CAMELLIA STREET

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CAMELLIA STREET BY MERCÈ RODOREDA, TRANSLATED BY DAVID ROSENTHAL

Mercè Rodoreda’s Camellia Street is a study in whiplash. Though first released in Catalonia in 1966, the book remains sharply resonant and intimately relatable today to any woman who has ever felt herself apart, numbed by life’s vicissitudes even as she finds sweetness in them—any woman “trapped alive,” as narrator Cecília notes, “in a piece of candy.” In less than 200 pages, Cecília charts her history: how she was discovered as a foundling, how she abandoned home to live first with her young love Eusebi in a shantytown, then with a stream of various men solicited on street corners, in cafés, through friends. Though fraught with loss and near-constant uncertainty, Cecília’s past as she tells it is one of relatively little emotion. Buoyed as much by own hard shell, her own stark remove as the sensory details of post-war Barcelona—a bejeweled silk dress stitched by nuns, a wooden angel with hands removed, bluebells planted then crushed between fingers, the velvety ferns in a café, the lime-flower tea—she flits from one café to the next, one man to the next, finding herself installed in one apartment after another in detached fits and starts.

If she is dream or doll to the men she encounters, Cecília is fully real to us readers, made vivid through Rodoreda’s careful attention to details both sensory and strange, and often grim; “. . . how the moon,” Cecília muses, “was gnawed by termites with worms in all holes, like corpses in burial niches.” In this regard, Cecília’s sense of remove only serves to make her feel all the more human; her detachment a survival mechanism as hard and cold and necessary as the stone benches she sits on when she works Las Ramblas. Though, as translator David H. Rosenthal astutely notes in his introduction, “[t]he parallels between her inner life and the disoriented, catatonic Barcelona of the 1940s and 1950s are striking . . . Rodoreda never presses the point.” Indeed, what’s most brilliant about this book is its myopic lens; its keen ability to peer narrowly, vainly, self-absorbedly outwards through a wonderfully crafted mind.

Open Letter.

— Review by Elizabeth DeMeo

MADAME VICTORIA

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MADAME VICTORIA BY CATHERINE LEROUX, TRANSLATED BY LAZER LEDERHENDLER

Using the unidentified skeleton of a woman found in 2001, outside of Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital, as her nexus, Catherine Leroux creates a collage of womanhood: fluidity and joy; erasure and pain. In twelve separate stories, she imagines variations of the life of this woman, Victoria, which inevitably end with her death. She peppers the collection with small chapters on the nurses and hotline workers, all while the public continues their quest to identify her. It would be easy for this type of structure to become disjointed, as each Victoria is fully realized—a sex worker proud of satisfying her customers, a time traveler, a grieving teenage mother, an experiment-turned-invisible, a lover who didn’t uphold her end of a suicide pact—but Leroux uses the repetition of these themes to maintain her cohesion: arrows pointing north, characters with heterochromia iridium, movement and migration.

Lazer Lederhendler’s English translation also sparks and simmers with luminous prose, allowing Victoria to emerge as a guiding star, the one constant in a shimmering landscape. “She gets the feeling every now and then that time has remained suspended since the first day she entered this house and that whole generations have passed through her hands, where they were rocked and wiped before racing toward adulthood; that, in their turn, those adults, the corners of their mouths still studded with cereal crumbs, send her their offspring not yet able to speak their given names; that from one generation to the next these people are increasingly shapeless, and that in a few years nothing will be left of them but vague outlines.” Juxtaposed in this way, Madame Victoria honors all women on the margins, all women dismissed by society. It tempts us to reconsider the ways in which we think of victims, showing us that if we listened, there is much they could teach us about ourselves.

Biblioasis.

