Two Reviews: Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi and A Greater Music by Bae Suah

I am very pleased to announce that I have two reviews in the November/December issue of World Literature Today.  This literary magazine, which has been in continuous print for 90 years, is dedicated to bringing a wide range of literature in translation to the English speaking world.  Each issue contains fiction, poetry, essays and book reviews from writers around the world.  The magazine is available in both print and digital subscriptions.  I feel very honored to have reviewed two excellent books for this issue which is dedicated to women writers.

My first review is Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi.  This title was published in the original French in 2006.  This English edition has been translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman and published by Deep Vellum.

Click this link to read my review:



My second review is A Greater Music by Bae Suah.  This title was published in the original Korean in 2003.  This English edition has been translated by Deborah Smith and published by Open Letter Books.

Click this link to read my review:


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Filed under France, Literature in Translation

Review: Trysting by Emmanuelle Pagano

I received a review copy of this title from Two Lines Press. This book is also being published in the U.K. by And Other Stories. The book was written and published in the original French in 2013 and this English version has been translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis.

My Review:
trystingTrysting is one of those rare books that defy description it in any sort of a review.  At its core, Pagano’s book presents us with a series of writings in various lengths that deal with the human experience of love.   Her musings in this book range from short, one line epigrams to longer two page narratives that read like flash fiction.  Pagano attempts to capture all of the stages that being in love and having a lover encompass—meeting someone special for the first time, spending time together, learning the habits of another person, breaking up, getting over a lover.  She intersperses within these events things that lovers leave behind like feathers, rubber bands, a bicycle.  Some of the vignettes are shocking, some are tender and sweet.  But at their core, they all try to delineate the mysterious and illusive sensation of love.  Senses—touch, site, smell, sound, taste are all described within the context of love.

The shorter pieces, which are only a line or two, read like epigrams and feel as though Pagano is trying to capture a moment in time between lovers.  They read like a caption on a photograph:

“He sprays a mist of water onto his newspaper to stop the pages rustling as he reads next to me while I sleep.”

“His breathing, even during the day, even when he’s busy doing something, is like that of a person asleep.  Regular and calm.  I like this peace.”

“No one sees what I see when I look at her.”

“He has a serene way of being in silent moments.  I was never afraid of having nothing to say to him.”

The longer pieces, which range from two to three pages in length, read like flash fiction stories and provide a frame for which the reader can fill in the rest of the picture.  In one story, for instance, a couple moves from apartment to apartment, like vagabonds constantly on the move living in different places.  The couple pretends to be interested in renting an apartment and gets the key from the estate agent and spends as much time as they can get away with at each rental: “The estate agents never notice a thing, nor do the landlords.  We make love in their apartments, we sleep in them, we live our shared life in them and it’s as good a life as any.  We change location, move to a different town, everyday.”

In another story, a musician who plays the saxophone is always annoying his upstairs neighbor even though he uses a mute for his instrument.  She leaves him terse little notes and knocks on his door whenever he is practicing.  The only noise he ever hears from her apartment is the dull sound of her squeaking bed when her boyfriend stays over:  “They always screw to the same rhythm, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s definitely screwing, not making love, because it’s always the same dogged, dreary, binary rhythm.”  The musician wants to invite the woman to his apartment and get to know her and introduce her to a whole new world of rhythm: “I’ll tell her to let herself go, be carried by my breath, by my sax, my mouth, my lips, my melody.”

One final aspect I want to mention that is integral to the writings in this collection is their sensual nature.  Pagano manages to represent all the senses and put them in the context of lovers:

Touch: “It was very cold.  I hadn’t put gloves on.  I defrosted my fingers between my thighs before letting them touch her.”

Sound: “I met him when I called a wrong number.  His voice was so lovely, saying I must have made a mistake, that I couldn’t bring myself to hang up.”

Smell: “I used to sniff her all the time.  Odours are always stronger when they’re damp.  Perfumers dampen thin strips of paper to sample their scents.  Dampening an area, an object, or a body helps us to smell it and get to know it fully.  I moistened her all over with saliva to get to know her off by heart.”

Hearing: “The things I miss most are the sounds, the sounds of our love, the noises of lovemaking and sleeping together, the noises of waking up.”

