1 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Heather Cleary, BTBA judge, writer, translator, and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated from the French by Donald Winkler (Canada, Biblioasis)

In Samuel Archibald’s Arvida, carried attentively into English by Donald Winkler and shortlisted last year for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, one small town’s secrets become a universe that alternates between the tender and the terrifying, often blurring the line between the two.

Arvida is a collection of stories named after a town named after the American industrialist Arthur Vining Davis, who underwrote its construction around an aluminum smelting plant over the course of an astonishing 135 days back in 1927. As a child born to this far-flung outpost in Saguenay, Quebec, Archibald’s world was a tapestry of tales of madness, misfits, domesticated bears, and a Yeti-like cougar prowling the woods. The fact that Arvida was quickly absorbed by a neighboring town and exists, in a sense, solely as a memory only reinforces Archibald’s fascination with the mythic dimension of these private and shared histories. As he observed in an interview with the Canadian press, “growing up in a place that is so remote it’s on the edge or outside history, you never have any history except for the stories you told each other.”

There are two kinds of spaces in the narrative world of Arvida: the vast, unknowable ones of the Canadian wilderness, and the claustrophobic, unknowable ones of the home.

Archibald excels in the latter, filling domestic spaces with the minor chords (and occasional bloodcurdling screech) of gothic horror. Yet for all the attic rattlings and mythical predators that abound in this narrative world, there is nothing more frightening than the interactions among its inhabitants, or their behavior when left to indulge in isolation. As Bryan Demchinsky observed in the Montreal Gazette, “there’s a dark, hard presence in the stories, sometimes wry, sometimes muted, but always lurking” . . . most menacingly, perhaps, among armchairs and embroidered tablecloths.

Several stories are quite direct in asserting that genuine horror belongs to the domestic or interpersonal, rather than the supernatural, realm. “House Bound,” which appears toward the end of the book, is the account of a successful contractor who buys the house of his dreams and only later realizes the true cost of his investment. “Not many people will understand me,” he reflects, “but there’s something strange about taking over an ancestral domain . . . When a man buys a place like that, he buys the nest and protective shell of someone else, someone else’s wiring, and someone else’s ideas, and he has to decide how far he’s going to go to become that person, how much of that man he’s prepared to graft onto himself.” And yet, no matter how dark the history he adopts with the place turns out to be (and it does turn out to be quite dark), in the end it is emotional and physical violence of the most mundane and terrible sort that truly haunts the family’s new home.

“A Mirror in the Mirror” is also the tale of a haunted house, though the violence that undergirds this particular story is self-inflicted, and offers a glimpse into the often desperate position of women in this narrative universe, many of whom have little agency beyond the power to make themselves disappear. Likewise, in “Jigai,” probably the collection’s most brutal entry, a Japanese girl and her mysterious foreign governess enclose themselves in a world of erotic bodily mutilation, slicing off fingers and toes, eyelids and lips while leaving their tongues intact, because “because without [pleasure], pain is only pain.”

It is to Archibald’s credit that not all the stories of the collection are written in this mode: just as unity of place opens on to a vast range of narrative settings, the book’s gothic tropes are offset and enriched by the understated tensions and literary allusions of its other tales. The first, willfully charming, story offers insight into the mind of the narrator’s father through a chronicle of his petty thefts as a young boy—the very first in Arvida, and almost exclusively of pastries. “The comedy darkens,” he observes, as he considers his father in light of these stories, “something tragic makes its presence felt . . . the idea that the fulfillment of the desire never satisfies it, nor does it make it disappear, and that in the midst of all the things longed for desire survives in us, dwindling into remorse and regret. My father no longer lacks for anything,” the narrator continues, “but he misses the taste food had when there was not enough of it.”

Arvida does not employ the fancy stylistic footwork that characterizes some of the other nominees for the BTBA this year: grounded in oral history, the book is exceptional in its attention to the rhythms of storytelling and subtle regional and demographic modulations in vernacular. Its language is also quite restrained, and Donald Winkler rose admirably to the challenge of the narrow margin of error that this implies; the range both author and translator manage to achieve while remaining anchored to the collection’s unifying conceits is truly an achievement worthy of recognition.

1 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Jason Grunebaum, BTBA judge, writer, and translator. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad (India, New Directions)

Would you like read the book that Salman Rushdie had hoped to write with Midnight’s Children? Looking for that book that satisfies your itch for the reliably bawdy and resoundingly literary, a tale read out loud, episodically and euphorically, by your favorite Pakistani uncle—or the one you wish you had—and who never sleeps a wink?

Do your friends look at you wonky and miffed when you declare, “Give me picaresque or give me death?” Have a soft spot for wow-y stories told with countless detours and details by a manic raconteur who resides well south of the high peak of K2 but nevertheless can see the whole wide world?

