Thursday, December 30, 2010

Maps and Shadows by Krysia Jopek

“I will urge Helcia to carve out the bloodspill with her pen”

This is the thought that Henryk carries in his mind as his family is being transported to Siberia from their rural home in Poland. Despite his youth, he can sense the turmoil that is uprooting them and the violence that will come, and can only hope that Helcia and her poetry will help make sense of it all. In Maps and Shadows, the novel released this month by Krysia Jopek, we see how this small family of five is transported on a journey far more distant than Siberia. The story is tightly based on the actual events in Poland and Russia, and beyond, from 1939 to 1955.

Unique in many ways, Jopek’s novel combines a fast-paced narrative with poetry created by the character of Helcia. Her poems are placed throughout the chapters that explore the events through the separate viewpoints of the four oldest family members: Andrzej and Zofia (the parents), and Helcia and Henryk (the two oldest children). While each experiences their deportation differently, they are united in the hope that “some of us, at least, would survive.”

While much of the events of the Polish being sent to Siberia were familiar, the aftermath was not. Stalin had “freed” the Poles to fight alongside Russia against Germany, in a move that pleased the US and Britain. However, this left thousands of Polish families stranded in Siberia with no means of return while the Polish men went off to fight. Thus, a displacement of these Poles, mostly women and small children to parts of Africa and the Middle East (22 convalescent camps with 19,000 Poles in Africa alone) was completely new to me. In some cases, the British helped the Poles to reunite with their families and also provided camps and education in the interim. Yet, when WWII ended, despite their the many Polish soldiers who supported the Allied efforts, “the Polish military were asked not to march in the celebratory Victory Parade in London…those in power in England and the United States did not want to alienate Stalin.”

It was painful yet fascinating to read about the resilience of the people whose lives were uprooted so viciously and repeatedly. Only their family ties remained valuable to them as material items were so transient. They had to endure the frigid cold of Siberia and then relatively quickly try to acclimatize to the heat of Africa, and their health was forever compromised by the years of malnourishment and mental anguish. Kopek’s tactic of letting each character explain their own interpretation is revealing as it shows the more personal suffering of each: a father tormented by his inability to protect his family, a mother desperate to see that her toddler have milk, and the two older children trying to put on a brave face to alleviate the worry of their parents as they themselves are forced to grow up far too soon.

Helcia’s means of coping was her poetry. Words and phrases that reveal a mature realization of the larger implications of their suffering, in "Ice Garden":

This scrim of the inner room
The door of some other now, the book
Of will unknown. The book of how
And why drowned, encrusted under:

Sisyphus longed for a beginning, middle
And end to make it all bearable or seem
To have a context. The shortest distance

Between two points can be viole[n]t
Those wounds in the armpits
Wary at the lookout, ready to bow

And disregard history’s narrative.

Notice the word play she creates with viole[n]t. The use of the brackets gives color to the meaning of violence: the violet of the inevitable bruising. In another poem she similarly writes [D]anger, to contrast the emotions felt “to live in a place not one’s own.” In fact, she refers to this homelessness and ties in the book's title with the reality of changing maps of the world:

Villains can change out of costume,
Spectators, easily cajoled
The cartographer obsequiously pleasant
To be paid on time.

In all, the novel was fascinating in style and content, as were the new aspects (to me) of post-Siberia rehabilitation. It’s evident that Kopek did tremendous research (the bibliography is extensive) on the historical events, and the history itself is never dull. However, a few times I wished there might have been more narrative regarding the personal emotions of each of the four characters-did anyone ever really lose their temper? Break down in hysterics? Fight over petty things? Do the wrong thing? They seemed remarkably focused and devoted despite all that happened, almost a bit idealized.  This isn't to say they weren't believable, I just think that the novel could have expanded to include more intimate and informal subjective details.

Special thanks to Debra Gendel and Aquila Polonica for the Advance Review Copy.
This titled released earlier this month.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Where to Find Great Reads....

All of the "best of" year-end booklists that I've been reading have made me consider where I found my year's favorite titles.  Granted, many of my favorites have been review copies, but they were sent with the understanding of what kinds of books I like in advance (literary fiction, translated works, poetry, etc). Graywolf Press, Archipelago, Aquila Polonica, and Melville House especially seem to put out really great stuff that I love. So, beyond those, where have the best books been found?  And what hasn't worked?

A big winner for finding unique titles...visit the blog roll to the right to find some great reading.  Much of what I've purchased has come by means of recommendation from these other bloggers who enjoy non-mainstream titles.  Lisa's Other Bookshelf is a great example...Also, the blogs for Open Letter and the Quarterly Conversation consistently discuss titles of note.  FriendFeed is also a great way to combine feeds from different blogs and get a weekly update.

Updates on Goodreads: More helpful than LibraryThing's recommendations, the Update feed on Goodreads is really cool to see what your friends are reading. Besides blogs, this is my main place to find a great title...I'm always happy to see what Irene, Erma, Daisy, Lisa, Tara, and Chrissie are reading!

The New Yorker and Rain Taxi seem to be the only print magazines that feature titles that look interesting...definite win!  Rain Taxi features smaller presses usually, and even the ads are helpful to discover new reading avenues.

While I just had to have subscriptions to the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books,  I probably won't resubscribe.  These look scholarly but too often feature political titles or the usual suspects, maybe only one or two books out of each issue appeals to my off-the-grid tastes.  They do have advertisements from university presses that list interesting titles...and of course, the personals sections aren't to be missed. But to pay that kind of money and only read the personals, nahhh.  Not worth it.

Bookmarks magazine has to be the worst of all...there's not even personal ads to laugh over.  All the magazine does is compile the reviews of other media outlets, summarizes them, and regurgitate pages of the same books all the time.  Over a year, I haven't found a single title that looked interesting in this magazine.  Book Pages, however, can be found free at most libraries and is far more comprehensive.