Sight:  “We are getting old.  I like the signs of ageing on him, the wrinkles and folds, the emergence of moles and liver spots.  I wonder if these marks appear all of a sudden or little by little.  I look out for signs of these blossomings.  Tine is pollinating his skin with flowers, with speckles with stars.”

This book is a truly unique literary experience that can be read like a collection of poetry, slowly, a little bit at a time when one has quiet and the mood strikes.

About the Author:
paganoEmmanuelle Pagano has published over a dozen works of fiction, which have been translated into German, Hungarian, Italian and Spanish. She has won the EU Prize for Literature among other prizes and lives in the Ardèche region with her family.


Filed under France

Review: 33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara

My Review:
33-revolutionsI first became interested in the tumultuous history of the small island of Cuba when I took a Caribbean politics course in college.  It fascinated me that an island which is so geographically close to the United States could be so very different in its political system.  33 Revolutions captures life under the Castro regime from the point-of-view of an ordinary citizen who has become disillusioned from promises of change and is trying to scratch out a bare existence.

This book is more of an ode to a an island that has been betrayed by promises of revolution than a novella.  In order to capture the atmosphere is his life the author’s constant refrain throughout the writing is “like a scratched record.”  His monotonous job is like a scratched record;  the small and nondescript apartment he lives in alone is like a scratched record;  the monotonous routine of his office where he performs minimal tasks for a government agency is like a scratched record.  Guevara’s prose is lyrical and captures the frustration of citizens like this unnamed author who feel stuck and trapped:

The whole country is a scratched record (everything repeats itself: every day is a repetition of the day before, every week, month, year; and from repetition to repetitions, the sound deteriorates until all that is left is a vague, unrecognizable recollection of the original recording—the music disappears, to be replaced by an incomprehensible, gravelly murmur.)

The narrator tells us about the beginnings of the revolution in Cuba and as a result of which upheavel his well-bred mother and his ignorant peasant of a father were able to connect:

They met—or rather, bumped into each other— at one of those huge meetings where anger and fervor fused, and further encounters in various associations and assemblies ended up giving rise to an awareness that they were equal, that they had the same dreams, were part of a project that included them and made demands on them equally.

The narrator spends the rest of the novella explaining the countless ways in which this revolution failed its people and took away any spark of fervor that they once had to make their lives better. The narrator himself is brought up fully indoctrinated into the ideals of the revolution and the regime.  He was the model citizen until one day when he started reading and a whole new world, one outside of Cuban Communism, opened up to him.

One of the most interesting and enlightening descriptions in the book is that of Cuban citizens using makeshift rafts and boats to try and escape the Communist regime.  The author comments that boats full of people used to attempt to escape under the clandestine cover of night, but now people are brazen and openly board their skiffs in public during the day.  It is an incident with a large group of young people who try to hijack a government boat in the harbor that serves as the narrator’s breaking point.  He decides he can’t take the scratching of that broken record any longer and declares, “I’m not going to suppress anybody.”  And with these simple words, he declares his own minor revolution and never looks back.

About the Author:
canek-sanchez-guevaraCanek Sanchez Guevara, grandson of Che Guevara, left Cuba for Mexico in 1996. He worked for many of Mexico’s most important newspapers as a columnist and correspondent, and he wrote a regular newspaper column called “Motorcycleless Diaries.” He was a measured and informed critic of the Castro regime. He died in January 2015 at the age of forty.

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Filed under Novella, Spanish Literature

Review: Back by Henry Green

I received a review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books.  This title was originally published in 1946 and is the first book in a series of nine by author Henry Green that NYRB is reissuing.

My Review:
backThe premise of this Green novel is deceptively simple: Charley Summer, recently released from a POW camp in Germany during World War II, is repatriated back into England.  Although Charley suffers from a severed leg for which he must wear a prosthesis, his greatest source of pain is the love that he lost while he was in that German prison camp.  Rose, a woman with whom he was having a passionate love affair, dies from an illness before Charley is sent home.  We first meet Charley when he is trying to find Rose’s grave in an English churchyard and we immediately discover that the plot is much more complicated than we were first led to believe.

Charley is shell-shocked, grief-stricken and disoriented as he tries to settle into a job in London and reconnect with old acquaintances.  He visits Rose’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Grant who are also having a hard time dealing with the death of their daughter amidst sirens and bombings.  Mrs. Grant is confused and displays signs of dementia; she doesn’t recognize Charley and thinks that he is her long-lost brother John who died in World War I.  Her confusion and trauma reflects Charley’s own disoriented state of mind.  As Charley is departing from this painful reunion, Mr. Grant gives him the address of a woman named Nance whom Mr. Grant requests that the young man look up while he is in London.