Do you prefer your Partition history baked so deeply into the gooey mantle of your South Asian fiction that you don’t realize how much you’ve just learned until three weeks later while waiting at the dentist’s?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you should immediately go out and read Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, originally published in 1990, beautifully translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed, and published in English by New Directions—“this book” in today’s installment of “Why This Book Should Win.”

Let’s begin in the usual place with a bit of “Donkeyography”: the title of a short section in this episodic and delightfully meandering book.

“Donkeography” examines the important differences in perceptions of donkeys and owls in the imaginations of East and West. The reason that we’re here is that lots of bad things are about to happen to our comic hero Basharat’s automobile, but he hasn’t settled on a car purchase yet. Other possible ways of getting around are discussed in detail. “[W]ith all this talk about modes of conveyance, why didn’t I suggest donkeys and donkey-carts?” After dispensing with owls, the narrator continues:

The mascot of the Democratic Party has always been the donkey. It’s on the party flag. The entire American people were like this donkey in their single-mindedness opposition to Iran. I mean, they were numb, dumb, and frozen in place. In the West, the donkey does not inspire any satire. In fact, the French philosopher and essayist Montaigne was so impressed with the noble qualities of this animal that he wrote, “Nowhere on earth can you find an animal more certain, decided, disdainful, contemplative, grave, and serious than a donkey.” We Asians think ill of donkeys because they have some human qualities. That is, they carry loads heavier than their power of endurance and strength will allow; and they are obedient, obliging, and grateful to their master to the same degree that they are beaten.


There’s more than one way to bring down an empire, skin a cat, or take the fort. One approach is to write a book thick with psychological portraiture and voices of something like insight from the psyche’s inside. This is not that book.

Another approach is to look at a brick wall suffering from efflorescence, caked with salt and peeling away, and see each flaky layer not as rot but zest—and then endeavor to make sure each and every brick and all the natural elements that have pushed through to the surface get their fair shake so that the whole can be viewed anew, with wisdom and awe.

Balban, the horse that drew the carriage that conveyed Basharat, before he settled on the purchase of a car, and before the discussion of donkeys, was to be shot to death by the ostensibly pious Maulana, on account of the horse having run amok on the road while passing a funeral procession, which caused Basharat to be almost blinded by an errant blow to the eye by the horsewhip and both Balban and Basharat to be nearly murdered by the discommoded, grumbling mourners, while Basharat’s father, old and infirm and Balban as his best and only friend, was not informed of the execution order on the horse, but rather told simply that the horse was being sent from Karachi to the Punjab to graze for a couple of months—all the while Maulana, the supposed executioner, quietly ordered a stay for Balban, and instead put the still living animal to work on the sly, a secret that Basharat discovers after a harrowing trip to the slums where Maulana lives.

All because a friend had given Basharat unwise counsel:

A friend advised him not to let a vet put [Balban] down. He said, ‘It’s a bad way to go. It’s not pretty. When I put my Alsatian down at a hospital, I saw it dying. I couldn’t eat for two days afterwards. He had been by my side through a lot. He was looking at me pleadingly. I sat with my hand on his forehead. This is a very inauspicious, a very miserable, horse. Despite his disability and pain, he served you and your children well.’

This friend arranged over the phone for Balban to be shot to death.


As run-down brick is reconstituted into a lapidary mural, something happens to the ego of the reader. “Defeat” is a strong word, and “solace” not quite happy enough for the dazzling experience that is the reading of this book. Nevertheless, the narrator advises this near the end of the tale:

How and where the defeated ego finds solace depends on a number of things—your taste, your skills, your ability to put up with failure (your patience), and the available means of escape:

__Mysticism
__Renunciation
__Meditation
__Liquor
__Humor
__Sex
__Heroin
__Valium
__The Fantasy Past
__Daydreaming

Whichever form of intoxication you prefer. At the moment of imminent colonization, Arnold wrote about the ability of the navel-gazing East to withstand defeat:

     The East bow’d low before the blast
     In patient, deep disdain
     She let the legions thunder past
     And plunged in thought again.

And, in this arrogant meditation, centuries slip by. The most hypnotic and deepest form of intoxication available to humankind—the one that makes you indifferent to your surroundings—takes place through an admixture and imbrication of your thoughts and dreams. If you know this high, then everything else is A-okay.

     A thousand miseries will dissolve into one great dream

31 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Mark Haber, BTBA judge and bookseller at Brazos Bookstore. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)

My first (and possibly strongest) argument why War, So Much War should win the Best Translated Book Award is that Mercè Rodoreda is symbolic of the importance of translated literature. The Catalan language—a language banished under the Franco regime and during the bulk of Rodoreda’s writing career—is today spoken by a mere nine million people. That may seem like a lot but, comparatively, it’s only the size of a large city, say Mexico City or New York. It is a language that has survived against the odds. Rodoreda was an author who wrote in a prohibited language and almost exclusively in exile. Imagine leaving your home and writing in a language Franco had called the language of dogs. And yet the book. The book. How often do you read a book and feel that it’s essential? That it always existed and you just had to find it?

War, So Much War seduces with its apparent simplicity until the reader realizes something rather brilliant and rare is taking place. It has one foot in the world of the living and another in a fever dream. The premise is simple: a young boy runs away from home during the Spanish Civil War (although the name of the war is never mentioned). The chapters are short and the novel is episodic. The world of war, its strange and surreal cruelty, is seen through the eyes of the boy as he tramps through the countryside. Strangers come in and out of focus, some longer than others. I read War, So Much War just after finishing Don Quixote and the similarities are hard to ignore: it’s a pastoral and episodic novel. Each tiny chapter moves the story forward by small increments. The tones are very different of course but the similarities are pronounced.

Translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent the language of the novel is never less than stunning. A passage where the young protagonist listens to an old man imprisoned in an empty castle is especially memorable. The old man rambles as the boy listens:

Observe and admire the perfect order of stars, the passing of time with its retinue of seasons: the gates of summer, the gates of winter. Observe the waves, attend to the grandeur of the winds that the angels blow from the four corners of the pulsating heavens. The lightning that streaks everything with fire, the crawling thunder . . . I adored rosy cheeks, turgid buttocks, honey-sweet breasts, dawn-colored thighs, snow-white, nacreous feet . . . Books that impart wisdom, blazing sunsets from my windows, the pearly light of the night star. My life had been a perfect jewel, a diamond. What are my broken bones but a way of binding me to the realm of memories, to everything I once had and still retain because it dwells in the darkest recesses of my heart?


For a book with War in the title (twice!) there is very little war. War is present, but often in the distance or on the periphery. Instinctively the reader knows bad and violent things are taking place nearby, perhaps over the next hill or in the neighboring valley, but the violence is mostly off-screen. The effects of war, however, the way war changes how people live in, feel and perceive the world, especially children, is omnipotent. This is another reason why War, So Much War is so relevant and universal. War and its ravaging effects are, unfortunately, timeless. Though written toward the end of her life, in 1980, the novel, like all great novels, feels immune to trends.

I could say a lot more about this novel. How customers who have purchased War, So Much War have returned to Brazos Bookstore to not only thank us for the recommendation but to ask: ‘what other books do you have by her?’ How I think a posthumous Nobel Prize she should be awarded to Rodoreda. How the Book Group is reading The Time of the Doves in May and I couldn’t be more excited. Her titles are not only selling well but being talked about in, of all places, Houston, Texas. And in the year 2016. Yes, the mere fact that this brilliant writer and her amazing book is being discussed in 2016 for its literary merit, its translation and its timelessness is a cause for celebration. Mercè Rodoreda is the writer I never knew I needed until I’d read her.

31 March 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by J. C. Sutcliffe on Han Kang’s Human Acts, published by Portobello Books.

Here’s the beginning of the review:

Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an author’s first translation into English, yet Han’s surreal story and the skillful politicization of the characters and events, combined with 2015 BTBA poetry judge Deborah Smith’s excellently smooth and poetic translation, meant that the gamble paid off. Human Acts, Han’s second novel to appear in English, is a very different book in terms of content, yet equally composed and controlled.

In May 1980, shortly after the instatement of dictator Chun Doo-hwan after nearly two decades of Park Chung-hee, the Gwangju uprising began—students’ and workers’ protests against Chun Doo-hwan’s restrictive regime. The uprising was brutally suppressed by the police and the military, and the way the dead were treated, allowed to pile up, unclaimed, was particularly horrific.

But this novel does not tell a chronological story of the events of the uprising, in the way that Sunil Yapa’s new novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, follows the first day of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Both have a cast of characters with different perspectives on the event, but it’s significant that Yapa’s novel includes police—who are presented as fully human—while Han’s does not.

In the way it reports on the bleak brutality of the police, the army and the government—a brutality that becomes simultaneously both more cruel and more banal as the novel progresses—_Human Acts_ has more in common with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings about the gulag and the semi-random, quota-filling prisoner-taking methods of the Soviets. There’s the same inevitability, the same horrifying repetition of treatment of people, each with their own remarkably individual stories.

For the rest of the review, go here.

31 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Ben Carter Olcott, who is a writer, editor of the KGB Bar Lit Magazine, and a bookseller at 192 Books. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (France, Wakefield Press)

I can think of no better way to begin gushing about Murder Most Serene (Wakefield Press; translated, exceptionally, by Louise Rogers Lalaurie) than by granting its author, Gabrielle Wittkop, the credit she claims on the first page of the novel:

Concealed beneath a hood and clad in all black, the bunraku master controls his puppets’ movements, endlessly invisible to the audience, who forget his implacable interference, as we forget all fatalities. The figures breathe, walk, shudder and lie, love or kill one another, laugh or sob, but they do not eat, apart from the occasional morsel of poison. This, then, is how it shall be: I remain present, masked as convention dictates, while, in a Venice on the brink of downfall, women gorged with venom bust like wineskins.


