Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Complete Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M.A. Orthofer

Orthofer lives in New York currently and was founder in 1999 of the complete review, a website dedicated to reviews of recent literature from around the world. In 2002 Orthofer included a blog, The Literary Saloon, which carries news from interviews, reviews, and notes on awards, publication, items of interest from around the internet. Orthofer has been updating it nearly every day.

The reach of Orthofer’s interests is nothing short of astounding. In this compendium of contemporary world literature he tries to include short mention of the work of leading litterateurs around the world and includes dates of publication and translation when a work is mentioned. This is an indispensable guide for those interested in world literature for it introduces readers to new authors and commonalities among authors either in genre or style that allow us to find what suits our own voracious reading habits.

This work can be read for itself, but it is more likely to be used as a reference text for readers interested in contemporary world literature. It can be downloaded as an ebook or referenced from the hardcopy. Continents are broken into constituent parts and each countries’ authors are mentioned with reference to their major works. While I have always thought myself interested in “world literature,” the range of this work makes me realize how parochial my reading has been, mostly limited to the overseas imaginings of writers of English. I note a recent entry in The Literary Saloon claims there has been a huge outpouring of translations of contemporary Arabic literature, a trend surely long awaited.

North American literature is not included in this work because the author is pointing to the need for American readers to vary their diet and expand their horizons:
”Because American authors provide an enormous amount and variety of work, American readers are arguably spoiled for choice even without resorting to fiction from abroad…In almost every other country, foreign literature occupies a central and prominent position, but in the United States it seems to sit far more precariously on the fringes…foreign literature can offer entirely new dimension and perspectives…great literature knows no borders.

When I founded the Complete Review (complete-review.com) in 1999, one of my goals to to take advantage of the Internet’s tremendous reach and connectivity…Ironically, though, one of the shortcomings of this and most other Internet resources is its tremendous scope…[This book] provides an entry point and more general overview various nations’ literatures, as well as a foundation to help readers navigate what is available on the Internet.”
—from the Introduction
Orthofer has attempted something most of us might consider impossible, and he has done a convincing job of it. If it lacks anything, it is up to us to help straighten it out. I highly recommend everyone have a look at this book to see what you are missing. If it seems overwhelming, I sympathize. Imagine how Orthofer felt when he began.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Villa Triste by Patrick Modiano

Modiano has a melancholic bent whose sentences vibrate (“like a spider’s web”) with a kind of menace. We are never really sure who deserves the most scrutiny amongst his characters, but everyone in this novel seems to be hiding some dark past or grim present. Even the dog, a Great Dane, was “congenitally afflicted with sadness and the ennui of life.” In Modiano's lavish description of the locale, a fashionable small French resort across a lake from Switzerland, even the trees are a mystery:
"The vegetation here is thoroughly mixed, it’s hard to tell if you’re in the Alps, on the shores of the Mediterranean, or somewhere in the tropics. Umbrella pines. Mimosas. Fir trees. Palms. If you take the boulevard up the hillside, you discover the panorama: the entire lake, the Aravis mountains, and across the water, the elusive country known as Switzerland."
Why “elusive”? We never learn why. “I didn’t yet know that Switzerland doesn’t exist.” Perhaps it is the notion of safety that doesn’t exist. A nineteen-year-old is not expected to know that, not then, not now. Modiano liberally salts his work with phrases that fill us with an unnameable dread. Count Victor is no more Count than you or I, but somehow we’d rather believe that than whatever it is he is running from. He is the son of Russian Jews, and the Second World War is over at least fifteen years. He is wealthy beyond imagining, but he has fear: he’s “scared to death” he tells us early on as he recounts the time he met Yvonne and Meinthe.
”When I think of her today, that’s the image that comes back to me most often. Her smile and her red hair. The black-and-white dog beside her. The beige Dodge. And Menthe, barely visible behind the windshield. And the switched-on headlights. And the rays of the sun.”
Modiano writes like a painter paints. He weaves sound and scent along with color and emotion, light and dark.
”We returned through a part of the garden I wasn’t familiar with. The gravel paths were rectilinear, the lawns symmetrical and laid out in picturesque English style. Around each of them were flamboyant beds of begonias or geraniums. And here as well, there was the soft, reassuring whisper of the sprinklers. I thought about the Tuileries of my childhood. Meinthe proposed that we have a drink…
In the end, the three of them, The Count, Yvonne, and Meinthe make quite a hit in that town at that time. Photographs show them glamorous and solemn, walking arm-in-arm beside the dog, Meinthe taking up the rear. Meinthe and Yvonne win the coveted Houligant Cup for that year and are sought-after companions for their edgy stylishness. Gradually Menthe and Yvonne share pieces of their shadowy background with Victor, and the glamour, he realizes, is all rhinestones and rust.
“The rooms in 'palaces' fool you at first, but pretty soon their dreary walls and furniture begin to exude the same sadness as the accommodations in shady hotels. Insipid luxury; sickly sweet smell in the corridors, which I can’t identify but must be the very odor of anxiety, of instability, of exile, of phoniness.”
When “France suddenly seemed to [Victor] too narrow a territory,” he proposed they ditch the local act and take to the road, somewhere where they could show their true capabilities…America.

Later, when it is all over, we think that perhaps Victor’s fear is his youth, his aloneness, his uncertainty. He grew up that summer by the lake, and saw most of what there was to see. Later, when he ambles under the arcades on the Rue de Castiglione reading a newspaper, his education comes full circle, and the mystery begins again.

Promotional copy for Villa Triste, due out today in a new translation by John Cullen and published by Other Press, calls it Modiano’s most accessible novel. It may well be, but all Modiano’s great themes are present. This fine translation does justice to the underlying greatness of the work. A fine piece of literature that can keep you mulling events over in your head for a long time to come.



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Friday, May 27, 2016

Lacombe Lucien by Louis Malle and Patrick Modiano

Louis Malle and Patrick Modiano collaborated on a screenplay about the lives of a few individuals in 1944 during the German occupation in France. What is so remarkable about this small book is how so few words or body movements depict the devastating complexity of lives torn by war.

The screenplay opens with a seventeen-year-old boy, Lucien, diligently and thoroughly doing menial labor cleaning in a charitable nursing home. Our judgment of the boy changes much in the process of the play but this impression will be one we will be reluctant to divest.

Lucien comes from a small town in southeastern France that is a hotbed of resistance against the occupation. One day, standing on a limestone plateau with a flock of sheep, Lucien sees the wider world stretch out below him. He is just at the age when he realizes he can turn his bicycle in a different direction from the town where he works to seek out a different experience.

The world is full of danger, and one must be constantly vigilant not to fall into a trap, even though ultimately we cannot escape. The ease with which Lucien kills a small bird with his slingshot and leaves it lying in the courtyard is how, at the end, we view this work by Malle and Modiano. Filled with banality, tragedy, and senseless death, we recognize the underlying truth of war and the human condition.

This classic work of literature packs so much humanity into a glance, a phrase, a movement of the arm that it becomes the essential reading experience. It is only 100 pages, short enough to be read in an afternoon or evening, and yet its effects last forever. This is the way to describe people in extremis. It happened just like this.

Re-published by Other Press and due out this week, this is a book you must read to get a glimpse of how great literature manifests.


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Thursday, May 26, 2016

The New Tsar: The Rise & Reign of Vladimir Putin by Steven Lee Myers

During the election pre-season in America, I was as surprised and intrigued at the support for Donald Trump as the rest of the thinking universe (not the pundits, of course). As I laughed at his unscripted policy-free speeches and intentionally note-worthy off-the-cuff remarks, I remember thinking I would love to see the effect of his ‘shock and awe’ campaign on someone like Putin. I thought Trump would be too unpredictable and outspoken for Putin. I am ready to take that back. In a weird kind of way, both men, neither political operatives at the start of their careers, are a similar kind of not-liberal, not-conservative, whatever-works nationalist kind of politician. And both have created a cult of personality to facilitate a kind of one-man rule.

Myers allowed me to catch this glimpse of Putin at his start in government as an ordinary man unused to and previously uninterested in political power. When he began in the Sobchak Leningrad government, he may or may not have been involved in skimming from contracts he arranged with the newly burgeoning private sector after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He certainly was in a position to do so, and many of the people he awarded contracts did so: he formed firm friendships and nurtured loyal apparatchiks in Leningrad that reappear throughout his political career. But it is also true that Russia in the early 1990’s was a wild place with many crime lords jockeying for power. Putin’s family was targeted at least once. Putin did not at that time appear to have the trappings of new wealth, though we learned only recently of monies in his name from the Panama Papers. It is possible that his wealth accumulated from later dealings.

It has always been difficult to understand why Putin was reputed to enjoy such wide public support in Russia, but I realize now that our media reporting emphasized bad judgment and outcomes while Russian media outlets emphasized good intent and nationalism. Myers gives a far more nuanced picture of Putin growing into his role as president—prime minister—president again in this book. If Putin didn’t begin as a friend to oligarchs, he gradually relaxed into the role. He began as a man with he stated goal of “making Russia great again.” He could see that some people were gaming the system by purchasing national reserves of commodities improperly priced and selling them at more realistically priced international values. This was not illegal at the time, just morally suspect. Rather than trying to fix the system of laws that allowed this rape of mineral and energy resources to continue, Putin selectively applied legal and taxation rules on the books to hamper, entangle, or otherwise inhibit the activities of people who did not work closely with him.

Myers charts the hardening of Putin’s character, from his shock and dismay upon learning that Yeltsin had chosen him as a political successor to his chagrin upon learning that his chosen successor, Medvedev, had both an opinion and a weakness that didn’t partner Putin well. And what was very clear in Myers’ telling was the perception of U.S. foreign policy decisions by Russians and Putin. By the time Edward Snowden comes on the scene late in the book, we laugh at Putin’s pleasure in pointing out political dissidence and jail is not just a Russian thing.
”Ask yourself, do you need to put such people in jail, or not?”
Putin was more confident during his second presidency and yet the moment he assumed power the second time his poll ratings began to fall. It was the moment citizens realized that there was really no conversation, no political discussion going on. It only takes twenty years for a political climate to change irrevocably: ask Hillary Clinton. In twenty years, young people with no historical memory bring a new clarity to what is happening right now, with no regard to what came before. Pussy Riot called out Putin; Sanders’ supporters are calling out Clinton.

Putin operated, and operates now, by relying on a close and loyal group of political “friends” from his time in the FSB and his time working for Sobchak in Leningrad. Loyalty is so prized that it would not surprise me to learn that some of the political murders committed during Putin’s reign were not “ordered” by himself. It seems entirely possible to me that elements in a large bureaucracy might prove their loyalty by eliminating static that was damaging to the leader. The problem with a large bureaucracy is that it can take on a character of its own and is not easy to change.

A really strange event occurred early in Putin’s first presidency: the bombing of the apartment buildings in Moscow and the sacks of FSB-sourced explosives found in the apartment building in Ryazan. These incidents have never been satisfactorily explained, and could be an example of a bureaucracy grinding out [imperfect] solutions to perceived problems that impact Putin & Co. In a case like that, or in the case of sheer incompetence (also an enduring feature of large bureaucracy), it is not hard to see Putin keeping mum out of loyalty to those he is protecting. Bill Browder’s account of his time making money hand-over-fist in the 1990’s in Russia, Red Notice, mentioned that powerful figures known to Putin wanted the real estate on which those apartment buildings were built and were meeting resistance. Some actions, like poisoning political opponents or shooting reporters in the the stairwells of their buildings, are simply too crude, destructive, and beneath the dignity of someone in power to imagine they are a “command.” Whatever the truth of the matter, this did not have to originate in the Kremlin to be horrifying in its motivation. It does appear, however, that it was condoned by the Kremlin since a good explanation was never uncovered.

One of the things that motivates Putin is the expanding power of NATO in Europe. Putin still thinks in terms of great powers and feels he is being hemmed in by Western Europe nibbling away at his satellite countries. It is hard not to sympathize. Certainly that is happening, and will continue to happen in a Clinton presidency, further exacerbating Putin’s bellicosity, and sense of infringement and inferiority.

Russia is a huge country. “Too big, really” says Ian Frazier in his big book Travels in Siberia. Putin says its size and different cultures is the reason there cannot be a representative democracy like that in America. Since even America doesn’t seem to the have the process working very well at the moment, it is difficult to pretend to know what difficulties arise when trying to restore the kind of power that was shattered by the overthrow of the tsar in the twentieth century in Russia. The only thing I would concede is that ruling Russia must be a very difficult job, particularly when one is looking backward. One must look ahead, not backward, when one is leading, it seems to me.

I feel like I have gotten a terrific education reading this book and am much better able to parse news coming out of Russia, Europe, and the Middle East today. I can now put Putin into the context vis-a-vis U.S. diplomatic relations. Clinton must be the last person Putin would want to see be elected president in the United States, and in some ways Trump is as unpredictable as Putin has claimed he has tried to be. But I am not recommending a vote for Trump. I think a better choice might be neither of these two.



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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Hardcover, 371 pages Published April 7th 2015 by Grove Press (first published April 2nd 2015) ISBN13: 9780802123459

“War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!”
—from “War” by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, Motown, 1969

Nguyen uses the trope of a spy to articulate the experience of “the immigrant” or “the other” in American society. But that’s not all. Nguyen wades into the nature of rebellion, revolt, war, governance, literature, novel-writing, self-examination and -actualization, the duality of human nature, and our essential aloneness. Despite the anguished cry of our unnamed narrator, our “Captain”, at the end of the novel, what Nguyen has given us is not nothing. As the novel draws to a close we in fact wonder if the narrator isn’t talking about the author himself in the process of “writing what he knows” in a novel: the “confession” our Captain gives to his interrogators is the long, discursive narrative this author has crafted from imagination and experience straddling two countries with [sometimes violent] overlapping histories, forcing upon him some truths which cumulatively might seem like 295 pages of “nothing.” The hilarity of his despair might have seemed the author’s alone, but his skill is such that we readers know exactly what he means.
”The absurd often has its seed in a truth.”
Nguyen is uniquely positioned to see into the essential differences and similarities in the Vietnamese and American experience, and as a writer he cannot not write about it. Our boon is that the author is so exquisitely talented in uncovering and expressing our essential humanity, something which should give us all pause. Humanness is an imperfect, often anguished state, Nguyen seems to be saying, but it can also be very funny. In order to appreciate the joke, however, we have some self-examination to do.
”Life’s a suicide mission.”
Captain is writing his “confession” to Man, his lifelong friend and now a commissar in the Viet government after the “fall” of Saigon—a loss of innocence in every regard. Captain lives in the United States, and has returned to Vietnam to make sure his other lifelong friend, Bon, doesn’t die in an ill-conceived attempt to destabilize the new Vietnamese government. Bon is a former Phoenix operative with endless Vietcong kills to his name. The Captain’s boyhood friendship with Man and Bon was sealed when the boys cut their palms and shook hands, mixing blood. Thereafter, the gesture for hello or goodbye revealed the stigmata of their friendship. What are they fighting for again?
”Not to own the means of production can lead to a premature death, but not to own the means of representation is also a kind of death.”
Don’t worry: this novel is not heavy on political theory. You will just want to move slowly through Nguyen’s world. He is telling us something that we need to hear, like why film roles for Vietnamese actors are filled by Filipinos, Koreans, or Japanese actors. The Captain became involved in the making of a film about the Vietnam war in order to give strength and credibility to the portrayal of the Vietnamese people but he was disrespected, uncredited—literally blown off the set—and he never did manage the optics on perceptions of Vietnamese. Nyugen's recounting of the shooting of The Hamlet in the Philippines was such a magisterial set piece (and yet its visualizations link everything in the novel) that it will be resurrected endlessly whenever mention of this book comes up.

A debut novel so packed with insights into the human experience—how we justify our choices and how we try to spin outcomes—doesn’t lead us to expect that Nguyen would write with such verve, perspicacity and humor. Everything is illuminated in this novel, down to the very nub of the author’s own perceptions about women. It was perhaps too long a book (not every word counted), but because the book is a debut, the author had no reason to expect he’d get another chance to write all he has learned. This novel is a spectacular overload filled with all kind of fancy pyrotechnics that recall America's most revered writers.

In an interview with Angela Chen, writing for The Guardian, Nguyen tells us he did not pander in this novel to Western ideas of immigrants. This is true, but he did use a Western instrument—the novel—to illuminate for Westerners the Eastern, the immigrant experience. And he wields it better than most Westerners. What sweet success it must have seemed when he was acknowledged with the Pulitzer Prize, awarded April 2016.


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Monday, May 9, 2016

Rules for a Knight by Ethan Hawke

Hardcover, 175 pages Published November 10th 2015 by Knopf ISBN 0307962334

This handbook for knights is a 6” x 4” hardcover bound with green cloth and a gold ribbon to place as you read. Hawke initially did not intend it for wide circulation: It was begun when his wife and he decided to have some “rules of the house,” which became more like “rules for living” the more he tried to think about what was really important to share with his children.

The format and the content suit one another. Twenty chapter headings address key attributes or phenomena that face each person as they grow, accompanied by a pen-and-ink drawing of a long-lived bird and a short statement around the concept. This is followed by a longer (two-page) story, parable, lesson, or illustration of the concept in action. For instance, one of my favorites was “Discipline,” pictured with a grey heron:
”In the field of battle, as in all things, you will perform as you practice. With practice, you build the road to accomplish your goals. Excellence lives in attention to detail. Give your all, all the time. Don’t save anything for the walk home.The better a knight prepares, the less willing he will be to surrender.”
The story that follows sounds like eastern philosophy: “Often we imagine that we will work hard until we arrive at some distant goal, and then we will be happy. This is delusion. Happiness is the result of a life lived with purpose.” Hawke goes further, articulating the need for discipline: “Without it, locating your saddle may take all morning.”

On that tricky question of “Honesty,” Hawke tells us that often
“people lie because they feel the truth will cause pain to themselves or others. Do not fear suffering. The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire. The facts are always friendly. Without a little agony, none of us would bother to learn a thing. The earth has to be tilled before the seeds can be planted.”
Hawke adds chapters on surprising things, like "Equality", and his chapter on "Love" is heartfelt and personal. His chapter on "Death" shares a wisdom we can all use.
"Life is a long series of farewells, only the circumstances should surprise us."
In this small book we sense naked emotion and lived experience at the same time it is charming, and useful. Perhaps it is his actor's gift, to do that. Hawke’s stories are often not his own: he has chosen stories and lessons he learned from Native American myth, Buddhism, high school coaches, Bob Dylan, among others and has turned them to his own purpose. Hawke adds a list of those he considers knights at the end of the book, in which list we find the names of Julian of Norwich, John Keats, and Martin Luther King, Jr. along with Thich Nhat Hanh, Joseph Papp, and River Phoenix.

In a New Yorker interview about this book, Hawke says that he learned just enough to entertain rather than be scholarly. I sensed that lack a depth just a little at times, but we can all use what he has collected. We can imagine how purposeful and meaningful it must have been for him to pull together the more constant precepts he has encountered in his life and to have pared them all down to a few short pages. Very satisfying indeed, and an admirable attempt. We may not always agree with what Hawke has chosen to highlight or his interpretation, but placing our thinking next to his raises his challenge. This collection is well worth the perusal for teachers, parents, novelists, poets as well as middle-graders and teens.

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Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Princeling of Nanjing (Ava Lee #8) by Ian Hamilton

Hamilton never ceases to amaze me. He writes a fiction series about an unlikely heroine, Ava Lee, who does forensic accounting for a living. Throw away all those notions you had about accountants being boring. There is nothing even remotely ordinary about what Ms. Lee does, and the fact that her work has her traveling the world regularly adds to the mystique.

While most series have a level of predictability after awhile, this series never does. We are treated in this episode to the most lovely charting of how corruption might work in China. You heard some time ago about Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai, famous now for the murder of a British businessman. Bo was a “princeling” of Chinese politics, one of the Eight Elders of the Communist Party of China. He was also governor of Liaoning province and held an important role in the Northeast Area Revitalization Plan, giving him power over what is accomplished and who gets to do it. A result of all that power was a myriad family-owned businesses, dubious connections, graft, and coercion that allowed his family to acquire untold wealth.

Cut to Ava Lee, in Shanghai for a fashion show highlighting her fledgling company’s first collection. One of her backers is the head of the Triads, who comes under pressure from the “princeling” of Jiangsu province 
(the wealthiest in all China) to start up a synthetic drug operation. Well, Ava decides the best way to get this powerful, unreasonable man to back off is to expose his families dealings. And then Hamilton kindly gives us an education to exactly how graft and corruption can occur in China.

You may not be as impressed as I was, but let me tell you I have tried to figure out how this works for years…it always seemed just too blatant to be possible. But the hidden networks of power make it extraordinarily difficult to reveal the true source of the corruption. You will note that only last month the Panama Papers revealed that Chinese President Xi Jinping had extensive hidden overseas caches of money in the names of companies headed by close family members. Well, Hamilton shows how this might be possible.

In this episode there is relatively little exhibition of Ava Lee’s background in bak mei kungfu , a particularly lethal type of Chinese martial arts often used by palace bodyguards in centuries gone by, but there is a little, where Ava takes on two thugs sent to kidnap her into silence. What gives the story impetus is the short time frame in which Ava uncovers the links that made a provincial Chinese governor a billionaire, and the danger that lurks behind every phone call and meeting. In the United States I doubt we’d be using cell phones like Ava did in Shanghai and Nanjing, without regard to who might be listening, but there have to be some ways to bypass plot killers.

Ava is an avowed lesbian with a girlfriend in Toronto waiting for her return, but we sense Ava’s growing attachment to a powerful man in Shanghai and expect that one day that attraction might burst into flame. The unexplored sexual tension adds piquancy to their conversations around the breakfast table slurping congee with scallions. And that’s the other thing about this series that is so delightful: if you’ve ever wondered what to order at a Chinese restaurant, look no further. Hamilton details for us the most exquisite meals, whether at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong or a hotpot restaurant in a side street there and gives us the manners and customs to go along with it. I defy anyone to turn up their noses at the menus items described.

Hamilton was an international businessman and diplomat before he turned to writing. How he came up with a Asian lesbian as a leading lady in his novels is one of the great mysteries of inspiration. His tightly wound and disciplined main character is perhaps a bit too cool to imagine as a friend, but she is someone to admire, certainly, from afar. Hamilton never disappoints in this series, so if you haven’t indulged yet, make sure to get a couple books in the series to get acclimatized. This very fine fiction is as intellectually stimulating as it is culturally rewarding.


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