Category Archives: Short Stories

Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas: a review of December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter

This title was published in the original German in 2010 and this English version has been translated by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

My Review:
decemberDecember comes from the Latin word decem, meaning ten because in the original Roman calendar December was the tenth month of the year.  When two new months were added to the beginning of the Julian calendar, thus pushing back December to become the twelfth month, no one bothered to change the name.  As the month which concludes the Julian and Gregorian calendar years it is naturally a month of reflection, of looking back, of becoming more aware of the passage of time.  Kluge and Richter use this last month of the year for the inspiration behind their collection of stories and photographs; there is one entry for each day of the month in December and together the writings and art work serve as a philosophical and poetic commentary about time, fate, choice and even love.

The entries or pieces of writing for each day in December are a mixture of short story, poetry and philosophy.  The dates for the entries vary widely, from 12,999 B.C. to 2009 A.D.  Kluge does tend to favor the events of December 1941 and 2009 as many of the entries are set during one of these two years.  My favorite entry is the one for December 18th, 1941 entitled, “A WRONG DECISION IN WARTIME.”  Kluge describes Marita, the wife of the surgeon Dalquen, who had come to Berlin from her provincial town to stay at the Grand Hotel Furstenberg on Potsdamer Platz.  She falls in love with First Lieutenant Berlepsch but refuses to make love to him on that night because she had not wanted to prematurely hasten their relationship by engaging in one evening of unbridled passion.  Kluge writes, “Only three weeks later she would regret her decision.  The young officer fell in the fighting in northern Russia.”  Marita is deeply upset because she did not take the chance to be with the First Lieutenant when she was presented with a choice.  When Marita is faced with the opportunity later in the war to have one night of passion she takes it, and although it is not with Berlepsch whom she truly loved, she does not regret it.  Kluge’s last quotation in this story is very striking:

For one night full of bliss

 I would give my all

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Kluge’s story about Marita and her fallen love brings up many more questions than answers.  Do we live our lives to the fullest and take advantage of every precious moment, whether there is a war or a crisis raging around us or not?  Do we take time to embrace and appreciate those whom we love?  And if we make the wrong choice is it irrevocable? Or can we find a way to learn from our mistakes and move on?

December is the month of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, so the cold and the snow and the shorter days feature  prominently in Kluge’s stories and in Richter’s photographs.  Another story that stands out is the one dated the 20th of December, 1832: “UNEXPECTED CONVERSION OF A HEATHEN.”  Dr. Wernecke has just helped a woman give birth in the village and is setting out through the snow and the woods to go back home.  Kluge writes:

At first he took the path which the villagers, either out of habit or out of superstition, had created as a kind of VILLAGE EXIT INTO DEAD NATURE, because in this hard-frozen winter such a ‘track’ led into nothingness.

As the doctor gets farther along on his snowy journey he becomes increasingly tired and bewildered.  He keeps on moving so he doesn’t freeze but he is becoming tired and disoriented.  The snow and the woods around him are closing in:

The endless expanse of snow produced a certain brightness in the night.  Wernecke could neither say ‘I don’t see anything at all’ nor ‘I see something.’ For that a clue would have been needed, a difference in the monotony of the snow-covered land.

december-2The doctor estimates that he has about four or five hours to live when suddenly he sees a faint, flickering light in the distance.  He isn’t sure if this light is a figment of his bewildered mind but he chooses to follow it anyway.  The light, which is indeed the very thing that saves him, was the lamp of the cathedral verger who at that precise moment was climbing the stairs of the cathedral to ring the nightly bells.

Dull-eyed, Dr. Wernecke nevertheless resolved to trust the light that had soon disappeared.  The light had guided his obstinate heart.  So the doctor found his way to the first houses of the town.

Because the good doctor is saved by this light, he, the “heathen” pays to have an iron lamp installed in the tower next to the bells.  Once again, Kluge poses many deep, philosophical questions with this brief story.  Why do we choose to follow certain paths and not others?  When a light appears in life do we choose to let it guide us, or do we let our obstinate heart convince us to take a less fortunate and unhappy path?  Do we choose to trust and to follow the light like Dr. Wernecke did, or do we ignore it at our own peril?

