Category Archives: Uncategorized

Leg over Leg in Paperback


A couple of year ago many of us were quite to see the emergence in English of Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, a book that kind of is a Tristram Shandy of Arabic literature. You can read the enthusiastic assessment at The Complete Review, and here’s some of what the TLS had to say:

Whatever its general maiden reception, the first publication in English from the Arabic of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s four-volume nineteenth-century comic masterpiece, Leg over Leg, will eventually be acknowledged as one of the most important translations of the twenty-first century . . .

The only problem was that this gorgeous, hardcover, bilingual edition came out in four volumes that, collectively would set you back $125.00.

Happily, now the publisher has seen fit to release the entire book in a handy two volumes that will only cost you $17.00 each. They’re no longer bilingual (which you probably didn’t want anyway), but they do retain about 150 pages of helpful endnotes and an index. So now you have no reason not to read this amazing book.

Some Thoughts on Gender


I’ve spent a great deal of the past year writing a book on gender, or more specifically a book on my gender, and why I feel quite ambiguous about being male. I’ve learned that in this area of thought conclusions are very hard to come by, and they’re apt to change as you learn more about yourself, but I think I’ve managed to figure out at least one thing that feels pretty solid. This is it: my interest in being female is as least equally as much a disinterest in being male. Or to put it a different way, what my mind and body experienced as a desire to be female, was at least partially a desire to open up a space outside of the popular perception of masculinity. At the time this was the only way my mind knew how to make that request.

These reflections are occasioned by something I read by Rebecca Solnit today in Lit Hub. As I was reading Solnit’s piece right here, it occurred to me that this sense of alienation from conventional masculinity is probably a very widespread thing, even if I doubt that many men would feel compelled to choose the methods I have for working out that sense of alienation. In her piece, Solnit is writing against a really dumb list of “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read” that appeared in Esquire magazine. But what she’s really writing against is the kind of idea of masculinity promulgated by magazines like Esquire.

Scanning the list, which is full of all the manliest books ever, lots of war books, only one book by an out gay man, I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man, that gender that’s supposed to be incessantly defended and demonstrated through acts of manliness. I looked at that list and all unbidden the thought arose, no wonder there are so many mass murders. Which are the extreme expression of being a man when the job is framed this way, though happily many men have more graceful, empathic ways of being in the world.

Now I don’t mean to say that Esquire exerts some occult force upon the men of the world, forcing them to live up to idiotic stereotypes about what it takes to be a man, no more than does Cosmopolitan force every woman to live up to its own cheap ideas of femininity. And Solnit isn’t arguing this. What she is arguing, and where I agree with her, is that these types of stereotypes are very prevalent in our culture, so prevalent that there is a very real pressure to live up to them. Not in the sense that every man is going to do exactly what Esquire says, but in a more general sense that there’s a certain burden that needs to be lived up to, and that you receive these messages every single day from a million different points of entry. And of course this goes for women as well.

There are differences between the expectations placed on women and on men, and where I might draw one of the most important differences would be that there are a lot of forces advocating on behalf of women’s rights to not be a Cosmo stereotype of femininity. Nowadays there are lots of people invested in delivering the message telling women to be themselves, and to not be coerced by what the mass culture is telling them to do. There’s a very established set of theory and literature arguing exactly why women should not feel compelled to receive these messages. Which I think is fantastic, and which I wholeheartedly support. And it goes to show you how deep these cultural stereotypes can get into our skulls, as these counter-arguments need to be repeated all the time in a million different ways, just to keep pushing back at what the dominant culture is trying to force into women’s heads. While I think analogous counter-forces exist for men as well, I don’t think they’re nearly as strong, and I think the options allowed for men are much more narrow. I think this is what it boils down to when Solnit writes that, “I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man.”

