Tag Archives: New York Review of Books

Stranded in New York City: My Literary Adventure

This week I had the opportunity to visit New York City and explore one of its biggest and best bookstores.  The Strand, on 12th Street and Broadway, which has been in business for 86 years,  boasts 18 miles of books on three floors.  Browsing the massive collection of books is a bibliophile’s dream come true.  One of the things that impressed me the most is the abundance of what blogger Times Flow recently called “alt-lit”—which to me means literature in translation from around the world, books from small presses, and reissued classics.  Not only do they have a plethora of such interesting literature, but these types of books are displayed prominently on easy-to-browse tables on the first floor of The Strand.

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I recently acquired a copy of Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho and became intrigued with her writing and translating so I was excited to find two Carson books (well, more like pamphlets) at The Strand.  Her poetry collection entitled Float comes in a clear plastic box and contains a series of chapbooks with poems, reflections, lists, and thoughtful observations.  They are meant to be read separately or as one continuous, connected work; I would like to set aside enough time to read them all at once.

 

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I also found another  chapbook from Anne Carson that she wrote for part of the New Directions poetry pamphlet series.  I read The Albertine Workout on the train ride home and found it interesting, clever, humorous and erudite.   It’s ironic and thrilling that she penned such a small, thoughtful pamphlet on Proust!

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I also came across a rather inexpensive copy of Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones.  One aspect of The Strand that is also helpful is their abundance of new books on sale as well as inexpensive used book selection.

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I also couldn’t resist this new, pristine copy of Fagle’s translation of the Aeneid to replace my badly worn out copy.  The introduction by Bernard Knox is a fantastic piece of writing that makes this translation worth owning just for his essay alone.

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It was particularly exciting for me to walk into The Strand and immediately find books from many of my favorite small presses.  I browsed through books from Deep Vellum, New Vessel Press, Archipelago Books, Seagull Books and New Directions.  I found three books to add to my ever-growing collection from the New York Review of Books: The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, The Other by Thomas Tryon and The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout.

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I also found this copy of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenstrom published by Archipelago Books.

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Finally, I had the thrill of a lifetime when, as I was browsing this fabulous selection of books, I opened a copy of Recitation by Bae Suah from Deep Vellum which I recently reviewed.  Inside the front cover was a blurb from my review of her previous book, A Greater Music, that I wrote for World Literature Today.

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I also highly recommend The Strand Kiosk which is located outside of Central Park on E. 60th St. and 5th Ave.  It is only opened seasonally and I had the opportunity to browse the Kiosk during my visit last June and also came home with an assortment of great books.  And a final thing worth mentioning about The Strand is the third floor of the main shop on Broadway which is full of rare and collectable first edition books.  Their selection of rare books is also listed for sale on their website.  I am hoping that someday my copy of Bottom’s Dream from Dalkey Archive will be worthy of sitting among the rare books in their collection.  Although I doubt that I would ever be able to part with my copy!

I always find New York exciting and exhilarating and The Strand is a unique destination in the city that adds to the thrill of visiting.  I could have spent at least a few more hours there, I didn’t even make it to the second floor of books!  I am contemplating a day trip next month just to go back and visit this magical, literary place.  What are your favorite bookshops from around the world?

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Filed under Classics, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books, New York Review of Books Poetry, Nonfiction, Osip Mandelstam, Poetry, Russian Literature

Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2017

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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

Review: His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas

I received a review copy of this title from the New York Review of Books via Edelweiss.  This book was published in the original Spanish in 1890 and this English version has been translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

My Review:
his-only-sonBonifacio Reyes has spent his whole life carrying out the commands that others have bestowed on him.  When he is a young man he is coaxed into eloping with Emma Valcárcel , the spoiled only child of Don Diego Valcárcel, a prominent lawyer in what Alas describes as a “third-rate provincial capital.”  When the couple’s plans are thwarted and they are captured , Emma is confined to a convent and Bonifacio is banished to Mexico where he will live a sad and lonely existence for the rest of his life.  Or so he thought.

When Emma’s father dies she is finally released from the convent and as her father’s sole heir, she lives a comfortable and pampered life.  Despite the time that has passed, Emma continues to pine away for her beloved Bonifacio but in order to avoid a town scandal, she wants a different husband first before she marries Bonifacio.  Emma manages to capture a sickly husband who doesn’t last very long, and once she is done playing the role of mournful widow, she has her family track Bonifacio down in Mexico where he is working for a newspaper.  Bonifacio is easily lured back to Spain where, within three months, he becomes the kept husband of Emma.

Alas slowly unravels Emma’s dark side throughout the novel.  Emma declares very early on that the honeymoon is over but she keeps her handsome Bonifacio around her, dressed in the finest clothes, to show him off to the rest of the provincial town whenever it is convenient.  Bonifacio spends most of the day playing a flute which he finds among his deceased father-in-law’s old papers.  The couple appears to settle into a comfortable, yet affectionless, existence together:

Emma never asked him about his interests nor about the time they filled, which was most of the day. She demanded only that he be smartly dressed when they went out walking or visiting. “Her” Bonifacio was merely an adornment, entirely hollow and empty inside, but useful as a way of provoking the envy of many of the town’s society ladies. She showed off her husband, for whom she bought fine clothes, which he wore well, and reserved the right to present him as a good, simple soul.

The turning point that really sours their marriage is a miscarriage that Emma suffers which affects her health and prematurely ages her.  After this distressful brush with death, Emma becomes an unbearable tyrant and unleashes all of her frustrations and abuses on Bonifacio.  Alas’ story reads like a tragicomedy in which neither partner in the marriage is happy but neither party can be without the other.  Bonifacio is on call in the evenings so that he can rub unguents and lotions on his wife’s sickly body and while he does these and other demeaning tasks for her she hurls abuses and insults at him.  The most awful part of this for Bonifacio is not the name-calling or even the completion of these tasks, but the sheer noise that Emma raises when Bonifacio is carrying out his duties.  Bonifacio craves, more than anything in life, to have peace and quiet in his house.  Whenever Emma calls his name, the poor man shutters:

Telling Bonifacio off became her one consolation; she could not do without his attentions nor, equally, without rewarding him with shrill, rough words.  What doubt could there be that her Bonifacio was born to put up with and to care for her.

Bonifacio, who prides himself on his appreciation for music and the arts, finds a second home at the local theater where a troupe of second rate opera singers have temporarily set up shop. Bonifacio finds the peace and quiet he so craves among the opera singers who view him, at first, as a cash cow and as a sucker that will pay for their expensive dinners.  Bonifacio gets into a couple of touch spots trying to get money out of his wife’s uncle, who serves as the family accountant.  Bonifacio quickly realizes that the best way to get into the heart and the bed of Serafina is to give her partner Mochi money whenever he asks.  Bonifacio engages in a passionate and sensual love affair with Serafina and he carefully keeps his musician friends away from his home and his wife.

At this point in the story Alas ramps up the comedy as Bonifacio and Emma engage in an elaborate game of cat and mouse.  Emma has gradually been recovering her health and is only pretending to be an invalid.  One night when Bonifacio comes home from the theater smelling of rice powder, Emma suspects that he is having an affair.  But instead of screaming and yelling at her husband, she seduces him and for the first time in years they start having sex again.  The sex, though, becomes, like Emma’s character, a bit crazy and depraved.   Emma admits that she has been hatching a maniacal plan to bring down both her adulterous husband and her accountant uncle who she believes is stealing from her:.

The first part of her plan is carried out when Emma insists on going to the theater and meeting Bonifacio’s music friends with whom he has been spending so much time.   But while at the theater, Emma is herself smitten with one of the opera singers, a baritone named Minghetti.  Emma and Minghetti flirt shamelessly with one another and arrange to see each other on a regular basis when Minghetti offers piano lessons to Emma.  This is where the story reaches its pinnacle of farce as Emma and her lover carry on right under Bonifacio’s nose.

It is also at this point that Emma finds out that she is pregnant.  Bonifacio becomes maudlin and sentimental over the fact that he will now have a son and promises to changes his ways.  He swears he will take more financial responsibility for his family and he gives up Serafina as his lover.  Bonifacio’s final act of absurdity is his refusal to believe that anyone besides himself is the father of Emma’s baby.  The novel concludes with this one statement that Alas puts in the mouth of his unheroic hero which deftly mixes the tragic and the comic: “Bonifacio Reyes believes absolutely that Antonio Reyes y Valcarcel is his son.  His only son, you understand, his only son!”

