A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero

Translated by Frances Riddle

30347690Every year, at the height of summer, the remote Argentine village of Laborde holds the national malambo contest. Centuries-old, this shatteringly demanding traditional gaucho dance is governed by the most rigid rules. And this festival has one stipulation that makes it unique: the malambo is danced for up to five minutes. That may seem like nothing, but consider the world record for the hundred-meter dash is 9.58 seconds. The dance contest is an obsession for countless young men, who sacrifice their bodies and money as they strive to become the champion, knowing that if they win—in order to safeguard the title’s prestige—they can never compete again.

When Leila Guerriero traveled to Laborde, one dancer’s performance took her breath away, and she spent a year following him as he prepared for the next festival. The result is this superlative piece of journalism, told with tremendous economy and power.


The malambo is my favorite dance that I never knew about. It’s athletic, takes massive skill and commitment, and is just fun to watch.  I mean, look:

As Guerriero writes:

At three minutes, the malambo is a wall of sound, a jumble of boots, drum, and guitar that picks up speed at an asphyxiating rate.  At four minutes, his feet pound the stage with savage fury, the guitar, drum, and boots are a solid mass of blows, and at four minutes fifty seconds, the man lowers his head, raises one leg, and with colossal force, bashes it into the wood, his heart monstrously swollen, with the lucid yet frenzied expression of someone who’s just experienced a revelation.  After a few seconds of unnatural stillness, in which the public claps and shouts, the man, like someone emptying a gun into a dead body, dances off the stage with a short, furious storm of tapping, and every cell in his body seems to scream: This is what I’m made of.  I am capable of absolutely anything.

If that doesn’t make you want to watch through to the end I don’t know what will.

The yearly festival at Laborde is only known to other dancers and the title comes with a price – you can never dance the malambo in competition again.  Why do these dancers work so hard to end their career?

Guerriero examines Laborde from all sides – the dancers and their families, the practice and sacrifice required to be a contender, the place of the malambo in Argentinian society, and so much more.  The prose is powerful and comes through full force thanks to Riddle’s translation.  I purposefully limited myself to small doses so I could spread my enjoyment out as long as possible.

This book is a perfect case for non-fiction in translation: it opens our eyes to something we never knew existed that, like all things, relates back to us.  Check it out for the story, for the prose, for the dance, and for the experience.  My second five star read of the year – I heap my love upon it.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King (Mary Russell #1)


91661Long retired, Sherlock Holmes quietly pursues his study of honeybee behavior on the Sussex Downs. He never imagines he would encounter anyone whose intellect matched his own, much less an audacious teenage girl with a penchant for detection. Miss Mary Russell becomes Holmes’ pupil and quickly hones her talent for deduction, disguises and danger. But when an elusive villain enters the picture, their partnership is put to a real test.


There was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be an apprentice.

While studying abroad I studied language and culture, of course, but I also took a ceramics class. The studio quickly became the center of my world. I would come in during free periods to trim pots and spent most Saturdays alongside Sensei, learning how to make bigger and more intricate things while talking about every subject under the sun.

Watching Sensei at the wheel was both inspiring and utterly humbling. He made bowls rise out clay as easily as he breathed, then thoughtfully added an imperfection that only accentuated the flawlessness of his craft. The two of us spent many an hour debating, musing, laughing, and working silently side by side.

When the end of my year arrived I may have begged the University to let Sensei hire an assistant. Someone to help him do all the menial work around the studio in exchange for a bed in the dorm and a chance to be close to his mastery. “Assistant” as far as the school was concerned, but “apprentice” to me. Needless to say the University would have none of it and after a tearful goodbye (on my part, not Sensei’s) I returned to my normal life, albeit with a sense of longing for what could have been.

…but what does that have to do with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice? Continue reading “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King (Mary Russell #1)”

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

31843383San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself.

Review (short version):

Guaranteed to be one of my top books of the year, if not number one.  I actually made myself put it down after a chapter or two each night so I wouldn’t finish too quickly.  Part of the joy is going in blind and I suggest you do the same, so if the blurb interests you go read it.  Now-ish. :)

Review (long version):

I’m going to say as much as I can while giving away as little as possible.  Characters live and breathe in a city that does the same.  The plot is wonderfully paced within an intriguing structure and the writing is as beautiful as it is unobtrusive.

