Miguel de Cervantes, perhaps the first great novelist in the history of literature, was a natural-born metafictionalist. His Don Quixote was a multi-layered masterpiece, a lost story within a found story within a supposedly true story ... about a man whose mind was destroyed by reading. After the book became a success, Cervantes was forced against his will to re-enter the multi-dimensional universe of his now-famous character, because an anonymous plagiarist had begun selling an unauthorized "Part Two" to Cervantes's story to eager readers. In an attempt to counter the ersatz sequel, Cervantes wrote his own sequel, which is now highly regarded as the second half of Don Quixote.
An fanciful backdrop to the Spanish novelist's battle with this mysterious hoaxer provides much of the drama and conflict in Jaime Manrique's new novel Cervantes StreetCervantes Street. Manrique talks about his interpretation of Cervantes at Lambda Literary Review.
(This book review is the Litkicks debut of Tara Olmsted, who runs BookSexy Review, a blog with a special focus on international and translated literature.)
Attending college in New York City in the mid-1990’s left me with some distinct memories of the city. De La Vega chalk tags on the sidewalks of Broadway next to graffiti stencils that read “Free Mumbia”; the booksellers whose tables used to line St. Marks Place before they were kicked out; boys from Columbia going on (and on) about Ayn Rand and their counterparts from New York University in Che Guevara t-shirts.
Those t-shirts with their iconic image were my only connection to Guevara. Which is kinda’ sad. The man has been made into a symbol and used to market non-conformity, anti-establishment and revolution to a mostly compliant public. His silk-screened face has become one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous commercial images in the world.
So, unsurprisingly, images are what drew me to Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara, Aleida March’s memoir of her marriage to Ernesto Che Guevara. The book contains dozens of personal photographs, many published for the first time -- candid pictures of a charismatic and amazingly photogenic couple.
It’s not hard to understand how Che Guevera became the poster child for Latin American revolution. There’s an energy -- a directness -- in his eyes that’s hard to look away from. Even in his later years, when he frequently travelled in disguise and under aliases, that gaze is unmistakable. These photos will be the main draw for all but the hardcore Guevara fan. They, along with the couple’s personal correspondence, provide a definite sense of the man as his family and friends knew him.
(This introduction to a too-little-known French author is the Litkicks debut of Eamon Loingsigh, whose novella An Affair of Concoctions can be sampled here).
I didn’t come across Comte de Lautréamont right away. I found him only after a long search for the most furious literature I could find, and I suspect others don’t find him quickly either, if they find him at all.
As a disgruntled teen, mainstream writers like Stephen King and dusty fuddies like T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stephens could not slake my brooding brain. Poe turned my head and Coleridge was my favorite Romantic in school, both with drug addictions and personality disorders that were sent desperately to the pen in order to relieve their burdens, financial or emotional. But when I found Bukowski and Kerouac and those who influenced them, I eventually bumped into Comte de Lautréamont, who quickly became even more interesting to me when I heard that translations abound in many languages, except English.
Lautreamont was born as Isidore Lucien Ducasse in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1846, and left it during a time of great turbulence. His mother died soon after giving birth to him, in the midst of the Argentinian-Uruguayan War, and he was raised by his father, a Uruguayan public official of French ancestry. He was sent to school in Paris, France at the age of thirteen. By seventeen he was known at his Lycée as a quick student, yet morbid and sardonic in humor. Memorizing the Romantic writers as well as Dante, Milton, Baudelaire and Racine, he soon decided to become a writer in order “to portray the pleasures of cruelty!”
1. Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, includes pieces by J. G. Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Philip Roth, Rudy Rucker and Robert Crumb. Here's the full table of contents.
2. And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to ... some dude I never heard of! Which kind of surprises me, since I thought I sort of knew this space. Anyway, meet Tomas Transtromer of Stockholm, Sweden. Words Without Borders has him, of course.
3. I couldn't find any Tomas Transtromer at Asymptote, another new journal of international/translated literature I've started looking at, but they do have Robert Walser (translated by Susan Bernofsky), Lin Yoade and a new translation by Mani Rao of an old Upanishad.
Mexico. The land of intrigue south of the border. The place where Dean and Sal headed for ultimate kicks. The destination of choice for taking it on the lam, as in “I’m goin’ way down south, way down to Mexico way” in the Hendrix reading of “Hey Joe”. So many images of Mexico, most of them on the dark side. Think back to the opening scene of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where Humphrey Bogart is down and out in Tampico.
I wanted to get away from the endless Chicago winter. I wanted to feel sun on my face and soft breezes blowing through my hair. I wanted to go to Mexico. So I booked a flight to Querétero, a colonial town in the central highlands, and packed my bags. What to read, though? Graham Greene? Not in the mood. I wanted something dark that penetrated to the heart of my image of Mexico, but I wanted a writer other than Greene. Browsing through the stacks at the library, I found it. Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry.
1. Scientists have discovered linguistic signals indicating that sperm whales may refer to themselves by names when they speak. Sounds like the kind of fact Herman Melville would have been interested to hear. It also makes me think of T. S. Eliot's cats with their "ineffable, deep and inscrutable singular names".
2. Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, a tremendously popular book of philosophical poetry first published in 1923, will be adapted into a film, apparently with a series of directors contributing interpretations of separate chapters.
Here are three books I've recently enjoyed. I'll cover a couple more next week as well.
