Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Angina Days by Gunter Eich, poetry

Gunter Eich was a German poet who lived 1907-1972 and who was known for the simplicity of his poems. Translator Michael Hofmann presents a unique picture of Eich in his introduction to Angina Days (a title in reference to his health in later years). In some cases, an introduction reveals too much and tries to interpret too much. Hofmann’s biography of Eich resists that and instead focuses on Eich’s personal life and allows the reader to contemplate and define the poetry on their own. He calls Eich’s poems “humble and lived-in and somehow practical” and this collection reflects that. While the poetry is not oversimplified, each reader can likely feel as if they can successfully understand the emotions portrayed.

Hofmann also says that in translating the works, ranging over Eich’s lifetime, he discovered in them “for me the source of the quiet and immense and eerie power of each: words are like stray, chance, isolated survivals after some catastrophe, of unpredictable utility and beauty.” As a side note, Eich’s poetry is compared to the art of Paul Klee, which I’ve provided to illustrate what some picture as the visual representation of Eich’s style (see lower right:  Klee's Rose Garden, 1920.)

Within the poetry itself, broken into sections of Eich’s life, there is an array of symbolism with a focus on plants, food, landscape, and travel. Some are romantic, as in Munich-Frankfurt Express where he describes a train trip to see his beloved and “my desire to grow old in the vicinity of your voice.” He can also reflect on WWII with grief in Memorial:
The moors we wanted to hike have been drained.
Their turf has warmed our evenings.
The wind is full of black dust.
It scours the names off the gravestones
and etches this day
into us.

In Dreams he combines the symbolism of travel on the earth with travel in the heart:

There are road signs,
and easily discernible river course,
lookout points in elevated positions,
maps where the lakes are in blue and the forests in green-
It’s easy to find one’s way around in the world.

But you, companion at my side, how hidden from me
is the landscape of your heart!
Feeling my way in the fog, I am often overcome with fear
of the thickets and the hidden precipice.
I know you don’t like your thoughts to be traced,
the echo of your words is intended to mislead-
Roads going nowhere,
pathless terrain, lapsed signage.

This collection is comprehensive and reveals how Eich's outlook changes from youth through illness as he ages, since the poems are spread across 1948-1972.  I found this a great exploration of German poetry.

Translation from German by Michael Hofman.
Special thanks to Katherine "Casey" LaVela at Princeton University Press for the Review Copy.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

A Frances Coady Book

A few years ago I spent an entire year focused on titles relating to slavery and civil rights in the South...from the Civil War to the Civil Rights marches in the 1960's.  It was a painful topic, and revealed bottomless ugliness about the way humans treat each other, especially when in a position of power.  When I decided to read The Long Song, about slavery in Jamaica in the early 1800's, I wasn't sure if the geographical difference would change any of the perspective.  It does.

Levy's novel covers many of the known horrors of slavery:  children stolen from their parents, slaves treated like animals, and incredibly horrific forms of torture for those who dared to look a white man in the eyes.  But she adds other little insights revealing the nature of people who were slaveholders as well as the slaves themselves.  Owners who savagely beat their servants and yet couldn't imagine why the slaves resented them, and who seemed genuinely certain their actions were appropriate.  They expected devout loyalty out of their slaves, yet would punish them for the slightest offenses. The punishment wasn't far off, either, as the owners had their own dungeons and stocks in place for punishment as needed.  And more surprising, some slaves actually felt loyalty to their masters:  in one memorable scene, two female slaves are arguing over whose mistress is more refined. 

The voice of the story is that of July, once a stolen child and now a grandmother in England. Her son, raised by Baptist missionaries who took him in when she abandoned him, is pushing her to write her memoirs to save the story of her remarkable life.  She tells the story in a light voice, directly to the reader, and at times seems to minimize some of the uglier parts for the readers sake.  Is it for her sake as well?  Despite her son's insistence, she resists much of the retelling, because of the pain it causes.

"For I know that my reader does not wish to be told tales as ugly as these.  And please believe your storyteller when she declares that she has no wish to pen them.  It is only my son that desires it.  For he believes his mama should suffer every little thing again."

She does as he asks, and recounts the events surrounding his birth, but adds a bit of humor by describing what an ugly baby he was.  They bicker frequently during the writing (he wants more details, she wants less).  Her voice has no pity, and at times her delivery comes across as emotionless, especially as she seems to have no close bond with any of the other slaves.  Yet it's clear that emotionally and physically, that was part of her survival technique. 

The story takes place on a sugar cane plantation before and after the 1838 ban on slavery in Jamaica.  It shows how the attitudes of both slaves and owners were slow to change, and how difficult it was to impose a new way of thinking on whites who felt their position as master was their destiny.  Even the whites who were against slavery were focusing on their fine 'works' rather than genuine love.  The woman who raises July's son to a fine young man writes her story for a magazine, and credits herself with his intelligence and morality (apparently he had little to do with it, in her mind). And she can't resist a final mocking insult to July at the end of the article. 

The layers to the story are many, and yet the fast pace of the narrator keeps it moving.  She tells her story beautifully, and the interaction with her son, once lost to her, is a story in itself.  Her new life in England isn't simple, and the dramatic differences as she ages almost reintroduces the pain of her past.  She shows confusion when, after all she's suffered, her granddaughters complain about the color of their hair ribbons.
July is a character that will likely become legendary.

Special thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for the Review Copy.

