Friday, January 30, 2015

As I Said by Lev Loseff (bilingual Russian edition)

This bilingual collection of the poems of Lev Loseff begins with a preemptory acknowledgement, by series editor Jean Boase-Beier, of the difficulties of translating poetry, especially when a reader has no knowledge of the original language and thus might miss subtleties that the poet intended. As Boase-Beier puts it:
We know that translated poetry is neither English poetry that has mysteriously arisen from a hidden foreign source, nor is it foreign poetry that has silently rewritten itself in English. We are more aware that translation lies at the heart of all our cultural exchange; without it, we must remain artistically and intellectually insular.
With this in mind, both Russian and English versions are here provided “side-by-side because translations do not displace the originals; they shed new light on them and are in turn themselves illuminated by the presence of their source poems.” And translator G. S. Smith shows a similar attention to detail and attitude that goes beyond mere words: Smith was actually able to translate much of Loseff’s personality in the poems, as the two collaborated over the translations over a period of several years and Loseff gave his approval to the resulting works. Loseff, an editor himself who has translated Joseph Brodsky, guided Smith in some areas with comments and suggestions, but his firmest request was that the poems be presented in reverse chronological order. It was Smith who chose the poems for the collection, selecting those that had the best prospects for accurate translation.
Yet another scholar, Barry P. Scherr, contributes an introduction to Loseff that gives some essential biographical information, making the poems that much more compelling. Loseff was part of what was casually called the “philological school” of Russian poets; intensely familiar with and influenced by traditional Russian literature, he refers to his country’s most famous writers (e.g. Pasternak, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin) in many of his own poems. Besides this cultural expertise, Scherr notes that Loseff is also a poet of observation, one whose emotion “arises from contemplating the world outside the poet, rather than the writer’s most intimate thoughts.” Yet Loseff does reveal himself on his terms, subtly, and G.E. Smith picks up on such nuances.
“At the Clinic” for example, will strike many readers viscerally (here’s the full poem):
The doctor mumbled things about my kidneys,
and looked away. I pitied this MD.
For life to me had burst its inhibitions,
and now flowed heatedly and easily.
Diploma on the wall. MD. His awkward silence.
Hand scribbling out a slanting recipe.
While I'm astonished by this easy lightness—
so easy had the news turned out to be!
What happened to the demons that beset me?
I'm breathing easily, not like before.
I'll go and let them have some blood for testing,
and give a bit more blood to sign this poem.
A great deal is revealed in the poetic subtext: “Burst” and the phrase “flowed heatedly” contrast with the idea of ease. In fact, Loseff uses variances of “easy” four times in the poem’s three stanzas. At the conclusion, there’s a play on words in regard to blood—using both “give” and “let”—that indicates a sense of surrender despite the lightness he’s just described. Curiously, Loseff initially speaks of the “doctor” delivering the news, only to repeatedly call him “MD” afterwards. The usage on the facing page in Russian also uses a different word for doctor after the first, which made me curious if there was an aural play on words here, as “MD” in English sounds like “empty.” Does the Russian word Loseff used, Врач, also hint at another meaning?
A poem that reaches into Russian literary history is “The Blood Washed Off. The Axe Dumped in the River,” which seems to make a clear reference to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. While Raskolnikov stashed the axe rather than dumping it in the Neva, Loseff contrasts this murderer’s obsession over guilt (felt even before the murder occurred) and cleanliness with contemporary criminals, who “abandon axe and empty bottles by the body, mumble / when questioned, not bother washing off the blood.”
Throughout the collection, Smith’s translation beautifully captures a duality to the meanings. A phrase like “the river’s molten-honey seethe” in a poem about the death of a commercial area easily reminds the reader of the river Lethe and the feeling of forgetfulness. The layers are uncovered by Smith but never fully revealed—keeping Loseff an enigmatic poet whose work is destined for further study.
Published by ARC Publications.
First published in Rain Taxi magazine, 2013

Thursday, January 29, 2015

All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld

I read Wyld's first book After the Fire,A Small Still Voice a few years ago and loved the suspense she creates.  Eager to read this, I was not disappointed.

