As hopefully everyone knows, we’re taking advantage of the travel day in the NLCS to throw a little fundraising party for Open Letter. If you’re in Rochester, you should definitely come out to the German House tonight at 8 for food, booze, palm readings, music, and presenations by Rochester visionaries. Tickets are available at the door, and start at $20. (Which is less than dinner and a palm reading!)
Now, if you’re not in Rochester, and still want in on this, up until 10pm you can purchase raffle tickets for any number of goods and services that were donated by local businesses.
Tickets are available both online and in person for all of these grouping. They are $5 for 1 entry, $10 for 3 entries, or $20 for 8.
We will be doing the drawings at 10pm exactly, so if you want to get in on this—and support Open Letter—buy them now!
From now until October 31st, any and all GoodReads users can enter to win a copy of Justine by Iben Mondrup, translated from the Danish by Kerri Pierce:
Stylistically provocative, Justine tells the story of a young female artist whose life is upended when her house burns down with all of the artworks for her upcoming exhibit inside. With little time left to recreate every-thing she’s lost, Justine embarks on a series of sexual escapades with a sort of doomed intensity that foreshadows the novel’s final, dark twist.
Through flashbacks and fragmented memories, we see Justine as a student at the Art Academy first discovering the misogynistic order that rules the Danish art world, and later on as she constantly challenges its expectations—both in the studio and in bed.
A personal meditation on artistic identity, creative process, and the male-dominated art scene, the novel veers between the erotic and the savage, resulting in a spellbinding read from one of Denmark’s edgiest contemporary feminist writers.
This week’s podcast starts with the biggest, most surprising news of recent memory—Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Then Chad and Tom talk about the National Book Foundation’s study of translation, the unmasking of Elena Ferrante (and the backlash to that unmasking, and the backlash to the backlash), and an article by Michael Hofmann about the dangers of over-thinking translation. They conclude by wondering about what the 1980 American Book Award TV presentation must have been like.
This week’s music is “Rainy Day Woman #12 & #35” by your new Nobel laureate.
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This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Lori Feathers, anAssistant Managing Editor at Asymptote, freelance book critic and member of the National Book Critics Circle. Follow her online @LoriFeathers. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
While it’s still very early days in the months-long process of reading and evaluating the hundreds of eligible fiction titles for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award, I’ve already made some discoveries that impressed me with compelling narratives and expressive writing that is skillfully sustained by very solid translations. In compiling this list I noticed a common theme: each of these books explores an extraordinary relationship, a bond that consumes and sometimes destroys those within it.
The Young Bride by Alessandro Baricco (tr. Ann Goldstein)
In this gothic fable Baricco portrays a family that tries to avoid life’s pain and disappointment by hiding within a meticulously maintained, insular world of its own making. This bubble is threatened by the unexpected arrival of the young Bride, fiancé of the family’s only son. The young Bride assimilates herself into the family’s peculiar household but over time both she and the family are indelibly changed by their relationship. The family’s extravagant lifestyle and hedonistic rituals are described with sly humor and sumptuous detail. As in his prior novel, Silk, Baricco’s characters exude an erotic sensuality that feels honest and natural. This richly decadent prose is masterfully translated by Ann Goldstein. Baricco uses the elements of a fable to their best effect: with fantastic settings and situations Baricco addresses our very real and relatable reluctance to face the pain of loss and our own mortality.
A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (tr. Christina E. Kramer)
It would be difficult to find a relationship more foreign to most of us than that of conjoined twins. Dimkovska places us inside the mind and body of Zlata, joined at the head to her sister, Srebra, with exceptional detail and perspective. The girls’ physical and emotional entrapment to one another is made all the more difficult by their troubled, impoverished home life and the political and economic instability that rocks 1990s Macedonia. As the girls reach adulthood their situation becomes increasingly unbearable, and Dimkovska draws not-so-subtle parallels between the surgical separation of the twins and the rending of the former Yugoslavia. The writing is lyrical and beautifully perceptive, full of sensitivity and nuance for the girls’ affliction and the way that it controls their lives.
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes (tr. Siân Reynolds)
Gloria, the forty-one year old protagonist of Despentes’s Bye Bye Blondie, is a force of nature: physically violent to herself and others, uninhibitedly honest, and devoid of self-control. Gloria reunites with her old boyfriend and fellow delinquent from teenage years, Eric, and they become entangled in a self-destructive, mid-life romance from which neither has the strength to escape. Despentes unabashedly refuses redemption for her protagonist, and she draws Gloria’s character so completely and authentically that this, along with the punchy momentum of the prose, results in a compulsively readable and exuberant novel.
