Reading Assignments for the 2013 Brooklyn Book Festival

Fall is here… more or less.  The weather is still closer to 80 than 70 degrees.  And the view from my window looks nothing like the cover of the L.L. Bean catalog that just arrived in the mail (a couple sitting on the tailgate of an old pick-up truck, a lake surrounded by pines, fall leaves covering the grass).  But it is September and in a few short weeks it will be one of my favorite days of the year.  The Brooklyn Book Festival is being held on Sunday, September 22nd.

I’ve already put together my spreadsheet (yes, I put together a spreadsheet) of the panels I’ll be attending.  I’m a sucker for panels.  I always overbook myself, forget to eat and leave way too little time to tour the tables set up in Brooklyn Borough Plaza.  This year’s line-up looks especially distracting with a number of translated authors in attendance.

There are at least three books I hope to read before the Festival day arrives.

The Assignment: The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The Sound of Things FallingMy Reason:  There’s been a ton of buzz around this novel.

The Panel:  Personal Stories, National Memory: Fiction can be as narrow or contained as a single consciousness, or open up and embody something intrinsic to an era or nation. Alexander Maksik (A Marker to Measure Drift), probes the shattered inner world of a Liberian war refugee; Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez (The Sound of Things Falling) captures the dread and violence of his country’s drug war years, and Oonya Kempadoo (All Decent Animals) offers a polyrhythmic, panoramic view across contemporary Trinidadian society. Moderated by Anderson Tepper. Special thanks to the Colombian Film Festival New York.  (Borough Hall Community Room, 209 Joralemon Street)

The Assignment:  HotHouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar Straus & Giroux by Boris Kachka

HothouseThe Reason:  History about books, where can you go wrong?  Plus, I always like to attend at least one “industry” panel.

The Panel:  Publish and Perish? E-books are killing publishing! The corporations are killing publishing! Self-publishing is killing publishing! While headlines continually bemoan the end of the literary world as we know it, others argue that the reports of publishing’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  Janet Groth (The Receptionist) and Boris Kachka (Hothouse) take a look inside two of our most storied institutions—The New Yorker and Farrar, Straus and Giroux—and consider the past while taking the pulse of the literary world today. (Brooklyn Historical Society Library, 128 Pierrepont Street, 3PM)

The Assignment:  The Corpse Washer By Sinan Antoon

The Reason:  This was a coin flip – between The Corpse Washer and Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s Where the Tigers Are At Home (Roblès sits on a 4PM panel called Lost and Found: The Journey Begins At Home).  I’ve been reading a lot of French novels lately and decided on something different.

The Panel:  What Fills the Void After War? Three acclaimed writers from countries that have known conflict and political unrest discuss war’s aftermath and how it informs their work. With Irish writer Colum McCann (TransAtlantic), Sri Lankan writer Ru Freeman (On Sal Mal Lane) and Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon (The Corpse Washer). Moderated by Rob Spillman (Tin House)  (Borough Hall Community Room, 209 Joralemon Street, 5PM)

If you’ll be in Brooklyn on the 22nd here’s the link to the 2013 Brooklyn Book Festival events schedule.  You know, so you can make your own spreadsheet!

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The Critic’s Global Voice… & Thoughts On A New Conversation Between Book Bloggers and Book Critics

https://i2.wp.com/www.pen.org/sites/default/files/PEN.banner.300x300.v2.jpgI was only able to attend one panel at this year’s PEN World Voices Literary Festival and so, based on how much I enjoyed last year’s panel on Reviewing Translations, I chose The Critic’s Global Voice.  The description and the list of panelists (Jean-Euphèle Milcé from Haiti, Ursula Krechel from Germany, Mikhail Shishkin from Russia) both seemed promising. The panel was moderated by an editor at BookForum.

The style, attitude, and role of book criticism differs from country to country. This panel will explore how reviewers and book reviews shape-shift across borders, even as each country’s literary culture forms its own responses to political, technological, and aesthetic changes.

My expectation was that the discussion would touch on topics such as:  book reviews and criticism in a global society; the influence of the internet and digital publishing on how books are reviewed and where; and the cultural differences in literary criticism traditions between countries.  Perhaps this was a little ambitious, but based on that description above I didn’t think so.