Indeed. The downfall is that of the Venetian Empire (Bonaparte is on the march), the women are the five doomed, successive wives of Venetian aristocrat Alvise Lanzi, who is “something of a parvenu” (via the gorged, burst women’s dowries) and a devout bibliophile for whom books are “anchor and salvation”—his bookish passivity in these events is a not-so-veiled swipe at certain atrophied masculinities—Murder Most Serene is of a robust and exultant femininity—and, indeed, as promised, these women burst—and rot, and fester, and putrefy as someone close, some criminal within, administers in secret horrible potions of Henbane, Aconitum ferox, English yew, et al. To consistently spectacular effect, literary and otherwise, well-worth citation:

She is given opium. What else is there to do? The opium brings relief but it closes her gut, too. She shrieks that she does not want to die, doesn’t want to, doesn’t want to! . . . She vomits pestilential ink, pisses blood, and from time to time, blood pours from her nose, too . . . ulcers appear all over her body, and the smell becomes so bad that no one can stay in the room. Hide, oh hide, those livid, leaden stains, the purulence, the lethal stases, apply powder or ointment.


Indeed: it is Wittkop who jolts these doomed women into life and Wittkop who sends for their poison, Wittkop whose deft hands manipulate her puppets’ desires, their irreducible, irreplaceable life strings. We are rarely allowed to forget it: Wittkop cannot and does not endure narrative “convention” that would obscure her. A broken form facilitates that breaking-in: Murder Most Serene is “a piece of writing made as if from shattered mirrors.” As such it is written in mostly short, jagged paragraphs voiced from ever-shifting, oft-anonymous perspectives. There is a personal, epistolary voice; a staccato voice that reads like a transcript of grainy security camera footage; an “impersonal” narration (though Wittkop’s idiosyncrasies are never far from the surface); and, lastly, that of the marionettist herself, Wittkop the transgressive and irrepressible—and all these are often intermingle in single paragraphs that become, by glint and dint of imagination and insight, mosaics, or as Wittkop deems them, “husks,” overlaying the “kernel” or the “core” thought. To extend her metaphor, what light rebounds from the shattered glass directs the novel: everything else is superfluous if not restriction. This is writing that flows with mind, that abhors submission to a poetics of unities, that generates, in its liberality, passages perverse, disturbing, subversive, free of cliché, and beautiful. This sequence, for example: first, a longer passage describing the birth—“Felicita Lanzi expels a bald monkey, attended by a stench of butchery and all the horrors of parturition”—of a hydrocephalic baby; then several spangling sentences—“But there are not prophecies for now. The parturient feigns sleep. A phial shatters on the stone floor. A clock rings”— then, at the baptism, in reference to a deranged church-goer exhibiting his “flaccidity,” “leaving obscene drawings between the pages of the missals”:

Shameful fascination and no less shameless repulsion serve as mutual mirrors, but the horror of the flesh prevails, perhaps, over its appeal, so that the images may contribute to the salvation of souls; disgust at fornication in all its forms may be transmuted to elevating energy, and the mystic’s vile wilting may reveal the face of his god. This is of no importance, merely anecdotal interest, a flourish.


Wittkop is a disciple of Marquis de Sade, and she applies his extreme libertarianism to literary form itself, to novelistic convention, synthesizing an absolute freedom-of-form-and-content (her kin are Kundera, Barth, Cixous). That de Sade is reagent is fairly explicit: he’s quoted in the epigraph, and the substance of the book calls out in its intensity and depravity to de Sade’s aesthetic of revelatory atrocity. This excerpt from an autopsy scene is instructive:

The face is absent, obliterated beneath the pale, leathery mask of the scalp, fringed by a few remaining strands of hair, which the raven-beaked anatomist has just pulled down to the chin. Sawn open, the cranium is a casket like any other. The flesh is both flaccid and marmoreal, singularly compact and tight, like frozen fat. The skin is aqueous, one might say, sheathing the hands in heavy folds, livid stases marble the feet and legs. Every dead body is opaque and anonymous, with a hint of meanness, irremediable indigence. Carved in gray, the brain, smooth yet convoluted like a lump of Chinese soapstone, lies in a nearby bowl. An appetizing morsel.


