28 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Tiffany Nichols on Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin, translated by Patsy Southgate, published by New Directions.

There’s some kind of summer flu-plague bug going around at the office here, so we’re short on humor and personal anecdotes. Also, Rochester is a city of downpours and flash flooding and even road-caving today, so it’s a great day to cut all pretense and just read about reading books. Here’s the beginning of Tiffany’s review:

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had in our 20s, while still bearing a literary feel that is more thought provoking than The Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps this is why Patti Smith, as described in the introduction, carried around the work in her travels for so many years.

Astragal begins in a disruptive and disjointed style, evolving into a tragic love story and ending with the empowering breakup. The anti-heroine, Anne, escapes from prison only to injure her ankle after jumping from the prison wall. From there she crawls to the road, where she is picked up by a criminal, Julien, and taken to a defunct brothel on the outskirts of Paris run by Nini and Nini’s boyfriend, partners in crime. The longer Anne is in hiding the more necrotic her leg becomes, until she is eventually taken to the hospital by Nini, who poses as Anne’s sister to prevent recognition of Anne as the escapee. After numerous surgeries, Anne’s ankle bones are fused together resulting in a painful recovery and a permanent limp. This ankle injury, as you likely guessed, is a subtext for the innocence and often forgotten things in life that can cause inflated problems in our lives, i.e., prison, but once we overcome or move past them, they revert back to their innocent state—except now there is a residual existence manifested through memory and paranoia of their return.

For the rest of the review, go here.

28 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had in our 20s, while still bearing a literary feel that is more thought provoking than The Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps this is why Patti Smith, as described in the introduction, carried around the work in her travels for so many years.

Astragal begins in a disruptive and disjointed style, evolving into a tragic love story and ending with the empowering breakup. The anti-heroine, Anne, escapes from prison only to injure her ankle after jumping from the prison wall. From there she crawls to the road, where she is picked up by a criminal, Julien, and taken to a defunct brothel on the outskirts of Paris run by Nini and Nini’s boyfriend, partners in crime. The longer Anne is in hiding the more necrotic her leg becomes, until she is eventually taken to the hospital by Nini, who poses as Anne’s sister to prevent recognition of Anne as the escapee. After numerous surgeries, Anne’s ankle bones are fused together resulting in a painful recovery and a permanent limp. This ankle injury, as you likely guessed, is a subtext for the innocence and often forgotten things in life that can cause inflated problems in our lives, i.e., prison, but once we overcome or move past them, they revert back to their innocent state—except now there is a residual existence manifested through memory and paranoia of their return.

Of course Anne falls in love with Julien, who, of course, leaves often without any notice or indication of when he will return. The reader quickly gets a sense that Julien is involved in some form of smuggling and burglary, but always wins women through lascivious gifts so they will overlook the details of his existence.

Anne, as expected, waits around a little too long and cares a little too much about Julien, causing her to withstand the prison-like conditions Julien has placed her in. That is, Anne has broken out of one prison only to willingly admit herself into a second created by Julien. To add fuel to the fire, the people she imposes on are only deferential when Julien is away or when Anne provides money. As Anne describes,

I realize that my hosts feel a greedy sort of servility toward him, hidden under their friendly tone of complicity, poised between the two extremes of respect for the guy who knows how to steal, and condescension for the guy you’re doing a favor for.

Eventually Julien is apprehended by the law and Anne is able to rediscover freedom, although through a man she is not attracted to and which she uses to hide the fruits of her own resorts to burglary.

You have probably encountered slightly different versions of this story before, but Astragal is worth the re-exploration for Sarrazin’s frank yet poetical prose and lens of a life that cannot be led by the faint of heart. Astragal would not exist if it were not for Sarrazin’s tumultuous life. Like the characters, she was young, imprisoned, and died at 29 due to a botched surgery. (Is anyone reminded of Clarice?)

As Patty Smith explains in her introduction, Astragal easily becomes a travel companion not only for its familiar love story, but also for its honesty on the daily life of someone hypersensitive to their relationship and also to physical pain, and who is now only identified by that relationship or pain.

