16 February 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Peter Biello on Guys Like Me by Dominique Fabre, translated by Howard Curtis and out from New Vessel Press.

Here’s the beginning of Peter’s review:

We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying side that reflects, more than anything else, the emotional state of the storyteller, an unnamed narrator still reeling from his divorce many years ago.

The novel begins as the narrator runs into an old friend, Jean, whose life has similarly stalled. With a wink and a nod they resume the friendship that they had lost years ago. We’re also introduced to Marco, or Marc-André, who, along with Jean, becomes the third member of this sad band of rapidly-aging, aimless men. As the novel unfolds, we learn about the narrator’s divorce from Anaïs, and the painful estrangement from his son, Benjamin.

Early in the novel, we learn the great extent to which the narrator’s mind torments him. “Since my separation, I haven’t had a real love affair,” the narrator tells us. “I don’t have the strength for it anymore, I kept telling myself. But why would I need strength? How the time passes . . . Quite often, my thinking stops there, and I try to sleep immediately afterwards, because I really don’t know what’s waiting for me if I keep thinking.” What little hope remains in his heart he’s found in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once said there are no second acts in American life. “There are no second acts,” the narrator says. “But I still believe there are, from time to time.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

16 February 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying side that reflects, more than anything else, the emotional state of the storyteller, an unnamed narrator still reeling from his divorce many years ago.

The novel begins as the narrator runs into an old friend, Jean, whose life has similarly stalled. With a wink and a nod they resume the friendship that they had lost years ago. We’re also introduced to Marco, or Marc-André, who, along with Jean, becomes the third member of this sad band of rapidly-aging, aimless men. As the novel unfolds, we learn about the narrator’s divorce from Anaïs, and the painful estrangement from his son, Benjamin.

Early in the novel, we learn the great extent to which the narrator’s mind torments him. “Since my separation, I haven’t had a real love affair,” the narrator tells us. “I don’t have the strength for it anymore, I kept telling myself. But why would I need strength? How the time passes . . . Quite often, my thinking stops there, and I try to sleep immediately afterwards, because I really don’t know what’s waiting for me if I keep thinking.” What little hope remains in his heart he’s found in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once said there are no second acts in American life. “There are no second acts,” the narrator says. “But I still believe there are, from time to time.”

He finds his second act in Marie, a woman he meets through an online dating website. When she begins treatment for breast cancer, the narrator finds himself once again falling in love and discovering that, despite what he has told himself, he does have the strength for another love affair—one that could last long enough to be considered a “second act.”

The immersive power of the novel comes from the narrator’s voice. He begins each paragraph somewhere, then wanders somewhere else, jumping idea to idea, often without starting new sentences. The reader must slow down to figure out whether he’s integrating dialogue into his prose or recalling something someone once said or mocking someone. But in forcing us to slow down, the author has invited us to occupy the narrator’s mind perhaps more intimately than we would otherwise.

By the end, we’re left feeling good about the narrator’s “second act,” though we realize that, on some level, most of the man’s life has gone by, much of it spent in some state of misery or confusion. It’s easy to see how many people—men, of course, but women, too—can relate to guys like this narrator. After all, he does say, with his touch of dry humor, “there are only a few million of us, I think.”

18 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Peter Biello on The Skin by Curzio Malaparte, translated by David Moore and out last year from New York Review Books.

If you’re looking for some post-WWII-themed, summer reading with disturbing imagery that would blow Jane Yolen and her time-traveling YA hit out of the shark-infested waters (don’t ask about the sharks), this book should be on your list. The rich, blood-red cover treatment, the title, the grisly things Peter (of the Burlington Writers Workshop) mentions in his review . . . It’s enough to make you literally grimace and wonder how many episodes of Keeping up with the Kardashians you can self-medicate with to make the entire world go away but still not land yourself in the camp of comatose self-loathing. Basically, if you want a visceral and historical heebie-jeebie fest, this is it.

And yes: Kardashians and WWII. You saw that combination here first, folks.

Anyway, here’s a part of Peter’s review—and enjoy the weekend!:

The Skin is Malaparte’s description of this moral plague. He writes about a character of the same name who accompanies a band of Pollyannaish American soldiers as they go about Naples acting as both conquerors and liberators. He bears witness to the variety of horrors that come at the end of a long war: starvation, slavery, casual murder, careless disposal of the dead, and the caustic nature with which the rich feed upon the poor (both literally and metaphorically), to name a few.

But these atrocities are merely a symptom of, or coexist with, the moral plague. Malaparte bemoans the easy way Neapolitans bend to the wishes of their American conquerors. “It was enough that a child should put into its mouth a candy offered to it by an American soldier, and its innocent soul would be corrupted.” The Neapolitans are too willing to trade national identity, pride, and dignity, just to get along with the new powers that be.