Like de Sade’s, Wittkop’s world is motivated by hidden forces generating in body, the effluence of which is desire. As such, Wittkop the puppeteer, the character-author of the novel Murder Most Serene is a contraption herself, a humanoid reification of that that shadowy fundament within; she is something impossible in the lived-in world. Undoubtedly, these are tropes redolent of the po-mo; and MMS is certainly of that clade—but without the stench. Because of its intellectual integrity, yes, and more powerfully, because it does not devolve into irresolvable and sanctimonious koans on “lacks”: she attempts to fill in those spatialized negativities with things, places, beauty. In other words, though the world is obscure, though what fits into these vacuums must emerge decayed, depraved, Wittkop will not let it remain obscure. Her aim of revealing and through language inhabiting the literal grotesqueries of interior body, the sanctified and thus metaphoric and umbrageous flesh and blood, is illuminative. And this applies to every facet of the book, holistically, totally. Rarely is a city evoked with such lush, lusty, personal passion—Wittkop’s Venice has a body as much as any puppet-person, and she applies to it the full breadth of her copious and powerfully positive descriptive power. It is site to desperate, unknowable trysts and triages, desires of every grotesque mutation, “bejeweled putrescences”, charades, masks, debauchery, and, simultaneously, at every turn, in every breath, death. The city “held aloft on millions of felled trees . . . the great trunks cut down, dragged, floated, flayed, and sawn into piles, planted in the mud, bolt upright and tarred like mummies . . . doubly dead,” is simultaneously, on its “alive” side, host to a society steeped in traditions of decadent and decaying excess—traditions on which they now rely, frivolously, Wittkop suggests, as they hurtle toward their inexorable destruction. At the Carnival of Venice, “that endemic epidemic:”

The masks ape death better than ever. Removing the refuse has become a problem, on a par with the disposal of a corpse. Baskets and pails are overflowing with filth, spewing forth their bubbling putrefaction, snot, purplish riches, gray-green defecations, iridescent stews, buzzing with life. In the veins of the labyrinth, laborers sweep up the vile remains, exchanging lackluster obscenities and jokes.


This as the pulchinelle, Wittkop’s derisive term for the insipid and mawkish carnival goers (the name derives from the famously fatuous, drunken clown of the commedia dell’arte) “groan and rumble” as they flit from pleasure to pleasure, unwittingly consuming the city’s riches, perpetuating its death throes, having long ago turned it into a city where “nobility may be bought for a hundred thousand ducats.” The chimera of the body, urban or human, and the protean, hidden fundament of life, are thus both beautiful and utterly base, viral and destructive and the edifice itself. In a phrase: desire is the prettiest poison. That Wittkop lands squarely on that narrow line and never—never: there isn’t a stray word in MMS—deviates, and in fact illuminates what’s there, is surely an extraordinary artistic achievement.

There is so much more to say about this book—a masterpiece, in my opinion—but this one last thing I fear will go underreported: Murder Most Serene is a delight. It’s concise, fast-paced, and funny—I think you’ll find in any one of the above lengthy citations at least one morsel of laugh-out-loud wit; and I can assure you there’s at least one smart-ass quip in every paragraph in the entire book. Really, despite the seriousness of its ideas, (or because of what those serious ideas seek to undermine) MMS is a romp. Wittkop, too, is a superior writer, and I mean superior to nearly everyone I’ve ever read. These sentences are gorgeous; these sentences are so gorgeous they rekindled my belief in the efficacy of the beautiful. But when I recommend this book to friends, and they dutifully ask me why, I say this, first: Murder Most Serene will be the most fun you have reading this year. It was for me.

But do have a dictionary nearby: you’re going to need it.

30 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Kate Garber, BTBA judge and bookseller at 192 Books. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (Israel, New Directions)

Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole, should definitely win the Best Translated Book Award. Outside of what might objectively be considered its qualifying elements, the fact is, when I think about all of the what-seems-like-thousands of books I’ve read during this award process, Moods is the one that makes my heart flutter the most. This almost makes it difficult to write anything. Like if you’ve just fallen in love, and the person is actually great, but you try to talk about this person and then suddenly it’s impossible to speak in full sentences because you’re busy blushing and remembering.

There’s something oddly witchy about this book, in that Moods is precisely what it’s named to be: moods. It is not about moods; it is moods.

It’s like a pressure chamber where Hoffmann is slowly and sometimes suddenly changing your atmosphere, making you weep then making you laugh then making you feel inexplicable guilt. Particularly affecting is his work in sadness:

Here are some other things that break the heart: An old door. A glass left out in the yard. A woman’s foot squeezed into shoes, so her toes become twisted. A grocer whose store no one goes into. Above all, a husband and wife who don’t talk to each other. One-eyed cats. Junkyards. The stairwells of old buildings. A small boy on his way to school. Old women sitting all day by the window. Display windows with only a single item or two, coated with dust. A shopping list. Forty-watt bulbs. Signs with an ampersand (such as ZILBERSTEIN & CHAMNITZER), and when a person we love disappears (at a train station, for instance) into the distance.


Out of context, maybe that won’t make you weep. The crazy part is that the “context” that does make you weep isn’t a storyline at all. It’s the precise engineering of the pressure chamber, in which a vague list of items (which don’t seem to relate to anything) can evoke even more sadness than a seven hundred page novel where your favorite character dies in a tragic accident on the last page. I have theories about how this engineering works, but please, just try it and see what happens. This is why Moods should be named the best fiction, best poetry, best machine, and best spiritual possession of the year.

