The Canvas

My most recent published review is of Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas and was published in The L Magazine. The review is posted here, but the full text is below.

When preparing this review, I didn’t find an abundance of information in English on Stein (hopefully that will change presently), but I did turn up an interesting video interview that the German TV station DW-TV ran with Stein, “Identity and Memory,” which refers to the young author as “the voice of a young self-confident generation of Jews in Germany.” (Early tidbit: Stein is not only an author, he’s also a “computer specialist and management consultant,” which I thought was an interesting day job that I wouldn’t have guessed from the novel’s content at all.)

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“No one knows better than I that the boundary between reality and fiction in every story runs meanderingly through the middle of language, concealed and incomprehensible—and movable.”

This observation, made by one of The Canvas’ two increasingly unreliable narrators, is easily applied to the novel itself, a sophisticated Choose Your Own Adventure that’s not only a complex narrative but also a significant exploration of how form and structure irrevocably affect a story’s reception.

Delving into truth, memory, empathy, and self-making, Stein’s novel takes inspiration from the real-life scandal of Binjamin Wilkomirski, a Swiss man who notoriously penned a successful but falsified Holocaust memoir in the late 1990s. The Canvas is comprised of two stories: that of Jan Weschler, a Jewish publisher living in Munich, and of Amnon Zichroni, a dedicated scholar of the Talmud who can physically experience the memories of others. The tales literally begin opposite and upside down from one another—the book has two covers, and Jan and Amnon’s stories meet in the middle; a reader could start at either end of the book or alternate back and forth between the two. These narratives intersect abruptly and surprisingly; whose version of events you believe largely depends on whose you read first.

Stein immerses the reader in the lives and memories of both characters—in Jan Weschler’s East Berlin upbringing and eventual conversion to Orthodox Judaism; in Amnon Zichroni’s brush with secular literature as a child and his resultant move to Switzerland. Rather than providing any real sort of clarity, however, the intimacy provided by the first-person narration actually obscures the stories more; in particular, Weschler’s discovery that his life is not what he remembers is profoundly shocking not only to him but also to the all-too-trusting reader.

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From Arizona to Iceland: A Summer 2012 Reading List

In honor of the summer solstice today, I thought I’d put together a list of books I’m very much looking forward to reading this summer. A few of these are new releases (or soon-to-be releases), a couple are older titles. All of them should be entertaining, which is what you obviously want in a summer book–a blazing sun and 50%+ humidity can make it hard to focus on denser tomes–although not everything on this list is, perhaps, a traditional ‘beach read.’ I seem to have also planned myself an armchair world tour, starting in the U.S. and working my way half way around the world before I’m done.

Any particular book that you, dear readers, are looking forward to dipping into whilst poolside this summer?

The American Southwest

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

NYRB is bringing out this title by Hughes, a New Mexico-based mystery writer and critic (1904 – 1993), in July. I am not familiar with Hughes’ work (she was the author of 14 noirs and detective novels), but am intrigued by at least two other of her better-known works, the quirkily titled The Cross-Eyed Bear, and In a Lonely Place, which was made into a film with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. The Expendable Man seems like a good place to start, though, particularly because I’m always on the look-out for books that accurately capture Arizona (my ‘homeland’). And the plot doesn’t sound half bad, either. From the description on the NYRB website:

“It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man.” And Hugh Denismore, a young doctor driving his mother’s Cadillac from Los Angeles to Phoenix, is eminently educated and civilized. He is privileged, would seem to have the world at his feet, even. Then why does the sight of a few redneck teenagers disconcert him? Why is he reluctant to pick up a disheveled girl hitchhiking along the desert highway? And why is he the first person the police suspect when she is found dead in Arizona a few days later?

Switzerland, (East) Germany, Israel

The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (Translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen)

I was delighted to receive a review copy of this title, forthcoming from Open Letter Press in September 2012. The book, which I’ve just started, is a sort of literary “Choose Your Own Adventure” loosely modeled “on the true story of Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose fabricated 1995 Holocaust memoir transfixed the reading public.” The Canvas contains two interconnected narratives which tell the respective tales of Jan Wechsler, a Jewish publisher and writer living in Berlin who receives a mysterious suitcase one Shabbos afternoon, and Amnon Zichroni, an Orthodox student of the Talmud who was born in Israel and is then sent to live with an uncle in Switzerland.

Part of the fun this book promises is the format–the two stories begin opposite and upside down from one another and read toward the center of the book. As it explains on the cover, “There are two main paths and intertwined side-trails running through this novel. Behind each cover is a possible starting point for the action. Where you begin reading is up to you, or to chance.”(For what it’s worth, I started with Jan Weschler’s story and already know that one of his opening chapters–in which he talks about the way books, particularly borrowed ones, are inexorably wrapped up in past memories–will remain with me for a long time. It’s just wonderful so far.)