Due to the focus on slightly seedy characters living under the radar of the law, there is also something scandalous and addictive about Astragal. The reader is left to wonder why Anne never tries to escape from Julien’s arranged prisons or his life of crime. However, Sarrazin counters these feelings by leading the reader through Anne’s growth and maturation—“Little by little, I get organized, I have a steady income, shopping lists . . .” Despite maturity, Astragal leaves us to wonder whether we are all imprisoned through our loves and relationships.

14 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Tiffany Nichols on César Aira’s Conversations, translated by Katherine Silver and out from New Directions.

After a wild World Cup of Literature ride, what better way to wind down or frustrations or victorious cries than to talk about them (or bite each other over them)? And because I lack the attention span to get all existential and tie the title of Conversations to something deep and meaningful—and because I happen to have a bit more self dignity than usual today: just look at the brightly colored word bubbles bleeding into each other. Aren’t you mesmerized?

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Tiffany’s review:

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a uniquely bogus set of facts that feels as realistic as waking up each morning and going to work, despite their fantastical and unrealistic qualities.

The protagonist opens the work by telling us that he entertains himself by remembering the daily conversations he has had with his friends. Each night, he relives those conversations while drifting off to sleep. His life goal is focused on engaging in a level of conversation that is “consistently high” to the point of obsession, leaving the reader truly concerned for his mental health.

Once the protagonist’s world is established, Aira dives into a conversation between the protagonist and his friend about a movie shown on television. The ones “they show on cable channels without commercial interruptions” prevents the viewer time to run to the restroom or kitchen, resulting in voids in the story lines which are imperative to the plot of the forgettable film. From here, the protagonist has a debate over the film starring a poor man with a Rolex watch. The protagonist’s position is that the Rolex is an atrocity to the realism of the film, while the friend argues that this is merely a minor point to be ignored. The friend posits that the protagonist should just suspend reality. Of course, this is an impossibility to the protagonist since conversations and their accuracy are of the utmost importance to him.

For the rest of the piece, go here.

14 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a uniquely bogus set of facts that feels as realistic as waking up each morning and going to work, despite their fantastical and unrealistic qualities.

The protagonist opens the work by telling us that he entertains himself by remembering the daily conversations he has had with his friends. Each night, he relives those conversations while drifting off to sleep. His life goal is focused on engaging in a level of conversation that is “consistently high” to the point of obsession, leaving the reader truly concerned for his mental health.

Once the protagonist’s world is established, Aira dives into a conversation between the protagonist and his friend about a movie shown on television. The ones “they show on cable channels without commercial interruptions” prevents the viewer time to run to the restroom or kitchen, resulting in voids in the story lines which are imperative to the plot of the forgettable film. From here, the protagonist has a debate over the film starring a poor man with a Rolex watch. The protagonist’s position is that the Rolex is an atrocity to the realism of the film, while the friend argues that this is merely a minor point to be ignored. The friend posits that the protagonist should just suspend reality. Of course, this is an impossibility to the protagonist since conversations and their accuracy are of the utmost importance to him.

In typical Aira style, we go from hyper-intellectual propositions to absurdly hilarious arguments of “logic” that are deeply rooted in the protagonist’s psyche. For example, a view of the protagonist’s reaction to the friend’s view of the film:

[I]f he did not understand the difference between the actor and the character in a movie, he was an imbecile. And if he was an imbecile, I had no choice but to lose all intellectual respect for him, and which was worse, it meant that our conversations were wiped out as far as everyone about them that was good and gratifying for me. . . . In order to appreciate the magnitude of my disappointment, I should explain just how important conversations are for me. At this stage of my life, they have become the single most important thing. I have allowed them to occupy this privileged position, and have cultivated them as a raison d’être, almost like my life work. They constitute my only worthwhile occupation, and I have devoted myself to enhance their value, treasuring them through their reconstruction and miniaturization on my secret nocturnal alter. Hence, if I lose the day, I also lose the night.

From here, the novella quickly strays from “reality” and into a further level of Aira’s imagination without the reader noticing—also typical Aira. As more and more facts of the cable movie are described between the protagonist and his friend, and the protagonist continues to present bias comments of his allegedly correct interpretation of the facts, the reader suddenly finds himself watching the movie. Here the novella has shifted from the conversation to the action of the film. The film itself is incredibly unrealistic [other world being, toxic algae, secret caves, CIA] but somehow seems more realistic than the conversation among the friends. Perhaps Aira makes this shift to allow the reader to choose which party has the correct interpretation, or Aira is playing a game with the reader on the boundaries of reality. Adding to the seamless commingling of the conversation and the movie events are the protagonist’s concessions to what he maybe missed when taking a break himself. The protagonist eventually admits: “All you had to do was blink and you were lost.” Here Aira causes the reader to ponder whether the exploration of the unrealistic sheds light onto reality.

