Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Meagre Tarmac, Stories by Clark Blaise

"Despite external signs of satisfaction, good health, a challenging job, the love and support of family and friends, no depressions or mood swings, no bad habits, I would not call myself happy.  I am well-adjusted.  We are all extremely well-adjusted.  I believe my situation is not uncommon among successful immigrants of my age and background."

Clark Blaise has created a short story collection (a few of which are linked) that explores the world of first-generations immigrants from India who now reside in the West.  Most are financially successful, and are often working in the business sector of computers and banking.  Extensive education in India and in London makes allows many of these immigrants to surpass the abilities of their American co-workers.  Yet as the quote above reveals, high wages and business savvy do not ensure happiness.

Ties to India and family remain firm, even though their new culture has a hard time understanding the connection.  A sense of family and standing within the family is underscored in many of these stories, and much of this is due to two factors:  the traditions of inheritance and arranged marriage.  In the case of inheritance, oldest sons seem blessed by getting most of the family wealth.  To be a younger brother means continually fighting for a fair share.  In many cases, extended family live together in India;  sometimes, one part of each family has just a room of their own, and are subject to the whims of the senior son.  In one story, a successful and mild physician at work turns into a plotting madman at home, scheming to get rid of the older brother by lawsuit or darker means.

Arranged marriages are a fascinating part of the story, especially in that even a very successful Indian businessman can feel a need to replicate the tradition and marry one of his "own" despite numerous opportunities to marry anyone he wants.  Children too, of first-generation parents have their own battles.  Raised in the US, they don't understand the traditions while their parents desperately want to keep their children out of harm's way.   They look back to India as a place of innocence and control.

In one story, a successful Pac Bell engineer is worried by his ice-skating prodigy daughter (who has her own secrets).  The sure answer to him is for them to return to India, but her objections raise entirely new issues for the family to deal with.  Many of the stories remind me of the style of Ha Jin's A Good Fall, which dealt with Chinese immigrants in New York.  Respectability and behavior are far more important to many immigrants than they are to long-time citizens.

Another story has a hugely successful banker seeking a Parsi bride, even being middle-aged, his mother is still nagging at him to find the proper Parsi wife that will honor the family, a tough search given only about 50,000 Parsis are left.  His search leaves him questioning his own beliefs and what exactly makes for a solid relationship.

Partition, castes, progress and family honor are all explored in this fascinating book that I wish had been longer.  Blaise ends many stories with a question...leaving the reader to imagine the ending.  I didn't mind that, but I'd love to see some of these characters again.  Especially intriguing is how many of the immigrants return home regularly, offering financial assistance and with an open mind to permanently return.  This was a surprise to me, as it seems that once people get acclimated to a new region, the past represents too many limits.  I was also intrigued by a point made in one of the early stories that Indian transplants do not form social societies here in the US, such as other races do.  Little Tokyo and Chinatown may be a way for some Asians to recreate a social and culture center here, while Indo-Americans resist unifying in social groups.

Special thanks to Biblioasis for the Advance Review Copy.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Changing Planet, Changing Health by Dr. Paul Epstein

The topic of global warming always gets a few people annoyed...there's some that do not think it's real or important enough to care about.  On top of that, any intelligent conversation about it seems to get sidetracked into a political stance that calls in lots of unrelated subjects and distracts from the focus.

So, what if a doctor were to examine the subject from an outside view, subjective only to his viewpoints as a physician, and left politics and policies out of most of the discussion? 

The answer is Changing Planet, Changing Health by Paul Epstein, MD.  While he does get into some political issues towards the end, for the most part the focus is on what happens when the earth gets too warm.  It's not simply warmer weather that is the issue, and it certainly doesn't go away when a large winter snowfall appears.  Rather, he analyzes the data related to weather change.  Areas that receive more heat than usual obviously have a drought.  But where does that water go that heated up?  It's not gone forever, but is evaporated up and into weather systems (water weighs much more than air) that dump that water somewhere else, leading to widespread flooding and furious storms.  Dry ground can lead to wildfires, which the resulting smoke can actually alter weather patterns, making the imbalances continue.

The pattern of extra water and invasive flooding sets up a domino effect in plant and animal life, and these combine with pathogens to exacerbate the change.  What Dr. Epstein shows is what happens next:  viruses appear that were dormant or unheard of regionally before.  Excessive plant growth alters feeding patterns of animals, causing less (or more) of them and thus further altering the previous balance.

His point is clear and crosses political lines.  Focusing on the delicate and fragile balance of the Earth's ecosystems, he shows how change perpetuated by pollution, poor resource management, and greed make for very real consequences in terms of health.  Asthma and allergies are only some of the results-major infectious diseases run wild when an ecosystem is out of balance.

It could be a dry read, but it isn't...anecdotal stories and hard data make it lively and potentially scary.  When one CDC expert goes to testify before Congress, she has most of her testimony redacted to prevent offending some of the audience.  How can the problem be solved if no one gets to hear the truth about it?

One website features an interesting interview with the author, wherein he suggests the political polarizing option of a slight (ACK! The horror!) tax increase to raise funds for better infrastructure.  In addition, he makes the case for the way European manufacturers have to prove the safety of their product-a far different stance than the US method.  It's an interesting article.

Just for a kick, NASA has some fascinating charts with average land and ocean temperatures here:

Special thanks to Kathleen Carney for the Advance Review Copy.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tramp, Or the Art of Living a Wild and Poetic Life by Tomas Espedal

Translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson

"Everyday tasks:  wearing yourself out trying to find something new, a new word, a new sentence, a new book."

Espedal is a walker, or more specifically, a traveller.  Rather than allowing the destination to be the objective, each journey he makes is made meaningful by the act of arriving.  Almost exclusively on foot, Espedal has travelled numerous European countries (and well beyond) just to discover new things and contemplate the old. 