Charley works in the office of a manufacturing firm in London and when they send him a new secretary his emotions become further muddled.  Miss Pitter, a rather plain looking woman, attracts Charley’s attention as he likes to start at her arms.  Green relates to us bits and pieces of what a character is thinking only through dialogue,  which is oftentimes very sparse.  Charley in particular is a man of few words so it is difficult to understand what is really going on inside his head.  But he seems, at times, attracted to Miss Pitter and unsure of how to proceed with her.  Charley’s diffidence and lingering feelings for Rose appear to keep him from acting on a  possible relationship with Miss Pitter.  His short sentences, which are oftentimes canned answers like “There you have it,”  and his inability to stand up for himself whenever someone is taking advantage of him make Charley a character wholly worthy of sympathy.  Green is a master at writing tragic characters who are awash in their sad fates.

To complicate matters even further, Charley pays a visit to Nance who was recommended to him by Mr. Grant.  When Nance opens the door to greet Charley he faints dead away because Nance looks just like his Rose.  The ensuing confusion over the identity of Nance and Rose reads like a bit of a slapstick, “Who’s on First” type of a comedy.  Charley is addressing Nance as if she were Rose, but Nance is completely confused and doesn’t understand what he is talking about.  Charley comes to the conclusion that Rose never really died but instead changed her hair color and moved to London to become a tart.  He spends quite a bit of time thinking of a way to get her to confess that she really is Rose.  These scenes are humorous but also have an underlying hint of sadness because it further highlights Charley’s emotional confusion and turmoil.

One more interesting aspect of Green’s writing that must be mentioned is the story he includes in the middle of the narrative.  It is Rose’s widower, James who sends Charley a magazine story about the 18th century French  court in which a woman mistakes a royal guard for her lost lover.  This is what the Roman poet Catullus would call a libellus, a little book, embedded within the story of Charley.  I felt that the story was only tangentially related to Charley’s predicament;  there is the case of mistaken identity in both narratives but Charley doesn’t appear to learn any type of a lesson after he reads this libellus.  He is too involved in his own issues to gain any type of perspective and it is only very slowly and gradually through love, understanding and patience that Charley begins to untangle his confused mind.

This is a brief but very engrossing novel.  It took me the better part of a week to read and absorb all that was going on in order to write these few words about it.  Green uses the stress of World War II in order to highlight the madness and confusion into which a traumatized mind can so easily descend.  This isn’t a pretty love story but it is certainly one that is more true to real, human life.

About the Author:
h-greenHenry Green (1905–1973) was the pen name of Henry Vincent Yorke. Born near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, England, he was educated at Eton and Oxford and went on to become the managing director of his family’s engineering business, writing novels in his spare time. His first novel, Blindness (1926), was written while he was at Oxford. He married in 1929 and had one son, and during the Second World War served in the Auxiliary Fire Service. Between 1926 and 1952 he wrote nine novels, Blindness, Living, Party Going, Caught, Loving, Back, Concluding, Nothing, and Doting, and a memoir, Pack My Bag.


Filed under British Literature, Classics, New York Review of Books

Review: The Gloaming by Melanie Finn

I received a review copy of this title from Two Dollar Radio via Edelweiss.

My Review:
the-gloamingThe country of Tanzania has one of the highest rates of albinism in the world, but it is also one of the most dangerous places for albinos to live.  They are shunned by their communities because they are viewed as ghosts who dwell on earth and never die.  They also live in constant fear of violence because body parts from albinos are sought out to be used in potions made by African witch doctors.  When Pilgrim Jones, the female protagonist in Melanie Finn’s latest novel, finds herself in dusty, decrepit and remote towns of Tanzania, she encounters firsthand the superstition and violence that plagues albinos living in East Africa.