As for the translation itself, Conversations is another Aira brought to us through Katherine Silver. Her translation is beautifully composed in that I often forgot that I was reading a translation, and instead felt as if I were navigating Aira’s inner most thoughts at the point of their conception. What is particularly interesting about this translation is the premise of the text—each person can take a set of facts and interpret them differently based on their perception. So one is left to wonder whether this happened in the translation of the text from Spanish to English. I believe this question is exactly what Aira was going for, i.e., the reader should now perceive the world in a way that leaves them to question the thoughts and ideas they missed resulting in variations of interpretation. But, isn’t this inquiry an inherent byproduct of translation? “Everything is fiction. . . . Or: everything is reality. Which is the same thing.”

In closing, I agree with Owen Rowe’s statement, “An Aira novel is characterized by an intellectual obsession, usually with some abstract concept,” appearing in the last Three Percent Aira Review. Everyone has a lens through which he or she perceives the world and Aira expertly exploits this fact in each of his works.

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.

3 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor has been repeatedly described as kafkaesque, which strikes a chord in many individuals, causing them to run to the bookstore in the middle of the night to be consumed by surreal situations that no one really experiences in their day-to-day life. After reading Stalin is Dead, I was troubled by this descriptor. Yes, Stalin is Dead contains numerous surreal situations, but they are not surreal within the familiar systems, such as a governmental system, of Kafka’s works. Stalin is Dead is more along the lines of the surreal absurdities of Clarice Lispector. I only mention this because while there is overlap between those who love Lispector and those who love Kafka, these individuals will be equally bothered and distracted from the text of Stalin is Dead due to the preconditions invoked by the kafkaesque descriptor.

Coming to this conclusion, it was not so surprising to realize that the subtitle—“Stories and aphorisms on animals, poets, and other earthly creatures“—is a better means of setting the context in which Stalin is Dead was likely intended to be consumed. The stories and aphorisms can be organized by daily observations in life, smug views of payback, and shock flash fiction—not the familiar backdrops of Kafka.

To add to the disorienting nature of the work, Rachel Shihor has placed Hebrew characters throughout the work to intentionally distract from the text. In these vignettes, she forms pictures and depicts word play with Hebrew characters that is both delightful and baffling at the same time. In some instances the characters are overlapped to the point of being illegible, they are also arranged to mimic the subject of a piece within the work, and they are also used to describe various word and character play only possible with Hebrew characters. However, these playful tricks would not be understood without the “Notes of Typograms” at the end of the text.

As you probably guessed, there were portions of this work that I did not understand and I will likely die trying to understand. Isn’t that what most authors want from a reader? An unabashed and perverse desire to attempt to understand their work? An example of this dichotomy between the delightfully thought-provoking and the frustratingly confusing can be seen in the two following excerpts from the work:

“I Left a Bad Impression”

I left a bad impression, definitely a bad impression, on the patrons of the Munich Opera House when they were listening to Judith Triumphant. And I didn’t even have to make an effort. The severed head was enough.

“Spiders”

When I looked the spider in the face I realized that despite his bone-chilling cruelty and despite him dedicating his life to capturing smaller helpless animals, his traps provoke wonder in the eyes of all who behold them.

I looked in his face again and saw a tiny moustache.

From reading the Conversational Reading interview (http://conversationalreading.com/the-rachel-shihor-interview/[conversationalreading.com]) with Rachel Shihor, I know that she sees animals as a reflection of society, but I am left scratching my head about the tiny “moustache” faces. A google search of “spider faces” was wholly unhelpful.

In closing, the genius of Rachel Shihor is fully realized in what was understandable and will be realized in the years to come in what I am still trying to grasp. The ability to induce epiphanies through revisits to a work is what literature is about. The only other author whom I am aware of who is greatly loved for her repeated deliberate inducement of confusion during an entire lifetime is Lispector herself.

