The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

Translated by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush

32988669How do you clothe a book?

In this deeply personal reflection, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jhumpa Lahiri explores the art of the book jacket from the perspectives of both reader and writer. Probing the complex relationships between text and image, author and designer, and art and commerce, Lahiri delves into the role of the uniform; explains what book jackets and design have come to mean to her; and how, sometimes, “the covers become a part of me.”


While this book, an essay really, is only 80 pages long there isn’t much here here. Lahiri likes some of her covers and doesn’t like others. We learn that she has little say in what clothes her book… but that’s it. I think it would be compelling at a shorter length, maybe as an article in the New Yorker, but it doesn’t grab me here.

Lahiri would like it if more English-language books were dressed up in uniforms. I wanted to ask if she’s ever strolled down a genre aisle.  Harlequin Presents fits her ideal perfectly – similar look to the series, go together on a shelf, each different but part of a larger editorial whole. Or look at the first nine books of the Mercy Thompson series, where the head to knees three quarter pose of the heroine gives the line a unified feel. Avon designs a cover font for each author so the books hang together, as well as give them striking spines. Literary fiction may be letting her down but the rest of the book store has her covered and she doesn’t realize it. Sigh.

I was hoping to learn something or be enlightened but no dice.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

Translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce

25058120Bookseller Laurent Letellier comes across an abandoned handbag on a Parisian street and feels impelled to return it to its owner. The bag contains no money, phone or contact information. But a small red notebook with handwritten thoughts and jottings reveals a person that Laurent would very much like to meet. Without even a name to go on, and only a few of her possessions to help him, how is he to find one woman in a city of millions?


I was looking for a quick read and stumbled upon The Red Notebook.  While it’s short and easy to get through it’s not fluff – there are beautiful observations and turns of phrase, just enough to keep your brain happy without overload.  Many are of the ah-yes-I-know-that sort:

As soon as she stepped inside the door, she was hit by that feeling of coming home after a long time away, when the dust seems to have been blown off things you had become so used to looking at you had stopped seeing them.  Everything suddenly seems more intense, like a photograph restored to its original colour and contrast.

The story stays small and fills out the short-ish page count perfectly.  There are just enough secondary characters, the right amount of conflict and romance, and a satisfying ending, all rolled into 200 pages.  It’s not a life changing book, or a thinking book, or a testament to the beauty of language… it’s a good yarn.  And sometimes that’s exactly what you need.  Just the thing for a lazy Sunday.

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

Translated by George Bird


11125891Aspiring writer Viktor Zolotaryov leads a down-and-out life in poverty-and-violence-wracked Kiev—he’s out of work and his only friend is a penguin, Misha, that he rescued when the local zoo started getting rid of animals. Even more nerve-wracking: a local mobster has taken a shine to Misha and wants to keep borrowing him for events.

But Viktor thinks he’s finally caught a break when he lands a well-paying job at the Kiev newspaper writing “living obituaries” of local dignitaries—articles to be filed for use when the time comes.

The only thing is, it seems the time always comes as soon as Viktor writes the article. Slowly understanding that his own life may be in jeopardy, Viktor also realizes that the only thing that might be keeping him alive is his penguin.


Viktor is doing alright – his apartment is nothing special but he shares it with Misha, his penguin (long story). He just landed a job writing obits for famous people, so when they die there will be copy waiting and ready. The articles end up sitting in a drawer at the newspaper office but the money keeps Viktor in food and Misha in fish, so it can’t be all bad.

One day, however, an obit subject dies, having plummeted from a sixth story window. Then another, and another. Viktor is left to wonder what he got into, and if it’s even worth trying to find his way out.

I love this book – serious writing that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Along with the “what the…” moments are tidbits that are just absurd enough to be plausible in post-Soviet Kiev. The plot hums along at a steady pace, helped along by short chapters that go down like potato chips, one after the other. There are some nice insights, too:

The cafe was empty and quiet – an ambience suitable for dreaming, or conversely, for recalling the past.

The characters are fleshed out wonderfully and feel like real people, right down to Misha the penguin. I love that there’s another man named Misha that gets referred to as Misha-non-penguin. It’s a little joke that isn’t overplayed, wonderful restraint that applies throughout the novel, even with all the crazy.