Each of the characters in this novel, which has been described as a  literary thriller,  are dealing with grief and loss in different ways.  Pilgrim, whose point of view takes up more than half of the narrative, has fled to Tanzania because of a double tragedy that she suffered while living in Switzerland.  Pilgrim’s story alternates back and forth between her time spent in Switzerland and in East Africa.  Pilgrim was married to a human rights lawyer named Tom who suddenly abandons her for another woman with whom he is having a child.    Pilgrim married Tom while very young and has put off her own career aspirations in order to follow him around the world while he prosecutes people who are guilty of the most heinous human rights violations.  Pilgrim is numb and floating around in a world  in which she doesn’t know how to live without Tom as her husband.  The only reason she was living in a small town in Switzerland was due to the fact that this was the last place to which Tom had led her.

The narrative shifts back and forth abruptly and Pilgrim suddenly finds herself in the hospital with very little memory of the tragic car accident in which she was involved.  Finn draws our attention to cruel fate and the series of coincidences which add up to a tragedy that has far-reaching and devastating effects.  Pilgrim can’t help but think that if Tom hadn’t abandoned her then she would not have been in the car that rainy, sad day.  She tries to escape the haunting memories of her failed marriage and the car accident that caused so much grief and sorrow by choosing one of the most remote places on earth to hide; she knows that in Tanzania no one will know anything about her or her past.  But what she fails to realize is that as a white, American woman, which is an anomaly in East Africa, she attracts a great deal of interest.

Finn describes Tanzania in a poetic language that brings us to the dark continent that is simultaneously beautiful and ugly.  Pilgrim rents a cottage in Tanzania that overlooks a bay.  A stout, Midwestern woman named Gloria, who has fled the U.S. in order to escape her own misery,  rents her the cottage:

We stand in the gloaming. The late evening light, soft and translucent, has made the world benign.  The house is white and round and sheltered by red-blooming tulip trees.  A hundred yards from the door, a low sandy cliff dips to the sea and a swarm of mangroves.  White egrets flock to roost.  The sun slips behind the mangroves, creating spangles and diamonds through the leaves.  The air vibrates with the wild looping song of Bulbul birds.

But the beauty of this place is tainted by albino body parts left in the box, orphans who are abandoned because they have AIDS, and pregnant women who die because there is no proper health care available.    The second part of the novel is told through the eyes of characters with whom Pilgrim has come in contact and who are fighting back against grief that, at times, feels all-consuming.  Dorothea, for instance,  is a doctor at a clinic in Magulu where basic supplies like antibiotics and bandages are scarce.  Dorothea’s husband was Kenyan and he disappeared one night over the border into his native country with their two young sons.  Magulu is as close to Kenya that she can possibly be so Dorothea takes a job at this pathetic, wretched clinic.  Her boyfriend is the town policeman who has seen people inflict the most awful atrocities on one another.  Magulu feels like a desolate place where no one really wants to go but people end up there because of an awful twist of fate.

The book ends with the point of view of Detective Inspector Paul Strebel who was the lead investigator on Pilgrim’s car accident in Switzerland.  Strebel is a sad man who is going through the motions of his life, especially where his marriage is concerned.  But when he meets Pilgrim, a lonely and vulnerable woman who has been abandoned by the rest of the world,  he experiences lust and a sexual awakening.  He knows this is unethical and wrong but he can’t help himself:

But now he felt the urge to touch this young woman, to hold her and comfort her—and he could not pretend the urge was simply protective.  He as appalled.  And in equal measure, he was stunned by the small hollow at the base of her throat, by the upturn of flesh where her upper lip bowed.  It was as if she’d suddenly come into focus; she was clear, so brilliantly, perfectly clear and distinct against the grey, oaty ass of his life. He felt a surge of happiness—of being alive.

Strebel sees people at the worst moments of their lives, when they have lost loved ones and suffered unspeakable tragedies.  He sees in Pilgrim an escape, even if only temporary, from his  “grey” and oftentimes black existence.

Melanie Finn has demonstrated in this book that she is a master of lyrical prose which at times has a staccato feel due to her penchant for short and abrupt sentences; yet each word flows, one into the next and they fit together into one beautiful and descriptive narrative.  I highly recommend The Gloaming not only as a literary thriller but also as a book which enlightens us about the contradictory nature of the beautiful content of Africa and as a story that has a timeless message about the cruel nature of fate.

About the Author:
m-finn Melanie Finn has worked as a screenwriter and a journalist, and is the founder and director of the Natron Health Project, which brings healthcare to Maasai communities in Northern Tanzania. Her first novel, Away From You, was published to great critical acclaim in 2004, and was longlisted for the ORANGE and IMPAC PRIZEs.



Filed under Literary Fiction