After a couple weeks of touring and hosting events, I finally have time to get back to my “weekly” write-ups of new and forthcoming books. Last time I talked about a couple Indonesian titles one of which, Home by Leila Chudori, I’m greatly enjoying. I also complained about school starting before Labor Day, arguing that that should be illegal. Well, guess what? In Michigan it is! This is why the Midwest rules.
Before getting to the books themselves, I have to jump on the bandwagon of hating all the insufferable DraftKings and FanDuel commercials. I’ve been complaining about these for months, but with the start of the new football season we’ve now reached the pure saturation point. I’m not even sure there are other commercials or products out there anymore. Even when I check Twitter I’m greeted with a “sponsored post” about how “Parvez” won $100,000 and I could too!
That’s one of my big beefs with the ludicrous way these sites advertise themselves: the winners featured on these commercials are always moronic looking Patriots fans, piss drunk in a bar, wearing their baseball hat backwards, looking cross-eyed at the screen (sometimes not even at the right one), fist pumping the air and screaming like dumb New Englanders scream, then getting a massive oversized check. The overall message? You’re not as dumb as this fucking guy, are you? Just look at him. EVEN HE CAN WIN AT THIS. (Note: DraftKings is from Boston, which is a city that type-casts itself, and why it must be so easy for them to find stupid looking people to be in their crappy ads. Why waste your time casting someone who appeals to your target demographic when you can just hire the demographic!)
And it’s only going to get worse. The NCAA is freaking out since this isn’t considered gambling, therefore allowing people to play this “daily fantasy draft contest” with college football and basketball players. DraftKings signed a $250 million deal with ESPN that will lead to it being “integrated” into ESPN’s sites. They raised an additional $300 million in July. All because regular fantasy isn’t good enough anymore—we Americans need things to be more immediate and more oversized! WE WANT KING SIZED FANTASY!
What changes this from a dumb rant into something sadder is that all the money lost by the suckers trying to outwit “Jimmy from Watertown Mass” will benefit a corporation operating just barely on this side of shady. At least with the lottery, the poor are preyed upon to help fund schools and shit. It’s still awful, but at least the money doesn’t go to someone who says things like “Once they try it, they like it. It’s sticky.” Gross. Just gross.
So fuck their ads. I hope all of those oversized checks catch on fire and some Russian teenagers hack the shit out of their site.
Well, that, or that these “games of fantasy skill” get outlawed in every state. Either or.
Now, to the happy stuff!
One Out of Two by Daniel Sada. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Graywolf Press)
Sada made a lot of waves back in 2012 with Almost Never, a novel that’s basically 328 pages of foreplay. It’s a great novel, and I’m really excited that Graywolf is going on with him. (Although saddened by the fact that he died back in 2011. I would love to have brought him to Rochester.) This novel is about identical twins who do everything together, until a man enters the picture . . .
Sada’s writing style reminds me a bit of Alejandro Zambra’s—there’s something direct, anti-metaphorical linking the two in my mind—but is also quite unique, fun to fall into the rhythms of and, I assume, a beast to translate. (Which is why Katie Silver deserves such accolades—for this and all her works.)
Now, how to say it? One out of two, or two in one, or what? The Gamal sisters were identical. To say, as people do, “They were like two peas in a pod,” the same age, the same height, and wearing, by choice, the same hairdo. Moreover, they both must have weighed around 130 pounds—let’s move into the present—: that is, from a certain distance: which is which?
If none of that sells you on the book, maybe the Bolaño quote on the back will: “Of my generation I most admire Daniel Sada, whose writing project seems to me the most daring.” It’s amazing, and very admirable, how many people Bolaño helped out and wrote about. And it’s not a surprise that us publishers keep putting his quotes on all of our books, knowing that he’s probably the one Spanish-language author outside of Gabriel García Márquez who normal Americans might recognize. Which brings me to:
The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman. Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. (Open Letter)
Front cover: “Good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature.”—Roberto Bolaño. Quotes from this statement of Bolaño’s—made when he was on the jury for the Herralde Prize, a statement included in Between Parentheses—are also on Andrés’s earlier books from FSG. It even kicks off this amazing Flavorwire feature on the book. And will be forever!
I actually asked him about this quote when we were in Chicago—and before we sang karaoke at the bar, which, by the way, Andrés is really good at, although he’s not as good of a singer as he is a ping-pong player—and he talked about how unfortunate it was that Bolaño didn’t get to live long enough to see if his proclamation came true. “Maybe he would’ve hated my later novels.” I can’t believe that would be true, but I understand the anxiety.
Andrés followed that up by telling a story about playing chess with Bolaño, who was super serious when it was his turn to play, then, after making his move, would jump around playing air guitar to the loud music of a Mexican punk band . . .
I really loved hanging out with Andrés and Naja Marie Aidt over the past two weeks, and, I have to say, even though it sounds cheesy and clichéd, that these visits sort of reinvigorated my interest in books and publishing. We all need a jolt sometimes, and coming in contact with literary geniuses is one great way to make that happen.
Target in the Night by Ricardo Piglia. Translated from the Spanish by Sergio Waisman. (Deep Vellum)
No Bolaño quote! But there is one from Robert Coover, which is really cool, and actually references Macedonio Fernandez.
