12 December 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge Rachel Cordasco. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

I’ve only come across two books this year that take as their main narrator(s) a non-human creature: Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky; and Mr. Turtle by Yusaku Kitano, translated by Tyran Grillo (let me know if I missed any). But don’t think for a moment that the authors simply placed human emotions, experiences, and values in polar bear or cyborg turtle bodies and called it a day. Rather, Tawada and Kitano explore (to the extent that any of us can) the many nuances of non-human experiences in a human-dominated world. How can one successfully mingle with humans in their communities without the constant threat of suspicion and/or mockery? In what ways might creatures like polar bears and cyborg turtles experience reality that are at odds with how humans experience it? These are just two of the careful, curious questions that Tawada and Kitano raise in their novels, and their answers are both uplifting and heartbreaking. And yet, an even larger question grows out of these, one that points back toward us humans: what is it like to live as an outsider?

Why am I focusing on this topic/these two books in the first place? You can thank James Joyce’s Ulysses. I wrote a paper on this infuriatingly complex and complicated book back in grad school, and rather than rehashing all the old arguments about Leopold, Stephen, Molly, etc., I focused on what I thought was the most interesting character: the cat. Remember him? In four separate scenes, the cat figures prominently, whether “conversing” with Leopold about his breakfast or pointedly walking through a room. Thinking about the cat’s place in the narrative led me to William James’s (and others’) theories about animal consciousness and the roles that animals and other creatures play in stories about humans. Throughout my research, I kept coming back to the same core ideas: that we can never truly know the mind of another creature (we can’t even know the mind of another human, for that matter), but that that shouldn’t stop us from trying to see the world from their perspectives.

Ultimately, though, stories that include non-human perspectives are still stories about ourselves. What does our relationship to pets, for example, tell us about how we treat other people? Do our careless or dismissive attitudes toward non-humans reflect the ways in which we perceive people from cultures different from our own, or people with different abilities?



But back to the polar bear and the cyborg turtle. I’ve been calling both Memoirs and Mr. Turtle “speculative fiction,” but they represent very different strands of the genre. In Tawada’s novel, we have a three-part story, each one narrated by a polar bear from different generations of the same family (part of the second section is narrated by a human, Tosca’s trainer Barbara). Each bear “writes” his or her autobiography using human language, ideas, and imagery. And yet, throughout each story about circus training and life in East Germany during the Cold War, we learn about the polar bears’ physiological connections to their ancestors, their feelings about their ancestral homeland, and primal urges like hunting and hibernating. The matriarch polar bear at one point thinks about how her new love of writing is like and unlike her work as a circus performer:

Writing was a more dangerous acrobatic stunt than dancing on a rolling ball. To be sure, I’d worked myself to the bone learning to dance atop that ball and actually broke some bones while rehearsing, but in the end I attained my goal. In the end I knew with certainty that I could balance on a rolling object—but when it comes to writing, I can make no such claims. Where was the ball of authorship rolling? It couldn’t just roll in a straight line, or I’d fall off the stage. My ball was supposed to spin on its axis and at the same time circle the midpoint of the stage, like the Earth revolving around the sun. Writing demanded as much strength as hunting. When I caught the scent of prey, the first thing I felt was despair. Would I succeed in catching my prey, or would I fail yet again? This uncertainty was the hunter’s daily lot . . . My ancestors had spent entire winters slumbering in their sheltered caves. How pleasant it would be to withdraw once a year until spring came to wake me . . .

Here Tawada imagines what a polar bear might conclude about the two seemingly different vocations of circus performer and author, even as she simultaneously performs stylistically for the reader. Tawada asks us to see writing from an unusual perspective: it is like balancing on a ball, or hunting. Thus we’re forced to see writing not just as a cerebral art but a physical one, as well.

In each polar bear’s story, issues of exile, foreignness, and loneliness figure prominently, especially in the bears’ interactions with various human managers and trainers. The bears are often asked if they’re from the North Pole, a place they’ve never even seen, just because they’re polar bears. Assumptions about their likes and dislikes, abilities, and desires are drawn based just on their appearance—sound familiar? Exactly Tawada’s point.



Enter Mr. Turtle (Kame-kun), a perfect example of this kind of alienation. He goes to work, returns to his apartment, and interacts with a couple of human friends at the library, every day. Thing is, he’s a large cyborg turtle, and he can’t even ride on public transportation without schoolgirls mocking and ridiculing him. He’s haunted by flashes of memory that he can’t place and suspects that his mind has been tampered with for nefarious reasons. The real reason for this tampering is an ingenious idea on Kitano’s part, and taps into some excellent sci-fi tropes about the nature of reality and our perception of it.