This, at any rate, is how it has felt for me. What became clear as I wrote this book on gender is that, essentially, I had to create a whole alternative identity for myself, and an alternative system of logic to go with it, in order to give myself some sort of psychological grounding with which to step down from the ranks of the masculine men. To repeat, I don’t think it’s necessarily that every man at odds with the idiotic burdens of masculinity will step back as I have stepped back, and nor do I think many men even want to step back from these burdens. Probably many people don’t even recognize these questions as burdens and are perfectly fine being men and women in the mold that society wishes. I, however, have opted out, and I do think that this choice necessitates a kind of inner struggle to find a way to do so.

And, interestingly, what helped me a lot in this struggle was feminist theory and feminist literature. As I began to read more and more from that school of writing, I began to understand how difficult it had been for the first generations of feminists to step back from the dictates of the culture at large and to simply be the kind of woman that they felt compelled to be. That in a very real sense the writing they did was necessary to them finding the way to rebel against their culture and be as they wished to be. A lot of their arguments and methods and emotions resonated powerfully for me, and these writings were instrumental in showing me my own way forward.

I think that, in general, the matter of determining what one’s own gender is and how one wishes to express it is rather confusing and challenging, and the interference from the dominant culture makes things even more confusing and challenging than they would be already. Writing this book—which entailed going back to Day One of my conception of gender and recounting every important fact I could get a hold of—was a process that showed me just how confusing everything had been, and how difficult it was to even get to a place where I could begin to sort it out. This has perhaps been the most insidious burden of all—that it took so much struggle just to reach a place from which I could begin to systematically unwind these questions. i don’t at all think that I have exhausted these questions for myself by writing this book, but I have reached a very important point of vantage now, where I can really think clearly about these things. I hope that, if they wish it, everyone who reads this website can reach the same point of self-realization and self-understanding.

Some Thoughts on Polish Literature [2]


Following up on last week’s post, I’d like to take a moment here to write a little more about the literary reportage work that’s happening in Poland. To my mind, Poland is a nation that has not lacked for interesting world lit, and I think that the reportage happening there is one of the most interesting things going on.

First, a really quick review of just what reportage is. The best-known author by far is Ryszard Kapuściński, frequent Nobel candidate, author of some verified classics of Polish literature (and someone who is not even close to being translated in full).

For those who think reportage might be a tough sell in the U.S., let me point you to a more recent example of the genre: Gottland by Mariusz Szczygiel (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones), published in 2013 by Melville House. Despite being about the (some might say) obscure subject of “the Czech half of the former Czechoslovakia”, Gottland received to raves from the likes of The New York Times, NPR, and Julian Barnes. Apparently it sold out quick, as it is no longer available and copies now go on Amazon for $60.00 (I hope Melville House reprints it soon).

One of the publishers that I found there was Dowody na Istnienie (“Evidence of Existence”), which is affiliated with the Reportage Institute that I mentioned in my Lit Hub piece. To be perfectly clear about it, the Reportage Institute is an umbrella organization that oversees the Polish Reportage School, the Wrzenie Świata Bookstore, and the Dowody na Istnienie publishing house. It is run run by the legendary reportage authors Mariusz Szczygieł and Wojciech Tochman. At the book expo that ran concurrent to the Conrad Festival in Kraków I met Kamil Bałuk, who was a former student at the School and a reportage writer, and is the coordinator of the School of Reportage and an editor with the press. He was manning the booth behind a bunch of very intriguing books of reportage that I lamented that I could not read. Among the authors here were the legendary Hanna Krall, as well as Aleksandar Hemon.


Kamil is a young, hip guy with a beard and glasses, and during one of our conversations he told me about an amazing, multi-week road trip he and his wife recently took across the United States. Said trip involved some couch surfing, including one overnight stay in the house of a certified gun nut who owned multiple guns and slept with a loaded one clenched in his hand. If I had overnighted it in the Polish countryside with some guy clutching a shotgun, I would have been terrified.

This is what Sean Bye, a Polish translator with two books forthcoming and an employee of Polish Cultural Institute New York (as well as my guide around Kraków and all-around amazing human being), told me about Dowody na Istnienie publisher:

Dowody na Istnienie has two main series they’re doing: Faktyczny Dom Kultury (which would translate as something like “Factual Cultural Center”), which is their series of rediscovered classics of reportage, and the Reporter’s Series, contemporary writing.

