15 May 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For this week’s podcast, we invited Best Translated Book Award Fiction Chair Monica Carter on to talk about the finalists for this year’s awards. Monica graciously gave us some insight into the voting process, revealed which of the final ten was a “personal pick” of one of the judges, and managed to make us second guess who we thought would win the award.

Additionally, we talked about the differences between the UK vs. U.S. book scenes, and had some rants, raves, and sports talk.

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REMINDER: Next week, Feminist Press editor Julia Berner-Tobin will be our guest to discuss “Apocalypse Baby” by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Siân Reynolds, the latest book in the Three Percent Book Club. Go out and get a copy! It’s a fast, vicious read, and if you have any questions for the three of us, send them to threepercentpodcast@gmail.com by Tuesday morning.

ANOTHER REMINDER: Our 100th episode is coming up, and to celebrate, we’d like to do one that’s all about “listener appreciation.” So send any and all comments and questions to threepercentpodcast@gmail.com—we’ll answer anything you’d like . . .

This week’s music is Waste the Alphabet from the new Dick Diver album. (Dick Diver being a reference to Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night.)

As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes by clicking here. To subscribe with other podcast downloading software, such as Google’s Listen, copy the following link.

And you can email us with complaints and comments at threepercentpodcast@gmail.com


14 May 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In a couple weeks, the IDPF Digital Book Conference will take place in New York under the theme of “Putting Readers First.” As part of this Ed Nawokta (Publishing Perspectives founder and international publishing guru of sorts), Boris Kachka (Hothouse author and former BEA frond-waver [sorry, inside joke]), Andrew Albanese (Publishers Weekly and fan of all the teams my teams lose to, like Chelsea and the Yankees), and Kristin Nelson (Nelson Literary Agency) are scheduled to discuss whether Amazon is “good for readers,” a panel that’s sure to provoke both bookselling traditionalists and the new wave of ebook-loving Amazon loyalists.

When Ed mentioned this panel over dinner the other day, Will Evans of Deep Vellum expressed the reaction common to most all publishing people: “Amazon’s good for consumers but not readers. It’s bad for reading.”

Which, when you think about it, makes no sense. You’re not a better reader for having purchased your book at a local indie store, just as you’re not better at brushing your teeth if you refuse to buy toothpaste from Walmart. How you acquire your goods has no impact on how you actually engage with them—that’s a totally different process.

Will immediately agreed with me, backing off his instant condemnation and admitted that “if you buy a book from Amazon your eyes are just scanning over the words” is ridiculous statement, but one that you can imagine some die-hard anti-Amazonists making—and being totally serious about.

I suspect that Digital Book World is conflating the words “readers” and “book buyers,” but if not, what an odd topic for a panel. Because how can a retailer—especially of cultural goods—be responsible for making their customers “better” at using the products they buy?

All of this got me thinking though: How does one become a better reader? How do you learn this skill? And what exactly makes you a “good” reader?

Seeing that I’m based at a top notch university, and graduated with a degree in English, and work in publishing, and write about books a lot, and think about reading basically all the time, I feel like I should have some decent answers to these questions . . . but I really don’t.

If you take a sort of high school English approach to this, being a “good reader” is being able to identify themes and point of view, decipher symbols and metaphors, understand characterization, etc. Break down a piece of writing into its general components and “analyze” them in five-paragraph thesis papers.

These things are all great, but do they really help you judge whether a sentence is “well-written” or help you judge whether a book as a whole is successful? There’s so much more to a book than its organizing images and the fact that the story is an example of Man vs. Nature. I think.

In college, theories start to get worked into the mix, and being a “good reader” means that you’re good at applying Marxist/Feminist/Freudian/Post-Structural theory to a text, pulling out elements so that you can expand (still in five-paragraph, thesis-driven format) on some greater truths or observations about the world. In theory (sorry), the point of this approach is to make you a better reader of life, of all the texts—novels to film, street signs to non-verbal codes, cultural and architectural structures—connecting the work you do as a liberal arts major or professor to the “real world.”

I’m not sure that writers, or booksellers, or critics, or publishers, would necessarily agree that these are the absolute qualities of a good reader, since readers steeped in this methodology tend to ignore style in favor of content, and really only that content that supports a pre-existing paradigm, making you more of a good interpreter than a good reader.

