Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
The news has been worse than usual this year, so I’ve been particularly thankful for books that make me laugh. Here are some of the funniest contenders – in what I’m sure is just a coincidence, they all take place in the 1980s and involve either children or Soviets or both.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is narrated by a little boy named Orestes who lives in a very small, very poor town in Mexico. His father’s favorite activity is cursing the police, while his mother spends most of her time making quesadillas to feed Orestes and his numerous siblings (all similarly named after figures of Greek tragedy). When the family’s two youngest children, the twins Castor and Pollux, disappear, it sets off a chain of wild events that culminates with the appearance of some extraterrestrial visitors.
But before the aliens get involved, Orestes runs away to make his fortune, and so the book becomes a kind of sad, but hilarious, parody of a poor boy’s rags-to-riches story. Villalobos’ novel, originally titled Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (“If we lived somewhere normal”), criticizes a system of poverty and corruption that is, of course, not limited to Mexico, all while delivering lines so colorful and surprising that you can’t help but laugh.
Another tale narrated by a clever, resourceful, and chronically poor child, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki (translated by Stephen Henighan) moves the scene to Angola. The novel is populated by a cast of odd, lovable characters, including the eponymous Soviet, called Comrade Gudafterov by the children for his habit of greeting everyone with a solemn “Gudafter-noon,” no matter the time of day. Though there are moment in the plot when things seem to be getting dangerous, nothing really terrible actually happens, and we are left with an unusually vivid sense not only of the Angola of Ondjaki’s own childhood, but of the general texture of childhood itself. Stephen Henighan has done a particularly fine job conveying the range of Ondjaki’s style – the Soviet’s comically broken Portuguese and the narrator’s fleeting moments of poetry, for example, seem to arrive in English with equal ease.
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov (translated by Katherine Dovlatov) is not narrated by a child. Rather, our hero is Soviet version of the superfluous man – poor, highly sensitive to literature, perpetually drunk, and somehow badly equipped for life. After a divorce and at the end of his rope, he arrives one summer at Pushkin’s country estate, looking for work as a tour guide. His ensuing adventures are punctuated by witty-one liners worthy of a vodka-soaked Oscar Wilde (“Are you good friends [with Mitrofanov]?” someone asks the narrator, who replies, “I’m good friends with his bad side.”), but overall, the novel owes more to Bulgakov, whose humor builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, until suddenly the entire situation is absurd. The book, like all my favorite Russian tales, is a tragicomedy, one of the saddest and funniest to appear this year.Tweet
I’ve been incredibly discouraged over the past few weeks about the place of Open Letter in book culture. Part of this discouragement comes from traveling for twenty of the past twenty-four days (to Sharjah, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, L.A., and DC), but also, Open Letter didn’t get a single book on this Flavorwire List of the 50 Best Independent Fiction and Poetry Books of 2014, (which, whatfuckingever, all lists are just lists, and this one is better than most, but I truly believe that at least one of our books was in the top 50), nor did we get a book on the never-ending, longer than Betty White’s career, longlist of books for this year’s IMPAC Prize (and yes, this “longlist” contains 149 fricking books, including one by Jodi Picoult!). (And don’t get me started on Rochester Business Journal’s “40 Under 40,” which I again, and for the final time, didn’t make. Then again if there’s one thing the city of Rochester doesn’t understand, it’s literature.)
So, on Friday night, when I got to Kramerbooks in DC for a “Rep Night” organized by Jeff Waxman of Other Press, and noticed that Kramerbooks didn’t stock a single Open Letter title, I was basically ready to just give up. Slinging books that no one in the world seems to care about is as thankless and pathetic as it can get.
(Although I want to make a critical, annoying point right here: No one is outraged that this store didn’t bring in even a single Open Letter title, even though I spent $500 and my weekend flying down, bringing them books, buying them pizza and beer. That’s insulting. And bad business. Yet, according to most everyone, that’s the bookstore’s choice. They don’t have to stock our books. But when Amazon doesn’t stock Hachette? That’s an attack on authors and book culture. It’s an understandable, yet weird double-standard. I wish Amazon didn’t carry Hachette or any of the Big Five. More space for Open Letter titles. Same thing goes for other bookstores. Get rid of the weeds so the good literature can grow!)
