19 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This morning’s poetry entry into the Why This Book Should Win series is from BTBA judge—and Riffraff co-owner—Emma Ramadan.

Astroecology by Johannes Heldén, translated from the Swedish by Kirkwood Adams, Elizabeth Clark Wessel, and Johannes Heldén (Sweden, Argos Books)

Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology is an art object, and merely describing it won’t do justice to the weighty beauty of it you feel when holding the book in your hands. A compromise: Some of the images and accompanying text can be viewed here. It’s a hardcover book of photographs accompanied by short texts that are in turn accompanied by footnotes, translations of images into words and words into other words. The glossary at the end is itself a continuation of the book’s poetry, with entries like “horizon, as far as the human eye could see” and “loneliness, standing outside the flock. Walking towards the school building at the end of summer. Darkness in the storage room. The sound of footsteps. Laughter.”

Heldén describes nature and the world around us, but there’s something sinister lurking in these pages. Flipping through the book, it might seem like a collection of beautiful photographs of plants, animals, landscapes in nature, but the accompanying text subtly explores nature’s brutal confrontation with us. Humankind’s negative influence on the world seeps into the pages. A picture of a tree stump is captioned “October 10, 2011, a 24-hour long clip of the engine sound from the fictional starship U.S.S. Enterprise was uploaded to YouTube.” An aerial photograph of trees is accompanied by a description of the roar of engines and drones crowding out the sound of the wind, crowding out even the sound of breathing. We encounter a dead dormouse, there’s an apocalyptic atmosphere: The only light: the emergency generator of the hospital.

Heldén’s glossary plants us firmly in the future: “badger, Meles meles, four-legged animate object (last confirmed sighting in 2027).” “blue whale, the last blue whale was hunted into a shallow bay in the Arctic in 2026, where she beached and expired after several hours struggle to return to deep waters.” Every animal mentioned is now extinct. And often their former actions and movements are described as though the glossary were someone’s diary, keeping record of the specific habits of various insects and animals around his or her property. What kind of future is this?

Is it the end of the world? Are we the end of the world? The layers of Heldén’s text are so all-encompassing and in such intense juxtaposition that sometimes we forget this is not a simple documenting of someone’s garden and their pleasant discoveries captured in photographs. Soot from burnt-out stars falling slowly to the ground. I tried to write their existence, their consciousness, like code into the interspace.

The text is also woven with Heldén’s sporadic philosophical musings, inner thoughts inextricably bound up in the outside world. A question: what would a secret language be called interspersed between raindrops. These are Heldén’s photographs, and through them he brings us into his construction of a future universe. For Astroecology is, essentially, a work of science fiction shattered into images, text, intertext, the pieces coming together to expand the genre, both of science fiction and of poetry.

17 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This morning’s entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series is from BTBA judge and Riffraff co-owner, Emma Ramadan.

Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, translated from Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Ugly Duckling Presse)

I would happily and readily make the argument that of all the books on the BTBA poetry longlist this year, Eleni Vakalo’s Before Lyricism was without a doubt the most difficult to translate. Made up of six book-length poems, the poems in Before Lyricism get at a version of reality that can only be accessed by making someone hear and see an image through the written word.

The shape of the forest has
The shape of a jellyfish
That you catch in your hands and it slips through
As a wave
Pushes it out
Perhaps this happens
It moves
Opening seashores
That are white
The fresh ones glisten
While the others
Are white all through
You’ll find too the bones of the drowned

Now I’ll push out my heart
But no
Since jellyfish
Have no blood

If I pretended for so long to be writing poems, it was only so I could speak of the forest.

These poems don’t have a setting or a thread of movement. The most accurate thing would be to say that these poems are set in Vakalo’s mind and in our minds and nowhere else. Poems that seem to start out as straightforward descriptions peel apart in our hands as we read, every line taking another layer with it so that what we are left with is a series of jarring images that reverberate with an energy of abstraction. Her translator Karen Emmerich describes in an excellent interview for Tupelo Quarterly, “That’s what all of reading Vakalo feels like to me: being in the sea in a moment of utter calm, and then finding that the water I’m standing in is so many more things than I thought—and the calm of the sea and of me becomes host to an undercurrent, if not of fear, then of astonishment at the unfamiliar.”

At night people betray one another
And when the forest
To smother you
You cry out
As if
You were not in
The forest

Vakalo pushes the Greek language to its limits, stretching its syntax and playing up its room for ambiguity. As Emmerich elaborates in her translator’s note at the end of the book, “Before Lyricism is intensely inward-looking in its disruption of conventional grammar and syntax, which render it resistant to familiar modes of translation . . . Greek is an inflected language in which word endings indicate grammatical function . . . Writers can manipulate these elements in such a way as to push their texts to the limits of intelligibility . . . Vakalo does just that: she intensifies the particular forms of grammatical ambiguity available in Greek by recasting its syntax in unexpected ways.”

If this poem is filled with the beating of wings
It’s because you hear birds

                              You don’t just see them

Emmerich spent over a decade translating these poems. The difficulty, she says in her Tupelo Quarterly interview, is that “what Vakalo is doing in this regard simply isn’t something that English can do. The languages aren’t the same. In many places, given the tyranny of the word order in English, there are clear subjects or objects for my verbs, in places where there aren’t for hers. What I tried to do instead was just let other forms of ambiguity exist, syntactical, grammatical, interpretive . . . I wanted there not to be a clear image, always, but rather a sense of something . . . I just had to let myself go, mess with all the pieces and make something I thought was equally disturbing, mixing issues of innocence and guilt in a similar way of effacing the boundary between actor, action, and effect . . . Yet the cumulative impression is somehow still comprehensible. There’s a point, a thing to understand but not untangle.”

Striking the spider
The spasm as it falls
And its legs contract and tangle
In three closed corners
The whole spider shrinking
Death when it suddenly comes
With a swift pain from the strike
And that power you have in your hands
The image of these moments gathers
As passing you saw it on the wall
Creeping with its eight legs
In an odd rhythmic arrangement
The rapid change
In the scene, starting with the strike,
Transforms the innocent into intent.

Emmerich’s stunning translation is nothing short of miraculous in its ability to evoke the same feelings of both alarming confusion and immediate comprehension in her English readers as Vakalo was able to evoke in her Greek readers. This book shimmers with a new layer of reality, with new poetic possibilities, and it is a gift to English readers to be able to access both.

18 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Riffraff co-owner and BTBA poetry judge Emma Ramadan joins Chad and Tom to talk about the fifteen finalists for this year’s Best Translated Book Awards. After breaking down the poetry and fiction lists, the three talk about the new New York Times Match Book column and the value of booksellers and librarians.

This week’s music is High Ticket Attractions by The New Pornographers.

As always, feel free to send any and all comments or questions to: threepercentpodcast@gmail.com. Also, if there are articles you’d like us to read and analyze (or just make fun of), send those along as well.

And if you like the podcast, tell a friend and rate us or leave a review on iTunes!

10 April 17 | Chad W. Post |

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is the first about the poetry longlist, and is written by Emma Ramadan, translator from the French and co-owner of Riffraff bookstore and bar in Providence, RI.

In Praise of Defeat":https://archipelagobooks.org/book/in-praise-of-defeat/ by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Morocco, Archipelago Books)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 53%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 11%

Abdellatif Laâbi’s In Praise of Defeat, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, is an 800+ page proof of poetic genius. I’m not sure I’ve ever read another book of poetry in translation where the electric connection between translator and author produced such gripping results. The book contains a selection of poems, chosen by the author, of his poetic work from the late 1960s to 2014, aka his entire poetic range.

hear the clash of languages
                                             in my mouth
the thirst for new births
hear the swish of sweat
                                             at my underarms
the ripple of my biceps
driven by my inner fauna
                                             springing from caves
pen bloodied
                    my head against every wall
my breath at the gallop
spewing planets
                    in its eruptions

If you’ve heard Laâbi’s name before, it might be because he co-founded the journal Souffles in 1966, during Morocco’s “years of lead,” as a way for artists and intellectuals to wage a written war for democratic ideals under a monarchy persecuting independent and progressive thinking. King Hassan II began implementing torture and imprisonment, and poets were not immune. Abdellatif Laâbi was himself tortured and then imprisoned for more than eight years for his political beliefs and writings. Many of the poems in In Praise of Defeat were in fact written while he was serving his sentence in Kenitra prison.

Write, write, never stop. Tonight and all the nights to come. Another night when I can do nothing but write, confront this silence that provokes me with its idiom of exile. I brace myself to the full to explore the voice of the prison night.

These poems give us an idea of what it means to be a Moroccan poet. For Laâbi and his compatriots, politics and poetry were one and the same, every poet a combatant, spurred on by the desperate necessity of continued resistance on the page.

The sun is dying
with human murmurs on its lips
Chaos will come and clear the stage
of this old tragedy
told a thousand times
by an idiot
in an empty theater
There will be another eternity
of roiled absence
dueling masks
and the failure to write

3 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is the first about the poetry longlist, and is written by Emma Ramadan, translator from the French and co-owner of Riffraff bookstore and bar in Providence, RI.

Instructions Within by Ashraf Fayadh, translated from the Arabic by Mona Kareem, Mona Zaki, and Jonathan Wright (Palestine, The Operating System)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 86%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 14%

In times like these, we hear a lot of people talk about how writing and literature are more necessary now than ever. It’s easy to scoff at the idea that literature can solve society’s problems, that a really good book of poetry might have the power to topple totalitarian leaders. But we have to admit that there must be something to the idea when there is such a long, disturbing history of writers and poets who have been imprisoned for criticizing their countries in their work. From China to Iran to France to Israel to the Philippines, governments and leaders have felt so threatened by the words of their country’s poets that they have felt the need to imprison them, disappear them, punish them, make an example of them. What is it about poetry that is so powerful its writers risk death? Perhaps it’s as Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, the woman behind The Operating System, says: “It will, indeed, be the poets (musicians, artists, creators of all kinds) who ‘wake up the world.’”

For revenge
you take pleasure in your pain—
singing, with what is left of your voice,
on the high wires of effort.