The only Piglia I’ve read is The Absent City, which was inspired by Macedonio’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), and which is brilliant and narratively complicated in an Onetti, Labbé sort of way.
Although it sounds like this book brings back some of the themes from his earlier novels—life in Argentina during the Dirty War—it also sounds like much more of a definable, noir novel. This is a book that Tom Roberge will be raving about at some point. And I probably will too—just check this bit from Sergio Waisman’s intro:
Experimenting with form, innovating with narrative, recounting gripping tales that revolve around a central plot, Target in the Night starts as a detective novel, and soon turns into much more than that. Piglia takes the genre of the detective story and transforms it into what can be called, using Piglia’s own term, “paranoid fiction.” Everyone in the novel is a suspect of a kind, everyone feel persecuted.
OK, as soon as I’m done with Home, I know what I’m going to pick up . . .Tweet
It’s taken longer than it should to announce this—blame my disorganization, all the other events that have been going on, etc.—but we’re finally ready to unveil this year’s jury for the Best Translated Book Award prize for poetry.
Before listing the judges, I just want to remind you to check this page for weekly updates related to the Best Translated Book Award, and to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Thank you very much.
Now, here are your five judges:
Jarrod Annis is a writer and bookseller living in Brooklyn, NY. He works as manger and small press buyer at Greenlight Bookstore, and previously served as an associate editor at Ugly Duckling Presse. His work has appeared in Coldfront, Greetings, and Poems By Sunday.
Katrine Øgaard Jensen is a journalist, writer, and translator from the Danish. A former editor-in-chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, she is now blog editor at the international literary journal Asymptote. Her translation of Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s award-winning poetry collection Third-Millennium Heart is forthcoming from Broken Dimanche Press in 2016.
Tess Lewis is a writer and translator from French and German. Her translations include works by Peter Handke, Alois Hotschnig, Melinda Nadj Abonji, Pascal Bruckner, Anselm Kiefer, and Jean-Luc Benoziglio. She has been awarded translation grants from PEN USA and PEN UK, an NEA Translation Fellowship, a Max Geilinger Translation Grant for her translation of the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet, the ACFNY Translation Prize for her translation of the Austrian poet and writer Maja Haderlap, and most recently a Guggenheim Fellowship to translate the Swiss writer, Ludwig Hohl. Her essays and reviews have appeared a number of journals and newspapers including The New Criterion, The Hudson Review, World Literature Today, The Wall Street Journal, The American Scholar, and Bookforum.
Becka Mara McKay earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington and an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa, where she also received a PhD in comparative literature. Her first book of poems, A Meteorologist in the Promised Land, was published by Shearsman Books in 2010. She has published three translations of fiction from the Hebrew: Laundry (Autumn Hill Books, 2008), Blue Has No South (Clockroot, 2010), and Lunar Savings Time (Clockroot, 2011). Her poems and translations have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, ACM, Third Coast, The Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Rhino, Natural Bridge, Rattapallax, and elsewhere.
Deborah Smith is publisher and editor at TILTED AXIS, a not-for-profit UK press focusing on diverse, contemporary world literature. She translates from Korean, including Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts (both Portobello UK, Crown US), is perilously close to finishing a PhD at SOAS, and tweets as @londonkoreanist.
So, if you’re a publisher of poetry in translation and want to submit your work for consideration for this years award, all you have to do is mail a copy to everyone on this handy address label. (Or, if you want to submit them electronically, use this one which has everyone’s email address.) Please submit these books ASAP, or before December 31st. Any work of poetry published in translation for the first time ever between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015 is eligible. If you have any questions, contact me at chad.post[at]rochester [dot] edu.
The longlist for the poetry (and fiction) awards will be announced on March 29, 2016, with the longlist coming on April 26, 2016, and the winners at BEA on May 11, 2016.
For the past few years, Amazon Literary Partnerships has been sponsoring the award, providing $20,000 in cash prizes for both fiction and poetry, $5,000 of which goes to the winning poet and $5,000 to the winning poetry translator. (And the same goes for the winning fiction author and translator.)Tweet
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Stacey Knecht and is basically a follow-up to her first post. 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 translate Hrabal. We work as a team. We talk, laugh, argue, yell, sing, curse, philosophize, guzzle beer, discuss life and cats and the occasional dog. I’ve shamelessly professed my love for him, which fortunately hasn’t interfered with our working relationship. Sometimes he reminds me that he’s been dead for nearly two decades, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to plumb the depths of his writing, to figure out what it is that makes me follow him to Prague, year after year. I went back again this past August armed with his collection of short stories, Mr. Kafka and Other Tales From the Time of the Cult (1965), one of four Czech contenders for the BTBA 2016, in an astonishing, two-fisted translation by Paul Wilson.
Reading Hrabal on location is intoxicating. There is “Magic Prague,” with its Baroque angels and misty alleyways, and the raunchy, sweat-stained, beer-bellied, smoke-and-burnt-sugar Prague, where tourists rarely venture. It’s the combination of the two that give the city her poignance, and to see only her obvious beauty is to miss out on the rest. Hrabal saw it all. Wilson, in his Afterword—which I’m tempted to include here in its entirety, it’s so good—sheds light:
The stories in this collection represent the early results of Hrabal’s discovery of what he came to call “total realism,” the realization that the ordinary events of everyday life can be as magical as surrealism, and that straightforward accounts of people at work and in conversation can reveal more about who they are and the world they live in than attempts to portray their inner lives.
