Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘contemporary fiction’

Atticus Books is a fairly new publisher doing some wonderful things. First off, they published The Bee-Loud Glade, a book by a very good friend of mine, Steve Himmer, and which I’ve talked about several times already (here, for starters). They’ve also put out an e-novella by Himmer called The Second Most Dangerous Job in America, which I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read yet. I plan to correct this mistake very soon.

There are several titles in their catalogue that I’d like to read, namely John Minichillo’s The Snow Whale and Nazareth, North Dakota by Tommy Zurhellen.

However, I had the pleasure of reviewing one of their latest titles for Necessary Fiction recently. Kino, by Jürgen Fauth, is somewhat hard to describe succinctly. The book is about a young woman out to uncover a few family secrets, it’s about the German film industry of the 1930s, it’s also a little bit about contemporary politics and media, and it’s also a little bit about love and marriage.

Here is a little bit of what I had to say in my review:

Much of the joy in reading this kind of novel comes from an admiration of the author’s research and skill in putting that research together into a coherent story. Kino is filled with real historical characters and events—people like German filmmaker Fritz Lang, actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge and many others, and of course Goebbels and several events pertaining to the Third Reich’s negotiation of German art and culture during the 1930s and 40s—but the novel cleverly inserts itself as a fictional footnote to this period of film history, even going so far as to suggest that the discovery of Klaus “Kino” Koblitz’s films will necessitate a re-evaluation of the merit of certain film makers previously credited with the development of revolutionary techniques. Suddenly, deliriously, the “real” and the “possible” begin to merge. Fauth becomes Kino—or is it the other way around?

You can read the entire review here.

Last week over at Necessary Fiction I wrote about Emily St. John Mandel’s most recent novel, The Lola Quartet (Unbridled Books, 2012). This is a carefully scripted story with a large cast and some very interesting commentary on how youthful mistakes can haunt a person’s life. Mandel has a simple but elegant style that suited the novel’s sometimes difficult subject matter. I’ve never read Mandel before and really enjoyed discovering her writing. I’m also curious now if she always writes as she did in The Lola Quartet, or if some of her style came about as a reflection of the way she incorporated elements of literary noir into the novel. On to read her first two novels as soon as I get a chance.

Here is a small excerpt from my review:

Like any good homage to literary noir, The Lola Quartet deals in suspense. From the opening chapter with Anna waiting for help on a playground while that dangerous wad of cash hangs heavy and toxic from the bottom of her infant baby’s stroller, to the final “handoff” with its complicated moral implications, The Lola Quartet cultivates the reader’s sense of dread. These characters, mostly vulnerable to us for their relative youth and precarious lifestyles, move through different levels of danger. They are all at-risk from the dangers of the self as well as from various perpetrators of exterior menace.

Read the full review here.

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Those of you who’ve been following this blog might remember that I was born in Japan and that I lived there again for several years after finishing university. I tend to think of Japan as my second home—home in the sense of one’s origins, the place that helped create you. The US and Japan tend to flip-flop with Switzerland at the top of my list of countries that I think the most about – politics, history, literature. I’ll never have a Japanese passport and my Japanese has become woefully rusty in recent years, but the fact of my being born there means that I read books about Japan with more than just my usual curiosity.

This is the context that I couldn’t help carrying with me into my reading of Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. I read an excerpt of this very slim novel back in the Spring 2011 issue of Granta; it was called “The Children” and it absolutely stunned me. I’ve studied a considerable bit of Japanese history, especially the Pacific War and the issue of The Comfort Women, but I’ve never done much looking at the Japanese immigrant experience, which is the central question of Otsuka’s book. It begins with a boat full of young Japanese brides, clutching photographs of the men they’ve married but never met. Each chapter then moves forward through what happens to this collective body of women: meeting their husbands, working in American fields or as servants or running laundries, having children, raising first-generation Japanese-American children, and relationships with “white” people. Eventually Otsuka makes her way to World War II and the internment of the Japanese-Americans.