Whatever criteria one chooses, I think it can be assumed that when a good reader reads a good book, something more than simple entertainment takes place. But maybe not. Maybe the best readers are the ones who can let a book take them over, let it guide their thoughts and emotions, instead of trying to crack it open, or utilize it as a tool in a greater theory.

Maybe good readers are the ones who are slow readers, who pay attention and notice things, and the process of noticing and making connections is what makes them “good.”

Regardless of the criteria, how does one become good at reading? On some level, this can be taught—you learn how metaphors and motifs work, you’re taught to pay attention in a certain way—but a lot of it comes from, well, simply reading a lot. You get better at pattern recognition—within a book and within books as a whole—the more books you’re exposed to, and, like some sort of textual feedback loop, the more texts you’re exposed to the more patterns you’re aware of and able to recognize.

One practical example: I’ve been reading Finnegans Wake all this year, and I really wonder what makes you a good reader of this book. What does it even mean to “read” a book that’s impossible to fully understand (another rubric for being a good reader is “understanding a book at a deep level”), because it is so coded with languages, puns, verbal jokes, misspellings, obscure references, and interior jokes? Where every sentence can be interpreted in several different ways? How do you prepare to be a good reader of this? Are you a good reader if you can explain the plot (which actually isn’t all that complicated), or do you have to be able to explain everything?

I could go on about this for a while, but the thing that keeps coming to mind is how being a good reader, to me at least, means being able to take part of ongoing literary conversations. This could take part in a classroom, or by reading, understanding, and reacting to a London Review of Books/New Yorker/New York Review of Books/Bookforum review, or through conversations with booksellers, critics, or other good readers. The conversation aspect is what really counts in my opinion. You can write as many college essays as you want, but that doesn’t mean that you can hold your own at a New Directions party.

And that’s the part that’s most fascinating to me. I’m not sure that reading a ton of books improves the quality of your life (to be honest, if you’re anything like me, it just makes you more miserable and aware of your shortcomings and impending death), but if it does, it’s not only through the books themselves and being able to see things in them and understand their craft and impact, but by being able to share that with others.

Which is something you have to create—find a community, engage with the conversation—and something that bookstores could facilitate. More on that next month. For now, let’s get to the May books!

The Indian by Jón Gnarr, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Deep Vellum)

Calligraphy Lesson by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz (Deep Vellum)

Probably should’ve included The Indian last month, but I had it coded for May in our database . . . Anyway, Gnarr was here in Rochester at the end of April for a couple stellar events. I could go on and on about how great he and his family are, but instead I want to mention how much my daughter LOVED this book. Here’s a picture of her copy with marks for all the bits she either a) found funny or b) contained Icelandic words she couldn’t pronounce:

This is the first book that both of us read at the same time—and both really enjoyed. That’s a strange, fantastic sensation. She even got up at one of our events to try and convince everyone there that they needed to read The Indian. Natural born sales rep!

Shishkin you probably already know of, if not because of Maidenhair, then because of this New York Times op-ed.

Behind the Station by Arno Camenisch, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin (Dalkey Archive)

I Saw Her That Night by Drago Jančar, translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins (Dalkey Archive)

First of all, as Michael Orthofer pointed out at the Literary Saloon, Dalkey Archive is moving to the University of Houston-Victoria, which I’d only heard of because it’s the home to American Book Review. ABR was also together with Dalkey at Illinois State, so in a way, this move makes some sense . . . Long way from Illinois though, in terms of location and perceived status, but at least Dalkey has a base from which to continue bringing out all their various series. And maybe Dalkey can link up with Deep Vellum to get introduced to the Texas Book scene that Will Evans has been helping create . . .

In terms of these two books, Dustin Kurtz sang the praises of Camenisch’s first book on Twitter, which caught my attention. (He said something about it being the best book of the summer of 2014, even though it’s only like 60 pages.) This is the second part of a trilogy, and since I’m planning on catching up on a number of series this summer—My Struggle, the Ferrante, that crazy new Danielewski thing—I’m moving this to the top of my pile.

And I really like Jančar’s Mocking Desire, which Northwestern brought out a million or so years ago. I haven’t read any of the newer books of his that Dalkey has been doing, but this one seems like as good a place as any to get back into him.

Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven by Antoine Volodine, translated from the French by J. T. Mahany (Open Letter)

If you listen to our podcast, or receive our newsletter, or are friends with me on Facebook, then you’re probably sick of hearing me talk about Antoine Volodine.