A number of the stories in Mr. Kafka and Other Tales From the Time of the Cult are set in the Kladno steel mills, about sixteen miles from Prague, where Hrabal himself worked as a “volunteer” laborer from 1949 to 1954, along with “judges and lawyers, poets and philosophy professors, policemen, army officers, tradesmen and small businessmen, [all] uprooted from their former lives by the Communist regime as part of a program called ‘Putting 77,000 to Work,’ during which tens of thousands were plucked from their jobs and sent to mines, factories, and collective farms to perform unfamiliar work in harsh and dangerous conditions, alongside regular workers, party hacks, criminals, and political prisoners.” (Wilson)
Much has changed in the Czech Republic since Hrabal wrote this book, yet there are still those who remember. I met an elderly woman one afternoon, sitting on a bench in Stromovka Park, fanning herself with a piece of cardboard in the 90-degree heat. She noticed what I was reading and said, “Ah, Hrabal. He was not a happy man, it was not a happy time. You cannot imagine what it was like to live back then, unless you lived it.” Hrabal lived it, and turned it to gold:
At the Poldi steelworks, hopeless people hold their muddied hopes aloft. Life, strangely enough, is constantly being reinvented and loved, even though the fruits of a tinfoil brain will be crumpled images and a trampled torso will ooze misery. And yet, it is still a beautiful thing when a man abandons dinner menus and calculating machines and his family and goes off to follow a beautiful star. Life is still magnificent as long as one maintains the illusion that a whole world can be conjured from a tiny patch of earth. With a hundred days left in my stint as a volunteer laborer, I buy a yellow folding ruler and snip off a centimeter a day. When the final piece slips from my fingers, I will pass through the neck of a bottle on my way to another adventure in another place.
But beautiful Poldi is also a volunteer worker’s scream that makes mincemeat of all signs and slogans, three and a half crowns per hundred grams, because you return to the depths of your brain where you study the bill to see what it is you’ve bought and why you’ve paid so much, since the man who turns his hand to fruitful labor is saved forever, because life is fidelity to the beauty exploding all around us, even, at times, at the cost of our own lives.
OK, so about a month ago, the City Paper opened the first round of the voting for this year’s “Best of Rochester” feature. I posted on Facebook about how I wanted to get some Open Letter love this year. I suggested voting for a bunch of categories (Three Percent Podcast for “Best Local Podcast,” etc.) and actually managed to get three of our people/books on the list of finalists:
Best Local Author: Chad Post (I argued that since I have “written a book” and since there is no “best publisher” category, this just fit best)
Best Local Poet: Lytton Smith (also would win for “best Icelandic translator”)
Best Locally Written Book: Rochester Knockings by Hubert Haddad (which, in all fairness, is about Rochester and translated by a Rochester author, Jen Grotz)
You can vote by going here. And please do—you have no idea how badly I want to win this thing. And yes, you can vote even if you don’t live in Rochester. And you can vote on every different wifi network you sign onto. Let’s do this Chicago-style!
The one catch is that you have to vote in 40 categories. Easy enough if you live here, or don’t give a shit, but in case you want to make some informed votes, here’s my list of 40 “Best of Rochester” people and places to vote for:
10. Best Bar Food: Tap & Mallet
For a long time, Tap & Mallet was the site of our weekly translation workshop gatherings (what we call “plüb”) and has really good food. Not what you’d think of as “bar food.” Plus they have super-high ABV beers from all over.
13. Best Breakfast Sandwich: Hart’s Local Grocers
My friends Glenn and Jenny are responsible for Hart’s, the only real thriving full-service grocery store in Rochester that isn’t named “Wegmans.” Vote for them, they are good people.
20. Best Mexican Restaurant: Itacate
I’ve never been there, but if La Casa wins, I’ll go ballistic. La Casa used to be awesome, but this guy ruined it (and many other parts of Rochester) for everyone. The only award he deserves is “Biggest Prick of Rochester.”
22. Best Indian Restaurant: Amaya
I genuinely love this place. It’s also the only non-pizza/burger restaurant my kids like to eat at.
24. Best Caribbean Restaurant: Peppa Pot
I believe this is run by one woman. Its hours are sporadic, offerings shift by the day, and it’s fucking delicious.
32. Best Barista: Peter Sapia (Café Sasso)
I don’t know this guy, but he’s the only finalist who doesn’t work at a pretentious coffee place.
34. Best Cheap Eats: Dogtown
I watched my mom wolf down a hot dog with bacon at this place. For $5. It’s awesome.
36. Best New Restaurant: ButaPub
They sponsored Andrés Neuman’s reading the other week AND are hosting our first annual celebration. Automatic win.
47. Best Salon: Fusion Salon
This used to be my hairdressery until my hairdresser branched out on her own. I still like this place and the people who work there.
48. Best Barbershop: Barbetorium
This is part of Fusion Salon. See above.
49. Best Sylist: Andrea Bonawitz (Parlour Hair Salon)
60. Best Regional Brewery: Three Heads
This is the best in the category, although I am personally very disappointed that they chose not to sponsor our celebration. Boo! Hiss! (And yet, I drink their beer every week.)
61. Best Regional Distillery: Black Button
I’m not sure this is true at all. Also, they won’t respond about sponsoring the celebration . . . But, coming up with forty places/people to endorse is damn difficult . . .