George Bird does a wonderful job translating from the Russian. I especially like how he handles the flowery obits, such as this one for an opera singer:

The voice is a sign of life. It may grow in strength, break off, be lost, sink to a barely audible whisper. In the chorus of our lives the individual voice is not easily distinguished, but where, suddenly, it falls silent, there comes an awareness of the finitude of any sound, of any life.

The book ends on a cliffhanger with several plot threads hanging but that’s the only bad thing I can say. I was transported to another world and look forward to seeing what happens.

The Subsidiary by Matias Celedon


27774369In the subsidiary offices of a major Latin American corporation, the power suddenly goes out: the lights switch off; the doors lock; the phone lines are cut. The employees are trapped in total darkness with only cryptic, intermittent announcements dispatched over the loud speaker, instructing all personnel to remain at their work stations until further notice.

The Subsidiary is one worker’s testimony to what happens during the days he spends trapped within the building’s walls, told exclusively—and hauntingly—through the stamps he uses to mark corporate documents.

Hand-designed by the author with a stamp set he bought in an bookstore in Santiago, Matías Celedón’s The Subsidiary is both an exquisite object and a chilling avant-garde tale from one of Chile’s rising literary stars.


A book told with a set of rubber stamps?  I’m there!

Sadly, the book wasn’t quite all… there.

The idea is great.  The alphabet stamps are used in interesting ways to hint at bars, blinds, the tedium that is waiting.  Some pages made me smile at their cleverness.  And it certainly reads quickly, with only one sentence on each page.  At times the writing feels like poetry.

But once you get to the end you’re like… what?  The power is cut, weird stuff happens, the power eventually turns back on.  The end.  There’s dialog and other things that happen in the middle but they’re fleeting and confusing.  I’m not sure what the point was.  Maybe if I knew more about Chile’s history?  Am I missing some huge, overarching metaphor?

It’s like a lost opportunity – the form could lend itself to deep truths and realizations and experiences, but we only skim along on the surface.  Maybe I raised my expectations too high but I was quite disappointed.

I flipped back to the beginning to have another go but the lack of execution still stuck out.  Ah well, I guess it’s not for me.

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13792324Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane

Translated by David Brookshaw


26894137After twenty years of marriage, Rami discovers that her husband has been living a double–or rather, a quintuple–life. Tony, a senior police officer in Maputo, has apparently been supporting four other families for many years. Rami remains calm in the face of her husband’s duplicity and plots to make an honest man out of him. After Tony is forced to marry the four other women–as well as an additional lover–according to polygamist custom, the rival lovers join together to declare their voices and demand their rights. In this brilliantly funny and feverishly scathing critique, a major work from Mozambique’s first published female novelist, Paulina Chiziane explores her country’s traditional culture, its values and hypocrisy, and the subjection of women the world over.


I love fiction that takes me to a place I don’t know and drops me into the thick of things, and The First Wife is a delicious example.

In this book Mozambique’s first published female novelist (you read that right) weaves the story of Rami, wife to Tony and mother to several children.  She thinks she is Tony’s only wife until she discovers a second, who points to a third, all the way down to his fifth and most recent acquisition.  The book follows Rami as she comes to terms with this and brazenly fights for what she wants.

As heavy as it sounds the story is actually light and even comical in places.  At turns in the story I was left laughing while going, “What?!  Really?”

“You modern women are in the habit of feeding men any old way… don’t give them potatoes that have been cooked the previous day, because this swells men’s testicles…”

Over the next few pages reality sets in – yes.  Really.

“Never eat a fish head, or that of a cow or of a goat, because that is man’s food.  The head of an animal represents the head of the family.  The head of the family is the man.”

“In the father’s absence, the eldest male child takes command of the family, even if he’s a baby, he’s leader, he’s the head of the family by substitution.”

In this way the social structure and customs of Mozambique become clear.  We learn the cultural differences between the North and the South, the lives women are expected to lead, how the Portuguese and Christianity changed norms for better and worse.  There’s explanations but it never feels like a textbook, and as a result the lessons are more powerful.

