9 June 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Every May, 20,000 or so publishing professionals gather at BookExpo America to a) try and create buzz for their fall books, b) court booksellers and librarians, c) attend panels of minimal import, and d) bitch and moan. Mostly it’s just d, to be honest.

Publishing people love to complain about everything. The Javitz Center sucks. (This is a fact! Stupid glass warehouse. Looks like something from Cleveland.) The BEA is too expensive. No booksellers or critics come anymore. People only want free books. Books don’t sell. Stupid Grumpy Cat is clogging up the aisles. A coffee costs $17. This fair is loaded with crap thanks to you Random Harper House and the Algonquins of mediocrity. Why more Mitch Albom? I thought he was in heaven? Writing us letters? It’ll only be more unbearable in Chicago. And on the weekend they’re actually letting in regular readers. This is the worst.

It’s kind of great! Four days of being around my people, all rant-receptive, all cloaking their belief in the power of books behind a shell of unremitting misery . . . So good! I need this in my life at least once a year—it helps me feel human.

The best post-BEA storyline to me was about the Big Publisher reaction to “BookCon,” the weekend part of the show when readers flood the aisles searching for John Green and buying books (although maybe not the books by the presses whose books I usually buy). Here’s the initial reaction, as reported in Publishers Weekly:

Not only are many New York City-based publishers concerned about staffing for next year’s BookCon, they’re also worried that the change in venue [Ed. Note: BEA is in Chicago next summer] will mark a return to the show’s first year, when attendance was lower and the event itself was more chaotic.

Then, a week later, also in Publishers Weekly:

Heather Fain, senior v-p and director of marketing strategy at Hachette Book Group, said she’s looking forward to meeting readers from other parts of the country: “Readers don’t just live in New York. If Reed puts together the programming with big names, I think they could get a crowd to come out in any major market. And I like the idea of interacting with readers outside the Tristate Area.”

Wait, there are readers outside of New York City? I CALL BULLSHIT. I’ve said it a million times, but publishers are amazingly good at distancing themselves from their readers. Just wait—next May there will be a slew of articles about how crappy Chicago BookCon is going to be, then in June, publishers will be all “we sold a lot of books! It was great! But next year when it’s in Los Angeles . . . Well, I’m just not sure . . .”

When publishers finally realize that the main reason they exist is thanks to the passion of readers willing to pay money to come to an awful part of NYC just to meet publishers, there will be a sea change in this show. Granted, there won’t be swarms of tween girls bum rushing the Coach House booth in search of conceptual poetry, but still. I see this in my daughter who, to this day (literally), talks about how excited she was to meet Jón Gnarr and how The Indian is her favorite book. I told her about BEA and to her it sounded like paradise. Not for free stuff, but to see so many books and so many cool people (since cool people are people who work with books) in one place at one time. To her, it was like ComicCon but with fewer costumes.

Steve Rosato, who runs BEA, told me that NY ComicCon—which I am going to go to—draws TEN TIMES as many attendees as BookCon/BEA. This is insane to me. 150,000 people are at NYCC at any moment in time. People who paid $50 to get into a show to buy more stuff. We all love superhero movies more than experimental prose, but still, the great benefit of the various book festivals around the country—the LA Times Festival of Books, Printers Row, Miami Book Fair, now BookCon—is that there’s an opportunity to interact with these people. Instead of only interacting with fellow publishing people drowning their misery with alcohol and hate. (Although alcohol and hate are both wonderful.)

Anyway, my favorite BEA moment? Walking the aisles and finding this at the Overdrive Booth (Overdrive being a service working with libraries to allow patrons to check out audiobooks and ebooks—it’s my favorite app):

Yep, that’s an Open Letter book right next to Dan Brown, and under Gone Girl and Wimpy Kid. We made it!

