8 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic, edited by Eduardo Jimenez Mayo and Chris N. Brown, with an introduction from Bruce Sterling. This will be officially available from Small Beer Press is bringing this out in late-January, but it can be preordered here.

Here’s the description from Small Beer’s website:

This huge anthology of more than thirty all-original Mexican science fiction and fantasy features ghost stories, supernatural folktales, alien incursions, and apocalyptic narratives, as well as science-based chronicles of highly unusual mental states in which the borders of fantasy and reality reach unprecedented levels of ambiguity. Stereotypes of Mexican identity are explored and transcended by the thoroughly cosmopolitan consciousnesses underlying these works. It is a landmark of contemporary North American fiction that deserves a wide readership.

And we actually ran a review of this by Sara Cohen back near Halloween. (Too fitting, no?) Here’s what she had to say about the two stories that you can read here.

“Photophobia,” by Mauricio Monteil Figueiras.

You can tell from the start that “Photophobia” is more sophisticated than most stories in this collection—the vocabulary is complex, the concept unquestionably cerebral. An apocalyptic narrative is told through stream-of-consciousness storytelling that cleverly distracts from the story’s premise until the ending begins to shed some light on the narrator’s purpose and motives. The tale stands out in this populist collection of stories like a sore thumb, but I’m glad it was included. Here is a typical (and excellent) sentence:

“Eternity, he thought, pocket apocalypses: man has not learned the lessons of history, he is still the ignorant student who recorded his confusion in the caves of Altamira—it’s just that the caves have become tabloids.”

“The Drop” by Claudia Guillén.

In “The Drop,” a depressed young woman refuses to leave her room, watching drops of water fall to the floor. Her mother (the stated villain of the piece) claims that if the dripping stops, her child will die. A visiting doctor learns about himself as he studies the girl. That’s it, the entire premise. But the story is well-told, the ending surprising, and it’s the kind of eerie tale that sticks with you.

Again, click here for the complete preview, and click here for Sara’s review. And then, if you like what you read, buy the book via Small Beer’s website.

All of the past RTN featured titles can be found here.

31 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sara Cohen about Three Messages and a Warning, an anthology of Mexican short stories of the fantastic, edited by Eduardo Jimenez Mayo and Chris Brown and forthcoming from Small Beer Press.

Sara “Number Four” Cohen was one of our summer interns, who attends the University of Rochester where she’s majoring in English and singing lots of showtunes.

She wasn’t a huge fan of this collection as a whole, but there were a number of pieces that she really enjoyed. Here’s the opening of her review, along with one example of the “Very Good” stories included:

If nothing else, Three Messages and a Warning proves that anthology editors hold far more power than the individual authors. The problem is not so much that Three Messages fails to offer any excellent Mexican “stories of the fantastic,” but that those tales are few and poorly placed within the book as a whole. For example, a number of above-average stories are clustered toward the end of the book, so that anyone prone to reading anthologies chronologically will be tempted to give up reading before they find gold.

If anything, it just seems like the people editing Three Messages forgot to pay attention—how else would a poem (and a mediocre poem at that) find its way into a book of short stories? How else would so many mediocre stories make the cut? Overall, the thirty-four “stories” in Three Messages provide a study in quantity over quality, a survey of Mexican literature that does little credit to Mexican authors. However, whether by purpose or chance, there are some diamonds in the rough, tales with original voices and surprising endings, the kind of stories you find yourself telling your friends about later. Rather than leaving you to sort through the entire collection (or skip it entirely) I’ll offer you what, in my opinion, are the highlights. The stories sort themselves into three categories:

Category One: The Very Good.

1. “The President without Organs” by Pepe Rojo.

In retrospect, this story captures exactly what I was hoping to find in Three Messages: an imaginative subject explored by an expert storyteller. The story unfolds through a series of press releases detailing the various surgeries the President undergoes in order to cure his increasingly bizarre illnesses, as well as mini-narratives about citizens reacting to the news. Witty and controversial, the story is a hilarious parody of the roles of citizens, government officials and the media in religious and political systems. Then again, I’m bound to love any story that contains a section that reads only, “NATIONAL TIME-OUT DAY.”