Retail sellers:  Barnes and Noble often doesn't have titles that I'm looking for, and that goes for the website and the local store.  My local Borders has a great layout but way too much merchandise and too little in the way of literary fiction.  When you go in for a classic, and can't find it, you know they're not going to have a book from GLAS or Object Press.  And while seems to be bashed as the online bully, at least they continually have the books I want.  Small press or big, it's there.  Not to be ignored either is that they often help me in finding similar titles.  I go to the site looking for one and end up with five.  With the 2-day prime membership, it's almost instant bookie I can throw in a toy for the kid and never have to leave the house.  

Newspapers:  the Sunday NYTimes and LA Times are both helpful but their coverage is limited.  And it keeps shrinking!  Often they are dissecting the same titles as every other outlet (Freedom?).  I will still keep up with the LA Times, if only to look for the elusive perfect book via the obituaries section....I have it on good authority (you know who you are!) that the obits is the place for great books!

Databases:  Looking at articles on Proquest or the Literary Reference Center usually results in searches with similar authors or titles offered.  One search can yield a bunch of great results.  I find Infomine to be kind of worthless....

SO, how did YOU find your favorite books of 2010???  Leave a comment...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnett (poem)

Someone on FB mentioned Hartnett as one of the greatest Irish poets, and I did some digging.  After reading this one below, I have to say I'm pretty struck by his words...a new find for me to explore!

Death of an Irishwoman

by Michael Hartnett

Ignorant, in the sense
she ate monotonous food
and thought the world was flat,
and pagan, in the sense
she knew the things that moved
all night were neither dogs or cats
but hobgoblin and darkfaced men
She nevertheless had fierce pride.
But sentenced in the end
to eat thin diminishing porridge
in a stone-cold kitchen
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
I loved her from the day she died.

She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a cardgame where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child's purse, full of useless things.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The 2011 Eastern European Reading Challenge

After last year's successful Scandinavian Reading Challenge, The Black Sheep Dances is excited to begin a new challenge.  The 2011 Eastern European Reading Challenge starts January 1, 2011.

Please consider choosing unfamiliar titles, especially those that are translated works, to help support those organizations that are working to unearth the 'buried' treasure of Eastern European and Russian literature.

Regions:  Choose titles about or by an author from any of the following regions:  Croatia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Hungary, Belarus, Estonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Czech Rep., Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Romania, Moldova, and Kosovo.

TitlesCan be any genre:  crime, poetry, literary fiction, history, historical fiction, memoirs, etc.

tourist:  4 books over the 12 months
ambassador:  8 books over 12 months
scholar:  12 books over 12 months

To enter:  indicate by comment below of your intention to enter, with email contact (or email me directly) and your country of residence (important!).  I'll compose a upper TAB on the top of TBSD's home page to keep track of entrants.  SHARE your favorite titles in a comment, or email me. 

I'll attempt to create a badge for the Challenge to post on your blog (or you can right-click the photo below), and hopefully you can help publicize the event via FB or Twitter if you wish.  The titles below are just a variety of suggested titles depending on what regions you are interested in, and I will update it soon.  Additionally, I have the titles below on hand for reviewing, so you'll see reviews of these popping up during the year. 

Titles below are ideas only....the choices are yours:
Zlata's Diary (Sarajevo), Zlata Filipovic, Penguin
The Ice Road (Poland and Siberia), Stefan Waydenfeld, Aquila Polonica
Lost and Found in Russia, Susan Richards, Other Press
Tales of Priut Almus (Russia), Robert Belenky, IUniverse
The Angel of Grozny (Chechnya), Asne Seierstad, Basic Books
Let Our Fame Be Great (Chechnya, Georgia), Oliver Bullough, Basic Books
Prodigal Daughter (Ukraine), Myrna Kostash, U of Alberta Press
Stalin's Genocides (Siberia), Norman Naimark, Princeton U P
Greengrocer and His TV (Prague), Paulina Bren, Cornell U P
Prague Panoramas (Czech), Cynthia Paces, U of Pittsburgh P
Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazier, Farrar Straus Giroux
1989: Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, Sarotte, Princeton U P
The Eitingons (Russia), Mary Kay Wilmers, Verso Press
Yugoslavia: Oblique Insights, Dennison Rusinow, U of Pittsburgh P
Tashkent: Forging a Soviet City, Paul Stronski, U of Pittsburgh P

Moscow Noir (short stories), Akashic Books                      
Seven Years (Poland), Peter Stamm, Other Press (3/11 release)
Stalin's Ghost (Russia), Martin Cruz Smith (one of the Arkady Renko series)                                      
Death of the Little Match Girl (Croatia), Zoran Feric, Autumn Hill Books
The Anonymous Novel: Sensing the Future Torments (Russia)
A Castle in Romagna (Croatia), Igor Stiks, Autumn Hill Books                      
Maps and Shadows (Siberia, Poland), Krysia Jopek, Aquila Polonica
Wave of Terror (Belarus), Theodore Odrach,                              
The Final Year (Czech), Ilse Tielsch, Ariadne Press
The Siege (Albania), Ismail Kadare, Grove Press              
Frozen Time, Anna Kim (Kosovo) Ariadne Press
Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazier, Farrar Straus Giroux
Everything Flows (Siberia), Vasily Grossman

Factory of Tears (Belarus), Valzhyna Mort, Copper Canyon Press
The Russian Version, Elena Fanailova, Ugly Duckling Press

War and Peace, Anna Karenina, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Dracula, Crime and Punishment, The Overcoat, Doctor Zhivago

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Wave of Terror by Theodore Odrach, historical fiction

Translated from the Ukrainian by Erma Odrach

Talk about a timely book! This novel is based on Theodore Odrach’s own life when Stalin’s Red Army came in to power in Belarus. Given that Belarus is very much in the news this week, with the controversy over recent elections and the beating and deportation of several journalists, it seems that a glimpse at its history is appropriate.