So instead of going on about his incredible project (“Think Faulkner, but after an apocalypse.”) and all the reasons you should read this strange book—and then go back and read everything else of his that’s available in English—I’m just going to direct you to Music & Literature where all week they’re going to be posting Volodine-related content, including a review of this title, and an except from Lutz Bassmann’s The Eagles Reek.

Divine Punishment by Sergio Ramirez, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (McPherson & Company)

I actually ran into Nick Caistor and his wife Amanda Hopkinson at a PEN World Voices event last weekend. They are two of the best translators in the world. Not only because they’re so talented, but because they’re great, happy people who have done a lot for the world of translation, be it via the Arts Council England, British Center for Literary Translation, or by mentoring younger translators. Overall, they are just wonderful and it’s always good to be able to highlight a book that they worked on.

And what a book! Ignore that cover for a minute and just read this:

Upon its original publication, Carlos Fuentes declared Divine Punishment to be the quintessential Central American novel. In this, the greatest work of a storied literary career, Sergio Ramírez transforms the most celebrated criminal trial in Nicaraguan history—the alleged murders in 1933 of two high society women and his employer by a Casanova named Oliverio Castañeda—into an examination of the entire Nicaraguan society at the brink of the first Somosa dictatorship. Passion, money, sex, gossip, political intrigue, medical malpractice and judicial corruption all merge into a novel that reads like a courtroom drama wrapped in yellow journalism disguised as historical fiction posing as a scandal of the first order.

There is some backstory to this about how a major publisher was going to bring it out, but after the Sandinistas lost the election in 1990, the book was dropped. (This is all hearsay, but an intriguing story.) Also worth noting that this is only the sixth book from Nicaragua to be listed in the Translation Database. Sixth.

The Guilty by Juan Villoro, translated from the Spanish by Kimberly Traube (George Braziller)

I have no idea why I haven’t published Villoro at either Dalkey or Open Letter. His name has been around for years, and now that George Braziller has broken the seal, expect four or five of his books to come out to wild acclaim over the next couple years.

El Testigo is the book I would’ve like to see come out first, but whatever, I’m sure these stories are just as brilliant.

Alexandrian Summer by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, translated from the Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan (New Vessel Press)

The Keeper’s Daughter by Jean-Francois Caron, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson (Talonbooks)

If you’re outside of the industry you probably haven’t noticed this at all, but over the past couple years, Consortium has taken over as the distributor of translated fiction. Sure, they no longer sell Knausgaard or Ferrante (they once did!), but in terms of sheer volume and quantity, no one can compete with them. New Vessel, Deep Vellum, Open Letter, Hispabooks are four translation-only presses Consortium represents to go along with Akashic, BOA Editions, Copper Canyon, Bellevue, Coach House, Coffee House, Talonbooks, Biblioasis . . . I could figure this out if I wanted, but I’ll bet Consortium represents a larger percentage of translations coming out in the States than any other distributor out there. That’s impressive. I like that.

One of the aspects of the book trade that doesn’t get a lot of play from those of us writing about the industry are the sales reps. Granted, they’re honored by Publishers Weekly every year, but online, in blogs like this, we rarely discuss the valuable role they play in getting books from the publisher into the stores. For more than a decade, I did this myself, visiting Sessalee at B&N and calling on over a hundred independent stores. It was thankless and difficult. Since switching to Consortium, our sales are up over 40%, thanks mostly to the sales reps. That’s remarkable. And these reps are such great book people. They see everything, they dip into all of the books, they love bookstores and the whole process. I think it would be interesting to have a rep write something for a place like Publishing Perspectives about the process of being a rep. How it works, how many books you end up fronting, how many stores you visit, what the future of repping is in our digitally-obsessed world. I’d personally read that. Man, if I ever get out of publishing, I think this would be the job for me. Read all the books and talk to all the best booksellers!

The Game for Real by Richard Weiner, translated from the Czech by Benjamin Paloff (Two Lines Press)

Innocence; Or, Murder on Steep Street by Heda Margolius Kovaly, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker (Soho Press)

All the Czech literature! Both of these books look really interesting, although Two Lines wins in terms of the most eye-catching cover. Although I must say, that guy’s face seems pretty disconnected from the fact that Richard Weiner, who died in 1937, was praised by Hrabal, was a member of the French surrealists, and was one of the Czech Republic’s greatest existential writers. There’s something about that cover that seems so now to me. Which is good for Two Lines. Bust out of the stodgy, traditional sort of cover that one would expect for a Serious Practitioner of Existential Art and get fans of Fight Club to pick it up.

