Book Reviews In the Wild

20170415_174812-e1492299406699.jpgSo far, 2017 has been a good reading year. I’m even a few books ahead on my Goodreads Reading Challenge.

I wanted to post links to some reviews I’ve written for other sites in the past few months (in case you all missed me).

Cockroaches, written by Scholastique Mukasonga and translated by Jordan Stump, is a memoir from of a survivor of the Rwandan genocides.  What makes her account so moving is that Mukasonga was living in France when the majority of her family was massacred, and so her story is as much about surviving having your loved ones violently taken from you as it is about the years leading up to and surrounding  the horrific event.  You can read my review of Cockroaches at The Quarterly Conversation.

I wasn’t that impressed with South Korean writer Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale (translated by Janet Hong), but I have a pretty low tolerance for performative, avant garde literature.  The story which superficially is about abuse and violence in children devolves in the second half of the book into a meta-fictional hodge-podge. Such Small Hands by Spanish writer Andrés Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman) is a more powerful, and less pretentious, novel that deals with similar themes. You can read my review of The Impossible Fairy Tale at The Rumpus.

I’ve also been writing fairly regularly over at Book Riot about translations – mostly lists of book recommendations organized by themes, though there are some essays in the mix. There you’ll find recommendations of Japanese novels, French feminist writers, micropresses or – if you’re feeling political – an essay about hearing Masha Gessen give the Arthur Miller Lecture at the 2017 PEN Festival in New York which shaped my reflections on the current U.S. president’s lack of literary background and inability to articulate clear thoughts.  I’ve been writing at Book Riot for a few months now and am trying to keep my Clippings Page (see the menu above) updated with links.

Hopefully I’ll have more to share soon.

 

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Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia by Julio Cortázar (translated by David Kurnick)

Title:  Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia

Author:  Julio Cortázar

Translator:  David Kurnick

Publisher:  Semiotext(e), Los Angeles (2014)

ISBN:  978 1 58435 134 4

 

00-HS3--Julio-Cortazar-FantomasOne problem with coming to a book without any useful prior knowledge is that your risk being blindsided.  For example:  sometimes you pick up a novella (Say by  Julio Cortázar, an author with whom you’ve had enjoyable experiences in the past. An author who writes playful, Escher-esque short stories and is known for the novel Hopscotch, in which the chapters can be read straight through or mixed up in an entirely non-linear way) seduced by the way the author has used visual images as part of the narrative rather than in the supportive role of illustration only to suddenly, inexplicably, find yourself reading a political tract on the evils of global capitalism. Surprise!

Cortázar is a genius. Fantomas was a comic book hero from the 1970’s written by Gonzalo Martré and drawn by Víctor Cruz Mota.  All the comic book pages featured (and commented on by the narrator) are from the actual issue entitled Fantomas, la amenaza elegante: La inteligencia en llamas (Fantomas: The Elegant Menace and The Mind on Fire).  The premise behind Cortázar’s book is that the narrator, Cortázar, finds himself reading the Fantomas comic book while on a train ride home after attending the Second Russell Tribunal in Brussels – (we’ll get back to the Tribunal later).  As he reads he discovers that he, Alberto Moravia, Octavio Paz & Susan Sontag are all characters in the comic book.  The lines between the comic book story and the “real world” of the novella begin to blend and merge until the readers finds themselves immersed in a marriage of the two.  Books around the world are disappearing.  Libraries are being burned. Intellectuals are being alerted and expressing suitable horror.  Our hero Fantomas leaps into action (and through several windows) in order to stop the villain responsible.

But as the story progresses the intellectuals, with Cortázar and Susan Sontag at the helm, begin to question their priorities. What is the value books when compared to people? And as Sontag tells Julio, “Fantomas realizes now that he’s been tricked, and it’s not a nice thing for him to realize… Now he and many more are realizing that the destruction of the libraries was just a prologue. It’s too bad I’m no good at drawing – if I were I’d hurry up and prepare the second part of the story, the real story. It’ll be less attractive to readers without the pictures”  we all know she’s not just talking about Fantomas.  Cortázar, at least, had a sense of humor.  Because if Susan were truly being forthright she would have explained that the destruction of libraries was actually a distraction, rather than a prologue.  More appropriately: a lure.  Which brings us to the Second Russell Tribunal.