Our heroines live the best life they can despite the homophobia and racism and other miasmas that hang over San Francisco in 1940.  They struggle, but they are not defined by that struggle.  They aren’t damaged or any less themselves.  These women do what they can, do what they must, and above all, persist.

I know I haven’t done the book justice so… go.  Read it.  An enthusiastic, wholehearted recommend.

Thanks to Tor and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Why God Is a Woman by Nin Andrews


25607518Why God Is a Woman is a collection of poems written about a magical island where women rule and men are the second sex. It is also the story of a boy who, exiled from the island because he could not abide by its sexist laws, looks back with both nostalgia and bitterness and wonders: Why does God have to be a woman? Celebrated prose poet Nin Andrews creates a world both fantastic and familiar where all the myths, logic, and institutions support the dominance of women.


Jen Campbell defines prose poetry perfectly: instead of watching the movie of a novel it’s like wandering through an art gallery, pausing before each painting to soak up its beauty.  The poems are indeed beautiful, but also so much more – in turns deep and funny and skewering.

What am I doing here? he asked God.  And Why am I so small compared to the sky, so hairless and weak compared to the rest of the animals, so mortal and lost compared to You?  Night after night man raged against God, until at last She grew tired of listening to him.  And so God created orgasms.  After every orgasm, man fell into a sleep, deeper than the sleep of stones.  And God at last was able to gain some peace of mind.  But that was when woman began to complain.

In this world men are said to be descended from angels, and grow wings once they reach puberty.  They sprout from their backs leaving embarrassing trails of blood, and the men use absorbent pads to hide their shame.  Women are said to have risen from the sea and are the elite, the politicians, any one that holds any scrap of power.  By turning gender roles on their head Andrews does more than merely satirize, she shows that binary gender norms are by their nature arbitrary and absurd.

If you need a little more convincing check out Jen’s review on youtube but if not – go. Read.  It’s amazing.

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

Translated by Lisa Dillman


25067884Yuri Herrera does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it. He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back. Traversing this lonely territory is Makina, a young woman who knows only too well how to survive in a violent, macho world. Leaving behind her life in Mexico to search for her brother, she is smuggled into the USA carrying a pair of secret messages – one from her mother and one from the Mexican underworld.


This book is a gem – it’s easy to see why it won the Best Translated Book Award. Short but deep, in turns slangy and lyrical, I’m already looking forward to rereading it.

The good:

  • The writing is beautiful and light, perfectly fitting for whatever situation the main character finds herself in.  And deep!  So many layers.

    The stadium loomed before them. So, what do they use that for?

    They play, said the old man.  Every week the anglos play a game to celebrate who they are.  He stopped, raised his cane and fanned the air.  One of them whacks it, then sets off like it was a trip around the world, to every one of the bases out there, you know the anglos have bases all over the world, right? Well the one who whacked it runs from one to the next while the others keep taking swings to distract their enemies, and if he doesn’t get caught he makes it home and his people welcome him with open arms and cheering.

    Do you like it?

    Tsk, me, I’m just passing through.

  • Makina is awesome.  Understated, street-wise awesome.
  • The translation by Lisa Dillman is wonderful and her note at the end is enlightening.  Translators are the closest to any text, maybe even closer than the authors themselves, because they process it in two different languages.  Her insights are wonderful and had me hankering to reread the book immediately to appreciate aspects I didn’t pick up the first time through.

The not-so-good:

  • This is the only the first book of Herrera’s to be translated into English.  I’m eagerly awaiting the second, soon to be published by the same press.

All in all I utterly love this book.  It didn’t rattle around in my head for as long as some others but it will reward rereading for years to come.

The Siren by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #1)


9780778313533_smp.inddNotorious Nora Sutherlin is famous for her delicious works of erotica, each one more popular with readers than the last. But her latest manuscript is different—more serious, more personal—and she’s sure it’ll be her breakout book… if it ever sees the light of day.

