Tag Archives: Open Letter Books

To Capture Someone’s Heart: North Station by Bae Suah

Korean author Bae Suah’s latest writing, although a collection of short stories, is equally as experimental, cutting-edge, and captivating as her novels. Each story in this volume, brilliantly translated by Deborah Smith, is laden with her poetic images and philosophical meditations. One theme that she returns to throughout the writing is that of reconnection after a long period of separation that involves both distance and time.  As in her previous novels her characters are consumed by wanderlust.

In the title story “North Station,” a man and a woman stand silently on a train platform in an unnamed city. As they wait for the train to arrive the gentleman has a strong desire to kiss this woman but the reason for their awkwardness is hinted at later in the narrative: “Young women of a certain type were both recurring characters in his life and predators who preyed on him, and even now he remembers them well.” As is typical with Suah’s writing, one must pay very careful attention to every detail on the page in order not to miss the most interesting parts and striking images of the story.  Daniel Green has written an insightful series of essays at The Reading Experience about innovative female authors and I would include Suah as one of the writers whom he describes as experimenting with the “Movement of Language.”  His description of the writings of Noy Holland as “using an alternative mode of composition through which ‘character’ and ‘story’ are not abandoned but emerge as the afterthought of the movement of language, the characters and plots subordinated to the autonomy of that movement” is also apt for characterizing the language of Suah’s stories in this collection and her novels.

While the narrator in “North Station” is waiting for the train, his lover’s presence causes a series of memories to invade his mind.  During his short time on the train platform, the man recalls a collection of writings by a suicidal, exiled author with whom he greatly identifies; he remembers a woman he met in a different city whose address is the only tangible thing he knows about her anymore; he reflects on the attic room he stayed at during his university days in which he reads passionate poetry.  One of my favorite passages is one in which he reflects on relationships and the metaphor of lover as hunter:

Who would have first used the expression “to capture someone’s heart?” A hunter, perhaps, who would know deeply how it feels to capture a beating heart, a living thing, how the one doing the capturing finds himself captivated, in thrall to the sense of his own omnipotence?  Like capturing a fawn or kit still warm from its mother’s heat.  Someone who, like the hunter, introduces himself into his victim’s eyes at such an early stage.  Who deploys his imagination to render in his mind’s eye that state of utter despair to which the lack of any exit, the terrible clarity of this fact, gives a paradoxical sweetness.  Who reproduces this state through what we call a verbal expression.  In such a way, the expression would have been born not through those who are captured, but through those who do the capturing.  Since the victim has no time for song.

Suah’s greatest strength as a writer lies in her ability to take what at first appears to be disjointed images and scenes and weave them together into a singularly beautiful story. The attic room, the poetry, the woman on the platform he longs to kiss are all connected in her character’s mind with a meditation on time and space: “When was it that he had last kissed a woman so ardently, his lips as passionate as when they pronounced poetry? In that city or this, at the house of his acquaintance or on the platform in the north station, while waiting for the train.”

The entire collection is as riveting and poetic as the title story: an author recalls several visits to her mentor, a young man is reconnected with a former lover while struggling with questions about his sexuality, a playwright experiments with how to portray time on the stage. These stories are a great place to start for those looking to get a taste of Suah’s innovative style of writing. For those of us already familiar with her previous novels, it is exciting to once again encounter more of the author’s intriguing and thought-provoking prose.

Photo credit:  Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Cupid, armed with a bow and arrow, flies in through the window to a room where two naked lovers lie asleep on a couch. Etching.

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Short Stories

Review: Justine by Iben Mondrup

My Review:
justine-front_frame_largeJustine is another example of the cutting-edge, fascinating, and experimental writing that Open Letter seeks out and publishes from authors around the world.  Originally written and published in 2012 in Danish, it has taken a few years for Mondrup’s work to become available in English.  It is just the type of creative, sensual, interesting book that was screaming out for Open Letter to translate and publish.

When the book opens, Justine’s house has just burned down and along with the house all of her artwork for an upcoming exhibition has gone up in flames.  Justine inherited the house and her artist sensibilities from her grandfather.  We are given some vague hints about what started the fire and whether or not Justine herself is to blame.  Most of the book is taken up with  Justine’s jumbled thoughts about her life past and present, about her experimentations with her art, about the sexist world of the Dutch art school, about her varied sexual relationships and about her disintegrating state of mind.