And yet, like Tawada, Kitano is most interested in showing readers what it’s like to live as a cyborg turtle in a near-future Japan, where creatures like him are tolerated but never truly accepted. Mr. Turtle himself never speaks; our access to his mind is through the close third-person, and this accentuates the loneliness that permeates the story. But Mr. Turtle’s few opportunities to interact with humans enables him to spend time thinking deeply about the world around him and his relationship to it:

This thing called a “turtle” was built to look at the outside from within its shell, and from that perspective formulated an internal model of the world. The turtle perceived and acted in accordance with how it processed its own world model. Through learned behaviors and by the information it was able to acquire, it updated that model internally, making inferences through its management thereof. The turtle’s sensory perception of the outside world was at least a facsimile, thought Kame-kun. All of which meant that the turtle could never leave its own shell. Such thinking, too, was embeded in Kame-kun, for even his pondering of these things came of its own accord, as he’d been designed. At last, Kame-kun confirmed what he’d already known: that a giant shell contained the world and everything in it and that inside his shell was another world, where another self worse a shell, which contained yet another.

Here Kitano uses the image of the shell to emphasize each individual creatures’ unbridgeable loneliness, and then goes further by pointing out that Mr. Turtle was able to think this way because of what he was. Can any of us ever rise above our own minds to bridge the gap between ourselves and others? Must we remain trapped in our own brains and unable to experience true empathy for other living creatures, even those of our own species?

Questions like these make Memoirs and Mr. Turtle masterpieces of narrative perspective and important works that force us to look at ourselves and reevaluate how we treat one another.

28 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Marketplace of Ideas features an hour-long interview with super-translator Susan Bernofsky about Robert Walser, Yoko Tawada, Kobo Abe, and “the uses of literary hybridity.”

Definitely worth listening to (and subscribing to on iTunes—this is a consistently good podcast), and Susan’s write up of the experience is interesting as well.

*

Digressing here for a minute, but Kobo Abe doesn’t get near the attention that he deserves. The Box Man is nothing short of fucking brilliant and absolutely deserves to be included in conversations about Beckett or other Beckett-esque authors. Vintage reissued The Ark Sakura, a more straightforward, but incredibly fun novel a couple years back, but unfortunately I don’t think many people noticed . . . It’s true that some of his books are less than amazing, but I still think he’s an author ripe for rediscovery by the fans of Bolano and Aira and Sebald and that set. Just saying.

24 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all its noise, Facebook can still be a great way of keeping up with what your friends are working on. For instance, over the weekend, Susan Bernofsky posted about a Yoko Tawada she recently translated for the “Japan Focus” issue of the“Asian-Pacific Journal.”:http://japanfocus.org/ The article — The Letter as Literature’s Political and Poetic Body — is a fascinating piece on reading habits and ideograms. Especially this bit about why the new Japanese translation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has been so wildly successful:

In November 2006 a new translation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov appeared that soon had sold 500,000 copies. I knew the translator, Kameyama Ikuo, as the author of a fascinating book on Stalin and the artists of his time.

Just as in other countries, people in Japan have been lamenting since the 1980s (if not much longer) that young people no longer read the classics of world literature. First it was the culture of manga and television that was seen as the culprit; later it was the internet, computer games and obsessive text messaging. The number of books sold each year has actually been rising, because manga, the autobiographies of TV stars, internet literature and even text-message literature have come out in book form—but nonetheless people have been complaining that the old canon of world literature is no longer being taken seriously. And so this new Karamazov boom was a pleasant surprise. But I asked how this new translation of the novel could be so different that suddenly hundreds of thousands of Japanese readers were in such a hurry to buy it and were reading it with such enthusiasm. Even in times when literature supposedly had many more readers than today, Dostoevsky was never a bestseller. [. . .]

Can the novel The Brothers Karamazov be translated in such a way that it reads smoothly and fluidly like a bestseller? I bought the new translation, read the first hundred pages, and concluded that each phrase used in it appeared easily accessible and had a good rhythm. In this book, the odors and dust of a foreign society are suppressed. The characters are readily distinguishable from one another despite their inconsistencies. Regardless of whether one values these attributes of the new translation, the difference between the new and old translations seemed to me insufficient to explain this explosive boom.

Several months later I happened to have a chance to chat with a young editor from a Japanese publishing house about this new translation. He said that readers today have developed a manga or text message way of seeing, meaning that their eyes grasp one entire section of text as an image and then go on to the next. For this reason, the sections cannot be too long: ideally, no longer than would fit on the screen of a cell phone or in a single manga picture. [. . .]