Perhaps the most unique characteristic of the book is that Otsuka writes this novel in the first-person plural with the occasional bit of italicized dialogue to conjure up an individual voice. When I encountered this in the Granta excerpt, it is part of what gripped me, perhaps because it ends up reading like a long prose poem and creates a sustained emotional involvement in the narrative:

We laid them down gently, in ditches and furrows and wicker baskets beneath the trees. We left them lying naked, atop blankets, on woven straw mats at the edges of the fields. We placed them in wooden apple boxes and nursed them every time we finished hoeing a row of beans. When they were older, and more rambunctious, we sometimes tied them to chairs. (…) But when they tired and began to cry out for us we kept on working because if we didn’t we knew we would never pay off the debt on our lease. Mama can’t come. And after a while their voices grew fainter and their crying came to a stop. And at the end of the day when there was no more light in the sky we woke them up from wherever it was they lay sleeping and brushed the dirt from their hair. It’s time to go home.

Before starting the entire book, however, I worried that this particular narrative perspective would start to wear after fifty pages or so, but that isn’t the case, at least it wasn’t for me. I admit that my interest in Japanese history might make me less objective than others. In any case, the book reads really quickly (it’s only 129 pages) and is quite beautiful. Otsuka presents the diversity of the immigrant experience through a first-person plural narrator that manages, quite cleverly, to be both many women and one woman all at the same time. At the very end she affects a subtle shift in perspective that closes the story in a meaningful way; I thought this was really well done.

Apparently her earlier novel, When the Emperor was Divine, is more specifically about the internment experience. It is fitting then that The Buddha in the Attic doesn’t go further than the packing and the leaving and the subsequent emptiness. The disappearance of the Japanese from their homes.

My final comment about the book is that it was curiously uninterested in anger. Otsuka is writing about the treatment of “foreigners” in American society but she does this without laying blame at anyone’s feet. It’s quite fascinating how she manages to do this. It’s all very gentle, really. And yet still provocative.

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This week’s review at Necessary Fiction is by me, of a lovely novella written by J.A. Tyler. Variations of a Brother War is actually a novella-in-verse, each page containing a triptych of 100-word stanzas bound together by a common theme. The book has about fifty* different themed triptychs, and together they tell of two brothers, Miller and Gideon, and their love for the same woman, Eliza. The book is set during the American Civil War and so it is also about fighting between “brothers” in that symbolic sense.

Here’s a small excerpt from my review:

As the title suggests, there are many stories here in Variations of a Brother War, and of course there is only one story told in myriad ways. Gideon and Miller will die several deaths, Eliza will love both men and reject both men. She will love many times. She will be happy. She will be alone. Mothers die and fathers leave, both become ghosts who then return again and again to Tyler’s valley of cabins and rage and love-gone-wrong. Despite the strictness of the structure, the book offers a freedom of story and meaning, a chance to be read again and again in the joy of new discovery.

Variations of a Brother War is the first book to be published by a small press out of Portland, OR called Small Doggies Press and based on this first selection, I’m really excited to see what they’ll come out with next. This was a fun, thoughtful and beautiful book to read; it took me only a few hours and so I had the chance to read it again twice over the next couple of days.

Read the full review here.

*I’d have to check for the exact number and maybe there are only 34 or 36 different triptychs, which would be a neat connection to the Civil War since this is how many states there were at the beginning and then at the end of the Civil War – but my memory of the book tells me there are more…

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There is a stack of books on my desk glaring at me. Seven books to be exact. All deserving a much better review than I am about to give them. But in order to move forward – I’ve waited too long – here we go with a first round of bookish thoughts to clear away two books:

I read Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men almost in tandem with Lily Tuck’s I Married You for Happiness and so the two books are linked in my mind. There are some notable similarities between them. First, the timeline factor – Hustvedt’s book is about one single summer in the narrator’s life while Tuck’s is about a single night. Second, both books offer somewhat controversial endings. And third, both books are concerned with reviewing a marriage. I Married You for Happiness is about the night the narrator’s husband dies unexpectedly. She sits with him for that one night and thinks back over their thirty-some years together. For Hustvedt, narrator Mia’s “Summer Without Men” comes about because of her husband’s infidelity and so they separate for several months as each works out what has happened.

