Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Review of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

 Nathan Englander writes about families with insight and great sensitivity.  He digs behind the surface dialog to reveal what is hiding beneath.  In the title story—“What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank”—a wife asks her husband if he would save her in the Holocaust, if he would risk his own life to hide her in the attic.  He says yes, but, in a feat of miraculous writing, we all know the true answer is no.  The second story, “Sister Hills,” is a kind of epic allegory covering decades that challenges deep tenets of the Jewish faith.  In “Peep Show,” a successful lawyer faces down his hidden guilt about suppressing his Jewishness in favor of a secular life.  “Everything I Know about My Family on My Mother’s Side” is uniquely structured as a series of sixty-three numbered paragraphs, intermingling family lore with the narrator’s personal struggle to form meaningful relationships.  Perhaps the best story is the last one, “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” in which a father teaches his son about moral ambiguity and unconditional forgiveness.  Judaism is a big part of these stories, as are family relationships and the theme of individual responsibility.  This is a beautifully written and thought-provoking collection by a masterful story teller.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

2012 Best Translated Book Award Longlist Announced

Here's the press release from Three Percent:

The 25-title fiction longlist for the 2012 Best Translated Book Awards was announced this afternoon. This is the fifth year for the BTBA, which launched in 2007 as a way of highlighting the best works of international literature published in the U.S. in the previous year.
Featuring authors from 14 countries writing in 12 languages, this year’s fiction longlist illustrates the prize’s dedication to literary diversity, ranging from works by established and classic authors, such as Moacyr Scliar’s Kafka’s Leopards and Imre Kertesz’s Fiasco, to works by emerging voices, like Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, and Inka Parei’s The Shadow-Boxing Woman.

The longlist also includes an eclectic mix of translators, from Steve Dolph—whose translation of Juan José Saer’s Scars is his second full-length publication—to world-renowned translators Bill Johnston—who has two entries on this list, Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski and In Red by Magdalena Tulli. As in years past, the list is dominated by smaller independent publishers, such as Dedalus, Seagull Books, Melville House, and Archipelago Books, although a number of larger houses—like W.W. Norton, Knopf, and Bloomsbury—are also represented.

“We had such a difficult time culling this year’s longlist down to just twenty-five titles,” said fiction judge Gwendolyn Dawson. “Although a small percentage of books published in the U.S. each year are original translations, those books are generally excellent and unique. We are excited by this year’s strong longlist and daunted by the task of narrowing the list to a shortlist of only ten titles.”

Books eligible for this year’s award include titles published between December 1, 2010 and December 31, 2011 that have never before appeared in English translation in any form. Selection criteria include both the quality of the book itself and the quality of the translation, with the goal of honoring translators and authors for their joint effort in making future classics of world literature available to English readers.

This year’s set of judges consists of Monica Carter (Salonica), Gwendolyn Dawson (Literary License), Scott Esposito (Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation), Susan Harris (Words Without Borders), Annie Janusch (Translation Review), Matthew Jakubowski (writer & critic), Brandon Kennedy (bookseller/cataloger), Bill Marx (PRI’s The World: World Books), Edward Nawotka (Publishing Perspectives), Michael Orthofer (Complete Review), and Jeff Waxman (Seminary Co-op and University of Chicago Press).

For the second consecutive year, Three Percent is also proud to announce that Amazon.com is supporting the awards through a $25,000 grant that will provide $5,000 cash prizes to all of the winning authors and translators, as well as $5,000 to bring the judges to New York for the awards ceremony. The 10-title fiction shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, April 10th, concurrent with the announcement of the finalists for the poetry award. Winners in both categories will be announced in New York City, as part of the PEN World Voices Festival.

More details about the awards ceremony will be made available in coming weeks. In the meantime, Three Percent will highlight one book a day from the fiction longlist, with features written by translators, reviewers, and editors about the singular qualities of each title, and “why it should win.” 

The 2012 BTBA Fiction Longlist (in alphabetical order by author):

Leeches by David Albahari
Translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson
(Open Letter)

Demolishing Nisard by Eric Chevillard
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
(Dalkey Archive Press)

Private Property by Paule Constant
Translated from the French by Margot Miller and France Grenaudier-Klijn
(University of Nebraska Press)

Lightning by Jean Echenoz
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
(New Press)

Zone by Mathias Énard
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
(Open Letter)

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin
(Seven Stories)

Upstaged by Jacques Jouet
Translated from the French by Leland de la Durantaye
(Dalkey Archive Press)

Fiasco by Imre Kertész
Translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson
(Melville House)

Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri
Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Kornél Esti by Dezső Kosztolányi
Translated from the Hungarian by Bernard Adams
(New Directions)

I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière
Translated from the French by David Homel
(Douglas & MacIntyre)

Suicide by Edouard Levé
Translated from the French by Jan Steyn
(Dalkey Archive Press)

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry

Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne

Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
(Archipelago Books)

Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz
Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
(Seagull Books)

Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin
(W.W. Norton)

Scars by Juan José Saer
Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph
(Open Letter)

Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar
Translated from the Portuguese by Thomas O. Beebee
(Texas Tech University Press)

Seven Years by Peter Stamm
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
(Other Press)

The Truth about Marie by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith
(Dalkey Archive Press)

In Red by Magdalena Tulli
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
(Archipelago Books)

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
(New Directions)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Review of I’m a Box (translated by Johanna Warren)

3 out of 5: Nadila, the young protagonist of this debut novel, struggles to become a writer in the formidable shadow of her obsession with Clarice Lispector. Lispector (1920-1977), perhaps the greatest Brazilian writer of the 20th century, haunts Nadila with her genre-bending novels and her mysterious life. Told in a first-person stream of consciousness, I’m a Box begins by describing Nadila’s rather prosaic life as a bookstore employee in Barcelona and gradually devolves into a strange and surreal narrative of Nadila’s writing process.

I’m a Box is at its best when it explores the process (and difficulty) of artistic creation:

Who had put a washing machine inside me? I suddenly wondered. A woman in there had turned it on. Instead of clothes it was washing thoughts, words, ideas, dreams, desires. And oh, how it hurt when it was time to spin-dry. Vertigo, disorientation, confusion, loose letters, chains, condemnations, links, interlineations, I could see it all but … how to express it, even to myself…?
At other times, artistic creation is breathtakingly easy (literally): “I had my pseudonym at the ready, chosen by a simple exchange of air between my lungs and the atmosphere that surrounded me: Andrea Selena.”

Striking passages like these make I’m a Box worth reading. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the novel is both tedious and erratic. Nadila’s childish voice lacks authority and leaves readers feeling as if they are following the artistic awakening of a mediocre talent. The final chapter returns to reality and provides a refreshing summing up of Nadila’s artistic state, but it arrives too late to save the book from its own self-absorption.

Sunday, December 25, 2011


4.5 out of 5: Luis Fiore just shot his wife in the face after a day of hunting with his family. This fictitious brutality serves as the plot hub for Scars, a 1969 novel by Argentine writer Juan José Saer (1937-2005) that was recently published in an English translation by Open Letter Books. Four spokes radiate outwards from the novel’s murderous hub, each one comprising a stand-alone vignette with a different protagonist and a unique connection, some intimate and some remote, to Fiore’s crime. Other than the final section of the novel, which is told in the voice of the murderer himself, the other three sections revolve around their own unrelated events and distinct motivators. With this unique structure, Saer seems to be making the point that even the most dramatic event matters only to those directly involved in it. For the rest, the event is merely a blip in everyday life.

In a very brief space, Saer creates four distinct protagonists. In the novel’s first section, a young journalist struggles to write daily (usually fictional) weather reports while living with his irritable mother. In the second and third sections, a lawyer is hopelessly addicted to gambling, and a judge recognizes the meaninglessness of his life. Even the judge’s hobby of translating Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray into Spanish adds nothing to the world (“Whole passages come out exactly the same as the versions of the professional translators.”). In the final section, the novel telescopes into Fiore’s day of hunting and his fatal moment of misjudgment.

