30 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

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 translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine, winner of the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award.

Negrón lives in Puerto Rico and works as a bookseller, and is also coeditor of an anthology of queer writing from Puerto Rico. Other than the recently translated Mundo Cruel, his only other work in English is the essay “The Pain of Reading,” which appeared in the Sunday Review of the New York Times, and was also translated by Levine.

The characters in Mundo Cruel constantly face prejudice, heartbreak, poverty, gossip, and death. Is the fictional world in Luis Negrón’s stories cruel? Most certainly. But Mundo Cruel is peopled by resilient, funny, and surprisingly optimistic characters. The book consists of nine tightly constructed stories mostly set in Santurce, a neighborhood in the outskirts of San Juan. What’s truly surprising in Mundo Cruel isn’t the queer themes it explores, but the degree of narrative control and skill present in Negrón’s work.

The first story, “The Chosen One,” is about a teenager’s unique relationship with God and the allure he exerts on certain members of his congregation. In “The Vampire of Moca,” a person’s crush gets out of hand, paving the way for jealousy, rage, obsession, and finally forgiveness. Sound heavy? This is actually one of Negrón’s funniest stories. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Santurce. The story’s setting seemed to enhance the protagonist’s feelings of entrapment:

Blocks and blocks full of doctor’s offices and temples—Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, Rosicrucian, Espiritista, Jewish, and yoga-ist, if that’s what you call it. The stench of sewers 24/7. Unbearable heat. Reggaeton, old school salsa, boleros, bachatas, jukeboxes, pool halls, slot machines. Topless bars, Dominican bars, gay bars. Catholic schools, beauty schools, vocational schools, and schools where you get a professional degree in just one year and without much homework. Fabric stores, arts and crafts stores, no-prescription drugstores, barbershops and hair salons.

“For Goyama” is a terrific rendering of the melodrama found in the telenovelas so prevalent in Hispanic society. With campy humor, Negrón portrays the protagonist’s loss, loneliness, and desperation as he tries to get a hold of a friend who owes him money. This is so he can send his dog, Goyama, to a taxidermist. Here, the entire action takes place through the letters the protagonist sends his friend during the weeks he’s trying to track said friend down.

“La Edwin” and “Junito” are monologues told through a phone call. Negrón’s acute ear for dialogue and urban orality is immediately evident, and Levine’s translation shines. Many Puerto Ricans are in fact bilingual, or understand quite a lot of words in English. So Levine’s decision to keep certain Spanish words in her translation is a nod to the code-switching that occurs in both countries.

Me, I talk polito chicken, you know, Spanglish, but I get by. If they talk to me slow I can follow, but when they start talking fast with all that guachulín, man, that’s when they lose me.

“Botella” shows a hustler who, after having sex with a jon, finds him dead several hours later. I don’t want to give too much away here, but let me just say that after you read this story, you’ll never look at a bottle of bleach the same way again.

The seventh story in the collection, “So Many or On How the Wagging Tongue Sometimes Can Cast a Spell,” is structured like a dramatic script. Two intolerant mothers discuss the upbringing of a queer boy living in their neighborhood. Under the guise of good Samaritans, they unleash their prejudice, xenophobia, and cruelty on the boy, his family, and all who do not conform to their expectations.

The collection closes with “The Garden” and the title story, “Mundo Cruel.” The former is narrated by Nestito, whose lover, Willie, is dying of AIDS. This is the most somber story in the collection and Negrón establishes himself as a deeply humane writer. “Mundo Cruel” is a satire on a world without homophobia, where the main characters, José A. and Panchi, must confront their biggest fear: tolerance.

Mundo Cruel might be a quick read, yet this is the type of book whose characters will linger in your imagination—it might take some effort to shake them off. Negrón is an incredibly gifted writer whose vivid prose, diverse writing style, and humor makes reading this book a true joy.

30 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Camila Santos on Mundo Cruel by Luis Negrón, from Seven Stories Press.

Camila is a Brazilian translator, and has written for Three Percent before—way back in 2010. Here’s a bit of her review:

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 translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine, winner of the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award.

Negrón lives in Puerto Rico and works as a bookseller, and is also coeditor of an anthology of queer writing from Puerto Rico. Other than the recently translated Mundo Cruel, his only other work in English is the essay “The Pain of Reading,” which appeared in the Sunday Review of the New York Times, and was also translated by Levine.

The characters in Mundo Cruel constantly face prejudice, heartbreak, poverty, gossip, and death. Is the fictional world in Luis Negrón’s stories cruel? Most certainly. But Mundo Cruel is peopled by resilient, funny, and surprisingly optimistic characters. The book consists of nine tightly constructed stories mostly set in Santurce, a neighborhood in the outskirts of San Juan. What’s truly surprising in Mundo Cruel isn’t the queer themes it explores, but the degree of narrative control and skill present in Negrón’s work.

For the complete review, go here.

11 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Larissa Kyzer on LoveStar by Andri Snær Magnason, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb and published by Seven Stories Press.