I was initially interested in featuring Innocence because of all the great work Alex Zucker has been doing of late, and because I love all the Soho Press employees and their tiki bar obsession, but once reading the description, I just simply want to read this book.

In 1985, Czech Holocaust memoirist, literary translator, and political exile Heda Margolius Kovály turned her pen to fiction. Inspired by the stories of Raymond Chandler, Kovály knit her own terrifying experiences in early 1950s Socialist Prague—her husband’s imprisonment and wrongful execution, her own persecution at his disgrace—into a gorgeous psychological thriller-cum-detective novel.

Set in and around a cinema where a murder was recently committed, Innocence follows the unfolding of the investigation while telling the stories of the women who work there as ushers, each of whom is forced to support herself in difficult circumstances. As the novel brings this group alive, it tells their various life stories that have brought them to this job, the secrets they share with one another, and the secrets they keep. When the detective trying to solve the first murder is found slain by the cinema, all of their secrets come into the light.

Death and Socialism—perfect combo for a summer read!

Confessions by Jaume Cabré, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem (Arcadia)

I’m curious to see what happens to the Arcadia list over the next few years, now that the founder and principle editors are all gone . . . I suspect that by 2017, this will be a very different sort of house. Which sucks, since they have a great track record of doing interesting literature in translation . . .

Anyway, like all of Cabré’s books, this sounds really fascinating. But man, does this guy write long. 751 pages?! Who does he think he is, Knausgaard? (Kidding, kidding.) As one-sentence descriptions of books go, this one is pretty killer: “At 60 and with a diagnosis of early Alzheimer’s, Adria Ardevol re-examines his life before his memory is systematically deleted.” Daaaammmn. Stylistically, there’s a lot that could be done with that.

Random note: I’m actually writing this from Torino, where later this afternoon I’m going to be giving a presentation on Italian literature in translation (and the lack thereof). Last time I was here was in 2010, when I first met Maya Faye Lethem’s brother in person and he took me to a place called “Seven Dwarfs” for farinata, which is one of the most delicious things in the universe. Oh, and a literal dwarf served us. I’m not making this up. It was an experience. This is exactly why I like to travel. Books and odd dining experiences.

13 May 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on Life Embitters by Josep Pla, translated by Peter Bush and published by Archipelago Books.

Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when he was a young law student and aspiring writer. Readers got to meet many of the colorful characters who inhabited both the town of Palafrugell (where he was from) and the city of Barcelona (where he went to school). While Pla socialized with many of them, he preferred to spend time alone, especially along the Rambla in Barcelona. Even though Pla could be both ironic and pessimistic, he would write about humdrum moments in his life in such amazing detail that the reader couldn’t help but want to follow him along his journey.

Now, fans of that book can continue the journey with Life Embitters, the second of Pla’s works to be translated into English. Like the first book, Life was translated by Peter Bush, who has not only captured the spirit of Pla but has maintained a consistent quality over more than 1,200 pages. Life contains many of the hallmarks mentioned above, but it has some noticeable differences, too.

For the rest of the review, go here.

11 May 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Izidora Angel on The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel and out last month from Open Letter Books.

This book—and call it a shameless plug all you want—is by far one of the best books I’ve read in the last year, and has been on my personal Best Books of 2015 list since I first read it over a year ago. I can’t say enough or put the proper words to what the reading experience was like, but this is a phenomenal work, and if you’re not able to fit the entire book into your schedules, you should at least read one of the many excerpts posted across several online journals, including Little Star Weekly, which ran a three-part excerpt of Physics over the course of March and April. Really, really, truly, I can not get enough of this book.

Izidora Angel is a Bulgarian-born writer and translator living in Chicago. She is at work on translating the multi-award winning “The Same Night Await Us All: Diary of a Novel,” by Hristo Karastoyanov, from Bulgarian into English. She was just recently in Rochester as part of a three-week residency for Bulgarian translators, sponsored by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. Here’s a snippet of her review:

Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow was an immediate best-seller when it was published in his native Bulgaria in 2011, which is no small feat considering best-seller lists in the country are almost always dominated not by indigenous literature, but by a slightly schizophrenic gathering of translated literature of varying merit. To give an example, fellow best-selling books in fiction that year included The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Şafak (2010), and The Bastard of Istanbul (2007) by the same author, as well as, perhaps, the inevitable: Fifty Shades of Grey (2011). This points to the Bulgarian reader’s eclectic taste: the Dumas, Dostoevsky, and Remarque of her childhood paving the way for an enduring historical and intellectual thirst followed by mired fascination with an exotic, far-away America via its spiritual junk food.