I discussed I Married You for Happiness with my book group last month, and the book improved upon discussion. I enjoyed the book on my own while reading it but I overall a little ambivalent. Much of what Nina, the narrator, remembers is unpleasant—the unhappy moments in her marriage, for example, or moments when she failed him or he failed her—and she paints her husband in a somewhat unfavorable light. Not that this is automatic grounds for my not liking the book. On the contrary, I liked the unexpected nature of what she chooses to remember and discuss and what it says about her and especially “our” expectations of a successful marriage. At the same time, however, Nina’s negativity distorts a little how I perceived and experienced her grieving.

In the book, Nina’s husband was a mathematician and Tuck uses this bit of information to filter the narrator’s memories through certain mathematical constructs and ideas. Albeit a tiny bit gimmicky, this was one of the most interesting parts of the book. I say gimmicky because I feel that certain scientific ideas (i.e. quantum physics) get a lot of play outside the realm of hard science and not always correctly. There is something very romantic about quantum physics and difficult math, but we don’t always understand exactly what we’re transposing into a metaphor used in another discipline. So I was wary of Tuck’s project in that sense, but I should say that she doesn’t ever go too far. Nina isn’t a mathematician or a physicist and she doesn’t understand much of what her husband often talked about. This is perhaps something she regrets; at least she is fixated on his inner life and how she negotiated it or matched it to hers at the moment of his death.

The science idea Tuck uses the most is Schrodinger’s dead/alive cat-in-the-box thought experiment, which is essentially about the nature of observation and reality. She does something interesting with this idea at the end of the book – a “trick” that certainly divided the opinions in my book group.

All in all, I Married You for Happiness is a thoughtful book and one worth revisiting in ten or twenty years time, for example. It will undoubtedly affect readers differently at different stages of their life and I like that. The mark of a good book. Tuck’s writing is also quite lovely—easy but elegant. The book reads quickly and yet contains much to think about.

Writing style seems to be a good enough bridge then to cross over to The Summer Without Men. Hustvedt is a different kind of writer, although she isn’t directly opposite in terms of style. Her prose is not dense, but it is a little thicker than Tuck’s. If I weren’t afraid it would sound too negative, I would call it more academic.

In any case, The Summer Without Men throws quite a challenge at the reader with its premise. Mia’s husband Boris (husband of thirty years) asks for a separation because he has fallen in love with a young woman and wants to explore this new development. This news is so shocking to Mia that she ends up in the hospital with a kind of psychic collapse, where she stays for a week or so before coming around and heading back to her hometown for the summer. The book then details her grieving (how else can you call it?) as well as the relationships she makes while there – with her aging mother and mother’s friends living at an old folks home, with a group of teenage girls to whom she teaches poetry and with her next door neighbor, a young mother with a possibly abusive husband.

As you can see, the book attempts to embrace a woman’s entire timeline. In this, I think, it is incredibly successful. Mia’s discoveries about the lives of the older, widowed women, her negotiations with the teenagers, her support from and to the young mother next door are all really well done. Of course all of this is framed against her own understanding of herself in relationship with Boris and what it means that he has thrown her off. There is a lot of feminist thought in The Summer Without Men and never does she offer any cute or easy answers.

Now, when I say that the premise is a challenge, I say it because of the narrator’s break down and hospitalization and the fact that her husband of forty years, knowing how she suffered, continued with his affair. I knew that the book would ultimately involve the question of reconciliation and I knew that if she went back to him, I would probably hate the book. I will not reveal what happens, nor will I say how I felt about the ending. The book is good enough for all the other reasons mentioned above to withstand what might be controversial about the ending.

 

 

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In 2008, I read all of Nadine Gordimer’s fourteen novels from start to finish. From her excellent début, The Lying Days (1953), to her 2005 novel Get A Life. (If you’re interested, here are the two wrap-up posts from that project, Wrap-up #1 and Wrap-up #2 and I think they serve as a good introduction to her work.) Reading someone start to finish is a hobby of mine, but Gordimer’s oeuvre is so big and diverse that it was a wonderfully satisfying project. It also gave me an appreciation for her writing, instead of what tends to get trumpeted more often, her message. Her latest novel, No Time Like the Present, just came out in March and I finally finished this rather grand, sweeping 421-page novel the other day.

