23 October 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

James Crossley is a bookseller at Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s Message in a Bottle blog and for the website of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.

Having talked about books that I think other people will probably like, it seems like I should talk at least a bit about the ones I do.

Bohumil Hrabal’s Harlequin’s Millions (translated by Stacey Knecht) has already been highly praised here on the blog by Jeremy Garber (and elsewhere by that inestimable dean of BTBA judges, George Carroll) and I’m calling the shotgun seat on their bandwagon—it really is that good. If you don’t want to trust us, maybe Ivan Vladislavić can talk some sense into you. He calls it a “mesmerizing novel,” and being a brilliant novelist himself, albeit one who writes in the lesser language of English, he should know.

Among the few books in the running that can stack up to HM is Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of Gab, a series of linked short stories put out by Karolinum Press in the Czech Republic. It’s set in the (literally) Bohemian forest village of Kersko, a place notable for drunkenness, lust, venality, and especially the garrulousness of its inhabitants. Their self-serving lies pile up into mountains of manure, and the plots veer from the unbelievable into the surreal and the sublimely ridiculous. Comical, crude, and character-rich, it’s an altogether Hrabal-esque extravaganza of corkscrewing prose. Well, not -esque, because it too is by Bohumil Hrabal. Credit to translator David Short for channeling the flow of the author’s language without stanching it, and to the publisher’s design team as well. This edition is stunning, printed on thick paper that’s a pleasure to touch and practically spilling over with art. It’s bad form to make predictions about the finalists this early in the game, but if Hrabal’s not among them, it’ll only be because he was in competition with himself.

I’m also very high on the much more subdued submission from France’s Pierre Michon, Winter Mythologies and Abbots, which is part of Yale University Press’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series. It combines two short works that were first published separately, and even together they make a book, translated by Ann Jefferson, that clocks in at a scant 116 pages. In both sections, Michon has drawn obscure figures out of the mist of ecclesiastical history and fictionalized episodes from their lives. Their motivations are distinctly pre-modern, driven by a Christian faith that’s barely removed from paganism, and they feel wholly convincing while remaining utterly alien, at least to this hopelessly secular reader. Quiet, complete, and near-perfectly realized, it might be what Austen described when she wrote about “a little bit (two inches wide) of ivory” worked with “so fine a brush.”

From the same Yale series comes David Albahari’s Globetrotter. from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac). Like his earlier novel Leeches, it deals with the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia, this time treating the conflict more obliquely and displacing it to the placid setting of Banff, British Columbia. At an arts conference, a painter from Saskatchewan becomes obsessed with a Serbian writer and jealous of his burgeoning friendship with the descendant of a Croatian traveler. The vaguely homoerotic triangle that forms is far less important and intense than the maelstrom of ethnic guilt that spins in their psyches and finally wrecks them in an inexorable climax. Warning: Albahari has something against indentations. I think the lack of paragraphing adds to the headlong quality of the tale, but tastes vary. As a public service to traditionalists, I therefore provide an ample selection of pilcrows to be added to the text as needed: ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶

No one who’s reading this can be unaware of Open Letter’s track record of excellence with world literature, and it’s always difficult to rank their books against each other, but Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard (trans. by Charlotte Mandel) may be their best publication of 2014. It follows a young Moroccan man as he comes of age at home and travels across the Mediterranean to re-establish himself in Barcelona, and it manages to push almost every cultural hot button along the way. Immigration, terrorism, misogyny, the promise and failure of the Arab Spring … it could come across as a paint-by-number op-ed piece, but in fact it addresses these topics organically. The politics arise inevitably out of the fiction rather than the fiction being an artificial veneer over the politics.

Monastery by Eduardo Halfon comes from the Spanish by way of Lisa Dillman’s translation, and it chronicles the journeys of a Guatemalan writer, not coincidentally named Eduardo Halfon. It can’t quite decide whether it’s a novel or a short story collection, and I’m not sure how much reality or imagination lies behind it, but Halfon makes a good deal of hay out of that confusion. The plot carries him from the jungle of Central America to jazz concerts in North America, submarine bases in Europe, and beaches in Asia, and the unstable structure of the book prismatically expands the possibilities for interpretation. (Those who’ve read his very similar prequel, The Polish Boxer, will have to cope with further contradictions, as characters and events from it recur, subtly altered, in Monastery.) Detachment and dislocation have rarely been so well depicted as this. And believe me, in the middle of trying to read as many as possible of more than 400 books in less than a year, I know from dislocation.