Goethe quote

There is nothing in which people more betray their character than in what they laugh at.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Monday, June 28, 2010

Moscow Noir, Akashic Press

Edited by Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen

Note: this is not published by the Moscow Chamber of Commerce or Tourist Board.  This is not an exploration of Russian history or a guide to the city.  It is noir.  I state this because while it may be obvious to others, I kept catching myself thinking "this is so stereotypical of Russia...surely not everyone is this bad!"  Oh, back to "noir".  I needed to remind myself of that definition throughout: "crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings."  Once I was clear on that, it was easy to understand.

This collection of short stories is random and the stories themselves are incredibly varied.  However, a few things link most of them:  distrust, despair, revenge, and rage.  Physical similarities as well:  snow, night, black sedans, drugs, alcohol, and leather jackets. 
To say life is cheap in this style is redundant.  The Soviet history created characters that are immune to feeling and social conventions.  And if, without intending to, a character does show their softer side? It's guaranteed they aren't going to live long after.  Death is everywhere, as are traitors.  Many characters are cops. No one can be trusted because every underling knows their way to success means eliminating their superiors.  Strangely, money is often in excess, yet having it doesn't buy anyone a way out of the mess.

Many of the stories take place at night, often in the snow.  Train stations, deserted streets and subway tunnels are frequent settings, and most of the characters use drugs or alcohol to numb their emotions.  The anger that should be directed at the failed institutions that created them is instead directed at their fellow man.  The descriptions of the cold weather, the complicated facades of the empty churches standing guard, and the hard scrabble lifestyles are all detailed without slowing down the pace.  The stories move along briskly. 

The book is grouped into sections:  Crime & Punishment, Dead Souls, Fathers & Sons, and War & Peace.  I think my favorite was "Field of a Thousand Corpses" which illuminated the corruptness of the police and their inability to effectively handle the crimes they investigate in any sort of honest way.  Yet there was a sort of tenderness in how one detective tries to train another and advise him on how to fit in.

A word about Akashic Books...they have a series of Noir titles, including Los Angeles, London, etc.  All have a similar vein but illuminate a region in its own unique way.  Their Los Angeles Noir was especially interesting for me, trying to guess the locations that are mentioned since I've been there often. 

Special thanks to Johanna Ingalls of Akashic for the Advance Review Copy.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Time for a New Giveaway! International Members Only..

How's this for a twist?  Since most of the giveaways I've done have been for US followers, that leaves out a great many of you that are all over the world (seemingly clustered in Britain and Australia!).  This is a new giveaway for global followers only

Members of the Scandinavian Challenge OUTSIDE THE US are automatically entered, other followers can enter by leaving a comment and their country. 

Prize $20 USD Book Depository (in the UK) gift certificate.  They offer free worldwide shipping too if you are in their selected countries, so check first to make sure.

Gift certificate awarded July 12, 2010 by random generator.
Winner must respond via email within 48 hours or a new winner is selected.

Photo from Harsany, Hungary

Monday, June 21, 2010

World Cup observations...

I don't twitter or tweet, thank goodness, but saw these on another website.  Warren Ellis twits little remarks as they happen during the World Cup.  This is from the France vs. Mexico match.

* French team: "We are so bored now that we will simply stand around and let the Mexicans score. Be SEARED by our ennui."

* French team now standing around smoking Gauloises, composing miserable poetry.
* French team unsure why they’re being punished for kicking people instead of ball
* Three minutes extra time added. French burst into tears.
* Mexico deserved that win. They stayed above France’s dirty, sullen game. Also, I like to think the Mexicans were armed.

England vs. Algeria
* Ooh, is there a football match on? Lovely.

* And there’s the England team, looking like a gaggle of confused hair models.
* The Algerian team appear to be conscious, and therefore not the England team’s preferred opponents.
* Dear Mr Heskey, please have a blind man and their guide dog show you where the goal is

England vs. USA

* Rooney pauses at the touchline to sniff the air, make fire with sticks #eng
* get up you poof he only kicked you in the lung
* England apologises for fielding a goalkeeper who quite clearly took rather a lot of heroin before the match commenced.
* Dangerous tackle, my arse. In Millwall they call that "foreplay."
* Ah. The England team appear to have gotten drunk during half-time.
* I wish to assure our American friends that, for this performance, the England team will in fact be executed.

Run for your lives! Mural by Banksy

New mural at the Princess of Wales pub in London
Neil Lockford, Getty Images

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Winter Garden, a collection by Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda has some pretty big achievements:  Chile's ambassador to France, a Nobel Prize for Literature, and this particular title receiving Bloomsbury's Book of the Year.  His life could never be described as dull...he's certainly not your stereotypical poet, pale and anguished, hidden away and perfecting his verse.  Neruda was out and active in life.  A Chilean Senator, various worldwide diplomatic assignments, plus a commentator on the activities in Chilean politics....he was never still. 

This beautiful collection, translated by William O'Daly, was written shortly before his death.  In fact, several manuscripts were found on his desk after he died of cancer in 1973.  The translator notes in the introduction that Chile was always his beloved home, one that he thought of in any other location he found himself.  This fits with what Neruda says in "Many Thanks":  "Why do I live exiled from the shine of the oranges?"

He knew he was dying but never does he descend into self-pity or maudlin reveries.  He acknowledges the big life he led, and in his final days he wants to simply meditate, focus on the simpler things (like a bird that approaches him as he sits outside alone), and retrieve the fondest of his memories.

In "Modestly", he uses a play on the words 'see' and 'sea': 
Without doubt I praise the wild excellence,
the old-fashioned reverence, the natural see,
the economy of sublime truths that cling
to rock upon rock in succeeding generations,
like certain mollusks who conquered the sea.

He shows some humor in "For All to Know", when he acknowledges that he's sometimes asked why he didn't write about some significant events. His response:
"I didn't have enough time or ink for everyone....I didn't decipher it, I couldn't grasp each and every meaning:  I ask forgiveness from anyone not here."

The most poignant poem of all is "In Memory of Manuel and Benjamin", two close friends of his, who unimaginably die on the same day by accidents.  Neruda is genuinely perplexed at the loss:  both were friends but they couldn't have been more different and while words were his voice, he finds it difficult to compose anything to make sense of it:

I loved my two contrary friends
who, with their silence, left me speechless
without knowing what to think or say.
So much searching under the skin
and so much walking among souls and roots
hour by hour so much pecking at paper. 

Even if they didn't have the time to grow tired,
now quiet and finally solemn,
they enter, pressed together, the vast silence
that will slowly grind down their frames.

Tears were never invented for those men.

Given his impending death, late in life, it's easy to see how pained Neruda was.  This collection features many personal thoughts, among them his eager wish not to be praised or to receive accolades in his late days.  He wants to watch water through windows and see the sunrise.  He's gracious and brave.

This book is part of a series by Copper Canyon Press of Neruda's works, translated by O'Daly from the Spanish (which is still featured in the left facing pages).

My thanks to Janet Jones of Copper Canyon Press for the Review Copy.

Missing, Karin Alvtegen (Swedish)

The complications of going off the 'grid':  Sybillia is a homeless women whose entire life is anonymous and low key.  Avoiding using her Swedish national ID card, she lives off her wits and a small sum her mother deposits in the bank each month.

For fun, she sneaks into fancy hotels, enjoying a plush bath and a warm bed before she returns to the street.  However, after one such trip she finds herself accused of murdering a man staying in the same hotel.  She has no defense, as she was there illegally, so she flees.  She's identified by fingerprints and the manhunt is on:  as she runs, other people are killed in similar ways.  The national database provides her photo and life story, which is flashed on to the news. 

In true The Fugitive style, she has to now find the actual killer in order to defend herself.  This portion is the only weak area in the novel:  it's almost too easy for her to solve it while the police haven't really investigated it once they found her as a suspect.  The ending is only slightly surprising, but the fast pace and witty narrator makes this a pleasant read.  Lightweight and fun...a nice break from the more depressing Scandinavian crime noir.
Purchased by me...not a review copy.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Season of Second Chances, Diane Meier

Joy Harkness is sick of her life in New York as a professor at Columbia University. She wants a change, and serendipitously the opportunity opens up when a well-known feminist author invites her to Amherst to join a new educational group to discover a new philosophy of learning. She moves there, finds a new home, and begins to recreate her life: her ‘second chance’. She falls into a wonderful new community of interesting individuals, all living fulfilled lives, and not only gets to enjoy her new teaching position but also remodel a unique Victorian home. In the end, she discovers that her previous life was narrow and unfulfilled, and her new life allows her to expand and enjoy the world to the full.

It’s a love letter to academia. The novel is easily readable and fast paced, and there’s no lack of descriptions for the details of her transformation. It might appeal to many readers as an imaginary escape from their own lives, to be read with a Restoration Hardware catalog and a fan of paint swatches at hand. It is a very pretty book…I loved the font and the block printing styles.

That said, I hated the book on so many levels. First, it would appear that the ‘second chance’ she needed was meant to be: her NY house sold in four days, far over the asking price, and she found her new home instantly. Her new job paid far more than she imagined. The first contractor to come along was not only a savant-like expert on all things Victorian, but his price was under her budget, and the remodel was a quick and smooth production. Do you see where I am going with this? Realism is not to be found.

Joy’s new friends are all wealthy academics who pride themselves on their tolerant love of others, community, and family. They accept her unhesitatingly, and it appears the entire community wants to assist in her transformation. Evenings of gourmet suppers with perfect food and wines, stimulating conversation, and constant supportive murmurings fill Joy’s new days. Her new job is also perfect: coworkers who gladly share duties without complaining, well-behaved students, and gourmet lunches made by a professor (in her spare time) and brought in for the staff. The only nod to their academic work is rearranging book shelves and deciding where the fresh flowers should be placed, with some occasional paper-grading over wine.

I kept waiting for one of the enlightened community to be an ax murderer, just to liven up the cloying sweetness of it all.

The biggest problem, of so many, was the treatment of the academic community towards the talented craftsman who remodels her home back to its original splendor. They recognize his talent, but are quick to suggest a course of study that will allow him to teach and join their ranks. He’s simply not living up to his potential in their eyes and they are troubled by his lack of ambition. He’s just not good enough. In fact, every character in the novel that leads a productive life is an academic; the only ones who aren’t are the craftsman (who lives with his mom and is emotionally stunted), a wife-beater, and a vindictive old woman. In other words, the flawed people are uneducated. It’s as if Lassie saves the family from the fire, saves Timmy from the well, and yet is put to sleep because she’s not purebred. The elitist agenda is obvious and awkward.

The house Joy remodels, with Teddy’s assistance, is an obvious metaphor for Joy’s life. It starts out decrepit and run down, but eventually is restored to beauty and luxury. It’s no coincidence that towards the end, when she discovers Armani couture and is counseled to live life to the full, the clothing she purchases reflect the colors used in the home. Even her new lipsticks (oh yeah, we get to hear about lipstick colors, wallpaper samples, and the benefits of skillful makeup) seem to coordinate. It all falls into place, with never a concern about money issues, family problems, misunderstandings with friends, or illness. The lack of any credible conflict dilutes it into more of a fashion article than an interesting novel. Sure, some bad things happen, to other people, on the periphery. These serve only to emphasize the wonderful nature of the academic village. Amid this she sprinkles Feminist anecdotes, Henry James references, and treatises on private education that leave you snoring. As I said, though, the font is lovely.