Scars is a beautifully-structured lesson in humility and perspective, accented with sparkling, if dark, humor. Dolph’s lively translation captures the underlying play and tension in Saer’s writing. I would have preferred more resolution of the distinct stories and less focus on hyper-realistic details (do we really need to know every turn the judge makes in his car on his way to the office every time he makes the trip?). Nonetheless, Scars delivers the rare combination of entertaining suspense and thought-provoking, intelligent writing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Literary License Reaches 1000 Posts

Thanks to all of you loyal Literary License readers! More reviews are on the way!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Review of From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (translated by Victoria Cribb)

From the Mouth of the Whale
4 out of 5: Icelandic author Sjón’s latest novel follows the life of Jónas Pálmason, an Icelandic man sentenced to live out his life on a bleak and uninhabited island after being convicted of outlawry for practicing the arts of sorcery and necromancy. The novel, which is set in the years 1635-1639 when Jónas is in his mid-sixties, is Jónas’s poetic and surreal stream of consciousness touching on the major events of his life, including laying to rest a troublesome ghost who haunts a remote village and meeting and falling in love with his wife.

Aside from a brief trip to Copenhagen to plead his case, the whole of Jónas’s story is confined to his island. After years of solitude, Jónas’s identity has merged with that of his desolate surroundings:

I am the brother of all that divides, all that curls, all that intertwines, all that waves … after the day’s rain showers the web of the world becomes visible … the moment night falls, the beads of moisture glitter on its silver strings … nature is whole in its harmony.
Jónas’s weighty and formal voice makes his story feel almost Biblical, calling to mind the universal conflict between innovation and repression. And, like that of many visionaries throughout history, Jónas’s tale is filled with loathsome villains “who every day outlive their victims, sprawling in their high seats and thrones, gorging themselves on meat, dripping with grease, from the livestock that grew fat on the green grass in meadows tended with diligence by innocent, God-fearing souls; congratulating themselves on having stripped this man of his livelihood and that woman of her breadwinner.”

Victoria Cribb is to be commended for capturing Sjón’s unique voice in her English translation, a difficult task to be sure. While this is undeniably a fictional account of a man living during the 17th century, it shares few characteristics with those novels described as historical fiction. This is not a realistic rendering of a specific historical time and place so much as it is an exploration into the ravaged mind of a persecuted man. Reading From the Mouth of the Whale is like studying one of those gruesome Goya paintings of the interior of an early 19th century madhouse: a fascinating, if unsettling, experience.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Review of The Book of Happenstance by Ingrid Winterbach (translated by Dirk and Ingrid Winterbach)

The Book of Happenstance

3.5 out of 5: Open Letter Press recently published an English translation of The Book of Happenstance by well-known South African author Ingrid Winterbach. As the novel opens, Helena Verbloem has just moved to Durban, a port city on the east coast of South Africa, to undertake a special project. Verbloem is to work with the elegant and learned Theo Verway to create a compilation of obsolete Afrikaans words. She brings along her collection of seashells, which is a kind of spiritual talisman for her:

Meditating on the shells is one way of centering myself and lowering my levels of anxiety. These shells are a source of infinite beauty and wonder to me. I can rely on their beauty to divert me from vexation and discontent.

By page five we learn that Theo is to die within seven months and that Helena’s shells have been stolen by a burglar. Herlena spends the rest of the novel in a kind of spiritual quest. Not only is she seeking her shells, but she is also trying to understand her attachment to them. She enters into extended conversations with her coworkers about the origins of life on the planet and the miracle of evolution. Throughout it all, she examines her own life, which includes a lover who inspires nothing more than “great affection.”

Not much happens in The Book of Happenstance, but there is a pervasive sense of foreboding as if the narrative is suspended in a moment of pause right before a dramatic denouement. Clearly, this is Winterbach’s intent, and she goes so far as to have a friend of Helena’s vocalize this: “That’s how I would have liked to write if I could … with little happening ostensibly, but everything charged with meaning.” That promised drama never arrives, however, and I found myself wishing for either an exciting event or a resolution to the many subplots. On the whole, The Book of Happenstance was unsatisfying, though I enjoyed many of its constituent parts.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Review of The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti Skomsvold (translated by Kerri Pierce)

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am

4 out of 5: This debut by Norwegian Kjersti Skomsvold is a sparkling jewel of a novel. At around 140 smallish pages, The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am is not much more than a novella, really, but it tackles big themes like aging, mortality, and the loneliness of the human condition. The novel’s first-person narrator, Mathea Martinsen, has outlived her peers and is fed up with being invisible to the world. Even people Mathea interacts with take no notice of her, including the grocery store clerk: "When I give him my money, I touch the palm of his hand, but he doesn't notice. ... And if I was kidnapped five minutes later, and the cops came by and showed him my picture, the boy would say he'd never seen me before in his life."