62. Best Farmer’s Market: Rochester Public Market
The only one I go to. Fuck the suburbs.
66. Best Geek-Friendly Business: Nox
Sad that my local comic book shop didn’t make it, but whatever, Nox is a new bar that is a self-proclaimed “book bar,” has a number of Open Letter titles on display, and hosts plüb on occasion. This is also where I play trivia on Sunday nights. NERD!
72. Best Local Historic Site: High Falls
The only on the list that’s natural and not created. I’m choosing it for that reason. The Mt. Hope Cemetery is a close second, but I’m turning forty on Saturday and can’t handle thoughts of death at this moment.
73. Best Local Eyesore: Downtown Rochester
I have questions about this. Is it the eyesore that’s actually the coolest? Of the most eyesore-y? So many questions! Just choose the largest area . . . like, all of downtown.
74. Best Local Library Branch: Rochester
Two massive buildings connected by an underground tunnel and complete with a hidden room. Win.
76. Best Neighborhood: Neighborhood of the Arts
Where I live!
79. Best Local Men’s Sports Team: Rochester Red Wings
This is the AAA affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. Kaija is from Minneapolis, and that’s where our distributor is based. Besides, isn’t a vote for a lacrosse team a vote for bro-splaining?
80. Best Local Women’s Sports Team: Western New York Flash
So, last year, this list came out and I had a massive Twitter breakdown, mostly because the Western New York Flash weren’t a finalist for “Best Local Sports Team.” Jake Clapp from City took it in stride, and assured me that they weren’t sexist, that they don’t influence the write-in voting process at all. Which didn’t make it better since the Flash have the only world-wide recognized athletes in Rochester, like, oh, I don’t know, Abby Fucking Wambach? Still blows my mind they don’t walk away with this award every year . . . Regardless, this year City split the category into two so that the travesty of having the men’s lacrosse team beat Abby can’t happen again. (And yes, I know the WNY Flash traded her away. For Sidney Leroux. Still better than every lacrosse player in the city.)
81. Best Local Recreational Sports League: Hot Shots Volleyball
Hot Shots is the largest indoor volleyball center in the country. (Or was.) That’s cool enough to start, but more importantly, I’m so over the “kids games for adults!” movement, so I want anything other than kickball to win. Anything.
83. Best Local Radio Personality: Evan Dawson
Actually, this should go to Ricky from Rochester, who frequently calls into Evan’s show, but whatever. Rochester apparently doesn’t appreciate the Hoobastank. (If you want to get this joke, listen to the two recent WXXI Connections shows that I was on. You won’t be disappointed.)
89. Best Local Facebook Account: Lollypop Farms
Who doesn’t like a business that posts animal photos?
90. Best Local Twitter Account: @akachela
She had some of the best Super Bowl tweets last year, and is consistently entertaining. Rachel Barnhart always wins this category, which is boring boring boring, so let’s shake things up.
94. Best Local News Story: Truck spills cabbages on I-490
103. Best Music Concert of 2015 (Club/Small Venue): St. Vincent @ Water Street
I was there with every other local hipster. It was great. She will win this category hands down.
104. Best Live Music Venue: Bug Jar
I’m torn on this one. But years ago, I saw El Ten Eleven and Gang Gang Dance play the Bug Jar and both concerts were amazing. The Bug Jar doesn’t book very many interesting bands anymore, but the space is great.
106: Best Local Author: Chad Post
One side-note: Frank De Blase writes for the paper running this competition. That seems unfair and a conflict of interest and I think he should withdraw his nomination. If he wins, I’m calling shenanigans. (I already have my concession speech planned out.)
107. Best Local Poet: Lytton Smith
I also love Jacob Rakovan, but Lytton is our translator, whereas Jacob just gets me drunk on fancy cocktails . . . Then again, Jacob will be pouring special “Fox Sister Cocktails” at our celebration.
108. Best Locally Written Book of 2015: Rochester Knockings by Hubert Haddad
How amazing would it be for Haddad to win? THAT AMAZING. And right after our celebration in honor of the book.
124. Best Local Movie Theater: The Little Theatre
They donated tickets for our upcoming silent auction. They get my endorsement.
129. Best Food and Drink Festival: Food Truck Rodeo
I like to overeat.
130. Best Local Drag Performer: DeeDee Dubois
I believe Naja Marie Aidt saw her perform after her reading last week . . .
131. Best New Bar/Club: Nox
Could put ButaPub in here as well—both are spectacular. But since I can walk to Nox and stumble home, I’ll go with that.
132. Best Bar for Beer: Tap and Mallet
They have an app listing all their current beers! Also, they sometimes hire bartenders who don’t pay attention to what size glass a particular beer is for. I’ve gotten several 16oz pints of 12% ABV beers that were supposed to be $6 per 10oz glass. I like that system.
133. Best Bar for Wine: Flight
The owner of Flight watched the USMNT in the World Cup with me last year and also made fun of the “I Believe That We Can Win” chant. She rules.
134. Best Bar for Craft Cocktails: The Daily Refresher
Remember Jacob Rakovan from up above? He mixes cocktails here and they are amazeeeing.
136. Best Neighborhood Bar: Dicky’s
Where we plüb on a regular basis because the drinks are cheap and they have sports and space. Love this bar.