FantomasMost of the following information can helpfully be found in the Appendix of Multinational Vampires.  In January, 1975, the Second Russel Tribunal was held.  The First Russel Tribunal (perhaps better known as the International War Crimes Tribunal) originally took place in 1966 and was organized by Bertrand Russel & Jean Paul Sartre to investigate crimes against humanity committed in Vietnam by the United States of America.*  To date there have been five Russel Tribunals held with the most recent taking place in 2012 on Palestine.  The second, with which we’ll concern ourselves because it is the one on which Multinational Vampires is predicated, dealt with Latin America – instigated by Pinochet’s coup d’etat in Chile.  Ultimately, the tribunal did not limit itself to Chile.  Latin America was the CIA’s playground at the time and many of those attending the Tribunal had Communist leanings, so there was plenty of material for the delegates to work with.  The problem was and remains that the Tribunals are only symbolic.  Those involved had no power in the making of policy. Their goal and hope was that through their participation the atrocities, injustices and economic manipulation would be exposed and brought to the public’s attention.

Which is why Cortázar wrote Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires who, if you haven’t figured it out by now, are the international corporations. The novella is an interesting bit of Cold-War ephemera on the one hand and a neat bit of literary slight-of-hand on the other. My only problem with it is the transition from experimental writing to political pamphlet was so unexpected that the second half of the book became something of a blur as I tried to figure out what had just happened.  Rather like jumping on a subway train expecting to wind up in Park Slope and finding yourself on a platform in Jackson Heights, Queens.  What saves Multinational Vampires, and make it readable, is Julio Cortázar’s dry sense of humor, his clever structure and the way he has his narrator move in and out of the frames of the comic book.  And, not least of all, the realization that there is still some value in Cortázar’s message. Because unfortunately, at least in the case of multinational vampires, the world hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to believe.

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires has been longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. It’s a wonderful translation – the dialogue that propels most of the novella is delivered rapid fire and the transitions I mentioned earlier – between the “main” story, the comic book and the politics – probably weren’t the easiest to execute. Despite all that, and the fact I enjoyed it quite a bit, I’d be very surprised if Fantomas made it onto the shortlist.

 

*Cortázar attended the First Russell Tribunal, as well.

 

The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido (translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead)

The Corpse Reader (another historical whodunnit in the same vein as The Hangman’s Daughter series) is published through Amazon Crossing, Amazon’s international/translation imprint.  I bought it because it was advertised on my Kindle as the “Daily Deal”.  Not so much for the low price – though I am surprised to admit that did play a small part – but mainly because it caught my eye as being something I’d actually enjoy reading (unlike say, Wedding Cakes and Big Mistakes which is currently polluting the screen of my device.  Porn would be less embarrassing). 

The hero of The Corpse Reader is Cí , a character based on Song Cí, the real life historical figure considered to be the father of forensic science.  He lived during the Tsong Dynasty (1206).  And so like The Mistress of the Art of Death series (do you see a pattern developing here?) by Ariana Franklin we have a Sherlock Holmes figure who pre-dates Doyles Sherlock and at the same time draws on the popular historic novel genre.  What gives The Corpse Reader an edge is that the author not only spent years researching the period, he also seems to have at knack for the tone/style of Chinese authors. When I compare The Corpse Reader to my (admittedly limited) experience with reading Chinese literature there are some cultural idiosyncracies that Garrido gets right.  The extreme deference to male authority figures, uncomfortable sexual relationships, the cut-throat political machinations of the Tsong Emperors Court.  And bad luck.  Chinese protagonists experience an inordinate amount of bad luck.  If it wasnt for bad luck, as the saying goes, theyd have no luck at all.