As he travels, he analyzes works by Rousseau, Whitman, Cezanne, Wordsworth, and other philosophers and poets who also live for the journey;  he finds a common ground through time with them by either citing their references to exploration or by simply imagining their impressions.  His adventures are not first-class, as he actually prefers travelling as lightweight and unburdened as possible, and his taste is not for air-conditioned insulation from the masses that so many people find essential to relax.  Instead, his only necessities appear to be cash and a warm coat.

Some travel books get way too narrative: "I did this, then I did this, and later I did this..."  No thanks.  This is far more interesting.  Especially in that he's a writer by profession, and he's able to not just explain where he goes but what he gets out of it.  The reader, who may be stuck at home with only a adventurous spirit, can enjoy his work and not feel completely ignorant in the face of his numerous literary references.

Sometimes he talks about the puzzles of travel:  how an enormously crowded city may feel lonely, how a perfectly beautiful and tranquil evening may prevent a good night's sleep, and even how the perfect writing desk in an inspirational space can induce writer's block.  In other places, he expands on the idea of novelty, how it's not so much where a person ventures to that brings refreshment but simply the act of doing something different:  taking an unusual route, sleeping in a different bed, or eating different foods.  Routine is the enemy of restoration, and he makes a strong case for wanting to be on the move as much as possible.

Espedal calls the place he lives between journeys a 'waiting room';  a place to wait for the metamorphosis of change.  Rousseau talks about the common sensation that most people have, to get away from 'it' all, but who are unable to define what 'it' is.  Again, the novelty of the new and unexpected is Espedal's answer to what is needed.  Coincidentally, as I read this, Thomas the Tank Engine was on, and Gordon the big engine came to the same conclusion:  "a change is as good as a rest."  Who knew kid's shows could be so philosophical?

In any case, I completely lost myself in the travel and the ideas and was completely envious of it all.  And yet, upon reflection, part of the freshness of what he suggests isn't as accessible as he makes it out to be.  Sure, it'd be swell to explore without itinerary or restrictions, yet who actually can do that for more than a few weeks here and there?  To travel off the beaten path also means being inaccessible to those who may need you;  most people have some sort of commitments to fulfill. 

Don't get me wrong, I don't deny the beauty of the journey.  In fact, he's the only writer who has put into words the joy I feel at two small hotels that I escape to on occasion, alone, just to hear myself think.  And I definitely sense the Nordic feel of his work that reminds me, somehow, of the character of Arvid Jansen in two of Per Petterson's novels.  There's definitely a cultural component to the desire for solitude because I've known many people who are completely helpless alone, while others thrive in isolation.

Special thanks to Bishan of Seagull Books of India for the Advance Review Copy.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

From the Land of the Moon by Milena Agus (translated fiction)

Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

"She had to begin to live.  Because the Veteran was a moment and grandmother's life was many other things."

Thought to be insane by her family, the grandmother in this story attempts to recreate a sane and normal life to prove them wrong.  Her reputation and behavior dissuades suitors from pursuing her, and without marriage, life in a small Italian village circa WWII leaves her a social outcast.  Shortly before the war ends, however, she meets a widower who agrees to marry her;  it appears to most that he did so only out of duty to her family for their supporting him financially.  Their marriage is marked by tolerable distance and quietness, and while she wishes for children, health issues prevent her from carrying a child full-term. 

Eventually her husband sends her to a health spa on the sea, in the hopes she'll heal and recover.  Perhaps she does so, but too well.  For there she meets a man she refers to only as the "Veteran", one who loves her unconditionally and who finds her far more fascinating and vibrant than any 'normal' woman.  He thinks she's beautiful, intelligent, and witty.  Finally she is loved for who she is...until it's time for her to return home.

She returns home with new vigor and soon discovers she's pregnant.  Her husband is thrilled and their marriage appears to thrive amid the love for their new son.  But who is the Veteran?  Will she see him again?  Why did she return if she was so loved?

Milena Agus frames the story as a narrative between the grandmother and her granddaughter, both unnamed, and flashes back and forth through different parts of their family history.  The grandmother is a complex character:  a woman who will secretly work like a slave to acquire a piano for her musical son, but who is unable to bear hearing him play it.  As the granddaughter hears her story, she has to evaluate how much of it is true, and begins to question what role the Veteran ultimately had.  More and more questions appear, but Agus keeps the story tight and keeps revealing details right until the end that ultimately turn the story upside down.  Nothing can be taken at face value, and while the grandmother is possibly an unreliable narrator, maybe the granddaughter is too.

The story is fast-paced and hard to predict, and surprises are sprinkled throughout.  Images of the grandmother searching Milan, looking for the Veteran around every corner, are detailed so intricately one can practically feel the fog that obscures the city and her motives.  Italy plays a supporting role as the sun and the sea seem to brighten the background of simple village life even during wartime.  If anything, the story is almost too quick.  More questions could have been answered or expanded upon.  Yet in all, a satisfying glimpse of human perception and frailties.

Special thanks to Europa Editions for the Advance Review Copy.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Guinea Pigs by Ludvik Vaculik (translated fiction)

Translated from the Czech by Kaca Polackova

I began reading The Guinea Pigs amused and entertained by the main character, Vasek, a family man who wishes to get his city-bound family back to nature. Since buying a rural cottage is unrealistic, he instead acquires a guinea pig for his family who live in Prague. Vasek appears to be a firm but doting father, and the first-person narration seemed almost sweet at first, as he narrates the story as if telling a child's bedtime story or guide for the care of small animals. Yet as I read, I found an underlying bit of darkness that is revealed more as the book proceeds. In the case of the guinea pig, a gift for his son Pavel, an allusion is made that I missed at first:

“It had all the attributes of a good gift…To think of a present like that, a person would first have to be to be really clever and observant; then, he would have to be quick; furthermore, he would have to have a feeling for the rarity of the moment: to know the desire of the recipient, to have a certain feeling towards him and know how to estimate the response. He would have to possess good taste combined with a sense of humor, be profound…He would also have to be a considerate person, not to have bought the weasel.”