— Review by Joy Clark

DEATH AND OTHER HOLIDAYS

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DEATH AND OTHER HOLIDAYS BY MARCI VOGEL

Marci Vogel’s Death and Other Holidays, the inaugural winner of the Miami Book Fair / Degroot Novella Prize, is a tour de force that comprises a year in the life of April, a painfully average woman who grapples with the vicissitudes of young adulthood after the death of her beloved stepfather. Composed of gorgeous vignettes that chronicle April’s trials and tribulations in 1990s Los Angeles, Death and Other Holidays is raw, honest, and darkly humorous. Vogel’s tight prose reads like something of a diary by its immediacy, capturing the inner workings of April’s mind, and speaks to the aching young adult in all of us. From one section, April recalls a science experiment where researchers measure molecules before and after having people watch them, and they find that the molecules have changed. “Something as minor as taking pictures changes the world, at least on a molecular level,” writes April. Here, too, readers who watch as Vogel’s endearing protagonist battles death and young adulthood will most certainly find themselves changed.

Melville House.

— Review by Hiba Tahir

IN COUNTRY

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IN COUNTRY BY HUGH MARTIN

Hugh Martin’s second poetry collection In Country delves into the war in Iraq from the American soldier’s perspective. The language and listing quality of his memories are plain and simple, but the stories they tell are not. Readers see the complicated relationship that the American militia, both as individuals and as a collective, have with Iraqi civilians. Poems move from tenderness—Thanksgiving dinners with the Iraqi soldiers and games with children in the streets—to the brutality of beating an Iraqi man until he’s the shade of plum: “As he lay there in his own piss, I saw his eyes shut, / sealed with swollen skin (this isn’t to say this incident—just one small evening event—is to showcase some soldiers / saving men / from beatings. We, / mostly, weren’t).”

Martin’s poems deal with the aftermath of war too—the resentful parents who mourn the sons they believe the US took from them, and then, the particular hardships felt by soldiers, chiefly, the combined monotony and isolation from American society. Still, In Country continues to return to the question of what is service? Poem to poem it is posed: “I served by opening each drawer, / each cabinet, looking for wires / & weapons while women screamed in a room / where we’d put them with the children / away from the men / we’d put in another room / to be watched while we searched. I served / by handing out peppermint candies / to children in villages / as fathers and mothers stood in doorways / not speaking, even though if they did / we’d never know what they were saying.”

BOA.

— Review by Jenee Skinner

MINA

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MINA BY KIM SAGWA, TRANSLATED BY BRUCE AND JU-CHAN FULTON

In her mind, teenaged Crystal is unparalleled; she gets the grades, works the system, has no one and needs no one—except Mina. But when a friend’s suicide leaves Mina heartbroken, she begins to pull away from Crystal, who observes her mourning with a perplexing detachment. As Crystal wrestles with both her own isolation and the violent impulses that emerge in the wake of Mina’s withdrawal, disturbing reveries and half-finished thoughts flicker and flare in her consciousness before erupting in one startling, obsessive line: “The problem is: there are too many people who ought to be killed.”

Mina’s translators, Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, masterfully capture Crystal’s manic voice, navigating long, suspenseful dialogues between the two girls in which Crystal’s lines are cardiograms, spasming between threat and apology, threat and apology, as arrhythmic and untrustworthy as a palpitation:

“IfyoufeelIambeingcrueltoyouIamsorrysorrytrulysorryreallysorrysorrysorrysorry.”

Even as Crystal’s actions become more and more volatile, she remains resolutely, alarmingly, in control of herself, her future, her way of life. In this tense, slow-burning novel, Kim Sagwa hacks into the egocentric complexities of adolescence to criticize a monolithic and unsympathetic collectivist tradition. “If you want to win,” Crystal asserts, speaking for a society that is greater than and beyond her, “you need to be illogical, powerful, and destructive, and the more of each the better.” With Mina, Kim has created a compelling narrative of mental degradation, flaying both Crystal’s ego and a culture at large to reveal the often disturbing complexes found therein.

Two Lines Press.

— Review by Samantha Kirby

THE FEMALES

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THE FEMALES BY Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

At one point in The Females, the narrator thrusts his hand into a garbage can and feels “a fleshy hairy mound . . . a labial circle . . . firm and sucking, around [his] lower arm.” The most erudite critic would be hard pressed to find a better metaphor for the experience of reading this slim novel, penned by the East German author Wolfgang Hilbig in 1987. Cast adrift on the sea of the narrator’s consciousness, we grope for meaning in the depths, and what seizes us throbs not with love or even lust, but with something primordial, libidinous, Freudian. The Females offers a dizzying tour of a psyche tormented by totalitarianism, distorted by loneliness, and beset by impulses far more complex than any mere sexual urge.

But why on earth is the narrator putting his hand in trashcans? He’s been reassigned to garbage duty after losing his factory job; but more importantly, the factory women he used to ogle—all the women in the city, for that matter, and all the female nouns in German, too—have disappeared. And he’s desperate to find them. His quest for anything remotely feminine leads him to phallic champagne bottles, memories of a poor performance review, and speculation that he’s “hidden in the bowels of [his] mother . . .” Yet somehow, despite his relentless and disturbing visions, one can never quite imagine the narrator harming anyone but himself. Hilbig teases a thread of tenderness from the midst of his madness—tenderness that renders the prose uncannily irresistible.

Hilbig’s genius, long obscured from the Anglophone eye, has only recently gained visibility thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole, who launched a slew of Hilbig translations in 2015. Her efforts have introduced English readers to the fruits of a literary career that racked up nearly every major German literary prize, yet so irritated East German officials that they readily endorsed Hilbig’s exodus from the Soviet Union in 1985. He died in 2007. Yet for English readers, Cole’s commitment to his legacy and meticulous prose have granted him a sort of resurrection.

Two Lines Press.

— Review by Mekiya Walters

WAYS TO HIDE IN WINTER

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WAYS TO HIDE IN WINTER BY SARAH ST. VINCENT

In her debut novel, Sarah St. Vincent creates a compelling mystery set against the wider concerns of the War on Terror. In a national park in Pennsylvania’s Blue Ridge Mountains, nearly abandoned in winter except for the locals, a few hunters, and then a stranger whose presence warrants explanation, this novel unfolds. Kathleen works at the park’s only store and develops a careful friendship with Daniil, the stranger from Uzbekistan. Ways to Hide in Winter drifts through the snow-covered scenes of its rural concerns—an aging grandmother, Kathleen’s dead abusive husband, her distant parents—but it also presents the secrets of its characters in sudden and unexpected moments of violence and betrayal, eventually involving Kathleen in a manhunt for her new, mysterious friend. The author’s experience as a human rights attorney informs the drama of the novel in a convincing way, filling each page with global implications without losing the immediate suspense, as well as the sense that in what should be a quiet, small town, there is someone watching, a secret left unsaid.

Melville House.

— Review by Lucas Palmer

WHEN RAP SPOKE STRAIGHT TO GOD

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WHEN RAP SPOKE STRAIGHT TO GOD BY ERICA DAWSON

When Rap Spoke Straight to God is a raucous and irreverent book-length poem that refuses to sit still. Erica Dawson, author of two previous award-winning collections of poetry, turns her keen sense of form toward the poetic epic. Her poem, told in four parts, explores existence as a WOC in a deeply flawed and dangerous world. She speaks of the divine and the mundane in the same breath: “I tell Lil’ Kim that nothing makes / this woman feel better than telling God, / See my slow goddess and my two / fists, same size as my beating heart. / Same fists, the size of my stomach.” This fluent twining of opposites occurs throughout the collection: new and old, light and dark, divine and embodied. One of the most compelling dualities is her use of form. Her considered and formally astounding poetics are deeply aware of formalism’s fraught history as a bulwark of the traditional literary canon, which excludes POC like her. As a response, Dawson packs her formal poetics with meaning: “When Jeezy said     Jesus said the sky’s / our only limit, rap asked God who deferred / it to the dirt interred around the incus / the anvil of our ear’s middle passage.” Combining old and new iterations of biblical figures, abstract ideas and intimate bodily details, and the timeless dichotomy of earth and sky, she constructs verse heavy with history, from the “deferred” of Langston Hughes to the “middle passage” of the slave trade. Dawson engages with contemporary issues plaguing our culture, from #MeToo to the resurfacing of simmering racial hatred. When Rap Spoke Straight to God is a complex and transcendent response to our dangerous era.

Tin House.

— Review by Emma Van Dyke