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The Watchlist: May 2016

By M. Bartley Seigel

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

From Oneworld Publications, Masha Regina by Vadim Levental, translated from the Russian by Lisa Hayden; 288 pages; ISBN 1780748612: US$19.00.

Says the publisher: “Masha dreams of becoming one of the great European auteurs. But first she must escape the drudgery of her daily existence: a father who drinks, a dull and empty city, the fear of getting stuck in a life she doesn’t want. So as soon as she is old enough she heads to the big city to claim her spot alongside the great filmmakers of the day. But she is unprepared for the sacrifices she must make to succeed. Lovers come and go—the college teacher, the cameraman, the renowned German actor—but Masha must decide whether she is prepared to forsake her happiness for her art: how far is she willing to go? Part philosophical treatise, part bildungsroman, Masha Regina is at once disturbing, intellectually challenging, and unfailingly entertaining, and marks the arrival of an exciting new voice in Russian and international literature.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “This genre-defying novel takes on the limits of talent and ambition, fate and art in contemporary Europe.”

Says me: “It’s a very fun book, one most American readers will readily recognize and relate to, though it will uncomfortably force that same reader outside the tedious ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps via New York City’ narrative that dominates their own literature. We are all the same. We are all so very and impossibly different. It can be a bitter pill to swallow.”


From White Pine Press, Divan of Ghalib by Nachoem Wijnberg, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer; 172 pages; ISBN: 9781935210856; US$18.00.

Says the publisher: “Divan of Ghalib is not an imitation of Ghalib, but written in a form that adopts some core characteristics of the ghazal. Like Ghalib, he is not afraid of simple words and often-used symbols but uses them afresh. Wijnberg creates an astounding edifice filled with mirror-rooms and concealed doors; the entrance may not be easy to find but inside there are treasures of the utmost importance. The further you go, the more you find. The result is one of astonishing richness as he takes on the original Divan of Ghalib and renders it his own much as Robert Bly absorbed the lessons of Ghalib and created his own ghazals.”

Says Christopher Merrill (author of Necessities): “‘Who would ask me how the world is made, if not an angel?’ Nachoem Wijinberg asks. The answers he provides in The Divan of Ghalib reveal that the spirit guiding his hand, in poems at once witty and wise, is none other than the great Mughal poet who proclaimed that ‘There is only one beloved face/ but it is everywhere.’ And the beloved is everywhere on display in this highly original, and angelic, book.”

Says me: “This isn’t a book of translations of Ghalib’s poems. Nor is it a book of poems inspired by Ghalib’s. Instead, English translations of the Dutch poems Wijnberg wrote for Ghalib, with Ghalib, and to Ghalib. How rad is that?”

Says you: Read some excerpts here at Cordite Poetry Review.

You can find several poems by Wijnberg in Words without Borders’s September 2011 issue: “Homage.”


From Ugly Duckling Press, Letter to the Amazon by Marina Tsvetaeva, translated from the Russian by A'Dora Phillips and Gaëlle Cogan; 48 pp; ISBN 9781937027698; US$10.00 direct from the publisher. 

Says the publisher: “Like many of Marina Tsvetaeva’s essays and poems, Letter to the Amazon is addressed to another writer, in this case Natalie Clifford Barney, a wealthy American expatriate in Paris. Though written in 1932, Tsvetaeva’s letter was in response to what Barney said about lesbian relationships and motherhood in her 1920 Pensées d’une Amazone (Thoughts of an Amazon). Tsvetaeva uses her essay to emphasize what is to her mind a general truth of lesbian relationships (i.e. they cannot endure because of a woman’s innate desire for a child) and to explore her seemingly agonized feelings about Sophia Parnok, the Russian poet with whom she fell in love in 1914, when Tsvetaeva was twenty-two and Parnok twenty-nine.”

Says Tsvetaeva: “I have been thinking of you since the day I saw you—has it been a month? When I was young, I was eager to explain myself to others, I was afraid of missing the wave rising from within to carry me toward the other, I was always afraid of loving no more, of knowing no more. But I am no longer young, and have learned to let almost everything pass—irrevocably.”

Says me: “Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) was one of the most renowned poets of twentieth-century Russia and her work mirrors the social, political, and economic turbulence in which she lived her tragic life. This volume drips with a pathos few muster better than the Russians (that maybe goes without saying)—if you, like me, prefer your art served with that particular side dish of bittersweet agony, this is a book for you.”

Read some of Tsvetaeva’s poems in Words without Borders’s November/December 2003 issue: “Post Social Realism: Literature From Russia.”


From SelfMadeHero, Irmina by Barbara Yelin, translated from the German by Michael Waaler; 288 pages; ISBN: 9781910593103; US$21.11.

Says the publisher: “In the mid-1930s, Irmina, an ambitious young German, moves to London. At a cocktail party, she meets Howard Green, one of the first black students at Oxford, who, like Irmina, is working towards an independent existence. However, their relationship comes to an abrupt end when Irmina, constrained by the political situation in Hitler's Germany, is forced to return home. As war approaches and her contact with Howard is broken, it becomes clear to Irmina that prosperity will only be possible through the betrayal of her ideals. In the award-winning Irmina, Barbara Yelin presents a troubling drama about the tension between integrity and social advancement, reflecting with compassion and intelligence on the complicity that results from the choice, conscious or otherwise, to look away.”

Says Tom Murphy at “Barbara Yelin’s compelling study of a ‘Normal German’ asks painful questions about choices and complicity.”

