Reviews

Review: Distant Light, BY Antonio Moresco, translated by Richard Dixon (Archipelago Books).

By Frederika Randall

Distant Light is a brief, austere novel, or better, novella, by an Italian writer best known for a monumental trilogy written over 20 years and counting more than 3,000 pages, L’increato (The Uncreated, meaning roughly “the divine”).  Meanwhile this small, vivid tale, the author writes in his preface to the Italian edition, began as an episode in volume three of the trilogy, but then took on a life of its own: a “little moon that broke away from the yet-to-coalesce mass of my new novel”. “Had I dropped dead the day after writing it, this would have been my last will and testament,” he says. Not that it’s his most meaningful or significant work, he thinks, but because it is “so keenly private and secret.”

Keep reading Frederika Randall's review of Distant Light.

Born in Pittsburgh, Frederika Randall has lived in Italy for 30 years. Translations include fiction by Luigi Meneghello, Helena Janeczek, Ottavio Cappellani and Igiaba Scego; Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian, and three books by historian Sergio Luzzatto. Guido Morselli’s The Communist comes out in 2017 from New York Review Books.                      

What We're Reading

Atlantic Hotel, by João Gilberto Noll, translated by Adam Morris


Early in Atlantic Hotel, an unnamed narrator recounts a dream: “Nothing was in black and white,” he recalls, “Almost everything was a shade of gold, but with pink splotches.” Though he means to capture only his dream here, the narrator might well be describing Atlantic Hotel as a whole. Written by João Gilberto Noll in 1989 and newly translated by Adam Morris, Hotel is a slender, surreal journey through a hazy, serpentine Brazil, in which life is lived moment to moment and fluidity—not just of identity but of reality itself—is the name of the game. At the heart of a journey peppered with sex, death, and near-constant instability lies the narrator’s compulsive need to switch personas (he is, in turn, an alcoholic in need of treatment, a fading soap opera star, a priest); this need is an addicting, elusive force that ensnares the reader even as it heightens the mystery of the narrator’s true self. In the end, it seems, this mystery is precisely Noll’s point–“We have so much time to guess so many things,” his narrator tells us, and he’s right: why confine ourselves to a single identity, or story, when in truth we are filled with so many?          

Two Lines Press.

A Spare Life, by Lidija Dimkovska, Translated by Christina E. Kramer

A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska follows the saga of two Macedonian conjoined twins from childhood through young adulthood during the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and the Bosnian war. The narrator, Zlata, tells her individual story as both distinct and inseparable from her sister Srebra’s: “When we pulled our hair back into ponytails, the spot where our heads were joined was visible right above my left ear and her right. The skin passed from one to the other. There was no scar, nothing. Our temples drifted into each other’s like desert sand.”  

Dimkovska’s novel makes the reader privy to the experience of being subtly yet markedly different. “We were not invalids. We were not blind, not autistic; we didn’t have Down syndrome. We ‘only’ had conjoined heads that didn’t immediately strike the eye. It was only after the fifth second they saw it, when our heads moved in unison in the same direction, and our bodies, always leaning to one side or the other, were pulled by gravity, gravity which in our case, was always off-balance.” The novel offers insight into a life lived outside of social norms in a very poor country, and into the simple humanityits grievous flaws and occasional miraclethat inhabits even unimaginable circumstances.

In Christina E. Kramer’s deft translation, Dimkovska’s intensely personal writing betrays that brew of attraction and loathing which often permeates intimate landscapes and the coming-of-age transition from the all-encompassing world of family and childhood into the broader realization of the limitations of one’s own individual experience. Personal and political attachments both sustain and confine the twins’ development, and the allure of separation eventually propels them and their society toward irrevocable alterations.            

Two Lines Press.

Best Worst American, bY Juan Martinez

Juan Martinez’s Best Worst American is a set of subtly connected, hilariously smart stories that present a chaotic, absurd, yet strikingly familiar world. Martinez’s universe is filled with guitar players who are “three credits short from a marine-biology degree,” men in pinstriped suits who can “make household pets talk for brief periods of time,” and nine-year-old girls who pretend to be orphans while they work at the razor blade factory.  