Not only was Street of Thieves on this oft-repeating mosaic of major works, but they used it as the feature book (along with The Girl on the Train, the number one best-selling book in the country) on this background image inside their booth:

I’ve always dreamt of seeing someone randomly reading one of our books on the subway, but although that hasn’t happened, this is a good runner-up dream.

A Brief History of Portable Literature and The Illogic of Kassel by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Tom Bunstead and Anne McLean (New Directions)

Vila-Matas is one of my favorites—especially Montano’s Malady—for all the formal games he plays with point of view and narrative, which he uses to upend your expectations time and again, shifting his books from half-essays into strange beasts that aren’t what we usually think of as “novels.” This is important and wonderful. And a book about a secret society of people called “the Shandies,” obsessed with “portable literature”? Yes, all the yes.

By the way, next week, Tom and I will be recording our 100th episode of the Three Percent Podcast. We’re going to make this a “listener appreciation” podcast in which we answer any and all questions from you about publishing, sports, books, whatever. Just send them to threepercentpodcast@gmail.com.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen (Other Press)

To be honest, I’m not actually all that interested in this book. I’m sure it’s fine and competent and will reach a very wide audience (especially after the Kakutani NY Times review), all of which is great for Other Press and the book. (The set-up alone—a retelling of The Stranger from the perspective of the Arab Meursault kills—guarantees this a huge book club audience.) A lot of people I respect really like this, but I can’t imagine it blowing my mind. Nevertheless, a ton of people will be talking about this, and I’m sure that conversation will be interesting to thousands of readers.

I have to say, the older I get, the less I feel like reading books that I should read in favor of ones I want to. When I moved recently, I was reorganizing my bookshelves and kept having the thought that I was saving books that I would never possibly get to before I die. Ever. It’s an anxiety-making idea, in part because of the death aspect, but also because it makes me question why I choose to read the books I do. I have no good answer to this, but I’m pretty sure The Meursault Investigation won’t be one of the 100 titles that makes the cut for 2015. Sorry.

That said, Jeff Waxman from Other Press—and all their other staff members—is a great guy doing a lot of amazing things, especially in terms of connecting small presses with booksellers. (Like at the upcoming Small Press Night at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.) Jeff is my favorite thing about Other Press. That and the Simon Critchley book they’re bringing out later this year.

Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (New Directions)

It’s really too bad that FOX has the rights to the Women’s World Cup. Their soccer coverage is fine, but it just feels so buried seeking the games out on FOX Sports 1. Granted, ESPN aired most of last year’s World Cup, but everyone has ESPN. That’s like basic cable.

I was really surprised that last night’s USA-Australia game wasn’t on FOX proper. It was a perfect opportunity for FOX to remind the nation that FOX Sports 1 still exists, and to get a ton of people hooked into this competition. Instead they aired a rerun of So You Think You Can Dance. FOX sucks.

Bringing together my two great loves—translation and sports—here’s a picture of Peter Cole (translator of Yoel Hoffmann’s Moods) giving a talk in front of the Men in Blazers mug that George Carroll sent me.



Disagreeable Tales by Léon Bloy, translated from the French by Erik Butler (Wakefield Press)

The USPS debuted a new spring/summer commercial that I saw during the NBA Finals, and which brought up a lot of questions.

This commercial opens with the following rhetorical question: “What do you think of when you think of the United States Postal Service? . . . . . . Exactly.”

Exactly what??? The things that come to mind when I think of the USPS are, in descending order, 1) the phrase “going postal,” and 2) nothing. It’s like thinking about electricity or garbage collection—it’s just something that’s there and works most of the time.

I feel like the commercial should go on in this way, “You know what we here at the USPS are good at? Occasionally delivering Amazon orders. We’re better than imaginary drones at that! The Postal Service. Sounds like a band name. Hell, next time you hear this commercial think of that. USPS. Band. Name.”

I’m sure that FOX has this commercial on endless loop.

Notes on the Death of Culture by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by John King (FSG)

This book sounds like such an old man book—I love it!