What happened instead was a series of pointed questions that appeared designed to prompt the panelists to expound on the importance of book critics to literature as a whole and to legitimize the book review as a literary form in its own right.  No one seemed to have explained this agenda to the panelists and for the most part they refused to play.  Not entirely surprising – the relationship between critics and authors is always a bit dodgy.  It’s the rare artist, or person for that matter, who embraces criticism; particularly negative.  If that was the conversation the moderator wanted to have it might have made sense to include an actual critic or two on the panel.

The impression I was left with was that literary criticism is of nominal importance in Europe.  But I know that’s not the case… so I’m not sure what the audience was supposed to take-away.   There were a few moments when the conversation could have taken a more informative turn.  Particularly a comment made by the Haitian author Jean-Euphèle Milcé (whose book I bought immediately after the panel) regarding how Haitian authors are not critiqued as simply Haitian authors, but have their works held up against the entire French literary tradition.  And when asked about the state of book criticism in Russia, Mikhail Shishkin engaged in an elegant metaphor (which my paraphrasing will not do justice to) – that a literary Cold War was still happening in Russia.  That his book sits between two sets of barricades.  Behind the barricade to the right are the Nationalists, who will not like his book. To the left are the more liberal reviewers, those who see Russia as a part of a larger, European community and who will write positively about his book.  Shishkin told us that he does not need to read his reviews in Russia because he knows without exception behind which barricade each critic stands.  Whereas with non-Russian critics he never knows what they will say in advance.

Both these points could have been expanded into a larger discussion on the difference between how a book is perceived in and outside of an author’s home country.  Different cultural contexts must be applied – and are these contexts necessarily fair, or even useful?  And (to throw in a curveball) is this why so many authors seem to be living as expatriates these days?  in part to escape cultural categorization?  But that didn’t happen.

I also found it frustrating that very little attention (with the exception of an audience question at the end) was given to the changing landscape of book criticism.  Specifically digital publishing and the internet.  Ebooks make it easier for small publishers to launch.  Readers from around the world can communicated in the comments sections of reviews, articles and blogs regardless of where they are physically located.  On Twitter and the various blogs I follow,  I learn about books and authors that may not have even found a U.S. publisher yet.  Book bloggers – like other kinds of bloggers – cross international borders and form global communities all the time.

This frustration is not a new one.  I felt it with last year’s panel on Reviewing Translations.  In my experience the professional book critic establishment tends to lump bloggers with Amazon reviewers, and so whenever there is a conversation on “serious” reviewing they (often quite literally) ignore us.  In turn, bloggers dismiss the establishment as “gate-keepers”, literary elitists or as Luddites unable (or just unwilling) to come to terms with the new age in which we all live.

Neither point of view is particularly productive.

I see comments from younger bloggers on Twitter sometimes about how only their older relatives recommend things they’ve read in the NY Times… which always makes me laugh.  Inevitably we all become that older relative.  I had no interest in current events, politics or world events when I was young.  (I did always read the lit reviews – The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and the infrequent Village Voice Literary Supplement).  But there does come a time when you realize you not only don’t know everything, you never will.  And you feel the need for a dialogue that encompasses more than an exchange between friends, because you’ve been having those exchanges for so long with those same friends that it’s necessary to either insert some fresh content or stop having them.  There is still a place for the “old guard” in today’s world – if only to acknowledge the fact that we all eventually join that old guard whether we want to or not.

There is still a place for traditional book criticism and reviews.  The literary community would be the lesser if outlets like The NYRB, BookForum and the Times Literary Supplement vanished completely.

I also see comments by bloggers that the conversation about Book Blogger vs. Book Critics is 10-years old and no longer relevant.  True.  The conversation that has happened within the separate camps has become irrelevant in light of  the current state of affairs.  Bloggers have carved out a niche for themselves, separate but very similar to the niche inhabited by book critics.  The print outlets that were once the critic’s domain have declined in numbers and popularity.  But the rise in digital and self publishing, and the histrionic (and sometimes ridiculous) hand-wringing over the decline of book sales and literature in general effects us all.  What has been lost in all this noise (and, frankly, insecurity) is that we are –  book critics and bloggers – on the same team.

I believe it was the same audience member who asked the question I referred to earlier, on digital publishing and the changing literary climate, who also made an important observation regarding the massive volume of literature that is now available and the need to help readers sort through it all.   It would be too easy to look at that question and dismiss it as elitist or, even worse,  a call for a gate-keeper.  I see it differently.  I never try to tell my readers what they shouldn’t read.  I’m not even, necessarily, telling them what they should read.  I seldom care all that much about what other people read, period.  What I am trying to do is introduce readers to books – books they may not hear about otherwise – and then explain why I find these books interesting (or not).  And, by inference, what I think they will find interesting in them (or not).  These are books – often by small publishers and in my case almost always in translation – that are often lost in the literary deluge that is currently upon us.

Don’t book critics have the same goal – to help readers discover specific books and (hopefully) appreciate them?  Perhaps the conversation between bloggers and critics should start there.

Towards the end of the panel Ursula Krechel used the terms “democratization” of reviewing and the “professional reader” – which seemed to have a negative implication.   Because book blogs – or even online book review outlets like The Millions, The Huffington Post, BookSlut – were never specifically mentioned I had to wonder who she was referring to.   Every blogger I know cares about the quality and content of their reviews.  Many spend hours, if not days, obsessing and tweaking their posts.  We love reading about books, but we also love writing about them. Perhaps we judge them by a slightly different criteria than the traditional literary critic, but we do employ standards.  Bloggers build individual followings, something most book critics don’t have.  I follow several bloggers, but very seldom do I (an acknowledged book review addict) look for specific reviewers when I open a paper or click on a review online.  I bet those traditional critics (and the outlets that employ them) would love to change that.

As for what book critics have to teach bloggers – they do have a  couple hundred years tradition on their side.   If the literary criticism world must continue to change – and, I’m sorry, it must – what form do they want to see that change take in the future?  If there is a literary standard they feel bloggers are not meeting – open a dialogue that is not dismissive or condescending.  Why not partner up with or mentor specific bloggers with the same vision (I have heard of this happening, but infrequently).  Or even invite bloggers and book critics to sit on the same panel.  At this point, it’s a zero-sum game we’re all playing here.  We can just as quickly turn that into a positive as a negative.

(Speaking of a global community – I know you’re out there – the Comments are open!)

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Stories From After the Apocalypse

“Every day, a little boy or a little girl swallows a noodle called Auguste Diodon,” the woolly crab explained to me.  “It isn’t natural, and it makes me terribly ill at ease.”

“Me too,” I said.

“We have to save Auguste Diodon,” said the wooly crab.

“Let’s go,” I said.  “How do we do it?”

– from In the Time of the Blue Ball

Antoine Volodine is an enigmatic French author… at least for those of us who can’t read French.  I’m sure for those fortunate enough to understand la langue française he’s an open book, having written a prodigious amount of prose in that language under several pseudonyms (which include Lutz Bassmann, Elli Kroneauer and Manuela Draeger).  In addition to writing fiction, Volodine (which is another pseudonym – this author’s true identity remains a secret) also translates Russian texts into English (though some seem to believe the Russian authors he translates are pseudonyms, as well).  He is the creator of a literary movement that called “post-exoticism”, of which he seems to be the sole member.   As best I can tell, post-exoticism is a kind of world-building – immersing the reader in a future, dystopian world; whose inhabitants speak a language that is almost but not quite recognizable as French; and where the borders and nationalities with which we are familiar no longer exist.  Put succinctly – Antoine Volodine writes very complicated and very literary science fiction.

The keystone, Rosetta Stone if you will, of his body of work seems to be the novel Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven – sadly still waiting to be translated into English.  From it readers learn that Volodine’s cache of imaginary authors are also exist as characters in his books.  The conceit being that they are all prisoners in the post-apocolyptic future where their stories are set.  For example:  Manuela Draeger, who writes young adult novels and is the author of In the Time of the Blue Ball, is “a librarian in a post-apocalyptic prison camp who invents stories to tell children in the camp.  This background is not indicated on the French editions of Draeger’s books, which are enjoyed by young people and older people alike;”*.

