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The Watchlist: May 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 York Review Books, The Milk of Dreams by Leonora Carrington, translated from the Spanish by the author | 56 pages | ISBN 9781681370941 | US$15.95

Says the publisher: “The maverick surrealist Leonora Carrington was an extraordinary painter and storyteller who loved to make up stories and draw pictures for her children. She lived much of her life in Mexico, and her sons remember sitting in a big room whose walls were covered with images of wondrous creatures, towering mountains, and ferocious vegetation while she told fabulous and funny tales. That room was later whitewashed, but some of its wonders were preserved in the little notebook that Carrington called The Milk of Dreams. John, who has wings for ears, Humbert the Beautiful, an insufferable kid who befriends a crocodile and grows more insufferable yet, and the awesome Janzamajoria are all to be encountered in The Milk of Dreams, a book that is as unlikely, outrageous, and dreamy as dreams themselves.”

Says the Paris Review: “Carrington is best known for her surrealist paintings and sculptures, but her idiosyncratic literary legacy is equally deserving of attention . . . their vivid imagery, irreverence, and surreal transformations are as provocative as they were at the time of their writing.”

Says me: “This is a children’s book, recommended for ages five to nine, but I’m forty-two years old and I loved it, so stick that in your pipe. Weird, wonderful, spare, but emotionally deep and provocative, this is one of the kids’ books that will become an heirloom, staying on the parent’s bookshelf long after the kids themselves have flown the coop.”


From Amazon Crossing, Trail of Miracles by Smadar Herzfeld, translated from the Hebrew by Aloma Halter | 128 pages | ISBN 9781503943001 | US$14.95

Says the publisher: “The daughter of a Torah scholar in eighteenth-century Ukraine, Gittel has always accepted her place in a family steeped in religion. Married at age twelve to a cold and reclusive rabbi, the young bride gives birth to two sons destined to follow their father’s path. Finding very little comfort in family life, Gittel shares her dreams, visions, and a close spiritual understanding with her only confidant: her father-in-law, the Maggid of Mezeritch. When Gittel loses those close to her one by one, she decides to leave her old life behind, including her sons, to set out on a lonesome and perilous journey to Jerusalem. Will she sacrifice everything in pursuit of the dream of her youth?”

Says Lilith Magazine: “Lyrically translated into English by Aloma Halter, this slim volume at times reads more like poetry than prose, with its evocations of the wagons and chicken coops in an eighteenth-century Ukrainian village and of the pious poverty of the washerwoman that Gittel becomes when she finally reaches Jerusalem, where she declares, quoting the sages, that the air makes you wise.”

Says me: “I like me some historical fiction and this one was a page-turner, taking me to a place and time I just don’t often go as a reader. Herzfeld writes about characters with strong spiritual and religious beliefs, and there’s a piety at the heart of the novel I don’t particularly share in, but in her (and Halter’s) skilled hands, the narrative never becomes oppressive from that angle. Evocative and fast for a novel that is ultimately about patience (or so it seemed to me), I happily recommending a few hours in the hammock with this.”


From Farrar, Straus and Giroux, The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis, translated from the French by Michael Lucey | 208 pages | ISBN 9780374266653 | US$23.00

Says the publisher: “‘Every morning in the bathroom I would repeat the same phrase to myself over and over again . . . Today I’m really gonna be a tough guy.’ Growing up in a poor village in northern France, all Eddy Bellegueule wanted was to be a man in the eyes of his family and neighbors. But from childhood, he was different—‘girlish,’ intellectually precocious, and attracted to other men. Already translated into twenty languages, The End of Eddy captures the violence and desperation of life in a French factory town. It is also a sensitive, universal portrait of boyhood and sexual awakening. Like Karl Ove Knausgaard or Edmund White, Édouard Louis writes from his own undisguised experience, but he writes with an openness and a compassionate intelligence that are all his own. The result––a critical and popular triumph––has made him the most celebrated French writer of his generation.”

Says the New Yorker: “Canny . . . brilliant . . . a devastating emotional force.”

Says me: “If you’re paying any attention at all, The End of Eddy has already crossed your radar. But, like anyone who’s spent time in a dentist’s waiting room, I approach the New Yorker tier of zeitgeist with some basic and fundamental trepidation, particularly when it comes to books. If it’s so bracingly good, I find myself asking (because I’m clearly a pessimistic jerk), why do so many people like it? In the case of Louis, however, it is so bracingly good, which I can only guess is because he’s so emotionally honest and to a degree that inevitably burns things down––and that, my friends, is a compelling, if disturbing, space. Having grown up myself in hard, working-class Montcalm County, Michigan, I read The End of Eddy with recognition bordering on shock and awe. It’s notable that Louis manages his evisceration of Hallencourt with such apparent sympathy and perspective (of little reassurance to his family and neighbors, I’m sure), but all the same, I can’t help reading this book as a simple revenge narrative, even if the writer is whispering the whole time, this is going to hurt me more than it hurts them.” 


From Two Lines Press, Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll, translated from Portuguese by Adam Morris | 152 pages | ISBN 9781931883603 | US$9.95

Says the publisher: “Compared by critics to filmmaker David Lynch––and deeply influenced by Clarice Lispector––João Gilberto Noll is esteemed as one of Brazil’s living legends. Following the breakthrough success of last year’s Quiet Creature on the Corner, Two Lines Press now presents Noll’s career-defining work, Atlantic Hotel. Just who narrates the dark and mysterious Atlantic Hotel? First he books a room where a murder has occurred, claiming he’s just arrived from the airport. But then he suddenly leaves, telling a cabbie he’s an alcoholic headed for detox. After that he hops on an all-night bus across Brazil, where he begins to seduce a beautiful American woman. Next he’s recognized as a soap opera actor. Then he impersonates a priest. At length he knocks on a very wrong door in a small town: when it opens he’s looking down the barrel of a gun. He falls down unconscious, and when he awakes something terrible is happening to him . . .”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Constructed as a picaresque, Noll’s novel is ultimately the story of a man learning to die; blithe descriptions of sex and violence share the page with memorable images, including the narrator in a borrowed soutane and found staff walking through a small Brazilian village, conscious that he appears to be a ‘man in constant touch with sacred spheres, who didn’t see the visible world.’ Readers will find his journey brief, captivating, and wonderfully opaque.”

Says me: “Noll died in March and everyone had good things to say about him, Words Without Borders included. We should all be so lucky. But while finding praise in English for the man was easy, finding its analogue for his writing was more elusive, which I find profoundly bizarre. Though, to be fair, having spent time in the highly fetishized translation trenches of American literature––by which I merely mean literature read in America in English––perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. Regardless, Noll was widely acknowledged as one of the best and brightest writers in Brazil and Atlantic Hotel and its expert translation by Morris are a testament to his prowess for us simple, fickle, don’t-read-Portuguese folk. You should read this book not because its writer was a good man, nor because you’re fond of Brazil for some reason, but because it is a diamond in the literary rough that will be drowned in a sea of endless capitalist production and white noise if you don’t strike now. If you’re a serious reader, this book is the real deal, and it’s the one you’re reading this month.” 


From Pushkin Press, Tench by Inge Schilperoord, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer | 192 pages | ISBN 9781782272342 | US$16.60

Says the publisher: “Jonathan has returned from prison to his largely deserted, run-down neighborhood. He has returned to his mother, to his dog, to filling the hot days with walks on the dunes and caring for the fish he keeps in an aquarium in his bedroom––struggling, like him, to survive the oppressive summer heat. But there is a young girl with a chipped front tooth living next door, and feelings he thought forgotten are coming back to Jonathan. His growing obsession with Elke threatens to overwhelm his whole life, as well as hers, but he is determined to make the most of this second chance he has been given. He is determined not to let it happen again. Tench is criminal psychologist Inge Schilperoord’s daring first novel: Unnerving, morally complicated, and utterly gripping, it moves brilliantly through true darkness.”

Says Asymptote: “. . . [a] compelling portrait of criminality . . . heartbreakingly, unbearably warm . . . Tench is a mesmerizing read.”

Says me: “I’m giving you the link to the Asymptote review here because the writer does an excellent job of summing up how this book isn’t going to be what you expect it to be, and why reinvent the wheel. It is ‘a mesmerizing read,’ and while Tench suffers from many of the ailments that tend to infect first novels, the insights Schilperoord brings to writing as a criminal psychologist and the fluidity of her prose (and Colmer’s translation) overwhelms those few shortcomings, culminating in a robust and satisfying read.”


From Twisted Spoon Press, Aberrant by Marek Šindelka, translated from the Czech by Nathan Fields | 220 pages | ISBN 9788086264509 | US$16.00

Says the publisher: “The remarkable debut novel from Marek Šindelka, already the recipient of his country’s major literary awards for poetry (Jiří Orten Prize) and prose (Magnesia Litera), Aberrant is a multifaceted work that mixes and mashes together a variety of genres and styles to create a heady concoction of crime story, horror story (inspired by the Japanese tradition of kaidan), ecological revenge fantasy, and Siberian shamanism. Nothing is what it seems. What appears to be human is actually a shell occupied by an alien spirit, or demon, and what appears to be an unassuming plant is an aggressive parasite that harbors a poisonous substance within, or manifests itself as an assassin, a phantom with no real substance who pursues his victims across Europe and through a postapocalyptic Prague ravaged by floods. The blind see, and the seeing are blind. Plants behave like animals, and animals are symbionts with plants. Through these devices, Šindelka weaves a tale of three childhood friends, the errant paths their lives take, and the world of rare plant smuggling––and the consequences of taking the wrong plant––to show the rickety foundation of illusions on which our relationship to the environment, and to one another, rests. It is a world of aberrations, anomalies, and mistakes.”

Says Czech Radio:Aberrant by Marek Šindelka is a brilliantly written and ingeniously constructed novel . . . when finished the reader is left with a liberating feeling of catharsis befitting the dramas of antiquity and medieval legends.”

Says me: “Think Orlean’s The Orchid Thief on acid. It’s all kinds of funky, and in the hands of a lesser writer (and translator), it could have been little more than a hot, indulgent mess. But Šindelka never loses his thread, which is saying something about a novel wherein losing the thread is part of the point. We’re on shaky ground in 2017, people, and Šindelka’s world of ‘aberrations, anomalies, and mistakes’ feels unnervingly timely, and is enormously fun in the bargain. Everyone wins.”

Published May 11, 2017   Copyright 2017 M. Bartley Seigel

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