30 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Tiffany Nichols on Masters and Servants by Pierre Michon, translated (illustrated, and with an introduction) by Wyatt Mason, and out from Yale University Press.

When’s the last time you read a book, and were so moved or inspired by what you read that you immediately hotfoot it to the closest bookstore to buy up all the rest of said author’s works? I, truly, can’t remember. Maybe Patrick Süskind’s works back in 2005? (By which logic, does that mean I’ve been only moderately inspired by authors I’ve read for almost the past 10 years? Yikes . . .)

Anyway, Tiffany (who, among many other things, runs a food and book blog, tiffany ist, and who should come to Rochester post-haste and make this for me) experienced just that after reading Michon’s work, something that in its own right is inspiring to once again contemplate, discover, and stock up on those authors whose works have moved you.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

We have all observed and appreciated art. However, when we experience art, it is generally in a bubble of our own experiences and preferences. More often than not, we may know the artist only in name and that he or she is noteworthy leading to the required appreciation. It is rare that we have knowledge of how the artists’ life experiences led to their ultimate creations and masterpieces. We know nothing of the subjects, the driving forces that resulted in the creation of the piece, nor the inner turmoil the artists endured to create their works.

Masters and Servants by Pierre Michon is an incredibly special literary work in that it truly does bring art to life. The work consists of five short stories focusing on the subjects of masterpieces and the artists’ relationships with the subjects of those pieces. Michon’s grasp of language and the art of storytelling is equal to the artistic ability of the artists he explores in Masters and Servants. These artists include Vincent van Gogh, Francisco Goya, Antoine Watteau, Claude Lorrain, and Lorentino.

For the rest of the review, go here.

30 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

We have all observed and appreciated art. However, when we experience art, it is generally in a bubble of our own experiences and preferences. More often than not, we may know the artist only in name and that he or she is noteworthy leading to the required appreciation. It is rare that we have knowledge of how the artists’ life experiences led to their ultimate creations and masterpieces. We know nothing of the subjects, the driving forces that resulted in the creation of the piece, nor the inner turmoil the artists endured to create their works.

Masters and Servants by Pierre Michon is an incredibly special literary work in that it truly does bring art to life. The work consists of five short stories focusing on the subjects of masterpieces and the artists’ relationships with the subjects of those pieces. Michon’s grasp of language and the art of storytelling is equal to the artistic ability of the artists he explores in Masters and Servants. These artists include Vincent van Gogh, Francisco Goya, Antoine Watteau, Claude Lorrain, and Lorentino.

In the first of five short stories, Michon provides the intimate details of Joseph Roulin’s life as it shortly overlapped with van Gogh’s until Joseph decides to sell one of his van Gough’s pieces. Michon dives into each and every minute detail of Joseph’s life—his job, political views, excessive drinking, reaction to van Gogh’s death, and inability to appreciate why van Gogh’s art reached the masterpiece level. Each and every word is carefully calculated like each line an artist commits to the canvas. The prose fluctuates between time and space without notice as the art that is being described. This is evidence in the following excerpt:

I want it to bear his name; so that words and the rhythms of language instantly endorse the great peacoat and hat of the post office; so that words and their rhythms grow old in Marseille and remember Arles; so that words end up sprouting beards; they’ll appear in Prussian blue; they’ll be alcoholic and republican; they won’t make sense of one drop of the paintings; but with some luck, or by kidnapping, perhaps words will once again become a painting; they’ll be muzhik or boyar as the spirit moves me—and completely arbitrary, as usual—but will come visibly to light, manifest, and die.

