So, my 9-year-old daughter recently moved to a new school—one that encourages its students to participate in something called Odyssey of the Mind. If you’re not familiar with this, which I totally wasn’t, it’s basically a competition in which teams perform different tasks that highlight “creativity”: some build a new form of transportation, others make a funny haunted house, or some, like my daughter’s group, act out a scene from a historic royal court and then act out one from an imagined court.
All sounds great, right? Kids learning to work together, doing something that doesn’t involve the Disney channel, learning to compete, etc.
And maybe this is great for some people. But with a team consisting of all fourth grade girls? HOLY SHIT. Basically, our weekly meetings are a competition to see which girl can be the loudest, the most distracting, the “funniest,” mostly at the expense of the hearing and sanity of the two adult coaches. You ever want to know what tinnitus is like? Attend one of these gatherings. WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.
Here’s a little breakdown of how last night’s meeting went just to give you an idea.
Five girls descend upon this poor woman’s house. They great each other banshee style, and are seemingly incapable of understanding that when everyone talks simultaneously, no one hears anything. Keep in mind that these kids all go to the same school, are in the same class, and just saw each other about two hours ago. (As will become clear, spending time around gaggles of young children is turning me into Andy fucking Rooney.)
The primary coach of the team tries, valiantly, but unsuccessfully, to describe once again the nature of the “problem” our team has to work on. Basically, it went a little something like this:
Coach: We need to start by learning about a real king and queen.
Girl #1: KING ARTHUR! THAT WAS A KING!
Girl #2: I LOVE FASHION. I WILL DESIGN ALL THE ROBES.
Girl #3: CAN I BE THE QUEEN? WAIT, I’M THE JESTER!
Girl #4: DO WE HAVE SNACK TONIGHT?
Girl #1: CLEOPATRA! QUEEN ELIZABETH! HENRY THE VIII!
Girl #4: CAUSE, LIKE I’M REALLY HUNGRY.
Coach: Well, yes, if you’d all just listen for a—
Girl #3: WE CAN MAKE A SONG AND THE QUEEN CAN DANCE AND WE CALL ALL BE FUNNY AND OMG I LOVE SEAN!
Girl #2: DID YOU SEE JESSICA’S HAIR TODAY? I CAN BRAID MY HAIR JUST LIKE THAT.
Girl #1: KINGS OF LEON!
In an attempt to remain sane, we let the girls spend 15 minutes researching kings and queens and decrees on their own. This was totally pointless, obviously, but helped to keep the total number of kid strangulations close to zero.
What I hadn’t realized before last night is that kids believe that Siri is the one and only gateway to knowledge. These kids had computers and iPads and phones and all the normal stuff, but not a single one of them went to Wikipedia, or used Google, or anything. They all just took turns yelling shit at Siri and expecting her to provide the answer. Their questions ranged from the reasonable, yet too complex for Siri, “WHAT DECREES DID QUEEN ELIZABETH MAKE?” to the utterly ridiculous “WHAT KING SHOULD WE DO OUR PROJECT ON TO WIN ODYSSEY OF THE MIND?” I always wondered who actually used Siri for things other than cracking wise (“Siri! What is a butt, Siri!”) or setting alarms (“Wake me up when I’m not hungover.”)—it is children. I have seen the future and it is a bunch of hyperactive homunculi expecting a non-existent woman to provide answers to the mysteries of life. We should all be afraid.
We coaches try and regroup and gain control of the team, but shit is too far gone. One girl has decided that the best research option is to play “Call Me Maybe” at like 200,000 decibels, so as to drown out the other screeching noises erupting from her teammates. Obviously.
Our only option to overthrow this band of renegade fourth graders is to bring out the snacks.
Every parent knows this next part. Snacks—which I remember as being peanut butter and celery, crackers, Hi-C, etc.—have become super-potent sugar transporters specially designed to transform every normal kid into Animal from the Muppets.
For example, last night’s snack was popcorn (good, good), fruit juice (made with exactly 1% real juice and 99% aspartame!), and pixy stick infused candy canes. I am not shitting you. As if a candy cane wasn’t sweet enough that we need to actually inject it with ANOTHER CANDY, one that’s simply colored sugar.
