Category Archives: Literary Fiction

Review: Transit by Rachel Cusk

transitTransit, Cusk’s second book in what will be a trilogy of fictional autobiographies about the aftermath of her divorce, begins with an unsolicited email that Faye, the narrator, receives from a psychic.  The self-proclaimed astrologist says  that she is in possession of specific details about Faye’s life: “She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky.”  Just as in Outline, the narrator deliberately leaves details about herself out of the narrative; we only get passing glimpses of her life through her interactions with others.  A visit to the hairdresser, a trip to a literary festival, a date, and a party at a friend’s home all become the backdrop for intriguing conversations and interactions that partly reveal Faye’s own story.

At the beginning of this story, Faye has moved back to London with her boys after her divorce and has bought an apartment that is a disaster.  It requires a complete overhaul and the demolition of her apartment by the contractors becomes a metaphor for her own life.  She sends her boys away to spend a few weeks with their father while her surroundings are being dismantled.  She describes her house to a man with whom she agrees to go on a date:

I felt cold.  There were builders in my house, I added.  The doors and windows were constantly open and the heating had been turned off.  The house had become a tomb, a place of dust and chill.  It was impossible to eat or sleep or work—there wasn’t even anywhere to sit down.  Everywhere I looked I saw skeletons, the skeletons of walls and floors, so that the house felt unshielded, permeable, as though all the things those walls and floors ought normally to keep out were free to enter.

There is always the feeling in a Cusk novel that a simple description, like this one about her renovated home, has a much heavier and deeper meaning than what we encounter at first glance.  There are several passages that I found throughout the book that I underlined and were worthy of multiple reads.

One additional aspect of Transit that I found particularly intriguing were the descriptions of Faye’s children.  Similar to Outline they are never physically present with Faye in the book.  We only get descriptions of them when they call her from their father’s home.  When the boys call her they are lost, or locked out of the house, or feeling alone; they are still in need of her maternal love and I felt sad that they were separated from her, even if only for a little while.  At the end of the book Faye is at a party and the boys call her cell phone because they are fighting and cannot solve their conflict.  They ask her for help and admit that their father is nowhere to be found.  There are additional hints at the father’s anger, maltreatment of Faye and lack of involvement in the boys’ lives.  I am very interested to see if Cusk will further explore the post-divorce family dynamic in the final book of the trilogy.

Fate, identity, love, marriage and transitions are all themes that Cusk explores though the interesting conversations she writes for her characters.  Cusk’s writing is both compelling and philosophical, a combination which so few writers are successfully able to achieve.

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Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction

Review: O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno

fallen-angelAnna K. Yoder, who interviewed Kate Zambreno in 2010 about her first novel, describes O Fallen Angel: “Zambreno’s first novel reads like the bastard offspring of an orgy between John Waters’s Polyester, Elfriede Jelinek’s Lust, and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.”  Similar to these other cutting edge artists, Zambreno experiments with structure, language, and setting to present a novel that is disturbing and bizarre.

Zambreno’s triptych story is written from the point-of-view of three very different characters: Mommy, Malachi and Maggie.  The background of the book is the American Midwest, somewhere in suburbia where everyone has a white picket fence, two or three children and a respectable job.  The catholic, white, middle class, suburban family portrayed in the book appears happy and idyllic on the surface.  But just like the Francis Bacon triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, from which Zambreno takes her inspiration for the novel, the family is in reality dysfunctional, monstrous and grotesque.

When Mommy speaks, the text is child-like, simple and monotonous.  Mommy adheres to strict, Catholic rules of morality and expects the same from her children, Mikey Junior and Maggie.  Mommy’s daily life is ordered—cooking, cleaning, taking care of children and grandchildren, walking the dog.  Mikey is her favorite child because he did what was expected of him, he married a nice woman, not too pretty, who has already given him two children.  It is her daughter, Maggie, that is considered  Mommy’s Fallen Angel because she has not gotten married and had babies, but instead has run off to the big, bad city.  Maggie is the “bad egg,” the one that Mommy tries to pretend doesn’t exist anymore.  Unlike her brother, Maggie has not conformed to Mommy’s expectations of what a good, Catholic girl’s life should look like.  The guilt, emotional blackmail and suppression of feelings don’t work on Maggie like they do on her brother.

