My Year in Reviewing: 2015

So after posting 10 reviews in 2014 I exceeded that number by quite a bit this year and ended up with 26 reviews. An alphabetical list of the books under review this year are below, with short commentary (a chronological list is here). If you feel like supporting this blog, why not click here. I have also published three short essays with the Battersea Review. If you want to buy my book, why not click here? Incidentally, I have review copies of my book in pdf and (possibly) epub, if you feel like reviewing German poetry. Email me! Now, here’s the list of reviews.

Katherine Addison: The Goblin Emperor – a good fantasy novel that almost won the Hugo. Entertaining though slightly odd politics.

W. Paul Anderson: Hunger’s Brides – a great Canadian masterpiece. Flawed, in multiple ways, but great.

Pénélope Bagieu – Cadavre Exquis – a cute little graphic novel. Fun.

Kyril Bonfiglioli: Don’t Point That Thing At Me – absolutely lovely little noir book that was very badly served by the movie made from it.

Maile Chapman: Your Presence is Required at Suvanto – terrible book. I regret reading it.

Maryse Condé: En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux – this is half review, half comment on Condé’s work. She’s both good and a bit dull. Widely translated into English, but this one has not been translated yet.

John Darnielle: Wolf in White Van – unexpectedly moving novel by one of my favorite singers.

Kelly Sue Deconnick et al.: Bitch Planet – brilliant comic book by one of my favorite people currently working at the Big Three.

David Duchovny: Holy Cow – not as awful as you’d think. Great fun, I say.

C.S. Forester: The African Queen – interesting book, great movie. win-win.

Dana Grigorcea: Baba Rada – Young Swiss/Romanian novelist. This, her debut, is exciting and unique.

Olga Grjasnowa: All Russians Love Birch Trees – young German/Russian novelist. Novel is excellent, and I am excited about new work by the author.

Yuri Herrera: Signs Preceding The End of The World – one of my favorite books I read all year. A masterpiece.

Janet Hobhouse: The Furies – brilliant, moving novel on a mother/daughter relationship.

Kerascoët & Vehlmann: Beautiful Darkness – A graphic novel masterpiece. One of the best comic books I own.

Young-Ha Kim: I have the right to destroy myself – interesting book, but flawed. The author’s storytelling skills have not caught up with his conceptual ambitions yet.

Erri de Luca: God’s Mountain – Bestselling Italian novelist. Good book, not exceptional.

Gila Lustiger: Die Schuld der Anderen – very disappointing novel on a workspace safety scandal. Muddled politics, flat style.

Ed McBain – Cop Hater – classic crime novel. It’s like watching a genre take its first steps.

Emily Perkins: Novel about my Wife – Truly fascinating, intricate novel about a wife’s breakdown and a husband’s questionable role in it.

Max Porter: Grief is the Thing with Feathers – another one of my favorite books. Extremely well written and constructed.

John Scalzi: Lock In – favorite Science Fiction book I read all year. Not shortlisted for the Hugo – would have deserved winning it.

Akhil Sharma: Family Life – Interesting novel about immigrant experience. Maybe too carefully crafted to be truly impactful.

Leonardo Sciascia: To Each His Own – Excellent Mafia noir. Classic, deservedly.

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread – Reportedly her final novel, and it frequently reads like a riff on her own work. Not her best work.

Andy Weir: The Martian – profoundly disappointing Science Fiction.

Yuri Herrera: Signs Preceding The End of The World

Herrera, Yuri (2015), Signs Preceding The End of The World, And Other Stories
[Translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman]
ISBN 978-1-908276-42-1

This is very likely my last review of the year but I just couldn’t let the year on my blog end with that terrible Chapman novel, so I picked an interesting looking book from my TBR stack and read it, and am sitting down here, on a Christmas morning somewhere on the outskirts of Bucharest, writing this review. And I am very glad I made this choice.

Herrera1I had not heard of the writer before, but it’s a name I won’t soon forget. Yuri Herrera has, so far, written three short novels, the second of which, Signs Preceding The End of The World, has now found its way into English, in a translation that I found fantastic, published by And Other Stories. I don’t naturally know how close Dillman kept to the text and how much of the original is found in this English version, but she found a language that is strong, unique and fits the text, its story and its quirks to a t, which makes me think she did a good job. The book itself is a rich story that feeds equally off myth and realism, with its closest sibling (in my limited reading of latino literature) not the postmodernism of Roberto Bolaño, despite the thematic similarities especially with 2666; instead, the book that most came to mind is the one Mexican masterpiece pretty much everyone has read in one translation or another: Juan Rulfo’s spellbinding novel Pedro Páramo. It also reminded me of something odd in amazon’s current TV show Narcos, a slightly unpleasant American rewriting of recent Columbian history. It starts off with a disquisition on magical realism, but, as far as I have seen the show, does not offer any of it to its viewers, instead it’s a mixture of docudrama and realistic action. In this context, the way Herrera’s novel digs into myth, into the layers between life and death, consciousness and dream, appeared even more stark to me. But even without the contrast, this novel is captivating. After I finished it, I found it hard to believe that it was as short as it is. In it, we go to hell and back, we see how war and poverty and warp and hollow people out, and how threadbare, ultimately, the connection is that we have to our homes, no matter how strongly felt it might have been. Herrera discusses, in other sections, the border issues between Mexico and the US, offers a suggestion involving a broader sense of home and identity and takes a long, hard look at fear and necessity. This is very clearly among the best novels I have read all year and probably in the last 5 years, too. Herrera’s skill as a writer is beyond remarkable and Lisa Dillman’s translation is similarly good. Do yourself a favor and read this book. This is the most direct, unguarded recommendation I have given out all year. Go, now.

