18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Some time in the past I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen. Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers. (Finland-Estonia, Grove/Black Cat)

In terms of the book itself, I don’t have a lot to add to Larissa’s perceptive review. But to tie this particular post back into the actual WPR “Here On Earth” conversation that sparked this sporadic series of posts, I have to post a picture of Sofi, aka, the “woman with the most amazing hair.” (I feel like I must’ve mentioned this a half-dozen times during that interview . . . it was like my verbal crutch of the moment . . .):

I finally met Sofi at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and really enjoyed talking with her. I say “finally” because I was supposed to meet her at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival last fall, but she wasn’t able to make it due to a bout of the swine flu. And continuing with a bit of cursed luck, prior to PEN World Voices, she was supposed to read in California, but, well, the volcano nixed that trip . . . As a friend said, she could write a book on being impacted by the not-so-insignificant global disasters of recent times.

Anyway, Purge is a really interesting book, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else Oksanen ends up writing. She’s really at the top of her game right now, having recently won the Nordic Prize for Purge, and was named Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009.

Although this may not be the most uplifting of the books in our summer roundup, it’s definitely worth checking out.

15 June 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Last week I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

“The Literary Conference”:http://www.ndpublishing.com/books/AiraLiteraryConference.html by Cesar Aira. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. (Argentina, New Directions)

Another post, another project to catch up on . . .

Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten a copy of this book yet, so this is truly a “looking forward to reading this summer” sort of preview post. I have read all of Aira’s other books to make their way into English, generally liking each new title even more than the last. And based on what I’ve heard about The Literary Conference, I have pretty high expectations, especially after Ghosts, which New Directions brought out last year, and which quickly became a cult favorite and was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. (To be honest, it was a couple of votes away from winning . . .)

The Literary Conference is the fifth Aira book to make its way into English, and may be the most anticipated by everyone—not just me. The plot synopsis is absolutely wild: a translator who has fallen on hard times solves a puzzle, finds a pirate treasure, and decides to use his new found wealth to take over the world by cloning Carlos Fuentes.

As expected, Michael Orthofer has already reviewed this at the Complete Review, giving it a B+ (solid!) and having this to say:

What’s particularly striking about The Literary Conference is the relatively matter-of-fact tone and straightforward narration. César’s account is precise and conventional, the events he describes often downright mundane. Yet the novella is full of the fantastical, inserting the very unusual (that Fuentes-cloning experiment goes really, really wrong, for one thing) in the very everyday.

The Literary Conference constantly keeps the reader guessing: Aira leads down one path, only to radically upset his premises and change route (or, arguably, to take things to their logical conclusion — though it’s not a readily recognizable and familiar logic . . .), while almost all the while maintaining his straightforward tone.

The Literary Conference is one of those books that truly is unlike anything most readers are likely to have encountered (even if they’ve read a few other works by Aira). César makes a point of emphasizing uniqueness; The Literary Conference certainly stands out among most works of fiction, its mix of convention and peculiarity particularly striking.

Another interesting review — from another member of the 2011 BTBA fiction committee — is this one by Scott Esposito in which he elaborates on one of the key passages in Ghosts to try and articulate Aira’s unique aesthetic:

At the very centre of Ghosts is one of Aira’s customary philosophical digressions, a 10-pager that ranges from architecture to the indigenous rite of gift-giving known as “potlatch” to the space of imagination in dreams. The point of this digression seems to be to examine the thought at the core of the book — how art can be both “made” and “unmade” at once — and at one point Aira laments that with most arts there is an insurmountable gulf between the idea and the artefact. However, Aira points out one important exception: “And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimised, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists, under the name of literature.”

Without attempting a rigorous reading of Ghosts, it seems fair to say that here Aira is elaborating his own theory of literature, as well as suggesting why he keeps his stories perpetually on the threshold of signification, forever forestalling an actual conclusion. He strives to embody that point in between the made and the unmade — to go back and revise would be to risk pulling his writing from this amorphous phase of creation. Instead he constantly runs forward, leaving behind works still burning with their formative fires.

Aira is one of the most interesting, unique Argentine authors writing today, and all of his books are definitely worth checking out.

9 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic. Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson. (Croatia/Europe, Canongate)

OK, today is much busier than expected (it started with a fairly surreal interview with the Bay City Times at 8am this morning and will end with Atwood’s presentation tonight at 7pm), but I really don’t want to fall off my summer recommendation plan, so I’m going to cheat a bit . . . Rather than try and write a whole new set of reasons as to why you should check this out (and you should—it’s one of Dubravka’s best books), I’m just going to re-run the review I wrote of this a few months back.