Maggie’s point-of-view is focused on her body—raw, corporeal, sexual.  She has sex with lots of men and confuses physical contact with love.  She goes to college as far away as she can to get out from under the expectations of her parents who don’t approve of her chosen major of psychology.  And when she drops out of college and takes a job as a waitress they try not to think about their “bad apple” and insist that any failure of Maggie’s is no fault of theirs.  Every time we encounter Maggie’s voice she seems to be losing more control of her life.  She sleeps with men to get things she needs, consumes a concoction of different substances and loses her job.  Maggie’s body, bloated and laden with genital warts and drugs is an outward reflection of the mess that her mind has become.

Malachi is the most bizarre voice of the three presented in the book.  Like his Biblical namesake, his appears to be a prophet of doom, a Cassandra like figure, as he wanders about the streets of the suburbs and observes middle-class people going about their daily routines. Zambreno also uses Malachi’s speech as a type of chorus to make political commentaries throughout her text. He reads one of his messages:

A great fireball will erupt from the sky

one cannot reason anymore with the President

one life for the life of
thousands

lies lies lies
airplanes

warlords
profits
false idols
prophet

Finally, an additional note on structure which reflects Zambreno’s nod to the Oresteia.  The House of Atreus from which Agamemnon is a descendant  is one of the most morally reprehensible and fucked up families in all of Greek myth; they violate almost every social taboo imaginable.  Zambreno could not have chosen a more appropriate model on which to base her dysfunctional, Midwestern family.  In the style of Ancient Greek tragedy, she inserts choruses within her text that foreshadow the themes and the disturbing outcome towards which her narrative is moving.  The book opens with this chorus:

There is a corpse in the center of this story
There is a corpse and it is ignored
No one looks at the corpse
Everyone no-looks at the corpse

There is a gaper’s block, it is blocking up traffic
It is in broad daylight, this dead body

There are other corpses that are ignored:
corpses far away in another country
enemy corpses

living corpses
walking corpses
working corpses

But when a mere mortal dies we do not see it
We look we gape but we do not see it
We do not mourn the ordinary

It is nothing like the death of a celebrity
To lose them, these constant images
is to remind ourselves that we will die
We will die, too, yet no one will care

Our deaths will not be televised
Then who will watch it?

As someone who grew up in a very conservative family and who was sent to an all girls Catholic high school, I found this book extremely difficult to read at times.  I always felt as if I were being crushed under the weight of the strict rules, guilt, and suppression of feelings that were engendered at school and at home.  I didn’t find my true identity until I was able to break free of that tradition and that religion being forced upon me.  My life, of course, did not take the same destructive path as Maggie’s does  in the book, but I can certainly understand why her life under her parent’s influence brought on such extreme behavior.

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Filed under Literary Fiction

Review: The Underground By Hamid Ismailov

My Review:
the-undergroundCaveat lector.  Let the reader beware.  This book is deeply sad and does not have a happy ending.  But for many readers a happy ending is not a necessary factor for a book to be considered successful  The narrator of Ismailov’s novel is a child nicknamed Mbobo whose mother is from Siberia and whose father is an unknown African athlete that visited Moscow, and his mother, during the Olympics in 1980.  The boy’s sad story of a tumultuous childhood fraught with domestic violence and racism is told posthumously: “My mother died when I was eight, and I died four years later.”

As a boy, Mbobo oftentimes finds himself being taken from one part of Moscow to another via the city’s subway.  Each of the title chapters in the book is a station from the Moscow underground which is appropriate for the themes of darkness and death that are woven throughout the narrative.  The chapter entitled “Kropotkinskaya Station” begins:

If I ever wanted a tomb for my dead body, I would have picked the Kropotkinskaya Station. That is my vault: elegant and airy, impractical and absurd, standing all by itself, in the middle of the road, like an arch from nowhere to nowhere. If you find yourself on Volkhonk Street and pass under this frilly gape of an arch, you should turn left, you’ll end up in my underground hell, the very station where I, the stoker-imp, am covered in soot. There fountains of flames spurt up toward the hot ceiling from the torch-like pillars, where the light of day is never seen.

