Reviewed by Jan Wilm
Some books, like most summer holidays, feel entirely undeserved and all too brief. Such is the case with the delightful Castle Gripsholm, the only novel by the German writer Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935). Known chiefly as a journalist, a waspish (and very witty) critic of the burgeoning Nazi regime, Tucholsky – who at one point circulated texts under five pseudonyms to service his productivity – wrote poems, short stories, and this beauty of a novel. . .
Just as “Guiding the Ivy” sets the tone in opening The Scent of Buenos Aires, the career-spanning collection of Hebe Uhart’s short stories, so does its premise undergird the author’s entire life. Uhart, who died little more than a year ago, was both generous and open-hearted on and off the page, but life never trampled or confused this legendary figure of contemporary Argentine literature. Her stories instead exhibit a clarity that emerges from roots in the everyday rather than the extraordinary, and as a result they resemble plants that are perfectly adapted to pots. They are not merely decorative: they steadily, unobtrusively oxygenate the world around them…
Reviewed by Éric Chevillard
“But what’s the word for a male florist?” my eight-year-old daughter asks. I know that terms like authoress and woman of letters are no longer irregularities in terms of vocabulary, but in terms of judgment? Hard to say. It’s amusing to see, in a Larousse dictionary from the nineteenth century (1866–1879), the following entry: “AUTRICE: Bygone feminine form, now obsolete, of the word auteur.” But there remain so many injustices, so many inequalities, that our sensitivity around the issue is deservedly deep and unforgiving. Gender is no laughing matter, not even for us Frogs (this being the feminine derivation of frogman, naturally). And a lady chef? There is no word for her in French other than cheftaine: not the most appetizing option, but then we all must play the chards we’ve dealt for ourselves. The Swiss and the Québécois have opted for cheffe. Marie NDiaye does too, in The Cheffe: A Cook’s Novel . . .
Reviewed by Noah M. Mintz
The labels of “migrant” and “immigrant” have always been politically charged, but especially so in these times of immense, widespread displacement. “I know we would usually say migrant stories,” the Kampala-born author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi recently said in an interview for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “but I’m moving away from that and using the term expat experiences, because I’ve noticed that when the British are talking about their immigrants in Europe who are now being affected by Brexit, they don’t talk about them as immigrants, they call them expats.” Her stance is not rooted in theory: speaking from her home in Manchester, as one of over 50,000 Ugandan nationals now residing in the United Kingdom, her choice of words is significant. And they underpin her latest book, Let’s Tell This Story Properly, a collection of stories reflecting the experiences of her compatriots both in Manchester and in Uganda…
Reviewed by Nathan Knapp
There is something of Paul Celan in The People’s Field, the debut poetry collection from Haesong Kwon, a wound inherent to the poetry which the poetry itself serves to both obscure and illuminate. I kept thinking of Celan as I read these poems, a few of which I first heard Kwon read aloud five or six years ago when we were both living in a windy, heat-drenched, and shoddy town on the plains of northern Oklahoma. Every word in Kwon’s work, as in Celan’s, stands in for a vast and abyssal longing for home, aching with a kind of self-negating fullness—or a self-filling emptiness—corresponding with a dizzying array of flavors and aromas: mudfish, dried fish, monkfish, shrimp crackers, field onions (“Some let you rot / for gravid fish”). . .
Reviewed by María Helga Guðmundsdóttir
Valerie Solanas is a cult icon of radical feminism, best known for calling for the elimination of men in a furious polemic entitled the SCUM Manifesto (SCUM being the “Society for Cutting Up Men”) and for her attempted murder of Andy Warhol in 1968. Following the shooting of Warhol, she was tried in court, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and institutionalized multiple times; she died in poverty and isolation in 1988 at the age of fifty-two. The Faculty of Dreams, originally published in Swedish in 2006, is a self-declared literary fantasy of her life, and Sara Stridsberg opens it with a warning. “Few facts are known about Valerie Solanas,” she cautions the reader, “and even to those this novel is not faithful.”
Reviewed by David Auerbach
Far more than Krasznahorkai’s other novels, this is a book in which things fail to happen, in which characters fail to understand each other, in which causation fails to manifest, in which explanation is impossible. A reviewer must settle, then, for providing an incomplete roadmap to Krasznahorkai’s labyrinths and abysses, marking the bottomless potholes while avoiding them.