The editor told me that in his opinion the secret of this new translation was that an unusually large number of paragraph breaks had been added to the novel. Manga readers can read the novel by passing from paragraph to paragraph as if from one manga image to the next. They are no less intelligent than their grandparents, but they have a different organ of vision, or a different cable connecting their retinas to their brains.

A Japanese translator I spoke with several weeks later confirmed the editor’s theory. She was just translating a book for the world literature series in which the new Brothers Karamazov had also appeared, and her editor kept repeating the same sentence: Give me more paragraphs! [. . .]

I don’t know whether I myself have manga eyes or not. Sometimes at a manga café in Tokyo I see young men flipping through a manga incredibly quickly. I could never read so fast. At home I secretly measured the amount of time it took me to read a page of Tezuka’s manga. Ten seconds per page. Then I measured how long it took me to read the new edition of Karamazov: twenty seconds a page. The old translation, on the other hand, took me nearly sixty seconds. The difference between the manga and the new Karamazov was much smaller than the difference between the new and old Brothers.

10 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Very interesting interview with Susan Bernofsky (“widely considered to be one of the best English translators of German literature today,” who has translated Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Yoko Tawada, among others) in The Brooklyn Rail.

Theoretically, this interview is supposed to be about her forthcoming translation of The Tanners (releasing from New Directions this fall, and yes, another BTB2010 nominee), but it gets really interesting (it’s always interesting, but you know) when she starts talking more generally about translation, language, and culture:

Rail: In an introductory note to Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye, you say that as she wrote the book certain sentences occurred to her in German and others in Japanese, so that she eventually wound up writing two versions of the same book. Do you have a sense of why this happened?

Bernofsky: Yoko Tawada’s very interested in the way our lives look the moment you start talking about them in a foreign language. And she’s right—words and experiences in different cultural contexts tend to have a different weight, different implications, and so walking on the border between two cultures as she does means constantly being confronted with one’s own experience as the experience of an other. I think that’s fascinating, and it’s very true to my own experience of living in Germany and traveling to yet other countries. I wish I could read The Naked Eye in Japanese to see how it differs from the German version I read, but I don’t speak a word of Japanese. I hope someone translates it into English someday.

Rail: You’ve written a lot about translation, often drawing connections between current translation theory and ideas in Romantic philosophy. How are the two related?

Bernofsky: The German Romantic translation theorists—above all Friedrich Schleiermacher, but also Wilhelm von Humboldt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—were deeply concerned with the connection between a language and a nation or people, and so to them translating in such a way as to respect and preserve the cultural characteristics of the language you’re translating from is an important first step in getting to know another culture and its people in a respectful way. A lot of translation theorists and cultural critics today are interested in the dichotomy between translation as assimilation and as an avenue for approaching the foreign with genuine openness and curiosity.

And for all Walser fans out there who are waiting for a solid biography:

Rail: How difficult has it been to write a biography of Walser, considering not very much is known about his life?

Bernofsky: My book about Walser is a book of gaps, and not only because I still have quite a way to go before arriving at a finished draft. I’ve been thinking about and planning this book for several years now, and it’s getting written in little thematic chunks. The fact remains that there are vast stretches of Walser’s life about which very little is known, periods when we don’t have much of his correspondence and no one else is talking much about what he was up to—particularly in the nineteen-teens. But I’m fascinated by the overlaps between his fiction and his life, the way he actually lived out some of the themes that interested him. He really did attend a training school for servants, for example, though it bears very little resemblance to the school depicted in Jakob von Gunten. And then he went to work as an assistant butler in a castle in Silesia, which he didn’t write about until many years later, in the story “Tobold (II),” which I translated for Masquerade. I don’t think he was doing research for his writing when he took that job. I think he really was interested in the possibility of supporting himself with such a position. He didn’t want anyone at the castle to know he was a published author, either. He had his publisher write to him only using plain envelopes without the firm’s insignia, which would have blown his cover. I’m not sure he was such a good servant either, if the account of this episode he wrote in fictional form years later is any indication.

8 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re a couple days behind, but this month’s featured bookstore is The Booksmith in San Francisco’s historic Haight Ashbury neighborhood. The store opened in 1976 by Gary Frank, who recently sold the store to Christin Evans and Praveen Madan.

The Booksmith has a long history of hosting great events, and looking at the upcoming schedule, this is definitely still the case. Tomorrow Douglas Rushkoff will be speaking about Life Inc., and more relevant to this website, on Thursday, June 25th, the next meeting of “Found in Translation,” The Booksmith’s reading group, will meet to discuss Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye.