In the past, culture was a kind of vital consciousness that constantly rejuvenated and revivified everyday reality. Now it is largely a mechanism of distraction and entertainment. [. . .] Vargas Llosa traces a decline whose ill effects have only just begun to be felt. He mourns, in particular, the figure of the intellectual: for most of the twentieth century, men and women of letters drove political, aesthetic, and moral conversations; today they have all but disappeared from public debate.

I think I’m going to read this over the weekend and spend hours yelling at my books to get off my lawn.

The One Before by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Roanne Kantor (Open Letter)

This is our fourth Saer book—with another coming next summer!—and the first to be translated by Roanne Kantor. (Steve Dolph has done the other three, and he’s amazing.) Roanne won the Susan Sontag Prize for Translation in 2009 for this book, which is how she ended up working on it for us.

Speaking of Susan Sontag, her biographer, Ben Moser, won the Internet recently for his photo of his six-year-old niece flipping out in the White House. I’m sure you’ve seen it, but if not, here’s a link. I get overly excited when people I know become über-famous for something that’s not what they always do. Now, hopefully 1/1,000,000 of the people who saw that photo will buy a book that Ben has translated, edited, or written.

A Perfect Crime by A Yi, translated from the Chinese by Anna Holmwood (Oneworld)

So, China was the Global Market Focus country at BEA this year, which was interesting. I only attended a couple of the main events, but saw their various displays, which took up a sizable portion of the exhibition floor.

The New Yorker ran an interesting piece about China and BEA, which includes a depressing story about A Perfect Crime:

Even the Chinese delegation’s most promising soft-power weapons, the twenty-four authors, had trouble drawing crowds. On Friday, a Chinese newspaper lamented the lack of attendees at the on-site book signings. “Where Did the Readers Go?” read the headline. According to the article, during one signing featuring the crime novelist A Yi, the author grabbed a book and tried to push it on a middle-aged American man as he walked by. A Yi soon returned, dejected. “You’d better stop,” said another author, Su Tong, jokingly patting him on the shoulder. “You’ll humiliate our country.” The article went viral in China, before being deleted. (ChinaFile has a translation here.) The rest of the planned book signings were cancelled as a result.

This piece also ends with an odd quote from our favorite author to troll, Jonathan Franzen, which, obviously I’m going to quote:

When I approached Franzen at the PEN rally, he told me that, after visiting China, he’d come to understand the case for censorship. “China has known so much misery, so much social instability in the last century, that there’s this deep cultural fear of it that cuts substantially across political lines,” he said. “From the point of view of the Chinese government, trying to maintain social stability, there are reasons for censorship. And that’s a point of view that has a right to be heard, in the same way that the writers we were supporting here have a right to be heard.”

Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis (Feminist Press)

Violette Leduc was one of the coolest authors ever, and it’s so good that this is finally available in its unedited version.

Also, Feminist Press rocks and you should really listen to our recent podcast in which Feminist Press editor Julia Berner-Tobin joined us to talk about Virginie Despentes’s Apocalypse Baby.

A History of Money by Alan Pauls, translated from the Spanish by Ellie Robins (Melville House)

I couldn’t get into the Pauls book that Harvill brought out a few years ago, but he’s always talked about as one of the great contemporary Latin American writers, so I’m willing to give this one a chance.

Unfortunately, Melville House doesn’t send us review copies, so I went ahead and ordered this on Amazon.

Urgency and Patience by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Dalkey Archive)

This looks really interesting: a short set of essays about the art of writing from the author of The Bathroom and Television. When he’s on, Toussaint is spectacular, and it makes me curious to see what his nonfiction is like. Also, this book is 57 pages long with a gigantic font size, so it’s one that I can definitely finish . . .

There are bunch of books I’d like to include, but don’t have the time/energy for. (In other words, I have no obvious jokes for these titles.) So here’s a short list of other things coming out in June that are worth checking out.

