Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In Gerard de Villiers The Madmen of Benghazi, it happened on the sixth page. The aspiring king of Libya, who turns out to be no more than a patsy, is compared to a “sexual tornado” and within six sentences, Villiers assures us that al-Senussi has “an unusually long cock” and his lover, Cynthia, tells him “You’re very big.” As the opening page describes his lover’s body, we know we’re in for absurdly terrible sex scenes—the type that idealize an oil rig as a sexual metaphor and make you hope that the author isn’t as “good” a sex partner as his male. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this, though with less success.
The Four Corners of Palermo is not a novel but a collection of four episodes. Each chapter takes the hero, a gritty young crime reporter, to a different quarter of the city, where he finds a new noir crime scene and a new Venus-like lover. In the first chapter, he pieces together the family drama behind a shootout in the streets. The second has him investigating car bombings, and the third chasing a father who kidnapped his own children. The fourth has him befriending a daughter whose father is found beheaded in a town square, and ultimately. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were one to read every book by Volodine and his pseudonyms, his driving philosophy would then become fully clear. It may not be meant to.
His novels return to the post-apocalypse, to prisons, psychiatric hospitals, interrogations, and writers. They trod familiar ground, the same characters reappear, and images are like memories half-remembered. The writers he creates not only belong in his universe, but create their own projects that fit within his—it’s turtles all the way down. Yet in the reoccurrence, there is nuance, and his universe expands—the other reality of the post-exotic becomes more grounded.
The Volodine project, the pseudonyms, and the intertexual. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?), one part eager devotion (Where is she, I want to be her best friend!), enthusiasm over Ferrante was reignited when the third book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel series was published this month.
Her fans, reviewers, and interviewers don’t know who she is, where she is, whether her name is really Elena Ferrante, how much her books are drawn from her life or the lives of friends, family. Even her translator, the fantastic Ann Goldstein, has corresponded with her only sparingly. What is known is that her works have great, deep, broad feelings. Mammoth feelings. Feelings like a spiny barrier reef. . .
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’ performance at the 1948 Summer Olympics didn’t help bolster nationalism: of the 85 athletes who participated, only five won medals. Meanwhile, a group of Egyptian officers, including future Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, formed the Free Officers Movement. Originally organized to reinstate institutions removed by the government, the movement grew in strength—and ambition—during the Arab-Israeli War. By 1952, the officers not only overthrew King Farouk, but they ended the British occupation and established Egypt as a republic.
Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim lived through the period leading to and following the revolution, and he has written about the effects it has had. . .
Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as “Niculae Berca”). The Evil Vale is located in the region of Wallachia (southern Romania) in the Carpathians, and is described as a place seemingly forgotten by time. In the Author’s Afterword, Bogdan Suceava explains that the remoteness of the place made it possible for its inhabitants to avoid Communist laws and to live according to an archaic way of life that was rare even for the Balkans.
In the world that is the Evil Vale, the news from the rest of the world, which comes by way of newspapers and rumors, gets tangled up, mixing fact and fiction, the real and. . .
Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that contemplates what it means to accept your past.
It is 2010. Kamal Jann, a successful, middle-aged lawyer and human rights activist, lives in New York City. He is tormented by the horrors that he suffered at the hands of his uncle, Sayf, the powerful head of Syria’s intelligence services. Sayf began sexually molesting Kamal when the boy was twelve years old, and three years later, Sayf ordered the murders of Kamal’s mother and father (the latter of whom was Sayf’s only sibling). Kamal’s hatred for his uncle is compounded by the fact that he later allows Sayf to sponsor his college. . .
While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.
Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see it clearly before me. Its colors are glaring and harsh in their brightness. But as soon as I rush to capture it, it explodes, and what I write down are separate bits that don’t form a whole. Do you see it now? It’s as if I tried to glue together a broken vase, piece by piece. But the shards are so fragmentary that I don’t know which goes with which or how I fit them together, there’s always one fragment left over. But this fragment! It makes the poem. It alone gives meaning . . . . My requiem should. . .
The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the book is the importance and artifice of myths and legends. In this sense, the novel’s plot, loosely based on the infamous case of IRA leader turned informer Dennis Donaldson, serves to do more than artfully convey the manner in which a zealot becomes a traitor; the book details the manner in which we construct ourselves and the ease in which such façades are eroded.
I won’t go into the (pardon the euphemism) complicated history of Northern Ireland, but a quick study will inform the neophyte reader about Sinn Féin and the Troubles, giving them proper (though not necessary) background. . .
Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.
It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then his fans have wondered what life must have been like for him in his last few months.
Absent the mystery of what happens, what remains is why. These days it might be difficult for us to imagine why he’d want to kill himself. He was a successful writer and met devoted followers everywhere he went. He had successfully escaped Europe before Hitler’s army could capture him (though many of his friends and family members weren’t so lucky). By 1942, he was waiting out the war in warm, sunny Brazil, where alcohol-fueled celebrations in the street seemed routine. His wife, Lotte, was. . .