13 March 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Tiffany Nichols on Andrea Cannobio’s Three Light-Years, translated by Anne Milano Appel and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Friday the 13th! Go catch some black cats before the weekend!

Here’s the beginning of Tiffany’s review:

I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in an apartment above his mother and below his ex-wife, and religiously eats boiled vegetables every day for lunch at the same cafe at the same table. Claudio spends over two years obsessing about Cecilia, a doctor and fellow colleague, until the day he is able to stutter out his profession of love for her, only to proceed in engaging with her in his car a safe distance from the hospital where they work. Following and/or during this engagement (not clear), Claudio also stumbles into a relationship with Cecilia’s sister, Silva, who shortly thereafter learns she is expecting. These ingredients and known plot “twists” are the makings of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, except with a passive protagonist as a stand-in for McDreamy. Disappointingly, no attempts were really made to make the characters compelling or interesting beyond those of our typical hour-long sitcoms located in hospitals in Seattle and Los Angeles. The only interesting twist was that this hospital is located in a suburb of a large Italian city, and with that comes the typical romantic stereotypes.

For the rest of the review, go here

13 March 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in an apartment above his mother and below his ex-wife, and religiously eats boiled vegetables every day for lunch at the same cafe at the same table. Claudio spends over two years obsessing about Cecilia, a doctor and fellow colleague, until the day he is able to stutter out his profession of love for her, only to proceed in engaging with her in his car a safe distance from the hospital where they work. Following and/or during this engagement (not clear), Claudio also stumbles into a relationship with Cecilia’s sister, Silva, who shortly thereafter learns she is expecting. These ingredients and known plot “twists” are the makings of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, except with a passive protagonist as a stand-in for McDreamy. Disappointingly, no attempts were really made to make the characters compelling or interesting beyond those of our typical hour-long sitcoms located in hospitals in Seattle and Los Angeles. The only interesting twist was that this hospital is located in a suburb of a large Italian city, and with that comes the typical romantic stereotypes.

After working through Three Light-Years with determination and perseverance, I tried to identify other works that had truly passive protagonist. Honestly, the best I could conjure up were the isolated, solitude-loving types, but not ones who barely cross the barrier of being a prop and being a plot driver like dear Claudio. Perhaps that is the beauty of this work. However, the reader will likely remain skeptical of this model and distance themselves from the work because the reader is never provided with any insights into what is motivating the characters’ actions and decisions, or rather mistakes and poor choices. This is no surprise as the work seemed wholly unconcerned about the reader and more concerned presenting the the narcissistic tendencies of the two antagonists, the two sisters who stumble into affairs with Claudio without any analysis, question, or notion of attraction for him. Further, the reader will have to experience the same episode of the well-known sitcom not only from Claudio’s prop-like existence, but also from Cecila’s and Silva’s perspectives as well.

What was compelling and redeeming about Three Light-Years were the anecdotes about life peppered through the work at just the level to motivate the steadfast reader to continue. The following quotes provide a few examples:

“. . . [T]here is no present that is of greater interest to me than that distant past that I did not experience, about which I know almost nothing, and which I continue to imagine, fabricating other people’s memories.”

“As a general rule, it’s always best to know as little as possible about other people’s business. Not that it’s difficult to keep the things you accidentally come to know to yourself and pretend you know nothing. But even if you pretend not to know, you do know, and your life is invaded by the lives of others.”

“Memory is unfair . . . the person remembering is now older anymore disillusioned and forgetful than the young, deluded, determined protagonist of her memories. That’s why memory is unfair.”

Perhaps I have been reading too much Cesar Aira lately, but I appreciate being captivated by the awkward or self-imposed solitude of the characters of his works. This requires insights into the inner thoughts and motivations of those characters. Without being provided with such insights, the reader has to really justify why he or she has read Three Light-Years and, more importantly, whether engagement with the work was even possible.

6 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Vincent Francone on The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

This book is by definition and appearances a tome. At just over 700 pages (and hardcover) it’s a doorstop for a doorstop. But I will be one of the first people in line to champion lengthy books, and argue that insane length ≠ poor quality. Just because a book takes you a few hours to read and sits at 85 pages does not make it fantastic. Same can be said for 500+ page books (massive books like Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything can read just as quickly as the majority’s go-to 150 page novels). Just because it might take you a week or two to work through it, it doesn’t make it a crap book . . . And based on the jacket copy and what Vincent discusses in his review, Sapienza’s The Art of Joy sounds like a truly fascinating read, in great part because of the author’s own life (Goliarda was a Bad. Ass.). I’ve got a copy of this at home and am dying to read it myself . . .

Enough rave-ranting from me! Here’s the beginning of Vincent’s review:

Readers love a good story. But they really love a good author bio. If an author’s life story is interesting, readers get excited. They share a book with friends by first telling them about the writer. Oh, this Bolaño guy—he was a heroin addict and was in a Chilean jail and should’ve been killed but some high school chums saved him. This Burroughs dude—he shot his wife at a party! A writer with an interesting life is bound to attract readers because we love a good tale, especially if it is (supposedly) true. Hopefully we can get past the myths and legends of the bio page and actually read the works these writers produce.