Thanks to Jason Leibman of Henry Holt for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Salute to Spanish Poetry, John Howard Reid

100 Masterpieces from Spain & Latin America

This is a diverse collection of poets and their poetry, lovingly translated by John Howard Reid, from the original Spanish or Portuguese. Despite the varying geographical origins, many of the topics are united: the shades of gray in shadows, the play of light and darkness, and the mysterious reflections of water, fog, and mist. Loneliness is a common theme, as is a feeling of desolation. But rather than dissolving into a sea of melancholy, this collection features other poems that illuminate playful charm, delicate romance, and unyielding devotion.

One of my favorites is from Jose Juan Tablada:    

An Alternative Nocturne:

Golden New Yorker nights
Cold walls of Moorish limestone
A champagne foxtrot from Earl Fuller’s Rector Novelty Orchestra
Mute houses and barred windows

Glancing around
Over the silent roofs
The soul is petrified
White cats outlined against the moon
Like Lot’s wife

And yet
For all that,
It’s the same
In New York
And Bogota!

The Moon…!

The art of the collection lies in the translation from the varying languages and their particular dialects and styles. Some of the poets featured are Delmira Agustini from Uruguay, Carlos Oquendo de Amat from Peru, Gustavo Adolfo Becquer and Federico Garcia Lorca from Spain, Brazil’s Olavo Bilac, Argentina’s Leopoldo Lugones, and Julian del Casal from Cuba. Notably, Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, is also included with his poem The Gypsy. Sixteenth century poets mingle with modern playwrights in a readable collection that never gets too heavy or depressing, or worse, too scholarly (and therefore inaccessible). The way the poems are linked in the order that they are featured must have some significance, because they seem to lead into each other, giving them a sense of a greater story in play, a novelization of similar thoughts. 

This is a comprehensive collection featuring more than 50 well known and lesser known poets.  I found it fascinating to explore the poetry of poets I would have never discovered on my own.

Special thanks to the translator, John Howard Reid, for sending me the collection for review.
It is available on

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

In the Train - Christian Oster

"She looked at me from behind her glasses, not as if I was the ideal she was looking for in the world, on the contrary, she seemed to be thinking something wasn't quite right, in what she was seeing, or that her glasses weren't properly calibrated for me, or that I was a smudge on her lenses."

Frank likes to hang out at the train station to meet women and that, hopefully, someone that will need him.  He finds the world of travellers fascinating, and even buys tickets (that he may eventually return) just to have a reason to follow them.  He's the kind of person you don't make eye contact with in any location:  creepy, uncomfortable, and moody.  And yet, he's terribly honest with himself and everyone else.  His honesty is what appeals and repels at the same time.

In Christian Oster's novel, In the Train, Frank ends up following Anne on to a train out of Paris, using just the smallest interaction of helping her carry her bag to imagine an entire life and future with her.  Oster reveals all of Frank's thoughts and concerns, from the trivial to the astonishing:  he truly thinks that carrying her bag not only attachs her to him but allows him to begin controlling her.  It would be creepy if it wasn't so funny. 

After they part at her stop, he ends up following her to her hotel, inventing an excuse to stay.  After he checks in, he imagines how to meet her again, casually, eventually knocking on the doors of each room, looking for her (because it would be tacky to ask downstairs!).  Eventually he finds her and she greets him with resignation and fear. 

The novel continues with their strange connection:  he obsessively questioning every single word, looking for clues to her devotion, and her hesitation, not quite sure how to deal with this curious stranger.  At one point, she goes to a book signing by a favorite author, and Frank is betrayed:

"It was disheartening." Frank thinks, "It was all a bit much in one go.  Before I even loved her, well, not completely, this girl was tripping me up with some man.  A rival.  Worse than a rival.  Someone established.  Perhaps not with her, but established all the same.....When, and this is precisely the point, love hadn't really carved its place out in me yet.  And jealousy was on the scene already."

Frank and Anne continue the journey, and the novel unfolds to a graceful conclusion.  The distinction in this work is the voice of Frank...sad and pathetic, yet hopeful.  Not realizing how his actions appear, he behaves in the only way that makes sense to him.  Senseless to everyone else, perhaps, but to him he's suave, logical, and appealing.  It's true, most of the time you are laughing at him, but there are also moments you just cringe and want to shake him into reality.  At no time does he appear malicious, just oblivious.  All in all, he isn't a bad guy, but making eye contact would be a mistake.

I'm sure there's some literary significance to the luggage that he helps Anne carry, that is with them in nearly every scene, and that ends up with Frank at the end.  But I was giggling too much to focus that hard.  I really enjoyed how Oster explored such an unusual personality without stereotype or judgment:  he just presents Frank as he is, and reveals unexpected sweetness too!

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.
Special thanks to Richard di Santo of Object Press for the Review Copy.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Tale of Halcyon Crane, Wendy Webb

“Was this nothing but a shadow of what never was, a memory deliberately implanted by years of storytelling? That’s how powerful stories are. They can actually create the past if told often enough.”

So it is with Hallie James, a young woman in Seattle, mourning the loss of her mother who died when she was just a child. Memories of her mother are vague, but she grasps upon any connection with her. Her father raises her alone, and shortly before his death she receives a shocking letter. Her mother never died at all, and up until very recently, had been alive. It soon becomes apparent to Hallie that her father had kidnapped her as a child, taking her away from her mother and their home near the Great Lakes. The memories she had were all fairy-tales.