From the Classic series, I think the most interesting book is Wiesław Łuka’s “I Won’t Swear Myself.” A family feud in small-town Poland, set off by some sausage stolen at a wedding, culminates in three people being deliberately run over by a hijacked bus full of terrified locals. At the trial, the perpetrators refuse to testify, instead repeating an odd, ungrammatical Polish phrase translating roughly as ‘I won’t swear myself.’ The witnesses also refuse to testify, and the whole town basically ends up on trial. The book was first published in the 70s and was basically forgotten about until Mariusz rediscovered the author a few years ago.

[Note: I kept hearing about this one while in Poland, and it sounds absolutely like a Polish In True Blood. I would really like to read this book one day.]

From the contemporary series, Robert Rient’s book “Witness” is about a young man raised as a Jehovah’s Witness who leaves the church and is cut off by his friends and family. I haven’t read it, but it’s purported to be great.

While I was in Kraków I also met with the head of the publishing house Znak, which does a broad range of titles, including some of the leading reportage work. Znak was founded in 1959, and it has the distinction of remaining independent during the Communist era (during which many publishers were taken over by the state). I met Znak’s avuncular publisher, Jerzy Illg, whose office is adorned with a poster of two rhinos fucking (captioned “make love not war”) and memorabilia from Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who lived for a spell in Kraków and was a personal friend of Illg’s. In Polish Znak is the publisher of authors including Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, Szymborska, and, of course, Miłosz.


One of the best authors in their catalog is Małgorzata Szejnert, who is an acknowledged master of reportage but has never been translated into English. She’s written books on Zanzibar, Ellis Island, Poland in World War II, and most recently, one about Belarus called Usypać Góry (“Raising Mountains”). I happened to look through the one on Ellis Island while in Znak’s offices, and it sounds like an amazing book—basically all of these stories of people who passed through the Island on their way to America. Sort of an outsider’s/immigrant’s view of one of the most hallowed pieces of this nation’s myth and history. Below, in a spread from Usypać Góry, you can see the time-honored usage of images in reportage titles.


Znak also publishes Grazyna Jagielska, who is the wife of the noted reportage author Wojciech Jagielski, an author known for risking his life in war zones (and whose Burning the Grass was just published by Seven Stories Press in Antonia Lloyd-Janes’s translation). Jagielska has written a reportage book about the immense mental pressures involved in being the wife of a man who regularly leaves home for months at a time and puts his life in peril. She also published an amazing-sounding book called “Angels Eat Three Times a Day” about her time in a mental hospital. I really wish her books were available in English.

I also saw some very fascinating works by an author named Andrzej Szczeklik, who seemed to write books roughly comparable to Roberto Calasso’s. In particular, I flipped through the Polish edition of his amazing, genre-bending Kore: On Sickness, the Sick, and the Search for the Soul of Medicine, published in Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation by Counterpoint in 2012. To give an idea of this book’s range, it included a series of full-color reproductions of works of art from various eras, which are integrate into Szczeklik’s rather wide-ranging meditation on illness and medicine. This is one I’m glad I can read right this second.

Lastly I should mention Sean Bye’s two forthcoming reportage translations. The first is Watercolors by Lidia Ostałowska (forthcoming from Zubaan Books), about the Czech Jewish artist Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt who survived Auschwitz (forthcoming from Zubaan Books). During my trip to Kraków I was able to travel to Auschwitz, and they actually had some of Gottliebova-Babbitt’s watercolors on display, which she made at the request of Josef Mengele, and through which she was able to save the lives of herself and her mother. The second title is “Remember the People of Kupferberg” (working title) by Filip Springer, about the German mining town of Kupferberg, which was handed over to Poland after World War II and had its population evicted and replaced by Poles from the east, before finally being abandoned as the mines closed in the ’60s and ’70s (forthcoming from Restless Books). They both sound like hugely worthwhile books that speak to the history that is still playing itself out in Europe, and I will be keeping my eyes peeled for their eventual release.

Some Thoughts on Polish Literature [1]


I was recently a guest of the Polish Book Institute in Kraków, Poland, where I saw the wonderful Conrad Festival that is conducted in that city every year, as well as a lot of Polish publishers doing very interesting work.

Some of this I wrote about for a recent piece in Literary Hub, and some of it I’m going to write about in this space. I think I’m going to have to do it in true lazy blogger style, which will mean writing about it bit by bit over the course of a while. But I think it’s very worthwhile stuff to talk about, and there are so many worthy authors that have not had the chance of being published in English, so I hope you all will be interested to read about this. And the publishers out there should want to publish more of these books.

Kraków was the seventh UNESCO City of Literature, and there is quite a bit going on in this city. A couple of the key authors that I heard about on this trip, Hanna Krall and Olga Tokarczuk, have had some books in English, although perhaps not with the reception they deserve. Tokarczuk, who is often described as Poland’s leading author, and whom some mentioned as a future Nobel candidate, has only two books in English. They are House of Day, House of Night, which came out in 2003 with Northwestern University Press, and Primeval and Other Times, which came out a while ago with Twisted Spoon and has recently gotten a U.S. release of sorts. There are still many other books of hers to be translated, including her enormous The Books of Jacob (which I discuss in the Lit Hub piece), and Runners, which Jennifer Croft has received two grants to translate.

Hanna Krall, whom many consider the leading living writer in Poland’s nonfiction reportage genre, has scattered a number of books in English, although i do not think any of them has managed significant regard. The most recent in the U.S. was The Woman from Hamburg: and Other True Stories from Other Press in 2006. In 2017 Feminist Press will publish Chasing the King of Hearts, which many people told me is her masterpiece. Peirene Press published it a couple of years ago in the UK, and if you’re living somewhere else you can illegally buy a copy from a 3rd-party vendor on Amazon.

If you’re itching to see more of this reportage genre face to face, Seven Stories has just published Burning the Grass by the noted writer Wojciech Jagielski, translated by the remarkable Antonia Lloyd-Jones. This is a book about South African apartheid, and frankly I’m quite eager to see the Polish perspective on apartheid and the resistance movement, given everything that nation has endured in its history.

There are so many more titles in this genre that have never been translated. I’d like to share a few of them in a future post. But for now, perhaps these two authors will suffice if you’re interested in learning more.

The Bookstore Made By the Bookseller That Thinks Books Are a Pure Commodity


Aside from the bemusement of seeing a bricks and mortar bookstore launched by the online retailer that led a million pundits to declare the death of the bricks and mortar bookstore, I’m genuinely curious to see what Amazon thinks a bookstore should be for the reason that the Amazon website was founded on the principle that books were a pure commodity. That is, that any copy of a book was perfectly exchangable with any other copy of that same book, and all you needed to do to sell them was to find the person who wanted to buy that particular book.

Interestingly, though, Dustin Kurtz’s delightful overview of Amazon’s first physical bookstore seems to indicate that Amazon is departing from that ideology:

Amazon Books is paying its booksellers well—wages begin at $18 an hour, with benefits. That’s well above starting rates at most indies; it also comes in ahead of Seattle’s impending $15 minimum wage. The effort Amazon had to exert to recruit these talented booksellers—they were noticeably good at their jobs—and the wages they’ve had to offer, stand in an odd juxtaposition to one of the central ideas of the site. Take the shelf-talkers. Amazon has always asserted that there is value—financial and culturally—to letting readers decide which books are good. Now, not only are they bringing in gatekeepers (the press release uses the word “curator”) to tweak and hone those lists of books, and to present the books in an attractive and reasonably intelligent manner, but they’ve had to pay them well in order to bring them into the Amazon fold. This is, first, one of Amazon’s occasional seemingly accidental acts of decency in their continued expansion, but it is also a hell of a big asterisk on what has been their guiding principle: that books are all made equal and people can choose what they want with little oversight or guidance.

Of course, this is still Amazon after all, so one can’t expect them to depart entirely from their books-as-pure-commodity orthodoxy. I’m interested to see where this goes. Unless this is really just the whim of an over-empowered Amazon middle manager, there is obviously a bigger strategy here. But, of course, Amazon is famous for just throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks, and I’m sure they’ve spent far more on long-since-discarded algorithms and apps than this whole store cost to set up, so maybe this is just a whim.

On Hating Difficult Literature


I’ve published an essay at Entropy about my frustration with the idea of “difficult” literature.

I get it why this word is used so much. Some books can be read much more quickly than others, some require you to stretch the resources you’ve got or discover new ones. I understand all that, and there are many different kinds of reading experiences, but I really despise people calling books “difficult.” To me, that’s a very lazy shorthand for what they really want to say about these books, and I think it does everyone involved a disservice. It scares people away from great literature they should be reading, it creates dichotomies where none actually exist, and it’s just not an interesting way to talk about these books.

I should say that I’ve often been guilty of relying on this crutch, and I’ve started making a concerted effort to get this word out of my writing (that was part of the impetus for this piece). The essay deals with some other ways we might start talking about these books, plus why we’ve come to use this term and what we actually mean when we say “difficult.

Three Recommendations


Three books I’ve been enjoying recently that you might want to take a look at.

Reconsolidation: Or, it’s the ghosts who will answer you is a lyric essay by Janice Lee, a little bit of John D’Agata, a little Roland Barthes. About the sudden death of the author’s mother, this book feels as though it’s a private letter being written to the reader, it’s just that immediate and striking. It’s passionate, but not melodramatic, very purposeful and effective in what it does. Here’s a review.

The Strangest by Michael Seidlinger is a contemporary take on Camus’s The Stranger. He takes us into the consciousness of a person so withdrawn that he must have some sort of social anxiety disorder; every bit as affectless as Camus’s stranger, his smartphone is his only lifeline of communication with people, even when they’re right on the subway with him. I like how the author constructs the protagonist’s consciousness, with the integration of social media being elegant and measured, and I particularly like a few pivotal scenes where what is happening is carefully elided by the author—it’s very effective. Here’s an excerpt.

Sebald’s Vision is the most recent entry in the genre of Sebald criticism, this one by Carol Jacobs. This is an academic text, but it avoids the traps of academic writing and is, in fact, quite well-written and with interesting takes on a sizable portion of Sebald’s body of work. There are real insights here for people who like Sebald, or the themes he covered. There’s a review of the book here, and you can have a look at it for yourself in Google preview.

The Murnane, There Is More Murnane in the World


Gerald Murnane has published a memoir about horse racing, Something for the Pain, available in these States in spring of next year, and publishing in Australia right now. I suppose this fact will not surprise many of Murnane’s readers, given the frequent mentions of horse racing throughout his books, although it still is something of a strange move from an author who has pretty much done whatever he wants.

It’s occasioned a review by yours truly at The Lifted Brow, as well as a nice, lengthy profile by Stephen Romei in The Australian. There are some delightful Murnane quotes sprinkled throughout (Romei and the author had beers together), as well as a lot of great Murnane trivia and some thoughts on the latest book.

Don’t They Hire English Majors?


Despite all evidence to the contrary, I admit to always being a little surprised that a place like NPR will publish nonsense like this. Because, I mean, NPR is capable of hiring decent journalists. Their currents events reporting is not bad. At the very least, the can get people who can go to a part of the world that they know next to nothing about, get various sides of a story, and then allocate each side space and importance based on how non-insane it is.

But when it comes to the arts reporting, it’s like their critics have never touched anything outside of the most mainstream reading imaginable. (Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part . . .) And I just don’t get it. Obviously NPR has the capacity to hire people who can get beneath the surface of an issue and come off as having some capacity to make sensible distinctions. But when it comes to the arts, this just doesn’t really happen.

Take, for example, this painfully un-self-aware NPR review of Mark Doten’s experimental Iraq war novel, The Infernal:

[The Infernal is] a novel written not for readers but for those who love to argue about the novel-as-object more than they love the words. It’s an elbow-patch book, fodder for lit professors, likely attractive to those young enough (or cynical enough) to believe that oddness and iconoclasm equals genius, but that just ain’t me.

I don’t want to debate the merits of The Infernal here—it’s gotten mostly very positive reviews, and I, full disclosure, know Mark Doten personally—but this is the perfect example of a flaw common in today’s literary and cultural criticism. When a reviewer can’t defend their preferences through argument, they resort to a No True Scotsman fallacy and say anyone who feels differently isn’t even a reader.

Honestly, anyone who is capable of even googling the title of the book and looking at the raves listed on The Infernal’s Amazon page would see that this is not a view shared by many readers of this book. Surely that would give this critic just a tiny hint that maybe the assumptions he’s brought to this review are a little off-base? (And it doesn’t help that his bio characterizes him as a food writer who happens to write sci-fi novels for an Amazon vanity press.)

I harp on this because NPR is one of those few remaining venues that actually reaches a shit-ton of the sort of people who still read fairly interesting books in the United States. Having that kind of an audience implies a certain kind of responsibility. It would be a responsibility to hire critics who are capable of explaining themselves in a more intelligent way. You don’t have to like every novel you read. This guy can hate The Infernal. But he should be capable of doing more than cluelessly handing out the same bromides that know-nothing critics have been passing around for decades.

The Latin American Mixtape




The Latin American Mixtape is a collection of literary “b sides” and hard to find items, all relating to Latin America and its authors.

It features 3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career, written specifically for the Mixtape. Plus, an in-depth essay on Rodrigo Rey Rosa.

Also includes hard-to-find interviews and essays, and each piece comes with a short intro explaining why I have chosen to place it in the mixtape.

5 essays. 2 interviews.
All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.
available as a downloadable epub file

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From “The Digression”

. . . the building on top of which she was sleeping, not as it would be later on, not seeing it finished and inhabited, but as it was now, that is, under construction.

This key digression in Aira’s body of work is all about the incomplete, which I see as the key concept in Aira’s theory of the novel.

Aira’s entire career is always under construction. His favorite method is a flight from completion, a flight from what is past and done, from ever repeating anything he has said before, or even stopping long enough to let his fiery potential cool down.

He writes like we all sleep: constantly progressing through a foreign world that requires improvisation at every moment. There is no routine in dreams. There is only the bewilderment of the constantly new. This is Aira. He writes to keep his iron burning white hot at all times.


But there is always a difference between dreams and reality . . .

This statement is found amid some speculation about dreams, and at first glace it may seem too obvious to need saying. Which of us does not know sleep from dreams?

Or maybe it is not that simple, for we all learn that if you are unsure whether you are dreaming or not, you can pinch yourself to check. How many times have you woken up from sleep, amazed to find that the experience of whose reality you were absolutely certain a moment ago, was in fact a projection of your own mind? I myself have many times woken from a dream of infinite loss, utterly relieved to see that it was all only a dream, that relief feeling as real to me as any emotion ever were.

What is the difference between dream and reality for Aira? For Patri? And what of that state that Aira enters for those few hours every day when he is immersed in the act of writing? Could that constant flight forward be akin to a waking dream?

Aira is correct to foreground dreams in this key digression, because they are a prevailing state of human existence, despite all the appearances of our waking world. For keep in mind: as you are reading this, billions and billions of people on the darkened side of the Earth are currently inhabiting their dreams. What do they see there, and how is it changing their lives?

I do not doubt its influence. We spend one-third of our lives asleep. It is essential, its processes fundamental and poorly understood. The experiences we have within our dreams are remarkable. We may be accustomed to thinking of dreaming and waking as separate, but perhaps the borders between them are as porous as Aira suggests.

The Latin American Mixtape

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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