It seems at first like good-natured humor, praising his own success with the beloved gift, but the line about the weasel--Who would buy a guinea pig AND a weasel? Knowing that the sweet piglet would be destroyed? Only a sadist would buy both, yet clearly the narrator considered it. A clue.

Vasek works for the state-run banking system in Prague, yet he clearly has no head for numbers: he’s convinced that Edgar Allan Poe was an economist. Worse yet, the bank he works for makes stealing money even more difficult by the day. With the boring job comes an astonishing amount of time left over for theorizing and contemplating all sorts of conspiracies. At work, it appears that a financial meltdown is imminent, yet no one seems to care. One supervisor, an older man who is ignored by most, becomes a focus of Vasek’s daytime speculation.

The nighttime is when Vasek studies the guinea pigs instead, his fascination only increasing daily. Yet while he gets to know his gentle little pets, they somehow end up with mysterious injuries. He is obsessed, and the family branches out to get even more of them. While his children and wife revolve around the periphery of his life, the guinea pigs are his main focus. And strangely enough, the threat of the financial meltdown begins to parallel what is happening with the family pets.

Written by Ludvik Vaculik shortly after the Prague Spring in 1968 (only recently translated to English by Open Letter), the novel is full of symbolism. This is significant because Vaculik was ostracized by the Communist Party for his opinions. It was necessary to speak in riddles or symbols to avoid further persecution. Thus, The Guinea Pigs can be read in more than one way, depending on how you interpret the symbols. For example, even the concept of ‘guinea pig’ goes beyond a small animal, having an additional meaning as a ‘subject for experiment’. Vaculik often suggested that the Czech people were being experimented upon in terms of political power and financial schemes. Even the names given to the guinea pigs owned by Vasek could be considered symbolic (yes, one of them is named “Red”).

Monica Carter explains in her excellent blog, Salonica World Lit, why Vaculik may have chosen guinea pigs to demonstrate the political situation: “if you distill oppression down to its purest form between the oppressor and the oppressed, [it’s] not difficult to imagine an oppressor doling out praise and punishment like some tough but benevolent patriarchal scientist whose only goals are to control and manipulate in order to get the result he wants. Of course he wants them to feel small and vulnerable, dependent and gullible because that's how power works” (the link to her review is below).

At times the symbolism becomes overwhelming, giving the reader moments of both clarity and confusion. At times I thought, “What on earth does this mean? I am clueless!” and other times, “I so know what he means here, I’m so clever.” I found it helpful to refer to the book Prague Panoramas by Cynthia Paces (review coming soon!) to anchor myself in the appropriate time period to understand what was happening in Prague and to see the heavy influence of Russia against the new freedoms that Czech writers were enjoying. 

Another way to look at the novel is explored in Lisa Hayden's review (link below), as she ties in the archetypes of Russian fairy tale motifs with parts of The Guinea Pigs.  Her review citing Vladimir Propp's work is fascinating.

However, the many allusions to history and politics are lightened by the dark humor that pervades the story. I found myself laughing in surprise at some places and squirming with suspicion in others. It’s not necessary to do history homework to understand the book, it stands alone. But I was curious to understand the story behind the symbolism, and really could see how Vaculik could have been in great danger had he not used the subterfuge. I also enjoyed how it pointed me to other books, including one Poe collection, just to connect the references found in the book to the overall story ("A Descent Into the Maelstrom" to be exact).  One of my favorite books so far this year!

Monica Carter’s review:

Lisa Hayden's review (with references to Russian folktales):

Prague Panoramas by Cynthia Paces is published by U of Pittsburgh Press.

Special thanks to Chad Post of Open Letter for the Advance Review Copy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Hello Ukraine?!?!

Half my page hits are from the Ukraine?  Is the Eastern European Reading Challenge that amazing or is my site somehow getting linked to another one?  Weird.  Not complaining!  Just weird.  Perhaps "Black Sheep Dances" means something else? 

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Book of Happenstance by Ingrid Winterbach

Translated by Dirk and Ingrid Winterbach from the Afrikaans

The Book of Happenstance begins with loss, as a linguistic specialist’s home is robbed and defaced, with her precious sea shell collection stolen. While it may appear a minor crime, the shells and the concept of personal loss becomes an underlying theme that weaves the story along and helps address the issues of science, language, and relationships. Going beyond a crime novel, there are elements of social commentary in it that examine the causes and effects of cultural changes.

Helena is a linguist assigned to help put together an Afrikaans dictionary before the language is completely lost. She and her boss painstakingly collect the words, the root meanings and usages, and document the often fascinating intersections of meaning that appear in disparate words. Despite her efforts, the Museum of Natural History where she is working is at the same time removing the Afrikaans books from their collection, only keeping the most popular titles on hand. The battle appears to be a losing one, as trying to preserve the language is costly and time-consuming. Yet the language is much like the shells: evidence of previous and historic life.

After the police appear uninterested in the loss of her shells, she tries to investigate the crime herself, while at the same time fending off the bizarre and rambling phone calls that she begins receiving from an old acquaintance that she can’t quite place, yet who seems to know her every move. The caller brings up old memories, and her life is thrown off balance by the sense of exposure she’s experienced. First her home has been violated, now her memories too are revealed and speculated upon. Helena is forced to examine what the sea shells meant to her, and why their loss is so devastating.