Despite all my misanthropic inclinations to skip the rep night and sit in my room drinking myself blind, I powered on, gave a half-entertaining presentation, and had a great time hanging out with a lot of DC booksellers and librarians. (I also found out why our books weren’t in Kramer’s, and I really hope our DC-area sales rep shows up to his next meeting with the store.)
Offsetting my gloom and pessimism—not just at this event, but basically all the time—is Jeff Waxman of Other Press. Jeff used to work at Seminary Co-op and has special ties to booksellers around the country. A major part of his job at Other Press is to serve as a bookstore liaison and get booksellers excited about his books, displaying them, reading them, recommending them, etc. And these “rep nights” are one of the ways that he’s able to mobilize a lot of booksellers (and publishers) to get the word out in a fun, engaging, special way.
I’m not sure how many of these Jeff has done, but I was able to participate in one in Chicago last January that was astronomically effective in getting Open Letter titles into Chicago stores. We already had a lot of fans there—at Unabridged, Seminary, Book Cellar, etc.—but being able to meet with these booksellers face-to-face makes a huge difference.
That’s a cliche of the highest order, but when you live in the sticks of Rochester, NY (the only city more removed from book culture in the U.S. is probably Toronto) and rely almost exclusively on communication through email and social media, talking to a bookseller personally is hugely important.
And for booksellers, this must be thrilling. In addition to beer and pizza, you get individual presentations from New York Review Books, Soho Press, Other Press, Melville House, Grove, Open Letter, and New Directions and copies of their forthcoming books. Even if the usual suspects will still outsell all Open Letter books at these various bookstores, at least now there’s a chance that our books will be stocked, that faces won’t be blank when our rep shows up and talks about this “small indie press specializing in international literature.”
So, thanks to Jeff Waxman for doing these, for helping engage booksellers around the country and for allowing my grumpy ass to participate in a couple of these. I hope that Other Press will continue to set these up throughout the country, and that Open Letter will be invited to participate in at least a few. As retro as it seems, this is the future of publisher-bookseller relations, and getting booksellers excited about a title is definitely worth the price of a few six-packs and a pizza.Tweet
For those of you in the Austin and Dallas, Texas, areas, you’re in for a literary treat this week. Valerie Miles will be in Austin tonight (Tuesday), November 18th, at Malvern Books, and in Dallas tomorrow (Wednesday), November 29th, at The Wild Detectives to chat about A Thousand Forests in One Acorn.
Malvern Books: Tuesday, November 18th @ 7 p.m.
The Wild Detectives: Wednesday, November 19th @ 7 p.m.
The size of a book shouldn’t really matter, not when judging whether or not it’s Best Translated Book Award-worthy, but one of the things that has struck me about this year’s batch of eligible titles is that page- if not quality-wise many of the pickings are slimmer than usual.
Mind you, I’m still reeling from 2011 and the memories of (lugging, not to mention reading) Péter Nádas’s 1133-pager Parallel Stories …. (I don’t even want to think about 2009 and Jonathan Littell’s … let’s say unfortunate near-1000 page The Kindly Ones.) So, yes, there’s something to be said for shorter books – beginning with the logistical advantages, of getting through them, as well as the quicker variety moving from one to the next allows for (getting bogged down in a 500-pager is very different (and more drawn-out-painful) than getting bogged down in a book of 100 pages …).
Last year’s shortlist had quite a few substantial books: if not quite the norm, there were a decent number of 400+ page books, including the winning title. Hell, 400 pages seemed almost unremarkable. Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time topped 600, and along the way there had been longer books too: Goliarda Sapienza’s The Art Of Joy was just short of 700 pages, France Daigle’s For Sure easily topped that.
Quite a few 2014 books make it into the 400 page range – including obvious contenders for at least the final award-stages (longlist, shortlist): this year’s Knausgaard (My Struggle: Book Three), just like last year’s; this year’s Ferrante (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay), just like last year’s …. But there just don’t seem to be that many other bulky books. And there seem to be a lot of very slim ones.
True, we’re unlikely ever to have an entry as short as last year’s Her Not All Her — Elfriede Jelinek’s longlisted … well, it was barely a forty-page pamphlet. But the pile of top titles that come in at under a hundred pages is surprising.
Among my favorites this year has been Julio Cortázar’s (comic book-)inspired Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires (87 generously illustrated pages), which is about the most fun I’ve had reading any of these books this year. With cameos by Susan Sontag and Alberto Moravia this is … well, wild barely begins to describe it. But the writing (and translation, by David Kurnick) is sharp, and, despite being almost forty years old, it feels surprisingly topical and current.