138. Best Dance Club: Tilt
Where Naja Marie Aidt saw a drag show after her reading. This place is magical. Just ask K.E. Semmel or P.T. Smith, both of whom were taken way outside of their comfort zones.
And that does it! Forty places and people that I want to endorse for the “Best of Rochester.” Now go out and vote!Tweet
Over the past few weeks, our books have received a bunch of great reviews. Each time this happens, I plan on posting about it on the blog, then I start answering emails, or teaching a class, or doing some mundane publishing related task (sales reports! metadata!) and don’t get around to it. So, here’s a huge round-up with some quotes and links.
Once you see how amazing all of our books are, you’re going to want to buy them. You can do that at your local bookstore or favorite retailer, OR you can buy them directly from our website.
What I’d recommend doing is buying a subscription. That way you’ll never miss a book, and each one will be delivered directly to your door.
Here are some review highlights for our titles from recent times:
Lies, First Person is an extremely ambitious novel, which in the end does not lend itself to firm or lasting conclusions. Hareven has produced a work of dramatic and impressive contradictions. Between the two poles of questionable truth and falsehood, she examines such weighty issues as sin, guilt, forgiveness, Judaism, Christianity, motherhood, womanhood, violence, and especially the limitations and possibilities of art.
Dalya Bilu, a veteran translator of most of Israeli’s premier authors, renders Hareven’s Hebrew prose into clear and lucid English, helping the reader through the thicket of this dense, intriguing novel and aiding Hareven’s mission to convey both a grand scope of life and history while simultaneously presenting a small world of disquieting, individual claustrophobia. In the end, Hareven’s novel rises above the difficulties and problems of its characters and Elinor’s unreliable narration to capture the very strange and forgivable ways people confront and deny difficult experiences and memories.
Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn. [. . .]
The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid.
GG: If we enter into that spatial matrix, I started from the “bottom up,” through the voice and through various scenes. The Boy and the Minotaur were there from the very beginning. Over the course of writing, somewhere near the middle, the idea of accumulation, lists, and collections grew stronger and became structurally defining. The quasi-classical narrative from the beginning had to disintegrate after the main character lost his ultra-empathy and began collecting and buying stories in some sort of pre-apocalyptic panic. Thus, from a certain moment onward the labyrinth gets the upper hand, the reader is forced into the labyrinth in place of the Minotaur himself. And as we know from Borges, the labyrinth can be located not only in space, but also in time.
[Quick note: This interview is truly amazing. And the answers are long, too long to run in full here. So go check it out, especially if you’ve read this novel.]
Having grown up in communist and post-communist Bulgaria (“life under communism was a long chain of secrets,” Gospodinov writes), under the threat of an atomic mushroom cloud, Gospodinov is all too attuned to his own mortality. A time-traveling empath, he uses story to call us to look beyond ourselves to what can root us and give our lives meaning in a world that can seem crushingly cold and cruel.
As compelling as the plot and Thomas’s psychology may be, the novel’s philosophical underpinnings and the universal themes which emerge from the conflicts are even more provocative. Underlying the entire novel are questions of who we are as human beings, how much our futures as individuals evolve from our own actions and choices, and how much damage can be inflicted upon us by others around us. Other events draw us in by mere chance, as we see in the random events which involve Thomas as he deals (or does not deal) with his own life and the people surrounding him. [. . .]
Filled with smart, crisp language; carefully described and introduced imagery; and occasionally lyrical passages, the novel owes much of its appeal in English to translator K. E. Semmel, who must have been challenged by the metaphysical aspects which parallel the narrative lines. With contrasting themes of life and death, love and hate, accident and design, strength and weakness, selfishness and altruism, and reality and invention, the novel offers much to ponder on many levels. Ultimately, one is even forced to consider the question of whether the existence of an alterego is real or a protective fiction created by a damaged ego.
GC: Can you give us a shortlist of recently released or forthcoming must-read authors who you are excited to see translated into English for the first time?
VM: ¡¡¡ALVARO ENRIGUE!!! His novel Sudden Death is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve experienced in a long time and it’s out from Riverhead in February 2016. Don’t miss it. I also absolutely adore the great Argentine writer Silvina Ocampo’s haunting short story collection from New York Review Books, Thus Were Their Faces, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s story of alcohol-infused neurosis, The Dream of My Return. He’s a splendid writer, always unpredictable and his prose is absolutely incantatory. Also there’s Andrés Neuman, who has a glorious short story collection coming out from Open Letter in September, The Things We Don’t Do.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Tom Roberge from New Directions, Albertine Books, and the Three Percent Podcast. He’s not actually a BTBA judge, but since he’s helping run the whole process, he thought he’d weigh in and post as well. 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.
“Comparisons are odorous”
—Dogberry, Much Ado about Nothing
So it’s my turn. I’m not judging this year’s BTBA (my role at New Directions disqualifies me), but I’m helping with the process, doing my best to herd the cats and keep the trains running on time. (And mix metaphors, apparently.) But this doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions on certain books, so I’m taking the opportunity to express one such opinion on one of this year’s eligible titles: Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan and published earlier this year by Deep Vellum. Other opinions about this mesmerizing book, should you care to read them, can be found, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Among many other places. And an excerpt can be found on the Believer’s blog.
