25 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Reeds is a camp just like any other: it has your usual hierarchy of campers, over-enthused counselors, and lovely scenic views surrounded by imposing fences and ravenous guard-dogs. It is a place that could only be found in your worst nightmares, a camp which could make even the most enthusiastic attendee cry out for their mother with horror. The Reeds is the camp to go to if you are serious about losing weight and is the frightening, dystopian focus of Ana Maria Shua’s newly translated novel, The Weight of Temptation.

The majority of this twisted tale focuses upon Señora Marina Rubin, 207 pounds, and her six-month stint at The Reeds weight-loss camp. Marina is an average “fatty,” paying the exorbitant sum to attend the premier camp run by the Professor and his Tutors. As expensive as the camp is, the only worse option is leaving early and paying the enormous breach-of-contract fee. Marina is lucky that her over-eating has not gotten horribly out of control because, here, the Professor would condemn her to a life like that of her new friend Aleli, with her jaw wired shut sipping all of her meals through a straw. The novel tracks Marina’s seemingly impossible journey through weight loss and the social structure in her new home. From her experiences in The Clockwork Orange, the chateau where campers are electrocuted to be classically conditioned to become adverse to food, to the rumors surrounding the mysterious close-by children’s camp, The Inferno, Marina’s life has been turned upside down. Her new relationships with fellow camper Alex, a restauranteur, and Carola, a rebel resident of The Inferno, will seal her precariously balancing fate at The Reeds.

The Weight of Tempation, Shua’s fifth work to be published in English, came out from the University of Nebraska Press. Translated from the original Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger, a professor of Spanish emerita from the University of La Verne in Southern California, the novel grips you at your stomach from the opening page. The reader is given unique insight into the manic head of an addict, the language of which shows just how crazed Marina can be at times.

But while she intensely lived her own small roll in the general evolution of humanity and of her individual, personal story, every day, every hour, every minute a huge, central part of her mind was consumed with a ferocious, forbidden desire: the anticipation, anguish, fear, and craving of her next meal.

Marina’s fervid obsessions over food can be incredibly overbearing at times which adds to the novel’s urgency. As she chronicles her roller-coaster history with weight loss and her new difficulties dealing with the near starvation level diet, we learn much about how food truly affects every minute of Marina’s life. More than once she entertains the possibility of cooking a human or animal to deal with her hunger, and these instances do not even happen in her most manic times of the addictive cycle. Her character is raw and truthful in ways literature often does not allow itself to go. With this in mind, however, Marina’s relationship with Alex can at times come off as inauthentic and corny compared to the raw edge the reader has gotten so used to with other aspects of the book. Overall, the book offers an incredible new look into the cyclic addiction to food and fans of dystopian literature, political parables, and food aficionados will find this to be a newly relevant twist on an old tale.

25 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Allie Levick on Ana Maria Shua’s The Weight of Temptation, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Labinger and available from University of Nebraska Press.

Allie is another of my students from last semester. Few more of these to run over the next couple weeks . . . But if you’re interested in reviewing for us, get in touch. Kaija is taking over the book review editor job and will be looking to assign a ton of books in the near future.

Back some time ago, Emily Davis reviewed Ana Maria Shua’s Death As a Side Effect for us, which was also translated by Andrea Labinger and published by Nebraska. Shua is an interesting writer, and it’s great that Nebraska is continuing to support her and introduce her to an English-reading audience.

Here’s the opening of Allie’s review:

The Reeds is a camp just like any other: it has your usual hierarchy of campers, over-enthused counselors, and lovely scenic views surrounded by imposing fences and ravenous guard-dogs. It is a place that could only be found in your worst nightmares, a camp which could make even the most enthusiastic attendee cry out for their mother with horror. The Reeds is the camp to go to if you are serious about losing weight and is the frightening, dystopian focus of Ana Maria Shua’s newly translated novel, The Weight of Temptation.