Each of the 39 photographs in the collection are a variation of trees in a forest that are covered with snow.  The photos are taken up close and give one the feeling of being closed in by the forest and the snow.  Dr. Wernecke’s description of his time in the snow-covered forest, as being able to see something and yet nothing at all, is a fitting description for Richter’s art.  In one picture there is, in the distance, a tiny image of a deer and in the very last photo in the collection a small cottage appears in a clearing through the trees.  Like Dr. Wernecke, can we make our way out of this claustrophobic woods and find that faint glimmer of light?

The second part of the book entitled, “CALENDARS ARE CONSERVATIVE” contains various discussions and meditations on calendars, time, and the passage of time.  One passage in particular caught my attention because of its reference to Latin words for time.  In “Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas’, an Islamic astrophysicist from Bangladesh and a European ambassador who is a medievalist are discussing different kinds of time by using the Latin names for them.  TEMPUS is time associated with the clock, with checking our watches, it is earthly time that we are always fighting against.  AEVUM, however, is celestial time, experienced only by the angels or other celestial beings.  In Latin it can be literally translated as “Time regarded as the medium in which events occur, indefinite continuous duration, the time series.”  It is oftentimes translated as a “span of time,” a “generation,” or an “age.”  Finally AETERNITAS is brought up by the scholars which, they argue, is the sense of time experienced only by the highest divinity.  It is translated as “infinite time,” eternity,” or “immortality.”  This tricolon crescendo of time presented by the men makes us step outside ourselves and think about time as something other than that ticking clock on the wall or that alarm that wakes us up or that watch which is constantly staring up at us from our wrists.

Seagull Books has published another extraordinary, thought-provoking, beautiful book.  This book is worth owning not only for the literature, philosophy and poetry contained within, but the beautiful prints reproduced on glossy, heavy weight paper make it a very special piece.

About the Author:
Alexander Kluge is one of the major German fiction writers of the late- twentieth century and an important social critic. As a filmmaker, he is credited with the launch of the New German Cinema movement.

About the Artist:
Gerhard Richter is one of the most respected visual artists of Germany, and his seminal works include Atlas (1964), October 18, 1977 (1988) and Eight Grey (2002).

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Filed under Art, German Literature, History, Literature in Translation, Seagull Books, Short Stories

Review: Two Lines 25 World Writing in Translation

I received a review copy of this title from the publisher, Two Lines Press.

My Review:
two-linesA few times a year I find a book that I rant and rave about and recommend to everyone I know.  I become rather obnoxious with my comments that gush with praise.  I am giving you fair warning that Two Lines 25 is one of those books.  Literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish are all contained within the pages of this 192-page volume.  I am in awe of the fact that the editors crammed so many fantastic pieces into one slim paperback (there I go gushing again.)  This is the type of book that everyone needs to experience for him or herself; but I will attempt to give an overview of some of my favorite pieces.

The volume begins with a humorous and absurdist short story written by Enrique Vila-Matas and translated by Margaret Jull Costa.  I have to mention that not only is the English translation provided in these brilliantly collected pages, but an excerpt from each text in the original language also appears on the facing page in a colorful light blue that matches the artwork on the cover.  Vila Matas’s begins his story, Sea Swell, on a jarring and depressing note:  “I had a friend once.  Indeed, at the time, I only had one friend.”  This nearly friendless narrator, who is also completely broke, visits his one friend, Andre, who is living in Paris.  The unnamed narrator is an aspiring writer and Andre graciously agrees to introduce the narrator to Marguerite Duras.  The story becomes increasingly absurd when Duras offers the narrator an attic flat to rent for practically nothing.  But the narrator almost ruins the entire encounter because of his edgy demeanor which due to the two or three (he isn’t sure exactly how many) amphetamines he has ingested.    The expectation throughout the first few paragraphs is that the narrator is an absolute emotional mess and his friend Andres will have to come to his rescue.  But after Andre drinks two bottles of wine at a dinner party hosted by Duras, it is the narrator who has to pull Andre out of the Seine.  Vila-Matas, in the span of a few pages, writes a ridiculously funny tale but one that finishes with unexpected and surprising turn of events.