Arno Camenisch’s The Alp (82 pages) is just one of what seems like dozens of Dalkey Archive Press entries in the 100-page-range (it’s not dozens, but there are quite a few). Here is an author who works in both German and Romansh (the fourth official language of Switzerland) – a challenge Donal McLaughlin seems quite up to here.
There’s a second Haruki Murakami book due out this year, too — The Strange Library, another book that counts as “heavily illustrated” and still doesn’t make it to a hundred pages. There’s a fairly new Murakami translator at work here too – one we haven’t read in the previous translations, Ted Goosen — and while it is a very small piece (and competes against the other Murakami in the running this year, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, translated by older Murakami-hand Philip Gabriel) can’t be discounted at this early stage.
Some good-looking short story collections come in under the century-mark — Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water and Kjell Askildsen’s Selected Stories among them – but I’m particularly surprised by the number of novels of this size. And by how many of them punch considerably above their weight: Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog Eyes is probably only sustainable over this length, while Jean Echenoz’s just over 100-page 1914 is a master-class in economical storytelling.
Others under 100 pages include the almost obligatory annual diminutive César Aira – Conversations this year (88 pages) – and Antonio Skármeta’s A Distant Father. Special mention has to go to Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences, a volume we weren’t expecting until next year until he was named this year’s Nobel laureate, leading Yale University Press to push up the publication date: it consists of ‘Three Novellas’, filling just over 200 pages – but in France (and elsewhere) the slim volumes have also been published individually. Almost unfair for the Nobel laureate to get three chances to wow the judges in one go (and, helped along by translator Mark Polizzotti, who seems to have a really good feel for Modiano’s style, he certainly wowed this one).
So are there any fat chance-counterweights to these slim pickings? As I said, a couple of contenders make it into the 400 page range, but beyond that the choices are few and far between. Some thrillers and the like but from what I’ve seen so far, nothing that could make a serious dent (sorry, Zoran Drvenkar’s You may have an intriguing range of voices, but … yeah, sorry, no). The best 500+ pagers I’ve checked out so far are Leonardo Padura’s Trotsky novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, which has the qualities that could put it on the longlist, and Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Victus, which also turns out to be a nice surprise. But they both do sag a bit under their weight – always the danger with the long ones.
The one I’m most curious about is one I haven’t seen yet: H.G. Adler’s The Wall (a reported 656 pages), the last in a trilogy that has impressed so far. This comes with some very good buzz, so I definitely see some potential here. Of course, I do have to see it before I can properly judge …..
We’re used to meaty books when it comes to fiction in translation, as if length were more proof of a book’s weighty worthiness. From the biggest Bolaños and recent BTBA winners Myśliwski and (2x) Krasznahorkai they never entirely shoved smaller works aside, but maybe had an easier time making more of a big impression. I wonder whether we’ll now see a shift towards some of this smaller work – looking even stronger this year than usual.Tweet
This post is being written under extreme jet lag. Last Saturday I flew out to attend the Sharjah International Book Fair (the slogan for which is “A Book for Every Person,” which is not to be confused with Dubai’s Film Festival slogan, “A Movie for Every Person”) and then, yesterday, flew for approximately 200 hours to attend this season’s Consortium Sales Conference. I have no idea what day it is, much less what time. So, expect some insanity below. Like, even more than usual.
Which is kind of in keeping with the part of the United Arab Emirates where I just was. For anyone who doesn’t know, Sharjah is basically a twenty-minute drive from Dubai, which is an hour or so from Abu Dhabi. This is a part of the world that doesn’t understand the concept of “right-sized.” This is particularly true in Dubai, where the Burj Khalifa makes the rest of the skyscrapers in the world look like dollhouse toys.
This building, which I think looks like something a Fantastic Four cosmic villain would crash into our planet, is next to the largest “mall” ever. (I think. I am in Minneapolis right now though, where the Mall of America people have something to say about that.) Mall is in quotes because a shopping mall shouldn’t have a 10 million gallon aquarium and an olympic-sized hockey rink and an amusement park and a massive dancing fountain. According to Wikipedia (The Worlds Finest Source of Accurate Information ™), over 750,000 people visit the mall every week. That’s fucked.