I wonder if that will be the case with Goliarda Sapienza. Her back story is pretty great (here I go sharing her bio): she was an actress who worked with Visconti; she was a writer of some renown whose biggest project, which she spent years composing, was rejected by every publisher and dismissed by Italy’s top critic as “a pile of iniquity”; she was broke often and once jailed for the theft of a friend’s jewelry; she died penniless; her friend and lover self-published her masterpiece, which was, of course, recognized as a book of genius well after her death. This is a familiar story to readers of Dickinson or John Kennedy Toole, as endearing as her poems of solitude and his comic novel: the legendary writer not recognized in their lifetime.

In the case of Sapienza, the bulk of her novel The Art of Joy may intimidate readers who would be happy to share her story of poverty and literary struggle at a cocktail party, but might not venture further and actually read the thing. But if they do they’ll discover a compelling novel that sweeps through Italian history, bounces through philosophical ponderings, and tries damn hard to shatter as many taboos as it can.

For the rest of the review, go here

6 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Readers love a good story. But they really love a good author bio. If an author’s life story is interesting, readers get excited. They share a book with friends by first telling them about the writer. Oh, this Bolaño guy—he was a heroin addict and was in a Chilean jail and should’ve been killed but some high school chums saved him. This Burroughs dude—he shot his wife at a party! A writer with an interesting life is bound to attract readers because we love a good tale, especially if it is (supposedly) true. Hopefully we can get past the myths and legends of the bio page and actually read the works these writers produce.

I wonder if that will be the case with Goliarda Sapienza. Her back story is pretty great (here I go sharing her bio): she was an actress who worked with Visconti; she was a writer of some renown whose biggest project, which she spent years composing, was rejected by every publisher and dismissed by Italy’s top critic as “a pile of iniquity”; she was broke often and once jailed for the theft of a friend’s jewelry; she died penniless; her friend and lover self-published her masterpiece, which was, of course, recognized as a book of genius well after her death. This is a familiar story to readers of Dickinson or John Kennedy Toole, as endearing as her poems of solitude and his comic novel: the legendary writer not recognized in their lifetime.

In the case of Sapienza, the bulk of her novel The Art of Joy may intimidate readers who would be happy to share her story of poverty and literary struggle at a cocktail party, but might not venture further and actually read the thing. But if they do they’ll discover a compelling novel that sweeps through Italian history, bounces through philosophical ponderings, and tries damn hard to shatter as many taboos as it can.

The theme of a woman exploring her sexuality is nothing new to American readers who devour Fifty Shades of Sex in the City and The Real Desperate Housewives of Wherever. But The Art of Joy is bound to challenge readers of this sort, less because of the subject matter and more for the tone. Though not short of description one might find in the average bodice-ripper (“his hands close around my waist and lift me up, making me soar, light as a feather. It was like looking into a ravine. The greater the terror, the greater my desire to plunge in”), the book digresses and meanders through 20th century Italian history and political and philosophical tangents along with the odd murder plot and musings on the true dominant theme of the book: rebellion and freedom. The readers witness the book’s hero, Modesta, age and transform from an innocent girl raped by her father to a lover of men and women, wife to a man-child, aristocrat, rebel, libertine, mother, and anti-fascist imprisoned for her politics. And as Modesta grows into an independent woman, Sapienza becomes a liberated writer, shifting from first to third person willy-nilly, letting her muse have full reign over self-editorial impulses. The book slowly makes room (lots of it) for politics along with the perils of male-female relationships and whatever else entered Sapienza’s head during the time she held the pen.

And yes there’s some sex. But, despite the outrage from Sapienza’s critics, it’s a pretty tame story. Those looking for a dirty book will be disappointed. The Art of Joy is less about sexual exploits and the price they demand and more about defiance of all social constraints, sexual, political, and domestic. Sapienza introduces us to her ideal heroine, who is bold, transgressive, intelligent, and willing to suffer for her convictions. And she laughingly names her Modesta! In one chapter, Modesta tells her son that the reason people call her a whore has less to do with her sexuality and more to do with their manipulation of his feelings for her. People want to dominate unchained femininity, she suggests, and how better to achieve this aim than by condemning sexual expression. In this moment, among any like it, Sapienza conveys her theme perhaps a bit too demonstrably, but this is what makes the book so gripping. The sexual exploits and melodramatic plot too often feel trite. Absent the digressions and socio-political discussions, the book would suffer, becoming little more than the literary equivalent of Seinfeld’s Euro-trash flick, Rochelle, Rochelle. But compressed chapters and engaging (though at times overwrought) prose make the 670 pages seem like something unique.

I anticipate split opinions on this one; no one is going to feel indifferent about Sapienza’s book. And this is a good thing. I appreciate art that is this divisive and elicits strong feelings, positive and negative. But I still don’t know if I love it or hate The Art of Joy. I admire it. I respect the author. I love her story, maybe more than I love her book. And I get the feeling that immediate recognition and success might have offered Sapienza the chance to write better books. Instead, we have her life and her tome, both of which will have to do.

15 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Claudio Magris’s Blindly, which is translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel and published by Yale University Press as part of their Margellos World Republic of Letters Series.

