Sunday, February 24, 2013

Better Late Than Never! Favorite Books from 2012

One of you left a comment last week asking if I’d posted about favorite books from 2012… No, at least not until today: I came home from an early winter trip to Moscow with a cold that left me zombified through the holidays and then, I admit, I forgot. Looking back on my posts from last year, I see several titles that I enjoyed very much. I’ve linked previous posts to book titles.

Patrick Ouředník’s Case Closed (translated by Alex Zucker from the Czech original Ad Acta) is probably my favorite among all last year’s posted books, thanks to absurdity and Alex Zucker’s wonderful translation.

Joseph Roth’s Job (translated by Ross Benjamin from the German original Hiob, Roman eines einfachen Mannes) makes the list because of Roth’s storytelling, Benjamin’s translation, and a setting in the waning Russian Empire.

Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel (translated by Philip Boehm from the original German Atemschaukel) is another book with a largely Russian setting. I also appreciated word play that must have been difficult to translate.

Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman, a detective novel set in pre-apocalyptic New Hampshire, might be my favorite English original book from 2012: Winters’s combination of humor and sadness works well.

Here's hoping you're enjoying the new year!

Disclosures: Included in previous posts.

Up Next: Back to regular scheduled programming with Esmahan Aykol’s Baksheesh, then Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Existential Bathroom Visits?: Karabashliev’s 18% Gray

Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray, which I read in Angela Rodel’s translation from the original Bulgarian, is a lively and lovely blend of love story, road novel, and self-discovery, all told by a first-person narrator named Zack. Zack  begins his story with “She’s been gone nine mornings.” “She” refers to his wife, Stella, who left him. Stella is an ever-more-successful artist, Zack works in clinical trials under, well, false pretenses, and they emigrated to the U.S. from Bulgaria. Zack doesn’t take Stella’s departure well. He goes to Tijuana, where he ends up in possession of a big bag of pot, then decides to drive to New York City to sell it.

What makes 18% Gray work so well is that Karabashliev asks Zack to alternate stories about his present and his past: in italicized passages, Zack describes how he met Stella, their life in Bulgaria, and the disintegration of their relationship. The two timelines converge at the end of the book. The novel also includes brief dialogues from the past that beautifully combine the mundane and the intimate—many are about Zack’s photography and/or Stella’s painting. These various types of text might sound as if they’d result in a choppy novel, but they have the opposite effect because they integrate memories of Stella into Zack’s present life despite her physical absence on his road trip.

Another reason for18% Gray’s success is that Karabashliev isn’t afraid of any kind of material. Pretty much everything seems to work for him: there’s that rather unlikely bag of pot, there’s a chase scene, there’s the eternal search for espresso on the road (something I relate to all too well), there’s a failed suicide that Zack happens upon on the side of the road, and there are trips into men’s rooms, complete with olfactory and audio effects I hope never to witness in real life. There’s even one scene at a truck stop, where Zack eavesdrops—whilst standing on a toilet seat, for sanitary purposes—on a conversation about relationships. Though I’m not quite sure I’d agree with Zack that that particular conversation is especially “existential,” one of the best aspects of 18% Gray is Karabashliev’s ability to combine, with tremendous sincerity and grace, elements like bathroom humor, an extended parallel of painting and photography, difficulties for immigrants, and lost love. Plus the meaning of it all.

Finally, I should mention how much I enjoyed reading Angela Rodel’s translation: her version of 18% Gray reads smoothly and Rodel has a great sense of humor, something I noticed in her translation of Thrown into Nature, too (previous post). Early in 18% Gray there are two medium-length paragraphs where Zack mentally promises all sorts of things to Stella if she shows up “at the door right now.” Here’s the second paragraph, which I think nicely sums up 18% Gray, Karabashliev’s writing in Rodel’s translation, and Zack’s character. I’m sure you’ll recognize something in here:
I will not correct you when you’re telling jokes, I will not interrupt you when you’re excited about something, I will not sing over your favorite songs, I will not be a smartass when we watch sentimental movies, I will not share my opinion about every single thing, we will not have Josh and Katya over for dinner ever again, we will never ever go to Vegas again, ever, I will not rent Hitchcock films, I will not order Chinese, I will not leave the room when we fight (what am I saying? we won’t ever fight!), you will never see me picking my nose, I will not burp loudly (or strain to fart on purpose), I will never be silent with you for so long, never, I will never watch CNN, I will never promise you the moon—you are a star, Stella.

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of 18% Gray from Open Letter, a publisher with which I always enjoy discussing literature in translation, including a specific piece I’m translating.

Up Next: Esmahan Aykol’s Baksheesh. Then Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Therese Bohman’s Drowned

Therese Bohman’s Drowned, which I read in Marlaine Delargy’s translation of the Swedish original Den drunknade, is a neatly constructed, smoothly translated psychological thriller with lots of twos: two sisters, two visits, and two sides of one man. Drowned is suspenseful, in a matter-of-fact way, so I took some leisurely walks on the treadmill because I didn’t want to stop reading. I’ll go light on details to avoid spoilers.

The main story is this: Marina, an art history student who lives in Stockholm, goes to Skåne to visit her sister Stella, a plant specialist who plans city gardens and lives with a writer, an older man named Gabriel. They live in an old house that Gabriel inherited from his grandmother, along with a cat named Nils. The weather is hot:
It is different now, sultry and oppressive, as if a thunderstorm is coming… My head feels fragile, as if a headache is just coming to life deep inside and will soon make its presence felt, sending out crackling impulses of pain that will thud against my forehead and my temples, as if I were inside a thunder ball.
Oppressive heat rarely improves moods and Bohman offers up some tense situations that generate suspicions. She also gives Stella lots of plants to care for, at home and at work, and uses them symbolically, even creating a romantic sense of danger when Marina discovers aphids on Stella’s nasturtiums. The sap-sucking aphids appear on the page after the horrible headache:
When I look closer I can see that the undersides of the leaves are covered in aphids, great black clumps of them, they are on the stems bearing the flower heads too, covering them completely so that the stems look thick and black, uneven. The more I look, the more aphids I see.
Marina’s second trip comes in the fall: it’s now cold in Skåne but lots more than the weather has changed. My memorable plant in the cold part of the book was an orchid, perhaps because of the orchid’s sensitivity to temperatures. Or perhaps because I’ve found something vaguely menacing about orchids since I met Harold in Twin Peaks.

Nothing in Drowned appears to be particularly complex and most of its plot turns are predictable in a “Don’t open that door!” kind of way. But it’s a smart book and Bohman uses her oppositions—Stella/Marina as star/water, hot/cold, winter/summer, and so on—in ways that help keep the story taut. Limited house space and characters enable Bohman to develop characters, along with their relationships, weaknesses, and fears, with tremendous efficiency. Delargy’s translation flows nicely and creates an appropriate voice for Marina’s age and moods. Everything works here. As for the title, let’s just say everybody’s drowning in some problem or other… and that John Everett Millais’s lushly creepy painting Ophelia is a subtext in the novel.
Disclosures: Other Press gave me a copy of Drowned at BookExpo America; I enjoyed speaking with Other about translated fiction.

Up Next: Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray, which I also enjoyed very much.

Image Credit: John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Possible Novel? Faulks’s A Possible Life

I’ll start by saying I find it impossible to refer to Sebastian Faulks’s latest book by its official full name, so I’m shortening it: A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts. Call me whatever you like—primitive, reactionary, and/or uncreative—but without common characters or settings, either geographical or temporal, A Possible Life is, for me, a book of five stories of varying length.

The stories in A Possible Life are of varying quality and interest, too, and I’ve noticed that favorites among professional and citizen reviewers vary a lot as well. Each story is named for a character. They are:
  • “Geoffrey,” about a boarding school teacher, cricketer, and World War 2 prisoner of war. I thought this story, which tells of camp atrocities, the boredom of undercover work with the French Resistance, and the depth of emotional aftereffects, was by far the best in the book. It felt the most elemental and the best constructed.
  • “Billy,” the first-person story of a boy in Victorian England whose poor family gives him to a workhouse, where he meets his future wife.
  • “Elena,” which tells of an alienated scientist in a not-too-distant future that feels vaguely dystopian or post-apocalyptic. Or something. This story felt especially contrived to me.
  • “Jeanne,” the tale of a woman who cares for children and a household in rural nineteenth-century France.
  • “Anya,” the interminable first-person reminiscences of a British musician’s affair with an American folk singer. This story is dated 1971 and contains a gratuitous reference to Anna Karenina.
Faulks’s stories were almost fascinatingly vivid: they kept me just interested enough to read the whole book searching for common threads. The book’s back cover suggests that risk and searches for “the manna of human connection” link the pieces. I certainly can’t argue with that: each story includes a relationship or encounter that’s somehow risky, even taboo. There’s also often a feeling that chance—or fate, or the random factor, or whatever else you’d like to call it—affects characters’ lives.

What felt strongest to me was the force of characters’ memories. Memory is a particularly strong element in “Geoffrey,” where the title character remembers cricket matches to help stay sane in a concentration camp. Geoffrey returns to teaching after the war but memories eventually send him to a psychiatric hospital. There are some nice touches in “Geoffrey,” particularly the contrast of communal sleeping arrangements at the school, the camp, and the hospital. Mentions of Geoffrey’s linguistic abilities were interesting, too, including this, “‘The best way to sound French is to imitate someone,’ said Geoffrey. ‘As though you’re acting.’” Later, when Geoffrey is forced to interpret for new arrivals, he uses courtesy words and improvises when he’s left at a loss for what to say, knowing what awaits the group.

Wall Street Journal reviewer Sam Sacks wonders how readers will react to Faulks’s inclusion of details about the camps, concluding with this, “Some will be glad that Mr. Faulks has shrugged off the taboos that surround fictional portrayals of concentration camps to write them like any other historical experience; others may think it alarming that this singular event in human history is so open to being mined for popular fiction.” After reading Vasilii Grossman’s Life and Fate (post from my other blog), which felt more detailed, personal, and emotional in depicting a camp, I can’t say I found Faulks’s scenes as alarming as Sacks did simply because they were part of the story. I found the scenes memorable and effective. They were, necessarily, disturbing as they conveyed—with, I think, proper levels of respect and balance—a sense of how the extreme horrors of the war push the fictional Geoffrey to various forms of escape.

I think Faulks plays with memory on a deeper level in all his stories, too, presenting characters and situations that are so familiar I could see the plot twists coming. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: I love Vladimir Propp’s analysis of the basic plot elements of fairy tales. Unfortunately, I can’t say I thought Faulks was successful in creating a novel book of stories that I would call evenly transcendent or instructive in its use of archetypes. Put bluntly, most of the stories just weren’t interesting or unusual enough.

I do, however, recommend the book for “Geoffrey”—and I’ll keep the book because of that one story—though I should say, out of fairness, that many readers seem to praise “Anya,” the story I found most tedious. I cannot understand why... though I suspect a reader’s favorite or most admired story in A Possible Life may be the story that acts most on his or her deepest memories, be they literary or life-based, good or bad.

Disclaimer: Thank you to publisher Henry Holt for a review copy of A Possible Life.

Up Next: Therese Bohman’s creepy and smooth Drowned.