Yuri Herrera has so far written three novels. All three deal in some way with the drug traffic, and the problems in Mexico that arise from it. All three decline to offer a stark realism, although the third one comes closest. All three play with the idea of narrative, of writing. There is a sense of a grasping for a national literature that both deals with the scourge of drug trafficking and transcends it. Trabajos del reino, the first book, is equipped with a protagonist who is a poet or singer, who slowly enters the ranks of power. Thus, Herrera can offer his readers a variant on that old Mexican genre: the dictatorship novel. These books, from García Márquez to Roa Bastos, Miguel Asturias and Ramón del Valle-Inclán, have long been considered a central part of the canon of latino literature, part of the way that literature has related to issues of nationbuilding. To speak with Lyotard, if I may, is it possible to say that over the decades since Asturias and Valle-Inclán, all these petits récits have added up to fairly large and grand narratives themselves, somewhere between the great European ideologies, much as its great proponents, from García Márquez to Vargas Llosa, have to be, I think, described as being somewhere in between those ideologies. Herrera’s book, by dropping the focus from a statesman, even a despotic one, to a drug kingpin, offers critical commentary on this genre, as he, at the same time, I think, attempts to use its strengths and implications for a putative récit about Mexico. The third novel’s protagonist is a lawyer and its focus is even narrower and local, and it involves a writing of history and law that needs lawyers not poets or singers. In between those two books is Signs Preceding The End of The World. It starts off as the smallest of books: the realistically told tale of Makina, a young woman who sets out to bring her brother home. In order to be able to cross the border, she strikes a deal with local drug kingpins whose reach extends far into the US and whose tales of a mythical heritage beyond the border were the original incentive for her brother to leave home. She carries with her a message from her mother and a package from the kingpin. The book is told in the third person, from the young woman’s point of view. We are never privy to all her thoughts, the effect is more that of a chorus, telling us about the big beats in her emotions as they relate to the events around her.

The rhythm of the novel fits that impression, with an almost stakkato-like sequence of sentences, although this is no formal system. Sentences vary in length and melody, but the beats keep recurring. This delivery is significant because it takes us out of a too realistic reading of the events and draws attention to all the instances where the novel addresses its own form or the question of narration in general. Even within the constraints of a very short novel that has a long story to tell, Herrera’s focus never wavers when it comes to these issues. When people speak, Makina almost always reports to us precisely observed details about how they speak, how their manner of speech reflects on their persona or the situation. Again and again, stories and observations come back to this. One story, on the surface meant to show how people can change once they come back home from a longer stay in the United States, is, at the same time, a story about communication, quite literally, about speech, about signals and many more details like that. Late in the novel, writing is used as a weapon of defense against institutional racism, names are exchanged and truth is repeatedly debated. I say it’s striking, but it’s more than that. It’s also a continuation of Herrera’s themes, but instead of having one singer tell a ballad of the drug life, this is a kind of decentralized story. Told, yes, by one person, but the novel spreads out all the speech and the awareness of it to all members of the chain that leads Makina from her village to where she ends up. As my evasive formulations show, I am loath to reveal details about what happens exactly, because I don’t want to take away the joy of discovering the book from any of the people who are reading this review, but I will reveal that it is indeed a quest, and one where the Hobbits do not return to the Shire. The form of the quest focuses all the elements of speech, gives them shape and meaning and coherence. All the urgency that spurns Makina, it transfers to the discussions of orality and narrative and writing. One issue that recurs again and again is the question of language. Whenever someone speaks for the first time, the novel makes sure we know whether its “anglo tongue” or “latino tongue” – but its linguistic world view is far from a simple binary. At some point, roughly halfway through the book, Makina describes the speech of the locals as “a shrewd metamorphosis.”