The voice of Masters and Servants is synonymous with the narrator of Wes Anderson films. The narrator is neither neutral nor impartial because his/her agenda is to paint a specific image and induce a calculated perception of the artists and their subjects. The best descriptor I could find for the narrator’s voice was that of a personification of a manifesto; one whose goal is to remind use that artists are people and art does not stand on its own without the artist lest we forget the hardships, confusions, and externalities that resulted in our beloved masterpieces. For example,

Van Gogh—who never thought as far as Rome, who was too modest or barbaric to think that far—van Gogh had thought about Marseille throughout his life; I don’t know what novel had made him imagine it to be some sort of artists’ Mecca, as he’s said, but he was surely the only artist to think it so, all because the paint Monticelli had lived and died there—done in by arrogance, misery, and absinthe, a parinter he ranked as highly as Rembrandt, Rubens, Delacroix—Monticelli whose painting I wouldn’t know how to judge but that they tell me aren’t so ugly . . . So van Gogh wanted to go to Marseille with Gauguin . . . who knows if a rich van Gogh wouldn’t have been as elegant as Manet, and just as smitten with etiquette. Due has never made it there: and, postmortem, he delegated Roulin.

Each of the remaining four short stories are equally delightful and enlightening in content and language. I was so moved by this work, I promptly biked to the bookstore to pick up the remaining Michon works available in English, which, as it turns out, are all part of the Yale University Press Margellos Series.

15 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Tom and I will record our “official” 2013 preview podcast tomorrow, so you can look forward to that, but as a way of upping the number of books we can talk about on the blog, I’d like to start a weekly “preview” column. Something that may not always be that serious, yet will at least give some space to recently released or forthcoming titles. I’m sure that this will evolve over the next X number of weeks, so please cut me some slack on these first few . . .

Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. University of Oklahoma/Chinese Literature Today. $24.95

Jonathan Stalling of Chinese Literature Today — which really probably definitely shouldn’t be abbreviated as “CLT” . . and yes, I am 12 — spent a good 10-15 minutes of MLA explaining to me why this book was so awesome. I forget all the plot details, but I do remember the bit about an executioner taking someone apart over a series of pages . . . So, to go along with the almost nauseating amounts of meat mastication in Pow!, readers coming to Mo Yan post-Nobel Prize also have the option to read about the “gruesome ‘sandalwood punishment,’ whose purpose, as in crucifixions, is to keep the condemned individual alive in mind-numbing pain as long as possible.”

I have to say, the more I read about Mo Yan’s books, the more I dig him . . . And I’m really looking forward to reading this before teaching Pow! in my Translation & World Literature class this spring.

Generally, I’m not a huge fan of book trailers, but I have to admit, the one that CLT did for this is really pretty elegant and cool in an anime sort of way.

I have more to post about Chinese Literature Today, but I’ll save that for later. For anyone interested in checking this out, here’s a link to a sample of the novel.

The Eleven by Pierre Michon. Translated from the French by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays. Archipelago Books. $18.

The only thing I know about Pierre Michon is that one of his earlier novels, Small Lives, which is also published by Archipelago, is loved by basically everyone.

For a while I was creating a playlist on Spotify of songs with numbers in them. Things like “Water” by Poster Children, or “Slow Show” by The National, or “Airplane Rider” by Air Miami (a personal favorite), or “Universal Speech” by The Go! Team, or whatever. I’m not sure why, but there’s something about people yelling out numbers (or referencing a particular age, as in The National song) that does it for me. It’s one of my “secret cues” that cause me to almost always love a song. (That and hand clapping. And sing-along choruses.)

I don’t think that same thing works for me with book titles. But Fifty Shades of Gray? Maybe this is some sort of subconscious tic . . . (Like A Thousand Morons! Or A Thousand Peaceful Cities.)

18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel. Open Letter Books. $15.95

A few months back, Zack called Nate and I to talk a bit about plans for his book and marketing and all that. In the course of the conversation, he told us about his elderly friend who was anxious to get a copy of his book.

“She called me the other day and said she’s seen it on the table at the bookstore and was really excited for me. I told her that it couldn’t possibly be my book. That my book hadn’t been printed. But she was convinced. ‘No, no, it was your book, Zack. And it’s pretty dirty!’ Only then I realized she was talking about Fifty Shades . . . “

All books containing a number and the color “gray” are the same! If only we could somehow use this to our advantage . . . Should’ve included that choker necktie on the cover.

That said, Zack’s book does have a spot of banging in it. It’s more of a nostalgic, romantic book than an erotic one, but there is something sexy about a good number of the scenes. Especially the conversations between the protagonist and his now-missing wife that take place while he’s photographing her . . .