Click here to read the full review.

31 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If nothing else, Three Messages and a Warning proves that anthology editors hold far more power than the individual authors. The problem is not so much that Three Messages fails to offer any excellent Mexican “stories of the fantastic,” but that those tales are few and poorly placed within the book as a whole. For example, a number of above-average stories are clustered toward the end of the book, so that anyone prone to reading anthologies chronologically will be tempted to give up reading before they find gold.

If anything, it just seems like the people editing Three Messages forgot to pay attention—how else would a poem (and a mediocre poem at that) find its way into a book of short stories? How else would so many mediocre stories make the cut? Overall, the thirty-four “stories” in Three Messages provide a study in quantity over quality, a survey of Mexican literature that does little credit to Mexican authors. However, whether by purpose or chance, there are some diamonds in the rough, tales with original voices and surprising endings, the kind of stories you find yourself telling your friends about later. Rather than leaving you to sort through the entire collection (or skip it entirely) I’ll offer you what, in my opinion, are the highlights. The stories sort themselves into three categories:

Category One: The Very Good.

1. “The President without Organs” by Pepe Rojo.

In retrospect, this story captures exactly what I was hoping to find in Three Messages: an imaginative subject explored by an expert storyteller. The story unfolds through a series of press releases detailing the various surgeries the President undergoes in order to cure his increasingly bizarre illnesses, as well as mini-narratives about citizens reacting to the news. Witty and controversial, the story is a hilarious parody of the roles of citizens, government officials and the media in religious and political systems. Then again, I’m bound to love any story that contains a section that reads only, “NATIONAL TIME-OUT DAY.”

2. “Photophobia,” by Mauricio Monteil Figueiras.

You can tell from the start that “Photophobia” is more sophisticated than most stories in this collection—the vocabulary is complex, the concept unquestionably cerebral. An apocalyptic narrative is told through stream-of-consciousness storytelling that cleverly distracts from the story’s premise until the ending begins to shed some light on the narrator’s purpose and motives. The tale stands out in this populist collection of stories like a sore thumb, but I’m glad it was included. Here is a typical (and excellent) sentence:

Eternity, he thought, pocket apocalypses: man has not learned the lessons of history, he is still the ignorant student who recorded his confusion in the caves of Altamira—it’s just that the caves have become tabloids.

3. “Nereid Future,” by Gabriela Damián Miravete.

Imagine a modern, Mexican version of Margaret Oliphant’s short story from 1869, The Library Window and you’ll arrive at “Nereid Future.” The story, told in the second person, is about a girl who falls in love with a long-dead author through his books. The narrative gets increasingly meta as the girl begins to believe that the author loves her back. Intertextuality and female identity earn the spotlight in this short story, which contains one of those perfect endings where you should have seen it coming from the start, but still catches you by surprise.

4. “The Drop” by Claudia Guillén.

In “The Drop,” a depressed young woman refuses to leave her room, watching drops of water fall to the floor. Her mother (the stated villain of the piece) claims that if the dripping stops, her child will die. A visiting doctor learns about himself as he studies the girl. That’s it, the entire premise. But the story is well-told, the ending surprising, and it’s the kind of eerie tale that sticks with you.

5. “Variations on a Theme by Coleridge,” by Alberto Chimal.

Three Messages includes plenty of short-short stories; this is my favorite example, a page-and-a-half-long gem. It begins, “I got a call. It was me, calling from a phone I lost the year before. I asked myself where I had found the phone. I answered myself that it was in such and such cafeteria that I couldn’t remember anymore.” The story gets increasingly meta and hilarious, drawing its premise from the capabilities of modern technology, its humor from repetition and its pathos from the ways we judge ourselves.

Other favorites: “Lions” by Bernardo Fernández, “Wittigenstein’s Umbrella” by Óscar de la Borbolla, “Mr. Strogoff” by Guillermo Samperio.

Category Two: The Mediocre.

Most of the book falls into this category: stories that build up but go nowhere (“The Guest”); stories that you swear you’ve read before (“Three Messages and a Warning in the Same E-mail”); stories with one original gimmick, a clever premise or punch line that amuses without earning long-term appreciation (“A Pile of Bland Desserts”, “Wolves”); even a few pieces that don’t fully cross the cultural divide (“The Nahual Offering”).

These are not awful stories. I enjoyed reading some of them. But when I forget they existed in a week or two, I won’t feel the loss.

Category Three: The Ugly.

In my opinion the worst of the collection (besides that very random poem, “Mannequin”) are the stories that are unbearably trite, the stories that fit a shallow American understanding of Mexican culture to a T. I’m speaking mostly of the first story in the collection, “Today, You Walk Along a Narrow Path,” a tale about Día de los Muertos with the most predictable “surprise” ending in the entire book. There are others that fit this category, of course . . . but the line between “mediocre” and “ugly” seems awfully thin in my mind, so I think I’ll let future readers sort out those stories on their own.

8 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sara Cohen on Lucia Puenzo’s The Fish Child, which is translated from the Spanish by David William Foster and available from Texas Tech as part of The Americas series.

We’ve written about The Americas series before, but if you’re not already familiar with this, it’s a special literature series edited by Irene Vilar that was once housed at the University of Wisconsin Press and is now published by Texas Tech University Press. The focus is on Spanish and Portuguese literature from south of our border, and includes works from Moacyr Scliar (who will be featured in the Read This Next program in the near future), Ernesto Cardenal, and David Toscana. It’s a really great—and attractively produced—series.

Lucia Puenzo was selected by Granta as one of the “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelist” for their special issue that came out last fall. As a result, we did a special piece on Puenzo as part of our 22 Days of Awesome series.

Anyway, as mentioned in that post—and in Sara’s review—Puenzo is not just a novelist, but also a filmmaker. In the Granta-related post, we included the trailer for XXY, so this time, here’s the trailer for The Fish Child, a “gripping tale of forbidden lesbian romance and a crime heist gone awry that boasts beautiful cinematography and electrifying performances from its two female leads.”


http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=2995

Sara Cohen is interning here this summer, and along with mailing her other internish duties, she’s been writing reviews of some of these Texas Tech books.

Here are four things you should know about The Fish Child:

1.) The novel is sensual, crude, vibrant and unyielding.
2.) The protagonists, Lala and Guayi, are the sort of characters who make dangerous, fascinating mistakes.
3.) Puenzo, born in Buenos Aires, directed a film adaptation of The Fish Child that premiered in Berlin. So this story has traveled all around the world before it’s finally been brought to print in the U.S.
4.) The Fish Child is narrated by the family’s pet dog.

If that last item threw you off, that’s okay. The canine mindset is a bit alienating in both theory and practice. Just look at the novel’s opening paragraph:

“It could have been worse, believe me. It took them a day to make up their minds. Prodan. Saumerio. Violeta. I imagined myself going out into the world like Violeta and I peed my pants hiding in corners. Let’s see if you get me: I’m black, macho and bad. No matter how I look right now, with tubes coming out of me, on the verge of being dead meat. It was an accident, something that could happen to anyone. And what they’re saying is not true: I’m not stupid, just curious. If I see something moving beneath the leaves…I bite. Sorry, I digress, I know…it isn’t easy when Lala caresses me this way. And it doesn’t look good, a dying dog with an erection.”

Puenzo’s narrating mutt (ultimately christened Serafín) allows the reader a unique view of the world. Characters, setting and plot are presented free of the standard censorship of “polite” society. The result is a gritty, sensual narrative voice that, along with a tight sense of storytelling, makes this novel impossible to put down.

Click here to read the entire review.

8 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Here are four things you should know about The Fish Child:

1.) The novel is sensual, crude, vibrant and unyielding.
2.) The protagonists, Lala and Guayi, are the sort of characters who make dangerous, fascinating mistakes.
3.) Puenzo, born in Buenos Aires, directed a film adaptation of The Fish Child that premiered in Berlin. So this story has traveled all around the world before it’s finally been brought to print in the U.S.
4.) The Fish Child is narrated by the family’s pet dog.