The Americans, for their part, approach this horrid landscape as if they weren’t at least partially responsible, and so they become the target of Malaparte’s most acidic sarcasm. The Americans of The Skin remain ignorant of Neapolitan culture. One American repeatedly speaks French to Malaparte and others, suggesting that, to him, all cultures other than his own are more or less the same. The Americans take what they can from the country they’ve razed with bombs and tanks, all the while holding themselves blameless. It rings true.

For the rest of the review, go here.

13 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Peter Biello on Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated by Anna Moschovakis (and introduction from Jennifer Moxley), published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

Peter not only runs the Burlington Writers Workshop, but is also a friend to Open Letter—we had the pleasure of meeting him in person at AWP a couple weeks ago, and saddle him up with some great books.

Commentary, as many of you will know, is one of the 25 books that made the 2014 BTBA longlist.

Here’s the beginning of Peter’s review:

Commentary is a book that defies simple categorization. Marcelle Sauvageot’s prose lives in the world of novel, memoir, and philosophical monologue as the narrator, a woman recuperating in a sanatorium, muses on the nature of love and examines her own crushed heart. Originally published in French under the title Commentaire in 1933, the book remains relevant precisely because the behavior of the man to whom these epistolary responses are addressed seems shockingly familiar.

Commentary is a deconstruction of an insensitive and condescending break-up letter that is sent to the narrator when she is spending time in a sanatorium. Her lover, who is only referred to as “Baby,” is in Paris, where he has made plans to marry another woman. “I am getting married . . . Our friendship remains . . .” his letter states, and from here, the narrator dives into the sadness and anger it provokes.

For the rest of the review, go here.

13 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Commentary is a book that defies simple categorization. Marcelle Sauvageot’s prose lives in the world of novel, memoir, and philosophical monologue as the narrator, a woman recuperating in a sanatorium, muses on the nature of love and examines her own crushed heart. Originally published in French under the title Commentaire in 1933, the book remains relevant precisely because the behavior of the man to whom these epistolary responses are addressed seems shockingly familiar.

Commentary is a deconstruction of an insensitive and condescending break-up letter that is sent to the narrator when she is spending time in a sanatorium. Her lover, who is only referred to as “Baby,” is in Paris, where he has made plans to marry another woman. “I am getting married . . . Our friendship remains . . .” his letter states, and from here, the narrator dives into the sadness and anger it provokes.

In her responses to different aspects of his letter, Sauvageot paints the portrait of a woman trying to understand not only a relationship that has failed, but also the nature of love in general. Baby says that it isn’t his fault she’s in a sanatorium; that he couldn’t have made her happy anyway; that friendship should be sufficient going forward. The narrator doesn’t let him off the hook. She writes:

You scoured the past for a sentence in which I seemed to say I no longer loved you: “You always told me that what you had loved in me was ‘Baby’ and you did not conceal from me that ‘Baby’ no longer existed.” And you shield yourself with this sentence without wanting to remember how you did not accept it. Now, you welcome it with glee, because it enables you to escape reproach for your infidelity. (67)

She goes on to say that, in his absurd justification for leaving the relationship, she sees “a petty salesman reneging on a deal he no longer wants to close.” (68) Her assessment of this man is honest, apt, and fair.

Along with her assessment of the relationship is her attack on the gender dynamics at play. “Is a woman in love not delighted when a man chooses her as a reward for her total love?” the narrator asks, with no small amount of snark. She goes on to say, in earnest, “what you are saying is the eternally idiotic, but eternally true, song of those who love and are loved.” (52) The narrator, in short, is critical of the superficiality of modern love—a criticism that remains relevant today.

In her introduction to this new edition, Jennifer Moxley refers to Baby as a “failed human being.” One could call Baby lots of things: insensitive, blind to his own male privilege, and self-serving to name a few. But to call him “failed” pronounces him dead, which he is not. The triumph of this book is that the narrator, while gravely wounded, sees through what Moxley would say makes him a “failed human being”—his weak attempts to justify his insensitivity. She knows him better than he knows himself. “I know you better, and that is not to love you less,” she writes (49). Could this narrator truly love a “failed human being”?

The story ends optimistically, with a dance. The narrator attends a dance party, finds a partner, and spends a lovely evening with him. “Lightly intoxicated by this rhythm, accompanied by my partner for the night, who by tomorrow will have forgotten this late evening, I slowly mounted the stairs to my door; and we took leave of each other after a kiss, without saying anything” (97). That kiss, after so much discussion of love, puts a cap of silence on a long meditation on the subject.

Why should we read this meditation in 2014? In a world in which social media encourage us to hide our flaws, this book attempts to remind us that those who love us because of our flaws, not in spite of them, are those who love us best.

3 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Let’s say you’re in a car accident. It’s not a bad one. You rear-end someone on a busy highway where traffic is crawling. And let’s say the person you hit happens to be a wealthy woman who leaps from her vehicle and berates you in language unfit for the ears of small children. What would you do?