The main character is a woman with a complicated past, but we are not presented with all the details right away.  Wyld doles out details and time periods slowly as the novel progresses.  We start with a woman working a lonely sheep ranch, and go through five distinct periods of her life that made her the isolated woman that she is now.  She's tough, she's vocal, and she has scars both emotionally and physically.

The push and pull of the book that creates the suspense is the way Jake (the protagonist, female) is drawn out.  Aside from her past and her avoidance of social interaction which instinctively tells us there may be a good reason for that, there is also a current problem on her ranch that also is tense.  There's devastation everywhere, and she's riding a wave of emotional locations from childhood memories to current fears.

Wyld populates the book with well-drawn characters, few of whom you'd actually like to meet.  A ghastly lot.  Then there's the surprise of finding a rain-soaked stranger standing in the path of her extremely isolated ranch.  He seems nice.  But given her interaction with the human race in the past, can she trust him?  Can he trust HER?

The suspense leaves you breathless (I know that's a cliche but in this case very much appropriate).  I kept reading faster to get more details about the "why" of what was going on, as well as the "who" that is making mysterious things happen. Dialogue is crisp and realistic, the location gorgeous but frightening.

This is a meditative reading experience, much in the style of Tim Winton's The Riders or Dirt Music.

Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston

The first thing I liked about this novel is the region: the Texas Gulf Coast. I read a lot and I seriously can't remember any taking place in this area that were fictional. The details Johnston uses to create this locale are many and effective: I could picture it all happening.

The first premise I felt was a bit weak: the missing child that is found. We've had Steven Stayner, Elizabeth Smart, and Jaycee Dugard, as well as those poor women kept captive for years by Ariel Castro. It's not something new, and through the invasive media we have an idea of how hard it is to adjust for these victims to be found and re-acclimated into their families. Emma Donohue's (fiction) book Room also went into the complexities of readjustment and shock and how happy endings are rare. So for this part, I felt like I would have been more impressed by some twist on the story we're hardly shocked by.

However, as the novel progresses, it becomes deeper. It takes into what we don't know, how families going through tragedy and despair do not remain static: change happens even when they feel their world has ended. They are constantly evolving through their crisis, just as their child is while in his situation. Sometimes we think time freezes in such a horrific time, but there are still groceries to buy, pets to be fed, laundry to do. And that's where this novel shines: getting to see the individual characters continue living (albeit with a broken heart) and trying to make sense of it all. And the guilt: the sense of responsibility as well as the guilt for ever feeling happy again. Johnston draws his characters so carefully you can actually picture them; you feel as if you know them. And along with knowing them, you anticipate what they will do. And may even get angry when they act the way you feel they shouldn't. See, I'm trying to avoid spoilers.

In avoiding spoilers, I have to say that these carefully crafted characters can be jerks too, and act completely insensitivity. Occasionally I yelled aloud at the characters, one in particular. Of course, there is no guidebook to the proper way to behave when a child goes missing or even when good fortune surprises us. And that is what makes this novel feel real. Shiny, happy people are only in REM songs. Resolution and closure are non-existent.

2015 Maritime Reading Challenge

2015 Maritime Reading Challenge
Andrew Wyeth

It's been ages since I've suggested a Reading Challenge, and this one is a bit personal.  First, I adore Andrew Wyeth art and have been slowing collecting a few pieces (reproductions, of course).  My favorites are his ocean and ship images(even decrepit ones like above). Actually, ESPECIALLY the old and decrepit ones.  

At the same time, I recently saw a PBS Special on Sting's new production on Broadway, The Last Ship.  I bought the soundtrack. I am a bit obsessed (of course, hearing an eight-year-old sing sea shanty songs from the backseat is fun too!).  About this same time I was reading Brian Doyle's novel The Plover that just knocked me out: top 5 of my forever book list easily.  

Lastly, I've been spending more time than usual at my local favorite gorgeous beach and there is something so mysterious and visceral about the waves and rocks that I have the ocean on my brain. This reminds me of advice from a sage poet when I shared a ocean poem with him: he basically said, don't bother, it's all been said, as everyone feels this way about the sea. So let's see what's been said before! Can any author or poet describe the atmosphere of the sea that matches our own?

