Monday, July 28, 2014

A Quick Run Through Running through Beijing

Every now and then I read a book and want to dispense with blogging and write something quick like, “Just read the book, you’ll enjoy it.” That’s how I feel about Xu Zechen’s Running through Beijing, which I read in Eric Abrahamsen’s translation from the Chinese: the novel offers a wonderfully concise portrayal of purveyors of false identities and DVDs, all told with gentle humor and atmospheric details that feel real and precise rather than showoffy or gratuitous.

Running Through Beijing by Xu ZechenRunning through Beijing begins when a man, Dunhuang, is released from prison into the fine grit of a dust storm. He makes his way back to Beijing after serving three months for selling fake IDs and has little other than his resolve to earn money so he can set his partner, Bao Ding, who took the fall, free from a longer sentence. Soon after arriving in the city, Dunhuang meets a DVD seller, Kuang Xia, and they quickly fall into a romance of sorts—she’s separated (kind of) from her DVD supplier, Kuang Shan—that gets off to an auspicious start when Dunhuang scams the owners of a hotpot restaurant where they go to eat and drink.

On many levels, Running through Beijing doesn’t feel particularly remarkable: it simply tells the story of Dunhuang’s romances and business dealings, describing his trips around town on a bicycle (which is stolen in more ways than one) and, of course, running. What’s interesting is the texture of the novel, by which I mean more than just the elements—the basement bunk and backyard shed Dunhuang rents as housing, or the shadow economy and markets for various types of pirated goods—that are obviously foreign for an American reader like me who has never been to China. There is all that dust and blurriness, there is the feeling of “a year of bad omens” because everyone’s in jail, and there are all the movies Dunhuang sells and even begins to watch. Among them, of course, are The Bicycle Thief and Run, Lola, Run. It’s no wonder Two Lines Press made a movie card to send with the book. The online DVD playlist lacks a Bollywoodesque cover so isn’t as stylish but it does have links to video.

What appealed to me most in Running through Beijing, though, might be its most universal layer: continuums of fake and real. Is the love real or only for convenience? What about the friendships? The IDs are fake, and so are the DVDs, which all contain movies that imitate life (or maybe vice versa?). Then there are the porn DVDs, which show what, exactly? There are also loyalties, particularly Dunhuang’s for Bao Ding, who hardly seems to care. And we have the characters’ identities, too, the stuff not printed on official (or pirated) cards. Here’s a brief passage from when Dunhuang passes himself off as a doctoral student in film while he’s living in the basement. One of his roommates is a philosopher, and Dunhuang gets nervous:
It was all a big lie, for one thing. For another, of all the academic subjects that hinged on the Chinese language, philosophy was the one he respected the most. That instinctual reverence began while he was studying at his miserable vocational school. He had no idea how you did philosophy. It was mystery upon mystery; you couldn’t see it or touch it, and as far as he was concerned it was no different from witchcraft or sorcery.
Finally, I thought Eric Ambrahamsen’s translation read nicely, with crisp, clear dialogue, and that gentle humor I mentioned earlier. Best of all, he finds nice momentum in short sentences to keep the narrative running along, something that’s not always easy.

Disclaimers: I bought Running through Beijing under a Two Lines Press subscription plan. I published one of my first translations (a story by Margarita Khemlin) with Two Lines a few years ago, in the Counterfeits issue of their “World Writing in Translation” series. Two Lines subscriptions, by the way, are very affordable!

Up Next: My trip back to the Middle Ages begins with John L’Heureux’s art-heavy The Medici Boy and then, OMG, there’s Erika Johansen’s schlockily sociological The Queen of the Tearling, which attempts, not very successfully, to give dystopia a medieval feel with contemporary sensibilities.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

It’s a Mystery: Three to Keep Me Guessing

Hmm, three detective novels in a row is something of a record for me: it’s a mystery in and of itself that I pulled the books off the shelves that way. Here’s a post with all three, to get caught up…

I’ve had a soft spot for detective Hank Palace, the narrator of Ben H. Winters’s World of Trouble, ever since I read The Last Policeman (previous post), the first novel in a trilogy that ends with World of Trouble. Palace is a down-to-earth, loyal guy who continues investigating crimes despite the fact that an asteroid is hurtling toward earth and about to destroy everything. In World of Trouble, Palace and his ailing dog, Houdini, have come to Ohio to find Palace’s sister, who’s disappeared. Disappearances aren’t unusual in these fictional end days: people have been going “bucket list” for ages but Palace knows something bigger is amiss. There are lots of plot threads to pull in World of Trouble: an attempted murder, a search for a concrete worker, and, of course, Palace’s relationship with his family, ethics, and impending demise. Winters finds a near-perfect balance of humor, grieving, and realism, and he finishes the book in what I think must be the best possible way. Yes, I laughed and I cried, and [mild spoiler] I love the fact that Palace remains true to himself and the social compact ‘til the end. He doesn’t even yell “Police!” near the end of the book, “because I’m not a policeman anymore, I haven’t been for some time now.”

Commissioner Nicolas Le Floch, the investigator in Jean-François Parot’s The Man with the Lead Stomach, the second book in a series, isn’t quite as endearing or imperiled as Palace but this historical detective novel set in 1761 France made for worthy entertainment. I admit I was more interested in atmosphere than the mystery itself, which involves the rather grisly murder of a courtier’s son. That murder leads to another. Of course. But about that atmosphere: it’s a nice change of pace when there are no fingerprints taken, the investigator travels by horse-drawn carriage, and the detective drinks chocolate for breakfast and lots of wine with his meals, some of which are described in detail, this being a translation from the French. (I opened the book randomly to a page where a cook describes how to cut a rabbit for making pâté…) There are also smells in this early passage describing theatergoers: “There was a disconcerting contrast between their luxurious clothes, and the foul-smelling remnants of wax, earth and horse droppings with which they were soiled.” Michael Glencross’s translation from the French was particularly fun to read because it had some obscure words and terms in common with the book I was working on—this was a perfect way to see them in action in another setting and translated from another language.

Finally, a second book that originated in French: Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, which I read in Sam Taylor’s translation of La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert. The truth about The Truth is that it’s an unholy mess, a blend of a writer coming of age (well, in a sense, two writers coming of age), a satire of the publishing industry, and a murder mystery, with whiffs of Peyton Place and Lolita tossed in. In any case, Marcus (“The Magnificent”) Goldman, a blocked writer who was the toast of New York a year or so ago, comes to the aid of his former writing teacher, Harry Quebert, after Quebert, author of a much-praised novel, is accused of killing a teenage girl, Nola Kellergan, back in 1975; the accusation comes after Kellergan’s body is unearthed in Quebert’s seaside yard nearly twenty years after her disappearance. Quebert lives in Somerset, New Hampshire, so Goldman is dealing with all sorts of small-town relationships, oddballs, and secrets as he interviews townspeople in his quest to free Quebert. Dicker throws in everything from the 1998 ice storm that “paralyzed” lots of New England to the first Obama presidential campaign to lots of seagulls in what feel like attempts to create verisimilitude and capture a time but The Truth is just too filled with extraneous pages, clichéd dialogue, and bits and pieces of disparate genres to come together as a full-fledged novel. Even so, damn it, the book is moderately entertaining and I did read every page. Part of the reason was probably inordinate curiosity after hearing Dicker and his editor from Penguin, John Siciliano, speak at BookExpo America in late May… but I think I’m even more curious to see how writers—not just Dicker but also Winters and Parot—adapt and adjust the detective genre’s typical casts, aesthetics, and plot turns to fit their interests and readers. For a very detailed account of The Truth, check out The Complete Review, here.

Disclaimers: I received review copies of all three books, thank you to the publishers and/or publicists: Eric Smith of Quirk Books for World of Trouble, which will be officially released on July 15; Meryl Zegarek Public Relations for The Man with the Lead Stomach, which was published by Gallic Books; and the nice man at the Penguin booth at BEA, who pointed me to a finished copy of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair masquerading as a galley. Thank you to all!

Up Next: Xu Zechen’s Running through Beijing.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Winterbach’s Elusive Moth



I loved my sixth-grade lessons in entomology so much—How could I not? We went out on bug-hunting expeditions and collected our insects in cigar boxes!—that I suppose I’m predisposed to love Ingrid Winterbach’s Karolina Ferreira, which I read as The Elusive Moth, Iris Gouws’s and Winterbach’s translation from the Afrikaans.

The Elusive Moth contains lots of elements (beyond the bugs) that I always seem to enjoy. Karolina Ferreira comes to a small town to do moth-related field work, giving us the outside observer; she’s given a ride to an herbalist named, appropriately enough, Basil, on the way, which adds an element of chance meetings. They proceed to watch more than just plants and insects: they see a tryst in a cemetery and the hotel where Karolina stays features a ladies’ bar, which features a singer, plus there’s a snooker room where members of the local police force often hang out. All this gives them plenty of chances to monitor the local human population at least as well as the bugs and herbs. I’m not sure who’s more comprehensible.

It’s heat, drought, and a slow-growing sense of menace that let The Elusive Moth soar, though: there are hints of secrets (the affair) from the very start but underlying hints of racial tensions are a broader concern. Meanwhile, Karolina regularly dances with a “fellow” named Kolyn who has short pants, sneakers, and hairy legs; he’s nothing like Karolona’s new Buddhist boyfriend… Karolina and Kolyn dance together beautifully, she dips so her hair nearly touches the floor, she experiences “a strange, impersonal ecstasy,” and all the drinking, dancing, and game playing starts to take on a carnival feel that reminded me of nothing so much as Dawn Powell’s Dance Night (previous post), another book about a small town, though there’s more of a feel of escape wishes there.

The Elusive Moth felt sneaky and stealthy, though I knew from the start that Karolina (who’s burned most of her possessions) would necessarily be as elusive as her moth, Hebdomophruda crenilinea, which is “a small inconspicuous moth, difficult to find, pale as a shroud.” (This particular moth, BTW, is so elusive that it’s listed on Wikipedia but doesn’t have its own page.) It’s the odd little things I enjoyed so much—the singer Pol, for example, is the first to resemble an amphibian, then others do, too, and so they drink more alcohol to warm their chilling blood. And about halfway through the book, “Every variety of urine intermingled in the toilets” near the bar and snooker room, so Winterbach goes on to describe the colors. Talk about fieldwork on humans! There are also flying ants, thoughts of death and mortality, unraveling psyches, mentions of bad haircuts, a mysterious play, and much, much more, a lovely combination that won Winterbach the M-Net Book Prize and Old Mutual Literary Prize, during the 1990s, when she wrote under the pseudonym Littie Viljoen. Gouws’s and Winterbach’s translation, which includes a few Afrikaans words that made perfect sense to me within context, has a nice matter-of-fact, almost reportorial, feel to it.

Disclaimers: Thank you to Open Letter Books, a press with whom I always enjoy discussing literature in translation, for the review copy of The Elusive Moth. The book won’t be released until July 2014.

Up Next: Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star, which I liked very much but don’t quite know how to describe, and then Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Banality of Evil, Yet Again: Prose’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club


Sometimes Francine Prose’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 feels as changeable and fickle as its cross-dressing and border-crossing characters: despite the hours spent reading this 400-plus-page book with multiple narrators, I’m still not quite sure if I read a social commentary, a character sketch of a maligned woman gone bad, a World War 2 novel, or something else. It wouldn’t be difficult to generate a list of at least another dozen possibilities. The strength of Lovers is that it presents a broad and fairly engaging picture of Paris in 1932 and beyond, complete with fictional versions of Violette Morris, Brassaï, and Henry Miller, though that strength creates a weakness, too: the broadness left me wishing Lovers had been a little sharper, a little more difficult, and a little more uncomfortable. Actually, I wish it had been a lot more uncomfortable. I seem to appreciate uncomfortable books.

File:Violette Morris 1913 (01).jpg
Violette Morris, 1913
Prose’s letter to readers in my review copy of Lovers begins by noting that the idea for the novel came from Brassaï’s photograph “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932”: the woman on the right in the photo is Violette Morris, a French athlete, race car driver, and collaborator with Germany during World War 2. In Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Morris morphs into Lou Villars, and Le Monocle is replaced with the Chameleon Club, a place where men dress as women and vice versa. Villars works there and Gabor Tsenyi, the Brassaï stand-in, frequents the place, as does his eventual patron Lily de Rossignol, whose husband owns a motorcar company. There’s chameleon-like behavior all around.

Prose hands the narrative off to her main characters: notably, Gabor writes letters home to his parents; we get bits of books by Lionel Maine, the Miller stand-in; memoir material from Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi that was supposed to be destroyed “on occasion of its author’s death” is published; and Lily de Rossignol tells all in A Baroness by Night. There are also chapters from The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars, written by a certain Nathalie Dunois, who shares a surname with Suzanne. All these accounts combine to create what inevitably becomes a mosaic of the narrators’ varied political, social, and sexual passions and alliances. The accounts sometimes coincide and sometimes vary but if I were to place one character at the center of the book, it would be Lou Villars, who transforms from merely a sad character who’s gone through family difficulties and a disappointing romance with a lovely but treacherous dancer, Arlette, (her partner in the fictional version of the Brassaï photo), to, as I wrote above, a Nazi collaborator. Lou even has a star-struck dinner with Hitler in 1936, when she takes a trip to Berlin for the Olympics.

The numerous voices combine nicely, sometimes even humorously, creating a nearly polyphonic novel. Still, I came away from the book—which I enjoyed and which I think is structurally and thematically fairly sound—thinking that truth truly is stranger than fiction and that Lovers at the Chameleon Club felt a little too cautious, a feeling I often get when I read fiction based on fact. I had a similar reaction to Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which features Reinhard Heydrich; Heydrich gets a cameo in Lovers, too. By contrast, Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur Le Commandant: A Wartime Confession, another World War 2 novel I read earlier this year, felt particularly vivid because it was so horribly uncomfortable inside fictional the Petainist narrator’s brain. And therein, I suspect, lies my small misgiving about Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Lou Villars, the collaborator, is one of the lovers in the novel’s title but the reader never quite gets to the depths (or heights) of her story because its telling is outsourced to other characters, all with ulterior motives and information deficits. I realize there are messages there, too—about the unknowable, about truth(s), and about memory—but still can’t help but feel a sense of missed opportunity and a wish for something much darker.

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of Lovers at the Chameleon Club from publisher Harper Collins. Thank you very much!

Up Next: Roberto Bolaño’s puzzlingly pleasurable Distant Star and Ingrid Winterbach’s ominously eerie The Elusive Moth.

Photo: Public domain photo (copyright has expired) of Violette Morris from Bibliothèque nationale de France, via Wikipedia.

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.