Yale’s World Republic of Letters Series deserves a special shout-out for all the great work they’ve been doing. At it’s core, this is a really admirable undertaking:

The Cecile and Theodore Margellos World Republic of Letters series identifies works of cultural and artistic significance previously overlooked by translators and publishers, canonical works of literature and philosophy needing new translations, as well as important contemporary authors whose work has not yet been translated into English. The series is designed to bring to the English-speaking world leading poets, novelists, essayists, philosophers, and playwrights from Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, to stimulate international discourse and creative exchange.

Most importantly though, over the past few years they’ve published Edith Grossman (and some of her translations), Claudio Magris, Can Xue, Romain Gary/Emile Ajar, Witold Gombrowicz, Norman Manea, and Ranko Marinkovic, among others. (The forthcoming titles are some of the ones that I’m most looking forward to in 2013.)

Anyway, here’s the opening of Vincent’s review:

A few pages into Claudio Magris’s Blindly, the reader begins to ask the same question posed by the book’s jacket: “Who is the mysterious narrator of Blindly?” Who indeed. At times the narrator is Tore, an inmate in a mental health facility. Other times, the narration is handled by Jorgen Jorgenson, king of Iceland, adventurer, and participant in the colonization of Australia and exploration of Tasmania. And Dachau is thrown in, because, why not? Yeah, it’s that kind of book.

What kind of book? Adjectives pop up one after another, all adequate, none quite right. Experimental and modern (and even postmodern) are labels that have been used to describe the book, and sure, they work well enough although these terms have been bandied about so often that I fear they will not suffice. I am tempted to call it a dream—a very troubling one where stories serve as both balm and irritant.

The book is dense, multi-layered, polyphonic, and quite a challenge, though not without rewards. Despite the setting, the novel is really staged in the dialogue of Tore Cippico (or, sometimes, Cippico-Čipiko), inmate, adventurer, and prisoner. The distinction between all three is thin:

“It’s no accident that Dachau was established in 1898 as an institution for the feeble and mentally ill, idiots and cretinoids . . .”

Click here to read the entire review.

15 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few pages into Claudio Magris’s Blindly, the reader begins to ask the same question posed by the book’s jacket: “Who is the mysterious narrator of Blindly?” Who indeed. At times the narrator is Tore, an inmate in a mental health facility. Other times, the narration is handled by Jorgen Jorgenson, king of Iceland, adventurer, and participant in the colonization of Australia and exploration of Tasmania. And Dachau is thrown in, because, why not? Yeah, it’s that kind of book.

What kind of book? Adjectives pop up one after another, all adequate, none quite right. Experimental and modern (and even postmodern) are labels that have been used to describe the book, and sure, they work well enough although these terms have been bandied about so often that I fear they will not suffice. I am tempted to call it a dream—a very troubling one where stories serve as both balm and irritant.

The book is dense, multi-layered, polyphonic, and quite a challenge, though not without rewards. Despite the setting, the novel is really staged in the dialogue of Tore Cippico (or, sometimes, Cippico-Čipiko), inmate, adventurer, and prisoner. The distinction between all three is thin:

It’s no accident that Dachau was established in 1898 as an institution for the feeble and mentally ill, idiots and cretinoids . . .

Asylum, gulag; Potato, potahto.

The adventures of Jorgenson and the experiences at Dachau all come back to the real center of the book: Goli Otok. The only certainty of the novel is that Tore was one of the unfortunate Italians who travelled across the Adriatic to Yugoslavia to help Tito build communism, only to be imprisoned on the tiny island of Goli Otok once Tito fell out with Stalin. The gulag years inform much of the, er, action, forever a point of reference for our not-at-all reliable narrator. When a paragraph begins detailing Jorgenson’s adventures, there’s more than a good chance it’ll end with Goli Otok, blending the very separate events into one hell of a dense puree. The success of the book is in Magris’s excellent prose and Anne Milano Appel’s translation. It is easy to see how this could all result in an infuriating mess, but, despite some frustrating stretches, Magris’s writing is seductive, keeping the reading going without ever making it easy.

To be sure, non-linear books that abandon convention are nothing new. In this sense, the odd structure of Blindly, which no review can ignore, is less interesting than the ideas which inevitably spring to mind even while wading through its more laborious passages, most notable being the manner in which victims appropriate other stories in order to make sense of their own. If Tore is a madman, he is indeed a “pazzo lucido,” a lucid madman, one capable of recognizing the absurdity of his own fate in context with the inhumanity of history. Could this be Magris commenting on the usefulness or fiction? The importance of history and culture? Perhaps, but like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, one gets the sense that Tore is condemned to retell his story for the remainder of his days. Unlike the Mariner, Tore’s story is composed of many others, liberated from the constraints of experience. When Tore describes what he has read about Jorgeson in a book, he can’t help but critique his autobiographer, stealing the story for himself, becoming the Icelandic king. The appropriation tells us, and him, more about himself than any concentration camp narrative could. This, in a sense, is the usefulness of stories. We are never free from fictions, our or anyone’s, especially when it relates to some very real tragedies.

....
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