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The Watchlist: June 2016

By M. Bartley Seigel

Every month, from the reviews desk to you, Words without Borders reviews editor M. Bartley Seigel shares a handful of forthcoming titles he’s excited about and thinks you should be excited about, too.

From One World Publications, A Very Special Year by Thomas Montasser, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch; 176 pages; ISBN: 9781780748665; US$13.21.

Says the publisher: “When businesswoman Valerie takes over the bookshop owned by her aunt—who has vanished without trace—her intention is to bring some order to the chaos, and then sell the business. But she has underestimated the power of the little shop. One day she stumbles upon a mysterious book with an unfinished ending. Valerie thinks it must be a defective copy, but when a customer turns up searching for that very book, her view of the shop—and world—shifts, as she is forced to question what is and isn’t possible. A Very Special Year is a declaration of love for literature, for beautiful books, the power and magic of stories as well as proof that the world of the imagination is still alive within us.”

Says Elle: “A magical journey . . . captivating and moving.”

But says Kirkus Reviews: “While attempting to be whimsical and delightful, this tiny novel feels just a bit too precious and pleased with itself.”

Wonders me: “I smell a book lover’s beach read dream. Really, what’s wrong with adorbs in literature?”


From Graywolf Press, So Much For That Winter by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra; 160 pages; ISBN: 9781555977429; US$15.00.

Says the publisher: “Dorthe Nors follows up her acclaimed story collection Karate Chop with a pair of novellas that playfully chart the aftermath of two very twenty-first-century romances. In ‘Days,’ a woman in her late thirties records her life in a series of lists, giving shape to the tumult of her days—one moment she is eating an apple, the next she is on the floor, howling like a dog. As the details accumulate, we experience with her the full range of emotions: anger, loneliness, regret, pain, and also joy, as the lists become a way to understand, connect to, and rebuild her life. In ‘Minna Needs Rehearsal Space,’ a novella told in headlines, an avant-garde musician is dumped via text message. Fleeing the indignity of the breakup, and friends who flaunt their achievements in life, career, and family, Minna unfriends people on Facebook, listens to Bach, and reads Ingmar Bergman, then decamps to an island near Sweden ‘well suited to mental catharsis.’ A cheeky nod to the listicles and bulletins we scroll through on a daily basis, So Much for That Winter explores how we shape and understand experience, and the disconnection and dislocation that define our twenty-first-century lives, with Nors’s unique wit and humor.”

Says The Herald Scotland: “My favorite discovery was ‘Minna Needs Rehearsal Space.’ . . . It’s a very short novella that takes the form of a series of ‘headlines,’ each stacked on top of one another. A device that’s maddening for the first few lines, it settles down and becomes a powerful driver through a beautiful, moving, totally compelling account of one woman’s yearning.”

Says Publishers Weekly: Minna Needs Rehearsal Space shows Nors’s economy and perceptiveness. . . . The reader is treated to a cathartic and suspenseful climax.”

You can read a nice little conversation with Nors in the Words without Borders archive.


From Seven Stories Press, The Little Communist Who Never Smiled by Lola Lafon, translated from the French by Nick Caistor; 320 pages; ISBN: 9781609806910; US$18.95.

Says the publisher: “An award-winning novel powerfully reimagines a childhood in the spotlight of history, politics, and destiny. Montreal 1976. A fourteen-year-old girl steps out onto the floor of the Montreal Forum and into history. Twenty seconds on uneven bars is all it takes for Nadia Comaneci, the slight, unsmiling child from Communist Romania, to etch herself into the collective memory. The electronic scoreboard, astonishing spectators with what has happened, shows 1.0. The judges have awarded an unprecedented perfect ten, the first in Olympic gymnastics, though the scoreboard is unable to register anything higher than 9.9. In The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, Lola Lafon tells the story of Comaneci’s journey from growing up in rural Romania to her eventual defection to the United States in 1989. Adored by young girls in the west and appropriated as a political emblem by the Ceausescu regime, Comaneci’s life was scrutinized wherever she went. Lafon’s fictionalized account shows how a single athletic event mesmerizes the world and reverberates across nations.”

Says Nouvel Observateur: “A virtuoso blend of documentary and imagination . . . startling.”

Says Mathilde Mathilde Walker-Billaud at Words without Borders.


From New York Review Books, Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum, translated from the German by Basil Creighton, revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo, with an introduction by Noah Isenberg; 288 pages; ISBN: 9781590179673; US$11.87.

Says the publisher: “A grand hotel in the center of 1920s Berlin serves as a microcosm of the modern world in Vicki Baum’s celebrated novel, a Weimar-era best seller that retains all its verve and luster today. Among the guests of the hotel is Doctor Otternschlag, a World War I veteran whose face has been sliced in half by a shell. Day after day he emerges to read the paper in the lobby, discreetly inquiring at the desk if the letter he’s been awaiting for years has arrived. Then there is Grusinskaya, a great ballerina now fighting a losing battle not so much against age as against her fear of it, who may or may not be made for Gaigern, a sleek professional thief. Herr Preysing also checks in, the director of a family firm that isn’t as flourishing as it appears, who would never imagine that Kringelein, his underling, a timorous petty clerk he’s bullied for years, has also come to Berlin, determined to live at last now that he’s received a medical death sentence. All these characters and more, with all their secrets and aspirations, come together and come alive in the pages of Baum’s delicious and disturbing masterpiece.”

Says Kirkus: “The legacy of Baum’s novel is not just the 1932 MGM film starring John Barrymore and Greta Garbo (and the 1980s Broadway musical), but all those star-stuffed movies and fat popular novels . . . in which some institution or event serves as the setting for the intersecting individual dramas. What distinguishes the book from its plump progeny is not only its relatively modest length but the delicacy of Baum’s writing. . . . The book is kin to both the stories of Stefan Zweig and the films of Max Ophüls, both artists who chronicled devastating loss but drew our eye to the exquisite fluidity with which the most precious things slid through their characters’ elegant, manicured fingers.”

Says me: “Fashion comes and goes, in literature no less than any other art form, and little holds water from one decade to the next, let alone over the course of eighty-seven years. Grand Hotel does. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re way behind the curve. Now is a good time to catch up.” 


From Phoneme Media, Rituals of Restlessness by Yaghoub Yadali, translated from the Persian by Sara Khalili; 192 pages; ISBN: 9781939419828; US$16.00.

Says the publisher: “Rituals of Restlessness, banned in Iran despite winning its most prestigious prize in 2004, the Golshiri Foundation Award for the best novel of the year, is the first novel to be released in Phoneme Media’s City of Asylum book series, in partnership with the Pittsburgh nonprofit, City of Asylum, which provides shelter for exiled writers. Engineer Kamran Khosravi wants to die in a car accident. His professional life in the Iranian hinterlands is full of bureaucratic drudgery—protecting dams, for example, from looters. His wife Fariba can no longer stand it, and has left him to rejoin her family in Isfahan. She is anxious for him to choose a life with her, or to let her go and persist with things as they are. But Kamran’s issues run deeper than anybody imagines. He has lost all feeling for his wife, and his plans for a car accident are escapist, not suicidal. He is having an affair with a married country girl, and thoughts of her lead him to foolish distraction. Most recently, he’s found a day laborer who matches his approximate build and hair color, and his intentions grow increasingly dark, along with his nihilistic outlook.”

Says this excerpt from Pen America

Read Yadali’s story “Like a Body Turned Inside Out” in Words without Borders’s July 2013 issue, “Iran's Postrevolution Generation.”


From Tilted Axis Press, Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha; 128 pages; ISBN: 9781911284000; US$13.04.

Says the publisher: “A young woman arrives alone in Kolkota, an unfamiliar city in which she knows no one, and moves into a guesthouse. Her sense of identity already shaken, when she finds a worn pair of leopard print panties in the otherwise-empty wardrobe she begins to fantasize about their former owner, whose imagined life comes to blur with and overlap her own. Darkly glamorous and ferociously erotic, Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s writing is reminiscent of Katherine Anne Porter’s fever dreams or the surreal paintings of de Chirico. Credited with being ‘the woman who reintroduced hardcore sexuality into Bengali literature,’ Bandyopadhyay may be sensational but she is never superficial, with her feminism encompassing debates on religion and nationhood as much as sexuality.”

Says Lit Hub: “Bandyopadhyay conjures something illusive, erotic, and gorgeously warped: a fractured revelation of self, of city. But for all of its deft surrealistic flourishes, this fever dream of Kolkata is never less than deadly serious about engaging with contemporary India’s fragmented soul. An auspicious beginning for Tilted Axis.”

Says me: “First published in 2014 by Penguin India, let’s call this a second coming, jazzed about Tilted Axis as I am. Also, writers like Bandyopadhyay are why we read books and hers is fierce. Climb on.”

Published Jun 14, 2016   Copyright 2016 M. Bartley Seigel

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