The three stories by Manuela Draeger collected In the Time of the Blue Ball  (translated by Brian Evenson) and published by Dorothy, A Publishing Project are unlike anything I’ve ever read.  The hero of these gorgeously surreal fairy tales, the boy named Bobby Potemkine, is a kind of detective.  He has a dog named Djinn who plays the nanoctiluphe in a band of flies.  Their friend, a giant wooly crab, is named Big Katz.  When Big Katz comes to visit he brings the ocean with him.  Bobby is in love with a bat named Lili Niagara (quick aside: all females in these stories share the surname Lili).  The adventures of this group of friends are oddly whimsical.  At the same time the feel gritty.  Draeger somehow infuses a dark beauty – a post-exoticism version of magical realism – into the grey and miserable landscape that (I assume) runs throughout all of the post-exoticism novels.

This landscape is definitely a part of We Monks & Soldiers by Lutz Bassman (translated by Jordan Stump).  Bassman works to engage all his reader’s senses from page one.  The book opens with the words

{Constant drumming. Silence during the text.}

These two sentences act as a trigger, preparing the reader to step into an environment that is fundamentally different.  Divided into 7 parts, really 7 short stories, We Monks & Soldiers features a series of protagonists who are part of an underground movement called the Organization.  (By the way, I use  the term “underground” loosely – because in the world Bassman writes about society has disintegrated to such a degree that only the last, frayed vestiges of an establishment seem to remain).  There is a curious mixture of mysticism and the ashes of the 20th century present in these stories.  Humanity is on the verge of extinction.  What will replace it is still uncertain.  This future seems possible, in a hyper-realistic way.

And then he takes the reader into the realm of the fantastic by introducing a man into the story who is mutating/evolving into a birdlike creature.  Just as suddenly, Bassman pulls this put-upon and confused reader back to “reality” again, implying that the former was only a story and what you are now reading is fact.  So it goes.  A constant back and forth, leaving the reader to try determine what is happening.   Specifically, what has happened to us in this future that Volodine, Bassman & Draeger are predicting.

Exercises in Post-Exoticism are obscure and confusing and come together through trial and error… exactly as you’d expect history to be after an apocalypse.

I believe, though again I can’t be sure, that the stories in We Monks & Soldiers all explore different episodes in the history of the Organization. They don’t follow a linear timeline.  Instead, Bassman presents several alternate versions of the inherent possibilities – past and present – contained in the narrative microcosm he has written.  And so Crisis at the Tong Fong Hotel can be story no.2 and (in another, less fanciful form) story no. 6.  Story no. 3 The Dive is both the prequel and entirely different in its style from story no. 4 A Backup Proletarian Universe (set in the “past” and revealing, I believe, the early stages of the Organization’s moral decline)Story no. 5 Forgetting provides hints as to the significance of Mariya Schwan to the Organization in general and specifically to the protagonist of story no. 1 An Exorcism by the Sea.  Supernatural elements abound in some of these stories – and then they disappear in others.  It all feels very fragmented until, with time, the collection begins to develop its own messy logic.

Just as the stories in We Monks & Soldiers explore the history of the Organization, and In the Time of the Blue Ball collects the fables of the post-exoticism world, it makes sense that other post-exoticism books continue to flesh out and expand upon Volodine & Co. ‘s themes.   Below is a list of those books which I know have been translated into English.  If you know of any others, or have more information on upcoming titles, please share in the comments section!

  • We Monks & Soldiers by Lutz Bassman, translated by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska Press)
  • In the Time of the Blue Ball by Manuela Draeger, translated by Brian Evenson (Dorothy, a publishing project)
  • Minor Angels by Antoine Volodine, translated by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska Press)
  • Naming the Jungle by Antoine Volodine, translator unknown (New Press International Fiction Series)

*Taken from the Publisher’s Note in In the Time of the Blue Ball.  Even on the internet it’s difficult to find information about Volodine, so I have to credit J.T. Mahany’s review of We Monks & Soldiers over on Three Percent; as well as thank Chad Post – who first brought post-exoticism to my attention on the Three Percent podcast.

