IFFP & BTBA 2013 Short Lists – They’re Here!

The two translation prize shortlists are out – and it’s exciting to see how many different languages (and countries) are represented.  I’ve still only read three of the books on the BTBA list – and of those I’ll keep my money on Dowlatabadi for the win.  There is something so visceral about The Colonel.  It’s a book that encompasses all the senses – particularly in the opening chapters when the colonel is summoned to bury his daughter.  The darkness, the rain, the smell of cigarettes – the density of the prose – they’re all still with me though it’s been months since I put it down.  Not every book does that.  Certainly not The Hunger Angel or The Planets – both good books by great authors. But they don’t even come close to The Colonel in scope, technique or plot.

The 2013 Best Translated Book Award Fiction

  • The Planets by Sergio Chejfec/Heather Cleary, translator (Spanish)
  • Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard/Alyson Waters, translator (French)
  • The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi/Tom Patterdale, translator (Persian)
  • Satantango by László Krasznahorkai/George Szirtes, translator (Hungarian)
  • Autoportrait by Edouard Levé/Lorin Stein, translator (French)
  • A Breath of Life: Pulsations by Clarice Lispector/Johnny Lorenz, translator (Portuguese)
  • The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller/Philip Boehm, translator (German)
  • Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin/Marian Schwartz, translator (Russian)
  • Transit by Abdourahman A. Waberi/David Ball & Nicole Ball, translators (French)
  • My Father’s Book by Urs Widmer/Donal McLaughlin, translator (German)

As for the IFFP:  neither of the two books I read on the long list – HHhH and Black Bazaar – made it to the short list.  I’m not surprised, though I think the judges are undervaluing how hard it is to write like Alain Mabanckou writes and make it look easy.  Even in translation.  Regardless, as a result I don’t have anything to contribute to this particular short list other than that Ismail Kadare is one of my favorite authors.

The 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

  • Bundu by Chris Barnard/Michiel Heyns, translator (Afrikaans)
  • The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker/David Colmer, translator (Dutch)
  • Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas/Rosalind Harvey & Anne McLean, translators (Spanish)
  • The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare/John Hodgson, translators (Albanian)
  • Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman/Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia, translators (Spanish)
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić/Ellen Elias-Bursać, translator (Croatian)

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National Book Award Blog Bounce

In case anyone was wondering, I’m getting caught up on my reading.   In the meantime, the list of National Book Award Finalists came out last week.  I haven’t read any of the Fiction Finalists, so I’m providing links to those who have.

I couldn’t find a blog review for Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule (due in stores on November 14th).  If you know of one, please post it in the comments below.  Ironic, though, since it is that book and I, Hotel which  I’d most like to read.

And for fun, here’s the Non-fiction list:

  • Barbara Demick  Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group)
  • John W. Dower  Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (W.W. Norton & Co/The New Press )
  • Patti Smith  Just Kids (Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
  • Justin Spring  Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • Megan K. Stack  Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War (Doubleday)

Winners are scheduled to be announce Wednesday, November 17th.  And I should have a new review up over the weekend.

Mad About Moers! – A Review of The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers

Summer is over, but no one says we need to back away from the escapist fiction!  There’s no shame in losing yourself between the covers of a good book.  Just don’t confuse this kind of escape with the chick lit, mysteries and thrillers you were reading on the beach.    Save those for next year’s daiquiri.  Instead, we advise walking proudly into the Sci-Fi / Fantasy aisle of your local bookshop.  Shove past the pallid guy with the stack of Forgotten Realms paperbacks and the teenage girls with dark circles under their eyes surrounding the Twilight feature table.  Hold your head high!  We’re about to let you in on a little secret.  You see,  there are fantasy novels and then there are Fantasy novels.

In the latter category are Alice in Wonderland, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Harry Potter, Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.  Books so cleverly conceived and brilliantly written that they can be enjoyed by both adults and children alike.  Their authors don’t tell stories, they create worlds.  Worlds that are intriguing, exciting, and a little bit frightening.  Unfortunately, everyone has read those stories (or should have).  You’re looking for something a little more BookSexy, a little more cutting edge – a book that hasn’t gone viral…at least not yet.

Moers.Statue

Enter Walter Moers’ Zamonia novels, published by The Overlook Press.  Moers is a German author and cartoonist who has had five books translated into English (four of which are set in Zamonia).  The most recent being The Alchemaster’s Apprentice.  These books can be read in any order, so don’t worry about starting with the newest book first.  What Moers has done is set about exploring Zamonia – so while characters may make cameos in eachothers’ stories, this is not a chronologically told tale.  You will not be following the continuing saga of one single character or event through a series of books.  Instead, with each story the reader is allowed to pop in and out of different sections and cities of Zamonia.  You learn about Wolpertings and Crats, Lindworms and Blue Bears, Shark Grubs and more.  You’ll visit Bookholm, the Netherworld and, in this newest adventure, Malaisea.