About My Mother by Tahar Ben Jelloun (tr. Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman)
Ben Jelloun’s fictional memoir evokes a middle-aged man’s patient guardianship over the mental and physical deterioration of his beloved, dying mother. The novel explores memory, suggesting that for both the dying and their loved ones memories are the only refuge from the painful realities of death. The son’s feelings about his mother are expressed with a poignant beauty that contrasts sharply with the crude breakdown of his mother’s mind and body. At the same time, Ben Jelloun paces his narrative to artfully mirror the slow, laborious monotony of a natural, age-induced death.
The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes and Torbjørn Støverud)
The bond between Mattis, a mentally handicapped man, and his older sister, Hege, is the focus of Vesaas’ 1957 novel set in a remote Norwegian farming village where the two share a home. In most ways Mattis’ actions and emotions are those of a child, and he is entirely dependent upon Hege both as a caregiver and only friend. When Hege becomes romantically involved with an itinerant worker Mattis is incapable of sharing Hege’s affections with another. The author portrays Mattis’ innocence and naïve wonder about the world with clean, spare writing that despite its straight forwardness (or perhaps because of it) eloquently carries a real depth of perception and emotion.
UPDATE: Not actually eligible for the award! Peter Owen brought this out in 2013, so it can’t actually win. But that shouldn’t stop you from buying a copy from Archipelago!
My Marriage by Jakob Wassermann (tr. Michael Hoffman)
This fascinating, autobiographical novel is a husband’s account of his manipulative wife, their volatile marriage, and subsequent (but less than definitive) separation. Alexander possesses a passive nature and is quick to avoid confrontation. So when Ganna, a young admirer of his writing, proposes that they wed Alexander acquiesces. Although Alexander lacks any physical attraction for Ganna a sense of duty, feelings of pity, and her fawning admiration of his writing, keep him in the marriage despite their vicious arguments. Wasserman takes us inside the humiliations and inflicted pain of this unstable relationship. Not only do we understand the damage that this couple inflicts upon each other, we feel it, too, in writing that resonates with pitch-perfect tone in Michael Hoffman’s translation.
Last October, we put on our first ever celebration (or gala) here in Rochester. It was centered around the release of Rochester Knockings, which was translated from the French by local poet-translator Jennifer Grotz (who also runs the translation program at the University of Rochester). The local band The Fox Sisters played, lots of great food was eaten, booze was consumed, and a great time was had by all.
Now it’s time to do it all over again . . . but even better. This year’s event will take place at The Historic German House (315 Gregory St., Rochester, NY 14620) on October 21st from 8pm till ??. (There will be a special V.I.P. reception at 7pm.) Tickets are available here at three levels: $20 to attend, $25 to attend and receive a copy of A Greater Music, and $100 for all that plus entrance to the V.I.P. reception.
This is our one and only fundraising event for the fall, the support from which goes a long way in implementing our various programs—from paying translators to help connect English readers with great works of international art, to hosting summer internships, to maintaining the world’s only translation database.
Which is why I hope all of you will consider purchasing a ticket. The $25 ticket really is the best bargain . . . You get entry to the celebration, a buffet dinner, and a copy of A Greater Music by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith. If you’re not able to make it to Rochester for the event, we will still send you your copy of the book, and make your ticket available to a student who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend. (We’ve made it easier than ever for non-local fans to participate in this celebration. Keep reading for more details.)
Similar to last year, we will have a huge buffet spread from ButaPub, one of the best new restaurants in Rochester. Thanks to popular demand, the palm readers from last year will also be back, as will our specialty cocktails.
Here’s the new stuff: First off, instead of a live band, this year we asked several of our authors to provide us with curated playlists tied to their books. We’ll be printing these in the celebration booklet (and eventually here online), and will even make these available as a Spotify playlist.
To allow non-local fans another way to participate, we will be raffling off a few dozen products and services. All are from local businesses, with most being tied to a local venue (such as the tour and tasting at Black Button Distillery or the gift certificates to Daily Refresher), but some of them (including four artworks from Dave Pollot or the Open Letter subscription or the Pompous Ass Winery gift basket) are transportable. Tickets will be available online (still hashing this out, so give it a couple days) and at the celebration itself for the following: 1 ticket for $5, 3 tickets for $10, or 8 tickets for $20. You’ll be able to apply them to whichever particular items you want to win.
In terms of the program itself, we’re going to celebrate Rochester and the fact that we’re a born and bred Rochester press by having several local visionaries give short presentations on the future of the city and role of arts and culture in that future. We have lined up Rachel Barnhart (former newsanchor, local politican), Evan Dawson (host of WXXI’s Connections), Glenn Kellogg (founder of Hart’s Grocers and Rochester Local Capital), Kyle Semmel (translator, author, director of Writers & Books), and Leah Stacy (founder of Boomtown Table). All five are important people in the Rochester community and have unique perspectives on what makes this a great city to live in—and one filled with exciting future possibilities.
We’re also planning on decorating the room with items from our archives, highlighting the first eight years of our existence. Posters of our first book covers, copies of our earliest catalogs, copies of the first time we were featured in the CITY Paper . . . Lots of interesting items to check out, all of which tie into the general theme of celebrating Rochester and what the press contributes to the local community.
