4 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by P.T. Smith, BTBA judge, writer, and reader. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Berlin by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovene by Brian Henry, Forrest Gander, and Aljaž Kovac (Slovenia, Counterpath)

This year’s BTBA long list can, like others in years past, be praised for its diversity, and I’m sure that for most, that calls to mind gender, cultural background, language, etc, but for me, just as interesting a form of diversity on an award list is in style, length, tone, etc. We have long novels, we have short novels, we have a linked story collection, and a collection from across multiple works, across a lifetime. There are novels on a grand scale, and with the microscopic, funny books and wholly serious ones, realist and reality unsettled. Aleś Šteger’s Berlin (published by Counterpath) should win because it’s a masterpiece of the shortest short stories, so much so that I wholly rediscovered my forgotten love for the form.

Long before flash fiction, Yasunari Kawabata wrote what he called palm-of-the-hand stories, and though there is much more event in his stories and Šteger’s are personal and observational, they are of the same tradition. Brevity dominates, ephemeral beauty captured ever so briefly, and emotions turn on a single line, shift completely with a thought or a glimpse. The shifting, unsettled nature of his tales makes them well suited to being worked on by three different translators, Brian Henry, Aljaž Kovač, and Forrest Gander. The two to three page stories are ideas distilled to their essence, complete offerings that left me satisfied in a way so many novels fail to do it. There is nothing lesser in literature so brief, so seemingly consumable, and each scene should be sat with, pages turned slowly. That’s not to say, though, that I couldn’t keep myself from reading many in a sitting.

Berlin should win because it is not about a city or place in the sense that it uses history, fact, the verisimilitude of the physical, but instead it is about the experience of place, and that is a more significant, and difficult to achieve, accomplishment. Though clearly inspired by Šteger’s time in Berlin, in the type of moments it portrays, in the emotions of them, it’s about the particular way that a place is experienced by a visitor, whether there for a week or for months. The specific place at hand is Berlin, but it could be any place, so long as the passing through is deeply felt.

So Berlin should win because it not only reminded me how much I love the truly short form, but also why I have loved travel. The moments where you see a city in a detail and feel it personally, feel a connection to that place that is private, and in its total insignificance is infinitely more memorable, more sentimental, than experiences you sought, had expectations of. If I’m being honest, what I mean is that Berlin should win because Šteger does what I wish I could do with any of my travels to foreign cities: make them interesting, beautiful, worth sharing, instead of obsessive navel-gazing by someone who thinks travel makes them interesting and beautiful, who sounds like they think their gaze is so privileged that they discovered something essential to that city that no one before them ever did.

So yes, I think Berlin should win because if I’m to be this jealous of a book, it better damn well impress everyone else, be so accomplished that my jealousy is of something far beyond me. Mundane moments become loaded just by being detached from familiarity. In “Flea Markets,” Šteger visits exactly that, and sees it the way traveler does, inspired by what others, in their routine instead of out of it, don’t. It creates desire, “The objects develop photographic negatives in the memories of those who would resist the urge to buy them.” It haunts his day, this unnamed object, “around which I’d spun my own thick skein of longing,” so much so that he returns to it, his desire easily read by its seller, vulnerable in the face of it. That vulnerability only makes his satisfaction greater when he is the owner of a chair, proudly sitting in it, on the subway, others happy to witness this level of contentment in the traveler.

“The museum of museum guards” captures the poetic idleness travelers can be granted. Visits to museums are sometimes not about the art, but about passing the time, about seeing what events or ideas somehow come along with the trip. Here, the guards become the focus, the work of art, the movements of this breed of human, this job: “The museum, in which the exhibits protect themselves, will end with a room with a display of a guard’s fart, an act inspired by classical art, a gesture of pure, organic creative expression, without restraint and without apology.”

Berlin is a book of pleasures. The melancholic, the funny, the weight of history, the heights of art, the minor interactions of street life, the changes in weather that change us, insights triggered by glimpses of another’s life or of a building, all these minor pleasures are offered. There is sadness in all of it, as pleasures so brief always are, but Šteger pins them down in writing, to be revisited, to be paired with our own versions of the same.

If you need to read only one story in this collection to believe it is a worthy BTBA winner, I’d ask you for a favored memory, one that rests in a deep place in your heart, from time in a distant city. For me, in a rather embarrassing cliché, it’d be bookstores, whether they sell books in a language I could read or not. In his own cliché, Šteger’s visit to a bookshop is an act of worship, “About temples.” It’s utterly, almost absurdly, romantic, but he makes it felt, beautiful and intimate, bringing it back from that point of eye-rolling, so skillfully that I know I will reread it both in preparation for, and returning from, travel, as I will many other pieces in this collection. Šteger has been “ordained in books, which uncover the secret correspondences between Berlin and its gods,” and it does not mater if I have ever uncovered secret correspondences, it does not matter if I think of Berlin or Kyoto or Dublin or Reykjavik, what matters is that some part of me, for once, feels something true in the expression, and that ability is why Šteger and his translators should win this year.