I know of several people who have read Wave of Terror recently, and all were moved by it because of how revealing the novel is about resilience, fear, and courage. Briefly, it deals with the experiences of a school teacher in the rural region of the Pinsk marshes-one who finds himself trying to walk the tightrope of pleasing the new regime without losing his moral balance. He is an endearing character, much like Ivan in Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows. However, while the Grossman novel features Ivan looking back on his experiences, in this we see Kulik and what he is thinking as he experiences the significant events that turn the small region upside down, yet again. As an educated man, he is a threat to the Stalinist leaders, who give him simple advice to follow:

“I know you’re a historian with a degree…which is not to your credit. To put it simply, you have an education from a bourgeois institution where you were taught not only by non-socialist professors but also by pretentious, self-serving priests. You were educated in a hostile and unproductive environment. Take my advice and study the five volumes of Soviet history. Become a master of Marxist methodology…Give added attention to the Communist Manifesto, and learn how the capitalist classes of all nations will be overthrown and eliminated by a worldwide working-class revolution.”

The pressure to succumb to the indoctrination is great; if he doesn’t conform he will be shipped away to Siberia. Anyone can endanger him, as just the simplest lie about him from a student or associate will be enough to remove him, because the regime rewards those who inform. With a starving community and hostility around, every word he speaks endangers him, and yet “even silence could bring disaster”. The story of how he moves through this virtual minefield is both surprising and inspiring.

Odrach's passport photo
What is especially revealing about the novel’s voice is its coverage of the subject of languages. Having read a few Stalin-era books lately, I hadn’t quite caught on to how language itself is a tool of indoctrination. In Kulik’s rural village, the villagers normally spoke Ukrainian. Having been previously invaded by Poland however, they had been impelled to only speak Polish before reverting back to Ukrainian. Then the regime change insisted that they all speak Belorussian, but made clear it was a stepping stone to the entire area speaking Russian. Without access to their native tongue, the people had much of their culture stripped away, long before the Red Army came in and further eliminated cultural distinctions. Germany eventually occupied Belarus as well, which adds yet another linguistic layer to their history.

The language issue is significant because even now in Belarus, as its citizens are divided because those who wish to retain the Belorussian language and cultural identity (in order to prevent further “Russification” of their region) are outnumbered by those who wish to embrace the Russian language for simplification and economic benefit.  The loss of one’s native language means the loss of unique phrases, idioms, and subtle historical details. The poet Valzhyna Mort is one writer who is fighting for the language, which she describes in parts of her book Factory of Tears.

Wave of Terror also answered a question that had been gnawing at me. Why did the people let the Red Army take over? Why didn’t they resist more? In the narrative, a key element made a great impact on me: the people were hungry and without basic necessities. In this state of desperation, any change was embraced, even if it meant turning on lifelong friends or family, and even if the promised changes never materialized. Stalin’s leaders offered food to hungry people, and although they didn’t get much, they were easily manipulated. It’s the same sort of manipulation that Hitler used to great effect, as well as the Roman Caesars who were able to draw crowds to the gladiator fights with the promise of food. Without the essentials of daily life, oppression can easily take root, because the ordinary person has so little to lose.

Lastly, despite all the fear and suffering endured, it was interesting to read of what doesn’t change. Old married couples still fought and young people still sought romance. People still danced and enjoyed a drink and found pleasure in the simplest of foods. Perhaps this was the key to survival-maintaining their humanity and dignity when others lost their own. 

Special thanks to Erma Odrach for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Calico Jungle and Farmyard Alphabet, Dahlov Ipcar

I've raved about Dahlov Ipcar's children's books before.  The Cat at Night is an all-time favorite because of the knockout illustrations and the subject matter itself (your cat's adventures while you sleep).  So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review two more of her books.  Both are unique in their own way.

The first is The Calico Jungle.  It's a story that is illustrated with quilt prints in retro colors making up the body of the animals, as well as vines and flowers.  My son has enjoyed it several ways.  First, the storyline, and then it became an "I Spy" sort of activity as he looked for the different animals that are hidden throughout, ordinary animals in a calico print.  The colors are not typical children's book colors: instead of primary or pastels, the colors have a milk-paint opaque look that feels vintage.  According to a representative of Islandport, Ipcar actually has a quilt in her home that she used for inspiration, and at one point she envisioned the book being cloth.

The story itself is of boy who is given a quilt lovingly made by his mother, covered with animals.  That night he is transported into dreams of all the animals and their adventures.  It occurred to me that if my son was younger these pages would have looked gorgeous framed and as part of a nursery theme.  Dahlov Ipcar's illustrations are never cutesy or sacharine sweet-they are just simple and clear.  And how is it that the face of a calico camel can show emotion?  I'm not sure how she does it, but we love this book.  And as always with Islandport Press, the book's pages are heavy and bound beautifully-a book I can easily see saving as an heirloom.  In terms of age-appropriateness, my three-year-old easily enjoys the story and is likely to continue to enjoy it when he learns to read, so I think it would be fair to say it could go from a lap reader to a school-age child.

The other book is called Farmyard Alphabet, also by Dahlov Ipcar.  This is the first of her books to become a board book, and it has similar qualities in the unique vintage colors that she uses.  The illustrations are done in a European folk art style, simple but not cutesy.  Ipcar is unusual as a children's illustrator in that she uses the color black occasionally to great effect.  Most kid's books seem to avoid black, and I'm not sure why.  But the colors of the varying animals pop against the squares of black that alternate with other colors in this board book.  The theme, obviously, is the animals in the farmyard.  Geared towards babies, and non-toxic of course, my son still enjoys reading it despite his "I not baby" status.