28 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Tiffany Nichols on A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson, translated by Charlotte Barslund and out from Other Press.

This is Bengtsson’s third novel, though his first published in English—the book is actually already available from House of Anansi Press in Canada, but they’ve teamed up with the wonderful Other Press to bring the book even further in its English Travels.

Here’s the beginning of Tiffany’s review:

It is destined that we will all become our parents. Some try to avoid it while others embrace the metamorphosis. Either way, it never fails— children eventually become their parents. A Fairy Tale is a psychological novel told through day-to-day activities that appear mostly normal from the narrator’s point of view and explores this exact phenomenon.

bq The novel is told in two parts: life with a runaway yet resourceful father through the eyes of his son, a child less than 10 years of age, and then the life of that son who, as an adult, attempts to avoid becoming this father through detachment from his former life. The novel follows this unnamed father and son on a journey through Denmark, mostly in Copenhagen. At first glance the pair’s numerous relocations seem innocuous, but when a closer look is taken, the reader will notice strange aspects of this transient family situation. Most apparent being the descriptions of the living conditions of the father-son pair and the mature aspects of life to which the father exposes the son, but never the relationship between the two.

After numerous rebellious actions are taken by the father to sabotage any semblance of stability, the father-son relationship is effectively destroyed when the father attempts to assassinate a well-regarded politician of the common people of Denmark. This action leads to a separation of father and son, and marks the end of the first half of the novel with no fuss, akin to the closing of a store by merely flipping the “open” sign to “closed.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

28 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

It is destined that we will all become our parents. Some try to avoid it while others embrace the metamorphosis. Either way, it never fails— children eventually become their parents. A Fairy Tale is a psychological novel told through day-to-day activities that appear mostly normal from the narrator’s point of view and explores this exact phenomenon.

The novel is told in two parts: life with a runaway yet resourceful father through the eyes of his son, a child less than 10 years of age, and then the life of that son who, as an adult, attempts to avoid becoming this father through detachment from his former life. The novel follows this unnamed father and son on a journey through Denmark, mostly in Copenhagen. At first glance the pair’s numerous relocations seem innocuous, but when a closer look is taken, the reader will notice strange aspects of this transient family situation. Most apparent being the descriptions of the living conditions of the father-son pair and the mature aspects of life to which the father exposes the son, but never the relationship between the two.

After numerous rebellious actions are taken by the father to sabotage any semblance of stability, the father-son relationship is effectively destroyed when the father attempts to assassinate a well-regarded politician of the common people of Denmark. This action leads to a separation of father and son, and marks the end of the first half of the novel with no fuss, akin to the closing of a store by merely flipping the “open” sign to “closed.”

In the second half of A Fairy Tale, the son is placed with his estranged mother and the father falls from the prose as if he never existed. After several socially awkward attempts to find inclusion within a non-transient society, the son reemerges under a fake identity (now Turkish instead of Danish), plants roots, and finds love. However, this arrangement is impermanent since, to bring us full circle, we all inevitably become our parents.

A Fairy Tale is addictive in the way it slowly progresses while preventing the reader from moving to another novel. It’s probably the strength of the father-son relationship with the combination of questionable life decisions on behalf of the father. As Javier Marías posed in The Infatuations, it is not necessarily the plot, but rather the experience the reader has while progressing through the plot that should be the focus of a novel. However, once the novel is completed, all we hold in our memories is that simple plot. A Fairy Tale is a direct example of this proposition.

The novel is also compelling for showing the dark side of seemingly normally things—the city of Copenhagen, theater shows, gardening—and its showing of the bright side of things that are normally seen in their darkest light—strip clubs, shoplifting, and mental institutions. The work is also carefully paced by short chapters and controlled prose that almost makes this nomadic anti-socialized life as normal as a cup of coffee with the newspaper every morning.

This is a worthy introduction of Jonas T. Bengtsson to the English audience. Those drawn to Updike’s Rabbit Series and who have traveled to Denmark and Sweden and appreciate the European collective society will gravitate to A Fairy Tale because it has the underlying rebellious spirit that does not often bubble to the surface in such a collective environment.

5 November 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Tiffany Nichols on Victor Rodríguez Núñez’s Every Heart is a Telescope, from Toad Press.

