Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure of a trashy popular novel. The writing is straightforward, not overly literary, and yet by the end you realize all of Despentes’s complex feminist points have not only been made, but have found their way into your mind, have changed something about the way you think. This is her genius.
Despentes doesn’t merely explore what it’s like to be a woman in the world. Some of her books are about what it’s like to be anyone in a world that keeps people unequal, whether they be men or women, rich or poor. They’re about how everyone is affected, and. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention of writing a novel himself. Written in three parts, the novel narrates Ilja’s days as a Dutch foreigner in Genoa, describing the beautiful city which both frustrates and enthralls him. Unlike his own country, which runs systematically and smoothly, Ilja praises Italy for its “improvisation,” causing Italians to be “the most resourceful, resilient, and creative people I know.”
Often holed up in a bar enjoying an aperitif and claiming to write poetry, Ilja assumes the role of careful observer, creating caricatures and recording the stories of those around him. As a foreigner himself, Ilja presents us with a character. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha! Shovels and lobelias; gardening, violence, flowering plants. Buried secrets and blossoming. There seemed a sense to it all.
Intervenir/Intervene is being sold as a book of poetry. That is true. But then again, this is not poetry that obeys the rules poetry are supposed to follow. I state this in the year 2016, long after free verse and post modernism have done their best to ruin formal poetry. Even in the age of facile “performance art” and hollow “experimentalism,” there is work that reminds jaded readers like myself that there is value in some of what stands under the. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of destruction. Gillian’s and Hubert’s struggles to understand the emotional basis of these incongruities provide dramatic tension in this taut and provocative novel.
Although Gillian survives an auto accident that kills her husband, the crash damages and permanently alters her face. As she convalesces, she recalls the weeks leading up to the accident, in particular her televised interview with Hubert, a local artist, and her post-interview request that he paint her portrait. Gillian shares with Hubert the hope that his painting of her will reveal truths to which she has been blind. All that she understands about herself is derivative. . .
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 what seems a blasé manner, talk about how much they hate terrorist attacks. “They put a damper on everything.” Keret shares this story—the beginning of his life as a father occurring as the wounded of Tel Aviv surround him— most likely to imply something deep about life and death, but I simply found it funny. Chalk that up to my dark sense of humor, or maybe it’s because Keret manages to wrest more from tragedy than just pathos. Surely he’s trying to communicate what it is like to live in a part of the world where violence is an everyday. . .
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. . .
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 been widely overlooked. I’ve found this to be largely because Nowhere to Be Found is published by AmazonCrossing.
If you’ve overlooked Bae Suah out of some desire to punish Amazon, or because of a general indifference to the AmazonCrossing imprint, you’re only doing yourself a disservice. With three upcoming books translated into English—_A Greater Music_, The Owls’ Absence, and _Recitation_—Bae Suah will continue to establish herself as one of the hottest voices coming out of South Korea. list: Books from Korea named her as “one of the most risk-taking, experimental writers active in Korea”—and with the fiction that is coming. . .
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 to Santa Cruz from La Laguna, our lonely diarist supports his frugal existence by reporting to a dead-end job at a slot machine parlor. The diary’s dates span October 5 to May 2 of the following spring of a nameless year(s) that seems to be the late 1990s near the end of the Fujimori presidency.
In a series of moving, artfully crafted entries that impressively synthesize the emotional spontaneity of self-reflection and metatextual associations, the narrator explores his life, friendships, and love affairs past and present. Benavides’s limpid narration smoothly fuses memories, hopes, and the familiar anguish of the lovelorn. . .
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 artists and intellectuals, Souffles was a written fight for democratic ideals and a new Maghrebi literature following independence in Morocco. For those of us who can’t read French or Arabic, or who don’t have the attention span to sift through all of the archives, we now have the excellent Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology, edited by Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio, with just the right amount of historical background and contextual commentary. There is also a delightfully substantial discussion of the different translation methods used by their array of skillful translators, including (to name only a few) Andrew Zawacki, Anna. . .
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 Berlin by Aleš Šteger, I am reminded of Jarrell’s idea because I am supposed to be writing a review of Berlin and I realize that I am not Šteger’s ideal reader. I came to the book with expectations and am, to be completely honest, disappointed. But so what? A book didn’t do what I’d hoped it would do. Does that make it a failure?
Of course not. It makes it a book with a specific vision that seemed well suited to my tastes and interests, even if the execution was different than I’d imaged. I love books that make interesting. . .