Later this month we’ll post an interview with Julie Boyer (who is from Italy and started the Found in Translation book club) and some other special Booksmith features . . . But for now, all of the books referenced in our posts will link to The Booksmith’s online catalog, making it easy to purchase titles directy from one of California’s great indie bookstores.

18 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I believe that The Naked Eye (translated by Susan Bernofsky from the German and published by New Directions) is the fourth of Yoko Tawada’s works to make their way into English. Kodandsha did The Bridegroom Was a Dog back in 1998 (this was translated just from the Japanese), and New Directions did Where Europe Begins in 2002 (originally written in both German and Japanese) and also brought out Facing the Bridge in 2007.

Monica Carter—curator of Salonica World Lit and the literary journal E.Lire, and bookseller at Skylight Books in L.A.—wrote this review of her latest book, which is centered around the movies of Catherine Deneuve, and doesn’t sound quite as good as Tawada’s earlier works.

This is how Anh Nguyet the protagonist of The Naked Eye describes her world of escapism through the movies, and only Catherine Deneuve movies to be exact. Although I myself have an affinity for the beautiful icon of French cinema myself, it is nothing compared to our young Vietnamese narrator who seems only to experience and understand life through the world of Deneuve’s oeuvre. Tawada takes us through Anh’s story in thirteen chapters, each titled after a different Deneuve movie. And it’s not just about Deneuve, her movies serve as vehicle for all the other things that seem to be happening in novel—escapism, allegorical references to communism, kidnapping, subjugation, sexual ambiguity and a fair amount of resigned desperation.

All of this seems like the ideal makings for an engaging and original read, and at times, it is. But what plagues this novel from the beginning is the lack of emotional engagement by the narrator. Anh, who is still in high school and the best in her school at speaking Russian, is handpicked to attend the International Youth Conference in Berlin to deliver a paper she wrote in Russian entitled, “Vietnam as a Victim of American Imperialism.” Within the first ten pages she is kidnapped by a German student who plies her with vodka and then takes to his apartment in Bochum, which is six hours away from Berlin. Anh says that she wants to go home, but Jörg, her captor, tells her she is pregnant with his child. They become lovers and she waits in his apartment all day long for him to come home. She writes a letter to her family saying she has been offered a scholarship and that is why she is not coming home. What is strange is that there is no sense of urgency for Anh to get home. Finally, she learns one night on a double date with Jörg that there is a train that stops in Bochum on its way to Moscow. She finds the train and ends up in Paris where she spends the next six years of her life.

For the complete review, click here.

18 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

My cinema was a “Ma,” she wrapped me in her mucous membranes. She shielded me from the sun, from the force of visibility. Life was being played out on the screen, a life before death. People fought there, or else slept together. They cried and sweated, and the screen remained dry. The cinema, its stage, had no depth, but it did have its own light source.

This is how Anh Nguyet the protagonist of The Naked Eye describes her world of escapism through the movies, and only Catherine Deneuve movies to be exact. Although I myself have an affinity for the beautiful icon of French cinema myself, it is nothing compared to our young Vietnamese narrator who seems only to experience and understand life through the world of Deneuve’s oeuvre. Tawada takes us through Anh’s story in thirteen chapters, each titled after a different Deneuve movie. And it’s not just about Deneuve, her movies serve as vehicle for all the other things that seem to be happening in novel—escapism, allegorical references to communism, kidnapping, subjugation, sexual ambiguity and a fair amount of resigned desperation.

All of this seems like the ideal makings for an engaging and original read, and at times, it is. But what plagues this novel from the beginning is the lack of emotional engagement by the narrator. Anh, who is still in high school and the best in her school at speaking Russian, is handpicked to attend the International Youth Conference in Berlin to deliver a paper she wrote in Russian entitled, “Vietnam as a Victim of American Imperialism.” Within the first ten pages she is kidnapped by a German student who plies her with vodka and then takes to his apartment in Bochum, which is six hours away from Berlin. Anh says that she wants to go home, but Jörg, her captor, tells her she is pregnant with his child. They become lovers and she waits in his apartment all day long for him to come home. She writes a letter to her family saying she has been offered a scholarship and that is why she is not coming home. What is strange is that there is no sense of urgency for Anh to get home. Finally, she learns one night on a double date with Jörg that there is a train that stops in Bochum on its way to Moscow. She finds the train and ends up in Paris where she spends the next six years of her life.

She meets a blond prostitute, Marie, in the chapter entitled, “Zig Zig.” She has a brief sexual encounter with her but they end up living together. Anh spends her days reading old issues of Ecran magazine looking for anything relating to Catherine Deneuve. She has no job and does not go out in the sunlight. She merely survives with Marie:

Marie was not an abductor, she was my protector. She protected me by ignoring me. She acted as if she were unable to see me, or as if I were a wildflower that just happened to be growing in her garden. If only I’d been able to exchange a few words with her. I couldn’t understand her language, and she even seemed to be withholding it from me.