Read an interview with Yelin here.

Says me: “Beautifully conceived and rendered, and bracing in its handling of human complexity and moral culpability, I couldn’t put it down.”


From Restless Books, Super Extra Grande by Yoss, translated from the Spanish by David Frye; 160 pages; ISBN 1632060566; US$11.98.

Says the publisher: “In a distant future in which Latin Americans have pioneered faster-than-light space travel, Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo has a job with large and unusual responsibilities: he’s a veterinarian who specializes in treating enormous alien animals. Mountain-sized amoebas, multisex species with bizarre reproductive processes, razor-nailed, carnivorous humanoid hunters: Dr. Sangan has seen it all. When a colonial conflict threatens the fragile peace between the galaxy’s seven intelligent species, he must embark on a daring mission through the insides of a gigantic creature and find two swallowed ambassadors—who also happen to be his competing love interests. Funny, witty, raunchy, and irrepressibly vivacious, Super Extra Grande is a rare specimen in the richly parodic tradition of Cuban science fiction, and could only have been written by a Cuban heavy-metal rock star with a biology degree: the inimitable Yoss.”

Says me: “Look at this guy. Now read his book. So(insert a lot of o’s) good.”

Says On Cuba Magazine: “One of the most prestigious science fiction authors of the island.”

You can read a story by Yoss in Words without Borders’s current issue: “On Cuban Time: New Writing from the Island.”


From Archipelago Books, Newcomers by Lojze Kovačič, translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins; 250 pages; ISBN 9780914671336; US$14.92.

Says the publisher: “The first volume of this three-part autobiographical series begins in 1938 with the expulsion of the Kovačič family from their home of Switzerland, eventually leading to their settlement in the father’s home country of Slovenia. Narrated by a ten-year-old boy, he describes his family’s journey with uncanny naiveté. Before leaving their home, he imagines his father’s country as one of beauty and fairytales, but as they make their way to their land of exile, the family realizes that any efforts to make this place a home will be in vain. Confronted by misery, hunger, and hostility, the young boy refuses to learn Slovenian and falls silent, his surroundings becoming a social, cultural, and mental abyss. Told from the point of view of a child, one memory is interrupted by fragments and visions of another. Some are innocent and tender, while others are miserable and ruthless, resulting in a profound and heart-wrenching description of a period torn apart by conflict, reflected in the author’s powerful and innovative command of language.”

You can read Kovačič’s fiction in Words without Borders’s 2005 issue: “Seoul Searching.”


From Vertical, A Cop’s Eyes by Gaku Yakumaru, translated from the Japanese by Jan Mitsuko Cash; 256 Pages; ISBN 9781941220573; US$14.85.

Says the publisher: “The horror, of seemingly ordinary people doing horrifying things, can take the eyes of just as seemingly ordinary people to see. Tall, soft-spoken Natsume used to work with troubled kids at a reformatory but resigned mid-career to become a police detective. Those who’ve known him wonder why the gentlest of men, whose vocation had been to have faith in humans, now doubts them professionally. The truths of his path unfold over seven carefully crafted chapters, each of which stands on its own as a short story with the power to move and delight the most seasoned reader. Determination, not vengeance, animates A Cop’s Eyes, its focus neither well-placed punches, nor even stunning feats of forensics, but the stubbornly interpersonal dimension of detective work. An antihero in a wholly different vein from noir protagonists, the ying to Dirty Harry’s yang, Natsume will endear himself to fans of understated Robert Parker goodness and the late Peter Falk’s Lt. Columbo.”

Says nobody yet: I couldn’t find squat on this book. Not even Vertical, an imprint of Penguin Random House, is offering up anything other than jacket copy. That said . . .

Says me: “Did you just say Japanese noir antihero detective story? Yes, sir, you did. Fill me up.” 


From Akashic Books, Rio Noir, edited by Tony Belloto, translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Clifford Landers; 224 pages; ISBN 9781617753121: US$11.96 direct from the publisher.

Says the publisher: “Akashic Books continues its groundbreaking series of original noir anthologies, launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Each story is set in a distinct neighborhood or location within the city of the book. Brand-new stories by Tony Bellotto, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, MV Bill, Luiz Eduardo Soares, Guilherme Fiuza, Arthur Dapieve, Victoria Saramago, Arnaldo Bloch, Adriana Lisboa, Alexandre Fraga dos Santos, Marcelo Ferroni, Flávio Carneiro, Raphael Montes, and Luis Fernando Verissimo.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “As Rio de Janeiro prepares to host the 2016 summer Olympics amid fears of the Zika virus, this anthology of fourteen dark and violent short stories set in the Brazilian city might give prospective visitors more reasons to be concerned. . . . A solid addition to Akashic’s acclaimed noir series.”

Says Booklist: “The latest installment of Akashic’s geographically wide-ranging mystery series lands in Rio de Janeiro, a city whose famous imagery—the massive statue of Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf mountain, the beautiful beaches—constitutes the public face of the city, but behind lurks a ‘world of shadows, blood, intrigue, violence, hideouts, and mystery.’ . . . A good introduction to writers of the region and to the dark side of a very sunny place.”

Says me: “Belloto has assembled here a winning cast of writers whose own procurers, colonels, cops, traffickers, socialites, slum-dwellers, embezzlers, tourists, detectives, journalists, politicians, assassins, outlaws, and coup-plotters jump off every page and into your bed. This anthology is delicious and deliciously discomforting.”

Published May 10, 2016   Copyright 2016 M. Bartley Seigel

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