Norway

It’s Fine by Me by Per Petterson, Translated from the Norwegian by Don Barlett

I believe that this book was already published in English in 2011, but Graywolf Press is bringing out another edition this coming October. It’s Fine by Me finds frequent Petterson stand-in Arvid Jansen (the narrator from the remarkable I Curse the River of Time and also In the Wake) in his youth, befriending Audun, a troubled new kid at his school who shares Arvid’s love of authors like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. Per Tim Parks in The Guardian:

“…this edgy bildungsroman makes explicit what many will already have suspected: for Petterson, the craft of writing, of carefully reconstructing life’s precariousness in sentences as solid and unassuming as bricks, is itself a way of building shelter. For those who see danger everywhere, literature is a place of refuge.”

I think Arvid Jansen is a marvelous, complicated character, and I think Petterson has done a remarkable thing in carrying him through multiple novels and multiple points of his life. (Also interesting is the fact that (I think) Arvid doesn’t actually narrate It’s Fine by Me–I think Audun does.) I’m definitely looking forward to this one.

England

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
Another NYRB title, Angel is the story of a dreamy shopgirl in Edwardian England who rises above her circumstances to become a successful author wealthy manor-mistress. I’ll be coming to this book with prior–although perhaps inaccurate–expectations: it was the basis for François Ozon’s opulent, lavishly campy romp of a film, starring Romola Garai and Michael Fassbender. I don’t know how the movie relates to the source novel yet, but on its own, its a rather delightful feat of melodrama, if you’re into that sort of thing, which I certainly am.

Based on what I’ve read about Taylor and Angel–Sam Jordison’s recent post in The Guardian’s Books Blog, “Rediscovering Elizabeth Taylor–the brilliant novelist,” is good for quick context–I won’t be surprised if the novel strikes a more serious, reflective tone, but either way, I’ll definitely be interested in comparing the original and its adaptation.

Iceland

The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness (Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson)

I’m slowly but surely working my way through the cornerstones of Icelandic literature–the Sagas and the novels of Iceland’s only Nobel laureate to date, Halldór Laxness. Thus far, I’ve read The Great Weaver from Kashmir, one of Halldór’s early novels and certainly an interesting introduction to his oeuvre, even if it isn’t one of his ‘larger’ works. I’ve also read (and loved) Under the Glacier, which contains one of my all-time favorite quotes: “Remember, any lie you are told, even deliberately, is often a more significant fact than a truth told in all sincerity.”

I’ve read about half each of Independent People and Iceland’s Bell, and was greatly enjoying both when I got distracted in my reading–not finishing in these instances is not indicative of the books’ quality, for sure. But until I get the beginning of both of these half-read novels out of my head so that I can start them again fresh, I would like to read another one of Halldór’s ‘lighter’ novels. The Fish Can Sing, set in the small settlement of Brekkukot and told through the eyes of the orphan Álfgrímur, who–from what I can tell from pieced-together summaries–spends the book reflecting on his simple upbringing, storytelling, and the larger, (Danish) world outside of Brekkukot . I believe there’s an opera singer involved, too.

This is perhaps a measly pitch for reading the book, but it sounds wonderful to me. There’s a good review by M.A. Orthofer over at The Complete Review, and that site also archives a number of other reviews of the book, too.


PEN World Voices Dispatch 2: Fame and the Writer (Talk with Daniel Kehlmann)

My second recap from the PEN World Voices festival is of a talk with German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. This was originally posted on The L Magazine website here; the full text is below.

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Originally slated as an event wherein “three successful European writers engage in a conversation about the alienating effects of seeing one’s life reflected in the public eye,” Thursday’s “Fame and the Writer,” panel at the NYU Deutsches Haus ended up–due to last minute scheduling complications–being a much more intimate (and occasionally more literal) discussion between Deutsches Haus director, Martin Rauchbauer, and German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. Kehlmann’s 2005 novel, Measuring the World, has been an immense success for the young author (still under 40), selling nearly two million copies and making him one of the most widely read authors in the German-speaking world. Kehlmann’s follow up book, Fame, a ‘novel in nine episodes,’ has met with equal commendation, although its literal reception as a commentary on celebrity has surprised the author somewhat. The title Fame he explained, was intended to carry a little irony in the wake of his surprising success–like when Sean Connery said he’d never be in another James Bond movie and then returned in Never Say Never.

“These strong, resounding one word titles have such a force,” he said, referencing Martin Amis’ novel Money and Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1930 novel Success, “it makes it difficult to see that there are many motives and themes” that go into a novel. “I’m not complaining,” he assured. “It’s just interesting.”

Kehlmann differentiated between the idea of fame and that of celebrity, the latter of which he thinks is “not a very interesting phenomenon.” When he said that he didn’t honestly have much to say on the subject, Mr. Rauchbauer countered with a passage from Fame in which a famous actor meets his own impersonator, who seems to have better ideas about how to be the celebrity than the man himself. Kehlmann, acceding that the passage was, in fact, examining the idea of celebrity, then explained that he was interested in the experience of detachment that everyone has from their public self–the sense that “deep in our heart we are completely different than people see us.” This isn’t true just of celebrities, he said. “It’s just amplified for them. But philosophers have [shown] that the person we really are is the person we develop and put in the world. That is our true self.”