Here’s a bit about Toad Press from their blog site: “The Toad Press International Chapbook Series publishes contemporary, exciting, beautiful, odd, and avant-garde chapbook-length translations of poetry and prose.” They have a couple handfuls of great chapbooks for everyone to look into—and some great chapbook deals as well!

Here’s a bit from Tiffany’s review of this compact yet powerful chapbook of poems:

Poetry always has the feel of mysticism and mystery, or maybe this feeling is a stereotype left over from high school literature class. It is generally the result of confusion, lack of time committed to consuming the poetry, and the general difficulty poetry imposes on the reader.

In Víctor Rodríguez Núñez’s collection, Every Good Heart is a Telescope, he elevates the mysticism and mystery of poetry through people, events, and experiences that we can be begin to understand tangibly through the use of metaphors relating to science, mathematics, inventorship, and space phenomena. Such imagery is equally as mystical and mysterious as poetry itself, but almost everyone has been consumed by science, mathematics, inventorship, or space at some point in their lives, most often during childhood. The reader will immediately become refamiliarized with their dreams of the yesteryear through Núñez’s love affair with the heavens, metaphysics, alchemy, and our unbounded universe.

For the rest of the review, go here.

5 November 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Poetry always has the feel of mysticism and mystery, or maybe this feeling is a stereotype left over from high school literature class. It is generally the result of confusion, lack of time committed to consuming the poetry, and the general difficulty poetry imposes on the reader.

In Víctor Rodríguez Núñez’s collection, Every Good Heart is a Telescope, he elevates the mysticism and mystery of poetry through people, events, and experiences that we can be begin to understand tangibly through the use of metaphors relating to science, mathematics, inventorship, and space phenomena. Such imagery is equally as mystical and mysterious as poetry itself, but almost everyone has been consumed by science, mathematics, inventorship, or space at some point in their lives, most often during childhood. The reader will immediately become refamiliarized with their dreams of the yesteryear through Núñez’s love affair with the heavens, metaphysics, alchemy, and our unbounded universe.

As an example, my favorite in the collection is a poem entitled Hypothesis, describing admiration through great mathematicians and scientists, including the likes of Ptolemy, Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, Kant, and Hegel:

Ptolemy thought
the world was like certain women’s eyes
A sphere of wet crystal
where each star traces a perfect orbit
with no passion
          tide or catastrophe

Copernicus came along
wise man who traded breasts for doves
cosines for fright
and the sun’s pupil became the center of the universe
while Giordano Bruno crackled
to the delight of husbands and priests

Then Galileo
probing deeply into young girls’ hearts
shipwrecked on good wine
—light gathered up by sun—
he raped stars that weren’t from the movies
and before dying on a comet’s tail
he declared love to be infinite

Kant in turn knew nothing of women
prisoner in a butterfly of calculations
in metaphysical pollen
and for Hegel
          so abstract
the problem was excessively absolute

As for me
          I propose to the twentieth century
a simple hypothesis
critics will call romantic
Oh young girl who reads this poem
the world revolves around you

Each of Núñez’s poems has similar patterns to that reflected above; they are each fleeting at first glance, but upon a second, third, fourth read, they are universal and infinite in reach. This is partly due to his reliance on images pulled from science, mathematics, philosophy, and metaphysics, each of which have the same unbounded aura. This is also a result of Núñez’s continual practice of directly addressing the reader in his poems. This technique causes each poem to become intimate in a way that I have rarely encountered in poetry.

In Vincent Francone’s Three Percent review of Of Flies and Monkeys, Francone states “a poet needs to involve me in the process of reading the poem, in short: craft is not enough.” Núñez meets and surpasses Fracone’s requirement—he does not use his craft as a crutch, and instead supplements his skill by requiring the reader to be alert, to become engrossed, and most importantly, not to forget the collection after only reading it once. My sole criticism of the volume is that I wish the original Spanish text were included alongside the English translation. Despite this, I will never look at the stars again without thinking of Núñez’s poetry.

6 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is from Tiffany Nichols on Patrick Roth’s Starlite Terrace, from Seagull Books.