In a quest to increase her social footprint, Mathea decides to take a series of actions to force people to notice her. She starts wearing a watch in the hopes someone will ask her what time it is, but nobody does. She bakes buns for a residents' meeting at her condominium but eats them all before mustering the courage to go to the meeting. She calls information and asks for her own number because "maybe Information keeps statistics as to the most requested and most loved person in the nation ... and I shouldn't just sit here moping around because my name isn't on it."

Because Mathea has always spent most of her time sequestered at home, her personality hasn’t been dulled by the hundreds of minor social corrections most of us experience every day. Her voice is a compelling mix of naiveté, blunt observations, and dark (often unintentional) humor. While reading passages like this one, I found myself alternating between cringing and laughing out loud: "I talked Epsilon [Mathea’s husband] into buying a rabbit, but didn't tell him it was because I couldn't be alone in the apartment anymore. He wouldn't understand. ‘I just love animals,’ I said. ‘Almost as much as Hitler did.’"

The ending of The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am is beautiful, tragic, and surprising. Best of all, it just might change the way you interact with the people around you who you’ve always ignored.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Literary License Fiction Round-Up

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan: Nancy Horan’s debut novel—a fictionalized account of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s adulterous relationship with Mamah Borthwirk Cheney—explores the tension between duty to family and freedom to pursue love. When Frank and Mamah, who hires Frank along with her husband to design a house for their family, fall in love, they are ostracized by their former friends and denigrated in the press. Horan portrays Frank and Mamah’s relationship unsentimentally and, at times, in an unflattering light. Frank and Mamah are self-absorbed and arrogant in their love, but Horan elicits sympathy for these two talented and passionate people who are confined by their society. Intelligent historical fiction.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine: A clever reimagining of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. When the husband of septuagenarian Betty Weissmann decides to divorce her to pursue a relationship with his much younger co-worker, Betty moves out of their shared Manhattan apartment into a dumpy beach cottage in Westport. Betty’s two unmarried, middle-aged daughters move in with her to provide emotional support but end up needing more support than Betty. Although Schine’s novel is loosely based on Sense and Sensibility, the novel’s resolution is original and unpredictable. Filled with clever dialog, quirky characters, and enough humor to maintain a light tone despite weighty issues like divorce, aging, and death, The Three Weissmanns of Westport is a perfect summer read.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Marina, a pharmacologist at a large pharmaceutical company, travels into the heart of the Amazon jungle to check up on a reclusive colleague (Dr. Swenson) engaged in researching a remote tribe that’s discovered the secret to lifelong fertility. Patchett has developed some wonderfully vivid characters, especially Dr. Swenson. The jungle is portrayed in lush detail, and the science is meticulously described. However, this novel is overloaded; there’s too much science, too much complicated backstory, and too many long passages devoted to characterization. The overall effect is a sluggish read, and Marina doesn’t even make it into the jungle until midway through the novel. State of Wonder is a worthwhile read but doesn’t live up to all the hype.

Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman: Despite the fact that most of us spend the majority of our waking hours sitting at our office desks, there are relatively few novels that explore this setting. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris is one good example of such a book, and, now, Domestic Violets can be added to the (relatively short) list. Clearly, Norman has some experience with office work. He portrays the petty feuds, the office flirtations, the awkward boss-employee relationships, the stolen afternoons at the golf course, and the overall cynicism that monotonous office work can breed perfectly. Other aspects of this novel ring true to life, including the marital difficulties and the challenges of the writer's life, but I most appreciated Norman's treatment of office life. Norman tempers the novel's cynical tone with plenty of humor to create an enjoyable read.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

A Cupboard Full of Coats

4.5 out of 5: Yvvette Edwards’s debut novel, A Cupboard Full of Coats, is an elegantly structured story of guilt and redemption. Fourteen years after her mother’s murder, Jinx still blames herself for her role in the crime. She is living alone and in a state of emotional exile in London’s East End, separated from her husband and young son, when Lemon arrives on her doorstep unexpectedly: “He just knocked, that was all, knocked the front door and waited, like he’d just come back with the paper from the corner shop, and the fourteen years since he’d last stood there, the fourteen years since the night I’d killed my mother, hadn’t really happened at all.” An old friend of Jinx’s mom and her abusive husband, Lemon blames himself for the death. Lemon’s arrival sparks “some kind of voyage of discovery” for Jinx and Lemon as they spend the next few days revisiting old wounds and reliving past events.