Chiziane’s prose is fresh, flowing in rhythms that delight.  She’s also unabashedly feminist, questioning the system and its logic at every turn.  Rami fights against the customs, doing everything she can to secure the best life for herself and the other wives.  I found myself cheering for her, getting giddy when a bit of revenge hit its mark.  I also wallowed with her in despair, shaking a mental fist at the injustices of the world.

The First Wife isn’t an easy read but I’m so glad I tackled it.  It opened my eyes to part of the world I knew nothing about and taught me things in the close, personal way that fiction can.

Thanks to Archipelago and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

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 Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers by Fouad Laroui

Translated by Emma Ramadan


27135621This long-awaited English-language debut from Morocco’s most prominent contemporary writer won the Prix Gouncourt de Nouvelles, France’s most prestigious literary award, for best story collection. Laroui uses surrealism, laugh-out-loud humor, and profound compassion across a variety of literary styles to highlight the absurdity of the human condition, exploring the realities of life in a world where everything is foreign.


Why does man distance himself from his home? Why does he make himself into a foreigner?”

It’s foreign land to you, of course, but to everyone else you are the outsider.  As an American in Japan it’s a feeling I know well.

“[In France] the trees would have had familiar names, the trees and the animals and the household items at the supermarket; over there he wouldn’t have needed to consult the dictionary to buy a mop.”

(For me it was baking yeast.)

Laroui covers it all – the embarrassment of not knowing social signals, the delight in discovering a second name for everything, the frustration at always being seen as other, no matter what you do.

Just as at the zoo, the tiger seems to be the equal of the porcupine, they are fed in the same way, they are loved the same and the placard in front of the enclosure… so, what about the placard?  It’s the same for all: tiger, porcupine, or bonobo – but Anna, you’re outside of the enclosure….

The foreign angle is what made me pick up this short story collection but I was happy to find that there is much, much more in Laroui’s writing.  First of all, it’s funny.  Laugh out loud on the bus funny.  My favorite stories have a narrator spinning tales at a cafe, with a peanut gallery at the ready to put in their own two cents.

“‘We are,’ said Hamid (he paused), ‘we are (he swallowed a sip of coffee), we are (he put down his cup) an inventive people.’

“He had put the word in italics.  So we examined it closely.  Then we demanded, silent, the proof (we, too, know how to use italics).”

Often there’s a linguistic hook that makes the telling just as fun as the contents.  Some stories are absurd, like tall tales that get tossed around a bar at 1 am.  There’s truth in there – you can feel it – but after so many drinks you can’t be bothered to tease out the facts.  And who wants to, when the story stands so well on its own?  An ambassador that has his pants (and only his pants) stolen before an important meeting.  Swimming in sand when water proves scarce. Getting revenge on your high school philosophy teacher for making you think about death.  Add a layer of deep insights and beautiful language (wonderfully translated by Ramadan) and it’s easy to see why this book has won awards.

The stories range from insightful to funny, deep to absurd, and I was delighted the whole way.  After much searching I have finally, finally, found a short story writer that I love.

Thanks to Deep Vellum and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

Translated by Barbara Wright


13792324On a crowded bus at midday, Raymond Queneau observes one man accusing another of jostling him deliberately. When a seat is vacated, the first man appropriates it. Later, in another part of town, Queneau sees the man being advised by a friend to sew a new button on his overcoat.

Exercises in Style — Queneau’s experimental masterpiece and a hallmark book of the Oulipo literary group — retells this unexceptional tale ninety-nine times, employing the sonnet and the alexandrine, onomatopoeia and Cockney. An “Abusive” chapter heartily deplores the events; “Opera English” lends them grandeur. Queneau once said that of all his books, this was the one he most wished to see translated. He offered Barbara Wright his “heartiest congratulations,” adding: “I have always thought that nothing is untranslatable. Here is new proof.”


I love authors that treat language like the pliable, plastic thing it is, playing with words just to see what happens. Queneau is a master of it, retelling the same story 99 times in such a way that you never get bored. Some styles are academic (permutations of letters, dropping syllables), others are a change in form (haiku, cross-examination), and yet others luxuriate in sound (homeoptotes, onomatopoeia). All are fun, and many left me giggling to myself (in hospital waiting rooms, no less).

On a certain date, a corporate crate on which the electorate congregate when they migrate at a great rate, late, had to accommodate an ornate, tracheate celibate, who started to altercate with a proximate inmate…

Doesn’t the sound of that make you smile? What’s even more amazing is that this is a translation from the French – Barbara Wright does a stellar job rendering the text in English. I don’t even want to think about how hard it must have been. Her preface is the perfect introduction:

His purpose here, in the Exercises, is, I think, a profound exploration into the possibilities of language. It is an experiment in the philosophy of language. [In a published conversation Queneau] says… “People have tried to see it as an attempt to demolish literature – that was not at all my intention. In any case my intention was merely to produce some exercises; the finished product may possibly act as a kind of rust-remover to literature, help to rid it of some of the scabs.”

I am all for knocking off the rust. Best read in short spurts, this book will delight and entertain and leave you marveling at how the author (and translator) managed it in the first place. A hearty recommend to anyone that doesn’t take reading (or themselves) too seriously.

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

Translated by Megan McDowell


25330335This powerful, profound autobiographical novel describes a young Chilean writer recently relocated to New York for doctoral work who suffers a stroke, leaving her blind and increasingly dependent on those closest to her. Fiction and autobiography intertwine in an intense, visceral, and caustic novel about the relation between the body, illness, science, and human relationships.


This book showed no mercy and clawed into my brain. The prose is relentless, the story is haunting, and the fact that Seeing Red is an autobiographical novel makes the main character’s anguish all the more real.

Lina has diabetes and has been told for a long time that one wrong move, one sudden swish of her head could rupture the veins in her retina, rendering her blind. And that’s what happens.

And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most outrageous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was starting to retch, and even so. I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.

Her new-ish boyfriend gets thrown into the role of caregiver, making sure that her insulin is drawn up correctly and that she walks down the street in a straight line. Her parents are an ocean away and predictably worried, running up her phone bill. And Lina herself has to connect with the world in a whole new way – packing a suitcase by touch instead of sight, counting steps so she doesn’t trip or smash into walls.

Lina, he sighed, immersed in a sudden sadness or shyness. Lina, now even softer, holding my chin, his slimy eyes everywhere: you’re blind, you’re blind and dangerous. Yes, I replied, slowly. Yes, but I’m only an apprentice blind woman and I have very little ambition in the trade, and yes, almost blind and dangerous.

I absolutely love Meruane’s writing. It’s relentless, not stopping for quotation marks or even paragraph breaks. It is fully from Lina’s blind head, with more references to sound and smell than her remembered sight.

It wasn’t minutes but rather hours, days, months in that waiting room, with its constant crossing and uncrossing of legs, its dragging of shoes toward the bathroom and its plopping into dilapidated chairs.

Lina tore at my heart. I sat with her in too quiet rooms, absorbed diagnoses and endless insurance forms and the horror of it all. It’s not a story I will easily forget.

One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michele Audin

Translated by Christiana Hills


26196054This debut novel by mathematician and Oulipo member Michèle Audin retraces the lives of French mathematicians over several generations through World Wars I and II. The narrative oscillates stylistically from chapter to chapter—at times a novel, fable, historical research, or a diary—locking and unlocking codes, culminating in a captivating, original reading experience.


One Hundred Twenty-One Days starts with a bang – a fairy tale introduction followed by an intriguing diary and newspaper articles. It makes the story wonderfully plotty as we follow Christian, an African boy that makes his way to Paris thanks to his mathematical ability.

From there the scope widens and the pace slows. Immediate accounts give way to lists, interview transcripts, and research materials, taking us further away from the story. What felt close and real in the first 50 pages fades away into historical analysis and hearsay. One World War turns into a second while the cast of characters (mostly mathematicians) grows and individual people become less memorable.

The Oulipo constraints, such as starting each chapter with the last words of the previous one, are fun and interesting. Some jokes are aimed at mathematicians but this language major never felt left out. Christiana Hills handily deals with numerous translation puzzles while maintaining different voices and registers for each section. But while the word candy kept my brain happy the diffuse plot kept me from falling in love.

Thanks to Deep Vellum and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.