Herrera2In general, despite the border being obviously the most apparent metaphor, the novel doesn’t care much for sharp distinctions. People are almost what they are. Friends are sometimes not quite friends, enemies not quite enemies, and the border that can destroy a young man is sometimes not the border between the US and Mexico, but the aerial border (of sorts) between the US and Afghanistan. The book toys with the idea of land, something that can be literally dug up and stolen – how deep goes identity? And then, the book offers us other oddities, among them neologisms, the central one of which is rendered by Lisa Dillman as “(to) verse” which means something like “to leave.” Dillman herself explains her coinage in a lovely and quite long and extensive translator’s note at the back. The original word in Herrera’s Spanish text was “jarchar,” a neologism derived from the Arabic. Neologisms and other mildly alienating tactics keep the readers on their toes, bar them from settling into easy identifications, and simple realism. That’s necessary because, except for a few passages here and there, the mythology of the novel, despite its importance for the book, is not expounded on at any length, really. By pushing his readers into a constantly angular sort of metafictional mood, he allows them to find all the subtle (and less so) references to the 9 levels of the Mictlan underworld, and appreciate the many levels of Makina’s quest. By engaging Aztec mythology, Herrera also opens a conversation with the narratives of Mexican nationalism, its limitations and possibilities, its overall scope. Of course there are the many small questions, such as: what does it mean when you are Mexican in the US? What if you can pass? What is the meaning of “home”? But more generally, Herrera’s touching on themes of life and death, of the impermanence of identity and the possibility of stories to resist that process of fading away. Herrera offers a petit récit and a Grand Narrative at the same time, undercutting the importance of both. And more importantly, he offers a magnificently written book. Look, all the details of speech and narrative, all the little linguistic and rhythmic details are not what really holds that novel together – it’s Herrera’s plain skill at telling a fantastic story. I have recently remarked on novels that are intellectually interesting but lack a storyteller’s heart – well, this little novel can do both, and with an apparent ease that makes me crave for more work by this extraordinary writer. A great novel. Go, read.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Maile Chapman: Your Presence is Required at Suvanto

Chapman, Maile (2010), Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 978-0-224-09042-1

Suvanto1Intentionally or not, several of my recently reviewed books on this blog have had this in common: they were well constructed intellectually and sometimes lacking in narrative or emotional power. Yet in all those cases, there was something that saved these books from being tiresome exercises in postmodern mastery. Not so with Maile Chapman’s debut novel Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, which is a dull, cold example of everything that people dislike about MFA produced literature. And when I say people, I mean me. In some ways, Chapman’s novel is the polar opposite of the other MFA novel that I reviewed negatively on this blog. Instead of fake emotion and ornate sentimentality, Chapman offers us the other extreme, smooth, cool surfaces, an impartial narrator, trained, if I read her acknowledgments correctly, on the Greek chorus (there’s a terrible novel by Blake Butler that has similar aspirations), and a disaffected, alienated set of protagonists who hurtle slowly (yes) towards a dark catastrophe, which, of course, is never really illuminated so as not to lose the oppressive air hanging over the story. This kind of writing is enormously hard to pull off, and only few novelists I have come across have managed to do so successfully. Maile Chapman is not one of them. The book is both dull and too busy, bland and overdetermined. It’s setting is both historical and set in a world seemingly outside of history. The main reference of the book appears to be Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, as well as Euripides play The Bacchae, although the first one is something I infer from the text itself, the latter is explicitly mentioned in paratextual artefacts. The former is a common reference in these kinds of settings, the latter is a bit puzzling, and in connection to the book would require some serious interpretative work, which this book does not deserve in any way. I regret paying money for this book and you shouldn’t invest money or time on a book that writes about illness and disability with the eye of the panoptikum. The plot centers around a sanatorium in Finland, and I am willing to wager that any novel you’ve read set in a sanatorium or Finland blows this disappointing, flat, almost unreadable book out of the water. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is a bad book.

Suvanto2Why, you may ask, did I persevere and finish it, if it’s so obviously bad? For one thing, I always finish books, even if it takes a while. The other thing is that the novel is so oddly bad that I kept hoping for later sections of the book to redeem earlier ones. It’s not until the book’s denouement follows the most expected lines possible that I gave up on it. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is a novel about women. Women in a Finnish sanatorium somewhere in the mountains to be more precise. The main interest for the narrator and the reader is the wing containing rich women, many of them American. One of the focal characters, and ultimately the tool employed by the author to pull off the reveal/hide trick at the novel’s end, is also American, a nurse that is increasingly overwhelmed by her duties, the Finnish winter and her colleagues as the novel progresses. The book is set in the 1920s, but it stands at an odd angle to history. It’s the 1920s, so any reader will assume a connection to the 1920s novel Magic Mountain that is set in the years before WWI in a sanatorium in the mountains. But Thomas Mann connects his book to the broader flow of history, ending his book with the thunderstrike of the breakout of WWI. Chapman’s book could have been set in a different period or on a different planet or even just an unmarked hospital space. Instead, it’s eerily specific, but doesn’t really use that specificity except for color. And then there’s the book itself, the object ‘book’, I mean. There are gorgeous photographs on the front and the back and on the inside of the cover page, as well. They are not however of the sanatorium described in the book. They are, I think, of the Paimio Sanatorium, built by Alvar Aalto, a Finnish architect, who, according to Wiki, was driven by “a concern for design as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art; whereby he […] would design not just the building, but give special treatments to the interior surfaces and design furniture, lamps, and furnishings and glassware.” That the pictures are of that hospital is probable given that the copyright of the photos is held by the Alvar Aalto Museum, and that Chapman mentions, in her acknowledgments, that she had “extensive tours of Paimio Sanatorium.” If you followed the link above, however, you’ll have discovered that Paimio wasn’t finished until the 1930s (a historically much more interesting time).