Unlike my other trips to the UAE, this time I planned ahead and booked a trip to the top of the Burj Khalifa. That’s basically what big buildings are there for, right?—to go up to the top and repeat over and over, “Wow! Look how far I can see! I’m so high!! This is totally cray!”
The most interesting part of the “At the Top” experience are these cool digital cameras that allow you to look out over Dubai and, with the click of a button, see what it looks like at night, in the day, and “historically.” The historical setting is fascinating because, spoiler alert!, all it shows you is fucking sand. Miles and miles of sand. A flat, barren desert. The gigantic lagoon adjacent to the Burj Khalifa? Completely manmade. I searched and searched and finally found a historical group of tiny houses that has now been replaced by three ginormous buildings. That’s Dubai in a nutshell—a futuristic metropolis dropped onto a formerly sterile landscape. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the UAE didn’t exist until 1972. It’s barely older than I am.
There are dozens of great pieces that have been written about the bizarre nature of Dubai. (And about the horrible way immigrants are treated there. More on that below.) But what interests me is why this all came about. At risk of sounding completely ignorant, which I am, Dubai and Abu Dhabi seem almost non-Arab when compared to the other Arabic countries in the world. I know Sheik Zayed was the force behind the creation of the UAE and, I think, a lot of these mega-projects, but why? Why did everyone decide to scrap the existing ways of life, the traditional Arab nation, and choose to make something that’s almost a parody of itself. (When I was in the Dubai Mall with Janis Oga of the Latvian Literature Center, we couldn’t decide if this was the greatest thing ever or the end of the world. It’s both.)
Along those same lines, how do the other Arab nations react to the UAE sheiks? Granted, Sheik Abu Dhabi and Sheik Dubai have tons and tons of oil, thus power and money, and Sheik Sharjah has the biggest book fair!, but do these other leaders really consult them on larger Arab world issues? Or are they just dismissed for the constant catering to ex-pats, allowing them to get wasted, sing karaoke in hotel bars, and display styles of clothing that are “inappropriate” in most surrounding countries, like Kuwait and Qatar.
It just seems so weird to me that this city just popped up out of seemingly nowhere and doesn’t really fit. I tried to find a book about this (and about the construction of the Burj Khalifa) when I was in the World’s Largest Bookstore in the Dubai Mall, but I came up empty. Someone needs to write this book. I want those stories, that context. I’ll bet it would be fascinating.
Indigo by Clemens Setz, translated from the Germany by Ross Benjamin (W.W. Norton)
I’m almost done reading this, and will definitely write a full review in the upcoming weeks. It’s a strange book about “Indigo Children,” kids who make everyone within a 12-foot radius physically sick. Parents get headaches, rashes, nosebleeds, and this before the kids are teenagers! Structurally, it’s also really interesting, with two time lines and two narrators: Clemens Setz, a former teacher who lost his job working with I-Children and is now researching the phenomenon, and Robert Tätzel, a “burnt-out” Indigo who knew Setz and struggles to keep his shit together. There’re a lot of ideas at play here, which is probably why Pynchon is referenced in the jacket copy. (Although unlike Pynchon’s books, Indigo really isn’t that funny.) Definitely worth checking out. I think there will be a lot of reviews for this in the next few weeks.
End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)
A new Erpenbeck is always cause for celebration, and this one sounds like one of her best. It’s basically five books in one, each leading to the death of an unnamed female protagonist. Repetition and difference! Also, Susan Bernofsky. Another book that’s a must and which will be talked about a lot in the next month.
My least favorite panel at the Sharjah Book Fair was “Show Me the Money! New Business Models for Digital and Digital Book Business.” First off, that phrase. So stupid. And, as you can predict, none of the people on here—all brilliant, all great in their own way—said anything specific about any new business models. Instead, they collectively came in second for working in the most trite cliches into one presentation. “Print and e will always co-exist!” “You have to digitize and monetize your source material!” “The future is digital!” AAARRGGHHH!
(BTW, John Ingram—“I prefer win-win solutions to win-lose,” “I own failure and share success”—won the “Most Cliches per Minute” contest. His talk was some Guiness World Records style shit.)