Someone’s Trying to Find You by Marc Auge, translated from the French by Chris Turner (Seagull Books)

On Wing by Róbert Gál, translated from the Slovak by Mark Kanak (Dalkey Archive)

The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva, translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio (Deep Vellum)

The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston (Arcadia)

The Body Where I Was Born Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by J.T. Lichtenstein (Seven Stories Press)

Rambling Jack Micheal Ó Conghaile, translated from the Irish by Katherine Duffy (Dalkey Archive)

Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry”: (Phoneme Books)

1 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Phillip Witte (former Open Letter intern, current New Directions intern) on Yoel Hoffmann’s Curriculum Vitae, the sixth of Hoffmann’s books to be published by ND. I think this is the only work of fiction I’ve ever come across with no page numbers . . .

Here’s the opening of Phil’s review:

Imagine the scene we are all familiar with: you are writing up a C.V. to send out to those who might judge your capabilities, your efficacies, and the quality of your existence to date from what you were able to condense onto a single side of a sheet of letter paper. Imagine adding, among sections detailing work experience and education, sections that enumerate your preferred breakfast cereals, your ongoing spiritual conundra, and personal illustrations that are little more than impressionist contour doodles. Imagine allowing yourself a healthy dose of humor; it can’t hurt to make your assessors laugh a little. Now imagine reading such a thing.

I have just opened Yoel Hoffmann’s Curriculum Vitae at random, somewhere in the middle. Having finished the book and wondering where to begin if I am to describe it, this seems an appropriate opening gesture, one I hope to justify as I continue. In any case:

“At night we slept (we and Yolanda) back to back while each one saw, as though in a bubble emerging from the head of a comic-strip character, different dreams.

Yolanda most likely dreamed of great gardens. Clay pots. Dalmations.

We (which is to say, I) saw heavier dreams. Landslides in the mountains and an entire town with its golden church spires buried beneath the dirt. Men spreading newspapers out on the floor and reading things in them that make the heart tremble.

It’s all so self-evident why Joyce wrote, for some twenty years, a book without any real words in it. After all, one could die from the clear-cut borders between one word and another: Pot. Skyscraper. File. Scandal. Dentures. Scabies. Snow. Old age. Flute. Cobalt. Socialism.

Sometimes we made instant coffee with three teaspoons of sugar (as Yolanda liked it) and put it before her.”

Click here for the full review.

1 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Imagine the scene we are all familiar with: you are writing up a C.V. to send out to those who might judge your capabilities, your efficacies, and the quality of your existence to date from what you were able to condense onto a single side of a sheet of letter paper. Imagine adding, among sections detailing work experience and education, sections that enumerate your preferred breakfast cereals, your ongoing spiritual conundra, and personal illustrations that are little more than impressionist contour doodles. Imagine allowing yourself a healthy dose of humor; it can’t hurt to make your assessors laugh a little. Now imagine reading such a thing.

I have just opened Yoel Hoffmann’s Curriculum Vitae at random, somewhere in the middle. Having finished the book and wondering where to begin if I am to describe it, this seems an appropriate opening gesture, one I hope to justify as I continue. In any case:

At night we slept (we and Yolanda) back to back while each one saw, as though in a bubble emerging from the head of a comic-strip character, different dreams.

Yolanda most likely dreamed of great gardens. Clay pots. Dalmations.

We (which is to say, I) saw heavier dreams. Landslides in the mountains and an entire town with its golden church spires buried beneath the dirt. Men spreading newspapers out on the floor and reading things in them that make the heart tremble.

It’s all so self-evident why Joyce wrote, for some twenty years, a book without any real words in it. After all, one could die from the clear-cut borders between one word and another: Pot. Skyscraper. File. Scandal. Dentures. Scabies. Snow. Old age. Flute. Cobalt. Socialism.

Sometimes we made instant coffee with three teaspoons of sugar (as Yolanda liked it) and put it before her.