In the Time of the Blue Ball
Publisher:  Dorothy, a publishing project (2011)
ISBN:  978 0 9844693 3 8

We Monks & Soldiers
Publisher:  University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 8032 3991 3

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Must You Go, My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser (audiobook)

Must You GoIf there’s one thing you walk away with after reading Antonia Fraser’s memoir Must You Go, My Life with Harold Pinter, it’s that she and her second husband Harold Pinter were deeply in love.  Reading a memoir that doesn’t focus exclusively on tribulations its author has overcome is refreshing.  Remarkable, even.  Fraser has chosen to share what appears to be the happiest period of her life.  And in the process proves Tolstoy wrong.

At a party in 1975 Antonia Fraser was involved in a conversation that included the playwright Harold Pinter.  She was taking her leave when Pinter turned to her and asked “Must you go?”.  And there it began.  Both parties were married – Antonia with six children.  The affair continued until 1977, when she divorced her first husband in the amicable manner that seemed to be the defining characteristic of their marriage.  Pinter’s separation from his wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, was less amicable.  The British tabloids had a field day and Merchant refused to sign the divorce papers until 1980.  Fraser and Pinter married that same year and lived happily together until his death of cancer in 2008.

This 35 year period is told to us through excerpts of Fraser’s journals with some narrative explanation.  She appears to be a rabid diarist – never missing a day.  Which is funny when you consider that she’s a biographer by profession, accustomed to perusing her subjects’ diaries, letters and papers in the course of her research.  The entries that make up the book are not so much stream-of-conscious ramblings or emotional outpourings as they are concise cataloging of the day’s most interesting events.   Fortunately Pinter and Fraser lived interesting lives and knew interesting people – so most of their days together are worth re-visiting.  The name dropping that takes place on these pages is almost shameful!  Jackie-O, Salman Rushdie, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth… the list of literati seems never-ending.  But her commentary is never salacious.  These were the circles the couple traveled in, and as you read you get the sense that Dame Fraser would never commit the impolitesse of gossiping about friends.

I really enjoyed Must You Go, as I have every book I’ve ever read by Antonia Fraser.  It may not be for everyone, though.  One Goodreads reviewer negatively compared Must You Go to “reading a daytimer”, and to be fair the description isn’t far off.  It is this gift of brevity – Antonia Fraser’s ability to capture a moment in a deftly executed prose sketch – that makes her memoir so charming.  Little jokes, witty descriptions, notes left on the pages by Pinter (which she welcomed) – it is the description of a full life encapsulated in a few lines a day.  Fraser had the sense not to overwork the prose, or expand too much on the things her audience already knew. At times her admiration of Pinter seems almost worshipful, but the book was published 2 years after his death.  Her loss is fresh.  She obviously misses him.  Equally obvious is her happiness in remembering.

Is it a complete picture?  Probably not.  But Must You Go is a glimpse into their private world.  Fraser has every right to choose what she shares.

The audio version, which is what I listened to, is narrated by the incomparable Sandra Duncan.  Her inflections are flawless.  The 11 hours and 14 minutes moved by quickly, the only off note being the choice made to have the poetry by Harold Pinter which is referenced throughout voiced by a man.  Whether it would have flowed so well or been so entertaining to read in book form, I’m not sure.  I tend to think it would be.  Yet there was something delightfully intimate about hearing it read (it’s written in the first person) as if Fraser was relating the stories over tea.  In fact, I intend to avoid interviews given by the real Antonia Fraser.  If her true voice differs too much from Duncan’s I’ll be devastated.

AudioBook Publisher:  Whole Story AudioBooks, Leicestershire (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 409 11523 6 or through Audibles.com

Print Book Publisher:  Nan A. Talese, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 385 53250 1

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Four Questions For Victoria Cribb

Victoria Cribb is a translator, one of the few who specializes in Icelandic literature.  She’s translated the novels of Sjón, Arnaldur Indriðason, Gyrðir Elíasson into English – receiving praise from the likes of A.S. Byatt.  Victoria was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions regarding her work on From the Mouth of the Whale (which was shortlisted for this years Independent Foreign Fiction Prize).