The novel is complex, and I really enjoyed what it had to say about language and the need to curate the past in order to understand it. I took a linguistics class last spring and was fascinated by how each ‘dead’ language still revealed something unique about its speakers. Similarities between completely different languages, and the ways that regional expressions expand or disappear make linguistics a fascinating study, and the examples of Afrikaans shown extensively in this text attest to that.

Yet Helena is, in many ways, an unlikable character. She has an edge that makes her less than sympathetic at times. For example, she schemes to seduce her married boss for no reason other than that she finds it amusing. Gossiping about her coworkers, again for amusement, makes her easy to dislike. As she analyzes her past, it’s clear she’s left a path of destruction that has many victims beyond her own wounds. Yet her behavior is easier to grasp as she continues reflecting on her childhood and the losses she experienced early.

The numerous coworkers at the Museum appeared to me as flat characters, serving only as blank outlines for Helena’s character to react to, instead of being fully developed on their own. This meant that in some scenes, the dialogue between them felt artificial and almost like a caricature of a typical office setting. I glazed over a few times as Helena questions one of her coworkers about the origin of life, which he rattles on about endlessly without much enthusiasm. His own boredom translated into extensive sections that weren’t that compelling and slowed down the narrative to a standstill.

Aside from that, there were some plot threads that seemed to end erratically, making me wonder why they were there in the first place. Some of these had foreshadowing that tricked me into expecting something else, yet instead of becoming a twist they just disappeared. 

Special thanks to Chad Post of Open Letter for the Advance Review Copy.
This title was released June 14, 2011.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Double Giveaway from Algonquin and latest winner..

First off, congrats to Anne R. who won the copy of The Book of Happenstance by Ingrid Winterbach. Hopefully she'll report back what she thinks of review is delayed as I've not yet finished it.  Soon!

Now a new giveaway!  Sorry to say, it's US only.  I apologize for that...heavier packages to Canada and overseas packages are too costly for me to ship right now.  But soon we'll do a gift card thing for Book Depository that will be worldwide.

So-thanks to Algonquin's generosity, the two books up for grabs are Something for Nothing by David Anthony (just released!) and the newly released paperback version of Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger by Lee Smith.  I haven't read the Anthony title yet (in Mount TBR) but reviewed Mrs. Darcy last year.

To win, please leave a comment with contact information, and be a blog follower.  Contest ends July 1, 2011 at 9:pm Pac Time.  Again, US only.  Thanks to Michael for the giveaway copies!

Yannis Ritsos Poems-translated by Manolis

Selected Books

A careful hand is needed to translate the poems of Yannis Ritsos, and Manolis is the ideal poet to undertake such an enormous task. Born in Crete, Manolis’s youth was intermingled with the poetry of Ritsos. Once a young man moved by the Theodorakis version of Epitaphios, he’s now a successful poet in his own right who is still moved to tears hearing the refrains of those notes from half a century ago. His Greek heritage, with its knowledge of the terrain, people, history and cultural themes, makes his translation all the more true to what Ritsos intended. Having visited the very places of which Ritsos wrote, he knows how the light and sea shift, and how Ritsos imagined those changes as being a temperament and personality of the Greece itself.

The parallels in their lives are uncanny: when Ritsos was imprisoned, Manolis’ father also was imprisoned on false charges. Both men dealt with the forces of dictators and censorship, and experienced the cruel and unreasoning forces of those times. In fact, they even lived for a time in the same neighborhood. In his foreword to Poems, Manolis relates that he viewed him as a comrade, one whose “work resonated with our intense passion for our motherland and also in our veracity and strong-willed quest to find justice for all Greeks.”

In Poems, Manolis chose to honor Ritsos first by not just picking and choosing a few titles to translate, although that might have been far easier. Instead, he undertook the complex task of translating fifteen entire books of Ritsos work-an endeavor that took years of meticulous research and patience. It should be noted that along with the translation, edited by Apryl Leaf, that he also includes a significant Introduction that gives a reader unfamiliar with Ritsos an excellent background on the poet from his own perspective.

Dated according to when Ritsos composed them, it’s fascinating to see how some days were especially productive for him. These small details are helpful in understanding the context and meaning. For example, in Notes on the Margins of Time, written from 1938-1941, Ritsos explores the forces of war that are trickling into even the smallest villages. Without direct commentary, he alludes to trains, blood, and the sea that takes soldiers away, seldom to return. Playing an active role in these violent times, the moon observes all, and even appears as a thief ready to steal life from whom it is still new. From “In the Barracks”:

The moon entered the barracks
It rummaged in the soldiers’ blankets
Touched an undressed arm Sleep
Someone talks in his sleep Someone snores
A shadow gesture on the long wall
The last trolley bus went by Quietness

Can all these be dead tomorrow?
Can they be dead from right now?

A soldier wakes up
He looks around with glassy eyes
A thread of blood hangs from the moon’s lips

In Romiosini, the postwar years are a focus (1945-1947), and they have not been kind. The seven parts to this piece each reflect a soldier’s journey home.

These trees don’t take comfort in less sky
These rocks don’t take comfort under foreigners’
These faces don’t take comfort but only
In the sun

These hearts don’t take comfort except in justice.

The return to his country is marked by bullet-ridden walls, burnt-out homes, decay, and the predominantly female populace, one that still hears the bombs falling and the screams of the dead as they dully gaze about, looking for fathers, husbands, and sons. The traveler’s journey is marked by introspection and grim memories reflected on to the surfaces of places and things he thought he knew.