As a writer, Gospodinov travels freely—physically and metaphysically—attempting to grasp the national fascination with chujbina or “foreign country,” along with the necessity of revisiting another quite foreign thing: your own childhood. The metaphor he utilizes in The Physics of Sorrow for doing the latter is a child Minotaur, necessary perhaps only for the natural resistance of Bulgarians for self-introspection.

In his native country, Gospodinov (whose last name essentially means “Sir,” giving him an innately superior status) is a literary star, celebrated for many reasons, one of which is his translation into over twenty languages. This kind of success doesn’t come without detractors. He has received death threats for essays he’s written and many decry what they perceive to be the contrived mass-hysteria that follows the release of his books in Bulgaria. But Gospodinov’s writing speaks for itself; it is effortlessly relatable and that, in turn, translates.

For the rest of the review, go here.

11 May 15 | Monica Carter | Comments


Calling all Indie Booksellers! ‪Feel like you have a knack for making customers stop and gather around your dazzling book displays? Send in your pics of the BTBA fiction and poetry finalists on display, get as creative as possible, and you and your bookstore could become the official bookstore of the Best Translated Book Award until we claim a new winner next year. It’s like being Miss America without the sexism! The winning bookseller(s) and bookstore will be announced at BEA at the BTBA ceremony on May 27th and will be the official indie bookstore of the BTBA which includes placement on our blog and featured mentions in promos throughout the year. Show your world lit pride! Submit pictures of displays via twitter @BTBA_.

6 May 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Vincent Francone on Vano and Niko by Erlom Akhvlediani, translated by Mikheil Kakabadze and published by Dalkey Archive earlier this year.

I know everyone is still reeling from not being able to correctly guess all the finalists for the 2015 BTBA fiction and poetry shortlists before yesterday’s official announcement, so we’ll just cut right to Vince’s review:

What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that these short pieces (what contemporary writers would call flash fiction) resemble fables and that Akhvlediani’s characters sound a bit like Vladimir and Estragon, Clov and Hamm, and any number of Beckett creations. Which is not to say that Akhvlediani is a Beckett imitator or that his work is really all that Beckettian. The two share a tendency to explore philosophical questions through seemingly simple characters and their exchanges, but the dialectical approach is about where it ends. Which is not to say that Akhvlediani is not an absurdist. That rigid title might not fit perfectly, but it is through such a lens that I was able to find joy in Vano and Niko.

Full disclosure: I read Akhvlediani’s book, translated by Mikheil Kakabadze, immediately after finishing a short story collection by an American writer who clearly took notes during her MFA workshops. Subsequently, I enjoyed the sparseness of Vano and Niko, the immediacy of the prose, the lack of character development, and total abandonment of unnecessary description. If Hemingway’s old adage is correct, that prose is architecture not interior design, then Vano and Niko is a set of beams and girders without walls.

For the rest of the review, go here.

5 May 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on the announcement of the poetry shortlist, here’s the list of the ten titles that made this year’s shortlist.

As mentioned elsewhere, the two winning books will be announced at BookExpo America at 2:30pm on Wednesday, May 27th, at the Eastside Stage in the Jacob Javitz Center.

Following that, we will be gathering at 5pm at The Folly on 92 West Houston St. Anyone interested in celebrating the BTBA and all the authors and translators who published books last year should definitely come out for this. Great way to kick off your BEA party times . . .

On with the announcement! Here are the ten fiction finalists for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award:

The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (China, Yale University Press)

The Author and Me by Éric Chevillard, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Dalkey Archive Press)

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires by Julio Cortázar, translated from the Spanish by David Kurnick (Argentina, Semiotext(e))

Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov, translated from the Russian by Katherine Dovlatov (Russia, Counterpoint Press)

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)

Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, Pushkin Press)

Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht (Czech Republic, Archipelago Books)

The Woman Who Borrowed Memories by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella (Finland, NYRB)

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)

La Grande by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Argentina, Open Letter Books)

5 May 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Here it is, the first of the two announcements about this year’s Best Translated Book Award finalists! Listed below are the six poetry titles that are in the running for this year’s award.