If you’re a fan of Open Letter, this website, literature in translation, or all of the above, I hope you’ll consider supporting our celebration. It’s thanks to the support of people like you that we’re able to keep connecting readers with international authors and help further the discussion and appreciation of both literature in translation, and the art of translation itself. Thanks in advance, and I hope to see you there on October 21st!”:http://www.openletterbooks.org/products/celebration2
This week’s podcast kicks off with a list of corrections from episode 117, from a mix-up of Sophies to an explanation of which Basque Country soccer team only fields Basque players. Then Chad and Tom move on to talk about the recent NEIBA conference and some fall titles they left out of their mini-previews before talking about the I Love Dick TV show (officially picked up!) and their rants. Always rants, always.
Here are links to a few of the books, articles, and websites that came up this week:
This week’s music is Standing in the Sun by Grouplove.
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It’s been some months since I posted about GoodReads Giveaways here on Three Percent, but since I recently scheduled ones for all of our forthcoming winter titles, I thought I’d invite everyone to enter into these drawings.
Both of these giveaways—for The Brother and for A Greater Music—run from October 1st until October 15th, and you can throw your name into the virtual hat simply by clicking through the “Enter Giveaway” boxes below.
First up, Rein Raud’s The Brother, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen:
Winner of the Eduard Vilde Literary Award
The Brother opens with a mysterious stranger arriving in a small town controlled by a group of men—men who recently cheated the stranger’s supposed sister out of her inheritance and mother’s estate. Resigned to giving up on her dreams and ambitions, Laila took this swindling in stride, something that Brother won’t stand for. Soon after his arrival, fortunes change dramatically, enraging this group of powerful men, motivating them to get their revenge on Brother. Meanwhile, a rat-faced paralegal makes it his mission to discover Brother’s true identity . . .
The first novel of Rein Raud’s to appear in English, The Brother is, in Raud’s own words, a spaghetti western told in poetic prose, simultaneously paying tribute to both Clint Eastwood and Alessandro Baricco. With its well-drawn characters and quick moving plot, it takes on more mythic aspects, lightly touching on philosophical ideas of identity and the ruthless way the world is divided into winners and losers.
And then A Greater Music by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith:
Near the beginning of A Greater Music, the narrator, a young Korean writer, falls into an icy river in the Berlin suburbs, where she’s been house-sitting for her on-off boyfriend Joachim. This sets into motion a series of memories that move between the hazily defined present and the period three years ago when she first lived in Berlin. Throughout, the narrator’s relationship with Joachim, a rough-and-ready metalworker, is contrasted with her friendship with M, an ultra-refined music-loving German teacher who was once her lover.
A novel of memories and wandering, A Greater Music blends riffs on music, language, and literature with a gut-punch of an emotional ending, establishing Bae Suah as one of the most exciting novelists working today.
This is the third entry in a series that will eventually feature all of the titles Open Letter has published to date. Catch up on past entries by clicking here. Last week’s entry was a pretty solid Chad rant involving the incredible Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin. Definitely check that one out. By contrast, this week’s post is rainbows and bunnies.
One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
Original Language: Danish, which has 5.5 million native speakers (according to Wikipedia)
Year of Original Publication: 2012, with our English edition coming out this past June.
Awards Received: One of Us Is Sleeping was an official best-seller in Denmark (making our edition an “International Bestseller,” I believe), weas shortlisted for the Readers’ Book Award (Læsernes Bogpris), and was a finalist for the Nordic Council Literature Prize. This was the second time she was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize (she was also a finalist for Rise and Fall in 2011), which made her the youngest author ever to accomplish this feat.
Let’s put that in context for a second: By the age of 30, Josefine had published four collections, two of which were finalists for a prize awarding the best book from five countries (Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark). Too bad she wasn’t eligible for the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, because daaaammmnnn.
Notable Praise: The quote that we use on the cover of our book—like most anyone would—is “Scandinavia now has its own Virginia Woolf.” But just scroll down this page to see all the great blurbs that this book has received.
Americans—including most chain “booksellers” and probably even our distributor—would look at this and dismiss them because they’re “not from U.S. or UK publications.” Which is so utterly stupid when you think about it. I’ve heard that refrain my whole career, and every time I can’t help but think that reviews from foreign publications are oftentimes more intelligent and trustworthy since these reviewers read both their own country’s books and the big American novels. A Danish critic knows about J-Franz and Colson Whitehead and Josefine Klougart. Not to mention, they also have access to so many more international works than we do, simply by living in Europe where more titles are translated and where the people speak more languages. But because we can’t pronounce the name of the publication, we assume it’s some hand-printed broadsheet or a blog or something. We are so weirdly close minded.