As a kid, I was lucky. We camped by the ocean each summer.  I confess that for far too long, I used to see the distant ocean oil-rigs lit up at night beyond the Channel Islands and thought that they were drive-in theaters on Hawaii.  Yep, smart kid.  It was at this beach, Refugio, west of Santa Barbara, that I first read Island of the Blue Dolphins, a true-story from Scott O'Dell that is a childhood classic now and that has set me (and a gazillion other kids)on a course for saltwater romanticism.

In my obsession with Andrew Wyeth I discovered his father had illustrated and edited Sea Story Collections.  Incidentally, the entire Wyeth family apparently are outrageously gifted artists.  Sadly, my family just creates long-term grudges!

So, it's still January, it's early, so it still counts!  Jump in!  Instructions below:  ***

2015 Maritime Reading Challenge

Any titles related to the sea or ships (both commercial and military), in any time period, in any region.  Nonfiction is fine, poetry is great, fiction is better! Classics like Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, etc are obvious choices.  We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen is a recent title that is amazing, related to Danish seafaring. The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye is another such title focused on Lake Superior.  Another surprise is the book Longitude: by Dave Sobel, a nonfiction look at how men figured out how to navigate by longitude and not just latitude.

The Pilothouse Chart company lists these titles (some are mentioned above)in their top 10 of nautical fiction:  (
  • Grey Seas Under by Farley Mowat
  • Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (I could not get through this book....)
  • Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brien
  • Spartina by John Casey
  • The Sea Wolf by Jack London
  • The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
  • Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling
  • The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes (out of print but still possible to find)
Entirely imaginary titles for completing parts of the Challenge:

  • Captain: read five books and list them on this Challenge entry page (see tab above for link)
  • First mate: four books
  • Navigator:  three books
  • Cabin boy: two books, and the knowledge that "In cases of shipwreck or starvation from prolonged be-calming, they are the first to be eaten by higher-ranking crewmates. (International Fellowship of Royal Privateers website)

***Any mention of the ghastly "Pirates of the ..." movie series constitutes an immediate expulsion from the Challenge for obvious reasons.  But, please feel welcome to mention a film or series or even exhibition related to the maritime world and maybe someone else can enjoy it too.

Sign in with name, means of contact, location by country, and goal in the comments section below.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin

If you are in your 40s, you probably remember the end of the Cold War quite well.  Before that, the Soviet Union was portrayed by the media (and pretty close to reality) as a brutal enemy, a bastion of Communism, with hints of the Siberian Gulags that preceded it.  We had the Doomsday Clock and WWIII was always present.  We even had school practice drills in case of nuclear war (yes, getting under a desk was deemed sufficient protection).  Younger than that, you may not realize how different the Soviet era was from present day Russia, although Putin seems to be taking it a step backward.

In any case, from Glasnost to when smaller nations broke free from the USSR and gained independence, many changes took place that leaves the actual Soviet era somewhat forgotten. And nothing is drier than reading about it in an old history book.  Breshnev and Gorbachav are almost caricatures today.

A better way to read the history is through this memoir.  Lev Golinkin is like David Sedaris, funny and irreverent, with an amused eye that reveals the smaller details that ultimately mean the most in understanding the history.  He recounts, from his adopted American perspective, how it was that he came to America and why he wanted to go back.

He grew up in the Ukraine and it's helpful to see, given this last year's actions with Russia and the Ukraine, how timely his writing is.  I felt like I got a better understanding of the people and the place and why there is a difference between a Ukrainian citizen versus a Russian one.

Many people helped Golinkin escape to America, and his appreciation for them is great. It's wonderful to think he wanted to revisit them to thank them and also to better understand where he came from.  As a Russian Jew, his story has another dimension given the prejudice to the Jews by many.

Russia has always been my favorite place to read about, and this ranks with other books about the period (some of which are fiction but still reveal much about the land and history and peoples).  Vasily Grossman's "Everything Flows", Martin Amis' "House of Meetings" and Rasskazy, a collection of Russian stories, can really fill out your knowledge of Russia.  With this memoir, you get even more from the latter period that is often ignored in favor of the Gulag era.