If that last item threw you off, that’s okay. The canine mindset is a bit alienating in both theory and practice. Just look at the novel’s opening paragraph:

It could have been worse, believe me. It took them a day to make up their minds. Prodan. Saumerio. Violeta. I imagined myself going out into the world like Violeta and I peed my pants hiding in corners. Let’s see if you get me: I’m black, macho and bad. No matter how I look right now, with tubes coming out of me, on the verge of being dead meat. It was an accident, something that could happen to anyone. And what they’re saying is not true: I’m not stupid, just curious. If I see something moving beneath the leaves…I bite. Sorry, I digress, I know…it isn’t easy when Lala caresses me this way. And it doesn’t look good, a dying dog with an erection.

Puenzo’s narrating mutt (ultimately christened Serafín) allows the reader a unique view of the world. Characters, setting and plot are presented free of the standard censorship of “polite” society. The result is a gritty, sensual narrative voice that, along with a tight sense of storytelling, makes this novel impossible to put down.

Just in case, after all this hype, you’re wondering what this novel is actually about, here is the premise: Lala, the daughter of a popular Argentinian author, falls in love with Guayi, her Paraguayan maid. The two teenagers plan to escape to Guayi’s family in Paraguay. But when Lala, driven by passion, commits one of those dangerous, fascinating mistakes, she is forced to leave for Paraguay earlier than expected—and without Guayi. The consequences of Lala’s actions, and her struggle to physically and emotionally reunite with her lover, fill the 161 pages of The Fish Child.

Despite the compelling plot, the best thing about this book is Puenzo’s characters. Serafín follows Guayi and Lala with the fiercest of canine loyalties. His presence helps transform a harsh book about reckless teenagers into a narrative about the strong devotion that binds the three leads together. Puenzo isn’t afraid to create truly messed up characters, but her compassionate exploration of the characters’ histories and motives forces readers to love and even respect them despite their mistakes.

The Fish Child has a few sore points. In spite of what seems like a stellar translation from David William Foster, Puenzo’s narrative occasionally darts from past to present without clear indication of the transition. This is visible in the aforementioned opening paragraph, where the narrative begins in the distant past, moves to a slightly unclear moment in the novel’s future, then darts back to the distant past again for the following paragraphs. I also had trouble remembering the characters are teenagers—Lala’s tendency to idolize Guayi led me to assume the latter character was in her mid-twenties, at least.

Still, these are minor flaws in what is generally a refreshingly honest, thoroughly captivating and ultimately compassionate novel. Add in the lightest touch of magical realism and an ending mysterious enough to demand a reread, and you have The Fish Child. I consider myself lucky to have found it.

5 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

David Toscana’s The Last Reader stands as a challenge for the most dedicated readers. On the upside, it’s a challenge worth taking. Toscana’s novella vaguely imitates a murder mystery, but the real focus lies in blurring the lines between active reading and authorship, and more generally between reality and fiction.

The Last Reader is set in Icamole, a small impoverished village in Mexico, in the middle of a yearlong drought. Wealthy Remigio takes pride (and showers) in water that lines the bottom of his well, until the day he finds the water obstructed by a teenage girl’s corpse. Remigio goes to his father, Lucio, for advice, and here we meet the titular character. Lucio is Icamole’s last and only reader. When Remigio presents the problem of the corpse, Lucio reacts with the bibliophile’s instinct—he looks to his library. He zeroes in on a French novel, The Death of Babette, whose heroine’s physical description matches that of the corpse. Lucio names the corpse Babette, and suggests Remigio bury Babette in his garden, like the killer in The Apple Tree.

With this premise, Toscana’s scheme is set in motion. Lucio, the esoteric, lovably bookish father, quickly wins our hearts. (By contrast, Remigio, selfish with his water and wary of Lucio’s advice, seems a bit more questionable.) It’s fun to read about how Lucio organizes the abandoned library with great dedication and verve. Books he likes find a place on the library shelves, but any book he deigns trite (including the amusingly obvious anti-racism manifesto The Color of Heaven) or otherwise lacking gets marked “Withdrawn” and thrown into a cockroach-infested “book hell” with other rejected titles. As he works, Lucio offers the reader tips to quickly evaluate book quality. For example, he claims the ending of a book (though not the beginning) is an effective measurement of overall quality.