Clearly, there is desire on Anh’s part to communicate, but she never makes that commitment. She wanders the streets and goes to Catherine Deneuve movies. Once while she is line, a fellow Vietnamese woman that she met on the train to Paris recognizes her. Anh is ‘mesmerized’ by her melodic way of talking and decides to go stay with Ai Van and her French, much older husband, Jean. She leaves Marie without a word and stays on the couch of the couple. She watches them come and go and goes to the movies. Exasperated by Anh’s lack of initiative, Ai Van tells her there is a job available with a Chinese doctor that will use her skin for cosmetic experiments. Anh obliges without a struggle and Tawada compares this to Deneuve’s vampire role in Hunger. Other than the comparison and the synopsis of the plot by Tawada, the parallels of Anh and Deneuve’s movies are not drawn well enough. It becomes merely a plot synopsis of each movie and less and less about Anh. Maybe this is intentional, but it is disturbing as well. I felt, as a reader, that I was waiting for a reaction from Anh—to life, her situation, her loss. But she drifts and the only thing Tawada gives us is a rundown of Deneuve’s movies, as if Anh is struggling with cinematic autism. Although this does add to the power of Anh’s escapism, it doesn’t give us much more. As if we are constantly seeing someone in the throes of addiction, but never seeking help.

Towards the end, we do see Anh show frustration with her inability to live any life outside of Catherine Deneuve’s various screen roles:

“Get out of here!” I say to the cinematographic currents trying to carry me off with it. Leave me alone. I don’t want to be carried off. But it was difficult to maintain a distance from the images. They swept me away with them, wanting to drown me. Why was I, a free human being, not allowed to turn off the images when I wished or a t least correct them? I wished to experience boredom, for this I would at least entail the individual freedom not to take part. If I fell asleep in my seat, the film would have been better for me. I had to remain awake, though, to wait for you.

Anh has the ability to recognize her obsession, but this is towards the end of the novel and the reader gets no hints of her self-awareness before this. Even despite her obsession, she manages to befriend a man, Charles, who introduces her to a Vietnamese emigré, Tuong Linh. Tuong Linh is a surgeon. Anh ends up living with him even though she is in love with Charles. Tuong Linh insists that she go to language school but she avoids his inquiries whenever the topic is mentioned. But in order to do this he decides to marry her so she can get a visa. She obtains a fake passport from one of Tuong Linh’s friends and is arrested. Tuong Linh is well on his way to Thailand, with no idea of Anh’s arrest. When she is released, she ends up at Marie’s apartment and almost doesn’t recognize her because Marie had aged so much in six years. Which brings us to Les voleurs which star Catherine Deneuve as another character named Marie who is now a middle-aged professor having a lesbian affair with one of her students. She stays with Marie, again in poverty, and ends up through circuitous ties, with Jörg. She returns to Bochum and lives with Jörg. But she is back to where she was in the beginning of the novel. The last chapter is entitled, “Dancer in the Dark,” and is a plot synopsis of the movie which leaves the reader wondering too much about what Anh ever really wanted and where if anywhere, she will go to find herself.

One of the things I did find most interesting about Tawada’s novel is the appearance of communism and the sense of government as mother. From the onset, Anh is devoutly Communist. And throughout there are running themes of class division, the cinema being compared to her motherland as protector and a dialogue and metaphors about liberty and freedom. Anh adheres to the concepts of Communism in her beliefs, but becomes totally oblivious to the present day changes that Communism has endured and its weakening grasp on the world.

I wanted very much to love this novel, but ultimately had too many unanswered questions were presented to the reader and like Anh felt like I was watching a narrator act like she was in a book, but never fully present. And one note on the translation—parts of the novel were written in German and parts were written in Japanese and then translated by Tawada into both languages. The extremely capable Susan Bernofsky translated it from the German. When I encountered phrases that seemed out of character for Anh or sudden strong phrases that were an anomaly to her narrative voice, I wasn’t sure whose translation that fell on or if that was an authorial choice. Regardless, it was jarring and it interrupted the generally low key and fluid narrative.

I hope we can read more of Tawada’s work in the future because it is so intriguing—ones without such a narrow conceit. I have watched as many Catherine Deneuve movies as possible and felt that if I hadn’t, I don’t know where I would’ve been as a reader approaching this novel? Too much rests on the magic of Catherine Deneuve and not enough on the author. As the French say, “Quel dommage!”

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