I’m flipping through the book again, and hang on, it’s just too much.

Sometimes it is discomforting honesty:

Penina Tuchner we loved like the Twin Towers, especially when they were burning.


Sometimes it is pure sensitivity:

We should call all things by their first names. All dogs. All frogs. All trees. Once upon a time we took pity on a gourd that the gardener wanted to uproot, and so we called it Simcha.


Sometimes it is depression without sadness:

Life itself should be lived like that. As in a silent film in which one sees only a single hut with a rooster strutting every so often from the left side of the screen toward the right, and a little while later coming back across it.

Once every thousand years or so a word will be heard.


Sometimes it is delight:

My father Andreas like to play tricks on people. Mostly on his sister, my Aunt Edith.
Every year, on April 1, he’d come up with another prank. Once he started muttering strange syllables and wrote a note to my aunt saying that he had vowed from that day on to speak only Mandarin.


And overall, it is a bit of everything. I’m ashamed that I can’t do it justice, but that’s okay because you’ll see what I mean once you read it.

Beyond this, Moods should win because Peter Cole’s translation is exquisite. Because it queers the line between fiction and poetry so elegantly. Also, because New Directions has published six previous books by Yoel Hoffmann, and this year is the first time I’d even heard of him. Not that you haven’t heard of him—maybe you’ve already read several of his books—but I’ve been working in bookstores for a decade and “Yoel Hoffmann” didn’t even ring a bell. I’m sure I’m partially to blame, but listen, it’s really about time that this fucking grand master becomes a household name.

30 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Rachel Cordasco, who writes for Book Riot and runs the site Bookishly Witty. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Deep Vellum)

Relatively short, but consciously powerful, Tram 83 is one of those books that draws you in with the first note and carries you through every variation and improvisation before ejecting you with a last crescendo.

I read Tram 83 in one sitting, and I think that this is the best way to experience it (if possible). After all, the swirling, kaleidoscopic, jazzy, crude, and hyper atmosphere of the novel (which makes jazz central to its expression of a nonexistent State) is best appreciated through complete immersion. This story of Lucien (a writer trying to hold on to some utopian vision of art) and Requiem (a gangster and trafficker who clings to his power over the debauched world of a fictional separatist African city) offers us a vision of modern colonialism and the devastating cycle of war after war of liberation that has gripped nations across the African continent for over a century.

Mujila himself hails from Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tram 83 is his first (and already award-winning) novel. We see his exploration of literary ideals clashing with the mundane, even grotesque, necessities of daily life in a city that has become unmoored from a state and a history. It is Tram 83, the city’s most infamous nightclub, that acts as a gathering place for prostitutes, criminals, tourists, soldiers, and others. Here Lucien comes night after night, sometimes with his friend/sworn enemy Requiem, sometimes with his would-be publisher Malingeau, and each time he writes down snatches of prose that capture the whirlwind, wild nature of this uninhibited place.

But above all, it is the profiteering tourists who, together with corrupt politicians, exploit the diamond mines and suck out the wealth that they offer. Thus money, corruption, and sexual abandon characterize the nightclub where everyone who seeks prosperity gathers. Tram 83 is the petri dish and Mujila is the scientist peering through a microscope at the chaotic and carnivalesque results of this gathering.

It is jazz, though, that gives Tram 83 its rhythm and body. Mujila set the novel in a nightclub, after all, where music and conversation mix with sights and smells until everything melds into a series of tangible experiences. Each chapter opens with a line or paragraph that’s striking in its seriousness, as compared to the more casual, colloquial language of the novel itself. For example:

Strategy means resolving a given situation intelligently.

Requiem and Malingeau, or when two crooks drink to each other’s health.


This latter opening (to chapter 14), which sounds like the title of some 18th-century English play, then leads into a series of stage directions:

Tram 83, interior.

In the background, a saxophonist performing a solo.

Center-forward, the young ladies of Avignon in their vestal robes eyeing up all the masculine clients.


This constant stylistic flux embodies the “swinging rhythms, keyboards, clarinets, saxophones, drums, and electric guitars” that can be heard in the nightclub. Even opera finds its place in this novel- chapter 25 describes a nightclub singer who looks like, and even sort of sounds like, the famous Maria Callas.

Such a shifting, swirling novel poses its own unique translation challenges, but Roland Glasser has expertly captured the story and its rhythms and made the English translation seem like the original French. We read this book with the understanding that “translation” is itself a character- Lucien trying to translate his experiences into literature, criminals translating scams into money, music translating emotions into sounds. With Tram 83, Mujila shows us a liminal, shifting world, and Glasser has captured it for English ears. A performance like this one deserves to be rewarded.

29 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the first entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, which will highlight each of the 35 “longlisted”: titles for this year’s Best Translated Book Awards. Tom Roberge of Albertine Books wrote this piece.