Tiffany also reviews literature in translation for the San Francisco and Sacramento Book Reviews and runs the mouthwatering food porn and book-geeking Tumblr blog tiffany ist. Here’s the beginning of her review:

Every fictional work set in L.A. begins with a slow crawl through its streets in the early hours of the morning right after sunrise. Maybe it’s always done this way to emphasize the vast sprawl of the city and highlight the loneliness of its inhabitants, or maybe it’s intended to emphasize that L.A., like New York, is only quiet from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. Starlite Terrace is no different. So sit back, relax, and cruise around the streets of Sherman Oaks and Hollywood with no purpose or direction.

Starlite Terrace provides no new insights about L.A. or literary fiction, but its redeeming quality is that it seems to be a poetic extension of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, featuring analogous characters in their twilight years who were in their prime in the 50s and 60s instead of the 70s and 80s. These characters are as alone and lost as the ones of Less Than Zero, but more attached to reality—probably due to old age.

The work consists of four short stories related by loneliness and despair featuring a cast of residents living in the same apartment complex under the same name as the work. This collection of stories explores the lives of four respective residents through observations and interactions with other neighbors in the apartment complex. Like any apartment complex, the phenomena where neighbors who know the most about you are the ones you speak to the least holds true in Starlite Terrace. The first and last stories in the collection, which focus on loneliness and ill-formed memories based on illusion, frame the inner two stories concerning despair and taking desperate measures to find and attempt to win back lost loved ones.

For the rest of the review, go here.

6 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Every fictional work set in L.A. begins with a slow crawl through its streets in the early hours of the morning right after sunrise. Maybe it’s always done this way to emphasize the vast sprawl of the city and highlight the loneliness of its inhabitants, or maybe it’s intended to emphasize that L.A., like New York, is only quiet from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. Starlite Terrace is no different. So sit back, relax, and cruise around the streets of Sherman Oaks and Hollywood with no purpose or direction.

Starlite Terrace provides no new insights about L.A. or literary fiction, but its redeeming quality is that it seems to be a poetic extension of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, featuring analogous characters in their twilight years who were in their prime in the 50s and 60s instead of the 70s and 80s. These characters are as alone and lost as the ones of Less Than Zero, but more attached to reality—probably due to old age.

The work consists of four short stories related by loneliness and despair featuring a cast of residents living in the same apartment complex under the same name as the work. This collection of stories explores the lives of four respective residents through observations and interactions with other neighbors in the apartment complex. Like any apartment complex, the phenomena where neighbors who know the most about you are the ones you speak to the least holds true in Starlite Terrace. The first and last stories in the collection, which focus on loneliness and ill-formed memories based on illusion, frame the inner two stories concerning despair and taking desperate measures to find and attempt to win back lost loved ones.

“The Man at Noah’s Window” concerns Rex, a regular at Noah’s Deli near the apartment complex, who is trying to find substance in his life based on a myth that his father’s hands were used as a stand-in for Gary Cooper’s in High Noon. However, when Rex passes away and the narrator views the film searching for a hand double, he finds no evidence that one was ever used.

“Solar Eclipse” focuses on a father, Moss, who contemplates hiring a hit on his runaway wife, only to be preempted when the hit man is killed at the planned rendezvous point the day before they were to exchange funds.

“Rider on the Storm,” the most disturbing, focuses on Gary, who attempts to track down his lost love after obtaining a gun, only to throw himself into a fire at an L.A. party.

“The Woman in the Sea of Stars” provides murky closure to the collection. June, a collector of wedding gowns who never remarried, randomly reconnects with a relative of her estranged grandfather the day before her 70th birthday. June calls an impromptu celebration that quickly turns macabre when she throws the ashes of her estranged grandfather into the swimming pool of the apartment complex then dives into the water beneath the ashes.

The atmosphere of the novel does have that German Expressionist, early Hollywood noir feel. It is enhanced by Roth’s fleeting references to the German art community that migrated to Hollywood to develop early noir cinema in the 20s and 30s. He also relies heavily on noir film elements such as flashbacks, an unidentified narrator, and characters who are living undesired lives and fulfilling predetermined destinies to progress through the chain of stories.

