Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence

11.12.16

the year in reading 2016

Like last year, I'm unimpressed by the year-end best-of lists. And like last year, I've read a dozen books a month (closing in on 100 novels, and 24 books of poetry so far ...) from all over the map, over half in translation, with new incursions into Catalan and Korean (though oddly none yet from Dalkey Archive), and over half by authors I hadn't previously encountered. (And like last year, a gentle reminder that non-profit literary presses deserve your tax-deductible year-end support; I'm partial to Archipelago Books myself, but then I'm on the board.) Unlike last year, I've read more books by women (about a quarter of the total), and won't be opining on the Best Translated Book Awards until the longlist comes out at the end of March. Also unlike last year, I'll select the best reads of each month, and include an honorable mention as well, even as this does not by any means exhaust what was worthwhile*:

Jan: José Eduardo Agualusa, A General Theory of Oblivion (Daniel Hahn) [archipelago]: tight weave within the chaos of Angolan independence [MAO]
Richard Weiner, The Game for Real (Benjamin Paloff) [Two Lines]
Feb: Jack Cox, Dodge Rose [Dalkey] [3AM and (*spoilert*) a two part consideration]
Christos Ikonomou, Something Will Happen, You'll See (Karen Emmerich) [archipelago]
Mar: Sarah Howe, Loop of Jade [Chatto & Windus]: wow, some think overly precious but no allusion gratuitous or wasted, 1st debut Eliot Prize
Llorenç Villalonga, The Dolls' Room (Deborah Bonner) [Dalkey]
Apr: Ralph Cusack, Cadenza [Dalkey]: clinic on Irish yarn-spinning tangled in time and space (Sorrentino afterwords: "a stew of bewildering and impenetrable events, an inexpiicable 'cosmic joke.'" But that's life ...)
Raduan Nassar, A Cup of Rage (Stefan Tobler) [Penguin]
May: António Lobo Antunes, Fado Alexandrino (Gregory Rabassa) [Grove]: PTSD but P for Portuguese nothing Post- about it (and stress on disorder), thick interweave
Han Kang, Human Acts (Deborah Smith) [Portobello]
Jun: Ilja Leonard Pfeiffer, La Superba (Michele Hutchison) [Deep Vellum]: fantastic Genoa, expatriated, poet's pomo-novel; narrator overly bro in least successful of the subplotting, otherwise thumbs-up [MAO]
Robert Coover, The Origin of the Brunists [Grove]
Jul: Christine Brooke-Rose, Thru [Carcanet]: thru the Omnibus, which is to say thru with it, which is to say thru Thru, which I enjoyed the most of the bunch (whereas Between, least): the language semiotics of love and vice versa chiasmusically, and academonically, whodunnit recast as whoseddit, subriffing ... yes some flash and trash too but enough of it works ... Out was nouveau roman but with a difference, a difference that became clearer with Such; she knows how to work a conceit, and how to make you work for it. Between: tourism of simultaneous interpretation, traveling in style more than in substance
{goin' meta, M.A.Orthofer, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction [Columbia] [my review]; so extra honorable mention next month ...}
Aug: Vladimir Sharov, Before and During (Oliver Ready) [Dedalus]: a bit of history with which I was unfamiliar til now and seemingly forgotten (til Sharov resurrects it) but still operative in the Russian psyche: Fyodorov and Cosmism [MAO]
Elias Khoury, Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol (Humphrey Davies) [archipelago]
Jung Young Moon, Vaseline Buddha (Yewon Jung) [Deep Vellum]
Sep: Pierre Reverdy, The Thief of Talant (Ian Seed) [Wakefield]: hybrid prose poetry, this is a keeper, if only surrealism had taken this track and knit itself as tightly I don't encounter much that demands a reread like this
Pascal Quignard, A Terrace in Rome (Douglas Penick and Charles Ré) [Wakefield]
Oct: Tomasz Różycki, Twelve Stations (Bill Johnston) [Zephyr]: convoluted comedic elegiac verse spanning 20c Poland from east to west and in retrograde [TQC oeuvreview]
Maja Haderlap, Angel of Oblivion (Tess Davis) [archipelago]
Nov: Iván Sándor, Legacy (Tim Wilkinson) [Peter Owen]: retracing the persisting end of 1944 Budapest, plumbing the murky depths of the past, memory, the unconscious ... and how the story comes together, or apart
Sergei Lebedev, Oblivion (Antonina W. Bouis) [New Vessel]
Dec: TBD Eliot Weinberger, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: with more ways [NDP]: a must-read on poetry in translation (and each in isolation) [MAO]
Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems (Roger L. Conover, ed) [FSG]: wow! modernism that Modernism wasn't ready for
(and special mention for John Kerrigan, Shakespeare's Binding Language [Oxford]: oaths & vows, Empsonically)

* (a full rendering of my reading in the usual unusual place)

11.11.16

lighght

particular or wavey
the answers don't matter when
the question's not even wrong
ontology recapitulates
in all probability
it's all the way down
all the way down
shut up and copenhagen

6.9.16

contortions

think on your feet and stand on your head
dig in your heels to furrow your brow
sit on your hands but stay on your toes
lead with your chin when armed to the teeth
lending an ear while holding your tongue
trust in your gut it's right on the nose

30.7.16

poetry in commotion

the momentum of mass transit
carries you to the wrong platform
to make an impossible connection
in the busy abandoned station
everybody someplace else
in packed forsaken corridors
or on crowded vacant stairs

avoid eye contact it's irritating
even the blind vagrant feels your gaze
and rattles his anthora cup in reply
slip in the swipe card with one last ride


31.7 EDIT: anthora replaces greek-keyed thx Sharon!

9.7.16

Throwaway lines (slow return)

Every couple of years I collect, or recollect, some of the rubbish I've uttered, mainly at The Fictional Woods lit-chat, and fashion a blog post out of it. Yes, we recycle!

Each time I run across Heraclitus' 91st fragment it reads differently.

I don't get why some people obsess over "making a difference". Do the math: it's only subtraction.

When they say 'do the math', they always mean arithmetic, never differential topology.

Live each day as though it were your last. You'll be right some time, but then again so's a stopped clock.

In battling ambivalence, I'm not sure who should win.

I'm enjoying my anhedonia.

Confessional poetry isn't worth the price of admission.

Got dem Guattari blues / Après moi, le Deleuze

I'm an axiomatic pragmatist: first principles are the fundamental problem.

Famous last words: "Take this down. 'Kill the moralists. It's the right thing to do.'" —Siger of Brabant

Entire sociopsychologies have been built upon the foundation of man's inability to bear children; how come no parallel structure has been erected on man's inability to fake orgasms?

Just because humans have opposable thumbs, should we hold it against them?

What's the plural of hapax legomenon again?

What if I faked having Impostor Syndrome and they found out?

(previous iterations: 2010, 2012, 2014)

5.7.16

Complete Review review

M.A.Orthofer has long been an underappreciated chronicler of underappreciated fiction, foreign and otherwise, at the complete review, started in 1999 to provide reviews (his own, graded, with copious links to others'), and augmented in 2002 by the Literary Saloon, with news on publishing, prizes, and much else besides. It's been my go-to site for well over a decade, a catholic and reliable guide (my own assessments generally differ by no more than a plus or minus from his letter grades), and so I was skeptical that I might derive further benefit from his latest offering, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction [Columbia Univ Press]. Thankfully, I was wrong to doubt of the benefit—while aimed at those less familiar than myself with foreign fiction, its organization is both comprehensive and comprehensible, leaving little in the way of gaps. It is a reader's guide to post-WWII novels, a survey structured geographically by country, primarily dealing with 'literary fiction' but not neglecting 'genre' writing (or the blurring between them), giving each nation's headliners due attention (though rarely more than a page) and making mention and more of other noteworthies, necessarily broad-brush but more than cursory. It should be said that this is presented from a Western anglophonic perspective (though some as-yet untranslated works are mentioned) and that the segmentation somewhat overweights national culture—a boon for those who want to explore on that basis, but an impediment to elaborating upon deep cross-cultural strands (and for those wanting a more personal take there's always Ann Morgan, bordering on travelogue; cf Latterly). In some respects, the novel form, while capacious, is a western cultural imposition, and the paucity of examples in some regions is due to factors beyond authoritarian or totalitarian restraint, lack of infrastruture, or embedded oral tradition (and my interest is piqued more by incorporation of local forms than adaptation of local color). The selection of authors is generous (a cast of thousands!) and up-to-date (though of course a snap-shot of a moving target that's already moved on: e.g., Northwestern University's Writings from an Unbound Europe series is cited in appendix but was discontinued last year), and little is omitted (I was surprised that Robert van Gulik wasn't mentioned in reference to Chinese detective fiction, though that was originally before the scope of this book) (mere quibbles, but the nature of the project invites such sport). In sum, yes this scratches the surface, more than just barely, and it's a huge surface, and man is it itchy, and his sharp thumbnail sketches provide some relief: as his editorial policy at the site puts it: "These are things we try to do here at the complete review, but we only manage to scratch the surface. ¶ Scratch deeper."

8.6.16

legend

a cumulus cartography
losing resolution as we draw close
assuming depths and ambiguities
wispy fringes feathering into blue
off fulgent cotton continents

a puddle archipelago
scattered cloud-cast shadows darkly flashing
glimpses of an inverted firmament
a bathing wren disrupts its bit of sky
sprays a shower of liquid sparks

on our maps, why are the waters azure?
and what if they were black, reflecting stars?

8.5.16

BTBA afterthoughts

So Yuri Herrera and Lisa Dillman won the Best Translated Book Award for fiction, and I think rightfully so, as much as I would have liked to see Chad Post's Open Letter see some payback for how much he/they have paid it forward (or, for that matter, Archipelago Books' entry, seeing as how the awards ceremony was held at The Folly, coincidentally but not oracularly the title of another of last year's releases, though ineligible since it's the first untranslated book we've done since 2007). It's also fitting that a book originating in Mexico won on the eve of Cinco de Mayo, in a year that has seen much more writing making its way north (and heavily featured in PEN World Voices) (as for the other Mexican entry, Luiselli's, I thought the story less compelling than the backstory). I'm glad I predicted that it was among the front-runners in prior posts, but it's time to otherwise assess my guesses retrospectively (afterthoughts sounds so much better than post-mortem, dontcha think?).

While I tried to be objective in setting odds, and to adjust for ancillary factors, trying to separate merit from taste is as silly as trying to peer inside the judges' minds (now a corps that changes each year; and no I don't envy them their task). The judges declined to select honorable mentions this time around, but there were indications that stuff I had down in the middle of the pack were more serious contenders (and so some of my favorites less so). It was a strong and balanced field, any of which will reward attention, but the winner, as in past years, moreso. And so I'm getting started on next year's contenders: after the ceremony, the first book I picked up down the street at McNally-Jackson was Herrera's (and Dillman's) The Transmigration of Bodies. And though I hold the awards in high regard, going forward, I intend to be posting more on non-BTBA stuff than was the case this past year. Stay tuned.

PS for more on Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World, see Complete-Review (with copious review links) and Aaron Bady's take.

23.4.16

BTBA shortlist long-take

Attention Conservation Notice: What, you were expecting Nabokov? Shakespeare? Cervantes?

The fiction shortlist for the eighth Best Translated Book Award (not counting the poll-voted 2008 award) was announced last Tuesday; the winner will be announced 7PM Wednesday, May 4, at The Folly in NYC (and online at TheMillions). While the winner is important, it's the shortlist that most captures my attention, as an unrivalled resource for my reading list: I've read over half of past shortlists, including all the winners (all helpfully compiled in one place), and half of the current one. First things first: the shortlist, reordered by what I consider the chances of taking the prize, even with odds (no sorry I'm not running a book), linked to 3%'s summary arguments (cf MAO) (asterisks mark what I've read; for what I haven't, I rely on the backchatter):
The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Bulgaria, Open Letter) * [3-1]
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories) * [4-1]
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (Brazil, New Directions) * [5-1]
A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Angola, Archipelago Books) [8-1] *
Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (France, Wakefield Press) [10-1]
War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter) * [15-1]
Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (Israel, New Directions) [25-1]
Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated from the French by Donald Winkler (Canada, Biblioasis) [30-1]
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions) [40-1]
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press) [50-1]
Perhaps I overly discount the last two as being overly popular (many have said last year's Luiselli was better), but shuffling around the last half of the list shouldn't matter much. More to the point, it's great to see first-time appearances by publishers And Other Stories, Wakefield Press, and Biblioasis, and Open Letter's first double-billing.

But this is a good opportunity to look back on all the shortlists, to see how different publishers have fared. Of the 80 titles chosen so far, multiple entrants account for more than half:
New Directions: 13 (and 2 winners, +1 in poetry)
Archipelago: 12 (ditto) (but the only press that's made every shortlist) *
Open Letter: 7
Dalkey Archive: 6
NYRB: 6 (1 winner)
On the other side of the ledger, university presses have only made 6 appearances, half by Yale (which won last year), and the major houses are conspicuous by their absence (FSG made its first and only appearance the first time round). And I'm surprised Graywolf hasn't made the cut. But I expect to see more in coming years from some one-timers (Other Press, And Other Stories, Seagull) and from up-and-comers like Deep Vellum and Two Lines.

* Declaimer: (that's right, de- not dis-). I serve on the Board for Archipelago, and it's gratifying to see the press so well regarded despite scant resources. You can help ensure Archipelago's continued and deserved success. And yes, I've read over half that list too.