Javier, the supposed name of the protagonist of Lorenzo Silva’s novel The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, finds himself in this exact scenario and consequently decides to spend his summer playing pranks on this woman, Sonsoles, though the word “prank” hardly describes what he does. For amusement, Javier calls the woman’s home, lying in a variety of ways, all of which inflict psychological stress on Sonsoles and her family.

What kind of sick individual does such a thing? Javier is no prince, but he suffers in ways we can all, to some extent, relate to, which makes the story palatable. His job pays well, but traps him in a rat race that leaves him feeling like his soul is “a dead weight down there, just below my nut sack.” He’s alone, average-looking, and his mother died years ago. There’s no mention of his having family or friends. In our first encounter with Javier, Sonsoles treats him like trash. By the end of chapter one, Javier has decided to make Sonsoles suffer, and all this reviewer could feel is schadenfreude.

As Javier stalks Sonsoles, he sees and falls in love with her teenage sister, Rosana. He begins to lie his way into her (Rosana’s) life. Javier and Rosana meet, chat, and meet again, and eventually they find their way to a swimming pool, where Javier has something akin to a religious experience when he sees her in her bikini. Finally, when Javier decides the pranks have gone far enough, he takes Rosana to a quiet place where he’s about to break off their strange, illicit relationship, when something happens (I won’t spoil it for you) that turns Javier’s experience from revenge-as-amusement to life-altering-shitstorm.

In this short novel, Javier, who speaks to us as a first person narrator, is aware of his shortcomings, though he doesn’t present them as evidence of his innocence. He knows he’s guilty and accepts his punishment without any apparent joy or sadness. His sense of right and wrong is, in a strange way, what guides him, even when he chooses what’s wrong. In choosing revenge, he seeks balance to Sonsoles’ cruelty, though he miscalculates and tips the scales the other way. Indeed, plotting revenge requires two graves,.

The title, The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, refers to Javier. The novel attempts to establish a parallel between Javier and one imaginary Bolshevik who, before killing a beautiful Russian grand duchess, falls in love with her. “What a tender moment,” Javier tells us, “when the Bolshevik turns against himself and the Revolution to admit his already necessarily despairing love for the Grand Duchess.”

Which brings us to the class issue. Javier is well-paid, but needs to work long days to stay that way. Sonsoles’s life will be a long road paved with money and comfort. The contrast is clear: Javier is the Bolshevik, Rosana the Dutchess. It makes one wonder: Would Javier have launched his revenge quest without feeling some sort of class resentment (subconscious or otherwise)? He certainly has his views of morality and wealth/poverty (“A conscience isn’t a basic commodity, just a whim of people with full stomachs”). It’s a question that lingers. The way Javier feels about himself certainly has something to do with what his job—and, by extension, the economy as a whole—has done to him.

Money, overall, seems to hover in the background, while the emptiness at the core of Javier’s life takes center stage. As readers, we hope he fills it with the love he seems to need. In the end, though, we are left pondering Javier’s final thoughts, as well as bits of wisdom he offered throughout the book, including this little nugget: “There is no more interesting believer than the one who changes faith.”

Amen.

3 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Because we love books and love to talk about them SO MUCH (and because we fell behind a bit over the holidays AND because we’re all snowed in today after last nights semi-blizzard), here’s another review for all y’all before the weekend hits. This latest addition to our “Reviews”: section in a piece by Peter Biello on Lorenzo Silva’s The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, out from Hispabooks Publishing.

Peter Biello is the organizer of the Burlington Writers Workshop and a producer/announcer/host at Vermont Public Radio. He’s also followable on Twitter @PeterBiello.

Three cheers to Peter for not only joining the ranks as a reviewer for Three Percent, but for taking on a book that not only has the narrator explaining how his soul is a dead weight nestled between his nads, but also shows the extremes of post-road-rage.

Here’s the beginning of Peter’s review:

Let’s say you’re in a car accident. It’s not a bad one. You rear-end someone on a busy highway where traffic is crawling. And let’s say the person you hit happens to be a wealthy woman who leaps from her vehicle and berates you in language unfit for the ears of small children. What would you do?

Javier, the supposed name of the protagonist of Lorenzo Silva’s novel The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, finds himself in this exact scenario and consequently decides to spend his summer playing pranks on the woman, Sonsoles—though the word “prank” hardly describes what he does. For amusement, Javier calls the woman’s home, lying in a variety of ways, all of which inflict psychological stress on Sonsoles and her family.

What kind of sick individual does such a thing? Javier is no prince, but he suffers in ways we can all, to some extent, relate to, which makes the story palatable. His job pays well, but traps him in a rat race that leaves him feeling like his soul is “a dead weight down there, just below my nut sack.” He lives alone, is average-looking, and his mother died years ago. There’s no mention of his having family or friends. In our first encounter with Javier, Sonsoles treats him like trash. By the end of chapter one, Javier has decided to make Sonsoles suffer, and all this reviewer could feel is schadenfreude.

For the rest of the piece, go here.

....
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