I certainly don’t want to think that No Time Like the Present will be her last novel. At 88, she is incredibly sharp and has said that she continues to write. But if circumstances dictate that it is her last novel, a hundred years from now people may suggest that she planned it this way. More than any of her other post-Apartheid novels, this book will serve as a detailed document of the years between say 1991 (just before Apartheid was banned in 1994) and 2012.

The book is about a couple, Jabulile and Steve, who meet and fall in love while fighting against Apartheid. Being a mixed-culture couple, they are married in secret out of the country and live hidden for a few years in the country until 1994. When Apartheid is banned, their relationship becomes legal and their lives in this new independent situation begin. They have two children, Sindiswa and Gary Elias, and they both work jobs that give them power to affect change in the radically transforming South African society. Jabu is a lawyer and Steve a professor.

No Time Like the Present covers a lot of territory – it touches on so many subjects and so many issues of post-Apartheid society: violence, government corruption, poverty, immigration, continued racism. It looks at how Steve and Jabu must re-define their relationship that was once clandestine but is now accepted. It looks at how their children grow up in a society that now legally accepts their mixed-culture status. The second half of the book focuses on one particular issue—the brain drain. Steve begins to look at the possibility of moving to Australia, at the possibility of giving himself and his children a different sort of life.

That discussion is where the book generates a lot of power. (And where, as an expat myself, from a country that has its own set of difficult and frustrating social and political issues, I had my most personal reaction to the story Gordimer tells.) When a person has invested their young adulthood in a movement to better the society they live in, the idea of abandoning that society does not come easily. Both Steve and Jabu are disillusioned with the governmental corruption that ensues once Jacob Zuma becomes president, they are angry at the violence and poverty that explodes all over the nation. They are faced with the fact that no matter the laws, the capitalist system will effectively continue to segregate their society. Gordimer does a really excellent job of revealing the complications behind the desire for escape and the desire to stay behind to continue to fight.

Where No Time Like the Present disappointed me just a little is that I’ve always felt that Gordimer manages to effectively blend politics with personal. Even in Burger’s Daughter, which is not one of my favorites and one of her most overtly political, there are passages of writing, insights into complicated human emotion that rise above the rapid-fire political discussions that Gordimer has no qualms inserting into a book. A Guest of Honour is similar in that despite the diplomatic meetings and political cocktail parties, there are brilliant descriptions of life lived, of landscape, of rare human connection. She has an incredible talent for finding a description that unbalances a reader, that reveals something new.

And yet this was mostly missing in No Time Like the Present. If it’s possible for a book to be both dry and passionate, then this is the best description. The narrative is fast-paced and distanced, and it doesn’t ever, or very rarely, linger on the intangible parts of a story—the physical details of landscape and character, the strange observations of individuals within the story. Because of this, I ended up with the feeling that Steve and Jabu could have been any mixed-culture couple, that their children could have been any set of siblings from the new South Africa. And so their story, although interesting and filled with “event,” did not move me so much. I suppose the way Gordimer tells this story makes the book an important artifact, perhaps even an important literary artifact, but, for me at least, it didn’t make the book an excellent piece of fiction.

At her reading in London a few weeks ago, I was too shy to ask a question and I hadn’t yet finished the book anyway. But if I had the chance now, I would have loved to ask her why she used such a dash-over-everything narrative style and whether she knew she was sacrificing “story” for documentation. This must be something she considers—she is a fine writer, a powerful writer, most of her books have balanced this tricky problem with elegance. I’m thinking of The Conservationist and July’s People, The Pickup and My Son’s Story, for example. All novels that are powerful documents of a troubled society, but more than that, are examples of compelling and effective storytelling.

 

If you have been reading my blog for any amount of time you have probably noticed that one of my favorite writers, if not my all-time favorite writer, is Nadine Gordimer. Back in December I got word (hat tip to NOCA and Guilherme) that she would be giving a reading at Bloomsbury in London in March. After a little debate—okay, not much debate at all really, just some logistical negotiations for childcare and work schedule—I decided to buy a ticket and fly over for what was probably my only chance to attend a Gordimer reading. She turns 89 this year and she doesn’t often travel outside of South Africa.