Just for kicks, the books of Andrew Kurkov, "Death and the Penguin" and "Penguin Lost", as well as "The Case of the General's Thumb" also deal with Ukrainian lore but in a crime novel genre.

Russian Tattoo by Elena Gorokhova

Elena Gorokhova's A Mountain of Crumbs was a riveting memoir (given to me by a dear friend who knows and shares my obsession for all things Russia), but this next installment is much more interesting.  In the USSR, teaching and living in communal housing, she meets an American man (there studying) who somehow, randomly, decides to offer to marry her so she can immigrate to the US. The randomness of it is strange, as there doesn't appear to be much in the way of romance.  It's not that she's a bad catch, he was clearly lucky to get her. But his attitude was that this was his "good deed for the day", and while they did get a bit acquainted there, it was clear this was not in his eyes a real marriage. His loss, but her gain: he's kind of a jerk.

Brought to the US, she is immediately confused.  Particularly by him, who has a steady girlfriend and job but seems oblivious (especially in that he saw the USSR and how she had lived) to her settling in a new country. Nothing is the same.  And he takes for granted that she will simply learn as she goes.  He even hassles her a bit about not fitting in or trying hard enough.

It's not so much the big cultural issues or that she's not smart: she's fiercely intelligent and he's actually pretty dumb.  But it's the little things: ordering at a restaurant, buying shoes (what size?), and paying with cash that confuses her and makes him think she's  not trying hard enough.  She gets a job in a steakhouse which is a world's difference from what she was used to: the endless side dish options and salad dressing choices (!!) all confuse her but she manages to make sense of it after time.

In the meantime, he's moved her back into his mom's house and basically cut her off.  Fortunately, his mother is kind and patient, but slow to understand the depth of cultural dissonance Elena is experiencing.  Nevermind that she misses her family too, and they can't possibly conceive of how unsteady her new existence has become.  How do you tell loved ones who have to share a kitchen with stinky neighbors that you can't understand the idea behind endless beverage refills?  

From there it takes off into how her new life blooms when she realizes she only has herself as a resource and she has to move forward, at the same time missing her family.  Inspiring, especially when you think you have a rough life.  I think it was the little details that were the most touching to me, as she genuinely has no one to rely on who can understand her exact predicament.  It's cliche to say she's stuck between two worlds but she truly was.

I can't wait to read her next memoir!

The Walk Home by Rachel Seiffert

Family.  The most complicated and difficult and rewarding of relationships.  This is an exploration of an unconventional family in an unconventional place: Northern Ireland after the Troubles.  A time when people still have their battle lines drawn even if years have passed. Where a simple marching band is not a simple marching band, at least when it has to do with the Orange Walk.

You may want to bone up a bit on Irish History, specifically the Troubles circa 1970, that "Ulster" is what Ireland used to be called, that the North is Protestant and the actual region of Ireland is mainly Catholic. That England has supported Northern Ireland to the result of the IRA and resistance that affected ALL parts of Ireland.  That bombings that took place were not always by the IRA, and that England bears it's share of responsibility for the senseless deaths of many and actually staged bombings themselves to attribute to the IRA.  I actually never understood much of it until I took a semester of Irish Studies in college (and was so frustrated that I couldn't find Ulster on the map of Ireland, oy!).  In any case, some may get confused at the drama that exists, so if you can spare a moment to Google it or go to the Wiki page, you'll be rewarded. The book is worth the effort!

Into this mess is the family of Lindsey and Graham, a pair of newlyweds with a somewhat supportive family, making their new home on the planning "scheme" that is being built (basically a tenement section).  It seems that early on, no one trusts each other enough to talk about the most basic of family events (such as a birth).  Thus, few in the family even understand the long-standing rifts that they are now a part of.  This is just the individual immediate families, the further in distance, the worse it becomes, because distant family is never truly distant when it comes to history and emotions, and hard feelings always exist.  Seeing a youthful child Stevie grow up is touching as you can tell his parents are Lindsey and Graham are decent folk.  But the complexities of the past taint their future.

I like that the author Seiffert grasps all the subtle distinctions of family, even the appeal of those we can't stand.  There's almost a mystery quality to it, while this is certainly not a crime or mystery novel. It's just mesmerizing how much is unresolved in one family and how assumptions and rumors ruin it for generations.

