Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sofi Oksanen’s Sly Purge

Purge is a sneaky novel in both form and content, thanks to deceitful characters and sly writing from Finnish author Sofi Oksanen. Purge, which Lola Rogers translated from the Finnish original (Puhdistus), takes place primarily in Estonia and uncoils stories of decades of political and family deception. It is suspenseful and rewarding in a slow-build kind of way, and it is very difficult to describe without telling all, so I won’t tell much…

Purge begins when a young Russian woman, Zara, appears in the rural yard of an older Estonian woman, Aliide Truu, in 1992. Aliide, who seems obsessed with killing flies, sees a mound and goes outside to find a young woman with bleached-blond hair lying in her yard, wearing stockings that “didn’t bag at the knees – they were tight-knit, good stockings. Definitely Western. The knit shone in spite of the mud.”

Of course there’s a reason that Zara has shown up in Aliide’s yard, and there’s a reason Aliide is wary of Zara. Oksanen spends the novel revealing their secrets, which all somehow trace back to the political and economic difficulties of the Soviet Union. It seems that everyone in the book is hiding, either literally or figuratively, and Oksanen is the greatest cacher of all, saving crucial details for the end of the book. This is a strategy that often annoys me but, given Oksanen’s characters and topic, I think it works beautifully in Purge.

Purge spans decades – from the 1930s into the 1990s, covering World War 2 and Stalin-era informing – and shows how history repeats itself through violence and false promises of chances to better one’s life. At one point, Aliide thinks of cycles of history and how, no matter who’s in charge, there’s always “a boot on your neck nevertheless.” If you read the book, watch for repetition of names and symbols. Oksanen also creates devastating portraits of the destructive power of sibling rivalry and unrequited love, as well as collaborations born from necessity.

I believe the word “purge” appears only once in the English translation of the book, in a context where it has a literal meaning of cleansing that extends, symbolically, to more psychological and political aspects of the life and identity of the character, as well as societies. And that’s all I’ll reveal about the novel. I recommend Purge to readers who enjoy psychological novels and/or are interested in Estonia, the Stalin era, or the consequences of personal or political tyranny. Purge has some brutal passages.

A bit of background on Purge from Oksanen’s Web site: “Puhdistus became a runaway success, and Sofi Oksanen’s major breakthrough: a No. 1 bestseller in Finland with sales exceeding 140 000 copies, Puhdistus has won its author numerous literary prizes, including Finland’s premier literary award, The Finlandia Award, and biggest literary award in Nordic countries, Nordic Council Literature Prize 2010.”

Many thanks to the people who have shared Purge: blogger Amy Henry of The Black Sheep Dances, who received a copy of Purge from Black Cat & Grove/Atlantic then passed it on to our mutual Goodreads friend, who sent it to me. Thank you to all. Amy’s post about Purge, which provides only sparse detail, is here. If you’re interested in more about the book, here’s Jacob Silverman’s positive review from The New Republic online.

Fly photo credit: acscom via

Disclosures: I received a copy of Purge (albeit third-hand!) from the publisher. I have discussed Russian literature in translation with Grove/Atlantic.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Breaking the Rules with Broken Glass

Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass (translated from the French by Helen Stevenson) contains something very unusual: a male-versus-female pissing contest. But it completely lacks one of the standard elements of fiction: periods that denote the ends of sentences.

The novel’s narrator, Broken Glass, a heavy drinker of red wine who hangs out at a Congolese bar called Credit Gone West (proprietor: Stubborn Snail) strings thousands of words together, punctuating with commas and occasional spaces between paragraphs and unnumbered chapters. The wonder of Broken Glass is that, somehow, this all works, thanks to a combination of tragic and comic material, and oral and written storytelling. Stubborn Snail has given Broken Glass a notebook and asked him to write down stories about the people around him.

This is a novel about storytelling and myth, where everyone wants his tale told “properly,” so Broken Glass first underscores the importance of finding the right words for posterity. Broken Glass tells how the president demands that his cabinet search history for a slogan -- he’s jealous that the minister of agriculture found oratorical success by using “I accuse” in a speech. (I’m presuming this is a borrowing of “J’accuse”…) Someone comes up with “I have understood you” (evidently from Charles de Gaulle) after undertaking the task under threat of a Chaka Zulu spear and the sword of Damocles.

That combination of African history and Greek legend is an early hint of how Mabanckou uses differing traditions and registers to make the book lots of fun despite sad stories: we go from literal uses of “shit” to quick references to Don Quixote, Alice in Wonderland, Lenin and electricity, and Dr. Zhivago. (I’m afraid my recognition of references to French literature is quite weak.) The language in Helen Stevenson’s translation has a real verbatim feel, making this book a paradoxical written account of wandering stories – e.g. men talking about their wives acting unjustly toward them, with harsh consequences – that wouldn’t usually be recorded, at least not in this way.

The paradox is mirrored in Broken Glass himself. I see him as a one-man struggle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. He describes all sorts of earthy, bodily things – the afore-mentioned bathroom stuff plus sex – throwing in headier references to literature, history, his past career as a teacher, and the desire to be a writer, an artist. Then there’s all that red wine, which sure reminds me of Bacchus. The book feels thoroughly suffused with carnival and grotesque exaggeration, which is particularly apparent when Broken Glass describes the pissing contest, which seems to go on forever, in front of spectators. A bet involving sex underlies the event, and the contest summary lasts for about five pages, mentioning bad smells, Mardi Gras, and Lourdes.

Carnival always makes me think of affirming life while acknowledging death, so the river that flows through Broken Glass resembles the river of words that tells the stories. Like the words and stories, the river serves noble and lowly functions: a grave, an instrument of death, and a place for waste. I always imagine rivers ending a little like the book does, mysteriously or maybe suddenly – either petering out or flowing into an ocean – but without a true full stop. With form and content so intertwined, the endless stories, substories, and references of Broken Glass, told with Mabanckou’s jazzy and profane riffs, are more than just a stream of meaningless words.

Thank you to Soft Skull Press for giving me a review copy of Broken Glass at Book Expo America.

A few reviews:

The Complete Review gives Broken Glass a B+ here

Words Without Borders reviews Broken Glass here

The Boston Globe review

The Critical Flame’s review is here

Up next: Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, Maile Chapman’s Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto, and Julia Holmes’s Meeks.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Doomed at Point Dume

When I first heard about Katie Arnoldi’s latest novel, Point Dume, I thought Arnoldi must have invented the place name in the title to conjure up an eerie, edgy atmosphere. Oh, was I -- ever the East Coaster -- wrong. Point Dume is, according to Wikipedia, a promontory in Malibu, California. Which means Point Dume is a real place name that makes a great title for a novel.

The problem with great titles: they raise great reader expectations. I knew the book involved marijuana growing on public lands – there’s even a marijuana leaf on the cover – and I hoped for creepy, sleazy stuff with a noirish and, well, doomed feel. I got something a little different: a mixture of surfing, vineyards, abuse of controlled substances, family dysfunction, and community tensions… but not nearly as much pot growing and edginess as I wanted.

The best parts of the book come toward the end, when Arnoldi describes the loneliness of an illegal Mexican worker hired to tend pot crops: she finally draws people and nature into conflicts that go beyond her familiar old-timers-against-new-residents material. Point Dume read easily and quickly, perhaps because it felt less like a novel than five familiar back stories with varying narrative tones. If that’s your style, you’ll love the book. Pot and land use link everyone:

Ellis Gardner is a surfer and lifelong resident of Point Dume. A close narrator describes Ellis and her thoughts, many of which are rather uncharitable. The first paragraph of the book ends with “What she really needed was a new truck. Whatever.” Fine, whatever.

Pablo Schwartz has also lived in Point Dume for years. He seems most popular in town for selling pot under brands like Blueberry Madness; he pilfers it from farmers. Pablo has a thing for Ellis. Pablo’s story is told in the first person, with a sense of humor but some didacticism.

Frank may or may not have a last name. Frank is a BMW-driving vineyard owner whose wife Janice buys pot from Pablo. I’d say Frank and Janice drive each other a little crazy. Oh, Frank has a thing for Ellis, too. Frank and Janice get third-person narratives that include large doses of cliché and irony: Frank’s first chapter is called “Poor Frank,” and Janice’s is “Who is Janice?”

Felix Duarte is the Mexican worker who comes to Point Dume to earn money for his family by tending pot plants. Felix starts out sounding as typical as everyone else in Point Dume but his lack of companionship drives him to do some peculiar things. Arnoldi uses a neutral third-person narrative to describe Felix’s situation. He is, arguably, the book’s most sympathetic character.

Felix, Pablo, and their illegal activities kept me reading the book but they received far less ink than I thought they deserved: I’d already met everyone else -- and their stories -- many times in books, movies, and articles. I thought Arnoldi only began taking real writerly risks when Felix started to lose his mind and approach that frightening edge I’d been wanting to see. It’s too bad Arnoldi didn’t start the book about halfway in and given us more about marijuana farming and its many costs.

Disclosures: Thank you to Overlook Press for a review copy of Point Dume. I have discussed Russian literature in translation with Overlook.

Up next: Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass or Sofi Oksanen’s Purge… whichever entry I finish first.

Photo credit: aerial view of Point Dume from Chris McClave, via Wikipedia.

Monday, July 12, 2010

On Revisiting A Сlockwork Orange After 25 Years

I suppose it’s fitting that my first post on this new blog concerns Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange: the book combines my native language (English) with my second language (Russian), and I decided to reread it after I found similar themes in a Russian novel, Mikhail Elizarov’s Мультики (‘Toons), which I wrote about here on my Russian literature blog, Lizok’s Bookshelf.

The story of A Clockwork Orange – with all its talk about religion, free will, teenage violence, reformation, and redemption – still intrigues but it was Burgess’s use of language that grabbed me most in my first reading of the book in about 25 years. (I won’t summarize the plot since Wikipedia does.) Alex, the book’s first-person narrator, is a violent teenager who speaks in a youth slang that blends Russian with English, and Burgess wrings maximum effect out of both languages. “Creech,” for example, comes from the Russian verb кричать (krichat’, pronounced roughly kreechaht, scream) but evokes “screech,” too. And “rabbit,” similar to the Russian noun and verb for work -- работа (rabota) and работать, respectively -- makes work sound awfully meek. Then there’s “gulliver” for head, a nifty blend of the Russian голова (golova, gahlahvah) and Gulliver, the guy with the travels.

There’s so much Russian in A Clockwork Orange that it was far easier to read the book now than when I was in college. The blend of languages still feels jarring – the Russian words aren’t always transliterated exactly, and some are adapted – but I have to admit I missed the mystery I felt when reading the book before. Reading then was a more intense experience of ostranenie that forced me to see English, Russian, and language itself differently. As I sorted through the puzzle of words, I had to follow and trust Burgess’s narrator, Alex, when he used terms in context to display their meanings. There’s a strange, eerie irony in growing accustomed to Alex’s language as he describes ultraviolent episodes with lots of blood.

One of my favorite Russian terms in the book is “oddy knocky,” lonely, a split and quirky but nearly accurate transliteration of the Russian adjective “одинокий.” The word, which sounds to me like knocking around in an odd way, is perfect for the book, given Burgess’s presentation of personal choices, government control, and Alex’s attempt to find his place in the world, even as he separates himself through language, and narcissistic and sociopathic behavior.

[Beware: Plot turns revealed!] Strangely, I didn’t realize that my book, dated 1980, is incomplete, missing a final, 21st chapter, in which Alex makes a decision that changes almost everything. I’m so used to the 20th chapter ending, which I see expressing pessimism about human nature as Alex prepares to return to ultraviolence, that the 21st chapter, with Alex deciding to put away childhood things and abandon crime, initially felt sappy. But the chapter fits (and this is satire, after all), what with Alex’s references to the youthful achievements of his beloved composers and his very human -- dare I say adult? -- desire to avoid an oddy knocky existence by finding love.

New York Times review dated March 19, 1963 (no reviewer name)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Hello, Welcome, Review Policies, and Disclosures

Lisa’s Other Bookshelf is a companion blog to Lizok’s Bookshelf, a Russian literature blog that I began writing in 2007. I write about my non-Russian reading on Lisa’s Other Bookshelf.

Review Policy & Philosophy
I accept books from publishers, writers, and publicists who would like me to write about their books. However, I make no guarantees that I will review or otherwise write about their books; I will give books I don’t read to another blogger or reader, or to a library. I read and write on my own calendar and do not accept external deadlines, however I often like to post entries close to release dates for new books.

I write honest evaluations, opinions, and criticism of the books I read. I attempt to express both my personal feelings about the book (Did I like it?) and my thoughts on its literary merits (Do I think it’s any good?). I don’t hold back if I don’t like a book but I try to be fair and mention why I think someone else might enjoy the book more than I did.

Favorite Types of Books
I read a broad range of books, from classics to genre fiction. I am particularly interested in contemporary translated novels, novels from small presses, and books that somehow relate to places I’ve visited, especially Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. I also especially enjoy realistic dystopian novels, Jewish-interest fiction, and weird or mixed-genre detective books.

Please note that I very rarely read electronic books in English and categorically do not read or review self-published books. Please e-mail if you have questions about what might -- or might not -- fit.

The Disses: Disclaimers and Disclosures
  • As a blogger and translator, I often ask publishers about their interest in translated fiction, sometimes including my own projects. I have met and/or contacted quite a few. If I have had this sort of contact with a publisher, either in the past or at present, but do not have a contract or agreement for translation, I will write something like this: "I have discussed Russian literature in translation with X Publisher."
  • If/When I become fortunate enough to have a commercial and/or contractual relationship for translation with a publisher, I will acknowledge that relationship in any reviews of that publisher’s book(s). There may be other types of business relationships with publishers, however, that I cannot reveal publicly because of confidentiality.
  • I always thank publishers, publicists, or writers for review copies of books.
  • As I mentioned above, I’m a tough grader and don’t hold back when I write about books: my honest opinions are the basis of my relationships with all my readers, including those from publishing houses.

Anything Else?
  • I enjoy interviewing authors and translators.
  • I often post brief, summary reviews on goodreads.
  • I don’t do giveaways or other promotions.
  • I will update this post as necessary.
  • I’m always happy to receive messages with reading ideas, so please write if there’s a book you’d like to recommend!