And now is the time when the moon kisses him sorrowfully
Close to his ear
The seaweed the flowerpot the stool and the stone ladder
Say good evening to him
And the mountains the seas and cities and the sky
Say good evening to him
And then finally shaking the ash off his cigarette
Over the iron railing
He may cry because of his assurance
He may cry because of the assurance of the trees and
The stars and his brothers

An entirely different feeling is found in Parentheses, composed 1946-1947. In it, healing is observed and a generosity of spirit exerts itself among those whose hearts had been previously crushed. In “Understanding”:

A woman said good morning to someone –so simple and natural
Good morning…
Neither division nor subtraction To be able to look outside
Yourself-warmth and serenity Not to be
‘just yourself’ but ‘you too’ A small addition
A small act of practical arithmetic easily understood

On the surface, it may appear simple, a return to familiarity that may have been difficulty in times of war. Yet on another level, he appears to be referring to the unity among the Greek people-the ‘practical arithmetic’ that kept them united though their political state was volatile. Essentially timeless, his counsel goes far beyond nationalism.

Moonlight Sonata, written in 1956, is an impossibly romantic and poignant lyric poem that feels more like a short story. In it, a middle-aged woman talks to a young man in her rustic home. As he prepares to leave, she asks to walk with him a bit in the moonlight. “The moon is good –it doesn’t show my gray hair. The moon will turn my hair gold again. You won’t see the difference. Let me come with you”

Her refrain is repeated over and over as they walk, with him silent and her practically begging him to take her away from the house and its memories:

I know that everyone marches to love alone
Alone to glory and to death
I know it I tried it It’s of no use
Let me come with you

The poem reveals her memories as well as his awkward silence, yet at the end of their journey, she doesn’t leave. Ritsos leaves the ending open: was it a dream? If not, why did she not go? What hold did the house have over her? Was it just the moonlight or a song on the radio that emboldened her?

In 1971, Ritsos wrote The Caretaker’s Desk in Athens, where he was under surveillance but essentially free. At this time he seems to be translating himself-that of how he was processing his own personal history. Already acclaimed for his work, perhaps he was uncertain of his own identity.

From “The Unknown”,

He knew what his successive disguises stood for
(even with them often out of time and always vague)
A fencer a herald a priest a ropewalker
A hero a victim a dead Iphigenia He didn’t know
The one he disguised himself as His colorful costumes
Pile on the floor covering the hole of the floor
And on top of the pile the carved golden mask
And in the cavity of the mask the unfired pistol

If he is indeed discussing his identity, it’s with incredible honesty as to both his public persona and his private character. After all, he’d been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 (and eight more times) and he was likely weighing, in his later years, all that he’d endured.

The beauty of this particular translation is that, while subjects and emotions change over time, they still feel united by the underlying character of Ritsos. Some translators leave their own imprint or influence, yet this feels free of such adjustment. It’s as if Ritsos’ voice itself has been translated, with the pauses, humor, and pace that identify the subtle characteristics of an individual.

Special thanks to Libros Libertad of Surrey, British Columbia for the Review Copy.

Monday, June 13, 2011

M C Escher, Still Life and Street

Impossible perspective....look twice!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Leeches by David Albahari (Serbian fiction)

Is anything truly meaningless?

In David Albahair's newest novel, Leeches, his protagonist battles with the concept of what is trivial and what is significant in his life.  A common enough problem for anyone, but for someone having gone through the political and ethnic war in the Balkans, it's more complex.  The novel begins with him witnessing a random act of violence:  a woman is slapped by a man.  The shock of it sears him, yet it seems tame compared to the violence perpetrated throughout the region during the conflict.  Now obsessed, he tries to find out who the woman is and why the incident took place.

As he takes on his search, he finds himself looking for clues everywhere.  Suddenly everything has a broader meaning, and he feels enlightened to recognize signs that others ignore.  Graffiti, scraps of paper on the ground, the angle of a door opening;  all appear to him as related to his search.  His closest friend Marko tries to get him back to reality, cautiously but clearly pointing out the flaws in his thinking.  Is he suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder or is he simply paranoid?  Or could it be as they say, that even a paranoid person is right sometimes?

The novel proceeds rapidly with him consulting a mathematical expert, Dragan Misovic ("you must get over your fear of math"), and Kabbalah mystics in order to piece together what he can accept as a reality.  The Belgrade setting is perfect for the labyrinth of the story, as he seeks answers through old and new portions of the city, amid ruins and new construction.

In one portion of the novel, I came across what is possibly the best explanation for why people become racist, and why ethnic hatred is so prevalent.  It's a lengthy excerpt but worth the insight:

"Hatred of other ethnic groups is in effect hatred of oneself...It is not the other we fear, we fear ourselves, we fear the changes the presence of others may impose.  When I say that I dislike Jews, or Roma, or Croats-the list is endless-I am expressing the fear that under their influence, or under the influence of what they genuinely or symbolically represent, I will be forced to give up some of the convictions that matter to me.  Their uprooting of my convictions, no matter how irrational, represents uprooting of my personality.  And so...if I am not to change, they must be branded, isolated, expelled, and, if necessary, utterly destroyed."

Given that the main character is Serbian in such a significant time frame (1998), it's surprising he doesn't discuss political issues more.  Or does he?  Maybe it's paranoia on my part, but one character's name 'Dragan Misovic' sounds an awful lot like Milosevic. Could he be saying that he is, in fact, Slobodan Milosevic, acting like a paranoid and irrational dragon?  If that may be, it would given an imagined perspective on what the war criminal may have been thinking?  Albahari creates two incredibly complicated characters no matter what, who can be wildly irrational and impeccably knowledgeable at the same time.

At times, the book seemed to sink into repetitiveness, especially in the early portions when he's seeking insight from the disingenuous Kabbalah teachers.  At other points, the heavy-duty mathematical theories made my eyes cross.  Yet about midway, the novel is propelled forward and feels much more lean.  What I took from the book was that someone who is completely lost, whether idealogically or emotionally, will cling to whatever may comfort them or give them a sense of purpose, even if it may be destructive, shallow, or illogical.