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming begins, before even the title page and copyright, with a “Warning” from a conductor to an orchestra, speaking as though the novel itself is a piece of music. And I read Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming less as a conclusion to a four-book series than as the final movement of a symphony …
Reviewed by Stephen Piccarella
Moser delights in delivering the dirty details of Sontag’s personal life for the same reason he attempts to correct her politics: to draw attention to himself. One might expect a writer after this kind of recognition to prefer fiction or poetry, but a biography is a perfect project for a writer with more ambition than good ideas. Susan Sontag was narcissistic herself, and capable at times of manipulations even more objectionable than Moser’s. These Moser catalogues dutifully and with a combination of empathy and angst, as does someone who needs to reconcile the misdeeds of the person he reveres. Sontag was also an exceptional and peerless artist; Moser attempts to improve on Sontag so that he can improve on himself. By inhabiting––with success and to good effect––a figure whose flaws reflect but whose strengths and achievements outpace his own, Moser has managed to place himself at the center of the moving and inspiring story of a literary icon. In many ways, Moser’s biography is a great book. What’s debatable is whether it’s really about Susan Sontag.
Reviewed by Tobias Carroll
Why not embrace the return of the weird? One of the most welcoming side effects of the blurring of genre boundaries in recent years has been the exploration of fiction that eludes easy classification, but unsettles nonetheless as it traverses the boundaries of the fantastic, the surreal, and the horrific. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s 2012 anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories finds common ground on which China Miéville and Kelly Link can co-exist with Bruno Schulz and Leonora Carrington. Editor D. Thin’s 2015 collection Shadows of Carcosa provides a welcome primer to the early days of cosmic horror — but includes work written long before “cosmic horror” existed as a genre unto itself. And thus, the works of writers like Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allan Poe can be seen both in their own unruly splendor and as literary ancestors of a disparate series of modern literary strains. . .
Reviewed by Olivia Heal
“Our first breast-feeding friendly piece,” tweeted an editor of The White Review when “Appendix F,” one of the eleven appendices gathered in Kate Zambreno’s Appendix Project, was published online. Printed as a thin column, it is easy to scroll and read one-handed, while breastfeeding. The acknowledgement of the mother-child dyad is a theme that underlies Zambreno’s recent work: “Appendix F” positions the nursing mother and child “on a bench in front of the El Greco ‘Holy Family’ at the Met,” “outside the bubblegum phallic Franz West sculpture at MASS MoCA” and “in front of a Harry Dodge video at the New Museum’s gender show.” While never the explicit focus of Appendix Project, the talks and essays gathered here are shot through with references to the practice of raising a young child. There’s a sense of gentle provocation here—inserting a screen into the mother-child dyad, juxtaposing the maternal function, or, say, the breastfeeding toddler, with a variety of artworks—one that figures the maternal subject as a central concern in an area where she has long been beside, or outside, the point. And, a suggestion that the “pram in the hall” is no longer an impediment to the creative act but potentially responsible for creating the conditions for writing. . .
Reviewed by Tomoé Hill
In Julio Cortázar’s eighth guest class on literature at Berkeley in 1980, he draws a distinction between eroticism and pornography in literature: in essence, the former encapsulates the personal, while the latter reflects the impersonal, or as he puts it, commercial. While the nuances and sometimes necessary integration of the two in successful writing may be argued, generally speaking what can be applied to the writing of sex can also be said to apply to the writing of death. In its most unsuccessful iterations, death on the page translates either to indifference or else to a spectacle in the Debordian sense: as numbing as it is violent, or saturated with misjudged emotive overflow, neither making any point beyond the act itself—regardless of any degree of passivity or activity. Even though there is no such thing as a predictable response to death in everyday life, on the page such imbalances end up showing what could be called the “ultimate authentic experience” as one stripped of its humanity. And so attempts at writing the end of life become fraught with the paradoxical problem of imbuing it with too much. . .
Reviewed by Jessie Ferguson
A throwaway line I read once compared Bachmann’s literary stature in the German-speaking world to that of Virginia Woolf in English. The two writers are wildly different; but in thinking of Woolf’s great Künstlerinroman together with Bachmann’s, I considered Lily Briscoe’s vision in To the Lighthouse, concluded and conclusive. Even after all her own triumphs, it was impossible for Bachmann to grant her narrator a corresponding note of unequivocal triumph. Bachmann’s final poem and famous farewell to poetry, translated as “No Delicacies,” ends with the line “Mein Teil, es soll verloren gehen”: my part, let it be lost, or, in another translation: my share, let it be dispersed. In an earlier poem, “Songs in Flight,” she ends with an image of “the song above the dust [that] will one day rise above us.” Malina is the dark side of those visions of transcendence and succession; its focus is sharply trained on loss. Malina would like to be a gift, but it can’t forget the thefts that placed it in the giver’s hands (and the receivers’, one and all). Its song may endure, but not before it finally, briefly, resolves itself into the human shape of its absent singer.