Sex is available to Justine no matter whom she encounters in art school; professors, graduates and students alike, male or female, will sleep with her.  I can’t help but think that the author chose the name for her title and main character, Justine, as a literary nod to de Sade who also penned a book with this title.  Justine is officially dating a woman named Vita, whom she appears to have genuine affection for: “I love her,” she writes, “I already loved her that New Year’s Eve when the light had long since departed, everyone had gone home, it was only us tough dogs left.”  Notice the interesting mix of past and present tense—the polyptoton love and loved is especially fitting— even in this one short sentence spoken by Justine.

But despite her feelings for Vita,  Justine keeps cheating on Vita with an interesting variety of men.  It turns out that Vita has also been seeing another woman behind Justine’s back and Justine becomes extremely jealous when she finds out.  Like the writing and some of the plot in the book, Justine’s sexual orientation is ambiguous.  Her sexual encounters with men and women are, like her state of mind, frenzied, intense, dark and highly erotic.  She describes a drunken escapade with a man named Bo she regularly meets for sex:

I can perch atop him and ride.  In my hand he’s an animal I’m bringing down.  I’ll ride him like he’s never been ridden, until he spurts until he dies.  I unzip his pants.  There’s softness in the warmth between the hairs.  I ride him with my hand.  I transform him to a fountain that shoots high in the air.

When her Grandfather and Ane, a good friend from art school, are described the narrative is more straightforward, more traditional.  But when she tells us about her various erotic interludes the text becomes poetic, scattered, broken.  Grandfather, who was himself a painter, discusses art, life and family history with Justine.  Grandfather himself has not had an easy existence because his wife, Justine’s grandmother, suffered from a nervous breakdown after she gave birth to Justine’s mother.  Justine’s mother is also mentally unstable and a drunk who accidentally burns herself to death.  Mondrup subtly weaves patterns of images throughout Justine’s scattered narrative: fire, burning, passion and madness.

Another significant stylist detail to note about the book is that several of the pages of the text are very short, a paragraph or even a sentence in length.  Since Justine jumps back and forth between past and present sometimes we are thrust into the midst of one of these short meditations and we aren’t sure if she is talking about past or present.  Many of her thoughts are eerily foreboding:

Is it even possible to find a cut-off?  An exact moment when it all went wrong?  A point around which all events are distributed?  Before and after?  A crime scene?  A weapon cast in a backyard?  The road to murder is a slippery slope of things that are said and done.  An eye that saw amiss.  Something that should’ve remained hidden.  Or something that  didn’t happen.  After the murder there’s the clean-up.  The cover up.  Someone must pay the penalty.  Others must receive it.

Justine finally manages to pull enough of her art work together to have a successful showing at a local gallery.  But the ending of the book can only be described as ambiguous.  Normally I would find this frustrating, but it is a fitting end for Justine whose own ambiguities abound throughout the novel.

About the Author:
mondrupIben Mondrup is a trained visual artist from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts who is also the author of four novels, including Justine, its sequel, and Godhavn.

Read an conversation with Mondrup from The Rumpus: http://therumpus.net/2016/12/the-rumpus-book-club-chat-with-iben-mondrup-and-kerri-pierce/

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Filed under Art, Literature in Translation

My Literary jouissance of 2016

This year has been a tough one for many reasons.  It is hard to believe that there could be a “best of” list for anything related to 2016 and I really wasn’t going to bother making a book list.  But Grant from 1st Reading  twisted my arm a bit and I was reminded that if there is one thing that kept me moving forward in 2016 it was the plethora of fantastic books I came across this year.

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his most recent book entitled Coming, explores the French word jouissance (pleasure) and the similarities between sexual pleasure and artistic pleasure.  Sexual jouissance and orgasm are irresistible desires for humans which we can never fully satisfy and thus we are constantly coming back and reaching for The Other.  Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again.  I would extend Nancy’s argument about renewed desire and satisfaction to include Bibliophiles such as myself who wallow in the aftermath of a great piece of literature.  We, as avid readers, are always attempting to renew that high, that euphoria, that bliss which slowly creeps up on us when we close the last page of a great book.  Some of us, after a good read, might even have the same expression on our faces as Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene which is depicted on the cover of Nancy’s book.  So the list of books below were the ones that brought me jouissance this year; or if I may be so bold as to say they were the standout books that caused me to experience a literary orgasm.

coming

Two Lines 25 is published by Two Lines Press and this 192-page volume contains fascinating literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish.  What excited me most about this collection is that it introduced me to the philosophy and writings of Jean-Luc Nancy.