Picture to yourself the sickest place in the whole of Zamonia!  A little town with winding streets and crooked houses, and looming over it a creepy-looking castle perched on a black crag.  A town afflicted by the rarest bacteria and the oddest diseases: cerebral whooping cough, hepatic migraine, gastric mumps, intestinal acne, digital tinnitus, renal measles, mini-influenza, to which only persons less than one metre tall are susceptible, witching-hour headaches that develop on the stroke of midnight and disappear at one a.m. precisely on the first Thursday of every month, phantom toothaches experienced only by persons wearing a full set of dentures.

Picture a town where there are more apothecaries and herbalists, quacks and tooth-pullers, crutch manufacturers and bandage weavers than anywhere else on the Zamonian continent.  Where ‘Ouch!’ is the conventional form of greeting and ‘Get well soon!’ takes the place of ‘Goodbye’.  Where the air smells of ether and pus, cod-liver oil and emetics, iodine and putrefaction.  Where people vegetate and wheeze instead of living and breathing.  Where nobody laughs, just moans and groans.

And the cause of all this sickness is Ghoolion the Terrible, the Alchemaster of the book’s title and resident of the creepy-looking castle.

Echo, a Crat (looks like a cat, but can speak any language and has two livers), is our hero.  After his mistress’ death he  is left to starve on the streets of Malaisea.  Ghoolion finds Echo and offers him a Faustian bargain.  Until the full moon he will feed Echo the most delicious foods the Crat has ever eaten and teach Echo all his alchemical secrets.  Then, at month’s end, Ghoolion will render Echo down for his fat to use in experiments (Crat fat being extremely rare).  Seeing no other option other than starvation, Echo agrees.

Moers is not only an inventive writer, he is also a very funny one.  As the story progresses, Ghoolion (not without a certain charisma) and Echo form a demented odd couple.  The Alchemaster more than keeps to his part of the bargain – and the two main characters seem to develop a mutual respect which borders on friendship.  Their interactions, evenMoers.Story moreso than Echo’s quest to break his contract, really propel the plot forward.  (In fact, if it wasn’t for the whole killing the Crat for his fat and torturing the citizens of Malaisea with fear and disease – we’d be rooting for team Ghoolian).

The subtitle of The Alchemaster’s Apprentice is A Culinary Tale from Zamonia – and the Zamonian delicacies Ghoolion prepares for Echo are an important (as well as entertaining)  element of the story.

My dear Echo,

I regret my inability to offer you a particularly lavish breakfast this morning, as I will be engaged on a research project all day.  However, the honey on the bread is very special.  It’s made by the Demonic Bees of Honey Valley.

Don’t worry about the dead bees in it, they’ve had their stings removed and they make the honey nice and crunchy.  But be sure to chew with care.  It sometimes happens, though very rarely, that one of the bees has not had its sting removed.  Although a prick in the gum or tongue wouldn’t kill you, it would certainly give you an unpleasant time.  The risk factor is said to be part of the enjoyment one derives from eating a slice of bee-bread.

Bon Apetit!

Succubius Ghoolion

‘Well, well,’ Echo thought sleepily, ‘Demonic Bees from Honey Valley.  Whatever.  After last  night I’d eat a grilled Sewer Dragon, with or without it’s knilch.’ He hurriedly devoured a few morsels and took a swig of milk.  The milk tasted odd – soapy, somehow – so he wolfed another piece of bee-bread to take the taste away – and instantly felt a stabbing pain in his tongue.

‘Ouch!’  he said, but that was as far as he got.  The room began to revolve, alternately bathed in light and darkness, and he went plummeting down a black-and-white shaft that spiraled into the depths, losing consciousness on the way.

When Echo came to, he seemed to be looking into a shattered mirror that reflected many little fragments of the world around him…

(What comes next is one of the funniest scenes in the book, but we won’t ruin it for you).

Moers.5The Alchemaster’s Apprentice is a story that you lose yourself in – the very definition of escapist literature.  It has a cast of supporting characters and settings – all examples of Zamonian flora and fauna – that will fascinate and enchant you.  And when you finish, we promise you’ll want to get the rest of the series:  Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures; The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Blue Bear, and The City of Dreaming Books.  You can pass them on to your friends or just wait for them to discover the books themselves.  “Oh… Moers?  Sweetie, I was reading him back in 2009. The movie just isn’t as good…”

Suggestions:  The Zamonia novels are perfect to share with the little people in your life.  Whether as a bedtime story that won’t put you to sleep,  or just to give you something to talk about on the car trip to the grandparents (nothing like discussing Leathermice philosophy with your favorite tween) – there’s something here for everyone.    Including illustrations.