The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Bulgaria, Open Letter)

The nature of these “Why This Book Should Win” pieces is that they, by virtue of the various writers’ particular fondness for whatever book they’re arguing on behalf of, are, in their conception and execution, capable of taking almost any form. They are not reviews; that’s been done. They aren’t critical examinations; that’s for another time and place. And they aren’t the sort of recommendations people like me (booksellers, publicists) make on a daily basis because those tend towards the succinct, which is not a problem, per se, but which means that a lot of the gritty beauty of a book is summarized in ways that, in the service of making one’s case before the target loses interest in a tangle of plot.

Which is all a way of saying that I’m going to try to make my case for Georgi Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow, translated from the Bulgarian by Angel Rodel and published by this site’s beneficent overlord (I kid, I kid) Open Letter, in my own damn way. By which I mean I’m going to try to sway you by using a few related passages of the text itself to demonstrate just how insanely beautiful and captivating this book is.

First, a bit of summarization, since it is, I’d argue inseparable from the overall scope and style of the book, which functions on several levels at all times, and which jumps around in time and space in a way that intentionally disorients and then immediately reorients the reader (something that I’d further argue is itself a grand metaphor and commentary on the plot and subject matter, but I don’t have time or, quite frankly, the intellectual dexterity to tackle that notion). The story sprawls across a century of wars and miseries and inter-war miseries that dominated Eastern Europe until recently and, of course, that have left their indelible marks in myriad ways. The narrator, we might as well explain at the outset, possessed, as a child, a certain ability to leap into the buried memories of other people (and creatures, as you’ll see below . . . ). Though given a scientific explanation and name (empathetic-somatic syndrome), it seems to be an invention of the writer, albeit one that yields an abundance of material as the narrator pieces together his family’s history, which passes through two real wars, the cold war, and finally the end of Soviet rule, a period itself full constantly shifting attitudes and socio/economic realities. But this is not in any way a novel that wallows in historical gravitas. The historical aspects of the book are present in the way historical incidents are present in DeLillo’s best novels: as un-ignorable facts of life, monoliths casting massive shadows.

Now, in addition to these time-out-of-joint retellings of his family’s history (think Slaughterhouse Five), the narrator dives into the enduring depths of Greek mythology in order to draw lessons, to find solace amid the chaos, and to lend the history itself a new context. More specifically, the myth of the Minotaur is examined and revisited throughout, the story expanding and developing greater nuance with each visit. So what does this mean in practice? Consider this passage, which I’ve chosen from an early mention of the myth that I believe helps establish the book’s unique mise en scène:

I never forgave Ariadne for betraying her brother. How could you give a ball of string to the one who would kill your unfortunate, abandoned brother, driven beastly by the darkness? Some heart- throb from Athens shows up, turns her head—how hard could that be, some provincial, big-city girl, that’s exactly what she is, a hay- seed and a city girl at the same time, she’s never left the rooms of her father’s palace, which is simply a more luxurious labyrinth.

Dana returns to the mill all alone in the darkness and rescues her brother, while Ariadne makes sure that her own brother’s murderer doesn’t lose his way. I hate you, Ariadne.


In the children’s edition of Ancient Greek Myths, I drew two bull’s horns on Ariadne’s head in pen.

To clarify, Ariadne is the Minotaur’s sister, and Dana is the narrator’s grandfather’s sister, who had to retrieve her younger brother after he’d been simply forgotten when the family had visited the mill to sell a load of flour. The mother, for what it’s worth, very nearly left him there; such was the desperation of the time.

Then, not a handful of pages later, we get this, without introduction:

The slugs slowly drag themselves across the newspaper, without letting go of it. Several are timidly clinging together, body to body. My grandfather grabs one with two fingers, closes his eyes, opens his mouth and slowly places the slug inside, close to his throat. He swallows. My stomach turns. I’m afraid for Grandpa. And I want to be able to do as he does. My grandfather has an ulcer. The slugs are his living medicine. They go in, make their way through the esophagus and stop in the soft cave of the stomach, leaving their slimy trail there, which forms something like a protective film on top, a thin medicinal layer that seals off the wound…

This is then followed, after a section break, with a version of the action as told from the slug’s point of view, which, of course, the narrator can access:

A huge hand lifts me up and sets me at the opening of a red, warm and moist cave. It is not unpleasant, even if a bit frightening. The red thing I have been placed on constantly twitches, slightly bucking and rising, which forces me to crawl farther in toward the only available corridor. At the entrance there is a soft barrier, it isn’t difficult to overcome. It’s as if it opens on its own, in any case it reacts when I touch it. Now there’s the tunnel, dark and soft, which I sink into, horns forward, like a slow bull. I leave a trail behind me to mark the way back. I feel safer with it…

The juxtaposition of the slug’s trail in the grandfather’s stomach and the string left for Theseus by Ariadne is, in my opinion, breathtakingly brilliant and beautiful and something that I cannot possibly expound upon any further; it speaks for itself. And this is but one example of the sort of genius on display in The Physics of Sorrow, which is why I think this book should win.