Other Comparisons: The ones that have come up the most are: Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, and Joan Didion. I like Josefine’s response to all these, in which she basically just shrugged it off. Everyone needs comparisons—our minds are great at understanding connections and things in relation to one another, but quite crap at evaluating things on their own, in isolation—and it’s the job of marketers to supply them. It’s why I usually include those cheeky “X Meets Y” bits in these write-ups. It’s so silly, and yet . . . In the way that it uses touchstone images and a circular, poetic structure, One of Us Is Sleeping most reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. I assume people still read The Waves. It really is the best Woolf.
A Word about the Translator: All of our translators are great translators, but holy mother has Martin translated a lot of key Danish authors. He doesn’t seem to have his own website, or a Wikipedia page, or anywhere really detailing what he’s done, except maybe this GoodReads profile. Jussi Adler-Olsen, Peter Høeg, Kim Leine, Helle Helle, Dorthe Nors, Pia Juul, and part of the final volume of My Struggle are just some of the highlights from his career. There are other great Danish translators—Kyle Semmel, Kerri Pierce, and Susanne Nied all come to mind—but given his output, the quality of his work, and the authors he’s doing, Martin is right there as one of the greatest translators of our time.
How Tall Is Josefine? I’m very short. Like not quite vertically challenged short, but you’d be hard pressed to find a grown male shorter than I am. So I like to exaggerate other people’s height, especially when they are legitimately tall. The first time I met Josefine, I felt like she had to kneel down to be able to hear what I was saying. Which led to my telling people she was like 6’6” or so. After Will Evans of Deep Vellum met her, he sent me a message about how she was the most wonderful eight-foot-tall author in the world.
I believe she is 6’1”. Which is pretty tall. Here’s a picture of her next to Susan Harris of Words Without Borders (who is a bit shorter than I am and interviewed Josefine in Chicago).
According to Susan, “Yes, I am wearing three-inch platforms, and Josefine is in flats. Hard to believe we’re the same species.”
Other Books in English: Up next for Josefine is :Of Darkness, which is forthcoming from Deep Vellum!
What’s Next: In November, Josefine’s new novel comes out in Denmark. I don’t remember the title at this second . . . I do know that it was supposed to come out last year, but she started revising and adding things and suddenly there were 200 new pages, bringing the total book to 700 pages. Given our string of 700 page books (Gesell Dome, Invented Part, etc.), I think this is destined to be an Open Letter title.
Danish Women Writers Series: One of Us Is Sleeping is the second book in Open Letter’s Danish Women Writers Series, preceded by Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, and followed by Justine by Iben Mondrup (November 2016), The Eternal Summer by Madame Nielsen, and The Easy and the Lonely by Asta Olivia.
This series grew out of a trip to Copenhagen in 2013 and a generous grant from the Danish Arts Foundation. Initially the grant was simply to do five books from Danish, but given that all the books we gravitated toward were written by women, and given the fact that so few books by women are translated into English, we thought we’d make this exclusively a series to promote Danish women writers. It’s an amazing list of five books that covers a range of genres and styles (from Aidt’s more thriller-esque novel to Olivia’s poetry) and is an attempt to bring more attention to writing by international women.
Of course, these books haven’t been as well reviewed as they should be (my opinion), and I’m scared to compare the amount of attention they’ve received against the books we’ve published by men around the same time. Someone should write a feature or blog post about this series though. Occasionally you see pieces like this—like about Dalkey’s Library of Korean Literature . . . Perhaps we should’ve published all five at once in similarly bland covers? That’s a joke, but there is a gimmick element necessary to get attention. Doing interesting publishing projects like this in a straightforward, meaningful way isn’t going to get you written up in the New Yorker. Seriously though: If you’re interested in reading more women, supporting women’s lit in translation, or just finding some great Scandinavian books, give this series a look.
A Rochester Shout-Out: I have to mention that when Josefine was here, she was on WXXI Connections with Evan Dawson, which was one of the first radio programs (I think she said “the first,” but I’ll give everyone the benefit of the doubt) she ever appeared on in which the host had actually read the complete book. And thought about it. And marked passages to read aloud during the program. It’s nice to share some kind words about our town.
Jacket Copy: Not the easiest book to describe, given how imagistic and non-linear it is. But here’s what we went with:
The English-language debut from one of Denmark’s most exciting, celebrated young writers, One of Us Is Sleeping is a haunting novel about loss in all its forms.
As she returns home to visit her mother who is dying of cancer, the narrator recounts a brief, intense love affair, as well as the grief and disillusionment that follow its end. The book’s striking imagery and magnificent prose underpin its principal theme: the jarring contrast between the recollection of stability—your parents, your childhood home, your love—and the continual endings that we experience throughout our lives.
A true-to-life, deeply poetic novel that works in the same vein as Anne Carson, One of Us Is Sleeping has won Klougart countless accolades and award nominations—including the Readers’ Book Award—securing her place as a major new voice in world literature.