Why would he do this? As Hallie returns to her birthplace, mourning the loss of both her father and the mother she never knew, she has to unravel the mystery of why he stole her away. Solving the mystery means making new connections with people from her childhood and discovering that in abducting her, he had staged their own deaths. The townspeople are convinced her father was evading a murder conviction, and now she has to evaluate the father she loved and the evidence she finds. She can’t harmonize her own memories with the accounts of him by others, and the mysterious activities on Grand Manitou Island that occur after she arrives.

This is an old-fashioned gothic story mixing past and present, with an easy pace of action that makes it very readable. The voice of Hallie, whose real name turns out to be Halcyon Crane, is witty, self-deprecating, and warm. She appears to be an intelligent woman trying to solve an especially personal mystery.

That said, I found the story a bit too predictable, and as it unfolds the mysteries are solved a bit too easily to be believable. Hallie, despite her intelligence, appears to trust everyone on sight, despite the curious events that go on around her. The characters on the island are stereotypical: the charming barista, the shrewish innkeeper, the creepy housekeeper, and the wonderfully dependable male lead all fill their expected roles. As a young adult novel, this could work. For an adult, it came off childish. Its attempts to be scary and suspenseful ended up being downright silly. I could actually see this being a pretty interesting teen movie if there was a way to amp up the suspense and create a bit more realistic complexities.

Special thanks to Jason Leibman of Henry Holt for the Advance Review Copy.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Versed - Rae Armantrout, 2010 Pulitzer Prize Winner

National Book Award Finalist
2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry

Versed by Rae Armantrout made me feel pretty ignorant (more than usual anyway!). I know that her work has always been highly respected, but when I first picked it up, I just didn’t get it. A few phrases, here and there, would resonate, but then the lines would go off the track I imagined they were on. I’m fine with stream-of-consciousness writing, but that doesn’t describe it either. Quite simply, I was lost. I put the collection down to return to another time.

In the meantime, The New Yorker had an article about Armantrout’s winning the Pulitzer Prize for this collection, and explained in length not just her biography but her status as a Language poet. Language poets were once a cultural rebellion against Post- Modern poets, but have now become more mainstream, and of them, she’s known as the best. The essay explained how her poems are often cryptic with double meanings and turns that are meant to wake up the reader, to shock them out of numb reality.

With this in mind, I went back and reread each piece. I confess that most are still over my head, I can’t make the connections. But a few really did give me pause. And I think that is how she should be read:  not in a hurry to finish but to slowly unravel.

From Outer:

“I’m the one who can’t know if the scraggly old woman putting a gallon of vodka in her shopping cart feels guilty, defiant, or even glamorous as she does so. She may imagine herself as an actress playing an alcoholic in a film.

Removal activates glamour?
To see yourself as if from the outside – though not as others see you.”

All in all, trying to figure out the meanings was fascinating, like the first few games of Sudoku. But after awhile, just as Sudoku gets more difficult, this felt like more work than I was willing to invest. I just don’t have that in me, to understand what these mean. I am too simple for these complexities.  However, someone with a stronger background in poetry, especially Language poetry, would likely enjoy this special collection.

Special thanks to Stephanie Elliot at Wesleyan University Press for the Review Copy.


Thanks to Gina Hott at for the Versatile Blogger Award.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Castle in Romagna, Igor Stiks, Croatian translation

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away….

This could easily have been the introductory sentence for Igor Stiks’ A Castle in Romagna, an amazing novel that explores parallel stories from two different time periods. Both stories feature the theme of betrayal, by close companions, from the least expected sources.

It begins in Northern Italy in 1995 where three friends go to visit an ancient castle in Romagna. They are there to visit the castle because of the internment there, centuries before, of the poet Enzo Strecci. Before they can explore the ruins, one of them is delayed by a caretaker, who is fascinated that he comes from Bosnia, at the time a scene of frequent violence. As the other two go to explore, the Bosnian tries to politely escape from the talkative caretaker. But soon, the man reveals that he, too, is from Bosnia, and begins telling his own life story as well as the story of Enzo Strecci.

His story takes place when the schism occurred between General Tito and Josef Stalin. This led to Yugoslavia trying to become autonomous, with the result that eventually it divided into the complicated political region where Bosnia is located. The caretaker recounts how he barely escaped with his life from those convinced he was a Communist informer. He ends up, scarred and mutilated, in Italy. He describes his own connection with the castle while explaining how Strecci ended up at the same location during the Renaissance, and how it ended in Strecci’s execution.

It’s clear that at first the listener feels like he’s missing out on exploring the ruins, but the story revealed soon becomes far more fascinating. The voice of the caretaker is witty and nostalgic, but he’s not wasting anyone’s time. He reveals only the relevant details in both accounts, which makes the novel move very quickly. The style is unusual but the essential meaning has almost a fairy-tale quality to it. While it’s easy to predict what’s going to happen, watching it unfold is thought- provoking because of the corelation of both accounts. The concepts of trust, vengeance, and betrayal are all classic story lines, but explored here in a way to remind the reader that often the danger lies closer to us than we may wish to realize.  The fate of Strecci may be appropriate,  but it’s a poignant moment when all his former friends are called to testify against him to save their master. He realizes then the “logic of power.”

I was fascinated by this book, as it’s the first Croatian translation that I’ve read, and because the author is relatively young. He says a great deal about human nature with very few words, and he points at the blind spots most people have when it comes to reason.  Historically, I never really understood the divide between Tito and Stalin and what it meant for the residents of Yugoslavia.   This book is found at Amazon or at Barnes and Noble's website. It's worth seeking out, as it's a fascinating look at little-known time and place.