This would be a great movie, and of course, I must cast Liam Neeson somewhere.  I believe that is a law.

Wolf Winter by Cecelia Ekback

One of my favorite books ever is "Growth of the Soil" by Knut Hamsun, and I kept thinking of it as I read this novel.  Much of the region of the Lapland is similar, as are the descriptions of the earth, soil, sky, and water.  Ekback makes a strong presence as she is careful to "show" and not simply tell the reader what the story is about.  At one point she describes how sometimes the light outside is painful to observe and bodes ill: I could really sense what she meant.

For example, early on we learn of the husband of the main character.  There's nothing outwardly said in the description to make us think he's weak and somewhat lazy....just her choice of dialogue and scenes make it apparent instantly.  I really liked the character Maija, and she feels very real as she arrives at this new land with her helpless husband, trying to make a new life while a murderer is on the loose.  Characters are introduced individually, with time given to evaluate them by their actions and dialogue, almost to create a familiarity with them, which makes the mystery much more complicated.  Complicated because we've become almost attached to each character because of the personal attention given to each one.  In shorter words, there's no obvious villain that sometimes is easily picked out of a narrative.

The priest, "Olof", as she nicknames him ("oaf"to me) is a perplexing character early on and one of the forces that drives the story in a way that is new and unique.  I had a love/hate relationship with him as he's in many scenes and even when he's doing something good or beneficial, he's annoying.  Another big revelation was how the Church worked in this time period, where the concept of "it's who you know" being hammered in with details of corruption and omission.  I also liked how Maija's pragmatic character clashes with Olof's self-righteous performances.

You can't help but feel a bit of a chill while reading this; perhaps it would be best read at the beach as I think the Swedish location, high in the hills, is probably never warm.

DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves by James Nestor

Alternative title: Smart People Who Do Astonishingly Scary Things

Before you start reading this book, head on over to Youtube and look up freediving. Seeing it will help you understand just how insane this new experience (hobby, sport, death wish??) is, and you'll be drawn into the unheard of (to me) world under the sea that goes beyond singing mermaids, cute clown fish, and the Titanic (the general oceanic knowledge most of us share).

First off, the thing that grabs you is the anecdotes about the early days of freediving and scuba diving. There are funny ones and grim ones and gross ones. But James Nestor, the author, doesn't just relate fish tales (sorry) but makes it meaningful You can look at the book from several angles, and freediving is just one facet of it.

First is the sport itself and the many ways humans have tried to get beneath the sea, how far they've gotten, and what the actual technique is for record-setting dives. On his initial experience of seeing freedivers, the first thing he does is call his mother. She tells him to do better research rather than report such nonsense. That little bit just set the tone for me: inspired, amusing, but pragmatic. His voice as an author is pleasant, never lecturing too much or flooding raw data but explaining the context. Sure, if there's a gross anecdote to tell, it's in here, and these keep you on your toes (sort of like car wrecks at races).

Second is the "why" factor, what secrets does the deep sea hold for scientists and research and ultimately humans? How much do we really know about its unplumbed depths? Not much, it appears. He explains just what is being done now and what could be discovered. The scale of the ocean is beyond our understanding as we take for granted just how much water covers the earth without considering what is within it in terms of species and formations.

Part of why I sort of loved this was that I read it at the community pool while my son had swim lessons. Something about being by the water made it real, and of course, I had to go swim for pennies in the 12 foot area to see how long I could hold my breath. Not long. Certainly not hundreds of feet like those in the book. And obviously, the local pool has no sharks.

I think the curiosity of humans and their quest for the unknown is a fascinating subject. Could it be we know more about the moon than under the sea just a few miles out? Seeing all these different researchers pursue their studies, even when the effects or results are only likely to be relevant years from now, maybe long after their natural lifespan, is intriguing. It's almost a higher calling, this pursuit of knowledge for the gain of future generations. Perhaps the names in this book will become as famous as Curie or Pasteur or Cousteau.