13 January 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Vincent Francone on Berlin by Aleš Šteger, translated by Brian Henry, Forrest Gander & Aljaž Kovac and published by Counterpath Press.

Vince has brought up a lot of interesting points in this “review,” and questions the relationship of the reader’s response to a book to the perceived value of a book. I’ve had many similar reading experiences: a book has been, by all logistical elements, a fine book, I can identify it as being well written, can think of a handful of other people who would love it to bits—and yet for me it didn’t quite click. But whether or not that’s reason for me to state that a book is lacking in some way… I’m not so sure that’s always the case.

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Vince’s review!:

Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished Berlin by Aleš Šteger, I am reminded of Jarrell’s idea because I am supposed to be writing a review of Berlin and I realize that I am not Šteger’s ideal reader. I came to the book with expectations and am, to be completely honest, disappointed. But so what? A book didn’t do what I’d hoped it would do. Does that make it a failure?

Of course not. It makes it a book with a specific vision that seemed well suited to my tastes and interests, even if the execution was different than I’d imaged. I love books that make interesting use of cities. I love the way G. Cabrera Infante made Havana such a part of his work; I adore how Ciaran Carson writes about his native Belfast; I’m awed by Faulkner’s ability to spin gold out of rural Mississippi. The list goes on: Bukowski’s L.A.; Auster’s New York; Joyce’s Dublin. As someone who has spent a lot of effort writing stories and poems about a city I both love and hate, I should have been more receptive to Šteger’s book. After all, this is a poet writing in prose about his individual encounters with Berlin. Sounds like my kind of book.

And it is. Sort of. Berlin is a book of quick prose pieces by a Slovenian poet about his time in Berlin. Most of the miniature essays are accompanied by photos, some of which make up the most stunning parts of the book. There are allusions to other great writers who walked the Berlin streets, as well as a humorous exchange with a fellow poet, and tiny details (food, bakeries, the weather) that add up to something indeed, though I will admit that I am not exactly sure what. This is evidence of my response as a reader, not Šteger’s failure as a writer, though it makes an objective review difficult.

For the rest of the review and more deep thoughts, go here.

13 January 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished Berlin by Aleš Šteger, I am reminded of Jarrell’s idea because I am supposed to be writing a review of Berlin and I realize that I am not Šteger’s ideal reader. I came to the book with expectations and am, to be completely honest, disappointed. But so what? A book didn’t do what I’d hoped it would do. Does that make it a failure?

Of course not. It makes it a book with a specific vision that seemed well suited to my tastes and interests, even if the execution was different than I’d imaged. I love books that make interesting use of cities. I love the way G. Cabrera Infante made Havana such a part of his work; I adore how Ciaran Carson writes about his native Belfast; I’m awed by Faulkner’s ability to spin gold out of rural Mississippi. The list goes on: Bukowski’s L.A.; Auster’s New York; Joyce’s Dublin. As someone who has spent a lot of effort writing stories and poems about a city I both love and hate, I should have been more receptive to Šteger’s book. After all, this is a poet writing in prose about his individual encounters with Berlin. Sounds like my kind of book.

And it is. Sort of. Berlin is a book of quick prose pieces by a Slovenian poet about his time in Berlin. Most of the miniature essays are accompanied by photos, some of which make up the most stunning parts of the book. There are allusions to other great writers who walked the Berlin streets, as well as a humorous exchange with a fellow poet, and tiny details (food, bakeries, the weather) that add up to something indeed, though I will admit that I am not exactly sure what. This is evidence of my response as a reader, not Šteger’s failure as a writer, though it makes an objective review difficult.

I think part of the problem is the way I approached the book. Berlin is best read over the course of a week or two, one vignette lasting the course of days; though, at 131 pages, the book can easily be polished off in a sitting. And that is my problem: I read it quickly and, in doing so, missed the effect. After putting it down for a week, I revisited some of the more memorable bits in preparation for this review and found this:

It seemed that every moment winter would touch its own back. Walking in it nearly all year, the snow melted in the daytime, budded again overnight from sidewalks and car hoods, consuming into March and then into April the deep patience of the most euphoric innkeepers, who at the first rays of better prospects populated the sidewalks with tables and chairs. Winter was so long that even Berlin’s biggest stay-at-homes enjoyed it when spring finally came.

This is delightful to me, though I shared the same passage and it elicited only the sad recognition of a native Midwesterner. This again reminds me of Jarrell’s idea, only inasmuch as I begin to question the purpose of reviews. They are a product of one person’s reading, so, to that end, they are bound to be flawed. But that is fine. My reading is solely my own and if it is my duty to relay what this individual reading yielded, so be it. Take from this the following: Berlin is a fine book of surprising lyricism that did not exactly do what I expected, but wouldn’t it be a dull world if things always went as planned?

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