Special thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the Review Copy.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Opera Bufa by Manolis, poetry

Opera Bufa is the latest collection of poetry from the Greek poet Manolis. A departure from his more serious poetry of the past, this collection toys with the ideas of Albert Camus and his concept of absurdism. The result is at times comic, poignant, and often striking in the truth revealed in illusions.

“In Camus’ works…his emphasis had been on the presentation of the absurd as a crisis for the self’s yearning for lucidity and meaning in a world that is opaque and unresponsive.” And yet he further explains that “the sensibility of the absurd is not born out of any dark, morbid sense of nihilism, but is the result of a certain love and longing for life” (Thoyakkat 3).

Camus contrasted, with his Myth of Sisyphus, how poorly the purposed, meaningful life fits in a world of chance and unpredictable outcomes. Essentially, how can one find meaning if no meaning is to be had-do they continue to persevere or give up? Camus acknowledged that some find purpose with a belief in a higher-power God figure, while others live for the moment, intending to enjoy the here-and-now rather than live for a distant and possibly nonexistent future.

In a different avenue of entertainment, in the 18th century, the ‘theatre of the absurd’ found its way into popular culture, when operas were designed to appeal to the common, working man and to the topics particular to such. These “Opera Buffas” were a place for an ordinary man to laugh at the inconsistencies of his existence and featured a comic take on life’s painful travails.

Pablo Neruda followed along this style with his “La United Fruit Co.” poem, which examined the good and evil forces in the same comedic fashion while tackling the serious subject of the US and the ‘Banana Republics’ of Latin America (Fernandez 109).

Manolis takes this idea further in his Opera Bufa, which is decidedly more humorous, and creates altering poems of Hour and Canto in a 24 hour day that tweaks the concept of absurdism. He contrasts two types of individual: one that seeks to improve their lot in life, and the other that responds to complexities with a “who cares” attitude. In each Hour, an ironic personage dismisses the attempts at meaning with an aggrieved “who cares,” while by contrast, in each altering Canto, the other reaction, to virtually the same experience, is to diligently respond “we can do better.” Both sides expose their own sort of absurdism in relationship to how they view the world.

To illustrate: in the Fourth Hour, God appears and intervenes:

“He elects

To throw punches at

Old philosophically-hardened

Death who laughs His guts

Out sending up a pair of

Devils disguised with velvet

Veils to reduce the game

To a parody of errors while

Despicable people persist at

Loving and sharing things

Like nothing happened

An absurdity of seriousness”

While in Fourth Canto, the viewpoint is different; devils and veils appear yet again, but this time

“turn ever-prosperous

Fears to maverick months without

Songs eluding to the graveness of this

Absurdity and soil negates its

Passive resolve to non-involvement

With opera music and spirited

Fervor of lovemaking shredding even

The stiffest veil of darkness…”

Their ascent to earth, despite their cynicism and mocking of the pathetic humans and their rites of love, leaves these veiled devils touched with jealousy of the human condition, no matter how absurd it may have seemed to them. Similarly, in the Fifth Hour and Fifth Canto, the dichotomy of “great with minor” and “light and dark” still inspires its observers to yearn “we can do better” despite the Fifth Hour’s inability to resolve the awe of colors and light and could only respond with “who cares”.

Using his poems, Manolis dissects the problem of evil that Camus so articulately defined, even quoting portions of Camus’ theories. To Camus, the problem was the two disparate options: “…either we are not free, and God…is responsible for evil. Or we are free and responsible but God is not all-powerful.” The two opinions plague both the angelic and demonic forces who jostle for the more relevant position. Manolis seems intent on showing how frustrated the human creature is to discern his place and his purpose when even supernatural powers are confused.

In the Twenty-First Hour, Death appears again as a dubious savior when physical disease has worn down the human:

“nothing remains but need

For a colder heart and

Death to re-emerge as savior at

A moment of need with His foul

Breath and missing teeth although

He filters the hopeless gap

Between ordinary and absurd

Choice and picks who

To take who to leave behind for

The next round of emotional


But a far more peaceful picture of imminent death appears in Twenty-First Canto:

“My voice softly caressing your earlobes

And your new path searches for another

Day declaring that scattered

Songs and lullabies

Bring up your memory until all that

Was past is present….”

All these contrasts, along with the unexpected juxtapositions of ordinary themes make this collection one that is difficult to both predict and put behind. The concepts succeed in seriously challenging attitudes while comically illustrating the often illogical beliefs that we cling to.

Works Cited:

Fernandez, Carlos. “Opera Buffa and the Debunking of US Hegemony in Neruda’s “La United Fruit Co.” Romance Notes. U of North Carolina: 2009. Vol 49, Issue 2. Literary Reference Center. Web. Jan 21 2010.

Thoyakkat, Sreedharan. “The World is What Was Given, The World is What We Make.” IUP Journal of English Studies. Sept 2009. Vol. 4, Issue 3/4. Literary Reference Center. Web. Jan 15 2010.

Special thanks to Libros Libertad of British Columbia for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Molotov's Magic Lantern by Rachel Polonsky

Travels in Russian History

Rachel Polonsky is a British journalist who enjoys a dream trip to Russia to explore Moscow and the city, and even stay in a historic apartment building.  She's there to research another topic, but is intrigued by how much history actually lived in the building she temporarily resides in.  Most notably, one floor was home to Soviet bad guy and Stalin pal Vyacheslav Molotov (and yes, sadly, every time I say his name I think of that Don Henley song: "Molotov cocktail, the local drink, and all she wants to do is dance").  The opulence of the street in the past, as well in the present, speaks to the contrast between impoverished Russia and luxurious excess.

As she settles into the apartment, she begins sleuthing around to discover that other important Soviet residents had lived in the building or nearby.  Trotsky, who fell from favor in his later years, lived in No.3.  As he was to be exiled, she notes the events surrounding his departure.  The apartment life, while plush, was tense.

"...'prominent Soviet workers' would learn to keep the doors closed, not to look out when they heard the heavy tread of boots on the common staircase at night, the commotion of arrest in a neighboring apartment" (63).

Polonsky's travels spread into the streets and outside the city.  I most enjoyed the chapter "Staraya Russa" that described a spa town that promised restorative health benefits, and that was eventually a summer home to Dostoevsky where he wrote extensively.  Tracing the history of the town through other writings, and visiting significant locations, she reveals a place where the wealthy went with great hope, enthusiastically applying the mud deemed curative for a wide variety of ailments.

Later in the book she explores modern Russia under the realm of Putin.  One tidbit: "the latest fashion in chic Moscow eating places is to order numerous elegant dishes and leave them on the table hardly touched.  Almost everything on the menu costs a week's pension" (366).  She notes that the Russian upper-class is heavily focused on appearances and status, something she connects as a common thread throughout the previous two centuries.  "Putin's courtiers are more interested in their jackets, their watches and their coiffures than in any God-bearing mission of the Russian people, whatever they may say to 'the people' each night on the TV" (367).

Covering a vast amount of subject matter such as contained in the book makes it overwhelming.  Even with a better-than-average (but by no means scholarly) grasp of Russian history, the vast amount of names and places and events are hard to put into the context she gives.  For example, to look at a random paragraph and see a dozen or more personal names, street names, neighborhood names and previous nicknames of the same place confuse the story she's attempting to tell.  It's as if there is simply too much information given, with little distinction between a significant detail and a minor one, as both are given equal weight.  The effect is jarring, in that it's difficult to fall into the spell of the events without feeling like you need to Google a few dozen names to make sense of it all.

I think her extensive knowledge of Russian history gets in the way of clearly enjoying the book.  When she's making an important point about bourgeois attitudes, she gets sidetracked into a tangent that meanders awhile and sometimes doesn't seem to reconnect with the original point.  When I put down the book and later returned to it, I often felt as if nothing was familiar, and that I needed to go back several pages to recapture the narrative.  A devoted Russophile would likely be delighted with her experiences as relayed in this book, but for most of us, it's simply too much "who, what, and where" without enough 'how' and 'why'.

Special thanks to Katie Freeman of Farrar, Straus & Giroux  for the Review Copy.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Super, by Aaron Dietz

As an experimental novel, you can’t get more creative than Aaron Dietz’ Super, a witty look at what it takes to become a superhero. Oh yeah, you’re thinking. Superhero? We definitely could use a few more, but who knew the selection process was so difficult?

Super combines literary elements, such as short stories, poems, and a stage play, with the most mundane types of paperwork, all part of the application process. Superheroes in our decade must, of course, sign liability waivers, undergo psychological testing, sign non-disclosure agreements, and have their costume approved by numerous agencies (an Extra-Sensitivity Committee will examine the costume to make sure no one could possibly be offended by it). It’s all tongue-in-cheek yet completely earnest, as Dietz mocks our litigious society and the redundancy of bureaucracy. Clearly, strength and courage are not enough.

The fill-in- the-blank forms and handwritten memos give it a spark of realism. Random diary entries and animation blocking mix with the Fictional Scenarios that a potential hero must correctly navigate. Equipment diagrams, coworker assessments, even the Word Find that is found in each issue of the fictional monthly Superhero Journal fill out the pages and remind us that even Superman would not likely be hired under the guidelines that most employers have to follow. Is Dietz making a dig at the corporate structure of big government and big business? Is he quietly advancing Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” economic theory?

It's clear that for all the qualities and intentions a person may possess, society often ties the hands of those who want to help.  Aid workers are prevented from entering ravaged war zones to help, restricted by political forces.  Just last week in San Francisco, firefighters and the Coast Guard were unable to save a man, possibly suicidal or delusional, who waded into the chilly water of Alameda Bay, just a few feet deep, because of bureaucratic policies that didn't permit shallow-depth rescues.  A 'regular' guy went in for him, but it was too late-the cold water killed him.  Dietz hints at this discrepancy between right and "legal". 

Underneath the clever visual elements lie some startling observations about humanity today: in one scenario, the Superhero wannabe gains extra points by showing basic kindness to a homeless person or babysitting a highly allergic child. He seems to want to show us how occasionally we may perform some pretty neat superhero tricks on our own.

In all, it’s enjoyable to see the clever features and the complete randomness of much of the book. However, I’m curious as to the intended audience for it. My assumption is that it could be considered a young-adult title, but would that reader necessarily catch the irony of all the paperwork? I ran it past two boys who, at 18 and 21, are fond of superhero movies, and both of them hated it. Perhaps it’s meant for an older demographic that fuels the demand of nostalgic and novelty items from classic cartoon heroes. This was a sticking point for me, as I wasn’t sure how to interpret it outside of my own opinion, which was that it was clever and cute but not something I’d choose to read. The lack of a clear narrative made it feel more like a magazine (aka MAD magazine) than a novel. By the second half it was as if the punch line was already revealed, and while more experimental motifs were explored, the freshness had worn off.

Special thanks to Daniel Casey for the Review Copy.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Giveaway: The Book of Happenstance, Ingrid Winterbach

This book is a translated literary fiction novel from Open Letter.  It releases June 14, 2011.  So this giveaway is for a final copy of the book and ends on that date, when I'll publish my review of the book to this website.  Hint:  it's really good so far (I'm halfway through it).

Winterbach is from South Africa, and this was originally written in Afrikaans.  Language and translation is even a theme in the novel, although technically you could call it a crime/mystery novel.

Rules:  just be a follower of this blog and leave a comment below.  Ends June 14, 9pm Pac time. US and Canada only.  Please make sure there's a way I can get ahold of you, as some entries for the last few giveaways have not had contact info.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Update: Eastern European Reading Challenge

We're five months into the Reading are you doing?  Are you anywhere near your goals for tourist, scholar, or ambassador?  Hopefully this post will help inspire you to stay motivated.

