Sunday, March 16, 2014

Light Reading That Wishes It Were a Little Heavier: Three Quick Takes

It’s rare that I read—and actually finish—three books in a row that don’t inspire much reflection, thought, or emotion. Either negative or positive. The three books below are a strange bunch: they all passed the treadmill test, meaning I spent miles plodding along a moving belt, enjoying my reading and, thus, even my walks. For better or worse—worse, I’d guess—all three books felt like they wanted to be, in the words of one of my college housemates, heavy, deep, and real. Meaning serious literature. That’s probably “worse” because all three felt a little lighter, shallower, and more artificial than they might or should have. All three felt a little safer than they might have, too, as if their authors didn’t develop them as much as they could have. Although I’m doubly sorry about that because all three books did keep me reading, the good news is that all three books are debuts: perhaps their authors will take more chances next time.

Albena Stambolova’s Everything Happens as It Does, which I read in Olga Nikolova’s translation of the Bulgarian novel Tova e kakto stava, knits together events in the lives of a family or two. There’s no dialogue to speak of and everything—life, love, death—just happens because it does, no real questions asked. Meaning the book seems to be about fatalism, which feels a little hypnotizing. The reader doesn’t know much about why anything happens in this book—why Margarita suddenly has a laptop, why her twin brother Valentin follows her, why Boris with the bees ends up a father—but not knowing why is apparently the point. Everything Happens as It Does is told in a flat narrative voice that contributes to the hypnotizing effect of the book and the feeling of inevitability. It couldn’t have been easy for Nikolova to translate.

The Book of Jonah, by Joshua Max Feldman, combines two plotlines: Jonah, a youngish Manhattan lawyer, is trying to make partner at his law firm and trying to decide which of two girlfriends to make his partner outside work; and Judith, a youngish woman whose life has seemed nearly perfect until tragedy hits, is trying to figure out where she fits in the world. Both are Jewish, and Feldman includes a mystical Jewish thread in the book that inspires Jonah to reassess his life and failings. The Book of Jonah had the most promise early on, when it read most like social satire set in New York City, post-crash, during the time of smart phones… there were some funny scenes and lines, which made this the most enjoyable of the three books, but location changes to Amsterdam and Las Vegas felt artificial.

The car in which Heydrich was wounded
Finally, there’s Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which I read in Sam Taylor’s smooth translation from the original French. This novel about writing a historical novel about Josef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš and their mission to assassinate Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich in Prague takes hemming and hawing about detail to extremes: the narrator fusses over historical detail in ways that might inspire respect (he wants to get things right) or annoyance (does the color of Heydrich’s car really, truly matter when Nazism is the topic?). Despite winning a Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, HHhH doesn’t feel original and shapely enough to be great fiction, and that’s largely because the balances of objectivity-subjectivity and narrator-subject felt askew. That’s not just because Heydrich’s doings—like forming the Einsatzgruppen—were so horrifying and the narrator’s decisions about car color feel so trivial by comparison. All the narrator’s hemming and hawing about familiar thoughts on truth, certainty, and writing fiction ended up padding the book so much that it became a little dull, despite my interest in learning more about Heydrich, Gabčík, and Kubiš. I agree with M.A. Orthofer’s Complete Review assessment that HHhH would make a good young adult novel.

Disclaimers: I received Everything Happens as It Does from Open Letter Books and The Book of Jonah from Henry Holt and Company. Thanks to both!

Up Next: It remains to be seen…

Photo: Creative Commons, from Bundesarchiv.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Lost and Found: The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra

Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra—which I read in Nick Caistor’s translation of a book known in Spanish as simply Salvatierra—is a wonderful sliver of a novel narrated by a man who returns to his hometown after his father’s death. He comes back to sort through his father’s art but the skeleton of the story, which is a mystery of sorts, is fairly (arche)typical—return to childhood places, family secrets, and so on—so it’s Mairal’s details, atmosphere, and vivid description that keep Salvatierra intresting.

Juan Salvatierra loses the ability speak as a child then becomes a postal worker and artist as a man, painting one huge mural a year to depict events in his life. After Salvatierra’s death, a European museum buys the rolls of canvas, which have been stored away in a shed and would measure a total of two miles, unrolled. Everything’s there but one roll, the missing year of the title: 1961, when the narrator was ten.