Cí shuddered at the sight of the City of Death.  In Wang’s view, to dock there was to engage in a dangerous game of chance.  The place was infested with outlaws, fugitives, traffickers, cardsharps – all of them ready to bleed dry any foreigner.  But as the barge approached, the wharf area, swathed in mist, looked abandoned, and the crews of the hundreds of docked boats were nowhere to be seen.  Even the water lapping against the boats’ sides seemed particularly gloomy.

“Be on your guard,” whispered Wang.

They glided toward the primary dock and began to see people running between the warehouses.  Cí looked down just as a dead body, surrounded by a bloody spew, floated past.  Other bodies floated nearby.

“The plague!” cried Ze.

Wang nodded, and Third and Peach Blossom came and huddled next to Cí.  He tried to discern the shore, but the mist was too thick.

“We’ll go downstream,” Wang said.  “You,” he added, addressing Peach Blossom, “grab a pole and help.”

Instead of doing as she was told, Peach Blossom grabbed Third and made to throw her into the water.  Third struggled hard and began to cry.  The prostitute’s face had become a wicked mask.

“The money!” she shouted.  “Give me the money or I swear I’ll throw her in!”

Cí is a lightning rod for bad luck.  But like a lightning rod all his bad luck and misfortune deflects onto those around him.  After tragedy strikes his family and forces him to become of fugitive from the law Ci journeys to the capital determined to find a way to resume his studies at University.  A series of misadventures occur  Eventually our young hero finds himself, and his extraordinary powers of observation, at the service of the Emperor.  He is commanded to solve a  series of murders connected to the Court .  In a situation he cannot win, surrounded by people he dare not trust, Cis struggles to attain his dreams.  You struggle with him.  Which makes The Corpse Reader hard to put down.  

Im providing only the barest of outlines because Antonio Garrido has crafted a plot that challenges and surprises.  One that deserves to be read spoiler free.  And the translator, Thomas Bunstead, was partly responsible for one of my favorite books of 2012:  The Polish Boxer.   The Corpse Reader is an entirely different kind of book, story and setting.  Bunstead seems to view that as a chance to show his versatility, and I’ve no doubt that the tone/style I tried to describe earlier can be in part attributed to his skills as a translator.

Engaging characters, a mystery that keeps you guessing, a translated crime novel from somewhere other than Sweden  – The Corpse Reader is something different to add to your Summer Reading List.  Available for a limited time on the Kindle for $3.99.*

Publisher:  Amazon Crossing, Las Vegas (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 6121 8436 4

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*Disclaimer:  I’m not being paid by Amazon.  I just think that’s funny.

July 2012 is Spanish Language Lit Month!

Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog has designated July 2012 “Spanish Language Lit Month”.  He’s created a schedule of activities that includes at least two read-a-longs and a foreign film watch-a-long/discussion – and for some reason I have this image in my mind of an outdoor street fair with food trucks and games and music blaring… which, O.K., isn’t exactly the case.  But it still feels like a celebration!

In the spirit of the general festivities I’ll be posting something every Monday – whether it be as part of the scheduled events or a review of a new Spanish translation.  And I encourage everyone to do the same.  I’m not one who normally follows challenges (though, after some calculations I found out that I’m kicking The Insatiable BookSluts’ Global Domination Challenge’s ass!), but Spanish Lit Month is going to be pretty fabulous and I’d hate to miss the party. So grab your favorite Spanish author and find out more here.

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My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec (translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson)

Like the narrator of Sergio Chejfec’s novel My Two Worlds, I am an inveterate walker.  Never to be confused with a hiker, city walkers are an entirely separate category who delight in the organized, the man-made, the carefully choreographed.    We choose “To walk and nothing but.  Not to walk without a destination, as modern characters have been pleased to do, attentive to the novelties of chance and the terrain, but instead to distant destinations, nearly unreachable or inaccessible ones, putting maps to the test.”  While I have explored most of the major U.S. cities on foot – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, etc., my international resume is limited.  I have never been to Brazil, yet Sergio Chejfec so thoroughly captures the essential place-ness of the park through which his narrator travels that I feel I could add it (my guess is Parque Farroupilha/A Redenção in Porto Alegre?) to my Top 10 list of  best walks. Ev-er.