The reading was Monday night and was held at the lovely Bloomsbury offices at Bedford Square. It was a very small gathering, not more than 50 people. I attended with two wonderful friends, who are also writers. Once inside, with our coats handed over, we were directed into a reception room for a glass of wine. Within seconds one of my friends turned to me and said, “She is sitting right over there. And you must absolutely go up to her right now.”

I hesitated. Because, first and foremost, that is what shy people do when faced with someone they admire very much. But also, it was very informal. It was not quite clear whether she was going to be signing books already before the reading, (of course, why else was she seated in this room with a little table in front of her?) and I’m just the kind of person who doesn’t want to bother anyone, doesn’t want to be that awkward person who speaks too loud or says something ridiculous. I’m sure I sputtered a few half-finished sentences that all started with, “Well, I’m not…” and “Maybe we shouldn’t…”

But thankfully my friends would have none of my silliness and we made our way over to Gordimer, got behind another would-be book signee and waited our turn. I gave her my copy of No Time Like the Present – her latest novel, and that came with tickets to the event – and managed to say a quiet, “Thank you,” once she’d signed, but that was it.

Until my friend stepped up, beaming and a little mischievous, and asked Gordimer whether she minded having her photograph taken with me. I was embarrassed, ridiculously so, but am now forever grateful to my outgoing friend. She also forced me to sit in the first row once we moved into the reading room, and hooray that she did; of course I chose the 2nd or 3rd row – because that is what shy people do. Instead, I got to sit for an hour just two feet away from Nadine Gordimer and watch her think and speak as she read and answered a series of questions.

I have admired, if not loved, each of her novels, and have read several many times. I’m now halfway through her fifteenth novel, No Time Like the Present, and while it will probably not become one of my favorites (like The House Gun, The Pickup, Occasion for Loving and My Son’s Story, for example), it is a very important work of fiction. It details contemporary, post-Apartheid South Africa by following a bi-cultural couple, married in secret just before Apartheid is dismantled. It is the story of their married life, their transformation from freedom fighters to legitimate couple and about their children who grow to maturity without the same constraints placed on the parents. It is a fiercely political novel and an intelligent work of fiction. I’ll be writing more about it when I finish.

On Monday evening, Gordimer introduced the novel, read a few pages and then answered questions. Watching her, I had to remind myself that she is 88 years old. She is incredibly sharp. Elegant and sure-spoken.

The nature of her fiction invites tangential political discussion, and this is something that I do enjoy, but our time with Gordimer was quite short and I would have loved being able to talk more about her fictional style. She has a unique narrative perspective that has developed in her writing over the years – the editor at Bloomsbury who moderated the evening called it “simultaneous narration.” She’s always had an absolutely sparkling first-person or omniscient narrator, but around, say, A Sport of Nature or None to Accompany Me (both published in the 90s), she started using a slightly different technique, a kind of layering of the close 3rd person. The perspective jumps from person to person, even sometimes within the same paragraph. It takes a little getting used to, but it gives her the ability to reveal what each character is thinking at any given moment.

Gordimer is often discussed in terms of the message or the content of her fiction, and understandably so, but I would love to read more (and to have heard more at the reading) discussions of her style. She has said on many occasions, and she repeated this on Monday, that she is not a “political writer” or any other combination of adjective and writer. She is simply a writer. In my (humble) opinion, she is too often overlooked for the way she portrays human feeling in any context, political or otherwise, as well as for the quality of and unique feel to her prose.

I’m still basking in the afterglow of my whirlwind trip to London and this reading. It was a small gathering, it was only an hour and a half, I was too shy to actually say anything to her except variations of “thank you,” but I feel very lucky to have actually met Nadine Gordimer after spending so many years reading, admiring, and thinking about her fiction.

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I originally wrote this post on The Emperor’s Children in 2007, just a few months after I’d started blogging. I thought about the book again recently, because it came up in a discussion about how women writers handle satire. I’ve kept it in mind as a reference, because I remember admiring how Messud handled the balance of mocking her characters and subtly criticizing the reader.