So yes, if your sister/mother/grandmother/aunt is done with that other series, recommend 18% Gray to them. Besides, Zack is WAY hotter than E.L. James. (Although he might not be quite as loaded.)

27 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last night the French-American Foundation and Gould Foundation held their annual translation prize ceremony, honoring Jody Gladding & Elizabeth Deshays in the fiction category for their translation of Small Lives by Pierre Michon (Archipelago) and Matthew Cobb & Malcolm Debevoise in nonfiction for their translation of Life Explained by Michel Morange (Yale University Press)

As Thomas Bishop pointed out in his opening remarks, it’s interesting that both winners were translated by a pair of translators. Not that this is necessarily good or bad, just interesting. He also gave a shout out to American university presses as one of the admirable publishing segments of the book business trying to do a lot of literature in translation.

Of the finalists for the nonfiction category, four of the five titles were published by university presses (the exception being Camus’s Notebooks that came out from Ivan R. Dee). The fiction category had a different make-up, but three of the six finalists were from independent presses (Archipelago, Europa Editions, and New York Review Books).

The event—which took place at the Century Association—was very well attended (standing room only!), filled with all the editors, agents, translators, and other cultural peoples involved in international lit. (Especially French literature. One of the cool things the FAF did, which I’ve never seen before, is hand out a printed list of all RSVPs, so attendees could see who else was supposedly there and seek them out . . . Actually sort of helpful for a reception of this sort, where you’re only one or two connections away from everyone else . . .

27 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last night the French-American Foundation and Gould Foundation held their annual translation prize ceremony, honoring Jody Gladding & Elizabeth Deshays in the fiction category for their translation of Small Lives by Pierre Michon (Archipelago) and Matthew Cobb & Malcolm Debevoise in nonfiction for their translation of Life Explained by Michel Morange (Yale University Press)

As Thomas Bishop pointed out in his opening remarks, it’s interesting that both winners were translated by a pair of translators. Not that this is necessarily good or bad, just interesting. He also gave a shout out to American university presses as one of the admirable publishing segments of the book business trying to do a lot of literature in translation.

Of the finalists for the nonfiction category, four of the five titles were published by university presses (the exception being Camus’s Notebooks that came out from Ivan R. Dee). The fiction category had a different make-up, but three of the six finalists were from independent presses (Archipelago, Europa Editions, and New York Review Books).

The event—which took place at the Century Association—was very well attended (standing room only!), filled with all the editors, agents, translators, and other cultural peoples involved in international lit. (Especially French literature. One of the cool things the FAF did, which I’ve never seen before, is hand out a printed list of all RSVPs, so attendees could see who else was supposedly there and seek them out . . . Actually sort of helpful for a reception of this sort, where you’re only one or two connections away from everyone else . . .

24 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Pierre Michon’s Small Lives, which was recently published by Archipelago Books.

Frequent reviewer Monica Carter wrote this piece, which opens:

One of the signs of a great book is that the reader feels like she is reading a great book. From the very first sentence, she knows a question has been answered, a new world has been discovered, an intellectual delicacy has been offered up to savor and more than likely, her life of reading will never be the same. It has been changed by the indelible mark of book that our memory will not let escape. She senses that she is reading literature as it is intended to be. In Small Lives by French author Pierre Michon, not only are we aware that we are reading great literature, but we have the privilege to accompany him on this journey in which he discovers the voice and style that make this an outstanding work of depth, substance and originality.

Click here for the rest.

24 October 08 | Chad W. Post |

One of the signs of a great book is that the reader feels like she is reading a great book. From the very first sentence, she knows a question has been answered, a new world has been discovered, an intellectual delicacy has been offered up to savor and more than likely, her life of reading will never be the same. It has been changed by the indelible mark of book that our memory will not let escape. She senses that she is reading literature as it is intended to be. In Small Lives by French author Pierre Michon, not only are we aware that we are reading great literature, but we have the privilege to accompany him on this journey in which he discovers the voice and style that make this an outstanding work of depth, substance and originality.