Promise that all future write ups will be new material . . . Most of the other books I want to recommend haven’t been reviewed on the site anyway. But regardless, here goes:

This is an admittedly biased statement (disclaimer: the first book Open Letter published was Ugresic’s Nobody’s Home, and I was responsible for Dalkey’s publishing Thank You for Not Reading a few years back), but I honestly believe that Dubravka Ugresic is one of the most interesting writers working today. Her books are consistently good, even across genres. The two aforementioned essay collections are spot-on, and her fiction — from The Museum of Unconditional Surrender to Lend Me Your Character to The Ministry of Pain — is always enjoyable, surprising, captivating, and envelope-pushing.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is a perfect example of Ugresic’s fertile imagination. The latest entry in Canongate’s “Myths Series,” this novel is presumably a retelling of the Slavic myth of Baba Yaga — an old witch who lives in a house with chicken legs and kidnaps children. Which is why it’s surprising that the novel begins with the rather mundane situation of the writer returning home to visit her elderly mother and her mother’s hometown.

Actually, the novel technically opens with a preface about old women, entitled “At First You Don’t See Them . . .”:

Sweet little old ladies. At first you don’t see them. And then, there they are, on the tram, at the post office, in the shop, at the doctor’s surgery, on the street, there is one, there is another, there is a fourth over there, a fifth, a sixth, how could there be so many of them all at once?

The presence and machinations of old women is the thread that runs throughout this triptych. The second part — my personal favorite — is much more fairy-tale-like than the first, with tragic deaths and reunions with lost children. It takes place over a week at a resort hotel and centers on three women:

In a wheelchair sat an old lady with both feet tucked into a large fur boot. It would have been hard to describe the old lady as a human being; she was the remains of a human being, a piece of humanoid crackling. [. . .] The other one, the one pushing the wheelchair, was exceptionally tall, slender and of astonishingly erect bearing for her advanced years. [. . .] The third was a short breathless blonde, her hair ruined by excessive use of peroxide, with big gold rings in her ears and large breasts whose weight dragged her forward.

In its exacting descriptions and twisted plot machinations, this section is vintage Ugresic. (Of her previous work, this section is closest in tone and playfulness to the pieces in Lend Me Your Character.) It’s also the most vulgar of the three sections of Baba Yaga — which is kind of fun. Take this scene, where one of the elderly ladies is getting a massage at the hands of the marvelous Mevlo, who is the flipside of Hemingway’s Jake Barnes:

Beba didn’t know what to say. As far as she could judge, the young man was fine in every way. More than fine.

“This thing of mine stands up like a flagpole, but what’s the use, love, when I’m cold as an icicle? It’s as much use to me as a cripple’s withered leg. You can do what you like with it, tap it as much as you like, it just echoes as though it was hollow.”

“Hang on, what are you talking about?”

“My willy, love, you must have noticed.”

“No,” lied Beba.

“It happened after the explosion. A Serbian shell exploded right beside me, fuck them all, and ever since then, it’s been standing up like this. My mates all teased me, why, Mevlo, they said, you’ve profited from the war. Not only did you get away with your life, but you got a tool taut as a gun. Me, a war profiteer? A war cripple, that’s what I am!”

If the second part is where Ugresic lets her comedic charms fly, the third is where she gets her postmodern on.

This section takes the form of a letter from a Dr. Aba Bagay (who appeared in part one) to the book’s editor, who is a bit confused as to how the first two sections of the book relate to the myth of Baba Yaga. So Bagay creates a “Baba Yaga for Beginners,” exploring the myth from a number of angles in a very scholarly way:

The elusive and capricious Baba Yaga sometimes appears as a helper, a donor, sometimes as an avenger, a villain, sometimes as a sentry between two worlds, sometimes as an intermediary between worlds, but also as a mediator between the heroes in a story. Most interpreters locate Baba Yaga in the ample mythological family of old and ugly women with specific kinds of power, in a taxonomy that is common to mythologies the world over.

Bagay’s scholarly apparatus is loaded with contradictions about the Baba Yaga myth and how it’s been interpreted and told. The one constant is the “old woman” bit, which is also the thread which runs throughout Ugresic’s novel, a novel that defies most novelistic conventions, that doesn’t so much retell the story of Baba Yaga as explode it into several very enjoyable fragments.

8 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

In the Train by Christian Oster. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter. (France, Object Press)

I wrote about this novel and Object Press a few weeks back after reading In the Train in one go and being unable to contain my enthusiasm. This is a spectacular book, a perfect summer book—being short, being laugh-out-loud funny—and a great introduction to this particular French literary “movement.”

