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.)

***

“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.

Advertisements

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.


The Best Translated Book Award 2012 Longlist

Today, Three Percent released the longlist for 2012’s Best Translated Book Award (BTBA), and judging from the list, I fell behind in my international reading last year. You can check out the press release with more information about the selection process on the Three Percent blog here, but I’ve pasted the longlist below.

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
(Knopf)

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
(Dedalus)

Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne
(Bloomsbury)

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)

I’ve read David Albahari before (I was a big fan of his Words Are Something Else in college), I’ve been meaning to read a different title (Unformed Landscape) of Peter Stamm’s  for a few years, and I am aware of several other authors on the list. But the only one I’ve actually read is Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, which thankfully, I did really love. (Never has there been a book that has integrated the Cardigans’ Grand Turismo so well). But otherwise, I’ve got nothing on these titles or authors. So it’s time to do some research, eh?

Prior to posting the longlist, Chad Post asked readers of the blog to contribute titles that they were either guessing would be included, or just hoping to see on the list. I actually forgot that Buzz Aldrin was published in the right time frame to qualify (December 1, 2010 – December 31, 2011) so it wasn’t in my short list. Just for kicks, here are some titles–in no particular order–I would have liked to see included (obviously I skew a little more northerly than the judges….):

  • The Greenhouse by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, Translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon
  • The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, Translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer (I haven’t reviewed The Long Ships, so no link above, but Nick Pinkerton had a good one on The L Magazine website here, and Michael Chabon–who wrote the kinda lame, but certainly enthusiastic, introduction–wrote a piece about it for The Paris Review here.)
  • Fair Playby Tove Jansson, Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (Teal won last year, so this would have been a long shot, but it’s such a good book! My favorite Jansson so far.)
  • Karaoke Culture by Dubraka Ugresic, Translated from the Croatian by David Williams

Karaoke Culture

My most recent review is of Dubravka Ugresic’s essay collection, Karaoke Culture, which was published in The L Magazine.

I’ll forgo preamble for the book, but a quick side note: While preparing my review, I read one of Ugresic’s essays in a book called Writing Europe: What Is European About the Literatures of Europe?  Her entry in the collection, “European Literature as a Eurovision Song Contest,” is masterful: she discusses nationality, nationalism, identity, authorship, and more both imaginatively and incisively. It’s a short essay–if you have any interest in any of the topics above, I highly recommend you read it–and it also provides useful a context/parallel for many of themes she picks up in Karaoke Culture. One of my favorite excerpts from the piece:

“Some ten years ago I had an elegant Yugoslav passport with a soft, flexible, dark red cover. I was a Yugoslav writer. Then the war came and–without asking me–the Croats thrust into my hand a blue Croatian passport…The new Croatian authorities expected from their citizens a prompt transformation of identity, as though the passport itself was a magic pill…With my new Croatian passport I abandoned my newly acquired “homeland” and set off into the world. Out there, with the gaiety of Eurovision Song Contest fans, I was immediately identified as a Croatian writer. I became the literary representative of a milieu that did not want me any more and which I did not want any more either. But still the label Croatian writer remained with me, like a permanent tattoo.

At this moment I possess a passport with a red cover, Dutch. I continue to wear the label of the literary representative of a country to which I am not connected even by a passport. Will my new passport make me a Dutch writer? I doubt it. Will my Dutch passport ever make it possible for me to reintegrate in Croatian literary ranks? I doubt it.”

But without further ado: you’ll find my review of Karaoke Culture below. You can read the original piece on The L website here. (I can’t take credit for the witty title they gave me–that was all my esteemed book editor.)

***

For the uninitiated, Karaoke Culture, the forthcoming essay collection by Dubravka Ugresic, provides an emblematic, if occasionally disjointed, snapshot of the author’s notable body of work. Available now just a year after its initial publication (very unusual for a translated work), Karaoke Culture is a timely collection whose essays run the gamut from the rise of participatory culture and “the anonymous artist” (the title essay), the preferred nomenclature and adopted personas of third wave feminists (“Bitches”), the “psychopathology” of reflexively loving a homeland you didn’t choose (“No Country for Old Women”), and a personal reflection on the vicious media harassment which led Ugresic to emigrate from the newly-formed Croatian state to The Netherlands in 1993 (“A Question of Perspective”).

Reading Karaoke Culture is—in the best way possible—much like sitting with a highly caffeinated intellectual over tea. Ugresic is a conversational writer; the zig-zagging structure of her essays suggests a fluid writing process that hews close to the author’s thoughts as she works from each initial observation to a final, incisive epiphany. Her cultural touch-points are restricted neither by country nor time nor genre: within the collection she makes easy reference to everything from Gone with the Wind and IKEA, to Bulgarian Idol and Henry Darger. When these disparate references cohere within one essay, the effect is luminous. Only rarely within the dense collection does Ugresic’s eliptical logic-dart miss her mark, leaving a few of the essays feeling somewhat over-determined.

The 22 essays in Karaoke Culture read fast–several are only two or three pages–but the collection rewards rumination. On first reading, it might appear that Ugresic is herself ‘channel-surfing,’ hopping among divergent topics to simply cover as much ground as possible. But so much the better. Here she diagnoses contemporary culture in all its facets, underlying the parallels between ideologies and societies that have long understood themselves to be diametrically opposed.