Russian author Dmitry Ivanov’s writing can also be found within the pages of this brilliant book.  His short story, Where Sleep the Gods, which is translated by Arch Tait, revolves around the Winter Olympics in Sochi and Putin’s strategy to sell the Olympics to the people of Sochi.  The main character in the narrative, a self-proclaimed “creative,” is named Anton and lives a comfortable life in Moscow while working for an ad agency.  Anton is used to dealing with wealthy customers who only demand the best that their money can buy.  Anton’s strategy in dealing with his wealthy clients is to adopt an air of aloofness: “He was accustomed to treating these types in a perfunctory, even insolent manner.  This was not risky, but, on the contrary, the surest approach to respect.”  When Anton is escorted in a private jet to meet a particularly important client he prepares to don his mask of insolence;  but when Vladimir Putin enters the room any and all attempts at smugness instantly dissolve.  Anton is quickly given the task of marketing the Olympics to the Sochians and is whisked off to that city to set up his Olympic headquarters.  What Anton discovers about the Sochians is astute and funny.  After spending about an hour in that city he decides that his slogan will be: “Thieves, because poets.”  You must read Ivanov’s humorous and brilliant story to fully get the joke!

Finally, I would like to discuss a piece in the collection that occupies the creative literary space somewhere between poetry and philosophy.   Nude Enumerated, written by Jean-Luc Nancy and translated by Charlotte Mandell, is a lyrical reflection on the different societal and emotional views and reactions that we have to nudity. The writing reminds me of Pascal Quignard whose philosophical poetry has also been written in shorter pieces which manage to be unexpectedly thought-provoking with only a minimal amount of words.  This was my favorite translation from the collection and the purchase of the book is worth it just for this one piece.  Nancy begins his reflection with a series of antonyms:

Nude: conquered, triumphant; undone, reassembled; lost, found;

undressed, costumed; obvious, indiscernible; shameless, virtuous;

sexed, neutralized.

Nancy proceeds to challenge us to look at different types of nudity that occur in different circumstances; his words make us uncomfortable but at the same time they make us think more deeply about the experiences we have with our unclothed human bodies.  Note also in this passage that Nancy’s asyndeton, lack of connectives like “and” or “or”, emphasizes the complexity of nudity:

Always elsewhere the male/female nude; not here, which welcomes

only clothed people, but over there somewhere undecided  at a

distance, within reach of desire of touching flattering hiding staining.

If you buy one book this month, if you only buy one more book for this entire year then I implore you to make Two Lines 25.  I haven’t even mentioned the poetry and essays that this volume also offers.  I am wondering how the editors at Two Lines go about choosing what literature to include in their collections.  I have in my mind an image of them exhaustively scouring the world in search of only the best of the best.  I don’t know how else they could produce such an astonishing collection.

To read the full index of works included in Two Lines 25 please visit: http://twolinespress.com/two-lines-journal/

About the Editor:
cj-evansCJ Evans is the author of A Penance (New Issues Press, 2012), which was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award and The Category of Outcast, selected by Terrance Hayes for the Poetry Society of America’s New American Poets chapbook series. He edited, with Brenda Shaughnessy, Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House, and his work has appeared in journals such as Boston Review, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, Pleiades, and Virginia Quarterly Review.

CJ is the editor of Two Lines Press, the publishing program of the Center for the Art of Translation, which has quickly grown into a premier publisher of international literature, and he has edited translations of the works of authors like Marie NDiaye, Jonathan Littell, and Naja Marie Aidt. He also edits Two Lines: World Writing in Translation, a bi-annual journal of the best international literature in translation and curates Two Voices, an event series in San Francisco. He is a contributing editor for Tin House, and occasionally teaches, most recently in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco.