Each story builds on the last, crescendoing with the title story, and forcing the reader to consider the impact of their seemingly insignificant choices in a sea of cultural phenomena. In 2017, Martinez’ ridiculous sense of humor strikes a nerve. And how could anyone not love a book filled with Lorenzo Lamas jokes?

Small Beer Press.

Glaxo, bY Hernán Ronsino, Translated by Samuel Rutter

Transfixing from the start, Hernán Ronsino’s English-language debut, Glaxo, is a murder-mystery, though it’s the sort that lets the reader assemble the clues. Set deep in the Argentine Pampa in a town where “the trains stop coming,” we are privy to the testimony of four men across time, old friends and enemies who have betrayed and abandoned one another, sold out, done time, and fallen in love with the same woman.

Not only the atmosphere of the town, but the architecture of the sentences feel complicit in the secrets at the center of this story, each phrase like a clean, white bone in a skeleton. “The cane field no longer exists, they’ve cleared it completely, and where the tracks once were, now there’s a new road, a link road, which looks more like a closed wound. It’s a road that looks like the memory of a wound in the earth that won’t heal.”

One of the great pleasures of this book, beyond watching the gears of plot and perspective click intricately into place, is jumping from head to head, the voices of Vardemann, Bicho Souza, Miguelito Barrios and Folcada rendered in all their idiosyncratic and distinctive charm by Samuel Rutter’s elegant translation.

Says Miguelito Barrios: “I don’t agree with those who, when they choose a way to die, prefer not knowing, or hope that death takes them in their sleep, or doesn’t make them suffer, as if death weren’t a consequence of the life that one chose to live.” This is also the bleak, satisfying logic of Glaxo, a book that is as much about the relativity of guilt as what drives men to murder in the first place.

Melville House.

House Of LORDS AND COMMONS, by Ishion Hutchinson

Even the title of Hutchinson’s second collection gives his readers a hint at its litanous plurality: House of Lords and Commons. Many kinds of bodies govern between the covers of this book, and they are only very rarely singular. In its pages, memory multiplies as readers shuttle back and forth in time; a man hangs a bag of oranges from the limbs of a tree, then the oranges multiply in the stanza, reappearing as a dreamt orchard, then in the name of a whole coast. 

Sounds, too, multiply. The book is beautifully studded with alliteration that keeps the language high, and Hutchinson is masterful at burying rhymes (sometimes mid-line), so one could almost glaze over the way, for example, “pillars” recalls “dollars” a line earlier.

Hutchinson focuses not so much on community as on crowd. Mosquitoes, otherwise innocuous, swarm. In “Fitzy and The Revolution,” a mass of unpaid cane cutters move angrily through town, becoming a vaguely threatening “they.” In “The Wanderer,” the sea takes on “10,000 voices / arched into one, shaking the mountain clouds down / into mist.”

There are many characters in this book, and while each one is distinct, they are almost never alone. “Punishment” opens with “all the dead eyes of the dead / on portraits” which look down at a figure who becomes (along with the speaker) one of two central figures in the poem, each of whom intently examines the other. These poems seem to be the fruit of a mind deeply conscious of the gaze of others, and of the poet’s own gaze.

Perhaps this pressure to re-examine, this refusal to take a singular view, is why Hutchinson writes, in a later poem, “I don’t know who us is” – an attitude that quietly undermines the threat of the crowd.

Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.

Chronicle of the Murdered House, by Lúcio Cardoso, Translated By Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson

Open the cover of Chronicle of the Murdered House and you’ll find a map of the Chácara, the estate of the proud, yet fading Meneses family. Beside the kitchen is Uncle Timóteo’s bedroom, where he dresses up in sequin gowns and drinks himself into a stupor. Down the hall is André’s room, where he awaits his mother in the dark, consumed by longing. Outside are the sprawling gardens; the Pavilion lined with violets planted by Alberto, the love-struck gardener.

Lúcio Cardoso confines his readers almost exclusively to the rooms of the Chácara, and guides them carefully through its most shadowy corridors, revealing the inner lives of its tormented inhabitants along the way. Their confessions, which appear in the form of letters, diary entries and doctor’s reports (to name a few), are all fixated on the same subject: her.

“That woman can make one doubt everything, even reality,” Valdo Meneses says of his wife Nina, the vivacious young woman who arrives from Rio de Janeiro, suitcases of extravagant dresses in hand. Her mere presence invades every corner of the house and her sensuality soon threatens to destroy the patriarchal tradition that the Meneses, for generations, have so desperately clung to.

In moments as unconventional as it must have been to the Brazilian literati of the late 1950s, Cardoso’s daring novel— now translated into English thanks to Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson—is filled with characters who, through their moral transgressions, are forced to encounter their darker (and perhaps truer) selves.

Open Letter.

Landscape with Headless Mama, by Jennifer Givhan

In her debut collection Landscape with Headless Mama, Jennifer Givhan creates a compassionate, though occasionally frightening, portrait in which “Mama,” she tells us in the opening poem, “was the lynchpin— / I’m still turning & turning the screw.” From that first poem on, Givhan’s potent blend of myth, magic, and shadowy, Southwestern imagery speaks in a language of twinned loss: first for the mother, who loses her chance at a university education via pregnancy, then for the daughter, whose miscarriages are surreally interpreted, reflected on, and mourned over in the book’s third section.

But there is joy, too, when the speaker becomes a mother, and here, the depth of Givhan’s collection distinguishes itself. Like the screw “turning & turning” in the opening poem, the fundamental questions of the collection shift and change, interlocking into a complex and satisfying whole— “What’s living / without getting lost?” yields, finally, to “how does one extract the violent bone?” But perhaps the most central of these is the question Givhan asks in the very first poem: “How can I turn away?” The answer is: Givhan doesn’t.

Guest reviewed by Emily Rose Cole.

LSU Press.

Cattle of the Lord, by Rosa Alice Branco, translated by Alexis Levitin

In Cattle of the Lord, Rosa Alice Branco turns snuffling cows, the flight of birds, and the darkening fields into striking psalms. Branco’s poems, expertly translated by Alexis Levitin, take the quotidian and hold a magnifying glass to it: ruminating on breakfast, a “soft-boiled egg, spotless porcelain, spoon / in its place;” on a snail, advancing “with tenacity / so time may raise its kingdom with the slime.” Through these reveries, examinations and moments of dark humor, Branco explores a complex relationship with God. A speaker asks, “Lord how much compassion will it take for you / to be godfather at the Sunday barbecue?” Yet elsewhere, the speaker is comforted after the death of her pet bird, saved “with that very love with which Thou died us.”

Thus it is with a deft lyricism and eye for the contradictions inherent in our daily rituals that Branco exalts and questions her religion.

Milkweed Editions.

Blood of the Dawn, by Claudia Salazar Jiménez, translated by Elizabeth Bryer

How do you write the unspeakable? This question drives Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s debut novel, Blood of the Dawn, as it explores how three Peruvian women weather “the time of fear” brought on by the Shining Path’s military insurgency. Melanie, a frustrated socialite, captures the horrors of guerrilla warfare through a camera lens. Modesta, a country woman, watches her loved ones killed by communists, while Marcela, rechristened Marta, joins the Party, seduced by its offer of power previously out of reach to her as a woman.

Jiménez’s frequent shifts in scene, tense, and perspective reflect the relentless insecurity wrought by Shining Path’s guerrilla tactics and terrorist acts. As translator Elizabeth Bryer notes in her afterword, Jiménez’s resistance to conventional sentence structure is itself an affirmation that language can be a “means of articulating systems of domination, patriarchy among them.” English-speaking readers will appreciate the ways in which Bryer’s translation preserves each woman’s unique cadence, reminding us that tragedy is experienced on a individual level, even as it ravages an entire country. What’s more, Bryer’s decision not to gloss all Quechua words offers English-speaking readers a more direct sense of a culture, landscape, and people in crisis as their country is gutted from the inside.

Deep Vellum.

Trysting, by Emmanuelle Pagano, Translated By Jennifer Higgins & Sophie Lewis

Trysting is that rare treat—a book that feels new and old, wise and playful, particular and universal. Emmanuelle Pagano’s first book to appear in English, translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, is a topical examination of intimacy—a collection of scenes, reveries, aphorisms and revelations between lovers.

The segments can be brief and arresting: “My memory of him is the stretched skin of a drum. At the slightest touch, it vibrates and resounds.” Or more beguiling, elusive, extended: “I went to the clinic to catch his soul and bring it back home. I had string with me to lead it. A great big ball of thick string.” From couples of all genders and sexualities, each page presents meet cutes, partings, foibles, quirks, grievances and turn-ons. A woman, cold in a church, slips into a forgotten coat, still warm, only to encounter its owner. A man bemoans his lover’s residence in a house cut off from civilization at high tide. A woman insinuates herself into a stranger’s life by making him believe he has amnesia. A woman leaves her lover to marry her best friend’s widow in order to help raise his child. A woman confesses her enjoyment at plucking her lover’s back hair. A man fails to object to his girlfriend’s departure, but grieves by killing her cat.

Without a traditional approach to characters or plot, the book’s momentum comes from the tautness of language and the inherent tension between pairs. Pagano’s miniature narratives accumulate, yet the effect is distillation.

Two Lines Press.

The Revolutionaries Try again, by Mauro Javier Cardenas

Mauro Javier Cardenas’ first novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again is a lesson in wave-particle duality, the ability of literature (when at its best, and here, it is) to embody multiple states simultaneously. Cardenas’ prose moves like light, undulating yet precise. Long, elegant sentences are riddled with sharp images, like the row of “wincing footwear” two lovers navigate as they leave an orchestra mid-performance, or the “bloom of ruffles” on an expat’s shirt at his San Francisco farewell party, or the “rattle of a can in a long trail of cans” of a city bus navigating the steep hillside of the “canned city” of Guayaquil, Ecuador, where much of the novel takes place. As wonderful as Cardenas’ images are, it's the curvature and musicality of his sentences unfurling that carry the novel, their coiled energy as they explore the fates of the individual and the state, and how each shapes the other. Above all, Cardenas mercilessly explores just how we are to be human in a world of destitution and injustice.  For lovers of Cortázar, Bolaño and Woolf, for aficionados of the political novel, and for students of what the future of the novel might look like, The Revolutionaries Try Again is required reading.

Coffee House Press.

The Babysitter at Rest, by Jen George

Reading Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest is like having a heart-to-heart with the most bizarre babysitter you can imagine—a sly representative of a world that seems at first to be like yours but, upon inspection, reveals itself to be tinged with more weirdness, more darkness, and considerably more sex. Over the course of the five stories in her first published collection, George builds worlds that are strange but not unrecognizable. The central inhabitants of these worlds, namely women on the cusp of adulthood, struggle with aging, appearance, work/life balance, and motherhood, all while wondering how they stack up against those around them.

The most immediate escape George’s women have is frequent, unfettered sex, often with older men in positions of relative power. A second recompense is art, and the moments where George’s women translate themselves creatively are some of the highest points in the collection. In "Take Care of Me Forever," a dying protagonist paints imagined babies on her body; in the title story, the married mother of a child doomed to be a baby forever fills her courtyard with self-portraits that evoke Elsa Lanchester as Frankenstein’s bride. For these women, art is freedom, a way out (if only temporarily), from the pressure and judgment that comes as much from friends, lovers, and colleagues as it does from within. As George’s eponymous babysitter muses, “It’s a tremendous relief when attempting to make something.”

Dorothy, a publishing project.

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The Invisibility Cloak By Ge Fei, translated by Canaan Morse

Ge Fei’s first novel to appear in English depicts contemporary Beijing through the eyes of Mr. Cui, a hapless divorcè whose job making stereo systems for the elite and wealthy puts him in constant contact with the upper echelons of society. Meanwhile his apartment—on loan from his sister, who is looking for any excuse to kick him out—has a large crack in the den which has been haphazardly repaired with duct tape, the result of settling soil creating intolerable stress on the walls, described by the super as a "global problem." The Beijing in these pages is an unforgiving world in which faith in others is a liability, yet when each of Cui’s setbacks is offset by an act of good, the reader is offered glimmers of hope. The prose in this spare novel, “…sounds like it’s coming through a fog . . . like a mist—thin and gauzy. Soft and indistinct.” The end of The Invisibility Cloak has an unmistakably Murakamian mood, as though reality has blurred at the edges. As one character remarks, “If you tried to live every single detail of your life with perfect clarity, you surely wouldn’t make it through the first day. Try to be perfect, and where’s the fun?”

New York Review Books.

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House of Sugar, House of Stone, By Emily Pérez

Pérez’s first full-length collection pulls no punches in her unflinching examination of the complicated emotional landscape of the family. Pérez weaves, in the rhythmic voice of a woman casting a spell, dark fairy-tales wherein each family member is, by turns, the witch or the wolf.  Deceptively sweet-sounding, this book trades in doubt, damage and danger. In poems like “To The Artist’s Child” and “We Cannot Sleep Alone” Pérez examines the potential abandonment of self that women face in choosing to become mothers. The poem “We Wanted More,” unites the voices of two parents addressing their children:

“…we wanted time to do the things we loved

and even things we didn’t love but felt we had to do…”

This poem resolves itself not in reassurance, but in a resignation that feels much more true: “Now look at us, too occupied to bother.”  Moments of honesty like this one mark this spell-studded first collection – a necessary re-navigation of that traditional family narrative.

Center for Literary Publishing.

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Grief is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter

Max Porter’s first book is slim, potent and delightfully difficult to classify. In language that is sharp, strange, witty, tender, occasionally obscene and always surprising, Porter tells the story of a man grieving his wife, boys grieving their mother, and a Crow who arrives in the wake of their loss, to act as “friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.”

Poetic in its emotional compactness, Grief is the Thing with Feathers contains the breadth of a narrative arc, as well as a trinity of distinct, intimate voices. Impressions, more than scenes, are expertly conjured and deployed. When Dad feels guilty at his lack of patience for the orbiting mourners, he reasons: “She would approve, because we were always over-analytical, cynical, probably disloyal, puzzled. Dinner party post-mortem bitches with kind intentions. Hypocrites. Friends.” Meanwhile, the boys cope, play, grow-up: “We pissed on the seat. We never shut drawers. We did these things to miss her, to keep wanting her.” And through it all, the Crow as commentator: “I find humans dull except in grief... motherless children are pure crow. For a sentimental bird it is ripe, rich and delicious to raid such a nest.”

In its fresh, frank rendering of a family tragedy and its aftermath, Grief is the Things with Feathers allows us to be both human and crow—we suffer the misery and humor of survival through man and boys, but we also get to revel in the dark, cathartic pleasure of raiding such a nest.

Graywolf Press.

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play dead, by francine j. harris

Though Harris’ second collection, play dead, frequently gazes into the domestic sphere, home, in these poems, is almost never a safe space. Under Harris’ gaze, the whole world becomes a kaleidoscope of dangers, rich and vivid and often beautiful, though blood-soaked. Harris’ poems shift and tumble, images and actions cascading one on top of another, repeating and doubling (even tripling) down in a kind of fixated revision, as if revisiting the site of a trauma in order to heal. The image of the saw that appears in the poem “woodshop” (“…that is not the way the saw should move…”) resurfaces in repetition as the past tense of “see” a few pages later in “lights in the room” and then again as part of a magician’s act in “the comedian” (“She makes the face of a woman who just felt the saw”).

This obsessive revision appears between poems (as in the sequence of numbered suicide notes, with gaps in the numbering that suggest unknown limits), and also within individual poems, as when, in the poem “canvas,” the addressed “you” erases and repeatedly redraws figures as if by compulsion. This book itself compels the reader to revisit, repeatedly, to pick up and turn the kaleidoscope again.

Alice James Books.

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LOOK, by Solmaz Sharif

Solmaz Sharif begins her first collection, LOOK, with the line: “It matters what you call a thing: Exquisite a lover called me. / Exquisite.” As its unifying conceit, Sharif takes the 2007 Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms and weaves the declassified language of the United States Department of Defense into her poems, highlighting the absurd and grotesque ways language can be used to conceal, mock, control and subvert, just as it can be repurposed to unmask, dignify and communicate.

look—(*) in mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence.

The titular poem ends: “Let it matter what you call a thing. / Let it be the exquisite face for at least 16 seconds. / Let me LOOK at you. / Let me LOOK at you in a light that takes years to get here.”

Each of Sharif’s poems stand alone. They glitter with sharp edges—shards of memory and black humor that wink at the reader—while the darker barbs are addressed to the more sinister, lumbering powers that are always listening in (“I say Hello NSA when I place a call / : somewhere a file details my sexual habits / : some tribunal may read it all back to me”). Still, the effect of the book as a whole is something to behold. LOOK is bold in both its indictments and intimacies. It lets neither the reader, nor the political establishment off the hook.

Graywolf Press.

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Quiet Creature on the Corner, by João Gilberto Noll, translated by Adam Morris

Reading Quiet Creature on the Corner feels like floating, or even racing, through a fever-dream. In it, the narrator rapes his young neighbor, then is inexplicably freed from prison to write poems and live out his life in a country manor. João Gilberto Noll’s prose, translated into English by Adam Morris, complements its subject, evincing a surrealism viscerally rooted in realism.

Time passes strangely in this book, and is often only tangentially related to reality. For instance, the narrator is nineteen at the beginning of the novella, yet he seems to pass almost a lifetime as the husband of the girl he raped – only to wake from the vision as a man, bearded and hospitalized, surrounded by reams of poetry.

At the clinic, he finds a “horrible bug beneath the stove. It could have been a spider but it looked more like a hangman.” Noll’s prose is often like this, the blurring of spider and hangman appropriate, even inevitable. In his translation, Morris manages to retain the strangeness of the prose – the visions, the odd chronology – while maintaining its accessibility and urgency.

The book may be read in one sitting, but it lingers in the mind. “Poor everyone,” the narrator says, “who had such a heavy burden.” Noll and Morris make this burden one we are happy to bear.

Two Lines Press.

 

My Feelings, by Nick Flynn

For Nick Flynn fans, the title of his newest collection may feel gleefully inevitable. What else could it be named but My Feelings? Few poets in recent memory have mined the battlefields of adolescence and family history as well or as candidly as Nick Flynn—this collection is no exception.

With three memoirs to his name, the content treads familiar territory, but My Feelings recasts these events through a lens of intense self-awareness and humor. In “Put the Load on Me,” Flynn writes: “Earlier, a deer stood by the side of the road / Deciding whether or not to kill me. I cannot / blame her, I cannot blame anyone—many / animals were hurt in the production of this book / just as many trees were hurt & all / the clouds.”

In a collection that draws largely on his personal life and the recent passing of his father, Flynn avoids solipsism by looking outward—“Open any book / & the cloud above you bursts into / flame, you know this & yet nothing / stops you, the sky stuck to the end of your finger / as you point to it.”

Graywolf Press.

 

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Scrapper, by Matt Bell

In Scrapper, Matt Bell asks readers to take a long, hard at look at our destructive capabilities as humans—our ability to dismantle civilizations, cities, our fellow man, our own flesh.  Bell sets much of his story in Detroit, presented as a wasteland from some dystopian future, yet redolent with contemporary resonances. Kelly, the Scrapper, is torn between the man he could be and the man he probably is, constantly fighting each version of himself, past and future.

By invoking George Zimmerman, Guantánamo and Chernobyl, Bell signals his interest in depicting not only the crumbling of a once-major American metropolis, but the crumbling of our larger humanity—not in some dystopian future, but in the present. From Scrapper we get the unsettling, pervasive feeling “that in darkness…anything might happen next, that this was the beginning of something new, a lasting unknown.”

Soho Press.