The one “idea” that was proposed as a digital business model was based on an app that’s popular in Brussels. Apparently, when you get on the subway, you can click this app, tell it the length of your journey, like 30 minutes or an hour, and it will “provide the user with the appropriate amount of content.” First off, that really is how these people talk. “Content” and “users” and “digital environment.” Based on those phrases, I assume this “content” is literally just a string of nouns and random adjectives. Fuck art, we just need thirty minutes of text! Gross. But really, this idea is idiotic. Are people really too stupid to figure out what to read if they want to finish in thirty minutes? Is that even an important issue to anyone anywhere? That’s what fucking bookmarks are for. And magazines. “Users would love a content distribution system whereby they could get short pieces on a variety of topics that they could read while being transported.” “Holy shit! You’re a genius! Let’s build an app and call it ‘Magazine.’” Fuck everything.
The Cold Centre by Inka Parei, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Seagull Books)
One other thing that struck me during that panel was the way in which agents talk about “authors” instead of “books.” The agent on this panel brought it up a number of times in a number of different ways. The idea that a new book will help a reader (or “book user”) discover an author. That the industry must find business models that will allow authors to feed their family. Which raised a fundamental question to me: How many people really deserve to have a full-time career as a writer? Does the world need a million “writers” who produce a book every couple of years from the time they are 20 until they die?
I’m not arguing against professional novelists, but to be honest, most talented writers will produce 3 to 5 great books over their lifetime. If those books are successful, and the novelist can live off of that success, great. But publishing/the marketplace doesn’t owe them a lifetime of royalties just because they wrote one decent book. I might be too jet lagged to make my point clearly, but I think it’s a strange way of looking at the world. Authors have periods of creativity and it’s not terrible for them to have to have a second job teaching or doing something else. (Especially once their piece has been said and they start repeating themselves. Or if their last name is Franzen.)
Also, if we really believe this, that there should be hundreds of thousands of professional novelists, then we should adopt a more European model in which writers are actually supported by the government. We should set aside significant amounts of money (think the NEA times ten or more) to support the creation of culture. With a few exceptions—James Patterson, J. K. Rowling, Danielle Steel—the market is much more book-centric than author-centric.
Just Call Me Superhero by Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr (Europa Editions)
Last night I was going on and on about starting a publishing/bookselling war. That it’s ridiculous for Open Letter to be all, “well, it’s cool that Bookstore X can’t carry our books because they only have room for James Patterson and Penguin classics.” Or that Book Review Y doesn’t have space for our translations because they have to review the two that FSG came out with this year. That’s bullshit. You never hear a Hollywood producer say something like, “Well, at least people are seeing movies!” (Thanks to Caroline Casey for that joke.)
I think our books are better for the world than a lot of the books that are out there. I want to fight for our books and get them into the hands of as many readers as possible. And if this is somewhat of a zero-sum game (only so much shelf space, only so many reviews a year) then we should be fighting for our books to be included. Street of Thieves is a million times better than that Harry Quebert book. Yet that got all kinds of (mostly negative) reviews and has sold 20,000 copies via supermarkets. Fuck that shit. All that space should be given to the best books, not the ones with the largest marketing budget. Every time you sell or review John Grisham, a LOL Cat dies.
Traces by Gamal Al-Ghitani, translated from the Arabic by Nadar Uthman (Bloomsbury Qatar)
Finally, Bloomsbury Qatar books are coming out in the U.S.! Maybe. They’re not listed on Amazon, or B&N, or the Bloomsbury website, so this might not be out for a while. As soon as it is though, I’m going to get a copy. I LOVED The Zafarani Files and would love to publish a paperback version. (Supposedly University of Cairo Press has one in the works, but I haven’t seen an official listing yet.) Al-Ghitani is one of the most interesting modern Arabic authors I’ve read and I hope more of his books are translated. (And stocked, sold, reviewed, and read.)
Random Sharjah Jokes, Part I:
My favorite drink from last week was the “Sharjito.” It’s just like a mojito, but without alcohol. Refreshing and you can still wake up in the morning!
When I was in Dubai for the night, I found a hotel bar showing Arsenal’s Champions League game. (This is my superpower: finding sports bars in random cities.) Anyway, right next door was a bar where a live band was performing. As I went over there to check it out, I remembered the time I was in Abu Dhabi with Ed Nawotka and saw a live band perform “Zombie” by the Cranberries over and over again. It was like a one-hit wonder band of one-hit wonder songs. (Sorry sole Cranberry fan out there, but really.) Anyway, I walked into this Dubai bar, went to get a drink, and thought, “hmm, this baseline sounds really familiar,” just as the band started screaming “ZOMMMBIEE! ZAH-AHM-BEEEE!!!” What the fuck, UAE? This song wasn’t even that popular back in 1994. They followed this up with “Wiggle” (not even kidding) and then a reprise of “Zombie.” So inexplicable.
