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?
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.
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 . . .
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. . . .
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.
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.
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.)
The Urdu word basti refers to any space, intimate to worldly, and is often translated as “common place” or “a gathering place.” This book by Intizar Husain, who is widely regarded as one of the most important living Pakistani writers,. . .
The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve. . .
Luis Negrón’s debut collection Mundo Cruel is a journey through Puerto Rico’s gay world. Published in 2010, the book is already in its fifth Spanish edition. Here in the U.S., the collection has been published by Seven Stories Press and. . .
To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of. . .
When Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason first published LoveStar, his darkly comic parable of corporate power and media influence run amok, the world was in a very different place. (This was back before both Facebook and Twitter, if you can. . .
When starting Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories, Santiago Roncagliolo’s second work to be translated into English, I was expecting Roncagliolo to explore the line between evil and religion that was front and center in Red April. Admittedly, I. . .
Christa Wolf’s newly-translated City of Angels is a novel of atonement, and in this way the work of art that it resembles most to me is not another book, but the 2003 Sophia Coppola film Lost in Translation. Like that. . .