And here’s Josefine’s statement from her website:
One of Us is Sleeping is a novel about leaving and being left behind; a story about the unfolding of a relationship that insists on the necessity of sorrow. It is a novel about loss, homelessness, and light.
Audience: Do you like to feel? Do you like sadness? Do you like to experience emotional loss? Then this book is for you!
To be serious, this is one of the most emotionally charged—and pretty depressing—books we’ve ever published. It’s intense and gorgeous and loaded with feelings.
When Is It Best to Read: The Winter.
It’s strange, he lies, I never miss you when you’re not here. I get so scared I might forget you, he tells her. He has talked her into meeting. I’m beginning to forget you, he says. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, malicious voices tell her, only these are her own thoughts, they carry her signature. And presumably it is what he wants, or what a person dreams about at night; dreams about during the day, not wishing it upon one’s worst enemy. They walk there together, in the park by the National Gallery. It is summer adn they are constantly on the run from someone. Both of them seeing someone else now, and one of them always wanting to try again. But only one.
Longer Excerpt: Check out the excerpt from our catalog.
Personal Pitch: I don’t have the time (or health to be honest, I’ve got a cold and I’m fading) to do a full-blown pitch like last week, but there are a few things that I want to say.
First off, I really don’t intend to highlight all our new books in this series as they come out. But with Josefine on tour, I wanted to bring a little extra attention to this book. It was absolutely incredible to hang out with her and her editor Jakob Sandvad here in Rochester. Their publishing company, Gladiator, was featured in the Danish Literary Magazine last fall, and presents an interesting way of conceiving of a publishing house. A lot of their focus is on involving authors in the whole process, including having them recommend authors for translation into Danish, and sometimes even doing the translation. When they were here, we spent a lot of time talking about how to reach readers, how to make events more exciting, how to make literary conversations more rich and fulfilling. It’s a breath of fresh air to talk to engaged literary people like this.
Also, I beat them badly at basketball. Well, this basketball:
Secondly, One of Us Is Sleeping is definitely the sort of book I was thinking of in last week’s post about wanting to reread particular novels. Although in this case, I think of it more as having to “read slow.” There’s no way to rush through this book. If you do, you’ll be completely lost and unaware of the recurring images and the ways in which the story could be restructured into something much more linear. English classes exist—at least in some regard—to train students how to read slow and read critically, skills that are very beneficial when it comes to serious literature like this. There should be some sort of “slow read” movement to go along with all the “slow eating” and “slow” everything movements that exist right now.
Finally, when Josefine was on the aforementioned radio show last week, she explained how she wrote this novel. Paraphrasing here, but basically, she kept a single Word document open on her computer for a year and wrote a page a day. After that, she went back and started looking through it for recurring images. And then built the book around that, retaining its nonlinear nature, since that’s really how our lives work. As she said, at any moment in time, our consciousness is living in the now, in the past, and in the future—almost simultaneously. One of Us Is Sleeping captures that feeling in beautiful, soul-crushing prose. And once you know the way it came together, it makes even more sense. Especially if you read it slowly!
Buy It: Of course you should buy it from us, but if you happen to be in the Bay Area next Tuesday (October 4th), you can catch her at Green Apple on the Park. Also, I know she signed copies at a number of New York area bookstores, and in Houston, Chicago, Dallas, and Portland. Go get one!
This is the second entry in a series that will eventually feature all of the titles Open Letter has published to date. Catch up on past entries by clicking here. Last week’s entry was about Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno.
Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz
Original Language: Russian
Author’s Home Country: Shishkin was born in Russia, but moved to Switzerland in 1995. After taking several shits on Putin’s Russia (here and here and I think there are others), it’s probably for the best that he’s living with the bankers.
Original Date of Publication: 2005 (Russian); 2012 (English)
Second Printing: Yes—this is one of a handful of Open Letter titles to go have gone into a second printing. (I wonder if anyone can guess the others. Not all of them are our best-selling titles, but it’s a pretty solid list of books.) It’s somehow very gratifying to open up one of our books and see “Second Printing, 2013” on the copyright page. Which is why I mention it.
Awards Won: Shishkin won three international awards for Maidenhair: the Big Book Award and National Best-Seller Prize in Russia, and the German translation won the International Literature Award. In terms of prizes for the English translations, well, as you can see in the image above, Maidenhair was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award . . . AND WAS ROBBED. Actually, it was up against Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, which is fine, OK. Although I still believe Shishkin deserved it, especially given that Krasznahorkai won the following year as well, and New Directions has won like 85% of the BTBA awards to date. (That is just an estimate.)
But beyond not winning the BTBA, there was a moment, in 2013, when Shishkin’s name was being bantered around as a possible Nobel Prize recipient. That would’ve changed Open Letter’s fortunes FOREVER, and possibly turned me into a happy person. Seeing that that obviously hasn’t happened—it’s all depressive episodes alternating with rage over here—it’s clear that he didn’t win. Currently, he’s not even listed over at Ladbrokes, so fuck us. And fuck happy.