Special thanks to Russell Valentino of Autumn Hill Books for the Review Copy.
Autumn Hill Books is a nonprofit press that publishes unique translations,
check out their catalog at

Cats in the Dog House

Jaya from Cat On My Head
( allowed
me to use this photo...Her site has some
amazing cats and landscapes.  I love the light
filtering in through the wood and the
textures of all the surfaces.

Her email is
Check out her webpage for some great shots.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Premio Dardos award, great blog links!

"The Premio Dardos is a way to acknowledge the importance of bloggers committed to spreading cultural, ethical, literary and personal values, showing their letters and words."

Premio Dardos means prize darts in Italian...
Special thanks to for the Award below....I appreciate her noticing and selecting the The Black Sheep Dances.  Be sure to check out her blog for great reviews and some very well-read (and well-fed) cats.

Now I'd love to pass the award on to some of my favorite blogs for their worldwide exposure to unusual books and authors.

Dorte in Denmark at for encouraging world travel via books.

Uriah's UK crime discussions at

Karen's European crime book discussions at

Jose's blog in Spain at

The Australian contributers (Bernadette and friends) at

Kiwicraig's New Zealand blog at

One other small item I forgot from last week:  The random drawing for The Language of Secrets selected Linda Henderson as the winner and I've know given the publicist her address to receive it.  Next giveaway coming soon!  I promise an international one this time!

For some great photography, check out the blog for  I reviewed his book Skip a few months ago, and his blog features updates of photos that specialize in unique views of water, light, clouds, and faces.  Great stuff!

Finland is officially part of Scandinavia!

Since we had some recent questions regarding whether Finland should be counted as part of Scandinavia, for the purposes of the Challenge, we seem to have found the definitive answer from Diane, a publicist for HELSINKI HOMICIDE: VENGEANCE by Jarkko Sipila.  It is nominated for the Glass Key Award (excellence in Scandinavian crime fiction), and it is by a Finnish author. So, if Finland is considered part for purposes of the Glass Key award, we can assume Finland is considered part of Scandinavia in general.

Thanks for your help Diane! 


Monday, June 7, 2010

Purge, literary fiction by Sofi Oksanen

This review for Sofi Oksanen’s book Purge is probably the most difficult I’ve ever done. I liked the book very much, but I’m terribly afraid of revealing spoilers, as the novel is so complicated and layered. I can easily describe it as one of my personal favorites, up there with Per Petterson and Tim Winton.

To begin, this book has nothing to do with eating disorders, and the only real complaint I have is that the cover art scarcely seems to apply to the complicated work within. After you’ve read it, you realize that the cover does in fact refer to details encountered, but I’m curious if the cover itself would dissuade readers from picking it up. A pretty measly complaint, to be followed by lavish praise!  However, I’m also known to pick out wine based on how artistic the bottle labels look, rather than whether it is any good or not, so maybe that's just me! 

That said, there are two interlinking threads in this story. One character thinks she’s escaping her small Russian village, allured by the glamorous Western world represented to her by elegant silk stockings worn by a visiting friend. Unfortunately, while Zara focuses on the material luxury represented by those stockings, she doesn’t see the wave her friend gives her, “it looked more like she was scraping at the air with red fingernails. Her fingers were slightly curled, as if she were ready to scratch.” Desirous of that ‘better life’, frustrated with her silent mother and her fragile grandmother, Zara thinks she can escape. Instead she’s kidnapped and chained, set up by that friend, and headed for a brutal world in Germany: a place that makes Vladivostok look much more beautiful.

In the meantime, Aliide leads a quiet life in Estonia, her days spent canning and cultivating her small garden and dairy animals, dwelling in the past. Since childhoood, her life was filled with pain, suffering, and loss.  Her village had suffered from Fascist and Communist occupation, with many citizens (including her own sister and niece) being sent to Siberia. The village itself was a complex array of loyalties…those that hoped for American intervention to save them, others loyal to Russia, and still others harboring German sympathies. Not even the simplest of farmers could trust one another: too much was at stake. The atrocities from all sides were fresh in everyone’s memories. The result was people who carried physical and mental scars, who were eaten up with regret and suspicion. Aliide was one of them, more damaged than most.

Eventually Zara makes an escape, and her path crosses with Aliide. Their new relationship is mistrustful and edgy, as neither knows the true identity or agenda of the other. As this developed, I was sure that “this” relationship was the core of the novel. I was wrong, and the way the story proceeds is not only unpredictable but shocking and ugly. No one is as they appear, and trust is unachievable. Because it turns out that Aliide knows far more about Zara than either realized, and the threads that connect them go back further than their chance meeting. Here unfolds the deeper part of the novel, the most disturbing, as we see that Aliide is not the warm-hearted savior we expected her to be, and her damaged psyche is revealed.

The underlying theme is that appearances can be deceptive. A person can appear good, or moral, or upstanding. But what they hide can be unimaginable, and they keep the deception up so well that they can convince themselves it doesn’t exist. Danger is present everywhere, but it can distract you with a beautiful appearance. This is well expressed in an introductory quote from Paul-Eerik Rummo: “The walls have ears, and the ears have beautiful earrings.” Such a simple quote, but it describes much of what the novel means.

This is a combination of crime fiction and historical fiction, and fans of both would be pleased. It was translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers.

Special thanks to Martin Wilson from Grove/Atlantic for the Review Copy.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Singer's Gun, Emily St. John Mandel

“Sometimes regular channels aren’t open to you, and then you have to improvise. Find your own way out. Think about it, Anton. What does it take to succeed in this world?”