The majority of this twisted tale focuses upon Señora Marina Rubin, 207 pounds, and her six-month stint at The Reeds weight-loss camp. Marina is an average “fatty,” paying the exorbitant sum to attend the premier camp run by the Professor and his Tutors. As expensive as the camp is, the only worse option is leaving early and paying the enormous breach-of-contract fee. Marina is lucky that her over-eating has not gotten horribly out of control because, here, the Professor would condemn her to a life like that of her new friend Aleli, with her jaw wired shut sipping all of her meals through a straw. The novel tracks Marina’s seemingly impossible journey through weight loss and the social structure in her new home. From her experiences in The Clockwork Orange, the chateau where campers are electrocuted to be classically conditioned to become adverse to food, to the rumors surrounding the mysterious close-by children’s camp, The Inferno, Marina’s life has been turned upside down. Her new relationships with fellow camper Alex, a restauranteur, and Carola, a rebel resident of The Inferno, will seal her precariously balancing fate at The Reeds.

The Weight of Tempation, Shua’s fifth work to be published in English, came out from the University of Nebraska Press. Translated from the original Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger, a professor of Spanish emerita from the University of La Verne in Southern California, the novel grips you at your stomach from the opening page. The reader is given unique insight into the manic head of an addict, the language of which shows just how crazed Marina can be at times.

Click here to read the entire piece.

23 June 12 | Sarah Winstein-Hibbs | Comments

The world lost an incredible writer this past week. Jewish-Argentinean author Alicia Steimberg, best-known for her novel Musicians and Watchmakers, died suddenly of a heart attack one week ago. To commemorate her life and works, JewishFiction.net has published an early-release excerpt of her novel Innocent Spirit, which was scheduled to print in the upcoming August issue.

Says editor Nora Gold of Steimberg: “During the preceding months, [Steimberg] and I were in touch a number of times . . . Even in the short time we corresponded, it was obvious what an unusual person she was: full of warmth and completely unpretentious.”

Click here to read Steimberg’s excerpted novel. Her text grapples with tensions of faith, social status, and coming-of-age in a devoutly Catholic society: “. . .we never discuss our respective misery,” her middle-school narrator confesses. “In our class there are at least two girls who are driven to school by a private chauffeur. It’s a sure bet they don’t leave used sanitary napkins under their dressers. And they don’t carry a thermos with hot coffee and milk into their bedrooms, either, in order to be able to get up in the icy mornings when it’s colder inside the house than out.” Steimberg poignantly and precisely captures the confusion and insecurity of adolescence, as well as the devastating sense of “otherness” experienced by her Jewish narrator.

Following the excerpt, translator Andrea Labinger shares a moving tribute to Steimberg. The author’s irrepressible, joyful spirit comes to life in Labinger’s prose: “Alicia never distinguished between the minutia of everyday life – the aroma of coffee, a recipe for pastel de papas, the intimate language of eroticism and the erotic intimacy of language – and her constant preoccupation with the “big,” transcendental questions. Like most great souls, Alicia didn’t take herself too seriously.”

7 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Book Review section is a piece by Emily Davis on Ana Maria Shua’s Death as a Side Effect, which is translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger and available from the University of Nebraska Press.

Emily Davis a MALTS student here, and translates from Spanish. As you might be able to tell from the final line of her review, she wrote this months ago, at which time she emailed it to me and I promptly misfiled it. So.

Emily’s review is really positive, and makes this sound extremely interesting, and like a possible BTBA longlist title . . .

bq.If we were to ignore for just a moment the fact that Death as a Side Effect was originally published (in Spanish) in 1997 in Argentina, we might be tempted to read it in the context of recent healthcare reforms and debates in the United States, with the world painted by Ana María Shua nestling easily among the nightmares of death-panel-phobes. Luckily, this book is much more than that.