First off, check out this link:

At that link, you'll find other links to reviews by a number of diehard participants in the challenge.  Damian has reviews for titles from Blatnik, Teodorovicis, Kompanikova, Stiks, Nodas, and Kovalytis.  Linda has links to her reviews for Kadare, Slouka, Kertesz, Nadas, and Dragoman. Chrissie discusses Fraser, and Bernadette has reviews for Akunin and Eastland.  Alister also discusses Akunin.  Colleen reviews Pasulkas title and Jose reviews Miloszewski.  WonderBunny tackles Lukyanenko, as Melwyk tackles Barclay.  Lastly, CaptiveReader reviews Ignatieff and Pick.

I didn't even bother with spell-check on that paragraph!  Check out that link to discover the reviews and also enjoy the blogs of some of the participants.

Next up:  this link gives you a whole bunch of titles suggested by participants.  Daisy really outdid herself with titles to explore:  Lisa also has a link to her blog where she reviews some of the deepest of the Russian genre.

It's appropriate that we are covering Eastern Europe, as Russia is currently the hot genre in publishing.  The London Book Fair earlier this year focused on Russian novels and poetry.  It's expected that Russian literature is going to dominate the next 18 months as Scandinavian crime did last year.

Here are some brand-new or forthcoming titles that should be mentioned:

Slavenka:  A Guided Tour through the Museum of Communism:  Penguin Books.  Animals in fable-like stories act as symbols for the Communist era.

Andrey Kurkov Death and the Penguin and Penguin Lost.  Melville House.  Russian based detective/crime with a humorous twist.

Vladimov, Georgi.  Faithful Ruslan.  Melville House.  A guard dog acts as motif.

Ulitskaya, Ludmila.  Daniel Stein, Interpreter.  Overlook.  True story of man who saved many Jews during the Holocaust.

Bronsky.  The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine.  Europa Editions.  Russian emigrants, three generations of women.  (One of the best covers this year)....

Sadulaev.  I Am a Chechen!  Tin House Books.  Short stories.

Akunin.  He Lover of Death.  W&N.

Many more to come....

Lastly, there's a slew of Russian, Czech, and Slavic movies now available on Youtube and Netflix.  One, "Before the Rain" was discussed in detail Slavic Review's Spring looks good but I haven't seen it.  It's set during the Bosnian Wars and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. 

Coming up this week on this blog, a review of Molotov's Magic Lantern and a Serbian title called, enticingly, Leeches.

Finally, the winner for the giveaway of Sofi Oksanen's Estonian novel, Purge, is Hamna.  She's got 48 hours to respond.  The next giveaway will be announced soon!

Yannis Ritsos poetry link

Yannis Ritsos' Poems, translated by Manolis and published by Libros Libertad in British Columbia, is a large volume of carefully rendered verse that interprets Ritsos' visions of Greece on a personal and political level.  Ritsos was a noted Greek poet with a legacy of speaking up under oppression.  Many of his poems personify the sea, the ruins, and the bleached-white stones. is featuring one of my reviews for it, and you won't see it here on the blog..get an early glimpse at

Diasporic Literature is based in Melbourne.  Yes, most of the site is in Greek, but some of it is in English...and it's an interesting clearinghouse for finding Greek titles.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Unbeknownst by Julie Hanson, poetry

Iowa Poetry Prize winner

Is this poetry?  It feels more like a conversation with an intelligent and honest friend.  The thoughts are not high-brow but simple observations of everyday life.  It's the first of Hanson's poetry that I've read, and I'm sold on her style.  It's poetry that doesn't require you to work too hard to understand, but at the same time, it's not simplistic or naive.

Many of the poems feature questions-a deliberate effort to make the reader respond and think.  Her questions put into words ideas that we may only toy with, or wonder about. Hanson puts them out there in print, legitimizing their importance.  One of the most fascinating is "Prayer", in which she analzyes both the input and output of the attempt at spiritual connection.  It's free verse, rambling a bit, yet the direction she leads you to is profound:

"...A friend of my mother's used to pray for parking spaces.

A person could tell a lot about us
by the way we pray.

When someone prays, Help me with this problem,
it might mean Solve it.
Or, show me the way.

A person could tell a lot about God
by the way we pray.

Can our gestures be seen?
Are the hands quieted or are they utilized?
Is there reason to raise the face heavenward?

Is the context provided, or is this
presumed known?

Does the Presence stay with us for the long
weeping part, or are we thought
to be put on hold?

Sometimes we resign ourselves
to another mortal isntead--a stranger
seated next to us, a cat, a dog, a friend-

and what is said has a quality
common in fiction, less so in life.

Short, abrupt sentences trip up,
entangled in the longer ones
that are being thought...."

Another poem uses simple birds to illustrate our own perception of ourselves, and how we may be caught up in the irrelevant.  From "Larger":

"The female cardinal isn't the least bit
disappointed that the shade of red she is is brown.
She looks at him and thinks, Aren't we gorgeous?

Disappointment is a theme too available to me.
Judgment, another.
Would that I were rid of them."

In "Always a Little Something Somewhere in the Purse", Hanson explores the acting and roles that must be played by women on occasion, in order to survive.  She shows that it's the small things "which can't alter reality in the large sense/but might help us along in the small."  The hopeful nature that tries to work past the reality of ourselves is both a gift and a flaw-why can't we just be ourselves?

I marked too many passages in the book to comment on, but she explores adoption, marriage, loyalty, and disappointment with depth and humor.  Somehow she reminded me a bit of Emily Dickinson's line "hope is the thing with feathers", although their styles are entirely different.

Special thanks to the University of Iowa Press for the Review Copy.