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The Watchlist: September 2017

By M. Bartley Seigel

Every month, emeritus Words Without Borders reviews editor M. Bartley Seigel reaches out into the wide world from his home on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to share a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles in translation he’s excited about, books he hopes you’ll agree are worth all our good attentions:

From Amazon Crossing, Madness Treads Lightly by Polina Dashkova, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz | fiction | 464 pages | ISBN  9781477823460 | US$14.95

Says the publisher: “Only three people can connect a present-day murderer to a serial killer who, fourteen years ago, terrorized a small Siberian town. And one of them is already dead. As a working mother, Lena Polyanskaya has her hands full. She’s busy caring for her two-year-old daughter, editing a successful magazine, and supporting her husband, a high-ranking colonel in counterintelligence. She doesn’t have time to play amateur detective. But when a close friend’s suspicious death is labeled a suicide, she’s determined to prove he wouldn’t have taken his own life. As Lena digs in to her investigation, all clues point to murder—and its connection to a string of grisly cold-case homicides that stretches back to the Soviet era. When another person in her circle falls victim, Lena fears she and her family may be next. She’s determined to do whatever it takes to protect them. But will learning the truth unmask a killer . . . or put her and her family in even more danger?”

Says Publishers Weekly: “The sweeping plot, sinister as the Siberian taiga, does rely overly on coincidence, but such contrivance is more than outweighed by captivating storytelling, distinctive characters, and the eternal conundrum of Russia itself.”

Says me: “Have the hurricanes finally abated? Can you still find a beach pleasant enough upon which to read? This is the month’s book for that basket. Otherwise, set it aside for a weekend next to the fire. Is the plot implossible? Perhaps. But it’s a delicious book all the same.”


From New Directions, Belladonna by Daša Drndić, translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth | fiction | 400 pages | ISBN 9780811227216 | US$19.95

Says the publisher: “Andreas Ban, a psychologist who does not psychologize anymore and a writer who no longer writes, lives alone in a coastal town in Croatia. He sifts through the remnants of his life—his research, books, photographs—remembering old lovers and friends, the events of WWII, and the breakup of Yugoslavia. Ban’s memories of Belgrade, Amsterdam, and Toronto alternate with meditations on the mental faculties of rats, a depressed arctic fox, and the agelessness of lobsters. He tries to push the past away, to ‘land on a little island of time in which tomorrow does not exist, in which yesterday is buried.’ Drndić leafs through the horrors of history with a cold unflinching wit. ‘The past is riddled with holes,’ she writes. ‘Souvenirs can’t help here.’”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A pensive, provocative novel of history, memory, and our endlessly blood-soaked times by one of the foremost writers to have emerged from the former Yugoslavia.”

Says me: “I tend to leave novels like Belladonna feeling grim and hopeless, if not outright paranoid. While that probably says more about me than the books, it remains to be noted that this book didn’t do that. This book is literature with a capital L and Drndić is a miracle maker conjuring some optimism from despair and charm amid the grisly.”


From Dalkey Archive, Scar by Sara Mesa, translated from the Spanish (Spain) by Adriana Nodal-Tarafa | fiction | 200 pages | ISBN 9781943150274 | US$16.00

Says the publisher: “Sonia meets Knut in an online literary forum and begins a long-distance relationship with him that gradually turns to obsession. Though Sonia needs to create distance when Knut becomes too absorbing, she also yearns for a less predictable existence. Alternately attracted to and repulsed by Knut, Sonia begins a secret double life of theft and betrayal in which she will ultimately be trapped for years.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A study in loneliness, attention, and consequences: Sonia meets an admirer online and eventually can’t escape his control . . . A taut and disturbing tale of inspiration which poses questions about the darker material we draw on for art.”

Says me: “Obsession, stalking, domination, codepency, and profoundly conflicted emotional relationships–strip away the dramatic exaggerations of character and plot, and you’ve pretty much got a schematic of every human relationship you've ever engaged in. Worth the read? Totally, but approach with caution as it’s good enough to leaving you thinking.” 


From Other Press, Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo, translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston | fiction | 304 pages | ISBN 9781590518786 | US$16.95

Says the publisher: “Set in a Tel Aviv apartment building, this best-selling Israeli novel examines a society in crisis, through the turmoils, secrets, unreliable confessions, and problematic decisions of the building’s residents. On the first floor, Arnon, a tormented retired officer who fought in the First Intifada, confesses to an army friend how his obsession with his daughter’s safety led him to lose control and put his marriage in peril. Above Arnon lives Hani, known as ‘the widow.’ Her husband travels the world for work while she stays at home with their two children, increasingly isolated and unstable. When her brother-in-law suddenly appears at their door begging her to hide him from loan sharks and the police, she agrees, in spite of the risk to her family, if only to bring some emotional excitement into her life. On the top floor lives a former judge, Devora. Retired and eager to start a new life, Devora joins a social movement, tries to reconnect with her estranged son, and falls in love with a man who isn’t what he seems. A brilliant novelist, Eshkol Nevo vividly depicts the grinding effects of social and political ills played out in the psyche of these flawed, compelling characters, often in unexpected and explosive ways.”

Says Library Journal: “Nevo shows us life’s complexities in a thoroughly satisfying read.”

Says me: “Over the last year and change I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which social and political ills play out in the very real people that surround me in my daily life. Reading this book and witnessing its fictional characters navigate what I feel myself to be navigating, but from the safe remove of fiction, space, time, language, and culture, I found myself feeling calmer if not entirely more hopeful. If that’s the medicine Nevo is dealing, it’s still the one I took away. Silverston’s translation is so impeccable as to be invisible.”


From Ugly Duckling Press, Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich | poetry | 144 pages | ISBN 9781937027704 | US$18.00

Says the publisher:Before Lyricism includes six book-length poems: ‘The Forest’ (1954), ‘Plant Upbringing’ (1956), ‘Diary of Age’ (1958), ‘Description of the Body’ (1959), ‘The Meaning of the Blind’ (1962), and ‘Our Way of Being in Danger’ (1966). Each of these, apart from ‘Plant Upbringing,’ was published as a separate book, which Vakalo herself designed. (‘Plant Upbringing’ was originally included in the volume Wall Painting, of which Vakalo later repudiated all but this single long poem.) For Vakalo, these poems formed a larger, accretive whole, which she titled Prin Apo Ton Lyrismo (Before Lyricism). By bringing these poems together under a single cover, Before Lyricism allows us to see the complex web of intertextual relations that bind these books together. Meanwhile, by bringing these poems into English, this volume will enrich not only our knowledge of this key period in Vakalo’s career, but English-language readers’ understanding of modern Greek poetry as a whole.”

Says nobody, but me: “Because poetry in America, people—we’ve been through this. That, and I can’t read Greek (Συγνώμη!). Now, you could go back to the November 1981 issue of Poetry Magazine if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, but good luck. Or, you could read the anemic excerpt Ugly Duckling provides on their book page, linked above, and take a leap of faith. Or likewise, you could just take my word for it: Vakalo was (remains) a poet who found all the sweet spots between language, culture, the individual, and the imagination, broke them all wide open, and spilled their innards on the ground. Read her, says me.”

Published Sep 15, 2017   Copyright 2017 M. Bartley Seigel

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