The conversation then shifted to a discussion of the reception of literature in the public eye and the an author’s obligation  to promote his/her work via book tours, festivals, and readings. Acknowledging the irony of having this conversation while himself at a festival, Kehlmann admitted that “I do think the way literature is organized in society–and many other authors have agreed with this–goes too much in the way of events…What any moderately successful writer does is spend one or two years writing a book and then one year explaining it…You spend all this time putting these things together and then you have to go publicly disassemble them.”

Kehlmann then read another short, humorous passage from Fame, in which an author explains–in response to the ubiquitous question, “where do you get your ideas?”–that he gets all of his ideas while in the bathtub. He had never understood this question, he said, even though it was what he was asked most frequently. Until one day he realized that ‘where do you get all your ideas?’ was simply “what became of the equally dreary question in the 70s and 80s, ‘why do you write?’” The question of an author’s intentions in creating, Kehlmann said, had “some social and political relevance. But in a time now when people are less concerned with writers trying to change the world, the focus has shifted.”

Melville House’s International Crime Imprint and the Kayankaya Thrillers

It’s been a summer of (crime) series for me. I reviewed the three novels in Daniel Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy earlier this month, and have also just written a review/editorial on Melville House’s new “International Crime” imprint (MIC) and four of this line’s first published novels: the “Kayankaya Thrillers” by German author Jakob Arjouni. Arjouni has actually been published in the US before–three of the novels that MIC is releasing were already translated into English and published in the US, only to go out of print. But I’d venture to say that these reissues will basically be introducing his work to most Americans for the first time.

There have been a smattering of reviews of  the series (mostly Kismet) that you might be interested in checking out:

On Kismet:

Peter Rozovsky at Detectives Beyond Borders has also reviewed the whole series. You can see his posts here.

The full text of my review of the series is on The L Magazine website here; the full text is below.

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“Crime=Culture.”So says Dumbo publisher Melville House about their new imprint, Melville International Crime. MIC represents the publisher’s latest venture to expand their existing catalog of fiction in translation, but although Melville House has introduced innovative series before, cultivating a line of international crime novels is not a particularly new idea. Gowanus-based Akashic Books launched its city-specific Noir series in 2004, and Soho Crime was dedicated to armchair travel and murder long before the Stieg Larsson boom. However, it is interesting to see a boutique press like Melville turn its attention to genre fiction.

Among the first books published by MIC are the “Kanyankaya Thrillers” by German author Jakob Arjouni. His private eye Kemal Kanyankaya is a character straight out of Hammet and a quintessential outsider-investigator: an ethnic Turk raised by adoptive German parents, he has always lived between two worlds in his hometown of Frankfurt, never entirely comfortable in either.

Happy Birthday, Turk! (easily the best in the series) finds the down-and-out Kanyankaya hired by a Turkish woman to track down the killer of her husband, a laborer whose death isn’t a high priority for local police. More Beer takes the suspicious conviction of four “eco-terrorists”in a bombing and murder as its premise; in One Man, One Murder, a German man hires the PI to find his girlfriend, a Thai prostitute who was kidnapped while trying to collect forged visa papers. Kismet, the most recent installment, finds Kanyankaya facing off with a violent Croatian gang. All unfold in a matter of days and are laced with Kanyankaya’s engagingly laconic sarcasm. There’s also a frank brutality which affirms the high stakes of each case and the lengths that Kanyankaya will go to get his man: he’s drugged, attacked by rats, suffers joint dislocations, is locked in a room full of tear gas, and is roundly beaten on numerous occasions.

Individually, however, the series is spotty. In both More Beer and One Man, One Murder, the intrigues become so entangled that it’s hard to care when Kanyankaya reveals whodunit—after making several key discoveries to which the reader is not privy. The detective’s understandable bitterness at being treated as an interloper or a fetish object feels increasingly belabored as he subjects every potential client to the same litmus test: “You must have checked the Yellow Pages. But why Kanyankaya, why not Müller?”And while he continues to investigate several cases after being fired and gives an impassioned speech about disenfranchised immigrants in Germany, he’s by no means an idealist. Treating housewives, prostitutes, buddies, and corrupt officials with equal disdain, it’s hard to believe that he ever cares much about the people involved in his investigations—he just wants the satisfaction of winning.

With this new imprint, Melville is capitalizing on their strengths in ways which stand to benefit both their current and potential audiences. Crime fiction fans are generally completists who want to read all of a favorite detective’s cases—even the rocky ones. And Melville has a knack for series—they’ve resurrected the novella as a viable (and marketable) form with their brilliant “Art of the Novella” line, establishing their press as a quality arbiter of taste while also engendering something like brand loyalty.

By expanding into international crime fiction, Melville stands to create a similar loyalty among new readers. Any even marginally good crime novel serves as a shorthand introduction to the social concerns, epochal tensions, and defining fears of its culture, the way the Kanyankaya thrillers address Germany’s struggle with immigration, cultural inclusion, and nationalism. Crime is culture, made accessible.