Jinx’s first-person narration is emotionally raw and brutally honest. Her edgy voice is counterbalanced by Lemon’s melodic, Caribbean diction. Over several days, the healing process begins as Lemon breaks down Jinx’s self-defenses with home-cooked meals and other ministrations, including a foot massage that left Jinx a “shapeless, boneless heap of melted contentment.” Edwards’s vivid language captures the full range of human appetites and emotions with admirable precision. Jinx’s dark thoughts are portrayed in clipped, brusque sentences—“I wanted to kill him. I’d been angry before in the past, but nothing on this scale ever. I wanted him dead”—but the passages of longing and desire are flowing and sensuous:

“He’d cooked oxtail and butter beans for dinner, with small round dumplings the size of marbles, brought it to me in my bedroom on a tray, waited while I adjusted the pillows behind my back and smoothed a level space on the duvet for him to put it down. … The meat was so tender it fell from the bone, melting inside my mouth, the gravy spicy and so compelling I found myself unable to stop eating even when the plate was empty, sucking out every crevice of the bones, using my mouth like a bottom-feeder, my tongue like a young girl French-kissing an orange.”

The narrative alternates between the present day interactions of Jinx and Lemon and Jinx’s memories of her mother’s last months of life, culminating in the events leading up to her violent death. A Cupboard Full of Coats is a masterfully structured novel, building suspense even though the ending is revealed on the first page. Impressive in its psychological complexity, this is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? By Johan Harstad (translated by Deborah Dawkin)

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?: A Novel
4.5 out of 5: “The person you love is 72.8 percent water and there’s been no rain for weeks.” So begins Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, the impressive debut novel by Norwegian author Johan Harstad and translated into English by Deborah Dawkin. After losing his girlfriend and his job, first-person narrator Mattias leaves his home in Stavanger, Norway to travel with a friend’s rock band to a concert on the remote Faroe Islands, located halfway between Scotland and Iceland. Following a series of events he can’t remember and carrying an inexplicable pocketful of cash, Mattias ends up living in a kind of commune for people existing somewhere between a mental institution and normal society. Their limited interaction with the world matches Mattias’s own desire to disappear:

"I’d decided I didn’t need to be the best, the most popular, or even liked, I just wanted to find myself a vacant space and stay there, do my thing, maybe I was just frightened of disrupting something, of knocking the world out of its delicate balance by being in the way, in the wrong place, if I was too visible, tied people to me."

Buzz Aldrin is a long, blowsy, meandering novel crammed full of digressions and unnecessary scenes. Mattias’s extreme passivity and self-destructive tendencies have the potential to annoy readers, and, near the novel’s end, Harstad introduces some plot elements (including a journey and some secret psychiatry files) that seem overly contrived. Nevertheless, these narrative flaws are more than made up for by this novel’s abundant charms. From the very beginning of Mattias’s story, I was hooked by his voice, a compelling mix of humility, melancholy, earnestness, and humor:

“It is a Tuesday. There can be no doubt about that. I see it in the light, the traffic outside the windows will continue to stream all day, slowly, disinterestedly, people driving back and forth out of habit rather than necessity. Tuesday. The week’s most superfluous day. A day that almost nobody notices among all the other days. I read somewhere, I don’t remember where, that statistics showed there were 34 percent fewer appointments made on an average Tuesday than on any other day. On a worldwide basis. That’s how it is. On the other hand a much greater number of funerals are held on Tuesdays than during the rest of the week. They sort of bunch up, you never get on top of it.”

Buzz Aldrin is filled with an emotional exuberance that’s rare and a joy to experience. Deborah Dawkin’s translation preserves that exuberance along with the brisk pace of Mattias’s narration. Over the course of almost 500 pages, I became thoroughly immersed in Mattias’s world, and even though I finished reading Buzz Aldrin more than a week ago, I still wonder how he’s doing. My strong emotional connection to this story proves what Mattias eventually realizes: “[E]ven an invisible person will be seen in the end, as a white aura flickering through nature, and there are no places to hide.”