These books were received as Review Copies from Melissa Kim at Islandport Press. 

(Per FCC regulations, I have to tell you that.  But receiving them has no impact on my review, for as you can probably tell, I am a huge fan and have been long before I reviewed for them.  Dahlov Ipcar's books are the ones that I purchase as gifts for new babies regularly and they never disappoint.)  

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Human Chain by Seamus Heaney, poems

I'm not even going to think about calling this a review of Seamus Heaney's latest collection of poems, Human Chain..  It would be incredibly presumptuous on my part to even suggest that I'm going to "evaluate" his work (of course, normally I'm always presumptuous in terms of reviewing!).  Instead, I'm going to just relay a few points that I love about this amazing poet, and why you should read him if you haven't already. 

For one thing, his writing style is so straightforward and concise.  It's not fluffy or ostentatious or full of bizarre allusions that make you feel ignorant for not understanding.  Instead, he writes like a reader, with spare words that draw crisp pictures.  Yet his poetry does have can find multiple meanings if you ponder what he says, so they still have depth and are certainly not simplistic at all.  In fact, in many ways his simplicity is deceiving.

For example, I recently re-read "Digging", a poem he wrote in 1968 about a man admiring his father's and grandfather's strength as they turned over turf and worked the land in Ireland.  He concludes the poem with something along the lines (I'm paraphrasing) that 'I'll have to do the work with my pen'.  What initially is a pleasant enough little story (hard work, family, nature) suddenly had a deeper meaning and then, "digging" into it, one could see he was commenting on the struggles of Northern Ireland and showing the violence that was sometimes used to create change in the Republic.  He never got pushy or overtly political but you could clearly see that he was sending another message.

So, in reading Human Chain, I was again dazzled by his subtlety.  In one poem, "Miracle", he leads the reader into another direction of thought as he reconsiders the Biblical event of Christ healing a lame man:

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in-
Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher handles
Slippery with sweat.  And no let-up
Until he's strapped on tight, made tiltable
And raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait
For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity
To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

Here,  he's stepped back from a significant event to expand on its effects to those out of the spotlight, observers on the periphery who are also altered, although less obviously.  In "Slack", he writes about the repetitive and mundane nature of storing coal for the fire, and shows what the symbolic heat means for the home:

A sullen pile
But soft to the shovel, accommodating
As the clattering coal was not.
In days when life prepared for rainy days
It lay there, slumped and waiting,
To dampen down and lengthen out...

And those words-
"Bank the fire"-
Every bit as solid as
The cindery skull
Formed when its tarry
Coral cooled.

Here he illustrates the fragile balance of life and death as dependent on the existence of the humble coal;  and foreshadows what happens when the coal runs out.  In that case, the cold shells of the fire appear as "skulls".  So is he talking about just a home fire or the flame of one's heart?

Finally, the most poignant of all is "The Butts", where the narrator describes searching through a wardrobe of old suits.  He describes how they "swung heavily like waterweed disturbed" as he checks the pockets and finds them full of old cigarette butts, "nothing but chaff cocoons, a paperiness not known again until the last days came".  Colors, sounds, even odors are a part of the poem as he leaves you to wonder why he's looking through the clothing.  Hinting, but never direct, one senses that Heaney is describing the search for a proper burial suit. For a father?

Throughout the collection, varying dedications for the poems give the sense that Heaney wants to go on record with his past and make the connections that are implied with the title, Human Chain.  When I first looked at the cover, I thought it was of trees branches, maybe birch, threading out to tiny tips.  Then I was alerted to a possibly different meaning when I saw a microscopic picture of the human circulatory system-the blood channels that look so similar to branches.  In either case, Heaney has shown, again, an amazing grasp of the connections and complexity of the human condition.

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

Monday, December 20, 2010

Arctic Chill, Arnaldur Indridason

A Reykjavik Thriller
"How many trees is a forest?"

Arctic Chill is part of a series of police procedurals by Arnaldur Indridason.  Set in Iceland, the cold climate plays its own role in the mysterious death of an eight-year-old boy.  Three detectives, each complicated individuals on their own, combine their efforts to search for the murderer amidst the suspicion that the murder was racially motivated.

Suspense was present throughout, and many of the characters involved are not the typical detective novel stereotypes that often show up in a successful series. The case doesn't have an easy resolution, and the detectives are not the Hercule Poirot-type of mentalist who seem to rely on hunches.  Instead, real detective work, involving tedious interviews, re-analyzing evidence, and following leads is the way the murder is solved.  You don't often see this much focus on the little repetitive details of detective work in crime novels, as some authors may think it's too trivial to be of note.  Yet in this, it really works.  In fact, the very unspectacular and terribly unglamourous procedural work is what creates the suspense.

I enjoyed the novel immensely-it was a great cold weather read.  And since I've been reading so many Icelandic novels recently, some of the descriptions of the locations felt familiar and made the story more personal.  I haven't read any of the other books in the series, if I had, I may have even enjoyed it more.  Because for me, one distraction was in the beginning of the novel when the three detectives begin the case.  I was confused as to who was in charge, and it seemed like equal weight was given to each of the three.  I'm not sure why, but it felt disorienting, like I really need to know who the 'lead' was to get involved.  And by half-way, I understood.  But until then, it nagged at me a bit.  Those familar with the series obviously wouldn't have this problem.

Other small details bugged me:  one was that there seemed to be several threads of storyline that were irrelevant to the story but were probably far more important in the series.  That's fine if each reader knows that it's part of a package;  for me, there wasn't enough substance to the threads to make sense of why they were present, and they seemed to slow down the narrative.  Finally, one especially obvious blunder (eventually set right) seemed easy to foreshadowed far too much and made me question one of the detectives capabilities.  Lastly, while the detectives were interesting, I didn't find any personal draw to any of them...their hard work and intelligence was apparent, but nothing about them made me really care about them as individuals.

