Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Complete Works of Isaac Babel translated by Peter Constantine

Isaac Babel was Russian, killed in 1940 by firing squad at 45-years old for “being a member of a terrorist conspiracy.” But let us make no mistake: he was killed because of his stories. His stories and other writings are collected here, in this volume edited by Nathalie Babel with an Introduction by Cynthia Ozick. I came here looking for a reference dropped by Sam Lipsyte in The Ask in which a legless soldier of the Iraq war calls his prosthetics “my girls.” Lipsyte tells us his character copies a soldier, Savitsky, in a Babel story. This new translation dated 2002 has such a sense of the absurd and contemporaneity it doesn’t seem possible it is 100 years old.

Lipsyte’s reference to Savitsky, I assumed, was buried in the Red Cavalry Stories, themselves filled with pitiless carnage paired with jokes:
“So there we were making mincemeat of the Poles at Belaya Tserkov…we got cut off from the brigade commander…no less than a hundred and fifty paces away, we see a dust cloud which is either the staff or the cavalry transport…off we rode. They were eight sabers. Two of them we felled with our rifles…The horse that the Big Ace was riding was nice and plump like a merchant’s daughter but it was tired. So the general drops his reins, aims his Mauser at me, and puts a hole in my leg…

I got my wheels rolling and put two bullets in his horse. I felt bad about the horse. What a Bolshevik of a stallion, a true Bolshevik! Copper-brown like a coin, tail like a bullet, leg like a bowstring. I wanted to present him alive to Lenin, but nothing came of it. I liquidated that sweet little horse. It tumbled like a bride, and my King of Aces fell out of his saddle. He dashed to one side, then turned back again and put another little loophole in my body. So, in other words, I had already gotten myself three decorations for fighting the enemy…

‘You’ll get me a Red Medal!’ I yell. ‘Give yourself up while I’m still alive, Your Excellency!’”

…'Forgive me,' [the general replies], 'but I cannot give myself up to a Communist…finish me off like a soldier.'

'Well, I guess I did.'” [--from KONKIN]
Forgive me for butchering the story in my attempt to show you the shocking nature of Babel’s razor-sharp humor. It is not a long story, three pages or so, and this book is filled with more very short stories, also edgy, always pointed. This translation of the complete works gives short introductions to each series of stories or other work, and in one such introduction we learn about the Red Army campaign:
“In late May 1920, the First Calvary of the Soviet Red Army, under the command of General Budyonny, rode into Volhynia, today the border region of western Ukraine and eastern Poland. The Russian-Polish campaign was underway, the new Soviet government’s first foreign offensive, which was viewed back in Moscow as the first step toward spreading the doctrines of World Revolution to Poland, then to Europe, then to the world…Babel chronicled this campaign in his Red Calvary stories…” [--Nathalie Babel]
The campaign began in May 1920 and by September of that year, the soldiers still alive were straggling back in failure. The stories were first published in magazines throughout the 1920s before being collected for a volume published in 1926. They grew out of a “1920 Diary” in which the war correspondent Babel recorded his
“firm Socialist convictions, his sensitivity, his horror at the marauding ways of his Cossack companions, his ambiguous fascination with ‘the West and chivalrous Poland,’ his equivocal stance toward Judaism, with feelings that fluctuate between distaste and tenderness toward the Volhynian Jews, ‘the former (Ukrainian) Yids.’” [--Nathalie Babel]
By publishing in magazines, Babel kept the disastrous military campaign in the public eye. Dangerously for him, Babel often used the real names of commanders, including Budyonny, who was destined to become a Marshal of the Soviet Union, despite his uninspiring leadership in the field so hilariously portrayed by Babel. In 1926 Babel responded to criticism that he used real names to document the absurdist atrocities committed. I give you a short version of one of his last for the Calvarymen series:
A Letter to the Editor
In 1920 I served in the First Cavalry’s Sixth Division, of which Comrade Timoshenko was commander at the time. I witnessed his heroic, military, and revolutionary work with much admiration. This wonderful and pristine image of my beloved division commander long ruled my imagination, and when I set about to write my memoirs of the Polish Campaign, my thoughts often returned to him, But in the process of writing, my aim of keeping within the parameters of historical truth began to shift, and I decided instead to express my thoughts in a literary form. All that remained of my original outline were a few authentic surnames…under extreme [time] pressure, and in this last minute rush, I overlooked the vital task of changing the original surnames in the final proofs. I need not stress that Comrade Timoshenko has nothing whatsoever in common with the character in that piece, a fact clear to anyone who has ever crossed paths with the former commander of Division Six, one of the most courageous and selfless of our Red Commanders.
I. Babel
Strange as it may seem, when I was reading the stories I began to feel a connection with the way we produce humorous TV serials today. Babel’s voice is so unique, hilarious, and humane that he would have been a huge success in Hollywood. The campaign against Poland and Ukraine was a painful reminder of the limits of coercion, and Babel created characters that live in our imaginations and gave them speaking roles that highlight his taste for the absurd. Imagine my delight, then, to discover that Babel also wrote screenplays, which are included at the end of this collection.