However, the references to old Hollywood may start to wear on the reader. Therefore, when navigating through this work, brush up on your Hollywood history as it is heavily relied upon and used almost like an additional character in the work. These references are almost to the point of nostalgic reminiscing, leading one to believe that the author has a minor obsession or past with old Hollywood. The references are so plentiful that they might come off as a crutch or some form of intellectual pretension to readers who are not attuned to this time period in L.A:

They say Marilyn1 gazed longingly out her third-floor window every night, that orphanage window on ElCentro, looking across at the illuminated ball. The RJO ball, I mean, the globe over by the corner of Gower and Melrose. It’s still there. In those days, the RKO ball was always lit up at light. Little Marilyn hitched her dream to that ball as she looked out her window, into the light—her dream of being a movie star. Like Jean Harlow.

. . .

I remembered that cemetery on whose sloes D.W. Griffith had shot the Civil War scenes in his silent Birth of a Nation, and realized that, from there, you could see clear across to Burbank. And in the mid-fifties, down below along Pass Avenue, just a stone’s throw from where today the Ventura Freeway cuts through, was the Columbia Rand, with Hadleyville, the town in High Noon, in which Rex’s father was supposed to have served as Cooper’s hand double.

Despite the reliance on esoteric references to the Hollywood of yore and the slow crawling prose (imagine coastal fog slowly rolling over the Hollywood Hills from Santa Monica), the reader will be drawn in either for the all-American allure of all things Hollywood and L.A., despite being a novice of the subject, or by Roth’s ability to slowly and deliberately build a monotonously complex community in such a brief collection of short stories. The reader’s payoff in completing the book is the appreciation for their own relationships, preventing them from being removed and isolated from society like the characters in Starlite Terrace.

1 This is Marilyn as in Marilyn Monroe.

8 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Tiffany Nichols on Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories by Santiago Roncagliolo, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman and published by Two Lines Press.

Tiffany, who is relatively new to the Three Percent contributors’ club, is an avid reader of literature in translation and runs the mouthwatering food porn and book-geeking Tumblr blog tiffany ist.

Here’s a bit from Tiffany’s review:

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 could have not been more wrong. Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories makes no direct mention of religion or evil, instead consisting of four dark short stories, each focusing on isolation and detachment. What draws the reader to the characters of this work is that each of us has analyzed such a withdrawn individual in ourselves, or in another, with gross curiosity and misunderstanding.

The first story, “Hi This Is Conchita,” is a collection of telephone conversations, unrelated at first, but which over time magically and seamlessly come together to reveal a social network of underlying love, deceit, and irony among the callers. The conversations are stripped of all literary fluff, leaving only the dialog exchanged on the line. One conversation involves an obsessive-compulsive phone sex customer who cannot reach climax due to his concern of the placement of a green filing cabinet in the office in which he secretly makes the calls. Another conversation concerns an ex-boyfriend who obsessively counts the most mundane things about his past relationship on his ex-girlfriend’s answering machine, trying to attribute these tallies to meaning in their failed relationship. The third conversation concerns a customer who uses a customer service line as his only daily form of human contact. The last focuses on a hit man who falls in love with his target, only to find that he has misidentified the target after it is too late.

8 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

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 could have not been more wrong. Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories makes no direct mention of religion or evil, instead consisting of four dark short stories, each focusing on isolation and detachment. What draws the reader to the characters of this work is that each of us has analyzed such a withdrawn individual in ourselves, or in another, with gross curiosity and misunderstanding.

The first story, “Hi This Is Conchita,” is a collection of telephone conversations, unrelated at first, but which over time magically and seamlessly come together to reveal a social network of underlying love, deceit, and irony among the callers. The conversations are stripped of all literary fluff, leaving only the dialog exchanged on the line. One conversation involves an obsessive-compulsive phone sex customer who cannot reach climax due to his concern of the placement of a green filing cabinet in the office in which he secretly makes the calls. Another conversation concerns an ex-boyfriend who obsessively counts the most mundane things about his past relationship on his ex-girlfriend’s answering machine, trying to attribute these tallies to meaning in their failed relationship. The third conversation concerns a customer who uses a customer service line as his only daily form of human contact. The last focuses on a hit man who falls in love with his target, only to find that he has misidentified the target after it is too late.

“Despoiler,” the second story in the collection, is an intriguing and atypical example of fabulism where Carmen, an isolated women crossing the right of passage of turning forty, is reacquainted with the beloved stuffed animals of her childhood in human form during Carnival. Of course, these animals appear to be adults in costume, but as we all learned at a young age—looks, especially when masks are involved, can be deceiving.

