Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I Hadn't Understood by Diego De Silva

Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar

The fact is that I’m an inconsistent narrator…I’m too interested in incidental considerations that can take you off track. When I tell a story, it’s like watching someone rummage through the drawer where they keep their receipts and records.

All this is just another way of saying my thoughts don’t seem to grip the road, they tend to skid and drift.

So explains Vincenzo Malinconico, the Italian lawyer who becomes one of the most lovable protagonists I’ve ever encountered in this story by Diego De Silva. On the surface, it is the story of a lawyer strong-armed into defending a low-level criminal backed by a dubious source, while at the same time dealing with the aftermath of a painful marital split. But, while the plot is fast and furious, the real draw is the character of Vincenzo. Hearing a character’s inner monologue can really be a risk, as it can veer into boring pretty quickly. But in this case, you really just want to hear him talk.

And talk he does!  At times using lists and bullet points, his mind races around analyzing everything. He does a two-page riff on Camorra interior décor, to the point I had to grab Kleenex from laughing so hard. (If you have a fuschia and marble living room, you may find his observations uncomfortable). Another phenomena that Vincenzo investigates with wit and insight is the way some people talk in public, raising their voices so their imagined audience can see how cynical and world-weary they are.  He manages to capture the insecurity that's revealed in the gestures and chatter of those desperately hoping that someone finds them fascinating.  Edgy and fast-paced, the scenes that take place in the courthouse have some of the best dialogue I've read. 

The thing that is so unique is that while he pokes fun at others constantly (but most of all himself), he's never really mean or nasty. That would get tedious after awhile.   Instead of arrogance, it's with acceptance that he realizes just about everyone he knows is a jerk in some way or another, including himself, so he doesn't seem to take any of it too seriously.

At another point he tries to understand the difference between perception and actuality:

“The thing is that reality mumbles. It expresses itself in incomplete sentences. And the translations that circulate are terrible, done by incompetents. Riddled with misreading, typos, entire lines missing. I make imperfect translations in an effort to get by until, one fine morning, I meet reality in the street –nonchalant, understated, never vulgar – and I stand there, rooted to the spot, staring as she passes me by and vanishes…”

At one point, he discovers he’s being followed. Vincenzo has to look at his options.

In these cases, in fact, the first thing you do when you’re out walking is to slow down, take a deep breath and square your shoulders, as if somehow you feel incredibly interesting all of a sudden.

Obviously in your case this is all just a farce, because if you really did think that a criminal was following you in order to rob you or settle some account that you know nothing about, at the very least you’d start running like a sewer rat or you’d scream for help in the general direction of the first policeman, traffic cop, or mailman (anything wearing a uniform, in other words) you happen to see; I very much doubt you’d waste time acting like the poor man’s James Bond.”

Vincenzo obsesses about his luxury furniture, fights with his wife’s new man at an airport Burger King, and tries to learn all the case law he’s forgotten while still managing to catch the eye of the courthouse’s loveliest lawyer. Even that mystifies him, as he tries to figure out what she seems in him.  The lyrics to Gilbert O'Sullivan's Alone Again (Naturally) get a complete dissection that will alter all previous associations to the song, as "You nod along to the tempo and then shudder in horror at the end of each verse."  Small and annoying dogs get a few pages in too, and while almost universally despised, he manages to freshly capture what it is that makes us hate them so much.

Vincenzo is a fresh character --reflective and thoughtful without sinking into self-absorption. A fun read.

Special thanks to Europa Editions for the Advance Review Copy.
This title releases in the US on February 28, 2012.

Best Translated Book Awards Longlist

Chad Post and Open Letter released the longlist for the Best Translated Book Awards. Since many are from the Eastern European and Russian regions, as well as the Mediterranean, I thought readers could post which ones you've read or purchased, as well as thoughts.  Anyone?