Films in the 1920s were silent films. Babel apparently wrote a screenplay version of his Red Calvary story “Salt,” which was made into a movie in 1925, directed by Pyotr Chardynin and produced by the Ukrainian State Film Company. Babel also wrote subtitles for and screenplays based on the work of others. In 1926 the silent movie “Roaming Stars,” loosely based on Shalom Aleichem’s novel of the same name, Babel wrote the screenplay and subtitles, transforming King Lear’s daughters:
Part Two


62. Two of the daughters are stout, middle-aged Jewish women, the third is a girl of about six. Like Otsmakh, the actresses are also wearing lacquered officer’s boots with spurs. Their stomachs are squeezed into satin vests. One of the women is wearing a kind of helmet from which two braids hang down; the second woman, a cap full of feathers. The third of King Lear’s daughters—the six-year-old—has her hair loose, and is wearing a garland of paper flowers. The girl has on a simple peasant tunic. The Jewish women are having a quick snack before the curtain rises. Otsmakh runs past them with the bell.

63. Otsmakh runs onto the stage, the curtain is down.


65. King Lear’s throne stands to the side of the stage. Above the throne hang Japanese fans and family photographs of God knows who, mostly military figures, Right in front of the audience is a case with Hebrew inscriptions, like the cases in synagogues where the Torah scrolls are kept. Otsmakh rings the bell, and looks through a hole at the audience.

66. The eighth row of the orchestra. The audience is from a little ramshackle Galician town. Hasidic men, old women in brown wigs, and headdresses, young men with swank sideburns, opulent Jewish women in tightly corseted dresses. A multitude of children. Babies make up a third of the audience. They are squealing, crying, or sleeping…
In Babel’s screenplays, actors do not even have to speak to be funny. Babel pokes fun at everything, everyone. This play does not have a happy ending, however, the fact of which has parallels with Babel’s other work.

After his success with the Red Cavlary stories, Babel traveled, wrote stories, and published dispatches from the field: Georgia (1922-24), and France (1935). In one dispatch from Georgia, Babel muses about ‘Muslim Seminaries and Soviet Schools:’
"Influencing a person’s soul requires vision and circumspection. Under the difficult conditions of the East, these qualities must be multiplied by ten and pushed to the limit…[The Mensheviks] imported the guileless ardor of shortsighted national chauvinism into the tottering kingdom of the Ajarian Mullah. The results were not surprising…Mistrust has been fanned in the Muslim peasants, and passions burst into flame…the Menshevik school…undermined the authorities of its founders but also gnawed away at the basic foundations of the culture…"

Russians have always known the power of the written word. Babel was exceptional in his understanding, his honesty, and his skill. He does more with a handful of Cyrillic characters and two pages than most people can manage in a book-length novel. He was dangerous. He is still dangerous to those who think they can’t be seen to make mistakes.

Sorry for all the extensive quotes, but Babel writes better than I do. Congratulations to everyone involved with this publication, including W.W. Norton for a gorgeous print job. There are a few photographs included. Here is an interview with the amazing Peter Constantine. And thanks to Sam Lipsyte for bringing me to this place. I never did find that reference to “my girls.”

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Monday, June 22, 2015

In the Next Galaxy by Ruth Stone

The author was a very old woman in 2002 when this book came out. She was born in Virginia in 1915, before the U.S. involvement in World War I. She won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2002 for this book or perhaps for her body of work. She'd already won many other major awards in the past.

At some point during the production of this book Stone lost her sight and her daughter Abigail did the corrections and proofreading, reading to her.

Stone's Wikipedia entry records a conversation she had with the journalist and novelist Elizabeth Gilbert in which Stone relates the experience of "catching a poem:"
"As [Stone] was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out, working in the fields and she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. It was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barrelling down at her over the landscape. And when she felt it coming...cause it would shake the earth under her feet, she knew she had only one thing to do at that point. That was to, in her words, "run like hell" to the house as she would be chased by this poem.

The whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. Other times she wouldn't be fast enough, so she would be running and running, and she wouldn't get to the house, and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it, and it would "continue on across the landscape looking for another poet".

And then there were these times, there were moments where she would almost miss it. She is running to the house and is looking for the paper and the poem passes through her. She grabs a pencil just as it's going through her and she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. In those instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact, but backwards, from the last word to the first."

If you would like to hear Gilbert relate this conversation, please listen to Gilbert's TED talk in which she talks about where creativity comes from.

And here is one of Stone's poems from this book:

Corn is universal,
so like a Roman senator.
Its truths are silk tassels.
True its ears are sometimes
rotten, impure.
But it aspires in vast acres,
to conspire with every pollinator
and to bear for the future
in its yellow hair.

And what are your aspirations,
oh my dears,
who will wear into tatters
like the dry sheaves
left standing, stuttering
in November's wind;
my Indian corn, my maize,
my seeds for a ruined world.
Oh my daughters.

Ruth Stone published thirteen books of poetry. She died in 2011.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

I almost gave up on this. I couldn’t get a grip. A Goodreads friend had said there was a great section at the end. I flipped there and discovered where SATIN in the title comes from, and noticed in The Acknowledgements that McCarthy talks about spending his grant time watching video loops of oil spills projected on his office walls. That was my entry point. I started again.

This profoundly disturbing novel is written in chapters that resemble memos to oneself while the main character, U, engages in a corporate job that requires much flight-time and international conferences. "Call me U" is an anthropologist, an in-house ethnographer for a consultancy.
"The Company (let’s continue to call it that) advised other companies how to contextualize and nuance their services and products. It advised cities how to brand and re-brand themselves; regions how to elaborate and frame regenerative strategies, governments how to narrate their policy agendas…What we essentially do is fiction."
It can hardly be said U was happy in his work. U would dream at night, like many of us, but his sexual dreams might have pieces of his work or things he’d read in the news incorporated. If he read about an oil spill, for instance, his dreams would have some kind of female figure, sexy, arising out of the sea covered in oil blobs:
“a sluttish Aphrodite frolicking in the blackened foam, her face adorned with the look that readers’ wives and models have in dirty magazines.”
At least two things were happening to U while he was preparing a report for the corporation he worked for: one was that he’d read about a parachutist whose strings to his parachute were cut before he took a dive, and the other was that a business associate of his was dying of thyroid cancer. Both men "were dead before they hit the ground," as it were. The crime scene was "in the sky", in the very air we breathe.

This is a novel about our death, but before the "fall." The parachutist "had been murdered without realizing it." The man with thyroid cancer is already dead while he continues to relate the doctor’s findings every day. The people on this planet are dead while we continue to document to infinitude the activities of humans past and present, including the oil spills and the waste dumps, one of which is Satin Island, formerly Staten Island, now covered over with golf courses and walkways and greeting visitors to the United States in the same general vicinity as the Statue of Liberty.
You (that is U) don’t have "to go to Staten Island--actually go there--[that] would be profoundly meaningless....Not to go there was, of course, profoundly meaningless as well…the explosion’s already taking place—it’s always been taking place. You just didn’t notice…"
U has a sense, while he does his work as an anthropologist, of having come “too late.” He knows there is more to the patterns he sees in the oil spills and the sudden deaths but he can’t make them out until a coworker tells him of her experience as a demonstrator, a protester, against the G8 Summit in 2001.

The novel is disturbing because I also think there may be no way back to health on the planet, though I would never just give up. When the best scientists are thinking one way to save the human race is by sending representatives to colonize Mars, I think life as we know may be…let’s say, limited.

Only after finishing the novel did I know what that earlier reviewer I linked to in the top of this review meant. When you get there, you will see it, too.

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera translated by Lisa Dillman

In a few pages we discover a new kind of language: "an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to…malleable, erasable, permeable…something that serves as a link." It is not latin, nor anglo but in a "nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born."

Herrera immerses us in a cross-border search for a lost brother, not heard of nor heard from for too long. Makina, the sister, goes to find him, and does--but "only when [she’d] stopped looking." The journey should be terrifying, but neither brother nor sister are afraid. Their lives hold terrors enough at home: Makina survives a sinkhole on her first steps of her journey, heels backward pedaling to avoid being sent to the deep, underground.

"Slippery bitch of a city," she says to herself.
She carries little—she is coming right back—but she has a lipstick "more long-lasting than it was dark" which another woman uses without asking. "You look very pretty," Makina says to the other woman.

In the scrub from a distance Makina mistakes a bloated body with its eyes pecked out for a pregnant woman. From a distance, the corpse looks like a good omen. The crossing has ogres, the border ranchers who carry heavy pistols and angry attitudes. She is coming to look for her brother—she is coming right back.
"I don’t know what you think you lost but you ain’t going to find it here," declared the irritated anglo.

The brother is not easy to find. He has moved on but in one café the proprietress recognizes Makina: "Told me he had a sister who just by looking at her you could tell she was smart and schooled." A new direction, a slip of an address, another false lead, until finally, when she was ready to give up hope, there he was.

He has no intention to returning home, of reading his mother’s crooked scrawl saying "Come on back now, we don't expect anything from you." Makina moves then in a direction away, anywhere away but is led back to the underground space that nearly swallowed her at the start of her journey.

Deceptively slight, this novella has the weight of character unafraid and unbowed. Makina does what she needs to do and she's a smart girl. She takes opportunity when it drifts by. Issues of migration and immigration, seen from this ground level (really, underground) have a claustrophobic feel. How could it be otherwise? The language used seems a mixture of latin and anglo but understandable and perhaps more descriptive for that.

& other stories is a press I did not think I’d come across before, but this group has published Deborah Levy’s outstanding novel Swimming Home and a number of other Levy titles. The exciting author list for & other stories include important literature and writers from around the world who wish to support the non-profit philosophy of this publishing house. Check out their webpage.

A WWNO radio interview with Herrara.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Centurions by Jean Lartéguy translated by Xan Fielding

How many times has the story recounted in this classic novel about war been writ in the history of mankind? Ask our soldiers to find a way to save the nation and they do, only to be blamed for their actions in the end. The thing about violence is that it destroys the actor and the acted-upon. There is no safe place.

Penguin Classics has just reissued this title with a Foreword by Robert D. Kaplan, revised from a 2007 article in The Atlantic called "Rereading Vietnam." In his Foreword, Kaplan brings Lartéguy's work up-to-date, relating it to Iraq: "In...extreme and difficult situations like Iraq, cynics may actually serve a purpose... Lartéguy immortalizes such soldiers." The longest and most lavishly described section of the novel focuses on Vietnam and a group of French paratroopers imprisoned there after the battle of Dien Bien Phu. We learn what makes up their natures just as they do, undergoing the hardships, failed escape attempts, sickness, and final release back to France.

We chart their crisscrossing and overlapping lives as they try to put themselves back together on home soil and lament with them the changes to their character that forbid surrender to their old pleasures. Called once again to perform in Algiers, the men reassemble and rely upon one another to build an unusual type of flattened, anti-hierarchical and discrete fighting structure that relies on adopting the guerrilla tactics of the enemy, things they'd learned in Vietnam watching their captors. Knowing each other so intimately allows each to play to their strengths, but every man is damaged in the course of their work.

In the end, the French paratroopers’ closeness with ordinary Algerians is both their strength and a sword that cuts them. Their very integration into a society rebelling against French rule gives them access to information but also requires recognizing the humanity of those they strive to overcome. Later, their tactics are deniable by higher ups in the French military, leaving the soldiers to bear the brunt of saving Algiers Kasbah.
”Let Rome beware the anger of the legions.”
Soldiers everywhere must relate to descriptions of the ways men can be torn from their moorings, to the bond between men harboring together in unbearable conditions, to the uncertainty and fear and the unexpected heroism. All soldiers returning to the home country must also experience the confusion and alienation, the regret for what they’d left behind, the familiarity with a country that had long imprisoned them. And they must feel also the loss of the constraints of discipline and danger.

A friend has remarked that a "key weakness [in the novel] is its understanding of women." It is true that Lartéguy does not develop the female characters—they are something "other." But I did not think it distracted from the reading, nor the verisimilitude of the novel. Men absorbed as they are in war and with fellow officers often do not see women as the whole people they undoubtedly are. Women are apart. Many times the reverse is also true. Men who return from war are something apart. Neither side can comprehend the other: the gulf is too wide. Lartéguy’s work therefore is a fair reflection of what is in these men’s minds. Their primary loyalty is with other men, whom they see with exceptional clarity and sympathy.

It is easy to see why this book is the classic it has become. It has a vivid relevance and feel even now. Initially published in 1960 in French, the English translation by Xan Fielding, himself a Special Operations executive for the British Army in Crete, France and the Far East, was published in Great Britain in 1961. Immediately it was hailed as a classic, a true example of the immediacy of classic status when a book carries with it such a groundbreaking honesty--grand and intimate at the same time--and a sense of history in the making.

There was a film produced in 1965, released in 1967, called 'The Battle for Algiers'. It is a harrowing and almost unbearably lifelike reenactment of the scene when the paratroopers described in this book arrive in Algiers. There was palpable excitement in the NYTimes review of the premier of the film at the opening of the New York Film Festival at the Philharmonic in the fall of 1967. The docudrama won awards in Venice, London, and Alcapulco immediately on release and even today is described as electrifying and eerily resonant. Zbigniew Brzezinski was quoted as saying "If you want to understand what’s happening right now in Iraq, I recommend 'The Battle of Algiers'."

A word or two about Lartéguy’s style: he is graceful and immersive. I loved the French-ness of the book, which did not at all distract from the universality of its message. This book is one of a trilogy, consisting of The Mercenaries (1954), The Centurions (1960), and The Praetorians (1961). Lartéguy died in 2011.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham

As a girl I was not able to understand the attraction of Joyce’s Ulysses. Just as Birmingham tells us, lawyers defending Joyce on charges of indecency used the defense that young girls would neither understand nor be much interested in Joyce’s supposedly great work, and therefore he was not corrupting them. As far as I was concerned, that was true. I never got to the “good bits.” I just didn’t understand what the heck he was talking about. He was crude, he was blunt, and he was clear enough for me to know that if I wanted to hear jokes about farts I could listen to the adolescents on my block.

Now, however, with this enormously detailed and beautifully read book on the genesis and development of the works of Joyce, I finally have a better idea why he was considered such an important author. In the process of explicating Joyce’s work, Birmingham also touches on the life and works of Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Beach, Bennett Cerf and any number of important writers and publishers of the time in Europe and America during the 1910s through the 1930s.

Joyce suffered from a malady of the eye, iritis, which he first experienced while he was in his twenties. It continued his entire life, with surgeries and administered drugs unable to cure it. Joyce died in 1941. Illness played a huge part in his life, according to Birmingham, though Joyce’s Wikipedia entry does not mention it. He was in the process of going blind most of his adult life, which must be one reason why in photographs Joyce’s eyes look so unfocused. Sadly, the underlying cause of the iritis may have been syphilis, which was rampant in Dublin when Joyce lived there. Joyce also called Europe a "'syphilisation'…and the disease accounted for the continent’s manias.”

This is a big book about one book, really, so if you find yourself short on time, pull up a chair and read Chapter 26. It not only tells one the outlines of what Joyce was doing in Ulysses, but what he meant by the very style of his writing and why Ulysses was considered so groundbreaking. Chapter 26 is the one in which a 10+ year legal battle was resolved in the United States concerning the “greatness” of the work as opposed to the “filth” of the work. It became the longest criminal court case in U.S. history with ninety-eight witnesses and a fifteen-thousand-page transcript. The judge hearing the case was particularly interesting in the text of his opinion.

Judge Woolsey, a U.S. federal judge in New York City, had read the entire work, not just the bits conservatives were hoping would condemn the book, and concluded that the dirty words used by the author were not used merely to shock or corrupt but because lower-middle class Irish folk actually talked and thought like that. Whether or not that is true is kind of beside the point. Enough people “thought like that” and “acted like that” to show the judge that obscenity can’t be something we feel and do but hide—it has to be something completely outside the normal experience of human endeavor.

But Woolsey understood more of Joyce than the dirty bits and he helped me to get a grip on what was going on:
Joyce has attempted—it seems to me, with astonishing success—to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious.”
John Keating narrates Penguin Random House Audio production of this book and his accents, pauses, and breaks allow us to hear the greatness of the language. Ulysses charts the course of man across centuries, and collapses it into a single day, tying together the past and the present and the future. Joyce takes the heart of human life—sex—and shows us its relish and life-giving qualities. He does not allude to sex. He talks about how it is conducted frankly, openly, with exuberance and appeal. Ulysses is both funny and real, and like Birmingham and Judge Woolsey point out, in the end, it is several characters and their layers of consciousness all giving voice at one time. That may be why it makes such great theatre.

This book started out with Joyce as a young man meeting Nora Barnacle, the woman who would become his wife, confidant, and the one who, through letters and otherwise, expressed many of the exquisite sexual pleasures explored in Ulysses. Judge Woolsey also mentioned that it is the voice of the woman, Molly Bloom, who remained in his mind after the book was closed, not those of the other main characters: Stephen Dedalus, Buck Mulligan, or Leopold Bloom.

I highly recommend the audio edition of this book, though the Random House print copy has some great photographs and is beautifully printed. If at first you wonder at Birmingham's lavish praise of Joyce you will be won over by the end.

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Friday, June 12, 2015

I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan translated by Eliza Griswold, Photographs by Seamus Murphy

Landays, Afghan two-line poems, some centuries old, have an ephemeral quality, like a scrap of smoke in the air, or a remembered scent, hardly there. They are sung, or recited accompanied by a drum to keep time. Landays began among nomads and farmers and were sung around a campfire, though now both men and women use them in their daily life, as humor, as riposte, as an expression of grief or protest.

Eliza Griswold travelled to Afghanistan with the photographer Seamus Murphy when they’d heard a young woman was persecuted, and died, for writing poems. Her name was Zarmina. Zarmina also recited ancient landays, perhaps changing a word or two to reflect her own life. Griswold began to collect landays and with the collection she has shared with us, we are allowed deep into the national psyche.

Griswold explains her translation process, for which she won the 2015 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. First the translation would be literal and then she would work with academics, writers, journalists to achieve something in English approaching the power of the poem in Pashto. By every measure, she has succeeded.

It is extremely rare for a journalist to manage to portray with such depth, honesty, clarity, and humanity a culture foreign to readers. Griswold manages it in a slim book of poetry. On two facing pages she has placed one of Seamus Murphy’s photographs, and a two line poem. On the overleaf she explains the context of the poem and its meaning. Griswold’s restraint highlights the power of the landays.

A favorite photograph among the collection that are reprinted in this book I share with you here:

Some landays are just about the length of a tweet:
Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their sting.

Some landays recited or sung at celebrations are recorded and shared with relatives or friends. Landays are commonly heard on the radio, or are shared now via Facebook or texted on a phone. What was a form of entertainment around a fire during a celebration has lingered in the national consciousness and become a coveted means of self-expression.

What makes this book so precious is the fact that it could have been nothing--a failure. It must have felt that way many times during the time Griswold and Murphy were working on the collecting, translating, polishing of the landays they present to us. But they really did something here: we get a sense of popular culture, and of the centuries-old richness of Afghan ancient culture. We see, finally, the rich internal life under the burqa.

The final landay and story in the book is extremely affecting: a fifteen-year-old calling herself “the new Zarmina” agrees to meet the author in a market town teeming with militants. She is unwilling to have her landays recorded or translated into the “language of the enemy,” though she has several written in a thin notebook with an apple tree on its cover. She instead recites an ancient landay:
Separation, you set fire
In the heart and home of every lover.

Griswold herself is a poet and a journalist. Some years ago I reviewed her account of the area in Africa where the clash of religions seems to originate, called The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. The concept of that book also showed Griswold’s instinct to finger the pulse of a hotspot and take a reading. Griswold is more experienced now and she has gotten very good indeed at finding life where many others cannot. Congratulations to Griswold, Murphy, and the publisher Farrar, Strauss & Giroux for taking such a chance on a risky endeavor.

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The Infatuations by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Marías chooses a female character, Maria, to narrate this European-style psychological thriller with a slow reveal that turns on a dime in the final chapters. Maria works in a publishing company and every day on her break from work she sees an intriguing couple, married, having coffee together. They look so happy and in love that Maria finds herself looking forward to seeing them in the coffee shop. Sometimes she overhears scraps of conversation and pieces together a life for them without them taking notice of her.

On the very first page of this novel we learn a man is murdered. It is the man of the couple Maria is so interested in. Maria tells us the last time she saw the man was the last time his own wife saw him. It didn’t seem fair, she thinks, for them to share that intimacy for she didn’t even know his name until she saw the report of his death on television.

Marías, Maria: the names one suspects are intentionally close in sound and structure for it is very rare to find a character give up her thoughts so completely to an author. In this novel Marías resides inside the mind of Maria, and almost everything that she thinks over a period of weeks and months is recorded here for us to consider. The world from her view gives us a distance from the victim, his wife, his friend, and the perpetrator of the crime.

This novel addresses some themes: the closeness of love and envy; our closest friends could become our greatest enemies; love and distaste; the uncertainty that comes with intimacy. In the following brief video interview composed by his publisher, Penguin Random House, Marías talks about an oft-encountered theme in his work: betrayal.

Marías’ style--reflective, reflexive, recursive, chatty, digressive—would not work if it weren’t at the same time fiercely intelligent and deeply thoughtful. He is funny, too, as though he has caught onto a joke before we had and can explain it to us. The author is like translator himself, seeking for ways to express an idea, a word, a concept. Long, long sentences and paragraphs punctuated with ellipses and em-dashes show the ongoing thoughts of the narrator and her interpretation of what she finds out when she introduces herself to the wife of the murdered man.

After listening to this novel, my first foray into Marías’ work, I went looking for information about the author. His Goodreads site mentions Proust, William Faulkner, and the German writer Thomas Bernhard as influences, and it is not difficult to see these influences in the ebb and flow of internal dialogue that runs alongside the action in this novel.

I listened to the audio of this title produced by Penguin Random House, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and read by Justine Eyre. The translation is extremely impressive for stream-of-consciousness writing and reading, perfectly understandable and involving. A capacious mind and a brilliant translator will keep one occupied for days.

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

It’s a war out there. And this book is about war crimes. The kind that happen when failed painters take jobs as development agents for the arts departments of mediocre universities, sucking up to successful wealth-creators to ask them to support the drug habits of university arts brats who produce drek. But the tap of money from wealthy donors was running dry, and our failed painter Milo Burke was now a failed development agent.

Milo’s last big “ask” was to Mr. Ramadathan who had mortgaged his electronics store so that his son could “craft affecting screenplays about an emotionally distant, workaholic immigrant’s quest for the American dream.” It had meant a trip to Mr. Ramadathan’s dusty showroom in an outer borough where only used video game consoles and an old floor fan were on display.

I adored this beginning to Lipsyte’s deeply funny and intentional novel, highlighting as it does a reality of sorts behind the absurd “asks” of college development offices, and the wildly improbable and inappropriate demands of many university students in today’s America.

Lipsyte’s narrator, Milo Burke, is hovering close to the edge of despair. Despite his confusion and frustration over the strange things people do and say and how we live, Milo is not a cynical man. He loves his wife and son, and wants nothing more than to be able to provide for them. He worries about being a good dad to Bernie, his lumberjack-mouthed preschooler with a foreskin fixation.

A neighbor Milo liked “could pull off the role of loving and attentive parent with a lit cigarette in his mouth..or in his stubby fingers, which he’d hold with such care away from his daughter’s braids when she charged over to collapse on his lap and file howling grievance against her brother’s style of playhouse play… He was a throwback papa…horseshit of course, but it warmed the cheap parts of me.” That man died with his entire family, “wiped out by a beverage truck on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway” one day, leaving Milo musing that man never had to worry about being a shitty father, leaving debts because of his cancer from cigarette smoking. But Milo still had to worry about being a shitty father because he was alive. Poor confused Milo was envious of a dead man, an unrepentant cigarette smoker.

Antihero Milo hits up his own mother for a decent-sized contribution, whether to his rent fund or his college-fund, we are unsure.
Mother: "How much?"
Milo: "Ten thousand."
Mother: "Absolutely not...the system’s rigged for white men and you still can’t tap in..."
Milo: "Okay, you wrinkled old spidercunt, have it your way."

I have to say, literature that gives me great swear words is always a draw. Shakespeare did it, Lipsyte does it.

Milo doesn’t believe in cockamamie conspiracy theories, nor those that say happiness might have something to do with acceptance and love. It’s all part of the trick, the scam to get us to believe that our rage and resentment is our own problem--something we might need to deal with because we look f—ing ridiculous blaming anything outside of ourselves for not seizing every opportunity to find true sources of happiness and love and fulfillment in the wealthiest, if not the greatest, country on earth. A war within; a war without.

Lipsyte keeps the metaphor about war working when he introduces a story about a home invasion featuring Milo and his college buddies, one of whom is his next big “ask,” the interweb magnate Purdy. But Purdy, like all big potential donors, has an “ask” of his own before he concedes to any kind of “give.”

Purdy’s illegitimate son Don is an actual soldier, returned from Iraq...without his legs. He has two new ones, made of titanium, but generally speaking, he did not come off the better for that exchange. He is still angry. He is angry because of the insipid American culture he sees around him, his sacrifice made flesh. Don manages his rage another way from what we know Milo will do. He had different training.

I came on this book because I had a long car trip coming up; I flipped through the mostly ghastly offerings at my local audio library and came across this title. Sam Lipsyte’s name rang a distant bell but I couldn’t remember why. I looked him up on Goodreads to make sure I wasn’t going to get a romance (you know, like “The Proposal”) and saw a very queer video interview that made me sure I was going to borrow this book. I present it to you here:

Mark Savras is an author and the man behind the blog The Elegant Variation. That blog never really changed very much while I listed it on my own blog for a year or so-—hoping, perhaps, to catch reflected glory. A Milo move, I think now. I watched this darn video clip a couple of times to make sure I didn’t misinterpret what I thought I saw. Savras was really out to lunch, wasn’t he? A little like our boy Milo?
Milo, looking at his hands: “I stared at my own hands: soft, expressive things, gifted even, like specially bred, lovingly shaved gerbils.”

I listened to this Macmillan Audiobook brilliantly read by the author. I am quite sure Lipsyte is the only one who could have read this with the attitude and emphases it needed to reflect the true confusion and pathos of our antihero, Milo. I saw an Audiofile review complaining the listener had to “pay attention every moment” which seems a queer kind of criticism to me. The audio won a Listen Up Award and a Publisher’s Weekly Award. It is available for Whispersync on and I would recommend that choice: you will want to go back and see his jokes in print—he is very funny. And check out that Isaac Babel reference. I plan to.

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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck translated by Sarah Bernofsky

Sometimes contact with a place transforms us. Erpenbeck traces for us German history in the last century through the lives and loves of people involved with a piece of land by a lake on which sits a summer house with an eyebrow window and a roof of thatch. This slim, quiet, extremely powerful novel carries with it the weight of change and allows us to inhabit history. There is a stillness, reserve, and lack of sentimentality about the story which paradoxically fills us with emotion. The house and gardens on the land by the lake are designed with love in mind, the windows framing the view. “A house is your third skin, after the skin made of flesh and clothing.” But when the second war came, “one could only pity a person who owned a piece of land and not a flying carpet.”

WWII books are so common that it takes something unusual to yank me from the torpor that descends upon me as I contemplate another trip through that wasted landscape. The last book which was able to do that for me was Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness. And now, Erpenbeck’s Visitation. I fear I have used all my superlatives when it comes to talking about books so that when I say "extraordinary" it doesn’t convey the truly astonishing clarity and craft the author exhibits.

Erpenbeck brings Americans something new: the war from the view of German citizens, broken as a citizenry when the Jews were removed, or, as in the case of ‘the architect and his wife’ living in the house they built by the lake, without a full understanding. It hadn’t all been the architect’s land, to begin with. He’d acquired a large piece which included the boat house ("paid a full half of market value") from the cloth merchants who had owned the parcel next door, allowing them to leave the country.
Hermine and Arthur, his parents.
He himself, Ludwig, the firstborn.
His sister Elizabeth, married to Ernst.
Their daughter, his neice, Doris.
Then his wife Anna.
And now the children: Elliot and baby Elizabeth, named for his own sister.
Most never made it out. The war intruded finally, on the land by the lake, in the form of invading Russians, at least one of whom left his seed to grow on the land by the lake.

But this book is not just about war. We move from the Weimar Republic through the Second World War to the Fall of the Wall. This book is about that fourth dimension in architecture, time, and how that adds to height, width, length to make something enduring, or perhaps, not so much.

Any book of this quality must have a translator who can keep pace and give the work its intended gravitas. Sarah Bernofsky, the translator of this novel and three of Erpenbeck’s others, is Co-Chair of the PEN Translation Committee and has won several awards for her work. Most recently she shared the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with Erpenbeck for her latest novel, The End of Days, a novel which takes on the theme "what if." Sometimes a life can change direction on the smallest incident.

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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Losing Faith by Adam Mitzner

Legal thrillers are not a genre of fiction I read a lot of simply because good ones are so thin on the ground. I do remember picking up Scott Turow’s great thriller Presumed Innocent and being rapt. To this day it sets a standard against which other writers are judged. I should also state for the record that I am no legal scholar. The morass of legal considerations which might keep a confessed criminal from punishment make me anxious.

Adam Mitzner’s third novel is a curious thing. There seemed to be a large hole in the logic of the case he brought to our attention, which I realized later was supposed to create suspicion in the reader’s mind about the facts laid out by the author. Unfortunately, I was instead confused as to how we got here in the first place: it seemed Judge Nichols was well and truly screwed no matter what she did…and then she was murdered.

The successful head of a large New York law firm, Aaron Littman, involves himself sexually with a married federal court judge, Faith Nichols, who happens to be on the short list for the Supreme Court. Six months after they begin their liaison, she is the presiding judge over a case Aaron is arguing. Neither party recuses themselves. Aaron loses the case & his client goes to jail. The relationship ends.

When Faith is murdered, evidence of the relationship comes to light and Aaron is in the frame for the deed. The bulk of the novel revolves around Aaron’s trial.

Mitzner seems to present correctly the technical bits about objections and evidence but I wasn't sure he got the motivations of the characters right. One could argue that a legal thriller is really a psychological drama and the thoughts and motivations of the characters are at least as important as physical evidence, which as we all know, can be ambiguous, tampered with, lost, or destroyed.

I think by now all of us can imagine a powerful man, say the head of a large New York law firm, with a zipper problem. It is harder to imagine the flip side of that: a Supreme Court nominee willing to risk her career and her future for a relationship that could go nowhere. And Aaron’s associate Rachel did not have enough motivation to perjure herself under oath, to my mind. Love, sure. Gratitude, maybe. Promise? Hope? Nah. Maybe a man could do it, like Aaron’s mentor Rosenthal, for instance.

Anyway, it is an interesting set of circumstances that Mitzner provides and it is a good book to take to the beach. It is involving enough to keep you guessing and working out what the characters (and the author) could have done differently.

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Monday, June 1, 2015

Min Kamp #4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard translated by Don Bartlett

In this installment of his six-volume fiction, Knausgaard is eighteen years old. He relates his first year teaching lower secondary school in Håfjord, a small town by the sea in far north Norway. This is his first full-time paid employment outside of a month’s summertime stint at a nursing home. The excitement of being on his own to earn money, to write, to be all he can be is palpable in the beginning. Only a few short months into the teaching gig he calls his mother: he wants to quit. Ah, callow youth!

It turns out what he really wants to do, what absorbs his attention, is shag girls. "I would have given anything to sleep with a girl. Any girl actually…But it wasn’t something you were given, it was something you took. Exactly how, I didn’t know…" A great deal of the time and energy of his sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth years revolved around this quest. The wider world was there: the colleague he lived with continually asked him to go on tramps in the countryside but he refused: "not my thing." When at Christmas that year he returns to Lavik in southern Norway he notices trees: "I’d had no idea that I had missed trees until I was sitting there and saw them."

Outside of shagging girls what Karl Ove wanted to do is write. And not just write: “I will be the bloody greatest ever…I had to be big. I had to.” Actually, it is this certainty in his own talents that makes Karl Ove interesting to listen to for five hundred-odd pages in this installment. It has been said that a novel is just words on paper until it is read; that is, the reader brings imagination, understanding, and empathy to a novel to make it cohere or not. This installment of Knausgaard’s six-part novel, subtitled Dancing in the Dark, is a particularly good example of the need for reader insight. Karl Ove is a special kind of boy, but he can fail. That we don’t want him to fail is only partly his doing.

This section of the linked novels is also more claustrophobic than earlier installments of Knausgaard’s story. We have less of the older authorial voice, and any distance history might provide. All thought and action takes place entirely within Karl Ove’s own head, and outside of a section in which he moves back to his final year in high school and occasional comments by the then 40-year-old author, we have only the binocular vision of his two eyes and his underdeveloped prefrontal cortex to guide us through six months living in the perpetual dark of the an Arctic winter.

The dark plays a large role in developing this teenager into a man. He has to fight against the dark within and without, and doesn’t always manage it. We readers give him ample room for mistakes in this environment, seeing as how we can hardly imagine ourselves pulling it off. The endless cycles of weekend drinking are both horrible and understandable; we just wish our bright young narrator were not so susceptible to alcohol’s siren song.

Knausgaard finishes Min Kamp Volume #4 on a high note and with a flourish worthy of his hormonal anguish. He has us laughing that he finally scaled the hills and valleys of his testosterone-soaked internal landscape. While the story of his eighteenth year has insufficient perspective in itself to have much meaning, the rest of the volumes and readers themselves provide context and meaning. We learn fractionally more about the elusive Yngve, who has small speaking parts in this novel, and marginally more about his father’s decline. We feel Karl Ove’s desperation and confusion when he realizes the place his mother rented is only home when his mother and brother are there: "...home is no longer a place. It was mum and Yngve. They were my home."

This novel is the written equivalent of Karl Ove staring into the bathroom mirror while washing his hands, looking and being looked at, inside and outside at the same time, purely and unambiguously expressing his inner state. It is forgotten the instant the pen is put down or the book closed until someone else opens the book, picks up the soap, stares at their reflection, and examines their soul.

My Struggle Volume 1
My Struggle Volume 2
My Struggle Volume 3

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The Burning Gates (Makana #4) by Parker Bilal

London-born, Spain-based Parker Bilal is on my short list of great thriller writers writing today. His Makana Mystery series features a private investigator originally from the Sudan and now working in Cairo. Bilal gives us all kinds of atmosphere, politically-relevant motive, morally-complex characters, and a beating heart. His writing is blessedly free from idiom and extraneous storylines—the exotic setting and complexity of his main character’s life is enough to keep us off balance and searching for familiar ground.

In this installment, U.S. government contractors have gone off the reservation in Iraq to pursue a former high-ranking military official from the old Iraq regime who appears to be profiting from his theft of Kuwaiti ‘war spoils’ which was the impetus for U.S. involvement in the First Gulf War. It is now 2004, and the Egyptian political scene is chaotic while private investigator Makana wends his way between bribe-takers, informants, and status-seekers, seeking justice.

We get a street view of Cairo’s neighborhoods as Makana does his rounds, and have the opportunity to see how Cairenes operate day-to-day. Best of all are characterizations of some of the less wealthy inhabitants of the city: we see where they live, how they live, what they think, and how they eat. Cairo has always been a cosmopolitan place. Its location in the heart of the Middle East give it a unique perspective, and the central character in this series, Makana, allows us to look at the region with an even further remove.

Parker Bilal is the pen name of Jamal Mahjoub, who publishes award-winning literary novels under his own name.

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