Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Unfortunate Traveler by Billy Collins (and a new Smithsonian issue!)

The Unfortunate Traveler
Billy Collins

Because I was off to France, I packed
my camera along with my shaving kit,
some colorful boxer shorts, and a sweater with a zipper,

but every time I tried to take a picture
of a bridge, a famous plaza,
or the bronze equestrian statue of a general,

there was a woman standing in front of me
taking a picture of the very same thing,
or the odd pedestrian blocked my view,

someone or something always getting between me
and the flying buttress, the river boat,
a bright cafe awning, an unexpected pillar.

So into the little door of the lens
came not the kiosk or the altarpiece.
No fresco or baptistry slipped by the quick shutter.

Instead, my memories of that glorious summer
of my youth are awakened now,
like an ember fanned into brightness,

by a shoulder, the back of a raincoat,
a wide hat or towering hairdo--
lost time miraculously recovered

by the buttons on a gendarme's coat
and my favorite,
the palm of that vigilant guard at the Louvre.

-------This was quoted in the March 2012 issue of Smithsonian, that has a special insert on "The New Stars of Photography".  Tomeu Coll, Jonathan Smith, Pilar Belmonte, and Farzana Wahidy are some of my favorites.  Some seriously beautiful photography....

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Giveaway: The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead

Thanks to the generous folks at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, I have a new hardback copy of The Coldest Night to give away here. It releases April 3, 2012, so that night I'll announce the winner and email them.

My review of the title will post on that day as well, but I've already heard alot of buzz about this literary fiction title that is described as "epic" by many.

To enter, leave a comment in the comment box telling me if the background red color on the blog now is cool, ugly, gorgeous, obnoxious, hurts your eyes, etc....AND with a way to contact you back if you win. US only, ends 4/3/12 9:00pm PACtime.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel

Translated from the French by Euan Cameron

“Sitting on this bench which, within the space of just two days, has become a familiar little spot, a chunk of floating wood he could cling to in the midst of a strange, broad, swirling torrent. And nestling cosily against him he clasps the last twig of the branch, sleeping its fearless sleep for the time being, without melancholy or sadness; that sleep of a satisfied infant, happy to have found the warmth of the skin it loves, its pleasant smoothness and the caress of a loving voice.”

Monsieur Linh has lost almost everything: his wife, his son, and even his city, as war has displaced him and made him a refugee in a French city. To his joy, he has one remaining connection to the past and a hope for the future: his infant granddaughter. Brought with him on the rough journey to France, his only concern is her safety and welfare. In the crowded refugee center, he quietly launders her baby clothes, holds her as she sleeps, and in his traditional garb, becomes an eccentric sight to the other visitors. During the day, he takes her out walking for fresh air.

“’I am your grandfather,’ Monsieur Linh tells her, ‘and we are together, there are two of us, the only two, the last two. But don’t be afraid, I am here, nothing can happen to you. I am old, but I’ll still have enough strength, as long as it is needed, as long as you are a little green mango in need of an old mango tree.’”

It’s on these walks that he finds the wood park bench described above, where he watches the city go by and tries to make sense of its foreign tongue. Soon he meets Monsieur Bark, another man beset by losses, and both find the bench to be their place to come to grips with their pasts and the uncertain future. They become virtually inseparable, despite the fact that neither of them can speak each other’s language. Theirs becomes a friendship made up of the language of nods, shared sighs, and companionship. And when difficult changes occur, this unique bond becomes unbreakable.

This is an impossibly elegant novel, one that makes you sort of wistful at the beauty of the words and their meaning. It’s only appropriate that this be an example of translated literature, because the translation of feelings, gestures and moods is at the heart of it, far beyond the translation of mere words. I actually (this is super corny) put it down and sighed a few times…it’s that gorgeous.

The author, Philippe Claudel, has crafted something that manages to combine melancholy and sentimentality without becoming mawkish. The writing is lean and powerful and each character retains a mystery. The mystery is what pushes you on to understand how each man will survive their loss, and how mysterious the nature of friendship can be. The novel asks the reader to examine what makes two people feel connected. Does loss leave a mark that only another kindred spirit can discern? Do the words we speak mean less than who we are? I couldn’t help but think that the story would be entirely different if the two men did share a language, and that Claudel may be commenting on how, very often, words can get in the way.