Beirut, Beirut by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated from the Arabic by Chip Rossetti (Bloomsbury Qatar)
One of the strangest parts of my Sharjah experience was the apples. Every time I left my hotel room, someone would come in and leave a plate of three apples in Saran Wrap along with a knife, fork, and plate. This happened over and over again for no apparent reason. And because this is how I am, I made it my mission to eat every last apple. There’s nothing like eating three apples in a row right before bed. The UAE is a crazy place.
Random Sharjah jokes, Part II:
This isn’t so much a joke as a disturbing experience. On the cab ride to Dubai, a sports car cut us off, pissing off my cabbie, “Fuck you rich man!” He then explained how all cabs are tagged in the UAE, and if you go a mile over the speed limit, or cut someone off, or do anything wrong at all, you are fined. In the four years he’d been there since moving from Pakistan, he’d accumulated 23,000 dirham in fines. (Like $7,000.) He works 14-hour days and can’t save any money. But the Petrol People race their Ferraris and cut us off and overall hold down the immigrant working class. This is some serious shit and is very much the dark side of this part of the world. He also told me about a fellow cabbie who, while swerving to avoid a car, injured the wrist of a passenger. He lost his passport for three months and was fined some huge amount of money. When he got the passport back, he tried to fly home and was denied at the airport because his fine hadn’t been settled. Literally indentured servitude, and such an insidious way of keeping the lower classes down.
I had to buy a notebook in Sharjah, and found this amazingly soft, really cool one that has all sorts of great facts on the back of it, like how to determine the volume of a cone and what a scalene triangle is. It also has useful symbols, including greater than (>), maps to (->), and symmetric difference (∆). I know that ∆ is “alt-j” thanks to the band, but I have no recollection of ever learning about “symmetric difference.” Apparently, it’s the non-overlapping part of a Venn Diagram. This is amazing and I want to figure out how to use it in a conversation.
By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila, translated from the Spanish by Laurel Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories)
On the flight to Sharjah, I read all of Carrere’s Limonov, and sat next to a really friendly Pakistani couple who were very curious about this book that I couldn’t put down. I explained what it was about, how crazy Limonov’s life was, all the various stages of his life, etc. The response? “No one’s going to read that. It’s too academic. I like to read too. Right now I’m reading Your Atomic Self. It’s about how we’re all made of atoms. Changes your perspective. But when I read, I read a paragraph and then like to sit back and think about it. I don’t know about this book of yours.”
This is why publishing can be a bit discouraging at times.
Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Open Letter)
The follow-up to Zone is finally available! And, unlike Zone, it includes a plethora of periods!
This book is really spectacular as it traces the young adulthood of a Moroccan boy who is kicked out of his family for fooling around with his cousin. He eventually gets to Spain where things don’t go much better for him, culminating in a really intense ending. The best thing about this novel is the encroaching sense of dread that builds throughout the narrative. You know things are just going to get worse, that something big is going to happen, but you’re never sure what or how or exactly why. It’s a great feeling and it takes a master to create such a suggestive atmosphere.
Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Two Lines Press)
This. “Asked to write a memoir, [NDiaye] turned in this paranoid fantasia of rising floodwaters, walking corpses, eerie depictions of her very own parents, and the incessant reappearance of women in green.”
Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti (Yale University Press)
Yale really got lucky with this book. Although Godine has a few Modiano books in print, I suspect that this trilogy, which contains some of Modiano’s most beloved novels, will sell amazingly well. If the Nobel Prize is good for one thing, it’s that it usually brings a lot of sales revenue to relatively small presses. Over the past few years, New Directions, University of Nebraska, Serpent’s Tail, Seagull Books, and Godine have all benefitted by having published that year’s Nobel Prize winner. And then all the pundits complain that they’ve never heard of these authors, probably because they’re too busy reading and writing about the trendy, of-the-moment books instead of the best ones. Great job, media! If there’s one moment every year that makes it clear that the U.S. book culture is out of joint with the rest of the world, it’s the announcement of the Nobel Prize.Tweet
George Carroll is the World Literature Editor of Shelf Awareness and an independent publishers’ representative based in the Pacific Northwest.