In all, this was an absorbing read, and I do plan to read more in the series.   A special comment has to be given to the beautiful way in which he describes the landscape and light that remains in the background of the scenes.  I'm curious to see if my take on the detectives will change after I read more of the titles.  The next one after this is Hypothermia, which I've heard nothing but good about.

Special thanks to Picador for the Review Copy.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

New Contest: The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X is due to release in February 2011 in the US.  It's an extremely tight-paced crime novel that features unique lead characters and a style of detective work that may not be familiar to US readers.  It takes place in Japan, and besides the great detective aspect of it, it also gives a fascinating glimpse into daily life among the middle-class.

Additionally, it's interesting to note that immediately upon starting it, you know "whodunit";  yet the resolution is far more complicated.  It's the kind of story where even the most minute detail will come into play at some time further in the story.  I've read it and my review won't be posted until the release date.  However, the publisher sent an extra ARC of it, so I'm offering it to readers in a US only giveaway.

The usual rules apply:  be a follower of this blog and leave a comment to this post.  On January 5, I will pick a random commenter to win.  Please make sure you use GFC or leave an email address for me to contact you.  Please note, this is an Advanced Review Copy (paperback), not a final copy. Again, sadly, US only.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The E-Reader debate...what about illustrations?

I'll admit, flat out, that I don't yet own an Ereader.  And really, unless it is an Ipad, I'm not terribly interested in having one.  Convenience seems to be the biggest factor for purchasers, and there's no doubt the instant access is pretty cool.  And they look cool too! While some owners complain about glare, battery life, and the feel of the plastic, others find that the convenience and ecological interests makes up for these problems.

However, as an avid reader, especially of history books, I can't help but wonder if there's a factor missing in the debate:  illustrations and photography.  I've talked to a few owners of E-readers of various brands, and asked them if they feel a picture, diagram, or illustration looks the same on an E-reader as it does in a print book.  Several were taken back by the question, but most admitted that the impression is not the same as in print.  For example, right now I'm reading Angel Island, from Oxford UP, about the immigration of Chinese and other nationalities into San Francisco who were detained on Angel Island.  To me, the diagrams of the buildings, the photographs of the people, copies of receipts and intake papers make the story far more personal than had they been omitted.  Would that same feeling be possible if I were viewing them in an Ereader?  Or would I have just glanced over them?

This isn't about pretty little illustrations that simply beautify a page.  I'm more concerned with historical details, as well as the shock value of a photograph (see Susan Casey's The Wave for knockout photos!), that contribute substantially to the facts of the book.  They don't embellish, they clarify or expose.  In a print book, they can be studied to discover every nuance.

In addition, besides the publishers that are hurt by loss of print books, what about illustrators and format designers that are equally or more impacted by the switch to Ereaders?  Will the Ereading experience be all about the convenience so much that we don't appreciate stylistic details?   After all, there are those that spend a great deal of time designing the particular layout, font choice and size, and "look" of a print book.  Is that lost on an Ereader?

I'd love to hear opinions from those with Ereaders to weigh in with their impression of the way of illustrations or photographs are seen on an Ereader, and any differences they find.  Is it a significant consideration?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rain Taxi, current issue now on sale

Check out my review of Christian Hawkey's Ventrakl in the newest edition of Rain Taxi.  Hawkey takes translation in a completely new and organic (literally!) direction.  If you are a fan of Georg Trakl, the German poet, you'll really enjoy it, as well as the rest of the issue.

Vol. 15 No. 4, Winter 2010 (#60) now on sale at  This full length literary magazine reviews fiction, poetry, graphic novels, and non-fiction, as well as covering topics of contemporary literature. 

Thanks Eric!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Port of Los Angeles, Jane Sprague (poetry)

I have to confess that I have a huge crush on San Pedro, part of the Los Angeles docks near Long Beach. I love everything about the town. For one thing,there's the large Croatian population that makes words sound beautiful to me (I love me a Slavic accent!). But the main draw is the docks and waterways themselves. I’ve always stayed in the same hotel five times, and have watched it go to seed (truly a dump now!), and will still stay there for the incredible view.  The port retains a sort of romanticism for me. At night I can barely sleep for watching the cargo ships enter and depart, silently in the very black waters. The lights and cranes lit up at night make the water sparkle. Who needs sleep with that outside?  It was with this in mind that I was eager to read Jane Sprague’s The Port of Los Angeles, which I assumed would be a tribute to the dark mysteries, unnamed travelers, and the strange sort of thrill of long-distance, but old-style, slow travel.

I was wrong. The poetry itself is still lovely but its theme is far different. Instead of romanticizing the mechanics of it all, she analyzes the concept of consumption and the rabid activity of consumers to have more material objects, even at the risk of pollution and damage to the sea. Her style is unique, as the enjambment is unpredictable. In doing this, she makes the reader pause to consider the significance and the placement of just the right word. For example, in the excerpt below, her placement of ‘waves’ on its own line reveals another meaning. Setting apart the one word, having just read ‘California’ a few words before, creates a mental picture of California’s beaches, with the powerful waves beckoning to tourists. And yet she shows, through further verses, that California’s appeal is just as much in danger as the sea itself: crowded, polluted, and a commodity to exploit.

California insinuates itself through our veins through our beds
through our children through the constant hump and suck of the
as the derricks continue to drill
we find ourselves called to IKEA again and again
strange comfort Scandinavian curves
our child falls in love with IKEA and wants to move in
our child finds comfort small beds small nesting places
we wonder bunks of the port small spaces for ships small pockets
for junk...

we worried
we were vexed
were we merely imitating at best
were we making cheap concessions for our impending descent into the
mass bourgeoisie
consumers being consumed
was they any way to escape it
was asking this question too much in light of ships

The image she creates here is the ideology, so popular in California and elsewhere, of the efforts people make to simplify their lives, live green and lessen their carbon footprint. Yet in doing so, they’re actually creating another industry and only changing their types, not habits, of consumption. She cites IKEA often as an example of this desire to minimize and streamline a lifestyle, but often simply consuming more or the same amount of different things. People go to IKEA, or any store really (she's not just picking on IKEA), to change their lives through products, rather than change themselves. Her frequent use of the adjective 'small' contrasts with the reality of how modern people live.