Special thanks to Paul Engels of MacLehose/Quercus in the UK for the review copy.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Kornel Esti by Dezso Kosztolanyi (link to review)

Nominated for BTBA this year, the link goes to the review at Open Letter/Three Percent where they are running a series focusing on each title.

Translated from the Hungarian.

Friday, March 16, 2012

BabyLit: Jane Eyre and Alice in Wonderland, Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver

So, this is totally not my blog's typical content, but seriously...these are too adorable not to mention.  Could there be Russian book added to the line? 

Board books! This is a new series called BabyLit. The Jane Eyre is my favorite (that cape!), but both are really neat.  Heavy-duty stock makes them indestructable and the colors are much more vintage and cool than typical kid colors.  Jane Eyre is for counting, Alice is for colors.  How about a Kafka bug one? War and Peace with veggies (peas!)? Can't wait to see the series continue.  I've heard there is a Romeo and Juliet board book, possibly it could be a family first aid guide in board book format?

They are published by Gibbs-Smith, but I think the review copies were sent to me by Eric at Quirk.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A History of Russian Literary Theory and Criticism, Dobrenko & Tihanov

First off, this is not Russian "lite"...this is a scholarly work from the Pitt Series in Russian and East European Studies, well-known for their focused publications on Russian history.  The focus of this reference work is "the Soviet Age and Beyond", and it covers well-known literary figures as well as a few unknowns.

My favorite chapter had to do with the experience of Russian emigrants into other nations between WWI and WWII.  Since most of the intelligentsia had to leave or be exterminated, an entirely new form of Russian writing, from outside of Russia, began to exist.  This presents two issues that editors Evgeny Dobrenko and Galin Tihanov address.  One is how their substitute home, a "host culture" as they say, contributed to their writing in scope and subject matter.  The remaining issue is what about the writers who did not leave during this time: how were they affected by the works of their comparatively free peers as the emigre writing became accessible in Soviet Russia?  French culture had an enormous contribution to the emigrant writings, as many were handled by Parisian publishing houses.

"Emigre writing was increasingly interpreted as flight from symbolism, toward realism", and the editors designate Ivan Bunin as an example of this "resilient emigre".  But from there the subject gets even trickier, as the function of writing literary criticism about emigre works became "little more than a weapon in settling domestic scores."  This goes into length in examining the nature of the literary criticism by who was writing it:  critics were influenced by political allies and personal friendships, and subject to both financial incentives and self-promotion. 

In another direction, the editors discuss the events resulting from Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Fourth Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1967 where he demanded an end to censorship and was supported by many other writers.  This was late in the period known as "the Thaw", a significant and turbulent time in Russian literary criticism.  During the Thaw, two forms of definitive Soviet literature appeared, "village prose and war prose".  Additionally, this was the time period in which the government went after Boris Pasternak, "aimed at his novel Doctor Zhivago, which had won him the Novel Prize."  The time period was rife with attempts to divide writers by designating who had supported the people and who had been known to "stir up" the political situation, and the result is described in detail, showing how the entire face of Russian literature changed during the time.  Repressed writers were able to develop their works, while other writers were returning home to Russia different from when they had left.  But since writing is the tool that can unite as well as divide, political ideology factored heavily in the work during this period. 

On what appears to be a lighter note (although deeply significant) is the explanation of the reception of the scandalous Strolls with Pushkin, a work by Andrei Sinyavsky that had many worked up as it was considered vulgar.  However, dissing Pushkin in any way is akin to sacrilege, and Solzhenitsyn rips apart Sinyavsky for his treatment of Pushkin in what should have been enlightened times:  "could we have naturally expected that the new criticism, barely freed from the unbearable repression of Soviet censorship, that the first thing for which it would employ its freedom would be a strike against Pushkin?" (from an article by D. Galkovskii quoted in the book).

All the big names of Russian literature are here, in ways not often explained in Western press.  I had no idea that one critic considered Nabokov, Sorokin, Tertz and my beloved Vasilii Grossman as "the virus of Russophobia."  And I think that is what makes this collection of essays so interesting:  it's not so much biographical sketches that we see but the back-room politics of literary criticism in a super-heated environment where classic authors are revered or dismissed, per whatever political ideology is in place.  So I don't suggest this as a collection of Russian literature per se, but an inside view of the process of publication of Russian literature.