In Salvatierra, art imitates life, life imitates art, art imitates art, and art helps resurrect lost memories. Through his art, Salvatierra also shows his sons his life before they were born, including his own wedding, where veins—bloodlines—join and even flow into the river. The bloodlines also flow from the past into the present, and the river plays a key part in solving the mystery of the missing mural. It’s not just blood and the river that flow: the whole book flows, flows, flows, through memories and murals and old acquaintances.

Best of all, the flow of Salvatierra is a lot like the flow of Juan Salvatierra’s paintings. It feels silly to write much about Salvatierra when this one line sums up the book’s effect so concisely:
He wanted his painting to encapsulate the fluidity of a river, of dreams, the way in which they can transform things in a completely natural way without the change seeming absurd but entirely inevitable, as if he were revealing the violent metamorphosis hidden within each being, thing, or situation.
Bonus link: An interview with translator Nick Caistor, from World Literature Today.
Up Next: Joshua Max Feldman’s The Book of Jonah.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Banality of Evil, Once More: Monsieur Le Commandant

Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur Le Commandant: A Wartime Confession, which I read in Jesse Browner’s translation from the original French, is one of the more sordid World War 2 novels I’ve read in some time. Most of Monsieur Le Commandant is in letter form: Paul-Jean Husson writes one long letter, dated 4 September 1942, to Herr Sturmbannführer H. Schöllenhammer, “Le Commandant” of the title. The letter was ostensibly found “by the German documentary film-maker Peter Klemm among family papers abandoned in a Leipzig rubbish dump not far from a group of buildings under demolition.”

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H25217, Henry Philippe Petain und Adolf Hitler.jpg
Pétain and Hitler, 1940. Photo: Das Bundesarchiv, via Wikipedia
Husson—a World War 1 hero, committed Pétain follower, and snooty anti-Semite—writes to Le Commandant to ask a favor. On behalf of his daughter-in-law, for whom he feels [cue “sordid”] forbidden feelings… Since much of Husson’s story is fairly predictable, I don’t think it spoils much [that’s an alert of sorts!] to say his daughter-in-law, Ilse, is German and Jewish, which makes Husson’s ardor all the more forbidden, thanks to his odious beliefs, which he often illustrates using anti-Semitic clichés. Husson is such a charmer that it came as absolutely no surprise when he said he’d cheated on his wife over the years (I even wrote “what a jerk!” in the margin) with hundreds of women, many of whom he claims were attracted to his stump and prosthesis. He thinks his wife “wisely chose to turn a blind eye and not dig too deeply.”

Though Monsieur Le Commandant has a plot that includes travel through occupied France and Husson’s pursuit of Ilse while his son/her husband is at war, what interested me most was Husson as a character and as a writer. In Husson, Slocombe creates a thoroughly unappealing figure who writes things like, “Against my own will, my family and my life were being ‘Judaised’. Little by little, a surreptitious leprosy was eating away the fabric of a good French Christian family.” It’s hard to even decide if Husson is a reliable or unreliable narrator: he’s so openly anti-Semitic that those feelings felt true but he’s also so melodramatic and over-the-top in his passions and, perhaps even more important, his self-expression that I had to wonder how much of what he claimed to feel was genuine and how much he was inventing himself as the (anti-) hero of his own story, for both himself and Le Commandant.

Monsieur Le Commandant works because Browner’s translation makes all Husson’s melodrama and passion seem so surrealistically and paradoxically real. Browner’s Husson feels appropriately and consistently wordy, pompous, and self-absorbed. It feels odd to say I thoroughly enjoyed Monsieur Le Commandant—the book is, of course, uncomfortable, because of Husson’s moral code—but I couldn’t put it down, thanks to the combination of Slocombe’s storytelling, the voice Browner creates for Husson, and my interest in French collaboration during World War 2.

Disclaimers: I received an advance review copy of Monsieur Le Commandant from Meryl Zegarek Public Relations. Thank you very much! The book’s publication date is listed on the book as February 21, 2014.

Up Next: Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Oh, Brother! Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers

Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers is almost too much fun for one book: one hundred (or thereabouts) brothers get together for dinner in their family’s library and all sorts of fraternal and allegorical mayhem, some of which is seemingly ritualistic and sinister, ensues. All the brothers were sired by the same father and all were born on May 23 (hmm, Geminis, like me), though in different years. There are several sets of twins among them.

Antrim hands narration duties to Doug, who’s also the family genealogist, a man who says he’s into more than just family trees, meaning he’s working on “…the deep investigation into bloodline and blood’s congenital inheritances, particularly in connection with insane monarchs.” Doug is quick to reassure the reader, “I’m not crazy. But I do have the blood of an insane monarch running through my veins. We all do.”

That’s more than enough for me to file Doug in the “unreliable narrator” category, though it’s good of him to list what must be all the brothers (I didn’t count) in the book’s initial pages. A few: Barry, “the good doctor of medicine,” whose supplies Doug will steal; Sergio the “caustic graphomaniac;” and Spencer, “the spook with known ties to the State Department.” Things start to go terribly wrong when Maxwell, recently returned from collecting botanical specimens in Costa Rica, has medical difficulty, necessitating assistance from Barry the good doctor… only to be filmed by Spencer, who’s an annoyingly intrepid documentary filmmaker for whom nothing is private.

With so many dozens of brothers, there’s a broad spectrum of professions and fears… and the brothers do all sorts of odd and illicit things in the stacks of the family library after they’ve eaten their pork chops:

Elsewhere people came and went, played card games and chess, tended to one another’s injuries, chased the bats. These men’s lives seemed, for the moment, untouched by far. But I did not envy them. I felt the way humans must have felt in earlier times, at the dawn of our history, when the world was alive with primitive dangers and life depended for preservation on the graces and fancies of hateful gods.

Enter the Corn King, a sacrificial character Doug plays during each annual dinner because, damn it, sacrifice and abasement are, according to Doug (and probably millions of other people) the essence of family get-togethers. The brothers have always hurt each other and now they carry knives and hunt Doug down in the library, too, with Dobermans watching and bats circling. What more can I say? This is my kind of book about family gatherings, ties, and rituals. I’d have loved it even if there hadn’t been bats.

Up Next: Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur Le Commandant and Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, both of which I also enjoyed.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Belated Happy New Year! & Favorites from 2013

Happy New Year, a bit late! Thank you for your visits and may 2014 bring you lots of enjoyable reading!

Last year went by in such a rush that I was surprised to look back on my list of 2013 blog posts and find I’d read so many fun books that it was difficult to pick favorites. Of course that’s partly because I abandon a lot of books I don’t like, skewing my public results, but it’s largely because publishers and publicists have been sending me so many good books. That’s especially nice because many of them are books I’d never hear about otherwise. The only downside is that I rarely seem to get to all the books I buy at the bookstore and the annual library book sale! Anyway, without further fuss, here are some favorites from 2013…

Favorite Lost Classics. I only read a couple in 2013 but I loved them both: Pitigrilli’s 1921 Cocaine, translated by Eric Mosbacher (previous post), and Antal Szerb’s 1937 Journey by Moonlight, translated by Len Rix (previous post). I noted some surface similarities in my post about Cocaine: “decadence between the World Wars… humor, soul searching, friends who become monks, and sad endings.” I’d recommend both.

Favorite Book Written in English. Probably J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (previous post), another between-the-wars book. This one got short shrift here because of my summer travel; I particularly enjoyed the combination of melancholy and humor. (That seems to be a constant…)

Favorite Book Translated by Someone I Know. Inga Ābele’s High Tide, which I read in Kaija Straumanis’s translation (previous post), was a stealth favorite in 2013: with its backwards chronology and blend of characters, the book couldn’t have been easy to translate but Kaija’s English version reads beautifully.

Overall Favorite. I think my top book for 2013 has to be Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza, translated by Sam Garrett: I called it “a spectacularly compelling portrayal of a spectacularly awful personal breakdown” in my previous post. And the book has stuck with me: thanks to Grunberg’s ability to convey both melancholy and humor (there they are again!), I can still see and hear Jörgen Hofmeester in all his anti-glory. Though Tirza was my clear favorite, I did have to stop and think about two other books (yes, they’re also funny-and-sad), just to be sure I was sure: Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray, translated by Angela Rodel (previous post), and Bragi Ólafsson’s The Pets, translated by Janice Balfour (previous post).

Up Next. Who knows what the rest of 2014 will bring, but it got off to a great start with Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, which makes me happy because it’s from a new publisher, New Vessel Press, that specializes in translations. Doubly happy because I seem to read quite a few books from publishers that focus on translations. Two others books are waiting to be written up: Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers, which I also liked quite a bit, and Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur Le Commandant, another one that gets a thumbs up.

Disclosures: The usual. Individual previous posts include individual disclosures about books.