She refers to consumer habits often, and considers what is contained in the ships, the cargo destined for Costco and the mall: “hundreds of plastic things shaped for fixing mending catching all manner of debris.” She doesn’t back down from her poetic assertion that the sea has become a highway where only the beginnings and endings of the journey matter. She transcends this by recognizing this is how many people live their lives: too focused on destinations rather than the journey itself.

In another poems she uses the analogy of shipping and travel to discuss the state of a relationship:

How we I
became strange to one another
became container ships moving into and out of the same ports
the same ports all over

we became directed and flowed
became our bilge water and ballast also
we became the containers
tipped stacked together commiserate
containing, contained
so many ships together
utterly separate

In this case, rather than consumerism, she illustrates the way modern life makes people compartmentalize their feelings, cutting their emotions up and placing them in various rooms and spaces,  no longer able to connect the pieces. Sprague’s style is unflinching and bold, and there is no sentimentality or romance to her version of what the port symbolizes. Sprague doesn’t change my love for San Pedro, or the port. I’ll still have that fondness for the black water and the busy docks under starlight. But her collection here does reveal how meaningless good intentions are if people remain resistant to change.

Special thanks to Chax Press for the Review Copy.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The End of the Scandinavian Reading Challenge is Near

The 2010 Scandinavian Reading Challenge was a huge success.  At final count, 78 participants joined the challenge of reading four or more titles in ranging levels.  A few ended up creating new "extreme" levels of success.  Thanks to everyone for the enthusiasm and follow through- I never dreamed we'd have more than 10 or 15 entrants!


As we conclude the year and the challenge, I'm asking that those who completed all six titles (or more) contact me.  Please send me via email your results, as well as your favorite title out of the year.  I'd like to compile a complete post to recognize those who aren't afraid of a bit of grim crime, chilly weather, and endless references to Aquavit.  Please email me your results and title to me at the email address below. 

Please send me this information by December 26 at the latest.
gingercatranch at gmail dot com, with SRC in the subject heading.

For 2011, a special new and more difficult challenge is planned.
Information on this will be posted shortly before New Years Day.
You can prepare by stocking up on a warm Ushanka, some vodka,
and maybe a black leather jacket.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers, memoir

After a run of some really great reads, I have to say it ended with this so-so book.  The concept was so amazing that I was really looking forward to it, but it left me confused and ambivalent.

"Prosopagnosia" is a condition that author Heather Sellers has, wherein she is unable to recognize faces.  (At first I thought, lucky her!  There are faces I'd love to forget!)  She isn't diagnosed until her late20s and into her 30s, and so the difficulties she had prior to that she attributed to some sort of 'craziness' on her part.  She didn't know what was wrong because it was all she knew.  It meant that at times, she didn't recognize family members or friends, even up close.  Instead she recognized them by their mannerisms, voice, and the usual location that they appeared coincided with where she expected them to be.  A rare disorder, it is thought that the condition can be caused by emotional trauma, but all the facts about it are not yet known.

But trauma?  It's here.  I don't mean to sound flippant, because this is her real life and there's nothing light about it, but there is more trauma in this girl's life than most anyone can imagine.  At a few points I was reminded of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, not because of his dishonesty, but because when I read it, I would think 'this can't get any worse', and then I'd turn the page to find that, indeed, it gets worse.  Her early life was lived with her schizophrenic mother who was categorically insane and kept her from ever sleeping more than few hours, but didn't appear to have any medical or psychiatric care, at least not an official diagnosis. Sellers didn't have the advantage of knowing things were messed up, she only suspected it and internalized it.  Her father was a cross-dressing drunk, who borrowed her nail polish and who was marginally less crazy than her mother.  She rotated between their homes, where food, cleanliness, and basic normalcy was never present.

The book starts with her making a trip to visit her parents, and the madness that ensues when she introduces them to her boyfriend and his sons, all after she's become a successful author.  It appears to be the first time she realizes that they are ill, and from there on, she explains how she recognizes that their illnesses likely influenced her own, and how she came to readjust both her thinking about herself and her feelings toward them.  It sounds like a lovely ending for such a traumatic beginning.  But several factors weren't addressed, and the omissions bothered me.

First, as she comes to her realization that they are very, very sick, she's in her late 20s.  A successful writer for magazines, she's also earned a Ph.D. and is a professor working towards tenure.  A very smart woman to be sure.  Yet how could she achieve all that and remain oblivious to both her own facial blindness and to her parents problems?  I wanted to hear more about how she was able to teach and achieve her notable success despite her condition.  Details, not just a brief overview.

Another aspect that bothered me was that in decades of looking back,  she was able to recount extensive dialogues of past conversations.  So much so that it doesn't ring true.  Is her memory heightened by the neurological condition she has, as a blind person often has sharper hearing than others? An explanation would have been helpful.   At one point, she relates when a man at a reading questioned her about the believability of her autobiographical writing, and while she admits to being uncomfortable with the question (she says in the book), she related to the man something that another author had said, that "when we wrote fiction, some kind of automatic story generated itself, based on what we knew about what we saw."  She never gave him a direct answer, and in this book she doesn't say directly what she meant, but it left an opening that wasn't much of this can be said to be accurate?  So much of the traumatic events she recalls deal with big things, yet she never explains how she coped with being left alone in a dark trailer in the woods with strangers banging on the door.  Explaining that she was frightened doesn't go far enough...what exactly did she do about it? While she discusses missing school due to her parents instability, she never relates how she got through a school day.  How did she relate to her classmates?  What did she eat?  How did she do her homework?  The extreme details recounted about her parents, some really over-the-top accounts, doesn't mesh with the very few details she reveals about her own survival.