None of the San Francisco Giants spoke with pitcher Madison Bumgartner in the dugout before he took the mound in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series except for a brief exchange with his catcher Buster Posey. Partly due to superstition and partly because Bumgartner was intensely focused, was in the zone.
I’m currently in The Best Translated Book Award reading zone. Please do not distract.
This is so, in my mind, with longlist and the BTBA.
There’s an ultra-secret password-protected, for-your-eyes-only spreadsheet that the BTBA judges use that lists the title, author, translator, publisher, language, and country for each of the 2015 submissions. There is a column for each judge to place her notes or remarks. (Don’t try to access the spreadsheet, publishers, it will self-destruct quicker than Jim Phelps’ MI instructions.)
Fortunately my spreadsheet column is at the beginning of that section, just to the right of Katrine Osgaard Jensen’s. She uses a letter code, which I’m pretty sure I’ve cracked. But I scroll right no further, for therein lies the use of longlist, the word that assigns power, the word which can strip power. “Longlist contender, must longlist, short of longlist, no longlist.” It can draw you in (I better read this) or repel (I better move on to something else).
I just have a list. Books move around like the stairways at Hogwarts. (Did I mention I just watched all of the Harry Potter movies?) Books that I read early in the process that I thought were really good, were really good, but they’re not as really good in comparison with the other really good books that I’ve now read.
That doesn’t mean that some of the books I’ve read don’t keep popping up a like a literary Whac-a-Mole. But will they make it to l-word? I don’t know.
Milena Michiko Flasar’s I Called Him Necktie, Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain, Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery, both Bohumil Hrabal titles Harlequin’s Millions and Ramblin’ On, Carlos Labbe’s Navidad & Matanza, Michel Laub’s Diary of the Fall, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, Andres Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves, Roderigo Rey Rosa’s Severina, Paulo Scott’s Nowhere People, Solvi Bjorn Sigurdsson’s The Last Days of My Mother, Goncalo Tavares’ A Man: Klaus Klump, Antoine Volodine’s Writers, Christa Wolf’s August.
All have much to love and I can do no better than to arrange them alphabetically.
Cesar Aira’s Conversations, Roberto Bolano’s A Little Lumpen Novelita, Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes, Jorn Lier Horst’s The Hunting Dogs, Giulio Mozzi’s This is the Garden, Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November, Antonio Skarmeta’s A Distant Father, Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Quesdillas, Urs Widmer’s The Blue Soda Siphon.
Again, only alphabetical, all flawed in little ways, but solid nonetheless.
Predicting the longlist is a bit like handicapping horses: consistency, class, form, and pace. Books get boxed, parked out, shuffled back. Fortunately, I have miles to read before I sleep and need not place my bets until March.Tweet
For those who don’t know, it was announced this week that Volodine had been awarded the Prix Médicis for his latest book, Terminus radieux. The prize, which is awarded in November of each year, is a French literary award founded in 1958 by Gala Barbisan and Jean-Pierre Giraudoux. Congratulations to Volodine, whose works have been translated into English and published (or are forthcoming) by various presses, including University of Nebraska Press, Dalkey Archive, and Open Letter Books.
Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were one to read every book by Volodine and his pseudonyms, his driving philosophy would then become fully clear. It may not be meant to.
His novels return to the post-apocalypse, to prisons, psychiatric hospitals, interrogations, and writers. They trod familiar ground, the same characters reappear, and images are like memories half-remembered. The writers he creates not only belong in his universe, but create their own projects that fit within his—it’s turtles all the way down. Yet in the reoccurrence, there is nuance, and his universe expands—the other reality of the post-exotic becomes more grounded.
The Volodine project, the pseudonyms, and the intertexual exchanges, are pushed to the forefront in responses to his work. But there are also more immediate pleasures, not dependant on his larger oeuvre. His work puts anonymous people in strange and engaging circumstances, and he lets the weirdness leave a reader to catch up, confused.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
This week’s podcast covers four major topics: Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano, Michael Henry Heim and The Man Between, the upcoming ALTA Conference, and Atavist Books. And we barely talk about sports at all! But Tom does have a “rave” that includes a reference to this cover:
This week’s music is “Waste Your Time” from Ex Hex. (Mary Timony’s new band!)