Prior to working at Two Lines Press, CJ was an editor at Tin House for 8 years, and worked at the Academy of American Poets. He received his MFA from Columbia University, and his BA from Reed College, where he wrote a thesis on the poetics of American Hip-Hop. He was the recipient of the 2013 Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, and currently lives in San Francisco with his wife, daughter, and son.

For more information visit his website:  cjevans.org

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Poetry, Russian Literature, Short Stories, Spanish Literature

Review: breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes

I received a review copy of this title from Peirene Press.  For more information about the release of the book and the blog tour, please scroll down to the banner at the end of this post.

My Review:
breachbreach is a series of eight short stories that all focus on the plight of the refugees in Calais and the ripple effect that their presence has on the lives of everyone with whom they come in contact.  The refugees in these short stories are from different countries and have made their way to this camp in Calais which is referred to as The Jungle.  It is a type of holding place, a purgatory, where they are caught between the horrors of their past lives and their hopes of finding a future in Britain.

The first thought I had as I was reading breach was that these poor, downtrodden refugees must have witnessed the worst kinds of conditions and horrors in their homelands to leave everything behind for the unknown.  What would make someone leave home, cross an ocean, and risk death in order to find a new place to live?  The cold, the damp, the small spaces in the tents were all vividly described in these stories.  One young refugee comments that the camp in Calais is a jungle, but his home was pure hell.

The stories also highlight the volunteer workers and locals who are trying to help the refugees.  The town, in general, does not want the camp there and the refugees are kept in their own, separate makeshift town by fences and the constant presence of police.  The story, “The Terrier” poignantly illustrates the mistrust between refugees and locals.  A woman who owns a Bed and Breakfast in Calais is asked by the town council to take in two refugees, a brother and sister.  Since she has no customers and is in need of income, this local resident agrees to give the refugees room and board for a fee.  The woman tries to have as little contact with the young man and woman as possible.  She questions and distrusts everything they tell her.  But as she interacts with them she gradually comes to have sympathy for their wretched situation.  Although this brother and sister have a much more comfortable place to stay than most, they still return to The Jungle every day to see their friends.  They are outsiders in Calais and sadly enough the only place they feel “at home” is in the camp.

It is brave and innovative for Peirene to have commissioned a series of books like breach that will bring understanding to the plight of refugees and shine a spotlight on other policial and social issues that have arisen around the world.  At times this book was difficult to read because it brought the realities of human suffering to a level I did not fully understand. It was evident from reading this book that the authors spent quite a bit of time in Calais speaking to and interacting with the refugees, the relief workers and the local residents.  It is my hope that breach will be widely read and will make us all more sensitive to the suffering of refugees.  We can learn some important lessons from what is happening right now in Calais.

For more information of the book please visit the websites listed in the tour banner below:

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Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction, Short Stories

Review: The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers by Fouad Laroui

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Deep Vellum via Edelweiss.  This book was published in the original French in 2012 and this English version has been translated by Emma Ramadan.

My Review:
TrousersThis book contains a series of short stories told by a group of men sitting around at café in Morocco.  It appears that they have been friends for quite some time as there is a lot of teasing, interrupting, and jocularity mixed in with their stories.  Their tales range from the funny to the rather serious and I found that the theme of being an outsider in a foreign land pervades the entire collection.

The funniest tale is the title story in which a man is sent to Belgium by the Moroccan government to make a very important deal to import grain to his starving country.  The man checks into a hotel and is very nervous that the fate of his country hangs on his ability to negotiate this most important deal.  Since he is only visiting for one day he packs lightly and brings a single pair of nice trousers.  He is awakened during his first night in his hotel room by a horrible noise and gets out of bed to find that an intruder has come through his window.  At first glance it seems that nothing valuable has been stolen from him; but further inspection by the light of day reveals that his pants, his only pair of nice pants have been taken!

The man absolutely panics and goes does to the front desk of the hotel in his pajamas to ask for help.  The clerk directs the man to a charity shop which has a single pair of pants that are just his size; but the pants are a ridiculous pair of golf pants.  The events of his meeting, while he is wearing these pants, are hilarious but everything does work out for the best for him and for the fate of Morocco.