Finally, the significant omission of any details from her brother leaves an empty hole in the history.  She acknowledges that for his privacy she'll let him decide if he wishes to tell his story.  I appreciate her candor in that and her respect for his feelings, but in all of her detailed accounts, one wonders where he is during all of this. Hearing how they related to each other during all this madness would have fleshed out the story even more.

It's an amazing story that leaves many unanswered questions. What she has achieved despite tremendous obstacles can't be minimized.  It would have been helpful to have had perhaps more details about herself and less about her parental extremes, as the shock value actually made it feel so implausible.

Special thanks to Riverhead Books for the Advance Review Copy.

Steel Valley by Michael Adams, poetry and short prose

  “Maybe it’s all for the better. You weigh the clean air and water, the way the rivers have come back to life, against the boarded up storefronts, abandoned downtowns, suicides and divorces, low wage jobs or no jobs at all….I don’t have the heart to balance the scales of misery and hope and come up with an answer.”

Thus writes Michael Adams in his poetry and short prose collection, Steel Valley. The collection is diverse, but most of it dwells with the historicity of Pennsylvania’s steel industry, one that had dominated the world up until the 1980s. It was known as the largest steel producing region in the world, one that supplied materials, iron, and armor to Union soldiers in the Civil War, and through the 60s and Vietnam (source:

“Iron ran an endless river – to railroad cars, rolling mills, tanks, Camaros, refrigerators, machine guns. It was a river that ran while King and Kennedy were killed. A river that ran through the guns of the soldiers-kids like me….A river that ran in a bloody stream stretched halfway round the world to sear the flesh of men and women I would never know, but start another river running, redder and hotter than molten steel.” (from “Steel”, p. 17)

Besides providing work for generations, the industry made its own mark on the region. The valley likely imagined its steel domination as permanent, not foreseeing the devastation left in its decline. Adams similarly addresses human nature’s tendency to assume what is in place will always remain, allowing it to be taken for granted, instead of understanding that there’s always an end. In “Monongahela”, Adams describes his ambivalence about the river that twisted through the steel valley:

“Looking back now, forty years gone, my lack of curiosity about the river I lived with daily disappoints me. Maybe that’s the way of youth, to be fixated on origins and ends – things far off, the cold mountain spring, the distant sea, not the everyday….I carried with me in those days, before life touched me with failure and some sympathy, the hard stone of intolerance that the young may bear for the familiar, to mask their fear and uncertainty.”

I only wish I could show the enjambment he used to heighten the impact of his realization. He contrasts this with an appreciation for the hills he hiked, in a nod to Thoreau. “With friends, with lovers, or alone, but always with the woods, happy, broken-hearted or not knowing which, wandering the wild rugged hills.” (“I Went Out”, p 27)

My overall response to his collection is a sense of permanence, and how one person can be marked by a place no matter how far away from it they travel, literally or figuratively. It combines unsentimental reality with the fragile emotions of memories. His choice of vocabulary reflects the industrial scene and events:  concrete terms that instantly create an image. And too, he gives a sort of manly acknowledgement of the frailties of life; he picks up on the hardship suffered by the nameless faces we meet. He sums this up in “Do You See That Woman” on page 37:

“Okay, you’re young, and you’ve never had to face it, how it wears you down, the small daily humiliations that come at you from all directions, but here’s something you should know. Everybody wants to take pride in their work. Learn that one thing, really learn it, and you’ll do okay in life.”

This collection is published by Lummox Press, and is available through their website
 as well as on some online retailers.
Special thanks to RD Armstrong for the Review Copy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Ice Road, Stefan Waydenfeld, memoir

An Epic Journey from the Stalinist Labor Camps to Freedom

Sticking with the apparent theme of Stalinist Russia and its aftermath, I found this memoir fascinating. It’s always more interesting to read a historical event in the voice of someone who experienced it, and the author Stefan Waydenfeld describes his experiences with detail and yet without bitterness.

Waydenfeld was the son of a doctor and a biologist, and their small town life south of Warsaw was pleasant and fulfilling. He expected to live as most teenagers, with a future at university, perhaps following in his father’s path as a physician. While they’d heard grumblings of the war, they were taken by surprise when Germany and the Soviets invaded Poland in 1939. Previously, Poland had a non-aggression pact with the USSR, which was ignored as the USSR felt the need to support Germany’s war machine (as it had yet to turn on them). A bombing campaign started over Warsaw on September 17, 1939, one that introduced Warsaw as well as some of the smaller towns outside to the reality of war.

At first, Waydenfeld, at 14, served as a volunteer who worked in shifts with others to stay up at night and warn of the Luftwaffe planes that would randomly attack. They’d use whatever means they could to wake up their neighbors. Then there was the fires to deal with, started by the bombs. At one point, he describes the people fleeing the cities on open rural roads, being specially targeted by German pilots who ‘strafed’ the area with bullets for no apparent reason other than to kill randomly.

For a small time, there was a bit of calm, and then suddenly, his family received deportation orders to return to Warsaw. A kindly officer took them aside, assured them that this ‘short train ride’ would be their chance to return. They were loaded like cattle into a train with their neighbors and what goods they could carry, but he discovered on the train, at dawn, that they were heading east, not west. Never trust a kindly enemy! They were being sent to Siberia.