Because Mbobo is black he suffers from horrible, daily episodes of racism throughout his young life.  His nickname, Pushkin–the poet’s maternal great- grandfather came to Russia from Ethiopia with Peter the Great— is even a cruel reminder that he is not like everyone else.  When he is at school he is pushed by a bully and he suffers a severe concussion.  While recovering at the hospital, which should have been a safe resting place for him, two other boys tie him up and call him awful, racist names.

The only real solace in his life is the unconditional love shown to him by his mother, whose name is Moscow. He calls her “Mommy Moscow.”  But she has her own issues with alcohol and promiscuity which also affect Mbobo’s life.  Her husband,  whom the child calls Uncle Gleb, is a struggling writer.  On the rare occasions when he does get paid he spends his earnings on vodka and then beats his wife.  Mbobo witnesses regular episodes of domestic violence and oftentimes tries to intervene to stop Uncle Gleb from killing his mother.  When she finally gets tired of his drunken beatings, Mbobo’s mother takes up with a railway police officer named Uncle Nazar.  Even though his second stepfather is kinder to his mother, he is stern and distant with the boy.

When Mbobo’s mother succumbs to her intemperate lifestyle, he is left orphaned.  He bounces between his uncles who attempt to care for him but with the loss of the unconditional love of his mother he is drowned in his feelings of utter and complete loneliness.  These tragedies happen to Mbobo with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union as the backdrop.  One of the final tragedies that the boy experiences is the renaming of his underground stations that had been one of the few constants in his short life.

The book is fused with literary allusions to the Russian greats: Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Platonov all peak through Ismailov’s text.  The greatest of greats, Tolstoy himself, makes his appearance at the end of the novel which has a conclusion similar to that of Anna Karenina.  Despite the melancholy ending, Ismailov’s talented writing about identity, race, loneliness and the collapse of a government make it a highly successful literary novel.

Ben Winston, who has founded the site Vibrant Margins which is dedicated to bringing small press books to readers through a subscription service, has agreed to give a copy of The Underground as well as Country Life by Ken Edwards to one of my readers. Both of these books, which are great literary reads,  are included in the first subscription season of Vibrant Margins.   If you would like a copy of these books then just leave me a comment and I will randomly pick one US reader.   So that my friends outside the US will also have a chance to read these books,  I will also pick one International reader to win my own copies of these books.

About the Author:
hamidismailovBorn in an ancient city in what is now Kyrgyzstan, Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbek novelist and poet who was forced to leave his home in Tashkent when his writing brought him to the attention of government officials. Under threat of arrest, he moved to London and joined the BBC World Service, where he is now Head of the Central Asian Service. In addition to journalism, Ismailov is a prolific writer of poetry and prose, and his books have been published in Uzbek, Russian, French, German, Turkish, English and other languages. His work is still banned in Uzbekistan. He is the author of many novels, including Sobranie UtonchyonnyhLe Vagabond Flamboyant, Two Lost to LifeThe RailwayHostage to Celestial TurksGoogling for SoulThe UndergroundA Poet and Bin-Laden, and The Dead Lake; poetry collections including Sad (Garden) and Pustynya (Desert); and books of visual poetry including Post Faustum and Kniga Otsutstvi. He has translated Russian and Western classics into Uzbek, and Uzbek and Persian classics into Russian and several Western languages.

 

 

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Russian Literature

Review: The Story Smuggler by Georgi Gospodinov

the-story-smugglerWhen I first read Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow I was completely captivated by his poetic language, insightful metaphors and riveting storyline.  Despite its brevity, Gospodinov’s writing in The Story Smuggler, #29 in the Cahiers Series, is as equally lyrical and absorbing as his longer novel.  He begins his narrative with a discussion of the Bulgarian word тъга which is usually translated as “sorrow, melancholy.”  But he explains that it is really a word that means much more than “sorrow” or “melancholy” because this noun also encompasses a “longing, something unrealized, a dream of what has been lost forever or of what has never been achieved.”  Finally, he adds that this feminine noun doesn’t overwhelm us immediately, but instead creeps up on us as, “her waters are placid, her poison is slow, enfeebling.”