Other Books in English: What that possible-Nobel-contender buzz did do is encourage Shishkin’s agent—well, one of them, since he jumped around quite a bit—to sell The Light and the Dark to Quercus.
Interlude. Whoa. WHOA. Before I go on whinging about this or that publishing thing, let’s take a second to consider this cover:
That is HORRIBLE. Like, bad romance novel that’s available for a dime at a library sale, or worse, rotting away in a dank little free library sort of bad. What is it with bigger presses taking our authors and then saddling them with really awkward, tone deaf covers? For example, the new Mathias Enard:
It’s almost like it’s supposed to be the cover of one of those 70s space porn books, but never quite gets there. Those colors and title treatment are straight out of MS Paint. If I didn’t know the history of this book, I’d assume that it’s self-published. And that the author was obliged to use his brother-in-law’s design. (“Jimmy’s co-workers always ask him to design their event posters. He has a real eye for it!”)
Ugh. Agents. The part of the Shishkin debacle that was the worst was the agent—and sub agent—pressuring us to sell our UK rights to Maidenhair to Quercus because “they’re a bigger publisher.” Not once did Quercus make an offer that we could accept or reject, instead we were told repeatedly that we “must do this for the benefit of Quercus . . . and the book.” That’s exactly how shitty agents work: they show you no respect, treat you as a cog in their machine, and can’t ever figure out what’s going on when you don’t see things their way. The handful of good, honest agents—there are a couple, I swear—are so refreshing to work with. The rest are just ambulance-chasing lawyers with literary aspirations. (And this is why we don’t get any good books on submission.) (And is also why there should be a caveat at the top of this post stating that the opinions are solely those of Chad, who is mostly trying to be funny. He actually loves everyone and meditates every day. His blood pressure is within the normal range, and if only you could see the smile on his face when you mention the French Publishers Agency . . .)
Anyway, you can read The Light and the Dark, which most people consider to be not as good as Maidenhair, or you can read Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories, or you can just read Maidenhair, which is one of the best books published this century.
Jacket Copy: Day after day the Russian asylum-seekers sit across from the interpreter and Peter—the Swiss officers who guard the gates to paradise—and tell of the atrocities they’ve suffered, or that they’ve invented, or heard from someone else. These stories of escape, war, and violence intermingle with the interpreter’s own reading: a history of an ancient Persian war; letters sent to his son “Nebuchadnezzasaurus,” ruler of a distant, imaginary childhood empire; and the diaries of a Russian singer who lived through Russia’s wars and revolutions in the early part of the twentieth century, and eventually saw the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is an instant classic of Russian literature. It bravely takes on the eternal questions—of truth and fiction, of time and timelessness, of love and war, of Death and the Word—and is a movingly luminescent expression of the pain of life and its uncountable joys.
An X Meets Y Comparison: Books like this can’t be put in boxes. The three storyline structure isn’t the most revolutionary thing ever, but the ways in which it twists and winds around itself, with the stability of reality (within the confines of the novel) shifting time and again elevates this into something sui generis. In a pinch, I’d say it’s like Tolstoy mixed with Joyce and a touch of Gogol. So, exactly what fans of Stranger Things are clamoring for.
Other Notes about the Author: He has beautiful, piercing eyes.
A Really Good, Lengthy Blurb: From James Meek in the London Review of Books:
The narrative habit of hopping back and forwards in time, so common in modern novels, is a superficial challenge to chronology. It’s unusual to come across a novel that is neither contingent nor consecutive. Even great monuments of modernist prose, like Ulysses, depend to some degree on the notion of consecutive chronology. To find narrative comparators to Maidenhair, the first novel by Mikhail Shishkin to be translated into English, you have to reach for outliers like Tristram Shandy or Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, where time and contingency have been disassembled. While the texture of Maidenhair is quite different from either, it resembles them in that it stretches the definition of “novel.” The enveloping structure of Shishkin’s work is not so much a story as a prose portfolio, an exhibition you walk through in a particular order because that’s the way the pages are put together, as you might walk clockwise round a gallery.
It sounds forbidding and obscure, but Maidenhair, first published in 2005, was a publishing hit in Russia, where it won two literary prizes, and in Germany. One explanation for this may be that the reading public has a greater appetite for experimental fiction than the cynics believe. Another may be the nature of Shishkin’s experiment, which relates to the enclosure, rather than to the entirety of its contents. Difficult as some passages are, there are long sections embedded within the book that are conventionally dramatic, even romantic, involving the quest for love embodied as grail, elixir, end.
