to be a mechanically indifferent relationship.

Alcoholism, an exposed nerve throughout the collection, drives the story of Ali-Baba, a scheming addict who hocks her mother’s first edition volumes of Russian symbolist poet Alexander Blok for drink and drug money. One of Blok’s own poems speaks perfectly to Ali-Baba’s dead-end existence:

Night, street and streetlight, drugstore,
The purposeless, half-dim, drab light.
For all the use live on a quarter century—
Nothing will change. There’s no way out.

You’ll die—and start all over, live twice,
Everything repeats itself, just as it was:
Night, the canal’s rippled icy surface,
The drugstore, the street, and streetlight.1

-10 October, 1912

It’s a tale of misery masquerading as self-preservation, as Ali-Baba attempts to escape from her so-called “life partner”: “[He] had tossed her over the railing of his balcony for stealing his booze. She hung four floors above the ground, clutching at the railing, until two truck drivers forced their way into the apartment and rescued her.” Ali-Baba’s own weird magic is that of a strange survivor; her Cave of Sesame is state-mandated rehab to which she gravitates, but only on her own sick terms. This involves a tryst with the drunken Victor, who is as crocked as Dostoyevsky’s Marmeladov from Crime and Punishment. When Victor pisses the bed, she ODs on sleeping pills and wakes up in the psychiatric hospital to fresh sheets and three squares a day.

“Two Deities” offers the awkward mismatch between thirty-five-year-old senior editor Genya and Dima, a simple, office courier of twenty. A single drunken encounter—on her mother’s sofa—after an office party, produces a child, and they become reluctant, embarrassed parents: ordinary failures in the public eye, but gods to the child who has, unlike so many, a reliable mother and father.

Sweet, virtuous Oksana in “Like Penélope” (as in Cruz) faces the common, nearly impossible challenge of finding love while trying to eke out some kind of modern life: “Oksana studied forestry in a third-tier college—the only one she could attend for free. Upon graduation she could expect to get a clerical job in a state agency tallying birches and firs on paper. She and her mother shared a two-room apartment in a standard concrete building.” Their drab, nondescript warren of misery is a standard location for these tales:

“In one respect their housing situation stood out: right below them, on the third floor, lived an incredibly noisy family of violent alcoholics. Every night the floor shook with screams, banging, and knocking; the lady of the house regularly interrupted her partying to stumble outside and yell “Murder!” and “Help!” Oksana tiptoed past their ravaged door; outside she dressed in dark clothing and wore her hat low over her face.”

Her mother, Nina, holds a thankless job editing textbooks, but she is a charitable soul. She takes in Klava, an old Ukranian friend hiding from “shakers”—violent loan sharks pursuing her son, Misha. Nina’s charity, vexing to her daughter, eventually brings Oksana face to face with Misha, and the hint of a dangerous, derailing passion.

“Father and Mother” is a short study in Dostoyevskian madness wherein young Tanya longs to escape from her endlessly warring parents; the father a carefree soldier, the mother a negligent harridan with an unwashed brood:

“The squalor of that household was beyond description, because the mother did her housework sloppily, saving her energy for the high point of her day: for eleven at night, which bled into midnight and later, so the children got no sleep and couldn’t get up in the morning for school. The mother went further in her sacred rage, appearing at the officers’ mess with the little one and kicking her husband as he walked out the door, as if to disprove the conventional wisdom that such methods never brought anyone’s husband back (quite the opposite). Leaving behind her children unfed, she’d chase her husband through town, screaming the most horrible things—that, say, she had found bloody rags tucked in a hole in the wall and that Tanya had had a miscarriage by her father.”

This passage eerily echoes the wrenching battles between Crime and Punishment’s Marmeladov and Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladova:

“Ah!” she cried out in a frenzy, “he has come back! The criminal! the monster! … And where is the money? What’s in your pocket, show me! And your clothes are all different! Where are your clothes? Where is the money! Speak!”

And she fell to searching him. Marmeladov submissively and obediently held up both arms to facilitate the search. Not a farthing was there.