Gospodinov uses this Bulgarian word as a starting off point from which to reflect on all of the freedoms that he and other Bulgarians weren’t allowed to experience under a totalitarian regime.  There is a melancholic beauty to Gospodinov’s language as he describes his childhood filled with repressed and hidden sorrows:

Some smuggle cigarettes, others alcohol,—or weapons.  Our contraband, being invisible, is more dangerous.  Our contraband is undetectable by scanners.  The excess baggage that we conceal is stories, our own and those of others.  I come from a place where people are accustomed to holding their peace, or to recounting their stories in secret.  A place of unarticulated тъга—vast, hidden fields of it.

Gospodinov gives numerous examples of a longing for things that are forbidden during his boyhood in Bulgaria: cakes, chocolate, trips abroad, jeans, and pop music.  Each school child, he tells us, had an “illicit secret” notebook called a lexicon which was wrapped in colorful paper and written in with a multitude of colorful pens.  All school books were wrapped in the same white color and all notebooks were written with the same blue ink, so the decorating of their lexicons was a kind of rebellion in itself.  They would also leaving drawings, quotations, or the highly coveted images cut out from Western magazines in one another’s books.

The children would have questions listed in their lexicons and secretly pass around and answer each other’s questions.  The questions might seem rather mundane or unimportant to those of us who grew up in the West but these were all topics that Bulgarian teenagers living under Communism were not able to discuss openly: What country would you like to live in?  Do you listen to rock music? What is your favorite movie/actor/actress?  Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?  These lexicons were the primary means of teenagers attempting to smuggle their own stories among one another:

The lexicon was a place of escape, a refuge, a territory of not fully conscious teenage resistance and struggle for an identity of one’s own, for a profile different from the one imposed by the system.  A small personal niche, a private chamber, a secret enclave where you could see yourself wearing jeans, illegally smuggled by some long-distance lorry-driver; where you could flip through a contraband copy of Rolling Stone; where you could be a world traveler and a happy visitor of beloved Italy, France or Japan.

There is a sense that Gospondinov spends the rest of his life traveling around the world and writing in an attempt to make up for the sorrow, the  тъга, from his early years.  In the 25 short yet description chapters of The Story Smuggler he writes about trips to Germany, Iceland and England.  And he writes about his urge to write—poetry, fiction, diary entries— from a very early age. But there is a underlying feeling that he can never really recover the simple pleasures and freedoms that were denied to him throughout his formative years.

This volume was translated from the Bulgarian by Kristina Kovacheva and Dan Gunn.  The illustrations, which are also quite intriguing, are done by the Bulgarian graphic artist Theodore Ushev.

This is the first selection I have read from the Cahiers Series and I am was so impressed with the quality of writing and art work in this slim book that I ordered six more publications from the series.  I would love to know what other Cahiers that readers have enjoyed.  I would like to make my way through the entire series if all of the volumes are all as well-written as this one.

story-smuggler

A sample illustration by Theodore Uskev from The Story Smuggler

 

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Filed under Nonfiction, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Cahier Series

Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2017

books-2017

I have the privilege every day of going to work at a place that I love and that has a long and rich tradition of education.  The Woodstock Academy, founded in 1801, is one of the oldest public schools in the United States and it has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum– “Look back at your future.” (For the philologists out there, respice is a present active imperative, a compound made up of the prefix re (back, again) and the verb spicio (to look) and futurum is the accusative, singular of the noun futurum which is formed from the future active participle of sum.)

These two simple Latin words capture the idea that one moves towards the future while also reflecting on the past.  My husband likes to say that this motto is the equivalent of moving forward on a train while sitting in a seat that is facing backward.  I thought Respice Futurum is apt for a reflection on books as well;  it seems fitting to look ahead to my reading plans for 2017 while also reflecting on the types of books I have encountered over the past year and how they will influence my reading choices moving forward.

