Places I’ve Never Visited [3 Books and a Rant]

So for the past few months I’ve been too busy to actually write the really long monthly translation previews that I’ve been doing for the past year or two. I really do like writing those though, and highlighting upcoming books, but what with school starting up again, our first ever gala looming on the horizon, and all the other writing I have to do (for a semi-secretive book project you’ll find out about in the next month or so), I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get back into the habit of writing those.

Which brings me to my new idea . . .

Instead of trying to come up with funny and interesting things to say about ten books every month (and which probably aren’t all the funny or interesting), instead I’m going to try and highlight three new and forthcoming titles every week and preface it with some sort of rant or whatever.

Since I’d rather just get to the books, my only “rant” for this week is about how stupid it is to start school before Labor Day. I’m sure some of you out there are still enjoying summer vacation—which is your god given right as an American—but my kids have been in school for two days and I taught my first class of the semester on Monday. Yes, Monday, when it was still August.

This is bullshit. It violates the cycle of life. The only standing significance of Labor Day is that it marks the end of summer. It’s an extended weekend where you’re allowed to reflect back on all the things you didn’t accomplish when it was warm out and get ready for football. After this weekend of lamentations and awareness that everything will die and that the snows aren’t that far off in the future, then you can go back to the classroom and try and learn things. It’s fundamentally impossible for a brain to retain new knowledge prior to Labor Day. I’m pretty certain that science will back me on that. And we wonder why our nation’s public school system is in shambles.

The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva. Translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio (Deep Vellum)

This book came out back in June, but has shot up my to-read list thanks to Masha Gessen’s The Brothers. Gessen’s book about the so-called Boston Bombers is most interesting when it gets into the investigation and the way Chechens, and all immigrants, are viewed and treated in this country, but the first thing that jumped out at me when I started listening to this was how the mother of the Tsarnaev brothers was from Dagestan. This is a place I’ve never been, never really even thought of, and never read about. (Although I really love the way the woman reading the audio version of The Brothers pronounces Makhachkala. Such a wonderful name for a city. Ma-katch-ka-la.)

But now, thanks to Deep Vellum (who’s getting all the love this week), there’s actually a novel available from a Dagestan author! According to the jacket copy, it’s the first novel in English ever from Dagestan, which seems completely true.

I know next to nothing about the complicated history and situation in the Caucasus republics of Russia, but given the strife, the various conflicts with Russia, the fact that most people living there are Muslims—it’s a part of the world that I’d like to learn more about. Starting with this novel that’s set into motion by a rumor that Russia is going to build a wall to block off Dagestan from the rest of the country. Seems like a great plot point from which to launch a series of interesting observations of life in contemporary Makhachkala.

Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan. Translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker (New Directions)

Home by Leila S. Chudori. Translated from the Indonesian by John H. McGlynn (Deep Vellum)

One oft-quoted cliché is that reading can take you to places and introduce you to peoples and cultures you’d otherwise not have access to. I generally don’t care much for this sort of sentiment—feels a bit like literary tourism—but with all the hype surrounding the two Eka Kurniawan books coming out this fall, I’ve become very curious about Indonesian literature. Also helps that in the past week I’ve received copies of both of these books, and that they both sound pretty damn good.

The shorthand description of Beauty Is a Wound is that it’s “Indonesian magical realism done right.” The opening lines have a sense of that: “One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years. A shepherd boy, awakened from his nap under a frangipani tree, peed in his shorts and screamed, and his four sheep ran off haphazardly in between stones and wooden grave markers as if a tiger had been thrown into their midst.”

Verso is bringing out another of his novels this fall, which will likely help Kurniawan gain some traction here in the States. And maybe, just maybe, this attention will carry over to Home, which won the Khatulistiwa Award—Indonesia’s most prestigious prize (and the only one I’ve ever heard of!)—in 2012 and will be available in English translation this October.

Here’s the opening lines of her book, just to compare: “Night had fallen, without complaint, without pretext. Like a black net enclosing the city, ink from a monster squid spreading across Jakarta’s entire landscape—the color of my uncertain future.”

Both books focus on Indonesian history, including the anti-communist massacre in the mid-1960s and the overthrow of Suharto in 1998, which is another compelling reason to read these two titles in tandem.

It’s also interesting that New Directions refers to Kurniawan’s book as being “inspired by Melville and Gogol,” whereas Deep Vellum claims Home is “reminiscent of War & Peace.” So many classic authors!

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