Suvanto4So Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is set in a hospital like Paimio Sanatorium, but not in it. So it’s a hospital with a bit of history and reputation, not a brand new place, but we’re supposed to imagine it in the style of a later period? Look, it’s entirely possible that I overlooked something, but details like this are all over the book. Chapman both commits to and sells out on specifics. The book is set in Finland, and the difficulty of learning Finnish, or at least Swedish is foregrounded a few times, and Finnish words crop up all over the novel. Yet the author never makes any real use of the linguistic distance between most of its American protagonists and the Finnish people around them. It could be any language and any region, as far as I can tell. It could be a fantastical science fictional language for all that it makes a difference. It appears that the main reason for all the Finnish in the book is the Fulbright year the author spent in Finland, and the MFA-sanctioned idea that the use of other languages provides an interesting element for the dynamics of a novel. At least we don’t get that other MFA idea of making that ‘other’ language an Asian or African one. A recent, well-crafted, but MFA-bred German novel by Andreas Stichmann, Das Große Leuchten, appears to give in to that specific unpleasant instinct. So this is not politically or culturally dubious as simply baffling. Almost everything in the book, including setting and languages and culture, is used primarily to provide an interesting surface, but as a reader, one tires enormously fast of this. Do something with this, is what one is tempted to yell at the author. Don’t just paint the walls, put something into the rooms. The worst of all the surface games is the book’s use of female physicality and illness. Part of the book’s literary heritage is the Gothic novel. The hospital is large, some goings-on are unexplained and the vastness of the house and its events leads some inhabitants, at a late point in the book, to expect ghosts. But part of the Gothic novel has always, in my opinion, been a confrontation with the Other, and that Other often manifested itself in physical ways. Lust, hate, greed and their impacts on the human body is a constant topic, as is the use of the female body as a malleable object in all of this. There is a whole range of literature on the Gothic as a a genre negitiating masculinity and feminity. Patriarchal violence is common in these texts.

So, theoretically, the fact that Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is centered around various female discourses could be interesting; similarly, the constant presence of the female body here is intriguing. While Gothic novels often contain a veiled hostility towards feminity, engaging discourses of decadence, and various female engineered threats against masulinity. I think Chapman very carefully and intelligently engages these discourses. There is a woman with gonorrhea, a nod to the topic of (sexual) decadence, but in the context of the novel, where it’s mostly stripped of men, it becomes a question of personal injury and shame. Chapman doesn’t shy away from all the levels of female corporeality, although most of the time it’s some variety of able bodied corporeality. Still, within that limit, we get discussions of pregnancy, of bodily fluids, of the changes in women’s bodies as they age. We get frank discussions of the fear of women to be exposed to their husbands, exposed in frint of male doctors or just plain exposed. Compliance, the central issue of the last book I reviewed, is important here as well. Since it’s the 1920s, there’s an even higher premium on compliance, and the final catastrophe breaks out because of bottled up fears and frustration. The book teases its readers with all the possibilities of these constructions. It just adds one after the other and this is the main point that kept me reading – I expected, I waited for the writer to really do something with all this material, to make everything add up to something, to use one of the forms she kept piling up to break out of the traditions. After all, both the Magic Mountain (with its inversion and continuation of the Bildungsroman), as well as the Gothic novel are more or less ideologically clear, they wouldn’t fit this sympathetic use of female bodily functions. And yet. And yet, the final twist, the last part of the book where the plot picks up the pace a bit and all the various threads of the novel are combined into a brutal and mysterious ending – it is exactly what you expect to happen after reading about a third of the book.