Throughout the collection, Ugresic’s outspoken, absurdist humor paired with her genuinely global perspective, shines through. Karaoke Culture is a rarity: a thoughtful, personal, and informative work of socio-cultural critique that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Icelandic Week at Three Percent

So, I’m catching this a bit late, but Three Percent has officially declared it Icelandic Week, in honor of Iceland’s status as the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair (happening this week). Chad Post and co. have a variety of fun/interesting/edifying posts about Icelandic culture, food, music, and oh yeah–books, too. Check out the lot–including discussions of Brennevin, the goal celebrations of Icelandic soccer team Stjarnan, YouTube music videos, and an excerpt of Children of the Reindeer Woods by Kristin Ómarsdóttir (Trans. Lytton Smith) which Open Letter will be releasing in April–here.

Also, one last bit of good news: Amazon Crossing (Amazon’s new press) will be releasing ten Icelandic titles “in the near future.” Amazon Crossing had previously promised  to release four Icelandic novels, which was also great, but ten! Very exciting news for Icelandophilic (not a word, but you get the gist) readers of English.

Like the Oscars (but Shorter): Watch the Best Translated Book Awards

At a beery-cheery award ceremony at the Bowery Poetry Club during the PEN World Voices Festival in April, this year’s winners of the Best Translated Book Awards were announced.

For poetry, this year’s winner was The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger, which was translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry.

For fiction, I was absolutely delighted that Tove Jansson’s True Deceiver, translated beautifully from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, won the award. I had a bit more stake in this one, I’ll admit: Jansson is one of my favorite newly-discovered authors. I read and reviewed True Deceiver for The L last year (read the review here) and was even more charmed by the new translation (also by Teal) of Fair Play (that review is here).

Teal’s acceptance speech was definitely the highlight of the 13 some-odd minute ceremony–he tells a great anecdote and is obviously delighted by the recognition. And, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you don’t have to rely on the notes I took in the dark–you can watch the whole thing yourself:

Best Translated Book Award: The Longlist

Just weeks ago, the longlist for the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) was released. The award, which started in 2007 as a small online celebration of translated literature, has expanded greatly in the last few years, even garnering substantial monetary support from Amazon.com in the form of a $5,000 cash prize.

Of course, with the higher profile has come expanded attention and even a little inter-small-press drama. Dennis Johnson, the co-founder of Melville House, took great issue last year with the new Amazon sponsorship, given, he said, that “Amazon’s interests, and those of a healthy book culture, whether electronic or not, are antithetical.” It is interesting to note that Melville House is boycotting the BTBAs now that Amazon is involved, despite the fact that  their own title, The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven, won the award last year.

Chad Post, the publisher at Open Letter Books, and one of the BTBA founders, has been very up front about receiving grant sponsorship from Amazon before. And while I understand that corporate sponsorship from an organization that challenges the viability of small independent bookstores might feel somewhat conflicting, I’m still inclined to agree with Chad and believe that Amazon’s sponsorship of this important prize can only benefit translators, non-English authors, and yes, small presses who are struggling to get their names and their books out there to larger audiences. I think it is a good thing that an online omni-selling giant takes some of their immense profit and uses it for good.

But I digress. (If you want to read more about this debate, The Guardian has covered it rather consistently. See this article from October 2010, when everyone originally went haywire, and their follow up from when the 2011 longlist was announced in January.)

Anyway, the point is that the BTBA nominees have been announced, which gives us all time to go out and do some preparatory reading. I’ve posted the list below, but check out the press release (which includes the delightful trivia fact that the list includes “authors from 19 countries writing in 12 languages”). I also suggest keeping up with the “Why This Book Should Win” reviews that are being posted here on Three Percent for each of the nominated titles.

I’ve read a couple of the nominated titles this year (which I find deeply satisfying) so where appropriate, I’ve linked to reviews that I wrote about those books.

***

The 2011 BTBA Fiction Longlist (in alphabetical order by author):

The Literary Conference by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated from the Czech by Andrew Oakland (Dalkey Archive)

The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories by Mario Benedetti, translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales (Host Publications)

A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer)

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex, translated from the French by Donald Wilson (Bitter Lemon)

A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Alyson Waters (New Directions)

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (New York Review Books)

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke (Archipelago)

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)

The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (Grove)

Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), translated from the French by David Bellos (Yale University Press)

To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (New York Review Books)

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell (New Directions)

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (New Directions)

Cyclops by Ranko Marinković, translated from the Croatian by Vlada Stojiljković, edited by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Yale University Press)

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amélie Nothomb, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions)

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund and the author (Graywolf Press)

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch, translated from the Polish by David Frick (Open Letter)

Touch by Adania Shibli, translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar (Clockroot)

The Black Minutes by Martín Solares, translated from the Spanish by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker (Grove/Black Cat)

On Elegance While Sleeping by Emilio Lascano Tegui, translated from the Spanish by Idra Novey (Dalkey Archive)

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Tin House)

Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions/Christine Burgin)

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (Archipelago)