One evening after dinner I act all the parts in the fable I learned at school, “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” not doubting that everyone is going to applaud me, thrilled over my acting talents, the moment I point a moralizing finger up and say, “Now go dance your dance!” But Aunt Olya jumps up without waiting for the end, interrupting me, and exclaims, “This is all wrong! Wrong, Bellochka!” Aunt Olya explains to me the right way to understand the fable’s meaning. “The grasshopper is cheerful and sweet and lived the way one should both being good and relying on the kindness of others! She served beauty, do you see? But the ant is a scoundrel and greedy, like all the rich, a vulgar petty bourgeois!”
Longer Sample: Apparently when we updated our website, the old samples didn’t get pulled over . . . So there’s nothing to link to except for the excerpt that appeared in N+1. Unfortunately, if you’re not a subscriber, you can’t access this. So subscribe. Actually, no, fuck that. Buy the book and get a 506-page excerpt.
Personal Pitch: When we first published this book, I had two go to reasons for why I thought it was incredible: One was that Marian Schwartz—one of the best translators ever—didn’t fully get it. Over lunch once she told me about translating a section toward the end that was completely baffling until she realized it was a series of palindromes. Palindromes! I love books that keep the reader on their toes.
I’ve been thinking about death a lot recently. That’s not all that unusual for me, but it’s probably heightened by my upcoming birthday. (I’m going to turn 41. Never turn 41.) Mostly I’ve been thinking about the number of books I have left to read in my life. Let’s pretend that technological advances and my recent trend of healthy living (I lost 23 pounds since May and am svelte for the first time in ever) allows me to get to 80. Before my mind shits out on me. (Which is asking a lot, I know.) If I read one book a week and take a couple weeks off to be with other human beings (like my kids) every year, that gives me almost 2,000 books left to read in my lifetime. Which is a pretty solid number, but one that gets smaller every year. And my “to read” bookshelf already contains at least 400 titles.
When I think about this though, my first instinct is to try and maximize which books I read. Which, I know, is dumb. Whatever the afterlife entails, I’m pretty sure it’s not better or worse based on whether you read Bottom’s Dream or not. But if I have 40 years left to think and experience literature, I want to make it count. One approach would be to read all new books in hopes of being part of some ongoing conversation. Or simply to read books that are just supposed to be entertaining. Filled with spies, murders, and sex. Beach books.
Or, I could go in the opposite direction—the professorial direction. Read the same twenty books—all agreed upon classics—over and again, and burn up 500 of the 2,000 books I have left keeping up with monographs on these Great Books.
Described like that, the rereading option sounds smug and awful. But there is something appealing—to me, at least—about finding a book or author that you need to reread every so often. I’m pretty sure all serious readers have these books/authors who they consider to be foundational to their life, and who they revisit every so often. I want to pretend that I actually live this way. That I go back to The Crying of Lot 49 or Julio Cortázar or Absalom, Absalom! or Ulysses every so often, but that’s a utter lie. I wish I did. Instead, I feel like I have to keep up with things—the books we’re publishing, the ones we’re thinking about publishing, the catalogs of my favorite presses, etc. Even now, thinking about rereading 62: A Model Kit (which I’ve been meaning to do for years so that I can then get some sort of related tattoo) feels like it would take away from reading something else that I should be reading. What’s sadder is that this compulsion to read certain new books is mostly driven by the hope of being able to interact with the cool literary kids on the Twitter. Fuck me, fuck my brain.
For the class that I’m teaching this spring—which I’ll talk about in more detail in a separate post—I’ve decided to teach mostly books that I don’t understand. Books that more or less require a second reading. Books like Maidenhair. Books that you can understand in the moment, but that necessitate a second reading—one in which you start out much more informed about the overall scope or structure. At this moment in my life, there’s something really compelling about reading books that beg me to reread them. Books that aren’t direct and obvious and meant to be immediately grasped. That excites me. Books that don’t conform to expectations or pre-determined ideas. Books like Maidenhair.
(That’s not to dismiss books—or movies, or TV shows, or comics—that are solely entertaining. Those things are totally cool as well, and definitely have a place in my life.)
Instead of constantly rushing forward, trying to get the next thing, enjoy the newest book, share the coolest new tweet before everyone else, I’d like to let some ideas develop in my mind over multiple readings or viewings. One reason translators can be so fun to talk with is because they’re one of a handful of people who read a particular book more than once. There aren’t that many serious readers left in the world with enough time to read, reread, digest, and think about particular books. At the same time, there aren’t that many books that really need to be reread and digested in that way . . .
Maidenhair IS one of those books though. Reading this once is basically just preparation. It demands something more. And even though it’s not the current trend to publish or support books that aren’t obvious and immediate, this is exactly why I got into publishing. To bring out books that you have to struggle with. In 100 years when I’m dead and forgotten, hopefully some college kid will come across Maidenhair and will have their mind changed through the struggle to really “get” it.
So buy it for that reason. And read it twice.
The second reason I used to cite for why this book is so good is the thread of the journals of the young opera singer and how the whole book is questioning how to preserve her innocence and unmitigated joy about being alive while being surrounded by the horror that is the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. That’s a great goal for living, and something that hits deep inside every time I look at my kids. How can you keep that happiness alive?