Special thanks to Maria Sticco of University of Pittsburgh Press for the Review Copy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Stone Upon Stone by Wieslaw Mysliwski (link to review)

One of the longlist titles for Best Translated Book Award and why it should win---My review is at:  Open Letter is going to profile each of the titles nominated. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka

Reprinted review: this title is now released in the US so I'm posting the review again...this is a "don't miss" title.
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

"Tears are very unliterary: they have no form."

This is possibly the most dog-eared book I've ever had. Folding down corners is my method for marking significant (to me) passages, but it clearly wasn't working with this fiction novel because I was marking every page. I'd never read this Venezuelan author before, but I hope to find more of his work translated into English.
Tin House's cover

Delicate prose, deep moral questions, and a stunning pace are what kept me hooked into reading this in one sitting. The story itself is rather simple: a successful doctor discovers that his father is seriously ill. Their close relationship is strained as the son weighs the consequences of telling his father the details of his illness. In the meantime, another man, virtually unknown to the doctor, begins stalking him, imagining that he holds the cure for the the list of complaints he suffers from. There's a push and pull to the narrative, as the poignant moments between father and son,nuanced with shared memories of grief, intertwine with the creepy certainty of the stalker.

Because of the health issues that permeate the novel, questions about the nature of health and wellness are explored, but in a brief, compelling way. The author cites quotes of famous authors, ethicists and physicians, but he's not showing off, they are actually appropriate observations of how the human body deals with illness. These asides never go too long or feel like a lecture, they fit the material in the most uncanny way.

For example, Tyszka quotes Julio Ramon Ribeyro, who provides possibly the best explanation for the euphoria that exists after an episode of physical pain:

"Physical pain is the great regulator of our passions and ambitions. Its presence immediately neutralizes all other desires apart from the desire for the pain to go away. This life that we reject because it seems to us boring, unfair, mediocre or absurd suddenly seems priceless: we accept it as it is, with all its defects, as long as it doesn't present itself to us in its vilest form - pain."

Tsyzka presents simple scenes with insightful observation. On trying to read the face of a doctor while awaiting possibly bad news:

"It's the illustration that accompanies a bad diagnosis, the first installment of an expression of condolence."

On imagining his father's worries:

"Are the monsters of old age as terrible as those that assail us when we're children? What do you dream about when you're sixty-nine? ....Perhaps this is what his father dreams about: he's in a laboratory, in the bowels of a hospital, surrounded by chemicals, sharp implements, gauze, and strangers all repellently dressed in white...."

Events proceed in unexpected ways, and as a reader, you never quite know what direction you're being pulled in. You feel empathy and disgust in altering passages, and the underlying fear is riveting. I did find the ending a bit confusing...I still am not sure I've understood all the implications laid out.

One scene confounds me: It takes place on a ferry, where an obnoxious businessman makes a production of his 'importance' and maltreats his seemingly intelligent and kind wife, all the way to the point of beating her to the ground. I'm not sure what the symbolism is, although I know it's present in that scene. Is Tyszka trying to say that people are subject to humiliation, by oppression or illness, no matter how virtuous they are?

In full, this is easily going to be in my list of favorites for the year. While the subject revolves around illness, it never quite defines which 'illness' is being addressed: is it disease? regret? evil? The questions are posed, and only each individual reader can answer.

Special thanks to Paul Engels of Maclehose Press, London, for the Review Copy.

This book has now been released by Tin House in the US.  It can be purchased at online retailers and at

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg

Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah

"I sensed that motherhood was terrible, perhaps sweet at times, but above all terrible.  Not because one human child would be more horrendous than another, nor is it so that offspring cannot bring joy when little and be useful when grown up, but because motherhood makes it possible for future generations to be rocked by dark tragedies."

The Old Mistress in this snowy and tense Finnish tale reflects on her early impressions of motherhood, and what sort of legacy her two sons would be for her.  It's right that she worries, for she is desperately miserable in her desolate forest home, where she has to deal with "people whose speech tells you they have rough palms" as well as a sickly husband.  Added to this, she has furtive servants and two wildly opposing boys, Erik and Henrik. 