Suvanto3This is really the oddest feeling – in a book that appears to be so invested in so many potentially incisive cultural, sexual and political areas, there’s ultimately nothing really at stake. As a reader you’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the writer to connect it, to do something. And it never happens. Here is another example: the novel is written by someone who appears to be clearly cognizant of some contemporary theoretical ideas. Much of the book can work as a riff on some ideas in Michel Foucault’s work, especially those where he discusses institutions of exclusion and inclusion, where he writes on hospitals and prisons, for example. At the same time, it shares none of the self critical, politically trenchant insights. In Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, everything is decoration. Well, who knows, that might be part of Alvar Aalto’s design philosophy. What really, ultimately, sinks the book, however, is not the flatness and inconclusive nature of its ruminations. It’s the terribly bland writing that transports all of it. Written in present tense, maybe to mimic the narrative choruses of Greek drama, the style is simple. Clearly aiming for distanced elegance and clarity, the writing is, instead, flat like the drywall behind my desk. A whole bunch of uninspired, declarative sentences without any real sense for rhythm, urgency and compression. This is depressingly common, and all too often, it’s being read as beautiful. What happened to us as readers? Is this a very late impact of Gordon Lish’s inspired work on Carver that has, in lesser hands, turned into trite declarativeness? Why is it always the Hemingways and the Lishes of the world that inspire authors to copy their methods with less inspiration and understanding? Why doesn’t a writer with a baroque style get copied by lesser writers who try to write ornate prose? I suppose this also connects to my misgivings to the MFA style. It’s almost as if it’s a genre now, this kind of writing. Simplicity without condensation is just dull. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is the worst book I have finished this year and the only one I regret reading.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Kelly Sue Deconnick et al.: Bitch Planet

Deconnick, Kelly Sue and Valentine de Landron (2015), Bitch Planet: Extraordinary Machine, Image Comics
ISBN 9-781632-153661

bitch coverI don’t usually review comics after reading only one trade paperback because the first trade tends to be a mere introduction to story and characters, despite generally containing 4-6 issues of the comic. As a side note, there’s, for me, a sense of comics having loosened a bit these past years, with narration much more slowed down. I mean, the whole story of X-Men: Days of Future Past is narrated in two issues. That would have to be at least a miniseries today. That’s just not how it’s done today. And in a way this is true of this first trade of Bitch Planet as well. The plot has barely begun to get off the ground as we leaf through the last pages of the book. But the book itself is so interesting, so unique, that I decided to review it here anyway, in part because I have been slow with reviewing comics these past years and Kelly Sue Deconnick, with the help of various artists, has carved out quite the interesting body of work that now contains an exciting and inspiring Marvel character that she made completely her own, a mystical and engrossing Western, which she financed through kickstarter, as well as various work done on Marvel and Dark Horse characters, work that’s always bright and interesting. I have lost track of some of her Marvel work in the past year or so, as Marvel ditched its new-found order created through the “Marvel Now” slate of books in favor of several events that I find impossible to keep track of. Meanwhile, she keeps writing creator-owned books for Image Comics and the one that’s come out in paperback most recently, Bitch Planet, is quite something. It’s a faux-1970s (60s? 80S?) dystopian comic that imagines an uber-patriarchal future where female criminals are shipped off to a prison planet. But being obese and disobedient is already reason enough to find yourself on a ship out to the “Bitch Planet” and Deconnick does not hold back in describing the arbitrary and cruel nature of this odd dictatorship. The book is clearly and thoroughly didactic, and if that bothers you, don’t read this. Everybody else will find something to enjoy about this book. In a way, Kelly Sue Deconnick has made a career out of working on characters and stories that help to tell stories about female experience. Bitch Planet reads in many ways like a summary of her career so far. Its density shows the importance and interconnection of her themes. Plus, it’s a coiled-up ball of fun.

bitch 2The plot itself is, as I suggested in the first paragraph, a magnificent smorgasbord of 1970s science fiction tropes and topics, from prison planets to mass surveillance, to sport-as-deadly-spectacle, a scenario that has most recently been revived by the spectacularly successful Hunger Games franchise. As a matter of fact, a vast variety of these recent YA franchises that started with badly written books (the nicely done Hunger Games books are an exception to a sometimes confoundingly incompetent rule – Divergent is a particularly disheartening example of this) also lean on these same 70s texts and films. It almost feels as if there’s a checklist. Suzanne Collins’ career is maybe a good example of this shift – her first series of books tell a highly imaginative story of an underground rat kingdom where a boy becomes hero and antihero in an epic (and bloody) fight for subterranean supremacy. It follows traditions in a broader sense. Hunger Games, in contrast, owes a debt to a much more narrow, concentrated tradition, the 70s dystopian fiction/film. But in stark contrast to those forebears, most of these franchises, with, again, Collins’ books being a bit of an exception, eschew politics and complexities of representation, by turning all the earlier text into a mush that is nothing more than an elaborate allegory for teenage angst. In this respect, they follow the tendency of many pop-cultural revivals of texts from the 70s and 80s that used to have a political bent, and are now cleansed of relevancy. One example in the realm of comic books is certainly Green Arrow. Once, when he shared a book with Green Lantern, Green Arrow was aware of racial tensions and social disparities; these days, the new revivals of the Green Lantern books are but a shadow of that earlier writing. In contrast to all of that, Kelly Sue Deconnick’s book connects in more than style with the earlier tradition. Bitch Planet is happily political. In fact, the trade contains a didactic “discussion guide,” aimed at explaining the book’s politics to those not as well versed in recent readings in feminism and intersectionality. As far as I can tell, individual issues also and additionally contained short essays on topics in feminism. If anything, Deconnick has taken the politics of the 70s and dragged them into the present time, heightening and commenting on the issues. The term intersectionality itself has not been coined until the late 1980s and has not gotten traction in popular debates on political theory until this past decade.