One poet currently serving time in prison for his work is Ashraf Fayadh. Fayadh was born to Palestinian refugee parents in Saudi Arabia. Using art as a way to explore the painful memories surrounding his exile, Fayadh helped form a group called Shatta that aimed to turn art, perceived as elitist and abstract, into something accessible and grounded in reality. In 2015, in part because of the words in Instructions Within, he was sentenced to death for blasphemy in Saudi Arabia, a sentence that has since been lessened to eight years and 800 lashes. The book is about Fayadh’s experience as a Palestinian refugee. It is about fundamentalist religion in Saudi Arabia. It is also about the hypocrisies of a world in which Western governments, supposed protectors of freedom and democracy, maintain financial ties with Saudi Arabia, turning a blind eye to the country’s human rights offenses at the expense of people like Ashraf Fayadh in order to keep a steady supply of oil.

Being a refugee means standing at the end of the line
to get a fraction of a country.
Standing is something your grandfather did, without knowing the reason.
And the fraction is you.
Country: a card you put in your wallet with your money.
Money: pieces of paper with pictures of leaders.
Pictures: they stand in for you until you return.
Return: a mythical creature that appears in your grandfather’s stories.
Here endeth the first lesson.
The lesson is conveyed to you so that you can learn the second lesson, which is
“what do you signify”?

I was a nightmare
my steps carrying me towards the unknown
towards lonely roads
away from the societies of eternal honor.
I was betrayed even by my steps
they took me far into exile . . .
away from a homeland
that had no ports.
The smell of home is stuck in my nose
and in my memory there remain fragments never to be forgotten.

Suddenly people everywhere were reading Ashraf Fayadh’s poems, at the Berlin International Literature Festival, at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, at the NUS Middle East Institute in Singapore, at the Ledbury Poetry Fesival in the UK, in Austria and Nigeria and Bolivia and all over the world. How many people would have read his book had he not been sentenced to death? What should have been a poet, a book, silenced and forgotten about instead became an explosion. In the words of Tahar Ben Jalloun, “This sentence teaches us all we need to know about his poetry—about his strength, about his violence.”

Surrender to sleep.
The time has come for you to melt, and dissolve,
to take the agreed shape of alienation
into which you’ve been poured.
Evaporate, condense,
and go back to your void,
to occupy your usual space
of the You.

Your soul was forged and used for illegal purposes,
voted on—
then eaten
like a loaf.

Instructions Within was published by The Operating System as the first title in their series Glossarium: Unsilenced Texts and Modern Translation, “established in early 2016 in an effort to recover silenced voices outside and beyond the familiar poetic canon . . . in particular those under siege by restrictive regimes and silencing practices in their home (or adoptive) countries.” All proceeds of this book go to support the ongoing fight against Ashraf Fayadh’s prison sentence. One additional particular the book worth noting is its format. The book was designed so that English readers would be reading the same way as Arabic readers: starting the book at what we normally perceive as “the end” and flipping the pages left to right, or “backwards,” taking to a whole new level the idea of translation as providing an experience for the reader of the target language that is as close as possible to the experience of the reader of the source language.

God sits on the throne
as you stain the stillness of night with your voice
looking for a light to exhibit your darkness

So what is it about Ashraf Fayadh’s poetry that threatened the power of Saudi Arabia’s leaders so much that they felt the best way to keep themselves safe was to lock him away forever, to kill him?

I am Hell’s experiment on planet Earth.

22 July 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure of a trashy popular novel. The writing is straightforward, not overly literary, and yet by the end you realize all of Despentes’s complex feminist points have not only been made, but have found their way into your mind, have changed something about the way you think. This is her genius.

Despentes doesn’t merely explore what it’s like to be a woman in the world. Some of her books are about what it’s like to be anyone in a world that keeps people unequal, whether they be men or women, rich or poor. They’re about how everyone is affected, and affected negatively, by our society’s status quo. Bye Bye Blondie is one of these books.

Published by the Feminist Press earlier this month and translated from the French by Siân Reynolds, Bye Bye Blondie is a story about Gloria and Gloria’s rage. At first we are made to think Gloria’s outbursts are immature, the enactment of “the crazy girlfriend,” costing her relationships with lovers, friends, and family. We learn Gloria was previously placed in a psychiatric hospital by her parents because of these outbursts. And yet as the book goes on, we realize Gloria’s rage is incredibly right and true. It’s the only sane course of action for anyone who sees the world for what it is.

It’s when Gloria is locked away in a mental hospital for a few months that she starts to understand, to crack. There she starts to see the way of the world, how power operates. She realizes that to exist within the system is to betray herself; to get along with others, to have friends or boyfriends or money, she has to be someone else. In the most revealing scene of the book, the scene that feels most directly to have come from Despentes’s life (her memoir King Kong Theory starts out, “I am writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones”), a specialist asks Gloria why she chooses to be ugly, why she is “refusing to be a woman.” Gloria doesn’t respond, knowing it won’t help her get out of the hospital, but Despentes tells us: “Because agreeing to be a woman means suffering in silence, not fighting back.” And the reader knows this to be true: Gloria is in the hospital “because [her] father started yelling at [her] and instead of keeping quiet, [she] answered back.”

Her saving grace in the hospital is a young man named Eric, a rich boy who’s temporarily lost his memory and remains there until his bourgeois parents come to rescue him. After he leaves, they begin to exchange letters. As main characters tend to do, they fall in love. Eric is the first person she’s ever met who loves her “precisely for what she was most afraid of in herself.” Namely, her rage, her distaste for the world, her ability to see the world and those playing into it for what they are. Because her rage soothes him, makes him think that he too holds the world at an ironic distance, that he too has not betrayed himself and does not live a life of compromise. Being with Gloria allows Eric to forget who his parents raised him to be. In turn, Eric lets Gloria feel it’s okay to be herself.

Once Gloria is out of the mental hospital, they realize there’s only one thing to do: run away. They live on the margins of society for a while. They’re bums, they’re poor, they’re punk rockers, they’re happy. Despentes tells us, “All this time, other people their age were learning to be competitive, disciplined, learning not to set their sights too high, not to ask questions, and that money is what matters most in this world. Eric and Gloria were learning nothing at all . . .”

Suddenly Eric goes missing, and after months of searching for him, Gloria receives a letter from him saying he has decided to enter back into society, or in his words, “reality.” In order to search for him, Gloria, too, re-enters society, where she’ll remain, but always with a disdain for herself and everyone else living this “reality.” Her outbursts of rage are against the world, but also against herself for giving in to what she calls the “pure surrender” of going along with this cruel world.

Twenty years later, Gloria and Eric run into each other in the street following one of her outbursts, and this is where the plot of Bye Bye Blondie begins. They are now in different places in their lives—Eric is a famous talk-show host who is incredibly depressed, and Gloria is a poor and barely functioning member of society living off of government aid. They have their ups and downs and their love story plays out over the course of the book. Gloria seems to be caught in a trap: as soon as she finds herself edging toward success, money, and acceptance in society, she loses herself more and more, and ends up flying off the handle in rebellion, landing back at square one. We watch Gloria and Eric explore how far they’re willing to compromise before they wind up disgusted with themselves, Gloria manic and Eric depressive. But the most interesting thing Despentes does in Bye Bye Blondie is show us how these two ultimately fit together. In this world, love does not conquer all, does not bridge differences. A soul mate is not someone who balances us, or shows us the beauty of the world. A soul mate isn’t even someone who allows us to tolerate the world. Rather, a soul mate is someone who enables us to stomach the compromises we inevitably make to live within it.

7 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Joseph Schreiber, who runs the website Rough Ghosts, and is a contributor at Numéro Cinq. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.

Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (France, Deep Vellum)

What I was feeling for A*** needed its own embodiment; the pleasure I took in A***’s company demanded is own fulfillment. I wanted A***, it was true, and all my other desires, needs, and plans paled in comparison. Suddenly, the obsessive clamor for amorous possession took hold of me.

I was surprised to find myself desiring, painfully. In a sudden rush of vertigo, I was tantalized by the idea of contact with A***’s skin.

What we have here is the impassioned confession of the unnamed narrator of Sphinx by Anne Garréta. A*** is the object of this sudden and intense desire. Neither character is defined by sex or gender. This factor acts as a constraint that places this French novel within the ranks of the works of the OuLiPo group though, written in 1986, it predates the author’s own admission to this famed groupof writers. Yet in the end, Sphinx requires no such designation to work as a powerful literary and darkly existential meditation on memory, attraction, and identity. To finally have it available in English, and at a time in which the public understanding of sex and gender is evolving, serves as an invitation to approach this work as more than either a literary challenge in itself or a polemic of feminist/queer theory. The exquisite timeliness of the translation of this bold and dynamic novel is perhaps the greatest argument in favour of rewarding Sphinx with the Best Translated Book Award.

But, wait a minute. Is it a good story? Can it stand on its own merits? At first blush, the set up sounds, and at points may even feel artificial, but that oddness passes quickly. The narrator is a young student of Catholic theology who is drifting without strong direction and, through a series of unusual, even disturbing, coincidences ends up working as a DJ at an after hours Paris nightclub. This serves as an introduction to a new world, an alternate reality that opens late at night and unwinds into the very early hours of the morning. Our narrator demonstrates a tangible ambivalence toward this radical change of lifestyle.

I acquiesced to whatever presented itself without much arm-twisting, and I neither suffered from nor reveled in it: I was spared the exhaustion of searching and seizing. I was giving up a state of being that was in turn abandoning me and sliding into another that slowly, imperceptibly came to envelop me.

In learning to navigate this world, an identity that may or may not be valid or true is adopted to serve as a barrier, a means of mediating an alien environment. Within this identity a certain boundary, a sober vantage point is maintained until A***, an exotic dancer at a strip club, comes into the narrator’s life. At first their friendship is platonic, existing in a stylish public sphere. The narrator realizes it is not built on strong romantic or intellectual engagement. The attraction is one of opposites—race and personality—until sexual desire arises abruptly, throwing the narrator’s carefully constructed identity into a crisis which is heightened as A*** initially refuses to take their relationship to an intimate level.

When it is ultimately consummated, a highly charged sexual and romantic liaison develops, enduring several years marked by turns of passion, jealousy, and domesticity. As might be anticipated in a union built on obsession rather than common interests, cracks and fissures begin to grow. This is heightened as the narrator seeks to revive abandoned theological pursuits, carving out time to focus on an essay, quite fittingly, on the apophatic tradition—the attempt to describe God only by negation. Later on, after the tragic end of this ill-fated love affair, the narrator will sink into a deeply existential rumination on love and loss. No sexual encounter, romance, intellectual or academic pursuit will fill the void left behind. A restless wandering overtakes our hero, driving a spiral into ever-darker self-exploration. Without the “other” as a frame of reference, it becomes increasingly evident that the self is isolated, disconnected.

Had I confided more in A*** than in anybody else? What had I revealed? Had I unmasked myself? No, more likely I had exposed my own collapse, the ruin of the edifice I had so painfully constructed out of rhetoric and made to stand for an identity.

At heart this is a novel of obsession, of memory, of mourning. The language is rich and sensual, with an intensity that is visceral and emotionally powerful. For that quality alone, Sphinx is a work worth attention—it reaches beyond the novelty and challenge of its conceit to touch a common ground of human experience.

But what about the matter of sex and gender? I suppose it will come down to how important it is to have a fixed image of the protagonists in your mind as a reader and how fluid your conception of gender is in relation to sex and sexuality. Are they bound together, or three separate aspects of identity? For the majority of people, biological sex conforms to gender identity—they are experienced as one and the same. Sexuality hinges on the sex and gender of the persons to whom one is attracted, and “transgender” is an umbrella term for those for whom sex and gender do not fit exactly. The range of gender expressions, identities and bodies under that umbrella is wide and the intersection with sexuality can further complicate the issue.

Queer theory aside, a novel like Sphinx opens up the potential for a completely open reading experience: one can choose gender, sex and sexuality as desired, play with alternatives in the reading, or re-encounter the work with repeatedly different contexts. Garréta has incorporated enough ambiguity to allow all possibilities. There is, in truth, something here for everyone—the undefined sex and gender of the protagonists offers an exciting challenge to the imagination for those who have rested in relative certainty about their identities; whereas for a queer reader like myself it is a glorious opportunity for self exploration that I would have welcomed in my isolated teenage years.

However, if you are not quite convinced that Sphinx is a most worthy contender for the BTBA, there is Emma Ramadan’s wonderfully lucid translation. As Ramadan describes in her afterward, Garréta was forced to employ a great deal of ingenuity and creativity to avoid revealing the narrator’s gender. In English genderless narrators are not unique, but A*** has to be presented with more care and, consequently, less depth. However, this compromise is not at odds with the narrator’s own lack of understanding of A***. It all falls together beautifully through prose that is meditative, unsettling and, at times, deeply moving.

3 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Sure, February is officially over, but next week Tom and I will be discussing last month’s Reading the Book Book Club selections: On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes and Monospace by Anne Parian.

We’d love to include comments and questions and topics from everyone else, so if you have any thoughts or reactions, you can email them to me (chad.post [at] rochester.edu), post them in the comments section below, share them on Twitter with #RTWBC, or post them to the Facebook Group. I’ll collate everything that I can find and try and work it into the conversation.

To get things started I thought I’d put together a short post with some info about both of the books covering some of the topics I plan on bringing up with Tom.

I still haven’t finished this, but I’m absolutely loving it. Stylistically it reminds me of Celine and Antonio Lobo Antunes with the grounded rants and general disdain for everything. Of the two books I’ve read recently that touch on Spain’s economic collapse, this is definitely the more forceful and direct. At its core, this book is a chronicle of the shittiness that the collapse brought about, with everyone losing their money, their jobs, their future.

This is all centered around Esteban, the narrator for most of the book, who ended up stranded in this small Spanish town, running his father’s carpentry shop. In hopes of finally getting something substantial for himself, he invests a ton of money into his friend’s construction business, which promptly goes bust. As a result, he has to fire everyone, and it’s their voices interspersed throughout the text that really drive home the bleakness of the situation. (Talking about the structure of this book—the rant with the interspersed monologues, the relationship between Esteban’s memories, the card game, and the swamp—will be really interesting as well.)

One of the things that struck me—especially in contrast to a different book I was reading concurrently with this and then put aside—is how honest and true the despair running throughout this book seems. These characters just want a decent life—enough money to feed their kids and to make it to the end. But that’s all been taken away from them by unseen (for the most part) sources and now their futures are incredibly hopeless. This is so much more powerful than books in which the author constructs really contrived situations with which to batter the characters. Nothing in On the Edge feels contrived to me.

I also want to talk with Tom about the humor. To me, the rants can be pretty funny, turning from a sort of bleak observation into something more charged, self-reflexive and playful. What else can you do when everything’s turned to shit but rant in an entertaining fashion?

A couple weeks back, I received an email from a reader praising the book for how compelling the writing is and how it gets right to the heart of the pain of being human. She included a few choice quotes, which I think are worth sharing:

Sometimes it’s the biggest, heaviest things that are the easiest to move. Huge stones in the back of a truck, vans laden with heavy metals. And yet everything that’s inside you—what you think, what you want—all of which apparently weighs nothing—no strong man can lift that onto his shoulder and move it somewhere else. [. . .]

In day-to-day living, you’re constrained by your kids, by your wife; if it wasn’t for them, you’d do all kinds of crazy things, but when you’re in really deep trouble, when you reach that final tipping point, the very opposite happens: it is precisely your wife and kids who make you do the crazy thing that, before, they seemed to be stopping you from doing.

We tend to think that people’s true nature comes out at decisive moments, when the going gets tough, when they’re pushed to the limit. The moment for heroes and saints. And yet, strange though it may seem, at such moments, human behavior is usually neither exemplary nor encouraging. The group who elbow their way to the head of the line where the concert tickets are being handed out; the spectators who flee the burning theater, trampling over the weaker members of the audience . . .

It’ll also be interesting to compare this review by Mara Faye Lethem, with this one by Aaron Thier.

Mara Faye Lethem’s review opens with:

On the Edge is not a book you want to read in fits and starts. It is an anti-tweet, a brick of dense prose, that 70-year-old uncle who corners you at a holiday party, grabs you by the lapels and demands you hear him out. Your eyes sometimes glaze over, and you occasionally have to wipe a fleck of whitish spit off your face, but once you give yourself over to his story, you find there are plenty of rewards.

Whereas Aaron Thier’s is titled “On the Edge Gives No Pleasure.”

I’ve already written a couple things about Monospace, so instead of rehashing that all here, I just want to share most of what Charles Gabel posted in the Facebook Group:

So “The Scenery” not only has the footnotes, but from what I can tell by far the most concrete nouns. There’s an obsession of defining the space of the garden, and as the awesome translator Emma Ramadan wrote in one of the blog posts on 3%, it’s inseparable from the act of its own making. In these terms, I kept thinking of the garden as the already-failed arcadia, which suffers completely from its inability to exist, existing only in the flawed medium of language, of poetry (“First problem// a garden is never ideal” (61)) That said, “The Scenery” packs in as much concrete reality as it can, but somehow it’s never stable. Much like the lines aren’t definable in terms of singular tone or texture (I wish I’d underlined a good example of this), I could never fully picture any concrete space of a garden, no matter how many objects appeared or how much the poems talk about graphing the space and putting stuff in it. The definition itself is too insufficient to be confined to a poem, perhaps necessitating the footnotes?

It’s also the section with the most sense of longing, and erotic reaching toward another, the rose bed, etc. (Does this disappear as the book moves toward the later sections? Or did I not pick up on it?) The eros of the first section seems like a useful tension furthering the anxious lack that the book moves to resolve. The first page of “Repetitions” (p. 79) has zero concrete nouns, and seems to be more at ease with its own form; the footnotes are gone, it looks like a poem.

I guess I also want to mention the title, which appears throughout the book, I think as early as p. 16 (italicized as a title would be, maintaining the distance of the creation, the book’s object-ness, something that made me gleeful as a reader), and that it’s a type of typesetting where all the characters take up the same amount of space, which just awesomely sets up and furthers the text-garden-object association. Also, partly because the book’s original title in French is also Monospace, I went to google.fr, and the first association that came up (before the typesetting, which also came up) was a model of minivan. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with anything.

Again, if you have any thoughts or comments, send them in or post them wherever and we’ll try and address them next week on the podcast.

22 February 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of artists and intellectuals, Souffles was a written fight for democratic ideals and a new Maghrebi literature following independence in Morocco. For those of us who can’t read French or Arabic, or who don’t have the attention span to sift through all of the archives, we now have the excellent Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology, edited by Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio, with just the right amount of historical background and contextual commentary. There is also a delightfully substantial discussion of the different translation methods used by their array of skillful translators, including (to name only a few) Andrew Zawacki, Anna Moschovakis, Robyn Creswell, and Guy Bennett.

Souffles came about just as it was becoming obvious that even after Moroccan independence had been won, the battle for a liberated Morocco had only just begun. In the government installed in 1956, King Hassan II began persecuting democratic and progressive thinking, implementing torture and imprisonment. Islam was used as a tool to impose order. The generation that had seen its national culture wiped out entirely by the French protectorate then saw it denied or confined to the realm of folklore by the post-independence government, all to keep the Moroccan people weak, alienated, unable to come together through anything resembling tradition or national pride.

Enter: Souffles. The journal sought “cultural decolonization” in order to reconstruct Moroccan identity. In the words of Harrison and Villa-Ignacio, this meant they had to “forge new languages, forms, and genres that were not tributary to European cultural norms.” Valorizing Moroccan traditions and culture would give the Moroccan people a foundation to stand upon, a stronger sense of community and identity. These writers wanted to rediscover their national heritage and critically reinvent it, bringing it into contemporary creation and using it as a launching off point for modernity, something at once anchored in the ancient and infused with the new. The members of Souffles took it upon themselves to research and document Moroccan traditions (see Ahmed Bouanani’s richly detailed essay “An Introduction to Popular Moroccan Poetry”), using Souffles as a kind of archive.

Souffles was a response to the disconnect between democratic aspirations and the reality of a monarchy persecuting independent and progressive thinking and denying all forms of liberty during a period that would later come to be known as les années de plomb: the lead years. In solidarity with the entire Arab world, Souffles featured works by writers from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, but was also inspired by and aligned with revolutionary thought in the Antilles, Latin America (especially Cuba), Marxist-Leninist ideology, and by the words of Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and even the Black Panthers in the U.S.

The anthology is particularly interesting for its demonstration of the internal struggle among the members of Souffles regarding language use: Is it really possible to fight against the colonizer’s culture using the imposed, French language? In the introduction to the inaugural issue, Abdellatif Laâbi calls this question a “false issue” (20). In Souffles 18 in the spring of 1970, francophone Maghrebi literature is praised as a “terrorist literature, i.e. a literature that on all levels (syntactic, phonetic, morphological, graphical, symbolic, etc.) shatters the original logic of the French language.” But in the foreword to Souffles 22 in the winter of 1971, Laâbi’s decides, “Our ideals were flagrantly compromised by the fact that we expressed them in a foreign language… Taking possession of our culture . . . is definitively possible only through the suppression of the most basic alienation, that is to say, linguistic alienation.” This gave rise to the Arabic-language counterpart to the journal, Anfas, which would become the new focal point.

The anthology also does a good job of tracing the evolution of Souffles, which started as an arts journal filled with poetry, paintings, and art criticism, to a more overtly political journal. By 1971, a new team of young arabophone militants striving for a socialist utopia had taken over the journal, and would continue their leadership until both Souffles and Anfas were forced to shut down within the year after a seven-year run, with many of its principal members arrested and tortured and others fleeing the country.

Before its political turn, Souffles was remarkable for its success in creating a new literary aesthetic for a new generation of writers who wanted to break from the old, entrenched way of writing. The journal was the starting point for many of Morocco’s most celebrated writers, such as Mohamed Khaïr-Eddine, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Mohammed Berrada, and Mohamed Zafzaf. This anthology allows us the chance to dip into pieces from these writers, among others, and my only complaint is that I wanted even more. Reading these works leaves you wondering why Moroccan poetry is so hard to come by in English translation.

Many of the core members of the journal wanted to create Souffles because they were frustrated with the lack of opportunities for getting their work published in Morocco. Not only were there little to no structures in place to publish literary works, but the writing they wanted to produce didn’t fit with the writing of the time, with the maintained literature of the regime, which consisted primarily in looking backwards to folklore, or looking westward, imitating Western forms. New, revolutionary writing was seen (in the beginning) as integral to the fight for a more democratic way of life. They engaged in combat by way of their poetry because, in Laâbi’s words, “Poetry is all that is left to man to reclaim his dignity, to avoid sinking into the multitude, so that his outcry forever carries the imprint and attestation of his inspiration.”

When you get to the end of the anthology’s extensive selection of literature, interviews, cultural critiques, book reviews, and political essays, and find yourself wanting more, you can access the Souffles archives online “here”: http://bnm.bnrm.ma:86/ListeVol.aspx?IDC=3, and the Anfas archives “here”: http://bnm.bnrm.ma:86/ListeVol.aspx?IDC=4. For the French speakers, I also highly recommend Kenza Sefrioui’s La revue Souffles: Espoirs de révolution culturelle au Maroc (1966-1973). Harrison and Villa-Ignacio’s anthology is the perfect introduction not only to the journal(s) but also to this time period in Morocco, to the kind of writing coming out of the Maghreb and the Arab world in the 1960s and ’70s that set the course for the writing coming out of that part of the world today, including resonant lines like these, from the poem “Witness Statements” (1971) by Sudanese poet Muhammad Al-Fayturi, translated from the Arabic by Ghenwa Hayek:

I stood by, moving neither a lip nor a hand
and in the glare of the afternoon, I witnessed the slaughter.

19 February 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Here’s the follow-up to the earlier post featuring Emma Ramadan’s essay on Anne Parian’s Monospace. Her piece prompted me to ask a few questions, which she was kind enough to reply to. Hopefully this will inspire all of you to pick up a copy of the book!

As always, anyone interested in participating in the Reading the World Book Clubs should feel free to email me their questions and comments. Or, if you’re more of a public sharer, feel free to post them in the comments section below, on Twitter at #RTWBC, or in the Facebook RTWBC Group. We’ll be talking about both of these books on our next podcast.

Chad W. Post: It might be due to the fact that I had been talking about Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute and Pinget earlier in the day before reading this, but I was reminded a bit of the nouveau roman when I was reading it. Something about the way the reader is put in the perspective of the creator, watching the creation come into being, seeing how the scene is set, so to speak. Do you know if this movement had a influence on Parian? Or are there other authors/ideas/movements that are more influential?

Emma Ramadan: While I would venture to guess that any French writer would have to be influenced by the nouveau roman movement to a certain extent, I would hate to speak for Parian in this case—but would be happy to email her asking if you’d like.

CWP: I think it’s interesting that there are no commas in the main poem. (Contrasted with the footnotes, which do have commas.) I found myself having to slow down, reread and parse the lines. I assume this is intentional and present in the original. Was this something that impacted your translation process? I really had to get used to it, as a reader, figuring out where to pause in the middle of lines—it was a bit of an adjustment.

ER: Oh man, the no commas thing. It did make translating this very difficult because it threw into confusion what the sentence structure was, whether a line was a list of adjectives or meant to be nouns modified by adjectives, etc. French can get away with that in a way, and I often felt like in places my translation was begging for commas. Where it was too confusing I sometimes reconfigured the sentences (I’m thinking of: “Wood piles and cardboard demarcate the zone enclosing a small mobile object position unknown compared to a bigger more stable object position known”). Sometimes I let the sentence be confusing if it seemed like it was just as confusing in French. I think there’s a certain aspect of confusion that’s purposeful here, since the narrator is figuring things out as she goes, piling things on, starting over. There’s a messiness to it that feels right. BUT—what was really interesting was that when I finally went and “translated” the index, I realized that she was indexing all the nouns in the book. And while it still remains a mystery to me why exactly she did that—to inventory the garden?—some parts suddenly became clear to me. Things I had previously decided were adjectives in a list were actually nouns! And so I was able to go back and fix some of those more confusing lines.

CWP: In your essay you mention that there are photographs at the end of the P.O.L. edition. What are those and why aren’t they in the La Presse one?

ER: There are two photos, they’re both the same, black and white of a tree and its leaves. I’m almost positive they were taken by Anne. But I actually couldn’t tell you why they’re not in the translation, either because Cole couldn’t get the rights, or because La Presse publications aren’t equipped for that kind of thing. Really not sure. For one of Cole’s translations, of Suzanne Doppelt’s Ring Rang Wrong (Burning Deck), Cole “translated” the photos from the original, taking photos of her own (at least, I know that was her plan). Maybe she felt it required something like that and we didn’t have the time. This was a very long response to say: I have no clue!

19 February 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Since I admittedly know very little about contemporary poetry, I asked translator Emma Ramadan if she would be willing to write something about this month’s Reading the World Book Club poetry title, Monospace by Anne Parian. What she sent back is posted below. It’s thoughtful, extremely helpful in approaching the text, and really interesting. After reading it, I had a few follow-up questions for her, which I’ll post separately later today.

And next week, with winter break over and the kids back in school, I’ll have some time to post about our other RTWBC book, On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes.

As always, anyone interested in participating in the Reading the World Book Clubs should feel free to email me their questions and comments. Or, if you’re more of a public sharer, feel free to post them in the comments section below, on Twitter at #RTWBC, or in the Facebook RTWBC Group. We’ll be talking about both of these books on our next podcast.

In this book of prose poetry, the narrator goes through the steps of making a garden, and then making a world within that garden. In the first section she describes the scenery: the specific types and colors of plants, her maps, the lines she draws, the mud, the streams, her materials, the breeze, the bugs, the foliage, the animals, the lighting. Throughout, she constantly references herself, her methods, her triumphs and her failures. She describes her choices meticulously, and comments on her refusal to comment on her choices. She keeps track of what others say about her project, about her garden. She is painfully self-conscious. She describes her strolls, where she reaches her deepest state of contemplation, even the kinds of chairs she sits in. She describes you, the reader, the observer in her garden, perhaps a lover. She tells you how to build a garden like hers, and what you feel as the observer, what you’re looking for, waiting for. She is simultaneously instructing us (Watch what I copy to better understand how to do what you, like me, still don’t know how to do) and seducing us (Waiting to see you in the rose bed). She makes sure you realize the effect of every stylistic move she makes. With each development she hones her craft. This garden is for her as much as it is for us, the observers running through the garden. She has thought of everything we might want (Where can we go for fun/you say), and throws out what gets in our way (asparagus, carafe, shoes, debris, stuffed poultry).

Parian’s garden is a fiction of her fantasy, but it is not a completely fantastical place. There is filth (to emphasize the disgusting nature of the most repulsive places), there is disorder (the shaky heap is a hell), there is doubt (the smallest doubt dispels all sense and I respond). Parian is constantly starting over, throwing out old designs, beginning anew (I make a clean sweep). In fact, the second section of the book is called “I Begin Again,” beginning again with I begin again. Within this section Parian repeats the phrase I start over again and again. She is less hopeful (future variations/no one says that they hinge/on a chance of success), more careful, more cautious and more suspicious. There are more limits, there is more confusion. She becomes the garden’s painter, repeatedly bringing it back to white. She erases, she crosses out, she struggles (I repeat/that it’s not going anywhere).

The third and final section of Monospace is called “Repetitions.” Each page has fewer words, less detail. She continues to build and rebuild her garden, all the while she is still raking up everything to begin again. She repeats herself, substituting this never-ending cycle of building and tearing down for the conclusion she doesn’t have. At once a garden, map, painting, photograph, and finally a stage, Parian lowers the “curtain” over her book when she senses that we feel trapped There’s nowhere else to stray you say, not expecting applause (Hurry     dim the lights). The book has no real end; instead, Parian allows her work to keep cycling, her last words I start over.

Mirroring the construction of her garden, she carefully designs the mise en page. Parian uses footnotes in the first section, often giving the reader more information about her personal state, or more specifics about the tools, the colors, the lines. The page becomes a kind of grid, a controlled space where Parian shows off her organizational structure, her plan for the page, paralleling her plan for her garden, showing the reader how well she exercises control over the written space, drawing us into a different kind of map where we can feel the effects of her garden more directly. Within the text Parian gives us an idea of what she’s doing, letting us in on the secret that “the scenery takes form from our desire to describe it alone/so flat.” The project and the writing of the project cannot be separated, because the project only exists in the writing of it. Parian gives life to this garden through describing it, through telling us about it.

The text poses a lot of problems for a translator. Feeling in the dark for every word, piecing together what I was able to scrounge up, I attempted a fairly literal first draft. The language was stunted, stiff, verbose, clumsy. Many of Parian’s lines plainly didn’t make sense. Every word was a wall, every phrase a maze. Parian decidedly does not put commas where they belong, and in their absence, her long lists come off at first glance as a sprawling nonsensical phrase until you mentally draw in the pauses yourself. I didn’t understand why the words wouldn’t come out into the light, why their meaning stubbornly remained hidden in dark corners. The language she uses is slippery and grammatically confusing, and as I slowly lured everything over into English, not only was it gibberish, but it was unelegant gibberish. I was groping.

Until finally: a light. Parian’s original French is meant to be real aloud. The language flows and dips, stretches and silks, and its noise is undeniably beautiful. The words sound so good laced together, even when their meaning isn’t clear, is blurred or isn’t there to begin with. Parian forms her phrases based on sound, and so when I was bringing the words into English, my goal was to translate the sound of the words, the smoothness and the rhythm, the rhyme and the flow. The meaning of the words, or keeping the exact words she had used, was not the only thing of importance. Some could even be left behind, as long as the effect of their sounds was present in the translation.

Apart from the sound of the language, I encountered a few other recurring difficulties while translating Monospace. Parian often piles on word after word in one sentence, and the English translation of these heavy, almost formal, Germanic words was not smooth, as it was in the French. Parian also purposely avoids commas throughout the vast majority of her book, which sets a very fluid and at times confusing rhythm, which I tried to preserve in my translation.

Another difficulty I encountered was how to convey the dual or multiple meanings of a word. Parian uses the word plan, which can mean plan, map, project, and design, to name a few, nineteen times in Monospace. In each situation, it’s unclear whether she is describing a map, or a design, or something else; it’s also not clear whether the meaning stays the same throughout, or if she switches between meaning a map, a design, or something else. What I ended up doing was picking one definition based on either the context, or, more often, based on what sounded best in a given sentence. However, there was a situation where I decided I needed to incorporate both meanings of a certain French word. Towards the end of the book, scattered throughout Parian’s phrases is the word rideau, or curtain. From the beginning, the theme of the book and her project as a stage set is very present, and towards the end it’s as if she’s lowering the curtain on herself, expecting no louanges/applause, but bringing her final act to a conclusion in whatever way she can as a creeping crumbling seeps into the pages. On page 105, Parian uses the word fonce, which can mean either to dim [lights], to darken, to charge into or rush at, to have drive, to hurry up, and more. All the different definitions seemed equally important and relevant, and so instead of depriving the English reader of half the word’s meanings, I decided to incorporate two encompassing words, separated by a block of empty space: “hurry     dim the lights.”

Another example of this is the word Décor, the title of the first section of Monospace. Décor can mean setting, scenery, set, decoration, et cetera. These alternate meanings may seem similar, but they set the tone for two very different interpretations of what’s going on in Monospace. Throughout the work, Parian sprinkles words that reference a stage set, allowing the reader to take away a sense of Monospace and its project as the unwinding of a play, with a plot and an audience. At other points there are words that reference the work as a painting (I am its painter), or as a photograph (Retouching the photographs). Parian seamlessly fuses together different forms. Her work is saturated with different media—there are even photographs included at the end of Monospace. This trend is visible in her other work as well, and Parian is known for not limiting herself to any type of form, or type of expression within a given form. Parian’s body of work includes photography, video, lectures, and twelve books, in which she explores poetry, fiction, and even nonfiction—bordering on autobiography— in her most recent book La Chambre du milieu, written from the first person perspective of a child.

Her writing may look sparse, but it’s unbelievably rich. Through her explorations of sound, Parian takes on the task of writer, photographer, painter, and director. When asked about this aspect of writing Parian has said:

As a general rule, I prefer to call myself a “poet” only . . . which is to say that I busy myself (I think) in re-making the world (giving shape to [possible] worlds), which is to say re-reading the world (that which is available to me). And so I think the word “poet” is the best word for “artist”… So I don’t want to distinguish between the state of writer, photographer, videographer, etc., but my states are infinite (I exaggerate).

Monospace is an example of the kind of contemporary, experimental writing coming out of France from writers such as Parian who are pushing the limits of the poetry genre.

Beyond the margin
I make a dock out of planks
jump to the other side
assuming you followed me

Parian steps outside of the supposed boundaries of the written space, constructs a path leading into some unknown potential area. She glances over her shoulder to see if she’s successfully taken us there, if we’re on board.

10 February 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The other day I posted some information about Rafael Chirbes and On the Edge, the prose book we’ll be reading this month in the Reading the World Book Clubs. On the poetry side of things, this month we’ll be talking about Monospace by Anne Parian, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, and since my copy finally arrived (and I finished it last night), I thought I’d get some info up about this as well.

Before getting to that, just a reminder that anyone interested in participating in the Reading the World Book Clubs should feel free to email me their questions and comments. Or, if you’re more of a public sharer, feel free to post them in the comments section below, on Twitter at #RTWBC, or in the Facebook RTWBC Group.

Now, on to Monospace.

The Author.

There’s not a lot of information about Parian available online, at least not in English. There is this YouTube video of her reading, and the short bio from the book itself:

Anne Parian was born in Marseille in 1964 and currently lives in Paris. She is the author of seven books of poetry and hybrid works; she is also a photographer and video artist.

Which, to be honest, is longer than the one I found at P.O.L.:

Née à Marseille en 1964.

Exerce la psychanalyse à Paris.

Her first book, À la recherche du lieu de ma naissance came out in 1994, and her most recent, La Chambre du milieu, is from 2011. Monospace came out in 2007. That’s about all I’ve got.

The Translator.

From the book:

Emma Ramadan has a BA in Comparative Literature from Brown University and a Masters in Cultural Translation from the American University of Paris. Her translation of Anne Garréta’s novel Sphinx was published by Deep Vellum and her poetry has appeared in a number of journals. She recently spent a year in Marrakech translating works by the Moroccan writer Ahmed Bouanani and working with Dar al-Ma’mûn library.

A lot of people reading this will recognize Emma as the translator of Anne Garréta’s Sphinx. According to her website, she’s translating another of Garréta’s books for Deep Vellum, Not One Day, which is slated for a 2017 release. Additionally, she’s also translating The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers by Fouad Laroui for Deep Vellum, and she’s helping put together an issue of Words Without Borders dedicated to Moroccan writing.

As the recipient of a 2013 travel fellowship from the American Literary Translators Association, she’s definitely one of the top up-and-coming translators of French writing. Her dual interest in Moroccan literature and more experimental texts is really interesting as well . . .

The Publisher.

La Presse is an imprint of Fence Books and is dedicated to contemporary French poetry and hybrid-genre work translated by English-language poets. We’re a nano-press; we publish one to three books a year.

If I’m not mistaken, this is all Cole Swensen. Which, given all the other things that she does, explains why they’re publishing only a couple of books a year. So far, La Presse has brought out fourteen titles, with translations by Keith Waldrop, Eleni Sikelianos, Jean-Jacques Poucel, and several other well respected translators.

The books are beautifully produced, well-edited, wonderfully translated. I’m more or less completely outside of the poetry world, but hopefully they’re well-received as well. It’s an impressive project.

The Book.

Here’s the jacket copy:

Monospace is, first and finally, the dream of a garden. There are so many gardens—there is, of course, the story of a perfect one—and perfectly lost. So these pages gather perfumes, trees, benches, buildings, colors, and perspectives all together. They arrange a terrain, a territory, a trench, a tableau. But how, among inevitable ruins, can we create a space that can only take form as it is being described? Monospace repeats the question: “How can we garden space into existence?”

That seems about right. I’m really at a loss about how to talk about poetry books, which is one reason why I wanted to start up this part of the RTWBC—hopefully some smarter people out there, who are more keyed into contemporary poetry, can help me come to better understand and appreciate it.

The book is broken up into three sections (or maybe four, if you count the list of items that prefaces the first one, or maybe five if you count the “Index”): “The Scenery,” “I Begin Again,” and “Repetitions.”

“The Scenery” includes a fair number of footnotes, right from the start. Most of the poem involves descriptions of a landscape, but with more of a focus on the intentionality of creating/describing this landscape.

For example, here’s a simple line from the beginning:

The unique use of frankly unstable seated postures28

28. I prefer folding chairs
to rest or reflect
they perk me up
though they mock me with their garish colors

The second section, “I Begin Again,” does away with the footnotes, while ramping up the intentionality of the construction. (Again, this is my dumb interpretation/reading.)

First problem

a garden is never ideal

it resists the effects appearing without follow-through repeated with

I begin again

the roots spreading out on each side I throw the whole so that it is
under the radar of perception

of interphenomena of drawings of stains
of style

“Repetitions” is a bit tighter, but similar:

Go off often without looking
or staying
would I look for it
now that I don’t believe it
by collecting comforts
without sufficient aid or ways
without the support
of that which we
carelessly remember

The book ends with a ten-page index that seems to list the appearance of every word in the book. “drawings: 36, 45, 61, 70, 87; dream: 105; dreams: 21,50,92.” I don’t know what to make of that, except that these are maybe the individual materials for making the “monospace”? (Again, dumb. Don’t read a lot of poetry. Trying my best.)

Another Notable Thing.

According to the note at the end, the book was designed by Erica Mena, who happens to the executive director of the American Literary Translators Association. That’s a nice connection.

So go out and buy the book and send along some comments, questions, interpretations, etc. And if you’re on Facebook, join the RTWBC group! (Or use #RTWBC on the Twitters.)

16 December 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on my last post, here’s the first entry in my manic series of year-end lists.

To kick this off, I thought I’d start with the list of the six books in translation that were the most talked about this year. I did some really heady numerical analysis to determine this—searching Facebook mentions, retweets, aggregating all the other year-end lists out there, tallying GoodReads reviews and images of bookstore displays—and came up with the works of fiction from 2015 that you should read if you want to be part of the general literary conversation. These are the “water cooler” books, the titles that, if you mention them randomly at a bar, someone might vaguely have heard of them. Conversely, mentioning them around anyone involved in the world of international literature will feel almost redundant.