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin (translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim)

Please Look After Mom

4 out of 5: In Please Look After Mom, Korean author Kyung-sook Shin gives us a beautifully written (and translated) admonishment not to take our parents for granted. When an elderly mother (Park So-nyo) goes missing from the platform of a Seoul train station, her four adult children are plagued with guilt. Why didn’t they offer to pick up their mother from the station after her journey into the city from the country? Why didn’t they pay more attention to her after moving away from home? Why were they such ungrateful children?

The novel is told in alternating perspectives, beginning with So-nyo’s daughter. Shin’s unusual use of the second-person point of view depicts each narrator’s thoughts as an internal dialog:

When you first heard Mom had gone missing, you angrily asked why nobody from your large family went to pick her and Father up at Seoul Station. ‘And where were you?’ Me? You clammed up. You didn’t find out about Mom’s disappearance until she’d been gone four days. You all blamed each other for Mom’s going missing, and you all felt wounded.
This technique brings much-needed dynamism to a story that mostly takes place inside the narrators’ minds in the form of memories and guilt-laden thoughts. Shin depicts the life of a family as a complicated web of ever-changing relationships. Never over-sentimental, Please Look After Mom succeeds as a sensitive and powerful examination of the selflessness of parental love.

A Review of Victor Halfwit by Thomas Bernhard (translated by Martin Chalmers and illustrated by Sunandini Banerjee)

Victor Halfwit: A Winter's Tale

4.5 out of 5: Victor Halfwit is a (very) short story by Thomas Bernhard. Seagull Books, with the help of translator Martin Chalmers and the invaluable contribution of illustrator Sunandini Banerjee, has elevated this story to a work of art with this lavishly illustrated edition. What would easily fit on two pages has been spread over more than two hundred pages, many of which contain just a couple words or even no words at all. Without a doubt, Banerjee’s illustrations take center stage in this production. Composed of intricately layered collages in lush colors, these illustrations are gorgeous and eye-catching. Their surrealistic elements and juxtapositions of images from different time periods complement Bernhart’s prose, and the book’s high production value, including thick creamy paper and flawless color printing, show off Banerjee’s art to great effect. Bernhardt’s simple fable, however, cannot support the weight of its powerful artistic accompaniment and ultimately reveals itself to be nothing more than flimsy scaffolding. Read this book for the art or give it as a gift but don’t expect much from the story.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Review of Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras (translated by Frank Wynne)


4 out of 5: Kamchatka, a novel by Marcelo Figueras, is a fictional first-person remembrance of childhood in Argentina during the Dirty War (1976-1983), a time of political instability and government-sponsored violence when thousands of civilians were “disappeared.” The story begins when the narrator, then a ten-year-old boy, is uprooted from his comfortable life in Buenos Aries and forced to go into hiding in the country with his activist parents and younger brother.

Kamchatka is a realistic imagining of a child’s experience of political turmoil. The potential dangers take the form of vague references in overheard conversations and other oblique manifestations. In general, the narrator spends most of his time describing his (often humorous) exploits with his younger brother, his attempts to emulate Harry Houdini’s daring escapes, and his love of Superman. The overall effect is that of a happy childhood occasionally marred by darker overtones (e.g., the unexpected and unexplained death of a young family friend and the need to assume fake names). The narrator’s voice is charmingly naïve and optimistic except for those instances where his adult persona intrudes on his childhood experiences with over-long lectures on academic topics like astronomy or the changing concept of fatherhood over time. Kamchatka would have been better without these digressions, but the novel still succeeds as a tribute to the resilience of children and the strength of family, even in the most difficult circumstances.

A Review of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

4 out of 5: In Stella Gibbons’s contemporary classic novel Cold Comfort Farm (1932), the orphaned, 20-year-old Flora moves in with distant relatives living on a remote farm in Sussex, England. Accustomed to glamorous London, Flora is not equipped to handle the hardscrabble life of a farmer, but with unflagging enthusiasm, she makes the best of her bleak circumstances. Flora sets about improving the farm and the lives of its inhabitants, who have suffered under the tyrannical influence of Aunt Ada Doom for many years.

