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The Watchlist: July 2017

By M. Bartley Seigel

Every month, Words Without Borders reviews editor M. Bartley Seigel shares a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles he’s excited about, books he hopes you’ll agree are worth all our good attentions:

From New Directions, Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash by Eda Kurniawan, translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker | novel | 160 pages | ISBN 9780811225649 | US$15.95

Says the publisher: “Vivid and bawdy, here is the new novel by the Indonesian superstar Eka Kurniawan (Beauty is a Wound). Told in short, cinematic bursts, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is gloriously pulpy. Ajo Kawir, a lower-class Javanese teenage boy excited about sex, likes to spy on fellow villagers in flagrante, but when he witnesses a savage rape, he is deeply traumatized and becomes impotent. His efforts to get his virility back all fail, and Ajo Kawir turns to fighting as a way to vent his frustrations. He is hired to kill a thug named The Tiger, but instead Ajo Kawir falls in love with Iteung, a gorgeous female bodyguard who works for the local mafia. Alas, the course of true love never did run smooth . . . Fast-forward a decade. Now a truck driver, Ajo Kawir has reached a new equanimity, thinking that his penis may be trying to teach him a lesson: he even consults it in many situations as if it were his guru—and love may triumph yet. Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash shows Eka Kurniawan in a gritty, comic, pungent mode that fans of Quentin Tarantino will appreciate. But even with its liberal peppering of fights, high-speed car chases, and ladies heaving with desire, the novel continues to explore Kurniawan’s familiar themes of the perils of love and of the struggles of women in a violent and corrupt male world.”

Says the New Yorker: “An arresting portrait of Indonesia’s struggle for nationhood, delights in obscenity: no topic is spared from its bloodthirsty brand of satire.”

Says me: “Do you like to occasionally take off your pants, prop a bag of chips on your belly, turn on Netflix, and watch action movies? No? What kind of monster are you? I digress. Regardless, this book hit me in that part of my brain, but without the shame spiral. Candy? Sure, but whip smart and furious. I believe the phrase is ‘page-turner.’” 


From Biblioasis, Boundary: The Last Summer by Andrée A. Michaud, translated from the French by Donald Winkler | novel | 304 pages | ISBN 9781771961097 | US$14.95

Says the publisher: “In the deep woods of the Maine borderlands, the legend of huntsman Pete Landry is still told around cottage campfires to scare children, a tragic story of love, lust, and madness. During the early summer of 1967, inseparable teenage beauties Sissy Morgan and Zaza Mulligan wander among the vacation cottages in the community of Boundary, drinking and smoking and swearing, attracting the attention of boys and men. First one, and then the other, goes missing, and both are eventually found dead in the forest. Have they been the victims of freak accidents? Or is someone hunting the young women of Boundary? And if there is a hunter, who might be next? The Summer of Love quickly becomes the Summer of Fear, and detective Stan Michaud, already haunted by a case he could not solve, is determined to find out what exactly is happening in Boundary before someone else is found dead. A story of deep psychological power and unbearable suspense, Andrée A. Michaud’s award-winning Boundary is an utterly gripping read about a community divided by suspicion and driven together by primal terror.”

Says Robert Olen Butler: “Brilliantly innovative in narrative and thrillingly readable, Boundary is a splendid novel that makes high literature out of crime and suspense. I am an instant and ardent fan of Andrée A. Michaud.”

Says me: “I seem to have unexpectedly and unintentionally compiled a beach reading list this month. I basically read this thing in two sittings, while drinking, in Petoskey, Michigan, so maybe it’s circumstantial, but I don’t care. It’s my column and I say hell yes, read this. Thriller, check. Defies conventions, check. Super fun, check. Big ‘L’ literature, ubetcha.” 


From Arcade Skyhorse, The Hole by Hye-young Pyun, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell | novel | 208 pages | ISBN 9781628727807 | US$22.99

Says the publisher: “In this tense, gripping novel by a rising star of Korean literature, Oghi has woken from a coma after causing a devastating car accident that took his wife’s life and left him paralyzed and badly disfigured. His caretaker is his mother-in-law, a widow grieving the loss of her only child. Oghi is neglected and left alone in his bed. His world shrinks to the room he lies in and his memories of his troubled relationship with his wife, a sensitive, intelligent woman who found all of her life goals thwarted except for one: cultivating the garden in front of their house. But soon Oghi notices his mother-in-law in the abandoned garden, uprooting what his wife had worked so hard to plant and obsessively digging larger and larger holes. When asked, she answers only that she is finishing what her daughter started. A bestseller in Korea, award-winning author Hye-young Pyun’s The Hole is a superbly crafted and deeply unnerving novel about the horrors of isolation and neglect in all of its banal and brutal forms. As Oghi desperately searches for a way to escape, he discovers the difficult truth about his wife and the toll their life together took on her.”

Says Shelf Awareness: “By the time Hye-young Pyun’s taut psychological thriller The Hole has tightened its grip on the unsuspecting mind, it’s too late to escape. The shadows lurking in the novel become manifest, and dark poetic justice reigns . . . The Hole is an unshakable novel about the unfathomable depths of human need.”

Says me: “Three for three, this one is thrilling, yes, and fun, true, but it’s also disturbing in a way my first two picks weren’t. If that’s your thing, sally forth, but be wary; you’ll be thinking and dreaming this novel long after you’ve put it down.” 


From Other Press, For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian, translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh | novel | 240 pages | ISBN 9781590518762 | US$16.95

Says the publisher: “Available in English for the first time, Mihail Sebastian’s classic 1934 novel delves into the mind of a Jewish student in Romania during the fraught years preceding World War II. This literary masterpiece revives the ideological debates of the interwar period through the journal of a Romanian Jewish student caught between anti-Semitism and Zionism. Although he endures persistent threats just to attend lectures, he feels disconnected from his Jewish peers and questions whether their activism is worth the cost. Spending his days walking the streets and his nights drinking and conversing with revolutionaries, zealots, and libertines, he remains isolated, even from the women he loves. From Bucharest to Paris, he strives to make peace with himself in an increasingly hostile world. For Two Thousand Years echoes Mihail Sebastian’s struggles as the rise of fascism ended his career and turned his friends and colleagues against him. Born of the violence of relentless anti-Semitism, his searching, self-derisive work captures a defining moment in history and lights the way for generations to come—a prescient, heart-wrenching chronicle of resilience and despair, resistance and acceptance.”

Says Library Journal: “This novel, published in 1934 and ably translated for the first time into English, traces the path of its protagonist from his university days to a career as an architect, during which he frequently hears the cry ‘Death to the Yids.’ It’s so pervasive, in fact, that he seems inured to it and is shocked to learn by novel’s end that several longtime Romanian colleagues have been anti-Semites all along . . . Laced throughout with debate regarding the place of the Jewish people and their culture in the world, among other issues, this work sits uneasily between philosophical speculation and narrative fiction. But it is an important historical document—prophetically, the protagonist cries out, ‘Has anybody had a greater need of a fatherland?’”

Says me: “Once a month or so, I like to read something that reminds me that my world is not the hub around which time revolves. There was a before, there was an after, and people survived the most brutal of circumstances. Deeply intuitive and heartbreaking, this novel hit that nail on the head. An oldie, but a goodie, and oddly timely, to boot.” 


From Doppelhouse Press, The Consequences by Niña Weijers, translated from the Dutch by Hester Velmans | novel | 304 pages | ISBN 9780997818437 | US$14.95

Says the publisher: “Dutch author Niña Weijers took the world of European literature by storm in 2014 with her debut novel The Consequences, which has sold over 30,000 copies in Holland and garnered critical praise for its maturity and ambition. Using deft and captivating prose, Weijers tells the story of Minnie Panis, a young and talented conceptual artist, as she navigates love affairs, her unexpected success in the art world, and her relationship with an emotionally distant mother. Beginning with Minnie’s near-death experience falling through the ice during her ultimate artwork, Weijers takes readers on a rollercoaster ride as Minnie uncovers the truth behind her premature birth. The doctor who saves her life, twice, enters Minnie into his clinic, whose motto ‘All the fish has to do is get lost in the water’ helps her arrive at the border of life’s ebb, where meaningful art and revelations occur. An intimate, often humorous exploration of the intertwining cycles of death, rebirth and coincidence, The Consequences is a bildungsroman that echoes far beyond the last page.”

Says Le Monde: “Birth. Floating identity. Who we are in the eyes of others—these themes are at the heart of The Consequences. At first, however, the book resembles a series of brilliant variations on the contemporary artistic scene . . . The tone is created in the first pages. Ironic and sharp. Weijers mocks the extreme narcissism prevalent in these circles. She spares us the boring question ‘What is art?’ but questions the boundaries between artwork and life; the visible and the interior self . . . An amazing game of mirrors . . . Original and promising. Other books are sure to follow.”

Says me: “Say ‘bildungsroman’ to me at a party and I’ll likely barf in my mouth, but Weijers brings the right amount of self-reflexivity to the game to keep pompous self-indulgence at arm’s length and my gag reflex suppressed. I don’t know as I’d go so far as to call it a ‘rollercoaster ride,’ but it’s a thoughtful and compelling book that kept me thinking and reflecting. What more do you want?”  


From FSG, Knots by Gunnhild Øyehaug, translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson | short stories | 176 pages | ISBN 9780374181673 | US$22.00

Says the publisher: “First published in Norway in 2004, Knots is Gunnhild Øyehaug’s radical collection of short stories that range from the surreal to the oddly mundane, and prod the discomforts of mental, sexual, and familial bonds. In both precise short-shorts and ruminative longer tales, Øyehaug meanders through the tangled, jinxed, and unavoidable conflicts of love and desire. From young Rimbaud’s thwarted passions to the scandalous disappearance of an entire family, these stories do the chilling work of tracing the outlines of what could have been in both the quietly morbid and the delightfully comical. A young man is born with an uncuttable umbilical cord and spends his life physically tethered to his mother; a tipsy uncle makes an uncomfortable toast with unforeseeable repercussions; and a dissatisfied deer yearns to be seen. As one character reflects, ‘You never know how things might turn out, you never know how anything will turn out, tomorrow the walls might fall down, the room disappear.’ Cleverly balancing the sensuous, the surreal, and the comical, Øyehaug achieves a playful familiarity with the absurd that never overreaches the needs of her stories. Full of characters who can’t help tying knots in themselves and each other, these tales make the world just a little more strange, and introduce a major international voice of searing vision, grace, and humor.”

Says Lydia Davis: “From my first reading of Knots in the original Nynorsk, I have been captivated by Gunnhild Øyehaug’s wit, imagination, ironic social commentary, and fearless embrace of any and every form of storytelling. These are stories to be relished, inspiring in their art and humanity both. How fortunate that we can now read them in Kari Dickson’s sparkling and magically faithful English.”

Says me: “I love me a good short-story collection, but many contemporary collections leave me feeling like I’ve either slipped beyond the realm of prose into a poetics better suited to verse or that I’m reading an impatient novelist doing craft calisthenics while they await their big break. Øyehaug, however, is pitch perfect in Knots and with every story I awoke from a fever dream to see my world and its occupants anew. This is my pick of the month, hands down, and one I know I’ll be returning to again in the future.”

Published Jul 21, 2017   Copyright 2017 M. Bartley Seigel

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