Erik and Henrik are introduced as quarrelsome boys who end up on opposite sides during the war between Sweden and Russia (this takes place in 1809). (See footnote) Neither character is fully exposed, so the tension between the two is immediately apparent while the meaning behind it is delayed.  As the plot twists, the reader can see that this was intended...for the reader is given no easy clues to unravel the family's drama.

"...for a time I was able to watch the boys grow up with at least distant pride.  But boys are fated to grow into men, and a mother has to follow this tragedy as a silent bystander. And now it seems they will kill each other, and then this, too, can be added to my never-ending list of losses."

The character of their mother, the Old Mistress, is one of the most powerful female characters to be found in modern fiction: she has no saving grace that makes her likable or even necessary.  Her anger and rage doesn't make her a stereotypical obstacle: rather, she intrigues the reader and pulls out an interest in her that detracts a bit from the animosity between the boys. And author Sahlberg makes her a key to the plot-- a veritable loose cannon as the plot proceeds.

"I took up the habit of moving all the yesterdays and tomorrows discreetly to one side.  I have never deceived myself in this respect:  I gulp down spirits like a sailor".

Along with the Old Mistress, other characters speak in the first person voice, including both boys.  But while the world orbits between their opposite poles, another character begins to invade the literal and figurative world of the desolate farm.  This outsider quietly alters the lives of everyone involved, and controls the plot to its remarkable ending. 

Several details of note:  the subtle writing definitely follows the rule of "show, don't tell".  Broken veins on the cheeks of a character are a detail not elaborated on, yet critically important.  Scenes between silent characters are so detailed that even without the dialogue, one reads an entire conversation.  These kind of details made me wish I could go back and read it again, slower, to catch the amazing writing that can capture so many variants of meaning with the same words, even the same characters, at different times. This subtlety seems to mirror the cold, snowy landscape.

I have to confess, I searched a thesaurus to find other ways to say 'tension' and 'subtle'!  I really can't emphasize the taut and bare style of the work enough without saying "tension" repeatedly.  So, let me just throw it out there:  tension.  Everywhere. 

Special thanks to Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press for the Review Copy.

The details of this war are fascinating (Napolean's in it) and this link details the events of the time as well as some rather ironic problems with uniforms for both sides (someone had the brilliant idea to experiment with changing colors and styles!).  An excellent background to the story:

Monday, March 5, 2012

Book Babble and Related Chatter....

  • Some new reading ideas:  working on Roger Hall's West of the West see it here for a class, and it mentions two old books on California history that look fascinating:  Bayard Taylor's El Dorado (here) and Frank Norris' The Octopus: A Story of California (here) both look great.  Norris' book deals with the Mussel Slough shootings back in 1880.
  • Lowest third of the Falls
  • Going to Yosemite last week was a treat, and of course, I had to get some books as souvenirs.  John Muir's adventures are collected in The Wild Muir (here) in a paperback suitable for reading aloud to  a preschooler but still interesting enough for an adult.
  • I never realized the Yosemite Falls is one of the five tallest waterfalls in the world, so I took tons of pictures, and am now craving a trip to Norway to see more of the giants.  As a kid, at Yosemite all I did was want to swim in the pool, as an adult I wanted to stare at the waterfalls.  I could see the falls from my lodge room, and they are seriously hypnotizing.
  • Did two hikes with my little guy, who was quite a trooper, but I got a bit frightened in the Mirror Lake hike.  It was so incredibly desolate, no people for hours, that I swore I could hear banjo music.  The signs warning of Mountain Lion attacks didn't help either.  We returned safely but still....they say mountain lions can sense fear!  New beer to overcome fear: Mammoth Double Nut Ale!
  • Take note, if your little boy's first train ride involves the train hitting and dragging someone, it sets a tone for the trip....
  • Does anyone else drool over Levenger's catalog and website?  Book porn?  I'd gladly take one of everything on their site, but especially this...any color, I'm flexible. it! 
  • LUTHER is back on BBC with more episodes (!!!).  In the interim, we were searching for some British crime shows only to come across the Inspector Lynley series (written by American Elizabeth George).  These books just don't translate well to film, and give new meaning to the term "cheeky".  
  • More book sculptures appearing in Scotland libraries...Google the series, they are amazing!
  • Peter Geye has a new book in the works called The Lighthouse Road....can't wait to read it! His first book Safe from the Sea is in my lifetime top ten!
  • I reviewed Kurkov's Death and the Penguin from Melville House for Rain Taxi awhile back, and I'm eager to start Penguin Lost (the sequel).  But mosey on over to Lizok's blog to see her review and how she presents the idea that Soviets are like Penguins (she didn't say it, someone else did, but check out her post
  • Someone special, a certain cameraperson in WeHo,  has alerted a few of us to the music of Mumiy Troll, a Russian band that seems to blend a bit of Wolfgang Phoenix with Spandau Ballet.  Check it out here: And always remember, don't ask the guy hanging around the band if they are any good.  He MAY be the lead singer.  Ouch!
  • copyright Janeen Rewell
  • Amazing images, both photographic and collage at  Note this one above!