“Where is the money?” she cried—“Mercy on us, can he have drunk it all? There were twelve silver rubles left in the chest!” and in a fury she seized him by the hair and dragged him into the room. Marmeladov seconded her efforts by meekly crawling along on his knees.

“And this is a consolation to me! This does not hurt me, but is a positive con-so-la-tion, ho-nou-red sir,” he called out, shaken to and fro by his hair and even once striking the ground with his forehead. The child asleep on the floor woke up, and began to cry. The boy in the corner losing all control began trembling and screaming and rushed to his sister in violent terror, almost in a fit. The eldest girl was shaking like a leaf.

“He’s drunk it! He’s drunk it all,” the poor woman screamed in despair —“and his clothes are gone! And they are hungry, hungry!”—and wringing her hands she pointed to the children. “Oh, accursed life!”2

The most experimental tale of the bunch—inspiration for the collection’s macabre title—is “Hallelujah, Family!,” a complicated, multi-generational, matriarchal tangle of several daughters born out of wedlock, written as a chain of 45 numbered paragraphs, confusing enough to sometimes require embedded reference numbers:

36. [Victor had] accumulated several notes from Zhanna as well as a number of letters from Alla with pictures of little Nadya, who was a replica of Victor plus dimples and curls. His mother also wrote—that Alla’s life with her mentally ill mother (2–5) was becoming unbearable, that the crazy woman had put washing detergent in Nadya’s cereal and wouldn’t let Nina Petrovna see her own granddaughter.”

All this collective madness finds balance in Petrushevskaya’s superb narration: clever, sardonic and maternal, a terse, almost breezy, delivery with spare, tasteful description, and an economy reminiscent of other masterful meditations on troubled relationships: Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and Thomas Farber’s Who Wrote the Book of Love? Praise, too, for translator Anna Summers who renders these blunt tragicomedies with crisp phrasing and textured color appropriate to their wretched situations: “The baby was covered with a septic rash—his whole little head felt like a cactus due to the tiny bumps.”

These unsparing, unbearably human stories would kick their way through a Las Vegas wedding chapel like a regiment of angry Spetsnaz, their ethos being that the brutal disappointments of modern life are simply unexceptional; shreds of love and companionship are small triumphs; a squalid affair is better than a spiteful marriage. But a few of these tales, at least, harbor shades of love, tenderness, affection, resolution, and forgiveness, the nitty gritty workaday side of living together that is part and parcel of redemption. I had to read the book twice to zero in on this fact because the first pass, despite Petrushevskaya’s sardonic flair, brought only a wave of depression, an impression of wicked, gleeful anti-love stories with unbelievable twists of suffering no one should have to live through. One especial example is the tale of “Milgrom”:

“Her husband dumped her, literally kicked her out of the house, and took away her child, a little boy. First he took Milgrom out of her Lithuanian village—she was a rare beauty, sixteen years old, but she didn’t speak any Russian, just Yiddish and Polish—and then he divorced her; you could do that then—with total freedom he went and divorced her. And he brought another woman to live with him and told Milgrom to leave. So she left. She was eighteen years old. She nearly went crazy; she spent all her days and nights on the street across from her old window so she could see her child.”

Yet Milgrom—years later an old crone and expert seamstress—is able to bring happiness to a clumsy, unskilled girl who is starting to feel her own beauty for the first time. Milgrom sews her a garment worthy of her young spirit:

“The girl puts on her dress; looks in the mirror; escapes from that sweet-musty smell, out into the street, the sunset; and walks by countless doors and windows, behind each of which, she thinks, live only Milgroms, Milgroms, Milgroms. She walks in her cool new black dress, and she is seized with happiness, filled with joy.”

It’s those rare gems of happiness that illuminate, and sometimes ennoble, these mad stories, the silver linings to their gray, leering cloudscapes.

1 Translation from Russian by Alex Cigale (as published by Offcourse at http://www.albany.edu/offcourse)

2 from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Pocket Books, 2004; trans. Constance Garnett).

21 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Brendan Riley on There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, from Penguin.

Brendan has written reviews for Three Percent in the past, and has worked for many years as a teacher, translator, editor, and writer. Brendan’s translations include works by Juan Velasco, Álvaro Enrigue, Juan Filloy, and Carlos Fuentes.