The writing of Jean-Luc Nancy is one of my favorite literary and philosophical discoveries this year.  I have read three of his books: Corpus, Listening and Coming.  His philosophy explores what it means to be human and he deals with subjects of touching, listening, desiring and loving.  My review of Coming will be out next month and I have so many thoughts about this slim volume that is only 168 pages.

Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev is a haunting reflection on what life was like for the author during the years of the Soviet Union.  Lebedev’s prose is dense and poetic and so thoughtful that I found myself rereading entire sections of the book multiple times.  I am very excited that Lebedev has another novel forthcoming from New Vessel Press entitled The Year of the Comet.

War Music by Christopher Logue is a book that I dismissed as soon as I saw it in the FS&G catalog because I don’t usually read any time of modern retellings of Ancient myths.  But Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed had such great things to say about it that I decided to give it a try and I am so glad that I did.  I have so many things to say just about the first 50 pages of this book that I am not sure how I am going to handle a review.  I am thinking of doing several short pieces on each section of Logue’s poem.  As far as retellings are concerned, I also discovered Christa Wolf based on his suggestion and I thoroughly enjoyed her Medea and Cassandra.

Seagull Books Catalog.  It’s unusual to find a catalog on a best of list, but the one that Seagull publishes each year is very special.  It includes writing from authors, translators and even bloggers from all over the world.  This year I was invited to contribute to the catalog and some of my favorite literary bloggers also have pieces in the catalog.  Selections from Roughghosts, Times Flow Stemmed,   Tony’s Reading List and of shoes ‘n ships can all be found in this fabulous collection of art and literature.

The Brother by Rein Raud is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world. It my favorite title from Open Letters this year whose books are fantastic.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is a skillfully written and poetic novel which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The ways in which he must navigate his life and his art around the Soviet regime are heartbreaking.

The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist is a true literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable. Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book. Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side. For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read. So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K. I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years. This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century. Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.

Berlin-Hamlet: Poems by Szilárd Borbély is my favorite collection of poetry this year published by NYRB Poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép are stunning. I find it so sad and tragic that the author succumbed to his deep sense of sadness and took his own life.

American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag is another work of non-fiction that was one of my favorites this year.  Kaag’s journey from Hell to Redemption in his own personal life via the 10,000 books in Ernest Hocking’s personal library gave me an entirely new appreciation for American philosophers. Kaag also reminds us of the amazing resiliency of the human spirit and that no matter what we might suffer we must keep moving forward.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books Poetry, Nonfiction, Persephone Books, Philosophy, Poetry, Russian Literature, Seagull Books

Subscription Plans: A Great Way to Support Small Presses

In this post I will highlight some of my favorite small and indie presses that offer its readers subscription plans.  By offering subscriptions a press is able to fund upcoming publications and readers get a fantastic discount on books.  These are a few of my favorites and this is by no means an exhaustive list.   I have included links to all presses for those who want more information on each plan.  Please add any additional suggestions in the comments:

new-vessel-subscription-planNew Vessel Press: A subscription of New Vessel books includes all six of their books for the publication year.  Subscribers also get to choose one book from their backlist.  The cost is $80 which amounts to about 25% off of the cover prices.  I haven’t read a book from New Vessel yet that I haven’t enjoyed.  This year’s titles include If Venice Dies and A Very Russian Christmas so this subscription is definitely worth it.  New Vessel Subscription Page.

Two Lines Press:  I embarrassed myself with a gushing review of Two Lines 25, a collection of international writing for which the Two Lines editors have scoured the world.   A copy of Two Lines 25 is included with a subscription and to me that alone is worth the price of admission.  Two Lines is also one of my favorite subscriptions because every year they send some sort of book related gift to their subscribers.  This year is was a package of postcards which all contained quotes from their latest books.  A subscription for 2016 is only $40 ($80 International) and you get four fabulous books.  Two Lines Press Subscription Page

Deep Vellum: This non-profit press offers subscriptions of five or ten books and they also provide a few options with each subscriptions.  Readers can choose both paperback and ebook versions of their books for $60 or the ebook versions alone for $50.  International subscriptions are a bit more pricey at $150.  But Deep Vellum also puts out a large variety of fantastic books that are translated from languages around the world. Deep Vellum Subscription Page.

Archipelago Books: Archipelago is also a non-profit press dedicated to publishing contemporary and classic world literature.  A one-year subscription of print books which archipelago-subscriptionincludes twelve of their titles is $170.  A full-year of ebooks is $70 and a half year subscription for six books is also $70. They provide a lot of choices depending on one’s budget.  Subscribers who are really passionate about their books and want to spend some money up front can also purchase two or three year subscriptions. Archipelago Books Subscription Page

And Other Stories: This is one of my favorite book subscriptions because they offer a recurring subscription.  I don’t have to worry about there being a gap in the books I receive because I’ve forgotten to renew.  I wish that other publishers would follow suit and also do an auto renewal option.  I was very impressed that And Other Stories sent out a lengthy survey recently to its subscribers asking for ways in which they could improve their service.  They also offer a range of options to fit different budgets: 6 books a year for £50 in UK/Europe/USA/Canada (approx $80 US), 4 books a year for £35 in UK/Europe/USA/Canada (approx $55 US), 2 books a year for £20 in UK/Europe/USA/Canada (approx $32 US).  And Other Stories also prints the names of subscribers in their books since it is the funds from these readers that have helped to publish their books. And Other Stories Subscription Page

Open Letter: This small press also specializes in world literature in English translation (notice a theme here.)  One of my favorite books this year,  The Brother by Rein Raud, has been translated from the Estonian and published by Open Letter.  They offer a six month subscription for $60 or a twelve month subscription for $100.  Shipping is free within the U.S. for both subscriptions.  I love that each new release comes with a letter from the publisher which explains the book and how they came to publish it.  Open Letter Subscription Page

Persephone Books: Persephone specializes in reprinting neglected fiction and non-fiction by (mostly) female twentieth century writers.  A friend who has impeccable taste in books sent me a copy of Greenery Street and I have been hooked on their titles ever since!  They offer a six month subscription for £60 or a twelve month subscription for £120.  For an additional fee they will also gift wrap the books.  Subscribers get to choose which books they would like to receive from their catalog of 120 titles.  My husband bought me a Persephone twelve month subscription for my birthday last year and it was delightful to receive a new Persephone title each month.  It’s the gift that keeps on giving.  Persephone Books Subscription Page

nyrbplustpr-450pxThe New York Review of Books:  This press also specializes in reissuing lost classics from different countries around the world.  They call their product a “book club” but it is essentially a subscription service.   For $140 members receive a book every month for 12 months and the membership automatically renews.  For a limited time NYRB is also offering a four issue subscription to The Paris Review when readers purchase a membership.  I can’t get enough of the books from NYRB classics and I might have to buy a storage unit to house all of my books from their catalog.  I will pretty much read anything they publish and $140 is a pretty good bargain for a year’s worth of their books.  NYRB Book Club Page

Melville House: This indie press based in New York publishes a series called “The Art of the Novella.”  They have published classic novellas written by Chekov, Tolstoy, Melville and Woolfe just to name a few.  Subscribers can choose a hard copy book for $12.99 per month, an ebook for $6.99 per month or both for $17.99 per month.  Subscribers are automatically billed monthly until they choose to opt out of the service.  This is a great option for someone who wants to try a subscription and not spend a lot of money.  Melville House Novella Subscription Page

Peirene Press: Peirene specializes in contemporary European novellas and short novels in English translation. All of their books are best-sellers and/or award-winners in their own countries. They only publish books of less than 200 pages that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD. As an added bonus, their books are beautifully designed paperback editions, using only the best paper from sustainable British sources.  A one-year Peirene subscription is £35.00 and members receive a book every four months.  There is also the option to sign up for automatic renewal (UK only). Peirene Press Subscription Page   Peirene has also decided to crowd fund Peirene Now! No. 2 on kickstarter. For a pledge of only £12 supporters will receive a copy of the book which looks like another fantastic and thought-provoking read.  Peirene Now! 2 Kickstarter Page

Pushkin Press: A one year subscription to Pushkin Press is £95.00 and subscribers receive one book each month from the Pushkin Collection, a %25 discount on all purchases from the pushkin-collectionPushkin online bookshop, and a free copy of Stefan Zweig’s novella Confusion.   The Pushkin Collection is a series of paperbacks typeset in Monotype Baskerville, based on the transitional English serif typeface designed in the mid-eighteenth century by John Baskerville. It was litho-printed on Munken Premium White Paper and notch-bound by the independently owned printer TJ International in Padstow, Cornwall.  The cover, with French flaps, was printed on Colorplan Pristine White paper. Pushkin Press Subscription Page

Vibrant Margins:  Ben Winston has started this fantastic subscription service that delivers to its subscribers a variety of books from several different small presses.  According to the website, “Great novels from small presses are out there. Let us find them and deliver them to your doorstep.”  For their debut season they have chosen titles from Dzanc Books, Restless Books, Lanternfish Press, Unthank Books, The Heart and the Hand Press, and New Door Books. Subscribers receive a new book every month and can choose two, three or six books for as low as $15.33 per book.  This is a great way to try a variety of small press books.  I will be reviewing two of the titles from their debut season later in the month and doing a giveaway.  So stay tuned!  Vibrant Margins Bookstore Page

For my next post maybe I will dare to dive into the world of literary magazines!

 

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Filed under Opinion Posts

Review: The Brother by Rein Raud

I received a review copy of this title from Open Letter  Books via Edelweiss.  The book was first published in the original Estonian in 2008 and this English version has been translated by Adam Cullen.

My Review:
the-brotherKarma, comeuppance, what comes around goes around.  There are many terms and phrases for the universal of idea of cause and affect.  The Brother is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world.   The author himself has described the book as “a spaghetti western told in poetic prose, simultaneously paying tribute to both Clint Eastwood and Alessandro Baricco.”  The plot of this book is a clever structure for the philosophical and existential ideas that the author explores.  When a mysterious man, simply known as Brother, arrives in the unnamed town it is a dark and stormy day and the weather reflects the turmoil that three shady and crooked men have caused for the townspeople.

Brother finds Laila, his long-lost sister and explains why they have never met.  Brother simply states that his sudden appearance is caused by his desire to fulfill the dying wish of their father by helping Laila out of a tough time.  How Brother became privy to this information no one knows but the men who have swindled Laila out of her home and her inheritance are very nervous at Brother’s mysterious presence.  Brother’s imposing figure, with his large boots and long, black overcoat certainly cause these three men a fair amount of consternation, but it is also evident that their own guilty consciences are driving their actions.

Laila appears, at first, to be a sad and lonely woman whose entire life has revolved around an ancient family villa where she lived with her mother.  She describes her childhood as one in which she spend trying to be invisible.  At school she realized very quickly that she was much smarter than the other students but feigned stupidity so that she would not stand out among the others.  She felt that being an honors student and winning awards would draw negative attention to her in the form of jealousy so she maintained average grades and a low profile.  Laila seems to have been the perfect victim of the notary, the banker and the lawyer.

But Laila doesn’t act the part of a downtrodden victim; she enjoys her new life working in an antique shop and losing the villa allows her to break free and escape from her past.  As Laila’s life gets better and becomes happier with a newfound brother, a new job and eventually a new place to live, the three crooks in town experience a significant decline in their own fortunes.  These three men all blame Brother for their streak of bad luck even though Brother has in no way tried to exact any vengeance for the crimes against Laila.  Brother becomes the symbol for the forces in the universe that divvy out proper fate and just punishments.

But just like in life, people are not always so easily placed in a good guy or bad guy category and there is some gray area.  Willem, the banker’s assistant, is tasked with finding out who Brother is and if, in fact, he is Laila’s biological brother.  All of the evil characters in the story are known simply by their profession, such as the notary, the banker and the lawyer.  The good people or the victims, like Laila, are given real names.  It appears that Willem, as the banker’s henchman would fit into the evil category.  But in the end he does have more of a conscience than the other villains and finds some redemption.  In westerns the bad guys wear black hats and the good guys wear white hats and I think Raud’s use of names or occupations in place of names is a subtle way of using the same type of imagery to point us to the heroes and the villains.

And the title “Brother” is neither a true name or an occupation but, to me, it seemed more of a term of endearment.  Raud doesn’t even use an article and write “The Brother” but simply calls his hero “Brother.”  My twin nephews who are eight years-old oftentimes call each other or refer to each other as “Brother”;  I have always found it so sweet because they especially use it when they are helping each other or are being protective of one another.  Similarly, Raud’s uses “Brother” as a title to set the same tone of kind helper and hero for Laila’s long-lost sibling.

This appears to be the first book of Raud’s translated into English and I was so thoroughly impressed with his language, imagery and characters.  I hope more of his works will be translated into English and published in the U.S.

About the Author:
r-raudRein Raud is the author of four books of poetry, six novels, and several collections of short fiction. He’s also a scholar in Japanese studies and has translated several works of Japanese into Estonian. One of his short pieces appeared in Best European Fiction 2015.

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Novella