The two winning books (for poetry and fiction) will be announced at BookExpo America at 2:30pm on Wednesday, May 27th, at the Eastside Stage in the Jacob Javitz Center.

Following that, we will be gathering at 5pm at The Folly on 92 West Houston St. Anyone interested in celebrating the BTBA and all the authors and translators who published books last year should definitely come out for this.

OK, here are the six poetry collections still in the running for the $10,000 in cash prizes (half to the author, half to the translator):

Diorama by Rocío Cerón, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong (Mexico, Phoeneme)

Lazy Suzie by Suzanne Doppelt, translated from the French by Cole Swensen (France, Litmus Press)

Where Are the Trees Going? by Vénus Khoury-Ghata, translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker (Lebanon, Curbstone)

Diana’s Tree by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert (Argentina, Ugly Duckling)

Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties by Lev Rubinstein, translated from the Russian by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky (Russia, Ugly Duckling)

End of the City Map by Farhad Showghi, translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop (Germany, Burning Deck)

Check back at 10:30 to find out which titles make the fiction shortlist!

4 May 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Monica Carter is a writer whose fiction has appeared in Writers Tribe Review, The Rattling Wall, Black Clock, and is a freelance critic.



Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret – Ondjaki, Translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Hennighan, Angola
Biblioasis

At thirty-six years old, Ondjaki is one of the most prominent figures in Angola with a stream of diverse works to behind him to solidify his status as a mainstay African writer. Not to mention his list of awards: winner of the 2013 Jose Saramago Prize, an Africa39/Unesco City of Literature 2014 African Writer Under 40, a Guardian Top Five African Writer 2012, and winner of the Grinzane Prize for Best Young Writer 2010. His novel is the little novel that could. It came up slow on the judges, but it won’t leave. It’s a tough sell amongst the Cortázar, the ubiquitous Ferrante, the brilliance of the Hrabals, the seriousness of the Echenoz, or the linguistic leaps and narrative complexity of Can Xue. Admittedly, I am reluctant to get excited about a coming-of-age novel. Perhaps I am too old with too much cynicism. But that is what is beautiful about this novel – despite the historical setting of the civil war that lasted decades which would cause any country’s citizens to be cynical, especially their artists, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is light, almost effervescent, a testament to the true nature of resilience and hope.

Why should it win?

1. Rarely does a novel make me laugh out loud and I often question the mental state of reviewers who say “this book kept me laughing out loud,” but these few lines got me.

We ran forward, then went in stealthily along the side of the veranda so that Granma wouldn’t call us. The yard was dark. The parrot His Name shouted out to expose us: “Down with American imperialism.” We made an effort not to laugh: the words came from a television commercial that hadn’t run in a long time. Just Parrot finished off: “Hey, Reagan, hands off Angola.”

Humor that is political, intelligent and done believably between two parrots is sometimes better than all the gravity of a three hundred page novel when it makes you want to tell other people how funny it is.

2. The originality of Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is present in his characters, in his scenes and in the overall narrative. It’s fun. It’s fun book to read but not in a “guilty read” type of way, but in a stylized, well-crafted literary way. The unnamed narrator’s cast of characters is unique and refreshing. Residing on Bishop’s Beach in Luanda, there’s Granmas, Soviets or “blue ants”, Comrade Gas Jockey whose gas pump is just water, Comrade Gudafterov because of the way he says ‘good afternoon’, and Pi. The way the narrator explains how a friend arrives at a particular is always entertaining:

That was how he got his name, Sea Foam, there on the shoreline of Bishop’s Beach, where there was a huge blotch of white foam deposited by the breaking waves to ensure that the water merely lapped against the sand. Only if you walked far out did you lose your footing. There the foam disappeared, but closer in, where we also liked to pick up pretty seashells, it was just clean white foam, completely white as you looked to the right and the left, with Sea Foam’s body making a dark stain in the whiteness.

“Oye, niños, es el cabello del mar… The hair of the sea, do you understand? I mean, hahaha…” He went under for a second, dipped all of his hair in the foam awash with sand and shattered seashells, came up almost breathless and then puffed a like a little whale. “I mean…I’m just a louse in the white hair of the sea.”