Booksellers are constantly being asked, by customers, for recommendations, and the default follow-up, if a customer offers no starting point of their own, is to ask what else they liked recently. This encourages, of course, comparisons, even if they aren’t made overtly. On our podcast I’ve repeated a quote one of the former publishers of New Directions (Griselda Ohannessian) was fond of repeating, presumably in response to our distributor’s request for “comp titles” to help them sell the books into stores: “Comparisons are odious.” I do, in theory at least, agree with this sentiment, if only because I subscribe to the belief that each work of art should stand on its own, should succeed or fail of its own accord, not on its “similarities” to anything else. But it’s impossible not to do it. It’s humans’ way of making sense of new experiences. Which brings me to Sphinx, and the book I’ve shelved it next to in my mind (not in reality; I believe I speak for the vast majority of booksellers when I say that books belong in alphabetical order, in clearly identified sections).
When discussing a book like Sphinx, for booksellers and others in the literary world, there’s a sort of compare-by-numbers process that invariably sets in. It’s inevitable (and often encouraged, by sales reps and customers alike), and I don’t exclude myself from this tendency. Garréta is French; she’s a Feminist; and she’s a member of Oulipo, so we all feel compelled to put her in the company of Monique Wittig, Simone de Beauvoir, Georges Perec, maybe even Virginie Despentes or Violette Leduc. And chances are that if you like books by those writers, you will enjoy Sphinx. But after reading the book in a crazed frenzy (pick it up—you’ll see what I mean), the first book that came to my mind was not by a French author, feminist, or member of Oulipo.
It was Queer, by William S. Burroughs. Written sometime in the early ’50s but put aside by the author himself (because he was bored with it) and his publisher (because of its content and the stricter obscenity laws of the times) until finally being published in 1985, it’s a story of pursuit. Whereas its companion novel—Junky—was about the pursuit of heroin and that kind of high, Queer is about the pursuit of carnal bliss, a very different but equally addictive kind of high. In Queer, we follow Lee, a stand-in for Burroughs, whose thoughts we see via third-person narration, to Mexico, where he meets and becomes increasingly obsessed with Allerton. The majority of the book revolves around Lee’s largely unrequited fixation on Allerton. Lee is often disparaging and morose, but his dogged pursuit grants him a few precious, if fleeting, moments of joy, even hope. Evocative of the argot of drug addiction, the style draws the reader into an enveloping cloud of apprehension and despair, offsetting it with instances of striking, haunting clarity.
Garréta’s unnamed narrator, a seminary student turned DJ, also becomes infatuated with someone, a dancer known as A***, early on in the course of the story. And yet to compare what then unfolds (and how, in terms of story-telling) in Sphinx to that in Queer is indeed an odious comparison. Like all of Burroughs’s writing, Queer is gritty and disheveled, the beauty found in the mess itself, in the enjambment of disparate and unflinching insights into the human condition. Sphinx, on the other hand, is more poetically beautiful, a breathtaking portrait of obsession and pursuit described with such pervasive lucidity, such self-awareness, such lyrical resonance, that the story often feels like a spectral presence.
Take, for example, these passages, in a short chapter devoted to the narrator’s description of A*** on stage in a night club, the Apocryphe:
Never until then had I longed to see A*** dance on stage. When A*** danced in the Apocryphe, I didn’t have to share the pleasure I took in watching: I was allowed to imagine that the dance was dedicated entirely to me, without the crowd being there to prove me wrong. Watching this body moving uninhibited, this body that wasn’t mine in any way, I reveled in the uniqueness and the exclusivity of my gaze.
[. . .]
When I entered the dressing room, I found A*** immobile as if in prayer or confession, legs bent, forearms fixed on a high barstool supporting A***’s entire body weight. Hands dangling, wrists slack, gaze abandoned and lost in the emptiness, then focusing on me as I entered and following me to where I sat down opposite. It was like the disdainful pose of the sphinx (or the image I had of it then), the same sharp aesthetic. I thought this to myself and, laughing, affectionately let slip, “my sphinx”—as if I had said “my love.” We remained face-to-face, our bodies as if petrified. A terror silted up in my throat; the desire I had felt welling up in me at the sight of those distant movements on the stage had been suspended. I could do nothing but adore. Those eyes, so black, fixed on me, subjected me to an unbearable torture.
This is raw, unfiltered adoration and lust, expressed in a style that is both poetic and quotidian, and as a result this is as affecting an account of a basic human experience as you’re going to find. The narrator’s interpretations and impressions of the world are both personal and universal, timeless and ephemeral. The composite insights, and their relationship to the affair and its presentaion, threaten to upend the reader’s entire concept of desire and love. This is why we read, right? Right.
Both are novels of pure, unadulterated, all-consuming obsession. A form of psychological addiction that infects the mind like a drug. A desire—a need—so unbounded and palpable that life before the object of desire is rendered meaningless, or at least preliminary, a trial run for the real thing. Inhabiting these narrators’ mind space is intoxicating, pure and simple. And I can’t think of a better reason to read, which is perhaps why, now, when recommending Sphinx to customers, I say, merely: “Trust me; it’s amazing.”Tweet
So after a month away, Chad and Tom are back, discussing the books they read over the summer and breaking down jacket copy for a number of recent books. They’re both astounded by how many meaningless phrases they come across (and references to how a book is “necessary”), and also talk about when and how to frame a particular author. Tom rants about how we’re reaching the bottom of the barrel in list-making, and Chad gives some love to the Iceland Men’s National Team.