Five minutes after they all ingested this terrible Franken-candy, I was ready to bust out a plate of Ritalin and let them snort it until they were zombified. That’s what people should be injecting into candy canes.
In addition to their planned performance, each team also has to participate in a “Spontaneous Challenge” in which they’re given a problem that’s either verbal, hands-on, or hands-on and verbal (don’t ask) and have to solve it in five minutes. According to the coaching manual, this is the part that almost all the teams suck at, so you’re supposed to practice it a lot.
We decided to start with a verbal challenge. The group would be given a question, and then go around in a circle throwing out as many responses as possible in a five minute time period. Each answer would get 0, 1, or 5 points based on creativity, and you would lose points if more than one team member spoke at once. (Needless to say, our team ended with -46.)
Coach: So, here’s your question: “Name something that causes pain, and what pain it causes.”
Girl #1: WELL, SO, UM, DIVORCE? DIVORCE CAUSES PAIN IN YOUR HEART.
Game. Fucking. Over.
After that creepy, heart-breaking answer, everything devolved into a sort of therapy session with all the girls confessing to things that they felt guilty about:
Girl #2: YOU KNOW WHEN YOU TURN SOMEONE DOWN FROM BEING YOUR FRIEND? THAT HURTS IN YOUR CHEST.
Girl #3: WHEN YOU TELL SOMEONE THEIR CLOTHES ARE UGLY IT HURTS ALL OVER HERE (waiving hand over her head and face).
Girl #4: I THREW A BALL AT MY BROTHER AND BROKE HIS LEG. THAT HURT HIS LEG AND MY BRAIN.
Girl #5: FIVE. SQUIRREL. FOUR.
All Girls: HYSTERICAL LAUGHTER
Our official competition is sometime in March. Wish me luck. Not them—they’re totally fine with showing up juiced on Pixy Crack, yelling over top of everyone, and losing by a million points. I just hope my mind—and ears—can last that long.
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov (NYRB)
Probably the book I’m most looking forward to this month. Sigizmund UNPRONOUNCEABLE NAME was one of Russia’s wildest authors of the twentieth century—which is saying a lot. Adjectives tend to fall short in describing his surreal, fantastical, satirical stories, but here’s a great description from Adam Thirlwell’s introduction to this volume:
Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction is based on the fact that language makes things possible that are not possible in reality. If there is a word for “role” and a word for “character,” then naturally it follows, according to this method, that the two could possess separate existences. Or, to put this maybe more precisely, he investigated whether the distinction between what is possible in language and reality is even tenable at all. And so the central mechanism of this writing is metaphor (“a three-by-four-inch slip of paper torn from the notepad had miraculously turned into lodgings measuring one hundred square fee”)—the hinge between animate and inanimate objects, which allows figures of speech to acquire a strange kind of life.
Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitkin (Dutton)
When Kaija and I were in Copenhagen, we had a chance to meet with Martin Aitkin, one of the premiere Danish translators working today. He’s a great guy, is constantly booked with translation job after translation job (including a lot of Danish mysteries), and showed up to our meeting wearing a My Bloody Valentine t-shirt. That’s bad ass.
A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston (Archipelago Books)
How many times can we mention this on Three Percent in one week? I read this over the holiday weekend, and although it’s not as immediately gripping and hysterical as Stone Upon Stone, it’s a really solid novel—one of my favorites from this year. I’m planning on writing a real review of it in the near future, but in short, it’s a novel about an old Pole whose village was annihilated in World War II and his ensuing adventures as an electrician and saxophone player. Similar to Stone Upon Stone, the novel runs off of his voice and elliptical story-telling style. Bill Johnston hit another home run with this translation. He’s an absolute genius.
The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Wakefield Press)
This is a combination of a bunch of things I love: Wakefield Press (simply amazing books, and so well designed), Edward Gauvin, pataphysics, and, from the jacket copy, this collection includes a story about “secret societies so secret that one cannot know if one is a member of not.” SOLD.
The King of China by Tilman Rammstedt, translated from the Germany by Katy Derbyshire (Seagull Books)
This novel just sounds like fun. At least at first. It’s about a guy and his grandfather pretending to be on a trip to China, sending wild letters back to their family about their “Chinese adventures.” Along the way though, the grandfather dies unexpectedly and Keith is left writing longer and stranger letters about all sorts of bizarre things, like “non-stop dental hygiene shows on television, dog vaccinations at the post office,” and anything but news of their grandfather’s death and his ruse . . . Plus Katy Derbyshire is definitely on my list of books I read because I like the translator . . .