Oster has had a few books translated into English, including The Cleaning Woman and The Unforseen, all of which have a very specific style that brings to mind other French writers such as Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Eric Chevillard. The books are narrated through the eyes (and mind) of a semi-befuddled, and definitely odd, man who stumbles his way through life, trying to find love, but fucking things up thanks to his strange ideas and way of viewing the world. Broad brush strokes, I know, and there’s a lot more going on in these books than just that, but personally, I think the best of these (Toussaint’s The Bathroom, Oster’s In the Train) really work because the narrator’s observations and way of seeing the world is so wack, that it’s incredibly compelling.

Quick digression: A few years back, the amazing literary critic Warren Motte wrote a book entitled Small Worlds: Minimalism in Contemporary French Fiction that traced the similarities—simple writing, repetition, symmetry, playfulness—among the works from these three writers and a host of other French authors working a similar vein. So if you’re interested in finding out more about this trend or other interesting French writers, this is definitely worth checking out. Although Motte’s an academic, his books aren’t laden with academese, and instead are very interesting and readable.

The plot of In the Train is very simple: a man goes to the train station looking for a woman to crush on. He sees a girl struggle with a heavy bag, approaches her, helps her, sits next to her on the train, has an awkward encounter, stalks her to her hotel, stalks her inside her hotel, and eventually the two have a romantic tryst.

Obviously leaving out a bunch of details here so as to not spoil everything, but the book is very nicely divided into three (unmarked) sections of about the same length: Frank meets (and basically stalks) Anne, explanation of Anne’s current romantic situation, Frank and Anne’s tryst. It’s an incredibly well-structured book, and these shifts are very effective in adding depth and complexity to a rather straightforward boy-meets-girl story.

That’s all fine and good, but as mentioned above, the most important thing here is the voice. All of the humor in this novel comes from Frank’s odd trains of thought and his self-justifications for his bizarre behavior. I marked dozens of passages in this book, and although these work a lot better in context, here are a few fun examples that hopefully illustrate Frank’s mind.

After Anne gets off the train, she tells him that she’s going to meet her sister. He follows her to a hotel, checks in, and then tries to figure out the best way to “accidentally” run into her again. Waiting in the lobby, he sees a woman who maybe possibly could be Anne’s sister—so he wanders over:

If this woman was her sister, then it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I managed to exchange a few words with her. It was a roundabout way of getting in touch with Anne. Even if it was clumsy. It might well be clumsy but, precisely because of that, it would be irreversible. My connection with Anne would be established. I would have to wait and see what happened next but the connection would be there: whatever form it took, and however much embarrassment it engendered, there it would be. So I really didn’t have much reason to hesitate, particularly as she could just as easily not be her sister.

I stood up. I went over to her. Just as if she were about to faint. She wasn’t actually going faint, though. She just looked a bit withdrawn, nothing more. I cleared my throat. She looked up. I said are you alright? Are you feeling okay? Are you sure everything’s alright?

Now she did look at me. She said what the hell are you doing? And then, for the first time, I did actually wonder what the hell I was doing. Still, I answered nothing, nothing at all, I just thought, I’m sorry. It’s okay, she said, and, by the way, I’m fine, thank you, and I went and sat back down.

I hadn’t got very far. She could still be Anne’s sister. And be feeling terrible. Or great.

One other bit . . . After he checks into the hotel, he realizes that since he wasn’t planning on staying overnight, he doesn’t have any clean underwear. And if all goes according to insane plan, Anne might find out, think he’s got issues, etc. But if he leaves to buy underwear, he might miss Anne. So:

And anyway, finding underwear, in Gournon, even on a Saturday afternoon, wasn’t going to prove easy. And, if and when I did find some, I wasn’t going to rush to let Anne know, in order to reassure her about my personal hygiene and the coherence of my behavior. All of which meant that—thanks to this woman, actually—I was confronted with a serious personal hygiene problem, which I was going to have to resolve, come what may. So then. So then, never mind, I told myself, I’m going out. I’ll take the risk. After all, she could wait for me too, if she happened to want to see me again, in this hotel. It may even be better like this.

All praise to Adriana Hunter for presenting such a fluidly quirky voice. Amazing translation job. And the book is very pretty, in keeping with the simplicity of Object Press’s aesthetic.

This novel is amazingly fun, and right at the top of my recommendation list. Hopefully the panelists on this year’s Best Translated Book Award (I’m not one of them) will take a close look . . .

....
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