Petrushevskaya’s previous collection published in English, There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (Penguin Books), came out in 2009 and was on NPR’s/Jessa Crispin’s 2009 best books list. Here’s a bit of Brendan’s review:

This slender, uncanny volume—the second, best-selling collection of stories by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya to appear in the U.S.—has already received considerable, well-deserved praise from many critics and high profile publications. Its seventeen short tales, averaging ten pages each, are grouped into four sections: “A Murky Fate”; “Hallelujah, Family!”; “My Little One”; and “A Happy Ending.” But there is little in them that readers might associate with true love or happy endings. Instead, Petrushevskaya delivers a smoking, cast-iron skillet upside the head: promiscuity, serial mendacity, domestic violence, dangerous liaisons, ineptitude, ignorance, geriatric romance, and cringing fear. Love stories? Seamy debacles. Hookup sagas set in a grim Moscow and environs. Coupling stories fraught with meanness, misery, and egregious misunderstanding. Workaday women sharing sour, collective apartments and tawdry, loveless lives. Young women who flower, suffer abuse, and wither. Collision stories: hapless women, old before their time, thwarted by brutal men. Though the men hardly fare better.

In “A Murky Fate,” an unmarried thirty-something living with her mother engineers a drab tryst with a man who services her with perfunctory courtesy and patronizing affection. But in her sterile office-life world, this confers a blissful memory: “There was nothing but pain in store for her, yet she cried with happiness and couldn’t stop.”

“The Fall” offers a dry comedy of manners at a state-run seaside resort where vacationers escaping the rainy north come together only to multiply one another’s misery. A gaudy temptress attracts a mooning pack of suitors before efficiently selecting her tall, confident “Number One.” They find the sex lovelorn travelers yearn for, only to fall prisoner to their coveted exclusion and inevitable teary separation: “Our golden couple has departed. The delicate Carmen and her faithful husband, Number One, are jetting through the frozen air away from each other, back to their children and spouses, back to the cold, and to hard, grim work.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

15 February 13 | Chad W. Post |

I hate to admit it, but a few years ago, when Archipelago first sent me a copy of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, I assumed that it was a book that I was probably never going to read. I mean, it’s a book about a farmer. A quiet book about a farmer. An introspective aging farmer taking care of his invalid father. From the jacket copy:

Ostensibly a novel about the countryside, The Twin ultimately poses difficult questions about solitude and the possibility of taking life into one’s own hands. It chronicles a way of life that has resisted modernity, a world culturally apart yet laden with familiar longing.

Nothing about this seems like the sort of jagged, crazy, confusing, challenging books that I generally find myself drawn to.

But man was I wrong about this one.

I did end up reading it, and recommended it for the Best Translated Book Award shortlist. And damn, is it a spectacular book. Everything’s so understated in here, but never boring. Here’s what “I wrote about it back in 2010:”:

[I] started reading one night and literally couldn’t put this down. There’s something mesmerizing in Bakker’s prose, in the way he slowly builds the sense of isolation and duty that rules Helmer’s life. Unveiling secrets small and large in very precise, stark language. Lyrical in an understated way.

Now, although Bakker didn’t win the BTBA that year, he did end up winning the IMPAC, which helped give this book a significant boost and practically ensured that his other books would eventually make their way into English.

Which brings us to Ten White Geese, which comes out from Penguin on the 26th. I received a copy of this just a few days ago, and haven’t had a chance to start it, but unlike my reaction back in 2009, this time I’m certain that I’ll read this.

Especially since John Siciliano hand wrote me a note stating that this was “perhaps my favorite of all the novels I’ve published.” That’s some high praise from a very trustworthy source.

Once again, the set-up sounds quiet and introspective. According to the copy, it’s a novel “haunted by the spirit of Emily Dickinson” and takes place in rural Wales. On a farm. With geese. And cows, dogs, badgers, etc. But in contrast to The Twin, this sounds a bit more mysterious and tinged with danger.

On the farm she finds ten geese. One by one they disappear. Who is this woman? Will her husband manage to find her? The young man who stays the night: Why won’t he leave? And the vanishing geese?