3. With a text this full of language – Spanish, bits of Russian, made up words – one can only imagine the level of Stephen Hennighan’s creativity to properly convey all of Ondjaki’s playfulness, nostalgia, and wistfulness without becoming mawkish, too flippant or irreverent. I don’t know how much, if any, Ondjaki and Hennighan collaborated, but it seems as if Hennighan recreates the energy of Ondjaki’s prose well. Hennighan also translated Ondjaki’s previous work, Good Morning Comrades, which I’m sure added to his finesse with his style. In the back, he also included an index of cultural references which I like and I think adds to understanding some of Omdjaki’s humor regarding the convoluted political history of Angola.

4. The voice is so winsome. We don’t know the narrator’s name, but his voice just captivates with its loss of innocence and his love for his friends and his Granma. Yet, it never becomes syrupy or sickening. It is simply poignant:

And I stood still.
It wasn’t only the fingers or the toes, the legs or the head and the eyes, that liked to look one way then the other. It was the stillness itself. Within me. The voice that speaks within me had nothing to say, or else it wanted to practice silence just like that.

Still from not thinking.

To feel the evening? To await a signal from the wind, a whistle like a segregated conversation taking account of the fact that the birds cried in a far-away and I could hear them? Wanting to hear mysterious sentences from Granma Catarina? Contemplating the things of Bishop’s Beach that I thought I alone saw?

Inventing minutes that were mine within the minutes of time?

Growing up with a heart and body that were fleeing from childhood? “Is someone running behind the child?” Granma Nineteen was in the habit of asking. Was time pursuing me with a body to frighten me? I felt the whole world there in the small square of Bishop’s Beach.

Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is one of those rare charming novels full of spirit, humor and the craziness of politics and power’s effect on its victims. It’s not often that a gem like this can be delivered through the voice of a young boy in such a whimsical way. The styles of Ondjaki and Hennighan are simpatico and deserve the Best Translated Book Award for this redemptive and enchanting work.

4 May 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s basically impossible to guess all 25 books on the Best Translated Book Award longlist, no matter how many odd clues I post. Which is why, when we play that game, I offer a lifetime subscription to anyone able to naming all of the books. (I really hope that some year someone actually does pull this off. It would be an incredible feat.)

When it comes down to picking the books making the shortlist though . . . This is totally do able. Below are a handful of stats about the 10 titles on the fiction shortlist and the 6 poetry collections that have been shortlisted.

The first person to name all 10 fiction titles or 6 poetry ones, gets a free year’s subscription to Open Letter Books. Only one guess per person though, so make it good. And you’ll have to do this fast: Get your entry to me at chad.post [at] rochester.edu by midnight tonight. The announcements start tomorrow morning at 10am . . .

First up, here’s the Poetry Longlist and a few clues:

  • There are four languages represented on the shortlist, with no single language having more then two titles on the list;
  • Each of the six shortlisted authors hail from different countries;
  • Four of the books on the shorlist are by female poets;
  • Only one publisher has two books on the shortlist.

Now, on to the Fiction Finalists . . . First up, here’s a link to the longlist.

  • There are four female and six male finalists on the list;
  • Nine different countries are represented on the shortlist;
  • The fiction finalists have been translated from seven different languages;
  • Ten different publishers have a book on the list.

Man, are those clues almost worthless . . . I’ll give you one more good giveaway. In terms of languages, one language has four representatives on the list. OK . . . go! Send me your guesses!

Sphinx
Sphinx by Anne Garréta
Reviewed by Monica Carter

Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .

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Morse, My Deaf Friend
Morse, My Deaf Friend by Miloš Djurdjević
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .

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The Crimson Thread of Abandon
The Crimson Thread of Abandon by Terayama Shūji
Reviewed by Robert Anthony Siegel

The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .

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Life Embitters
Life Embitters by Josep Pla
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when. . .

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The Physics of Sorrow
The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov
Reviewed by Izidora Angel

“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .

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Vano and Niko
Vano and Niko by Erlom Akhvlediani
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .

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The Indian
The Indian by Jón Gnarr
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .

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Mother of 1084; Old Women; Breast Stories
Mother of 1084; Old Women; Breast Stories by Mahasweta Devi
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .

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Tristana
Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .

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The History of Silence
The History of Silence by Pedro Zarraluki
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .

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