As Ernesto struggles to come to terms with his dying father, he discovers that the world he lives in is ruled not only by violent gangs of vandals and professional thieves who make even simple activities like walking outside so dangerous as to be unthinkable, but also by the medical professionals at state-run hospitals and Convalescent Homes that strip their patients—or maybe more like prisoners—of any say in their own healthcare. In the meantime, his mother is going crazy, his sister is of little help, and his girlfriend has left him. Add to this the fact that the entire narrative is told by Ernesto and is explicitly directed toward his absent (read: already lost) lover—think one-sided epistolary tale, or a novel-length version of Elena Poniatowska’s “El Recado” (in a somewhat less neurotic voice and with much more really going on)—and you have a main character buried in layers of complications that make his world difficult, if not nigh impossible, to navigate. (No wonder he occasionally flips to the Suicide Channel on the television.) It is, in part, precisely these multiple layers and their expert unfolding in narrative time that make this novel so compelling. Having read the book with only the jacket copy as preparation, I found it to be far more intriguing—and on many more levels—than I had expected.

Click here to read the entire review.

7 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If we were to ignore for just a moment the fact that Death as a Side Effect was originally published (in Spanish) in 1997 in Argentina, we might be tempted to read it in the context of recent healthcare reforms and debates in the United States, with the world painted by Ana María Shua nestling easily among the nightmares of death-panel-phobes. Luckily, this book is much more than that.

As Ernesto struggles to come to terms with his dying father, he discovers that the world he lives in is ruled not only by violent gangs of vandals and professional thieves who make even simple activities like walking outside so dangerous as to be unthinkable, but also by the medical professionals at state-run hospitals and Convalescent Homes that strip their patients—or maybe more like prisoners—of any say in their own healthcare. In the meantime, his mother is going crazy, his sister is of little help, and his girlfriend has left him. Add to this the fact that the entire narrative is told by Ernesto and is explicitly directed toward his absent (read: already lost) lover—think one-sided epistolary tale, or a novel-length version of Elena Poniatowska’s “El Recado” (in a somewhat less neurotic voice and with much more really going on)—and you have a main character buried in layers of complications that make his world difficult, if not nigh impossible, to navigate. (No wonder he occasionally flips to the Suicide Channel on the television.) It is, in part, precisely these multiple layers and their expert unfolding in narrative time that make this novel so compelling. Having read the book with only the jacket copy as preparation, I found it to be far more intriguing—and on many more levels—than I had expected.

Death as a Side Effect is a book about aging, death, absence, coldness, fear, and entrapment—which, taken as a group, makes it sound like a horribly depressing read. It isn’t, though, because even amid the darkness there are bright sparks of humor. Take, for instance, a bit of Ernesto’s evidence of his mother’s going crazy: “Yesterday Mama threw a pot of stew down the stairs,” or his comically erudite description of a part of his reaction to having witnessed an act of violence: “As the car had new upholstery, I was circumspect enough to vomit on the street before I climbed in.” It is especially in such careful word choice and construction of tone that Andrea G. Labinger’s translation shines, as the prose seamlessly shifts among the range of emotions in this novel, as in Ernesto’s darkly humorous reflection on his dying father’s belongings:

Sadly, I realized there was nothing, absolutely nothing there that I might want to keep, except maybe that naked, reclining woman, whose oversized breasts were salt and pepper shakers and which struck me as the most touching symbol of my father’s bad taste and his enthusiastic vitality.

In addition to the temporary—and incomplete—lightening of mood afforded by these periodic dollops of humor, there are also moments of hope—hope for some kind of freedom—such as this dream of Ernesto’s:

I fell asleep. I dreamed I was flying. With a single leap, I gained altitude and soared through the air, very high above the city. It was pleasant, and it filled me with immeasurable pride. In my dream, I realized that flying was very unusual. Only I, among all men, could fly, only I in the entire history of the human race. I advanced effortlessly, feeling the breeze against my face, floating with an ease I never had in water. Then, without any transition, we were in the country, and I had gathered together a group of acquaintances to watch me fly. I ran and leaped, trying to rise, but my leaps were just that: enormous leaps, twenty or thirty yards long, that lifted me quite a bit above the ground. No matter how hard I attempted to run full speed, to try every which way, it did me no good. In real life, these boundless leaps would have been extraordinary. In the dream, they were simply proof that I couldn’t fly. The observers began to play poker.