By contrast, there are two rather serious stories that I would like to describe from the collection.  The first one, entitled “Dislocation,”  is particularly fitting for what is going on in the world as far as refugees seeking asylum and people displaying xenophobia to anyone who seems foreign.  I found his use of repeating the same lines in the story very Homeric but instead of repeating epithets he repeats the entire beginning lines of his story over and over again.  Each time he repeats his story he begins with the phrase, “What would it be like, he asked himself, a world where everything was foreign?”  Each time he repeats these lines he adds more details about his life.  We discover that the man does, in fact, feel like a foreigner because he is a Moroccan who feels more French than Moroccan and is living in The Netherlands.  He is treated as a foreigner, an outsider and his walk home becomes slower and slower as he contemplates his feeling of dislocation.  This story showcases Lauori’s talents as a writer as he uses an array of unique styles throughout this short collection of stories.

The final story I would like to mention is story about a couple who are from different countries and having a long distance relationship.  John is traveling from The Netherlands and Annie is traveling from France and they are on their way to Brussels to spend a long weekend together.  They speak different languages, grew up in different countries with different cultures but for a while they have made their relationship work.  But they have both arrived in Brussels with the intention of breaking up with one another.

The language barriers and cultural differences have taken their toll on the relationship and they both want out.  The best example of their communication issues is described by John who says that Annie never easily gets his dry sense of humor and by the time he has to explain all of his jokes to her they are no longer funny.  This story has a surprise ending which I don’t want to give away.  But I will say that this is one of the best stories in the collection.

Overall this is a unique collection of stories that I can recommend to anyone who wants to experience a wide range of literary styles in a single collection of stories.

About the Author:
LarouiFouad Laroui (born 1958) is a Moroccan economist and writer, born in Oujda, Morocco. Over the past twenty years, Laroui has been consistently building an oeuvre centered around universally contemporary themes: identity in a globalized world, dialogue/confrontation between cultures, the individual vs. the group, etc. With ten novels and five collections of short stories written in French, plus two collections of poems written in Dutch, a play, many essays and scientific papers (written in French or English), his on-going ambitious literary output has been recognized with many awards, including: Prix Albert Camus, Prix Mediterranée, Prix Goncourt de la Nouvelle, Grande médaille de la Francophonie de l’Académie française, Prix du meilleur roman francophone, Premio Francesco Alziator (Italy), Samuel-Pallache-Prijs (The Netherlands), E. du Perron Prijs (The Netherlands)

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Filed under France, Humor, Literature in Translation, Short Stories

2015: A Banner Year for Indie Presses

I have been very quiet on the blog for the last couple of weeks because decking the halls and wrapping the gifts have taken up much of my time.  But like my fellow bloggers on the web, I have been thinking about my list of favorite books for 2015.  As I was looking through my reviews and thinking about all of the fantastic books I have read throughout the year, I immediately noticed a similarity among the books: most of them are published by independent presses.  I have gravitated more and more to independent press releases and have come to the point at which I seek out books from these brave, hardworking and smart publishers.  So here is my list for 2015.

Indie Press Favorites for 2015:
I have to start out with one of the very first small press books I read in 2015 and absolutely adored and that is Guys Like Me from New Vessel Press.  When I read this book I was so moved by its simple, character driven plot that I wanted to read anything else I could get my hands on by this publisher.  And I was not Guys Like Medisappointed.  I have read many of the books in their catalogue and I would add two more of their titles to my 2015 favorites list as well:  I Called Him Necktie and Alexandrian Summer.  If you want books with interesting characters and thought-provoking, emotional themes then I highly recommend giving these titles a try.