In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Even though Esposito shit on this in his recent BTBA post, I actually want to find some time to at least check it out. Molina is a masterful writer, and Scott’s logic—that he’s already read War and Peace so why read the War and Peace of Spain’s Civil War—is incredibly dismissive and flawed. By his logic, since I’ve read Don Quixote, all of contemporary literature can fuck itself. Besides, the Spanish Civil War is fascinating.
Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by John Keene (Nightboat Books)
Hilda Hilst is like Clarice Lispector’s raunchy twin sister. In a literary sense of course. Her books are just as experimental as Lispector’s, but are much dirtier. In an strange, complicated, experimental way of course.
Here’s a bit about Hilst from Triple Canopy:
In 1990, the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst—a prolific writer of experimental poems, plays, and fiction, beloved by initiates and completely unknown to the broader public—declared herself fed up with the punishing obscurity of high art and started writing smut for money and fame. Really filthy stuff, like a pornographic memoir narrated by a nine-year-old girl. The literary critics, those few but loyal readers, were left baffled and betrayed. “I think money delicious,” Hilst explained, chain-smoking her way through interviews that accompanied the celebrity with which she was instantly rewarded. She said the idea came to her after witnessing the international success of The Blue Bicycle, a hugely popular erotic French novel—Fifty Shades of Gray for the 1980s. She figured she could make a buck the same way.
Or, at least, that’s one of the versions of events that Hilst slyly propagated. In fact, the bizarre series of obscene books she wrote in the early ’90s—three novels and one collection of poetry—is far from possessing broad popular appeal; the stunt brought Hilst more recognition as a personality than as a writer, and she never got to taste much money.
Clisson and Eugénie by Napoleon Bonaparte, translated from the French by Peter Hicks (Gallic Books)
Not to make fun of Gallic Books—they’re doing a lot of great stuff, including a Pascal Garnier book that I’m really looking forward to—but this “novel” by Napoleon consists of: a 13-page introduction, an 8-page afterword, a 28-page interpretation, a 5-page “Brief History of the Manuscript,” a 3-page “Note to the Readers,” and a 20-page novel. For those keeping track at home, Napoleon’s novel makes up exactly 26% of this total volume.
The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely (Penguin)
The description on Penguin’s site is a bit lacking (SPOILER ALERT: The “Summary” is completely blank), but regardless, I’d read this anyway just because Maureen Freely translated it. Her essay in In Translation about translating Orhan Pamuk is one of the strongest in that collection and has turned me into a Freely Fanatic. Thanks to her essay I’m finally getting around to reading Pamuk’s Snow, and then will dive into this book.
Kopenhaga by Grzegorz Wroblewski, translated from the Polish by Piotr Gwiazda (Zephyr Press)
Pretty sure this is the first poetry collection to appear on one of monthly round-ups. I wrote about this collection a while back though, and I still love these two poems:
You will survive in the minds of distant relatives and cousins, in their memories of you . . . (Motherfuckers! What if they deliberately choose to forget you!) And then, when they also depart, you will be no more.
You’ve got to watch experimental films! Underground. Underground poets. Tripping. Alcohol and sluts. Everything experimental. Nothing ordinary. (A: “Alcohol slows your reflexes.” B: “What reflexes?” A: “Your judgment.” B: “Is judgment reflexive?” A: “Fuck off.”)
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim (Penguin)
After all that above, it seems fitting to end on a nice, charming, polite, allegorical novel about a hen.
This is the story of a hen named Sprout. No longer content to lay eggs on command, only to have them carted off to the market, she glimpses her future every morning through the barn doors, where the other animals roam free, and comes up with a plan to escape into the wild—and to hatch an egg of her own.
An anthem for freedom, individuality and motherhood featuring a plucky, spirited heroine who rebels against the tradition-bound world of the barnyard, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a novel of universal resonance that also opens a window on Korea, where it has captivated millions of readers. And with its array of animal characters—the hen, the duck, the rooster, the dog, the weasel—it calls to mind such classics in English as Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web.
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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. . .
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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. . .