A thought experiment: imagine that back during the peak prosperity years of the Obama Administration, with optimism at a high and unemployment dropping, that the good Dr. Oliver Sacks had unexpectedly published a despairing novel featuring a one-armed murdering pimp with white-supremacist leanings named Frank Beaverbrains.
This dull petty criminal wanders Manhattan—or some gentrifying urban center of high culture and national pride—selling tie stands and alt-right newsletters, roughing up prostitutes, shooting up bars, and volunteering for a number of disastrous heists before winding up a diminished nobody, an assistant porter at a small company with less than nothing left to him. The reading public, scandalized, intrigued, mystified, lines up at bookstores nationwide to make this strange novel a bestseller. Some years later, Trump rides a surge of white nationalism to the White House, earning the author a reputation as a kind of literary-political clairvoyant.
We don’t often read literature from Azerbaijan, for many reasons. It’s a small post-Soviet country that is hard to find on the map, with a Turkic language that makes finding translators difficult, and a government that still censors its writers Soviet-style. We don’t generally stroll down the aisle at a bookstore and discover the “Azeri” section. The only thing harder to find might be Georgian, and I’ll only say “might.” Probably most of us have no idea what novelists in Azerbaijan write about, what kind of social justice concerns they have, or what kind of risks those writers take to address those concerns.
Written from the perspective of an unnamed Argentinian art critic, Optic Nerve flits from her present to her childhood memories, to her culture’s memories, in order to develop a lineage between self and cultural artifacts, become an optic nerve transmitting information from the external to the internal. The most representative instance of this transmission takes the form of a historical moment remembered by the narrator: while Señora Alvear, “once upon a time the famous soprano Regina Pacini,” sits at her dinner table beneath a painting by French animal painter Alfred de Dreux, “her eye travels back and forth constantly between the deer in the picture, still alive, and the other one, dead and served to them in lean cuts.” Optic Nerve spends much of its time traveling back and forth like this.
Every self-professed American optimist should read the oeuvre of Walter Kempowski—not that they ever will. The chronicler of brutality was never given a fair shake even by his fellow Germans, and despite strong book sales, by literary award committees. Kempowski had plenty of reasons to be angry—angry at his Nazi father whom he betrayed, at what the agonized Sebastian Haffner once called the “moral inadequacy of the German character,” at the literary world for snubbing him, and at every center of power involved in WWII: the Russians, British, Germans, Europe itself. The triumphant Soviets—without whom WWII could not have been won—were responsible for imprisoning Kempowski as well as his innocent and elderly mother.
Melissa Duclos’ debut novel Besotted is a lyrical, urgent love story about two young American women, Sasha and Liz, who run away to China to try to find themselves. Sasha has fled all the trappings of her privileged life, including her father who disapproves of her sexuality. Liz, the object of Sasha’s desire, has packed up and left her predictable existence and Amherst-educated boyfriend, having grown tired of being an afterthought of his otherwise-enchanted life.
Adiós To My Parents is a universal family story. Although the setting (Mexico, Belize, Guatemala) is unfamiliar to me—I’ve lived in the Chicago suburbs all of my fifty-one years and, regrettably, have taken only one Spanish class—the people in this book are so richly drawn that I know them instantly.
“As with any book, my book had its own special fate—it was born by mistake,” claims Levan Berdzenishvili, in the opening chapter of Sacred Darkness. Levan wakes up in a hospital, sick and disoriented, with a high fever. He realizes he has some debts to pay before he can jaunt off to Hades. Levan is a specialist in Greek literature, so he doesn’t talk of “dying.” He refers to “my departure to Hades.”
The Barefoot Woman opens with the author’s mother, Stefania, imparting knowledge to her daughters. “Often in the middle of one of those never-ending chores that fill a woman’s day,” Mukasonga writes, “(sweeping the yard, shelling and sorting beans, weeding the sorghum patch, tilling the soil, digging sweet potatoes, peeling and cooking bananas…), my mother would pause and call out to us.” Much of the book proceeds from this image: we learn the details of her mother’s life and rituals through her endless work and we learn the kinds of things passed down from a Tutsi mother to her daughter—one of only two of eight children to survive the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Andrea Blancas Beltran, associate editor of MIEL, experimental poet, and proud fronteriza, made her chapbook debut in July 2018 with the poetry collection Re-. In it, Beltran stitches together a brimming handful of nostalgic recollections, inviting the reader to ponder the role of memory, the eerie beauty of forgotten things, and depth of emotion that can be found in everyday life.
Panic Years, Daniel Difranco’s debut novel, is a hyper realistic account of a band on tour. Told from the perspective of laconic Paul, Panic Years follows indie bandmates Paul, Laney, Gooch, Jeff and later Drix across the country’s dive bars and clubs. “I’d joined Qualia because they were a good band with a shit-ton of underground buzz,” Paul muses on page five, setting the band’s intention for the rest of the tour: build Qualia’s indie fame to a record deal, or some serious label recognition.
Narrator is brief and quirky, rich and absurd, metatextual and extremely simple. It’s a walking narrative (in reality, a stalking narrative), which means it depends upon the motion of the narrator in order to go anywhere in particular. However, this book’s range is only within the mind; Aron’s and G.’s movements throughout Reykjavik are completely uninteresting, encompassing mostly pubs and shops of little consequence. But G.’s thoughts circle neurotically around his family, his failures, and Aron’s ex-girlfriend, Sara, for whom G. pined. In this way, and others, the vertical dimensions of the book are much more compelling than its movements through horizontal space.
“College people like getting greens with soil still on the stems. It makes them feel real in a world made mostly of plastic and propane.” This is what the first narrator, a 13-year-old Alabaman girl with a rotten tooth, tells the reader in Genevieve Hudson’s debut collection of short stories, Pretend We Live Here. This type of humor and keen observation peppers the entire collection of fifteen stories.
The Females was my first encounter with the late writer Wolfgang Hilbig, who grew up in East Germany and was allowed to move to the West in the mid-80s. He died in 2007 and was buried in Berlin. Isabel Fargo Cole has been translating his work for twenty years now. She started working to gain Hilbig an English-speaking audience before his death, and The Females, from Two Lines Press, is her sixth Hilbig work.
Part of the pleasure in following an author, as I have followed Claire Fuller from her first novel to her latest, Bitter Orange, is coming to recognize her voice, even without a title page. Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons introduced me to Fuller’s eerie, ironically rendered English countryside of dark forests and haunted seaside villages, and to her characters held captive by lies. From novel to novel I’ve admired how she uses intelligent but naïve narrators to withhold information from the reader, sustaining unnerving suspense while signaling dissonance beneath the well-mannered surface. At this point, I’ll eagerly read anything she writes. And Bitter Orange is her best book yet.
Thank goodness Magela Baudoin’s first book to be translated in English, Sleeping Dragons, is so short. The fifteen stories in this collection (adding up to only 140 pages) are so precise, bursting with such potency, that to increase the collection to 200 or 250 pages would just about kill the average reader. Nearly all the stories are perfectly formed, energetic little spheres—like new tennis balls, popping with their own elasticity the moment they drop out of the canister—and only so many of these spheres can hit a reader between the eyes before she must stop, dazed. The overall impression is of a writer with years of craftsmanship already behind her, ready to don the halo of South American literary fame.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is part of a unique legacy of writer-physicians—Nawal El Saadawi, William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov, to name a few—and the unexpected harmony of these pursuits is showcased throughout her collection White Dancing Elephants, winner of the 2017 Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize. Written with a straightforward, refreshingly uncluttered voice, these stories center on the urgent human desire to heal and be healed.
At the beginning of Guadalupe Nettel’s newly translated novel After the Winter, twenty-five-year-old Cecilia moves from her native Oaxaca to Paris. She arrives there without the usual image of Paris as a “city where dozens of couples of all ages kissed each other in parks and on the platforms of the métro, but of a rainy place where people read Cioran and La Rochefoucauld while, their lips pursed and preoccupied, they sipped coffee with no milk and no sugar.”
The motor of Strange Weather is the slow love that builds between Tsukiko and Sensei. At a neighborhood bar, they run into each other after decades of absence. Maybe at another time they would have exchanged pleasantries and moved along. But they are both living in the same kind of underwater blue. They chat and find that their language is the same. They start to build an intimacy without schedule, running into each other at the bar, sharing meals and drinks, telling simple stories, laughing at their inconsistencies.
The translation initiative Read Russia characterizes Leonid Yuzefovich as a writer whose books “gray the lines between faction and fiction,” using historical figures and settings in his work. “Faction” is for artful historians (or for historian artists, perhaps), writers who know how to be suspicious of fictionalizing, but also know that history is never just facts. This description of Yuzefovich makes sense, since he is a historian by training and taught history for many years, but has emerged as an influential contemporary fiction writer in Russia.
Anna Moschovakis’ debut novel Eleanor, or the Rejection of the Progress of Love is a searching and poignant work that deftly positions itself between the unspeakable specificity of personal experience and the disturbing surplus of fungible narratives in our online world. The writing feels brave in both its formal approach and its openness to the potentially divergent conclusions it may suggest.
Lola Montez, the protagonist of Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig, is a woman gripped by an obsessive, consuming passion for her married lover, Coenraad. To hear Lola tell it, this mysterious man, who works for an unspecified outfit referred to only as “The Agency,” directs her to their assignations by means of a secret code he embeds into the text of National Geographic magazine articles.
If Disney’s Pinocchio is an affable, pliable ingénue who was reconfigured, according to the lore, to look more like a boy than a puppet, Collodi’s is an anti-hero—a wooden thing with barely any ears who mostly can’t see beyond his own nose, no matter its current proportion. He is persistent, insistent, impossible, exasperating, willfully obtuse, a regular screw-up. You don’t have to stretch to note the parallels that dominate our news cycle. Donald J. Trump was prefigured more than 130 years ago. He was augured by a satirist who was most supremely skilled in imagining poor, and poorly curbed, behavior.
Katie Rogin’s debut novel, Life During Wartime, presents the struggle that soldiers, and their families, face adjusting back to civilian life. The story begins when 21-year-old Nina Wicklow, home from duty in Iraq, goes missing in a small town outside of Los Angeles.
A new novel, Mina, written by Kim Sagwa and translated from Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, attempts to chronical adolescences, a transformative time of life, but in the context of a world that does not condone individuality, experimentation, or choice. Through unconventional characters, a high-pressure setting, and an unapologetic directness that is both off-putting and enthralling, Kim creates an entirely different kind of teenage drama. By placing three emotional, confused young people in a world of restraint and hidden suffering, she ignites an explosion of a story that is entirely new. It does not have the charming humor of John Green or the contrariety of J.D. Salinger. Instead, it is an immensely serious and angry portrayal of a teenage breakdown.
There is a plant “whose sap produces […] microscopic animal larvae” that can consume rats “from the inside out.” It can only be found on “Thompson Island, a small landmass in Tierra Del Fuego,” within Argentinian screenwriter Roque Larraquy’s debut novel Comemadre—the name of this plant of spontaneous generation. Translated in the novel as “motherseeker or mothersicken,” this fictitious plant and its larvae symbolize the dual powers of violence to create and destroy. First as crime, then as art.
Four children play together in a quiet neighborhood. The children are Henriette Held, the young daughter of a Jewish dentist; the Elekes sisters, Irén and Blanka; and Bálint Temes, the handsome son of the Major. Their game is Cherry Tree, in which they all sing and spin in circles, and one of the children “chooses” another, the one they love. In this innocent game, the girls invariably choose Bálint, and each girl develops her own particular feelings for the boy; when it is his turn to choose, though, Bálint always prefers Irén, the oldest and most serious of the three. This is one of the earliest memories shared by the Elekes, Temes, and Held families, who form a lifelong, tragic bond in Magda Szabó’s Katalin Street.
Ivory Pearl is Jean-Patrick Manchette’s final and unfinished novel, now available in an English translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Manchette was known during his lifetime for his 1970s crime novels, noir that gained popular movie adaptations and made him a standard among French crime writers. This translation features endnotes on how Manchette envisioned the novel ending, and an introduction written by Manchette’s son, Doug Headline, which is as affectionate as it is informative.
The Juniper Tree is a mid-twentieth-century retelling of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the same name, though Barbara Comyns has made the story all her own. Originally published in 1985, The Juniper Tree tells the story of Bella Winter, the unwed mother of a biracial daughter, through her quest to live life on her own terms in a world where she is patently disapproved of for being who she is.
In his introductory comments for The Kremlin Ball, Curzio Malaparte claims that his novel is “a faithful portrait of the USSR’s Marxist nobility.” Such a thing should be anachronistic: a Marxist nobility? A communist high society?
But that is exactly what Malaparte, as the novel’s narrator, is describing.
The work of literary translators can be viewed as vital, especially given the forces of nationalism today, so it is no small matter that someone of Lahiri’s caliber has joined the ranks. For Starnone and his readers, it means his novel Trick arrives in English in mesmerizing form.
The title character of Igiaba Scego’s novel Adua is a Somali woman caught in history’s crosshairs. Born to an ambitious, mercurial man, a translator who sold his skills to the Italians during Mussolini’s pre-WWII push to expand his African empire, Adua’s life is shaped by choices she didn’t make and subject to forces she can’t control.
What an odd book Tomb Song is. It contains prose both beautiful and profane, extensive self-awareness and a troubling level of self-ignorance. Its author and its narrator blur together into an entity that is never quite one or the other, and it doesn’t distinguish between fiction and nonfiction with especial meticulousness. That is, the narrator and the author have the same name, the same wife and child, the same job, and the same literary accomplishments. It remains undefined whether, in what passages, and to what extent Herbert has fictionalized his life to write this book, which a reviewer in a Chilean newspaper called “an elegy to his mother.”
Henry Green is the pen name of English writer Henry Vincent Yorke, a well-educated man from a wealthy business family who wrote novels from 1926 to 1952, when Doting, his last work, was published. His works are considered important contributions to modernist literature, and he was well-respected by several authors at his time, including W. H. Auden and Anthony Burgess.
This collection showcases a number of wonderfully imaginative stories whose fanciful imagery remains in the reader’s mind long after he’s finished reading. Di Benedetto’s concise, intelligent stories are surely still a source of complicit delight. Anyone who reads Zama and is hungry for more of Di Benedetto’s work will enjoy pecking at the writer’s brain in Nest in the Bones.
Any book that has a ringing endorsement on its cover from Elena Ferrante these days will merit a second look. But there is another, potentially more important endorsement of Neapolitan Chronicles—a silent endorsement on the part of the translators of this Italian story collection by Anna Maria Ortese, originally published in Italy in 1953.
The classic coming-of-age novel tells the story of a young boy coming to terms with the man he is about to become. Over 175 years ago, the great French literary seer Honoré de Balzac composed a rather untraditional version: in his novel, The Memoirs of Two Young Wives, Balzac applies the traditional arc of the bildungsroman to two female protagonists in order to present two ways of life—the passionate life and the tranquil life. In doing so, Balzac reminds readers of the elusive nature of happiness, regardless of one’s way of life, and what it means to love and be loved.
Anna Lea Jancewicz built up her editorial chops on magical flash fiction and fairytale non-fiction journals, like Cease, Cows and Tiny Donkey, before becoming Editor-in-Chief of Rabble Lit, a magazine dedicated to working-class literature. Some might consider this a strange artistic road, but it makes sense. Using the magic in the everyday to challenge and undermine the power of oppressors, magical realism emerges from anti-colonialism and protest. Similarly, the classic fairytale often elevates working-class heroines like Cindergirl and Vasilisa. Jancewicz’s debut collection builds on these traditions of artistic protest, offering a mix of flash and short stories steeped in both the brutal realities and dreamy magic of women’s lives. The combination of flash and short stories serves to create a heady ebb and flow throughout the collection, almost like a heartbeat ba-boom, ba-boom, a place where prayers, stories, and spells live side-by-side.
Sometimes we read fiction to escape, to experience the art of writing, or to lose ourselves in plot. Non-fiction is often imagined the territory of learning, absorbing direct information on a topic. We often forget that fiction still has this power, to take you somewhere real you’ve never been, to introduce you to people you might not have otherwise met. Fiction can convey social realities and erode the “otherness” of others. Sometimes even when we set out to read to escape, to read for fun, we are confronted with truths about our world. But of course, true art about the human experience never eludes the social and the political.
Above all else, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a novelist’s novel. Literary-minded readers will revel in the novel’s allegorical framework extending anywhere from cautionary tale to failed bildungsroman to a metaphor of novel reading itself.
For those of us still traumatized by the 2016 Presidential election, the debut novel Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado, is the emotional and intellectual release for which we have been waiting. It is electric with the #Resist spirit. It underscores the importance of the #MeToo movement. And, it tackles issues such as gender, language, and human interaction through a fresh, folkloric perspective. Winner of the Bard Fiction Prize and finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, the Kirkus Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, this collection of ten short stories is timeless, yet also a necessary way to transition from 2017 to 2018.
When Hans Herbert Grimm’s semi-autobiographical novel Schlump was published in 1928 alongside All Quiet on the Western Front, it was advertised as a “truthful depiction” of World War I. It is no surprise that Grimm took on the the pseudonym Schlump, just as his protagonist does, to hide his identity. As explained by Volker Weidermann in the afterward, Grimm “describe[s] the German soldiers of the Great War as less than heroic,” and “the entire war as a cruel, bad joke.” While this caused the Nazis to burn his book in 1933, today it gives the text, translated by Jamie Bulloch, a feeling of authenticity.
“She wanted […] the location of her madness to be now the location of her art.”
This is how the narrator of The Working Woman analyzes her roommate, but the same can be said of the narrator herself, and perhaps as well of the only figure in this postmodernist novel who actually “speaks:” the author, Elvira Navarro. The text becomes the conjunction of madness and art, which share one abstract and yet delineated “location,” madness needing expression through art, or art uniquely poised to express madness.
Tatiana is supposed to spend the summer before her junior year in high school in Vermont with her only friend while her mother summers in Rome. Instead, she hitches a ride from her boarding school’s Connecticut campus to Brooklyn. It’s 1980, and Tatiana renames herself Pluta, an alter ego she has long cultivated to meet the demands of this adventure. So begins Anca L. Szilágyi’s debut novel Daughters of the Air.
Anyone who picks up And Other Stories’ edition of Malacqua, the first English translation of Nicola Pugliese’s Italian novel from 1977, will be immediately alerted to the strange weather which serves as the novel’s catalyst. Emblazoned across the book’s cover is Malacqua’s unofficial subtitle: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event. Before even opening the book, the reader is clued into Pugliese’s supreme fascinations: water and Naples. And of course, the collision of the two.
Iosi Havilio’s Petite Fleur is a great book because it is a work of surprises intimately knotted around each other. The plot twists and writhes. Murders and magic lead to diatribes about jazz fusion that leads to rebirth and love and examinations of the anxiety of parenthood and marriage. The unexpected is constant, the satisfaction complete.
THE MINORS by Chris Ludovici Unsolicited Press, 376 pages reviewed by Ryan K. Strader Hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in professional sports. A fastball travels at 90 miles per hour, moving from the pitcher’s mitt to the catcher’s glove in approximately .44 seconds. If the batter blinks, he’ll miss. For the last few feet that the ball travels, it is essentially invisible to the hitter. He has to have made his decision by then, whether to swing, how he’ll swing. I did not know anything about baseball when I picked up Chris Ludovici’s The Minors. Nick Rogers, one of the protagonists, reflects on the difficulty of hitting a baseball, and I ended up spending too much time engrossed in an ESPN Sport Science episode checking Nick’s information. It turns out that, football fanatic though I am, the fastball is a formidable opponent: 90 mph is a …chop! chop! read more!
Nathan Elias’ first novella, A Myriad of Roads that Lead to Here, tells a story that is simultaneously frustrating and accessible. This bildungsroman provides a snapshot into the emotional journey of a naive and sometimes selfish narrator, Weston, as he grapples with the untimely death of his mother, which had occurred a few months before.
With the centenary of Franz Kafka’s first three major publications having passed just a few years ago, a plethora of new translations of Kafka’s stories have recently been released. Among them is Konundrum: Selected Prose of Franz Kafka, with works chosen and translated by Peter Wortsman, a writer known for his own micro fiction. Wortsman’s selection of what he considers to be the very best of Kafka’s short prose, whether it’s a story, a letter, a journal entry, a parable, or an aphorism distinguishes Konundrum from the other new translations. This approach contrasts with the single book-length work of Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of “The Metamorphosis” and Michael Hofmann’s new translation of all of Kafka’s unpublished stories in Investigations of a Dog.