Reviewed by Sarah Gerard
Just forty-three pages in total, Morelia feels expansive. The telescoping structure of the narrative is one reason. In its early pages, the story regularly slips into and opens the parallel realm of the narrator’s dream, which may be real. Renee Gladman expertly pivots on a word or phrase, such that the dream and the reality of the story, as well as a book the narrator reads, are contiguous. The dream and the book are fictional worlds rendering the world in which the narrator moves factual by comparison. Or perhaps this pivoting simply calls attention to the way in which we regularly, as readers, regard fiction as fact; how the line between fact and fiction is arbitrary…
Reviewed by Hilah Kohen
Yes, this is the work of a practicing doctor with his tongue in his cheek and his home in the Russian countryside. No, as reviewers of this book have been quick to point out, this is not Chekhov. There may be a love triangle and a duel involved, but here, death is anticlimactic: the loser’s remains are accidentally destroyed in a precision missile test. Other stories forgo romance plots gone wrong for premises that seem to come straight from today’s news reels—only to turn those narratives inside-out as well. For example, a young woman kills her would-be rapist in an act of self-defense and lands in jail—where she manages to convince a regional legislator that what the country really needs is an Islamic rebirth. . .
Reviewed by Aaron Peck
Her poems are shards that pierce us. A cluster is a collection of things, often of fruits or flowers. It can describe the proximity of celestial bodies, such as a star or galaxy cluster, or gatherings of eggs or cells. It is also a kind of bomb, which looks something like a handball. Upon detonation, a cluster bomb sprays metal pellets over a wide blast range. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped more than two million tons of them over Laos; cluster bombs have killed or maimed around 50,000 people in southeast Asia during a war that Richard Nixon never acknowledged. A cluster is also an excruciating kind of headache. Souvankham Thammavongsa’s poetics rest on these kinds of polyvalences. In her work, things that appear simple require close attention. When we give it to them, they have an emotional blast-range. . .
Reviewed by Ray Davis
The Warm South begins where a dozen biographies end and a hundred poems linger, in 1821 at the Roman deathbed of twenty-five year old John Keats, the definitive dead poet, an orphaned unrecognized genius cruelly cut down through no fault of his own. The fellow who said, “Beauty is truth; truth beauty.”
Not a promising subject for fiction, then, outside of dewy-eyed bio-pics and other vehicles in need of a tragic young death. Whereas by page four of The Warm South, we find a “John Keats” whose fatal tuberculosis is in complete remission, miraculously so far we’re concerned but well within the bizarre range of prognoses imagined by his doctor. . .
Reviewed by Jeffrey Zuckerman
The strange charm of Robert Menasse’s polyphonic The Capital is in how it suggests that such an European Union is inextricably bound to its diversity of member countries, and yet utterly dependent on their continued collaboration. An endeavor made possible only by understanding the particular whims and fancies driving each character in this drama...
Reviewed by Daniel Fraser
Whilst The Besieged City is a novel about things, it is also one about language and the act of literary creation. After all, the thing may be a material object but, as the fictional Angela in A Breath of Life reminds us in her remarks about her own nonexistent novel called The Besieged City, “a word is also a thing.” The act of production, the creation of a text, a character, a work, becomes radically altered in the face of the vast accumulation of material objects predicated by the acceleration of capitalist modernity. The possibility of creating meaning, purpose, is always under the threat of destruction….
Review by Melissa Beck
German author Christine Wunnicke’s latest novel to appear in English, The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, is a mythical, mystical, and at times bizarre tale of a late nineteenth-century Japanese doctor who is sent to remote areas of the Shimane prefecture to cure women of fox possession. The book begins at the end, as Dr. Shimamura’s career as a renowned neurologist has passed, and his memories of curing fox possession and other forms of female hysteria are told in a feverish state from his sick bed. His hazy memories also bring us through his time in Europe, where he meets and studies with other famous doctors, Charcot and Breuer, who have an interest in ailments that particularly affect females. . .
Review by Nick Oxford
Could we call Nocilla Trilogy a revolution? As radical as the term seems, it’s hard to deny that Agustín Fernández Mallo’s text represents a radical shift within Spanish-language fiction that has yet to fully surface in the English-speaking world…