Leeches by David Albahari

Translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

My review: http://www.theblacksheepdances.com/2011/06/leeches-by-david-albahari-serbian.html

My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson
(Open Letter)

Demolishing Nisard by Eric Chevillard
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
(Dalkey Archive Press)

Private Property by Paule Constant
Translated from the French by Margot Miller and France Grenaudier-Klijn
(University of Nebraska Press)

Lightning by Jean Echenoz
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
(New Press)

Zone by Mathias Énard***
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
(Open Letter)

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin
(Seven Stories)

Upstaged by Jacques Jouet
Translated from the French by Leland de la Durantaye
(Dalkey Archive Press)

Fiasco by Imre Kertész***
Translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson
(Melville House)

Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri
Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Kornél Esti by Dezső Kosztolányi***
Translated from the Hungarian by Bernard Adams
(New Directions)

I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière
Translated from the French by David Homel
(Douglas & MacIntyre)

Suicide by Edouard Levé
Translated from the French by Jan Steyn
(Dalkey Archive Press)

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry

Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne

Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski***
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
(Archipelago Books)

Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz
Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
(Seagull Books)

Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger***
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin
W.W. Norton)

Scars by Juan José Saer
Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph
(Open Letter)

Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar
Translated from the Portuguese by Thomas O. Beebee
(Texas Tech University Pres)

Seven Years by Peter Stamm***
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
(Other Press)

The Truth about Marie by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith
(Dalkey Archive Press)

In Red by Magdalena Tulli
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
(Archipelago Books)

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
(New Directions)

***Reviews coming to this site or placed in other publications

My personal vote is for Kornel Esti or Stone Upon Stone

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Two book giveaway! WEST OF HERE and UNTIL THE NEXT TIME

Two great books from Algonquin Books are up for grabs!  Thanks to their generosity, an extra copy of West of Here by Jonathan Evison, one of last year's most popular fiction titles (with the gorgeous retro cover).  Also a new paperback release by Kevin Fox Until the Next Time, set in Ireland, that looks amazing.  My reviews are coming this month as well...

If you have time, check out Algonquin's website and see their huge list of new releases that are perfect for book clubs.  They even have a page for book club resources:

To Enter:
Be a blog follower and leave a comment to this posting.
Leave email address for contact within your comment.
US addresses only.
Ends March 1, 2012 at 9:00 pm PAC time,
winner selected by random generator.

One extra entry for posting this link on your own website or blog--
just put your link in comment box too to get an extra entry.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Goodbye Town by Timothy O'Keefe

...first published in the February 2012 issue of Gently Read Literature at http://issuu.com/gently_read_literature/docs/grl_feb

How then, can a cozy name
Betray our need for something
Ultrahuman, polychrome?
…the satellites
Are never coming home. We live

In peek-a-boo stars.
In afterthrills.

If we need color, as Timothy O’Keefe writes above, he certainly delivers it in this collection of poetry that plots the geography of the anonymous landscape in The Goodbye Town. Nearly every poem uses colors to describe a place that feels familiar yet retains a sense of mystery. The use of color in poetry is pretty much standard, but I’ve not read a poet that has used so many variations of color to reflect regret, shyness, and even the “trembly green” of social isolation.

At times, he uses poems to connect past memories to current events, making the reader ponder if change every truly occurs, or if our DNA projects only grim repetition. In “Poem in a Book That Was Never Opened,” he describes the definition of home but ultimately in the past tense:

There was a home
We called it here.
The big lamps burned
And the wind was humming

Then: taking, taking,
Giving red maple, red maple.

…We’ll say
The shapes are not bereaved of weight.
We said
The town is not besieged.

This same sense of conflicted memory exists in “The Outlying Counties and Then Some,” where in 27 lines he traces the change from childhood innocence and abundance, where “everyone had a mother then, a working train set” to impending adulthood, wondering “why this quaking in the trees, the winter sidewalks so quick to melt”. It’s with acceptance rather than melancholy that he describes a place that is ultimately “a forgiven landscape, the landscape itself a reflection of the grace that gathered elsewhere.” His gaze isn’t focused on blind nostalgia, but on reality; one that may lack the Crayola memories of youth but instead gains texture and shadow.

