The new issue of PEN America, PEN’s literary journal, came out during last week’s World Voices Festival. As always, it’s loaded with good stuff, including excerpts of Marcelo Figueras’s Kamatchka, Andrzej Sosnowski’s Lodgings, Herve Le Tellier’s erotic as hell The Sextine Chapel, and Quim Monzo’s Guadalajara. (BTW, the Monzo story, “Literature,” is absolutely amazing.)
Additionally, this issue contains a lot of pieces from the 48th Congress of International PEN, which took place back in 1986, and became the basis for this year’s Festival since it “explored how writers use their imagination naturally and gracefully to speak to one another across boundaries, and the way governments, too, are capable of using their vision to improve the world’s troubles.” Included in this issue are pieces by Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, John Barth, Salman Rushdie, Kobo Abe, Danilo Kis, Adam Zagajewski, Gunter Grass, Margaret Atwood, etc., etc. (Really looking forward to exploring all this.)
But the main reason I’m writing this post is to praise “The Good Books: A Forum.” Basically, this grew out of the idea that all the writers at the festival could bring a book they love and swap it with the Gideon Bible in the hotel where they were staying. (BTW, DO IT!!! This should become common practice among all.)
Instead, PEN put together this feature in which scads of authors recommended the one book they would bring to some sort of mythical “book swap.” The Book of Disquiet by Pessoa was recommended any dozen number of times, and Don Quixote got plugged a couple times. The whole list is interesting, but for obvious reasons, the one that caught my eye was Karen Russell’s The Ambassador:
Bragi Olafsson’s English language debut, The Ambassador, is the strange, hilarious, and brilliant story of Sturla Jon Jonsson, a building superintendent who also happens to be a venerated Icelandic poet. He’s on his way to Lithuania to represent his nation at a literary festival, opening the door for all kinds of scathingly funny insights into the “situation of the writer.” It’s a tricky book to paraphrase—boozy, literary Icelandic black comedy? Icelandic picaresque? No “elevator story” exists for it, according to the book’s publisher, the fabulous Open Letter. It’s unlike anything else out there, anda joy to read. Sturla gets into all sorts of jams over the course of this short, weird novel, from being accused of nicking his latest poetry collection from a dead cousin to losing his overcoat, the only piece of clothing with a high thread count that this starving artist has ever owned. Kafkaesque yuks and keen insight are brought to you by the badass genius translator Lytton Smith—one of my favorite poets and author of the acclaimed debut The All-Purpose Magical Tent—and he uses all his creativity and rigor here, as well as his deep knowledge of Icelandic culture. Sturla’s inimitable voice can now infuriate and delight an American crowd.
You can purchase your own copy of The Ambassador by clicking here, and you can get PEN America right here. (FYI: this post is so on top of things that the new issue isn’t even available for sale yet. But it should be up there momentarily.)
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. . .