Flora’s first glimpse of Cold Comfort Farm is anything but cheery:

Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.
As this overwrought passage suggests, Cold Comfort Farm is intended as a parody of the sentimental and grim novels of rural life popular during Gibbons’s lifetime (see, e.g., Mary Webb’s The Golden Arrow). Despite a limited (or nonexistent?) collective memory of books like Webb’s, Gibbons’s parody remains fresh and accessible and, most importantly, hilarious. Overall, Cold Comfort Farm is an entertaining and unique reading experience.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Review of Stone Upon Stone by Mysliwski Wieslaw (translated by Bill Johnston)

Stone Upon Stone

4.5 out of 5: Stone Upon Stone is the first-person narration of the fictional life of Szymek Pietruszka, a Polish farmer living during and after World War II. At various points in Szymek’s life, this proud bachelor worked as a barber, a fighter in the resistance against the German occupation of Poland, and a government administrator. With charming honesty and rambunctious humor, Szymek covers all the details of his life from the banal (the proper technique for mowing a field), to the lurid (his womanizing and knife-fighting) and the universal (his deep love of family and the land).

As Poland rushes towards modernization, Szymek attempts to establish a sense of purpose and stability in his life. In particular, he seeks permanence in the form of an elaborate family tomb, despite the fact that nobody else in his family seems interested in the project. The building of the tomb provides an overall framework for Szymek’s story; it is the physical embodiment of his metaphysical struggles. Although Szymek’s lengthy monologues are occasionally tedious, his (often unintentional) humor keeps the story lively and entertaining. Only Szymek, for example, could turn dangerous food shortages into something funny:

No one bothered setting snares anymore, there was no point when they had rifles, handguns, automatic pistols. And how many hares could there be left after that long of a war? When you saw one hopping by somewhere it was like seeing a miracle. Look, a hare, a hare! And it didn’t even look much like a hare, it’d have its ears shot away or a missing leg and it’d be peg-legging it along more like an old man than a hare.
Szymek’s no-nonsense attitude often leads to distasteful actions (like the time he sold his dog to a dogcatcher to get money to go to a dance) but also provides a hopeful contrast to the often bleak postwar conditions:

I was always more interested in living than in dying. Living and living, as long as I could, as much as I could. Even if there was no reason to. Though does it matter all that much whether there’s a reason or no? Maybe it actually makes no difference, and we’re just wasting our time worrying about it. … People don’t need to know everything. Horses don’t know things and they go on living. And bees, for instance, if they knew it was humans they were collecting honey for, they wouldn’t do it. How are people any better than horses or bees?
This 500+ page novel will reward the patient reader with a remarkably detailed understanding of postwar life in rural Poland and, by extension, the human condition in general.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Literary License Fiction Round-Up

A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear by Atiq Rahimi (translated by Sarah Maguire and Yama Yari): In Kabul in 1979 Farhad, a 21-year-old university student, is out after curfew to celebrate a friend’s imminent escape to Pakistan. After suffering a vicious beating by soldiers on patrol, a mysterious and brave woman rescues the unconscious Farhad from the sewer. A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear consists of Farhad’s splintered memories and dreams mixed with his brief moments of lucidity as Fahad slowly returns to awareness. A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear is a disturbing and masterful depiction of the harrowing circumstances suffered by both men and women in war-torn Afghanistan.

A Thread of Sky by Deanna Fei: Spurred on by the unexpected death of her husband, Irene Shen organizes a trip back to her family’s Chinese homeland for herself, her three daughters, her sister, and her mother. Told from alternating perspectives, this novel of family (dys)functioning touches on just about every drama-filled issue imaginable. Although never boring, A Thread of Sky takes on too many topics to address them all with satisfying depth. Nevertheless, the novel is a thought-provoking look at family dynamics on the road.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: This debut novel is a Wharton-esque tale of post-Depression New York City during the year 1938. The action follows the ever-morphing relationships of several young men and women as their fortunes rise and fall, seemingly overnight. The self-assured voice of 25-year-old Katey Kontent leads the reader through it all with confidence and verve. Rules of Civility is an entertaining exploration of the whims of Fortune.

Seven Years by Peter Stamm (translated by Michael Hoffman): In this novel of obsessive love, Alex, an architectural student in Munich, vacillates between his admiration for a fellow-student (Sonya) and his irrational attraction to a dumpy, taciturn Polish woman (Ivona). Although Alex eventually marries Sonya and starts an architectural firm with her, he remains strangely drawn to Ivona. What at first seems to be Alex’s inexplicable obsession with an unworthy woman is slowly revealed to be Alex’s desire for unconditional love and the freedom such a love provides. Seven Years is a masterful exploration of forbidden love and its consequences.