Here is what I originally wrote:

Satire makes for uncomfortable reading precisely because of its preoccupation with exposure. Its desire to ridicule the very object of its scrutiny. From the safe distance of the reader’s outside view, satire is always good for a laugh. An easy way to indulge in some effortless criticism of society or an individual. But taken to heart, which is satire’s most difficult lesson, it’s not always easy to swallow. The truly skilled satirist manages to eloquently pass judgment on both the reader and the subject.

In The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud reveals herself to be quite up to satire’s thorny task. She gives us a cast of socialite New Yorkers centered around three friends – Danielle, Julius, and Marina, all literate, all literary, and all too-ready to compromise family, friends and even health for nothing more than a one-night stand, a glamorous job, or a regular mention in the people pages. These characters are all so self-involved they manage to pass from the day before 9/11 to the day after without batting an eyelash. And the enormity of that event gets quickly swept under the carpet of each character’s more petty trials and tribulations. Or, I should say, 9/11 drowns in the backwash of the smaller events that these three, until that moment, have placed upon their personal altars of consequence.

Danielle has an affair with Marina’s father, a powerful literary figure with an unbelievably dedicated and morally sound wife. Marina pretends to literary aspirations when her real passion is focused on gaining the admiration of an up-and-coming magazine editor. Julius proclaims literary and artistic independence (meaning he won’t get a job even though he’s poor) while abusing his body in an endless spiral of sexual promiscuity and drug abuse. Murray, Marina’s father, is the so-called Emperor of this tribe. An apparent success and a man who considers himself resolutely posited against “the establishment”. Each and every one of them gnash their teeth, expound on the virtues of their superior minds, and plead the case for the uniqueness of their sensitive souls.

Messud sets her characters down atop a detailed canvas she calls American New York, replete with Armani suits and summer homes, ample cocaine and easy trysts, then she lets them machinate, whine, harangue, and battle each other and themselves for the purely trivial. And just when we think we’re ready to snigger and laugh out loud at these small-minded humans, Messud gives them just enough humanity to remind us that we are often in the same boat. We are often consumed by the same insignificant crises, aspire to the same shallow notoriety, and affect the same passionate support for worthy causes. So in the end, the reader’s sniggering is measured with a guilty chuckle and our admiration for Messud’s skill countered with a flush of embarrassment.

Now, almost five years later, thinking of Messud with respect to Pym (one of the other examples of satire I’ve read recently), I find that while Pym’s satire strikes me as having sharper teeth in terms of its delivery, its focus is somewhat smaller and more personal. Messud, on the other hand, takes on an entire society, an entire way of thinking. In The Emperor’s Children, she takes on America, as it were, and the myths of American culture. So although the feel of her satire is a bit softer, it brings the reader around to a powerful critique.

Both ways of engaging in satire are fun to experience, yet I think I prefer Pym’s variety while I’m actually reading, because it is so wonderfully clever and sharp. Messud’s gives less of an immediate wicked chuckle, but it bears out interestingly in the long term.

 

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I’ve reviewed a handful of books over at Necessary Fiction recently. Three very different books actually, and I enjoyed them all for very different reasons.

The first is A Friend in the Police by John Givens. I really loved this book, it was so different from much of what I’d read last year, and it had me laughing out loud. Often. The feel of the story will make you think immediately of Kafka, but then it’s set in a small unnamed SE Asian jungle. And the main character, Detective Sergeant Xlong, is one of the funniest (in a pathetic and moving way) literary characters I’ve come across in a long time.

From my review:

If the Detective Sergeant isn’t ruminating on the metaphysics of authority, he is musing on the definition of love. All the while keeping a firm inner eye fixed on himself and his own behavior. Xlong’s incredible self-preoccupation is a matter of extreme comedy, at many turns throughout the novel, but it is also the source of the reader’s sympathy. On the surface, we are meant to be worried about Philip Bates—what kind of mess has he gotten himself into? Is he working for the “rogue” geologist and tin miner upriver? Is he involved in smuggling contraband? Is he running an illegal gambling operation with another foreigner named Sprague?—but each time the story threatens to become more interested in either of the Bates men, Xlong steps forward to claim his due attention.