29 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s here! The twenty-five best translations of 2015 according to our esteemed panel of judges. As mentioned in the earlier post, we will be highlighting each of these titles on the site starting this afternoon, and finishing just in time for the April 19th announcement of the ten finalists.

The winners will be announced on May 4th at 7pm both on The Millions website and live in person at The Folly (92 West Houston, New York).

Before getting into the books, I want to praise our group of judges one more time. This is a huge undertaking and they’ve done a marvelous job reading dozens and dozens of books and winnowing down all that was published last year into this stunningly good longlist. This year’s judges are: Amanda Bullock (Literary Arts, Portland), Heather Cleary, translator from the Spanish, co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review), Kevin Elliott (57th Street Books), Kate Garber (192 Books), Jason Grunebaum (translator from the Hindi, writer), Mark Haber (writer, Brazos Bookstore), Stacey Knecht (translator from Czech and Dutch), Amanda Nelson (Book Riot), and P.T. Smith (writer and reader).

And now, onto the books!



A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Angola, Archipelago Books)

Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated from the French by Donald Winkler (Canada, Biblioasis)



Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (South Korea, AmazonCrossing)

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen (Algeria, Other Press)



French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir, translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins (Sudan, Antibookclub)

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)



Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (France, Deep Vellum)

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Bulgaria, Open Letter)



Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories)

The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press)



Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (Israel, New Directions)

Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker (Indonesia, New Directions)



The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (Brazil, New Directions)

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)



Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Deep Vellum)

The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by J. T. Lichtenstein (Mexico, Seven Stories Press)



The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Argentina, Open Letter)

I Refuse by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway, Graywolf Press)



War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)

One Out of Two by Daniel Sada, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Mexico, Graywolf Press)



Berlin by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovene by Brian Henry, Forrest Gander, and Aljaž Kovac (Slovenia, Counterpath)

The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (Russia, FSG)



Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (France, Wakefield Press)

The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (China, Grove Press)



Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad (India, New Directions)

Back in a bit with the first entries in the “Why This Book Should Win” series!

29 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

And here are the ten longlist books for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry, which is being judged by Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Words Without Borders), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Becka McKay (writer and translator), and Deborah Smith (writer, translator, founder of Tilted Axis).



A Science Not for the Earth: Selected Poems and Letters by Yevgeny Baratynsky, translated from the Russian by Rawley Grau (Russia, Ugly Duckling Presse)

Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel (France, Burning Deck)



Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan (Brazil, Phoneme Media)

Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets, edited and translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström (India, HarperCollins India)



Empty Chairs: Selected Poems by Liu Xia, translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern (China, Graywolf)

Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan, edited and translated from the Persian by Farzana Marie (Afghanistan, Holy Cow! Press)



Silvina Ocampo by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss (Argentina, NYRB)

The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo, translated from the Spanish and Isthmus Zapotec by Clare Sullivan (Mexico, Phoneme Media)



The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Djibouti, Seagull Books)

Sea Summit by Yi Lu, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (China, Milkweed)

We’ll start featuring each of these titles on the blog in the very near future, and the finalists will be unveiled on Tuesday, April 19th!

The Seven Good Years
The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .

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Human Acts
Human Acts by Han Kang
Reviewed by J.C. Sutcliffe

Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .

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Nowhere to Be Found
Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .

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La paz de los vencidos
La paz de los vencidos by Jorge Eduardo Benavides
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .

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Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology
Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology by Various
Reviewed by Emma Ramadan

Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .

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Berlin
Berlin by Aleš Šteger
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .

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The Gun
The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura
Reviewed by Will Eells

Like any good potboiler worth its salt, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Gun wastes no time setting up its premise: “Last night, I found a gun. Or you could say I stole it, I’m not really sure. I’ve never seen something so. . .

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This Place Holds No Fear
This Place Holds No Fear by Monika Held
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Heiner Resseck, the protagonist in Monika Held’s thought-provoking, first novel, This Place Holds No Fear, intentionally re-lives his past every hour of every day. His memories are his treasures, more dear than the present or future. What wonderful past eclipses. . .

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The Room
The Room by Jonas Karlsson
Reviewed by Peter Biello

If you’ve ever worked in a corporate office, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Perception is reality.” To Björn, the office worker who narrates Jonas Karlsson’s novel The Room, the reality is simple: there’s a door near the bathroom that leads. . .

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Thérèse and Isabelle
Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

I recently listened to Three Percent Podcast #99, which had guest speaker Julia Berner-Tobin from Feminist Press. In addition to the usual amusement of finally hearing both sides of the podcast (normally I just hear parts of Chad’s side. . .

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