According to my list on Goodreads I read 105 books, a total of 24, 484 pages in 2016.  A few books were left off this list such as Pascal Quignard’s Roving Shadows and The Sexual Night. The Goodreads list also doesn’t include a few volumes of poetry I’ve read and some collections of essays.  And my list does not include any of the Latin or Greek authors I’ve translated or retranslated in 2016.   This was not a bad year for me, but not my best either.   The books in translation I have read have come from the following languages:  French, German, Spanish, Estonian, Russian, Italian, Bulgarian, Korean, Malayalam, Kannada, Hungarian, Swedish, Turkish, Slovene, Icelandic, Hebrew, Norwegian, Portuguese.

In looking at this list of lit in translation, I would like to explore more books from Asia and Africa which are not well-represented on my list.  I would also love to explore more books translated from Arabic which is a huge gap in my translated fiction.  If anyone has suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

Almost all of the books I have read have been published by small presses which will continue to be my main source of reading: Seagull Books, New Vessel Press, Open Letter and Deep Vellum, Archipelago, New York Review of Books and Persephone Books. 

My first read of 2017 has been The Story Smuggler by Georgi Gospondinov.  This is #29 in the Cahier Series and the first one I’ve read from this series.  I loved it so much that I went back and bought six more titles from the series, so there will be more Cahier titles in my future.

Gospondinov’s book The Physics of Sorrow is my favorite book from the Open Letter Catalog and one of my first reads in 2017 that I just started is another title from Open Letter, Justine by Iben Mondrup. 

A book that I have already started in 2016 and will finish in 2017 is The Collected Prose of Kafka from Archipelago Press.  This is a title that I am slowly making my way through and savoring.  Archipelago has managed to collect some of Kafka’s best short pieces into one volume.

I have discovered the works of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy this year and reading his extensive backlist published in English should keep me busy for a very long time.  Next up on my list of books written by him is his title on Sleeping.

Speaking of French writers, I am eager to read Pascal Quignard’s Terrace in Rome and All the World’s Mornings in 2017.

I was lucky enough to get an advance review copy of  Russian author Sergei Lebedev’s The Year of the Comet which is being published in 2017 by New Vessel Press.  I am very excited that I will have an interview with Lebedev coming up in an issue of Numero Cinq, for which literary magazine I am also privileged to continue to do production editing, to scout and recruit translators and to write reviews.   I am also looking forward to two additional lit in translation titles from New Vessel:  Moving the Palace (from Lebanon) and Adua (from Italy.)

I am always eager to read whatever Seagull Books publishes and thanks to their wonderful catalog I have discovered some classics of Indian literature.  I am also looking forward to reading Goat Days by Benyamin which is already sitting on my bookshelf.  I also understand that Seagull is publishing more works from Tomas Espedal in English translation which I am very eager to get my hands on.  A long-term, very long-term goal of mine is to read the entire backlist from Seagull Books.  I will do my best to put a large dent in that list this year.

This year I discovered Ugly Duckling Presse and I am eager to explore their backlist of poetry as well as their essays.  I have a copy of To Grieve by Will Daddario on my shelf already.  I would like to read more essays this year, so please leave suggestions for essays in the comments!

Finally, I would like to read more classics in 2017, especially Tolstoy, Pushkin and other Russian masters.  I have a collection of Tolstoy’s short stories and a copy of The Complete Prose of Pushkin sitting on my shelf that I have yet to read.  I also look forward to the reissues of classics from NYRB who is publishing more books my Henry Green.  I am hoping to have read all six reissued Green books by the end of 2017.  And, as always, I look forward to whatever classics from British, (mostly) female authors that Persephone Books has in store.

And as far as posts on my blog are concerned, I have always shied away from writing about Latin and Greek and classics, but my reading of Logue’s War Music has inspired me to continue writing about The Iliad and to do some of my own translations and interpretations of various Latin authors.

classics-booksA sampling of some of my most cherished classics books; the Loebs are nestled snugly on the bottom shelf.

Well, I could go on and on about my reading plans for 2017 or I could just go and actually get to reading.  Happy new year to all of my fellow bibliophiles.  I hope you also get a chance to Respice Futurum.

chair-bookroomThe cozy spot where much of my reading takes place.  It is overlooked by a print of The Roving Shadows cover done by Sunandini Banerjee, Seagull Books artist.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, French Literature, German Literature, Hungarian Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Opinion Posts, Persephone Books, Seagull Books