Because reading My Two Worlds is the literary equivalent to taking a leisurely, meandering and  companionable walk with a new friend.   He talks while you enjoy the scenery.  Quickly you learn that our anonymous narrator is male, an author and a few days away from turning fifty.  He is shy.  He is in the habit of greeting people he does not know and who do not return his greeting.  He’s also a bit paranoid.  We learn few specifics about his background such as that he has friends, but no children and is not currently in a romantic relationship.  He talks about a niece and two nephews of whom he seems vaguely fond of (or is he just fond the idea that he is fond of them?  Like some people are in love with the idea of being in love?).  He tells you that his last novel is not being reviewed well, but can only cite his own dissatisfaction with his writing and  a malicious email containing a link to a bad review as evidence of this.

This new friend is in the city attending a literary conference.  As is his habit when traveling, he has obtained a map from the hotel front desk and carefully planned his walk the night before.  He carries his writing supplies with him in a backpack.  Other than his compulsion to walk he’s not particularly quirky or strange (as far as narrator’s go he’s amazingly tame).  While his thoughts trend towards the philosophical and the introspective at no point did I detect self-pity. Just an underlying dissatisfaction.  I do not want to give the impression that My Two Worlds is depressing – it’s not at all!  Probably due to the narrator’s dry sense of humor – which pops up frequently and unexpectedly.   And also because the narrator/companion/stranger is easy to like. He’s oddly endearing.  Someone I find myself wanting to spend more time with  than the 103 page book allows for.

As the author moves us from one section of the park to another we listen to the narrator’s opinions of himself and his surroundings.  It’s a fine park – the star of the novel.  It has an aviary, a fountain, a labyrinth, a lake filled with aquatic life (fish, turtles, frogs), paddle boats for rent and a little cafe with a lovely view.  The writing shines in the descriptions of these landscapes.  Somehow Chejfec has struck just the right note: providing enough detail to place his reader on the path beside his narrator, but avoids becoming bogged down by minutia.  He beautifully recreates the sense of discovery that occurs while wandering through a well designed park – the wonder of turning a corner and stepping in front of a carefully planned perspective.  The narrator is constantly projecting his emotional state onto these environments.  (As we all do to a greater or lesser extent).   Chejfec uses this interaction between man and terrain to explore how the interior and exterior worlds reflect each other.  The narrator seems to feel he must be, or is, constantly choosing between them.  What he does not realize is that they are one in the same.

As had happened several times earlier on this outing, before long I spotted a light area toward the end of the path; and when I drew closer, some ten minutes later, I glimpsed a tableau that at first disturbed me, I don’t know why:  over there a good-sized, tranquil lake lay hidden, and from where I was approaching I could make out some unexpected, gigantic swans, stock-still and arrayed as if in regimental formation.  As I drew nearer to the water and the scene grew better lit, I felt a mixture of wariness and wonder.  Wariness owing to something quite primal, for which I realized I wasn’t prepared:  simply the size of those pedal boats in the shape of swans, which one associated more with some monstrous scale than with any idea of a replica or an amusement; and wonder because of the illusion of standing before an inanimate army, but one that seemed subject to a latent vitality, ready to awaken or be activated at any moment.

Whether you approach it at a symbolic level, or go with a more superficial interpretation, My Two Worlds is a deeply satisfying read.  It is easily my favorite novel of 2011.  Wonderful, charming and intelligent – I believe Sergio Chejfec is a master.  What I love most about this book is probably what many reviewers have found frustrating: how atypical it is of the majority of what is published by the larger houses.  It is less a story than it is an experience.  Because of that, and the high quality of the writing, I am impatient for more of this author’s work to be translated into English. (Note:  I vaguely remember hearing at BEA that Open Letter Books, the publisher of the English translation of My Two Worlds, is planning to release a second book by Sergio Chejfec.  I still need to confirm that information).

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 28 3