Next up, I have on  my list two titles from Gallic BooksGeorge’s Grand Tour and Nagasaki.  Gallic Books was founded in 2007 and it’s mission is to find the best books written in French and make them available to the English-speaking world.  Both of these titles will warm your heart and restore your faith in humanity.  They are actually great books to read around the holidays.Nagasaki

The Physics of Sorrow appealed to me because of the parallels drawn between the main character in the book and the Greek mythological figure of the Minotaur.  However, I learned so much more in this book than I ever expected.  The lasting effects of communism on a country like Bulgaria are astounding.  This book made me reflect on the fact that as Americans we oftentimes take our freedom for granted and we forget what citizens of countries like Bulgaria suffered under decades of oppressive regimes.  This title is published by Open Letter and since reading this I have been very excited to explore their wide range of translated titles.

Speaking of communism and its aftermath, another favorite title of mine this year was Calligraphy Lesson, which is actually a collection of short stories.  In this Calligraphy Lessoncollection, Shishkin, one of Russia’s most famous contemporary authors, offers stories about himself and various members of his family and the devastating impact of Soviet rule had on their lives for generations.This title is brought to us by Deep Vellum , which has a catalogue rich with titles in translation from all over the world.

A list of small presses with fantastic titles published in 2015 would not be complete without a mention of a  Melville House title.  You might have heard of them because of their famous Twitter war with Penguin Random House.  If you haven’t read this little exchange, it is definitely worth a quick look for the hilarious jokes and barbs.  My first introduction to their books was through the novel The Scapegoat.  This novel is translated from the Greek and not only contains an interesting murder mystery, but it also teaches us an important lesson about what we can learn from history.  In addition,  Melville House has also published a fantastic collection of classic novellas which are definitely worth a look.  I have bought and reviewed several titles from their novella collection this year as well.

I must give a nod to Peirene Press, which I discovered by reading White Hunger.  This small British press specializes in publishing novellas translated into Looking Glass SistersEnglish.  Their books may be small, but they pack a powerful, emotional punch.  One of the best books of the year, in my humble opinion, is their novella The Looking Glass Sisters.  This book did not get as much attention as I think it should have; it is one of those reads where you think about its plot and characters long after you close the last page.

And the final independent press that I discovered late in the year thanks to Joe over at Roughghosts, is Istros Books.  I would say that their novel Dry Season is one of my favorites of the entire year.  Since finishing this book I have acquired several more of their titles which I am very excited to read and review in 2016.  Istros specializes in translating fiction from Eastern Europe.

There are two very special small publishers that I must mention from whose catalogues I own many, many books.  These two publishers deserve their own special categories as they have entire shelves on my bookcases dedicated to their titles.

Persephone Books:
Original-Greenery-Street-cover-422x600A friend of mine, who is always spot on with his recommendation for me, turned me on to Persephone Books.  Persephone is an Independent British publisher that specializes in reissuing lost classics which are mostly written by female authors.  I fell in love with the first book I read from them, Greenery Street, and even since I have read one or two of their books per month.  I just can’t get enough of them.  It was very difficult to come up with only a couple of my favorites from 2015 but I have to go with Greenery Street and Patience.  Both books are funny, sweet and so well-written.   Persephone has quite an extensive catalogue and I would eventually like to work my way through all of their books.  There will most definitely be many more Persephone reviews to come in 2016.

 

New York Review of Books Classics:
AkenfieldThe first book I read from the NYRB classics collection was Stoner and ever since then I cannot get enough of their books.  This year I once again read several titles from their catalogue.  The Door, a book translated from the Hungarian which has been on many top ten book lists of the year, was also one of my favorites.  I would also add two additional books to my favorites list which they published in 2015.  Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Blythe was on of my favorite non-fiction books of 2015.  This book gives us a glimpse into all the of aspects of an English village in the 20th Century.  This is a must read for anyone who is a fan of British Literature.  The final book on my list for 2015 from NYRB classics is  Ending Up by Kingsley Amis.  This book is absolutely hilarious as it chronicles the final days of a group of septuagenarian roommates.  I have big plans to review several more of the NYRB books in 2016!

That pretty much wraps it up for me as far as 2015 is concerned.  In the new year I have titles on my TBR piles that include books from all of these Indie Presses.  Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Io Saturnalia and Happy New Year!

-Melissa, The Book Binder’s Daughter

 

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction, Novella, Opinion Posts, Persephone Books, Short Stories