Read the full review here.

Next, I had the pleasure of reading The Brothers, from the small London-based publisher Peirene Press. Peirene publishes only novellas of works in translation. Their books are elegant, and the stories they select would probably not find their way into English without Peirene’s selection, so Peirene’s work is precious to me.

The Brothers is an incredible novella – set in a wintery Finland at the turn of the century, it is about a small Finnish farm and two men who have somehow found themselves to be enemies.

Despite the historical setting, The Brothers feels extremely contemporary. Not in the sense that the book bears any anachronism, but because of its embrace of such a timeless, even biblical conflict, as well as the spare purity of Sahlberg’s prose. He packs a lot of conflict and interaction and history into this slim book, but all the drama and quarrel is given to the reader so gently, so gravely. This is whispered rage. Devastating and dark. But always quiet.

Read the full review here.

And finally, a collection of short stories with a deceptively Science Fiction-y name—Omicron Ceti III by Thomas P. Balázs. I have always liked a good short story, but I particularly like collections in which the different stories talk to each other. Balázs has structured his collection to reflect the intellectual and emotional movement forward of an original Star Trek episode, “This Side of Paradise.” And it works. It’s very well done.

Now, it should be clear by now that despite the science fiction tease of the title of Omicron Ceti III, these stories are terrestrial, all-too-human and anchored in our contemporary reality. Time and time again, Balázs returns to this notion of “self-made purgatories” and what it means to be the architects of our own sorrow. Thankfully, Balázs isn’t out to condemn anyone. In the same way that glimpsing a potential happiness leaves a trace of real humanity in Spock, so do Balázs’s characters find themselves transformed through their experience. Happiness isn’t easy, and sometimes it is even impossible, but the contemplation of happiness—even, perhaps, the simple chance to imagine it—is certainly part of what makes us human.

Read the full review here.

So there you go, three very different books: hilarious absurdity with a dash of poetry, dark and intense drama, and a shrewdly constructed collection with careful storytelling.

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Yes, it is old news that every year the Best-of-the-Books lists make people angry and divide opinion. These lists are never going to satisfy the varied tastes of the reading public. And thankfully so. It would be kind of scary if everyone held fast to the very same yardstick for measuring excellence. That doesn’t mean I think we should continue allowing some of these lists to get away with their appalling blindness to the mountains of excellent literature coming from outside-the-mainstream publishing spotlight. I’m not going to detail my thoughts on this particular subject, mainly because Roxane Gay has already done this so well. Her essay, “Toward a More Complete Measure of Excellence” at The Rumpus is thoughtful, measured, and realistic, and yet contains enough subtle anger and dismay to satisfy my own oversized sense of literary injustice.

The thought that I’d like to work through here is about women writers and men writers and who is getting credit for big ideas, for the “best” writing, for “defining and critiquing society.” This issue, always at the back of my mind, has been hovering around me quite intensely for most of the past year. I can pinpoint a moment of renewed interest when I read a thoughtful response by Michael Nye, the managing editor of The Missouri Review, to VIDA’s The Count on the male bias in publishing. Nye was troubled to see that the male bias was true for The Missouri Review, but he found it was mostly because women submitted less and he wondered how to fix this problem. I would be interested to see a study on this—I suspect it is true that women submit less, but I’d be curious to see someone attempt to figure out why and whether there is a way to fix this without radical upheaval of multiple unrelated systems.

In my work as reviews editor at Necessary Fiction, I have also found this to be true. Significantly more than half of the books submitted to me for review are written by male writers. Obviously, the submission statistics for reviews at NF are further biased because we’re interested in the already published, and there seems to be more men being published. In any case, around April of this year I did a quick tally of our reviews and saw that we’d reviewed 10 male writers, only 4 women and 1 multi-author collection. I was quite surprised and since then I’ve worked to even out those numbers.

In a conversation about this issue with my husband, he mentioned that what I was doing might not be considered fair. He wondered whether our reviews should reflect the publishing situation. I’ve been searching, and I can’t yet find what the publishing situation is. The most easily available statistics are from Vida and they are about books reviewed, not books written. Because so few books by women are reviewed, I can only conclude that men are publishing more. So if there are 65% (I’m throwing this number out off the top of my head) books by men being published, than reviews should reflect that number. Perhaps there is some logic to that, but I’ve decided I’m not interested in being fair to a situation that is intrinsically abnormal. As far as I know, there is nothing “normal” about the male bias in publishing except that it has become “the norm.” We have the chance to publish 52 reviews each year at Necessary Fiction; you can bet I will try very hard to find 26 excellent books written by men and 26 excellent books written by women.

I’m quite happy to say that when we finish 2011, Necessary Fiction will have reviewed 23 male authors, 21 female authors and 6 multi-author collections. I’m proud of those statistics because I helped create them (along with Steve Himmer who consistently came to me, unasked, with a review of a woman’s novel, and with Jess Stoner who realized that she’d been reviewing a lot of men’s fiction and wanted to make sure she included some women. Jess and I actually spent hours combined, combing the Indie houses for a frustratingly short list of women’s books available. Several otherwise excellent houses have no women authors at all. Many have less than 15% on their lists.)

But here is where my literary heart starts to get a little antsy. I love reading. Period. I don’t actually give a rat’s ass who has written the book as long as it changes me somehow, as long as it gets up into my brain and moves ideas and emotions around. Reading is a frightfully powerful activity and I’m reluctant about the decision I’m about to announce because it feels somehow false to me. The list of male writers that I love (worship even) is long and diverse and makes up a significant part of my reading and writing background. So why purposefully exclude these wonderful and talented writers from my book discussions? Yet on second thought, aside from Nadine Gordimer and a handful of books by various women, that list of male authors makes up the major part of my literary education. So yes, this is a problem. Until just as many male writers can say the same thing about a long and diverse list of female writers, until men wake up and find that women are getting the majority of all publishing contracts, then I’m not going to feel at all guilty for kicking some male writers out of my discussion room. I’m pretty sure they will still get talked about. The same cannot be said for many women writers.

If you haven’t guessed it already, here’s my announcement—in 2012 I’m going to read women writers exclusively for this blog. This is, however, more than a quibble with statistics; I have a thematic exploration in mind. Litlove recently reviewed Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, and in her essay she writes,

The early parts of this novel are just so much fun. Eugenides enjoys himself enormously with college students, pretentious theory and interfering parents; he conveys so well the way that desire, in the early twenties, is almost always covertly aspirational, no matter what form it takes. His characters want this person, this class credit, this discourse of knowledge in the hope that something shiny and powerful will rub off on them. So far, so good, but I did feel I could easily be reading an Alison Lurie novel, or at a pinch, one by Anne Tyler. Not that this is bad! I count both those women among my favourite writers, but it was not what I was expecting from a male author hailed as the new great hope of American letters.

Now, those last three sentences are fascinating to me (and I apologize to Litlove for “picking” on her this way, I hope she doesn’t mind) because I know exactly what she means, and yet it’s such a terrible statement actually. One I have probably made on any number of occasions. On some subconscious level we don’t expect a male author to be meddling so much in the domestic. Especially not when the book is being upheld as one of the “big books.” So what do we expect? Stern politics? Tantrums of philosophy? Social meditations? Historical explorations? Nature vs Humanity?

Now, I do not believe for one second that men write bigger books than women. I’m quite certain we can find examples of books from both men and women that fulfill all literary subject categories, big and small. But I do believe that men’s books are more often credited with being “big” compared to women’s books of equal profundity. I do believe that many excellent, “big” books written by women get overlooked in book reviews and End-of-the-year Book Lists. I do believe that for every woman’s book that gets discussed thoughtfully and energetically, there are three or four men’s books that get the same treatment. So I’m going to spend a year reading women’s books and writing about women’s books exclusively on this blog. I’m going to inundate you with a flood of excellent literature written by women. I’m going to discuss these books, I’m going to complain about these books if I need to, I’m going to praise these books when they deserve it. I’m going to give these women writers just a tiny bit more time in the spotlight.

Well, I don’t have a spotlight, I realize—my little blog here is probably better described as a flashlight. But even the feeblest of flashlights in a dark room has gotten many a reader through some very exciting pages.

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