 

About the Author:
LEOPOLDO ALAS (1852–1901) was the son of a government official, born in Zamora, Spain. He attended the University of Oviedo and the University of Madrid, receiving a doctorate in law. A novelist and writer of short stories who adopted the pseudonym Clarín (Bugle), Alas was one of Spain’s most influential literary critics. He became a professor of law at the University of Oviedo in 1883 and published his first and best-known novel, La Regenta, in 1884; his second novel, Suúnico hijo (His Only Son), was published in 1890. He died in Oviedo at the age of forty-nine.

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Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Spanish Literature

Review: Girlfriends, Ghosts and Other Stories by Robert Walser

I received an advanced review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books.  Please visit their website for a fantastic selection of titles, including more of Walser’s books in translation.  This collection has been translated by from the German by Tom Whalen, Nicole Kongeter and Annette Wiesner.

My Review:
girlfriends-and-ghostsThis collections defies classification as far as genre is concerned.  The introduction to the book calls the writings a collection of eighty-one “brief texts” that were written throughout the course of Walser’s life.  Some of the writings appear to be fictional short stories but others have a distinctly autobiographical feel to them.  Walser even writes a few short dialogues and a book review.  In addition, he has a wide range of topics and themes and writes about anything from nature, to fashion, to death and dying.  This is a collection best absorbed a few pieces at a time so one can savor his pithy and didactic collection.

Walser makes mundane things seem fascinating.  My favorite piece that falls into this category is entitled, “A Morning” in which he describes a Monday morning in a bookkeeping office as the minutes painfully tick by.   The central figure is man named Helbling who unapologetically walks into work almost thirty minutes late.  Walser’s description of the interaction between Helbling and his boss makes us laugh and cringe:

Totally be-Mondayed, his face pale and bewildered, he shoots in a jiffy to his place and position.  Really, he could have apologized.  Up in Hasler’s pond, I mean head, the following thought pops up like a tree frog: “Now that’s just about enough.”  Quietly he walks over to Helbling and, positioning himself behind him, asks why he, Helbling, can’t, like the others, show up on time.  He, Hasler, is, after all, really starting to wonder.  Helbling doesn’t utter a word in response, for some time now he’s made a habit of simply leaving the questions of his superior unanswered.

Walser makes ordinary events like suffering from a toothache, wearing a fashionable overcoat,  having afternoon tea and observing a beautiful woman absolutely riveting.

Another common and enjoyable theme that occurs frequently in his writing is that of nature.  There are pieces dedicated to the description of a peaceful morning and a walk on a beautiful autumn afternoon.One of my favorite pieces, entitled “Poetry” reads more like poetry than prose.  In this brief and reflective writing we get the sense that Walser is constantly fighting against a deep melancholia and he uses the occasion of a winter day as the inspiration for expressing his emotions. He writes:

I never wrote poems in summer.  The blossoming and resplendence were too sensuous for me.  In summer I was melancholy.  In autumn a melody came over the world.  I was in love with the fog, with the first beginnings of darkness, with the cold.  I found the snow divine, but perhaps even more beautiful, more divine, seemed the dark wild warm storms of early spring.

It is not surprising that Walser fought a deep depression and anxiety for which in 1929 he was voluntarily hospitalized in Waldau, a psychiatric clinic outside Bern.  By the early 1940’s he was permanently confined to the hospital and declared that his writing career was over.  There are hints in this collection that even as early as 1917 Walser is fighting some powerful demons.  In the story entitled “The Forsaken One,” written during that year, Walser pictures himself as a lonely, hopeless vagabond who is wandering around on a gloomy night.  He finds a house that is terrifying but he feels compelled to step inside and wander around until he finds an angelic female figure whom he calls a “celestial outcast.”  He feels an affinity toward her and is relieved that he has found someone that is just a lonely and isolated as himself.

It is truly impossible to cover the scope of this collection unless I were to make my review several pages long.  I have tried to sum up the writings that have made the greatest impression on me.  But I am confident that everyone can find something in this collection that he or she loves.  Thanks to the New York Review of Books for bringing us this brilliant classic in translation.