Also, after some befuddling technical difficulties, the podcast is back up at iTunes, so please tell all your friends and family to subscribe and rate us. We’re determined to break into the top 200 of literary podcasts . . .
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Here’s the (hopefully) complete list of books and authors discussed on this week’s podcast:
Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas by Christian Kracht
Lovers on All Saints’ Day by Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
3 to Kill by Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Definitely Maybe by Arkady and Boris Sturgatsky
Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami
So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano
Ann Tenna by Marisa Acocella Marchetto
Oreo by Fran Ross
Submission by Michel Houellebecq
The Illogic of Kassel by Enrique Vila-Matas
Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa
The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink
How’s the Pain? and A26 and The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier
Billy and Girl by Deborah Levy
Zipper Mouth by Laurie Weeks
Traitors to All by Giorgio Scerbanenco
Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
The Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaître
Savage Seasons by Kettly Mars
And, finally, the intro/outro music today is Father John Misty’s song The Ideal Husband from his 2015 album I Love You, Honeybear.Tweet
Emily Goedde received an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa. She is now a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan.
Here’s the beginning of Emily’s review:
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge in expensive European hotels.
The woman is Therese Irxmayer, aka Lady Holly, an arms dealer with a sharp mind, a history and a great derriere. The novel’s genesis rests in her mysterious presence. Concession is a fantastic romantic-sexy-spy novel, but it is also a deeply considered psychological exploration of real-life events in colonial Shanghai. According to Xiao Bai, while he was in the early stages of researching the novel, he happened upon this line in the Shanghai Municipal Archives:
It was the White Russian Woman who first attracted Lieutenant Sarly’s attention.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Amanda Nelson, managing editor of Book Riot. 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.
Jose Alberto Gutierrez is a garbage truck driver in Bogota. His route takes him through wealthy neighborhoods in the middle of the night, and if he spots a book in the trash as he’s doing his job, he saves it. His home is now full of over 20,000 volumes, all of which he lends out to the low income kids in his neighborhood. He’s known in Colombia as the “Lord of the Books” (if you’re going to be lord of something, that’s quite a nice thing, I’d say). Mr. Gutierrez is my people.
In fact, millions of people are my people: readers, whether casual or constant, lovers of the literary or genre (separations which are increasingly useless), English-speaking or not. Readers love to encounter one another out in the world, which easily explains the rise of bookish social networking like Goodreads and LibraryThing, BookTube, and the communities around book blogs. If we can’t find our kind in our families or circle of friends, we’ll find them online. But there’s a special pleasure in encountering another bibliophile in the place most fitting for them to dwell: a book.
When you read a book about books, it’s like luxuriating in the most comforting of comfort foods: these are feelings I know, these are smells I know, these are situations in which I’ve found myself. The book is knowable, the hero becomes obvious (it’s the character who loves books), characterization becomes almost unnecessary. The protagonist is a reader! I know her already.
Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude most is probably the closest thing to Jose Alberto Gutierrez’s story that you’ll find in fiction: a wastepaper processor saves books from being destroyed and fills his home with them, spending page after page meditating on the fleeting nature of ideas, the beauty of the book as a physical thing, and the limits of how many of those physical things we can take into our lives before the pressure becomes unbearable (in a literal sense if you, like Hanta, sleep with an actual ton of books hanging over your bed). Hanta is mostly a loner and a book hoarder who shares his saves with no one, while Mr. Gutierrez is evangelizing for his finds in his community. I recognize myself in the compulsions of both men, and I suspect most of us do.
Perhaps the most fun I’ve had reading a book about books is with the famous The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, a globe-trotting adventure following the shenanigans of a shady antiquarian book dealer on a quest to authenticate an Inquisition-era book about the devil. There’s an Alexandre Dumas subplot, a woman who may or may not be a demon/Lucifer/fallen angel/whatever, book forgery, symbol analysis—if you’re looking for a Dan Brown novel with a literary bent, your search is over. Corso, our shady book dealer and protagonist, is odd in the genre of books-about-books because he doesn’t actually care about books. He’s a mercenary, in it for the coin, good at his job but not interested in fetishizing Books, capital B. I actually find him quite refreshing—I sometimes feel like even my own adoration for ink on dead, mashed-up tree fibers glued between pieces of cardboard can be a little tiresome.1
Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s The Rabbit Back Literature Society (which I read for BTBA 2016 consideration) also has elements of the supernatural, but without the Christian overtones. Think fairy tales, odd games, viruses that change the contents of library books, gnomes. The Devil doesn’t live in Rabbit Back, but that doesn’t take away from the ominous and slightly creepy undertones flowing through an otherwise charming and quirky book about a small town and its society of writers, headed up by a famous children’s author. As the society is inaugurating its tenth member, a local school teacher, the famous children’s author disappears during the middle of a party, eaten up (sort of) by a swirl of snow. Ella, the school teacher and newest member of the society, tries to piece together where their leader has gone, and she gets caught up in playing an odd and dangerous game with the other society members—a game that tries to explain where writers get their ideas. Are writers born imaginative and fanciful, or are they practicing a sort of vampirism, sucking ideas and stories out of the marrow of their family and friends’ real lives? Or maybe it’s both?