France has long recognized the talents of Mr. Michon and his lyrical style—he has been awarded many of France’s top literature prizes for his works including the Prix Décembre, Grand Prix SGDL de literature, the Prix Louis Guilloux, and the Prix de la Ville de Paris. Similar to the recent Nobel Prize winning Le Clézio, Michon is regarded as one of France’s best contemporary authors. Yet, no matter how many prizes he has garnered in his literary career, nothing takes away from the poetic, dense prose that expose the nuances of French rural life in this framework of eight short stories in which Michon illuminates the hazy shadows of humanity.

These stories are imbued with a sense of loss, the bittersweet schism between what is and what could have been, a constant search for the roots of identity in a family history, and the reassurance of place. Like in the first story, “The Life of Andre Dufourneau,” in which the young boy as writer looks at a worn picture of Andre Dufourneau, the adventurous son from long ago who never returned:

Come now, admit it, he really resembles a writer. There is a portrait of a young Faulkner, a small man like him, in which I recognize the same haughty yet drowsy air, the eyes heavy but with an ominous, but flashing gravity, and under the ink-black moustache formerly used to hide the coarseness of the lip, alive like the din silenced by the spoken word, the same bitter mouth that prefers to smile. He moves away from the deck, stretches out on his berth, and there he writes the thousand novels out of which the future is made and which the future unmakes; he is living the fullest days of his life. The clock of rolling waves disguises the hours, time passes and place changes, Dufourneau is as alive as the stuff of his dreams; he has been dead a long time; I am not yet abandoning his shadow.

And although Michon follows the lives of people from the small village of Creuse, they don’t live simple lives nor are they simple people. Michon gives us the simultaneous struggle of emotions deftly and with the clarity of an epiphany. In “The Lives of Eugène and Clara,” we feel the guilt and shame of a grandson who attempts to rise above instinct when he meets with his grandfather whom he does not truly love:

Though, at the time, when I saw him, that was not what I thought; his illuminated sorry face—more broken than King Lear’s than clown’s, drunken old soldier, all shame drowned—his big red nose, his hands just as big and red, the incredible folds in his doggy eyelids, his croaking voice, all made me want to laugh—the laugh of the nervous child, which is a way of reversing the tragedy, of denying the unease. I reproached myself for that secret desire. To look dubiously, even ironically, upon “someone I should have loved,” to harbor that improper thought: “my grandfather is very ugly,” seemed to me a fault of the most serious nature; without a doubt, the faculty for such impious speculations belonged to “monsters,” and to them alone; was I, therefore, a monster? Immediately, I promised myself to love him better; and with that promise—the internal drama in which one plays all the roles is the emotional leaven of the so-called tender years—waves of affection for the poor old fellow washed over me again. My eyes misted with the sweet tears of atonement, and I would have liked to follow through the manifest acts of kindness; I do not know if I dared to do so at the time.

The mistrust of parents, grandparents and elders is a theme that presents itself in each story, sometimes prominently, sometimes faintly. Michon’s father disappeared when he was young and it is no wonder that, as a reader, we feel the parental figures are distant and austere, people to leave behind. Later, the act of “writing” becomes the ultimate father figure that is manipulative and unforgiving, leaving the narrator lonely and wandering, hoping to be assuaged by the figurative fatherly savior known as “Writing” in “The Life of Georges Bandy”:

This naïveté had its reverse side of twisted greed; I wanted the martyr’s wounds and his salvation, the saint’s vision, but I also wanted the crook and miter that impose silence, the Episcopal word that drowns even the word of kings. If Writing was given to me, I thought, it would give me everything. Dulled by this belief, absent in the absence of my God, I sank deeper each day into impotence and anger, those two jaws of the vise that holds in its grip the howling demand.
bq. And, turn the screw redoubling the grip, necessary sidekick and voyeur of the infernal tortures, doubt arrives in its turn, wresting me from the torment of my vain belief to inflict an even darker agony, saying to me, “If Writing is given to you, it will give you nothing.”

It is no wonder that one of the two translators is a poet—his prose reads like verse and the translation is honors his style. It is difficult to point out specific passages that typify Michon’s rich imagery or the way he paints the poetry of human nature because there are just too many. The writing is layered and poignant and it is where we find the complex in simplicity and the beauty in loss. Michon has allowed us to see this in lives that are no smaller than our own.

....
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