BSR:  Victoria, first, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions.  I read in an interview Sjón gave to Fabulous Iceland that the main character of From the Mouth of the Whale was an actual man – Jón the Learned – who lived in the 17th century . Yet, it seems to me that Jón is a foundation onto which the author has layered a multitude of ideas and elements: Icelandic mythology, Jonah and the whale, alchemy, even a little Paradise Lost. There’s so much going on… did the density of ideas and influences make it a particularly challenging novel to translate?

VC:  It certainly did, and invariably there will be many influences that I have failed to pick up. But, for me, part of the pleasure of translating Sjón’s work has always been immersing myself in his sources, learning about the background to his texts and marvelling at what he has done with them. In this case, I was already familiar with seventeenth-century Icelandic literature and the medieval works referred to. And any English speaker brought up on Shakespeare has some sense of the early modern world. When I read the book for the first time, I kept thinking of the furiously polemical 1590s author Thomas Nashe and turned to him for stylistic inspiration, only to discover that Sjón does in fact quote Nashe at one point in the story. And of course Google is an invaluable resource for tracking down the more obscure references – bezoar, boramez and so on, often redirecting one to online editions of original works. When my own research fails, I can always go to the fount of all wisdom and ask Sjón himself for help, but that is cheating and part of the fun is trying to find out the answers for myself.

BSR:  I’ve been told Sjón speaks excellent English.  Does that put any additional pressure on you as his translator?  What do you feel your collaboration brings to the table?

VC:  Far from regarding it as an additional pressure, I find it a huge advantage that Sjón’s English is so good – unusually good, even by Icelandic standards. Most Icelandic authors are sufficiently competent in English to review and criticise translations of their work, so I have come to rely on a certain degree of collaboration. Since this is the fifth book I have translated for Sjón, he trusted me to do my best rather than reading over every word of the manuscript, though I think he also felt it would make him anxious if he found too many mistakes. I sent him lists of queries, as usual, sometimes providing him with alternatives so that he could choose the one that best reflected his meaning, and we discussed various possible translations of problematic words and phrases, so I can’t always remember whose suggestion was adopted in the end. I’m strictly a prose translator, so I tend to go wailing to him with the verses, especially if they require rhyme. In previous books, Sjón has polished my feeble efforts or even translated the verse himself; in this case, my partner came to my aid as Sjón was busy!

BSR:  Speaking of verses, some of my readers may not know that Sjón is also a poet.  Did you read or translate any of his poetry in preparation for translating From the Mouth of the Whale? Do you see similarities between his poetry and prose fiction?

VC:  I have to claim ignorance here. Back when I was a student I read some of Sjón’s poetry from his earlier surrealist days but I have mainly been engaged in translating his prose. As mentioned above, we’ve now collaborated on five novels, all of them historical works, their settings ranging from the ancient world to the recent past. The surrealist vein is still palpably present in these novels, however, for example in Jónas’ meditations in part IV of From the Mouth of the Whale, which I think brilliantly evoke a seventeenth-century mind grappling with ideas about the connectedness of all things, which anticipate modern scientific discoveries.

BSR:  Finally, for readers who love From the Mouth of the Whale and want to further explore Icelandic fiction, are there any authors you personally enjoy and can recommend?

VC:  There are so many Icelandic authors who deserve a larger audience, but I would feel awkward having to single out any one writer from among those I know and translate. To be safe, I’ll opt for one who’s no longer with us – Halldór Laxness, an obvious choice as he’s the country’s Nobel laureate. Readers who enjoyed From the Mouth of the Whale might appreciate The Bell of Iceland, translated by Phil Roughton. I am shamefully out of date when it comes to the current Icelandic literary scene, having spent the last few years immersed in medieval sagas for my PhD. From what I hear, though, there are a number of exciting young authors emerging, and Amazon’s publishing arm is planning to bring out a long list of Icelandic titles, both old and new, in the near future. Given the presence of Icelandic books on the lists of several established publishers in the UK and US, there should be plenty of opportunities for English-speaking readers to become better acquainted with the country’s extraordinarily vibrant literary culture.

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