With such qualifications about good and bad novels, Toscana sets up a high standard for his own novel, and yet he does not disappoint. Toscana’s cleverly created characters, one bound to please and the other to disappoint, ultimately challenge the reader’s surface-level assumptions. Also challenging is Toscana’s stream-of-consciousness prose, translated by Asa Zatz. The novel does not employ quotation marks to distinguish between dialogue and the other text. This forces readers to tread carefully, especially when Lucio offers everyone direct quotes from his favorite books. As with many of the challenges and frustrations in Toscana’s book, this device serves a bigger purpose, eliminating the distance between Lucio’s total obsession with the fictional world and the readers’ own blind acceptance of Toscana’s words.

Thus, Toscana’s challenges to the reader are far more purposeful than arbitrary, and the result is that the clever little book (some will argue too clever for its own good) has won numerous awards, most prestigiously being shortlisted for the Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize. And the journey to the novel’s astounding conclusion, if rigorous, is hardly painful. Toscana’s rambling, and at times distancing, prose occasionally tips toward the luscious:

There is nothing like the smoothness of [Remigio’s] avocadoes, for which reason, on some nights he throws a few in the bed and stretches out with them. He offers them caresses, flattery. They are lovers with supple hands and noticeable breasts, disposable lovers, no name, no obligations, and no future, because they wake up squashed on the sheets after having sacrificed everything for love. The avocado was the fruit of temptation, without a doubt, although people liked to believe it was the apple, an inept whore with a smooth skin but a rigid body, sticky, no discretion in biting, which gets old all at once and consorts with flies and other insects. He knows that his girl is better off [buried] under the avocado tree.

If Lucio occasionally gets lost in his favorite prose, well, perhaps we cannot blame him. But this is entirely Toscana’s point: he has crafted a novel specially for bibliophiles, a novel that highlights the perils, perversions, and joys of losing oneself in a fantastic book.

5 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sara Cohen on David Toscana’s The Last Reader, which is translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz and available from Texas Tech University Press.

Sara—a summer intern and student here at the University of Rochester—is working on reviews of a few books in Texas Tech’s Americas Series. We wrote about this series a few months back, and it looks like we’ll be highlighting at least one of their forthcoming titles in the not-too-distant future.

But more on that later. For now, here’s the opening to Sara’s review of Toscana’s novel, which was shortlisted for the Romulo Gallegos International Novel Prize and won the National Colima Prize, the Premio Jose Fuentes Mares, and the Antonin Artaud Prize.

David Toscana’s The Last Reader stands as a challenge for the most dedicated readers. On the upside, it’s a challenge worth taking. Toscana’s novella vaguely imitates a murder mystery, but the real focus lies in blurring the lines between active reading and authorship, and more generally between reality and fiction.

The Last Reader is set in Icamole, a small impoverished village in Mexico, in the middle of a yearlong drought. Wealthy Remigio takes pride (and showers) in water that lines the bottom of his well, until the day he finds the water obstructed by a teenage girl’s corpse. Remigio goes to his father, Lucio, for advice, and here we meet the titular character. Lucio is Icamole’s last and only reader. When Remigio presents the problem of the corpse, Lucio reacts with the bibliophile’s instinct—he looks to his library. He zeroes in on a French novel, The Death of Babette, whose heroine’s physical description matches that of the corpse. Lucio names the corpse Babette, and suggests Remigio bury Babette in his garden, like the killer in The Apple Tree.

With this premise, Toscana’s scheme is set in motion. Lucio, the esoteric, lovably bookish father, quickly wins our hearts. (By contrast, Remigio, selfish with his water and wary of Lucio’s advice, seems a bit more questionable.) It’s fun to read about how Lucio organizes the abandoned library with great dedication and verve. Books he likes find a place on the library shelves, but any book he deigns trite (including the amusingly obvious anti-racism manifesto The Color of Heaven) or otherwise lacking gets marked “Withdrawn” and thrown into a cockroach-infested “book hell” with other rejected titles. As he works, Lucio offers the reader tips to quickly evaluate book quality. For example, he claims the ending of a book (though not the beginning) is an effective measurement of overall quality.

With such qualifications about good and bad novels, Toscana sets up a high standard for his own novel, and yet he does not disappoint.

To read the entire review, click here.

....
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