*R.I.P. IV Challenge

Finally! Back to Byatt…

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt has been a hurdle I’ve needed to jump all Summer.  I’m approximately 100 pages in and don’t know why this book is taking so long to get through.  I pick it up and put it down fairly regularly.  (The putting down part is most likely the problem).  My goal is to have it read and reviewed by the October 6th release date here in the States.  In the meantime, here is a comparison between the U.S. (top) and U.K. (bottom) covers.  Personally, I think we got gypped.

U.S. Cover
U.S. Cover
UK Cover
UK Cover

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (Redux)

Let’s start with Michael Chabon.  Being a fan of all things Sherlock Holmes, I read “The Final Solution” when it was first released. It’s a slim novella that, in my opinion, tread too much water.  You move from beginning to end at a satisfactory pace with no major plot disappointment or style road bumps to slow you down. But, it was average. Middle of the road. Bland.  I was left with the sense that both our efforts, mine and the author’s, had disappointing returns.

Note:  Chabon was also hurt by the fact that “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin came out at about the same time. Of the two, Cullin’s book reads better, creates more atmosphere and adds something to the canon. Both use the same gimmick – an unnamed detective at the end of his life who is, but never identified as, Sherlock Holmes. Cullin’s story is the more solid, more crisp, and better channels Doyle.

So, I’m not even really sure why I picked up this book.

Author aside, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” isn’t a story I’m normally drawn to. It’s a hard boiled detective novel.  It’s alternative history. It’s very, very Jewish. I’m not against any of these things – I just don’t browse those sections of the bookstore. Fortunately the book turned out to be more than the sum of its parts.  “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a book to read because you enjoy good storytelling… and I’m happy to say that the writing isn’t so shabby either.

Better than not so shabby, in fact.  Chabon writes sentences that pull you through the main plot  while cheerfully directing your attention to vignettes he’s skillfully placed off to the side. (He’s very much what I imagine a MGM movie lot tour guide to be: instructing you to please look to the left and to the right, while hurrying you ever forward to the main event). Here’s an example of that kind of moment:

The main character of the story, Meyer Landsman, and his partner Berko Shemets wander into a seedy bar/strip joint at 7AM to talk.  Inside is Hershal, a dog waiting patiently for his master, Nathan Kalushiner, to return. Nathan was a jazz clarinetist who ran off with a mobster’s wife and whose various body parts subsequently washed up on the docks (but not, we are told, his C-soprano clarinet). Hershal has been waiting in the same spot for 5 years.

Berko has been staring at the dog with increasing fixity. Abruptly, he gets up and goes over to the stage. He clomps up the three wooden steps and stands looking down at Hershel… He takes hold of the dog’s head in his massive hands and looks into the dog’s eyes. “Enough already,” he says. “He isn’t coming.”

The dog regards Berko as if sincerely interested in this bit of news. Then he lurches to his hind legs and hobbles over to the steps and tumbles carefully down them. Toenails clacking, he crosses the concrete floor to the table where Landsman sits and looks up as if for confirmation.

“That’s the straight ems, Hershel,” Landsman tells the dog. “They used dental records.”

The dog appears to consider this, then much to Landsman’s surprise, he walks over to the front door. Berko gives Landsman a look of reprimand: What did I tell you? He darts a glance towards the beaded curtain, then slides back the bolt, turns the key, and opens the door. The dog trots right out as if he has pressing business elsewhere.

Berko goes back to the table, “looking like he has just liberated a soul from the wheel of karma” and the main action resumes.

These stories within the story are the foundation on which Chabon builds a novel that is an  homage to the magical realism of South America & Marquez as much as it is to the genre literature he is such a proponent of.  They are also, in my mind, an indication of all great fantasy writing.  Because creating a world that immerses readers is all about attention to detail.   The details are what sell it.  And the pleasure of a Chabon book, a good Chabon book, is found in how skillfully he handles these details.

The plot of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is otherwise surprisingly straight forward.  There are two parallel story lines. Two years after its creation Israel fell and was wiped from the map of the Middle East. The American government gave the Jewish refugees of WW2 the use of a desolate area of Alaska – for 60 years. The 60 years is about up and everything, including the police force, is about to revert back to the Americans.

The second storyline revolves around Meyer Landsman… destined to become one of the great gumshoe detectives.  Landsman is a drunk who lives in a dive hotel that caters almost exclusively to lowlifes. His neighbor, a grandmaster chess player and smack addict is murdered in the room next door. This bothers Landsman and he becomes fixated on solving the case. As is par for the course in these kinds of stories, a lot of people seem to have a vested interest in his not doing that.  Landsman also manages to face and resolve several personal issues along the way.

Overall, “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” is an enormous and welcome surprise of a book  Chabon took the cliche detective novel and tossed it into an alternative history novel. He populated it with people who are the neighbors you want to have in the world you almost wish you lived in. Every last eccentric character is completely exotic; but is at the same time fleshed out to the point of being completely believable in their every description, word and action.  And in a time when the word literature has become synonymous with angst and depression, Chabon’s book is happy and laugh out loud funny. And did I mention? – the writing isn’t so shabby, either.