Buy it: Obviously, you can get this from your local bookshop or online retailer, but you can also buy it directly from us by clicking here. Or you can always subscribe to Open Letter—the best way to receive some of the most varied and interesting voices of international literature, delivered right to your door each and every month.
Just to as not to bury the lede, the first Read Local event is Friday, September 23rd at 6pm at Nox Cocktail Lounge. Josefine will be there to talk about One of Us Is Sleeping, which she’ll also be talking about on WXXI Connections at 1pm that same day. (So tune in!). But since most of you aren’t in Rochester, I wanted to explain a bit of the Read Local idea . . .
First off, a bit of an origin story: At the beginning of the summer, Kyle Semmel—author, translator of Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors and many other books—took over as the director of Writers & Books. Writers & Books is the Rochester, NY eqivalent of Minneapolis’s The Loft Literary Center or Bethesda’s The Writer’s Center. Writers & Books is home to dozens of writing classes (for adults, teens, and kids) and hosts a number of literary events, such as an upcoming appearance by David Sedaris, the “Debut Novel Series,” “If All Rochester Reads the Same Book . . . ,” and more. It’s been around for more than forty years, over which time it became the de facto hub of literary activity in Rochester.
I don’t think it’s speaking out of school, or a big secret, to say that one of the things that attracted Kyle to this position was the fact that Open Letter and BOA Editions are located here. It’s easy to shit on Rochester for any number of reasons, but given the size of the city, it’s kind of insane that there are two nationally respected publishing houses based here. Obviously, Minneapolis-St. Paul (home to Coffee House, Graywolf, Milkweed) and Portland, OR (home to Tin House, Future Tense) are more prominent and well-known mid-sized cities with vibrant indie publishing scenes, but both metro areas are 2.5 to 3.5 times the size of Rochester. (Minneapolis-St. Paul is 3.5 million people and Portland almost 2.5, whereas Rochester is just over a million.) The fact that Rochester is home to multiple presses that receive national attention—be it from reviews, awards, or general respect—is something the visitor’s center and local media should be all over.
Unfortunately, that’s not really the case. BOA, which has been around for forty years, has a solid base of local supporters, but their books aren’t ever covered in the local papers, except for the occasional mention of a local poet reading during Jazz Fest. This might be the fault of the local media—which is pretty milquetoast and unimaginative, if I’m being honest—but it’s also related to the problem of being a book publisher: by definition, books aren’t local, and neither are your readers.
That said, there’s no reason that a city like Rochester shouldn’t be celebrating its local publishing houses. Which is why we came up with the idea of Read Local. Like most places in the U.S., there’s a huge emphasis in Rochester on buying local, eating local, shopping at farmer’s markets, locally sourcing goods and services—and although it won’t necessarily disrupt our late capitalist moment in quite as dramatic fashion, or shrink our carbon footprint, why not involve local culture in this as well? The core concept was that every few months, we would have a local book club that would read a book published by a local press. Open Letter and BOA would have at least one slot a year, with the other ones being filled by other publishers in town. (Yes, there are others.)
In terms of specifics, we figured the book club could take place online to start, and culminate in an event with the author. But we didn’t want this to just be a reading . . . Readings are all fine and good, but holy christ, even in a place as small as Rochester, there are a ton of them. What we wanted was more of an interaction between an author and readers. Which lead to these postcards that we’ve been putting up all over town:
There are plenty of examples of reading series that aren’t just reading series—like the Literary Death Match, or Vermin on the Mount or even “Poetry and Pies” here in Rochester—and it’s not like we’re breaking all new ground here, but it is a solid attempt to try and reach readers in a different way than we have been. And to build a program that readers will get excited about and look forward to. (The idea of hanging out with a famous author over a drink is more appealing to me than any normal reading.)
Additionally, we partnered with local businesses—“Hart’s Local Grocers,”:https://hartslocalgrocers.com/ Nox, Three Head Brewing, Greenwood Books, and more soon—to sell the selected books before the event. Our hope is that by encountering the book in non-traditional locations, potential readers will be more likely to pick them up and come to the event. I suspect that most people in Rochester envision a book reading as a staid, dry event taking place in an oak-paneled room in a library. (This concept reaches far beyond Rochester.) So although it’s not revolutionary to hold a raucous literary event in a bar . . . it kind of is.
We have no real idea of how this is going to go on Friday, but hopefully a few dozen people will show up and be charmed by Josefine. Hopefully it will evolve from a short reading into more of a cocktail party with a famous author—something that’s common in places like Brooklyn, but not really here in Rochester. If you happen to be here in Rochester, come on out and grab a drink. If not, wish us luck. It would be great to see Read Local become an established part of the local literary scene—one that connects the great work of local presses with the local reading community.
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