If you’re in the mood for a literary fanfare but aren’t in the mood to pick up a novel, give Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel Lecture “In Praise of Reading and Fiction” a once-over and find you’re not the only person who thinks “. . . living is worth the effort if only because without life we could not read or imagine stories.” Arm yourself against cynics who think you’re wasting your time reading fiction with lines like “But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, to the desires and longings it inspires, and to our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables.” A Nobel laureate believes fiction makes us more humane. Who are we to argue?
1 If you’ve made it to 2015 without seeing this book’s adaptation, The Ninth Gate starring Johnny Depp, consider yourself blessed beyond measure. You’d think Johnny Depp playing a book dealer would equal instant success, but the movie is painfully bad.Tweet
So for the past few months I’ve been too busy to actually write the really long monthly translation previews that I’ve been doing for the past year or two. I really do like writing those though, and highlighting upcoming books, but what with school starting up again, our first ever gala looming on the horizon, and all the other writing I have to do (for a semi-secretive book project you’ll find out about in the next month or so), I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get back into the habit of writing those.
Which brings me to my new idea . . .
Instead of trying to come up with funny and interesting things to say about ten books every month (and which probably aren’t all the funny or interesting), instead I’m going to try and highlight three new and forthcoming titles every week and preface it with some sort of rant or whatever.
Since I’d rather just get to the books, my only “rant” for this week is about how stupid it is to start school before Labor Day. I’m sure some of you out there are still enjoying summer vacation—which is your god given right as an American—but my kids have been in school for two days and I taught my first class of the semester on Monday. Yes, Monday, when it was still August.
This is bullshit. It violates the cycle of life. The only standing significance of Labor Day is that it marks the end of summer. It’s an extended weekend where you’re allowed to reflect back on all the things you didn’t accomplish when it was warm out and get ready for football. After this weekend of lamentations and awareness that everything will die and that the snows aren’t that far off in the future, then you can go back to the classroom and try and learn things. It’s fundamentally impossible for a brain to retain new knowledge prior to Labor Day. I’m pretty certain that science will back me on that. And we wonder why our nation’s public school system is in shambles.
The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva. Translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio (Deep Vellum)
This book came out back in June, but has shot up my to-read list thanks to Masha Gessen’s The Brothers. Gessen’s book about the so-called Boston Bombers is most interesting when it gets into the investigation and the way Chechens, and all immigrants, are viewed and treated in this country, but the first thing that jumped out at me when I started listening to this was how the mother of the Tsarnaev brothers was from Dagestan. This is a place I’ve never been, never really even thought of, and never read about. (Although I really love the way the woman reading the audio version of The Brothers pronounces Makhachkala. Such a wonderful name for a city. Ma-katch-ka-la.)
But now, thanks to Deep Vellum (who’s getting all the love this week), there’s actually a novel available from a Dagestan author! According to the jacket copy, it’s the first novel in English ever from Dagestan, which seems completely true.
I know next to nothing about the complicated history and situation in the Caucasus republics of Russia, but given the strife, the various conflicts with Russia, the fact that most people living there are Muslims—it’s a part of the world that I’d like to learn more about. Starting with this novel that’s set into motion by a rumor that Russia is going to build a wall to block off Dagestan from the rest of the country. Seems like a great plot point from which to launch a series of interesting observations of life in contemporary Makhachkala.
Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan. Translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker (New Directions)
Home by Leila S. Chudori. Translated from the Indonesian by John H. McGlynn (Deep Vellum)
One oft-quoted cliché is that reading can take you to places and introduce you to peoples and cultures you’d otherwise not have access to. I generally don’t care much for this sort of sentiment—feels a bit like literary tourism—but with all the hype surrounding the two Eka Kurniawan books coming out this fall, I’ve become very curious about Indonesian literature. Also helps that in the past week I’ve received copies of both of these books, and that they both sound pretty damn good.
The shorthand description of Beauty Is a Wound is that it’s “Indonesian magical realism done right.” The opening lines have a sense of that: “One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years. A shepherd boy, awakened from his nap under a frangipani tree, peed in his shorts and screamed, and his four sheep ran off haphazardly in between stones and wooden grave markers as if a tiger had been thrown into their midst.”
Verso is bringing out another of his novels this fall, which will likely help Kurniawan gain some traction here in the States. And maybe, just maybe, this attention will carry over to Home, which won the Khatulistiwa Award—Indonesia’s most prestigious prize (and the only one I’ve ever heard of!)—in 2012 and will be available in English translation this October.
Here’s the opening lines of her book, just to compare: “Night had fallen, without complaint, without pretext. Like a black net enclosing the city, ink from a monster squid spreading across Jakarta’s entire landscape—the color of my uncertain future.”
Both books focus on Indonesian history, including the anti-communist massacre in the mid-1960s and the overthrow of Suharto in 1998, which is another compelling reason to read these two titles in tandem.
It’s also interesting that New Directions refers to Kurniawan’s book as being “inspired by Melville and Gogol,” whereas Deep Vellum claims Home is “reminiscent of War & Peace.” So many classic authors!Tweet
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .
Many authors are compared to Roberto Bolaño. However, very few authors have the privilege of having a Roberto Bolaño quote on the cover of their work; and at that, one which states, “Good readers will find something that can be. . .
In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:
When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on. . .
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .