An Annual Tradition: The 2015 Brooklyn Book Festival

September 30, 2015 § 2 Comments

A little over a week I was at the Brooklyn Festival. The weather was beautiful – a warm and windy Fall day. Due to the construction happening around Borough Hall everything was a little more spread out this year. The Hall’s grand steps, featured in every article about the festival and usually completely filled with people, stood empty behind a chain link fence. Food trucks were parked in front of the Cadman Plaza Post Office, a little farther down than their normal spots.  The Post Office steps functioned as an al fresco dining area where Lori, my Festival buddy, and I enjoyed some delicious (if overpriced) empanadas mid-day. The new set-up also utilized a section of park around the Korean War Memorial which usually stands empty, filling it with the booths belonging to the smaller literary magazines.  I liked it.  In fact, I hope they continue using it next year – hopefully moving the booths out of the too narrow, sad walkway adjacent to the Courthouse that no one really likes.

After several years of attendance one thing I’ve learned is that the moderator has the ability to make or break a panel.  This was painfully reinforced at Darkness & Light – a panel which featured an extraordinary line-up of international authors: Naja Marie Aidt (Denmark), László Krasznahorkai (Hungary) & Andrés Neuman (Argentina/Spain).  Krasznahorkai, I can’t be alone in believing, will eventually win the Nobel.  Which adds a certain prestige to the whole enterprise.  People develop expectations.  Which is why the moderator must have been a last minute substitution, after the original moderator was struck down with cholera or the bubonic plague.  That’s the only logical explanation. Because it was immediately clear he hadn’t read any of the authors’ books. In fact, he did everything to avoid talking about them altogether.  Instead he followed a painful line of questions which included reading aloud Genesis 1:3 and asking the panelists to comment (because Europeans don’t feel Americans are religious enough); discussing the length of daylight in the different time zones where they are from; and  ENDING the panel by having them talk about whether they felt print books vs. digital readers (which have built in light sources – he actually included that as a qualifier) were effecting how they wrote and/or how their books were enjoyed.  The panel is called light and dark, get it??? You think it’s a metaphor – but noooo, he meant it literally. SURPRISE!


No rotten fruit was available to the audience, and I’d already eaten my empanadas. And so this madness was allowed to play out unchecked.

Each author did give a brief reading at the beginning, before anyone realized what was in store. László chose to read his passage first in English and then, movingly, in Hungarian.  Most of the audience questions were, not surprisingly, directed at László and mostly pertained to his work in film.  Luckily, Neuman and Aidt were on other panels later in the day.  And Laszlo did sign my copies of Satantango & Seiobo There Below afterwards  – one personalized to me and the other to my husband.  If, after that, you still feel you might have missed something the video of the panel is up on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.
On the other end of the spectrum – as wonderful as the before mentioned panel was terrible – The New Latin American Literature: A View From Within had an incredible line-up of authors.  Yuri Herrera, Valeria Luiselli, Guadalupe Nettel, Andrés Neuman (again) and Alejandro Zambra. Daniel Alarcon acted as moderator.  The discussion covered a variety of topics – magical realism and The Boom, writing for an English speaking audience, life in Mexico City and (as the title says) the state of Latin American literature today. Overall it was an incredibly vibrant 60 minutes, one of the few events I’ve ever attended which conveyed a sense of the camaraderie we like to imagine exists among writers. I left believing The New Latin American Literature was a real movement rather than just a pretext on which to organize a panel.

Despite the numbers he was working with Alarcon engaged each writer individually, asking questions which showcased their personalities & interests. Alejandro Zambra came across as the most defiant of the group, while Guadalupe Nettel seemed to be the most socially & politically involved (a journalist herself, she was the only one to bring up  the killing of journalists in Mexico).  Luiselli brought up, not for the first time, the generation of Latin American writers who came immediately after The Boom and are still waiting to be translated into English.  Andrés Neuman  – whose short story collection I knew I had somewhere (wrongfully neglected) on my bookshelves  – displayed a thoughtful, intellectual side. I found his book, The Things We Don’t Do published by Open Letter, immediately upon arriving home. I can’t wait to start reading it.

There were other panels and more than one new discovery. Imperium, when described by the author Christian Kracht, seems a much more intriguing book than its marketing conveys. I heard the Congolese author of Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, give a spirited reading from his novel in French – and quietly laughed as his British translator strove valiantly to emulate that passion but was hindered by being… well… a little too British.  I also spent some time and money at the Feminist Press booth. I finally own a copy of Virginie Despentes King Kong Theory.  But my favorite purchase of the day was without a doubt the anthology  The Shipwrecked: Contemporary Stories by Women from Iran.

I also received a rather smart tote bag.

The Brooklyn Book Festival, despite its being held in September, always serves as the mile marker of my year in books.  It’s where I go to see the authors who excited me in the months preceding and where I discover the authors who’ll occupy me for the weeks that remain.  I imagine that there are dozens of similar, if not larger and better, book festivals happening throughout the year that I know nothing about. So I’m throwing out a question – do you have a festival which plays the same, or a similar, role for you?


Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado, tr. Antony Shugaar

September 9, 2015 § 4 Comments

Title:  Hollow Heart

Author:  Viola Di Grado

Translator:  Antony Shugaar  / Italian

Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2015)

ISBN:  978 1 60945 271 1

“I’m not afraid of death because I don’t believe in it.
It’s just getting out of one car, and into another.”
― John Lennon

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
― Edgar Allan Poe

“When you look into the abyss, it’s not supposed to wave back.”
― Terry Pratchett

Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011) is the unlikely heroine of the Italian novel, Hollow Heart, released in English this past August by the increasingly chic publisher Europa Editions.  Unlikely because she’s already dead when the book (which functions as a sort of memoir of the afterlife) starts, having employed the perennial method of opening her wrists in a warm bath.  To female suicide what the double axel is to female figure skaters, the way she kills herself grounds by its very ubiquity what proves to be a mesmerizing and wholly original literary work about a young woman navigating death. And doing so with more dexterity than she ever showed in life. Probably not a coincidence.  The very things which she loses – the emotional and physical connections which define our humanity – are the things which caused her so much pain while alive.  Death, if nothing else, grants objectivity.

The bad news about the afterlife is that it’s rather bleak.  Viola Di Grado paints a black landscape where the dead exist as shadows, isolated from those they love, lonely, unable to experience the pleasures they took for granted while alive.  Of course, Dorotea’s existence (as we come to understand it) was rather bleak prior to her suicide. At least now she has some friends and perspective. She keeps a journal recording the decomposition of her body, which she visits frequently and lovingly. She continues to live with her mother and aunt – observing their grief, comforting and tormenting them as the whim strikes her.  She goes to an Amy Winehouse concert (after the singer’s death, of course) with another suicide named Euridice. She seeks out other ghosts, leaving touchingly wistful messages for recently deceased acquaintances.

Hi, I’m Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011). We did theater together in middle school. I was the one who was three years older than you, I had dark hair and freckles, you remember? I’m the one who that time we went to Milan to see the show about Pirandello, on the bus, told you about when my cousin’s duckling almost drowned after it got tangled up in a piece of twine and the other duckling saved it by peeping really loud. You said it was a crazy story. Do you remember that? I know we didn’t talk much for the rest of the trip. And I know that we haven’t been in touch in the fourteen years since. But I heard that you died of leukemia, and since I was in your neighborhood, having died myself just last year, I though that maybe we could get together…

I got your number from a girl who died of an overdose and used to do aerobics with you. I stopped by the hospital room where you stopped living, but you weren’t there. I thought you might be in the morgue, hanging ribbons and necklaces on you frozen body, but you weren’t there either. Nor at the cemetery; that’s where I spend a lot of my time these days. Would you call me at this number? I really hope to hear from you. Ciao, kisses.

Much of Hollow Heart is about Dorotea coming to terms with the life she gave up. The prose is beautiful – moving from the lyrical to the biological – sentences defiantly bright in the face of such a dark subject. “Down there my body feels no regrets: the regrets have stayed with me, and I have to fight them off on my own. My regrets shrill, they whine, they throw tantrums, they keep me from sleeping. They disobey me. They grow. My body has enxymes instead of regrets. They emerged from the lacerated lysosomes and set about destroying their own tissues. And so every one of my cells crumbled itself from within, alone, in silence.”  Life and viscera saturate page after page as Dorotea describes the insects who eat her flesh and then, moments later, is caught up in a memory of a plane ride she took while alive: “The clouds outside the airplane window looked like a motionless sea. A slab of dark waves, caught by surprise in the middle of a storm. Breakers suspended in that enchanted instant right before they crash down on the shore. You could see the entire arch of their bodies, the hook-shaped curve, soon thrust into the earth. A huge hand lifted to grab, as if full of yearning.” Di Grado’s writing is so lovely at times it makes you ache.

I’ve included more than the usual number of excerpts because the writing, as well as the originality of thought behind the character, are what make Hollow Heart worth reading – and, in fact, readable.  Violet Di Grado appears to have done her research, acknowledging the hereditary component of suicide.  She does not hesitate to make her readers uncomfortable or sad.  But in Dorotea she’s given us a character whose charm is only revealed after she sheds her depression with her corporeal form.  Once that happens an inquisitive, sweet, admittedly quirky young woman emerges.  You can’t help cheering her on, if only because she is so hopeful in a place where we’ve been told all hope should be abandoned.  Somehow managing to embrace the afterlife as she was never able to embrace the life that came before.


Something Old, Something New: Two Novels by Therese Bohman (a #WITMonth post)

August 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

The weekend before last an Indie Book Flea was held outside of the Brooklyn Public Library.  I was there with Lori from TNBBC because, let’s be honest, we’re geeks who live for that kind of thing.  There was a bunch of great publishers and chapbook presses there and I ended up buying from quite a few of them – Seven Stories, One Story, Ugly Duckling Presse, Double Cross Press – all of whom I plan to talk about in the weeks after WITMonth (aka – Women In Translation Month). But right now I want to talk about some really exciting news I heard at the Other Press table.

The Swedish author Therese Bohman, whose novel Drowned I reviewed in 2012 and which remains on my favorite-books-of-all-time shelf, has a new novel coming out in English in February, 2016.  The title is The Other Woman. Marlaine Delargy is again translating. Below is the description from the Penguin Random House website (Other Press is an imprint) –

From the author of Drowned, a passionate psychological drama where questions of power and sexuality are brought to a head.

She works at Norrköping Hospital, at the very bottom of the hierarchy: in the cafeteria, below the doctors, the nurses, and the nursing assistants. But she dreams of one day becoming a writer, of moving away and reinventing herself.

Carl Malmberg, an older, married doctor at the hospital, catches her eye. She begins an intense affair with him, though struggling with the knowledge that he may never be hers. At the same time, she realizes that their attraction to each other is governed by their differences in social status. As her doubts increase, the revelation of a secret no one could have predicted forces her to take her own destiny in hand.

The news had me picking up my copy of Drowned again and revisiting my old review from 2012. Everything I wrote then still holds true today (which is always a relief), though I did make a new connection I didn’t make back then.  Last year I read the Château d’Argol by Julien Gracq, tr. Louise Varése – an example of both Gothicism and German Romanticism.  Drowned, which also uses nature as symbolism and foreshadowing, shares many of the same techniques and themes – albeit written in a more straight forward prose style.

Click on the cover to read my review of Therese Bohman’s Drowned.



The Diving Pool: Three Novellas by Yoko Ogawa, tr. Stephen Snyder (a #WITMonth post)

August 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title:  The Diving Pool – Three Novellas
Author:  Yoko Ogawa
Translator:  Stephen Snyder
Publisher: Picador, New York (2008)
ISBN:  978 0 312 42683 5

The quality of mercy is not strain’d.

Diving PoolThe compassion Yoko Ogawa shows her protagonists, despite their flaws, consistently surprises me. These three early novellas – and novella seems a bit of a grandiose term for what are, essentially, three unrelated short stories – each feature a first person, female narrator. They are collected under the title: The Diving Pool, which is also the title of the first novella.  The three women, aging from early teens to mid-thirties, are not the most likeable of characters. In fact, much of what we learn about them seems designed to repulse us.

Ogawa has an affinity for the first person narrator. Like her 2013 book of short stories, Revenge: Eleven Dark TalesThe Diving Pool exclusively uses the “I” perspective.  The writing is disturbingly confessional in tone.  Taken together, these two characteristics make it tempting to classify Ogawa’s work as part of the Japanese I-Novel tradition.*  Ogawa’s protagonists disclose their darkest secrets to the reader.  They reveal shameful actions, though not always the motivations behind them. They are perhaps the most reliable of narrators in that they tell us things we don’t wish to hear.

The Diving Pool is, in my opinion, the strongest of the three novellas.  It’s also the most difficult to summarize. The narrator, a teenage girl, grows up neglected by her parents as they tend to the needs of the many foster children they have taken into their home – an orphanage called The Lighthouse.  Lonely and increasingly isolated, she develops a crush on one of her foster brothers and secretly spends her afternoons at the swimming pool watching him practice his diving. If this were another writer I’d say that the situation escalates, but “escalation” is too aggressive a word to apply to Ogawa.  The girl does a terrible thing; in truth has a history of doing terrible things.  The story is a perfect coalescing of the themes which obsess Ogawa – loneliness, isolation, everyday acts of desperation and cruelty.

Then, while she had her back turned, I slipped behind the kitchen door. After a few moments, the dirt on her hands began to bother her again and she dropped the shovel and bucket at her feet and stood staring at her palms. Finally, she turned for help toward the spot where I should have been sitting. As it dawned on her that I wasn’t there, that she’d been left alone, she began crying in earnest. Her sobs were violent, seemingly about to rupture inside her, and they were satisfying my cruel urge. I wanted her to cry even harder, and everything seemed perfectly arranged: no one would come to pick her up, I would be able to listen to my heart’s content, and she was too young to tell anyone afterward.

I stopped reading and put this book away for 6 months after finishing The Diving Pool.

Slightly less devastating, Dormitory features a woman in her early thirties who is waiting to join her husband in Sweden. He has found work there and has gone on ahead to settle their living arrangements. She spends her days alone, seldom leaving her home.  “My life, too, seemed to be drifting in circles, as if caught in the listless season…. I never went out to meet people and had no deadlines or projects of any sort. Formless days passed one after the other, as if swollen into an indistinguishable mass by the damp weather.” One day a younger cousin calls asking for her help finding a place to live.  He is beginning his first semester at university and knew from other family members that she’d been happy with the dormitory she’d stayed at while in school.  Six years have passed since she’d graduated, but she offered to contact the manager. “That was how I came to renew my ties with the dormitory.”

“There’s one thing I forgot to mention,” I said, finally bringing up the subject that had been on my mind all day. My cousin turned to look at me, waiting expectantly for me to continue. “The Manager is missing one leg and both arms.” There was a short silence.

“One leg and both arms,” he repeated at last.

“His left leg, to be precise.”

“What happened to him?

“I’m not sure. An accident, I suppose. There were rumors – that he’d been caught in some machine or was in a car wreck. No one could ever manage to ask him, but it must have been something awful.”

“That’s for sure,” my cousin said, looking down as he kicked a pebble.

“But he can do everything for himself – cook, get dressed, get around. He can use a can opener, a sewing machine, anything, so you won’t even notice after a while. When you’ve been around him, it somehow doesn’t seem to be very important. I just didn’t want you to be shocked when you meet him.”

“I see what you mean,” my cousin said, kicking another pebble.

WITMonth15Her cousin moves into the dormitory, in fact seems to be the only student staying there, and through him the narrator also renews her acquaintance with the dormitory manager.  A strange friendship forms between them, the narrator and Manager.  Through a series of visits a semblance of a plot begins to emerge – but Dormitory seems more of an exercise in atmosphere and sensory exploration.  Like many of Ogawa’s stories it is incredibly cinematic.  She layers sound, visual images, dialogue, even cuts in and out of scenes.  It’s easy to imagine Dormitory being made into a short, noir-style film… perhaps by a student film-maker.  The final image is profoundly haunting, – and this in a story filled with haunting imagery.

Pregnancy Diary, actually the second in order of appearance, is structured pretty much as the title implies.  A woman, living with her sister and her sister’s husband, begins keeping a diary to track her sister’s pregnancy. As the weeks progress it becomes increasingly clear that something is not right here… though I could never quite put my finger on what.

Unapologetically, Ogawa puts her damaged characters on the page and confronts us with their actions, using the first person perspective like a weapon to force our complicity.  By exposing these women so completely it would be easy to think she didn’t care, but there is a definite protectiveness to her portrayals.  She doesn’t hold them up for judgement, in fact I’d say it is just the opposite.  She treats them with gentleness and dignity – handling them more carefully than she does her readers.  There is also a visceral quality to her writing which reminds me of Naja Marie Aidt (who I’ll be reviewing next week) and other women writers I admire.  Physical cruelty, the emotionally abhorrent, the grotesque – Yoko Ogawa’s writing doesn’t shy away from the less attractive aspects of biology or human nature.


*As far as I know, and my understanding of the Japanese I-Novel has never been very good, the I- or True Novel genre requires an autobiographical narrative.  So in A True Novel by Minae Mizumura the author places herself into the story as a character and as part of the framing device. Ogawa, again as far as I know, never places herself into her narratives.  Though her narrators for the most part remain unnamed.




If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, tr. Anne Carson (a #WITMonth post)

August 3, 2015 § 2 Comments

Title:  If Not, Winter – Fragments of Sappho

Author:  Sappho

Translator:  Anne Carson

Language:  Classical Greek

Publisher:  Vintage Books/Random House, New York (2002)

ISBN:  0 375 72451 6

IfNotWinterIs Sappho, who composed her poems c. 630-570 B.C., the earliest woman to have her work was translated into English? She was much admired in antiquity, the woman whom Plato called “the tenth muse”, but notwithstanding the immensity of her reputation very little of her work has survived intact.  There are reasons for this and scholars who are more qualified to speak on the subject than I am.  Enough to say that what do exist are fragments of the original poems preserved on bits of decaying papyrus.  These surviving pieces are beautiful even in (and sometimes because of) their incomplete state…. and tantalize us with what they do and do not reveal.

Anne Carson seems to understand that part of the attraction of Sappho is the mystery which surrounds her.  Carson’s 2002 translations, collected in the book titled If Not, Winter, are interesting in a variety of ways – not least being how she presents the verses.   On the left hand page is the original Greek. On the right, the English translations. This is fairly typical formatting in poetry translations, but she has also made the radical decision to use brackets to signify the missing words and sections – to define the negative space within Sappho’s poems. Carson explains her thought process in an Introduction to the collection: “Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it… I emphasize the distinction between brackets and no brackets because it will affect your reading experience, if you allow it. Brackets are exciting. Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, there is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp – brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.”  

What results is a surprisingly modern form of poetry.


]quick as possible


But you, O Dika, bind your hair with lovely crowns,

tying stems of anise together in your soft hands.

For the blessed Graces prefer to look on one who wears flowers

and turn away from those without a crown.

(Fragment 81)

Reading the truncated succinctness of the first three incomplete lines, followed by the fullness of the final four, is a voluptuous pleasure that must exist separately from the original verse Sappho would have sung. Perhaps what surprises most is the loveliness of the left hand page, an area most monolingual readers tend to ignore, believing it the territory of scholars who might want to compare the original to the translation. In this case the Greek characters, to which Carson has also applied her brackets, have a visual beauty.  They appear romantic and exotic, evoking the Mytilene island of Lesbos where Sappho lived and composed.

Anne Carson is an accomplished poet in her own right, in conjunction to being a skilled translator.  She is also a woman (to state the obvious) – which is relevant because the feminine voice is the essence of all Sappho’s poetry. So if in some places she has taken liberties in how the lines are formatted on the page, creating spacing and indentations where none existed in the Greek, it is because her knowledge of modern poetry – of the works of poets such as e.e. cummings and Emily Dickinson – informs her translation.  This does not necessarily put Carson at odds with the antiquity of the source text since no one is even sure that Sappho was, herself, literate. Her poetry was sang, accompanied by a variety of musical instruments and most of what has come down to us are transcriptions made by others after her death.

Fragment 81 in the original Greek, from If Not, Winter

Fragment 81 in the original Greek, from If Not, Winter

Each poem and fragment in the collection is numbered – using the same numbers/numerical system as the one used by Greek scholars. This means that Fragment 81, for example, is always the same (notwithstanding differences in translations) across texts. These fragments range from almost complete poems (Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5 & 31); to series of seemingly random words; to single lines which float at the top of a page – “and I on a soft pillow will lay down my limbs”.  Fragment 38 consists of only three words – “you burn me”. While it might seem useless reading these words, stranded without context – it is that very lack of context which makes them seem powerful.  True their power will inevitably be diminished as new words and lines are discovered and “you burn me” is again imbedded among the other, more relevant, lyrics.  But reading Sappho is a rather like a high-stakes game of Mad Libs, something Carson seems to understand.

Over time this reader of Sappho has found herself becoming a collector of words and phrases as new information, new fragments, are uncovered. Often in the most obscure places –  ancient rubbish heaps or scraps of papyrus that was used in the wrappings of Egyptian mummies.  In 2005 the Times Literary Supplement published a more complete version of Fragment No. 58 than what was available to Carson in 2002.  The discovery of a new papyrus magically allowed us to fill in the blanks, completing almost the entire poem. Two more poems were found in 2014 (“New Poems By Sappho” TLS, 5 February 2014).  The first poem was not entirely unknown to scholars, its existence had been mentioned by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus in his writings. What has become known as “The Brothers Poem” is missing only a few words.  The second find was yet another short fragment consisting of approximate five, more or less, complete lines.

WITMonth15Each of these new discoveries is a revelation that fills in more of the negative space surrounding Sappho’s work, and causes those seemingly innocuous brackets in If Not, Winter to take on a new significance. “…Brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure” Anne Carson wrote in 2002. That implication has since become a promise.






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