Zachary Easton holds Nora’s fate in his well-manicured hands. The demanding British editor agrees to handle the book on one condition: he wants complete control. Nora must rewrite the entire novel to his exacting standards—in six weeks—or it’s no deal.

Nora’s grueling writing sessions with Zach are draining… and shockingly arousing. And a dangerous former lover has her wondering which is more torturous—staying away from him… or returning to his bed?

Nora thought she knew everything about being pushed to your limits. But in a world where passion is pain, nothing is ever that simple.


Warning: this is not a romance novel. There is no happy ending and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Continue reading “The Siren by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #1)”

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M.A. Orthofer


26633749For more than a decade, the “Complete Review” has been an essential site for readers interested in learning about new books in translation and developments in global literature. Expanding upon the site’s content, this wide-ranging yet user-friendly resource is the perfect guide for English-language readers eager to explore fiction from around the world. Profiling hundreds of titles and authors from 1945 to today, with an emphasis on fiction published in the past two decades, this reference provides a fascinating portal into the styles, trends, and genres of the world’s literatures, from Scandinavian crime thrillers and cutting-edge works in China to Latin American narco-fiction and award-winning French novels.


Orthorfer has read the world so you don’t have to.

No, wait, that’s not true.  He’s read the world so he can guide you through each region and country, pointing out the most important and interesting literary landmarks.  He’s a master at it, making The Complete Review Guide readable both in chunks as mood dictates or straight through, as I devoured it.

However you decide to read be sure to start with the introduction.  It lays out why there is so little translated literature in the US, the state of world literature today, and what to look out for when picking up a translation.  I knew to be wary of a book that doesn’t have the translator’s name featured on the cover but Orthofer adds,

A red flag to look out for is the translation copyright in the name of the publisher, rather than that of the translator, which indicates that the translation was a work for hire, thus giving the translator no rights regarding the presentation of the text.

That’s scary, especially as he goes on to talk about how translations are edited and sections, or even half the text, may be cut.  Good to know.

Once you’ve read the intro dip in to whatever region or country captures your fancy.  Each starts with an overview of the literary scene, both domestic and translated, and how events have shaped it over time.  I found it fascinating that  globalization can lead to originally English language books entering a country, stifling the native language writers already there.

The most important authors get several paragraphs outlining their life and their titles available in English.  Other authors get a few sentences each about their most influential or representative works.  Orthofer comes across as a wise guide, pointing you towards the best while not being afraid to warn about a clunker.  And he has a way of making a book irresistible in a single sentence:

Jang Eun-Lin’s (b.1976) No One Writes Back (2009, English 2013) is a well-crafted and moving road novel that slowly reveals itself to be more than it initially seems.


I especially appreciate the effort he makes to include writers outside of the mainstream.  If a country has a lot of expat authors writing in English he makes sure to include some that have been translated from native languages.  Women are woefully underrepresented in translations in general but he points out many, both those concentrating on the female experience and not.  Most of the books are literary fiction but crime, mystery, science fiction, and other genres get some well-deserved love.

Orthofer hints at novels that aren’t translated yet but may be in the future, combining hope and a plea to the universe to make the translation of such worthy fiction happen. And the reference section is a gold mine of websites and books about literature in translation.  My feed reader became more interesting overnight.

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is an easy recommendation to anyone that’s trying to diversify their reading.  But I’d also recommend to people that are in a reading rut, have an interest in a particular part of the world, or simply want to try something different.  Going on a trip to Spain?  Want to read something from Brazil in time for the Olympics?  Orthofer has you covered.  This book instantly earned a spot on my reference shelf and I look forward to revisiting it in the years ahead.

Thanks to Columbia University Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

Translated by R.F.C. Hull


103758Since its original publication in 1953, Zen in the Art of Archery has become one of the classic works on Eastern philosophy, the first book to delve deeply into the role of Zen in philosophy, development, and practice of Eastern martial arts. Wise, deeply personal, and frequently charming, it is the story of one man’s penetration of the theory and practice of Zen Buddhism.Eugen Herrigel, a German professor who taught philosophy in Tokyo, took up the study of archery as a step toward the understanding of Zen. Zen in the Art of Archery is the account of the six years he spent as the student of one of Japan’s great Zen masters, and the process by which he overcame his initial inhibitions and began to look toward new ways of seeing and understanding. As one of the first Westerners to delve deeply into Zen Buddhism, Herrigel was a key figure in the popularization of Eastern thought in the West, as well as being a captivating and illuminating writer.


I love this book for many reasons. One: Herrigel describes how a Zen master guides their pupil.

The instructor’s business is not to show the way itself, but to enable the pupil to get the feel of this way to the goal by adapting it to his individual peculiarities.

Watching the author advance in his practice of archery is interesting, but these asides about mastery and teaching/learning a craft spoke to me the most. I see shadows of these techniques in the way I was taught pottery, and plan to use some of the broadest ideas when I mentor others in my own craft.

Don’t think you need to be an artist to get something out of this book – I found all kinds of things I can apply to medical interpreting so I’m sure you’re passion will fit in somehow, too. All in all it’s a thinker of a book that I look forward to revisiting in the years (and hopefully decades) ahead.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern


The circus arrives at night, 11337018without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within nocturnal black and white striped tents awaits a unique experience, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stand awestruck as a tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and gaze in wonderment at an illusionist performing impossible feats of magic.

Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves. Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is underway–a contest between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in “a game,” in which each must use their powers of illusion to best the other. Unbeknownst to them, this game is a duel to the death, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.


Amazing. It’s been a long time that there’s been a book I’m reluctant to finish because I don’t want to leave the world that’s been constructed for me. The language is rich and beautiful, dripping with symbolism and hidden meanings. I’m looking forward to rereading this book in six months or a year to uncover layers that I missed the first time through.

Continue reading “The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern”

Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin


22253729Nina MacLaughlin spent her twenties working at a Boston newspaper, sitting behind a desk and staring at a screen. Yearning for more tangible work, she applied for a job she saw on Craigslist—Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply—despite being a Classics major who couldn’t tell a Phillips from a flathead screwdriver. She got the job, and in Hammer Head she tells the rich and entertaining story of becoming a carpenter.

Writing with infectious curiosity, MacLaughlin describes the joys and frustrations of making things by hand, reveals the challenges of working as a woman in an occupation that is 99 percent male, and explains how manual labor changed the way she sees the world. We meet her unflappable mentor, Mary, a petite but tough carpenter-sage (“Be smarter than the tools!”), as well as wild demo dudes, foul-mouthed plumbers, grizzled hardware store clerks, and the colorful clients whose homes she and Mary work in.

Hammer Head is a passionate book full of sweat, swearing, bashed thumbs, and a deep sense of finding real meaning in work and life.


Many people talk about making a big change but few actually do it. I don’t mean something as lofty as following your dreams, but something like quitting the job that is stealing your soul one day at a time. Think of all the people that stay where they are, mired in fear or doubt or worse.

MacLaughlin is not one of them. She made the leap, quitting her journalism job to do something better. She wasn’t sure what. When she saw an ad on Craig’s List for a carpenter’s assistant she jumped and never looked back.

I enjoyed watching the author learn the job – the broad strokes come quickly, like in so many things, but the details take years master. “So much of carpentry is figuring out how to deal with mistakes,” she’s told, and I can’t help but think life is the same way.

While Hammerhead follows MacLaughlin’s journey in loving detail it’s also about the meaning of work. What does our profession say about us? How do we change when our job changes? People view her differently, both as a person and a woman, and her insights are interesting and telling.

The writing is solid and beautiful. After explaining how carpenters use levels she writes,

I sometimes wish a tool existed that could measure the plumbness of our spirits, a tool that would help us decide what’s right for our own lives. How helpful to have an instrument that signaled, with the silent fluid shift of a bubble, that we should shift our spirit a little to the left – just a skosh – and all would be balanced and right.

One of my requirements for a five star read is that after I put the book down I think, “I can’t wait to reread that”. This book passes with flying colors.