The most intriguing part of his book is the unknown identity of A.F. Little, a character that appears in various poems that only hint at who he is or how he relates to the intangible location of the Goodbye Town. Born of violence, he thinks in the color brown and acts childlike, although we can sense advanced age. The bird-like man appears in shadowy poems that depict the sea and warfare, a past in Alban. Is it the fields of Italy or France that have marked him? Even from his ominous birth, the presence of grief accompanies him.

O’Keefe is also a master of knockout lines, phrases that halt your reading as you reverse to read them again:

“penguins never dream of flying, even in water”

“a screen door snaps like a shard of night itself””

“the clothesline whips its sleeves”

In line with this collection, an essay in Windfall (Vol 1, No. 2, Spring 2003) entitled “Form in Poetry of Place,” editors Bill Siverly and Michael McDowell help in describing the unique nature of literature related to location:

"The idea of “place” has been considerably devalued in American culture, to the point at which it functions more as a metaphor than a reality. Few people see themselves as part of a particular landscape…rather, we see ourselves as inhabiting very transportable “places”—look-alike Starbucks, cars, ranch houses, condos, Costcos, concerts, conversations. ”Place” is more of an idea….

“Place” in literature tends to be dismissed as ‘regionalism’ or ‘local color’."

It feels cliché to say that the Goodbye Town is Anytown, USA, but the structure enhances the poems because it anchors them in something we can recognize. Whether or not O’Keefe imagined this place or if it is loosely based on a real small town is immaterial; every mention of a wet road, a windy street, an old tree or an abandoned house locks it into reality. His apt descriptions combine with our memories and somehow, we know we’ve been there. The familiarity can be frightening

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Bereft by Chris Womersley (Australian fiction)

"...the return from war was surely worse than the leaving."

This is the book I completed for the Australian Literature Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters.  See her details and overview here.

It's the story of Quinn Walker, who leaves home suddenly and under suspicion when his sister is murdered.  He joins Australia's efforts in WWI, travels the world, and returns with a dangerous desire to go back to the small town that would love to string him up for the crime.

Injured in the War, he suffers from the loss of a portion of his face, injuries from the mustard gas, and all the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At points early on, it's easy to question whether he is recounting events correctly, or if he's hallucinating, and these ratchets up the tension since either way, it affects his actions. The small town of Flint has suffered during wartime as well, as the Spanish Flu has killed many, and this scarred stranger (as he disguises himself) is not welcomed.

Hiding in the hills, he eventually meets a young girl who, significantly, is the age that his sister was when died.  She's been orphaned by the flu, and is essentially a feral animal that refuses the very protection it most needs.  They make an unlikely and bickering duo, and the details she knows of his sister's murder are disturbing. As he struggles with reality, his injuries, and the impending death of his mother, he's also trying to figure out a way to clear his name, aided only by this little girl who seems to encourage violence with a sinister air.

Or is she?  Or is he imagining it?  Is he tormented by guilt?  What he saw in the War? Where does his reality begin, and the hallucinations end?

This is one book I stayed with an entire long afternoon, and was completely (enjoyably) immersed in the tension and the scenery.  Womersley writes descriptively but without sounding like he's rattling off a list of details....the descriptions somehow mingle into the narrative.  A bit of clumsy foreshadowing early on led me to guess the plot fairly easily, but the author still threw in some unexpected twists and complications. The characters of Quinn and Sadie are complicated and compelling; the other main characters a bit more stereotypical (one a generic bad guy).  The beauty of it is in the prose: concrete, detailed, yet fast-paced.  There's suspense in every interaction between Quinn and Sadie, which is really hard to pull off.   Realistically, guessing the plot was irrelevant--the creation of unique characters is where the author's gift is clear.

Womersley has a previous book, The Low Road, that I will look for next.  He reminds me a tiny bit of Tim Winton in the apparent knowledge of the Australian landscape and its feature, but their voices are completely different.  I wouldn't be surprised if this novel was someday made into a film...it has all the elements that would make a suspenseful and visually beautiful film.

Special thanks to Nicci Praca of Quercus Books, UK, for the Review Copy.