The Shadow of What We Were by Luis Sepulveda
Chilean novelist and activist Luis Sepulveda lived through his nation's greatest political humiliation -- the overthrow of its democratically-elected leader Salvador Allende by rightists (backed by USA President Nixon's CIA) in September 1973 -- and now recalls that era in The Shadow of What We Were. This deceptively lighthearted comic novel presents a modern-day reunion of aging freedom-fighter heroes, fugitives, dreamers and organizers from 1973, now elderly men grown weak and bittersweet, gathering one last time to carry out a mission against the powers that still oppress them. Sepulveda skillfully balances the morose political overtones and deep sense of national loss with warm, wry dialogue and layered pop-culture references -- we catch glimpses of The Watchmen, Reservoir Dogs and The Magnificent Seven -- that point our attention to what has really conquered Chile since the days of Allende and Pinochet: western culture, and the complacent spirit of entertainment.
1. After a whole lot of passionate (and incorrect) guessing, Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature (the dapper fellow above just announced it on a live webcast from Stockholm). I must admit that, while I once enjoyed hearing from this Peruvian novelist at a New York reading with Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, I don't know much about his work as a whole. I'm looking forward to learning more. And, yeah, I do wish Ngugi wa Thiong'o had taken it. Maybe next year.
2. A Ted Hughes poem dealing directly with his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide has been revealed for the first time.
3. I like Julie Taymor and I really like William Shakespeare's The Tempest, so I'm pretty psyched about a new Julie Taymor film of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, along with the likes of Russell Brand and Alan Cumming in various roles.
It's a funny thing about book reviews. It's been documented by publishing industry researchers that a negative book review can sometimes bump sales as well as a positive one, and good writers have bemoaned the fact that a great review, even a great front cover review in the New York Times Book Review, might not help sales at all. Of course, publisher incompetence can help cause the latter situation, as was recently revealed in a rather shocking New York Magazine interview:
So the book got on the cover of The New York Times Book Review and I called my editor and told him and he said, "Well, you know it will be a critical darling, but it won’t sell." And he had been saying all along that it won’t sell and I thought, what in the fuck is the matter with you? Are you kidding me? If it’s gonna sell, it’s gonna sell. Every newspaper in the country has reviewed it. Then it was sold out on Amazon for six weeks, and the reason is they refused to print books. I kept saying to him, "You could be selling so many books in Des Moines, Iowa, in Lincoln, Nebraska in Denver, Colorado, all these places, where people read, where there are great independent bookstores," and they kept saying, "No, mostly I think we’re going to push this in L.A. and New York." I thought, you dumb fuckers. Meth is not a problem in New York except for in the gay community, but it’s a problem everywhere else. But there was this feeling: "Well, yeah, but people out there don’t really read."
-- Nick Reding, author of Methland (reviewed in NYTBR July 5 2009)
The fact that Berman pulls off an extravagant performance to reach this point, and that he lushly praises Garcia Marquez's 1975 novel The Autumn of the Patriarch in order to set up his conclusion, only highlight how utterly dishonest this review is. It belongs on the New York Times op-ed page (if anybody still cares about Castro-bashing in 2009), and a real review of Gerald Martin's biography of this important fiction writer belongs on the front page of the NYTBR.
For a critic to communicate to us the essence of a book on its own terms is an act of sharing, and we can intuitively tell when a critic is or isn't able to share. Douglas Wolk's sympathetic description of You'll Never Know, Carol Tyler's graphic novel about her father's traumatic (and long-repressed) experiences as a solder in World War II is a positive example: we absorb the book's style and approach and intent, and by the end of the review it's hard not to want to rush out for a copy. Chelsea Cain is similarly open to Alice Hoffman's novel The Story Sisters, about three starry-eyed Long Island sisters who speak a secret language, though Cain's writing is overly cute ("I could be wrong about that", she tells us after her opening sentence) and leaves me suspecting that I won't like the book as much as she does.
I wasn't aware that Laila Lalami's Secret Son is meant to echo The Great Gatsby with a tale of a poor Moroccan kid thrust into a world of glamorous wealth. Gauitra Bagadur doesn't seem impressed with the final result, though the thoughtful article has the opposite effect on me as Chelsea Cain's -- I suspect I might like this book more than the reviewer does.
T. Coraghessan Boyle is handed the honor of reviewing John Updike's final story collection My Father's Tears. I would have preferred an older and more distinguished choice for this milestone (can't anybody persuade Philip Roth to write a book review?) but Boyle digs in with an open mind -- exactly what Paul Berman fails to do in this NYTBR's cover piece -- and does a fine job of appreciating this significant book.
There's an interesting piece by Polly Morrice on Boy Alone: A Brother's Memoir by Karl Taro Greenfield, who grew up as the older brother of an autistic child who got lots of media attention, and has now released his resentments and complex feelings of sibling rivaly in a memoir.
The endpaper by Nicholas Felton is an attractive rendering of book publisher logos as a biological chart (Penguin's penguin, Knopf's corgi, Pocket Books' kangaroo) but I can't understand why the choice was made to only represent books by the five major book conglomerates, Random House, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Penguin Group and Hachette. This ecosystem can hardly thrive without Norton's bird, Soft Skull's ant, Houghton-Mifflin's fish. I wonder why the NYTBR would prefer to be so restrictive? It's not like the big five are buying many ads.