“It’s never easy. You have to be creative sometimes. You have to make things happen for yourself.”

What does it mean to be a good person? Can you justify a tiny bit of crime, maybe by simply looking the other way, if your intent is good? Are you saving the world if you ignoring your own child? 

The Singer’s Gun is an incredible novel, one that has consumed me since I began reading it. Tension and suspense are mixed in with significant questions regarding morality and family honor in a world changed by 9/11. Anton is the protagonist, a man who wishes to wash his hands of his family’s criminal links, but finds that doing that requires its own sort of dishonesty. This novel discusses the complex links that connect us to our past and lead to our future. How desperate do we have to be to make a new beginning? 

The novel makes you consider all these things without ever getting preachy or dull. The stride is brisk, and the characters are all unique and compelling. As in real life, very few people are completely good or completely bad: this explores all the mysterious layers and inconsistencies of everyday life. Anton is appealing: after all, he adopts a one-eyed cat and shows up at his job reliably, long after he’s been quietly fired. Yet he’s lost, gripped by an inertia brought on by not wanting to do wrong but not having the courage to do “right”. 

What I really enjoyed, besides the completely unique characters, was that the plot continually rotates, changing viewpoints, so that you can observe scenes through another characters eyes and thus see their own justifications. It complicates the drama and adds tension. The author subtly weaves little threads of foreshadowing here and there to add another dimension. Some seemingly unrelated minor events appear that actually serve to rough up and texture the identities of the characters.  My only minor irritation was that the character Elena kept "looking at her reflection" in the window over and over...I don't know why I got hung up on that but in most of the scenes she appears in, there is some sort of comment on her looking at the glass.  I thought it was a nod to something about her character, something that would present itself later, but I don't think it did.  It was just a phrase that seemed to get overused in an otherwise perfectly written story.

I had heard raves about the author before:  now I know why!   I spent most of today’s unusual heat wave parked in front of a fan with The Singer’s Gun, and was sad to see it end. I should have savored it more! This one would be ripe for a sequel, because the moral ambiguities can never be completely resolved.

Special thanks to Caitlin at Unbridled Books for the Review Copy.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Maxim, a poem by Carl Dennis

A Maxim

To live each day as if it might be the last
Is an injunction that Marcus Aurelius
Inscribes in his journal to remind himself
That he, too, however privileged, is mortal.
That whatever bounty is destined to reach him
Has reached him already, many times.
But if you take his maxim too literally
And devote your mornings to tinkering with your will,
Your afternoons and evenings to saying farewell
To friends and family, you'll come to regret it.
Soon your lawyer won't fit you into his schedule,
Soon your dear ones will hide in a closet
When they hear your heavy step on the porch,
And then your house will slide into disrepair.
Is this is my last day, you'll say to yourself,
Why waste time sealing drafts in the window frames
Or cleaning gutters or patching the driveway?
If you don't want your heirs to curse the day
You first opened Marcus's journals,
Take him simply to mean you should find an hour
Each day to pay a debt or forgive one,
Or write a letter of thanks or apology.
No shame in leaving behind some evidence
You were hoping to live beyond the moment.
No shame in a ticket to a concert seven months off,
Or better yet, two tickets, as if you were hoping
To meet by then someone who'd love to join you,
Two seats near the front so you catch each note.

-----Carl Dennis  (June 7, 2010 New Yorker magazine)

The Abyss of Human Illusion by Gilbert Sorrentino

The Abyss of Human Illusion is aptly titled, given that Sorrentino develops so many of his narrative pieces with the focus on the illusions in everyday life: the assumptions we make, or the events we mentally rehearse for but never act out. This collection is fifty-some short vignettes, not quite a collection of short stories, but still packing just as much of a punch. Most are just two or three pages, and what he can accomplish in so few words is amazing.

This was my first Sorrentino collection, and it’s honest and pure without being depressing. Even the parts about depression were somehow unsinkable. A great deal of humor is within it, a sweet humor as well as snarky realism. For example, in one section, an elderly man pities his upstairs neighbor, another elderly man with a crippled foot. They have no connection, but the downstairs neighbor imagines an entire life for the poor man above, embellishing it with sad little details about war injuries and ungrateful children that allow him to ignore the terrible noise the upstairs man makes. Finally, unable to stand the noise much longer, he goes upstairs and finds a scantily clad woman at the door, who looks at him disdainfully, as he is an old man. Thus the noise is explained and the downstairs neighbor is chastened. Isn’t that how it goes?

Another man is set to review his friend’s published poetry collection, one of several in a successful artistic career. He can’t make himself get to it, and keeps putting it off. Finally, he has to admit it to himself what prevents him: the realization that his friend is “an arrogant, selfish, cruel, egocentric yet charming man of sociopathic bent, to put the very best face on it, changed, oh yes, transformed his public presence into one of a subtly nuanced and delicate humility, transformed his entire life and world into the very picture of the sensitive artist.” And the larger revelation? His friend was a terrible poet in the first place. Immediately you imagine that the reviewer would justify the poet’s corruption if only he had more talent!

Sorrentino makes some pokes at my beloved New Yorker magazine (I feel kind of guilty for enjoying it so much!).  He makes more than a few allusions to famous people who lacked the talent to back up their legend, but I couldn’t place exactly who he meant (I’m sure they know!). He's uncanny at noting the little details that make each person tick.  In fact, given the seemingly trivial details he explores, you’d assume the stories would be longer. But it’s the specificity of what he describes that allows you to immediately know what he means without pages of descriptions. An amazing gift, because none of the pieces feel short-changed or hurried; all are exactly right.