His freedom is imperfect, its exercise incomplete, the outcome laughable and a touch unsettling; but still, the dream hints that there may be something beneath the surface that threatens the fearsome authority of the dystopia, something that flirts with a sort of balance in Ernesto’s world that could, perhaps, make it tolerable after all.

In the screwed-up world of Shua’s novel, perhaps the only sanity rises from Goransky, the film director with delusions of grandeur for whom Ernesto works as a scriptwriter and later as a makeup artist. Goransky has made only one successful film: a short documentary set in Antarctica. Still, he has dreams even bigger than he—“an enormous, heavy man with the brightest eyes you could ever imagine, in constant motion, a hippo on amphetamines, a bear hypnotized into thinking he was a squirrel”—dreams of making the great feature film of his era, a film also set in Antarctica. He throws a party to support his film project—a Coldness-themed party, which is at once over-the-top decadent and ridiculous, as well as strangely comforting in its absurd play at an alternative world:

There was a tea for Arctic foxes. And a cluster of Lapp huts, where exquisite dishes were served, not always in keeping with the central theme of the party as far as ingredients were concerned, but authentic in their presentation. The roofs of the huts sloped to the floor, and in the terribly hot interior, attractive, sweaty men, bare-chested and dressed in reindeer hide pants rolled up to their knees, served oysters shaped like snowflakes with white sauce and meringue, and extra-tender unborn veal steaks rotating over a fire, as if they were a single slab of flesh stuck to the enormous femur that served as a central skewer: a bear leg.

By turns horrifying, touching, thoughtful, comical, and even absurd, Death as a Side Effect is not likely to disappoint. And at just over 160 pages, you can probably still squeeze it into your summer reading mix.

7 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Liliana Heker’s El fin de la historia (The End of the Story), is a novel about the Argentine “Dirty War” told through three women: Leonora, a revolutionary in Argentina who is captured, tortured, then sells out her ideals to save herself and her daughter, falling in love with one of her captors and instigating a pr campaign to improve Argentina’s image; Diana, an aspiring writer trying to tell the story of growing up with Leonora, their dreams, etc., and the moment that death became an integral part of Argentine life; and Hertha, a famous writer who tells the story of Diana trying to tell her story.

This is a complex book with a complex set of goals. In her own words, Heker set out to answer a number of questions in writing this novel.

“How to describe this betrayal, how to describe a torturer and his own view of the truth and with what other truths should one confront him? I have tried to blur the border between documentation and fiction. Above all, my text is meant to be fact as literature with all the problematic and ambiguous implications which such an attempt entails.”

To accomplish this, Heker created a narrative with multiple narrators, a disjointed, fragmented vision of reality that is almost a literary representation of life in Argentina during this period of fear and terror. As the reader learns early on, Diana is myopic, a fact Heker emphasizes in order to explain the apparent haziness of the information presented in telling Leonora’s story. Diana is trying to write the story of her former friend Leonora who turned her back on her comrades and her ideals. She starts the story again and again, on napkins, receipts, etc., never able to adequately tell Leonora’s story. (Like her myopia, this scattering of fragmented texts also comes to represent Argentine society at the time.)

There are some fairly intense scenes in the book, and through all the layers of narration and other postmodern games, the fear of living in Argentina during the “Dirty War” does seep through and is quite captivating. Once the reader realizes that this is metafiction taken to another level—it’s not just the novel of Diana trying to write a novel, rather it’s Hertha’s novel about Diana trying to write a novel—there is a sense that the book is overly structured, that it’s layers have become more obfuscating than enlightening. That said, it’s an interesting portrayal of a dark part of Argentine history and does deserve an English audience.

The End of the Story
Translated from the Spanish by Andrea Labinger
172 pp.
Unpublished in English Translation

....
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