bitch 3To be clear, Deconnick and De Landro didn’t create a modern story, inspired by the 1970s. They aimed and succeeded at creating a fantastically entertaining pastiche of 1970s comics, although I suppose it might be more the idea of 1970s comics rather than a specific example of one. The nature of the pastiche becomes clear in more ways than just the gorgeous artwork that smells of nostalgia. When we get dates and periods, the timing appears to be a bit off. When discussion Hall of Fame players of the futuristic sport of the book, we are offered years like 2012 and 2018. Speaking as someone who, for some reason, has a pretty solid grasp on the world’s major sports, I am fairly certain that sport, a more brutal version of American Football, does not exist right now. The year 2012 is, I think, supposed to signal the time estimations common in texts from the 60s and 70s that assumed a much more rapid progress in technology (and a much more rapid dissolution of constitutional democracies). The result of this method is the creation of a critical nostalgia, but not one that’s inherently critical of the texts it references, only of the social and cultural contexts that produced this text. In fact, by lacing the issues with obviously racist and sexist ads, some of which, in a final metatextual twist, reference the book’s characters, the genre itself, the science fictional blaxploitation (if that is a genre) is highlighted as a medium that resists and comments upon a social context. This, in turn (stay with me) makes the text a stand-in for the same non-compliance that is a marker of the women in the book. Indeed, much of this book appears to loop back on itself, and could end up in some kind of vapid postmodern loop, if all of it wasn’t anchored in angry and explicit politics. Kelly Sue Deconnick’s feminism, as rendered in this book (and others) is a brand that’s not all that common today, one that critically comments on the male gaze, and how that gaze comes with expectancies: most importantly, expecting women to comply. Ariel Levy, a few years ago, has written a clear and pretty sharp critique of how that compliance to the patriarchal gaze might look like in Female Chauvinist Pigs, a book I strongly recommend. Non-compliance, the “offense” of women on the “Bitch Planet” is a rallying cry for the book and Deconnick’s work in general.

DSC_1937Her other extraordinary book for Image Comics, the kickstarter-financed Pretty Deadly, also offers a female resistance to a male myth of the frontier and death (compare/contrast Jonathan Hickman’s recent series of books on a a resistant Rider of the Apocalypse, a very openly male figure of Death, and how this impacts Hickman’s discussions of narrative and myth). Superbly illustrated by Emma Rios, this is a book that’s not so much simple commentary on the frontier myth, as an imaginative reworking of those myths. In more direct terms, we find in Bitch Planet also a book that discusses female experience, although I would hope for more examples of that in later issues. Women of all shapes and sizes, of various backgrounds, resistant to men, discarded by men, non-compliant women, we also find them in the book(s) Deconnick is likely most well known for, her run on Captain Marvel that, so far, spans at least four Captain Marvel trades, two Avengers Assemble trades and god knows how many “event” books. She uses these books, apart from handing out action packed stories of superheroics, to discuss questions of personal identity, of alcoholism, of representation. Personally, I would have preferred these books to be less tied into larger Marvel Universe narratives, but these books are an excellent example of the powerful stories you can write despite being locked into a fairly restrictive narrative box, one that was assembled using a majority of Marvel’s current titles. What’s certainly true is that, through all her books, we can see a theme emerging, and the clearest it’s been stated so far is the excellent Bitch Planet. I have no idea where Deconnick’s writing is leading her next, but I do know that I cannot wait to find out. She is one of my favorite active writers in comics, and her influence and impact on a growing community around her is admirable and amazing. Please read her books.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Translating Poetry

For all that I complain about translators. If you want to see how godawful my own translations are, I have an example. Over the past months I have translated bits and pieces from Alfred Corn’s excellent work here and there.
Here is my awful attempt to render one of his excellent recent poems in German. The poem is “All It Is” and you can compare my ridiculous version with the elegant original here. It’s a complex, lilting, subtle, masterful poem, and now read what I wrought. Two caveats, apart from the peasanty phrasing: 1) yes, I slightly changed the meaning in some places 2) yes, I am too in love with a consistent sound/tropescape, which leads to 1) and 3) no, that is maybe likely the best I can do. Poopyhead. Do I have a draft on my wordpress where I *literally* complain about someone else’s too loose translation of Goethe? Maybe. Will I post it? NOT LIKELY. So. Here it is. Laugh, be merry, and have pity on me.

Was es ist

Der biegsame Bogen
den die Baumwipfel beschreiben,
ungefähr bewegt vom durchströmenden Atem,
ein Ast zur linken,
einer zur rechten Seite schwankend.
Oder das geradlinige Anschwellen,
das einem Windstoß über die Auen folgt,
Heimat hunderttausender Schilfe.

Die Flur erwächst aus allem,
das uns zuvörderst war: aufeinander folgende
Ereignishorizonte vergangener Zeitalter,
ausgebracht durch unseren bedachten
Drang, ihr Äußeres zu heben,
leicht und frei,
zu dem, was unserer Anwesenheit gewahr wird –
zur Vollkommnung geatmet, eine Sphäre,
zu allem, das es ist.

Erri de Luca: God’s Mountain

De Luca, Erri (2002), God’s Mountain, Riverhead
[Translated from the Italian by Michael Moore]
ISBN 978-1573229609

montedidioFirst things first: despite the title of this post and the bibliographic info at the top, I didn’t actually read this book in English. Nor, I have to say in shame, in Italian. The copy I have is in French, mostly due to financial reasons. That said, French is a great language for reading translations for me as far as Romance languages are concerned. The title of the book in Italian is Montedidio. Similarly, the French, German and sundry translations also opted to use that title. “Montedidio” is a Neapolitan word meaning “God’s Mountain,” as well as the name of a neighborhood in Naples and the English translator (or his editor) elected to take that title. On a forum, I once asked the translator of the English version of Jean-Claude Izzo’s novel Total Khéops why he elected to translate it as Total Chaos, since “Chaos” is not a translation of “Khéops” and the latter is a rich reference to the popcultural allusions in the book, especially to the Marseille rap scene. He pointed me to the publisher’s influence. I assume the same reasoning is at play here because within the confines of this novel, “Montedidio” makes more sense. The novel is written in Italian, not in Neapolitan dialect, and this is important for the book, so much so that the narrator addresses it in the very first chapter. The narrator explains that while he understands Italian, he doesn’t speak it. He writes in Italian, because it’s a kind of quiet, safe space, unlike the noisiness of the dialect that informs and forms the world around him. Italian is the language of books, of knowledge, of the powerful people. It scares his father who only speaks dialect. The novel specifically elected to take a title that derives from the local dialect. So I’m a bit unhappy about the English title. The book meanwhile is hard to gauge for me. Not that it’s hard to read or complicated – it’s a smooth, quick read which wears all its concerns on its sleeve. But, as I will point out below, there’s a thin line between cheesy and enchanting and the novel spends a lot of its time trying to straddle that line. I have not read a lot of Italian books these past years and they have been mostly terrible. This, despite its flaws, is the best of the bunch by miles.

Erri de Luca is, in Italy, a very successful author, and a public persona who takes part in debates. In fact, he is currently being sued for his participation in one of these debates, accused of inciting violence. Meanwhile, God’s Mountain is not an openly political novel, per se, and it’s hard to assume that the same novelist who produced this book would in other situations also produce political novels. If anything, the book is a gentle moral fable, almost, even though it is shot through and through with social realism; a realism, however, that is tempered by the calming element of historical distance. A story from a poor area in 1963 Naples, it tells us the story of a year in the life of a boy who learns to recognize love, desire, violence and the magic of words all at once. It is not an unpleasant read but the amount of prizes this book and its author have won is mildly puzzling, because this book frequently skirts the border between beautiful and saccharine. It’s probably best described as intensely overdetermined magical realism, with various important topics thrown in, from pedophilia, abuse, death to the Shoah, all of which happens, in my edition, in only 230 pages. That page count even oversells the amount of material offered by the book: the whole novel is structured in small, 1-3 page chapters that sometimes offer consecutive events, sometimes have temporal gaps between them. The effect is an aphoristic one, an overly precious gesture of cuteness, a stilted suggestion of form, elegance and a mild, heightened sense of melancholy. Throughout the whole novel it’s as if we could hear the mildly sad music of a soundtrack to a romantic French movie from the 1970s. People are sad, people look lost, nobody really communicates well, or is misunderstood when they attempt to. Conflicts are ended in silent violence.  And yet one of the oddest and most fascinating choices the book made was one that’s connected to that stilted melancholy.

In the year depicted in the book, one of the things that happen is the protagonist’s sexual awakening. The whole novel is narrated from his point of view and when a neighbor’s daughter decides to have a relationship with the protagonist, and his body responds to her attempts at seduction, the author decided to apply the same sense of puzzled distance to that process as well. Thus, his first erection is described as some kind of alien protuberance. The book’s whole treatment of male sexuality is endlessly fascinating. Speaking as a man myself, I have strong doubts that this moment, 13 years of age, is the first time that boy has learned he has something down there that can change in size and that has odd feelings when handled sensitively. I don’t want to universalize my own biography, but from my life and the life of others around me, I have my doubts that the author, who is male himself, considered this description of male sexuality believable and realistic. I think the strangeness of the boy’s nascent sexuality is a literary effect that de Luca specifically aimed for, That disconnect likely has a function in the book, especially since it clashes strongly with the social realism of the book’s treatment of Montedidio. There are basically four levels of realism in the book. There’s the description of the poverty in the neighborhood. There’s the slighly displaced realism of a survivor of the Shoah, Don Rafaniello (whose real name is Rav Daniel) who speaks a bit of Yiddish now and then, and craves to travel to Jerusalem, and then there’s the downright magic (or rather: imaginary).elements that include the idea that the Shoah survivor, who is a hunchback, hides a set of wings under that big bubble on his upper back. The narrator never breaks with that fantasy, it’s treated as fact throughout.

And into all this is added the odd sexuality of the boy. This only concerns the boy. The girl, due to not entirely pleasant reasons, is already well acquainted with her own body as well as the male physique. In this review’s first paragraph I mentioned the artificial alienation that the use of Italian has for the boy whose father only speaks dialect and who himself only writes in Italian. His sexuality, one of the few elements of the book where the narrator could connect with (half of) the novel’s contemporary audience is thus shown to be in a similar limbo as the boy’s language. Aroused, but disturbed, part of one’s body, but an odd and maybe not entirely welcome transformation. To be clear, this is no story of a strange desire, or of learning what desire is, really. This is an act of miscommunication with one’s own body. There is a sense in which the boy is utterly alienated from himself and some of his most elemental physical aspects. We only have to think back to writers like Wilhelm Reich to remember how central and important child sexuality is. The topic of distorted identity is continued elsewhere, for example with Don Rafaniello. At one point, the boy asks him: doesn’t living in Naples for so many years make you a Neapolitan? Rafaniello answers in a way that makes his allegiance to his Jewishness clear. And his Jewishness means that he can either live at home, the small village destroyed in WWII, or in Jerusalem, the home for his people,. He is enormously insistent. It’s also Rafaniello who connects the book’s physicality to the discussion of dialect and the Italian language, to oppressive majority discourses and the simple vernacular of the working class. Somewhere in the second half of the book he compares dialect to a naked body and Italian to a dress draped over that body. More, he describes Italian as a dry language, dry as in literally lacking saliva, and Neapolitan, by contrast, as a language overflowing with saliva, with wet glue. He then compares it to Yiddish.

As you can see, all the book’s elements are carefully engineered to refer back to each other, it’s a web of symbols that all feed off each other and connect with each other. At times it feels as of Erri de Lucas worked with a laundry list of stresses he felt necessary and then worked them all into the book. But unlike another book I recently reviewed that was well constructed but lacked energy or warmth, de Luca is experienced enough to couch all this construction in a bed of relatability. The language throughout is simple, by dint of posing as a 13 year old’s reminscences. But this simplicity, combined with the shortness of the whole book, also created a feeling of unease for me. The sententious, faux-deep, popular style of magical realism has always rubbed me the wrong way. Now, there’s clear literary differences between God’s Mountain and the execrable work of Coelho and his ilk, but the divide isn’t as stark as one would hope for a book that won, among other awards, the Prix Fémina. The element of the book that most resists the Coelhofication here is the vivid, strong social realism that I haven’t even discussed yet. This nostalgic view at 1963 Naples is also a view at a neighborhood in dissolution, at lives that have so far somehow escaped the full grasp of modernity. Rafaniello’s feeling of living there in a kind of limbo between his unnamed East European shtetl and Israel somehow reflects on the way the whole neighborhood has been in a kind of stasis, isolated from the rest of Italy, a neighborhood of angels, cobblers and wondering boys. This year in the life of the protagonist breaks everything apart. Death, hunger and industrialization finally assert their power over the people in the area, and social conventions regarding family life dissolve together with the unifying power of dialect and the glue of local loyalties.

There used to be a genre that I would call “working class conservatism” in European literature and God’s Mountain fits straight in, to the extent even that the simplicity of prose and structure allows people to read and understand this book who would not normally be able to easily read a work of literature. I cannot in any way decide whether to praise this book or not. What it certainly is not is mediocre. It’s not a book that’s obviously generic. Even in its most odd, over the top moments, it’s its own brand of melancholy sweetness. It is walking a fine line (an expression that I’m sure I’ve overused in this review) but I think, on balance, it mostly pulls it off. Should you read this? Only if you have a tolerance (or a secret penchant) for overblown, extremely sweet, magical realism tinged writing. If you are in any way bothered by these things, stay away.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)