The introduction of this novel is also quite touching as it is written by Sorrentino’s son, explaining how his father completed the work despite his debilitating illness, just weeks before his death. I’m eager to see if Sorrentino’s other novels are this style, as it’s an addicting style of prose.  Best of all, it's not so sophisticated that the reader feels ignorant (as frequently happens when I read some celebrated writers).

Special thanks to Esther Porter at Coffee House Press for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Where I Stay, Andrew Zornoza

This is an cryptic collection of random thoughts, experiences, and photographs of the author's fictional journey through the Western US and Mexico.  This definitely isn't the scenic route:  Zornoza's travels take him to the edge of urban life, mainly concentrating on the rough roads and deserted highways that have been left in the past by time and progress.  The landscape is grey, gritty, and jagged:  much like the words he chooses to describe his interactions and his reactions to it all.

His observations are sometimes funny, sometimes tense, and often a bit obscure.  You get the impression that he has x-ray vision and sees beneath the surface of the locations, as well as the hardened exteriors of the people he meets.  He encounters the most diverse group of people imaginable, all lingering on the outskirts of city and suburban life, some intentionally and some without choice.  The black and white photographs heighten the sense of distance and reminded me of a Dust Bowl migration.  There's sadness within it all, yet the traveller continues.  Much like an epic quest, he keeps pursuing that which he cannot identify.

"There are cracks in the country-in its families and highways, houses and rivers, factories, cellar windows, truck stops, in the sounds of chattering televisions, in the plexiglass booths of pay phones by bus stations, in the crushed glass of parking lots..."

"The prairie was my cellar door.  I had removed everyone I knew or the people had removed themselves.  I replaced them all with a vast plateau, then mountains, dry desert, broken pieces of landscape that didn't quite fit together.  I found people in the cracks."

Zornoza's gift in this collection is the little surprises he throws out amid the descriptions of the raw landcape.  In his diary-like entries, he may explain what happened and where, but he may also throw out a mysterious phrase: "because if someone was making a movie of her, the movie would not be good.  She was a bad actress, but there was no movie, there was no acting."  I really enjoyed the photographs but more the pictures his words composed.  Sparse, with no unnecessary details or dialogue.  An excellent collection....It reminded me somewhat of Sam Shepherd's Day Out of Days.

Special thanks to Tarpaulin Sky Press for the Review Copy.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Mixed Media

The Scandinavian Reading Challenge still has new participants joining...I'm amazed at the enthusiasm for this project.  Ken M. has suggested we discuss some unusual Scandinavian titles that we know of or may have enjoyed.  Some of the authors/titles have been widely discussed or seen in the media (i.e. Larsson).  Ken would like suggestions for more obscure titles in the genre that could be posted for others to there a special 'hidden treasure' you know of that may be hard to find?  Please help!

In the news:  Henning Mankell was arrested by Israeli police for participating in the flotilla of boats trying to break through the Gaza blockade to provide food.
If you haven't seen the book Purge by Sofi Oksanen, look for it.  The review is coming soon, but I'll just say now that this is easily one of my top five books of all time.  It combines history with crime and incredible character structures and will knock you out.  I'm counting it in the SRC because part of it takes place in Finland (the majority in Estonia).  This brings me to: 

Some great reviews for the SRC,

from Jose in SpainThe Silence of the Grave by Indriason
The Mind's Eye by Nesser
The Savage Altar by Larsson

from Bernadette:  The Serbian Dane

from Colleen:

As always, has an amazing list of titles and completed reviews of Scandinavian Crime fiction. Please send me your blog links or review links to post monthly. 

I've now completed the Challenge myself with: Purge, Siamese, The Twin, I Curse the River of Time, Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto, and The Man from Beijing.  I actually read a few more but these have reviews on the sidebar.  Yay!  Still working on finishing the Aussie Author Challenge 2010 now, so my focus is going to be diverted a bit:  lots of Peter Carey to read!

I'm leaning towards an Eastern European Translated Works Challenge, starting in September. Since so many participants in the Scandinavian Challenge are done or close to completion, it might be fun to have a new one going rather than waiting for 2011. Title or author suggestions welcome.

Photo is unrelated, I just like it.  Only a cat would get a tattoo of itself.

Some new ARC's received make the next few months of reviewing look incredibly fun:

Beautiful Maria of My Soul -Oscar Hijuelos
The Long Song -Andrea Levy
Safe from the Sea-Peter Geye
Work Song-Ivan Doig
My Life as a Russian Novel-Emmanuel Carrere
Houdini Pie-Paul Michel
Beirut 39-Samuel Shimon
Winter Journey-Jaume Cabre
New World of Indigenous Resistance-Noam Chomsky
Mr. Toppit-Charles Elton
The Singer's Gun-Emily St. John Mandel
Life as We Show It-Pera and Tupitsyn

The giveaway for Dixon's The Language of Secrets ends at 9:00 pm Pacific time tomorrow (June 2nd).  US street addresses only (sorry!).  The next giveaway will be international!  SRC participants are automatically entered, others can enter by leaving a comment with email address.

On a personal note, I finally saw the film The Road.  The region I live in didn't have a showing so I had to wait for the DVD release.  My son who read the book with me refused to watch, as he feels no movie can compare to the book.  Usually I agree but I was really impressed with this film.  Much of the gore is gone and what remains is the father-son relationship that is tender and tough.  I highly recommend it, and it is not nearly as gory or violent as the movie trailers made it out to be.  It was strangely uplifting, not nearly as depressing and bleak as the book.  Not excessively so, anyway. The trailers appeared to focus solely on the first half hour or so, with additional scenes that weren't even in the final film.