Mexico vs. Croatia
A few years back, during a drunken Christmas party at a Danish newspaper, I asked a colleague how she developed her opinions as a movie critic. She did not have an academic background in film, and yet there she was, at a national paper, reviewing movies every week.
“Piece of cake!” she exclaimed, “I just think of the movie as a soccer match, making up the score as I watch it. When I leave the theatre, I ask myself: How was the game?”
I decided to adopt the movie critic’s honorable method in this piece for World Cup of Literature, Mexico vs. Croatia. Furthermore, I have subjected the two competing novels, Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic, to reading in several diverse environments in exciting New York City, including a local coffee shop in Bushwick, a local bar in Bushwick, and my bed (also in Bushwick). I highly doubt that any reader will find this carefully thought-out method to be anything but utterly agreeable.
New York City Subway
It almost seems unfair; Faces in the Crowd actually depicts a NYC subway car on its cover. Its short, poetic prose, served to the reader as connected vignettes, is a match made in heaven for a ride on the L train, infested with hipsters either listening to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” by The Smiths on their iPhones, or talking loudly to their twenty-something friends about failed Tinder dates. You don’t need an attention span to read Faces in the Crowd. You could even consider displacing it on one of those orange plastic seats, to see if the book actually starts reading itself for you.
Baba Yaga, on the other hand, is an outright hassle to get through on the subway. The literary style is dense; it’s difficult to stay focused in the midst of the IT’S SHOWTIME boys breakdancing on the poles, the occasional evangelist, the Alicia Keys wannabe, and whoever else demands my attention in the subway car.
I really shouldn’t be allowed to read good literature. They should give literary licenses to responsible adults only.
GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 1 – Croatia 0)
Local Bushwick Coffee Shop
Three mornings a week, I buy a breakfast bagel and a coffee from a Colombian sunbeam of a woman. She greets me with the words, “morning sweetie, what can I get for you,” forever in the midst of entertaining the rest of the coffee shop with tales from her home country. The day I bring in my World Cup of Literature titles to read, she speaks fondly of her single-parent upbringing while taking my order.
“My mother used to beat me with a belt. Taught me not to make the same mistake twice, oh no,” she says, and laughs. I laugh too.
“I bet your mother never beat you,” she says to me, and I tell her she is right. Then we laugh again.
This morning I find myself in awe of Baba Yaga. Ugresic’s nightmarishly truthful depiction of a mother-daughter relationship through the first eighty pages of the book puts words to situations that I’ve become only too familiar with, ever since my mother’s illness transformed her into a Baba Yaga when I was twenty. Ugresic is clearly a literary master unworthy of my judgment, and oops, what’s that piece of information I overlooked on the cover? “Nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.”
GOAL TO CROATIA.
(Mexico 1 – Croatia 1)
The sun is burning my Scandinavian scalp, while my blond mane is drenching the forehead and neck in sweat. I buy 3-dollar water from a cart in the park and curse the smirking salesman for just about three minutes in my head, a minute per dollar, I guess. It’s gross out, and I don’t feel like dealing with the heaviness of Baba Yaga’s 327 pages. I find a bench in the shade, try to read a few pages, but must admit defeat. Once again, I pull out Faces in the Crowd. It’s easy to get back into, it’s the guilty pleasure of having sex with your ex—it’s effortless:
Milk, diaper, vomiting and regurgitation, cough, snot, and abundant dribble. The cycles now are short, repetitive, and imperative. It’s impossible to try to write. The baby looks at me from her high chair: sometimes with resentment, sometimes with admiration. Maybe with love, if we are indeed able to love at that age. She produces sounds that will have a hard time adapting themselves to Spanish, when she learns to speak it. Closed vowels, guttural opinions. She speaks a bit like the characters in a Lars von Trier movie.
Admittedly, I have a soft spot for Lars, so Luiselli naturally scores with me right there, on a sweaty bench in Riverside Park. I think of an old boyfriend who took me to see Antichrist in the movie theatre. He was really into soccer.
GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 2 – Croatia 1)
In Bed In Bushwick
“Is that about Baba Yaga?” my new friend asks, as we lie down to read on my bed, belly first.
“Yeah, kind of,” I say. We look like book seals, although that’s not a thing.
“She’s that witch who eats children, right! Is that book going to win?”
“I don’t know, it’s kind of a masterpiece, but it’s also kind of hard to get through. I think I like this one better,” I say, and tap the cover of Faces in the Crowd.
“Well, I think this one should win!” he says, and pushes Baba Yaga closer to me. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are playing on Spotify as I begin reading. I was going to put on The Smiths, but decided we were not quite there yet.
I discover that the second section of the book is much sillier than the first; the humor is kind of adorable. I especially enjoy the scene where an elderly woman, Beba, is getting a massage from the young Mevlo:
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.
I tell my new friend that Baba Yaga is pretty great. I also tell him that he has a huge cock.
We met on Tinder.
GOAL TO CROATIA
(Mexico 2 – Croatia 2)
Local Bushwick Bar
I’m ordering a completely legitimate Tuesday counter-drink, hair of the dog. A counter-Bacardi rum and coke; it has to be exactly the same as the night before, or it won’t help. At this point, there is no point in denying the obvious, I tell the bartender, as Brazil fails to shine against Mexico on the TV behind him.
I don’t feel like reading Baba Yaga right now. I feel like reading Faces in the Crowd. There, I said it.
GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 3 – Croatia 2)
Katrine Øgaard Jensen is an Editor-at-Large for Asymptote, and the Editor-in-Chief for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University, majoring in Fiction and Literary Translation.
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .