Reviewed by Mark Haber
Put simply: childhood is strange. Countless writers have tried to capture this strangeness, the landscape of novelty that is a child’s world. Such Small Hands, a slim and haunting novel by Andrés Barba, not only succeeds at this but does so in one hundred haunting pages. Each one of these pages is exquisite, and the end result is a perfectly expressed work that transmits the perverse and bizarre experience that is youth, where games signify life and death and where relationships are teased and pushed to the breaking point. Childhood: part fairy tale, part nightmare...
A dark, elegiac exploration of interiority and traumatic consciousness, Ruddock’s Shot-Blue engages similar themes, troubling the distinction between inside and outside, between embodied selves and the surrounding world. Set on Canada’s sparsely-populated Arctic frontier, at a remote fishing outpost and summer resort on the fictitious Prioleau Lake, it is a novel of environmental and emotional extremes. Caught between the wilderness to the north and the suffocating insularity of their own rural, resource-poor community, characters are held hostage to one another’s moods and impulses.
Reviewed by Rosie Clarke
“I am afraid that the moment I cast off the garb of a poor, powerless, unidentified ‘city-dweller,’ I will become a refugee, stripped of my citizenship, with no idea of the direction I should take.” This perhaps best captures what drives the intense anxiety at the heart of A Greater Music and Recitation, Bae Suah’s two most recent works in Deborah Smith’s exceptional translation. It is an anxiety specific to a particular demographic: urban residents with an excess of options, and a deficit of purpose. Those who rely on their city to provide validation, when in fact the city is utterly ambivalent to human life; standing as a product of humanity’s creation, but providing no reason for humanity’s existence...
Reviewed by Canaan Morse
Two thousand years ago, Aristotle demanded that time, place, and action be unified in drama, but that compact had been around long before he, and continues to hold sway in the mainstream today. Even as innumerable creative writers have bent or broken that pact in innumerable ways, most of us begin a book with the fundamental assumption that it will be upheld on a sentence-to-sentence level. Can Xue has no interest in keeping such a promise, and never has. Her narratives have no memory – perhaps because in her worlds, memory is a form of nightmare. Better readers than I have pointed out that terms like “linear plot” and “comprehensibility” become fraught in Can Xue’s work; she invests little or nothing at all in the unity of time and place, and an anxious irrationality charges the space between her sentences...
Reviewed by Mark Molloy
To turn from Murder Most Serene to the second of Wakefield’s two recent Wittkop editions, Exemplary Departures—first published in 1995—is to encounter a remarkably different stylistic approach (that Wittkop composed the two books consecutively only amplifies the breadth of her proficiency). Whereas Murder Most Serene’s narrative was, in effect, an anti-narrative, hostile to reader and dramatic convention alike, in Exemplary Departures English language readers finally encounter Gabrielle Wittkop as master storyteller, indulging in rhapsodies of lyricism and virtuosically deploying the conventions of the gothic genre to achieve maximum aesthetic pleasure...
Review by Michael Schachter
The achievement of the performances on this album is so monumental that one finds oneself entangled in mental gymnastics to make sense of it—or more precisely, to make less sense of it. Faced with improvisations of such virtuosity, imagination, and structural integrity, even practitioners will be tempted by the narrative of Jarrett as a magical, mystical one-off, reaching heights inaccessible to mere mortals. (My own jazz piano teacher in high school once said to me: “Some players make you want to work, and some make you want to quit. Keith Jarrett makes you want to quit.”) And it is true that Jarrett puts more apparent distance between himself and common-practice jazz language than most, with unusually sparse recourse to idiomatic patterns and licks. Yet more than any other of Jarrett’s offerings, A Multitude of Angels gives a window into the essential rootedness of Jarrett’s craft, its foundations in tradition and listening and hard work—that is, in deep practice.
Reviewed by Jan Wilm
Jesus isn’t God, Jesus is Godot. Beckett’s Godot is an expected absentee, and in J. M. Coetzee's 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus, Jesus, both as an exalted religious figure and as a fictional character of that name, is neither present nor expected; instead, Jesus remains a symbolically charged absence. Rather than centering on the salad days of the Son of God and his parents Mary and Joseph, Coetzee’s narrative tells the story of three pedestrian figures bearing the names of David, Inés, and Simón. Knowing the backstory of this impromptu family may allow readers to fully appreciate Coetzee’s subsequent and latest novel, The Schooldays of Jesus, but it is hardly necessary and, rather, adds to a reader’s appreciation of the text, as The Schooldays of Jesus can be read both in dialogue with Coetzee’s earlier book and with a larger artistic tradition extending back to the work of Kafka and Dostoyevsky, and the music and life of Johann Sebastian Bach . . .
Review by Kenji Fujishima
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Saariaho’s work has become of the few twenty-first-century operas to reach anything close to global popularity, and the reason for that can be glimpsed in one of the other operas the Metropolitan Opera has staged this season, the more canonically established Tristan und Isolde. Like Richard Wagner’s masterpiece, L’Amour de loin is also about forbidden love—albeit one hindered by distance rather than social and emotional boundaries. Saariaho’s opera even has a Brangäne equivalent in a seafaring Pilgrim who acts as a go-between for both Jaufré Rudel, the hopeless-romantic troubadour/Prince of Blaye, and Clémence, the Countess of Tripoli who yearns to return to her childhood home of Toulouse. And like Tristan, L’Amour de loin culminates in a Liebestod of its own. In Saariaho’s case, it may only be one character who physically dies rather than both, but the implication of a death that’s as much fulfillment as tragedy is remarkably similar.
Reviewed by Tyler Langendorfer
Szilard Borbély was one of Hungary’s leading contemporary poets, as well as a noted translator, literary historian and dramatist. A recipient of many of his country’s most prestigious literary prizes, his oeuvre was largely unknown in the West at the time he took his own life in 2014. To the good fortune of English-language readers, two of his most notable works became available this past November, each in a masterful translation by Ottilie Mulzet: the poetry collection Berlin-Hamlet, first published in 2003, and his only novel, The Dispossessed, a sensation among the Hungarian reading public upon its original publication in 2013...
Reviewed by Ray Barker
The tautness and concision of Samanta Schweblin's short unsettling novel Fever Dream is evident even from its cryptic opening sentence: They’re like worms. These words are spoken to Amanda, a grown woman who is dying, by David, a child at her side in an anonymous hospital. The narrative is so stripped of identifying information—time, location, sentiment—that it feels, at moments, like a closet drama. David and Amanda’s dialogue forms and drives the narrative of this tense, dark domestic tale—equal parts fable and fantasy, dream and horrific yet elusive nightmare...
Reviewed by Darren Huang
The story of a Homeric return is at the heart of Ema, the Captive, the second of more than fifty novels César Aira has written to date. On the surface, the book’s storyline, set in nineteenth-century Argentina, might seem conventional: a white woman living tranquilly on the periphery of a European stronghold is kidnapped by a band of natives and sold into captivity. She serves as a concubine to various chiefs and magistrates within the Indian kingdom and dispassionately observes their way of life. After an extended period, she returns to her former village and introduces elements of native culture to her people. But Aira is a sly and ironic writer, and cannot take such a realist plot seriously...
Reviewed by Lauren Goldenberg
Language fails as a means to define love; the sentiment is too great, too felt to be held in words. The French author Emmanuelle Pagano’s first book to be translated into English, Trysting, manages to convey the emotion indirectly, definition via fiction. The simplicity of its English title belies the strangeness of the original French, Nouons-nous. Reviewing the various definitions for nouer and trysting, some current, some obsolete, some very specific (the final of six definitions for “tryst” in the Oxford English Dictionary is: An appointed gathering for buying and selling; a market or fair, esp. for cattle) it became clear that Pagano’s achievement is contained within the combined definitions of the two titles. To tryst means to meet at a designated place and time (surprisingly, the OED gives no mention of love or lover). Nouer is a bit more complicated, but en bref it means to tie up, to knot, and the reflexive form means to establish, engage, take shape, begin. Roughly, I read nouons-nous as something like knotting ourselves. Pagano’s book is a series of episodes, whether a brief glance or many years, that reveal the myriad ways love occurs. As two people are brought together, there’s a connection, a start, a moment’s knot. Some of the passages underscore one particular aspect of a relationship and are only as brief as a sentence, while others, running a couple of pages, bring together a wider array of themes. There are no names, often no genders, no ages. Just two people, crossing paths . . .
Reviewed by Alex Primiani
Where else would a confused and slightly paranoid polar bear find good inspiration but in Kafka’s stories? When the first of the three protagonists of Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear is introduced to Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” and “Josephine the Singer,” readers unprepared for Tawada’s playfulness and sense of humor might be forgiven for thinking the scene a bit on the nose. Her capable hands, however, have brought us a novel equal parts brilliant and strange, hysterical and disturbing...
Reviewed by Rachel Hurn
“If each household hired a writer-servant to sit and concentrate on the human troubles we each must bear, every household might be free from care,” Mary Ruefle declares in My Private Property, her newest collection. In this volume, she continues to do what she does best: take a microscopic look at the human condition and try to make some sense of it. Fundamentally, this is what all writers do—make sense of our stories—which may be why so many of us are prone to depression, anxiety, and even suicide. Ruefle’s sheer skill at bottling the essence of what it means to be alive is a rare gift, and one that, based on her quote above, quite possibly burdens her. But Ruefle has found a way to be both a slave to writing and a functioning, working human, which is no small feat...
Review by Ian Maleney
What is Femenine’s relationship to time? Can we say it constructs with or submits to time? Morton Feldman said that to construct with time, to create music with a surface, was to let time be—not to parcel it out as you wish, but just to let it be. Eastman putting a clock on stage seems to say something else: we might very well let time be, but time will never do the same for us. When our time is up, it’s up.
Reviewed by Mona Gainer-Salim
Like so much of Cave’s music, the album seems poised on the edge of catastrophe, aware that the surface of daily life can be violated and punctured without warning. Here, though, this familiar mood is inflected with a rare vulnerability. In peeling back the various levels of control—musical, vocal, narrative—that have in the past made their music awe-inspiring, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have made a record that is perhaps less perfect and less magisterial than before, but one that is experimental in the best sense
Reviewed by Anne Posten
Apparently, if we are to believe the venerable Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Robert Seethaler’s slim latest work, A Whole Life, is “a novel for sadists.” Such a proclamation seems an extreme one for a book whose diminutive size and unpretentious premise fairly trumpet harmlessness. Nor does the title belie the content. A Whole Life is in fact just that: a compressed chronicle of one man’s entire life, from birth (nearly) to death. The facts that the man in question is a resident of a tiny Austrian alpine town, and that his life spans the first three tumultuous quarters of the twentieth century do not at first glance contradict the assumption that the reader will find little fodder here for her darker impulses. Or perhaps they do. What is it, really, that a reader looks for from an encounter with a foreign life, whether fictional or real? What impulses, dark or ennobling, attract us to a work of literature in the first place?
Reviewed by Camille Gajewski
Slow, relentless forces permeate the world of László Krasznahorkai; his characters are subject to glacial currents that bear them ever onwards, an inch at a time, toward a horizon they constantly imagine but never actually behold. In so doing, they cry, or laugh, or cry laughing, or carry out the timeworn repetitions that make a life, until the moment they come up against the horizon. And there they are either denied, held at a distance from that which they seek, or, having come too close to the mystery, are obliterated.
Reviewed by Adriana X. Jacobs
Sylvia Legris’s new collection The Hideous Hidden articulates a fixation with the body and its composition that encompasses its relation to home, society and language. The relationship between the body’s interior and its exterior also preoccupies this volume, as it does human life, for which the body remains a continuous site and source of discovery and inquiry. In The Hideous Hidden, Legris takes us into the specific language of the body, a dense, multilingual lexicon so far removed from the way we generally speak about and engage with our bodies that it can feel, reading this book, that she is addressing a different species entirely . . .
Reviewed by Chad Felix
A minor miracle has happened in a port town sorely in need of miracles: Guayaquil, Ecuador. Last Palm Sunday, we are told, lightning strikes a phone booth, transforming the city’s best public telephone (“The one public phone at the Calderón that doesn’t filch your coins”) into the city’s only affordable one: in fact, it is connecting people with their friends and family for free. You can speak to them for nothing at all. As far as miracles go, this is a pretty small one: a phone is malfunctioning. But Mauro Javier Cardenas begins his extraordinary debut The Revolutionaries Try Again—a book rife with miracles both useless and unbelievable (elsewhere, a baby Christ effigy weeps a torrent of tears; elsewhere, thousands claim to have experienced the movement of the sun, which is in awe of an Earthly appearance of the Virgin) —here, with a small service to the Ecuadorean people . . .