As always, you can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with complaints, suggestions, ideas for future episodes, or your own rants and raves.
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This should be titled “airplane reading,” since I’m taking off tomorrow morning for the Sharjah International Book Fair. (If you don’t know already, Sharjah is an emirate very near Dubai. It’s a lot less ostentatious than Dubai though—kind of—and has no booze. Which, yeah.)
Anyway, The Creator came in the other day, and immediately got the attention of everyone in the office. Wakefield Press is one of our favorites, mostly for the very strange, almost unclassifiable books that they do. This one is no exception:
Billed by its author—the pseudonymous Mynona (German for “anonymous” backward)—as “the most profound magical experiment since Nostradamus,” The Creator tells the tale of Gumprecht Weiss, an intellectual who has withdrawn from a life of libertinage to pursue his solitary philosophical ruminations. At first dreaming and then actually encountering an enticing young woman named Elvira, Weiss discovers that she has escaped the clutches of her uncle, the Baron, who has been using her as a guinea pig in his metaphysical experiments. But the Baron catches up with them and persuades Gumprecht and Elvira to come to his laboratory, to engage in an experiment to bridge the divide between waking consciousness and dream by entering a mirror engineered to bend and blend realities. Mynona’s philosophical fable was described by the legendary German publisher Kurt Wolff as “a station farther on the imaginative train of thought of Hoffmann, Villiers, Poe, etc.,” when it appeared in 1920, with illustrations by Alfred Kubin (included here).
The “most profound magical experiment since Nostradamus” is what sold it for me. This sounds so wild, and basically perfect for Halloween . . .
This is translated by Peter Wortsman (who has also translated Musil and Kleist for Archipelago Books), and contains the illustrations from Alfred Kubin.Tweet
This book was published in English in 2012, but considering the attention Ferrante has been getting for her work since then, this is a very appropriate “Better late than never” kind of review. I’ve yet to read anything of Ferrante’s, but am absolutely aching to after all the high praise and descriptions of her writing.
Acacia O’Connor is a first wave U of R MALTS alumna working from Italian into English. She works at Columbia University and shares a subway stop with Dr. Craig Spencer, the first Ebola patient in New York City. Instead of attending ALTA 2014, she thought it would be fun to run a marathon, at night, on the Las Vegas strip. (I was also with her at the opening night midnight-showing of the first part of the last Harry Potter movie. We did not dress up.)
Here’s the beginning of Acacia’s review:
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?), one part eager devotion (Where is she, I want to be her best friend!), enthusiasm over Ferrante was reignited when the third book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel series was published this month.
Her fans, reviewers, and interviewers don’t know who she is, where she is, whether her name is really Elena Ferrante, how much her books are drawn from her life or the lives of friends, family. Even her translator, the fantastic Ann Goldstein, has corresponded with her only sparingly. What is known is that her works have great, deep, broad feelings. Mammoth feelings. Feelings like a spiny barrier reef coating the entire bottom of the Mare di Napoli. And readers, it seems, are really into those feels.
I, too, was caught up. My Brilliant Friend evokes those familiar yet almost indescribable feelings about long friendships, adolescence, and home. You’re inextricably tied to a person, a place, but you hate how strong the connection is, how it drags you back in when you try to escape it; slowly it tears you apart.
That sounds melodramatic. In real life, we tend to downplay drama, shake off the pain. Feels are for Tumblr. But those moments of “suffering” (perhaps the most prevalent word in My Brilliant Friend) exist. When elementary school “best friends” were established and betrayed. When a very close friend goes off and gets married young. When someone you love moves smack dab across the country. Rarely do we find the tension, the dissatisfaction, or the fear created by the completely natural and expected changes in friendships articulated as clearly as we find it in these novels.
Ferrante captures the unnerving and beautiful elements of human relationships with vivid precision and dramatic seriousness. While the main character and narrator of My Brilliant Friend is Elena Greco, the true protagonist is the bond between Elena, called Lenu, and her childhood friend, Raffaela “Lila” Cerrullo. Elena and Lila are two children of a lively, dirty, poverty-stricken ghetto in Naples. Elena and Lila are best friends, but at times one or the other of them isn’t so sure of it. The friendship is dynamic, as much in flux as anything in their world—a world where adults grease the palms of Mafiosi, scream at one another, beat their children, and throw irons out of windows.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .
Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .
Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .
While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.
Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .
The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .
Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.
It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .