Zweig was obsessed with the impossibility of attaining any distance on catastrophe in an age of enveloping mass media. He saw the inability to escape word of fresh disaster wherever and whenever it was happening—a phenomenon he labeled the “organization of simultaneity”— degrading humanity’s capacity to respond to suffering. “People speak so lightly of bombardments,” he wrote in one of his final letters, “But when I read of houses collapsing I collapse with them.” Zweig’s defeat in exile was due, also, to an inability even briefly to sustain the psychic quarantine he sporadically craved.
David Shields, novelist, non-fiction writer, editor, verbal collagist, has published a book called Reality Hunger, which he calls (while impugning the notion of genre) “a manifesto.” Shields the novelist has lost his mode d’emploi, and his loss could become our loss because Shields the collagist would remove from use the very wherewithal of the novel’s existence, if he can. But his loss also becomes our gain.
More than most contemporary poets, Kay Ryan listens to words as seasoned concertgoers listen to Mozart. Who before her noticed the best in bestiary? Maybe Ogden Nash. Or maybe one of her poetic forebears, Marianne Moore.
“I go, we go,” Helene Cixous wrote when asked to describe her work. “On the way we keep a log-book, the book of the abyss and the shores. Everyone does. My books are thus like life and history, heterogenous chapters in a single vast book whose ending I will never know. The differences in the genres of the books I write reproduces the eventful aspects of a life in our century. A woman’s life into the bargain. To briefly indicate my directions: in my fictional texts I work in a poetic form and in philosophical contents on the mysteries of subjectivity.”
“Lizard à la Heart” is the opening story in Roberto Ransom’s short story collection Desaparecidos, animales y artistas (Conaculta, 1999), which I’ve translated as “Missing Persons, Animals and Artists.” Ransom is an award-winning Mexican writer whose published work includes novels, short-story collections, poetry, essays as well as children’s literature. The stories in “Missing Persons, Animals and Artists” possess great humanity—in their exploration of character, emotional depth, and universal themes—and deliver an impact akin to Cortázar and Poe. Told in a clean, elegant prose style, they make use of irony and premises that are whimsical, and at times fantastical; their protagonists are elusive animals and artists or other individuals. In the story that follows, for example, the narrator speaks to her pet, a lonely crocodile she keeps locked in her bathroom, imagining it swimming in the tub. Thus begins Ransom’s mysterious and existential tale.
How does any contemporary poet—even one who chooses to take issue with Bloom’s linear history of decline, one who refuses the overwrought, even silly, drama of struggle Bloom revels in—manage to acknowledge and engage with the long shadow of the past without being overwhelmed by it? How write poetry after, well, all that poetry?
Every now and then a work of general interest on literature, written for a non-specialized audience but filled with citations, comes along that, due to its brashness, perspective, or style re-opens arguments considered settled, inviting us to look anew at this or that subject. In extreme cases it can even encourage us to toss out what we’ve been taught. Steven Moore’s The Novel: an alternative history is such a book.
Coetzee’s interests are entirely different than those of metafictionists like Thomas Pynchon or John Barth. When he upends literary conventions, the point is never merely to satirize or to reveal the limitations of the genres. Nor is he a stylistic iconoclast purely for iconoclasm’s sake. Coetzee employs the toolkit of a contemporary metafictional ironist in order to lucidly and mercilessly point out the moral and intellectual shortcomings of his characters and of the societies in which they live.
Jane Ormerod’s work demands to be listened to out loud. One of the blurbs for the book is from Paul Baker, a radio programmer, who describes the work via his auditory experience: “To listen to Jane read is to see a dance of images, some pleasing, some disturbing.” Another blurb bypasses the book at hand and relates, instead, to the performance of reading aloud: “I first saw Jane Ormerod perform in Vancouver, B.C. when we began our Perpetual Motion Roadshow tour, and what a trip it was! The second Jane started doing her thing, I got it . . . “
The stories collected in The King of Trees are all concerned with the zhiqing who have been sent down to a remote corner of Yunnan province. Ah Cheng himself spent much of the Cultural Revolution doing farm work in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, and this border area is clearly the inspiration and basis for the setting of these three tales. All of the stories were written in the mid-1980s, when memories of the Cultural Revolution were still very fresh. Reading these stories a quarter-century later, I was struck by their subtlety and attention to detail—Ah Cheng captures the rudimentary living conditions experienced by the students and their peasant hosts, while also pointing to the cultural gap between urban youth and their rural countrymen. Without being didactic, Ah Cheng highlights the naivety and cultural insensitivity of his urban protagonists.
When a reader of Jameson is informed that Pietro Grossi, Italian author of the manly-entitled Fists, is “a great admirer of Hemingway and J. D. Salinger,” his ears instantly prick up. That this information makes it into the author’s blurb suggests (besides being a ploy by the publishers to target a suitable literary public) that the influence of these writers on Grossi will be significant. The question is: what can Hemingway and Salinger offer a young writer today? Judging from the quality of Fists, a superb collection of three short stories, quite a lot. But they also bring problems.
Enacting a stubborn refusal to decide into adulthood, Juvenilia revels in its own otherness. Non-aggressive contention is its keynote. If the adult is someone who goes deep into memory and archives to find his youth and its puerile output, Chen’s response is to reject the adult’s authoritative binary system (then/now). He prefers a voice that is simply present.
Long-translated into French, Ogawa is quite well known in the French-speaking world and owes much to the work of Marguerite Duras, not only in terms of theme (young girl fascinated by the force of a sexual relationship with an older man) but also in terms of style (which Snyder aptly captures). Hotel Iris, like much of Duras’ writing, contains violence and oppression, and power resides at its center, as does a female protagonist who finds freedom through sexuality.
The man on the cover of A Life on Paper is Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, not his double Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Châteaureynaud—who has written nine novels and scores of stories in French, won major literary prizes, and been translated into a dozen other languages—now comes to English-language readers for the first time thanks to translator Edward Gauvin and Small Beer Press. A Life on Paper selects twenty-two of his stories, ranging from the early ’70s to recent years, and I hope it represents just a first installment.
Much like Running Away, a previous Toussaint title from Dalkey Archive, Self-Portrait Abroad is narrated by a writer reflecting on his travels through Europe and Asia. Although the book is billed as “a novel” and weighs in at a slim 84 pages, fans of Toussaint’s work will find much of the visceral description, humor, and philosophical undertone that has built the author’s reputation as a contemporary literary force.
Poetry is not alone in the arts in its struggle to build from and move beyond the quotidian, but it is perhaps the genre in which a failure to do so can be most immediately glaring—by way of its concision and its reputation. Carr rises to the challenge and creates poems that are at once intimate but not so much so that they are closed off to the reader, leaving no space for the reader’s imagination to inhabit.
A well-known figure on the French literary scene, Linda Lê has had very little exposure to readers in the United States. A new translation of her 1997 novel The Three Fates may begin to change that situation. The novel is the first of three that Lê wrote following the death of her Vietnamese father, and like many of her works, it portrays individuals grappling with emotion and trauma in the aftermath of immigration from Vietnam.
In some ways, Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park is exactly what one might expect from a debut novel whose narrator and heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl. The book is fast-paced, engaging, and not exactly challenging in terms of form or style. What makes the book worth reading, however, is the fact that the story is a unique one, and one which is told with great simplicity, straightforwardness, and ease. Sascha Naimann is a flawed yet very lovable heroine, and it is very difficult not to be drawn in by her voice and story.
Even though allegory continues to have contemporary application, a definition of allegory is elusive. This is recognized by Rita Copeland and Peter T. Struck who have put together a companion to this slippery concept.
I write whenever I can—during vacations or Saturday mornings, hours I rob in between teaching or being with my family, for stretches early in the morning or late at night, concentrated dives that last three weeks of twelve to fourteen writing hours a day—but I do dare say that had I chosen to continue writing in English, I think I’d be living from my writing by now.
I first met Roberto Bolaño through Andersen Tepper in The Village Voice. It was back in 2006, I was in Tehran, and Bolaño, who was by then already dead and a ghost, was standing on the page with two other authors from Latin America, Martinez and Galeano. The meeting so excited me that I had a friend who was traveling to Tehran buy me their books and bring them to me, because as you might or might not know, in Iran there are no bookstores selling books of literature in foreign languages, and you can’t go online on Amazon because either you don’t have a credit card, or if you have one, sanctions and regulations might prevent you from using it in the country of the Axis of Evil, and there are still others: the books cannot be sent to an address in Iran, and even if they could, there would be no guarantee that they would survive the Iranian postal service inspections or irregularities and reach you.
Fifteen years after her death in a Westwood, Los Angeles apartment, Eileen Chang’s shadow continues to loom large in the Chinese world. Sheaves of semi-complete and incomplete manuscripts were amongst her belongings and this resulted in a flurry of posthumous publication. Even some cursory searching of the Internet finds literally hundreds of websites dedicated to Chang’s stories and essays, her life, and her legacy. Without a doubt, Chang’s name and reputation is firmly established in the Chinese-speaking world. Though she is read widely from Beijing to Singapore, Chang should be read in the West.
In the post-war years, many European authors, especially those from Communist states, engaged in surrealism, parable, and allegory as a way of containing the mid-century chaos that spilled over from the war, where the psychology and rationality of modernism no longer seemed capable of fighting the irrationality of Nazism and Communism. It is László Krasznahorkai who has, to my knowledge, engaged in the deepest investigation of how these metaphorical understandings are formed, how they succeed, and, most importantly, how they fail.
For a work of such high literary value, Grande sertão: veredas is, regrettably, widely unavailable in English translation; the editions from Knopf are both difficult to find and expensive. Contemporary artists whose work might bear comparison to the combination of ante modern or rural human violence, power, and philosophical discourse used by Rosa within the novel might include Glauber Rocha; Akira Kurosawa, especially in films such as Ran; Kagemusha; Throne of Blood; and Seven Samurai; as well as an author Kurosawa adapted to the screen, Ryūnosake Akutagawa; but the landscape of Rosa’s novel seems to share more with the Old Testament, Homer, Herodotus, the Gospels, Dante, Poe, Conrad, and Kipling, than it does with contemporary literature.
El dorado (2008), Juan-Cantavella’s breakthrough novel, turns its attention to the conflicts and issues of Spain today. Juan-Cantavella begins in Marina D’Or, one of the huge, bunker-like mass tourist traps built on the Spanish coast over the last decades. Halfway between A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (things are not helped by the protagonist’s deviant ways . . .), the book’s blistering opening sets the tone for what follows. Fearing for his life, our hero flees to Valencia, where the Pope is about to celebrate the World Families Meeting. There, with the help of Brona, his faithful sidekick, he intends to find the mythical Eldorado. Obviously, things are about to go awry . . .
Alberto Manguel’s new book, A Reader on Reading, is actually a collection of older works—lectures, newspaper pieces, the occasional New York Review of Books essay—gathered here under the twin assumptions that a) most readers won’t have seen all of this stuff in its original appearance, and b) more books by Manguel are better than fewer books by Manguel. Both these assumptions are a bit grudgingly true.
The problem with Nabokov’s novels is that they are all so carefully wrought as Pale Fire, with little (sometimes ridiculously tiny) hints and tip-offs pointing a reader toward a “solution,” that they seduce critics into trying to solve them rather than creatively read them. Obviously the cataloging of Nabokov’s clues and tip-offs has some place in the criticism of his writing—it is perhaps a necessary first step—but a good critic must go beyond simply following Nabokov’s trail of bread crumbs, instead forging her own path through these works, otherwise she runs the risk of merely acting as Nabokov’s factotum. This is a risk Michael Maar frequently succumbs to in his Speak, Nabokov, a little book with some charms but one that remains on the whole unsatisfying.
Ernst Weiss, born in 1882 in Brno (now the Czech Republic), was a contemporary (and close friend) of Kafka. A medical doctor by training, Weiss published his novel Georg Letham in 1931, exploring the space in the vast chasm between scientific reason and human emotion. Letham is a man of science, a detached, intelligent, and controlled man of his time. Or so he’d like us to think. We are told early on of his crimes and his attempt at understanding his rationale so that he might justify his actions. Yet he is cruel and cold. He is disconnected from human life in any emotional way.
Like other fiction by Couto, this one takes place in a dreamlike land that is and is not Mozambique. The tiny country in which the book is set consists of an island named Luar-do-Chão (Moonlight on the Ground) and a city on the mainland. Couto writes well, and his unnamed country is sometimes reminiscent of the Macondo of Gabriel Garcia Marquez—especially as described in Garcia Marquez’ short stories. The narrative has a kind of dream logic, in which everyday occurrences take on symbolic weight and maids and gravediggers make weighty pronouncements.
Last year when I read Light Boxes it had just been published by Publishing Genius Press, a small independent press in Baltimore, and I knew I was reading an extraordinary book. Only a few months later the book was optioned for film by Spike Jonze (whose film Where the Wild Things Are is similar to Light Boxes in many ways) and then got picked up by Penguin. That the book has caught the attention of so many people is hardly a surprise.
Hassan Blasim’s debut short story collection, The Madman of Freedom Square, directs the reader’s gaze toward the violence of recent Iraqi experience: neighbors turning in neighbors, street cleaners collecting body parts, refugees in flight. But it also points toward itself, and the more violent and troubling aspects of its storytelling. The book, which made The Independent’s longlist for best foreign fiction, has yet to appear in Arabic. The stories were solicited by Comma Press, written in Arabic, and translated straightaway by Jonathan Wright. It is thus perhaps not surprising that Blasim’s characters have fraught relationships with the stories they’re telling—and the audience for whom they’re telling them.
Running by Jean Echenoz is more a trial in fugue writing than a paean to athletics or the actual man this novel is based upon. This is an aberration as the novella has all the ingredients ready for bombast and loud story telling. It starts with the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet emancipation and subsequent annexation of the Czechs. At the end it has a dash of cold war espionage and duplicity.
Carson’s latest work begins with an invocation of sorts, a call to a muse. Her Beatrice (and Virgil) is Catullus, and the Roman’s poem 101 in particular. It is this poem of Catullus’s that Carson struggled to translate even before her brother’s death, and it is this poem that acts as the absent center (and provisional beginning, since it is the first text we see in the book albeit in Latin) for the entirety of Nox itself.
A comedy, Blonde Roots emphasizes the fact that its characters are living out a tragedy, and in this respect it performs quite well. The novel tells the story of Doris Scagglethorpe (rechristened “Omorenomwara” by her African slavemasters), an enslaved, white European, “house wigger” who attempts to escape from bondage only to become captured again. Yet rather than highlight the disturbing or tragic aspects of this scenario, Evaristo plays it mostly for laughs.
Twentieth-century modernists asked whether the fragmented modern self could ever achieve an enlightened perspective on external things. Ron Slate’s new collection, The Great Wave, demonstrates that, in the face of those worries, he can create psychologically complex and well-crafted poetry that also addresses the realm of objects now increasingly virtualized by technologies of communication. Indeed, one of Slate’s themes throughout The Great Wave is how to contend with systems we depend upon for personal stability that are nonetheless generally illusory and, actually, as unstable as we are.
The name Charles Bernstein is synonymous with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, Bernstein having founded that magazine with Bruce Andrews in 1978. He published his first book, Asylum, in 1975, following which he went on to publish several more even as he launched a pedagogical career that has landed him in the Donald T. Regan Chair in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania. This book is long overdue. For a poet of the stature of Bernstein to have to wait over thirty years for a selected volume to be released demonstrates the dismal straits into which poetry has fallen.
Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in the Moroccan city of Fez in 1944, but has lived since 1971 in France. One of the most accomplished writers of North Africa, his highly acclaimed novels include The Sacred Night, The Sand Child, and Leaving Tangier. He has also written short, lucid works of nonfiction such as Islam Explained and Racism Explained to My Daughter. The Rising of the Ashes is the first volume of his poetry to appear in English.
For readers uneasy with literary criticism, fearing they squander finite reading time when not attending to the objects of criticism (fiction, essays, poetry) but instead their parasitic offspring, allow me to ease the anxiety by suggesting they read the work of Christopher Ricks. His almost half-century of books dedicated to figures as various as T. S. Eliot and Bob Dylan constitute literary criticism in both senses—that is, their subjects are literary and they are literary, attuned equitably to language, thought and posterity. Ricks belongs to that elite coterie of critics (Johnson, Coleridge, Eliot, Kenner) whose work is worthy, like all works of literature, of criticism.
Every time I get a new book I read a couple of lines or sentences at random just to get a sense of what I’ll be getting myself into when I find time to sit down and read the work in full. When I did this with Look Back, Look Ahead, Ugly Duckling Press’ recent collection of the work of Slovenian poet Srečko Kosovel I was concerned not necessarily that I’d have to dole out a dismal review, but that I was in for a tedious read. Collections like Look Back, Look Ahead seem almost designed to shut the mouths of poets like me who tend to quit reading shortly after the first mention of a “rose” or “pines.”
As this is ostensibly the first book of critical writing on Eritrean poetry, one can see why writer, translator, and professor Charles Cantalupo cast his net wide. It is his hope, and mine, that now that the dam has been broken more translations of Eritrean poetry will be forthcoming and, therefore, more critical work on the subject as well.
In Herta Müller’s short novel The Passport we move through a series of vignettes filled with thickets of opaque and mystifying images. A story begins to emerge. A man is trying to get a passport which will allow his family to return home to West Germany. He is a member of an isolated and oppressed community of East German Romanians living under a stifling communist dictatorship. Living behind the Berlin Wall they are stranded and mostly unseen by the Western world, victims of Stalin’s takeover after Germany fell to the Soviet Union in 1945.
The Girl with the Golden Parasol follows Rahul, a non-Brahmin, who finagles his way as a student into the department of Hindi: one of the most corrupt in the university, and a “den of Brahminism.” He does so after falling utterly for Anjali, a Brahmin girl, who, through simple bad luck, could find a home in no other department. The narrative chronicles exactly how the powers-that-still-be in India have harnessed globalization to further consolidate power over language and culture at the most local of levels. It’s also a love story, and a tale of students protesting the corruption of the Indian university system.
Petterson, whose work calls to mind the reserved nature of such “masculine” writers as Knut Hamson and Richard Yates, makes a more difficult target than present-day male writers exploring the masculine question through worlds of hyper-violence and hyper-reality. They are the men at the bar talking a good fight, while Petterson is the guy in the corner.
To call Carmen Boullosa a “woman writer”—and one of Mexico’s best known—seems like a fair description. Off the page, Boullosa is a committed activist for women’s issues, particularly reproductive rights. As a writer, she is committed to depicting what she calls the “universe of the feminine.” Her books are patently female, although not topically speaking—romantic plotlines, if included, are always injected with irony. Boullosa writes with thick, lurid prose about women’s bodies. Her books include scenes of mass menstruation and lesbian orgies, written with an unabashed attention to detail. Her prose—which has been well preserved by her translators, Leland Chambers and Geoff Hargreaves—is swollen with sensuality.
Shelley Jackson has had a multifaceted career that has taken her along the intersections of print and electronic literature, the avant-garde, and into new experimental forms of publishing. She’s influenced an entire generation of electronic writers who continue to dissect and reinvent previous assumptions about the Web, print, and beyond.
If Falling Man is about the 9/11 attacks themselves, Point Omega is about the military and—more important—deep existential responses, and those responses are nothing if not unremittingly bleak for the individual and the species.
Jonke’s writing isn’t difficult, though his sentences can stretch on into multi-page masterpieces, and he’s a fan of word games and surreal imagery. But beneath these formal surfaces and experimental style (some have called Jonke a “text composer”), these stories are frequently tender and funny; for all the book’s curiosities and through-the-looking-glass moments, System proves Jonke was that rare thing: a huge, rebellious talent with tremendous heart.
Rex‘s narrative structure—consisting of twelve “commentaries” written some time after the events have occurred, and addressed to J.’s former student Petya—offers an initial clue that it is not a straightforward novel. As becomes evident, J. is not really concerned with relating what has happened. Rather, he seizes upon the events as a series of “teaching moments,” ostensibly to instruct Petya, but, one suspects, really intended as a way for J. to come to terms with the trajectory his life has taken.
In his now posthumously released (and presumably final) novel, The Abyss of Human Illusion, Sorrentino again offers a relatively brief work (150 pages) built out of narrative fragments. As Christopher Sorrentino points out in his introductory note, the most obvious features of the novel’s formal structure are its division into fifty numbered sections.
William Gaddis, “The Last of Something”: Critical Essays is an enjoyable and essential book for Gaddis scholars, and those interested in subjects Gaddis and other writers share. It’s good to see such diverse spirits jostling with each other, and the editors deserve credit for allowing disputations to be put in the open.
Evenson’s story collection has characters who try to dissociate themselves from their beginnings (or who have their beginnings redefined by others), who consciously neglect previous happenings and logical prognostications to believe what they want to believe to make the best of their situation at hand. They look at their past as a constellation, trying to fit the events in order so that it makes the now more palatable. It’s an unrealistic notion, but it’s one that is aptly accentuated by the gothic and grotesque nature of these stories.
In grappling with Peter Bush’s recent re-translation of Juan Goytisolo’s 1974 novel Juan the Landless, I kept wondering why we read at all. Goytisolo’s book is notoriously challenging: there’s no real punctuation save frequent colons, and the book is full of shifting protagonists and pronouns and constant pressure on the language, as though Goytisolo aims to make the text itself implode. So why do we read, and what can be said about a book seemingly created to subvert the entire act of reading?
What if your country was in a midst of a purge of all private wealth, yet all you longed to do was to get your hands on a million rubles and run off to Rio de Janeiro? Well, if you were affable and clever Ostap Bender, the hero of The Golden Calf, you would scheme your way into a fortune.
When it comes to the elusive concept of authorship, there’s no shortage of reference points. From Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence to Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence,” the definition of authorship is both a polarizing and fascinating topic. In his debut novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason takes this debate a step further by conjuring a set of interpretations to a story whose authorship has sparked many academic studies: Homer’s Odyssey.
In The Man in the Wooden Hat, Hong Kong is a sleepy city in the process of coming into its own. Grand new towers rise above streets packed with peasants pulling handcarts, and “street music play[s] against the racket of the mahjong players on every open balcony.” As in Wong Kar Wai’s film In the Mood for Love, Gardam’s Hong Kong attains a sensual, slightly seamy elegance, and it is rife with both repressed erotic tension and opportunities for adventurous indulgence.
The novel began in just such a way as the “epistolary novel,” and Joey Comeau’s newest novel—if we dare call it that—returns us to that form, except here the letters are cover letters, the kind you send when applying for a job.
The Cry of the Sloth Sam Savage. Coffee House Press. $14.95, 224 pp. “He paced to and fro, sometimes wringing his hands in agony, and often making his own woe a theme of scornful merriment.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Christmas Banquet In Sam Savage’s The Cry of the Sloth we are stuck with Andrew Whittaker, literary [...]
It was only on my second reading of Zachary Schomburg’s wonderfully strange Scary, No Scary that I realized that the distinct voice of his poems, whose provenance had been eluding me even as it felt deeply familiar, was that childhood storytelling voice. It’s more the voice of a grade-schooler than a three-year-old, but it carries that same sense of urgency, married to a simultaneous awe of and flexibility with language, natural for a child, that adults have to struggle to attain.
The elusiveness of it (along with the hovering-ness of balconies, the kinesis of molecules in general and hockey in specific, and the missing of letters, of interpretation, of other human beings that one is in love with) is the subject of Sawako Nakayasu’s latest collection, Hurry Home Honey: Love Poems 1994–2004. It, for the author, is ungraspable, and so she writes from the slant of time, some past or future she anchors to in order to slip close enough to the elusive moment of which she is always having “been given.”
“Seeing is merciful,” writes Jared Stanley in the second poem in Book Made of Forest. But Stanley often seems at the mercy of his own vision; his eyes are restless, and it is this constant re-shifting of focus, bordering on ecstatic anxiety, that gives the book the inertia that keeps it in motion .”I only run,” Stanley writes, “to look back over my shoulder.”
Jamie Iredell’s first full book of poems, Prose. Poems. a novel., dares its reader to consider the book as a simple drug-and-alcohol-fueled rampage while moving towards manhood. Although drinking and taking drugs form an inextricable thread through the poems, the narrative thrust of the poems as a group—the “novel” part of the title—take the poems far beyond.
I looked up—there was Jonke at the bus stop. And he got on the bus. And I thought, “OK, he’s going to sit next to me.” I know it. And he did. He sat right next to me. And it wasn’t a very crowded bus. And I thought, “OK, you’re never supposed to talk to strangers in Europe—I’m doing it.” So I just said, “You’re Herr Jonke, I believe?” And he said, “Yes, why?” And I said, “Well, I’m writing a scholarly article on you.” He said, “You have to be from Great Britain because nobody from the United States knows who I am.”
The game’s not worth a candle in 99.9% of all novels. Part of it me is like I’m lacking this crucial DNA called “The Plot Gene.” When we cavemen sit around and listen to how caveman number two killed the wild boar . . . I’m bored. I don’t have a narrative gene. I want story to be completely wedded to idea.
“No U.S. publishing house has brought out a single living Hindi novelist in translation in more than a generation.” Hindi translator Jason Grunebaum discusses the state of Hindi writing, language, and publishing—and what American readers are missing out on.
It is hardly necessary that we remind our American readers that for the free world’s great, lone, staggering superpower these are dark times. For those fortunate enough to sit unscathed above what we are now provisionally terming the “Great Recession,” there is much else to cause distress: an obstructionist, rump Republican party that daily marches ever farther into the terrain of nuttery and extremism; an ever-expanding national debt—cousin to that which the British and Spanish empires ran prior to their collapse—that forces other nations to finance the continuing operation of this one out of their own fear that America is, to steal a phrase, too big to fail; overseas wars in disarray; a good sixth of the nation that lacks medical insurance; numerous states on the verge of bankruptcy; mass unemployment. . . . Not to put too fine a point on it, but we feel that it requires a determined, and perhaps pharmaceutically enhanced optimism not to think that the long-predicted decline of the American behemoth is well underway.
We’ve talked to some of the top translators into English working today; we’ve talked to publishers big and small; we’ve talked to agents, journalists, and foreign-language authors. We’ve asked them all for the best books that still aren’t in English. And have they responded. They’ve told us TRANSLATE THIS BOOK!, and now we pass that on to you.
Mahmoud Darwish was a poet essential to Palestinian concepts of identity an nationhood. Here, George Fragopoulos looks at four recently published book by the prolific writer, tracing an outline of the map Darwish left for his readers to follow.
Why does Pynchon keep coming back to California? His latest novel, Inherent Vice, is his third novel set in the state. Here, Donald Brown ponders what Pynchon has found in California . . . and what it has to do with film.
Throughout his career, Coetzee has relentlessly highlighted the instability of words and stories, perhaps never so much as in his novels after the Nobel prize. Here, Matt Cheney shows how his three autobiographical works belie an attempt to pin down who “JM Coetzee” is.
Blog, farce, open letters, or all? Austrian-Polish author Stanislaw Borokowski has been writing a blog to the Soviet Union’s final General Secretary, touching on everything from glasnost to the former world leader’s romantic songs.
The AskSam Lipsyte. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.00, 304pp. Sam Lipsyte’s newest novel, The Ask, is another unrelenting tour de force of black bile. Set after 9/11, it follows the hapless meanderings of one Milo Burke, a failed middle-aged painter now working in development at a university in New York City, referred to only as [...]
The TannersRobert Walser (trans. Susan Bernofsky). New Directions. 360pp, $15.95. I. It is the mark of a novel’s necessity when it hangs so strongly together, feels so absolutely essential in every last, smallest chunk, despite the fact that it offers the reader very little of what is generally construed as novelistic. In Search of Lost [...]
The central joke, it must be said first, gets old in a hurry. The protagonist of Percival Everett’s newest novel is in fact named Not Sidney, and coincidentally his mother’s last name is Poitier. And by pure chance, the guy happens to look exactly like the star of In the Heat of the Night. So the boy inherits not only a lifetime of Abbott & Costello-worthy introductions (“My name is Not Sidney.” “Then what is it?”) but also quite a bit of racial and cultural baggage. He nevertheless narrates the novel with a sort of charming emotional remove, which helps to reign in the frequently cartoonish novelistic inventions around him; Everett mocks celebrities, white people, black people, southerners, novelists, educators, even himself, so it helps to have a steady voice holding it all together.
My German mother had the misfortune to be an adolescent in a village south of Frankfurt during World War II. When the boundary between East and West Germany was drawn, her village lost its train station and she lost half of her extended family; they had become East German by virtue of geography, not personal politics. My father would chime in about how the Berlin Wall separated East and West Berlin and how after World War II the city and country had been divided up like a pie—with the United States and the Soviets getting the biggest slices. In my child’s mind, I took that wall in Berlin and extended it down through the whole country, even going so far as to picture the farmhouse where my mother lived as a child as backing up against a cement wall. As I grew older, I extended that wall in my mind to join up with an Iron Curtain that locked out the even larger landmass of Eastern Europe and Russia. Perhaps these are the reasons why I leapt at the chance to read The Wall in My Head, a new anthology of writing and images from the Eastern Bloc.
Nerval is remembered as a minor literary figure, an eccentric who walked his pet lobster on a ribbon in the Palais Royal, gabbled his poetry in doorways, read at night with a candlestick on his head, and slept in coaches with his head in a noose, habits that endeared him to aesthetes and literary anecdotalists.
The Witness, Juan José Saer (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). Serpent’s Tail. 168pp, $14.95. When it comes to Latin American fiction, U.S. readers seem to have imposed their own ideas on what counts as ambition. There is the sprawling variety, of which our most familiar examples are Bolaño’s behemoths 2666 (912 pages) and The Savage Detectives [...]
The International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the so-called “Arabic Booker,” did not send the reading public into Nobel-like shock when it awarded its inaugural prize in 2008. The first IPAF went, perhaps predictably, to one of the reigning giants of Arab literature. It was awarded to Egypt’s Bahaa Taher for his novel Sunset Oasis, which has just been published in English.
Nog, Rudolph Wurlitzer. Two Dollar Radio. 168pp, $15.50. Although Nog has never been entirely forgotten since its first publication in 1968, it has never fully emerged from cult-classic status; as Erik Davis observes in the introduction to the recent Two Dollar Radio edition, it has been “attracting passionate fans over forty years of slipping in [...]
One of the most unfortunate and tragic legacies that the 20th century has left us is certainly the development and popularity of (what I will call here) “gulag literature.” Most famously, Solzhenitsyn did his significant part in challenging the Soviet system in the ’60s by writing about his personal experience in a gulag. Though his was hardly the first tale to take place in a camp for political prisoners, his was the first hint at popular revolt against the secret Soviet system that seemingly stood for all we (the West, as it were) stood against. Thanks to Solzhenitsyn and others, the term gulag itself has come to be shorthand for a bureaucratic mistake which leads someone to be locked up unjustly, the notion itself seems a 20th century invention. Though gulag literature is confined mainly to those writers who were imprisoned in the Soviet-era gulag system, the larger corpus of this type of writing might include general stories of exile, Holocaust camp writing, and survival stories of those kidnapped and disappeared in other bloc countries, as well as tales from Argentina and other Latin American countries in the 1970s and 1980s. This kind of literature reflects the experience (and fears) of countless millions during that violent and painfully bitter century.
Every once in a while you stumble upon text within a novel that utterly describes the experience you’ve had while reading that novel. Such is the case with this quote from Mati Unt’s recently translated novel Brecht at Night. Actually, “novel” is too narrow a term to define this work. Unt dances along the edge of biography and history, using fiction to fill in the gaps and to give the work its form. If while reading this book you are overtaken by the urge to check Wikipedia or search for biographies on Brecht at your local bookstore, don’t. Mingling humor and pathos, Unt’s recreation of Brecht is more vivid, more alive than you’ll find in any of those sources. And, more importantly, surrendering the tenuous thread that divides fact from fiction is what immersing yourself in this work is all about.
Season of Ash, Jorge Volpi (trans. Alfred MacAdam). Open Letter. 464pp, $15.95. Season of Ash, by the Mexican author Jorge Volpi, perhaps the best known member of the anti-Boom Crack Group, is truly an emphatic break from magical realism, the Boom, and the themes of Mexicanness that have filled the work of authors like Carlos [...]
Rachel Loden’s Dick of the Dead opens with its strongest poem, a decision that, while understandable, is always risky. “Miss October” sets the stage for the bricolage of twentieth-century detritus (its ephemerality leavened by a healthy helping of myth and fable) that follows, but it also sets a very high bar, its insistently rhythmic, short-lined quatrains managing a feat I would have thought impossible: transforming Hugh Hefner’s increasingly grotesque pretense of perpetual feckless youth into a quiet autumnal defiance, and the cartoonish figure of the Playmate into a reminder of mortality.
The Sri Lankan Loxodrome, Will Alexander. New Directions. 112 pp., $14.95. Nothing is given. Everything remains to be constructed. I do not know beforehand what the poem is going to say, where the poem is going to take me. The poem is not “expression,” but a cognitive process that, to some extent, changes me. —Rosmarie [...]
Rising, Farrah Field. Four Way Books. 72 pp, $15.95. “In a poem,” wrote Laurie Sheck, “it is not enough to tell the hidden story. The question is also how to look at the subterfuge, the cover, how power functions to block out what it can’t absorb, what would undermine it.” She maintains that language, usurped [...]
Reading a poet for the first time, particularly in translation, is like orienting ourselves in a foreign land with a broken compass and unreliable map. We listen for echoes. We look for landmarks, evidence of the familiar, and reassure ourselves we are not lost. The experience is not always unpleasant. Being lost with the promise of finding our way—if not home then at least some place interesting—is one of the reasons we continue to read poems new and old. Good and great poets teach us how to read their poems.
Tracer. Richard Greenfield. Omnidawn. 90 pp, $15.95. Tracer, Richard Greenfield’s second book of poetry, ups the promise—and the ante—of his first book, 2003′s A Carnage in the Lovetrees. In that volume the poet proved himself relentlessly and bravely willing to bare emotional traumas within the context of equally relentless cutting-edge poetics—translating, as it were, Plath’s [...]
Is there anything other than the fact that these two writers are women that causes them to be reviewed together? Well, they were included by Ron Silliman in his In the American Tree (though only Armantrout made it into Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry). They were both born around the same time–Howe in 1940, Armantrout in 1947, and while this may seem like a small common ground from which to start, other similarities and connections will be explored as this review progresses.
Often compared to Kafka, and just as often declared unclassifiable, Clarice Lispector was one of the 20th century’s major authors. Leora Skolkin-Smith reads her career through one of her greatest novels.
Wonderful World, Javier Calvo (trans. Mara Faye Lethem). Harper. 480pp, $27.99. Early on in Wonderful World, Javier Calvo’s sprawling comic novel set in the seamier and sillier reaches of Barcelona’s criminal underworld, we meet the minor character Pavel, a low-level Russian thug who experiences great difficulty putting his avowed Rastafarian beliefs into practice. “He knows [...]
Unlike any other form of nonfiction writing, the literary biography is routinely asked to justify its own existence. The genre’s subjects are of interest for what they wrote, obviously, so skeptics ask why we need still more words to illuminate the person’s relevance. Travelogues, memoirs, narrative histories, even biographies of other types of artists are accepted as pure endeavors, without the need for an occasional ruminative essay by John Updike or William Gass to defend the form. Like the beleaguered desert travelers hauling the titular metaphor in Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father, literary biographers remain tethered to the lumbering burden of necessity, almost always tied down by the threat of possible accusations—of intellectual shortcutting, of gossip mongering, or worse still, of reading a given writer’s work as too explicitly autobiographical.
Originally published in 2000, available now in a seamless translation by Bill Johnston, Jerzy Pilch’s novel The Mighty Angel is as entertaining and engaging as it is possible to be while candidly revealing the lurid charm at the heart of alcohol addiction.
The narrators of Toussaint’s early novels The Bathroom and Camera seek a state of inertia as a place where the noise of modern life falls away, letting them most clearly experience their own thoughts. By contrast, in Toussaint’s latest novel, Running Away, the main character does not long for isolation and inertia. Rather, he flows in the current of experience without asking questions or demanding answers.
Were it not for the fact that Kazuo Ishiguro’s six novels all share a fundamental concern with the way that people actively create the self they present to the world—expressed in each novel through tight first-person narration—it would be easy to think of him as two different writers struggling within one body. The first of those writers is a careful, understated realist, observing society and the attempts of flawed, frequently repressed individuals to find a place for themselves within it; think of a slightly less buttoned-down Henry James. The second is far stranger, influenced by Kafka and maybe even Proust, and he writes of individuals whose own self-deceptions, self-denials, and blind spots warp their understanding of the world to the point where we, the readers, can’t even be sure that what they’re describing bears any resemblance to reality.
The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, just thirty-one years old, has won an extraordinary reputation—along with the Orange Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship—on the strength of her first two novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun. The Thing Around Your Neck, her first collection of short stories, demonstrates that Chimamanda takes short fiction as seriously as she does the novel.
The narrators in Aleksandar Hemon’s fourth book, Love and Obstacles, a collection of short stories, slide along a continuum between poetry and prose. These Siamese-sibling narrators begin as adolescents; they are sturm und drang–drenched poets lost to, from, and in a hazy reality–backdrop that Hemon switches out from act to act, moving from Kinshasa, Zaire, to Sarajevo, Murska Sobota, Slovenia, Chicago, and to a snowy Wisconsin college town. Like bad poets everywhere, these would-be bards experience proto-egocentric sufferings, obscuring both language and reality.
With his seventh novel, Thomas Pynchon proves he hasn’t lost his knack for rendering California as it existed during the 1960s. Pynchon first took on California in The Crying of Lot 49, set in the Golden State in 1964; his 1990 novel, Vineland, though set mostly in California in the year Reagan was re-elected president, features flashbacks to the earlier era. Now, Inherent Vice, set in 1970, bookends the decade.
In the first chapter of Imperial we find William T. Vollmann on the filthy, shit- and trash-filled New River (a “reeking brown cloaca”), sweating in a 110+ degree temperature, rowed in a cheap rubber raft by a Mexican who has never been in a boat in his life. Water splashes on them and now Vollmann has a sore that won’t heal. It’s here that he begins his investigation into the “imaginary entity called Imperial”—an area encompassing Imperial County, CA, plus an equal area south of the Mexican border. It’s a wide-ranging exploration that includes illegal aliens, pollution, water quality, the infighting and bureaucracy in America over water rights and irrigation, the idea of boundaries, poverty, the systematic oppression of the poor, agriculture, the desert, the relationship between America and Mexico, farm laborers’ attempts at unionizing, and the allegedly brutal conditions in the maquiladoras, among dozens of other things.
If there wasn’t so much fiction in News from the Empire, it could be called a work of history. In fact, the focus of this broad work is history itself, as well as the many unrecorded lives and events that history has forgotten from this strange era in Mexico’s early nationhood. Using Emperor Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, as a starting point, Fernando Del Paso both considers what Mexico is and the country’s place in the larger narrative of world history. The book spans the palaces of Europe and the villages of Mexico, yet despite its broad focus News is a book rich in characters and details, a work that opens up this era of Mexican history to readers without specialized knowledge.
In the early 1990s, Filip Florian was working as a correspondent for Radio Free Europe in Bucharest when human bones were unearthed at a construction site in the city. Universally presumed to be relics from Communist crimes, the bones turned out to be centuries-old casualties of the bubonic plague. The public disappointment in the face of this revelation raised complex issues of how history can be repurposed—even, uncomfortably, by those who have suffered.
The Silence Room is the debut short story collection by English poet and critic Sean O’Brien. The book is a mixed bag of shallow entertainments, unsuccessful experiments, and a few, perhaps eight, strong stories—and a couple of these were truly magnificent. O’Brien is an incredibly talented writer, but, confusingly, his stories often lack a certain power.
In Italy, crime stories are known as gialli, after the trademark yellow covers of the Mondadori series, which first appeared in 1929. Although Mussolini’s government encouraged its early growth—mostly translations of English and American writers of the time with a quota of Italians—the Fascists did an about face and banned crime fiction in 1941. They cited the harm to morals and the misrepresentations of society as reasons for the censorship. The first to be pulped were Mondadori’s I Libri Gialli and I Gialli Economici, followed by all crime novels in circulation in the country.
The Finnish artist Amanda Vahamaki is a relative newcomer to U.S. comics, having been published here only in the Drawn and Quarterly Showcase #5. But her debut full-length comic, The Bun Field, is an oddly powerful, lingering work, and it’s one of the strongest pieces I’ve seen in a long time, debut or otherwise.
Set in the 1990s and first published in 2000, Novak’s first book translated into English is an apocalyptic fable with mythical elements and an “Earth first”–message. It’s meant to be an eccentric satire of Slovenia’s greed after communism ended, and as social commentary it produces a handful of interesting arguments and observations. Yet in this short novel, which feels overstuffed with peculiarities, Novak introduces more elements than she resolves, and tries repeatedly to force the moral of this peculiar morality tale.
Recently trapped at the beach, thinking about the concept of “summer reading”—a sort of intentional intellectual ghetto—flipping through some magazine (People, I think), I ran across a line slagging story collections. The article began with a general nod to the universal unpleasantness of reading them: too much stopping and starting, it said. Every time you become wrapped up in a fictional world—like putting on a Snuggie—that world vanishes and is replaced by a new one. It’s a common complaint, the multiplicity of stories scattering under the large cohesive shadow of the novel.
Let us begin with the cover, a proverbially dubious strategy for assaying the worth of a book. An aging, cannonball-domed man of ruddy complexion glares at the reader, his head filling most of the frame. His white beard is a day or two out of trim. The lips are thin and tightly pursed. His brows and the planes of his face converge like a hawk’s. He might be King Lear.
In her third collection of poetry, Reading Novalis in Montana, Melissa Kwasny retreats into the natural expanses of Montana. She has not headed into complete seclusion, however; she has surrounded herself with other writers, from Novalis to Eliot to Artaud, whose words keep her company on her trip into the vastness. The poems that erupt from this journey are an attempt to better understand the self as the verses wind through a dialectic between the natural world and the culture we use to understand that world.
Despite their ever-present flora, it’s somewhat false to call the poems in Micrographia “nature poems.” While their topic may be the natural world—sumac and juniper, sparrows, lilacs, jots of fir—the book revolves on a much more ontological axis. An appreciation of nature is present throughout the book, but not the same kind of stillness found in Mary Oliver or Gary Snyder’s quieter verse. Here, nature stands to people as they relate to it (“The butterfly is pinned through its thorax . . . The name affixes to earth.”), not as something set aside elsewhere to be appreciated.
Joshua Harmon’s first book of poetry, Scape, comes two years after the publication of his debut novel, Quinnehtukqut (Starcherone, 2007), a difficult and often brilliant text that draws on the work of William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett in equal measure (not to mention John Ashbery and Susan Howe) to form a complex weave of narratives about a town in the wilderness of late 19th- and early 20th-century New Hampshire. In the novel, Harmon writes of “how a man’s head cannot begin to take in the places he has been, or the people, each word spoken a line somewhere in the land.” Following this notion, Quinnehtukqut not only takes up a meditation on local history and geography (or, as we are told, “a story of lost dreams and places now vanished”) but is also an investigation of narrative and language itself, and of how those two things—location and locution—relate.
There appears to be a revival of interest taking place in the work of C. P. Cavafy. Two years ago, Oxford University Press issued C. P. Cavafy: The Collected Poems under its Oxford World’s Classics imprint. Now, Knopf comes forth with its own edition—including not only Cavafy’s collected poems but his unfinished poems as well.
From the very beginning, McCarthy has been an author fascinated by the give-and-take between modern-day humans and the multiple systems they are exposed to in day-to-day life. These systems react potently with McCarthy’s other great novelistic concern: the alienated individual and his ultimate recognition (with McCarthy it is invariable a he) that no one can stand outside of human society, and that our codes and bureaucracies decide for us far more often than we actually decide for ourselves. McCarthy’s novels are built around the rare moments of genuine decision-making when the swell and swirl of the world pulls back to relinquish agency to the individual.
In 1938, Cyril Connolly wrote a book about what writers needed to do to see their work last for 10 years. Jeremy Hatch determines if his predictions were accurate, and how contemporary writers might see their work continue to be read.
Bolaño said he is “opening up the path of the new Spanish novel of the millennium.” Alvaro Enrigue called his book the great Mexican novel. Mauro Javier Cardenas investigates Juan Villoro’s untranslated novel El Testigo.
What is the difference between fiction and autobiography? Elizabeth Wadell looks at author Janet Frame’s new posthumous novel, too personal to publish in her lifetime, and considers how it compares to the source material as found in her celebrated autobiography.
Though the word caricature is often used to disparage poor writing, caricature also has its uses. Travis Godsoe shows how Mario Vargas Llosa uses caricatured characters to create a rich portrait of a unique rebel colony in his novel The War of the End of the World.
Long hailed as an avant-garde classic and precursor to Borges, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel will finally be available in English next January from Open Letter Books. We offer a preview of what’s to come.
Wonderfully polymorphous—is it novel, fictional biography, short story collection, or other?—and incredibly promiscuous in its tones and registers—vacillating with ease between melancholy and joy while yoking together the profoundly metaphysical and the commonly mundane—Amanda Michalopoulou’s I’d Like cannot help but inspire in its readers a vertiginous delight (one furthered by Karen Emmerich’s felicitous and fluent translation from the Greek).
One modest silver lining in the War on Terror has been the increased Western interest in literature from and about the Islamic, Hindi, and greater Eastern worlds. Book club selections and award citations have piled up for The Namesake, Brick Lane, The Inheritance of Loss, The White Tiger, The Septembers of Shiraz, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, The Kite Runner, et al., and while they may all have the stiff wind of corporate marketing at their backs, it’s hard to complain about any readership at all these days, let alone a small movement led mostly by female authors and concerning the lives and cultures of foreigners.
Originally published in 1969, Season was famously selected by a 2001 literary panel as the greatest Arabic-language novel of the 20th century, and it is often listed as one of the classic postcolonial works in any language. Independent of any academic qualifiers, however, this short novel deserves to be read for its gorgeous prose (translated by Denys-Johnson Davies, with help from Salih), its narrative intensity, and the economy with which Salih renders all sides of the 20th-century relationships between colonial powers and their Third World victims.
The Foundation Pit, Andrey Platonov (trans. Robert & Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson). NYRB Classics. 208pp, $14.95. A good Sovietologist has shelves packed with books like Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism 1917-1923, Science and Industrialization in the USSR, and Soviet Economic Structure and Performance. However, Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit confronts us [...]
Tokyo Fiancée is best-selling Belgian author Amélie Nothomb’s brief, detailed novel about two years she spent in Tokyo while in her early twenties. Ostensibly a story of unrequited love, it is also a love letter to Japanese culture, and a revealing—nearly confessional—self-portrait of the author as an ambitious young woman.
Writing about this period is not new, despite many Western critics who look at books like Yu Hua’s Brothers and find something novel in its subject matter. People have been writing about this bitter and painful chapter of modern Chinese history for a generation. In earlier novels Yu Hua himself has focused on this period, to varying degrees of success. His most famous book, To Live (made into a movie by famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou in 1994), chronicles the history of a family as the forces of the twentieth century change their fortunes, mirroring China’s own fortunes. The highly naturalistic Chronicle of a Blood Merchant tells the story of a family’s struggle on the brink of starvation.
Books covered in this dual review: • Brothers, Yu Hua (Eileen Chen-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas, trans.). Pantheon Press. 656pp, $29.95. • English, Wang Gang (Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan, trans.). Viking. 320pp, $24.95. (continued from page 1) Like Brothers, Wang Gang’s novel, English, also tells the story of a child growing up during [...]
A walking tour of Mexico City’s historic center provides the scaffolding for And Let the Earth Tremble at its Centers, an impressive first novel from Mexican writer Gonzalo Celorio. We begin with a hangover. Dr. Juan Manuel Barrientos, a supercilious architecture professor, struggles through the morning. Recovering from a retirement party the night before, he faces the day with a flagging spirit and an aching skull, and when Juan Manuel manages to make it into the world, the metropolis’s occluded sky—”composed of toxic ingredients, haze, and desolation”—seems the physical embodiment of his state.
The Vagrants concerns itself with the small people, those found in the local market, the alleys, the deserted places, the places where dogs wander, where baby girls are left out in the elements, where so-called counterrevolutionaries are shot and forgotten. They live and work in the provincial town of Muddy River, whose name is a misnomer, for “in summer boys swimming in the river could look up from underwater at the wavering sunshine through the transparent bodies of busy minnows, while their sisters, pounding laundry on the boulders along the bank, sometimes sang revolutionary songs in chorus, their voices as clear and playful as the water.” The close alliance of children and the Revolution is a theme that is visited again when one of the children, the most powerless of them all, informs on his fellow townspeople in order to become “the youngest counterrevolutionary in this political storm,” a “hero.”
Helen Garner’s The Spare Room opens with the narrator, also named Helen, preparing a room for an impending guest. She puts fresh sheets on the bed, fluffs the pillows, fans out an array of books on a table, clips some greenery to put in a vase, opens a window to let in some fresh air. There is an assurance to her ministrations, a kind of pleased, self-aware graciousness in the way she plumps the pillows and rolls out a new rug. Even though there is clearly something amiss with the visitor—Helen chooses a pink sheet because it is “flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish,” and debates whether or not to put a mirror in the room—there is no sense of fear or dread in the preparations.
Pasha Malla is fond of the deke, and the promise of many head-fakes is implicit in the title of his short story collection, The Withdrawal Method. The title both showcases Malla’s odd sense of humor (contraception never actually appears in the text) and gives readers a hint as to Malla’s central theme: how in these thirteen stories Malla often feints toward the ridiculous so as to better describe a sobering world. These are humorous but often sad stories about how people withdraw from their lives: a daughter and her widowed father celebrate Easter in death’s shadow, a pharmaceutical representative fails to understand his diabetic brother’s disgust, a bicyclist is struck by a car and falls into a coma, a souvenir shop owner struggles to save his business after Niagara Falls runs dry.
Consider Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s The Bridge of the Golden Horn a kind of bildungsroman, a portrait of the artist as a young migrant worker as it were. The plot threads are familiar: discontented young woman leaves home to seek her fortune; she encounters resistance; she overcomes obstacles; she is transformed. In this case, the unnamed narrator, with dreams of becoming an actor, lies about her age to get a job so she can pay for drama school. At sixteen she leaves Turkey for Germany where she works on an assembly line installing radio valves. The novel goes on to detail four topsy-turvy years of the young woman’s ping-ponging back and forth between Berlin and Istanbul. In Berlin, she and her coworkers “lived in a single picture: fingers, the neon light, the tweezers, the little radio valves and their spider legs.
Published in Issue 16 Tinkers, Paul Harding. Bellevue Literary Press. 192pp, $14.95. Paul Harding’s Tinkers meticulously examines life and death, its precision often mirroring that of the protagonist as he performs his vocation of repairing clocks. The novel, although slim, packs much detail into its tightly wound prose: three generations of a hard-scrabbled New England [...]
A Mind at Peace, published in 1949 and set in 1938 and 1939, has long been a cornerstone of Turkish literature, a symbol of the nation’s conflict between the modernizing forces of the West and the traditional Ottoman and Turkish cultures. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s novel is a readily confessed major influence on Orhan Pamuk, the 2004 Nobel Laureate, and it was also in the news recently, as the Turkish government bestowed an English copy upon President Barack Obama during an official visit.
Books are commodities, and as we head into the sharpest economic downturn since 1982—indeed, quite possibly since 1932—publishers are feeling the pain. The reactions of many of the industry leaders do not instill confidence, and so we must ask: What’s really dying here?
Published in France in 2008, Zone has already been called a novel of the new century. This one-sentence dissection of a half-century of war and atrocity will be published in English next year. François Monti tells what it’s about, and if it’s worth all the fuss.
Susan Sontag wrote “I write partly in order to change myself; it’s an instrument I use.” Lauren Elkin reads Sontag’s recently published diaries and finds how the writer developed her identity and her style.
The 1972 novel Promised Land might have been the first “alternate future” book of post-apartheid South Africa. Matthew Cheney shows how it sheds new night on the work of J.M. Coetzee, and of other South African novelists.
Electronic literature is commonly seen as an odd offshoot from printed literature. William Patrick Wend shows that e-lit is a rich and thriving art form, and one that has much to say about bounded literature.
For those few who remain unacquainted with Bernstein and his history (perhaps there are one or two non-novitiates left), here is a brief bio. Graduating from Harvard University in 1972, Bernstein, who was born in New York City on April 4, 1950, co-edited (along with Bruce Andrews) L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, which, during its 13 published issues between 1978 and 1980, set the groundwork for much of what became known as Language Poetry, Language Writing, or some similar moniker. Wikipedia says that he is “one of the foremost poets associated with Language poetry, and his two collections of essays, Content’s Dream: Essays 1975 (1986) and A Poetics (1992), as well as his My Way: Speeches and Poems (1999), expand a position on poetry based, in part, on his close reading of the philosophy of Karl Marx and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the writings of Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, and William Carlos Williams.”
The third of José Eduardo Agualusa’s novels to be translated into English by Daniel Hahn, My Father’s Lives follows the epistolary novel of colonial Angola, Creole, and the 2004 story of shifting identity and post-revolutionary Angola, The Book of Chameleons. This third book is Agualusa’s most ambitious yet to reach our shores, a far-reaching exploration of his favorite subjects: identity, truth, memory, and the nearly invisible line that separates fiction from reality. Readers familiar with Agualusa’s earlier work will not only recognize the subject matter; they’ll also recognize his take on post-modern storytelling techniques, both the metafictional and the magical.
Ghosts, Cesar Aira (trans. Chris Andrews). New Directions. 144pp, $12.95. Argentinean writer Cesar Aira is the author of more than sixty books, though his novel Ghosts, recently published by New Directions, is only the fourth to be translated into English. The story revolves around a family of squatters living on a construction site where luxury [...]
Bonsai, the novella by Alejandro Zambra, is a lot like bonsai, the Japanese art. It is both tiny and exquisite. A scant 90 pages, Bonsai can be read in less than three hours. And while one could certainly question why both the book and the tree should be made so small, both are undeniably fascinating.
The preface to Dalkey Archive Press’s Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction begins by warning readers against judging a nation’s fiction by any single anthology, and yet it is hard not to draw some conclusions from this fine collection of short stories. All of the writers collected here were born after 1945, and the concerns found in their stories are what might be expected from a generation of children brought up under the expansion of Mexico’s middle class and its longest period of political stability. That is to say, these stories are frequently very ironic, and they often feature narcissistic characters leading hermetic middle class lives.
Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov (trans. Marian Schwartz). Seven Stories. 576pp, 33.95. More translations of Russian novels? We’ve done our time with War and Peace, what more do you want? Indeed. In the case of Russian literature, the vaults are still being opened, classics are still being unearthed, and new Russian literary works are still making their [...]
White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov (trans. Marian Schwartz). Yale Press. 352pp, 27.00. (continued from page 1) Mikhail Bulgakov is best known for his Soviet-era satire The Master and Margarita, although he also has the infamous distinction of writing a favorite play of Stalin’s, The Days of the Turbins. This play and Bulgakov’s 1924 debut, White Guard, [...]
The Fat Man and Infinity & Other Writings, Antonio Lobo Antunes (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). W.W. Norton. 320pp, 26.95. Back in 1998, when Jose Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize, there were a number of critics who felt that the wrong Portuguese author was being honored, arguing that Antonio Lobo Antunes was the best contemporary [...]
The Easy Chain, Evan Dara. Aurora. 502pp, $16.95 Evan Dara’s sophomore novel, The Easy Chain, published thirteen years after his outstanding The Lost Scrapbook, is likely among the most bizarre novels published in 2008; however, it also must be among the most compulsively readable (and re-readable) of them. The novel centers around the rarely-seen Lincoln [...]
Berlin: City of Smoke, Jason Lutes. Drawn and Quarterly. 200 pp. $19.95. With the release of Berlin: City of Smoke, the second volume of a projected trilogy, Jason Lutes’ painstakingly chronicled historical fiction in graphic form gathers momentum. Tracing the long, slow arc of the fall of the Weimar Republic, Berlin packs the power of [...]
Fuzz & Pluck: Splitsville, Ted Stearn. Fantagraphics Books. 280pp, $24.99. In a roundup of new graphic novels published last year, critic Elif Batuman offered an interesting insight about an eminent round-headed kid and his dog: [T]he hero-in-two-persons arrangement is vestigially present in many cyclically narrated comics. Probably the best-loved example is the duality of Snoopy [...]
The Assignment, or, On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers, Friedrich Dürrenmatt (trans. Joel Agee). University of Chicago Press. 129pp, 15.00. Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s short novel The Assignment, originally published in German in 1986, is written in twenty-four long sentences (Dürrenmatt’s model for the novel’s structure was said to be the twenty-four sections of [...]
Invite, Glen Pourciau. University of Iowa Press. 120pp, 16.00. “You confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for artists.”—Anton Chekhov 1 Anton Chekhov thought the writer should articulate the human predicament, not judge or diffuse it with proposed solutions. Despair and disappointment are [...]
Happy Families, Carlos Fuentes (trans. Edith Grossman). Random House. 352pp, 26.00. Carlos Fuentes’ Happy Families begins with a mystery: A wink. It is the wink of Pastor Pagan. He is the patriarch of “A Family Like Any Other,” a title that the reader soon discovers is Fuentes’ pointer to Tolstoy’s famous statement that “happy families [...]
Woods and Chalices, Tomaz Salamun. Harcourt. 96pp, $22.00. Some poetry is meant to be read on the page—to take only the most prominent current example, Elizabeth Alexander’s presidential inaugural poem “Praise Song,” the merits of which are far more evident in print than they were at the podium. Other poetry is written to be read [...]
The Journal of Jules Renard. Tin House Books. 264pp, 16.95. The Journal of Jules Renard is a bound collection of the insights and observations of the titular French playwright and novelist. Renard kept his journal from 1887, when he was twenty-three years old, to just a month before his death in 1910, and in the [...]
Five Spice Street, Can Xue (trans. Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping). Yale Press. 352pp, $25.00. No one and nothing may be trusted in Five Spice Street, the first of Can Xue’s full-length novels to be translated into English. In the neighborhood where the story is set—a three-mile-long street actually—nothing is certain. There is no one [...]
Ashbery: Collected Poems 1956-1987, John Ashbery. The Library of America. 1042pp, $40.00.Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, John Ashbery. Ecco. 364pp, $16.95. The period following WWII was a turbulent time politically, culturally, poetically. Brave people hid in shadow from the new-found threats to civilization as they knew it—the bomb, the pill, the Red scare—and [...]
my vocabulary did this to me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, Jack Spicer (Peter Gizzi and Kevin Kellian eds.). Wesleyan University Press. 510pp, $35.00. (continued from page 1) Now, let’s move to the West Coast and what’s been happening. Who knows what Jack Spicer would have been capable of had he lived as long [...]
You Must Be This Happy To Enter, Elizabeth Crane. Punk Planet/Akashic Books. 250pp, 14.95. Elizabeth Crane’s newest story collection, You Must Be This Happy to Enter, is a disarming artifact, so much so that it’s difficult to review. The book is so much fun to read that you set down your evaluative filter and forget [...]
“It was a sunny day, hot and not real breezy, when I brought Oblivion with me to my bench. I felt almost cheeky, book in hand, making my way to the pond, like I knew something everyone else at the office didn’t know. It was easy to find the part of the story I loved so much because I had marked it off and marked it up . . . “
Legends abound regarding Bukowski the drinker, Bukowski the womanizer, Bukowski the belligerent, Bukowski the unexpectedly tender-hearted. But among the many titles bestowed upon Bukowski, that of “working stiff” is rarely invoked. Nicole Gluckstern explores Bukowski the worker.
Crossing the concerns and techniques of Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, and Richard Powers, Carter Scholz has been writing some of our most interesting fiction about science, commerce, and America. Sacha Arnold digs into Radiance, his novel of nuclear weapons research scientists.
2666, Roberto Bolaño (trans. Natasha Wimmer). Farrar Straus Giroux. 912pp, $30.00 There is a void at the center of all of Roberto Bolaño’s work. This is not simply a void in the sense of a blackness, a blankness, an emptiness, or a space from which nothing can emerge—although, at times, it is all of these [...]
The Pages, Murray Bail. Vintage. 224pp. Australian novelist Murray Bail made a note in the early 1970s in which he instructed himself to “Invent (for depth of individuality); less ‘reportage.’” He seems to have followed it quite faithfully. From the outset, Bail’s fiction has been driven by this commitment to imagination and a concomitant disregard, [...]
Souls of the Labadie Tract, Susan Howe. New Directions. 125pp, $16.95. In 1922, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein stated that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” and since that time, poets have constantly complained about the limitations of language—most without attempting to do anything about it. Two that have tried [...]
Saga/Circus, Lyn Hejinian. Omnidawn. 146pp, $15.95. continued from page 1 Saga/Circus consists of two parts in reverse order: the first part, “Circus,” is prose that reads like poetry, and “Saga” is poetry that reads like prose. Hejinian, in her Poetic Statement found in American Women Poets in the 21st Century, acknowledges that she is a [...]
Tranquility, Attila Bartis (Imre Goldstein trans.). Archipelago Press. 325pp, $15.00. After mud and pouring rain have been the constant companions of the sad characters in Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s hopelessly miserable (but astonishing) film Damnation, agony finally ends with the camera ceasing its nonstop movements and staring at a giant clump of muddy filth. It’s [...]
boring boring boring boring boring boring boring, Zach Plague. Featherproof Books. 288pp, $14.95. For good reason, Featherproof Books’ description of its latest release, boring boring boring boring boring boring boring by Zach Plague, emphasizes how the book’s design is meant to contribute to a reader’s appreciation of the story: the book is beautiful. The promotional [...]
If I Could Write This in Fire, Michelle Cliff. University of Minnesota Press. 104pp, $21.95. Michelle Cliff is an author about whom it is far easier to find academic criticism than criticism of the popular variety. A Jamaican-American, her short novels abound with the nuggets of colonialism and postmodern identity for which academics fervently prospect. [...]
The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, Wang Anyi (Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan, trans.). Columbia University Press. 440pp, $29.95. The translation into English of Wang Anyi’s 1996 novel, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, marks an important development in the way most literary Westerners, particularly Americans, view China. For many years now, translation of modern Chinese [...]
From A to X, John Berger. Verso. 224pp, $22.95. What is the use of hope in a hopeless situation? This is the question John Berger seems to answer with his tenth novel, From A to X. The titular letters stand for the main characters, A’ida and Xavier. He is in prison, and she devotedly writes [...]
The Romantic Dogs, Roberto Bolaño (trans. Laura Healy). New Directions. 128pp, $14.95 English-language readers have experienced Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s career sort of upside down and backwards. None of his work was translated into English until after his death in 2003, and it wasn’t until the publication of Natasha Wimmer’s translation of The Savage Detectives [...]
Erotomania: A Romance, Francis Levy. Two Dollar Radio. 160pp, $14.00. Erotomania: A Romance is not a book you can give as a gift. It just isn’t. For starters there’s the title, which is no red herring. And then there’s the cover, with its picture of two chimps copulating in the missionary position. Both of these, [...]
Death with Interruptions, José Saramago (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). Harcourt. 256pp, $24.00. Besides, all the many things that have been said about god and death are just stories, and this is another one. —José Saramago, Death with Interruptions José Saramago prefaces his newly translated novella, Death with Interruptions, with two epigraphs: a prediction and a [...]
French gender-bending artist Claude Cahun is generally known as a photographer. She also left behind an impressive body of literature. Lauren Elkin argues should it be read, especially by adherents of challenging Surrealist works.
All One Horse, Breyten Breytenbach. Archipelago Press. 170pp, $20.00. I. In the preface to All One Horse, Breyten Breytenbach, playfully writing under the moniker “A. Uthor,” explains the artistic impulse behind this book of 27 “minor pieces of writing” and their accompanying 27 watercolor paintings with the following bit of Eastern philosophy: The title is [...]
Boxwood, Camilo José Cela (Patricia Haugaard tranns.). New Directions. 224pp, $14.95. A poet I used to know once asked me how novelists knew when to stop writing. When I pressed him for more specifics about what he meant, he explained that he didn’t understand how anyone could tell when to stop expanding a description, a [...]
Watching the Spring Festival, Frank Bidart. Farrar Straus Giroux. 72pp, $25.00. In her introduction to Best American Poetry 1990, Jorie Graham describes a fiction and poetry reading she attended. First, a fiction writer spoke and her story flowed, sentence to sentence, idea to idea, engaging the crowd completely with funny, plotty narratives. Next, a poet [...]
The Implacable Order of Things, José Luis Peixoto (Richard Zenith trans.). Nan A. Talese. 224pp, $22.95 I. Reading José Luis Peixoto’s first novel, The Implacable Order of Things, we are presented with a world not likely to last long, absent a messiah, populated by orphans—a biblical myth that doesn’t imbue tragedy with meaning. The book [...]
Senselessness, Horacio Castellanos Moya (Katherine Silver, trans.) New Directions. 160pp, $15.95. Senselessness is the first novel by Honduras-born Horacio Castellanos Moya to be translated into English, and though it’s quite slim, it’s a stunner. Hired by the Catholic church to copyedit an 1,100-page report which details (with gruesome exactitude) military massacres against the indigenous peoples [...]
Winners Have Yet to Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway, Ed Pavlic. University of Georgia Press. 200pp, $19.95. Film critic Michael Atkinson once described his own suicidal impulses, eventually overcome, as feeling like “a nagging last item on a lifelong agenda”—not something the sufferer wants to do, but something he feels he inevitably must [...]
Tomato Girl, Jayne Pupek. Algonquin Books. 298pp, $23.95. From the beginning of Jayne Pupek’s Tomato Girl, we are plunged into a dark world. In the first few pages of the novel, 11-year-old narrator Ellie Sanders reveals that she is living in the aftermath of abandonment. Her father has been gone for some time, leaving her [...]
Basrayatha: Portrait of a City, Mohammed Khudayyir (William M. Hutchins trans.). Verso. 176pp, 15.95. I. “It is useless to seek Basra on a map,” writes Iraqi author Najem Wali in “Basra Stories,” “for Basra belongs to those cities which are built by their cursed and fleeing sons in the . . . lands of memory.” [...]
Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works, Jackson Mac Low. University of California Press. 507pp, $34.95. Besides being released the same year by the same press, Thing of Beauty by Jackson Mac Low and Leslie Scalapino’s It’s go in horizontal share a number of other commonalities. The primary is that they were written as a [...]
It’s go in horizontal: Selected Poems, 1974-2006, Leslie Scalapino. University of California Press. 257pp, $16.95. (continued from page 1) Let us turn now to Leslie Scalapino, whose anthology, It’s go in horizontal, is equally worth owning. Whereas Mac Low, although from New York, was an iconoclast who never really fit into any particular school, Scalapino [...]
The Post-Office Girl, Stefan Zweig (Joel Rotenberg trans.). NYRB Classics. 224pp, $14.00 Reading The Post-Office Girl is like trying to hit a slow-breaking curveball. You know the break is coming—you can intuit that the seemingly conventional story is going to drop on you in some way—but it hangs high for so long that by the [...]
In Notes about the Political in the Latin American Novel, Horacio Castellanos Moya wrote: [I]f someone tells me that I write “political novels,” I immediately get on guard. My reaction is primal, but it has an explanation. First, I don’t like to attach labels to the fiction I write; to me they are novels or [...]
There are three disclaimers to be made. First, I work for a literary publishing house (Dalkey Archive) that is currently publishing this man, Jean-Philippe Toussaint. We keep reprinting his old books, signing on new ones—we cannot get enough of him. Second, he is also one of my own favorite writers, although as I write this [...]
The second volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s journals has just been published in France. Lauren Elkin explains what they show about the 20th-century’s most famous feminist before she met Sarte and as she was developing her ideas on love and gender.
Donald Barthelme’s short stories are currently available to readers in three large volumes. Dan Green argues we could read Barthelme better if they were still available as they were originally published.
Girl Factory, Jim Krusoe. Tin House Books. $14.95. 208 pp. I. A faithful rendering of events can tell us no more about existence than a preserved body in Pompeii’s wreckage: we observe the corpse but we understand nothing of the life it once contained. The imagination, with all its distortions, is always far more revealing, [...]
In her short story “You’re Ugly, Too,” Lorrie Moore has a bit where she describes Midwestern college students: “They were armed with a healthy vagueness about anything historical or geographic. They seemed actually to know very little about anything, but they were extremely good-natured about it.” Such is many people’s understanding of World War II: [...]
I. Assuming the format of an Everyman’s dictionary of writers, Robert Bolaño’s novel Nazi Literature in the Americas, consists of a series of short profiles, 30 brief fictitious lives of pan-American fascist novelists and poets, depicted with such straightforward urbanity and good humor that one almost misses the sick joke behind the pretense. I’m reminded [...]
I. John Smith, hero of Mortarville, is a unique kind of orphan, grown in a tank of orange goo by his scientist fathers and made a ward of the state after their deaths and his birth (in that order). Unique to us, anywayhe’s a familiar enough specimen to the authorities in the book’s shambles of [...]
• Armageddon in Retrospect, Kurt Vonnegut. Berkley Trade. $15.00. 240 pp. Kurt Vonnegut’s estate has released the author’s first posthumous collection of essays and short stories, Armageddon in Retrospect, with an introduction by Vonnegut’s son, Mark. Because this is the only book currently planned to punctuate the important writer’s career, one might have expected to [...]
The opening sentence of Alexandra Chasin’s Kissed By reads like a line from the first chapter of an odd sort of origin text: “I began as we all do, by wanting something, but I hardly knew what.” And indeed it is a fitting point of origin, because it establishes the creative impulse behind the rest [...]
Americans like our Romance-language novelists to be whimsical and playful, so it makes sense that Antonio Lobo Antunes has nowhere near the following in this country as, say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Italo Calvino. Knowledge of Hell, written in 1980 but only now translated to English, has moments of hallucinatory fantasy but nothing close to [...]
For a long time, many major American books were either not translated into French or poorly executed when done at all, due to the difficulty of the task. Since the early 1990s, things are changing thanks to a number of translators, among whom Christophe Claro stands out. A writer who became a translator by chance, [...]
How do you turn the death of the last orangutan into fiction? François Monti investigates Eric Chevillard and argues that his untranslated Destroying Nisard sheds light on America’s book review crisis.
The Power of Flies, Lydie Salvayre (trans. Jane Kuntz). Dalkey Archive Press. 175pp, $12.95. Blaise Pascal—the 17th-century mathematician and philosopher centrifugal to Lydie Salvayre’s The Power of Flies—underwent, in the latter half of his life, some kind of personal metamorphosis: he morphed, quite publicly, from a man of scientific methodology and knowledge to a deeply [...]
It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature, Diane Williams. FC2. 104pp, $17.95. I. For Diane Williams, the bloom and buzz of perceptual experience are formal inspirations as well as thematic ones. Her fiction relentlessly foregrounds the less noble aspects of our cognitive life—obsession, distraction, forgetfulness—by making them into the forces that sculpt [...]
To start with the obvious: Guatanamo is a political novel. I don’t mean this only in terms of its topical subject matter, although that’s true as well.1 But Guatanamo is also a political novel in the Brechtian sense: it concerns itself primarily with a situation—a set of institutional conditions—and places a character into this situation [...]
These days, American readers may legally partake in an unprecedented array of pornographic materials. Works of literature whose racy content made them banned as late as the 1960s—that were in fact thought unpublishable as late as the ’50s—can be purchased, often as proud members of the canon. When filthy literature is excluded from bookstores, it [...]
Riding Toward Everywhere, William T. Vollmann. Harper Perennial. 288pp, $14.99. Riding Toward Everywhere, this year’s new book from the prolific William T. Vollmann, is a nonfiction account of his adventures hopping freight trains and trying out the hobo lifestyle as a person lurking “literally and figuratively in the shadows.” His traveling companion is a late [...]
A book of magazine articles implies certain contradictions. Magazines are read and then, a few weeks or months later, recycled or passed on, while books linger, asserting their worthiness to be reread. The anthology Best American Magazine Writing 2007, consisting of winners and finalists from the American Society of Magazine Editors’ annual awards and published [...]
Wolves of the Crescent Moon, Yousef al-Mohaimeed. Penguin. 192pp, $14.00. Compared to the well-trod literary provinces of Latin America, Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, and even parts of Asia and Africa, the Middle East’s literature is one that few English-language readers know much about. Perhaps to help fill this gap, Penguin has published Saudi writer [...]
Graymont College’s Prof. Stephen Chesterfield, the less-is-more creative writing teacher who appears early on in Joshua Henkin’s second novel Matrimony, hates sound effects in stories (“kerplunk,” “kaboom”), the phrase “show, don’t tell” in workshop criticism, and “pass-the-salt dialogue”: “If your characters need salt, just give it to them. Don’t make them have a discussion about [...]
Given the exultation and edification of reading Diary of a Bad Year, it would seem that J.M. Coetzee has definitively escaped the post-Nobel jinx. Though nominally in the postmodern camp, the novel notches low on the difficulty scale. To enter this hall of mirrors that is tangentially an account of a highly regarded South African [...]
Novelist Enrique Vila-Matas might just think literature is a disease and himself a parasite of it. Scott Esposito discusses why this has let him write some of the most innovative fiction published today.
César Aira tosses absurd ideas into his novels by the handful and never bothers to revise or even edit. Marcelo Ballvé argues this method has pushed him to the forefront of the Argentine literary scene.
It’s a shame Rodrigo Fresán’s Mantra hasn’t been translated into English, argues Javier Moreno. The book has mutated with each of its four translations, and a fifth would add new readings to the preceding four. Not to mention, English readers should know about Fresán’s continuously expanding inventory of all things we thought were Mexican but aren’t and his ethological study of sea monkeys in captivity (their natural habitat).
In Mexico, José Emilio Pacheco’s The Battles in the Desert is read by everyone from rock stars to high school students. In it, they find such typically Mexican concerns as memory, history, and national identity in a multicultural society. Elizabeth Wadell discusses how, for American readers, these matters don’t sound very foreign after all.
The Mexican Revolution is a solemn touchstone of Mexican letters. Matt Bowman shows why Mexican author Jorge Ibargüengoitia has satirized and subverted it, and why he wishes more authors would follow in his steps.
The continued obscurity of the Soviet author Vasily Grossman is not easy to understand after one has spent any time with his writing, but a few conjectures come to mind. His masterpiece, Life and Fate, was published in the United States in 1985, and in 1985, the year that Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of [...]
A consummate innovator, Julio Cortazar was—in my opinion—one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Seriously, anyone who hasn’t read Hopscotch should run immediately to the nearest bookstore, library, or friend’s shelf, and get a copy. This is a perfect example of the old cliché about how lucky someone is to have not read [...]
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz. Riverhead. 352pp, $24.95. I. At one point in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the narrator recounts the death of Dominican political crook Joaquín Balaguer. A direct descendant of the Trujillo regime—the genocidal dictatorship that held the country in a stranglehold until the [...]
Alcoholism, Bulimia, Consumerism, Depression: Mari Akasaka’s short novel Vibrator reads like a virtual primer of 21st-century decadence and malaise. An immediate hit when it was published in Japan in 2000, it touches all the bases (women’s magazines, consumer culture, high school prostitution, gangs, and drugs are all analyzed), yet it is definitely more than just [...]
I. The Maias is regarded as the most important work of the late 19th-century Portuguese writer Jose Maria Eça de Queirós. For the most part, the book follows the life of Carlos de Maia and his grandfather, Afonso de Maia, the last remaining male survivors of an extremely wealthy Lisbon family. Young Carlos is raised [...]
Before we get to God Is Dead, Ron Currie, Jr.’s first book, I’d like to mention a few authors and their work for some historical context. Think of the following: Dostoevsky and his character Ivan Karamazov, who might or might not have suggested that God’s disappearance would create a moral universe that permitted anything; Nietzsche [...]
Late in Selah Saterstrom’s second novel, The Meat and Spirit Plan, the unnamed narrator describes a movie she would like to make. She’s rebuffed: “That is a terrible idea for a movie. . . . It isn’t entertaining.” This follows: Why does it have to be entertaining? I ask. You can’t expect people to pay [...]
Reading Gary Lutz can be an exhausting experience: his carefully rendered, off-centered constructions are so minutely prepared that they retain their architecture from word to sentence to paragraph to section to story. Lutz’s previous efforts—Stories in the Worst Way and I Looked Alive—are conventional-length collections, but even though his new work, Partial List of People [...]
Darius Adam, his wife Lala, and their son Xerxes live in Los Angeles after fleeing Iran during the Iranian Revolution. Darius pines for Iran, Lala hopes to lose herself in the ways of the Western world by “getting a life,” and Xerxes hopes to shed his Iranian identity to distance himself from his father. A [...]
I. Despite the popular tolling of the novel’s death knell, former Booker prize chair John Sutherland has decided to put together a populist user’s guide to reading a novel in the 21st century. What he has created in How to Read a Novel is a clever book, assuredly for someone who is interested in literature, [...]
In the 1930s, the surgeon Wilder Penfield pioneered a remarkable technique that is still in use today for some types of brain surgery. While the patient remains conscious, the surgeon cuts a large hole in the top of her head, removes a portion of the skull, and peels back several layers of tissue in order [...]
I have a love/hate relationship with my digital camera. On the one hand, I love how easy it is to snap a shot, see it, and take another if I’m not satisfied. On the other hand, once I’ve taken the pictures there’s the daunting task of uploading them to the computer and searching through them [...]
The following interview with Charles D’Ambrosio took place on October 2, 2007, in Birmingham, AL. D’Ambrosio is the author of two books of short stories—The Dead Fish Museum and The Point—as well as Orphans, a collection of essays. The Point was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a New York Times Notable Book [...]
Pascale Ferran is the director of the film Lady Chatterley. The film has won 11 awards, among them 5 Césars (including ones for Best Film and Best Writing-Adaptation) and Lumieres for Best Director and Best Actress. Lady Chatterley was released nationally in the United States in June 2007, after premiering at The Tribeca Film Festival [...]
Jean Thompson has written two novels and a previous short story collection; she has won prestigious fellowships and awards; she has been a nominee for the National Book Award (for her first collection, Who Do You Love, in 1999). Her stories are widely anthologized, and she is admired by some gifted and established writers—Richard Russo, [...]
Reading Romanian writer Dumitru Tsepeneag’s Vain Art of the Fugue is like having a dream, and then remembering it in that diaphanous, vague, next-morning way a dream is recollected. This is a good thing. Maybe if this strange novel means to say anything, it’s comparing the experience of music to the experience of dreams. As [...]
The narrator of Tom McCarthy’s brilliant and unusual novel, Remainder, is recovering from a horrible accident. “It involved something falling from the sky,” he tells us. “Technology. Parts, bits. That’s all I can divulge.” He can’t tell us more for two reasons. One, he’s not permitted to, because the terms of his financial settlement prevent [...]
In 1944, 23-year-old Tadeusz Rozewicz’s older brother was murdered by the Gestapo. It was one body among many that the Polish resistance fighter saw carted through the streets; nearly sixty years later, the aging poet faces his own coming death, but he is not taking it any more quietly than while fighting the Nazis. In [...]
I. Goldberg: Variations. Immediately the reader thinks of Bach, whose Goldberg Variations were, as legend has it, composed to help cure the insomnia of a rich patron named Goldberg. Bach’s piece had thirty variations, and there are thirty parts to this book. In the first we find Goldberg, a poet and a Jew, hired to [...]
Each of the three novellas in Rick Moody’s Right Livelihoods ends with a breath of mid-air. In “The Omega Force” (the first) and “The Albertine Notes” (the third), the ending is a winding down, an exhaustion, an impressive feat of rhythms coming to an end and characters giving up on reiteration, though they don’t know [...]
Only fourteen words into Jon McGregor’s second novel, So Many Ways to Begin, we’re off to the races with an armload of questions in desperate need of answers: “Eleanor was in the kitchen when he got back from her mother’s funeral, baking.” He returned from her mother’s funeral? One might even wonder if this is [...]
Kokoro opens in an unassuming manner. The nameless narrator, pen in hand, recollects the first moment he met Sensei on a summer holiday in Kamakura, a popular getaway. His traveling companion, a fellow student, had returned home to attend to a sick mother, and after a swim on the beach the narrator notices a Westerner [...]
For his debut novel, Robert Wiersema has set himself up against multiple challenges. First, how to tackle subject matter that is generally the domain of manipulative tearjerkers? Then there’s the more-than-subtle hint of the supernatural, which if not handled with subtlety ends up striking a sequence of increasingly false notes. The miracle (to use a [...]
Two years ago, Brad Vice’s debut short story collection was pulled after plagarism charges. Now the collection has been published. Barrett Hathcock wants to know if the charges were legit, if the book is worth reading, and what it all means.
Four years ago, Bolaño’s first English-language translation was published. Now, four books later and with Bolaño a legitimate phenomenon, Scott Esposito reassesses Bolaño’s first book and wonders why Bolaño has become so popular so fast.
I. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon doesn’t waste time getting into the plot. The first paragraph reads Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid [...]
I. In his 1955 piece, “A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay,” Clifton Fadiman pronounced the genre dead, done in by a “digressive and noncommitting” method nearly impossible to practice in “an age of anxiety.” More than half a century later, in her charmed and charming collection, At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, Anne [...]
I. “There’s a laser scope . . . that can measure the vibrations in the glass of a window across the street, and then translate them into sounds. From there it’s one stop to hearing the conversation going on in that room,” says a character in Michael Ondaatje’s new novel Divisadero. Decades earlier, a different [...]
Falling Man, Don DeLillo. Scribner. 272pp, $14.95. In his famous (some might say infamous) appendix to his influential study, The Postmodern Condition, cultural theorist Jean-François Lyotard contends that the postmodern work struggles continuously, if paradoxically, to find a way to present the unpresentable. Its goal, whether in the form of one of Ad Reinhardt’s all-black [...]
I. It’s perhaps fitting that Daniel Alarcón’s new novel Lost City Radio features a blurb from Colm Tóibín comparing the novel to George Orwell’s and Aldous Huxley’s works. Although Tóibín is almost assuredly comparing the imaginative scope of the novel to Orwell and Huxley, he has perhaps unwittingly also made a fitting comparison to Orwell’s [...]
3:31 pm Sit down on my brown couch that looks out over the Hollywood sign and begin to read Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, After Dark, which clocks in at a slim 208 pages. 3:32 Drink water. 3:34 Realize the book is told in the present tense in a single night, with each chapter bearing a [...]
Chris Abani’s third novel, The Virgin of Flames, is set in the crumbling, beautiful parts of East L.A. where Hispanic and African Americans live. The City of Angels, “iridescent in its concrete sleeve,” has become a receptacle of wind and ash as brush fires sweep through the state. The atmosphere of dread and suspense in [...]
“I contemplated pride and love. All this contemplativeness. When will I be free of it?” —Robert Walser, 1926 Robert Walser is admired today mostly for his short prose pieces, which originally appeared as entertaining feuilleton in Swiss and German newspapers in the early decades of the 20th century. It is said that Kafka would search [...]
I. Literature is a sustained coincidence between imagination and reality mediated by language. Imagination and reality in indo-anglian fiction, brewed from history, ideology, and myth, are poured into those epic tuns that sell so well in our literary bazaars. Buttressing them is the belief of critic and novelist Amit Chaudhuri that “since India is a [...]
I. I cannot come to this review unbiased. Few new novels would excite me as much as one from David Markson, as he has been writing unusual and brilliant novels for decades at a slow and steady pace. Starting with 1996′s Reader’s Block, he has written three books that form a sort of trilogy (the [...]
I vividly remember being at a slumber party in middle school and dancing with my friends to our favorite music. Together we moved, feeling the beat and vigor of the music. I didn’t feel tired, but instead kept feeling increasingly swept up by the collective energy. I remember losing all sense of time, thoroughly engaged [...]
As the translator of the first four books by Roberto Bolaño to appear in English, Australian Chris Andrews has played a key role in bringing one of the Spanish language’s major 20th-century voices to American readers. A member of the language department of the University of Melbourne, Andrews’s translation of Bolaño’s Distant Star won the [...]
In addition to translating The Savage Detectives, Natasha Wimmer has translated numerous books by Mario Vargas Llosa, as well as books by Laura Restrepo and Pedro Juan Gutierrez. Her work has also appeared in The Believer, where she discussed translating Don Quixote, and, most recently, The Savage Detectives. Currently Wimmer is at work on translating [...]
C.M. Mayo is an award-winning writer, translator, and editor who focuses on bringing Mexican literature to English-speaking audiences. As an American living in Mexico, she saw how little of the literature was available in English (and vice versa) and founded the nonprofit Tameme, Inc. to promote translations of writing from the United States, Canada, and [...]
Oral storytelling is an essential part of Ngugi wa Thiong’o's beliefs about art and politics. Scott Esposito explains how storytelling works on three levels in Thiong’o's newest novel, Wizard of the Crow.
I. Roberto Bolaño was the type of writer most writers want to be or think they already are: stylistically bold, thematically engaging, readable and re-readable; in other words, undeniably exceptional. Bolaño, who died in 2003, was a writer whose style is deceptively simple yet whose books and characters take hold of one’s brain–all or most [...]
I. E.M. Forster devotes a chapter of Aspects of the Novel to the quality of prophecy, telling us that very few authors write with it. The realm of prophecy, he writes “is not a veil, it is not an allegory. It is the ordinary world of fiction, but it reaches back.” We are, Forster continues, [...]
I. For the sake of convenience, let’s divide world of criticism into three levels. The first level is the most base, the easiest, and perhaps the most valuable—the thumb. A thumbs up or thumbs down? This is the criticism of a friendly recommendation; this is the criticism of year-end lists, whether they’re constructed by some [...]
I. In the U.S., the “poverty line” for 2006 was set at $9,800 per year of income for a single person, or $20,000 for a family of four. But it is misleading to judge poverty in this way: surely some people can live comfortably below those income levels, and some—those with significant medical problems, for [...]
I. If there is a detective setting out to solve the mystery of the sardine, s/he sits in a chair (perhaps an armchair) reading Stefan Themerson’s novel The Mystery of the Sardine. The detection is in the reading, and the mystery is in the text, in the asking: What is this book about? How are [...]
I. Joseph Coulson’s second novel, Of Song and Water, concerns a jazz musician coming to endings: a career on the skids because of hands that can no longer make the chords he needs; a boat, falling apart and weighted with memories of his father, and of his father’s father before him (both men casting long [...]
I. Francine Prose confesses—and professes—a fundamental truth of writing on page two of her recent book on writing, Reading Like A Writer: “Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books.” True and simple enough. But when MFA programs are legion and pedagogical anxieties run high, the teaching [...]
I. Jennifer Gilmore’s debut novel, Golden Country, is a richly woven tapestry of immigrant life in the first half of the 20th century. Its disappointments and rewards lie in the breadth of its goal: to entwine the stories of three different immigrant families over the course of fifty years, and then to untangle the conventions [...]
I. Nostalgia in literature often seems to be left to the usual suspects–the white males. Readers grasp at the prosperity of Fitzgerald’s New York, the stiff-upper-lippedness of Wodehouse’s England, the superhero ’60s/’70s of Lethem and Chabon. Possibly, someone is even yearning for Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. It’s of interest then, when a black novelist takes on [...]
I. As I entered the grocery store checkout line, I immediately let out a sigh. Not only were there several packed carts in front of me, but the checker was involved with an unhappy customer—an apparent dispute over the charges on her receipt. I felt my impatience rising, certain of the long wait ahead of [...]
William H. Gass’s 650-page novel The Tunnel is one of the most complex, challenging books published in English in the 1990s. Stephen Schenkenberg investigates two valuable offerings from the Dalkey Archive Press helping us understand this disagreeable and stunning novel.
Mulligan Stew, considered by many to be Sorrentino’s greatest novel, is also probably the one in which his anger most powerfully dictates content. Yet, argues Scott Esposito, it’s not a rant, or a mere satire, but a literary masterpiece.
If the space for innovative cinema has shrunk over the course of two decades, unconquered territories still remain, perhaps even thrive, in the early 21st century. M.S. Smith discovers some of them at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Is it right to teach 12th-graders a book that involves blow jobs? Where should the line be drawn, and who should draw it? Teachers? Administrators? Matthew Cheney delves into his time as a teacher to find an answer as to what is appropriate.
I. When I agreed to review George Lakoff’s new book Whose Freedom?, there were many things I didn’t know. I didn’t know that Steven Pinker would review it in The New Republic. I didn’t know that Lakoff would write an angry rebuttal to the review, or that a nasty exchange laced with ad hominem attacks [...]
I. As a brand new mother, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen confesses she was an unlikely candidate to initiate a detached investigation of America’s changing funerary rites and practices. She also admits that she wasn’t the only one strolling the aisles of the undertaker’s convention with a baby in tow. Funeral homes are, after all, a family [...]
I. I didn’t recognize Gilbert Sorrentino the one time I was lucky enough to meet him and hear him read. Next to William Gaddis’s, his writing is the funniest in American literature, yet this humor is incongruent with dustjacket photographs that made him look alternately like some Mafia don silently ordering whackings, and the greaser [...]
I. Before September 11, 2001, the deadliest workplace disaster on U.S. soil was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which took place on March 25, 1911 and killed 146 workers. Katharine Weber’s excellent new novel, Triangle, is about both disasters, as well as (among other things) genetics, classical music, family, and history. What unites these threads [...]
I. The Brooklyn Bridge spans the Hudson River, connecting the New York boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. When it was completed in 1883 it was the longest suspension bridge in the world—longer than the previous record-holder by fifty percent—and was for many years after that also the world’s tallest structure. The literary symbolism of its [...]
Ever since World War II ended, American novelists have used China, Italy, the Philippines, Dunkirk, Dresden, and many other battlegrounds to represent everything from the effect of racism on American society to the strength of the American family. Katie Wadell argues that Haruki Murakami introduces us to an altogether different warfront in novels such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and A Wild Sheep Chase.
One of our time’s most fecund writers, Murakami has composed a dizzying array of short fiction. Here, Matthew Tiffany runs down some of the best, making an excellent starting point for those looking for an entry into Murakami’s short works.
I. When the German army sped across the Soviet border in June 1941 in a double-cross that left the more-than-adequately forewarned Stalin shocked and a few of his most prominent generals conveniently scapegoated and summarily shot, Vasily Grossman, too, was caught unawares. The Ukrainian novelist was fat, brainy, and Jewish, credentials that were more counter [...]
In the introduction to the English edition of his new short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Haruki Murakami writes: “I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.” Yet if the individual stories are flowers in a garden, what is the collection, the mass of all these carefully planted terrains?
The challenge in reviewing a new book by Haruki Murakami is that one has a sense of writing for a group of people who already know about his work—Murakami-fanatics, if you will—and they have preconceived notions. They’re reading the review for tidbits, excerpts, news. Like writing a review of a new Star Trek movie, you’re writing to those who want to find out how this newest installment adds to the overall, larger story.
I. Clare Messud’s The Emperor’s Children is a novel that obstinately defies easy classification. It is, at various times, and often at once, a contemporary comedy of manners, a postmodern fairy tale, a murder mystery sans a body, and an apocalyptic canto. The novel begins with a tony dinner party in Sydney in March 2001, [...]
I. The Obstacles is the first novel translated into English by Mexican writer Eloy Urroz, who is one of five Mexican writers who took part in writing the Crack Manifesto—a manifesto which declares its signatories against the Latin American literary tradition of Magical Realism. The Obstacles is the story of two writers, Elias and Ricardo, [...]
I. Though I don’t know much about Australia, its origin seems an irresistible tale, one that begs novelistic retelling, either as a vast metaphor or as a historical panorama. In her new book The Secret River, Kate Grenville chooses the latter approach. The story deals with the colony of New South Wales, newly home to [...]
I. “The imagination will not down,” William Carlos Williams writes in The Great American Novel. “If it is not dance, a song, it becomes an outcry, a protest. If it is not flamboyance it becomes deformity. If it is not art, it becomes crime. Men and women cannot be content, any more than children, with [...]
I. Peter Orner’s The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo is a collection of vignettes loosely strung together like macaroni on yarn. It takes place in a boys’ primary school in Goas, a tiny outpost in Namibia’s desert, yet the childish setting belies the narrative’s nuanced artistry; each short chapter is titled by a character, a [...]
I. In Tomorrow They Will Kiss, Eduardo Santiago explores the inter-woven lives of six Cuban-American women by examining their relationships and their past in Cuba. Told from the perspectives of three of the six women, the narrative goes back and forth between different characters, blending the events of the past into present-day drama. Caridad, Imperio, [...]
I. If superheroes dominate the “mainstream” of comics, then autobiographical comics are the dominant genre of the “independents.” From R. Crumb’s trailblazing confessionals to James Kolchalka’s daily diary strip, making comics about oneself seems irresistible to independent artists. Successful autobiographical comics succeed by finding something insightful in everyday life (John Porcellino) or by virtue of [...]
I. About halfway through Total Chaos, author Jean-Claude Izzo references director Marcel Pagnol’s immortal Fanny trilogy. Those three movies are about an epic love affair—love found, then lost, then resoundingly reclaimed—and in them the breezy, feisty port city of Marseilles is as much of a character as any human. The cast of this 1950s triptych [...]
I’m the kind of person who loves maps. The last time my mother visited, she and I stayed up until 2 am examining a National Geographic map of Europe, saying things like, “So that’s where Kiev is!” Something about them just draws me in, makes me lose track of time in the minutia of mountains, [...]
I. Cynthia Ozick’s latest book of essays, The Din in the Head, contains a surprising splinter of biography. In “James, Tolstoy, and My First Novel,” Ozick reveals that she once taught freshman composition to engineering students. The mind reels—not just from the essay, which is one of the collection’s best (a direct response to “The [...]
Irish writer Dorothy Nelson’s short novel In Night’s City is the story of a family in which love and abuse can never be uncoiled. First published in Ireland in 1982, the book is now being released in the United States as part of the Dalkey Archive Press’s Irish Literature Series (which also includes Nelson’s second [...]
It started with Big Pink the house. Then came the LP, The Band’s classic 1968 debut record that lodged itself so thoroughly in our cultural subconscious we’ll forever be humming its lines, “Pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ ’bout half past dead . . .” Now comes Music from Big Pink, a novella by John Niven, [...]
I. One of my favorite episodes from Thucydides is when the Athenians decide to whether to invade Syracuse. With Athens already stretched by the demands of the war with Sparta, their leader Pericles reminds them how difficult a task such an expedition will be—the cost, the number of ships, the number of men. It would [...]
For some time now, the dearth of an audience in this country for translated works has provided the online literature community with fodder for discussion. While newspapers use space to argue against the influence of blogs on sales of fiction—and, by extension, assert their own (fading) importance—blogs turn their attention to Reading the World, calling [...]
I. What does it take to convince a skeptical public of a scientific fact? If nearly 150 years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, school boards and courtrooms are still arguing over whether to teach the theory of evolution in schools, how long will it be before people accept theories that have just [...]
I. Many authors leave behind unfinished works when they die. Far fewer leave behind unfinished works that can be considered masterpieces. Gustave Flaubert’s last unfinished novel Bouvard and Pecuchet is without question his masterpiece, even in its unfinished state, towering above the more famous, but less enjoyable, Madame Bovary. Bouvard and Pecuchet are two middle-aged [...]
After fleeing Canada for Paris in 1999, crime reporter Jeremy Mercer has no clear idea of where to go with his life. A casual stop at the legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookstore proves to be the beginning of a life-changing experience, which Mercer documents in Time Was Soft There. Modeled after Sylvia Beach’s original bookstore [...]
I. “The earth is a tightrope; our train speeds across the flat thin wire. They say that a century from now this will all be gone, that the oceans will rise above this threadbare patch of earth. . . . I can’t quite believe this because I never believe anything I won’t be around to [...]
I. When the German army sped across the Soviet border in June 1941 in a double-cross that left the more-than-adequately forewarned Stalin shocked and a few of his most prominent generals conveniently scapegoated and summarily shot, Vasily Grossman, too, was caught unawares. The Ukrainian novelist was fat, brainy, and Jewish, credentials that were more counter [...]
Though the market for fiction that makes political commentary has seen better days, the nonfiction best-seller lists are packed with passionate missives from liberals and conservatives alike. Even though the latter generally preaches to the choir and fiction may do better at breaching the ideological divide, people seem to want their politics and their fiction [...]
I. “It’s safe to say no novels have yet engaged with the post-Sept. 11 era in any meaningful way,” opined Rachel Donadio in an early August issue of the New York Times Book Review. Though the veracity of her sentence lies on that marshy word “meaningful,” I’d argue that she’s incorrect. In the past year [...]
Hate and love, the horrifying recognition that opposites contain each other, these are the things Bidart illuminates in flaming letters. Elizabeth Wadell considers Bidart’s Star Dust, delving into this feverish and impassioned collection.
Attempting to combine historical science with a hefty dose of troubled marriage, Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart struggles mightily to convince readers of its credentials in both realms while managing to engage us in neither. Millet liberally drops in anecdotes that may or may not be fictional with the intent of turning the [...]
I. Contrary to the impression one might get from the increasingly prominent coverage of the “graphic novel” in the mainstream press, words and pictures have a long history of coexistence. Sometimes the words overtake the pictures (illustrated novel), sometimes the pictures overtake the words (many children’s books), and often there is integration (comic strips, comic [...]
Jim Ruland’s Big Lonesome isn’t merely a collection of clever, funny stories. More than just a clever author, Ruland is adept at creating precise, bizarre yet completely honest studies of the human condition while surprising us at every turn. In “Night Soil Man,” the employees of an Irish zoo (owned by the Belfast Corporation) must [...]
Zainab Salbi’s life is difficult to pin down in a sentence. Is she “a member of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle who defected to the United States”? Or is she the “founder of the charity organization for war victims ‘Women for Women International’”? Until her book, Between Two Worlds, was published this year, she kept those [...]
Devil Talk is a rich mix of contemporary short stories and folk tales of individuals dealing with evil in various forms: confronted by it, instigating it, dancing with it, and victimized by it. Fantastical events mingle with daily life in these stories that are immersed in Chicano and Mexicano culture, and often occur against the [...]
Russian spies, Spanish fascists, and Hemingway sipping mojitos in Madrid. Somewhere between the genres of biography and historical fiction lies Stephen Koch’s new book, The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles. In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, literary and political intrigues surround the lives of two famous authors [...]
Banana Yoshimoto’s Hardboiled & Hard Luck, available in an English translation by Michael Emmerich, consists of two long stories. Although unrelated, the stories are joined by the shared yearning of the female narrators and the fact that both take place after a major tragedy has occurred. “Hardboiled” has the more complex plot, following the narrator [...]
I would call A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit’s new book, atypical, except that I’m not quite sure what constitutes “normal” for this writer. Solnit is the author of eight previous books, and they are quite a mixed bunch. Two of them, Wanderlust and River of Shadows, could be considered histories, of walking [...]
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