Larissa is a regular contributor to Three Percent, and with this continues her streak of Nordic lit reviews. LoveStar is a book I’ve been casting sidelong glances at here in the office, and have it high on my list of to-reads. But, with influences such as “Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Kurt Vonnegut to George Orwell, Douglas Adams, and Monty Python,” Magnason is sure to please.

Here’s a bit from Larissa’s review:

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 recall such a time.) He noted as much himself in a recent interview with The Reykjavík Grapevine: “[w]hen it came out in 2002 it was called a dystopian novel; now it’s being called a parody. We seem to have already reached that dystopia.”

It is difficult to create a fictional milieu that touches on anything remotely related to technology or The Future and doesn’t feel dated pretty much the minute the ink dries on the page. (My favorite example of this is the Ethan Hawke Hamlet adaptation, which came out in 2000 and was peppered with cutting edge technology . . . like fax machines and Polaroid cameras.) As such, it is no small accomplishment that in the ten years since LoveStar was released, the book feels not obsolete, but rather prescient, or at least exasperatingly plausible.

The novel kicks off at some indeterminate point in the future, after a series of freakish, but not cataclysmic, natural events lead a group of intrepid Icelandic scientists to seek wireless alternatives to current technology. (An oversaturation of “waves, messages, transmissions, and electric fields,” they believe, is to blame for such events as clouds of bees taking over Chicago, driving out residents and flooding the downtown area with ponds of honey.)

Head over here for the entire review.

11 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

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 recall such a time.) He noted as much himself in a recent interview with The Reykjavík Grapevine: “[w]hen it came out in 2002 it was called a dystopian novel; now it’s being called a parody. We seem to have already reached that dystopia.”

It is difficult to create a fictional milieu that touches on anything remotely related to technology or The Future and doesn’t feel dated pretty much the minute the ink dries on the page. (My favorite example of this is the Ethan Hawke Hamlet adaptation, which came out in 2000 and was peppered with cutting edge technology . . . like fax machines and Polaroid cameras.) As such, it is no small accomplishment that in the ten years since LoveStar was released, the book feels not obsolete, but rather prescient, or at least exasperatingly plausible.

The novel kicks off at some indeterminate point in the future, after a series of freakish, but not cataclysmic, natural events lead a group of intrepid Icelandic scientists to seek wireless alternatives to current technology. (An oversaturation of “waves, messages, transmissions, and electric fields,” they believe, is to blame for such events as clouds of bees taking over Chicago, driving out residents and flooding the downtown area with ponds of honey.)

Then comes the dawn of the “the cordless man,” who can both communicate and be communicated to through entirely internal methods:

bq.When men in suits talked to themselves out on the streets and reeled off figures, no one took them for lunatics: they were probably doing business with some unseen client. The man who sat in rapt concentration on a riverbank might be an engineer designing a bridge . . . and when a teenager made strange humming noises on the bus, nodding his head to and fro, he was probably listening to an invisible radio.

None of this, of course, is too great an exaggeration on technology that has come into being in the last decade, and even the absurd advertising methods that quickly become the norm in the world of LoveStar feel accurate. People in debt can rent out their brains’ speech centers out and become “howlers,” automatically screeching advertisements or reminders at specific passersby (“I can’t believe that guy is still wearing a Blue Millets anorak!” or “_Dallas_ is starting!”). “Secret hosts” are hired by companies to go around surreptitiously selling their friends products within everyday conversations. And everything—from birth to love to death—is monetized and monopolized by one gigantic corporation and its subsidiaries: LoveStar.

All of this, it bears noting, is just prologue and backdrop to the novel’s main focus: such is the sheer density of the world that Andri Snær creates within just the first few chapters. There are two main plots that overlap, somewhat achronologically. One follows the executive LoveStar himself in the last hours of his life (Andri Snær has likened the character to Steve Jobs; another reviewer saw Kári Stefánson, the founder of deCODE Genetics). The other plot follows the repeatedly thwarted attempts of a young couple, Indridi and Sigrid, trying to evade the corporate machinations that would break them apart from one another and re-pair them with their supposedly scientifically verifiable perfect partner.

There is a lot going on—arguably a little too much, as some of the larger themes get somewhat lost in the sweep of the (literally) explosive climax, or are, in some cases, grandly dramatized, but done so with little finesse. Though overall, it’s compulsively readable, due in great part to Andri Snær’s kooky creativity and the novel’s simple, straightforward style of prose (credit here to translator Victoria Cribb, who has translated, among others, three novels by Sjón and Gyrðir Elíasson’s Stone Tree).

Read today—in the wake of not only myriad technological advances, but also a worldwide financial meltdown the consequences of which were profoundly felt in Iceland, and will continue to be so for probably decades to come— LoveStar feels a bit like cracking open a time capsule. Its world is poised on the edge of implosion, held in check by only the tiniest bit of better judgement. “If we don’t do it,” LoveStar remarks before embarking on one last, ruinous power quest, “someone else will.”

29 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad, translated by Deborah Dawkin

Language: Norwegian

Country: Norway
Publisher: Seven Stories Press

Why This Book Should Win: Reasons 1-5 listed below.

_Today’s post is by Larissa Kyzer, a regular reviewer for Three Percent and L Magazine. She has an interest in all things Scandinavian, which is one reason why it makes sense that she’d be writing about this book.

When we meet 29-year-old Mattias, the narrator of Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, he is happy and satisfied with his life. He loves his girlfriend, Helle, who he has dated for twelve years. He loves his job as a gardener at a local nursery—so much that he often comes in early to just sit in the quiet of the garden alone. Idolizing Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, Mattias only wants to “be a smooth running cog in the world. To do the right thing. Nothing more.” Instead of seeking recognition for his talents (he’s a wonderful singer, for instance) or trying to distinguish himself in an impressive career, Mattias instead hopes to blend into the background, “to vanish into the commotion out there, to be number two, a person who made himself useful instead of trying to stand out, who did the job he was asked to do.”

The simplicity of Mattias’ world is upended in short order, however, when Helle leaves him for another man (someone who “wanted to be seen in the world”), and he loses his job at the now-bankrupt nursery. Depressed and hopeless, he follows his friend’s band to a music festival on the Faroe Islands. The next thing he remembers is waking up face down in the rain, in the middle of a dirt road in the Faroe countryside, with 15,000 kroner in his pocket.

Norwegian author Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? was, without a doubt, one of the best books I read last year. Won over almost immediately by just the title, I picked up the book on a whim and then spent the next few days delightedly underlining each wonderful sentence or clever bit of dialog until I realized that if I didn’t stop, I’d soon have underlined the whole book. As I read it, I talked about the book incessantly, reading bits aloud in bars, and generally recommending it to every third person I met on the street. The book is extremely well written, it’s funny, and it’s affecting without being trite. But as is so often the case with books that I’ve truly loved, it’s hard to go back and objectively critique it. What’s easier—and more fun—is to give you a short list of reasons that Buzz Aldrin is a fantastic book that you should go read now, and a great contender for this year’s BTBA:

1. It’s wonderfully written. Johan Harstad is an incredible prose stylist who pays particular attention to natural details. (All due credit to translator Deborah Dawkin that the language reads so fluidly.) Harstad has a knack for intermixing delightfully odd observations (“Tuesday. The week’s most superfluous day.”) with fantastically long, melodic trains-of-thought which fully immerse you in Mattias’ perspective. The opening paragraph of the book has a great example of this:

I bend over the tulips, gloves on my feet, small pruning shears between my fingers, it’s extremely early, one April morning in 1999 and it’s beginning to grow warmer, I’ve noticed it recently, a certain something has begun to stir, I noticed it as I got out of the car this morning, in the gray light, as I opened the gates into the nursery, the air had grown softer, more rounded at the edges, I’d even considered changing out of my winter boots and putting my sneakers on.

2. The Faroe Island Setting: A write-up in Kirkus Reviews embarrassingly referred to Buzz Aldrin as “the long-awaited Great Faroese Novel,” by which they probably meant not to discredit the brilliant (and actually Faroese) novels by William Heinesen, but rather to point out that the Faroe Island setting is as much a character in this book as any of the people. As described by Harstad, the Faroese landscape is not only evocative and otherworldly, it also provides an important counterpoint for Mattias’ isolationist worldview. There are less than 50,000 people living on the Faroe Islands, so it’s impossible to blend into the background as Mattias would like. As he comes to realize, “ . . . for each person that died, there was one less inhabitant, one less person to meet on the road, one less person who spoke the same language.”

3. The Cardigans: Never has a book paid better homage to this Swedish pop band (you know you loved them, too). One of the book’s main characters listens exclusively to albums by The Cardigans because “. . . everything I need is in this band.” Also, each of the book’s four sections is named after a different Cardigans album. (Funnily enough, Harstad said in an interview that he isn’t really a big fan himself. “I chose the band because I couldn’t figure out who would love such a band.”)

4. The Cultural Collage: Harstad brings together a variety of historical and cultural reference points (beyond The Cardigans)—from Radiohead and Top Gun to the unsolved murder of Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme, the start of Bosnian War, the Chernobyl disaster, and the Challenger space ship explosion—not just to prove his zeitgeisty prowess, but also to create a fully contextual background for his characters and their general sense of unease and displacement. The main action of the book takes place between the mid-eighties and late nineties—not so long ago, and yet, long enough to be able to reflect back now on what a unsettling couple of decades it was.

5. The Epic Thor Heyerdahl-esque Escape: Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian adventurer and anthropologist who sailed roughly 8,000 km from Peru to Polynesia on a homemade raft (the Kon-Tiki) in 1947. After a particularly unexpected plot development, Mattias and his companions make a similar voyage from The Faroe Islands to the Caribbean. It’s awesome.

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