In Siberia, the Russian officers seemed to stress to them that their new life in Kvasha was going to be a privilege, and that they would never leave. Work in this camp was part of Stalin’s famous Five-Year plan. A major component of this plan was the installation and maintenance of the “Ice Road”, a timber transport road made out of sheets of ice. Waydenfeld and his father worked to build this road by digging holes, retrieving water, and then spreading it in sheets in -40 C temperatures.

From here, we see how his family coped, and how they were able to exist in this environment and maintain hope and unity. Additionally, while at times he admits anger and disappointment, his tone is one of bravery and acceptance…he was not going to give in. Not knowing about the atrocities that had already taken place in Germany may have helped these people keep their positive outlook.

It’s a great story, and well-told. I was particularly impressed by the effort he employed to acknowledge certain families and people that assisted in their journey to help them in various ways. He never implies that it was his bravery alone, but credits those people who were sympathetic and willing to risk their own lives to help them in various circumstances. This is an excellent text for information about the time period, and it would be amazing if high school students had the opportunity to read this first-person account.

Special thanks to Debra Gendal of Aquila Polonica for the Review Copy.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Anonymous Novel: Sensing the Future Torments, Alessandro Barbero

Translated from the Italian by Allan Cameron

“Every person is complicated, only in novels are characters consistent, while in reality we are all a collection of contradictions, without even realizing it, because man was not made to be summarized in a formula.”

Alessandro Barbero’s novel about Russian life delves deep into the world of Moscow and Baku, yet in an extraordinary way. Rather than build on Russian stereotypes, like the underbelly of crime, excessive vodka, and jars of caviar mixed in with ruthless criminals and historical savagery, Barbero creates an entirely new type of Russian novel. Sure, those elements are present, but they aren’t the focus. The characters are complicated and new. And the provenance of this “anonymous” novel is new too.

The novel begins with a manuscript that manages to survive two literal burials in the ground. No one claims to have written it, and it’s stored an indeterminate amount of time. From then, it finally gets published. The voice of the unknown author introduces the reader to several characters in a rather short amount of time. But rather than simply describe them, he actually gets into their head, and at times we read of them in the first-person, hearing their stream-of-consciousness thoughts and intentions. Each character defies type, and all bear a bit of charm.

First is Viktor Nikolayevich Obilin, a college professor who lives alone, simply, and who makes acerbic comments about politics in Moscow. He takes ironic note of how the citizens of Moscow are insisting on government ‘transparency’ and he is aware of how dangerous transparency and the search into the past may turn out to be. For one thing, he has a student researcher, Tanya, who is doggedly pursuing her thesis about Stalinist party members in Baku in the 1940s. This is a dangerous period in Russian history, as Viktor observes “these were years you hurried over without going too far into details: you just gallop along until you get to Sputnik and Gagarin into space. Then you can breathe freely again.”

Tanya is well aware of the deception and atrocities that occurred, war crimes that have gone unpunished for many. One typical crime was when an informant rats out a colleague, has them sent to the labor camps, and then assumes their identity. Her research into Soviet party cadres has a personal connection, and nothing is going to stop her, not even the ‘old school’ hardliners that pressure her professor, Obliin, to cancel her research. “I need to know what happened, and to understand history you need to follow it through. You can’t just stop at some random moment. You need to go even beyond…” Her boyfriend Oleg, a journalist, thinks she’s going overboard.

Then there’s Mark, a struggling actor who has a bizarre hobby. Besides drinking heavily, he collects old photographs and archived documents from the SS’s files, and is writing a novel based on the connections he’s imagined between the names and dates. Then we are introduced to my favorite character, a honorable judge named Nazar Kallistratovich Lappa who is trying to restore a law and order into daily life in Moscow. At this point, just when I thought maybe I should be taking notes on all these characters, the author speaks directly to the reader: “What do I hear you saying? Yet another character! You bastard, could you try not to get lost in your own plot, and remember: sooner or later you are going to have to gather up all the various threads and make some sense of it. Listen, my impatient masters, the threads will be gathered all in good time…so trust me.”

Throughout the remainder of the novel he does indeed tie up the threads, making the story serious in the historical aspects yet with a bit of humor and irony thrown in. I can’t say enough about the way each character is built; seeing their inner thoughts as they struggle to do what is right as opposed to what is easy gives them far more depth than just describing what they said or did.

On a larger scale, outside of the plot, Barbero comments on the outsider viewpoint of Russian history, and the way it is often revealed only in an interest in the writings of Pushkin or Gogol, “history has simply become a commentary on literature.” He wants to demonstrate that only the famous writers or despicable leaders are what capture interest, rather than this complicated people who have endured decades of hardship. Look into those people, and their lives, to find the answers to the last century, he implies.

Special thanks to Vagabond Voices, Scotland for the Review Copy.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Year End there room for one more?

Sorry I haven't been posting much...I've been reading but haven't had much time to compose my thoughts on what I've read.  Lots of interesting titles to talk about soon! 

Plus, I'm preparing for the 2011 Eastern European Reading Challenge.  I hope some of the Scandinavian Challenge participants decide to explore a bit of what lies can't possibly be any gloomier, can it?

So, year-end list time!  I know...they're everywhere.  But I feel like it, so there!  I'm listing my favorites of all things 2010, most of which may be especially inconsequential! 

Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye
To Mervas by Elisabeth Rynell
The  Canal by Lee Rourke
The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson

In the Land We Imagined Ourselves
Ventrakl by Christian Hawkey
Observations from Off the Grid by Angela Long
Birds for a Demolition by Manoel de Barros


30 Rock's live episode
30 Rock, when Matt Damon appears as the crybaby pilot Carroll
Collision:  BBC miniseries, 5 parts

The Trap (2007) from Serbia: Klopka (original title)

Favorite websites and blogs:  Lisa's Russian blog  Daisy's food photo blog, yummy! Greg's great reviews  Great publishing news, active rotation  Can't resist the cats, but hate that they've added so many videos