Note the first two parentheticals, which clarify the two uses of “we.” Early in the book, Hoffmann advises us that he will often be referring to himself in the first person plural. He maintains this distinction vigilantly, on the one hand rendering the “royal we” so humorously, and obviously, obsolete, but also bringing around a fresh aspect of self-scrutiny: the simple, almost constant reminder that he is using the same pronoun for two subjects stresses the importance of his own life in relation to his life together with his family.

Next, note the grandiloquent generality of “reading things in them that make the heart tremble,” against the minute twentieth-century contextual analogy, “as though in a bubble emerging from the head of a comic strip character.” Such range of figuration is characteristic of Hoffmann’s writing in Curriculum Vitae, a sharp specificity as of the latter which justifies the appropriate use of the former. Consider this range of figurative device along with the next point: “One could die from the clear-cut borders between one word and another.” In one sense, it may be Hoffmann’s own solution to Finnegans Wake. In another, this is one among countless aphoristic conclusions about life, about language, spirituality, writing—all of the biggest concerns of this writer’s existence. It is a conclusion that seems more a restatement of the problem, an unsolvable riddle, than an answer: it is like a zen koan, which is a significant point to which I will return. But philosophical bombshells like this one would surely misfire without being carefully juxtaposed against equally weighted statements of utter mundanity and real-world particularity of the final sentence, set off in its own paragraph, about instant coffee with sugar. Because this book is a condensed picture of a life, where the particular way one’s wife takes her coffee carries just as much existential weight as the crises of faith which keep one awake at night.

This is the entirety of section 34 of the book. There are one hundred sections, all of a similar length, and there are no page numbers. The book is thin, the margins wide, and the prose, as is evident in the above passage, exceedingly light. It can be read in a single (perhaps lengthy) sitting, such as a long train ride or an afternoon off in the park. It has the feel, reading it, of a book of aphorisms, or of zen koans, the latter which must be no coincidence because the author, Yoel Hoffmann, is Professor of Japanese Buddhism at Haifa University. His travels and studies in Japan are treated at length in the book, although it may be inaccurate to use the term “at length” at all. Textually speaking, there is nothing “at length” about the book, and yet the material carries the reader into realms far beyond the text: realms of humor, family life, travels, varying religions and peoples, and childhood in a distant past.

I realize that I have described the book above as a condensed picture of a life. According to the back cover blurb, it is “part novel and part memoir.” This is an accurate description: the subject is Hoffmann himself and his memories. But it is also part other things which fall into no easy categories. The book resists my simple description, and Hoffmann himself would surely scoff at it. He writes,

If I were able (by means of a deeper covenant than that which exists between author and reader) to fall on people’s necks and say to them Come, let’s sit while the tea is steeping, then drink, and you’ll tell me about your lives and I will tell of mine, I’d toss this manuscript into the trash and do precisely that. In such a world the law would forbid the making of fiction.

In no way is the novel driven by the usual devices one associates with fiction and novels: there are no motivating conflicts, no themes, and the “characters” do not exactly invoke the sympathies that generate a reader’s interest. It would seem that the book is more the memoir, with its frequent tone of reminiscence and reflection. But then again, having finished it, I cannot say I have a clear picture of the life of Yoel Hoffmann. It is largely autobiographical, but one could hardly call it an autobiography. This, I think, is one of the book’s greatest strengths. A reader may only be interested in an author’s memoiristic novel or novelistic memoir if that reader were already familiar with the author’s other work; I can certainly say that this is my first experience of the work of Yoel Hoffmann and as far as I can tell, it is as good a place to enter this Hebrew writer’s not inconsiderable oeuvre as any other (this being the sixth of his books to be published by New Directions, in English translations by Peter Cole). Indeed, I am eager to dig into some of his other works.

Part novel, part memoir, part neither, Curriculum Vitae is a frolicking dive into the self of the writer, where he finds his life’s collected works in the form of unsolvable riddles that, like a good zen koan, taste like wisdom and provide as much entertainment and satisfaction as the reader cares to draw from them.

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