Expect a full review in the near future. Actually, rather than waiting for that, you should just get both The Twin and Ten White Geese now. They’re worth it.

29 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although information started leaking last week, it wasn’t until this morning that the Penguin-Random House merger was made official:

Publisher Pearson says it has agreed a deal with German media group Bertelsmann to combine their Penguin and Random House businesses.

Under the terms of the deal, the two businesses will be run in a joint venture called Penguin Random House.

Bertelsmann will own 53% of the joint venture, while Pearson will own 47%.

First off, I think “Random House Penguin” is a much better name, mainly because of the ambiguity—is it a Random-House Penguin? or a Random House-Penguin? Makes the new über-publisher seem both literary and playful.

The tie-up between Penguin and Random House marks the first deal between the world’s big six publishers. The others are Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster. It would bring together the publishers of the Fifty Shades series and Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks.

I keep reading this “Fifty Shades AND Jamie Oliver” line, and, to be honestly ignorant, I have no idea what it signifies. “This new MegaPublisher will publisher Super-Successful Book #1 PLUS Super-Successful Book #2!!!! ZOMG!!” Honestly, if you told me right now that Random House already published both of these, I’d totally buy it. It’s not like these are two random products suddenly being lumped into one administrative mess: “It’s going to combine Twilight and Gilbert Sorrentino!! Holy shitsnacks!”

Anyway, on to the real content: the creepy consolidation of two massive publishing entitles:

Pearson chief executive Marjorie Scardino, who is leaving the firm at the end of the year, said: “Penguin is a successful, highly-respected and much-loved part of Pearson. This combination with Random House… will greatly enhance its fortunes and its opportunities.

“Together, the two publishers will be able to share a large part of their costs, to invest more for their author and reader constituencies and to be more adventurous in trying new models in this exciting, fast-moving world of digital books and digital readers.”

In case you’re wondering, “be able to share a large part of their costs” equals “eliminate redundancies, especially in terms of personnel.” I hate to be the voice of cynicism, but all the “No jobs will be lost! We will rule the world together!” lip-service being paid to Penguin and RH employees has about a 99.9% chance of turning out to be utter and complete bullshit.

Based on recent results, combining the two firms will create a business with annual revenues of about £2.5bn and about one-quarter of both the UK and US book markets. [. . .]

“In the UK the market share will be around 27%, so they may have to divest themselves of some non-core interests,” said Philip Jones from the Bookseller magazine.

27%?! That’s fricking INSANE. And in no way can this be good for the book world. I don’t want to get into all that right now—I have sales calls to make, classes to teach—but putting so much power into the hands of one entity that produces a limited amount of books, yet will be defining culture, is fucked.

Which, for many, will bring to mind Amazon’s position in the marketplace . . .1 Speaking of Amazon:

“Amazon has 90% of the ebook market – if [the competition authorities] allowed that to happen, how can they block a merger that gives Penguin Random House 27%?”

And that’s really what this about, isn’t it? Making a company big enough to negotiate with Amazon in a way that will reap it shittons more money and profit. Great.

*

By random contrast, I just want to point out this WSJ article about the “semi-socialist” Bundesliga. (Referred to as a “soccer paradise.”) It’s a really interesting contrast between the free-spending, unmonitored Premiere League in the UK, and the less-profit motivated Bundesliga in Germany. Not only is the quality of the Bundesliga better—there are more teams with a legit chance to win the title, in contrast to the Chelsea, Manchester x 2, dominance in the Premiere League, or the Real Barcelona duo in La Liga—but the clubs are financially better off (Munich made $230 million last year, which exceeds the commercial revenues of Arsenal and Man United combined) AND more people are attending the matches.

What does this have to do with RHP? Nothing, really. But the idea that there is an alternative model to flat-out late-age hyper-charged capitalism—one that can be more successful in all the key areas—is a very captivating one.

1 This is a bit of a flawed analogy though. Amazon is a provider, a retail outlet that takes what is made elsewhere and dominates the chain from production to consumption. By contrast, Random House Penguin will control what is made available. This is a stark and horrifying difference. Amazon is predicated on the idea that “more of everything is better”—more books sold to more people in more formats equals more money—RHP is all about the production and sale of products that will benefit itself only. For all of the issues that people have with Amazon’s corporate practices, they are geared towards providing customers with what they want, when they want it, and at a reasonable price—it’s their tactics to achieving this that are circumspect. RHP will be about blockbusters and leveraging its enormous impact to restrict buying options, or at least direct customers into buying its products for the benefit of the corporate shareholders. In my mind—in which product diversity trumps everything, since the things I like are often not in line with mainstream anything—this RHP situation is a million times worse.

11 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

From Publishers Weekly:

Adding a public component to BookExpo America has been one of the most hotly debated topics regarding possible changes to the annual event. BEA officials have discussed it internally and with their customers, and the concept has now received a major boost from Penguin, whose CEO, David Shanks, and president, Susan Petersen Kennedy, have outlined what they see as a viable way to bring book lovers into the event without having them at the Javits Center. The executives made the proposal in response to queries from PW to publishers and booksellers about how BEA can be improved.

I’ve argued in the past that book lovers should just be allowed into Javits, but whatever, at least this is a push in the right direction . . . maybe. Nothing too specific in the article, but here’s the core of the idea:

As envisioned by Shanks and Kennedy, the new component could be modeled after the annual PEN World Voices Festival and New Yorker Book Festival, which hold a series of author events and panels at different locations all over the city. Ideally, the cost of the tickets would cover the overhead for the venues, and events would be scheduled in the evening and not conflict with BEA programming and exhibits. All BEA badge holders could attend these events for free.

Creating off-site public events, Shanks and Kennedy said, “would further expand the opportunities and exposure for the BEA, authors and their books.” The addition of these events, the two said, “would ultimately help generate advance buzz for the overall convention as well as for the authors and their books—not only in the media and among booksellers but among consumers, who would get a sneak peek at a few select major fall authors.” At the off-site events, publishers could do consumer giveaways, as they do at other book fairs across the country.

OK, so that sounds decent. Although coming exactly one month after the PEN World Voices Festival, it might be a tough sell. My real concern though is that this will be totally corporate and, similar to the extremely popular Winter Institute, a pay-to-play situation in which only the biggest of the biggest can actually participate.

That would be extremely disappointing. Hell, we already can see Malcolm Gladwell nine thousand times a year, and trying to rope the general public into paying to see the “Big Names” is an idea that operates under the deteriorating blockbuster model, trying to prop up some new hits instead of offering readers an opportunity to explore all the diverse voices being published today. For that, they’d have to visit the Javitz Center . . . Oh, wait.

It really is a positive development that people are thinking in this way, and I applaud Penguin for making this proposal. I guess it’s the cynic in me that envisions this as a potentially good compromise that turns into something that I would never want to attend if I wasn’t part of the industry. But for now, I’ll hope for the best . . . The best being that some smaller publishers can also have their authors participate in this without having to fork over thousands . . . Maybe Lance can chime in in the comments and reassure me . . .

11 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

At least this post isn’t about a bookstore/publisher closing—instead it’s about the absolute grossness of corporations:

On Sunday, a Bookseller story by Victoria Gallagher reported that “sources” were saying “Penguin is believed to have signed an exclusive deal with W H Smith” bookstores to be “the sole supplier of foreign travel guides in its airports, motorway, railway and hospital shops.” The reported one-year contract would begin next week and mean that in the chain’s 450 Travel stores only travel guides from Penguin’s DK and Rough Guides lines would be available — nothing from Lonely Planet, Time Out, Berlitz, Frommer’s, Fodor’s, etc.

It’s not as if the deal wasn’t going to cost Penguin — Gallagher reports the company gave WHS a whopping 72% discount. Still, it’s a devastating blow to the competition, and probably worth it as such to Penguin: WHS is the only bookstore at airports controlled by BAA, the company that controls the UK’s busiest airports, including Heathrow, Gatwick, and Edinburgh. (from Moby Lives)

Thankfully a boycott has started, which is at least, well, something. This sort of anti-choice, anti-reader activity is total bullshit and a scary sign of the times. . . .

10 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a look at Gods and Soldiers, an anthology of contemporary African writing edited by Rob Spillman.

Jessica Cobb—a current intern at Open Letter—wrote this review, which begins:

This anthology of both fiction and non-fiction features thirty pieces from a wide variety of African writers from across the continent—from the West, Sub-Saharan, North, East, and ending in the Southern Regions. Editor Rob Spillman (the editor of Tin House) claims in his introduction that “this anthology is intended as a snapshot of recent writing as seen through the lens of one editor, after consulting with many, many editors, writers, scholars, critics, and everyday passionate readers.” He also speaks to the point that this anthology covers themes reflected in recent history, including anti-colonialism, the struggle of Western influences, the rise of women’s voices, the personal and national influence of domestic and imported religions and lastly, what it means to be an independent-minded African in a globalized world. This literary spider web offers not just a perception of African culture, it opens the gate to the concepts of heritage, history and the continuing struggle of a prideful people. Which is quite unique considering how few African works are published in America.

Click here for the rest.

9 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

This anthology of both fiction and non-fiction features thirty pieces from a wide variety of African writers from across the continent—from the West, Sub-Saharan, North, East, and ending in the Southern Regions. Editor Rob Spillman (the editor of Tin House) claims in his introduction that “this anthology is intended as a snapshot of recent writing as seen through the lens of one editor, after consulting with many, many editors, writers, scholars, critics, and everyday passionate readers.” He also speaks to the point that this anthology covers themes reflected in recent history, including anti-colonialism, the struggle of Western influences, the rise of women’s voices, the personal and national influence of domestic and imported religions and lastly, what it means to be an independent-minded African in a globalized world. This literary spider web offers not just a perception of African culture, it opens the gate to the concepts of heritage, history and the continuing struggle of a prideful people. Which is quite unique considering how few African works are published in America

One of the best pieces in the collection is “Lomba,” the story of an imprisoned Nigerian man by the same name. Lomba is a journalist imprisoned because it’s believed that he took part in an anti-government demonstration against the military legal government. Even though Lomba was merely a reporter at this event, he was forced behind bars with no chance of winning the case against the government. While in prison, he begins to write a diary of his experiences, thoughts, fears and dreams, which lands him in solitary confinement after the prison guards catch him with his writings.

I express myself. I let my mind soar above these walls to bring distant, exotic bricks with which I seek to build a more endurable cell within this cell. Prison. Misprison. Dis. Un. Prisoner. See? I write of my state in words of derision, aiming thereby to reduce the weight of these shoulders, to rediscover my nullified individuality.

His “saving grace” becomes the superintendent, who makes him write poetry for his soon to be fiancée, Janice. While the superintendent believes that he is doing Lomba a favor by letting him write, he is slowly taking away Lomba’s dignity by stealing his words.

Another powerful piece in the book is “The Senghor Complex” by Patrice Nganang. This story was very complex and different from that of the more personalized “Lomba” in that it spoke to the literal meaning of a concept, Negritude “anti-racism racism,” which stemmed from a Black Nationalist movement struck up by the Harlem Renaissance. Spillman looks at this as an “anti-assimilationist philosophy . . . which is closely identified with Senghor, a Senegalese poet who became the first president of independent Senegal.” We venture into Cameroon, a Sub-Saharan area of Africa which tries to defy the same ongoing complexities that we face in our society. The struggle to defend and protect the roots of our existence is a world-wide acknowledgement. Nganang does an outstanding job of analyzing the logic, ethics and politics behind the indignity that was taken from her Africa, specifically Cameroon, and this teaches us that we, as interpreters, should not comply with the sort in which people pretentiously place us. She analyzes the Senghor Complex on “four axes,” logic, that of episteme, ethics and politics. The grave impact categorizing people into stereotypical groups can have on an individual’s self-perception is abundantly clear in this essay.

The excerpt from Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero is a short yet piercing story of an Egyptian woman who was raised to accept that she was not worthy of being anything more than a prostitute. The story opens up with this unnamed woman stabbing an aggressor who tells her that she could never have control over him. The aftermath of the situation brings her to the street where she holds the confidence of a princess walking tall and untouchable. She envisions people staring at her with no clues to the fact that she is, in fact, a prostitute. Her rage continues as she accepts the offer of an Arab Prince at the price of two thousand dollars. In the mist of their sexual encounter, she becomes enraged and tells him that she has strength that can kill. After she persuades him of this ability and sees the fear in his eyes, she reflects on all the men, referenced as criminals, who deserve the ultimate for their savage behaviors in her culture. This story took me by surprise, in that it gave me a little more perspective of how women are viewed in Egypt and the rage that lies within a woman who has been mistreated all her life. Although this is shown through pure violence, I believe that this was an effective strategy written by Saadawi to make a point about the vengeful soul of a woman.

Collectively, this anthology offers an abundance of viewpoints from a range of African traditions. As Rob Spillman states in the opening of his introduction, “African writing is ready for international spot line.” These African writers offer a standpoint that is clearly visible within their writing and the standpoint is this; the gap of remote understanding of Africa and its people has exceeded its boundaries to a vast multitude. The “palpable sense of urgency” that lies at the mercy of their pencil tips is indulgent and a plea for a greater understanding; which is rightly deserved.

2 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

It’s no surprise that more and more Chinese literature is making its way into English (there were 11 original works of fiction and poetry that came out in the U.S. in 2008, and through the first half of 2009, I’ve already identified 9), but this spring has a number of titles that look really fantastic, and that we hope to review in full in the not too distant future.

I started reading Five Spice Street by Can Xue on my trip to New York, and am amazed at how bizarre it is. On the surface things seem somewhat normal . . . well, maybe. Any book with a half-dozen containing a half-dozen page argument (one that involves 28 people) about a character’s age is pretty cool. Can Xue’s been published by Northwestern and New Directions in the past, and as one of the first books in Yale’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series it should get some pretty decent attention.

While in NY, I also picked up a copy of Yu Hua’s Brothers an enormous novel that was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Prize. Yu Hua was profiled in the Times Magazine, and I’m sure this is just the start of the review coverage. (The crap line “The novel, which will be published in an English translation later this month, may also prove to be China’s first successful export of literary fiction” will inevitably catch the eye of a lot of reviewers . . . That, and the size of this book—it’ll break your wrist!—and the fact that Random House is bringing it out.) Here’s the rest of the Times Magazine description:

Certainly, foreign readers will find in its sprawling, rambunctious narrative some of China’s most frenetic transformations and garish contradictions. “Brothers” strikes its characteristic tone with the very first scene, as Li Guang, a business tycoon, sits on his gold-plated toilet, dreaming of space travel even as he mourns the loss of all earthly relations. Li made his money from various entrepreneurial ventures, including hosting a beauty pageant for virgins and selling scrap metal and knockoff designer suits. A quick flashback to his small-town childhood shows him ogling the bottoms of women defecating in a public toilet. Similarly grotesque images proliferate over the next 600 pages as Yu describes, first, the extended trauma of the Cultural Revolution, during which Li and his stepbrother Song Gang witness Red Guards torturing Song Gang’s father to death, and then the moral wasteland of capitalist China, in which Song Gang is forced to surgically enlarge one of his breasts in order to sell breast-enlargement gels.

Following up on the post last week about Columbia University Press, this May they’re bringing out the fantastically titled There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night by Naiqian Cao. I’ll read any Asian titles Columbia brings out, but this sounds particularly interesting:

In this genre-defying book, the author’s affection for vivid personalities and unflinching realism comes through in a stark portrait of adultery, bestiality, incest, and vice in rural China. Set near the border of Inner Mongolia, among a cluster of cave dwellings in Shanxi province, these intense vignettes describe the base desires and dark longings of a life lived in virtual isolation.

Finally, coming out from Penguin in April is English by Wang Gang, which, according to the Penguin site, is about a twelve-year-old boy learning English in the stifling atmosphere of Xinjiang in China’s remote northwest during the time of the Cultural Revolution. Editor John Siciliano highly recommended this to me, and I’m planning on reviewing it once we receive a galley . . .

(Paper Republic. is by far the best place online to get information about Chinese literature both translated and untranslated. Definitely worth checking out.)

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