Some nonfiction works are either too light or way too deep, with the writer either trying to be glib and dumb down the subject, or show how many references they can cite and leave you lost. This balances both well, not an easy thing to do and not always easy to find as a reader. If you are a fan of Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City) or Bill Streever (Cold: Adventures int he World's Frozen Places), you will probably enjoy this.

Watch Me Go, new fiction from Mark Wisniewski

“…when you really want something and almost get it but then don’t—like when you lose a bet on a long shot by a nose—you taste both success and failure at the same time, and as a result, you feel nothing.”
One of the characters in Mark Wisniewski’s novel, Watch Me Go, contemplates this sense of nothingness as he attempts to put a value on the life he’s lived, realizing that much of it was out of his control and what he did know was lies. Moving on from that point becomes a painful lesson in balancing courage with tradition.

The novel begins with two completely opposite characters and their point of intersection. A white teenage girl fleeing from a gossipy small town contrasts with an older black man who hauls junk for a living. Right away, our stereotypes are shaken, as we find Jan and Deesh in a small visitor’s room in jail, where Deesh denies having killed anyone and Jan assures him she knows that already.

From there, we are thrown into a revolving tale leading up to that day in the jail. Poor and ill-treated, Jan and her mother move to the ranch of a longtime family friend, one who promises to help them recover from the death of Jan’s father. Meanwhile, Deesh and his friends dispose of a sealed metal drum in exchange for a large sum of money, well aware that it likely contains a corpse. Both Jan and Deesh start out in desperation for a new life, a fresh start.

Jan’s new location is in a small town that links nearly every resident to horse racing, whether as owners or gamblers. She proceeds to dream of becoming a jockey, despite the shady activities of nearly everyone she meets. She meets the handsome son of an owner and for a while it appears that her fresh start is guaranteed, and she gets her first chance to race in a secret practice run.

“And sure, winning felt good, very, very good, but a victory in a horse race takes very little time, a very small fraction of your life. And then there ends up being the whole rest of your life, where you feel caught in this tangle of beauty and ugliness.”

Deesh, meanwhile, has more money in hand than ever before, but before he gets a chance to start that clean slate, he too gets sidelined by the criminal actions of another and next he’s on the run. Soon he has to make decisions far bigger than just his own survival.

“There is only this world of beautiful and ugly things, and I, a runaway brother casting into water smoothing down this world, am still one of them.”

From these points the novel develops a breakneck pace as each narrates what surprises they encounter and their instinctual reactions. Having both narrate the story in the first-person allows the reader to really get into, not just the story, but their intentions and assumptions. We can see why they do what they do, not because an omniscient narrator tells us, but because they tell us in their own words. This device adds to the suspense and intensity because, when events occur, we feel their reactions just as strongly as they do.

Numerous themes run through the novel, most notably that of fatherhood. We see fathers who live with emotional distance to their children, fathers who are dead, and those that are simply lost to a culture of missing dads. None of these absences are static: each character throughout contemplates this loss in their life and often weighs their decisions with an imaginary glance at their fathers, asking “what if”. This theme is intriguing because it parallels the perplexity of why good intentions often go bad, and why good people become tragically lost. The difference in ages between Deesh and Jan reveal this is a lifelong pondering.

Wisniewski also has an apparent gift for describing place and incorporating those details into the story, almost becoming part of the plot itself. The Pennsylvania forest, Saratoga Springs, and other small towns are described in a way that captures both abandonment and isolation, failure and success. These mimic the layers of the novel.

Other characters are similarly well-developed, most notably Gabe, the kidnapped-elderly-heart-patient-philosopher, who almost steals the show with his humorous (and profound) musings on women, life, and the Theory of The Big One.

I jumped at the chance to review this as I had read a Wisniewski novel years ago, Show Up, Look Good, that knocked me out with its dry wit and astonishing twists. However, this novel is far different, with similar shocking twists but a deeper look at human interactions.

It challenges stereotypes in a time that desperately needs those misconceptions addressed: we live in a post-Ferguson landscape that needs a complete rewiring of how we look at race as well as our assumptions about guilt and innocence. This might be a bit hard to take for some; it definitely challenged my belief system at times. But that further illustrates how often mindless choices are made, and how mindful choices can be misunderstood.

Highly recommended!