About the Author:
walserRobert Walser (1878–1956) was born into a German-speaking family in Biel, Switzerland. He left school at fourteen and led a wandering, precarious existence while writing his poems, novels, and vast numbers of the “prose pieces” that became his hallmark. In 1933 he was confined to a sanatorium, which marked the end of his writing career. Among Walser’s works available in English are Jakob von Gunten and Berlin Stories (available as NYRB Classics), The Tanners, Microscripts, The Assistant, The Robber, Masquerade and Other Stories, and Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912–1932.

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books

Review: Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz

I received a review copy of this title from New York Review Books via Edelweiss.

My Review:

babitz_Slow_Days_hi-res_largeI have to admit that I have never been to Los Angeles and the quiet, New England girl in me has always been afraid to even think about visiting the famed city on the other coast.  Images of the fast life with celebrities, drugs and name dropping via shows like The Kardashians and The Real Housewives are just too much for me.  Eve Babitz was the original glamor girl and in her book Slow Days, Fast Company she describes the Hollywood of the 1960’s and 1970’s that was just as intense, if not more so, as the Hollywood of the 21st century.

Slow Days, Fast Company is a collection of stories about Eve’s life as an artist and a writer living in the heart of Hollywood.  She meets countless celebrities that are the who’s who of L.A. in the 60’s and 70’s, from artists to rock stars and movie execs.   The impression that I got from the casual tone of the book is that she is unfazed by many of the rich and famous characters that she encounters.  In the story entitled, “Heroine” Eve is introduced to Janis Joplin twice but both times Joplin is so strung out on drugs that she is incapable of speech.  Babitz isn’t angry or disappointed that she never gets to speak with the famous rock star, but instead she is sad that drugs have consumed and destroyed another life with so much potential for greatness.  Eve herself drinks quite a bit, does cocaine, and pops a lot of Valium, but she draws the line at taking Heroine because she has seen too many people destroyed by it.

Babitz is open and brutally frank about her sex life throughout the stories.  She manages affairs with multiple men at one time and engages in the occasional ménage à trois.  Her attitude towards sex and these various relationships is also rather laid back, as if balancing several men at a time and sleeping with two men at a time is something that is totally normal and part of every day life.  There is also an undertone of humor as far as her sex life is concerned, especially when it comes to her lover named Shawn.  Shawn was a gay man living in the American south with his partner, and now finds himself in the middle of the Hollywood scene and hanging out with Eve Babitz.  She takes him on as her lover and he features prominently in several of the stories as they go on vacation together, go out to dinner, and do other things that are typical of a romantic couple.

My favorite story in the collection is the one entitled “Bad Day at Palm Springs.”  Eve is introduced to a rich socialite named Nikki Kroenberg who is married to a lawyer and has too much time on her hands.  Nikki invites Eve and Shawn to spend the weekend with her in Palm Springs and Eve jumps at the chance to spend a few quiet days away from the smog and congestion of L.A.  In this story Eve gives us a lesson about the fluidity and imprecise nature of time on the west coast.  Shawn says that he will be ready for their weekend getaway at 7 p.m. but two hours later Eve and Nikki are still sitting in Shawn’s kitchen waiting for him to finish a photo shoot.  Eve deals with the constant waiting by always keeping a paperback book with her; but the pressure of keeping Nikki busy while they wait for Shawn causes Eve to swallow a few extra Valium.  When they finally make it to Palm Springs, the slow pace of life in the sun is just too much for Eve and she is itching to get back to her life in L.A.

In Slow Days, Fast Company Babitz provides an inside look at the life of the rich and famous while at the same time not taking herself too seriously.  I never felt that Babitz was name dropping to make herself sound more important and for this reason the book was a highly entertaining read.  I still don’t have a desire to visit California anytime soon, but experiencing it through the eyes of this writer and artist is amusing.

About the Author:

Eve Babitz is the author of several books of fiction, including Sex and Rage: Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time, L.A. Woman, and Black Swans: Stories. Her nonfiction works include Fiorucci, the Book and Two by Two: Tango, Two-Step, and the L.A. Night. She has written for publications including Ms. and Esquire and in the late 1960s designed album covers for the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Linda Ronstadt. Her novel Eve’s Hollywood is published by NYRB Classics.

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