I wouldn’t be surprised if all six of these made the shortlist for the next BTBA. And if you haven’t read them, you might want to. They’re not all on my personal list of 2015 favorites, but no one will scoff at you for spending a week with any of these.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)

I read volume one of Ferrante’s quartet last year, and am currently listening to volume three, Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave. To me, personally, all of the books are fine. There’s nothing wrong with them, but they don’t get me all that excited either. I guess in my opinion, the prose isn’t doing anything new, and this is a time in my life where I’m waiting for something new and different to blow me away. That said, soap operas have an addictive quality to them, and reading/listening to the life-long interactions of a group of people from the neighborhood plays to that directly.

If you want a slightly different opinion, check out David Kurnick’s piece in Public Books. I literally got an email from a publicist about this as I was putting together this post. Quick scan of the piece: He likes Ferrante!

In Ferrante, by contrast [to Franzen and DeLillo], we see what grand novelistic ambition looks like devoid of writerly vanity. When her novels point to the largest political and ethical scales, as they do, the gesture is fascinatingly equivocal, as if to thread a question about our access to those scales into the emotional texture of the writing.

Sphinx by Anne Garreta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (Deep Vellum)

There are two very notable things about this novel (at least on the surface): 1) it’s the first work by a female member of the Oulipo to make it into English, and 2) there are no pronouns in this love story about A**.

Tom Roberge liked this book more than I did (in part, maybe, because I was distracted by the pronoun thing, which is interesting, but I’ve seen that before, and pulling that off is more mind-blowingly difficult in French than English), and spent a lot more time getting into the real meat of this book.

Garréta’s unnamed narrator, a seminary student turned DJ, also becomes infatuated with someone, a dancer known as A***, early on in the course of the story. And yet to compare what then unfolds (and how, in terms of story-telling) in Sphinx to that in Queer is indeed an odious comparison. Like all of Burroughs’s writing, Queer is gritty and disheveled, the beauty found in the mess itself, in the enjambment of disparate and unflinching insights into the human condition. Sphinx, on the other hand, is more poetically beautiful, a breathtaking portrait of obsession and pursuit described with such pervasive lucidity, such self-awareness, such lyrical resonance, that the story often feels like a spectral presence. [. . .]

Both are novels of pure, unadulterated, all-consuming obsession. A form of psychological addiction that infects the mind like a drug. A desire—a need—so unbounded and palpable that life before the object of desire is rendered meaningless, or at least preliminary, a trial run for the real thing. Inhabiting these narrators’ mind space is intoxicating, pure and simple. And I can’t think of a better reason to read, which is perhaps why, now, when recommending Sphinx to customers, I say, merely: “Trust me; it’s amazing.”

None of this praise is as valuable as the fact that one of the people from Pentatonix has been pushing it to all of their fans. One of the many reasons that Deep Vellum’s first year has been so wildly successful.

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories)

I’m pretty sure this was the only literary translation to be a finalist for this year’s GoodReads Reading Good People’s Choice Golden Book Awards. (Or whatever they’re called.) That’s pretty impressive, given that almost all of the other books were either insanely popular and trendy, or just bad. (Note: To Kill a Watchman won for fiction, so, yeah . . . )

I read this book immediately after I finished grading all the exams for my spring course, and while on the way to BEA in NY. Whenever I get done with my “required” reading, I tend to devour a bunch of stuff immediately, only some of which sticks in my mind. Which is why I probably need to reread this. I remember liking it, liking the way it plays with language, liking the general conceit and the issues it brings up, but also feeling like it was a bit slight. (I did apparently give it four-stars on GoodReads though.)

As time has gone on and more and more people have told me about how this is one of the greatest books of the year, I feel like maybe I read it too quickly and passively, that maybe I should go back and revisit it, so that it can “get under my skin” the way it did for BTBA judge Heather Cleary:

It’s not just that it’s impossible to put down—in both Herrera’s Spanish and Lisa Dillman’s English, its language is a fever dream of mixed registers and literary allusions pulled perfectly taut across the story. This would probably be reason enough to add my voice to the chorus of praise for the novel, but it seems even more timely to talk about Signs now, less than a week after Donald Trump, the poster child for backward thinking about borders and the people who cross them, had another moment in the spotlight on Saturday Night Live. Less so because the novel tells the story of an fierce, unflappable young woman who makes the journey from what is recognizably (though not explicitly) Mexico into what is recognizably (though not explicitly) the USA in search of her missing brother—though it is indeed a compelling story—than because the novel offers a powerful, nuanced take on the negotiation of those contact zones in which not only nations, but also languages, traditions, and identities meet, complicate, and enrich one another.

It’s worth noting that And Other Stories is bringing out a new Herrera book—The Transmigration of Bodies—in May 2016.

My Struggle: Volume Four by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Archipelago Books)

Similar to the Ferrante, I’m trying to catch up with the cool kids and am only on volume three of this seemingly endless series. I’ve talked on the podcast about what I like about Knausgaard—the glacial structural movements of each volume, the fugue-like time-shifts of the narrator’s memories, the mundanity of it as an antidote to the overblown nature of a lot of contemporary books—and I’m not sure I have much more to add about that here.

I do want to complain about the weird nature of the media love fest for Knausgaard—it’s like most of these reviewers just discovered that there’s literature being written in other languages, and probably can’t name five other living Scandinavian authors, much less speak intelligently about any of their books—but why bother. We all know that there’s very little appreciation of divergent opinions in mainstream review coverage, and once an author has been “chosen” every magazine and paper and blog and listicle generator imaginable will have to voice their opinion, oftentimes to the detriment of covering better books from the same country. This is how Murakami Haruki becomes the one Japanese author everyone has to write about, despite the fact that there are several others equally worthy of this sort of media fawning. (Although most aren’t published by Knopf, which does, for better or worse, make a difference.)

There’s nothing to be done about this—people in the media act like sheep and all want to have their voice heard about the big books everyone is talking about—and it’s not like Knausgaard is completely undeserving, it’s just frustrating to people who actually read a significant amount of international literature and actually know a lot about works from a particular country or region. Instead, there’s basically no point in publishing anything from Norway for the next few years, because it will be such an uphill battle getting attention for it, and any reviews you do get will just compare it to Knausgaard.

But whatever—that’s the sad lament of an every-struggling publisher. You should read these books since most everyone else has. (Or has taken an unwavering stance against him.) Or, better yet, read his review of Houellebecq’s Submission.

The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (New Directions)

Talk about getting all the love! This book is on every single year-end list I’ve seen, and a few others highlighting the best covers of the year.

The rebirth of Lispector—whose books have been available in one translation or another for decades—really started with Ben Moser’s new translation of The Hour of the Star back in 2011. That was followed by the release of four of her novels (three in new translations, one translated for the first time ever) in 2012, which generated a lot of attention for Lispector (in part because of Ben Moser’s unflagging enthusiasm). It all reached a crescendo with this massive volume though, which brings together all of her stories into one chunky, attractive volume.

I’ve yet to dive into this, although I have read a couple of the included volumes in their past translations. What I hope will happen a result of #LispectorFever is that New Directions retranslated The Apple in the Dark. I generally like Gregory Rabassa’s translations, but I feel like a new translation is well-deserved and would help find a much larger audience for one of her most ambitious novels.

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House Press)

Luiselli’s rise has been meteoric! In 2014 when I entered her novel Faces in the Crowd into the first ever World Cup of Literature (a contest she damn near won), it seemed like only a handful of people had read her. Now, with the publication of her third book and second novel, she’s being featured in the New York Times, New Yorker, Lit Hub, NPR, Slate, Huffington Post, Dissent Magazine, you name a media outlet and I’m sure they’ve run something about this book.

Which is all really wonderful. I’m actually using this book in my spring class, in part because I really like Valeria and her writing, in part because the story of how this came to be—and how it was edited in translation—opens up so many great topics for my students to think about and debate.

In short: Luiselli wrote this for the Jumex Foundation as a sort of serial novel for the workers at the Jumex juice factory. In the vein of the professional readers at the Cuban cigar rolling factories, she sent the workers one chapter at a time, which was distributed as a sort of chapbook to everyone at the factory. Some of these workers formed a reading group, and all of their comments about that particular section were sent back to Valeria, who listened to them, then wrote her next installment.

For the editing process, Chris Fishbach of Coffee House treated this like a book originally written in English, editing it more like an original text than a work in translation. (By contrast, most editors of translation focus on syntax, grammar, word choice, register, tone, etc. It’s still complicated and intensive, but slightly different.) The whole project became more collaborative with Christina MacSweeney adding a “Chronology” to the book that doesn’t exist in the original Spanish edition, and with Coffee House publishing a “Fact Check” booklet created by their proofreader. This is more than a simple novel—it is an artistic enterprise that is very layered and fascinating. And it features one of the most distinctive, enjoyable fictional voices in recent memory.

It’s worth noting that all six of these books—which truly are among the most talked about translations of 2015, all statistical jokes aside—are from independent and nonprofit presses, and that four of the six are by women writers.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with a list that’s a bit more loopy.

16 June 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and patterns on their own writing. Anne Garréta’s visionary debut novel Sphinx, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, was the first to be writer born after the group’s founding year to be inducted into the Oulipo, although not until 2000. Sphinx, originally published in 1986 in France, it is just now, almost thirty years later, being introduced to American readers by the impressive new publisher Deep Vellum.

In the past, most Oulipian works have dealt with self-imposed literary constraints such as lipograms or the strictly mathematically structured Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Garréta has upped the proverbial literary stakes and not merely played with the textuality or form of the work, but she has taken gender out of the language and put the constraint only on the imaginative limits of the reader. Sphinx is innovative in the way it is written—without assigning gender to the narrator and the narrator’s love obsession, making it a cutting-edge work for queer and feminist theory and an avant-garde novel that is more effective with the Oulipian constraint than without. Considering the grammatical calisthenics performed by Emma Ramadan’s translation, these points wouldn’t have been evident as Daniel Levin Becker aptly states in his introduction (via clever footnote):

If Garréta’s composition of Sphinx was a high-wire act, then Emma Ramadan’s task in carrying it over into a language with at least one crucially important constitutional difference, is, near as I can figure it, akin to one tightrope walker mimicking the high-wire act of a second walker on a steeply diverging tightrope, while also doing a handstand.

It’s not simply Garréta’s genderless constraint or Ramadan’s dazzling translation, but it’s the power of the novel itself: sensual, provocative, a hypnotic mix of nightclub noir and midnight morality that plays out in the dance clubs of 1980s Pigalle. Thematically, Garréta explores the power of obsessive love to control our identity, the consequences of completely surrendering to carnal desire as a means of spiritual fulfillment and how memory can haunt and fail us.

From the very first pages, the narrator’s obsession with A✭✭✭, an American dancer ten years the narrator’s senior, is unmistakable:

So I must have first spotted A✭✭✭ during a melancholic, disinterested contemplation of a succession of bodies I wasn’t trying hard to distinguish, on the stage of a cabaret where some obliging alcoholic had decided to drag me, coming from a club where we’d mingled our disappointments. Asking myself afterward what had made the place so appealing, I couldn’t describe it. In that blur, something must have struck me: something started operating underground, a digging, a tunneling in my mind following the blinding impact of a fragment on y retina. A body, just one, that I hadn’t identified, surreptitiously had filled the place with a seduction that permeated so deeply I couldn’t discover the cause, I couldn’t uncover the root of it.

The narrator is cursed with ennui, an incessant melancholy that is not being soothed by following theological studies and, in fact, becomes so disgusted with the teachings of a particular theologian from Freiburg, decides to abandon university study in favor of finishing a thesis at home and under the tutelage of Padre✭✭✭.

Padre✭✭✭ is an important character because he ushers in the extended metaphor that compares the narrator’s obsessive love with A✭✭✭ and the late-night life they live at cabarets and dance clubs to religious experiences. Padre✭✭✭ introduces the narrator to a nightclub he frequents, The Apocryphe (possibly an allusion to the non-canonical biblical works), which had an “illuminated entrance sheltered from the rain by a white canopy . . .” as if it were a heavenly gate to the demimonde. When the DJ at the Apocryphe dies unexpectedly one night, the narrator is lead by the owner of the club and Padre✭✭✭’s longtime friend, George, to the “DJ booth, a sort of podium that loomed over the dance floor. This glass-enclosed den was attached to one of the walls of the club, which was organized around it in concentric levels, making it the focal point . . .” as if it were a lectern. Then again:

It was settled that until I found another job I would remain the resident DJ. The Padre couldn’t help acting as sort of a moral guide—he had decided to view this adventure as an ablution, as a necessary submersion in the world of terrestrial passions. It was a type of trial, a confrontation with the excesses of evil designed to steel my character.

Garréta makes clear from the beginning that when the narrator and A✭✭✭ are introduced to each other at the club where A✭✭✭ dances, ironically named the Eden, “den of inequity,” the there will be a fanatical element, an obsessive devotion on the part of the narrator. After continually trying to convince A✭✭✭ that they should consummate their relationship, the narrator finally confesses one night that “the inversion was complete: I made myself into a demon, and A✭✭✭ symmetrically put on the mask of the angel that I had abandoned.”

The narrator and A✭✭✭ spend more time together, visiting each other’s clubs, hanging out in a group, and traveling through the early morning hours among flashing lights, pulsing music and the mirrored walls of dance clubs. When they part, desire amplifies the memory of A✭✭✭’s presence, but cannot recreate it:

A hallucinatory sensation, as if my body had suffered an amputation. This sensation that, even after the split, the separation of our two bodies kept scalding me, kept me awake. I oscillated the entire morning between the rage of embracing only a void, and the memory, the bliss of an instant, of the past night that I was trying so hard to mentally recompose.

Sphinx is an inquest of memory, of why it can remind us of what once was but not reproduce it. Memory becomes the torturer, the unreliable witness and the keeper of people lost, love lost; Garréta creates the narrator’s desire and loss through remembrances of ephemeral sensations—the sight of A★★★’s hips, the feel of A★★★’s skin, and the smell of A★★★’s t-shirt. Then there is the narrator’s memory of being introduced to America so that the narrator can meet A★★★’s family and walk around the Harlem neighborhood where A★★★ grew up:

An anxiety wells up and distills in me, the feeling of having lost, of having let this setting swallow up, a fragment of my substance that I can’t place or describe, but whose absence makes itself felt throughout my body, invading and voiding it insidiously. A bitter cold, an abyss full of wind cuts through me, the same wind that cut through me as I walked through the streets of Harlem all those years ago. Harlem’s devastation now resides in me, my body haunted by the soul of this spectral city.

Garréta’s prose throughout this five-part narrative is expressive, fluid and intense. There is also the language of violence used to describe desire, the scourge of obsession, and the torment of memory; terms comparative to the destruction left behind after war. This choice she makes and one that Ramadan creatively remains loyal to, enhances the primal, nearly destructive elements of abandon, desire, loss, those emotions which we cannot succinctly express:

Why give voice to the unarticulated? Because the inexpressible doesn’t articulate itself in the least; it shatters into pieces before even taking form. I felt distinctly that something was breaking under a kind of assault; an obscure combat was taking place, syncopating my breath with its blows.

Sphinx is a novel of passion and loss that transcends gender and speaks to the universality of desire and loss, morality, spiritual crisis and the need to connect and belong. It’s also a novel that captivates and propels the reader to question the boundaries of desire and memory—and which one ultimately holds us captive. This was a powerhouse pick for Deep Vellum to publish. In addition, the editorial choice of Daniel Levin Becker’s Introduction and Emma Ramadan’s mini-translation course in the Translator’s Note are both a delight to read and only strengthen the caliber of the work. Sphinx is a work that should be read because the narrator is genderless, A★★★ is genderless, and isn’t it about time we let go of “he said, she said?”

2 April 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Back when I was in junior high, my best friend and I would spend hours and hours playing Double Dribble on his Nintendo. (Fun fact! This game was called “Exciting Basket” in Japan.) I might be 100% wrong, but I’m pretty sure this was the first basketball game for the Nintendo. And man, was it ever low rent. Keep in mind, this was decades before things like “player likeness” or “realistic gameplay” became buzzwords. I mean, the fact that it sort of looked like the big square blobs took jump shots was pretty impressive. (This was in that period where Nintendo games had exploitable flaws, like getting your left fielder stuck in the wall so that the game would have to be forfeited. I did that every time my brother was about to beat me . . . Because forfeits don’t count!) Just look at this “action”:

Anyway, my friend and I were obsessed with Double Dribble, and basketball, and sports, and the NCAA tournament. We would create endless “brackets”—sometimes real, sometimes invented out of “seasons” we would play against each other—and then play out the whole tournament over the course of a sleepover fueled by endless amounts of pop and popcorn.

The thing that I remember most about these nights though is that I never won a game. Actually, I take that back. I distinctly remember playing out one particular bracket—all 63 games—and winning exactly one game. And I only won that when my boxy blob hit a half-court shot at the buzzer to win by a point. I sucked at that game.

Or, maybe more to the point, my friend was just better than me at all sports competitions. Nerf basketball, Techmo Bowl, sandlot baseball, sprinting, tennis, etc. This used to piss me off to no end. Losing sucks. But losing here and there, or half the time, or even two-thirds of the time, can be totally OK. Can help you cherish those victories. But losing 99.9% of all competitions? Fuck that.

Quitting games, giving up once I got down, trying not to try, acting like it all didn’t matter—these were all the strategies I employed, unsuccessfully, to hide the fact that I really hated losing. Instead, I’d just pout off, go to my room and read books. Everyone’s a winner when you read!

Although there are many other reasons to be jealous of my old friend—he’s actually published a book, I’m sure he makes at least twice as much as I do, he owns his own house, he lives in a nicer city than Rochester—the thing that still gets to me is that feeling of desperation when we were playing Double Dribble and I just wanted one single victory.

Over the years, my childish anger has become adult anger and I hate a whole slew of things instead of just some dumb Nintendo game. For example, I now hate Mario Kart and its cheating ways. And gross corporate ways of thinking. And Jonathan Franzen’s writing.

But I still hate losing. Which is why I get especially testy around book award season. I’m pretty sure that every single year I’ve predicted that this would be the time than an Open Letter Book would win a national award. I mean, we’ve been doing this for seven years, we publish books that people have praised and referred to as “extremely important,” we know all of the judges of these awards personally and they seem sympathetic to our aesthetic . . . but, then, nothing. And not just nothing—which is to be expected, since if there’s one rule in life it’s that no matter how good a book is, there’s one out there that’s even better—but our books never even make the list of finalists. Actually, we never even make the longlist.

There are three major national awards for literature in translation: the Best Translated Book Award (which I’m ignoring here because we administer it, putting it in a slightly different, less completely objective, category), the National Translation Award, and the PEN Translation Prize.

I was going to try and break this down statistically, look at which presses have been represented on which award lists, which languages are favored, etc., etc., but unfortunately, I can’t find anything about the NTA 2013 longlists or finalists, so screw it. I can say that we did have one book on the “2014 longlist“https://literarytranslators.wordpress.com/2014-awards/2014-nta-award/nta-longlist/ (The Dark by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary), but nothing on the shortlist. (I believe Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, which was translated by Margaret Carson, did make a shortlist back in 2012?, but of course I can’t find that anywhere now that I’m looking.)

In terms of PEN’s Translation Prize, this is only the second year that they’ve included a longlist stage in their announcements, but so far, we’re 0-for-2. And we didn’t have any titles on any of the shortlists prior to that. So, we’re likely 0-for-7. Meanwhile, all of our colleagues—Archipelago, Two Lines, NYRB, Deep Vellum, New Directions, Yale University Press—have been honored with at least one selection. (The real winner is Will Evans who has published one book, and that one book won the Typographical Era Translation Award AND is longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize. Yahoo! Go Texas and Deep Vellum!)

There are some damn fine books on these lists, and the winners have been consistently amazing across the board. Which is a testament to how many excellent translations are coming out these days. We’re living in a golden age. I’m always following these awards, reading the books I think have a chance at winning, making mental predictions, etc. It’s fun to follow, even if we don’t have a horse in the race.

And to be honest, I’m never quite sure why this bugs me, or why I take it so personally. It’s not like I wrote or translated any of the books. Although, that said, I do see the consistent shunning—on all the lists, not just the award ones—as some sort of judgement of my editorial tastes and selection process. And I’m always curious if our books would sell better and win a lot more awards if, say, Archipelago published them. Is there an Open Letter stigma? And if so, isn’t it mostly a Chad Post stigma? I’ve pissed off my fair share of people by having strident opinions and making stupid jokes, so I wouldn’t be surprised if our books got shafted just because of my proximity to them. I’m also 100% sure that if we were based in any major city—one with a legit indie bookstore and some form of books coverage—we would be doing much better. For all of its good points, and despite all of the nationally respected writers and translators living in the area, Rochester kind of sucks at books.

Regardless, the whole thing reminds me of Double Dribble and how I’m a sore, petty loser. That said, I’m sure that by book 150, one of our titles will have sunk a half-court shot and won us a slot in the Final Four! (Sorry—that metaphor is jacked.)

On to the April books!

Desert Sorrows by Tayseer Al-Sboul, translated from the Arabic by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari (Michigan State University Press)

It’s really spectacular that Michigan State University Press has committed to doing more works of literature in translation, mostly from Africa and the Middle East. Readers deserve access to more works from these parts of the world, and it’s perfect that a university press is stepping up and helping bring these voices to English readers.

Of course, I say this both because this is the first work by a Jordanian poet to come out since 2009, and because I am a Michigan State alum.

On that note, I hope MSU kicks the shit out of Duke on Saturday night. Duke wins all the time—the world will in no way be improved by a Duke victory. But if MSU wins? That’s a huge number of people whose lives just got incrementally happier.

By contrast, when Duke wins, their fans just cackle maniacally, go back to counting their gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, and run ads about how Order Has Been Restored. They don’t need any more victories in life.

(Obviously kidding. People who know me know that I’m a Duke fan—as long they’re not playing MSU. I love ACC basketball and the Duke-UNC rivalry and all of it. That said, Go Spartans!)

Jacob the Mutant by Mario Bellatin, translated from the Spanish by Jacob Steinberg (Phoneme Books)

This is Mario Bellatin:

And if that doesn’t convince you to read his books, maybe the fact that he’s Valeria Luiselli’s mentor will. (He appears several times in her new book.) In fact, the two of them will be reading together at the ALTA conference in Tucson this October.

I have yet to read this Bellatin—a copy of it should be on its way to us—but I really like Flores and Beauty Salon. He’s a strange, brilliant writer. And it’s so good that Phoneme is making a number of his books available.

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Open Letter)

This is one of our big 2015 books. Gospodinov’s Natural Novel is a cult book, beloved by many of my favorite booksellers and readers. And The Physics of Sorrow_—his follow-up novel—is bigger, more mature, and even more amazing. Whereas in _Natural Novel he structured everything around the idea of a fly’s eye, Physics uses the myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth to convey a family’s history. It’s bold and fascinating, and a book that’s already receiving some decent Twitter love.

Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes , translated from the French by Sian Reynolds (Feminist Press)

Tom and I are planning on talking about this book (“a raucous road trip in which two mismatched private investigators—the Hyena, a mysterious and ruthless vigilante, and Lucie, an apathetic and resentful slacker—cruise the streets of Paris and Barcelona in search of a missing girl”) on the Three Percent podcast. The plan is to talk about this on May 12th, so if you want to join in and read along, get a copy of this now, and send any and all questions and comments to threepercentpodcast@gmail.com.

Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (Deep Vellum); The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol, translated from the Spanish by George Henson (Deep Vellum)

These two books perfectly represent the importance of Will Evans and Deep Vellum.

Although Anne Garréta has been writing for decades (Sphinx was originally published in France in 1986), and although everyone loves the Oulipo, this is the first book by the first female member of the Oulipo to be published in English translation. It’s a book in which . . . Actually, following the lead taken by Daniel Levin Becker in his introduction, I’m not going to point out the Oulipian constraint. It’s better for you to read the book and figure it out . . .

Sergio Pitol is another author who has been completely overlooked. He’s written a dozen or so works, including the “Trilogy of Memory,” of which, this is the first volume. He won the Cervantes Prize in 2005, and in the words of Álvaro Enrigue, Pitol is “not just our best living storyteller, he is also the strongest renovator of our literature.” Yet the only thing of his to appear in English is “By Night in Bukhara,” which is included in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn. It’s time that Pitol has his moment.

With this start—Boullosa, Garréta, Pitol, Gnarr, and Shishkin—Deep Vellum is both making a statement and filling in some gaps for those of us obsessed with world literature. It’s only a matter of time before Deep Vellum is as well regarded and beloved as the Archipelagos and Dalkeys of the world.

Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse, both by Per Petterson, both translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Graywolf)

Speaking of presses that are held in extremely high regard, the transformation of Graywolf from plucky Minneapolis-based nonprofit into publishing power house has been incredible to watch. Just think for a second about how they had four finalists for various National Book Critics Circle Awards this year, including three in the Criticism category. That’s the same number that FSG had, and one more than W.W. Norton. And I think that part of it stems from the success of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses.

That book—along with The Elegance of the Hedgehog_—was the first literary translation to hit the _NY Times best-seller list in ages. It was a huge boon for Graywolf and brought a lot of attention from people who may not otherwise have been paying attention. With that success they started getting “bigger” authors, more reviews, more critical attention, more sales (I suspect), and have become one of the most respected and admired presses in the country.

Just to drive this point home, I got all excited the other day when the Open Letter Twitter account hit 10,000 followers. Just for shits and giggles, I checked out some other presses to see where we stand in comparison. We’re basically the same as Dalkey Archive, but Coffee House (another Minneapolis press taking over the world) has 37,300 and Graywolf has 235,000. 235,000 followers! That’s incredible!

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (AmazonCrossing)

This may well be the best literary book that AmazonCrossing has published to date. Bae Suah is about to become the favorite writer of every member of the “literati.” She is like a female version of Sebald, but with more emotion, a sharper writing style, and a storehouse of incredible works that will be coming out over the next few years. And she’s going to blow people’s minds.

I reviewed this book for the forthcoming issue of list: Books from Korea, and will post about that when it goes live. In short, this 60-page novel (that is a packed with as much detail and character development as most 300-page books) blends the mundane and the strange in the most evocative manner, focusing on a young woman who works a boring administrative university job, has an awkward experience trying to visit her “boyfriend” in the army, receives a couple strange calls from a lecturer on criminal sociology, and gets involved in some S&M tinged sex games.

I can’t recommend Bae Suah highly enough, and by the time her fourth and fifth books come out, everyone’s going to be talking about her as one of the great women writers of our century. Get on the bandwagon now.

A26 by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Melanie Florence (Gallic Books)

At some point this summer, I’m going to go on a Ganier and Simenon bender. Thanks to Gallic and Penguin, there are a number of titles available from both authors—all of which are quick, dark, noirish reads that would be perfect for a day at the beach. (The beach is on my mind, since it’s actually 60+ degrees here today, making it the first Rochester day above freezing since last August. Approximately.)

To be honest, I’m sort of surprised that Garnier isn’t one of Tom Roberge’s authors. (I’m not sure he’s actually read Garnier yet.) This sort of book—featuring a ramshackle house that Yolanda hasn’t left since 1945, and where her brother, dying of a terminal illness, turns “murderous”—sounds right up his alley. Maybe this could be another Three Percent Podcast Book Club book? Goes in line with the Manchette from last month . . .

The Queen’s Caprice by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)

Echenoz is such an interesting writer for the way that he’s evolved over the course of his career. The early books—_Cherokee_, Chopin’s Move, Big Blondes, _Double Jeopary_—are fun works of French noir. Or “noir.” In these novels he toys with the genre in entertaining ways, creating a great blend of “mystery” and humor.

Then there’s the “Eccentric Genius Suite,” which includes Running, Ravel, and Lightning and is a set of fictional biographies of strange dudes, like Tesla and Ravel. It’s wonderful, and a few steps removed from the early stuff.

And now, after being published for decades, we’re finally treated to a collection of Echenoz’s short fictions, which are set all over the world, and explore a number of different literary styles and modes.

Coincidentally, my class talked with Mark Polizzotti the other week, and he mentioned a new Echenoz book that’s sort of a return to the humorous-noir of old. Can’t wait to read that one as well!

Life Embitters by Josep Pla, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (Archipelago)

I know that most people are excited about the four volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle that Archipelago is bringing out this month, but the last thing the world needs now is another list of books suggesting you read his magnum opus. (Although, as best I can gather from this New Yorker article, Knausgaard or Ferrante? if you’re not knee-deep in Karl Ove’s issues, you’re engrossed in Ferrante’s Neapolitan literary soap opera.)

Pla is definitely worth checking out though. He’s one of Catalonia’s greatest authors, mostly known for The Gray Notebook, which NYRB brought out last year. This collection of stories is his first work of pure fiction to be available in English.

The Buddha’s Return by Gaito Gazdanov, translated from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk (Pushkin Press)

What I know about Gazdanov, and why I’m including this book here, can be summarized in this anecdote: When I was in Estonia last summer, Sjón was there as well, along with Gesche Ipsen from Pushkin. Sjón had just read Gazdanov’s first book, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and was raving about how strange and wonderful it was and how he wanted more Gazdanov books to come out. Well, here we go.

Fairy Tales by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Daniele Pantano and James Reidel (New Directions)

There’s no way to improve on ND’s jacket copy, so, this:

Fairy Tales gathers the unconventional verse dramolettes by the Swiss writer Robert Walser. Narrated in Walser’s inimitable, playful language, these theatrical pieces overturn traditional notions of the fairy tale, transforming the Brothers Grimm into metatheater, even metareflections.

Snow White forgives the evil queen for trying to kill her. Cinderella doubts her prince and enjoys being hated by her stepsisters; The Fairy Tale itself is a character who encourages her to stay within the confines of the story. Sleeping Beauty, the royal family, and its retainers are not happy about being woken up their sleep by an absurd, unpretentious Walser-like hero. Mary and Joseph are taken aback by what lies in store for their baby Jesus.

The Odyssey
The Odyssey by Homer
Reviewed by Peter Constantine

Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.

–(The Odyssey, Book I, line 10. Emily Wilson)

In literary translation of works from other eras, there are always two basic tasks that a translator needs. . .

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I Remember Nightfall
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

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Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

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Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

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The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

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Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

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The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

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