The third and probably most disturbing story, “Butterflies Fastened With Pins,” is a compendium of individuals who have committed suicide and whom the narrator has encountered. What is most troubling about the recollection of the suicides is how detached the narrator is from the victims, but how vividly he is able to describe everyone else’s personal reactions to the suicides and their aftermath. The narrator always remains detached, calculated, and controlled in descriptions of the facts surrounding the suicides, but provides an almost poetic account of how the other observers succumb to grief, misunderstanding of death, and inability to cope with the suicides.

The collection closes with “The Passenger Beside You.” Although “Butterflies” was the most disturbing, “Passenger” is by far the most eerie in the collection. In this account, Roncagliolo explores a corpse’s last moment of intimacy during a final examination by a medical examiner mechanically performing his job function. What is most unnatural about the account is how closely the reader will experience these last moments of intimacy from the perspective of the corpse. The corpse narrator vividly describes the methodical carefulness of the medical examiner’s touch, starting from the outside surface of the body and moving to his calculated exploration inside the corpse’s body. The progression will cause you to shudder, but will also leave you almost invigorated and intrigued by the intimate connection between the corpse and her detached examiner.

Roncagliolo is an incredibly gifted storyteller who is able to execute many writing styles, as evidenced in the shock thriller Red April and the delicate and sensual exploration of the relationships between the connected and detached in Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stores. In each of these works, Roncagliolo reminds us that, although we are isolated by default, we are all connected to each other in some way. For this reason, in addition to Roncagliolo’s partnership with the translator, Edith Grossman, I urge everyone to actively follow the presence of Roncagliolo’s work in the English (and Spanish) language.

20 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Joseph Walser’s Machine by Gonçalo Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil and published by Dalkey Archive Press

This piece is by avid reader of literature in translation Tiffany Nichols, who runs this Tumblr account.

Gonçalo M. Tavares continues to be the master of allegorical fiction. Here, in Joseph Walser’s Machine, the hands, machines, and the desire for normalcy within an unnamed city are the images of modernity in response to war.

Joseph Wasler, a generic machine operator, conducts his life with order and precision until one day his sleeve is caught in the machine he has been operating for years, resulting in the loss of his index finger. The first reaction to this event is the apparent betrayal by the machine that Wasler has grown to know more intimately than his wife. The last reaction is the importance of the index finger, which was lost in this fleeting moment of distraction, in controlling the weapons of war and human destruction—guns. As Wasler’s boss, whom has a greater intimacy with Wasler’s wife than Wasler himself, states:

It’s the finger that pulls the trigger, the finger that’s essential for shooting . . . [the machine] took from you your most useful finger, the one that shoots, the finger that performs a final contraction just before someone in front of you disappears. The machines were mocking you, my dear fellow. We should be wary of the machines, I’ve told that before. Their malice is far too precise. We’ll never be able to achieve anything like that, ourselves.

This conclusion shows the area of Tavares mastery in storytelling—irony which is only obvious after Tavares decides to reveal it to the reader. Tavares has the innate ability to provide the typical triumphal human response, but shows how it is epically flawed by the larger world. Here, when Walser lost his index finger, shortly thereafter, he found a metal ring to add to his collection of metal (or discarded machine parts). After careful measurements, “research,” and recordation, Wasler concluded that the metal ring was a part of a machine, precisely a gun, that would never be able to fire again because Wasler held an essential piece of its body. In this Wasler found his own resistance to the war occurring around him—disabling machines through collection of their essential parts. However, it is never confirmed whether the ring did in fact come from gun. All Wasler knows is its size and that a women found it in a doorway of her building.

It is not until the end that Tavares reminds us that the index finger is the most essential part of the human body in times of war, as it is the only appendage that can pull the trigger leading to a readily noticeable and permanent mark by an individual in the mist of the attempt maintain normalcy despite the random and often secretive causalities of war. It is here at the end of the tale, that Tavares breaks the reader’s concentration and focus on the machines, with their interchangeable parts able to continue on despite their operators being injured in the process of their operation—similar to war—and reminds us that humans instead house the most effective means to perpetuate or disable a war—our own index fingers.

This precise capture of the inter-workings of human behavior and thought and their interaction and undue attributed importance of machines will lead to conversations and discourse for years to come. Each Tavares novel encountered will create such a response.

....
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