  • Just discovered "American Cone", the Stephen Colbert flavor of Ben & Jerrys.  Much better than the Jimmy Fallon "Late Night Snack".  I asked my sons if they knew if there was a Ben & Jerrys flavor of my beloved Pearl Jam.  They said it would have to be a Merlot-American Cheese flavor:  bitter, whiny, and cheesy.  Brats!  They can't grasp the art...and they listen to Katy Perry.  Ick.
  • Poor Indiana Jones...can't get tenure (bad news for Indy)
  • Baby and my Dad en route to Yosemite!
  • My baby baby is five.  FIVE!  The year of kindergarten and more swim lessons.  Where did the time go?

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Meowmorphosis by Franz Kaka & Coleridge Cook

This is the first literary “mash-up” I’ve ever read…a newish format that combines classic texts with a modern twist. Quirk Classics have produced these, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Android Karenina were early successes. I was a little hesitant at first, having found Kafka’s The Metamorphosis so intriguing.

In this mash-up, the anonymous writer “Coleridge Cook” twists Kafka’s tale of a man waking up to find himself as a bug into a tamer form: he wakes as an adorable kitten instead. Gregor as a cat experiences the same sort of issues as Gregor the bug, except that he’s more inclined to nap than scuttle around under furniture.

Staying fairly true to Kafka’s outline, it really does change the way you react to the scenes. It makes it wickedly funny to see his family react with such outrage and fear to what should be normal: a fat and lazy housecat. In this retelling, aside from his irresistible urge to sleep, Gregor does get out and has a run-in with some other cats. This ties into another Kafka story, The Trial, which I haven’t read but with which Cook is clearly familiar. I think I lost a bit of meaning here because I could sense that the names and actions of the other cats is important to understanding this version.  My friend Lisa Hayden discusses the important relevance between The Trial and Kafka himself in her review of the book and  read her explanation of the connection between both Kafka books at her blog. She’s smart like that!

"...which all led to the conclusion that for the time being he would have to keep calm and --with patience and the greatest consideration for his family--tolerate the troubles that in his present condition he was now forced to cause them."

"He had never acted according to his desires alone, but only according to the dicta of his kin, his duty, and that great filial ledger that ruled his life....That difference of spirit he had always felt on the inside was now evident on the outside..."

Now if you’ve never read The Metamorphosis, I think you’d enjoy this version for its play on images. Having read it recently, however, made me feel that the overall take from the story is just too different to get the same meaning as Kafka intended. For all of his images of absurdity with the bug, the idea of a man waking to find himself a horrifying insect was not the point of The Metamorphosis. What I took from it was more how absurd his family reacted and raised the question of why Gregor had put up with their dependence long before he turned into a bug. In this, the question is still there—but the cat contrast distracts a bit from the actual horror of his family situation.

I think this would be an excellent way to introduce someone to Kafka’s work, and since you can hardly find a book that isn’t described as “Kafkaesque” these days, it might be a good way start, as the majority of it stays very close to Kafka's telling.  The illustrations are a fun addition as well...who doesn't love a cat?

Special thanks to Eric at Quirk Classics for the Review Copy.
Also, their website has some great interactive toys if you are interested in more mash-ups.